A while ago, a friend of mine asked me for my advice about whether she should give a quite small amount of money to someone who claimed he could turn it into a lot of money. I advised against it: it sounds like Spanish Prisoner, I said. What’s Spanish Prisoner? she asked. It’s the oldest con in the world, the granddaddy of them all, in which the sum of money exchanging hands is so small that you can’t believe it’s a con. Surely, if they were out to con me, they’d be trying to take more money from me? my friend persisted. Not so. Spanish Prisoner works in two ways: firstly, the operator is probably doing this to lots of people at the same time, so the small numbers quickly add up. Second, the mark can often be persuaded to double her money, again believing that the sums are so low they couldn’t be a con.
The con is the oldest known in Europe, used as my friend discovered, to this day. It is named after an allegedly true story concerning a beautiful Spanish heiress locked in a tower in 14th century Spain. A few years ago, I wrote a story speculating on how it all might have happened. Here we go:
The Spanish Prisoner
A very long time ago, a bold and fine-hearted knight was riding across the dry, cracked lands of southern Spain. Both he and his horse were tired, hungry and thirsty. They had not spent time with other people for several days and the sun shone upon them fiercely.
‘Have faith!’ the excellent young man called out to his steed, who had slowed now to a meandering walk. ‘Our Lord will provide for us, you need have no doubt on that score!’
The air was hot and still and the knight’s lips were black from the sun. The horse’s ribs showed in pathetic ridges across its belly and its head dropped almost to the ground as it walked.
In the distance a pale shape wavered in the heat.
‘Aha!’ cried the knight. ‘A village or even a town, no doubt. We shall sup well tonight, old friend.’
After another hour’s slow progress, the shape revealed itself to be a castle, standing alone on the hazy horizon. The knight fixed his gaze upon it and gently guided his old companion towards the building.
As they came to a bridge which crossed a dried-out riverbed, a beggar stepped out from behind a tree and spoke to the knight.
‘Sir Knight!’ he cried. ‘I see you have travelled far. Do you head for the castle?’
‘I do Sir,’ replied the knight. ‘It is my intention to place my health and that of my trusty steed in the hands of the great nobleman who owns it.’
The beggar shook his head. He was a short man, wearing a filthy jerkin and with unruly hair. He approached the knight.
‘Then your health shall suffer most terribly, Sir Knight,’ he said, and leered up with a toothless grin.
‘Why say you, you ruffian?’ commanded the knight. ‘Do you dare show disrespect to the fine nobleman who has built this castle, whomever he may be?’
The beggar shook his head.
‘No, Sir Knight,’ he said. ‘I mean no disrespect to him whatever, in fact I send all my most gracious salutations to him in his new heavenly abode.’
‘What? You say the owner of this castle is dead?’
‘He is dead, Sire, and all of his family bar one are dead.’
‘Bar one, you say?’
‘Yes, my Lord. His daughter, the most beautiful young lady in the whole of Christendom, is his only survivor and she rests still in the castle.’
‘But how can this poor and most beautiful vision be alone with her family all gone? Explain yourself!’
‘Brigands, Sir Knight. A mere month ago, a band of the most cruel and dangerous brigands arrived in our land and they laid siege to the castle and eventually broke through its defences and slaughtered everyone in it, apart from the lovely Princess, who is now locked in a chamber at the top of that tower.’
With that, the beggar pointed at a tall tower at one corner of the castle, then looked back and directed his toothless grin once more at the knight.
‘By the sacred dagger of Sir Lancelot himself, that is unjust!’ shouted the knight. ‘I shall go immediately to set her free. No filthy brigand shall be safe from the edge of my shining sword.’ And he pulled his ancient weapon from its scabbard and raised it high. ‘I shall avenge this poor lady and set her free and I shall place myself entirely at her service.’
The beggar raised his hand.
‘Not so hasty, Sir Knight,’ he said. ‘You have not heard all of my story.’
‘What else can there be to know?’ asked the knight. ‘Quick, out with it, I have no mind to dally.’
‘The brigands have left the castle, my Lord,’ said the beggar. ‘Apart from the Princess in the tower, it is entirely empty.’
‘Then do not take up my time, fool! I must release her.’
‘What say you? Do you dare doubt me?’
‘No, Sir Knight. I know you to be the bravest man in Christendom. But even the bravest man in Christendom cannot break down the doors of the prison in which the Princess is kept. And there is only one key.’
‘May the Good Lord strike down the vermin who dared commit these crimes!’ shouted the knight. ‘Tell me, where is the key?’
The beggar shook his head.
‘I do not know exactly, Sir Knight.’
‘What? You do not know, you say?’
‘Not exactly, my Lord. For if I did know, I would have released the Princess myself and married her.’
‘Cut out your tongue, you cur! How dare you speak of the noble Princess with such familiarity? To think that she would consider a betrothal to one such as yourself!’
‘That’s as maybe,’ said the beggar. ‘But I do not have the key, so I cannot test your proposition.’
‘My God, but you test me,’ growled the knight. ‘Out with it: where is the key?’
‘I do not know its location precisely, but I know who has it,’ said the beggar.
‘Who, in the name of all that is decent and fair?’
‘The brigands, Sir. The brigands have the key. They await a ransom from the English cousins of the Princess and when they have received that ransom, they will release the Princess.’
‘Where are these foul men?’ demanded the knight. ‘Tell me, and I shall attend to them at once.’
The beggar shook his head again.
‘They are twenty, Sir Knight, and you are one. Despite your glorious and fine reputation as the bravest man in Christendom, there is no doubt that you would not survive a challenge against all twenty of them. Perhaps you would take ten with you, but that would still leave ten and your body would finally submit to their fatal blows and the Princess would remain in her prison, awaiting her dilatory English cousins whose slowness in sending the ransom may cause her to die herself from starvation.’
