“Well, as I was saying, one evening he read these to me, Eve and Delilah and the death of Hercules and countless more till I could bear it no longer, so I snatched his book and tore out the pages. Then up he jumped and gave me that blow on the head that I told you of, that made me deaf, and I fell down on the floor as if I was dead. Then he was terrified till I woke a little out of my swoon, when he came near and kneeled down by me and said, ’Dear sister Alison, forgive me; before God I will never smite thee again. This time it was your own fault as you know.’
“Well, to make a long story short, though it took us a long time, we made an agreement. He gave the management of all the affairs into my hands, and he even burnt his book and was very polite when I was there. So when I had my wish we had no more quarrels, and you would never find a better wife than I made him if you were to search from Denmark to India. Now I will tell my tale.”
THE WIFE OF BATH’S TALE OF THE QUEEN’S RIDDLE
In the days of good King Arthur fairies yet danced in England. As yet there were no priests with their blessings to drive them from hall and kitchen, bush and fairy ring. But now, where the elf walked, wanders the begging friar, and women can go out o’ nights and expect no harm.
In those old days a goodly knight once fell into sin through the charms of a lady, and was tried for his crime and condemned to death. But the queen and her ladies begged him from the king, to give him life or death as might seem to them most fitting. After much thought and discussion the queen spoke to him thus: “Sir knight, you know your life is in my hands to save or take as I will. To you I will grant life if you can answer me one question and answer it aright: ‘What is it that woman most desires?’ A year will I give you to find your answer, and at the year’s end you must return to me and suffer the penalty if you fail to answer correctly.”
Away rode the knight sad at heart, and all the year he wandered seeking an answer to the question. Some told him that women love riches best, and some honour, some mirth and merry-making, but no two told him the same thing. Some said that we love flattery and, to my mind, they were not far wrong! Some said that we like to be thought able to keep a secret and trustworthy. Ovid in his tale of Midas’s wife has shown that this is wrong, for she could not endure her secret, but must tell the water—if no living man—that her husband had two ass’s ears.
Now the knight, when he found that he could not learn the answer to his question, took his way homeward full sad at heart, for the time was come when he must appear before the queen and pay his forfeit. As he journeyed in this mood, he came at length to a forest glade and there he saw four-and-twenty fair ladies all dancing on the green. Up to them he went, eager to ask his question, but before he could come