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The Story of Roland by  James Baldwin

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HOW ROLAND SLEW A SEA MONSTER

[245] WHEN, at length, the days of mourning for Duke Godfrey were passed, Ogier and the knights who were with him turned their faces southward, and rode back again to France. But Roland parted from their company, and went another way, for Charlemagne had intrusted him with a message to Oberto, the king of Ireland; and to that country he directed his course. At the nearest port on the coast a little ship awaited him; and in this he embarked, and sailed across the western sea.

For many days the vessel ploughed the waters, and the sky was clear, and the wind was fair, and the voyage was a happy one. And those on board beguiled the hours with pleasant talk and with many wonderful tales of the sea. The captain was a browned and weather-beaten Norseman, who had sailed the waters for more than two score years, and who knew every strait and shallow and every point of land, from Gothland to the Pillars of Hercules. And he delighted to tell of the many scenes of danger through which he [246] had passed, and of the feats of daring which he had seen on land and sea, and of the strange beings which people the deep. One day he talked about the mermaids and the men of the sea; and he told of the great Midgard snake whom the Northmen believe to lie hidden in the deepest ocean; and he related the story of Old Ægir the Ocean King, and of his nine daughters, the white-veiled Waves. And when he had finished, Roland said that what he had told reminded him of certain stories which he had heard in the South,—stories of the old Pagan times, when the gods were thought to live on earth, and to take some sort of interest in the doings of men. And he spoke of Poseidon, whom the Greeks called the ruler of the sea; and of old Nereus and his fifty daughters, the silver-footed sea nymphs. And this led him to relate the beautiful fable of Andromeda, and her rescue by Perseus from the sea monster whom Poseidon had sent to devour her.

"But the gods are all dead now," said he, "and neither Ægir nor Poseidon rules the sea."

Then an old Irish harper who happened to be on shipboard spoke, and said, "Sir knight, if all reports be true, some of the sea deities still live, and are known in regions where the Christian religion has not yet been preached. Indeed, I have heard that in the Island of Ebuda, a day's sail west of Ireland, old Proteus, the servant of Poseidon, is even now imitating the deeds of his ancient master."

Then the company insisted that the harper should [247] tell them all that he knew about this matter, and he did as they desired him.

"In the golden age," said he, "it was the task of Proteus to keep the seals and sea calves for his master Poseidon, to lead them into the pleasantest waters and to the freshest pastures, and to see that no one wilfully harmed them. When the times changed, and his old master was dethroned and no longer needed his services, he still kept on herding and caring for the seals and sea calves; for the power of habit was so strong that he could not tear himself away from his old haunts, nor change his occupation. And as he was usually very peaceable, and thought to be quite harmless, very little attention was paid to him; and he was allowed to live on, and ply his vocation, long after all the other sea deities were deposed and forgotten. One day, as he was driving about in his swan chariot, and looking after his herds, he came to this Island of Ebuda of which I have just spoken. It chanced, that, as he drove close by the shore, the golden-haired daughter of the King of Ebuda stood on the beach. She was more passing fair than ever were the sea nymphs of old, or the mermaids, or the white-veiled daughters of Ægir. And the heart of the ancient Proteus was moved with love for the maiden, and he forthwith besought the king that he would give her to him in marriage. But the father of the maiden scorned his suit. Should he, the king of Ebuda, wed his only daughter to the last of a dying race,—to the last and the least worthy of the [248] sea gods? Let him go back to his seals and sea-calves, and never again think of making himself the peer of human beings.

