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The Matron Of Ephesus

(Recueil 3, Livre 12, Fable 26)

 

 

If any tale —well worn, banal—

Needs no retelling, it’s the one I

shall Herewith relate in my own wise.

"But why!" you ask. "Why re-create her,

That personage of more than one narrator:

The Matron that Petronius glorifies

And many an imitator, too, discusses?

What special grace can you give yours to vie,

Verily, with Petronius’s!"

Rather than face my critics in reply—

Task of duration infinite!—

Let me but try to sec if I

Can spruce his famous Matron up a bit.

Long years gone by, in Ephesus,

There lived a woman, passing virtuous,

In wifely duty chaste beyond compare:

Pride of her sex, hailed far and wide. And thus

Came many a soul to see her there,

Eager to gaze upon a sight so rare.

Each mother wished such consort for her son;

Each man wished for a mate like such a one.

(Ancestress of the clan Prudenda, she

Gave rise to long posterity ...)

Exemplar of affection sisterly,

Had failed, I fear, to think the matter through.

But soon the servant comes to realize

What such a stay must needs expose her to.

At first she lets her mistress sigh her sighs

And groan her groans; then vainly tries

10 make her mourn as other widows do,

In manlier more conventional withal.

The Matron, though—obdurate, spurning all

The usual consolations—has one thought

And one alone: what means she ought

Employ to reach unto that dismal

Valley of death, domain abysmal.

Quickest, no doubt, would be the sword.

Bur she demurs; for she would longer feast

Her eyes upon the poor deceased—

Cold in his bier, and yet no less adored.

Such being, indeed, the only nourishment

The mausoleum offers her,

Madame decides that, to pursue monsieur,

Starvation is her best expedient:

Portal direct, through which to quit

This mortal coil and be well rid of it.

One day ... Then two ... And she had fed

On naught bur her "alases" and "ah me’s":

Long song of woe; duly dispirited,

Cursing the gods, Fate’s vagaries,

And all of life’s most grave inequities.

Now, hard by where monsieur lay dead

A second corpse hung swinging in the breeze:

A proper blackguard, and for whom

Only the gibbet—no fine marble tomb

Would stand to mark his infamous demise;

Left thus, so other thieves might cast their eyes

Thereon, and be thereby deterred.

Of thus departing from amongst the living

To join monsieur in death. "Madame", she said,

"The thought occurs to me that, were you dead

And were your husband yet alive, then surely

There’s little question, entre nous,

But that he’d not be quick to follow you.

Life is so short: why leave it prematurely?

At twenty years the grave can wait, no worry!

Long will it be our host: so why the hurry?

Me? Let me live till wrinkles fill my face!

What? Would you waste your beauty and your grace

Upon the dead? What pleasures can they give them,

Imprisoned in their chill embrace?

Better to let vourself outlive them—

These charms divine of yours—and not allow

The jealous bier too soon to claim them.” Now,

The compliments, of course, have their effect:

Madame is quickened, as you might expect,

To thoughts of beauty and, perforce, of love.

At length, the impish god thereof

Looses an arrow from his quiver at her,

And at the guard as well. The latter,

Pierced to the heart, is smitten utterly—

More deeply than, at first, is she.

The more she sobs, the more those teardrops flatter

The winsome face behind the weeping mask.

(Beauty that even many a husband would

Find worth the yoke of husbandhood!)

And so the soldier, warming to the task,

Proceeds to woo the widow, doing

Everything wooers do a-wooing,

Much to the pleasure of madame the wooed.

He does so well that, soon, she tastes his food;

So well, that he seems fitter, far, to have her

Than even the most fair and lit cadaver;

So well, that there, before her dear deceased,

Widow turns wife—or so to speak, at least.

But as they lie thus consummating, lo!

A brigand steals that other corpse—the one

Our groom forgets to guard ... He’ll run ... But no,

Too late, alack! The deed is done ...

Back to the tomb, in panic, will he flee

To tell madame the fell catastrophe.

How can he save his skin? Aye, that’s the question!

For which the slave girl, full of sympathy,

Offers him an untoward suggestion:

"By madame’s leave, no one will know if we

Hang up our corpse to take your corpse’s place.”

Madame agrees ... O woman! Fickle race!

Some fair; some plain of face and feature;

But faithful? Ah, would there were such a creature!

Prudes, be advised: vaunt not your strength of will

Though your intent be to resist temptation.

For, fare we well or fare we ill,

Strong, too, is man’s determination.

Witness our famous Matron, who—

Meaning the good Petronius no offense—

Did, I must say, what many a wife would do

Under the circumstances; and who, hence,

Deserves no exemplary mention.

Her folly? Vowing in her innocence,

To die entombed: absurd intention!

Nor need she have too long repented

Hanging her dear-departed late-lamented

To save her swain. For, as she would discover,

Better to have a living lover—

Even a varlet, poor and lowly bred—

Than all your kings and emperors, rich but dead.

