All the time that Dame Rukenaw had been speaking Reynard had stood silent with bent head, like one confused. But when he heard the king's voice bidding him explain Cuwaert's death, he raised his head and said:.
"What is this you say of my poor friend Cuwaert? Twice have you told me that he is dead. Is it true, and shall I never see him again?"
The king looked at him sternly, but Reynard boldly met his gaze.
"You know it full well, Reynard," said King Nobel. "Did you not send Bellyn the Ram to me with Cuwaert's head in a bag?".
"I cannot understand," said Reynard, in a puzzled way. "Where, then, is Bellyn? I pledged my honour he should come safe to you."
"He came surely enough," said the king grimly, "but you will never see him again, for I condemned him to death as a traitor and a fool."
"But the jewels!" said Reynard wonderingly. "Did he bring the jewels safely to Your Majesty?"
The king picked up his ears. "What is that?" he asked. "The jewels? What jewels do you mean?"
"I gave him three jewels to carry to my lord," said Reynard, "three jewels worth a king's ransom. And for the better safety of them, because I knew Bellyn the Ram to be thick-witted at his best, I sealed them in the small bag Your Majesty gave me to bear with me to Rome."
By this time both the king and queen and most of the court also were all agog with excitement.
"I pray Your Majesty do not tell me my precious jewels are lost," cried Reynard pleadingly. "Oh, they were gems beyond compare. No others were there in the world like them for beauty or worth. Alas that I was born! Oh, poor me!"
"Come, come, Reynard!" said Dame Rukenaw. "Do not give way. You will not find your jewels again by crying about them. Describe them to us, and perhaps we shall find a way to win them back."
"They were for my gracious lord, the king," said Reynard in a broken voice, "for the king and his sweet spouse, my lady queen. They were a part of the treasure of Krekynpit, and I had kept them a long time hidden in a secret place in my castle. It was to get them that I broke my journey to Rome."
"What were they like?" cried the queen. "Tell me quickly, dear Reynard, I pray you. Were they of great worth?"
"Not all the treasure of this realm could buy them," answered Reynard,: for each jewel had magic powers of its own. Listen while I tell you what they were. The first was a ring made of fine gold. Inside it were engraved three words in a strange tongue, which I could not read. I showed them, however, to a wise man once, and he told me that whoever wore that ring should never come to harm by thunder or lightning, neither could heat burn, nor cold freeze him. On the top of the ring was set a gem coloured in three tints red, white and green. And the red part of the stone was a charm against darkness, so that the owner of the ring had but to touch it and his way was illumined on the blackest night. The white part of the stone was even more powerful, for if a man had any disease of his body he had but to touch the unhealthy part with this ring and he was made whole again. And the green part of the stone that was a potent charm in war-time, for the owner of the ring who bore it on his finger need never fear the thrust of the enemy's weapon. No spear could pierce, no arrow wound him; he was invincible in war."
"Ah, me," the king answered," that such a ring should be lost to me! Go on, dear Reynard. The second jewel – what was that?"
"A wonder, sire, that would have made the queen's heart glad. It was a comb of gold, fit to touch Her Majesty's beautiful hair as no other comb in the world may be! A comb of gold, most marvellously fashioned, with big teeth and small teeth. And on the back of it were histories – wonderfully carved tales of the heroes of old of Troy Town, and fair Helen, and Paris the false and fair. To think that such a gem of workmanship lost!"
The queen said, "Oh, Reynard, why did you entrust such a treasure to such a messenger?"
"How could I know?" answered Reynard. "And I have not told you all about that comb yet. For whoever used it, her tresses should never lose their youthful colour or turn grey with age."
"And the third treasure," broke in the king, "what about that?"
"That also was for the queen, Your Majesty," said Reynard. "It was a mirror of polished crystal glass. Whoever looked into that mirror could see what was done by man or beast a mile away, and if he had any disease of the eye he was at once cured of it. The frame was of ebony, wrought with gold and inset with jewels, and on it, too, were carved many wonderful histories.
