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The Seven Champions of Christendom by  F. J. Harvey Darton
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ST. GEORGE OF ENGLAND

I
ST. GEORGE AND THE DRAGON

[47]

T
HE road followed by St. George led him into many lands. It bore him first of all through England to the sea-board, where he took ship and sailed over the narrow seas to Europe. He journeyed through the Lowlands to Germany, and so across Hungary to where the Christians were fighting the Saracen Turks on the eastern edge of Europe. He took ship again, after many battles, and came at last to a city on the shores of Egypt, where was a lighthouse and a great castle of stone. Thence he set out to cross the desert to the court of the king of that country.

His good white horse bore him bravely through the burning sand. But with the heat and the long toil of his wanderings he was very weary. He longed to see again the city of Coventry and the woods of England and the faces of his own people. Here there [48] was nothing but glaring light and strange heathen folk, for whom he cared nothing.

As he thought thus, he looked about him sadly. Suddenly he saw a great way off a little hut by some palm-trees, and near it a man standing. He drew near quickly, and perceived that the man was a holy hermit, and the hut a rough shelter of leaves and branches, in which he lived.

The old man, his long beard shining in the sun, stood in his path, and held up his arms against St. George, motioning him to halt. "Come no farther, Sir Knight," he said, "whoever you may be."

"I stay for no man's bidding," answered St. George. "Why do you call me to halt?"

"This way lie sorrow and death, young man," replied the hermit solemnly. "Here is a land of mourning, and no mirth or entertainment for any man—no, not even if he is the bravest knight on earth."

"It would ill become me to claim that name," said St. George. "But it is my task to aid the sorrowful, and to dare all that a brave knight may."

"Many another has said that, in high hope," answered the hermit, looking narrowly upon him. "It may be that you are he who shall [49] carry out his hopes: such a one there may be."

"You talk in riddles, holy man," said St. George; "tell me what this sorrow is that has fallen upon your land."

"The dragon," said the hermit. "There is a loathly dragon here, who has his lair in a cave in a fruitful valley that is one of the green places in this waste of sand. This dragon for twenty-four years has ravaged the King's realm; and when he came hither first (no man knew whence), he set up a custom of taking one maiden every day to devour. Many knights have gone out against him, to kill him; but with his poisonous breath or his great claws he has slain every one, so that none now dare assail him, but we must offer him every day a maiden. Now it has come to this: that there is only one maiden of suitable age left in all the kingdom, Sabra herself, the King's daughter. To-morrow she must be bound and left in the valley for the dragon; and he will devour her, and after that I know not what will come upon us. But if any knight can slay the dragon, there is reward enough for him, for the King will give him the Princess Sabra in marriage, and make him his heir."

"I want no kingdoms," said St. George; [50] "and as for your Princess, I know nothing of her. But if I can slay the dragon and save her, I will."

The hermit shook his head. "Many knights have said the like," he said. "You will see their bones in the valley if you are so rash as to venture there."

"Would you have a Christian knight fear to succour a lady in peril because others have failed?" asked St. George. "I will fight the dragon. Let me rest here in your hut this night, and to-morrow you shall guide me to this valley."

The hermit tried again to turn him from his purpose, but to no avail. So he took the champion into his hut and refreshed him with his simple fare. That night St. George lay in the hut and rested, and the next morning early the hermit guided him to the entrance of the valley.

It was a deep ravine rather than a valley. At the bottom lay a little stream, whose waters so strengthened the soil that trees and flowers flourished abundantly. The entrance was by a rocky pass, on the side of which, stretching down the steep slope, grew a dark little wood of cypress-trees. Below, at the bottom of the valley, were rich meadows, and in the midst of the fairest and greenest [51] of them stood an orange-tree of surpassing beauty, the fruit whereof—for it was the season of ripe fruit—were larger and more splendid than any on earth. Beyond this meadow was the dark entrance to the dragon's cave.

St. George parted from the hermit at the entrance in the pass. The hermit gave him his blessing, and the champion set forth down the stony path, his horse picking its way carefully along the uneven track. The cypress-trees made the path dark and gloomy. But when he had passed them, St. George saw before him a princess so lovely that she seemed to light up the whole valley. She was clad all in pure white silk, with a golden circlet on her head, and she was bound to an outlying tree, looking pitifully down to the meadows, whence came at intervals a dull, low sound, as of a terrible threatening roar.

St. George halted for a second in wonder at her beauty. Then he spurred his horse and alighted by the tree. He drew his sword and cut the bonds. Then he knelt to her and saluted her.

"Who are you, Sir Knight?" she said in surprise, and a little in fear.

"Princess," he answered, "I am not yet a knight; I have not won my spurs. But I desire to do all knightly deeds. I shall fight [52] this dragon, and, by God's aid, slay him. Meanwhile do you hasten back to the king your father, and say to him that a champion has been found for you, who will, if all go well with him, pay him his humble duty at his court when the dragon has been slain. Speed now, Princess, for the dragon grows impatient."

And, indeed, at that moment a roar sounded from the valley that made the branches of the tree rattle against one another, and set up an echo that rumbled like thunder in the hollow sides of the place.

