Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Bertram, the Count of Rousillon, is called to the court to serve the king of France, who is ill of a disease that all the royal physicians have failed to cure. In the entire country the only doctor who might have cured the king is now dead. On his deathbed he bequeaths to his daughter Helena his books and papers describing cures for all common and rare diseases, among them the one suffered by the king.
Helena is now the ward of the Countess of Rousillon, who thinks of her as a daughter. Helena loves young Count Bertram and wants him for a husband, not a brother. Bertram considers Helena only slightly above a servant, however, and will not consider her for a wife. Through her knowledge of the king’s illness, Helena at last hits upon a plot to gain the spoiled young man for her mate, in such fashion as to leave him no choice in the decision. She journeys to the court and, offering her life as forfeit if she fails, gains the king’s consent to try her father’s cure on him. If she wins, the young lord of her choice is to be given to her in marriage.
Her sincerity wins the king’s confidence. She cures him by means of her father’s prescription and, as her boon, asks for Bertram for her husband. The young man protests to the king, but the ruler keeps his promise, not only because he gave his word but also because Helena won him over completely.
When the king orders the marriage to be performed at once, Bertram, although bowing to the king’s will, will not have Helena for a wife in any but a legal way. Pleading the excuse of urgent business elsewhere, he deserts her after the ceremony and sends messages to her and to his mother saying he will never belong to a wife forced upon him. He tells Helena that she will not really be his wife until she wears on her finger a ring he now wears on his and carries in her body a child that is his. He then states that these two things will never come to pass, for he will never see Helena again. He is encouraged in his hatred for Helena by his follower, Parolles, a scoundrel and a coward who will as soon betray one person as another. Helena reproaches him for his vulgar ways, and he wants vengeance on her.
Helena returns to the Countess of Rousillon, as Bertram commands. The countess hears of her son’s actions with horror, and when she reads the letter he writes her, restating his hatred for Helena, she disowns her son, for she loves Helena like her own child. When Helena learns that Bertram says he would never return to France until he no longer has a wife there, she sadly decides to leave the home of her benefactress. Loving Bertram, she vows that she will not keep him from his home.
Disguising herself as a religious pilgrim, Helena follows Bertram to Italy, where he goes to fight...
(The entire section is 1135 words.)
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