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The Seven Champions Of Christendom by W. H. G. Kingston


On parting from his comrades, the gallant Champion of France, the famed Saint Denis, attended by his squire, Le Crapeau, wandered away through many lands, slaying many hideous monsters, terrible wild beasts, and frightful giants, combating in many tournaments, and paying his devoirs to many fair princesses, as well as other maidens of high and low degree, in which latter employment he was closely imitated by his admiring Squire, who jocosely spoke of his master as |that gay young Knight who laughs and rides away.| At length he reached a magnificent castle in Asia, surrounded by a forest of trees of every conceivable hue, and bearing fruits tempting to the eye and luscious to the taste.

|If the outside is so attractive, what must the inside be!| quoth he to Le Crapeau. |Marbleu! but we'll knock and see.|

Thereupon the Squire blew the horn which hung at the iron gate; but instead of its being opened by a burly porter, or by a steel-clad warrior, a troop of fair damsels appeared, who, with sweet smiles, invited the Knight to enter, and told him that they would conduct him to their mistress. Joyfully he followed them, when, in a superb hall, he beheld, seated on an ivory throne, glittering with diamonds of the purest water, a lady of beauty more radiant than possessed by any of the many he counted among his acquaintance. With agile steps, and many a bow and flourish of his helmet, followed nimbly by Le Crapeau, he approached the lady, and knelt at her feet.

|Rise, rise, brave Knight! I have heard of your fame and the gallant deeds you have done, and gladly I welcome you to my humble castle,| said the lady, with a smile so sweet that it went right through the tender heart of Saint Denis. He bowed, as did his Squire, and assured the lady that she was in no way deceived by the reports which had reached her ears, but that what they had done was as nothing compared with what they purposed to do, and would do most assuredly.

A magnificent banquet then suddenly appeared, spread out in the hall across which they had lately passed, and strains of softest music broke forth to give notice that the feast was ready. The lady, led by the Knight, approached the table, and he took his seat by her side, while Le Crapeau stood behind his chair, as in duty bound, to serve him.

|We should have guests to meet you,| said the lady, |but I live alone, and your arrival was somewhat sudden, though not unexpected. I have sent forth to summon some to appear at a ball by-and-bye, as I fancy it is an entertainment in which your countrymen delight.|

|Oui, Madam,| cried Le Crapeau, making a pirouette expressive of his delight; |you will see what my master and I can do when the time comes.|

Thus, with agreeable and lively conversation, ample justice was done to the feast, which was composed of the lightest and most delicate viands, such as the Knight vowed he had not tasted since he had left his native land.

While the Knight lay back in his chair, to luxuriate on the thought of the pleasure his palate had enjoyed, the banqueting-table disappeared, and when he looked up, troops of gallant knights, in silk attire, and fair dames, clad in the most dazzling garments, were entering the hall. Up sprang the Knight, and, offering his hand to the lady, he led her forth to the centre of the hall, where, to the admiration of all beholders, and very much to his own satisfaction, he performed a minuette never surpassed in all Asia. Le Crapeau, meantime, seeing another damsel of radiant beauty, inferior only to that of the lady of the castle, led her forth, and bounded away, round and round the hall, to strains of the most inspiriting and lively music. His only perplexity was discovering that his fair partner did not speak; indeed, although all the knights and ladies danced in the most lively way, closely imitating the two Frenchmen, not a sound escaped their lips. A variety of dances succeeded, in all of which the Knight and his Squire excelled all competitors; nor did the festivities cease till the rosy dawn appearing in the eastern sky, the guests disappeared as silently as they had entered from the hall, and the lady and the Knight and his Squire remained its sole occupants. Le Crapeau's partner was the last to quit it, and as he rushed after her to utter a tender adieu, instead of the lady, his nose came with such force in contact with a pillar that he was sent sprawling backwards into the hall.

|Never mind,| said the lady, as he picked himself up, |you will see her to-morrow, and then remember the lesson you have just received, and don't talk nonsense to her.|

A dozen very ugly little black dwarfs, bearing torches in their hands, now made their appearance, and conducted the Knight to a magnificent couch prepared for him, while another stood in an adjoining room, ready for Le Crapeau, after he had performed the duty of disrobing his master. The dwarfs meantime placed themselves at the door, and intimated that they would remain there to watch over the strangers while they slumbered.

