Polissena, a widow, has divers lovers. Panfilio, her son, reproves her thereanent, whereupon she promises to mend her ways if he will lay aside certain uncouth habits. He agrees, but his mother dupes him, and finally they go on in their old courses.
A WOMAN, when once she becomes thoroughly wedded to a certain practice, whether it be good or bad, finds it a hard matter to abstain therefrom, seeing that she is by nature disposed to continue to the end of her days in what ever habits she may have adopted. Wherefore I now purpose to tell you a story of an adventure which happened to a young widow, who, having lived a wanton's life a long time, could not by any means break away from it. Nay, even when her own son, moved by righteous desire, lovingly reproved her, she played a wily trick upon him in her subtle treachery, and went on in her evil ways. All of this I will set forth fully in the course of my tale.
There once lived, gracious ladies (it was not long ago, and on that account you may peradventure know something thereof), in the splendid and renowned city of Venice, a pretty little widow, who was called by name Polissena, still young in years and exceeding beautiful in person, but of very low estate. This woman had brought forth by her husband, who was dead, a son named Panfilio, a youth of good parts, of virtuous life, and of praiseworthy manners, who was at this time a goldsmith by trade. And because (as I have already said) Polissena was young, very handsome, and graceful, many gallants - and amongst these were some of the chiefest nobles of the city - cast amorous eyes upon her and wooed her persistently. And she, who in former days had tasted freely of the pleasures of the world and of the sweetness of love's commerce, was not slow in giving assent to the solicitations of her wooers, and delivered herself up, body and soul, to the embraces of all those who would have her. So hot and amorous was her temper that she did not confine herself to the endearments of one or two lovers (which, seeing that she was young and so early left a widow, would have been a pardonable fault), but granted the favour of her person to all comers, having no regard for her own honour or for the honour of her husband.
Panfilio, who was fully cognizant of his mother's way of life (not that he in any way favoured it, but because from time to time he could not escape witnessing her shameful carriage), was deeply grieved thereanent, and suffered the deepest anguish of heart and that mental suffering, so hard to be borne, which any man of upright mind would of necessity feel in such a pass. Where fore the wretched youth, living from day to day with his soul vexed by these torments, and not seldom feeling that the burden of his disgrace was more than he could endure, would ofttimes take council with himself whether it would not be better for him to slay his mother outright; but when he remembered that he had taken his being from her, he let go this cruel purpose and resolved to see whether he might not prevail upon her by words, and induce her to adopt a more cleanly manner of life. So one day he seized an opportune moment, and, having seated him self beside his mother, addressed her affectionately in the following terms: 'My beloved and honoured mother, it is with the greatest grief and distress that I now venture to approach you, and I am sure you will not refuse to lend your ears and listen to what I have to say. It is something which I have, until now, kept close hidden in my own heart. Formerly I believed you to be wise, prudent, and circumspect; but now, to my sorrow, I know too well that you are none of these things, and so grieved am I on this account that I would to God I were as far from you as I am near you. You, as far as I can understand, are given over to the most scandalous life, one which alike stains your own honour and the good name of my late father, your husband. And if you will not have any regard for your own character, I beg you at least to show some consideration for me, seeing that I am your only son, and one in whom you may reckon to find a firm and faithful support of your old age.'
The mother, when she had listened to these words of her son, laughed in his face and went on with her shameful manner of life as before. Panfilio, perceiving that she was in nowise moved by his entreaties and kindly words, resolved to waste his breath no more, but to let her go on as she list. It chanced that not many days after this, Panfilio, by a stroke of ill fortune, became infected with the itch, and in so malignant a form that he could scarce have fared worse had he been a leper. Besides, the weather was at this time very cold, and on this account he found it impossible to get cured of his distemper. In the evening poor Panfilio would sit anear the fire, and the heat thereof, inflaming his blood all the more, aggravated the itch tenfold and caused him to scratch himself with- out ceasing and to work himself into a frenzy. One evening, as he sat before the fire, as was his wont, scratching him self, there came to the house one of his mother's lovers, and tarried a long time with her in amorous conversation. The wretched youth, besides being annoyed by the irritating scabs which vexed him cruelly, was further tormented and pierced to the heart at the sight of his mother in dalliance with her paramour. When at last the latter had taken his leave, Panfilio (still scratching his scabs) said to his mother: 'Mother, some time ago I exhorted you to restrain your lust and abandon this evil and dishonest manner of life, which covers you with foul shame and brings to me, who am your son, no small injury and ill-fame. But you, like the wanton woman you are, turned a deaf ear to what I had to say, and preferred to go on in the guilty indulgence of your carnal appetites rather than listen to my counsel Ah, my dear mother! I entreat you to have done with this disgraceful way of living. Keep that honour, which it is your duty to preserve, and cast this shame from you, and do not seek to kill me with grief and ill-fame. Do you not see that you may, at any moment, be called to your account, inasmuch as death is al ways by our side Do you not hear what evil things are said of you at every corner?'
