The Love Purchase. Engraving by Albrecht Dürer.

When it comes to tales of deception and trickery, I have one to tell you about a sly old woman, such as you still might find almost anywhere, who succeeded in fooling only herself.

In Franconia, in the rich and splendid city of Würzburg, there was an old woman who made her living by her skill at giving advice on all matters of love and marriage, whereby she had brought about many a successful union. Once, as Whitsuntide was approaching, she chanced to have an idle day.

"The holidays will soon begin," she said to herself. "I'd better find a profitable way to keep busy."

One of the main sources of information on which her trade depended was the gossiping townsfolk always to be found at church, whither she now went. Alas, what an evil is dissemblance! And how mean, in reality, were the many clever tricks she knew!

She had hardly reached the steps of the church on this occasion when her roving gaze alighted on one of the cathedral canons, the lordly Heinrich von Rotenstein, just coming out after the mass.

"Aha, this is going to be a fancy catch," she thought, hastening after him and taking hold of his sleeve. "Stop a moment, holy sir, I beg you--a poor messenger indeed am I to a person such as yourself, yet forbear, and give me permission to tell you why I have been sent to you!"

"Speak, then," he said. "I will hear what you have to say."

"Sir, I am charged to bring you greetings and a warm invitation from a most beautiful woman, who devotes mind, heart, and self to you, and hopes that Your Worthiness will not despise her solicitation."

At this bold speech, the canon's face reddened hotly. "Old woman, do you jest with me?"

"No, no, virtuous sir, I speak in earnest!"

His Worthiness, really quite pleased to hear such an offer, bent down and whispered quickly. "See to it, grandmother, right away. I will make it well worth your trouble." He reached into his purse, brought up a handful of coins, and pressed them into her palm. "Take this. There'll be more when you deliver." He straightened and strode away.

"Now things are cooking," chuckled the old matchmaker. "And a rich stew it's going to be!"

Just as she turned to go, she spied a lovely woman passing by. "Aha, here's the next catch, and I've got my hook all baited. Now let's see how my luck is." Putting on an ingratiating smirk, she scuttled up to the lady, who however only nodded and would have passed by, but the procuress addressed her beseechingly. "My dear lady, may it please you, just one word--I tell you, one of the finest men a woman could want is languishing for love of you. Yes, he is mortally stricken, and only you can provide the remedy."

"That's too bad, but no fault of mine," she replied. "He ought to take better care not to cause himself such trouble." Yet her eyes brightened just a little, and her red mouth twitched in the faintest beginning of a smile, none of which escaped the old crone. "I'll not stand here any longer," said the lady. "We can talk more later." She swept away, up the steps and into the church to hear mass.

The old woman started to plan busily. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," she said to herself, "and now the fat's in the fire!" She hurried to a shop nearby, where she bought an elegant waistband of silk, with a little embroidered purse attached, and then returned with her purchase to the church just when the mass had ended and the lady was coming out onto the plaza. "Here I am, my lady, and see what a gift I have for you--from him! He says, if you will graciously accept, he'll give you finery such as you never dreamed of!"

Regarding the supposed present, the lady replied courteously. "Indeed it does please me, and I will show him my gratitude as best I can. He shall have his money's worth, and here's something for you too." She gave three pieces of silver to the old woman, who turned and started gleefully home.

"The pickings are ripe," she chuckled, "And I'd better make hay while the sun shines." She went to work in the kitchen, preparing a feast, with all the traditional holiday dishes and delicacies.

The next day, she was up and about at dawn, plotting all the while how she might bring her two customers together under the most favorable circumstances possible, so that a match would surely result, to the pleasure and profit of all. She went out. Almost at once, she was greeted by the canon. "You're up early today," he remarked.

"Indeed, sir, I was expecting you. I've not rested since I spoke to you yesterday. I've been at work all the time for you, arranging things--oh, sir, she's such a fine woman!"

"Yes, and what does she say about it? Is she willing?"

"Oh, yes, upon my life, as much as I'm sure you wish to please her, she's twice as eager to be nice to you. Have just a little patience, and when you do get together, you'll agree it was worth the long chase."

Even as she spoke, the lady herself chanced to be passing by on the other side of the street, wearing the most elegant clothes she had, and her finest jewelry, which she had put on with the idea of looking her best this day for the sake of her intended lover. The old woman jerked her head and rolled her eyes to direct the canon's attention to the lady. "Look, sir, there she goes, right now! Isn't she something? Look how she walks!"

"Is that her? Ahem!" he grunted.

The old woman left him and skipped across the street to address the lady. "There he is, my lady, prancing like the unicorn at the sight of a virgin!"

The lady pretended unconcern, but stole a glance in his direction, which, meeting his own stare for an instant, filled her with the sweet consternation of desire. Instead of her former proud carriage and measured step, with bent head she stumbled hurriedly on to the church to hear mass.

