It happened on last Saturday’s supper visit to my old friend Wilfred. He had prepared, as he always does, some superb roast chicken, backed by plenty of red wine and followed up this time by a digestif that he called Génépy and claimed to have brought back from the Alps, though I suspect he had been tinkering with it himself. Potent stuff, but not all that bad.
It was only while we were relaxing after the desert that I put a question I had been pondering on for a while. “People around here say that you’ve become quite a gifted medium,” I asked him. “Is it true?”
Wilfred wrinkled his nose, as he always does when he’s embarrassed. “I do dabble in it,” he confessed. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” He looked up at me, suddenly challenged. “You want a demonstration? I might call up your grandfather, for example.”
I shook my head vigorously. “I’d go back a lot further in world history,” I remarked. “Lots to learn there – straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.”
“Such as?” he demanded.
I hesitated. “Well,” I murmured, “take that carol about Good King Wenceslas. Now there’s somebody worth meeting.”
Wilfred hesitated. “Those medieval figures can be tough to track down,” he confessed. “But I’ll try. Take another glass of Génépy and relax a bit while I clear the table; I’ll turn down the light a trifle –it all helps.”
I emptied another glass and then did as I was told, leaning back in my chair with my eyes closed.
It must have been ten minutes later or more when I felt something pulling on my arm, and I looked up. Leaning against the table was a tall figure in a red robe, wearing a crown. “Wenceslas,” he introduced himself, “King of Bohemia. You asked me to drop in?”
I stared. This was too good to be true. “Actually,” I admitted, “I’ve been pondering on that carol they sing about you. Good King Wenceslas looked out, and all that. “
“Oh, that doggerel,” snorted the King, helping himself to a generous glass of Wilfred’s digestif. “Written by some country parson, you know, nine hundred years too late. No respect for history, people like that have: not much feeling for poetry, either.”
“But tell me: did you really look out on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about…?”
“Listen my good man,” the King interjected, “St Stephen’s day is December the twenty-sixth. Barely a sprinkling of snow in our neck of Bohemia around that time.. Mud and rain more likely, you know.”
“And then the song says that a poor man came in sight?” I ventured.
“Poor man, you say!” the King retorted. “Damned thief, nothing more, stealing pine logs from my stock. Lived up at St. Andrew’s – the page told me so.”
“But you did ask the page to bring you flesh and wine,” I reminded him.
“Yes, but not for him,” muttered the king. “You think I’d go out in the cold without something to warm me up? Sausages and schnapps, that’s what I need. And I took a pine log, to check it against those that the fellow had been purloining. Then we set off to catch him.”
“But didn’t your page complain of cold feet…?” I ventured.
“Own damn fault – no decent shoes on,” the King retorted. “Anyway, I gave him some schnapps. Stopped him complaining. And I told him to tread in my footsteps, so he wouldn’t wander off into the woods with all that schnapps inside him, and get eaten by a wolf. Pages are difficult to replace, you know. Still, we soon found the rascal, with his sack full of my pine logs.”
“So I suppose you took your sword and….”
Wenceslas shook his head emphatically. “They did call me Good Wenceslas, you know” he declared. “No, I just gave him a sound telling off, and he promised never to do it again. I said that in that case he could keep a few logs.”
With that, Wenceslas glanced at Wilfred’s clock. “Must be going,” he declared shaking my hand. “They don’t like us staying out too long. Thanks for the schnapps. Not bad, but the spirytus we brewed in Bohemia was better. Now you need to get some shuteye.”
Obediently I lay back and closed my eyes. But barely had I done so when I felt someone tugging at my shoulder; I looked up and saw Wilfred standing beside me.
“That Génépy seems to knock you out,” he declared, “especially when you drink double doses. Time you went home to bed. ”
I glanced at the table; on my side there were two large glasses, both empty. “He also said I needed some shuteye,” I replied. Wilfred stared at me for a moment, but as I tried to rise from my chair he declared that I was too wobbly on my legs to get home alone, so he more or less carried me across the street to my own place. “Sorry I didn’t manage Wenceslas,” he murmured as I opened my front door. “We’ll have another go next time you drop in.”
“Don’t bother,” I replied, “it was only a passing thought.” But as I stepped inside I was still wondering.
Illustration: Wenzeslaus, probably by Peter Parler, in St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague. (Wikimedia)