Ten years ago there reigned in the city of Florence a Duke of the houseof Medici who had married the Emperor's natural daughter, Margaret.(2) She was still so young that the marriage could not be lawfullyconsummated, and, waiting till she should be of a riper age, the Duketreated her with great gentleness, and to spare her, made love tovarious ladies of the city, whom he was wont to visit at night, whilsthis wife was sleeping.
Among these there was one very beautiful, discreet, and honourable lady,sister to a gentleman whom the Duke loved even as himself, and to whomhe gave such authority in his household that his orders were feared andobeyed equally with the Duke's own. And moreover the Duke had no secretsthat he did not share with this gentleman, so that the latter might havebeen called his second-self. (3)
Finding the gentleman's sister to be a lady of such exemplary virtuethat he was unable to declare his passion to her, though he soughtall possible opportunities for doing so, the Duke at last came to hisfavourite and said to him—
"If there were anything in this world, my friend, that I might beunwilling to do for you, I should hesitate to tell you what is in mymind, and still more to beg your assistance. But such is the affectionI bear you that had I wife, mother, or daughter who could avail tosave your life, I would sacrifice them rather than allow you to die intorment. I believe that your love for me is the counterpart of mine foryou, and that if I, who am your master, bear you so much affection,you, on your part, can have no less for me. I will therefore tell you asecret, the keeping of which has brought me to the condition you see. Ihave no hope of any improvement except it be through death or else theservice which you are in a position to render me."
On hearing these words from the Duke, and seeing his face unfeignedlybathed in tears, the gentleman felt such great pity for him that hesaid—
"Sir, I am your creature: all the wealth and honour that I am possessedof in this world come from you. You may speak to me as to your ownsoul, in the certainty that all that it be in my power to do is at yourcommand."
Thereupon the Duke began to tell him of the love he bore his sister,a love so deep and strong that he feared he could not live much longerunless, by the gentleman's help, he succeeded in satisfying his desire.He was well aware that neither prayers nor presents would be of anyavail with the lady, wherefore he begged the gentleman—if he cared forhis master's life as much as he, his master, cared for his—to devisesome means of procuring him the good fortune which, without suchassistance, he could never hope to obtain.
The brother, who loved his sister and the honour of his house farmore than the Duke's pleasure, endeavoured to remonstrate with him,entreating that he might be employed for any other purpose save thecruel task of soliciting the dishonour of his own kin, and declaringthat the rendering of such a service was contrary alike to hisinclinations and his honour.
Inflamed with excessive wrath, the Duke raised his hand to his mouth andbit his nails.
"Well," said he in a fury, "since I find that you have no friendship forme, I know what I have to do."
The gentleman, who was acquainted with his master's cruelty, feltafraid, and answered—
"My lord, since such is your pleasure, I will speak to her, and tell youher reply."
"If you show concern for my life, I shall show it for yours," repliedthe Duke, and thereupon he went away.
The gentleman well understood the meaning of these words, and spent aday or two without seeing the Duke, considering what he should do. Onthe one hand he was confronted by the duty he owed his master, and thewealth and honours he had received from him; on the other by the honourof his house, and the fair fame and chastity of his sister. He wellknew that she would never submit to such infamy unless through his owntreachery she were overcome by violence, so unnatural a deed that if itwere committed he and his kindred would be disgraced for ever. In thisdilemma he decided that he would sooner die than so ill use his sister,who was one of the noblest women in all Italy, and ought rather todeliver his country of this tyrant who, abusing his power, sought tocast such a slur upon his family; for he felt sure that if the Dukewere suffered to live, neither his own life nor the lives of his kindredwould be safe. So without speaking of the matter to his sister or to anyliving creature, he determined to save his life and vindicate his honourat one and the same time. Accordingly, when a couple of days had goneby, he went to the Duke and told him that with infinite difficulty hehad so wrought upon his sister that she had at last consented to do hiswill, provided that the matter were kept secret, and none but he, herbrother, knew of it.
The Duke, who was longing for these tidings, readily believed them, andembracing the ambassador, promised him anything that he might ask. Hebegged him to put his scheme quickly into execution, and they agreedtogether upon the time when this should be done. The Duke was in greatjoy, as may well be imagined; and on the arrival of that wished-fornight when he hoped to vanquish her whom he had deemed invincible, heretired early, accompanied only by the lady's brother, and failed not toattire himself in a perfumed shirt and head-gear. Then, when every onewas gone to rest, he went with the gentleman to the lady's abode, wherehe was conducted into a well-appointed apartment.
Having undressed him and put him to bed, the gentleman said—
"My lord, I will now go and fetch you one who will assuredly not enterthis room without blushing; but I hope that before morning she will havelost all fear of you."
