One day Horse-Master Sorren was in the barn shoeing one of his horses from the team. He loved his work as he loved his horses. By pure chance the animal was spooked by a sudden sound carried on the wind. The frightened animal flinched, just a bit, but it was enough to cause Sorren to miss the mark with his hammer-stroke, smashing the hammer into his finger instead of the nail. When Sigmus asked about it, all Sorren would say was, “Tis a fitting punishment for some undeclared sin,” and he chuckled knowingly.
One dark and chilly night young Bartholomew was roused from his bed by his father. King Sigmus stood over the sleepy boy of only nine years of age and whispered.
“Come with me, Bartholomew. There is something I want you to see.”
The young boy’s eyes opened wide and the aging King saw that he had frightened the young boy. He touched his son’s cheek with his hand and it was warm. Then he smiled and gave a wink.
“Do not be frightened,” he said. “We must not let the light in our eyes destroy the darkness. This is something you will like.”
Young Bartholomew slowly crawled out of bed and put his feet into a pair of warm slippers his father held for him. Then he put on a nightgown over his bedclothes and followed his father out of the room. King Sigmus led the way. He carried a candle and the weak light barely illuminated their way through the long corridor of their castle. The boy followed closely behind his father and to the boy it seemed like they were tunneling into the very earth. So strange it was to be lurking around during the dead of night that the boy knew that it had to be something special.
King Sigmus led young Bartholomew through the garden gate. Starlight shone down on the beautiful flagstones enough for them to find their way to the center of the garden where a stone bench faced a grotto of flowers and water-plants. The dense foliage from the garden hedge blocked out most of the light from outside the sanctuary and they sat together in almost pitch blackness. Sigmus went down on one knee. He took Bartholomew’s hand and pointed to a position in the sky. A tiny star burned weakly.
“Do you see it?” Sigmus asked.
Bartholomew looked to where his father was pointing. Sigmus was pointing with his finger, but all he could see was a faint star.
“Do you see it?” King Sigmus asked again. “Look closely son. It is not a star.”
Then Bartholomew saw that it was indeed different than other stars. This one had a tail and was slowly moving across the sky against the panoply of the other stars. No more than a smudge against the night sky, the boy was fascinated though at first he could not say why.
“What is it, father?” he asked.
King Sigmus and Bartholomew continued to watch the fiery object and the King knew that this was a special moment. This was a moment the young boy would not soon forget.
“The astrologer tells me it is a comet,” said the King.
“What is a comet?” Bartholomew asked without taking his eyes off the heavenly object.
“A sign,” the King answered. “The astrologer tells me that a comet foretells of the future. See it as it blazes across the sky. This is surely a heavenly event Bartholomew, for it travels across the sky and passes between the spheres.”
“What does it say?” the boy asked innocently.
The King laughed softly. Children were often the most charming when they were completely honest. His boy was honest and curious, and the King was proud of him.
“I do not know what it says,” he admitted joyfully. “Fortunate is the man that has not learned all the secrets of God. For in truth, were we to know all the secrets of God, we would be too frightened to live.”
“Will it hit us?” Bartholomew asked suddenly.
“No, it will not come close enough, unless I am mistaken.” said the King. In truth, he was just a little apprehensive about it. “The spheres have been put in place by our Creator,” he continued. “The universe is like exquisite clockwork. What it reveals or what it portends, I cannot say. But I do not believe that the Lord would carelessly bring wrath upon his people. Therefore Bartholomew, I choose to believe that it is a sign.”
Father and son were quiet. Now the sound of the wind rustled the garden as it slipped through the hedgerow. The King shared a special moment with his son. He thought about his own father and how he wished he could be here to see him now. Finally Bartholomew looked at his father and asked.
“If the universe is really a giant clockwork, what does it do?”
King Sigmus furrowed his brow. He had never thought about it. He had lived his entire life without once ever thinking about the answer to this question.
“The universe doesn’t do anything,” he answered thoughtfully. “It just is.”
Young Bartholomew was too clever to believe such a thing. “I think it must do something,” he persisted.
“It is perfect,” the King replied. “The astrologer informs me that the precision of the universe is limited only by our own ability to observe it, and that the beauty would only increase with our ability to more accurately observe it. This comet that you and I have witnessed together is a sign. The design of the universe was not invented frivolously, of that you can be sure.”
