The Crayon Papers/The Widow's Ordeal
The Widow's Ordeal 
OR A JUDICIAL TRIAL BY COMBAT
The world is daily growing older and wiser. Its institutions vary with its years, and mark its growing wisdom; and none more so than its modes of investigating truth, and ascertaining guilt or innocence. In its nonage, when man was yet a fallible being, and doubted the accuracy of his own intellect, appeals were made to heaven in dark and doubtful cases of atrocious accusation.
The accused was required to plunge his hand in boiling oil, or to walk across red-hot plowshares, or to maintain his innocence in armed fight and listed field, in person or by champion. If he passed these ordeals unscathed, he stood acquitted, and the result was regarded as a verdict from on high.
It is somewhat remarkable that, in the gallant age of chivalry, the gentler sex should have been most frequently the subjects of these rude trials and perilous ordeals; and that, too, when assailed in their most delicate and vulnerable part--their honor.
In the present very old and enlightened age of the world, when the human intellect is perfectly competent to the management of its own concerns, and needs no special interposition of heaven in its affairs, the trial by jury has superseded these superhuman ordeals; and the unanimity of twelve discordant minds is necessary to constitute a verdict. Such a unanimity would, at first sight, appear also to require a miracle from heaven; but it is produced by a simple device of human ingenuity. The twelve jurors are locked up in their box, there to fast until abstinence shall have so clarified their intellects that the whole jarring panel can discern the truth, and concur in a unanimous decision. One point is certain, that truth is one and is immutable--until the jurors all agree, they cannot all be right.
It is not our intention, however, to discuss this great judicial point, or to question the avowed superiority of the mode of investigating truth adopted in this antiquated and very sagacious era. It is our object merely to exhibit to the curious reader one of the most memorable cases of judicial combat we find in the annals of Spain. It occurred at the bright commencement of the reign, and in the youthful, and, as yet, glorious days, of Roderick the Goth; who subsequently tarnished his fame at home by his misdeeds, and, finally, lost his kingdom and his life on the banks of the Guadalete, in that disastrous battle which gave up Spain a conquest to the Moors. The following is the story:
There was once upon a time a certain duke of Lorraine, who was acknowledged throughout his domains to be one of the wisest princes that ever lived. In fact, there was no one measure adopted by him that did not astonish his privy counselors and gentlemen in attendance; and he said such witty things, and made such sensible speeches, that the jaws of his high chamberlain were wellnigh dislocated from laughing with delight at one, and gaping with wonder at the other.
This very witty and exceedingly wise potentate lived for half a century in single blessedness; at length his courtiers began to think it a great pity so wise and wealthy a prince should not have a child after his own likeness, to inherit his talents and domains; so they urged him most respectfully to marry, for the good of his estate, and the welfare of his subjects.
He turned their advice over in his mind some four or five years, and then sent forth emissaries to summon to his court all the beautiful maidens in the land who were ambitious of sharing a ducal crown. The court was soon crowded with beauties of all styles and complexions, from among whom he chose one in the earliest budding of her charms, and acknowledged by all the gentlemen to be unparalleled for grace and loveliness. The courtiers extolled the duke to the skies for making such a choice, and considered it another proof of his great wisdom. "The duke," said they, "is waxing a little too old, the damsel, on the other hand, is a little too young; if one is lacking in years, the other has a superabundance; thus a want on one side is balanced by the excess on the other, and the result is a well-assorted marriage."
The duke, as is often the case with wise men who marry rather late, and take damsels rather youthful to their bosoms, became dotingly fond of his wife, and very properly indulged her in all things. He was, consequently, cried up by his subjects in general, and by the ladies in particular, as a pattern for husbands; and, in the end, from the wonderful docility with which he submitted to be reined and checked, acquired the amiable and enviable appellation of Duke Philibert the wife-ridden.
There was only one thing that disturbed the conjugal felicity of this paragon of husbands--though a considerable tine elapsed after his marriage, there was still no prospect of an heir. The good duke left no means untried to propitiate heaven. He made vows and pilgrimages, he fasted and he prayed, but all to no purpose. The courtiers were all astonished at the circumstance. They could not account for it. While the meanest peasant in the country had sturdy brats by dozens, without putting up a prayer, the duke wore himself to skin and bone with penances and fastings, yet seemed further off from his object than ever.
