Thomas Bulfinch (17961867). Age of Fable: Vol. IV: Legends of Charlemagne. 1913.
XVI. The War in Africa
WHEN Astolpho had descended to the earth with the precious phial, St. John showed him a plant of marvellous virtues, with which he told him he had only to touch the eyes of the king of Abyssinia to restore him to sight. That important service, said the saint, added to your having delivered him from the Harpies, will induce him to give you an army wherewith to attack the Africans in their rear, and force them to return from France to defend their own country. The saint also instructed him how to lead his troops in safety across the great deserts, where caravans are often overwhelmed with moving columns of sand. Astolpho, fortified with ample instructions, remounted the Hippogriff, thanked the saint, received his blessing, and took his flight down to the level country.
Keeping the course of the river Nile, he soon arrived at the capital of Abyssinia, and rejoined Senapus. The joy of the king was great when he heard again the voice of the hero who had delivered him from the Harpies. Astolpho touched his eyes with the plant which he had brought from the terrestrial paradise, and restored their sight. The kings gratitude was unbounded. He begged him to name a reward, promising to grant it, whatever it might be. Astolpho asked an army to go to the assistance of Charlemagne, and the king not only granted him a hundred thousand men, but offered to lead them himself.
The night before the day appointed for the departure of the troops Astolpho mounted his winged horse, and directed his flight towards a mountain, whence the fierce South-wind issues, whose blast raises the sands of the Nubian desert, and whirls them onward in overwhelming clouds. The paladin, by the advice of St. John, had prepared himself with a leather bag, which he placed adroitly, with its mouth open, over the vent whence issues this terrible wind. At the first dawn of morning the wind rushed from its cavern to resume its daily course, and was caught in the bag, and securely tied up. Astolpho, delighted with his prize, returned to his army, placed himself at their head, and commenced his march. The Abyssinians traversed without danger or difficulty those vast fields of sand which separate their country from the kingdoms of Northern Africa, for the terrible South-wind, taken completely captive, had not force enough left to blow out a candle.
Senapus was distressed that he could not furnish any cavalry, for his country, rich in camels and elephants, was destitute of horses. This difficulty the saint had foreseen, and had taught Astolpho the means of remedying. He now put those means in operation. Having reached a place whence he beheld a vast plain and the sea, he chose from his troops those who appeared to be the best made and the most intelligent. These he caused to be arranged in squadrons at the foot of a lofty mountain which bordered the plain, and he himself mounted to the summit to carry into effect his great design. Here he found vast quantities of fragments of rock and pebbles. These he set rolling down the mountains side, and, wonderful to relate, as they rolled they grew in size, made themselves bodies, legs, necks, and long faces. Next they began to neigh, to curvet, to scamper on all sides over the plain. Some were bay, some roan, some dapple, some chestnut. The troops at the foot of the mountain exerted themselves to catch these new-created horses, which they easily did, for the miracle had been so considerate as to provide all the horses with bridles and saddles. Astolpho thus suddenly found himself supplied with an excellent corps of cavalry, not fewer (as Archbishop Turpin asserts) than eighty thousand strong. With these troops Astolpho reduced all the country to subjection, and at last arrived before the walls of Agramants capital city, Biserta, to which he laid siege.
We must now return to the camp of the Christians, which lay before Arles, to which city the Saracens had retired after being defeated in a night attack led on by Rinaldo. Agramant here received the tidings of the invasion of his country by a fresh enemy, the Abyssinians, and learned that Biserta was in danger of falling into their hands. He took counsel of his officers, and decided to send an embassy to Charles, proposing that the whole quarrel should be submitted to the combat of two warriors, one from each side, according to the issue of which it should be decided which party should pay tribute to the other, and the war should cease. Charlemagne, who had not heard of the favorable turn which affairs had taken in Africa, readily agreed to this proposal, and Rinaldo was selected on the part of the Christians to sustain the combat.
