Mascalbruni by F. Medwin
I have frequently observed that there are some people who haunt
you in all parts of the world, and to whom you have a sort of secret
antipathy, yet who, by an attraction in spite of repulsion, are continually
crossing your path, as though they were sent as emissaries to
link themselves with your destiny, or on the watch mysteriously to
bring it about. One person in particular, whose name I do not even
know, if he has one, I have met fifty times in as many different
places, and we each say to ourselves, "'Tis he!—what, again!" So
with a personage too well known at home and abroad, of whom, by a
curious concatenation of circumstances, I am enabled to become the
Geronymo Mascalbruni was the son of a pauper belonging to a village
whose name I forget, in the marshes of Ancona. He had begged
his way when a boy to Rome, and supported himself for some time
there, by attending at the doors of the courts of justice, and running
on errands for the advocates or the suitors. His intelligence and
adroitness did not escape the observation of one of the attorneys, who,
wanting a lad of all work, took Mascalbruni into his service, and
taught him to read and write; finding him useful in his office, and
having no children of his own, he at length adopted him, in formâ
pauperis, and gave him a small share in his business. This man of
the law did not bear the most exemplary of characters, and perhaps
it was in order to conceal some nefarious practices to which Mascalbruni
was privy that he made the clerk his associate. Perhaps also
he discovered in his character a hardihood, combined with cunning
and chicanery, that made him a ready instrument for his purposes,
and thus enabled him, like Teucer, to fight behind the shield of another.
Under this worthy master—a worthy disciple—Mascalbruni
continued for some years; till at length, tired of confinement to the
desk, and having the taste early acquired for a roving and profligate
life revived, he, during his old benefactor's confinement to his bed
with a rheumatic attack, administered to him a dose of poison instead
of medicine, and having robbed him of all the money and
plate that was portable, and of certain coupons, and bons in the Neapolitan
and other funds, standing in his name, he decamped, and
reached Florence in safety.
Every one has heard of the laxity of the Roman police. The impunity
of offenders, even when their crimes are established by incontestable
proof, is notorious. The relations of the lawyer, contrary to
all their expectations, (for he had never recognised them,) had come
into their inheritance, and little regarded the means, having attained
the end. They perhaps, also, from having had no admission into the
house during the old miser's life, were ignorant of the strength of his
coffers; and the disappearance of the murderer, who, by a will which
they discovered and burnt, had been made his sole heir, was by them
deemed too fortunate a circumstance; so that they neither inquired
into the manner of his death, nor had any post mortem examination
of the body. They gave their respectable relative a splendid funeral,
erected to his memory a tomb in one of the rival churches that
front the Piazza del Popolo, in which his many virtues were not forgotten,
and established an annual mass for his povera anima, that no
doubt saved him
"From many a peck of purgatorial coals."
Having quietly inurned the master, let us follow the man. The
sum which he carried with him is not exactly known, but it must
have been considerable. His stay in the Tuscan state was short,
and we find him with his ill-gotten wealth in "that common sewer
of London and of Rome," Paris. He was then about twenty years of
age, had a good person, talents, an insinuating address, and a sufficient
knowledge of the world, at least of the worst part of mankind, to avoid
sinking in that quagmire, which has swallowed up so many of the
thoughtless and inexperienced who have trusted to its flattering surface.
In fact, Nature seemed to have gifted him with the elements
of an accomplished sharper, and he seconded her attributes by all
the resources of art. He took an apartment in the Rue Neuve de
Luxembourg, that street so admirably situated between the Boulevards
and the Gardens of the Tuileries, and had engraven on his
cards, "Il Marchese Mascalbruni." He was attached to his name;
it was a good, sonorous, well-sounding name; and the addition of
Marchese dovetailed well, and seemed as though it had always, or
ought always, to have belonged to it.
But before he made his entrée in the world of Paris, he was aware
that he had much to learn; and, with the tact and nice sense of
observation and disinvoltura nel maneggiar peculiar to his nature,
he soon set about accomplishing himself in the externals of a gentleman.
With this view he passed several hours a day in the salle
d'armes, where he made himself a first-rate fencer; and became so
dexterous au tir, that he could at the extremity of the gallery hit the
bull's-eye of the target at almost every other shot.
Pushkin himself was not more dexterous; and, like him, our hero in
the course of his career signalised himself by several rencontres
which proved fatal to his antagonists, into the details of but one of
which I shall enter. He heard that nothing gives a young man
greater éclat at starting into society than a duel. Among those who
frequented the salle was an old officer who had served in the campaigns
of Napoleon, one of the reliquiæ Danaum, the few survivors of
Moscow; for those who did not perish on the road, mostly fell victims
to the congelations and fatigues of that memorable retreat.