They both watched the comet together and the mind of the King wandered. The gentle whirling and twirling of the night sky always made him feel safe and strangely humble. It seemed to him that the universe was great just the way it was, and it was enough for him just to look at it and be inspired. God had made it perfect and that was good enough for him. Perhaps his son would be different than he, for he was growing old while his son was growing young. Unlike him, Bartholomew questioned everything. Alas, such was the fate of man that he should seek to understand that which was beyond the scope of his futile mind. Such was the fate of man that such futility should only inspire greater and greater leaps of faith into a new design that was being newly invented and molded from the fragments of destruction. And if he should at last discover the source of truth, what then?
When they were both ready to go back to bed, the King lit the candle and bade Bartholomew to follow quietly. He took him into the castle and down the winding steps into the cellar they went. The King opened a chest and removed a carefully wrapped cake. He smiled when he handed Bartholomew a piece. Then he took one for himself and closed the chest.
“This is a special occasion,” he said with genuine mirth. “It’s all right, Bartholomew,” he said. “We are fresh off an adventure.” Then he took a bite and smiled again.
The next morning Bartholomew woke late because he had spent the previous night dreaming about the secrets his father said were hidden in the perfection of the universe. He could not stop thinking about the strange comet and how it could break the design that his father said was perfect. To a boy of nine, such a statement can be a challenge, such a statement only makes him think harder, and his mind would not let it go.
After breakfast, Bartholomew went to the stables to look at the horses. One day soon he would have his own horse and he would give it a name, and the two would explore all the places that were left to explore on the island. Phillip the Horse-Master, charged with taking care of all the horses, was fitting a bridle to one of the carriage-horses, a black mare named Leona.
Bartholomew saw that Phillip was busy, so he went past him without saying a word and went into the stable. Phillip, a mild mannered Manxman, loved horses. He spoke to them tenderly and calmed them during a storm. Phillip liked to bring the horses into the stable so that he could examine them to see that they were healthy, and he could tell you the difference between the different grasses and their particular attributes for feeding horses. Phillip was careful, and it was a fortunate horse that stood beneath his ministering hands. Then he would let them roam in the pasture behind the stable where there was plenty of grass and clover for them to munch on.
The young Bartholomew went to the stall where his favorite pony stood munching on a barrel of oats. He went eagerly to the gate and looked in. The pony paid him no heed.
“I don’t know what your name is,” he spoke conversationally to the pony. “I’ll just call you, Mr. Horse for now.”
The pony did not look up or acknowledge his new name, but only continued chewing as if no one were even speaking to it. It did not matter that Bartholomew was a prince, oats were oats and a prince was a prince.
“You don’t have to answer,” chided Bartholomew warmly. “I know what it is like to be hungry . . . well, sort of.”
Mr. Horse was not even a proper horse yet, but only a colt. There would come a time, Bartholomew imagined, when Mr. Horse would prefer to tramp across fields than to be penned up with a barrel of oats for company. The boy reached his hand into the pen and touched the hungry pony who paid not the least amount of attention to the young boy talking nonsense.
“Your hair needs combing,” Bartholomew continued.
Then Bartholomew turned around and began searching the stable. There were six pens in three of which horses chomped on oats and hay or merely stood looking at the boy rummaging around. He was looking for a comb with which to groom his favorite horse’s mangy mane. Then he saw a wooden bench against the back wall of the stable. There was a window above it and dirty light filtered through the dirty glass and shone upon the work-bench. On the table was a myriad of cutting and shearing and sharpening tools, along with oils and cleaners and ointments in glass containers. He found several brushes on the table and took the one he thought was best for his purpose. Then he went back to the pen where Mr. Horse stood, still focusing all his horse attention on the remaining oats in his barrel.
“Now I’m just going to brush your hair, Mr. Horse,” said young Bartholomew innocently. “I know that there is no way for you to comb your own hair, but that is no excuse. Do you hear me, Mr. Horse?”
Bartholomew reached as far into the pen as he could, but he could not reach all the way to Mr. Horse’s gnarled mane. The boy grew frustrated until he came up with another idea. Carefully he climbed onto the railing that kept the horse from escaping. As he did this he remembered his father’s instructions for him not to play near the horses. His father had said that he was too young and that he could easily be hurt, for horses were ignorant animals. Bartholomew told himself that he would be careful and that his father surely would not object if he promised to be careful. How could his father say that horses were ignorant animals? Horses were good animals. Besides, all he wanted to do was comb his hair, and that was not really playing, was it?
Now the boy was able to reach the thick mane of the pony. He sunk the comb into the thick hair and tried to pull it through, but the hair was very tangled and the comb would not go through. He pulled down harder on the comb and suddenly he lost his balance and fell headlong into the pen still holding the comb. Mr. Horse was startled by the yanking on his mane and the presence of a boy falling into his pen. The horse became nervous and started to panic. Bartholomew tried to get to his feet as the horse started bucking in his pen. Bartholomew realized that he was about to be trampled to death and tried to climb out of the pen, and that is when Mr. Horse reared and threw his hindquarter into the boy, breaking his leg. Bartholomew cried out as he fell safely outside the pen. When Phillip came racing into the stable his heart broke for Bartholomew and his heart broke for the horse, because he knew who would be blamed.
