Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies/Volume I/First Discourse

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Of Ladies which do make Love, and their Husbands cuckolds.[1]


SEEING 'tis the ladies have laid the foundation of all cuckoldry, and how 'tis they which do make all men cuckolds, I have thought it good to include this First Discourse in my present Book of Fair Ladies,—albeit that I shall have occasion to speak therein as much of men as of women. I know right well I am taking up a great work, and one I should never get done withal, if that I did insist on full completeness of the same. For of a truth not all the paper in the Records Office of Paris would hold in writing the half of the histories of folk in this case, whether women or men. Yet will I set down what I can; and when I can no more, I will e'en give my pen—to the devil, or mayhap to some good fellow-comrade, which shall carry on the tale.

Furthermore must I crave indulgence if in this Discourse I keep not due order and alignment, for indeed so great is the multitude of men and women so situate, and so manifold and divers their condition, that I know not any Commander and Master of War so skilled as that he could range the same in proper rank and meet array. Following therefore of mine own fantasy, will I speak of them in such fashion as pleaseth me,—now in this present month of April, the which bringeth round once more the very season and open time of cuckoos; I mean the cuckoos that perch on trees, for of the other sort are to be found and seen enough and to spare in all months and seasons of the year.

Now of this sort of cuckolds, there be many of divers kinds, but of all sorts the worst and that which the ladies fear above all others, doth consist of those wild, fierce, tricky, ill-conditioned, malicious, cruel and suspicious husbands, who strike, torture and kill, some for true cause, others for no true reason at all, so mad and furious doth the very least suspicion in the world make them. With such all dealings are very carefully to be shunned, both by their wives and by the lovers of the same. Natheless have I known ladies and their lovers which did make no account of them; for they were just as ill-minded as the others, and the ladies were bold and reckless, to such a degree that if their cavaliers chanced to fail of courage, themselves would supply them enough and to spare for both. The more so that in proportion as any emprise is dangerous and difficult, ought it to be undertaken in a bold and high spirit. On the contrary I have known other ladies of the sort who had no heart at all or ambition to adventure high endeavours; but cared for naught but their low pleasures, even as the proverb hath it: base of heart as an harlot.

Myself knew an honourable lady, and a great one, who a good opportunity offering to have enjoyment of her lover, when this latter did object to her the incommodity that would ensue supposing the husband, who was not far off, to discover it, made no more ado but left him on the spot, deeming him no doughty lover, for that he said nay to her urgent desire. For indeed this is what an amorous dame, whenas the ardour and frenzy of desire would fain be satsified, but her lover will not or cannot content her straightway, by reason of sundry lets and hindrances, doth hate and indignantly abominate above all else.

Needs must we commend this lady for her doughtiness, and many another of her kidney, who fear naught, if only they may content their passions, albeit therein they run more risks and dangers than any soldier or sailor doth in the most hazardous perils of field or sea.

A Spanish dame, escorted one day by a gallant cavalier through the rooms of the King's Palace and happening to pass by a particular dark and secret recess, the gentleman, piquing himself on his respect for women and his Spanish discretion, saith to her: Señora, buen lugar, si no fuera vuessa merced (A good place, my lady, if it were another than your ladyship). To this the lady merely answered the very same words back again, Si, buen lugar, si no fuera vuessa merced (Yes, Sir, a good place, if it were another than your lordship). Thus did she imply his cowardliness, and rebuke the same, for that he had not taken of her in so good a place what she did wish and desire to lose, as another and a bolder man would have done in like case. For the which cause she did thereupon altogether pretermit her former love for him, and left him incontinently.

I have heard tell of a very fair and honourable lady, who did make assignation with her lover, only on condition he should not touch her (nor come to extremities at all). This the other accomplished, tarrying all night long in great ecstasy, temptation and continence; and thereat was the lady so grateful that some while after she did give him full gratification, alleging for reason that she had been fain to prove his love in accomplishing the task she had laid upon him. Wherefore she did love him much thereafter, and afforded him opportunity to do quite other feats than this one,—verily one of the hardest sort to succeed in.

Some there be will commend his discretion,—or timidity, if you had rather call it so,—others not. For myself I refer the question to such as may debate the point on this side or on that according to their several humours and predispositions.

I knew once a lady, and one of no low degree, who having made an assignation with her lover to come and stay with her one night, he hied him thither all ready, in shirt only, to do his duty. But, seeing it was in wintertide, he was so sorely a-cold on the way, that he could accomplish naught, and thought of no other thing but to get heat again. Whereat the lady did loathe the caitiff, and would have no more of him.

