For seven years of my life, I was privileged to serve as a page to his Majesty, the Good King Wenceslas of Bohemia. This was a great honor to me, for I was from a modest family, orphaned at a young age, and it was the King who took me in, treating me practically as his ward. A fine page I was and I served my master well, so much so that I became his favorite. I was privy to the King’s every secret and whim and I daresay I came to know him better than his own advisers.
The story I am about to tell may come as somewhat of a shock to you. It may in fact seem unbelievable. I assure you it happened, for I would never tell a lie, and sure as my hand is my hand and my bone is my bone, this story is true.
It was the Year of our Lord 946, on the 26th day of December, the Feast of Saint Stephen. As was the custom for every saint’s feast day, a great repast was served in the King’s hall. The cooks prepared every carnage known to the kingdom; succulent ducks, hogs heads, blackbird pie, mutton and hens. Great barrels of mead and momsey were served, as well as desserts of apple cakes and plum puddings.
There was grand entertainment, jugglers and dancers and acrobats that walked like crabs, hands extended over their heads and bodies arched. Fiddlers and drummers and choirs chimed in magnificent orchestration. The King was quite pleased with this entertainment, but the evening grew late. The King excused himself, and just as he was retiring to his quarters he looked outside the window. Here was something most disturbing.
A peasant in tattered clothes with no cloak to warm him scavenged outside in the forest for spare wood. The man rummaged and shivered , filling up his tiny cart, then hobbling away, for he had no horse to pull it. The King peered through window and then tilted his head and let out a long sigh. I quickly jumped to his side, for quite fond was I of the King, and being his favorite I was able to approach him about his every sadness.
“Sire, something troubles you?” I asked.
King Wenceslas nodded. He gestured toward the peasant. He then looked upon me, suddenly serious, a depth of sorrow in his eyes.
“Ah, my dear boy,” he said. “It is with much grief I view yonder peasant. Did you see the man? Scantily clothed, gathering meager wood from the barren trees. From whence comes he? Where lives he? Knowest you?’
Sadly, I told the King I was well aware of the poor peasant’s dwelling. Leagues away from the castle the man scraped out his living in a hovel that was little better than a cave. I was lack to reveal more of the bleak story, but Wenceslas urged me. The peasant’s wife and child had recently taken ill from malnutrition. The small supply of wood the peasant stole would barely last them the night.
Upon hearing this, the King hung his head. “Their Feast of Stephen was meager I take it,” he murmured.
“Sire,” I said, “Their Feast of Stephen was none!”
The King shuffled his feet, something he was fond of doing when thinking of solutions. He scratched his head and looked back out the window where snow swirled like a vast tornado. The peasant was long gone. The King then glanced back to the dining hall where the servants were cleaning up the leftovers. Suddenly he pivoted on his heel, smiled broadly and grabbed me by the shoulders. “But of course!” he bellowed, eyes bulging. “Boy, go to the servants! Tell them to pack baskets of meat and mead, breads and cakes of all kinds! Kindling wood and candles and blankets and raiment. Tonight that peasant shall dine in splendor.”
The servants packed up several baskets. My first thought was to get the carriage driver to transport the goods, but the King bid me no. “I shall deliver them in person my dear lad,” he said. “And you shall go with me.”
The King was known to sometimes get odd notions in his head. When this happened, there was no stopping him until his ideas were completely carried out.
The night was bitterly cold, with snow packing the castle walls, so deep I could barely tread upon it without my legs becoming enveloped. Yet the King insisted we walk, for he longed to visit the peasant in person, goods in hand, making a grand and bold entrance.
We left the palace and headed out into the bleak night. The wind whipped at my back. On and on we walked. The night grew darker still, the moon obscured by thick drifting clouds. A numbing cold set to my toes. I breathed heavily, teetering my bundles. The King also carried bundles, but I was just a small boy, my legs short and spindly. Finally I knew I could go no further. I longed to retreat back to my quarters in the palace.
“Sire,” I panted. “I fear my heart will fail if I continue.” My numb hands dropped my bundles in the snow and I clutched my side. My ribs ached.
“Ah, my dear lad.” The King knelt beside me. “Be not troubled. I have just the solution! Now hear me. You see that my boots make large footprints in the snow, yes? I want you to tread behind me, follow in those footprints. You will find that you are soon warmed and invigorated.”
I knew it would do no good. My master had surely lost his sanity. The night was now black as pitch. Snow swirled like icy diamonds and I feared a blizzard was heading our way. Yet the King casually set back on his path, blithe as if it were a summer’s day. I followed, doing as Wenceslas asked, only because it was my job to amuse him.
If I had not seen it with my own eyes, felt it in my own flesh, I would not have believed it. The instant I stepped in the King’s footsteps, all chill left my body! I was invigorated with a health and vitality such as I had never known. Merrily I followed Wenceslas. Once or twice he called behind to me, “How fare thee my lad?” “Ever so happily Sire,” I sang back, for it was true.
When we reached the peasant’s hovel we found him with his wife and child, shivering in the darkness. Quickly the King lit wax candles and commenced to lay the feast upon the table. The peasant’s eyes popped. He dropped to his knees, squinting through the candle light, lack to believe that this generous stranger was actually the King.
When the meal was finished Wenceslas made a promise; none in his kingdom would ever suffer hunger and cold again.
It was an extravagant promise, but the King made good on it. His great stores of treasure and gold were traded in exchange for new housing, timber wood and farmland so that all in the kingdom were given the chance to thrive. Wenceslas then had a great dining hall built on the same land where the peasant’s hovel had once been. Ever after that, on the Feast of Stephen, all in the village, peasant and courtiers alike, dined in that great hall. Indeed, no one in Wenceslas’ kingdom ever went hungry again.
I frequently asked the King how it came that my feet had been so warmed and my heart so invigorated in his footsteps that night. It was still a puzzle to me. The King only smiled, patted my head and said, “The snow and wind and I – we have an understanding.”