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Stories of Charlemagne by  Alfred J. Church

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HOW RALPH ENTERTAINED THE KING

[113]

O
N the feast of St. Thomas, which is four days before Yule, King Charles rode out of the city of Paris with a great company of princes and nobles. As they rode across the moor a great tempest from the east fell upon them. So fierce was the wind and so heavy the rain, that they were scattered over the country, nor could they tell, the day being well nigh as dark as night, whither they were going. Of what befell the rest of the company there is no need to tell; this tale concerns King Charles only.

As he rode in sore plight, not knowing where he might find shelter, he was aware of a churl, who was leading a mare carrying two great panniers. "Now tell me your name," said the King, "They call me Ralph the Charcoal-burner," said the man. "I live in [114] these parts—my house is seven miles hence—and I earn my bread with no little toil, selling coals to such as need them." "Friend," said the King, "I mean you no ill, for I judge you to be an honest man." "Judge as you will," answered Ralph, "I care not." "I am in sore need of a friend," said the King; "for both my horse and I are ready to perish, the storm is so fierce. Tell me then where I can find shelter." "Shelter!" said Ralph, "I know of none, save in my own cottage, and that is far hence in the forest. But to that you are welcome, if you care to come with me."

The King was right glad to hear these words. "That is well," said he, "God reward you for your goodness." "Nay," answered the churl, "keep your thanks till they have been earned. As yet you have had from me nothing, neither fire, nor meat, nor dinner, nor resting-place. To-morrow when you go you can thank me, if you be so minded, with better reason. To praise first, and, may be, to blame afterwards—that is contrary to sense." "So shall it be," said the King. So they went their way, talking as they went.

When they were come to the house Ralph called with a loud voice to his wife, "Are you [115] within, dame? Come out, open the door without delay. My guest and I are shivering with cold; such evil weather I have never seen." The good wife, when she heard her master's voice, made all haste to the door, knowing that he was a man of a hasty temper. "You are welcome home," said she to Ralph; and to the stranger, "You are welcome also." "Kindle a great fire," said Ralph, "and take two capons of the best, that we may have good cheer," and he took the King by the hand, and would have him go before him into the house. But the King stood back by the door, and would have the charcoal-burner pass in before him. "That is but poor courtesy," said the man, and took him by the neck and pushed him in.

When they had warmed themselves awhile by the fire, which was blazing in right royal fashion, Ralph cried to his wife, "Let us have supper, Gillian, as quickly as may be, and of the best, for we have had a toilsome day, and may well have a merry night. Never have I suffered worse weather or been so near to losing my way as when I met with this stranger here."

In no long time, when they had washed themselves, the supper was ready. "Now, [116] friend," said Ralph, "take the dame by the hand, and lead her to the board." And when the King held back, he cried, "Now this is the second time," and smote him suddenly under the ear with his right hand, so strongly that he staggered half across the chamber, and fell to the ground. When the King rose, and indeed he could scarcely stand, "Now, Gillian," said Ralph, "take him by the hand and go to the table as I bid you." To his guest he said, "Now this is the second time that you have been lacking in courtesy, first by the door, and then at the table. Will you not do as you are bid? Am not I the master of my own house?" The King said to himself, "These are strange doings. Never have I been so dealt with in all my life." Nevertheless for peace sake he did as he was bid, and giving his hand to the dame, led her to the table. So they sat, the charcoal-burner on one side of the table, and the King and dame Gillian on the other. Right good cheer they had, fat capons, and bread, and wine of the best. Truly they wanted for nothing.

Said the churl to the King, "Sir, the foresters in this place threaten me much about the deer. They say that I am ever [117] bringing down the fattest of the herd. They will hale me, they say, to Paris, and bring me before the King, and make complaint against me. Say what they will, why should I not have enough for myself, aye, and to set before a guest? And now, my friend, spare not; there is enough and more." When they had well eaten, Ralph said to his wife, "Now, Gill, send round the cup. I will drink to my friend, and he shall drink to me." So the dame handed the cup, and the two drank to each other. Then, supper being ended, they sat by the fire, and the Charcoal-burner told many merry tales. When it grew late, he said to the King, "Tell me now where you live." "I live at Court," said he, "where I have an office with the Queen." "And what is your office?" "I am gentleman of the Queen's bed-chamber." "And what is your name?" "My name is Wymond; Wymond of the Wardrobe they call me. And now, if you will come to Court, I can doubtless serve you, for I will see that you have a good sale for your fuel." Said Ralph, "I know not where the Court of which you speak may be." But Charles urged him, saying that the King and Queen would be in Paris to spend Yuletide together, and that there would be much merry- [118] making, and that without doubt he would sell his fuel to great advantage. "You seem to talk reason," said Ralph, "I will come. And now let us have another cup, and so to bed." So the collier and the dame led him to another chamber, where there was a bed handsomely furnished, and closed in with curtains. When they saw that he was well served and had all that he needed, they bade him good-night, and the King thanked them for their courtesy.

The next day as soon as it was light, the King rose from the bed and dressed himself without help, for, indeed, he had neither valet nor squire. Then his palfrey was brought to him, which when he had mounted, he called to Ralph, where he lay, for he would take his leave in friendly fashion, as was fitting in one that had had such good cheer. When the churl was roused, he said to the King, "Now tarry awhile till this evil weather be ended." "Nay," answered the King, "I must needs to my work and office; Yuletide is now at hand, and he that is found wanting will be greatly blamed. And now call thy good wife that I may pay her for the shelter and good cheer that I have had." "Nay," cried Ralph, "that shall never be; to think that I should take pay for sheltering one that is of [119] the Court of the King Charles!" "So be it," answered the King; "but at least if you will not take pay, come to the Court with a load of fuel as soon as may be; I warrant that if you will do so, you will make good profit of your goods." "That will I," answered Ralph. "I would fain see how coals sell at court. And now tell me your name once more, lest I forget it."

Then the King rode away, nor had he travelled long when Roland and Oliver, with a thousand men after them, met him. They had come forth to search for him, and right glad were they to find him. So they turned their horses' heads and journeyed back to Paris. When they were near the town, Turpin the Archbishop came forth from the gates to meet them with a great company of bishops and priests and others giving thanks to God that their lord the King was come again to Paris. And when they had come to Paris, they went to the Church of St. Denis, where there was service. And after service they went to the Palace, and kept their Yule feast with much mirth and plenty of good things. For one-and-twenty days did they feast. Never had such a Yuletide been kept in the land of France.


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