Gateway to the Classics: The Seven Champions of Christendom by F. J. Harvey Darton
The Seven Champions of Christendom by  F. J. Harvey Darton

St. James of Spain

The Slaying of the Boar

S T. JAMES OF SPAIN took a road which led him, after many perils and adventures, during which he won his spurs, to the Holy Land, and in course of time he found himself near Jerusalem. He was standing upon a hill looking at the domes and towers and gleaming walls of the city, when there broke upon his ears the sound of drums and trumpets, and the marching of a great company. He looked towards the sound which came from the city, and he saw the gates thrown open, and many people issuing through them. First was a troop of horsemen bravely apparelled in white and gold, with jewelled harness and jingling arms; there were more than a hundred of them. After them rode twelve knights on chargers, two by two. Each of these knights carried a long lance from which floated a blood-red banner embroidered with a picture of Adonai being wounded by a boar. Next came the King and his daughter, very richly clad. The King wore a gleaming circlet of gold on his head, and rode a white horse. The Princess rode a milk-white unicorn, whose long horn was covered with gold leaf. In her hand she bore a silver javelin, and she wore a breastplate of beaten gold. Behind her rode a bodyguard of a hundred Amazons. Last of all were men playing instruments of music and a crowd of humbler folk.

The cavalcade came near where St. James stood, and began to pass him. He spoke to a man who was close by him. "What does this gay expedition mean?" he asked.

"You must come from a very far land, Sir Knight," said the man, "if you do not know that."

"I do not know so much as who that King and the fair lady by his side are," answered St. James.

"That is the King of Judah, our good monarch," said the man, "and the lady is his daughter, the Princess Celestine. This is the great hunting festival, when all the court goes a-hunting in honour of Adonai, whom we revere, and who was slain by a boar. Every year proclamation is made, and great prizes are given by the King. See, here is a herald about to make the proclamation."

As he spoke a herald halted near them. He was clad in cloth of gold, and bore a silver trumpet with a purple streamer hanging from it. He blew three blasts upon the trumpet, and cried in a loud voice: "In the name of the King and in honour of Adonai! To all men I cry. The King is pleased to offer a corselet of fine steel worth a thousand shekels of silver to any man soever who shall slay the first boar this day. Now set on, knights and squires. The hunt is up."

He blew three blasts again on his trumpet, and passed on.

St. James heard him out. As he listened his glance fell on the Princess Celestine, and he saw how fair she was. And she, too, saw him as he stood there, and thought him a knight of gallant looks and noble bearing.

"I will win the Princess," thought St. James to himself. "No other shall be my bride. For her I will dare anything."

With that he set spurs to his horse, and, making a little curve to avoid the more slowly moving cavalcade, he rode ahead over the plains to the forest to which he saw the hunt was going. He dismounted for greater ease of movement among the trees, and tethered his horse; then he entered the forest.

Hardly was he in the shade of the trees than he saw a huge boar in front of him, goring with its sharp tusks the body of some poor traveller it had overcome. The beast paid him no heed, so intent was it upon its task. He sounded his silver horn loudly, and the boar turned quickly. In a moment it saw the new enemy, and charged furiously. St. James awaited the attack with his lance in rest, meaning to leap aside himself at the last minute. The boar came on more swiftly than he had expected of so unwieldy a brute, and his lance did not strike it fair and full. It grazed its shoulder merely, and glanced off, and St. James had to leap very nimbly to avoid its tusks as it lunged sideways at him in passing.

The rush of its speed carried the boar some little way past the champion, who had time to throw aside his lance and loosen his battle-axe for use. The boar charged again as soon as it could turn. This time St. James was more wary, for he had gauged the speed of the monster's rush. He stepped aside again as it reached him, and swung the battle-axe down, across his body, on to the back of the boar's skull, with all his force behind the blow. The keen edge crashed through flesh and bone, and killed the beast instantly.

The champion cut off the boar's head, well pleased at his victory. He heard a noise of trampling and music close at hand, and looked round. The King and the Princess and their train had reached the forest.

St. James took his boar's head, and carried it to the King. Falling on one knee, he held it out before him. "Here is the first boar of the hunt, O King," he said. Unless any man has slain another before me, I claim the reward your herald cried publicly but a little while ago."

"You are the first, Sir Knight," answered the King, perceiving that St. James was a man of rank and honourable position. Yours is the reward. Let my armourer bring the corselet."

