Tales from Chaucer, by Charles Cowden Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
OUR worthy host perceived by the altitude of the sun that it had performed one quarter of its day's journey, so suddenly turning his good horse round, he said, "My masters! it is already ten o'clock; my advice therefore is that you lose no time, but get forward on your journey. Time is ever on the wane, and steals away from us, both while we sleep and during our waking hours of negligence—as the mountain stream never returns from the plain to its source. Sir Man of Law, since you have consented to submit to my judgment, now tell your tale, according to agreement: abide by the summons, and you will at least have acquitted yourself of your duty."
"Mine host," said he, "I have no intention to break my covenant: duty is a debt, and I cheerfully perform my best—I can say no more: for the law by which man restrains his fellow, he himself should abide by. Certain it is, however, that I can tell you no tale of merit that this rogue Chaucer has not been beforehand with me: for, in one book or another, he has told more love-stories than Ovid himself, the great master of the art. Nevertheless, I care not, though I do come limping with my prose after his rhymes." Having thus spoken, he in a sober style began the following tale.
IN Syria, in former days, there dwelt a company of rich merchants, who exported far and near their cloth-of-gold, rich satins, and spicery: their merchandise was so very rare and excellent that all were eager to deal and barter with them. Now it happened that some of these traders turned their course towards Rome, and remained there as long as suited their pleasure and convenience. During their stay they heard of little but the great renown of the emperor's daughter, the Lady Constance. The common talk of every one was, "Our emperor—God preserve him—has a daughter, such as, for goodness and beauty, the world never saw surpassed. She possesses beauty without pride, youth without folly or inexperience; in all her actions virtue is her guide. In her, humility has overcome tyranny; she is the mirror of gentleness and courtesy; her heart is the very shrine of holiness; and her hand the minister of freedom in almsgiving."
After these merchants had freighted their ships and obtained a sight of this gifted maiden, they made their way back to their native country.
It happened that these merchants were in high favour with the Sultan of Syria, who, when they returned from foreign and strange places, would courteously entertain them, and eagerly gain from them intelligence respecting the various kingdoms they had traversed and the novelties they had observed. Among other matters, the travellers detailed so seriously the great beauty and virtue of the Lady Constance that the sultan was unable to
dismiss her from his thoughts, but fell in love upon the bare report of her surpassing excellence. Whereupon he summoned his privy council, and commissioned them to ease his heart by devising a plan which should obtain for him in marriage the hand of the Lady Constance. Many were the arguments and the difficulties raised by the counsellors; among others, the great diversity in the religious institutions of the two countries; for they rationally concluded that no Christian prince would wed his child with a follower of Mahomet. This objection he overruled by declaring that, rather than be separated from her, he would himself become a Christian.
There is no occasion to detail all the account of the treaties and embassies which passed between the two courts: suffice to say, it was agreed that the sultan and his chief nobles should receive baptism and embrace Christianity, and that the Lady Constance should be bestowed in marriage upon the former, with I know not what portion of gold by way of dowry.
Bishops, and other holy men, with lords, ladies, and knights, were appointed to attend in her train. Moreover, public prayers were offered through the city that this marriage might be acceptable in the sight of heaven, as well as for the preservation of the travellers on their perilous voyage.
The day arrived for their departing, the woful day! and all were prepared. Constance, who was overcome with sorrow, arose with pale and anxious face and made ready to depart; for so the event was to be. Alas! no wonder she wept: a gentle and tender creature to be sent away from friends by whom she had been carefully
nursed, to sojourn among strangers in a strange country, and become subject to the will of one she knew not.
"Father," said she, "your wretched child, Constance, your young daughter, so softly fostered, and you, my mother, my sovereign delight above all things in this world; Constance, your child, recommends herself to your frequent prayers. I shall go into Syria, and you will never more behold my face, since it is your will, alas! that I must go to this barbarous nation; but He, who suffered for our redemption, give me grace to fulfil all his commands. For me, wretched creature! no matter though I perish. Women are born to thraldom and penance, and to be subjected to the dominion of man."
