Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of Injustice
In the reign of the emperor Maximian, there were two knights; of whom, one feared God and loved justice, while the other was covetous and rich, and more studious of pleasing the world than his Maker. Contiguous to this person's lands, the just knight had a piece of ground, which his avaricious neighbour ardently desired to possess. He offered large sums for it; but being denied, he was filled with vexation. It happened, however, that the just knight died, and the fertile brain of the other was at work to ascertain some means of defrauding his heir of the inheritance. He therefore forged an instrument purporting to be written by the deceased knight. It stated that the land in question had been sold for a specified sum, a short time previous to his death. And three men were hired to attest it. Having, by some means, obtained access to the dead knight, he introduced the witnesses; and finding his signet in the hall where he lay, took it; and fixing it upon the thumb of the deceased, sealed the paper with the usual formalities. "You are witnesses of this deed?" said he to the men who accompanied him; "We are," answered they; and then making good their retreat, the knight seized upon the land. The son of the deceased complained grievously of this injustice. "Why have you taken possession of my land?" asked he. "It was sold to me by your father." "Impossible," cried the other, "my father many times refused to sell it; and that he afterwards did so, I will never believe." They both went before the judge, and the covetous knight triumphantly produced the forged instrument, bearing the impression of the deceased's signet-ring; and brought forward the false witnesses to the sealing. After examining it, the son said, "I know that this is my father's signet, but I know also that he never disposed of the land. How you obtained the signet, I am ignorant, and you will do well to have good testimony of this." The judge, after some deliberation, took each of the witnesses aside in turn; and separately examined them, together with the old knight. He asked the first if he knew the Lord's Prayer, and made him repeat it from beginning to end. He did this accurately, and was then placed apart. When the second witness appeared, the judge said, "My friend, your companion has told me the truth; therefore, unless you inform me what I demand, you shall instantly hang upon a cross. The fellow, imagining that his comrade had revealed the fraud, confessed how they had obtained the seal to the document. When the communication was made, he placed him also apart; and sending for the third, spoke to him as to the other, and threatened him with the like penalty, unless he declared the fact. This man, therefore, corroborated his companion's account, and was then stationed by himself. The old knight was last called; and the judge, putting on a stern aspect, spoke thus: "Wretched man! thy avarice hath blinded thee. Tell me by what means thou obtainedst possession of the dead knight's seal." The culprit, not divining that the truth had been discovered, boldly persevered in the account he had before given. "Foolish man!" answered the judge, "thy own witnesses accuse thee. Didst thou not place the signet on the dead man's thumb, and sign the paper?" When the knight found that his forgery was revealed, he fell prostrate upon the earth, and entreated mercy. "Such mercy as thou meritest, thou shalt have," said the judge; "bear them away, and drag them at the tails of horses to the cross, upon which let them be immediately suspended." The noblemen of the kingdom applauded the sentence, not less than the ingenuity of the investigation. The property of the unjust knight was conferred upon the son of him, whom he had wished to wrong; the young man gave thanks to the king, and possessed his inheritance in peace.
My beloved, the two knights are the devil and our first parent, whose son is the whole human race. The inheritance is Paradise; the forged writing, original sin; and the seal, Adam's consent to partake with Eve of the forbidden tree. The three witnesses are the pride of life, concupiscence of the flesh, and concupiscence of the eyes.
- Whether this was the usual mode of administering an oath; or whether it is only of the number of those whimsical and arbitrary circumstances which continually occur in these volumes, I am unable to say.
Tale XLVIII. Vol. II. p. 179.
The examination of the false witnesses in this story, will remind the reader of the mode by which the wickedness of the elders was discovered in the Apocrypha.