Would he experience as well: the best,

The worst. And if, perhaps, during his mission

(Which was to last ten years, not one day less),

He were the victim of some nastiness,

He could, by dint of artful trickery,

Save himself from whatever it might be,

But would in no wise die, or homeward wend

His way, until the mission’s very end.

So off he goes, across the space betwixt

Earth and eternal night: a passage fixed

By the gods in their wisdom; but that took

No time for such as him: a glance, a look,

And there he was, in Florence if you please!

Florence, the fabled home of Italy’s

Resplendent life; city where, he was sure,

Commerce would yield him a rich sinecure.

And so, amidst the splendid luxuries,

He settled down and settled in, secure

In the thought that for ten years he would be

A man of wealth—fine mansion, livery,

A life of case, servants galore to wait

Upon him and to please his every whim.

Thus did he live and, adding to his fame,

He assumed Roderigo as his name.

Florentines one and all considered him

With awe, and stood astounded as he led

A life of revelry. Table and bed

Witnessed the lavish multitudes around him—

The ones he bedded and the ones he fed—

Who came from everywhere, and ever found him

Eager to share his sumptuous wealth with them.

Some chose to use the well-worn stratagem

Of fulsome praise, paying vast sums to those

Who sang his virtues in their verse or prose—

Seconded by Apollo’s art, the master.

No other god was more expert, or faster

In his design: to wit, to flatter. Nor

Had devil ever been with honor more

Bedecked, nor more respected. As for love,

Before long all the arrows shot thereof

From Cupid’s bow aimed for his heart: no fair

Or beauteous dame or damosel was there

But, yearning, used the charms that she possessed

To make herself more loved than all the rest,

However timid she: for, even were

There one rebellious lass who might demur

A bit, the gifts that heaped his arms would soon

Suffice to make her gladly change her tune.

Yes, ever silver, gold, and precious gem

Have bought for men the very best of them!

And who will not admit that well-filled purse

Is the prime mover of the universe!

Meanwhile, our special demon legatee’s

Reflections on the marriages he sees

Round and about, are jotted down with care

In diaries. But much difference is there

Amongst them: some, whose spouses lived contented,

Were almost bare, and he, ashamed, lamented

Their lack of solid fact; while others were

Teeming enough for any connoisseur.

With such extremes as these, our Belphegor

Deems it is fit that he tarry no more,

And that, to form a judgment consequential

And well informed, it is, indeed, essential

For him himself to marry… Now, there dwells

In Florence one of those fair-featured belles,

Well graced with shapeliness, noble no less,

Prideful, and even haughty to excess;

Not without reason; for her virtue was

Her lofty pride’s most true and worthy cause,

But with it all, no fortune—or, that is,

Next to none. Roderigo proffers his

Proposal, plies his suit, offers to wed

Signora Honesta, whose father said

That many a beau had sought his daughter’s hand,

But that, of all the erstwhile wooing band,

He thought be might, indeed, prefer him; but

That he would need time to decide. "Tut tut",

Says Roderigo, "time we have aplenty."

Wherewith, many a serenader sent he

Cooing beneath her window; many a ball,

And fete, and gift, and fancy folderol

Did he bestow; many a sumptuous dinner,

Playing the grand seigneur, to woo and win her.

Great the expense; but no complaint! And she,

At length, did him the honor of a "si";

She would be his signora. But, before,

There was the contract, and the notary,

And all such-like details that Belphegor

Found odd indeed! "What? One buys, here below,

A wife the same way one buys a chateau?

Strange folk!" And he was right. Legalities—

Contracts, and suits, and cases—all of these

Have replaced simple faith, and in its stead

Let troubles through the door, unlimited.

The heart, not laws, makes marriage trouble-free.

Friends pardon friends their folly willingly;

Lovers find nothing wrong with one another;

But spouses, wed, cannot abide each other!

Duty annoys. Such is our nature. "Thus,

Is there no happy marriage?" one asks us.

Only one, if each spouse—staunch, resolute—

Suffers the other’s faults in silence, mute.


Enough philosophy! Now let me tell

What happened when the devil brought his belle

Home to his side and, by experience,

Learned for himself the doleful consequence

Of taking for a wife a demoness!

Arguments, fights, many a reasonless

Angry harangue she spouted! More than once

She woke the neighbors, who, more than once came

To find the causes. And she would proclaim:

“A paltry merchant! Bah! A silly dunce

Is what he should have married! Not a pure,

Virtuous, noble woman! One like me!

Too virtuous! Why better it would be

Were I even to ... “Now, who can assure

She never did? Indeed, prudes such as she

Gull and deceive us shamelessly ...Our spouses

Were ever at each other, and their house’s

Peace was disturbed at every turn—so goes

The tale—by war of every sort: the clothes

She wore, the furnishings for every season—

Spring, summer—or the money that Signor

Gambled away... Well, for whatever reason,

Life with her was a hell, and Belphegor,

Poor devil, burned for his real hell, and its

Eternal flames’ infernal benefits.

