Story of Roland - James Baldwin

Roland's Arms

Roland had now come to the years of manhood. Among all the knights and warriors in Charlemagne's court he was accounted the best. Save only Ogier the Dane, he excelled them all in every deed and feat of arms, in knightly courtesy, in respect for authority, in kind consideration for the poor and friendless. And everyone, except Prince Charlot and Ganelon of Mayence, praised and loved him; for he was indeed a knight without fear and without reproach.

Great care was taken by Charlemagne to provide armor for his nephew, fitting for one who was destined to be a hero. From the far south a helmet was brought,—a wondrous casque most wondrously wrought. Men said that it was the handiwork of Vulcan, the lame blacksmith of the golden age,—the age when the gods still lived, and mingled with mankind. It was made of steel, inlaid with gold and pearls, and bound around with brass. It was engraved, inside and outside, with strange mottoes and battle-scenes, and legends of knightly valor. Above its crest waved an ostrich-plume, and in front sat a golden eagle. Only two such helmets did Vulcan make,—one for Trojan Hector, the godlike hero of that ancient day; and the other for the noblest knight of later times.

The war coat which Roland wore had been brought from the far North, and was such as the men of France had never before seen. They said that it was the work of Wayland, the master-smith of the Teuton folk. So curiously had it been wrought, and so rare was the temper of its steel, that no thrust of lance, nor stroke of sword, could harm him whom it incased. The metal of which it was made had been digged from the earth by the cunning dwarf-folk, who lived in the hill caves of the North while yet the race of men-folk was young. It had been smelted in the mountain furnaces of the giants. Twelve months had Wayland worked day and night at his forge, beating it into shape, and tempering it, as he only knew how. And, when he had finished it, he had given it to Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon hero, the slayer of the monster Grendel and of the fire-breathing dragon of the North. When or how it had been brought to France, I know not. But, when Roland first donned it, it is said that men whispered among themselves, and said, "What need has he of such rare armor? Better give it to some one whose body is not already proof against harm." For it was believed that Roland bore a charmed life, and that like Achilles of old, and like Siegfried, no weapon could touch or harm him save in a single small spot of his body,—some said midway between his shoulders; others said on the bottoms of his feet.

The arms which our hero bore were in every way equal to the armor which protected him. His shield was of three plates of steel, copper, and gold, bound together with bolts of brass; and on it were emblazoned the quarterings of red and white,—the armorial bearings by which he was distinguished. His favorite lance was a mountain ash, weighty and tough, a very beam in length, and so heavy, that none but Roland, or Ogier the Dane, could poise it. The golden spurs which he wore as the sign of his knighthood had been given him by Morgan the Fay, the fairy queen of Avalon; and I have been told that they were the same that had been worn by the famed King Arthur when he and his knights of the round table lived amongst men.

But the sword which Roland carried at his side was the noblest piece of all. The world had never seen a more wonderful blade than Durandal. Not Siegfried's Balmung, nor King Arthur's Excalibur, nor Charlemagne's Joyeuse, nor Ogier's Short, could be compared with it in beauty and true worth. It was the sword which Hector, the mighty prince of Troy, had wielded so valiantly in battle with the Greeks. From Vulcan's forge it had come, where the lame smith god had tempered it in the flames of Tartarus. Neither wood, nor stone, nor any metal, could turn its razor edge: no war coat, nor helmet of steel, could withstand its stroke. On one of its bright blue sides were many mystic letters carved,—words which the Trojans knew, but which had long ago been forgotten, and which none but soothsayers could now make out. Malagis the dwarf read them: "LET HONOR BE TO HIM WHO MOST DESERVETH IT." On the other side were the words which I have elsewhere quoted,—"I AM DURANDAL, WHICH TROJAN HECTOR WORE,"—written in Latin. It is said by some, that once, when Charlemagne was in the valley of Mauriveine, an angel—or more likely a fairy—gave this sword to him, and told him to gird it on a young knight who had never known fear or reproach. Others say, that, after the death of Hector at the hands of the wrathful Achilles, this wondrous blade had been taken and kept by fair Penthiselea, Queen of Persia; and that from her it had been handed down, age after age, from one generation to another, to be wielded by the worthiest of Persia's Pagan princes; and that at last Charlemagne had wrested it from the unbelievers, and kept it to endow his loved nephew. Let it be as it may, we know that the king gave it to Roland when he invested him with knighthood, and that Roland proved himself well worthy of the gift.