Mascalbruni, now a match for the maître d'armes, frequently exercised
with this old grognard, who had the character of being a crane,
if not a bourreau des cranes; and one day, before a numerous gallerie,
having struck the foil out of his hand, the fencer so far forgot
himself, in the shame and vexation of defeat by a youngster, as to
pick up the weapon and strike the Italian a blow on the shoulders
with the flat part of the foil, if it be not an Irishism so to call it. Those
who saw Mascalbruni at that moment would not have forgotten the
traits of his countenance. His eyes flashed with a sombre fire; his
Moorish complexion assumed a darker hue, as the blood rushed from
his heart to his brain in an almost suffocating tide; his breath came
forth in long and audible expirations; his features were convulsed
with the rage of a demoniac. I only describe what Horace Verney,
who was present, faithfully sketched from memory after the scene.
Mascalbruni, tearing off the button of his foil, vociferated, putting
himself in position, "A la mort, à la mort!" The lookers-on were
panic-stricken; but the silence was interrupted by the clinking of the
steel. The aggressor soon lay stretched in the agonies of death.
Though he had now taken his first degree, Mascalbruni's education
was not yet complete. He had made himself master of French, so as
to speak it almost without any of the accent of a foreigner; and having
a magnificent voice, he added to it all the science that one of his
own countrymen could supply, and became in the end a finished musician
Such was the course of his studies; and now, with all the préstige
of his singular affaire to give him éclat, the Marchese Mascalbruni
made his début. By way of recreation, he had frequently gone into
the gambling-houses of the Palais Royal, and had been much struck
with these words, almost obliterated, on the walls of one of them,
"Tutus veni, tutus abi." Mascalbruni was determined to profit by the
advice, and to confirm its truth by one solitary exception—to come
and depart in safety, or rather a winner.
Mascalbruni invented a theory of his own, that has since been practised
by several of the habitués of the hells, particularly by a man denominated,
in the maisons de jeu, L'Avocat. He won such enormous
sums of the bank, that, on his return to his lodgings one night, he
was assassinated, not without suspicion that he fell by the hands of
some kind bravo of the company. Chi lo sa? But to revert to Mascalbruni.
Impares numeri are said to be fortunate: strange to say, the number
three is the most so. Three was a mystic number. The triangle
was sacred to the Hindoos and Egyptians. There were three Graces,
three Furies, three Fates. He played a martingale of one, three,
seven, fifteen, &c. on triple numbers, i. e. after three of a colour,
either red or black, had come up, and not till then, he played,
and opposed its going a fourth; thus rendering it necessary that
there should be twelve or thirteen successive coups of four, et sequentia,
without the intervention of a three. The gain, it is true,
could not be great, for he began with a five-franc piece: but it
seemed sure; and so he found it, making a daily profit of three or
four louis in as many hours.
I have gone into this dry subject to show the character of the
man, and his imperturbable sang-froid. He did not, however, confine
himself to rouge et noir, but soon learned all the niceties
of that scientific game écarté. In addition to sauter le coup, which
he practised with an invisible dexterity, he used to file the ends
of the fingers of his right hand, so that he could feel the court-cards,
which, having a thicker coat of paint, are thus made easily
sensible to the touch; and would extract from each pack one
or two, the knowledge of whose non-existence was no slight advantage
in discarding. He did not long wait for associates in his art.
There was formed at that time a club in the Rue Richelieu on the
principle of some of the English clubs, it being entirely managed by a
committee. Of this he became a member, and afterwards got an
introduction at the salon. Most of the English at Paris joined this
circle; and it was broken up in consequence of the discovery of manœuvres
and sleights of hand such as I have described, but not until
Mascalbruni had contrived to bear away a more than equal share of
the plunder. The English, of course, were the great sufferers.
He now turned his face towards the Channel, and opened the campaign
in London on a much more extensive scale. He took up his
quarters at Higginbottom's hotel in the same year that young Napoleon
came to England, and only left it when it was given up to
that lamented and accomplished prince. It is not generally known
that he ever visited England. His sojourn in the capital was kept
a profound secret. The master of the hotel and all his servants
took an oath of secrecy; and Prince Esterhazy and the members
of the Austrian embassy were not likely to betray it. The prince
passed a week with George the Fourth at the Cottage at Windsor,
and afterwards assisted at a concert at the Hanover Square rooms,
himself leading a concert on the piano. This by the bye. Mascalbruni
on that occasion attracted all eyes, and fascinated all ears, and
was greeted after a solo with the loudest plaudits. He had now become
the fashion, and, having forged a letter from one of the cardinals
at Rome to a patroness of Almacks, obtained the entrée, and
made one of the three hundred that compose the world of London.
You know, however, in this world that there is another world—orb
within orb—an imperium in imperio—the Exclusives. It is difficult
to define what the qualifications for an exclusive are: it is not rank,
connexion, talents, virtues, grace, elegance, accomplishments. No.
But I shall not attempt to explain the inexplicable. Certain it is,
however, that our hero was admitted into the coteries of this caste,
as distinct—as much separated by a line of demarcation drawn round
them from the rest—as the Rajhpoot is from the Raiot, who sprang,
one from the head, the other from the heels of Brahma.
