The Light Princess by George MacDonald
13. Here I Am.
This was a very disheartening revelation to the king--not that he was unwilling to sacrifice a subject, but that he was hopeless of finding a man willing to sacrifice himself. No time was to be lost, however, for the princess was lying motionless on her bed, and taking no nourishment but lake-water, which was now none of the best. Therefore the king caused the contents of the wonderful plate of gold to be published throughout the country.
No one, however, came forward.
The prince, having gone several days' journey into the forest, to consult a hermit whom he had met there on his way to Lagobel, knew nothing of the oracle till his return.
When he had acquainted himself with all the particulars, he sat down and thought,--
"She will die if I don't do it, and life would be nothing to me without her; so I shall lose nothing by doing it. And life will be as pleasant to her as ever, for she will soon forget me. And there will be so much more beauty and happiness in the world!--To be sure, I shall not see it." (Here the poor prince gave a sigh.) "How lovely the lake will be in the moonlight, with that glorious creature sporting in it like a wild goddess!--It is rather hard to be drowned by inches, though. Let me see--that will be seventy inches of me to drown." (Here he tried to laugh, but could not.) "The longer the better, however," he resumed: "for can I not bargain that the princess shall be beside me all the time? So I shall see her once more, kiss her perhaps,--who knows?--and die looking in her eyes. It will be no death. At least, I shall not feel it. And to see the lake filling for the beauty again!--All right! I am ready."
He kissed the princess's boot, laid it down, and hurried to the king's apartment. But feeling, as he went, that anything sentimental would be disagreeable, he resolved to carry off the whole affair with nonchalance. So he knocked at the door of the king's counting-house, where it was all but a capital crime to disturb him.
When the king heard the knock he started up, and opened the door in a rage. Seeing only the shoeblack, he drew his sword. This, I am sorry to say, was his usual mode of asserting his regality when he thought his dignity was in danger. But the prince was not in the least alarmed.
"Please your Majesty, I'm your butler," said he.
"My butler! you lying rascal! What do you mean?"
"I mean, I will cork your big bottle."
"Is the fellow mad?" bawled the king, raising the point of his sword.
"I will put a stopper--plug--what you call it, in your leaky lake, grand monarch," said the prince.
The king was in such a rage that before he could speak he had time to cool, and to reflect that it would be great waste to kill the only man who was willing to be useful in the present emergency, seeing that in the end the insolent fellow would be as dead as if he had died by his Majesty's own hand. "Oh!" said he at last, putting up his sword with difficulty, it was so long; "I am obliged to you, you young fool! Take a glass of wine?"
'No, thank you," replied the prince.
"Very well," said the king. "Would you like to run and see your parents before you make your experiment?"
"No, thank you," said the prince.
"Then we will go and look for the hole at once," said his Majesty, and proceeded to call some attendants.
"Stop, please your Majesty; I have a condition to make," interposed the prince.
"What!" exclaimed the king, "a condition! and with me! How dare you?"
"As you please," returned the prince, coolly. "I wish your Majesty a good morning."
"You wretch! I will have you put in a sack, and stuck in the hole."
"Very well, your Majesty," replied the prince, becoming a little more respectful, lest the wrath of the king should deprive him of the pleasure of dying for the princess. "But what good will that do your Majesty? Please to remember that the oracle says the victim must offer himself."
"Well, you have offered yourself," retorted the king.
"Yes, upon one condition."
"Condition again!" roared the king, once more drawing his sword. "Begone! Somebody else will be glad enough to take the honour off your shoulders."
"Your Majesty knows it will not be easy to get another to take my place."
"Well, what is your condition?" growled the king, feeling that the prince was right.
"Only this," replied the prince: "that, as I must on no account die before I am fairly drowned, and the waiting will be rather wearisome, the princess, your daughter, shall go with me, feed me with her own hands, and look at me now and then to comfort me; for you must confess it is rather hard. As soon as the water is up to my eyes, she may go and be happy, and forget her poor shoeblack."
Here the prince's voice faltered, and he very nearly grew sentimental, in spite of his resolution.
"Why didn't you tell me before what your condition was? Such a fuss about nothing!" exclaimed the king.
"Do you grant it?" persisted the prince.
"Of course I do," replied the king.
"Very well. I am ready."
"Go and have some dinner, then, while I set my people to find the place."
The king ordered out his guards, and gave directions to the officers to find the hole in the lake at once. So the bed of the lake was marked out in divisions and thoroughly examined, and in an hour or so the hole was discovered. It was in the middle of a stone, near the centre of the lake, in the very pool where the golden plate had been found. It was a three-cornered hole of no great size. There was water all round the stone, but very little was flowing through the hole.