The trumpets sounded and the army went on its way to France. The next day King Charles called his lords together. "You see," said he, "these narrow passes. Whom shall I place to command the rear-guard? Choose you a man yourselves."
Said Ganelon, "Whom should we choose but my son-in-law, Count Roland? You have no man in your host so valiant. Of a truth he will be the salvation of France."
The King said when he heard these words, "What ails you, Ganelon? You look like to one possessed."
When Count Roland knew what was proposed concerning him, he spake out as a true knight should speak: "I am right thankful to you, father-in-law, that you have caused me to be put in this place. Of a truth the King of France shall lose nothing by my means, neither charger, nor mule, nor pack-horse, nor beast of burden."
Then Roland turned to the King and said, "Give me twenty thousand only, so they be men of valor, and I will keep the passes in all safety. So long as I shall live, you need fear no man."
Then Roland mounted his horse. With him were Oliver, his comrade, and Otho and Berenger, and Gerard of Roussillon, an aged warrior, and others, men of renown. And Turpin the Archbishop cried, "By my head, I will go also." So they chose twenty thousand warriors with whom to keep the passes.
Meanwhile King Charles had entered the valley of Roncesvalles. High were the mountains on either side of the way, and the valleys were gloomy and dark. But when the army had passed through the valley, they saw the fair land of Gascony, and as they saw it they thought of their homes and their wives and daughters. There was not one of them but wept for very tenderness of heart. But of all that company there was none sadder than the King himself, when he thought how he had left his nephew Count Roland behind him in the passes of Spain.
And now the Saracen King Marsilas began to gather his army. He laid a strict command on all his nobles and chiefs that they should bring with them to Saragossa as many men as they could gather together. And when they were come to the city, it being the third day from the issuing of the King's command, they saluted the great image of Mahomet, the false prophet, that stood on the topmost tower. This done they went forth from the city gates. They made all haste, marching across the mountains and valleys of Spain till they came in sight of the standard of France, where Roland and Oliver and the Twelve Peers were ranged in battle array.
The Saracen champions donned their coats of mail, of double substance most of them, and they set upon their heads helmets of Saragossa of well-tempered metal, and they girded themselves with swords of Vienna. Fair were their shields to view; their lances were from Valentia; their standards were of white, blue, and red. Their mules they left with the servants, and, mounting their chargers, so moved forwards. Fair was the day and bright the sun, as their armor flashed in the light, and the drums were beaten so loudly that the Frenchmen heard the sound.
Said Oliver to Roland, "Comrade, methinks we shall soon do battle with the Saracens."
"God grant it," answered Roland. "'Tis our duty to hold the place for the King, and we will do it, come what may. As for me, I will not set an ill example."
Oliver climbed to the top of a hill, and saw from thence the whole army of the heathen. He cried to Roland his companion, "I see the flashing of arms. We men of France shall have no small trouble therefrom. This is the doing of Ganelon the traitor."
"Be silent," answered Roland, "till you shall know; say no more about him."
Oliver looked again from the hilltop, and saw how the Saracens came on. So many there were that he could not count their battalions. He descended to the plain with all speed, and came to the array of the French, and said, "I have seen more heathen than man ever yet saw together upon the earth. There are a hundred thousand at the least. We shall have such a battle with them as has never before been fought. My brethren of France, quit you like men, be strong; stand firm that you be not conquered." And all the army shouted with one voice, "Cursed be he that shall fly."
Then Oliver turned to Roland, and said, "Sound your horn; my friend, Charles will hear it, and will return."
"I were a fool," answered Roland, "so to do. Not so; but I will deal these heathen some mighty blows with Durendal, my sword. They have been ill-advised to venture into these passes. I swear that they are condemned to death, one and all."
After a while, Oliver said again, "Friend Roland, sound your horn of ivory. Then will the King return, and bring his army with him, to our help." But Roland answered again, "I will not do dishonor to my kinsmen, or to the fair land of France. I have my sword; that shall suffice for me. These evil-minded heathen are gathered together against us to their own hurt. Surely not one of them shall escape from death."
