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Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of Vigilance in our Calling




A certain nobleman had a white cow, to which he was extremely partial. He assigned two reasons for this. First, because she was spotlessly white; and next, because she gave abundance of rich milk. The estimation in which the nobleman regarded his beast, increased so much, that he constructed golden horns for her, and thought for a long time, how she might be best secured. Now there lived at that time a man called Argus, who was entirely faithful to his employer, and moreover, possessed an hundred eyes. The nobleman despatched a messenger to Argus to request his attendance without delay. On his arrival, he said, "I commit to your custody my cow with golden horns; and if you guard it securely I will liberally remunerate you. But if you permit her horns to be stolen, you shall die." Argus accordingly received the cow under his charge; and every day attended her to the pasture, and watched her with unremitting care. At night, he drove her home. But there dwelt in these days a certain avaricious knave called Mercury, whose skill in music was surpassing. He had a great desire to possess the animal, so narrowly watched; and he went frequently to her keeper, in the hope of prevailing with him by prayers or promises to deliver her up. But Argus, being an ingenious wight, fixed a shepherd's staff, which he held, firmly in the ground; and addressed it in the person of his master[1]: "Thou, oh staff! art my master, and at night I shall return to your castle. You will question me about the cow and her horns; I answer, 'My lord, the cow has lost her horns; for a robber, coming while I slept, ran off with them.' Now, you reply, 'Rascal! had you not a hundred eyes, how could they all sleep, while the robber stole the horns? This is a lie, and I will put you to death.' And if I say, that I have sold it, I shall be equally exposed to the indignation of my lord." "Get thee gone, then," answered Mercury: "thou shalt have nothing, and yet I will carry off thy charge." With this threat Mercury departed, and the next day returned with a musical instrument. He then began to entertain Argus with buffoonery, and to sing to him; until at last two of his eyes dropped asleep; then two more, and finally, the whole head sunk into a deep slumber. Mercury perceiving this, decapitated him, and bore away the cow with her golden horns[2]. (22)


My beloved, the nobleman is Christ; the white cow is the soul. The milk represents prayer and supplication, on account of which he gave her golden horns, that is, eternal life. Argus is any prelate, who ought to be circumspect and watchful. The pastoral staff is the ecclesiastical power communicated to him; the songs, are put for singing women. Then if the prelate fall asleep, the head is cut off, that is, he loses eternal life. Mercury is the devil.


  1. This colloquy with the staff will remind the reader of Shakspeare of Launcelot Gobbo. See Note (22).
  2. "The classical story of Argus and Mercury, with some romantic additions."—Warton.


Note 22.Page 119.

A similar colloquy to that in this story occurs in the "Turkish Tales."

"Let me suppose that I am at court, (continued he, taking his cap off his head, and laying it on the floor before him,) let me suppose my cap to be Togaltimur, and see if I can have the confidence to insist upon a lie in the face of the king. Entering into his presence, I salute him. Saddyq, says he to me, let my black horse be got ready, I mean to ride him to-day.—Sir, an accident has befallen him; yesterday, in the evening, he would eat nothing whatever that was offered to him, and he died at midnight; nor can I imagine what has killed him.—How! my black horse, that carried me so well but yesterday, is he dead? Why must it be he rather than so many others that are in the same stable? What story is this you tell me? Begone, you are a liar. Thou hast either sold my horse to some foreigner, who went away with him last night into his own country, or killed him yourself in some freak or other. Think not of escaping my vengeance, you shall be punished according to your deserts. One of you stab that villain to the heart this moment: cut him to pieces!"