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Tales from Chaucer, by Charles Cowden Clarke, [1833], at

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The Canon's Yeoman's Tale


BEFORE we had ridden five miles after the conclusion of the last tale, a man overtook us at Boughton-under-Blee. He was wearing a black cloak, and under it a white surplice. His hack, which was a dapple grey, was all in a lather; it seemed as though it had galloped hard for three miles at the least. His Yeoman's beast, too, was in the same condition; the foam stood so high upon its breastplate that it was spotted like a magpie. The rider seemed accoutred for a journey, for on the crupper behind him he carried a double portmanteau. The master rode light for summer travelling. I began to consider of what description was his quality, till I perceived that his cloak was sewed to the hood, when I guessed him to be some Canon. His hat hung down his back by a lace, because he had ridden at such a rate. He had put a dock-leaf under his hood to keep it from the moisture of his head, and that from the heat of the cloth. His forehead dropped like the retort of a still. When he had come up with us he called out, "God save this jolly company! I have ridden at a sharp rate to overtake you in order that I might join your society."

His Yeoman was also equally courteous, and said, "Gentlemen, I saw you ride out of your inn early this morning, and gave my master notice of the circumstance,

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for he loves amusement." "Friend," said our host, "good luck betide you for the warning you gave your master: he looks to be a wise man and, I doubt not, is a jocund one. Tell me—can he tell us a merry tale or two to please our company?" "Who, sir? my master? Aye truly, sir, he has anything but enough of mirth and jollity; and, sir, if you knew him as well as I do, you would wonder to see in how many ways and how craftily he can work. Many a great undertaking has he taken in hand which it were full hard for any one here to bring about unless by his assistance. Simply and homely as he there rides amongst you, his acquaintance would turn to the profit of any one. I dare lay all I am worth that not one of you would forego his acquaintance for the good he could bring you. He is a passing man, and of high discretion, and so I give you warning."

"Well—but," said our host, "is he a clerk, or what? Tell us what he is."

"Nay he is greater than a clerk," said the Yeoman, "and in few words I will show you some of his skill. My lord, here, I say, is master of such an art (I can't let you into the whole secret of his craft, although I help him in his work) that all the ground we have ridden over till we come to Canterbury he could pave with silver and gold."

"Bless us!" said our host, "but this is a marvelous thing to me that, with such a gift, your master should set so little store by his worship. Why, his dress is so shabby and torn that it is not worth a farthing. If your master's power is equal to your description, why does he go about in so slovenly a fashion?"

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"Why?" said the Yeoman, "why do you ask me? The reason is, I believe, that he is too wise. As our clerks say, 'That which is overdone turns to a fault.' So in this matter I think him foolish; for your men of overmuch sense are apt to misuse it, and that, heaven mend him! is the case with my master."

"Well, no matter for his dress," said our host, "but, good Yeoman, since you know somewhat of your lord's skill, pray tell us what and how he works; and where do you live?"

"In the suburbs of a town," said he, "among corners and blind lanes; where thieves and those of their kind hold their fearful residence; men who dare not show their faces by day. In such places, if I must say the truth, we live."

"Well, but again," said our host, "what makes your face so discoloured?"

"Why, my complexion is changed with blowing hot fires. I don't pass my time in looking at myself in the glass, but in hard labour. We are always poring over the furnace; and yet withal I do not find that we gain our desires. We persuade people to lend us money and gold, you see, and make them believe that we can turn one pound into two. And yet, with all our trying and groping, there's no such thing. That science is so far beyond us that, swear how we may that we shall overtake it, it slips away, and will make beggars of us at last."

While the Yeoman was thus talking away, the Canon drew near, and heard what he was saying, for he was always suspicious when people were in conversation: as Cato says, "He that is guilty believes that every speech

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refers to himself." Therefore he said to his Yeoman, "Hold your peace, or you shall dearly abide your folly. You are slandering me in this company, and discovering what you ought to conceal."

"Tell on, tell on," said our host, "whatever betide; don't reckon his threats at a farthing."

"I’faith," said he, "I do but little." And when this Canon found that his Yeoman would betray his secret, he fled away for very sorrow and shame.

