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Mystification

Slid, if these be your "passados" and "montantes," I'll have none o'
them.
-- NED KNOWLES.

THE BARON RITZNER VON JUNG was a noble Hungarian family, every member
of which (at least as far back into antiquity as any certain records
extend) was more or less remarkable for talent of some description --
the majority for that species of grotesquerie in conception of which
Tieck, a scion of the house, has given a vivid, although by no means
the most vivid exemplifications. My acquaintance with Ritzner
commenced at the magnificent Chateau Jung, into which a train of
droll adventures, not to be made public, threw a place in his regard,
and here, with somewhat more difficulty, a partial insight into his
mental conformation. In later days this insight grew more clear, as
the intimacy which had at first permitted it became more close; and
when, after three years of the character of the Baron Ritzner von
Jung.

I remember the buzz of curiosity which his advent excited within the
college precincts on the night of the twenty-fifth of June. I
remember still more distinctly, that while he was pronounced by all
parties at first sight "the most remarkable man in the world," no
person made any attempt at accounting for his opinion. That he was
unique appeared so undeniable, that it was deemed impertinent to
inquire wherein the uniquity consisted. But, letting this matter pass
for the present, I will merely observe that, from the first moment of
his setting foot within the limits of the university, he began to
exercise over the habits, manners, persons, purses, and propensities
of the whole community which surrounded him, an influence the most
extensive and despotic, yet at the same time the most indefinite and
altogether unaccountable. Thus the brief period of his residence at
the university forms an era in its annals, and is characterized by
all classes of people appertaining to it or its dependencies as "that
very extraordinary epoch forming the domination of the Baron Ritzner
von Jung." then of no particular age, by which I mean that it was
impossible to form a guess respecting his age by any data personally
afforded. He might have been fifteen or fifty, and was twenty-one
years and seven months. He was by no means a handsome man -- perhaps
the reverse. The contour of his face was somewhat angular and harsh.
His forehead was lofty and very fair; his nose a snub; his eyes
large, heavy, glassy, and meaningless. About the mouth there was more
to be observed. The lips were gently protruded, and rested the one
upon the other, after such a fashion that it is impossible to
conceive any, even the most complex, combination of human features,
conveying so entirely, and so singly, the idea of unmitigated
gravity, solemnity and repose.

It will be perceived, no doubt, from what I have already said, that
the Baron was one of those human anomalies now and then to be found,
who make the science of mystification the study and the business of
their lives. For this science a peculiar turn of mind gave him
instinctively the cue, while his physical appearance afforded him
unusual facilities for carrying his prospects into effect. I quaintly
termed the domination of the Baron Ritzner von Jung, ever rightly
entered into the mystery which overshadowed his character. I truly
think that no person at the university, with the exception of myself,
ever suspected him to be capable of a joke, verbal or practical: --
the old bull-dog at the garden-gate would sooner have been accused,
-- the ghost of Heraclitus, -- or the wig of the Emeritus Professor
of Theology. This, too, when it was evident that the most egregious
and unpardonable of all conceivable tricks, whimsicalities and
buffooneries were brought about, if not directly by him, at least
plainly through his intermediate agency or connivance. The beauty, if
I may so call it, of his art mystifique, lay in that consummate
ability (resulting from an almost intuitive knowledge of human
nature, and a most wonderful self-possession,) by means of which he
never failed to make it appear that the drolleries he was occupied in
bringing to a point, arose partly in spite, and partly in consequence
of the laudable efforts he was making for their prevention, and for
the preservation of the good order and dignity of Alma Mater. The
deep, the poignant, the overwhelming mortification, which upon each
such failure of his praise worthy endeavors, would suffuse every
lineament of his countenance, left not the slightest room for doubt
of his sincerity in the bosoms of even his most skeptical companions.
The adroitness, too, was no less worthy of observation by which he
contrived to shift the sense of the grotesque from the creator to the
created -- from his own person to the absurdities to which he had
given rise. In no instance before that of which I speak, have I known
the habitual mystific escape the natural consequence of his manoevres
-- an attachment of the ludicrous to his own character and person.
Continually enveloped in an atmosphere of whim, my friend appeared to
live only for the severities of society; and not even his own
household have for a moment associated other ideas than those of the
rigid and august with the memory of the Baron Ritzner von Jung. the
demon of the dolce far niente lay like an incubus upon the
university. Nothing, at least, was done beyond eating and drinking
and making merry. The apartments of the students were converted into
so many pot-houses, and there was no pot-house of them all more
famous or more frequented than that of the Baron. Our carousals here
were many, and boisterous, and long, and never unfruitful of events.

