ONCE ON A TIME
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Publishers New York
By Arrangement with G. P. Putnam's Sons
A. A. Milne
This book was written in 1915, for the amusement of my wife and myself at a time when life was not very amusing; it was published at the end of 1917; was reviewed, if at all, as one of a parcel, by some brisk uncle from the Tiny Tots Department; and died quietly, without seriously detracting from the interest which was being taken in the World War, then in progress.
It may be that the circumstances in which the book was written have made me unduly fond of it. When, as sometimes happens, I am introduced to a stranger who starts the conversation on the right lines by praising, however insincerely, my books, I always say, "But you have not read the best one." Nine times out of ten it is so. The tenth takes a place in the family calendar; St. Michael or St. Agatha, as the case may be, a red-letter or black-letter saint, according to whether the book was bought or borrowed. But there are few such saints, and both my publisher and I have the feeling (so common to publishers and authors) that there ought to be more. So here comes the book again, in a new dress, with new decorations, yet much, as far as I am concerned, the same book, making the same appeal to me; but, let us hope, a new appeal, this time, to others.
For whom, then, is the book intended? That is the trouble. Unless I can say, "For those, young or old, who like the things which I like," I find it difficult to answer. Is it a children's book? Well, what do we mean by that? Is The Wind in the Willows a children's book? Is Alice in Wonderland? Is Treasure Island? These are masterpieces which we read with pleasure as children, but with how much more pleasure when we are grown-up. In any case what do we mean by "children"? A boy of three, a girl of six, a boy of ten, a girl of fourteen—are they all to like the same thing? And is a book "suitable for a boy of twelve" any more likely to please a boy of twelve than a modern novel is likely to please a man of thirty-seven; even if the novel be described truly as "suitable for a man of thirty-seven"? I confess that I cannot grapple with these difficult problems.
But I am very sure of this: that no one can write a book which children will like, unless he write it for himself first. That being so, I shall say boldly that this is a story for grown-ups. How grown-up I did not realise until I received a letter from an unknown reader a few weeks after its first publication; a letter which said that he was delighted with my clever satires of the Kaiser, Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Asquith, but he could not be sure which of the characters were meant to be Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Bonar Law. Would I tell him on the enclosed postcard? I replied that they were thinly disguised on the title-page as Messrs. Hodder & Stoughton. In fact, it is not that sort of book.
But, as you see, I am still finding it difficult to explain just what sort of book it is. Perhaps no explanation is necessary. Read in it what you like; read it to whomever you like; be of what age you like; it can only fall into one of two classes. Either you will enjoy it, or you won't.
It is that sort of book.
A. A. Milne.
I.—The King of Euralia has a Visitor to Breakfast
II.—The Chancellor of Barodia has a Long Walk Home
III.—The King of Euralia Draws his Sword
IV.—The Princess Hyacinth Leaves it to the Countess
V.—Belvane Indulges her Hobby
VI.—There are no Wizards in Barodia
VII.—The Princess Receives a Letter and Writes One
VIII.—Prince Udo Sleeps Badly
IX.—They are Afraid of Udo
X.—Charlotte Patacake Astonishes the Critics
XI.—Watercress Seems to go with the Ears
XII.—We Decide to Write to Udo's Father
XIII.—"Pink" Rhymes with "Think"
XIV.—"Why Can't you be like Wiggs?"
XV.—There is a Lover Waiting for Hyacinth
XVI.—Belvane Enjoys Herself
XVII.—The King of Barodia Drops the Whisker Habit
XVIII.—The Veteran of the Forest Entertains Two Very Young People
XIX.—Udo Behaves Like a Gentleman
XX.—Coronel Knows a Good Story when he Hears it
XXI.—A Serpent Coming after Udo
XXII.—The Seventeen Volumes go back Again
A Map of Euralia showing the Adjacent Country of Barodia and the far-distant Araby
He was a Man of Simple Tastes
"Most extraordinary," said the King
He found the King nursing a Bent Whisker and in the very Vilest of Tempers
"Try it on me," cried the Countess
Five Times he had come back to give her his Last Instructions
Armed to the Teeth, Amazon after Amazon marched by
When the Respective Armies returned to Camp they found Their Majesties asleep
The Rabbit was gone, and there was a Fairy in front of her
As Evening fell they came to a Woodman's Cottage at the Foot of a High Hill
"Coronel, here I am," said Udo pathetically, and he stepped out
Twenty-one Minutes later Henrietta Crossbuns was acknowledging a Bag of Gold
Princess Hyacinth gave a Shriek and faltered slowly backwards
"Now we can talk," said Hyacinth
He forgot his Manners, and made a Jump towards her
She glided gracefully behind the Sundial in a Pretty Affectation of Alarm
When anybody of Superior Station or Age came into the Room she rose and curtsied
And then she danced
"Good Morning," said Belvane
The Tent seemed to swim before his Eyes, and he knew no more
She turned round and went off daintily down the Hill
Let me present to you my friend the Duke Coronel
As the Towers of the Castle came in sight, Merriwig drew a Deep Breath of Happiness
Belvane leading the Way with her Finger to her Lips
Merriwig following with an Exaggerated Caution
He was a Pleasant-looking Person, with a Round Clean-shaven Face
[Frontispiece: A Map of Euralia showing the Adjacent Country of Barodia and the far-distant Araby]
THE KING OF EURALIA HAS A VISITOR TO BREAKFAST
King Merriwig of Euralia sat at breakfast on his castle walls. He lifted the gold cover from the gold dish in front of him, selected a trout and conveyed it carefully to his gold plate. He was a man of simple tastes, but when you have an aunt with the newly acquired gift of turning anything she touches to gold, you must let her practise sometimes. In another age it might have been fretwork.
"Ah," said the King, "here you are, my dear." He searched for his napkin, but the Princess had already kissed him lightly on the top of the head, and was sitting in her place opposite to him.
"Good morning, Father," she said; "I'm a little late, aren't I? I've been riding in the forest."
"Any adventures?" asked the King casually.
"Nothing, except it's a beautiful morning."
"Ah, well, perhaps the country isn't what it was. Now when I was a young man, you simply couldn't go into the forest without an adventure of some sort. The extraordinary things one encountered! Witches, giants, dwarfs——. It was there that I first met your mother," he added thoughtfully.
"I wish I remembered my mother," said Hyacinth.
The King coughed and looked at her a little nervously.
"Seventeen years ago she died, Hyacinth, when you were only six months old. I have been wondering lately whether I haven't been a little remiss in leaving you motherless so long."
The Princess looked puzzled. "But it wasn't your fault, dear, that mother died."
"Oh, no, no, I'm not saying that. As you know, a dragon carried her off and—well, there it was. But supposing"—he looked at her shyly—"I had married again."
The Princess was startled.
"Who?" she asked.
The King peered into his flagon. "Well," he said, "there are people."
"If it had been somebody very nice," said the Princess wistfully, "it might have been rather lovely."
The King gazed earnestly at the outside of his flagon.
"Why 'might have been?'" he said.
The Princess was still puzzled. "But I'm grown up," she said; "I don't want a mother so much now."
The King turned his flagon round and studied the other side of it.
"A mother's—er—tender hand," he said, "is—er—never——" and then the outrageous thing happened.
It was all because of a birthday present to the King of Barodia, and the present was nothing less than a pair of seven-league boots. The King being a busy man, it was a week or more before he had an opportunity of trying those boots. Meanwhile he used to talk about them at meals, and he would polish them up every night before he went to bed. When the great day came for the first trial of them to be made, he took a patronising farewell of his wife and family, ignored the many eager noses pressed against the upper windows of the Palace, and sailed off. The motion, as perhaps you know, is a little disquieting at first, but one soon gets used to it. After that it is fascinating. He had gone some two thousand miles before he realised that there might be a difficulty about finding his way back. The difficulty proved at least as great as he had anticipated. For the rest of that day he toured backwards and forwards across the country; and it was by the merest accident that a very angry King shot in through an open pantry window in the early hours of the morning. He removed his boots and went softly to bed. . . .
It was, of course, a lesson to him. He decided that in the future he must proceed by a recognised route, sailing lightly from landmark to landmark. Such a route his Geographers prepared for him—an early morning constitutional, of three hundred miles or so, to be taken ten times before breakfast. He gave himself a week in which to recover his nerve and then started out on the first of them.
Now the Kingdom of Euralia adjoined that of Barodia, but whereas Barodia was a flat country, Euralia was a land of hills. It was natural then that the Court Geographers, in search of landmarks, should have looked towards Euralia; and over Euralia accordingly, about the time when cottage and castle alike were breakfasting, the King of Barodia soared and dipped and soared and dipped again.
* * * * *
"A mother's tender hand," said the King of Euralia, "is—er—never—good gracious! What's that?"
