THE ROMANCE OF MEXICO
swept like a storm-cloud across the straits of Gibraltar the Moors or Saracens. Swift were the steeds and keen the scimitars of these fierce soldiers of Islam, and strange and bewildering their way of fighting. For seven days did Roderic and his knights wage desperate battle against the infidel invaders. Each day the Saracens triumphed, and on the eighth, when the king himself was slain, the banner of Spain was torn to shreds, and the standard of the Cross was trodden under foot. Thenceforth the Moslem ruled supreme in Spain, for broken and scattered was the Gothic chivalry, and the mass of the people, ground down by years of oppression, cared little for a change of masters.
A few brave spirits there were who refused thus tamely to submit. To the mountains of the Asturias fled "old Pelayo," beloved of Spanish song. There he dwelt with his followers in the dark recesses of a cave which could only be approached by a ladder of ninety steps. Wild honey at first was almost their only food, and many died of hunger, until they numbered at last but thirty men and ten women.
"What are thirty barbarians, perched up on a rock?" said the Moors contemptuously; "they must inevitably die!" But in spite of incredible hardships the refugees lived on, growing year by year in numbers and in strength, until they became a terror to all the country-side. Their life of peril and isolation, with every man their foe, made them savage and ruthless, wild and ignorant. No chance had they to acquire the refinement and civilisation with which the Moors were endowing Spain. In the fertile