Story of Roland - James Baldwin

How Charlemagne Fought against Ogier

Shall I tell you of the sad war which Charlemagne waged for so long a time against one of the noblest of his vassals? Sorrowful, indeed, were those days, and much shame did the peers suffer on account of the proud-faced king.

Ogier the Dane had married Belicene, the daughter of the Lord of St. Omer; and he had one son named Baldwinet. Tall and comely grew the lad, and proud of look; and Ogier loved him more than all things else. One day the king's son Charlot played at chess with Baldwinet; and, much to the surprise of the prince, the young lad checkmated him. Very furious grew Charlot. He seized the golden chessboard, and struck Baldwinet so fiercely that he stretched him dead on the marble floor. When Ogier heard of the bloody deed, he hastened to the hall where his son still lay, he lifted the cold and bloody body in his arms, and kissed the fair white face. The knights who stood around, sorrowful and horror-stricken, wept at the sight. Then Ogier sprang angrily to his feet again: he seized a huge club, and sought Charlot from chamber to chamber to kill him. But Charlemagne, too blind to the faults of his wicked and foolish son, had hidden him in a secret closet. Ogier sought the king, and asked that due punishment should be meted out to the black-hearted prince. But the king mocked him and banished him from the Court.

"Take thyself hence," said he angrily; "and, if to-morrow's sun sees thee in France, thou shalt find thyself in the darkest dungeon in our kingdom."

Ogier, despairing of justice, and filled with sorrow and rage, mounted his good steed Broiefort, and rode away from the king's court. He went straight to his castle of Garlandon,—a fief which he held of the king in Southern France. But, when Charlemagne heard that the bereaved and sorrow-stricken knight was still within his domains, he called his host together and laid siege to Garlandon. Then Ogier, not wishing to fight against the king, secretly quitted the castle, taking with him neither palfrey nor sumter horse, but only his brave steed Broiefort. He crossed the snowy Alps, and came at length to the city of Pavia, and presented himself before Didier, the King of the Lombards.

"Fair king," said he, "I am a man who has been exiled, hunted, from sweet France. Charlemagne has driven me out of his kingdom; and he has left me neither town nor castle, not even so much land as I could lie upon. It was all because I demanded justice for the death of the young lad Baldwinet, whom I loved so well. And now I come to you, and beg your aid; for I may have need of it. And I will serve you with sword and lance so well that you shall love me."

"What is thy name?" asked Didier.

"My name is Ogier, and men call me 'the Dane.' "

At this word Didier leaped to his feet, and right warmly he welcomed the Dane. And he gave to Ogier as fiefs two famous strongholds,—Castle-Fort on the Rhone, which had never been entered by a foe, and Mount Quevrel on the Rock.

The next spring, King Charlemagne held an Easter feast at Paris. Never since the days of Alexander the Greek, of Lucian of Acre, or of Clovis, who was next after Cæsar, had a king held a feast so grand. There sat at his table seventeen kings, thirty bishops, and full a thousand knights. And, while they feasted, some one with slight discretion spoke the name of Ogier.

"The traitor!" cried the king, striking his knife upon the table. "He is the guest of Didier of Lombardy, but he shall not long be so. Who now is there among you, brave knights, who will go beyond the mountains, and bid Didier send me this rebel as a captive?"

Not one of the knights made answer, for those who did not love Ogier feared him. Yet at last Namon the Wise arose. Very old and frail was he, and his hair and beard were white as snow.

"Sir king," said he, "since no younger man offers to go, I will bear your message; for it is the first duty of every knight to serve his lord."

But the king would not let him go. Then Namon turned to his son Bertram, who sat by his side, and bade him undertake the errand.

"It is well," said the king. "Bertram shall go."

And Bertram, although very loath to do so, departed at once. Had it not been for his father's wishes, he would not have gone.

When the young knight reached Pavia, he went at once to the king's palace. Didier was sitting at his table in his feast hall, and Ogier sat beside him. When Bertram was shown into the hall, the Dane knew him at once as the son of his old friend, Duke Namon. He knew him by the checkered helmet which he wore, and the silver eagle on either side, and the sword-hilt of purest gold; and he would have given all the treasure in the world to have been elsewhere. He whispered to Didier, and begged him to treat the messenger kindly, and not let his ill-mannered Lombards insult the young man.

