Chaucer Story Book - E. M. Tappan

The Canon's Yeoman's Tale

[Illustration] from The Chaucer Story Book by E. M. Tappan

While the pilgrims were riding onward at a good pace, two men were galloping after them at full speed. They proved to be a canon and his servant, or yeoman, and they had been doing their best to catch up with the company. The yeoman was especially ready to talk, and before long he had explained that his lord was a great alchemist. "He could even pave with gold and silver all this ground over which we have been riding," he declared.

"Why, then, does he wear clothes so torn and soiled?" asked the host, "if he can make gold so easily?"

"The trouble is," replied the yeoman, "that he is overwise; and when a man has too great a wit, it often happens that he fails to use it aright." Then the talkative yeoman went on to explain that his master was wont to borrow gold by making the lenders believe that he could multiply it twentyfold. "We always hope that we can do this," declared the yeoman; "but knowledge is so far ahead of us that we never seem to overtake it; and I fear it will make beggars of us at last."

The canon began to suspect that his man was telling too many tales. He went nearer to him and whispered angrily, "Hold your peace. If you talk any more, you shall be sorry for it. You are slandering me here in this company and telling what you should be wise enough to hide."

"Tell on," cried the host, who had overheard the threat, "no matter what comes. Don't trouble yourself about his threatening."

"In faith, no more I do," declared the yeoman; and when the canon alchemist found that his secrets were to be revealed, he galloped away as fast as his horse would carry him.

The yeoman told more of the craft of the canon, his master, and then he began his tale.

The Priest who Learned to be a Philosopher

There was once in London a priest who had no church, but spent his time in singing masses for the dead. He boarded with a good dame of the town, and in the house he was so pleasant and helpful to her that she would not allow him to pay her for either his food or his clothes. His expenses, then, were so small that he always had a goodly supply of money on hand.

Now one day a false canon came to him and begged him for a loan for three days. "If you will lend me a mark," he said, "I will pay it on the moment. Hang me by the neck if I break my word." The priest gave him the mark. The canon thanked him over and over, and said farewell. He kept his promise to the letter, and brought the priest his money the moment it was due.

The good priest was much pleased. "It is certainly a pleasure," he said, "to lend a man a noble, or two or three, or anything else that I possess, for that matter, when he keeps his word so well, and returns the loan on the instant. I could never say no to such a man."

"I hope you did not think for a moment that I could be false!" exclaimed the canon. "That would, indeed, be something new. God forbid that from now to my life's end I should fail to keep my word. You may believe that as firmly as you believe your creed. I thank God that never yet have I failed to pay every grain of gold or silver that was ever lent me, that never yet have I even thought falsehood in my heart. And now, sir," he continued, "since you have been so kind and courteous to me, I should like to return the favor. I will tell you what I will do. I will show you the whole secret of how I work in philosophy. Only watch, and before I go you shall see with your own eyes a real masterpiece. But perhaps you do not care for philosophy?"

"Not care for philosophy?" repeated the priest; "I beg you with all my heart to show me the kindness."

"Surely, sir, if you wish it," said the canon; and he began his preparations on the instant. "Will you order your yeoman to go and buy us two or three ounces of quicksilver; and when he returns with it, I will show you a greater wonder than you ever saw before in all your life."

The priest was only too ready to consent. "Go as fast as ever you can," he bade his yeoman, "and fetch us three ounces of quicksilver."

In a very short time the yeoman was back again with the quicksilver. The canon took it, and told the yeoman to bring some hot coals. The coals were brought. Then the canon drew from under his robe a crucible. The priest was watching each motion, for it is not every man who has a chance to learn the secret of a philosopher.

The canon held up the crucible and gazed at it a moment as if it was a most precious article. Then he held it toward the priest. "This is a crucible," he explained. "You may take it into your own hands and put into it one ounce of this quicksilver. That is the first step in the work of a philosopher. I tell you frankly there are not many men to whom I would reveal even so much of my secret. You shall see right here before your own face that I will destroy this quicksilver, and turn it into as pure, fine silver as there is in your purse or anywhere else for that matter, and I will make it malleable. If I do not, call me a liar if you will and not fit to live among honest folk. I have a powder for which I paid an enormous price, and in this is the secret of the whole matter. But send your yeoman away, I beg, for there must be no one to watch us while we are working in philosophy."

The priest was ready to do whatever the canon commanded. He told his servant to go, and he shut the door after him so closely that no one could possibly peep in; and then they went to work in earnest. "I shall treat you as a dear friend," declared the canon, "and so I am going to let you do everything yourself. Then you will fully learn the work and understand it, for you will have done it all with your own hands." So under his directions the priest set the crucible upon the coals and blew the fire. The canon cast into the crucible a powder, perhaps made of chalk, perhaps of glass, at any rate not worth a fly. "Blow up the coals," he cried, "and heap them up high above the crucible."

The priest obeyed every order with delight, for was he not learning to be a philosopher? But while he was blowing the fire and heaping up the coals, the rascally canon seized the opportunity to get a beechen coal of his own out from his bosom. This was no common coal, but one that the treacherous canon had prepared. He had carefully bored a hole in it, and filled it with an ounce of silver filings. Then he had stopped up the hole with wax. This coal he kept hidden in his hand. When the priest had heaped up the coal over the crucible, the canon looked at it somewhat doubtfully. Then he said, "Your pardon, friend, but that is not laid quite as it should be. Let me meddle with your work for but a moment and I will build it up for you. But how hard you are working! You are heated almost as hot as the crucible, and how you sweat! Here, take this cloth and wipe your face."

The priest took the cloth and wiped his face, and at the instant when his eyes were covered, what did that wicked canon do but crowd the coals together around the crucible, and directly over the middle of it he laid his beechen coal. Then he took the bellows and blew with all his might till the fire was all aglow.

