F Heritage History | Stories from Chaucer Told to the Children by Janet Kelman

Stories from Chaucer Told to the Children - Janet Kelman




Griselda—The Clerk's Tale

Once upon a time there lived a fair young girl whose name was Griselda. Her home was in an Italian village. There she dwelt in a lowly cottage with her father, Janicola. He was too old and weak to work for her, or even for himself.

All round the village lay the fruitful fields and vineyards of the plain, and on the slopes near grew olive trees laden with fruit. Far in the distance rose the snow-capped mountains of the North.

Even in so rich a land it was not easy for this young Griselda to make her father's life as pleasant as she would have wished it to be. She lived plainly and barely. She was busy all day long. Now she was herding a few sheep on the broken ground near the village, and spinning as she watched her flock. Again she fetched the water from the well or gathered roots and herbs from which to make drugs.

[Illustration] from Stories from Chaucer by Janet Kelman

SHE ROSE TO CURTSY TO HIM.


Griselda was not unhappy though her life was hard, because she was so glad that she could serve her father and show her love to him, forgetting about herself and her own wishes.

One day as she sat watching her sheep her eyes fell on the white towers of a castle that stood not far from the village where she lived. It was the castle of the Marquis Walter, who was lord of all that land. Griselda looked kindly at the white towers. She thought that their master was the best and greatest man in the world. She knew that he was kind also, and courteous. When she saw him ride towards her, her face lighted up, and she rose to curtsy to him. She hoped he would draw up his horse beside her, and greet her, and ask for her father Janicola.

This morning, as she looked at the castle, she saw a company of men hurrying along the road that led to its gate. Farmers were there in dull and homely clothes, and knights in armor that flashed back the sunlight, and lords in gay colors that glanced and gleamed among the olive trees under the blue Italian sky.

Griselda knew why they were going to Lord Walter, and she wondered what they would do and say when they reached him. She could not go after them, for her sheep would have wandered away if she had left them.

When the men that Griselda had watched reached the courtyard gate, they met Lord Walter. He was on horseback ready for the hunt. The foremost of the company prayed him to grant them a little time that they might tell him why they had come.

Lord Walter threw the reins to a squire, and led his people into the great hall of the castle. There he seated himself in state to listen to their grievance whatever it might be. Then the same man who had spoken before said to him:

"Noble Marquis, thy generous kindness in times past giveth us courage to come before thee. Truly, sire, thou and all thou dost art so dear to us that, save in one thing, we cannot wish for better fortune than to live under thy government. One thing alone disturbs the peace of thy faithful people. Though thou art young and strong, yet age creeps on! Time flies and waits for no man. Death threatens young and old alike. We pray thee, sire, that thou wilt wed, for if swift death should lay thee low ere a son be born to thee, then slack for us and for our children! In the power of a stranger then would be our fair lands and even our lives. Grant us this boon, noble Marquis, and, if thou wilt, we will choose for thee a wife. Noble shall she be, and good, so that thou shalt have honor and gladness in thy wedding."

Then the Marquis said:

"My people, loyal and true, ye ask of me that which I thought not to grant, for the free life of the forest and the hunt pleaseth me well. Yet will I do this thing that ye desire. Only to me myself must fall the choice of her whom I will wed. On you I lay this command that, be she who she may, yet shall ye honor her as if she were an Emperor's daughter through all her life. Nor shall ye raise one word against the maiden of my choice. Unless ye agree to this, I will not wed!"

Gladly the people promised. But ere they left the Marquis, they begged him to fix a day for the marriage lest he should put off too long. The Marquis granted their request, and farmers, knights, and lords trooped joyfully home.

When the morning of the day that was fixed for the wedding came, the castle of the Marquis was gaily decorated. Flags floated out from the towers, and garlands trailed over the doorway and the gate. Within in the great hall a royal feast was spread, and there lay royal robes and gems.

In the courtyard and on the terraces lords and ladies stood in groups. Wonder and doubt were on every face. The wedding feast was prepared, the guests were come, but there was no bride.

A trumpet sounded "to horse," and all was hurry and noise. Then Lord Walter rode out through the castle gate. He was followed by bearers, who carried the beautiful robes and gems that had lain in the hall.

