The Princess of Cathay
IT was the season of Pentecost, and Charlemagne was holding a great feast and a high tide of rejoicing at Paris. The city was dressed in holiday attire; and there was much banqueting, and music and dancing, and jousting, and many gallant deeds at arms. And the noblest men and the fairest women in Christendom had gathered there to do honor to the king and to share in the glad festivities. For, strange as it may seem, Charlemagne was now, for the first time in his reign, at peace with all the world. Neither foes abroad nor traitors at home dared lift up their heads, or show their hands.
On the last day of the feast a grand tournament was held in the meadows; and the king and his peers, and the lordly strangers who were visiting at the court, were there. Some merely sat in the galleries as spectators: others entered the lists as contestants in the noble passage-at-arms. There might have been seen Roland and Oliver, and Ogier the Dane, and Reinold of Montalban, and wise old Duke Namon, and evil-eyed Ganelon, and even the cunning wizard Malagis. There, too, were the queen and her train of high-born dames, and the fairest damsels that the sun of France had ever shone upon. But fairer than all others was the matchless maiden Alda, the betrothed of Roland. And most worthy among the strangers was a young English knight named Astolpho,—a poet by birth, and fairer of face and speech than he was skilful in the use of arms. There, also, were several Pagan princes, who had come to Paris either to see and admire the splendor and the power of the Christian king, or to spy out the weak points in his government, and determine what his real strength might be. Chief among these was a dark-faced giant named Ferrau, a prince of Saragossa, who was said to be the ablest and bravest of all the Saracen knights in the train of King Marsilius of Spain. But no one of all the great company who met to view the tournament there in the Seine meadows could excel Roland in grace and strength and skill. Many were the feats at arms that he performed that day, and in more than one combat was he hailed the victor.
Late in the afternoon, when the heralds had announced the cessation of the day's amusements, and the folk were about to leave the place, the sound of a bugle was heard outside of the lists. And when, by the king's command, the barriers were thrown open to admit the new-comer, whoever he might be, there came a strange procession through. Four giants, taller by half than the tallest man in Charlemagne's court, presented themselves, and came directly toward the king. Their faces were dark and fierce; and they looked down upon the knights, who made way for them, with an ill-hidden expression of scorn. Behind them, on a milk-white palfrey, rode a young lady. A princess she seemed, and the most beautiful that Charlemagne or his knights had ever looked upon. She was dressed in the fashion of the Far East, and upon her head was a diadem of pearls; and the palfrey upon which she sat was trapped to the foot in blue velvet, bordered with crimson cloth-of-gold. And by the side of the strange lady there rode a noble knight, clad in a war coat of polished brass, upon a war steed harnessed in white cloth-of-gold, bearing a device of eyes full of tears. And neither knight nor lady looked to the right or to the left, but followed their huge guides straight toward the place where the king sat.
When Charlemagne first saw the giants coming so boldly in on foot, he was on the point of ordering them driven from the lists. But when his eyes rested on the rare beauty of the strange princess who followed them, and on the proud form of the knight, her companion, he allowed them to come very near to him in order that he might the better see them, and speak with them.
"Who are you?" he asked. "And why come you here at this late hour of the day, unheralded and unknown?"
The four giants made humble obeisance to the king, but said not a word. The knight sat upright on his charger, his eyes fixed upon the ground before him, his face immovable as that of a statue, seeming neither to hear nor to see aught that was going on around him. But the lady rode forward until she was directly in front of the high seats. And she courtesied reverently to the king; and, lifting her peerless eyes toward him, she said,—
"Right high, right worthy, and right mighty king, I am Angelica. My father is King Galafron, the ruler of far-off Cathay; and he is, next to you, the mightiest monarch in the world. This young knight who rides by my side is my brother Argalia, than whom few braver men are known. By the leave of our kingly father we have journeyed from the rising sun to the western sea, viewing the wonders of nature, and the power of men, and the might of Christendom. And we seek a knight without fear and without shame, who will dare meet my brother in honorable act of arms."
