"Good King Wenceslaus looked out
On the Feast of Saint Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even."
KING WENCESLAUS sat in his palace. He had been watching from the narrow window of the turret chamber where he was, the sunset as its glory hung for a moment in the western clouds, and then died away over the blue hills. Calm and cold was the brightness. A freezing haze came over the face of the land. The moon brightened towards the southwest and the leafless trees in the castle gardens and the quaint turret and spires of the castle itself threw clear dark shadows on the unspotted snow.
Still the king looked out upon the scene before him. The ground sloped down from the castle towards the forest. Here and there on the side of the hill a few bushes grey with moss broke the unvaried sheet of white. And as the king turned his eye in that direction a poor man came up to these bushes and pulled something from them.
"Come hither, page," called the king. One of the servants of the palace entered in answer to the king's call. "Come, my good Otto; come stand by me. Do you see yonder poor man on the hillside? Step down to him and learn who he is and where he dwells and what he is doing. Bring me word at once."
Otto went forth on his errand while the good king watched him go down the hill. Meanwhile, the frost grew more and more intense and an east wind blew from the black mountains. The snow became more crisp and the air more clear. In a few moments the messenger was back.
"Well, who is he?"
"Sire," said Otto, "it is Rudolph, the swineherd,—he that lives down by the Brunweis. Fire he has none, nor food, and he was gathering a few sticks where he might find them, lest, as he says, all his family perish with the cold. It is a most bitter night, Sire."
"This should have been better looked to," said the king. "A grievous fault it is that it has not been done. But it shall be amended now. Go to the ewery, Otto, and fetch some provisions of the best.
"Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither;
Thou and I will see him dine,
When we bear them hither."
"Is your Majesty going forth?" asked Otto in surprise.
"Yes, to the Brunweis, and you shall go with me. When you have everything ready meet me at the wood-stacks by the little chapel. Come, be speedy."
"I pray you, Sire, do not venture out yourself. Let some of the men-at-arms go forth. It is a freezing wind and the place is a good league hence."
"Nevertheless, I go," said the king. "Go with me, if you will, Otto; if not, stay. I can carry the food myself."
"God forbid, Sire, that I should let you go alone. But I pray you be persuaded."
"Not in this," said King Wenceslaus. "Meet me then where I said, and not a word to any one besides."
The noblemen of the court were in the palace hall, where a mighty fire went roaring up the chimney and the shadows played and danced on the steep sides of the dark roof. Gayly they laughed and lightly they talked. And as they threw fresh logs into the great chimney-place one said to another that so bitter a wind had never before been known in the land. But in the midst of that freezing night the king went forth.
"Page and Monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament,
And the bitter weather."
The king had put on no extra clothing to shelter himself from the nipping air; for he would feel with the poor that he might feel for them. On his shoulders he bore a heap of logs for the swineherd's fire. He stepped briskly on while Otto followed with the provisions. He had imitated his master and had gone out in his common garments. On the two trudged together, over the crisp snow, across fields, by lanes where the hedge trees were heavy with their white burden, past the pool, over the stile where the rime clustered thick by the wood, and on out upon the moor where the snow lay yet more unbroken and where the wind seemed to nip one's very heart.
Still King Wenceslaus went on and still Otto followed. The king thought it but little to go forth into the frost and snow, remembering Him who came into the cold night of this world of ours; he disdained not, a king, to go to the beggar, for had not the King of Kings visited slaves? He grudged not, a king, to carry logs on his shoulders, for had not the Kings of Kings borne heavier burdens for his sake?
But at each step Otto's courage and zeal failed. He tried to hold out with a good heart. For very shame he did not wish to do less than his master. How could he turn back, while the king held on his way? But when they came forth on the white, bleak moor, he cried out with a faint heart:
"My liege, I cannot go on. The wind freezes my very blood. Pray you, let us return."
"Seems it so much?" asked the king. "Follow me on still. Only tread in my footsteps and you will proceed more easily."
The servant knew that his master spoke not at random. He carefully looked for the footsteps of the king. He set his own feet in the print of his master's.
"In the master's steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed."
And so great was the fire of love that kindled in the heart of the king that, as the servant trod in his steps, he gained life and heat. Otto felt not the wind; he heeded not the frost; for the master's footprints glowed as with holy fire and zealously he followed the king on his errand of mercy.
|— Adapted from John Mason Neale|