Bertram then delivered his message: "If Didier does not send the Dane back in chains, like a greyhound, then Charlemagne will come and destroy Pavia, and overrun and ruin his kingdom of Lombardy and place a better knight on the throne."

When he had spoken, Ogier arose, and answered: "Didier owes no vassalry to Charlemagne, save the succor of ten thousand men for sixty days, in case the French king makes war in Italy. As to myself, Ogier the Dane, I do not believe that Didier will fail me. If Charlemagne would overrun and ruin Lombardy, let him come. He shall find us not asleep."

Then Bertram answered by accusing Ogier of treason to the king, and of not yet having paid the tribute which his father Godfrey had owed for the fief of Denmark. Very angry grew Ogier; and in a great passion he seized a knife and flung it at the young knight. Happily, the weapon missed its mark, only cutting the fringe of Bertram's hauberk. Then better thoughts came to the Dane, and he remembered the kind counsels and the generous help he had so often received from Namon the gentle duke. And so he answered the rash messenger mildly, as a worthy knight, as a wise and well-taught man.

"For the sake of thy father, Namon the flowery-bearded," said he, "the spear of Ogier shall never be levelled against thee. Charlemagne has driven me from sweet France: he has disherited me, and made me an outlaw. And all this has been for no wickedness of my own, but only because I dared open my mouth when Charlot slew Baldwinet, the son whom I loved so well."

The next morning Didier called his barons together, and they talked over the message which Charlemagne had sent. And they bade Bertram carry this word back to the French king: "We have pledged our friendship and aid to Ogier the Dane, and we will not deliver him over to his enemies. If Charlemagne would decide this matter by a trial of arms, let him meet us in May, in a pitched battle under Ajossa."

When Bertram returned to France, and delivered his message, Charlemagne began at once to make ready for war. He called together an army of fifty thousand warriors. But the peers Roland and Oliver and Reinold joined not the standard of the king: they would take no part in this unrighteous war. The king's host crossed the mountains, and camped in the meadows before St. Ajossa. There, as Charlemagne sat before his tent, he saw a great company of folk coming down the hills on his right. It was Gerard of Viana, with ten thousand crossbow-men. He looked to the left, and saw another ten thousand warriors coming up through the meadows, their hauberks and shields flaming in the sunlight, and their banners fluttering toward the sky.

"What host of strangers is this?" asked Charlemagne.

"It is Baldwin of Flanders, and his far-famed Flemish spearmen," answered Duke Namon.

The two armies were drawn up in battle-array before St. Ajossa. Terrible was the shock with which they met in combat; fierce and long was the fight. At length, however, the Lombards were beaten, and King Didier sought safety in flight. Everywhere the French were victorious; for they were the braver knights, and better trained. Ogier, on the back of his faithful Broiefort, fled from the lost field with fifteen thousand foes close following behind him. But the good horse distanced his pursuers, and carried his master safely out of danger. The hunted Dane hastened now to reach the shelter of his own stronghold, Castle-Fort on the Rhone, which Didier the Lombard had given him.

One day, overcome by fatigue and long wakefulness, he stopped in a mountain glen, and lay down behind a huge rock to rest. He lifted the helmet from his head, and placed it on the grass beside him; and such was his weariness, that, ere he was aware, he had fallen asleep. While he slept, a company of Frenchmen came up with him, and, had it not been for Broiefort, he would have fared but ill at their hands. The good horse, seeing that danger was near, neighed loudly and struck the ground with his hoofs; but Ogier still slept. Then the noble beast seized his master by the collar of his hauberk, and shook him until he awoke. The Dane had barely time to mount the faithful steed and gallop out of the glen. That afternoon, as he hurried onward, closely followed by his foes, he came to a little castle, standing in the edge of the wood by the side of a wide morass. There was no town nor any farmlands near; and the place, even if not deserted, seemed very poorly guarded. The gate was wide open; and, as no sentinel or warder was there to challenge or prevent him, Ogier rode boldly in. The courtyard was empty; and neither lord nor servitor could be seen, although the Dane thought he heard loud voices, and sounds of life, in the low-built halls. He had no time, however, for ceremony; for his pursuers were already in sight. He quickly dismounted, and drew up the bridge, and shut and barred the gates behind him. Then, without hesitation, he went into the dining hall, where he found the owner of the castle and all his family sitting at the table.

