St. David of Wales
"By magic art I'm firmly bound
Until a valiant knight be found
To break my spell and set me free.
Victorious knight, behold and see!"
When he read these words St. David thought that he was the knight destined to free the sword, and he seized the hilt and pulled it with all his might. But no sooner had he clutched it than a shock ran all through him, and he fell backwards to the ground, and lay in a deep trance. The sword was enchanted, and none but the destined knight could seize it unhurt.
The wizard Ormandine knew by his arts whenever the sword was touched. He sent four evil spirits to the gate to bring before him whoever might be lying there. They found St. David, and carried him to Ormandine, who looked narrowly upon him, and saw that he was a Christian knight. He knew that he must one day meet his death at the hands of a Christian knight, and therefore he rejoiced that St. David had fallen into his power. He set upon him a yet stronger spell, and bade his servants bind him and leave him in a cave in the magic garden, where lay many other unhappy prisoners.
No less a person than St. George himself was to deliver St. David from Ormandine's spell and overcome the enchanter. When he was cast back into his dungeon after killing the lions the English champion fell into deep despair. The wild frenzy that had given him strength had died away, and he was weak and weary. In that dark and noisome cell no thoughts of hope could come to a prisoner. Never did he see so much as a ray of daylight; even when his gaolers thrust his food daily through the shutter in the wall there was but a greyness in the opening, not the bright glow of sunlight. Loathsome reptiles splashed in the pools on the floor of the dungeon, rats squeaked and scuffled, and when he slept ran over him and gnawed at his raiment. He had no refuge but his own thoughts, and they were not cheering; he remembered Sabra, and he recalled that great fight with the dragon in the blazing sun. Ah, how far off the sun seemed now! He thought of his dear companions, and how he had delivered them from Kalyb; and the memory of England drove him almost to madness, so that he rushed against the damp, cold walls of the cell, and beat upon them with his fetters.
But this mood of rage and hopelessness did not endure for ever. After a long time he began to grow accustomed to the darkness. He would think of the hour when they brought him food as if it were sunrise, and it pleased him to make in his mind, as it were, a map of his dungeon. Day by day he crept about it, pacing distances and feeling the hard walls, until he knew all the shape and parts of it. It was a great underground cave, it seemed, rather than a prison cell. The form of it was irregular, with uneven lines and patches in the walls, which were hewn out of the solid rock. He knew before long exactly where the barred-up door lay, and where the shutter was through which his food came, and in which direction lay the horrible pools of water. Presently he had gained such a knowledge of the cave that he could by the mere feel of the ground under his feet tell to which part of the wall he was turning.
But it was not till he had been there many weary months that he came upon the crowbar. How such a thing had been left in the dungeon he did not know. Perhaps they had needed it to prize off the fetters of some miserable captive in former days; perhaps, even, the craftsmen who hollowed out the cave had forgotten to take it away. Be that as it may, St. George found it one day (if day it was—day and night were alike to him) as he paced the dungeon in his weary explorations. It was in a corner that he seldom visited, where the roof sloped down to the wall, so that it was not possible to stand quite upright, and he came upon it by stumbling over it where it lay in a pool of water.
No sooner had he got possession of this weapon than he began to plan his escape from the dungeon. He found the bar still strong in spite of rust, and after he had examined the door of his cell as carefully as he could in the darkness, he determined to break out that way. But he must first be sure that he did so at an hour of the day or night when the watch upon him could be least vigilant.
He had no knowledge of the hours or of how many days had passed since he slew the lions. He had not counted the times when food was given him, nor did he know whether the shutter was opened once a day or more often.
When next he heard the shutter being opened he sprang across to it, and spoke to the guard outside. "Tell me, good gaoler, what day this is, and what hour in the day."
"I must not speak with you," answered the man; and St. George heard another man laugh, so that he knew at least two men were stationed there.
"Have pity!" cried St. George miserably. "I cannot tell day from night in this accursed place."
"I must not answer," replied the man. But he was merciful, and he thought of a device for answering without disobeying his orders. "This Christian dog," he said to his comrade, "does not know whether it is night or day. He would not forget these things if he were like us, with a great feast to come to-night in honour of the Soldan's birthday. It is thirty years since the Soldan came to the throne, and never has there been such a festival as we shall have this night at eight of the clock. It wants but three hours of the time now. We shall not forget it. Ho! ho! A dungeon is the place for a man's memory!"