"As for me," said Oliver, "I see not where the dishonor would be. I saw the valleys and the mountains covered with the great multitude of Saracens. Theirs is, in truth, a mighty array, and we are but few."
"So much the better," answered Roland. "It makes my courage grow. 'Tis better to die than to be disgraced. And remember, the harder our blows the more the King will love us."
Roland was brave, but Oliver was wise. "Consider," he said, "comrade. These enemies are over-near to us, and the King over-far. Were he here, we should not be in danger; but there are some here today who will never fight in another battle."
Then Turpin the Archbishop struck spurs into his horse, and rode to a hilltop. Then he turned to the men of France, and spake: "Lords of France, King Charles has left us here; our King he is, and it is our duty to die for him. Today our Christian Faith is in peril: do ye fight for it. Fight ye must; be sure of that, for there under your eyes are the Saracens. Confess, therefore, your sins, and pray to God that He have mercy upon you. And now for your soul's health I will give you all absolution. If you die, you will be God's martyrs, every one of you, and your places are ready for you in His Paradise."
Thereupon the men of France dismounted, and knelt upon the ground, and the Archbishop blessed them in God's name. "But look," said he, "I set you a penance—smite these pagans." Then the men of France rose to their feet. They had received absolution, and were set free from all their sins, and the Archbishop had blessed them in the name of God. After this they mounted their swift steeds, and clad themselves in armor, and made themselves ready for the battle.
Said Roland to Oliver, "Brother, you know that it is Ganelon who has betrayed us. Good store he has had of gold and silver as a reward; 'tis the King Marsilas that has made merchandise of us, but verily it is with our swords that he shall be paid." So saying, he rode on to the pass, mounted on his good steed Veillantif. His spear he held with the point to the sky; a white flag it bore with fringes of gold which fell down to his hands. A stalwart man was he, and his countenance was fair and smiling. Behind him followed Oliver, his friend; and the men of France pointed to him, saying, "See our champion!" Pride was in his eye when he looked towards the Saracens; but to the men of France his regard was all sweetness and humility. Full courteously he spake to them:
"Ride not so fast, my lords," he said; "verily these heathen are come hither, seeking martyrdom. 'Tis a fair spoil that we shall gather from them today. Never has King of France gained any so rich." And as he spake, the two hosts came together.
Said Oliver, "You did not deem it fit, my lord, to sound your horn. Therefore you lack the help which the King would have sent. Not his the blame, for he knows nothing of what has chanced. But do you, lords of France, charge as fiercely as you may, and yield not one whit to the enemy. Think upon these two things only—how to deal a straight blow and to take it. And let us not forget King Charles' cry of battle."
Then all the men of France with one voice cried out, "Mountjoy!" He that heard them so cry had never doubted that they were men of valor. Proud was their array as they rode on to battle, spurring their horses that they might speed the more. And the Saracens, on their part, came forward with a good heart. Thus did the Frenchmen and the heathen meet in the shock of battle.Full many of the heathen warriors fell that day. Not one of the Twelve Peers of France but slew his man. But of all none bore himself so valiantly as Roland. Many a blow did he deal to the enemy with his mighty spear, and when the spear was shivered in his hand, fifteen warriors having fallen before it, then he seized his good sword Durendal, and smote man after man to the ground. Red was he with the blood of his enemies, red was his hauberk, red his arms, red his shoulders, aye, and the neck of his horse. Not one of the Twelve lingered in the rear, or was slow to strike, but Count Roland was the bravest of the brave. "Well done, sons of France!" cried Turpin the Archbishop, when he saw them lay on in such sort.
Next to Roland for valor and hardihood came Oliver, his companion. Many a heathen warrior did he slay, till at last his spear was shivered in his hand. "What are you doing, comrade?" cried Roland, when he was aware of the mishap. "A man wants no staff in such a battle as this. 'Tis the steel and nothing else that he must have. Where is your sword Hautclere, with its hilt of gold and its pommel of crystal?"
"On my word," said Oliver, "I have not had time to draw it; I was so busy with striking." But as he spake he drew the good sword from its scabbard, and smote a heathen knight, Justin of the Iron Valley. A mighty blow it was, cleaving the man in twain down to his saddle—aye, and the saddle itself with its adorning of gold and jewels, and the very backbone also of the steed whereon he rode, so that horse and man fell dead together on the plains. "Well done!" cried Roland; "you are a true brother of mine. 'Tis such strokes as this that make the King love us."
