(William of Palermo)
Everybody will remember that William and Melior trusted to Alexandrine to help them to escape from the palace, before Melior was forced into marriage by her father with the prince of Greece. At first Alexandrine declared that it was quite impossible to get them away unseen, but at length she thought of something which might succeed, though, if it failed, all three would pay a heavy penalty.
And this was her plan, and a very good one too.
She would borrow some boy’s clothes, and put them on, hiding her hair under one of those tight caps that kitchen varlets wore covering all their heads; she would then go down into the big kitchens underneath the palace, where the wild beasts shot by the emperor were skinned and made into coats for the winter. Here she would have a chance of slipping out unnoticed with the skins of two white bears, and in these she would sew up William and Melior, and would let them through the little back gate, from which they could easily escape into the forest.
‘Oh, I knew you would find a way!’ said Melior, throwing her arms joyfully round her cousin’s neck. ‘I am quite sure it will all go right, only let us make haste, for my father may find us out, or perhaps I may lose my courage.’
‘I will set about it at once,’ said Alexandrine, ‘and you and William must be ready to-night.’
So she got her boy’s clothes, which her maid stole for her out of the room of one of the scullions, and dressed herself in them, smearing her face and hands with walnut-juice, that their whiteness might not betray her. She slipped down by some dark stairs into the kitchen, and joined a company of men who were hard at work on a pile of dead animals. The sun had set, and in the corner of the great hall where the flaying was going on, there was very little light, but Alexandrine marked that close to an open door was a heap of bearskins, and she took up her position as near them as she could. But the girl was careful not to stand too long in one place; she moved about from one group of men to another, lending a hand here and there and passing a merry jest, and as she did so she gave the topmost skins a little shove with her foot, getting them each time closer to the open door, and always watching her chance to pick them up and run off with them.
It came at last. The torch which lighted that end of the hall flared up and went out, leaving the men in darkness. One of them rose to fetch another, and, quick as thought, Alexandrine caught up the bearskins and was outside in the garden. From that it was easy to make her way upstairs unseen.
‘See how I have sped!’ she said, throwing the skins on the floor. ‘But night is coming on apace, and we have no time to lose; I must sew you up in them at once.’
The skins were both so large that Melior and William wore all their own clothes beneath, and did not feel at all hot, as they expected to do.
‘Am I not a bold beast?’ asked Melior in glee, as she caught sight of herself in a polished shield on the wall. ‘Methinks no handsomer bear was ever seen!’
‘Yes, verily, madam,’ answered her maiden, ‘you are indeed a grisly ghost, and no man will dare to come near you. But now stand aside, for it is William’s turn.’
‘How do you like me, sweetheart?’ asked he, when the last stitches had been put in.
‘You have so fierce an air, and are so hideous a sight, that I fear to look on you!’ said she. And William laughed and begged Alexandrine to guide them through the garden, as they were not yet used to going on all fours, and might stumble.
As they passed through the bushes, galloping madly — for in spite of the danger they felt as though they were children again — a Greek who was walking up to the palace saw them afar, and, seized with dread, took shelter in the nearest hut, where he told his tale. The men who heard it paid but little heed at the time, though they remembered it after; but bears were common in that country, and often came out of the forest at night.
Not knowing what a narrow escape they had had, the two runaways travelled till sunrise, when they hid themselves in a cave on the side of a hill. They had nothing to eat, but were too tired to think of that till they had had a good sleep, though when they woke up they began to wonder how they should get any food.
‘Oh, it will be all right!’ said Melior; ‘there are blackberries in plenty and acorns and hazel-nuts, and there is a stream just below the cave — do you not hear it? It will all be much nicer than anything in the palace.’
But William did not seem to agree with her, and wished to seek out some man who would give him something he liked better than nuts and acorns. This, however, Melior would not hear of; they would certainly be followed and betrayed, she said, and, to please her, William ate the fruit and stayed in the cave, wondering what would happen on the morrow.
Luckily for themselves, they did not have to wait so long before they got a good supper. Their friend the werwolf had spied them from afar, and was ready to come to their rescue. During that day he had hidden himself under a clump of bushes close to the highway, and by-and-by he saw a man approaching, carrying a very fat wallet over his shoulder. The wolf bounded out of his cover, growling fiercely, which so frightened the man that he dropped the wallet and ran into the wood. Then the wolf picked up the wallet, which contained a loaf of bread and some meat ready cooked, and galloped away with it to William.
They felt quite strong and hearty again when they had finished their supper, and quite ready to continue their journey. As it was night, and the country was very lonely, they walked on two feet, but when morning came, or they saw signs that men were about, they speedily dropped on all fours. And all the way the werwolf followed them, and saw that they never lacked for food.
Meanwhile the preparations for Melior’s marriage to the prince of Greece were going on blithely in the palace, and none thought of asking for the bride. At last, when everything was finished, the emperor bade the high chamberlain fetch the princess.
