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And therefore, sir, syth that I you noght grieve,
While, as for old age, all gentle natures honour it. “But,” she said, “I shall give you your choice of two things: either to have me as I am, and let me be to you a trewé humble wife; or else to have me young and fair, and take your chance of the transformation.” The knight thought over it a long while, and then said—
“‘My ladye and my love, and wyf so dere,
She had been one of the twenty-four maidens whom the Fairy Queen had changed into an old hag for the nonce; and after describing the transformation,
the Wyfe concludes her tale with the wish that God would send them all “husbonds meeke and
yonge,” and keep far off from them those “that will not be governéd by their wyves, and old and angry niggards of dispense.”
The Frere next took up the ball, and began his tale, looking “with a louring chere" at the Sompnour, and said that the subject of it was to be the doings of one of that worthy's fraternity, and that they need expect to hear no good of him. His language became so violent that the Host had to interfere again, and to tell him to go on with his tale in a proper manner, and not spoil the pleasure of the journey by such quarrelling. The tale is a very able one, and the subject of it is how the Evil One carried off a sompnour to the place fittest for them, as a lawful prize, on account of his evil deeds, and how the victim himself was constrained to acknowledge that the seizure was just.
* The tale of “The Knight and the Loathly Lady” was a very favourite one in middle age times, and is to be found, with variations, in most of the collections of folk-lore, both in Eastern and Western lands. Gower gives a version of it in the first book of the ‘Confessio Amantis’; and, no doubt, both he and Chaucer went to a common source for their materials.
The Frere, by telling it, roused the anger of the Sompnour to such an extent that he was almost beside himself with rage, and he took his revenge by telling a tale in which the freres were made to appear in a very contemptible light. The tale is coarse in the extreme, and of no great merit. The next whom the Host called upon was the Clerk of Oxenford. “Sir Clerk,” he said, “you seem to ride along completely wrapped up in your own thoughts; I have not heard you speak a single word all this day. I suppose your mind is engaged on some learned theme; but Solomon says, “There is a time for everything under the sun, and this is certainly not the time for study, but for relaxation from it. Tell us some merry tale of the freaks of fortune; and do not let it be too dry, or too long, or too learned. We are all plain folks, and wish to be amused as we proceed; so keep your “high style” and figurative speech for special occasions, when you address kings or learned men, and tell us Something which we can all understand.” The Clerk, with a smile, replied that he was ready to do his bidding, and that he would give them a tale which he himself, when he visited him in Padua, had learned from the lips of the author of it, the great “Fraunceys Petrark, the laureate poete, whose rhethoryké sweete enlumined al Itaille of poetrie.”
THE CLERKES TALE: PATIENT GRISELDA.
Petrarch, he said, “in a proheme, with hy stile endited,” gives a long account of the scenery of the story, the plain of West Lombardy, lying under “Vesulus the Cold,” whence the river Po takes its rise out of “a wellé Smale,” and then flows on between rich meadows and corn-fields, and past pleasant towns, eastward to the sea; but he added that he did not think such a description would be suited to the present occasion, and that he would at once proceed to the substance of the tale.
The Lord of Saluces in that pleasant land was one who could boast of a long line of ancestors, who had ever been held in deep affection and highest reverence by all their subjects, whether noble or of low degree; and the occupant of the throne who formed the subject of the tale seemed to be a worthy son of so noble a race of sires. His name was Walter, and he was a young man, handsome in appearance, of great strength,
“And ful of honour and of curteisye.”
His subjects highly approved of his acts, save in one particular direction. He seemed utterly unwilling to give up the free pleasant life he was leading; all his thoughts appeared to be bent on hawking and hunting—to excess, as they thought —and, most of all, there did not seem to be the least sign that he would of his own accord ever come under the sacred ties of matrimony. They waited for a long time, hoping that he would do so; but as there seemed to be no likelihood of it, fearing that the noble old line which they loved so well might die out, and that strangers might obtain the throne, they could stand it no longer, and therefore came in a body to him to make their complaint. They chose one of themselves to be their spokesman, and he represented the case in most appropriate language. He said that he had no special fitness for the duty, unless perhaps the fact that he, more than most, had enjoyed high favour at Walter's hands; but that he expressed the feeling of every one of them when he said that they were sure they could not have the great happiness and prosperity they had, under any other ruler; and that it was the fear of losing him, and no feeling of discontent, that had made them come to him and say “Bowé your nekke under that blisful yoke Of soveraynté, not of service, Which that men clepeth spousail or wedlock.”