Stories from Old English Poetry/Three Unknown Poets

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THERE are some stories which may be called the world’s property, since no one can find who told them first, or in what language they were first written. One of these old tales, which is found far back in English poetry, I am going now to tell you. Chaucer relates it in some of his loveliest verse, but he does not claim it as his own, and confesses that he got the story from a worthy clerk in Padua, called Francis Petrarch, whose

“rhetoric sweet,
Illumined all Italie of poesy.”

And since Chaucer, many another poet has taken up this tale. Three friends of Shakespeare, named Thomas Dekker, Henry Chettle, and William Haughton, made the same tender story into a heart-breaking drama; and since their day, in many a different form, it has appeared in literature. But I have not yet told you its name. It is the story of


Many years ago, in a lovely country of Italy, shut in by Alpine mountains, there lived a noble young Duke, who was lord over all the land. He was one of a long line of good princes, and his people loved him dearly. They had only one fault to find with him, for he made good laws, and ruled them tenderly; but alas! he would not marry. So his people feared he would not leave any son to inherit his dukedom. Every morning his wise counselors asked him if he had made up his mind on the subject of marriage, and every morning the young Duke heard them patiently; and as soon as they had spoken, he answered, “I am thinking of marriage, my lords; but this is a matter which requires much thought.”

Then he called for his black hunting-steed, and held up his gloved hand for his white falcon to come and alight upon his wrist, and off he galloped to the hunt, of which he was passionately fond, and which absorbed all the time that was not occupied with the cares of his government. But after a while, his counselors insisted on being answered more fully.

“Most dear prince,” urged they, “only fancy what a dreadful thing it would be if you should be taken from your loving people, and leave no one in your place. What fighting, and confusion, and anarchy there would be over your grave! All this could never happen, if you had a sweet wife, who would bring you, from God, noble son, to grow up to be your successor.”

The morning on which they urged this so strongly, Duke Walter stood on the steps of his palace, in his hunting-suit of green velvet, with his beautiful falcon perched on his wrist, while a page in waiting stood by holding his horse. Suddenly he faced about, and looked full at his advisers.

“What you say is very wise,” he answered. “To-day I am going to follow your advice. This is my wedding-day.”

Here all the counselors stared at each other with round eyes.

“Only you must promise me one thing,” continued the Duke. “Whoever I marry, be she duchess or beggar, old or young, ugly or handsome, not one of you must find fault with her, but welcome her as my wife, and your honored lady.”

All the courtiers, recovering from their surprise, cried out, “We will; we promise.”

Thereupon, all the court who were standing about gave a loud cheer; and the little page, who held the horse’s bridle, tossed up his cap, and turned two double somersaults on the pavement of the court-yard. Then the Duke leaped into his saddle, humming a song of how King Cophetua wooed a beggar maid; tootle-te-tootle went the huntsmen’s bugles; clampety-clamp went the horse’s hoofs on the stones, and out into the green forest galloped the royal hunt.

Now, in the farther border of the wood was a little hut which the hunting-train passed by daily. In this little cottage lived an old basket-maker named Janiculo, with his only daughter Griselda, the child of his old age. He had also a son Laureo, who was a poor scholar in Padua, studying hard to get money enough to make himself a priest. But Laureo was nearly always away, and Griselda took care of her father, kept the house, and wove baskets with her slender, nimble fingers, to sell in the town close by.

I cannot tell you in words of the loveliness of Griselda. She was as pure as the dew which gemmed the forest, as sweet-voiced as the birds, as light-footed and timid as the deer which started at the hunter’s coming. Then her heart was so tender and good, she was so meek and gentle, that to love her was of itself a blessing; and to be in her presence, was like basking in the beams of the May sun.

This morning she and her father sat under the tree by their cottage door, as the hunting-train passed by. They were weaving baskets; and, as they worked, they sang together this glorious labor-song:—

Art thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
O sweet content!
Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplexed?
O punishment!
Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vexed
To add to golden numbers, golden numbers?
O sweet content!
O sweet, O sweet content!
Chorus.—Work apace, apace, apace,
Honest labor bears a lovely face;
Then, hey nonny, nonny! hey nonny, nonny!

