When the King awoke in the early morning, he found that a wet but
thoughtful rat had crept into the place during the night and made
a cosy bed for itself in his bosom. Being disturbed now,
scampered away. The boy smiled, and said, "Poor fool, why so
fearful? I am as forlorn as thou. 'Twould be a sham in me to
hurt the helpless, who am myself so helpless. Moreover, I owe you
thanks for a good omen; for when a king has fallen so low that the
very rats do make a bed of him, it surely meaneth that his
fortunes be upon the turn, since it is plain he can no lower go."
He got up and stepped out of the stall, and just then he heard the
sound of children's voices. The barn door opened and a couple of
little girls came in. As soon as they saw him their talking and
laughing ceased, and they stopped and stood still, gazing at him
with strong curiosity; they presently began to whisper together,
then they approached nearer, and stopped again to gaze and
whisper. By-and-by they gathered courage and began to discuss him
aloud. One said--
"He hath a comely face."
The other added--
"And pretty hair."
"But is ill clothed enow."
"And how starved he looketh."
They came still nearer, sidling shyly around and about him,
examining him minutely from all points, as if he were some strange
new kind of animal, but warily and watchfully the while, as if
they half feared he might be a sort of animal that would bite,
upon occasion. Finally they halted before him, holding each
other's hands for protection, and took a good satisfying stare
with their innocent eyes; then one of them plucked up all her
courage and inquired with honest directness--
"Who art thou, boy?"
"I am the King," was the grave answer.
The children gave a little start, and their eyes spread themselves
wide open and remained so during a speechless half minute. Then
curiosity broke the silence--
"The KING? What King?"
"The King of England."
The children looked at each other--then at him--then at each other
again--wonderingly, perplexedly; then one said--
"Didst hear him, Margery?--he said he is the King. Can that be
"How can it be else but true, Prissy? Would he say a lie? For
look you, Prissy, an' it were not true, it WOULD be a lie. It
surely would be. Now think on't. For all things that be not
true, be lies--thou canst make nought else out of it."
It was a good tight argument, without a leak in it anywhere; and
it left Prissy's half-doubts not a leg to stand on. She
considered a moment, then put the King upon his honour with the
"If thou art truly the King, then I believe thee."
"I am truly the King."
This settled the matter. His Majesty's royalty was accepted
without further question or discussion, and the two little girls
began at once to inquire into how he came to be where he was, and
how he came to be so unroyally clad, and whither he was bound, and
all about his affairs. It was a mighty relief to him to pour out
his troubles where they would not be scoffed at or doubted; so he
told his tale with feeling, forgetting even his hunger for the
time; and it was received with the deepest and tenderest sympathy
by the gentle little maids. But when he got down to his latest
experiences and they learned how long he had been without food,
they cut him short and hurried him away to the farmhouse to find a
breakfast for him.
The King was cheerful and happy now, and said to himself, "When I
am come to mine own again, I will always honour little children,
remembering how that these trusted me and believed in me in my
time of trouble; whilst they that were older, and thought
themselves wiser, mocked at me and held me for a liar."
The children's mother received the King kindly, and was full of
pity; for his forlorn condition and apparently crazed intellect
touched her womanly heart. She was a widow, and rather poor;
consequently she had seen trouble enough to enable her to feel for
the unfortunate. She imagined that the demented boy had wandered
away from his friends or keepers; so she tried to find out whence
he had come, in order that she might take measures to return him;
but all her references to neighbouring towns and villages, and all
her inquiries in the same line went for nothing--the boy's face,
and his answers, too, showed that the things she was talking of
were not familiar to him. He spoke earnestly and simply about
court matters, and broke down, more than once, when speaking of
the late King 'his father'; but whenever the conversation changed
to baser topics, he lost interest and became silent.
The woman was mightily puzzled; but she did not give up. As she
proceeded with her cooking, she set herself to contriving devices
to surprise the boy into betraying his real secret. She talked
about cattle--he showed no concern; then about sheep--the same
result: so her guess that he had been a shepherd boy was an
error; she talked about mills; and about weavers, tinkers, smiths,
trades and tradesmen of all sorts; and about Bedlam, and jails,
and charitable retreats: but no matter, she was baffled at all
points. Not altogether, either; for she argued that she had
narrowed the thing down to domestic service. Yes, she was sure
she was on the right track, now; he must have been a house
servant. So she led up to that. But the result was discouraging.
