Bertram, Count of Rousillon, had newly come to his title and estate by the death of his father. The King of France loved the father of Bertram, and when he heard of his death he sent for his son to come immediately to his royal court in Paris, intending, for the friendship he bore the late count, to grace young Bertram with his especial favor and protection.
Bertram was living with his mother, the widowed countess, when Lafeu, an old lord of the French court, came to conduct him to the king. The King of France was an absolute monarch and the invitation to court was in the form of a royal mandate, or positive command, which no subject, of what high dignity soever, might disobey; therefore, though the countess, in parting with this dear son, seemed a second time to bury her husband, whose loss she had so lately mourned, yet she dared not to keep him a single day, but gave instant orders for his departure. Lafeu, who came to fetch him, tried to comfort the countess for the loss of her late lord and her son’s sudden absence; and he said, in a courtier’s flattering manner, that the king was so kind a prince, she would find in his Majesty a husband, and that he would be a father to her son; meaning only that the good king would befriend the fortunes of Bertram. Lafeu told the countess that the king had fallen into a sad malady, which was pronounced by his physicians to be incurable. The lady expressed great sorrow on hearing this account of the king’s ill health, and said she wished the father of Helena (a young gentlewoman who was present in attendance upon her) were living that she doubted not he could have cured his Majesty of his disease. And she told Lafeu something of the history of Helena, saying she was the only daughter of the famous physician, Gerard de Narbon, and that he had recommended his daughter to her care when he was dying, so that since his death she had taken Helena under her protection; then the countess praised the virtuous disposition and excellent qualities of Helena, saying she inherited these virtues from her worthy father. While she was speaking, Helena wept in sad and mournful silence, which made the countess gently reprove her for too much grieving for her father’s death.
Bertram now bade his mother farewell. The countess parted with this dear son with tears and many blessings, and commended him to the care of Lafeu, saying:
“Good my lord, advise him, for he is an unseasoned courtier.”
Bertram’s last words were spoken to Helena, but they were words of mere civility, wishing her happiness; and he concluded his short farewell to her with saying:
“Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her.”
Helena had long loved Bertram, and when she wept in sad and mournful silence the tears she shed were not for Gerard de Narbon.. Helena loved her father, but in the present feeling of a deeper love, the object of which she was about to lose, she had forgotten the very form and features of her dead father, her imagination presenting no image to her mind but Bertram’s.
Helena had long loved Bertram, yet she always remembered that he was the Count of Rousillon, descended from the most ancient family in France. She of humble birth. Her parents of no note at all. His ancestors all noble. And therefore she looked up to the high-born Bertram as to her master and to her dear lord, and dared not form any wish but to live his servant, and, so living, to die his vassal. So great the distance seemed to her between his height of dignity and her lowly fortunes that she would say:
“It were all one that I should love a bright particular star, and think to wed it, Bertram is so far above me.”
Bertram’s absence filled her eyes with tears and her heart with sorrow; for though she loved without hope, yet it was a pretty comfort to her to see him every hour, and Helena would sit and look upon his dark eye, his arched brow, and the curls of his fine hair till she seemed to draw his portrait on the tablet of her heart, that heart too capable of retaining the memory of every line in the features of that loved face.
Gerard de Narbon, when he died, left her no other portion than some prescriptions of rare and well-proved virtue, which, by deep study and long experience in medicine, he had collected as sovereign and almost infallible remedies. Among the rest there was one set down as an approved medicine for the disease under which Lafeu said the king at that time languished; and when Helena heard of the king’s complaint, she, who till now had been so humble and so hopeless, formed an ambitious project in her mind to go herself to Paris and undertake the cure of the king. But though Helena was the possessor of this choice prescription, it was unlikely, as the king as well as his physicians was of opinion that his disease was incurable, that they would give credit to a poor unlearned virgin if she should offer to perform a cure. The firm hopes that Helena had of succeeding, if she might be permitted to make the trial, seemed more than even her father’s skill warranted, though he was the most famous physician of his time; for she felt a strong faith that this good medicine was sanctified by all the luckiest stars in heaven to be the legacy that should advance her fortune, even to the high dignity of being Count Rousillon’s wife.