To make things worse, our said demon-turned-man

Finds he has wed the whole Honesta clan;

Bearing the costs, now of one, now another—

Mother, then father; now buying a mate

For older sister, and, for younger brother,

A tutor... Have I mentioned that the state

Of his finances, ever lessening,

Was aggravated by one grievous thing—

Creature, that is? To wit, his chamberlain.

Chamberlain? What is that? The very bane

Of one’s existence; one who profits most

From any trouble that befalls his host,

Stirring the murky waters more and more,

And making them yet murkier than before,

This animal is such that, as his master

Watches his wealth decrease, his own will faster

And faster grow! And what estate Signor

Still calls his own—alas, a meager lot!—

Well might be purchased with his own ill-got

Have no idea: history makes no mention.)

Matteo earned a gross sum, by and by,

To lend the lass bedeviled his attention

And cleanse the flesh where Roderigo hid.

(In Naples, I recall ... ) And so he did.

Whence on to Rome, to occupy another

Body—another wench. As with the other,

Matteo earned a handsome sum to rout him

From her. And yet a third. (One thing about him:

All females, they! Doubtless you noticed!) Now,

The king of Naples has a daughter fair,

The honor of her sex, and, lodging there

(In her, that is), our Belphegor will vow

Never to leave, so safe now from his wife.

The city and the countryside are rife

With talk about a peasant conjuror

Of wondrous skill. They promise him a sum—

A hundred thousand crowns—if he will come

And cleanse her. But full three times Belphegor

Has done his bidding, as had been agreed.

Though covetous, he must decline, and answers:

“Poor sinner, I possess no necromancer’s

Conjuring craft, and know not how, indeed,

Heaven has let me, with no skill, succeed

In chasing from a body—two? or three?—

Some feeble devil, powerless as me.”

Resist he will; still the insist. With threat

To hang him high, till dead, if he should yet

Refuse to use his power by day’s end, thus

Cleansing the maiden of the scurrilous

Devil within her. Forced to do his best,

Feigning an art he never once possessed,

Now he prepares, as thither everyone,

From everywhere—each blessed mother’s son

(And daughter too!)—comes running breathlessly,

Joining the Prince to watch as, in the list,

The demon faces the sham exorcist;

Our hearts! For, quite like Bacchus, it can do

Great damage to our reason! Rather, let us

Recount the woes its evil deeds beget us.”

Alcithoe fell silent, whereupon,

After her sisters’ plaudits, she went on,

Raising her voice a bit: "In Thebes, they say,

Two young and gentle souls, in bygone day,

Loved one another. Piramus was he,

And Thisbe, she, his mistress... Perfectly,

Each for the other fit: the lad, most fair,

And the lass, fair no less ... A winsome pair

If ever such there was, pleasing of mien

And manner, with love’s tenderest ties between,

Binding their hearts. But oh! No sooner these

Feelings sprang forth than their two families

Conceived a hatred that the more it grew,

The stronger still Love’s bonds that bound these two.

Well, chance it was, not choice, that had designed

To place their houses side by side, inclined

To constant discord. Thus propinquity

Favored the passion that each vis-à-vis

The other found a-borning. First, in mere

Innocent pastimes; for, so young and dear

Were they that, even when the spark was lit,

They little guessed what flames would swell from it.

And so they innocently forged their love

The while, that their fell parents knew naught of.

Now, anything forbidden will, for sure,

Charm with its spice those who fall to its lure,

And love especially! Thus did it teach

Our pair, from in their houses, each to each,

To sigh with sign and glance: back, forth they sent them...

But this slight solace could not long content them.

Both would a better secret means discover

Whereby to plight their troth, lover to lover;

To wit, and ancient wall that long had stood

Between their dwellings twain, through which they could—

Next to the shore, a bark stands ready. In it

Oarsmen await. We must not waste a minute,

Bur fly we shall while fair the wind, and while

The auguries and omens chance to smile

Upon us. For the gods’ and Destiny’s

Designs will favor us: Thisbe agrees

To everything; as proof thereof she would

Bestow two kisses had the wall not stood

Betwixt her and her Piramus. And thus

The wall it was she kissed: fortuitous,

Fortunate wall! You should have better served

These lovers, who better and more deserved

From you than pleasure’s shade... Well, the next day,

An eager Thisbe, yielding to the sway

Of rash impatience, unaccompanied,

Makes her way to the steps, as was agreed.

Nor has her lover yet arrived, as there,

Shadow and light do battle in the air,

Over the azured fields. But as she was

Waiting, a frightful lioness, with jaws

And claws bloodied from recent kill, drew near...

Thisbe takes to her heels ... Ah! But her fear

Will have most fell cruel consequences. For,

As she goes running off, the veil she wore

Blows from her body and, caught by the breeze,

Falls to the ground. The lioness will seize

It, rend it, sully it with gore, whereon

She drops it, lets it lie, turns, and is gone.

