O NE afternoon late in the summer all the children of Aachen were racing and chasing through its crooked streets and looking eagerly down the long road beyond that stretched away to the south. Even the grown folks were coming to their doors and standing as if they expected to see something.
Soon Rainolf and the palace pages came hurrying along, and as they passed a black-beamed house where an old man was blinking at the window, "Master Leobard," said Rainolf, "do you know when they are coming?"
"No, lad," answered the old astrologer, "but the stars say the King is to receive a present soon, so I dare say it will be along by and by." And muttering to himself he went back to tending a fire in a queer earthen stove where in some curious vessels he was trying, as did many people then, to make gold out of something else and, of course, not succeeding.
"Master Leobard says the stars told him," laughed one of the boys, "but maybe the runner that came to the palace last night had fresher news."
"Where did that runner come from?" asked another.
"I think from the nearest town south of here," said Aymon. "You know he came to tell the King some people are on the way here bringing him something, I didn't hear what."
"I guess he told all the town folks, too," said Rainolf, "from the way they are on the look-out!"
By this time they had come to the edge of Aachen. "Let's go down the road a piece," said Aymon. "Surely they will have to come this way."
So on they loitered past little thatched huts here and there in the fields, where the peasant folk lived. Presently, "I'm thirsty!" said one of the boys; "let's go over to that hut and get a drink."
When they reached it and looked in at the door a gust of smoke blew in their faces from an open fire on the bare earthen floor. Over this was an iron pot full of thin soup which a woman was stirring with one hand as she held in her arms a shock-headed baby dressed in homespun. At one side of the room were two or three wooden troughs filled with straw which were the family beds. In the middle of the floor a block of wood made from the stump of a tree did for table and came handy also when they needed to cut bread, which was always so coarse and hard that when they wanted any the father usually had to chop off pieces with his ax.
When the boys asked the woman for a drink, she handed them a gourd and pointed toward a tree in a near-by field; and scampering over there they found a spring of good water. When they returned the gourd, "Aren't you going over to the road?" asked Aymon.
But she only stared at him without answering. For the Frankish peasants knew but little beyond ploughing the fields with their rude ploughs and toiling for a bare living. And the hut was not poorer than most of the others dotting the country.
But the boys had already hurried off, for "Look!" cried Rainolf, pointing down the road, "there they come!"
Sure enough, a number of people were coming toward them. Some were riding spirited Arabian horses and some walking, all had black eyes and hair, quite different from the Franks, and all had on large turbans and flowing robes such as people wear in the Far East. Some were leading pack-horses with bulging saddle-bags, but in the midst of them came the most amazing thing of all! It was a huge animal with a wrinkly gray skin, wide flapping ears, little shrewd black eyes, and thick legs with toes like the scallops of an enormous pinking-iron—but hear the boys,
"Do look at that outlandish beast!"
"What on earth do you suppose it is?"
"Is that a tail hanging where its mouth belongs? Look! Look! how it keeps curling it up and poking it around!"
"My, but that's a grand red seat on its back!"
"Wouldn't you think that man with the queer clothes would tumble out? See how it rocks when the beast walks!"
"Do you think the man is guiding it with that long wand, or do you suppose he is a magician?"
"Pshaw!" you say. "Why, it was just a circus procession, and didn't those silly boys know an elephant when they saw it?"
Well, you are quite mistaken; for it was no circus procession even if there was an elephant in it. Indeed, none of the Franks had ever heard of such a thing as a circus; while as for elephants, most of them would have been far less surprised if a dragon had come flying out of the forest, for they knew much more about dragons—or thought they did.
No, the people coming along the road were messengers from Haroun-al-Raschid, the great Caliph of Bagdad, ever and ever so far away in Asia. (If you have read your Arabian Nights stories you know all about the great Caliph; and, if you don't know, you had best hurry up and find out.) Now, Haroun-al-Raschid and the mighty Charlemagne, though they had never met, were very good friends and admired each other greatly. Some time before, the King had sent messengers bearing handsome presents and good wishes to the Caliph. It had taken over three years to reach Bagdad, for it was then a long and dangerous journey; while they were there the Caliph, who wished after a while to send gifts in return, asked them what they thought the King would like, and they said they knew one thing Charlemagne wanted dreadfully and that was an elephant.
So, by and by, when Haroun-al-Raschid sent his own messengers to bear presents and his good wishes to the King, he remembered about the elephant and took care to send an extra big fine one. And at last, after a long long journey, here it was tramping along the road almost to Aachen!
Of course the boys all ran along behind as the procession wound through the town, the strangers looking curiously about, the Arab horses daintily picking their way over the rough stones, and the elephant lumbering steadily along and all the while peering around with his sharp little eyes.
And how the town folks said, "Oh!" and "Ah!" and "What do you think that queer animal is?" till they reached the palace where the strangers dismounted in the courtyard. They unpacked the bulging saddle-bags which were full of presents, and with these in their arms they were taken to the great hall of the palace where Charlemagne received them with kindness and honor. And soon he himself came out to see the wonderful elephant, which seemed to delight him more than anything else.
The boys stayed around as close as they dared, and, when presently, the elephant was led off to a special stall in the royal stables, they followed.
"What a magnificent embroidered cloth that is hanging over his back!" said Rainolf.
"Yes," said another boy, "those pearls and jewels sewed on it must have cost a lot!"
"How do you suppose he eats, with that queer tail on his mouth?" said Ayrron. "Let's watch what they feed him."
And they had great fun seeing everything that was done for him and getting acquainted with the Bagdad elephant, who was to live in Aachen for nine years and be the chief pride of Charlemagne in all the royal processions of the time. He was even to go to war with him and carry the King's own baggage on his broad back.
Meantime, while the boys were off in the stables, the other rich presents sent by the Caliph were being displayed and discussed by everybody.
"Have you seen the wonderful clock?" said one to another.
"No, what is a clock?"
"It is something that tells the time of day!"
"Is it anything like our sun-dials or hour-glasses? "
"Not a bit! It is a kind of machine that runs by water. It is shaped like a tower with twelve windows, and they say that each hour the windows open and bronze horsemen ride out and then ride in again!"
"Yes, and there are splendid silks and gold embroideries, too, for the Queen and Princesses!"
"And such beautiful chess-men for the King
to play with! They are men riding on animals
like the one that came
"Oh, yes, and a wonderful silk tent, too! Big enough for dozens of men, but so fine I believe you could squeeze it up and carry it in your fist!"
So the tongues wagged, and, you may be sure, neither Rainolf nor any of the other boys missed seeing a single thing.