How Roland Fell into Prison
IT was indeed high time that Roland should hasten his return to France; for Charlemagne, hard pressed by foes on every side, was in sore need of help. From every Saracen land, fierce hordes of Pagans came pouring into France, and threatening to overrun the whole of Christendom. Sacripant, the Circassian king, with ten thousand picked warriors from Persia and India, had landed on the southern coast, vowing that he would not return to his own country until he had overcome Charlemagne in battle and made France his own. Marsilius of Spain had again crossed the Pyrenees with his Moorish chivalry, and had hastened to join his forces with those of Sacripant. Agramont, the king of Africa, with a great fleet of ships, was coming over the sea; and Rodomont, the most renowned of all the Algerian chiefs, had landed near Marseilles. Unless help should come soon, it seemed as if all France would fall into the hands of the Pagans. Charlemagne hastily gathered his hosts together, and marched to meet the foe. With him were many of his bravest knights,—Duke Namon, and Ganelon, and Oliver, and Ogier the Dane, and Richard of Normandy. But Reinold of Montalban was in England, and Roland had not yet returned from his embassy to the Irish king.
Christians and Saracens met face to face in a wooded valley between two mountains, and both sides began to make ready for battle; but the unbelievers outnumbered the Christians two to one.
"If Roland were only here," said the French among themselves, "all would go well with us. His presence would be worth more than a thousand men."
Just as the fray was about to begin, a fair lady was brought as a prisoner before King Charlemagne. It was Angelica, the Princess of Cathay. What mishap had again forced her to leave her native land, and placed her at this moment in the power of the Christian king? Some said that she was a witch, and that she had come hither to ply her magic arts for the destruction of the Christian host? Others whispered that she had followed Roland from the Far East, and that she bore in her heart great love for that matchless hero. But the truth of the matter is, that a scheming thief had stolen her magic ring, and carried it to Africa or to Spain; and it was in search of this wonderful talisman that she had come again to the West. The king commanded that the maiden should be closely guarded until after the battle; and he said that then he would find out the measure of her faults, and decide what punishment should be hers.
The battle began. Many were the deeds of valor on both sides, and never before had the peers of France fought so bravely. But to the Saracens the victory seemed, from the beginning, to be assured. Oliver was unhorsed; Ogier was sorely beset by numbers of Moorish knights; Duke Namon was taken prisoner. Ganelon, the traitor and coward, giving up all for lost, turned, and fled ingloriously from the field. The king himself was wounded, and with great difficulty saved himself from capture. The Pagans were everywhere the masters.
"If Roland or Reinold had been here, it would not have been so," sadly said the defeated knights as they unwillingly withdrew from the fight.
When the squires who had been left behind to guard the Princess Angelica learned that the day was lost, they mounted their horses, and fled in great disorder from the scene of battle. The maiden, finding herself free, also mounted a palfrey, and rode aimlessly away.
As Angelica wandered onward through the wood, trembling at every sound, and fearing to be overtaken by either Christian or Moor, she came at length to the bank of a deep and rapid-flowing river. Anxiously she rode up and down, seeking to find some shallow ford, or other means of crossing. While doing this, she was startled by seeing in the middle of the stream a tall knight, dark-browed and fierce, wading about as if in search of something lost in the water. The knight's head was bare, and she rightly guessed that it was his helmet which he sought in the rushing river. She had seen that cruel, brutish face once before. What if he should see her, and make her his prisoner? She stopped not a moment, but turned her palfrey about, and again sought safety in the leafy shadows of the wood.
