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Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of Constancy in adhering to Promises




In the reign of a certain emperor, there were two thieves who bound themselves by an oath never to quit one another on any emergency, even though death were the alternative. They afterwards committed many depredations, and were, on some occasions, guilty of murder. It happened, that one of them, being caught in some theft, was imprisoned, and ordered for execution. His companion, understanding what had chanced, hastened to him, and said, "My friend, by the engagement which we have formed, I adjure you to tell me what I can do to serve you." "It appears," answered the other, "that I must die, having been taken in the fact for which I am sentenced. But I will show you how to oblige me. Obtain permission to remain in my place, while I hasten to arrange my affairs, and provide for my wife and children. Having done this, I will return in due time and liberate you." "My friend," answered the first, "I will readily comply with your wishes." He went therefore to the judge, and spoke thus. "My lord, my friend has been thrown into prison, and condemned to death. It seems that there is no chance for him; let it please you then to permit him to return home to arrange the affairs of his family, and I, in the meantime, will become his surety, and remain in prison." "On such a day," replied the judge, "he, with some others, will be executed; if, upon that day, he return not before a certain hour, look you to it: your death is inevitable." "My lord," answered the man, "I am prepared for the worst." "Let him go then: I consent to your wishes." The judge ordered the substitute to be ironed, and placed in prison in the room of his friend, who immediately set out to his family. So long, however, did he postpone his return, that the day of execution arrived, and his pledge was unredeemed. The latter, therefore, was brought, with many others, to the seat of judgment. "Where is your friend?" said the judge; "he has not arrived to make good his word." "I hope the best, my lord," replied the other; "I do not think he will fail me." Some time passed over, and still he came not; and the prisoner was at length conducted to the cross. "You must attribute your death to yourself," said the judge, "do not charge it upon me. You have rashly trusted to your friend, and he has deceived you." "My lord," replied he, "defer the crucifixion but for a moment; and suffer me to play upon an instrument three times before my death." "Play!" exclaimed the judge, "of what nature is that playing?" "I will shout, my lord." "As you please." Accordingly, he began to vociferate. At the first and second shout; he appeared very dejected; but at the third, he distinguished, at some distance, a man running toward them with surprizing velocity. "My lord, my lord, there is a man coming; stay the execution—perhaps it is my friend, and I shall yet be liberated." The judge waited, and the person they looked for made his appearance. "I am the man you expect!" he exclaimed; "I have arranged my affairs, and am ready to suffer." The judge regarded him for a few moments with attention, and then said, "My friend, tell me whence it comes, that you are so faithful to your word?" "My lord," he replied, "from our youth up, we have been friends, and ever pledged ourselves to be faithful. For this reason, he put himself in my place, till I had settled my affairs." "Well," said the judge, "because of this remarkable instance of fidelity, I pardon you. Remain with me, and I will provide all things necessary for your well-being." They returned thanks to the judge, and promised equal fidelity to him, who, by a judicious act of clemency, received not less applause than was bestowed upon the friends themselves. (15)


My beloved, the emperor is God; the two thieves, soul and body, which are united in sin. The thief who is taken, is the body captured by its lusts. The first shout typifies contrition; the second, confession; and the third, satisfaction.



Note 15.Page 94.

This appears to be the classical story of Damon and Pythias, with a few inconsiderable variations. From hence, or from similar stories, may probably have arisen the proverbial saying of "Honour among thieves."