Flamminio Veraldo sets out from Ostia in search of Death, and not finding it, meets Life instead; this latter lets him see Fear and make trial of Death.
MANY are the men who with all care and diligence go searching narrowly for certain things, which, when they have gained them, they find of no value, and would gladly forego, fleeing therefrom with all speed, just as the devil flies from holy water. This was the case of Flamminio, who, when he went seeking Death, found Life, who made him see Fear and make trial of Death. All of which you will find clearly set forth in this fable.
In Ostia, an ancient city situated no great distance from Rome, there lived in former days, according to the common report, a young man of a nature rather weak and errant than stable and prudent, whose name was Flamminio Veraldo. He had heard it said over and over again that there was in all the world nothing more terrible and fright flu than Death, the dark and inevitable one, seeing that he shows pity to none, having respect to no man, however poor or rich he may be. Wherefore, being filled with wonder at what he had heard, he determined by himself to find and to see with his own eyes what manner of thing this might be which men called Death. And having attired himself in coarse garments, and taken in hand a staff of strong cornel-wood well shod with iron, he set forth from Ostia. Flamminio, when he had travelled over many miles of road, came one day into a certain street, in the midst of which he espied, sitting in his stall, a cobbler making shoes and gaiters, and this cobbler, although there was lying about a great quantity of his finished work, kept on steadily at his task of making yet more.
Flamminio, going up to the cobbler, said to him, ‘God be with you, good master!’ and to this the cobbler replied, ‘You are right welcome here, my son.’ Then said Flamminio, ‘What is this task you labour at?’ ‘I labour indeed,’ replied the cobbler, ‘and toil hard that I may not languish in want. Nevertheless, I am in want, and I weary myself over making shoes.’ ‘Why do you thus,’ said Flamminio, ‘seeing that you have so many pairs made already? What is the good of making more?’ ‘I make them,’ said the cobbler, ‘to wear myself, to sell for my own sustenance and for the sustenance of my little household, and in order that when I become an old man I may be able to live on the money I have made by my handicraft.’ ‘And what will you do next?’ asked Flamminio. ‘After this,’ said the cobbler, ‘I shall die.’ ‘You will die V cried Flamminio in reply. ‘Yes,’ said the cobbler. Then cried Flamminio, ‘Oh, my good master! can you of your own knowledge tell me what may be this thing they call Death?’ The cobbler answered, ‘Of a truth I cannot.’ ‘What, have you never seen him?’ said Flamminio. To this master cobbler made answer, ‘I have never seen him, nor have I any wish to see him now, or to taste his quality. Moreover, all men say that he is the strangest and most terrible monster the world holds.’ Then Flamminio said, ‘At least you will be able of your knowledge to teach me and tell me where he abides, because day and night I wander over mountains and through valleys and swamps seeking him without ever hearing tiding as to where he may be found?’ The cobbler answered, ‘I know nothing as to where Death may dwell, nor where he is to be found, nor what he is made of; but if you go on with your journey somewhat farther, peradventure you will find him.’
Whereupon Flamminio, having taken his leave, parted from the cobbler, and betook himself onwards to a spot where he came upon a dense and shadowy forest, and entered therein in a certain place he saw a peasant, who, though he had already cut a vast pile of wood for burning, went on cutting more with all his might. And when they had exchanged greetings one with another, Flamminio said to him, ‘My brother, what are you going to do with so vast a heap of wood as this?’ And to this the peasant made answer, ‘I am preparing it to kindle lire therewith in the winter that is coming, when we shall have snow and ice and villainous mist, so that I may be able to keep warm myself and my children, and to sell whatsoever may be to spare, and to buy with the profit thereof bread and wine and clothing, and all other things which may be necessary for our daily sustenance, and thus to pass our lives until Death comes to fetch us.’ ‘Now, by your courtesy,’ said Flamminio, ‘could you tell me where this same Death is to be found?’ ‘Of a surety I cannot,’ the peasant replied, ‘seeing that I have never once seen him, nor do I know where he abides. I am here in this wood all the day long taking heed to my own affairs. Very few wayfarers come into these parts, and I know none of those who pass by.’ ‘What then shall I do to find him?’ demanded Flamminio; and to this the peasant made answer, ‘As to myself, I know not at all what to say to you nor how to direct you. I can only bid you to travel yet farther onward, and then peradventure you may meet with him.’
