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Stories of Roland by  H. E. Marshall

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CHAPTER VIII

THE RETURN OF CHARLEMAGNE

[81] Roland was dead and bright angels had already carried his soul to heaven, when Charlemagne and all his host at last rode into the valley of Roncesvalles. What a dreadful sight was there! Not a path nor track, not a yard nor foot of ground but was covered with slain Franks and heathen lying side by side in death.

Charlemagne gazed upon the scene with grief and horror. "Where art thou, Roland?" he called. "The archbishop, where is he? Oliver, where art thou?" All the twelve peers he called by name. But none answered. The wind moaned over the field, fluttering here and there a fallen banner, but voice to answer there was none.

"Alas," sighed Charlemagne, "what sorrow [82] is mine that I was not here ere this battle was fought!"

In and out of his long white beard his fingers twisted, and tears of grief and anger stood in his eyes. Behind him, rank upon rank, crowded his knights and barons full of wrath and sorrow. Not one among them but had lost a son or brother, a friend or comrade. For a time they stood dumb with grief and horror.

Then spoke Duke Naimes. Wise in counsel, brave in battle was he. "Look, Sire," he cried, "look where two leagues from us the dust arises upon the great highway. There is gathered the army of the heathen. Ride, Sire, ride and avenge our wrongs."

And so it was, for those who had fled from the battle-field were gathered together and were now crowding onward to Saragossa.

"Alas!" said Charlemagne, "they are already far away. Yet they have taken from me the very flower of France, so for the [83] sake of right and honour I will do as thou desirest."

Then the Emperor called to him four of his chief barons. "Rest here," he said, "guard the field, the valleys and the hills. Leave the dead lying as they are, but watch well that neither lion nor any other savage beast come nigh to them. Neither shall any servant or squire touch them. I forbid ye to let man lay hand upon them till we return."

"Sire, we will do thy will," answered the four.

Then, leaving a thousand knights to be with them, Charlemagne sounded his war-trumpets, and the army set forth upon the pursuit of the heathen. Furiously they rode and fast, but already the foe was far. Anxiously the Emperor looked to the sun as it slowly went down toward the west. Night was at hand and the enemy still afar.

Then, alighting from his horse, Charlemagne kneeled upon the green grass. "Oh Lord, I pray Thee," he cried, "make the sun [84] to stop. Say Thou to the night, 'wait.' Say Thou to the day, 'remain.' " And as the Emperor prayed, his guardian angel stooped down and whispered to him, "Ride onward, Charlemagne! Light shall not fail thee. Thou hast lost the flower of France. The Lord knoweth it right well. But thou canst now avenge thee upon the wicked. Ride!"

Hearing these words, Charlemagne sprang once more to horse and rode onward.

And truly a miracle was done for him. The sun stood motionless in the sky, the heathen fled, the Franks pursued, until in the Valley of Darkness they fell upon them and beat them with great slaughter. The heathen still fled, but the Franks surrounded them, closing every path, and in front flowed the river Ebro wide and deep. Across it there was no bridge, upon it no boat, no barge. Calling upon their gods Tervagan and Apollin and upon Mahomet to save them, the heathen threw themselves into the water. But there no safety they found. [85] Many, weighted with their heavy armour, sank beneath the waves. Others, carried by the tide, were swept away, and all were drowned, King Marsil alone fleeing towards Saragossa.

When Charlemagne saw that all his enemies were slain, he leapt from his horse, and, kneeling upon the ground, gave thanks to Heaven. And even as he rose from his knees the sun went down and all the land was dim in twilight.

"Now is the hour of rest," said the Emperor. "It is too late to return to Roncesvalles, for our steeds are weary and exhausted. Take off their saddles and their bridles, and let them refresh themselves upon the field."

"Sire, it is well said," replied the Franks.

So the knights, leaping from their horses, took saddle and bridle from them, and let them wander free upon the green meadows by the river side. Then, being very weary, the Franks lay down upon the grass, all dressed as they were in their armour, and with their swords girded to their sides, and [86] slept. So worn were they with battle and with grief, that none that night kept watch, but all alike slept.

The Emperor too slept upon the ground among his knights and barons. Like them he lay in his armour. And his good sword Joyeuse was girt about him.

The night was clear and the moon shone brightly. And Charlemagne, lying on the grass, thought bitterly of Roland and of Oliver, and of all the twelve Peers of France who lay dead upon the field of Roncesvalles. But at last, overcome with grief and weariness, he fell asleep.

As the Emperor slept, he dreamed. He thought he saw the sky grow black with thunder-clouds, then jagged lightning flashed and flamed, hail fell and wild winds howled. Such a storm the earth had never seen, and suddenly in all its fury it burst upon his army. Their lances were wrapped in flame, their shields of gold were melted, hauberks and helmets were crushed to pieces. Then bears and wolves from out [87] the forests sprang upon the dismayed knights, devouring them. Monsters untold, serpents, fiery fiends, and more than thirty thousand griffins, all rushed upon the Franks with greedy, gaping jaws.

"Arm! Arm! Sire," they cried to him. And Charlemagne, in his dream, struggled to reach his knights. But something, he knew not what, held him bound and helpless. Then from out the depths of the forest a lion rushed upon him. It was a fierce, terrible, and proud beast. It seized upon the Emperor, and together they struggled, he fighting with his naked hands. Who would win, who would be beaten, none knew, for the dream passed and the Emperor still slept.

Again Charlemagne dreamed. He stood, he thought, upon the marble steps of his great palace of Aix holding a bear by a double chain. Suddenly out of the forest there came thirty other bears to the foot of the steps where Charlemagne stood. They all had tongues and spoke like men. "Give [88] him back to us, Sire," they said, "he is our kinsman, and we must help him. It is not right that thou shouldest keep him so long from us."

Then from out the palace there came a hound. Bounding among the savage beasts he threw himself upon the largest of them. Over and over upon the grass they rolled, fighting terribly. Who would be the victor, who the vanquished? Charlemagne could not tell. The vision passed, and he slept till daybreak.

As the first dim light of dawn crept across the sky, Charlemagne awoke. Soon all the camp was astir, and before the sun rose high the knights were riding back over the wide roads to Roncesvalles.

When once again they reached the dreadful field, Charlemagne wandered over all the plain until he came where Roland lay. Then taking him in his arms he made great moan. "My friend, my Roland, who shall now lead my army? My nephew, beautiful and brave, my pride, my glory, all are gone. Alas the [89] day! alas!" Thus with tears and cries he mourned his loss.

Then said one, "Sire, grieve not overmuch. Command rather that we search the plain and gather together all our men who have been slain by the heathen. Then let us bury them with chant, and song and solemn ceremony, as befits such heroes."

"Yea," said Charlemagne, "it is well said. Sound your trumpets!"

So the trumpets were sounded, and over all the field the Franks searched, gathering their slain brothers and comrades.

With the army there were many bishops, abbots and monks, and so with chant and hymn, with prayer and incense, the Franks were laid to rest. With great honour they were buried. Then, for they could do no more, their comrades left them.

Only the bodies of Roland, Oliver and Archbishop Turpin, they did not lay in Spanish ground. In three white marble coffins covered with silken cloths they were placed on chariots, ready to be carried back to the fair land of France.


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