Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

The Perils of True Love

The marriage of King Mark with La Belle Isolde was celebrated with rich feasts and royal tournaments, and for many days pleasure ruled supreme at Tintagil Castle, whither noble guests came and went. Among those who came was Palamides the Saracen, drawn thither by his love of Isolde, which his overthrow by Tristram had not banished from his heart.

Strange events soon followed. Two ladies of Isolde's train, who envied and hated Dame Bragwaine, laid a plot for her destruction. She was sent into the forest to obtain herbs, and there was met by men sent by her enemies, who bound her hand and foot to a tree, where she remained for three days. By good fortune, at the end of that time, she was found by Palamides, who saved her from death, and took her to a nunnery that she might recover from her pain and exhaustion.

The disappearance of Dame Bragwaine troubled the queen greatly, for she loved her most of all women, and as the days went by and she returned not, the grief of Isolde grew deep. She wandered into the forest, which had been searched in vain for the lost lady, and, plunged in sad thought, seated herself by a woodland spring, where she moaned bitterly for her favorite.

As she sat there Palamides appeared, and, after listening awhile to her sad complaining, said,—

"Queen Isolde, I know well the cause of your grief, and if you will grant the boon I shall ask, I promise to bring you Dame Bragwaine, safe and sound."

The queen was so glad to hear this, that without thought she agreed to grant his wish, thinking more of the lost lady than of what he might demand.

"I trust to your promise," said Palamides. "Remain here half an hour and you shall see her."

"I shall remain," said the queen.

Palamides then rode away, and within the time mentioned returned with the maiden, whom Isolde clasped to her heart with happy tears.

"Now, madam, I have kept my word," said Palamides; "you must keep yours."

"I promised you hastily," answered the queen; "and I warn you now that I will grant you nothing evil; so beware of your asking."

"My boon will keep till I meet you before the king," said Palamides. "What it is I shall not tell you now."

Then the queen rode home with her maiden, and Palamides followed close after, entering the court while Isolde was telling the king of what had happened.

"Sir king," said the knight, "your lady has told you of the boon she proffered me. The honor of knighthood requires that you shall make her word good."

"Why made you this promise, my lady?" asked the king.

"I did so for grief at the loss of Dame Bragwaine, and for joy to recover her."

"Then what you have hastily proffered you must truly perform. The word of king and queen is not to be lightly spoken or lightly broken."

"What I demand is this," said Palamides, "that you deliver to me your queen, to lead her where I wish and govern her as I will."

At this bold request the king frowned deeply, and anger leaped to his lips. But his word had been passed, and the thought came to him that he could trust to Tristram quickly to rescue the queen, and punish this bold adventurer.

"Take her if you will," he cried. "But I tell you this, you will not keep her long, and that you are asking a dangerous gift."

"As for that, I shall dare the risk."

Then he took Isolde by the hand, and led her from the court, and from the presence of the king and his barons, not one of whom moved, though the queen looked round with suppliant eyes. Leading her to his war-horse, he set her behind him on the saddle, and rode proudly away.

No sooner had they gone than the king sent for Tristram, but by despite he was nowhere to be found, for he was in the forest hunting, as was always his custom when not engaged in feats of arms.

"What shall be done?" cried the king. "Can no one find Tristram? My honor will be shamed if the Saracen be not met and overcome."

"I shall follow him, and seek to rescue the queen," said a knight named Lambegus, one of Tristram's followers.

"I thank you, Sir Lambegus. If I live, I will remember the service."

So Lambegus got to horse and followed Palamides hotly, but to his own sorrow, as it proved, for he was no match for the Saracen, who soon laid him upon the earth wounded nearly to death.

But while the battle went on, Isolde, who had been set upon the earth pending the combat, ran into the forest, and continued to fly till she came to a deep spring, where in her grief she sought to drown herself. But good fortune brought thither a knight named Sir Adtherp, who had a castle near by. Seeing the despair of the queen, he led her to his castle, and then, learning her story, took upon himself her battle, and rode forth to meet the Saracen.

But he, too, fared badly, for Palamides wounded him severely, and made him tell what he had done with the queen, and where his castle might be found.

Palamides, leaving him bleeding on the ground, rode in all haste to the castle. But as he approached, Isolde saw him from a window, and gave orders that the gate should be shut and the drawbridge raised. When Palamides came up and saw that the castle was closed against him, and entrance denied, he took the saddle and bridle from his horse and put him to pasture, while he seated himself before the gate like a man who cared not what became of him.