The Princess looked long and earnestly at him, and he returned her look.

"I will go, brave Knight," she said at last. "But you do not know how great is the task you attempt."

"No task is too great if it will save you," he answered.

"If my prayers can bring you victory," said she, "you will win. Come back safe—to honour and to me."

With that she turned and fled up the path. At the top she turned and looked back at him, then she made what speed she could to her father's palace.

She found King Ptolemy sitting in great misery with his court. Not only had he, as [53] he thought, lost his dearly loved daughter, but there was not left another suitable maiden in all Egypt, and none knew what mischief the dragon would do when the usual offering was not prepared for him.

"Let us all mount swift horses and camels," said Prince Almidor of Morocco, a suitor for Princess Sabra's hand, "and set forth at once for my kingdom. If the dragon follows, he can but take a few of us at first, and we shall soon reach Morocco, where an army of my bravest knights can deal with this monster."

"There is no need to flee," said Sabra, who had entered in time to hear this counsel. "A Christian knight has come to save me; even now he is doing battle with the dragon. He will overcome the monster; I am sure of it."

Prince Almidor laughed scornfully. "How many knights have been sure of victory? How many has the dragon slain?" he asked.

"This is no common knight," said the Princess. "He is not afraid; he does not flee to a far country."

Almidor winced. "Maybe this stranger knight is bolder than others," he said, more gently. But for ourselves it is safer not to wait here. The knight may not prevail."

"Let us wait a little," said the King. I do not think this knight, or any knight, can [56] kill the dragon; but let us abide the issue. We shall be none the worse off an hour or two hence."

So they waited. But Almidor, seeing that Princess Sabra was not in the power of the dragon, renewed his hopes of winning her. He remembered the King's promise of her hand to any knight who might slay the dragon, and he set a plot in train to make sure that even if this Christian champion should overcome the monster, he should yet not win the Princess.

But St. George was even now in the midst of the hardest of all his fights. When the Princess left him, he rode swiftly down the rocky path, his armour jingling gaily, and flaming in the sun. The red cross of England blazoned on his shield seemed a very signal of triumph. He loosened his good sword in its sheath, but for the first onset set his spear in rest.

Down the path he went, down to the very bottom of the ravine, where, in spite of the hot sun of the desert, the air was cooler. All around lay the bones of dead knights, white and terrible, with here and there a dinted plate of armour or a rusty sword.

Bucephalus, the white charger, sniffed the air and snorted; he felt that some strange [57] beast was near. But the dragon had not yet come out of his cave. From inside it came low mutterings, harsh, deep growls that made a man's blood run cold to hear.

St. George kept his eyes fixed on the black entrance as he came into the meadow where the fair orange-tree stood; its fruit glowed like golden lamps. Suddenly the arch in the rock seemed to be filled to the very top by a rushing, glittering shape. Green and blue and brown it seemed, and the colours changed with every movement, like a lizard's skin. It was the dragon coming forth for his prey.

The monster stood as high as a man upon a horse. His body was covered all over with shining scales; his wings were stiff and leathery. Two long tusks stuck out of his mouth, and his tongue moved restlessly to and fro round them, licking his red gums in expectation of his feast. From his nostrils came a hot and poisonous smoke, and the beat of his huge wings, as he half ran, half flew, towards the champion, made the orange-tree leaves rustle like the clapping of hands.

St. George gripped his spear and spurred his horse. The faithful beast was quivering with terror, but, nevertheless, he galloped forward. Every leap brought the knight nearer; he could feel the hot breath and smell [58] the horrible odour of the creature. One more drive of his wings, and they met.

St. George felt as if his spear had run against a wall of stone, and was thrusting him violently back. The guard was forced back on to his shoulder, but he held to it firmly. But the spear was useless against the horny scales, and as St. George recoiled, drawing his horse up on his haunches, the shaft snapped, and the whole head dropped to the ground. Horse and rider reeled; the horse slipped as he tried to recover, and beast and man rolled over into the shade of the orange-tree. The dragon, with the force of the shock, had reared high into the air, so that when his fore-feet came down to ground again, the champion and his steed had fallen out of the way. But it seemed an escape only for a moment.

And then a wonder happened. As St. George and Bucephalus rolled under the orange-tree, dizzy and shaken, the dragon seemed to recoil. He roared terribly, but drew back from the tree, as a cat draws back from a dog. For though St. George knew it not, the tree was enchanted, and the dragon had no power over anything that lay in its shade. Moreover, its fruit had wonderful virtue, as the champion was soon to find.

[59] St. George lay there a few seconds. Then he sprang up and mounted Bucephalus, and drew the sword from its sheath."Now will I prove whether the Enchantress spoke truly of this good blade," he thought. "It can wound men—that I know—but can it pierce the dragon's skin?"

He urged the horse forward again, and made at the dragon. It reared on high, to bring its great fore-paws down the more heavily. For a moment there was an opening for a blow. St. George swung the sword across his left shoulder, swept it round, and smote fiercely across the monster's breast.