Next to the sword Durandal, the thing which Roland prized the most was an ivory horn which he wore hung from his neck by a golden chain. This horn had been made from the tooth of a sea-horse, or, what is more likely, the tusk of a unicorn; and it was set thick with pearls and priceless gem-stones, and inlaid with silver and gold. Old stories are not quite clear as to how or where Roland got this wondrous horn; but I have heard that it, too, was a gift from the king. Charlemagne had long prized it as a rare treasure, not only on account of its great beauty and its workmanship, but also because of the wonderful music which was said to issue from it when blown by any one who was strong enough to sound it. Yet nobody in Charlemagne's time had ever heard it. The stoutest knights who came to Paris or to Aix were challenged to blow upon it, and the king promised to give the beautiful instrument to him who could first make the slightest sound come out of it. And, although some had split their lungs in trying, no one had ever succeeded in making a single note. On an idle day in winter, the king by chance bethought him of challenging Roland to blow.

"Dear nephew," said he, "you have never yet been beaten in tourney or in fight, nor have you ever failed in any thing you have undertaken. I have here something that will test your strength. It is the horn of my grandfather, the great Charles the Hammer. In his days, when men were stronger and seemingly more valiant than now, the most wondrous sounds were made to come out of it. I have heard it said that these sounds had all the sweetness of angels' songs coupled with the deafening din of the thunder's crash. And, indeed, some slanderers once whispered that it was the sound of this horn, rather than his own valor or that of his fighting men, that won for Charles the Hammer that grand victory over the Saracens at Poitiers which has made his name so famous. But men have grown wondrous weak of lungs, and not a knight in all France can blow the horn now."

Roland took the ivory bugle in his hands, and admired its rare beauty. Then he put it to his mouth and blew. A sound more wonderful than any man then living had ever heard came forth, and filled the hall and the great palace, and rolled out through the gates into the streets and over the country, and was carried from city to castle, and from castle to countryside, and through the forests, and over the mountains, until the whole land, for leagues and leagues around, echoed and re-echoed with the wondrous vibrations. Never were folk more astonished than those who heard this sound. Men, women, and children stood in utter amazement, holding their hands to their ears, afraid to listen, and yet wishing to hear. Some thought that the heavens were falling, and that the end of the world had come. Others wondered what kind of thunder this was, which, with all its deafening clangor, was sweeter than music. The king, with hasty gestures, begged Roland to stop blowing; but, after he had ceased, the sound continued for a long time to reverberate among the castle towers, and from hill to hill, and from earth to sky, like the distant rolling of the thunder after a summer storm has passed over our heads.

"The horn is yours," said the king, delighted and amazed. "You have fairly won the horn of Charles the Hammer, and no one can ever gainsay your right to it. But I give it to you only on condition that you shall never blow it, save in battle and in time of the utmost need."

That same evening, as Charlemagne and his household sat in the well-warmed hall of the palace, and beguiled the hours with music and mirth, a minstrel sang to them the Song of the Lorrainers; and he told them of the gallant sons of Hervi, of Garin, and Bego of Belin, who, he said, was the last knight who carried the ivory bugle of Charles the Hammer.


Charles the Hammer was dead, and his young son Pepin was king of France. Bego of Belin was his dearest friend, and to him he had given all Gascony in fief. You would have far to go to find the peer of the valiant Bego. None of King Pepin's nobles dared gainsay him. Rude in speech and rough in war, though he was, he was a true knight, gentle and loving to his friends, very tender to his wife and children, kind to his vassals, just and upright in all his doings. The very flower of knighthood was Bego.

