16 Pages

Last Days

FROM this time forward Chaucer seems to have lived from hand to mouth. He had, as will presently be seen, a son, stepson, or foster-son of considerable wealth and position; and no doubt he had other good friends too. We have reason to believe that he was still working at the II Canterbury Tales," and receiving such stray crumbs from great men's tables as remained the main reward of literature until modern times. In 1391 (if we may judge from the fact that problems in the book are calculated for that year) he wrote the 1/ Treatise on the Astrolabe" for the instruction of his ten-yearold son Lewis. * I t was most likely in 1393 that he wrote from Greenwich the II Envoy" to his friend Henry Scogan, who was then with the Court at Windsor, 1/ at the stream's head of grace." The poet urges him there to make profitable mention of his friend, II forgot in solitary wilderness" at the lower end of the same river; and it is natural to connect this

with the fact that, in 1394, Richard granted Chaucer a fresh pension of £20 a year for life. But the King's exchequer was constantly empty, and we have seen that the poet's was seldom full; so we need not be surprised to find him constantly applying for his pension at irregular times during the rest of the reign. Twice he dunned his royal patron for the paltry sum of 6s. 8d. More significant still is a record of the Court of Common Pleas showing that he was sued by Isabella Buckholt for the sum of £14 IS. lId. some time between April 24 and May 20, 1398; the Sheriff of Middlesex reported that Chaucer had no possessions in his bailiwick. On May 4 the poet obtained letters of protection, in which the King alludes formally to the "very many arduous and urgent affairs" with which " our beloved esquire" is entrusted, and therefore takes him with "his men, lands, goods, rents, and all his possessions" under the Royal protection, and forbids all pleas or arrests against him for the next two years. The recital of these arduous and urgent affairs is no doubt (like that of Chaucer's lands and rents) a mere legal form; but the protection was real. Isabella Buckholt pressed her suit, but the Sheriff returned in October, 1398, and June, 1399, that the defendant "could not be found." Yet all this time Chaucer was visible enough, for he was petitioning the King for formal letters patent to confirm a grant already made by word of mouth in the preceding December, of a yearly butt of wine from the Royal cellars" for God's sake, and as a work of charity." This grant, valued at about £75 of modern money, was confirmed on October I 3, I 398, and was the last gift from Richard to Chaucer. Before twelve months were gone, the captive King had ravelled out his weaved-up follies before his pitiless accusers in the Tower of London; and on the very 13th of October, year for year, on which Chaucer had received his butt of wine from Richard 11., a fresh poetical supplication brought him a still greater favour

from the next King. Henry IV. granted on his own account a pension of forty marks in addition to Richard's; and five days afterwards we find Chaucer pleading that he had 1/ accidentally lost" the late King's letters patent for the pension and the wine, and begging for their renewal under Henry's hand. The favour was granted, and Chaucer was thus freed from any uncertainty which might have attached to his former grants from a deposed King, even though one of them was already recognized and renewed in Henry's letters of Octo ber 13. *

II King Richard," writes Froissart, II had a greyhound called Math, who always waited upon the king and would know no man else; for whensoever the king did ride, he that kept the greyhound did let him loose, and he would straight run to the king and fawn upon him and leap with his fore feet upon the king's shoulders. And as the king and the earl of Derby talked together in the court, the greyhound, who was wont to leap upon the king, left the king and came to the earl of Derby, duke of Lancaster, and made to him the same friendly countenance and cheer as he was wont to do to the king. The duke, who knew not the greyhound, demanded of the king what the greyhound would do. I Cousin,' quoth the king, I it is a great good token to you and an evil sign to me.' I Sir, how know you that?' quoth the duke. I I know it well,' quoth the king, I the greyhound maketh you cheer this day as king of

England, as ye shall be, and I shall be deposed. The greyhound hath this knowledge naturally; therefore take him to you; he will follow you and forsake me.' The duke understood well those words and cherished the greyhound, who would never after follow king Richard, but followed the duke of Lancaster: [and more than thirty thousand men saw and knew this." *] The fickle hound did but foreshadow the bearing of Richard's dependents in general. The poem in which Chaucer hastened to salute the new King of a few days breathed no word of pity for his fallen predecessor, but hailed Henry as the saviour of England, /I conqueror of Albion," II very king by lineage and free election." t In the months that followed, while Chaucer enjoyed his wine and his pension, the King who first gave them was starving himself, or being starved by his gaolers, at Pontefract. It must of course be remembered that, while Richard was felt on all hands to have thrown his splendid chances wantonly away, Henry was the son of Chaucer's best patron; and indeed the poet had recently been in close relations with the future King, if not actually in his service. t Still, we know that few were willing to suffer in those days for untimely faith to a fallen sovereign, and we ourselves have less reason to blame the many, than to thank the luckier stars under which such trials of loyalty are spared to our generation. Chaucer's contemporary and fellow-courtier, Froissart, might indeed write bitterly in his old age about a people which could change its ruler like an old glove; but Froissart was at ease in his fat canonry of Chimay; while Chaucer, with a hundred poets before and since, had chirped like a cricket all through the summer, and was now face to face with cold and starvation in the winter of his life.