At these words several of the knights sprang up, eager to offer the gage of battle to the new-comer. But Charlemagne motioned them to be quiet; and the Princess Angelica went on:—
"We have heard, most noble king, that you are at peace
with all the world, and for that reason we have been
the more bold to come into your country. And we had
hoped to be here to take part in the passage-at-arms
"We most certainly accept the challenge," said the king, smiling.
"But listen to the conditions," said the princess. "Whoever is unhorsed by my brother becomes his lawful prisoner, and is held by him as a hostage until he is ransomed. But, should any knight overcome my brother in fair fight, that knight may, if he choose, claim me as his wife, and all my dowry as his reward. For the Fates have written that this can be done only by the greatest hero in the world."
All the men who stood near and heard this challenge were astonished at the strangeness of the terms which were offered, and yet they were all the more eager to engage in combat with the young prince. For, the longer they looked upon the matchless form and features of Angelica, the more they were enraptured with her heavenly beauty.
"We accept the conditions," said the king graciously.
"It is well," answered the princess. "We shall remember."
Then, saluting the king reverently, she turned her palfrey about, and with her brother followed her giant escort out of the lists.
And now a great dispute arose among the knights. Each one was anxious to be the first to try his strength and skill in the joust with the Prince of Cathay. Charlemagne, seeing that the question could be settled in no other way, declared that the whole matter should be left to chance, and ordered that lots should be drawn. Thirty-one knights offered themselves, and not one felt any doubt but that the palm of victory in the coming contest would be his. Each wrote his name on a bit of parchment, which he dropped into Roland's helmet. Then the slips were drawn out one by one by a blindfolded page, and the names were read in their order by Archbishop Turpin. The first name was that of the English knight, Astolpho. Everybody smiled when it was read,—some in disdain, others in ridicule. And some were so unmannerly as to hint that the fair-haired foreigner would succeed better in a tourney with minstrels, with the harp as his weapon instead of the lance.
"Has he ever been known to unhorse his opponent?" asked one.
"Never," was the answer. "But he has been known to tumble from his own steed at the mere sight of a lance."
The second name drawn was that of the dark-browed Pagan chief, Ferrau. There was a low murmur of disappointment among the knights; for the fierce Moor was noted, not only for his great strength, but for his skill also in every feat of arms. And all felt that Argalia must indeed acquit himself well if he would come out whole and well from a combat with so valiant a foe.
"It seems as if these heathen foreigners are to snatch all the honors out of our hands," said Oliver.
"It shall not be!" answered Reinold, biting his lips in anger.
The third name was that of Ogier the Dane, and there was a general sigh of relief.
"Another foreigner!" said Duke Ganelon disdainfully.
"And yet he is a more loyal Frenchman than thou," answered Roland, turning sharply upon the old traitor, and gazing so fiercely into his face that he was glad to slink away from the place.
The fourth name was that of Reinold of Montalban; and the fifth was that of the king himself. Oliver's name was the tenth. But Roland, who was burning with impatience to distinguish himself in a combat like this, was left until the very last: his name was the thirty-first. Among all the knights who had offered themselves as combatants in the act of arms which was about to take place, not one, save Ferrau the fierce Moor, was satisfied with the lots.
That evening Malagis the wizard opened his book of enchantments, and sought to find out therefrom what fortune the Fates had in store for him and his friends. But he desired most to know what would be the end of the jousting on the morrow, and whether aught of honor should accrue to his cousin Reinold of Montalban. As he looked in his book, strange, weird creatures came and danced before him. Fairies and hobgoblins, good and bad, flocked into his chamber, and courtesied and bowed, and saluted him as their master. And everyone seemed anxious to tell him something, and waited only for his questions, or for his gracious leave to speak. Did you ever think, my children, that there is magic in every book, and that when you open the pages, good fairies or wicked elves come and whisper to you? The words are the mysterious creatures that salute the magician who reads; and they tell him of the wonderful past, and lay bare for him the secrets of the present and the future.
