The Story of the Treasure Seekers by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 6. Noel's Princess
She happened quite accidentally. We were not looking for a Princess at all just then; but Noel had said he was going to find a Princess all by himself; and marry her--and he really did. Which was rather odd, because when people say things are going to befall, very often they don't. It was different, of course, with the prophets of old.
We did not get any treasure by it, except twelve chocolate drops; but we might have done, and it was an adventure, anyhow.
Greenwich Park is a jolly good place to play in, especially the parts that aren't near Greenwich. The parts near the Heath are first-rate. I often wish the Park was nearer our house; but I suppose a Park is a difficult thing to move.
Sometimes we get Eliza to put lunch in a basket, and we go up to the Park. She likes that--it saves cooking dinner for us; and sometimes she says of her own accord, 'I've made some pasties for you, and you might as well go into the Park as not. It's a lovely day.'
She always tells us to rinse out the cup at the drinking-fountain, and the girls do; but I always put my head under the tap and drink. Then you are an intrepid hunter at a mountain stream--and besides, you're sure it's clean. Dicky does the same, and so does H. O. But Noel always drinks out of the cup. He says it is a golden goblet wrought by enchanted gnomes.
The day the Princess happened was a fine, hot day, last October, and we were quite tired with the walk up to the Park.
We always go in by the little gate at the top of Croom's Hill. It is the postern gate that things always happen at in stories. It was dusty walking, but when we got in the Park it was ripping, so we rested a bit, and lay on our backs, and looked up at the trees, and wished we could play monkeys. I have done it before now, but the Park-keeper makes a row if he catches you.
When we'd rested a little, Alice said--
'It was a long way to the enchanted wood, but it is very nice now we are there. I wonder what we shall find in it?'
'We shall find deer,' said Dicky, 'if we go to look; but they go on the other side of the Park because of the people with buns.'
Saying buns made us think of lunch, so we had it; and when we had done we scratched a hole under a tree and buried the papers, because we know it spoils pretty places to leave beastly, greasy papers lying about. I remember Mother teaching me and Dora that, when we were quite little. I wish everybody's parents would teach them this useful lesson, and the same about orange peel.
When we'd eaten everything there was, Alice whispered--
'I see the white witch bear yonder among the trees! Let's track it and slay it in its lair.'
'I am the bear,' said Noel; so he crept away, and we followed him among the trees. Often the witch bear was out of sight, and then you didn't know where it would jump out from; but sometimes we saw it, and just followed.
'When we catch it there'll be a great fight,' said Oswald; 'and I shall be Count Folko of Mont Faucon.'
'I'll be Gabrielle,' said Dora. She is the only one of us who likes doing girl's parts.
'I'll be Sintram,' said Alice; 'and H. O. can be the Little Master.'
'What about Dicky?'
'Oh, I can be the Pilgrim with the bones.'
'Hist!' whispered Alice. 'See his white fairy fur gleaming amid yonder covert!'
And I saw a bit of white too. It was Noel's collar, and it had come undone at the back.
We hunted the bear in and out of the trees, and then we lost him altogether; and suddenly we found the wall of the Park--in a place where I'm sure there wasn't a wall before. Noel wasn't anywhere about, and there was a door in the wall. And it was open; so we went through.
'The bear has hidden himself in these mountain fastnesses,' Oswald said. 'I will draw my good sword and after him.'
So I drew the umbrella, which Dora always will bring in case it rains, because Noel gets a cold on the chest at the least thing--and we went on.
The other side of the wall it was a stable yard, all cobble-stones.
There was nobody about--but we could hear a man rubbing down a horse and hissing in the stable; so we crept very quietly past, and Alice whispered--
''Tis the lair of the Monster Serpent; I hear his deadly hiss! Beware! Courage and despatch!'
We went over the stones on tiptoe, and we found another wall with another door in it on the other side. We went through that too, on tiptoe. It really was an adventure. And there we were in a shrubbery, and we saw something white through the trees. Dora said it was the white bear. That is so like Dora. She always begins to take part in a play just when the rest of us are getting tired of it. I don't mean this unkindly, because I am very fond of Dora. I cannot forget how kind she was when I had bronchitis; and ingratitude is a dreadful vice. But it is quite true.
