Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter II. And Sees the World
The Crown Prince was just a trifle dazzled by the brilliance of his success. He paused for one breathless moment under the porte-cochere of the opera house; then he took a long breath and turned to the left. For he knew that at the right, just around the corner; were the royal carriages, with his own drawn up before the door, and Beppo and Hans erect on the box, their haughty noses red in the wind, for the early spring air was biting.
So he turned to the left, and was at once swallowed up in the street crowd. It seemed very strange to him. Not that he was unaccustomed to crowds. Had he not, that very Christmas, gone shopping in the city, accompanied only by one of his tutors and Miss Braithwaite, and bought for his grandfather, the King, a burnt-wood box, which might hold either neckties or gloves, and for his cousins silver photograph frames?
But this was different, and for a rather peculiar reason. Prince Ferdinand William Otto had never seen the back of a crowd! The public was always lined up, facing him, smiling and bowing and God-blessing him. Small wonder he thought of most of his future subjects as being much like the ship in the opera, meant only to be viewed from the front. Also, it was surprising to see how stiff and straight their backs were. Prince Ferdinand William Otto had never known that backs could be so rigid. Those with which he was familiar had a way of drooping forward from the middle of the spine up. It was most interesting.
The next hour was full of remarkable things. For one, he dodged behind a street-car and was almost run over by a taxicab. The policeman on the corner came out, and taking Ferdinand William Otto by the shoulder, gave him a talking-to and a shaking. Ferdinand William Otto was furious, but policy kept him silent; which proves conclusively that the Crown Prince had not only initiative - witness his flight - but self-control and diplomacy. Lucky country, to have in prospect such a king!
But even royalty has its weaknesses. At the next corner Ferdinand William Otto stopped and invested part of his allowance in the forbidden fig lady, with arms and legs of dates, and eyes of cloves. He had wanted one of these ever since he could remember, but Miss Braithwaite had sternly refused to authorize the purchase. In fact, she had had one of the dates placed under a microscope, and had shown His Royal Highness a number of interesting and highly active creatures who made their homes therein.
His Royal Highness recalled all this with great distinctness, and, immediately dismissing it from his mind, ate the legs and arms of the fig woman with enjoyment. Which - not the eating of the legs and arms, of course, but to be able to dismiss what is unpleasant - is another highly desirable royal trait.
So far his movements had been swift and entirely objective. But success rather went to his head. He had never been out alone before. Even at the summer palace there were always tutors, or Miss Braithwaite, or an aide-de-camp, or something. He hesitated, took out his small handkerchief, dusted his shoes with it, and then wiped his face. Behind was the Opera, looming and gray. Ahead was - the park.
Note the long allee between rows of trees trimmed to resemble walls of green in summer, and curiously distorted skeletons in winter; note the coffee-houses, where young officers in uniforms sat under the trees, reading the papers, and rising to bow with great clanking and much ceremony as a gold-wheeled carriage or a pretty girl went by.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto had the fulfillment of a great desire in his small, active mind. This was nothing less than a ride on the American scenic railroad, which had secured a concession in a far corner of the park. Hedwig's lieutenant had described it to him - how one was taken in a small car to a dizzy height, and then turned loose on a track which dropped giddily and rose again, which hurled one through sheet-iron tunnels of incredible blackness, thrust one out over a gorge, whirled one in mad curves around corners of precipitous heights, and finally landed one, panting, breathless, shocked, and reeling; but safe, at the very platform where one had purchased one's ticket three eternities, which were only minutes, before.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto had put this proposition, like the fig woman, to Miss Braithwaite. Miss Braithwaite replied with the sad history of an English child who had clutched at his cap during a crucial moment on a similar track at the Crystal Palace in London.
"When they picked him up," she finished, "every bone in his body was broken."
"Every bone," said Miss Braithwaite solemnly.
"The little ones in his ears, and all?"
"Every one," said Miss Braithwaite, refusing to weaken.
The Crown Prince had pondered. "He must have felt like jelly," he remarked, and Miss Braithwaite had dropped the subject.
So now, with freedom and his week's allowance, except the outlay for the fig woman, in his pocket, Prince Ferdinand William Otto started for the Land of Desire. The allee was almost deserted. It was the sacred hour of coffee. The terraces were empty, but from the coffee-houses along the drive there came a cheerful rattle of cups, a hum of conversation.
As the early spring twilight fell, the gas-lamps along the allee, always burning, made a twin row of pale stars ahead. At the end, even as the wanderer gazed, he saw myriads of tiny red, white, and blue lights, rising high in the air, outlining the crags and peaks of the sheet-iron mountain which was his destination. The Land of Desire was very near!
There came to his ears, too, the occasional rumble that told of some palpitating soul being at that moment hurled and twisted and joyously thrilled, as per the lieutenant's description.
