In a time not long past, during the reign of the most noble King Edward the Third, in a castle in a dark forest there lived a duke and his wife. She was younger than her husband and far more beautiful, and her virtue was exceeded only by her wit. Had she not been raised in a castle on a stony island in the middle of the sea with only her nursemaid for society, her hand would surely have been courted by kings and foreign potentates; but having grown up in such forgotten circumstances, she wed a duke, who was not worthy of her in the least.
Of the duke we may say that he was a strong man and distinguished in war. But no further may we praise him: he was neither beloved by his peasants nor admired by his peers, and his heart was a frozen stone in his breast. What little nobility he showed was nothing more than a mask -- but the lady, raised in such obscurity, lacked sufficient experience of the world to recognize this before it was too late. And so they wed, and the very next day the duke whisked her away to his castle, which stood deep in the forest where few travelers came.
It happened one day that a man came into this duke's lands. A humble scrivener by trade, he had neither land nor wealth to his name, and his writings never received the accolades their brilliance merited. He labored day and night with ink-stained fingers in the service of those who scorned him and drove him out with scarcely a penny for his efforts; but this suffering served to ennoble his soul, which was as high above that of ordinary men as a --
"Oh, bollocks," Wat said through a mouthful of venison pie. "Isn't you, innit? 'Ennobled,' my lily-white arse."
"Yes, Master Fowlehurst, we are all familiar with the astonishing paleness of your hindquarters, after the incident on St. Osmund's day. May I continue with my tale?"
Wat snorted, then fell into a coughing fit as this caused a flake of pastry to migrate into undesirable regions. Chaucer waited with an unconvincing show of patience while Roland pounded on Wat's back, then went on.
As I was saying. This scrivener was a poor but virtuous sort, struggling to keep body and soul together --
"Probably because he'd lost everything gambling --"
-- and so he knocked at the duke's door, hoping to ply his trade in that most noble house. The scrivener's road to that place had been a hard one: having lost his way in the depths of the forest, he then was chased by wolves to the camp of a bandit king. There the scrivener had his freedom with a merry tale that pleased the bandit king, but that scoundrel kept what little wealth his captive had. Thus the scrivener was even more penniless than usual when he knocked at the castle door, and exhausted and footsore to boot.
Alas for him, the servants of this most heartless duke were no kinder than he, for their master punished any show of charity or hospitality with a cruel hand. The woman who let him in -- an old hag with a scarred, burned face -- gave him, not even a cup of water or a crust of bread with which to sustain himself, though he waited for many long hours.
When he was nearly faint with weakness, the duke came at last to speak with him. And perhaps it is because of this weakness that the virtuous scrivener did not at first realize what the duke proposed.
"My lord," he began.
In addition to being heartless, this duke was most rude, for he interrupted the scrivener to say, "You should address me as Your Grace."
"Your Grace," the scrivener said, suitably penitent for his error. "I have traveled the wide earth from the Pillars of Hercules to the court of Cambyuskan --"
Chaucer stopped once more, staring. Receiving no answer to his unspoken question, he voiced it for everyone to hear. "Is there something you wish to say, Kate?"
"Not at all," she answered, all innocence.
"Are you sure?"
"Very well." Chaucer drew breath to pick up his thread once more.
He glared at her. She grinned back, entirely unrepentant. "I was wondering who Cambyuskan is."
"It doesn't matter to the story."
"But then why bring it up at all?"
With slow precision, he said, "Because it is an exotic name, and lends verisimilitude to the scrivener's claim of wide travels."
Wat had been savoring a mouthful of his beer; now he swallowed it and said, "But he isn't speaking in rhyme."
A muscle jumped in Chaucer's jaw. "Verisimilitude. Not versimi -- that isn't even a word."
"Well, how am I to know?"
There was no civil answer to that, and Chaucer did not attempt one.
"I have traveled from where the sun rises to where it sets, and nowhere in there have I heard of a scale or rod that can measure a woman's virtue."
Here the entire table burst out sniggering. Knowing them all too well, Chaucer sailed onward with grand and determined dignity, before anyone could make the obvious joke.
"There is no weight or length to virtue, but it can be measured all the same. If you swear to me that you will undertake this task, then I will teach you how it may be done. Should you find the measure of my wife's virtue to be great, I will give you a small reward; but should you find it to be small, I will reward you greatly indeed."
Such a promise struck the humble scrivener as odd. Surely a great nobleman, upon being assured of the fine qualities of his wife, would give many gifts to the man who proved it so? But when he questioned the duke upon this point, he was assured that the promise was as he had heard. Now this scrivener, in addition to being a worthy soul, was no fool; but he was very poor and very hungry and very deep in the forest, with no safe road out, for the way was plagued with wolves and bandit kings. He therefore took the duke's bargain, though he knew its price would be higher than he wished to pay.
The next day the duke went to London, leaving the scrivener as a member of his household. All alone, the scrivener went upstairs to the bower of the duchess, where he knocked on the door, intending to sweep into his most elegant bow upon being introduced to her.
