Thomas Bulfinch (17961867). Age of Fable: Vol. IV: Legends of Charlemagne. 1913.
XXIII. Huon of Bordeaux (Continued)
HUON had seen many beauties at his mothers court, but his heart had never been touched with love. Honor had been his mistress, and in pursuit of that he had never found time to give a thought to softer cares. Strange that a heart so insensible should first be touched by something so unsubstantial as a dream; but so it was.
The day after the adventure with his uncle night overtook the travellers as they passed through a forest. A grotto offered them shelter from the night dews. The magic cup supplied their evening meal; for such was its virtue that it afforded not only wine, but more solid fare when desired. Fatigue soon threw them into profound repose. Lulled by the murmur of the foliage, and breathing the fragrance of the flowers, Huon dreamed that a lady more beautiful than he had ever before seen hung over him and imprinted a kiss upon his lips. As he stretched out his arms to embrace her a sudden gust of wind swept her away.
Huon awoke in an agony of regret. A few moments sufficed to afford some consolation in showing him that what had passed was but a dream; but his perplexity and sadness could not escape the notice of Sherasmin. Huon hesitated not to inform his faithful follower of the reason of his pensiveness; and got nothing in return but his rallyings for allowing himself to be disturbed by such a cause. He recommended a draught from the fairy goblet, and Huon tried it with good effect.
At early dawn they resumed their way. They travelled till high noon, but said little to one another. Huon was musing on his dream, and Sherasmins thoughts flew back to his early days on the banks of the flowery Garonne.
On a sudden they were startled by the cry of distress, and turning an angle of the wood, came where a knight hard pressed was fighting with a furious lion. The knights horse lay dead, and it seemed as if another moment would end the combat, for terror and fatigue had quite disabled the knight for further resistance. He fell, and the lions paw was raised over him, when a blow from Huons sword turned the monsters rage upon a new enemy. His roar shook the forest, and he crouched in act to spring, when, with the rapidity of lightning, Huon plunged his sword into his side. He rolled over on the plain in the agonies of death.
They raised the knight from the ground, and Sherasmin hastened to offer him a draught from the fairy cup. The wine sparkled to the brim, and the warrior put forth his lips to quaff it, but it shrunk away, and did not even wet his lips. He dashed the goblet angrily on the ground, with an exclamation of resentment. This incident did not tend to make either party more acceptable to the other; and what followed was worse. For when Huon said, Sir knight, thank God for your deliverance,Thank Mahomet, rather, yourself, said he, for he has led you this day to render service to no less a personage than the Prince of Hyrcania.
At the sound of this blasphemy Huon drew his sword and turned upon the miscreant, who, little disposed to encounter the prowess of which he had so lately seen proof, betook himself to flight. He ran to Huons horse, and lightly vaulting on his back, clapped spurs to his side, and galloped out of sight.
The adventure was vexatious, yet there was no remedy. The prince and Sherasmin continued their journey with the aid of the remaining horse as they best might. At length, as evening set in, they descried the pinnacles and towers of a great city full before them, which they knew to be the famous city of Bagdad.
They were well-nigh exhausted with fatigue when they arrived at its precincts, and in the darkness, not knowing what course to take, were glad to meet an aged woman, who, in reply to their inquiries, offered them such accommodations as her cottage could supply. They thankfully accepted the offer, and entered the low door. The good dame busily prepared the best fare her stores supplied,milk, figs, and peaches,deeply regretting that the bleak winds had nipped her almond-trees.
Sir Huon thought he had never in his life tasted any fare so good. The old lady talked while her guests ate. She doubted not, she said, they had come to be present at the great feast in honor of the marriage of the Sultans daughter, which was to take place on the morrow. They asked who the bridegroom was to be, and the old lady answered, The Prince of Hyrcania, but added, Our princess hates him, and would rather wed a dragon than him. How know you that? asked Huon; and the dame informed him that she had it from the princess herself, who was her foster-child. Huon inquired the reason of the princesss aversion; and the woman pleased to find her chat excite so much interest, replied that it was all in consequence of a dream. A dream! exclaimed Huon. Yes! a dream. She dreamed that she was a hind, and that the Prince, as a hunter, was pursuing her, and had almost overtaken her, when a beautiful dwarf appeared in view, drawn in a golden car, having by his side a young man of yellow hair and fair complexion, like one from a foreign land. She dreamed that the car stopped where she stood, and that, having resumed her own form, she was about to ascend it, when suddenly it faded from her view, and with it the dwarf and the fair-haired youth. But from her heart that vision did not fade, and from that time her affianced bridegroom, the Hyrcanian prince, had become odious to her sight. Yet the Sultan, her father, by no means regarding such a cause as sufficient to prevent the marriage, had named the morrow as the time when it should be solemnized, in presence of his court and many princes of the neighboring countries, whom the fame of the princesss beauty and the bridegrooms splendor had brought to the scene.
We may suppose this conversation woke a tumult of thoughts in the breast of Huon. Was it not clear that Providence led him on, and cleared the way for his happy success? Sleep did not early visit the eyes of Huon that night; but, with the sanguine temper of youth, he indulged his fancy in imagining the sequel of his strange experience.
