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The Chaucer Story Book by  Eva March Tappan


 

 

THE NUN'S PRIEST'S TALE


[Illustration]

[87] WHEN the prioress had ended her story of little Hugh of Lincoln, the whole company looked thoughtful. This did not suit the cheerful host. He turned to the nun's priest and said, "Come, you Sir John, tell us some pleasant tale to make us merry."

"Yes, mine host," replied the priest. "I will tell a tale, and, by my spurs, it shall be a merry one." Then, without prelude or introduction, he began his story.

THE COCK, THE HEN, AND THE FOX

[88] ONCE upon a time a poor widow, no longer young, lived in a little cottage in a valley not far from a grove. She had two daughters and only a small income, but she was very economical, and so they managed to live. She cared for three pigs, three cows, and a sheep called Mall. Of course her meals were scanty, but she never needed any pungent sauce to give them flavor, and she was never ill from over-eating. If she had wished to dance, the gout would never have prevented her; and surely apoplexy never hurt her head, for she drank neither red wine nor white. The two colors that were oftenest seen on her table were black and white, for there were two things of which she had plenty,—black bread and milk. She had also a bit of broiled bacon now and then, and sometimes an egg or two.

This poor widow had a henyard, and in it she kept a rooster called Chanticleer. There was not another cock in all the land that could crow as well as he. His voice was merrier than the merry organ that plays in the church on mass-days, and one could tell the hour by his crowing better than by any clock. He [89] seemed to know astronomy by nature, for as soon as the sun had risen exactly fifteen degrees, he crowed, and crowed so well that there was no bettering it. He was handsome, too,—by far the handsomest rooster in the place. His comb was redder than the finest coral, and all notched in battlements like a castle wall. His bill was black and shone like jet, his legs and his toes were of a beautiful azure, his nails were whiter than the lily-flower, and his feathers gleamed like burnished gold.

About this cock were seven hens. Their color was much like his, but by far the fairest was Demoiselle Partelote, as she was called. She was so courteous and discreet and such a cheerful companion, and had behaved herself so excellently ever since she was a week old, that Chanticleer loved her with his whole heart, and was never happy away from her. They often sang together, and it was the greatest treat that could be imagined to hear them just at sunrise, when their voices chimed in the song, "My love is far away."

It came to pass one morning early, when Chanticleer was sitting on the perch among his seven wives, that he began to groan as if he was troubled by some bad dream. Partelote sat beside him, of course, and [90] when she heard him groan, she cried, "Sweetheart, what troubles you? What makes you groan?"

The cock replied, "Madame, do not be anxious; it was only a dream, but it was such a terrible one that I am frightened even to remember it. I dreamed that I was walking up and down the yard, when I saw a dreadful creature somewhat like a dog, and it tried to kill me. It was between yellow and red, its tail and ears were tipped with black, its nose was small, and its eyes glowed like fire. That must have been what made me groan, for I am afraid even now."

Then said Dame Partelote, "Fie upon you for a chicken-hearted cock! Pluck up your courage if you would keep my love, for no woman can admire a coward. We long, every one of us, to have a husband who is bold and brave and generous. He must know how to keep a secret, and he must be wise. He must not be frightened at the sight of a knife, and he must not be a braggart. Are you not ashamed to tell your love that you are afraid of anything? You have a beard, haven't you the heart of a man? Dreams are nothing—and to think that you are afraid of them! Dreams often come from overeating and sometimes when one has too much red humor. That would make him see [91] visions of arrows and flames of fire, and red creatures that he fears will bite him. That is what the red humor does, just as the black humor, or melancholy, makes many a man cry out in his sleep for fear of black bears and bulls or black devils. I could tell of more humors that trouble men in sleep. Do you not remember that Cato said, 'Pay no heed to dreams'? Now, dearest," she continued, "when we fly down from here, I pray you take some medicine. There are herbs and berries right in our own yard that will cure you. I will point them out to you."

"Madame," the cock replied, "I thank you for your learning. Cato was a wise man, but there has been many a man of greater wisdom than he who does not agree with him and who has learned by experience that dreams signify either joy or sorrow. One of the most famous authors that men read tells a story of two men who set off together on a pilgrimage. On the way they came to a little village so crowded that there was no room for them both in the same house. One chanced to find a comfortable lodging, but the other could do no better than to lie down in a stall with oxen all about him.