Leaving the Duke, he then went to his own room, where he found one ofhis servants, to whom he said—
"Are you brave enough to follow me to a place where I desire to avengemyself upon my greatest living enemy?"
The other, who was ignorant of his master's purpose, replied—
"Yes, sir, though it were the Duke himself."
Thereupon the gentleman led him away in such haste as to leave him notime to take any weapon except a poignard that he was wearing.
The Duke, on hearing the gentleman coming back again, thought that hewas bringing the loved one with him, and, opening his eyes, drew backthe curtains in order to see and welcome the joy for which he had solong been waiting. But instead of seeing her who, so he hoped, was topreserve his life, he beheld something intended to take his life away,that is, a naked sword which the gentleman had drawn, and with which hesmote the Duke. The latter was wearing nothing but his shirt, and lackedweapons, though not courage, for sitting up in the bed he seized thegentleman round the body, saying—
"Is this the way you keep your promise?"
Then, armed as he was only with his teeth and nails, he bit thegentleman's thumb, and wrestled with him so stoutly that they both felldown beside the bed.
The gentleman, not feeling altogether confident, called to his servant,who, finding the Duke and his master so closely twined together thathe could not tell the one from the other, dragged them both by the feetinto the middle of the room, and then tried to cut the Duke's throatwith his poignard. The Duke defended himself until he was so exhaustedthrough loss of blood that he could do no more, whereupon the gentlemanand his servant lifted him upon the bed and finished him with theirdaggers. They then drew the curtain and went away, leaving the dead bodyshut up in the room.
Having vanquished his great enemy, by whose death he hoped to freehis country, the gentleman reflected that his work would be incompleteunless he treated five or six of the Duke's kindred in the same fashion.The servant, however, who was neither a dare-devil nor a fool, said tohim—
"I think, sir, that you have done enough for the present, and that itwould be better to think of saving your own life than of taking thelives of others, for should we be as long in making away with each ofthem as we were in the case of the Duke, daylight would overtake ourenterprise before we could complete it, even should we find our enemiesunarmed."
Cowed by his guilty conscience, the gentleman followed the advice of hisservant, and taking him alone with him, repaired to a Bishop (4) whoseoffice it was to have the city gates opened, and to give orders to theguard-posts.
"I have," said the gentleman to the Bishop, "this evening receivedtidings that one of my brothers is at the point of death. I have justasked leave of the Duke to go to him, and he has granted it me; andI beg you to send orders that the guards may furnish me with two goodhorses, and that the gatekeeper may let me through."
The Bishop, who regarded the gentleman's request in the same light as anorder from his master the Duke, forthwith gave him a note, by means ofwhich the gate was opened for him, and horses supplied to him as he hadrequested; but instead of going to see his brother he betook himselfstraight to Venice, where he had himself cured of the bites that he hadreceived from the Duke, and then passed over into Turkey. (5)
In the morning, finding that their master delayed his return so long,all the Duke's servants suspected, rightly enough, that he had gone tosee some lady; but at last, as he still failed to return, they beganseeking him on all sides. The poor Duchess, who was beginning to lovehim dearly, was sorely distressed on learning that he could not befound; and as the gentleman to whom he bore so much affection waslikewise nowhere to be seen, some went to his house in quest of him.They found blood on the threshold of the gentleman's room, which theyentered, but he was not there, nor could any servant or other persongive any tidings of him. Following the blood-stains, however, the Duke'sservants came at last to the room in which their master lay. The doorof it was locked, but this they soon broke open, and on seeing the floorcovered with blood they drew back the bed-curtain, and found the unhappyDuke's body lying in the bed, sleeping the sleep from which one cannotawaken.
You may imagine the mourning of these poor servants as they carriedthe body to the palace, whither came the Bishop, who told them how thegentleman had departed with all speed during the night under pretence ofgoing to see his brother. And by this it was clearly shown that it washe who had committed the murder. And it was further proved that his poorsister had known nothing whatever of the matter. For her part, albeitshe was astounded by what had happened, she could but love her brotherthe more, seeing that he had not shrunk from risking his life in orderto save her from so cruel a tyrant. And so honourable and virtuous wasthe life that she continued leading, that although she was reduced topoverty by the confiscation of the family property, both she and hersister found as honourable and wealthy husbands as there were in allItaly, and lived ever afterwards in high and good repute.
"This, ladies, is a story that should make you dread that little god whodelights in tormenting Prince and peasant, strong and weak, and so farblinds them that they lose all thought of God and conscience, and evenof their own lives. And greatly should Princes and those in authorityfear to offend such as are less than they; for there is no man but canwreak injury when it pleases God to take vengeance on a sinner, nor anyman so great that he can do hurt to one who is in God's care."
