Chapter Five: The Handsome Coward and the Ugly Damsel
AND Perceval, alter he had departed from his sister, rode all day but found no adventure, nor hostel where he might be able to spend the night. And, in truth, it was necessary that night that he lie in the forest, and he removed the bridle from his horse and let it refresh itself that night on the grass and dew which was good and heavy. And Perceval watched all the night nor ever slept. At the morning when the dawn had broken he arose and caught his horse and rearmed and mounted and rode ever onward.
The morning gladdened him much for the forest was high and luxuriant and he heard the birds singing gaily in the morning which pleased him greatly. While he rode he looked before him and he saw a knight come on a horse and a damsel beside him who had the strangest appearance that man has ever seen.
For, in truth, she had a neck and face and hands more black than iron, also both of her legs were twisted and her eyes were more red than fire, and, in truth, between her two eyes there was more than a hand's breadth. And I can say truly that she did not rise above the saddle-bow more than a foot, and she had feet and legs so crooked she could not hold them in the stirrups. And her hair was tressed in a braid, and know that the braid was short and black and seemed more like the tail of a rat than any other thing. And she rode most proudly and held her whip in her hand, and for greater gentility she had put her leg on the neck of her palfrey; and thus she rode beside the knight and embraced him and kissed him from time to time most tenderly, and he her likewise.
When Perceval saw them he stopped and crossed himself marveling and began to laugh very hard. And when the knight saw him laugh at his love he was deeply moved, and he came to Perceval and asked what reason he had to laugh and why he had thus crossed himself three times. And Perceval answered him: "1 will tell you. When I saw this devil riding with you, know that I was afraid of her and for this reason I crossed myself; and when I saw that she embraced and kissed you I began to laugh to see the absurdity completed. But tell me now in friendship and without anger whence she came to you and if this is a devil or a woman, for surely if one would give me all the realm of Logres I would not allow her in my company three days, for I would fear that she might strangle or kill me. "When the knight heard this he became so angry that he grew all red and he answered with great hostility: "Knight, you may be sure that you could not have angered me more than you have with mockery and laughter at her whom I love as much as my heart and who seems to me so beautiful that there is no dame or damsel in this world who can equal her in loveliness. Now know that I will never eat until I have avenged her on your body, and I believe if you had spoken thus in her hearing she would have felt such shame that she would have died of it since she is very modest. And if she were to die, know that for love of her I would kill myself; and I defy you here and now." And Perceval answered: "If it please God I trust I shall defend me against you.
Then they separated a space of two arpents and took their shields by the arm bands and lifted up their spears, and they let their horses run and struck each other so hard that both were driven from their horses. But as soon as they could they lifted themselves and charged each other most fiercely and each sought the other fiercely with his sword and struck again and again upon each other's helm. And, in truth, their shields were harshly battered, and they struck each other so severely with their swords that it was a wonder they did not kill each other; and this they might have done had they been as fresh as they were at the start. But they were so weary that the blows they gave had become much weaker. Then Perceval regathered his strength and felt ashamed because the other lasted so long against him, and he charged upon him powerfully and tired him so much that he completely overcame him. And he made him fall in the midst of the meadow and tore the helm from his head and threw it thirty feet or more from him, and he would have beheaded him but the knight cried to him for mercy and that he let him live in God's name.
And when Perceval heard that he besought mercy he would not deign to touch him more and replaced his sword in his sheath and asked him his name. And the knight answered that his name was the Handsome Coward, and Perceval answered:
"By my head, sir knight, your name has in it both truth and falsehood for you are not the Handsome Coward at all but Worthy and Handsome, so God help me." And then Perceval looked at the damsel and could not keep from laughing and he asked the knight what her name was, and the knight replied that she was named Rosete the Blonde, "and know that she is the most gracious damsel that was ever known, for in the same degree that she is beautiful she has also a gentle disposition. And you may be sure that I would prefer that one should bereave me of one of my eyes than of her, so deeply do I love her with true love." "By my faith, knight, then he would not be noble who separated you, but you must pledge me by your faith that you will go to the court of the rich King Arthur and deliver yourself as his prisoner for me. And also you must lead this damsel with you and present her to the queen." And the knight answered: "Sir, this will I do willingly, for there is not a court so good in all the world that I would not dare to lead her there as both courteous and worthy. But tell me in whose name I shall deliver myself. And he answered: "In that of Perceval li Galois." And the knight said: "Sir, willingly; be sure that I shall do as you wish with myself and her."