"In the middle of the night the man who was [92] well lodged dreamed that his friend called to him and said, 'Help me, dear brother! Come to me quickly, or I shall be murdered here in an ox's stall.' He woke with a start, and then he thought, 'How foolish to be troubled by a dream!' So he turned over and went to sleep again. The same dream came to him a second time, and a second time he said, 'How foolish!' and went to sleep. A third dream came, and this time the friend did not call for help, but said, 'I have been slain. Look at my gaping wounds. I was murdered for my money.' Then point by point the man told in the dream how it had come about. At last he said, 'If you will get up early in the morning and go to the west gate of the town, you will see a cart full of rubbish. Don't be afraid to stop the cart, for my body will be hidden in the rubbish.'

"This time the man did not say, 'How foolish!' and as soon as it was day, he went to the ox's stall and called for his friend. The innkeeper said, 'Sir, your friend rose early and went out of town.' Then the man went to the west gate, and there he saw a cart of rubbish looking just as his friend had described it in the dream. At this he began to believe the dream must be true. He cried aloud for vengeance. 'My [93] murdered friend lies in this cart!' he declared fearlessly. 'You officers who ought to keep this town, I call upon you for vengeance and justice.' Murder will out. It is such a loathsome thing that God will not suffer it to be concealed. The people gathered all around. They overturned the cart, and in the midst of the rubbish they found the body of the murdered man. Then the officers of the town seized the carter and the innkeeper and tortured them till they confessed the crime, and straightway they were hanged.

"You can see by this that there is truth in dreams. And now in that same book, in the very next chapter beyond this, I read about two men who wanted to cross the sea to a distant country. They waited a long while, for the wind was contrary. At last it changed and blew just as they wished. They planned to start early in the morning, and went to bed happy.

"But while they were asleep a wonderful thing happened, for one of them dreamed that a man stood by his bedside and said, 'If you sail to-morrow, you will be drowned.' He started out of his sleep, called his friend, and told him of the dream. 'Let us put off the voyage for one day,' he said. But his friend only laughed at him for being so foolish as to trust [94] in dreams. 'No dream would ever frighten me,' he declared, 'so that I would give up my business for it. Dreams are only nonsense. People dream of all sorts of wild fancies that never were and never will be. I see, however, that you are bound to stay here and lose the wind. I pity you for your folly, and say farewell: He went on board the boat and started on his voyage; but before it was half done, something happened, I do not know what, save that the ship sprang a leak and went to the bottom, and the man was drowned. And now, dearest Partelote, you see that one ought not to be careless of dreams. But now let us not talk of this any more, for when I gaze into your lovely face and see the beautiful scarlet-red about your eyes, I forget all about my fears; I am so happy that I do not care a straw for any dreams or visions."

But now the dawn had come. Chanticleer flew down from the roost and called his hens, and when he had found a kernel of corn, he clucked to them and stood one side to watch them eat it; and certainly no one who saw him looking as brave as a lion and walking up and down the yard on the tips of his toes as if he scorned the ground too much to more than touch it would ever imagine him afraid of anything; [95] and yet trouble lay but a little way before him. As evil fate would have it, there was a wicked fox that had lived for three years in the grove near the cottage. For a long while he had been trying to plan some way to get Chanticleer; and that same night he had slipped softly through a break in the hedge into the yard and had hidden in a bed of cabbages. There he lay, watching with his half-shut eyes the noble rooster walking proudly up and down the yard.