Bertram had not been long gone when the countess was informed by her steward that he had overheard Helena talking to herself, and that he understood, from some words she uttered, she was in love with Bertram and thought of following him to Paris. The countess dismissed the steward with thanks, and desired him to tell Helena she wished to speak with her. What she had just heard of Helena brought the remembrance of days long past into the mind of the countess; those days, probably, when her love for Bertram’s father first began; and she said to herself:
“Even so it was with me when I was young. Love is a thorn that belongs to the rose of youth; for in the season of youth, if ever we are Nature’s children, these faults are ours, though then we think not they are faults.”
While the countess was thus meditating on the loving errors of her own youth, Helena entered, and she said to her, “Helena, you know I am a mother to you.”
Helena replied, “You are my honorable mistress.”
“You are my daughter,” said the countess again. “I say I am your mother. Why do you start and look pale at my words?”
With looks of alarm and confused thoughts, fearing the countess suspected her love, Helena still replied, “Pardon me, madam, you are not my mother; the Count Rousillon cannot be my brother, nor I your daughter.”
“Yet, Helena,” said the countess, “you might be my daughter-in-law; and I am afraid that is what you mean to be, the words MOTHER and DAUGHTER so disturb you. Helena, do you love my son?”
“Good madam, pardon me,” said the affrighted Helena.
Again the countess repeated her question. “Do you love my son?”
“Do not you love him, madam?” said Helena.
The countess replied: “Give me not this evasive answer, Helena. Come, come, disclose the state of your affections, for your love has to the full appeared.”
Helena, on her knees now, owned her love, and with shame and terror implored the pardon of her noble mistress; and with words expressive of the sense she had of the inequality between their fortunes she protested Bertram did not know she loved him, comparing her humble, unaspiring love to a poor Indian who adores the sun that looks upon his worshiper but knows of him no more. The countess asked Helena if she had not lately an intent to go to Paris. Helena owned the design she had formed in her mind when she heard Lafeu speak of the king’s illness.
“This was your motive for wishing to go to Paris,” said the countess, “was it? Speak truly.”
Helena honestly answered, “My lord your son made me to think of this; else Paris. and the medicine and the king had from the conversation of my thoughts been absent then.”
The countess heard the whole of this confession without saying a word either of approval or of blame, but she strictly questioned Helena as to the probability of the medicine being useful to the king. She found that it was the most prized by Gerard de Narbon of all he possessed, and that he had given it to his daughter on his death-bed; and remembering the solemn promise she had made at that awful hour in regard to this young maid, whose destiny, and the life of the king himself, seemed to depend on the execution of a project (which, though conceived by the fond suggestions of a loving maiden’s thoughts, the countess knew not but it might be the unseen workings of Providence to bring to pass the recovery of the king and to lay the foundation of the future fortunes of Gerard de Narbon’s daughter), free leave she gave to Helena to pursue her own way, and generously furnished her with ample means and suitable attendants; and Helena set out for Paris with the blessings of the countess and her kindest wishes for her success.
Helena arrived at Paris, and by the assistance of her friend, the old Lord Lafeu, she obtained an audience of the king. She had still many difficulties to encounter, for the king was not easily prevailed on to try the medicine offered him by this fair young doctor. But she told him she was Gerard de Narbon’s daughter (with whose fame the king was well acquainted), and she offered the precious medicine as the darling treasure which contained the essence of all her father’s long experience and skill, and she boldly engaged to forfeit her life if it failed to restore his Majesty to perfect health in the space of two days. The king at length consented to try it, and in two days’ time Helena was to lose her fife if the king did not recover; but if she succeeded, he promised to give her the choice of any man throughout all France (the princes only excepted) whom she could like for a husband; the choice of a husband being the fee Helena demanded if she cured the king of his disease.
Helena did not deceive herself in the hope she conceived of the efficacy of her father’s medicine. Before two days were at an end the king was restored to perfect health, and he assembled all the young noblemen of his court together, in order to confer the promised reward of a husband upon his fair physician; and he desired Helena to look round on this youthful parcel of noble bachelors and choose her husband. Helena was not slow to make her choice, for among these young lords she saw the Count Rousillon, and, turning to Bertram, she said:
“This is the man. I dare not say, my lord, I take you, but I give me and my service ever whilst I live into your guiding power.”
