Ancilotto, King of Provino, takes to wife the daughter of a baker, and has by her three children. These, after much persecution at the hands of the king’s mother, are made known to their father through the strange working of certain water, and of an apple, and of a bird.
I HAVE always understood, lovesome and gracious ladies, that man is the noblest and most capable of the living creatures fashioned by nature, seeing that God made him in His own image and similitude, and willed that he should rule and not be ruled. And on this account it is said that man is the perfect animal, and of greater excellence than any of the others, because all these, not even excepting woman, are subject to him. Therefore, those who by deceit and cunning compass the death of so noble a creature commit a foul crime. And there is no wonder if sometimes those who work for the bane of others run heedlessly into destruction themselves, as did four women I have to tell of, who, in trying to destroy others, were themselves cut off and made a wretched end. All this you will readily understand from the fable I purpose to tell you.
In Provino, a very famous and royal city, there lived in ancient times three sisters, fair of person, gracious in manners, and courteous in bearing, but of base lineage, being the daughters of a certain Messer Rigo, a baker who baked bread for other folk in his oven, Of these one was named Brunora, another Lionella, and another Chiaretta. It happened one day when the three sisters were in their garden, and there taking much delight, that Ancilotto the king, who was going to enjoy the diversion of hunting with a great company, passed that way. Brunora, the eldest sister, when she looked upon the fair and noble assemblage, said to her sisters Lionella and Chiaretta, ‘If I had for my husband the king’s majordomo, I flatter myself that I would quench the thirst of all the court with one glass of wine.’ ‘And I,’ said Lionella, ‘flatter myself that, if the king’s private chamberlain were my husband, I would pledge my self to make enough linen from a spindle of my yarn to provide shifts of the strongest and finest make for all the court.’ Then said Chiaretta, ‘And I, if I had the king himself for my husband, I flatter myself that I would give him three children at one birth, two sons and a daughter. And each of these should have long hair braided below the shoulders, and intermingled with threads of the finest gold, and a golden necklace round the throat, and a star on the fore head of each.’
Now it chanced that these sayings were overheard by one of the courtiers, who hastened to the king and told him of the young girls’ discourse, and the king, when he heard the tenour thereof, at once commanded that they should be brought before him, and this done, he examined them one by one as to what they had said in the garden. Where upon each one, with the most respectful words, told the king what she had spoken, and he was much pleased thereat. So then and there he wedded Brunora to the majordomo and Lionella to the chamberlain, while he himself took Chiaretta to wife. There was no hunting that day, for the whole company returned to the city, where the marriages were celebrated with the greatest pomp. But the mother of Ancilotto was greatly wroth at his marriage, for however fair Chiaretta might be in face and figure, and graceful in her person, and sweet and modest in her conversation, the queen mother held it to be a slight to the royal dignity that her daughter-in-law should be of vile and common descent, nor could she endure it that the majordomo and the chamberlain should be brothers-in law of the king her son. These things kindled so hotly the rage of the queen- mother against Chiaretta that she could scarce endure her presence; nevertheless she hid her wrath so as not to offend her son. In due time (by the good pleasure of Him who rules over all), Chiaretta be came with child, to the great joy of the king, whose fancy at once busied itself with the prospect of the lovely progeny he had been promised.
