Legends Every Child Should Know - H. W. Mabie

King Robert Of Sicily

Robert of Sicily, brother of Pope Urbane

And Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,

Apparelled in magnificent attire,

With retinue of many a knight and squire,

On St. John's eve, at vespers, proudly sat

And heard the priests chant the Magnificat.

And as he listened, o'er and o'er again

Repeated, like a burden or refrain,

He caught the words, "Deposuit potentes

De sede, et exaltavit humiles";

And slowly lifting up his kingly head

He to a learned clerk beside him said,

"What mean these words?" The clerk made answer meet,

"He has put down the mighty from their seat,

And has exalted them of low degree."

Thereat King Robert muttered scornfully,

"'T is well that such seditious words are sung

Only by priests and in the Latin tongue;

For unto priests and people be it known,

There is no power can push me from my throne!"

And leaning back, he yawned and fell asleep,

Lulled by the chant monotonous and deep.

When he awoke, it was already night;

The church was empty, and there was no light,

Save where the lamps, that glimmered few and faint,

Lighted a little space before some saint.

He started from his seat and gazed around,

But saw no living thing and heard no sound.

He groped toward the door, but it was locked;

He cried aloud, and listened, and knocked,

And uttered awful threatenings and complaints,

And imprecations upon men and saints.

The sounds reechoed from the roof and walls

As if dead priests were laughing in their stalls.

At length the sexton, hearing from without

The tumult of the knocking and the shout,

And thinking thieves were in the house or prayer,

Came with his lantern, asking, "Who is there?"

Half choked with rage, King Robert fiercely said,

"Open:'tis I, the King! Art thou afraid?"

The frightened sexton, muttering, with a curse,

"This is some drunken vagabond, or worse!"

Turned the great key and flung the portal wide;

A man rushed by him at a single stride,

Haggard, half naked, without hat or cloak,

Who neither turned, nor looked at him, nor spoke,

But leaped into the blackness of the night,

And vanished like a spectre from his sight.

Robert of Sicily, brother of Pope Urbane

And Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,

Despoiled of his magnificent attire,

Bareheaded, breathless, and besprent with mire,

With sense of wrong and outrage desperate,

Strode on and thundered at the palace gate;

Rushed through the courtyard, thrusting in his rage

To right and left each seneschal and page,

And hurried up the broad and sounding stair,

His white face ghastly in the torches' glare.

From hall to hall he passed with breathless speed;

Voices and cries he heard, but did not heed,

Until at last he reached the banquet-room,

Blazing with light, and breathing with perfume.

There on the dais sat another king,

Wearing his robes, his crown, his signet-ring,

King Robert's self in features, form, and height,

But all transfigured with angelic light!

It was an Angel; and his presence there

With a divine effulgence rilled the air,

An exaltation, piercing the disguise,

Though none the hidden Angel recognised.

A moment speechless, motionless, amazed,

The throneless monarch on the Angel gazed,

Who met his look of anger and surprise

With the divine compassion of his eyes;

Then said, "Who art thou? and why com'st thou here?"

To which King Robert answered with a sneer,

"I am the King, and come to claim my own

From an impostor, who usurps my throne!"

And suddenly, at these audacious words,

Up sprang the angry guests, and drew their swords;

The Angel answered, with unruffled brow,

"Nay, not the King, but the King's Jester, thou

Henceforth shalt wear the bells and scalloped cape,

And for thy counsellor shalt lead an ape;

Thou shalt obey my servants when they call,

And wait upon my henchmen in the hall!"

Deaf to King Robert's threats and cries and prayers,

They thrust him from the hall and down the stairs;

A group of tittering pages ran before,

And as they opened wide the folding-door,

His heart failed, for he heard, with strange alarms,

The boisterous laughter of the men-at-arms,

And all the vaulted chamber roar and ring

With the mock plaudits of "Long live the King!"

Next morning, waking with the day's first beam,

He said within himself, "It was a dream!"

But the straw rustled as he turned his head,

There were the cap and bells beside his bed,

Around him rose the bare, discolored walls,

Close by, the steeds were champing in their stalls,

And in the corner, a revolting shape,

Shivering and chattering sat the wretched ape.

It was no dream; the world he loved so much

Had turned to dust and ashes at his touch!

Days came and went; and now returned again

To Sicily the old Saturnian reign;

Under the Angel's governance benign

The happy island danced with corn and wine,

And deep within the mountain's burning breast

Enceladus, the giant, was at rest.

Meanwhile King Robert yielded to his fate,

Sullen and silent and disconsolate.

Dressed in the motley garb that Jesters wear,

With look bewildered and a vacant stare,

Close shaven above the ears, as monks are shorn,

By courtiers mocked, by pages laughed to scorn,

His only friend the ape, his only food

What others left—he still was unsubdued.

