Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris




The Draught of Love

At length there came a day, after Tristram had dwelt long at King Anguish's court, that the king asked him why he had not demanded his boon, since the royal word had been passed that whatever he asked should be his without fail.

"I asked you not," said Tristram, "since it is a boon that will give me no pleasure, but so much pain that with every day that passes I grow less inclined to ask it."

"Then why ask it at all?"

"That I must, for I have passed my word of honor, and the word of a knight is his best possession. What I am forced to demand, then, is that you will give me the hand of La Belle Isolde,—not for myself, and that is what makes my heart so sore, but for my uncle, King Mark, who desires to wed her, and for whom I have promised to demand her."

"Alas!" cried the king, "that you should ask me so despiteful a boon. I had rather than all King Mark's dominions that you should wed her yourself."

"I never saw woman whom I would rather wed," he replied. "But if I should do so I would be the shame of the world forever, as a false knight, recreant to his promise. Therefore, I must stand by my word, and hold you to your boon, that you will give me La Belle Isolde to go with me to Cornwall, there to be wedded to King Mark, my uncle."

"As for that, I cannot deny you. She shall go with you, but as to what may happen thereafter, I leave that for you to decide. If you choose to wed her yourself, that will give me the greatest joy. But if you determine to give her to King Mark, the right rests with you. I have passed my word, though I wish now that I had not."

Then Isolde was told of what had passed, and bade to make ready to go with Tristram, a lady named Bragwaine going with her as chief gentlewoman, while many others were selected as her attendants. When the preparations were fully made, the queen, Isolde's mother, gave to Dame Bragwaine and Gouvernail a golden flask containing a drink, and charged them that on the day of Isolde's wedding they should give King Mark that drink, bidding him to quaff it to the health of La Belle Isolde, and her to quaff his health in return.

"It is a love draught," continued the queen, "and if they shall drink it I undertake to say that each shall love the other for all the days of their life."

Not many days passed before Tristram took to the sea, with the fair maiden who had been committed to his charge, and they sailed away on a mission that had for them both far more of sadness than of joy, for their love grew as the miles passed.

One day, as they sat together in the cabin, it happened that they became thirsty, and by chance they saw on a shelf near them a little golden flask, filled with what by the color seemed to be a noble wine. Tristram took it down and said, with a laugh,—

"Madam Isolde, here is the best drink that ever you drank, a precious draught which Dame Bragwaine, your maiden, and Gouvernail, my servant, are keeping for themselves. Let us drink from their private store."

Then with laughter and merriment they drank freely from the flask, and both thought that they had never tasted draught so sweet and delicious in their lives before. But when the magic wine got into their blood, they looked upon each other with new eyes, for their hearts were suddenly filled with such passionate love as they had not dreamed that heart could feel. Tristram thought that never had mortal eyes gazed upon a maiden of such heavenly charms, and Isolde that there was never man born so grand and graceful as the knight of her love.

Then all at once she fell into bitter weeping as the thought of her destiny came upon her, and Tristram took her in his arms and kissed her sweet lips again and again, speaking words of love that brought some comfort to her love-sick heart. And thus it was between them day by day to the end of their voyage, for a love had grown between them of such fervent depth that it could never leave them while blood flowed in their veins.

Such magic power had the draught which the queen had prepared for King Mark, and which the unthinking lovers drank in fate's strange error. It was the bitter-sweet of love; for it was destined to bring them the deepest joy and sorrow in the years to come.

Many days passed before the lovers reached Cornwall, and strange adventures met them by the way, of which we have but little space to speak. For chance brought them to land near a castle named Pleure, or the weeping castle. It was the custom of the lord of that castle, when any knight passed by with a lady, to take them prisoners. Then, when the knight's lady was compared with the lady of the castle, whichever was the least lovely of the two was put to death, and the knight was made to fight with the lord of the castle for the other, and was put to death if vanquished. Through this cruel custom many a noble knight and fair lady had been slain, for the castle lord was of great prowess and his lady of striking beauty.

It chanced that Tristram and Isolde demanded shelter at this castle, and that they were made prisoners under its cruel custom. At this outrage Tristram grew bitterly indignant, and demanded passionately what it meant, as honor demanded that those who sought harbor should be received hospitably as guests, and not despitefully as prisoners. In answer he was told the custom of the castle, and that he must fight for his lady and his liberty.

