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The Trials Of Sir Isumbras

from The Old-fashioned Fairy Book - ROMANCES OF THE MIDDLE AGES





(From Ellis' Abridgment of the MS. in Caius College.)


Once upon a time there lived a knight so handsome, so rich, and so
valiant that all eyes were turned upon him. His name was Isumbras, and
fortune had given him everything that the heart of man could wish for.
He had a splendid castle, surrounded by vast forests, where every day he
went hunting or hawking; and so generous he was with his wealth that the
poor flocked to him from every quarter and never went away empty-handed.

Sir Isumbras had a beautiful wife and three lovely sons to share the
blessings of his lot; but one thing he had not, and that was an humble
spirit. He forgot to own the Giver of good things, and took it as a
matter of course that his life should flow on in ease and luxury.

One day when mounted on his favorite steed, surrounded by his dogs, and
having his hawk on fist, Sir Isumbras cast up his eyes to the sky, and
there saw an angel, who reproached him with his pride, announcing that
Heaven had in store for him a speedy punishment.

Sir Isumbras fell to his knees in prayer; but hardly had the angel
vanished from his sight when, on remounting his horse, the noble
creature fell dead beneath him; the hawk dropped lifeless from his fist;
and the faithful hounds expired in agonies at his feet. Hastening on
foot to his castle, he was met by a servant, who informed him his horses
and oxen had been suddenly struck dead by lightning, and that his fowls
had all been stung to death by adders. Next came forward a page, who
told him the castle was burned to the ground, many of his servants had
perished, and that his wife and children had taken refuge, half naked,
in a thorn-bush close at hand. Sir Isumbras hastened to the aid of his
beloved family, stripping himself of his scarlet mantle and his surcoat
to clothe them. He embraced them fondly, and thanked heaven that,
though all the rest of his treasures were taken, these remained. He then
proposed to his wife that, as a sign of repentance for their sins, they
should all go on foot to the holy city, Jerusalem, begging their bread
from land to land. He cut with his knife upon his bare shoulder the
pilgrim's sign of the cross, and then the afflicted family set forth on
their travels.

Long they journeyed, eating crusts when they could beg them, or berries
from wayside bushes, until, faint and weary, they reached a broad but
shallow stream. Taking his eldest son in his arms, Sir Isumbras bore him
across the river, and placed him beneath a bush of broom-plant, bidding
him play with the blossoms until his father's return. Scarcely had the
knight left his son, when an enormous lion burst from a neighboring
thicket and bore away the child. In like manner the second son became
the prey of a fierce leopard; and the poor mother, who saw them so
cruelly torn from her sight, fainted away, with her baby on her breast.
Sir Isumbras bowed to the will of God; and when his wife revived they
journeyed on to the shore of the Greek sea. Here they stood, and,
through eyes that were full of tears, saw a great fleet of three hundred
ships coming toward them. This was the navy of a famous heathen king,
and no sooner had he landed than the travellers, who had not touched
bread or meat for seven days, hastened to implore his charity. The king
soon observed the robust limbs and tall stature of the husband; and
perceived he was a knight in disguise, and that the wife, whose beauty
was as "bright as blossoms upon tree," was, in spite of her ragged
clothes, a lady of high degree. So, affecting to treat the poor couple
with respect, he offered them gold and treasure if the knight would
renounce Christianity and consent to fight under the Saracen banners.
This offer was at once declined, and the angry king made up his mind to
revenge himself by carrying away the knight's wife. So, upon an order to
the attendants, a purse of gold was pressed into the knight's hand, his
infant son was put into his arms, he was hurried ashore, cruelly beaten
by the king's servants, and, when he recovered himself, saw a heathen
ship, with his wife on board, set sail for Africa.