The shock of the blow numbed his arm; it was as if he had struck a column of brass. But, strong though the scales were, the good blade pierced them, though not deeply. Out of the wound spurted deadly venom (for dragon's blood is poisonous), so noxious that the touch of it split the champion's breastplate from shoulder to waist, and its fumes in a moment took his senses away. He fainted, swayed in the saddle, and fell from the horse. But by great good fortune he fell once more into the shadow of the enchanted orange-tree; and Bucephalus, seeing where he lay, hurried to his side, and stood there by him in safety.

[60] It was long before St. George came to his senses. The sun was high in the heavens when he opened his eyes again. Weary and sick, he felt its rays unbearable, and he reached up to a low-growing branch and plucked an orange. The cool touch of its skin itself refreshed him, and he had no sooner set his teeth in it than he felt his strength and vigour come back to him as if by a miracle.

In a few moments he had rid himself of the broken breastplate, and sallied out of shelter again. But now he was more wary. He saw that even his good sword could do little against the dragon's scales unless he could find some spot where they were thin or weak. He rode directly at the monster, but at the last moment turned aside, so that the great fore-paw crashed past him harmlessly. Quickly he wheeled Bucephalus, and swung his sword back-handedly at the beast's wing, cutting the skin, but doing no hurt that mattered. He pulled the horse up on to its haunches, and escaped the poison that issued from the wound. Enraged, the dragon turned on him in a flash, throwing up one of its great wings to steady itself as it swerved and heaved itself up. The scales gleamed dazzlingly, the hot breath of the creature was all round [61] him, the long talons in the fore-paw were so close that he could see where they slid in their curved, horny sheath, like a cat's; but in that moment of peril St. George's eyes and head were clear. He saw under the uplifted wing a new colour, not the changing tones of the brassy scales, but a golden yellow, as of silk; it was soft and yielding in look, not hard and stiff. He guessed what it was-the weak place in the dragon's armour, the place where thin skin was the only covering of the dreadful body.

St. George used his sword by the point now, not by the cutting edge. He thrust, deep and hard and true, under the dragon's wing, and drew the point out again, and thrust again quickly as the monster reeled away from him and the huge wing fell feebly. The sword entered the dragon's heart. The creature roared once more, but now its roar was like a hoarse rattling. The great legs suddenly grew weak, the body sank upon them, and fell with a soft thud upon its side. The dragon was dead.


II
ALMIDOR THE MOOR

[62] The dragon lay dead. But St. George was sore wearied with the fight. He led his horse into the shade of the friendly orange-tree, where the grass was green and sweet, and the good beast cropped it gently, while the knight ate the fruit of the tree. So full of healing virtue were the oranges that in a little while he felt as if he was just going freshly into battle, instead of leaving a long and fierce encounter.

He went to the body of the dragon. It lay quite still. Some of the glistening brightness had faded from the hard scales, but the colour still glowed. He cut the great head off—no easy matter—and hung it at his saddle-bow. Then he mounted Bucephalus, and rode up the valley again, to go to the King's court and see once more the lovely Princess whom he had rescued.

His heart was gay at his victory; he had done a deed worthy of a Christian knight. The valley seemed more beautiful, the sunlight brighter, the grass greener, the way less rough. The trees at the mouth of the valley, as he drew nearer to them, looked as if they [63] too gave a cool shade as consoling as the orange-tree's. A little breeze appeared to have sprung up; the boughs moved and flickered. There was a look of comfort and peace in the dark green.

But was it a breeze? There was no motion in the air where St. George was. Why should the branches quiver?

He looked more closely. Then he loosened his good sword in its sheath and drew himself up, erect and ready. He had seen that the movement was not of the trees only, but of men on horseback. The sun here and there caught little points of their armour and twinkled upon it.

Almidor, the Prince of Morocco, had sent twelve knights to waylay St. George, and these were they. He did not know whether the champion would overcome the dragon; he did not think it likely. But he felt a misgiving. He resolved not to lose the hand of the Princess, whether he won it by fair means or foul. He stationed these retainers of his, therefore, where they would entrap the Christian knight as he returned from the fray—if he did return—weary and unsuspecting. They were to slay him, and then Almidor would go forth and claim for himself the victory over the dragon. If, on the other hand, the [64] champion had been vanquished by the monster, the knights would simply return to Almidor and say so.

That was his treacherous plan. It might have been successful if St. George had not been restored to strength by the enchanted orange-tree, and if he had not caught sight of the men in ambush in good time.

It was fortunate also for St. George that these traitorous knights were not well led. Perhaps they made light of their task, seeing that they were twelve to one. It may be that some sense of fairness at the last minute shamed them. But, whatever the cause, they did not set upon him in a body. Instead, two of them ranged themselves on either side of the track, and a third in the middle of it, fronting St. George. The rest stood apart in the trees, waiting their chance.