The armourer came forward with the corselet of fine steel. So wonderfully was it wrought that it fitted St. James instantly. Keen indeed must an edge have been to pierce it, and yet when the champion had it upon his body he felt no more weight from it than if it had been a shirt of fine linen.

"It beseems you well," said the King graciously. "Does it not, Celestine?"

"Indeed it is a finely wrought corselet," answered the Princess; and she looked upon St. James with such admiration that he fell more deeply in love with her than ever.

"I am much beholden to Your Majesty for your gracious gift," said St. James courteously. "I came hither in search of knightly adventure, not thinking to win so worthy a prize as this."

"Whence do you come, Sir Knight?" asked the King; "and what is your name and lineage?"

"I am called James,and I am a Christian knight of Spain."

"What!" cried the King, all his graciousness gone from him in a moment. "A Christian! Then you die here and now, for I have vowed to put to death every Christian who comes into my realm. Ho there! Seize this dog and stone him to death!"

His attendants rushed forward in a body, and seized the champion, who, indeed, was too greatly surprised at this sudden change in the King to resist, even if resistance had been of use. And when they had bound him he regained his wits.

"Stop, O King," he cried boldly. "You may kill me if you will, though I have done no wrong to any man for which I deserve death. But remember that I slew this great boar, and give me some respite for that deed. Let me at least have a time to pray and to prepare my soul for death, and grant me also that I may choose the manner of my death."

"I will never show mercy to a dog of a Christian," answered the King. "But such slight delay as you ask shall be granted you. And I will grant your other boon also. When you have had an hour for prayer you shall say in what way you choose to die. But let not this be a pretext to gain some means of escape; you shall surely die."

"So be it, King," said St. James. "But I tell you that you are doing ill, and one day you will repent of it."

" 'One day' has yet to come," answered the King. And what I will, I do. Now set about your prayers. We will continue our hunt. Forward, my friends."

And they plunged deep into the forest, their raiment shining, their harness making a merry noise. A hundred guards remained with St. James, who yet felt very lonely when he saw the Princess and all her attendants ride off into the cool, dark forest.

They unbound him and retired to a little distance, forming a circle round about him. For an hour he prayed steadfastly, and made his peace with God, thinking indeed that the time had come for him to lay down his life.

At the end of the hour the King and his court came back, the Princess with them, her eyes full of sadness.

"Bring that Christian dog before me," said the King. "I have said that I would grant his boon."

They bound St. James again, and set him before the King. "Now, Sir James of Spain, you are to look your last upon the sunlight," said the King cruelly. "Tell me, since I have given you leave, in what way you will close your eyes to it for ever."

A strange fancy had come into the champion's mind. He had a whim to die in a certain way, if die he must. "Let me be bound to a pine-tree, unguarded," he said, "and then let me be shot by an arrow loosed by a beautiful maiden."

"That is a new form of death, Christian," said the King; "but I doubt not it will serve as well as any other. Let it be done as this Spanish knight asks. The maiden to slay him shall be chosen by lot from those who are here."

They brought a helmet, and put in it a bushel of white peas, and among them a single black one. She who drew the black one (her eyes being blindfolded before the choice) was to kill St. James.

When all was ready they began to draw. And first of all the Princess Celestine was to put her hand into the helmet. She dismounted from her horse. A green scarf was tied round her eyes, and she stretched out her hand, fumbling at the edge of the helmet to be sure of reaching the peas.

There was a rattling sound as she put her hand among the dry, loose peas. Then she drew it forth again, and opened it, tearing off the scarf as she did so. On her white palm lay the black pea.

"Oh, I cannot!" she cried in distress. "I cannot slay an innocent man. My father"—and she fell on her knees before the King—"oh, my father, spare him! What evil has he done? He is a Christian, truly, but he was born and bred in that faith, and knew nought of ours. He knew nought of your vow against all Christians; else he would not have come here and told us his faith and lineage. He has done you a service by killing the boar."

"Bind him to a pine-tree," said the King sternly. "He must die; I have vowed it. Celestine, take your bow, aim truly, and kill him."

The guards seized the champion, and bound him to a pine-tree hard by. But Celestine did not cease to plead for his life.

"I will never kill him," she said. "I could not aim truly at a just man, who has done no wrong. Let him go, Sire; I dare swear he will leave your kingdom and never return, if you do but let him go. Bethink you that your vow was made because of the war that Christians have made upon us; you might well slay all who fought against you and sought to do you harm. But this knight has made no war. He came honourably in peace. Let him go in peace, even if you do not honour him as at first, before you knew him for a Christian, you seemed to wish. Remember that till he proclaimed his faith out of his own lips, you had not a hard word for him. O spare him, my father, for if you do not I too shall surely die!"

