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All the afternoon the storm had been lowering; just before evening it broke. The lightning flashed in a yellow zigzag – a forked fang thrust out of the sky; after it followed the thunder, rolling up behind the forest like mountains falling one against another. The noise was enough to deafen one, the darkness made one think one's self blind. When the lightning came, it only showed the forest trees shaking their boughs with fright, or revealed a glimpse of the undergrowth that crackled as the boughs shook.
The storm was at its worst in an hour; after that the rain fell like great drops spilt from a caldron in the sky. The darkness was still so great that one would have said the rain-drops were black as they fell with a splash upon the forest trees and onward to the ground. They made a brisk patter as they dropt, and ere the thunder had ceased the forest ways were gurgling with water, and every hollow was a pool.
The sky was still dark, with the end of the storm and with evening, when the charcoal-burner came winding through the forest, leading his mare. The panniers on the mare's back were empty, for she had been to town; but the man's pockets were by no means full. When you sell your wares to poor folk you get, more often than not, a poor price for them.
Ralph's collar was turned up, the hand that was not upon the mare's bridle was plunged deep into his pocket; and the water ran from his head and down his coat in great streams. His beard was in a tangle, his cap was over his eyes; he trudged on with never a glance round. Not a sound came from his lips as his feet plunged, squelch! squelch! into the soft ground.
The charcoal-burner was trudging along in this sober fashion when from the trees at his left hand emerged a horseman. The stranger was clad in what had been goodly garments, but these were so drenched and spoiled by the storm, and torn by battling with the trees, that they were now but a mass of rags and tatters. His steed's eye was rolling as if the animal had been affrighted, and both horse and rider were flecked with mud from head to foot.
Ralph, the charcoal-burner, would have passed this sight by with a fine indifference, and as if he saw such every day, had not the horseman hailed him eagerly, reining in his steed, and crying: "Hey there, friend, tell me in which direction does Paris lie?"
The charcoal-burner did not stop his mare, but plodded on as he replied, in a rough tone: "If you will turn your horse round, and go back the way you have come, you may chance upon the road to Paris."
"Is there no path, then, through the forest " cried the stranger.
"There is no path that can be seen", said Ralph, "in a storm like this." He took another step ahead, and the water flew out in sprays under his heavy feet.
As the stranger's horse stood still, and the charcoal-burner was moving on, the two men would soon have parted company, had not the new-comer suddenly dashed the drops from his forehead and urged his unwilling steed after the peasant.
"Tell me, good friend," said he in an earnest tone, "am I likely to reach Paris to-night? That I should do so is a matter of much moment."
"If your will and your horse's be good enough," said Ralph bluntly, "you may reach the city – who knows? True, the way is long, the sky is dark, and there is no path through the forest; but these things are your affair, not mine."
So speaking, he moved on.
The horseman considered. "Tell me," he said at last, "is there any place of shelter where I may pass the night, that when the storm is over I may pursue my way?"
"I know of no shelter," said the charcoal-burner, "save that of my hut, which lies in the centre of the forest, a good five miles hence. Its shelter is for any man: take it, or leave it, as you will."
"Gladly will I take it, friend," said the stranger. He pushed back his drooping shoulders, and began to utter his thanks.
But the charcoal-burner interrupted him curtly. "Nay, keep your thanks," said he. "I am a poor man, but I will accept nothing that I have not earned."
With that, on he went through the forest; and it may be that the way to his hut was written in his brain, for as he went he looked neither to right nor to left, but, as often as not, upon the ground.
The stranger rode slowly at his side, and when the water splashed on him in greater floods from the drenched branches of the trees, he shook his shoulders impatiently, and exclaimed; but Ralph the charcoal-burner, though the water fell light or heavy, uttered never a sound.
Thus he went on, in sombre silence; and still the rain fell.
"I can see the glimmer of a light before us," said the stranger at last.
"It is the bright eye of my hut," said the charcoal-burner ruminatingly, "looking out to welcome us."
Having said this, he gave a great shout, tilting his chin toward the house. "Hasten, good wife," cried he, "and open the door; and I pray of you heap a great fire, and make a good supper; for here am I, and a guest with me, wet, and cold, and hungry, and less alive than dead!"
