Roland's Quest in the Far East
THE spring months passed away, and summer opened, inviting heroes forth to manly action, and pious men to pilgrimages. Yet Roland tarried idly at the king's court. Very irksome, though, was this life of idleness and inaction to our hero; and when he looked upon the beaming blade of Durandal, or visited Brigliadoro stamping impatiently in his stall, he longed more than ever to ride out again on errands of knightly valor. But Charlemagne liked not to part even for a day with his favorite nephew. Week after week, under one pretence and another, he persuaded the hero to stay with him at court. And although there were jousts and tournaments and hunting-parties, and much feasting and merriment, and daily lessons in the school of good Alcuin, yet the days seemed to lag, and every thing to run slow, for the lack of more stirring action. By and by the king noticed the growing unrest which filled the mind of Roland, and he said,—
"Dear nephew, this idleness seems little to become one of thy restless nature. Methinks it wears upon thee."
"It does, indeed," answered Roland. "I should be only too glad were some war to break out, or were I sent on some errand of danger, that I might prove my title to knighthood."
"There is not much likelihood of war," said Charlemagne. "But, if there is any deed of knight-errantry thou wouldst fain undertake, thou shalt have leave to do what thou wilt."
Roland could not conceal his pleasure.
"In the fairy gardens of Falerina, in the Far East," said he, "I am told that the arms of the Trojan Hector await the coming of a hero to claim them. I have already the sword, the flaming Durandal, and I would fain have the complete armor. With your leave I will ride forth at once in quest of that fairyland; and, if I win not for myself the arms of the godlike hero, I will thereafter rest content with what I have."
When it became known that Roland was about to ride out as a knight-errant, and when it was told what the object of his quest was to be, all the folk in the king's court tried to dissuade him from the undertaking. No one knew just where the fairyland of Falerina was, for there were no maps or guide-books in those days; but every one knew that there were great difficulties and dangers to be met and overcome before reaching it. There were mountains and seas to be crossed, and forests to be traversed, and monsters to be slain, and wild beasts to be avoided or killed, and a thousand unknown and impossible adventures to be undertaken, before any one could hope to reach that far-away, cloud-covered land. And, if he should be so fortunate as to get there, there were still the weird enchantments of the witches and the fairies to be guarded against, requiring the knowledge of a sorcerer, as well as the strength and skill of a warrior. But Roland was not afraid of dangers and difficulties; and, the more his friends tried to dissuade him on this account, the more determined he was to undertake the quest. Then certain slanderers about the court, among whom was Ganelon of Mayence, whispered that it was the beautiful face of Angelica, rather than the matchless arms of Hector, which was luring Roland to the Far East; and they said that his quest would more likely be in the sunrise land of Cathay than in the fairy gardens of Falerina.
To both the warnings of his friends and the evil speaking of his foes, our hero turned a deaf ear. He ordered Brigliadoro to be saddled; he bade his mother and the gentle Alda and his brother knights good-by; and then, clad in complete armor, with Durandal at his side, he rode away. For many days he travelled straight toward the rising sun, veering now and then to the southward. And he left behind him the broad lands of France, and the fair plains of Lombardy, and the heaven-towering Alps, and the great sea. And in every village or country where he came he was welcomed and kindly entertained as a Christian knight without fear and without reproach. And, when he inquired the way to the Fairyland of Falerina, men pointed toward the east, and shook their heads, and warned him to give up the quest ere it was too late. But he, in no wise disheartened, pressed onward, ever the more intent as the dangers and difficulties seemed greater and nearer.
One day he came to a bridge which spanned a silent, slow-flowing river, and whose farther end was hidden in a dark mist. On the bridge a pretty maiden stood to take toll of all that passed that way. Roland asked her the way to Fairyland.
"It is not far from here," said she; "but the way is beset with many perils. If you will drink this cup of water which I have dipped from the river beneath us, your eyesight will become clearer, and you will be able to see through the mists which hang over Fairyland and hide it from mortal sight."
But the maiden spoke of the Fairyland of Forgetfulness, and not of the gardens of Falerina. Roland thoughtlessly took the cup which she offered him, and drank the water which it held. In a moment he forgot all his past life, all his ambitions and his hopes: he forgot even his friends and himself and the quest upon which he was riding. He remembered nothing whatever. He only knew that beside him was a beautiful maiden, and that beyond the bridge whereon he stood was a fair country full of pleasant sights and sounds, of singing birds, and softly murmuring waterfalls, and gay flowers, and luscious fruits. Farther away he saw a tall castle, with towers and turrets pointing to the sky, and broad battlements, and a high wall surrounded by a deep, wide moat. And, having drunk of the waters of Forgetfulness, he no longer had any will of his own. He suffered the maiden to take him by the hand and to lead him into the halls of the castle. And there, with many other knights who had been entrapped in the same way, he passed days and weeks of pleasurable forgetfulness, content with that which each moment brought him, and having no remembrance of the past, and no thought nor care for the future.