Meanwhile, Tristram had returned from the hunt, and when he learned what had happened, he was half beside himself with anger.

"Lambegus is no match for the Saracen," he said. "Would I had been here in his stead. The unchristianed villain shall answer for this outrage if he can be found."

Then he armed himself in all haste, and rode into the forest. Not far had he gone when he found Lambegus, sorely wounded, and had him borne to a place of shelter. Somewhat farther on he found Adtherp, also hurt and bleeding, and from him he learned what had taken place.

"Where is my lady now?" he asked.

"Safe in my castle," said the knight. "And there she can hold herself secure against the Saracen."

"Then I owe you much," said Tristram. "Trust me to see that some of your men be sent to your aid."

He continued his journey till he came to the castle, and here he saw Palamides sitting by the gate fast asleep, with his horse grazing beside him.

"The misbegotten rogue takes life easy," said Tristram. "Go rouse him, Gouvernail. Bid him make ready to answer for his outrage."

But he was in such deep slumber that Gouvernail called to him in vain. He returned and told Tristram that the knight was either asleep or mad.

"Go again and tell him that I, his mortal foe, am here."

Gouvernail now prodded him with the butt of his spear, and cried,—

"Arise, Sir Palamides, and make ready, for yonder is Sir Tristram, and he sends you word that he is your mortal foe."

Then Palamides rose without a word of answer, and saddled and bridled his horse, upon which he sprang, putting his spear in rest. But he remained not long in his saddle, for when they met in mid career, Tristram smote him so hard a blow as to thrust him over his horse's tail to the ground.

Then they drew their swords and fought with all their strength, for the lady whom they both loved looked upon them from the walls, and well-nigh swooned for grief and distress on seeing how sorely each was hurt.

"Alas!" she cried, "one of them I love, and the other loves me. It would be a great pity to see Sir Palamides slain, much as he has troubled me, and slain he will be if this fight goes on."

Then, moved by her tender heart, she went down and besought Tristram to fight no more.

"What mean you?" he asked. "Would you have me shamed?"

"I desire not your dishonor; but for my sake I would have you spare this unhappy knight, whose love for me has made him mad."

"As you wish," he replied. "The fight shall end, since you desire it."

"As for you, Sir Palamides," she said, "I command that you shall go out of this country while I am in it."

"If it must be, it must," he answered, in bitter anguish; "but it is sorely against my will, for not to see you is not to live."

"Take your way to the court of King Arthur," she said, "and there recommend me to Queen Guenever. Tell her that Isolde says that in all the land there are but four lovers, and that these are Lancelot du Lake and Queen Guenever, and Tristram de Lyonesse and Queen Isolde."

This message filled Palamides with the greatest heaviness of heart, and mounting his steed he rode away moaning bitterly. But Isolde was full of gladness in being well rid of her troublesome lover, and Tristram in having rescued her from his rival. So he brought her back to King Mark, and there was great joy over her home-coming, while the king and all the court showered honors on the successful champion. Sir Lambegus was brought back to the court and put under the care of skilful leeches, and for a long time joy and good-will reigned.

But Tristram had in King Mark's court a bitter foe, who sought to work him injury, though he was his near cousin. This traitor, Sir Andred by name, knew well of the love between Tristram and Isolde, and that they had secret meetings and tender conversations, so he lay in wait to spy upon them and slander them before the court.

A day came at length when Andred observed Tristram in secret parley with Isolde at a window, and he hastened to the king and poisoned his mind with a false report of what he had seen. King Mark, on hearing this, burst into a fury of passion, and seizing a sword, ran to where Tristram stood. Here he violently berated him as a traitor, and struck at him a furious blow.

But Tristram took the sword-point under his arm, and ran in on the king, wresting the weapon from his hand.

"Where are my knights and men?" cried the enraged king. "I charge you to kill this traitor!"

But of those present not a man would move. When Tristram saw this, he shook the sword threateningly against the king, and took a step forward as if he would have slain him. At this movement King Mark fled, while Tristram followed, and struck him so strong a blow with the flat of the sword on his neck that he was flung prostrate on his nose. Then Tristram hastened to his room and armed himself, after which he took his horse and his squire and rode into the forest.

Here the valorous champion killed some of the knights whom the king had sent against him and put to flight thirty more, so that King Mark in fear and fury called a council of his lords, and asked what was to be done with his rebellious subject.

