For seven long years the great Emperor Charlemagne had been fighting in Spain against the Saracens; Saragossa alone remained unconquered, but word had gone forth that it, too, was doomed.
King Marsil, not knowing how to save his city from the conqueror, called a council of his wise men. Blancandrin, a knight of great valor, was chosen with ten others to set out with olive-branches in their hands, followed by a great train of slaves bearing presents, to seek the court of the great Christian King and sue for peace.
Bending low before Charlemagne, Blancandrin promised for King Marsil vassalage to the Emperor and baptism in the name of the Holy Christ. To assure the truth of his words, he said "We will give thee hostages, I will even send my own son if we keep not faith with thee."
In the morning Charlemagne called his wise men and told them the message of Blancandrin.
Then Roland, one of the twelve chosen knights and the nephew of Charlemagne, rose flushed with anger and cried, "Believe not this Marsil, he was ever a traitor. Carry the war to Saragossa. War! I say war!"
Ganelon a knight, who hated Roland, strode to the foot of the throne, saying, "Listen not to the counsel of fools but accept King Marsil's gifts and promises."
Following the counsel of Duke Naimes the wisest of the court, Charlemagne declared that some one should be sent to King Marsil and asked the lords whom he should send.
"Send me," cried Roland. "Nay," said Oliver, "let me go rather." But the Emperor said, "Not a step shall ye go, either one or other of you."
"Ah!" said Roland, "if I may not go, then send Ganelon my stepfather." "Good!" replied the great Emperor, "Ganelon it shall be."
Ganelon trembled with passion and said, "this is Roland's work," for he knew he would never return alive to his wife and child. The quarrel between Roland and Ganelon was bitter indeed. "I hate thee," Ganelon hissed at last. "I hate thee!" Then, struggling to be calm, he turned to the Emperor and said, "I am ready to do thy will."
"Fair Sir Ganelon," said Charlemagne, "this is my message to the heathen King Marsil. Say to him that he shall bend the knee to gentle Christ and be baptized in His name. Then will I give him full half of Spain to hold in fief. Over the other half Count Roland, my nephew, well beloved, shall reign."
Without a word of farewell Ganelon went to his own house. There he clad himself in his finest armor. Commending his wife and child to the care of the knights who pressed round to bid him Godspeed, Ganelon, with bent head, turned slowly from their sight and rode to join the heathen Blancandrin.
As Ganelon and Blancandrin rode along together beneath the olive-trees and through the fruitful vineyards of sunny Spain, the heathen began to talk cunningly. "What a wonderful knight is thy Emperor," he said. "He hath conquered the world from sea to sea. But why cometh he within our borders? Why left he us not in peace?"
"It was his will," replied Ganelon. "There is no man in all the world so great as he. None may stand against him."
"You Franks are gallant men indeed," said Blancandrin, "but your dukes and counts deserve blame when they counsel the Emperor to fight with us now."
"There is none deserveth that blame save Roland," said Ganelon. "Such pride as his ought to be punished. Oh, that some one would slay him!" he cried fiercely. "Then should we have peace."
"This Roland is very cruel," said Blancandrin, "to wish to conquer all the world as he does. But in whom does he trust for help?"
"In the Franks," said Ganelon. "They love him with such a great love that they think he can do no wrong. He giveth them gold and silver, jewels and armor, so they serve him. Even to the Emperor himself he maketh rich presents. He will not rest until he hath conquered all the world, from east to west."
The Saracen looked at Ganelon out of the corner of his eye. He was a noble knight, but now that his face was dark with wrath and jealousy, he looked like a felon.
"Listen thou to me," said Blancandrin softly. "Dost wish to be avenged upon Roland? Then, by Mahomet! deliver him into our hands. King Marsil is very generous; for such a kindness he will willingly give unto thee of his countless treasure."
Ganelon heard the tempter's voice, but he rode onward as if unheeding, his chin sunken upon his breast, his eyes dark with hatred.
But long ere the ride was ended and Saragossa reached, the heathen lord and Christian knight had plotted together for the ruin of Roland.
At length the journey was over, and Ganelon lighted down before King Marsil, who awaited him beneath the shadow of his orchard-trees, seated upon a marble throne covered with rich silken rugs. Around him crowded his nobles, silent and eager to learn how Blancandrin had fared upon his errand.
Bowing low, Blancandrin approached the throne, leading Ganelon by the hand. "Greeting," he said, "in the name of Mahomet. Well, O Marsil, have I done thy behest to the mighty Christian King. But save that he raised his hands to heaven and gave thanks to his God, no answer did he render to me. But unto thee he sendeth one of his nobles, a very powerful man in France. From him shalt thou learn if thou shalt have peace or war."
"Let him speak," said King Marsil. "We will listen."
"Greeting," said Ganelon, "in the name of God—the God of glory whom we ought all to adore. Listen ye to the command of Charlemagne: Thou, O King, shalt receive the Christian faith, then half of Spain will he leave to thee to hold in fief. The other half shall be given to Count Roland—a haughty companion thou wilt have there. If thou wilt not agree to this, Charlemagne will besiege Saragossa, and thou shalt be led captive to Aix, there to die a vile and shameful death."