St. George dared not thank him, for fear that he might arouse suspicion. But immediately the shutter was closed he set himself to count beneath his breath, so that he might gauge the flight of time as nearly as possible. He kept his food untouched, hungry though he was; he meant to eat it a little before he started on his enterprise, so that he should have his full strength.
Sitting there in the darkness St. George counted steadily second after second, straining his mind to check the minutes as they succeeded one another. Seconds became minutes, minutes became hours. Three hours went by; the feast must be beginning. He counted on; now it must be ten o'clock, now eleven, now midnight. He had counted for seven hours. Yet he continued for two more.
When he felt sure that it was past two o'clock in the morning he stopped. He felt his clothes all over to see that there was nothing loose or untied that might delay him unexpectedly. He ate his food slowly. Then he took up his crowbar and began his enterprise.
The crowbar was a stout one, or it would not have done its work. The door of the cell was thick and heavy. Yet he contrived to get the point of the bar into a crack at the opening, and slowly, slowly pressed upon it till the latch was free. It swung open inwards with a click; beyond were iron bars across and across, but there was space for his body to squeeze between them.
Now was the moment of danger. Would there be guards outside? Would they have heard the faint grinding of the crowbar and the click as the door opened? He waited for several minutes; he heard deep, regular breathing. Were they really asleep, or only feigning in order to entrap him? He must take his chance.
There was a dim light outside as though from a small lantern. He could see that a passage ran both ways. He forced himself noiselessly through the bars, and stepped into the passage, crowbar in hand.
On the left side the passage ended a few feet away in the solid rock; on the right it ran for some distance, farther than he could see by the light of the lantern which hung on the wall just outside his cell door. Across the passage lay two guards motionless. They were fast asleep. They had had no share in the revelry, but a comrade had seen to it that food and wine in plenty were conveyed to them at their post, and now they were heavy with sleep.
St. George stepped lightly over them, and crept swiftly along the passage. He did not know whither it would lead him, except that it was away from his dungeon. After a little while the passage turned to the right, and then to the left. And now there were doors on either side at intervals—heavy iron doors, as though other dungeons lay behind them. He did not seek to open them.
At last the passage itself ended in a door. St. George lifted the latch silently, and pulled gently; it did not open. A feeling of despair came over him. He tried it again and again; it would not open. Suddenly he laughed silently, and pressed against the door instead of pulling at it. It opened at once—the other way.
He went through and shut it quietly. The passage ran a few yards, and ended in steps; it was lit up faintly by a lantern. He walked on stealthily and up the steps; at the top was another door, which he opened easily. He was in a long, large room with great windows, through which moonlight entered. It was the chief hall of the palace. All about it lay men-at-arms asleep on the rushes, the greater part of them overcome by wine as much as by weariness.
St. George picked his way among them down to the far end of the hall; the little door by which he had entered was at the side of the dais. He went into the darkness under the minstrels' gallery; he began to remember the way from the time when he came there as the King of Egypt's envoy. He turned to the left; there should be a great door there, he recollected.
Everything was in his favour. The guards in their feasting had forgotten to bolt and bar this door. It swung heavily upon its well-oiled hinges. St. George went through and shut it noiselessly. He was in a broad passage which led on the one hand to the stables, on the other to the Soldan's apartments. No one was in sight. He turned towards the stables, and strode quickly along the passage.
His footsteps, light though they were, seemed to echo in the silence. He turned a corner, and almost ran into a man coming from the opposite direction carrying a lantern. He knew then why there was an echo; it was no echo, but the sound of this man. Quick as thought he swung up his crowbar, and brought it down upon the man's head. He fell stunned and silent; there was a jingle of keys as he fell.
St. George stooped over him, picked up the lantern, and looked narrowly at him. He did not know the man's face, but by his garb he was one in office. In truth he was the chief warder of the palace, who was going round the guards unexpectedly. At his belt was a bunch of keys.
St. George took the keys, bound the warder with his own girdle, thrust a handkerchief into his mouth, and tied round it a strip of linen torn from the man's robe. Now if he came to his senses the warder would make no noise.
