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From Early English Romances: Done Into Modern English by Edith Rickert: Romances of Love, Chatto and Windus: London, Duffield & Co.: London, 1908; pp. 47-57, 182-182.
WE read often, and clerks know well, lays that be made for the harp of ferly things, some of war and woe, and some of joy and mirth, some of treachery and guile and adventures that befell long ago, some of jests and ribaldry, and many of faërie and all things that men meet in their lives, but chiefly, indeed, of love. These lays were made in Britain in olden times; for whenever a king heard of any marvel he took his harp and made a lay thereof, and gave it name.
Of these adventures I can tell some, but not all; and I know the story of Le Freine, which was a strange chance that befell in Britain. In English, the name means Ash, and the tale is a fair ensample of olden days.
In the West Country dwelled two men, alike rich and just-dealing, each with his wedded wife.
Now the one lady became with child and in due course was delivered; whereupon the knight thanked Almighty God, and called a messenger and bade him: “Haste thee to my neighbour with my greetings, and pray that he come to me and stand sponsor.”
Accordingly, the messenger went on his way, and found the knight at meat in the hall, and greeted him fair, also his lady and his household. Then he kneeled down and bespake the lord: “He bids thee come and for his love be sponsor.”48
“Is his lady safely unbound?”
“Yes, sir, God be thanked the while!”
“And whether a maid-child or a knave?”
“Two sons, sir — God keep them!”
Thereupon the knight was glad, and thanked God heartily, and granted he messenger’s errand, and gave him a palfrey for his tidings.
But the lady of the house was a proud and envious dame, full of falsehood and mockery, touchy and scornful,1 and bitterly jealous of any other woman; and she spake these slanderous words: “I wonder, messenger, who gave thy lord counsel to send about and tell his shame in every place; for if his wife hath had two children, well may folk know thereby that two men have lain in her bower, and that is dishonour to them both!”2
The messenger was sore ashamed; and the knight himself was deeply vexed, and rebuked his lady for speaking such slander of any woman. And all the women who heard her cursed her, and besought God in heaven for His Seven Holy Names’ sake that if ever she had child, a worse adventure might come upon her.
Soon after, it fell out that she herself was with child, and when God willed she was unbound and safely delivered.
But when she knew that she had two maid-children, she 49 was in deep trouble. “Alas!” she cried, “for this evil hap? I have given mine own doom! Evil betides a woman who speaks ill of another. I judged my neighbour falsely, and this same foul chance hath fallen on me! Alas,” she said, “that I was born! I am forlorn without end!3 Either I must say that two men have lain by me, or that I have slandered my neighbour’s wife, or I must — God forbid! — help to slay mine own child! One of these three evils I must needs say or do: if I confess that I have had a lover, I belie myself, and shall be held light and false of tongue by young and old! I had best take my chance — kill the child, and do penance after!”
She called the nurse to her and said: ‘Make away with this babe, and say wherever thou goest, that I had but the one, and no more.”
The nurse answered that she neither could nor would do such a thing.
[Now4 the lady had a noble maiden who had been brought up there and fostered for many a year; and she beheld her mistress with this sorry cheer, weeping and sighing and crying out “Alas!” and thought to help her in her plight, and said: “Not for anything would I grieve thus! I will carry one of the children away, and leave it at convent; and so shalt thou suffer no shame. And may whoso findeth the little one, keep it for God’s love and Our Lady’s sake!”]50
To this the dame agreed, and straightway wished that it were done. She took a rich mantle that her lord had brought from Constantine,5 and lapped the little maid therein, and took a ring of fine gold which she knit about its right arm with a silken lace, so that whoever found the babe might know it came of noble kind.
At eventide, the maiden took the child and stole away. All the winter-long night she passed over a wild heath,6 and through field and forest. The weather was clear and the moon shone. Presently, as she waxed weary, she came to a wood-side, and there rested a while.
But soon after, she heard cocks crowing and dogs barking, and going towards the sounds she beheld walls and houses a many, and a church with a fair high steeple. There was neither street nor town, but only a convent, the home of an order of nuns pledged to serve God, day and night.