But St. George was not lacking in skill, if his enemies were. He saw that he must attack first, and at once. He let the dragon's head fall to the ground, that it might not encumber him. Then, putting spurs to Bucephalus, he galloped at full speed up the hill. The two knights on either side drew back a little as he approached, that they might swing downwards the more easily at the right moment. It was what St. George [65] expected. He had kept a little turn of speed in Bucephalus for the last flash of onset. Just as he drew level with them he gave a sign to the good steed, who leapt suddenly forward with a great bound that took St. George past the first two knights and into the third. As the horse sprang forward the champion swung his sword up, and with the rush of the charge it came down—down upon the knight's helmet, clean and true, and shore through helmet and head down to the very shoulders.

In a flash St. George had tugged the sword free and wheeled Bucephalus almost upon his haunches to the right, swinging the good blade Ascalon blindly round with a wide sweep at the full length of his arm as he turned. The knight that side, as he had hoped, was within reach of the sword; it struck him, all unready for such a wild and sudden onslaught, at the joint of the neck armour, and he, too, toppled from his horse, dead as a stone.

By this the third knight, he on the left of the track, nearest the trees, had come to his wits again. He did not want for courage. He drove furiously down at the champion, who had hardly recovered from the second of his great blows. It was no time for de- [66] fence; the knight was upon him. Bucephalus, after turning for the second encounter, was facing down the hill again, and not quite sure of his footing. Quick as thought, St. George gave him a touch with the spur. The good horse strained and scrambled, and took a slipping stride down the slope. It was but a little way, but it was enough. The Moorish knight had aimed full at St. George with a long lance, but with that quick motion of Bucephalus his aim was turned askew. The lance struck St. George upon the shoulder and glanced off, and as the Moor passed in his headlong rush the English champion swung Ascalon again back-handedly, so that the invincible sword smote the man upon the nape of his neck. He fell forward upon his horse's rnane; the lance clattered upon the path as it fell from his dead hand, and the horse, unchecked, terrified, bore his body away into the valley.

So in hardly three minutes three of the twelve were slain. The nine were in a group, ten paces or so distant. They had hoped that their chance would come easily, at a moment when the English knight was engaged with their advance guard. But St. George had been too sudden and daring for them; and he knew that swiftness was still [69] his best defence. He did not wait to see how his blow at the third knight had prospered, though the sound of the falling lance told him plainly enough. He set Bucephalus at a gallop again up the slope, and with a thunder of hoofs and rattle of steel, crying, "St. George for England! St. George!" he clashed into the little knot of knights. Into their very midst he pierced, hardly striking a blow at first; but when he was among them, Ascalon played about their heads like forked lightning, and cracked their armour as a flash rives an oak. Most of them had not drawn their swords, deeming that a charge with the lance downhill would have served their treacherous end better. But at close quarters the lances were of no avail; they were so cumbrous that they prevented the horseman from getting free of one another, and one of them even wounded one of his fellows. St. George made what speed he could while he was in the midst of the enemy; right and left he slashed, and the blade clove armour and flesh and bones as if they had been paper. In a few minutes four more lay dead, while three were so sorely wounded that they fell from their horses and crawled painfully away to the trees, there to die.

The two last were more wary. They had [70] drawn out of the press of men quickly, not trying to reach St. George till they could fight more freely. He would be weary when he came to them, they thought, not knowing the powers of his sword Ascalon, or the strength he had gaiaed from the orange-tree. They moved cautiously higher up the slope and waited the issue.

The last of the others fell from his saddle. St. George looked to see how many more there might be, for he did not know whether a whole army might not have been sent out against him. All round he turned his eye. There was no sound to give him warning of more besides those two. The sun burned and blazed; the dark trees stood motionless. Below lay the body of the dragon; already a vulture had sighted it, and was hovering before descending. There were no other men anywhere save those two.

For a moment the enemies stood in silence, looking narrowly upon each other. St. George pondered his best course of attack; the Moors wondered at the courage and fresh strength of this fierce stranger, and hesitated.

"Better to take to our swords," said one to his companion. "With that swift steed he is upon us before we can set our chargers in motion to shock him."

[71] "No sword for me," answered the other quickly, setting his lance in rest. "Did you not see how he used his sword? No man could stand against it. I will not come within sweep of his blade. Give me my long lance; I'll gore him before he can reach me."

"If you miss with the lance, friend," said his comrade, "you are like to come nearer his sword than you hope, for you cannot recover so quickly as he. And if——Hola! On guard! The man is upon us! He is possessed by Djinns. By the beard of the Soldan, saw ever man such speed and fury——"

He spurred his horse. His companion urged his steed to charge. But St. George had gathered up all the strength of Bucephalus into a rush the like of which man never saw before. Up the hill the great white horse thundered, his nostrils wide, his huge chest fronting the breeze like the bows of a stately ship. There was a spirit in him that made him seem like a horse of more than mortal breed. And on his back his rider came exulting, his eyes alight with fierce adventure, the plume on his helmet streaming, his courage glowing in his face.

The Moors and their steeds seemed spellbound. Fear fell suddenly upon their hearts [72] like an ice-cold hand. It was only for a moment: their pride and valour returned in an instant; but that instant was too long. St. George was upon them, with a huge shouting and a hammering of hoofs, his sword swung up over his left shoulder, his right arm all across his chest to get the fiercer sweep. He swerved Bucephalus as he came close to the knights, so that on his left he jostled the Moor with the sword; and then his arm swung across, the good blade Ascalon flashing over his horse's mane, and swooping with a downward glide upon the other knight's right shoulder. Through the armour and through the bone it clove, and deep into the Moor's breast; and he swayed and fell to the ground.

