Once upon a time two little boys were born, and the elder had on his breast the image of a sun, which shone so brightly that the ladies who were waiting on his mother, the princess Briane, were forced to shut their dazzled eyes. On the breast of the younger one lay a pink rose, and it was hard to believe that the flower had not been newly flung there, so fresh was its colour and so vivid its green.
So the elder baby was called in after years ‘the Knight of the Sun’; while his little brother was known as Rosiclair.
Now it happened that their mother, the princess Briane, had been secretly married to Trebatius, emperor of Constantinople, who had courted her under the name of prince Theodoart. Soon after their marriage her husband, while riding through the forest, had been astonished at the sight of a magnificent chariot which dashed furiously along the road, and, as it passed, he felt sure that his wife, the princess Briane, was seated inside. Without losing a moment, he turned his horse instantly round, and followed the chariot, but, spur his steed as he might, it was impossible to overtake it. However, he rode on as fast as the thick creepers and fallen trees would let him in the direction in which the chariot had disappeared, and at last he left the forest behind him and entered a beautiful meadow.
Here the emperor paused in surprise, for in front of him stood the greatest and finest castle he had ever seen, which would have held thirty thousand men with ease. At each corner was a large tower, while a wide moat of clear water would have kept a large army at bay. Happily for the emperor’s curiosity, the drawbridge was at the moment let down, so he knocked at the door, which straightway opened to him, and boldly entered the castle.
He looked around the magnificent hall to see some traces of his wife, but, instead, a powerful odour stole gradually over his senses. At the same instant a golden curtain was drawn aside, and a lady whose beauty dazzled his eyes glided up to him and laid her hand on his shoulder.
‘You belong to me now,’ she said, as she led him away; and twenty years went by before the emperor again left the castle.
Meanwhile the little boys were carried away in the night by one of the mother’s ladies, whose name was Clandestrie, and taken to her sister’s house, where they lived freely and happily for some years till they were old enough to be brought to the convent where the princess Briane still remained, and taught the duties of pages. Rosiclair was always good and quiet, but his brother gave his teachers a great deal of trouble, though that did not prevent their loving him dearly. He was so tall and strong and high-spirited, that it was difficult to remember he was only a child after all, and the moment he was left alone he was always seeking some adventure.
One day, while Rosiclair was learning from his mother to play on the lute, the Knight of the Sun — for so they called him — had gone with his nurse to the banks of the broad river, and was amusing himself with scrambling in and out of a boat that lay moored to the side. There were no mirrors in the convent, and the boy jumped hastily back with dismay when he saw some one dressed like himself looking at him from out of the water.
He grew red with rage and struck out with his fist, and the arm in the water struck out too. Then the prince sprang forward, but, as he did so, he began to perceive that it was nothing but his own image that was looking at him and imitating his movements. ‘How could I be such a baby!’ he said to himself, and turned to leave the boat, when, to his dismay, he found that the rope had got loose and he was gently floating down the stream.
At this sight his courage began to fail him; he called loudly to his nurse, who had been talking to some friends and had not noticed the child’s danger. At his cries she rushed into the river a little lower down, hoping to catch the boat as it danced by, but the current swept her off her feet, and she would certainly have been drowned had not a wood-cutter, who had watched her from above, held out a long stick which she was able to reach.
Very soon the little boat was a mere speck in the distance, and, now that there was nothing to be done, the boy took heart again and thought of all he would have to tell Rosiclair when he came back — for come back he would some day, he was sure of that.
By-and-by the grass and the trees, and even the big mountains, vanished, and all around him was the blue sea, with not even a sail to look at. How long he remained in that boat he never knew, but one day, just before sunrise, when the air is clearest and you can see farthest, he was roused from his sleep by a shout. At first he took it for part of his dream and did not move; then the shout came again, and he jumped up and waved his hand, for sailing towards him was a large vessel. At the prow stood a man in a beautiful purple tunic edged with gold. This was Florian prince of Persia.
Oh, how glad the little boy was to be amongst friends again, and how hungrily he ate the food they put before him! When he was quite rested, they brought him a child about the same age, whom they had picked up from a wreck a few days before; and then the ship’s head was turned towards Babylon.