"There was first the history of the horse and hart.
"The horse was in full chase after a hart, and the hart outran him, and the horse was angry. So, meeting a herdsman, the horse said to him," Leave your sheep and help me to catch this hart. When we have caught him I will give him to you, and you can sell his hide and horns!"
"'I should like it very well,' said the herdsman, 'but how are we to catch him?'
"'Jump on my back,' said the horse, 'and I will show you.'
"The herdsman took a rope for a bridle, and jumped on the horse's back, and they rode after the hart, but they could not catch him.
"At last the horse said, 'It is no use, he is too swift for us. Let me rest now, for I am indeed winded.'
"But the man said, 'I have a bridle in your mouth, and I am your master. I will subdue you, and from now on you shall carry me where I will, for it is better to ride than to walk.'
"So the horse was taken captive into slavery, and he has been a slave to man ever since.
"And there was graven on the mirror yet another tale of the donkey and the hound. Both lived with a certain rich man. Now the man loved his hound, and would often play with him, but he never played with the donkey, and when the donkey saw this he said to himself:.
"'I wonder what my master sees in this fool of a hound to make such a fuss about? I do more work in a day than he does in a year, yet he sits by him at table and feeds on the choicest foods, while I have nothing to eat but thistles and nettles, and no bed but the hard ground. I have seen him leap upon my master and lick his face. Perhaps that is why he is loved so dearly. I will do the same, and try to earn my master's love.".
"So the next time the man came in the donkey leapt upon him and grinned and brayed, and planted one of his hoofs in his master's ear, and the other one in his master's eye. And he tried to lick his face with his long tongue. "The man cried out in fear:.
"' Help! Help! This villain donkey will slay me. Come quickly!"
"So the servants came with thick cudgels and beat the poor donkey soundly. Sadly he went back to his stable and ate again of his nettles and thistles.
"And there is yet another story of my father and Tybert the Cat, which is written on the mirror.
"My father and Tybert were once great friends. They hunted together and swore never to part one from the other. And one day the huntsmen and the hounds came after them, and they had to fly for their lives.
"Do not fear, Tybert," said my father, as they sped along. "I have a sackful of tricks to play on these huntsmen. Trust to me.".
"Tybert was very much afraid, and he replied, 'Alas! I have but one trick, and I must trust to that.'
"So when the huntsmen came on, my father tried each of his tricks in turn, but nothing came of them. But the cat played his one trick with success, for he climbed a tree and hid among the leaves, and laughed at the huntsmen as they scurried by. My poor father doubled and turned, but it was no use. The cat cried out and mocked him, and said, 'Come, Reynard, untie your bag of tricks and let me see them.' My father only just managed to escape with his life by running into a hole, and ever since then I and my kin have hated Tybert the Cat.
"These and many more histories every whit as interesting were graven on that mirror. I intended it for you, Good Queen, and well would it have beguiled many an idle hour. Ah, woe is me that it is lost!"
"But did you give these treasures to Bellyn?" asked the king excitedly.
"Yes, to Bellyn, and sealed in a bag. With Bellyn I sent Cuwaert the Hare to run before and bring the news to Your Majesty of the coming of my gifts. Little did I think when I bade farewell to Cuwaert that the faithful creature was so near his death. I loved him best of all. Bellyn, too, was my friend, and both of them have come to their end through me. I cry for justice upon the murderer, O King. Perhaps he is here among us even now. If so, let him tremble, for though he place the world between us I will find him out and run him down. He was wily to kill the hare and fool poor Bellyn into taking his friend's head instead of the jewels to court, but his wile will be no match for mine. I will have vengeance, I swear it!"
Then all the court was silent, pondering this new tale that Reynard had told. But the king and queen could think of nothing but the jewels – the king of the ring that would give him power, and the queen of the comb and the mirror that would bring her beauty and pleasure.
