From Tales of Humour, Anonymous, London: Burns and Oates; New York: Benzigers; undated (c. 1890); pp. 79-94.
THE PRESENT OF THE EMPEROR
“ ‘The king did me the honour of speaking to me.
‘What did he say to you?’
‘Get out of my way, foolish fellow.’ ”
LULLI ET QUINAULT.
IN the earlier part of the sixteenth century, one of the streets in the outskirts of Brussels had for its principal inhabitant a cattle-owner, whose name was Corrard, to which was added (on account of an accident he had met with) the epithet of Le Borgne.* Corrard le Borgne, although in his fifty-first year, still possessed all the happy cheerfulness of youth. He was passionately fond of music, danced or beat time with his head and shoulders whenever he heard the sound of a fiddle or a drum, joined in every amusement at the fairs, and talked over the news of the day with his neighbours. Notwithstanding all this, however, he had devoted sufficient time to business to enable him to amass a considerable fortune.
He reared numerous flocks of sheep on the plains of Anderlecht, sold heifers at the fairs, exhibited fat oxen, and his cows produced vast quantities of milk, cream, and butter. He was moreover good-humoured, 82 obliging and affable, and his kindness of disposition caused him to be held in general estimation by all his acquaintances. Success had not made him proud; but he had preserved in his opulence the same habits of honest simplicity which distinguished him in his former humble condition, when he had but three cows, and a small cottage at the hamlet of La Tête de Mouton. In the midst of ease and happiness, this worthy man had nevertheless one cause of grief. His two daughters were both well married; he was the grandfather to eight children; his two sons-in-law assisted him in his business, and his wife was as merry as himself. What then was the cause of his unhappiness? He had not been able to speak to Charles the Fifth since he had been made Emperor; though before this he had been in the habit of conversing familiarly with him whenever they met. He often complained of this grievance, and especially to his old friend and neighbour, Laurence van der Meulen.
“When he was only the prince of the Lower Countries,” said Corrard, “he was merely called Charles; oh, I wish it were so now! yes, that was pleasant! He was so familiar! now, just see how proud he has become!”
“But he is an Emperor.”
“Nevertheless, he is the same man, who laughed and joked with us, when he was fifteen years old.”
“With this difference, that he is now forty; and has not only us to govern, which would be a trifle, but he has also the Spaniards, the Neapolitans, the Empire, the New World, — the half of the world, in face!”
“Yes, yes; I see he has plenty to do; it is like me. If instead of having one hundred head of cattle, I had a hundred thousand, that of course would give me more work. But nevertheless, when he lives near 83 us, as he does at present, he ought to do as he did when he was young.”
“He has many cares. You see the people of Ghent have revolted; he will have to deal with them seriously. And besides, he will be obliged to return to Barbary.”
“Poor Charles! if I were in his place, I would be contented with my own country. Those were merry times, when the handsome young prince in his rambles used to come and pay us a visit at Anderlecht! How he enjoyed my butter! and the cream — did he not gobble it down! I assure you it is the truth; he remembered us, too, on his return from Aix-la-Chapelle, where he was crowned Emperor. And it is on my account that he gave to the people of Anderlecht the privilege of stamping the imperial crown on their butter.”
“He is a generous fellow certainly, he never forgets anybody. He rewarded with a fortune the poor villager who showed him the way one night with his lantern; and do you not remember the day, during the period you so much regret, when he supped incognito with the cobblers? Well, he actually gave them the crowned boot for an escutcheon, which even the guild of shoemakers has not.”
“But he has done nothing for the good people of Campine.”
“You speak of the inhabitants of Oolen, near Turnhout? What would you have him do for them? These people are not ambitious. In his hunting parties, the young prince used to go into a tavern and ask for a pot of beer. The servant who brought it, always held it by the handle, and presented the body of the pot to the prince; Charles was thus forced to grasp it with two hands. ‘Couldn’t you,’ said he, ‘have pots with a handle at each side?’ They had them made; but the servant, finding it more convenient to hold the pot by the two handles, presents 84 it in the same manner as before, so that the prince was just in the same predicament as a first. He then asked them to add a handle in the middle, hoping that least they would leave him that one. The people of Oolen thus obtained from Charles the Fifth the privilege of making pots with three handles, a circumstance which has procured them a little fortune.”
“But all this is nothing,” said Corrard; “I shall not be able to live, if I cannot speak once more to Charles the Fifth.”
“But you must remember, it is not now as in the old times. You must not accost an emperor, as you would the first person you meet. There are forms which must be kept up.”
“What does that matter? I would conform to them. I hear, everybody takes him presents; I will take him a dish of cream; I am sure he will enjoy it as much as he used to do twenty years ago.”
“A dish of cream! why, he would get a mere spoonful. Has he not his court? All the lords who surround him would want their share.”
