THE castle of Morgan the Fay stood in a pleasant valley between two forest-crowned mountains. It was built of the finest white marble, as pure as alabaster, and as clear as ice. The high walls which hemmed it in on every side were of granite; and the deep moat was full of water and spanned by a single bridge. A mighty giant, clad in steel armor, and wielding a huge club, kept the bridge, and allowed no one to pass over it unchallenged. And this giant had never yet been foiled or beaten in battle; for, whatever might be the strength or the prowess of his foe, his own strength was greater. Hence no living knight had ever entered this fairy castle save as the prisoner of its grim warder.
Now, when Roland, eagerly pursuing his quest, approached this bridge, the giant, as was his wont, challenged him to a combat. The knight was nowise loath to measure arms with a churl whose only virtue was his strength. He drew the sword which Queen Falerina with such infinite pains had wrought, and met the giant on his own ground. The boasted armor of the bridge warder was no proof against the biting strokes of the magic blade. He would have been killed upon the spot, had he not saved himself by a cunning stratagem. Watching his chances, he seized the knight in his arms, and leaped with him into the moat. He could live in water as well as in air, and he hoped by this means to drown the foe whom he could not overcome by force of arms. But so well did Roland still ply his sword, although half choked with the cold water, that the giant was glad to let go his hold. The knight rose to the surface, and climbed upon the bridge. The gates were wide open, and he walked boldly through.
He found himself, to his astonishment, in a broad field, where the ground was covered with diamonds and pearls, rubies and emeralds, and every other sort of gem-stone, as thickly as the spring meadows are covered with sprouting grass. But he stopped not to gather or to admire. He hastened across the field, and came into a garden which was far more beautiful than that which belonged to Falerina. Every thing tempted him to stop, and to pursue no farther his uncertain quest. The shady walks, the flowery borders, the cool bowers, the plashing waterfalls, the rippling stream, the singing birds, the sunshine, and the breeze,—all seemed to say, "Stay! here is happiness enough." But the hero allowed none of these things to tempt him. He kept always in mind that part of his knightly vows which forbade him to give up any quest that he had once undertaken until he had followed it out to the end.
In the middle of the garden there was a beautiful fountain, and near it was a bower of surpassing loveliness. Around the bower a score of fairies danced, keeping time with the most bewitching strains of music. As Roland came near to this spot, the timid creatures ceased their merriment, and fled in great affright. He peeped into the bower, and beheld a being more beautiful than his dreams had ever pictured. It was Morgan the Fay, fast asleep on a bed of roses. Very small was she,—as, indeed, were all the folk in this garden,—and so wondrously fair that the knight stood long still, as if entranced. And in fact it was only by bearing always in mind his duty as a knight, that he resisted the temptation to give up all his ambitious hopes, and, forgetting the busy world of men, to swear fealty to the fairy queen. Long he might have stood thus gazing, and wavering between duty and inclination, had he not heard a voice cry out, "Seize the beauty by the forelock while yet the golden moment lasts!"
Then Roland noticed for the first time that the back part of the fay's head was quite bare and smooth, while above her forehead there was a rich growth of long golden hair. It was thus that men in the earlier days pictured the head of old Father Time. The knight was surprised at hearing the voice, and he thought not once of obeying its strange command. He looked up. A wondrous sight met his eyes. Halfway between earth and sky, hanging in mid-air, he saw, as he thought, a great and busy city. There he beheld tall towers and crystal palaces, and churches with their spires pointing heavenward, and bustling market-places, and long lines of streets crowded with hurrying men and women, and cool, shaded avenues where knights and ladies walked, and all that makes up the glory, the beauty, and the misery of a well-peopled burgh. For a time he forgot where he was, and all about the errand which had taken him there; and he imagined himself to be no longer a knight-errant courting danger, and bound on deeds of love and daring, but a busy merchant in that air-built city, intent upon showing his wares, and eagerly counting his gains. While he still gazed, the vision slowly faded away. Churches and palaces and market-places and busy streets melted into thin airy clouds, and then were seen no more. Then Roland, as if awakened from a trance, remembered himself again, and the quest upon which he was bound. He looked into the bower where Morgan the Fay had been sleeping, but she was not there. She had arisen, and with the lightness of a leaf driven about by the fickle autumn wind she was dancing before the fountain. And as she danced, she sang,—
"Seek'st thou gifts from Morgan le Fay?