Just at the time when Chiaretta was expecting to be brought to bed, Ancilotto was forced to make a journey to a distant country and to abide there some days, and he directed that, during his absence, his mother should see to the welfare of the queen and of the children who, he hoped, would soon be born. The queen-mother, though she hated her daughter-in-law, let not the king see this, and assured him that she would take the greatest care of them all, while he might be away, and before the king had been gone many days (as Chiaretta when she was a virgin had pledged) three lovely children, two boys and a girl, were born. Likewise their hair was braided below their shoulders, and they bore golden chains on their necks and golden stars on their foreheads. The queen-mother, whose hatred against Chiaretta burned as malignantly as ever, no sooner cast her eyes upon the innocent children than she determined to have them put away privily, so that no one might know they had even been, and that Chiaretta might be disgraced in the sight of the king. And besides this, Brunora and Lionella had grown to regard their sister with violent hate and jealousy since she had become their sovereign, and lost no chance to aggravate, by all sorts of cunning wiles, the spite of the queen-mother against Chiaretta. On the very same day that the queen was delivered, it chanced that there were born in the stable-yard three black mongrel pups, two dogs and a bitch, which, by some strange freak, had white stars on their foreheads and bore round their necks traces of a gorget. This coming to the knowledge of the two sisters, they took the pups away from the dam and brought them to the queen—mother, and with humble salutations said to her: ‘We know, madam, that your highness has little love for our sister, and quite justly; for she is of humble stock, and it is not seemly that your son and our king should have mated with such an one. Hence, knowing the mind you have towards her, we have brought you here three mongrel pups, which, as you will see, were born with a star on their foreheads, and you can deal with them as you list.’ At these words the queen-mother was much pleased, divining well their evil intent, and she contrived to bring to her daughter-in-law, who as yet had not seen the children she had borne, the three whelps, telling her at the same time they were her own offspring. And for the better hiding of this trick the wicked old woman bade the midwife to tell the same story to the queen. So when she herself and the two sisters and the midwife returned to the chamber, they presented to the queen the three mongrel whelps, saying, ‘See, O queen, the fruit of your womb! Cherish it well, so that the king, when he comes back, may rejoice in the fair gift you have made him.’ And with these words the midwife put the mongrels by her side, consoling her and telling her that such mischance as hers happened now and then to persons of high estate.
These wicked women having carried out this barbarous work, it only remained for them to contrive a cruel death for the three lovely children of the queen. But God mercifully held them back from soiling their hands with the blood of their kin. They made a box, which they waxed within, and, having put the children therein, they closed it and cast it into the river to be borne away by the stream. But God in His justice would not allow these innocents to suffer. As the box floated along it was espied by a certain miller named Marmiato, who haled it out and opened it, and found within three smiling children. Seeing how fair and graceful they were, he deemed them to be the children of some noble lady who, to hide her shame, had committed this crime. Having taken home the box he said to his wife, who was called Gordiana, See here, wife, what I have found in the river; it is a present for you.’ Gordiana received the children joyfully, and brought them up as if they had been her own, giving to one the name of Acquirino, to another Fluvio—as they had been found in the river—and to the girl that of Serena.
Ancilotto, when he came back from his journey, was in high spirits, for he fully expected to find on his return that Chiaretta had fulfilled her pledge and given him the three fair children as she had promised; but the issue was not what he hoped, for the cunning queen- mother, when she saw her son drawing near, went to meet him, and told him that the wife he prized so highly had given him, instead of three children, three mongrel dogs. And having brought him into the chamber of the unfortunate Chiaretta, she showed him the pups which were lying beside her. The queen began to weep bitterly and to deny that the dogs were her offspring, but her wicked sisters came and declared that everything the old mother had said was the truth. The king when he heard this was greatly disturbed, and fell to the ground grief-stricken. After he had come to himself he could scarce believe such thing could be; but at last he gave ear to his mother’s false tale. But Chiaretta’s dignity and sweetness, and the patience with which she bore the insults of the courtiers, won him over to spare her life, and to sentence her to be kept in a cell under the place where the cooking pots and pans were washed, and to be fed on the garbage which was swept off the dirty sink.