It was on the daughter of one of these extra-exclusives that Mascalbruni
cast his eye. He flew at high game. The Honourable Miss
M. was the belle of the season. I remember seeing her the year
before at a fancy ball. A quadrille had been got up, for which were
selected twelve of the most beautiful girls to represent the twelve
Seasons. Louisa was May, and excelled the rest, (I do not speak of
the present year,) as much as that season of flowers does the other
months. It was an 'incarnation of May!'—a metaphor of Spring,
and Youth, and Morning!—a rose-bud just opening its young leaves,
that brings the swiftest thought of beauty, though words cannot embody
it:—a sylph borne by a breath, a zephyr, as in the celebrated
Hebe of John of Bologna, may make intelligible the lightness of her
step,—the ethereal grace of her form. She was a nymph of Canova,
without her affectation. Hers was the poetry of motion,—
"It was the soul, which from so fair a frame
Look'd forth, and told us 'twas from heaven it came,"—
that would have been the despair of sculpture or poetry. I have
never seen but one who might compare with her, and she was engulfed
that same year in the waters of the inexorable Tiber,—Rosa
Louisa M. was the only daughter of an Irish bishop. His see
was one of the most valuable in the sister island; and some idea may
be formed of his accumulated wealth, by the circumstance of his
having received thirty thousand pounds in one year by fines on the
renewal of leases. He had one son, then on a Continental tour with
his tutor; but having no entailed estates, and his fortune consisting
of ready money, Louisa was probably one of the meilleures parties in
the three kingdoms.
There was at that time a mania for foreign alliances. The grand
tour, which almost every family of distinction had taken, introduced a
rage for Continental customs and manners, which had in some degree
superseded our own.
A spring in Paris, and winter in Italy, left behind them regrets in
the minds of old and young, but especially the latter, who longed to
return to those scenes that had captivated their senses and seduced
their young imaginations. No language was spoken at the opera but
French or Italian,—no topics of conversation excited so much interest
as those which had formed the charm of their residence abroad,—and
the fair daughters of England drew comparisons unfavourable to fox-hunting
squires and insipid young nobles, when they thought of the
accomplished and fascinating foreigners from whom, in the first dawn
of life, when all their impressions were new and vivid, they had received
such flattering homage.
The mother of Louisa, still young, had not been insensible to prepossessions;
and had a liaison at Rome, where she was unaccompanied
by her husband, the effects of which she had not altogether eradicated.
It is said that the road to the daughter's affections is through the
heart of the mother. Certainly in Italy cavalier-serventeism generally
has this termination; and, though it is not yet openly established
in England, there are very many women in high life who have some
secret adorer, some favourite friend, to keep alive the flame which too
often lies smothered in the ashes of matrimony. I do not mean that
this attachment is frequently carried to criminal lengths; nor am I
ready to give much credence to the vain boastings of those foreigners
who, when they return to their own country, amuse their idle hours,
and idler friends, with a detailed account of their bonnes fortunes in
I shall not prostitute my narrative, had I the data for so doing, by
tracing step by step the well-organised scheme by which Mascalbruni
contrived to ingratiate himself with both the mother and the
daughter. He was young, handsome, and accomplished; an inimitable
dancer, a perfect musician. His dress, his stud, and cabriolet were in
the best taste, and he passed for a man of large fortune.
It may be asked how he supported this establishment? By play.
Play, in men whose means are ample, if considered a vice, is thought
a very venial one. He got admission into several clubs,—Crockford's
among the rest:—his games were écarté and whist; games at which
he was without a match. Cool, cautious, and calculating, he lost with
perfect nonchalance, and won with the greatest seeming indifference.
There was a French vicomte, with whom he seemed to have no particular
acquaintance, but who was in reality his ally and confederate,
and who had accompanied him to England expressly that they might
play into each other's hands. He belonged to one of the oldest families,
and had one of those historical names that are a passe par-tout.
I had seen him at the soirées of Paris, and he was in the habit at the
écarté table, if he had come without money, which was not unfrequently
the case, of claiming, when the division took place at the end
of the game, two napoleons; pretending that at its commencement he
had bet one on the winner. I need say no more.
He had signalised himself in several rencontres. I have him before
me now, as he used to appear in the Tuileries' gardens, with his narrow
hat, his thin face, and spare figure,—so spare, that sideways one
might as well have fired at the edge of a knife. To this man Mascalbruni
frequently pretended to have lost large sums, and it is now
well known that they divided the profits of their gains during the season.
No one certainly suspected either of unfair practices, though
their uniform success might have opened the eyes of the blindest.
The Marchioness of S.'s card-parties and those of Lady E. were a
rich harvest, as well as the private routs and soirées to which they
obtained easy admission. Lady M. was well aware that Mascalbruni
had a penchant for play; but it seemed to occupy so little of his
thoughts or intrench on his time, that it gave her no serious alarm.
I have not yet told you, however, as I ought to have done, that
he was a favoured suitor.
