Isolt of the White Hands is too pensive and preoccupied for a young woman. She is always looking to the north, toward England. Her father, King Howel of Brittany, loves his daughter too much to let her attitude go unquestioned. Isolt tells her father she is waiting for Tristram, who some time before made a visit to the Breton court. Fond of Isolt as an adult is fond of a child, Tristram gave her on his departure an agate for a keepsake and promised to come back. Now Isolt is a woman of eighteen, and she waits for Tristram as a woman waits for her lover. King Howel tries to tell her that Tristram thinks of her as a child, and that he probably will not return; but Isolt will not be convinced.
In Cornwall it is the wedding day of old, lecherous King Mark and the dark and beautiful Isolt of Ireland, his bride. With the wedding feast in full swing, the wine cup is often passed. Sick of the drunken merriment and sicker with inner torment, Tristram, nephew of the king, leaves the feast and wanders in the fresh night air. King Mark, displeased by his nephew’s absence, sends Gouvernail, Tristram’s preceptor and friend, to ask him to return. Tristram says only that he is sick. Then Queen Morgan comes to talk to Tristram. She uses all her arts and blandishments on the brooding knight, and they are cunning indeed, for Queen Morgan, much experienced in the arts of love, is more than a little attracted to Tristram. Tristram repeats stubbornly that he is sick.
Then there is a soft step on the stair, as Brangwaine comes, followed a moment later by dark-caped, violet-eyed Isolt of Ireland. She looks at Tristram but says nothing as he takes her in his arms. Memories hang about them like a cloud.
King Mark is old and unattractive, and he wants a young wife in his castle. Yearning for Isolt of Ireland, he sends as emissary his gallant nephew, Tristram, to plead his cause. Tristram has to fight even to get to the Irish court. After he slays the mighty Morhaus, Isolt’s uncle, he makes a bargain of state with the Irish king and takes Isolt back to Cornwall in his boat. One night they are alone with only the sea and the stars to look upon them. Isolt waits in vain for Tristram to speak. If he does, she will love him then, and there will be no marriage of convenience with King Mark. Bound by knightly fealty Tristram keeps silent and delivers Isolt to his uncle. Now he looks at her and regrets bitterly that he did not speak on the boat.
Andred steals behind them to spy on them. He is a faithful servitor of King Mark, but jealousy of Tristram and love for Isolt motivate him as well. Tristram sees Andred skulking in the shadow, seizes him, and throws him on the rocks. When King Mark himself comes out to inquire about his absent guests, he stumbles over Andred’s unconscious body and stands unseen long enough to hear the passionate avowals of...
(The entire section is 1173 words.)