(Essentials of European Literature)

The ancestors of Guzmán de Alfarache lived in Genoa, upstart noblemen who had grown rich in trade. Like others of his family, Guzmán’s father was a dealer on the exchange, resorting even to usury in order to add to his wealth, although he piously heard mass every morning and owned a rosary with beads as large as hazelnuts. His love of money led him into his greatest adventure, for when a partner in Seville became bankrupt and carried away some of the money belonging to Guzmán’s father, the Genoese took ship for Spain in an attempt to recover some of his lost property. On the way, his ship was captured by Moorish pirates, and the merchant was sold into slavery in Algiers. Envisioning no other way out of his difficulty, he embraced the faith of Allah and so was able to marry a rich Moorish widow. Secretly, he took possession of her money and jewels and fled with them to Seville. There, after some time, he found his former partner, recovered most of his debt, made his peace with the Church, and settled down to live the life of a gentleman, trading in money for his profit and gambling for his pleasure.

Now a prosperous man, he bought two estates, one in town, the other at San Juan de Alfarache. One day he saw the mistress of an old knight and fell in love with her. The lady was not unwilling to share her favors between her two lovers, so that Guzmán could say in later life that at the time of his birth he had possessed two fathers. When the old knight died, the woman carried away all of his property and a short time later married Guzmán’s true father. The merchant did not long survive but died a bankrupt, impoverished by his gambling and love of rich living. Left penniless, Guzmán decided to seek his fortune elsewhere. Calling himself Guzmán de Alfarache, after his father’s country estate, he started out at the age of fourteen to see the world.

Unused to walking, he soon tired and slept supperless that night on the steps of a church not far from Seville. The next morning, his way led him to a wretched inn, where the hostess cooked him a breakfast omelet of eggs filled with half-hatched chicks. He ate the mess ravenously, but before he had traveled a league from the inn, he became violently ill. A passing muleteer laughed heartily when Guzmán told his story, and in his glee, he invited the boy to ride with him. As they rode along, the muleteer told how the hostess of the inn had tried the same trick on two lively young fellows who had rubbed her face in the omelet and daubed her with soot.

Meanwhile, Guzmán and the muleteer had found two friars by the roadside. Since they were on their way to Cacalla, they were willing to hire two of the carrier’s mules. That night the travelers stopped at a village inn where the landlord fed them a freshly killed young mule instead of veal. The next morning, after discovering the deception, Guzmán and the muleteer threw the whole inn into an uproar. During the confusion, two alcaldes appeared and took the rascally landlord into custody. Guzmán and the muleteer left the town in great haste.

Some distance beyond the village they were overtaken by several constables looking for a page who had stolen from his master. Mistaking Guzmán for the page, they seized him, and when the muleteer tried to interfere, they bound him as well. After the prisoners had been severely beaten, the constables, convinced of Guzmán’s innocence, allowed the travelers to continue on their way. To help Guzmán and the carrier to forget their aching bones, one of the priests told the romantic story of Ozmin and Daraxa, a tale of the Moorish wars.

By the time the story ended, they were in sight of Cacalla, where they parted company. The muleteer demanded more for Guzmán’s transportation and lodging than the boy could pay. The two friars decided at last upon a fair price, but the reckoning left Guzmán without enough money to buy his dinner that day.

Hungry but ashamed to beg, Guzmán took the road to Madrid. For a time he followed two travelers in the hope that they would offer him some of their dinner when they stopped to eat, but they ignored him. A poor Franciscan friar came by, however, and shared with the boy his loaf of bread and piece of bacon. That night, an innkeeper gave Guzmán a bed in a stable and the next morning hired him to feed the horses of the guests. Guzmán soon learned to cheat in measuring oats and straw. Deciding at last that the life was too lazy for him, he left the inn and started once more for Madrid.

He had soon spent his coppers and was forced to beg; his luck, however, was so poor that it was necessary for him to sell the clothes off his back in order to live. By the time he reached Madrid, he looked like a scarecrow. Unable to find work because of his poor appearance, he fell in with some beggars who taught him knavery of all kinds.

He became a porter for a time, hiring himself to carry provisions which purchasers had bought at market. In this way he met a cook who persuaded him to turn scullion. Like the other servants, Guzmán learned to steal from his master. One day he took a silver goblet. His mistress, discovering the loss, gave him money to buy another like it. Guzmán returned the goblet and kept the money, which he soon lost at cards. He continued his petty thefts until his master caught him selling provisions and cuffed him out of the house. Then he went back to carrying baskets in the market. Among his customers was a trusting grocer who one day put into his basket more than twenty-five hundred gold reals. Escaping through side streets, Guzmán fled into the country, where he lay hidden until the hue and cry had died down. With his riches, he planned to visit his father’s kinsmen in Genoa.

When he thought the coast clear, Guzmán headed for Toledo. On the way, he encountered a young man from whom he bought an outfit of clothing. Freshly attired, he lived like a young gentleman of fortune. He had little luck in his gallantries, however, and his love intrigues always ended with his being fleeced or made ridiculous by ladies he courted. He left Toledo with few regrets when he heard that a constable was looking for a young man recently arrived from Madrid.

At Almagro, Guzmán found a company of soldiers on their way to Italy. He enlisted, hoping to leave his past troubles behind him. Before long, he became the captain’s crony, and the two spent their nights in gaming and wenching. Finding himself without funds, Guzmán resorted to his old habits of roguery; at the same time, he was reduced to serving the captain who had formerly treated him as an equal. The captain was perfectly willing to profit by...

(The entire section is 2729 words.)