by Anatole France
The Emperor Charlemagne and his twelve peers, having taken the
palmer's staff at Saint-Denis, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They
prostrated themselves before the tomb of Our Lord, and sat in the
thirteen chairs of the great hall wherein Jesus Christ and his Apostles
met together to celebrate the blessed sacrifice of the Mass. Then they
fared to Constantinople, being fain to see King Hugo, who was renowned
for his magnificence.
The King welcomed them in his Palace, where, beneath a golden dome,
birds of ruby, wrought with a wondrous art, sat and sang in bushes of
He seated the Emperor of France and the twelve Counts about a table
loaded with stags, boars, cranes, wild geese, and peacocks, served in
pepper. And he offered his guests, in ox-horns, the wines of Greece and
Asia to drink. Charlemagne and his companions quaffed all these wines
in honour of the King and his daughter, the Princess Helen. After
supper Hugo led them to the chamber where they were to sleep. Now this
chamber was circular, and a column, springing in the midst thereof,
carried the vaulted roof. Nothing could be finer to look upon. Against
the walls, which were hung with gold and purple, twelve beds were
ranged, while another greater than the rest stood beside the pillar.
Charlemagne lay in this, and the Counts stretched themselves round
about him on the others. The wine they had drunk ran hot in their
veins, and their brains were afire. They could not sleep, and fell to
making brags instead, and laying of wagers, as is the way of the
knights of France, each striving to outdo the other in warranting
himself to do some doughty deed for to manifest his prowess. The
Emperor opened the game. He said:
Let them fetch me, a-horseback and fully armed, the best knight
King Hugo hath. I will lift my sword and bring it down upon him in such
wise it shall cleave helm and hauberk, saddle and steed, and the blade
shall delve a foot deep underground.
Guillaume d'Orange spake up after the Emperor and made the second
I will take, said he, a ball of iron sixty men can scarce lift,
and hurl it so mightily against the Palace wall that it shall beat down
sixty fathoms' length thereof.
Ogier, the Dane, spake next.
Ye see yon proud pillar which bears up the vault. To-morrow will I
tear it down and break it like a straw.
After which Renaud de Montauban cried with an oath:
'Od's life! Count Ogier, whiles you overset the pillar, I will clap
the dome on my shoulders and hale it down to the seashore.
Gérard de Rousillon it was made the fifth brag.
He boasted he would uproot single-handed, in one hour, all the trees
in the Royal pleasaunce.
Aimer took up his parable when Gérard was done.
I have a magic hat, said he, made of a sea-calf's skin, which
renders me invisible. I will set it on my head, and to-morrow, whenas
King Hugo is seated at meat, I will eat up his fish and drink down his
wine, I will tweak his nose and buffet his ears. Not knowing whom or
what to blame, he will clap all his serving-men in gaol and scourge
them sore,and we shall laugh.
For me, declared Huon de Bordeaux, whose turn it was, for me, I
am so nimble I will trip up to the King and cut off his beard and
eyebrows without his knowing aught about the matter. 'T is a piece of
sport I will show you to-morrow. And I shall have no need of a sea-calf
Doolin de Mayence made his brag too. He promised to eat up in one
hour all the figs and all the oranges and all the lemons in the King's
Next the Due Naisme said in this wise:
By my faith! I will go into the banquet hall, I will catch
up flagons and cups of gold and fling them so high they will never
light down again save to tumble into the moon.
Bernard de Brabant then lifted his great voice:
I will do better yet, he roared. Ye know the river that flows by
Constantinople is broad and deep, for it is come nigh its mouth by
then, after traversing Egypt, Babylon, and the Earthly Paradise. Well,
I will turn it from its bed and make it flood the Great Square of the
Gérard de Viane said:
Put a dozen knights in line of array. And I will tumble all the
twelve on their noses, only by the wind of my sword.
It was the Count Roland laid the twelfth wager, in the fashion
I will take my horn, I will go forth of the city and I will blow
such a blast all the gates of the town will drop from their hinges.
Olivier alone had said no word yet. He was young and courteous, and
the Emperor loved him dearly.
Olivier, my son, he asked, will you not make your brag like the
rest of us?
Right willingly, sire, Olivier replied.
Do you know the name of Hercules of Greece?