This tale was commended by all in the company, (6) but it gave riseto different opinions among them, for whilst some maintained that thegentleman had done his duty in saving his own life and his sister'shonour, as well as in ridding his country of such a tyrant, othersdenied this, and said it was rank ingratitude to slay one who hadbestowed on him such wealth and station. The ladies declared that thegentleman was a good brother and a worthy citizen; the men, on thecontrary, that he was a treacherous and wicked servant.
And pleasant was it to hear the reasons which were brought forward onboth sides; but the ladies, as is their wont, spoke as much from passionas from judgment, saying that the Duke was so well worthy of death thathe who struck him down was a happy man indeed.
Then Dagoucin, seeing what a controversy he had set on foot, said tothem—
"In God's name, ladies, do not quarrel about a thing that is past andgone. Take care rather that your own charms do not occasion more cruelmurders than the one which I have related."
"'La belle Dame sans Mercy,'" (7) replied Parlamente, "has taught us tosay that but few die of so pleasing an ailment."
"Would to God, madam," answered Dagoucin, "that all the ladies in thiscompany knew how false that saying is. I think they would then scarcelywish to be called pitiless, or to imitate that unbelieving beauty whosuffered a worthy lover to die for lack of a gracious answer to hissuit."
"So," said Parlamente, "you would have us risk honour and conscience tosave the life of a man who says he loves us."
"That is not my meaning," replied Dagoucin, "for he who loves with aperfect love would be even more afraid of hurting his lady's honour thanwould she herself. I therefore think that an honourable and gracefulresponse, such as is called for by perfect and seemly love, must tend tothe increase of honour and the satisfaction of conscience, for no truelover could seek the contrary."
"That is always the end of your speeches," said Ennasuite; "they beginwith honour and end with the contrary. However, if all the gentlemenpresent will tell the truth of the matter, I am ready to believe them ontheir oaths."
Heptameron Story 12
Hircan swore that for his own part he had never loved any woman buthis own wife, and even with her had no desire to be guilty of any grossoffence against God.
Simontault declared the same, and added that he had often wished allwomen were froward excepting his own wife.
"Truly," said Geburon to him, "you deserve that your wife should be whatyou would have the others. For my own part, I can swear to you that Ionce loved a woman so dearly that I would rather have died than have ledher to do anything that might have diminished my esteem for her. My lovefor her was so founded upon her virtues, that for no advantage that Imight have had of her would I have seen them blemished."
At this Saffredent burst out laughing.
"Geburon," he said, "I thought that your wife's affection and your owngood sense would have guarded you from the danger of falling in loveelsewhere, but I see that I was mistaken, for you still use the veryphrases with which we are wont to beguile the most subtle of women, andto obtain a hearing from the most discreet. For who would close her earsagainst us when we begin our discourse by talking of honour and virtue?(8) But if we were to show them our hearts just as they are, there ismany a man now welcome among the ladies whom they would reckon of butlittle account. But we hide the devil in our natures under the mostangelic form we can devise, and in this disguise receive many favoursbefore we are found out. And perhaps we lead the ladies' hearts so farforward, that when they come upon vice while believing themselves on thehigh road to virtue, they have neither opportunity nor ability to drawback again."
"Truly," said Geburon, "I thought you a different man than your wordswould show you to be, and fancied that virtue was more pleasing to youthan pleasure."
"What!" said Saffredent. "Is there any virtue greater than that ofloving in the way that God commands? It seems to me that it is muchbetter to love one woman as a woman than to adore a number of women asthough they were so many idols. For my part, I am firmly of opinion thatuse is better than abuse."
The ladies, however, all sided with Geburon, and would not allowSaffredent to continue, whereupon he said—
"I am well content to say no more on this subject of love, for I havebeen so badly treated with regard to it that I will never return to itagain."
"It is your own maliciousness," said Longarine, "that has occasionedyour bad treatment; for what virtuous woman would have you for a loverafter what you have told us?"
"Those who did not consider me unwelcome," answered Saffredent, "wouldnot care to exchange their virtue for yours. But let us say no moreabout it, that my anger may offend neither myself nor others. Let us seeto whom Dagoucin will give his vote."
"I give it to Parlamente," said Dagoucin, "for I believe that she mustknow better than any one else the nature of honourable and perfectlove."
"Since I have been chosen to tell the third tale," said Parlamente, "Iwill tell you something that happened to a lady who has always been oneof my best friends, and whose thoughts have never been hidden from me."