While Panfilio was giving forth this exhortation, he continued to scratch him self all the time, and Polissena, when she heard his preachings and saw his scratchings, planned a joke which she deter mined to play off on him, hoping thereby to put a stop to his complaints about her conduct, and it happened that this jest of hers came to exactly the issue she had forecast. Turning to her son with a mischievous smile she said: 'Panfilio, you are always grieving and complaining to me concerning the evil life which-as you affirm - I lead. I own that my life is not a seemly one, and that your warnings and counsels thereanent mark you to be a good son; but I ask you now whether you will do one single thing to please me, to serve as a proof that you are indeed as jealous of my honour as you protest. If you will con sent to this, I, for my part, promise to place myself in your hands, and to have done with all my lovers, and to lead a good and holy life; but .if you fail to gratify me in this respect, be sure that I will pay no regard to your wishes, but will give myself over to a course yet more vicious than any I have hitherto followed.' The son, who longed to see his mother return to an honest way of life more than for anything else in the world, made answer to her thus: 'Command me to do what you will, my mother; for even were you to bid me throw myself into the fire and be there consumed to ashes, I would willingly carry out your wishes, if thereby I might be able to free you from the shame and infamy of the life you now lead.' 'Listen then well to what I am going to say to you,' said Polissena, 'and consider my words, for if you shall diligently carry out the injunctions I lay upon you, everything you wish shall be fully granted to you; but if on the other hand, you should fail in your promise, you will find yourself in a deeper state of ignominy than ever before.' 'I bind myself to observe and perform any duty or task you may put upon me,' said Panfilio. 'Then,' replied his mother, 'I will tell you what thing this is I re quire you to do. It is nothing more arduous, my son, than that you should promise you will not scratch your scabs for three whole evenings. If you will observe this light request of mine, I will, on my part, satisfy your wishes.'
Panfilio, when he listened to the proposition made by his mother, sat for some time in thinking thereanent, and though, itching as he did, he knew full well that this condition of hers would prove no easy one to observe, he nevertheless accepted it with joy, and as a token of good faith shook hands with his mother upon the bargain. When the first of the evenings appointed for the trial had come, Panfilio, having left his workshop, went home, and throwing off his cloak began to walk up and down the room. After a little, finding himself somewhat cold, he sat down in a corner of the chimney close to the fire, and then the troublesome itch, provoked by the heat, began to molest him so sharply that he was sorely distressed and longed to scratch himself to get some ease. The mother, who was a very cunning jade, had taken good care to have a hot fierce fire on the hearth, in order that Panfilio might be well heated, and now, when she saw him writhing and stretching himself out after the manner of a snake, she said to him, 'Panfilio, what is it you do? Take good heed that you break not your promise, for if you keep your word I will assuredly keep mine.' To this Panfilio made answer: Have no doubt of my constancy, mother. See that you are firm yourself, for I will keep my pledge.' And all the while they were thus talking they were both of them raging with desire, the one to scratch his itching hide, and the other to find herself once more with one or other of her lovers.
Thus the first evening passed, bringing great discomfort both to mother and son, and when the second came, Polissena again caused to be made a large fire, and having got ready a good supper awaited her son's return. Panfilio, firmly set on keeping his word, clenched his teeth and put up with his trouble as well as he could, and thus the second evening went by without any misadventure. Polissena, when she saw how steadfast in his determination Panfilio was, and considered how two evenings had already gone by without his having scratched himself at all, began to fear greatly that after all she would be the loser, and, mightily disturbed in spirit, began to lament her luckless case. For all this time she was strongly assailed by the pricks of amorous desire, and spent her time in devising some scheme whereby Panfilio might be driven once more to scratch his skin, and she herself in consequence of his failure to keep his promise, be free to wanton with her paramours. So for the next evening she made ready a delicate supper, with no lack of costly and heady wine, and awaited the coming of her son. When Panfilio returned and remarked the unwonted luxury of their evening meal, he was greatly astonished thereat, and, turning to his mother, he said: 'Mother, for what reason have you set out such a princely feast as this? Is it possible that you have indeed changed your mind?' To this Polissena made answer: 'Certainly not, my son; I am more firmly set in my purpose than ever, but by chance the thought struck me how you work hard every day at your trade, from early morn till nightfall, and besides this I could not fail to notice how sorely this accursed itch has worn and emaciated your body, scarcely leaving any life in you; so I felt deep compassion for your suffering, and was moved to set before you some more delicate dish than is our wont to eat, in order that you might gather strength therefrom, and assist nature to withstand more readily the torments which you have to endure from the itch.
