Fifty Famous People - James Baldwin

The Charcoal Man and the King

There once lived in Paris a poor charcoal man whose name was Jacquot. His house was small, with only one room in it; but it was large enough for Jacquot and his wife and their two little boys.

At one end of the room there was a big fireplace, where the mother did the cooking. At the other end were the beds. And in the middle was a rough table with benches around it instead of chairs.

Jacquot's business was to sell charcoal to the rich people in the city. He might be seen every day with a bag of charcoal on his back, carrying it to some of his customers. Sometimes he carried three or four bags to the palace where the little king of France lived with his mother.

One evening he was very late coming home. The table was spread and supper was ready. The children were hungry and could hardly wait for their father to come.

"The supper will get cold," said Charlot, the eldest.

"I wonder why he is so late," said his little brother, Blondel.

"There is to be a great feast at the queen's palace to-night," said the mother. "There will be music and dancing, and many fine people will be there. Perhaps your father is waiting to help in the kitchen."

The next minute they heard his voice at the door: "Be quick, boys, and stir the fire. Throw on some chips and make a blaze."

They did so, and as the flames lighted up the room, they saw their father enter with a child in his arms.

"What's the matter?" cried the mother. "Who is that child?"

Then she saw that the child's face was very pale and that he neither opened his eyes nor moved.

"Oh, what has happened? Where did you find him?"

"I'll tell you all about it," answered Jacquot. "But first get a blanket and warm it, quick. That on the children's bed is best."

"What a beautiful child!" said the mother, as she hurried to do his bidding. The two boys, Charlot and Blondel, with wondering eyes watched their father and mother undress the little stranger. His beautiful clothes were soaked with water, and his fine white collar and ruffles were soiled and dripping.

"He must have some dry clothes. Bring me your Sunday suit, Charlot."

"Here it is, mother." said Charlot.

Soon the little stranger was clad in the warm clothes; the dry soft blanket was wrapped around him; and he was laid on the children's bed.

Then, being very comfortable, he began to grow stronger. The color came back to his cheeks. He opened his eyes and looked around at the small, plain room and at the poor people standing near him.

"Where am I? Where am I?" he asked.

"In my house, my little friend," answered Jacquot.

"My little friend!"  said the child with a sneer.

He looked at the fire on the hearth, and at the rough table and benches. Then he said, "Your house is a very poor place, I think."

"I am sorry if you do not like it," said Jacquot. "But if I had not helped you, you would have been in a worse place."

"How did these clothes come on me?" cried the child. "They are not mine. You have stolen my clothes and have given me these ugly things."

"Stolen!" said the charcoal man, angrily. "What do you mean, you ungrateful little rascal?"

"Hush, Jacquot," said his wife, kindly. "He doesn't know what he says. Wait till he rests a while, and then he'll be in a better humor."

The child was indeed very tired. His eyes closed and he was soon fast asleep.

"Now tell us, father," whispered Charlot, "where did you find him?"

The charcoal man sat down by the fire. The two boys stood at his knees, and his wife sat at his side.

"I will tell you," he said. "I had carried some charcoal to the queen's kitchen and was just starting home. I took the shortest way through the little park behind the palace. You know where the fountain is?"

"Yes, yes!" said Blondel. "It is quite near the park gate."

"Well, as I was hurrying along, I heard a great splash, as though something had fallen into the pool by the fountain. I looked and saw this little fellow struggling in the water. I ran and pulled him out. He was almost drowned."

"Did he say anything, father?" asked Charlot.

"Oh, no! He was senseless; but I knew he wasn't drowned. I thought of the big fire in the queen's kitchen, and knew that the cook would never allow a half-drowned child to be carried into that fine place. Then I thought of our own warm little house, and how snug we could make him until he came to his senses again. So I took him in my arms and ran home as fast as I could."

"The poor, dear child!" said Mrs. Jacquot. "I wonder who he is."

