IN BRIEF AUTHORITY
BY F. ANSTEY
AUTHOR OF "VICE VERSA," "A FALLEN IDOL," "THE PARIAH," "THE GIANT'S ROBE," "LYRE AND LANCET," "THE BRASS BOTTLE," "THE TALKING HORSE AND OTHER TALES," "SALTED ALMONDS," ETC.
LONDON SMITH, ELDER & CO., 15 WATERLOO PLACE 1915
[All rights reserved]
Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & CO. at the Ballantyne Press, Edinburgh
It may be as well to mention here that the whole of this book was planned, and at least three-fourths of it actually written, in those happy days, which now seem so pathetically distant, when we were still at peace—days when, to all but a very few, so hideous a calamity as a World-War seemed a danger that had passed for the present, and might never recur; when even those few could hardly have foreseen that England would be so soon compelled to fight for her very existence against the most efficient and deadly foe it has ever been her lot to encounter.
But, as the central idea of this story happens to be inseparably connected with certain characters and incidents of German origin, I have left them unaltered—partly because it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to substitute any others, but mainly because I cannot bring myself to believe that the nursery friends of our youth could ever be regarded as enemies.
I. "THE SKIRTS OF HAPPY CHANCE"
II. RUSHING TO CONCLUSIONS
III. FINE FEATHERS
IV. CROWNED HEADS
V. DIGNITY UNDER DIFFICULTIES
VI. CARES OF STATE
VII. A GAME THEY DID NOT UNDERSTAND
VIII. "A STEED THAT KNOWS HIS RIDER"
IX. THE PLEASURES OF THE TABLE
X. THE BLONDE BEAST
XI. A WAY OUT
XII. UNWELCOME ANNOUNCEMENTS
XIII. WHAT THE PIGEON SAID
XIV. BAG AND BAGGAGE
XV. "RIVEN WITH VAIN ENDEAVOUR"
XVI. "A CLOUD THAT'S DRAGONISH"
XVII. THE REWARD OF VALOUR
XVIII. A PREVIOUS ENGAGEMENT
XIX. SERVANTS OF THE QUEEN
XX. AT THE END OF HER TETHER
XXI. "WHOSE LIGHTS ARE FLED, WHOSE GARLANDS DEAD"
XXII. SQUARING ACCOUNTS
IN BRIEF AUTHORITY
"THE SKIRTS OF HAPPY CHANCE"
On a certain afternoon in March Mrs. Sidney Stimpson (or rather Mrs. Sidney Wibberley-Stimpson, as a recent legacy from a distant relative had provided her with an excuse for styling herself) was sitting alone in her drawing-room at "Inglegarth," Gablehurst.
"Inglegarth" was the name she had chosen for the house on coming to live there some years before. What it exactly meant she could not have explained, but it sounded distinguished and out of the common, without being reprehensibly eccentric. Hence the choice.
Some one, she was aware, had just entered the carriage-drive, and after having rung, was now standing under the white "Queen Anne" porch; Mitchell, the rosy-cheeked and still half-trained parlour-maid, was audible in the act of "answering the door."
It being neither a First nor a Third Friday, Mrs. Stimpson was not, strictly speaking, "at home" except to very intimate friends, though she made a point of being always presentable enough to see any afternoon caller. On this occasion she was engaged in no more absorbing occupation than the study of one of the less expensive Society journals, and, having already read all that was of real interest in its columns, she was inclined to welcome a distraction.
"If you please, m'm," said Mitchell, entering, "there's a lady wishes to know if she could see you for a minute or two."
"Did you ask her to state her business, Mitchell?... No? Then you should have. Called for a subscription to something, I expect. Tell her I am particularly engaged. I suppose she didn't give any name?"
"Oh yes, m'm. She give her name—Lady 'Arriet Elmslie, it was."
"Then why on earth didn't you say so before," cried the justly exasperated Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "instead of leaving her ladyship on the door-mat all this time? Really, Mitchell, you are too trying! Go and show her in at once—and be careful to say 'my lady.' And bring up tea for two as soon as you can—the silver tea-pot, mind!"
It might have been inferred from her manner that she and Lady Harriet were on terms of closest friendship, but this was not exactly the case. Mrs. Stimpson had indeed known her for a considerable time, but only by sight, and she had long ceased to consider a visit from Lady Harriet as even a possible event. Now it had actually happened, and, providentially, on an afternoon when Mitchell's cap and apron could defy inspection. But if it was the first time that an Earl's daughter had crossed Mrs. Stimpson's threshold, she was not at all the woman to allow the fact to deprive her of her self-possession.
A title had no terror for her. Before her marriage, when she was Miss Selina Prinsley, she had acted as hostess for her father, the great financier and company promoter, who had entertained lavishly up to the date of his third and final failure. Her circle then had included many who could boast of knighthoods, and even baronetcies!
And, though Lady Harriet was something of a personage at Gablehurst, and confined her acquaintance to her own particular set, there was nothing formidable or even imposing in her appearance. She was the widow of a Colonel Elmslie, and apparently left with only moderate means, judging from the almost poky house on the farther side of the Common, which she shared with an unmarried female cousin of about her own age.
So, when she was shown in, looking quite ordinary, and even a little shy, Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson rose to receive her with perfect ease, being supported by the consciousness that she was by far the more handsomely dressed of the two. In fact her greeting was so gracious as to be rather overpowering.
"Interrupting me? Not in the very least, dear Lady Harriet! Only too delighted, I'm sure!... Now do take off your boa, and come nearer the fire. You'll find this quite a comfy chair, I think. Tea will be brought in presently.... Oh, you really must, after trapesing all that way across the Common. I can't tell you how pleased I am to see you. I've so often wished to make your acquaintance, but I couldn't take the first step, could I? So nice of you to break the ice!"
Lady Harriet submitted to these rather effusive attentions resignedly enough. She could hardly interrupt her hostess's flow of conversation without rudeness, while she had already begun to suspect that Mrs. Stimpson might form an entertaining study.
But her chief reason, after all, was that the prospect of tea had its attractions. Accordingly she attempted no further explanations of her visit just then, and was content to observe Mrs. Stimpson, while she rippled on complacently.
She saw a matron who might be about fifty, with abundant pale auburn hair, piled up, and framing her face in a sort of half aureole. The eyes were small and hazel green; the nose narrow and pointed, the wide, full-lipped mouth, which wore just then a lusciously ingratiating smile, showed white but prominent teeth. The complexion was of a uniform oatmealy tint, and, though Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson was neither tall nor slim, she seemed to have taken some pains to preserve a waist.
"Most fortunate I happened to be at home," she was saying. "And if you had called on one of my regular days, I shouldn't have had the chance of a real talk with you. As it is, we shall be quite tete-a-tete.... Ah, here is tea—you must tell me if you like it weak, dear Lady Harriet, and I shall remember the next time you come. Yes, you find me all alone this afternoon. My eldest daughter, Edna, has gone to a lecture at her Mutual Improvement Society, on a German Philosopher called Nitchy, or some such name. She's so bookish and well-read, takes such an interest in all the latest movements—runs up to town for matinees of intellectual dramas—quite the modern type of girl. But not a blue-stocking—she's joined a Tango Class lately, and dances most beautifully, I'm told—just the figure for it. We got up a little Costume Ball here this winter—perhaps you may have heard of it?—Ah, well, my Edna was generally admitted to be the belle of the evening. A perfect Juliet, everybody said. I went as her mother—Lady Capulet, you know. I did think of going as Queen Elizabeth at one time. I've so often been told that if I ever went to a Fancy Dress Ball, I ought to go as her—or at all events as one of our English Queens. But, however, I didn't. Mr. Stimpson went as a Venetian Doge, but I do not consider myself that it was at all suitable to him."
She did not say all this without a motive. She knew that a local Historical Pageant was being arranged for the coming Summer, and that Lady Harriet was on the Committee. Also she had heard that, after rehearsals had begun, some of the principal performers had resigned their parts, and the Committee had some difficulty in finding substitutes.
It had struck her as not at all unlikely that her visitor had called with a view to ascertaining whether the services of any of the Stimpson household would be available. If she had, it was, of course very gratifying. If she had merely come in a neighbourly way, there was no harm in directing her attention to the family qualifications for a Pageant performance.
Her hearer, without betraying any sign of the mirth she inwardly felt, meekly agreed that Mrs. Stimpson was undoubtedly well fitted to impersonate a Queen, and that the costume of a Venetian Doge was rather a trying one, after which her hostess proceeded: "Perhaps you are right, dear Lady Harriet, but the worst of it was that my boy Clarence, who would have made such a handsome Romeo, insisted on going as a Pierrot! Very likely you have seen Clarence?... Oh, you would certainly have noticed him if you had—always so well turned out. He's got quite a good post as Secretary to an Insurance Co., in the City: they think so highly of him there—take his advice on everything—in fact, he practically is the Company! And only twenty-two! It's such a relief, because there was a time when it really seemed as if he'd never settle down to any regular work. Nothing would induce him to enter my husband's business—for I must tell you, Lady Harriet, we are in business. Sauces, pickles, condiments of every sort and description—wholesale, you know, not retail, so I hope you aren't too dreadfully shocked!"
