Chaucer Story Book - E. M. Tappan

The Squire's Tale

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

Everything had gone on well with the pilgrims. There had been little disagreement, and all had obeyed the host whom they had made their governor. It was now the morning of the fourth day, and good Harry Bailey rode nearer to the handsome young squire and said, "Squire, can't you tell us a good love story?" and he added slyly, "Surely, you must know as much about the matter as any one."

"No, sir," the squire replied, "but I will do as well as I can. I will tell you a story, and if I do not tell it well, I can only ask your pardon. My will is good, at all events, and here is the tale."

Cambuscan and the Brazen Horse

At Sarray, in the land of Tartary, there once dwelt a king named Cambuscan. He was a noble, upright man, hardy and wise, and he was ever faithful to the religion to which he was born. He was a bold warrior, too. He had fought so fiercely against Russia that in his wars full many a brave man had come to his death. But in spite of all the fighting that had fallen to his lot, he was as eager to win glory in arms as any fresh-made knight of his house. He was handsome and strong, and he lived in such royal state as one could hardly find anywhere else in the world.

This noble king was blessed with two sons, Algarsife and Camballo. He had also a daughter named Canacee; but there is no use in my trying to tell you how beautiful she was, for I have neither the words nor the skill to do such a thing; it would need a great rhetorician, and I am only a plain man. I must speak as I can.

Now when it came to the twenty-first year of the reign of Cambuscan, he sent out a proclamation through Sarray, as he was wont to do, that the thirteenth of March, his birthday, should be celebrated. When the day had come, the weather was bright and pleasant, the sun was joyous and clear, and the little birds sitting in its beams sang their merriest lays. They seemed to be rejoicing that they were no longer pierced by the cold, keen sword of winter.

There was to be a feast at the palace, and when the hour had come, Cambuscan put on his diadem and his richest robes and took his seat on the dais. Then came the feast; and I will tell you the truth, that never in all the world was there another feast so sumptuous. It would take the longest day in summer to describe half the courses and the order of service at each course. Then, too, there were all sorts of delicacies that are not known in this land. But no one can tell everything; I will go on and relate the tale.

Three courses were done, and the King sat among his nobles listening to the music of the minstrels, when suddenly through the door of the hall there came in a knight riding on a steed of brass. In his hand there was a broad glass mirror, on his thumb was a gold ring, and by his side hung a naked sword. The music stopped, not a word was spoken, and every one gazed curiously at the strange knight. He was most richly armed save that he wore no helmet. He rode straight up to the table and made his obeisance to the King and Queen and lords in their order so reverently and gracefully that if Gawain with his oldtime courtesy had come forth from the realm of Faerie, he could have done no better. Then, standing before the high table, he gave his message in straightforward, manly fashion. As nearly as I can recall it, this is what he said:—

"My liege lord, King of Araby and of India, gives you greeting on this your festival day; and sends you by me, your servant, this steed of brass that in the space of a day can carry you through sunshine or shower to whatever place you may choose. If you should take a fancy to rise as high in the air as the eagle flies, this horse will bear you up, up, as high as ever you may wish to go; and he will move so gently that you can sleep on his back if you choose. When you are ready to descend, just twirl a certain wooden pin, and the horse will come down as softly as a feather. The work man who made the horse knew all about seals and magic bonds. Many a constellation he watched, waiting until the stars were favorable.

"The mirror that I hold in my hand is of such virtue that in it you may see when trouble is at hand, whether to you or to your kingdom. It will tell you who is a true friend and who is a secret foe. More than that, if a maiden love a man, she shall know by this glass whether he is true to her or not; and if he be false, there in the mirror will be the portrait of his new love. Nothing can be hidden. All his trickery will be open to her eyes. My king sends this mirror to the fair Lady Canacee, your excellent daughter.

"He sends her, too, this ring; and if it should chance that she would like to know the speech of birds and green things that grow, then let her wear this ring upon her thumb or carry it in her purse, and, truly, there is no bird flying under the heavens whose language she shall not understand; and she shall also be able to answer each one in its own tongue. And there shall not be a blade of grass growing out of the ground that shall not have a voice for her ears. She shall know, too, what virtue it hides within itself to heal the suffering or the wounded, and so shall she have power to cure him whom she will, however deep and wide his wounds may be.

