Tales from Chaucer, by Charles Cowden Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
OUR host now called upon the young squire for his ale, who with great goodwill began the following.
At Sarra, in the land of Tartary, there dwelt a king who had often waged war upon the country of Russia. He was called Cambuscan, and had gained so famous a name for all noble and knightly deeds that no one in those days could compare with him in renown. He seemed to lack no grace that makes royalty honourable. He was a strict observer of the laws he had sworn to protect; add to which, he was brave, wise, just, and compassionate; true to his word, courteous, young, fresh, and strong, and eager in arms as any bachelor of his court. To crown all, he was fair of person, fortunate in all his adventures, and maintained so sumptuous a display of regalities that there was not such another king in all the East. This imperial Tartar had by his wife Elfeta two sons; the one was named Camballo and the other Algarsife. He had also a daughter, the youngest of the three, who was called Canace. My sober English, and more sober fancy, are unequal to the description of her rare beauty.
It was the custom with Cambuscan to give a feast on the day of his nativity every year; and on the twentieth of his reign he made a proclamation through all his city
of Sarra that it would be observed with unwonted solemnity and splendour. The sun was in the young and lusty spring of the year, when the weather is bright and shining; when the birds and every creature feel the coming forth of the tender green, and all pour out their love and gladness, as it were, both for the warm days, and their protection against the cold and keen sword of winter.
When the day arrived, Cambuscan, in his royal robes and diadem, and seated aloft in the banqueting hall of his palace, presented to the nobles of the land so rich and solemn an entertainment that the like was never seen before. It would occupy a summer's day to describe to you all the array of the various services—the number and appointment of the sewers and seneschals; the rare dainties of the meats, and sum of the dishes; the silver and the gold, the spices, the wine, and the odours steaming from lofty censers.
It happened that after the third course, while the king was hearkening to his minstrels playing delicious melodies before him at his board, suddenly there rode in at the hall door a knight upon a horse of brass, holding in his hand a fair and broad mirror. Upon his thumb he wore a golden ring, and at his side hung a naked sword. In this fashion he rode straight towards the upper table. Throughout the hall not a word was spoken for astonishment at this knight, and every eye was fixed upon him.
Op This sudden stranger, who was richly armed, save that his head was bare, saluted the king and queen with all their nobles according to their degrees with so high a reverence and dignity in speech and demeanour that had old Gawain returned from fairyland he could not have
amended his courtesy by the alteration of a single word. Having fulfilled the ceremony of introduction with a sweet yet manly voice, he addressed himself to the high board after the manner following: "The King of Arabia and of India, my liege lord, offers to you his salutation upon the event of this solemn day; and in honour of your feast he hath sent you, by me (who am, at command, your dutiful servant), this horse of brass, which possesses the power of conveying you to whatever quarter of the earth you may please to ride, within the compass of a day. Or, if you desire to soar like an eagle, it will evermore bear you without danger through the region of birds to the place of your destination; and, by the turning of a little pin, will convey you home again. So staid and soft is it in progress that you may, without fear, sleep upon its back. The artist who accomplished this wondrous mechanism had wrought many an engine of miraculous power, and the finishing of this, his last work, engaged him during the revolving of many cycles of years.
"The mirror which I hold in my hand possesses the power to make known to you any approaching calamity, either to your own person or your kingdom; it will also discover who are your friends and who your foes; and, above all, if any fair lady have disposed of her heart to a knight, and he be secretly unfaithful, this mirror will lay open all his treason, however subtly he may wear it concealed. This, with the ring of gold, my royal master hath sent in honour of this occasion to your most excellent and worshipful daughter—the Lady Canace.
"The virtue of the ring is this: if my lady please to wear it on her thumb, or in her purse, she will immediately
comprehend the language of every bird that flies, and have the power of answering it again in its native tongue. Also, it will give her the knowledge of all herbs, with their virtues, for the cure of wounds, be they ever so severe.
"The naked sword, hanging by my side, is of such a temper that whomsoever it may strike it will cleave his armour, although it were thick as the knotted oak. And he that is wounded with the blow will never be whole again, until, of your grace, you please to stroke the smitten part with its flat side; when it will straight close again and heal. This virtue will never fail so long as the sword shall remain in your grasp."
