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Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of doing all Things with Concord and Forethought




Domitian was a very wise and just prince[1] and suffered no offender to escape. It happened that as he once sat at table, a certain merchant knocked at the gate. The porter opened it, and asked what he pleased to want. "I have brought some useful things for sale," answered the merchant. The porter introduced him; and he very humbly made obeisance to the emperor. "My friend," said the latter, "what merchandise have you to dispose of?" "Three maxims of especial wisdom and excellence, my lord." "And how much will you take for your maxims?" "A thousand florins." "And so," said the king, "if they are of no use to me, I lose my money?" "My lord," answered the merchant, "if the maxims do not stand you in stead, I will return the money." "Very well," said the emperor; "let us hear your maxims." "The first, my lord, is this,—'Whatever you do, do wisely; and think of the consequences.' The second is,—'Never leave the high-way, for a by-way.' And, thirdly, 'Never stay all night as a guest in that house, where you find the master an old man, and his wife a young woman.' These three maxims, if you attend to them, will be extremely serviceable." The emperor, being of the same opinion, ordered him to be paid a thousand florins; and so pleased was he with the first, that he commanded it to be inscribed in his court, in his bed-chamber, and in every place where he was accustomed to walk; and even upon the table-cloths from which he eat. Now the rigid justice of the emperor, occasioned a conspiracy among the vicious and refractory of his subjects; and finding the means of accomplishing their purposes, somewhat difficult, they engaged a barber, by large promises, to cut his throat as he shaved him. When the emperor, therefore, was to be shaved, the barber lathered his beard, and began to operate upon it; but casting his eyes over the towel which he had fastened round the royal neck"[2], he perceived woven thereon—"Whatever you do, do wisely, and think of the consequences." The inscription startled the tonsor, and he said to himself, "I am to-day hired to destroy this man; if I do it, my end will be ignominious; I shall be condemned to the most shameful death. Therefore, whatsoever I do, it is good to consider the end, as the writing testifies." These cogitations disturbed the worthy tonsor so much, that his hand trembled, and the razor fell to the ground. The emperor seeing this, acquired the cause. "Oh, my lord," said the barber, "have mercy upon me: I was hired this day to destroy you; but accidentally, or rather by the will of God, I read the inscription on the towel, 'Whatever you do, do wisely, and think of the consequences.' Whereby, considering that, of a surety, the consequence would be my own destruction, my hand trembled so much, that I lost all command over it." "Well," thought the emperor, "this first maxim hath assuredly saved my life: in a good hour was it purchased. My friend," said he to the tonsor, "on condition that you be faithful hereafter, I pardon you."

The noblemen, who had conspired against the emperor, finding that their project had failed, consulted with one another what they were to do next. "On such a day," said one, "he journeys to a particular city; we will hide ourselves in a by-path, through which, in all probability, he will pass, and so kill him." The counsel was approved. The king, as had been expected, prepared to set out; and riding on till he came to a cross-way, much less circuitous than the high road, his kinghts said, "My lord, it will be better for you to go this way, than to pass along the broad road; it is considerably nearer." The king pondered the matter within himself, "The second maxim," thought he, "admonishes me never to forsake the high-way for a by-way. I will adhere to that maxim." Then turning to his soldiers, "I shall not quit the public road; but you, if it please ye, may proceed by that path, and prepare for my approach." Accordingly a number of them went; and the ambush, imagining that the king rode in their company, fell upon them and put the greater part to the sword. When the news reached the king, he secretly exclaimed, "My second maxim hath also saved my life."

Seeing, therefore, that by cunning they were unable to slay their lord, the conspirators again took counsel, and it was observed, that on a certain day he would lodge in a particular house, "Because," said they, "there is no other fit for his reception. Let us then agree with the master of that house, and his wife, for a sum of money to kill the emperor as he lies in bed." This was agreed to. But when the emperor had come into the city, and had been lodged in the house to which the conspirators referred, he commanded his host to be called into his presence. Observing that he was an old man, the emperor said, "Have you not a wife?" "Yes, my lord." "I wish to see her." The lady came; and when it appeared that she was very young—not eighteen years of age—the king said hastily to his chamberlain, "Away, prepare me a bed in another house. I will remain here no longer." "My lord," replied he, "be it as you please. But they have made every thing ready for you: were it not better to lie where you are, for in the whole city there is not so commodious a place." "I tell you," answered the emperor, "I will sleep elsewhere." The chamberlain, therefore, removed; and the king went privately to another residence, saying to the soldiers about him, "Remain here, if you like; but join me early in the morning." Now while they slept, the old man and his wife arose, and not finding the king, put to death all the soldiers who had remained. In the morning, when the murder was discovered, the emperor gave thanks to God for his escape. "Oh," cried he, "If I had continued here, I should have been destroyed. So the third maxim hath also preserved me." But the old man, and his wife, with the whole of their family, were crucified. The emperor retained the three maxims in memory during life, and ended his days in peace. (11)


My beloved, the emperor is any good Christian; the porter is free will. The merchant represents our Lord Jesus Christ. The florins are virtues, and the maxims received for them are the Grace and Favour of God. The high-way, is the ten commandments; the by-way, a bad life; those who lay in ambush are heretics. The old man is the world, and his wife is vanity. The conspirators are devils.