Another lady, discoursing of love with a gentleman, he said to her among other matters that if he were with her, he would undertake to do his devoir six times in one night, so greatly would her beauty edge him on. "You boast most high prowess," said she; "I make you assignation therefore" for such and such a night. Nor did she fail to keep tryst at the time agreed; but lo! to his undoing, he was assailed by so sad a convulsion, that he could by no means accomplish his devoir so much as once even. Whereupon the fair lady said to him, "What! are you good for naught at all? Well, then! begone out of my bed. I did never lend it you, like a bed at an inn, to take your ease forsooth therein and rest yourself. Therefore, I say, begone!" Thus did she drive him forth, and thereafter did make great mock of him, hating the recreant worse than the plague.

This last gentleman would have been happy enough, if only he had been of the complexion of the great Baraud, Protonotary and Almoner to King Francis, for whenas he lay with the Court-ladies, he would even reach the round dozen at the least, and yet next morning he would say right humbly, "I pray you, Madam, make excuse that I have not done better, but I took physic yesterday." I have myself known him of later years, when he was called Captain Baraud, a Gascon, and had quitted the lawyer's robe. He has recounted to me, at my asking, his amours, and that name by name.

As he waxed older, this masculine vigour and power somewhat failed him. Moreover he was now poor, albeit he had had good pickings, the which his prowess had gotten him; yet had he squandered it all, and was now set to compounding and distilling essences. "But verily," he would say, "if only I could now, so well as once I could in my younger days, I should be in better case, and should guide my gear better than I have done."

During the famous War of the League, an honourable gentleman, and a right brave and valiant soldier, having left the place whereof he was Governor to go to the wars, could not on his return arrive in garrison before nightfall, and so betook himself to the house of a fair and very honourable and noble widow, who straight invited him to stay the night within doors. This he gladly consented to do, for he was exceeding weary. After making him good cheer at supper, she gives him her own chamber and bed, seeing that all the other bed-chambers were dismantled by reason of the War, and their furniture,—and she had good and fair plenishing,—under lock and key. Herself meanwhile withdraws to her closet, where she had a day-bed in use.

The gentleman, after several times refusing this bed and bed-chamber, was constrained by the good lady's prayers to take it. Then so soon as he was laid down therein and asleep most soundly, lo! the lady slips in softly and lays herself down beside him in the bed without his being ware of aught all the night long, so aweary was he and heavily asleep. There lay he till broad daylight, when the lady, drawing away from him, as the sleeper began to awake, said, "You have not slept without company; for I would not yield you up the whole of my bed, so have I enjoyed the one half thereof as well as ever you have the other. You have lost a chance you will never have again."

The gentleman, cursing and railing for spite of his wasted opportunity ('twere enough to make a man hang himself), was fain to stay her and beg her over. But no such thing! On the contrary, she was sorely displeased at him for not having contented her as she would have had him do, for of a truth she had not come thither for only one poor embrace,—as the saying hath it, one embrace is only the salad of a feast. She loved the plural number better than the singular, as do many worthy dames.

Herein they differ from a certain very fair and honourable lady I once knew, who on one occasion having made assignation with her lover to come and stay with her, in a twinkling he did accomplish three good embraces with her. But thereafter, he wishing to do a fourth and make his number yet complete, she did urge him with prayers and commands to get up and retire. He, as fresh as at first, would fain renew the combat, and doth promise he would fight furiously all that night long till dawn of day, declaring that for so little as had gone by, his vigour was in no wise diminished. But she did reply: "Be satisfied I have recognized your doughtiness and good dispositions. They are right fair and good, and at a better time and place I shall know very well how to take better advantage of them than at this present. For naught but some small illhap is lacking for you and me to be discovered. Farewell then till a better and more secure occasion, and then right freely will I put you to the great battle, and not to such a trifling encounter as this."

Many dames there be would not have shown this much prudency, but intoxicate with pleasure, seeing they had the enemy already on the field, would have had him fight till dawn of day.

The same honourable lady which I spake of before these last, was of such a gallant humour that when the caprice was on her, she had never a thought or fear of her husband, albeit he was a ready swordsman and quick at offence. Natheless hath she alway been so fortunate as that neither she nor her lovers have ever run serious risks of their lives or come near being surprised, by dint of careful posting of guards and good and watchful sentinels.

Still it behoves not ladies to trust too much to this, for one unlucky moment is all that is needed to ruin all,—as happened some while since to a certain brave and valiant gentleman[2] who was massacred on his way to see his mistress by the treachery and contrivance of the lady herself, the which her husband made her devise against him. Alas! if he had not entertained so high a presumption of his own worth and valour as he rightly did, he would have kept better guard, and would never have fallen,—more's the pity! A capital example, verily, not to trust over much to amorous dames, who to escape the cruel hand of their husbands, do play such a game as these order them, as did the lady in this case, who saved her own life,—at the sacrifice of her lover's.

