Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
A CONTEST FOR DURANDAL
 ROLAND came to the scene of battle only a single day
too late. The victory, as we have seen, had been won
through Reinold's valor. The Pagan hosts, beaten and
disheartened, were flying toward Spain. France was
freed from her great peril. Roland felt mortified and
ashamed, that, while others had been fighting for their
country's honor, he had been delayed in the air-built
castle of the magician Atlantes. Yet Charlemagne and
his peers welcomed him as heartily as if he had come in
the time of need; and a day was set apart for glad
thanksgiving, not only for the great victory which they
had gained over their foes, but also for the safe
return of the hero whom they had mourned as lost. And
it was long ere Marsilius, or Agramant, or any other
Saracen chief, dared lead his hosts again into France.
After this, Roland did many noble deeds of arms for the
honor of France and Christendom. I cannot stop to tell
you now of his gallant feats at Rome when that city was
besieged by Laban and Lukafere, the kings of
nor of his famous passage-at-arms with the Pagan Sir
Ferumbras; nor how he fought and slew the giant
Ferragus, a monster thirty feet high, and the terror of
the Christian host; nor how he conquered Sir Otuel of
Spain in fair fight, and forced him to submit to
baptism. All these stories, and many more, you may read
in the songs and poems of the old days of chivalry.
While everywhere there were tyranny and wrong-doing,
Roland, with his strong arm and manly voice, sought to
defend the right and uphold justice. The vows which he
had taken upon entering knighthood were ever in his
mind; and he deemed that his life could not be spent
more worthily than in the service of his country, his
king, and his fellow-men.
Once on a time, as he was riding through a mountainous
country near the sea, he found himself belated and
overtaken by the darkness of night, while yet he was
many miles from any dwelling. As he looked around to
find some place of shelter, he was surprised to see a
light streaming from a narrow cleft in the mountain
side. Did it come from the cell of a hermit who had
hidden himself in this lonesome place in order to
escape from the bustle and bloodshed of those cruel
times? Or did it betray the hiding-place of robbers,—of
men whose hands were lifted against their fellow-men,
and who cared nought for knighthood's vows or valorous
deeds? Roland did not stop long to consider. Whatever
kind of dwelling it might be from which
 this light
came, he was determined to enter it and demand a
night's lodging. In front of the entrance to the cave
was a great thicket of thorns and bristly underwood,—so
dense that any one passing that way in the daytime would
not have noticed any break in the rock. It was not
likely that a hermit would thus guard and conceal the
entrance to his cell.
The knight tied Brigliadoro to the branch of an elm,
and stealthily threaded his way through the thicket. It
was not hard to find the narrow door of the cavern, for
the bright light streaming through it showed him
plainly the way to go. A short flight of narrow steps
cut rudely in the stone led downward into a vaulted
chamber, which seemed chiselled out of the solid rock.
The smoke-begrimed ceiling was very high; and through
an opening in the centre, which served at once as
window and chimney, the twinkling stars looked down.
Upon the floor beneath this opening a bright fire
burned, casting a ruddy glow around the room, and
lighting up the doorway, and sending its rays far out
into the darkness beyond. Before this fire sat a
damsel, very young and very fair, clad in a garb which
Roland thought would have been better suited to a
palace or a king's court than to this dismal place.
Her great blue eyes were swollen with much weeping; yet
she was so exceedingly fair, that her very presence
seemed to drive all gloom from the cheerless place.
Seated on the floor, not far away, was an old hag,
withered and gray and toothless, who was mumbling and
scolding and cursing,
 as if in a terrible rage about
something. Roland, seeing that these two were the only
persons in the room, advanced, and kindly saluted them.
Both dame and damsel were greatly surprised at the
sight of a knight in armor standing thus unexpectedly
before them; but they arose quietly, and each, in her
way, welcomed him to their cavern home. The old hag,
like one who is afraid of the day, shrank from the
hero's gaze, and cowering sought the deeper shadows of
the room. But the maiden, with hope beaming in her fair
countenance, looked up with tearful, pleading eyes,
into his face. The knight knew at once how matters
stood in that rude dwelling.
"Tell me," said he kindly to the maiden, "why thou art
imprisoned in this cheerless place. Who is it that is
so void or gentleness and manly feeling as to bury thee
in this mountain dungeon?"
Then, with floods of tears rolling down her cheeks, the
maiden told him her sad story. She told him that she
was the only daughter of the old Saracen king of
Gallicia, and that her name was Isabella; that she had
been secretly betrothed to Zerbino, the son of
Scotland's king; that, without the consent of her
father, she had embarked on shipboard at Bayonne,
intending to follow her lover to his own country; and
that on the first night of the voyage a great storm had
arisen, and had driven the vessel upon the shore, where
it was wrecked among the high, pointed rocks.