The doctor finished checking the bandages on young Bartholomew’s leg. Then he told the boy how lucky he was not to have been hurt more severely. King Sigmus stood near the window and waited for the doctor to leave. Then he came up to the bed and looked sternly at his son. His face was stern but also charged with concern.
“You are lucky,” he reiterated. “What were you thinking? Did I not tell you to stay away from the horses?”
“I’m sorry,” Bartholomew pleaded, and he knew that he had done something wrong. “I just wanted to comb his hair,” he cried.
“You need to think about what you have done,” said the King. “It is Phillip’s job to care for the horses. He was not there when you were hurt.” The King hesitated before finishing his sentence. Then he said. “I am going to give you a choice, Bartholomew. You will be punished, or Phillip will be punished in your place. The choice is yours. When I return, I will expect an answer.” Then he quickly and confidently left his son’s room.
The door closed and young Bartholomew watched it sadly and knew that when it opened again, he would be different and that he would be changed. He loved, Phillip. The last thing he ever wanted to do was to get him into trouble. He never should have disobeyed his father. And then a strange thought occurred to him. The sign that he and his father saw in the sky came back to him now. God knew everything that he would ever do and everything that he had ever done. Perhaps the sign was meant for him to remind him that he could never escape the consequences of his actions, and that in a perfectly designed world God could still do anything he wanted.
When the door opened again, he had made up his mind. King Sigmus stood next to the bed and looked down expectantly.
“Have you thought about what I said?” he asked.
Bartholomew did his best to sit up in bed, but the cast on his leg and the dull pain that permeated his entire body made it difficult. Propping himself on one elbow he did his best to look dignified when he said.
“I wish for you to punish me and not Phillip,” he said with resolution.
King Sigmus withheld a smile though he was very proud of his son at this moment. He withheld a smile because there was still one more thing for him to do, and he did it now with uneasiness, a trepidation that he was unaccustomed with.
“I have thought about what your punishment should be,” he said, trying to sound fatherly and kingly at the same time. “It should serve you best, and my punishment for you is that you should decide the proper discipline to be given to Phillip.”
Bartholomew felt sudden pain in the pit of his stomach and the blood drained from his face. So unprepared he was for this that he could not even think of a way to respond but only stared at his father incredulously.
The King was conscious of the effect his words were having on his son, but he fought back the urge to temper them just yet. He continued speaking as if his young son were not in pain.
“The duties of a King are often mysterious and difficult to ascertain, and oftentimes your judgment must be your own moral compass. A King does not wish to punish his own people, Bartholomew. He does it because he must, do you understand?”
Bartholomew looked at his father and his eyes began to grow moist. His father truly was a King, and he was just a boy. His indiscretion now seemed so trivial compared to the vicissitudes and decisions that had to be made by a King.
“Do you see now, Bartholomew why it must be so? You could easily have been killed. You disobeyed my instruction to your own detriment. And who was it that was supposed to protect you?”
“I only wanted to comb his hair,” Bartholomew said tearfully.
Then King Sigmus knelt down by the bed next to his son and took his hand. Now his eyes were moist too. He loved his son so much that it was sometimes difficult to teach him. The King squeezed his hand warmly.
“You are forgiven,” he said softly. “I only wanted you to understand how the judgment of a parent can sometimes seem strict or harsh, but it is from love that it is given. It is not easy to punish, Bartholomew. But there will come a day when you will be called upon to deal out punishment. Do it from love . . . never from anger, Bartholomew.”
Young Bartholomew reached up and put his arms around his father. He hugged him tenderly and took comfort from his strength. Someday he would have to live up to the expectations that were implied by his birthright and he knew he would need help. Then he let go of his father and asked.
“Why did you show me the comet, father? Did you know it was there all along? Did you know that I was going to break my leg?”
King Sigmus laughed heartily. He laughed because it was so much like his son and he laughed for himself because he was so happy.
“How wise do you think I am?” he asked with a smile. “No,” he said, still smiling. “I think that was a warning of another kind. I think that even the Lord sometimes must discipline His children and He allowed you to break your leg out of love. No, I think the warning was for someone else.”
“I do not like these mysteries,” said the boy.
“Everything is a mystery, Bartholomew. To the Lord, everything is as one, but we must wait for the end.”