When the knight had fulfilled his commission, he rode out of the hall and alighted. His horse, which dazzled like the unclouded sun, stood as still as a stone in the centre of the court. The knight, being conducted to his chamber, was unarmed, and placed according to his degree at the feasting board. The presents—that is to say, the mirror and the sword—were given into the keeping of proper officers, who conveyed them to a high tower in the castle; and the ring was borne with great state to the Lady Canace as she sat at the table. The horse remained in the court fixed to the earth and immovable: no machinery, or any unskilful hand, could stir it from its place, till the knight showed the hidden manner of removing it, which will be explained hereafter.
The populace crowded into the court to see this wonderful horse, murmuring round it like a swarm of bees: and as they examined its figure, each praised its fair proportion—its height, and exact length, and great
breadth of chest, all formed for swiftness and endurance—like that large breed of Lombardy; and, withal, it was as quick of eye as a high-blood courser of Apulia—in short, all agreed that, from hoof to head and from head to tail, neither nature nor art could supply an improvement. But what most raised their wonder was how it could move, being made of brass. Some said it came from fairy land; others referred to their favourite old poets, and said it was like the winged Pegasus; or that mayhap it was another Grecian horse which wrought the downfall of Troy. "My heart," said one, "misgives me—I doubt that there are armed men within, who at a given signal will steal out and surprise our city by stratagem. I consider it proper that the affair should be inquired into." Another whispered to his neighbour, "He's quite out there—’tis more like some magical contrivance that jugglers frequently display at these high festivities." And so they debated and questioned the affair, like all ignorant and common minds, that are ever blithe in imputing a bad motive to inventions which are too subtle for their gross perceptions.
Some were engaged in discourse upon the wonders of the mirror, and how such things could be perceived in it. One among the number made the secret of it appear to the satisfaction of every one, in stating that all might be naturally accomplished by the compositions of angles and acute reflections; and, to display his reading, he said there were many such in Rome; and then referred to Alhazen, Vitellion, and Aristotle, who have written upon curious mirrors and perspectives.
Others again wondered upon the sword, which was
said to pierce through everything; and turned their conversation upon the renowned King Telephus, and the marvelous spear of Achilles, that could both wound and heal, as with the one of which you now have heard. They discoursed also of the tempering of metal, how it was best hardened, and of the medicines and ingredients used in the process; of all which I am ignorant.
After this they turned to speak of the Lady Canace's curious ring, saying that they had never heard of the like, unless it were the ring of Moses or of Solomon, which possessed a similar virtue. And so they continued wondering and jangling till the king arose from the feast. Before him walked the loud minstrelsy, marshalling his way to the presence chamber, and all the while, till he was seated upon his throne, sounding their instruments, that it was a heaven to hear. When this noble king was seated, he ordered the strange knight to be brought before him, and bids him lead the dance with the Princess Canace. Now came the revel and the jollity, such as no dull man can devise. Festive and fresh as May, and well practised in love's mysteries must he be who could worthily tell you of all the dances so quaint in their figures; of the blithe countenances, the subtle looks and dissemblings, for fear of the defection of jealous rivals: no one could do honour to such a description but the perfect hand of Sir Launcelot, and, therefore, I pass over all this mirth and leave them dancing till the supper was arrayed and proclaimed. I need not rehearse the variety of the spices and the wine, or the train of ushers and squires; suffice to say, all were entertained from the highest to the lowest with dainties more than I know of.
After supper the king, surrounded by all his rout of lords and ladies, went down into the court to look at this horse of brass; and the king inquired of the knight as to the qualities of this wondrous courser, and how it was to be governed. When the knight laid his hand upon the rein, the horse began to trample and caper. "Sire," said he, "no other instruction is required as to the management of the steed than that when you desire to ride to any place you turn a pin that is fixed in his ear, and which I will privately explain to you, when you may command him to what place or country soever you choose to ride. And when you wish to stop, you bid him descend and turn another pin (in this lies all your art), when, at your will, he will stoop from his flight and remain quiet as a stone in that place, and the whole world will not be able to remove him. Or if you wish him to depart alone, turn the pin again, and he will vanish from the sight of every one, and return at command whether by night or by day."
