Awaiting the Coming of the Kings
O, 'tis now the twelfth day since the Christmas bells
did peal forth their joy in the blessed Christ-child's
birth, and with this night ends the holy season which
we keep to do him honor; therefore on the morrow must
we cast in the fire our boughs of mistletoe and our
holly garlands, lest, as wise folk declare, the elves
and hob-goblins might do us mischief. And ever at this
time does there come
to my mind a strange story, which I will tell thee, my
child, if thou wilt harken; for the tale has to do with
the Babe who lay in the manger and with this day
whereon the Three Wise Kings of long ago did kneel
before him offering him their gifts of gold and
frankincense and myrrh. Surely thou knowest how they
came seeking him from their
Long and long ago, in the old province of Bourbonnaise, in the heart of France, there stood a great forest. Not far from one edge of this a rude wooden fence enclosed a bit of ground which surrounded the hut of a poor vine-dresser. Small and brown and weather-beaten it was, and its roof, thatched with straw, was heaped with snow; for the wintry day that was breaking was, even as is this day, the twelfth after Christmas. Still were starry flakes falling, drifting over the dark green boughs of the tall pines and hemlocks and hanging the bare branches of beech and chestnut trees with feathery garlands of white. Now and then did the wind, sweeping fitfully through the forest, send the smoke which curled from the clay chimney of the hut whirling about it in a blue cloud; and as one of these chilly gusts shook and rattled the door, suddenly it opened and there came out a little lad. A coarse smock of homespun he wore, and on his head was a knitted cap with a pointed top and swinging tassel. In one hand he carried a wisp of hay and in the other three small cakes of oaten meal sprinkled with a bit of barley sugar.
Eagerly the lad looked around, and then, passing through the gate of the little door-yard, hastened toward the sheet of drifted white which covered the highroad not far distant, his wooden shoes stuffed with straw making deep prints in the untrodden snow through which he went. When he reached the road, wistfully did he gaze up and down to where it wound away in the distance; but no marks could he see to tell of the passing of either man or beast.
For a few moments thus did he stand there, panting a little from his walk through the heavy snow and still watching the road. Then, by and by, he pricked up his ears to the sound of a silvery tinkling.
As nearer and nearer it drew, "Oh," he said to himself, his face brightening whilst the eager look deepened in his eyes, "it may be 'tis the camel-bells of the Kings." And he tried to hurry in the direction of the sound.
But his face fell when he passed a curve of the road and there was naught save the heavy two-wheeled cart of Peasant Coquillard; the big, shaggy horse, pulling it, at every step set ringing the little bell on top of the broad wooden collar which he wore.
Then did two quick tears of disappointment spring to the lad's eyes, but he brushed them away as, "Ho, Peasant Coquillard," he did call, "hast thou seen aught of the Three Wise Kings?"
"Well, well, son," answered the peasant with a kindly smile, "thou art up early." Then shaking his head sagely, "The Three Wise Kings?" he repeated. "Nay, Pepin, not on this road have I seen them; but two miles back, where it forks to go to Angers, sure was I that I did catch a glimpse of them."
"Didst thou?" asked Pepin quickly, his eagerness returning. "Were they all together, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazzar? And did they wear golden crowns and furred mantles, and were they of a truth riding on camels with little silver bells on their bridles? And, oh, Peasant Coquillard," the boy added, his voice shrill with excitement, "tell me, what manner of strange beast might be a camel?"
"Not so fast with thy questions, my child," replied Peasant Coquillard, rubbing his eyes a bit uncertainly. "Thou knowest these two hours has the snow been whirling down, so none can tell beyond a doubt the yea or nay of what he sees. But something there was, I saw, shining down the road to Angers, and it might have been their gold crowns—and I did hear a tinkling of bells, I dare say quite like camels wear, though to be sure never have I looked upon those strange beasts, seeing that I have never journeyed to the far countries the Wise Kings rule. 'Tis a pity, Pepin, thou couldst not have chosen the Angers road. But run home now, son, and mayhap next year thy luck will mend."
Why was Pepin watching for the Three Kings, dost thou ask, my child? Harken, and I will tell thee. It was when the dear Christ-child was twelve days old that the wonderful Star of the East did at last stand still over the stable of Bethlehem, and the royal riders found the Babe whom they had sought so far. Therefore in many parts of the world, and especially in the French land, is holiday made in memory of them, and 'tis called Twelfth Day, or the Feast of the Kings. And the French folk tell their children that early in the morning of that day again do the Kings ride on earth, even as they did when the Christ-child lay in the manger of Bethlehem, and that if the little ones will watch the highroads it might be they will see them.