Reynard saw that his tale of the three wonderful jewels had awakened interest in the minds of the king and the queen and was very glad, but he was far too cunning to show his pleasure. He kept still a stern, grave face, and after a little silence began to speak again. "Do you still doubt my faith, king?" he said. "Who among all your friends is there who would bring you such precious gifts? My wife wept when she saw me put the jewels in the bag to send to Your Majesty, for, woman-like, she treasured them exceedingly and especially the mirror. Well do I know who has poisoned your heart against me – it is that treacherous thief, Isegrim the Wolf, who has always hated me and would work my ruin if he could!"
Isegrim glared at Reynard and showed his teeth in a wicked snarl. If looks could kill, Reynard would have died that day. As it was, however, he took no notice of the wolf's scowls, and went on speaking.
"There was a time, Your Majesty, and not so very long ago, when you knew well how to judge between the wolf and me. Do you remember that day when the wolf and I were in the forest together? We had caught a pig, and were about to make our dinner from it when Your Majesty and Mylady Queen came out of a grove and prayed us to give you a part. You had been out hunting, and had caught nothing, and you were very hungry.
"How did I answer you? 'Yes, lord,' I said, 'with a good will.' But the wolf growled out sulkily like the ill-mannered cur that he is, and took a half of the pig for himself and left only a quarter each for you and the queen. Do you remember? And he gave me only the skinny part of the pig's tail for my dinner. And I was very hungry, lord. Bad luck to him for being such a greedy knave!.
"And what was half a pig between you and the queen? You remember how you ate it up quickly and asked for more, and when he neither gave nor offered you any you lifted up your right foot and kicked him till he howled for mercy. Then you said to him, "Make haste and bring us some more food, and we will see that the next meal is shared better.".
"I went with him, and it was not long before we killed a fat calf, and brought it back to you. Then you praised me, and said I was swift in hunting, and bade me deal out the meat. So I dealt it out, saying, 'One half the meat shall be for the king and the other half for the queen. Isegrim shall have the head and I will have the feet.".
"Then you said to me, 'Well done, Reynard! Who taught you to share so well?'
"And I answered, 'I learnt it from seeing the sores of Isegrim where you kicked him, my lord. I think his groans at night come from being knocked by Your Majesty.'
"Next you were well pleased and took me into favour, but you sent Isegrim about his business and would have nothing more to do with him. And you were wise in that. This was not the only time that I proved my worth to you in days gone by. I could recall many more things to your mind if it would not take too long. Now, alas, you have forsaken me, who was always your friend, and believe the lies my enemies tell of me."
Here Reynard broke down and sobbed, while large tears rolled down his cheeks.
"Come, Reynard," said the king kindly. "Do not give way. I am far from believing everything I hear, you know. As a matter of fact, now I come to think of it, all that I know of Cuwaert's death is the fact that Bellyn brought his head here in a bag. There is no proof that you had anything to do with the killing of him.
The wolf had been boiling with rage all the time that Reynard had been speaking, and could keep silence no longer.
"Do not be deceived, king," he burst out. "Every word this false fox utters is a lie. Listen while I tell you what he did to my poor wife.
"One cold winter's day, when food was hard to get, he met my wife in the forest, and asked her if she liked fish. She said she did. So Reynard told her that he would show her how she might catch plenty of them. 'All you have to do,' he said," is to go out into the middle of the river and make a hole in the ice. Then sit down over the hole and let your tail dangle in the water, and before long so many fish will bite at it that there will be enough and to spare for four people!'
"Well, my lord, my poor, trusting wife did as the villain told her. She made a hole in the ice, let her tail down in the water, and sat there for many hours. But she never caught any fish. Then, when she got tired of waiting and tried to get away, she found that her tail was frozen hard into the ice, and she could not move. She tugged and tugged, but it was all in vain, and every time she tugged it hurt her dreadfully, my lord! I heard her screaming, and came to her aid, and as soon as Reynard saw me he ran away, laughing. I got her out at last, but she had to leave the end of her tail behind, and the noise she made brought every man within a mile on our track. It was only by good luck that we escaped death. What has the villain to say to that?"