Bitter feuds had there been between the family of Bego and that of Fromont of Bordeaux. Long time had these quarrels continued, and on both sides much blood had been spilled. But now there had been peace between them for ten years and more, and the old hatred was being forgotten.

One day Bego sat in his lordly castle at Belin; and beside him was his wife, the fair Beatrice. In all France there was not a happier man. From the windows the duke looked out upon his broad lands and the rich farms of his tenants. As far as a bird could fly in a day, all was his; and his vassals and serving-men were numbered by the tens of thousands. "What more," thought Bego, "could the heart of man wish or pray for?" His two young sons came bounding into the hall,—Gerin, the elder born, fair-haired and tall, brave and gentle as his father; and Hernaudin, the younger, a child of six summers, his mother's pet, and the joy of the household. With them were six other lads, sons of noblemen; and all together laughed and played, and had their boyish pleasure.

When the duke saw them, he remembered his own boyhood days and the companions who had shared his sports, and he sighed. The fair Beatrice heard him, and she said, "My lord, what ails you, that you are so thoughtful to-day? Why should rich duke like you sigh, and seem sad? Great plenty of gold and silver have you in your coffers; you have enough of the vair and the gray, of hawks on their perches, of mules and palfreys and war steeds; you have overcome all your foes, and none dare rise up against you. All within six days' journey are your vassals. What more would you desire to make you happy?"

"Sweet lady," answered Bego, "you have spoken truly. I am rich, as the world goes; but my wealth is not happiness. True wealth is not of money, of the vair and the gray, of mules, or of horses. It is of kinsfolk and friends. The heart of a man is worth more than all the gold of a country. Had it not been for my friends, I would have been put to shame long ago. The king has given me this fief, far from my boyhood's home, where I see but few of my old comrades and helpers. I have not seen my brother Garin, the Lorrainer, these seven years, and my heart yearns to behold him. Now, methinks, I will go to him, and I will see his son, the child Girbert, whom I have never seen."

The Lady Beatrice said not a word, but the tears began to well up sadly in her eyes.

"In the wood of Puelle," said Bego, after a pause, "there is said to be a wild boar, the largest and fiercest ever seen. He outruns the fleetest horses. No man can slay him. Methinks, that if it please God, and I live, I will hunt in that wood, and I will carry the head of the great beast to my brother the Lorrainer."

Then Beatrice, forcing back her tears, spoke. "Sir," said she, "what is it thou sayest? The wood of Puelle is in the land of Count Baldwin, and thou knowest that he was slain by thee in those unhappy wars long time ago; but I have been told that he left a son, who has sworn to avenge him. The wood is also in the march of Fromont the chief, and he owes thee a great grudge. He would be too glad to do thee harm. I pray thee do not undertake this hunt. My heart tells me,—I will not hide the truth from thee,—my heart tells me, that if thou goest thither thou shalt never come back alive."

But the duke laughed at her fears; and the more she tried to dissuade him, the more he set his mind on seeing his brother the Lorrainer, and on carrying to him the head of the great wild boar of Puelle. Neither prayers nor tears could turn him from his purpose. All the gold in the world, he said, would not tempt him to give up the adventure.

So on the morrow morning, before the sun had fairly risen, Bego made ready to go. As this was no warlike enterprise, he dressed himself in the richest garb of knightly hero,—with mantle of ermine, and spurs of gold. With him he took three dozen huntsmen, all skilled in the lore of the woods, and ten packs of hunting hounds. He had, also, ten horses loaded with gold and silver and costly presents, and more than a score of squires and serving-men. Tenderly he bade fair Beatrice and his two young sons good-by. Ah, what grief! Never was he to see them more. Going by way of Orleans, Bego stopped a day with his sister, the lovely Helois. Three days he tarried at Paris, the honored guest of the king and queen. Then pushing on to Valenciennes, which was on the borders of the great forest, he took up lodging with a rich burgher called Berenger the gray.

"Thou hast many foes in these parts," said the burgher, "and thou wouldst do well to ware of them."