'It is not a bear,' said Oswald; and we all went on, still on tiptoe, round a twisty path and on to a lawn, and there was Noel. His collar had come undone, as I said, and he had an inky mark on his face that he made just before we left the house, and he wouldn't let Dora wash it off, and one of his bootlaces was coming down. He was standing looking at a little girl; she was the funniest little girl you ever saw.
She was like a china doll--the sixpenny kind; she had a white face, and long yellow hair, done up very tight in two pigtails; her forehead was very big and lumpy, and her cheeks came high up, like little shelves under her eyes. Her eyes were small and blue. She had on a funny black frock, with curly braid on it, and button boots that went almost up to her knees. Her legs were very thin. She was sitting in a hammock chair nursing a blue kitten--not a sky-blue one, of course, but the colour of a new slate pencil. As we came up we heard her say to Noel--'Who are you?'
Noel had forgotten about the bear, and he was taking his favourite part, so he said--'I'm Prince Camaralzaman.'
The funny little girl looked pleased--
'I thought at first you were a common boy,' she said. Then she saw the rest of us and said--
'Are you all Princesses and Princes too?'
Of course we said 'Yes,' and she said--
'I am a Princess also.' She said it very well too, exactly as if it were true. We were very glad, because it is so seldom you meet any children who can begin to play right off without having everything explained to them. And even then they will say they are going to 'pretend to be' a lion, or a witch, or a king. Now this little girl just said 'I am a Princess.' Then she looked at Oswald and said, 'I fancy I've seen you at Baden.'
Of course Oswald said, 'Very likely.'
The little girl had a funny voice, and all her words were quite plain, each word by itself; she didn't talk at all like we do.
H. O. asked her what the cat's name was, and she said 'Katinka.' Then Dicky said--
'Let's get away from the windows; if you play near windows some one inside generally knocks at them and says "Don't".'
The Princess put down the cat very carefully and said--
'I am forbidden to walk off the grass.'
'That's a pity,' said Dora.
'But I will if you like,' said the Princess.
'You mustn't do things you are forbidden to do,' Dora said; but Dicky showed us that there was some more grass beyond the shrubs with only a gravel path between. So I lifted the Princess over the gravel, so that she should be able to say she hadn't walked off the grass. When we got to the other grass we all sat down, and the Princess asked us if we liked 'dragees' (I know that's how you spell it, for I asked Albert-next-door's uncle).
We said we thought not, but she pulled a real silver box out of her pocket and showed us; they were just flat, round chocolates. We had two each. Then we asked her her name, and she began, and when she began she went on, and on, and on, till I thought she was never going to stop. H. O. said she had fifty names, but Dicky is very good at figures, and he says there were only eighteen. The first were Pauline, Alexandra, Alice, and Mary was one, and Victoria, for we all heard that, and it ended up with Hildegarde Cunigonde something or other, Princess of something else.
When she'd done, H. O. said, 'That's jolly good! Say it again!' and she did, but even then we couldn't remember it. We told her our names, but she thought they were too short, so when it was Noel's turn he said he was Prince Noel Camaralzaman Ivan Constantine Charlemagne James John Edward Biggs Maximilian Bastable Prince of Lewisham, but when she asked him to say it again of course he could only get the first two names right, because he'd made it up as he went on.
So the Princess said, 'You are quite old enough to know your own name.' She was very grave and serious.
She told us that she was the fifth cousin of Queen Victoria. We asked who the other cousins were, but she did not seem to understand. She went on and said she was seven times removed. She couldn't tell us what that meant either, but Oswald thinks it means that the Queen's cousins are so fond of her that they will keep coming bothering, so the Queen's servants have orders to remove them. This little girl must have been very fond of the Queen to try so often to see her, and to have been seven times removed. We could see that it is considered something to be proud of; but we thought it was hard on the Queen that her cousins wouldn't let her alone.