Nevertheless, for all the valor of Roland and his fellows the battle went hard with the men of France. Many lances were shivered, many flags torn, and many gallant youths cut off in their prime. Never more would they see mother and wife. It was an ill deed that the traitor Ganelon wrought when he sold his fellows to King Marsilas!
And now there befell a new trouble. King Almaris, with a great host of heathen, coming by an unknown way, fell upon the rear of the host where there was another pass. Fiercely did the noble Walter that kept the same charge the newcomers, but they overpowered him and his followers. He was wounded with four several lances, and four times did he swoon, so that at the last he was constrained to leave the field of battle, that he might call the Count Roland to his aid. But small was the aid which Roland could give him or any one. Valiantly he held up the battle, and with him Oliver, and Turpin the Archbishop, and others also; but the lines of the men of France were broken, and their armor thrust through and their spears shivered, and their flags trodden in the dust. For all this they made such slaughter among the heathen that King Almaris, who led the armies of the enemy, scarcely could win back his way to his own people, wounded in four places and sorely spent. A right good warrior was he; had he but been a Christian, but few had matched him in battle.
Count Roland saw how grievously his people had suffered and spake thus to Oliver his comrade: "Dear comrade, you see how many brave men lie dead upon the ground. Well may we mourn for fair France, widowed as she is of so many valiant champions. But why is our King not here? O Oliver, my brother, what shall we do to send him tidings of our state?" "I know not," answered Oliver. "Only this I know—that death is to be chosen rather than dishonor."
After a while Roland said again, "I shall blow my horn; King Charles will hear it, where he has encamped beyond the passes, and he and his host will come back."
"That would be ill done," answered Oliver, "and shame both you and your race. When I gave you this counsel you would have none of it. Now I like it not. 'Tis not for a brave man to sound the horn and cry for help now that we are in such case."
"The battle is too hard for us," said Roland again, "and I shall sound my horn, that the King may hear."
And Oliver answered again, "When I gave you this counsel, you scorned it. Now I myself like it not. 'Tis true that had the King been here, we had not suffered this loss. But the blame is not his. 'Tis your folly, Count Roland, that has done to death all these men of France. But for that we should have conquered in this battle, and have taken and slain King Marsilas. But now we can do nothing for France and the King. We can but die. Woe is me for our country, aye, and for our friendship, which will come to a grievous end this day."
The Archbishop perceived that the two friends were at variance, and spurred his horse till he came where they stood. "Listen to me," he said, "Sir Roland and Sir Oliver. I implore you not to fall out with each other in this fashion. We, sons of France, that are in this place, are of a truth condemned to death, neither will the sounding of your horn save us, for the King is far away, and cannot come in time. Nevertheless, I hold it to be well that you should sound it. When the King and his army shall come, they will find us dead—that I know full well. But they will avenge us, so that our enemies shall not go away rejoicing. And they will also recover our bodies, and will carry them away for burial in holy places, so that the dogs and wolves shall not devour them."
"You say well," cried Roland, and he put his horn to his lips, and gave so mighty a blast upon it, that the sound was heard thirty leagues away. King Charles and his men heard it, and the King said, "Our countrymen are fighting with the enemy." But Ganelon answered, "Sire, had any but you so spoken, I had said that he spoke falsely."
Then Roland blew his horn a second time; with great pain and anguish of body he blew it, and the red blood gushed from his lips; but the sound was heard yet farther than at first. Again the King heard it, and all his nobles, and all his men. "That," said he, "is Roland's horn; he never had sounded it were he not in battle with the enemy." But Ganelon answered again: "Believe me, Sire, there is no battle. You are an old man, and you have the fancies of a child. You know what a mighty man of valor is this Roland. Think you that any one would dare to attack him? No one, of a truth. Ride on, Sire; why halt you here? The fair land of France is yet far away."