Upon one occasion we had protracted our sitting until nearly
daybreak, and an unusual quantity of wine had been drunk. The company
consisted of seven or eight individuals besides the Baron and myself.
Most of these were young men of wealth, of high connection, of great
family pride, and all alive with an exaggerated sense of honor. They
abounded in the most ultra German opinions respecting the duello. To
these Quixotic notions some recent Parisian publications, backed by
three or four desperate and fatal conversation, during the greater
part of the night, had run wild upon the all -- engrossing topic of
the times. The Baron, who had been unusually silent and abstracted in
the earlier portion of the evening, at length seemed to be aroused
from his apathy, took a leading part in the discourse, and dwelt upon
the benefits, and more especially upon the beauties, of the received
code of etiquette in passages of arms with an ardor, an eloquence, an
impressiveness, and an affectionateness of manner, which elicited the
warmest enthusiasm from his hearers in general, and absolutely
staggered even myself, who well knew him to be at heart a ridiculer
of those very points for which he contended, and especially to hold
the entire fanfaronade of duelling etiquette in the sovereign
contempt which it deserves.

Looking around me during a pause in the Baron's discourse (of which
my readers may gather some faint idea when I say that it bore
resemblance to the fervid, chanting, monotonous, yet musical sermonic
manner of Coleridge), I perceived symptoms of even more than the
general interest in the countenance of one of the party. This
gentleman, whom I shall call Hermann, was an original in every
respect -- except, perhaps, in the single particular that he was a
very great fool. He contrived to bear, however, among a particular
set at the university, a reputation for deep metaphysical thinking,
and, I believe, for some logical talent. As a duellist he had
acquired who had fallen at his hands; but they were many. He was a
man of courage undoubtedly. But it was upon his minute acquaintance
with the etiquette of the duello, and the nicety of his sense of
honor, that he most especially prided himself. These things were a
hobby which he rode to the death. To Ritzner, ever upon the lookout
for the grotesque, his peculiarities had for a long time past
afforded food for mystification. Of this, however, I was not aware;
although, in the present instance, I saw clearly that something of a
whimsical nature was upon the tapis with my friend, and that Hermann
was its especial object.

As the former proceeded in his discourse, or rather monologue I
perceived the excitement of the latter momently increasing. At length
he spoke; offering some objection to a point insisted upon by R., and
giving his reasons in detail. To these the Baron replied at length
(still maintaining his exaggerated tone of sentiment) and concluding,
in what I thought very bad taste, with a sarcasm and a sneer. The
hobby of Hermann now took the bit in his teeth. This I could discern
by the studied hair-splitting farrago of his rejoinder. His last
words I distinctly remember. "Your opinions, allow me to say, Baron
von Jung, although in the main correct, are, in many nice points,
discreditable to yourself and to the university of which you are a
member. In a few respects they are even unworthy of serious
refutation. I would say more than this, sir, were it not for the fear
of giving you offence (here the speaker smiled blandly), I would say,
sir, that your opinions are not the opinions to be expected from a
gentleman."

As Hermann completed this equivocal sentence, all eyes were turned
upon the Baron. He became pale, then excessively red; then, dropping
his pocket-handkerchief, stooped to recover it, when I caught a
glimpse of his countenance, while it could be seen by no one else at
the table. It was radiant with the quizzical expression which was its
natural character, but which I had never seen it assume except when
we were alone together, and when he unbent himself freely. In an
instant afterward he stood erect, confronting Hermann; and so total
an alteration of countenance in so short a period I certainly never
saw before. For a moment I even fancied that I had misconceived him,
and that he was in sober earnest. He appeared to be stifling with
passion, and his face was cadaverously white. For a short time he
remained silent, apparently striving to master his emotion. Having at
length seemingly succeeded, he reached a decanter which stood near
him, saying as he held it firmly clenched "The language you have
thought proper to employ, Mynheer Hermann, in addressing yourself to
me, is objectionable in so many particulars, that I have neither
temper nor time for specification. That my opinions, however, are not
the opinions to be expected from a gentleman, is an observation so
directly offensive as to allow me but one line of conduct. Some
courtesy, nevertheless, is due to the presence of this company, and
to yourself, at this moment, as my guest. You will pardon me,
therefore, if, upon this consideration, I deviate slightly from the
general usage among gentlemen in similar cases of personal affront.
You will forgive me for the moderate tax I shall make upon your
imagination, and endeavor to consider, for an instant, the reflection
of your person in yonder mirror as the living Mynheer Hermann
himself. This being done, there will be no difficulty whatever. I
shall discharge this decanter of wine at your image in yonder mirror,
and thus fulfil all the spirit, if not the exact letter, of
resentment for your insult, while the necessity of physical violence
to your real person will be obviated."

With these words he hurled the decanter, full of wine, against the
mirror which hung directly opposite Hermann; striking the reflection
of his person with great precision, and of course shattering the
glass into fragments. The whole company at once started to their
feet, and, with the exception of myself and Ritzner, took their
departure. As Hermann went out, the Baron whispered me that I should
follow him and make an offer of my services. To this I agreed; not
knowing precisely what to make of so ridiculous a piece of business.

