An old legend says that there was once a king named Robert of Sicily, who was brother to the great Pope of Rome and to the Emperor of Allemaine. He was a very selfish king, and very proud; he cared more for his pleasures than for the needs of his people, and his heart was so filled with his own greatness that he had no thought for God.
One day, this proud king was sitting in his place at church, at vesper service; his courtiers were about him, in their bright garments, and he himself was dressed in his royal robes. The choir was chanting the Latin service, and as the beautiful voices swelled louder, the king noticed one particular verse which seemed to be repeated again and again. He turned to a learned clerk at his side and asked what those words meant, for he knew no Latin.
"They mean, 'He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and hath exalted them of low degree,'" answered the clerk.
"It is well the words are in Latin, then," said the king angrily, "for they are a lie. There is no power on earth or in heaven which can put me down from my seat!" And he sneered at the beautiful singing, as he leaned back in his place.
Presently the king fell asleep, while the service went on. He slept deeply and long. When he awoke the church was dark and still, and he was all alone. He, the king, had been left alone in the church, to awake in the dark! He was furious with rage and surprise, and, stumbling through the dim aisles, he reached the great doors and beat at them, madly, shouting for his servants.
The old sexton heard some one shouting and pounding in the church, and thought it was some drunken vagabond who had stolen in during the service. He came to the door with his keys and called out, "Who is there?"
"Open! open! It is I, the king!" came a hoarse, angry voice from within.
"It is a crazy man," thought the sexton; and he was frightened. He opened the doors carefully and stood back, peering into the darkness. Out past him rushed the figure of a man in tattered, scanty clothes, with unkempt hair and white, wild face. The sexton did not know that he had ever seen him before, but he looked long after him, wondering at his wildness and his haste.
In his fluttering rags, without hat or cloak, not knowing what strange thing had happened to him, King Robert rushed to his palace gates, pushed aside the startled servants, and hurried, blind with rage, up the wide stair and through the great corridors, toward the room where he could hear the sound of his courtiers' voices. Men and women servants tried to stop the ragged man, who had somehow got into the palace, but Robert did not even see them as he fled along. Straight to the open doors of the big banquet hall he made his way, and into the midst of the grand feast there.
The great hall was filled with lights and flowers; the tables were set with everything that is delicate and rich to eat; the courtiers, in their gay clothes, were laughing and talking; and at the head of the feast, on the king's own throne, sat a king. His face, his figure, his voice were exactly like Robert of Sicily; no human being could have told the difference; no one dreamed that he was not the king. He was dressed in the king's royal robes, he wore the royal crown, and on his hand was the king's own ring. Robert of Sicily, half naked, ragged, without a sign of his kingship on him, stood before the throne and stared with fury at this figure of himself.
The king on the throne looked at him. "Who art thou, and what dost thou here?" he asked. And though his voice was just like Robert's own, it had something in it sweet and deep, like the sound of bells.
"I am the king!" cried Robert of Sicily. "I am the king, and you are an impostor!"
The courtiers started from their seats, and drew their swords. They would have killed the crazy man who insulted their king; but he raised his hand and stopped them, and with his eyes looking into Robert's eyes he said, "Not the king; you shall be the king's jester! You shall wear the cap and bells, and make laughter for my court. You shall be the servant of the servants, and your companion shall be the jester's ape."
With shouts of laughter, the courtiers drove Robert of Sicily from the banquet hall; the waiting-men, with laughter, too, pushed him into the soldiers' hall; and there the pages brought the jester's wretched ape, and put a fool's cap and bells on Robert's head. It was like a terrible dream; he could not believe it true, he could not understand what had happened to him. And when he woke next morning, he believed it was a dream, and that he was king again. But as he turned his head, he felt the coarse straw under his cheek instead of the soft pillow, and he saw that he was in the stable, with the shivering ape by his side. Robert of Sicily was a jester, and no one knew him for the king.
