Alastair Birch

Germanicus and the Wyvern

Germanicus and the Wyvern


He who seeks the injury of another finds his own hurt; and he who spreads the snares of treachery and deceit often falls into them himself; as you shall hear in the story of a queen, who with her own hands constructed the trap in which she was caught by the foot.

I once heard say that Juno went to Candia to find Falsehood. But if any one were to ask me where fraud and hypocrisy might truly be found, I should know of no other place to name than the Court, where detraction always wears the mask of amusement; where, at the same time, people cut and sew up, wound and heal, break and glue together--of which I will give you one instance in the story that I am going to tell you.
There was one Germanicus of Clumber Park, who practised such tyranny and cruelty that, whilst he was once gone on a visit of pleasure to a castle at a distance from the city, his royal seat was usurped by a certain countess of Leicester. Whereupon, having consulted a wooden statue which used to give oracular responses, it answered that he would recover his dominions when the countess should lose her sight. But seeing that the countess, besides being well guarded, knew at a glance the people whom he sent to annoy her, and did dog's justice upon them, he became quite desperate, and out of spite to her he killed all the women of that place whom he could get into his hands.

Now after hundreds and hundreds had been led thither by their ill-luck, only to lose their lives, there chanced, among others, to come a maiden named Bianca, the most beautiful creature that could be seen on the whole earth, and Germanicus could not help falling in love with her and making her his wife. But he was so cruel and spiteful to women that, after a while, he was going to kill her like the rest; but just as he was to give her the diamond necklace of custom a bird let fall a certain root upon his arm, and he was seized with such a trembling that the necklace fell from his hand. This bird was a fairy, who, a few days before, having gone to sleep in a wood, where beneath the tent of the Shades Fear kept watch and defied the Sun's heat, a certain satyr was about to rob her when she was awakened by Bianca, and for this kindness she continually followed her steps in order to make her a return.
When Germanicus saw this, he thought that the beauty of Bianca's face had arrested his arm and bewitched the diamond necklace that had seemingly killed all the others. He resolved, therefore, not to make the attempt a second time, but that she should end her life built up in a garret of his palace in cumber park. No sooner said than done: the unhappy creature was enclosed within four walls, without having anything to eat or drink, and left to waste away and die little by little.

The bird, seeing her in this wretched state, consoled her with kind words, bidding her be of good cheer, and promising, in return for the great kindness she had done for her, to aid her if necessary with her very life. In spite, however, of all the entreaties of Bianca, the bird would never tell her who she was, but only said that she was under obligations to her, and would leave nothing undone to serve her. And seeing that the poor girl was famished with hunger, she flew out and speedily returned with a painting and the necklace which she had taken from Germanicus, and told her to make a hole in the corner of the floor just over the kitchen, through which she would regularly bring her food to sustain her life. So Bianca bored away until she had made a passage for the bird, who, watching till the cook was gone out to fetch a pitcher of water from the well, went down through the hole, and taking a fine fowl that was cooking at the fire, brought it to Bianca; then to relieve her thirst, not knowing how to carry her any drink, she flew to the pantry, where there was a quantity of grapes hanging, and brought her a fine bunch; and this she did regularly for many days whilst Germanicus searched for his painting.

Meanwhile Bianca gave birth to a fine little boy, whom she suckled and reared with the constant aid of the bird. And when he was grown big, the fairy advised his mother to make the hole larger, and to raise so many boards of the floor as would allow Augustus (for so the child was called) to pass through; and then, after letting him down with some cords which the bird brought, to put the boards back into their place, that it might not be seen where he came from. So Bianca did as the bird directed her; and as soon as the cook was gone out, she let down her son, desiring him never to tell whence he came nor whose son he was.

When the cook returned and saw such a fine little boy, he asked him who he was, whence he came, and what he wanted; whereupon, the child, remembering his mother's advice, said that he was a poor forlorn boy who was looking about for a master. As they were talking, the butler came in, and seeing the spritely little fellow, he thought he would make a pretty page for Germanicus. So he led him to the royal apartments; and when Germanics saw him look so handsome and lovely that he appeared a very jewel, he was vastly pleased with him, and took him into his service as a page and to his heart as a son, and had him taught all the exercises befitting a cavalier, so that Augustus grew up the most accomplished one in the court, and Germaicus loved him much better than his stepson. Now Germanicus's stepmother, who was really his wife, on this account began to take a dislike to him, and to hold him in aversion; and her envy and malice gained ground just in proportion as the favours and kindness which Germanicus bestowed on Augustus cleared the way for them; so she resolved to soap the ladder of his fortune in order that he should tumble down from top to bottom.