Lady Harriet remarked that she saw nothing to be shocked at—several of her relations and friends were in business of various kinds, which gave Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson the opening she required. "Society has changed its views so much lately, has it not?" she said. "Why, the youngest partner in Mr. Wibberley-Stimpson's firm is a younger son of the Earl of Fallowfields—Mr. Chervil Thistleton, and an Honourable, of course! I daresay you are acquainted with him?... Not? Quite a charming young man—married a Miss Succory, a connection of the Restharrows, and such a sweet girl! You may have met her?... Oh, I thought—but I really hardly know her myself yet," (which was Mrs. Stimpson's method of disguising the fact that she had never met either of them in her life). "When he came into the warehouse he was perfectly amazed at the immense variety in pickles and sauces—it was quite a revelation to him. Only he can't touch pickles of any kind, which is a pity, because it prevents him from taking the interest he might in the business.... Just one of these hot cakes, dear Lady Harriet—you're making such a wretched tea!... I should like you to see my youngest child, Ruby. She's gone out to tea with some little friends of hers, but she may be back before you go. So much admired—such lovely colouring! But just a little difficult to manage. Governess after governess have I had, and none of them could do anything with her. My present one, however, she seems to have taken to. Miss Heritage, her name is—at least she was adopted as a baby by a rich widow of that name, and brought up in every luxury. But Mrs. Heritage died without making a will, and it seems she'd muddled away most of her money, and there were claims on what she left, so the poor girl had to turn out, and earn her own living. Such a sad little story, is it not? I felt it was really a charity to engage her. I'm not sure that I can keep her much longer, though. She's far too good-looking for a governess, and there's always a danger with a marriageable young man in the house, but fortunately Clarence has too much sense and principle to marry out of his own rank. I do think that's such a mistake, don't you, dear Lady Harriet? Look at the Duke of Mountravail's heir, the young Marquis of Muscombe—married only last month at a registry office to a girl who was in the chorus at the Vivacity! I hear she comes of quite a respectable family, and all that," admitted Mrs. Stimpson, who derived her information from her Society journals. "But still, can you wonder at the poor Duke and Duchess being upset by it? I've no doubt you are constantly coming across similar instances in Smart Society."
Lady Harriet disclaimed all acquaintanceship with Smart Society, which Mrs. Stimpson protested she could not believe. "I am sure you have the entree into any set, Lady Harriet, even the smartest! Which reminds me. Have you heard anything more about that mysterious disappearance of the Dowager Duchess of Gleneagle's diamonds during her journey from the North last week? A tiara, and a dog-collar, I was told. Professional thieves, I suppose, but don't you think the Duchess's maid?—Oh, really? I made sure you would be a friend of the Duchess's—but, of course, Society is so much larger than it used to be!"
"You are a far better authority than I can pretend to be about it," Lady Harriet owned smilingly; "and really you've given me so much interesting information that I had nearly forgotten what I came to see you about. It's—well, I wanted to ask——"
"I think I can guess, Lady Harriet," put in Mrs. Stimpson, as her visitor paused for a second. "I've heard of your difficulties about getting players for the Pageant, and I'm sure I, and indeed all the family, would feel only too honoured."
"It's most kind of you," Lady Harriet interrupted, rising, "but—but that isn't why I've troubled you. It's only that I'm thinking of engaging Jane Saunders as house-parlourmaid, and she tells me she was in your service, so I called to ask about her character, don't you know."
For a moment Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson wished she had been less precipitate, but she soon recognised that no real harm had been done. "Saunders?" she said, "yes, she left me last month. Do sit down again, dear Lady Harriet, and I'll give you all the information I possibly can. Well, when that girl first came, she had everything to learn. It was quite evident she'd never been in service before with gentlefolks. Actually brought in letters in her fingers, Lady Harriet, and knocked at sitting-room doors! And no notion of cleaning silver, and I like to see mine come up to table without a speck! However, after being with me for a while, she improved, and I can conscientiously say that she became quite competent in time. That is, for a household like ours, you know, where things are done in quite an unpretentious style."
"I don't think we are at all pretentious people either," said Lady Harriet, rising once more. "And now, Mrs. Stimpson, you have told me all I wanted to know, so I must tear myself away."
"Must you really be going? Well, Lady Harriet, I've so much enjoyed our little chat. There are so few persons in a semi-suburban neighbourhood like this, with whom one can have anything in common. So I shall hope to see more of you in future. And if," she added, after ringing for Mitchell, "I should find I've forgotten anything I ought to have told you about Saunders, I can easily pop in some morning." Lady Harriet hastened to assure her that she must not think of giving herself this trouble—after which she took her leave.
"Rather an amusing experience in its way," she was thinking. "Something to tell Joan when I get back. But oh! what an appalling woman! She's settled one thing, though. It will be quite impossible to take Jane Saunders now. A pity—because I rather liked the girl's looks!"
Meanwhile the happily unconscious Mrs. Stimpson had settled down in her chair again with the conviction that she had made a distinctly favourable impression. She allowed her eyes to wander complacently round the room, which, with its big bay window looking on the semi-circular gravel sweep, and its glazed door by the fireplace leading through a small conservatory, gay with begonias, asters, and petunias to the garden beyond, was not merely large, by Gablehurst standards, but undeniably pleasant. She regarded its various features—the white chimney-piece and over-mantel with Adam decorations in Cartonpierre, the silk fire-screen printed with Japanese photographs, the cottage-grand, on which stood a tall trumpet vase filled with branches of imitation peach blossom, the etageres ("Louis Quinze style") containing china which could not be told from genuine Dresden at a distance, the gaily patterned chintz on the couches and chairs, the water-colour sketches of Venice, and coloured terra-cotta plaques embossed on high relief with views of the Forum and St. Peter's at Rome on the walls, and numerous "nick-nacks"—an alabaster model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a wood carving of the Lion of Lucerne, and groups of bears from Berne—all of which were not only souvenirs of her wedding-journey, but witnesses to Continental travel and general culture.
She could see nothing that was not in the most correct taste, as Lady Harriet must have observed for herself, together with the hammered copper gong, the oak chest, and the china bowl for cards in the hall. Strange that Saunders should have been the humble means of bringing about so unexpected a meeting, but Providence chose its own instruments, and now the seed was sown, Mrs. Stimpson felt she could rely on herself for the harvest.
And so she took up the latest number of The Upper Circle, and read, to the accompaniment of alternate duologues and soliloquies by thrushes and blackbirds in the garden, until gradually she drifted into a blissful dream of being at a garden-party at Lady Harriet's and entreated, not merely by her hostess, but Royalty itself, to accept the role of Queen at the County Pageant!
She was in the act of doing this gracefully, when the vision was abruptly ended by the entrance of her elder daughter. Edna was by no means bad-looking, in spite of her light eyelashes and eyebrows, and the fact that the pince-nez she wore compressed her small nose in an unbecoming ridge. Her eyes were larger than her mother's, though of the same colour, and her hair was of a deeper shade of auburn. Her costume was of a kind that may be described as the floppily artistic.
"I never heard you come in, my dear," said her mother. "Did you enjoy your lecture?"
"Quite; I took pages and pages of notes. Nietzsche's Gospel of the Superman is certainly most striking."
"And what is his Gospel exactly?"
"Oh, well, he teaches that the ideal man ought to rise superior to conventional prejudices, and have the courage to do as he thinks right without deferring to ordinary ideas. To be strong in willing what he wants—all that sort of thing, you know."
"Dear me!" said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson dubiously. "But, if everybody acted like that, would it be quite—er—nice?"
"There's no fear of any of the men in Gablehurst being Supermen, at all events!" said Edna. "They're all perfect slaves to convention! But the lecturer explained the Nietzschean theories in such a way that he made us feel there was a great deal to be said for them.... No tea, thanks. I had mine at the Fletchers. It looks," she added, with a glance at the tea-cups, "as if you had been entertaining some one, Mother—who was it?"
"Only Lady Harriet," replied Mrs. Stimpson, with elaborate carelessness.
"What Lady Harriet?" was the intentionally provoking query.
"Really, Edna, one would think there were dozens of them! The Lady Harriet: Lady Harriet Elmslie, of course."
"Oh," said Edna. "And what did she want?"
"Well, she came to ask after Saunders' character, but she stayed to tea, and we really struck up quite an intimate friendship, discussing one thing and another. She's so quiet and unassuming, Edna—absolutely no hauteur. I'm sure you will like her. I told her about you all, and she seemed so interested. Quite between ourselves, I shouldn't be at all surprised if she got us invited to take part in the Pageant—she's on the Committee, you know."
"If I was invited, Mother, I'm not at all sure I shouldn't refuse."
"You must please yourself about that, my dear," said Mrs. Stimpson, who, perhaps, felt but little anxiety as to the result. "I shall certainly accept if the part is at all suitable."
She might have said more, if Ruby had not suddenly burst into the room. Ruby was certainly the flower of the family—an extremely engaging young person of about ten, whose mischievous golden-brown eyes had long and curling lashes, and whose vivacious face was set off by a thick mane of deepest Titian red.
"Oh, Mummy," she announced breathlessly, "I've got invitations for nearly all my animals while we're away at Eastbourne! Mucius Scaevola's the most popular—everybody asked him, but I think he'll feel most at home with Daisy Williams. Vivian and Ada Porter will simply love to have Numa Pompilius, but nobody seems to want Tarquinius Superbus, so I shall turn him out in the garden, and he must catch worms for himself."
"Dearest child," said her mother, "what are these new animals of yours with the extraordinary names?"
"They're the same old animals, Mums. I've rechristened them since I began Roman History with Miss Heritage. Mucius Scaevola's the Salamander, because they're indifferent to fire, like he was—though Miss Heritage says it wouldn't be kind to try with Mucius. Numa Pompilius is the Blind-worm—he used to be Kaa—and the Toad has changed from Nobbles to Tarquinius Superbus."
"I can't understand how you can keep such unpleasant pets as reptiles," said Edna.
"Because I like them," said Ruby simply. "And Bobby Williams has promised, as soon as it gets warmer, to come out on the Common with me and catch lizards. Won't it be lovely?"
"I hope you won't put one of them down anybody's neck, then, as you did to Tommy Fletcher."
"That was Mucius," Ruby admitted cheerfully. "But I didn't mean him to go so far down. And he was very good—he didn't bite Tommy anywhere."
"Little ladies don't play such tricks," said her Mother. "I hope Miss Heritage doesn't encourage your liking for these horrid creatures?"
"Oh, she doesn't mind, so long as I don't take them out of the aquarium, but she hates touching them herself."
"Did she come in with you?" her mother inquired, and was told that Miss Heritage had done so, and had gone upstairs, whereupon Ruby was ordered to go and take off her things, and stay quietly in the schoolroom till it was time to come down.
"I don't know if you noticed it, Mother," Edna began, as soon as Ruby had consented to leave them, "but Miss Heritage had a letter by the afternoon post which seemed to upset her. I went rather out of my way to ask her if she had had bad news of any kind, but she did not think proper to take me into her confidence. Perhaps she might be more open with you."