King Marsil shook with anger and turned pale. In his hand he held an arrow fledged with gold. Now, springing from his throne, he raised his arm as if he would strike Ganelon. But the knight laid his hand upon his sword and drew it half out of the scabbard. "Sword," he cried, "thou art bright and beautiful; oft have I carried thee at the court of my King. It shall never be said of me that I died alone in a foreign land, among fierce foes, ere thou wert dipped in the blood of their bravest and best."
For a few moments the heathen King and the Christian knight eyed each other in deep silence. Then the air was filled with shouts. "Part them, part them!" cried the Saracens.
The noblest of the Saracens rushed between their King and Ganelon. "It was a foolish trick to raise thy hand against the Christian knight," said Marsil's calif, seating him once more upon his throne. "'Twere well to listen to what he hath to say."
"Sir," said Ganelon proudly, "thinkest thou for all the threats in the wide world I will be silent and not speak the message which the mighty Charlemagne sendeth to his mortal enemy? Nay, I would speak, if ye were all against me." And keeping his right hand still upon the golden pommel of his sword, with his left he unclasped his cloak of fur and silk and cast it upon the steps of the throne. There, in his strength and splendor, he stood defying them all.
"'Tis a noble knight!" cried the heathen in admiration.
Then once more turning to King Marsil, Ganelon gave him the Emperor's letter. As he broke the seal and read, Marsil's brow grew black with anger. "Listen, my lords," he cried; "because I slew yonder insolent Christian knights, the Emperor Charlemagne bids me beware his wrath. He commands that I shall send unto him as hostage mine uncle the calif."
"This is some madness of Ganelon!" cried a heathen knight. "He is only worthy of death. Give him unto me, and I will see that justice is done upon him." So saying, he laid his hand upon his sword.
Like a flash of lightning Ganelon's good blade Murglies sprang from its sheath, and with his back against a tree, the Christian knight prepared to defend himself to the last. But once again the fight was stopped, and this time Blancandrin led Ganelon away.
Then, walking alone with the King, Blancandrin told of all that he had done, and of how even upon the way hither, Ganelon had promised to betray Roland, who was Charlemagne's greatest warrior. "And if he die," said Blancandrin, "then is our peace sure."
"Bring hither the Christian knight to me," cried King Marsil.
So Blancandrin went, and once more leading Ganelon by the hand, brought him before the King.
"Fair Sir Ganelon," said the wily heathen, "I did a rash and foolish thing when in anger I raised my hand to strike at thee. As a token that thou wilt forget it, accept this cloak of sable. It is worth five hundred pieces of gold." And lifting a rich cloak, he clasped it about the neck of Ganelon.
"I may not refuse it," said the knight, looking down. "May Heaven reward thee!"
"Trust me, Sir Ganelon," said King Marsil, "I love thee well. But keep thou our counsels secret. I would hear thee talk of Charlemagne. He is very old, is he not?—more than two hundred years old. He must be worn out and weary, for he hath fought so many battles and humbled so many kings in the dust. He ought to rest now from his labors in his city of Aix."
Ganelon shook his head. "Nay," he said, "such is not Charlemagne. All those who have seen him know that our Emperor is a true warrior. I know not how to praise him enough before you, for there is nowhere a man so full of valor and of goodness. I would rather die than leave his service."
"In truth," said Marsil, "I marvel greatly. I had thought that Charlemagne had been old and worn. Then if it is not so, when will he cease his wars?"
"Ah," said Ganelon, "that he will never do so long as his nephew Roland lives. Under the arch of heaven there bides no baron so splendid or so proud. Oliver, his friend, also is full of prowess and of valor. With them and his peers beside him, Charlemagne feareth no man."
"Fair Sir Ganelon," said King Marsil boldly, knowing his hatred, "tell me, how shall I slay Roland?"
"That I can tell thee," said Ganelon. "Promise thou the Emperor all that he asketh of thee. Send hostages and presents to him. He will then return to France. His army will pass through the valley of Roncesvalles. I will see to it that Roland and his friend Oliver lead the rear-guard. They will lag behind the rest of the army, then there shalt thou fall upon them with all thy mighty men. I say not but that thou shalt lose many a knight, for Roland and his peers will fight right manfully. But in the end, being so many more than they, thou shalt conquer. Roland shall lie dead, and slaying him thou wilt cut off the right arm of Charlemagne. Then farewell to the wondrous army of France. Never again shall Charlemagne gather such a company, and within the borders of Spain there shall be peace for evermore."
When Ganelon had finished speaking, the King threw his arms about his neck and kissed him. Then turning to his slaves, he commanded them to bring great treasure of gold, and silver and precious stones, and lay it at the feet of the knight.
"But swear to me," said Marsil, "that Roland shall be in the rear-guard, and swear to me his death."
And Ganelon, laying his hand upon his sword Murglies, swore by the holy relics therein, that he would bring Roland to death.
Then came a heathen knight who gave to Ganelon a sword, the hilt of which glittered with gems so that the eyes were dazzled in looking upon it. "Let but Roland be in the rear-guard," he said, "and it is thine." Then he kissed Ganelon on both cheeks.
Soon another heathen knight followed him, laughing joyfully. "Here is my helmet," he cried. "It is the richest and best ever beaten out of steel. It is thine so that thou truly bring Roland to death and shame." And he, too, kissed Ganelon.