"Our counsel is," said the barons, "that you send for Sir Tristram and make friends with him, for you well know that if you push him hard many of your men will join him. He is peerless and matchless among Christian knights except Sir Lancelot, and if you drive him to seek King Arthur's court he will find such friends there that he may defy your power. Therefore we counsel you to beg him to return to the court, under assurance of safety."

"You may send for him, then," said the king, though his heart burned with secret fury. The barons now sent for Tristram under a safe-conduct, and he returned to the court, where he was welcomed by the king, and all that had passed seemed to be forgotten.

Shortly after this the king and queen went hunting, accompanied by Tristram and many knights and gentlemen of the court. Entering the forest, they set up their pavilions and tents beside a river, where they hunted and jousted daily, for King Mark had with him thirty knights who stood ready to meet all comers.

Fortune brought thither two knights-errant, one being Lamorak de Galis, who of all knights was counted next to Lancelot and Tristram. The other was Sir Driant, both being Knights of the Round Table.

Driant jousted first with the Cornish knights, and, after unhorsing some of them, got a stunning fall. Then Lamorak offered to meet them, and of the thirty knights not one kept his seat before him, while some were sorely hurt.

"What knight is this who fights so well?" asked the king.

"Sir," said Tristram, "it is Lamorak de Galis, one of the best knights who ever put spear in rest."

"Then, Sir Tristram, you must meet him. It were a shame to us all to let him go away victor."

"It were a greater shame to overthrow a noble knight when he and his horse are worn out with over-labor."

"He shall not leave here and boast of how he vanquished King Mark's knights. I charge you, as you love me and my lady La Belle Isolde, to take your arms and joust with this Lamorak."

"You charge me to do what is against knighthood, for it is no honor for a fresh man and horse to master spent and weary ones. Since you command it I must do it, but it is sorely against my will."

Then he armed himself and took his horse, and in the joust easily overthrew Lamorak and his weary steed. The knight lightly sprang from the falling charger and drew his sword, boldly challenging Tristram to meet him on foot. But this Tristram would by no means do, though Lamorak hotly renewed the challenge.

"You are great of heart, Sir Lamorak," said Tristram, "but no knight nor horse was ever made that could forever endure. Therefore I will not meet you, and I am sorry for having jousted with you."

"You have done me an evil turn," said Lamorak, angrily, "for which I shall repay you when an opportunity comes."

Lamorak soon got his revenge. For as he rode with Sir Driant towards Camelot he met by the way a boy who had been sent by Morgan le Fay to King Arthur. For the false enchantress still held to her hatred against her noble brother, and by all means sought his harm. So by magic art she had made a drinking-horn of such strange virtue that if any lady drank of it who had been false to her husband all the wine would be spilled, but if she had been true to him, she might drink in peace and safety.

This horn she sent to Arthur's court, hoping that Guenever might drink thereof and be dishonored, for her love for Lancelot was known to all but the king.

Lamorak, learning from the boy his errand, bade him bear the horn to King Mark's court, and tell the king that it was sent to prove the falseness of his lady, who loved Sir Tristram more than she did her wedded lord.

Soon afterwards, therefore, the boy appeared at Tintagil Castle, and presented King Mark the magic horn, telling him of its virtues, and all that Sir Lamorak had bidden him say.

"By my royal faith we shall try it, then!" said the king. "Not only my queen, but all the ladies of the court, shall drink of it, and we shall learn who among them has other lovers than their liege lords."

Much to their unwillingness, Queen Isolde and a hundred ladies of the court were made to drink from the magic horn, and of them all only four drank without spilling the wine.

"Now, by my knightly honor, all these false dames shall be burnt!" cried the king. "My court shall be purged of this vile stain."

"That shall they not," cried the barons. "We shall never consent that the queen and all these ladies shall be destroyed for a horn wrought by sorcery, and sent here to make mischief by as foul a sorceress and witch as the earth holds. She has always been an enemy to all true lovers and sought to do them harm, and if we meet with Morgan le Fay she will get but scant courtesy at our hands. We would much rather believe the horn false than all our ladies untrue."

But Tristram's anger was turned towards Lamorak for this affront, for he knew well what had been his purpose. And he vowed in his heart that he would yet repay him for this treacherous act.

His affection for Queen Isolde kept as warm as though the love-draught still flowed in his veins, and he sought her at every opportunity, for the two greatest joys that life held for him were to tell her of his love and hear from her lips that her love for him had never dimmed.

