THE clerk had been riding along quietly, and apparently thinking about something other than the stories that the rest of the company were telling. Suddenly the host turned toward him and said, "Sir clerk of Oxford, you ride along as shy as a young wife sitting at the table with her husband for the first time. I have not heard a word from you to-day. I suppose you are pondering over some deep question or other, but Solomon said there was a time for everything, and be sure of it, this is not the time to study. When a man has begun a game, he ought to play it. Come, then, tell us a good story. Don't preach us a sermon, and don't put us to sleep, but tell us a cheerful, wide-awake tale of adventures. Keep your fine rhetoric and your logic to use when you are writing in lofty fashion as one would write to a king; and talk to us plainly enough so we can understand you."
The clerk replied with full courtesy, "My host, I am at your service. You are our governor, and certainly I would pay my best obedience to you. I will tell you a story that I once heard at Padua from a worthy clerk named Francis Petrarch. He is dead now. God grant peace to his soul."
IN the western part of Italy there is a broad, sunny plain, rich and fertile, and scattered over it are many ancient towns whose towers were founded in the days of our ancestors.
A certain marquis named Walter was ruler of this land, as his forefathers had been before him. He was honest and courteous, and he ruled his country well. His people feared him and obeyed him, but they loved him, too, and they dreaded to have the time come when he would no longer be their lord. They wished most earnestly that he would marry. "If he only had a son," they said, "who would follow in his father's footsteps, we should feel at rest"; but the Marquis showed no wish to marry. He was young and strong and was enjoying himself so much with his hunting and hawking and other pleasures that he was inclined to let matters slide, and come what might, he would not take a wife.
The people talked the question over, and at length one of the wisest among them said, "Let us go to the Marquis and tell him humbly how much we honor him and love him and how it would grieve us if his line should fail and some stranger come to take the rule over us."
This was agreed to, and soon a number of the Marquis's subjects went to see him. One man to whom he had shown special favor acted as spokesman. He told his lord how the people felt, and begged him earnestly, though with all meekness, that he would permit them to choose him a wife from among the noblest of the land.
The Marquis could not help being touched by the faithfulness of his people in their love for him, and he promised to take a wife. Then he said to them, "I had never thought of being married, but now that I am giving up my freedom at your request, I ask something of you in return. I will choose a wife for myself wherever my heart may be set—you need not be burdened with that charge—and I ask you to swear to me most solemnly that, whatever wife I may select, you will neither carp nor cavil at my choice. And, furthermore, I must also have your sworn promise that, whoever she may be, you will show her the reverence and respect which you would show to the daughter of an emperor, and that this shall never fail so long as her life shall endure."
The people were ready enough to take the oath; but even then they were afraid that month after month would slip by and the Marquis would still delay his marriage; therefore they knelt before him even more humbly and begged that he would of his great goodness add to the kindness he had already shown them by setting a day for his wedding. The Marquis named a day, and promised that without fail he would take to himself a wife when that time should come. The people thanked him over and over again, and then went joyfully to their homes, while the Marquis sent for his officers and bade them see to it that on that day a noble wedding feast should be made ready.
Not far from the splendid palace of the Marquis there was a little village where only poor folk lived. The poorest of them all was a man named Janicula; but he was rich in one respect, for he had a fair young daughter named Griselda. She was not only beautiful, but she was industrious and good, and she did everything in her power to help her poor old father. They had a few sheep, and when she went out to watch them, she always carried her distaff with her that she might spin as she watched. On her way home she gathered roots and herbs to cook for their frugal meals; and in everything she gave her father loving care and reverence and honor.
The Marquis had often noticed this young girl as he was on his way to the hunt. He saw how womanly she was, and he noted what the people in the village said of her goodness. He often thought of her face, not only beautiful but pure and strong and true, and he had resolved that if ever he married any one, this young girl should be his wife.
