The Pardoner's Tale

In Flanders some time back there was a troop Of youths who were a folly-loving group, What with their parties, gambling, brothels, bars, 465 Where with their harps and lutes and their guitars They'd dance and play at dice both day and night. They also ate and drank beyond their might, So that they gave the devil sacrifice Within the devil's temple by the vice 470 Of gluttony, which is abomination. Their oaths were great, so worthy of damnation It was a grisly thing to hear them swear; The body of our blessed Lord they'd tear As if the Jews had not torn him enough. 475 Each laughed at every other's sinful stuff And right away came dancing girls to boot, All neat and trim, and young girls selling fruit, Singers with harps, then bawds, girls selling cake-- All agents of the devil, no mistake, 480 All kindlers of the fire of lechery That goes so hand in hand with gluttony. My witness is God's Holy Writ, no less, That lechery's in wine and drunkenness. Behold how drunken Lot unnaturally 485 Lay with his daughters both, unwittingly, So drunk he was unconscious of the deed. King Herod, about whom one well should read, When at a feast much wine he had been swilling, Gave orders at the table for the killing 490 Of John the Baptist, guiltless as could be. Seneca says good things undoubtedly; He said that not one difference could he find Between a man who's gone out of his mind And one who's drunk (except that madness will, 495 In one whose nature is already ill, Be longer lasting than will drunkenness). O gluttony, so full of cursedness! O first cause of our trial and tribulation, O origin of all our souls' damnation 500 Till we were purchased back by blood of Christ! How dearly, I'll say briefly, it was priced, How much was paid for this depravity! Corrupt was all the world with gluttony. Our father Adam and his wife also 505 From Paradise to labor and to woe Were driven by that vice, and do not doubt it. While Adam fasted, as I read about it, He was in Paradise, but then when he Ate of the fruit forbidden on the tree 510 He was at once cast out to woe and pain. O gluttony, with reason we complain! O if one knew how many a malady Must follow such excess and gluttony, To eat with moderation he'd be able 515 Whenever he is sitting at his table. Alas! the short throat and so tender mouth Make men both east and west, both north and south, In water, earth, and air, work to produce Fine meat and beverage for a glutton's use! 520 How well this matter, O Saint Paul, you treat: "Meat's for the belly, belly's for the meat, God shall destroy both"--so Paul is heard. Alas! for by my faith it is a word So foul to have to say (but foul's the deed) 525 That so much white and red a man should need He makes his throat his privy hole, no less, Because of such accurst excessiveness. The Apostle has with so much pity mourned: "So many walk that way whom I have warned-- 530 I say this weeping, with piteous voice-- Foes of the cross of Christ, if that's their choice, For which the end is death. Their god's the belly." O gut, O bag, O belly foul and smelly, So full of dung and of corruption found! 535 From either end of you foul is the sound. By what great cost and labor you have dined! These cooks, how they must pound and strain and grind, And transform substance into accident, Until your glutton's appetite is spent! 540 From hard bones they knock marrow for one's taste, For there is nothing they let go to waste That's soft and sweet and might the gullet suit. With spices of the leaf, the bark and root, His sauces will be made for such delight 545 He'll wind up with a whole new appetite. But he who lets such pleasures so entice Is dead while he is living in such vice. A lecherous thing is wine, and drunkenness Is full of striving and of wretchedness. 550 O drunken man, disfigured is your face, Sour your breath, you're foul to the embrace! And through your drunken nose it seems the sound Is "Samson, Samson" that you would expound, Though, God knows, Samson never drank of wine. 555 You fall as if you were a stricken swine; Your tongue is lost, your self-respect you gave To drunkenness, which is the very grave Of man's discretion and intelligence. When drink in him has taken dominance 560 One cannot keep a secret, truly said. So keep yourself away from white and red, Especially from Lepe white wine bought In Cheapside or Fish Street. This wine that's brought From Spain is known to creep up subtly 565 In other wines grown in proximity, From which there then arise such heady fumes That when a man three draughts of it consumes, Though he thinks he's in Cheapside at his home, He'll find to Lepe, Spain, he's come to roam 570 And not off to Bordeaux or La Rochelle-- And "Samson, Samson" he'll be saying well. But listen, lords, to this one word, I pray: All of the sovereign actions, I daresay, All victories in God's Old Testament, 575 Through grace of him who is omnipotent, Were all achieved in abstinence and prayer. Look in the Bible and you'll learn it there. Behold Attila: that great warrior died While in a shameful sleep, unglorified, 580 His nostrils pouring blood, a drunken sot. A captain's life should be a sober lot. You should above all else consider well The wise commandment given Lemuel (Not Samuel but Lemuel I said), 585 Expressly in the Bible to be read, On serving wine to justices at court. That should suffice, no more need I report. On gluttony I've said a thing or two, And now from gambling I'd