Great was his surprise when he saw the lady within. Like the finest autumn honey was her hair, in two thick braids threaded with emerald ribbon. They hung nearly to the floor, gracing her shoulders and her bosom, which was as white as the petals of a rose, and as soft --
"Yes, she had lovely breasts, we get the point," Roland said impatiently. "You don't have to go on about it like she's the second coming of Mary Magdalene." Wat's impending protest at Roland turned into a wince when Kate found his ankle under the table and kicked it with the toe of her boot.
"This sets the scene!" Chaucer protested. "It builds suspense -- you see, the audience thinks the surprise is because of the lady's beauty, but in truth he was surprised to see her because --"
"The audience is beginning to doubt the scrivener's virtue, if not the lady's," Kate said dryly. "Get on with it."
"I would," Chaucer said through his teeth, "if you all would stop interrupting me."
The duchess was beautiful, though philistines never acknowledged it as much as she deserved. But great was the scrivener's surprise, for he realized that he had met the lady before.
"Hang on," Wat said. "I thought she was raised on a rock in the middle of the ocean. How could you have met her already?" He rolled his eyes. "I mean, the scrivener."
Chaucer's teeth were grinding together so forcefully, the noise was nearly audible over the general clamor of the tavern. When he could loose his jaw enough to speak, he said, "Have you ever heard of suspense? I cannot build any if you are forever interrupting me."
"Look, mate, I just want to understand what's going on --"
"And if you would shut up for even one minute, you would find that I was about to answer your question!"
The duchess, having been raised on a rock in the middle of the ocean -- though no one of quality would ever speak of it in such crude, unpoetical terms -- had met very few men in her life. But the scrivener was one of them, for although the duke did not remember it, that scrivener was the very one who had drawn up the contract for their marriage. He had grieved to write the words, until he turned his head aside to avoid staining the page with his tears, for he knew the lady could not possibly be happy in such a future.
"Go ahead and say it," Chaucer announced to the room at large. "I have given up all hope of telling this story in anything like a reasonable fashion."
The other three exchanged looks, conducting a silent argument as to which of them should say what they were all thinking. Finally Kate lost patience with this and said, "Shouldn't the scrivener have known the duchess was there, then? If he'd written out the contract for the marriage."
"The duke had many titles. The scrivener could not remember them all, and he used a different one in this castle than the scrivener had known him by." Chaucer addressed this explanation to the ceiling, which at least did him the courtesy of not exchanging a dubious look with anyone else present. "May I go on?"
The question was rhetorical. If he waited for an answer, they would only have come up with more objections. Chaucer went on before anyone could respond.
The lady was equally surprised to see him at her door, and questioned him most thoroughly about his reason for being there. To this the scrivener could say only that the duke had hired him, for it was part of his instruction that he should not admit his true purpose.
The duchess lived in her bower like a bird in a cage, her song silenced by her captivity and the cruelty of the duke. She received no visitors, and journeyed nowhere; she was not even permitted the escape of riding upon her palfrey in the woods around the castle.
"Bandits and wolves," Roland said under his breath -- but very quietly.
Had the duke recalled the connection between the scrivener and his wife, he would never have permitted the two of them to meet. Indeed, such was his cruelty that he would not even have allowed the scrivener to entertain the lady with poetry and tales, were it not necessary for his purpose.
Just as the flowers open their petals in answer to live-giving rain, so did the mind of the duchess, long neglected and starved by her wicked husband, blossom under the attention and conversation of the scrivener. There were whole hours in which she forgot the true state of her life, laughing once more as if she were the clever girl she had been before her marriage. And the scrivener, seeing this change, thought that he would rather be torn limb from limb by wild horses than hurt her -- but he had given his word.
There came a day when the duke was absent once more and the sky thundered as if with the wrath of pagan gods, and the scrivener knew he must carry out the duty laid upon him by the duke. But he was loath to do so, for he knew that whatever the outcome of his efforts, he would no longer be permitted in the duke's household.
You may think it was the thought of losing his position that troubled him, for the scrivener, as I have said, was a poor man who struggled to keep body and soul together. But his thoughts were all for the lady: the prisoner of that remote castle, who upon his departure would be deprived of the one thing that brought light into her life. And yet measure her virtue he must --
"I know the next part," Kate said sourly. "He tries to seduce her, like the duke told him to. And he'll succeed, but the lady will fall in love with him, and then they'll plot to run away together. But since the story has bandits and wolves in it, I doubt this is the sort of tale where they live happily ever after."
"Bandits and wolves," Wat said, nodding vigorously, as if he had not heard Roland say it just a moment before. "They'll be eaten alive. Or stabbed and left for dead. Or stabbed and then eaten."
Roland waved his hands, cutting Wat off. "No, no. Don't you see? It's his story, like you said. Geoff's, I mean. This is how he met that wife of his -- she's an ex-duchess. He rescued her from an evil duke, and he's telling us the story of how that happened."
"She didn't look like no duchess to me." Wat grinned. "Don't duchesses usually have fancy dresses and all that?"
"That's why I said ex."