Day after day passed. Lavish preparations for the wedding were going on at the palace. The country had been scoured for dainty viands, the whole house had been put in order and arranged as handsomely as a house may be. The Marquis had sent his messengers to other lands for gems whereof to make rings and brooches and necklaces and bracelets. He had even had many rich and costly garments made to the measure of one of the court ladies who was much the height and figure of the humble village maiden.
The wedding day had come, but even then no one knew who was to be the bride; and the people began to wonder secretly whether after all the Marquis was only making fools of them. The lords and ladies had come to the wedding. The Marquis in his richest array came forward to give them greeting. "But before we seat ourselves at the feast," he said, "we will ride a little way to the small village near at hand."
So all the splendid assembly set out for the little village, wondering and wondering what wild whim the Marquis had in his mind. It was a brilliant company, and as they rode along the way was bright with velvet and satin and cloth of gold, with rubies and emeralds and diamonds and all the other beautiful adornments that the wedding guests had provided to do honor to the Marquis and the high-born maiden whom he would of course choose for his bride.
Not only the people who lived in great houses were interested in the marriage, but also the folk of every tiny hamlet, and naturally the maiden Griselda. When she heard that the Marquis and his guests were on their way, she hurried to finish her morning's work, so that she would have time to stand in the doorway with the other young girls and see the new Marchioness, if the wedding party should chance to return that way. She was just bringing a waterpot of water from the well when the Marquis called, "Griselda." She set down the waterpot and fell upon her knees before him to hear what his will might be. "Griselda," he said, "where is your father?"
She replied humbly, "Lord, he is here"; then went into the cottage and brought her father out.
The Marquis dismounted and left the glittering rout. He took the old man's hand and led him to one side. "Janicula," he said, "I can no longer hide the wish of my heart. If you will grant me leave, I will take your daughter for my wife before I go from this place, and mine she shall be so long as her life shall endure. I know well that you love me and have been my faithful liegeman all your days. Tell me, then, are you willing to take me as your son-in-law?"
It is no wonder that Janicula was so amazed that he turned first red, then white, and then stood silent and trembling. At last he spoke, but in so low a voice that the Marquis could barely hear him say, "Whatever you will, I will. You are my lord; do in this matter according to your pleasure."
"My will is, then," said the Marquis gently, "that I and you and she confer together in your house in order that you may hear all that is said. I will ask her in your presence if she is willing to become my wife and to obey my wish in all things."
The humble village maiden was not used to so lordly a guest, and it is small wonder that her face was pale. The Marquis took her by the hand and said, "Griselda, I wish to take you for my bride. This will be pleasing to your father, and, I suppose, to you; but first I want your free answer to what I ask. If you become my wife, do you promise to do my will and never grumble, whether I give you pleasure or pain? Do you promise that when I say yes, you will never say no, either by words or by a frown? Swear this, and here I swear to take you for my wife."
Griselda was trembling with fear and wonder, but she answered, "Lord, I am not worthy of such an honor; but if this is your will, it is also mine. I swear that I will die rather than willingly disobey you in deed or in thought."
"Enough, my Griselda," said the Marquis. He passed out of the door, the maiden following him with modest, downcast face, and there they stood in full view of the noble company of guests. While the guests gazed and wondered, and, turning aside, smiled scornfully, he said in a loud, clear voice, "This maiden is to be my wife. If any one claims to honor me and love me, let him honor her and love her. There is no more to be said about it."
Then the beautiful new robes were brought out that the Marquis had had made, and the haughty court ladies had to go into the tiny cottage and dress the humble village maiden in the velvets and satins. They combed and braided her hair and set a crown upon her head and loaded her with jewels rich and rare. Then they led her out before the people; and her beauty was so brought out by all this brilliant attire that even the folk of her own village almost doubted that this was she.
The Marquis wedded her with a ring that he had brought with him, and set her upon a snow-white horse, and they rode on to the castle. The retinue grew longer all the way, for the story of the marriage had gone before them, and the people of every little village through which they passed turned out to do honor to the child of their own people who had now become their Marchioness. When the company reached the palace, the feasting began, and the revels lasted till the very setting of the sun.