The sword was almost wrenched from St. George's hand by his fall, but the champion's grip was firm and true. He leant over in the saddle as the blade was dragged downwards and tore it free. Then he turned hastily to meet the other Moor. But he had fled; terror spoke in his ear, saying that the last of twelve was no match for the man who had slain eleven with his own hand.

He hastened back to Almidor, spreading, as he went, the news that the dragon was slain and its slayer on the way to the city.

[73] "The man is possessed by an evil spirit," he said to Almidor when he came into his presence in his private chamber. Not a score of men, nor five score, could have overcome him. Never did mortal man fight with such bitter might. And his horse also is doubtless a gift of Shaitan, and powerful Djinns have given his sword magical power."

"Out of my sight, cowardly dog!" cried Almidor in a fury, striking him upon the mouth with his hand. "What! Twelve men not strong enough to kill one, and that one weary with dragon-slaying? Go forth! Let me never look upon your face again. I will have no cowards for servants."

"Coward! No man shall——" and the unhappy knight put his hand to his sword enraged. But it came into his mind that he had indeed fled before St. George, and played a coward's part; and he was ashamed. He turned without a word and went from Almidor's presence, his head bowed and his shoulders shrunken. He set out from Egypt that very day, and wandered hither and thither, fighting in causes he chose to espouse, and trying by brave deeds to win back his knightly honour. He was slain no long time afterwards in Palestine, warring against the army of Christendom.

[74] But Almidor nursed his fury till it became a burning flame in his heart. He knew now that a Christian knight had truly slain the dragon, and would have the Princess Sabra for his wife, and he vowed to destroy the stranger by whatever means he could. But at that time he could do no more than hope and plot. He must go to the King and join in welcoming the conqueror, as though he bore him no ill-will.

St. George took no more heed of his enemies; he saw that the only one yet able to withstand him had fled. He sheathed Ascalon, and put Bucephalus to a slow pace to regain his breath. And so, with the dragon's head replaced at his saddle-bow, he left the valley, and came up into the desert track again.

He set forth patiently in the direction in which the old hermit had told him the chief city lay. He had not gone far before he saw a great crowd of folk coming to meet him. For a moment he thought he must encounter more enemies; but then he saw fair children in white among the multitude, and heard triumphal music sounding.

It was the King of Egypt marching forth to greet the conqueror of the dragon. He rode in a chariot of beaten gold, drawn by [75] three pure white horses abreast, and by his side was the Princess Sabra, more beautiful, it seemed to St. George, even than when he first saw her awaiting the dragon in the valley. Behind the golden chariot rode thirty negroes in purple robes, mounted on camels, with scarlet harness. On either side were a hundred knights in rich armour. Men with all manner of musical instruments followed, and standard-bearers, and guards; and behind came the people of the city, bearing flowers and wreaths to strew before the champion.

St. George drew near and made an obeisance to the King. "Hail, King of Egypt!" he cried. "I bring you a gift." And he held up the dragon's head. So terrible was it even in death that the Princess turned pale and shuddered at the sight of it.

"You could bring no gift that will give greater happiness to my people," answered King Ptolemy. "Come with us to the city, Sir Knight, and let us feast. When we have made revelry you shall ask of me what boon you will."

With that he stepped down from the golden chariot, and, taking St. George by the hand, led him to the chariot again. Tell me your name, Sir Knight," he said, "that I may proclaim it to my people."

[76] "I am not yet a knight by full and due rites," said St. George; "but I seek to do knightly deeds wherever they may be found. My name is George, and I am of the royal line of England."

"Let his name, George of England, be cried to the people," said King Ptolemy; "and let the dragon's head be set upon a tall lance and bore before us."

It was done as he said, and so to the noise of joyful music they went back to the city, St. George in the chariot with the King and the Princess. But already there was a treacherous plot in the mind of Almidor the Moor.

When they came to the city, St. George was taken to rich chambers set apart for his use, and he washed the stains of travel and fight from him, and put on fair linen and new robes that the King sent him. Then they held a great feast, with song and minstrelsy. And when it was ended the King spoke thus:

"Sir George of England, you must know that I made a vow concerning the slaying of the dragon. I promised that whoever should do that deed should have my daughter to wife. Do you consent to that?"

St. George looked upon the Princess Sabra, and she upon him; and in that look their [77] minds were made up. "If the Princess wills, but not against her will," said the champion, "I will wed her."

"I will be your wife," said the Princess gravely. "Take from me this ring in pledge of my love. It is of great power; it has such virtue that if any danger threaten you, the diamond in it turns dull."

"Be true to one another," said the King solemnly, as St. George took the ring. "You have plighted your troth before us all. Now let a loving-cup be brought."