“Why, then,” said the king, “young Bertram, take her; she is your wife.”
Bertram did not hesitate to declare his dislike to this present of the king’s of the self-offered Helena, who, he said, was a poor physician’s daughter, bred at his father’s charge, and now living a dependent on his mother’s bounty.
Helena heard him speak these words of rejection and of scorn, and she said to the king: “That you are well, my lord, I am glad. Let the rest go.”
But the king would not suffer his royal command to be so slighted, for the power of bestowing their nobles in marriage was one of the many privileges of the kings of France, and that same day Bertram was married to Helena, a forced and uneasy marriage to Bertram, and of no promising hope to the poor lady, who, though she gained the noble husband she had hazarded her life to obtain, seemed to have won but a splendid blank, her husband’s love not being a gift in the power of the King of France to bestow.
Helena was no sooner married than she was desired by Bertram to apply to the king for him for leave of absence from court; and when she brought him the king’s permission for his departure, Bertram told her that he was not prepared for this sudden marriage, it had much unsettled him, and therefore she must not wonder at the course he should pursue. If Helena wondered not, she grieved when she found it was his intention to leave her. He ordered her to go home to his mother. When Helena heard this unkind command, she replied:
“Sir, I can nothing say to this but that I am your most obedient servant, and shall ever with true observance seek to eke out that desert wherein my homely stars have failed to equal my great fortunes.”
But this humble speech of Helena’s did not at all move the haughty Bertram to pity his gentle wife, and he parted from her without even the common civility of a kind farewell.
Back to the countess then Helena returned. She had accomplished the purport of her journey, she had preserved the life of the king, and she had wedded her heart’s dear lord, the Count Rousillon; but she returned back a dejected lady to her noble mother-in-law, and as soon as she entered the house she received a letter from Bertram which almost broke her heart.
The good countess received her with a cordial welcome, as if she had been her son’s own choice and a lady of a high degree, and she spoke kind words to comfort her for the unkind neglect of Bertram in sending his wife home on her bridal day alone. But this gracious reception failed to cheer the sad mind of Helena, and she said:
“Madam, my lord is gone, forever gone.” She then read these words out of Bertram’s letter:
“When you can get the ring from my finger, which never shall come off, then call me husband, but in such a Then I write a Never.”
“This is a dreadful sentence!” said Helena.
The countess begged her to have patience, and said, now Bertram was gone, she should be her child and that she deserved a lord that twenty such rude boys as Bertram might tend upon, and hourly call her mistress. But in vain by respectful condescension and kind flattery this matchless mother tried to soothe the sorrows of her daughter-in-law.
Helena still kept her eyes fixed upon the letter, and cried out in an agony of grief, “TILL I HAVE NO WIFE, I HAVE NOTHING IN FRANCE.” The countess asked her if she found those words in the letter.
“Yes, madam,” was all poor Helena could answer.
The next morning Helena was missing. She left a letter to be delivered to the countess after she was gone, to acquaint her with the reason of her sudden absence. In this letter she informed her that she was so much grieved at having driven Bertram from his native country and his home, that to atone for her offense, she had undertaken a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Jaques le Grand, and concluded with requesting the countess to inform her son that the wife he so hated had left his house forever.
Bertram, when he left Paris, went to Florence, and there became an officer in the Duke of Florence’s army, and after a successful war, in which he distinguished himself by many brave actions, Bertram received letters from his mother containing the acceptable tidings that Helena would no more disturb him; and he was preparing to return home, when Helena herself, clad in her pilgrim’s weeds, arrived at the city of Florence.
Florence was a city through which the pilgrims used to pass on their way to St. Jaques le Grand; and when Helena arrived at this city she heard that a hospitable widow dwelt there who used to receive into her house the female pilgrims that were going to visit the shrine of that saint, giving them lodging and kind entertainment. To this good lady, therefore, Helena went, and the widow gave her a courteous welcome and invited her to see whatever was curious in that famous city, and told her that if she would like to see the duke’s army she would take her where she might have a full view of it.
