The Lay of Equitan by Marie de France

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XI: THE LAY OF EQUITAN by Marie de France

In ancient days many a noble lord lived in Brittany beyond the Seas. By reason of their courtesy and nobleness they would gladly keep in remembrance the deeds that were done in the land. That these marvellous things should not be forgotten they fashioned them into Lays. Amongst these Lays I have heard tell of one which is not made to die as though it had never been.

Equitan, lord of Nantes, was a loyal and courteous gentleman, of great worth, beloved by all in his own country. He was set on pleasure, and was Love’s lover, as became a gentle knight. Like many others who dote on woman, he observed neither sense nor measure in love. But it is in the very nature of Love that proportion cannot enter into the matter.

Equitan had for seneschal a right brave and loyal knight, who was captain of his army, and did justice in his realm. He was often abroad upon his master’s business, for the King would not forego his delight for any reason whatever. To dance, to hunt, to fish within the river—this was all his joy. This seneschal was married to a wife, by whom great evil came upon the land. Very desirable was the lady; passing tender of body, and sweet of vesture, coiffed and fretted with gold. Her eyes were blue; her face warmly coloured, with a fragrant mouth, and a dainty nose. Certainly she had no peer in all the realm. The King had heard much in praise of this lady and many a time saluted her upon the way. He had also sent her divers gifts. Often he considered in his mind how best he might get speech with the dame. For his privy pleasure this amorous King went to chase in that country where the seneschal had his castle. The lady being in her own house, Equitan craved a lodging for the night. By this means when the hunt was done, he could speak with her, and show what was in his heart. Equitan found the lady as discreet as courteous. He looked closely upon her, for she was fair of face and person, and sweet of semblance and address. Love bound him captive to his car. The god loosed a shaft which entered deeply in his breast. The arrow pierced to his heart, and from thenceforth he cared nothing for measure, or kingship, or delight. Equitan was so surprised of the lady, that he remained silent and pensive. He heard nothing, and nothing he could do. All night he lay in unrest upon the bed, reproaching himself for what had come to pass.

“Alas,” said he, “what evil fate has led me into this land! The sight only of this lady has put such anguish into my heart that my members fail beneath me. It is Love, I deem, who rides me thus cruelly. But if I love this lady I shall do a great wrong. She is the wife of my seneschal, and it is my duty to keep the same love and faith to him as I would wish him to observe with me. If by any means I could know what is in her mind, I should be the easier, for torment is doubled that you bear alone. There is not a dame, however curst, but would rather love than not; for if she were a contemner of love where would be her courtesy? But if she loves, there is not a woman under the sky who would not suck thereout all the advantage that she may. If the matter came to the ears of the seneschal, he ought not to think too hardly of me. He cannot hope to keep such treasure for himself alone; and, certes, I shall claim my portion.”

Equitan tossed on his bed, and sighed. His thoughts were still on the lady, so that in a little he said, “I think of the ford, before I come to the river. I go too quickly, for I know not yet whether the lady will take me as her friend. But know I will as swiftly as I can, since I cannot get rest or sleep. I will come before her as soon as it is day, and if she feels as I feel, the sooner I shall be rid of my pain.”

The King kept vigil till the daylight came at last. He arose and went forth, as if to the chase. He returned presently, telling that he was sick, and going straight to his chamber, lay upon his bed. The seneschal was very troubled, for he could not imagine the sickness of which his master felt the pangs. He counselled his wife to seek their guest, that she might cheer and comfort him in his trouble. When they were alone the King opened to her his heart. He told her that he was dying for her love, and that if she had no more than friendship to offer, he preferred death before life.

“Sire,” replied the dame, “I require a little time to think of what you say, for I cannot answer yes or no, without thought, in a business of this moment. I am not of your wealth, and you are too high a lord, for your love to do more than rest lightly on me. When you have had your desire, it will as lightly fly away. My sorrow would be overlong, if I should love you, and grant you what you wish. It is much the best that between you and me love should not be spoken of. You are a puissant prince; my husband is one of your vassals, and faith and trust should bind us—not the dangerous bond of love. Love is only lasting between like and like. Better is the love of an honest man—so he be of sense and worth—than that of a prince or king, with no loyalty in him. She who sets her love more highly than she can reach, may pluck no fruit from the tree. The rich man deems that love is his of right. He prays little of his friend, for he thinks none dare take her from his hand, and that her tenderness is his by prize of lordship.”