There was a sudden rush of air; something came for a moment between his Majesty and the sun; and then all was quiet again.
"What was it?" asked Hyacinth, slightly alarmed.
"Most extraordinary," said the King. "It left in my mind an impression of ginger whiskers and large boots. Do we know anybody like that?"
"The King of Barodia," said Hyacinth, "has red whiskers, but I don't know about his boots."
"But what could he have been doing up there? Unless——"
There was another rush of wind in the opposite direction; once more the sun was obscured, and this time, plain for a moment for all to see, appeared the rapidly dwindling back view of the King of Barodia on his way home to breakfast.
Merriwig rose with dignity.
"You're quite right, Hyacinth," he said sternly; "it was the King of Barodia."
Hyacinth looked troubled.
"He oughtn't to come over anybody's breakfast table quite so quickly as that. Ought he, Father?"
"A lamentable display of manners, my dear. I shall withdraw now and compose a stiff note to him. The amenities must be observed."
Looking as severe as a naturally jovial face would permit him, and wondering a little if he had pronounced "amenities" right, he strode to the library.
The library was his Majesty's favourite apartment. Here in the mornings he would discuss affairs of state with his Chancellor, or receive any distinguished visitors who were to come to his kingdom in search of adventure. Here in the afternoon, with a copy of What to say to a Wizard or some such book taken at random from the shelves, he would give himself up to meditation.
And it was the distinguished visitors of the morning who gave him most to think about in the afternoon. There were at this moment no fewer than seven different Princes engaged upon seven different enterprises, to whom, in the event of a successful conclusion, he had promised the hand of Hyacinth and half his kingdom. No wonder he felt that she needed the guiding hand of a mother.
The stiff note to Barodia was not destined to be written. He was still hesitating between two different kinds of nib, when the door was flung open and the fateful name of the Countess Belvane was announced.
The Countess Belvane! What can I say which will bring home to you that wonderful, terrible, fascinating woman? Mastered as she was by overweening ambition, utterly unscrupulous in her methods of achieving her purpose, none the less her adorable humanity betrayed itself in a passion for diary-keeping and a devotion to the simpler forms of lyrical verse. That she is the villain of the piece I know well; in his Euralia Past and Present the eminent historian, Roger Scurvilegs, does not spare her; but that she had her great qualities I should be the last to deny.
She had been writing poetry that morning, and she wore green. She always wore green when the Muse was upon her: a pleasing habit which, whether as a warning or an inspiration, modern poets might do well to imitate. She carried an enormous diary under her arm; and in her mind several alternative ways of putting down her reflections on her way to the Palace.
"Good morning, dear Countess," said the King, rising only too gladly from his nibs; "an early visit."
"You don't mind, your Majesty?" said the Countess anxiously. "There was a point in our conversation yesterday about which I was not quite certain——"
"What were we talking about yesterday?"
"Oh, your Majesty," said the Countess, "affairs of state," and she gave him that wicked, innocent, impudent, and entirely scandalous look which he never could resist, and you couldn't either for that matter.
"Affairs of state, of course," smiled the King.
"Why, I made a special note of it in my diary."
She laid down the enormous volume and turned lightly over the pages.
"Here we are! 'Thursday. His Majesty did me the honour to consult me about the future of his daughter, the Princess Hyacinth. Remained to tea and was very——' I can't quite make this word out."
"Let me look," said the King, his rubicund face becoming yet more rubicund. "It looks like 'charming,'" he said casually.
"Fancy!" said Belvane. "Fancy my writing that! I put down just what comes into my head at the time, you know." She made a gesture with her hand indicative of some one who puts down just what comes into her head at the time, and returned to her diary. "'Remained to tea, and was very charming. Mused afterwards on the mutability of life!'" She looked up at him with wide-open eyes. "I often muse when I'm alone," she said.
The King still hovered over the diary.
"Have you any more entries like—like that last one? May I look?"
"Oh, your Majesty! I'm afraid it's quite private." She closed the book quickly.
"I just thought I saw some poetry," said the King.
"Just a little ode to a favourite linnet. It wouldn't interest your Majesty."
"I adore poetry," said the King, who had himself written a rhymed couplet which could be said either forwards or backwards, and in the latter position was useful for removing enchantments. According to the eminent historian, Roger Scurvilegs, it had some vogue in Euralia and went like this:
"Bo, boll, bill, bole. Wo, woll, will, wole."
A pleasing idea, temperately expressed.
The Countess, of course, was only pretending. Really she was longing to read it. "It's quite a little thing," she said.
"Hail to thee, blithe linnet, Bird thou clearly art, That from bush or in it Pourest thy full heart! And leads the feathered choir in song Taking the treble part."
"Beautiful," said the King, and one must agree with him. Many years after, another poet called Shelley plagiarised the idea, but handled it in a more artificial, and, to my way of thinking, decidedly inferior manner.
"Was it a real bird?" said the King.
"An old favourite."
"Was it pleased about it?"
"Alas, your Majesty, it died without hearing it."
"Poor bird!" said his Majesty; "I think it would have liked it."
Meanwhile Hyacinth, innocent of the nearness of a mother, remained on the castle walls and tried to get on with her breakfast. But she made little progress with it. After all, it is annoying continually to look up from your bacon, or whatever it is, and see a foreign monarch passing overhead. Eighteen more times the King of Barodia took Hyacinth in his stride. At the end of the performance, feeling rather giddy, she went down to her father.
She found him alone in the library, a foolish smile upon his face, but no sign of a letter to Barodia in front of him.
"Have you sent the Note yet?" she asked.
"Note? Note?" he said, bewildered, "what—oh, you mean the Stiff Note to the King of Barodia? I'm just planning it, my love. The exact shade of stiffness, combined with courtesy, is a little difficult to hit."
"I shouldn't be too courteous," said Hyacinth; "he came over eighteen more times after you'd gone."
"Eighteen, eighteen, eight—my dear, it's outrageous."
"I've never had such a crowded breakfast before."
"It's positively insulting, Hyacinth. This is no occasion for Notes. We will talk to him in a language that he will understand."
And he went out to speak to the Captain of his Archers.
THE CHANCELLOR OF BARODIA HAS A LONG WALK HOME
Once more it was early morning on the castle walls.
The King sat at his breakfast table, a company of archers drawn up in front of him.
"Now you all understand," he said. "When the King of Baro—when a certain—well, when I say 'when,' I want you all to fire your arrows into the air. You are to take no aim; you are just to shoot your arrows upwards, and—er—I want to see who gets highest. Should anything—er—should anything brush up against them on their way—not of course that it's likely—well, in that case—er—in that case something will—er—brush up against them. After all, what should?"
"Quite so, Sire," said the Captain, "or rather, not at all."
"Very well. To your places."
Each archer fitted an arrow to his bow and took up his position. A look-out man had been posted. Everything was ready.
The King was decidedly nervous. He wandered from one archer to another asking after this man's wife and family, praising the polish on that man's quiver, or advising him to stand with his back a little more to the sun. Now and then he would hurry off to the look-out man on a distant turret, point out Barodia on the horizon to him, and hurry back again.
The look-out knew all about it.
"Royalty over," he bellowed suddenly.
"When!" roared the King, and a cloud of arrows shot into the air.
"Well done!" cried Hyacinth, clapping her hands. "I mean, how could you? You might have hurt him."
"Hyacinth," said the King, turning suddenly; "you here?"
"I have just come up. Did you hit him?"
"The King of Barodia, of course."
"The King of—— My dear child, what could the King of Barodia be doing here? My archers were aiming at a hawk that they saw in the distance." He beckoned to the Captain. "Did you hit that hawk?" he asked.
"With one shot only, Sire. In the whisk—in the tail feathers."
The King turned to Hyacinth.
"With one shot only in the whisk—in the tail feathers," he said. "What was it, my dear, that you were saying about the King of Barodia?"
"Oh, Father, you are bad. You hit the poor man right in the whisker."
"His Majesty of Barodia! And in the whisker! My dear child, this is terrible! But what can he have been doing up there? Dear, dear, this is really most unfortunate. I must compose a note of apology about this."
"I should leave the first note to him," said Hyacinth.
"Yes, yes, you're right. No doubt he will wish to explain how he came to be there. Just a moment, dear."
He went over to his archers, who were drawn up in line again.
"You may take your men down now," he said to the Captain.
"Yes, your Majesty."
His Majesty looked quickly round the castle walls, and then leant confidentially towards the Captain.
"Er—which was the man who—er"— he fingered his cheek—"er—quite so. The one on the left? Ah, yes." He went to the man on the left and put a bag of gold into his hand.
"You have a very good style with the bow, my man. Your wrist action is excellent. I have never seen an arrow go so high."
The company saluted and withdrew. The King and Hyacinth sat down to breakfast.