“And you will see a countryman of yours,” said the widow. “His name is Count Rousillon, who has done worthy service in the duke’s wars.” Helena wanted no second invitation, when she found Bertram was to make part of the show. She accompanied her hostess; and a sad and mournful pleasure it was to her to look once more upon her dear husband’s face.
“Is he not a handsome man?” said the widow.
“I like him well,” replied Helena, with great truth.
All the way they walked the talkative widow’s discourse was all of Bertram. She told Helena the story of Bertram’s marriage, and how he had deserted the poor lady his wife and entered into the duke’s army to avoid living with her. To this account of her own misfortunes Helena patiently listened, and when it was ended the history of Bertram was not yet done, for then the widow began another tale, every word of which sank deep into the mind of Helena; for the story she now told was of Bertram’s love for her daughter.
Though Bertram did not like the marriage forced on him by the king, it seems he was not insensible to love, for since he had been stationed with the army at Florence he had fallen in love with Diana, a fair young gentlewoman, the daughter of this widow who was Helena’s hostess; and every night, with music of all sorts, and songs composed in praise of Diana’s beauty, he would come under her window and solicit her love; and all his suit to her was that she would permit him to visit her by stealth after the family were retired to rest. But Diana would by no means be persuaded to grant this improper request, nor give any encouragement to his suit, knowing him to be a married man; for Diana had been brought up under the counsels of a prudent mother, who, though she was now in reduced circumstances, was well born and descended from the noble family of the Capulets.
All this the good lady related to Helena, highly praising the virtuous principles of her discreet daughter, which she said were entirely owing to the excellent education and good advice she had given her; and she further said that Bertram had been particularly importunate with Diana to admit him to the visit he so much desired that night, because he was going to leave Florence early the next morning.
Though it grieved Helena to hear of Bertram’s love for the widow’s daughter, yet from this story the ardent mind of Helena conceived a project (nothing discouraged at the ill success of her former one) to recover her truant lord. She disclosed to the widow that she was Helena, the deserted wife of Bertram, and requested that her kind hostess and her daughter would suffer this visit from Bertram to take place, and allow her to pass herself upon Bertram for Diana, telling them her chief motive for desiring to have this secret meeting with her husband was to get a ring from him, which, he had said, if ever she was in possession of he would acknowledge her as his wife.
The widow and her daughter promised to assist her in this affair, partly moved by pity for this unhappy, forsaken wife and partly won over to her interest by the promises of reward which Helena made them, giving them a purse of money in earnest of her future favor. In the course of that day Helena caused information to be sent to Bertram that she was dead, hoping that, when he thought himself free to make a second choice by the news of her death, he would offer marriage to her in her feigned character of Diana. And if she could obtain the ring and this promise, too, she doubted not she should make some future good come of it.
In the evening, after it was dark, Bertram was admitted into Diana’s chamber, and Helena was there ready to receive him. The flattering compliments and love discourse he addressed to Helena were precious sounds to her though she knew they were meant for Diana; and Bertram was so well pleased with her that he made her a solemn promise to be her husband, and to love her forever; which she hoped would be prophetic of a real affection, when he should know it was his own wife, the despised Helena, whose conversation had so delighted him.
Bertram never knew how sensible a lady Helena was, else perhaps he would not have been so regardless of her; and seeing her every day, he had entirely over looked her beauty; a face we are accustomed to see constantly losing the effect which is caused by the first sight either of beauty or of plainness; and of her understanding it was impossible he should judge, because she felt such reverence, mixed with her love for him, that she was always silent in his presence. But now that her future fate, and the happy ending of all her love-projects, seemed to depend on her leaving a favorable impression on the mind of Bertram from this night’s interview, she exerted all her wit to please him; and the simple graces of her lively conversation and the endearing sweetness of her manners so charmed Bertram that be vowed she should be his wife. Helena begged the ring from off his finger as a token of his regard, and he gave it to her; and in return for this ring, which it was of such importance to her to possess, she gave him another ring, which was one the king had made her a present of. Before it was light in the morning she sent Bertram away; and he immediately set out on his journey toward his mother’s house.
