By Susan Heldt Davis
Geoffrey Chaucer crossed the gravel courtyard of the Savoy palace slowly, head bent down in contemplation. Katherine, his sister-in-law, had called for him, and he knew what that meant. As John of Gaunt’s long time mistress, she took care of the duke’s social schedule when he was in London. And that was not good news, not this season. John of Gaunt had recently returned from France without a victory and a skeleton army, so many having died or deserted. Now Chaucer would be brought in to lift the duke’s spirits though he himself had not the spirit to do so.
Chaucer envied the duke, for though he would face opprobrium for his conduct of the war, at least he would be noticed. Obscurity was what really stung. And that was Chaucer’s lot. As the son of a merchant, he ought not expect more, but his hackles rose at the signs of his own insignificance. His recent appointment to the controllership at the Customs House had sealed his fate as one of the great unknown. The job had been touted as a coup, a fine position for a public servant. And, yes, the customs house gave him the responsibility to direct a number of workers. At what cost, though? Until this ‘coup’ he’d served the king. He’d lived among the mighty, walked the halls of power. His opinion mattered. His negotiating skills were so valued he’d traveled on the king’s business nearly every season. Now he dealt with ship captains and hawkers, his only contact with the royals coming through his poems. Unless you were Virgil or Dante, you didn’t make a name making rhymes.
Katherine met Geoffrey in her large, well appointed office. “How now, Geoffrey? Goes all well with you?” Before he could answer, Katherine plowed on, “We’ll host a soiree Thursday next, and the duke wants to hear you read.”
“By my soul, Katherine, next week is most difficult. Must the duke hear me?”
“Yes, Geoffrey. In this bleak season he doesn’t want to suffer through laments or sermons, and he surely doesn’t want to hear French. So give us something light, lovely and English.”
Perhaps there were arguments that would have persuaded Chaucer, but touting his choice of language was not one of them, so he demurred, “English is not a problem, Katherine, but poetry is not that easy. I have nothing finished.”
“Yet you do have something started, no?” Katherine said, flashing her most winning smile.
“A start is only good if it has an end.”
“Then give it one, Geoffrey. The duke needs some lightness in his life.”
“I’d love to accommodate you, Katherine, but I don’t want to stand before a hundred guests and read drivel.”
“Come, come, Geoffrey. You never read drivel. Remember that poem you read last winter about the birds. Afterward people spent the rest of the evening figuring out who each bird represented. That was what John appreciated most—all poets rhyme, but you get people talking.”
“Get people talking. Really? Is that the entirety of my virtue as a poet?”
“In that poem it was. For a month, your birds were the primary topic of conversation all over London.”
“For a whole month! Zounds, that is a long time for one small poem to last in the minds of the busy and powerful. I didn’t know,” Geoffrey lamented sardonically.
“And now it’s time to do it again,” replied the matter-of-fact and occasionally obtuse Katherine. “So concoct something to make us laugh and stir up conversation.”
“I have no spoon to stir the pot, Katherine. You know I rarely get out.”
“I know nothing of the sort, brother. I see you at all the great houses reading your poems. You must have gleaned something—give us hints about some secret love or nasty dealings in court. Nothing too serious, though. Just make us laugh.”
Chaucer’s new work, The House of Fame, would surely make people laugh; that was no problem. But the other? For all his evenings among the glittering nobility, he had no new gossip to startle an audience. And how would he know about any recent nasty dealings at court, stuck as he was at the docks? Certes, he couldn’t repeat the lies he heard there. Because they knew nothing, the sailors told the most outrageous tales as gospel truth. It seemed they never tired of fabricating some new scandal out of thin air. But Chaucer couldn’t do that, not and hope to ever read again before the nobles. They would expect the truth, no guessing or surmising. No…Then, as if a veil were lifted, he knew. Of course, Chaucer thought. That’s how to make people talk.
Joyfully, for he’d been truly stymied about how to end his “House of Fame,” Chaucer said, “By the rood, Katherine, you’ve given me the key. I will read, gladly.”