Next came Bramimonde, Marsil's queen. She was very beautiful. Her dark hair was strung with pearls, and her robes of silk and gold swept the ground. Her hands were full of glittering gems. Bracelets and necklaces of gold, rubies and sapphires fell from her white fingers. "Take these," she said, "to thy fair lady. Tell her that Queen Bramimonde sends them to her because of the great service thou hast done." And bowing low, she poured the sparkling jewels into Ganelon's hands. Thus did the heathen reward Ganelon for his treachery.
"Ho there!" called King Marsil to his treasurer, "are my gifts for the Emperor ready?"
"Yea, Sire," answered the treasurer, "seven hundred camels' load of silver and gold and twenty hostages, the noblest of the land; all are ready."
Then King Marsil leant his hand on Ganelon's shoulder. "Wise art thou and brave," he said, "but in the name of all thou holdest sacred, forget not thy promise unto me. See, I give thee ten mules laden with richest treasure, and every year I will send to thee as much again. Now take the keys of my city gates, take the treasure and the hostages made ready for thine Emperor. Give them all to him, tell him that I yield to him all that he asks, but forget not thy promise that Roland shall ride in the rear-guard."
Impatient to be gone, Ganelon shook the King's hand from his shoulder. "Let me tarry no longer," he cried. Then springing to horse he rode swiftly away.
Meanwhile Charlemagne lay encamped, awaiting Marsil's answer. And as one morning he sat beside his tent, with his lords and mighty men around him, a great cavalcade appeared in the distance. And presently Ganelon, the traitor, drew rein before him. Softly and smoothly he began his treacherous tale. "God keep you," he cried; "here I bring the keys of Saragossa, with treasure rich and rare, seven hundred camels' load of silver and gold and twenty hostages of the noblest of the heathen host. And King Marsil bids me say, thou shalt not blame him that his uncle the calif comes not too, for he is dead. I myself saw him as he set forth with three hundred thousand armed men upon the sea. Their vessels sank ere they had gone far from the land, and he and they were swallowed in the waves." Thus Ganelon told his lying tale.
"Now praised be Heaven!" cried Charlemagne. "And thanks, my trusty Ganelon, for well hast thou sped. At length my wars are done, and home to gentle France we ride."
So the trumpets were sounded, and soon the great army, with pennons waving and armor glittering in the sunshine, was rolling onward through the land, like a gleaming mighty river.
But following the Christian army, through valleys deep and dark, by pathways secret and unknown, crept the heathen host. They were clad in shining steel from head to foot, swords were by their sides, lances were in their hands, and bitter hatred in their hearts. Four hundred thousand strong they marched in stealthy silence. And, alas! the Franks knew it not.
When night came the Franks encamped upon the plain. And high upon the mountain-sides, in a dark forest the heathen kept watch upon them.
In the midst of his army King Charlemagne lay, and as he slept he dreamed he stood alone in the valley of Roncesvalles, spear in hand. There to him came Ganelon, who seized his spear and broke it in pieces before his eyes, and the noise of the breaking was as the noise of thunder. In his sleep Charlemagne stirred uneasily, but he did not wake. The vision passed, and again he dreamed. It seemed to him that he was now in his own city of Aix. Suddenly from out a forest a leopard sprang upon him. But even as its fangs closed upon his arm, a faithful hound came bounding from his hall and fell upon the savage beast with fury. Fiercely the hound grappled with the leopard. Snarling and growling they rolled over and over. Now the hound was uppermost, now the leopard. "Tis a splendid fight!" cried the Franks who watched. But who should win, the Emperor knew not, for the vision faded, and still he slept.
The night passed and dawn came. A thousand trumpets sounded, the camp was all astir, and the Franks made ready once more to march.
But Charlemagne was grave and thoughtful, musing on the dream that he had dreamed. "My knights and barons," he said, "mark well the country through which we pass. These valleys are steep and straight. It would go ill with us did the false Saracen forget his oath, and fall upon us as we pass. To whom therefore shall I trust the rear-guard that we may march in surety?"
"Give the command to my stepson, Roland, there is none so brave as he," said Ganelon.
As Charlemagne listened he looked at Ganelon darkly. "Thou art a very demon," he said. "What rage possesseth thee? And if I give command of the rear to Roland, who, then, shall lead the van?"
"There is Ogier the Dane," said Ganelon quickly, "who better?"
Still Charlemagne looked darkly at him. He would not that Roland should hear, for well he knew his adventurous spirit.
But already Roland had heard. "I ought to love thee well, Sir Stepsire," he cried, "for this day hast thou named me for honor. I will take good heed that our Emperor lose not the least of his men, nor charger, palfrey, nor mule that is not paid for by stroke of sword."
"That know I right well," replied Ganelon, "therefore have I named thee."
Then to Charlemagne Roland turned, "Give me the bow of office, Sire, and let me take command," he said.
But the Emperor sat with bowed head. In and out of his long white beard he twisted his fingers. Tears stood in his eyes, and he kept silence. Such was his love for Roland and fear lest evil should befall him.
Then spoke Duke Naimes, "Give the command unto Roland, Sire; there is none better."
So, silently, Charlemagne held out the bow of office, and kneeling, Roland took it.
Then was Ganelon's wicked heart glad.
"Nephew," said Charlemagne, "half my host I leave with thee."
"Nay, Sire," answered Roland proudly, "twenty thousand only shall remain with me. The rest of ye may pass onward in all surety, for while I live ye have naught to fear."
Then in his heart Ganelon laughed.