The champion hastened on his way. The keys opened doors and gates and bars for him. Everywhere he found guards asleep, for the warder had but just started on his rounds when St. George met him, and had not yet roused the sleeping men. He came before long to the stables. He wished to find his good steed Bucephalus.
The horses in the stables paid little heed to him; he understood them, and they were not afraid. He left the stable-door open before he searched. At last he found Bucephalus; the good beast knew him at once, and turned round and nuzzled against him with his nose. Above the manger, to the champion's joy, hung his sword Ascalon, and a great part of his armour, which the Persians had taken from him when they cast him into the dungeon.
He put on the armour hastily, and tore some strips from his clothing, and bound them round the hoofs of Bucephalus. With his sword drawn in his hand he led the horse silently out, and locked the stable-door, as he had locked all other doors after he obtained the keys. He was in the courtyard of the palace with no more barriers between him and the city.
There was a well in the courtyard; he dropped the bunch of keys down it. Then he mounted Bucephalus and rode out. Already he began to feel sure of escape.
But when he was in the city streets, as he soon was, he was not yet free. He rode along them some little distance before he could think of a plan to get through the city gates. Suddenly he thought of one which might succeed by its very daring. He dismounted and took the rags from the horse's hoofs, mounted again, and set Bucephalus to a gallop. Straight to the main gates he thundered, and beat upon them with his sword. "Gate! Gate! Ho, within!" he cried.
A sleepy watchman came out from the gatehouse in a few minutes very angry at being disturbed, for, like the men in the palace, he had been up late feasting that night.
"Wake, man!" roared St. George in anger. Open the gates! The Christian knight, St. George, has escaped, and has come this way. He has broken out of his dungeon by some means. Let me go! I am hard upon his heels!"
The man was too dazed to wonder or to ask questions. He fumbled at the gates, muttering angrily against the Christian prisoner escaping at such a time, and at last opened them. In a moment St George was outside. He was tempted to fly without another word. But he stopped, and spoke to the watchman first, with an air of command.
"Other guards will be here in a moment. They were all as sleepy as you. I seem to be the only man to do his duty this night. When they come tell them to separate and spread out; let some go by the other gates, for we do not know whither this Christian dog went after he left the city. He climbed the wall a little way hence by the aid of a tree. And for yourself, look that if he comes this way again he does not do you a mischief. Our whole land is in peril while he is free."
The man saluted drowsily. St. George turned, and was off like the wind. He was free.
St. George rode swiftly across the desert, not sparing Bucephalus; delay meant death. As soon as it was day, and the Persians woke from their deep sleep—sooner, perhaps, if one of them chanced to be wakeful and to see anything suspicious—they would discover that he was gone. But he had, it was likely, two or three hours' start.
Day dawned before long, and with every stride of the good horse he rode into safety. No one pursued; he met no one. And so at last he came to the frontiers of Persia, and passed them, and was indeed free.
He was not sure whither he should go. He desired to return to the King of Egypt, and claim the Princess Sabra for wife; but he was uncertain exactly in which direction Egypt might lie, except that it must be somewhere in the west. All day he rode, following the sun as nearly as he could. As night drew on he found himself near a castle standing upon a hill, and he became aware that he was very hungry. He resolved to go to the castle, and ask hospitality for the night.
It seemed to be a huge place. All the doors were of a great height; the walls towered as if they were climbing to the sky, and the windows in them were large beyond wont. Everything about it was vast; the very horn at the gate for strangers to sound to ask admittance was so heavy and hung so high on the gate-post that St. George could hardly make use of it. But he reached it by an effort, and by blowing as if he would crack his lungs sounded a faint blast upon it.
A warder presently came and unbarred the gates. "Who are you and what is your errand?" he asked through a spyhole in the solid oak of the gates before he opened them. This hole seemed to be set higher up than was customary.
"I am a knight-errant, and I would pay my respects to the lord of this castle, and seek a little refreshment and hospitality from him."
He thought he heard the man laugh, but he could not be sure. The gates were opened, and he rode in. The warder was a huge man, nearer seven than six feet in height.
"You may enter," he said gruffly. Yet he seemed to be smiling secretly in his heart. "My master has always room for such as you."
He blew a whistle, and attendants came; they were all taller than common men. They took Bucephalus and led him to a stable. Others showed St. George a chamber where he might set his raiment in order. When he was ready they took him to a richly decked room in which sat a beautiful lady of more than human stature. She towered above his head as she rose to greet him.