Among the ghostly visitors who came at the wizard's call was a little elf who never had told a falsehood, or concealed aught that he knew. Of him Malagis asked many questions about the Princess Angelica and her brother Argalia. And this is what the elf whispered in the ear of the cunning wizard,—
"Angelica and Argalia are truly the children of mighty Galafron, king of Cathay. But they come to France on no peaceful errand. Their object is to destroy the bravest and the best of the Christian knights, and in the end to overthrow the whole of Christendom. Do you ask how a beautiful young lady, and a knight single-handed and alone, can hope to do so great mischief? It is all very simple. I will tell you. Prince Argalia carries an enchanted lance,—a beam which is sure to unhorse whomsoever it touches, and which has never been known to fail. His shield is equally wonderful; for every weapon that comes toward it turns aside in its course, and refuses to touch it. And he rides a horse which is as fleet as the hurricane: not even the famed Bayard can outstrip him. The stoutest warrior can scarcely hope to contend successfully with such a foe. But what I have told you is not all. Even should Argalia be defeated in the joust, it is not likely that the victor can ever gain the prize which has been promised; for the princess carries with her a magic ring the like of which is not known in your books. When any danger threatens her, she places this ring in her mouth, and all at once she vanishes from mortal sight; and she is carried with the speed of thought to whatever place she wishes to go."
When Malagis had learned all that was to be known about Angelica and her brother, he closed his book, and sent his fairy visitors away. And he sat for a long time alone in his chamber, planning what he should do. At first he thought of warning the king of the danger which threatened. But he knew that Charlemagne had little faith in magic, and that he would only laugh at his story: so, upon second thought, he made up his mind to keep the whole matter a secret, and to undertake alone the task of saving France from the cunning infidels. When everyone in the palace was asleep, and all was silent and dark, the little man wrapped his long cloak around him, and stole quietly out of his chamber. Under his arm he carried his book of enchantments, and in his hand he held his wizard's wand, while beneath his cloak he carried a short sword. Straight to the Stair of Merlin he went, where he knew he would find the Princess of Cathay and her noble brother. He had no trouble in finding the place, even in the dark; for he had often been there, in times now long past, to talk with Merlin, the wise wizard of Britain, from whom he had learned all his lore.
In the midst of the meadow adjoining the Stair of Merlin stood a rich pavilion. It was covered with double blue satin, and rich cloths from India, upon which were embroidered many strange devices in silver and gold. And above it floated four and twenty banners bearing the arms and mottoes of the princes of Cathay. At the door of this pavilion two swarthy giants stood, with huge clubs in their hands, and cimeters at their sides. Fiercely they glared at Malagis as he came toward them; and, had he not glared back with something of the same fierceness, there is no knowing what mischief they might have done him. But they quailed beneath the glances of the little old wizard; and, when they saw the book which he carried under his arm, they began to tremble, for ignorance is always thus fearful in the presence of knowledge. Yet, when Malagis would have entered the tent, the giants raised their great bludgeons; and, although they dared not look him in the face, they stood ready to strike him down. Then the wizard waved his wand in the air, and opened his book, and began to read. And forthwith the giants dropped their clubs to the ground, and began to yawn. And, as he kept on reading, their eyes grew heavy, so that they could no longer keep them open. And soon they were fast asleep, and recked not who came in, or who passed out. Then Malagis walked boldly into the inner court of the pavilion. Inside of the door he found the other two giants seated on a bench; but they also were fast asleep, and the wizard passed by them unchallenged. In one part of the pavilion, which was hung with rich cloth-of-gold, and furnished most gorgeously, after the manner of the Far East, the charming Angelica was reclining on her couch; and near her sat her maidens and attendants, all wrapped in the deepest slumber. When Malagis gazed upon the sweet face of the Pagan princess, he thought that in the whole world there was not any vision half so lovely. He wondered if the angels were as beautiful, and he was half tempted to fall down and worship. Never before had wizard been so bewitched. He had come to the pavilion determined to kill both the princess and the prince, and thus save Charlemagne and his peers from the great peril which threatened them. But in the presence of the peerless beauty he forgot all his learning and all his wizard's skill and all his loyalty to the king. His book slipped out of his hands, and fell with a rustling crash upon the ground. The spell was broken, and the noise awakened the princess and her maidens. They sprang to their feet, and screamed with affright. Argalia, who was sleeping in another room, was aroused, and with drawn sword hastened to the rescue. The giants, too, rushed in with their huge bludgeons raised in air. But, when they saw only the trembling wizard standing in the middle of the room, they dropped their weapons, scorning to strike a foe so weak and pitiable. Sorry, indeed, was the plight of the wan-faced old man, shorn now of all his power, and forgetful of his magic lore. He fell helpless at the feet of the charming princess.
