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  Who would list to the good lay
  Gladness of the captive grey?
  'Tis how two young lovers met,
  Aucassin and Nicolette,
  Of the pains the lover bore
  And the sorrow he outwore,
  For the goodness and the grace,
  Of his love, so fair of face.

  Sweet the song, the story sweet,
  There is no man hearkens it,
  No man living 'neath the sun,
  So outwearied, so foredone,
  Sick and woful, worn and sad,
  But is healèd, but is glad.
       'Tis so sweet.
  So say they, speak they, tell they the tale.[12]

This popular mediaeval ballad is in alternate fragments of verse and prose, and relates how the Count of Valence made desperate war against the Count of Biaucaire, a very old and frail man, who saw that his castle was in imminent danger of being taken and sacked. In his distress, this old lord besought his son Aucassin, who so far had taken no interest in the war, to go forth and fight. The youth, however, refused to do so, saying his heart was wrapped up in love for Nicolette, a fair slave belonging to a captain in town. This man, seeing the delicacy of his slave and realizing she must belong to some good family, had her baptized and treated her as if she were an adopted daughter.

On account of Nicolette's lowly condition, Aucassin's father refuses to listen when the young man proposes to marry her, and sternly bids him think of a wife better suited, to his rank. The young lover, however, vehemently insists that Nicolette is fit to be an empress, and vows he will not fight until he has won her for his own. On seeing how intractable this youth is, the father beseeches the owner of the slave to clap her in prison, so that Aucassin will not be able to get at her in any way.

Heart-broken to think that his lady-love is undergoing captivity in his behalf, Aucassin spends his time moping. To induce him to fight, his father finally promises that if he will go forth and drive away the foe he will be allowed to see Nicolette and kiss her. The prospect of such a reward so fires the young hero, that he sallies forth, routs the besiegers, and, seizing the Count of Valence, brings him back a prisoner. On entering the castle, he immediately begins to clamor for Nicolette, but his father now declares he would rather see the maiden burned as a witch than to let his son have anything more to do with her. Hearing this, Aucassin indignantly declares such being the case he will free his prisoner, an act of generosity which infuriates his father, who hopes to be enriched by the count's ransom. To punish Aucassin, the Count of Biaucaire now thrusts him into prison, but, although the lovers are sharing the same fate, they languish apart, and, therefore, spend all their time lamenting.

One night, when the moon is shining bright, Nicolette, who has heard she is likely to be brought to trial and burned, decides to effect her escape. As the old woman who mounts guard over her is fast asleep, she softly ties together her sheets and towels, and, fastening them to a pillar, lets herself down by the window into the garden, from whence she timidly steals out into the night.

The poem now artlessly describes Nicolette's beauty as she trips over the dewy grass, her tremors as she slips through the postern gate, and her lingering at the foot of the tower where her lover is imprisoned. While pausing there, Nicolette overhears his voice lamenting, and, thrusting her head into an aperture in the wall, tells him that she is about to escape and that as soon as she is gone they will set him free. To convince her lover that it is she who is talking, Nicolette cuts off a golden curl, which she drops down into his dungeon, repeating that she must flee. But Aucassin beseeches her not to go, knowing a young maid is exposed to countless dangers out in the world, and vehemently declares he would die were any one to lay a finger upon her. He adds that she alone shall be his wife, and that the mere thought of her belonging to any one else is unendurable. This declaration of love cheers poor Nicolette, who is so entranced by her lover's words that she fails to notice the approach of a patrol. A young sentinel, however, peering down from the walls, touched by Nicolette's beauty and by the plight of these young lovers, warns them of their danger. But not daring to speak openly to Nicolette, he chants a musical warning, which comes just in time to enable her to hide behind a pillar. There she cowers until the guards pass by, then, slipping down into dry moat,—although it is a perilous undertaking,—she painfully climbs up its other side and seeks refuge in a neighboring forest, where, although the poem informs us there are "beasts serpentine," she feels safer than in town.

It is while wandering in this wilderness that Nicolette runs across some shepherds, whom she bribes to go and tell Aucassin a wild beast is ranging through the forest, and that he should come and slay it as soon as possible. Having thus devised means to entice her lover out of Biaucaire, Nicolette wanders on until she reaches a lovely spot, where she erects a rustic lodge, decking it with the brightest flowers she can find, in hopes that her lover, when weary of hunting, will rest beneath its flowery roof, and guess that it was erected by her fair hands.

Meantime the Count of Biaucaire, hearing Nicolette has vanished, sets his son free, and, seeing him sunk in melancholy, urges him to go out and hunt, thinking the exercise may make him forget the loss of his beloved. Still, it is only when shepherds come and report that a wild beast is ranging through the forest, that the youth mounts his steed and sallies forth, his father little suspecting that instead of tracking game, he is bent on seeking traces of his beloved.

