H ARRY BAILEY, landlord of the Tabard Inn, stood in the open doorway, listening. He heard the loud skirling of a bagpipe, the jingling of little bells, the slender notes of a flute, then a snatch of a song, and after it a hearty laugh. The tramping of hoofs sounded nearer and nearer, and up the street that led from London Bridge there came at an easy pace a company of riders.
"I'll warrant they're bound for the Tabard,"
said the landlord to himself; and he called to his
men, "Ho there! Strew fresh rushes in the hall! Put
another log on the fire! The air is cool when one has
been riding. See you to it that the kitchen
There was no time for further orders, and no one could have heard them if they had been given, for the bagpipe was shrieking louder than ever, as if to show that great folk were close at hand; and in another moment the travelers were clattering into the yard of the inn, alighting from their horses, and climbing up the steps into the gallery and thence into the house.
What a company they were! It was no wonder that the grown folk as well as the children had stared at them curiously as they rode up the street. First of all came a tall, dignified knight, still wearing part of his armor and showing by the stains left on his jupon, or short tunic, that he had come directly from some campaign. His son followed him as squire, a handsome young man of twenty years with curly hair and a merry face. No matter what the haste had been, he had found time to put on a fresh tunic, a beautiful one all embroidered with red and white flowers. It was he who had been playing so merrily on his flute as they rode up the street. Behind him came his yeoman in hood and coat of green. He carried a bow and arrows, a sword and buckler, a horn and a dagger. The pretty little nun, a prioress, who followed them, together with another nun and three priests, had taken time to make her toilet, too, for she looked as dainty and neat and smiling as if she had been riding through green fields instead of over a dusty road. A rosary hung on her arm, with beads of gleaming coral gauded with green.
The little jingling bells were on the bridle rein of the most jovial of monks. His fiddle was in a bag at his side, his sleeves trimmed with the finest of fur, and his hood was fastened under his chin with a handsome clasp of good yellow gold, wrought into the shape of a love-knot. His horse was large and strong and richly caparisoned, and the monk rode as if he were as much at home on horseback as on his own feet.
"He rides like a hunter, and if I do not guess amiss, he would rather go a-hunting than sit in a cloister and pore over a book," thought a quiet traveler who was standing at a corner of the gallery, watching the newcomers with bright, keen eyes. He had arrived at the inn that morning, and on the following day he meant to ride on to Canterbury, for he was on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket. His face was small and thoughtful, and he had a way of looking down upon the ground as if he were searching for something, or dreaming of something far away; but there was a gentle curve about his lips, as if he loved a jest and had a pretty wit of his own. He looked much amused when one of the company, a friar, laid aside his cowl so carefully. It was plain to see that it was well filled with knives and pins and other things to sell; and that he meant to do more than hear confessions and give absolutions,—he meant to make a penny or two for himself whenever he had a chance. He was humming a strain of a merry ballad, but he stopped as he came near a rather pompous-looking gentleman with a forked beard,—a merchant, for whom, or for whose money bags, the friar had evidently great respect. This merchant wore a tall Flemish hat with a long feather standing upright in it. The rest of his dress, too, was costly, and even the clasps of his shoes were of shining gold. No one could help seeing at a glance that he was a rich and prosperous man. He dismounted slowly and deliberately, as if he wanted every one to understand that he was too great a personage to do anything in a hurry.
The merchant's handsome clothes made the slender young man who stood near him, waiting patiently for the way to be clear, look even shabbier than he would otherwise have done; and, surely, that was quite needless. His surtout was threadbare, his horse was thin as a rake, and the rider himself was not so very much stouter. "He's an Oxford student, a clerk, or I miss my guess," thought the watchful man on the gallery. "I'll warrant he'd rather have a score of books than all the costly robes the merchant ever brought across the Channel. He's a philosopher, but he does not seem to know how to turn base metal into gold."
After the Oxford student came two men who were talking quietly together, one a successful lawyer, wearing a cloak with a silken girdle all studded with little ornaments. The other was plainly a wealthy country gentleman. He had red cheeks and a long white beard. He carried a two-edged dagger, and a heavy silken purse hung at his side. Near these two stood a group of well-to-do folks,—a haberdasher, a carpenter, a weaver, a dyer, and a draper. They were all dressed in the livery of their guild, and it was evidently one of wealth and importance. All that they wore was fresh and new and handsomely made. Even their knives were tipped with silver instead of brass. They had no idea of trusting to whatever sort of food they might find on the way, and they had wisely brought their cook along with them.
A brown-faced sea-captain had rolled himself off his steed rather awkwardly, for he was more accustomed to a ship than a horse. He wore a tunic of heavy frieze, and around his neck was a cord from which hung a dagger. "His beard has been shaken by many a tempest," thought the watcher on the gallery; and as he looked at the sailor's determined face, he said to himself, "I should not like to be among his prisoners. If I mistake not, he has made more than one man walk the plank."
All this while good Harry Bailey was going in and out among his guests, welcoming them to the inn. He bowed low before the doctor in his silk-lined gown; for a doctor, who knew the causes of all diseases, must be treated with respect. He jested gayly with a red-cheeked woman from Bath as he helped her to alight. Her hat was broad as a buckler. She wore scarlet stockings and bright new shoes. "I'm an old traveler," she said. "I've been on pilgrimage before; I've been at Rome and Cologne, and three times at Jerusalem"; and she walked into the house with the air of one who had plenty of money and knew how to get the worth of it.
Two men were going up the steps side by side. They looked so much alike that it was plain they were brothers, though one wore the dress of a ploughman and the other that of a priest. Both had earnest faces, and the man on the gallery looked at them kindly, and said to himself, "There's a priest who will not run away from his country parish to find an easier place. I can fancy him taking his staff and setting out afoot in a storm to see a sick man."
