Near the town of Autun there lived a very beautiful woman, who wastall, fair, and as handsome of feature as any I have ever seen. She wasmarried to an honest man who seemed somewhat younger than herself, andwho loved and treated her well enough to give her reason for content.
A little while after they were married, he took her to the town ofAutun, where he had business; and while he was engaged with the law, hiswife would go to the church to pray God for him.
She repaired so often to this holy place that a very rich Canon fell inlove with her, and wooed her so urgently that the unhappy creature gaveherself up to him. Her husband had no suspicion of this, however, for hegave more thought to the guarding of his property than of his wife.
When the time for departure was come, and they must needs return totheir home, which was full seven leagues from the town, great was thewoman's sorrow. But the Canon promised that he would often go and seeher, and this he did, pretending to be making some journey which ledhim past the house. The gentleman, however, was not so foolish as not toperceive the truth, and he so skilfully contrived matters, that when theCanon came thither he no longer met the wife, who was too well hiddenby her husband to allow of his having any speech with her. The wife,knowing her husband's jealousy, gave no sign that this was displeasingto her; nevertheless, she resolved to set things to rights, for she feltherself as it were in hell, deprived as she was of the sight of her God.
One day, when her husband was abroad, she found a means to occupy herservants, both men and women, after such a fashion that she was leftalone in the house. Immediately, she took what was needful, and, with nocompany save that of the wanton love she carried with her, she repairedon foot to Autun. Here she arrived none too late to be recognised by herCanon, who kept her shut up in hiding for more than a year, and this inspite of the monitions and excommunications that were procured againsthim by her husband.
The latter, finding that he had no other remedy, at last complained tothe Bishop, who had an Archdeacon, as worthy a man as any at that timein France. This Archdeacon himself searched with great diligence throughall the Canon's houses, until he discovered the one in which the womanwas being kept in concealment, whereupon he cast her into prison, andlaid heavy penance upon the Canon.
The husband, knowing that his wife had been recovered by the counsels ofthe Archdeacon and divers other excellent persons, was content to takeher back on her swearing to him that she would live for the future asbeseemed a virtuous woman.
This the worthy man in his deep love for her readily believed, and,bringing her back to his house, he treated her as honourably as before,except that he gave her two old serving-women who never left her, one orother of them being at all times with her.
But, however kindly her husband might use her, the wicked love she boretowards the Canon caused her to regard all rest as torment. And althoughshe was a very beautiful woman and her husband a man of excellentconstitution, vigorous and strong, she never had any children by him,her heart being always seven leagues away from her body; this, however,she concealed so well that it seemed to her husband that, like himself,she had wholly forgotten the past.
But in her great wickedness she was not so minded; for, just when shesaw her husband most in love with her and having least suspicion, shepretended to fall ill, and continued in this pretence until her husbandwas in wondrous distress, and anxious to spare nought that might relieveher.
However, she played her part so exceedingly well that he, and all in thehouse, thought that she was sick unto death, and was growing by degreesweaker and weaker. Finding that her husband was no less grieved than heshould have been glad, she begged of him that he would authorise her tomake her will, and this with tears he did.
Having power of bequest, although she had no children, she gave to herhusband what she could, craving at the same time his forgiveness forher wrong-doing towards him. Then she sent for the priest, confessedherself, and received the Holy Sacrament of the Altar with suchdevoutness, that all wept to see so glorious an end.
When the evening was come, she begged her husband to send for theextreme unction, saying that, as she was growing very weak, she was infear lest she might not live to receive it. Her husband in all hastecaused it to be brought by the priest, and she, by receiving it withvery great humility, prompted every one to praise her.
After she had got through her brave mysteries, she told her husbandthat, having through God's grace received all that the Church commands,she felt great peace of conscience, and would fain take some rest; andshe begged him to do the like, seeing that he had great need of it afterall his weeping and watching with her.
When her husband was gone, and all his servants with him, the poor oldwomen, who had so long watched her in health and now had no fear oflosing her except by death, went contentedly and comfortably to bed. Assoon as she heard them asleep and loudly snoring, she rose in nothingbut her shift, and went out of the room, listening to hear if any onewas yet astir in the house. Taking every precaution, she then (as shewell knew how) let herself out through a little garden-gate that was notshut, and, barefooted and in her shift, journeyed all night long towardsAutun and the saint, who had preserved her from death.
It happened, however, that as the distance was great, she could notaccomplish the whole of it before daylight overtook her. Looking thenall along the road, she perceived two horsemen who were galloping atfull speed, and thinking that it might be her husband in search of her,she hid herself entirely in a marsh, with her head among the reeds.As her husband (for he it was) passed close beside her, he spoke to aservant who was with him, in tones of deep despair, saying—
"Ah, the wicked woman! Who could have thought that so foul andabominable a deed could be hidden under cloak of the holy sacraments ofthe Church."
"If Judas," replied the servant, "feared not to betray his Master whenhe was receiving the like, a woman's treachery is but small matter forwonder."
At this point the husband passed on, and his wife remained among therushes, in greater gladness at having deceived and escaped him than shehad ever felt at home in a good bed but in subjection.
The poor husband sought her through all the town of Autun, but learningfor certain that she had not entered it, he retraced his steps,complaining unceasingly of her and of his loss, and threatening her withnothing short of death if he should find her. Of this she had as littlefear in her mind as she had of cold in her body, although the place andseason might well have caused her to repent of her evil journey. And anyone who did not know how the fire of hell inflames those that are filledwith it, must needs wonder how it was that this unhappy woman could soleave a warm bed and continue for a whole day in the piercing cold.