It took them a long while to get there, but at last they entered the great river which flowed past the gates of the city, and the sultan, hearing of their approach, came down from his palace to greet them. He had lived as a youth at the court of prince Florian’s father, and was delighted to meet his old friend once more. As for the boys, he took a fancy to them at once, and kept them in his palace till many years had gone by and they were almost men.
When the Knight of the Sun was about sixteen he was taller than any one in all Babylon, for he took after his father, the emperor Trebatius, who was fully eight feet high. The youth was also very strong, and was afraid of nothing and nobody, and in many ways was different from his companions, especially in liking to ride and hunt alone instead of with a troop of merry young men. His friends were all fond of him, but rather afraid of him, as people often are of those who are quicker than themselves.
One morning the sultan arranged a great hunting expedition, which was to take place in some huge forests a few miles from Babylon. The sun was hot, and the sultan was old, so he soon gave up the chase, and returned to join the princess and her maidens, who were lying under the shady trees, with a stream rippling by to make them think they were cool.
Suddenly, without any warning, a band of giants sprang upon them from behind a rock, and, seizing the sultan and the ladies, bound them rapidly with silken cords. Their shrieks brought a few knights who were within earshot to their aid, but these were soon overpowered by the strength of the giants, except one, who managed to make his escape, and plunged deep into the forest.
He was flying along, half mad with terror, when a voice cried out:
‘Sir knight, look well to it, or you will lose your spurs in your unseemly haste.’
‘Fair youth,’ replied the knight, ‘do not, I pray you, waste the moments in idle talk; for the sultan and the princess have but now been attacked by an army of giants, and are being borne captive to some unknown land.’ But before his tale was ended the youth was riding fast down the path along which the knight had come.
He was just in time: the tallest and strongest giant had laid hold of the sultan, bound and helpless as he was, and was carrying him off to a huge coal-black horse that was picketed to a tree close by. A blow on his helmet forced him to drop his burden, and he turned rapidly on his assailant.
‘Bah! a boy!’ he cried disdainfully; but the ‘boy’ struck him another swinging stroke, which almost cleft his shield. Then the giant drew out his great double-edged battle-axe, but the champion sprang aside, and the axe crashed harmlessly on a rock, while a well-aimed throw from the javelin pierced the joints of the giant’s harness, and he fell heavily to the ground.
‘It is an earthquake,’ whispered the people of Babylon, as the houses shook and the swords rattled.
After this the giant’s followers, who, big though they were, had no mind to face such a fighter, fled into the forest, and were seen no more.
The first thing to be done was of course to cut the cords which had been carefully wound round the arms and legs of the prisoners, who, seizing the champion’s hands, shed tears and kisses over them. As to the sultan, he was well-nigh speechless from gratitude, but when he was able to speak he begged the youth to ask for some boon that he could grant, even if it were the half of his kingdom.
‘That I will tell you to-morrow,’ said he.
By this time the evening had come, and the chariots and the horses were made ready, and the company returned to the palace in Babylon, though neither the princess nor her ladies felt very safe till they were within the gates of the city.
Early next day the sultan sent the grand vizier to bid the youth await him in the great hall, that he might declare in presence of all the court what guerdon should be given him for saving his master’s life.
And a right noble company was gathered together, for the victor was well loved of all, and every man expected that he would ask the hand of the princess.
All stood up and bowed low as the sultan swept down between them clothed in his royal robes, and wearing his golden crown on his head; for he wished the goodly assemblage to know how priceless a service the young man had done him. Nay, he too thought, like his people, that there was only one boon that the youth could fitly crave.
When he was seated on his throne, he signed to the chevalier to draw near.
‘And what is the reward that I shall give you?’ he asked with a smile as the young man knelt before him.
‘O mighty sultan, grant me this, that with the sword which slew your enemy you will make me a knight’; then he paused and grew red, as a cloud came over the sultan’s brow.
‘By all the rules of chivalry ——’ But the sultan’s words were drowned by a tumult in the hall, and pushing her way between the crowds came a richly clad maiden, closely pursued by a huge black king.
‘Save me!’ she cried, looking wildly on the company of knights that stood round. ‘I am the daughter of as mighty a monarch as you, and was carried off from my father’s island by this black man whom you see before you. One grace he has given me, that for the space of a year I may wander where I will, seeking a knight to be my champion. But, despite their mighty names, not one has ever managed to pierce his armour.’
And again she looked on the knights, but not a man stirred from his place.
