Knighted on the Battlefield
SCARCELY had the army rested from the fatigues of the march across the Alps, when messengers came the third time from the pope, praying Charlemagne to hasten his coming. "The heathen triumph! The Christians are put to the sword! The Holy Father charges thee as the champion of Christendom to come quickly to his aid!" At once the camp at Aosta was broken up, and the great host advanced by hasty marches on towards Rome. And Roland and Ogier the Dane rode side by side, and lamented that they were not yet armed knights, and could not take any active part in the battle which was soon to be fought.
"I have not long to live," said Ogier; "and the heaviest thought that weighs upon my mind is, that I shall die without having distinguished myself in arms, and without having done aught for the glory of the king or the honor of knighthood."
"It shall not be," answered Roland. "You shall not die thus early and thus shamefully. I will again intercede with my uncle the king, and I will save you. And ere many years we both shall be knights, armed and belted and spurred, brothers-in-arms and peers of the king, worthy to do our part in battle with the unbelievers, and in all honorable undertakings."
The French arrived at Sutri. Roland saw with pleasure the familiar haunts of his boyhood. He pointed out to Ogier the rocky cleft on the hilltop, where, years before, he had watched for the coming of Charlemagne's host. And, when the old castle came in view, many memories, pleasant and painful, rushed into his mind. Oliver's father, Count Rainier, had long ago removed to Genoa, and the place was now held by strangers; nor did Roland see a single face in the town that he remembered as having known in the days of his childhood.
A short distance beyond Sutri, they met the Pagan host who had come out of Rome to give them battle. Charlemagne decided to attack them at once. Duke Namon, as the worthiest of the peers, led the vanguard of the French; but Roland and Ogier staid in the rear with the other squires, much grieving that it was not allowed them to bear arms, and that they could take only the part of lookers-on in this great contest. The golden standard of the king, the sacred Oriflamme, was carried by one Alory, who claimed it as the right of an Italian; he being a native of Apulia.
Roland and Ogier climbed a hill in order the better to view the fight. Duke Namon, with the bravest knights of France and their Italian allies, followed the standard to the attack. At the first assault the Pagans were worsted: they seemed to fall back in confusion, and Duke Namon pressed upon them right valiantly. Then the foe rallied again; they stood stubbornly; they rushed savagely upon the bearers of the golden standard. Alory and his cowardly companions from Lombardy were frightened: they had not the fearless hearts which are born of Northern blood. They turned, and fled for their lives. Full of joy now were the Pagans to see the Oriflamme in flight: full of shame and bewilderment were the French. In vain did Duke Namon strive to turn the tide: he was hemmed in by giant foes on every side. He fought manfully, but against such odds, that he was soon taken prisoner. Many other knights, the bravest among the French, were overpowered. Charlemagne himself was hard beset. His lance failed him, he was unhorsed; and yet most valiantly did he defend himself.
Roland and the Dane could no longer hold themselves aloof. They saw Alory and his coward Lombards coming up the hill in shameful flight. They called the squires around them, and urged them to rally to the fray like heroes.
"But how shall we fight without arms?" asked the faint-hearted.
"Fight with whatever comes to hand!" cried Roland. "A sharpened stake wielded by a brave man is better than a lance in the hands of a coward. Let us die here for the king and for France rather than turn our backs to the foe."
Alory and his Lombards were now very near.
"Believe me," cried Ogier, "if God have part or parcel in this day's work, these cowards shall take hence neither horse nor arms!"
"Shame be on any that shall fail thee!" answered the squires.
As Alory rode up, they seized his horse by the bits: they stopped him in his shameful flight.
"Have you lost the day?" asked Ogier.
"Where is the king?" asked Roland. "Where is Duke Namon? How have you left the French?"
"The king is taken," answered Alory. "The infidels hold the field. The French are slain."
"Thou liest!" cried the squires. "Had ye not failed in battle, all would have been well."
