[Notes by LKG]
This story is part of the Canterbury Tales unit. Story source: The Chaucer Story Book by Eva March Tappan (1908).
The Wife of Bath's Tale:
The Unknown Bride
Now in the times when there were fairies everywhere, it came to pass that a knight who dwelt at King Arthur's court forgot his vow to guard all women and treated one despitefully. The law was that any knight so faithless to his word should straightway be put to death, but this knight was a favorite at the court, and every one of the court ladies, from the Queen down, pleaded that his life might be spared. They begged King Arthur for mercy so often and so earnestly that at length he said, "I will give him to the Queen, and he may live or die according to her will."
The Queen and all her ladies thanked the King, and then the Queen said to the guilty knight, "It is true that we have besought the King for you, but your life is not yet sure. It is not right that you should go unpunished. The rope is even now about your neck, but on one condition you shall be free. If in a year and a day you can tell me what it is that women wish for most, then your life shall be spared."
The knight took his leave of the Queen and the court and went his way to find out what women wish for most. He roamed the world over and asked every one that he met. They all had answers, some of them most excellent ones, but the trouble was that no two agreed. One said women cared most for riches, another said for honor, another for merriment, another for brilliant attire, another for praise, another for freedom. One even insisted that a woman would rather keep a secret than do anything else, but of course that is nonsense, for we women cannot conceal things.
Don't you know Ovid's story of King Midas? He had a pair of asses' ears, but he contrived to hide them so well under his long hair that no one in the world except his wife knew they were there. He begged her most earnestly not to let any one know the secret, and she promised that if the whole world were offered her, she would never reveal it. She meant to keep her word; but that secret bubbled and swelled so about her heart that she felt she could not live without telling some one. She did not dare tell it to any person, and so she slipped away to a marsh that was full of reeds. She stooped and put her mouth down close to the water and whispered, "O water, I am going to tell you a secret, but don't you ever let any one know it: my husband has two long asses' ears!" There you see that we women cannot keep a secret.
As he cast his eyes a little way ahead, he saw full four and twenty ladies dancing gayly on a little green. "Perhaps they are some of the wise folk and can give me the answer," he said to himself, and he hastened toward them eagerly. But, alas, before he had come to the dance, the ladies had all disappeared, and in their place was one old crone, bent and bowed and more hideous than he had ever imagined a woman could be.
When he came nearer, she rose slowly and clumsily to her feet and said, "Sir knight, there is no road here. What are you in search of? We old folk know a good many things, and it may be better for you to tell me what you want."
The knight was so miserable that he was glad to tell his trouble to anyone who would listen, and he said, "Good mother, if you could only tell me what it is that women want most, I would reward you well, for I am a dead man if I cannot find out."
"What women want most?" repeated the old crone. "There is no difficulty about telling that. See, we will make a bargain. I will tell you the answer if, in return, you will agree to do the first thing I ask of you."
"By my faith as a knight I promise you," he said, and, indeed, he was so wretched that he would have promised anything to any one who would give him the slightest hope of safety.
The woman said, "Cheer up, cheer up, my good knight. Your life is safe, for I will wager my own that the humblest and the proudest, the poorest and the richest, even the Queen herself, will have to say that I am right. Don't be afraid; this is your answer," and she whispered a few words into his ear.