Having taken leave of the peasant, Flamminio departed and walked and walked until he came to a certain place where dwelt a tailor, who had a vast store of clothes upon the pegs, and a ware house filled with all kinds of the finest garments. Said Flamminio to him, ‘God be with you, my good master!’ and the tailor replied, ‘And the same good wish to you.’ ‘What are you going to do with all this store of fair and sumptuous raiment, and all the noble garments I see here? Do they all belong to you?’ Then the master tailor made answer, ‘Certain of them are my own, some belong to the merchants, some to the gentlefolk, and some to various people who have dealings with me.’ ‘But what use can they find for so many?’ asked Flamminio. ‘They wear them in the different seasons of the year,’ the tailor answered, and showing them all to Flamminio, he went on, ‘These they wear in the summer and these in the winter, and these others in the seasons which come between, clothing themselves sometimes in one fashion and sometimes in another.’ ‘And in the end what do they do?’ asked Flamminio. The tailor answered, ‘They go on in this course until the day of their death.’ Flamminio hearing the tailor speak of Death said, ‘Oh, my good master could you tell me where I may find this Death you tell of?’ The tailor, speaking as if he were inflamed with anger and perturbed in spirit, said: ‘My son, you go about asking questions which are indeed strange. I surely cannot tell you nor direct you where he may abide, for I never let my thoughts turn to him, and it is an occasion of great offence to me when anyone begins to talk of him. Wherefore I bid you either to discourse of some other matter or to go your way, for all such talk as this displeases me vastly.’ And Flamminio, having taken leave of the tailor, departed on his journey.
It came to pass that Flamminio, after he had traversed many lands, came at last to a desert and solitary place, where he found a hermit with his beard all matted with dirt, and his body worn away by the passage of the years and by fasting, letting his mind concern itself only in contemplation. Whereupon, thinking that assuredly he had at last found Death, Flamminio thus addressed him: ‘Of a truth, I am very glad to meet with you, holy father.’ ‘The sight of you is welcome to me, my son,’ the hermit re plied. ‘My good father,’ said Flamminio, ‘what do you here in this rough and uninhabitable spot, cut off from all pleasure and from all human society?’ ‘I pass my time,’ answered the hermit, ‘in prayers and in fastings and in contemplation.’ Then Flamminio inquired, ‘And for what reason do you follow this life?’ ‘Why, my son,’ exclaimed the hermit, ‘I do all this to serve God, to mortify this wretched flesh of mine, to do penance for all the offences I have wrought in the sight of the eternal and immortal God and of the true son of Mary, and in the end to get salvation for my sinful soul, so that when the hour of my death shall come I may render it up pure of all stain, and in the awful day of judgment, by the grace of my Redeemer and by no merit of my own, may make myself worthy of that happy and glorious home where I may taste the joys of eternal life, to which blessedness God lead us!’ Then said Flamminio, Oh, my dear father! spare a few words to tell me—if it be not an offence to you—what manner of thing is this Death, and after what fashion is it made? ‘The holy father answered, ‘Oh, my son! trouble not yourself to gain knowledge of this thing you seek; for Death is a very terrible and a fearful being, and is called by wise men the final end of all our sufferings, a misery to the happy, a happiness to the miserable, and the term and limit of all worldly things. It severs friend from friend; it separates the father from the son, and the son from the father, the mother from the daughter, and the daughter from the mother. It cuts the marriage bond, and finally disunites the soul and the body, so that the body, severed from the soul, loses all its power and be comes so putrid and of so evil a savour that all men flee therefrom and abandon it as a thing abominable.’ ‘And have you never set eyes on him, my father?’ asked Flamminio. ‘Of a certainty I have never seen him,’ answered the hermit. ‘But can you tell me what I should do in order to see him?’ asked Flamminio. ‘Ah, my son!’ said the hermit, ‘if you are indeed so keenly set on finding him, you have only to keep going further and further on; because man, the longer the way he has journeyed through this world, the nearer he is to Death.’ The young man having thanked the holy father, and received his benediction, went his way.