Roland blew his horn a third time, and when the King heard it he said, "He that blew that horn drew a deep breath." And Duke Naymes cried out, "Roland is in trouble; on my conscience he is fighting with the enemy. Some one has betrayed him; 'tis he, I doubt not, that would deceive you now. To arms, Sire! utter your war-cry, and help your own house and your country. You have heard the cry of the noble Roland."
Then King Charles bade all the trumpets sound, and forthwith all the men of France armed themselves, with helmets, and hauberks, and swords with pommels of gold. Mighty were their shields, and their lances strong, and the flags that they carried were white and red and blue. And when they made an end of their arming they rode back with all haste. There was not one of them but said to his comrade, "If we find Roland yet alive, what mighty strokes will we strike for him!"
But Ganelon the King handed over to the knaves of his kitchen. "Take this traitor," said he, "who has sold his country." Ill did Ganelon fare among them. They pulled out his hair and his beard and smote him with their staves; then they put a great chain, such as that with which a bear is bound, about his neck, and made him fast to a pack-horse.
This done, the King and his army hastened with all speed to the help of Roland. In the van and the rear sounded the trumpets as though they would answer Roland's horn. Full of wrath was King Charles as he rode; full of wrath were all the men of France. There was not one among them but wept and sobbed; there was not one but prayed, "Now, may God keep Roland alive till we come to the battle-field, so that we may strike a blow for him." Alas! it was all in vain; they could not come in time for all their speed.
Count Roland looked round on the mountain-sides and on the plains. Alas! how many noble sons of France he saw lying dead upon them! "Dear friends," he said, weeping as he spoke, "may God have mercy on you and receive you into His Paradise! More loyal followers have I never seen. How is the fair land of France widowed of her bravest, and I can give you no help. Oliver, dear comrade, we must not part. If the enemy slay me not here, surely I shall be slain by sorrow. Come then, let us smite these heathen."
Thus did Roland again charge the enemy, his good sword Durendal in his hand; as the stag flies before the hounds, so did the heathen fly before Roland. "By my faith," cried the Archbishop when he saw him, "that is a right good knight! Such courage, and such a steed, and such arms I love well to see. If a man be not brave and a stout fighter, he had better by far be a monk in some cloister where he may pray all day long for our sins."
Now the heathen, when they saw how few the Frenchmen were, took fresh courage. And the Caliph, spurring his horse, rode against Oliver and smote him in the middle of his back, making his spear pass right through him. "That is a shrewd blow," he cried; "I have avenged my friends and countrymen upon you."Then Oliver knew he was stricken to death, but he would not fall unavenged. With his great sword Hautclere he smote the Caliph on his head and cleft it to the teeth. "Curse on you, pagan. Neither your wife nor any woman in the land of your birth shall boast that you have taken a penny's worth from King Charles!" But to Roland he cried, "Come, comrade, help me; well I know that we two shall part in great sorrow this day."
Roland came with all speed, and saw his friend, how he lay all pale and fainting on the ground and how the blood gushed in great streams from his wound. "I know not what to do," he cried. "This is an ill chance that has befallen you. Truly France is bereaved of her bravest son." So saying he went near to swoon in the saddle as he sat. Then there befell a strange thing. Oliver had lost so much of his blood that he could not any more see clearly or know who it was that was near him. So he raised up his arm and smote with all his strength that yet remained to him on the helmet of Roland his friend. The helmet he cleft in twain to the visor; but by good fortune it wounded not the head.
Roland looked at him and said in a gentle voice, "Did you this of set purpose? I am Roland your friend, and have not harmed you."
"Ah!" said Oliver, "I hear you speak, but I cannot see you. Pardon me that I struck you; it was not done of set purpose."
"It harmed me not," answered Roland; "with all my heart and before God I forgive you." And this was the way these two friends parted at the last.
And now Oliver felt the pains of death come over him. He could no longer see nor hear. Therefore he turned his thoughts to making his peace with God, and clasping his hands lifted them to heaven and made his confession. "O Lord," he said, "take me into Paradise. And do Thou bless King Charles and the sweet land of France." And when he had said thus he died. And Roland looked at him as he lay. There was not upon earth a more sorrowful man than he. "Dear comrade," he said, "this is indeed an evil day. Many a year have we two been together. Never have I done wrong to you; never have you done wrong to me. How shall I bear to live without you?" And he swooned where he sat on his horse. But the stirrup held him up that he did not fall to the ground.
