Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies/Volume I/First Discourse (10.)

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10.

SOME cuckolds there be which are good-natured and which of their own impulse do invite themselves to this feast of cuckoldry. Thus I have known some who would say to their wives, "Such and such an one is in love with you; I know him well, and he often cometh to visit us, but 'tis for love of you, my pretty. Give him good welcome; he can do us much pleasure, his acquaintance may advantage us greatly."

Others again will say to their wives' admirers, "My wife is in love with you, and right fond of you. Come and see her, you will give her pleasure; you can chat and hold discourse together, and pass the time agreeably." So do they invite folk to feast at their expense. As did the Emperor Hadrian,[1] who being one time in Britain (as we read in his Life), carrying on War there, did receive sundry warnings, how that his wife, the Empress Sabina, was making unbridled love with a number of gallant Roman noblemen. As fate would have it, she had writ and despatched a letter from Rome to a certain young Roman gentleman who was with the Emperor in Britain, complaining that he had forgot her, and took no more account of her, and that it must needs be he had some intrigue in that region and that some affected little wanton had caught him in the lakes of her beauty. This letter fell by chance into the Emperor's hands; and when the nobleman in question did some days after ask leave of absence under colour of wishing to go to Rome immediately for family affairs of his own, Hadrian said to him in mocking wise, "Well, well! young sir, go there,—and boldly, for the Empress, my wife, is expecting you in all affection." But the Roman hearing this, and finding the Emperor had discovered his secret and might likely play him some ill turn, started the very next night, without saying by your leave or with your leave, and took refuge in Ireland.

Still he had no need to be greatly afraid for all this. Indeed the Emperor himself would often say, being regaled continually with tales of the extravagant love affairs of his wife, "Why, certainly, were I not Emperor, I should have long ago rid me of my wife; but I desire not to show an evil example." As much as to say, it matters not to the great to be in this case, so long as they let it not be known publicly. And what a fate for great men,—one which truly some of them have consented to, though not for the same reason! So we see this good Emperor suffering himself complacently to be made cuckold.

Another good Emperor, Marcus Aurelius,[2] who had as wife Faustina, a downright harlot, replied on being advised to put her away, "If we give her up, we are bound also to give up her dowry, which is the Empire." And who would not be cuckold like him for such a prize, or even a less one?

His son, Antonius Verus, surnamed Commodus, though he grew up very cruel, yet held the like language to such as advised him to have the said Faustina, his mother, put to death. So madly in love was she and so hot after a gladiator that she could never be cured of the fierce malady, till at last they bethought them to kill the rascally gladiator and make her drink his blood.

Many and many a husband hath done and doth the same as the good Marcus Aurelius, for they do fear to kill their wives, whores though they be, for dread of losing the great fortunes they have of them, and had rather be rich cuckolds on these easy terms than cruel villains.

Heavens! how many of the sort have I known, who were forever inviting their kinsmen and friends and comrades to come and visit their wives, going so far as to make banquets for them, the better to attract them. Then, when they were there, they would leave them alone with the lady in bedchamber or closet, and so away, with the words, "I leave my wife in your care."

One I knew, a nobleman of the great world, of such behaviour you would have said his whole happiness did rest in this only, to be cuckolded. He seemed to make it his study to give opportunities therefor, and especially never forgot to say this first word, "My wife is in love with you; do you love her as well as she loves you, I wonder?" Many a time when he saw his wife with her admirer, he would carry off the company from the room to take a walk, leaving the twain of them together, so giving them good leisure to discuss their loves. And if by any chance he had to return of a sudden into the room, from the very bottom step of the stairs he would begin shouting aloud, calling after someone, spitting or coughing, to the end he might not catch the lovers in the act. For commonly, even though one know of them and suspect their coming, these peeps and surprises are scarce pleasant whether to the one party or the other.

This same Lord was having a fine mansion built one time, and the master mason having asked whether he would not have the cornices horn-amented, he made answer, "I don't know what hornamentation means. Go and ask my wife who understands the thing, and knows geometry; and whatever she tells you to do, do it." Still worse was it with one I know of, who one day selling one of his estates to a purchaser for fifty thousand crowns, did take forty-five thousand of the sum in gold and silver, and in lieu of the remaining five accepted a unicorn's horn. Huge laughter amid them that knew him; "Ha, ha!" they said, "as if he had not enough horns at home already, that he must fit in this one to boot."

