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Chapter 23

CHAPTER XXIII.
HUON OF BORDEAUX, CONTINUED.

HUON had seen many beauties at his mother's 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
Sherasmin's 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 knight's 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 lion's paw was raised over him, when a blow from Huon's
sword turned the monster's 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
Huon's 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 wellnigh 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 Sultan's 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 princess's 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 princess's beauty and
the bridegroom's 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 pretension. 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 Sultan's 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 Sultan's 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 fulfil 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
Oberon's 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. That 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 erelong
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. Gaudisso 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 father's
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 be 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 despotism. A courier arrived at the court of
the Sultan, bearing the ring of his sovereign, the mighty Agrapard,
Caliph of Arabia, and bringing the bowstring 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.

Thomas Bulfinch

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