"My dear," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, with much dignity, "I take no interest whatever in Miss Heritage's private correspondence."
"Nor I," declared Edna. "I only thought that if she is in any trouble—She's so secretive, you know, Mums. I've tried more than once to get her to tell me what cosmetic she uses for her hands—and she never will own to using any at all!"
"I'm sure, Edna, you've no reason to be ashamed of your hands."
"Oh, they look all right just now," said Edna, examining them dispassionately. "But they will turn lobster colour at the most inconvenient times. Hers never do—and it does seem so unfair, considering—" She broke off here, as Daphne Heritage entered.
"Well, Miss Heritage?" said Mrs. Stimpson, as the girl hesitated on seeing Edna. "Did you wish to speak to me?"
"I did rather want your advice about something," said Daphne, who had a paper, and a small leather case in her hands; "I thought I might find you alone. It doesn't matter—it will do quite well another time."
"Don't let me prevent you, Miss Heritage," said Edna. "If you don't wish to speak to Mother before me, I've no desire to remain. I was just going up to change in any case."
She went out with a slightly huffy air, which was not entirely due to baffled curiosity, for she admired Daphne enough to resent being quietly kept at a distance.
"It's about this," explained Daphne, after Edna had made her exit—"a bill that has just been sent on to me." She gave the paper to Mrs. Stimpson as she spoke. "I don't know quite what to do about it."
She looked very young and inexperienced as she stood there, a slim girlish figure with masses of burnished hair the colour of ripe corn, braided and coiled as closely as possible round her small head, but there was no trace of timidity or subservience in her manner. In the slight form, with the milk-white skin, delicate profile and exquisite hands, there was a distinction that struck her employer as quite absurdly out of keeping with her position.
"The only thing to do about a bill, my dear," said Mrs. Stimpson, "is to pay it. But nearly thirty pounds is a large sum for you to owe your milliner."
"It's for things Mother—my adopted mother, you know—ordered for me. Stephanie was always told to send in the account to her. But this seems to have been overlooked, and the executors have sent it on to me. Only I can't pay it myself—unless you wouldn't mind advancing me the money out of my salary."
"I couldn't possibly. You forget that it would represent over a year's salary, and it's by no means certain that you will be with me so long."
"I was afraid you wouldn't," said Daphne, with a little droop at the corners of her extremely pretty mouth. "So I brought this to show you." She held out the leather case. "It's the only jewellery I've got. It belonged to my father, I believe; he and my real mother both died when I was a baby, you know—and I never meant to part with it. But now I'm afraid I must—that is, if you think any jeweller would give as much as thirty pounds for it."
Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson opened the case, which was much more modern than the kind of badge or pendant it contained. This was a fairly large oval stone of a milky green, deeply engraved with strangely formed letters interlaced in a cypher, and surrounded by a border of dark blue gems which Mrs. Stimpson decided instantly must be Cabochon star sapphires of quite exceptional quality. The gold chain attached to it was antique and of fine and curious workmanship.
She was convinced that the pendant must be worth considerably more than thirty pounds, though she was no doubt right in telling Daphne that no jeweller would offer so much for an ornament that was quite out of fashion. "Besides," she said, "I don't like the idea of any governess of mine going about offering jewellery for sale. Have Edna or Ruby seen you wearing this thing?" she asked with apparent irrelevance.
It appeared they had not; Daphne had never worn it herself, and she had only remembered its existence that afternoon, and found it hidden away at the back of her wardrobe.
"Well," said Mrs. Stimpson, "it is most unpleasant to me to see a young girl like you owing all this money to her milliner."
"It isn't very pleasant for me," said Daphne ruefully; "but if you won't advance the money, and I can't or mustn't sell the pendant, I don't very well see how I can help it."
"I'll tell you what I'll do," said Mrs. Stimpson. "I really oughtn't to—and under ordinary circumstances I couldn't afford it, but, as it happens, a great-uncle of mine left me a small legacy not long ago, and I haven't spent quite all of it yet. So I don't mind buying this for thirty pounds myself."
"Will you really?" cried Daphne. "How angelic of you!"
"I think it is," said Mrs. Stimpson; "but I feel myself responsible for you, to some extent. So I'll write you a cheque for the thirty pounds, and you can send it off to this milliner person at once." She went to the writing-table and filled up the cheque. "There," she said, handing it to Daphne, "put it in an envelope and direct it at once—you'll find a stamp in that box, and it can go by the next post."
"By the way, my dear," she added, as she was leaving the room, "I needn't tell you that I shall not breathe a word to a soul of our little transaction, and I should advise you, in your own interests, to keep it entirely to yourself."
"I was quite wrong about Mrs. Stimpson," Daphne told herself reproachfully, after she had slipped the letter containing bill and cheque into the letter-box in the hall. "She can be kind sometimes, and I've been a little beast to see only the comic side of her! I daresay she won't even wear that pendant."
But Mrs. Stimpson had every intention of wearing it that same evening. It is not often that one has the opportunity of doing a kindness and securing a real bargain at a single stroke; and she knew enough about jewels to be fully aware that, if the ornament was a trifle old-fashioned, she had not done at all badly over her purchase.
"It really suits me very well," she thought, as, after putting the last touches to her evening demi-toilette, she fastened the pendant round her neck. "Even better than I expected. It was lucky Miss Heritage came to me. A jeweller would have been sure to cheat her, poor child!"
And she went down to the drawing-room feeling serenely satisfied with herself.
RUSHING TO CONCLUSIONS
Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, as she sat in the drawing-room, where the curtains had been drawn and the lamps lighted, was occupied with a project which she was anxious to impart to her husband as soon as he returned. Some time before a dull rumble from the valley had informed her that his usual train was approaching Gablehurst station, and now she heard the click of the front gate, the crunch of his well-known step on the gravel, and the opening of the hall door.
"I want to speak to you for a moment, Sidney," she said, opening the drawing-room door. "Come in here before you go up to dress." (Mrs. Stimpson insisted on his dressing for dinner. It was customary in all really good society, and also it would prevent him from feeling awkward in evening clothes—which it never did.)
"Very well, my dear," he said, entering. "Any news with you?" which was his invariable question.
Mr. Stimpson was short and inclined to be stout. What remained of his hair was auburn and separated in the middle by a wide parting; he had close-cut whiskers of a lighter red, which met in his moustache, and if his eyes had been narrow, instead of round and filmy like a seal's, and his mouth had been firm, and not loose and slightly open, he would not have been at all a bad caricature of his Majesty King Henry the Eighth.
"Nothing—except, but I'll tell you about that afterwards. Sit down, do, and don't fidget.... Well, I've been thinking, Sidney, that we really ought to ask the Chevril Thistletons to a quiet little dinner. Not to meet any of our usual set, of course! We could have the dear Rector, who, if he is Low Church, is very well connected—and Lady Harriet Elmslie."
Mr. Stimpson showed no enthusiasm at the suggestion. "Lady Elmslie, Selina!" he cried. "But we don't know her ladyship!"
"I do wish you would learn to use titles correctly, Sidney! Lady Harriet Elmslie—not Lady Elmslie! And you shouldn't speak of her, except to servants, as 'her ladyship'; that's only done by inferiors."
"Well, my love, whatever may be the correct way of speaking of her, the fact remains that we haven't the honour of her acquaintance."
"That's just where you're mistaken! We have, or at least I have;" and she described how she had come to enjoy that privilege.
"Well," he admitted at the conclusion, "she certainly seems to have made herself exceedingly affable, but it doesn't follow that she'd come and dine, even if we asked her."
"She would if it was to meet the Thistletons."
"Perhaps so, my love, but—er—we don't know that they would come."
"Of course they would, if they knew we were expecting Lady Harriet. For goodness' sake, Sidney, don't swing your foot like that—you know I can't bear it. All you have to do is to find out from Mr. Thistleton what evenings the week after next would be most convenient, and I'll undertake the rest!"
"I—I really couldn't do that, Selina. I'm a proud man, in my way, and I don't care about exposing myself unnecessarily to a rebuff."
"Why should you be rebuffed? After all, he's only a junior partner!"
"True, my love, but that doesn't make him less stand-offish. He may be in the business, but he's not of it. I doubt myself whether even old Cramphorn would venture to invite him to dinner, and if he did, I'd bet a tidy sum that the Honourable Mr. Chevril Thistleton——"
"Mr.—not the Honourable Mr. Thistleton, Sidney," corrected his wife, who had studied all such minutiae in a handbook written by a lady of unimpeachable authority. "The term is never employed in ordinary conversation, or on visiting cards. But, if you won't show a proper spirit, I shall write myself to Mrs. Thistleton and propose one or two dates."
"It would be no good, my love," said Mr. Stimpson, brought to bay, "because, if you must know, I—er—did approach the subject with Thistleton—and—well, his manner was not sufficiently encouraging to induce me to try it again. Not so fond of being made to feel as if I was no better than one of our own clerks. I get quite enough of that from old Cramphorn!"
"You should assert yourself more, Sidney, if you want people to respect you."
"I'm always asserting myself—but old Cramphorn never listens! Just goes on his own way. Won't hear of any changes—what was good enough when the firm started a hundred years ago is good enough for him—now I'm all for new ideas myself—Progress and so forth!"
"That's what has kept us back," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson; "we should have been in a far better set here than we're ever likely to be now if you hadn't given yourself out as a violent Radical, when it's well known that all best Gablehurst people are Conservatives, and several who are not really entitled to be anything of the kind. As it is, I suppose I must be content to pass my life in this suburban hole and mix with none but second-rate people. But I certainly cannot expect Lady Harriet to come here and meet them, so there's an end of it. If she imagines I've no desire to pursue her acquaintance, it can't be helped, that's all! And now you had better go up and dress."
The whole family were assembled by the time Mr. Stimpson re-appeared—his wife was in her armchair by the standard lamp. Edna was at the writing-table revising her notes of the afternoon's lecture, and Clarence was seated close by, while Ruby was whispering earnestly to Daphne on one of the chintz couches.
"All of you down before me, eh?" said the head of the family after the usual salutations had been exchanged. "But I went up long after everybody else. And not late after all—I've taught myself to dress in well under ten minutes, you see!"