When Roland came to himself he looked about him and saw how great was the calamity that had befallen his army. For now there were left alive to him two only, Turpin the Archbishop and Walter of Hum. Walter had but that moment come down from the hills where he had been fighting so fiercely with the heathen that all his men were dead; now he cried to Roland for help. "Noble Count, where are you? I am Walter of Hum, and am not unworthy to be your friend. Help me therefore. For see how my spear is broken and my shield cleft in twain. My hauberk is in pieces, and my body sorely wounded. I am about to die; but I have sold my life at a great price."
When Roland heard him cry he set spurs to his horse and galloped to him. "Walter," said he, "you are a brave warrior and a trustworthy. Tell me now where are the thousand valiant men whom you took from my army. They were right good soldiers, and I am in sore need of them.""They are dead," answered Walter; "you will see them no more. A sore battle we had with the Saracens yonder on the hills; they had the men of Canaan there and the men of Armenia and the Giants; there were no better men in their army than these. We dealt with them so that they will not boast themselves of this day's work. But it cost us dear; all the men of France lie dead on the plain, and I am wounded[ to the death. And now, Roland, blame me not that I fled; for you are my lord, and all my trust is in you."
"I blame you not," said Roland, "only as long as you live help me against the heathen." And as he spake he took his cloak and rent it into strips and bound up Walter's wounds therewith. This done he and Walter and the Archbishop set fiercely on the enemy. Five-and-twenty did Roland slay, and Walter slew six, and the Archbishop five. Three valiant men of war they were; fast and firm they stood one by the other; hundreds there were of the heathen, but they dared not come near to these three valiant champions of France. They stood far off, and cast at the three spears and darts and javelins and weapons of every kind. Walter of Hum was slain forthwith; and the Archbishop's armor was broken, and he wounded, and his horse slain under him. Nevertheless he lifted himself from the ground, still keeping a good heart in his breast. "They have not overcome me yet," said he; "as long as a good soldier lives, he does not yield."
Roland took his horn once more and sounded it, for he would know whether King Charles were coming. Ah me! it was a feeble blast that he blew. But the King heard it, and he halted and listened. "My lords!" said he, "things go ill for us, I doubt not. Today we shall lose, I fear me much, my brave nephew Roland. I know by the sound of his horn that he has but a short time to live. Put your horses to their full speed, if you would come in time to help him, and let a blast be sounded by every trumpet that there is in the army." So all the trumpets in the host sounded a blast; all the valleys and hills re-echoed with the sound; sore discouraged were the heathen when they heard it.
"King Charles has come again," they cried; "we are all as dead men. When he comes he shall not find Roland alive." Then four hundred of them, the strongest and most valiant knights that were in the army of the heathen, gathered themselves into one company, and made a yet fiercer assault on Roland.
Roland saw them coming, and waited for them without fear. So long as he lived he would not yield himself to the enemy or give place to them. "Better death than flight," said he, as he mounted his good steed Veillantif, and rode towards the enemy. And by his side went Turpin the Archbishop on foot. Then said Roland to Turpin, "I am on horseback and you are on foot. But let us keep together; never will I leave you; we two will stand against these heathen dogs. They have not, I warrant, among them such a sword as Durendal."
"Good," answered the Archbishop. "Shame to the man who does not smite his hardest. And though this be our last battle, I know well that King Charles will take ample vengeance for us."
When the heathen saw these two stand together they fell back in fear and hurled at them spears and darts and javelins without number. Roland's shield they broke and his hauberk; but him they hurt not; nevertheless they did him a grievous injury, for they killed his good steed Veillantif. Thirty wounds did Veillantif receive, and he fell dead under his master. At last the Archbishop was stricken and Roland stood alone, for the heathen had fled from his presence.
