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Best Stories to Tell to Children
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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 seat, 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 vent 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 Roberts' 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.
ROBERT OF SICILY BOWED HIS HEAD
You know, dears, in the old countries there are many fine stories about things which happened so very long ago that nobody knows exactly how much of them is true. Ireland is like that. It is so old that even as long ago as four thousand years it had people who dug in the mines, and knew how to weave cloth and to make beautiful ornaments out of gold, and who could fight and make laws; but we do not know just where they came from, nor exactly how they lived. These people left us some splendid stories about their kings, their fights, and their beautiful women; but it all happened such a long time ago that the stories are mixtures of things that really happened and what people said about them, and we don't know just which is which. The stories are called legends. One of the prettiest legends is the story I am going to tell you about the Dagda's harp.
It is said that there were two quite different kinds of people in Ireland: one set of people with long dark hair and dark eyes, called Fomorians -- they carried long slender spears made of golden bronze when they fought -- and another race of people who were golden-haired and blue-eyed, and who carried short, blunt, heavy spears of dull metal.
The golden-haired people had a great chieftain who was also a kind of high priest, who was called the Dagda. And this Dagda had a wonderful magic harp. The harp was beautiful to look upon, mighty in size, made of rare wood, and ornamented with gold and jewels; and it had wonderful music in its strings, which only the Dagda could call out. When the men were going out to battle, the Dagda would set up his magic harp and sweep his hand across the strings, and a war song would ring out which would make every warrior buckle on his armor, brace his knees, and shout, "Forth to the fight!" Then, when the men came back from the battle, weary and wounded, the Dagda would take his harp and strike a few chords, and as the magic music stole out upon the air, everyman forgot his weariness and the smart of his wounds, and thought of the honor he had won, and of the comrade who had died beside him, and of the safety of his wife and children. Then the song would swell out louder, and every warrior would remember only the glory he had helped win for the king; and each man would rise at the great table, his cup in his hand, and shout, "Long live the King!"
There came a time when the Fomorians and the golden-haired men were at war; and in the midst of a great battle, while the Dagda's hall was not so well guarded as usual, some of the chieftains of the Fomorians stole the great harp from the wall, where it hung, and fled away with it. Their wives and children and some few of their soldiers went with them, and they fled fast and far through the night, until they were a long way from the battlefield. Then they thought they were safe, and they turned aside into a vacant castle, by the road, and sat down to a banquet, hanging the stolen harp on the wall.
The Dagda, with two or three of his warriors, had followed hard on their track. And while they were in the midst of their banqueting, the door was burst open, and the Dagda stood there, with his men. Some of the Fomorians sprang to their feet, but before any of them could grasp a weapon, the Dagda called out to his harp on the wall, "Come to me, O my harp!"
The great harp recognized its master's voice, and leaped from the wall. Whirling through the hall, sweeping aside and killing the men who got in its way, it sprang to its master's hand. And the Dagda took his harp and swept his hand across the strings in three great, solemn chords. The harp answered with the magic Music of Tears. As the wailing harmony smote upon the air, the women of the Fomorians bowed their heads and wept bitterly, the strong men turned their faces aside, and the little children sobbed.
Again the Dagda touched the strings, and this time the magic Music of Mirth leaped from the harp. And when they heard that Music of Mirth, the young warriors of the Fomorians began to laugh; they laughed till the cups fell from their grasp, and the spears dropped from their hands, while the wine flowed from the broken bowls; they laughed until their limbs were helpless with excess of glee.
Once more the Dagda touched his harp, but very, very softly. And now a music stole forth as soft as dreams, and as sweet as joy: it was the magic Music of Sleep. When they heard that, gently, gently, the Fomorian women bowed their heads in slumber; the little children crept to their mothers' laps; the old men nodded; and the young warriors drooped in their seats and closed their eyes: one after another all the Fomorians sank into sleep.
When they were all deep in slumber, the Dagda took his magic harp, and he and his golden-haired warriors stole softly away, and came in safety to their own homes again.
A long time ago, there was a boy named David, who lived in a country far east of this. He was good to look upon, for he had fair hair and a ruddy skin; and he was very strong and brave and modest. He was shepherd-boy for his father, and all day -- often all night -- he was out in the fields, far from home, watching over the sheep. He had to guard them from wild animals, and lead them to the right pastures, and care for them.