"Sire," interrupted Prince Almidor, grant that I may do a courtesy to your Majesty and to this brave knight. In my country we have the secret of a very delectable drink of Greek wine and certain spices, which we use upon such glad happenings as this. Let me prepare a bowl of it that we may all drink together, and I may have a share in the happiness of this day. I beg this boon as your guest."

"So be it," said Ptolemy graciously; and Almidor departed upon his errand. "Now, Sir Knight," added the King, "have you any other boon that you would ask?"

"There is a great boon, Sire, if you would but grant it me. I have done deeds of chivalry in many lands, but not yet have I [78] asked of any man the honour of knighthood at his hands. I pray that you will dub me Knight, so that I may be knight by lawful title as well as by my deeds."

"That is a little thing, to give honour to so brave a champion," answered the King.

He called for a sword, and bade St. George kneel before him, and struck him lightly on the shoulder with the flat of the sword's blade. "Rise, Sir George of England," he said.

As St. George, now a full knight, rose from his knee, the door of the banqueting-hall was flung open, and the Moorish Prince appeared, attended by black slaves. In his hands he bore a great golden bowl, the handles whereof were shaped like dolphins, with rubies for their eyes.

"The loving-cup!" he cried, holding the bowl aloft that all might see. "It holds a precious draught of Greek wine, such as was made for the great Iskander a thousand years ago. The art of making it has descended from father to son, from generation to generation, since the great Iskander died, far away from here. The secret is kept warily; none but I know it, and when I die only he shall know it whom I tell. Come, Sir George of England, pledge us first, and afterwards we will pledge you."

[79] He stretched out his arms with the cup, and St. George lifted his hands to take it. But as he did so, three drops of blood fell from his nose, and the flaming lights of the diamond in the ring on his finger vanished from his sight. The ring had become dull; danger was near.

His arms fell to his side; he stepped back. The Princess Sabra, seeing the ring dimmed, started up with a cry.

Almidor saw that he was suspected; and rightly had the ring foretold danger, for the cup contained a poison so deadly that whosoever drank of it would fall dead as his lips touched the wine. The Moor feigned to stumble. In a moment the bowl fell from his hands, and every drop of wine was spilt upon the marble floor.

"Oh, my liege," he cried in a tone of the deepest sorrow, as one of the negroes picked up the bowl, "how uncouth am I! Forgive me, and you, Sir George, grant me pardon also. My stumbling has cost you this precious draught, for it has no virtue if made a second time in the same moon. I crave your pardon most humbly."

"We grant it, Prince," answered Ptolemy, for Almidor was in high favour with him. "It is a slight mishap, the loss of a draught [80] so noble. We can pledge one another in wine less precious, but with a comradeship no less honest."

And they fell to feasting again. When the feast was ended, King Ptolemy proclaimed that the Princess would be wedded in two months' time, and each man went to his home with great rejoicing. A house and attendants were given to St. George, and he prepared to go thither. First, however, he spoke a few words apart to the Princess Sabra.

"Dear Princess," he said, "are you truly willing to wed me? You do not do this to the end that the King, your father, may keep his vow? I will not hold him to it if you wish otherwise."

"He is my father and my King, indeed," answered the Princess; "but you shall be my King also."

St. George kissed her hand and turned to go. As he turned, he saw that Almidor had been standing near—so near that he might have overheard the words. But he took no heed.


III
IN THE POWER OF THE SOLDAN

Almidor had indeed overheard, so well that he could make a treacherous tale of the words. He went without delay to Ptolemy, and sought private audience. It was granted at once, late though the time had grown.

"King Ptolemy," said Almidor gravely and solemnly, I have grievous news for you. How did the stranger, this George of England, bear himself in your eyes?"

"Like a gallant knight," answered the King.

"He fought bravely, doubtless," said the Moor bitterly. "He is bold enough. . ." and he fell silent.

"What do you wish to say, Prince Almidor?" asked Ptolemy, wondering at his silence.

"Sire, I cannot say it. I know only one thing for certain."

"What is that?"

"He means to be King of Egypt," answered Almidor.

"What!" cried Ptolemy, starting up from his throne. "This Christian dares!" For Ptolemy was both weak-willed and hot- [82] tempered, as ready to believe rumours as to take offence at them.

"That is the truth, O King. He is a Christian, as you have said. And, alas! to my sorrow I must say it, he has conspired with the Princess your daughter. This night by chance I overheard them in talk together. "You shall be King," said the Princess to him, in such a voice that I could not but believe her. They mean to kill you and seize the power in Egypt and rule in your stead."

"They shall both die," said Ptolemy in a rage. "You are sure of those words? You cannot be mistaken?"

"I am sure, King Ptolemy," answered Almidor. "Our lives are not safe while this Christian is held in honour and beheld by all men as the betrothed of the Princess."

"Betrothed he may be, but never shall he wed her. They shall die together!"

"Nay, O King, be not harsh with the Princess. She has been led away by this persuasive fellow. Without doubt he has cast a spell upon her. Let me but have her for wife, and she will be rid of the spell. Let me renew my suit to you for her. Do not put her to death. Do as you will with Sir George, but spare the Princess."

[83] "As to that we will take further thought," said the King. "But the English Knight must die. Would that I had never knighted so vile a man! Yet he is my guest. How can I slay a guest?"