When Pyrrhus rased the walls of Troy and burned the town; when Thebes was levelled with the ground; when Hannibal three times overcame the Romans, there was not heard more piteous weeping than in this chamber at the parting of Constance. This fair and woful maid was brought to the ship with every circumstance of solemnity. "Now, Jesus, our heavenly Saviour, be with you all," she said. There was no more but, "Farewell, fair Constance!" she all the while striving to put on a cheerful face. In this manner she sailed away, and now I will turn to another part of my story.
The mother of the sultan, who was a fountain of every vice and treachery, having discovered her son's intention to cast off his old religion, suddenly and privately summoned her privy council, whom she thus harangued. "My lords, you are all apprised that my son is on the point of deserting the holy laws of our Koran, dispensed to us by Mahomet the Prophet of God. As respects myself,
however, I here vow to that great God, that life shall rather depart from this body than the laws of Mahomet from my heart. What are we to expect from this new faith but thraldom and penance to our bodies here; and for our backsliding from Mahomet, hell hereafter? Yet, my lords, if you will pledge me your assurance to abide by my counsel, I shall fully provide for our future safety."
Every man assented, and swore to live and die with her. Each one also promised to exert himself to strengthen her cause by every influence in his power. This compact being settled, she thus explained the enterprise she had taken in hand. "First, we will feign to embrace Christianity—a little cold water will not harm us. Then I will ordain such a feast and revelry as, if I mistake not, will prove an ample requital to the sultan. As for his wife, though she be christened pure and white as morning milk, she will need a whole font of water to wash away the red stains of that hour."
This sultaness—this root of inquity, this serpent under woman's form—privately dismissed her council, to fulfil the agreement made with her, while she rode to the sultan, and made confession to him of her repentance for having so long remained in the bonds of heathenism, with her resolution to renounce her faith and at the priest's hands to embrace Christianity; entreating him at the same time that the honour might be granted her to entertain all the Christian strangers. The sultan granted her request, thanking her at the same time on his knees for the mark of courtesy she had offered to his friends. He was so rejoiced he knew not what to say. She kissed her son, and returned home.
These Christians, a large and solemn company, at length arrived in Syria. The sultan immediately dispatched a message to his mother and to his court all around informing them of his bride's arrival, requiring them, for the honour and dignity of his crown, to ride forth and meet the new queen.
Soon after the sultan arrived in such royal pomp that it was wonderful to behold, and with gladness of heart welcomed her to a second home, and so I leave them in the full enjoyment of mirth and bliss.
The time had now come when the old sultaness had prepared the feast I spoke of, and had invited to it all the Christians, both young and old. There were they regaled with dainties and luxuries more than I can describe—though all, alas! bought at a dreadful price. Too certainly does sudden woe succeed to worldly bliss: the end of the joy of our labour is sprinkled with bitterness, and grief follows in the train of mirth. For your security's sake, therefore, attend to this advice: in the day of gladness think upon and provide against the evil which comes up behind.
Shortly to describe this event: the sultan and every Christian were murdered at table, the Lady Constance alone being spared. The old sultaness, with her friends, compassed this cursed deed that she herself might rule the kingdom uncontrolled. Not even one Syrian of the sultan's council who had been converted escaped the frightful massacre: and Constance, who was wild with horror and dismay, they hurried into a vessel that had no rudder, bidding her find her way to Italy. A certain treasure she had brought to Syria, and store of provision, with
clothing, they yielded to her; and forth she drifted on the salt sea. The ruler of all events be thy Pilot, gentlest and most forlorn of women! She blessed herself, and with a piteous voice prayed to the holy Cross. "O bright, O blissful altar! holy Cross! red with the blood of the Lamb that washeth away the sin of the world, keep me from the snares of the Evil One in the day that the deep sea shall swallow me."