She clasped her father's foot with her hands as she knelt by his stirrup, and bowed her head upon it in tears.

The King hesitated. He knew that he was but killing the knight in order to keep to the letter of his vow, which, indeed, he had taken against his enemies rather than against peaceful strangers. But he hated all Christians bitterly, for they were trying always to drive him out of the Holy Land and make it part of Christendom. Yet he could not resist his daughter's pleadings.

"Have it as you will, Celestine," he said harshly. "Set him free yourself. But be sure that if ever again he sets foot in this land he shall be put to death, and no prayers shall save him, and it shall be no gentle hands like yours that shall cut him off from life. Tell him this, and bid him begone from Judah in a day's time. If he is found anywhere in my realm at this time on the morrow, he dies."

He turned away. Celestine ran to the pine-tree, and cut St. James's bonds with her hunting-knife.

"You are free, Sir James," she said eagerly. "I have begged your life of my father. But, alas! it is not better to me than if you were dead, for you must leave this land at once, and never return. If ever you come back, you will be slain—ay, and perhaps tortured into the bargain. Go; make what speed you can. Remember me. Take this ring from me, and wear it for my sake, and be sure that never will I forget you. Farewell."

"Farewell, Princess," said St. James; "I shall never forget you. I do not need this ring to keep your memory in my heart to my life's end. But I will treasure your gift, and if ever we meet again it shall be a sign between us."

He said no more, but mounted his horse and rode away, the ring on his finger; and the Princess went back sadly to her father's court.


St. James made the best speed he could to the borders of Judah. Often as he rode he looked at the ring the Princess had given him. On the inside of it were words engraved—"Fare well ever beloved"; and he thought that truly he had said farewell to all that he now held dear.

He looked back over the plains for the last time from a hill on the edge of the country. As he looked a plan suddenly came into his mind. Why should he not return in disguise?

There was a wood not far off. Beyond that lay a little town of which he had heard from a chance traveller whom he had met not long before. He hastened on to the town, and bought in it a Moorish dress; then he returned to the wood, and, having dug a deep hole with his sword, buried the greater part of his armour and his raiment, marking the place by certain signs that he might readily find it again. He sought out a tree with dark berries, of which there were many in the forest. He squeezed out their juice, until he had enough to stain his skin dark brown all over. When he had put on the dress he had bought, he looked every inch a Moor, and no one would have known him for the gallant knight who had slain the boar but a little while before. He stained also the white hide of his horse, and darkened the harness, so that there was nothing left for any man to recognise.

He resolved to feign to be deaf and dumb, so that his speech might not betray him. When he had satisfied himself that his appearance was suitable, he returned to Jerusalem, and went to the King's palace, and by signs indicated that he wished to be taken into the royal service.

It chanced that as he was making this silent request to the King's chamberlain, the Princess Celestine herself passed by. The chamberlain rose to greet her, and she acknowledged his obeisance; but her eyes were fixed in wonder on the Moor whom she saw. There seemed to her something familiar in him, she knew not what.

"Who is this man?" she asked the chamberlain.

"He is a deaf and dumb man, Princess, a Moor who seems to wish to be taken into the King's household."

"He is goodly to look upon. Is he skilled in arms, and of courteous manner?"

"For his courtesy I can only answer by what I have seen," said the chamberlain. "He seems to be of good demeanour. As for his skill in arms, I will try him."

He made passes in the air, as though handling a sword. St. James, who had heard very well all that was said, nodded his head joyfully. The chamberlain took a sword, and gave it to him, and took another himself, and they began to fence together. In a little while it was clear that the chamberlain, though a good swordsman, was no match for the stranger, who, indeed, suddenly sent his sword flying by a quick turn of the wrist.

The Princess smiled. "Let him be of my bodyguard," she said. "He is a stout fellow, and I need another good warrior just now." But though she felt that she knew his face, she did not guess who the Moor was.

So St. James was made one of Celestine's guards. In a little time he had shown himself so gentle in manner, so gallant in bearing, and so expert in arms and courtesy, that he was made chief of the guard and special champion of the Princess. All day long he was near her, and had her under his charge, though he could not speak to her, and as yet dared not reveal himself to her.