"Aha!" said the Yeoman, "now we'll have some fun. Since he is off I'll tell you all I know about him. The foul fiend catch him; for never more, I promise you, will I join with him for a penny or pound. Shame and trouble follow him that first brought me to that game. I feel it, say what they will of me; and yet for all my sorrow and hard labour and misdeeds, I could not bring myself to leave the trade. I wish I could tell you all that belongs to that art; some of it, however, I can tell, and since my master is gone I will not spare, but relate all I know." *


ALTHOUGH I lived with this canon for seven years, yet am I no nearer to the secret of the art that he practised. All that I possessed in the world have I lost by it, and so indeed have many more than I. At that time

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[paragraph continues] I was accustomed to be gay of heart and fresh in my clothing; now may I go with a hose for the covering of my head. And whereas my colour was fresh and rosy, now its hue is wan and leaden. Hard labour, too, has bleared my eyes. Such is the advantage of increase and multiplication! That slippery science has left me so bare that wherever I go I reap no benefit. So deeply, too, am I in debt, from the gold I have borrowed, that while I live I shall never be a free man. Let every one take warning by my error, for whoever enters upon the same pursuit and follows it up, he may count his gain for loss: empty will be his purse and empty his wits. And when, through his madness and folly, he has hazarded and lost his own wealth, then he excites others to the same headlong course; for joy is it to bad natures to have fellowship in pain and disease. This saying was taught me by a clerk, but let that pass; and now to speak of our handicraft.

When we enter upon our fantastic avocation, we put on a face of prodigious wisdom, using none but quaint and learned terms, and all the while my business is to blow the fire till my heart faints within me. I need not detail the proportions of every material that we work upon, such as five or six ounces of silver, as may be, or trouble myself and you with names, such as orpiment, * burnt bones, iron scales and fragments, ground all together to a fine powder; and how all is placed in an earthen pot, putting in beforehand salt and pepper, the whole being well closed with a glass receiver that none of the air may escape; and of the gentle fire that is

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made, and of the care and toil that we take in sublimating our materials, and in amalgamating and calcining quicksilver, that is called crude mercury. For all this our sleights of hand come to no good conclusion; our orpiment and sublimated mercury, our white lead ground on marble, certain ounces of each, are of no avail; our labour is all in vain. Neither our spirits’ ascension nor our materials may in our work avail us anything; for lost is all our labour, and all the cost expended upon it is gone too.

Many other matters also appertain to our craft, though, being an unlettered man, I cannot rehearse them in their proper order; yet I will tell them as they arise in my mind, as bole ammoniac, verdigris, borax, and earthen and glass vessels; descensories, * vials, crucibles, and sublimatories;  cucurbites  and alembics, and other such stuff, dear enough at the price of a leek. Rubifying waters, ox-gall and arsenic, sal-ammoniac, and brimstone; with herbs a long list, as agrimony, valerian, and moonwort, and a hundred others. Our lamps burning night and day, and our calcining furnaces to bring about our craft—if possible: our waters of albification, with unslaked lime, chalk, white of egg, various powders, ashes, manure and clay, saltpetre and vitriol, salt of tartar, alkali, and prepared salt; clay made with horse and man's hair; oil of tartar, alum, glass, yeast, wort, and argoil; § red arsenic, and other imbibing and

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incorporating materials; our silver citrination, our cementing and fermenting, our ingots and vessels for assaying the metals, and many other things besides.

I will tell you also, as I have heard my master name them, of the four spirits and seven bodies. The first spirit is called quicksilver, the second orpiment, the third sal-ammoniac, and the fourth brimstone. Of the seven bodies, Sol is gold, Luna silver, Mars iron, Mercury is quicksilver, Saturn lead, Jupiter is tin, and Venus copper. But I forgot to speak of our corrosive waters, and metal filings, of mollifying bodies, and of their induration; oils, ablusions, and fusible metal; all which to enumerate would exceed the largest book that ever was written. So let them be, for I must come shortly to my story.

Before the pot is placed upon the fire, my master (and no one but himself) tempers the metals; and though he has such a name for skill (now he is gone I will say it boldly), he sometimes makes sore blunders; for it often happens that the vessel will burst, and then good-bye to all our labour. These metals are so violent in their operation that stone walls cannot resist them. Some are blown into the ground, or scattered about the floor, or fly through the roof, and in this way have we lost many a pound. Then comes the disappointment and chiding of the adventurers, some complaining that the metal was too long upon the fire; others of the blowing (then would I begin to quake, for that was my office) . Pshaw! cries a third, you know nothing about it: it was not properly tempered. The cause of it all, says a fourth, is that the fire was not made with beechwood. All I know of the matter, myself, was that there was a terrible outcry and

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strife among us. Then would my master say, "Come, come, there is no more to do but to pluck up our hearts and sweep the floor. I am sure the pot was cracked; but I can soon remedy all this mischief."

The rubbish being all swept into a heap and put into a canvas and sifted, one of them would say, "Here is some of our metal, though not all of it; and though this misfortune has befallen us, another chance may prove a lucky one. We must put out our money to a venture; the merchant is not always prosperous; one time his wealth is swallowed by the sea, and another it comes safely to land."

"Peace, peace!" would my master then say, "the next time I will contrive better—only trust to my wits—there was some mistake somewhere." Then, again, one would say the fire was too hot; but, too hot or too cold, this I know, that we were all at fault, and never got what we were seeking: and so in our madness every one seemed to himself a Solomon: but all is not gold that shines like gold; nor is every apple, fair to the eye, good at heart: and so it was amongst us; he that seemed the wisest proved the greatest fool, and he a thief who appeared most true; all which you will find by the time I have concluded my tale.