Without another word, Ogier felled Alory with a blow of his fist, for arms had he none. The other squires followed his example, and dragged the craven Lombards from their saddles. They despoiled them of their armor, they seized their arms, and mounted their steeds. Ogier took the golden standard in his hands; the golden cords fluttered around his wrists; the charger which he bestrode champed the bit, impatient to return to the field.
"Follow me, ye who are not cowards!" he cried.
The squires hastily formed in ranks, ready for the onset. He who could find no lance was content with a sharpened stake, with the splintered branch of an apple tree or an ash. Very eager was every one for the fray. They tore their clothing into shreds with which to make pennons: they cared little for shields or war coats.
By this time Charlemagne had freed himself from the Pagans who beset him, and had again mounted his war horse. Only a hundred knights were left with him now: all the others had been slain, or taken prisoners, or had sought safety in flight. But the king would not leave the field. The Pagans were already gloating over their victory. They were thinking of the day when they should see the Christian knights eaten by lions in the arena at Rome: they did not dream of any danger. Suddenly Ogier and Roland and the troop of squires swept down upon them like a whirlwind upon a field of growing corn. Never were Pagan folk so taken by surprise. Roland attacked the chief who held Duke Namon prisoner: he split his shield in twain, and burst his coat-of-mail asunder. The French knights were all set free. The squires hastily donned the armor of the slain Saracens, and followed in swift pursuit their panic-stricken foes. Never was rout more unexpected or more complete.
In the mean while Charlemagne, seeing the flight of the enemy, stopped not to learn the cause, but followed recklessly in their wake. His hauberk was broken, and his shield was pierced with many lance-thrusts; but his good sword Joyeuse was in his hand, a very terror to his foes. He sees Corsuble, the Saracen king, flying over the plain, and, unmindful of danger, he gives pursuit. A moment more, and Corsuble's head will roll in the sand. But no! Two Pagan knights, very giants in stature, rush to the rescue. Charlemagne's horse is slain beneath him, and he himself is stretched helpless upon the ground. And now the Saracens, content with having rescued their own chief, and anxious to save themselves, would have ridden onward, had not the golden eagle on Charlemagne's casque betrayed his rank. They hesitated. It would never do, they thought, to leave the deed but half done. Hastily they dismounted to give the fallen king his death-blow. Never had his life been in so great peril. But Ogier had seen him fall, and he rushed with the speed of a falcon to his aid. The golden standard which the young squire held in his hands hindered him from drawing his sword; and one would have thought him but a poor match for the two well-armed Saracens. But he came so swiftly, that he was upon them ere they were aware. One of them was ridden down by his horse, and rolled ingloriously in the sand: the other received such a stunning blow with the staff of the Oriflamme, that he fell senseless to the ground. Then Ogier helped the king to disentangle himself from his fallen steed, and saw him safely mounted on the horse of one of the Saracens.
"Ah, Alory, thou brave knight!" said Charlemagne, not recognizing the squire in disguise, "I have blamed thee wrongfully. I thought that I saw thee flying disgracefully from the field. But I was wrong, and thou shalt be rewarded for thy bravery."
Ogier said not a word, but, giving spurs to his steed, he rode onward in eager pursuit of the flying foe.
Complete was the defeat of the Saracens: in great haste and fear they retreated to Rome, and left the French the masters of the field. Then Charlemagne blew his bugle, and called around him his peers and the knights whom the battle had spared. And the good Turpin laid aside his helmet and his sword, and putting his mitre on his head, and holding a crosier in his hand, he sang the solemn "Te Deum Laudamus;" and all the mighty host joined in praising God. While they were yet singing, Ogier the Dane came humbly forward, and laid the Oriflamme, all torn, and covered with dust, at Charlemagne's feet. And with him came Roland and the other squires, walking awkwardly in their misfit armor; and all knelt reverently before the king. And Charlemagne spoke kindly to them, and again thanked Ogier for his bravery, again calling him Alory. And the archbishop held his hands above them, and blessed them. Then young Roland, bursting with impatience, threw off his helmet and Ogier's; and the other squires laid aside their armor. Great was the astonishment of the king and his knights when they learned that the day had been won, and their own lives and honor saved, through the valor of mere squires. And the king folded Ogier in his arms, and thanked Heaven that he had not hanged him last Easter. And Duke Namon, with tears of joy in his eyes, embraced both the young men, and called down the choicest blessings on their heads for the honor which they had done him by that day's gallant deeds and the signal service which they had rendered the cause of Christendom.