Ere long Aucassin encounters an old charcoal-burner, to whom he confides his loss, and who assures him such a sorrow is nothing compared to his own. On discovering that the poor man's tears can be stayed with money, Aucassin bestows upon him the small sum he needs, receiving in return the information that a lovely maiden has been seen in the forest. Continuing his quest, Aucassin comes in due time to the flowery bower, and, finding it empty, sings his love and sorrow in tones that reach Nicolette's ear. Then, dismounting from his horse to rest here for the night, Aucassin manages to sprain his shoulder. Thereupon Nicolette steals into the bower and takes immediate measures to mitigate the pain.

The mere fact that Nicolette is beside him helps Aucassin to forget everything else, and it is only after the first raptures are over, that they decide not to linger in the forest, where the Count of Biaucaire will soon find and separate them. To prevent such a calamity, they decide to depart together, and, as there is no extra steed for Nicolette to ride, her lover lifts her up on his horse before him, clasping her tight and kissing her repeatedly as they gallop along.

  Aucassin the Franc, the fair,
  Aucassin of yellow hair,
  Gentle knight, and true lover,
  From the forest doth he fare,
  Holds his love before him there,
  Kissing cheek, and chin, and eyes;
  But she spake in sober wise,
  "Aucassin, true love and fair,
  To what land do we repair?"
  "Sweet my love, I take no care,
  Thou art with me everywhere!"
  So they pass the woods and downs,
  Pass the villages and towns,
  Hills and dales and open land,
  Came at dawn to the sea sand,
  Lighted down upon the strand,
       Beside the sea.

Thus the lovers travel all night, reach the sea-shore at dawn, and wander along it, arms twined around each other, while their weary steed follows them with drooped head.

At sunrise a vessel nears the shore, upon which they embark to get out of reach of the wrath of the Count of Biaucaire. The vessel, however, is soon overtaken by a terrible tempest, which, after tossing it about for seven days, drives it into the harbor of Torelore. This is the mediaeval "topsy-turvy land," for on entering the castle Aucassin learns that the king is lying abed, because a son has been born to him, while the queen is at the head of the army fighting! This state of affairs so incenses Aucassin, that armed with a big stick he enters the king's room, gives him a good beating, and wrings from him a promise that no man in his country will ever lie abed again when a child is born, or send his wife out to do hard work. Having effected this reform in the land of Torelore, Aucassin and Nicolette dwell there peacefully, for three years, at the end of which time the castle is taken by some Saracens. They immediately proceed to sack it, carrying off its inmates to sell them as slaves. Bound fast, Aucassin and Nicolette are thrust into separate ships, but, although these are going to the same port, a sudden tempest drives the vessel in which Aucassin lies to the shore of Biaucaire. There the people capture it, and finding their young master, set him free, and invite him to take possession of his castle, for, his father having died during his absence, he is now master of all he surveys.

Meantime Nicolette, landing at Carthage, discovers that this is her native town, and recognizes in her captors—her father and brothers. They are so overjoyed at recovering this long-lost sister that they propose to keep her with them, but Nicolette assures them she will never be happy until she rejoins Aucassin. Meantime she learns to play on the viol, and, when she has attained proficiency on this instrument, sets out in the guise of a wandering minstrel to seek her beloved. Conveyed by her brothers to the land of Biaucaire, Nicolette, soon after landing, hears that Aucassin, who has recently returned, is sorely bewailing the loss of his beloved. Presenting herself before Aucassin,—who does not recognize her owing to the disguise,—Nicolette plays so charmingly that she draws tears from his eyes. Then she begs to know his sorrows, and, on hearing he has lost his lady-love, suggests he woo the king of Carthage's daughter. Loudly averring he will never woo any one save Nicolette, Aucassin turns sadly away, whereupon the strolling minstrel assures him he shall see his beloved before long. Although it seems impossible to Aucassin that this prediction should be verified, Nicolette has little difficulty in fulfilling her promise, for, hastening back to her old home, she obtains some of her own clothes, and, thus restored to her wonted appearance, presents herself before the delighted Aucassin, who, overjoyed to see her once more, clasps her rapturously to his heart.

The ballad adds that the two lovers, united for good and all, lived happy ever after, and were an example to all faithful lovers in the beautiful land of Biaucaire.

  Many years abode they there,
  Many years in shade or sun,
  In great gladness and delight.
  Ne'er had Aucassin regret,
  Nor his lady Nicolette.
  Now my story all is done—
      Said and sung!


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