Other husbands there be who kill the lady and the lover both together as I have heard it told of a very great lady whose husband was jealous of her, not for any offence he had certain knowledge of, but out of mere suspiciousness and mistaken zeal of love. He did his wife to death with poison and wasting sickness,—a grievous thing and an exceeding sad, after having first slain the lover, a good and honourable man, declaring that the sacrifice was fairer and more agreeable to kill the bull first, and the cow afterwards.

This same Prince was more cruel to his wife than he was later to one of his daughters, the which he had married to a great Prince, though not so great an one as himself was, he being indeed a monarch in all but name.

It fell out to this fickle dame to be gotten with child by another than her husband, who was at the time busied afar in some War. Presently, having been brought to bed of a fine child, she wist not to what Saint to make appeal, if not to her father; so to him she did reveal all by the mouth of a gentleman she had trust in, whom she sent to him. No sooner had he hearkened to his confidence than he did send and charge her husband that, for his life, he should beware to make no essay against that of his daughter, else would he do the same against his, and make him the poorest Prince in Christendom, the which he was well able to accomplish. Moreover he did despatch for his daughter a galley with a meet escort to fetch to him the child and its nurse, and providing a good house and livelihood, had the boy nourished and brought up right well. But when after some space of time the father came to die, thereupon the husband put her to death and so did punish her for her faithlessness at last.

I have heard tell of another husband who did to death the lover before the eyes of his wife, causing him to languish in long pain, to the end she might die in a martyr's agony to see the lingering death of him she had so loved and had held within her arms.

Yet another great nobleman did kill his wife openly before the whole Court.[3] For the space of fifteen years he had granted the same all liberty, and had been for long while well aware of her ill ways, having many a time and oft remonstrated thereat and admonished her. However at the last a sudden caprice took him ('tis said at the instance of a great Prince, his master), and on a certain morning he did visit her as she still lay abed, but on the point of rising. Then, after lying with her, and after sporting and making much mirth together, he did give her four or five dagger thrusts. This done, he bade a servant finish her, and after had her laid on a litter, and carried openly before all the Court to his own house, to be there buried. He would fain have done the like to her paramours; but so would he have had overmuch on his hands, for that she had had so many they might have made a small army.

I have heard speak likewise of a certain brave and valiant Captain,[4] who conceiving some suspicion of his wife, went straight to her without more ado and strangled her himself with his own hands, in her white girdle. Thereafter he had her buried with all due honour, and himself was present at her obsequies in mourning weeds and of a very sad countenance, the which mourning he did continue for many a long day,—verily a noble satisfaction to the poor lady, as if a fine funeral could bring her to life again! Moreover he did the same by a damosel which had been in waiting on his wife and had aided and abetted her in her naughtiness. Nor yet did he die without issue by this same wife, for he had of her a gallant son, one of the bravest and foremost soldiers of his country, who by virtue of his worth and emprise did reach great honour as having served his Kings and masters right well.

I have heard likewise of a nobleman in Italy which also slew his wife, not being able to catch her gallant who had escaped into France. But it is said he slew her, not so much because of her sin,—for that he had been ware of for a long time, how she indulged in loose love and took no heed for aught else,—as in order to wed another lady of whom he was enamoured.

Now this is why it is very perilous to assail and attack an armed and defended spot,—not but that there be as many of this sort assailed and right well assailed as of unarmed and undefended ones, yea! and assailed victoriously to boot. For an example whereof, I know of one that was as well armed and championed as any in all the world. Yet, was there a certain gentleman, in sooth a most brave and valiant soldier, who was fain to hanker after the same; nay! he was not content with this, but must needs pride himself thereon and bruit his success abroad. But it was scarce any time at all before he was incontinently killed by men appointed to that end, without otherwise causing scandal, and without the lady's suffering aught therefrom. Yet was she for long while in sore fear and anguish of spirit, seeing that she was then with child and firmly believing that after her bringing to bed, the which she would full fain have seen put off for an hundred years, she would meet the like fate. But the husband showed himself a good and merciful man,—though of a truth he was one of the keenest swordsmen in all the world,—and freely pardoned her; and nothing else came of it, albeit divers of them that had been her servants were in no small affright. However the one victim paid for all. And so the lady, recognizing the goodness and graciousness of such an husband, gave but very little cause for suspicion thereafter, for that she joined herself to the ranks of the more wise and virtuous dames of that day.