That is why on Twelfth Day they hurry forth to look for the strange riders; and always do they fill their hands with the best of their Christmas goodies, which they keep to offer to the Kings, and with wisps of hay to feed the camels. For in the kindness of their hearts the little ones feel sure that all, both Kings and beasts, must be weary and hungry because of their long journeying from those far-away kingdoms whence they come. But the trouble is, none can tell of a truth which road the riders will take, so never are the children quite certain which one to follow.
Thus, on that Twelfth Day morning long ago, Pepin, though from what Peasant Coquillard had said he knew he had made a mistake, yet could he not help hoping that mayhap the Wise Kings might change their minds and after all come riding along the highroad where he stood. So, still gazing wistfully around, he waited a little longer.
Two miles away, in the wintry distance, was the old city of Angers, and in the sharp frosty air Pepin fancied he could hear the cathedral bells chiming for the holiday mass. But then, so intently was he harkening for the camels of the Kings that his ears seemed filled with the sound of bells; though, indeed, really might he have heard them ringing in the village of Bourbon, hidden beyond a far curve of the road and nestling, with its narrow, crooked streets and little houses with peaked roofs of thatch, close beneath the crag whereon towered the strong castle of the lord of the land, Duke Loys, or, as more often was he called by his vassals, "Loys the Good."
That was because he did rule them kindly and tried to better the lot of the poor peasants who tilled his fields and tended his flocks, and dressed the vines which in their season covered the hills with purple grapes. In those days the life of such humble folk of France was hard enough at best; for hundreds of years had their families ploughed and sown and reaped for the nobles who lived in the castles and possessed the land. In return for their toil the peasants received an humble home for themselves and in time of war, which was often, their lord was obliged to protect them with his soldiers. But if the lord they served chose to be harsh or cruel, nowhere had they to turn for help; they were not allowed to seek a home elsewhere, and, in truth, no more dreamed they of such a thing than of uprooting the trees in the great forests and planting them in the lands of another master. So were they used to bearing their lot with patience, whether it were good or ill, and often indeed it was ill enough. But with the peasant folk of Loys the Good it was not so; the well-beloved Duke pitied their toil and hardships, and, as I have told thee, kindly and justly did he govern them; and the great door of his castle was ever open to the poor and needy as to those of high estate.
And now did Pepin gaze up at those tall castle towers and turrets all capped with gleaming snow; he wondered if perchance the Three Kings had ridden thither and might even then be warming themselves at the great fire of logs which he knew would be blazing on the castle hearth. Then did he remember that since the wheat harvest had Duke Loys been away. Though Pepin knew not wherefore he had gone, 'twas to the city of Paris wherein stood the royal palace and whither Loys and other of the great nobles had been summoned because of the grievous illness of the French King. No one knew when he would return, and the little lad sighed, for he felt sure that, as the good Duke was not in his castle to welcome them, the Wise Kings must have fared on elsewhere.
Then, as thinking of the blazing logs in the castle fire-place reminded him that he himself was shivering with the cold, reluctantly did he thrust the oaten cakes in the pocket of his smock, and, pushing the wisp of hay along with the straw in his wooden shoes, he turned around and made his way as fast as he could through the drifting snow back to the hut by the forest.
When he opened the door, an old man was sitting by the fire mending a pruning hook. "Old Yann, the vinedresser," was he called by the peasant folk, and grandsire he was to the young lad.
Hearing the boy enter, he looked up from the pruning hook which lay on his knees. "Well, child," he said, "didst thou see the Three Kings this time?"
"Nay, Grandsire," answered Pepin, coming near the hearth and warming his hands. "Peasant Coquillard did say they passed down the road to Angers, and sure I was I heard the bells of the cathedral ringing for them there. Oh, I wish 'twas that way I had gone. But thou knowest, Grandsire, last year they rode beyond Bourbon and I missed them because I went toward Angers." And again did the tears of disappointment spring to Pepin's eyes.