"What do you seek, Sir Knight?" she asked. She looked upon St. George favourably, and it seemed to him that there was fear and pity in her eyes also.
"I crave refreshment and a place to rest for the night," answered St. George courteously. "I have come a long journey, and I ask the hospitality of one knight to another."
"Our hospitality is strange and cold," she answered. "You will do well not to seek it."
St. George was surprised. "I am very weary, and I have not broken my fast all this day," he said. "I do but ask what chivalry enjoins a knight to give."
"If it were I alone to answer you," said the lady, "I would receive you with all due courtesy, for I see that you are a noble knight, and that you are indeed weary, as you say. But it is for your own sake that I bid you leave this castle, and hasten on your journey yet farther before you dare seek rest."
"What mean you, lady?" asked St. George. "You speak in riddles. Who is the lord of this mighty castle?"
"My husband is its lord, and it is against his will that I warn you. I would not have so gallant a knight come to so sorry a death as you must meet if you abide here."
"I do not understand you, fair lady. Who is your lord? Why should I fear death?"
"I will tell you. My husband is a giant and an eater of men. This day he has gone a-hunting, but in a little while he will return, and he will slay you and afterwards eat you."
"I do not fear a giant," said St. George. He saw now what the warden of the gate had meant by his strange greeting. "I will not stir from here till I have had food and drink. If I must die, better to die fighting than of starvation. But your giant will not kill me."
"Alas, he will!" said the giantess. "I am weary of his cruelties, but I cannot prevent them. Go, Sir Knight, I beg you."
"No," answered St. George, "that may not be. A knight may not refuse to encounter one who is the enemy of the human race. If you so pity me, give me meat, that I may have all my strength for this combat that I must undertake."
The lady tried no more to dissuade him, but bade her servants bring him meat and drink, and he feasted right well, so that his strength came back to him and his weariness fell from him.
Hardly had he finished his meal when he heard a great voice shouting rough commands. The giant had returned. In a few moments he entered the room.
"Hola! A Christian knight, they tell me!" he shouted. He was a creature as tall as two tall men, very fat and unwieldy, but nevertheless active and strong. His hair was red, and he had a long red beard. You are welcome, fair sir. I have had poor hunting to-day, and you will reward me for my vain chase. It is not often a man sets a snare and catches nothing, and comes home and finds the game all ready for him in the pot. Come hither, and I will cut your head off very gently; you will not know it is off, so gentle will I be."
St. George looked at him with contempt. "You are not worthy of this castle, fellow," he said. "None but a boor would offer such insults to a knight who claims hospitality."
"Knight!" said the giant with a brutal laugh. "I care nothing for knighthood. I enjoy myself, and have my own way. But no more words. You must die, and it may as well be done quietly. Come, I will not hurt you. Here is my little knife; see how sharp it is."
And he pulled a long red hair out of his beard, and threw it into the air. While it was still in the air he snatched a huge curved scimitar, with broad blade, from where it hung on the wall, and with two quick sweeps cut the hair in half, and then each half in two again.
"I have a sword as sharp as that,and I can cut as quickly; but I will cut something more than a hair," said St. George, rising and drawing his good sword Ascalon.
"What!" roared the giant. "You will fight me, you wretched little creature? Well, have your own way. A little sword-play will give me an appetite for you."
He rushed at St. George, and so swift was he, despite his bulk, that St. George was forced to spring aside, and put the table between them. He could not hope to live if that great scimitar touched him. His plan was to wear the giant out by movement, and seize any chance to get in a blow himself.
He had not long to wait for his chance. The giant made a furious stroke at him, and missed; the scimitar struck instead a stout oaken chair, and for a moment clove to the hard wood. He tugged at it, leaving himself unguarded. In a flash St. George wounded him deeply in the thigh, and then, as he tottered and fell, used Ascalon so well that he cut off the huge head from the shoulders in two blows.
The giantess had fled in terror from the sight of their conflict. But St. George sought her out, and told her the issue of it. If she were displeased, he said, he would go away from the castle at once; but if he had rid her of a cruel monster, he begged leave to rest there that night.
