"The Emperor sits in an orchard wide,
Roland and Oliver by his side;
With them many a gallant lance,
Full fifteen thousand of gentle France.
Upon a throne of beaten gold
The lord of ample France behold;
White his hair and beard were seen,
Fair of body, and proud of mien."
It was the custom of Charlemagne to take counsel of his peers and knights in all matters of weight. Seven years he had waged war against the Saracens in Spain, and one city after another had fallen before him until only one remained unconquered, the stronghold of Saragossa, and there Marsilius, the Moslem king, had taken refuge. Now messengers had come from Marsilius, bearing olive branches of peace, with the promise that if Charlemagne and his army would withdraw from Spain, the king would follow him to France and there offer to him his fealty, embracing Christianity as his religion from that day. King Charlemagne had listened to these fair promises and held his peace, for he was never hasty of speech, and the next morning he had called a council of his knights in the orchard to consult with them in this matter. He told them of the proposal of the envoys, and of the rich treasures of gold and silver, and of the noble hostages which the heathen king offered as token that his words were true.
"Yet," he added, as he ended his words, "I know not what may lie in his heart."
Scarcely had he finished when Count Roland came forward and faced his uncle. His eye flashed with anger.
"Believe not this Marsilius," he cried. "Full seven long years we have warred in Spain, and he hath ever been a traitor. Dost thou not remember the time when he sent unto thee fifteen of his heathen, bearing olive boughs and speaking the selfsame words as now? Dost thou not remember how thou didst hearken to his words and send two of thy chiefest knights to him, and how he had their heads struck off? War, I say! End as you began. Besiege him in Saragossa. War, I say!"
The Franks were silent when Roland had finished speaking, and the emperor answered him not a word, but bent his head and mused.
Suddenly Count Ganelon leaped to his feet.
"Be not misled, my lord, but look to your own good ends," he cried. "King Marsilius assures us of his good faith, and vows to be your vassal and abide by the Christian law. Who would reject a treaty like this, cares not by what death we die. Good does not come from counsel of pride; listen to the wise, and let the madmen be!"
Then the white-haired Duke Namo arose; there was no better vassal in all the emperor's court than he.
"You have hearkened unto Ganelon, and he speaketh well. King Marsilius is broken and beaten in war. You have captured his castles afar and near; you have broken down his walls, burned his cities, and slain his soldiers. It were a sin to molest him further. Receive his hostages and send him in return one of your Christian knights. We have been too long away from fair France. 'Tis time this war ended and we returned to our homes."
"The duke speaketh well," the Franks exclaimed.
"Who then were the best to undertake this mission?" said Charlemagne.
"I pray you send me," said the duke.
"Nay," answered the king, "thou art my wisest counselor. Thou shalt never depart so far from me."
"I," said Roland, "will go right gladly."
"Nay," said Oliver, "not so. Thou art too fiery of temper for so perilous a mission. I will go, if the king but will."
"Be silent, both of you," spoke Charlemagne sternly. "Neither of you shall go, nor any of my twelve peers. My lords," he continued, turning to the men of the council, "choose me a baron who shall do my behest."
"Be it," said Roland, "my stepsire Ganelon. In vain will ye seek for a meeter man."
"Well spoken!" cried the Franks.
And the emperor said: "It is well. Count Ganelon, thou hearest. The Franks have chosen."
"This is Roland's work," said Ganelon, and he trembled with angry passion as he stood there. "For this, I vow I will love him no more. Nor will I love Oliver, for he is his sworn comrade. Nor will I love the peers who so cherish and honor him. I fling defiance at them all."
"Ganelon," said the emperor, "there is too much anger in thy words. Since I command it, thou must go."
"I go, my lord," said Ganelon, but as he bent forward to take the glove which was the token of his being chosen, his anger made him careless, and it fell to the ground before he took it.
"God! what is this?" said the startled Franks as they saw it fall.
"Evil will come of this quest."
"My lords, ye shall hear of that anon," said Ganelon in a storm of angry passion. Then, turning to the emperor, "Sire, let me go; since go I must, why should I delay?"