They rode out by the same road along which Griselda had watched the people go to ask the Marquis to wed, many months before. Now she saw the bridal train ride down from the castle. "Ah," she said, "they ride this way to fetch the bride. I shall work more busily than ever to-day that I may be free to stand and watch Lord Walter's fair bride as the riders return with her to the castle!"

Then she went to the well to fetch water. When she came back she found Lord Walter at her father's door. In the narrow lane beside the cottage stood lords and ladies, while their horses impatiently pawed the ground.

Quickly Griselda set her pitcher in a trough near the cottage door, and knelt before the Marquis to hear his will.

"Where is thy father?" Lord Walter asked.

"Close at hand, my Lord," said Griselda, and went to bring him without delay.

"My faithful servant," said Lord Walter to the old man, "grant me thy daughter for my wife!"

Janicola knew not what to say for surprise. At last he answered, "My will is thine! I Do as thou wilt, my own dear Lord!"

"Then must I ask Griselda if she will be my wife; but stay thou by us. Thou shalt hear her answer."

Griselda was amazed. She did not know what the meaning of Lord Walter's visit was, and when she stood before him her face was full of fear. Her wonder was very great when she heard him say:

"Griselda, I am come for thee. Thee only will I wed. Thy father also is willing. But ere thou tell me whether or no thou wilt be my bride, listen to the demand I make. Art thou ready to obey me in everything, and to let me do to thee evil or good as I will without so much as turning to me a frowning face?"

This seemed a strange request to Griselda, but she loved and trusted Lord Walter so truly that she said:

"Lord, I am not worthy of this honor. Verily in all things thy will shall be mine. Life is sweet, but I will die rather than displease thee."

"Enough, Griselda!" he said.

Then Lord Walter turned to the courtiers and the people of the village who had gathered round:

"Behold my wife! Let all show their love to me by the honor and love they bear to her."

The ladies of the court were commanded to take off Griselda's old clothes and to array her in the costly robes they had brought with them. They did not like to touch the poor soiled clothes she wore, nor to move about in the little cottage with their sweeping gowns; but the gentleness of Griselda made it pleasant to help her. They caught up Griselda's royal robes with great clasps of gold set with gems, and put a crown on her beautiful hair.

She came out and stood in the low doorway, where she had so often stood before. But now the people scarcely knew her: she looked so fair in her new robes and with the love-light shining in her eyes.

Lord Walter did not wait till he reached the castle. He was married to Griselda at her father's cottage door. The villagers gathered round and gazed at the simple wedding. They saw Lord Walter put a great ring on Griselda's finger, and lift her on to a milk-white steed. Then they led her with joy towards the castle. Wedding bells rang out gladly across the plain, and ever as the wedding party drew near to the white towers with their floating flags, happy bands of people came to meet and welcome Griselda.

Very soon the fame of Lord Walter's beautiful wife spread through the land. Nor was it only for her beauty that men praised her. Gracious she was and wise, able to rule her home, and to bend fiery spirits to her will.

From all the country-side men came to her in trouble. Every one rejoiced in the good fortune that had come to their land, and some even called her an angel from heaven come to right all wrong.

After some time a daughter was born to Griselda. Then she thought she was the happiest woman in the world. She thought of the care that she would give her child as she grew up, and of Lord Walter's delight in his little daughter when the time should come that she could talk and ride with him.

But before the baby was a year old, all Griselda's dreams were broken. Lord Walter said to himself, "It is easy for Griselda to keep her promise when I ask of her nothing that is not just and right. How can I trust her until I know that she will obey me in everything? I wonder whether she would be patient still if I hurt our little daughter."

These thoughts came back to his mind so often that at last he resolved to try Griselda's patience by taking away her baby from her.

One evening Griselda was playing with her little child. The baby laughed in her arms and looked sweeter than ever. At that moment the curtain at the doorway was drawn aside and Lord Walter came into the room. His face was sad and drawn, and as Griselda looked up at him she feared that some great blow had fallen on him, or that some enemy had entered the country.

Lord Walter said to her:

"Griselda, thou hast not forgotten the day on which I brought thee from thy father's lowly cottage to this my castle. Although thou art most dear to me, thou art not dear to my nobles. They say that it is hard that they should serve one so lowly-born as thou. Since thy daughter was born they have said this more and more, I doubt not. As thou knowest, my will is to live with my people in joy and peace. Therefore must I do to my child not as I wish myself, but as my nobles wish. Show then to me the obedience that thou didst promise to show when thou wert wed in the village street."