"This naked sword that hangs close by my side has other virtue, but of no less worth. If with this sword in your hand you strike a blow, then shall it cut and pierce through all the armor of your foe, be it thick and firm as a branching oak. More than this, the wound shall never heal unless of your favor you may choose to stroke it with the flat of the sword. This is an amazing story, but it is the simple truth; and while the sword remains in your possession, its power shall never fail."

Again the knight bowed low before the King, then rode out of the hall into the court. The brazen horse flashed in the sunshine like a flame of fire, but stood as motionless as a stone. The knight was led to his room with all courtesy, unarmed, and brought in to the feast. The sword and the mirror were carried by some officers of rank to the tower, and with much ceremony the ring was presented to the Lady Canacee. As for the horse, there was no question what should be done with that, for, try as they might, all the servants of the King together could not stir it a hand's breadth. Neither windlass nor pulley would move it, for these men had no knowledge of the secret pin; therefore, they had good reason to leave it standing in the courtyard.

Of course the story spread like flame, and the people from all the country roundabout came in crowds to gaze at the marvelous horse. "See how tall and broad and long he is!" said some. "He has just the right shape and proportion to be strong. He must be of the Lombardy breed." But others said, "No; see how graceful he is and what a quick eye he has! That is more like a gentle Apulian courser." But of whatever blood they thought him, all agreed that certainly no horse that promised greater strength or speed or gentleness or endurance had ever been seen in the kingdom.

Of course the marvel was how a horse made of brass could move as this one had shown that it could. "It is a work of Faerie," the crowd declared. They shook their wise heads and fancied all sorts of explanations. They buzzed and murmured like a swarm of bees. They told over and over the fables and tales of old. One said it must be the winged horse Pegasus. Another insisted that it was the veritable steed of Sinon, the Greek who brought about the downfall of Troy, as the old histories say. "I believe some armed men are in that horse," declared one with a shudder, "and they will try to take the city; the King and his officers ought to know this and take good heed of it." Another whispered softly, "There's no truth in that. I believe this thing is only an apparition, like those that jugglers bring about by magic at great feasts." So they wondered and surmised, as ignorant people are wont to do when things are beyond their comprehension.

These simple folk had also much to say of the mirror that had been carried up into the highest tower. They wondered how people could see such things in it as the knight had said. One thought this might be brought about by an arrangement of angles and secret reflections, and recalled having heard that there was once such an one in Rome. Some spoke of Vitulan and Alacen and Aristotle, and said that in their books there were accounts of strange mirrors and perspective glasses. Others could talk of nothing but the sword that would cut through any kind of armor. They told tales of King Telephus and of a certain magical spear that Achilles was said to have had which would both wound and heal. They talked about the effects of various drugs, about different ways of hardening metal, and of just when it should be done.

Then they had much to say about Canacee's ring. Some declared that they never before heard of such amazing skill in ring-making. Others recalled the story that both Moses and King Solomon were said to have had wonderful knowledge of how to make such things. Still others insisted that it was no more wonderful to make such a ring than it was to make glass out of fern ashes. "The only difference," they declared, "is that the ring is new to us and we have known about the glass for so long a while that people have stopped gabbling about it. Folk thought thunder and the ebb and flow of the tide and gossamer and mist, and, indeed, everything else, were most mysterious till they discovered the cause."

So they chattered and declared and fancied till the King rose from the table. The loud playing of the minstrels went before him till he came to his room where were his handsomest hangings and his richest ornaments. Then there was such music that one who heard it might well have deemed himself in heaven.

Now was the time for the merry dancing. The King seated himself upon his throne, and the stranger knight led out Canacee to the dance. No one but Launcelot could ever have described to you the many kinds of dances, the fresh, bright faces, the sly glances of jealousy. Launcelot is dead, so I must pass over all this merriment. I will say no more, but leave them to their pleasure till the hour for the supper had come.

The steward called for spices and wine, and all ate and drank. When they had had their fill, they went to the temple; and after the service was done, they sat down to supper, while it was yet daylight. Why should I describe the many viands at the supper? Every one knows that when a king gives a feast, there are all sorts of dainties, and that the humblest as well as he who is most worthy of respect has plenty of each.