“Well! I will send him fifty dishes, and as many tartlets besides.”
“And apples; does he no longer like them? If you wish, my dear Corrard, I will try to find out; I know a gentleman who will obtain me an audience; but it must be on condition that I am one of the party.”
“Certainly you will; I shall want hands to carry my dishes of cream; and at my return, I shall have a feast for all my friends.”
The thing was thus agreed upon, and Laurence van der Meulen set about fulfilling his promise. He came back, two days after, to announce to Corrard le Borgne that the emperor recollected him, and would have much pleasure in receiving him.
“The only thing we have to think of,“ added he, 85 “is to conform ourselves to the proper ceremonies. Before an emperor, you bow down to the ground. You know what an emperor is? You will see how dignified he will be. But we can only be four in number; thus, it would not do to have fifty dishes of cream; let us have four large ones instead.”
“The largest I can find.“
“And four plates of tartlets, as you say he likes them.”
“I shall only have with me, yourself, Laurence, and my two sons-in-law.”
“I have made myself well acquainted with the ceremonies of the court,” continued Laurence; “Captain van der Klock, who commands a ship in his Majesty’s fleet, has trained me perfectly. I will just give you an idea of the proper manner.”
“Very good, now I know it.”
“You will do what I tell you, and follow my example. Make your preparations, for we shall have an audience to-morrow.”
NEXT day Corrard le Borgne procured the largest copper basins he could find; ordered all the cream to be got ready from the milk of the previous evening; put on his best dress, and, accompanied by his two sons-in-law, Laurence leading the way, he arrived at the Court of Brussels.
These four men, with their beards well combed and perfumed, their complexions fresh from the toilet, and their eyes sparkling with joy, soon found themselves ranged in regular file in the waiting room of the 86 palace, each holding in one hand an immense basin of cream, and in the other a shining plate laden with delicate tartlets. They had given up the idea of bringing apples, as being too heavy and common a present.
Presently a chamberlain came to tell them that his Majesty awaited Master Corrard. The same instant, the folding-doors of the audience-room were thrown open, and they stood in the presence of the Emperor. He was seated on a raised throne at the farther end of the apartment, clothed in the imperial costume, — the crown on his head and the sceptre in his hand. Courtiers, in long array, stood on the right and left of the sovereign; a company of pages in gold livery were also in attendance. The four friends were dazzled by the magnificence which burst upon their view; but Corrard le Borgne was attracted at once by the sight of his old acquaintance Charles V., whom he recognised.
“He still has the same nose and look,” thought he; “his beard has grown as mine has, and his forehead bears more wrinkles than formerly.”
While Corrard made these reflections, Laurence stepping forward said to him, “Take care, all of you, to do as I do; salute properly, and bow down as you see me.”
“Go on,” replied Corrard, without withdrawing his eye from the object of his contemplation.
Laurence van der Meulen walked with measured step, his eyes fixed on the Emperor, holding in front of him with his left hand a large dish of cream, and extending with dignity his right hand, with held a plate of tartlets. At the entrance of the presence-chamber, he bent forward to salute, and at the same moment put out his foot to continue his advance; but not having observed that there was a step to go down, he proceeded as if on level ground, and 87 stumbling, fell at full length over the dish of cream, launching forth his tartlets across the room, over the richly embroidered carpets of Smyrna. Conrad le Borgne was just bending in imitation of his leader when falling down the step, he also upset his burden of cream and tartlets, and lay beside his neighbour on the floor. The two sons-in-law, supposing the position of their companions consistent with royal usage, threw themselves prostrate in the rear, dipped their beards in the cream, and shot their tartlets across the floor. The whole seemed to happen in a moment.
The Emperor, seeing his worthy friends rise up, dripping with cream, burst into a roar of laughter, as he was wont to do in his youthful days, and unable to contain himself, hastened to an adjoining apartment to give vent to his mirth. The pages, not understanding the meaning of this extraordinary introduction, and thinking the Emperor offended, gathered up the tartlets, and flung them in the faces of Corrard and his companions. The poor Borgne, disappointed in finding the Emperor no longer in the room, retired, saying, — “These are strange customs, and we were right in not offering the apples; if they had dismissed us by throwing them at our heads, as they did the tarts, we should not have escaped with sound skins.” The gentleman who had introduced the four visitors them made his appearance, followed by attendants bearing ewers. The four persons, whose faces were bathed with cream, were washed, and they were then immediately conducted into the cabinet, where Charles the Fifth was still laughing.
“By St. Michael, my good friends,” said he, “the breakfast you have brought me has been turned into a dainty joke. However, by way of return, I am going to give you another entertainment.” In an instant rich pies, Spanish hams, Italian wines, and 88 delicacies from Cologne, were served up, and the four companions seated themselves at table.