The bishop, who, by nature of his office, was seldom in town, was a
cypher in the family, and little thought of interfering with his lady in
the choice of a son-in-law.
But the season now drew to a close, and Mascalbruni received an
invitation to pass the summer at the episcopal palace in the Emerald
Isle. He had succeeded in gaining the affections, the irrevocable
affections of Louisa. Yes,—she loved him,
"Loved him with all the intenseness of first love!"
Time seemed to her to crawl with tortoise steps when he was absent,—but
how seldom was that the case! They sang together those
duets of Rossini that are steeped in passion. How well did his deep
and mellow voice marry itself with her contralto! They rode together,
not often in the parks, but through those shady and almost unfrequented
lanes of which there are so many in the environs of the
metropolis; they waltzed together; they danced the mazourka together,—that
dance which is almost exclusively confined to foreigners,
from the difficulty of its steps, and the grace required in its mazes.
They passed hours together alone,—they read together those
scenes of Metastasio, so musical in words, so easily retained in the
memory. But why do I dwell on these details? When I look on this
picture and on that, I am almost forced to renounce the opinion that
kindred spirits can alone love; for what sympathy of soul could exist
between beings so dissimilar, so little made for each other? Poor
Mascalbruni accompanied them to Ireland. That summer was a
continual fête. It was settled that the wedding was to take place on
their return to town the ensuing season.
In the mean time the intended marriage had been long announced
in the Morning Post, and was declared in due form to the son at
Naples. Louisa, who was her brother's constant correspondent, in
the openness of her heart did not conceal from him that passion, no
longer, indeed, a secret. Her letters teemed with effusions of her
admiration for the talents, the accomplishments, and the virtues, for
such they seemed, of her intended—her promesso sposo, and the proud
delight that a very few months would seal their union.
William, who had now had some experience of the Italians, and
who had looked forward to his sister's marrying one of his college
friends, an Irishman with large estates in their immediate neighbourhood,
could not help expressing his disappointment, though it was
urged with delicacy, at this foreign connexion. He wrote also to the
bishop, and, after obtaining from him all the necessary particulars as
to the Marchese Mascalbruni,—through what channel he became acquainted
with them, by what letter got introduced to Lady ——, lost
no time in proceeding to Rome, though the mountains were then infested
by brigands, and the Pontine marshes, for it was the month of
September, breathed malaria.
Our consul was then at Cività Vecchia, but willingly consented to
accompany Mr. M. to Rome, in order to aid in the investigation. He
was intimate with Cardinal ——, and they immediately proceeded to
his palace. They found from him that he had never heard the name
of Mascalbruni; that there was no marchese in the pontifical states so
called; and he unhesitatingly declared the letter to be a forgery, and
its writer an impostor.
They then applied to the police, who, after some days' inquiry,
discovered that a person answering the description given had quitted
Rome a few years before, and had been a clerk in the office of a notario.
No farther evidence was necessary to convict Mascalbruni of being
a swindler; and, not trusting to a letter's safe arrival, Mr. M. travelled
night and day till he reached the palace at ——.
It is not difficult to imagine the scene that ensued,—the indignation
of the father, the vexation and self-reproaches of the mother, or the
heart-rending emotions of the unfortunate girl.
Mascalbruni at first, with great effrontery, endeavoured to brave
the storm; contended that Louisa was bound to him by the most
sacred ties, the most solemn engagements; that his she should be,—or,
if not his, that she should never be another's; denounced them as
her murderers; and ended with threats of vengeance,—vengeance
that, alas! he too well accomplished.
It is not very well known what now became of Mascalbruni; but
there is reason to believe that he lay perdu somewhere in the
neighbourhood, watching like a vulture over the prey from which he
had been driven, the corpse of what was once Louisa.
A suspicious-looking person was frequently seen at night-fall prowling
about the environs of the palace; and Miss M.'s femme de chambre,
with whom he is said to have carried on an intrigue, was observed by
the servants in animated conversation with a stranger in the garb of
a peasant among the shrubberies and pleasure grounds.
It was through her medium that Mascalbruni gained intelligence
of all that was passing in the palace.
The shock which Louisa had sustained was so sudden, so severe,
that, acting on a frame naturally delicate, it brought on a brain fever.
Her ravings were so dreadful, and so extraordinary; and so revolting
was the language in which she at times clothed them, that even her
mother—and no other was allowed to attend her—could scarcely stay
by her couch. How perfect a knowledge of human nature has Shakspeare
displayed in depicting the madness of the shamelessly-wronged
and innocent Ophelia!—The fragments of those songs to which her
broken accents gave utterance, especially that which ends with
"Who, in a maid, yet out a maid,
Did ne'er return again,"
may suggest an idea of the wanderings of the poor sufferer's heated
For some weeks her life hung on a thread; but the affectionate
cares and sympathy of a mother, and a sense of the unworthiness of
the object of her regard, at last brought back the dawn of reason;
and her recovery, though slow, was sufficiently sure to banish all
The afflictions as well as the affections of woman are, if I may
judge by my own experience, less profoundly acute than those of our
own sex. Whether this be owing to constitution or education, or
that the superior delicacy and fineness of the nervous system makes
them more easily susceptible of new impressions to efface the old, I
leave it to the physiologist or the psychologist to explain. The river
that is the most ruffled at the surface is seldom the deepest. Thus
with Miss M. Her passion, like
"A little brook, swoln by the melted snow,
That overflows its banks, pour'd in her heart
A scanty stream, and soon was dry again."