"Wish he'd taught himself not to wear a white tie with a dinner jacket!" grumbled Clarence to Edna in an undertone.
"Couldn't you tell him about it?" she replied.
"I could—but what'd be the good? He'd only turn up next time in a tail-coat and a black bow!" said Clarence gloomily. "The poor old governor's one of the people who never learn——!"
Clarence's own type was that for which the latest term is "knut." He was accepted both by his family, his intimates, and himself as an infallible guide on things in general. When consulted as to matters on which he happened to be entirely ignorant, and these were not a few—he had formed the habit of preserving a pregnant silence, as of one who could say a good deal on the subject if he were at liberty to speak. And this in itself denoted a certain degree of intelligence.
In appearance he was well built, though only of average height. He had small green eyes like his mother's; his light sandy hair had a natural ripple, and his pale face expressed nothing beyond an assured consciousness of his own superiority. And yet he was not without a certain sense of humour in matters which did not immediately concern himself, though, owing to particular circumstances, it was just then distinctly in abeyance.
"What time do you get back from the City to-morrow afternoon, my boy?" his father asked.
"Not going up at all, Pater," said Clarence. "Told them I shouldn't." He was thinking that after dinner would be quite time enough to break the news that, on receiving a severe wigging for general slackness, he had lost his temper, and offered to resign his post—an offer that had been accepted with disconcerting alacrity.
"Ah, Sidney," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "Clarence knows how to assert himself, you see!"
"I merely asked," Mr. Stimpson explained, "because I'm taking a Saturday off myself, and I thought we could have a round or two of golf together, eh, my boy?"
"I don't mind going round with you before lunch," said Clarence. "Engaged for the afternoon; but, if you'll take my advice, Governor, you'd better practise a bit longer with the Pro before you attempt to play. No good trying to run till you can walk, don't you know, what?" (He had learnt to terminate his sentences with "what" as a kind of smart shibboleth.) "Hullo, Mater!" he broke off suddenly, as he noticed the pendant on her ample bosom, "where did you get that thing? Out of a cracker?"
"Certainly not, Clarence; I am not in the habit of wearing cheap jewellery. And this cost a considerable sum, though I daresay it is worth what I paid for it."
"Did you go much of a mucker for it, Mater?"
"If I did, Clarence, I was well able to do so, thanks to dear old Uncle Wibberley's legacy."
"I must say, Mother," said Edna, "it's far the most artistic thing I've ever known you buy."
"It isn't everybody's taste," remarked Mr. Stimpson, "but I should say myself that it wasn't a bad investment. Where did you come across it, my love?"
"My dear Sidney," replied Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson with much majesty, "as I purchased it with my own money, where I came across it, and what I paid for it are surely matters that only concern myself."
Daphne, who could hardly avoid hearing this conversation, was impressed by the tact and delicacy it displayed. It never occurred to her that Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson's reticence might be inspired by other motives than a generous desire to spare her feelings. "She really is quite a decent sort!" she told herself.
Clarence had not been unobservant of her—indeed it would not be too much to say that he had been acutely conscious all the time of Miss Heritage's presence.
Ever since she had become a member of the household he had alternated between the desire to impress her and the dread of becoming entangled in the toils of an artful little enchantress. It was true that since her arrival in the family she had made no effort whatever to enchant him; indeed, she had treated him with easy indifference—but this, his experience of her sex and the world told him, was probably assumed. She could hardly help knowing that he was something of a "catch" from her point of view, and scheming to ensnare him.
Perhaps Clarence, with his now dubious prospects, felt himself rather less of a catch than usual; perhaps it occurred to him that being moderately ensnared would be pleasantly exciting, since he would always know when to stop. At all events, he lounged gracefully toward the sofa, on which she and Ruby were sitting: "I say, Miss Heritage," he began, "you mustn't let my Kiddie sister bore you like this. She's been whispering away in your ear for the last ten minutes."
Daphne denied that she was being bored.
"Of course she isn't!" said Ruby; "I was finishing the story I began telling her when we were walking home. We'd got to where Daphne first meets the Fairy Prince."
"Then it's all about Miss Heritage, is it?"
"I call the heroine 'Daphne' in my story, after her—but, of course, she isn't Miss Heritage really."
"You don't seem to think it very likely that Miss Heritage will ever come across a Fairy Prince, eh!" commented Clarence, and wondered the next moment whether he mightn't have said something to commit himself.
"I hope not," said Ruby, slipping her hand affectionately through Daphne's arm, "because then she'd leave me, and I should never see her again!"
"I shouldn't worry about it just yet, darling," said Daphne, smiling. "Fairy Princes are only to be found in their own country—and it's a long way from here to Fairyland."
Clarence was noticing, not for the first time, that her full face was shaped like a shield, also that two fascinating little creases came in it when she smiled, and her pretty grey eyes had a soft sparkle in them. "I must be jolly careful," he told himself.
"I should prefer, Miss Heritage," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, who had overheard the last sentence, "that Ruby was not encouraged to fill her head with Fairy tales. I don't think them good for her."
"Oh, come, Mater!" protested Clarence, unable to resist the role of Champion. "Where on earth is the harm of them."
"Surely, Clarence," Edna put in instructively, "there is this harm—they give such an utterly false impression of what life really is! That's why I've never been able to take any interest in them."
"More likely," said Clarence, "because you've got no imagination."
"If I hadn't," retorted Edna, "I should hardly have got through the Poetry I have. Most of Browning and Alfred Austin, and all Ella Wheeler Wilcox! It's only the lowest degree of imagination that invents things that couldn't possibly have happened!"
"They may have left off, Edna, but they happened once," declared Ruby. "I know there used to be Fairyland somewhere, with Kings and Queens and Fairy Godmothers and enchanted castles and magicians and Ogres and Dragons and things in it. And Miss Heritage believes it, too—don't you, Miss Heritage, dear?"
"I'm much mistaken in Miss Heritage, my dear," said Mr. Stimpson gallantly, "if her head isn't too well screwed on (if she'll allow me to say so) to believe in any such stuff. All very well for the Nursery, you know, but not to be taken seriously, or ... why, what's that? Most extraordinary noise! Seems to come from outside, overhead."
They could all hear a strange kind of flapping whirr in the air, it grew nearer and louder and then suddenly ceased.
"Aeroplane," pronounced Clarence, drawing the window curtains and looking out. "Miles away by now, though. Terrific pace they travel at. Too dark to see anything."
He returned to the hearthrug, and the moment afterwards, the silence outside was broken by a shrill, clear call which seemed to come from silver trumpets.
"Very odd," said Mr. Stimpson, "some one seems to be playing trumpets on the gravel-sweep!"
"If it's one of those travelling German bands," said his wife, "you'd better send them away at once, Sidney."
But, whoever they were, they had already entered the hall, for almost immediately the drawing-room door was thrown open and two persons wearing tabards and gaily plumed hats entered and sounded another blast.
"'Pon my word, you know," gasped Mr. Stimpson, "this is really——"
The heralds stepped back as a third person entered. He was wearing a rich suit of some long-departed period, and, with his furrowed face and deep-set eyes, he rather resembled an elderly mastiff, though he did not convey the same impression of profound wisdom. He gazed round the room as though he himself were as bewildered as its other occupants, who were speechless with amazement. Then his eye fell on Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, and he hesitated no longer, but, advancing towards her chair, sank with some difficulty on one knee, seized her hand, and kissed it with every sign of deep respect.
"Heaven be praised!" he cried in a voice that faltered with emotion, "I have at last found the Queen we have so long sought in vain!" He spoke with some sort of foreign accent, but they all understood him perfectly. As he knelt they heard a loud crack which seemed to come from between his shoulders.
"Braces given way," whispered Clarence to Edna; "silly old ass to go kneeling in 'em!"
"Really, sir," said Mr. Stimpson, "this is most extraordinary behaviour."
"You don't understand, Sidney," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, who had recovered from her first alarm and was now in a gratified flutter; "remember what I told you about Lady Harriet and the Pageant! Pray, get up, sir," she added to the stranger, "I haven't the advantage of knowing your name."
"I am the Court Chamberlain," he said, "and my name is Treuherz von Eisenbaenden."
It was unknown to Mrs. Stimpson, but she concluded that he was some Anglo-German commercial magnate, who would naturally be invited to join the Committee for any such patriotic purpose as a Pageant.
As to the excessive ceremony of his manner, that was either the proper form for the occasion, or, what was more likely, Mr. Troitz, or whatever his name was, having come fresh from a dress rehearsal, could not divest himself as yet of his assumed character. The important point was that her interview with Lady Harriet had borne fruit already, and in the shape of a pressing invitation to play the distinguished part of "Queen!" The advantages thus offered for obtaining a social footing amongst county people made it easy to overlook any trifling eccentricities where the intention was so obviously serious. "Well, Mr. Troitz," she said graciously, "since the Committee have been kind enough to ask me, I shall be very pleased to be your Queen."
"And if I may say so, Sir," said her husband, "there are few ladies in the vicinity who would prove more competent. In fact——"
"That will do, Sidney," said his wife; "if Lady Harriet and the Committee did not consider me competent to be the Queen they would not have asked me." And Mr. Stimpson said no more.
"Pardon," Mr. Treuherz said, looking at him with solemn surprise, "but—who is this?"
"This is my husband, Mr. Troitz—let me introduce him."
"Your husband. Then, he will be the King!"
"The King?" cried Mr. Stimpson, "why, really, I'm not sure that would be altogether in my line."
"Nonsense, Sidney. Of course you will be the King if they want you! And this is my son, Clarence, Mr. Troitz. My daughters, Edna and Ruby."
"A Crown Prince!" cried Treuherz, and bent low to each in turn. "And two—no, I mistake—three Princesses! Ah, it is too much for me altogether!"
It was almost too much for Ruby, who giggled helplessly, while even Daphne had to bite her lip rather hard for a moment.
"The other young lady," corrected Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "is merely my daughter Ruby's governess—Miss Heritage. But if you like to find a place for her as one of my ladies of honour or something, I have no objection to her accepting a part," she added, reflecting that Miss Heritage's manners and appearance would add to the family importance, while it would be a comfort to have an attendant who could not give herself such airs as might a girl belonging to a county family.
