Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of feminine Subtlety

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Gesta Romanorum Vol. II  (1871) 
Anonymous, translated by Charles Swan
Of feminine Subtlety



King Darius was a circumspect prince, and had three sons, whom he much loved. On his death-bed he bequeathed the kingdom to the first-born; to the second, all his own personal acquisitions; and to the third a golden ring, a necklace, and a piece of valuable cloth. The ring had the power to render any one, who bore it on his finger, beloved; and, moreover, obtained for him whatsoever he sought. The necklace enabled the person who wore it upon his breast, to accomplish his heart's desire; and the cloth had such virtue, that whosoever sat upon it, and thought where he would be carried, there he instantly found himself. These three gifts the king conferred upon the younger son, for the purpose of aiding his studies; but his mother retained them until he was of a proper age. Soon after the bequests, the old monarch gave up the ghost, and was magnificently buried. The two elder sons then took possession of their legacies; and the mother of the younger delivered to him the ring, with the caution, that he should beware of the artifices of woman, or he would otherwise lose the ring. Jonathan (for that was his name) took the ring, and went zealously to his studies, in which he made himself a proficient. But walking on a certain day through the street, he observed a very beautiful woman, with whom he was so much struck, that he took her to him. He continued, however, to use the ring, and found favour with every one, insomuch, that whatever he desired he had.

Now the lady was greatly surprised that he lived so splendidly, having no possessions; and once, when he was particularly exhilarated, tenderly embraced him, and protested that there was not a creature under the sun whom she loved so much as she did him. He ought therefore, she thought, to tell her by what means he supported his magnificence. He explained the virtues of the ring; and she begged that he would be careful of so invaluable a treasure. "But," added she, "in your daily intercourse with men you may lose it: place it in my custody, I beseech you." Overcome by her entreaties he gave up the ring; and when his necessities came upon him, she refused to relinquish it. He lamented bitterly, but now he had not any means of subsistence; and hastening to his mother, stated how he had lost his ring. "My son," said she, "I forewarned you of what would happen, but you have paid no attention to my advice. Here is the necklace, preserve it more carefully. If it be lost, you will for ever want a thing of the greatest honour and profit." Jonathan took the necklace, and returned to his studies. At the gate of the city his concubine met him, and received him with the appearance of great joy. He remained with her, wearing the necklace upon his breast; and whatever he thought he possessed. As before, he lived so gloriously, that the lady wondered, well knowing that he had neither gold nor silver. She guessed, therefore, that he carried another talisman; and cunningly drew from him the history of the wonder-working necklace. "Why," said the lady, "do you always take it with you? you may think in one moment more than can be made use of in a year. Let me keep it." "No," replied he, "you will lose the necklace, as you lost the ring; and thus I shall receive the greatest possible injury." "O my lord," replied she, "I have learnt by having had the custody of the ring, how to secure the necklace; and I assure you no one can possibly get it from me." The silly youth confided in her words, and delivered the necklace.

Now when all he possessed was expended, he sought his talisman; and she, as before, solemnly protested that it had been stolen. This threw Jonathan into the greatest distress—"Am I mad," cried he, "that after the loss of my ring, I should give up the necklace?" Immediately hastening to his mother, he related to her the whole circumstance. Not a little afflicted, she said, "O my dear child, how canst thou place confidence in a woman who has twice deceived thee? People will believe thee a fool: but be wise, for I have nothing more for you than the valuable cloth which your father left: and if you lose that, it will be quite useless returning to me." Jonathan received the cloth, and again went to his studies. The concubine seemed very joyful; and he, spreading out the cloth, said, "My dear girl, my father bequeathed me this beautiful cloth, sit down upon it by my side." She complied, and Jonathan secretly wished that they were in a desert place, out of the reach of man. The talisman took effect; they were carried into a forest on the uttermost boundary of the world, where there was not a trace of humanity. The lady wept bitterly, but Jonathan paid no regard to her tears. He solemnly vowed to heaven, that he would leave her a prey to the wild beasts, unless she restored his ring and necklace, and this she promised to do. Presently, yielding to her request, the foolish Jonathan discovered the power of the cloth; and, in a little time being weary, placed his head in her lap and slept. In the interim, she contrived to draw away that part of the cloth upon which he reposed, and sitting upon it alone, wished herself where she had been in the morning. The cloth immediately executed her wishes, and left Jonathan slumbering in the forest. When he awoke, and found his cloth and concubine departed, he burst into an agony of tears. Where to bend his steps he knew not; but arising, and fortifying himself with the sign of the cross, he walked along a certain path, until he reached a deep river, over which he must pass. But he found it so bitter and hot, that it even separated the flesh from the bones. Full of grief, he conveyed away a small quantity of that water, and when he had proceeded a little further, felt hungry. A tree upon which hung the most tempting fruit invited him to partake; he did so, and immediately became a leper. He gathered also a little of the fruit, and conveyed it with him. After travelling for some time, he arrived at another stream, of which the virtue was such, that it restored the flesh to his feet; and eating of a second tree he was cleansed from his leprosy. Some of that fruit he likewise took along with him.