Day after day, day after day, the rising sun found this tender creature floating hither and thither upon the billows, like an uprooted weed, throughout the Greek sea to the Straits of Morocco: small and miserable was her fare; great and unceasing, whether awake or asleep, was her fear of death. If you ask why she was not drowned? or who preserved her at the feast? I answer, who saved Daniel in the horrible den of lions? when all, save him alone, were torn limb from limb. In Constance, the great and good God displayed a wonderful miracle, that his mighty works should be made known. For often by certain means, which to us appear dark, he accomplishes certain ends that our ignorance and short sight cannot detect. She was preserved by a miracle, she was fed by a miracle, and so was she driven about the wide sea, till at last she was thrown ashore under a castle, far up on the coast of Northumberland, and her vessel remained so fixed in the sand that the flood-tide could not move it.
The constable of the castle came down to view the wreck, and having searched it over, found this solitary and woe-worn woman, together with the treasure she had brought away. In her language, which was a corrupted sort of Latin, she besought him to have pity upon
her misery. The constable understood her speech and brought her to shore, when she knelt down upon the sand and thanked the Being who had preserved her through all her trials. By no means, however, could she be brought to tell who she was. Yet the constable and his wife took pity on her, and wept over the story of her sufferings. Moreover, so desirous was she to serve and please every one around her, that all loved her who had once looked in her face.
The constable and Dame Hermegild, his wife, with all the inhabitants of that country, were Pagans; but Hermegild had a deep affection for Constance; and Constance so long and so earnestly prayed, with tears and bitterness, that Dame Hermegild was converted through her grace. No Christian dared to dwell in that country; the believers were compelled to fly before their Pagan conquerors; and the Christianity of ancient Britain took refuge in the strongholds of the Welsh mountains. Yet were not the Christian Britons so exiled but that some few remained who secretly worshipped Jesus, and three of these were dwelling near the castle, one of whom was blind.
One bright summer's day the constable, with his wife and Constance, were walking towards the sea, that was a few furlongs distant, and in their way they met this blind man, who was also bowed down with age and infirmity. "In the name of Christ," cried this blind Briton, "Dame Hermegild, give me my sight again." The lady feared lest her husband should hear the sound of that name, till Constance made her bold by bidding her, as a daughter of the holy church, perform the will of Christ. The constable,
astonished at the sight, inquired how all this might be. Constance answered him that it was done by the power of Jesus Christ, which can deliver those who believe from the snares of the Evil One. And then she laid before him all the doctrine of our holy law, so that before even-song the constable was converted and professed himself a true believer in Christ.
This worthy man was not lord of the place I have described, but he held it under Alla, King of Northumberland, who bore so strong a hand against the Scots. But this is not the matter of my story. Satan, who is ever on the watch to entrap erring mortals, had cast an evil eye on Constance and her perfections, and sought to requite her for all her godly works. To this end he moved a young knight, dwelling near the castle, to love her with a foul and dishonest affection, which when he found had no avail (for no temptation could bring her to sin and shame), the villainous heart of the youth, through spite and disappointment, compassed his thought to make her die a felon's death. Watching therefore his opportunity, while the constable was away, he crept privately by night to Hermegild's chamber, who, with Constance had both fallen asleep, weary with long waking and prayer. Softly he went to the bedside of Hermegild and, with the Devil's aid, at one plunge severed her throat, then laying the bloody knife by the Lady Constance's side he went his way. Shortly after the constable returned and saw his wife mercilessly murdered, and by the Lady Constance was found the bloody knife. Here was piteous weeping and wringing of hands! and what, alas! could she say, whose wits were wild with woe and horror.
The whole circumstance of the disaster was laid before the king, together with all the detail of time and place, where Constance was discovered in the ship, which you have already heard. The heart of the king shuddered with compassion when he saw so benign a creature fall into trouble and misfortune; for, as a lamb brought to the slaughter, so stood this innocent before the king, the traitor knight at her side and acting the part of accuser. Notwithstanding all, however, there was great murmuring among the people, who would not believe that she had done this great wickedness, for they had known her to be ever virtuous and loving Hermegild as her own life. Of this, all save the murderer bore testimony. The king was strongly incited by this witness, and determined to inquire more deeply into the case to search the truth of the matter.