When Roland saw that the Archbishop was dead, his heart was sorely troubled in him. Never did he feel a greater sorrow for comrade slain, save Oliver only. "Charles of France," he said, "come as quickly as you may! Many a gallant knight have you lost in Roncesvalles. But King Marsilas, on his part, has lost his army. For one that has fallen on this side there have fallen full forty on that." So saying he turned to the Archbishop; he crossed the dead man's hands upon his breast and said, "I commit thee to the Father's mercy. Never has man served God with a better will, never since the beginning of the world has there lived a sturdier champion of the faith. May God be good to you and give you all good things!"
Now Roland felt that his own death was near at hand. In one hand he took his horn, and in the other his good sword Durendal, and made his way the distance of a furlong or so till he came to a plain, and in the midst of the plain a little hill. On the top of the hill in the shade of two fair trees were four marble steps. There Roland fell in a swoon upon the grass. There a certain Saracen spied him. The fellow had feigned death, and had laid himself down among the slain, having covered his body and his face with blood. When he saw Roland, he raised himself from where he was lying among the slain and ran to the place, and, being full of pride and fury, seized the Count in his arms, crying aloud, "He is conquered, he is conquered, he is conquered, the famous nephew of King Charles! See, here is his sword; 'tis a noble spoil that I shall carry back with me to Arabia." Thereupon he took the sword in one hand, with the other he laid hold of Roland's beard.
But as the man laid hold, Roland came to himself, and knew that some one was taking his sword from him. He opened his eyes but not a word did he speak save this only, "Fellow, you are none of ours," and he smote him a mighty blow upon his helmet. The steel he brake through and the head beneath, and laid the man dead at his feet. "Coward," he said, "what made you so bold that you dared lay hands on Roland? Whosoever knows him will think you a fool for your deed."
And now Roland knew that death was near at hand. He raised himself and gathered all his strength together—ah me! how pale his face was!—and took in his hand his good sword Durendal. Before him was a great rock and on this in his rage and pain he smote ten mighty blows. Loud rang the steel upon the stone; but it neither brake nor splintered. "Help me," he cried, "O Mary, our Lady! O my good sword, my Durendal, what an evil lot is mine! In the day when I must part with you, my power over you is lost. Many a battle I have won with your help; and many a kingdom have I conquered, that my lord Charles possesses this day. Never has any one possessed you that would fly before another. So long as I live, you shall not be taken from me, so long have you been in the hands of a loyal knight."
Then he smote a second time with the sword, this time upon the marble steps. Loud rang the steel, but neither brake nor splintered. Then Roland began to bemoan himself. "O my good Durendal," he said, "how bright and clear thou art, shining as shines the sun! Well I mind me of the day when a voice that seemed to come from heaven bade King Charles give thee to a valiant captain; and forthwith the good King girded it on my side. Many a land have I conquered with thee for him, and now how great is my grief! Can I die and leave thee to be handled by some heathen?" And the third time he smote a rock with it. Loud rang the steel, but it brake not, bounding back as though it would rise to the sky. And when Count Roland saw that he could not break the sword, he spake again but with more content in his heart. "O Durendal," he said, "a fair sword art thou, and holy as fair. There are holy relics in thy hilt, relics of St. Peter and St. Denis and St. Basil. These heathen shall never possess thee; nor shalt thou be held but by a Christian hand."
And now Roland knew that death was very near to him. He laid himself down with his head upon the grass, putting under him his horn and his sword, with his face turned towards the heathen foe. Ask you why he did so? To show, forsooth,to Charlemagne and the men of France that he died in the midst of victory. This done, he made a loud confession of his sins, stretching his hand to heaven, "Forgive me, Lord," he cried, "my sins, little and great, all that I have committed since the day of my birth to this hour in which I am stricken to death." So he prayed; and, as he lay, he thought of many things, of the countries which he had conquered, and of his dear fatherland France, and of his kinsfolk, and of the good King Charles. Nor, as he thought, could he keep himself from sighs and tears; yet one thing he remembered beyond all others—to pray for forgiveness of his sins. "O Lord," he said, "who art the God of truth, and didst save Daniel Thy prophet from the lions, do Thou save my soul and defend it against all perils!" So speaking he raised his right hand, with the gauntlet yet upon it, to the sky, and his head fell back upon his arm and the angels carried him to heaven. So died the great Count Roland.