‘She is not in her room, your Majesty,’ said the chamberlain, when he re-entered the hall; but the emperor only thought that his daughter was timid, and answered that he would go and bring her himself.
Like the chamberlain, he found the outer room empty and passed on to the door of the inner one, which was locked. He shook and thumped and yelled with anger, till Alexandrine heard him from her distant turret, and, terrified though she was, hastened to find out what was the matter.
‘My daughter! Where is my daughter?’ he cried, stammering with rage.
‘Asleep, sire,’ answered Alexandrine.
‘Asleep still!’ said the emperor; ‘then wake her instantly, for the bridegroom is ready and I am waiting to lead her to him.’
‘Alas! sire, Melior has heard that in Greece royal brides pass their lives shut in a tower, and she has sworn that she will never wed one of that race. But, indeed, for my part, I think that is not her true reason, and that she has pledged her faith to another, whom you also know and love.’
‘And who may that be?’ asked the emperor.
‘The man who saved your life in battle, William himself,’ answered Alexandrine boldly, though her limbs shook with fear.
At this news the emperor was half beside himself with grief and rage.
‘Where is she?’ he cried; ‘speak, girl, or I will shut you up in the tower.’
‘Where is William?’ asked Alexandrine. ‘If Melior is not here, and William is not here, then of a surety they have gone away together.’
The emperor looked at her in silence for a moment.
‘The Greeks will make war on me for this insult,’ he said; ‘and, as for William, a body of soldiers shall go in search of him this moment, and when he is found I will have his head cut off, and stuck on my palace gate as a warning to traitors.’
But the soldiers could not find him. Perhaps they did not look very carefully, for, like everyone else, they loved William. Party after party was sent out by the emperor, but they all returned without finding a trace of the runaways. Then at last the Greek who had seen the two white bears galloping through the garden came to the high chamberlain and told his tale.
‘Send to the kitchen at once and ask if any bearskins are missing,’ ordered the chamberlain; and the page returned with the tidings that the skins of two white bears could not be found.
Now the werwolf had been lurking round the palace seeking for news, and as soon as he heard that the emperor had ordered out his dogs to hunt the white bears, he made a plan in his head to save William and Melior. He hid in some bushes that lay in the path of the hounds, and let them get quite near him. As soon as they were close, he sprang out in front of their noses and they gave chase at once. And a fine dance he led them! — over mountains and through swamps, under ferns that were thickly matted together, and past wide lakes. And every step they took brought them further away from the bears, who were lying snugly in their den.
At last even the patience of the emperor was exhausted. He gave up the hunt, and bade his men call off the dogs and go home.
‘They have escaped me this time,’ said he, ‘but I will have them by-and-by. Let a reward be offered, and posted up on the gate of every city. After all, that is the surest way of capturing them.’
And the emperor was right: the shepherds and goatherds were told that if they could bring the two white bears to the gates of the palace they would not need to work for the rest of their lives, and they kept a sharp look-out as they followed their flocks. Once a man actually saw them, and gave notice to one of the royal officials, who brought a company of spearmen and surrounded the cave. Another moment, and they would have been seized, had not the wolf again come to their rescue. He leapt out from behind a rock, and snatched up the officer’s son, who had followed his father. The poor man shrieked in horror, and cried out to save the boy, so they all turned and went after the wolf as before.
‘We are safer now in our own clothes,’ said William; and they hastily stripped off the bearskins, and stole away, but they would not leave the skins behind, for they had learnt to love them.
For a long while they wandered through the forest, the werwolf ever watching over them, and bringing them food. At length the news spread abroad, no one knew how, that William and Melior were running about as bears no more, but in the garments they always wore. So men began to look out for them, and once they were very nearly caught by some charcoal-burners. Then the wolf killed a hart and a hind, and sewed them in their skins and guided them across the Straits of Messina into the kingdom of Sicily.
Very dimly, and one by one, little things that had happened in his childhood began to come back to William; but he wondered greatly how he seemed to know this land, where he had never been before. The king his father had been long dead, but the queen (his mother) and his sister were besieged in the city of Palermo by the king of Spain, who was full of wrath because the princess had refused to marry his son. The queen was in great straits, when one night she dreamed that a wolf and two harts had come to help her, and one bore the face of her son, while both had crowns on their heads.
She could sleep no more that night, so she rose and looked out of the window on the park which lay below, and there, under the trees, were the hart and the hind! Panting for joy, the queen summoned a priest, and told him her dream, and, as she told it, behold the skins cracked, and shining clothes appeared beneath.
‘Your dream has been fulfilled,’ said the priest. ‘The hind is the daughter of the emperor of Rome, who fled away with yonder knight dressed in a hart skin!’
Joyfully the queen made herself ready, and she soon joined the animals, who had wandered off to a part of the park that was full of rocks and caves. She greeted them with fair words, and begged William to take service under her, which he did gladly.
‘Sweet sir, what token will you wear on your shield?’ asked she; and William answered, ‘Good madam, I will have a werwolf on a shield of gold, and let him be made hideous and huge.’