"Then the love of old Proteus was changed to hate, and he vowed that he would not rest nor slumber until he had avenged the slight that had thus been put upon him. And he sent great troops of sea calves to ravage the coasts of Ebuda; and after them he caused a huge and shapeless monster, called an orc, to come, and overrun the whole island. Never was there greater distress and terror. The frightened people fled from their farms and villages, and sought safety in the walled towns; and, between famine and the ravages of the sea monsters, it seemed as if the entire nation would be destroyed. Now, it appears that there was in Ebuda some kind of an oracle, in whose decisions the people placed great trust. And the king prayed the oracle that he might know how to appease the anger of old Proteus, and turn his fearful wrath away. And the oracle answered, and said that this could be done only by offering a daily sacrifice to Proteus to be devoured by the monster orc.

" 'What shall that sacrifice be?' asked the king.

" 'The fairest maiden that can be found either in Ebuda or in the neighboring isles,' was the answer.

" 'And how long shall this fearful payment of tribute continue?' asked the king.

"And the oracle answered, 'Until a hero shall come to Ebuda's shores brave enough and strong enough to [249] slay the orc. Then, and not till then, will Proteus withdraw the curse which he has laid upon you, and leave your people in peace.'

"And it was done as the oracle had bidden. Each day a damsel, the fairest that could be found, was offered to the orc; and the creature ceased his ravages, and allowed the people to return to their homes and farms. And each day, as a new victim was led to the horrible sacrifice, the people prayed for the coming of the hero who should save their loved ones from this dreadful doom. But he came not.

"And it is said that still in the Island of Ebuda this cruel usage is continued, and that the Pagan folk who live in that land no longer look upon this sacrifice with horror and aversion, but that, grown barbarous and unfeeling, they send their ships to the neighboring coasts, and bring home scores of fair captives to be offered to the bloodthirsty orc. Many a noble Irish maiden, I know, has been stolen from our shores, and sacrificed thus horribly by the Ebudans."

"Where sayest thou this savage Island of Ebuda lies?" asked Roland.

"In the great western ocean," answered the harper. "It lies many leagues west of green Erin."

"Turn, then, thy course, good sea captain," said Roland to the master of the ship. "Steer straight for that island kingdom. If such barbarous custom still continues there, it shall not be much longer."

But the winds, as if in league with the wrathful Pro- [250] teus, hesitated to hasten the vessel on its way; and as the eagerness of the knight waxed stronger, so was the progress of the ship delayed. Sometimes the breeze died away, and there was a calm; the sails hung loose and useless upon the masts, and, had not the seamen plied their oars, the vessel would have stood still. Sometimes a west wind sprang up, and blew strong against them, and they were forced to tack about, and veer far from their intended course. And so it befell that many days passed by, ere, at length, they came in sight of the wooded shores of Ebuda, and the captain pointed out the high rock where the fair victims were daily left as food for the ravenous orc.

When they drew near the place, Roland ordered the ship's boat to be lowered; and in it he placed the largest anchor and the strongest cable that could be found. Then he sat down in the boat; and alone and unarmed, save that he carried the trusty Durandal, he rowed toward the rock. It was about the hour of sunrise,—the time when the monster, they said, was wont to come for his daily meal. As the hero rowed close to the shore, he fancied that he heard faint moans, and feeble cries of distress. He looked around, and saw a maiden chained to the rock with iron links, her feet wetted by the rising tide, and her face hidden beneath the long tresses of golden hair that fell about her neck and shoulders. His heart melted with pity, and the sight nerved his arm for the strange contest which was near. He was about to speak to the maiden, when a sudden [251] sound was heard,—a roaring like that of a strong wind among the forest trees, or of the waves rolling madly into some ocean cave. He heard the loud shouts of his companions on shipboard: the breakers began to rise around his little boat. The monster was at hand, huge as a rock-built castle, dark and terrible as a thundercloud, fearless as the waves themselves.

