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their peace. He then requested the Wife to tell her tale without more ado; and she, with a parting shot at the Frere, said she would gladly do it, provided she had his gracious permission, which he gave like a lamb.
THE WYF OF BATHES TALE: THE KNIGHT
The tale is much shorter than the prologue, and is a very pleasant one. Its scene lies “in the oldé dayes of the King Arthur,” when “all was this land ful filled of faerie,” and when the Elf-queen with her jolly company danced “full oft their ringlets to the whistling winds.” “But now,” said the Wife, “the Good People have all been driven out of the land by these limitours and other ecclesiastics,” and she evidently thought that the change was not for the better.
At the Court of King Arthur there was a knight who disgraced his order by doing a shameful deed, and “the Blameless King” ordered him to be put to death for what he had done. The queen, however, and the other ladies of the Court, interceded for him, and his life was spared on condition that, within a year and a day from that time, he would, after banishment, return to Court, and be able to tell “what thing it is that women most desire.” This the queen told him he must do, in order “to save his nekke-bone from the iron.”
He went away, and sought diligently all through the year “to learn what thingé women love the moste”; but he could get no two of them to agree upon it. Some said riches; some jolliness; some rich array; some flattery; some careful tendence; some liberty to do exactly as they liked; some freedom from blame, whether they did well or ill; and some to have the ability to keep a secret. The expression of this last desire leads Chaucer to tell the well-known story of the wife of Midas, King of Phrygia. He says that, in answer to the inquiries of the knight—
“Some wymen said that gret delyt have we
He preyedé her, that to no creature
The knight was greatly distracted by the variety of the answers, and feared that he would by no means be able to give a Satisfactory reply when he returned to Court.
On the very last day of the time allowed him, he was wandering disconsolate through a greenwood, when he saw in the distance a company of
more than four-and-twenty damsels engaged in a dance under the trees. He eagerly pressed forward to join them; but when he came up to the place, he found that they had all disappeared, and that the only one there was an old and ugly hag who sat by the side of the green. She asked him what he was in quest of, and he told her frankly what it was. She looked strangely at him, and said that she would tell him if, afterwards, he would grant her the first thing she would ask of him. He agreed, and then she whispered the secret into his ear, whereupon he went on his way, glad at heart that he had at last found it out. Next day all the Court was assembled in state to hear his answer, and amidst deep silence he was asked to give it, which he did in this wise:–
“My liegé Ladye, generally, quod he,
Not a single wife, or maid, or widow present could deny it; and they all declared that he had fairly earned his pardon, whereat he was right glad; when, all on a sudden, the old hag presented herself, and asked him before them all to fulfil his promise. He could not deny that he had agreed to give her whatever she might ask, whereupon she said that she asked himself, and would be content with nothing else. He offered to give her everything that belonged to him, if she would allow him to go free; but nothing else would do—he was forced to marry her, and to carry her home to his hall as his bride. He was almost beside himself with grief and loathing; and when she asked him why it was so, he said it was because she was old, and foul, and poor, and of low degree. She asked him what pride of birth amounted to unless it was accompanied by the desire to do noble deeds 2 “For,” said she, “Look who that is most virtuous alway, Prive and apert, and most intendeth aye To don the gentil deedés that he can, Him take to be the grettist gentil man. For God it wot, men may ful often finde A lordés son do shame and vileinye, And wol himselvé do no gentil deedes,