After a matutinal meal of delicacies, of which even the Knight had never heard, the lady conducted him through the castle, and exhibited to him statues, and pictures, and gems most rare and beautiful, and then she led him through gardens full of flowers, shrubs, and trees, of forms and hues and scents most strange and lovely and sweet. Thus occupied, the banqueting time arrived, followed by a ball as on the previous evening.

Unhappily, Le Crapeau, forgetting the warning he had received, followed his partner as before, when a hand, coming suddenly out of the wall, gave him so severe a cuff upon the cheek that for many minutes he lay unable to move, when at length, much crest-fallen, he slowly crept back to his post behind his master.

Thus the days passed away. Sometimes the lady led the Knight forth, mounted on cream-coloured steeds; at others, in a chariot drawn by twenty beautiful peacocks; at others, they glided over the surface of a lake in a barge, towed by thirty milk-white swans, and visited scenes of the most enchanting beauty.

At length, however, the Knight began to weary of the monotony of his existence, and to sigh for fresh adventures and more excitement. The Squire, too, wished for change, and was not altogether pleased with the buffet he regularly got every evening at the termination of the ball.

|A parting scene is always painful,| exclaimed the Knight.

|It is,| answered the Squire. |I understand your wishes. I will have the steeds ready, and at early dawn we will ride forth, and leave a sweet-scented billet to thank the lady for her courtesy, and to inform her of our departure.|

Less difficulty occurred in the execution of the design than might have been expected, and, rejoicing in their liberty, the Knight and his Squire rode gaily forth towards the confines of Armenia.

|But we have got well out of that,| quoth the Squire to his master. |By my faith, I like more animation, less formality, and greater variety than we enjoyed down there.|

|You speak the truth, my Le Crapeau; yet she was a sweet creature, that lady of the castle.|

Now, the lady of the castle was no other than a powerful fairy, very kind and very woman-like, who had conceived an affection for the French Champion, when she chanced to see him as he journeyed through her realm. Even good fairies will inflict a punishment.

By means for which they could not account, the Knight and his Squire lost their way. Round and round they wandered among hills and forests, till hunger almost drove them to despair, when they were compelled to sustain nature on the berries and wild fruits which they could pluck from the trees and shrubs, and on the roots which they dug up with the points of their swords. After living many months on this hard fare a mulberry-tree, loaded with luscious fruit, appeared before them.

|Ah!| exclaimed Saint Denis, |on this at least we may banquet with some pleasure;| and filling his casque with the fruit, his example being imitated by Le Crapeau, they sat themselves down, with their head-pieces between their legs, to indulge, to their heart's content, in the unexpected treat.

The Knight, who eat more leisurely than his Squire, had scarcely finished his portion when he heard a loud bray close to him, and looking round, instead of his Squire, to his amazement he beheld a starved-looking donkey standing near him, and poking his nose into Le Crapeau's now empty casque.

While yet wondering and mechanically finishing his mulberries, he felt a very uncomfortable sensation coming over his own head and legs. He rose from the ground and shook himself, but instead of the accustomed rattle of his steel armour no sound was produced. He wished to scratch his nose, but his arms appeared kept down before him. He tried to call Le Crapeau, but instead of his manly voice, which had so often shouted loudly in the battle, a timid cry alone proceeded from his throat. He looked at the donkey, and the donkey looked at him, and shook its head with an expression truly mournful. Something strange must have occurred he feared.

Wherever he went the donkey followed. He wandered away from the mulberry-tree till he reached a lake of crystal water; he approached it, when, on its mirror-like surface, instead of a steel-clad warrior, he beheld a deer with long antlers and shaggy hide, he started back with dismay. When hunger pressed him he found himself cropping the grass or thrusting his nose into the purling brook, with his attendant donkey ever by his side. Pitiable as was Saint George's condition that of Saint Denis was infinitely worse.

