Anastasio Minuto be comes enamoured of a gentlewoman, who rejects his addresses. He reproaches her thereanent, whereupon she tells her husband, who, on account of Anastasio's age, spares his life.
GRACIOUS ladies, although ardent wantonness (as Marcus Tullius writes in his book on old age) is at all times foul and disgraceful, nevertheless it is offensive in the highest degree when we encounter it in a hoary-headed old man; for besides being in itself a wicked and unclean thing, it saps his strength, weakens his eyesight, robs him of his intellect, makes of him a disgrace and a byword, empties his purse, and, on account of the brief and troublesome term of pleasure it holds out to him as a lure, draws him on to put his hand to all sorts of wickedness. The truth of what I tell you will be made quite clear to you if, according to your wonted custom, you will give a kindly and gracious hearing to the fable I pro pose to relate to you.
In this our city, which in abundance of fair women outdoes any other in the world, there once lived a certain gentle woman, very graceful and fully endowed with every beauty, having eyes which, in their loveliness, shone like the morning star. This lady lived in great luxury, and was entertained very delicately by her husband, save in the matter of his marital duties, in the discharge of which he was somewhat slack; wherefore she chose for a lover a lusty and well-mannered youth of honourable family, and made him the object of her favour, lavishing upon him much greater love than she gave to her husband. Now after a time it happened that a certain Anastasio, a friend of her husband's, and now far advanced in years, became so violently enamoured of this gentlewoman that he could find no rest either by day or by night; so consuming, indeed, was the passion and torment he felt on ac count of this love of his, that in a few days he wasted all away, so that he had left scarcely any flesh to cover his bones. He had eyes bleared and rheumy, his forehead was ploughed with wrinkles, his nose was flat and dribbled constantly like that of a young child, and when he sighed the breath he gave forth had an odour so offensive that it nauseated or even poisoned those who had the ill fortune to be in his neighbourhood, and in his mouth he had but two teeth, which were more of a plague than a profit to him. Besides being afflicted with all these ills he was paralytic, and, although the sun might be in Leo and blazing hot as a furnace, the poor old wretch would never feel aught of warmth in his limbs.
This wretched old man, being ensnared and inflamed with senile passion, eagerly solicited the favours of the lady, now by the offer of one gift and now of another; but she, although the gifts which he sent her were rich and of great value, refused them one and all, seeing that she had no need of any offering that he might make her, because her husband was a very rich man and took care to let her want for none of these things. Ofttimes Anastasio would make salutation to her in the street while she was on her way to or from the performance of her religious duties at church, imploring her to accept him as her faithful servant, and no longer to condemn him so cruelly to suffer death by love torment. But she, being a wise and prudent woman, would always cast her eyes down upon the ground, and with out answering him a word hasten home.
It happened that Anastasio got intelligence how the young man, of whom we have lately spoken, used to frequent the gentlewoman's house, and he kept so careful a watch upon the goings and comings of the gallant that on a certain evening he saw him enter the house while the husband was absent from the city. When he remarked this he felt as great a pang as if a knife had been driven into his heart, and half beside himself as he was in the frenzy of passion, taking no heed either of his own honour or of that of the lady whom he sought, he took from his store a great quantity of jewels and money, and having gone to the lady's house knocked loudly at the door. The maid of the gentle woman, when she heard that someone was knocking at the door, went on the balcony and cried out: 'Who knocks?' Whereupon the old man made answer: 'Open the door forthwith, for I am Anastasio, and I have certain weighty business to discuss with madonna.' The servant, when she knew who it was, ran quickly to her mistress, who at that moment was taking her pleasure with her lover in the next room. Having called her out the maid said to her: 'Madonna, Messer Anastasio is below, knocking at the door.' To this the lady answered: 'Go down quickly and tell him to go about his business at once, for it is not my wont to open my doors to anybody at night when my husband is away from home.' The servant, having heard and understood these words of her mistress, went down as she had been directed and repeated them to Messer Anastasio, but the old man, feeling that he was slighted in being thus repulsed, grew angry and began to knock more fiercely than ever at the door and to insist on being let into the house. The gentlewoman when she heard this was filled with wrath and anger, not only on account of the hurly burly made by the silly old man, but also because of her lover, who was in the house with her; so she went to the window and cried out: 'I am in truth mightily amazed, Messer Anastasio, that you should thus come without any consideration to knock and clamour at the doors of other people's houses. Go to bed, you silly old man, and do not annoy those who have no wish to annoy you. If my husband were at home and in the house I would open to you with out delay; but seeing that he is abroad, I cannot and will not do this thing.' But the old man went on affirming that he wanted to confer with her on affairs of the greatest moment, and all the time they were talking kept on still knocking at the door.