Reynard turned his eyes to heaven. "How they slander me!" he sighed. "Here is the truth of the matter. It is true that I taught the wolf's wife to catch fish with her tail, and a very good trick it is. But like her husband, she is eaten up with greediness, and though she caught many fish, she was not content and wanted more. So she stayed on the ice till her tail was frozen in. Can I be blamed for her foolishness?"
The wolf's wife, who had been listening, was so angry that she could hardly speak. "You are a false, ungrateful rogue, Reynard," said she. "This is how you repay me for saving your life! What about that time when I found you at the bottom of a well? You had fallen in, and you were seated in a bucket at the bottom to keep yourself out of the water, and whining for help. I heard your cries, and asked you how you came to be in such a plight.
"'I came down to look for fish,' you answered, 'and I have eaten so many that I am full to bursting. Now I am so heavy I cannot get up.'
"'How shall I help you?" I asked.
"Then you said, 'Get into the other bucket, Aunt, and come to me." And I got into the other bucket, and it fell quickly with my weight; and as I went down you came up, till I was at the bottom and you were at the top.
"Then you got out of the well and grinned down at me, and said, 'So the world wags, dear Aunt; one goes up and another goes down.' And with that you went away. As for me, I had to stay there till I was nearly dead with the cold. A man came at last and wound up the bucket, and pulled me out, and would have killed me; and although I escaped him, he gave me so many hard blows that I was sore for many a day."
The fox grinned slily when Dame Ersewin finished her tale. "Well, Aunt," he said, "I don't see what you have got to grumble about. Did I not teach you wisdom? It is true that you had some hard blows, but one must always suffer to be wise, and I had rather you had them than I. At any rate, you learnt not to believe everything that was told you."
The wolf's wife growled, and Isegrim spoke up again.
"See how he mocks at us again, my lord," he cried. "Many a time has he brought me into trouble. See, I have only one ear; the other was torn away by the she-ape, and all because of him. Ask him about it, and let him speak the truth for once in his life."
"I have nothing to hide," answered Reynard. "Here is the truth of that matter:.
"One day the wolf came to me and complained that he was very hungry, and begged me to find him some food. So we went off together in search of it, and travelled half the day, but found nothing. Then at last I spied a big hole in the bank, half hidden by branches, and heard a growling noise from within it.
"'Go in, Isegrim,' I said, 'and see if there is anything to eat in there.'.
"But he was trembling like a kitten, and said, 'I would not go in for the king's crown.'.
Then I, small and weak, crept into the hole to face the danger, while he, the great hulking coward, stayed outside in safety.
The hole was very dark, and it was full of the most horrible smell I have ever smelled. All the time I crept forward the fierce growling continued. I was a little afraid, but I kept on. At last I saw a great she-ape, as strong and ugly a beast as ever I set eyes on. Near her were three little apes, and they were uglier than their mother, but if anything could smell more horrible than she did it was those children of hers. I was almost overcome with the stench, but I spoke quite politely, and said," Good morning, dear aunt! How do you do, and your lovely children?".
"She was pleased at this and smiled at me with big teeth, my lord. 'Welcome, Reynard.' she answered. "Stay here awhile and teach my little ones some of your tricks.".
"But I told her I was in a hurry and could not stay just then; but that I would come again some other day. So then she took me to her larder, where she kept a good supply of meat of all kinds, and bade me eat my fill. And when I was satisfied she gave me a big piece to take home to my wife, and bade me a fair good day.
"When I came out of the cave I found Isegrim groaning with hunger. So I took pity on him, and gave him my piece of meat, and he gobbled it down in two mo'thfuls.
"'Where did you get it, Reynard?' he asked.
"'In the cave,' said I. 'A she-ape gave it to me, and she has plenty more. Go you in and get some. But be careful, and praise her children, for she loves them.".
"Then Isegrim crept into the hole. But when he smelt the smell of the cave and saw the ugliness of the little apes, he cried out,"Oh, go and drown them quickly. They make my hair stand on end. I came here for some meat, not to gaze upon such filthy brats!"
