Canterbury Tales - Three Young Men and Death
Also known as - The
I have created this version by combining narrative prose and narrative verse. The beginning told with narrative prose and the conclusion in narrative verse as translated by Nevill Coghill. Nevill's translation is located here.
Three Young Men and Death or
The Pardoner's Tale:
Three young revilers without a care in the world except to eat, drink, and party all night. Sat one afternoon on stools in a tavern when they heard the tolling of a hearse's bell as the undertaker transported a coffin to the graveyard. They shouted to the pot boy to run outside to see who it was that was to be buried.
The boy replied that he didn't have to go see that he knew only too well the young lad that was being buried. It was one of your friends that was struck down dead yesterday as he sat where you three are sitting today. Dead drunk he was as Death came and stabbed him in the heart. This same Death who has killed off thousands of folk from around here with the plague in the Big Village about a mile away, everyone - men, women, children, noble and peasants alike. You had best be wary and watch out for him.
So the three mockingly said, "This fellow Death can't be so powerful as to take on the three of us."
One said, "Come let's make a vow that the three of us shall kill him as he has killed our friend."
The other two agreed and said, "Death himself shall die!"
So they staggered off toward the village looking for Death.
When they had gone about half the way to the big village, they came upon an old man dressed in a tattered black robe and stooped by the weight of time.
"Peace and God be with you," greeted the old man with a halting and shaky voice.
"Don't waste your blessings on us," said one.
Another mockingly said, "They don't appear to have done you much good."
"You look like you are moments away from Death yourself." said the third
as the first added, "Looks like it won't be long till you die old man."
Then they demanded he tell them where Death could be found.
The old man tut-tutted at the three men's insolence. "I have traveled to the far reaches of the Earth and I have never been able to find a single man willing to trade his youth for my age. As for dying, I have walked and knocked on many a Death's door with my staff at all hours of day and night asking to let me in, but Death himself will not slay me or let me die from another's hand... It does you a great dishonor to mock an old man who has done nothing to offend you. Better to revere age as you might wish for reverence in your old age, if you live to become old."
"You shall stay until you tell us Death's where abouts for surely a man of your age must be one of his acquaintances sent out to assist in his destruction of so many fine young fellows. Tell us of where he conceals himself while he waits for you to do his biding."
"If you must find him, then over yonder hill and in a valley below under an oak tree. I have left Death, this very day. He is not hard to find. God save you if you change your ways." And with that he left them.
With drunken bravado, they hastened to the old oak tree, to find to their amazed delight, amongst its deep and gnarled roots a glittering pile of golden coins. At the sight of them, our three friends forgot their search for Death and began to discuss how to be off with the coins.
One said, "We can not haul our treasure home in daylight, as other folk might see us and think we are thieves."
Another said, "Then we shall, one of us, go back for wine and bread so we might pass the day merrily till night when we can safely take the gold.
So the third cut three straws and by his conniving the shorter straw came to the youngest, who set off for town.
No sooner was he gone than the one who cut the straws proposed the following treachery:
The rest is reprinted in verse. Nevill Coghill's translation:
As soon as he had gone the first sat down
And thus began a parley with the other:
"You know that you can trust me as a brother;
Now let me tell you where your profit lies;
You know our friend has gone to get supplies
And here's a lot of gold that is to be
Divided equally among us three.
Nevertheless, if I could shape things thus
So that we shared it out—the two of us—
Wouldn't you take it as a friendly act?"
"But how?" the other said. "He knows the fact
That all the gold was left with me and you;
What can we tell him? What are we to do?"
"Is it a bargain," said the first, "or no?
For I can tell you in a word or so
What's to be done to bring the thing about."
"Trust me," the other said, "you needn't doubt
My word. I won't betray you, I'll be true."
"Well," said his friend, "you see that we are two,
And two are twice as powerful as one.
Now look; when he comes back, get up in fun
To have a wrestle; then, as you attack,
I'll up and put my dagger through his back
While you and he are struggling, as in game;
Then draw your dagger too and do the same.
Then all this money will be ours to spend,
Divided equally of course, dear friend.
Then we can gratify our lusts and fill
The day with dicing at our own sweet will."
Thus these two miscreants agreed to slay
The third and youngest, as you heard me say.
The youngest, as he ran towards the town,
Kept turning over, rolling up and down
Within his heart the beauty of those bright
New florins, saying, "Lord, to think I might
Have all that treasure to myself alone!
Could there be anyone beneath the throne
Of God so happy as I then should be?"
And so the Fiend, our common enemy,
Was given power to put it in his thought
That there was always poison to be bought,
And that with poison he could kill his friends.
To men in such a state the Devil sends
Thoughts of this kind, and has a full permission
To lure them on to sorrow and perdition;
For this young man was utterly content
To kill them both and never to repent.
And on he ran, he had no thought to tarry,
Came to the town, found an apothecary
And said, "Sell me some poison if you will,
I have a lot of rats I want to kill
And there's a polecat too about my yard
That takes my chickens and it hits me hard;
But I'll get even, as is only right,
With vermin that destroy a man by night."
The chemist answered, "I've a preparation
Which you shall have, and by my soul's salvation
If any living creature eat or drink
A mouthful, ere he has the time to think,
Though he took less than makes a grain of wheat,
You'll see him fall down dying at your feet;
Yes, die he must, and in so short a while
You'd hardly have the time to walk a mile,
The poison is so strong, you understand."
This cursed fellow grabbed into his hand
The box of poison and away he ran
Into a neighboring street, and found a man
Who lent him three large bottles. He withdrew
And deftly poured the poison into two.
He kept the third one clean, as well he might,
For his own drink, meaning to work all night
Stacking the gold and carrying it away.
And when this rioter, this devil's clay,
Had filled his bottles up with wine, all three,
Back to rejoin his comrades sauntered he.
Why make a sermon of it? Why waste breath?
Exactly in the way they'd planned his death
They fell on him and slew him, two to one.
Then said the first of them when this was done,
"Now for a drink. Sit down and let's be merry,
For later on there'll be the corpse to bury."
And, as it happened, reaching for a sup,
He took a bottle full of poison up
And drank; and his companion, nothing loth,
Drank from it also, and they perished both.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Pardoner's Tale, from Canterbury Tales,
Middle English narrative poem.