(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.
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.