"A traitor is no guest," said Almidor.

"But he slew the dragon, and he has eaten my salt, and I have dubbed him knight. I cannot put him to death. I will but drive him hence, to return by the way he came. Then if he sets foot in Egypt again I will have no mercy upon him."

"There is a better way than that," said Almidor, pondering. "Say that you wish to test him, since you know no more of him than that he slew the dragon, and that he says he is of royal lineage. Then tell him that the proof shall consist in an honourable journey and a mission; he shall go as your Ambassador to the Soldan of Persia, and if he returns in safety and honour, that will have given him renown in the eyes of Egypt and Persia, so that he will not seem to be a stranger carrying off the Princess. But you will so contrive that he does not return, for you will give him a crafty letter to the Soldan, which shall entreat the Soldan to put the messenger to death. So will your honour be saved, and you be rid of this plotter."

[84] "It is a good plan," said the King.

He lost little time in carrying it out. The next morning St. George came to pay his courteous respects to the King, and Ptolemy greeted him in a friendly manner. But after a little, "Sir George of England," said he, "I would speak privately with you."

He took him apart. "I find myself in a difficulty, brave Knight," he said. "I would gladly do you all the honour in the world; I have given you knighthood and my daughter's hand in proof of my esteem for him who slew the foul dragon. But you are a stranger to my people, and England is very far away. I am told that it is set in the midst of a great ocean, which no man of these regions has ever seen. Certain of my nobles take amiss that I should give the Princess Sabra to an unknown foreigner, though none says a word against your valour or your honour. They do but ask that you shall learn our ways and have some employment in our State. Now, it happens that I have need of an Ambassador to the mighty Soldan of Persia. He must be a man of noble bearing, and of courage and dignity, and of honest mind; and he must have also some skill in the courteous arts of peace, for weighty matters are afoot. Such a man I believe you to be. Now, if I send [85] you to the Soldan, and you accomplish this mission honourably, you will be in the eyes of my people as one of ourselves, and they will see that the Princess is to wed one who is a wise counsellor and a faithful servant as well as a brave warrior. How say you? Shall I send you to the Soldan?"

St. George saw that there was prudence in what the King said; and when he had asked certain questions, and learnt that if his journey prospered well he could return by the time appointed for his marriage to the Princess, he consented very readily to go.

He was not long in making his preparations for the mission. He said farewell very tenderly to the Princess, and was given a sealed letter to the Soldan, and set forth.

His way lay across deserts, but it was not hard to find, and he came in due time to the capital of Persia. As he drew near the city he saw a great procession. It was a festival in honour of the heathen gods of that country, and when the Persians saw the red cross upon the shield of the champion, they mocked him, and made light of the Christian faith. At last he grew very wroth, and set upon the procession, and broke down its banners and trampled many men under foot, so that they all fled in terror.

[86] This was no good beginning for an embassy, and St. George was soon to be sorry that he had let his zeal for his Faith get the better of his prudence. The Persians hastened to the Soldan with the tale of the attack (leaving out the insults by which they had provoked it); and the Soldan, after he had beheaded the first of those who brought him such unwelcome news, sent out a hundred knights to seize the stranger and drag him before him.

The knights rode out gaily to their task. But it was in no gay mood that they returned, for St. George, seeing himself in desperate case, and being still filled with the fury that their insults to the Christian faith had roused, set upon them in a whirlwind of passion, and drove them before him as a storm drives dead leaves. And when, in a little time, the Soldan sent a thousand knights against him, these fared no better, but were driven hither and thither pell-mell.

But by now the whole countryside was roused, and such a multitude poured forth as no champion could withstand. They seized St. George and bound him, and if it had not been for certain officers of the Soldan they would have tortured him and put him to death there and then. But these officers [87] caused him to be brought before the Soldan for judgment.

"Great Lord and King of Asia," cried St. George when he saw that he was in the presence of the Soldan himself, "I claim your protection. If you seek to kill me, I demand an honourable death, for I am of kingly lineage; I am of the blood-royal of England, no less proud than your own. But I demand also safe conduct out of your dominions with whatever answer you shall give me to bear to my master, the King of Egypt; for I am an ambassador, and by the laws of all mankind my person is sacred. If your servants will unbind me, I will give you my letter from King Ptolemy."

The Soldan signed to his guards to unbind him, but to keep close watch upon him. St. George drew out the letter, and it was handed to the Soldan.


"BROTHER" (the Soldan read silently),

     "These with all love and honour from us in Egypt. He who brings this is a terrible warrior, a Christian dog who has slain the dragon thou knowest of, and now plots against our Majesty, to drive us from Egypt, and take our Daughter to wife. He has eaten our salt, and we therefore cannot slay [88] him. Do thou slay him; and look well that he doth no mischief to thy excellent Majesty ere thou slay him, for he is a man of might. Mayst thou prosper and live for ever!
          "PTOLEMY, KING OF EGYPT."


The Soldan looked anxiously upon St. George; there was bitter cruelty in his eyes.

"Christian Knight, if knight you are," he said at length, "do you know what is in this letter?"

