How Roland Became His Own Shadow
IT chanced one day that Roland came to a pleasant woodland, which was bordered on one side by a meadow and on the other by a hoary mountain. Tall trees lifted their heads toward the sky, seeking the sunlight, and defying the storm; climbing vines formed many a pleasant arbor among the trunks and branches; and cool bowers invited the tired knight to take shelter within them from the hot beams of the midsummer sun. A mountain brook, whose banks were bordered with wildflowers of every hue, wound here and there among the trees, singing on its way to the grassy meadow beyond; and the air was filled with the smell of fragrant blossoms and the sound of drowsily humming bees. Our hero was weary with his long journey, and overcome with the excessive heat. For many days he had been on the road, scarcely stopping for a night's rest, or to partake of needed food. This grove seemed so cool and inviting, that he determined to dismount and sit for a while in the shade. There was a strange throbbing in his head; the blood in his veins seemed boiling hot; his pulse beat hard and fast. He had never felt so miserable. He loosened his helmet, and laid it upon the grass; he knelt down, and drank a long, refreshing draught from the flowing brook; and then he bathed his feverish temples in the cool liquid, and lay down among the flowers to rest. By and by he arose, but he felt not a whit better than before. He looked up at the great trees which lifted their heads so high above him: he admired their gnarled branches, and their smooth, sturdy trunks. On one of them he noticed some strange letters carved, and he wondered what they could mean. He went nearer, and saw that they formed the word "ANGELICA." He thought it strange that the name of the Cathayan princess should be engraved in this out-of-the-way place; and yet she herself might have carved it while resting here in the shade, just as he was doing. He walked a little farther into the grove, and saw the name again; but this time another—"MEDORO"—was written beneath it. Who was Medoro? He had never heard of such a person, but the name had a Moorish sound about it. Farther on, the trees seemed covered with these names written in every conceivable way,—in letters Arabic, Roman, and German. Even the rocks were scribbled over with chalk and charcoal, and always with the words "Angelica, Medoro." Filled with a nameless feeling of disgust, Roland turned away. He mounted his good Brigliadoro, and rode forward on his journey.
But he did not ride far. In the valley between the mountains he saw blue smoke rising from a shepherd's cottage; he heard the bleating of sheep and lambs, the lowing of cattle, and the glad voices of children. He thought that this would be a pleasant place to rest until the morrow, and he determined to stop. As he rode into the yard, the shepherd met him, and asked him to alight, for the sun was sinking, and night was at hand. A boy ran forward, and led Brigliadoro to the stables, while Roland and his kind host walked side by side into the house. All the good folk of the cottage were eager to serve the warrior. One took his shield, another his helmet, a third his cuirass, and a fourth his golden spurs. The shepherd himself, with becoming reverence, took care of the dread blade Durandal, all sheathed in its gemmed and golden scabbard; and the good wife busied herself in making ready the evening meal,—a meal such as should be worthy of so noble a guest.
As Roland, well pleased with his lodgings, looked about him, he was surprised to see that the walls and rafters of the humble dwelling were scribbled over with the same words that he had seen on the trees in the grove,—"ANGELICA, MEDORO." The shepherd noticed his wonderment, and, being a talkative fellow, was not long in telling him the whole story. He related how the young Moor had been sadly wounded, and how he had been nursed back to life by the fair and gentle Princess of Cathay; and how, at length, the handsome pair had been married, and had gone away to their home in the golden East.
"And if you don't believe it," said the swain, seeing a strange, wandering look in the warrior's face, "I will prove the truth of my story; for we have here the fair maiden's bracelet. She gave it to my wife as a keepsake."
And he brought from an inner room a golden armlet which Roland remembered as the same which he himself had given, long time before, to the handsome maiden of Cathay. He gazed at the pretty ornament a moment, and then silently gave it back to his host. His eyes seemed dazed; and there was a strange feeling about his brows and temples, such as he had never before known. His hostess pressed him to eat of the food which she placed before him,—fresh venison from the woodland, the whitest loaves made from the farmer's own wheat, wild honey from the wooded mountain slopes, and all the delicacies that the good woman knew. But he would taste nothing. Somehow, the words, "Angelica, Medoro," rang in his ears, and burned in letters of fire before his eyes, and so filled his mind that he could think of nothing else.