To make a long story short, God gave such grace to the new Marchioness that no one who looked upon her would have fancied that she had grown up in a cottage, but rather in the palace of an emperor. Every one loved her and reverenced her, and even the people who had known her ever since she was born could hardly make themselves believe that she was the daughter of their simple, honest neighbor Janicula. The report of her great excellence spread not only through Saluces, but through other countries, and many people came long distances merely to look upon her face. Not only could she rule her house well, but if any trouble arose among the people of the land, she was so wise and so just that she always succeeded in bringing them to peace; and, indeed, more than one man declared that she had surely been sent from heaven to right every wrong. After a while a daughter was born to her, and then the palace was even happier than before. So it came to pass that the Marquis and his wife of humble birth lived together in peace and joy. "He could see goodness and prudence in a maid of low degree," said the people; "he is a wise man"; and they loved their lord more than ever.
When the baby was only a few months old, a foolish thought came into the heart of the Marquis. He longed to test his wife's steadfastness, and see whether she would keep the promises that she made him on their wedding day. So he came to her one night with a stern and troubled face, and asked, "Griselda, do you remember the day when I took you out of your poverty and made you a marchioness? Now listen to every word that I say. You are dear to me as ever, but not to my nobles. They say it is shameful for them to have to be subject to you and to serve one of such humble birth. They have said this more and more since your daughter was born; and now, if I would live my life in peace, I am forced to do with the child not what I would choose, but what they demand. I will do nothing without your knowledge and consent; but I require of you now to obey my will with the patience and obedience that you promised on our marriage day."
Griselda's face did not change, and not a tear did she shed, even though her heart was breaking. She replied humbly, "Lord, my child and I are yours, and surely you may do with your own as you will. Whatever pleases you pleases me. There is nothing in the world that I dread except to lose you."
The Marquis was delighted at her words, but he kept on his sober face, and left the room. There was in his service a man whom he could trust to do either good or evil without a question, whichever he was bidden. The Marquis gave him his orders, and in a short while he burst into the room of the Marchioness and said roughly, "Madame, you will have to pardon me, but you are so wise that you must know that whatever Lord Walter commands has to be done. I am bidden to take that child away."
The knave looked as if he were ready to slay the baby before its mother's eyes; and yet Griselda sat meek and still, and did not even weep. At last she asked humbly, "May I kiss my child before it dies?" She sadly held the little one to her heart, and soothed it and kissed it. Then she made the sign of the cross upon it and said a blessing over it. She spoke to it gently. "Farewell, my little girl," she whispered. "I shall never see you again. May God bless you, little child, for to-night you must die for my sake." Then to the officer she said meekly, "I give you back your little one. Go now and do as my lord commanded you; but if he does not forbid, I beg you in mercy to bury this little body in some place where neither beasts nor birds of prey will find it and tear it in pieces." The officer made no reply. He caught up the child roughly and went his way.
When he stood before his lord with the child in his arms, the Marquis said, "Wrap the child up warmly and carry it gently to my sister, the Countess of Pavia. Tell her to care for it with all kindness, but never to let it be known whose child it is. And, sirrah," he continued, "if you wish to keep your head on your shoulders, see to it that no one finds out where you are going or what you are carrying."
The officer went to obey his lord's commands; and the Marquis sought his wife to see how she would behave toward him. Both that day and ever afterward she was the same as at the time of their marriage, always pleasant and meek and loving and ready to serve him. Her grief she bore in silence, and never even spoke her daughter's name.
