The Northern Way

Song and Legend From the Middle Ages

Italian Literature

Page 11

THE POT OF BASIL

There lived, then, at Messina, three young merchants, who were brothers, and left very rich by their father; they had an only sister, a lady of worth and beauty, who was unmarried. Now they kept a youth, by way of factor, to manage their affairs, called Lorenzo, one of a very agreeable person, who, being often in Isabella's company, and finding himself no way disagreeable to her, confined all his wishes to her only, which in some little time had their full effect. This affair was carried on between them for a considerable time, without the least suspicion; till one night it happened, as she was going to his chamber, that the eldest brother saw her, without her knowing it. This afflicted him greatly; yet, being a prudent man, he made no discovery, but lay considering with himself till morning, what course was best for them to take. He then related to his brothers what he had seen, with regard to their sister and Lorenzo, and, after a long debate, it was resolved to seem to take no notice of it for the present, but to make away with him privately, the first opportunity, that they might remove all cause of reproach both to their sister and themselves. Continuing in this resolution, they behaved with the same freedom and civility to Lorenzo as ever, till at length, under a pretense of going out of the city, upon a party of pleasure, they carried him along with them, and arriving at a lonesome place, fit for their purpose, they slew him, unprepared to make any defence, and buried him there; then, returning to Messina, they gave it out that they had sent him on a journey of business, which was easily believed, because they frequently did so. In some time, she, thinking that he made a long stay, began to inquire earnestly of her brothers concerning him, and this she did so often, that at last one of them said to her, "What have you to do with Lorenzo, that you are continually teasing us about him? If you inquire any more, you shall receive such an answer as you will by no means approve of." This grieved her exceedingly; and, fearing she knew not why, she remained without asking any more questions; yet all the night would she lament and complain of his long stay; and thus she spent her life in a tedious and anxious waiting for his return; till one night it happened, that having wept herself asleep, he appeared to her in a dream, all pale and ghastly, with his clothes rent in pieces; and she thought he spoke to her thus: "My dear Isabel, thou grievest incessantly for my absence, and art continually calling upon me: but know that I can return no more to thee, for the last day that thou sawest me, thy brothers put me to death." And, describing the place where they had buried him, he bid her call no more upon him, nor ever expect to see him again, and disappeared. She, waking, and giving credit to the vision, lamented exceedingly; and, not daring to say anything to her brethren, resolved to go to the place mentioned in the dream, to be convinced of the reality of it. Accordingly, having leave to go a little way into the country, along with a companion of hers, who was acquainted with all her affairs, she went thither, and clearing the ground of the dry leaves with which it was covered, she observed where the earth seemed to be lightest, and dug there. She had not searched far before she came to her lover's body, which she found in no degree wasted; this confirmed her of the truth of her vision, and she was in the utmost concern on that account; but, as that was not a fit place for lamentation, she would willingly have taken the corpse away with her, to have given it a more decent interment; but, finding herself unable to do that, she cut off his head, which she put into a handkerchief, and, covering the trunk again with the mould, she gave it to her maid to carry, and returned home without being perceived. She then shut herself up in her chamber, and lamented over it till it was bathed in her tears, which being done, she put it into a flower pot, having folded it in a fine napkin, and covering it with earth, she planted sweet herbs therein, which she watered with nothing but rose or orange water, or else with her tears; accustoming herself to sit always before it, and devoting her whole heart into it, as containing her dear Lorenze. The sweet herbs, what with her continual bathing, and the moisture arising from the putrified head, flourished exceedingly, and sent forth a most agreeable odour. Continuing this manner of life, she was observed by some of the neighbours, and they related her conduct to her brothers, who had remarked with surprise the decay of her beauty. Accordingly, the reprimanded her for it, and, finding that ineffectual, stole the pot from her. She, perceiving that it was taken away, begged earnestly of them to restore it, which they refusing, she fell sick. The young men wondered much why she should have so great a fancy for it, and were resolved to see what it contained: turning out the earth, therefore, they saw the napkin, and in it the head, not so much consumed, but that by the curled locks, they knew it to be Lorenzo's, which threw them into the utmost astonishment, and fearing lest it should be known, they buried it privately, and withdrew themselves from thence to Naples. They young lady never ceased weeping, and calling for her pot of flowers, till she died; and thus terminated her unfortunate love. But, in some time afterwards, the thing became public, which gave rise to this song:

Most cruel and unkind was he,

That of my flowers deprived me, &c.

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