Our host was as good as his word, and at day-break he roused us all and gathered us together. Off we rode at a gentle pace, with the Miller playing his bagpipes and the Summoner singing a loud bass to the Pardoner’s tenor. At St. Thomas’s watering-place our host stopped and called out, “Let’s see now if you agree to last night’s plan! Before we go further, come, draw lots who shall tell the first tale. Come hither Sir Knight, my Lady-Prioress, and you, you modest Clerk.” He held out to them grasses of different lengths, hiding the ends in his hands so that they could not see which was the longest; and the Knight drew the longest grass, and so had to begin the game. He was a worthy man, this Knight, and loved truth and honour, freedom and courtesy. Although he had won great praise in many foreign wars, he was gentle and modest as a maid, perfect in manners and goodness. His clothes might have deceived you as to his rank. His habergeoun was bespattered with the mud of his latest journey, and his gipoun was but of fustian, yet his horse was a fine one. As you would expect, his tale was of chivalry and knighthood.
TALES OF THE FIRST DAY
THE KNIGHT’S TALE OF PALAMON AND ARCITE
Long ago, as old stories say, there was a great duke named Theseus, renowned in fight and perfect in all chivalry. One day, as he was returning from one of his most glorious battles, a great company of women met him, weeping and wringing their hands in grief. They besought Theseus that he would help them. “We are from Thebes,” they said, “and in the days of our prosperity were ladies of rank; but alas, Creon, our foe, has sacked our city, slain our husbands and sons, and now denies us even the right to bury our dead.”
Theseus was moved to anger at their story, and swore that he would punish Creon. Without more ado, he turned his horse and led his men to Thebes. There he killed Creon and his followers, and the mournful ladies were able to wash the bodies of their lords and give them honourable burial. Now it chanced that among those whom Theseus fought were two young knights, Palamon and Arcite. They were sorely wounded in the fight and had been I left for dead; but after the battle they were discovered wounded, and taken back to Athens as Theseus’ prisoners.