Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1841
On a dark October night in Madrid, Don Cleophas Leandro Perez Zambullo, a student of Alcala, is in dreadful trouble. While visiting Donna Thomasa, his beloved, three or four hired bravos set upon him in her apartment, and when he loses his sword in the struggle, he is forced to take flight over the rooftops of the neighboring houses. Spying a light in a garret, he enters through a window and discovers an empty room furnished with the strange gear of a magician. As he is taking stock of the place, he hears a sigh and soon realizes that he is being addressed by a demon in a bottle. To the student’s questionings, the spirit replies that he is not Lucifer, Uriel, Beelzebub, Leviathan, Belphegor, or Ashtaroth, but Asmodeus, the Devil on Two Sticks, who always befriends hapless lovers. Cleophas thereupon breaks the vial and out tumbles a monstrous dwarf, with the legs of a goat, a stature of less than three feet, and a grotesque and grimacing face. Half concealed by extraordinary clothing and a curiously embroidered white satin cloak are the two crutches on which the dwarf hobbles about.
Because Cleophas is eager to escape his pursuers and Asmodeus wishes to avoid his captor, the magician, the two do not linger in the attic. Cleophas grasps the edge of the demon’s cloak, and off they fly into the sky over Madrid. For the remainder of their association together, Asmodeus entertains his companion with views of all that is happening in the city, explaining the circumstances and characteristics of those into whose houses they look.
At first, they peer into the houses immediately beneath them. Asmodeus shows Cleophas some ridiculous views of a coquette, a nobleman, a poet, and an alchemist. At last, they come to a mansion where cavaliers and their ladies are celebrating a wedding. The demon proceeds to tell the story of the count de Belflor and Leonora de Cespedes.
The count de Belflor, a gallant young man of the court, fell in love with Leonora de Cespedes and wished to make her his mistress. By guile, the gift of a well-filled purse, and the promise of another thousand pistoles when he accomplished his scheme, he secured the aid of her duenna, Marcella, who prevailed on the young woman to admit the nobleman to her chamber at night. One morning, as the count was making a hasty departure, for dawn was breaking, he slipped and fell while descending the silken ladder lowered from Leonora’s bedchamber. The noise awakened Don Luis de Cespedes, her father, who slept in the room above. Uncovering the truth and enraged by this stain on the family honor, the old don confronted his daughter’s lover. The count offered to provide for Don Pedro, Leonora’s brother, who was a student, but he refused to marry the daughter, giving as his false excuse a marriage that the king supposedly already arranged for the young courtier.
Later, after reading a reproachful letter written by Leonora, the count was moved to repentance. About the same time, Leonora’s brother, Don Pedro, played truant from his studies at Alcala to pay court to an unknown young beauty whom he was secretly meeting. In a street brawl, his life was saved by the count, who happened to be passing by. The count asked the young man to go with him to act as guard while he had an interview with Leonora. The truth was revealed when Don Luis confronted his son, and the count asked for the hand of Leonora and bestowed that of his sister, Donna Eugenia, on his new friend and brother. Don Pedro was overjoyed when he discovered that his secret love was the sister of the count de Belflor. The two couples are married, and Cleophas, guided by the demon, witnesses the festivities of their double wedding. Only Marcella, the treacherous duenna, has no part in the mirth; Don Luis sends her to a nunnery to spend her ill-gotten pistoles and prayers to win pardon for her wickedness.
Directing Cleophas’s attention to other homes in the city, Asmodeus shows him the plight of an impoverished marquis, a plagiarizing author, a procurer of young men for rich widows, and a printer of antireligious books. At Cleophas’s request, the dwarf secures revenge for his mortal companion on the faithless Donna Thomasa. While she is entertaining the assassins she hires to attack Cleophas, Asmodeus puts the men into a jealous rage over her and sets them to fighting. So great is the disturbance they cause that neighbors summon the police, who on their arrival find two of the men slain. The assassins are thrown into the city dungeon, and Donna Thomasa is eventually sentenced to be transported to the colonies. Thus proud Cleophas has his revenge.
Next, Asmodeus reveals the circumstances of the wretches in the nearby prison and madhouse. Poisoners, assassins, servants falsely accused and servants deserving imprisonment, a dishonest surgeon, and others are all displayed in their cells. At the madhouse, Cleophas sees political and religious fanatics, as well as those maddened by jealousy, grief, and the ingratitude of their relatives. Asmodeus also takes the opportunity to show Cleophas other people who should be confined in an insane asylum, for their brains are addled by avarice, egotism, and the uncontrollable pangs of love.
