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- A Book of Golden Deeds - 6/51 -


Borne by the joyous crowd.

'They gave him of the corn land, That was of public right, As much as two strong oxen Could plough from morn to night. And they made a molten image, And set it up on high, And there it stands unto this day, To witness if I lie.

'It stands in the Comitium, Plain for all folk to see, Horatius in his harness, Halting upon his knee: And underneath is written, In letters all of gold, How valiantly he kept the bridge In the brave days of old.'

Never was more honorable surname than his, of Cocles, or the one-eyed; and though his lameness prevented him from ever being a Consul, or leading an army, he was so much beloved and honored by his fellow citizens, that in the time of a famine each Roman, to the number of 300,000, brought him a day's food, lest he should suffer want. The statue was shown even in the time of Pliny, 600 years afterwards, and was probably only destroyed when Rome was sacked by the barbarians.

Nor was the Roman bridge the only one that has been defended by one man against a host. In our own country, Stamford Bridge was, in like manner, guarded by a single brave Northman, after the battle fought A.D. 1066, when Earl Tostig, the son of Godwin, had persuaded the gallant sea king, Harald Hardrada, to come and invade England. The chosen English king, Harold, had marched at full speed from Sussex to Yorkshire, and met the invaders marching at their ease, without expecting any enemy, and wearing no defensive armor, as they went forth to receive the keys of the city of York. The battle was fought by the Norsemen in the full certainty that it must be lost. The banner, 'Landwaster', was planted in the midst; and the king, chanting his last song, like the minstrel warrior he had always been, stood, with his bravest men, in a death ring around it. There he died, and his choicest warriors with him; but many more fled back towards the ships, rushing over the few planks that were the only way across the River Ouse. And here stood their defender, alone upon the bridge, keeping back the whole pursuing English army, who could only attack him one at a time; until, with shame be it spoken, he died by a cowardly blow by an enemy, who had crept down the bank of the river, and under the bridge, through the openings between the timbers of which he thrust up his spear, and thus was able to hurl the brave Northman into the river, mortally wounded, but not till great numbers of his countrymen had reached their ships, their lives saved by his gallantry.

In like manner, Robert Bruce, in the time of his wanderings, during the year 1306, saved his whole band by his sole exertions. He had been defeated by the forces of Edward I. at Methven, and had lost many of his friends. His little army went wandering among the hills, sometimes encamping in the woods, sometimes crossing the lakes in small boats. Many ladies were among them, and their summer life had some wild charms of romance; as the knightly huntsmen brought in the salmon, the roe, and the deer that formed their food, and the ladies gathered the flowering heather, over which soft skins were laid for their bedding. Sir James Douglas was the most courtly and graceful knight of all the party, and ever kept them enlivened by his gay temper and ready wit; and the king himself cherished a few precious romances, which he used to read aloud to his followers as they rested in their mountain home.

But their bitter foe, the Lord of Lorn, was always in pursuit of them, and, near the head of the Tay, he came upon the small army of 300 men with 1000 Highlanders, armed with Lochaber axes, at a place which is still called Dalry, or the King's Field. Many of the horses were killed by the axes; and James Douglas and Gilbert de la Haye were both wounded. All would have been slain or fallen into the hand of the enemy, if Robert Bruce had not sent them all on before him, up a narrow, steep path, and placed himself, with his armor and heavy horse, full in the path, protecting the retreat with his single arm. It was true, that so tall and powerful a man, sheathed in armor and on horseback, had a great advantage against the wild Highlanders, who only wore a shirt and a plaid, with a round target upon the arm; but they were lithe, active, light-footed men, able to climb like goats on the crags around him, and holding their lives as cheaply as he did.

Lorn, watching him from a distance, was struck with amazement, and exclaimed, 'Methinks, Marthokson, he resembles Gol Mak Morn protecting his followers from Fingal;' thus comparing him to one the most brilliant champions a Highland imagination could conceive. At last, three men, named M'Androsser, rushed forward, resolved to free their chief from this formidable enemy. There was a lake on one side, and a precipice on the other, and the king had hardly space to manage his horse, when all three sprang on him at once. One snatched his bridle, one caught him by the stirrup and leg, and a third leaped from a rising ground and seated himself behind him on his horse. The first lost his arm by one sweep of the king's sword; the second was overthrown and trampled on; and the last, by a desperate struggle, was dashed down, and his skull cleft by the king's sword; but his dying grasp was so tight upon the plaid that Bruce was forced to unclasp the brooch that secured it, and leave both in the dead man's hold. It was long preserved by the Macdougals of Lorn, as a trophy of the narrow escape of their enemy.

