A Contest for Durandal
ROLAND came to the scene of battle only a single day too late. The victory, as we have seen, had been won through Reinold's valor. The Pagan hosts, beaten and disheartened, were flying toward Spain. France was freed from her great peril. Roland felt mortified and ashamed, that, while others had been fighting for their country's honor, he had been delayed in the air-built castle of the magician Atlantes. Yet Charlemagne and his peers welcomed him as heartily as if he had come in the time of need; and a day was set apart for glad thanksgiving, not only for the great victory which they had gained over their foes, but also for the safe return of the hero whom they had mourned as lost. And it was long ere Marsilius, or Agramant, or any other Saracen chief, dared lead his hosts again into France.
After this, Roland did many noble deeds of arms for the honor of France and Christendom. I cannot stop to tell you now of his gallant feats at Rome when that city was besieged by Laban and Lukafere, the kings of Babylon; nor of his famous passage-at-arms with the Pagan Sir Ferumbras; nor how he fought and slew the giant Ferragus, a monster thirty feet high, and the terror of the Christian host; nor how he conquered Sir Otuel of Spain in fair fight, and forced him to submit to baptism. All these stories, and many more, you may read in the songs and poems of the old days of chivalry. While everywhere there were tyranny and wrong-doing, Roland, with his strong arm and manly voice, sought to defend the right and uphold justice. The vows which he had taken upon entering knighthood were ever in his mind; and he deemed that his life could not be spent more worthily than in the service of his country, his king, and his fellow-men.
Once on a time, as he was riding through a mountainous country near the sea, he found himself belated and overtaken by the darkness of night, while yet he was many miles from any dwelling. As he looked around to find some place of shelter, he was surprised to see a light streaming from a narrow cleft in the mountain side. Did it come from the cell of a hermit who had hidden himself in this lonesome place in order to escape from the bustle and bloodshed of those cruel times? Or did it betray the hiding-place of robbers,—of men whose hands were lifted against their fellow-men, and who cared nought for knighthood's vows or valorous deeds? Roland did not stop long to consider. Whatever kind of dwelling it might be from which this light came, he was determined to enter it and demand a night's lodging. In front of the entrance to the cave was a great thicket of thorns and bristly underwood,—so dense that any one passing that way in the daytime would not have noticed any break in the rock. It was not likely that a hermit would thus guard and conceal the entrance to his cell.
The knight tied Brigliadoro to the branch of an elm, and stealthily threaded his way through the thicket. It was not hard to find the narrow door of the cavern, for the bright light streaming through it showed him plainly the way to go. A short flight of narrow steps cut rudely in the stone led downward into a vaulted chamber, which seemed chiselled out of the solid rock. The smoke-begrimed ceiling was very high; and through an opening in the centre, which served at once as window and chimney, the twinkling stars looked down. Upon the floor beneath this opening a bright fire burned, casting a ruddy glow around the room, and lighting up the doorway, and sending its rays far out into the darkness beyond. Before this fire sat a damsel, very young and very fair, clad in a garb which Roland thought would have been better suited to a palace or a king's court than to this dismal place. Her great blue eyes were swollen with much weeping; yet she was so exceedingly fair, that her very presence seemed to drive all gloom from the cheerless place. Seated on the floor, not far away, was an old hag, withered and gray and toothless, who was mumbling and scolding and cursing, as if in a terrible rage about something. Roland, seeing that these two were the only persons in the room, advanced, and kindly saluted them. Both dame and damsel were greatly surprised at the sight of a knight in armor standing thus unexpectedly before them; but they arose quietly, and each, in her way, welcomed him to their cavern home. The old hag, like one who is afraid of the day, shrank from the hero's gaze, and cowering sought the deeper shadows of the room. But the maiden, with hope beaming in her fair countenance, looked up with tearful, pleading eyes, into his face. The knight knew at once how matters stood in that rude dwelling.
"Tell me," said he kindly to the maiden, "why thou art imprisoned in this cheerless place. Who is it that is so void or gentleness and manly feeling as to bury thee in this mountain dungeon?"
Then, with floods of tears rolling down her cheeks, the maiden told him her sad story. She told him that she was the only daughter of the old Saracen king of Gallicia, and that her name was Isabella; that she had been secretly betrothed to Zerbino, the son of Scotland's king; that, without the consent of her father, she had embarked on shipboard at Bayonne, intending to follow her lover to his own country; and that on the first night of the voyage a great storm had arisen, and had driven the vessel upon the shore, where it was wrecked among the high, pointed rocks.