At length, the worthy prince fell dangerously ill, and felt his end approaching. He looked sorrowfully and dubiously upon his young and tender spouse, who hung over him with tears and sobbings. "Alas!" said he, "tears are soon dried from youthful eyes, and sorrow lies lightly on a youthful heart. In a little while thou wilt forget in the arms of another husband him who has loved thee so tenderly."
"Never! never!" cried the duchess. "Never will I cleave to another! Alas, that my lord should think me capable of such inconstancy!"
The worthy and wife-ridden duke was soothed by her assurances; for he could not brook the thought of giving her up even after he should be dead. Still he wished to have some pledge of her enduring constancy:
"Far be it from me, my dearest wife," said he, "to control thee through a long life. A year and a day of strict fidelity will appease my troubled spirit. Promise to remain faithful to my memory for a year and a day, and I will die in peace."
The duchess made a solemn vow to that effect, but the uxorious feelings of the duke were not yet satisfied. "Safe bind, safe find," thought he; so he made a will, bequeathing to her all his domains, on condition of her remaining true to him for a year and a day after his decease; but, should it appear that, within that time, she had in anywise lapsed from her fidelity, the inheritance should go to his nephew, the lord of a neighboring territory.
Having made his will, the good duke died and was buried. Scarcely was he in his tomb, when his nephew came to take possession, thinking, as his uncle had died without issue, the domains would be devised to him of course. He was in a furious passion, when the will was produced, and the young widow declared inheritor of the dukedom. As he was a violent, high-handed man, and one of the sturdiest knights in the land, fears were entertained that he might attempt to seize on the territories by force. He had, however, two bachelor uncles for bosom counselors, swaggering, rakehelly old cavaliers, who, having led loose and riotous lives, prided themselves upon knowing the world, and being deeply experienced in human nature. "Prithee, man, be of good cheer," said they, "the duchess is a young and buxom widow. She has just buried our brother, who, God rest his soul! was somewhat too much given to praying and fasting, and kept his pretty wife always tied to his girdle. She is now like a bird from a cage. Think you she will keep her vow? Pooh, pooh--impossible! Take our words for it--we know mankind, and, above all, womankind. She cannot hold out for such a length of time; it is not in womanhood--it is not in widowhood--we know it, and that's enough. Keep a sharp lookout upon the widow, therefore, and within the twelvemonth you will catch her tripping--and then the dukedom is your own."
The nephew was pleased with this counsel, and immediately placed spies round the duchess, and bribed several of her servants to keep watch upon her, so that she could not take a single step, even from one apartment of her palace to another, without being observed. Never was young and beautiful widow exposed to so terrible an ordeal.
The duchess was aware of the watch thus kept upon her. Though confident of her own rectitude, she knew that it is not enough for a woman to be virtuous--she must be above the reach of slander. For the whole term of her probation, therefore, she proclaimed a strict non-intercourse with the other sex. She had females for cabinet ministers and chamberlains, through whom she transacted all her public and private concerns; and it is said that never were the affairs of the dukedom so adroitly administered.
All males were rigorously excluded from the palace; she never went out of its precincts, and whenever she moved about its courts and gardens she surrounded herself with a bodyguard of young maids of honor, commanded by dames renowned for discretion. She slept in a bed without curtains, placed in the center of a room illuminated by innumerable wax tapers. Four ancient spinsters, virtuous as Virginia, perfect dragons of watchfulness, who only slept during the daytime, kept vigils throughout the night, seated in the four corners of the room on stools without backs or arms, and with seats cut in checkers of the hardest wood, to keep them from dozing.
Thus wisely and warily did the young duchess conduct herself for twelve long months, and slander almost bit her tongue off in despair, at finding no room even for a surmise. Never was ordeal more burdensome, or more enduringly sustained.
