The King's Guest
IT was a great day in Sutri. Never since the old Roman
days had so brilliant a company of warriors and noble
men been seen in that quiet town. In the governor's
castle the king and the peers of the realm were being
entertained and feasted. The chambers and halls and
courts were full of knights and squires; and every one
talked of the noble order of chivalry, and of war, and
of arms and armor, and of the king's progress on the
morrow to Rome. In the broad feast hall, Charlemagne
and his peers were dining. On the dais, by the side of
the king, sat Count Rainier, the governor of Sutri.
Around them stood many of the noblest knights,
attentive to their slightest wishes. Next below the
king sat Turpin, the warrior bishop, clad
Mirth and revelry ruled the hour; and the long, low hall rang with the sound of the harp and the flute and the glad voices of the singers. The great oaken table groaned beneath its weight of good cheer. The lordly Count Rainier had provided for this feast every thing that was pleasant to the taste, or that could add zest to the appetite. The richest meats and the rarest fruits, sparkling wine and foaming ale, the whitest bread and the most tempting sweetmeats—all were offered in generous profusion as if on purpose to make the knights forgetful of their vows of temperance. In the courtyard, around the open door, stood numbers of the poor people of the town, listening to the music, and waiting for the morsels that would be left after the feast. Suddenly a young boy, ragged and barefooted, appeared among them. All stood aside for him, as, with proud step and flashing eyes, he entered the great hall. With the air of a lord he pushed his way through the crowd of attendant knights and squires, and walked boldly up to the table. Then, without saying a word, he seized upon a basket of rare fruit and a loaf of bread that had been placed before the king.
"Indeed," said Charlemagne, "that is a bold boy. He will make a brave knight."
But those who stood around were so awed by the lad's proud bearing and by the strange flash of his eyes, that they dared not touch him; nor did they think of placing any hinderance in his way until he had seized the golden wine-cup which Charlemagne was on the point of lifting to his lips.
"Stop!" cried the king. "How dare you be so rude?"
But Roland held fast to his prize; and, fearless as a young eagle, he gazed into the face of the king. Charlemagne tried hard to appear angry; but, in spite of himself, a pleasant smile played upon his face, and his eyes twinkled merrily.
"My boy," said he, "the forest is a fitter place than this banquet hall for such as you. You would do better picking nuts from the trees than snatching dishes from the king's table; and the wine which you have taken from my hand is not nearly so good for you as the water in the flowing brook."
"The peasant drinks from the brook," answered Roland proudly; "the slave gathers nuts in the forest. But to my mother belong the best things that your table affords. The choicest game, the rarest fish, the reddest wine, are hers."
"Ha!" cried the king. "Your mother must indeed be a noble lady! And I suppose you will tell me that she lives in a lordly castle, with scores of brave knights and gentle dames about her, and that she sits daily in her great feast hall at a table loaded with every delicacy. How many servants has she? Who is her carver? and who is her cup-bearer? Come, tell us all about it."
"My right hand is her carver," answered Roland; "and my left hand is her cup-bearer."
"And has she soldiers and watchmen and minstrels, this wonderful mother of yours?"
"Indeed she has. These two arms are her soldiers; these eyes are her watchmen; these lips are her minstrels."
"That is a numerous household and a worthy one," answered the king, now very much amused. "But your good mother has strange taste in the matter of livery for her servants. I see they are all bareheaded and barefooted; and their clothing, what there is of it, is made of all the colors of the rainbow. How came she to furnish you with a robe so rich and rare?"
"My robe is of my own furnishing," answered Roland. "Eight boys in the town do me homage; and they pay me tribute in cloth, each a different color. And now, my lord, since you have learned all about my mother and her household, will you not visit her in her castle?"
Before the king could answer, the boy had turned on his heel, and, with the basket of food and the cup of wine in his hands, he fearlessly walked out of the hall. Charlemagne was surprised at the boldness of the lad, and delighted with his witty answers.
"Let him go," said he. "A braver lad I have never seen; and he well deserves his prize. He will yet become the noblest knight in Christendom."
Then, turning to Duke Namon, he whispered, "Saw you that strange flash in his eye? Was there ever a fairer countenance, or a more king-like form? Tell me truly, did he not remind you of some one you have seen elsewhere?"