Thus for many years he continued unable to recover his natural form. Often he returned to the mulberry-tree, the cause, as he believed, of his misfortune. It did not occur to him that the fairy, whose hospitality he had enjoyed, had anything to do with it. Once, as he came to the tree, so enraged was he that he ran his horns against it and nearly broke them. His attendant donkey did the same, and not having the same protection to his scull, he received a blow so severe that he was sent reeling backwards till he sunk exhausted on the ground. Saint Denis was a second time going to butt, when he heard a hollow voice breathe forth from the trunk the following words: --

|Cease to lament, thou famous man of France,
With gentle ears, oh, listen to my moan!
Once on a time it was my fatal chance
To be the proudest maid that ere was known.
By birth I am the daughter of a king,
Though now a breathless tree and senseless thing.

|My pride was such that Heaven confounded me --
A goddess in my own conceit I was:
What nature lent too base I thought to be,
But deem'd myself all others to surpass.
And therefore nectar and ambrosia sweet,
The food of demigods, for me I counted meet.

|My pride despised the finest bread of wheat,
And richer food I daily sought to find;
Refined gold was boil'd up with my meat,
Such self-conceit my senses all did blind.
For which the cruel fates transformed me,
From human substance to this senseless tree.

|Seven years in shape of stag thou must remain,
And then a purple rose, by magic's firm decree,
Shall bring thee to thy former shape again,
And end at last thy woeful misery:
When this is done, be sure you cut in twain
This fatal tree, wherein I do remain.|

The Knight almost fainted when he heard these strange words, and understood the length of time he was to remain in his transformed condition. His attendant donkey had also heard the words, and treasured them up in his memory. Every day, while his master slept, he ranged the country round, searching for the purple rose, but every evening returned as wise as he set out. Thus the seven years passed mournfully away.

One day, unmindful how the time had sped, as he trotted on, every now and then stopping and uttering a melancholy bray, his nostrils scented the fragrance of some roses; and though his first impulse was to eat them, on examining them more closely, he observed that they were of lustrous beauty and of a purple hue. Plucking a number of them, he trotted back to Saint Denis. He would have brayed with delight, but, had he done so, he would have dropped the roses, so he restrained himself till he had laid them before his master's nose. Instantly the Knight began to devour them, as did the faithful donkey, when, a stupor coming over them, they couched down on the green-sward.

Presently extraordinary sensations came over them both, and the horns and hoofs began to loosen, and the skin to roll up in folds, and a refreshing shower falling, both Knight and Squire, on opening their eyes, discovered, to their infinite satisfaction, that they were no longer brute beasts, but that they had recovered their former comely shapes, and that their hairy hides lay vacant on the ground. Near them were their arms, now sadly in want of polishing, while their trusty steeds, long roaming the rich pastures around, no sooner beheld than recognising them, trotted up to bear them once more to the field of battle or of fame.

Their first care was to burnish up their armour and their weapons. For many a weary hour they rubbed.

|We might have saved ourselves all this trouble, and spent the last seven years more pleasantly and profitably, had we not idled away our time in the magnificent castle of that beautiful lady down there,| observed Saint Denis, as he scrubbed away.

|Certes, Master dear, it's a failing I for one have when I get into the society of the fair sex, I feel little inclination to leave them; but we have had a pretty sharp lesson, and I hope to amend for the future.|

The task was performed at last. Then the Champion, recollecting what the mulberry-tree had said, drew his sword, and with one blow cut the stout trunk quite asunder.

Instantly there issued forth a bright flame, from the midst of which appeared a lovely damsel, clothed in a robe of yellow silk, made from the cocoons of the innumerable silk-worms, which fed on the tree.

|Oh, most sweet and singular ornament of nature!| exclaimed the Knight, bowing low before her, as did his Squire; |fairer than the feathers of the graceful swan, and far more beautiful than Aurora's morning countenance, to thee, the fairest of all fair ones, most humbly and only to thy beauty do I here submit my affections. Tell me, therefore, to whom my heart must pay its true devotions, thy birth, parentage, and name.|

The maiden, to whom it was long since such words had been addressed, was highly delighted with them, and informed the Knight that her name was Eglantine, that she was the daughter of the King of the neighbouring country, Armenia, and assured him that he would be welcomed at her father's court.

It is not recounted how many ferocious giants and furious lions he and Le Crapeau slew on the road while escorting the princess, though they were very numerous. They put to flight also a whole army of Pagans, who came to carry off their precious charge. Le Crapeau himself, however, took care not to omit the details, nor did Saint Denis pass them by in silence. The King of Armenia, who had long mourned his daughter as lost to him for ever, was so grateful to the French Knight that he at once promised her to him in marriage, and entertained him with the most sumptuous banquets and balls, and other pleasant divertisements which his court could produce.

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