Kate, ever practical, was full of objections. "But this can't possibly be a real story, his or anyone else's. Bandits and wolves and an evil duke? An innocent girl raised on a rock in the middle of the ocean? The world doesn't work like that. It sounds like the kind of story Geoff used to tell about Will."
"Right," Roland said, "like the one where the son of a thatcher became a knight."
They fell to arguing. Chaucer fell to drumming his fingertips upon the table. They were deep in debate over whether any forests in England harbored wolves and a castle and a bandit group large enough to have its own king, and if so, why the duke hadn't stamped them out with his iron fist, and wasn't that a mixed metaphor anyway -- a debate that promised to go absolutely nowhere useful -- when Chaucer finally broke in, loudly. "Don't any of you want to know how it ends?"
"We know how it ends," Kate and Roland said in unison. Then they glared at each other. They still didn't agree on whether the story was real and happy, or made-up and tragic.
"No," Chaucer said. "You don't."
This much is true: that the duke had instructed the scrivener to try and seduce his wife. He had made a wager with another nobleman over the duchess' virtue; and being a cynical and heartless man, the duke had wagered that his wife would give in. If so, a portion of his winnings would go to the scrivener -- or so he promised.
But there would be no winnings for either duke or scrivener. No sooner did he begin his attempt than the duchess stood, towering in her rage. "You dare to approach me in this manner?"
"My lady --"
"You should address me as Your Grace. And I should have you thrown in the dungeon for your presumption."
The scrivener weighed his options. He found them few, and not very attractive. Throwing himself upon the floor at her feet, he said, "Your Grace, I beg your forgiveness. I have presumed only on your husband's orders, for he wished to test your virtue. I should not have accepted his task, and can only plead poverty to explain my actions."
He remained there for a long moment, trembling. Then the duchess sighed and said, "I know. Get up."
The scrivener was an eloquent man, never without a quip or aphorism to suit the occasion. Except, that is, upon this occasion, when he found himself speechless. He rose to his knees, but no further.
The duchess went to the window, looking out at the rain. Ordinarily the scrivener would have described this rain as weeping for her situation, dungeoned in this castle like the prisoner of her heartless husband -- but instead he thought of the thunder, drumming out its rage. The duchess said, "It cannot be that he hopes to obtain great wealth by proving my infidelity, for my family has none. So why did he tell you to do this?"
The scrivener admitted it was a wager, and delineated the terms.
"And what is to be your portion, when all of this is done?"
"Very small indeed," the scrivener said. "He promised me great reward if your virtue was small -- but I never had any expectation of that."
Her sniff conveyed deep skepticism.
The scrivener abased himself once more. "My lady, please. I have wronged you by taking your husband's instructions; let me make amends now by aiding you. He is a scoundrel and a cur, and if you but say the word, I will cut him down where he stands, even if I be hanged for it."
She sniffed again. From her hair she took a ribbon, which she gave to the scrivener, saying, "I do not need you to cut him down. Only take this to the serving-woman with the scarred face, and your slate will be clean. But leave immediately afterward, or it may go ill for you."
Chaucer paused, but no one spoke. From the other sides of the table, three faces looked up at him, expectant. Waiting.
He smiled and went on.
The scrivener took the ribbon to the scarred serving-woman, but he did not leave. He recognized the woman, despite her burns; she was the same nursemaid who had raised the duchess in her isolated home, and upon receiving the ribbon, she went out into the woods, along a path the scrivener recognized from before.
From the concealment of a bush, he heard the nursemaid tell the bandit king, "Three times he has mistreated her. Your sister sends you this ribbon to say, come."
A bandit army rode past the scrivener and to the castle. By the time the duke returned, eager to hear of his wife's unchastity, a number of new servants had appeared on his estate, but he paid them no more heed than he ever did. The decision which caused his downfall took place long before then, but his disregard on that day laid the final flourishes upon it. For of course those "servants" were the bandit king's men; they had taken possession of the castle, and imprisoned him in the dungeon upon the duchess' command.
She spoke to him once, after the stone walls and iron-barred door had closed about him. "Though I was an innocent when I married you, I was not so innocent as to take no precautions. I told my brother I would give you three chances: but if you mistreated me three times, then I would send him a ribbon from my hair, as a signal that I would endure no more. Your castle is in the hands of the bandit king, my lord, and he holds it at my command. He would have killed you, but I ordered that you should be locked up here, as you have locked me up since our marriage. I will put it about that you fell from your horse and took a blow that robbed you of your senses; and after today, I will not look upon you again."
And so she did, for the lady was true to her word.
Silence reigned. Then stretched. Then wobbled. Finally Wat said, "What about the scrivener?"
"What about him?"
"Doesn't he come in and kill the duke? Or marry the duchess? Or something?"
Chaucer blinked innocently at him. "What makes you think that would happen?"
"Well, isn't he the hero of the fonging story? I mean, it's your story, innit? You didn't do nothing but deliver a ribbon!"
Chaucer kept his own quite straight and said, "Yes, I was the scrivener. But you're wrong in thinking that I'm the hero of the story. Weren't you paying attention? If it were about me, I'd call this 'The Scrivener's Tale.' But this, my friend, is the Book of the Duchess."