Both of the brothers together did not take up so much room as the miller, who came after them in a blue hood and a long white coat. He was a stout, broad-shouldered fellow who would be sure of winning at a wrestling match. "I can break any door by running my head against it," he had boasted on the journey. His beard was as red as a fox, and when he opened his mouth, it looked like a great fiery furnace. Under his arm was a bagpipe, for it was he who had made all the skirling and shrieking as they were coming up the road. He was a very different man from the dignified knight, the kind-hearted priest, and the country gentleman with his pleasant, cheery face. So, too, was the summoner, whose business it was to call before the church court any one whom he found breaking its laws. He looked so crafty and cruel that a child would have been afraid to come near him. A huge wreath was on his head and hung down over his red face. The man on the gallery smiled as he thought, "People always put out a bush when they have wine and beer." No sword or buckler had he, and it is hard to see how he could have managed a buckler, for he had all he could do to take care of a great round cake that he had brought with him. A pardoner rode beside him, his long, yellow hair hanging down upon his shoulders; for he fancied it the latest fashion to wear a cap, and so he had put his hood into the wallet which lay on the pommel of his saddle. The two men might well go together, for they were both cheats and got all the money they could from poor people who trusted them or were in their power.
Last of all came the steward of an Inn of Court, and the reeve of a manor. Their faces were keen and shrewd, and one could see that they would make sharp bargains with whoever had dealings with them.
These were the people who had come to the Tabard Inn. They were all going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury; and, unlike as they were, they were glad of one another's company, for it was a journey of three or four days, and the larger the party the safer they were from robbers.
Now there was bustle and tumult at the inn, serving men running here and there, and stable boys shouting to one another as they rubbed down the horses and put them into the stalls. The kitchen boys played tricks on the cooks, and the cooks scolded the kitchen boys; but it was not long before an agreeable fragrance began to fill the house, and soon the pilgrims were summoned to their supper. It was hardly more than the middle of the afternoon, but most people dined at ten in the morning, and the guests were ready for all the good things that their host had provided. The boards had been brought in and laid upon trestles. Then came the landlord, followed by serving men, each one with a towel around his neck and another on his left arm. After them came the kitchen boys with the various dishes. Bowls and napkins were passed around that the guests might wash their hands before the meal,—a somewhat desirable thing to do, as one wooden trencher generally served for two persons, and forks had not yet been invented.
The meats were cut into strips, and the guests dipped them into the sauce as they ate. The summoner devoured his meal greedily, and woe to the one who shared his trencher, for not a whit did he care if his whole fist went into the gravy. He swallowed garlic and onions by the handful, scattering lavish portions of his food over his unlucky neighbors. He gulped down the strongest wine and held out his cup again and again. Very different were the table manners of the prioress. Her little hand never went deep into the sauce, for at most she wet only the tips of her slender fingers. She knew how to carry a morsel from the trencher to her mouth without dropping the gravy; and before she drank, she always wiped her lips so carefully that never a bit of grease was left on the cup. She had listened well when tales were told of how people behaved at court, and she tried to practice the same manners. She had learned French, too, in her school days. She was delighted at the opportunity to use it, and never guessed that it was the French of Stratford-at-Bow rather than of Paris that she spoke.
Such a feast as it was for the hungry travelers! There were fish and fowl and meats of several kinds, lamb and pork served with ginger sauce, and roast beef served with garlic and vinegar; there was the flesh of the wild boar, generously seasoned with mustard; there were bacon and pea-soup, and the most amazing of puddings and pasties, manufactured of all sorts of remarkable articles mixed together and with many kinds of spice whose amount was limited only by their costliness. "Strong wine," or brandy, was poured upon these compounds, and then they were set afire and were brought in with flames shooting up to the low rafters. There was plenty of wine, served in goblets of wood and of pewter, and there was ale in abundance, for Southwark was famous for its ale.
Long before the supper was over, the early guest had made friends with the whole party. He had talked of warfare with the knight and of hunting with the monk. He had praised the singing of the friar and had made a neat little compliment to the pretty prioress. He had discussed with the merchant the danger of meeting pirates in the Channel, had asked the priest about the poor people of his parish, and had promised the loan of a book to the student; he had even jested with the summoner about his buckler of cake, and had playfully demanded of the miller whether he never took toll three times from the same bag of grain. Every one was happy and good-natured. They washed their hands, paid their reckoning, and agreed to start early the next morning.
But now Harry Bailey had a word to say. He was tall and manly and fine-looking. During the supper he had sat in the seat of honor, by the pillar, and he had been the gayest of all. Now he said, "Sirs, you are heartily welcome, for you are certainly the merriest party that has been in this inn for a year. I'd like to do something to please you, and I have been thinking of a pastime that will amuse you and won't cost you a penny. You are going on a pilgrimage, and may God give you good speed; but there is no use in riding along as dumb as a stone. I know you mean to tell stories and enjoy yourselves. Now I have a plan, and if you do what I propose and are not the merrier for it, I'll give you my head." "What is it? Tell us what it is!" cried the pilgrims, and he replied, "This is it, that every one of you shall tell two stories going and two more on the homeward ride; and the one that tells the best story shall have a supper at the cost of the rest of us, and he shall sit in the place of honor, here by this post, when we have come back again. And to help carry out the sport; I will go with you at my own expense as guide, and if any one opposes what I say, he shall pay every shilling that we spend on the road. If you like this, just say the word, and I will make myself ready.
Everybody was pleased and asked him to be their leader and the judge of the stories. A price was set for the supper, and the pilgrims all agreed to follow his decision in everything. Wine was brought, and they drank together in good fellowship. But now the sun was set, and every one went to his rest.