Meanwhile has Thisbe hidden in the thick

Underbrush. Thereupon, the passion-sick

Piramus comes, looks down, gapes with chagrin

Upon the remnant of what once had been

A veil... Alas! His Thisbe’s veil!... ‘Is that...

Is it...’ His veins run cold. He stares thereat,

Disconsolate, undone ... Looks roundabout…

Ah! The blood-spattered tracks leave little doubt!

“Thisbe! My Thisbe!” he cries out, dismayed,

Distraught. ‘Now is the everlasting Shade

Your dark abode! What have I wrought? Ah me!

I am the monster who this destiny

Has brought about!... Wait! Slacken, pray, your course!

For I follow behind, and would, perforce,

Join you beside the drear and brackish shore.

Bur do I dare? How might I stand before

Your face? I, source of this disaster, who

Have naught but this, my blood, to offer you,

And but one death to die!’ So saying, he takes

Dagger in hand, all breath of hope forsakes,

And cuts the thread of life. As he does thus,

Thisbe returns. She sees her Piramus

Fall to the ground... What happened then? She tell

Into a swoon, senseless and mute as well,

But soon, when she once more regains her wits,

Clotho, touched by the love she bore, permits

Piramus, then, to open—dim—his eyes.

With dying glance he looks not on the skies

Above, but on his Thisbe, He would speak,

Tries... But unstrung, alas, his tongue, too weak,

Refuses. Yet his eyes, in place thereof,

Reveal his joy at having seen his love.

As thus he dies, she takes his blade and, there,

Bares her breast, saying: ‘I shall not declare

That you have erred in your design. Ah no!

Nor that your fears were reasonless. For so,

To do would say that you loved me too well!

But can one love too much? Ah! Truth to tell,

I love you no whit less, nor jot nor tittle,

And you shall see, my heart deserves as little

As yours the agony it must endure!

Alas! I die! So be it, mon amour;

Accept my sacrifice!’ At this, the blade

Performs its deadly task... Down falls the maid—

But drapes her garments properly lest she,

Exposed, betray her virgin modesty—

My mouth uncouth, but rather think how well you

May profit from the tale I have to tell you.


"Good spouses twain—Procris and Cephalus—

Enjoyed a marriage most harmonious.

She—Procris—Ioved by him, and he, no less

By her. Each said their passion’s tenderness

Might be a model, so great was their measure

Of both love’s piquant joy and gentle pleasure.

(Why, almost did they love as much as do

A mistress and her paramour, these two!)

Heaven itself envied that harmony

Of theirs; and soon a certain deity

Caused Cephalus much grief. Young, handsome lad,

It came to pass that dawn—Aurora—had

Taken a fancy to him! For, among

The gods she found none both so fair and young.

(Her spouse especially!) Now, here below,

Our belles would not go brashly chasing beaux,

But would hide their affection, goodness knows!

Not so, young goddesses! Even less, those

With husbands long of tooth! And so our goddess

Revealed the fire that flamed beneath her bodice,

Apprising Cephalus, who, though he pled

That he was happily, faithfully wed,

Failed to convince her, and she promptly bore him

Shamelessly off, and laid her love before him.

Cephalus, loyal swain, begged her, entreated

That she temper her passion’s fire, too heated;

The which, indeed, she did: her love became

That simple sentiment that bears the name

Of ‘friendship.’ ‘Go’, she told him, ‘to your wife,

I shall not spread a pall upon your life

And hers, nor quell the ardor that you feel.

Let me out give this token of my zeal,

This gift...’ (It was a lance that never missed

Its mark.) ‘Much though Procris claim to exist

For you alone, forsooth, the day will come

When you will suffer your soul’s martyrdom,

And will, in truth, despair, distraught that you

Have loved the wench as much as now you do.’

Needless to say, an oracle’s prediction

Is never clear, and may be a mere fiction

Rather than fact. But this one caused deep doubt

In Cephalus’s soul, nor cast it out

Could he. ‘What? I shall be distraught? Despair

That I have loved so much? What foul affair

Is this? Can there be something much amiss

Betwixt my love and me? Is my Procris

Unfaithful? Can it be? Ah! Sooner would

I die than doubt her loyal wifelihood!

Nevertheless, I fancy it is best

To put her duty squarely to the test

And set what may betide.’ To soothsayers, thus,

He goes asks their advice illustrious...

Whence, feigning by his dress and air to be

A yearning youth, seeks Procris, eagerly

Plying her with most flattering phrases, sighing

Sighs for her face divine, sobbing and crying

Tears from his eyes, cajoling, begging... But

Hard though he tries, it makes no difference what

He does or says: she spurns the lover’s skill;

Whereat he must essay the means that will

Succeed (as ever!): precious gifts bestowed,

Or at least promised... Ill did it forbode,

For, so much will he straightway offer her

That soon she seems less eager to demur...