Canst drink the waters of the crispéd spring?
O sweet content!
Swimm’st thou in wealth, yet sink’st in thine own tears?
O punishment!
Then he that patiently want’s burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!
O sweet content!
O sweet, O sweet content!
Chorus.—Work apace,” etc.

As the hunting party swept by, Griselda looked up, and noted again, as had happened several mornings before, that the penetrating eyes of the handsome Duke were fixed on her.

“I fear he is angry that we sit so near his path,” mused Griselda. “How his eyes look into one’s soul. His gaze really makes me tremble. I will not sit here on his return, lest it be displeasing to him.”

Before the hunt was fairly out of sight, a gossiping neighbor came to the hut of Janiculo, to tell the good news. Now, indeed, the Duke was really going to wed. He had promised to bring a wife with him when he came back from the hunt. People said he had ridden into the next province, to ask the hand of the Duke’s beautiful daughter in marriage. And it might be depended on, he would bring the bride home on the milk white palfrey, which one of his squires had led by a silver bridle.

It was almost sunset when the trampling of hoofs told Griselda that the hunting party were coming back; and remembering what the talkative neighbor had said, she thought she would like to take a peep at the young bride when they passed on their way to the palace. She had just been to the well for some water, and she stood in the doorway, with her bare, round arm poising the earthen pitcher on her head, and the rosy toes of her little bare feet peeping from beneath her brown gown, to watch the hunt go by.

Nearer and nearer came the train: louder and louder sounded the clatter, and full in sight came the Duke, with the white palfrey, led by its silver bridle, close beside him. But the saddle was empty, and no bride was among the huntsmen.

“Can it be possible the lady would refuse him,—so handsome and noble as he looks?” thought Griselda.

How astonished she was when the Duke, riding up to the hut, asked for her father. She was pale with fright, lest their humble presence had in some way offended the prince; and, all in a tremble, ran in to call old Janiculo. He came out, as much puzzled and frightened as his daughter.

“Look up, Janiculo,” said the Duke, graciously. “You have heard, perhaps, that today is my wedding-day. With your good-will, I propose to take to wife your daughter Griselda. Will you give her to me in marriage?”

If a thunder-bolt had struck the earth at old Janiculo’s feet, he could not have been more stunned. He gazed at the earth, the sky, and into his lord’s face, who had to repeat his question three times, before the old man could speak.

“I crave your lordship’s pardon,” he stammered, at length. ‘It is not for me to give anything to your lordship. All that is in your kingdom belongs to yourself. And my daughter is only a part of your kingdom.” And when he had said this, he did not know whether he were dreaming or awake.

Griselda had modestly stayed in-doors; but now they called her out, and told her she was to be the Duke’s bride. All amazed, she suffered them to mount her on the snow-white steed, and lead her beside the Duke, to the royal palace. All along the road the people had gathered, and shouts rent the air; and at the palace gates the horses’ feet sank to the fetlocks in roses, which had been strewn in their pathway. Everywhere the people’s joy burst bounds, that now their prince had taken a bride. As for Griselda, she rode along, still clad in her russet gown, her large eyes looking downward, while slow tears, unseen by the crowd, ran over her cheeks, caused half by fear and half by wonder at what had happened. Not once did she look into her lord’s face, till the moment when they reached the palace steps; and leaping lightly from his horse, Duke Walter took her from the palfrey in his own royal arms. Then he said, “How say’st thou, Griselda? Wilt be my true wife, subject to my will, as a dutiful wife should be?”

And looking in his face, she said solemnly, as if it were her marriage vow, “I will be my lord’s faithful servant, obedient in all things.”

Then they brought rich robes to put on Griselda, and the priest pronounced the wedding ceremony, and the bridal feast was eaten, and patient Griselda became a great Duchess.

