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The Age of Chivalry, a non-fiction book by Thomas Bulfinch

A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter XV. The Round Table

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_ The famous enchanter, Merlin, had exerted all his skill in
fabricating the Round Table. Of the seats which surrounded it he
had constructed thirteen, in memory of the thirteen Apostles.
Twelve of these seats only could be occupied, and they only by
knights of the highest fame; the thirteenth represented the seat
of the traitor Judas. It remained always empty. It was called the
PERILOUS SEAT, ever since a rash and haughty Saracen knight had
dared to place himself in it, when the earth opened and swallowed
him up.

"In our great hall there stood a vacant chair,
Fashion'd by Merlin ere he past away,
And carven with strange figures; and in and out
The figures, like a serpent, ran a scroll
Of letters in a tongue no man could read
And Merlin call'd it 'The Siege perilous,'
Perilous for good and ill; 'for there,' he said,
'No man could sit but he should lose himself.'"

--The Holy Grail.

A magic power wrote upon each seat the name of the knight who was
entitled to sit in it. No one could succeed to a vacant seat
unless he surpassed in valor and glorious deeds the knight who had
occupied it before him; without this qualification he would be
violently repelled by a hidden force. Thus proof was made of all
those who presented themselves to replace any companions of the
order who had fallen.

One of the principal seats, that of Moraunt of Ireland, had been
vacant ten years, and his name still remained over it ever since
the time when that distinguished champion fell beneath the sword
of Sir Tristram. Arthur now took Tristram by the hand and led him
to that seat. Immediately the most melodious sounds were heard,
and exquisite perfumes filled the place; the name of Moraunt
disappeared, and that of Tristram blazed forth in light. The rare
modesty of Tristram had now to be subjected to a severe task; for
the clerks charged with the duty of preserving the annals of the
Round Table attended, and he was required by the law of his order
to declare what feats of arms he had accomplished to entitle him
to take that seat. This ceremony being ended, Tristram received
the congratulations of all his companions. Sir Launcelot and
Guenever took the occasion to speak to him of the fair Isoude, and
to express their wish that some happy chance might bring her to
the kingdom of Loegria.

While Tristram was thus honored and caressed at the court of King
Arthur, the most gloomy and malignant jealousy harassed the soul
of Mark. He could not look upon Isoude without remembering that
she loved Tristram, and the good fortune of his nephew goaded him
to thoughts of vengeance. He at last resolved to go disguised into
the kingdom of Loegria, attack Tristram by stealth, and put him to
death. He took with him two knights, brought up in his court, who
he thought were devoted to him; and, not willing to leave Isoude
behind, named two of her maidens to attend her, together with her
faithful Brengwain, and made them accompany him.

Having arrived in the neighborhood of Camelot, Mark imparted his
plan to his two knights, but they rejected it with horror; nay,
more, they declared that they would no longer remain in his
service; and left him, giving him reason to suppose that they
should repair to the court to accuse him before Arthur. It was
necessary for Mark to meet and rebut their accusation; so, leaving
Isoude in an abbey, he pursued his way alone to Camelot.

Mark had not ridden far when he encountered a party of knights of
Arthur's court, and would have avoided them, for he knew their
habit of challenging to a just every stranger knight whom they
met. But it was too late. They had seen his armor, and recognized
him as a Cornish knight, and at once resolved to have some sport
with him. It happened they had with them Daguenet, King Arthur's
fool, who, though deformed and weak of body, was not wanting in
courage. The knights as Mark approached laid their plan that
Daguenet should personate Sir Launcelot of the Lake, and challenge
the Cornish knight. They equipped him in armor belonging to one of
their number who was ill, and sent him forward to the cross-road
to defy the strange knight. Mark, who saw that his antagonist was
by no means formidable in appearance, was not disinclined to the
combat; but when the dwarf rode towards him, calling out that he
was Sir Launcelot of the Lake, his fears prevailed, he put spurs
to his horse, and rode away at full speed, pursued by the shouts
and laughter of the party.

