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The Chaucer Story Book by  Eva March Tappan


 

 

THE MAN OF LAW'S TALE


[Illustration]

[55] WHEN the knight had ended his tale, every one in the company, old or young, declared that it was a noble story. Harry Bailey cried heartily, "That's going well. The budget is open, and now let us see who will tell the next. Sir man of law," he went on, "you agreed to obey my commands; now keep your promise."

"Surely," replied the lawyer. "I have no thought of breaking my agreement. A promise is a debt, and I would ever keep my word. The laws that we make [56] for others, we must ourselves obey"; and without delay he began this tale.

THE STORY OF CONSTANCE

IN Syria there once lived a company of merchants who were so successful that their spices and satins and cloth of gold were sent far and wide. In the course of their business it came about that they spent some time in Rome. When they returned to Syria, the Sultan sent for them, as was his custom when they had been journeying to foreign parts, that he might learn about other kingdoms and hear of whatever wonders they had seen.

The merchants told him much about Rome, of the greatness of the buildings and the magnificence of the Emperor; but the beginning and end of every story was Lady Constance, the Emperor's fair daughter. "Never was there such a maiden since the world began," they said. "She is the most beautiful woman in the world, and yet she has no touch of pride. She is young, but, indeed, she has no foolish childishness. She is kind and charitable. She is the embodiment of courtesy, and her heart is the very chamber of purity."

[57] The merchants returned to their homes, but their words did not fade from the memory of the Sultan. By day and by night he thought of the beautiful maiden, and at length he sent for his privy council and charged them upon their fealty to get him Constance for his wife. The privy councilors were at their wits' end. "It is some evil magic," they whispered to one another; but to the Sultan they said, "Sir, we are the faithful servants of our blessed prophet Mahomet; and we do greatly fear that no Christian ruler would give his daughter in marriage to one who obeys the prophet's laws."

But all the Sultan would reply was, "I will be christened rather than lose her. Keep your fears to yourselves and get me Constance."

Then there was much journeying to and fro. Ambassadors were sent to the Emperor and to the Pope and to men of mark either in the church or in knighthood; and ambassadors were sent from them to Syria. The Sultan agreed to become a Christian if he might have Constance; and finally, after much debate and discussion, it was decided that for the advantage of the true faith the Emperor's daughter should become the Sultan's wife. Then throughout Rome went the [58] Emperor's command that every person in the town should pray most earnestly for a blessing upon the journey and the marriage.

Constance wept sorely that she must go far away from her home and friends to live among a barbarous people and become the wife of one whom she knew not; but the decree was passed. She said meekly, "Christ give me grace to obey his will," and she set to work in heaviness of heart to make ready for the marriage. When the day had come to take ship, she bade farewell to all and went on board; and with her went a long train of lords and ladies and knights and bishops and also a great weight of gold to be her dowry.

Now the wicked mother of the Sultan had done everything in her power to oppose the will of her son. When she saw that this was of no use, she planned to bring about by trickery what she could not accomplish by honest means. One night she secretly called her own councilors together, and when they had come, she took her seat and thus she spoke: "My lords, you all know that my son is about to prove false to the laws which God gave by his blessed apostle Mahomet; but as for me, I will tear the life from my body rather [59] than the Koran from my heart. If you will follow my advice, I promise you that we shall dwell safely on earth to our days' end, and after that shall realize all the joys of heaven." Each one took a solemn oath that he would stand by her and would persuade as many of his friends as possible to do the same; and then she revealed her cruel plot. "First, we will let them baptize us as Christians—cold water will not hurt us—and after that I will give a feast; and the Sultan's wife shall be made so red that it will need a whole font of water to wash her white."

As the evil woman had planned, so it came to pass. She went to the palace of the Sultan and said with feigned sorrow, "My son, I grieve deeply that I have been a heathen so long a time. I will no longer believe in Mahomet, and I am ready to be baptized by a Christian priest. And grant," she pleaded, "that I may make a feast for the Christian folk. If they will but come to me, I will do my best to please them." The Sultan was so rejoiced that he hardly knew what to say. He fell upon his knees before her and with great joy he thanked her most heartily.

Now when the Christian folk had come to land, the whole Syrian kingdom turned out to meet them. [60] There were vast crowds of Syrians and of Romans, all dressed in their richest array, but most brilliantly attired of all was the mother of the Sultan; and certainly no daughter could have been greeted more tenderly than was the gentle Constance by this enemy who plotted night and day for her ruin. And as for the Sultan himself, no words can tell the joy with which he welcomed his beautiful young bride.