"Kind sir," said he to the man, "I am a knight, who, for no fault of my own, am banished from my own country, and hunted from place to place like a felon. If thou wilt give me shelter, I will richly repay thee."

But the man rose up in a furious passion, and tried to drive Ogier from the hall.

"If thou art so lacking in courtesy as to thrust a stranger thus rudely from thy house," said the Dane, "thou must not complain if I take forcible possession of all that thou hast." And he drew his sword, and drove the man and his family out through the postern gate, which he closed and bolted behind them. Then he searched every part of the castle, from the deep cellars to the highest tower, to see whether the place were well victualled. And he found great plenty of salt meat, and bread and wine, and dainties of every sort. The table was loaded with rich food, cakes, and red wine, and cranes, and geese, and every kind of wild game. There were provisions enough for a small garrison.

Not long was it until Charlemagne, with ten thousand warriors, came up, and laid siege to the castle. He pitched his tent right before the gate, and placed armed men on every side,—a thousand squires, a thousand spearmen, a thousand crossbow-men. The walls were not very high; but the ditch was wide and deep, and there seemed no way of crossing. At length, by the king's orders, the besiegers cut down the willows of the marsh and the brushwood in the forest, and threw them into the moat to fill it up. And ten great ladders were placed against the walls. But Ogier defended himself right manfully, and kept his enemies at bay until nightfall, when they returned to their tents, vowing that he should not escape them on the morrow. It was a fearful night. The rain fell in torrents, the lightnings flashed, the thunder rolled, and there was such a tempest as has seldom been known. But Charlemagne set two thousand men on guard, and watchfires were built for seven leagues around.

Ogier's heart sank within him. "Never in my life," said he to himself, "have I done good to any one who did not in the end seek my destruction." He did not think of the great-hearted Roland, who all this time held himself aloof from the king.

When the earliest dawn of that long night began to appear, the Dane went to the stables to find Broiefort. The noble creature knew his master; he neighed softly, and scratched his foot for joy.

"Horse," said Ogier lovingly, "there was never a steed so good, so proud, in every way so worthy, as thou. Thou hast done me good service in many a quest: canst thou help me once more? In all the world there is not one man who holds me dear; and, if thou shouldst fail me, I would be undone."

The good horse raised his head as if he understood his master: he neighed again, and struck uneasily with his foot. The knight put on the saddle, and threw the golden reins upon the proud charger's neck; and, just as the cocks were crowing, he opened the castle gate and looked out. All was quiet in Charlemagne's camp, and the watchers seemed to be asleep. Softly did Ogier let down the bridge; he vaulted into the saddle; he breathed a short prayer to Heaven, and dashed boldly away. The camp was aroused: the men rushed to arms. Many of them saw Ogier galloping away; but they pitied his plight, and would not harm him. Others, who were his kinsmen, or who had fought by his side in many a hard-won fray, secretly blessed him as he passed. And, ere Charlemagne could rally his squires and crossbow-men, the gallant Dane was well on his way to Castle-Fort.

Right hearty was the welcome which Ogier received when he rode into his own castle. And the three hundred warriors who were there at once made every thing ready for a siege. On one side of Castle-Fort there was a marsh so soft and deep that no man could ride across it; and on the other was the swift-running Rhone, washing the foot of the tower. Within the walls there was a spring and a little brook so wide and so deep that dames and damsels, burgesses and knights, might bathe in it; and ere it poured its waters into the river, it turned three mills, which stopped not the whole year round.

Soon Charlemagne's army arrived, and laid close siege to Castle-Fort. And the king summoned Malrin, the engineer, and promised him a thousand marks of gold, and twenty war steeds, if he would batter down the stronghold. And forthwith Malrin called together three hundred and eighteen skilled carpenters, and more than four thousand workmen; and they built before the gate an engine seven stories high, whereon a thousand one hundred and seventy bowmen could stand. And day and night they shot great bolts of steel, and iron-shod arrows, into the fort; while Malrin, from the uppermost story, threw Greek fire upon the roofs of the houses, and kindled flames such that neither water nor wine, but only cold earth and soft clay, could quench.

