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The Seven Champions of Christendom by  F. J. Harvey Darton
Table of Contents


 

 

ST. DENIS OF FRANCE

I
THE ENCHANTED STAG

[99]

T
HE road taken by St. Denis of France when the seven champions parted from one another was a highway of adventure. Yet little adventure befell this noble knight, for from the very hour when Kalyb stole him (as she stole all the champions in their infancy), he had had another enemy besides the wicked Enchantress; and that was an enchanter no less powerful and cruel than Kalyb, the ill-famed Ormandine himself. Now, St. Denis did not at first come directly into Ormandine's power, but the wizard was able by his arts to throw misfortune in his way, and keep him from winning fame by deeds of chivalry. In every country he entered (and his road led him to the coast of England, and thence by sea to the mainland of Europe) such deeds were to be done and adventure to be found—but not by St. Denis, for Ormandine so guided his steps astray that he went by barren paths and lonely byways in the wilderness, so that [100] he would have lost his skill in arms through lack of use unless he had felt in his heart that he was fated to do great things.

At length in his wanderings he came to the land of Thessaly, which in those days had a fair repute for chivalry; many knights were wont to come thither, and seek adventure against robbers in the high mountains, or in the wars of the Kings of Thessaly against the Saracens or in the splendid tournaments which the King often held. Here, thought St. Denis, he would at last meet some notable happening.

He stood late one afternoon on a mountain slope overlooking the great green plains of the country. Far off he could see the white towers of the capital city, almost a day's journey distant. The meadows beneath him were rich, and full of cattle and horses (for which, indeed, the land was famous). It seemed a region of happiness and prosperity, where doubtless honour might be won.

St. Denis resolved to rest where he was that night, and early next morning to ride to the King's Court, and offer himself for service in any way that might seem good. He looked round him for some resting-place. The grass was green and soft, and hard by was a fine mulberry-tree, whose shade looked cool and [101] peaceful, and whose purple fruit glowed with refreshing juices. St. Denis led his horse to the tree, and unsaddled him; and he picked and ate some of the ripe mulberries to satisfy his thirst. Then he lay down under the tree, and in a moment fell into a deep sleep.

That was no ordinary sleep. St. Denis, indeed, had put himself into the power of his great enemy the enchanter, whose arts had more strength in Thessaly than elsewhere. That very tree under which he was sleeping and its fruit were enchanted.

When he awoke again he felt curiously active, and yet disinclined for warlike deeds. The moon had risen and set again while he slept, and already the sun was climbing the morning sky. He rose, and looked round him for a pool of water in which to bathe. He found one at a little distance—a deep, overshadowed pool that reflected its banks as clearly as if it were glass.

He bent over it and peered into its depths. He started back in terror and amazement at what he saw. There in the water was not the form of a man, but the hairy skin and horned head of a fine hart. He looked down at his feet; they were hoofs, and his legs were slim and tapering. He tried to press his hands to his head, to drive away the terrible [102] vision; but he could not lift them as a man can; they too were hoofs. He had been wholly changed into a deer.

"Oh——" he groaned; and no words came from his lips—he could not speak. In a frenzy of fear and bewilderment, he fled swift as the wind up the mountain path down which he had gone the day before. On and on he ran like a mad thing, till at last he sank exhausted and panting on the ground.

Gradually his reason came back to him, and he grew calm. He saw that some terrible enemy of whom he knew nothing had in some mysterious way done this evil to him. Who that enemy might be, and why he had been so cruel, and how to be rid of the terrible spell, he could not guess.

When he had rested he went back more gently to the place where he had slept. There was his faithful steed still waiting by the mulberry-tree. The good beast knew him, in spite of his changed appearance. It came to him and rubbed its nose gently against his neck, and whinnied tenderly.

It was long before he could resolve what to do. He thought it best, in the end, to stay near the mulberry-tree, for that seemed to him to be the only thing that could have done him this harm—if, indeed, it came [103] from any visible thing, and not from an invisible spell chanted far off by some unseen magician. There he abode, cropping the grass, and drinking from the pool that had told him his fate. With him remained the faithful horse. And so for a long time, for more than a year, in truth, St. Denis was a hart, and lived the life of an animal.

But in the course of time he had one night a very strange dream. It seemed to him that he was walking in a very beautiful garden, in the midst whereof was a rose-tree of surpassing loveliness. Upon its branches grew at once roses white and roses red, and its scent was more delicate than that of any mortal flower. St. Denis, so his dream ran, went to the tree, and, since he was still a hart and desirous of leaves and green things to eat, ate some of the flowers; and immediately the spell fell from him, and he was changed into a man as before. Thereafter in his vision he appeared to meet a lovely Princess, but of that he was not sure, for he awoke before it was made clear to him.