‘Ah!’ the knight exclaimed, dashing his hand across his brow. ‘Is there no solution to this foul predicament?’
‘There is one, Sir Knight,’ said the beggar.
‘The brigands,’ said the beggar, ‘have left the castle and have put up in an inn in the village on the other side.’ He pointed towards the blurring horizon. ‘I happen to know the man who runs that inn. I would say that if I were to take him some modest sum, he would find me the key from the pocket of one of the brigands while they lie drunk in his tavern and he would give it to me. He is my kinsman, Sir Knight, and his father broke bread with my father.’
‘Enough nonsense,’ said the knight. ‘Tell me where the inn is, and I shall go there myself and see this innkeeper.’
The beggar shook his head once more.
‘No, Sir Knight, and for three reasons no: First, my kinsman will not recognise you, and will not favour you over the brigands who pay for their drink. Second, the brigands themselves may wake from their slumber and set upon you. Third, you and your horse are near the very edge of exhaustion. The inn is a day’s hard ride away. You risk failing yourself in the heat and then what good will that do the beautiful Princess?’
‘But then the Princess is doomed!’ cried the knight, his face wracked with pain.
‘Perhaps not, Sir Knight,’ said the beggar. ‘I am as you see a low-born man who has not triumphed in the great battle of life. I am as you find me: a lowly beggar who lives underneath this bridge. But perhaps there is one thing I can do: perhaps I can take a few ducats from your own purse and take them myself to the kinsman who runs the inn and exchange them for the key which I can then bring back to you. And perhaps, once you have released the Princess and married her and inherited all the wealth of her family’s kingdom, you might look favourably upon me and grant me some menial role in your stables.’
‘Go now!’ said the knight. ‘There is no time to lose. The most beautiful Princess is starving in that tower,’ he said, weeping with frustration and waving his hand towards the castle. ‘I must save her.’
‘My Lord is right,’ said the beggar. ‘Should I make the journey quicker by taking your horse? With some water from my bag she might recover her strength enough to get me to the inn and back within a day and a night.’
‘You have water? Where?’
‘In my bag under the bridge, my Lord. Shall I bring it?’
‘Of course you shall bring it, and we shall give all of it to my fine horse, so that she may carry you swiftly to the inn to exchange these ducats for the key to the Princess’s prison.’
While the beggar went down below the bridge to fetch his leather sack of water, the knight dismounted from his horse and removed his belt which contained his money sack. When the beggar returned, they fed the horse the water and the knight handed over five ducats from his sack.
‘Be sure to ride like the wind,’ said the knight, as the beggar settled himself into the saddle.
‘I shall my Lord,’ said the beggar, tucking the coins into his pocket. ‘Rest awhile in the shade under the bridge and preserve your strength. I shall be back tomorrow with the key to the castle prison and you shall free the most beautiful lady in Christendom.’
‘May the Good Lord thank you and bless you on your journey,’ said the knight. ‘God speed.’
And with that, the beggar took the horse into a gentle trot and crossed over the bridge.
The knight watched him depart and then climbed down the bank to settle in the shade underneath the bridge. He had not eaten or drunk anything for three days and as he lay down to sleep, he had a vision of extraordinary beauty.
‘Princess…’ he murmured, and fell into a deep sleep.
The next day, the beggar returned. The knight heard the hooves of the approaching horse and emerged from under the bridge.
‘You bring me the key to my future!’ he cried out, although his voice was weak.
The beggar came closer, dismounted and stood in front of the knight, shaking his head.
‘Not yet, my Lord. I fear I did not account both for the greed of my kinsman and the fear which his guests the brigands induce in him. He tells me that he needs another five ducats before he dares search the slumbering ruffians for the key.’
‘By the hand of King Arthur himself, I shall teach this kinsman of yours a lesson he shall never forget!’ shouted the knight, staggering slightly.
The beggar shrugged.
‘Very well,’ said the knight, and took out another five ducats from his money sack. ‘Take this to him and if you do not return tomorrow with the key, then by Jove I shall ignore your advice and I shall go to the inn myself.’
‘Rest awhile, Sir Knight,’ said the beggar. ‘You should not excite yourself, you have travelled for days in the heat without food or water, you must needs rest, Sire. I shall return tomorrow.’
With that, he mounted the horse once more, and turned back across the bridge.
The knight returned to his spot beneath the bridge. Despite the heat of the day his teeth chattered and his brow was wet with sweat.
‘Princess…Brigands…’ he muttered feverishly and lay down on the ground to sleep.
The next day, the beggar returned once more. This time, the knight did not appear in front of him, and so the beggar dismounted and climbed down the bank of the dried-out river and saw the knight lying on the ground.
‘Sir Knight,’ the beggar called out.
There was no answer.
‘Sir Knight,’ the beggar repeated and his voice echoed under the stone of the bridge.
There was still no answer and the beggar approached the knight and peered cautiously at him. The knight’s black lips were open and his eyes stared straight up at the roof of the bridge. The beggar poked the knight’s stomach with his foot but there was no change in the knight’s expression.
The beggar crouched down beside the knight and began to untie the belt that held the knight’s money sack. He pulled the sack free, put it in his pocket, then nudged the knight once more with his foot. The nobleman rolled gently down the slope of the bank and rested, arms akimbo, on the dry bottom of the riverbed. Then the beggar climbed back up the bank, mounted the horse once more, and set off at a gentle trot away from the bridge and the castle which shimmered distantly in the silent summer haze.