When the king had learned from the knight all that was to be done he was glad at his heart and returned to finish the revelry as before. The bridle was carried to a tower in the palace and placed among the rarest jewellery. The horse vanished, I know not whither, from the sight of all. And so I leave this King Cambuscan with his lords feasting in their jollity till day began to spring.
THE second part of this story opens with an account of the young Princess Can ace rising early on the following morning, the appearance of which is described in Chaucer's own simple and agreeable manner: "The
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vapour (says he) that glided up from the earth made the sun look broad and ruddy; nevertheless it was so fair a sight that it inspired her with cheerfulness of heart, as well as on account of the season of the year, the early hour of the morning, and the song of the birds, whose language, by means of her magic ring, she was enabled to understand." The narrative goes on to describe at great length a dialogue she held with a falcon, "as white as chalk," that, perched upon a withered tree, was bewailing with "a voice so piteous that all the wood resounded with her cry" the cruelty and falsehood of her mate, who had ill requited her love and fidelity by deserting her. If the whole of this portion of the story were transposed into prose it would, I fear, prove uninteresting to the young reader. The original is clothed in nervous and beautiful verse, and will, at some future period, amply reward the youthful, imaginative mind that has overcome the not arduous toil of comprehending freely the quaint and, unfortunately, obsolete dialect of this very great and beautiful poet.
After informing us that Canace, in pity of the sorrow of her new acquaintance, takes her home and keeps her in a beautiful mew (or cage) at her own bed's head. "Here," says the narrator, "I leave Canace tending her gentle falcon; and, for the present, shall say no more about the ring, till my purpose suit to inform you how the bird regained her repenting lover through the mediation of Camballo, the king's son. Henceforth my purpose is to speak of adventures and battles so marvellous as never before were heard.
"First, I will tell you of Cambuscan, who in his time
had won many a fair city; and afterward of Algarsife, how he gained Theodora as his bride, for whose sake he was oft in sharp perils and was redeemed by the horse of brass: and then of Camballo, who fought in lists with the two brethren for Canace before he could obtain her as his prize. * So where I left off I will begin again the course of my tale." And this hopeful promise the poet never fulfilled. The tale of the young Squire remains to be told—and who will dare undertake the task, when even Milton himself would not venture, but says:
. . . . . .
IN Book IV of The Faery Queene, Cantos ii. and iii., Spenser has endeavoured partially to fulfil the task incompleted by Chaucer. The young reader may feel interested in seeing how one renowned poet would follow in the track of a revered predecessor; I will therefore give a short account of Spenser's continuation of the story.
With that noble modesty that is ever inseparable from great minds, he begins by a fine compliment to the genius of his illustrious predecessor, whose poetry he calls "a well (or spring) of English undefiled,
"But wicked time," says he, "that all good thoughts doth waste, and wears out the works of noblest wits, has quite defaced that noble monument; how then may these my rude rhymes hope to endure!" And then he concludes with the following beautiful apostrophe: "Pardon, therefore, O most sacred, happy spirit! that I thus strive to restore thy lost labours, and rob thee of the reward due to thy great merit—an act no one dared attempt whilst thou wert living, and, being dead, many strive to do in vain; and, but for the infusion of thy own sweet spirit in me, I should, with the like fruitless endeavour, hope to accomplish: and so I follow the footing of thy feet, hoping that I may at last reach thy fair design." And now to the conclusion (such as it is) of our story.
The beautiful Princess Canace was greatly beloved by many lords and knights, who, from her prudence and tardiness in selecting the hand that she deemed the most worthy to give to her all her worldly comfort, were oftentimes moved to envy and bickerings, great quarrels and bloody strifes; which her brother, Camballo, perceiving, who was a stout and wise knight, and fearing the peril which might arise from an increase of such contentions, determined, both for her honour and his own, to end the contest in the following manner.