The next day, which he could not but regard as the decisive day of his fate, he prepared to deliver the message of Charlemagne. Clad in his armor, fortified with his ivory horn and his ring, he reached the palace of Gaudisso when the guests were assembled at the banquet. As he approached the gate a voice called on all true believers to enter; and Huon, the brave and faithful Huon, in his impatience passed in under that false pretention. He had no sooner passed the barrier than he felt ashamed of his baseness, and was overwhelmed with regret. To make amends for his fault he ran forward to the second gate, and cried to the porter, Dog of a misbeliever, I command you in the name of Him who died on the cross, open to me! The points of a hundred weapons immediately opposed his passage. Huon then remembered for the first time the ring he had received from his uncle, the Governor. He produced it, and demanded to be led to the Sultans presence. The officer of the guard recognized the ring, made a respectful obeisance, and allowed him free entrance. In the same way he passed the other doors to the rich saloon where the great Sultan was at dinner with his tributary princes. At sight of the ring the chief attendant led Huon to the head of the hall, and introduced him to the Sultan and his princes as the ambassador of Charlemagne. A seat was provided for him near the royal party.
The Prince of Hyrcania, the same whom Huon had rescued from the lion, and who was the destined bridegroom of the beautiful Clarimunda, sat on the Sultans right hand, and the princess herself on his left. It chanced that Huon found himself near the seat of the princess, and hardly were the ceremonies of reception over before he made haste to fulfill the commands of Charlemagne by imprinting a kiss upon her rosy lips, and after that a second, not by command, but by good will. The Prince of Hyrcania cried out, Audacious infidel! take the reward of thy insolence! and aimed a blow at Huon, which, if it had reached him, would have brought his embassy to a speedy termination. But the ingrate failed of his aim, and Huon punished his blasphemy and ingratitude at once by a blow which severed his head from his body.
So suddenly had all this happened that no hand had been raised to arrest it; but now Gaudisso cried out, Seize the murderer! Huon was hemmed in on all sides, but his redoubtable sword kept the crowd of courtiers at bay. But he saw new combatants enter, and could not hope to maintain his ground against so many. He recollected his horn, and raising it to his lips, blew a blast almost as loud as that of Roland at Roncesvalles. It was in vain. Oberon heard it; but the sin of which Huon had been guilty in bearing, though but for a moment, the character of a believer in the false prophet, had put it out of Oberons power to help him. Huon, finding himself deserted, and conscious of the cause, lost his strength and energy, was seized, loaded with chains, and plunged into a dungeon.
His life was spared for the time, merely that he might be reserved for a more painful death. The Sultan meant that, after being made to feel all the torments of hunger and despair, he should be flayed alive.
But an enchanter more ancient and more powerful than Oberon himself interested himself for the brave Huon. The enchanter was Love. The Princess Clarimunda learned with horror the fate to which the young prince was destined. By the aid of her governante she gained over the keeper of the prison, and went herself to lighten the chains of her beloved. It was her hand that removed his fetters, from her he received supplies of food to sustain a life which he devoted from thenceforth wholly to her. After the most tender explanations the princess departed, promising to repeat her visit on the morrow.
The next day she came according to promise, and again brought supplies of food. These visits were continued during a whole month. Huon was too good a son of the Church to forget that the amiable princess was a Saracen, and he availed himself of these interviews to instruct her in the true faith. How easy it is to believe the truth when uttered by the lips of those we love! Clarimunda ere long professed her entire belief in the Christian doctrines, and desired to be baptized.
Meanwhile the Sultan had repeatedly inquired of the jailer how his prisoner bore the pains of famine, and learned to his surprise that he was not yet much reduced thereby. On his repeating the inquiry, after a short interval, the keeper replied that the prisoner had died suddenly, and had been buried in the cavern. The Sultan could only regret that he had not sooner ordered the execution of the sentence.
While these things were going on the faithful Sherasmin, who had not accompanied Huon in his last adventure, but had learned by common rumor the result of it, came to the court in hopes of doing something for the rescue of his master. He presented himself to the Sultan as Solario, his nephew. Guadisso received him with kindness, and all the courtiers loaded him with attentions. He soon found means to inform himself how the Princess regarded the brave but unfortunate Huon, and having made himself known to her, confidence was soon established between them. Clarimunda readily consented to assist in the escape of Huon, and to quit with him her fathers court to repair to that of Charlemagne. Their united efforts had nearly perfected their arrangement, a vessel was secretly prepared, and all things in forwardness for the flight, when an unlooked-for obstacle presented itself. Huon himself positively refused to go leaving the orders of Charlemagne unexecuted.
Sherasmin was in despair. Bitterly he complained of the fickleness and cruelty of Oberon in withdrawing his aid at the very crisis when it was most necessary. Earnestly he urged every argument to satisfy the prince that he had done enough for honor, and could not be held bound to achieve impossibilities. But all was of no avail, and he knew not which way to turn, when one of those events occurred which are so frequent under Turkish despotisms. A courier arrived at the court of the Sultan, bearing the ring of his sovereign, the mighty Agrapard, Caliph of Arabia, and bringing the bow-string for the neck of Gaudisso. No reason was assigned; none but the pleasure of the Caliph is ever required in such cases; but it was suspected that the bearer of the bow-string had persuaded the Caliph that Gaudisso, whose rapacity was well known, had accumulated immense treasures, which he had not duly shared with his sovereign, and thus had obtained an order to supersede him in his Emirship.
The body of Gaudisso would have been cast out a prey to dogs and vultures, had not Sherasmin, under the character of nephew of the deceased, been permitted to receive it, and give it decent burial, which he did, but not till he had taken possession of the beard and grinders, agreeably to the orders of Charlemagne.
No obstacle now stood in the way of the lovers and their faithful follower in returning to France. They sailed, taking Rome in their way, where the Holy Father himself blessed the union of his nephew, Duke Huon of Bordeaux, with the Princess Clarimunda.
Soon afterward they arrived in France, where Huon laid his trophies at the feet of Charlemagne, and, being restored to the favor of the Emperor, hastened to present himself and his bride to the Duchess, his mother, and to the faithful liegemen of his province of Guienne and his city of Bordeaux, where the pair were received with transports of joy.