"The captain saw well our danger," said she. "He
 lowered the galley's skiff, put me in it, and, with two
of his men, embarked among the breakers. Landward over
the raging surf we were driven; and, what was little
short of a miracle, we safely lighted on a shelving
beach. The shore was bleak and barren. No dwelling was
in sight, nor any pathway, but only bare cliffs, and
high, wood-crowned hills. Yet the first thing that I
did was to fall upon my knees, and offer up thanks to
kind Heaven for our deliverance. But, alas! I found
that I had been snatched from the waves, only to fall
into the hands of foes more pitiless than the sea and
the storm. A band of pirates who infest these shores,
and who had seen the wreck from the cliffs above,
rushed down upon us ere we were aware. Vainly did the
good captain and his men try to defend me. The robbers
slew them on the beach, but they harmed me not. I was a
rich prize, they said, and some time I should be sold
for a high price to some wealthy Moorish prince. And
they brought me to this cave, and gave me into the care
of this old dame, who is my jailer. And here for weary
months I have been imprisoned as in a living grave,
scarce hoping ever to be free."
While yet the damsel was speaking, a company of men
came silently down the stairway, and stood in the cave.
They were rude, brutish-looking fellows, some armed
with hunting spears, and some with swords; and they
paused in surprise at sight of the knight seated before
the fire, and eagerly listening to the maiden's story.
 "Ah, my good man!" cried the leader of the band, "thou
hast come in the very nick of time. I have long wanted
a good suit of armor; and that which thou wearest will
certainly serve me well."
With a look of scorn upon his face, Roland turned, and
faced the robber crew. "If you win these arms," said he
to the leader, "you shall pay a dear price for them."
Then, disdaining to use his sword against foes so vile,
he seized a burning brand, and hurled it fiercely among
them; and, picking up a heavy table that stood close
by, he dealt such lusty blows about him, that those of
the robbers who were not entirely disabled were glad to
save themselves by a disgraceful flight. He waited not
to see whether they would return; but he took the
maiden Isabella by the hand, and led her out of her
"I have heard of the Scottish chief Zerbino," said he.
"He follows now the banner of my cousin Reinold of
Montalban; and there are but few braver knights than
he. Come with me, and we will find him."
With this he mounted Brigliadoro and lifted the maiden
to a place behind him. Then the two wended their way
through the forest. As they rode along the silent
paths, the stars moved slowly across the gray sky above
them, and the moon journeyed far to the west, and sank
in the ocean waves; and the red dawn began to appear in
the east. And just as the sun arose they found
themselves standing on the brow of a wooded hill, while
 the valley below them was a small village, or
cluster of peasants' houses; and farther away, on the
brow of another hill, was an old, half-ruined castle.
There seemed to be a great excitement in the little
village, if one might judge from the uproar which was
heard. The dogs were barking; the men were shouting,
the women scolding, the children crying; every one was
running hither and thither, as if the world were coming
to an end. On the farther edge of the village a small
company of knights was seen slowly approaching, with
long pennons floating above them.
"Wait here," said Roland to his fair charge, as he
helped her to alight. "I will ride forward, and see
what is going on."
Isabella concealed herself among the thick underwoods,
while Roland gave spurs to Brigliadoro and was soon
galloping through the single street of the village. It
did not take him long to find out the cause of the
commotion which he had observed. The knights with the
pennons were the men of Count Anselm of Mayence, and
they were leading a prisoner to execution. The people
were wild with excitement, and kept shouting, "Death to
the traitor! Off with him!"
Roland rode close up to the procession; and the country
folk, being unused to a knight of so noble a mien,
parted right and left before him, and allowed him to
advance until he was very near to the prisoner. You may
judge of his surprise when he saw that this man was
none other than Zerbino, the Scottish cavalier in
 quest of whom he had so lately set out. The young man
was fettered with ugly chains, and bound to the back of
a draught horse; and he sat with drooping head and
downcast eyes, scarcely noticing the jeers and threats
of the rude rabble.
"What is the meaning of this?" cried Roland. "What has
this man done?"
"He is a murderer," answered one of the guards. "Count
Pinabel, son of our master, Anselm of Mayence, was
found dead yesterday in the mountain glen; and this is
the man who slew him."
"It is false!" said Zerbino, not raising his head.
"It is true!" said the man. "For he came last night to
the village inn for lodging, and while he was there the
body of poor Pinabel was carried in. No sooner had this
man come near than the wounds of the slain knight began
to bleed afresh. There is no surer proof of guilt than
"Ay," cried the rabble, "there is no surer proof!"