For a time all went on happily in the country of Saluzzo, where Duke Walter held reign. The people loved the meek Duchess no less that she was lowly born; and when two beautiful twin babes were born to the Duke, a boy and girl, the joy was unbounded all over the kingdom. Walter, too, was very joyful; or, he would have been very happy, if a demon of distrust had not been growing up in his heart ever since he had married the beautiful Griselda. He saw how gentle she was, and how, obedient to him in all things, and he was all the time uncertain whether this yielding spirit was caused by love of him, or by gratitude at the high place to which he had lifted her, and the grandeur with which he had surrounded her. He remembered the vow she had taken when she looked into his eyes and said, “I will be my lord's faithful servant, obedient in all things,” and thinking of it, day by day, there arose in his heart a desire to put her love and faith to the test.

The resolution to which he came was so cruel, that we can scarcely believe he could have loved Griselda, and had the heart to attempt to carry out his design. He took into his counsel only an old servant named Furio, and to him he gave the execution of his plan.

One day Griselda sat in her chamber, caressing and playing with her two babes. She had never intrusted their care and rearing to any but herself, and her chief delight had been to tend them, to note their pretty ways, to rock them asleep, and to watch their rosy slumbers. At this moment, tired out with play, her noble boy, the younger Walter, lay in his cradle at her foot; and the sweet girl, with her father's dark eyes, lay on the mother's bosom, while she sang softly his cradle song, to lull them to sleep:—

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes
Smiles awake when you do rise;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby;
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.
Care is heavy, therefore sleep you,
You are care, and care must keep you;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby;
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.”

While the young Duchess sang the last notes of her song, Furio appeared on the threshold. Some remorse for what he was to do, made the water for an instant dim his eyes, as he watched the group. But he had sworn to do his lord’s bidding, and he only hesitated for a moment. Looking up, Griselda saw, him, and greeted him with a smile.

“Enter, good Furio,” she said. “See, they are both asleep. When he sleeps, my boy is most like his father; but awake, my girl’s dark eyes recall him most. Have you any message from my lord, Furio?”

“My lady,” answered the old man, hesitatingly, “I have a message. It is somewhat hard to deliver, but the Duke must have his own will. My lord fears you are too much with the babes; that you are not quite a fitting nurse for them. Not that he fears your low birth will taint the manners of his children, but he fears the people might fancy it was so, and he must consult the wishes of his people.”

“If my lord thinks so,” answered Griselda, “he may find nurses for his babes. It seems as if no love could be so dear as mine: But perchance he is right. My ways are uncouth beside those of royal blood. I will give my babes a better teacher. Only I may see them often, and love them still as dear, can I not, Furio?”

“That is not my lord’s wish, madam,” said Furio, not daring to look full at the Duchess, and keeping his eyes fixed on the ground. “The Duke fears that even now the people murmur that an heir of base origin shall grow up to rule over them. And he is forced to study the will of his people. So he has sent me to take away the babes, and dispose of them according to his royal orders.”

When he had said this, Griselda looked at him as one who did not understand the language which he spake. All the blood forsook her cheek, her strength gave way, and falling at the feet of the old servant, still holding her baby clasped to her breast, she looked up in his face imploringly, like the deer who lies under the knife of the hunter.

But when Furio began to take up the babes, the boy from his nest among his cradle pillows, the girl from her soft refuge in the mother's bosom,—then the sorrow of Griselda would have melted the tough flint to tears. She prayed with moving words, she shed such floods of tears, she gave such piteous cries of agony, that Furio, tearing the children away with one strong effort, ran from the room with the screaming infants, his own face drenched with weeping. When the Duke heard of all this, though it did not move him from his obstinacy of purpose, he yet grieved in secret, and wondered if Griselda’s love could outlast this trial.

The twin babes, torn so rudely from their mother, were sent to a noble sister of the Duke, who dwelt in Pavia; but no word was told to Griselda of their fate; and she, poor mother, submissive to her husband’s will, because she believed it supreme, like God’s, dared not ask after them, lest she should hear that they were slain.