Four years later Griselda had another child, a boy; and now the whole country rejoiced that their ruler had a son to follow him. Alas, when it was two years old, the Marquis took a fancy to try his wife again. He said to her suddenly, "Wife, you know how displeased my people were at our marriage. Now that we have a son, they are more angry than ever. They say, 'When Walter is gone, the grandson of Janicula will be our ruler.' I cannot endure this murmuring; I want to live in peace with my people; and there is nothing else to do but to make way with the boy as I did with his sister. I tell you this beforehand so that you may not forget yourself when it comes to pass."
Griselda replied, "I have always said it was my pleasure to do your will. Even though you slay my daughter and my son, you have the right to do as you choose with your own; and if my own death would please you, I would gladly die."
The same officer with the hard, cruel face came to her and took her fair young son; and still she was so patient that she would not let her face look sad. She only kissed her boy and blessed him, and then, as before, she begged the man to bury the child where beasts and birds of prey would not find him; but he would give her no answer. This child, too, was carried to the sister of the Marquis at Bologna.
Marquis Walter watched his wife closely, but he could not see that she loved him less or was less eager to serve him and please him. It was quite different with his people, however, for the report had gone through the kingdom that the Marquis was no better than a murderer. For all that he would not give up his cruel purpose; and now he had planned even another test of his wife's faithfulness. He sent an envoy to Rome, bidding him on his return to bring back letters from the Pope to the effect that, as his marriage was making trouble and disorder in the kingdom, he should put away his wife and choose another bride, a lady of noble birth who would be better fitted to be his marchioness. The envoy obeyed his lord's commands and soon returned with letters all signed and sealed. Of course they were forged, but the simple folk of the country never thought of that. They were sad and grieved, and poor Griselda was saddest of all. Nevertheless, she kept her calmness and self-control and did not once forget her promise to her lord.
Griselda's daughter had been most tenderly cared for by the sister of the Marquis. For some years the Countess had been the wife of the Earl of Pavia, and to him the Marquis now sent a letter asking him to bring the two children to Saluces. They were to journey in all state and elegance, but no one was to be allowed to know who they were. "When people question," wrote the Marquis to his brother-in-law, "say to them that the maiden is on her way to wed the Marquis of Saluces."
All was done as the Marquis desired. The young maiden was dressed in the richest array and loaded with jewels for her marriage, and she and her brother set out in the care of the Earl to journey to Saluces, accompanied by a noble train of gentlefolk, all handsomely attired to do her honor.
The Marquis was bent upon trying his faithful wife to the uttermost, and one day in the presence of all the great folk of his court, he suddenly burst out rudely and said, "Griselda, when I married you, I did not look for wealth or noble birth, but for goodness and faithfulness and obedience. I realize now that if a man is a lord, he is also a servant of his people. A ploughman may take what wife he will, but matters are far different with a lord. My people are constantly urging me to choose a wife who is better fitted by rank and lineage for her position. The Pope understands the matter, and in order to quiet the disorders in my country, he has given his consent that I should take another bride. She is already on her way hither. Now do you be strong of heart and return to your father's house, leaving your place vacant for her. I will give you of my favor whatever dowry you brought with you. No one can always prosper, and I advise you to endure calmly whatever fortune decrees."
Griselda replied patiently, "My lord, I always knew that my poverty could not compare with your wealth; and I never thought myself worthy to be your wife or even your servant. I thank God that in my unworthiness you have honored me so long a while. I will return now to my father and stay with him in the little cottage where I was born until the day of my death shall come. God grant that with your new wife you may prosper and be happy. But, my dear lord, you know that when you took me from my father's house, you took no dowry with me, not even the poor clothes that I was wearing. Now here I give you back my wedding ring and these rich garments wherein it was your pleasure that I should dress. I ask you only for the undergarments which I wear, that I, who was once your wife, may not go forth in nakedness before the people."
"You may keep them," he answered coldly, and turned away. Then Griselda laid off her velvet and her pearls, and robed in white, her head and feet all bare, she went forth humbly to her father's house. The people followed her, sobbing and weeping in their grief, but not a tear did she shed. Her father tottered out from his poor cottage to meet his child, and threw his coat about her nakedness.
