The Emperor Charlemagne was well pleased, for at last, after much fighting, he had taken the city of Cordres. The walls lay in ruins, and with his great war engines he had shattered the towers and turrets. Within the town his knights had found rich plunder of gold and silver and precious stones, of wrought armour and princely weapons. So they were well rewarded for days of fighting and of toil.
But most of all Charlemagne was glad that not a heathen man remained within the walls. For those who would not be baptized, and become good Christian men, had been slain. Such was the great Emperor's way. To every prisoner was given the choice to live as Christian or to die as heathen.
And now, resting after his labours and his battles, great Karl sat in a sunny orchard. Around him were gathered his mighty men. Wise and old, bearded and grave, they sat upon gay carpets spread upon the ground, talking together or playing chess. Of the younger knights, some wrestled or ran or tried their strength in friendly wise in the cool shadow of the trees. Among them was the Emperor's nephew Roland, the bravest knight of France, and his fast friend Oliver.
And into the cool shade of the orchard, where these knights rested and played, rode Blancandrin and his train, on their white mules. Bending low before Charlemagne, "In the name of God we greet thee," said the messengers.
Then kneeling humbly, Blancandrin spoke. "The valiant King Marsil sends me to thee," he said, "with presents rich and rare. He promises to become thy vassal; he will place his hands within thy hands, and swear to serve thee. But already thou hast been too long time distant from thy fair realm of France. Go back, and there will King Marsil come to do thee homage."
When Blancandrin had finished speaking, the Emperor bowed his head in thought. He was never quick to speak, and now he pondered long before he answered the kneeling stranger. In silence around him, his own knights and the messengers of Spain awaited his reply.
At last Charlemagne raised his head. "Thou hast spoken well," he said to Blancandrin, "but King Marsil is my great enemy. Thy words are fair, but how may I know if there be any truth in them?"
This was even as Blancandrin had foreseen. "We will give thee hostages," he said, "ten—twenty—whatever number thou wilt ask. I will send mine own son to thee. And if we keep not faith with thee, if King Marsil come not, as he swears he will, to bow the knee to thee and receive the baptism of Holy Christ, then mayest thou slay them all."
"So be it"; said Charlemagne, "it seemeth me King Marsil may yet find grace."
Then as the day was far gone, and the evening sun sent long shadows through the trees, the Emperor gave orders that the Saracens should be lodged with honour, that every respect should be paid to them and that they should be waited upon as noble guests.
So the night passed and very early in the morning, Charlemagne rose. And after hearing morning prayer, he called his wise men round him that they might give him counsel.
"My lords and barons," he said, "King Marsil hath sent messengers to me with fair words and rich presents. He promises to be my vassal and to be baptized in the name of Holy Christ. And to this end he will follow me to France, if I now return thither. But how may I know whether he lie to me, or whether he speak truth?"
"Beware of him, beware!" cried the Franks.
Then, as silence once more fell upon them, Roland rose. His cheek was flushed, his eye flashed in anger. "Believe not thou this Marsil!" he cried. "He was ever a traitor. Once before, dost thou not remember it, there came from him false messengers, with olive branches in their hands and lies upon their lips. And when thou sentest two of thy knights to him, he smote off their heads. Listen not unto him, but end as thou hast begun. Carry the war to Saragossa, and if the siege should last all thy life long, it were still worth it, to avenge the death of our noble knights upon this felon Marsil. War! I say war!"
The Emperor bent his head. With his fingers he twisted his long white beard as he sat in thought, and to his nephew he answered no word good or bad. Around him stood his knights and nobles, silent too.
Then in the stillness, a knight whose name was Ganelon sprang up. His face was dark and haughty, and with proud gestures he strode to the foot of the throne. "Listen not to the counsel of fools!" he cried. "Think rather of thine own best good. King Marsil's gifts and promises, I say, thou oughtest to accept. He who counselleth thee to refuse is a fool, and thinketh not of the death we all may die. Listen not to the counsel of pride. Let fools be, and hearken to the wise." And casting a look of dark hatred at Roland, Ganelon was silent.
Then from his seat an old man rose. He was the Duke Naimes. His face was brown and wrinkled, his beard was white and long, and in all the Emperor's court there was none more wise than he.
Turning to the Emperor, "Thou hast heard," he said, "the words of Count Ganelon. It is wise counsel that he giveth. Let it be followed. King Marsil is vanquished in war. Thou hast taken all his castles, the walls of his towns are laid low by thy war engines, his villages are burned, his men are beaten. To-day he prays thee to have mercy upon him, and thou wrongest thyself if thou refuse. Send, I counsel thee, one of thy knights to Saragossa to speak with King Marsil, for it is time that this great war should end, and that we return to our own land."
Then all the Franks cried out, "The Duke hath spoken well."
"My lords and barons," said the Emperor, "since ye think it well, whom shall we send to do our bidding at Saragossa?"
"I will go right gladly," said Duke Naimes. "Give me here and now thy glove and mace as tokens that I am thy messenger, and let me go."
"Nay," replied the Emperor, "wisest art thou in counsel. By my beard, thou shalt not go so far from me! Sit thee down, I command thee!"
Duke Naimes was silent, and again the Emperor spoke. "My lords and barons, whom will ye that we send?"
"Send me!" cried Roland, "right joyfully will I go."
"Nay," said Oliver, springing forward, "nay, not so. Too fiery of temper art thou. Thou wouldst bring but evil out of this. Let me go rather, if the Emperor will."
"Be silent, both!" thundered Charlemagne. "Not a step shall ye go, either one or other of you. Nay, by my white beard, I swear none of my twelve chosen peers shall go." For Roland and Oliver were two of the twelve noblest and best of Charlemagne's knights, known as the Peers of France.
