Boccaccio's "The Husband"

“While farmers generally allow one rooster for ten hens, ten men are scarcely sufficient to service one woman.” —Giovanni Boccaccio

In fourteenth-century Florence, you could be killed for committing adultery. Nevertheless, the beautiful and elegant Lady Isabella, wife of a rich and powerful knight who bored her, took a lover, a young man not of her class, named Leonetto.

Another knight, Signore Lambertuccio, also powerful, also boring, also wanted her. Who didn’t? But she found herself unable to respond. He sent her message after message, with no result. Finally, he resorted to threatening her: unless she complied he would ruin her reputation, which would be a dangerous state of affairs. She knew what a ruthless man he was, so she resigned herself to yielding to him.

In the Florentine way, she spent the summers at her country estate, and when her husband rode off on business she sent for Leonetto, who quickly and eagerly arrived. But Signore Lambertuccio happened to hear of her husband’s absence, and immediately mounted up and rode to the estate, where he knocked at the gate. Her maidservant looked out at him and hurried to the door of Isabella’s bedroom where she was engaged with Leonetto.

Madonna,” she called, “Signore Lambertuccio has arrived—alone.”

Isabella sat up. “Uh-huh.” She hustled Leonetto behind the bed curtains and told him to stay quiet until Lambertuccio had gone, and Leonetto, who like everyone feared the signore, trembled and obeyed. 

“Go down and open the gate,” she told the maidservant, who did so, and the signore rode in, dismounted, tied his horse and went inside, while Isabella dressed and got to the head of the stairs to meet him. “What a surprise! What brings you here?”

“Well, I heard your husband was away, so I thought I’d—come over.” He skipped up the stairs, took her by the waist, and they went into her bedroom and locked the door. And Leonetto, not daring to breathe, watched as Lambertuccio enjoyed himself on her person.

The maidservant, meanwhile, looked out and saw the husband coming back. She knocked at the bedroom door. “Madonna, the master is here. He’s in the courtyard.” 

Isabella sat up. “Uh-huh. You left your horse downstairs?” Lambertuccio nodded. “Oh, well. I’ve enjoyed my life. I must say, you’re not my favorite way to say good-bye to it.” She smiled dimly at him. “No. Wait.” 

She jumped out of bed and paced, thinking. “All right, here’s what I want you to do. Get your sword in your hand. No, that one. Run downstairs, wave it around and say, ‘I’ll get that bastard! Wherever he is, I’ll get him!’ If he tries to stop you just say it again. Keep saying it. Don’t say anything else. Get on your horse and ride away. Go on, go on, go on, do it, do it, do it!”

The signore, still flushed with pleasure, and annoyed at the interruption, did look angry enough as he charged down past the husband. “Signore Lambertuccio! What are you doing here?”

“I’ll get that bastard! Wherever he is, I’ll get him!” And he jumped on his horse and rode away. The husband watched him go, and went into the house where, at the top of the stairs was his wife, much in distress.

“What’s going on? Who is he so angry at?”

He climbed up to her and she led him into the bedroom, trying to calm her racing heart, and not altogether acting. “Some stranger,” she said, “a young man, came running into the house and up the stairs, terrified! Then Lambertuccio rushed in with his sword in the air! ‘Where is he!’ The young man found my room open and ran in! ‘Please,’ he said. ‘don’t let me be killed!’

“‘What’s wrong?’ I said, but Lambertuccio tore upstairs shouting and I went to the door. ‘Where are you, you bastard!’ He tried to come in, but I said, ‘Signore Lambertuccio, really! This is my bedroom!’ I must say he behaved like a gentleman. He searched the other rooms and ran out.”

“You did well,” said her husband, “to keep someone from being murdered here. But it was not gentlemanly to pursue a man who came to my house for protection! Where is he?”

“I don’t know!”

“Come out, young man,” called the knight. “You’re safe.” Leonetto, still trembling, and not altogether acting, peeked out from behind the curtains. “What trouble do you have with Signore Lambertuccio?”

“Really, it’s beyond me! He must take me for someone else. He saw me in the street, drew his sword and said, ‘You bastard, you must die!’ I didn’t wait to ask why, I ran as fast as I could. This lady saved my life!”

“All right, I’ll lend you a horse and take you back to Florence.” And so they had supper and rode back together. And as soon as he got there Leonetto went to see Signore Lambertuccio, and told him as much as he needed to know, and the husband never found out.

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