"A little mullet, my dear?" he said.
* * * * *
The Hereditary Grand Chancellor of Barodia never forgot that morning, nor did he allow his wife to forget it. His opening, "That reminds me, dear, of the day when——" though the signal of departure for any guests, allowed no escape for his family. They had to have it.
And indeed it was a busy day for him. Summoned to the Palace at nine o'clock, he found the King nursing a bent whisker and in the very vilest of tempers. His Majesty was for war at once, the Chancellor leant towards the Stiff Note.
"At least, your Majesty," he begged, "let me consult the precedents first."
"There is no precedent," said the King coldly, "for such an outrage as this."
"Not precisely, Sire; but similar unfortunate occurrences have—occurred."
"It was worse than an occurrence."
"I should have said an outrage, your Majesty. Your late lamented grandfather was unfortunate enough to come beneath the spell of the King of Araby, under which he was compelled—or perhaps I should say preferred—to go about on his hands and knees for several weeks. Your Majesty may recall how the people in their great loyalty adopted a similar mode of progression. Now although your Majesty's case is not precisely on all fours——"
"Not at all on all fours," said the King coldly.
"An unfortunate metaphor; I should say that although your Majesty's case is not parallel, the procedure adopted in your revered grandfather's case——"
"I don't care what you do with your whiskers; I don't care what anybody does with his whiskers," said the King, still soothing his own tenderly; "I want the King of Euralia's blood." He looked round the Court. "To any one who will bring me the head of the King, I will give the hand of my daughter in marriage."
There was a profound silence. . . .
"Which daughter?" said a cautious voice at last.
"The eldest," said the King.
There was another profound silence. . . .
"My suggestion, your Majesty," said the Chancellor, "is that for the present there should be merely an exchange of Stiff Notes; and that meanwhile we scour the kingdom for an enchanter who shall take some pleasant revenge for us upon his Majesty of Euralia. For instance, Sire, a king whose head has been permanently fixed on upside-down lacks somewhat of that regal dignity which alone can command the respect of his subjects. A couple of noses, again, placed at different angles, so they cannot both be blown together——"
"Yes, yes," said the King impatiently, "I'll think of the things, if once you can find the enchanter. But they are not so common nowadays. Besides, enchanters are delicate things to work with. They have a habit of forgetting which side they are on."
The Chancellor's mouth drooped piteously.
"Well," said the King condescendingly, "I'll tell you what we'll do. You may send one Stiff Note and then we will declare war."
"Thank you, your Majesty," said the Chancellor.
So the Stiff Note was dispatched. It pointed out that his Majesty of Barodia, while in the act of taking his early morning constitutional, had been severely insulted by an arrow. This arrow, though fortunately avoiding the more vital parts of his Majesty's person, went so far as to wound a favourite whisker. For this the fullest reparation must be made . . . and so forth and so on.
Euralia's reply was not long delayed. It expressed the deepest concern at the unhappy accident which had overtaken a friendly monarch. On the morning in question, his Majesty had been testing his archers in a shooting competition at a distant hawk; which competition, it might interest his Majesty of Barodia to know, had been won by Henry Smallnose, a bowman of considerable promise. In the course of the competition it was noticed that a foreign body of some sort brushed up against one of the arrows, but as this in no way affected the final placing of the competitors, little attention was paid to it. His Majesty of Barodia might rest assured that the King had no wish to pursue the matter farther. Indeed, he was always glad to welcome his Barodian Majesty on these occasions. Other shooting competitions would be arranged from time to time, and if his Majesty happened to be passing at the moment, the King of Euralia hoped that he would come down and join them. Trusting that her Majesty and their Royal Highnesses were well, . . . and so on and so forth.
The Grand Chancellor of Barodia read this answer to his Stiff Note with a growing feeling of uneasiness. It was he who had exposed his Majesty to this fresh insult; and, unless he could soften it in some way, his morning at the Palace might be a painful one.
As he entered the precincts, he wondered whether the King would be wearing the famous boots, and whether they kicked seven leagues as easily as they strode them. He felt more and more that there were notes which you could break gently, and notes which you couldn't. . . .
Five minutes later, as he started on his twenty-one mile walk home, he realised that this was one of the ones which you couldn't.
* * * * *
This, then, was the real reason of the war between Euralia and Barodia. I am aware that in saying this I differ from the eminent historian, Roger Scurvilegs. In Chapter IX of his immortal work, Euralia Past and Present, he attributes the quarrel between the two countries to quite other causes. The King of Barodia, he says, demanded the hand of the Princess Hyacinth for his eldest son. The King of Euralia made some commonplace condition as that his Royal Highness should first ride his horse up a glassy mountain in the district, a condition which his Majesty of Barodia strongly resented. I am afraid that Roger is incurably romantic; I have had to speak to him about it before. There was nothing of the sentimental in the whole business, and the facts are exactly as I have narrated them.
THE KING OF EURALIA DRAWS HIS SWORD
No doubt you have already guessed that it was the Countess Belvane who dictated the King of Euralia's answer. Left to himself, Merriwig would have said, "Serve you jolly well right for stalking over my kingdom." His repartee was never very subtle. Hyacinth would have said, "Of course we're awfully sorry, but a whisker isn't very bad, is it? and you really oughtn't to come to breakfast without being asked." The Chancellor would have scratched his head for a long time, and then said, "Referring to Chap VII, Para 259 of the King's Regulations we notice . . ."
But Belvane had her own way of doing things; and if you suggest that she wanted to make Barodia's declaration of war inevitable, well, the story will show whether you are right in supposing that she had her reasons. It came a little hard on the Chancellor of Barodia, but the innocent must needs suffer for the ambitions of the unprincipled—a maxim I borrow from Euralia Past and Present; Roger in his moral vein.
"Well," said Merriwig to the Countess, "that's done it."
"It really is war?" asked Belvane.
"It is. Hyacinth is looking out my armour at this moment."
"What did the King of Barodia say?"
"He didn't say anything. He wrote 'W A R' in red on a dirty bit of paper, pinned it to my messenger's ear, and sent him back again."
"How very crude," said the Countess.
"Oh, I thought it was—er—rather forcible," said the King awkwardly. Secretly he had admired it a good deal and wished that he had been the one to do it.
"Of course," said the Countess, with a charming smile, "that sort of thing depends so very much on who does it. Now from your Majesty it would have seemed—dignified."
"He must have been very angry," said the King, picking up first one and then another of a number of swords which lay in front of him. "I wish I had seen his face when he got my Note."
"So do I," sighed the Countess. She wished it much more than the King. It is the tragedy of writing a good letter that you cannot be there when it is opened: a maxim of my own, the thought never having occurred to Roger Scurvilegs, who was a dull correspondent.
The King was still taking up and putting down his swords.
"It's very awkward," he muttered; "I wonder if Hyacinth——" He went to the door and called "Hyacinth!"
"Coming, Father," called back Hyacinth, from a higher floor.
The Countess rose and curtsied deeply.
"Good morning, your Royal Highness."
"Good morning, Countess," said Hyacinth brightly. She liked the Countess (you couldn't help it), but rather wished she didn't.
"Oh, Hyacinth," said the King, "come and tell me about these swords. Which is my magic one?"
Hyacinth looked at him blankly.
"Oh, Father," she said. "I don't know at all. Does it matter very much?"
"My dear child, of course it matters. Supposing I am fighting the King of Barodia and I have my magic sword, then I'm bound to win. Supposing I haven't, then I'm not bound to."
"Supposing you both had magic swords," said Belvane. It was the sort of thing she would say.
The King looked up slowly at her and began to revolve the idea in his mind.
"Well, really," he said, "I hadn't thought of that. Upon my word, I——" He turned to his daughter. "Hyacinth, what would happen if we both had magic swords?"
"I suppose you'd go on fighting for ever," said Hyacinth.
"Or until the magic wore out of one of them," said Belvane innocently.
"There must be something about it somewhere," said the King, whose morning was in danger of being quite spoilt by this new suggestion; "I'd ask the Chancellor to look it up, only he's so busy just now."
"He'd have plenty of time while the combat was going on," said Belvane thoughtfully. Wonderful creature! she saw already the Chancellor hurrying up to announce that the King of Euralia had won, at the very moment when he lay stretched on the ground by a mortal thrust from his adversary.
The King turned to his swords again.
"Well, anyway, I'm going to be sure of mine," he said. "Hyacinth, haven't you any idea which it is?" He added in rather a hurt voice, "Naturally I left the marking of my swords to you."
His daughter examined the swords one by one.
"Here it is," she cried. "It's got 'M' on it for 'magic.'"
"Or 'Merriwig,'" said the Countess to her diary.
The expression of joy on the King's face at his daughter's discovery had just time to appear and fade away again.
"You are not being very helpful this morning, Countess," he said severely.
