THE next pilgrim called upon for a tale was the wife of Bath. She chose to tell one of the days of King Arthur.
IN the olden times, many hundred years ago, the whole land was full of fairies. They were on the hills and in the valleys, and whoever went to any green meadow was sure to see the elf-rings where the fairy queen and her merry rout had been dancing the night before. There are no fairies now; and if you go where they used to be, you will be sure to see a begging friar roaming up and down the land, but never a fairy.
Now in the times when there were fairies everywhere, it came to pass that a knight who dwelt at King Arthur's court forgot his vow to guard all women and treated one despitefully. The law was that any knight so faithless to his word should straightway be put to death; but this knight was a favorite at the court, and every one of the court ladies, from the Queen down, pleaded that his life might be spared. They begged King Arthur for mercy so often and so earnestly that at length he said, "I will give him to the Queen, and he may live or die according to her will."
The Queen and all her ladies thanked the King; and then the Queen said to the guilty knight, "It is true that we have besought the King for you, but your life is not yet sure. It is not right that you should go unpunished. The rope is even now about your neck, but on one condition you shall be free. If in a year and a day you can tell me what it is that women wish for most, then your life shall be spared."
The knight took his leave of the Queen and the court and went his way to find out what women wish for most. He roamed the world over and asked every one that he met. They all had answers, some of them most excellent ones, but the trouble was that no two agreed. One said women cared most for riches, another said for honor, another for merriment, another for brilliant attire, another for praise, another for freedom. One even insisted that a woman would rather keep a secret than do anything else; but of course that is nonsense, for we women cannot conceal things. Don't you know Ovid's story of King Midas? He had a pair of asses' ears, but he contrived to hide them so well under his long hair that no one in the world except his wife knew they were there. He begged her most earnestly not to let any one know the secret, and she promised that if the whole world were offered her, she would never reveal it. She meant to keep her word; but that secret bubbled and swelled so about her heart that she felt she could not live without telling some one. She did not dare tell it to any person, and so she slipped away to a marsh that was full of reeds. She stooped and put her mouth down close to the water and whispered, "O water, I am going to tell you a secret, but don't you ever let any one know it: my husband has two long asses' ears!" There you see that we women cannot keep a secret.
But to go back to the knight. When he found that, go where he would and ask whom he would, no two persons agreed in their answers, he was sorrowful indeed; for if not even two people thought the same, there was no hope that he had found the answer which would save his neck from the rope. But the day had come when he must return, or else his sureties would be put to death in his place. He turned about sadly, and with many a sigh he rode along by the edge of a forest. As he cast his eyes a little way ahead, he saw full four and twenty ladies dancing gayly on a little green. "Perhaps they are some of the wise folk and can give me the answer," he said to himself, and he hastened toward them eagerly. But, alas, before he had come to the dance, the ladies had all disappeared, and in their place was one old crone, bent and bowed and more hideous than he had ever imagined a woman could be. When he came nearer, she rose slowly and clumsily to her feet and said, "Sir knight, there is no road here. What are you in search of? We old folk know a good many things, and it may be better for you to tell me what you want."
The knight was so miserable that he was glad to tell his trouble to any one who would listen, and he said, "Good mother, if you could only tell me what it is that women want most, I would reward you well, for I am a dead man if I cannot find out."
"What women want most?" repeated the old crone. "There is no difficulty about telling that. See, we will make a bargain. I will tell you the answer if in return you will agree to do the first thing I ask of you."
"By my faith as a knight I promise you," he said; and, indeed, he was so wretched that he would have promised anything to any one who would give him the slightest hope of safety.
The woman said, "Cheer up, cheer up, my good knight. Your life is safe; for I will wager my own that the humblest and the proudest, the poorest and the richest, even the Queen herself, will have to say that I am right. Don't be afraid; this is your answer," and she whispered a few words into his ear.
It was not long before the knight came to the palace, and sent a message to the Queen that he had kept his day faithfully and was ready with his answer. A time was set, and all the ladies of the court, maidens, wives, and widows, came together to hear what answer he would give. The Queen sat on a dais with the court ladies around her. There was no need of calling for silence, for every one there was holding her breath and straining her ears to hear what the knight would say. He walked into the room with his head held up fearlessly, and bowed low before the Queen.
"Tell me," she said, "what it is that women most desire."
There was no need that the court ladies should strain their ears, for the knight answered in a clear, manly voice, "The thing that women most desire is to rule their husbands. This is their strongest wish. I declare it even though you put me to death. I am at your mercy. Do with me as you will."
There was not one court lady present who would deny the truth of what he had said. They all agreed that he ought to have his life, and the Queen at once declared that he was free of every bond and claim.
"No, my lady Queen," said a strange voice. "I beg your mercy, but there is yet a claim upon him. Give me justice, I pray, before you depart. I told the knight what answer to make, and in return he vowed by his knightly faith that he would do the first thing I should ask of him if it were in his power. Now before this court I demand, sir knight, that you take me for your own wedded wife. You know well that I saved you from the gallows tree. If I speak falsely, deny this upon your faith."
"Alas," said the knight, "I know only too well that such was my promise; but for God's sake make another choice. Take all my wealth if you will, but let me go free."
"No," she replied. "I am old and homely and poor, but for all the gold that is buried in the earth I would not give up being your wife and your love."
"My love? Rather, my ruin," said the knight. "Alas, that such a thing should be, that such a shame should befall my house!" There was no help for it, however, he must take the old crone for his wife, and so he married her; but you may know well that there was no merriment and no feasting at that wedding.
After the wedding, the knight was so glum and serious that the bride said, "Is this the way King Arthur's knights behave with their brides? I am your love and your wife, and, surely, I have never done you a wrong. Did I not save your life? Why do you treat me so? If I have done anything unkind to you, tell me what it is, that I may make all the amends in my power."
"Amends!" cried the knight. "There are no amends that can be made, for you come of such common folk, and you are so poor and old and homely."
Then the bride told him that folk might indeed hand down their wealth to their children, but not their goodness; that a man is not noble because he is the son of a duke or an earl, but because he himself does noble deeds. "I am of gentle blood," she said, "if I live virtuously and do not sin. And as for my poverty," she continued, "it is true that a man would never choose to be poor; but, nevertheless, he who is poor need have no dread of thieves. Poverty is like a glass through which one may see who are his true friends; and sometimes poverty teaches a man to know both his God and himself. You call me old, but is it not true that gentle folk of honor and courtesy never fail to show respect to age? Often it happens that with age comes wisdom."
The knight could not help seeing that her words were wise and true, and when she asked, "Would you rather have me old and poor and homely and come of common folk, but a faithful, loving wife; or, perchance, young and rich and handsome and of high birth, but careless of your love and maybe false to you?" he pondered and sighed, and sighed and pondered; and at last he said, "I believe that you are wise and good, and I take you for my true and faithful wife."
"On my word I will be to you as true a wife as ever lived since the world was made," declared his bride. "Now kiss me once and then draw up the curtain."
The knight obeyed; and when he had drawn up the curtain and turned his eyes upon her in the full sunlight, behold, she was young and fair and charming. He caught her in his arms and kissed her, not once, but a thousand times, and then a thousand more; and unto the last day of their lives they lived in peace and happiness.