"There, there, little one, never thou mind," said old Yann, pausing from his work to lift off the lad's cap and stroke his dark hair right tenderly. For Pepin's father had been dead since the boy's babyhood and his mother for a twelvemonth, so none was there left to care for him save only the patient grandsire. A peasant he was, belonging to the lands of Duke Loys; and though the hut wherein he and Pepin lived was humble enough, yet had it a whole thatch over head and always was there a fire on the hearth and a pot of soup hanging over it. Sadly indeed did they miss the mother's care; nevertheless, old Yann and the lad were both industrious, and betwixt them right well did they manage to keep the hut tidy. Besides, Yann was no ordinary peasant; in his youth for three years had he served in the castle under Duke François, the father of Loys. And though, to be sure, most of that time was Yann only a boy of all work, yet was he quick of wit and understanding and therefore had his life in the castle taught him many things. Moreover, one of the pages to the Duke had befriended him and shown him much kindness, and in this way also had he learned as a lad a gentler manner and speech than did most peasant folk. As he grew older, because of his liking for all growing things, and because whatsoever he planted in the castle garden flourished as if by magic, he had been appointed vinedresser by the Duke; for to this day is Bourbonnaise famous for its rich vintage of grapes.
Thus had Yann passed his life, and as now he sat on the bench mending his pruning hook, he made a place beside him; and drawing Pepin down, "Come," he said, "sit by Grandsire and do thou help to mend these tools. Do not grieve because thou didst not choose the King's road; always canst thou try thy luck another year;" and again did he pause to pat the lad's hair. For in their lonely life the old man strove as best he could to make up to the orphaned boy the tenderness he needs must miss from father and mother.
Quietly did they work together for a little while, and then Yann, laying down his tools, rose from the bench. "Well, Pepin," he said, "though the Kings did pass another way, nor could we go to the merry-making in the village, yet must we not forget our Twelfth-loaf for this night." So, taking a sack of coarse, dark meal from a shelf over a deal table and bidding Pepin fetch some other needful things, then did he begin mixing them in an earthen bowl. Presently, patting out a round, flat loaf of dough and taking a knife, he did prick a cross on one part of it. Then placing it in an iron pot, he brought it to the hearth to rise.
Pepin had been watching him, and as he looked at the
loaf, he pointed to the part whereon was pricked the
cross, and "Grandsire," he asked, "dost thou think a
beggar will come for this
"Nay," replied Yann, "I doubt if so. Yet will we keep the portion, and if any poor wayfarer asks, right welcome will he be to it. Many a beggar will be treading the roads this night, and 'tis rough weather for the homeless," added Yann, with a sigh, "but rather will they be flocking to the castles to receive their share of the fine Twelfth-loafs of the noble folks." And again did old Yann sigh as he looked at the humble loaf of coarse meal beginning to rise on the hearth.
Dost thou ask, thou who hearest this tale, what manner of dainty were the Twelfth-loafs whereof Yann spoke? Harken, as I tell thee. Always for the feast of the nobles, which on this night was the merriest of all the year, was provided a wonderful sweet loaf; especially made, it was, for this Feast of the Kings, and still to this day do the people of France so fashion it. Fine white flour, almonds and honey and spices, all these go into its making; and in the olden days always in one portion of it was there baked a bean, and this it was which made the feast so merry. For whosoever of the noble guests received the bean in his share, him did the rest hail as "King of the Bean," and he it was who ruled the revel until midnight. All the others were obliged to obey his every command laid upon them, even as though this mimic king were indeed their own true sovereign crowned and throned in the ancient city of Paris. And because of this obedience which all must show to him, 'twas the duty of the King of the Bean to provide tasks which would provoke laughter; and many and merry were the madcap pranks that ever followed his crowning.
But another thing there was which thou must know concerning the Twelfth-loaf; always was a goodly portion of it marked with a cross and set apart as the right of the first beggar who should knock at the castle door. And true it was, as old Yann had declared, that in those days poor folk aplenty were wandering on the highroads. This portion marked with the cross was called "God's Share," because we are taught that to give to the poor is the same as giving to our Lord; and no one dreamed of dividing the Twelfth-loaf without leaving this share, for not to do so would have been thought both wicked and unlucky. And because of this custom of the noble folk, many of the peasants also did mark with a cross the loaves of black bread they baked on this day, even as did old Yann; for though in their huts there was no King of the Bean, neither merriment nor feasting, nevertheless did their hearts pity those poorer than themselves; and they thought perhaps that some weary wayfarer, too feeble to climb to castle heights, might knock at their own doors to ask their bounty. In truth, it is the humble folk, used to toil and hardship, who ofttimes can feel more compassion for the beggar's lot than do those bred up within noble halls.
Now, my child, since I have told thee of the Twelfth-loaf of the olden days, do thou remember well these two things whereof I have spoken: the King of the Bean, and the beggar's portion which was called God's Share, for much have they to do with this tale.