"The captain saw well our danger," said she. "He lowered the galley's skiff, put me in it, and, with two of his men, embarked among the breakers. Landward over the raging surf we were driven; and, what was little short of a miracle, we safely lighted on a shelving beach. The shore was bleak and barren. No dwelling was in sight, nor any pathway, but only bare cliffs, and high, wood-crowned hills. Yet the first thing that I did was to fall upon my knees, and offer up thanks to kind Heaven for our deliverance. But, alas! I found that I had been snatched from the waves, only to fall into the hands of foes more pitiless than the sea and the storm. A band of pirates who infest these shores, and who had seen the wreck from the cliffs above, rushed down upon us ere we were aware. Vainly did the good captain and his men try to defend me. The robbers slew them on the beach, but they harmed me not. I was a rich prize, they said, and some time I should be sold for a high price to some wealthy Moorish prince. And they brought me to this cave, and gave me into the care of this old dame, who is my jailer. And here for weary months I have been imprisoned as in a living grave, scarce hoping ever to be free."
While yet the damsel was speaking, a company of men came silently down the stairway, and stood in the cave. They were rude, brutish-looking fellows, some armed with hunting spears, and some with swords; and they paused in surprise at sight of the knight seated before the fire, and eagerly listening to the maiden's story.
"Ah, my good man!" cried the leader of the band, "thou hast come in the very nick of time. I have long wanted a good suit of armor; and that which thou wearest will certainly serve me well."
With a look of scorn upon his face, Roland turned, and faced the robber crew. "If you win these arms," said he to the leader, "you shall pay a dear price for them."
Then, disdaining to use his sword against foes so vile, he seized a burning brand, and hurled it fiercely among them; and, picking up a heavy table that stood close by, he dealt such lusty blows about him, that those of the robbers who were not entirely disabled were glad to save themselves by a disgraceful flight. He waited not to see whether they would return; but he took the maiden Isabella by the hand, and led her out of her prison.
"I have heard of the Scottish chief Zerbino," said he. "He follows now the banner of my cousin Reinold of Montalban; and there are but few braver knights than he. Come with me, and we will find him."
With this he mounted Brigliadoro and lifted the maiden to a place behind him. Then the two wended their way through the forest. As they rode along the silent paths, the stars moved slowly across the gray sky above them, and the moon journeyed far to the west, and sank in the ocean waves; and the red dawn began to appear in the east. And just as the sun arose they found themselves standing on the brow of a wooded hill, while in the valley below them was a small village, or cluster of peasants' houses; and farther away, on the brow of another hill, was an old, half-ruined castle.
There seemed to be a great excitement in the little village, if one might judge from the uproar which was heard. The dogs were barking; the men were shouting, the women scolding, the children crying; every one was running hither and thither, as if the world were coming to an end. On the farther edge of the village a small company of knights was seen slowly approaching, with long pennons floating above them.
"Wait here," said Roland to his fair charge, as he helped her to alight. "I will ride forward, and see what is going on."
Isabella concealed herself among the thick underwoods, while Roland gave spurs to Brigliadoro and was soon galloping through the single street of the village. It did not take him long to find out the cause of the commotion which he had observed. The knights with the pennons were the men of Count Anselm of Mayence, and they were leading a prisoner to execution. The people were wild with excitement, and kept shouting, "Death to the traitor! Off with him!"
Roland rode close up to the procession; and the country folk, being unused to a knight of so noble a mien, parted right and left before him, and allowed him to advance until he was very near to the prisoner. You may judge of his surprise when he saw that this man was none other than Zerbino, the Scottish cavalier in quest of whom he had so lately set out. The young man was fettered with ugly chains, and bound to the back of a draught horse; and he sat with drooping head and downcast eyes, scarcely noticing the jeers and threats of the rude rabble.
"What is the meaning of this?" cried Roland. "What has this man done?"
"He is a murderer," answered one of the guards. "Count Pinabel, son of our master, Anselm of Mayence, was found dead yesterday in the mountain glen; and this is the man who slew him."
"It is false!" said Zerbino, not raising his head.
"It is true!" said the man. "For he came last night to the village inn for lodging, and while he was there the body of poor Pinabel was carried in. No sooner had this man come near than the wounds of the slain knight began to bleed afresh. There is no surer proof of guilt than that."
"Ay," cried the rabble, "there is no surer proof!"