Sir Isumbras clasped his only remaining treasure to his heart, and
followed the vessel with his eyes until it vanished from sight. Night
found him still there, until father and babe fell asleep upon the bare
ground, too weary to keep awake. Sir Isumbras had laid the fatal present
of the heathen king, the purse of gold, in the scarlet mantle which he
wrapped around his child. Scarcely had the next day's sun risen upon the
earth, when an eagle, attracted by the red cloth, darted down, carrying
off mantle, child, and purse in his talons.

The poor knight was at last in utter despair. He fell on his knees, and
offered what remained of his life to the God he had offended. Just then
he heard the noise of a blacksmith's forge, and saw, not far off, some
men at work. They took pity on him and fed him. He entered their
service, and bound himself for seven long years to learn their trade.
During this time he forged a complete suit of armor for himself, being
determined at the first opportunity to take up arms against the
Saracens, whose king had not only done him such a cruel wrong, but was
oppressing God's people.

At length his opportunity came. The Christian army was to fight the
Saracens on a field not far from the forge. Sir Isumbras buckled on his
awkward armor and, mounting a horse that had been used by the smith to
carry coals, proceeded to the field of battle.

His heart beat with wild joy when he saw the foe before him. Uttering a
fervent prayer, he dashed into the thick of the combat, attracting all
eyes at first by his sorry steed and rough armor, and again by the
splendid skill and courage of his charge. Early in the action his horse
was killed under him, and the Christian chiefs made haste to present him
another one, also a suit of armor more worthy of the heroic soldier he
had proved himself to be. All that day the battle raged.

By nightfall Sir Isumbras, single-handed, had killed the heathen king
and many of his followers. But he was himself sorely wounded, and when
brought for reward before the Christian king, and asked his name, could
hardly falter out, "I am a smith's man, sire." The king swore a great
oath to make a knight of this valiant "smith's man"; and, with all honor
and tenderness, Sir Isumbras was carried into a nunnery, where the good
sisters nursed him until he recovered from his many wounds.

Sir Isumbras was not satisfied to remain quiet long, though he had slain
the heathen king. He went to the Holy Land, and for seven years wandered
about a pilgrim, as before, sleeping upon the ground by night, and
vainly seeking tidings of his wife by day. Once, during this time, when
he was starving upon the banks of a stream, there appeared to him a
cheering visitor.

And as he sat, about midnight,
There came angel fair and bright,
And brought him bread and wine.
He said, "Palmer, well thou be!
The King of Heaven greeteth well thee;
Forgiven is sin thine."

Very soon after this miraculous event Sir Isumbras found his wife, who
had dwelt, holy and charitable, in a secluded castle, where she had
been shut up by the Saracen king. She welcomed him with rapture, and
together they shed many tears over their lost children. They lived
together for some years, until Sir Isumbras was again summoned to do
battle with the Saracens, who had determined at all cost to kill him.
The fight was again hot and long, and just when Sir Isumbras was about
to be overpowered by numbers of the enemy, three new champions appeared
in the field, declaring themselves on the side of the Christians. These
were three splendid knights, the first mounted upon a lion, the second
upon a leopard, and the third upon an eagle. The Saracen cavalry,
terror-stricken at sight of them, dispersed in all directions. But
flight was in vain; three and twenty thousand unbelievers were soon laid
dead upon the plain by the lion, leopard, and eagle, fighting with
tireless fury, and driving all before them, until the entire heathen
army was utterly put to rout. Then, coming back to Sir Isumbras, the
three champions knelt before him, announcing themselves his long lost
sons, mercifully protected and befriended by the savage creatures by
whom they had been carried off. Sir Isumbras embraced his valiant sons,
and led them to their mother. The Christian king enriched the entire
family, restoring them to their former rank. And now wealth, titles,
honors, and all that he had lost, came back to Sir Isumbras, and the
remainder of his days was spent in blessed peace.

"They lived and died in good intent;
Unto heaven their souls went,
When that they dead were.
Jesu Christ, heaven's king,
Give us, aye, his blessing,
And shield us from care!"





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