The maid tarried no longer, and weeping said her orison: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Thou who hearest the prayers of sinful man, accept this gift, and help this blessed innocent to be christened, for love of Mary, Thy Mother!”
She looked up, and saw close by a fair, tall ash-tree, many-branched and hollow of trunk, as they so often are. Therein she laid the child out of the cold, all happed7 50 as it was in the fur; and with all her heart she blessed it.
As it began to dawn, with the birds up and singing on the branches, and acre-men going to the plough, the maiden returned again by the way she had come.
Presently the abbey-porter bestirred him, and did his office in the close: he rang the bell, lit the tapers, laid forth the books, and had all things in readiness. As he undid the church door, he saw at once the fur lying in the tree. He thought that thieves might have stolen it somewhere, and then fled and left it behind them; so he hastened thither, and unfolded it, and found the maid-child within. He took it up in his two hands, and thanked Christ for His sending.
Anon he brought it home to his house and gave it to his daughter, bidding her cherish it as she could, for she had her own babe at the breast and knew of such matters. She offered it milk, and it would none, being nigh dead of the cold. But after, she lighted a fire and warmed it well, and took it to her bosom, and presently laid it to sleep comfortably.
Now when Mass was done, the porter went to the abbess, and said: “Madam, what counsel have ye for this thing? To-day right in the morning, soon after prime, I found a little maid-child in the hollow ash-tree, with a fur wrapped about her and a ring of gold tied to her arm; and how she came there I know not.”52
At this the abbess wondered, and said: “Go at once and fetch her thither, I pray thee. She is welcome to God and to me; and I will do for her what I can, and say that she is my kinswoman.”
Thereupon the porter fetched the child, together with the mantle and the ring. And the abbess sent for a priest to christen her at the font-stone. And because she was found in an ash-tree, she was called Freine, for Freine means ash in the language of Britain.8
This Freine throve from year to year, and men supposed that she was niece to the abbess, who gave her teaching and protection. By the time she was twelve years old, she was the fairest maid in all England; and being then of an age to understand, she asked the abbess who were her kinsfolk, father and mother, sister or brother. The abbess would not deny her, but revealed how she was found, and gave her the mantle and the ring, bidding her cherish them. And so she did as long as she lived.
Now in that country lived a rich knight, lord of many lands, proud, young and gay, and still unwedded. He was a strong man, of great renown; and his name was Sir Guroun. Hearing this maiden so praised, he said that he would see her; and forthwith made him ready and rode thither gaily, bidding his man give out that he was on his way to a tournament.
The abbess and all the nuns greeted him fair in the 53 guest-hall; and the damsel Freine, so sweet and gracious of her words, spoke with him courteously, as she well could. And so he set before himself her beauty, her grace, her lovesome eyes and her fair countenance, that he began straightway to love her, and to cast about in his mind how he might have her for his mistress. He thought: “If I come here more than I have done, the abbess will suspect guile, and will shortly send her away.” So he devised another plan, which was to be a brother of that religion. “Madam,” he said to the abbess, “I admire godliness so greatly that I would give both lands and rents to become a lay brother; and ye shall fare even the better for granting me entertainment.” With a few words they were at one, and he made ready to depart, and rode away.
After that he came often, both day and night, to speak with that sweet maiden, so that in the end, by reason of his fair promises and his flattery, she granted him his will.
“Sweetheart,” he said, “thou must leave the abbess, thine aunt, and come with me, for I am rich and of great power. Thou shalt find it better there than here!”
The maiden trusted him and consented, and stole away, taking naught with her save her mantle and her ring. When the abbess found that Freine was gone, she mourned her loss heavily and bemoaned the maiden’s fate, but gained nothing thereby.
Now Freine lived with the knight in his castle long time, and all his household loved her well. She cared for 54 rich and poor alike, and lived right as though she had been his wedded wife.
But after a time, his knights came and spoke with him, and Holy Church commanded him to forsake his mistress and marry some lord’s daughter. They said it were more seemly to get an heir in wedlock than to lead this life with one of whose kindred he knew nothing, and they added further: “Here beside is a knight whose lovely daughter shall have his heritage; take her to wife.” And he was right loth to do so, but at last he consented.