When she had ceased, Equitan made answer, “Lady, I can offer you but short thanks for your words, since they savour of scant courtesy. You speak of love as a burgess makes a bargain. Those who desire to get, rather than to give, often find that they have the worser half of the business. There is no lady under heaven—so she be courteous and kind and of a good heart—but would grant her grace to a true lover, even though she have beneath her cloak only a rich prince in his castle. Those who care but for a fresh face—tricksters in love as a cozener with dice—are justly flouted and deceived, as oftentimes we see. None wastes pity on him who receives the stripes he deserves. Dear lady, let me make myself plain. Do not regard me as your King; look on me as your servant and your friend. I give my word and plight my troth that all my happiness shall be found in your pleasure. Let me not die for your love. You shall be the Dame, and I the page; you shall be the scornful beauty, and I the prayer at your knee.”

The King prayed the lady so urgently, so tenderly he sued for grace, that at the last she assured him of her love, and gave him the gift of her heart. They granted rings one to another, and pledged affiance between them. They kept this faith, and guarded this love, till they died together, and there was an end to all.

Equitan and the lady loved for a great while without it coming to the ears of any. When the King desired to have speech of his friend, he told his household that he would be alone, since it was the day appointed for his bleeding. The King having shut the doors of his chamber, there was none so bold as to enter therein, save he were bidden of his lord. Whilst he was busied in this fashion, the seneschal sat in open court to hear the pleas and right the wrong. He was as much to the King’s mind, as his wife was to the King’s heart. The lord was so assotted upon the lady that he would neither take to himself a wife, nor listen to a word upon the matter. His people blamed him loudly, so loudly that it came to the ears of the lady. She was passing heavy, for she feared greatly that the barons would have their way. When next she had speech with Equitan, in place of the kiss and sweetness of her customary greeting, she came before him making great sorrow and in tears. The King inquiring the reason of her dolour, the lady replied, “Sire, I lament our love, and the trouble I always said would be mine. You are about to wed the daughter of some King, and my good days are over. Everybody says so, and I know it to be true. What will become of me when you put me away! I will die, rather than lose you, for I may have no other comfort.”

The King made answer very tenderly, “Fair friend, you need not fear. There will never be wife of mine to put you from me. I shall never wed, except your husband die, and then it is you who would be my queen and lady. I will leave you for no other dame.”

The lady thanked him sweetly for his words. Much was she beholden to him in her heart. Since she was assured that he would not leave her for any other, she turned over swiftly in her mind the profit that would come from her husband’s death. Much happiness might be bought at a little cost, if Equitan would lend his aid.

The King made answer that he would do her will to the utmost of his power, whether her counsel were for good or evil.

“Sire,” said the lady, “let it please you to hunt the forest within the country where I dwell. You can lodge in my lord’s castle, and there you must be bled. Three days after your surgery is done, you must call for your bath. My lord shall be bled with you, so that he may go to his bathing at the same time. It will be your part to keep him at your side, and make him your constant companion. It will be mine to heat the water, and to carry the baths to your chamber. My husband’s bath shall boil so fiercely, that no breathing man, having entered therein, may come forth living. When he is dead you must call for your people, and show them how the seneschal has died suddenly in his bath.”

Because of his love the King granted her desire, and promised to do according to her will. Before three months were done the King rode to the chase within the lady’s realm. He caused surgeons to bleed him for his health, and the seneschal with him. He said that he would take his bath on the third day, and the seneschal required his, too, to be made ready. The lady caused the water to be heated, and carried the baths to the chamber. According to her device she set a bath beside each bed, filling with boiling water that bath which her lord should enter. Her lord had gone forth for a little, so for a space the King and the lady were alone. They sat on the husband’s bed, and looked tenderly each on the other, near by that heated bath. The door of the chamber was kept by a young damsel to give them warning. The seneschal made haste to return, and would have struck on the door of the chamber, but was stayed by the maiden. He put her by, and in his impatience flung the door wide open. Entering he found his master and his wife clasped in each other’s arms. When the King saw the seneschal he had no thought but to hide his dishonour. He started up, and sprang with joined feet in the bath that was filled with boiling water. There he perished miserably, in the very snare he had spread for another, who was safe and sound. The seneschal marked what had happened to the King. In his rage he turned to his wife, and laying hands upon her thrust her, head first, in the self-same bath. So they died together, the King first, and the lady afterwards, with him.

Those who are willing to listen to fair words, may learn from this ensample, that he who seeks another’s ill often brings the evil upon himself.

As I have told you before, of this adventure the Bretons made the Lay of Equitan, the lady whom he loved, and of their end.

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