So the mighty army passed onward through the vale of Roncesvalles without doubt or dread, for did not Roland the brave guard the rear? With him remained Oliver his friend, Turpin, the bold Archbishop of Rheims, all the peers, and twenty thousand more of the bravest knights of France.
As the great army wound along, the hearts of the men were glad. For seven long years they had been far from home, and now soon they would see their dear ones again. But the Emperor rode among them sadly with bowed head. His fingers again twined themselves in his long white beard, tears once more stood in his eyes. Beside him rode Duke Naimes. "Tell me, Sire," he said, "what grief oppresseth thee?"
"Alas," said Charlemagne, "by Ganelon France is betrayed. This night I dreamed I saw him break my lance in twain. And this same Ganelon it is that puts my nephew in the rear-guard. And I, I have left him in a strange land. If he die, where shall I find such another?"
It was in vain that Duke Naimes tried to comfort the Emperor. He would not be comforted, and all the hearts of that great company were filled with fearful, boding dread for Roland.
Meanwhile King Marsil was gathering all his host. From far and near came the heathen knights, all impatient to fight, each one eager to have the honor of slaying Roland with his own hand, each swearing that none of the twelve peers should ever again see France.
Among them was a great champion called Chernuble. He was huge and ugly and his strength was such that he could lift with ease a burden which four mules could scarcely carry. His face was inky black, his lips thick and hideous, and his coarse long hair reached the ground. It was said that in the land from whence he came, the sun never shone, the rain never fell, and the very stones were black as coal. He too, swearing that the Franks should die and that France should perish, joined the heathen host.
Very splendid were the Saracens as they moved along in the gleaming sunshine. Gold and silver shone upon their armor, pennons of white and purple floated over them, and from a thousand trumpets sounded their battle-song.
To the ears of the Frankish knights the sound was borne as they rode through the valley of Roncesvalles.
"Sir Comrade," said Oliver, "it seemeth me there is battle at hand with the Saracen foe."
"Please Heaven it may be so," said Roland. "Our duty is to hold this post for our Emperor. Let us strike mighty blows, that nothing be said or sung of us in scorn. Let us fight these heathen for our country and our faith."
As Oliver heard the sounds of battle come nearer, he climbed to the top of the hill, so that he could see far over the country. There before him he saw the Saracens marching in pride. Their helmets, inlaid with gold, gleamed in the sun. Gaily painted shields, hauberks of shining steel, spears and pennons waved and shone, rank upon rank in countless numbers.
Quickly Oliver came down from the hill, and went back to the Frankish army. "I have seen the heathen," he said to Roland. "Never on earth hath such a host been gathered. They march upon us many hundred thousand strong, with shield and spear and sword. Such battle as awaiteth us have we never fought before."
"Let him be accursed who fleeth!" cried the Franks. "There be few among us who fear death."
"It is Ganelon the felon, who hath betrayed us," said Oliver, "let him be accursed."
"Hush thee, Oliver," said Roland; "he is my stepsire. Let us hear no evil of him."
"The heathen are in fearful force," said Oliver, "and our Franks are but few. Friend Roland, sound upon thy horn. Then will Charlemagne hear and return with all his host to help us."
For round Roland's neck there hung a magic horn of carved ivory. If he blew upon this in case of need, the sound of it would be carried over hill and dale, far, far onward. If he sounded it now, Charlemagne would very surely hear, and return from his homeward march.
But Roland would not listen to Oliver. "Nay," he said, "I should indeed be mad to sound upon my horn. If I call for help, I, Roland, I should lose my fame in all fair France. Nay, I will not sound, but I shall strike such blows with my good sword Durindal that the blade shall be red to the gold of the hilt. Our Franks, too, shall strike such blows that the heathen shall rue the day. I tell thee, they be all dead men."
"Oh Roland, friend, wind thy horn," pleaded Oliver. "To the ear of Charlemagne shall the sound be borne, and he and all his knights will return to help us."
"Now Heaven forbid that my kin should ever be pointed at in scorn because of me," said Roland, "or that fair France should fall to such dishonor. No! I will not sound upon my horn, but I shall strike such blows with my sword Durindal that the blade shall be dyed red in the blood of the heathen."
In vain Oliver implored. "I see no dishonor shouldst thou wind thy horn," he said, "for I have beheld the Saracen host. The valleys and the hills and all the plains are covered with them. They are many and great, and we are but a little company."
"So much the better," cried Roland, "my desire to fight them grows the greater. All the angels of heaven forbid that France, through me, should lose one jot of fame. Death is better than dishonor. Let us strike such blows as our Emperor loveth to see."
Roland was rash as Oliver was wise, but both were knights of wondrous courage, and now Oliver pleaded no more. "Look," he cried, "look where the heathen come! Thou hast scorned, Roland, to sound thy horn, and our noble men will this day do their last deeds of bravery."
"Hush!" cried Roland, "shame to him who weareth a coward's heart."
And now Archbishop Turpin spurred his horse to a little hill in front of the army. "My lords and barons," he cried, turning to them, "Charlemagne hath left us here to guard the homeward march of his army. He is our King, and we are bound to die for him, if so need be. But now, before ye fight, confess your sins, and pray God to forgive them. If ye die, ye die as martyrs. In God's great paradise your places await you."
Then the Franks leapt from their horses and kneeled upon the ground while the archbishop blessed them, and absolved them from all their sins. "For penance I command that ye strike the heathen full sore," he said.
