Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies/Volume I/Second Discourse (3.3)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


WHEN I was at Milan, I was one day told a diverting tale,—how the late Marquis de Pescaire,[1] dead no long while agone, erst Viceroy of Sicily, did fall deeply in love with a very fair lady. And so one morning, believing her husband was gone abroad, he set forth to visit her, finding her still a-bed; but in conversation with her, he did win naught else but only to see her, gaze at her under the clothes at his leisure, and touch her with his hand. While this was a-doing, lo! the husband did appear, a man which was not of the high consideration of the Marquis in any respect, and did surprise them in such sort that the Marquis had no time to get back his glove, the which was lost some way or another among the sheets, as doth frequently happen. Presently, after exchanging a few words with him, he did leave the chamber, conducted to the door by the husband. The latter on returning did, as chance would have it, discover the Marquis's glove lost among the sheets, the lady not having noticed the same. This he did take and lock up, and after, putting on a cold demeanour toward his wife, did long remain without sleeping with her or touching her at all. Wherefore one day she being alone in her chamber, did set hand to pen and write this quatrain following:

Vigna era, vigna son.
Era podata, or piu non son;
E non so per qual cagion
Non mi poda il mio patron.

So leaving these verses writ out on the table, anon the husband came and saw the lines; and so taketh pen and doth thus reply:

Vigna eri, vigna sei,
Eri podata, e piu non sei.
Per la granfa del leon,
Non ti poda il tuo patron.

These he did leave likewise on the table. The whole was carried to the Marquis, who made answer:

A la vigna chez voi dite
Io fui, e qui restai;
Alzai il pampano; guardai la vite;
Ma, se Dio m'ajuti, non toccai.

This in turn was shown to the husband, who satisfied with so honourable a reply and fair apology, did take his vine to him again, and did cultivate the same as industriously as heretofore; and never were husband and wife happier together.

I will now translate the verses from the Italian, that all may follow the sense:

"I was a vine, and am so still. I was well cultivated; but am so no more. And I know not for what cause my master doth not now cultivate me as before."


"A vine thou wert, and art so still; thou wert well cultivated, and art so no more. Because of the lion's claw, for this cause thy master doth not now cultivate thee as before."


"The vine you both do speak of I visited 'tis true, and tarried a space. I lifted the cluster, and looked at the grape; but, so God help me, touched not at all."

By the "lion's claw" the husband meaneth to signify the glove he had found lost between the sheets.

A good husband this, which did not take umbrage overmuch, and putting away his suspicions, did thus forgive his wife. And there is no doubt there be ladies which do take such a delight in themselves they do love to see themselves naked and gaze at their own beauty, in such wise that they are filled with ravishment beholding themselves so lovely, like Narcissus. What then, I ask, is it like we men should do, whenas we do see and gaze at the same?

Mariamné, the wife of Herod,[2] a fair and honourable lady, when that one day her husband was fain to sleep with her at full midday, and see openly all her charms, did refuse flatly, so Josephus doth record. Nor did he insist on his rights as a husband, as did a great Lord I knew once with his wife, one of the fairest of the fair, whom he did enjoy thus in open day, and did strip her stark naked, she protesting stoutly the while. After, he did send her women to her to dress her again, who did find her all in tears and filled with shame. Other dames on the contrary there be which do make no set scruples of the sort at making display of their beauty and showing themselves thus, the better to stir their lovers' passion and caprice, and draw them the more fondly to them. Yet will they in no wise suffer them to enjoy their most precious favour. Some indeed, ill liking to halt on so pleasant a road, soon go further; but others there be,—I have heard tell of not a few such,—which have long time entertained their lovers with such fair sights, and no more.

Happy they which have patience so to bide their time, without yielding overmuch to temptation. Yet must the man be fair bewitched of virtue who seeing a beautiful woman, doth give his eyes no gratification. So was Alexander the Great used to say at whiles to his friends how that the Persian maids did much hurt the eyes of such as did gaze at them. And for this cause, when he held prisoners the daughters of King Darius, he would never greet them but with downcast eyes, and likewise as seldom as ever he could, for fear he should have been overcome by the excellence of their beauty.