Hardly was this speech from his lips when the door of the hut flew open; and the stranger could see, as he alighted from his horse, the bright light of the kitchen beyond.
He would have hung back, the while the charcoal-burner entered; but the latter with a great blow sent him reeling into the house. "I should be a pretty host," cried he, "to let my guest enter at my back!"
And, closing the door, he went whistling to the stable. When the two men had washed, and had donned the dry garments the charcoal-burner's wife had provided, they returned to the kitchen, to find a fire blazing there that crackled with a thousand sparks, and a supper on the table that sent steam up to the rafters.
"Come now, neighbour," said the charcoal-burner in a kindly tone, "here is a sight to make us forget the storm without! Take the hand of my good dame there, and lead her to the table; for I would fain begin."
At this speech the good woman blushed, and the stranger hung back, as if loth to take so much upon himself.
"Heavens!" cried the charcoal-burner; "think you that we have no manners, we forest people?" He faced the stranger with a flaming face. "This is the second time you have accused me of lack of courtesy to a guest!" With this speech he fetched the other a blow that all but sent him upon the stone floor. "Now will you take your place beside my good wife, as I have bidden you?" cried he.
When the stranger had recovered his balance, and had rallied from the force of the blow, there was a colour in his cheeks; and for a second's space his eyes flashed in the firelight. But his anger quickly died in amusement; and throwing his head back he began to laugh. Ralph hardly knew what to make of this laughter, light and delicate as it was, and unlike his own; but having decided that it was goodnatured enough, he made no more ado. As for the stranger, when he had finished his merriment, he led the good dame to the board with as fine a grace as if she had been the Empress herself.
They made a quaint company: the good wife and the stranger on one side of the board, and on the other side Ralph the charcoal-burner, with his beard all a-tangle, and his legs stretched out far from his chair. The firelight fell upon their faces; and they could hear the rain falling with dull splashes upon the cottage roof.
"Eat, man, eat!" cried Ralph, as he heaped the stranger's plate with smoking viands. "May it never be said that the charcoal-burner ill-fed a friend! Saw you ever finer fare than this? Do not the Emperor's keepers complain, wife, that I help myself to the finest of his herds? But if I know Charlemagne, I say that he would not begrudge Ralph the charcoal-burner the wherewithal to keep himself alive, and to give comfort to a friend. Think you, comrade, the Emperor would have so mean a heart?"
"That I am sure he would not," said the stranger heartily. "If he were here to-night, be assured, he would say the same."
Having made this speech, the stranger laughed again, having, seemingly, much merriment in him; and Ralph the charcoal-burner laughed with him, albeit he knew not at what jest.
The while the rain beat down, and the fire blazed, the charcoal-burner pushed back his chair, and told many a tale of how he had outwitted the Emperor's foresters, and had supplied his own table; and his laughter at these good tales was like the wind that blows in the sunlight, having an edge to it, and yet an honest warmth. But the laughter of the stranger held still more mirth, for it endured till the tears ran down his cheeks with enjoyment of the jest.
Afterwards, when the night was older, the stranger told a tale. It was of the Emperor's court, and contained many a good jest, whereat Ralph laughed mightily. Yet in the midst of his laughter it occurred to him to look more closely at his guest; and he noted that, although he was a fine figure of a man, and stalwart, yet there was that about him which spoke of gentler ways than those of the forest.
"Since you know so much of the Court, you have perhaps been there, neighbour?" said he. The stranger looked toward the blaze of the fire. "Ay," said he, "I have been there."
"Then you have seen the good Emperor Charlemagne, and his Twelve Famous Peers?" asked the charcoal-burner, and his eyes lit with a great light.
"Ay, I have seen them, and that many a time," said the stranger, without looking away from the blaze.
"If I might but see him – this great Charlemagne!" cried the charcoal-burner, his eye flaming. "Have not we heard, wife, of his famous deeds, of his wars with the heathen in the cause of the Cross?" The good wife nodded; and the stranger drew his glance from the fire to fix it upon the charcoal-burner's face.