Suddenly, from their vantage point above the city, the two glimpse a raging fire in a house beneath them. To everyone’s horror, the beautiful Donna Seraphina, daughter of Don Pedro de Escolano, is trapped in an upstairs room. Asmodeus, at the entreaties of Cleophas, assumes the shape and appearance of the young student and brings the girl out of the burning building safely. After the rescue, Asmodeus tells Cleophas that he suddenly decided on a grand design: The young man will ultimately marry the lovely Donna Seraphina, for her noble father already believes himself deeply indebted to the handsome young cavalier.
Asmodeus continues the strange tour of Madrid with portrayals of the unrevealed secrets of those buried in the tombs of a churchyard and with glimpses of bedside death scenes of true grief, avarice, jealousy, and self-seeking. By way of contrast, he then tells Cleophas a long and circumstantial tale of true friendship and love.
Don Juan de Zarata, a gallant of Toledo, murdered his false wife’s lover and fled to Valencia. Near the outskirts of that city, he stopped a duel between Don Alvaro Ponzo and Don Fabricio de Mendoza, rivals for the hand of the beautiful young widow, Donna Theodora de Cifuentes. On the advice of Don Juan, the lady was allowed to choose between her suitors; her choice was Don Fabricio. Through that meeting, the young Toledan and Don Fabricio became inseparable companions. Don Fabricio, however, could not understand his friend’s seeming indifference to the charms of Donna Theodora. What he did not suspect was that the Toledan was greatly attracted to the lady and she to him, but that out of regard for friendship Don Juan made every effort to repress his passion. Unhappy in her own unrealized love for Don Juan, the lady finally decided to return to her estate at Villareal. When the Toledan confessed the truth to Don Fabricio, that gentleman was so moved by Don Juan’s delicacy of feeling that he vowed no rivalry in love could ever part them.
Meanwhile, Donna Theodora was kidnapped by Don Alvaro’s ruffians and put on a vessel bound for Sardinia. Don Fabricio and Don Juan set out in pursuit, but the ship on which they sailed was overtaken by Tunisian pirates, and the two were made prisoners. Separated in their captivity, they were in despair. Don Juan, sold to the dey of Algiers, was made a gardener. At length the dey, impressed by the bearing and courtesy of his Christian slave, made him his confidant. The dey had in his harem a Spanish lady whose grief appeared inconsolable; he asked Don Juan to speak to her as a countryman and assure her of her master’s tender regard. To Don Juan’s surprise, the lady proved to be Donna Theodora, also taken captive when her abductors were killed by Algerian pirates.
From that time on, Don Juan planned to deliver Donna Theodora from her captivity; at last, aided by an unknown accomplice, they made their escape. Their unknown benefactor turned out to be Don Fabricio, who was rescued by a French privateer. Mistaking Don Juan for the false Don Alvaro, Don Fabricio stabbed his friend and then, discovering his error, plunged his sword into his own breast. The condition of Don Fabricio grew worse, and he died soon after the arrival of the fugitives in Spain. Torn between their mutual love and grief for their friend, Donna Theodora and Don Juan were at last free to marry. A short time later, Don Juan was mortally injured in a fall from his horse. Half mad with grief, Donna Theodora soon followed him to the grave.
At length, the sleeping city awakens. Protesting that he is not weary, Cleophas urges the little demon to let him see more. Asmodeus directs his glance to the activities in the streets of beggars, artisans, a miser, and a philosopher. Then they come upon the throngs of people gathering for the king’s levee: Faithless and forgetful noblemen, those seeking their own good fortune, gamblers, an honest magistrate, and others await their turn to appear before the king. Cleophas, however, cannot be shown into the king’s presence since the royal cabinet, as Asmodeus explains, is under the exclusive control of other devils.
For diversion, Asmodeus takes Cleophas to see the arrival of ransomed slaves at the Monastery of Mercy. Each captive has his own fears and hopes, and Asmodeus recounts the past and future of scores of these wretches. A few slaves meet with happy circumstances upon gaining their freedom, but most of them meet with grief, loneliness, and disappointment.
At that point, Asmodeus becomes aware that his master, the magician, misses him, and he departs swiftly after making the student promise that he will never reveal to mortal ears all that he saw and overheard that night. Cleophas returns to his own apartment and sinks into a deep slumber that lasts a day and a night. When he awakens, he goes to call on Donna Seraphina, where he is welcomed by the grateful Don Pedro, her father. During a later visit in the house where he is now an honored guest, Cleophas confesses that it was not he who rescued the girl from the flames. Although overcome by astonishment, Don Pedro waves the explanation aside. After all, it was at Cleophas’s insistence that Donna Seraphina was brought from the blazing house unharmed. A few weeks later, the wedding of Donna Seraphina and Cleophas is celebrated with much magnificence, and the happy bridegroom never has occasion to regret the night of freedom he provided for the Devil on Two Sticks.