In one of the finest towns of France after Paris there stood an hospital(2) richly endowed—namely, with a Prioress and fifteen or sixteen nuns,while in another building there was a Prior and seven or eight monks.Every day the monks said mass, but the nuns only their paternosters andthe Hours of Our Lady, for they were occupied in tending the sick.
One day it chanced that a poor man died, and the nuns, being allassembled with him, after giving him every remedy for his health, sentfor one of their monks to confess him. Then, finding that he was growingweaker, they gave him the extreme unction, after which he little bylittle lost the power of speech.
But as he was a long time in passing away, and it seemed that he couldstill hear, the nuns continued speaking to him with the most comfortingwords they knew, until at last they grew weary, and, finding that nightwas come and that it was late, retired one after another to rest. Thus,to shroud the body, there remained only one of the youngest of the nuns,with a monk whom she feared more than the Prior or any other, by reasonof the severity that he displayed in both speech and life.
When they had duly uttered their Hours in the poor man's ear, theyperceived that he was dead, and thereupon laid him out. Whilstengaged on this last deed of charity, the monk began to speak ofthe wretchedness of life, and the blessedness of death; and in suchdiscourse they continued until after midnight.
The poor girl listened attentively to the monk's pious utterances,looking at him the while with tears in her eyes; and so pleasing werethese to him that, whilst speaking of the life to come, he beganto embrace her as though he longed to bear her away in his arms toParadise.
The poor girl, listening to his discourse and deeming him the most piousof the community, ventured not to say him nay.
Perceiving this, the wicked monk, whilst still speaking of God,accomplished with her the work which the devil suddenly put into theirhearts—for before there had been no question of such a thing. Heassured her, however, that secret sin was not imputed to men by God, andthat two persons who had no ties, could do no wrong in this manner,when no scandal came of it; and, to avoid all scandal, he told her to becareful to confess to none but himself.
So they parted each from the other, she going first. And as she passedthrough a chapel dedicated to Our Lady, she was minded to make herprayer as was her wont. But when she began with the words, "Mary,Virgin," she remembered that she had lost the title of virginity notthrough force or love, but through foolish fear; and she began to weepso bitterly that it seemed as if her heart must break.
The monk, hearing the sighing from a distance, suspected her repentance,which might make him lose his delight, and to prevent this, he came and,finding her prostrate before the image, began to rebuke her harshly,telling her that if she had any scruples of conscience she shouldconfess herself to him, and that she need not so act again unless shedesired; for she might behave in either way without sin. The foolishnun, thinking to make atonement to God, confessed herself to the monk;but in respect of penance he swore to her that she did no sin in lovinghim, and that holy water would suffice to wash away such a peccadillo.
Believing in him more than in God, she again some time afterwardsyielded to him, and so became big with child. At this she was in deepgrief, and entreated the Prioress to have the monk turned away from hismonastery, saying that she knew him to be so crafty that he would notfail to seduce her. The Abbess and the Prior, who understood each other,laughed at her, saying that she was big enough to defend herself againsta man, and that the monk she spoke of was too virtuous to do such adeed.
At last, urged by the prickings of her conscience, she craved licenseto go to Rome, for she thought that, by confessing her sin at the Pope'sfeet, she might recover her virginity. This the Prior and Prioress veryreadily granted her, for they were more willing that she should becomea pilgrim contrary to the rules of her order, than be shut up in theconvent with her present scruples. They feared also that in her despairshe might denounce the life that was led among them, and so gave hermoney for her journey.
But God brought it to pass that when she came to Lyons, my lady theDuchess of Alenšon, afterwards Queen of Navarre, being one evening aftervespers in the roodloft of the church of St. John, whither she camesecretly to perform a novena with three or four of her women, (2)heard someone mounting the stairway whilst she was kneeling before thecrucifix. By the light of the lamp she saw it was a nun, and in orderthat she might hear her devotions, the Duchess thereupon withdrew to thecorner of the altar. The nun, who believed herself to be alone, kneltdown and, beating her breast, began weeping so sorrowfully that it waspiteous to hear her; and all the while she cried naught but this—"Alas!my God, take pity on this poor sinner."
The Duchess, wishing to learn what it meant, went up to her and said,"Dear heart, what ails you, and whence do you come, and what brings youto this place?"
The poor nun, who did not know her, replied, "Ah, sweet, my woe is suchthat I have no help but in God; and I pray that He may bring me to speakwith the Duchess of Alenšon. To her alone will I tell the matter, for Iam sure that, if it be possible, she will set it right."
"Dear heart," then said the Duchess, "you may speak to me as you wouldto her, for I am one of her nearest friends."
"Forgive me," said the nun; "she alone must know my secret."
Then the Duchess told her that she might speak freely, since she hadindeed found her whom she sought. Forthwith the poor woman threw herselfat her feet, and, after she had wept, related what you have heardconcerning her hapless fortune. The Duchess consoled her so well, thatwhilst she took not from her everlasting repentance for her sin, sheput from her mind the journeying to Rome, and then sent her back to herpriory with letters to the Bishop of the place to have that shamefulmonk turned away.
"I have this story from the Duchess herself, and from it you may see,ladies, that Nomerfide's prescription is not good for all, since thesepersons fell into lewdness even while touching and laying out the dead."
"'Twas a device," said Hircan, "that methinks no man ever used before,to talk of death and engage in the deeds of life."
"'Tis no deed of life," said Oisille, "to sin, for it is well known thatsin begets death."
"You may be sure," said Saffredent, "that these poor folk gave nothought to any such theology; but just as the daughters of Lot madetheir father drunk so that the human race might be preserved, so thesepersons wished to repair what death had spoiled, and to replace the deadbody by a new one. I therefore can see no harm in the matter except thetears of the poor nun, who was always weeping and always returning tothe cause of her tears."
"I have known many of the same kind," said Hircan, "who wept for theirsins and laughed at their pleasures both together."
"I think I know whom you mean," said Parlamente, "and their laughter haslasted so great a while that 'twere time the tears should begin."
"Hush!" said Hircan. "The tragedy that has begun with laughter is notended yet."
"To change the subject," said Parlamente, "it seems to me that Dagoucindeparted from our purpose. We were to tell only merry tales, and his wasvery piteous."
"You said," replied Dagoucin, "that you would only tell of follies, andI think that herein I have not been lacking. But, that we may hear amore pleasant story, I give my vote to Nomerfide, in the hope that shewill make amends for my error."
"I have indeed," she answered, "a story ready which is worthy to followyours; for it speaks of monks and death. So I pray you give good heed."
Here end the Tales and Novels of the late Queen of Navarre, that is,all that can be recovered of them.