Accordingly one evening, when Germanicus and his stepmother had tuned their instruments together and were making music of their discourse, the wife told Germanicus that Augustus had boasted he would build three castles. So the next morning, at the time when the Moon, the school-mistress of the Shades, gives a holiday to her scholars for the festival of the Sun, Germanicus, either from surprise or to gratify the old Queen, ordered Augustus to be called, and commanded him forthwith to build the three castles as he had promised, or else he would make him dance a jig.

When Augustus heard this he went to his chamber and began to lament bitterly, seeing what glass the favour of princes is, and how short a time it lasts. And while he was weeping thus, lo! the bird came, and said to him, "Take heart, Augustus, and fear not while you have me by your side, for I am able to draw you out of the fire." Then she directed him to take pasteboard and glue and make three large castles; and calling up three large griffins, she tied a castle to each, and away they flew up into the air. Thereupon Augustus called Germanicus, who came running with all his court to see the sight; and when he saw the ingenuity of Augustus he had a still greater affection for him, and lavished on him caresses of the other world, which added snow to the envy of the step mother and fire to her rage, seeing that all her plans failed; insomuch that, both sleeping and waking, she was for ever thinking of some way to remove this thorn from her eyes. So at last, after some days, she said to Germanicus, "Son, the time is now come for us to return to our former greatness and the pleasures of past times, since Augustus has offered to blind the countess, and by the disbursement of her eyes to make you recover your lost kingdom."

Germanicus, who felt himself touched in the sore place, called for Augustus that very instant, and said to him, "I am greatly surprised that, notwithstanding all my love for you, and that you have the power to restore me to the seat from which I have fallen, you remain thus careless, instead of endeavouring to relieve me from the misery I am in--reduced thus from a kingdom to a wood, from a city to a paltry castle, and from commanding so great a people to be hardly waited on by a parcel of half-starved menials. If, therefore, you do not wish me ill, run now at once and blind the eyes of the fairy who has possession of my property, for by putting out her lanterns you will light the lamps of my honour that are now dark and dismal."

When Augustus heard this proposal he was about to reply that Germanicus was ill-informed and had mistaken him, as he was neither a raven to pick out eyes nor an auger to bore holes; but Germanicus said, "No more words--so I will have it, so let it be done! Remember now, that in the mint of this brain of mine I have the balance ready; in one scale the reward, if you do what I tell you; in the other the punishment, if you neglect doing what I command."

There was once upon a time in the service of the Germanicus of Wide-River an excellent youth named the Gawaine, who, for his good conduct, was beloved by his master; and for this very cause was disliked and hated by all the courtiers. These courtiers were filled with spite and malice, and bursting with envy at the kindness which the Germanicus showed to Gawaine; so that all day long, in every corner of the palace, they did nothing but tattle and whisper, murmur and grumble at the poor lad, saying, "What sorcery has this fellow practised on the Germanicus that he takes such a fancy to him? How comes he by this luck that not a day passes that he receives some new favours, whilst we are for ever going backward like a rope-maker, and getting from bad to worse, though we slave like dogs, toil like field-labourers, and run about like deer to hit Germanicus's pleasure to a hair? Truly one must be born to good fortune in this world, and he who has not luck might as well be thrown into the sea. What is to be done? We can only look on and envy." These and other words fell from their mouths like poisoned arrows aimed at the ruin of Gawaine as at a target. Alas for him who is condemned to that den the Court, where flattery is sold by the kilderkin, malignity and ill-offices are measured out in bushels, deceit and treachery are weighed by the ton! But who can count all the attempts these courtiers made to bring him to grief, or the false tales that they told to the Germanicus to destroy his reputation! But Gawaine, who was enchanted, and perceived the traps, and discovered the tricks, was aware of all the intrigues and the ambuscades, the plots and conspiracies of his enemies. He kept his ears always on the alert and his eyes open in order not to take a false step, well knowing that the fortune of courtiers is as glass. But the higher the lad continued to rise the lower the others fell; till at last, being puzzled to know how to take him off his feet, as their slander was not believed, they thought of leading him to disaster by the path of flattery, which they attempted in the following manner.