The year passed away. The last, odd day, arrived, and a long, long day it was. It was the twenty-first of June, the longest day in the year. It seemed as if it would never come to an end. A thousand times did the duchess and her ladies watch the sun from the windows of the palace, as he slowly climbed the vault of heaven, and seemed still more slowly to roll down. They could not help expressing their wonder, now and then, why the duke should have tagged this supernumerary day to the end of the year, as if three hundred and sixty-five days were not sufficient to try and task the fidelity of any woman. It is the last grain that turns the scale--the last drop that overflows the goblet--and the last moment of delay that exhausts the patience. By the time the sun sank below the horizon, the duchess was in a fidget that passed all bounds, and, though several hours were yet to pass before the day regularly expired, she could not have remained those hours in durance to gain a royal crown, much less a ducal coronet. So she gave orders, and her palfrey, magnificently caparisoned, was brought into the courtyard of the castle, with palfreys for all her ladies in attendance. In this way she sallied forth, just as the sun had gone down. It was a mission of piety--a pilgrim cavalcade to a convent at the foot of a neighboring mountain--to return thanks to the blessed Virgin, for having sustained her through this fearful ordeal.
The orisons performed, the duchess and her ladies returned, ambling gently along the border of a forest. It was about that mellow hour of twilight when night and day are mingled and all objects are indistinct. Suddenly, some monstrous animal sprang from out a thicket, with fearful howlings. The female bodyguard was thrown into confusion, and fled different ways. It was some time before they recovered from their panic, and gathered once more together; but the duchess was not to be found. The greatest anxiety was felt for her safety. The hazy mist of twilight had prevented their distinguishing perfectly the animal which had affrighted them. Some thought it a wolf, others a bear, others a wild man of the woods. For upward of an hour did they beleaguer the forest, without daring to venture in, and were on the point of giving up the duchess as torn to pieces and devoured, when, to their great joy, they beheld her advancing in the gloom, supported by a stately cavalier.
He was a stranger knight, whom nobody knew. It was impossible to distinguish his countenance in the dark; but all the ladies agreed that he was of noble presence and captivating address. He had rescued the duchess from the very fangs of the monster, which, he assured the ladies, was neither a wolf, nor a bear, nor yet a wild man of the woods, but a veritable fiery dragon, a species of monster peculiarly hostile to beautiful females in the days of chivalry, and which all the efforts of knight-errantry had not been able to extirpate.
The ladies crossed themselves when they heard of the danger from which they had escaped, and could not enough admire the gallantry of the cavalier. The duchess would fain have prevailed on her deliverer to accompany her to her court; but he had no time to spare, being a knight-errant, who had many adventures on hand, and many distressed damsels and afflicted widows to rescue and relieve in various parts of the country. Taking a respectful leave, therefore, he pursued his wayfaring, and the duchess and her train returned to the palace. Throughout the whole way, the ladies were unwearied in chanting the praises of the stranger knight, nay, many of them would willingly have incurred the danger of the dragon to have enjoyed the happy deliverance of the duchess. As to the latter, she rode pensively along, but said nothing.
No sooner was the adventure of the wood made public than a whirlwind was raised about the ears of the beautiful duchess. The blustering nephew of the deceased duke went about, armed to the teeth, with a swaggering uncle at each shoulder, ready to back him, and swore the duchess had forfeited her domain. It was in vain that she called all the saints, and angels, and her ladies in attendance into the bargain, to witness that she had passed a year and a day of immaculate fidelity. One fatal hour remained to be accounted for; and into the space of one little hour sins enough may be conjured up by evil tongues to blast the fame of a whole life of virtue.
The two graceless uncles, who had seen the world, were ever ready to bolster the matter through, and as they were brawny, broad-shouldered warriors, and veterans in brawl as well as debauch, they had great sway with the multitude. If any one pretended to assert the innocence of the duchess, they interrupted him with a loud ha! ha! of derision. "A pretty story, truly," would they cry, "about a wolf and a dragon, and a young widow rescued in the dark by a sturdy varlet who dares not show his face in the daylight. You may tell that to those who do not know human nature, for our parts, we know the sex, and that's enough."
If, however, the other repeated his assertion, they would suddenly knit their brows, swell, look big, and put their hands upon their swords. As few people like to fight in a cause that does not touch their own interests, the nephew and the uncles were suffered to have their way, and swagger uncontradicted.
