In the Wood of Ardennes
IN the wood of Ardennes, far from the common haunts of men, there was a meadow, shut in on all sides by tall trees and a thick growth of underwood. There the ground was covered with a rich carpet of the tenderest green grass, speckled with daisies and buttercups, and broidered with wild roses and lilies-of-the-valley; and the air was sweet with the fragrance of the spring-blossoms, and musical with the joyous notes of the song birds. It was a place fitted for rest and pleasant thought, where the harsh sounds of warlike strife and busy labor could never intrude.
On one side of this meadow, half hidden in a grove of drooping willows, was a fountain, walled in with pure white marble and once very beautiful, but now sadly neglected and falling into decay. Men say that the wise wizard Merlin built this fountain in the days of good King Arthur, hoping that Tristram and the fair Isolde would drink of its waters; for whosoever tasted of them was filled at once with a strange feeling of hate toward the one whom he had loved before, and he loathed the things which formerly had seemed most fair to him. Not far from this spot was another fountain, built, it was said, in the golden times, when the gods walked and talked with men. The pool into which its waters fell was of wonderful depth, and yet so clear that the smallest pebble could be plainly seen at the bottom. Men said that the wood nymphs used often to come here to bathe, and that the naiäds delighted to sit on its banks, and admire their own beauty reflected from below. And some wise wizard of old had given to the waters of this spring qualities as strange as those which distinguished the fountain of Merlin; for whosoever drank of them was forthwith filled with the maddest love and admiration for the first human being whom he chanced thereafter to meet.
To this happy meadow Angelica came, after flying unseen from the tournament at Merlin's Stair; and here she waited the coming of her brother Argalia. All day long she busied herself, plucking the flowers in the meadow, or listening to the melody of the birds, or watching the plashing of the water in the fountains; and she wondered why Argalia so long delayed his coming. Alas! her princely brother would never meet her at trysting-place again. As I have told you, he had fled from the tilting place with the speed of the wind, intending to meet his sister in the wood of Ardennes, and with her to go back without delay to their old home in Cathay. But the mid-day sun shone hot and fierce upon his head, and, thinking that no one would be able to overtake him, he stopped in the shadow of a spreading oak to rest. The shade was so cool and tempting, and the twitter of the song birds was so pleasing, and the bees hummed so drowsily among the leaves, that he was persuaded to dismount. He tethered his steed to an overhanging bough: he took off his helmet, and loosened his war coat, and, stretching himself carelessly upon the grass, was soon fast asleep.
While Argalia thus slept in the shade of the oak, Reinold of Montalban, mounted on the fleet-footed Bayard, passed by. And, although he saw the knight of Cathay slumbering soundly, he cared not to waken him, but hastened onward, intent on catching one more glimpse of the charming Angelica. Soon afterward the fierce Ferrau, fuming with fury, and full of foul thoughts, rode up. He spied the sleeping prince under the tree: his eyes gleamed with a wicked light, and his face grew dark as any thunder cloud. No true knight would have harmed a sleeping foe: he would have awakened him, and given him time to arm himself. But the Pagan cared naught for knightly honor. Without dismounting from his steed, he raised his gleaming sword above the uncovered head of Argalia; and, when the weapon fell, the gallant Prince of Cathay slept the sleep that knows not waking. Ferrau returned his blade to its scabbard, and was about to ride on again, when he saw the helmet of Argalia lying upon the grass where that hapless knight had thrown it. It was a casque of great beauty and rare workmanship, bound round with brass, and inlaid with gold and many a rich gem stone. The Moor turned it over, and lifted it on the point of his lance. The jewels gleamed in the sunlight, and shone with a beauty which was very tempting to him. Save the helmet of Roland, which he coveted above every thing else in the world, Ferrau had never seen aught that pleased him so well. He unlaced his own black-painted casque, and tried the jewelled helmet on his head. It was a perfect fit, and he did not remove it. He threw the other, with the raven plume still waving from its crest, upon the ground by the side of the murdered prince; and then, setting spurs to his steed, he galloped hastily onward toward the wood of Ardennes.
Very soon afterward Roland, having followed as fast as Brigliadoro would carry him, came up, and saw the ill-fated Argalia stretched upon the grass, and the well-known helmet and raven plume of Ferrau lying by his side.
"Ah, me!" said he. "What felony is this? This deed was never done in fair fight. Beastly treachery has done it. And thou, gallant Prince of Cathay, even though thou wert a Pagan, thou shalt not be unavenged."
Without pausing another moment, he gave rein to Brigliadoro, and galloped swiftly in pursuit of the base-hearted Moor.
In the mean while Angelica had become tired of wandering about the meadow in search of flowers. She had grown tired of the birds' songs, and tired of admiring herself in the clear mirror of the pool: so she drank a deep draught of water from the fountain of the nymphs and lay down upon a bed of roses and soft moss to sleep. While she slept, Reinold of Montalban rode into the meadow. He was very weary and very thirsty; and he stopped at the fountain of Merlin, and refreshed himself from its clear waters, little thinking what strange quality they possessed. Then, leading Bayard by the reins, he walked across the meadow toward the other fountain. There he saw the Princess of Cathay fast asleep among the roses. But in his eyes she was no longer beautiful. No toothless crone would have seemed so hideously ugly. He could not bear to look at her. With the deepest disgust he turned away, and remounted his good steed; and then, as fast as the fleet-footed Bayard could carry him, he hastened out of the wood of Ardennes, and back to the court of the king.
Scarcely had the hero of Montalban turned his horse's head, when Angelica awoke. She saw him riding away from her, and she thought him the handsomest knight she had ever seen. She called to him; but the sound of her voice only deepened the disgust which he felt, and he rode all the more rapidly away. Soon afterward she was startled by a noise on the other side of the meadow. She heard the sound of angry words, and then the rattle and clash of arms, as if two knights were engaged in deadly combat. Thinking that one of them might be her brother, she ran to that part of the glade whence the sounds came. There she saw Roland and Ferrau, with lances in rest, in the very act of riding against each other. But great was her dismay and horror when she saw above the black armor of Ferrau the jewelled helmet of Argalia. Well did she understand the meaning of it all; well did she know that her brother would never come to meet her in the old trysting-place in the wood of Ardennes. Terrified and in great distress, she put her magic ring again between her lips, and quick as thought she was back in her father's palace in the sunrise land of Cathay.
Roland had overtaken Ferrau upon the very border of the forest meadow; and he had at once charged the Moor with cowardly and unknightly behavior in slaying Argalia while he slept.
"The Prince of Cathay was no Christian," said he; "yet he was a true knight, courteous and bold. Turn now, and defend thyself, or take the punishment due to a thief and a murderer!"
The two warriors rushed toward each other with the fury of tigers and the force of two mountain whirlwinds. The lances of both were shivered in pieces, and so great was the shock, that both reeled in their saddles. Roland was the first to recover himself. Quickly he dismounted from his steed, and drew his good sword Durandal.
"Come on, thou stranger to every knightly virtue!" he cried,—"come on, and thou shalt taste the edge of Durandal, the terror of all wrong-doers."
But Ferrau had suddenly remembered that his liege lord, Marsilius of Spain, was in need of his help. He turned not back, nor looked around, nor seemed to hear the taunting challenge which Roland hurled after him. He set spurs to his night-black steed, and galloped away to the southward. Roland mounted Brigliadoro, and gave chase. But the Moor's black horse was the swifter of the two, and he and his rider were soon lost to sight. Then the hero changed his course, and slowly and thoughtfully rode back toward Paris.