One day, when the whole troop of warlike wooers were assembled, for the purpose of knowing who should be the chosen husband of the princess, he decreed that they should select from among the company those three who, by general consent, were esteemed the hardiest and most valiant knights; that these three should combat with
him, and the victor be rewarded with the hand of his sister Canace.
The challenge was a bold one, and Camballo was a bold knight; but his sister's skill and forethought had given him confidence, for she sent him the wondrous ring which possessed the power to staunch the bleeding of all mortal wounds. The great virtue of that ring was known to all, so that the dread of its redoubted might so appalled that youthly rout that none of them dared undertake the fight. The delight of love they deemed a wiser course to take than to hazard life for a fair lady's look. Yet amongst the company were three brethren, all born of one mother and at one birth; her name was Agape, and their names were Priamond, Diamond, and Triamond. They were all three men of exceedingly great might, and well skilled in the knightly accomplishments of arms. Their mother was a fairy, and possessed the skill of secret things, and all the powers of nature, which by her art she could ply to her own purpose. A beautiful woman, too, she was, and of goodly stature when she chose to discover her native form and face; but, as is the custom with fairies, she passed her days in privacy and in the wildest and most spacious forests. In this savage chamber, and on this rough couch, she bare and nursed the three champions that have been described.
When these had grown into the ripeness of man's estate, and had begun to show signs of love for deeds of arms, and for the rash provoking of perils, her motherly heart began to doubt and fear for their safety: she therefore, being desirous to know the end of all their days by her wondrous skill and power, sought her way to the
dwelling of the three fatal sisters, who in the bottom of the deep abyss sit in darkness, and round about the dreadful distaff draw out with unwearied fingers the threads of human life. These fearful beings she humbly accosted, desiring to see the threads of her three sons’ lives drawn forth, which Clotho, one of the sisterhood, granting, drew out, to her grief and amazement, threads thin as the spider's web, and so short that their ends seemed to come forth at once.
Having learned the decree of the fates, she entreated, and obtained her request, that the life of each, as it terminated, might pass into the next survivor; so that when two were dead, the life of the third might be trebly enlarged. And so returning home with contented heart, this careful fairy concealed from her sons the knowledge of their destiny, warning them from time to time to be faithful and true to each other whatever might befall them. And this they truly did all their days. Discord never arose amongst them, which greatly augmented their good fame. And now they joined in love of Canace, upon which ground the great battle grew that is about to be described.
Early on the morning of the day which was to witness the event of this hardy challenge to fight with Camballo for Canace, these warlike champions were all assembled in the field. The lists were enclosed, to bar out the press of the assembled multitude. On one side six judges were seated, who were to decide the deeds of arms; and on the other fair Canace upon a lofty stage, to witness the fortune of the fray and to be seen as the worthy reward of him that could win her with the adventuring of his life.
[paragraph continues] Then Camballo first entered the list with a stately step and undaunted countenance, as if he surely knew the victory to be his own. Immediately after came the three brethren, in brave array and goodly carriage, with gilded escutcheons and broad banners displayed; and three times they lowly bowed to the noble maid, all the while the trumpets and clarions blowing loud notes of defiance, which being done, the challenger came forth all armed to point to confirm his challenge; against whom, Sir Priamond, equally prepared and equipped, set forward. A trumpet blew, and both rushed together with dreadful force and furious intent, careless of danger, as if they were reckless of sparing that life which should be shortly quenched.
Sir Priamond was practised and thoroughly skilled in the use of the shield and spear, and Camballo was not behind him in the use of his weapons, so that it was hard to decide who was the superior knight. Many mighty strokes, that seemed to carry death with them, were delivered on both sides, but both were so watchful and well eyed that they were avoided and passed by harmless. Yet one given by Priamond was so strongly urged home that it struck through Camballo's shoulder, and made him withdraw his shield. He was sorely grieved at this mischance, yet no drop of blood issued from the wound, but uncommon pain, which exasperated his haughty courage and fell revenge. Pain never daunts the mighty heart, but makes it swell the more. With that he fiercely drove his spear close underneath the shield of Priamond, so that it entered his thigh through the mail, and the blood gushed forth upon the green plain. Priamond could not
uplift himself, on account of the bitterness of the wound, but reeled to and fro in great bewilderment. When Camballo perceived him to be off his guard, he drove at him again with double vehemence, so that nothing could stay his weapon, till its mortal point was entrenched in his side; where, being firmly fixed, as he was striving to wrest it forth, the staff broke and left the head behind. Then drawing his sword he charged him afresh, and with a desperate lunge it pierced through his beaver, and entering his brow he fell backward with the force of the stroke, his weary spirit quitting its earthly tenement. Yet did it not vanish into air, or flee as others are wont to the dreary realms of Pluto, but, according to the prayer of his mother, it quickly passed into his brethren, and so lived anew.