Alas! Everything has its price. At last,

Cephalus, sore distressed, downcast—aghast,

In fact—decides to take his leave; forsakes

The pleasure of the city, and betakes

Himself off to the woods, baring his breast

To tree and wind, sure that the hunt will wrest

Him from his jealous agony. It was

The season when the day’s hot gusts will cause

All those who breathe to languish for the balm

Of Zephyrs cooling breezes, wafting calm.

‘Come, come, O tender winds’, softly he cries.

‘Come, lightsome wind-sprites, render me your sighs,

You by whose breath our fields put forth their flowers.

Adored wind-goddess Aure, pray use your powers

To summon them; you, by whose gentle word

All is restored to life!’ His voice is heard.

But those who hear suppose the object is

Some creature other than that wife of his!

Zealous, they tell her so, whence promptly she

Grows jealous of her rival. Charity

Dictates that many a friend, intent to flout it,

Touched by her woe, prates on and on about it.

‘So! I must see him only in my dreams’,

She moans. ‘Now he forsakes me, so it seems,

For some perfidious wench by name of Aure!...’

‘Oh, how we pity you’, they sighed. ‘But more

And more he loves, calls her. Always her name

Springs to his lips, rings out... Always the same,

The echoes’ task: to sing throughout the wood

Aure’s name... Aure’s name... But only for your good,

Dear friend, do we inform you, and suggest

You take to heart what we have told you. Best

You think on it.’ The which, indeed, she did.

And endlessly... For lovers cannot rid

Their heads of jealous thoughts. If only they

Had enough reason to keep but a ray

Of sense and judgment to illuminate

Their way! ("Judgment"? In love? One could await

A miracle for such!) They might remain

Untouched by tongues’ reports, or even feign

That they were deaf!... Our spouse did neither!... Well,

One day, as blushing dawn laid her deep spell

Of sleep on one and all—all but a rare

Hunter or two, that is—our Procris fair

Will rise and set off for the wood to see

If Cephalus is there. Next moment, she

Spies him, hears him already crying out

To that Aure, her, the one they spoke about:

‘Come, dearest goddess! Come,’ he cries. ‘I waste

Away, I languish, die... Pray you make haste

And ease the woe that must my very life

Forthwith lay low!’ Hearing these words, his wife

Seeks not the sense that truly lies behind them,

But, heartsore, gives car, and will sooner find them

Proof of the perfidy that her suspicion

Lays clear before her. O pain! O perdition!

O bitter passion, you, vain jealousy !

Daughter of mad love, error’s progeny!

Much do your eyes refuse to see; and yet,

What they do show you makes you fuss, and fret,

And suffer without cause! Procris had gone

To hide within a thicket that a fawn

Was using for his lair. Disquieted,

The beast springs out. Whereon our spouse, misled

By the noise, takes his lance—the one that, ever

True to the mark, hits home, whithersoever—

And flings it thither... But the mark it hits

Is not, alas, the beast! A fierce cry splits

The air... Misery me! It is his own

Dear wife!... He runs to see... With many a moan

He realizes, there, before his eyes,

Losing his wits, that, in most murderous wise,

He has cut short her jealous life. Wherefore

Would he cut short his own as well. What’s more,

He tries to do so with the selfsame lance...

Aurora and the Fates look much askance

On such intent, making bold to prevent it.

But, though their intercession was well meant, it

Proved more severe than thoughtful, for he kept

Pounding his breast with woeful mien, and wept


So many a tear that he might have created

Fountains galore, abounding unabated,

Had not the goddess called on Fate to cut

His days’ dire thread: unhappy end to what

Had been a curious marriage!... Sisters mine,

I cannot say enough, ‘Best we resign

Ourselves to life unwed.’ For, if the best

Is such, judge how much worse must be the rest!

And, if we may not love save in the thrall

Of wedlock, better we not love at all!"

They agree. And, befall what may, all three

Gladly accept their loveless destiny.

To rid them of their drear thoughts they return

To task of more immediate concern:

Their tapestries. Clymene’s was near done,

Picturing on a cloth most richly spun

The famous quarrel that had raged berwixt

Two gods, to see whose name would be affixed

To a new city—one that you could see

Dimly, far off, in her embroidery:

Neptune’s? Wise Pallas’s?... Each would bestow

A gift, and that boon would decide, just so,

Whose name should win. Neptune, in warlike wise

With a blow of his trident, caused to rise

Out of the ground a charger, full of fire,

That all who saw it could not but admire.

Present most splendid! But Minerva found

A finer yet: she gave the country round

The olive tree, symbol of wisdom, whence

She chose the city’s name. In consequence

Thereof, did Athens—now thus called—present

Its homage to her, with magnificent

Tribute galore. To otter it to her,

A hundred virgins wise, and prettier

Each than the last, in bobbin-skills abounding,

Bore the gifts of all kinds, or stood surrounding

The goddess of the gray-green eyes... And she,

With a sweet gaze, smiled on their fealty.