"He did, my lord," answered Namon. "He reminded me of your worthy father, the great Pepin. He has the same noble features, the same broad brow, the same clear gray eyes flashing with a strange light. He reminded me, too, of yourself. Had he been clothed in garb befitting a prince, I should have imagined that I saw you again as you appeared when a boy. But he reminded me most of your lost sister, the fair Princess Bertha. The same gentleness of manner, the same proud carriage of the head, the same curl of lip,—qualities that we once admired so much in the Lady Bertha,—may all be seen in this wonderful boy."
"I dreamed last night," said the king, "that my darling sister came to me, leading just such a boy as this. And I thought that he grew tall and strong, and that the whole world looked up to him as a pattern of knightly valor and courtesy, and that he carried my whole kingdom upon his shoulders. Now this boy is no common lad; and the mother of whom he speaks can be no common beggar. My heart tells me that she is the long-lost, long-forgiven Bertha."
"Your heart speaks rightly," answered Namon. "The son of no other lady could bear so perfect a likeness to the Pepins. I am sure that we have found her at last."
Then Charlemagne turned to the dwarf Malagis. "What say you, sir wizard?" he asked. "You have the gift of foresight, and you can read that which lies hidden to the eyes of others. What think you of a boy who comes thus boldly to our table, and levies mail from us as if it were his right?"
The dwarf twisted and writhed about in his seat: he smiled, as only wizards can smile, and then he humbly but wisely answered,—
"My lord, the lad is no beggar. The blood of heroes flows in his veins. Kings are his kinsmen. Great deeds await his coming into manhood. Harm him not, but have him sought out, and brought again before you. I have read in the stars that somehow the woof of your life is strangely interwoven with that of a lad like this."
Charlemagne at once ordered a dozen squires to follow the boy secretly to find where he dwelt, and then, without harming him, to bring both him and his mother to the castle. And then the feasting, which had been so strangely broken off, was begun again. And the wassail bowl went round, and many a weak-souled knight forgot his solemn vows of temperance; and the old hall again resounded with music and with uproarious mirth; and the boy Roland was for a time forgotten.
Very anxiously did the fair Bertha in the lonely hermit cell await the return of her son that day. He had left her in the morning, determined to make himself known to Charlemagne, and to demand the forgiveness of his mother, and her re-instatement in the king's palace. He had promised to be back very soon, with a palfrey for his mother to ride upon, and a company of knights and squires to escort her to the castle. But hour after hour had passed by; and it was now high noon, and still the boy did not come. Could it be possible that he had been too rash, and had been imprisoned, or otherwise severely punished, for his boldness? Another hour went by; and Bertha was about to despair of his return, when Roland suddenly appeared around the foot of the hill, carrying on his left arm a basket of food and in his right hand a golden goblet of wine.
"Mother," he cried, as he set his burden down in the doorway of the grotto,—"mother, I have brought you some share of the feast. You shall not starve while your brother, who is no better than you, eats and drinks and has such plenty of other luxuries that he knows not what to do with them."
Then he placed before her the bread and the wine, and a delicately baked fowl, and the rare fruits; and, while she ate, he told her all that had happened to him since he had left her in the morning. He had waited a long time about the palace doors, trying in vain to be allowed to see the king. The guards said that he was sleeping, and would not be disturbed. If he could only have found his friend Oliver, all would have been well. But the page was nowhere to be seen; and a squire whom he asked said that he had gone that morning, with a company of knights and dames, to Rome, and that it would be long ere he returned again to Sutri. At length, by the merest chance, he had peeped in through the open door of the banquet hall, and had seen the king himself seated at the table.
"I could not bear," he said, "to see so great plenty of all that was good, and to hear the mirth of the greedy revellers, and know that you were here in this wretched cave without a morsel of food. I walked right in and took the best, nor did I regard that I was robbing the king. He talked to me, and seemed not a bit angry; and I feel sure that he will send for me to come again before him, and then I will tell him all."
"Ah, Roland," said the Lady Bertha doubtfully, "you do not know your kingly uncle. He is hot-tempered and violent; and he may yet punish you for your rashness, and listen to no word of explanation or excuse. Many an innocent man has suffered from his unreasoning anger."
