Chaucer Story Book - E. M. Tappan

The Pardoner's Tale

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

That was, indeed, a merry tale," cried Harry Bailey. "And now, you pardoner," he continued, "do you, too, set to work to amuse us. Tell us some story of mirth and jesting, and see you to it that you entertain us well."

"Surely, but I must first step into yonder inn and have a bite of cake and a drink or two."

But the pilgrims cried, "No, we do not want any barroom stories. Tell us a tale with a good moral."

"Of course I will," declared the pardoner, "but I must have my drink; and while I am drinking, I will think up some good honest story." So the pardoner went into the tavern; and when he came out, this is the story that he told.

The Revelers who Went Out to Meet Death

There once lived in Flanders a company of wild young men who gave themselves up to foolish revelry. Day and night they rioted. They gambled, they gorged themselves with the richest viands, they drank till they could not have told whether they were men or beasts, and they swore such terrible oaths that it would freeze one's blood to hear them.

My story is a truly moral tale about three of these revelers who sat together in a tavern one morning. It was not yet nine o'clock, but these young rioters did not even await the coming of night for their orgies; and though it was so early, they had already emptied many cups. The tinkling of a bell was heard from the street. "What's that?" one asked, and another replied, "Nothing but the jingling of a bell before a corpse."—"Boy," the first called tipsily to the waiter, "do you go and ask the corpse's name; and see that you don't forget it on the way back."

"Sir, there is no need of asking," the boy replied, "for I knew two hours and more ago who was to be buried this morning; and surely there is no need of telling you, for he was an old companion of yours. He was sitting on a bench dead drunk last night, and a sly old thief that they call Death came upon him suddenly and thrust a spear through his heart, and the man fell over dead. That old fellow kills all the people in the country hereabouts; he struck down a thousand the last time of pestilence. My mother used to tell me to see to it well that I was ready to meet him."

"The boy tells the truth," declared the tavern-keeper. "Why, in the great village over yonder, only a mile from here, Death has slain man, woman, child, page, and hind within this one year. I believe he lives there. My word upon it, it needs a pretty wise man to be on his guard against him."

"And you call it such a peril to meet him?" said one of the revelers. "I tell you I'll go to seek him by street and by lane, I vow I will. Listen to me, fellows, we are all agreed. Let us each hold up his hand and swear that we will stand by one another like brothers and kill this traitor Death. He has slain many, but before night he'll be dead himself; he will."

So the three, all of them half drunk, swore tipsily that they would be as true to one another as born brothers, and then they staggered toward the village that the tavern-keeper had pointed out to them; and as they walked they swore many dreadful oaths that if they could only catch this Death, they would surely kill him.

Before they had gone half a mile, they came to a stile, and on the other side of the stile was an old man in poor and worn-out garments. He tottered out of their way and said meekly, "God keep you, gentlemen."

The proudest of the revelers glanced at him and laughed scornfully. "Old fellow," he said, "why do you keep yourself all wrapped up except your face? Why do you keep on living any longer when you are so old?"

The old man looked him straight in the eyes and replied, "I am old because I cannot find a man who will give me his youth and take my age. Whether I went to city or country or even to far-away India, it would be the same; and so I must keep my age as long as it is God's will. Neither, alas, will Death take my life. That is why I wander about, a restless, miserable wretch. The first thing in the morning and the last thing at night I knock on the ground with my staff, for the ground is the gate to my mother's house; and I cry, 'Dear mother, let me in! See how thin I am! Flesh and skin and blood have withered away. When will my old bones find rest? I would gladly give up to you all that I have if you would but give me a shroud to wrap me in.' She will not do me the favor, and that is why my face is so pale and wrinkled. But, sirs, it is no honor to you to speak so roughly to an old man who has done nothing to harm you. If you stay in this world, you, too, will soon be old; and I counsel you not to do to any old man what you would not wish to have done to you when you are old. Farewell, sirs, and God be with you whether you ride or walk. I must go on my way."

"Hold on, old fellow," cried one of the revelers. "You won't get off so easily as that. You talk about this rascally Death, who is always murdering our friends about here. I believe you are his spy, and now if you don't tell us where to find him, it will be the worse for you, understand that; for I have no doubt at all that you are in league with him to slay us young folk."

