IT was said of Messer Leandro de’ Traversari, canon of Ravenna, that, from the opening to the close of his mortal career, he invariably evinced the most decided enmity to truth. He had such a total disregard for this invaluable quality that if he ever happened to stumble upon the truth, he betrayed as much melancholy and regret as if he had actually sinned against the Holy Ghost. Besides, he was not merely the most notorious asserter of “the thing which is not” himself, but the cause of falsehood in others, compelling his very friends and dependents to confirm his wicked statements, under penalty of incurring his most severe spiritual displeasure.
There was a certain Florentine, who had lately entered into his service, and who, perceiving his master’s peculiarity in this respect, resolved not merely to humor him in it, but to add something further on his own part, in order the better to recommend himself to his notice. He one day availed himself of an opportunity, when walking with the good canon in the gardens of the archbishop, near the city, to give his master a specimen of his inventive powers. Observing the gardener employed in planting cauliflowers, the prelate happened to remark, “These cauliflowers grow to a surprising size; their bulk is quite prodigious; I believe no one can bring them to such rare perfection as my gardener.” As the latter did not care to contradict this testimony, so favorable to his character, Messer Leandro subjoined to the observation of his superior, “Yes, my lord; but if you had ever seen those that grow in Cucagna, you would not think these so very extraordinary in point of size.” “Why, how large may they grow?” inquired the archbishop. “How large?” returned Messer Leandro, “I can scarcely give your lordship an idea of it. In those parts I hear it is no uncommon thing for twenty knights on horseback to take shelter together under their huge cabbage leaves.” The archbishop expressing no slight astonishment at these words, the wily Florentine stepped forward to his master’s relief, saying: “Your excellency will not be so much surprised, 2136 when I inform your excellency that I have myself seen these magnificent cabbages growing in that strange country; and I have seen the immense caldrons in which they are boiled, of such a vast construction that twenty workmen are engaged in framing them at once; and it is said that the sound of their hammers cannot be heard from opposite sides, as they sit in the huge vessel to complete their work.” The noble prelate, whose intellect was not of the highest order, opened his eyes still wider upon the Florentine, exclaiming, that he fancied such a capacious saucepan would contain sufficient food, were it rightly calculated, for the whole people of Cairo at one meal.
While they were thus engaged, a person made his approach, with an ape upon his shoulders, intended as a present for the venerable archbishop, who, turning towards the canon, with a smiling countenance, noticed the very singular resemblance between the human figure and that of the sagacious animal before them. “It is my serious opinion,” continued he, “that if the beast had only a little more intellect, there would not be so much difference between him and ourselves, as some people imagine.” — “I trust,” replied the worthy canon, “your lordship would not mean to insinuate that monkeys really want sense; for, if so, I can soon, I think, convince your lordship of the contrary, by a story pretty apposite to the purpose.