Not in those times only, but likewise in our own days, among all the women of the East, the Persian fair ones do bear the bell and prize of beauty, and fine proportion of bodily parts, and natural charm, as well as of becoming grace and fitness in dress and foot-gear—and above all others, they of the ancient and royal city of Shiraz.[3] These last be so commended for their beauty, fair skin, civility of manners and sweet grace, that the Moors do say in an old and well-known proverb, how that their Prophet Mahomet would never go to Shiraz, for fear, had he once set eyes on its lovely women, his soul after death would never have entered Paradise. Travellers which have been to that city and writ thereof, do say the same. And herein observe the hypocrisy of that same dissolute and rascal Prophet and his pretended continence; as if it were not to be found writ down, as Belon doth tell us, in an Arab work entitled "Of the Good Customs of Mahomet," extolling the Prophet's corporeal vigour, how that he was used to boast of working and satisfying all his eleven wives which he had in a single hour, one after the other. To the deuce with the rascally fellow! Let us speak no more of him. When all is said and done, I had as lief never have named him at all!

I have heard this question raised concerning the behaviour of Alexander which I have described above and that of Scipio Africanus,—to wit which of the twain did merit the greater praise of continency?

Alexander, distrusting the strength of his chasteness, did refuse even to look at the fair Persian maids. Scipio, after the taking of New Carthage, did look at the beautiful Spanish girl his soldiers brought him and offered him as his share of the booty, which maid was so excellent in beauty and of so fair a time of life and flower of age, that wheresoever she did pass, she would brighten and charm the eyes of all that did behold her, and eke of Scipio himself. But he, after greeting her right courteously, did make inquiry of what city of Spain she was and of her family.

Then was he informed, among other things, how that she was betrothed to a young man, Alucius by name, Prince of the Celtiberians, to whom he did give her up and to her father and mother, without ever laying a hand on her. By which conduct he did lay the said lady, her relations and her betrothed, under such obligation that they did ever after show themselves most well affectioned to the city of Rome and the Commonwealth.

Yet who knoweth but in her secret soul this fair damsel had not rather have been assailed first of all by Scipio,—who, remember, was young, handsome, brave, valiant and victorious? It may well be that if some bosom friend, male or female of the girl's had asked her on her faith and conscience whether she had not wished it so, I leave it to the reader to suppose what she would have answered, and if at the least she would not have made some little sign or gesture signifying what her real wish had been. For think how the climate of her country and that westering sun of Spain might well have made her hot and keen for love, as it hath many another fair lady of that land, as fair and gracious as she, in our own day, as myself have seen many an one. It can scarce be doubted then, if this fair and honourable maid had but been asked and courted of the young and handsome Scipio, but she would have taken him at the word, yea! even on the altar of her heathen gods!

Herein hath Scipio doubtless been commended highly of some for his noble gift of continence. Yet hath he been no less blamed of others; for wherein may a brave and valorous gallant better show forth the generosity of his heart towards a fair and honourable lady than by manifesting to her in deeds that he doth prize her beauty and highly admire it. Better this than treating her with that cold respect, that modesty and discretion, the which I have heard many good gentlemen and honest ladies call rather by the name of silliness and want of spirit than of virtue? Nay, verily! 'tis not such qualities at all a beautiful and worthy dame doth love in her heart of hearts, but rather good love and service that is prudent, discreet and secret. In one word, as an honourable lady did one day exclaim a-reading of this tale, Scipio was a fool, valiant and noble captain as he was, to go out of his way so to bind folk to him under obligation and to the Roman side by any such silly ways, when he might have done it just as well by other means more convenient. Beside, 'twas booty of War, whereof a man may take his joy and triumph as legitimately as of any other thing whatsoever in the world, or more so.

The great First Founder of Rome did not so, on occasion of the rape of the fair Sabine women, toward her which fell to his share. Rather he did to her according to his good pleasure, and paid her no cold respect whatever. This she did relish well enough and felt no grievance, neither she nor her companions, which did very soon make accord with their new husbands and ravishers. The women for their part did make no complaint like their fathers and mothers, which did rouse a fierce war of reprisals.

