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Stories of Roland by  H. E. Marshall

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CHAPTER VI

THE DEATH OF OLIVER

[62] In the dawning of the day Roland looked to the mountain and looked to the plain. Everywhere the Franks lay dead around him. Then, like a noble cavalier, he wept for them. "My lords and barons," he sighed, "may God have mercy on you. May your souls reach paradise and rest among the holy flowers for ever. Better vassals than ye were never seen. Well have ye served me these many years. Oh land of France! oh my loved country! to-day thou mournest thy best barons. And it is for me they die. Oliver, my brother Oliver, let us on again and strike the heathen. If they slay me not, I die of grief and shame."

So once again Roland the Terrible arose and swung his sword Durindal, until, as deer before the hounds, the heathen fled before him.

[63] "Good," cried Archbishop Turpin, " 'tis ever thus a knight should fight, else he had better be a monk, praying in some lonely cell, that our sins may be forgiven us."

"Strike, strike!" cried Roland, "strike and do not spare."

So once again the clash and clang of battle rang out upon the still morning air. But now the Christian knights were wondrous few, the heathen many. Through the thickest of the fight rode King Marsil, slaying many a knight. "Cursed be thou," cried Roland, "full many a comrade hast thou slain before my face. Yet ere we part thou shalt know the name of my good sword." Then with one stroke he cut off the King's right hand, and with another laid his son dead at his feet.

Then in terror Marsil fled. "Mahomet avenge us," he cried, "upon these felon Franks whom Charlemagne hath left in our fair Spain."

But although Marsil fled, the Calif, his uncle, still remained. It was that same [64] Calif of whom Ganelon had lied, saying he had seen him drown before his eyes. Now with savage war-cry he threw himself upon the dwindling Christian company.

"Now," cried Roland, "the end hath come. Now, no longer have we to live. But strike, my lords, strike. Sell your lives as dearly as may be. Strike, so that France be not dishonoured, and when Charlemagne shall come and shall find fifteen heathen dead for one of us, he will bless us even while he mourns."

"Shame, shame to the laggard!" cried Oliver, dashing into the fray. But the traitor Calif struck him from behind, full in the middle of his back. Through silken cloak and coat of steel drove the lance until it pierced the breast of the gallant knight.

"Aha!" cried the Calif, "now hast thou thy death-blow. In thee alone have I avenged all our host."

Oliver was indeed sorely wounded, but, wheeling quickly, he lifted his good sword high in the air, and brought it crashing down upon the Calif's golden helmet. The spark- [65] ling gems with which it was set were scattered upon the grass. From crown to chin his head was cloven, and without a groan the heathen sank upon the earth.

Still wielding his sword right manfully, Oliver called to Roland. "Roland, Roland, come to me. Be thou near me at the end, for to-day is the day of our last farewell."

Through the battle Roland spurred his horse to Oliver's side. With mournful eyes he looked upon his ashen face, and upon the red stream which trickled from his wound. "Alas, my gentle friend," he cried, "alas, is this the end of all thy prowess, all thy fame? Now is the Emperor's loss complete indeed." And saying these words, from grief and pain he fainted, sitting upon his horse.

As Roland fainted he reeled against Oliver, and he, his eyes already dark in death, knew not his friend. Only feeling that he was struck, he returned the blow. Striking heavily upon Roland's helmet, he clove it in two. But his sword went no further, and Roland was unwounded.

[66] The blow brought Roland to his senses once again, and he, marvelling at it, turned to look upon his friend. "Was it thou, comrade, who struck me?" he whispered softly and tenderly. "Thou hast not done it knowingly? I am thy friend Roland, who loveth thee. Thou hast no anger against me in thine heart?"

"I hear thee," replied Oliver, "but I cannot see thee, friend. God seeth thee. Have I struck thee, brother? I did it not knowingly. Forgive it me."

"I am not hurt," said Roland, "and before God I forgive it thee." Then these two in perfect love and trust leaned each on the other to say a last farewell.

Now Oliver's eyes were dark, his ears were stopped in death. Dismounting from his horse he knelt upon the ground. Joining his hands he confessed his sins and prayed God to bless fair France and Charlemagne his king, and above all men his comrade Roland. Then he bowed his head, and stretching himself upon the battle-field, he died.