Clymene, now concluding, folds away

Her work, falls still, so that young Iris may

Regale them next. And she commences thus:


“Sisters, I fear not very copious

In tearful subject is my repertory.

Nevertheless, you say you wish a story

And story you hall have. I tell you of

Telamon, him whose soul burned hot with love

For Cloris, who yearned for him quite as much.

Good breeding, beauty, sense, the graces... Such

Were the fine qualities that each possessed;

Everything save that one, that veriest,

Most necessary one that, here below,

Rules above all the rest: to wit, wealth! No,

Naught had they; and, although they would be wed,

For want of gold—that metal garlanded

With mankind’s homage and desire—they dare

Not share the nuptial bed, and must forswear

Fair Hymen. For, though love can do without it,

Wedlock cannot! Be there no doubt about it!

Right or wrong, such is Fate’s decree. At one’s

Own peril would one flout it. Telamon’s

Woes did not end thereat, however. For

More would he suffer when the imp of war—

Vile sprite—spread roundabout its foul intent

And fell design. Sought our, stoutly he went

To battle in a land’s defense against

Those who would conquer it. And so commenced

His feats of arms, and ended for a time

The gender exercise of love sublime.

Cloris consents, but heartsick is she. Yet,

Eager is he to show the mignonnette

That she has reason to esteem him so

And give her heart to him. Off will he go

To battle... Now, it happens that, whilst he

Is gone, a member of her family,

Citizen of that very land, in fact—

The very one that has been so attacked,

And where her beau now wars... Well, as I said,

It happens that he dies, and, lying dead,

Has bequeathed Cloris his possessions: gold,

Treasure immense, a worldly wealth untold.

Whereupon she goes straightway thither. There,

Both sides behold her, find her passing fair.

She, meanwhile, sees the battlefield whereon

Her valorous, victorious Telamon

Has won the day, honoring her with his

Rare deeds; and, seeing her, how quick he is

To hasten to her side, offering her

All the fruits of the glorious vanquisher,

In the name of their love!... Fate would decree

That they would meet beside the open sea—

That element that all good lovers should

Eschew at any cost! Gladly they would,

Without ado, have joined their loves were it

The simple Age of Gold. Alas! Unfit

Were such in this, the Age of Iron. Thus

Cloris demurred. Far more felicitous

Would be a union celebrated with

The bounteous blessing of her kin and kith.

This she preferred; and so return they will,

Unconsummated... Their journey would fill

Many a torturous day if they betook

Themselves by land. Wherefore, instead, they look

Seaward, to spare the rigors of the road

And take them, timely-wise, to their abode

With Zephyr in their wake. When, with great joy,

They near their shore, they hear a fierce ‘Ahoy!’,

And spy a privateer, sheets to the wind,

Whose pirate crew, crass and undisciplined,

Attacks our doughty hero, who, despite

Stalwartly fighting to the end, is quite

Powerless to resist their might. Oh, Ods-

Bodkins! Who could have thought he would—ye gods!—

Become a galley slave? Fate pays no mind

To race and glory, and was ill inclined

To let his hoped-for happiness deflect

Her blows upon his honor and respect.

Cloris’s piteous pleadings too remained

Unheard, and Telemon languished, enchained.


“Now, Destiny, for her, was rather less

Unkind and more restrained in her duress.

A famous wealthy merchant bought her, bore

Her off to his domain where, more and more,

Slave though she was, she would enjoy a very

Honored position, most extraordinary.

The merchant’s wife—who, as it happens, views her

With great affection—will not only choose her

To wait on her, but will select the belle

To be the mistress to her son as well.

One and all would most gladly see them wed;

But she, with long-drawn sigh, dispirited,

Would reply to their urgings. Damon—he,

The son—will ply her with sweet gallantry,

Asking her thus: ‘Milady, why oh why

Do tears bedew your cheeks? Why do you cry,

And sob, and sigh unceasing! Hide you some

Unspoken pain? Have your fair eyes become

Surfeited with the ravages their darts

Have wrought on my poor being, and with my heart’s

Undying flame? I pray you not conceal

Your woe. Here are you free: ‘Tis I the real

And suffering slave! Is it this place, madame,

That so displeases you? If so, I am

Ready to change my dwelling for a new

And fairer one. I and my parents too—

Father and mother—willingly would seek

Another to your taste. You need but speak

Your will, and your desire will surely be

Fulfilled posthaste... Or do you longingly

Yearn for the riches you have lost? If so,

All we possess is yours. But you must know

That, much though you deserve a fortune rare,

Many another one, I vow, is there

Who would Dot hesitate to be so wed.

Lo! At your feet, my love, I lie!’ So said

The son. And Cloris fair, in fondest wise,

Eyes streaming tears, most winsomely replies:

‘Good sir, your slightest qualities, and this

Delightful place, would fill with amorous bliss

Even the daughters of the gods. Believe me,

Slave though I am, I pray you not perceive me

To be ungrateful for your generous

Offers of wealth, for so discourteous

I should not be. But I must not give ear

To them, however much I might. Nor is it

Because my presence is no friendly visit

But, indeed, servitude. And though, withal,

Thanks to the gods, I suffer not the thrall

Of ignominious bondage, and am free

To live the values that society

Has bred in me, yet must I tell you—oh!