Thereupon the knight left Perceval and journeyed until he came to Carduel in Wales and a great number of knights and lords and dames and damsels were there who were with the queen who knew well how to honor them. And the king had heard Mass and with him his lords and the queen, and they had just entered the hall, and Keu the seneschal with the queen. And the queen went into her chamber and Keu leaned at a window and saw the knight come who was escorting his lady to the court, and they approached most proudly.
When Keu the seneschal saw the damsel coming he felt great joy in his heart and leaped down from the window and came running into the chamber where the queen was, and he said: "Lady, come and see! Surely here comes a knight who brings the most beautiful damsel with him that ever any man might behold; for all these of your court have nothing of beauty compared with hers. But in God's name, consider how to honor her and to perform so well that she will remain with you, and may God aid me, but I wish in good faith that all the women of the realm of Logres might be of her beauty. " And the queen answered: "Good Sir Keu, this I would never wish, for know that you would put me thus in great distress and discomfort, for then you and the other knights herein would wish to take them all from me." Then she said to her damsels: "Let us go outside to see if this damsel has such great beauty as Keu the seneschal has reported to us." Then they went to the windows of the hail and when they saw the knight and damsel coming they marveled much and quickly crossed themselves and began to laugh, and the queen called her maidens and said to them all laughing: "Damsels, now you know for sure that Keu the seneschal loves you deeply for he has wished you great honor today. "And Keu came to the king and to the nobles, and he asked them if they would come to see her; and the king and the nobles came to the windows with the queen and began to jest. And the queen told the king and the nobles the wish of Keu, and they began to laugh and make great merriment.
Thereupon came the knight and dismounted before the hall and took the damsel between his arms and lifted her down most gently from the palfrey. And then both came into the hail hand in hand, and both came before King Arthur. And the knight stopped in the middle of the hall and saluted the king and all the nobles for Perceval li Galois and said that he delivered himself as prisoner in his name "and my damsel Rosete, who has such a fair visage and whom I love as much and more than my heart, he has sent to the queen to stay in her chambers."
And when Keu the seneschal had heard him he could not prevent himself from speaking and he said to the queen: "Madame, thank him for this; and I pray that you rise and go to him, for such a present he has given to you today that there will never be an hour henceforth that you will not gain honor from it and the maidens of your chambers also; nevertheless if you retain her with you I fear that the king might love her more than you." And then he prayed the king by the faith he owed him that he would ask the knight where he had got her and if there were more there and if he would be able to obtain one if he went there. When the king heard Keu the seneschal he was angry with him and said: "Keu, by the faith that you owe God, let us cease this, for it is villainous to make jests of a strange knight, and you gain nothing thus and you cause hatred." And Keu answered him: "Sire, know that I spoke for no ill purpose, rather I spoke for the advantage of the knight, for you may be sure if I had brought her into a strange court I would have feared that someone would have taken her from me." And when the king heard him he was angry and said to him: "Keu, may you be helped if you do not know better than you speak, and I command you that you speak no more of this."
Then he came to the knight and embraced him and released him of any bondage and told him that he wished that henceforth he would be of his household and that the damsel would be in the chambers with the queen. And Keu the seneschal could not contain himself and said: "Sire, then it is well that you give him truce of all the knights herein, for you must look forward to the moment when they will bear her hence because of her beauty. And I know the knight who stands there well enough to know that if it turns out badly for him he will appeal to you; and may I be accursed if I will defend you." And when Arthur heard him he was very angry, and he said: "Keu, you are too cruel and biting in your speech, and by the faith I owe God and by the soul of Uther Pendragon my father, if it were not for the oath I made Entor your father, you nevermore would be seneschal." Then his face became dark and he said to himself: "I should endure him with patience, for all these traits he has from the woman who nursed him when he was weaned from his mother for my sake." And then Keu came and pretended that he was angry and said: "On that day may I be accursed when I take upon me the care of guarding her; rather let it be your responsibility henceforth." Thus as you have heard, the maiden stayed at the court of the rich King Arthur, and you may be sure that afterwards the damsel was the fairest that one might know.
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SOURCE: Didot Perceval, or, The Romance of Perceval in Prose. ed. and trans. Dell Skeels. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.
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