"I am not afraid," answered the boy. "He was altogether
too jolly to be angry. And I expect, ere this time
He had scarcely spoken these words, when the squires who had been sent in search of him came around the foot of the hill, and halted only a few yards from the entrance to the grotto. Some were on foot, some on horseback; and all were armed with sticks, and more or less under the influence of the strong ale which they had drunk at the banquet. As soon as they saw Roland, they called out loudly to him, ordering him to surrender himself as their prisoner.
"Come along at once, my little one," cried the leader. "The king wants you for robbing his table."
Had the squires approached Roland in a respectful manner, he would have gone with them gladly. But their insolence maddened him.
"Tell the king," he answered, "that I am holding high
court at home
"But you must come with us," cried the squires. "You, and your mother the beggar woman, must come with us to Sutri, and lose no time."
"Beggar woman, indeed!" cried Roland, overflowing with rage. "How dare you speak thus of the sister of Charlemagne! Go back to the king, and tell him that his nephew is not wont to do the bidding of squires and churls. Tell him that only by the worthiest of his peers will my mother and I be taken into his presence."
At this boastful speech of one whom they looked upon as only a beggar, the squires laughed heartily; and one or two of them shook their sticks in a threatening manner, and made as if they would seize upon the boy. Roland ran quickly into the grotto, and soon came out again, bearing the long, broken lance in his hands. But it was a heavy weapon, and, as he found it, an unwieldy one. The squires closed in upon him from every side; and, as the great length of the lance prevented him from turning it quickly enough to guard himself at all points, he was obliged to drop it to the ground. In its stead, he seized a stout light club that lay in his way, and then, taking his stand in the doorway, he dared his assailants to come within his reach.
"You shall see," said he, "whether I cannot defend my mother's castle."
The squires, astonished at the quickness and the pluck of the boy, fell back, and began trying to persuade him to go with them peaceably. But Roland stood warily in the doorway of his castle, and answered them only by swinging his club in the faces of the nearest, and by withering glance of defiance. It is uncertain how long this strange scene would have lasted, or how it would have ended, had it not been unexpectedly interrupted. A knight, unarmed, and mounted on a coal-black steed, rode suddenly around the hill, and reined up in the midst of the excited crowd. His long hair and flowing beard were white with age, and his pleasant face beamed with kindliness, and was lighted up with lines of far-seeing wisdom.
"Ha, my brave men!" he cried in tones of merriment. "What have we here? Twelve gallant squires in combat with a single boy! And the boy holds his castle against them all. Surely this is chivalry! What does it all mean?"
"It means," answered Roland, "that these fellows want to take me by force to the king at Sutri, and they have insulted me and my mother. Were they knights, or even gentlemen, I would go with them; but they are neither. They are mere churls and hangers-on about the governor's court, and they know nought of honor and knightly courtesy. It will be long ere they are worthy to wear the golden spurs."
The knight was amused at the boy's earnestness; and he said, "I cannot blame you for refusing to be taken by them. Yet I know that the king wishes very much to see you and your good mother, and he has sent me to hasten your coming. I am Namon, Duke of Bavaria, and I am sometimes known as one of Charlemagne's peers. Perhaps you will be willing to go with me if I send these squires away."
Roland, without a word of dissent, dropped his club to the ground, and promised to go with the good knight at once if he would only find some means by which his mother might be helped to reach Sutri castle without the fatigue of walking so far. Duke Namon dismounted from his steed, and, having sent the squires away, went with Roland into the little cavern. There he was welcomed heartily by the Lady Bertha, who remembered him as a firm, kind friend in former days, when both were inmates of Charlemagne's palace at Aix. And the fair lady and the noble knight talked long together of things that had happened since then in France,—of the gallant deeds of her brother the king, and of his many triumphs at home and abroad; of the death of the gallant Milon, and of the long years of wretchedness and want that had since dragged by. And the knight told her how Charlemagne had sought in every land for her, and had sent messengers beyond the sea to inquire for her, in order that he might grant her his forgiveness, and make some amends for his former harshness. But all in vain. The messengers had brought back word that Milon was dead, but they could find no traces of his noble wife; and Charlemagne mourned her as lost. And then Namon told her of Roland's strange, daring deed in the feast hall at Sutri castle that day, and of the thoughts that he and the king had had about the boy; and lastly he spoke of the king's desire that she should appear at once before him, and, if she were indeed the lost Princess Bertha, she should be restored to her old place in his court and in his affections.
