Madonna Modesta, wife of Messer Tristano Zanchetto, in her young days gathers together a great number of shoes, offerings made by her various lovers. Having grown old, she disposes of the same to divers servants, varlets, and other folk of mean estate.
IT COMMONLY happens that ill-gotten wealth, and indeed all riches which have been acquired by evil ways, are scattered abroad and dissipated in brief space of time, for by the divine will it has been decreed that, quickly as such riches come, quickly they shall depart This, indeed, proved to be the case with a certain woman of Pistoia, who, had she been honest and wise in the same degree as she was dissolute and foolish, would never have given occasion for the story which I am now about to tell to you. And although perhaps this fable of mine is one hardly suitable for your ears, forasmuch as it comes to an end in a picture of shame and dishonour, which obscures and tarnishes the fame of those who live honest lives, nevertheless I will not hesitate to relate it to you, for at the right time and place it may serve (I speak here to those to whom it may apply) as a useful incentive for all to pursue the ways of up rightness and well-doing, and to eschew all wicked courses and lewd inclinations.
I must first tell this worshipful company that, not far from these our days, there lived in Pistoia, an ancient city of Tuscany, a young woman called by name Madonna Modesta, but this name, on account of her reprehensible manner of life and the shameful courses she followed, was one in no wise befitting her. In person, indeed, this woman was very lovely and graceful, though she was of mean condition.
She had a husband called Tristano Zanchetto  (a name as well suited to him as his wife’s was unfitting to her), a good tempered fellow, given to merry company, and thinking of little else save of his business of buying and selling, where by he gained a good living for himself. Madonna Modesta, who was by nature of a lecherous temper, and inclined for nought else but amorous sport, when she saw that her husband was given up heart and soul to commerce, and careful only about the matters appertaining thereto, took it into her head that she too would embark in merchandise and set up a new trade, concerning which her husband, Messer Tristano, should know nothing.
Wherefore every day she was wont to go out upon the balcony for her amusement, now on one side, now on the other, and throw glances at any gallant who might be passing in the street, and when her eye might chance to fall upon anyone whose appearance pleased her, she would strive by divers suggestive signs and gestures to arouse his curiosity and desire, and to lure him to her. And in the course of time it proved that Madonna Modesta had no mean skill in the art of traffic; indeed, so diligent was she in the display of her merchandise, and so carefully did she attend to the needs of her customers, that there was to be found in all the city no one, rich or poor, noble or plebeian, who was not anxious to take and taste of her goods. When, therefore, Madonna Modesta had attained a position of great notoriety in her calling, and had gathered together much wealth thereby, she made up her mind to exact only a very small guerdon from anyone who might come to her as a claimant for her favours. That is to say, she made it her custom to demand from her lovers no greater reward than a pair of shoes, stipulating, however, that each one should give shoes of a sort such as he might in an ordinary way wear himself. Thus, if the lover who had been with her happened to be a noble, she would expect from him a pair of velvet shoes; if a burgher, she would ask for a pair of shoes made of fine cloth; if a mechanic, a pair made of leather. So great a concourse of clients flocked to this good woman’s place of business that it was rarely or never empty, and seeing that she was young and beautiful and of fine figure, seeing likewise that the price which she demanded for her favours was such a modest one, all the men of Pistoia freely repaired to her house and took their pleasure therein. At the time of which I am writing, Madonna Modesta had already filled a very large storehouse with shoes, the wealth she had gathered together in her tender amorous calling, and so mighty was the tale of shoes of every sort and quality, that if any man here in Venice had searched diligently every shop in the city he would not have found a third part of the number of shoes which Madonna Modesta had heaped up in her storehouse.