It fell out very different not many years since in the Kingdom of Naples to Donna Maria d'Avalos, one of the fair Princesses of that land and married to the Prince of Venusia, who was enamoured of the Count d'Andriane, likewise one of the noble Princes of the country. So being both of them come together to enjoy their passion, and the husband having discovered it,—by means whereof I could render an account, but the tale would be over long,—having insooth surprised them there together, had the twain of them slain by men appointed thereto. In such wise that next morning the fair and noble pair, unhappy beings, were seen lying stretched out and exposed to public view on the pavement in front of the house door, all dead and cold, in sight of all passers-by, who could not but weep and lament over their piteous lot.

Now there were kinsfolk of the said lady, thus done to death, who were exceeding grieved and greatly angered thereat, so that they were right eager to avenge the same by death and murder, as the law of that country doth allow. But for as much as she had been slain by baseborn varlets and slaves who deserved not to have their hands stained with so good and noble blood, they were for making this point alone the ground of their resentment and for this seeking satisfaction from the husband, whether by way of justice or otherwise,—but not so, if he had struck the blow with his own hand. For that had been a different case, not so imperatively calling for satisfaction.

Truly an odd idea and a most foolish quibble have we here! Whereon I make appeal to our great orators and wise lawyers, that they tell me this: which act is the more monstrous, for a man to kill his wife with his own hand, the which hath so oftentimes loved and caressed her, or by that of a base-born slave? In truth there are many good arguments to be alleged on the point; but I will refrain me from adducing of them, for fear they prove over weak and silly in comparison of those of such great folk.

I have heard tell that the Viceroy, hearing of the plot that was toward, did warn the lover thereof, and the lady to boot. But their destiny would have it so; this was to be the issue, and no other, of their so delightsome loves.

This lady was daughter of Don Carlo d'Avalos, second brother of the Marquis di Pesca'ira, to whom if any had played a like trick in any of his love matters wherewith I am acquaint, be sure he would have been dead this many a long day.

I once knew an husband, which coming home from abroad and having gone long without sleeping with his wife, did arrive with mind made up and glad heart to do so with her presently, and having good pleasure thereof. But arriving by night, he did hear by his little spy, how that she was accompanied by her lover in the bed. Thereupon did he straight lay hand on sword, and knocked at the door; the which being opened, he entered in resolved to kill her. After first of all hunting for the gallant, who had escaped by the window, he came near to his wife to kill her; but it so happened she was on this occasion so becomingly tricked out, so featly dressed in her night attire and her fair white shift, and so gaily decked (bear in mind she had taken all this pretty pains with herself the better to please her lover), that he had never found her so much to his taste. Then she, falling at his knees, in her shift as she was, and grovelling on the ground, did ask his forgiveness with such fair and gentle words, the which insooth she knew right well how to set forth, that raising her up and seeing her so fair and of so gracious mien, he felt his heart stir within him, and dropping his sword,—for that he had had no enjoyment for many a day and was anhungered therefor, which likely enough did stir the lady too at nature's prompting,—he forgave her and took and kissed her, and put her back to bed again, and in a twinkling lay down with her, after shutting to the door again. And the fair lady did content him so well by her gentle ways and pretty cajoleries,—be sure she forgat not any one of them all,—that eventually the next morning they were found better friends than ever, and never was so much loving and caressing between them before. As was the case likewise with King Menelaus, that poor cuckold, the which did ever by the space of ten or twelve years threaten his wife Helen that he would kill her, if ever he could put hands upon her, and even did tell her so, calling from the foot of Troy's wall to her on the top thereof. Yet, Troy well taken, and she fallen into his power, so ravished was he with her beauty that he forgave her all, and did love and fondle her in better sort than ever.

So much then for these savage husbands that from lions turn into butterflies. But no easy thing is it for any to get deliverance like her whose case we now tell.

A lady, young, fair and noble, in the reign of King Francis I., married to a great Lord of France, of as noble a house as is any to be found, did escape otherwise, and in more pious fashion, than the last named. For, whether it were she had given some cause for suspicion to her husband, or that he was overtaken by a fit of distrust or sudden anger, he came at her sword in hand for to kill her. But she bethought herself instantly to make a vow to the glorious Virgin Mary, and to promise she would to pay her said vow, if only she would save her life, at her chapel of Loretto at St. Jean des Mauverets, in the country of Anjou. And so soon as ever she had made this vow in her own mind, lo! the said Lord did fall to the ground, and his sword slipped from out his hand. Then presently, rising up again as if awaking from a dream, he did ask his wife to what Saint she had recommended herself to escape out of this peril. She told him it was to the Blessed Virgin, in her afore-named Chapel, and how she had promised to visit the holy place. Whereupon he said to her: "Go thither then, and fulfil your vow,"—the which she did, and hung up there a picture recording the story, together with sundry large and fair votive offerings of wax, such as of yore were customary for this purpose, the which were there to be seen for long time after. Verily a fortunate vow, and a right happy and unexpected escape,—as is further set forth in the Chronicles of Anjou.[5]