The Marchioness Of Monferrato, With A Dinner Of Hens And Certain Sprightly Words, Curbeth The Extravagant Passion Of The King Of France

The story told by Dioneo at first pricked the hearts of the listening ladies with somewhat of shamefastness, whereof a modest redness appearing in their faces gave token; but after, looking one at other and being scarce able to keep their countenance, they listened, laughing in their sleeves. The end thereof being come, after they had gently chidden him, giving him to understand that such tales were not fit to be told among ladies, the queen, turning to Fiammetta, who sat next him on the grass, bade her follow on the ordinance. Accordingly, she began with a good grace and a cheerful countenance, "It hath occurred to my mind, fair my ladies,—at once because it pleaseth me that we have entered upon showing by stories how great is the efficacy of prompt and goodly answers and because, like as in men it is great good sense to seek still to love a lady of higher lineage than themselves,[50] so in women it is great discretion to know how to keep themselves from being taken with the love of men of greater condition than they,—to set forth to you, in the story which it falleth to me to tell, how both with deeds and words a noble lady guarded herself against this and diverted another therefrom.

The Marquis of Monferrato, a man of high worth and gonfalonier[51] of the church, had passed beyond seas on the occasion of a general crusade undertaken by the Christians, arms in hand, and it being one day discoursed of his merit at the court of King Phillippe le Borgne,[52] who was then making ready to depart France upon the same crusade, it was avouched by a gentleman present that there was not under the stars a couple to match with the marquis and his lady, for that, even as he was renowned among knights for every virtue, so was she the fairest and noblest of all the ladies in the world. These words took such hold upon the mind of the King of France that, without having seen the marchioness, he fell of a sudden ardently in love with her and determined to take ship for the crusade, on which he was to go, no otherwhere than at Genoa, in order that, journeying thither by land, he might have an honourable occasion of visiting the marchioness, doubting not but that, the marquis being absent, he might avail to give effect to his desire.

As he had bethought himself, so he put his thought into execution; for, having sent forward all his power, he set out, attended only by some few gentlemen, and coming within a day's journey of the marquis's domains, despatched a vauntcourier to bid the lady expect him the following morning to dinner. The marchioness, who was well advised and discreet, replied blithely that in this he did her the greatest of favours and that he would be welcome and after bethought herself what this might mean that such a king should come to visit her in her husband's absence, nor was she deceived in the conclusion to which she came, to wit, that the report of her beauty drew him thither. Nevertheless, like a brave lady as she was, she determined to receive him with honour and summoning to her counsels sundry gentlemen of those who remained there, with their help, she let provide for everything needful. The ordinance of the repast and of the viands she reserved to herself alone and having forthright caused collect as many hens as were in the country, she bade her cooks dress various dishes of these alone for the royal table.

The king came at the appointed time and was received by the lady with great honour and rejoicing. When he beheld her, she seemed to him fair and noble and well-bred beyond that which he had conceived from the courtier's words, whereat he marvelled exceedingly and commended her amain, waxing so much the hotter in his desire as he found the lady overpassing his foregone conceit of her. After he had taken somewhat of rest in chambers adorned to the utmost with all that pertaineth to the entertainment of such a king, the dinner hour being come, the king and the marchioness seated themselves at one table, whilst the rest, according to their quality, were honourably entertained at others. The king, being served with many dishes in succession, as well as with wines of the best and costliest, and to boot gazing with delight the while upon the lovely marchioness, was mightily pleased with his entertainment; but, after awhile, as the viands followed one upon another, he began somewhat to marvel, perceiving that, for all the diversity of the dishes, they were nevertheless of nought other than hens, and this although he knew the part where he was to be such as should abound in game of various kinds and although he had, by advising the lady in advance of his coming, given her time to send a-hunting. However, much as he might marvel at this, he chose not to take occasion of engaging her in parley thereof, otherwise than in the matter of her hens, and accordingly, turning to her with a merry air, 'Madam,' quoth he, 'are hens only born in these parts, without ever a cock?' The marchioness, who understood the king's question excellent well, herseeming God had vouchsafed her, according to her wish, an opportune occasion of discovering her mind, turned to him and answered boldly, 'Nay, my lord; but women, albeit in apparel and dignities they may differ somewhat from others, are natheless all of the same fashion here as elsewhere.'

The King, hearing this, right well apprehended the meaning of the banquet of hens and the virtue hidden in her speech and perceived that words would be wasted upon such a lady and that violence was out of the question; wherefore, even as he had ill-advisedly taken fire for her, so now it behoved him sagely, for his own honour's sake, stifle his ill-conceived passion. Accordingly, without making any more words with her, for fear of her replies, he dined, out of all hope; and the meal ended, thanking her for the honourable entertainment he had received from her and commending her to God, he set out for Genoa, so by his prompt departure he might make amends for his unseemly visit."

Footnotes

[50] An evident allusion to Boccaccio's passion for the Princess Maria, i.e. Fiammetta herself.

[51] Or standard-bearer.

[52] i.e. the One-eyed (syn. le myope, the short-sighted, the Italian word [Il Bornio] having both meanings), i.e. Philip II. of France, better known as Philip Augustus.
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