‘That shall be done,’ said she.
When the shield was painted, William prayed her to give him a horse, and she led him into the stable, and bade him choose one for himself. And he chose one that had been ridden by the late king his father. And the horse knew him, though his mother did not, and it neighed from pure delight. After that William called to the soldiers to rally round him, and there was fought a great battle, and the Spaniards were put to flight, and throughout Palermo the people rejoiced mightily.
When the enemy had retreated far away, and William returned to the palace, where the queen and Melior were awaiting him; suddenly, from the window, they beheld the werwolf go by, and as he passed he held up his foot as if he craved mercy.
‘What does he mean by that?’ asked the queen.
‘It betokens great good to us,’ answered William.
‘That is well,’ said the queen; ‘but the sight of that beast causes me much sorrow. For my fair son was stolen away from me by such a one, when he was four years old, and never more have I heard of him.’ But in her heart she felt, though she said nothing, that she had found him again.
By-and-by the king of Spain came back with another army, and there was more fighting. In the end the Spanish king was forced to yield up his sword to William, who carried him captor to his mother Felice. The queen received him with great courtesy, and placed him next her at dinner, and the peers who had likewise been taken prisoners sat down to feast.
The next day a council was held in the hall of the palace to consider the terms of peace. The king of Spain and his son were present also, and everyone said in turn what penalty the enemy should pay for having besieged their city and laid waste their cornfields. In the midst of this grave discussion a werwolf entered through the open door, and, trotting up to the Spanish king, he kissed his feet. Then he bowed to the queen and to William, and went away as he came.
The sight of his tail disappearing through the door restored to the guards their courage, which had vanished in the presence of anything so unexpected. They sprang up to pursue him, but like a flash of lightning William flung himself in their path, crying, ‘If any man dare to hurt that beast, I will do him to death with my own hands;’ and, as they all knew that William meant what he said, they slunk back to their places.
‘Tell me, gracious king,’ asked William when they were all seated afresh round the council table, ‘why did the wolf bow to you more than to other men?’
Then the king made answer that long ago his first wife had died, leaving him with a son, and that in a little while he had married again, and that his second wife had had a son also. One day when he came back from the wars she told him that his eldest son had been drowned, but he found out afterwards that she had changed him into a werwolf, so that her own child might succeed to the crown.
‘And I think,’ he added, ‘that this werwolf may be indeed the son I lost.’
‘It may right well be thus,’ cried William, ‘for he has the mind of a man, and of a wise man too. Often has he succoured me in my great need, and if your wife had skill to turn him into a werwolf her charms can make him a man again. Therefore, sire, neither you nor your people shall go hence out of prison till he has left his beast’s shape behind him. So bid your queen come hither, and if she says you nay I will fetch her myself!’
Then the king called one of his great lords, and he bade him haste to Spain and tell the queen what had befallen him, and to bring her with all speed to Palermo. Little as she liked the summons, the Spanish queen dared not refuse, and on her arrival she was led at once into the great hall, which was filled with a vast company, both of Spaniards and Sicilians. When all were assembled William fetched the werwolf from his chamber, where he had lain for nights and days, waiting till his stepmother should come.
Together they entered the hall, but at the sight of the wicked woman who had done him such ill the wolf’s bristles stood up on his back, and with a snarl that chilled the blood of all that heard it he sprang towards the dais. But, luckily, William was on the watch, and, flinging his arms round the wolf’s neck, he held him back, saying in a whisper:
‘My dear, sweet beast, trust to me as truly as to your own brother. I sent for her for your sake, and if she does not undo her evil spells I will have her body burned to coals, and her ashes scattered to the winds.’
The wicked queen knew well what doom awaited her, and that she could resist no longer. Sinking on her knees before the wolf, she confessed the ill she had wrought, and added:
‘Sweet Alfonso, soon shall the people see your seemly face, and your body as it would have been but for me!’ At that she led the wolf into a private chamber, and, drawing from her wallet a thread of red silk, she bound it round a ring she wore, which no witchcraft could prevail against. This ring she hung round the wolf’s neck, and afterwards read him some rhymes out of a book. Then the werwolf looked at his body, and, behold, he was a man again!
There were great rejoicings at the court of Palermo when prince Alfonso came among them once more. He forgave the queen for her wickedness, and rebuked his father for having stirred up such a wanton and bloody war.
‘Plague and famine would have preyed upon this land,’ he said, ‘had not this knight, whose real name is unknown to you, come to your aid. He is the rightful lord of this country, for he is the son of king Embrons and queen Felice, and I am the werwolf who carried him away, to save him from a cruel death that was planned for him by his own uncle!’
So the tale ends and everyone was made happy. The werwolf, now prince Alfonso, married William’s sister, and in due time ruled the kingdom of Spain, and William and Melior lived at Palermo till the emperor her father died, when the Romans offered him the crown in his stead.
And if you want to know any more about them, you must read the story for yourselves.
(Old Romance of William of Palermo.)
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57