After a little, the time was at hand when the Christians should be entertained by the mother of the Sultan. Truly, she had kept her word, for the tables were loaded with dainties from every part of the kingdom and from many a realm that was far away from the land of Syria. But suddenly the signal was given, and almost in a moment the Sultan and all the Christians at the board were struck down dead save Constance alone. The Sultaness, for by this murder of her son the wicked woman had made herself ruler of the kingdom, on that same day flung the helpless Constance into a rudderless vessel and thrust it out upon the sea. "Get to Italy as best you can," she cried pitilessly. The dowry that Constance had brought with her was put on board the ship, and by some one's kindness a store of clothes and of food was added.

[61] When Constance found herself alone on the deep sea, she knelt down and upon her breast she made the sign of the cross, and piteously she begged, "O holy Christ, be with me, and when the day comes that the stormy waters shall swallow me, keep me, I pray, from the powers of evil, and bring me unto thy everlasting bliss."

Day after day went by until three years and more had passed. He who had saved her from the slaughter at the feast cared for her now, and kept her from all harm. The ship drifted on and on, far beyond the seas of Greece, and at length it floated through the strait that lies between the Moorish country and the land of Spain and out into the wide, wide ocean. One morning it came close to far Northumberland, and rising from the shore Constance saw a castle. A storm wind drove the ship upon a sandbar, and so fast was it that even the coming of the tide had no power to set it free. The constable of the castle saw the wreck, and he went down to the shore. There was the broken ship all beaten by the waves, and on its deck stood the weary, lonely woman, and with her the great treasure that had been her dowry. She begged for pity, and the good constable brought her tenderly to the shore. And [62] when her feet first touched the land, she kneeled down and thanked her God with grateful heart for this mercy that He had shown her. While she knelt and prayed, the constable stood one side and wondered, for he and his were heathen, and so were all the folk of that part of the land.

The constable carried her home to his good wife Hermegild; and those kind people were so grieved to see the stranger's plight that they wept for pity and promised that she might abide with them as long as she would. She would give them no word of who she was or whence she came, but she was so kind and thoughtful and so ready to serve and please all who came near her that every one who even looked into her face had to love her, whether he would or not. Hermegild loved Constance as her life, and by and by it came to pass that Hermegild and Constance knelt together and offered up their prayers to the God of the Christians.

Now the heathen had overcome all that part of the country, and most of the Christian Britons had fled to Wales. Some few remained here and there in the land, but they did not venture to meet together to worship God, and dared not for their lives avow them- [63] selves his followers. Not far from the castle gate were three of these, and one of them was old and blind. One summer's day the constable and Hermegild, his wife, and Constance, his guest, were walking together toward the sea, when they met this blind man, bowed and old and with his eyes tight closed. "For Christ's sweet sake," he cried, "give me my sight again! O Lady Hermegild, open mine eyes for the love of Christ!" Then Hermegild trembled lest her husband should hear the holy name and slay her; but Constance bade her be brave and heal the man if such were God's will. God gave her the power to open the blind man's eyes; and the constable cried in astonishment, "What does this mean?" Constance replied bravely, "Sir, this only shows the power of Christ to help his people out of the control of the evil one." And then she told him of the Christian faith so clearly and so earnestly that before the sun had set, the constable, too, had become Christ's humble follower.

In the town not far from the castle there dwelt a sinful knight, and when Constance refused his wicked love, he swore that she should die, and by a shameful death. One night when the constable was from home, this knight stole like a poisonous serpent to the chamber [64] where Hermegild and Constance lay asleep. He crept softly to the bedside and with a silent stroke he cut the throat of Hermegild. Constance, wearied by her prayers and vigils, slept on quietly, and did not rouse even when the murderer laid the bloody knife close by her side.

The constable made no long tarrying, but came home soon and joyfully, for King Alla was to be his guest. And when he heard the piteous tale, he told it to his King, and also told him of Constance's coming to their land in a strange ship, alone upon the sea. The knight declared that she must have done the cruel deed, and Constance was so overcome with grief and fear and amazement, that she stood almost silent before her judge and had no word to say of her own innocence. Still, when the King looked upon her pure face, he could feel naught but pity. The people, too, declared that she could never have been guilty of such wickedness. "She is pure and good," they said, "and she loved the Lady Hermegild even as her life"; and so said every one that dwelt in the castle. The King would have proved her innocence or guilt by the test of battle; but the daughter of the mighty Emperor stood alone without a friend to serve her as her cham- [65] pion. The King felt such pity that the tears dropped from his eyes; but justice must be done, and he said, "Bring me a book, and if this knight swear solemnly upon the book that Constance was the slayer of Hermegild, then shall a justice be straightway named to give her trial."

The book was brought, and the knight laid his hand upon it in all boldness. It contained the writings of the four Evangelists; and when the evil man had touched the holy volume and declared on solemn oath that Constance was a murderer, he suddenly fell to the ground like a stone, smitten by an unseen hand; and a voice was heard saying, "Thou hast wronged the daughter of my Holy Church." At such a marvel all the people were aghast, and all save Constance stood in deadly fear of what might happen. Then Constance told the King and all the other folk about the God whom she worshiped; and it came to pass that King Alla and many of the people of the place gave up their heathen worship from that day. The wicked knight was put to death; and when a space of time had passed, King Alla took fair Constance for his wife.