"You have saved me from great suffering, fair knight," she answered graciously. "This man whom you have slain used me very ill; I am well rid of him. Remain here this night, or as long as you please; nay, so grateful am I, and so comely do I find you, that I will take you for my husband, if you will, and you shall have all the wealth of this castle, which is great, for the dungeons are full of treasures that the giant took from his unhappy prisoners."
"I may not have you for wife," replied St. George courteously. "I am betrothed to a Princess, and I am on my way to her now. I will rest here this night, and I pray that in the morning you will set me upon the road to Egypt, for there I shall find my peerless Sabra."
"Alas, poor knight!" said the lady of the castle, "is it the Princess Sabra of Egypt to whom you are betrothed? You will not find her in Egypt. Almidor the Moor has carried her off by violence to Morocco, and there he holds her prisoner till she will marry him. All the world has heard of this."
St. George gave a great cry, and such was his wrath and despair that he could scarcely be persuaded not to start then and there for Morocco, to rescue Sabra and slay the treacherous Prince. But the giantess told him that he must rest and regain his strength, for he was very weary with that day's adventures.
So he remained in the giant's castle that night, and awoke the next morning full of strength and eager for his task.
The giantess told him which way he must travel to reach Morocco, and before he went she bestowed upon him not only new armour and a store of food for his journey, but a great treasure of precious stones as well. Then she bade him God-speed, and he set out.
Now, the way to Morocco lay directly past the enchanted garden of Ormandine, and in due time St. George came to the burning hedge, and saw the gateway of gold, where St. David had cut the thorns away from it. He perceived likewise the sword, and since he was never backward in the hope of adventure, he caught the hilt and pulled it. It came out of the rock as easily as out of a scabbard. There was a great clap of thunder, and the earth trembled and rocked. In a second the hedge and the golden gate in the garden vanished, with a sound of groaning and shrieking, and immediately there appeared on all sides the victims of Ormandine's magic, the power of which had been broken for ever by St. George when he seized the enchanted sword. Among them was St. David, who rejoiced exceedingly to see his comrade. But before they could tell one another half the tale of their adventures, Ormandine himself appeared, clad in robes of mourning, and with an air of sorrow and humility.
"Great champion of England, mirror of true knighthood," he said in a solemn voice, "this day I foresaw long ago by my magic arts, though I knew not when it should come to pass. I learnt that he who slew the dragon of Egypt was the fated knight who should be able to draw out the enchanted sword from its rocky sheath, and so break all my power. By no means, human or magical, could I prevent it, and now it is fated also that I must die. But first I must tell you that I was not always a magician, that you may know that even in vile and evil things there may be hidden some good. I was once a knight even as you are. But on a day of ill-fortune I lost all my possessions, and my wife and daughter were slain, and in despair I took to the study of magic, and so gave myself up to the infernal arts that I could not lay them aside. Now farewell. You shall both of you, St. George and St. David, come to great glory, and never shall the honour of your knighthood be stained."
With that he made certain magical passes in the air, and vanished from their eyes; never was he seen by man again.
St. George and St. David told each other all that had befallen them, and St. George gave to his comrade, and also to the other prisoners who had been set free, part of the giantess's treasure to aid them in travelling to their homes. To St. David he gave as well the enchanted sword, and bade him take it to the Emperor of Tartary in lieu of Ormandine's head, as a sign that the wizard was destroyed and his power ended. He agreed with him to meet, if it were possible, at the tournament in Greece, of which also the giantess had given him tidings. Then they set out on their several ways—St. David to Tartary, and afterwards to Greece, and St. George to rescue Sabra.
The champion of England reached Morocco without further adventure, and made his way to the capital city. He wished to spy out Almidor's doings before he made any plan, for he was alone among a nation of his fierce enemies. He did not enter the city, but found a little way outside the walls the cave of a Christian hermit whom the Moors suffered to live, because he was old and thought by the Moors to be mad. No man saw St. George enter the cave; he lay there that night, and learnt from the hermit how Sabra fared in her peril. He was told that as yet Almidor had treated her kindly, hoping to win her love by courteous usage. She was given royal chambers in his palace, and a host of servants, and she was suffered to go and come as she pleased, save that a guard went always with her to prevent flight. Every morning, the good hermit said, she passed by his cell, and often she gave him alms, and she was wont also to give alms to pilgrims who daily awaited her by the city gate.