Then springing from their knees the Franks leapt again into their saddles, ready now to fight and die.
"Friend," said Roland, turning to Oliver, "thou wert right. It is Ganelon who is the traitor. But the Emperor will avenge us upon him. As for Marsil, he deemeth that he hath bought us, and that Ganelon hath sold us unto him. But he will find it is with our swords that we will pay him."
And now the battle began. "Montjoie!" shouted the Franks. It was the Emperor's own battle-cry. It means "My joy," and came from the name of his famous sword Joyeuse or joyous. This sword was the most wonderful ever seen. Thirty times a day the shimmering light with which it glowed changed. In the gold of the hilt was encased the head of the spear with which the side of Christ had been pierced. And because of this great honor the Emperor called his sword Joyeuse, and from that the Franks took their battle-cry "Montjoie." Now shouting it, and plunging spurs into their horses' sides, they dashed upon the foe. Never before had been such pride of chivalry, such splendor of knightly grace.
With boasting words, King Marsil's nephew came riding in front of the battle. "Ho, felon Franks!" he cried, "ye are met at last. Betrayed and sold are ye by your King. This day hath France lost her fair fame, and from Charlemagne is his right hand torn."
Roland heard him. With spur in side and slackened rein, he dashed upon the heathen, mad with rage. Through shield and hauberk pierced his spear, and the Saracen fell dead ere his scoffing words were done. "Thou dastard!" cried Roland, "no traitor is Charlemagne, but a right noble king and cavalier."
King Marsil's brother, sick at heart to see his nephew fall, rode out with mocking words upon his lips. "This day is the honor of France lost," he sneered.
But Oliver struck his golden spurs into his steed's side! "Caitiff, thy taunts are little worth," he cried, and, pierced through shield and buckler, the heathen fell.
Bishop Turpin, too, wielded both sword and lance. "Thou lying coward, be silent evermore!" he cried, as a scoffing heathen king fell beneath his blows. "Charlemagne our lord is true and good, and no Frank shall flee this day."
"Montjoie! Montjoie!" sounded high above the clang of battle, as heathen after heathen was laid low. Limbs were lopped, armor flew in splinters. Many a heathen knight was cloven from brow to saddle bow. The plain was strewn with the dying and the dead.
In Roland's hand his lance was shivered to the haft. Throwing the splintered wood away, he drew his famous Durindal. The naked blade shone in the sun and fell upon the helmet of Chernuble, Marsil's mighty champion. The sparkling gems with which it shone were scattered on the grass. Through cheek and chine, through flesh and bone, drove the shining steel, and Chernuble fell upon the ground, a black and hideous heap. "Lie there, caitiff!" cried Roland, "thy Mahomet cannot save thee. Not unto such as thou is the victory."
On through the press rode Roland. Durindal flashed and fell and flashed again, and many a heathen bit the dust. Oliver, too, did marvelous deeds. His spear, as Roland's, was shivered into atoms. But scarcely knowing what he did, he fought still with the broken shaft, and with it brought many a heathen to his death.
"Comrade, what dost thou?" said Roland. "Is it now the time to fight with staves? Where is thy sword called Hauteclere with its crystal pommel and golden guard?"
"I lacked time in which to draw it," replied Oliver, "there was such need to strike blows fast and hard."
But now he drew his shining Hauteclere from its scabbard, and with it he dealt such blows that Roland cried, "My brother art thou, Oliver, from henceforth. Ah! such blows our Emperor would dearly love to see."
Furious and more furious waxed the fight. On all sides might be heard the cry of "Montjoie! Montjoie!" and many a blow did Frank and heathen give and take. But although thousands of Saracens lay dead, the Franks too had lost many of their bravest knights. Shield and spear, banner and pennon, broken, bloodstained and trampled, strewed the field.
Fiercer, wilder still, the battle grew. Roland, Oliver, Archbishop Turpin and all the twelve peers of France fought in the thickest of the press. Many of the heathen fled, but even in flight they were cut down.
Meanwhile over France burst a fearful storm. Thunder rolled, lightning flashed, the very earth shook and trembled. There was not a town in all the land but the walls of it were cracked and riven. The sky grew black at midday, rain and hail in torrents swept the land. "It is the end of the world," the people whispered in trembling fear.
Alas, they knew not! It was the earth's great mourning for the death of Roland, which was nigh.
The battle waxed horrible. The Saracens fled, and the Franks pursued till of that great heathen host but one was left. Of the Saracen army which had set out in such splendor, four hundred thousand strong, one heathen king alone remained. And he, King Margaris, sorely wounded, his spear broken, his shield pierced and battered, fled with the direful news to King Marsil.
The Franks had won the day, and now mournfully over the plain they moved, seeking their dead and dying comrades. Weary men and worn were they, sad at the death of many brother knights, yet glad at the might and victory of France.
Alone, King Margaris fled, weary and wounded, until he reached King Marsil, and fell panting at his feet.
"Ride! ride! Sire," he cried, "thy army is shattered, thy knights to the last man lie dead upon the field; but thou wilt find the Franks in evil plight. Full half of them also lie dead. The rest are sore wounded and weary. Their armor is broken, their swords and spears are shattered. They have naught wherewith to defend themselves. To avenge the death of thy knights were now easy. Ride! oh, ride!"