Then the chevalier rose to his feet and spoke out boldly.
‘Make me a knight, O sultan, and I will fight this man who is feared by all the world! Oh, I know what you would say, that I am yet too young to bear the weight which has sometimes proved too heavy for many a goodly knight. But, if my years are few, my deeds have proved that I am no whit behind the doughtiest knight of your court. So grant me my boon or this day I will leave you for ever.’
‘Be it so,’ answered the sultan at last, ‘though I would rather have given you the half of my kingdom or the hand of my daughter. But watch this night beside your arms in the temple, and to-morrow you shall be admitted into the order of chivalry.’
Now the sultan had a brother named Lyrgander, who was wise in every kind of enchantment, and, though he was at this time in a far country, he learned by means of his arts what strange things were happening at the court of Babylon. Without losing a moment he went to the room where his treasures were kept, and opened a large chest, from which he took two suits of armour. One, which was all white, he meant for the chevalier, and the other was for his friend Claberinde. Then he poured a few drops of a yellow liquid into a glass and drank it, wishing, as he did so, that he was in Babylon. Before the glass fell from his hand he found himself there. Very early after the youth had ended his watch, Lyrgander came to him and girded on him the suit of white armour. Led by Lyrgander, and followed by all the knights and nobles of the court, the chevalier entered the presence-chamber, where the sultan was sitting on his throne awaiting him. Once again the youth knelt, and the sultan, drawing the magic sword from its sheath, struck him three times lightly on the head with it. Afterwards, the sultan put back the sword in the scabbard and buckled it on the side of the kneeling youth.
Then, stooping down, he lowered the vizor, and said slowly and solemnly:
‘I dub you knight, and arm you knight. May the high gods have you in their care!’
‘Amen!’ said the chevalier, and he rose from his knees and went out to the place where the lists had been prepared. And the court sat round to watch the fight, while in the midst of them all, her eyes fixed on her champion, was the captive princess, who was resolved to kill herself with her own hands rather than fall into the power of the black king.
The Knight of the Sun had chosen the best horse in the sultan’s stables, and was waiting in his place till the signal should be given.
At the other end, the black king bestrode a huge black horse, and the moment he caught sight of his foe poured out a stream of abuse, which only ceased when the sound of the trumpets drowned his voice.
‘I have never been conquered by mortal man,’ said he, ‘and shall yon wretched beardless boy, who should now be sitting with his mother’s maidens, the child who but an hour ago was dubbed a knight by special grace of the sultan, have strength to do what the hardiest knights have failed in doing? By the eyes of my fathers! he will make fine food for the vultures before the sun sets.’
And the young knight heard, and the blood flew to his cheeks under his vizor, and his fingers closed more tightly on his sword.
With the first blast of the trumpets he spurred his horse, and his onslaught was so fierce that the giant reeled in his saddle.
‘They have tricked me,’ he said to himself, as he righted himself again. ‘That blow was never given by the boy I saw; they have put someone else in his place. The battle will be harder than I thought, but the end is sure’; and he reined his horse back for a second rush.
The hours passed by, and the sun grew high in the heavens, but the flashing of swords never ceased, and the watchers of the fight could hardly breathe. Once the chevalier was thrown right on to his horse’s neck, and was forced to cling to it lest he should fall to the ground. Once again — and here a murmur of terror could be heard in the crowd — a blow on his head rendered him sick and dizzy, and the charger carried him three times round the lists while he sat grasping the bridle, unconscious where he was and what he was doing. But after all, the swift rush through the air brought back his senses, and, by the time the black king was expecting that one more thrust would gain him the day, the knight spurred his horse quickly to one side, and, taking his adversary unawares, swept him dead from his saddle.
Then at last the silence was broken, and a roar of triumph and relief burst from the crowd.
Slowly the young man turned and rode along the lists, pausing before the lady Radimere as she sat by the sultan.
‘You are free, princess,’ he said, as he lifted his vizor; and with those words he disappeared in the crowd, before anyone had time to stop him.
It was whispered, perhaps truly, that the princess Radimere would fain have made him her husband, and have given him lordship over her island; but all we know for certain is that she returned there alone, and soon after married the son of a neighbouring king.
[L’Histoire Admirable du Chevalier du Soleil. Traduite de l’Espagnol par Louis Douet.]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57