While the unhappy queen passed her life in this filthy wise, feeding upon carrion, Gordiana, the wife of the miller Marmiato, gave birth to a son who was christened Borghino and brought up with the three foundlings. When Gordiana went to cut the hair of these there often fell out of it many precious stones and great white pearls; so with these riches Marmiato was able to give over the humble calling of a miller, and to live with his wife and the four children a life of ease and delicacy. But when the three foundlings had come to years of discretion they learned by chance that they were not the children of Marmiato and Gordiana, but had been found floating in a box on the river. As soon as they knew this they became very unhappy, and resolved to go their way and try their fortune elsewhere, much to the chagrin of their foster-parents, who saw they would no longer enjoy the rich harvest of jewels which was wont to fall from the children’s locks and starry fore heads. The brothers and their sister having left Marmiato the miller and Gordiana, they all wandered about for some days, and at last came by chance to Provino, the city of Ancilotto their father, where they hired a house and lived together, maintaining themselves by selling the jewels which still fell out of their hair. One day the king, who was riding into the country with some of his courtiers, chanced to pass the house where the three were living, and they, as soon as they heard the king was coming, ran down the steps and stood bareheaded to give him a respectful salutation. They had never seen Ancilotto, so his face was unknown to them. The .king, whose eyes were as keen as a hawk’s, looked at them steadily, and remarked that on their foreheads there was something like a golden star, and immediately his heart was filled with strong passion, and he felt that they might prove to be his children. He stopped and said to them: ‘Who are you, and from whence do you come?’ And they answered humbly, ‘We are poor strangers who have come to dwell in this your city.’ Then said Ancilotto, ‘I am greatly pleased; and what are you called?’ Whereupon they replied that one was named Acquirino, and the other Fluvio, and the sister, Serena. The king then bade them to dinner with him next day; and the young people, though they were almost overcome by his gracious invitation, did not venture to de cline it. When Ancilotto returned to the palace he said to his mother: ‘Madam, when I was abroad to-day I came by chance upon two handsome youths arid a lovely maiden, who, as they had golden stars on their foreheads, must be I think the children promised to me by Queen Chiaretta.’
The wicked old woman smiled at the king’s words, making believe they were but fancy, but within she felt as if a dagger had smitten her heart. Then she bade them summon the midwife who had been present at the birth, and said to her in private, ‘Good gossip, do you not know that the king’s children, so far from b dead as we hoped, are alive, and are grown up as beautiful as the day?’ ‘How can this be?’ replied the woman; ‘were they not drowned in the river? Who has told you this?’ The queen mother answered: ‘From what I gather from the words of the king I am almost sure they are alive. We must be up and doing at once, for we are in great danger.’ ‘Do not be alarmed, madam,’ said the midwife, ‘I have in mind a plan by which we can now assuredly compass the destruction of all the three.’
The midwife went out, and immediately found her way to the house of the king’s children, and, finding Serena alone, she saluted her and talked of many things. After she had held a long discourse with her, she said,’ My daughter, I am curious to know if you have in your house any water which can dance.’ Serena, somewhat surprised at this question, answered that she had not any. ‘Ah, my daughter,’ said the gossip, ‘what de—lights you would enjoy if you had some of it! and if you could bathe your face in it you would become more beautiful even than you are now.’ Said the girl, with her curiosity aroused, ‘And how can I get it?’ ‘Have you not brothers?’ the gossip asked. ‘Send them to fetch it; they will easily find it, for it is to be had not far from these parts.’ And with these words she departed. After a little Acquirino and Fluvio came back, and at once Serena began to beseech them that they would do their best, for the love they bore her, to get for her some of the wonderful dancing water; but they laughed at her request as a silly fancy, and refused to go on a fool’s errand, seeing that no one could say where it was to be found. However, persuaded at last by the petition of their sister, whom they loved very dearly, they departed together to do her bidding, taking with them a phial to hold the precious water. When they had gone several miles they came to a fountain out of which a snow-white dove was drinking, and they were amazed when the bird spoke to them these words: ‘What seek ye, young men?’ To this Fluvio answered, ‘We seek the precious dancing water.’ ‘Wretched youths,’ said the dove, ‘who sends you on such a quest as this?’ ‘We want it for our sister,’ said Fluvio. ‘Then you will surely meet your deaths,’ said the dove, ‘for the water you are in search of is guarded by many fierce beasts and poisonous dragons, who will certainly devour you; but if you must needs have some of it, leave the task to me, for I will surely bring it back to you;’ and having taken the phial the dove flew away out of sight.