There were many suitors for the fair Princess's hand in those days. Princes and nobles came from many distant countries to seek her: from Trebizond, and Bokhara, and Ethiopia; the King of Arabia came, and an Ambassador from the Emperor of Cathay, who had heard of her loveliness; and the Lord High Admiral of Babylon itself—all these and many more tried to win her hand. But she would have none of them, being true in heart to St. James.

It chanced presently that at one time there were a score or more of these suitors in Jerusalem together. Since, as they learnt, their suit was hopeless, they agreed well with one another; and they resolved that before they went away from Judah they would give a splendid entertainment in honour of the Princess. They planned to hold a banquet, and then a ball.

The Princess took with her her chief attendants, among them, of course, the champion of her guard. She had asked him by signs—in which way by now they found it easy to converse—if he could dance for her a Moorish dance; and it happened that St. James was able to do this, and the Princess commanded that he should dance one with her at the ball.

St. James thought that this would be his opportunity. The revelry would continue far into the night, and when it was ended all the court would be weary, and heedless of anything but sleep. He made his preparations, which, as chief of the Princess's body-guard, he could do without suspicion.

The banquet came and passed, and was followed by the ball. St. James, to give the Princess a message silently, had put her ring upon his finger; hitherto, while he was in her service, he had worn it on a fine gold chain round his neck, lest it should betray him at am inopportune time.

The time came for him to dance the Moorish dance with the Princess. He held out his hand to her to lead her. She saw the ring, and knew at once why she had seemed to find his face familiar to her. But she said never a word, for fear of discovery; only her hand pressed his, and their eyes met, and hope sprang up in their hearts.

They danced together, and then the Princess thanked him by signs for his courtesy; but to her signs she added some that meant, "Remain here."

He stayed near her. Presently he heard her speaking to one of her ladies. "It is hot, and I am weary. I will walk upon the terrace for a little. I cannot choose one of my suitors for a companion, for fear of making the rest jealous. And, indeed, I am too weary for talk. I will go with my chief of guards, and take the air for a space, and return before long."

She made signs to St. James that he was to escort her to the terrace of the palace, and place guards in suitable positions. Then she went forth, St. James by her side.

They paced the terrace together at a little distance from the guards. She spoke to him in soft whispers, and he answered, and told her of his plans. She was to put on a Moorish dress, and meet him in the hall of her palace an hour after all the household had retired to rest, and he would take her thence by a back way, and through a private door in the city walls, of which he had been able to get a key made once when the real key was lent him for some special purpose. A little way outside the walls, in a clump of trees, he had two swift horses tethered. Once they reached the horses unseen and unheard, they would be safe.

All this he whispered to her, and she agreed to do exactly as he said. Then he led her back to the ball-room, and made an obeisance to her, and she pretended to dismiss him graciously. The walk upon the terrace had cooled her cheeks, and her joy made her eyes shine like stars, so that she seemed indeed to have gone from the ball-room to rest, and to have come back refreshed.

St. James left her and went to her palace. He made ready a little store of food, and saw that his sword and dagger were sharp, and loose in their scabbards; for he knew not when he might have to use them suddenly. Then he sat down, and waited as patiently as he could for the appointed hour.

The court came home from the ball; the palace for a little while was full of light and sound and confusion. Then one by one the lights died away, and silence slowly fell upon the place. St. James waited until well-nigh an hour had passed; then he stole softly out of his chamber and down to the great dark hall of the palace. Very huge and mysterious it seemed now, empty of all life. His light footsteps sounded to his anxious ears like the trampling of an army.

He sat down in a corner and waited again. The time passed, and the Princess did not come. St. James rose and paced the hall quietly, in case by chance she was there already, and did not know of his presence, or thought him some enemy. But she was not there. His mind began to be filled with a thousand fears and hopes. He thought that she might have been discovered, and he dared not imagine what would then befall her. Then he fancied that she had been overcome by weariness, and had fallen asleep; and despair settled upon his heart, for he might not have such an opportunity of escape as this for many months to come.

He heard a step. He remained quite still. The sound came nearer, and he heard the noise of breath drawn quickly and anxiously. Then he knew that it was the Princess. "Celestine!" he whispered. She came to him, guided by the sound, and hand in hand they crept through the hall, out by the little door, and so at last out of the city. Not a soul saw or heard them; unperceived they reached the tethered horses, and in a few minutes were galloping across the dim, ghostly desert together, free and safe, never to return to Jerusalem while it was a pagan city.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: St. Denis of France  |  Next: St. Anthony of Italy
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.