Instantly the Countess was on her feet, her diary thrown to the floor—no, never thrown—laid gently on the floor, and herself, hands clasped at her breast, a figure of reproachful penitence before him.
"Oh, your Majesty, forgive me—if your Majesty had only asked me—I didn't know your Majesty wanted me—I thought her Royal Highness—— But of course I'll find your Majesty's sword for you." Did she stroke his head as she said this? I have often wondered. It would be like her impudence, and her motherliness, and her—-and, in fact, like her. Euralia Past and Present is silent upon the point. Roger Scurvilegs, who had only seen Belvane at the unimpressionable age of two, would have had it against her if he could, so perhaps there is nothing in it.
"There!" she said, and she picked out the magic sword almost at once.
"Then I'll get back to my work," said Hyacinth cheerfully, and left them to each other.
The King, smiling happily, girded on his sword. But a sudden doubt assailed him.
"Are you sure it's the one?"
"Try it on me," cried the Countess superbly, falling on her knees and stretching up her arms to him. The toe of her little shoe touched her diary; its presence there uplifted her. Even as she knelt she saw herself describing the scene. How do you spell "offered"? she wondered.
I think the King was already in love with her, though he found it so difficult to say the decisive words. But even so he could only have been in love a week or two; a fortnight in the last forty years; and he had worn a sword since he was twelve. In a crisis it is the old love and not the greater love which wins (Roger's, but I think I agree with him), and instinctively the King drew his sword. If it were magic a scratch would kill. Now he would know.
Her enemies said that the Countess could not go pale; she had her faults, but this was not one of them. She whitened as she saw the King standing over her with drawn sword. A hundred thoughts chased each other through her mind. She wondered if the King would be sorry afterwards; she wondered what the minstrels would sing of her, and if her diary would ever be made public; most of all she wondered why she had been such a fool, such a melodramatic fool.
The King came to himself with a sudden start. Looking slightly ashamed he put his sword back in its scabbard, coughed once or twice to cover his confusion, and held his hand out to the Countess to assist her to rise.
"Don't be absurd, Countess," he said. "As if we could spare you at a time like this. Sit down and let us talk matters over seriously."
A trifle bewildered by the emotions she had gone through, Belvane sat down, the beloved diary clasped tightly in her arms. Life seemed singularly sweet just then, the only drawback being that the minstrels would not be singing about her after all. Still, one cannot have everything.
The King walked up and down the room as he talked.
"I am going away to fight," he said, "and I leave my dear daughter behind. In my absence, her Royal Highness will of course rule the country. I want her to feel that she can lean upon you, Countess, for advice and support. I know that I can trust you, for you have just given me a great proof of your devotion and courage."
"Oh, your Majesty!" said Belvane deprecatingly, but feeling very glad that it hadn't been wasted.
"Hyacinth is young and inexperienced. She needs a—a——"
"A mother's guiding hand," said Belvane softly.
The King started and looked away. It was really too late to propose now; he had so much to do before the morrow. Better leave it till he came back from the war.
"You will have no official position," he went on hastily, "other than your present one of Mistress of the Robes; but your influence on her will be very great."
The Countess had already decided on this. However there is a look of modest resignation to an unsought duty which is suited to an occasion of this kind, and the Countess had no difficulty in supplying it.
"I will do all that I can, your Majesty, to help—gladly; but will not the Chancellor——"
"The Chancellor will come with me. He is no fighter, but he is good at spells." He looked round to make sure that they were alone, and then went on confidentially, "He tells me that he has discovered in the archives of the palace a Backward Spell of great value. Should he be able to cast this upon the enemy at the first onslaught, he thinks that our heroic army would have no difficulty in advancing."
"But there will be other learned men," said Belvane innocently, "so much more accustomed to affairs than us poor women, so much better able"—("What nonsense I'm talking," she said to herself)—"to advise her Royal Highness——"
"Men like that," said the King, "I shall want with me also. If I am to invade Barodia properly I shall need every man in the kingdom. Euralia must be for the time a country of women only." He turned to her with a smile and said gallantly, "That will be—er—— It is—er—not—er——. One may well—er——"
It was so obvious from his manner that something complimentary was struggling to the surface of his mind, that Belvane felt it would be kinder not to wait for it.
"Oh, your Majesty," she said, "you flatter my poor sex."
"Not at all," said the King, trying to remember what he had said. He held out his hand. "Well, Countess, I have much to do."
"I, too, your Majesty."
She made him a deep curtsey and, clasping tightly the precious diary, withdrew.
The King, who still seemed worried about something, returned to his table and took up his pen. Here Hyacinth discovered him ten minutes later. His table was covered with scraps of paper and, her eyes lighting casually upon one of them, she read these remarkable words:
"In such a land I should be a most contented subject."
She looked at some of the others. They were even shorter:
"That, dear Countess, would be my——"
"A country in which even a King——"
The last was crossed out and "Bad" written against it.
"Whatever are these, Father?" said Hyacinth.
The King jumped up in great confusion.
"Nothing, dear, nothing," he said. "I was just—er—— Of course I shall have to address my people, and I was just jotting down a few—— However, I shan't want them now." He swept them together, screwed them up tight, and dropped them into a basket.
And what became of them? you ask. Did they light the fires of the Palace next morning? Well, now, here's a curious thing. In Chapter X of Euralia Past and Present I happened across these words:
"The King and all the men of the land having left to fight the wicked Barodians, Euralia was now a country of women only—a country in which even a King might be glad to be a subject."
Now what does this mean? Is it another example of literary theft? I have already had to expose Shelley. Must I now drag into the light of day a still worse plagiarism by Roger Scurvilegs? The waste-paper baskets of the Palace were no doubt open to him as to so many historians. But should he not have made acknowledgments?
I do not wish to be hard on Roger. That I differ from him on many points of historical fact has already been made plain, and will be made still more plain as my story goes on. But I have a respect for the man; and on some matters, particularly those concerning Prince Udo of Araby's first appearance in Euralia, I have to rely entirely upon him for my information. Moreover I have never hesitated to give him credit for such of his epigrams as I have introduced into this book, and I like to think that he would be equally punctilious to others. We know his romantic way; no doubt the thought occurred to him independently. Let us put it at that, anyhow.
Belvane, meanwhile, was getting on. The King had drawn his sword on her and she had not flinched. As a reward she was to be the power behind the throne.
"Not necessarily behind the throne," said Belvane to herself.
THE PRINCESS HYACINTH LEAVES IT TO THE COUNTESS
It is now time to introduce Wiggs to you, and I find myself in a difficulty at once. What was Wiggs's position in the Palace?
This story is hard to tell, for I have to piece it together from the narratives of others, and to supply any gaps in their stories from my knowledge of how the different characters might be expected to act. Perhaps, therefore, it is a good moment in which to introduce to you the authorities upon whom I rely.
First and foremost, of course, comes Roger Scurvilegs. His monumental work, Euralia Past and Present, in seventeen volumes, towers upon my desk as I write. By the merest chance I picked it up (in a metaphorical sense) at that little shop near—I forget its name, but it's the third bookshop on the left as you come into London from the New Barnet end. Upon him I depend for the broad lines of my story, and I have already indicated my opinion of the value of his work.
Secondly, come the many legends and ballads handed on to me years ago by my aunt by marriage, one of the Cornish Smallnoses. She claims to be a direct descendant of that Henry Smallnose whose lucky shot brought about the events which I am to describe. I say she claims to be, and one cannot doubt a lady's word in these matters; certainly she used to speak about Henry with that mixture of pride and extreme familiarity which comes best from a relation. In all matters not touching Henry, I feel that I can rely upon her; in its main lines her narrative is strictly confirmed by Scurvilegs, and she brought to it a picturesqueness and an appreciation of the true character of Belvane which is lacking in the other; but her attitude towards Henry Smallnose was absurd. Indeed she would have had him the hero of the story. This makes Roger and myself smile. We give him credit for the first shot, and then we drop him.
Thirdly, Belvane herself. Women like Belvane never die, and I met her (or a reincarnation of her) at a country house in Shropshire last summer. I forget what she calls herself now, but I recognised her at once; and, as I watched her, the centuries rolled away and she and I were in Euralia, that pleasant country, together. "Stayed to tea and was very charming." Would she have said that of me, I wonder? But I'm getting sentimental—Roger's great fault.
These then are my authorities; I consult them, and I ask myself, What was Wiggs?
Roger speaks of her simply as an attendant upon the Princess. Now we know that the Princess was seventeen; Wiggs then would be about the same age—a lady-in-waiting—perhaps even a little older. Why not? you say. The Lady Wiggs, maid-of-honour to her Royal Highness the Princess Hyacinth, eighteen and a bit, tall and stately. Since she is to endanger Belvane's plans, let her be something of a match for the wicked woman.