The subject of sweeping appeared to weary him; fire-building
failed to stir him; scrubbing and scouring awoke no enthusiasm.
The goodwife touched, with a perishing hope, and rather as a
matter of form, upon the subject of cooking. To her surprise, and
her vast delight, the King's face lighted at once! Ah, she had
hunted him down at last, she thought; and she was right proud,
too, of the devious shrewdness and tact which had accomplished it.
Her tired tongue got a chance to rest, now; for the King's,
inspired by gnawing hunger and the fragrant smells that came from
the sputtering pots and pans, turned itself loose and delivered
itself up to such an eloquent dissertation upon certain toothsome
dishes, that within three minutes the woman said to herself, "Of a
truth I was right--he hath holpen in a kitchen!" Then he
broadened his bill of fare, and discussed it with such
appreciation and animation, that the goodwife said to herself,
"Good lack! how can he know so many dishes, and so fine ones
withal? For these belong only upon the tables of the rich and
great. Ah, now I see! ragged outcast as he is, he must have
served in the palace before his reason went astray; yes, he must
have helped in the very kitchen of the King himself! I will test
Full of eagerness to prove her sagacity, she told the King to mind
the cooking a moment--hinting that he might manufacture and add a
dish or two, if he chose; then she went out of the room and gave
her children a sign to follow after. The King muttered--
"Another English king had a commission like to this, in a bygone
time--it is nothing against my dignity to undertake an office
which the great Alfred stooped to assume. But I will try to
better serve my trust than he; for he let the cakes burn."
The intent was good, but the performance was not answerable to it,
for this King, like the other one, soon fell into deep thinkings
concerning his vast affairs, and the same calamity resulted--the
cookery got burned. The woman returned in time to save the
breakfast from entire destruction; and she promptly brought the
King out of his dreams with a brisk and cordial tongue-lashing.
Then, seeing how troubled he was over his violated trust, she
softened at once, and was all goodness and gentleness toward him.
The boy made a hearty and satisfying meal, and was greatly
refreshed and gladdened by it. It was a meal which was
distinguished by this curious feature, that rank was waived on
both sides; yet neither recipient of the favour was aware that it
had been extended. The goodwife had intended to feed this young
tramp with broken victuals in a corner, like any other tramp or
like a dog; but she was so remorseful for the scolding she had
given him, that she did what she could to atone for it by allowing
him to sit at the family table and eat with his betters, on
ostensible terms of equality with them; and the King, on his side,
was so remorseful for having broken his trust, after the family
had been so kind to him, that he forced himself to atone for it by
humbling himself to the family level, instead of requiring the
woman and her children to stand and wait upon him, while he
occupied their table in the solitary state due to his birth and
dignity. It does us all good to unbend sometimes. This good
woman was made happy all the day long by the applauses which she
got out of herself for her magnanimous condescension to a tramp;
and the King was just as self-complacent over his gracious
humility toward a humble peasant woman.
When breakfast was over, the housewife told the King to wash up
the dishes. This command was a staggerer, for a moment, and the
King came near rebelling; but then he said to himself, "Alfred the
Great watched the cakes; doubtless he would have washed the dishes
too--therefore will I essay it."
He made a sufficiently poor job of it; and to his surprise too,
for the cleaning of wooden spoons and trenchers had seemed an easy
thing to do. It was a tedious and troublesome piece of work, but
he finished it at last. He was becoming impatient to get away on
his journey now; however, he was not to lose this thrifty dame's
society so easily. She furnished him some little odds and ends of
employment, which he got through with after a fair fashion and
with some credit. Then she set him and the little girls to paring
some winter apples; but he was so awkward at this service that she
retired him from it and gave him a butcher knife to grind.
Afterwards she kept him carding wool until he began to think he
had laid the good King Alfred about far enough in the shade for
the present in the matter of showy menial heroisms that would read
picturesquely in story-books and histories, and so he was half-
minded to resign. And when, just after the noonday dinner, the
goodwife gave him a basket of kittens to drown, he did resign. At
least he was just going to resign--for he felt that he must draw
the line somewhere, and it seemed to him that to draw it at
kitten-drowning was about the right thing--when there was an
interruption. The interruption was John Canty--with a peddler's
pack on his back--and Hugo.
The King discovered these rascals approaching the front gate
before they had had a chance to see him; so he said nothing about
drawing the line, but took up his basket of kittens and stepped
quietly out the back way, without a word. He left the creatures
in an out-house, and hurried on, into a narrow lane at the rear.