Meanwhile Isoude, remaining at the abbey with her faithful
Brengwain, found her only amusement in walking occasionally in a
forest adjoining the abbey. There, on the brink of a fountain
girdled with trees, she thought of her love, and sometimes joined
her voice and her harp in lays reviving the memory of its pains or
pleasures. One day the caitiff knight, Breuse the Pitiless, heard
her voice, concealed himself, and drew near. She sang:

"Sweet silence, shadowy bower, and verdant lair,
Ye court my troubled spirit to repose,
Whilst I, such dear remembrance rises there,
Awaken every echo with my woes

"Within these woods, by nature's hand arrayed,
A fountain springs, and feeds a thousand flowers;
Ah! how my groans do all its murmurs aid!
How my sad eyes do swell it with their showers!

"What doth my knight the while? to him is given
A double meed; in love and arms' emprise,
Him the Round Table elevates to heaven!
Tristram! ah me! he hears not Isoude's cries."

Breuse the Pitiless, who like most other caitiffs had felt the
weight of Tristram's arm, and hated him accordingly, at hearing
his name breathed forth by the beautiful songstress, impelled by a
double impulse, rushed forth from his concealment and laid hands
on his victim. Isoude fainted, and Brengwain filled the air with
her shrieks. Breuse carried Isoude to the place where he had left
his horse; but the animal had got away from his bridle, and was at
some distance. He was obliged to lay down his fair burden, and go
in pursuit of his horse. Just then a knight came up, drawn by the
cries of Brengwain, and demanded the cause of her distress. She
could not speak, but pointed to her mistress lying insensible on
the ground.

Breuse had by this time returned, and the cries of Brengwain,
renewed at seeing him, sufficiently showed the stranger the cause
of the distress. Tristram spurred his horse towards Breuse, who,
not unprepared, ran to the encounter. Breuse was unhorsed, and lay
motionless, pretending to be dead; but when the stranger knight
left him to attend to the distressed damsels, he mounted his
horse, and made his escape.

The knight now approached Isoude, gently raised her head, drew
aside the golden hair which covered her countenance, gazed thereon
for an instant, uttered a cry, and fell back insensible. Brengwain
came; her cares soon restored her mistress to life, and they then
turned their attention to the fallen warrior. They raised his
visor, and discovered the countenance of Sir Tristram. Isoude
threw herself on the body of her lover, and bedewed his face with
her tears. Their warmth revived the knight, and Tristram on
awaking found himself in the arms of his dear Isoude.

It was the law of the Round Table that each knight after his
admission should pass the next ten days in quest of adventures,
during which time his companions might meet him in disguised armor
and try their strength with him. Tristram had now been out seven
days, and in that time had encountered many of the best knights of
the Round Table, and acquitted himself with honor. During the
remaining three days, Isoude remained at the abbey, under his
protection, and then set out with her maidens, escorted by Sir
Tristram, to rejoin King Mark at the court of Camelot.

This happy journey was one of the brightest epochs in the lives of
Tristram and Isoude. He celebrated it by a lay upon the harp in a
peculiar measure, to which the French give the name of Triolet.

"With fair Isoude, and with love,
Ah! how sweet the life I lead!
How blest for ever thus to rove,
With fair Isoude, and with love!
As she wills, I live and move,
And cloudless days to days succeed:
With fair Isoude, and with love,
Ah! how sweet the life I lead!

"Journeying on from break of day,
Feel you not fatigued, my fair?
Yon green turf invites to play;
Journeying on from day to day,
Ah! let us to that shade away,
Were it but to slumber there!
Journeying on from break of day,
Feel you not fatigued, my fair?"

They arrived at Camelot, where Sir Launcelot received them most
cordially. Isoude was introduced to King Arthur and Queen
Guenever, who welcomed her as a sister. As King Mark was held in
arrest under the accusation of the two Cornish knights, Queen
Isoude could not rejoin her husband, and Sir Launcelot placed his
castle of La Joyeuse Garde at the disposal of his friends, who
there took up their abode.

King Mark, who found himself obliged to confess the truth of the
charge against him, or to clear himself by combat with his
accusers, preferred the former, and King Arthur, as his crime had
not been perpetrated, remitted the penalty, only enjoining upon
him, under pain of his signal displeasure, to lay aside all
thoughts of vengeance against his nephew. In the presence of the
king and his court all parties were formally reconciled; Mark and
his queen departed for their home, and Tristram remained at
Arthur's court. _

Read next: A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS: Chapter XVI. Sir Palamedes

Read previous: A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS: Chapter XIV. Sir Tristram's Battle with Sir Launcelot

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