In the course of three months the image of Mascalbruni, if not effaced
from her mind, scarcely awakened a regret; and, save that at
times a paleness overspread her cheek, rapidly chased by a blush, be
it of virgin innocence or shame, no one could ever have discovered in
her person or bearing any traces of the past.
At this time a paragraph appeared in the Court Journal of the day,
nearly in these words:
"Strange rumours are afloat in the Sister Island respecting a certain
Italian marchese, who figured at the clubs and about town during
the last season. Revelations of an extraordinary nature, that hastened
the return of the Honourable Mr. M. from the Continent, have led
to a rupture of the marriage of the belle of the season, which we are
authorised to say is definitively broken off."
It was a telegraph that the field was open for new candidates; but
no one on this side the water answered it. Louisa M. was no longer
the same,—the préstige was fled,—the bloom of the peach was gone.
Scarcely had four months elapsed, however, when fresh preparations
were made for her marriage, and a day fixed for the nuptials.
The hour came; and behold, in the conventional language used on
such occasions, the happy pair, Lady M. the bride-maids, and a
numerous party of friends assembled in the chapel of the palace.
The bishop officiated.
The ceremony had already commenced, and the rite was on the
point of being ratified by that mystical type of union—the ring—when
a figure burst through the crowd collected about the doors; a figure
more like a spectre than a man.
So great a change had taken place in him, from the wild and
savage life that he had been leading among the mountains, the privations
he had endured, and the neglect of his person, that no one
would have recognised him for the observed of all observers, the
once elegant and handsome Mascalbruni. His hair, matted like the
mane of a wild beast, streamed over his face and bare neck. His
cheek was fallen, his eyes sunken in their sockets; yet in them burned,
as in two dark caves, a fierce and sombre fire. His lips were tremulous
and convulsed with passion; his whole appearance, in short, exhibited
the same diabolical rage and thirst of vengeance that had
electrified the salle d'armes in his memorable conflict. He advanced
straight to the altar with long and hurried steps, and, tearing
aside the hands of the couple, the ring fell over the communion rails
to the ground. So profound was the silence, so great the consternation
and surprise the sight of this apparition created in the minds
of all, that the sound of the ring, as it struck and rolled along the
vaulted pavement, was audibly heard. It was an omen of evil augury,—a
warning voice as from the grave, to tell of the death of premised
joys—of hopes destroyed—of happiness for ever crushed. He
stood wildly waving his arms for a moment between the pair, looking
as though they had been transformed into stone, more like two statues
kneeling at a tomb than at the altar. Then he folded his arms;
gazed with a triumphant and ghastly smile at the bride; said, or
rather muttered, "Mine she is!" then, turning to the bridegroom,
with a sneer of scorn and mockery he howled, "Mine she has been;
now wed her!"
With these laconic words he turned on his heel, and regained
without interruption the portal by which he had entered. So suddenly
had all this passed, so paralysed and panic-stricken were the
spectators and audience of this scene, that they could scarcely believe
it to be other than a dream, till they saw the bride extended
without sense or motion on the steps. Thus was she borne, the service
being unconcluded, to her chamber. The ceremony was privately
completed the ensuing day.
No domestic felicity attended this ill-fated union. It was poisoned
by doubts and suspicions, and embittered by the memory of
Mascalbruni's words. "Mine she has been" continually rang in the
husband's ears; and on the anniversary of that eventful day, after a
lingering illness of many months, a martyr to disappointment and
chagrin, she sunk into an untimely grave.
The next we hear of Mascalbruni was his being at Cheltenham.
There he frequented the rooms under very different auspices, and
had to compete with another order of players than those he had been
in the habit of duping. He was narrowly watched, and detected in
the act of pocketing a queen from an écarté pack. The consequence
was his expulsion from the club with ignominy. His name was placarded,
and his fame, or rather infamy, noised with a winged speed
all over the United Kingdom.
It was no longer a place for him. In the course of the ensuing
week the following announcement was made in a well-known and
widely-circulated weekly paper. It was headed—
"An Italian black sheep.
"We hope in a short time to present our readers with the exploits
of a new Count Fathom, a soi disant marchese, better known than
trusted, the two first syllables of whose name more than rhyme with
rascal. And as it is our duty to un-mask all such, we shall confine
ourselves at present to saying that he has been weighed at a fashionable
watering-place in Gloucestershire, and found wanting, or
rather practising certain sleights of hand for which the charlatans of
his own country are notorious. He had better sing small here!"