Acquirino and Fluvio awaited her return with the greatest anxiety, and at last she came in sight, bearing the phial filled with the magic water. They took it from her, and, having thanked her for the great service she had rendered them, re turned to their sister and gave her the water, exhorting her never to impose such another task upon them, because they had nearly met their deaths in at tempting it. A short time after this the king again met the two brothers and said to them: ‘Why did you not come to dine with me after accepting my invitation?’ ‘Gracious majesty,’ they answered with profound respect, ‘a pressing errand called us away from home.’ Then said the king, ‘To-morrow I shall expect to see you without fail.’ The youths having made their apology, the king re turned to the palace, where he met his mother and told her he had once more seen the youths with the stars on their foreheads. Again the queen-mother was greatly perplexed, and again she bade them summon the midwife, to whom she secretly told all she had heard, and at the same time begged her to find a way out of the danger. The gossip bade her take courage, for she would so plan this time that they would be seen no more. The midwife went again to seek Serena, whom she found alone, and asked her whether she had got any of the dancing water. ‘I have it,’ the girl replied,’ but the winning of it nearly caused the death of my brothers.’ ‘The water is fair enough,’ said the woman, ‘but you ought to have like wise the singing apple. You never saw fruit so fair to look upon, or listened to music so sweet as that which it discourses.’ ‘But how shall I get it? ‘said Serena; ‘for my brothers will never go in search of it, seeing that in their last venture they were more in peril of death than in hope of life.’ ‘But they won the dancing water for you,’ said the woman, ‘and they are still alive; they will get for you the singing apple just as harmlessly;’ and, having spoken, she went her way.
Scarcely had the midwife gone when Acquirino and Fluvio came in, and again Serena cried out to them: ‘Oh, my brothers! I hear now of another wonder, more beautiful far than the dancing water. It is the singing apple, and if I cannot have it I shall die of vexation.’ When Acquirino and Fluvio heard these words they chid her sharply, affirming that for her sake they were reluctant to brave again the risk of death. But she did not cease her prayers, and she wept and sobbed so sorely that the brothers, seeing that this new desire of hers came from her inmost soul, again gave way and agreed to satisfy it at whatever risk. They mounted and rode on till they came to an inn, and demanded of the host whether he could let them know where was to be found the apple which sang so sweetly. He told them he knew thereof, and warned them of the perils which lay in the path of anyone bold enough to seek to pluck it. ‘It grows,’ he said, ‘in the midst of a fair garden, and is watched day and night by a poisonous beast which kills without fail all those who come nigh to the tree.’ ‘What then would you counsel us to do?’ said the youths; ‘for we are set upon plucking the apple at all cost.’ ‘If you will carry out my behests,’ said the host, ‘you may pluck the apple without fear of the poisonous beast or of death. You must take this robe, which, as you see, is all covered with mirrors, and one of you must put it on, and thus attired enter the garden, the door of which will be found unfastened; but the other must bide without and be careful not to let himself be seen. And the beast forth with will make for the one who enters, and, seeing an exact similitude of him self reflected by the mirrors, will fall down to the ground, and then the adventurer may go quickly up to the tree and pluck tenderly the singing apple and without once looking behind him quit the garden.’ The young men thanked their host courteously, and observed all his directions so faithfully that they won the apple without mischance, and carried it back to Serena, and again besought her no more to compel them to run into such danger. Thus for a second time they failed to keep their engagement with the king, who, meeting them again a few days afterwards, said: ‘ For what reason have you once more disobeyed my commands and failed to come and dine with me?’ Fluvio answered as be fore that some weighty matters of business had intervened and kept them from doing themselves the great honour the king had proposed for them. Then said the king, ‘You must come to-morrow, and see that you fail not.’ Acquirino promised obedience, and the king re turned to his palace, where he met his mother and told her he had again seen the two youths, that he was more firmly persuaded than ever that they must be the children promised him by Chiaretta, and that he would feel no rest till they should have eaten at his table. The queen-mother when she heard that they yet lived was in sore terror, doubting not that her fraud had been discovered, and thus, struck with grief and terror, she sent for the midwife and said to her: ‘I surely thought the children were dead by this time, and that we should hear no more of them; but they are alive, and we stand in peril of death. Look therefore to our affair; otherwise we shall be lost.’ ‘Noble lady,’ said the mid wife, ‘take heart. This time I will work their bane without fail, and you will bless me therefor, seeing that they will trouble you no longer;’ and the woman, full of rage at her failure, again repaired to the house of Serena, where she found the girl alone. With crafty speech she inquired of Serena whether she had in deed got the singing apple, and the girl made answer that she had. Then said the cunning woman: ‘Ah, my daughter, you must think that you have nothing at all if you do not get one thing more, the most beautiful, the most graceful thing in the world.’ ‘Good mother, what may this fair thing be?’ said the girl. The old woman replied: ‘It is the beautiful green bird, my child, which talks night and day, and speaks words of marvellous wisdom. If you had it in your keeping you might indeed call your self happy;’ and, having thus spoken, she went her way.