The matter was at length referred to a tribunal, composed of all the dignitaries of the dukedom, and many and repeated consultations were held. The character of the duchess throughout the year was as bright and spotless as the moon in a cloudless night; one fatal hour of darkness alone intervened to eclipse its brightness. Finding human sagacity incapable of dispelling the mystery, it was determined to leave the question to heaven; or, in other words, to decide it by the ordeal of the sword--a sage tribunal in the age of chivalry. The nephew and two bully uncles were to maintain their accusation in listed combat, and six months were allowed to the duchess to provide herself with three champions to meet them in the field. Should she fail in this, or should her champions be vanquished, her honor would be considered as attainted, her fidelity as forfeit, and her dukedom would go to the nephew, as a matter of right.
With this determination the duchess was fain to comply. Proclamations were accordingly made, and heralds sent to various parts; but day after day, week after week, and month after month elapsed without any champion appearing to assert her loyalty throughout that darksome hour. The fair widow was reduced to despair, when tidings reached her of grand tournaments to be held at Toledo, in celebration of the nuptials of Don Roderick, the last of the Gothic kings, with the Morisco princess Exilona. As a last resort, the duchess repaired to the Spanish court, to implore the gallantry of its assembled chivalry.
The ancient city of Toledo was a scene of gorgeous revelry on the event of the royal nuptials. The youthful king, brave, ardent, and magnificent, and his lovely bride, beaming with all the radiant beauty of the East, were hailed with shouts and acclamations whenever they appeared. Their nobles vied with each other in the luxury of their attire, their prancing steeds, and splendid retinues; and the haughty dames of the court appeared in a blaze of jewels.
In the midst of all this pageantry, the beautiful, but afflicted Duchess of Lorraine made her approach to the throne. She was dressed in black, and closely veiled; for duennas of the most staid and severe aspect, and six beautiful demoiselles, formed her female attendants. She was guarded by several very ancient, withered, and grayheaded cavaliers; and her train was borne by one of the most deformed and diminutive dwarfs in existence.
Advancing to the foot of the throne, she knelt down, and, throwing up her veil, revealed a countenance so beautiful that half the courtiers present were ready to renounce wives and mistresses, and devote themselves to her service; but when she made known that she came in quest of champions to defend her fame, every cavalier pressed forward to offer his arm and sword, without inquiring into the merits of the case; for it seemed clear that so beauteous a lady could have done nothing but what was right; and that, at any rate, she ought to be championed in following the bent of her humors, whether right or wrong.
Encouraged by such gallant zeal, the duchess suffered herself to be raised from the ground, and related the whole story of her distress. When she concluded, the king remained for some time silent, charmed by the music of her voice. At length: "As I hope for salvation, most beautiful duchess," said he, "were I not a sovereign king, and bound in duty to my kingdom, I myself would put lance in rest to vindicate your cause; as it is, I here give full permission to my knights, and promise lists and a fair field, and that the contest shall take place before the walls of Toledo, in presence of my assembled court."
As soon as the pleasure of the king was known, there was a strife among the cavaliers present for the honor of the contest. It was decided by lot, and the successful candidates were objects of great envy, for every one was ambitious of finding favor in the eyes of the beautiful widow.
Missives were sent, summoning the nephew and his two uncles to Toledo, to maintain their accusation, and a day was appointed for the combat. When the day arrived, all Toledo was in commotion at an early hour. The lists had been prepared in the usual place, just without the walls, at the foot of the rugged rocks on which the city is built, and on that beautiful meadow along the Tagus, known by the name of the king's garden. The populace had already assembled, each one eager to secure a favorable place; the balconies were filled with the ladies of the court, clad in their richest attire, and bands of youthful knights, splendidly armed and decorated with their ladies' devices, were managing their superbly caparisoned steeds about the field. The king at length came forth in state, accompanied by the queen Exilona. They took their seats in a raised balcony, under a canopy of rich damask; and, at sight of them, the people rent the air with acclamations.