The Saracens selected Rogero for their champion. Rogero was still in the Saracen camp, kept there by honor alone, for his mind had been opened to the truth of the Christian faith by the arguments of Bradamante, and he had resolved to leave the party of the infidels on the first favorable opportunity, and to join the Christian side. But his honor forbade him to do this while his former friends were in distress; and thus he waited for what time might bring forth, when he was startled by the announcement that he had been selected to uphold the cause of the Saracens against the Christians, and that his foe was to be Rinaldo, the brother of Bradamante.
While Rogero was overwhelmed with this intelligence Bradamante on her side felt the deepest distress at hearing of the proposed combat. If Rogero should fall she felt that no other man living was worthy of her love; and if, on the other hand, Heaven should resolve to punish France by the death of her chosen champion, Bradamante would have to deplore her brother, so dear to her, and be no less completely severed from the object of her affections.
While the fair lady gave herself up to these sad thoughts, the sage enchantress, Melissa, suddenly appeared before her. Fear not, my daughter, said she, I shall find a way to interrupt this combat which so distresses you.
Meanwhile Rinaldo and Rogero prepared their weapons for the conflict. Rinaldo had the choice, and decided that it should be on foot, and with no weapons but the battle-axe and poniard. The place assigned was a plain between the camp of Charlemagne and the walls of Arles.
Hardly had the dawn announced the day appointed for this memorable combat, when heralds proceeded from both sides to mark the lists. Erelong the African troops were seen to advance from the city, Agramant at their head; his brilliant arms adorned in the Moorish fashion, his horse a bay, with a white star on his forehead. Rogero marched at his side, and some of the greatest warriors of the Saracen camp attended him, bearing the various parts of his armor and weapons. Charlemagne, on his part, proceeded from his intrenchments, ranged his troops in semicircle, and stood surrounded by his peers and paladins. Some of them bore portions of the armor of Rinaldo, the celebrated Ogier, the Dane, bearing the helmet which Rinaldo took from Mambrino. Duke Namo of Bavaria and Salomon of Bretagne bore two axes, of equal weight, prepared for the occasion.
The terms of the combat were then sworn to with the utmost solemnity by all parties. It was agreed that if from either part any attempt was made to interrupt the battle both combatants should turn their arms against the party which should be guilty of the interruption; and both monarchs assented to the condition that in such case the champion of the offending party should be discharged from his allegiance, and at liberty to transfer his arms to the other side.
When all the preparations were concluded the monarchs and their attendants retired each to his own side, and the champions were left alone. The two warriors advanced with measured steps towards each other, and met in the middle of the space. They attacked one another at the same moment, and the air resounded with the blows they gave. Sparks flew from their battle-axes, while the velocity with which they managed their weapons astonished the beholders. Rogero, always remembering that his antagonist was the brother of his betrothed, could not aim a deadly wound; he strove only to ward off those levelled against himself. Rinaldo, on the other hand, much as he esteemed Rogero, spared not his blows, for he eagerly desired victory for his own sake, and for the sake of his country and his faith.
The Saracens soon perceived that their champion fought feebly, and gave not to Rinaldo such blows as he received from him. His disadvantage was so marked that anxiety and shame were manifest on the countenance of Agramant. Melissa, one of the most acute enchantresses that ever lived, seized this moment to disguise herself under the form of Rodomont, that rude and impetuous warrior, who had now for some time been absent from the Saracen camp. Approaching Agramant, she said, How could you, my lord, have the imprudence of selecting a young man without experience to oppose the most redoubtable warrior of France? Surely you must have been regardless of the honor of your arms, and of the fate of your empire! But it is not too late. Break without delay the agreement which is sure to result in your ruin. So saying, she addressed the troops who stood near, Friends, said she, follow me; under my guidance every one of you will be a match for a score of those feeble Christians. Agramant, delighted at seeing Rodomont once more at his side, gave his consent, and the Saracens, at the instant, couched their lances, set spurs to their steeds, and swept down upon the French. Melissa, when she saw her work successful, disappeared.