True it is, folk be of different sorts, and there be women and women. Some are loth to yield to any stranger in this sort, herein more resembling the wife of King Ortiagon, one of the Galatian monarchs of Asia Minor. She was of a perfect beauty, and being taken captive on the Kings' defeat by a Roman Centurion and solicited in her honour, she did stand firm in refusal, having a horror of yielding herself to him, a man of so low and base a station compared with herself. Wherefore he did have her by force and violence, whom the fortune and chance of War had given him by right of conquest to make his slave of. But 'twas no long while before he did repent him, and meet with vengeance for this offence; for the Queen, having promised him a great ransom for her liberty, and both being come to the appointed place for him to receive the money, she did have him slain, as he was a-counting of the gold, and did carry away it and his head to her husband. To this last she did confess freely how that the Roman had indeed violated her chastity, but that she had taken her vengeance of him therefor in this fashion,—the which her husband did approve and did highly honour her for her behaviour. And from that day forth, said the history, she did faithfully keep her honour unsullied to the last day of her life with all scrupulousness and seriousness. Anyway she did enjoy this good treat, albeit it did come from a low-born fellow.

Lucretia did otherwise, for she tasted not the pleasure at all, albeit solicited by a gallant King. Herein was she doubly a fool, first not to gratify him on the spot and readily enough, and secondly to kill herself.

To return once more to Scipio, 'twould seem he knew not yet the ways of War concerning booty and pillage. For by what I learn of a great Captain of our troops, there is no such dainty morsel for loot as a woman taken in War. The same good soldier did make much mock of sundry others his comrades, which were used to insist above all things, at assaults and surprises of towns, on the saving of the women's honour, as well as on divers other occasions and rencontres. This is sheer folly, seeing women do always love men of arms more than any others, and the very roughness of these doth give them the better appetite. So who can find aught to blame? The pleasure is theirs; their honour and their husbands' is in no way fouled; and where is the mighty harm and ruin? And yet another point,—they do oft by this means save their husbands' goods and lives,—as did Eunoé, wife of Bogud or Bocchus, King of Mauretania, to whom Cæsar did give great possessions and to her husband likewise, not so much, we may well believe, for having followed his side, as Juba, King of Bithynia did that of Pompey, as because she was a beautiful woman, and Cæsar did have the enjoyment of her pleasant favours.

Many other excellent conveniences are there and advantages of these loves I must needs pass over. Yet, this same great Captain would exclaim, in spite of them all would other commanders, his comrades and fellows, obeying silly, old-fashioned laws of War, be fain to preserve the honour of women. But surely 'twere more meet first to find out in secrecy and confidence their real wishes, and then decide what to do. Or mayhap they be of the complexion of our friend Scipio, who was worse than the gardener's dog, which, as I have before said, will neither himself eat the cabbages in the garden, nor yet let other folk taste of them. This is the way he did treat the unhappy Massinissa, who had so oft times risked his life for him and for the Roman People, and so sore laboured, sweated and endeavoured, for to gain him glory and victory. Yet after all he did refuse him the fair Queen Sophonisba and did rob him of her, seeing he had chose her for his chiefest and most precious spoil. He did take her from him to send her to Rome, there to live out the rest of her days as a wretched slave,—if Massinissa had not found a remedy to save her from this fate. The Conqueror's glory had been fairer and nobler, if she had appeared at Rome as a glorious and stately Queen, and wife of Massinissa, so that folk would have said, as they saw her go by: "Look! one of the fair vestiges of Scipio's conquests." Surely true glory doth lie much rather in the display of great and noble things than of mean and degraded.

In fine, Scipio, in all this discussion, was shown to have committed grievous faults, whether because he was an enemy of the whole female sex, or as having been altogether impotent to satisfy its wishes. And yet 'tis said that in his later years he did engage in a love intrigue with one of his wife's maids,—the which the latter did very patiently endure, for reasons that might easily be alleged to account for the said complaisancy.