Mascalbruni took the vulgar hint. His funds were nearly exhausted,
and with but a few louis in his pocket he embarked at
Dover, and once more repaired to Paris.
His prospects were widely different from those with which he had
left it. To play the game I have described at rouge et noir, requires
a capital. Every respectable house was closed against him. He
now disguised his appearance, so that his former acquaintance should
not be able to recognise him, and frequented the lowest hells—those
cloacæ, the resort of all the vilains and chenapans, the lowest dregs
of the metropolis. By what practices this mauvais sujet contrived
to support life here for some years is best known to the police,
where his name stands chronicled pretty legibly; it is probable that
he passed much of that time in one of the prisons, or on the roads.
Eighteen months had now elapsed, and the Honourable Mr. M.
with his bride, to whom he had been a short time married, took an
apartment in the Rue d'Artois. A man in a cloak—an embocado,—which
means one who enwraps his face in his mantle so that only
his eyes are visible,—was observed from the windows often passing
and repassing the hotel. The novelty of the costume attracted the
attention of Mrs. M.; and the blackness of his eyes, and their peculiarly
gloomy expression, made her take him for a Spaniard. She
more than once pointed him out to her husband, and said one day,
"Look, William, there stands that man again. He answers your description
of a bandit, and makes me shudder to look at him."
"Don't be alarmed, dear," replied Mr. M. smilingly; "we are not
at Terracina. It will be time enough to be frightened then."
The recollection of Mascalbruni had been almost effaced from his
mind; but, had he met him face to face, it is not unlikely that he
would have remembered the villain who had destroyed the hopes of
his family, and marred their happiness for ever.
For some time he never went out at night unaccompanied by his
wife, and always in a carriage. But a day came when he happened
to dine without her in the Rue St. Honoré. The weather being
fine, and the party a late one, he sent away his cabriolet, and after
midnight proceeded to walk home. Paris was at that time very
badly lighted; the reverberées at a vast distance apart, suspended between
the houses, giving a very dim and feeble ray. Few persons—there
being then no trottoirs—were walking at that hour; and it so
happened that not a soul was stirring the whole length of the street.
But, within a few yards of his own door, the figure I have described
rushed from under the shadow of a porte cochère, and plunged a
dagger in his heart. He fell without a groan, and lay there till the
patrol passed, when he was conveyed, cold and lifeless, to the arms
of his bride, who was anxiously awaiting his return. Her agony I
shall not make the attempt to depict: there are some sorrows that
Notwithstanding the boasted excellence of the Parisian police, the
author of this crime, who I need not say was Mascalbruni, remained
Strange as it may appear, I am enabled to connect two more links
in the chain of this ruffian's history, and thus, as it were, to become
his biographer. Having been in town at the period when he was in
the zenith of his glory, and being slightly acquainted with the family
whom, like a pestilence, it was his lot to destroy and blight, I was
well acquainted with his person, and he with mine; indeed, once
seen, it was not easy to mistake his.
After two winters at Naples, I travelled, by the way of Ravenna
and Rimini, to Venice. The carnival was drawing to a close, and, on
quitting a soirée at Madame Benzon's, I repaired to the Ridotta.
The place was crowded to excess with that mercurial population, who
during this saturnalia, particularly its last nights, mingle in one orgie,
and seem to endeavour, by a kind of intoxication of the senses, and
general licentiousness, to drown the memory of the destitution and
wretchedness to which the iron despotism of the Austrian has reduced
them. The scene had a sort of magnetic attraction in it.
I had neither mask nor domino, but it is considered rather distingué
for men to appear without them; and, as I had no love-affair to
carry on, it was no bad means of obtaining one, had I been so inclined.
Among the other groups, I observed two persons who went intriguing
round the salle, appearing to know the secrets of many of
their acquaintances, whom it seemed their delight to torment and
persecute, and whom, notwithstanding their masks, they had detected
by the voice, which, however attempted to be disguised, betrays more
than the eyes, or even the mouth, though it is the great seat of expression.
The pair wore fancy dresses. The domino of the man
was of Persian or Turkish manufacture, a rich silk with a purple
ground, in which were inwoven palm-leaves of gold, The costume
of the lady, who seemed of a portly figure, not the most symmetrical,
was a rich Venetian brocade, such as we see in the gorgeous pictures
of Paul Veronese, and much in use during the dogal times of the republic.
As they passed me, I heard the lady say, looking at me,
"That is a foreigner." "Si signora, è Inglese," was the reply; "lo
conosco." Who this could be who knew me,—me, almost a stranger
at Venice, I was curious to discover. By the slow and drawling
accent peculiar to the Romans, I felt satisfied he was one, and fancied
that I had heard that voice before,—that it was not altogether
unfamiliar to me.
I was desirous of unravelling the secret, for such it was, as the
man did not address me; and I remained at the Ridotta much later
than I should otherwise have done, in order to find out my unknown
acquaintance. I therefore kept my eye on the couple, hoping that
accident might favour my wish.