Acquirino and Fluvio came in almost directly after she was gone, and Serena forthwith began to beg them to do her one last favour, whereupon they asked her what might be this boon which she desired. She answered that she wanted the beautiful green bird. Fluvio, who had plucked the apple guarded by the venomous beast, was still haunted by the peril of his adventure, and refused to go in quest of the bird. Acquirino, though for a long time he too turned a deaf ear, was finally moved by the brotherly love he felt and by the hot tears of grief which Serena shed, and determined to satisfy her wish. Fluvio also agreed to accompany him, and, having mounted their horses, they rode for several days, until at last they came into a flowery green meadow, in the midst of which stood a lofty tree surrounded with marble statues which mocked life by their marvellous workmanship. Through the meadow there ran a little stream, and up in the tall tree lived the beautiful green bird, which hopped about from bough to bough in lively fashion, uttering the while words which seemed rather divine than human. The young men dismounted from their palfreys, which they left to graze at will, and went close to the marble statues to examine them; but, as soon as they touched these, they themselves were turned into marble as they stood.
Now Serena, when for several months she had anxiously looked for the return of her dear brothers Acquirino and Fluvio, began to despair and to fear she would never see them more, and, over come with grief at their unhappy fate, she resolved to try her own fortune. So she mounted a mettlesome horse, and rode on and on till she came to the fair meadow where the green bird was hop ping about on the tall tree and softly talking. There the first things she saw was her brothers’ horses, which were grazing on the turf, and, casting her eyes upon the statues, she saw that two of them must be Acquirino and Fluvio, for the unhappy youths, though turned into marble, retained their features exactly as in life. Serena dismounted, and going softly up to the tree she laid hands on the green bird from behind, and he, finding himself a prisoner, besought her to let him go, and promised that at the right time and place he would remember her. But Serena answered that first of all he must restore her brothers to their former state, upon which the bird replied: ‘Look then under my left wing, and there you will find a feather much greener than any of the others and marked with yellow. Pluck it out and touch with it the eyes of the statues, and then your brothers will return to flesh and blood.’ Serena raised the wing, and found the feather, and did as the bird had directed, and the statues of Acquirino and Fluvio at once became living men and embraced their sister joyfully.
This wonder being accomplished, the bird again besought Serena to give him his liberty, promising that if she would grant his prayer he would come to her aid, whenever she might call upon him; but Serena was not to be thus cajoled, and declared that before she would let him go free he must help them to find their father and mother, and that until he had accomplished this task he must be her prisoner.
There had already arisen some dispute amongst the three as to who should have the bird in keeping, but in the end they settled that it should be left in charge of Serena, who tended it with great care and watched over it. The affair having come to this happy issue, they mounted their horses and rode home. Meantime Ancilotto had often passed by their house, and finding it empty was much astonished, and inquired of the neighbours what had become of them; but all he could learn was that nothing had been seen of them for many days. They had not been back long before the king again rode by, and, catching sight of them, asked how it was that nothing had been seen of them for so long, and why they had disregarded his commands so often. Acquirino answered with deep respect that some amazing troubles and adventures had befallen them, and that if they had not presented themselves at the palace before his majesty as he had desired it was through no want of reverence. They were all anxious to amend their conduct in the future.