Helena prevailed on the widow and Diana to accompany her to Paris, their further assistance being necessary to the full accomplishment of the plan she had formed. When they arrived there, they found the king was gone upon a visit to the Countess of Rousillon, and Helena followed the king with all the speed she could make.
The king was still in perfect health, and his gratitude to her who had been the means of his recovery was so lively in his mind that the moment he saw the Countess of Rousillon he began to talk of Helena, calling her a precious jewel that was lost by the folly of her son; but seeing the subject distressed the countess, who sincerely lamented the death of Helena, he said:
“My good lady, I have forgiven and forgotten all.”
But the good-natured old Lafeu, who was present, and could not bear that the memory of his favorite Helena should be so lightly passed over, said, “This I must say, the young lord did great offense to his Majesty, his mother, and his lady; but to himself he did the greatest wrong of all, for he has lost a wife whose beauty astonished all eyes, whose words took all ears captive, whose deep perfection made all hearts wish to serve her.”
The king said: “Praising what is lost makes the remembrance dear. Well—call him hither”; meaning Bertram, who now presented himself before the king, and on his expressing deep sorrow for the injuries he had done to Helena the king, for his dead father’s and his admirable mother’s sake, pardoned him and restored him once more to his favor. But the gracious countenance of the king was soon changed toward him, for he perceived that Bertram wore the very ring upon his finger which he had given to Helena; and he well remembered that Helena had called all the saints in heaven to witness she would never part with that ring unless she sent it to the king himself upon some great disaster befalling her; and Bertram, on the king’s questioning him how he came by the ring, told an improbable story of a lady throwing it to him out of a window, and denied ever having seen Helena since the day of their marriage. The king, knowing Bertram’s dislike to his wife, feared he had destroyed her, and he ordered his guards to seize Bertram, saying:
“I am wrapt in dismal thinking, for I fear the life of Helena was foully snatched.”
At this moment Diana and her mother entered and presented a petition to the king, wherein they begged his Majesty to exert his royal power to compel Bertram to marry Diana, he having made her a solemn promise of marriage. Bertram, fearing the king’s anger, denied he had made any such promise; and then Diana produced the ring (which Helena had put into her hands) to confirm the truth of her words; and she said that she had given Bertram the ring he then wore, in exchange for that, at the time he vowed to marry her. On hearing this the king ordered the guards to seize her also; and, her account of the ring differing from Bertram’s, the king’s suspicions were confirmed, and he said if they did not confess how they came by this ring of Helena’s they should be both put to death. Diana requested her mother might be permitted to fetch the jeweler of whom she bought the ring, which, being granted, the widow went out, and presently returned, leading in Helena herself.
The good countess, who in silent grief had beheld her son’s danger, and had even dreaded that the suspicion of his having destroyed his wife might possibly be true, finding her dear Helena, whom she loved with even a maternal affection, was still living, felt a delight she was hardly able to support; and the king, scarce believing for joy that it was Helena, said:
“Is this indeed the wife of Bertram that I see?”
Helena, feeling herself yet an unacknowledged wife, replied, “No, my good lord, it is but the shadow of a wife you see; the name and not the thing.”
Bertram cried out: “Both, both! Oh pardon!”
“O my lord,” said Helena, “when I personated this fair maid I found you wondrous kind; and look, here is your letter!” reading to him in a joyful tone those words which she had once repeated so sorrowfully, “WHEN FROM MY FINGER YOU CAN GET THIS RING—This is done; it was to me you gave the ring. Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?”
Bertram replied, “If you can make it plain that you were the lady I talked with that night I will love you dearly, ever, ever dearly.”
This was no difficult task, for the widow and Diana came with Helena to prove this fact; and the king was so well pleased with Diana for the friendly assistance she had rendered the dear lady he so truly valued for the service she had done him that he promised her also a noble husband, Helena’s history giving him a hint that it was a suitable reward for kings to bestow upon fair ladies when they perform notable services.
Thus Helena at last found that her father’s legacy was indeed sanctified by the luckiest stars in heaven; for she was now the beloved wife of her dear Bertram, the daughter-in-law of her noble mistress, and herself the Countess of Rousillon.