Gateway to the Classics: Stories of Charlemagne by Alfred J. Church
Stories of Charlemagne by  Alfred J. Church

How Oliver was Slain

C ount Roland looked round on the mountain-sides and on the plains. Alas! how many noble sons of France he saw lying dead upon them! "Dear friends," he said, weeping as he spoke, "may God have mercy on you and receive you into His Paradise! More loyal followers have I never seen. How is the fair land of France widowed of her bravest, and I can give you no help. Oliver, dear comrade, we must not part. If the enemy slay me not here, surely I shall be slain by sorrow. Come, then, let us smite these heathen."

Thus did Roland again charge the enemy, his good sword Durendal in his hand; as the stag flies before the hounds, so did the heathen fly before Roland. "By my faith," cried the Archbishop when he saw him, "that is a right good knight! Such courage, and such a steed, and such arms I love well to see. If man be not brave and a stout fighter, he had better by far be a monk in some cloister where he may pray all day long for our sins."

But Roland cried again, "Strike home, men; have no mercy on these heathen dogs." So saying he charged the enemy, and on the other side King Marsilas came out to meet him. A great warrior was he, and his horse was fleeter than a falcon. First he slew Beuvon of Burgundy, and Ivan, and Gerard and other two: five knights he met, five he slew, but the sixth was the Count Roland himself. "Curse upon you!" cried the Count; "you have slain my comrades; verily you shall not go scatheless hence." Thereupon with one blow he smote off his right hand, and with another he shore off the head of the king's son Jurfalew. "Help us, Mahomet!" cried the heathen. "How these villains fight! They die rather than fly from the field of battle!" And King Marsilas, throwing down his shield upon the ground, fled from out the battle, and thousands fled with him, crying aloud, "Verily, the nephew of King Charles has won the day."

But alas! though the King fled, the Caliph remained. He was King of Carthage and of the whole land of Ethiopia. Chief of the black race was he, and a mighty man of valour. Fifty thousand warriors followed him; blacker than ink were they all, and with nothing that was white about them save only their teeth. "We have but a short time to live," cried Roland, when he saw the new host advancing to the battle. "But cursed would he be that does not sell his life dearly! Strike, comrades, strike! Let what will befall us, France shall not suffer disgrace. When the King shall come to see this field of battle, for one of us that he shall find dead there shall be full fifteen of the Saracens. He cannot but bless us for such valour." And Oliver cried aloud, Ill luck to all laggards!" And the men of France that remained threw themselves upon the enemy.

But the heathen, when they saw how few they were, took fresh courage. And the Caliph, spurring his horse, rode against Oliver and smote him in the middle of his back, making his spear pass right through him. "That is a shrewd blow," he cried; "I have avenged my friends and countrymen upon you."

Then Oliver knew he was stricken to death, but he would not fall unavenged. With his great sword Hautclere he smote the Caliph on his head and cleft it to the teeth. "Curse on you, pagan. Neither your wife nor any woman in the land of your birth shall boast that you have taken a penny's worth from King Charles!" But to Roland he cried, "Come, comrade, help me; well I know that we two shall part in great sorrow this day."

Roland came with all speed, and saw his friend, how he lay all pale and fainting on the ground and how the blood gushed in great streams from his wound. "I know not what to do," he cried. "This is an ill chance that has befallen you. Truly France is bereaved of her bravest son." So saying he went near to swoon in the saddle as he sat. Then there befell a strange thing. Oliver had lost so much of his blood that he could not any more see clearly or know who it was that was near him. So he raised up his arm and smote with all his strength that yet remained to him on the helmet of Roland his friend. The helmet he cleft in twain to the vizor; but by good fortune it wounded not the head. Roland looked at him and said in a gentle voice, "Did you this of set purpose? I am Roland your friend, and have not harmed you. "Ah!" said Oliver, "I hear you speak, but I cannot see you. Pardon me that I struck you; it was not done of set purpose." "It harmed me not," answered Roland; "with all my heart and before God I forgive you." And this was the way these two friends parted at the last.

And now Oliver felt the pains of death come over him. He could no longer see nor hear. He clomb down from his horse, and laid himself upon the ground, and clasping his hands lifted them to heaven and made his confession. "O Lord," he said, "take me into Paradise. And do Thou bless King Charles and the sweet land of France." And when he had said thus he died. And Roland looked at him as he lay. There was not upon earth a more sorrowful man than he. "Dear comrade," he said, "this is indeed an evil day. Many a year have we two been together. Never have I done wrong to you; never have you done wrong to me. How shall I bear to live without you?" And again he swooned where he sat on his horse. But the stirrup held him up that he did not fall to the ground.

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