“The noble lord Almerico was one day feasting the good bishop of Vicenza, having given orders to his cook to prepare all the varieties and delicacies of the season. Now the cook was in possession of an excellent method of guarding the treasures of his kitchen; for which purpose he kept an invaluable ape, excellently tutored to the business. No man, not even the boldest, ventured to steal the least thing in his presence, until a certain footman, from Savignano, more greedy than a horse-leech, and unable to check his thieving propensities, hit upon what he considered a safe means of eluding the monkey’s observation. He began to cultivate his acquaintance by performing all kinds of amusing tricks, and bribing him to be in good humor. The moment he perceived the ape busily engaged in imitating what he saw, the rogue, binding a handkerchief over his own eyes, in a short time handed it likewise to the mimic, and with secret pleasure beheld him fastening it over his face; during which time he contrived to lay his hands upon a fat capon, which the ape, though too late, soon afterwards perceived. The head cook upon this occasion gave his monkey- 2137 ship so severe a flogging that, being doubly cautious, the next time the thievish footman repeated the same tricks, and proceeded to bandage his eyes, the wily animal, instead of imitating him, stared around him with all his eyes, pointing at the same time to his paws, as if advising him to keep his hands from picking and stealing; so that the rogue was, this time, compelled to depart with his hands as empty as they came. Finding that all of his arts were of no avail ——” The archbishop, here overpowered with wonder and delight, exclaimed, “If this be only true, it is one of the most astonishing things I ever heard.” The assiduous Florentine upon this again interposed in his master’s behalf, crying out with singular force of gesticulation: “As I hope to be saved at the last day, please your grace, what my honored patron has just advanced is every particle of it true; and as your grace appears to take a particular pleasure in listening to strange and almost unaccountable events, I will now beg leave to add a single story in addition to those of my noble patron, however inferior in point of excellence: —
“During the last vintage, I was in the service of a gentleman at Ferrara, of the name of Libanoro, who took singular pleasure in fishing, and used frequently to explore the recesses of the vale of Santo Appollinare. This master of mine had also an ape in his possession, considerably larger than your excellency’s, and, while he was in the country, he commissioned me to take along with me to Ferrara this said ape, a barrel of white wine, and a fat pig; in order to present them to a certain convenient ruffian, whom he kept in his service. So I took a boat, and playing oars and sail, while we were bounding along the waters, I gave the skiff a sudden jerk, which made the pig’s fat sides shake, and he went round like a turnspit, performing the strangest antics. So loud and vehement were his lamentations, that they seemed to annoy his apeship excessively, who after in vain trying to stop his ears and nose, at length seized the plug out of the barrel that stood near him, and fairly thrust it down the pig’s throat, just as we was opening it to give another horrible cry. Both the wine and the pig were in extreme jeopardy, the one actually choking, and the other running all away. I tried to save as much of it as I could; but my immoderate laughter almost prevented me, so much was I amused at his ingenious contrivance. So that your grace may perceive,” continued the mendacious 2136 Florentine, “that my master speaks the simple truth, in asserting that these animals are possessed of great acuteness of intellect.” Now, on returning home, the good canon thus addressed his servant: “I thought, sirrah, there was no man living who could tell a lie with a bolder and better face than myself; but you have undeceived me: you are the very prince of liars and impostors; the father of lies himself could not surpass you!” — “Your reverence,” replied the Florentine, “need not be surprised at that, when I inform you of the advantages I have enjoyed in the society of tailors, millers, and bargemen, who live upon the profit they bring. But if from this time forth, you insist upon my persevering in confirming so many monstrous untruths as you utter, I trust that you will consent to increase my wages, in consideration of so abominable a business.” — “Well then, listen to me,” replied his master; “when it is my intention to come out with some grand and extraordinary falsehood, I will take care to tell you the evening before, and at the same time I will always give you such a gratuity as shall make it worth your while. And if I should happen to tell a good story after dinner, as you stand behind my chair, and you swear to having seen it, very innocently, you may depend upon it you shall be no loser.” This his servant agreed to do, upon condition that he would observe some bounds, and keep up some show, at least, of reason and probability; which the honest canon said, so far as he was able, he would try to do; adding that if they were not reasonable lies, the servant should not be bound by the contract, and might return the gift.
Thus the most wonderful adventures continued to be related at the good canon’s table, and what is more extraordinary, they were all very dexterously confirmed. So going on very amicably together, the canon, one evening intending to impose a monstrous lie upon one of his friends, took down a pair of old breeches, and presented them to his servant as the requisite gift. In the morning, attending his master to church as usual, he heard him, after service, relating a story to one of the holy brotherhood, who stood swallowing it all, with a very serious face, how in the island of Pastinaca the magpies are accustomed to get married in proper form and ceremony; and how, after laying, and sitting upon their eggs for the space of a month, they bring forth little men, not larger than ants, but astonishingly bold and clever. The Florentine upon this could no longer restrain his feelings, crying out before the whole 2139 company: “No, no, I cannot swear to this neither; so you may take back your breeches, master, and get somebody else in my place.”