The early morning had passed and nine o'clock had come. Dame Partelote, the beautiful, was bathing in the clean, warm sand, and her sisters were not far away. Chanticleer was singing as merry as a mermaid; but suddenly, while he was watching a butterfly fluttering here and there above the cabbages, he caught sight of the fox lying half hidden among them. His heart turned cold, and the beautiful music of his crowing died in his throat. He cried hoarsely, "Cok! cok! in the greatest fear. In another moment he would have run away, but the fox spoke so gently and courteously that he could not help listening to him. "Gentle sir," said the crafty fox, "I beg of you not to fear so true a friend as I. I should be worse than a fiend to do one like you any harm. I pray you do not [96] think for an instant that I came for any other reason than because I longed so eagerly to hear your singing from nigh at hand that I could not stay away. Indeed, dear sir, you have as sweet a voice as any angel in heaven. Pardon me for addressing you, but, truly, I count myself no stranger to your noble family. My lord, your father—God bless his soul!—and also your mother have honored my poor house by becoming its guests. But to speak again of singing, I never heard any one except yourself sing so wondrous well as your father used to do at the dawning. He had a habit of making his voice stronger by standing on tip-toe and stretching out his neck. Then he would close his eyes and send forth the sweetest music, save your own, that was ever heard; and as for wisdom and discretion, there was not a person anywhere in the world who could surpass him. Kind sir, would you out of the pure goodness of your heart sing to me once more, and let me fancy that I am listening to your father's voice?"

No one had ever praised Chanticleer so delightfully before. Of course he could not refuse so small a request to one who had shown how fully he enjoyed the best of music. So he stood high upon his toes, [97] stretched out his neck, closed his eyes, and began to crow. His song was, indeed, louder than ever before, so loud that he did not hear the fox stealthily creeping closer to him. And while he was straining his voice till the valley reechoed with his crowing, the treacherous fox caught him by the throat and ran toward the woods, the cock upon his back.

When Troy was burned, the women wept and lamented; but, truly, never before was there heard such crying and screaming as came from the feathered ladies of the yard when they saw the terrible fate that had befallen their noble lord and master. Poor Dame Partelote shrieked louder than all the rest; but the outcries of any one of them might well have reached the skies.

The widow and her daughters heard the alarm and ran to the door. There were the hens and the yard and the grove, and there was the wicked fox, the thief and murderer, running at the top of his speed with the rooster on his back. The women cried, "Stop, stop! a fox, a fox!" and ran after him as fast as they could go. The men caught up sticks and ran; the dog Coll ran; and Talbot and Garland and Malkin with a distaff in her hand; the cow and the calf ran; and even the [98] hogs, for they were so frightened at the shouting of the people and the barking of the dogs that they ran, squealing all the way like very fiends. The ducks quacked as if they thought men were trying to kill them; the geese squawked, took wing, and flew over the tops of the trees; and a swarm of bees came buzzing out of their hives and flew after them. And this was not all, for the people ran home to get trumpets of brass and boxwood and horn and bone. They bellowed, they blew, they shouted, they bawled, they hooted and roared and yelled and howled and screeched and screamed, till they raised such a hullaballoo as was never heard on the earth before—and all this time the fox was running toward the wood with the cock on his back.

Some folk behave better when they are in trouble than when all goes smoothly with them, and Chanticleer was one of these people. He knew well that the fox could reach his hole before the pursuers could catch up with him, and that whatever was done must be done at once. He had grown far wiser since he had been taken prisoner, and he said calmly to his captor, "Sir, if I were you, I would defy all that rabble. I would say to them, 'Turn back, proud men, a plague [99] upon you all! I am close to the grove, and I will eat the cock in spite of you.'"

"In faith," declared the fox, "that is the very thing I will do." But the cock was ready, and the instant the fox opened his mouth to speak, he broke loose, flapped his wings, and in another moment he was perched high upon a tree.

The fox was too wily to be put out of countenance by even such a surprise as this. He looked up meekly into the tree and said in a humble voice, "My dear Chanticleer, I am heartily ashamed of myself; and I beg your pardon most submissively. I ought to have remembered that you were not used to my ways and not to have startled you so when I brought you out of your yard. Honestly, sir, I never thought of doing you harm. If you will kindly come down to the ground where we may talk more comfortably, I shall be glad to explain the matter to you."

"No, sir," replied the cock, with just a bit of an exultant crow; "may the fiends take me if you cheat me more than once. You will not get me to sing and shut up my eyes again, for no one will ever thrive who shuts up his eyes when he ought to keep them open."

[100] "Not that," replied the fox, "but bad luck to him who talks when he ought to hold his peace."

Thus ends the story of the cock and the hen and the fox.


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