A LADY'S FAITHFULNESS
The Great Garden of Love. Woodcut, about 1450,
by the anonymous Master of the Love Gardens.
Would that all the world were held in bonds of faithfulness such as practiced by the lady whose story I now will tell! I have read how she rewarded with faith him who sacrificed all, life and love, in her service. The unceasing glow in his heart for her was extinguished only by death. And she, good, pure, and kind, repaid his devotion then by also choosing to die. Now here ends the preface, and the story begins.
A knight, worthy and fearless, sought to win favor among the ladies, as is the custom of chivalry. Although he sustained many a slash and bruise in his quest, he continued to exercise both spear and shield, kindness and virtue, with undiminished ardor. His fame grew wide. Wherever riders contended in tournaments, he was sure to be there, and usually he won the prize. But at last he was felled by his own striving. He came riding in search of adventure, as always, although now into a city from which he never again would depart. The people there were strangers to him, except for one man, a commoner, to whom he went to inquire where he might find the loveliest ladies.
"Sir, I can show them to you," this man assured him, "the prettiest anywhere. We'll watch them going to church tomorrow, and you let me know which one you like best."
And so, on the next day, they were at the church door when the priests began to sing the mass. As the ladies, in their finery, crowded past them, the knight's glance singled out a certain one. In his heart, he knew he had never seen so pure a vision, and as he continued to gaze at her, she took a place in the depths of his affections which she would hold to the end of his life. She had quite stunned his senses. In her hair, like spun gold, there nestled a glittering clasp. The starlight of her eyes sparkled from beneath long lashes, above a little mouth, like a fire of rose petals, that filled him with torments. The proportions of her chin and slim, white neck further inflamed his desires. She walked as does a proper lady, never impudently raising her glance. The knight, casting sigh upon sigh, could not take his eyes from her form, more lovely than the finest sculpture, and elegantly robed. Goodness and virtue crowned her beauty, as well. And still I have not described her perfection by half. She might have worn the kingdom's crown.
"Now, sir," said the townsman, "tell me which of them you deem most beautiful. And indeed there is quite a selection."
The knight pointed to his choice. She was the townsman's wife! Surprised and flattered, the man laughed, and invited the knight to be his guest and take lodgings at his house. But the knight refused. Having pawned his heart to her beyond redeeming, he never turned his thoughts from her again, day nor night, waking nor asleep, wherever he was or whatever he was doing. His one surcease from pain was her smile and greeting, which he besought by means of placing himself always where she would pass, no matter what the day or hour. And she, in all innocence, gave him greetings every time, kind and gentle as she was. For him, one glimpse of her surpassed all other joys.
He found lodgings near her house, so that he might catch sight of her the more often and thus be comforted somewhat. Soon she realized that he was enamored of her, indeed so greatly as to threaten his sanity, and with this realization her concern grew, for she loved none but her lawful husband. And here was a knight, yes, a knight, who blazed with longing for her!
Her fears proved well-founded. It was not long before the knight set the town ringing with a wild challenge. In service to an incomparable liege-mistress, he proclaimed, he would joust without armor, clad only in a silken vest, against any who would meet him. A companion in folly accepted, and in the charge struck his lance into the knight's unprotected side, where the iron point broke off and remained imbedded deep in the wound. Scarcely alive, with a deathly pallor in place of his former ruddy vigor, he was carried back to his quarters. They sent for a physician.
"No," he said, grimly. "None shall heal me but she for whose sake I am wounded. And if she abandons me now, I die gladly."
Many were they, man and woman, who tried to comfort him, but his heart's desire was not among them. As the bloom of youth faded from his cheek, the lady's husband overstepped himself. He began to plead with her to go to the victim.
"But he means nothing to me," she protested. "What could I do for him? He'll get well without my having anything to do with it." But she knew he was suffering because of her and his love for her.
The husband tried again. "Go to him, wife, for my sake. I alone am his friend in this city. He must blame me, supposing it is I who prevent you from coming to him. I'll keep after you until you go!" Never disobedient to her husband, she went. Had the husband better understood the knight's intentions, however, he would have been more careful of his wife. When she appeared at the knight's bedside, he rejoiced as though his woes were turned to the delights of paradise. Sweetly greeting her and her maid, he bade her sit by him. She did, but soon was sweating with embarrassment. Not naturally forward, she could hardly think what to say, for modesty and shame. "How are you?" she managed to inquire. "I'm sorry you're hurt."
