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“On the Feast of Stephen” (1922)
Report to Moderator Old 05-21-2012 11:11 AM
MerryCarey
 
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This story dramatizes the events recounted in the old carol “Good King Wenceslaus,” adding a love interest for good measure.

Click here for a printable version.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

“On the Feast of Stephen” by Helen deVere Beauclerk
From The Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1922

This is the story of Bernard, the king’s page, the strange adventure which befell him on Saint Stephen’s Day and which he told to Blanche Marie, that the wonder of it should not be forgotten between them. For himself he knew the memory of that day would be ever near him, with its vision of a world crushed close to winter’s iciest heart. In the forests of Bohemia the birds and beasts lay dead. There was snow piled high against the walls of the castle, and the wind was like some malignant monster, leaping from turret to turret and from window to window as if it wished to seize the men and women sheltered there and drag them out to share its bitter frolic. It blew through the crevices into the stables, where the horses were quiet after their meal of bread and salt that the priest had blessed, and into the byres, warmed by the breath of cattle, as the cot at Bethlehem was warmed.

In the king’s hall the tapestry stirred so that the woven trees thereon trembled with their real fellows of the forest.

King Wenceslaus stood far from the hearthplace and its pyramid of logs that burned gold and crimson and blue. Though in the gaunt spaces of the hall their brightness spread but a little way, the flames danced on the dark polished surfaces of wooden tables, on the silver shields upon the walls, on the swords of the men at arms and on the hair of Blanche Marie, the loveliest of Queen Sophia’s maids-in-waiting. But the good king heeded none of these things. He had no thought for his shield or his spear or for any earthly foes. He was watching the transparent white columns that marched over his fields and his forests, his hills and his valleys, a ghostly, invincible host.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The queen’s maids cared little for the cruelty of the world without. They had drawn their embroidery frames away from the windows and dreamed as they stitched of spring and flower time. The men were telling hunting stories one to the other. Each speaker had some tale of wolf or boar that was more stirring to the blood than the last. But Bernard the page sat close to Blanche Marie and claimed no other comfort than her presence.

“Will you never love me?” he was whispering. “Never, never, never?”

The girl only laughed, teasing him. “I will love you, page Bernard,” she said, “when roses bloom on Saint Stephen’s Day.”

There had been hours when Bernard compared the color of his lady’s eyes to the sapphire robes of the blessed saints. Now he swore they were wells of dark water, in which a man may fall and drown himself. Roses on the morrow of Yuletide! She was as cold as the snow and as relentless as the storm. Yet he would have answered her had not the king at that moment called him by name.

He rose in haste and went to where his master stood looking earnestly outwards at the driving circles of snow and the trees that swayed like the masts of foundering ships. And Bernard saw that an old man was walking there, gathering the sticks and smaller branches flung down by the wind.

Asked the king: “Know you, good Bernard, who yonder peasant may be?”

The figure was so bent with age and so raggedly clothed that to see him was to feel the bite of the tempest and the sting of icy water. “It is Conrad the Hermit,” answered the page. “He dwells near the well of holy Saint Agnes, where no trees or bushes grow.”

Truly there was pity in the young man’s heart as the thought of that barrenness and the weary errand which had brought the man so far afield.

But the king’s eyes were filled with tears when he spoke again. “Go, fetch some bread and wine,” he said. “And good dry pine logs. We will go together to this old man’s home and see him dine on Saint Stephen’s Day.”

The page heard in silence and in great dread. The world appeared to him as a place without life, haunted by bleak pain and utter hopelessness. His soul was filled with fear of it and with love for the castle’s warm ease, for the scent of wood and the beauty of Blanche Marie.

“We will die,” he thought.

But there was something in the king’s glance which he dared not disobey, something he knew, though never so vividly, gentle, yet urgent, serene with the serenity of no earthly courage. He bowed his head in reverence.

When the two reached the path which ran before the castle no trace of the hermit could be seen. All footprints were hidden and there was naught before them except the tall pine trunks in their moving veils of snow, no sounds save the cry of the tempest and the moan of the forest striving to escape its enemy.

Bernard drew his cloak up over his face. “Even the trees suffer,” he thought. “Alas! Alas!”

As he struggled on beside the king the cold caught at him more keenly. Every moment its lash bit deeper, its twofold grip tightened. He thought of Blanche Marie; how she had looked after him when he followed his master out of the hall, and how he had wondered then if her glance went more kindly. But she had not spoken; it did not matter if he died.

Out on the open plain where even the protection of the trees was lost, his heart failed him. “Sire,” he cried, “I can go no farther.”

King Wenceslaus had walked in silence, indifferent to the snow and the wind, to the weight at his feet and the knives of cold on his face. But he stopped at the sound of his page’s distress.

“Poor lad,” he said, “you are overyoung. Walk in my footsteps and pray for help to the first martyr of our faith, the blessed Saint Stephen on this his day.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Again there was strange power in his eyes and healing in his voice. Though the storm encircled them, Bernard could see the king’s face clearly, as if no snowflakes fell between the two. The air grew milder; there was a radiance above his head; and Bernard walked close behind the king, taking care to place his feet where the royal footsteps had fallen.

The glow became more luminous. Now they were near to Saint Agnes’ well, and while, to the right and to the left, nothing had altered in the furious elements, it seemed to Bernard that he was walking on a golden pathway, between high walls of sweet sunshine. Of a sudden, happiness and hope, love of life and the coming spring returned to him. He could have cried for joy of it.

At the fountain the king paused and knelt down to pray. Bernard did likewise, and when King Wenceslaus rose the page remained kneeling, though he knew not why he waited.

And presently his master put a hand upon his head. “Stay here, my son,” he said. “I will go alone to the old man’s hut, for between us twain there is a great mystery. Rest here awhile and then return. Maybe you also will be rewarded.” For the third time he looked into his page’s eyes and then went on up into the mountain.

Bernard the page knelt there. The sun shone; and all about him were the soft breezes of summer, the murmur of leafy trees and the hidden perfumes of fresh flowers. And when he rose from his dream he saw that roses had blossomed in the snow, roses white as tapers and roses dark red like sacred wine.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
__________________


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