In the town of Safagossa there lived a rich merchant, who, finding hisdeath draw nigh, and himself no longer able to retain possession of hisgoods—-which he had perchance gathered together by evil means—thoughtthat if he made a little present to God, he might thus after his deathmake part atonement for his sins, just as though God sold His pardon formoney. Accordingly, when he had settled matters in respect of his house,he declared it to be his desire that a fine Spanish horse which hepossessed should be sold for as much as it would bring, and the moneyobtained for it be distributed among the poor. And he begged his wifethat she would in no wise fail to sell the horse as soon as he was dead,and distribute the money in the manner he had commanded.
When the burial was over and the first tears were shed, the wife, whowas no more of a fool than Spanish women are used to be, went to theservant who with herself had heard his master declare his desire, andsaid to him—
"Methinks I have lost enough in the person of a husband I loved sodearly, without afterwards losing his possessions. Yet would I notdisobey his word, but rather better his intention; for the poor man, ledastray by the greed of the priests, thought to make a great sacrifice toGod in bestowing after his death a sum of money, not a crown of which,as you well know, he would have given in his lifetime to relieve eventhe sorest need. I have therefore bethought me that we will do whathe commanded at his death, and in still better fashion than he himselfwould have done if had he lived a fortnight longer. But no living personmust know aught of the matter."
When she had received the servant's promise to keep it secret, she saidto him—
"You will go and sell the horse, and when you are asked, 'How much?'you will reply, 'A ducat.' I have, however, a very fine cat which I alsowish to dispose of, and you will sell it with the horse for ninety-nineducats, so that cat and horse together will bring in the hundred ducatsfor which my husband wished to sell the horse alone."
The servant readily fulfilled his mistress's command. While he waswalking the horse about the market-place, and holding the cat in hisarms, a gentleman, who had seen the horse before, and was desirous ofpossessing it, asked the servant what price he sought.
"A ducat," replied the man.
"I pray you," said the gentleman, "do not mock me."
"I assure you, sir," said the servant, "that it will cost you only aducat. It is true that the cat must be bought at the same time, and forthe cat I must have nine and ninety ducats."
Forthwith, the gentleman, thinking the bargain a reasonable one, paidhim one ducat for the horse, and the remainder as was desired of him,and took his goods away.
The servant, on his part, went off with the money, with which hismistress was right well pleased, and she failed not to give the ducatthat the horse had brought to the poor Mendicants, (3) as her husbandhad commanded, and the remainder she kept for the needs of herself andher children. (3)
"What think you? Was she not far more prudent than her husband, anddid she not think less of her conscience than of the advantage of herhousehold?"
"I think," said Parlamente, "that she did love her husband; but, seeingthat most men wander in their wits when at the point of death, andknowing his intentions, she tried to interpret them to her children'sadvantage. And therein I hold her to have been very prudent."
"What!" said Geburon. "Do you not hold it a great wrong not to carry outthe last wishes of departed friends?"
"Assuredly I do," said Parlamente; "that is to say if the testator be inhis right mind, and not raving."
"Do you call it raving to give one's goods to the Church and the poorMendicants?"
"I do not call it raving," said Parlamente, "if a man distribute whatGod has given into his hands among the poor; but to make alms of anotherperson's goods is, in my opinion, no great wisdom. You will commonly seethe greatest usurers build the handsomest and most magnificent chapelsimaginable, thinking they may appease God with ten thousand ducats'worth of building for a hundred thousand ducats' worth of robbery, justas though God did not know how to count."
"In sooth," said Oisille, "I have many a time wondered how they canthink to appease God for things which He Himself rebuked when He was onearth, such as great buildings, gildings, pictures and paint. If theyreally understood the passage in which God says to us that the onlyoffering He requires from us is a contrite and humble heart, (4) andthe other in which St. Paul says we are the temples of God wherein Hedesires to dwell, (5) they would be at pains to adorn their conscienceswhile yet alive, and would not wait for the hour when man can do nothingmore, whether good or evil, nor (what is worse) charge those who remainon earth to give their alms to folk upon whom, during their lifetime,they did not deign to look. But He who knows the heart cannot bedeceived, and will judge them not according to their works, butaccording to their faith and charity towards Himself."
"Why is it, then," said Geburon, "that these Grey Friars and Mendicantstalk to us at our death of nothing but bestowing great benefits upontheir monasteries, assuring us that they will put us into Paradisewhether we will or not?"
"How now, Geburon?" said Hircan. "Have you forgotten the wickedness yourelated to us of the Grey Friars, that you ask how such folk find itpossible to lie? I declare to you that I do not think that there canbe greater lies than theirs. Those, indeed, who speak on behalf of thewhole community are not to be blamed, but there are some among them whoforget their vows of poverty in order to satisfy their own greed."
"Methinks, Hircan," said Nomerfide, "you must know some such tale, andif it be worthy of this company, I pray you tell it us."
"I will," said Hircan, "although it irks me to speak of such folk.Methinks they are of the number of those of whom Virgil says to Dante,'Pass on and heed them not.' (6) Still, to show you that they have notlaid aside their passions with their worldly garments, I will tell youof something that once came to pass."