It was the Moorish prince Ferrau, whom Angelica had seen wading in the stream. He had paused in his fierce pursuit of the vanquished Christians to quench his thirst from the river. As he bent over, his helmet—the very one that he had stolen from the murdered Argalia of Cathay—slipped from his head, and fell into the water. Vainly did he seek for it. Vainly did he wade up and down, and dive beneath the surface, groping with hands and feet upon the slippery bottom. From an overhanging tree he broke a forked branch, and with it raked and dredged with fruitless care the river from shore to shore. No helmet could he find. He was about to give up the search, when a strange figure seemed to rise up in the water before him. The fierce Moor had never known such thing as fear. In the dreadful din of battle, with death before him and threatening foes on every side, he had never shrunk from danger. But now, at sight of that mysterious figure, he trembled in every limb, and the hair on his uncovered head stood out like the bristles of a porcupine. Never was knight so utterly horrified. It was a dim white figure that rose up silently before the Moor, like the light mist which sometimes hangs over river and meadow in the early morning twilight. But its shape was that of a man,—of a warrior in white armor, his head uncovered, his face beaming in the uncertain light of evening, his right arm uplifted as if to threaten or to warn. To Ferrau this ghostly shape was none other than the spirit of Argalia, the Prince of Cathay, whom he had foully slain in the wood of Ardennes. He tried to fly from the spot; but his feet were rooted to the ground, and the cold waters of the river seemed to hem him in, and hold him there. Then he saw that the figure held in its left hand the helmet which he had been seeking,—Argalia's helmet,—dripping with water, and glittering brightly in the light of the rising moon.
"Foul traitor!" said the ghost, "this helmet is none of thine, and nevermore shall it incase thy brutish head. If helmet thou wouldst have, go win it! Win Reinold's, or the matchless Roland's. Argalia will have his own."
Then the figure slowly melted away in the moonlight. And Ferrau found himself standing on the shore, his teeth chattering from terror, and his limbs numb with cold. It might have been merely a horrid dream,—this vision of the slain Argalia,—yet the fierce Ferrau did not think so. He verily believed that he had seen a ghost. And as he mounted his steed, and rode away from the scene of his fright, he vowed that nevermore should helmet touch his head until he had won, by fair means or by foul, the matchless casque of Roland.
In the mean while Roland, returning from Ireland, was riding leisurely toward Paris. He had not yet heard of the Saracen invasion, and he knew not how greatly his presence was needed in the South. But messengers from Charlemagne met him on the road, and told him how the Saracens had landed on the southern coasts, and how, in the late battle, the French had been sorely defeated. "My warriors are altogether disheartened," was the word they brought from Charlemagne. "They will not fight unless Roland leads them against the foe."
So Roland hurried forward with all haste to join the king. He stopped but an hour at Paris to see his mother, the Princess Bertha, and then, without further delay, he gave spur to Brigliadoro, and rode straight onward toward the Pyrenees. Not once during the day did he leave his saddle; and at night, whether he reposed in the castle of some friendly baron, or whether he lay down to sleep in some lonely wood, he never removed his armor. And the good people along his route came out and blessed him. "Now will the arms of Charlemagne prevail," said they; "for Roland rides to the rescue." And many who through fear had fled from their homes took fresh heart when they saw the gallant hero; and they turned back again, resolved to fight bravely for their country so long as their lives were spared.
One day, as Roland was crossing a plain at the foot of a range of mountains, an unexpected sight met his view. High up on the top of a steep mountain crag, seemingly among the clouds, he saw a beautiful and strangely built castle. The battlements and towers gleamed in the sunlight like burnished steel, and it seemed hardly possible that any creature without wings could scale the steep heights upon which the airy fortress was built. As our hero paused, and admired the strange structure, and wondered by what pathway it might be reached, he fancied that he heard a cry of distress near at hand. He spurred his horse forward toward the place whence the sound came, and was surprised to see an armed knight riding leisurely across the plain in the direction of the castle. Before him, lying across the pommel of the saddle, the knight held a captive maiden, who struggled and wept, and called out loudly for help. The cries of helpless innocence never fell in vain on Roland's ears; and, no matter whether they came from the lips of a princess or those of a peasant, he was equally quick and ready to rush to the rescue. He gave spurs to Brigliadoro, and galloped nearer. The maiden was very beautiful; and the rich clothing and the jewels which she wore showed that she was a lady of no mean birth. He fancied that she looked strangely like Angelica, the Princess of Cathay. He called to the felon knight who carried her, and bade him stop. But the more he called, the faster did the stranger urge onward his steed. Swiftly across the plain flew Brigliadoro in pursuit; but the knight held on his way, and was not to be overtaken.
