Canterbury Tales: The Priest who Learned to be a Philosopher

This story is part of the Canterbury Tales unit. Story source: The Chaucer Story Book by Eva March Tappan (1908).

The Canon's Yeoman's Tale:
The Priest who Learned to be a Philosopher

THERE was once in London a priest who had no church but spent his time in singing masses for the dead. He boarded with a good dame of the town, and in the house he was so pleasant and helpful to her that she would not allow him to pay her for either his food or his clothes. His expenses, then, were so small that he always had a goodly supply of money on hand.

Now one day a false canon came to him and begged him for a loan for three days. "If you will lend me a mark," he said, "I will pay it on the moment. Hang me by the neck if I break my word."

The priest gave him the mark. The canon thanked him over and over, and said farewell. He kept his promise to the letter and brought the priest his money the moment it was due.

The good priest was much pleased. "It is certainly a pleasure," he said, "to lend a man a noble, or two or three, or anything else that I possess, for that matter, when he keeps his word so well, and returns the loan on the instant. I could never say no to such a man."

"I hope you did not think for a moment that I could be false!" exclaimed the canon. "That would, indeed, be something new. God forbid that from now to my life's end I should fail to keep my word. You may believe that as firmly as you believe your creed. I thank God that never yet have I failed to pay every grain of gold or silver that was ever lent me and that never yet have I even thought falsehood in my heart. And now, sir," he continued, "since you have been so kind and courteous to me, I should like to return the favor. I will tell you what I will do. I will show you the whole secret of how I work in philosophy. Only watch, and before I go you shall see with your own eyes a real masterpiece. But perhaps you do not care for philosophy?"

"Not care for philosophy?" repeated the priest; "I beg you with all my heart to show me the kindness."

"Surely, sir, if you wish it," said the canon, and he began his preparations on the instant. "Will you order your yeoman to go and buy us two or three ounces of quicksilver? And when he returns with it, I will show you a greater wonder than you ever saw before in all your life."

The priest was only too ready to consent. "Go as fast as ever you can," he bade his yeoman, "and fetch us three ounces of quicksilver."

In a very short time the yeoman was back again with the quicksilver. The canon took it and told the yeoman to bring some hot coals. The coals were brought. Then the canon drew from under his robe a crucible. The priest was watching each motion, for it is not every man who has a chance to learn the secret of a philosopher.

The canon held up the crucible and gazed at it a moment as if it was a most precious article. Then he held it toward the priest. "This is a crucible," he explained. "You may take it into your own hands and put into it one ounce of this quicksilver. That is the first step in the work of a philosopher. I tell you frankly there are not many men to whom I would reveal even so much of my secret. You shall see right here before your own face that I will destroy this quicksilver, and turn it into as pure, fine silver as there is in your purse or anywhere else for that matter, and I will make it malleable. If I do not, call me a liar if you will and not fit to live among honest folk. I have a powder for which I paid an enormous price, and in this is the secret of the whole matter. But send your yeoman away, I beg, for there must be no one to watch us while we are working in philosophy."

(700 words)

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