The Earl of Pavia had now arrived in the city from Bologna, and the news had gone abroad that he had brought with him a young maiden to become the Marquis's wife, and that she had come with such display of wealth as had never before been seen in Western Lombardy.
A messenger came in haste from the Marquis to his former wife, bidding her come straightway to the palace. Griselda obeyed, and humbly knelt before Lord Walter to hear his will. He said, "Griselda, to-morrow the maiden who is to become my wife comes to the palace, and I would wish her to be received with every possible honor. You know how I like my house to be, and I have sent for you that you may put every corner in such order as will please me."
"My lord," she replied, "the time will never come when I shall not love you with my whole heart and rejoice to serve you and please you so far as lies in my power." And without more words she set herself to work to arrange the house, to spread the tables, to make the beds, to hurry on the servants to sweep the floors and shake the rugs and hangings. She herself worked more diligently than all of them, and it was not long before hall and chambers were most perfectly arranged.
About nine in the morning the noble Earl arrived at the palace with the young maiden and her brother. Now folk are fickle and changeable as a weathercock, and in spite of all the love of Walter's people for Griselda, they were ready for something new. They even whispered among themselves that after all it was best that those who would wed should be of the same degree; and those who had had the good fortune to catch a glimpse of the face of the bride declared that she was verily even fairer than Griselda.
The wife whom the Marquis had cast away had gone to the gate with the other folk to greet the newcome Marchioness. She managed all things with such skill and cleverness that every guest was received according to his rank, and they wondered greatly who this could be that knew the custom of the house so well and yet was so meanly clad.
When the gentlefolk were about to seat themselves at the feast, the Marquis sent for Griselda to come to him. "How do you like my fair young bride?" he questioned; and she answered, "I never saw a fairer maiden. God grant you prosperity and joy unto your life's end. But one wish I would make of you. This maid has been brought up more tenderly than I, and I pray and warn you not to wound her as you have wounded me, for she would hardly be able to endure adversity as one who has been less gently cared for."
Even this cruel Marquis could no longer bear to torture such a loving, faithful heart. He threw his arms about her neck, and kissed her again and again. "My Griselda," he said, "I have tested your steadfastness more severely than woman was ever tried before, and now shall come your reward. This fair maiden who you thought would be my bride is our beloved daughter. The manly boy beside her is our son, and he shall be my heir. I have kept them with my sister at Bologna, with charge to bring them up right carefully. I did not do this thing in malice, but to prove your faithfulness to me and to your promised word."
Griselda looked like one who had been startled out of her sleep. As she began to understand the Marquis's words, she swooned for joy; and then, arising from her swoon, she called her children to come to her. She put her arms about them and kissed them once and many a time, and dropped her tears upon their bright shining hair. She thought of nothing but the joy of seeing the dear ones whom she had supposed long since dead. "May God reward you, my dear lord," she cried, "that you have saved my children for me. It matters nothing if I should die this day, for now I know that my lord's love and favor are my own."
Those who stood about her wept great tears of pity, and the Marquis cheered and comforted his wife, and many looks of tenderest affection passed between them. As soon as the ladies saw their time, they led the Marchioness apart into a chamber, and there they stripped her of her rude gown and put upon her a robe of gleaming cloth of gold, and set upon her head a glittering crown that shone with many a jewel, and then they brought her back into the hall to take her proper place. So it was that this sad day came to a joyful ending; for every wedding guest did his utmost to make the feasting gay and to do her honor.
For many years the Marquis and his wife lived together in peace and joyfulness, and in the palace there was a place for the good Janicula, who dwelt there till his death. The fair young daughter was wedded to a rich and noble lord, one of the worthiest in all Italy. And when the time came for the Marquis to render up his soul to God who gave it him, his son succeeded to the heritage. He wedded a wife who loved him truly and was ever faithful to him; but he was wiser and more tender than his father, and never put her to such a sad and cruel test.