"When the she-ape heard this she was angry, and quite right, too. She sprang upon the wolf, and tore him with her claws, and bit off one of his ears. It serves him right, I say, for being such an ill-mannered cur."
At this the wolf fairly raved with fury.
"I will stand no more of it," he cried. "We will see who is the traitor. Here and now I challenge you to mortal combat. Let us prove by ordeal of battle which of us is worthy."
When Reynard heard the wolf challenge him to fight, he felt afraid. "He is ever so much stronger than I am," he thought. "I shall never be able to stand against him in open battle, and it does not seem to me as if my cunning will be of very much use."
To refuse the challenge, however, would, of course, be to turn the king against him, so he had no choice but to accept it with the best grace he could muster.
Then the king bade the two choose their attendants. Reynard chose Grimbert the Badger and the young ape Betelas, son of Dame Rukenaw. Isegrim chose Bruin the Bear and Tybert the Cat. The battle was fixed for the next day, and both sides went away at once to get ready.
That same evening Dame Rukenaw came to Reynard and asked him how he felt. He looked at her dolefully, and shook his head. "The wolf is very strong," said he.
"Come now," said Dame Rukenaw. "Keep up your heart. You are a long way from dead yet. I have made up my mind that you shall win tomorrow, and I am going to help you."
Then she took a razor and very carefully shaved every hair from off Reynard's body, till he stood so smooth and thin that his own mother would not have known him. This done, Dame Rukenaw brought a flask of oil and rubbed it over his body till he was as slippery as an eel.
"Now then," said she, "that is the beginning. You are a little harder to get hold of than you were before, my dear Reynard, and I am thinking that Isegrim is going to get the surprise of his life. Now listen carefully to what I am going to say.
"The wolf is stronger than you, and he knows it. If once you allow him to come to close grips with you, you are as good as dead. What you have to do is to keep at a distance at the very beginning. Pretend to run away, and when he runs after you flop dust in his eyes with your tail. But be very careful that he does not seize your tail with his teeth. Keep your ears down flat to your head so that his claws cannot get at them, and dance in and out and round and round so that he will tire himself trying to get at you. And now, my dear Reynard, you had better lie down and get some sleep, for you will need all your strength in the morning."
Reynard thanked his aunt and made himself a couch in some dry fern. Here he lay down and slept soundly.
Early the next morning Reynard's cousin, the otter, came and brought him a fine fat duck for his breakfast. Reynard ate it with a good appetite and washed it down with a draught of cold water from the stream. Then he set off for the place of battle.
A great space had been prepared in front of the king's throne. Roound about, in a ring, stood all the animals who had come to see the fight. When the king saw Reynard, all smooth and oily, he gave a great roar of laughter.
"Ho, ho! Reynard!" he said, "You are a wily fox if ever there was one. No doubt you know what you are doing, yet I swear by my head that I never in my life saw an uglier beast than you have made of yourself!"
Reynard said nothing, but he lifted the corner of his lips in a savage grin, and presently the wolf came out, and the King gave the signal for the battle to begin.
Isegrim wasted no time. With a savage growl he sprang forward at Reynard, trying to strike him with his fore-paws, but Reynard was too quick for him, and jumped aside. Again the wolf sprang, and this time Reynard turned and ran away as fast as he could with Isegrim after him. Round and round the combat arena they leaped, the wolf attacking and attacking. Now and again Reynard slackened pace and let the wolf come nearly up to him; but each time as Isegrim raised his paws to strike, Reynard struck his tail on the ground and raised such a cloud of dust and sand that before long his enemy was half-blinded.
At last the wolf had to stop to rub the dust out of his eyes, but no sooner had he done so than Reynard turned in a flash and bit him three times in the neck.
"Now," said Reynard, "you are at my mercy. Kneel down and crave my pardon, and I will spare your life."