The old man replied, "Sirs, if you want to find Death so badly, certainly I can tell you which way to go. Do you see that little winding path that leads into the woods? I saw him there just now, sitting under an oak tree. He will stay, depend upon it. He'll not run away from you for all your boasting. God save you, and make you mend your ways!"

The tipsy revelers hurried to the tree to find Death. He was not to be seen, but on the ground there lay a great heap of golden florins, bushels of them, all bright and shining as if they had just been coined. The three men threw themselves down upon the pile of gold, they felt of it, they let it run through their fingers, they held up handfuls of it to see it glitter in the sunshine. After a while the worst villain among them said, "Brothers, you know that I make merry and jest, but I have some wisdom for all that. Now listen to what I say. Here is this great heap of gold, and it is plain enough that our lucky stars have sent it to us that we might have a jolly time all the rest of our lives. And that we will," he swore by a terrible oath. "Who would ever have dreamed that such a thing as this would have come to us! But now listen! This gold must be taken care of, and we might count ourselves in luck if it were safely stored away in either my house or yours; but how are we going to get it there? We cannot carry it by daylight, for some one would be sure to see us, and then the officers would say we were thieves, and they would hang us for taking care of our own gold. We must carry it in the night, that is sure, and be sly about it at that; and we must keep watch of it all day or else some thief will find it and steal it from us. Now hear my plan. We will draw lots, and the one to whom the lot falls shall run to the town as fast as ever he can and secretly get some bread and wine. While he is gone, the other two shall keep close watch and ward; and then, if all goes well, as soon as night comes, we will carry the treasure wherever we may decide will be the safest place."

The others agreed to this plan, and they drew lots. The lot fell to the youngest, and he ran off cheerfully all the way to the town; but long before he reached it, he, too, had a plan in his head.

The two who were left behind sat them down beside the gold; but even while they could still hear the footsteps of him who had gone to the town, the worst villain said to the other, "You know that you and I have sworn to be brothers, and so I am going to tell you something that will greatly advantage you. Now here is a great heap of gold, but when it is divided among three of us, the heaps will be much smaller. If I could manage matters so it need only be divided between us two, shouldn't I be doing you a favor?"

"In faith you would," the other replied; "but I don't see how you would set about it. He knows that the gold was here when he left us, and what could we say to him?"

"Will you vow to keep the plan secret?" demanded the first villain. "If you will, I can tell you in two words how to bring it about."

"I vow," declared the second villain, "that, whatever comes, I will never betray you."

The first villain bent himself across the heap of gold and drew the other villain nearer to him, and then he whispered in his ear, "There are two of us, and two are stronger than one—now do you understand? This will be the way. When he comes, do you begin a friendly wrestling match. While you are wrestling as if in sport, I will slip up behind him and thrust my knife into his side. Then do you draw out your dagger and do the same. And then, my dear, true friend, we shall have all this gold for our two selves. We can drink the rarest wines, we can gamble as much as we will, and all our lives long we shall be free to do as we list."

So it was that the two villains plotted to kill the third.

But the third had also a thought in his head, as I have said before, and no matter how fast he ran, his wicked scheme grew faster. "Oh, the gold, the gold," he said to himself. "If I could only have it all for my own, I should be the happiest man in the world; but there's no way out of it, two parts must go to them, and only one to me." And then he, too, made an evil plan. He hurried to an apothecary and said, "Sir, I am so troubled with rats that I do not know what to do. Can you sell me a poison that will make way with them?"

"That I can," replied the apothecary. "Here in this cabinet I keep a powder, and if you should give a bit of it no larger than a grain of wheat to any creature on the earth, he would fall down dead before you had walked a mile."

The villain went away from the apothecary with some of the poison safely stored away in a little box. He went next to a man who lived close by, and borrowed three large wine bottles and filled them with wine. Into two of them he put the poison, but the third he kept free for his own drinking that night. "For I shall have to labor and toil all night long," he said to himself, "to get the gold safely stored away in my house before daylight."

So it was that the two plans were laid, and it came to pass that both of them were carried out. The two villains who had stayed in the woods to watch the gold began the wrestling, and in it killed the third just as they had plotted. Then they sat down to make merry and to drink the wine; and in less time than one could walk a mile they both lay dead. This was the end of the revelers who set out to find Death, for so it was that they found him.