Ill-fated Constance! no champion have you to defend your right; and, alas the day! little can you defend yourself. If He who suffered for our redemption be not your strong champion on this day, guiltless must you die. Before the assembled court she fell upon her knees and cried aloud—"O immortal God! who preserved Susanna from false accusation; and O merciful Virgin, to whose Son the angels sing hosannas, if I be guiltless of this deed grant me succour in this sharp hour of my trial." Have you not sometimes, in the midst of a crowd, beheld the pale face of him who has been heading to his death, without even the hope of reprieve; a face so ghastly that it could at once be known from all the rest? So stood Constance, and looked around. You queens and ladies, all, living in prosperity, think with ruth upon her state—
think how she was bested: an emperor's daughter, standing alone, with not a friend to whom she could pour out her complaint.
The king had such compassion upon her forlorn state (for the gentle heart ever leans to the piteous side) that the tears flowed from his eyes. "Quickly let a book be brought," said he, "and if this knight will swear that she slew this woman, we will yet consult who shall be our justice in this case." A British book containing the gospel was produced, and on this book he made oath that she was guilty. Immediately an unseen hand smote him on his neck, so that he fell like a stone and, in the sight of all, his eyes burst from his head. Then in the general audience a voice followed, saying, "Thou hast slandered the guiltless daughter of Holy Church in high presence—thus hast thou done." All, save Constance alone, stood aghast at this wonder, each in dread of the divine wrath. All who had wrongly suspected her made repentance; and, to conclude, the miracle, with the mediation of Constance, wrought upon the king and many more present, who were converted.
Alla instantly condemned the traitor knight to death, and Constance, notwithstanding all his untruth and perfidy, had pity on his fate. After this the king wedded Constance with great solemnity, and so this shining star of holiness became a queen. All rejoiced in the event but Donegild, the king's mother, a tyrannical and cruel woman: her wicked and proud heart was wrung at the thought of her son's marrying a creature whom no one knew, or whence she came, or what she was.
After the lapse of some months the king, being compelled
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to march against his old enemies the Scots, committed his wife, who was in expectation of presenting him with a child, to the protection of a bishop and his friend the constable. The meek and humble Constance in due course of time, and while her lord was still away, brought into the world a son and heir, who was christened Maurice. And the constable despatched a messenger with a letter to the king, informing him of the event. The messenger, however, thinking to gain for himself some advantage, rode straight to the queen dowager, and under show of diligence, with fair speech informed her that Queen Constance had brought forth a son. "And this letter, madam, contains the intelligence which I am to convey to Scotland; if your highness have any commands to his Majesty your son, I am your slave both night and day." Donegild commanded him to remain all night, and that in the morning he should receive her despatches.
The messenger passed his time in eating and drinking till his wits were gone; so that, while he was snoring like a swine, his letters were secretly conveyed from his box, and another letter wickedly indited, to the following purport, was substituted for them, It described the queen to have been delivered of so horrible and fiend-like a creature that no one in the castle was hardy enough to remain with it: moreover, that the mother had by her magic and sorcery betrayed herself to be a witch, and that the whole court avoided her company. The receipt of this letter was a bitter stroke to the king, yet he made no one acquainted with his sorrows; but with his own hand returned for answer that he welcomed the will and ordinance of Heaven. "For all this, however," continued
the letter, "keep the child, be it foul or fair, and my wife also till my return home. The Saviour whom I serve will send me an heir more agreeable than this at his own good will." This letter he sealed, secretly weeping, and sent it to the messenger, who set forth on his return home.
Having arrived at the court of the queen mother, that fiend-like woman received him with much courtesy and favour, ordering him the same entertainments as before; and during his drunken sleep his letters were again stolen, and others, to the following purport, were substituted for them, viz., that the king commanded his constable, upon pain of certain death, by hanging, not to suffer Constance to remain three days in his kingdom after receiving that order; but that she, with her infant son, and all the store she had brought with her, should be forthwith hurried into the same ship in which the constable had discovered her, and driven out from shore.
On the morrow the messenger made his way to the constable's castle and delivered to him the letter, who, when he had read its contents, grievously lamented the bitter wickedness of the sentence, crying, "Alas! alas! how can this world continue, so steeped in sin and cruelty is every creature! Gracious God! if it be thy will, how can it meet the righteousness of thy judgment thus to suffer innocence to be betrayed, and wicked men to reign on in prosperity? O blameless Constance! deep is the measure of my grief, that I must either be your tormentor and your bane, or myself endure a shameful death!"
