The Canon's Yeoman's Tale

PROLOGUE

When Saint Cecilia's life was finished, we Had ridden less than five miles--we would be 555 At Boughton under Blean--when from the back A fellow overtook us clothed in black, Though white his surplice underneath. He rode A hackney, dappled gray, with such a load Of sweat it was astonishing to see; 560 He must have ridden hard, two miles or three. His Yeoman's horse as well was sweating so It looked like it could scarcely even go. The harness round its breast was soaking wet; A magpie it appeared, such spots of sweat. 565 One doubled bag upon its crupper lay, So he'd brought little clothing, safe to say. This worthy man, dressed light for summer's start, Made me begin to wonder in my heart What he might be, until I understood 570 The way in which his cloak was sewn to hood, And thinking on it finally came to see That some sort of a Canon he must be. His hat hung at his back, kept by a knot, For he had ridden more than at a trot-- 575 He'd spurred, in fact, as if a fellow mad. A burdock leaf beneath his hood he had To fight the sweat and cool his head. And yet It was a joy to see the fellow sweat! His forehead dripped just like a still will do, 580 One filled with plantain, pellitory too. When he'd caught up with us, then bellowed he, "May God preserve this jolly company! I've ridden hard and for no other sake Than that you people I might overtake, 585 To ride with such a merry company." His Yeoman, too, was full of courtesy, And said, "I saw you, sirs, at early day As from your hostelry you rode away. I warned my lord and master here, as he 590 Would eagerly enjoy your company While riding, for he likes to joke and play." "God bless you, friend, for warning him that way!" Then said our Host. "For surely I surmise, As far as I can judge, your lord is wise. 595 He's jolly, too, I'd wager that it's true! Can he relate a merry tale or two To gladden all this company as well?" "Who, sirs? My lord? Indeed, no lie I tell, Of merriment and all such jollity 600 He knows more than enough. And, trust in me, If you knew him as well as I do now, You'd marvel at his cunning, wonder how His work in many ways can be so clever. He's undertaken many a great endeavor 605 That any here would find too hard for them To bring about, unless they learnt from him. As humbly as he rides here, if you got To know him it would profit you a lot; Then his acquaintance you'd not trade away 610 For quite a tidy sumó-on that I'd lay My money down, all that's in my possession. I warn you, he's a man of high discretion, One as surpassing as has ever been." "Well," said our Host, "I pray you'll tell us, then, 615 Is he a cleric? Say what he may be." "Nay, greater than a cleric, certainly," This Yeoman said. "In words, Host, that are few I'll tell you something of what he can do. "I say, he knows such arts of subtlety-- 620 But you won't learn of all his craft from me, Though in his work I sometimes help him still-- That all this ground on which we ride, until We've gone from here to Canterbury town, My lord could turn completely upside down 625 And pave it all with silver and with gold." And when this Yeoman had this story told, Our Host responded, "Benedicite! This thing's a marvel--what more can I say?-- To see the way your lord, so wise and clever 630 That all men should respect him, should, however, Pay little mind to his own dignity. The coat he's wearing isn't worth a flea And shouldn't be by such a fellow worn. As I may walk, it's filthy and it's torn! 635 Pray tell me why so sloppily he goes. Can't he afford to buy some better clothes If his deeds match your words? Now tell me more, Explain this matter to me, I implore." "Why?" said the Yeoman. "Why ask that of me? 640 God help me, he'll find no prosperity! (I wouldn't want to swear to what I say, So keep it as a secret, sir, I pray.) I think that he's too wise for his own good; What's overdone won't turn out as it should, 645 For it is then a vice, clerks rightly say. I think he's dumb and foolish in that way. For when a fellow has too great a wit, It often happens he misuses it; So does my lord, for which my grief is sore. 650 May God amend it! I can't tell you more." "No matter, my good Yeoman," said our Host. "But since about his art you know the most, Tell how he does it, I sincerely pray, Since he's as sly and crafty as you say. 655 Where do you dwell, if that you may confide?" "In the outskirts of a city," he replied. "In corners and blind alleyways we lurk Where all your thieves by nature do their work, Reside in secrecy and fear, from where 660 They dare not show their faces. So we fare, If I should speak the truth, my lord and I." "Now," said our Host, "permit me asking why You've such discoloration in your face." "Saint Peter," he replied, "it's a disgrace! 665 I'm so accustomed on the fire to blow I think my whole complexion's changed, although I don't go looking into mirrors--I Stay hard at work, to learn to multiply. We blunder right along, stare in the fire, 670 And for all that we fail in our desire, We never have results when we conclude. A lot of folks, however, we delude And borrow gold--be it a pound or so, Or ten or twelve, as high as we can go-- 675 And make them think, at least, that we can take A pound of gold and two pounds from it make. It's false, but still we always have good hope It can be done, and after it we grope. But it's a science that's so far ahead 680 That though we vow, no matter what is said, It can't be caught, it slips away so fast, And it will make us beggars at the last." Now while this Yeoman said this, there drew near His lord the Canon, close enough to hear 685 All that was said. For always when he'd see Men talking, he'd react suspiciously; As Cato says, "The guilty without doubt Will alway think he's being talked about." That's why he drew so near him, that he may 690 Hear everything the Yeoman had to say. Here's what he told his Yeoman when he'd heard: "Now hold your tongue, don't speak another word, For if you do you'll dearly pay! For me You slander here before this company, 695 And tell things, too, that you should keep concealed." "Tell," said our Host, "no matter what's revealed! His threats aren't worth a mite, don't give 'em store." "In faith," said he, "I don't much anymore." And when this Canon saw no other way-- 700 His Yeoman would his secrets give away-- He turned and fled in sorrow and in shame. "Ah," said the Yeoman, "now for fun and game! All that I know I'll tell you on the level. He's gone, and may he run into the devil! 705 For henceforth I will never meet him now, For penny or for pound, and that's a vow. Before he dies may he be brought to shame And grief for dragging me into his game! For by my faith, it's been hard work and tough; 710 Say what you will, I feel it well enough, And yet for all my pain and all my grief, My woe and labor, trial without relief, To leave it I could never find a way. I wish to God I'd wits enough today 715 To tell you all that figures in that art! But nonetheless at least I'll tell you part. And since my lord is gone, I'll nothing spare; Such things as those I know I will declare."

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