On the last nights of the carnival it is common to sup at the Ridotta,
and I at length watched the incognito into a box with his
inamorata, where he took off his mask, and whom should I discover
under it but the identical hero of romance, the villain Mascalbruni.
He was an acquaintance who might well shun my recognition, and
I was not anxious he should see I had attracted his observation. As
I was returning to my hotel on the Grand Canal, I asked the gondolier
if he knew one Signor Mascalbruni. These boatmen are a kind
of Figaros, and, like the agents of the Austrian police, are acquainted
with the names and address of almost every resident in Venice, especially
of those who frequent the public places. The man, however, did
not know my friend by that name,—perhaps he had changed it. But
when I described his costume, he said that the signor was the cavalier
servente of a Russian princess, who had taken for a year one of
the largest palaces in Venice. "Il signor," he added, "canta come
The idea of coupling an angel and Mascalbruni together amused
me. "An angel of darkness!" I was near replying; but thought it
best to be silent.
I had no wish to encounter Mascalbruni a second time. I went
the next day to Fusina, and thence to Milan; indeed I had made all
the preparations for my departure, nothing being more dull than the
Carême at Venice.
Two years after this adventure, I was travelling in the Grisons,
after having made a tour of the petits cantons, with my knapsack on
my back, and a map of Switzerland in my pocket, to serve the place
of a guide,—a description of persons to whom I have almost as great
an objection as to cicerones, preferring rather to miss seeing what I
should like to see, than to be told what I ought to like to see; not
that it has fallen to the lot of many guides, or travellers either, to be
present at a spectacle such as I am going to describe. I had been
pacing nine good leagues; and that I saw it was merely accidental,
for if it had not come in my way, I should not have gone out of
mine to witness it.
Coire, the capital of the Grisons, my place of destination for the
night, had just appeared, when I observed a great crowd collecting
together immediately in front, but at some distance off, the peasants
running in all directions from the neighbouring hills, like so many
radii to meet in a centre.
One of these crossed me; and, on inquiring of him the occasion of
all this haste and bustle, I learned that an execution was about to take
place. My informant added with some pride that the criminal was
not a Swiss, but an Italian. He seemed perfectly acquainted with
all the particulars of the event that had transpired, for he had been
present at the trial; and, as we walked along the road together, in
his patois,—bad German, and worse French, with here and there a
sprinkling of Italian,—he related to me in his own way what I will
endeavour to translate.
"An Englishman of about twenty years of age was travelling, as
you may be, on foot, about seven weeks ago, in this canton, having
lately crossed the St. Gothard from Bellinzona. He was accompanied
by a courier, whom he had picked up at Milan. They halted
for some days in our town, waiting for the young gentleman's remittances
from Genoa, where his letters of credit were addressed. On
their arrival at Coire they had a guide; but the Italian persuaded
his master, who seemed much attached to him, to discharge Pierre,
on the pretence that he was thoroughly acquainted with the country,
and spoke the language, which indeed he did. He was a dark
brigand-looking fellow, with a particularly bad expression of countenance,
and a gloomy look about his eyes; and, for my part, I am surprised
that the young man should have ventured to trust himself in
his company, for I should not like to meet his fellow on the road
by myself even in the day-time. Well: the Englishman's money, a
good round sum,—they say, two hundred napoleons d'or,—was paid
him by an order on our bankers; and then they set out, but not as
"They had only been two days in company, when the villainous
Italian, who either did not know the road over the mountains, or
had purposely gone out of the way, thought it a good opportunity of
perpetrating an act, no doubt long planned, which was neither more
nor less than despatching his master. It was a solitary place, and a
fit one for a deed of blood. A narrow path had been worn in the
side of a precipice, which yawned to the depth of several hundred
feet over a torrent that rushed, as though impatient of being confined,
foaming and boiling through a narrow chasm opened for itself
through the rocks. I could show you the spot, for I know it well,
having a right of commune on the mountains; and have often driven
my cows, after the melting of the snows, up the pass, to feed on the
herbage that, mixed with heath and rhododendrons, forms a thick
carpet under foot. It is a pasture that makes excellent cheese.
"But, solitary as the place looks, the Italian did not know that
there are several chalets, mine among the rest, in the Alp; and
herdsmen. As for me, I happened to be down in the plain, or I
might have been an eye-witness of much of what I am about to describe.
I was saying that the spot seemed to suit his purpose; and
his impatience to ease his master of his gold was such, that, happily
for the ends of justice, he could not wait till night-fall, or none but
(and here he pointed to the sky) He above might have been privy to
the crime. It was, however, mid-day. Into the deep-worn pass I
have mentioned runs a rivulet, which, sparkling on the green bank,
had made for itself a little basin. The day was hot and sultry; and
the young gentleman, tempted, it would seem, by the gentle murmur
of the water as it fell rippling over the turf, and its crystal brightness,
stooped down to drink. The Italian watched this opportunity, sprung
upon him like a tiger, and plunged a dagger, which he always carried
concealed about him, into the Englishman's back. Fortunately, however,
the point hit upon the belt in which he carried his money, perhaps on
the napoleons; for, before the assassin could give him a second blow,
he sprang up and screamed for help, calling 'Murder, murder!'