Both young and old in the neighbourhood wept at the news of this cursed letter; and on the fourth day Constance,
with a deadly pale face, went toward the vessel; and kneeling down upon the strand, she said, "Lord, ever welcome be thy decree"; and she added, "He that shielded me from blame while I was amongst you can preserve me from harm in the wide sea. He is now as strong as He ever was: in Him I put my trust; He will be my sail and my load-star on the perilous deep."
Her little child lay weeping on her arm. "Peace, peace, little son," said she, "I will not harm you": with that she took her kerchief from her head and laid it over its little eyes, lulling the babe in her arm against her bosom; and, casting her eyes up to heaven, "O Mother!" she continued, "blessed Virgin Mary! true it is that through a woman's tempting mankind was lost and doomed to perdition, for which error the flesh of thy Son was torn upon the cross; thy blessed eyes witnessed his torment; then is there no comparison between thine and any woe man may sustain. Thou sawest thy child slain before thine eyes—my little child yet liveth. O blessed Virgin! to whom in their griefs all woful creatures turn; glory of womanhood! haven of refuge! bright star of day! look down with ruth upon my babe; thou who in thy gentleness lookest with pity on the miserable.
"O little child! what, alas! has been thy guilt that, as yet, can have wrought no sin? Why will thy cruel father shed thy life?" and then she said, "In mercy, dear constable, let my child dwell here with you: yet, if you dare not preserve him from harm, in his father's name bestow upon him one kiss." With that she looked backward toward the land, and said, "Farewell, ruthless husband!" and then she arose and walked down the beach towards
the vessel, the crowd following her, and she at intervals hushed her weeping babe. After blessing herself with devout intent, she took leave of all around and stepped into the ship. The constable had taken good care to provide it with abundant store and every necessary for a long voyage: and now may the Almighty God protect her, for she is driving away upon the sea.
Soon after this, King Alla returned home and went straight to the castle, inquiring for his wife and child. At the sound of these words a sudden cold about the heart seized the faithful constable, who plainly laid before him the whole event, showing him at the same time the letter he had received, with his own seal affixed. The messenger was put to the rack till he had confessed distinctly where he had passed each night between his departure from Scotland and arrival at the royal castle. The hand that wrote the letter was discovered, with all the venom of this most cursed deed; and the effect of it was that Alla, in the transport of fury, slew his own mother. Thus ended the ill-spent life of the traitress to her allegiance, old Donegild. But no tongue can describe the sorrow of Alla, who night and day bewailed the loss of his Constance and their child; while they for many a moon, through heat and cold, moist and dry, through many a windy storm and tempest, had been preserved, till her bark stranded, at last, under the walls of a heathen castle, the name of which I do not recall.
The people of the district came down, wondering at the appearance of the ship and at Constance; but during the night a steward of the castle came alone into the ship, with the intent of robbing the gentle voyager and carrying
her off. This wretched woman cried for help, and the child wept piteously,. but her guardian, who was ever at hand, again brought her off unharmed, for in her struggle of despair the villain stumbled overboard and was drowned. The vessel afterwards was borne off by the tide, and drifted away again for many a weary day.
I must here change the thread of my story, and inform you of the Roman emperor, who, by letters out of Syria, had received intelligence of the massacre of the Christians, with the dishonour offered to his daughter by the treacherous and murdering sultaness, for which foul deed he sent forth a chosen senator, with other lords and picked troops, to take ample vengeance on those Syrians. They fulfilled their embassy with a loyal zeal, burning and destroying till wrath and justice were appeased. These fulfilled, the senator returned home crowned with victory, and in his voyage met the vessel driving in which Constance was sitting, piteous and desolate. So changed was she in look and array that he had not the slightest recollection of her, while she concealed her name and degree. He brought her home, however, with him to Rome, and placed her, with the little Maurice, under the care of his wife; who, though her aunt, was as ignorant of the quality of her guest as the senator himself.