"Hearken, friend," said he; "the Emperor is now at Paris with his Empress. As you may know, he sojourns there with his Court, to keep Yule in the fair city. What hinders you that you come not to Paris and catch a glimpse of him of whom you speak?"
But the charcoal-burner's head fell upon his breast. "Nay, I am Ralph the charcoal-burner," said he roughly. "My place is not at Paris, nor near the Emperor. I must go about my business, for I have my coal to sell."
"Listen, my friend," said the stranger quietly. "I know the Court well, for my home is there. I am a gentleman of the Empress, a poor gentleman, Wymond by name; yet I have some influence, and I promise you that if you will bring your coal to Court, you shall have a good sale for it. There will be rare feasting at the Court this Yuletide, and I warrant you, you will sell all the coal you have for sale – and mayhap see the Emperor into the bargain!"
At this speech the charcoal-burner slapped his great hand upon his knees. "Now there you have a good reason why I should journey to Court!" cried he. "And since you promise me a good price for my coal, you may expect to see me there."
"One good turn deserves another," said the stranger. "Do not forget, when you reach the Palace, to ask for Wymond. For the sake of this good dinner of yours, I shall see to it that you sell your coal at a good price."
A moment later he yawned, and as the charcoal-burner yawned immediately after, they went, all three, to bed.
The best bedroom was given to the stranger; and in the small chamber below slept the charcoal-burner and his wife.
In the morning the good woman was early up, and about household affairs. A short time after, the charcoal-burner was awakened by a voice at his bed-side; and, opening his sleepy eyes, beheld the stranger, already attired in his own garments, which the woman had dried.
"Friend," said he, "my way lies toward Paris, and I must be early upon it. Let me therefore bid you farewell, and pay to your good lady the fee for my stay."
Ralph thrust a great fist into his eyes, and rubbed them hard. Then he stared, and his face glowed like a poppy-bed. Pushing the bed-clothes from his neck, he half rose, with a roar of rage like that of a wild beast. "May your horse fall into a hole, and you after him!" he sputtered. "Is not this the third time that you have insulted my hospitality? Ralph the charcoal-burner is indeed a poor man, but not yet so poor that he must wring from a guest the price of his board!"
And he dashed his hands upon the blankets.
The stranger had prudently retired to a distance, for he had no desire to feel again the charcoal-burner's blows on his back.
"Well, well," said he soothingly, "we will say no more about the matter, since it appears to you in so ill a light. Nevertheless, because we are comrades, and you have done me a good turn, you will find your way to Court. Come, friend, you will let me do you a good office in my turn."
"Oh! as to that – it is another affair," muttered Ralph, still grumbling. "My coal is good – I know of none better – and deserves a better price than I get for it. It may be that to-morrow morning shall see me on my way to Court."
"Good! I shall look for you then," said the other. "You have but to ask for Wymond, a gentleman of the Empress."
Without further waste of words he departed, mounting his horse and riding away. The charcoal-burner lay for a moment listening. It seemed to him that he heard the sound of laughter mingling with the noise of the horse's hoofs, and with it dying away in the distance.
"A folly of the ears!" muttered Ralph, and turning over, he fell asleep.
The following morning saw a great figure early on the road to Paris. That was Ralph the charcoal-burner, leading his mare with its panniers full of coal. He wore the rough garb he ever wore "of an everyday", and his thick boots clattered on the hard ground. The morning air was cold, and caught his ears and tweaked his nose, and filled his eyes with water.
The charcoal-burner hardly noticed these things. His thoughts held him: they were of his Emperor Charlemagne, and the good price he was to get for his coal.
Having reached the city, he was about to enter it, when he was stopped by a gay knight, finely accoutred, who appeared to keep watch upon the road.
"Halt, sir!" said he. "You may go no farther without my escort; for know that the great Charlemagne desires to see all men who enter the city by this road to-day. Therefore, with your will, or without your will, you must turn aside, and come with me now."
Of this story the charcoal-burner believed nothing. "It is a likely thing, is it not," said he "that the Emperor should desire to see the charcoal-burner! Nay, stand aside, and let me go on my way."