In terrible wrath and sorrow King Marsil gathered a new army. In twenty columns through the valleys they came marching. The sun shone upon the gems and goldwork of their helmets, upon lances and pennons, upon buckler and embroidered surcoat. Seven thousand trumpets sounded to the charge, and the wind carried the clamor afar.
"Oliver, my comrade," said Roland, when he heard it, "Oliver, my brother, the traitor Ganelon hath sworn our death. Here his treachery is plainly to be seen. But the Emperor will bring upon him a terrible vengeance. As for us, we must fight again a battle fierce and keen. I will strike with my trusty Durindal and thou with thy Hauteclere bright. We have already carried them with honor in many battles. With them we have won many a victory. No man may say scorn of us."
And so once again the Franks made ready for battle.
But King Marsil was a wily foe. "Hearken, my barons all," he cried, "Roland is a prince of wondrous strength. Two battles are not enough to vanquish him. He shall have three. Half of ye shall go forward now, and half remain with me until the Franks are utterly exhausted. Then shall ye attack them. Then shall we see the day when the might of Charlemagne shall fall and France shall perish in shame."
So King Marsil stayed upon the hillside while half of his knights marched upon the Franks with battle-cry and trumpet-call.
"Oh Heaven, what cometh now!" cried the Franks as they heard the sound. "Wo, wo, that ever we saw Ganelon the felon."
Then spoke the brave archbishop to them. "Now it is certain that we shall die. But it is better to die sword in hand than in slothful ease. Now is the day when ye shall receive great honor. Now is the day that ye shall win your crown of flowers. The gates of paradise are glorious, but therein no coward shall enter."
"We will not fail to enter," cried the Franks. "It is true that we are but few, but we are bold and stanch," and striking their golden spurs into their chargers' flanks, they rode to meet the foe.
Once more the noise and dust of battle rose. Once more the plain was strewn with dead, and the green grass was crimson-dyed, and scattered wide were jewels and gold, splintered weapons, and shattered armor.
Fearful was the slaughter, mighty the deeds of valor done, until at last the heathen broke and fled amain. After them in hot pursuit rode the Franks. Their bright swords flashed and fell again and again, and all the way was marked with dead.
At length the heathen cries of despair reached even to where King Marsil stayed upon the hillside. "Marsil, oh our King! ride, ride, we have need of thee!" they cried.
Even to the King's feet the Franks pursued the fleeing foe, slaying them before his face.
Then Marsil, mounting upon his horse, led his last knights against the fearful foe.
The Franks were nigh exhausted, but still three hundred swords flashed in the sunlight, three hundred hearts still beat with hope and courage.
As Roland watched Oliver ever in the thickest of the fight, dealing blow upon blow unceasingly, his heart swelled anew with love for him. "Oh, my comrade leal and true," he cried, "alas! this day shall end our love. Alas! this day we shall part on earth for ever."
Oliver heard him and through the press of fighting he urged his horse to Roland's side. "Friend," he said, "keep near to me. So it please God we shall at least die together."
On went the fight, fiercer and fiercer yet, till but sixty weary Franks were left. Then, sadly gazing upon the stricken field, Roland turned to Oliver. "Behold! our bravest lie dead," he cried. "Well may France weep, for she is shorn of all her most valiant knights. Oh my Emperor, my friend, alas, why wert thou not here? Oliver, my brother, how shall we speed him now our mournful news?"
"I know not," said Oliver sadly, "rather come death now than any craven deed."
"I will sound upon my horn," said Roland, all his pride broken and gone. "I will sound upon my horn. Charlemagne will hear it and the Franks will return to our aid."
"Shame would that be," cried Oliver. "Our kin would blush for us and be dishonored all their days. When I prayed of thee thou wouldst not sound thy horn, and now it is not I who will consent to it. Sound upon thy horn! No! there is no courage, no wisdom in that now. Had the Emperor been here we had been saved. But now it is too late, for all is lost. Nay," he cried in rising wrath, "if ever I see again my fair sister Aude, I swear to thee thou shalt never hold her in thine arms. Never shall she be bride of thine." For Roland loved Oliver's beautiful sister Aude and was loved by her, and when Roland would return to France she had promised to be his bride.
"Ah, Oliver, why dost thou speak to me with so much anger and hate," cried Roland sadly.
"Because it is thy fault that so many Franks lie dead this day," answered Oliver. "It is thy folly that hath slain them. Hadst thou done as I prayed thee our master Charlemagne had been here. This battle had been fought and won. Marsil had been taken and slain. Thy madness it is, Roland, that hath wrought our fate. Henceforward we can serve Charlemagne never more. And now here endeth our loyal friendship. Oh, bitter the parting this night shall see."
With terrible grief in his heart, stricken dumb with misery and pain, Roland gazed upon his friend. But Archbishop Turpin had heard the strife between the two, and setting spurs to his horse he rode swiftly towards them. "Sir Roland, and you, Sir Oliver," he cried, "I pray you strive not thus. See! we all must die, and thy horn, Roland, can avail nothing now. Great Karl is too far and would return too late. Yet it were well to sound it. For the Emperor when he hears it will come to avenge our fall, and the heathen will not return joyously to their homes. When the Franks come, they will alight from their horses, they will find our bodies, and will bury them with mourning and with tears, so we shall rest in hallowed graves, and the beasts of the field shall not tear our bones asunder."
"It is well said," cried Roland.