Can I, alas?—that most malapropos

It were to listen to the court you pay me.

What? Does my mournful sighing not betray me?

Another has my love: and if he be

In chains, or dead, for all eternity,

Even in hell itself I shall be his!

Could you esteem a heart, good sir, that is

Untrue? Could you love her who has no more

The charms and beauty that were hers before;

Who, twice a slave— to you and to her love—

Ill deserves and is most unworthy of

One such as you?’ Damon heard what she said,

And, though most touched and much discomfited,

Thought: ‘Let us chase her from our mind. Let us

Flee from this place. In time her copious

Tears will abate. They always do! Let be

What will be in my absence. We shall see…’

With these words he embarks, leaves shore behind.

Sailing hither and yon, soon will he find

An untamed land and, thereupon puts in.

What does he see? Many a man whose skin

Bears proof of former bondage. Galley slaves

Had they all been, escaping on the waves

To refuge here... Now, of their number, one

None other was than our own Telamon.

Damon gazes upon him, notices

His stately air, his wit. And what he says

Moves him to admiration for the swain’s

Qualities, and to pity for his pains.

Soon are they friends, and Damon will confide

His passion for a slave who ought his bride

Become if she loved not a dead man! ‘Yes,

She would prefer a corpse to me, no less!’

Cloris he then proceeds to paint, whereat ‘

Telamon, stunned, dissembles and stands pat,

Revealing not the truth. Whereupon he,

It is decided, shall accompany

His comrade back to where said beauty saves—

For him!—that perfect love... Like errant knaves

The pair arrive. In vain Telamon tries

To hide behind the unwitting disguise

That time, woe, hardship have imposed. For now

Is he not as he was. And yet, somehow,

Cloris will recognize him, even though

His traveler’s pack bows him and bends him low.

A stranger’s eyes would not have known him; hers,

However, quickly pierce the voyager’s

Unhappy state: she swoons from love and shame;

And Telamon, in turn, does quite the same.

Later, when asked the cause of her distress,

She speaks it frankly; nor does one think less

Of her therefor. So guilelessly she tells

Her tale that one and all pity the belle’s

Misfortunes all the more. Damon proclaims

His passion changed: unselfish now his aims.

And they believe him—even though desire

Yields not to honor but that, quelled the fire,

Yet will it leave its traces... Yes, they do

Believe him; and, to prove his faith, these two

Would he see wed. Nor need they wait. For there

And then, he asks his parents to declare

His rival for Cloris’s hand to be

Their heir—a mark of generosity

Unheard-of in the land. And so, beside

An oak, spreading its shade at eventide,

Young man and maid were married... But, ah woe!

A neighbor child watched as, thereon, a crow

Went perching; and, with cursed bow, he shot

His arrow at the bird. Alas, the tot

Aimed ill: it flew, rending the air, askew,

Transpiercing lover and beloved too.

Slain on the spot, our Cloris gasps her last,

As with a piteous yearning she will cast

A glance at Telamon who, harrowed, sees

Approach the crowning stroke of Destiny’s

Decree. What? Gods above, can it be? What?

Is this the way dour Atropos will cut

His thread of life? ‘Has Fate not done enough?

Must she deal death with such a rude rebuff?’

So saying, he sighs his final breath. Within

A trice, love—not the blow—has done him in.

His wound was slight, yet did he join the dead,

For he would follow whither Cloris led.

Both hasten to the Styx’s shore: man, wife,

Each at the same time will depart this life.

In one tomb lie together their remains,

And one eternal rest their souls contains.

Later, one wrote—though I cannot aver

The truth thereof—that they to statues were

Transformed, in marble: bur doubtful is this

Very unlikely metamorphosis,

And few believe it.” “Ah! More than you know,

Iris", Clymene answers. “For just so

Did a sage, seeking through our history

Models of love and virtue, tell to me

This tale. Much I admired and pitied these

Evil-starred lovers: both their destinies

Were finally to be joined. After so much

Despair abhorrent they were now to touch

The moment of the joy that had so long

Evaded them. Bur nature loves to wrong

And cheat us; such her vile perversities,

I warrant. As our hands reach out to seize

Our prize, behold! It flees our grasp. The very

Gods take delight wreaking their arbitrary

Power upon us to make sport of our

Fond hopes!” Says Iris: “Fie on woes! The hour

Grows late. The feast soon ends, thank heaven! We three

Have passed the time today most somberly,

Recounting tales that weaker souls would find

Most troubling. Let us now cleanse from our mind

Their deadly images. Best might I use

The time yet left to sing a hero whose

Humankind suffered change, but not in mien

And body: rather, one whose heart had been

Transformed by Love—indeed, a miracle

That will permit me in more lyrical,

Less tragic mode, to tell the tale, and one

That Love performs each day... Now then, Zoon

Was pleasing to the eye. But beauty can

Do little for one’s worth. Here was a man

Of unimpressive wit, of mood

Most sullen, whose glum attitude

Rendered him dull and beautiless withal.

