Bernardo Visconti, the despot of Milan and butler was in his day more feared than any other ruler was. Although he was pitiless, there was always a shade of justice in his cruelty. This is the story of a wealthy man and owner of one of the castles given to him by Bernardo. He was well known for his miserliness. One instance he was summoned to the court for having failed to feed his bullmastiffs (dogs), which had become vicious and attacked cattle. Therefore, he was condemned by Bernardo to pay a fine of four florins (gold coins).
Upon hearing the amount, the miser begged for forgiveness. Bernardo patiently listened to his story, until he had ended his plea. He then said, “If you can answer the four questions, that I will ask you, I shall remit the four florins. So, saying, Bernardo listed out the four questions.
1. What is the distance between here and the heavens?
2. How much water is in the sea?
3. What is the situation in hell at his very moment?
4. And last of all, how much is my person worth?
Bernardo then looked sternly into the eyes of the miser and said that he had time until tomorrow morning, to answer these questions. So be careful, before answering them. The miser became depressed, as he had absolutely no clue to any of these questions. Deep in thought, he returned to his castle, sighing deeply at his plight. He found his butler waiting for him, to whom he narrated his plight. Even the great Socrates or Aristotle will not be able to answer these questions.
The butler, who was blessed with sufficient intelligence, told him, “Don’t worry. Have your supper and get an early sleep.” The butler further added, “I will have something for you by tomorrow morning. I relish such challenges. I will just shave off my beard, put on your clothes, and present myself before Bernardo, tomorrow morning. I am sure that he will not notice the difference.” The following day, the butler dressed up as the miser and presented himself at the court. Bernardo was in a good mood and had asked all the courtiers to be present.
He was eager to find out how the miser would respond to his four questions. The butler pulled his cape round his read and covered the bottom half of his face with a scarf, as it was cold. The room was also not well lit and this further helped the butler, as he was not recognized. Bernardo thundered, “Do you have the answers to the four questions? The butler in guise of the miser calmly replied, “Yes, my lord, I do have answers to all the questions. Bernardo was a bit taken aback.
The butler carried on, “You first asked me to calculate the distance between here and the heavens. Having studied all distances, I have found out that the distance is 35,765,875.50 miles and 19 feet. Bernardo, looked at him and said, “Your conclusion seems to be very accurate. But can you prove it?” The butler in the guise of the miser said, “I would appreciate if you could have the distance measured by your esteemed scientists, and if this figure is wrong, you can very well hang me.”
“Okay, please proceed to the next question”, said the pleased Bernardo. The butler in the guise of the miser said, “The next question was how much water was in the sea?” He went on to add, “I must confess that this is a rather difficult question. Because water is never stagnant, as there are rivers constantly flowing into the sea. However, on an average, I have managed to establish that there are 26,298,000,000 casks, 8 barrels, 12 pitchers, and 3 glasses of water in the sea.” Bernardo, could not conceal his smile and he asked, “Are you certain about this?”
The butler replier, “I have computed this to the best of my ability. If you feel there is an error in my judgment, have it measured by your team of scientists and mathematicians. If I am wrong, please feel free to have me quartered.” Bernardo, although a little taken aback, was extremely surprised at the man’s presence of mind. He decided to keep a careful eye for the third question. The butler as the miser continued, “Your lord, may I proceed to the third question? “Of course, please do,” said Bernardo.
The butler said, “You wanted to know what is being done in hell at this very moment. Well, the devil and his associates are torturing, cutting, quartering, and hanging people just as you are doing in this city of Milan. You may wonder how I know this. Because, I know a man who has been there and returned and revealed this to Dante, the Florentine. The man is now dead, but if you don’t believe me, please send for him.” Bernardo was truly amazed, but more amused at the man.
Before Bernardo could regain his composure, the butler went on to the last question. He said, “As to the value of you person, I would say that you are worth 29 pieces of silver. Hearing this, Bernardo, flew into a rage. For a moment, the butler was scared. However, he quickly regained composure and said, “My lord, please listen to my reasoning. You know that our lord was sold for thirty pieces of silver. Therefore, I reason that you are one less than our lord and hence the twenty nine pieces of silver.”
The answers were so ingenious and clever that it dawned on Bernardo, that this could not be the wealthy and ignorant miser. He rose and shouted, “You are not the real offender.” The butler was scared to bits. He threw himself at the feet of Bernardo and confessed the whole truth. The tyrant, listened to the whole story and said, “You are worth much more than your master. Since he made you wear his clothes, and asked you to behave like a lord and nobleman, henceforth, you will be the lord of the castle. He shall be your butler. You will receive all the income from the castle.” And so, despite the protests of the butler, the decree was passed. The will of Bernardo was the law in Milan and woe to anyone who disobeyed him.