[67] When Roland saw Oliver lie still, very softly he mourned. "Dear my friend," he sighed, "to what sorrow hath thy valour brought thee! Many the day, many the year we two have been together, thou and I. Never hast thou done me wrong, nor I thee. Now that thou art gone it is but pain to live." And for very grief Roland swooned again as he sat upon his horse.

Once again Roland opened his eyes and looked around upon the utter ruin of all his knights. Of all the Christian host but two remained with him alive. These were Turpin, the brave Archbishop, and Gautier of Hum, a right noble count.

With lances broken, shields pierced and armour shattered, the valiant three still fought the heathen throng. Saracen after Saracen fell beneath their blows. "What fearsome men!" cried they, "but they shall not escape alive. Craven is he who attacketh them not. More craven he who letteth them escape."

But soon, such was the might of the [68] dauntless three that the heathen dared no more attack them. A thousand foot and forty thousand horse there still remained of the Saracen host. Yet afar they stood, hurling lance and spear and javelin at the three who faced them side by side.

Soon Gautier fell dead, pierced by a flying dart. Next the Archbishop's horse was killed beneath him, and Turpin was carried to the ground. But in a moment he sprang up again. "I am not vanquished yet!" he cried to Roland. "As long as a good warrior hath breath, he fights." And dashing upon the heathen, sorely wounded though he was, he laid about him with such good will that, as it was told in after days, they found four hundred dead about him.

Roland too fought in deadly pain, and sorely he longed to know if Charlemagne were near. So now again he took his horn, and blew upon it a faint and feeble blast.

The pitiful soft notes floated through the air, and faint and feeble though they were, they reached the ear of Charlemagne. The [69] Emperor drew rein and bent his ear to listen. "My lords," he said, "it goeth ill with us. This day I ween my nephew is lost to me. So wearily he winds his horn, 'tis like a dying man. If ye would reach him ere it is too late, set spur to horse and let every trumpet in the army sound, that he may know we come."

Then at the command of the Emperor, sixty thousand trumpets sounded. Loudly the brazen clamour rose. The mountains echoed and the hills answered, until the heathen heard it where they fought, and they stood aghast. "It is Charlemagne who comes," they cried; "it is Charlemagne. The Emperor! the Emperor returns! These are French trumpets that we hear. If Charlemagne come, what disaster for us will betide. If Roland live, the battle is to fight again, and Spain, our fair broad Spain, is lost."

Then four hundred of the boldest of the heathen drew together, and marching in close rank, shoulder to shoulder they charged down upon Roland.

[70] As Roland saw them come he felt his strength return to him. While he had life he would never yield, and rather death than flight. So, striking spurs, he urged his wearied horse forward, and dashed alone against four hundred heathen. At his stirrup ran the Archbishop, and as the Saracens saw the dauntless heroes come, they were seized with terror and fled before them.

"Flee, flee!" they cried, "it is the trumpets of France we hear. Charlemagne the Mighty is upon us."

Roland was ever the bravest and most courteous of knights. Now he drew rein and turning to the Archbishop said, "I am on horseback, thou on foot; that should not be. For love of thee I will halt here. Good or ill we will share together, and for no man in the world will I forsake thee. Together we will await the heathen."

"Shame be to him who first stints his blows!" cried Turpin. "After this battle we will fight no more, truly. But Charlemagne is nigh, and he will avenge us."

[71] And now the heathen, gathered at a distance, talked among themselves. "We are born to misfortune," said they. "And this day is the blackest that ever we have seen. We have lost all our lords and leaders, and now dread Charlemagne returns with his great army. Already we can hear the trumpets call, already we can hear the cry, 'Montjoie, Montjoie.' And nothing equals the pride of this Count Roland. There is no man that can vanquish him. Let us flee, but ere we go let each man hurl at him lance and spear, so that he die."

So ere they fled, the heathen hurled their spears and lances at Roland. His shield was broken, his hauberk riven asunder, and beneath him sank his good horse pierced with thirty wounds. The Archbishop too lay silent on the ground. But the last heathen had fled, and on that ghastly field Roland stood alone.


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