Then to his lips he laid his horn, and taking a deep breath he blew mightily upon it. With all the strength left in his weary body he blew.
Full, and clear, and high the horn sounded. From mountain peak to mountain peak the note was echoed, till to the camp of Charlemagne, full thirty leagues away, it came.
Then as he heard it, sweet and faint, borne upon the summer wind, the Emperor drew rein, and bent his ear to listen. "Our men give battle; it is the horn of Roland," he cried.
"Nay," laughed Ganelon scornfully, "nay, Sire, had any man but thee said it I had deemed he lied."
So slowly and sad at heart, with many a backward glance, the Emperor rode on.
Again Roland put his horn to his mouth. He was weary now and faint. Blood was upon his pale lips, the blue veins in his temples stood out like cords. Very mournfully he blew upon his horn, but the sound of it was carried far, very far, although it was so feeble and so low.
Again to the soft, sweet note Charlemagne bent his ear. Duke Naimes, too, and all the Frankish knights, paused at the sound. "It is the horn of Roland," cried the Emperor, "and very surely had there been no battle, he had not sounded it."
"There is no battle," said Ganelon in fretful tones. "Thou art grown old and fearful. Thou talkest as a frightened child. Well thou knowest the pride of Roland, the strong, bold, great and boastful Roland, that God hath suffered so long upon His earth. For one hare Roland would sound his horn all day long. Doubtless now he laughs among his peers. And besides, who would dare to attack Roland? Who so bold? Of a truth there is none. Ride on, Sire, ride on. Why halt? Our fair land is still very far in front."
So again, yet more unwillingly, the Emperor rode on.
Crimson-stained were the lips of Roland. His cheeks were sunken and white, yet once again he raised his horn. Faintly now, in sadness and in anguish, once again he blew. The soft, sweet notes took on a tone so pitiful, they wrung the very heart of Charlemagne, where, full thirty leagues afar, he onward rode.
"That horn is very long of breath," he sighed, looking backward anxiously.
"It is Roland," cried Duke Naimes. "It is Roland who suffers yonder. On my soul, I swear, there is battle. Some one hath betrayed him. If I mistake not, it is he who now deceives thee. Arm, Sire, arm! Sound the trumpets of war. Long enough hast thou hearkened to the plaint of Roland."
Quickly the Emperor gave command. Quickly the army turned about, and came marching backward. The evening sunshine fell upon their pennons of crimson, gold and blue, it gleamed upon helmet and corslet, upon lance and shield. Fiercely rode the knights. "Oh, if we but reach Roland before he die," they cried, "oh, what blows we will strike for him."
Alas! alas! they are late, too late!
The evening darkened, night came, yet on they rode. Through all the night they rode, and when at length the rising sun gleamed like flame upon helmet, and hauberk and flowing pennon, they still pressed onward.
Foremost the Emperor rode, sunk in sad thought, his fingers twisted in his long white beard which flowed over his cuirass, his eyes filled with tears. Behind him galloped his knights—strong men though they were, every one of them with a sob in his throat, a prayer in his heart, for Roland, Roland the brave and fearless.
One knight only had anger in his heart. That knight was Ganelon. And he by order of the Emperor had been given over to the keeping of the kitchen knaves. Calling the chief among them, "Guard me well this felon," said Charlemagne, "guard him as a traitor, who hath sold all mine house to death."
Then the chief scullion and a hundred of his fellows surrounded Ganelon. They plucked him by the hair and buffeted him, each man giving him four sounding blows. Around his neck they then fastened a heavy chain, and leading him as one might lead a dancing bear, they set him upon a common baggage-horse. Thus they kept him until the time should come that Charlemagne would ask again for the felon knight.
Roland was dead and bright angels had already carried his soul to heaven, when Charlemagne and all his host at last rode into the valley of Roncesvalles. What a dreadful sight was there! Not a path nor track, not a yard nor foot of ground but was covered with slain Franks and heathen lying side by side in death.
Charlemagne gazed upon the scene with grief and horror. "Where art thou, Roland?" he called. "The archbishop, where is he? Oliver, where art thou?" All the twelve peers he called by name. But none answered. The wind moaned over the field, fluttering here and there a fallen banner, but voice to answer there was none.
"Alas," sighed Charlemagne, "what sorrow is mine that I was not here ere this battle was fought!"
In and out of his long white beard his fingers twisted, and tears of grief and anger stood in his eyes. Behind him, rank upon rank, crowded his knights and barons full of wrath and sorrow. Not one among them but had lost a son or brother, a friend or comrade. For a time they stood dumb with grief and horror.
Then spoke Duke Naimes. Wise in counsel, brave in battle was he. "Look, Sire," he cried, "look where two leagues from us the dust arises upon the great highway. There is gathered the army of the heathen. Ride, Sire, ride and avenge our wrongs."
And so it was, for those who had fled from the battle-field were gathered together and were now crowding onward to Saragossa.
"Alas!" said Charlemagne, "they are already far away. Yet they have taken from me the very flower of France, so for the sake of right and honor I will do as thou desirest."
Then the Emperor called to him four of his chief barons. "Rest here," he said, "guard the field, the valleys and the hills. Leave the dead lying as they are, but watch well that neither lion nor any other savage beast come nigh to them. Neither shall any servant or squire touch them. I forbid ye to let man lay hand upon them till we return."
"Sire we will do thy will," answered the four.