Up the steep mountain side, along pathways narrow and rough, pursued and pursuer climbed; and, ere he was aware, Roland found himself inside the narrow courtyard of the castle. The place was one of rare richness and beauty, and more like the palaces of the Far East than the warlike fortresses of the Goths and Franks. The walls were built of granite, the yard was paved with marble, the great gate was of gold, and the doors were of steel inlaid with ivory: the towers and battlements were plated with polished steel. A very magician's castle it was, perched on the topmost crag of the mountain, and almost seeming to hang suspended in the air. At the door of the great hall, the knight dismounted; and, leaving Brigliadoro behind, he stalked boldly into the inmost palace, still intent on finding the felon knight, and setting his fair captive free. Through hallway and chamber and spacious kitchen he passed, calling loudly, but receiving no answer save the hollow echoes of his own voice. Then to the upper rooms he climbed, and to every chamber and balcony he went.
Rich and fair were all the appointments in this stronghold. The ceilings were high and bright; the walls were hung with richest curtains, and adorned with finest tapestry; the floors were hidden beneath soft carpets such as were known only in Persia and in the remotest lands of the Saracens; the beds were of the softest down, and curtained with cloth-of-gold and the rarest blue silk. Yet Roland stopped not to admire this richness and beauty. He climbed to the tops of the towers, he went down into the cellars, and even into the dungeons beneath the prison tower; but not a human being did he see or hear. He wondered why a palace so richly furnished should be empty of inhabitants. It angered him to think that those who lived in the castle were doubtless skulking slyly in some secret hiding-place, and watching every movement that he made. He called out again, more loudly than before; he challenged, he threatened: yet no one answered.
At last, finding that the search was a vain one, he went again into the courtyard, and remounted Brigliadoro. He would give up this useless quest, and hasten to continue his journey. What was his surprise and anger to find the great gates closed and barred! Furiously he shook them, calling to the porter to unfasten them and let him go. Still not a man could he see or hear. Finally he again dismounted, and went by another way into the palace. He fancied that he heard the sound of voices. He looked into the banquet room, and there, seated at the table, were a score of armed knights, loudly talking while they feasted. He found upon inquiry that they, like himself, had been entrapped in this strange place; and none of them knew who was lord of the castle, or where he had hidden himself. Yet all had some charge of villany to prefer against their unknown host. One complained that he had stolen his steed; another, that he had treacherously taken his arms; another, that he had imprisoned a near and dear friend, or carried away his lady-love. All were raging with anger and disappointment; and all were equally resolved to punish the offender most unmercifully, should they ever be able to find him.
Among these knights were some of the bravest Saracen chiefs,—fierce Ferrau the Spanish Moor, Sacripant the Circassian king, Gradasso the king of Sericane, and a noble Moorish youth named Roger. But such was the witchery of the magician who had entrapped them in this cage, that these warriors did not know each other, nor did they care to know. They only thought of the vile deception which had led them there, and joined in forming plans to escape. Then, when their anger began to cool, they wisely concluded to make the best of their strange imprisonment, hoping that it would not last long. They amused themselves at quiet games in the hall; they listened to sweet strains of music played by unseen hands; they engaged in manly feats of arms in the narrow courtyard; they sat at table in the banquet hall, and feasted on choice viands brought to them by speechless attendants. Yet they never laid off their armor, nor put aside their arms. And their steeds stood always in the stables, saddled and bridled, and ready, on a moment's notice, to be mounted and ridden away.
Day after day passed by, and, for aught they knew, weeks and months, and the captive knights found no means by which they could break away from their enchanted prison. Nor could they have escaped at all, had not help come to them from without. And now, that we may learn how this help was brought, we must leave them for a while, and visit other scenes, and become acquainted with personages whom we have not yet met.