Some men say that our hero had been deeply and madly in love with the Princess of Cathay, and that all his distress at this time was caused by his feelings of disappointment. But I cannot think so; for the fair and heroic Alda, the sister of Oliver, had long been betrothed to him, and waited now for him in Paris, and prayed for his happy return. More likely it was the tiresome journey over dusty roads and in the broiling sunshine, that set Roland's brain on fire, and made him forget himself so long.
The best bed in the only spare chamber was given to Roland, and there, through the long hours of the night, he tossed in pain; and whether he closed his eyes, or gazed about the room, those two fatal words, "Angelica, Medoro," were ever present to his sight. The morning came; and still the warrior lay upon his bed, but not in pain. His mind wandered far away to his mother the gentle Bertha, or to Alda his betrothed; or sometimes he thought himself in the din of battle, fighting manfully for the king and sweet France; or he dreamed that he was again in Fairyland, among the cooling waterfalls and shady groves, listening to the songs of the birds and the hum of the bees and the gay music of the fairies. Day after day he lay in the quiet, darkened chamber, carefully watched and tended by the good shepherd and his wife. And more than once did he step down very near to the dark door of death, but good nursing and ceaseless care saved him. Little by little, he grew stronger and stronger; yet he was not the same Roland. He did not know where he was: he fancied the humble room wherein he lay to be a lofty chamber in some grand castle; and, instead of the good host and hostess, he saw by his bedside his brother knights and ready squires and pages in waiting. And when, one day, the kind housewife drew aside the curtains, and allowed him to look out over the meadows, and the fields of ripening corn, he thought himself again a barefoot boy, wandering among the byways of Sutri and longing for the time when he should be one of Charlemagne's peers. And the country folk could not understand why it was that, while his body grew hale and strong again, his mind still remained clouded.
"I am not the Roland whom you think me to be," he said. "That Roland is dead, and I am his shadow."
One day, after he had gotten strong enough to sit up, he amazed his host by calling for his armor.
"The king is in danger," he cried. "I must ride to the rescue."
He donned his coat of mail, and put on his greaves and his helmet. The shepherd's wife buckled on his golden spurs; and the shepherd brought him his shield and his good sword Durandal.
"Where now is my horse Brigliadoro?" he asked. "Without him, I shall fare but ill on the battlefield."
They had hoped, that, after his arms were girded on him, he would forget this last illusion; and they tried to persuade him that the king was in no need of help. But he would not listen. He must have his steed, and he must ride at once to Charlemagne. The peasant's son led the horse, all caparisoned in steel and gold, to the cottage door. The noble beast was impatient for a canter across the plains, or another encounter in the tourney or on the battlefield; and he neighed with pleasure at sight of his master. The knight mounted him, and rode down the hill-slope toward the wooded plain and the meadow. The way led him through the grove where he had stopped and rested on that afternoon when last he was himself. He saw the trees and the rocks still bearing the words, "Angelica, Medoro;" and a nameless fury filled his soul. He fancied now that he was in the thick of battle, and that giant foes beset him on every side. He drew his sword, and smote madly about him. Wherever he saw the hated names engraved, there he hacked and cut, until not a single letter remained. He alighted from his horse, and hewed down the underbrush, and filled the mountain brook with stones and turf. And after he had exhausted all his strength he seemed to grow calmer. He stopped, and stood a long time, as if in thought.
"I am not the Roland whom some take me to be," he said, speaking to himself. "I am only the shadow of that knight, and shadows need no arms." And then, moved by a sudden freak of madness, he threw his sword upon the ground: he rushed from one part of the wood to another, all the while loosening and tearing off his armor. In one place he left his shield, and in another his helmet; while farther away he doffed, one by one, his gauntlets and his greaves, his breastplate, and lastly his golden spurs. Then, with loud cries that were echoed among the mountains, and even carried back to the kind peasant's cottage, he strode aimlessly away, nobody knew whither. Well was it, that in those dark and troublous times people were wont to look with awe upon the madman, and regard him as one specially protected by Heaven; for, had it been otherwise, the sad shadow of Roland would have fared but badly, wandering alone through strange and unfriendly lands.
