The Baron and the Devil: 1838

the devil


In 1838, M. le Baron de Cormann, an opulent German noble, inhabited the chateau of his ancestors, situated in the environs of Weima. An excellent sportsman, and a redoubted smoker, the baron was at the same time one of the ugliest mortals Germany ever produced. Notwithstanding this circumstance, he was an admirer of beauty in others, and conceived a lively passion for Mademoiselle de Reischberg, daughter of a neighbouring castellane, whose antique domicile constituted nearly his whole property. A formal demand of the lady’s hand was made by the baron, and the father, delighted with the prospect of such a match, hastened to give the suitor an assurance of his assent and best wishes. It was not so, however, with the young lady, who, herself endowed with extraordinary charms, could not endure the looks of the baron, and had, besides, long ago given away her heart to one of her cousins, a handsome cavalier, in contrast with whom the baron made a very sorry figure. On this account the assiduities of the latter, and the commands of the father, produced no effect. Mademoiselle de Reischberg conclusively declared that she would never give her hand to any man so thoroughly ugly as the Baron de Cormann.

One evening she was tempted, by new intreaties on the part of the suitor, to repeat the preceding declaration even more energetically than before. The downcast baron afterwards wended his way home. He sat down by his blazing fire, called for a pipe and ale; and, betwixt the curling whiffs from his only source of consolation, he exclaimed passionately–“I would give myself to the Old One himself to be as good-looking as that confounded cousin!” In his energy the baron—who, it will soon be pretty evident, was something of a simpleton—spoke aloud; indeed, he almost roared out the words. After the ejaculation, he smoked on vigorously, every blast-like puff giving indication of the storm within. How long he sat absorbed in this occupation, it is impossible for us to say; but certain it is, that when he laid down the pipe, and the fumes around slowly floated away, he saw before him, to his great surprise, an odd-looking personage, but black all over, in countenance and clothes. “You have been heard,” said this personage; “sign this paper, and by to-morrow morning you shall be beautiful in the eyes of all the world, though unchanged in your own.” Stupified—almost out of his senses—M. de Cormann sat staring without motion. “Sign “repeated the figure; “I am never invoked in vain, and you shall find my words to hold good ” The thought of Mademoiselle de Reischberg crossed the baron’s brain. Great was the temptation. He took the pen, and again hesitated, being in a state of unspeakable confusion of mind. Then, as if determined not to trust himself with reflection, he hurriedly signed the paper. The stranger lifted it, bowed, and disappeared.

After this proceeding, which had taken place so rapidly that the baron had had scarcely time for connected thought, he sat in silent dreamy stupor through several long hours. With strange feelings he retired to bed, half afraid of the past, and half eager for the dawn, that he might prove the reality of the promised metamorphosis. Morning broke, and the baron arose. He dressed himself, and perceived no change in his appearance; but he had no sooner descended the staircase than the reality of a change was made manifest. Two servants stood in waiting, and the instant that they cast eyes on their master, they started back in great surprise. “Gracious powers! how much my lord is improved in looks! what a noble figure! how beautiful a countenance!” The baron’s heart beat thick with exultation. He went out for further proof, bending his course to the mansion of M. de Reischberg, which was close to his own. Two men met him, and they, also, started to behold him. “How noble is my lord’s figure!” cried one. “What a charming countenance!” cried the other; “surely he is much altered!”

These and such like ejaculations confirmed the baron in his impression of the reality of the metamorphosis; and he proceeded, without delay, to the house of M. de Reischberg. Here the crowning stroke was given to his triumph. Mademoiselle de Reischberg appeared equally surprised and enchanted with his form and looks. She seemingly could not conceal or restrain her admiration, and the handsome cousin appeared to be driven out of her thoughts at once by the new and irresistible charms of his rival. Striking while the iron was hot, the baron intreated her to reward his long devotion by consenting to be his. The lady hesitated—the cousin seemed to pass, for a last time, across her thoughts; but the baron pressed his request, and the lady gave her consent.