The deed was made ready, and they were troth-plight. Alas, that he knew not ere the covenant was signed that she and his mistress were twin-sisters! Of one father and mother were they born, but none knew this save God alone.
The new bride, whose name was Le Codre, 9 was arrayed and brought home to the lord’s hall. Her father and mother and many more came with her, and also the bishop of that land to do the spousing.10
[The marriage feast was held with great splendour and rejoicing. All the while, Freine was in the chamber and gave no sign of grief or of anger. Sweetly and deftly she served the lady, so that all the guests held her demeanour in great marvel. Her own mother, watching, commended 55 her in secret, and loved her, and thought that if she had known what manner of woman this was, not for her own daughter’s sake would she have parted her from her lord.
At night the damsel went to prepare the marriage-bed; but she thought the coverlet poor, ill-beseeming so fair a bride, and she ran quickly to her own coffer and took out her own rich mantle to lay upon the bed, in honour of her lord.
And presently the bride and her mother came into the room, and the dame beheld that mantle, which was like none other that she had seen, save only the one in which she had wrapped the little daughter that she had put away. All her heart trembled as she sent for the chamberlain and asked him whose it was.
“Lady,” he said, “know that the damsel here hath brought it to lay upon the bed because it seemed to her ill set out. It is her own, I trow.”
Then the lady sent for her, and she came with humble cheer.
“Dear child,” said the lady, “hide nothing from me. Where get you this mantle of fair silk? Who gave it you? Tell me the truth.”
“Madam,” she said, “the abbess, mine aunt, who fostered me, gave it me, bidding me keep it well, for, together with a ring, it was left with me by those who put me away to be nurtured.”
“Dear, may I see the ring?”56
“Yes, madam, right willingly.”
And thereupon the lady studied it long, knowing it as well as she knew the mantle; and when she perceived that Freine was her daughter, she could hide it no further, but said, “Dear heart, thou art my child!”
For sheer pity she swooned; but presently she recovered and sent for her husband. And when he came thither, greatly astonished, she kneeled before him and entreated forgiveness.
And when he had granted this, though he knew not what she meant, she said: “My lord, long ago I foolishly slandered a neighbour of mine because of her twin-children. and all the while I was speaking to mine own hurt, for afterwards, of a truth, I had twin-daughters. But the one child I put away and had left at a convent, and with her your silk mantle and the ring that ye gave me as a love-token. But now I may hide it no more, for here I have found our dear daughter whom through my folly I had lost! This is she, this fair and modest damsel whom the knight loved that hath wedded her sister.”
Said the baron: “Never in my life before have I been so glad!”
And when he had kissed his daughter, he went for the archbishop and the young knight and brought them thither, repeating to them all that tale. And when Guroun heard this, he rejoiced as never before in all his days.57
On the morrow, the marriage with Le Codre was undone; and the young knight was married to her sister, to whom their father gave a share in his heritage.
Then they made a feast so splendid that even a rich man might well grudge what was spent upon it. And presently Le Codre returned with her parents to their domain, and soon after was well bestowed in marriage.
When this adventure became known, it was made into a lay, and for the lady’s sake called Lai le Freine.]
1 The text is picturesque:
2 See note.
3   Lost for ever.
4 A gap in the MS. Supplied from the French.
5 Contantinople. In the Middle Ages, its origin was explained as Constantine the noble.
6 See note.
8 It is really French, not Welsh or Breton.
10 Here the MS. breaks off. The tale is finished from the version of Marie de France, not from Weber’s reconstruction.
This exists in incomplete form in the Auchinleck MS. only. It was published by Weber in his Metrical Romances, 1810, under the title Lai le Freine, and later, in Anglia, vol. iii. It is a fairly close rendering of Le Fraisne by Marie de France; and I have supplied the missing portions immediately from her text, instead of using Weber’s metrical reconstruction on the basis of the French, although this continues the tale in very much the style of the beginning.
p. 50. A wild heath. The little scraps of nature and country life are due largely to the English poet.
[For Eugene Mason’s Translation from the French Romance of this name, go The Lay of the Ash Tree, on Elfinspell. — Elf.Ed.]