Now it is a strange thing, but true, that one does not reach the Land of Desire alone; because the half of pleasure is the sharing of it with someone else, and the Land of Desire, alone, is not the Land of Desire at all. Quite suddenly, Prince Ferdinand William Otto discovered that he was lonely. He sat down on the curb under the gas-lamp and ate the fig woman's head, taking out the cloves, because he did not like cloves. At that moment there was a soft whirring off to one side of him, and a yellow bird, rising and failing erratically on the breeze, careened suddenly and fell at his feet.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto bent down and picked it up. It was a small toy aeroplane, with yellow silk planes, guy-ropes of waxed thread, and a wooden rudder, its motive power vested in a tightly twisted rubber. One of the wings was bent. Ferdinand William Otto straightened it, and looked around for the owner.
A small boy was standing under the next gas-lamp. "Gee!" he said in English. "Did you see it go that time?"
Prince Ferdinand William Otto eyed the stranger. He was about his own age, and was dressed in a short pair of corduroy trousers, much bloomed at the knee, a pair of yellow Russia-leather shoes that reached well to his calves, and, over all, a shaggy white sweater, rolling almost to his chin. On the very back of his head he had the smallest cap that Prince Ferdinand William Otto had ever seen.
Now, this was exactly the way in which the Crown Prince had always wished to dress. He was suddenly conscious of the long trousers on his own small legs, of the ignominy of his tailless Eton jacket and stiff, rolling collar, of the crowning disgrace of his derby hat. But the lonely feeling had gone from him.
"This is the best time for flying," he said, in his perfect English. "All the exhibition flights are at sundown."
The boy walked slowly over and stood looking down at him. "You ought to see it fly from the top of Pike's Peak!" he remarked. He had caught sight of the despised derby, and his eyes widened, but with instinctive good-breeding he ignored it. "That's Pike's Peak up there."
He indicated the very top of the Land of Desire. The Prince stared up.
"How does one get up?" he queried.
"Ladders. My father's the manager. He lets me up sometimes."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto stared with new awe at the boy. He found the fact much more remarkable than if the stranger had stated that his father was the King of England. Kings were, as you may say, directly in Prince Ferdinand William Otto's line, but scenic railroads -
"I had thought of taking a journey on it," he said, after a second's reflection. "Do you think your father will sell me a ticket?"
"Billy Grimm will. I'll go with you."
The Prince rose with alacrity. Then he stopped. He must, of course, ask the strange boy to be his guest. But two tickets! Perhaps his allowance was not sufficient.
"I must see first how much it costs," he said with dignity.
The other boy laughed. "Oh, gee! You come with me. It won't cost anything," he said, and led the way toward the towering lights.
For Bobby Thorpe to bring a small boy to ride with him was an everyday affair. Billy Grimm, at the ticket-window, hardly glanced at the boy who stood, trembling with anticipation, in the shadow of the booth.
The car came, and they climbed in. Perhaps, as they moved off, Prince Ferdinand William Otto had a qualm, occasioned by the remembrance of the English child who had met an untimely end; but if he did, he pluckily hid it.
"Put your lid on the floor of the car," said Bobby Thorpe' depositing his own atom there. "Father says, if you do that; you're perfectly safe."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto divined that this referred to his hat, and drew a small breath of relief. And then they were off, up an endless, clicking roadway, where at the top the car hung for a breathless second over the gulf below; then, fairly launched, out on a trestle, with the city far beneath them, and only the red, white, and blue lights for company; and into a tunnel, filled with roaring noises and swift moving shadows. Then came the end of all things a flying leap down, a heart-breaking, delirious thrill, an upward sweep just as the strain was too great for endurance.
"Isn't it bully?" shouted the American boy against the onrush of the wind.
"Fine!" shrieked His Royal Highness, and braced himself for another dip into the gulf.
Above the roaring of the wind in their ears, neither child had heard the flying feet of a dozen horses coming down the allee. They never knew that a hatless young lieutenant, white-lipped with fear, had checked his horse to its haunches at the ticket-booth, and demanded to know who was in the Land of Desire.
"Only the son of the manager, and a boy friend of his," replied Billy Grimm, in what he called the lingo of the country. "What's wrong? Lost anybody?"
But Hedwig's lieutenant had wheeled his horse without a word, and, jumping him aver the hedge of the allee, was off in a despairing search of the outskirts of the park, followed by his cavalrymen.
As the last horse leaped the hedge and disappeared, the car came to a stop at the platform. Quivering, Prince Ferdinand William Otto reached down for the despised hat.
"Would you like to go around again?" asked Bobby, quite casually.
His Highness gasped with joy. "If - if you would be so kind!" he said.
And at the lordly wave of Bobby's hand, the car moved on.