No one knows how long Roland would have staid a prisoner in the castle of Forgetfulness, had it not been for Angelica, the Princess of Cathay. I will tell you how it happened that she came to set him free.
When Angelica returned to her own home, after the death of her brother Argalia, she found that a fierce Tartar chief named Agrican had long been waging war with her father, King Galafron, and had forced him to shut himself up in the walled town of Albracca. Week after week the Tartars besieged Albracca, striving in every way to pass the well-defended walls. But Galafron and his folk held out bravely; and, while they kept their foes a safe distance from their gates, they sent fleet messengers to Sacripant, king of Circassia, praying him to lend them some aid. Sacripant, who had long courted the favor of the Princess Angelica, came with an army of ten thousand men, and gave battle to Agrican outside of the city walls. Fierce was the fight, and great was the loss of life on either side. At last the Circassians cut their way through the ranks of the beleaguering Tartars, and reached the gates, which were opened to receive them. But so closely pressed were they, that, ere the heavy barriers could be closed again, a great part of the Tartar horde, with chief Agrican at their head, had crowded through into the city. Then was there terror and great distress in Albracca, and fierce fighting in every street. Of the ten thousand gallant Circassians whom Sacripant had led to the affray, not half a thousand remained alive. And, in the end, King Galafron, with the remnant of those who had escaped the storm-like fury of the Tartars, was obliged to retire into the citadel, a strong-built castle standing high on a rock in the middle of the town. But the castle was not very well supplied with arms, nor was it victualled for a long siege; and the hearts of all sank within them as they thought of the day when starvation would oblige them to open the gates to their fierce, unfeeling foes. It was then that Angelica bethought her of her magic ring.
"Do not yet give up all hope," she said. "Hold the citadel only seven days longer, and I will bring you help. In the castle of Forgetfulness, which lies on the borders of Fairyland, there are many brave knights imprisoned,—the noblest and the most daring in all the world. I will hie me thither, and awaken them, and call them to our aid."
Then she put the magic ring between her lips, and flew unseen over the heads of the Tartar horde, and over the pleasant valleys and the wooded hills of Cathay, and stopped not until she came to the land of the fairies and the bridge which spans the River of Forgetfulness. The maiden who stood there to take the toll offered her the cup of water; but she dashed it to the ground, and went boldly onward to the castle. She passed through the wide-open gates unchallenged; for, in the dwelling where Forgetfulness reigns, there is no need of warder or of watchman. She entered the great banquet hall, where the guests and prisoners were at meat. There at the table sat Roland, and Reinold of Montalban, and many another fearless knight, eating and drinking and making merry, and not once thinking of their knightly vows, or caring to know each other. She stood in the doorway, her book of enchantments in one hand, and a trumpet in the other. She sang a song sweeter than a siren's voice, and so loud and clear that it was echoed in every nook and chamber of the sleepy old castle. The knights, intent only on the pleasure of the passing moment, scarcely raised their eyes to look at her. They kept on feasting and laughing, and merrily joking, as men are wont to do who never think of the morrow. Then she raised the bugle-trumpet to her lips, and blew a shrill, deep battle call. At the first blast the knights sprang to their feet, and gazed about in mingled astonishment and shame. At the second, all the memories of the past, all their hopes, all their ambition, came into their minds again. With one accord they rushed in hot haste from the banquet table; they hastened to the armory and to the stables. Never before had there been in that place such a buckling-on of armor, such a mounting of war steeds, such looks and words of brave determination and hope. Old Oblivion, the lord of the castle, who was alike deaf to every call of duty, and blind to every noble impulse, shut himself up in the lowest depths of his dungeon-tower, fearful lest the stirring sounds of Angelica's bugle might arouse in him some slumbering thoughts of the great world outside.
It was not long until the awakened knights were fully equipped with their arms and armor, and mounted on their war steeds, ready to follow Angelica wherever she might lead, or to undertake any adventure she might direct. And they rode back over the now dry River of Forgetfulness, and out of the world of Fairyland and enchantments, into the nobler world of reality, of action, and of worthy effort.