The next day St. George put on the long robe of a pilgrim over his armour, and took his stand by the city gates. Presently there was a trampling of hoofs, and the Princess's cavalcade came in sight. First rode negro guards mounted on mules, with long whips to drive the common people out of their way. Then came a company of Moorish guards, and after them the ladies of the Princess's household, riding upon camels with scarlet harness. In the midst was the Princess herself in a low litter covered with cloth of gold, borne by four negroes in robes of green and gold, with emeralds in their turbans. Beside the litter walked Circassian slaves waving fans of white peacocks' feathers. After them rode many other guards.
When the Princess saw the pilgrims (for there were many others besides St. George), she caused her litter to be halted, and all the guards and attendants halted with her. She spoke a few words of kindness to each one in turn, and gave alms. She came presently to St. George, who held out his little bowl for alms in such a way that she could not but see on his finger the ring she had given him when they were betrothed. She started a little as she saw it, but showed no other sign.
"Whence do you come, pilgrim?" she asked in a calm voice. "Are you from Palestine like these others with whom I have spoken? Whither do you go?"
"Nay, Princess, from farther than that. I am newly come from Persia, and I seek to go by way of Africa to the Pillars of Hercules, and so across the narrow sea to the ancient city of Cordova." He said this so that her guards might not suspect him.
As he spoke the Princess kept her face hidden under the shade of the litter, but her eyes were fixed on his. He saw that she was moving her lips and whispering ever so faintly. He could not guess what she said. He shook his head slightly, so that none but she perceived it. She made a little movement with her fingers. Both her hands lay idle in her lap; she stirred each finger in turn gently, and the two fingers on her right hand again—twelve little movements in all. She spoke to him words of kindness and encouragement meanwhile as if he were really a pilgrim.
St. George understood it. He was to do something at twelve o'clock at night, without doubt, for it was now close upon noon. But what was he to do? How should he find out?
He leant forward with his alms bowl. "Give me alms, Princess, to help me on my journey." And he held out the bowl and rattled it.
Suddenly he put one hand to his eye, as though an insect had flown into it. As he did so he tilted his alms bowl so that some coins fell out. Then, as if in alarm, he tried to catch them, and spilt more. He had to stoop close to the Princess to pick them up. As he bent down, she whispered in a voice he just caught; "Palace garden little gate."
He knew now what he must do. He stood upright, and expressed his sorrow for his discourtesy in spilling his alms before the Princess. Then he made obeisance, and she passed on to the next pilgrim.
Long after she had gone back to the palace he stood there among other pilgrims asking alms of passers-by, lest suspicion should be roused if he went away. But when the sun began to sink in the sky he moved, and began to wander in the town, ever and again asking alms. Through many streets he wandered, striving to learn his way, that he might not lose it at night. He found Almidor's palace, and saw the latticed windows, behind which were the women's apartments; he wondered if that night he would be able to end his feud with Almidor in combat. He did not know that the Prince was absent on a hunting expedition, and would not return for three days, and that Sabra had feigned illness in order to avoid being in his company.
The champion walked all round the palace and its gardens, which stretched for many furlongs and ended in groves of orange-trees. Far down in one side of the gardens was a little door of Moorish lattice-work; all else was blank wall. It would not be hard to climb over the door. He could see through the lattice into the garden, in which bloomed all manner of flowers, and fountains played with a cool sound in marble basins.
He went back to the hermit's cave slowly, and made his plans. His horse he saddled ready for flight, and he caused the hermit to go into the city, and by a feigned tale buy another horse, which he tethered with Bucephalus in a little clump of trees. Midnight drew nigh, and he went to the palace garden walls, and found the door again. Cautiously and silently he climbed over it. In a few moments Sabra was in his arms.
But they did not lose time in embraces, deep though their longing was. The Princess had stolen a key of the garden door, and was able to open it. Locking it after them they stole through the deserted, silent city. The protection of Heaven was over them. Not a soul did they meet, but made their way safely to the horses. St. George stayed to thank the hermit for his kindness, and to give him by way of alms a great emerald worth a King's ransom. Then they fled like the wind on and on over the desert till they reached the coast of New Barbary; and there they took ship, and came at last safely to Greece, where they found all the champions united in readiness for the tournament.