"Naturally," said Treuherz, inclining himself again. "Any member of your Majesty's household you desire to bring."
"Very well; I suppose, Miss Heritage, you have no objection? Then you will accompany us, please. And now, Mr. Troitz, about when shall we be wanted?"
"When?" he replied. "But now! At once. Already I have the car waiting!"
"Now?" exclaimed Clarence; "rum time to rehearse—what?"
"Who said anything about rehearsing, Clarence?" said his mother impatiently. "It's necessary for them to see us and talk over the arrangements. It's not likely to take long."
"But it'll do later, my love," put in Mr. Stimpson, who did not like the idea of turning out without his dinner. "Fact is, Mr. Troitz, we were just about to sit down to dinner. Why not keep the car waiting a bit and join us? No ceremony, you know—just as you are!"
"Sire, I regret that it is impossible," he said. "I have undertaken to convey you with all possible speed. If we delay I cannot answer for what may happen."
"You hear what Mr. Troitz says, Sidney," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, alarmed at the idea of another being chosen in her absence. "What does it matter if we do dine a little late? Children, we must go and put on our things at once—your warmest cloaks, mind—we're sure to find it cold motoring. Sidney and Clarence, you had better get your coats on—we shall be down directly."
Mr. Treuherz and the heralds stood at attention in the hall. While Clarence and his father struggled into their great-coats, neither of them in a very good temper, Mr. Stimpson being annoyed at postponing his dinner for what he called "tomfoolery," and Clarence secretly sulky because his parent could not be induced to see the propriety of going up to change his tie.
"I haven't yet made out, Mother," said Edna, as they came downstairs, "exactly where we're going to—or what we're expected to do when we get there."
"It will either be The Hermitage—Lady Harriet's, you know—or Mr. Troitz's country house, wherever that is. And, of course, the Committee require to know what times will suit us for rehearsing."
"I wish you'd settle it all without me," complained Edna. "I'd much rather stay at home, and run over my lecture notes.... Well, if I must come, I shall bring my note-book with me in case I'm bored." And she ran into the drawing-room, and came back with the note-book, rather as an emblem of her own intellectual superiority than with any intention of referring to it. However, as will be found later, the manuscript proved to be of some service in the future.
Daphne and Ruby were the last to join the party in the hall, Ruby wildly excited at the unexpected jaunt and the prospects of not going to bed till ever so late, and Daphne, though a little doubtful whether Mrs. Stimpson was quite justified in bringing her, inclined to welcome almost any change from the evening routine of "Inglegarth." And then, after Mrs. Stimpson had given some hurried instructions to the hopelessly mystified Mitchell, the whole family issued out of the Queen Anne porch, and were conducted by Treuherz, who, to their intense confusion, insisted on walking backwards to the car, while the heralds performed another flourish on their silver trumpets. It was pitch-dark when they had got to the asphalt pavement outside their gates, but they could just make out the contours of the car in the light that streamed across the hedge to the stained glass front-door.
"Jolly queer-looking car," said Clarence. It was certainly unusually large, and seemed to have somewhat fantastic lines and decorations.
"Oh, never mind about the car!" cried Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, who was inside it already, a vague, bundled-up shape in the gloom. "It's part of the Pageant, of course! Get in, Clarence, get in! We're late as it is! and if there's a thing I detest, it's keeping people waiting!"
"All right, Mater!" said Clarence, clambering in. "I can't make out what the dickens they've done with the bonnet—but we seem to be moving, what?"
Slowly the car had begun to glide along the road. Mr. Treuherz was seated in front, probably at the steering-wheel, though none was visible. The heralds sat in the rear, and the car was of such a size that there was abundant room for the family in the centre. Some yards ahead they heard a curious dry rustle and clatter, and could distinguish a confused grey mass of forms that seemed to be clearing the way for them, though whether they were human beings it was not possible to tell till they passed a lighted street-lamp.
"Why, goodness gracious!" exclaimed Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "they look like—like ostriches!"
She was mistaken here, because they were merely storks, but, before she could identify them more correctly, they all suddenly rose in the air with a whirr like that of a hundred spinning looms—and the car rose with them.
"Stop!" screamed Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "Sidney, tell Mr. Troitz to stop! I insist on knowing where we are being taken to!"
Treuherz glanced over his shoulder. "Where should I conduct your Majesties," he said, "but to your own Kingdom of Maerchenland?"
Mrs. Stimpson and her husband would no doubt have protested, demanded explanations, insisted upon being put down at once, had they been able; but, whether it was that the car had some peculiarly soporific tendency, or whether it was merely the sudden swift rush through the upper air, a torpor had already fallen on the whole Stimpson family. It was even questionable if they remained long enough awake to hear their destination.
Daphne, for some reason, did not fall asleep till later. She lay back in her luxuriously cushioned seat, watching the birds as they flew, spread out in a wide fan against the dusky blue evening sky. Gablehurst, with its scattered lights, artistic villa-residences, and prosaic railway station—its valley and common and wooded hills, were far below and soon left behind at an ever increasing distance. But she did not feel in the least afraid. It was odd, but, after the first surprise, she had lost all sense of strangeness in a situation so foreign to all her previous experience.
"So we're being taken to Maerchenland," she was thinking. "That's the same as Fairyland, practically. At least it's where all the things they call Fairy stories really happened, and—why I can't imagine—but Mr. and Mrs. Stimpson have been chosen King and Queen! And the poor dear things have no idea of it yet! Oh, I wonder" (and here, no doubt, the little creases came into her cheeks again, for she laughed softly to herself), "I wonder what they'll say or do when they find out!" And while Daphne was still wondering, her eyelids closed gently, and she, too, was sleeping soundly.
Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson was the first of her party to recover consciousness. When she did, she was greatly surprised to find that it was broad daylight, and that she was lying on a grassy slope, behind which was a forest of huge pines. Close beside her were the recumbent forms of her husband and family, which led her to the natural conclusion that the car must have met with an accident.
"Sidney!" she cried, shaking him by the shoulder. "Speak to me! You're—you're not seriously hurt, are you?"
"Eh, what?" he replied sleepily, and evidently imagining that he was comfortably in bed at home; "all right, my dear, all right! I'll get up and bring in the tea-tray presently. Lots of time.... Why, hullo!" he exclaimed, after being shaken once more, as he sat up and rubbed his eyes. "How do we all come to be here?"
The others were awake by this time. "And now we're here," put in Clarence, "where are we, eh, Mater?"
"It is no use asking me, Clarence. I know no more than you do. The last thing I remember was our all getting into the car to go and see the Pageant Committee. I've a vague recollection of ostriches—but no, I must have been dreaming them. However, the car seems to have upset somehow, only I don't see it about anywhere."
"No," said Mr. Stimpson, "or old Thingumagig, or those fellows with the trumpets either."
"Dumped us down here, and gone off with the car," said Clarence. "Looks as if we'd been the victims of a practical joke, what?"
"They would never dare to do that!" said his Mother. "I expect they have missed their way in the dark. Very careless of them. I don't know what Lady Harriet and the Committee will think of me. They'll probably ask somebody else to take the part of Queen before we can get there—for I'm sure we must be a good hundred miles away from Gablehurst!"
"The Baron said that he was taking us to Maerchenland, Mrs. Stimpson," said Daphne; "and I'm almost sure that that is where we really are."
"And where may Maerchenland be?" inquired Mrs. Stimpson sharply. "I never heard of it myself."
"Well," said Daphne, "it's another name for—for Fairyland, you know."
"Fairyland indeed!" replied Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson with some irritation. "You will find it difficult to persuade me to believe that I am in Fairyland, Miss Heritage! To begin with, there is no such place, and if there was, perhaps you will kindly tell me how we could possibly have got to it?"
"Through the air," explained Daphne patiently. "That car was drawn by storks, you see—not ostriches."
"When you have quite woke up, Miss Heritage," said Mrs. Stimpson, "you will realise what nonsense you are talking."
"Whatever this place is," said Clarence, "it don't look English, somehow, to me. I mean to say—that town over there—what?" He pointed across the wide plain to a cluster of towers, spires, gables, and pinnacles which glittered and gleamed faintly through the shimmering morning haze.
"It certainly has rather a Continental appearance," observed his father.
"If it has," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "it is only some buildings or scenery or something they have run up for the Pageant. So we haven't been taken in the wrong direction after all."
"I believe, Mummy," chirped Ruby, "Miss Heritage is right, and this is Fairyland."
"Don't be so ridiculous, child! You'll believe next that we came here in a car drawn by flying storks, I suppose!"
"D'you know, Mater," said Clarence, "I'm not so sure we mayn't have. What I mean is—there's some sort of flying machine coming along now. I grant you it isn't drawn by storks, but they're birds anyhow, and there seems to be some one in the car too."
"Nothing of the kind!" declared Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson obstinately. "At least one may fancy one sees anything with the sun in our eyes as it is. Well, upon my word!" she added, still incredulously, as an iridescent shell-shaped chariot attached to a team of snow-white doves volplaned down from a dizzy height to a spot only a few yards away, "I really could not have—who, and what can this old person be?"
The occupant of the chariot had already got out of it, and was slowly coming towards them, supporting herself on a black crutch-handled staff. As she drew nearer they could see that she was a woman of great age. She wore a large ruff, a laced stomacher, wide quilted petticoats, and a pointed hat with a broad brim. Her expression was severe, but not unkindly, while she evidently considered herself a personage of some importance.
"She looks exactly like the Fairy Godmother in the pictures," whispered Ruby.
"Whoever she may be," said her Mother, scrambling to her feet with more haste than dignity, "I suppose I shall have to go and speak to her, as I presume I am the person she has come to meet."
However, it was Daphne who was addressed by the new-comer.
"The Court Chamberlain, Baron Treuherz von Eisenbaenden, has brought me the glad tidings of your arrival, my child," she said in a high cracked voice, "and, as the high official Court Godmother to the Royal Family, I felt that I should be the first to bid you welcome."