Yes, but you would never talk like that if you had heard one of my aunt's stories. Nor if you had seen Belvane would you think that any grown-up woman could be a match for her.
Wiggs was a child; I feel it in my bones. In all the legends and ballads handed down to me by my aunt she appears to me as a little girl—Alice in a fairy story. Roger or no Roger I must have her a child.
And even Roger cannot keep up the farce that she is a real lady-in-waiting. In one place he tells us that she dusts the throne of the Princess; can you see her ladyship, eighteen last February, doing that? At other times he allows her to take orders from the Countess; I ask you to imagine a maid-of-honour taking orders from any but her own mistress. Conceive her dignity!
A little friend, then, of Hyacinth's, let us say; ready to do anything for anybody who loved, or appeared to love, her mistress.
The King had departed for the wars. His magic sword girded to his side, his cloak of darkness, not worn but rolled up behind him, lest the absence of his usual extensive shadow should disturb his horse, he rode at the head of his men to meet the enemy. Hyacinth had seen him off from the Palace steps. Five times he had come back to give her his last instructions, and a sixth time for his sword, but now he was gone, and she was alone on the castle walls with Wiggs.
"Saying good-bye to fathers is very tiring," said Hyacinth. "I do hope he'll be all right. Wiggs, although we oughtn't to mention it to anybody, and although he's only just gone, we do think it will be rather fun being Queen, don't we?"
"It must be lovely," said Wiggs, gazing at her with large eyes. "Can you really do whatever you like now?"
"I always did whatever I liked," she said, "But now I really can do it."
"Could you cut anybody's head off?"
"Easily," said the Princess confidently.
"I should hate to cut anybody's head off."
"So should I, Wiggs. Let's decide to have no heads off just at present—till we're more used to it."
Wiggs still kept her eyes fixed upon the Princess.
"Which is stronger," she asked, "you or a Fairy?"
"I knew you were going to ask something horrid like that," said Hyacinth, pretending to be angry. She looked quickly round to see that nobody was listening, and then whispered in Wiggs's ear, "I am."
"O—oh!" said Wiggs. "How lovely!"
"Isn't it? Did you ever hear the story of Father and the Fairy?"
"His Majesty the King of Euralia. It happened in the forest one day just after he became King."
Did you ever hear the story? I expect not. Well, then, you must hear it. But there will be too many inverted commas in it if I let Hyacinth tell you, so I shall tell you myself.
It was just after he became King. He was so proud that he used to go about saying, "I am the King. I am the King." And sometimes, "The King am I. The King I am." He was saying this one day in the forest when a Fairy overheard him. So she appeared in front of him and said, "I believe you are the King?"
"I am the King," said Merriwig. "I am the King, I am the——"
"And yet," said the Fairy, "what is a King after all?"
"It is a very powerful thing to be a King," said Merriwig proudly.
"Supposing I were to turn you into a—a small sheep. Then where would you be?"
The King thought anxiously for a moment.
"I should like to be a small sheep," he said.
The Fairy waved her wand.
"Then you can be one," she said, "until you own that a Fairy is much more powerful than a King."
So all at once he was a small sheep.
"Well?" said the Fairy.
"Well?" said the King.
"Which is more powerful, a King or a Fairy?"
"A King," said Merriwig. "Besides being more woolly," he added.
There was silence for a little. Merriwig began to eat some grass.
"I don't think much of Fairies," he said with his mouth full. "I don't think they're very powerful."
The Fairy looked at him angrily.
"They can't make you say things you don't want to say," he explained.
The Fairy stamped her foot.
"Be a toad," she said, waving her wand. "A nasty, horrid, crawling toad."
"I've always wanted—" began Merriwig—"to be a toad," he ended from lower down.
"Well?" said the Fairy.
"I don't think much of Fairies," said the King. "I don't think they're very powerful." He waited for the Fairy to look at him, but she pretended to be thinking of something else. After waiting a minute or two, he added, "They can't make you say things you don't want to say."
The Fairy stamped her foot still more angrily, and moved her wand a third time.
"Be silent!" she commanded. "And stay silent for ever!"
There was no sound in the forest. The Fairy looked at the blue sky through the green roof above her; she looked through the tall trunks of the trees to the King's castle beyond; her eyes fell upon the little glade on her left, upon the mossy bank on her right . . . but she would not look down to the toad at her feet.
No, she wouldn't. . . .
She wouldn't. . . .
It was too much for her. She could resist no longer. She looked at the nasty, horrid, crawling toad, the dumb toad at her feet that was once a King.
And, catching her eye, the toad—winked.
Some winks are more expressive than others. The Fairy knew quite well what this one meant. It meant:
"I don't think much of Fairies. I don't think they're very powerful. They can't make you say things you don't want to say."
The Fairy waved her wand in disgust.
"Oh, be a King again," she said impatiently, and vanished.
And so that is the story of how the King of Euralia met the Fairy in the forest. Roger Scurvilegs tells it well—indeed, almost as well as I do—but he burdens it with a moral. You must think it out for yourself; I shall not give it to you.
Wiggs didn't bother about the moral. Her elbows on her knees, her chin resting on her hands, she gazed at the forest and imagined the scene to herself.
"How wonderful to be a King like that!" she thought.
"That was a long time ago," explained Hyacinth. "Father must have been rather lovely in those days," she added.
"It was a very bad Fairy," said Wiggs.
"It was a very stupid one. I wouldn't have given in to Father like that."
"But there are good Fairies, aren't there? I met one once."
"You, child? Where?"
I don't know if it would have made any difference to Euralian history if Wiggs had been allowed to tell about her Fairy then; as it was, she didn't tell the story till later on, when Belvane happened to be near. I regret to say that Belvane listened. It was the sort of story that always got overheard, she explained afterwards, as if that were any excuse. On this occasion she was just too early to overhear, but in time to prevent the story being told without her.
"The Countess Belvane," said an attendant, and her ladyship made a superb entry.
"Good morning, Countess," said Hyacinth.
"Good morning, your Royal Highness. Ah, Wiggs, sweet child," she added carelessly, putting out a hand to pat the sweet child's head, but missing it.
"Wiggs was just telling me a story," said the Princess.
"Sweet child," said Belvane, feeling vaguely for her with the other hand. "Could I interrupt the story with a little business, your Royal Highness?"
At a nod from the Princess, Wiggs withdrew.
"Well?" said Hyacinth nervously.
Belvane had always a curious effect on the Princess when they were alone together. There was something about her large manner which made Hyacinth feel like a schoolgirl who has been behaving badly: alarmed and apologetic. I feel like this myself when I have an interview with my publishers, and Roger Scurvilegs (upon the same subject) drags in a certain uncle of his before whom (so he says) he always appears at his worst. It is a common experience.
"Just one or two little schemes to submit to your Majesty," said the Countess. "How silly of me—I mean, your Royal Highness. Of course your Royal Highness may not like them at all, but in case your Royal Highness did, I just—well, I just wrote them out."
She unfolded, one by one, a series of ornamental parchments.
"They are beautifully written," said the Princess.
Belvane blushed at the compliment. She had a passion for coloured inks and rulers. In her diary the day of the week was always underlined in red, the important words in the day's doings being frequently picked out in gold. On taking up the diary you saw at once that you were in the presence of somebody.
The first parchment was headed:
SCHEME FOR ECONOMY IN REALM
"Economy" caught the eye in pale pink. The next parchment was headed:
SCHEME FOR SAFETY OF REALM
"Safety" clamoured to you in blue.
The third parchment was headed:
SCHEME FOR ENCOURAGEMENT OF LITERATURE IN REALM
"Encouragement of Literature" had got rather cramped in the small quarters available for it. A heading, Belvane felt, should be in one line; she had started in letters too big for it, and the fact that the green ink was giving out made it impossible to start afresh.
There were ten parchments altogether.
By the end of the third one, the Princess began to feel uncomfortable.
By the end of the fifth one she knew that it was a mistake her ever having come into the Royal Family at all.
By the end of the seventh she decided that if the Countess would forgive her this time she would never be naughty again.
By the end of the ninth one she was just going to cry.
The tenth one was in a very loud orange and was headed:
SCHEME FOR ASSISTING CALISTHENICS IN REALM
"Yes," said the Princess faintly; "I think it would be a good idea."
"I thought if your Royal Highness approved," said Belvane, "we might just——"
Hyacinth felt herself blushing guiltily—she couldn't think why.
"I leave it to you, Countess," she murmured. "I am sure you know best."
It was a remark which she would never have made to her Father.
BELVANE INDULGES HER HOBBY
In a glade in the forest the Countess Belvane was sitting: her throne, a fallen log, her courtiers, that imaginary audience which was always with her. For once in her life she was nervous; she had an anxious morning in front of her.