Katherine heartily thanked him, but Chaucer barely noticed, his mind already racing to the details of the poem he now could finish.
On the evening of the soiree, Katherine greeted the guests as they entered the Savoy’s incongruously named petit salon, a room large enough to hold well over a hundred guests. As it was August, the guests were fewer than they would be three or four weeks hence when the fall season would start in earnest, but still they were a glittering crowd in their silks and satins. Even Chaucer, who normally wore a plain dark robe and modest shoes, shone in an extravagant blue velvet cape embroidered in silver and edged in lush white ermine. If he thought this garb would make him fit in with the nobles, he was mistaken. People looked at the little man wearing the out of season, flamboyant, Italian cape and stifled their laughter. But Chaucer seemed not to notice as he made his way toward the duke. After a greeting and a quiet word, the two, one tall and elegant, the other short, pudgy and overdressed, repaired to a small anteroom.
Servants threaded through the crowd offering drinks and tidbits to eat until bells chimed as a signal that the entertainment would soon start. Once the benches were set out, guests took their seats and all attention focused on the short poet standing behind the large dais at the head of the salon. Chaucer, his face glistening with sweat, announced that since his poem, The House of Fame, was rather long, he’d read the first half before dinner and the second half after.
Chaucer began by describing a dreamer named Geffry who went to a temple where wall paintings told a well-worn story. The audience sat politely but, since this sounded like so many poems they’d heard before, their attention centered more on the jewels bedecking nearby necks, on the curve of the boot-toes that were attached to small gold knee-chains, and on Geoffrey’s ermine cape than on the poet’s words. Only for a minute, though. Chaucer, looking out over the placid faces, smiled secretively and then launched into a description of the dreamer Geffrey stepping outside the temple where he saw a giant eagle swooping down at him. As Chaucer described this, his eyes rose toward the ceiling and the bird; he thrust his hands upward as if to stop the eagle as it flew down at him. In a quavering voice, he read,
And with its grim paws strong
And with its sharp nails long,
Me, flying in a swoop, it seized
He stopped there and bent over, his arms stretched out before him as if the eagle had grabbed onto his back. Gasping and covering his eyes, Chaucer cried out that they had flown so high he was afraid to look down.
Suddenly his voice changed, and in a Flemish accent he had the eagle bellow, “Awake! And be not so aghast! For shame!”
Katherine, who recognized the imitation of her sister’s nagging voice, guffawed, and soon everyone was laughing as Chaucer switched between the meek dreamer’s voice and that of the fierce Flemish eagle.
The eagle then scolded, “What’s in your head’s full light!” and Chaucer stamped his foot and shook his fist up at the imagined bird, to which the eagle’s voice, now dripping with sarcasm, said,
Every night you just go home
And sit alone, dumb as any stone.
The audience roared, some because they thought it was true, others because they knew it wasn’t. The eagle continued, “And abstinence is not your way,” at which Chaucer patted his round belly. Again the room again erupted into so much laughter he had to stop reading.
The eagle was taking Geffry dreamer to visit the Goddess Fame to hear tales of love, true ones, not those from the books of lore Geffry read. But first there would be the dinner break. Chaucer put down his sheaf of parchments and bowed. The room burst out in applause, many calling for the second part to be read right away, but decorum triumphed, and dinner was served.
While he tried to eat, one person after another asked Chaucer if he would reveal actual tales of love—clearly hoping (or fearing) some good gossip would be revealed. Chaucer, giving nothing away, just put a finger over his mouth. Most accepted his silence with good humor, but one fellow in a scarlet cloak, a color only men of noble birth were permitted to wear, looked exasperated and, eying Chaucer’s cape, asked pointedly, “What kind of fur is that trimming your cloak?”
“Muskrat I think,” Chaucer said tentatively.
“No muskrat I know ever looked like that—I’m certain it’s ermine.”
Chaucer smiled but said nothing.
“Not wise, Mr. Chaucer,” the man warned. “The law is clear. You aren’t a knight or a noble, so you must not go about in silver and ermine.”