Then Flamminio, continuing his journey, traversed a great number of deep valleys and craggy mountains and inhospitable forests, seeing by the way many sorts of fearsome beasts, and questioning each one of these whether he was the thing called Death, and always getting in return the answer ‘No.’ At last, after he had passed through many lands and seen many strange things, he came to a mountain of no little magnitude, and having climbed over this, he began to descend into a gloomy and very deep valley, closed in on all sides by profound caverns. Here he saw a strange and monstrous wild beast, which made all the valley re-echo with its roaring. ‘Who are you?’ said Flamminio. ‘Ho! is it possible that you may be Death?’ To which the wild beast made answer, ‘I am not Death; but pursue your way, and soon you will find him.’
Flamminio, when he heard the answer he had so long desired to hear, felt his heart grow lighter. The wretched youth, now worn out by fatigue and half dead by reason of the long weariness and the heavy toil he had undergone, was almost sunk in despair, when he found himself on the borders of a wide and spacious plain. Having climbed to the summit of a little hill of no great height, delightful, and covered with flowers, he looked round about him, now here, now there, and espied the lofty walls of a magnificent city not far from the spot where he stood. Whereupon he began to walk more rapidly with nimble steps, and when the shadows of evening were falling he came to one of the city gates, which was adorned with the finest white marble. And when he had entered therein, with the leave of the keeper of the gate, the first person he met was a very old woman, full of years, with a face like that of a corpse, and a body so meagre and thin that, through her leanness, it would have been easy to count one by one every bone in her body. Her forehead was thickly marked with wrinkles, her eyes were squinting, watery, and red, as if they had been dyed in purple, her cheeks all puckered, her lips turned inside out, her hands rough and callous; her head was palsied, and she trembled in every limb; she was bent almost double in her gait, and she was clad in rough and dusky clothes. Over and above this she bore by her left side a keen-edged sword, and carried in her right hand a weighty cudgel, at the end of which was wrought a point of iron made in the shape of a triangle, and upon this staff she would now and then lean as if to rest herself. On her shoulders also she carried a large wallet, in which she kept a great store of and pots and bottles all filled with divers sorts of liquors and unguents and plasters fitted for the remedying of various human ailments and accidents. As soon as Flamminio’s eye fell upon this toothless ugly old harridan he was seized with the thought that peradventure she might prove to be that Death to find whom he was going wandering about the world; so having approached her he said, ‘Ah, my good mother, may God keep and pre serve you!’ In a husky voice the old woman made answer to him, ‘And may God keep and preserve you, my son!’ ‘Tell me, my mother,’ Flamminio went on, ‘whether perchance you may be the thing men call Death?’ The old woman replied, ‘No, I am not. On the other hand, I am Life; and know, moreover, that I happen to have with me here in this wallet which I carry behind my back certain liquors and unguents by the working of which I am able with ease to purify and to cure the mortal body of man of all the heavy diseases which afflict him, and in the short space of a single hour to relieve him in like manner from the torture of any pain he may feel.’ Then said Flamminio, ‘Ah, my good mother! can you not let me know where Death is to be found?’ ‘And who may you be,’ asked the old woman, ‘who make this demand of me with so great persistence?’ Flamminio answered, ‘I am a youth who has already spent many days and months and years wandering about in search of Death, and never yet have I been able to find in any land a man who could tell me aught concerning him. Wherefore, if you should happen to possess this knowledge, I beseech you of your courtesy to let me share it, because I am possessed by so keen a desire to look upon him and to know what he is like, in order that I may be certain whether he really is the hideous and the dreadful thing which all men hold him to be.’