"Go, then, in Christ's name and mine," said Charlemagne.
So Ganelon left the peers and knights of France and went on his journey; but he carried with him an evil heart that boded ill for France.
To tell the tale of Ganelon's journey to Saragossa and of the plot that he plotted by the way,—that were too long a tale. The anger in his heart against Roland for sending him on so dangerous a mission, from which, in spite of his words of counsel to Charlemagne, he scarce believed he should return
alive, did so rule him that he forgot his knightliness and his truth and even his honor, and did make with the Saracens a bargain of treachery so base that no man can think of it without a shudder. The heathen were eager to know how long the aged Charlemagne could live and what would become of his kingdom when he died, for Roland was right and there was no good faith behind the fair promises of Marsilius. And Ganelon told them that they could do naught while Charlemagne lived, but that Roland was the real ruler of that land. He it was, he said, who urged the emperor on to his mighty deeds, and he it was to whom the people looked to carry on Charlemagne's mighty empire.
"Whoso bringeth Roland to death," he said, "will take from Charlemagne his greatest strength. His marvelous host will melt away and leave this mighty land in peace."
So he plotted a wicked plot with the heathen, that when Charlemagne should withdraw his troops from Spain Roland should have charge of the rear guard of the army. Then the Saracens could fall upon him and his men when the rest of the army were past, and kill them. Marsilius fell upon Ganelon's neck and kissed him when he heard this plan of revenge.
So Ganelon returned with fair words on his lips and treason in his heart. Charlemagne was glad when he heard the message of peace, and he said, "Now are my wars done, and we may ride home to fair France."
When the army came to the pass of Ronceval, the emperor said to his knights: "These passes are steep and straight and full of peril if an enemy were in this country. To whom shall I trust the keeping of the rear?"
"To my stepson Roland," answered Ganelon. "You have no other knight like him."
"Thou art a very demon," said Charlemagne. "It seemeth as if rage had possessed thy soul. If I give the rear to Roland to command, who then shall lead my vanguard?"
"Ogier," he replied, "the gallant Dane."
The emperor would not that Roland should hear those words, but Roland heard them, and he stepped forward and said:
"Sir Stepsire, I ought to love thee well that thou hast named me for this honor. I will take good heed that the emperor lose not a charger, nor palfrey, nor mule, nor steed, that is not paid for by stroke of sword."
So it was settled as Ganelon had plotted, that Roland, the first of all the peers and the favorite of Charlemagne's heart, should remain with twenty thousand men and guard the rear of the marching host.
"Through Ronceval the march began;
Ogier the baron led the van;
For them was neither doubt nor fear,
Since Roland rested to guard the rear."
"Count Roland sprang to a hilltop's height,
And donned his peerless armor bright;
Laced his helm, for a baron made;
Girt Durindana, gold-hilted blade;
Around his neck he hung the shield,
With flowers emblazoned was the field;
Nor steed but Veillantif will ride;
And he grasped his lance with its pennon's pride.
White was the pennon, with rim of gold;
Low to the handle the fringes rolled.
Who are his lovers men now may see;
And the Franks exclaim, 'We will follow thee.'
Then were mustered King Marsil's peers,
With a hundred thousand heathen spears.
They don their hauberks of Saracen mold,
Wrought for the most with a triple fold.
Bright was the sunshine and fair the day;
Their arms resplendent gave back the ray.
Then sound a thousand clarions clear,
Till the Franks the mighty clangor hear.
'Sir Comrade,' said Oliver, 'I trow
There is battle at hand with the Saracen foe.'
'God grant,' said Roland, 'it may be so.
Here our post for our king we hold;
For his lord the vassal bears heat and cold,
Toil and peril endures for him,
Risks in his service both life and limb.'
Sir Oliver to the peak hath clomb,
Looks far on the realm of Spain therefrom;
He sees the Saracen power arrayed,—
Helmets gleaming with gold inlaid,
Shields and hauberks in serried row,
Spears with pennons that from them flow.
He may not reckon the mighty mass,
So far their numbers his thought surpass.