“Ah, the Sumptuary Law, the great unequalizer,” Chaucer replied with a hint of disrespect, perhaps because law was so rarely enforced. “I certainly don’t want to be arrested for wearing fur beyond my station.”
Sneering, the scarlet cloak walked off.
When the guests reassembled, Chaucer read a long description of the goddess Fame and her court for supplicants. In a high, nasal voice, Chaucer had Fame dole out renown, ignominy and obscurity helter-skelter, rewarding some as they deserved but most merely as she pleased. Again and again the audience laughed at her random choices, and at the frustration and elation Chaucer demonstrated as noble men were denied their deserts and charlatans and louts were given all they asked for. After a while, though, the audience’s laughter and engagement began to wane as the joke grew old.
But they perked up almost immediately, for the dreamer left Fame’s luxurious palace and went to the ramshackle House of Rumor next door, where a mob of gossips was passing secrets on from one to another. After a couple of jokes about all this tale-telling, Chaucer paused and in a quiet, cryptic voice described a corner of the House of Rumor that held news of secret loves. Someone, according to Geffry dreamer, was about to enter from that very place, so the mob of gossips deserted him for the corner and were jumping up on each other to get in place so they could hear the newest scandal. As he read, Chaucer jumped up and craned his own neck to look toward the door at back of the salon, causing more than one in the audience to follow his gaze. Seeing no one, they turned back to Chaucer, whose voice rang of suspense as he read,
At last I saw a man
Who that I cannot name
But he seemed for all to be
A man of great Authority….
Again Chaucer paused. The audience as one held its breath waiting for Chaucer to name this important man or, at least, have the man announce the names of the secret lovers.
Suddenly two real men, one dressed in a judge’s robe and the other in helmet and armor, stormed into the salon shouting “Halt in the name of the law!” They rushed to the dais and grabbed Chaucer by the arms. Chaucer struggled, but to no avail, and managed only to grab the last page of his manuscript before the men pulled him off the dais and toward the door. Half way down the aisle, the armored man announced, “As you wear ermine, velvet and silver, you are in violation of the King’s Sumptuary Law. I arrest you in the name of the law!” The men strode out dragging their prisoner, and Chaucer was gone.
Many in the audience thought John of Gaunt must have been stunned into inaction to allow these interlopers to arrest his guest of honor; though by his smile, it may be he called for the sumptuary constable himself. Some thought to ask him—particularly one wearing a scarlet cape—but the duke quietly left the room, his smile broader than ever. Then neighbor turned to neighbor to wonder whether little Chaucer was in big trouble, some believing he deserved the full force of the law and some defending him. Soon, though, the talk drifted to the scene Chaucer had not finished. Who was the man of great authority? And more to the point, what scandal did he have to reveal? Chaucer couldn’t have planned to name the duke and his lady Katherine, for not only would doing so be impolitic here at the Savoy, but the affair was such old news people would have laughed Chaucer off the dais. So who? A few, whose faces had relaxed only after Chaucer was long gone, knew personally of a tale of love he might have revealed, but they kept quiet and let the others guess as best they might.
Inside a nearby tavern, Chaucer folded his sumptuous cape carefully and put it in a bag. Then, looking at his two companions—a man dressed in armor and another in a judge’s cape—he lifted his glass to make a toast, “Thank you, my friends. You have surely given the good people at the Savoy something to talk about. Even if they don’t care what happened to me tonight, they will, I trust, ponder who the man of authority is and, more particularly, whom he’s going to name. If people are still asking those questions in a month, I will have given the duke all he asked for. If they are asking them in year, then Fame, willful as she is, shall be mine.”
Chaucer, in his humility, never considered suggesting that people might still be asking those very same questions over six hundred years later.
Susan Heldt Davis graduated from Cornell University (BA) and NYU (MA). For ten years she wrote and produced children’s plays for Chatterbox Players of Westchester, NY. Her poetry has appeared in Earth’s Daughters, Spank the Carp and (upcoming) Iconoclast and her fiction, which won third prize in the Soul-Making Literary Competition 2005, in Verbsap. She is currently working on a novel Geoffrey the Short, a fictional biography of Geoffrey Chaucer.