Yet she neither lost courage nor gave up the journey, but, as soon asnight was come, went forward once more. Just as the gate at Autun wasbeing closed, this pilgrim arrived thither and repaired straight to theshrine of her saint, who was in great wonder at her coming, and couldscarcely believe that it was indeed she. But when he had carefullylooked at her and examined her at all points, he found that, unlikea spirit, she was really possessed of bone and flesh, and so becameconvinced that she was no ghost.
And thenceforward they agreed so well together that she dwelt with theCanon for fourteen or fifteen years.
Although for a time she lived in concealment, in the end she lost allfear, and (what is worse) became so exceedingly proud of her lover thatat church she would set herself before most of the honourable women ofthe town, wives of officials and others. Moreover, she had childrenby the Canon, and among others a daughter who was married to a richmerchant, and who had so magnificent a wedding that all the women ofthe town murmured exceedingly, yet were powerless to set the affair torights.
Now it happened that at this time Queen Claude, wife of King Francis,passed through the town of Autun, having with her my Lady the Regent,mother of the King aforesaid, and the Duchess of Alenšon, her daughter.(1) One of the Queen's waiting-women, named Perrette, came to theDuchess and said—
"Madam, I pray you listen to me, and you will do a better deed than ifyou went to hear the whole day's service at the church."
The Duchess gave ready heed, knowing that nought but good counsel couldcome from her. Then Perrette forthwith told her how she had taken ayoung girl to help her in washing the Queen's linen, and how, on askingthe news of the town, she had heard from her the vexation which all thehonourable women endured at seeing the Canon's mistress go before them,together with some of the history of the wicked woman's life.
The Duchess went immediately to the Queen and my Lady the Regent, andtold them the story; and they, without any form of law, sent for theunhappy woman. The latter sought no concealment, for her shame wasturned to pride at being mistress in the household of so rich a man; andhence, with no feeling of confusion or disgrace, she presented herselfbefore the ladies aforesaid, who were so abashed by her hardihood thatat first they knew not what to say. After a time, however, my Lady theRegent rebuked her in a fashion which would have made a right-thinkingwoman weep, though this unhappy creature did not do so, but with greatboldness said—
"I pray you, ladies, let my honour go unscathed, for, God be praised,I have lived so well and virtuously with the Canon that no person alivecan say aught against me. And let it not be thought that I am living inopposition to the will of God, since, for three years past, the Canonhas not come near me, and we live together as chastely and as lovinglyas two little angels, without any speech or wish between us to thecontrary. And any one separating us will commit a great sin, for theworthy man, who is nigh eighty years old, will not live long without me,who am forty-five."
You may imagine how the ladies then comported themselves, and whatremonstrance they all made with her; but, in spite of the words thatwere spoken, and her own age, and the honourable indignation of thosepresent, her obstinacy was not softened. That she might be the moreeffectually humbled, they sent for the good Archdeacon of Autun, and hecondemned her to lie in prison for a year, faring on bread and water.The ladies further sent for her husband, and he, after hearing theirexcellent exhortations, was content to take her back again after sheshould have performed her penance.
But when she found that she was a prisoner, and that the Canon wasresolved to have her back no more, she thanked the ladies for havingtaken a devil off her shoulders, and showed such deep and perfectcontrition that her husband, instead of waiting until the year shouldhave expired, came and asked her of the Archdeacon before a fortnightwas over; and since then they have lived together in all peace andaffection.
"You see, ladies, how the chains of St. Peter are by wicked ministersconverted into those of Satan, which it is so hard to break that eventhe sacraments, which cast out devils from the body, are here the meansof making them abide longer in the conscience; for the best things, whenabused, bring about most evil."
"Truly," said Oisille, "this woman was a very wicked one, but at thesame time she was well punished by her appearance before such judges asthe ladies you have named. The mere glance of the Lady Regent had suchpower that never was there a woman, however virtuous, that did not dreadbeing found unworthy in her sight. Those who were looked upon kindly byher deemed that they had earned a high honour, knowing as they did thatnone but virtuous women were favoured by her." (2)
"It were indeed a fine thing," said Hircan, "that there should begreater dread of a woman's eyes than of the Holy Sacrament, which, if itbe not received in faith and charity, brings with it eternal damnation."
"Those," said Parlamente, "who are not inspired by God are, I promiseyou, in greater dread of the temporal than of the spiritual powers. AndI believe that the poor creature was brought to mend her ways rather byher imprisonment and the thought of seeing her Canon no more, than byany remonstrance that might have been made to her."
"Nay," said Simontault, "you have forgotten the chief cause of herreturn to her husband, which was that the Canon was eighty years old,whilst her husband was younger than herself; so the worthy lady had thebest of all her bargains. Had the Canon been young, she would not havebeen willing to forsake him, and the admonitions of the ladies wouldhave been as ineffectual as the sacraments."
"Further," said Nomerfide, "I think she did well not to confess her sinso readily; such an offence ought to be humbly acknowledged to God, butstoutly denied before men. Even though it be true, still, by deceptionand swearing, doubt may be cast upon it."
"Not so," said Longarine. "A sin can scarcely be so secret that it willnot become revealed, unless God in His pity conceal it, as in the caseof those who for love of Himself have truly repented."
"And what," said Hircan, "will you say of those women who have no soonerdone a deed of folly than they tell some one about it?"
"I think that a strange thing," answered Longarine, "and a sign that sinis not displeasing to them. If, as I said, a sin is not covered bythe mercy of God, it cannot be denied before men; there are many who,delighting in such talk, glory to make their vices known, whilst otherswho contradict themselves in this way become their own accusers."
"If you know any such instance," said Saffredent, "I give you my placeand beg you to tell it us."
"Listen then," said Longarine.