"Your way is with me," said the knight, "for I am bidden to bring to the Emperor all who travel to-day upon this road."
At this speech Ralph lost patience. "A plague upon you " cried he. "Is not my way already to the Palace, where I go, not to see the Emperor indeed, but to sell my coal! Cease this silly jesting, then, and let me pass on."
And he would have passed straightway, without more ado, had not the other moved forward, and barred the way.
"Now if you will not let me pass," cried the charcoal-burner, the blood rushing to his face, "I swear that with my two fists I will fight my way! An honest man am I, and plain-spoken; and I am in no mood for such fooling!"
"Gently, friend, gently," said the knight. "Truly you are in a great hurry about this business of yours!" For a moment he sat pondering, then he edged his horse warily aside. "Pass on, then, if you will," said he curtly. "Since your way lies to the Palace, there seems scant sense in taking you thither. I shall keep my post, and wait for the next man that travels this way."
"Heaven save his silly head from believing your story!" said Ralph in his beard. He hunched his great shoulders, and went on his way.
Enquiring of many whom he met, he found his way to the Palace, where, coming upon a knot of gossiping lackeys, he demanded admittance.
"There lives one Wymond here," said he, "a gentleman of the Empress; pray tell him that I have come, as he bade me, and that I have brought my coal."
At this speech the idle fellows stared at him as if all their senses lay in their organs of sight. "Hear you that?" cried one. "He has come to Court, as he was bidden, and he has brought his coal!" And they went, with one accord, into a fit of laughter, placing thick hands upon their sides, and waggling their heads to and fro.
The charcoal-burner had much ado to restrain his anger, which burnt like a fire in his breast at this treatment. Yet he remembered Wymond's face and pleasant smile; and he was loth to return with his coal unsold. So he sought another entrance to the Palace, which, being closed, he seized the knocker and belaboured the door with all his might.
In answer to this summons came a saucy-faced page, clad in feathers as fine as any peacock.
When he saw who the intruder was, he poked out a face that grimaced from ear to ear. "Know you my Wymond, a gentleman of the Empress?" mocked he, ere Ralph could open his mouth. "Nay, we know him not. Have you brought his coal?"
"Heavens, here are fine manners, and a grace of which I knew nothing!" cried the countryman, and he would have nipped the boy by the ear had not the youngster flown off with as fine a flight as if he had had wings in his heels.
Behind him he left the door gaping wide. "Come now, have a brave heart!" said the charcoal-burner to himself. "Be assured that Wymond knows nothing of this welcome, and is waiting to help you gain a fine price for your coal!"
With that he put up his mare, and, stepping through the door, began to search for his friend.
At first the charcoal-burner moved boldly enough, for the rooms through which he passed were simple; and his thoughts were of Wymond and the coal he wished to sell. But as he pursued his way, through corridors in which quaintly-cut windows blinked and glittered, across halls hung with priceless tapestry, and over carpets that were softer than the deep new moss on the forest-edges, his courage began to fail. Ralph the charcoal-burner had doubts about his errand, and began to wish himself travelling with his mare through the forest under the leafstript trees.
At many a door he met knight and page; and of these he asked bluntly: "Tell me, where is my friend Wymond, he who bade me bring hither my coal?"
But his only replies were boisterous laughter, for through the Palace had run the jest of the countryman who had brought his coal to sell at Court.
Ralph's ears tingled, and his fists ached for a fight. Yet he restrained himself. "Let me, first of all, find Wymond," thought he. For a doubt of Wymond's good-will did not come to him.
But it seemed as if the search would never end. The day was well advanced when Ralph entered the largest room he had yet seen, a room of rich tints, in which he saw the sun setting in the forest behind autumn leaves.
The charcoal-burner paused, his brown beard shaking; so much beauty filling his soul with fear. "Ah, Wymond!" he cried, "why did you bring me here, to make Ralph the charcoal-burner for the first time feel afraid?"
His chin sank upon his breast, and he stood there sombre and still.
At that moment there rang in his ear a sound that lit his eye, and sent fear speeding from his heart. "That was certainly Wymond's voice!" shouted the charcoal-burner. With three great strides he flashed across the room, and drew aside the curtains that hid the apartment beyond.
