Therefore, with a shrug of the shoulders expressive of regret, he added, “However badly off we may be ourselves, there is always some one with whom we would not change places.”
“Were I, the humblest of the humble, lucky enough to be in your Majesty’s skin,” cried the baron gaily, “I wouldn’t either. But since I am only poor Malfalconnet, I know of nobody—and I’m well acquainted with Sir Wolf—who seems to me more enviable than your Majesty.”
“Jest, or earnest?” asked the Emperor.
“Earnest, deep, well-founded earnest,” replied the other with an upward glance whose solemn devotion showed the sovereign that mischief was concealed behind it. “Let your Majesty judge for yourself. He is a knight of good family, and looks like a plain burgher. His name is Wolf Hartschwert, and he is as gentle as a lamb and as pliant as a young willow. He appears like the meek, whom our Lord calls blessed, and yet he is one of the wisest of the wise, and, moreover, a master in his art. Wherever he shows himself, delusion follows delusion, and every one redounds to his advantage, for whoever took him for an insignificant man must doff his hat when he utters his name. If a shrewd fellow supposed that this sheep would not know A from B, he’ll soon give him nuts to crack which are far too hard for many a learned master of arts. Nobody expects chivalric virtues and the accompanying expenditure from this simple fellow; yet he practises them, and, when he once opens his hand, people stare at him as they do at flying fish and the hen that lays a golden egg. Appreciative surprise gazes at him, beseeching forgiveness, wherever he is known, as surely as happy faces welcome your Majesty’s entry into any Netherland city. Fortune, lavish when she once departs from her wonted niggardliness, guards this her favourite child from disappointment and misconstruction.”
“The blessing of those who are more than they seem,” replied the Emperor.
“That is his also,” sighed Malfalconnet. “That man, your Majesty, and I the poorest of the poor! I was born a baron, and, as the greatest piece of good fortune, obtained the favour of my illustrious master. Now everybody expects from me magnificence worthy of my ancient name, and a style of living in keeping with the much-envied grace that renders me happy. But if your Majesty’s divine goodness did not sometimes pay my debts, which are now a part of me as the tail belongs to the comet—”
“Oho!” cried the Emperor here. “If that is what is coming—”
“Do I look so stupid,” interrupted the baron humbly, “as to repeat to-day things which yesterday did not wholly fail to make an impression upon your Majesty?”