Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

La Belle Isolde

When Tristram arrived in Ireland, chance so provided that he landed near a castle in which the king and queen, with all their court, then were. He had brought his harp with him, and on his arrival sat up in his bed and played a merry lay, which gave joy to all that heard it.

Word was quickly brought to the king that a harper of wonderful skill had reached his shores, and he at once sent to have him brought to the castle, where he asked him his name and whence he came.

"My name," replied the wounded knight, "is Tramtrist; I am of the country of Lyonesse, and the wound from which I suffer was received in a battle I fought for a lady who had been wronged."

"You shall have all the help here we can give you," said King Anguish. "I have just met with a sad loss myself, for the best knight in my kingdom has been slain."

Then he told Tristram of the battle with King Mark's champion, little dreaming that the knight to whom he spoke knew far more about it than he did himself.

"As for your wound," said the king, "my daughter, La Belle Isolde, is a leech of wonderful skill, and as you seem so worthy a man I shall put you under her care."

This said, he departed, and sent his daughter to the knight; but no sooner did Tristram behold her than he received a deeper wound from love than he had yet had from sword or spear. For La Belle Isolde was the most beautiful lady in the world, a maiden of such wondrous charm and grace that no land held her equal.

When she examined the young knight's wound she quickly saw that he was suffering from poison, but it was a venom with which she knew well how to deal, and she was not long in healing his deep hurt. In return for this great service, he taught her the art of harping, while the love he felt for her soon left some reflection of its warm presence in her soul.

But she already had a lover in the court, a worthy and valiant Saracen knight named Palamides, who sought her day after day, and made her many gifts, for his love for her was deep. He was well esteemed by the king and queen, and had declared his willingness to be made a Christian for the sake of La Belle Isolde. In consequence there soon arose hot blood between Tristram and Palamides, for each feared that the other was a favored rival.

And now it happened that King Anguish announced a tournament to be held in honor of a cousin of his called the Lady of the Lawns, it being declared that the grand prize of the tournament should be the hand of the lady and the lordship of her lands. The report of this tournament spread through England, Wales, and Scotland, reaching even to Brittany, and France, and many knights came to try their fortune in the lists.

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris


When the day drew near the fair Isolde told Tristram of the tournament, and expressed a warm desire that he would take part in it.

"Fair lady," he answered, "I am as yet but feeble, and only for your generous care might be dead. I should be glad to obey any wish of yours, but you know that I am not in condition for the lists."

"Ah, Tramtrist," she replied, "I trust that you may be able to take part in this friendly joust. Palamides will be there, and I hoped that you would meet him, for I fear that otherwise he will not find his equal."

"You do me great honor," he replied. "You forget that I am but a young knight, and that in the only battle I have fought I was wounded nearly unto death. But for the love I have for you I shall attend the tournament, and jeopard my poor person for your sake, if you will only keep my counsel and let no person know that I have entered the lists."

"That shall I," she replied, gladly. "Horse and armor shall be ready for you, and I but ask you to do your best. I am sure your best must win."

"With Isolde's eyes upon me I can do no less," answered Tristram, with a glad heart. "I am at your command in all things, and for your love would dare tenfold this risk."

When the day of the tournament came, Palamides appeared in the lists with a black shield, and so many knights fell before him that all the people marvelled at his prowess. Throughout the first day's fight he held his own against all comers, bearing off the honors of the lists. As for Tristram, he sat among the spectators, and when King Anguish asked him why he did not joust, replied that he was still too weak from his wound.

On the morning of the next day Palamides came early into the field, and began the same career of conquest as on the day before. But in the midst of his good fortune there rode into the lists an unknown knight, who seemed to the spectators like an angel, for his horse and his armor were of the whiteness of snow.

No sooner had Palamides espied this stranger than he put his spear in rest and rode against him at furious speed. But there came a sudden change in his fortunes, for the white knight struck him with such force as to hurl him from his horse to the ground.

Then there arose a great noise and uproar among the people, for they had grown to think that no knight could face the Saracen, and Gawaine and others whom he had overthrown marvelled who this stranger knight could be. But Isolde was glad at heart, for the love of Palamides was a burden to her, and well she knew the knight of the white arms.

As for the Palamides, he was so ashamed and disconcerted by his fall that, on mounting his horse again, he sought privately to withdraw from the field. But the white knight rode hastily after him and bade him turn, saying that he should not leave the lists so lightly. At these words Palamides turned and struck a fierce sword-blow at the white champion. But the latter put the stroke aside, and returned it with so mighty a buffet on the Saracen's head that he fell from his horse to the earth.

Then Tristram—for he was the white knight—bade him yield and consent to do his command, or he would slay him. To this Palamides agreed, for he was hurt past defence.

"This, then, is my command," said Tristram. "First, upon pain of your life, you shall cease your suit of the lady La Belle Isolde, and come not near her. Second, for a year and a day you shall wear no armor or weapons of war. Promise me this, or you shall die."

"This is a bitter penance," cried Palamides. "You shame me before the world. For nothing less than life would I consent."

But he took the oath as Tristram commanded, and then in anger and despite threw off his armor and cut it into pieces, flinging the fragments away. Then he departed, weighed down with sadness and shame.