When he awoke, his good steed was no longer by him, at which he marvelled, for it was wont to stay by his side always, day and night. But he had not been awake long when he heard far away the distant sound of [104] hoofs in the mountains. It grew nearer and nearer, and presently the horse came in sight. But it had a singular appearance, as though it were pushing its way through trees and blossoms. A heavenly scent filled the air, and grew stronger as the horse approached. Soon the noble beast was close at hand, and the poor hart could see it clearly. In its mouth it bore leaves and blossoms, from which the scent issued. The blossoms were white and red rose-blooms in flower upon a great branch. The horse, by some strange means, had been led to wander into the mountains and find the enchanted tree, and bring a branch of it to the champion.

Immediately St. Denis remembered his dream, and he put his lips to the rose-blossoms and ate them. Hardly had he touched them when once again deep sleep fell upon him, and for many hours he lay almost as if dead. When he awoke he recalled all that had happened, and, mindful of his former grievous change, ran to the pool to see if he had been restored to man's shape.

This time he had no need to start back in horror. In the cool waters he saw himself exactly as he had been before he ate of the enchanted mulberry-tree. The spell was gone from him, and the power of Ormandine over [105] him had vanished. He fell upon his knees and thanked God for his deliverance.

Rejoicing, he ran back to his charger, and threw his arms round its neck. "Oh, my good steed, never will I forsake you," he cried. "We will go through life together, and when you are too old to come with me upon knightly adventures you shall rest in the greenest meadow in the world, and have the finest stable that man can build. But as for that accursed mulberry-tree, I will see that it does no more evil."

He hurried to the tree; drawing his sword and swinging it round with all his force, he clove the trunk at one blow of the sharp blade. But, instead of splintered bark and wood, he saw a wonderous sight. The tree fell asunder in two halves; a sound as of thunder was heard, and out of the trunk stepped the most beautiful maiden St. Denis had ever seen.

"Princess—for such you must be," said St. Denis in astonishment—"how came you here? What have I done that my strength should cleave this tree to the ground? And why did I do you no harm in that stroke, if you were within this prison of wood?"

"I was within it, and yet not within it," answered the maiden; and her voice sounded [106] to St. Dennis like the chiming of silver bells. "You say truly that I am a Princess; I am Eglantine, daughter of the King of Thessaly. Many years ago—I know not how many—the vile enchanter Ormandine carried me off from my father the King, against whom he had a grudge because of the laws against witchcraft. He turned me into this mulberry-tree by his spells. But when you struck it with your sword his power over me was gone, and since the tree was wrought by magic, no harm to it could come upon me also. I could see through my leaves your sorry fate, and it was the whisperings they made at night that at length came to your good steed's ears, and bade him search for the magic rose-tree, and set us both free. Now let us go at once to my father the King, in his palace in the plain below."

Without more ado they went down from the hill together, the Princess riding on the champion's horse, and St. Denis walking at the bridle. With every step he took he thought her more lovely; and she was not backward in looking favourably upon him.

They came presently to the chief city. When the citizens saw the Princess—for it was but some ten years since she had been enchanted, and she lived in their loving [109] memory—they ran out of their houses and shops and booths, and followed her with shoutings and joyful music; and so they arrived at the King's palace, the news of their coming flying before them, for rumour is swifter than the feet of men. The King was ready to receive them, and he ran down the marble steps of his palace door, and embraced her as she alighted from the horse. Then he greeted St. Denis honourably, and they entered the palace.

It was not long before the Princess Eglantine had told her tale, and marvellous it seemed to them.

"Sir Knight," said the King when she had ended, "I will grant whatsoever you ask of me."

"I could ask of you but one thing, Sire," answered the champion, "and that is the most precious thing you have."

"Whatever it is, you shall have it," said the King. "Ask."

"I ask your daughter in marriage, if she will deign to look upon me with favour. Though I am not yet dubbed knight, I am of the royal line of the ancient kingdom of France."

"Your lineage is high and proud, friend," said the King; "but your boon I cannot [110] grant. It is of my daughter that you must ask it. If she will give it, I will not say nay."

"Nor will I refuse to grant it," said Eglantine. "If you desire me for wife, fair sir, I will be your wife."

So gracious was the King and so well-disposed to the knight who had set his daughter free from Ormandine's enchantments, that he welcomed St. Denis the more joyfully for his bold request, and also he made him a knight, after the manner of chivalry. In a little time St. Denis and Eglantine were married amid great rejoicings, and afterwards a tournament was held, the news of which the King caused to be proclaimed through all Christian lands. In the tournament St. Denis held the lists against all comers, and overthrew every knight with whom he fought. When the tournament and all the revelry that followed it was ended, the champion and his bride set out to visit other courts, and seek out the six champions wherever they might be found. And first they journeyed to the court of the King of Greece. But whom they met there shall be told later.


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