"Untie the man!" said Roland. And he swept his lance
around him, and knocked a score of the rude fellows
prone into the dust. "Untie him, and let him go!"
Zerbino raised his head, and turned to see his
deliverer. The crowd of angry churls fell back, and
began to disperse. The rude fellows were not more
afraid of the knight's long lance and glittering sword
than of his flashing eye and towering form. Within
three minutes the road was cleared: guards, peasants,
and all were
 flying across the fields, eager to escape
the fury of the hero. Roland and Zerbino were left
alone. It was but the work of a moment to sever the
cords and break the chains with which the prisoner was
bound. Then, full of thankfulness for his unexpected
delivery from death, Zerbino went back to the inn where
he had stopped, and donned the armor which had been
taken from him. He found his steed still feeding in the
stable; and, having mounted him, he rode out of the
village proudly by Roland's side. You may judge of his
surprise when he met the fair Isabella on the hilltop;
and as for her—no happier maiden ever lived than she.
And the three friends left the village behind them and
turned their faces northward, intending to make their
way by the shortest route to Paris.
They had not ridden far, however, when they were
overtaken by a tall and powerful knight, clad in the
richest armor they had ever seen, and bearing a shield
on which were engraven the arms of Trojan Hector. It
was none other than Mandricardo, the Tartar chief to
whom Fortune had given the arms which Roland had at one
time so greatly coveted. Long time had he sought
Roland, for he wished to win from him the doughty blade
Durandal. As he rode up, he scanned the two knights
with curious, searching eyes; but most he gazed at
Roland; for he knew by his bearing that he was no
common knight. At last he spoke.
"Thou art the man I seek," said he. "For ten days I
have followed thee. I have heard of thy deeds, and
 I have sought thee long,—first to see thee, and second to
prove thy might."
"And how knowest thou that I am the man?" asked
"By thy port and thy haughty bearing," answered
"I would know thee as a hero among ten
"Thou, too, mayst be a valiant cavalier," said Roland;
"for brave desire is not often lodged in weak minds. If
thou wouldst fain see me, I will lay aside my helm that
thou mayst look. Yet thou must know that a man's heart
is not always seen in his face."
He lifted his helmet, and the Tartar looked long at his
"Thou hast gratified my first wish," then said
Mandricardo. "The second still remains. Come on, let us
prove whether thy valor is equal to thy good looks!"
Roland looked with surprise at the Tartar; for although
he examined on both sides, and even in the pommel of
his saddle, he could see about him neither sword nor
"You have no sword," said he courteously. "How will you
save yourself if your lance should fail?"
"Know thou," said the Tartar proudly, "that I am
Mandricardo, and that I bear the arms which great
Hector bore a thousand years ago. To them there is
nothing lacking save the sword Durandal, which I am
told one Roland of France carries. And I have vowed
that never shall mace or falchion be wielded by my
until I win that doughty blade, and avenge my father
Agrican, whom that same Roland treacherously slew."
"Not so!" cried Roland, growing angry. "Thou liest!
Never slew I any man treacherously. I am Roland, and
this blade is Durandal, the sword thou seekest. Win it,
shalt have it. See, I hang it on this tree, and he who
conquers in this combat shall have it."
So saying, he hung the sword on the limb of a sapling
close to the highway; and the two knights, turning
their horses, rode off the distance of a bow-shot from
each other. Then, wheeling suddenly, they plied their
spurs, and rushed together with a shock like that of an
earthquake. The lances of both were shivered into a
thousand pieces, only the staff-ends being left in
their hands. With these club-like fragments they then
engaged, beating each other most mercilessly over
shoulders and head. Soon these weapons, too, were
splintered, and the combatants were without arms. They
would have fought with their fists; but wherefore, when
he who strikes suffers more than he who is smitten? As
a last resort, they grappled with each other; and the
Tartar chief strained Roland to his bosom as if he
would squeeze the breath from his body. In his earnest
fury he thoughtlessly dropped the rein of his horse's
bridle. Roland, sitting firm in his saddle, saw his
opportunity, and quickly slipped the bridle from the
horse's head. The steed, frightened, and feeling
himself free, started
 off with a bound: little recking
whether his road were smooth or rough, he galloped
swiftly away over fields, and through the woodland,
carrying his unwilling master with him.
Roland waited a long time for the Tartar's return, and
finally bethought him that he would follow and overtake
him. So he bade Zerbino and Isabella a heartfelt
godspeed on their way to Paris, and set out in search
of his enemy. For three days he sought him, but all in
vain: he could find no traces of either the Tartar or
his horse. On the fourth day he gave up the venture,
and turned his face once more toward Paris and the
court of Charlemagne, from which he had been long time