Now I am thirsty," said the canon. "Let us have a drink. Everything is right and will come out well, I promise you. Let us sit down and make ourselves merry." So they sat down, and while they rested and drank, the fire burned, and before long the canon's beechen coal had burned also, and of course all the silver filings had melted and dropped down into the crucible. The simple priest knew nothing of the trick; he supposed all the coals were alike.

When the canon was sure that the silver was in the crucible, he said to the priest, "Rise up, sir priest. Come and stand beside me. I suppose that of course you have no mould, have you? Then will you go and bring a chalk stone, and I can perhaps shape that like a mould. Oh yes, and bring with you also a bowl or a pan of water; and then you shall see how our business gets on. Stop a moment. After I am gone, I don't want you to fancy that some trick was played you while you were out of the room, and so I will go with you and come back when you return." They opened the door and passed through it. Then they shut it, and locked it behind them, and went their way, carrying the key with them.

But there is no need of making so long a story of it. When they had brought back the chalk, the canon made it into the shape of a mould. He took out of his sleeve a thin plate of silver which weighed exactly one ounce, and he shaped his mould just as long and as wide as this. He made it so quickly and so slyly that the priest had not a suspicion of what he was doing. He hid the silver plate in his sleeve again and said cheerfully, "Now watch closely, for we shall surely succeed." He poured out the melted matter from the crucible into the mould and cast it into the vessel of water. Then he said to the priest, "Put your hand in and feel around. I certainly hope you will find silver." What else could it be, indeed? Silver shavings are silver, in faith.

The priest put his hand into the water and felt around, and in a minute he brought up a plate of fine silver. Then he was certainly the happiest priest in all London town. "The blessings of all the saints be upon you, sir canon," he exclaimed joyfully, "and their curse light upon me if I do not obey you in everything, provided you will vouchsafe to teach me this noble craft."

The canon nodded his assent, and then said thoughtfully, "It would be better to do this once more, so that you may have a chance to watch even more closely and become expert; and then when I am not here you can try it by yourself. Let us take another ounce of quicksilver and do with it precisely what we did with the first."

The priest needed no urging. He hurried as fast as ever he could to do as the canon commanded, and blew the fire with all his might and main. He no more dreamed that the canon had a second trick than that he had already played one. This time the canon held a hollow stick in his hand, in the end of which was one ounce of silver filings kept in by wax just as the filings were before kept in the coal. While the priest was busy obeying the master's orders, the canon cast more of the powder into the crucible, and with that cheat of a stick he stirred the heaped up coals until the wax had melted and every bit of the silver that was in the stick had fallen into the crucible.

Now this innocent priest was so pleased that he could not express his joy. "I will do anything for you," he said. "I give myself to you, body and goods."

Then said the canon, "I am only a poor man, but I promise you shall find me skillful. I warn you, however, that this is not all; there is yet more to be seen. Is there any copper in the house?"

"Yes, sir," the priest replied, "I believe there is."

"If not, go and buy us some as soon as may be, dear sir; hasten, I pray."

The priest went his way, and soon returned with the copper. The canon took it and weighed out just one ounce. He put this copper into the crucible, set the crucible on the fire, cast his powder into it, and told the priest to blow the coals, and to stoop down low, just as he did before. And this whole thing was nothing but a rascally trick! Afterwards he cast the mixture into the mould and put it into the water. This time he put in his own hand. In his sleeve he had a silver plate, as I have said. The wretch slyly took it out from his sleeve, the priest never dreaming of such cheating, and dropped it down to the bottom of the dish. Then he fumbled around in the water and very secretly slipped out the copper plate and hid it. After this he caught the simple priest by his gown and said merrily, "Stoop down and help me as I helped you a while ago. Put your hand in and see what you can find."

The priest took out the silver plate, and turned it over and over in his hand, and gazed upon it. The canon said, "Let us go now and carry these plates that we have been making to some goldsmith, and find out whether they are really good. I will wager my hood that they are good pure silver, and we will soon prove it."

They went to the goldsmith, and he tested the plates with fire and hammer, and declared that they were pure silver.

Poor, foolish priest, who was happier than he? There never was a bird more eager to greet the daylight or a nightingale more blithe in singing in the month of May, there never was a lady more joyful in carolling or in speaking of love and womanhood, there never was a knight more earnest to do some deed of hardihood that he might stand high in the grace of his lady, than was the priest to learn this wonderful art, and he begged of the canon, "For the love of God, and for the sake of whatever I may have deserved of you, what does this recipe cost? Tell me, I pray."

"In faith," the canon replied, "it is dear. In all England there is no one save myself and a friar who know it."

"No matter," cried the priest, "only tell me what I must pay. Tell me, I beg of you."

The shameless canon hesitated. At length he said, "Indeed, it is very costly, as I told you. Still, you have been most friendly to me. You may have it for forty pounds; but it would cost a good deal more to any one but you."

The priest was so afraid the canon would change his mind and refuse to give him the recipe after all that he brought out the forty pounds as quick as ever he could, and gave the money to the canon for his worthless recipe.

The canon put the money away carefully; then he said, "Sir priest, I have a favor to ask of you. If people knew what skill I have, they would be so envious of me that they would soon take my life. So if you love me, I pray you keep my secret."

"Never will I give word or hint of it to any living being," answered the priest earnestly. "I would rather give every penny I own than to have you fall into such trouble."

"I thank you kindly, sir priest," said the canon. "May you have good luck in return for your good will. Now fare you well." And so the canon went his way, and the priest never set eyes upon him again. Before long he made trial of the magical recipe; but, alas, this time there was no silver in the crucible.