There was a canon dwelt among us who would have infected a whole city, be it as large as Nineveh, or any three such. His tricks and infinite falseness no one could describe, though he were to live a thousand years: he was peerless in this world of falsehood and treachery. So artfully would he wind his words that he would beguile any one of his senses, although he were a fiend like himself;

The Canon's Yeoman
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The Canon's Yeoman

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and therefore men have ridden miles to make his acquaintance, not knowing the treachery of his nature. In London, too, lived a priest, an annualler, * and had resided there many years. So pleasant and serviceable was he to the good woman where he lodged that she would suffer him to pay nothing for his board and clothes, however gaily he might appear. He had plenty of money to spend, and this brought our false canon to him one day, who entreated that he would lend him a certain sum, a mark or so, promising to pay it again. "In three days," said he, "I will restore it, and if you find me false, hang me up by the neck."

The priest gave him the mark, and the canon, thanking him over and over again, took his leave. On the third day he brought back the money, and gladdened the heart of the priest. "It is no inconvenience to me," said he, "to lend whatever I have to one who is so punctual to his promise in returning it."

"What!" answered the canon, "shall I break my word! No, no, sir, truth is a thing I shall ever hold sacred to the day that I creep into my grave: God forbid it should be otherwise. Believe this as surely as your creed, and I thank God to be enabled to say it: never was the man ill paid that at any time lent me his silver or gold, and never falsehood found shelter in my heart. And now, sir, since you have been so kind to me, to quit you of your gentleness, I will show you, if you are inclined to learn, how I work in philosophy."

"You, sir!" said the priest, "will you? Most heartily do I accept your offer, and thank you."

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"Doubtless, at your command, sir," answered the canon. How true is the old saying that "Proffered service hath an ill intent," and that I shall soon verify in this canon.

Perhaps you may be thinking, Sir Host, that this man was my master, but indeed it was another canon; my lord had not a hundredth part of his subtlety; many are the folks, it is true, that he has betrayed, and whenever I speak of his falsehood my cheeks burn with shame: redness I know I have little enough, for the fumes of the metals have discharged the colour from my face.

"Sir," said this canon, "let your man go and purchase two or three ounces of quicksilver, and when he returns you shall behold a more wonderful sight than ever met your eyes." The servant went and soon brought the quicksilver, when the canon took the three ounces and bid the man bring coals that he might begin his work. The fire being properly laid, the canon took a crucible from his bosom and showed it to the priest. "Take this instrument," said he, "and put into it an ounce of the quicksilver, and begin the labour of a philosopher. There are very few men to whom I would show so much of my science; but you shall see that I will destroy this metal, and turn it into as fine silver as that which is in your purse. Here is a costly powder that will make all good, for it is the cause of all the craft that I shall show you. Send your man out of the room and shut the door, that no one may see us at our philosophy."

The priest, at the canon's bidding, set the crucible upon the fire and began to blow it, and the canon threw into the crucible a powder, made up of I know not what

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[paragraph continues] —chalk or glass—not worth a fly, to blind the priest, at the same time bidding him heap the coals above the crucible; "For, as a proof of my love for you," said the canon, "your own hands shall achieve the whole work that is to be done."

Glad was the simple priest, and attended to all he was bidden. So, while he was busy, his treacherous companion took out from his bosom a beech coal, which he had privately hollowed out, and put into it some silver filings, stopping them in with wax. This he kept concealed in his hand, and while the priest was busily heaping the coals, "My good friend," said he, "the fire is not piled as it should be, let me manage it, while you wipe the moisture from your face." And as the priest was using the cloth, the canon slipped the coal into the crucible, and began to blow the fire. "Now let us sit down," said he, "and have something to drink, and I answer for it that all will soon be right." When the beech coal was burnt, the filings naturally fell down into the crucible, the priest all the while perfectly innocent of the trick passed upon him.

When the alchymist saw his time, he desired the priest to rise up and stand by him, "And, as I suppose," said he, "you have no ingot by you, go and bring me a piece of chalk, and I will make it into the same form as an ingot. Bring also a bowl or pan full of water, and you shall see how our undertaking will thrive. Yet, in order that you may entertain no suspicion of me, during your absence, I will not leave your side, but go and return with you." So they fastened the chamber door, taking with them the key.

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When they returned, our canon took the chalk and fashioned it into the shape of a thin plate of silver that lay concealed in his sleeve, which he cunningly contrived, undetected by the priest. This he slipped into the crucible on the fire, and after due time turned the whole into the water, desiring his dupe to put in his hand and search, for that he hoped he might find some silver: and what else should there be? A plate of silver is a silver plate, all the world over!