Rinaldo and Rogero, seeing the truce broken, and the two armies engaged in general conflict, stopped their battle; their martial fury ceased at once, they joined hands, and resolved to act no more on either side until it should be clearly ascertained which party had failed to observe its oath. Both renewed their promise to abandon forever the party which had been thus false and perjured.
Meanwhile, the Christians, after the first moment of surprise, met the Saracens with courage redoubled by rage at the treachery of their foes. Guido the Wild, brother and rival of Rinaldo, Griffon and Aquilant, sons of Oliver, and numerous others whose names have already been celebrated in our recitals, beat back the assailants, and at last, after prodigious slaughter, forced them to take shelter within the walls of Arles.
We will now return to Orlando, whom we last heard of as furiously mad, and doing a thousand acts of violence in his senseless rage. One day he came to the borders of a stream which intercepted his course. He swam across it, for he could swim like an otter, and on the other side saw a peasant watering his horse. He seized the animal, in spite of the resistance of the peasant, and rode it with furious speed till he arrived at the sea-coast, where Spain is divided from Africa by only a narrow strait. At the moment of his arrival a vessel had just put off to cross the strait. She was full of people who, with glass in hand, seemed to be taking a merry farewell of the land, wafted by a favorable breeze.
The frantic Orlando cried out to them to stop and take him in; but they, having no desire to admit a madman to their company, paid him no attention. The paladin thought this behavior very uncivil; and by force of blows made his horse carry him into the water in pursuit of the ship. The wretched animal soon had only his head above water; but as Orlando urged him forward, nothing was left for the poor beast but either to die or swim over to Africa.
Already Orlando had lost sight of the bark; distance and the swell of the sea completely hid it from his sight. He continued to press his horse forward, till at last it could struggle no more, and sunk beneath him. Orlando, nowise concerned, stretched out his nervous arms, puffing the salt water from before his mouth, and carried his head above the waves. Fortunately they were not rough, scarce a breath of wind agitated the surface; otherwise, the invincible Orlando would then have met his death. But fortune, which it is said favors fools, delivered him from this danger, and landed him safe on the shore of Ceuta. Here he rambled along the shore till he came to where the black army of Astolpho held its camp.
Now it happened, just before this time, that a vessel filled with prisoners which Rodomont had taken at the bridge had arrived, and, not knowing of the presence of the Abyssinian army, had sailed right into port, where of course the prisoners and their captors changed places, the former being set at liberty and received with all joy, the latter sent to serve in the galleys. Astolpho thus found himself surrounded with Christian knights, and he and his friends were exchanging greetings and felicitations, when a noise was heard in the camp, and seemed to increase every moment.
Astolpho and his friends seized their weapons, mounted their horses, and rode to the quarter whence the noise proceeded. Imagine their astonishment when they saw that the tumult was caused by a single man, perfectly naked, and browned with dirt and exposure, but of a force and fury so terrible that he overturned all that offered to lay hands on him.
Astolpho, Dudon, Oliver, and Florimart gazed at him with amazement. It was with difficulty they knew him. Astolpho, who had been warned of his condition by his holy monitor, was the first to recognize him. As the paladins closed round Orlando, the madman dealt one and another a blow of his fist, which, if they had not been in armor, or he had had any weapon, would probably have despatched them; as it was, Dudon and Astolpho measured their length on the sand. But Florimart seized him from behind, Sansonnet and another grasped his legs, and at last they succeeded in securing him with ropes. They took him to the water-side and washed him well, and then Astolpho, having first bandaged his mouth so that he could not breathe except through his nose, brought the precious phial, uncorked it, and placed it adroitly under his nostrils, when the good Orlando took it all up in one breath. O marvellous prodigy! The paladin recovered in an instant all his intelligence. He felt like one who had awakened from a painful dream, in which he had believed that monsters were about to tear him to pieces. He seemed prostrated, silent, and abashed. Florismart, Oliver, and Astolpho stood gazing upon him, while he turned his eyes around and on himself. He seemed surprised to find himself naked, bound, and stretched on the sea-shore. After a few moments he recognized his friends, and spoke to them in a tone so tender that they hastened to unbind him, and to supply him with garments. Then they exerted themselves to console him, to diminish the weight with which his spirits were oppressed, and to make him forget the wretched condition into which he had been sunk.
