Erminione Glaucio, an Athenian, takes to wife Filenia Centurione, and, having become jealous of her, accuses her before the tribunal, but by the help of Hippolito, her lover, she is acquitted and Erminione punished.
OF A truth, gracious ladies, there would be in all the world no condition more sweet, more delightful, or more happy than the service of love, were it not for that bitter fruit which springs from sudden jealousy, the foe which drives away gentle Cupid, the betrayer of kindly ladies, the foe who day and night tries to compass their death. Wherefore there comes into my recollection a fable which ought to be received by you with some satisfaction, seeing that from it you will be able readily to understand the hard and piteous fate which befell a gentleman of Athens, who, because of his impotent jealousy, sought the taking off of his wife by the sword of justice, but was in stead condemned himself and met his death thereby. Which judgment ought to please you, because, if I am not greatly in error, you are yourselves all of you more or less in love.
In Athens, the most ancient city of Greece, and one which was in times past the veritable home and resort of all learning, though now, through her flighty vanity, entirely ruined and overthrown, there resided once upon a time a gentle man named Messer Erminione Glaucio, a man of much consideration and repute in the city, rich in purse, but at the same time of mean intelligence. Now it chanced that when he was an old man, finding himself without progeny, he made up his mind to marry, and he took to wife a damsel named Filenia, daughter of Messer Cesarino Centurione, of noble descent and gifted with marvellous beauty and with good qualities out of number. In short, there was in all the city no other maiden who was her equal. And, for as much as he was greatly in fear lest his wife, on account of her marvellous beauty, should be courted by divers of the gallants of the city, and perhaps give occasion for some disgraceful scandal, through which the finger of scorn might be pointed at him, he resolved to restrain her in a certain lofty tower of his palace, out of sight of all passers-by. And before long it happened that the wretched old dotard, without knowing why, let his jealousy rise to such a pitch that he mistrusted even himself.
There was residing in the city at this time a certain scholar of Crete, young in years, but very discreet, and greatly loved and esteemed by all who knew him on account of his amiability and grace. The name of this youth was Hippolito, and before Filenia was married he had paid suit to her, and, besides this, he was on intimate terms with Messer Erminione, who held him as dear as if he had been his own son. At a certain time during his scholar’s course he found him self somewhat disinclined for study; so, desiring to recruit his spirits, he took his departure from Athens, and having gone into Crete, he sojourned there for a time, to discover on his return that Filenia was married. On this account he fell into an access of melancholy, and he grieved the more because he was now deprived of all hope of seeing her at his pleasure, nor could he endure to remember that a maiden so lovely and graceful should be bound in marriage to a tooth less, slobbering old man.
Wherefore the love-stricken Hippolito finding himself no longer able to endure the burning pricks and the sharp arrows of love, set himself to find out some method, some hidden way by which he might enjoy the fulfillment of his desires. And after he had well considered the many schemes which presented them selves to him, he fixed at last upon a certain one which appeared to him the most fitting. To put this in execution he first betook himself to the shop of a carpenter, his neighbour, where he ordered to be made two chests of the same length and breadth and width, and of the same measure and quality, so that no one would be able to distinguish the one from the other. This done, he repaired to Messer Erminione’s house, and, making pretense of wanting something of him, spake in cunning wise the following words Messer Erminione, you know well enough that I love and reverence you as if you were my own father, and for my part if I were not well convinced of your affection for myself, I would never dare, with such assurance as I now use, to beg any favour of you; but, seeing that I have ever found you well disposed to me, I am wellnigh certain that I shall now get from you that service which my heart so greatly desires. It happens that I am constrained to leave Athens and to go to the city of Frenna to expedite some very important matters of business, and I must remain there until such time as these shall be completed. And because I have no one about me whom I can fully trust, seeing that I am served only by menials and hirelings, of whom I am in no way well assured, I would fain that you hold in charge for me—provided that it be your pleasure so to do—a certain chest of mine full of articles of value which I happen to possess.’ Messer Erminione, suspecting nought of the craft of the young scholar, made answer to him that he was well content to grant this favour, and that for greater security the chest should be de posited and kept in the same chamber in which he slept. On hearing this reply the scholar returned to Messer Erminione his thanks, the warmest he knew how to render, promising the while to keep in mind the memory of this great favour done to him as long as he should live. Then he begged the old man to do him the honour to go with him as far as his own dwelling, in order that he might exhibit to him the various articles which he had stored in the chest. Wherefore the two, having gone together to the house of Hippolito the latter pointed out a chest filled with rich garments and jewels and necklaces of no small value, and then, having summoned a certain one of his servants and presented him to Messer Erminione, he said:’ If at any time, Messer Erminione, this my servant should be seeing after the removal of my chest, you can trust him to the full as if he were my own self.’ And when Messer Erminione had taken his departure Hippolito hid himself in the other chest, which was exactly like the one filled with garments and jewels, and having fastened it from the inside, he bade his servant carry it to a certain place he knew of. The servant, who was privy to the affair, obedient to his master’s order called a porter, and having lifted the burden on the man’s back, ordered him to bear it to the tower in which was situated the chamber where Messer Erminione slept every night with his young wife.