prohibit you. 590 For gambling is the source of every lie, Of all deceit that curses men to die. It's blasphemy of Christ, manslaughter, waste Of time and property. To be disgraced, That's what it is, dishonorable, defaming, 595 To be held one who takes to common gaming. The higher one might be in social station The more he'll be accused of depravation; If there's a prince who gambles constantly, On all his governance and policy 600 The judgment of opinion will be such His reputation's bound to suffer much. A wise ambassador named Stillbon, sent From Sparta, in great pomp to Corinth went To arrange for an alliance. When he came, 605 It happened that by chance he found, for shame, That all the greatest who were of that land Were at the game of hazard, dice in hand. With that, as soon as Stillbon could get started, Back home to his own country he departed, 610 And said, "In Corinth I'll not lose my name Nor take upon myself so great a shame, I'll not ally you with such hazarders. Send to them other wise ambassadors, For on my oath I'd perish in defiance 615 Before I'd make for you such an alliance. For you, with honors that have been so glorious, Shall not ally with gamblers so notorious-- Not by my will or treaty anyway." That's what this wise philosopher had to say. 620 At King Demetrius now take a look: Parthia's king, so we're told in the book, Sent him in scorn a pair of golden dice; For playing hazard long had been his vice, For which Demetrius's fame and glory 625 To Parthia's king were a worthless story. Cannot lords find some other forms of play Honest enough to pass the time of day? And now on oaths, when false or indiscreet, A word or two, such as the old books treat. 630 Strong swearing is an awful thing to do And worse yet when you swear what isn't true. The Lord on high forbade we swear at all, As Matthew tells. Especially recall What holy Jeremiah says about it: 635 "Speak truth, not lies, in oaths, that none should doubt it; Swear but for justice and for righteousness." But idle swearing is a cursedness. Behold and see in that first table of The worthy laws God gave us from above: 640 The second of these laws is very plain To say, "Thou shalt not take my name in vain." The Lord forbids such swearing sooner, then, Than homicide and many a curséd sin. I tell it in the order that it stands-- 645 As he who God's commandments understands Is well aware, the second one is that. And furthermore I now will tell you flat That vengeance on his house will be unsparing When one engages in such awful swearing 650 As "By God's precious heart," and "By his nails," And "By the blood of Christ that is in Hales, My chance is seven, yours is five and three!" "By God's arms, if you play deceitfully You'll see how well your heart this dagger hones!" 655 This is the fruit of those two curséd bones: Forswearing, ire, deceit, and homicide. So for the love of Christ who for us died, Leave off your oaths, the small ones and the great. Now, sirs, my tale I further will relate. 660 These three young revelers of whom I tell Much earlier than nine by any bell Were sitting in a tavern and were drinking. And as they sat, they heard a bell go clinking: A corpse was being carried to its grave. 665 Then one of them called over to his knave And said, "Go quickly, ask without delay What corpse that is that's passing by the way, And see that you report his name correctly." "No need for that," the boy replied directly, 670 "Two hours before you came here, sir, they told Me who he was. The fellow was an old Comrade of yours, one who was slain at night With suddenness. While he sat drunk, upright, There came a stealthy thief that's known as Death, 675 Throughout this country robbing folks of breath; And with his spear he smote his heart in two, Then went his way without a word. And through This plague he's slain a thousand. Master, ere You come into his presence anywhere, 680 I think that it is very necessary That you beware of such an adversary. To meet him, sire, be ready evermore. My mother taught me this. I say no more." "By Saint Mary," the tavern keeper said, 685 "The child is right! This year he's left for dead In just one town (a mile from here, I'd gauge) Both man and woman, child and knave and page-- I think his habitation must be there. It would be very wise, then, to beware 690 Lest he should do a fellow a dishonor." "Yea, by God's arms!" declared this rioter, "Is he so very perilous to meet? I'll seek him in the by-ways and the street, I vow it by the worthy bones of God! 695 My friends, are we not three peas in a pod? Let's each hold up a hand to one another, Each of us will become the others' brother. With this false traitor Death we'll do away; The slayer of so many we shall slay 700 Before it's night, by God's sweet dignity!" Together then they made their pledge, the three, To live and die each of them for the others As if they'd been born naturally as brothers. Then up they jumped in drunken agitation 705 And headed down the road, their destination The village they had just been told about. And many a grisly oath they shouted out And tore Christ's blessed body limb from limb-- Death shall be dead if they get hold of him! 710 When they had gone not fully half a mile, And were about to step across a stile, They met a poor old man. Upon their meeting, The old man very meekly gave them greeting: "My lords," he said, "may God watch over you." 715 To which the proudest of this rowdy crew Replied, "What's