By and by, war broke out between the people of David's country and a people that lived near at hand; these men were called Philistines, and the people of David's country were named Israel. All the strong men of Israel went up to the battle, to fight for their king. David's three older brothers went, but he was only a boy, so he was left behind to care for the sheep, After the brothers had been gone some time, David's father longed very much to hear from them, and to know if they were safe; so he sent for David, from the fields, and said to him, "Take now for thy brothers an ephah of this parched corn, and these ten loaves, and run to the camp, where thy brothers are; and carry these ten cheeses to the captain of their thousand, and see how thy brothers fare, and bring me word again." [An ephah is about three pecks.]
David rose early in the morning, and left the sheep with a keeper, and took the corn and the loaves and the cheeses, as his father had commanded him, and went to the camp of Israel.
The camp was on a mountain; Israel stood on a mountain on the one side, and the Philistines stood on a mountain on the other side; and there was a valley between them. David came to the place where the Israelites were, just as the host was going forth to the fight, shouting for the battle. So he left his gifts in the hands of the keeper of the baggage, and ran into the army, amongst the soldiers, to find his brothers.
When he found them, he saluted them and began to talk with them.
But while he was asking them the questions his father had commanded, there arose a great shouting and tumult among the Israelites, and men came running back from the front line of battle; everything became confusion. David looked to see what the trouble was, and he saw a strange sight: on the hillside of the Philistines, a warrior was striding forward, calling out something in a taunting voice; he was a gigantic man, the largest David had ever seen, and he was dressed in armor, that shone in the sun: he had a helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders; his spear was so tremendous that the staff of it was like a weaver's beam, and his shield so great that a man went before him, to carry it.
"Who is that?" asked David.
"It is Goliath, of Gath, champion of the Philistines," said the soldiers about. "Every day, for forty days, he has come forth, so, and challenged us to send a man against him, in single combat; and since no one dares to go out against him alone, the armies cannot fight." [That was one of the laws of warfare in those times.]
"What!" said David, "does none dare go out against him?"
As he spoke, the giant stood still, on the hillside opposite the Israelitish host, and shouted his challenge, scornfully. He said, "Why are ye come out to set your battle in array? Am I not a Philistine, and ye servants of Saul? Choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me. If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants; but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us. I defy the armies of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together!"
When King Saul heard these words, he was dismayed, and all the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him and were sore afraid. David heard them talking among themselves, whispering and murmuring. They were saying, "Have ye seen this man that is come up? Surely if any one killeth him that man will the king make rich; perhaps he will give him his daughter in marriage, and make his family free in Israel!"
David heard this, and he asked the men if it were so. It was surely so, they said.
"But," said David, "who is this Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?" And he was stirred with anger.
Very soon, some of the officers told the king about the youth who was asking so many questions, and who said that a mere Philistine should not be let defy the armies of the living God. Immediately Saul sent for him. When David came before Saul, he said to the king, "Let no man's heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine."
But Saul looked at David, and said, "Thou art not able to go against this Philistine, to fight with him, for thou art but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth."
Then David said to Saul, "Once I was keeping my father's sheep, and there came a lion and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock; and I went out after the lion, and struck him, and delivered the lamb out of his mouth, and when he arose against me, I caught him by the beard, and struck him, and slew him! Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear; and this Philistine shall be as one of them, for he hath defied the armies of the living God. The Lord, who delivered me out of the paw of the lion and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine."
"Go," said Saul, "and the Lord be with thee!" And he armed David with his own armor, -- he put a helmet of brass upon his head, and armed him with a coat of mail. But when David girded his sword upon his armor, and tried to walk, he said to Saul, "I cannot go with these, for I am not used to them." And he put them off.
Then he took his staff in his hand and went and chose five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd's bag which he had; and his sling was in his hand; and he went out and drew near to the Philistine.
And the Philistine came on and drew near to David; and the man that bore his shield went before him. And when the Philistine looked about and saw David, he disdained him, for David was but a boy, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance. And he said to David, "Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with a cudgel?" And with curses he cried out again, "Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field."
But David looked at him, and answered, "Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield; but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. This day will the Lord deliver thee into my hands; and I will smite thee, and take thy head from thee, and I will give the carcasses of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel! And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord's, and he will give you into our hands."
And then, when the Philistine arose and came, and drew nigh to meet David, David hasted, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine. And when he was a little way from him, he put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and put it in his sling, and slung it, and smote the Philistine in the forehead, so that the stone sank into his forehead; and he fell on his face to the earth.And David ran, and stood upon the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of its sheath, and slew him with it.
Then, when the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. But the army of Israel pursued them, and victory was with the men of Israel.
And after the battle, David was taken to the king's tent, and made a captain over many men; and he went no more to his father's house, to herd the sheep, but became a man, in the king's service.