Bego only laughed at the warning. "Didst thou ever know a Gascon to shun danger?" he asked. "I have heard of the famed wild boar of Puelle, and I mean to hunt him in this wood. Neither friends nor foes shall hinder me."

On the morrow Berenger led the duke and his party into the wood, and showed them the lair of the beast. Out rushed the monster upon his foes; then swiftly he fled, crashing through brush and brake, keeping well out of the reach of the huntsmen, turning every now and then to rend some too venturesome hound. For fifteen leagues across the country he led the chase. One by one the huntsmen lost sight of him. Toward evening a cold rain came up; and they turned, and rode back toward Valenciennes. They had not seen the duke since noon. They supposed that he had gone back with Berenger. But Bego was still riding through the forest in close pursuit of the wild boar. Only three hounds kept him company. The beast was well-nigh wearied out, and the duke knew that he could not go much farther. He rode up close behind him; and the fierce animal, his mouth foaming with rage, turned furiously upon him. But the knight, with a well-aimed thrust of his sword, pierced the great beast through the heart.

By this time, night was falling. The duke knew that he was very far from any town or castle, but he hoped that some of his men might be within call. He took his horn, and blew it twice full loudly. But his huntsmen were now riding into Valenciennes; nor did they think that they had left their master behind them in the wood. With his flint the duke kindled a fire beneath an aspen tree, and made ready to spend the night near the place where the slain wild boar lay.

The forester who kept the wood heard the sound of Bego's horn, and saw the light of the fire gleaming through the trees. Cautiously he drew nearer. He was surprised to see a knight so richly clad, with his silken hose and his golden spurs, his ivory horn hanging from his neck by a blue ribbon. He noticed the great sword that hung at Bego's side. It was the fairest and fearfullest weapon he had ever seen. He hastened as fast as he could ride to Lens, where Duke Fromont dwelt; but he spoke not a word to Fromont. He took the steward of the castle aside, and told him of what he had seen in the wood.

"He is no common huntsman," said the forester; "and you should see how richly clad he is. No king was ever arrayed more gorgeously while hunting. And his horse—I never saw a better."

"But what is all this to me?" asked the steward. "If he is trespassing in the forest, it is your duty to bring him before the duke."

"Ah! it is hard for you to understand," answered the forester. "Methinks that if our master had the boar, the sword, and the horn, he would let me keep the clothing, and you the horse, and would trouble us with but few questions."

"Thou art indeed wise," answered the steward. And he at once called six men, whom he knew he could trust to any evil deed, and told them to go with the forester.

"And, if you find any man trespassing in Duke Fromont's wood, spare him not," he added.

In the morning the ruffians came to the place where Duke Bego had spent the night. They found him sitting not far from the great beast which he had slain, while his horse stood before him, and neighed with impatience, and struck his hoofs upon the ground. They asked him who gave him leave to hunt in the wood of Puelle.

"I ask no man's leave to hunt where it pleases me," he answered.

They told him then that the lordship of the wood was with Fromont, and that he must go with them, as their prisoner, to Lens.

"Very well," said Bego. "I will go with you. If I have done aught of wrong to Fromont the old, I am willing to make it right with him. My brother Garin, the Lorrainer, and King Pepin, will go my surety."

Then, looking around upon the villainous faces of the men who had come to make prisoner of him, he bethought himself for a moment.

"No, no!" he cried. "Never will I yield me to six such rascals. Before I die, I will sell myself full dear. Yesterday six and thirty knights were with me, and master huntsmen, skilled in all the lore of the wood. Noble men were they all; for not one of them but held in fief some town or castle or rich countryside. They will join me ere long."

"He speaks thus, either to excuse himself or to frighten us," said one of the men; and he went boldly forward, and tried to snatch the horn from Bego's neck. The duke raised his fist, and knocked him senseless to the ground.

"Never shall ye take horn from count's neck!" he cried. Then all set upon him at once, hoping that by their numbers they might overpower him. But Bego drew his sword, and struck valiantly to the right and to the left of him. Three of the villains were slain outright; and the rest took to their heels and fled, glad to escape such fury.