Nor must we leave Robert the Bruce without mentioning that other Golden Deed, more truly noble because more full of mercy; namely, his halting his little army in full retreat in Ireland in the face of the English host under Roger Mortimer, that proper care and attendance might be given to one sick and suffering washerwoman and her new-born babe. Well may his old Scotch rhyming chronicler remark:--

'This was a full great courtesy That swilk a king and so mighty, Gert his men dwell on this manner, But for a poor lavender.'

We have seen how the sturdy Roman fought for his city, the fierce Northman died to guard his comrades' rush to their ships after the lost battle, and how the mail-clad knightly Bruce periled himself to secure the retreat of his friends. Here is one more instance, from far more modern times, of a soldier, whose willing sacrifice of his own life was the safety of a whole army. It was in the course of the long dismal conflict between Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria, which was called the Seven Years' War. Louis XV. of France had taken the part of Austria, and had sent an army into Germany in the autumn of 1760. From this the Marquis de Castries had been dispatched, with 25,000 men, towards Rheinberg, and had taken up a strong position at Klostercamp. On the night of the 15th of October, a young officer, called the Chevalier d'Assas, of the Auvergne regiment, was sent out to reconnoitre, and advanced alone into a wood, at some little distance from his men. Suddenly he found himself surrounded by a number of soldiers, whose bayonets pricked his breast, and a voice whispered in his ear, 'Make the slightest noise, and you are a dead man!' In one moment he understood it all. The enemy were advancing, to surprise the French army, and would be upon them when night was further advanced. That moment decided his fate. He shouted, as loud as his voice would carry the words, 'Here, Auvergne! Here are the enemy!' By the time the cry reached the ears of his men, their captain was a senseless corpse; but his death had saved the army; the surprise had failed, and the enemy retreated.

Louis XV was too mean-spirited and selfish to feel the beauty of this brave action; but when, fourteen years later, Louis XVI came to the throne, he decreed that a pension should be given to the family as long as a male representative remained to bear the name of D'Assas. Poor Louis XVI had not long the control of the treasure of France; but a century of changes, wars, and revolutions has not blotted out the memory of the self-devotion of the chevalier; for, among the new war-steamers of the French fleet, there is one that bears the ever-honored name of D'Assas.

THE PASS OF THERMOPYLAE

B.C. 430

There was trembling in Greece. 'The Great King', as the Greeks called the chief potentate of the East, whose domains stretched from the Indian Caucasus to the Aegaeus, from the Caspian to the Red Sea, was marshalling his forces against the little free states that nestled amid the rocks and gulfs of the Eastern Mediterranean. Already had his might devoured the cherished colonies of the Greeks on the eastern shore of the Archipelago, and every traitor to home institutions found a ready asylum at that despotic court, and tried to revenge his own wrongs by whispering incitements to invasion. 'All people, nations, and languages,' was the commencement of the decrees of that monarch's court; and it was scarcely a vain boast, for his satraps ruled over subject kingdoms, and among his tributary nations he counted the Chaldean, with his learning and old civilization, the wise and steadfast Jew, the skilful Phoenician, the learned Egyptian, the wild, free-booting Arab of the desert, the dark-skinned Ethiopian, and over all these ruled the keen-witted, active native Persian race, the conquerors of all the rest, and led by a chosen band proudly called the Immortal. His many capitals-- Babylon the great, Susa, Persepolis, and the like--were names of dreamy splendor to the Greeks, described now and then by Ionians from Asia Minor who had carried their tribute to the king's own feet, or by courtier slaves who had escaped with difficulty from being all too serviceable at the tyrannic court. And the lord of this enormous empire was about to launch his countless host against the little cluster of states, the whole of which together would hardly equal one province of the huge Asiatic realm! Moreover, it was a war not only on the men but on their gods. The Persians were zealous adorers of the sun and of fire, they abhorred the idol worship of the Greeks, and defiled and plundered every temple that fell in their way. Death and desolation were almost the best that could be looked for at such hands--slavery and torture from cruelly barbarous masters would only too surely be the lot of numbers, should their land fall a prey to the conquerors.

True it was that ten years back the former Great King had sent his best troops to be signally defeated upon the coast of Attica; but the losses at Marathon had but stimulated the Persian lust of conquest, and the new King Xerxes was gathering together such myriads of men as should crush down the Greeks and overrun their country by mere force of numbers.

The muster place was at Sardis, and there Greek spies had seen the multitudes assembling and the state and magnificence of the king's attendants. Envoys had come from him to demand earth and water from each state in Greece, as emblems that land and sea were his, but each state was resolved to be free, and only Thessaly, that which lay first in his


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