All in the land rejoiced at the marriage save one [66] alone, and that was Donegild, the mother of the King. She was angry that her son should choose for his Queen a strange woman come from no one knew what corner of the world. Nevertheless, there was a wedding and a great feast with dancing and singing. Not long after the wedding King Alla was forced to go to Scotland to meet his enemies in battle. Before he went, he carried his wife to a bishop who was also his constable, and bade him keep watch and ward over her until his return.

Now it came to pass that Constance bore a child, and then the bishop sent a messenger and bade him ride at full speed to carry to his King the blissful news that Constance was the mother of a fair young son. The messenger cared more for his own gain than for his duty, and he said to himself, "If I go out of my way but a little, I can carry the joyful news to the King's mother also, and thus win a double reward." So this faithless servant rode out of his way and went to the home of the King's mother and gave her reverent salutation. "Madame," said he, "I have news to make you happy and blithe, and to make you thank God a hundred thousand times. My lady Queen is the glad mother of a fair young son, and all the land from end [67] to end rejoices. See, madame, here is the sealed letter with the news, and I must bear it as swiftly as I can, that the King, too, may delight in the good tidings. If so be that you would send a message to him, I promise to serve you faithfully both night and day."

Donegild answered, "The hour is late, and I have no letter writ. Tarry, and until the morning take your rest. I will then have ready a message for the King." She plied the messenger with wine and ale, and while he slept the sleep of swine, she stealthily slipped out the letter from his casket and wickedly prepared another to put into its place and signed it with the name of the bishop. This is what the forged letter said: "The Queen has a child, but it is no proper human babe; it is such a horrible, fiendlike creature that no one in the castle dares to stay near it. The mother of such a child is surely nothing less than a fiend."

When the King read this letter, he was sick at heart, but he told no man of his trouble. He wrote a letter to his bishop and gave it to the messenger. Therein he said, "God's will be done. Keep the child, be it foul or fair, and guard my wife till I am again at home. Whatever betide, welcome be the will of God." He [68] sealed this letter, weeping bitter tears of sorrow; and soon the messenger went his way. The faithless servant had no mind to miss the good wine and ale of the King's mother, therefore he went straightway to her abode. She made him welcome as before and did everything that she could to please him and entertain him. He drank as heavily as at his first visit, and again he fell into a swinish sleep. The letter intrusted to his care was stolen from his casket, and in its stead one was placed which said: "The King commands his constable to thrust Constance, once the Queen, from out the kingdom. He is to place her and her child and all that is hers on board the ship on which she came and push it from the shore and charge her that she never again be seen within the limits of the realm. All this he is to do before three days and a quarter of a tide have gone; and if he fail, his head is forfeited."

Such was the letter which the faithless messenger carried to the bishop; and when the good man read it, he cried, "O mighty God, how can it be that thou wilt suffer the innocent to perish and the wicked to prosper? Alas, woe is me! I must either become the executioner of the good Constance or die a shameful death; there is no way of escape."

[69] Throughout the kingdom there was weeping by young and old; but at the dawning of the fourth day Constance, her face as pale as death, went down the path and toward the ship. When she had come to the shore, she knelt upon the sand and prayed, "Lord, whatever thou dost send is always welcome to me," and she said to the sorrowing folk around, "He who cleared me from a false charge when I first came to this land can also care for me on the wide ocean, even though I see not how. He is no less strong than he was before. I trust in him and his Mother, and that trust is for me both rudder and sail." Her little son lay in her arms weeping. "Peace, little son," she murmured; and then she cast her eyes upward to the heavens. "Mother Mary," she cried, "thy Child was tortured on a cross, and thou didst see all his torment. No suffering can compare with thine; for thy Child was slain before thine eyes—and my child lives. O little one," she said to her babe, "what is your wrong? You have never sinned; why will your cruel father take your life?" Then turning to the constable, she pleaded, "O dear kind bishop, can you not let my little child stay here with you? But if you dare not save him from harm, then kiss him once in his father's name." She gave one long look back [70] to the land, said softly, "Farewell, cruel husband!" and walked toward the ship, hushing her child as she went. And when she reached the water's edge, she humbly crossed herself, bade the thronging crowd farewell, and stepped aboard. Food and clothes there were in plenty, for even her merciless enemy dared not send her away without; but she and her babe were on the wide, wide sea with none save Him above to care for them and give them comfort.