It happened one day that Messer Tristano her husband had need to use this same storehouse for the stowing away of certain chattels and merchandise which by chance had been consigned to him at the same time from divers parts of the world; so, having called Madonna Modesta his beloved wife, he asked her to hand over to him the keys of the ware house. And she, like the crafty jade that she was, presented them to him without excuse of any sort; and the husband, when he opened the storehouse, which he expected would be empty, found it quite full of shoes (as has already been told) of divers qualities. When he saw this he was mightily astonished thereat, and could in no wise understand whence had come this great quantity of shoes of all sorts; so, having called his wife, he put a question to her as to where these shoes with which his warehouse was filled had come from. To this the astute Madonna Modesta answered in these words: ‘What think you of this, good Messer Tristano my husband? Did you in sooth set yourself down as the only merchant in this city? Certes, if you did, you were hugely mistaken, for be sure that we women likewise know somewhat concerning the art of traffic; and, although you may be a great merchant, accustomed to concern yourself with many and weighty ventures, I content myself with commerce on a smaller scale. Wherefore I have stored my merchandise in this warehouse, and put it safely under lock and in order that it may be kept secure. So I beg you to keep your care and watchfulness for the benefit of your own goods and your own traffic, and I will do the same with regard to mine.’ Messer Tristano, who knew nothing more than what his wife told him, and asked no further questions, was gratified amain with the exceeding ingenuity and great foresight of his clever and far-seeing wife, and besought her to prosecute with diligence the enterprise she had undertaken. Madonna Modesta therefore continued in secret to carry on her amorous trade, and, as in the exercise thereof she prospered mightily, she gathered together so vast a store of shoes that she could have easily supplied the wants not only of Pistoia, but of any other great city as well.
Thus whilst Madonna Modesta remained young and full of grace and beauty her trade showed no sign of falling off. But in the process of years cruel Time, the master of all things and all men, who fixes ever a beginning, a middle, and an end for all, so dealt with Madonna Modesta, who had been here before fresh and plump and lovely, that he changed the semblance of her face, and of her hair likewise—leaving her desire unsubdued the while—and traced many wrinkles upon her forehead, and disfigured her countenance. Her eyes became rheumy and her breasts all dry and empty as shrivelled bladders, and whenever she happened to smile the skin of her face became so puckered that any one who looked at her was fain to laugh and hold her in ridicule. And when the time came that Madonna Modesta was grown old and grey-headed, and lovers no longer sought her to pay court to her as formerly, she found that she added no more shoes to her store, and she lamented bitterly in her heart thereanent. From the first years of her youth until the resent hour she had given herself over entirely to the vice of luxury, the destructive enemy of the body and of the purse as well, and she had likewise become more accustomed to dainty living and libidinous life than any other woman in the world, therefore she could find no method or means by which she might withdraw herself from these noxious ways. And although in her body, from day today, the vital fluid, through which all plants and living things take root and grow failed more and more, nevertheless the desire of satisfying her wicked and unrestrained appetite was as Violent as ever. Therefore Madonna Modesta, seeing that she was entirely bereft of youthful beauty, and was no longer one to be flattered and caressed by handsome young gallants as in former days, made up her mind to order her plans anew. For the furtherance of these she once more went out upon the balcony, and began to ogle and to spread her lures to catch any varlets or porters or peasants or chimney sweepers or idle fellows of any sort, who might be passing by, and any of these whom she might attract she would entice into her house for her own purposes, and with them take such pleasure as she had hitherto been wont to take. And as in times past she had always demanded from each one of her lovers a pair of shoes of a quality according with the donor’s condition as the reward for her favours granted, now, on the other hand, she found herself obliged to give a pair of shoes from her stock to anyone who would come to her. Madonna Modesta had now sunk into such a shameful state that all the lowest ruffians of Pistoia would betake themselves to her dwelling, some to have their pleasure of her, others to make mock of her and to befool her, and others to receive the disgraceful guerdon which she was wont to give.
In this manner of life pursued by Madonna Modesta, it came to pass that the storehouse, which had once been crammed full of shoes, became wellnigh void. Messer Tristano one day, having a mind to go by stealth and see how his wife was prospering in her commerce, and whether her store of merchandise was increasing, took the key of the warehouse without his wife’s knowledge and opened the door, only to find, when he looked in, that nearly all the shoes were gone. Wherefore Messer Tristano was beyond measure amazed, for he could not understand how his wife could have disposed of the many pairs of shoes he had formerly seen there. On this account he began to fancy that by this time his wife must, as it were, be made of gold by reason of her prosperous traffic, and he felt himself mightily consoled at the thought; for he deemed that he might hereafter be a sharer in her wealth. So he straightway called her to him and thus addressed her: ‘Modesta, I have always rated you as a wise and prudent woman, but this day I chanced to open your storehouse, wishing to see how your commerce was thriving, and deeming that by this time your stock of shoes must have greatly increased, but I found, in stead of any increase, that your wares had nearly all disappeared. At first I was mightily astonished thereat, but after wards it came into my mind that you must have trafficked them away and received therefor a great sum of money, whereupon I was greatly reassured, and if this notion of mine should prove to be correct I shall hold that you have traded at great profit.’