Messer Erminione, being one of the chiefs of the city and a man of wealth and influence, it fell to his lot, on ac count of the worshipful state he filled, to go for a certain space of time to a place called Porto Pireo, distant about twenty stadi from the city of Athens, and there to compose certain suits and strifes which had arisen between the townsmen and the peasants round about—albeit he found this errand but little to his taste. Wherefore, when Messer Erminione had gone his way, tormented as ever by the jealousy which day and night weighed upon him, the youth, shut up in the chest which now stood in Madonna Filenia’s bedroom, was waiting for the favourable moment. More than once had he heard the fair dame weeping and sighing as she bemoaned her hard lot, and the place and the hour which had seen her given in marriage to a miserable old man who had proved to be the ruin of her life. And when it seemed to him that she was in her first sleep, he got out of the chest, and, having gone to the bedside, said in a soft voice: ‘Awake, my soul! for I, your Hippolito, am here.’ And when she was fully aroused, and saw him and knew who he was (for there was a candle burning in the chamber), she was inclined to cry out; but the young man, putting his hand upon her lips, would not allow this, and thus addressed her in a voice full of agitation: ‘Be silent, heart of mine! do you not see that I am Hippolito, your faithful lover? Of a truth I cannot live apart from you.’ The fair young woman was somewhat comforted by these words, and by the time she had found the opportunity for comparing the worth of her old husband with the youthful Hippolito she was by no means ill-satisfied with the turn things had taken, and lay all night with her lover, spending the time in loving conversation and railing at the impotent ways of her doltish husband. Before they parted they agreed together to meet again in like manner, and when the morning began to dawn the youth got back into his chest, and every evening would issue therefrom and spend the night with the lady. Now, after a good many days had elapsed, Messer Erminione, giving the business good speed both on account of the discomfort he himself suffered and of the rabid jealousy which never ceased to torment him, put an end to all the disputes he had been called upon to settle, and went back to his home. The servant of Hippolito, as soon as he heard the news of Messer Erminione’s return, went without losing time to his house, and, according to the agreement which had been settled, demanded of him in the name of his master Hippolito the return of the chest, and this Messer Erminione gave up to him without a word of demur. Wherefore, having summoned a porter, the servant caused the chest to be conveyed home. Then Hippolito, having come out of his hiding place, went forthwith to the piazza, where he met with Messer Erminione, and after he had embraced him, he thanked him most courteously in the warmest terms he could find, for the great kindness he had received, and at the same time declared that he himself and all that he possessed should ever be ready at Messer Erminione’s service.
It chanced that on a certain morning Messer Erminione remained in bed with his wife somewhat later than was his wont, and, lifting up his eyes, he remarked upon the wall and high above his head certain stains which looked as if they had been caused by someone spitting thereon. Wherefore his inveterate jealousy began once more to trouble him, and he was mightily amazed at what he saw, and began to turn it over in his mind in such wise that, after he had well considered the matter, he could not bring himself to believe that the marks on the wall in question were any work of his. Then, with strong apprehension as to their meaning, he turned to his wife and with an angry troubled face demanded of her: ‘What have you to say about those spit marks high up on the wall there? I am well assured they were never made by me, for I never spat up there in my life. I strongly suspect that you have betrayed my honour.’ Filenia, laughing the while at this speech, thus answered him: ‘Is there no other charge you would like to bring against me?’ Messer Erminione, when he saw her begin to laugh, grew more infuriated than ever, and said: ‘Ah, you laugh, do you, wicked woman that you are? Now, tell me quickly what it is that makes you laugh.’ ‘I am laughing,’ answered Filenia, ‘at your own foolishness.’ At these words Messer Erminione began to chafe with rage,’ and, being anxious to make trial of his own powers and to see whether he could spit so high, with much coughing and gasping he strained with all his might to reach the mark on the wall by his spitting, but he wearied himself vain, for the spittle always fell down again and lighted upon his visage, plastering him thickly with filth and after the wretched old man had made this trial many times, he found that he only got in worse case every turn. So, by the light of this experience he persuaded himself that his wife had assuredly played him false, and, turning to her, he began to assail her with the most rascally words that could be applied to a guilty woman, and, if he had not been in fear of the law and of his own neck, he would surely have slain her then and there with his own hands, but he managed to restrain himself, deeming it better to deal with her by legal process than to stain his hands in her blood. Not satisfied with the rating he had already given her, he betook him self, full of wrath and anger, to the tribunal, where he preferred before the judge a charge of adultery against his wife. But, seeing that it lay not within the power of the judge to pronounce condemnation upon her unless the legal statutes should have been duly observed, he ordered Filenia to be brought before him in order that he might narrowly ex amine her.