It happened, not long after this, that a knight and a lady rode by that way. The knight was Zerbino, the Scottish cavalier; and the lady was the fair Isabella. As they approached the woodland, they were surprised to find the golden spurs of Roland lying in the dust by the roadside. A little farther on, they saw other pieces of his armor, and lastly his shield and sword. And as they looked about them, wondering what all this meant, they espied the good steed Brigliadoro, calmly grazing in the meadow, his bridle reins hanging loose from the saddle-bow. They noticed that the trees around them had been strangely hacked and hewed, and that the grass and flowers had been rudely trampled down; but they could see no signs of bloodshed, nor of any conflict with arms. The longer they paused and studied about this matter, the more puzzled they became.
While yet they stood, uncertain what to do, the shepherd's son came down the road, on his way to the sheep pasture. He stopped, and told them the whole story of Roland's long illness, and of the strange madness which had seized upon him.
"Alas!" said Zerbino, "our brave friend is no longer himself. Yet, when his fury is all spent, his senses may return to him, and he will need his good arms. We will take care that they are not lost."
Then he carefully gathered up all the pieces of that matchless armor, and hung them on the branches of a pine tree by the roadside. And beneath them he carved in the soft bark these words: "THESE ARE THE ARMS OF ROLAND." And he knew that no true knight who read this inscription would remove or disturb them. When he had done all that could be done for the honor of his noble friend, Zerbino remounted his steed; and, leading Brigliadoro behind them, he and the fair Isabella went on their way.
Scarcely were the Scottish knight and his companion well out of sight, when the sound of clattering hoofs and ringing armor was heard far down the road; and the shepherd's boy, who still lingered near the pine, admiring the richness and beauty of Roland's armor, saw a tall knight riding fast toward the spot. He was mounted on a white steed, and was clad in a coat-of-mail whose brightness rivalled that of the sun. On his arm he bore a shield of great splendor, and his crested helmet glistened with many a jewel. Yet he wore no sword at his side; and his lance, which was new, seemed a very inferior one. This knight was Mandricardo the Tartar chief. When he saw Roland's arms hanging upon the pine, he halted, and drew near to read the inscription. Twice he read it; and then, to make sure that there was no mistake, he scanned with great care every piece and part of the armor, but looked most at the sword Durandal.
"Ha!" cried he in great delight, "this is indeed the blade of Trojan Hector."
He drew it from its scabbard, and looked with pleased eyes upon its fire edge, and read the quaint inscription on its side. He admired its jewelled hilt, and tested its temper by bending its blade into a perfect circle, and by hewing the trees and rocks around him. Then he turned suddenly toward the trembling boy.
"How came this armor here?" he asked in tones of thunder.
The boy told him the story of Roland's madness, and how he had thrown his armor away and run roaring into the forest; and how Zerbino had picked up the pieces and hung them on the pine.
"I understand it all," said the Tartar. "The fellow is not mad: he is only feigning. He has left his armor here only because he knew that he was not strong enough to keep the sword Durandal. He is afraid to make trial of arms with me again, and he has taken this plan to present the sword to its rightful owner. I shall take it, but small thanks shall I render to him."
Then he unbuckled the scabbard and the jewelled belt, and fastened them to his own armor. After again glancing at the shining edge and the richly carved sides of Durandal, he quietly returned it to its sheath. "My long quest," he said, "has not been in vain. With Hector's arms complete, who now can contend with Mandricardo?" And, striking spurs into his horse's flanks, he turned and galloped back in the same direction whence he had come.
In the mean while whither wandered the shadow of the mighty Roland? Aimlessly, as one walking in his sleep, he roamed through the forests, and over fields and desert wastes. At night he slept in the open air, with no shelter but the blue vault of heaven. His only food was the wild fruits of the forest,—nuts and berries,—and, when these failed, the bark of trees. He shunned the dwellings and faces of men, and seemed to have forgotten his own manhood. A thousand times was his life in peril, and a thousand times did some mysterious power shield and save him. Sometimes, in his lonely wanderings, he encountered wolves and bears and other fierce beasts of the wood; but they harmed him not, for they knew that he was but the shadow of a man. Sometimes he was endangered by storms and floods, but the good fairies who guard the lives of heroes led him safely through them. And he wandered in the darkness of night among the mountain crags, and on the edge of steep cliffs, and amid pitfalls and bottomless gorges; but an unseen Power guided his footsteps, and no harm befell him. Then he went southward, and climbed the Pyrenees, and crossed over into the country of the Spanish Moors. And there a strange adventure happened to him.