Seize her forelock whilst thou may,
Let not dreams thy purpose stay:
She'll not come another day.
Fortune's a fickle fairy.
Once, and only once, men say,
To every one she shows the way
To gain the good for which we pray.
While the sun shines, make the hay.
Fortune's a fickle fairy."
Roland hesitated. Had he been attacked by giants, or set upon by fierce beasts, or had the doughtiest hero in all the world challenged him to a duel, or had he been called upon to perform any deed of strength or daring, he would not have paused to think, or to calculate his chances. But to seize Morgan the Fay, this fairy Fortune, while she danced in whirling mazes before him,—he wondered how it could be done. While yet he waited and doubted, the fay suddenly bounded away, and fled from him with the fleetness of a deer hunted by hounds. He followed as fast as his feet would carry him, resolved now that nothing should hinder him from attaining that fortune whose favors are but seldom withheld from the brave. But the fairy, although at times almost within his grasp, was not easily caught. She led him a long chase through gardens and fields, and among thickets of underbrush and briers, and over many a barren, stony waste; and at last she flew over the top of a snow-crowned mountain, and the disappointed knight never saw her again. Then a storm of rain and hail burst from the clouds above; and the lightnings flashed, and the thunder rolled, and all the demons of the air seemed to be abroad. And a gaunt and pale-faced witch came out of a cavern on the mountain-side with a scourge of leather thongs in her hand, and she drove the hero down the slope, and back again into the valley, lashing him at every step furiously and without pity.
"Who are you!" asked he, meekly receiving his punishment. "Who are you who dare thus to scourge a peer of France!"
"My name is Repentance," answered the hag. "It is my duty to punish every one, who through hesitation or neglect fails to seize the fairy fortune at that one golden moment which is allotted him. Go thou, now, back to France. Thy quest is vain. The prize which thou sought has been won by another."
When Roland came down again into the valley, he looked to see the snow-white castle of Morgan the Fay, and he thought to find himself still in the gardens of Fairyland. But it was not so. Castles and towers, rivers and fountains, flowers and birds, dragons and giants, and all that had helped to make up those wondrous scenes, had vanished like the mirage with which he had been so enraptured. Splendid dreams had given place to sober reality. The hero saw before him the desert plains and the rocky mountains of Persia; and a voice whispered to him that fame and fortune were to be attained, not through the pursuit of fairy phantoms and vain chimeras, but by honest, worthy deeds, and noble efforts for the bettering of humanity. In his hasty pursuit of the fairy he had lost the magic sword that he had taken from Falerina. He was now without arms, and he had no horse. He was a stranger, alone in a strange land; and many a weary league and many unknown dangers lay between him and sweet France.
As he stood at the foot of the mountain, pondering upon this strange ending of his visionary quest, an old man drew near, riding upon a mule and leading a war-steed fully caparisoned, with saddle and bridle and trappings of velvet and gold. Across the saddle bows lay a sword, sheathed in its scabbard, but whose hilt fairly shone with its wealth of priceless gems. The horse was his own lost Brigliadoro, and the sword was Durandal.
"Sir knight," said the old man very courteously, "allow me to be your squire. I bring you your horse and sword. Mount, I pray you, and let us hasten back to France and to Charlemagne, who is in need of your help."
"But the arms of Hector are not yet mine," answered Roland; "and I doubt if I may honorably return without them."
"You can scarcely do otherwise," answered the squire; "for while you waited and dreamed, and hesitated to seize the fairy by the forelock, another knight, a Tartar prince, went boldly in, and seized the prize and bore it away. And he is even now well on his way toward France; for he has vowed that he will win from you the sword Durandal, and thus make all of Hector's matchless arms his own."
Then Roland mounted Brigliadoro, and, followed by the good squire, rode bravely back toward France. But he coveted no longer the arms of Trojan Hector, and felt only happy in the possession of his own.