And towards evening the noble duke, with the Lady Bertha mounted behind him on a pillion, rode gayly over the fields to Sutri; while Roland, proud and happy, and carrying his father's broken lance on his shoulder, followed them on foot. Glad, indeed, was the greeting with which the king welcomed his sister; but not a word could the fair Bertha speak, so overwhelmed was she with gratitude. Roland, still wearing his livery of many-colored rags, but holding himself erect and haughty as a prince, raised his wondrous gray eyes until they met Charlemagne's gaze.
"Sister," said the king, "for this boy's sake, if for nought else, all shall be forgiven. Let the past be forgotten in the joy of the present hour."
"Dear brother," said fair Bertha, "your kindness shall not go unrewarded. Roland will not disappoint you. He will grow up to be, next to you, the pattern of all heroes and the type of all manly virtues."
And the next day a great feast was held in the banquet hall of Count Rainier's castle, in honor of the fair princess and her gallant little son. And not only the bravest warriors in Charlmagne's service, but also many noble ladies and many knights from Rome and the country round about, sat down with the king at the festal board. And this time Roland was not an uninvited guest; but he sat in the place of honor at the king's right hand, while squires and servitors waited his call, and hastened to do his bidding. And Charlemagne rested two days longer at Sutri before proceeding on his march; and then he sent his sister, the princess, with a guard of trustworthy knights, back to France and to the pleasant palace and halls of Aix. But Roland was made a page in the service of good Duke Namon; and, when the grand army moved on again towards Rome, he bade good-by to his humble friends in Sutri, and made ready to go too. No happier, prouder heart beat in Italy that day than Roland's. Dresed in a rich gown of green velvet bordered with crimson and gold, and mounted on a white palfrey most handsomely harnessed, he seemed not like the barefooted beggar to whom the boys of Sutri had been wont to do homage. But it needed not that one should look closely to recognize that same noble form, those wonderful gray eyes, that proud but kind-like face. And he rode not with the rout of squires and soldiers and hangers-on who brought up the rear of the army, but by the side of Duke Namon, and in company with the bravest knights and the peers of the realm.
All along the road the people of the towns, the castles, and the countryside, crowded to see the conquering hero; and they welcomed him with shouts and glad songs as the guardian of Italy and the champion of all Christendom. Three miles this side of Rome all the noblest men of the city came out, with music playing and banners waving, to escort the grand army through the gates. At a mile from the walls the children of the schools met them, bearing palm leaves and olive branches in their hands, and strewing flowers in the way, and singing hymns in honor of the hero king. Charlemagne had laid aside his arms and his armor; and, dressed in his kingly robes, he rode by the side of the good Archbishop Turpin. His mantle was wrought of the finest purple, bordered with gold and ermine; upon his feet were sandals sparkling with priceless gems; upon his head was a coronet of pearls and flashing jewels. His horse was harnessed in the most goodly fashion, with trappings of purple damask bordered with ermine and white cloth-of-gold.
At the gate of the city the procession was met by a company of priests and monks bearing the standard of the cross, which was never taken out save on the most solemn and magnificent occasions. When Charlemagne saw the cross, he and his peers alighted from their horses, and went humbly on foot to the steps of St. Peter's Church. There he was met by the Pope, the bishops, and a great retinue of priests and monks, dressed in their richest vestments, who welcomed him to Rome, and blessed him. And on every side, in the streets and in the church, loud shouts rent the air, and the people joined in singing the chant, "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord."
The boy Roland, having never seen such grandeur, was filled with wonder and astonishment. "Surely," said he, "this is the happy vale of paradise, of which my mother has so often told me, where every Christian knight hopes one day to find a home."
"It is not that vale," answered good Duke Namon; "but it is the beginning of the road which leads thither."
Not many days did Charlemagne remain at Rome. Messengers came to him from France, who said that the Saxons and other Pagan folk had crossed the Rhine, and were carrying fire and sword into the fairest portions of the land; and they begged him to hasten his return to his own country, that he might protect his people from the ravages of their barbarous foes. So, having received the homage and the blessing of the Pope, and having been crowned with the iron crown of the Lombards, he marshalled all his forces, and set out on his journey back to France. And late that same autumn, Roland saw for the first time the noble city of Aix, and was formally installed as page in Duke Namon's household.