Every child in the village was very much excited on account of the news that had come down from the castle on the hill.
Because it had been such a rich harvest, the fields yellow with grain and the orchards crimson with fruit, the King was going to keep a thanksgiving day. He was going to ask some child from the village to come up the hill to the castle and eat dinner with the Prince and Princess. It was rumored, too, that this child would be given good gifts by the King. But it must be a very special kind of child indeed. That they all knew.
Then the village children remembered everything that had been told them by their mothers, and their grandmothers, and their great-grandmothers about the castle kitchen. Scores of cooks and scullery boys were kept busy there night and day. The fires always glowed to roast the rich fowls that turned on the spits. The cake bowls and the soup pots were never empty. Spices and herbs from far countries, strawberries when the ground was covered with snow, ices of all the rainbow colors, and cream so thick that a knife could cut it—all these were to be found in the King's kitchen.
There were dishes of gold and silver upon which to serve the fine foods, and a hothouse of rare flowers with which to deck the table, and linen as fine as a cobweb and as beautiful in pattern as snowflakes to cover it. Oh, a thanksgiving day in the castle would be very wonderful indeed, the children thought, and each hoped that he or she would be chosen to go.
The day before this day of thanksgiving the messenger of the King came down from the castle and went from door to door of the homes in the village. He went first to the house of the burgomaster. It was a very pretentious house with tall pillars in front, and it stood on a wide street. It seemed likely that the burgomaster's child might be chosen to go with the messenger to the castle for the thanksgiving. She was dressed in silk, and her hair was curled, and the burgomaster had packed a great hamper with sweets as an offering for the King.
"Are you ready to keep the feast as the King would like you to?" asked the messenger.
"Oh, yes!" said the burgomaster's child. "I have on my best dress, and here are plenty of sweets to eat. Will you take me?"
But the messenger shook his head, for the child was not ready
Then the King's messenger went on until he came to the house where the captain of the guards lived. The captain's little boy was quite sure that he would be chosen to go with the messenger to the castle for the thanksgiving. He wore a uniform with silver braid and buttons like that which the guards wore. A sword hung at his side, and he wore a soldier's cap. He held the cap in his hand, so that he could put it on quickly.
"Are you ready to keep the thanksgiving day as the King would like you to?" asked the messenger.
"Oh, yes!" said the child of the captain of the guards. "I have my sword here and I can fight any one who crosses our path on the way to the castle. Will you take me?"
But the messenger went on again and he came to the baker's shop. The baker's boy stood at the door, dressed in his best white suit, and holding an empty basket on his arm. He was quite sure that he would be chosen to go to the palace, for his father's bake shop was an important place in the village. They measured their flour carefully, and weighed the loaves so that they might receive the utmost penny for each. They very seldom had any crumbs left for the poor, but they were selling a great deal of bread every day.
"Are you ready to keep the thanksgiving day as the King would like you to?" the messenger asked of the baker's boy.
"Oh, yes!" the boy said. "I have this basket to gather up whatever remains of the King's feast and bring it home with me. The King would not want anything wasted. Will you take me?"
But the messenger shook his head a third time, for the child was not ready.
Then he did not know which way to go, and he began to think that he would not be able to find any guest for the King's feast. As he waited, he saw two children, a girl and a boy, coming toward him. They were poor children, and one was leading the other, for he was lame. The messenger looked at them. The little girl had eyes like stars and her hair, blowing in the November wind, was like a cloud made golden by the sunset. She held her head so high, and smiled so bravely that no one would have noticed her old dress and the holes in her coat. The messenger stood in the road in front of her and spoke to her.
"Are you ready to keep the thanksgiving day as the King would like you to?" he asked.
The little girl looked up in the messenger's face in surprise.
"No, I am not ready," she said, "but this child is. I am bringing him because he is lame, and because he is hungry. Will you take him?" she asked.
"Yes," said the messenger, "and you, too. There is room at the King's table for both."