“And you, Charles,” said Le Borgne, with a mixture of familiarity and respect, “you have no plate. Are you not going to eat with us?”
“I am not hungry,” answered the Emperor, smiling.
“Alas!” replied the cattle-owner in a low tone and with a sigh; “it is no longer the good old times.“
This remark, which Charles overheard, suddenly recalled to his features a sad and serious expression. He made a movement, and was going to say that the old times would come back; but he checked himself and was silent, for he knew well that the old times would never return.
He rose to depart.
“Remain at table, my friends,” said he; “I must leave you, business calls me away. And you, my worthy Corrard, shall send me to-morrow another dish of cream, only one, and that prepared by our own hands. I hope it will reach me in safety. I return in a few days to Barbary, and,” added he, laughing, “I will send you in my turn some of the productions of that country.”
The Emperor’s guests were left alone, and remained silent. A tear started in Corrard’s eye.
“Poor Charles,” said he; “he has just the same kind heart, and he certainly loves us still. Oh, if he had nobody but us to think of! When I call to mind that it was to the emperor that my deceased father-in-law owed his fortune!”
“How so?” said Laurence, as he emptied his glass, for the Italian wines were much to his taste.
“I will tell you the whole circumstances,” replied Corrard. “My father-in-law earned his livelihood, you know, by making little brooms for sale at 89 Brussels, and by this means, just managed with difficulty to maintain his wife and daughter. One day the Prince met him.
“ ‘Well, my good man,’ said he in his familiar way, ‘do you make a fortune by your brooms?’
“ ‘No, Sir,’ answered the other, without thinking it was the Prince, who stood before him.
“ ‘What, then, would make you contented?’
“ ‘Oh, Sir, if I had a hundred ducats. . . . . . I know of a farm which is to be disposed of at Anderlecht, and a hundred ducats is the price asked for it. . . . I should be happy as a duke there; but one hundred ducats and I will never travel the same road together.’
“ ‘How do you know that?’ replied Charles quickly. ‘at what price do you sell your brooms?’
“ ‘One sou, Sir; do you wish for one?’
“ ‘Yes, and here is the money; but surely, at that rate, the hundred ducats will be slow in coming. Let me show you a way to get them all in one day.’
“ ‘Oh, Sir! may God bless you!”
“ ‘Well; come to-morrow to the gate of the palace.’
“ ‘To the palace gate? — If I am allowed.’
“ ‘You will be allowed; come at five o’clock in the afternoon.’
“ ‘At five o’clock I will be there.’
“ ‘With a hundred brooms, neither more nor less.’
“ ‘That’s easy enough; I will take care to have them ready.’
“ ‘You are to sell each broom for a ducat, and then you will have your sum complete.’
“With these words, the Prince departed.
“My father-in-law stood thunderstruck and motionless, thinking that he was jesting with him, when a 90 Sister of Charity, who happened to be passing at the time, said, —
“ ‘Is it thus you address the Prince, without uncovering your head?’
“ ‘What! was that the Prince?’
“ ‘Yes, indeed it was.’
“The broom-seller did not say another word, but returned to his shed; next day, a hundred brooms were prepared and finished off in his best style; and without saying a word to anybody, he made his appearance at the palace gate punctually as the clock struck five. The porter’s wife came out.
“ ‘How much are your brooms?’ she inquired.
“ ‘One ducat each.’
“The same answer was made to several like questions, on which she poured forth upon the unfortunate broom-seller a torrent of abuse. He was taken for a madman by everybody, but he still maintained his price.
“During this time, there was a grand inner going on in the palace; and as the young Prince left the table, he drew from a cupboard the broom he had purchased the evening before.
“ ‘I perceive,’ said he, ‘before the gate the vender of these brooms. All those who, in an hour’s time, shall present themselves before us, for the game of tennis, with one of these brooms, may reckon upon an agreeable surprise which I have prepared for them, and they shall be admitted to our hunting party to-morrow.’
“Immediately, there was a general movement; every one quitted the dining chamber, and ran out to the broom-seller. At first, all grumbled at the exorbitant price of the brooms; but, finding the merchant adhere to his price, they ended by giving him what he demanded, and in a quarter of an hour he had sold all his brooms. He pocketed the ducats, 91 blessed the Prince for his goodness, and the next day bought the farm, where soon afterwards my marriage was celebrated.”
“And what,” asked Laurence, “was the surprise prepared by the Prince for these good gentlemen?”
“The surprise was, that he announced to them that they had made the fortune of the broom merchant; and the day following they had a splendid hunting party.”
Corrard and his companions did not retire till they had done justice to the viands placed before them, and the evening passed off gaily in cheerful conversation.
FOR six months before Charles’s return from his expedition to Algiers, nothing but vague news of this unsuccessful campaign had arrived; but Corrard le Borgne at last received a letter from Captain van der Klock at Antwerp, with the intimation that he was to come without delay to receive a present from the Emperor.