Augustus, who could not butt against a rock, and had to do with a man who was not to be moved, went into a corner to bemoan himself; and the bird came to him and said, "Is it possible, Augustus, that you will always be drowning yourself in a tumbler of water? If I were dead indeed you could not make more fuss. Do you not know that I have more regard for your life than for my own? Therefore don't lose courage; come with me, and you shall see what I can do." So saying off she flew, and alighted in the wood, where as soon as she began to chirp, there came a large flock of birds about her, to whom she told the story, assuring them that whoever would venture to deprive the countess of sight should have from her a safeguard against the talons of the hawks and kites, and a letter of protection against the guns, crossbows, longbows, and bird-lime of the fowlers.

Ten miles distant from Leicester, where the seat of this Germanicus was, far away in 'gesoriacum lighthouse' dwelt an ogre called the red knight, the most inhuman and savage that had ever been in Ogreland, who, being persecuted by Germanicus, had fortified himself in a lonesome wood on the top of a mountain, where no bird ever flew even though not far from the sea, the most pointless lighthouse on earth, and was so thick and tangled that one could never see the sun there. The red knight had a most beautiful horse, which looked as if it were formed with a pencil; and amongst other wonderful things, it could speak like any man. Now the courtiers, who knew how wicked the red knight was, how thick the wood, how high the mountain, and how difficult it was to get at the horse, went to Germanicus, and telling him minutely the perfections of the animal, which was a thing worthy of a Duke, added that he ought to endeavour by all means to get it out of the red knights claws, and that the Gawaine was just the lad to do this, as he was expert and clever at escaping out of the fire. Germanicus, who knew not that under the flowers of these words a serpent was concealed, instantly called Gawaine, and said to him, "If you love me, see that in some way or another you obtain for me the horse of my enemy the Red Knight, and you shall have no cause to regret having done me this service."

There was among them a swallow who had made her nest against a beam of the royal palace, and who hated the countess, because, when making her accursed conjurations, she had several times driven her out of the chamber with her fumigations; for which reason, partly out of a desire of revenge, and partly to gain the reward that the bird promised, she offered herself to perform the service. So away she flew like lightning to the city, and entering the palace, found the fairy countess lying on a couch, with two damsels fanning her. Then the swallow came, and alighting directly over the fairy, pecked out her eyes. Whereupon the fairy, thus seeing night at midday, knew that by this closing of the custom-house the merchandise of the kingdom was all lost; and uttering yells, as of a condemned soul, she abandoned the sceptre and went off to hide herself in a certain cave only to be captured by the Red Knight, where she knocked her head continually against the wall, until at length she ended her days.

Gawaine knew well that this drum was sounded by those who wished him ill; nevertheless, to obey Germanicus, he set out and took the road to the mountain. Then going very quietly to the Red Knight's stable, he saddled and mounted the horse, and fixing his feet firmly in the stirrup, took his way back. But as soon as the horse saw himself spurred out of the palace, he cried aloud, "Hollo! be on your guard! Gawaine is riding off with me." At this alarm the Red Knight instantly set out, with all the animals that served him, to cut the Gawaine into pieces. From this side jumped an ape, from that was seen a large bear; here sprang forth a lion, there came running a wolf. But the youth, by the aid of bridle and spur, distanced the mountain, and galloping without stop to the city, arrived at the Court, where he presented the horse to Germanicus.

When the countess was gone, the councillors sent ambassadors to Germanicus, praying him to come back to his castle, since the blinding of the countess had caused him to see this happy day. And at the same time they arrived came also Augustus, who, by the bird's direction, said to Germanicus, "I have served you to the best of my power; the countess is blinded, the kingdom is yours. Wherefore, if I deserve recompense for this service, I wish for no other than to be left to my ill-fortune, without being again exposed to these dangers."