Then, leaving a thousand knights to be with them, Charlemagne sounded his war trumpets, and the army set forth upon the pursuit of the heathen. Furiously they rode and fast, but already the foe was far. Anxiously the Emperor looked to the sun as it slowly went down toward the west. Night was at hand and the enemy still afar.
Then, alighting from his horse, Charlemagne kneeled upon the green grass. "Oh Lord, I pray thee," he cried, "make the sun to stop. Say thou to the night, 'wait.' Say thou to the day, 'remain.'" And as the Emperor prayed, his guardian angel stooped down and whispered to him, "Ride onward, Charlemagne! Light shall not fail thee. Thou hast lost the flower of France. The Lord knoweth it right well. But thou canst now avenge thee upon the wicked. Ride!"
Hearing these words, Charlemagne sprang once more to horse and rode onward.
And truly a miracle was done for him. The sun stood motionless in the sky, the heathen fled, the Franks pursued, until in the Valley of Darkness they fell upon them and beat them with great slaughter. The heathen still fled, but the Franks surrounded them, closing every path, and in front flowed the river Ebro wide and deep. Across it there was no bridge, upon it no boat, no barge. Calling upon their gods Tervagan and Apollin and upon Mahomet to save them, the heathen threw themselves into the water. But there no safety they found. Many, weighted with their heavy armor, sank beneath the waves. Others, carried by the tide, were swept away, and all were drowned, King Marsil alone fleeing towards Saragossa.
When Charlemagne saw that all his enemies were slain, he leapt from his horse, and, kneeling upon the ground, gave thanks to Heaven. And even as he rose from his knees the sun went down and all the land was dim in twilight.
"Now is the hour of rest," said the Emperor. "It is too late to return to Roncesvalles, for our steeds are weary and exhausted. Take off their saddles and their bridles, and let them refresh themselves upon the field."
"Sire, it is well said," replied the Franks.
So the knights, leaping from their horses, took saddle and bridle from them, and let them wander free upon the green meadows by the river-side. Then, being very weary, the Franks lay down upon the grass, all dressed as they were in their armor, and with their swords girded to their sides, and slept. So worn were they with battle and with grief, that none that night kept watch, but all alike slept.
The Emperor too slept upon the ground among his knights and barons. Like them he lay in his armor. And his good sword Joyeuse was girt about him.
The night was clear and the moon shone brightly. And Charlemagne, lying on the grass, thought bitterly of Roland and of Oliver, and of all the twelve peers of France who lay dead upon the field of Roncesvalles. But at last, overcome with grief and weariness, he fell asleep.
As the Emperor slept, he dreamed. He thought he saw the sky grow black with thunder-clouds, then jagged lightning flashed and flamed, hail fell and wild winds howled. Such a storm the earth had never seen, and suddenly in all its fury it burst upon his army. Their lances were wrapped in flame, their shields of gold were melted, hauberks and helmets were crushed to pieces. Then bears and wolves from out the forests sprang upon the dismayed knights, devouring them. Monsters untold, serpents, fiery fiends, and more than thirty thousand griffins, all rushed upon the Franks with greedy, gaping jaws.
"Arm! arm! Sire," they cried to him. And Charlemagne, in his dream, struggled to reach his knights. But something, he knew not what, held him bound and helpless. Then from out the depths of the forest a lion rushed upon him. It was a fierce, terrible, and proud beast. It seized upon the Emperor, and together they struggled, he fighting with his naked hands. Who would win, who would be beaten, none knew, for the dream passed and the Emperor still slept.
Again Charlemagne dreamed. He stood, he thought, upon the marble steps of his great palace of Aix holding a bear by a double chain. Suddenly out of the forest there came thirty other bears to the foot of the steps where Charlemagne stood. They all had tongues and spoke like men. "Give him back to us, Sire," they said, "he is our kinsman, and we must help him. It is not right that thou shouldest keep him so long from us."
Then from out the palace there came a hound. Bounding among the savage beasts he threw himself upon the largest of them. Over and over upon the grass they rolled, fighting terribly. Who would be the victor, who the vanquished? Charlemagne could not tell. The vision passed, and he slept till daybreak.
As the first dim light of dawn crept across the sky, Charlemagne awoke. Soon all the camp was astir, and before the sun rose high the knights were riding back over the wide roads to Roncesvalles.
When once again they reached the dreadful field, Charlemagne wandered over all the plain until he came where Roland lay. Then taking him in his arms he made great moan. "My friend, my Roland, who shall now lead my army? My nephew, beautiful and brave, my pride, my glory, all are gone. Alas the day! alas!" Thus with tears and cries he mourned his loss.
Then said one, "Sire, grieve not overmuch. Command rather that we search the plain and gather together all our men who have been slain by the heathen. Then let us bury them with chant, and song and solemn ceremony, as befits such heroes."
"Yea," said Charlemagne, "it is well said. Sound your trumpets!"
So the trumpets were sounded, and over all the field the Franks searched, gathering their slain brothers and comrades.
With the army there were many bishops, abbots and monks, and so with chant and hymn, with prayer and incense, the Franks were laid to rest. With great honor they were buried. Then, for they could do no more, their comrades left them.
Only the bodies of Roland, Oliver and Archbishop Turpin, they did not lay in Spanish ground. In three white marble coffins covered with silken cloths they were placed on chariots, ready to be carried back to the fair land of France.
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