MYSTIFICATION by Edgar Allan Poe


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1850
MYSTIFICATION
by Edgar Allan Poe

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.

THE END

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