Rodomont, the warrior king of Algiers, of whom I have elsewhere told you, had withdrawn into Spain, breathing words of bitterness and hate to all mankind. He had done many very wicked deeds and slain many innocent and hapless folk, and he was ever haunted by the remembrance of his wrong doings; and so he not only hated others, but himself also, and sought some means of escaping from his gloomy, guilty thoughts. So he caused to be built in a narrow mountain pass, a tall tower of solid mason work, in the centre of which he placed a little chapel and the tomb of some of his most noble victims. On three sides of the tower there ran a mountain stream, swift and deep, the water as cold as the ice-cliffs from which it was fed. Across this stream a wooden bridge was built, scarce two yards wide, and guarded by neither rail nor banister. Upon the tower a sentinel stood, to give notice when any strange knight should approach the bridge. Rodomont himself sat in a narrow chamber, like a giant in his cave, ready to ride out and meet any new-comer—not with warm words of welcome, but with couched lance and hoarse cries of defiance; for he had vowed that he would not rest until he should have the arms of a thousand knights wherewith to deck the strange tomb that he had built. And he obliged every one who came that way, either to fight him on the bridge, or to give up his arms to him as a trophy. From time to time, many knights had fallen into his trap. Some, from mere bravado and love of adventure, had come thither on purpose to meet him in combat on the bridge; but the greater number of his victims were innocent travellers, who had been belated in the mountains, and had ventured to seek shelter in his inhospitable tower. Some had been, at the first onset, knocked off the bridge, and drowned in the raging torrent below: others had been taken captive by the Algerian, their arms hung up as trophies, and they themselves thrown into a dungeon.
One day the sentinel called out, as usual, to his master, that some one was approaching the bridge. Rodomont quickly mounted his war steed, and, with lance in rest, galloped out to meet the intruder. But, when he saw what kind of man it was who stood on the other end of the bridge, he paused. Who would have dreamed that it was Roland? His clothing was mere tatters and rags; his feet were bare; his long hair fell in tangled masses upon his shoulders. He glanced uneasily at the raging waters beneath him, and then at the high tower beyond; then his eyes rested upon the mailed warrior who confronted him at the other end of the bridge, and some of the old fire which had so often amazed his foes in battle seemed to flash from beneath his shaggy brows.
"Go back!" cried Rodomont. "Keep off the bridge! It was not built for such as thou."
Roland heard the words, and dimly understood their meaning. He was not wont to obey commands, nor could he ever brook an insult. Instead of doing as the Algerian bade him, he walked boldly upon the bridge. The angry Rodomont at once dismounted, threw his lance to the ground, and went forward on foot to meet him.
"Turn back, and save thyself!" he cried. "Thou art not worthy to be touched with lance or sword; but, if thou come another step, I will throw thee into the torrent below us."
Roland said not a word, but strode fiercely onward. The two met at the middle of the bridge. They grappled each other. But the struggle was a short one. Roland lifted the Algerian giant in his arms as if he had been a child, and held him dangling over the side of the bridge; then, with all his strength, he flung him down into the roaring waters below. But the madman had not wit enough to free himself altogether from the grasp of his enemy; and losing his balance, he, too, fell into the stream. The waves dashed high about them; but the water was deep, and both escaped being dashed upon the rocks. Roland swam at once to the shore, and climbed out of the gorge, and went on his way, aimlessly and thoughtlessly as before, toward the south. And Rodomont, after being drifted far down the stream, was cast upon a sand bank, whence, with the greatest hardship, he at length succeeded in reaching the shore.
It so happened, that while Roland and the Algerian chief were struggling on the bridge, a maiden of France, named Flordelis, was passing by. She had been brought up at Charlemagne's court, and had known Roland all her life. So, when she saw him in his pitiable plight, wrestling with the fierce Rodomont, she knew, notwithstanding his rags and his unkempt hair, that he was none other than the hero whom all Christendom mourned as dead. She watched the issue of the fight with the greatest anxiety; and when he had fallen into the stream, and clambered to the shore again, she tried to approach him and speak with him. But he fled so fast through the mountain pass, that he far outstripped the palfrey which she rode, and was soon out of sight. For three days she sought him among the mountains and the valleys; but all that she could hear or learn of him was that some Moorish peasants had seen him, making his way with long and hasty strides toward the south. And so she gave up the search, and rode back to France, to tell Charlemagne and his peers, that Roland, the noblest warrior of them all, was still alive.