And now all might have been well with Duke Bego. But a churl, armed with a bow, and arrows of steel, was hidden among the trees. When he saw his fellows put to flight, he drew a great steel bolt, and aimed it at the duke. Swiftly sped the arrow toward the noble target; too truly was it aimed. The duke's sword fell from his hands: the master-vein of his heart had been cut in twain. He lifted his hands toward heaven, and prayed:—

"Almighty Father, who always wert and art, have pity on my soul.—Ah, Beatrice! thou sweet, gentle wife, never more shalt thou see me under heaven.—Fair brother Garin of Lorraine, never shall I be with thee to serve thee.—My two noble boys, if I had lived, you should have been the worthiest of knights: now, may Heaven defend you!"

After a while the churl and the three villains came near him, and found him dead. It was no common huntsman whom they had killed, but a good knight,—the loyalest and the best that ever God's sun shone upon. They took the sword and the horn and the good steed; they loaded the boar upon a horse; and all returned to Lens. But they left Bego in the forest, and with him his three dogs, who sat around him, and howled most mournfully, as if they knew they had lost their best friend.

The men carried the great boar into the castle of Lens, and threw it down upon the kitchen hearth. A wonderful beast he was: his sharp, curved tusks stuck out full a foot from his mouth. The serving-men and the squires crowded around to see the huge animal; then, as the news was told through the castle, many fair ladies and knights, and the priests from the chapel, came in to view the sight. Old Duke Fromont heard the uproar, and came in slippers and gown to ask what it all meant.

"Whence came this boar, this ivory horn, this sword?" he inquired. "This horn never belonged to a mere huntsman. It looks like the wondrous horn that King Charles the Hammer had in the days of my father. There is but one knight now living that can blow it; and he is far away in Gascony. Tell me where you got these things."

Then the forester told him all that had happened in the wood, coloring the story, of course, so as to excuse himself from wrong doing.

"And left ye the slain man in the wood?" asked the old duke. "A more shameful sin I have never known than to leave him there for the wolves to eat. Go ye back at once, and fetch him hither. To-night he shall be watched in the chapel, and to-morrow he shall be buried with all due honor. Men should have pity of one another."

The body of the noble Duke Bego was brought, and laid upon a table in the great hall. His dogs were still with him, howling pitifully, and licking his face. Knights and noblemen came in to see him.

"A gentle man this was," said they; "for even his dogs loved him."

"Shame on the rascals who slew him!" said others. "No freeman would have touched so noble a knight."

Old Duke Fromont came in. He started back at sight of him who lay there lifeless. Well he knew Duke Bego, by a scar that he himself had given him at the battle of St. Quentin ten years before. He fell fainting into the arms of his knights. Then afterward he upbraided his men for their dastardly deed, and bewailed their wicked folly.

"This is no poaching huntsman whom you have slain," said he, "but a most worthy knight,—the kindest, the best taught, that ever wore spurs. And ye have dragged me this day into such a war that I shall not be out of it so long as I live. I shall see my lands overrun and wasted, my great castles thrown down and destroyed, and my people distressed and slain; and as for myself I shall have to die—and all this for a fault which is none of mine, and for a deed which I have neither wished nor sanctioned."

"And the words of Duke Fromont were true," added the story-teller as he brought his story to an end. "The death of Bego of Belin was fearfully avenged by his brother the Lorrainer and by his young sons Gerin and Hernaud. Never was realm so impoverished as was Fromont's dukedom. The Lorrainers and the Gascons overran and laid waste the whole country. A pilgrim might go six days' journey without finding bread, or meat, or wine. The crucifixes lay prone upon the ground; the grass grew upon the altars; and no man stopped to plead with his neighbor. Where had been fields and houses, and fair towns and lordly castles, now there was nought but woods and underbrush and thorns. And old Duke Fromont, thus ruined through no fault of his own, bewailed his misfortunes, and said to his friends, 'I have not land enough to rest upon alive, or to lie upon dead.' "