Walking in this manner day after day, he came at length to a castle, where he was met by two men, who inquired what he was. "I am a physician," answered he. "This is lucky," said the other; "the king of this country is a leper, and if you are able to cure him of his leprosy, vast rewards will be assigned you." He promised to try his skill; and they led him forward to the king. The result was fortunate; he supplied him with the fruit of the second tree, and the leprosy left him; and washing the flesh with the water, it was completely restored. Being rewarded most bountifully, he embarked on board a vessel for his native city. There he circulated a report that a great physician was arrived; and the lady who had cheated him of the talismans being sick unto death, immediately sent for him. Jonathan was so much disguised that she retained no recollection of him, but he very well remembered her. As soon as he arrived, he declared that medicine would avail nothing, unless she first confessed her sins; and if she had defrauded any one, it must be restored. The lady, reduced to the very verge of the grave, in a low voice acknowledged that she had cheated Jonathan of his ring, necklace, and cloth; and had left him in a desert place to be devoured by wild beasts. When she had said this, the pretended physician exclaimed, "Tell me, lady, where these talismans are?" "In that chest," answered she; and delivered up the keys, by which he obtained possession of his treasures. Jonathan then gave her of the fruit which produced leprosy; and, after she had eaten, of the water which separated the flesh from the bones. The consequence was, that she was excruciated with agony. Jonathan hastened to his mother, and the whole kingdom rejoiced at his return. He told by what means God had freed him from such various dangers; and, having lived many years, ended his days in peace. (27)


My beloved, the king is Christ; the queen-mother, the church; and the three sons, men living in the world. The third son is any good Christian: the ring is faith; the necklace, is grace or hope; and the cloth, charity. The concubine is the flesh; the bitter water is repentance, and the first fruit is remorse; the second water is confession, and the second fruit is prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The leprous king is any sinful man; the ship in which Jonathan embarked is the divine command.

Note 27.Page 155.

"From this beautiful tale, of which the opening only is here given, Occleve, commonly called Chaucer's disciple, framed a poem in the octave, which was printed in the year 1614, by William Browne, in his set of Eclogues called the Shepheard's Pipe. Occleve has literally followed the book before us, and has even translated into English prose the Moralisation annexed. He has given no sort of embellishment to his original, and by no means deserves the praises which Browne, in the following elegant pastoral lyrics, has bestowed on his performance, and which more justly belong to the genuine gothic, or rather Arabian, inventor.

"'Well I wot, the man that first
Sung this lay, did quench his thirst,

Deeply as did ever one,
In the Muses' Helicon.
Many times he hath been seen
With the faëries on the green,
And to them his pipe did sound,
As they danced in a round;
Mickle solace would they make him,
And at midnight often take him,
And convey him from his room
To a field of yellow broom,
Or into the meadows where
Mints perfume the gentle air,
And where Flora spreads her treasure,
There they would begin their measure.
If it chanced night's sable shrouds
Muffled Cynthia in her clouds,
Safely home they then would see him,
And from brakes and quagmires free him.
There are few such swains as he
Now-a-days for harmony[1].'

"The history of Darius, who gave this legacy to his three sons, is incorporated with that of Alexander, which has been decorated with innumerable fictions by the Arabian writers. There is also a separate romance on Darius, and on Philip of Macedon."—Warton.

"The story has been very properly termed by Mr. Warton a beautiful one; but he has not been equally accurate in his statement, that 'Occleve has literally followed the book before us (i.e. the original Gesta), and has even translated into English prose the moralization annexed.' Occleve's immediate model was our English Gesta; nor is it improbable that he might even be the translator of it; the moralization also, is entirely different. Mr. Warton has omitted to notice, that this story corresponds with that of Fortunatus; which, unless itself of oriental origin, might have been taken from it."—Douce.

The incident of the magic cloth, may be found in "The story of prince Ahmed, and the Fairy Pari Banou," in the Arabian Nights' Entertainments, Vol. 3.

  1. Eclogue 1.