All in bewilderment and dismay
Down from the mountains he takes his way,
Comes to the Franks the tale to say.
'I have seen the paynim,' said Oliver;
'Never on earth did such host appear:
A hundred thousand with targets bright,
With helmets laced and hauberks white,
Erect and shining their lances tall;
Such battle as waits you did ne'er befall.
My lords of France, be God your stay,
That you be not vanquished in field to-day.'
'Accursed,' say the Franks, 'be they who fly;
None shall blench from the fear to die.
Death were better than fame laid low.
Our Emperor loveth a downright blow.'"
Ere the paynims came upon them, Oliver spoke to Roland, saying: "My comrade, the enemy are in fearful force, and our Franks are but few. Sound upon thy horn. Then Charlemagne will hear and his host return."
Round Roland's neck hung a magic horn of carved ivory. If he blew upon it in case of need, the sound would be carried over hill and dale far onward to the ears of Charlemagne.
But Roland would not listen to Oliver.
"I were mad to do such a deed. Lost in France were my glory. My Durindana shall smite full hard, and the heathen shall find their fate in this pass."
"Nay, Roland, sound on your horn, that Charlemagne may send his legions back to lend us aid," entreated the wise Oliver. But he pleaded in vain.
The Moslems swept nearer, and Oliver warned Roland again, saying, "Thou seest the heathen foe, how near they are and how many, and thou knowest how few are we. Thou didst scorn to blow thy horn. The rear guard shall do their last brave feat to-day. Nevermore will they mingle in mortal battle."
But Roland, wild with the joy of combat, cried, "The emperor has left us his bravest men, never a coward heart among them. We shall not fail."
Then Roland rode in front of his ranks of knights, and cried, "Franks, remember your chivalry!"and the Franks responded with the war-cry of Charlemagne, "Montjoie! Montjoie!" Proudly they rode at their paynim foes, with shout of victory on their lips.
But Charlemagne rode sadly toward France, for he had dreamed a dream that told him Ganelon was a traitor, and it was Ganelon who had set Roland to guard the pass. As he rode he said sadly to the Duke of Namo, who rode beside him,
"'Twas he gave Roland to guard the rear.
God! should I lose him, my nephew dear,
Whom I left on a foreign soil behind,
His peer on earth I shall never find."
"Wild and fierce is the fight;
Stanch are the Franks with the sword to smite;
Nor is there one but whose blade is red.
'Montjoie!' is ever their war-cry dread."
Charlemagne would have gloried in his knights, had he seen them on that day at Ronceval. With sword and lance they dashed upon the Saracens, making havoc in their ranks and slaying those they met in single combat, till it seemed as if there could be none left. Everywhere through the press rode Roland and Oliver, doing marvelous deeds, and the knights were never far behind them. Ensigns and pennons were torn and bloodstained, and many a knight lay dead on that field. The foe fell by thousands, and France, too, was reft in that day of the best of her chivalry. Dearly they sold their lives, but well they knew, as they met that mighty host of warriors, that the fair land of France would see them no more. Such battle was never seen in all the fierce strife that King Charlemagne had waged in that land, and at last the Saracens turned and fled before the Franks. They could not stand against that onslaught. So the battle was won by the Christian host,—the first battle of that fight,—but, oh! what sorrow remains to tell!
Of the mighty host whom King Marsilius had led into that pass, one hundred thousand lay dead on the field, and with them lay hundreds of gallant knights of the Franks who had sold their lives full dearly for their cause. As Roland and Oliver and those who survived were seeking their dead on the field, they heard a mighty blast of trumpets, and behold! a second heathen host, greater than the one they had vanquished, riding down upon them. Yet went they bravely to the fight again, and the cry of "Montjoie!" sounded forth in the ears of that Saracen foe.
Once more the sound of battle rose; once more the gallant knights met their foe with lance and sword, and alas! once more the ground was strewn with dead. Mighty were the deeds of valor that were done that day. But one and another fell, until there were but three hundred left of all that company.
As Roland watched Oliver ever in the press of the fight, dealing blow upon blow, his heart went out to him, and he cried aloud, "Oh, my comrade faithful and true, this day shall end our love! this day we shall part on earth forever!"