Yea, I have heard some discourse of him, said Charlemagne. He was
an idol of the misbelievers, like the false god Mahound.
Not so, sire, said Olivier. Hercules of Greece was a knight among
the Pagans and King of a Pagan kingdom. He was a gallant champion and
stoutly framed in all his limbs. Visiting the Court of a certain
Emperor who had fifty daughters, virgins, he wedded them all on one and
the same night, and that so well and throughly that next morning they
all avowed themselves well-contented women and with naught left to
learn. He had not slighted ever a one of them. Well, sire, an you will,
I will lay my wager to do after the fashion of Hercules of Greece.
Nay, beware, Olivier, my son, cried the Emperor, beware what you
do; the thing would be a sin. I felt sure this King Hercules was a
Sire, returned Olivier, know thisI warrant me to show in the
same space of time the selfsame prowess with one virgin that Herailes
of Greece did with fifty. And the maid shall be none other but the
Princess Helen, King Hugo's daughter.
Good and well, agreed Charlemagne; that will be to deal honestly
and as a good Christian should. But you were in the wrong, my son, to
drag the fifty virgins of King Hercules into your business, wherein,
the Devil fly away with me else, I can see but one to be concerned.
Sire, answered Olivier mildly, there is but one of a truth. But
she shall win such satisfaction of me that, an I number the tokens of
my love, you will to-morrow see fifty crosses scored on the wall, and
that is my brag.
The Count Olivier was yet speaking when lo! the column which bare
the vault opened. The pillar was hollow and contrived in such sort that
a man could lie hid therein at his ease to see and hear everything.
Charlemagne and the twelve Counts had never a notion of this; so they
were sore surprised to behold the King of Constantinople step forth. He
was white with anger and his eyes flashed fire.
He said in a terrible voice:
So this is how ye show your gratitude for the hospitality I offer
you. Ye are ill-mannered guests. For a whole hour have ye been
insulting me with your bragging wagers. Well, know this,you, Sir
Emperor, and ye, his knights; if to-morrow ye do not all of you make
good your boasts, I will have your heads cut off.
Having said his say, he stepped back within the pillar, which shut
to again closely behind him. For a while the twelve paladins were dumb
with wonder and consternation. The Emperor was the first to break the
Comrades, he said, 'tis true we have bragged too freely. Mayhap
we have spoken things better unsaid. We have drunk overmuch wine, and
have shown unwisdom. The chiefest fault is mine; I am your Emperor, and
I gave you the bad example. I will devise with you to-morrow of the
means whereby we may save us from this perilous pass; meantime, it
behoves us to get to sleep. I wish you a good night. God have you in
A moment later the Emperor and the twelve peers were snoring under
their coverlets of silk and cloth of gold.
They awoke on the morrow, their minds still distraught and deeming
the thing was but a nightmare. But anon soldiers came to lead them to
the Palace, that they might make good their brags before the King's
Come, cried the Emperor, come; and let us pray God and His Holy
Mother. By Our Lady's help shall we easily make good our brags.
He marched in front with a more than human majesty of port. Arriving
anon at the King's Palace, Charlemagne, Naisme, Aimer, Huon, Doolin,
Guillaume, Ogier, Bernard, Renaud, the two Gérards, and Roland fell on
their knees and, joining their hands in prayer, made this supplication
to the Holy Virgin:
Lady, which art in Paradise, look on us now in our extremity; for
love of the Realm of the Lilies, which is thine own, protect the
Emperor of France and his twelve peers, and give them the puissance to
make good their brags.
Thereafter they rose up comforted and fulfilled of bright courage
and gallant confidence, for they knew that Our Lady would answer their
King Hugo, seated on a golden throne, accosted them, saying:
The hour is come to make good your brags. But an if ye fail so to
do, I will have your heads cut off. Begone therefore, straightway,
escorted by my men-at-arms, each one of you to the place meet for the
doing of the fine things ye have insolently boasted ye will
At this order they separated and went divers ways, each followed by
a little troop of armed men. Whiles some returned to the hall where
they had passed the night, others betook them to the gardens and
orchards. Bernard de Brabant made for the river, Roland hied him to the
ramparts, and all marched valiantly. Only Olivier and Charlemagne
tarried in the Palace, waiting, the one for the knight that he had
sworn to cleave in twain, the other for the maiden he was to wed.