As Griselda heard these words she made no moan. Neither did she let the pain that caught at her heart be seen in her face. When she could speak, she said:

"Lord, we are thine I My child is thine. I also am thine. With thine own thou mayest ever do as pleaseth thee best."

The Marquis was full of joy because of the patience and humbleness of Griselda; but he appeared to be sad, and left her with a troubled face.

Soon after this, Griselda started as she heard a heavy footstep on the stairway. Then an evil-looking man walked into the quiet room.

[Illustration] from Stories from Chaucer by Janet Kelman

LORD WALTER CAME INTO THE ROOM.


"Madam," he said, "I must obey my Lord's will. He bids me take this child. Thou knowest we must obey, although we may complain and mourn."

Then the soldier took the child so roughly that it seemed as if he would kill it before her. Griselda said:

"Pray, sir, do thou suffer me to kiss my child ere it die." He gave it back to her. Gently she gathered it in her arms. She blessed it, and lulled it, and kissed it. Then she said in her sweet voice: "Farewell, my child, I shall see thee never again. The blessing of Him who died on a cross of wood for us, rest on thee. To Him I give thy soul, my little one! To-night thou must die because of me."

To the rough soldier she said:

"Take again the child and obey my Lord. But if it please my Lord, then of thy kindness bury thou the little body where no cruel bird nor beast can harm it!"

But in silence the soldier carried away the child.

Then Lord Walter looked to see if Griselda would fret or be less kind to him. He watched, but could see no change in her. She was as busy and loving and cheerful as ever. Neither in earnest nor in play did she name her child.

After four years a son was born to Griselda. The people were very glad because there was now an heir to rule the land at the death of Lord Walter. Griselda too was happy, though her heart longed for the little maid who might have been playing with her brother.

When the boy was two years old, Lord Walter began to wish once more to try the patience of Griselda.

This time he said to her:

"Wife, I have told thee before how ill the people bear our marriage. Now that a son is born they are more wrathful than before. My heart is weary with the thought of their complaints. They say, "$$When Lord Walter is gone, the grandson of Janicola shall rule us!"$$ Therefore I shall do with my son as I did with his sister. Be patient, I pray thee."

"Thou art my Lord," said Griselda. "My will and my freedom lie in my father's cottage with the poor soiled clothes I left there on the day thou didst bring me hither. Could I know thy will before thou didst tell it to me, it would be done, though it were death to do it. Life cannot compare with thy love."

Lord Walter looked down to the ground. He could not look at his wife lest he should not have heart to do as he wished.

Again the rude soldier came to Griselda. He was even harsher than before, and carried off the child without a kind word to the patient mother.

When the little boy was gone, the people said very bitter things about Lord Walter. The love they had given him before was turned into hatred because he had treated his beautiful wife so unkindly, and because he had murdered his children.

Though Lord Walter saw this, he wished to try his wife once more. He knew that he could send away his wife and marry another if he got a letter from the Pope to say that he might. He sent a messenger to Rome, where the Pope lived. This messenger was told to bring back a letter, not from the Pope, but as like one of his as possible.

The letter came. It said that because of the anger of Lord Walter's people at the lowly birth of his wife Griselda, the Marquis might send her away and marry another.

The news of the letter spread throughout the land. Every one believed that it had really come from the Pope.

Griselda's heart was very sore when she heard of this letter. But she went on quietly with each day's work. She did not even speak of the letter to her husband.

At last Lord Walter spoke before all his court, and with no knightly gentleness.

"Griselda," he said, "there is no freedom in the life of one who rules. I may not act after my own wish as any laborer on my land may do. As thou knowest, my people hate thy presence, and demand of me that I wed another. The Pope's letter thou hast heard. Return then, swiftly and without complaint, to thy father's cottage, for already my bride cometh hither."

"My Lord, it is no new thought to me, that I am unworthy to be thy servant—far more unworthy to be thy wife. In this great house of which thou didst make me queen, I have not acted as mistress, but only as lowly handmaid to thee. For these years of thy kindness, I thank thee. Gladly do I go to my father's house. There he tended me when I was but a child. Now I will stay with him till death enters the cottage door. To thee and to thy bride be joy. To her I willingly yield the place where I have been so happy. Since thou, who once wert all my joy, wilt have me go, I go!"