I can tell you the reason at once. Her Royal Highness was going to review her Royal Highness's Army of Amazons (see Scheme II, Safety of Realm). In half an hour she would be here.
And why not? you say. Could anything be more gratifying?
I will tell you why not. There was no Army of Amazons. In order that her Royal Highness should not know the sad truth, Belvane drew their pay for them. 'Twas better thus.
In any trouble Belvane comforted herself by reading up her diary. She undid the enormous volume, and, idly turning the pages, read some of the more delightful extracts to herself.
"Monday, June 1st," she read. "Became bad."
She gave a sigh of resignation to the necessity of being bad. Roger Scurvilegs is of the opinion that she might have sighed a good many years before. According to him she was born bad.
"Tuesday, June 2nd," she read on. "Realised in the privacy of my heart that I was destined to rule the country. Wednesday, June 3rd. Decided to oust the Princess. Thursday, June 4th. Began ousting."
What a confession for any woman—even for one who had become bad last Monday! No wonder Belvane's diary was not for everybody. Let us look over her shoulder and read some more of the wicked woman's confessions.
"Friday, June 5th. Made myself a——" Oh, that's quite private. However we may read this: "Thought for the week. Beware lest you should tumble down In reaching for another's crown." An admirable sentiment which Roger Scurvilegs would have approved, although he could not have rhymed it so neatly.
The Countess turned on a few more pages and prepared to write up yesterday's events.
"Tuesday, June 23rd," she said to herself. "Now what happened? Acclaimed with enthusiasm outside the Palace—how do you spell 'enthusiasm'?" She bit the end of her pencil and pondered. She turned back the pages till she came to the place.
"Yes," she said thoughtfully. "It had three 's's' last time, so it's 'z's' turn."
She wrote "enthuzziazm" lightly in pencil; later on it would be picked out in gold.
She closed the diary hastily. Somebody was coming.
It was Wiggs.
"Oh, if you please, your Ladyship, her Royal Highness sent me to tell you that she would be here at eleven o'clock to review her new army."
It was the last thing of which Belvane wanted reminding.
"Ah, Wiggs, sweet child," she said, "you find me overwhelmed." She gave a tragic sigh. "Leader of the Corps de Ballet"—she indicated with her toe how this was done, "Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Amazons"—here she saluted, and it was certainly the least she could do for the money, "Warden of the Antimacassars and Grand Mistress of the Robes, I have a busy life. Just come and dust this log for her Royal Highness. All this work wears me out, Wiggs, but it is my duty and I do it."
"Woggs says you make a very good thing out of it," said Wiggs innocently, as she began to dust. "It must be nice to make very good things out of things."
The Countess looked coldly at her. It is one thing to confide to your diary that you are bad, it's quite another to have Woggsseses shouting it out all over the country.
"I don't know what Woggs is," said Belvane sternly, "but send it to me at once."
As soon as Wiggs was gone, Belvane gave herself up to her passions. She strode up and down the velvety sward, saying to herself, "Bother! Bother! Bother! Bother!" Her outbreak of violence over, she sat gloomily down on the log and abandoned herself to despair. Her hair fell in two plaits down her back to her waist; on second thoughts she arranged them in front—if one is going to despair one may as well do it to the best advantage.
Suddenly a thought struck her.
"I am alone," she said. "Dare I soliloquise? I will. It is a thing I have not done for weeks. 'Oh, what a——" She got up quickly. "Nobody could soliloquise on a log like that," she said crossly. She decided she could do it just as effectively when standing. With one pale hand raised to the skies she began again.
"Oh, what a—"
"Did you call me, Mum?" said Woggs, appearing suddenly.
"Bother!" said Belvane. She gave a shrug of resignation. "Another time," she told herself. She turned to Woggs.
Woggs must have been quite close at hand to have been found by Wiggs so quickly, and I suspect her of playing in the forest when she ought to have been doing her lessons, or mending stockings, or whatever made up her day's work. Woggs I find nearly as difficult to explain as Wiggs; it is a terrible thing for an author to have a lot of people running about his book, without any invitation from him at all. However, since Woggs is there, we must make the best of her. I fancy that she was a year or two younger than Wiggs and of rather inferior education. Witness her low innuendo about the Lady Belvane, and the fact that she called a Countess "Mum."
"Come here," said Belvane. "Are you what they call Woggs?"
"Please, Mum," said Woggs nervously.
The Countess winced at the "Mum," but went on bravely. "What have you been saying about me?"
Belvane winced again, and said, "Do you know what I do to little girls who say things about me? I cut their heads off; I——" She tried to think of something very alarming! "I—I stop their jam for tea. I—I am most annoyed with them."
Woggs suddenly saw what a wicked thing she had done.
"Oh, please, Mum," she said brokenly and fell on her knees.
"Don't call me 'Mum,'" burst out Belvane. "It's so ugly. Why do you suppose I ever wanted to be a countess at all, Woggs, if it wasn't so as not to be called 'Mum' any more?"
"I don't know, Mum," said Woggs.
Belvane gave it up. The whole morning was going wrong anyhow.
"Come here, child," she sighed, "and listen. You have been a very naughty girl, but I'm going to let you off this time, and in return I've something you are going to do for me."
"Yes, Mum," said Woggs.
Belvane barely shuddered now. A sudden brilliant plan had come to her.
"Her Royal Highness is about to review her Army of Amazons. It is a sudden idea of her Royal Highness's, and it comes at an unfortunate moment, for it so happens that the Army is—er——" What was the Army doing? Ah, yes—"manoeuvring in a distant part of the country. But we must not disappoint her Royal Highness. What then shall we do, Woggs?"
"I don't know, Mum," said Woggs stolidly.
Not having expected any real assistance from her, the Countess went on, "I will tell you. You see yonder tree? Armed to the teeth you will march round and round it, giving the impression to one on this side of a large army passing. For this you will be rewarded. Here is——" She felt in the bag she carried. "No, on second thoughts I will owe it to you. Now you quite understand?"
"Yes, Mum," said Woggs.
"Very well, then. Run along to the Palace and get a sword and a helmet and a bow and an arrow and an—an arrow and anything you like, and then come back here and wait behind those bushes. When I clap my hands the army will begin to march."
Woggs curtsied and ran off.
It is probable that at this point the Countess would have resumed her soliloquy, but we shall never know, for the next moment the Princess and her Court were seen approaching from the other end of the glade. Belvane advanced to meet them.
"Good morning, your Royal Highness," she said, "a beautiful day, is it not?"
With the Court at her back, Hyacinth for the moment was less nervous than usual, but almost at the first words of the Countess she felt her self-confidence oozing from her. Did I say I was like this with my publishers? And Roger's dragged-in Uncle——one can't explain it.
The Court stood about in picturesque attitudes while Belvane went on:
"Your Royal Highness's brave Women Defenders, the Home Defence Army of Amazons" (here she saluted; one soon gets into the knack of it, and it gives an air of efficiency) "have looked forward to this day for weeks. How their hearts fill with pride at the thought of being reviewed by your Royal Highness!"
She had paid, or rather received, the money for the Army so often that she had quite got to believe in its existence. She even kept a roll of the different companies (it meant more delightful red ink for one thing), and wrote herself little notes recommending Corporal Gretal Hottshott for promotion to sergeant.
"I know very little about armies, I'm afraid," said Hyacinth. "I've always left that to my father. But I think it's a sweet idea of yours to enrol the women to defend me. It's a little expensive, is it not?"
"Your Royal Highness, armies are always expensive."
The Princess took her seat, and beckoned Wiggs with a smile to her side. The Court, in attitudes even more picturesque than before, grouped itself behind her.
"Is your Royal Highness ready?"
"Quite ready, Countess."
The Countess clapped her hands.
There was a moment's hesitation, and then, armed to the teeth, Amazon after Amazon marched by. . . .
An impressive scene. . . .
However, Wiggs must needs try to spoil it.
"Why, it's Woggs!" she cried.
"Silly child!" said Belvane in an undertone, giving her a push.
The Princess looked round inquiringly.
"The absurd creature," explained the Countess, "thought she recognized a friend in your Royal Highness's gallant Army."
"How clever of her! They all look exactly alike to me."
Belvane was equal to the occasion.
"The uniform and discipline of an army have that effect rather," she said. "It has often been noticed."
"I suppose so," said the Princess vaguely. "Oughtn't they to march in fours? I seem to remember, when I came to reviews with Father——"
"Ah, your Royal Highness, that was an army of men. With women—well, we found that if they marched side by side, they would talk all the time."
The Court, which had been resting on the right leg with the left knee bent, now rested on the left leg with the right knee bent. Woggs also was getting tired. The last company of the Army of Amazons was not marching with the abandon of the first company.
"I think I should like them to halt now so that I can address them," said Hyacinth.
Belvane was taken aback for the moment.