"How now!" cried the knight who was stationed there, and had almost been pitched upon his face. "Good neighbour, you cannot enter. Know you not that the Emperor is at table? Here – man – fellow – sir – "
But the charcoal-burner brushed off his grasp as if it had been the touch of a fly; and in a trice he was in the room. "Let me tell you, that I heard Wymond!" cried he; "and have not I been seeking him the whole day long?"
Upright he stood in the middle of the room, a tall strong figure in rude garments and doltish shoes. "Why, Wymond, where are you?" he cried anxiously, and upon him every eye turned as he looked down the glittering table with his keen country gaze.
"Alas," cried he, "Wymond cannot be here! He was but a shabby fellow; and you, I perceive, are fine gentlemen, every one!"
At this speech there was such a clatter of laughter that the countryman's head fell into a maze; and he knew not where to turn his glance. So he stood, looking up the table, then down, here, there, everywhere.
"Come, out, silly foot !" cried the doorkeeper; but Ralph, with his senses so caught and dazzled, heard not a word.
Then the man would have seized him, but the charcoal-burner, with a cry, sprang aside. "Why, there you are, Wymond!" he cried. "I have been seeking for you everywhere; but they told me there was none at Court bearing your name. Queer manners have I met with, too; but let us say no more of that. I have brought my coal, as I promised you – I have put the mare up not far hence, – and when you have finished eating, we will settle upon a price!"
"Heavens!" cried the doorkeeper.
The laughter suddenly ceased as it had been the dropping of the wind after a storm. All eyes were turned upon the Emperor, for it was to him the charcoal-burner had appealed, and he had called him Wymond and his friend.
"Who is this mad fellow?" whispered the knights. They watched him under narrowed lids, and held their breath.
So great a silence held the room that the charcoal-burner turned pale. He now perceived that the guest of two nights ago had not been attired in such magnificence as was Wymond now. Why, Wymond – was not his dress the finest of all? Did not he sit highest? Was not the finest air – that of command – his? Did not all eyes turn to him where he sat?
Ralph shivered with cold. "Alack," thought he, "what have I done? Your hospitality has done you an ill turn, Ralph, and you are likely to pay for it with your life!" So saying he looked across the great room, and would have met the glance of the Emperor straightly, as a brave man should, had not Charlemagne looked away.
He was telling his gentlemen the story of his adventure. The charcoal-burner listened to the tale with a head so stiffly held upright that you might have thought it had already parted company with his body, and had been merely stuck upon it. It was a tale well told, that of the hospitality of Ralph the charcoal-burner; and the knights had laughter out of it.
But there was one person who found no humour in the story, and that was Ralph himself. That was odd, for he was a fellow not without merriment, was Ralph the charcoal-burner.
When the tale was finished, the eyes of the Emperor turned to the man who stood statue-like in the middle of the room. They held an odd expression, one not easy to read.
"Come, neighbour," said he, "tell me what reward shall be given to the charcoal-burner for his hospitality?"
For a moment Ralph did not answer. Yet he gripped hard at his courage, and his head did not droop as he faced the Emperor and his riddle, and felt upon him the eyes of every gentleman in the room.
There was not one of them would have stood in the shoes of the charcoal-burner; and he read the feeling that showed in their gaze.
His answer came boldly, for there is a courage of the forest and of forest ways that can never be cast down.
"Sire," said he, "I asked for no reward, and Wymond promised none. This pledge only he gave to me – that he would help me sell my coal."
There are some that say his voice shook at the words. That may or may not be.
"A wise reminder, gentlemen!" cried Charlemagne. He began to laugh, a rich glad sound, as if in remembrance of a joke that had pleased him well. Then he leant across the table, a light shining in his bright eyes as they fell upon the silent man. "Wymond promised that you should sell your coal," said he, "and by my royal word it shall be sold. This is what Charlemagne promises – that Ralph the charcoal-burner shall be a good knight of his, and shall plant his valiant blows upon the foes of France. Gentlemen, France has need of honest men – see you aught amiss in this?"
While the room turned round about the charcoal-burner's head, he heard the cheer that made their one reply.