The lady, perceiving how persistent was the importunity of the dirty old beast, and fearing lest he in his foolish ness might speak words injurious to her honour, withdrew a little and took counsel with her young lover as to what she should do. He made answer that she might very well open the door and hear what thing it might be he had to tell her, and that she need have no fear. Whereupon the gentlewoman (the old man knocking vigorously outside the while) bade them light a torch for her, and then told her maid to open the door. When Anastasio had come into the hail, the lady, looking as fair and fresh as a morning rose, issued from her chamber, and, going towards him, asked him what business he had with her at that hour of the night. The amorous old dotard with wheedling and piteous words, and scarcely keeping hack his tears, thus answered: 'Oh, signora, you are the only hope and support of my wretched life! Therefore let it not be a wonder to you that I, rashly and presumptuously forsooth, should come knocking at your door to your surprise and alarm. Of a truth I have not come to annoy you, but to make manifest to you the passion I feel for you, and how sharply I am tormented therefor. And I need not tell you that the cause of my woe is your surpassing beauty, which renders you the queen of all women, and if the founts of pity in your heart are not entirely sealed up, you will spare a thought for me who on your account die a thousand times a day. Ah, soften a little that hard heart of yours! Think nothing of my age nor of my mean condition, but of my true and devoted mind, and of the ardent love which I bear for you now, and will ever bear as long as my sad soul shall be joined to my stricken and afflicted body. And as a token of this my love for you, I beg that of your kindness you will accept this gift, and, trifling though it be, will hold it dear.' And with these words he drew from his bosom a purse full of golden ducats which shone bright as the sun, and a string of great round white pearls and two jewels set in gold delicately worked. These he presented to the gentlewoman, imploring her in the meantime not to deny him her love; but she, when she heard and clearly understood the words of the infatuated old man, thus made answer to him: 'Messer Anastasio, I always thought you were a man of better understanding than I now find you to be, forasmuch as you seem to have lost your wits entirely. Where is the good sense and the prudence which you as a man of mature years ought to exhibit? Do you think I am no better than a harlot that you come tempting me by your gifts? Certes, you are hugely mistaken if this is your belief. I have no need of these things you have brought hither, and I bid you carry them rather to some profligate woman who will serve your purpose. I, as you ought to know, have a husband who denies me nothing that I may require. Go your way then, and God speed you, and take care that you order your life aright for the short space of time which yet awaits you on earth.'
The old man when he heard these words was filled with grief and compunction, and said: 'Madonna, I cannot believe you mean what you say! Nay, I am sure that you have spoken thus be cause you are in fear of the young man whom you have now with you in your house.' And here he forthwith mentioned the gallant by name. 'If you will not content me,' he went on, 'and yield to my desires, I will assuredly denounce your conduct to your husband, who is my friend.' The lady, when she heard Anastasio mention the name of the young man who was at this time in her chamber, was not in the least shame faced and cast down, but on the other hand began to shower the most violent abuse upon the old man that had ever been spoken from one person to another. Then she took in her hand a stout stick, and she would certainly have given him a shrewd basting therewith had he not discreetly slipped down the stairs and fled from the house with all speed.
The lady, as soon as the old man had departed, went back into the chamber where she had left her lover, and, scarcely keeping back her tears, told him of the mischance that had befallen her. She feared greatly in sooth lest the villainous old man might carry out his threat and unfold everything he had seen to her husband, wherefore she began to take counsel of her gallant as to what course she should adopt. The young man, who was shrewd and well-advised, first comforted the lady and bade her be of good heart; then he set forth to her an excellent scheme which he had devised, saying: 'My soul, do not be alarmed or discouraged, but take the advice which I shall now give you, and rest assured that everything will come to a prosperous issue. As soon as your husband shall have returned to the house, set the whole matter before him concerning the old man's intrusion here just as it happened. And tell him how this wicked and miserable old dotard heaps slander upon you, saying that you have guilty relations with this man and with that. Then you must call over by name five or six young men whom you know, giving my name as the last on the list. Having done this we will leave the rest to fortune, which will of a certainty be propitious to your cause.'