Before the anger of the Emperor the Franks stood silent and abashed. Then from the ranks of knights, Turpin, the old Archbishop of Rheims, stepped out. Raising his clear, strong voice, he spoke. "Sire," he cried, "thy knights and barons have suffered much in war these seven long years. Let them now rest. But give to me thy glove and mace. I will find this Saracen lord, and will speak unto him my mind."
"Nay," said the Emperor, and his brow grew yet more dark, "nay, by my troth thou shalt not go. Sit thee down, and speak not again until I command thee." Then, as Turpin was silent and went back to his place, once again the Emperor turned to his knights. "My lords of France," he cried, "now choose ye, choose ye whom we shall send to do our bidding at Saragossa!"
"Ah!" said Roland, "if I may not go, then send Ganelon my step-father. Nowhere canst thou find a better knight or wiser man."
"Well said! well said!" shouted the Franks. "If so the Emperor will, there were no man better."
"Good," replied Charlemagne, "Ganelon it shall be. Approach, Count, and receive the mace and glove. The Franks have chosen thee. Thou hast heard."
But Ganelon stood in his place white and trembling with passion. "This is Roland's work," he said in a voice low, yet sharp with anger. "For this, I vow, I will love him no more. No more will I love Oliver, for he is Roland's friend. No more will I love the Peers, for they are his companions. There, Sire, before thy face I fling defiance at them."
"Ganelon," replied the Emperor sternly, "there is too much anger here. Since I order it, thou shalt go."
"Oh, I will go," cried Ganelon mad with anger, "I will go, and I will die as the two knights before me died. For if I go to Saragossa, I know well that I shall never return." Then seeing that his anger moved not the Emperor one whit, he began to speak in a pleading, gentle voice. "Forget not thou thy sister who is my wife," he said. "Forget not my son, too. Oh, my pretty boy! If he lives he will be a noble knight, and to him I leave all my lands and riches. Be thou good to him and love him, for I shall never see him more."
"Ganelon," said Charlemagne scornfully, "thy heart is too tender methinks. If I command thee to go, go thou must."
And now Count Ganelon's anger knew no bounds. Shaking with wrath, he flung his cloak backward from his shoulders, showing the silken vest which he wore beneath. He was very tall and splendid, and his dark proud face glowed with passion, and his grey eyes glittered as he turned to Roland. "Fool," he cried, "dastard, why this hatred against me? Ah! every one knows. I am thy step-father, and therefore hast thou condemned me to go to Marsil and to death. But wait," he went on, his voice trembling and choking with passion, "wait, and if it please Heaven that I return, I will bring upon thee such sorrow and mourning as shall last all thy life long."
"Pride and folly," laughed Roland scornfully, "thou knowest that I care not for thy threats. But such a message as that upon which the Emperor now sends thee requires a man of wisdom, and if so the Emperor will, I will take thy place."
But neither did this please Ganelon. "Thou art not my vassal," he cried, "nor am I thy lord. The Emperor hath commanded me to go to Saragossa, and go I shall. But I shall do thee and thy companions an evil to avenge me of this day."
At that Count Roland laughed aloud in scorn.
When Ganelon heard Roland laugh he became as one beside himself. His face grew purple with anger, he gasped and choked. "I hate thee," he hissed at last, "I hate thee!" Then struggling to be calm he turned once more to the Emperor. "Great Karl," he said, "I am ready to do thy will."
'I hate thee,' hissed Ganelon
"Fair Sir Ganelon," said the Emperor, "this is my message to the heathen King Marsil. Say to him that he shall bend the knee to gentle Christ and be baptized in His name. Then will I give him full half of Spain to hold in fief. Over the other half Count Roland, my nephew well-beloved, shall reign. If Marsil doth not choose to accept these terms then will I march to Saragossa. I will besiege and take his city. I will bind him hand and foot, and will lead him prisoner to Aix, my royal seat. There he shall be tried, and judged and slain, dying a death of torture and disgrace. Here is the letter which I have sealed with my seal. Give thou it into the hands of the heathen lord."
Thus speaking, the Emperor held out the letter and his right hand glove to Ganelon. But he, in his anger scarce knowing what he did, as he knelt to take them, let the glove slip from his fingers, and it fell to the ground between them.
"Alas!" cried the Franks, "that is an evil omen. Ill-luck will come to us of this quest."
"Ye shall have news of it anon," said Ganelon darkly, turning from them. Then to the Emperor he said, "Sire, let me go. Since go I must, why delay?"
The Emperor raised his hand, and signed him with the sign of the cross. "Go," he said, "in Christ's name and mine." And giving his mace into Ganelon's hand, he bade him God-speed.
Without a look at the gathered peers, without a word of farewell, Ganelon turned on his heel, and went to his own house. There he clad himself in his finest armour. Golden spurs were bound upon his feet, a cloak of rich fur and silk was flung about his shoulders. Murglies, his famous sword, he girt to his side, and as he sprang upon his horse Taschebrun, many a knight pressed round him to say farewell, many begged to be allowed to go with him. For they were gallant knights and bold, and to go upon a quest of danger was their greatest joy. But Ganelon would have none of them. "God forbid!" he cried; "I had rather go upon my death alone. But, gentle sirs, ye return to fair France, whither I too would fain go. Greet there for me my dear lady and my boy. Defend him and guard his rights as ye would your own." Then with bent head Ganelon turned slowly from their sight, and rode to join the heathen Blancandrin.
As he journeyed, his heart was heavy. Sadly he thought of that fair France which he might never see again, more sadly still of his wife and child whom never again perhaps would he hold in his arms. Then his heart grew hot with jealous anger at the thought that these knights and nobles whom he hated would now soon return to France, and that he alone of all that gallant host would be left to die in heathen Spain.