After she had resided for some time in this manner, gladding the hearts of all around by her gentleness and good works, King Alla, her husband, came to Rome for the purpose of doing penance, and to obtain pardon for the unholy deed of having slain his mother. The fame of his pilgrimage having been noised about the city, our senator, with his heralds and attendants, went forth to
receive him, according to his quality. Each received the other with so much courtesy and good will that the king invited the senator to a feast, who took the little Maurice with him to behold the company and grandeur of the entertainment; and, by the instruction of his mother, during the intervals of the feasting the child stood looking in the king's face. Alla fixed his eyes with wonder upon the boy, and said to the senator, "Whose child is that standing yonder?" "I know no more of him," was the nobleman's answer, "than that he has a mother, but, so far as I can hear, no father"; and with that he briefly rehearsed to the king how he found the child. "But, Heaven knows," added the senator, "that in all my life I never met or heard of a more virtuous woman, maiden, widow, or wife, and I dare well say that she would go to death rather than commit a wicked deed."
Now this child was as like to Constance as it was possible for one creature to resemble another. Alla remembered the face of Constance, and mused whether it might happen that the mother of the child was his own wife. With that thought he inwardly sighed, and hurried away from table. "It must," thought he, "be the phantom of my brain; for my sober judgment would say my wife lies dead at sea; and yet, why may not the good God have guided Constance hither, as safely as he led her to my own country?"
After the feast, Alla went home with the senator to see the end of all this wonder; who sent hastily for Constance to come into the presence of the king; but when she knew the cause of the message, she could scarcely stand upon her feet. When Alla saw his wife he embraced
her eagerly and tenderly, weeping over her sweet and bitter tears, for at the first look he fixed upon her he knew it was she; while she stood dumb with sorrow, so closed was her heart in her distress when she remembered all his unkindness. Twice she swooned in his arms, and he, weeping, piteously excused himself. "As Heaven shall have mercy on my soul," said he, "I am as guiltless of your harm as is my son here, Maurice—so like your own face." Long was the sobbing and the bitter pain before their hearts could cease; but when it was finally known that Alla was guiltless of her persecution, they kissed a hundred times, and such bliss was between them that (unless it be the joy which will endure hereafter and for ever) no one has seen or ever will see the like.
She then meekly entreated her husband, in relief of her long sorrow, that he would especially beseech the emperor to dine with him on a certain day, but on no account to make mention of herself. Some have it, that the child Maurice bore the invitation; but it should rather seem that Alla himself would perform that honour to the flower of all Christendom: yet the child went with him, and when the emperor had accepted the invitation, he looked steadily upon the face of Maurice and thought upon his daughter.
The morrow came, and Alla with his wife prepared to meet the emperor, riding out in gladness of heart to receive him: and when he drew near, she alighted, and throwing herself at his feet, said, "Father, Constance, your young and only child, is gone out of your remembrance. I am your daughter, your Constance, whom long ago you sent into Syria. I am she who was put alone upon
the sea; who was condemned to death. Dear father! in mercy send me no more among the heathen; but receive and thank this lord and king, my lord, for all his kindness to me." Who can describe the joy of those three, who had so strangely and happily met? And now to make a conclusion to my tale, this child, Maurice, was afterwards anointed emperor by the pope, and did high honour to the Christian church: but my story is especially of Constance.
King Alla after due time returned to England with his sweet and holy wife, where they lived together in peace and happiness, although, alas! but for a short though blissful season: happiness in this world is ever fleeting, and so it was with Alla and Constance; for, at the end of a year, death removed him from her; and she in grief and heaviness at his loss returned to the land of her birth. This divine creature travelled back to Rome, where she found her friends living and well. All her adventures had come to an end. And, weeping before her father's knees, with tender and sad thoughts, she returned thanks to God for her deliverance. Thus they lived in virtue and deeds of alms-giving, till they were separated for ever in this life. And now fare you well, my tale is over; and may He who protected Constance keep all here, and send them gladness after sorrow.
HERE ENDS THE TALE OF THE LAWYER;
AND NEXT BEGINS