After supper the noble King went to examine the brazen steed, and a great company of lords and ladies went with him. Surely, there was never so much wondering about a horse before since the days of the horse of Troy. They talked and they looked and they marveled; and then the King asked the knight to tell him how to manage the steed. The knight replied, "Sir, there is really nothing more to learn. When you wish to go anywhere, twirl the pin in his ear—I will tell you about this privately—and tell him the name of the place to which you wish to go. That is all there is to it. And when you have come to where you would stop, twirl another pin and tell him to descend, and he will go down at once. Moreover, he will stand precisely where you leave him; and even if the whole world should try to move him, they would not be able to stir him from the place. If you wish to send him away from you, twirl this other pin, and he will vanish from sight. When you want him again, you have only to call him in a way that I will teach you when we are by ourselves. So are you free to ride wherever you wish."

This brave and noble King soon learned from the knight the secret of the pins. He had the bridle carried to the tower to be kept among his most precious jewels; and he bade the horse disappear. Then, glad of heart at possessing such a treasure, he returned to the revelings. All night long, and almost to the coming of the day, Cambuscan and his lords feasted in merriment and jollity.

As the dawning drew near, one after another grew sleepy, and at last all the King's visitors had gone to their beds. They slept till it was broad daylight. Canacee, however, was more moderate. She had gone to her rest soon after the evening had begun, for she had no idea of looking pale in the morning. After her first sleep she awoke, and she felt so delighted with her curious ring and her mirror that her color came and went, not once but twenty times. She went to sleep again, but even in her sleep she had a vision of the mirror. She was wide awake before sunrise, and she called her governess, who slept close by, and said she wished to rise. The governess said, "Madame, folk are all at rest. Where will you go so early?" "I will get up and walk out a little," Canacee replied. So the governess called ten or twelve of the ladies in waiting. Canacee was soon ready, and was as fresh and bright as the sun himself. She dressed herself in light clothes, for it was a mild and pleasant season, and roamed about in the park with only five or six of her attendants. The mist rising from the south made the sun look broad and red. It was the beautiful morning time; birds were singing, and the hearts of all the company leaped up with joy; but Canacee had still more reason to rejoice, for she found that she could understand the meaning of every song.

Now high above the head of the princess, in an old tree dry and white as chalk, sat a falcon. She was wondrously beautiful, so fair both in color and in form that she looked like a wanderer from some strange and marvelous country. She seemed to be in sore distress; for she cried so piteously that the whole wood echoed, and she had beaten her wings so harshly that the red blood was running down the tree. And she never ceased crying and shrieking and plucking the feathers from her breast so cruelly that there is not a tiger or any other beast that would not have wept—if he could weep—for pity of her.

Canacee still had on her finger the ring that the knight had brought, and so of course she could understand everything that the bird said and could answer it again. For some time she stood watching, then she said, "Will you not tell me why it is that you are in such anguish? It must be because some one dear to you has died, or else that some one has been false to you in love. Tell me your trouble, I beg. I am a king's daughter, and if you will only come down from the tree, I will do all in my power to remove your sorrow; and, too, I know the use of many an herb, and I can easily find some to cure your wounds."

The falcon made no reply save to cry more piteously than before. Then she fell to the ground and lay there in a swoon. Canacee took her up and held her tenderly till she had come to herself. She told a sad tale of a tercelet that had won her heart, and then deserted her for love of a fair young kite; and as she spoke, the tears of Canacee fell like rain, and all her women shared in her sorrow. How to comfort the hawk was the question. Canacee wrapped her softly in bandages, dug herbs, and made salves to heal her. She carried her most gently to the palace, and she worked from morning till night, trying to help her. Close to the head of her bed she made a cage and covered it with velvet of blue, the color of truth, in token of the truth that is in woman.

[Now, sirs, I fear much that you will blame me sorely for an unfinished tale, but I can only do my best. I would gladly rehearse to you a lengthy account of the conquests of this great King Cambuscan, of how many cities he won; also of Algarsife and Camballo, how they were wondrously aided in their exploits by the magic steed of brass; but, truly, sirs, he from whom I had the tale could tell me nothing of its ending. When I bewailed this to a learned friend who dwelt here in our own country, he of his courtesy most kindly offered to partly end the tale, for either had he heard some distant legend, or else to his own mind—for verily, sirs, he was a poet—had come the fancy, and he knew not whence. This is the ending that he gave.]