Lord Walter turned away in sadness. He could scarcely speak for pity, but he held to his purpose.

Then Griselda drew her wedding-ring from her finger, and laid it down. Beside it she put the gems that Lord Walter had given her. Her beautiful robes she laid aside. In the simplest gown she could find, and with head and feet all bare, Griselda went down through the olive trees towards her father's house.

Many of Lord Walter's people followed her, weeping and bewailing the fickleness of fortune. Griselda did not turn to them, nor speak, nor weep. She quietly went on her way.

When the tidings reached her father, he wished that he had never been born, so sad was he in the sorrow of his beautiful daughter. He hastened out to meet her, and wrapped her tenderly in her old cloak, and led her home with tears.

Griselda spoke no word of complaint, nor did she speak of her former happiness. Once more she tended the sheep on the common. Once more she carried water from the well. Once more she thought first of her father.

After some weeks Lord Walter sent for Griselda. She went to the castle and greeted him humbly as of old. She showed no grudge because of his unkindness.

"Griselda," he said, "thou knowest, as doth no other, how all this castle should be ordered for my pleasure. Stay thou then, and have all in readiness for the fair young bride whom I shall wed to-morrow. It is my will that she be welcomed royally."

"My whole desire is to serve thee, my Lord. Neither weal nor woe shall ever make me cease to love thee with all my heart."

At once Griselda took control of all who worked in the castle. Of them all she was the neatest and the quickest. Soon every room in the tower was sweet and clean. The great hall was decked for the wedding feast, and the table glittered with silver.

Early next morning many horsemen came to the castle. Amongst them was a beautiful girl dressed in a shimmering white robe. Near her rode a charming boy younger than the maiden. Round them were many nobles, and a guard of soldiers, who had brought them to Lord Walter's court.

The people crowded round the gates. So charmed were they with the fair young maid, that some of them forgot their love for Griselda, and were ready to welcome the bride whose coming caused her so much sorrow.

Still Griselda moved about the castle in her old worn clothes. She went to the gate to welcome the bride. Then she received the guests and greeted each of them according to his degree.

The stranger nobles wondered who Griselda could be. She was so wise and gentle, and yet so meanly dressed.

Before the feast began, Lord Walter called Griselda to him. Then he asked her, "What dost thou think of my wife? Is she beautiful?"

"Never have I seen a fairer," said Griselda. "Joy be with you both evermore! But oh! I beg of thee, torment not this child as thou didst me. She has been tenderly cared for. She could not bear what I have borne."

When Lord Walter saw her great patience, and thought of the pain he had caused her, his heart went out to her in great pity, and he cried, "It is enough, Griselda; fear no more, nor be thou longer sad. I have tried thy faith and thy sweetness, as faith and sweetness have never before been tried."

His arms were around her, and he kissed her. Griselda looked at him in wonder. She could not understand.

"Griselda," he said, "thou art my wife. I have no other. This is thy daughter; her brother is my heir. Thine are they both. Take them again, and dream not that thou art bereft of thy children."

When Griselda heard all this she fainted away in her great joy. When she woke again she called her children to her. Timidly they came, but soon they were caught close to her breast. While she fondled them, and kissed them, her hot tears of joy fell on their fair faces, and on their hair. Then she looked at Lord Walter, and said, "Death cannot harm me now, since thou lovest me still." Then she turned back to the children.

"Oh tender, oh dear, oh little ones, my children! Your sorrowful mother thought that cruel dogs or other fearsome beasts had torn you! but God has kept you safe."

Once again the ladies of the court dressed Griselda in royal robes. Once again they set a golden crown upon her head. Once again the wedding-ring slipped into its own place on her finger.

Ere she entered the hall of feasting again, swift messengers had brought her old father, Janicola, to the castle, never to leave it again.

Then Griselda sat with her children beside her husband. To her feet came lords and nobles, peasants and farmers, eager to kiss her hand and to show the joy they felt in her return.

Never had the walls of the castle re-echoed the laughter of so glad a people. All day long till the stars shone in the cool clear sky the feasting went on.

For Griselda this was the first of many happy days, happier than she had known before.

In her home sounded the gay voices of happy children as they played with, and cared for, the old grandfather whom their mother loved so dearly. And ever as she moved about the castle she met the eyes of Lord Walter, that told her again and yet again that he trusted her utterly.