The old woman, when she heard the foolish request of the young man, spake thus to him: ‘My son, when would it please you that I let you see Death, and judge how hideous he is, and when would you make trial of his terrors?’ To this Flamminio replied: ‘Ah, my mother! keep me no longer in suspense I beg you, but let me see him now, at this present moment.’ Thereupon the old woman, to satisfy his desire, made him strip him self quite naked, and, while he was taking off his garments, she worked up together certain of her drugs useful in the cure of divers diseases, and when the thing was ready, she said to him: ‘Bend yourself down here, my son.’ And he, in obedience to her direction, bent down. ‘Now bow your head and close your eyes;’ and Flamminio did as she bade him. Scarcely had the old woman finished her speech than she took the sharp blade which she wore by her side and with one blow struck off his head from his shoulders. Then she quickly took up the head, and, having replaced it upon the bust, she smeared it well with the plaster which she had prepared, and thereby the wound was quickly healed. But how the thing which now happened was caused I cannot say, whether it arose through the over-quickness of the old hag in put ting back the head upon the shoulders, or whether she herself brought it to pass through her own craft. The head when it was joined once more to the body was put on hind part forward. Wherefore Flamminio, when he looked down upon his shoulders, his loins, and his big but-. tocks standing out (all of which things he had never seen hitherto), fell into such a fit of terror and dismay that, not being able to think of any place where he might be suffered to hide himself, he cried out to the old woman in a trembling dolorous voice: ‘Alas, alas, my good mother! bring me back once more to my old shape; bring me back, for the love of God, for by my faith I have never seen anything more frightful and more hid eous than what i now behold. Alas! deliver me from this miserable state in which I now find myself fixed. Alas! alas! do not delay your help, my sweet good mother. Lend me your aid, for I am sure you can help me easily if you will.’ The cunning old woman still kept silence, feigning all the while to know nothing of the mischance that had been wrought, and letting the wretched fellow work himself into an agony and stew in his own fat but at last, after having kept him in this plight for the space of two hours, she agreed to work the remedy he sought. So, having made him bend himself down as before, she put her hand to her sharp-cutting sword and struck off his head from his shoulders. Then she took the head in her hand, and, having placed it upon the trunk and smeared it well with her ointment, brought Flamminio back to his former condition.
The youth, when he perceived that he had once more become his old self, put on his clothes; and now, having seen what a terrible thing, and by his own experience proved what a hideous and ugly thing Death was, he made his way back to Ostia by the shortest and the quickest way he knew without saying any more farewell words to the old woman, occupying himself for the future in reaching after Life and flying from Death, devoting himself more diligently to the consideration of those matters which he had hither to neglected.
It now only remained that Lionora should propose her enigma, so she gave out the following one in merry wise:
About a meadow fair and wide,
Gay decked with flowers on every side,
Three nymphs on task divine intent,
Pass to and fro, and firmly bent
To speed their work, nor night nor day
Take pause, nor rest upon their way.
One in her left the distaff plies,
Between another’s feet swift flies
The spindle, and last one doth stand
With keen-edged weapon in her hand,
And cuts in twain the fragile strand.
This enigma was very easily under stood by all the company, because it was clear that the fine and spacious meadow must be this world in which all men dwell. The three nymphs are the three sisters, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, who by the fancy of the poets are held to rep resent the beginning, the middle, and the end of our lives. Clotho, who holds the rock, shows forth our birth; Lachesis who spins it, the season of our existence, and Atropos, who severs the thread just spun by Lachesis, inevitable Death.
Already the watchful cock, bird sacred to Mercury, had given signal by his crowing of the approaching dawn, when the Signora brought to an end the story telling for the night, and all the guests departed to their own homes, pledged, however, to return on the following evening under whatever penalty the Signora might deem fitting to inflict.
THE END OF THE FOURTH NIGHT.