"Mighty Soldan," answered St. George bravely, I know nothing but that I am to be given an answer, and to bear it back to King Ptolemy."

"You shall be given an answer," said the Soldan. "Perhaps also an answer shall be sent to our brother of Egypt and to his fair daughter. But you will not bear the answer. Dead men can go no journeys. You shall be taken hence, and on the thirtieth day from this day you shall die. You claimed an honourable death, since you are of royal blood. I do not know of what lineage you are, nor whether you tell the truth. I have never heard of this England you speak of; it is not one of the ancient kingdoms I know of. But you shall be killed by kings—kings of [89] beasts. Thirty days hence you shall be given to my lions."

He made a sign, and a host of guards seized St. George again, and set heavy fetters upon him, and threw him into a dark and horrible dungeon. No light came into it, and it was damp and noisome; rats and serpents visited him in the darkness, and when his guards—of whom there were at that time a hundred, all of knightly rank—brought him his poor allowance of bread and water each day, they came by lantern-light, which served but to be reflected in the pools of stagnant water in the huge dismal cell.

So he abode for thirty days, thinking sadly of Sabra. Ever and again he would remember also his six comrades, and wonder when it would come to pass that they should meet and do those deeds of which Kalyb had prophesied. Almost he wished to be back in her palace of vile enchantments.

The thirtieth day came, and that morning they brought him no food. He heard afar dull sounds, which seemed to him like the bellowings of wild beasts. But he hardly knew if he was awake, or if it was but an evil dream.

Presently a dim light appeared in one wall of the cell. A door had been opened which [90] must lead into daylight at some little distance. But horrible sounds came through the door—the roaring of hungry beasts.

One of his guards entered by the usual door. "Christian," he said, "you hear the royal beasts who await you. For four days they have not tasted food. The Soldan, in his great mercy, commanded that they should be made fierce and hungry, so that they should make short work of you. You may go to meet them through yonder door, where there is a little light, or you may await them here in the dark. Doubtless they will not be long in finding you. The Soldan would prefer that you should go outside to meet them, for then he will be able to see your greeting; but he does not command this. You may die here if you please."

With this cruel speech the Persian withdrew.

St. George was filled with rage at the taunting words. All his old strength came back after the long night of despair in his cell. He lifted his chained arms, and brought the chain down with all his force upon his thigh, just above the knee. Such was the strength of the blow that the fetters snapped like thread, leaving a few links dangling from either wrist. With a great shout of "George [91] for England!" he rushed out at the open doorway, through a narrow passage, and into the light.

He found himself in a kind of den, or pit, hollowed out of rock; a space nearly circular, with five doors in it, doubtless all leading to cells like his own. The floor was of crumbled stone and sand. The rocky walls rose thirty feet or more, and at the top was a parapet, over which the Soldan and some of his nobles were looking. At one point in the wall, on the level of the ground, was a large iron grating, now open, and by it, walking backwards and forwards, lashing their tails, and roaring terribly with hunger as they looked at the Persians above out of their reach, were two huge lions.

St. George remembered that speed had saved him against Almidor's ambushed knights. He tore his tunic and wrapped the pieces round his hands and wrists and arms, leaving the ends of chain free. In breathless haste he bandaged himself thus. The Persians were calling out taunts to the lions, and trying to show them the champion; but the beasts did not understand, and only gazed upwards and roared more terribly.

St. George crept across the soft sandy surface quietly, with quick strides. The lions [92] were too hungry and too enraged to hear him. He came within two yards of them. Then he shouted suddenly.

They were close together, their backs turned towards him. At his shout they turned in a flash, with the silence and swiftness of cats. Together they crouched, their lips drawn back from their teeth, their mouths open. Together they sprang. But just as they sprang, almost as they left the ground, St. George sprang too. With true aim he thrust a fist and arm into each mouth, between the great jaws, the teeth meeting and tearing the bandage on his arms, the chain wounding the throats of the beasts and choking them. They writhed and swayed to and fro, pulling, pushing, turning, rearing up. All was of no avail. St. George thrust his arms the deeper, and stood his ground for all their endeavours, and in a few moments they were suffocated and fell dead.

But if St. George had saved his life, he had not won his freedom. There was no way of escape from the cell. He heard cries of wonder and rage in the gallery above. Orders were given, and the sound of men in haste came to his ears. He sank exhausted to the ground just as one of the doors in the den opened, and there came running in a hundred [95] or more Persian guards, who seized him and bore him unresisting back to his dismal cell.

The Soldan was afraid. He had heard of the dragon of Egypt, and he had thought that no man could slay the monster. But St. George had slain it. And now, unarmed and weakened by imprisonment, he had slain also two hungry lions. He seemed to be more than human. The Soldan resolved not to try to kill him. He would keep him a prisoner, walled up and bound, till he died.

So St. George was loaded with chains again and thrust into his cell. The very doors were closed with iron bars, and only a little shutter left, through which his food was pushed every day. He gave himself up to misery and almost to despair, and took little thought of escape. Not days, but months, passed before he looked again upon the sun and the faces of men.


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