But his treacherous cousin Andred watched his every movement, and kept the king advised that Tristram continued his secret interviews with the queen. So an ambush of twelve knights was set, and one day, when Tristram had just paid a stolen visit to the queen, and sat in loving converse by her side, these ambushed knights broke suddenly upon him, took him prisoner, and bound him hand and foot.

Then, by order of the king, he was borne to a chapel that stood on a rocky height above the sea, where Andred and some others of the barons who were his enemies came together to pass judgment upon him.

Tristram in all his life had never stood in such peril, for his hands were bound fast to two knights, and forty others surrounded him, every one a foe. Care had been taken to get rid of his friends among the barons by sending them away from the court on various pretexts. Like a lion surrounded by jackals he chafed in his bonds, while his great heart swelled as if it would break. No escape seemed possible, but with a reproachful voice he said,—

"Fair lords, I have in my time done something for Cornwall, and taken upon myself great peril for your benefit. Who among you all was ready to meet Sir Marhaus, or to cope with Palamides? Is this shameful death my reward for my services to your country? You know well that I never met a knight but that I was his match or his better."

"Boast not, false traitor," cried Andred. "For all thy vaunting, thou shalt die this day."

"O Andred, Andred, that you my kinsman should treat me thus!" said Tristram sorrowfully. "You can be bold when I am bound, but if there were none here but you and me, you would crouch like a cur at my feet."

"Would I so?" cried Andred, angrily. "You shall see what I would do."

And as he spoke he drew his sword, and advanced upon his cousin with intent to slay him on the spot. But Tristram, when he saw him coming with murderous looks, suddenly drew inwards with all his strength the two knights to whom he was bound, and with a mighty wrench broke the strong cords asunder. Then with the leap of a tiger he sprang upon his treacherous cousin, wrested the sword from his hand, and smote him a blow that hurled him insensible to the earth. This done, he rushed with the fury of a madman on his enemies, striking mighty blows to right and left, till in a few minutes ten of them lay dead and wounded on the earth.

But seeing that they were pressing on him in too great force, he retreated into the chapel, in whose door-way he stood, sword in hand, holding it against all their assaults.

Soon, however, the cry went forth that the prisoner had escaped, and had felled Andred and killed many of the barons, and others of his foes hastened up, till more than a hundred beleaguered him in the chapel.

Tristram now looked despairingly on his unarmed form, and saw that many of his assailants wore armor of proof. Death was sure unless he could find some means of escape. He knew that the chapel stood on the brow of the cliff, and here seemed his only hope of safety, though it was a perilous one. Quickly retreating, he shut and barred the door, and then with hand and sword wrenched and tore the iron bars from a window over the cliff, out of which he desperately leaped.

The descent was a deep one, but he fortunately reached the sea below without striking any of the rocks in his descent. Here he drew himself into a crevice at the foot of the cliff.

Those above rushed to the rocky edge and looked down into the boiling waters far below, but they saw nothing of the daring knight, and after a long and vain effort to see him, went away to report to the king that his enemy was drowned.

But while King Mark and Tristram's enemies were congratulating one another upon this, there came to the top of the cliff, Gouvernail, Lambegus, and others of Tristram's men, who, looking down, saw him creeping up from the water to a safer place of shelter among the rocks. Hailing him, they bade him to be of good heart, and, letting down a rope which they quickly procured, they managed to draw him up to the summit, where they congratulated him warmly on his escape. Without delay, however, he left that spot, for fear of his foes returning, and sought a place of shelter in the forest.

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris


Here he abode for some time, but the news of his escape got abroad, to the discomfiture of his foes. And on a day when he had fallen asleep, a man to whom he had done some injury crept up and shot him in the shoulder with an arrow. Tristram sprang up and killed the man, but the wound pained him day by day. And on news of it being brought to La Belle Isolde she sent him word by Dame Bragwaine that the arrow had been poisoned, and with a venom that no leech in England could cure. "My lady, La Belle Isolde, bids you haste into Brittany to King Howell," said Dame Bragwaine, "for she knows no one who can help you but his daughter, Isolde la Blanche Mains."

Hearing this, the wounded knight sent a sad farewell to his lady love, and took ship with Gouvernail his squire, and sailed to Brittany, where he was warmly welcomed by King Howell.

And when Isolde of the white hands heard of the errand of the knight, she applied to his wound healing herbs of such virtue that in a little while he was whole again.

Afterwards Tristram dwelt long in Brittany, and helped King Howell much in his wars.