Orlando, in recovering his reason, found himself also delivered from his insane attachment to the queen of Cathay. His heart felt now no further influenced by the recollection of her than to be moved with an ardent desire to retrieve his fame by some distinguished exploit. Astolpho would gladly have yielded to him the chief command of the army, but Orlando would not take from the friend to whom he owed so much the glory of the campaign; but in everything the two paladins acted in concert, and united their counsels. They proposed to make a general assault on the city of Biserta, and were only waiting a favorable moment, when their plan was interrupted by new events.
Agramant, after the bloody battle which followed the infraction of the truce, found himself so weak that he saw it was in vain to attempt to remain in France. So, in concert with Sobrino, the bravest and most trusted of his chiefs, he embarked to return to his own country, having previously sent off his few remaining troops in the same direction. The vessel which carried Agramant and Sobrino approached the shore where the army of Astolpho lay encamped before Biserta, and having discovered this fact before it was too late, the king commanded the pilot to steer eastward, with a view to seek protection of the King of Egypt. But the weather becoming rough, he consented to the advice of his companions, and sought harbor in an island which lies between Sicily and Africa. There he found Gradasso, the warlike king of Sericane, who had come to France to possess himself of the horse Bayard and the sword Durindana; and having procured both these prizes was returning to his own country.
The two kings, who had been companions in arms under the walls of Paris, embraced one another affectionately. Gradasso learned with regret the reverses of Agramant, and offered him his troops and his person. He strongly deprecated resorting to Egypt for aid. Remember the great Pompey, said he, and shun that fatal shore. My plan he continued, is this: I mean to challenge Orlando to single combat. Possessed of such a sword and steed as mine, if he were made of steel or bronze, he could not escape me. He being removed, there will be no difficulty in driving back the Abyssinians. We will rouse against them the Moslem nations from the other side of the Nile, the Arabians, Persians, and Chaldeans, who will soon make Senapus recall his army to defend his own territories.
Let us adopt a third course, said the aged warrior Sobrino. I would not willingly remain a simple spectator of such a contest. Let us send three squires to the shore of Africa to challenge Orlando and any two of his companions in arms to meet us three in this island of Lampedusa.
Orlando was delighted, and rewarded the squires with rich gifts. He had already resolved to seek Gradasso and compel him to restore Durindana, which he had learned was in his possession. For his two companions the Count chose his faithful friend Florismart and his cousin Oliver.
The three warriors embarked, and sailing with a favorable wind, the second morning showed them, on their right, the island where this important battle was to be fought. Orlando and his two companions, having landed, pitched their tent. Agramant had placed his opposite.