Fair Canacee was truly loved by many a lord and many a knight of greatest worthiness; but she refused to give herself to either knight or lord of high degree. Therefore it came to pass that quarrels rose among her lovers, and often they fought most grievously. Camballo, her wise brother, saw that this would lead to battles and, it might be, to rending of the kingdom. One day when many of her lovers, warlike men and bold, had met together, and there seemed like to be a bloody slaughter for her sweet sake, Camballo bade them listen to his words.

"That all this strife may cease," he said, "I here proclaim a trial by arms, and Lady Canacee shall be its prize. Do all you who would win my sister's hand choose from among you three, the stoutest and the bravest of the company. With those three, each one in turn, will I hold combat; and he who overcomes the brother shall win the sister for his wife."

Then there was silence among the suitors, and one by one they drew back from the challenge. They were brave young men, these knights and lords; but it was known among them that Camballo had a magic ring of such virtue that no matter how often or how severely he was wounded, the wound would close at once and heal. "We fight with mortals, not with Faerie," said the knights; and finally none were left to seek the prize save three brave brothers of such valor that they would give up their lives rather than withdraw.

The day for the contest arrived. The lists were made ready; six judges were chosen to view the deeds of arms; and on a lofty platform fair Canacee was set to be the prize of him who should win her by his bravery. The knights advanced in shining armor. Camballo entered first alone into the lists with stately steps and fearless countenance. To meet him came the three brothers with gilded scutcheons and broad banners widely floating. They made humble obeisance to fair Canacee; the trumpets and the clarions sounded loud and shrill, and such a fight began as men have rarely witnessed.

To make a long story short, I will say that, brave as were the brothers and furious as were their cuts and thrusts, they had small chance in contest with a foe whose every wound was healed almost as soon as given; and the first two were slain before much time had passed. The fight with the third, however, was as fierce as if Camballo was contending with three rather than one; and, indeed, he was, though he knew it not. The mother of these three brothers was a fay who knew all secret things. She discovered by her magic arts that the lives of her sons would be short, and she besought the Fates to bestow upon her a single boon. "When the first shall die," she pleaded, "grant that all remaining of the space of his life's natural term shall be given to the second; and that when he, too, shall come to his death, all that remains of his life and strength and that of his brother shall be added to the third." This prayer was granted, and this is why the contest waxed so fierce, for Camballo was not fighting with one, however stout and hardy he might be, but with three doughty champions.

Suddenly a loud clamor was heard, and a strange chariot, decked with gold and gorgeous ornaments and drawn by two savage lions, dashed through the crowd and into the lists like a whirlwind. A lady of rarest beauty sat in the chariot. In her right hand she bore a rod of peace, and in her left was a magic potion called nepenthe. She greeted first her brother, and then Camballo; though to Camballo she spoke but shyly, for at the first glance at him she felt young love arising in her heart. They paid her small attention, and even her prayers and tears that they would cease their strife availed her not at all. Then with the magic power that she had learned from her mother, wise in Faerie lore, she stood upright and touched them lightly with her wand of peace. Their swords dropped from their hands, and they stood staring at each other in amazement. "Drink," bade the maiden; and she held out to them her golden cup, filled with the drink that brings forgetfulness. As soon as they had drunk from this, their contest was forgotten. Each saw in the man before him so brave and noble a champion that he had no choice but to love him and respect him. So it was that each one gave a friendly kiss unto the other. They clasped each other's hand and pledged their word that ever after this they would be true and faithful friends, and stand by each other in both woe and weal.

The people shouted in wonder and in joy till the very heavens rang. Canacee descended from her lofty seat and gave warm greeting to the stranger. Then in the gorgeous chariot, sitting side by side, the two fair maidens rode homeward as if dear and loving sisters.

So it was that gentle Canacee was won; and, to make the tale some few words longer, so it was that Camballo gained a wife with whom he passed long years of happiness.