"I am afraid, your—your Royal Highness," she stammered, her brain working busily all the time, "that that would be contrary to—to—to the spirit of—er—the King's Regulations. An army—an army in marching order—must—er—march." She made a long forward movement with her hand. "Must march," she repeated, with an innocent smile.
"I see," said Hyacinth, blushing guiltily again.
Belvane gave a loud cough. The last veteran but two of the Army looked inquiringly at her and passed. The last veteran but one came in and was greeted with a still louder cough. Rather tentatively the last veteran of all entered and met such an unmistakable frown that it was obvious that the march-past was over. . . . Woggs took off her helmet and rested in the bushes.
"That is all, your Royal Highness," said Belvane. "158 marches past, 217 reported sick, making 622; 9 are on guard at the Palace—632 and 9 make 815. Add 28 under age and we bring it up to the round thousand."
Wiggs opened her mouth to say something, but decided that her mistress would probably wish to say it instead. Hyacinth, however, merely looked unhappy.
Belvane came a little nearer.
"I—er—forgot if I mentioned to your Royal Highness that we are paying out today. One silver piece a day and several days in the week, multiplied by—how many did I say?—comes to ten thousand pieces of gold." She produced a document, beautifully ruled. "If your Royal Highness would kindly initial here——"
Mechanically the Princess signed.
"Thank you, your Royal Highness. And now perhaps I had better go and see about it at once."
She curtsied deeply, and then, remembering her position, saluted and marched off.
Now Roger Scurvilegs would see her go without a pang; he would then turn over to his next chapter, beginning "Meanwhile the King——," and leave you under the impression that the Countess Belvane was a common thief. I am no such chronicler as that. At all costs I will be fair to my characters.
Belvane, then, had a weakness. She had several of which I have already told you, but this is another one. She had a passion for the distribution of largesse.
I know an old gentleman who plays bowls every evening. He trundles his skip (or whatever he calls it) to one end of the green, toddles after it, and trundles it back again. Think of him for a moment, and then think of Belvane on her cream-white palfrey tossing a bag of gold to right of her and flinging a bag of gold to left of her, as she rides through the cheering crowds; upon my word I think hers is the more admirable exercise.
And, I assure you, no less exacting. When once one has got into this habit of "flinging" or "tossing" money, to give it in any ordinary way, to slide it gently into the palm, is unbearable. Which of us who has, in an heroic moment, flung half a crown to a cabman can ever be content afterwards to hold out a handful of three-penny bits and coppers to him? One must always be flinging. . . .
So it was with Belvane. The largesse habit had got hold of her. It is an expensive habit, but her way of doing it was less expensive than most. The people were taxed to pay for the Amazon Army; the pay of the Amazon Army was flung back at them; could anything be fairer?
True, it brought her admiration and applause. But what woman does not like admiration? Is that an offence? If it is, it is something very different from the common theft of which Roger Scurvilegs would accuse her. Let us be fair.
THERE ARE NO WIZARDS IN BARODIA
Meanwhile "the King of Euralia was prosecuting the war with utmost vigour."
So says Roger in that famous chapter of his, and certainly Merriwig was very busy.
On the declaration of war the Euralian forces, in accordance with custom, had marched into Barodia. However hot ran the passion between them, the two Kings always preserved the elementary courtesies of war. The last battle had taken place in Euralian territory; this time, therefore, Barodia was the scene of the conflict. To Barodia, then, King Merriwig had led his army. Suitable pasture land had been allotted them as a camping ground, and amid the cheers of the Barodian populace the Euralians made their simple preparations for the night.
The two armies had now been sitting opposite to each other for some weeks, but neither side had been idle. On the very first morning Merriwig had put on his Cloak of Darkness and gone to the enemy's camp to explore the situation. Unfortunately the same idea had occurred at the same moment to the King of Barodia. He also had his Cloak of Darkness.
Half way across, to the utmost astonishment of both, the two Kings had come violently into contact. Realising that they had met some unprecedented enchantment, they had hurried home after the recoil to consult their respective Chancellors. The Chancellors could make nothing of it. They could only advise their Majesties to venture another attempt on the following morning.
"But by a different route," said the Chancellors, "whereby the Magic Pillar shall be avoided."
So by the more southerly path the two Kings ventured out next morning. Half way across there was another violent collision, and both Kings sat down suddenly to think it out.
"Wonder of wonders," said Merriwig. "There is a magic wall stretching between the two armies."
"He stood up and holding up his hand said impressively:
"Bo, boll, bill, bole. Wo, woll——"
"Mystery of mysteries!" cried the King of Barodia. "It can——"
He stopped suddenly. Both Kings coughed. They were remembering with some shame their fright of yesterday.
"Who are you?" said the King of Barodia.
Merriwig saw that there was need to dissemble.
"His Majesty's swineherd," he said, in what he imagined might be a swineherd's voice.
"Er—so am I," said the King of Barodia, rather feebly.
There was obviously nothing for it but for them to discuss swine.
Merriwig was comfortably ignorant of the subject. The King of Barodia knew rather less than that.
"Er—how many have you?" asked the latter.
"Seven thousand," said Merriwig at random.
"Er—so have I," said the King of Barodia, still more feebly.
"Couples," explained Merriwig.
"Mine are ones," said the King of Barodia, determined to be independent at last.
Each King was surprised to find how easy it was to talk to an expert on his own subject. The King of Barodia, indeed, began to feel reckless.
"Well," he said, "I must be getting back. It's—er—milking time."
"So must I," said Merriwig. "By the way," he added, "what do you feed yours on?"
The King of Barodia was not quite sure if it was apple sauce or not. He decided that perhaps it wasn't.
"That's a secret," he said darkly. "Been handed down from generation to generation."
Merriwig could think of nothing better to say to this than "Ah!" He said it very impressively, and with a word of farewell returned to his camp.
He was in brilliant form over the wassail bowl that night as he drew a picture of his triumphant dissimulation. It is only fair to say that the King of Barodia was in brilliant form too. . . .
For several weeks after this the battle raged. Sometimes the whole Euralian army would line up outside its camp and call upon the Barodians to fight; at other times the Barodian army would form fours in full view of the Euralians in the hope of provoking a conflict. At intervals the two Chancellors would look up old spells, scour the country for wizards, or send each other insulting messages. At the end of a month it was difficult to say which side had obtained the advantage.
A little hill surmounted by a single tree lay half way between the two camps. Thither one fine morning came the two Kings and the two Chancellors on bloody business bent. (The phrase is Roger's.) Their object was nothing less than to arrange that personal fight between the two monarchs which was always a feature of Barodo-Euralian warfare. The two Kings having shaken hands, their Chancellors proceeded to settle the details.
"I suppose," said the Chancellor of Barodia, "that your Majesties will wish to fight with swords?"
"Certainly," said the King of Barodia promptly; so promptly that Merriwig felt certain that he had a Magic Sword too.
"Cloaks of Darkness are not allowed, of course," said the Chancellor of Euralia.
"Why, have you got one?" said each King quickly to the other.
Merriwig was the first to recover himself.
"I have one—naturally," he said. "It's a curious thing that the only one of my subjects who has one is my—er—swineherd."
"That's funny," said the King of Barodia. "My swineherd has one too."
"Of course," said Merriwig, "they are almost a necessity to swineherding."
"Particularly in the milking season," said the King of Barodia.
They looked at each other with added respect. Not many Kings in those days had the technicalities of such a humble trade at their fingers' ends.
The Chancellor of Barodia has been referring to the precedents.
"It was after the famous conflict between the two grandfathers of your Majesties that the use of the Magic Cloak in personal combats was discontinued."
"Great-grandfathers," said the Chancellor of Euralia.
"Grandfathers, I think."
"Great-grandfathers, if I am not mistaken."
Their tempers were rising rapidly, and the Chancellor of Barodia was just about to give the Chancellor of Euralia a push when Merriwig intervened.
"Never mind about that," he said impatiently. "Tell us what happened when our—our ancestors fought."
"It happened in this way, your Majesty. Your Majesty's grandfather——"
"Great-grandfather," said a small voice.
The Chancellor cast one bitter look at his opponent and went on:
"The ancestors of your two Majesties arranged to settle the war of that period by personal combat. The two armies were drawn up in full array. In front of them the two monarchs shook hands. Drawing their swords and casting their Magic Cloaks around them, they——"
"Well?" said Merriwig eagerly.
"It is rather a painful story, your Majesty."
"Go on, I shan't mind."
"Well, your Majesty, drawing their swords and casting their Magic Cloaks around them they—h'r'm—returned to the wassail bowl."
"Dear, dear," said Merriwig.
"When the respective armies, who had been waiting eagerly the whole of the afternoon for some result of the combat, returned to camp, they found their Majesties——"
"Asleep," said the Chancellor of Euralia hastily.
