Mediæval Tales [Gesta Romanorum Selections] | Annotated Tale

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Three Maxims, The

DOMITIAN was a very wise and just prince, and suffered no offender to escape. It happened that as he once sat at table, a certain merchant knocked at the gate. The porter opened it, and asked what he pleased to want.

               "I have brought some useful things for sale," answered the merchant. The porter introduced him, and he very humbly made obeisance to the emperor.

               "My friend," said the emperor, "what merchandise have you to dispose of?"

               "Three maxims of especial wisdom and excellence, my lord."

               "And how much will you take for your maxims?"

               "A thousand florins."

               "And so," said the king, "if they are of no use to me I lose my money?"

               "My lord," answered the merchant, "if the maxims do not stand you in stead, I will return the money."

               "Very well," said the emperor. "Let us hear your maxims."

               "The first, my lord, is this: 'Whatever you do, do wisely; and think of the consequences.' The second is: 'Never leave the highway for a byway.' And, thirdly: 'Never stay all night as a guest in that house where you find the master an old man and his wife a young woman.' These three maxims, if you attend to them, will be extremely serviceable."

               The emperor, being of the same opinion, ordered him to be paid a thousand florins; and so pleased was he with the first, that he commanded it to be inscribed in his court, in his bed-chamber, and in every place where he was accustomed to walk, and even upon the table-cloths from which he ate.

               Now the rigid justice of the emperor occasioned a conspiracy among the vicious and refractory of his subjects; and finding the means of accomplishing their purposes somewhat difficult, they engaged a barber, by large promises, to cut his throat as he shaved him.

               When the emperor, therefore, was to be shaved, the barber lathered his beard, and began to operate upon it; but casting his eyes over the towel which he had fastened round the royal neck, he perceived woven thereon, "Whatever you do, do wisely, and think of the consequences." The inscription startled the tonsor, and he said to himself, "I am to-day hired to destroy this man. If I do it, my end will be ignominious; I shall be condemned to the most shameful death. Therefore, whatsoever I do, it is good to consider the end, as the writing testifies." These cogitations disturbed the barber so much that his hand trembled, and the razor fell to the ground. The emperor, seeing this, inquired the cause.

               "Oh, my lord," said the barber, "have mercy upon me: I was hired this day to destroy you; but accidentally, or rather by the will of God, I read the inscription on the towel, 'Whatever you do, do wisely, and think of the consequences.' Whereby, considering that, of a surety, the consequence would be my own destruction, my hand trembled so much, that I lost all command over it."

               "Well," thought the emperor, "this first maxim hath assuredly saved my life: in a good hour was it purchased. My friend," said he to the barber, "on condition that you be faithful hereafter, I pardon you."

               The noblemen who had conspired against the emperor, finding that their project had failed, consulted with one another what they were to do next.

               "On such a day," said one, "he journeys to a particular city; we will hide ourselves in a bypath, through which, in all probability, he will pass, and so kill him."

               The counsel was approved.

               The king, as had been expected, prepared to set out; and riding on till he came to a cross-way, much less circuitous than the high road, his knights said, "My lord, it will be better for you to go this way, than to pass along the broad road; it is considerably nearer."

               The king pondered the matter within himself. "The second maxim," thought he, "admonishes me never to forsake the highway for a byway. I will adhere to that maxim."

               Then turning to his soldiers, "I shall not quit the public road; but you, if it please you, may proceed by that path, and prepare for my approach." Accordingly a number of them went; and the ambush, imagining that the king rode in their company, fell upon them and put the greater part to the sword. When the news reached the king, he secretly exclaimed, "My second maxim hath also saved my life."

               Seeing, therefore, that by cunning they were unable to slay their lord, the conspirators again took counsel, and it was observed, that on a certain day he would lodge in a particular house, "because," said they, "there is no other fit for his reception. Let us then agree with the master of that house, and his wife, for a sum of money to kill the emperor as he lies in bed."

               This was agreed to.

               But when the emperor had come into the city, and had been lodged in the house to which the conspirators referred, he commanded his host to be called into his presence. Observing that he was an old man, the emperor said, "Have you not a wife?"

               "Yes, my lord."

               "I wish to see her."

               The lady came; and when it appeared that she was very young--not eighteen years of age--the king said hastily to his chamberlain, "Away, prepare me a bed in another house. I will remain here no longer."

               "My lord," replied he, "be it as you please. But they have made everything ready for you: were it not better to lie where you are, for in the whole city there is not so commodious a place."

               "I tell you," answered the emperor, "I will sleep elsewhere."

               The chamberlain, therefore, removed; and the king went privately to another residence, saying to the soldiers about him, "Remain here, if you like; but join me early in the morning."

               Now while they slept, the old man and his wife arose, and not finding the king, put to death all the soldiers who had remained. In the morning, when the murder was discovered, the emperor gave thanks to God for his escape. "Oh," cried he, "if I had continued here, I should have been destroyed. So the third maxim hath also preserved me."

               But the old man and his wife, with the whole of their family, were crucified. The emperor retained the three maxims in memory during life, and ended his days in peace.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Three Maxims, The
Tale Author/Editor: Morley, Henry
Book Title: Mediæval Tales [Gesta Romanorum Selections]
Book Author/Editor: Morley, Henry
Publisher: George Routledge & Sons
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1884
Country of Origin: Europe
Classification: unclassified

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