Ogier and his men were at length driven into the tower, and they stabled their horses in the deep dungeons underneath. But still the bolts and arrows and stones, and the dreadful Greek fire, poured down upon them. The tower was of stone, cemented with mortar mixed with dragon's blood; and no missile nor storm of fire could harm it. Yet one by one the valiant defenders were picked off by Malrin's sharp-sighted bowmen, until at length Ogier was left all alone. He was now without squire or page or serving-man. He must needs grind his own corn, draw water from his own well, heat it on the fire which he himself had kindled, sift his own flour, knead the dough, heat the oven, bake his own bread. He was his own cook, his own butler, his own groom. Yet he knew full well, that one man never held a castle long against his foes.

What Ogier next did, says the poet who told this tale, no other man ever did. He cut down the small oaks and the branchy trees which grew in the courtyard, and shaped them into wooden men; he dressed them with hauberks and helmets, and girded swords upon them, and hung shields on their necks, and put battle-axes in their hands; and then he fixed them on the battlements, so that the French would think that the fort was still well garrisoned. Charlemagne was amazed. He wondered how so many men could subsist in the tower, and how they could live amid the storm of iron and fire which was hurled down upon them. He began to think that some unseen power was fighting for Ogier.

[Illustration] from The Story of Roland by James Baldwin


But ere long the gallant Dane became sorely pressed with famine. His face grew pale with fasting: he wasted away until he looked like a giant skeleton. In his extremity he again mounted his good Broiefort, and early one morning dashed recklessly out of the gate. A thousand base-minded squires pursued him; but Broiefort swam the rapid River Cercle, and left them far behind. When Charlemagne learned that Ogier had again escaped him, he was very angry. He warned the knights who were with him, that they should on no account favor the rebellious Dane, on pain of being punished as traitors. And then he returned with his host to Paris.

Meanwhile, Ogier hastened on his way toward Denmark, for there he felt that he would find friends. One day he stopped by the roadside to rest; and, feeling weary and worn out, he ungirt his sword Short, and lay down beneath a tree to sleep. While he slept, it so happened that Archbishop Turpin, with a following of knights and squires, passed that way. They saw the warrior lying in peaceful slumber upon the grass, and they remarked the nobleness of his horse and the beauty of his armor. And, when they drew nearer, all knew that it was Ogier. The good archbishop was sorely troubled. He would fain not harm his brother-in-arms; yet, if he did not take him prisoner, Charlemagne would drive him from the kingdom. So, after much ado, they took Ogier's horse and sword, and overpowered and bound the Dane himself.

"My once kind friend," said Ogier to the archbishop, "thou doest me too great an injury. If thou wouldst befriend me, kill me at once, rather than give me up to the king."

But Turpin bade him be of good cheer. He assured him that he would take him to Reims, and put him in his own dungeon, and see that no harm came to him.

When Charlemagne heard that the Dane had been taken at last, and that he was in prison at Reims, he was very glad, and he began making ready to have him hanged like a common thief. But Archbishop Turpin came before him with a retinue of knights, bishops, and abbots, and begged that he would spare the life of the unhappy Dane. And Gerard of Rousillon and full sixty dukes and barons joined them in this petition, and threatened, that, if Charlemagne slew Ogier, they would declare war against him. And Turpin promised, that, in case the knight's life were spared, he would keep him in his own dungeon, where he should never see his hands or his feet, and where he should have for his daily allowance not more than a quartern of bread and one cup of water and wine mixed.

"Only give him his life," said the archbishop, "and he shall never cause you trouble again."

At last the king relented, and good Turpin returned in great joy to Rheims. He had a silver cup made, which held a whole gallon of wine; and a bushel of flour he made into two loaves, so that seven knights could not eat a quartern. And Ogier fared most royally in the archbishop's dungeon, for he wanted neither comfort nor amusement. Yet he was often sad and downhearted, and he grieved greatly for his friends. And in his loneliness, shut out from the sunlight and the companionship of those whom he loved, his long hair and beard became white as the snow.