The priest did as he was told, and certainly brought out the metal which the canon had put there. Who was so happy, now, as this poor deluded man? "Heaven's choice blessings reward you, Sir Canon," said he, "and misfortune cleave to me but I will be yours in everything, if you do but vouchsafe to teach me this noble craft."

"I will make a second trial," said the canon, "that you may take notice, and become expert in the art, and at your need essay to do the same at any future time during my absence. Take an ounce of quicksilver, and proceed exactly as you have done with this, which has now become pure silver metal."

The priest blithely set about his work as the canon directed him, who in the meanwhile had ready in his hand a hollow stick, at the end of which was enclosed just an ounce, and no more, of silver filings. These, as before with the coal, were stopped in with wax. And while the priest was busied about his work, the canon, with stick in hand, began to cast the powders into the fire. Then stirring up the materials in the crucible, the wax naturally melted, and the contents quickly dropped out.

When the priest, suspecting nothing but truth, was a

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second time beguiled, he was so rejoiced that I cannot describe his mirth and gladness; and, forthwith, he proffered his all to the canon—body and goods. "Aye, aye!" said the cheat, "poor though I am, you will find me very skilful. There is still more behind. Have you any copper in the house?" "Yes, sir," said he, "I believe there is." "Else go and buy some quickly." He went his way, and returned with the copper, of which the canon weighed out an ounce. This he placed in the crucible and set on the fire, casting in the powder, and made the priest blow the coals, and cower down over his work as before. Afterwards he turned it all into the water, and put in his own hand. In his sleeve, as you have heard me tell already, he had another plate of silver; this he slyly took out, and left at the bottom of the pan; and as he groped and rumbled about in the water, he privately took out the ounce of copper, concealing it away. "Now," said he, "stoop down, and help me as I did you the last time, put your hand in and see what is there." The priest, of course, took out the piece of silver. Then the canon said, "Let us now go with these three plates to some goldsmith, and know if they be worth anything; for, by my hood, I hold that they will prove to be fine silver." The pieces were put to trial by the goldsmith and pronounced what they ought to be.

No one was now more glad than this besotted priest. The roosting bird was not happier at the approach of day; the nightingale at May-tide was never better inclined to sing; or lady more mirthful in her carolling or to speak of love and womanhood; or knight in arms to achieve a hardy deed that he might stand in his lady's

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grace, than was our priest to be taught this craft. "Tell me, I beseech you," said he, "for the love of heaven, what will be the cost of this receipt?"

"By our Lady," said the canon, "it's dear. I assure you that no man in England but myself and a friar can do what you have seen."

"No matter, sir," said the priest, "but tell me, for heaven's sake, what I shall pay you."

"Well, then, I tell you again the secret is a dear one; but, sir, since you desire to possess it, in one word, you shall pay me forty pounds; and I should have charged you more, but for your former friendship towards me."

The priest quickly brought out the forty pounds in nobles, and gave them to the canon for his receipt.

"Now, Sir Priest," said he, "I am only desirous to have my craft kept close; as you love me, therefore, let it remain a secret, for if it were made public people would so envy me and my philosophy that they would certainly take my life."

"Heaven forbid what you say," replied the priest. "I had rather spend all the wealth I have (I were mad else), than you should fall into such mischief."

"For your good will sir," answered the canon, "may you have a prosperous trial of your skill; and so farewell, and many thanks." He went his way, and from that day forth the priest never saw him more. And when he proved the value of his receipt—farewell!—it was nought. So was he befooled and cheated. Thus ends my tale, and God grant to every one an end of his troubles.





172:* It is worthy of remark that in this early stage of science Chaucer should have had the good sense to see through the folly of the art of alchemy, or the power of turning baser metals into gold; which for ages deluded so many people, shrewd ones as well as simple. So lately even as in the time of Steele the wild pursuit was not wholly abandoned; for the author of the Tatler and Spectator, who was acute enough in perceiving the weaknesses of his fellow mortals, could himself be induced to lose that time in the attempt, which a steady employment of his pen, and prudent economy of its proceeds, would have superseded. Steele had the power of working a greater miracle than that of turning lead into gold. He needed but to write words upon paper. The leaden thoughts of some writers, and their success in making account of them, would lead one to conclude that the science of alchemy is no other than an allegory.

173:* A fossil of a bright and beautiful yellow colour, like pure gold.

174:* Vessels used in chemistry for the extracting of oils.

174:† Vessels used in sublimation; that is, separating certain parts of a body, and driving them to the top of a vessel in the form of a very fine powder.

174:‡ A vessel shaped like a gourd (so called from the Latin for that fruit) used in distillation.

174:§ Potter's clay.

177:* A priest employed solely to sing annuals, or anniversary masses for the dead, without having any cure of souls.