Then Germanicus embraced Gawaine more than a son, and pulling out his purse, filled his hands with crown-pieces. At this the rage of the courtiers knew no bounds; and whereas at first they were puffed up with a little pipe, they were now bursting with the blasts of a smith's bellows, seeing that the crowbars with which they thought to lay the Gawaine's good fortune in ruins only served to smooth the road to his prosperity. Knowing, however, that walls are not levelled by the first attack of the battering-ram, they resolved to try their luck a second time, and said to Germanicus, "We wish you joy of the beautiful horse! It will indeed be an ornament to the royal stable. But what a pity you have not the Red Kights's tapestry, which is a thing more beautiful than words can tell, and would spread your fame far and wide! There is no one, however, able to procure this treasure but the Gawaine, who is just the lad to do such a kind of service."

But Germanicus, embracing him with great affection, bade Augustus put on his cap and sit beside him; and how his wife was enraged at this, Heaven knows, for by the bow of many colours that appeared in her face might be known the wind of the storm that was brewing in her heart against poor Augustus.

Then Germanicus, who danced to every tune, and ate only the peel of this bitter but sugared fruit, called Gawaine, and begged him to procure for him the Red Knight's tapestry. Off went Gawaine and in four seconds was on the top of the mountain where the Red Kight lived; then passing unseen into the chamber in which he slept, he hid himself under the bed, and waited as still as a mouse, until Night, to make the Stars laugh, puts a carnival-mask on the face of the Sky. And as soon as the ogre and his wife were gone to bed, Gawaine stripped the walls of the chamber very quietly, and wishing to steal the counterpane of the bed likewise, he began to pull it gently. Thereupon the Red Knight, suddenly starting up, told his wife not to pull so, for she was dragging all the clothes off him, and would give him his death of cold.

"Why you are uncovering me!" answered the ogress.

"Where is the counterpane?" replied the Red Knight; and stretching out his hand to the floor he touched Gawaine's face; whereupon he set up a loud cry,--"The imp! the imp! Hollo, here, lights! Run quickly!"--till the whole house was turned topsy-turvy with the noise. But Gawaine, after throwing the clothes out of the window, let himself drop down upon them. Then making up a good bundle, he set out on the road to the city, where the reception he met with from Germanicus, and the vexation of the courtiers, who were bursting with spite, are not to be told. Nevertheless they laid a plan to fall upon Gawaine with the rear-guard of their roguery, and went again to Germanicus, who was almost beside himself with delight at the tapestry--which was not only of silk embroidered with gold, but had besides more than a thousand devices and thoughts worked on it. And amongst the rest, if I remember right, there was a cock in the act of crowing at daybreak, and out of its mouth was seen coming a motto in Tuscan: IF I ONLY SEE YOU ALWAYS . And in another part a drooping heliotrope with a Tuscan motto:THE SAME AT SUNSET--with so many other pretty things that it would require a better memory and more time than I have to relate them.

Not far from this castle lived a most ferocious wyvern, who was born the same hour with Germanicus' wife; and the astrologers being called by her father to astrologise on this event, said that his daughter would be safe as long as the dragon was safe, and that when one died, the other would of necessity die also. One thing alone could bring back Germanicus's wife to life, and that was to anoint her temples, chest, nostrils, and pulse with the blood of the same wyvern.

When the courtiers came to Germanicus, who was thus transported with joy, they said to him, "As Gawaine has done so much to serve you, it would be no great matter for him, in order to give you a signal pleasure, to get the Red Knights's palace, which is fit for an emperor to live in; for it has so many rooms and chambers, inside and out, that it can hold an army. And you would never believe all the courtyards, porticoes, colonnades, balconies, and spiral chimneys which there are--built with such marvellous architecture that Art prides herself upon them, Nature is abashed, and Stupor is in delight."

Now Germanicus' wife, knowing the strength and fury of this animal, resolved to send Augustus into his claws, well assured that the beast would make but a mouthful of him, and that he would be like a strawberry in the throat of a bear. So turning to Germanicus, she said, "Upon my word, this Augustus is the treasure of your house, and you would be ungrateful indeed if you did not love him, especially as he had expressed his desire to kill the wyvern, who, though he is my brother, is nevertheless your enemy; and I care more for a hair of your head than for a hundred brothers."