that, you churl of sorry grace? Why are you all wrapped up except your face? Why live to be so ancient? Tell us why!" The old man looked the fellow in the eye 720 And said, "Because I'd never find a man, Were I to walk as far as Hindustan, In any town or village, who would give His youth for my old age. So I must live, I'm destined to remain an old man still, 725 As long a time as it may be God's will. And Death, alas! won't take my life, and so I walk, a restless wretch, and as I go I knock with this my staff early and late Upon the ground, which is my mother's gate, 730 And say, 'Beloved Mother, let me in! Look how I vanish, flesh and blood and skin! Alas! when will these old bones be at rest? How gladly, Mother, I'd exchange my chest, Which has so long a time been on my shelf, 735 For haircloth in which I could wrap myself!' And yet she won't allow me such a grace, That's why so pale and withered is my face. "But, sirs, you show a lack of courtesy To speak to an old man so brutishly, 740 Unless he has trespassed in word or deed. In Holy Writ you may yourself well read: 'Before an old man with a hoary head You should arise.' I counsel as it's said, No harm to an old fellow you should do, 745 No more than you would have men do to you When in old age, should you so long abide. Now God be with you where you go or ride, I must go on to where I have to go." "No, you old churl, by God, that isn't so!" 750 The gambler said at once. "You won't be gone So lightly on your way, no, by Saint John! What of that traitor Death were you just saying? Our friends in all this country he is slaying. I promise you--since you're a spy of his-- 755 You'll pay if you don't tell us where he is, By God and by the holy sacrament! For truly you and he have one intent, To kill us who are young, you thief and liar!" "Now, sirs," said he, "if you have such desire 760 To find Death, then turn up this crooked way-- I left him in that grove. I truly say, Beneath a tree he was; there he'll abide, Your boasting will not make him run and hide. See yonder oak? He's there, as you will find. 765 God save you, as he ransomed all mankind, And mend you!" So replied this aged man. And each of these three revelers then ran Until he reached the tree, and there they found Some florins, coined of gold and fine and round-- 770 Well nigh eight bushels, that was their impression. To seek Death was no longer their obsession, As each of them, so gladdened by the sight Of golden florins, all so fair and bright, Sat down beside the hoard that they had found. 775 The worst of them was first to speak a sound. He said, "My brothers, heed what I've to say, My wits are keen although I joke and play. It's Fortune that has given us this treasure That we may live our lives in mirth and pleasure. 780 As easy as it comes we'll spend it. Aye! Who would have thought this very morning, by God's dignity, we'd have so fair a grace? And if this gold be carried from this place Home to my house, or else to yours--be it 785 Well understood, it's our gold every bit-- Then we'll be in a high and happy way. But truly it cannot be done by day, We'd be accused of brazen thievery And for our gold they'd hang us from a tree. 790 This treasure we must carry home by night, As cleverly and slyly as we might. So I advise that lots among us all Be drawn, and let's see where the lot will fall; And he who draws the lot then cheerfully 795 Shall run to town, and do that speedily, To bring some bread and wine back on the sly, While two of us shall carefully stand by To guard this treasure. If he doesn't tarry, When it is night this treasure we will carry 800 To where we all agree it would be best." In that one's fist were lots held for the rest, He bade them draw to see where it would fall. It fell upon the youngest of them all, Who started off to town immediately. 805 No sooner had he left their company When that one of those staying told the other, "Now you know well that you are my sworn brother; Here's something that will profit you to know. Our friend back into town has had to go, 810 And here is gold in plentiful degree That is to be divided by us three. But nonetheless, if I could work it so Between us two we split it when we go, Would I have not done you a friendly turn?" 815 "But how?" the other answered with concern. "For he will know the gold is with us two. What shall we say to him? What shall we do?" "Shall it be kept our secret?" said the first. "Then in a few short words you shall be versed 820 In what we'll do to bring it all about." "I grant it," said the other, "do not doubt, You have my oath, I'll not be false to you." "Now," said the first, "you know that we are two, And two of us are stronger than is one. 825 As soon as he sits down, as if for fun Arise as though you'd have with him some play, Then in both sides I'll stab him right away While you and he are struggling as in game. And with your dagger see you do the same. 830 Then all this gold, dear friend, when we are through Shall be divided up twixt me and you; The two of us can then our lusts fulfill And play at dice as often as we will." So these two rogues agreed they would betray 835 And slay the third, as you have heard me say. Meanwhile the youngest, who had gone to town, In his mind's eye saw rolling up and down The beauty of those florins new and bright. "O Lord," said he, "if only that I might 840 Have all this treasure for myself alone! There is no man who lives beneath God's throne Who could then live as I, so merrily!" And then at last hell's fiend, our enemy, Put in his mind that poison he should buy 845 And give to his two mates and let them die. The fiend had found this man's life so profane He used his leave to bring the man to pain, For it was plainly this man's full intent To slay them both and never to repent. 