The Death of Roland
O VER the plain fled the heathen, and Roland could no more pursue them. His good horse lay dead beside him, and he, all weary and worn, bent to aid his dear friend Turpin. Quickly he unlaced his helmet, drew off his shirt of mail, now all stained and rent with many a sword-cut, and tearing his silken vest in stripes, he gently bound his wounds. Then tenderly lifting him in his arms he laid him on a grassy bank.
Kneeling beside the dying Archbishop, Roland whispered softly, "Father, our comrades, whom we loved, are all slain, but we should not leave them thus. Give me leave to go, and I will seek them and bring them here, that thou mayest bless them once more."
"Go, friend," said Turpin, "but return right soon. Thanks be to God, the field is ours. We have won it, thou and I alone."
So all alone Roland went across the dreadful field. One by one he found the Peers of France. One by one he tenderly raised them in his arms, and brought them to the Archbishop, laying them at his feet.
As Turpin gazed upon them lying there so still and quiet, tears started to his eyes and trickled down his pale worn cheeks. "My lords," he cried, raising his hand in blessing, "may the Lord of all glory receive your souls! In the flower-starred meadows of Paradise may ye live for ever!" And there on the battle-field he absolved them from all their sins, and signed them with the sign of the Cross.
Once again Roland returned to search the plain for his friend Oliver. At last, under a pine tree, by a wild-rose bush, he found his body. Very tenderly he lifted him, and faint and spent, staggering now beneath his burden, he carried him, and laid him with the other Peers, beside the Archbishop, so that he too might receive a last blessing.
"Fair Oliver, my comrade," said Roland, kneeling beside him, "to break a lance and shatter in pieces a shield, to counsel loyally and well, to punish traitors and cowards, never was there better knight on earth." Then, fainting, Roland fell forward on the ground.
When Turpin saw Roland swoon, he stretched out his hand and took his ivory horn from his neck. Through Roncesvalles there flowed a stream, and the Archbishop thought that if he could but reach it, he would bring from it some water to revive Roland.
With great difficulty he rose, and with trembling footsteps, staggering as he went, he dragged himself a little way. But his strength was gone. Soon he stumbled and fell upon his knees, unable to rise again. Turning his eyes to heaven he clasped his hands together, "May God take me to His paradise," he cried, and so fell forward dead. Thus died the Archbishop in the service of his Emperor. He who both by word and weapon had never ceased to war against the heathen was now silent and still for ever.
When Roland came to himself he saw Turpin kneel upon the ground a little way off and then fall forward dead. Again Roland rose, and going to the Archbishop crossed his beautiful white hands upon his breast. "Ah! Father," he said, "knight of noble lineage, I leave thee in the hands of the Most Glorious. Never man served Him more willingly. Nay, never since the Holy Apostles hath such a prophet been. To win man and to guard our faith thou wert ever ready. May the gates of Paradise be wide for thee."
Then lifting his hands to heaven, Roland called aloud, "Ride! oh Karl of France, ride quickly as thou mayest. In Roncesvalles there is great sorrow for thee. But the King Marsil too hath sorrow and loss, and for one of us there lie here forty of the heathen."
Then faint and weary Roland sank upon the grass. In one hand he clasped his ivory horn which he had taken again from the fingers of the dead Archbishop, in the other he held his sword Durindal. As he sat there still and quiet, a Saracen who had lain among the dead, pretending to be dead also, suddenly rose. Stealthily he crept towards Roland. Nearer and nearer he came, until when he was quite close, he stretched out his hand and seized Durindal. "Vanquished, he is vanquished, the nephew of Charlemagne is vanquished!" he shouted. "Behold his sword, which I will carry with me into Arabia!"
But even as the Saracen seized Durindal, Roland opened his eyes. "Thou art none of our company, I ween," he cried, and raising his ivory horn he brought it crashing down upon the head of the Saracen. Helmet and skull-bone cracked beneath the blow, and the heathen fell dead at Roland's feet.
"Coward," he cried, "who made thee so bold that thou didst dare to lay hand upon Roland? Whoever hears of it will deem thee a madman." Then looking sadly at his horn, he said, "For thee have I broken the mouthpiece of my horn, and the gold and gems about the rim are scattered on the ground."
And now, fearing that some one might again steal his sword when he was no longer able to resist, Roland gathered all his strength together. Taking Durindal in his hand he went to where a bare brown rock rose out of the plain. With mighty blows he dashed the blade against the rock again and again. But it would not break. The steel grated and screeched upon the stone, but no scratch or dint was seen upon the blade, no notch upon the edge. "Oh, Holy Mary, Mother of Heaven, come to my aid!" cried Roland. "Oh my good Durindal, what misfortune! When I am parted from thee I shall no longer be able to take care of thee. We together have gained many battles; we together have conquered many realms, which now own Charlemagne as King. As long as I live, thou shalt never be taken from me, and when I am dead thou shalt never belong to one who shall flee before the foe, thou, who hast so long been borne by a valiant warrior."
Again Roland struck upon the rock. Again the steel grated and screeched, but the sword would not break. When the knight saw that he could not break the blade he became very sad. "Oh my good Durindal," he cried, "thou who hast shone and flamed in the sunshine many a time and oft to my joy, now givest thou me pain and sorrow lest I leave thee in the hands of the heathen?"
A third time Roland struck upon the rock and beat the blade with all his might. But still it would not break. Neither notch nor scratch was to be seen upon the shining steel. Then softly and tenderly he made moan, "Oh, fair and holy, my Durindal, it is not meet that the heathen should possess thee. Thou shouldst ever be served by Christian hand, for within thy hilt is many a holy relic. Please Heaven thou shalt never fall into the hands of a coward." Thus spoke he to his sword, caressing it as some loved child.
Then, seeing that by no means could he break his sword, Roland threw himself upon the grass with his face to the foe, so that when Charlemagne and all his host arrived they might know that he had died a conqueror. Beneath him, so that he guarded them with his body, he laid his sword and horn.
Clasping his hands, he raised them to heaven. "Oh God," he cried, "I have sinned. Pardon me for all the wrong that I have done both in great things and in small. Pardon me for all that I have done from the hour of my birth until now when I am laid low."
So with hands clasped in prayer, the great warrior met his end. Through the quiet evening air was heard the rustle of angels' wings. And St. Raphael, St. Michael of Peril, and the angel Gabriel swept down upon the dreadful battle-field, and taking the soul of Roland, bore it to Paradise.