For answer the wolf gave a roar of anger, and, lifting up his foot, struck Reynard such a terrible blow on his head that he fell stunned to the ground. It was only for a moment, however. Before Isegrim could follow up his advantage Reynard was on his feet again, and thanks to his slippery body, wriggled out of the wolf's grasp before he could do him any great harm.
So, for a long time the fight went on. Ten times the wolf managed to get the fox at close grips, but each time his teeth and claws slipped in Reynard's well-oiled body, and he could not deal him a serious wound. At last, as he was running round and round, Reynard's foot slipped, and, in a moment the wolf was on him, bearing him down with his weight.
Now all seemed ended to Reynard, and he felt the terror of death in his heart. He squirmed and wriggled like an eel, and, though he could not get away, he managed to turn on his back, and raising his hind leg, he scratched the wolf in the face with his sharp claws.
"You villain," howled the wolf. "You have put out my eye."
"All the better!" panted Reynard, "you will only have one to wink with in the future, and it will save you a lot ot trouble."
For answer the wolf redoubled his efforts to seize Reynard by the throat; but, what with the slippery body and the clawing hind-feet, he could not succeed.
"I have you now!" he kept on saying. "In a minute I shall kill you." And, indeed things looked very bad for poor Reynard, who, try as he might, could not get free. He put his wits to work while the struggle went on. The wolf managed to bite his head.
"Well, are you beaten?" he said.
"What's the use of my saying I am beaten if you are going to kill me?" asked Reynard. "If you were a knightly foe it would be different; you would know that it is a base thing to slay a vanquished enemy."
"I will kill you with as little pity as one shows to vermin," said the wolf grimly. "Do not think to play any more of your tricks on me I know you too well. You will never make a fool of me again!"
Now, it is unwise to make long speeches when one is fighting. Talk wastes the breath and takes up the attention. Just as the wolf said the last words Reynard saw his chance, and doubling forward swiftly, he fixed his teeth in the wolfs throat. Isegrim, already weak with loss of blood, and half dead with fatigue, fell back in a swoon, and the fox sprang free. For a moment he stood warily waiting, then, finding that his enemy did not rise, he seized him by the legs and dragged him round the combat arena in triumph, so that everybody could see that he was victor.
Now, what a cheer went up from all the animals who were watching. Reynard's friends shouted with delight, and even those who hated the fox cheered too, because they were afraid to be silent. But Isegrim 's brother ran to the king and begged him to stop the fight and save the wolf's life, and this the king did.
You are victor now, Reynard," he said, "victor in a fair-fought fight, and mercy well becomes a conqueror. I charge you, let the wolf go free."
So Bruin the Bear and Tybert the Cat came and bore the senseless form of Isegrim away on a litter. They took him to a secret place in the woods and dressed his hurts, and brought the cleverest doctor among all the animals to attend him. And it turned out after all that the wolf was not seriously wounded, although he was badly scratched and torn, and before long the doctor was able to send a messenger to his wife to say that he would live. Reynard, too, went away with Dame Rukenaw, who bathed his wounds and praised him for following her commands so well.
"It is a good thing for you that you had me on your side," said she, "else things would have gone ill with you today."
"I know it, Aunt," replied Reynard, "and I shall always be grateful."
The next day Reynard, followed by all his kith and kin, went to pay his homage to the king, and the lion smiled upon him and did him honour.
"Sir Reynard," he said, "you have borne yourself right nobly. I raise you to the office of a peer in my realm, and I am sure you will occupy it well. Now you are free to go where you will."
And Reynard answered: "King, I heed you above all others. Not for all its treasures would I be unfaithful to you."
A little while later, headed by a band of music, Reynard and all his friends made their way to his castle of Malpertuis, where he set a great feast for them that lasted many days. His wife was glad to see him, and she was proud of her husband, for his wit and cunning were greater than those of any other creature.
A wise man wrote down these tales of a fox nearly a thousand years ago. He wanted to tell how a cunning guy may become a nobleman and rule over stupids. Who is most ruthless may rise to power – and honour follows power as night follows day.