"It is a foul and shameful custom," he replied. "I do not fear that your lord's lady will surpass mine in beauty, nor that I cannot hold my own in the field, but I like to have a voice in my own doings. Tell him, however, if he is so hot for battle, that I shall be ready for the test to-morrow morning, and may heaven be on the side of truth and justice."

When morning came the test of beauty was made, and the loveliness of Isolde shone so far beyond that of the castle lady that Breunor, the lord, was forced to admit it. And now Tristram grew stern and pitiless, for he said that this lady had consented to the death of many innocent rivals, and richly deserved death as a punishment for the ruthless deeds done in her behalf, and to gratify her cruel vanity. Thereupon her head was struck off without mercy.

Full of anger at this, Breunor attacked Tristram with all his strength and fury, and a long and fiery combat took place, yet in the end he fell dead beneath the sword of the knight of Cornwall.

But, as it happened, the castle lord had a valiant son, named Sir Galahad the high prince, a knight who in after years was to do deeds of great emprise. Word was brought to him of the death of his father and mother, and he rode in all haste to the castle, having with him that renowned warrior known as the king with the hundred knights.

Reaching the castle, Galahad fiercely challenged Tristram to battle, and a mighty combat ensued. But at the last Galahad was forced to give way before the deadly strokes of his antagonist, whose strength seemed to grow with his labor.

When the king with the hundred knights saw this, he rushed upon Tristram with many of his followers, attacking him in such force as no single knight could hope to endure.

"This is no knightly deed," cried Tristram to Galahad. "I deemed you a noble knight, but it is a shameful act to let all your men set on me at once."

"However that be," said Galahad, "you have done me a great wrong, and must yield or die."

"Then I must yield, since you treat me so unfairly. I accepted your challenge, not that of all your followers. To yield thus puts me to no dishonor."

And he took his sword by the point and put the pommel in the hand of his opponent. But despite this action the king and his knights came on, and made a second attack on the unarmed warrior.

"Let him be," cried Sir Galahad. "I have given him his life, and no man shall harm him."

"Shame is it in you to say so!" cried the king. "Has he not slain your father and mother?"

"For that I cannot blame him greatly. My father held him in prison, and forced him to fight to the death. The custom was a wicked and cruel one, and could have but one end. Long ago, it drove me from my father's castle, for I could not favor it by any presence."

"It was a sinful custom, truly," said the king.

"So I deem it, and it would be a pity that this brave knight should die in such a cause, for I know no one save Lancelot du Lake who is his equal. Now, fair knight, will you tell me your name?"

"My name is Tristram of Lyonesse, and I am on my way to the court of King Mark of Cornwall, taking to him La Belle Isolde, the daughter of King Anguish of Ireland, whom he desires to wed."

"Then you are welcome to these marches, and all that I demand of you is that you promise to go to Lancelot du Lake, and become his fellow. I shall promise that no such custom shall ever be used in this castle again."

"You will do well," said Tristram. "I would have you know that when I began to fight with you I fancied you were Lancelot. And I promise, as soon as I may, to seek him, for of all the knights in the world I most desire his fellowship."

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris

TRISTRAM AND THE FAIR ISOLDE


Soon afterwards Tristram and his fair companion resumed their journey, and in due time reached Cornwall. But as they came near Tintagil their hearts were ready to break, for that magic draught was still in their veins, and they loved each other with a love that was past all telling.

Thoughts came into Tristram's heart to marry the maiden in despite of custom and his plighted word, and gladly would she have consented thereto. But strong as was his love, his honor was stronger, and Isolde, deeply as she grieved, could not ask him to break his word. And thus for many long miles they journeyed onward side by side in silence, their eyes alone speaking, but they telling a story of love and grief to which they dared not give words, lest their hearts' desire should burst all boundaries of faith and honor, and men's condemnation come to them both.

So they came with drooping hearts to the court of King Mark, where the king and his barons received them with state and ceremony. Quickly thereafter the wedding took place, for the king looked with eyes of warm approval upon the beautiful maiden, and prepared richly and nobly for the ceremony, at which many noble knights and lords were present, but from which Tristram withdrew in the deepest anguish, as he could not endure the sight. And so his knightly word was kept, though to keep it almost broke his heart.