"He shall be our little brother," said Blondel; and both the boys clapped their hands very softly.

In a little while the child awoke. He seemed to feel quite well and strong. He sat up in the bed and looked around.

"You want your mother, don't you?" said Mrs. Jacquot. "She must be very uneasy about you. Tell us who she is, and we will carry you to her."

"There is no hurry about that," said the child.

"But they will be looking for you."

"So much the better, let them look. My mother will not be worried. She has other things to do, and no time to attend to me."

"What! Your own mother, and no time to attend to her child?"

"Yes, madam. But she has servants to attend to me."

"Servants! Yes, I think so," said Jacquot. "They let you fall into the water, and you would have been drowned, if it hadn't been for me. But come, children, let us have our supper."

They sat down at the table. The mother gave each a tin plate and a wooden spoon, and then helped them all to boiled beans. The father cut slices from a loaf of brown bread.

The little stranger came and sat with them. But he would not eat anything.

"You must tell us who your mother is," said Mrs. Jacquot. "We must let her know that you are safe."

"Of course she will be glad to know that," said the boy; "but she has no time to bother about me to-night."

"Is she like our mother?" asked Charlot.

"She is handsomer."

"But ours is better. She is always doing something for us," said Blondel.

"Mine gives me fine clothes and plenty of money to spend," said the stranger.

"Ours gives us kisses," said Charlot.

"Ha! that's nothing. Mine makes the servants wait on me and do as I tell them."

"But our dear mother waits on us herself."

The charcoal man and his wife listened to this little dispute, and said nothing. They were just rising from the table when they heard a great noise in the street. Then there was a knock at the door.

Before Mrs. Jacquot could open it, some one called out, "Is this the house of Jacquot, the charcoal man?"

"That is my tutor," whispered the little stranger. "He has come after me."

Then he slipped quickly under the table and hid himself. "Don't tell him I am here," he said softly.

In a few minutes the room was filled with gentlemen. They were all dressed very finely, and some of them carried swords.

A tall man who wore a long red cloak seemed to be the leader of the company. He said to a soldier who stood at the door, "Tell your story again."

"Well," said the soldier, "about two hours ago I was on guard at the gate of the queen's park. This charcoal man, whom I know very well, ran past me with a child in his arms. I did not—"

"That will do, sir," said the man in red. "Now, you charcoal man, where is that child?"

"Here!" cried the child himself, darting out from his hiding place.

Louis XIV of France

"O your Majesty!" said the man in red. "All your court has been looking for you for the past two hours."

"I am glad to hear it, Cardinal Mazarin," said the boy.

"Your mother is very anxious."

"I am sorry if I have given her trouble. But really, I fell into the pool at the fountain, and this kind man brought me here to get me dry."

"Indeed!" said the cardinal. "But I hope you are now ready to come home with us."

"I shall go when I please."

"Your mother—"

"Oh, yes, I know she is anxious, and I will go. But first I must thank these poor people."

"Please do so, your Majesty."

The boy turned toward the charcoal man and said:—

"My friend, I am the king of France. My name is Louis the Fourteenth. I thank you for what you have done for me. You shall have money to buy a larger house and to send your boys to school. Here is my hand to kiss."

Then he turned to the cardinal and said, "Now, I am ready. Let us go."

"Not dressed in that way?" said the cardinal. He had just noticed that the king was wearing poor Charlot's Sunday suit instead of his own.

"Why not?" answered the little king.

"Think what your mother would say if she saw you in the clothes of a poor man's son." said the cardinal. "Think of what all the fine ladies would say."

"Let them say what they please, I am not going to change my clothes."

As the little king went out, he turned at the door and called to Charlot. "Come to the palace to-morrow," he said, "and you shall have your clothes. You may bring mine with you."

Louis the Fourteenth became king of France when he was only five years old. He was called "the Fourteenth" because there had been thirteen other kings before him who bore the name of Louis. In history he is often called the Grand Monarch.