Oliver heard, and spurred his horse to Roland's side. "Keep near me," he said; "we will die together, if God so will."
Yet the slaughter went on, fiercer and fiercer, till only sixty weary Franks were left. As Roland gazed on his men lying cold in death, and the pitiful little band of sixty who yet remained, his heart was heavy within him, and he cried to his wise companion, "Would God he had been with us, our emperor, Charlemagne! How shall we send tidings to him?"
"I know not," said Oliver.
"I will sound upon my horn," said Roland, "that he may hear."
"You were mad to do such a deed. Lost in France would be your glory," said Oliver recalling to him his words of the morning.
But Roland's pride was broken, and he repeated, "Nay, I will sound upon my horn.
"Wouldst thou call for aid?" said Oliver for his heart was bitter within him for the needless slaughter of the chivalry of France.
The good archbishop Turpin heard, and he spake to Roland sadly, saying: "Aye, it were well to sound the call. It will avail us nothing now, but Charlemagne will return to avenge our death and bear our bodies back to gentle France, there to sleep in hallowed earth."
Then Roland raised his horn and sounded a mighty blast. With all the strength in his body he blew, and the blast was borne onward till it came to the ears of Charlemagne. Then, though the traitor Ganelon sought to dissuade him and tell him he had not heard aright, the emperor knew that Roland was in dire distress, and he turned him and all the host. Sadly they rode back with sorrow and fear in their hearts, along the mountain road towards Spain.
Meanwhile Roland had rushed once more into the fight, crying to Oliver, "My brother, I die of grief and shame, if I escape unslain."
Once more he swung his sword with such blows as only he could give, and the heathen gave way before him. But what did it avail? A thousand were pressing on behind. Roland seeing the battalions advancing cried, "Our hour is come!" and even as he spoke a heathen warrior came upon Oliver from behind, while he was dealing out blows to those before him, and thrust him through with his lance.
"Roland, my comrade," cried the dying Oliver, "ride near me; our parting is near."
"O God!" cried Roland in anguish, as he looked upon his friend and saw his ghastly whiteness; "is this the end of thy prowess, my gentle friend? On earth there shall never be such as thou. Ah, France, thou art indeed bereft of thy bravest!"
Then Oliver slipped from his horse and lay stretched on the ground, but ere he passed away he breathed a prayer that God would bless him, and King Charlemagne, and France, and last of all his brother Roland. So he passed away, and Roland was left alone.
"Since thou art dead, to live is pain," he cried.
Once more he dashed into the press, and fought fiercely. Yet first he raised his horn and sounded it. It was but a feeble blast, for his strength was near gone, but the answer came from sixty thousand clarions, for Charlemagne's host was drawing nearer.
"Charlemagne! Charlemagne!" cried the heathen. "France is upon us. Let us flee!"
And they turned and fled in dire panic from that field; but as they went the bravest of the Moslems hurled their weapons at Roland, for he alone of all the warriors was left. Yet he sank not then before their onset, but when they were gone he knew his end was near. On a mound beneath a pine tree he laid him down to die, but ere he passed away he thought of his good sword Durindana, and he knew that it must not fall into heathen hands.
"Ah, Durindana," he cried, "thou wert given to Charlemagne to belong to a valiant captain, and he girded thee on me. Many regions I have won with thee for him, but now I must leave thee, and thou shalt never fall in heathen hands."
He struggled to his feet and smote with it upon a great rock. Yet had he not strength to break it, but only to bend it past all use.
"That death was on him he knew full well;
Down from his head to his heart it fell.
On the grass beneath a pine tree's shade,
With his face to earth, his form he laid,
Beneath him placed he his horn and sword,
And turned his face to the heathen horde.
Thus hath he done the sooth to show,
That Karl and his warriors all may know,
That the gentle count a conqueror died.
Mea Culpa full oft he cried;
And, for all his sins, unto God above,
In sign of penance, he raised his glove."
So Charlemagne found Roland lying when he came to Ronceval, with his unsurrendered sword beneath him and his face toward Spain.