Panfilio, who was young and simple, did not detect his mother's cunning scheme, nor espy the snake that was hidden amongst these fair flowers of her kindness, but at once set himself down to the table close to the fire, and began with his mother to eat with zest and to drink his wine with a merry heart. But the cunning and malicious Polissena would now go and poke up the logs and blow the fire in order to make it burn all the fiercer, and now ply the poor fellow with the delicate savoury dishes, which were highly seasoned with all manner of spices, so that his blood might be more and more inflamed by the food and the warmth of the fire, and he him self be forced, on this account, to scratch his itch. Therefore, at last, when Panfilio had sat for some time close to the fire and filled his belly to repletion, such a fury of itching came over him that he felt he must die if he could not scratch himself; but, by dint of twisting his body and fidgetting now to this side and now to that, he endured the torment as best he could.
But after a while the heat of the food, which had been carefully salted and seasoned with this intent, and the Greek wine, and the scorching fire, inflamed his blood so direly that the wretched Panfilio found his torment greater than he could bear; so, tearing open his shirt and laying bare his chest, and untrussing his hose, and turning up his sleeves over his elbows, he set to scratching himself with such a will that the blood began to run down from all parts of him as if it had been sweat, and, turning to his mother, who was laughing heartily to herself, he cried in a loud voice: 'Let each one enjoy his own fancy! Let each one enjoy his own fancy! ' The mother, although she saw clearly that the game was now hers, feigned to be grieved amain, and said to Panfilio, 'My son, what folly is this of yours? What is it that you would do? Is this the way you keep the promise you have made me? Of a truth you will never again be able to throw it in my teeth that I have not kept faith with you.' Panfilio listened, scratching himself with all his might the while, and answered his mother with a troubled mind: 'Mother, let us for the future follow the bent which best pleases us. You must go about your business, and I will go about mine.' And from this hour the son never dared to question his mother as to her course of life, and she went back to her old habits, entertaining her lovers in freer measure even than before.
All the listeners were mightily pleased with this fable told by Cateruzza, and after they had spent some time in merry discourse thereanent, the Signor called upon the damsel to propound her enigma, and she, not wishing to interrupt the accustomed order of the entertainment, smilingly gave it in these words:
What thing is that we ladies prize:
Cateruzza's obscurely worded enigma gave abundant matter to the ladies and gentlemen to consider; but, carefully as they debated it from every point, and turned it over and over again in their minds, they were not able to hit upon its real interpretation. Wherefore the prudent Cateruzza, seeing that they were all still wandering in obscurity and unable to grasp the meaning of her riddle, said promptly, "So as not to keep this honourable company any longer in suspense, I will give forthwith the interpretation of my enigma, subjecting myself, however, in this to the judgment of others, who may be much wiser than myself. My enigma, dear ladies, signifies nothing else than the glove which you wear to protect your hand; this, you know, will sometimes cause you slight hurt when you first put it on, but soon accommodates itself to your pleasure."
This explanation was held to be quite satisfactory by the honourable company, and when Cateruzza had ceased speaking the Signora gave a sign to Lauretta, who sat at Vicenza's side, to take her turn at the story-telling. And she, with a pretty boldness of mien and speech, turned her bright face towards Bembo, and said: "Signor Antonio, it were a great shame if you, kindly and gallant gentleman as you are, did not tell the company some fable with your wonted grace and talent. I, for my part, would willingly relate one, but just now I cannot call to mind one which would be at the same time pleasing and droll. Therefore, I beg you, Signor Antonio, that you will bear the burden in my place, and if you grant me this favour, I shall ever consider I am greatly beholden to you." Bembo, who had in no way prepared himself for story-telling this evening, answered: "Signora Lauretta, although I feel my self very unfit for the task, yet-seeing that a request from you is as potent with me as a command - I will accept the charge you lay upon me, and will strive to satisfy your wishes, at least in part." And the Signora having given her gracious permission, he began his story in these words.
Straparola, Giovanni Francesco. The Facetious Nights by Straparola. W. G. Waters, translator. Jules Garnier and E. R. Hughes, illustrators. London: Privately Printed for Members of the Society of Bibliophiles, 1901. 4 volumes.