Now, there was in Athens a law, which was held in the highest reverence, pro viding that any woman who might be charged by her husband with adultery should be placed at the foot of a certain red column, round which was entwined a serpent, and there make oath whether or not the accusation of adultery brought against her were true. And after she had taken the oath she was required forthwith to put her hand in the serpent’s mouth, and then, if she should have sworn falsely, the serpent would at once bite off her hand; otherwise, she received no injury. Hippolito, who had already heard rumours of this charge before the tribunal, and that the judge bad sent to fetch Filenia to put her on her defence, being a youth of resource at once took action to see that she should not run into the snares of ignominious death. By way of rescuing her from condemnation he first of all stripped off all his clothes and donned in their stead some rags befitting a madman, and then, without being seen by anyone, he left his own lodging and ran straight to the tribunal as if he had been some one out of his mind, acting well the part of a crazy man as he went along the streets.
Now it chanced that while the officers of the court were haling along the poor lady towards the tribunal, all the people of the city gathered themselves together to take note as to how the cause would end and in the midst of the crowd the pretended madman, forcing his way now here, now there, worked himself so well to the front that he found opportunity to cast his arms round the neck of the woeful lady, and to press a kiss upon her lips, which caress she, seeing that her arms were bound behind her back, could in no wise escape. When the young woman had been brought into the presence of the tribunal the judge addressed her in these words: ‘As you may see, Filenia, your husband Messer Erminione is here to lay complaint against you that you have committed adultery, and furthermore prays that I should deal out to you the due penalty according to the statute; wherefore you must now make oath and say whether or not the charge which your husband brings against you is true.’ Then the young woman, who was very wary and keen of intellect, swore with confidence that no man had ever touched her save her husband and the madman who was now present be fore them all. Then, after she had sworn, the underlings of the court led her to the place where was the serpent, which, after Filenia’s hand had been placed in its mouth, did her no harm whatever, inasmuch as what she had sworn was really the truth, namely, that no man had ever given her caress of any sort except her husband and the so-called madman.
When they perceived this, the crowd, and all her kinsfolk, who had come thither to see the solemn and terrible sight, at once set her down as innocent and wrongfully accused, and cried out that Messer Erminione deserved the same death which was the penalty of the crime imputed to his wife. But, for the reason that he was a noble, a man of high lineage, and one of the chiefs of the city, the president would not permit him to be publicly burned (for so much power the law gave him), but, in order that he might duly discharge his office, he sentenced Erminione to be thrown into prison, where, after a short space of time, he expired. This is the wretched end which Messer Erminione put to his senseless jealousy, and by these means the young wife was delivered from an ignominious death. Before great length of time had passed Hippolito made her his lawful wife, and they lived many years happily together.
When the story told by the discreet and modest Vicenza had come to an end—a story which pleased all the ladies mightily—the Signora bade her to pro pound her enigma in due course, and she, raising her pretty smiling face, in stead of one of her songs gave the following riddle:
When hope and love and strong desire
Are born to set the world on fire,
That self-same hour a beast is born,
All savage, meagre, and forlorn.
Sometimes, with seeming soft and kind,
Like ivy round an elm-tree twined,
It clips us close with bine and leaf,
But feeds on heartache, woe, and grief.
Ever in mourning garb it goes,
In anguish lives, in sorrow grows.
And worse than worst the fate of him
Who falls beneath its talons grim.
Here Vicenza brought her enigma to an end. The interpretations of its meaning were diverse, and no one of the company was found clever enough to fathom its true import. When Vicenza saw this, she sighed a little impatiently, and then, with a smiling face, spake as follows: “The enigma I have set you to guess means nothing else than chilling jealousy, which, all lean and faded, is born at the same birth with love itself, and winds itself round men and women as well, just as the gently-creeping ivy embraces the trunk so dear to it. This jealousy feeds on heartache, seeing that a jealous one always lives in anguish and moves about in sombre garb on account of the continual melancholy that torments him.” This explication of the enigma gave great pleasure to all, and especially to Signora Chiara, whose husband had a temper somewhat jealous. But, to let no one say to himself that Vicenza’s enigma had been framed to fit his case, the Signora bade them at once put a stop to their laughter, and signed to Lodovica, whose turn it was to tell the next story, that she should forthwith begin, and the damsel opened her fable in the following words.