  1. A strange contradiction of history.
  2. A curious picture. One sees the whole process—the towel twisted under his jaws; the lather shining round the chin, and the razor elevated for the operation. If he "shaved for two-pence," the description would be complete.


Note 11.Page 76.

This an Eastern fiction, and is thus told in the "Turkish Tales."


"An ancient king of Tartary went abroad one day to take a walk with his beys. He met on the road an abdal, who cried out aloud, 'Whoever will give me a hundred dinaras, I will give him some good advice.' The king stopped to look on him, and said, 'Abdal, what is this good advice thou offerest for a hundred dinaras?' 'Sir, (answered the abdal), order that sum to be given me, and I will tell it you immediately.' The king did so; and expected to have heard something extraordinary for his money; when the dervise said to him, 'Sir, my advice is this: Never begin any thing till you have reflected what will be the end of it.'

"At these words all the beys, and other persons that attended the king, burst out into laughter. 'It must be confessed (said one of them), that this abdal knows some maxims that are very new.' 'He was not in the wrong (said another) to get paid beforehand.' The king, seeing that they all laughed at the dervise, said, 'You have no reason to laugh at the good advice this abdal has given me: though no man is ignorant, that, when we form any enterprise, we ought to meditate well upon it, and consider maturely what event it may produce. Nevertheless, for want of observing this rule, we engage every day in affairs of ill consequence. For my part, I value very much the dervise's advice. I will always bear it in my mind, and command it to be written in letters of gold on every door of my palace, on the walls, and on the goods; and that it be engraved on all my plate;' which was done accordingly.

"In a short time after this, a great lord of the court, urged on by ambition rather than any cause he had to complain of that prince, resolved to deprive him both of his crown and life. To this end, he found means to get a poisoned lancet, and, applying himself to the king's surgeon, said to him, 'If thou wilt bleed the king with this lancet, here are ten thousand crowns in gold, which I give thee as a present. As soon as thou hast done the business, the throne is mine. I have already projected the means to mount it; and I promise thee, that, when I am king, I will make thee my grand vizier, and that thou shalt partake with me in the sovereign power.' The surgeon, blinded with the advantage of the proposal the great man had made him, accepted of it without the least hesitation. He received the ten thousand crowns in hand, and put the lancet in his turban, to use it when there should be an opportunity.

"An opportunity soon offered itself. The king wanted to be bled, and the surgeon was sent for. He came, and began to bind up the king's arm, while they placed a bason to receive the blood. The surgeon took the fatal lancet out of his turban, and was just going to open the vein, when, accidentally casting his eye on the bason, he read these words that were engraved upon it. Never begin anything till you have first reflected what will be the end of it. He instantly fell into a deep study, and said within himself, 'If I bleed the king with this lancet, he is a dead man. If he die, I shall certainly be seized, and put to death amidst dreadful torments. When I am dead, what will the crowns of gold that I have received avail me?' Struck with these reflections, he put the poisoned lancet into his turban, and took another out of his pocket. The king, perceiving it, asked him why he changed the lancet. 'Sir, (answered the surgeon) because the point of the first was not good.' 'Show it me, (said the prince;) I will see it.' Then the surgeon was almost struck dumb with fear, and seemed in great confusion. The king cried out, 'What means this concern thou art in? It conceals some mystery; tell me the reason of it, or thou diest this moment.' The surgeon, intimidated by these threats, threw himself at the king's feet, and said, 'Sir, if your majesty will grant me your pardon, I will confess the truth.' 'I do pardon thee, (replied the king,) provided thou hidest nothing from me.' Then the surgeon told him all that had passed between the great lord and himself, and confessed that the king owed his life to the words that were engraven on the bason.

"The king gave orders instantly to his guards to go and seize the great lord; and then, turning towards his beys, said to them, 'Are you still of opinion that you had reason to laugh at the dervise? Let him be found and brought to me. An advice that saves the life of kings, whatever it costs, cannot be bought too dear.'"