But in very brief while a fearful sound arose, awful as the last
trump that shall proclaim to mankind the end of the world. It reached
the Great Hall of the Palace, set the birds of ruby trembling on their
emerald perches and shook King Hugo on his throne of gold.
'Twas a noise of walls crumbling into ruin and floods roaring, and
high above the din blared out an ear-splitting trumpet blast. Meanwhile
messengers had come hurrying in from all quarters of the city, and
thrown themselves trembling at the King's feet, bearing strange and
Sire, said one, sixty fathoms' length of the city walls is fallen
in at one crash.
Sire, cried another, the pillar which bare up your vaulted hall
is broken down, and the dome thereof we have seen walking like a
tortoise toward the sea.
Sire, faltered a third, the river, with its ships and its fishes,
is pouring through the streets, and will soon be beating against your
King Hugo, white with terror, muttered:
By my faith! these men are wizards.
Well, Sir King, Charlemagne addressed him with a smile on his
lips, the Knight I wait for is long of coming.
The King sent for him, and he came. He was a knight of stately
stature and well armed. The good Emperor clave him in twain, as he had
Now while these things were a-doing, Olivier thought to himself:
The intervention of Our Most Blessed Lady is plain to see in these
marvels; and I am rejoiced to behold the manifest tokens she vouchsafes
of her love for the Realm of France. Not in vain have the Emperor and
his companions implored the succour of the Holy Virgin, Mother of God.
Alas! I shall pay for all the rest, and have my head cut off.
For I cannot well ask the Virgin Mary to help me make good my
brag. 'Tis an enterprise of a sort wherein 'twould be indiscreet to
crave the interference of Her who is the Lily of Purity, the
Tower of Ivory, the Guarded Door and the Fenced
Orchard-Close. And, lacking aid from on high, I am sore afraid I
may not do so much as I have said.
Thus ran Olivier's thoughts, when King Hugo roughly accosted him
with the words:
'T is now your turn, Count, to fulfil your promise.
Sire, replied Olivier, I am waiting with great impatience for the
Princess your daughter. For you must needs do me the priceless grace of
giving me her hand.
That is but fair, said King Hugo. I will therefore bid her come
to you and a chaplain with her for to celebrate the marriage.
At church, during the ceremony, Olivier reflected:
The maid is sweet and comely as ever a man could desire, and too
fain am I to clip her in my arms to regret the brag I have made.
That evening, after supper, the Princess Helen and the Count Olivier
were escorted by twelve ladies and twelve knights to a chamber, wherein
the twain were left alone together.
There they passed the night, and on the morrow guards came and led
them both before King Hugo. He was on his throne, surrounded by his
knights. Near by stood Charlemagne and the peers.
Well, Count Olivier, demanded the King, is your brag made good?
Olivier held his peace, and already was King Hugo rejoiced at heart
to think his new son-in-law's head must fall. For of all the brags and
boasts, it was Olivier's had angered him worst.
Answer, he stormed. Do you dare to tell me your brag is
Thereupon the Princess Helen, blushing and smiling, spake with eyes
downcast and in a faint voice, yet clear withal, and said,Yea!
Right glad were Charlemagne and the peers to hear the Princess say
Well, well, said Hugo, these Frenchmen have God and the Devil o'
their side. It was fated I should cut off none of these knights'
heads.... Come hither, son-in-law,and he stretched forth his hand to
Olivier, who kissed it.
The Emperor Charlemagne embraced the Princess and said to her:
Helen, I hold you for my daughter and my son's wife. You will go
along with us to France, and you will live at our Court.
Then, as his lips lay on the Princess's cheek, he rounded softly in
You spake as a loving-hearted woman should. But tell me this in
closest confidence,Did you speak the truth?
Sire, Olivier is a gallant man and a courteous. He was so full of
pretty ways and dainty devices for to distract my mind, I never
thought of counting. Nor yet did he keep score. Needs therefore
must I hold him quit of his promise.
King Hugo made great rejoicings for his daughter's nuptials.
Thereafter Charlemagne and his twelve peers returned back to France,
taking with them the Princess Helen.