Quickly Roland went to meet the beast; he stood up in the boat with the anchor in his hand; quietly he awaited the onset. The orc saw him, and opened his jaws to swallow both him and the boat. The red eyes of the creature glared like baleful bonfires in the morning light; his huge tail lashed the waters into a foam. It was a fearful moment, but Roland faltered not. He raised the heavy anchor still higher; and then, with the strength of a knight well trained in the use of every weapon, he hurled it into the monster's wide-open mouth. And there it remained, propping the huge jaws apart, and so firmly fixed that the orc could by no means remove it. At nearly the same moment Roland drew his sword, the mighty Durandal; and, calling up all his strength, he struck the monster a blow which almost severed his head from his body. Then guarding the rope to which the anchor was fastened, he seized the oars, and rowed swiftly to the shore. He leaped upon the beach; and, encouraged by the shouts and cheers of his friends on board the ship, he dragged the now dead monster to the land.

And now he bethought him of the captive maiden [252] chained to the rock, and half fallen into a swoon, scarcely knowing that she had been saved from the terrible death that had threatened her. With a single stroke of Durandal, the hero severed the iron links; and then he took her gently by the hand, and led her away from that dreadful rock, and seated her in a pleasant, sunny place high on the shore. With kind and cheerful words he sought to arouse her drooping spirits; for she seemed dazed and bewildered, as if waking from a dream, and unable for a time to remember where she was. He asked her her name, and inquired how she, so unlike the dwellers in Ebuda, had been cast on this barbarous shore and offered in sacrifice to the bloodthirsty orc. She told him that her name was Olympia, and that, in her own home beyond the seas, she was a princess, loved and honored by hosts of subjects. And then she related, how, one day while walking alone on the seashore, she had been seized by pirates from Ebuda, and, with other fair captives, had been brought to this savage shore, and reserved as a peace-offering to the monster whom the Ebudans foolishly believed to have been sent by old Proteus.

Scarcely had the princess ended her story when a new and unexpected danger threatened our hero. The folk of Ebuda had heard of the strange combat between the knight and the orc, and now in great numbers they came trooping to the shore. They stood upon the cliffs above, and along the beach, and some came down even to the water's edge, to see the dead monster and the [253] hero who had slain him. But, although they had been freed from the terror of their lives, they were not pleased; neither felt they in the least thankful to their deliverer.

"Alas!" cried they, "this man has slain the servant of old Proteus, and now it will go hard with us who were charged with his keeping. For will not the sea god curse us again, and send his herds of sea calves to lay waste our shores? Better it is to endure a single evil than to risk the coming of a multitude of others. The poor orc was not as bad as he might have been; and, now he is dead, there is no telling what may befall us."

"That is true," answered others; "and the only safe way for us to do is to turn away the wrath of old Proteus by punishing the man who has lifted up his sacrilegious hand against the orc. Let us pitch this busy meddler, whoever he may be, into the sea, that he may give his own account to the outraged sea god whom we serve."

Then a great clamor and shouting arose; and those who stood highest upon the cliffs began hurling stones and darts at Roland; and those who were nearest rushed toward him with drawn swords. There is no telling what would have been the end of this affray, had not a company of armed knights rushed unexpectedly upon the scene. They were men of Ireland, who with their king, Oberto, had come with a fleet of ships to punish the savage islanders for their piracies upon the [254] Irish shores. So great was the surprise of the Ebudans that they turned at once, and fled in wild dismay from the shore; nor did they stop in their flight until they were safely shut up within their city walls.

The meeting between Roland and King Oberto was a happy one; for they had been pages together at the court of Charlemagne, and they recognized each other as old and tried friends. And when the Irish king saw the dead orc, and heard Roland's story of the combat which had taken place, he resolved that he would return at once to his own land and leave the Ebudans in peace. And when all had gone aboard their ships again, the sails were spread, and the fleet sped gayly back toward Ireland. And Roland and the Princess Olympia were guests on board the king's own vessel. And old stories tell us that Oberto afterwards wedded Olympia, making her the Queen of Ireland; and that for many years they lived most happily together, loved and honored by all their subjects. As for Roland, he tarried not long at the Irish court; but, having delivered the message which he bore from Charlemagne, he took ship again and hastened back to France.


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