Three long years passed. Sicily was happy and all things went well under the king, who was not Robert. Robert was still the jester, and his heart was harder and bitterer with every year. Many times, during the three years, the king, who had his face and voice, had called him to himself, when none else could hear, and had asked him the one question, "Who art thou?" And each time that he asked it his eyes looked into Robert's eyes, to find his heart. But each time Robert threw back his head and answered, proudly, "I am the king!" And the king's eyes grew sad and stern.
At the end of three years, the Pope bade the Emperor of Allemaine and the King of Sicily, his brothers, to a great meeting in his city of Rome. The King of Sicily went, with all his soldiers and courtiers and servants,—a great procession of horsemen and footmen. Never had been a gayer sight than the grand train, men in bright armor, riders in wonderful cloaks of velvet and silk, servants, carrying marvelous presents to the Pope. And at the very end rode Robert, the jester. His horse was a poor old thing, many-colored, and the ape rode with him. Every one in the villages through which they passed ran after the jester, and pointed and laughed.
The Pope received his brothers and their trains in the square before Saint Peter's. With music and flags and flowers he made the King of Sicily welcome, and greeted him as his brother. In the midst of it, the jester broke through the crowd and threw himself before the Pope. "Look at me!" he cried; "I am your brother, Robert of Sicily! This man is an impostor, who has stolen my throne. I am Robert, the king!"
The Pope looked at the poor jester with pity, but the Emperor of Allemaine turned to the King of Sicily, and said, "Is it not rather dangerous, brother, to keep a madman as jester?" And again Robert was pushed back among the serving-men.
It was Holy Week, and the king and the emperor, with all their trains, went every day to the great services in the cathedral. Something wonderful and holy seemed to make all these services more beautiful than ever before. All the people of Rome felt it: it was as if the presence of an angel were there. Men thought of God, and felt his blessing on them. But no one knew who it was that brought the beautiful feeling. And when Easter Day came, never had there been so lovely, so holy a day: in the great churches, filled with flowers, and sweet with incense, the kneeling people listened to the choirs singing, and it was like the voices of angels; their prayers were more earnest than ever before, their praise more glad; there was something heavenly in Rome.
Robert of Sicily went to the services with the rest, and sat in the humblest place with the servants. Over and over again he heard the sweet voices of the choirs chant the Latin words he had heard long ago: "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted them of low degree." And at last, as he listened, his heart was softened. He, too, felt the strange blessed presence of a heavenly power. He thought of God, and of his own wickedness; he remembered how happy he had been, and how little good he had done; he realized, that his power had not been from himself, at all. On Easter night, as he crept to his bed of straw, he wept, not because he was so wretched, but because he had not been a better king when power was his.
At last all the festivities were over, and the King of Sicily went home to his own land again, with his people. Robert the jester came home too.
On the day of their home-coming, there was a special service in the royal church, and even after the service was over for the people, the monks held prayers of thanksgiving and praise. The sound of their singing came softly in at the palace windows. In the great banquet room, the king sat, wearing his royal robes and his crown, while many subjects came to greet him. At last, he sent them all away, saying he wanted to be alone; but he commanded the jester to stay. And when they were alone together the king looked into Robert's eyes, as he had done before, and said, softly, "Who art thou?"
Robert of Sicily bowed his head. "Thou knowest best," he said, "I only know that I have sinned."
As he spoke, he heard the voices of the monks singing, "He hath put down the mighty from their seat,"—and his head sank lower. But suddenly the music seemed to change; a wonderful light shone all about. As Robert raised his eyes, he saw the face of the king smiling at him with a radiance like nothing on earth, and as he sank to his knees before the glory of that smile, a voice sounded with the music, like a melody throbbing on a single string:—
"I am an angel, and thou art the king!"
Then Robert of Sicily was alone. His royal robes were upon him once more; he wore his crown and his royal ring. He was king. And when the courtiers came back they found their king kneeling by his throne, absorbed in silent prayer.