And when the Angel met him on his way,

And half in earnest, half in jest, would say,

Sternly, though tenderly, that he might feel

The velvet scabbard held a sword of steel,

"Art thou the King?" the passion of his woe

Burst from him in resistless overflow

And, lifting high his forehead he, would fling

The haughty answer back, "I am, I am the King!"

Almost three years were ended; when there came

Ambassadors of great repute and name

From Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,

Unto King Robert, saying that Pope Urbane

By letter summoned them forthwith to come

On Holy Thursday to his city of Rome.

The Angel with great joy received his guests,

And gave them presents of embroidered vests,

And velvet mantles with rich ermine lined,

And rings and jewels of the rarest kind.

Then he departed with them o'er the sea

Into the lovely land of Italy,

Whose loveliness was more resplendent made

By the mere passing of that cavalcade,

With plumes, and cloaks, and housings, and the stir

Of jewelled bridle and of golden spur.

And lo! among the menials, in mock state,

Upon a piebald steed, with shambling gait,

His cloak of fox-tails flapping in the wind,

The solemn ape demurely perched behind,

King Robert rode, making huge merriment

In all the country towns through which they went.

The Pope received them with great pomp and blare

Of bannered trumpets, on Saint Peter's square,

Giving his benediction and embrace,

Fervent, and full of apostolic grace.

While with congratulations and with prayers

He entertained the Angel unawares,

Robert, the Jester, bursting through the crowd,

Into their presence rushed, and cried aloud,

"I am the King! Look, and behold in me

Robert, your brother, King of Sicily!

This man, who wears my semblance to your eyes,

Is an impostor in a king's disguise.

Do you not know me? does no voice within

Answer my cry, and say we are akin?"

The Pope in silence, but with troubled mien,

Gazed at the Angel's countenance serene;

The Emperor, laughing, said, "It is strange sport

To keep a madman for thy Fool at court!"

And the poor, baffled Jester in disgrace

Was hustled back among the populace.

In solemn state the Holy Week went by,

And Easter Sunday gleamed upon the sky;

The presence of the Angel, with its light,

Before the sun rose, made the city bright,

And with new fervour filled the hearts of men,

Who felt that Christ indeed had risen again.

Even the Jester, on his bed of straw,

With haggard eyes the unwonted splendour saw,

He felt within a power unfelt before,

And, kneeling humbly on his chamber-floor,

He heard the rushing garments of the Lord

Sweep through the silent air, ascending heavenward.

And now the visit ending, and once more

Valmond returning to the Danube's shore,

Homeward the Angel journeyed, and again

The land was made resplendent with his train,

Flashing along the towns of Italy

Unto Salerno, and from thence by sea.

And when once more within Palermo's wall,

And, seated on the throne in his great hall,

He heard the Angelus from convent towers,

As if the better world conversed with ours,

He beckoned to King Robert to draw nigher,

And with a gesture bade the rest retire;

And when they were alone, the Angel said,

"Art thou the King?" Then, bowing down his head,

King Robert crossed both hands upon his breast,

And meekly answered him: "Thou knowest best!

My sins as scarlet are; let me go hence,

And in some cloister's school of penitence,

Across those stones, that pave the way to heaven,

Walk barefoot, till my guilty soul be shriven!"

The Angel smiled, and from his radiant face

A holy light illumined all the place,

And through the open window, loud and clear,

They heard the monks chant in the chapel near,

Above the stir and tumult of the street:

"He has put down the mighty from their seat,

And has exalted them of low degree!"

And through the chant a second melody

Rose like the throbbing of a single string:

"I am an Angel, and thou art the King!"

King Robert, who was standing near the throne,

Lifted his eyes, and lo! he was alone!

But all apparelled as in days of old,

With ermined mantle and with cloth of gold;

And when his courtiers came, they found him there

Kneeling upon the floor, absorbed in silent prayer.


And then the blue-eyed Norseman told

A Saga of the days of old.

"There is," said he, "a wondrous book

Of Legends in the old Norse tongue,

Of the dead kings of Norroway—

Legends that once were told or sung

In many a smoky fireside nook

Of Iceland, in the ancient day,

By wandering Saga-man or Scald;

'Heimskringla' is the volume called;

And he who looks may find therein

The story that I now begin."

And in each pause the story made

Upon his violin he played,

As an appropriate interlude,

Fragments of old Norwegian tunes

That bound in one the separate runes,

And held the mind in perfect mood,

Entwining and encircling all

The strange and antiquated rhymes

With melodies of olden times;

As over some half-ruined wall,

Disjointed and about to fall,

Fresh woodbines climb and interlace,

And keep the loosened stones in place.