The king, when he heard they had been in tribulation, was moved to pity, and bade them all accompany him back to the palace to dinner; but before they set forth Acquirino filled secretly a phial with the dancing water, Fluvio took the singing apple, and Serena the talking bird, and they rode back with the king and joyously entered the palace with him and sat down at the royal table. It chanced that the queen-mother and also the two sisters of Chiaretta marked them as they passed, and observing the beauty of the maiden and the handsome bright- eyed youths, they were filled with dread and suspicion as to who they might be. When the royal banquet had come to an end, Acquirino said to the king: ‘May it please your majesty that, before we take our leave, we should show your majesty some marvels which may delight you;’ and with these words he poured into a silver tazza some of the dancing water, while Fluvio put his hand into his bosom and drew therefrom the singing apple, which he placed beside the water. Serena also brought out the talking bird, and set it on the table. Immediately the apple began to sing most sweetly, and the wonderful water to dance, so that the king and all the courtiers were delighted and laughed aloud with pleasure; but the queen-mother and the wicked sisters were smitten with dire dismay, for they felt that their doom was near.
At last, when the apple and the water had ceased to sing and dance, the bird opened its mouth and said: ‘O sacred majesty! what doom should be dealt to those who once plotted death against two brothers and a sister? ‘Then the cunning queen-mother, scheming to excuse herself, cried out: ‘No lighter doom than death by burning;’ and in this condemnation all those who were present agreed. To answer her the singing apple and the dancing water said straightway: ‘Ah, false and cruel woman! your own tongue has doomed yourself, and those wicked and envious sisters of the queen, and the vile midwife, to this horrible death.’
When the king heard these words his heart grew cold with terror; but before he could speak the talking bird began and said: ‘O sacred majesty! these are the three children you longed for, your children who bear the star on their fore heads; and their innocent mother, is she not to this day kept a prisoner under the filthy scullery?’ Then the king saw clearly how he had been tricked, and gave order that the unhappy Chiaretta should be taken out of her noisome prison and. robed once more in her royal garments. As soon as this had been done, she was brought into the presence of the king and of his court; and though she had for so long time suffered such cruel usage, she retained all her former loveliness. Then the talking bird related the strange history from beginning to end, and the king, when he knew it all, embraced tenderly Chiaretta and their three children; but the dancing water and the singing apple and the talking bird, having been set at liberty, disappeared straightway.
The next day the king commanded to be lighted in the centre of the market a huge fire, into which he caused to be thrown, without pity, his mother and the two sisters of Chiaretta and the midwife, so that in the presence of everybody they might be burnt to death. And Ancilotto lived happily many years with his beloved wife and his beautiful children, and, having chosen for Serena an honourable husband, he left his two sons the heirs of his kingdom.
Lodovica’s story gave great delight to all the ladies, and the Signora, having commanded her to supplement it in due order, she propounded the following enigma:
When Sol pours down his fiercest heat,
High on Gheraldo’s lofty seat,
A wight I marked, with roguish eye,
Shut fast within a closure high.
All through the day he prates and talks,
And clad in robes of emerald walks.
I’ve told you all except his name,
And that from your own wit I claim.
Many were the interpretations put upon this enigma, but no one came near to the mark save the charming Isabella, who, greatly pleased with herself, said in a merry tone: “There is no other possible signification of Lodovica’s enigma except to name the parroquet, which lives within a cage, the closure, and has plumage green as emerald, and talks all day long.” The clever solution of the riddle pleased everybody except Lodovica, who had flattered herself that no one would be clever enough to solve it, and who now became almost dumb with vexation. A little later, when the flush of anger had faded somewhat from her cheek, she turned to Isabella, whose turn it was to tell the fourth story, and said: “I am vexed, Isabella, not from envy of you, as the teller of the next story, but because I feel myself inferior to those other companions of yours who have had to give the solution of their riddles, the company not being able to solve them; whereas mine was guessed at once. Be assured, however, that if I can give you a Roland for your Oliver, I will not be caught napping.” Isabella answered quickly, “You will do well, Signora Lodovica, but—” Here the Signora, who saw that the contention was like to grow warm between the two, commanded Isabella to go on at once with her story, which, with a smile, she began to tell as follows.