In passing homewards on that happy day, the baron received additional though superfluous proofs of the change in his looks, from the remarks of various persons who came in his way. When before his own fire, a pipe and ale were again called for to heighten the delightful cast of the baron’s ruminations. Long he smoked, gazing on the blaze; but at length he laid down the pipe. Then did he first become sensible of a startling fact. His sable visitor of the preceding evening was again before him. “If you fulfil the intention you now entertain of leading Mademoiselle de Reischberg to the altar,” said the stranger solemnly, “you will die on its steps.” As he spoke he disappeared.

The Baron de Cormann lay for a long time in a swoon after this fearful announcement. When he regained his senses, and could reflect on what had passed, great was his vexation, and greater his terrors. He could not conceal from himself the fact, that, since his visitor had been able to fulfil one promise so effectually, the same being could not fail to fulfil with equal certainty the menace just made, or at least to foresee the future. He saw that the fiend, if fiend it were, had “paltered with him in a double sense,” but the evil was irremediable. Preferring life to every other consideration, the baron, ere long, took a decisive resolution. He wrote to the Reischbergs, announcing his altered resolutions respecting marriage, and, in short, declining the honour of the young lady’s hand. On the following morning he jumped into his carriage, and drove off for Paris, after leaving precise orders with an agent to sell his chateau and property at Weima without delay.

It was in the end of 1838 that the Baron de Cormann reached Paris, where he took a handsome hotel in the Rue Dominique. A month or two after his settlement there, he was presented with an acceptance of his own for 120,000 francs, purporting to have been granted by him while in Germany, and a demand was made upon him for payment of the same. The holder of the acceptance, and the requester of payment, was the already-mentioned handsome cousin of Mademoiselle de Reischberg, now become her husband.

The baron was struck dumb by this demand. Never, in the course of his life, was he aware of having signed any such obligation either to the nominal holder of the one before him, or to any person else. Yet he could not deny that the handwriting of the presented bill was his own; it was certainly his signature. Nevertheless, in the consciousness that he really owed no such debt, he refused payment. Immediately afterwards, he went to consult an acute legal friend. After relating the circumstance to that gentleman, and repeating his confident assurance that he never signed, to his knowledge. the obligation in question, though unquestionably his signature was there, the lawyer asked if he never, while in Germany, signed any paper without knowing its contents? The baron thought for an instant, and blushed for his folly. The remembrance of his strange visitant came across his mind with all the attendant circumstances. He compelled himself to tell his legal friend the whole affair.

The acute lawyer saw through the mystery at once. The baron had been ugly at Weima, he was ugly at Paris, and he had never been aught but ugly anywhere. The handsome cousin had so suborned his domestics as to acquire a knowledge of every movement, even of every word of the baron, in his own establishment; and being near the spot, perhaps in the house, on the evening of the baron’s rash ejaculation respecting a change of personal appearance, he had taken advantage of the circumstance, when it was reported to him, to victimise de Cormann in a double and truly diabolical way. By the connivance of the treacherous servants, and one or two other persons, Mademoiselle de Reischberg included, the poor baron had been thoroughly imposed upon, and, in some respects, he was not undeserving of it, seeing that he credulously consented to attempt success in his suit by such means as those described. The conspirator of a cousin, it is probable, imagined that the baron would pay the sum rather than incur the ridicule of a full disclosure.

The affair, says our French authority, came to a trial, and a celebrated Parisian advocate was engaged for the baron, the note for 120,000 francs being lodged, in the interval, in the safe hands of Messrs Rothschild. We regret that we have heard nothing of the issue of the case, and can only hope that the law prevented the poor credulous baron from being ultimately tricked out of his money by the unscrupulous young lady and her cousin. The moral seems to be—never sign any document of whose purport you are not fully acquainted.

Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, 20 August 1842 Number 551: p. 247

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is pursing her lips dubiously over the notion that the “poor credulous Baron” should be pitied. Instead of improving his character and perhaps going in for a wardrobe make-over or spot of cosmetic surgery, the man signed a pact with the Devil. Not, one fears, a gentleman with whom one would wish to link one’s lot in life. In addition, when he declined “the honour of the young lady’s hand,” the Baron opened himself to a breach-of-promise suit. Mrs Daffodil considers that he got off cheaply at 120,000 francs.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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