The duellist accepted my aid with his stiff and ultra recherche air,
and, taking my arm, led me to his apartment. I could hardly forbear
laughing in his face while he proceeded to discuss, with the
profoundest gravity, what he termed "the refinedly peculiar
character" of the insult he had received. After a tiresome harangue
in his ordinary style, he took down from his book shelves a number of
musty volumes on the subject of the duello, and entertained me for a
long time with their contents; reading aloud, and commenting
earnestly as he read. I can just remember the titles of some of the
works. There were the "Ordonnance of Philip le Bel on Single Combat";
the "Theatre of Honor," by Favyn, and a treatise "On the Permission
of Duels," by Andiguier. He displayed, also, with much pomposity,
Brantome's "Memoirs of Duels," -- published at Cologne, 1666, in the
types of Elzevir -- a precious and unique vellum-paper volume, with a
fine margin, and bound by Derome. But he requested my attention
particularly, and with an air of mysterious sagacity, to a thick
octavo, written in barbarous Latin by one Hedelin, a Frenchman, and
having the quaint title, "Duelli Lex Scripta, et non; aliterque."
From this he read me one of the drollest chapters in the world
concerning "Injuriae per applicationem, per constructionem, et per
se," about half of which, he averred, was strictly applicable to his
own "refinedly peculiar" case, although not one syllable of the whole
matter could I understand for the life of me. Having finished the
chapter, he closed the book, and demanded what I thought necessary to
be done. I replied that I had entire confidence in his superior
delicacy of feeling, and would abide by what he proposed. With this
answer he seemed flattered, and sat down to write a note to the
Baron. It ran thus:

Sir, -- My friend, M. P.-, will hand you this note. I find it
incumbent upon me to request, at your earliest convenience, an
explanation of this evening's occurrences at your chambers. In the
event of your declining this request, Mr. P. will be happy to
arrange, with any friend whom you may appoint, the steps preliminary
to a meeting.

With sentiments of perfect respect,

Your most humble servant,

JOHANN HERMAN.

To the Baron Ritzner von Jung,

Not knowing what better to do, I called upon Ritzner with this
epistle. He bowed as I presented it; then, with a grave countenance,
motioned me to a seat. Having perused the cartel, he wrote the
following reply, which I carried to Hermann.

SIR, -- Through our common friend, Mr. P., I have received your note
of this evening. Upon due reflection I frankly admit the propriety of
the explanation you suggest. This being admitted, I still find great
difficulty, (owing to the refinedly peculiar nature of our
disagreement, and of the personal affront offered on my part,) in so
wording what I have to say by way of apology, as to meet all the
minute exigencies, and all the variable shadows, of the case. I have
great reliance, however, on that extreme delicacy of discrimination,
in matters appertaining to the rules of etiquette, for which you have
been so long and so pre-eminently distinguished. With perfect
certainty, therefore, of being comprehended, I beg leave, in lieu of
offering any sentiments of my own, to refer you to the opinions of
Sieur Hedelin, as set forth in the ninth paragraph of the chapter of
"Injuriae per applicationem, per constructionem, et per se," in his
"Duelli Lex scripta, et non; aliterque." The nicety of your
discernment in all the matters here treated, will be sufficient, I am
assured, to convince you that the mere circumstance of me referring
you to this admirable passage, ought to satisfy your request, as a
man of honor, for explanation.

With sentiments of profound respect,

Your most obedient servant,

VON JUNG.

The Herr Johann Hermann

Hermann commenced the perusal of this epistle with a scowl, which,
however, was converted into a smile of the most ludicrous
self-complacency as he came to the rigmarole about Injuriae per
applicationem, per constructionem, et per se. Having finished
reading, he begged me, with the blandest of all possible smiles, to
be seated, while he made reference to the treatise in question.
Turning to the passage specified, he read it with great care to
himself, then closed the book, and desired me, in my character of
confidential acquaintance, to express to the Baron von Jung his
exalted sense of his chivalrous behavior, and, in that of second, to
assure him that the explanation offered was of the fullest, the most
honorable, and the most unequivocally satisfactory nature.

Somewhat amazed at all this, I made my retreat to the Baron. He
seemed to receive Hermann's amicable letter as a matter of course,
and after a few words of general conversation, went to an inner room
and brought out the everlasting treatise "Duelli Lex scripta, et non;
aliterque." He handed me the volume and asked me to look over some
portion of it. I did so, but to little purpose, not being able to
gather the least particle of meaning. He then took the book himself,
and read me a chapter aloud. To my surprise, what he read proved to
be a most horribly absurd account of a duel between two baboons. He
now explained the mystery; showing that the volume, as it appeared
prima facie, was written upon the plan of the nonsense verses of Du
Bartas; that is to say, the language was ingeniously framed so as to
present to the ear all the outward signs of intelligibility, and even
of profundity, while in fact not a shadow of meaning existed. The key
to the whole was found in leaving out every second and third word
alternately, when there appeared a series of ludicrous quizzes upon a
single combat as practised in modern times.

The Baron afterwards informed me that he had purposely thrown the
treatise in Hermann's way two or three weeks before the adventure,
and that he was satisfied, from the general tenor of his
conversation, that he had studied it with the deepest attention, and
firmly believed it to be a work of unusual merit. Upon this hint he
proceeded. Hermann would have died a thousand deaths rather than
acknowledge his inability to understand anything and everything in
the universe that had ever been written about the duello.

Littleton Barry.

Edgar Allan Poe