When Diamond, the second born, beheld the fate of his brother, grieving at the heavy sight, he rushed forth with a generous feeling of vengeance to resume the battle, as in reversion of his brother's right; and challenging the virgin as his due, his foe was quickly prepared, and the trumpets sounded the charge. With that they fiercely met together, as though each intended to devour his enemy, and with their axes so heavily smote that neither plate nor mail could resist the storm, but was shivered like rotten wood, whilst through the rifts the blood poured forth, filling the lookers-on with ruth and wonder. Many and many a stroke of mortal design were interchanged and warily avoided, till Diamond, disdaining the long delay of fortune, resolved to bring the event, one way or other, to an issue; and so with a mighty sweep he heaved his murderous axe, and aimed a dreadful blow
which, had it fallen as it was intended, the strife would have quickly ceased; but Camballo, being nimbly on his guard, swerved aside, while the other, missing his aim, well-nigh fell with the force of his stroke, an advantage not to be lost by the brother of Canace, for before he could recover himself, and get his exposed side under guard again, with the full stretch of all his might he severed his head clean from his shoulders. The headless trunk stood upright awhile, then fell prone upon the earth. The spirit, which had inhabited it, straight entering into Triamond, filled him with double life and grief; leaping therefore from his place, he rushed forth into the field against Camballo, and fiercely defied him, who, without delay, prepared for the third onset.
Ye may well wonder how that noble knight, who had been so sorely pressed and wounded, could thus stand on foot and renew fight after fight. But had ye then seen him advancing you would have deemed him some newborn champion, so fresh and fierce he seemed. All this arose from the virtue of the magic ring he wore, which not only prevented the shedding of his blood, but renewed his weakened powers, else could he not have matched three mighty champions who were equal to a host.
Triamond, nought dreading, or desperate of so glorious a victory, sharply assailed him with a storm of blows that rattled like hail, while the fire flashed from his sword fast as spray from a rock. The blows fell so thickly, and with such vengeance, that Camballo was forced to retreat till the heat of his antagonist's fury had somewhat spent itself, which, as soon as he perceived it begin to abate,
through waste of breath, he charged anew with might and main. And so the battle wavered to and fro, yet each deemed he should be the victor, until at length Sir Triamond stood still, feeble and faint with loss of blood. But Camballo waxed stronger and stronger through the ring's virtue; his blood was not shed, nor were his powers wasted. Through which advantage he rose in his strength and struck the other so stern a blow that it passed through the joint of his hauberk into his throat, and he fell down dead in the sight of all; yet he was not dead, although the living spirit forsook its nest; one soul only left his body, and winged its way from human misery.
Nevertheless, while the people were gazing on thinking him dead, as he appeared, he started up unawares, like one roused from a dream, and again prepared to assail his foe, who, half afraid of so uncouth a sight, stood still holding idly his sword as though he had seen a ghost, till repeated blows roused him into self-defence again. From this time, however, he resolved to fight warily, nor follow on so fast, but rather seek to save himself; which Triamond perceiving, thought he began to faint, and that the victory was his own. Therefore he raised his mighty hand, with intent to make an end of all that should withstand the blow, which Camballo watching was not slow to avoid; and at the same instant, while the other's arm was raised to its height, he struck him from behind his shield full in the armpit, so that his sword passed through his body. The dreadful stroke, however, held on its way, and falling heavily upon Camballo's crest, smote him so hugely that it felled him to the earth and carved a ghastly wound in his head, and indeed had not the sword
first rested on the brim of his broad-plated shield it would have cloven him down to the breast. Thus both fell dead at once, upon the field, each giving his antagonist the victory.