"Spare him," said Angelica to her brother, who had again raised his sword. "There is no honor in crushing a worm so poor and harmless. But let us turn his own enchantments against him, and send him to our good father Galafron in Cathay, that our folk may know what kind of knights these Christians are who would slay us while we sleep."
Then she took up the wand which had fallen from the wizard's hand, and with it she drew a circle upon the ground, calling three times upon the name of Mahmet. And she opened the book of enchantments, and read from it. And the pavilion was filled with a pale blue smoke; and forked lightnings flashed through the darkness, and the winds moaned, and the thunder rolled. And a score of strange creatures—hobgoblins and elves and winged afrits—came and stood around the magic circle. Then, at a word from Angelica, they took up the trembling Malagis, and bore him away. And they carried him over fields and wooded plains, and across broad rivers and the snowy mountains and the billowy seas and many strange countries, until at last they reached the land of the rising sun, and gave him over to Galafron, king of Cathay. The king gazed with contempt upon the wan and shrivelled features of the fallen wizard, and he wondered if all the knights in Christendom were like this one. Malagis in vain prayed for mercy. Galafron could not understand a word that he said, nor was he in a mood to show kindness to one who had basely sought to take the life of his daughter Angelica. And he ordered that the old man should be imprisoned in a hollow rock beneath the sea, where he should never more behold the light of the sun, or hear the glad sounds of day.
Early the next morning the knights who had offered to joust with Prince Argalia rode out together to the Stair of Merlin. They found the Pagan mounted upon his wonderful charger, and ready for the fray. And a great company of lords and ladies and squires and serving men had assembled there, eager to view the combat. And so noble was the bearing of the Prince of Cathay, that, had he been a Christian knight, he would have had the sympathy of all the lookers-on.
As the lots had decided, the first to enter the lists was Astolpho of England. The trumpets sounded for the onset, and the two combatants rushed toward each other with the speed of the wind. As everybody had expected, Astolpho was hurled headlong from his saddle, and lay entangled in his heavy armor, helpless in the dust. Argalia gallantly dismounted, and assisted him to rise. He kindly arranged his helmet, which had fallen from his head, and then, according to the terms which had been agreed upon, led him to the pavilion, where he was to remain a prisoner.
There was a general murmur among the lookers-on; but whether it was a murmur of regret for the not unlooked-for mischance of the poet knight, or of admiration for the skill and courtesy of the Pagan prince, I cannot say.
And now all was hushed in anxious expectation and dread, as the fierce Ferrau rode out and took his place in the lists. A very giant in size, boastful of speech, rude and uncouth in manners, he seemed no fair match for the light-built and courteous knight of Cathay. He was clad in a complete suit of black armor, and above his helmet's crest there waved a raven's plume. He was mounted on a charger black as night, the trappings of which were of black velvet embellished with gold embroidery and a figure of the new moon embracing the morning star. Not a single well-wisher had the fierce Moor in all that company of lookers-on.