Soon after this, King Alla came home and bade the constable send him the Queen and her child. A chill struck to the heart of the good bishop, for he saw that somewhere there had been treachery. He told the King the piteous tale, and said sadly, "Behold, Sir King, your letter and its seal. Grieving, but on pain of death, I have given my best obedience to your will." The King ordered the faithless messenger to be brought before him, and under pain of torture he confessed where he had spent the night when on his way. So, step by step, the King traced out the whole sad story, and knew it was his own mother who, false to the allegiance she had sworn to him and to his rule, had driven his loving wife unto her death. "Be she my mother or my most bitter foe," so said King Alla, "no [71] deed like this shall go unpunished"; and straightway the wicked woman was put to death; but night and day the lonely ruler grieved for wife and child.

Constance for five long years drifted hither and yon upon the sea; but the good Father kept her and her little child in his loving thought, and she was brought safely out of every danger. The ship floated sometimes east and sometimes west; sometimes it turned about and moved north, then, driven by some current or a changing wind, it drifted far to the south. Then through the narrow way between Morocco and the land of Spain it was borne, and far, far to the eastward. Behold, full in its path there came a mighty vessel all bedecked with banners and shields of victors. A Roman senator was in command; and when he saw the lonely woman on the stranger ship, he took her to his own vessel and brought her and her little son in all kind gentleness unto his wife at Rome. Own aunt was the wife to Constance, but the wanderer would tell no story of her past, and so, although for a long while she dwelt in the family of the good senator, no one guessed that she was the daughter of the powerful Emperor.

In far-away Britain the sorrow for her loss was not [72] forgotten. Night and day King Alla mourned for his wife. Then, too, he had other reason for sadness, for he was guilty of his mother's death. At length he made a vow to go to Rome, for he thought that after he had obeyed the Pope's commands in great things and in small, he might dare to hope that Jesus Christ would pardon him his sin.

When it was told in Rome that King Alla was near at hand, then the noble senator and many other men of rank set out with a glittering retinue to meet the royal pilgrim. Many honors were shown him, and to return the courtesies King Alla gave a feast at which all the luxuries of all the world were set forth in abundance. The little son of Constance was to be taken to the feast, and while his mother robed him in his best, she bade him do her will. "Stand in full view of the King," she said, "and look him clearly in the eyes. I thought him once a kindly man; it may be that for you he will have some bit of gentleness even yet"; and then she kissed her child and let him go.

The boy obeyed his mother's word; and Alla, noticing the fair child who gazed at him so eagerly, asked who he was. "That is beyond my power to [73] say," replied the senator. "All I know is that his mother is as good a woman as lives on God's earth"; and then he told the story of how, sailing home in victory from vengeance on the Syrians, inflicted at the Emperor's command, he had met a strange ship with no one on her save this child and a lonely woman.

Straightway King Alla forgot the noble company, forgot the feast, and remembered only how like his lost Queen's face was that of the fair child. "Could the boy's mother be my wife?" he mused, and then he chided himself for his idle folly. "My wife is long since dead," he thought sternly; but into his heart there came the trembling hope, "It was on a lonely vessel that she was brought to my country. May not Christ, who saved her once, have held her in his care a second time?" He could hardly wait for the guests to say farewell; and as soon as they were gone, he hastened homeward with the senator. Constance was bidden to come to meet the King. She stood before him, trembling, swooning, silent, pale as death; for in her heart was the old love of him mingled with sorrow and with just anger at his cruelty, and she had no word to say.

But at the first look King Alla knew his bride. [74] The whole sad tale was told, and the King swore solemnly that, as he hoped for God's mercy on his soul, he was as guiltless of such cruel treachery as was Maurice, their little son. And now, when Constance found she might believe that he was innocent and that his love for her was pure and strong as in the earlier time in far-away Northumberland, there was such happiness in the hearts of those two as never before was felt by mortals in this world. There was even more joy to follow, for at the wish of Constance King Alla made a feast to which the mighty Emperor was humbly bidden. He sent his gracious word of acceptance; and when the day had come, King Alla and Queen Constance rode out in eager thought of happiness at hand to meet their guest. When the Queen looked near upon the Emperor's face, she slipped down from her palfrey and fell meekly at his feet and cried, "Father, I am your Constance. Have you clean forgot your youngest child? I am Constance whom you once sent to Syria. It is I who was thrust out upon the briny sea and doomed to die. Send me no more unto the heathen lands, but thank my lord here for his gentleness."

Sorrow and joy were mingled in the meeting, but [75] soon the sorrow was all forgotten, and never yet was there a feast so glowing with happiness. After many days had passed, King Alla and his Queen returned in joy to their own far kingdom, and there they lived in quiet and peace. And when the time had come for God to take King Alla from the world to his bright heaven, then Constance made her way to Rome, and there, together with her father and her friends of old, she dwelt in holiness and deeds of alms. And when the Emperor had passed away, the child Maurice, now grown a strong and wise and stalwart man, was set upon the throne.


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