When the multitude saw this event, they surely deemed the war concluded: the judges arose, the marshal of the field broke up the lists, and Can ace began to bewail her dearest friend and brother. But, suddenly, both arose again, the one from the swoon in which he had lain, and the other breathing now another spirit, and each commenced a fresh attack. Long did they continue in this manner, as though the battle had only then begun, despising alike strokes, wounds, and weapons; so desirous were they to end the strife that neither cared to guard or to avoid danger; and so weary were they with fighting, that life itself seemed irksome and preservation an evil.
Thus while the event hung doubtfully in the balance, and all stood gazing in secret fear of the fatal issue, suddenly they heard far away the noise as of a dangerous tumult, confused with the cries of women and shouts of men. At which the champions stood still a little to learn the meaning of the clamour, when they perceived one in a strangely fashioned car driving towards them with the fury of a storm. The car was bedecked in a wondrous manner, with gold and many gorgeous ornaments, after the fancy of the old Persian monarchs, and, strange to tell, it was drawn by two grim lions, whose cruel nature was brought under subjection and made to obey the rider's will. And in the car sat a bright and surpassingly fair lady, who seemed one of the company of angels. She was deeply skilled in the subtle arts of magic, having for
many a year been well instructed in such lore by the fairy her mother; understanding, therefore, by her power, in how evil a plight her beloved brother, Triamond, at that time stood, she hastened to protect him and pacify the strife which had caused such deadly doings. So, as she passed through the press of people who thronged to gaze upon her, her angry team, breaking their peaceful curbs, dashed through the heaps as if they had been folded sheep, rolling them in the dust. Some shrieked with fear, others howled with pain; some laughed, and others shouted for wonder.
This beautiful lady bore in her right hand a wand, about which were twined two serpents crowned with an olive garland. It was like the famous rod that Mercury bears when he goes forth with some charge from the gods. In her other hand she held a fair cup filled to the brim with nepenthe. Nepenthe is a celestial cordial, ordained by the gods to assuage all grief of the heart; to chase away bitter contention, and anguish from rage and strife, and to establish instead sweet peace in the troubled mind. Few men but those who are sedate and wise do the gods permit to taste of nepenthe; such as drink, however, find eternal happiness.
When she had arrived at the side of the lists, she gently struck the rail with her wand and it flew open to give her entrance. Then, stepping from her car, she gracefully saluted all; first, her brother, whom she tenderly loved, and Camballo next, whose rueful look made her change colour, for she was secretly in love with that princely knight. They slightly returned her salutation, and instantly prepared to renew the combat. When she
saw this, she threw herself down upon the bloody field, and with tears and prayers besought them to be at peace with each other. But, finding that entreaties availed her nothing, she struck them slightly with her powerful wand; when, suddenly, as if their hearts had failed them, the swords fell from their hands and they remained fixed like men in a trance. So while their minds were bound by this master spirit, she reached to them the golden cup, of which, being parched with toil and thirst, they drank a hearty draught. And now behold another wonder! No sooner had they tasted the heavenly liquor than all their bitter enmity was changed into brotherly love. They embraced and plighted hands in eternal friendship. The multitude seeing this sudden change—the friendly agreement of such mortal foes—shouted for joy till the heavens rang again.
So when all was happily accorded the trumpets sounded, and in great glee the company arose to depart; the champions choosing to march home together, and the wise lady, whose name was Cambina, taking by her side into her car the fair Canace, fresh as a morning rose; and so they went along cheered and admired by the people.
And this fair party spent their days in bands of mutual alliance, for Triamond had Canace to wife, with whom he lived long and happily; and Camballo no less rejoiced in his union with Cambina. So all loved and were beloved alike, and no such lovers have been found since their days.
114:* There appears here some mistake either in the original MS. as to the name mentioned, or Chaucer forgot that he had already described Camballo as the brother of Canace. How then could he fight "the two brethren"? and which two, he being one of the two, and only two named? and how could he win her to wife?