When the Duke saw how Griselda had no reproaches, nothing but grief, to oppose to his will, even his jealousy was forced to confess that her faith had stood the test. Whenever he looked on her, her gentle patience moved his heart to pity, and many times he half repented his cruelty.

Month after month, and year after year went by, and again and again did this demon of suspicion stir the Duke to some trial of his wife’s obedience and patience. He drove out the aged Janiculo from the comfortable lodgment in the palace in which Griselda had bestowed him, and forced him to return to the hut where he had lived before his daughter’s greatness. And though Griselda’s paling face and sad eyes told her sorrow, she uttered no word of complaint or anger against the Duke.

“Is he not my liege lord,” she said to her own heart, when it sometimes rose in bitter complainings, “and did I not swear to obey his will in all things?”

At last the day came when they had been wedded twelve years. Long ago had Griselda won the hearts of the people by her gentle manners, her sweet, sad face, her patient ways. If Walter’s heart had not been made of senseless stone, he would now have been content. But in his scheming brain he had conceived one final test, one trial more, from which, if Griselda’s patience came out unmoved, it would place her as the pearl of women, high above compare.

On this wedding morn, then, he came into her bower, and in cold speech, thus spoke to her,—“Griselda, thou must have guessed that for many years I have bewailed the caprice which led me to take thee, low-born, and rude in manners, as my wife. At last my people’s discontent, and my own heart, have told me that I must take a bride who can share fitly my state, and bring me a noble heir. Even now from Pavia, my sister’s court, my young bride, surpassing beautiful, is on her way hither. Canst thou be content to go back to thy father, and leave me free to marry her?”

“My dear lord,” answered Griselda, meekly “in all things I have kept my vow. I should have been most happy if love for me had brought thy heart to forget my low station. But in all things I am content. Only one last favor I ask of thee. Thy new wife will be young, high-bred, impatient of restraint, tender to rude sorrow. Do not put on her faith such trials as I have borne, lest her heart bend not under them, but break at once.”

When she had done speaking, she turned to her closet, where all these years she had kept the simple russet gown which she had worn on the day Duke Walter wooed her, and laying aside her velvet robes, her laces, and jewels, she put it on, went before the Duke again, ready to depart from the palace forever. But he had one request to make of her. It was that she would stay to superintend the bride’s coming, to see that the feast was prepared, the wedding chamber ready, and the guests made welcome, because none so well as she knew the management of the affairs in the palace.

Then Griselda went among the servants, and saw that the feast was made, and all things were in order, concealing her aching heart under a face which tried to smile. When at evening she heard the fickle people shouting in the streets, end saw the roses strewn as they had been on her wedding day, then the tears began to fall, and her soul sank within her. But at that moment the Duke called, “Griselda, where is Griselda?”

On this, she came forth into the great feast chamber from whence he called. At the head of the room stood the Duke, still handsome and youthful; and on each side of him a noble youth and maiden, both fresh, blooming, and beautiful.

A sudden faintness overcame Griselda at the sight. She grew dizzy, and would have fallen, if Duke Walter had not quickly caught her in his arms.

“Look up, Griselda, dear wife,” he cried, “for thou art my dear wife, and all I shall ever claim. I have tried enough thy faith and patience. Know, truly, that I love thee most dear; and these are thy children returned to thee, whom for so many years I have cruelly kept hid from thee.”

When Griselda heard these words, as one who hears in a dream, she fell into a deep swoon, from which for a time neither the voice of her husband, nor the tears and kisses of her children, could rouse her. But when she was brought back to life, to find herself in the arms of her lord, and meet the loving looks of her children, she was speedily her calm and gentle self again.

Then they led her to her chamber, and put on her richest robes, and a crown of jewels on her head; and, radiant with happiness, all the beauty of her girlhood seemed to come back to her face. Nay, a greater beauty than that of girlhood; for, softened by heavenly patience, her face was sweet as an angel’s. From that time forth the Duke strove, by every look and deed and tender word, to make amends for her hard trials. And to all ages will her story be known, and in all poetry will she be enshrined as the sweet image of wifely patience, the incomparable Griselda.

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