“A present arrived from Barbary by sea!” exclaimed he; “Charles has thought of me in the midst of the Moors.”
In his joy he gave a feast, in order to celebrate the day in a worthy manner; and the next morning he set out for Antwerp with his friend Laurence. With the help of two good horses, and by starting from Brussels at five o’clock in the morning, they arrived at Antwerp at seven o’clock in the evening. Corrard proceeded at once to the inn where the Captain was staying.
“I am delighted to see you,” said the latter; “for 92 I am in haste to present you with the gracious gift which his Majesty has sent you.”
“You see I am anxious also, and I hope you will tell me what this imperial present is?”
“It is a remarkable proof of the great regard his Majesty has for you. He rarely bestows such gifts. He has sent something similar to the menageries of Ghent and Brussels; but your present is of far more value. It is the two largest tigers, male and female, which have ever been taken in Algeria.”
At the mention of tigers, Corrard le Borgne turned pale, and his heart froze within him. Magnificent as the gift was, he was nevertheless affrighted.
“Where can I lodge a tiger and tigress?” thought he; “not to speak of the danger of being devoured by them, and of the expense attending them; for the two monster much each eat a sheep a day at the least.”
“Permit me,” said he to the Captain, “to ask your advice as to whether I ought to receive these tigers or not?”
“What!” exclaimed the sailor, “ask advice! You may save yourself the trouble; I am bound to hand them over to you in good condition; and you will find they are so. To-morrow I will deliver them to you, and you will discharge me from all responsibility by a proper receipt. I merely attend to my orders.”
Unable to gain anything farther from Captain van der Klock, Corrard le Borgne returned to his inn.
“The Emperor is mad,” said he. “Did any one ever hear of a like caprice? To send me a family of tigers — to me, a rearer of sheep! I thought he would have brought me an Arabian horse, a carpet, or some wine of that country, a barrel of herrings, or a Damascus blade. But tigers! My dear Laurence, I am in despair.”
“It is, however, a distinguished mark of consideration. 93 Tigers are not given as presents to everybody, as the Captain observed.”
“Well, then, if you wish to oblige me, assist me a little; take the male one. I will take the female, which is the most troublesome of the two.”
“Come, you are joking,” said Laurence, who wished to be excused from such a present. “You ought to set more value upon the gift of an Emperor.”
The sound of a bear-exhibitor’s flute happened at this moment to reach the ears of Corrard, on whom music never lost its soothing influence. He hummed a little air, and approaching the bear which they were causing to dance, he said to its master, “My friend, I have a famous windfall for you. I am going to sell you two tigers.”
“I thank you; I have no money.”
“In that case, suppose I give them to you?”
“Thank you, I have quite enough to do with my bear.”
“You see, Laurence, that nobody will have these villanous tigers.”
Corrard le Borgne went to bed in great vexation. Next morning, he returned to the Captain’s lodgings.
“Positively,” said he, “I will not have these tigers. I will give you a full discharge for them. But I beg of you to throw them into the river, with a millstone about their necks.”
“For whom do you take me?” replied the Captain. “My commission is from the Emperor; I am determined to deliver to you your present; and if you refuse, I shall have you summoned by the sergeant, who will oblige you to receive it.”
The poor man, shuddering at his fate, wished the Captain good morning, remounted his horse, without uttering a word, and arrived with his friend Laurence at Brussels, towards midnight.94
“Let Van der Klock present the tigers to whom he pleases,” said he; “he and his master are two madmen.”
But two days after, he saw a lofty car enter his court-yard, covered with a large cloth; and by the side of the waggoner marched a sergeant, with four men-at-arms.
“Here are your tigers,” said the sergeant; “I am come to summon you to receive them.”
“I will not have them,” growled Le Borgne, at the same time shutting the door in the sergeant’s face, and barricading it inside. The man of the law produced his summons, and a crowd of people began to gather round him, while the animals were brought out into the centre of the yard. The shouts of the crowd now began to excite the curiosity of the master of the house. At last he ventured to put his head out of the window, and, to his astonishment, saw the tiger and tigress allowing all the people to come near them, and even to stroke and caress them.
“Oh! if they are as tame as that,” said he, suddenly recovering himself, “that alters the case.” He grew bolder, opened the door, and called the sergeant to tell him that he had changed his mind, and would accept the Emperor’s present.
He went out; approached the ferocious animals; and touched them. They were STUFFED.
* Le Bourne signifies, blind of one eye.
1 This is an anonymous translation from the French tale number X, “Un présent impérial,” in Légendes des origines by Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin de Plancy, Fourth Edition, Paris: Henri Plon: 1864; pp. 86-101. It appeared earlier, under the same title, in Les Charmes du Soir, 1850; pp. 31-48.