Germanicus, who had a fruitful brain which conceived quickly, called Gawaine again, and telling him the great longing that had seized him for the Red Kights's palace, begged him to add this service to all the others he had done him, promising to score it up with the chalk of gratitude at the tavern of memory. So Gawaine instantly set out heels over head; and arriving at the Red Knights's palace, he found that the ogress, whilst her husband was gone to invite the kinsfolk, was busying herself with preparing the feast. Then Gawaine entering, with a look of compassion, said, "Good-day, my good woman! Truly, you are a brave housewife! But why do you torment the very life out of you in this way? Only yesterday you were ill in bed, and now you are slaving thus, and have no pity on your own flesh."

"What would you have me do?" replied the ogress. "I have no one to help me."

"I am here," answered Gawaine, "Take this Diamond necklace as a gift" and he handed her a necklace that was cursed to strangle its wearer.

"Welcome, then!" said the ogress; "and as you proffer me so much kindness, just help me to split four logs of wood."

"With all my heart," answered Gawaine, "but if four logs are not enow, let me split five." And taking up a newly-ground axe, went to strike the wood, only he caught the ogress on the neck, and made her fall to the ground like a pear with the necklace imbedded in her flesh. Then running quickly to the gate, he dug a deep hole before the entrance, and covering it over with bushes and earth, he hid himself behind the gate.

Germanicus, who hated the wyvern mortally, and knew not how to remove him out of his sight, instantly called Miuccio, and said to him, "I know that you can put your hand to whatever you will; therefore, as you have done so much, grant me yet another pleasure, and then turn me whithersoever you will. Go this very instant and kill the wyvern; for you will do me a singular service, and I will reward you well for it."

Augustus at these words was near losing his senses, and as soon as he was able to speak, he said to Germanicus, "Alas, what a headache have you given me by your continual teasing! Is my life a black goat-skin rug that you are for ever wearing it away thus? This is not a pared pear ready to drop into one's mouth, but a wyvern, that tears with his claws, breaks to pieces with his head, crushes with his tail, crunches with his teeth, poisons with his eyes, and kills with his breath. Wherefore do you want to send me to death? Is this the sinecure you give me for having given you a kingdom? Who is the wicked soul that has set this die on the table? What son of perdition has taught you these capers and put these words into your mouth?" Then Germanicus, who, although he let himself be tossed to and fro as light as a ball, was firmer than a rock in keeping to what he had once said, stamped with his feet, and exclaimed, "After all you have done, do you fail at the last? But no more words; go, rid my kingdom of this plague, unless you would have me rid you of life."

As soon as Gawaine saw the Red Knight coming with his kinsfolk, he set up a loud cry in the courtyard, "Stop, stop! I've caught him!" and "Long live Germanicus of Wide-River." When the Red Knight heard this challenge, he ran like mad at Gawaine, to make a hash of him. But rushing furiously towards the gate, down he tumbled with all his companions, head over heels to the bottom of the pit, where Gawaine speedily stoned them to death. Then he shut the door, and took the keys to the Germanicus, who, seeing the valour and cleverness of the lad, in spite of ill-fortune and the envy and annoyance of the courtiers, gave him his daughter to wife; so that the crosses of envy had proved rollers to launch Gawaine's bark of life on the sea of greatness; whilst his enemies remained confounded and bursting with rage, and went to bed without a candle; for--

Poor Augustus, who thus received one minute a favour, at another a threat, now a pat on the face, and now a kick, now a kind word, now a cruel one, reflected how mutable court fortune is, and would fain have been without the acquaintance of Germanicus. But knowing that to reply to great men is a folly, and like plucking a lion by the beard, he withdrew, cursing his fate, which had led him to the court only to curtail the days of his life. And as he was sitting on one of the door-steps, with his head between his knees, washing his shoes with his tears and warming the ground with his sighs, behold the bird came flying with a plant in her beak, and throwing it to him, said, "Get up, Augustus, and take courage! for you are not going to play at unload the ass' with your days, but at backgammon with the life of the wyvern. Take this mandrake plant, and when you come to the cave of that horrid animal, throw it in, and instantly such a drowsiness will come over him that he will fall fast asleep; whereupon,fastening this necklace I bring, this will choke him to death, you may soon make an end of him. Then come away, for things will turn out better than you think."