When every thing was in readiness, the trumpets again sounded the signal for the onset. The two Pagans gave rein to their well-trained steeds, and dashed across the turf. Their lances crashed against the opposing shields, and everyone expected that Argalia would be unhorsed. What, then, was the astonishment and delight of all, when they saw him ride proudly onward, while the fierce Ferrau was hurled from the saddle, and rolled ingloriously upon the ground! A great shout went up from the multitude of lookers-on,—a shout of joy, because they supposed that rude brute force had for once been vanquished by skill: for no one knew that the lance which Argalia bore was an enchanted one; and the rude Ferrau, although a guest at the court of Charlemagne, was no favorite. Again and again the air was rent with cheers for the valiant Prince of Cathay; while Argalia, never forgetful of the courtesy due to a fallen foe, turned and rode back in order to help Ferrau to his feet. But the fierce Moor, stung to madness by his unlooked-for overthrow, and goaded into still greater wrath by the cheers which were heard on every side, had already risen. He drew his sword from its scabbard, and dared the Cathayan knight to continue the fight on foot. The guards now stepped before him, and reminded him of the terms that had been agreed upon with Charlemagne.
"What are Charlemagne's agreements to me?" he cried angrily. "He is no king of mine: I owe him no allegiance."
Fiercely, madly, he attacked the knight of Cathay. Very skilfully did Argalia defend himself; but neither his skill nor his enchanted shield availed much against the furious strokes of his giant foe. The contest was a short one. Argalia was disarmed, and thrown to the earth. Ferrau knelt upon his breast, and, drawing his dagger, held it to the throat of the vanquished knight.
"On one condition only shalt thou have thy life," he growled savagely. "Promise me, on thy faith as a Mahometan, that thy sister Angelica shall be my wife, and that all her dowry shall be mine!"
Had Argalia been a Christian knight, he would have scorned to have asked for his life on any terms, much more would he have disdained to bargain for it thus. But he was only a Pagan; and, although he was very courteous and noble, he lacked some of those higher qualities of mind and heart which distinguished the true Christian knight; and so, after a little parley, he agreed to the terms offered by Ferrau. And amid groans, and cries of "Shame! shame!" from the lookers-on, he was allowed to rise to his feet.
But Angelica liked not the thought of being made the wife of a man so fierce and brutish as Ferrau. She had had no voice in the agreement with the Moor, and she made up her mind not to be bound by it. In spite of the guards, she sprang over the barriers, and hurried to her brother's side.
"Never will your sister be the bride of a knight so unworthy and so base!" she cried. Then in a low whisper she said, "Meet me in the wood of Ardennes."
She took the magic ring from her finger, and put it between her cherry lips. Quick as thought she vanished from sight. Only a thin, white cloud, beautiful as a midsummer night's dream, and not a whit more lasting, arose in the air, and floated away on the breeze toward the forest of Ardennes. When the Moor saw, that, after all, he had been outwitted, and that the peerless Angelica had escaped beyond his reach, his wrath knew no bounds. With uplifted sword he rushed a second time toward the knight of Cathay, intending to strike him dead. But Argalia was too quick for him. He had already mounted his swift-footed steed, and at a word he was flying with the speed of a hurricane across field and wood, and over hill and dale, toward the trysting-place named by Angelica.
Everybody was astonished at the strange ending of the jousts, and there was not a little disappointment and confusion. The fierce Moor gave spurs to his night-black steed, and followed in the wake of the flying Argalia. Roland, knowing that should the prince be overtaken he would fare but ill at the hands of his wrathful enemy, mounted his own favorite horse Brigliadoro, and rode swiftly after them. Then Reinold, burning with impatience to view once more the heavenly beauty of Angelica, gave rein to Bayard, and soon outstripped and passed both Roland and Ferrau. A strange, exciting race was that from the Stair of Merlin to the wood of Ardennes.