Still worse was it with one I know of, who one day selling one of his estates to a purchaser for fifty thousand crowns, did take forty-five thousand of the sum in gold and silver, and in lieu of the remaining five accepted a unicorn's horn. Huge laughter amid them that knew him; "Ha, ha!" they said, "as if he had not enough horns at home already, that he must fit in this one to boot."

I knew a very great Lord, a brave and gallant man, who did greet a certain honourable gentleman and profess himself his very good servant, yet adding with a smile these words, "My dear Sir, I know not what you have done to my wife, but she is so much in love with you that day and night she doth nothing but speak to me of you, and is forever singing your praises. For all answer I tell her I have known you longer than she hath, and am well aware of your worth and deserts, which are great." Who more astonished than this same gentleman? for he had but just taken in this lady on his arm to Vespers, which the Queen was attending, and that was all. However, he at once regained his countenance and replied, "Sir! I am your wife's most humble servant, and deeply grateful for the good opinion she hath of me, and do greatly respect her. Yet do I not make love to her," he went on in a merry tone. "All I do is to pay her my court, herein following the good advice yourself gave me quite lately, seeing she hath much influence with my mistress, whom I may be enabled to wed by her help, and therefore do hope she will give me her assistance."

The Prince had no suspicion and did naught but laugh and admonish the gentleman to court his wife more assiduously than ever. This he did, being right glad under this pretext to be lover to so fair a lady and so great a Princess, who soon made him forget his other mistress he had been fain to wed, and scarce to think of her again, except to find her a convenient mask to dissemble and cover up the whole thing withal. Even so could the Prince not help but feel some pangs of jealousy when one day he did see the said gentleman in the Queen's chamber wearing on his arm a ribband of Spanish scarlet, which had just been brought to Court as a fine novelty, and which he did touch and handle as he talked with him; then going to find his wife who was by the Queen's bedside, lo! he saw she had one that was its very match, which he did likewise touch and handle and proved it to be like it in all respects and part of the same piece as the other. Yet did he breathe never a word, nor take any steps in the matter. And indeed in such intrigues it is very needful to cover up their fires with such cinders of discretion and good counsel as that they may never be discovered; for very oft such discovery of the scandal will anger husbands far more against their wives than when the same is done, but all in secret,—herein illustrating the proverb, Si non caste, tamen caute,—"If not with virtue, at any rate with prudence."

What terrible scandals and great incommodities have I seen in my time arise from the indiscretions of ladies and their lovers! Yet would the husbands have cared naught at all about the thing, if only they had done their doings sotto coperte (under cover, under the rose), as the saying is, and the matter had never seen the light.

I knew one dame who was all for manifesting quite openly her loves and preferences, which she did indulge as if she had had no husband at all, and had been her own mistress entirely, refusing to listen to the counsels of her friends and lovers, who did remonstrate with her and point out the inconveniences she was exposing herself to. And of these she did later reap a sore harvest!

This lady did otherwise than many worthy dames have done at all times, who have gaily enjoyed love and lived a merry life, yet have never given much evidence thereof to the world, except mayhap some small suspicions, that could scarce have revealed the truth even to the most clear-sighted. For they would address their lovers in public so dexterously, and deal with them so adroitly, that neither husbands nor spies, all their life long, could ever get aught to bite at. And when their favourites departed on some journey, or came to die, they would dissemble and conceal their grief so cunningly that none ever discovered aught.

I knew a fair and honourable lady, who the day a certain great Lord, her lover, died, did appear in the Queen's chamber with a countenance as gay and smiling as the day before. Some did think highly of her for such discretion, deeming she did so for fear of doing the King displeasure and angering him, for that he liked not the man deceased. Others blamed her, attributing this bearing rather to the lack of true love, wherein 'twas said she was but poorly furnished, like all women who lead the life she did.

I knew on the other hand two fair and honourable ladies, who having lost their lovers in a misadventure of war, did make great sorrow and lamentation, and did make manifest their mourning by their dusky weeds, and eke holywater vessels and sprinklers of gold engraven with figures, and death's-heads, and all kinds of trophies of dissolution, in their trinkets, jewels and bracelets which they wear. All this did bring much scandal upon them and was greatly to their hurt; though their husbands did take no special heed thereof.