"My lady, this has befallen me because of you," the wounded hero said, weakly. "I am at your mercy. If you will, you may heal me. If not, I die."
"Gladly would I see you whole again," she replied, "but an injured man needs a physician's help, not mine. I am no worker of miracles, to call the dead to life again. God alone can do that. May he grant you mercy!"
"Nay, my lady," he groaned, "you can save me from death and misery, and release me from the bonds of martyrdom. With your white hand, withdraw the iron from the wound in my side, or I must surely perish!"
The gentle lady flushed and perspired in discomfiture. Her maid spoke up. "It isn't going to hurt you to do that, is it?" At last, in response to much persuasion by her maid, the lady did put her hand to the wound and withdrew the lance point. Now, I say she acted creditably in her reluctance. Many a common girl would have shown no restraint at all in such a matter.
The lady bid the knight farewell and departed, leaving him to a physician, whose medicines quickly restored him to health. Now, more than ever, he schemed day and night as to how he might win her over entirely. Many a wild thought came into his head. At last, one night, reckless of all perils, he climbed into the window of her bedchamber, where she lay sleeping with her husband. He crept to the bedside and touched her very gently. Fortunately, the husband was sleeping very soundly, and the servants also, for the lady, you may believe me, was startled nearly out of her senses. "Who's there?" she gasped, as soon as she could speak at all.
"My tender one, it is I, who was wounded for your sake," he whispered.
"Ah, that I was ever born!" she exclaimed under her breath. "We are both lost!"
"And what is life to me?" he said. "Much rather would I lie dead than continue to strive in agonies of longing for you!"
She tore her hair in fear. Rising and slipping into a silken robe, she thought to draw him away with her, out of the room, but in a transport of passion, he embraced her tightly. That was his undoing. Pressing her to him, he ruptured the scarcely healed wound, so that his life's blood spurted from him, and he fell in a swoon. The blood welled forth out of the gash. His heart burst within his body, from which his soul departed.
The lady, upon my word, might have welcomed death herself, so stricken was she with grief and fear. She could think only that she had to get him out before her husband awoke. With the strength of desperation, she dragged the body away, and at last, by means of propping a board up to the window, managed to get it back into the room where the knight had been staying nearby. Leaving the body in the bed there, she stole back and lay down quietly again by her sleeping husband.
But now, too late, she began to realize how greatly the knight had loved her. Next morning, the knight's squires called to him, and the steward tried to wake him, but he slept his last slumber. His retainers wept hot tears upon finding their master dead, and were sore troubled not to know the cause. They shrouded the body in purple, laid it on a bier, in full honor, and bore it to the church, so that the proper services might be read and sung.
Now hear how the lady atoned for the love he had borne her. For her faithfulness, she deserved to wear the crown of salvation and live with God eternally. She went to her husband. Embracing him tenderly, she entreated his permission to make proper offerings, as her heart bid her, for the departed. Neither the husband nor anyone else knew what was in her mind, excepting only her maid, to whom she had told everything. Driven by remorse, she went to the church, where the rites were being administered, and, on entering, cast aside her coat and cloak as a first offering. Her heart swelled with grief. She sacrificed her robe, and stood, with lips pale, in only her shift. At last, unmindful of shame, she cast off her last garment. She approached the bier. At the sight of the knight's corpse, the last of her color drained away. She twisted in agony, clasped her hands, and sank to the floor, dead. Her heart had split open within her.
The mourners crowded around, their sorrows now increased beyond bounds by her pitiful end, but none could say, although many opinions were heard, what the reason for her sacrifice had been. Her husband was summoned. Tearing his hair, he joined his laments to those of the others. "Whatever the cause," he sobbed, "never, surely never, did any man on earth have a wife so faithful, so pure in constancy!"
They laid them both in one grave, and thus did she make good her debt to him whose constancy toward her had held until the end.