The nephew and his uncles now rode into the field, armed cap-a-pie, and followed by a train of cavaliers of their own roistering cast, great swearers and carousers, arrant swashbucklers, with clanking armor and jingling spurs. When the people of Toledo beheld the vaunting and discourteous appearance of these knights, they were more anxious than ever for the success of the gentle duchess; but, at the same time, the sturdy and stalwart frames of these warriors showed that whoever won the victory from them must do it at the cost of many a bitter blow.
As the nephew and his riotous crew rode in at one side of the field, the fair widow appeared at the other, with her suite of grave grayheaded courtiers, her ancient duennas and dainty demoiselles, and the little dwarf toiling along under the weight of her train. Every one made way for her as she passed, and blessed her beautiful face, and prayed for success to her cause. She took her seat in a lower balcony, not far from the sovereigns; and her pale face, set off by her mourning weeds, was as the moon shining forth from among the clouds of night.
The trumpets sounded for the combat. The warriors were just entering the lists, when a stranger knight, armed in panoply, and followed by two pages and an esquire, came galloping into the field, and, riding up to the royal balcony, claimed the combat as a matter of right.
"In me," cried he, "behold the cavalier who had the happiness to rescue the beautiful duchess from the peril of the forest, and the misfortune to bring on her this grievous calumny. It was but recently, in the course of my errantry, that tidings of her wrongs have reached my ears, and I have urged hither at all speed, to stand forth in her vindication."
No sooner did the duchess hear the accents of the knight than she recognized his voice, and joined her prayers with his that he might enter the lists. The difficulty was, to determine which of the three champions already appointed should yield his place, each insisting on the honor of the combat. The stranger knight would have settled the point, by taking the whole contest upon himself; but this the other knights would not permit. It was at length determined, as before, by lot, and the cavalier who lost the chance retired murmuring and disconsolate.
The trumpets again sounded--the lists were opened. The arrogant nephew and his two drawcansir uncles appeared so completely cased in steel that they and their steeds were like moving masses of iron. When they understood the stranger knight to be the same that had rescued the duchess from her peril, they greeted him with the most boisterous derision:
"Oh, ho! sir Knight of the Dragon," said they, "you who pretend to champion fair widows in the dark, come on, and vindicate your deeds of darkness in the open day."
The only reply of the cavalier was to put lance in rest, and brace himself for the encounter. Needless is it to relate the particulars of a battle, which was like so many hundred combats that have been said and sung in prose and verse. Who is there but must have foreseen the event of a contest, where Heaven had to decide on the guilt or innocence of the most beautiful and immaculate of widows?
The sagacious reader, deeply read in this kind of judicial combats, can imagine the encounter of the graceless nephew and the stranger knight. He sees their concussion, man to man, and horse to horse, in mid career, and Sir Graceless hurled to the ground and slain. He will not wonder that the assailants of the brawny uncles were less successful in their rude encounter; but he will picture to himself the stout stranger spurring to their rescue, in the very critical moment; he will see him transfixing one with his lance, and cleaving the other to the chine with a back stroke of his sword, thus leaving the trio of accusers dead upon the field, and establishing the immaculate fidelity of the duchess, and her title to the dukedom, beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The air rang with acclamations; nothing was heard but praises of the beauty and virtue of the duchess, and of the prowess of the stranger knight; but the public joy was still more increased when the champion raised his visor, and revealed the countenance of one of the bravest cavaliers of Spain, renowned for his gallantry in the service of the sex, and who had been round the world in quest of similar adventures.
That worthy knight, however, was severely wounded, and remained for a long time ill of his wounds. The lovely duchess, grateful for having twice owed her protection to his arm, attended him daily during his illness; and finally rewarded his gallantry with her hand.
The king would fain have had the knight establish his title to such high advancement by further deeds of arms; but his courtiers declared that he already merited the lady, by thus vindicating her fame and fortune in a deadly combat à outrance; and the lady herself hinted that she was perfectly satisfied of his prowess in arms, from the proofs she had received in his achievement in the forest.
Their nuptials were celebrated with great magnificence. The present husband of the duchess did not pray and fast like his predecessor, Philibert the wife-ridden; yet he found greater favor in the eyes of heaven, for their union was blessed with a numerous progeny--the daughters chaste and beauteous as their mother; the sons stout and valiant as their sire, and renowned, like him, for relieving disconsolate damsels and desolated widows.