This done, Tristram left the lists, where he could find no knight willing to fight with him, and rode to the private postern of the castle whence he had come to the field. Here he found the fair Isolde awaiting him with a joyous face and a voice of thanks, praising him so highly that the knight was abashed with modest shame, though gladness filled his heart. And when she had told the king and queen that it was Tramtrist who had vanquished the Saracen, they treated him as if he had been of royal blood, for he had shown such prowess as Lancelot himself could not exceed.

After this Tristram dwelt long in the castle, highly esteemed by the king and queen, and loved by La Belle Isolde, whose heart he had fully won by his prowess in the tournament. Those were days of joy and gladness, too soon, alas to end, for he loved her with all his soul, and saw his heaven in her eyes, while for all his love she gave him the warm devotion of a true heart in return.

But fate at length brought this dream of happiness to an end. For on a day when Tristram was in the bath, attended by his squire Gouvernail, chance brought the queen and Isolde into the chamber of the knight. On the bed lay his sword, and this the queen picked up and held it out for Isolde's admiration, as the blade which had done such noble work in the tournament.

But as she held it so she saw that there was a gap in the edge, a piece being broken out about a foot from the point. At sight of this she let the weapon fall, while her heart gave a great bound of pain and anger.

"Liar and traitor, have I found you at last!" she cried, in an outbreak of rage. "It is this false villain that slew my brother Marhaus!"

With these words she ran in haste from the chamber, leaving Isolde trembling with dread for her lover, for though she knew not the cause of the queen's rage, she knew well how cruel she could be in her passion.

Quickly the queen returned, bringing with her the fragment of steel that had been found in Marhaus's skull, and, snatching up the sword, she fitted this into the broken place. It fitted so closely that the blade seemed whole. Then with a cry of passionate rage the furious woman ran to where Tristram was in the bath, and would have run him through had not Gouvernail caught her in his arms and wrested the sword from her hand.

Failing in this deadly intent, she tore herself from the squire's grasp and flew to the king, throwing herself on her knees before him and crying,—

"Oh, my lord and husband! you have here in your house that murderous wretch who killed my brother, the noble Sir Marhaus!"

"Ha! can that be?" said the king. "Where is he?"

"It is Tramtrist," she replied. "It is that villanous knight whom our daughter healed, and who has shamefully abused our hospitality." And she told him by what strange chance she had made this discovery.

"Alas!" said the king, "what you tell me grieves me to the heart. I never saw a nobler knight than he, and I would give my crown not to have learned this. I charge you to leave him to me. I will deal with him as honor and justice demand."

Then the king sought Tristram in his chamber, and found him there fully armed and ready to mount his horse.

"So, Tramtrist, you are ready for the field," he said. "I tell you this, that it will not avail you to match your strength against my power. But I honor you for your nobility and prowess, and it would shame me to slay my guest in my court; therefore, I will let you depart in safety, on condition that you tell me your name and that of your father, and if it was truly you that slew my brother, Sir Marhaus."

"Truly it was so," said Tristram. "But what I did was done in honor and justice, as you well know. He came as a champion and defied all the knights of Cornwall to battle, and I fought him for the honor of Cornwall. It was my first battle, for I was made a knight that very day. And no man living can say that I struck him foully."

"I doubt me not that you acted in all knightly honor," answered the king. "But you cannot stay in my country against the ill-will of my barons, my wife, and her kindred."

"As for who I am," continued the knight, "my father is King Meliodas of Lyonesse, and my uncle King Mark of Cornwall. My name is Tristram; but when I was sent to your country to be cured of my wound I called myself Tramtrist, for I feared your anger. I thank you deeply for the kind welcome you have given me, and the goodness my lady, your daughter, has shown me. It may happen that you will win more by my life than by my death, for in England I may yet do you some knightly service. This I promise you, as I am a true knight, that in all places I shall hold myself the servant and knight of my lady, your daughter, and shall never fail to do in her honor and service all that a knight may. Also I beseech you that I may take leave of your barons and knights, and pray you to grant me leave to bid adieu to your daughter."

"I cannot well refuse you this," said the king.

With this permission, Tristram sought La Belle Isolde, and sadly bade her farewell, telling her who he was, why he had changed his name, and for what purpose he had come to Ireland.

"Had it not been for your care and skill I should now have been dead," he said.

"Gentle sir," she sadly replied, "I am woeful indeed that you should go, for I never saw man to whom I felt such good-will as to you."

And she wept bitterly as she held out her hand in adieu. But Tristram took her in his arms and kissed away her tears.

"I love you, Isolde, as my soul," he said. "If this despite of fate shall stand between you and me, this I promise, to be your knight while life is left to me."

"And this I promise," answered Isolde, "that if I am married within these seven years it shall only be by your assent! If they stand between me and my love, at least they shall not force me to wed against your will."

Then she gave Tristram a ring and received one from him in return, and he departed from her with a pain as if the parting wrenched their hearts asunder, while she beheld him go with such tears and lamentation that it seemed as if her faithful heart would break.

Tristram next sought the great hall of the court, where were assembled the barons of King Anguish, and took his leave of them all, saying,—

"Fair lords, fortune wills that I must leave you. If there be any man here whom I have offended or aggrieved let him make complaint now, and I shall amend the wrong so far as it is in my power. If there be any who may incline to say a wrongful thing of me behind my back, let him speak now, and I will make it good with him, body against body."

But no man spoke in reply. There were knights there of the blood of Sir Marhaus and the queen, but none that cared to have to do in the field against Sir Tristram.

So bidding them all adieu, he departed, and took ship for Tintagil, in Cornwall.