This was more than Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson could be expected to stand without a protest.
"Pardon me," she said, throwing back her cloak as though she were in need of air, "pardon me, Madam, but I think you are mistaking my daughter's governess for me. I am Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson!"
The old lady turned sharply, and as her eyes fell on the matron's indignant face and heaving bosom, she instantly became deferential and almost apologetic. "You must forgive me, my dear," she said, "for not recognising you before. But at my age—I may tell you I am nearing the end of my second century—one is apt to forget the flight of Time. Or it may be that Time in your world flies more quickly than in ours. I did not stay to hear more from the Baron than that he had succeeded in finding our Queen, and, to be quite plain with you, I was unprepared to find you so mature."
Then, thought Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson confusedly, she had been brought here for the Pageant after all. But what very odd people seemed to be getting it up!
"Baron—whatever his name is, appeared to be quite satisfied that I was suited to the part," she said coldly. "Of course, if you require someone younger——"
"There can be no manner of doubt, my dear, that you are the Queen we have been seeking, so the mere fact that you are rather older than some of us expected is of no importance whatever."
"Thank you," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson. "I do not consider myself more than middle-aged, and have generally been taken for younger than I am, Mrs. ——, I haven't the pleasure of knowing your name."
"Here they call me the Fairy Vogelflug; in the neighbouring Kingdom of Clairdelune my name is Voldoiseau. I have officiated as Court Godmother to the reigning Royal families in both countries for many generations."
"I thought you were a Fairy Godmother!" cried Ruby; "and I'm sure you're a good Fairy, and can do all sorts of wonderful things."
"I used to, my child, in my younger days, but my powers are not what they were, and I seldom exercise them now, because it exhausts me too severely to do so. Once there were several of us Court Godmothers, but I am the only one left, and my health is so poor that I can do little for my God-children but give them moral teaching and wise counsel. However, such good offices as I can still render shall be entirely at your service."
"You are very kind," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, resenting the other's air of patronage, "but all my children are already provided with God-parents. As you tell me you are a Fairy," she continued, "I suppose I must accept your word for it—but it will take a great deal more than that to make me believe that we are in Fairyland."
"I thought," said the Fairy, "you already knew that the name of this country is Maerchenland."
It should be said here once for all that the Wibberley-Stimpsons found no difficulty in understanding, or making themselves perfectly intelligible to any Maerchenlanders, although they always had a curious feeling that they were conversing in a foreign language.
"Whatever the country is called," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson aggressively, "I should like some explanation of that Baron Troitz's conduct in entrapping us into coming here. I was distinctly given to understand that I had been chosen to be the Queen at our local Pageant, and that we were being taken to talk over the arrangements with the Committee. Now he has gone off in the most ungentlemanly way, and left us stranded and helpless here!"
"You must have misunderstood the good Baron," said the Fairy Vogelflug; "and he is far too loyal to desert you. He has merely hastened on to Eswareinmal, the city whose walls and towers you see yonder, to prepare for your reception. As you probably know, he has devoted himself with the most untiring zeal to his mission of seeking you out and restoring you to your inheritance."
"He never said a word about that to me—not a word. If I am really entitled to any property in this country, I should be glad to know where it is situated, and what is its exact value."
"Then," said the Fairy, "I may inform you that you are entitled, as the daughter of your late Father—our long-lost and much-lamented Prince Chrysopras—to no less a possession than the Crown of Maerchenland."
"You—you don't say so!" gasped Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson. "The Crown of—Sidney, did you hear that."
"It's some mistake, my dear," he said. "Must be! ... My wife's father, Ma'am, though in some respects—a—a remarkable character, was never a Prince—at least that I've heard of."
"It doesn't at all follow, Sidney," said his wife in a nettled tone, "that anything you don't happen to have heard of is not a fact. There always was a mystery about poor dear Papa's origin. He was most reticent about it—even with me. And I know it was rumoured that Prinsley was not his real name. So it would not surprise me in the least if Mrs. Fogleplug turned out to be right, though I cannot say till she gives us further particulars."
"I will do so most willingly," said the Fairy. "But as it will take me some time to relate them, I should strongly advise you all to sit down."
They seated themselves round her in a semicircle, and presently she began:
"You must know," she said, "that our mighty and gracious Sovereign, the late King Smaragd, was twice wedded. By his first wife he had an only son, Prince Chrysopras, a gallant and goodly prince, beloved not only by his father, but by the whole nation. Well, after mourning his first wife for a longer period than is customary, King Smaragd took to himself another, who was much younger than himself, besides being marvellously beautiful."
"And of course she hated the poor Prince," said Ruby. "Stepmothers always do in the stories."
"I have not said she hated him," said the Court Godmother, who did not like her points to be anticipated. "On the contrary, she treated him with every mark of affection, and was constantly bestowing on him gifts of the costliest description. One day she presented him with a wondrous mechanical horse, fiercer and more mettlesome than even the steeds that are born in Maerchenland."
"Motor-bike, what," suggested Clarence sapiently.
"A mechanical horse is what I said," repeated the Fairy, "resembling others in shape and beauty, but made of metal. Prince Chrysopras, being a skilful and fearless horseman——"
"Indeed he was!" put in Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson. "He used to ride regularly in the Row, almost to the last. On 'Joggles,' such a dear brown fat cob. He was one of what I believe was known as 'The Liver Brigade' ... a fact which for some reason I can't pretend to fathom seems to be causing you amusement, Miss Heritage."
Daphne, whose sense of humour was occasionally an inconvenience to her, had certainly found the notion of a Fairy Prince in the Liver Brigade a little too much for her gravity. However, she attributed her lapse to the name of the horse.
"It was the name they gave it at the Livery Stables," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson. "And I really cannot see myself—but we are interrupting this good lady here."
"You are," said the Fairy. "I was about to say that Prince Chrysopras was greatly delighted by his Royal Stepmother's gift, and at once leapt on the back of the strange steed."
"What I call asking for trouble," commented Clarence.
"I know what happened!" Ruby struck in eagerly. "It flew right up into the air with him, and poor Grandpapa fell off."
"If he had, none of you would be here at the moment," said the Fairy. "Don't be in such a hurry, my child. He was much too good a rider to fall off. But the horse flew up and up with him till both could no longer be seen. The remains of the steed were found long afterwards on a mountain top. But nothing more was ever seen of the Prince, who was supposed to have perished in one of our lakes."
"Then he must have fallen off after all," insisted Ruby.
"No, no, Ruby," said her mother, with a sense that, where the credit of her family was concerned, nothing was too improbable for belief; "the horse flew with him to England, or somewhere in Europe—or else he couldn't have met your dear grandmother, whom none of you ever saw, for she died long before you were born. And I expect that, after he got off, the horse flew back again, and was just able to get to Maerchenland before the machinery broke down. And dear Papa very naturally would not care for people to know that he had got there by such peculiar means, which accounts for my never having heard of it before."
"Exactly," said the Fairy Vogelflug; "but King Smaragd only knew that his son was lost to him, and when he discovered that the horse was enchanted, and that his Queen had bribed the Hereditary Grand Magician to construct it, his anger knew no bounds."
"Enough to annoy anybody," said Mr. Wibberley-Stimpson. "I should certainly——"
"He ordered," the Fairy went on, without appearing to feel any interest in what Mr. Stimpson would have done in similar circumstances, "both the Queen and the Grand Magician to be enclosed in a barrel, the inside of which had been set with sharp nails, and rolled down into the lake from the top of the mountain."
"I should say myself," remarked Mr. Stimpson, "that that was going a little too far. But he certainly had great provocation."
"He also commanded that all wizards and enchanters should renounce their practices for ever, and adopt some other calling, or be banished from the Country."
"There," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson approvingly, "I think he was so right. I would never encourage any of those clairvoyant people myself. And did he marry a third wife at all?"
"Not if he was wise!" said Clarence.
"No, although it grieved him sorely that he had no heir to succeed him. But towards the end of his days, he dreamed repeatedly that his son was yet living. He beheld him in these visions a wanderer in some far-off land, earning his bread as a musician, for in Music he had rare skill."
"I fancy he must have given it up when he took to Finance," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "though he kept his taste for it. I well remember his buying a beautiful orchestrion which used to be in the Picture Gallery."
"Well," pursued the Fairy, "in further dreams it was revealed to the King that his son was married to one, who, though not of his own race or rank, was both gently born and very fair to see."
"Pollentine was the maiden name of your Grandmother on my side, my dears," explained Mrs. Stimpson to her family. "She must have been good-looking as a girl, judging by a daguerrotype I had of her. Her father was a highly distinguished Auctioneer and Estate Agent in East Croydon, as I daresay was also revealed in the King's dream."
"Of that I can say nothing," replied the Court Godmother; "but I know that further visions showed him his son as a widower with an only daughter, and later still that he was no longer living. And so much was the King impressed that he caused a search to be made for this grand-daughter of his in every country that is known to us. Even when he lay on his death-bed he did not give up hope that she would be found, and so he left his Kingdom in charge of his trusted favourite Marshal Federhelm as Regent, with strict injunctions to continue seeking for the missing Queen."
"And how," inquired Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "did the Marshal manage to find me out?"
"It was not he. He soon convinced himself that all further endeavours were useless. No, it is to the devotion of our worthy Court Chamberlain, the Baron Treuherz von Eisenbaenden, that your discovery is owing. He had grieved so deeply to see Maerchenland without a Sovereign that, after the example of 'Faithful John,' the founder of his family, he had placed iron hoops round his chest to keep his heart from breaking."
"We heard 'em go," said Clarence; "thought it was only his braces."
"At length," continued the Fairy, "the Baron went in secret to Xuriel, the Astrologer Royal, and induced him to consult the stars. Which Xuriel did, and by much study and intricate calculation he succeeded in ascertaining the exact spot in the other world where the Queen would be discovered, and even the means by which she might be recognised."
"Ah," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "I shall begin to believe in Astronomy after this. But even now I don't quite understand how Baron Troitz got to 'Inglegarth.'"