This counsel given by her lover seemed to the lady wise and judicious, and she forthwith did everything as he had advised her. When the husband came home she at once presented herself with an aspect very sad and woebegone, and with her eyes streaming with tears. Then she began to curse the fate which tormented her so cruelly, and when her husband set himself to question her as to what her affliction was, she answered that she could not tell him. But after a little she cried out in a loud voice, weeping bitterly the while: 'Of a truth I know not what should keep me back from making an end of this wretched life of mine with my own hands! I cannot endure that a perfidious wretch should be the cause of my ruin and lasting shame. Ah, unhappy woman that I am! What have I done amiss that I should be slandered and cut to the very quick in this wise, and by whom has this ill been wrought? By a very hangman, a murderer, who deserves a thousand deaths!' Having been pressed by her husband to speak further she went on and said: 'That headstrong old dotard, Anastasio, who calls himself your friend, that silly lecherous and wicked old man, did he not come to me a few nights ago asking of me things as dishonest as they were wicked, and offering me money and jewels as the price of my compliance? And because I would not listen to a word of what he had to say or consent to what he wanted, he began to revile me shamefully and to call me a lewd woman, and to declare that I brought men into the house with me, entangling myself now with one, now with another. When I listened to such words as these I nearly died of grief, but after a little, having collected my wits and my courage, I caught up a stick wherewith to baste him soundly, and he, fearing lest I might carry out my intent, ran away as fast as possible and fled from the house.'
The husband, when he heard this speech of his wife, was vexed beyond measure and set about comforting her, saying that he would play Anastasio a trick which he would remember as long as he lived. Wherefore, when the following day had come, the husband of the lady and Anastasio chanced to meet one another, and before the husband could utter a word Anastasio made a sign that he had something to say to him, and the husband at once signified to him that he was willing to listen to anything he might have to tell. Whereupon Anastasio spake thus: 'Sir, you know how sincere the love and goodwill subsisting between us has al ways been; it would be impossible in deed to add aught thereto. On this account I, being urged by jealous care for your honour, have determined to say somewhat to you, begging you at the same time by the love there is between us, that you will keep what I shall tell you a secret, and that you will look into your household affairs as soon as may be with due prudence and fore sight. And now, in order not to hold you in suspense by any long preamble, I will tell you that your wife is amorously sought by a certain young man, and that she, on her part, returns his love, and frequently takes her pleasure with him, thereby working great shame and disgrace upon all your family. All this which I tell you I declare to be the truth, for the other night, when you chanced to be away from the city, with my own eyes I saw him enter your house wearing a disguise, and I saw him likewise issue therefrom early the next morning.' The husband, when he heard these words from Anastasio, flew into a violent rage, and began to heap abuse on him, saying: 'Ah, you villainous rascal, you hangman, you wicked wretch! What is there to keep me from seizing you by your beard, and pulling it out from your chin one hair at a time? Do I not know what manner of woman my wife is, and do I not know likewise how you attempted to corrupt her with money and jewels and pearls? Did you not tell her, you abominable wretch! that if she would not give as sent and deliver herself up to your law less passion you would denounce her to me, deeming that you may thus bring sadness and ruin upon the rest of her life? Did you not say that this man and that man and divers others took their pleasure with her? In sooth, had I not some pity for your old age, I would assuredly tread you under my feet, and not cease kicking you till your wretched soul should have left your body. Now go and be hanged, you miserable old man! and never come into my sight again, for if ever I catch you loitering about my house, I will kill you out of hand.' The old man, when he heard these words, pocketed his disappointment and slunk away like one dumbfoundered, and the astute and wily gentlewoman in future, under her husband's protection, spent many a merry hour with her lover in greater security than ever.
When Arianna had brought her diverting story to an end every one of the listeners laughed heartily thereat, but the Signora made a sign by clapping her hands together that everyone should be silent. Then she turned towards Arianna and commanded her to complete her story with some merry riddle; and the damsel, unwilling to let herself appear less witty than the others, began as follows:
A useful thing, firm, hard and white,
The men all laughed at this enigma; not one of them, however, could explain what it meant. Whereupon Alteria, whose turn it was to tell the next story, gracefully explained it to them in the following words: "This enigma signifies nothing else than the pen with which one writes. It is firm, straight, white, and strong. It is pierced at the head and soiled with ink. It is never weary, being swayed to and fro by the writer both in public and in private." Everybody praised highly the sharp wit displayed by Alteria in explaining this subtly-devised enigma, except Arianna, who was greatly incensed with anger thereat, deeming that she herself alone could give the interpretation. The Signora, when she saw the vexation that burned in her eyes, said to her: "Arianna, be calm, I beg; for certes another time your own turn will come." Then, turning herself towards Alteria, she commanded her to tell her fable forthwith. And the damsel in merry wise thus began it.
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.