On the third day they reached the country of Cathay, and saw the ruin and the ravages that the fierce Tartars had made. The harvests had been overrun, the vineyards had been trampled down, the villages had been burned, and, where there had been plenty and happiness, now naught was seen but smoking heaps and a desolate desert-waste. The country folk of Cathay had hidden themselves from their pitiless foes in the mountain fastnesses and in the thick woods. But, when they heard that many of the most noted warriors of the Far West were riding to the succor of their king at Albracca, they came out of their hiding places, and hailed them as the saviors of their country. And every day, as Roland and his comrades drew nearer to the beleaguered city, great numbers of Cathayan warriors who had escaped from the Tartars, and who had been scattered abroad through the land, came and joined their standard. And when, at last, the tall towers of Albracca rose before them, Roland found himself at the head of an army of forty thousand fighting men. Great was the astonishment and dismay of the Tartars when this host burst unexpectedly upon them. Fearful indeed was the din of battle that ensued. The beleaguered Galafron, at the head of a handful of troops, sallied out from the citadel, and joined the army of rescuers. And, always in the thickest of that fearful fight, there Roland was seen, the flash of his angry eye and the glitter of the wondrous sword Durandal carrying terror into the ranks of the panic-stricken Tartars.
In vain did Chief Agrican strive to rally his men. All was fear and confusion; and most of his followers had at the first onset taken to shameful flight, followed by the victorious Cathayans. He saw, that so long as his foes were cheered on by Roland, who was a veritable host within himself, there was little hope for the Tartars, and he formed a cunning plan to draw him away from the field. He placed his lance in rest, and rode forward, as if he would make an attack upon Roland. Then suddenly, as though in fright, he fled. Roland followed in swift pursuit. The Tartar chief, as if he thought his life in deadly peril, galloped away as fast as his steed would carry him, and paused not until he reached an open glade in a forest, far beyond the sound of the battle's strife. Here he dismounted, to drink of the water which gurgled up clear and pure in a marble fountain which King Galafron had built and made sacred to the nymphs of the wood. Scarcely had he wet his lips, when Roland rode up close behind him.
"Ah, sir chief!" cried he, "how is it that the brave flee thus from peril?"
The Tartar leaped quickly into his saddle, and faced his enemy.
"Sir knight, whoever you may be," said he, "I am fain to look upon you as the bravest warrior I have ever met. I have seen your daring; and, foe though you be, I cannot help admiring you. For your own sake I would rather not touch you, for it would grieve me much to see the death of so brave a man. Ride, therefore, back to your fellows, and goad me not to your destruction."
Roland was pleased with this gallant speech of the Pagan, and he answered mildly, "Pity it is that a warrior so courteous as thou, and withal so brave, should be an unbeliever. Let me urge thee to turn Christian, and to go back in quietness to thy own land. By doing so, thou mayst save both thy body and thy soul."
The Tartar's cheek grew white with rage. "Even though thou wert Roland of France, or any other knight as valiant, thou shouldst rue those taunting words! Draw now thy sword, and save thyself if thou canst!"
Fiercely, then, did the two knights join in fight, and the woods around them rang with the clashing of their good blades. But so well were they matched, and so skilfully was every thrust parried, that neither warrior was able to touch the other, or to gain aught of advantage over him. By and by the sun went down, and the stars came out, and the moon arose; and still the fight seemed no whit nearer its end. The Tartar was the first to ask a truce until morning. They tied their horses to the overhanging branches of an elm, and lay down upon the grass to rest,—Roland near the fountain, and Agrican by the trunk of a pine. The sky was clear and the stars shone bright, and the two knights talked with each other as two friends would talk. Roland pointed to the stars above them, and in earnest tones spoke of the goodness and wisdom and power of Him who had made them. The Tartar was not used to speeches of this kind, nor did he relish the way in which Roland sought to tell him of matters belonging to the Christian faith. At last, growing weary, and filled with disgust, he said,—
"You may be a very brave knight, but you are certainly very ill bred to make me listen to things which are so distasteful to me. If you will not let me sleep, you might at least talk of fair ladies, and daring deeds, and feats of arms,—things much better fitted for the understanding of a knight. But tell me, are you not that Roland of France whose name and deeds are in every one's mouth?"
"I am Roland of France," was the answer.
"And why are you here, so far from home, fighting for one who is no more a Christian than I!" asked Agrican.
"I am fighting for the rights of the Princess Angelica," answered Roland. "Every Christian knight has a liege lady whom he is bound at all times to defend."
The Tartar arose, leaped upon his horse, and drew his sword. Roland, much against his will, again mounted Brigliadoro, and made ready to defend himself. Old stories tell us, that the two warriors fought most furiously until the sun arose, and that Roland's shield was cut in twain, and his armor battered and scarred, and every joint in his body shaken and bruised, so terrible was the onset of the enraged Agrican. And they say that at last, in sheer desperation, and as his only hope, Roland gave his foe a stroke with the sword Durandal, that laid him low at his feet. Quickly then he dismounted from Brigliadoro. Tears of true, heartfelt sorrow, streamed from his eyes as he raised the dying chief tenderly in his arms, and laid him on the marble rim of the fountain.
"Pagan and foe, though thou wert," murmured Roland, "yet thou wert a man, and a most worthy knight!"
And there on the rim of the fountain he left him, clad in his full suit of armor, with his sword in his hand, and his kingly crown on his head.