Madonna Modesta, when her husband had finished his speech, heaved a deep sigh and thus made answer to him: ‘Messer Tristano, my husband, do not be amazed at what you have lately seen, for I must tell you that all those shoes you saw some long time ago in my ware house, have walked away in the same fashion in which they came to me. And over and above this let me tell you that those things which are ill got will, for the most part, ill go in a very brief space of time. Therefore I bid you once more not to wonder or be surprised at what you have seen.’ Messer Tristano, who did not in any way fathom the meaning of his wife’s words, fell into a great state of fright and confusion, fearing hugely lest a similar mischance might befall the goods and merchandise he himself had collected. However, he forebore to discuss the matter with her farther, but bestirred himself anxiously to see that his own merchandise might not vanish as his wife’s had vanished.
Madonna Modesta finding herself now slighted by men of all sorts and con ditions, and entirely beggared of all the shoes she had gained in the course of her lecherous youth, fell into a grave malady, and in a very brief space of time died miserably of consumption. And in this manner Madonna Modesta, who took so little heed for the future, made a shameful end of her life and also of the possessions she had gathered together, leaving nothing behind her to serve as an example to the rest of the world, but rather a disgraceful memory.
When the Signora had ended her short fable all the company began to laugh aloud, and heaped abundant blame upon Madonna Modesta, who lived moderately enough in all things save only in the matter of lecherous indulgence. And again they could not help laughing when they recalled to mind the story of the shoes which were so easily got and so easily spent. But because it was on Cateruzza’s account that the Trevisan had urged the Signora to tell this fable, the latter now began to spur on the damsel with words which, though gently spoken, had a sting therein, and afterwards as a penalty for having failed to tell her fable, expressly commanded Cateruzza to propound an enigma which should not be irrelevant to the subject of the fable they had just heard. Wherefore Cateruzza, when she heard the command of the Signora, rose from her seat, and turning herself towards her spake thus: “Dear Signora, the biting rebukes which you have just addressed to me are not in any way displeasing to me; on the contrary, I gladly take them home to myself with my whole heart. But the task of making my enigma agree in some measure with the fable you have just told us is no light one, seeing that I am entirely unprepared. Since, however, it pleases you to punish in this fashion my fault, if indeed it be a fault, I, as an obedient girl and your most complaisant handmaiden, will begin at once.
My lady seats her in a chair,
And raises then her skirts with care;
And as I know she waits for me,
I bring her what she fain would see.
Then soft I lift her dainty leg,
Whereon she cries, ‘Hold, hold, I beg!
It is too strait, and eke too small;
Be gentle, or you’ll ruin all.’
And so to give her smallest pain,
I try once more, and eke again.”
The enigma told by Cateruzza provoked as great laughter as the ingenious fable which the Signora had recently given; but, for the reason that certain of the listeners put thereupon a some what lewd interpretation, she set herself at once to make the honesty of her in tent clear to them in as civil terms as she could use: “ Noble ladies, the real subject of my enigma is nothing greater or less than a tight shoe; for when the lady has sat down, the shoemaker, with the shoe in his hand, raises her foot, whereupon she tells him to put the shoe on gently, as it is too tight, and causes her much pain. Then he takes it off and puts it on again and again till it fits her well, and she is content therewith.”
When the explication of Cateruzza’s enigma had been brought to an end and highly praised by the whole company, the Signora, seeing that the hour was now late, gave order that under pain of her displeasure no one should leave the place, and, having bidden them summon into her presence the trusty steward of the household, she directed him to set out the tables in the great hall. And while the feast was in course of preparation she proposed that the ladies and gentlemen should divert themselves with the dance, and, after the dance was finished, they sang two songs. Then the Signora rose to her feet and went into the supper room, having the Signor Ambassador on one hand and Messer Pietro Bembo on the other, the rest of the company following in their due order. And when they had washed their hands, each one sat down according to his rank at the table, which was richly spread with rare and delicate dishes and new wines. When this merry feast had come to end amidst the loving discourse of the guests, each one being in blither mood than ever, they rose from the board and forthwith began to sing and dance in a circle. But forasmuch as the rosy light of dawn was now beginning to appear, the Signora bade the servants to kindle the torches and go in attendance on the Signor Ambassador as far as the steps, having first begged him and all the others to return to the meeting-place at the appointed hour.
THE END OF NIGHT THE FIFTH.