He fled the cities, shunned the company

Of others, lived under a constant pall

Of shadowed gloom: the forest canopy

Was home to him as to the bears, He spent

His fairest days unloving, abstinent,

Indifferent utterly to love! ‘So? We

Disparage love’, you are about to say,

To which I would reply: ‘Nay, nay!

Though I condemn its evident excesses,

I have no sympathy for those who never

Yield to the lure of its sweet tendernesses.’

What? Ought one choose to banish it forever?

Are the dead—freed so long from its caresses—

Happy to be so? Bah! I doubt it.

Passion is all. How can one live without it?

If nothingness is far the worst of states,

No nothingness I know annihilates

Life quite so much as lovelessness, I vow.

Woe to the cold, unloving heart!...Well now,

Zoon loved nothing, no one, not

Even himself. But one day, as he stood,

Stunned, before sleeping Iole, his lot

Changed in a trice. For Love, who would

Not make of him a lover, nonetheless

Made him a hero in this wilderness.

Grateful he thanks the god who makes

Him tremble at the awesome sight

Of this young wonder. At length, she awakes,

Sees him, surprised, and, seized with fright,

Tries to flee, but the young man overtakes

And stops her, saying: ‘O my soul’s delight!

O object rare! Why do you flee me?

Look upon me! Do you not see me

Changed by your beauty? No more now the wild

And savage creature I once was. Beguiled

Am I, charmed by your face and feature, whose

Power has worked to free me thus from my

Old way. I pray, dearest, you not refuse

To let me use my wealth to gratify

Your merest wish! It shall be done!’

Iole, ever more unstrung, will run,

Blushing, in silence, to the town; and, there,

Will apprize everyone of the affair

Miraculous. Whereupon, one by one,

They eagerly surround her. Soon Zoon

Arrives, triumphant. He draws near

As the whole company, with gladsome cheer,

Will bid him welcome... Sisters mine, I need

Not tell you in derail, how he

Lavishly feted the fair Iole.

Suffice to say their marriage was decreed

And forthwith celebrated. But the same

Day of the wedding, an intruder came—

A neighboring satrap—who swoops down,

Most unsuspected, on the town,

Seizes the bride to bear her off. But not

Successfully, for Zoon gives him chase,

Catches him and, in combat face to face,

Makes him yield up his gain ill got.

And, though the satrap is defeated,

Nonetheless is he by his rival treated

Most generously. That generosity,

However, serves him not: for pining, he

Broods on the destiny that Fate has meted

Out: on that marriage that must seal his death.

The grave, that destination grim,

Refuge of the most woeful, welcomes him.

But just before he draws his final breath,

He names Iole as his heir. With moan

And groan she bathes his tomb with tears. What good

Does such lamenting once the soul has flown?

None! And the satrap should have understood

That love is oftentimes best left alone.”

Scarcely had the young Iris told her story

Than her two sisters, with air laudatory,

Admit that, for all that, love is the best

Pathway to glory. “Puffed up is one’s breast

With pride when one is loved, and when one sees

Oneself esteemed, with wordless subtleties

Of lips charmingly eloquent, though mute...”

So said the sisters three, still resolute,

Shunning the day’s festivities... But lo!

Just then a violent storm begins to blow

Gust upon gust... Alas! They shudder, all

A-tremble lest some punishment befall

For their profane resolve... Ah! Suddenly,

Bacchus himself appears. Followed is he

By all the lengthy and chaotic queue

Of such as form his godly retinue.

“Where are those sisters?" he will say. “Egregious

Sinners who ply their labors sacrilegious

On this, my day? Let Pallas, by the bye,

Come raise her aegis, brandish it on high

To save them from my anger! Try she may!

Nothing will spare them from my fury! Nay,

Nay! They shall feel the punishment I wreak

On those who tweak my prowess! Look!... I speak

The utter truth!” There, on the ground, one sees

Three winged, hirsute, black monstrosities,

Cowering... Sisters three? One seeks them, but

Finds not a trace. Their looms are smashed, and cut

To shreds their tapestries... There, in their stead,

Rise a shrine to the high-spirited

God by whose grace was nectar born. And she,

Pallas, laments; but ineffectually:

She can do nothing for her protégées.

When one god sees his votaries betray

His boons, his wrath is terrible. Nor might

Another deity put matters right.

This is the way in which Olympus tries

To keep the peace. Best we should do likewise:

Let us not labor on gods’ days, nor falter

To proffer our respect, altar to altar.

Days offered the immortal gods of heaven

Are never lost, nor ever vainly given.

Jean de La Fontaine

Book 12, Fable 26

 

 

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