This is how these ladies do themselves hurt by the making public their amours; these we may rightly praise and esteem for their constancy, though not for their discretion, for on this last count what they do is much to their disadvantage.

And if ladies so doing are blameworthy, there be many likewise among their lovers which do deserve reprimand quite as much as they. For they will ever be putting on looks as they were half dead, like she-goats in kid, and a most languorous mien, making eyes and casting appealing glances, indulging in passionate gestures and lovesick sighs in company, openly bedecking themselves with their ladies' colours,—in a word giving way to so many silly indiscretions that a blind man could scarce fail to note them. Some of them moreover do the like more in pretence than in reality, desiring to let all the Court understand they are in love in an high quarter, and are happy in their amours. Whereas, God wot, it may well be the ladies would not give them so much as one poor farthing in alms, to save their repute for deeds of charity!

I do know well a certain nobleman and great Lord, who desiring to satisfy the world he was the lover of a fair and honourable lady that I know of, had his little mule held in front of her door, with a couple of his lackeys and pages. As it fell out, M. d'Estrozze and myself did pass that way, and beheld this mystery of the mule and the man's pages and lackeys. He asked instantly where was their master, and they replied he was within, in the lady's house. Hereupon M. d'Estrozze burst out a-laughing, and turning to me, said he would wager his life he was not there at all. And in a moment after he posted his page as sentinel to watch if the pretended lover should come forth; then quickly we hied us to the Queen's chamber, where we found our man,—not without some laughter betwixt him and me.

Then towards evening we went to greet him, and pretending to quarrel with him, did ask him where he was at such and such an hour of the afternoon, and how that he could not deceive us, as we had seen his mule and his pages before the said lady's door. But the fellow, making as though he were vexed we had seen so much and were for this cause attacking him for carrying out an intrigue in this high quarter, did confess he was there in very truth. At the same time he besought us not to breathe a word; else should we bring him into sore trouble, and the poor lady would incur scandal and the displeasure of her husband. And this we did faithfully promise him,—laughing all the while heartily and making mock at him, albeit he was a nobleman of no small rank and quality, and declaring we would not speak of the thing, and never a syllable pass our lips.

Finally after some days during which he did continue his trick with the mule too often for our patience, we did discover our artfulness to him, and attacked him with right good will and in good company. This made him desist for very shame, and indeed the lady did know of it by this time through our information, and had the mule and the pages watched one day and incontinently driven away from her door like beggars in front of an inn. Nay! we did even better, for we told the tale to the husband, and that in such merry wise he found it right diverting and laughed heartily at the thing, saying he had no fear this fellow would make him cuckold, and that if ever he should find the said mule and pages stationed at his door, he would have the gates opened and invite them inside, to the end they might be more at ease and sheltered from heat, cold or rain. Not but what others all the whole while were cuckolding him soundly enough. And this is how this noble Lord was fain, at the expense of an honourable lady and her repute, to exalt himself, without any heed to the scandal he might cause thereby.

I knew another nobleman who did bring sore scandal on a very fair and honourable lady by his behaviour. He had for some while been in love with her, and did urge her to grant him the little tit-bit reserved for her husband's mouth, but she did refuse him flatly. At last, after several refusals, he said to her, as if in despair, "Well, if you won't, why, you won't; but I give you my oath I will ruin your honour and repute." And to this end he bethought him to make many comings and goings in secret, yet not so secret but that he made himself seen of set purpose by sundry eyes, and let himself be noted by day and by night frequenting the house where she dwelt. Then he would be ever vaunting and boasting under the rose of his pretended successes, and in company seeking out the lady with more familiarity than he had any call to do, and among his comrades swaggering as the happy lover, and this all in mere pretence. The end was that one night having slipped in very late into the said lady's bedchamber, all muffled in his cloak and hiding from the folk of the house, and after playing sundry of his stealthy tricks, he was suspected by the seneschal of the household, who had a watch set. And though they could not find him, yet did the husband beat his wife and give her several buffets; but later, urged thereto by the seneschal, who said it was not punishment enough, did stab her and kill her; and readily won his pardon therefor from the King. A sad pity truly for the poor lady, who was very fair and beauteous. Afterward the nobleman, which had been cause of all the mischief, did not fare far or well, but was killed in a passage of war, by God's good will, for having so unjustly robbed an honourable lady of her good name and her life.