Boccaccio's "The Horse Trade"

"None of us love by deliberate choice but from appetite and pleasure."—Giovanni Boccaccio
Early in the fourteenth century, at a town near Florence, a young man of undistinguished birth was in love with the beautiful but virtuous wife of a knight, the member of a powerful family. Although the young man was of insignificant background he was rich, and went around so finely dressed that everyone called him Beau.

It was widely known that Beau loved the lady. He’d tried everything to get her attention, he’d even serenaded her, but she ignored him.

Now, her husband the knight was very tight with his money. He had just been appointed mayor of Milan, and had everything he needed for the journey, except a horse fine enough for a new mayor to arrive on, which troubled him. His friends said, “Look, Beau has one of the best-looking horses in Tuscany, and he adores your wife. He’ll give it to you just to please her.” 

So the knight sent for Beau, and offered to buy the horse. Beau said, “Not for everything you own would I sell this horse. But I’ll give him to you, on one condition. Let me speak with your wife in private. You can be there, but you and your staff must be far enough off that you can’t hear.” He smiled.

The knight smiled. He saw a chance to trick this young fool, and left him in the great hall while he went upstairs to his wife and told her how easily he was getting the horse. “Go down and see him, but do not,” he warned her, “speak to him. No matter what he says, do not answer.”

The lady didn’t like this game, it was beneath her dignity, but her husband wanted it, so she went down with him to the hall and sat with Beau out of everyone else’s hearing.

Beau said, “I know you know I love you. You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, and it’s not just the way you look, it’s your nobility of manner, your graces, your strengths. No one loves anyone as I love you, and if you loved me in the same way we would have something eternal. Command me. There is nothing in your life you can count on as you can on me. Let me prove it. 

“Through your beauty, I live. If you don’t turn even slightly toward me, I’ll fade and die. And you’ll be known as a murderess. And your conscience will hurt you. And the pain will be all the deeper, because it will be too late. Can I hope that I’ve won you just a little?” And he wept. 

For the first time, she was moved by Beau. A softness came into her eyes that gladdened him. But she didn’t answer. He waited. The wistfulness in her look grew and grew. She sighed and shrugged. But she didn’t speak, and Beau began to suspect something. He looked over at the knight, sitting across the hall with a smug smile on his face, and saw what had happened. All right, he could play the game. He would do her speaking for her.

“My dear Beau,” said Beau, “I’ve always known how much you love me, and I’ve always rejoiced in your love, though I couldn’t show it. I have a position to keep, duties to perform, a reputation to protect. But please, don’t weep! My husband is going to Milan in a few days on the horse you gave him because you love me, and we’ll be together!

“We won’t see each other meanwhile, so mark me well now: when I hang two towels out of my bedroom window, come at night to the garden gate, and be sure no one sees you. I’ll be waiting.”

The lady couldn’t help but smile at this performance, and Beau resumed his own voice:

“Oh, my excellent lady, I can hardly speak! Words can’t tell what I feel! I can only say that I shall obey your instructions, and when next we meet I will thank you as you deserve.”

She restrained her smile and lowered her eyes, and he rose and walked to the knight, who stood and came toward him. “Well, how did it go?”

“Huh! You promised me your wife, and you gave me a marble statue.”

The knight smiled that his wife was so faithful. “So the horse is mine.”

“If I’d known what was going to happen,” said Beau, “I’d have given him to you. As it is, you bought him without my selling him.”

The knight laughed, and a few days later rode off to Milan for six months. And the lady, alone, kept turning over Beau’s speech, arguing for it, arguing against it, watching him pass the house. You’re only young once, she told herself. But suppose I get caught! Well, better to do it and regret it than not to do it and regret it. So she hung out the towels.

And that night Beau found the gate open, and went in, and found a door to the house open, and went in, and found the lady waiting for him, and—well.

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