Then, turning to Charlemagne, he asked, "What is to hinder, my lord, from investing these young men with the honors of knighthood?"
"They richly deserve it," answered the king. "Let us make ready at once for the ceremonies. Such valor must not long be unrewarded."
Great was the rejoicing now among the French; for all the knights knew Roland and Ogier, and loved them. Only two—Ganelon of Mayence, and Charlot the son of the king, their hearts burning with jealousy and unreasoning hate—stood aside, and would not join in the general gratulations. When every thing was in readiness, the young men again knelt before the king. The good archbishop, after a solemn service, spoke briefly of the duties of the knight, and warned them of the difficulties and temptations in their way. Then, taking the swords which had been prepared for them, he blessed them, and laid them upon the rude altar which had been hastily built for the occasion. When this had been done, the king stepped forward, sword in hand, and, smiting each of them three times upon the shoulder, he said, "In the name of God and St. Michael I dub thee knight: be valiant, loyal, and true!" Then the peers who stood about arrayed them in the knightly garb which had been brought for them. Duke Namon, who had been the guardian and most faithful friend of both Roland and Ogier, laced their golden spurs upon their ankles. Turpin blessed their white armor, and invested each in his coat of mail. Duke Richard of Normandy buckled on their breastplates; and Guy of Bourgogne presented them the arm-pieces and the gauntlets. Then came Charlemagne with the swords which he had taken from the altar. To Ogier he gave a plain steel blade bearing the inscription, WEAR ME UNTIL YOU FIND A BETTER. But to his nephew Roland he gave a wondrous weapon with jewelled hilt, and a fire-edge gleaming like the lightning's glare. And Roland, as he took it, read these words, engraved with many a fair device upon the blade, I AM DURANDAL, WHICH TROJAN HECTOR WORE.
The oath of chivalry was now taken by the new-made knights. Each swore that he would be faithful to God, and loyal to the king; that he would reverence all women; that he would ever be mindful of the poor and the helpless; that he would never engage in an unrighteous war; that he would never seek to exalt himself to the injury of others; that he would speak the truth, and love mercy, and deal justly with all men. And Charlemagne blessed them, and promised to love them as his sons; and they, in turn, vowed to love and honor him as their father in knighthood. And then, having donned their helmets, they mounted their steeds, which stood in readiness, and rode away full-made knights.
The next morning, as Charlemagne rested in his tent, he bethought him of the shameful conduct of Alory.
"Where now," said he, "is the cowardly Apulian who so nearly ruined our cause yesterday?"
"My lord," answered Duke Namon, "he was sorely bruised by the blow with which the Dane hurled him from his saddle. This, together with fear and shame, has made him hide himself from the sight of all true knights."
"Let him be found," said the king, "and let meet punishment be awarded him for his treason and his cowardice."
Not long afterward Alory, having been dragged from his hiding-place, was brought into the presence of the king. When asked to plead his excuse for his craven conduct, he was dumb: he could say nothing in his own defence. Then the peers adjudged him disherited, and forbade him ever again to show his face in the king's court, or ever again to mingle in the company of true knights. But Roland and Ogier, when they heard the sentence, begged leave to speak in his favor.
"It is not the part of a freeman," said they, "to take pains to forjudge his peer; nor should he deal harshly or unmercifully with another's weaknesses. If all who flee from battle were disherited, greatly thinned would be our ranks. If a man has been gifted with the heart of a hare, he cannot exchange it for that of a lion. Lombards know not how to carry the Oriflamme of France, neither have they business to meddle with great battles. We pray that Alory be forgiven, and that he be not intrusted again with duties too great for him."
Well pleased were the peers with these sensible words of the new-made knights; and they freely forgave the craven-hearted Apulian, not for his own sake, but for the sake of Roland and Ogier the Dane.