Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Page: 85He Fights Desperately
So saying, he rushed into the battle, slew the only son of King Marsile, and drove the heathen before him as the hounds drive the deer. Turpin saw and applauded. “So should a good knight do, wearing good armour and riding a good steed. He must deal good strong strokes in battle, or he is not worth a groat. Let a coward be a monk in some cloister and pray for the sins of us fighters.”
Marsile in wrath attacked the slayer of his son, but in vain; Roland struck off his right hand, and Marsile fled back mortally wounded to Saragossa, while his main host, seized with panic, left the field to Roland. However, the caliph, Marsile’s uncle, rallied the ranks, and, with fifty thousand Saracens, once more came against the little troop of Champions of the Cross, the three poor survivors of the rearguard.
Roland cried aloud: “Now shall we be martyrs for our faith. Fight boldly, lords, for life or death! Sell yourselves dearly! Let not fair France be dishonoured [Pg 148] in her sons. When the Emperor sees us dead with our slain foes around us he will bless our valour.”
The pagans were emboldened by the sight of the three alone, and the caliph, rushing at Oliver, pierced him from behind with his lance. But though mortally wounded Oliver retained strength enough to slay the caliph, and to cry aloud: “Roland! Roland! Aid me!” then he rushed on the heathen army, doing heroic deeds and shouting “Montjoie! Montjoie!” while the blood ran from his wound and stained the earth blood-red. At this woeful sight Roland swooned with grief, and Oliver, faint from loss of blood, and with eyes dimmed by fast-coming death, distinguished not the face of his dear friend; he saw only a vague figure drawing near, and, mistaking it for an enemy, raised his sword Hauteclaire and gave Roland one last terrible blow, which clove the helmet, but harmed not the head. The blow roused Roland from his swoon, and, gazing tenderly at Oliver, he gently asked him:
To slay your Roland, him who loves you so?
There is no vengeance you would wreak on me.’
‘Roland, I hear you speak, but see you not.
God guard and keep you, friend; but pardon me
The blow I struck, unwitting, on your head.’
‘I have no hurt,’ said Roland; ‘I forgive
Here and before the judgment-throne of God.’”
Now Oliver felt the pains of death come upon him. Both sight and hearing were gone, his colour fled, and, dismounting, he lay upon the earth; there, humbly confessing his sins, he begged God to grant him rest in Paradise, to bless his lord Charlemagne and the fair [Pg 149] land of France, and to keep above all men his comrade Roland, his best-loved brother-in-arms. This ended, he fell back, his heart failed, his head drooped low, and Oliver the brave and courteous knight lay dead on the blood-stained earth, with his face turned to the east. Roland lamented him in gentle words: “Comrade, alas for thy valour! Many days and years have we been comrades: no ill didst thou to me, nor I to thee: now thou art dead, ’tis pity that I live!”