850 So forth he went--no longer would he tarry-- Into the town to an apothecary, Whom he asked that he sell to him if willing Some poison: he had rats that needed killing, And in his yard a polecat, so he said, 855 Was reason why his capons now were dead, And he'd wreak eager vengeance if he might On vermin that were ruining him by night. The apothecary answered, "Let me tell you, So help me God, here's something I will sell you, 860 And there is not a creature anywhere That eats or drinks this mixture I prepare, Though in amount as little as a kernel, That will not go at once to the eternal-- Yea, he will die, and in a shorter while 865 Than it would take you, sir, to walk a mile, This poison is so strong and virulent." With this in hand, this curséd fellow went (He took it in a box), and then he ran Up the adjoining street to see a man 870 Who loaned him three large bottles. Of the three, He poured his poison into two, for he Would keep the third one clean for his own drinking. "I'll be at work all night," so he was thinking, "To carry all the gold out from that place." 875 And when this ne'er do well of such disgrace Had filled with wine three bottles to the brim, He went back to his mates awaiting him. What need is there to preach about it more? For just as they had planned his death before, 880 So by them he was slain right on the spot. Then that one, when they'd carried out the plot, Said, "Let us sit and drink and make us merry, And afterwards his body we will bury." It happened then by chance that with that word 885 He took the bottle poisoned by the third And drank from it, then gave some to his mate, And both of them met promptly with their fate. But surely Avicenna, I suppose, Did not include in all his canon's prose 890 More wondrous symptoms of a poisoned state Than these two wretches suffered in their fate. So these two killers met with homicide, And also their false poisoner has died. O curséd sin, so full of wretchedness! 895 O homicidal traitors! Wickedness! O gluttony! O gambling! Lechery! You blasphemers of Christ with villainy, With mighty oaths from habit and from pride! Alas, mankind, how can it so betide 900 That to the Lord who made you, your Creator, Who with his dear heart's blood redeemed you later, You are so false and so unkind? Alas! Now, good men, God forgive you your trespass And guard you from the sin of avarice. 905 My holy pardon saves you from all this; If you will offer nobles, sterlings, rings, Some brooches, spoons or other silver things, Just bow your head beneath this holy bull. Come up, you wives, and offer of your wool; 910 Your name I'll here enroll, then you may know Into the bliss of heaven you will go. My high power will absolve you, to be sure, If you will give. You'll be as clean and pure As when first born.--And, sirs, that's how I preach. 915 Now Christ, physician to the soul of each Of us, grant you his pardon to receive, For that is best, and you I'll not deceive. But, sirs, one thing that slipped my memory when I spoke my tale: I've relics, pardons in 920 My pouch, in England none could finer be, The pope's own hand entrusted them to me. If anyone devoutly has resolved To make a gift and by me be absolved, Come forth at once and meekly on your knees 925 Receive my pardon. Or, if you so please, Take for yourself a pardon as you go-- One fresh and new at every town--just so You offer to me, all the while we ride, Some pence and nobles that are bonafide. 930 It is an honor for each one who's here To have a competent pardoner near To absolve you in the country as you ride, In view of all the things that may betide. There may be one (if not two) on the trek 935 Who falls down off his horse and breaks his neck; Look what security it is for all That in your fellowship I chanced to fall, Who can absolve you all from first to last Before your soul has from your body passed. 940 Let me advise our Host here to begin, For he's the one enveloped most in sin. Come forth, Sir Host, and offer first right now, And kiss then each and every relic. How? For just a groat! Unbuckle now your purse." 945 "Nay, nay," said he, "then I would have Christ's curse! It shall not be, if I should live in bliss! Your breeches, I am sure, you'd have me kiss And swear they were the relic of a saint, Though of your foul behind they bear the taint. 950 But by the cross that Saint Helena found, Your balls I'd like to have my hand around Instead of relics or a reliquary! Let's cut them off, I'll even help to carry, We'll find a hog, enshrine them in his turd." 955 The Pardoner then answered not a word, He was too mad to have a thing to say. "Now," said our Host, "I will no longer play This game with you, or any angry man." And right away the worthy Knight began, 960 When he saw all were laughing at the spat: "Now quite enough, let's have no more of that! Sir Pardoner, be merry, of good cheer. And you, Sir Host, who are to me so dear, I pray that you will kiss the Pardoner; 965 And, Pardoner, I pray, draw near him, sir, And as we did now let us laugh and play." They kissed at once and rode along their way.

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