Next morning, as soon as Aurora brightened the edges of the horizon, the warriors of both parties armed themselves and mounted their horses. They took their positions, face to face, lowered their lances, placed them in rest, clapped spurs to their horses, and flew to the charge. Orlando met the charge of Gradasso. The paladin was unmoved, but his horse could not sustain the terrible shock of Bayard. He recoiled, staggered, and fell some paces behind. Orlando tried to raise him, but, finding his efforts unavailing, seized his shield, and drew his famous Balisardo. Meanwhile Agramant and the brave Oliver gained no advantage, one or the other; but Florismart unhorsed the King Sobrino. Having brought his foe to the ground, he would not pursue his victory, but hastened to attack Gradasso, who had overthrown Orlando. Seeing him thus engaged, Orlando would not interfere, but ran with sword upraised upon Sobrino, and with one blow deprived him of sense and motion. Believing him dead, he next turned to aid his beloved Florismart. That brave paladin, neither in horse nor arms equal to his antagonist, could but parry and evade the blows of the terrible Durindana. Orlando, eager to succor him, was delayed for a moment in securing and mounting the horse of the King Sobrino. It was but an instant, and with sword upraised, he rushed upon Gradasso; who, noways disconcerted at the onset of this second foe, shouted his defiance, and thrust at him with his sword, but, having miscalculated the distance, scarcely reached him, and failed to pierce his mail. Orlando, in return, dealt him a blow with Balisardo, which wounded as it fell face, breast, and thigh, and, if he had been a little nearer, would have cleft him in twain. Sobrino, by this time recovered from his swoon, though severely wounded, raised himself on his legs, and looked to see how he might aid his friends. Observing Agramant hard pressed by Oliver, he thrust his sword into the bowels of the latters horse, which fell, and bore down his master, entangling his leg as he fell, so that Oliver could not extricate himself. Florismart saw the danger of his friend, and ran upon Sobrino with his horse, overthrew him, and then turned to defend himself from Agramant. They were not unequally matched, for though Agramant, mounted on Brigliadoro, had an advantage over Florismart, whose horse was but indifferent, yet Agramant had received a serious wound in his encounter with Oliver.
Nothing could exceed the fury of the encounter between Orlando and Gradasso. Durindana, in the hands of Gradasso, clove asunder whatever it struck; but such was the skill of Orlando, who perfectly knew the danger to which he was exposed from a stroke of that weapon, it had not yet struck him in such a way as to inflict a wound. Meanwhile, Gradasso was bleeding from many wounds, and his rage and incaution increased every moment. In his desperation he lifted Durindana with both hands, and struck so terrible a blow full on the helmet of Orlando, that for a moment it stunned the paladin. He dropped the reins, and his frightened horse scoured with him over the plain. Gradasso turned to pursue him, but at that moment saw Florismart in the very act of striking a fatal blow at Agramant, whom he had unhorsed. While Florismart was wholly intent upon completing his victory, Gradasso plunged his sword into his side. Florismart fell from his horse, and bathed the plain with his blood.
Orlando recovered himself just in time to see the deed. Whether rage or grief predominated in his breast, I cannot tell; but, seizing Balisardo with fury, his first blow fell upon Agramant, who was nearest to him, and smote his head from his shoulders. At this sight Gradasso for the first time felt his courage sink, and a dark presentiment of death came over him. He hardly stood on his defence when Orlando cast himself upon him, and gave him a fatal thrust. The sword penetrated his ribs, and came out a palms breadth on the other side of his body.
Thus fell beneath the sword of the most illustrious paladin of France the bravest warrior of the Saracen host. Orlando then, as if despising his victory, leaped lightly to the ground, and ran to his dear friend Florismart, embraced him, and bathed him with his tears. Florismart still breathed. He could even command his voice to utter a few parting words: Dear friend, do not forget me,give me your prayers,and oh! be a brother to Flordelis. He died in uttering her name.
After a few moments given to grief Orlando turned to look for his other companion and his late foes. Oliver lay oppressed with the weight of his horse, from which he had in vain struggled to liberate himself. Orlando extricated him with difficulty; he then raised Sobrino from the earth, and committed him to his squire, treating him as gently as if he had been his own brother. For this terrible warrior was the most generous of men to a fallen foe. He took Bayard and Brigliadoro, with the arms of the conquered knights; their bodies and their other spoils he remitted to their attendants.
But who can tell the grief of Flordelis when she saw the warriors return, and found not Florismart as usual after absence hasten to her side. She knew by the aspect of the others that her lord was slain. At the thought, and before the question could pass her lips, she fell senseless upon the ground. When life returned, and she learned the truth of her worst fears, she bitterly upbraided herself that she had let him depart without her. I might have saved him by a single cry when his enemy dealt him that treacherous blow, or I might have thrown myself between and given my worthless life for his. Or if no more, I might have heard his last words, I might have given him a last kiss. So she lamented, and could not be comforted.