Presently the little girl asked us where our maids and governesses were.
We told her we hadn't any just now. And she said--
'How pleasant! And did you come here alone?'
'Yes,' said Dora; 'we came across the Heath.'
'You are very fortunate,' said the little girl. She sat very upright on the grass, with her fat little hands in her lap. 'I should like to go on the Heath. There are donkeys there, with white saddle covers. I should like to ride them, but my governess will not permit.'
'I'm glad we haven't a governess,' H. O. said. 'We ride the donkeys whenever we have any pennies, and once I gave the man another penny to make it gallop.'
'You are indeed fortunate!' said the Princess again, and when she looked sad the shelves on her cheeks showed more than ever. You could have laid a sixpence on them quite safely if you had had one.
'Never mind,' said Noel; 'I've got a lot of money. Come out and have a ride now.' But the little girl shook her head and said she was afraid it would not be correct.
Dora said she was quite right; then all of a sudden came one of those uncomfortable times when nobody can think of anything to say, so we sat and looked at each other. But at last Alice said we ought to be going.
'Do not go yet,' the little girl said. 'At what time did they order your carriage?'
'Our carriage is a fairy one, drawn by griffins, and it comes when we wish for it,' said Noel.
The little girl looked at him very queerly, and said, 'That is out of a picture-book.'
Then Noel said he thought it was about time he was married if we were to be home in time for tea. The little girl was rather stupid over it, but she did what we told her, and we married them with Dora's pocket-handkerchief for a veil, and the ring off the back of one of the buttons on H. O.'s blouse just went on her little finger.
Then we showed her how to play cross-touch, and puss in the corner, and tag. It was funny, she didn't know any games but battledore and shuttlecock and les graces. But she really began to laugh at last and not to look quite so like a doll.
She was Puss and was running after Dicky when suddenly she stopped short and looked as if she was going to cry. And we looked too, and there were two prim ladies with little mouths and tight hair. One of them said in quite an awful voice, 'Pauline, who are these children?' and her voice was gruff; with very curly R's.
The little girl said we were Princes and Princesses--which was silly, to a grown-up person that is not a great friend of yours.
The gruff lady gave a short, horrid laugh, like a husky bark, and said--
'Princes, indeed! They're only common children!'
Dora turned very red and began to speak, but the little girl cried out 'Common children! Oh, I am so glad! When I am grown up I'll always play with common children.'
And she ran at us, and began to kiss us one by one, beginning with Alice; she had got to H. O. when the horrid lady said--'Your Highness--go indoors at once!'
The little girl answered, 'I won't!'
Then the prim lady said--'Wilson, carry her Highness indoors.'
And the little girl was carried away screaming, and kicking with her little thin legs and her buttoned boots, and between her screams she shrieked:
'Common children! I am glad, glad, glad! Common children! Common children!'
The nasty lady then remarked--'Go at once, or I will send for the police!'
So we went. H. O. made a face at her and so did Alice, but Oswald took off his cap and said he was sorry if she was annoyed about anything; for Oswald has always been taught to be polite to ladies, however nasty. Dicky took his off, too, when he saw me do it; he says he did it first, but that is a mistake. If I were really a common boy I should say it was a lie.
Then we all came away, and when we got outside Dora said, 'So she was really a Princess. Fancy a Princess living there!'
'Even Princesses have to live somewhere,' said Dicky.
'And I thought it was play. And it was real. I wish I'd known! I should have liked to ask her lots of things,' said Alice.
H. O. said he would have liked to ask her what she had for dinner and whether she had a crown.
I felt, myself, we had lost a chance of finding out a great deal about kings and queens. I might have known such a stupid-looking little girl would never have been able to pretend, as well as that.
So we all went home across the Heath, and made dripping toast for tea.
When we were eating it Noel said, 'I wish I could give her some! It is very good.'
He sighed as he said it, and his mouth was very full, so we knew he was thinking of his Princess. He says now that she was as beautiful as the day, but we remember her quite well, and she was nothing of the kind.