To church, yes, but how little did she heed the devotions that day, and how vacant were her prayers! Love, that noble force, had taken her senses, so that she scarcely heard the readings or even knew where she was. When the holy service at last drew to a close, she was on her feet and ready to leave at the first words of the benediction, but immediately the old woman was at her side, detaining her. "One moment, my lady, hear me now. This is what you must do. Wait until after lunch, then make yourself as beautiful as you can, and I'll be expecting you at my house. I ask you, have patience until then!"

"Very well," said the lady, "I'll meet you there." She went home, and spent the morning in restless thought until lunch was prepared, but even then she could touch neither meat nor fish, bread nor wine. When the table was cleared, she impatiently made ready to go to her assignation. She called a serving maid she could trust to keep whatever she saw or heard to herself. "Put on your pretty apron. We're going to keep an invitation I received this morning."

The two of them went and found the house of the old woman, who received them enthusiastically. "Welcome, my lady, never have I been visited by finer guests!" She took the lady and her maid to a parlor, seated them there, and put her best wine before them. "My princess, please help yourself. You must excuse me for a short while, as I have an urgent errand to run." The old crone set out as though the Devil were after her toward the church, where she found the noble canon, von Rotenstein, just crossing the cloister.

"Hello, there," she panted, gesturing to him to stop. "You've got to come with me right now--I have a visitor at home you'll surely want to meet!"

"Is it that woman you showed me this morning?" he inquired.

"The same, so help me!"

"Grandmother, you've done well, and I'll repay you richly for your trouble. Let's go!"

But as surely as the Devil slaves to wreak ill, so does God spend grace to protect us and keep pure womanhood from defilement. Just as the canon and his go-between turned to leave, four of the other canons burst into the courtyard, with a scribe at their heels. "So there you are," they said. "Come on, right now--were you going somewhere?"

"I'll be right back," said von Rotenstein.

"Oh, no. You've got to be there, or we'll lose it!"

"Not right now, damn it! I have an appointment!"

"Nothing doing," they chorused. "This business has got to have the seal and all the witnesses, including you, or it could cost us plenty. Your appointment can wait. Whoever it is won't die before we get through." They pushed him back and hustled him off with them, while the old crone stared after them in fiendish, impotent rage.

Snapping toothless curses, she came out onto the street just in time to catch sight of a handsome man passing by, tall, well-dressed, with a look of maturity and composure.

"There are plenty more fish in the pond," she thought. "And this one looks as good as any. I'll bet he can flirt!" As he greeted her, she straightened her face, bowing to him with solicitous servility. "Fine sir, how would you reward someone who arranged for you to meet a truly beautiful woman? Indeed, it is plain to see that you are a ladies' man."

"Well, I wouldn't leave you empty-handed, if you can do it," replied the gentleman.

"Excellent, just follow me," she crowed, starting for home. He trailed along behind her at a modest distance.

Meanwhile, the lady had been sitting by the window since the old woman had left, casting frequent looks up and down the street. In addition to impatience, no little apprehension was troubling her, since she had not dared more than the most fleeting glance from a distance at him who was now to be brought to her as a lover. At last, as the old matchmaker came toward the house and the man following her came into full view, the lady jumped from her chair and burst into screams of dismay.

"Ah, me, woe that I was ever born!" she cried. "What scandalous trade have I done with that despicable old witch? I am disgraced, utterly shamed, body and soul, forever! Ah, ah, ah!" She threw herself about the room, first this way, then that, wailing and groaning, as though hunting vainly for an escape.

Her maid, shocked and frightened at such a display, watched in horror, convinced her mistress had gone mad, but then summoned courage to address her. "My lady, what is it? Is someone coming? What's the matter?"

"Someone is coming, all right, alas! Your master, my husband!"

"Where?" asked the maid, somewhat relieved, coming to the window.

"There! See? Following that ancient flesh-broker!"

The maid, finding only a domestic tangle where she had feared madness, recovered immediately from her shock. "Now, don't worry, my lady. This may seem bad to you, but we can make the best of it. You must do exactly as I say. The minute he comes in the door, tear into him. Accuse him of deceiving you."

At that moment, the old woman opened the door to admit the unsuspecting husband. Scarcely had he crossed the threshold when the lady flew at him, pulling his hair and shrieking. "You miserable lecher! And to think I loved you and trusted you--you swore you'd stay away from other women! You sneak! Wasn't I pretty enough for you? You--you foul beast!" She kept slapping him in the face and kicking at him all the while.

"Wait a minute, for God's sake," he sputtered. "I didn't do anything! This wasn't my idea--I was tricked!"

The lady quickly seized her chance. "Well, if you're not lying, and you really were dragged into this, swear you'll never do it again and I'll forgive you."

"All right, all right," he said. "I won't--and I'm sorry."

The lady forgave him and started kissing him, leaving him no chance to ask any embarrassing questions. And so it was that by God's grace a discreditable affair was brought to an honorable conclusion. The old procuress, however, when she saw the lady trying to drag her husband around by the hair, had taken to her heels and fled the house, and ever after, she thought them to be dreadful sinners, although the fault had been her own.