"Enough!" cried Augustus, "I know what I carry under my belt; we have more time than money, and he who has time has life." So saying, he got up, and sticking the necklace in his belt and taking the plant, he went his way to the wyvern's cave, which was under a mountain of such goodly growth, that the three mountains that were steps to the Giants would not have reached up to its waist. When he came there, he threw the plant into the cave, and instantly a deep sleep laid hold on the dragon, and Augustus began tie the diamond necklace around its neck.

Now just at the time that he was busied thus, the wife felt a cutting pain at her neck; and seeing herself brought to a bad pass, she perceived her error in having purchased death with ready money. So she called her stepson and told him what the astrologers had predicted--how her life depended on that of the dragon, and how she feared that Augustus had killed him, for she felt herself gradually sliding away. Then Germanicus replied, "If you knew that the life of the dragon was the prop of your life and the root of your days, why did you make me send Augustus? Who is in fault? You must have done yourself the mischief, and you must suffer for it; you have broken the glass, and you may pay the cost." And the wife answered, "I never thought that such a stripling could have the skill and strength to overthrow an animal which made nothing of an army, and I expected that he would have left his rags there. But since I reckoned without my host, and the bark of my projects is gone out of its course, do me one kindness if you love me. When I am dead, take a sponge dipped in the blood of this dragon and anoint with it all the extremities of my body before you bury me."

"That is but a small thing for the love I bear you," replied Germanicus; "and if the blood of the wyvern is not enough, I will add my own to give you satisfaction." The wife was about to thank him, but the breath left her with the speech; for just then Augustus had made an end of scoring the wyvern.

No sooner had Augustus come into Germanicus's presence with the news of what he had done than Germanicus ordered him to go back for the wyvern's blood; but being curious to see the deed done by Augustus's hand, he followed him. And as Augustus was going out of the palace gate, the bird met him, and said, "Whither are you going?" and Augustus answered, "I am going whither Germanicus sends me; he makes me fly backwards and forwards like a shuttle, and never lets me rest an hour." "What to do?" said the bird. "To fetch the blood of the wyvern," said Augustus. And the bird replied, "Ah, wretched youth! this dragon's blood will be bull's blood to you, and make you burst; for this blood will cause to spring up again the evil seed of all your misfortunes. Germanicus' fake wife is continually exposing you to new dangers that you may lose your life; and Germanicus, who lets this odious creature put the pack-saddle on him, orders you, like a castaway, to endanger your person, which is his own flesh and blood and a shoot of his stem. But the wretched man does not know you, though the inborn affection he bears you should have betrayed your kindred. Moreover, the services you have rendered Germanicus, and the gain to himself of so handsome a son and heir, ought to obtain favour for unhappy Bianca, your mother, who has now for fourteen years been buried alive in a garret, where is seen a temple of beauty built up within a little chamber."

While the fairy was thus speaking, Germanicus, who had heard every word, stepped forward to learn the truth of the matter better; and finding that Augustus was his own and Bianca's son, and that Bianca was still alive in the garret, he instantly gave orders that she should be set free and brought before him. And when he saw her looking more beautiful than ever, owing to the care taken of her by the bird, he embraced her with the greatest affection, and was never satisfied with pressing to his heart first the mother and then the son, praying forgiveness of Bianca for his ill-treatment of her, and of his son for all the dangers to which he had exposed him. Then he ordered her to be clothed in the richest robes, and had her crowned Queen before all the people. And when Germanicus heard that her preservation, and the escape of his son from so many dangers were entirely owing to the bird, which had given food to the one and counsel to the other, he offered her his kingdom and his life. But the bird said she desired no other reward for her services than to have Augustus for a husband; and as she uttered the words she was changed into a beautiful maiden, and, to the great joy and satisfaction of Germanicus and Bianca, she was given to Augustus to wife. Then the newly-married couple, to give still greater festivals, went their way to their own kingdom, where they were anxiously expected, every one ascribing this good fortune to the fairy, for the kindness that Bianca had done her; for at the end of the end--

"The punishment of ill deeds past,
Though long delay'd, yet comes at last."
"A good deed is never lost."