But by and by there came a change in Ogier's fortunes. France was being threatened with invasion by Brehus, a Saracen chief of great valor and distinction; and Charlemagne had marshalled his host, and was making ready to repel the invaders. The French were waiting the king's orders to march; and all the peers, save Ogier, were in their places. Then Turpin went into the presence of the king, and said,—

"My lord, we can scarcely expect Heaven's blessing to rest on this enterprise while one of the peers is absent. There are twelve of us, but here are only eleven."

At the same time three hundred squires, all sons of the noblest men in the kingdom, began to cry out, "Ogier! Ogier!" And Duke Namon boldly advised the king to pardon the good Dane, and set him free.

"But he is dead," said the king.

"Not so," answered Namon. "He is alive and well, in the archbishop's dungeon."

"If that is true," said the king, "thou shalt take him out, and we will make him all due amends."

When word was brought to Ogier that the king was willing to pardon him in order that he might lead his fighting-men against the Saracens, he seemed but little gladdened by the news.

"Never," said he, "will I don breastplate or shield, or lift the lance, until Charlot, who slew my gentle son, shall be given over into my hands."

Charlemagne was in distress. He knew that, unless Ogier were with them, the peers would not advance against the Saracen but would rather defy his authority. And yet his love for the foolish Charlot was as great as ever. At last, however, by Duke Namon's advice, he yielded, and sent word to Ogier that he should do with Charlot as he wished. The Dane was brought out of his prison, and dressed in his own armor, which the good archbishop had carefully kept for him. He was tall and straight, and his look was proud as that of a lion. When he had donned his arms, he looked anxiously around him.

"Where, now, is my horse Broiefort," asked he,—"the good friend who stood by me when all others failed?"

The archbishop could not tell; but a monk who stood near remembered having seen the steed drawing a heavy cartload of stones at Meaux. "When Ogier was thrown into prison," said he, "the abbot of Meaux took charge of his horse. The old man was very proud of his steed, and very impatient to try him; and so, when he was ready to leave Reims, he mounted him, intending to ride home on his back. But the horse, who had been used to the giant weight of Ogier and his armor, hardly knew that any one was on his back, so small and light is the good abbot. He started off at a great speed, running up hill and down at a rate which frightened the abbot almost out of his senses; and, as he passed the convent of Jouaire, he threw the good man off, right before the eyes of the abbess and her nuns. This accident so angered and mortified the abbot, that he has kept the horse hard at work ever since, hauling stones for the new chapel which he is building."

Messengers were at once sent to Meaux, who returned soon after with the horse. But he was not the noble-looking steed that he had once been. He was thin and poor; and his sides had been galled by the shafts; and his eyes had no longer any look of human intelligence about them. Yet he remembered his old master: he whinnied softly, and struck the ground with his hoofs, and then lay down before him for very humbleness. Ogier rubbed the horse's bare flanks with his rich embroidered cloak, and wept as if his heart would burst. And the squires covered the steed with rich trappings of cloth-of-gold and of ermine; and they put a golden bit in his mouth, and reins of silk upon his neck. And the whole company departed for Laon, where the king awaited them.

When Ogier came into the presence of Charlemagne, he asked that the king should fulfill his promise by giving up Charlot for punishment. But the father's heart of Charlemagne made him hesitate. Then Turpin and Duke Namon, and all the peers, besought the king to yield, not only for his own honor's sake, but for the sake of the people and of Christendom. And so he sent for Charlot to come and deliver himself up to Ogier. Trembling with fear, the wicked young prince obeyed. He cast himself with crossed hands upon the ground, and with bitter tears he besought Ogier's pardon. Duke Namon, too, and the other peers, begged Ogier to be merciful. But the Dane bade them hold their peace. He drew from its scabbard, the rich-lettered brand Short, and flourished it angrily about Charlot's head. The king, in great horror and distress, fled to the chapel, and knelt with covered head before the altar. Then Ogier gently lifted Charlot from the ground, and pardoned him for the great wrong which he had done him, and bade him go in peace. And after this, he went into the chapel, where the king still knelt; and the two embraced each other in the presence of the host, and mutually forgave each other, and pledged anew their faith, and a lifelong friendship.