"That was by my assistance. I placed my travelling car at his service, with the wise storks that fly straight to any place to which they are directed, even though they may never have heard of it before. Happily for Maerchenland, Xuriel's calculations have proved correct, except that he did not foresee that the Baron would bring back two Sovereigns instead of one."
"What—is the Gov'nor going to be King?" inquired Clarence. "My hat!"
"That would be ridiculous, Clarence," said his mother, "when your Father hasn't a drop of Royal blood in his veins! He can't even rank as Prince Consort!"
"Not so, my dear, not so," corrected the Fairy, "by the custom of Maerchenland, anyone who weds the Sovereign shares the throne, and your husband will be as truly the King of this Country as you will be its Queen."
"Oh, is that the rule?" said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, not best pleased. "Well, Sidney, I trust you will show yourself equal to your position, that is all."
"I trust so, my love," he replied uneasily. "It—it's come on me at rather short notice. However!"
"If Daddy and Mums are King and Queen," asked Ruby, "will Edna and me be Princesses?"
"Undoubtedly you will," said the Court Godmother.
"Then Clarence will be a Prince. So you see, Miss Heritage, dear, you have met a Prince after all!"
"Shut up, Kiddie!" said the new Crown Prince in some confusion.
"And what will Miss Heritage be, Mummy?"
"Miss Heritage will be what she was before, my dear—your governess."
"But I shan't want one any more—we're in Fairyland now—and Fairy Princesses haven't got to do lessons. Oh, Mums, couldn't you make Miss Heritage a Princess too? Do!"
"Why not?" said the Fairy, glancing at Daphne, whose colour had risen slightly. "Anybody might very well take her to be one as it is."
"Miss Heritage," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "has, I am sure, too much good sense to expect a title of any kind. She will continue to be my daughter's instructress, and I may possibly find a place for her as Mistress of the Robes or something; but it's much too early to say anything definite at—Really, Edna," she broke off suddenly, "how you can sit there calmly reading as if nothing had happened!"
"I was merely running through my lecture-notes again, Mother," said Edna. "If I am a Princess," she added, for the benefit of the Court Godmother, "that is no reason why I shouldn't go on cultivating my mind."
"Now you're a Princess, my dear," replied her mother, "it doesn't signify to anybody whether your mind is cultivated or not."
"It signifies a great deal to me, mother," said Edna, and resumed the study of her notes with an air of conscious merit.
"I must say one thing, Mrs. Fogleplug," Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson proceeded; "it would have been more considerate if I had been given proper notice, and a reasonable time to prepare for such a complete change as this. I do feel that."
She did; it was a great deprivation to her to have lost the opportunity of mentioning casually to her Gablehurst friends—and Lady Harriet especially—that she would shortly be leaving them to occupy a throne.
"Precisely my own feeling," said Mr. Stimpson, thinking regretfully how the news would have made that confounded fellow Thistleton sit up, and of the sensation it might have produced in the train to the City. "It is, to say the least of it, unfortunate that I had no time to communicate with the other members of my firm."
"And there's Clarence, too!" said his fond mother. "His Company will be quite helpless without him!"
"They may be in a bit of a hole at first," he admitted, thankful now that he had said nothing about his resignation, or the readiness with which it had been accepted. "Still, no fellow is indispensable. What?"
The Fairy explained that haste had been unavoidable, as it might have been injurious to the storks if they had remained longer in a climate to which they were unaccustomed.
"But why send storks to fetch us at all?" demanded Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson. "Why not some more modern conveyance?... There they are again with the car—coming back for us, I expect.... Yes, I can make out Baron Troitz and the trumpeters—and there seems to be a gentleman in armour with them."
"The Regent, Marshal Federhelm," said the Fairy. "He is coming to offer his congratulations."
"Is he?" cried Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, scrambling to her feet again in some dismay. "A Regent! I—I wish I knew the proper way of addressing him!"
The storks by this time had brought the car to ground, and were now standing about on one leg with folded wings and an air of detachment. The Marshal alighted and advanced slowly towards the Stimpsons while the heralds sounded their trumpets.
He made a formidable and warrior-like figure in his golden half-armour of a kind unknown to antiquarians, and great jack-boots of gilded leather. He was tall, and the towering mass of waving feathers that crowned his helmet made him look taller still. His vizor was raised, showing a swarthy, hook-nosed face, with quick, restless eyes like a lizard's, a fierce moustache, and a bristling beard that spread out in a stiff black fan.
"You had better speak to him, Sidney," whispered his wife, overcome by sudden panic; "I really can't."
"Er—" began Mr. Stimpson nervously, "I believe I have the pleasure of addressing the Regent. We—we're the new King and Queen, you know, and these are the other members of the family."
The Marshal seemed a little taken aback at first, but he promptly recovered himself, and bending so low that his feathers brushed Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson's nose, he placed in her hand a small velvet-covered baton studded with gold stars.
"Oh, thank you very much, I'm sure," she said. "It's quite charming. Has it got an address or anything inside it?"
"The symbol of my authority, your Majesty," he said, with soldierly curtness. "I have long desired to surrender it to hands more worthy to govern than mine."
"Very handsome of you to say so," replied Mr. Stimpson; "but I daresay you aren't altogether sorry to get out of it, eh?"
"It is too lofty a position, Sire, for a rough, simple warrior like myself," he said. "Nothing but a sense of duty to my country would have made me accept the Regency at all."
"I am sure," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "we shall find you have carried on the Kingdom for us as satisfactorily as possible."
"The people appeared to think so, your Majesty. But I am forgetting the chief purpose I am here for. I have the honour to announce that the procession will shortly be on its way to escort your Majesties to your Coronation, which is to take place this morning in the great church of Eswareinmal."
"Coronation!" Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson almost screamed. "Before we have so much as had our breakfast! And in these things we are wearing now! I never heard of anything so preposterous!"
"I don't care much myself," said Mr. Stimpson, "about being crowned on an empty—without having had something to eat—if it's only an egg."
"If they're going to crown the Guv'nor in a dinner-jacket and white tie," Clarence muttered to Edna, "we shall never hear the last of it, that's all!"
"There is nothing to make a fuss about, my dear," said the Court Godmother to Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, as though she were addressing a froward child; "look behind you, and you will see that everything you may require is already provided."
They looked and saw two velvet Marquees, one striped in broad bands of apple-green and mazarine blue, the other in pale rose and cream, which a party of attendants had just finished putting up. "In those pavilions," continued the Fairy, "you will find not only food prepared for you, but robes such as are fitting for a Coronation. You will have plenty of time both to eat and change your dress before the procession can possibly arrive."
"She's not likely to have got our measurements right," grumbled Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson to her eldest daughter, as they moved towards the rose-and-cream Pavilion. "I should have much preferred to be fitted by a Court dressmaker. Such a mistake to rush things like this! I rather like that Marshal, Edna; there's something very gentlemanly and straightforward about him, though I can't see why he shouldn't wear a proper uniform instead of that absurd armour."
"Shan't be sorry to get some breakfast, my boy," Mr. Stimpson remarked, as he and Clarence were making for the other marquee; "I feel a bit peckish after being so long in the night air."
"I should like a tub first, Guv'nor."
"I'm afraid," said Mr. Stimpson, "that's expecting too much in these parts."
However, on entering, they discovered, in addition to the delicacies and gorgeous costumes laid out for them, two great crystal baths filled with steaming water which exhaled a subtle but delicious perfume.
"Doing us proud, eh, Guv'nor?" was Clarence's comment on the general luxuriousness; and his father admitted that "everything seemed to have been done regardless of expense."
While the male and female members of the Royal Party were enjoying the privacy of their respective tents, the Marshal outside was expressing his sentiments to the Court Chamberlain with much vigour and freedom.
"Well, Baron," he began, "this is a great service you have done Maerchenland, and I hope you are feeling proud of yourself!"
"Oh, as for that, Marshal," modestly replied the ingenuous Baron, "I have done no more than my duty."
"The devil take you and your duty," growled the Marshal. "Why, in the name of all the fiends, couldn't you have left things as they were?"
"But, Marshal," the Baron protested, "when our learned Astrologer Royal discovered the whereabouts of our lawful Queen, you were loudest in approval of my expedition!"
"How could I oppose, after you had been gabbling and cackling about it to the whole Court, and it had even reached the ears of the people? Besides, I was given to understand that this daughter of Chrysopras's was a mere girl. If she had been—But what have you brought us?—a middle-aged matron with a husband and family!"
"I own it was not what I had expected," said the Baron; "but since it was so, what could I do but bring them all?"
"Do? Left them where they were, of course—come back and said that that little fool of a Xuriel had made a miscalculation, as he generally does!"
"I should have been a traitor had I thus denied my Queen. For, as you have seen, she bears on her breast the very jewel of her father the Prince, even as the stars foretold."
"Undoubtedly she is his daughter," the Marshal admitted reluctantly. It never occurred to him for a moment—nor would it occur to any of his countrymen—that the pendant was anything but absolutely conclusive proof of Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson's right to the throne. Maerchenland notions of what constitutes legal evidence have always been and remain elementary.
"But it's pretty plain," he went on, "that the young fool must have made a most unworthy marriage to have begotten one so utterly lacking in all queenliness and dignity."
"She will soon acquire both," the Court Chamberlain affirmed stoutly, "as she becomes more accustomed to her position."
"She may," declared the Marshal, "when a frog grows feathers. And this consort of hers! Is he a fit Monarch for Maerchenland? Even you, Baron, can hardly say that for him! I may not have been beloved as Regent, but at least I have made my authority respected. But what do such a couple as this know about ruling a country? They'll make a hopeless hash of it!"
"Without guidance, perhaps," the Baron admitted; "but they will have the inestimable advantage, Marshal, of our experience and advice."
"Ha!" said the Marshal. "So they will—so they will! I was forgetting that!"
"No doubt they will submit to our guidance," went on the Baron, "and thus we shall be able to save them from any dangerous indiscretions."
"Just so," agreed the Marshal, with the flicker of a smile.
The Court Chamberlain, at all events, spoke in all sincerity. His hereditary instinct alone would have been enough to ensure his loyalty to his new Sovereigns, whatever he might think of them in private. And they were his own "finds," which gave them an added value in his estimation, as will easily be understood by any collector of curiosities.