"Asleep," agreed the Chancellor of Barodia. "The excuse of their two Majesties that they had suddenly forgotten the day, though naturally accepted at the time, was deemed inadequate by later historians." (By Roger and myself, anyway.)
Some further details were discussed, and then the conference closed. The great fight was fixed for the following morning.
The day broke fine. At an early hour Merriwig was up and practising thrusts upon a suspended pillow. At intervals he would consult a little book entitled Sword Play for Sovereigns, and then return to his pillow. At breakfast he was nervous but talkative. After breakfast he wrote a tender letter to Hyacinth and a still more tender one to the Countess Belvane, and burnt them. He repeated his little rhyme, "Bo, Boll, Bill, Bole," several times to himself until he was word perfect. It was just possible that it might be useful. His last thoughts as he rode on to the field were of his great-grandfather. Without admiring him, he quite saw his point.
The fight was a brilliant one. First Merriwig aimed a blow at the King of Barodia's head which the latter parried. Then the King of Barodia aimed a blow at his adversary's head which Merriwig parried. This went on three or four times, and then Merriwig put into practice a remarkable trick which the Captain of his Bodyguard had taught him. It was his turn to parry, but instead of doing this, he struck again at his opponent's head; and if the latter in sheer surprise had not stumbled and fallen, there might have been a very serious ending to the affair.
Noon found them still at it; cut and parry, cut and parry; at each stroke the opposing armies roared their applause. When darkness put an end to the conflict, honours were evenly divided.
It was a stiff but proud King of Euralia who received the congratulations of his subjects that night; so proud that he had to pour out his heart to somebody. He write to his daughter.
"MY DEAR HYACINTH,
"You will be glad to hear that your father is going on well and that Euralia is as determined as ever to uphold its honour and dignity. To-day I fought the King of Barodia, and considering that, most unfairly, he was using a Magic Sword, I think I may say that I did well. The Countess Belvane will be interested to hear that I made 4,638 strokes at my opponent and parried 4,637 strokes from him. This is good for a man of my age. Do you remember that magic ointment my aunt used to give me? Have we any of it left?
"I played a very clever trick the other day by pretending to be a swineherd. I talked to a real one I met for quite a long time about swine without his suspecting me. The Countess might be interested to hear this. It would have been very awkward for me if it had been found out who I was.
"I hope you are getting along all right. Do you consult the Countess Belvane at all? I think she would be able to advise you in any difficulties. A young girl needs a guiding hand, and I think the Countess would be able to advise you in any difficulties. Do you consult her at all?
"I am afraid this is going to be a long war. There doesn't seem to be a wizard in the country at all, and without one it is a little difficult to know how to go on. I say my spell every now and then—you remember the one:
'Bo, boll, bill bole. Wo, woll, will, wole.'
and it certainly keeps off dragons, but we don't seem to get any nearer defeating the enemy's army. You might tell the Countess Belvane that about my spell; she would be interested.
"To-morrow I go on with my fight with the King of Barodia. I feel quite confident now that I can hold him. He parries well, but his cutting is not very good. I am glad the Countess found my sword for me; tell her that it has been most useful.
"I must now close as I must go to bed so as to be ready for my fight to-morrow. Good-bye, dear. I am always,
"YOUR LOVING FATHER.
"P.S.—I hope you are not finding your position too difficult. If you are in any difficulties you should consult the Countess Belvane. I think she would be able to advise you. Don't forget about that ointment. Perhaps the Countess might know about some other kind. It's for stiffness. I am afraid this is going to be a long war."
The King sealed up the letter and despatched it by special messenger the next morning. It came to Hyacinth at a critical moment. We shall see in the next chapter what effect it had upon her.
THE PRINCESS RECEIVES A LETTER AND WRITES ONE
The Princess Hyacinth came in from her morning's ride in a very bad temper. She went straight up to her favourite seat on the castle walls and sent for Wiggs.
"Wiggs," she said, "what's the matter with me?"
Wiggs looked puzzled. She had been dusting the books in the library; and when you dust books you simply must stop every now and then to take just one little peep inside, and then you look inside another one and another one, and by the time you have finished dusting, your head is so full of things you have seen that you have to be asked questions very slowly indeed.
"I'm pretty, aren't I?" went on Hyacinth.
That was an easy one.
"Lovely!" said Wiggs, with a deep breath.
"And I'm not unkind to anybody?"
"Unkind!" said Wiggs indignantly.
"Then why—oh, Wiggs, I know it's silly of me, but it hurts me that my people are so much fonder of the Countess than of me."
"Oh, I'm sure they're not, your Royal Highness."
"Well, they cheer her much louder than they cheer me."
Wiggs tried to think of a way of comforting her mistress, but her head was still full of the last book she had dusted.
"Why should they be so fond of her?" demanded Hyacinth.
"Perhaps because she's so funny," said Wiggs.
"Funny! Is she funny?" said the Princess coldly. "She doesn't make me laugh."
"Well, it was funny of her to make Woggs march round and round that tree like that, wasn't it?"
"Like what? You don't mean——" The Princess's eyes were wide open with astonishment. "Was that Woggs all the time?"
"Yes, your Royal Highness. Wasn't it lovely and funny of her?"
The Princess looked across to the forest and nodded to herself.
"Yes. That's it. Wiggs, I don't believe there has ever been an Army at all. . . . And I pay them every week!" She added solemnly, "There are moments when I don't believe that woman is quite honest."
"Do you mean she isn't good?" asked Wiggs in awe.
"I'm never good," said Wiggs firmly.
"What do you mean, silly? You're the best little girl in Euralia."
"I'm not. I do awful things sometimes. Do you know what I did yesterday?"
"Something terrible!" smiled Hyacinth.
"I tore my apron."
"You baby! That isn't being bad," said Hyacinth absently. She was still thinking of that awful review.
"The Countess says it is."
"Do you know why I want to be very good?" said Wiggs, coming up close to the Princess.
"Because then I could dance like a fairy."
"Is that how it's done?" asked the Princess, rather amused. "The Countess must dance very heavily." She suddenly remembered something and added: "Why, of course, child, you were going to tell me about a fairy you met, weren't you? That was weeks ago, though. Tell me now. It will help me to forget things which make me rather angry."
It was a simple little story. There must have been many like it in the books which Wiggs had been dusting; but these were simple times, and the oldest story always seemed new.
Wiggs had been by herself in the forest. A baby rabbit had run past her, terrified; a ferret in pursuit. Wiggs had picked the little fluffy thing up in her arms and comforted it; the ferret had slowed down, walked past very indifferently with its hands, as it were, in its pockets, hesitated a moment, and then remembered an important letter which it had forgotten to post. Wiggs was left alone with the baby rabbit, and before she knew where she was, the rabbit was gone and there was a fairy in front of her.
"You have saved my life," said the fairy. "That was a wicked magician after me, and if he had caught me then, he would have killed me."
"Please, your Fairiness, I didn't know fairies could die," said Wiggs.
"They can when they take on animal shape or human shape. He could not hurt me now, but before——" She shuddered.
"I'm so glad you're all right now," said Wiggs politely.
"Thanks to you, my child. I must reward you. Take this ring. When you have been good for a whole day, you can have one good wish; when you have been bad for a whole day, you can have one bad wish. One good wish and one bad wish—that is all it will allow anybody to have."
With these words she vanished and left Wiggs alone with the ring.
So, ever after that, Wiggs tried desperately hard to be good and have the good wish, but it was difficult work. Something always went wrong; she tore her apron or read books when she ought to have been dusting, or—— Well, you or I would probably have given it up at once, and devoted ourselves to earning the bad wish. But Wiggs was a nice little girl.
"And, oh, I do so want to be good," said Wiggs earnestly to the Princess, "so that I could wish to dance like a fairy." She had a sudden anxiety. "That is a good wish, isn't it?"
"It's a lovely wish; but I'm sure you could dance now if you tried."
"I can't," said Wiggs. "I always dance like this."
She jumped up and danced a few steps. Wiggs was a dear little girl, but her dancing reminded you of a very dusty road going up-hill all the way, with nothing but suet-puddings waiting for you on the top. Something like that.
"It isn't really graceful, is it?" she said candidly, as she came to rest.
"Well, I suppose the fairies do dance better than that."
"So that's why I want to be good, so as I can have my wish."
"I really must see this ring," said the Princess. "It sounds fascinating." She looked coldly in front of her and added, "Good-morning, Countess." (How long had the woman been there?)
"Good-morning, your Royal Highness. I ventured to come up unannounced. Ah, sweet child." She waved a caressing hand at Wiggs.
(Even if she had overheard anything, it had only been child's talk.)
"What is it?" asked the Princess. She took a firm hold of the arms of her chair. She would not, not, not give way to the Countess this time.