"Three of the herdsmen whom I have mentioned heard the cries,
and came running towards the direction whence they proceeded,
when they discovered two men struggling with each other; but, before
they could reach them, one had fallen, and the other was in the act of
rifling him, in order afterwards to hurl him down the precipice into
the bed of the river. So intent was he on the former of these occupations,
that he did not perceive my countrymen till they seized him.
He made much resistance; but his dagger was not within his reach.
They bound his hands, and, together with the lifeless corpse of his
master, transported him to Coire, where, not to enter into the trial,
he was condemned to death.
"But he has been now some weeks in prison, in consequence of our
not being able to procure a bourreau; and we have been forced to
send for one to Bellinzona, no Grison being willing to perform the
office. He arrived last night; and how do you think, sir? According
to our laws, he is to be executed with a sword that has not been used
for forty years,—no murder having been committed in the canton
during all that period,—though no sword could be applied to better
purpose than it will in a few moments."
Whilst he was thus speaking, we reached the dense circle already
formed. On seeing a stranger approach, they made room for me; and
curiosity to witness this mode of execution, the remnant of barbarous
times, as well as to see the Italian, induced me to enter the Place de
At the first glance I recognised Mascalbruni. He was stripped of
his shirt, and on his knees; by his side was a Jesuit to whom he had
just made his confession; and over him, on an elevation from the
ground by means of a large stone, stood the prevôt, with a sword of
prodigious length and antique shape, and covered with the rust of
ages, pendent in his hands.
The lower part of Mascalbruni's face was fallen, whilst all above
the mouth was drawn upward as from some powerful convulsion.
The eyes, that used to bear the semblance of living coals, had in them
a concentrated and sullen gloom. The cold and damp of the cell, and
the scantiness of his diet, which consisted of bread and water, had
worn his cheek to the bone, and given it the sallowness of one in the
black stage of cholera. His face was covered with a thick beard,
every hair of which stood distinct from its fellows; and his matted
locks, thickly sprinkled with grey, trailed over his ghastly features
and neck in wild disorder. His shoulders down to the waist were,
as I said, bare; and they and his arms displayed anatomically a muscular
strength that might have served as a model for a gladiator.
Over all was thrown an air of utter prostration moral and physical,—the
desolation of despair.
A few yards to the right, the priest, with his eyes uplifted to heaven,
seemed absorbed in prayer; and between them the bourreau,
who might have superseded Tristan in his office, and been a dangerous
rival in the good graces of Louis the Eleventh. He called to mind
a figure of Rubens',—not the one who is turning round in the Descent
of the Cross at Antwerp, and saying to the thief, writhing in horrible
contortions after he has wrenched his lacerated foot from the nail,
"Sacre, chien,"—but a soldier in another of his pictures in the Gallery
at Brussels (the representation of some martyrdom,) who has just torn
off the ear of the saint with a pair of red-hot pincers, and is eyeing
it with a savage complacency.
It was, in short, exactly such a group, with its pyramidical form
and startling contrasts of colour and expression, as the great Flemish
painter could have desired.
A dead silence, which the natural horror, the novelty of the scene
created, prevailed among the assembled crowd; and it spoke well for
the morality and good feeling of the simple peasantry, that not a woman
was present on the occasion.
The hand of the swordsman was raised, and the stroke fell on
the neck of the culprit; but, horrible to say,—what was it then to
witness?—though given with no common vigour, so blunt was the
instrument, that, instead of severing the head, it only inflicted a gash
which divided the tendons of the neck, and the undecapitated body
fell doubled up, whilst only a few gouts of blood issued from the
The tortured wretch's groans and exclamations found an echo in
all bosoms; and it was not till after two more sabre strokes that the
head lay apart, and rolled upwards in the dust. I then saw what I
have heard described of Charlotte Cordé, after she had been guillotined;—the
muscles of the face were convulsed as if with sensibility,
and the eyes glared with horrid meaning, as though the soul yet lingered
there. Even the executioner could scarcely meet their scowl
It was the first and last spectacle of this kind at which I mean ever
to be present; and I should not have awaited its awful termination,
could I have penetrated through the living wall that was a barrier to
You may now guess from whom I obtained many of the details
contained in this memoir of Mascalbruni. It was from the confessor,
who had endeavoured, but in vain, to give him spiritual consolation in
the dungeon and at the block. The Jesuit and myself had mutual
revelations to make to each other, connecting the present with the
past, and which have enabled me to weave the dark tissue of his
life's thread into one piece. I repeat the last words of the good old
man at our final interview,—"May God have mercy on his soul!"