"'Pon my word, my love," Mr. Stimpson exclaimed, as his wife came out of her pavilion in her Coronation Robes and chain, attended by the Court Godmother, "I should hardly have known you! You look majestic!—abso-lute-ly majestic!"
"I wish I could say the same of you, Sidney," she replied; "but, as I have told you more than once, legs like yours never ought to be seen except in trousers.... Considering my own and my daughter's robes are ready-made, Mrs. Fogleplug, they might be worse. As for Miss Heritage's—well, I should have thought myself that something simpler would have been more appropriate."
Daphne was naturally much less sumptuously dressed than the Members of the Royal family, but still, in her quaint double-peaked head-dress, fantastically slashed bodice, and long hanging sleeves, with her bright hair, too, waving loosely over her temples, its rich masses confined at the back by a network of pearls, she was dainty and bewitching enough to attract more than her due share of attention—Clarence's she attracted at once, while he was sustained by an agreeable conviction that his be-jewelled doublet, silken hose, white plumed velvet hat, and azure mantle set off his figure to unusual advantage.
"Tophole, Miss Heritage!" he said, strolling up with graceful languor. "I'm not joking—you really are, you know! Wish my kit suited me half as well! Can't help feeling a most awful ass in it, what?"
"Really?" she said carelessly. "How unpleasant for you! But perhaps if you left off thinking about it——!"
"Oh, I don't say it's so bad as all that!"
"I didn't suppose it was, quite."
Now this was not by any means the sort of deferential tribute he had counted upon, and he was a little ruffled by her failure to respond.
"Didn't you," he replied distantly, if somewhat lamely. "You'll excuse me mentioning it, Miss Heritage, as it's only in your own interests, but I believe it's considered the proper thing when you're addressed by—by Royalty, don't you know, to throw in a 'Your Royal Highness' occasionally. Of course, Court Etiquette and that may be all tosh, but I didn't make it, and all I mean to say is—it won't do to let it slide."
"Your Royal Highness will not have to rebuke me a second time," said Daphne, sinking to the ground in a curtsey which it is to be feared was wilfully exaggerated. "I'm afraid, sir," she added, as the two little creases in her cheeks made themselves visible, "that wasn't as low as it ought to have been, but your Royal Highness must make allowances for my want of experience."
"Oh, you'll soon get into it," he said, "with practice."
"And I shall have plenty of that, your Royal Highness."
Was she trying to pull his leg? he thought, as he moved away, and decided that she was most unlikely to venture on such presumption. No, it had been necessary to remind her of the deference due to him, and she would not forget the lesson in future. Perhaps he might unbend occasionally in private, but, on second thoughts, that would be more dangerous than ever now.
Ruby had seized Daphne and was embracing her in a burst of violent affection. "Oh, Miss Heritage, darling," she cried, "you do look such a duck in that dress—doesn't she, Mummy?"
"I see no resemblance, my dear," said her mother coldly, "between Miss Heritage and any description of poultry. And, as the procession will be here in another minute, you had better take your place quietly by me.... Really, Ruby," she added in an undertone, as the child obeyed, "you must remember you're a Princess now. It isn't at all proper for you to be seen pawing your governess about in public."
"I wasn't pawing her about, Mums!" protested Ruby; "only hugging her. And if I mayn't do that, I don't want to be a Princess at all!"
By this time the procession had arrived. It was headed by a band of knights in resplendent but rather extravagant armour, carrying lances with streaming pennons. After them rode the Courtiers on gaily caparisoned steeds, followed by a bevy of Maids of Honour on cream-coloured palfreys. A company of soldiers came next, some of whom bore heavy matchlocks of an ancient period, and the rest pikes and halberds. However, they marched with as proud and confident a step as though their weapons were of the very latest pattern—which very likely they thought they were. Following them was a State Coach, a huge, cumbrous vehicle with unglazed windows; it seemed to be of pure gold, and was drawn by sixteen milk-white horses in blue trappings.
After the procession had halted, the Court Chamberlain formally presented the members of the Royal Household, whose mere titles sounded impressively on the ear of their new Mistress. There were Prince Tapfer von Schneiderleinheimer and Prince Hansmeinigel; Baron Muellerbuerschen, Baron von Bohnenranken, and Count von Daumerlingstamm; Princess Rapunzelhauser, Princess Goldernenfingerleinigen, and Princess Flachspinnenlosburg; Baroness Belohnte von Haulemaennerschen, Baroness Kluge Bauerngrosstochterheimer, and Countess Gaensehirten am Brunnen, and many others scarcely less distinguished. Never before had Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson been in such aristocratic company, and for the moment she entirely forgot how immeasurably she was now their social superior. She had held her own triumphantly with Lady Harriet, but that was different. There was only one of her—and that one a quite ordinary and insignificant personality compared with these imposingly splendid lords and ladies-in-waiting.
Mrs. Stimpson intended to be graciously cordial, but somehow her manner was dangerously near being obsequious. "Most honoured, I'm sure, Prince!" she found herself repeating, as she ducked instinctively. "So very kind of you to come, Baron!... It's more than delightful to meet you, dear Princess—I didn't quite catch your name!... Such a privilege to make your acquaintance, Countess!"
She hoped they would take this as condescension on her part, and they were undeniably surprised by their Sovereign's excessive affability.
"Well," said Mr. Stimpson, as these amenities became exhausted and he perceived that no one was taking any notice of him, "what about making a start, hey, Mr. Marshal?"
"If your Majesties and the Princess will deign to enter the coach, we can set forth at once," was the reply.
"Get in, children, get in!" cried Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson. "You and Ruby, Edna, must sit with your backs to the horses, and there will be plenty of room for Clarence between you."
"With all respect, Sir," said the Marshal, as Clarence was preparing to get in. "It is the custom on such an occasion as this for the Crown Prince to ride on the right of the Coach. I have arranged that a horse shall be at your Royal Highness's service."
"Thanks awfully," said Clarence, as he glanced at a spirited chestnut mare which two squires were endeavouring with some difficulty to soothe, "but—er—I think I'd rather drive." He was reflecting, as he took his seat in the coach, that he would really have to take a few riding lessons shortly, in private.
"Isn't Miss Heritage coming with us, Mummy?" called Ruby from the window.
"In the State Coach, my dear! Of course not!"
"But why not, Mater?" protested Clarence. "There's lots of room."
"Because I could not think of allowing it, Clarence. Perhaps Mrs. Fogleplug will be kind enough to give her a lift in—in her own conveyance."
"Unfortunately," replied the Court Godmother, "my car will not hold more than one person."
"Well, Miss Heritage must find her way to the Palace, then! There's no necessity for her to be present at the Coronation."
"Surely, my dear," said the Fairy, "you would not deprive her of such a privilege! I will have another saddle placed on that mare so that this fair maid of yours may ride with your other ladies in waiting."
"Of course, Mrs. Fogleplug, if you're bent on Miss Heritage making a public exhibition of herself," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "I have nothing to say. I don't suppose she has ever been on a horse in her life!"
"Oh, but I have, Ma'am!" Daphne pleaded eagerly. "I've ridden ever since I was a child. And I'd love to ride that mare, if I may!"
"Oh, very well, Miss Heritage, ve-ry well. But remember, if you break your neck, I shall not accept any responsibility," which Daphne took as a permission. As soon as Mr. and Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson had taken their seats, the sixteen milk-white horses began to pull and strain till eventually the great coach was on the way.
"Mummy," cried Ruby a little later, "I can see Miss Heritage! She's riding close behind. And oh, she does look so sweet on horseback!"
"Put your head in,—do, child!" said her mother sharply. "Whatever will the people think if they see a Princess hanging half out of the window like that!"
Ruby sat down rather sullenly. Clarence would have liked to put his own head out if it had been consistent with his dignity as a Prince. As it was, he could only hope that Daphne would come to no harm. "Really!" continued Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "what with one's governess riding behind one's coach, and those two ridiculous bird-cars probably flapping overhead, this is quite unlike any Coronation Procession I ever heard of!"
"More like a bally Circus," remarked Clarence. "Only wants a couple of clowns with bladders on horseback and a performing elephant."
"I consider," said his mother, "that a State procession should have more solemnity about it.... How horribly this coach jolts! It can't have any springs!... There you are again, Edna, buried in that note-book! you might show a little interest in what is going on!"
"I'm sorry, mother, but it all seems to mean so little to me."
"Then all I can say is—good gracious, what a lurch! I quite thought we were over!—all I can say is that it's unnatural to be so abstracted as you are. We're getting close to Eswar—whatever they call it. If you look round you will see the walls and towers."
Edna adapted her pince-nez and turned perfunctorily for a moment. "Quite quaint!" she said, and resumed her reading.
"Picturesque, I should call it," corrected her mother. "Sidney, doesn't it put you in mind of dear lovely Lucerne?"
"Very much so, my love," he replied, "or—er—Venice" (neither of which cities, as a matter of fact, did Eswareinmal resemble in the least). "Hullo! what are we stopping for now, eh?"
It seemed they had arrived at the principal gates of the Capital, where the Burgomaster and other civic dignitaries were assembled to welcome and to do them homage, which they did with every sign of respect and loyalty. As Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson felt unequal to the efforts of responding, that duty devolved on her husband, who presented himself at the window of the coach, and made what the reporters, had any been present, would no doubt have described as "a few gracious and appropriate remarks."
"You needn't have said that about 'doing our best to give satisfaction,' Sidney!" complained his wife after the coach had thundered over the drawbridge, and was lumbering under the massive archway into a narrow and crowded street, "for all the world as if we had been a butler and housekeeper applying for a situation!"
"It was a little unfortunate, perhaps, my dear," he admitted; "but it is so difficult to know what to say when one has to speak impromptu."
"It ought to be easy enough to know what not to say," she retorted. "Dear me, what hosts of people!" she went on, as her irritation merged into complacency. "And how pleased they all seem to see us! But no doubt, after a bachelor Regent, a whole Royal family—I love to see their happy smiling faces!"
"Grinning mugs would be nearer the mark, Mater," said Clarence; "never saw such a chuckle-headed lot of bumpkins in my life!"