"Untie the man!" said Roland. And he swept his lance around him, and knocked a score of the rude fellows prone into the dust. "Untie him, and let him go!"
Zerbino raised his head, and turned to see his deliverer. The crowd of angry churls fell back, and began to disperse. The rude fellows were not more afraid of the knight's long lance and glittering sword than of his flashing eye and towering form. Within three minutes the road was cleared: guards, peasants, and all were flying across the fields, eager to escape the fury of the hero. Roland and Zerbino were left alone. It was but the work of a moment to sever the cords and break the chains with which the prisoner was bound. Then, full of thankfulness for his unexpected delivery from death, Zerbino went back to the inn where he had stopped, and donned the armor which had been taken from him. He found his steed still feeding in the stable; and, having mounted him, he rode out of the village proudly by Roland's side. You may judge of his surprise when he met the fair Isabella on the hilltop; and as for her—no happier maiden ever lived than she. And the three friends left the village behind them and turned their faces northward, intending to make their way by the shortest route to Paris.
They had not ridden far, however, when they were overtaken by a tall and powerful knight, clad in the richest armor they had ever seen, and bearing a shield on which were engraven the arms of Trojan Hector. It was none other than Mandricardo, the Tartar chief to whom Fortune had given the arms which Roland had at one time so greatly coveted. Long time had he sought Roland, for he wished to win from him the doughty blade Durandal. As he rode up, he scanned the two knights with curious, searching eyes; but most he gazed at Roland; for he knew by his bearing that he was no common knight. At last he spoke.
"Thou art the man I seek," said he. "For ten days I have followed thee. I have heard of thy deeds, and I have sought thee long,—first to see thee, and second to prove thy might."
"And how knowest thou that I am the man?" asked Roland.
"By thy port and thy haughty bearing," answered Mandricardo. "I would know thee as a hero among ten thousand."
"Thou, too, mayst be a valiant cavalier," said Roland; "for brave desire is not often lodged in weak minds. If thou wouldst fain see me, I will lay aside my helm that thou mayst look. Yet thou must know that a man's heart is not always seen in his face."
He lifted his helmet, and the Tartar looked long at his noble face.
"Thou hast gratified my first wish," then said Mandricardo. "The second still remains. Come on, let us prove whether thy valor is equal to thy good looks!"
Roland looked with surprise at the Tartar; for although he examined on both sides, and even in the pommel of his saddle, he could see about him neither sword nor mace.
"You have no sword," said he courteously. "How will you save yourself if your lance should fail?"
"Know thou," said the Tartar proudly, "that I am Mandricardo, and that I bear the arms which great Hector bore a thousand years ago. To them there is nothing lacking save the sword Durandal, which I am told one Roland of France carries. And I have vowed that never shall mace or falchion be wielded by my hand until I win that doughty blade, and avenge my father Agrican, whom that same Roland treacherously slew."
"Not so!" cried Roland, growing angry. "Thou liest! Never slew I any man treacherously. I am Roland, and this blade is Durandal, the sword thou seekest. Win it, and thou shalt have it. See, I hang it on this tree, and he who conquers in this combat shall have it."
So saying, he hung the sword on the limb of a sapling close to the highway; and the two knights, turning their horses, rode off the distance of a bow-shot from each other. Then, wheeling suddenly, they plied their spurs, and rushed together with a shock like that of an earthquake. The lances of both were shivered into a thousand pieces, only the staff-ends being left in their hands. With these club-like fragments they then engaged, beating each other most mercilessly over shoulders and head. Soon these weapons, too, were splintered, and the combatants were without arms. They would have fought with their fists; but wherefore, when he who strikes suffers more than he who is smitten? As a last resort, they grappled with each other; and the Tartar chief strained Roland to his bosom as if he would squeeze the breath from his body. In his earnest fury he thoughtlessly dropped the rein of his horse's bridle. Roland, sitting firm in his saddle, saw his opportunity, and quickly slipped the bridle from the horse's head. The steed, frightened, and feeling himself free, started off with a bound: little recking whether his road were smooth or rough, he galloped swiftly away over fields, and through the woodland, carrying his unwilling master with him.
Roland waited a long time for the Tartar's return, and finally bethought him that he would follow and overtake him. So he bade Zerbino and Isabella a heartfelt godspeed on their way to Paris, and set out in search of his enemy. For three days he sought him, but all in vain: he could find no traces of either the Tartar or his horse. On the fourth day he gave up the venture, and turned his face once more toward Paris and the court of Charlemagne, from which he had been long time absent.