Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XX. The Delegation
Prince Ferdinand William Otto was supremely happy. Three quite delightful things had happened. First, Nikky had returned. He said he felt perfectly well, but the Crown Prince thought he looked as though he had been ill, and glanced frequently at Nikky's cigarette during the riding-hour. Second, Hedwig did not come to the riding-lesson, and he had Nikky to himself. Third, he, Prince Ferdinand William Otto, was on the eve of a birthday.
This last, however, was not unmixed happiness. For the one day the sentence of exile was to be removed so that he might lunch with the King, and he was to have strawberry jam with his tea, some that Miss Braithwaite's sister had sent from England. But to offset all this, he was to receive a delegation of citizens.
He had been well drilled for it. As a matter of fact, on the morning of Nikky's return, they took a few minutes to go over the ceremony, Nikky being the delegation. The way they did it was simple.
Nikky went out into the corridor, and became the Chamberlain. He stepped inside, bowed, and announced: "The delegation from the city, Highness," standing very stiff, and a trifle bowlegged, as the Chamberlain was. Then he bowed again, and waddled out - the Chamberlain was fat - and became the delegation.
This time he tried to look like a number of people, and was not so successful. But he looked nervous, as delegations always do when they visit a Royal Highness. He bowed inside the door, and then came forward and bowed again.
"I am, of course, standing in a row," said Nikky, sotto voce. "Now, what comes next?"
"I am to shake hands with every one."
So they shook hands nine times, because there were to be nine members of the delegation. And Nikky picked up a brass inkwell from the desk and held it out before him.
"Your Highness," he said, after clearing his throat, for all the world as Prince Ferdinand William Otto had heard it done frequently at cornerstones and openings of hospitals, "Your Highness - we are here to-day to felicitate Your Highness on reaching the mature age of ten. In testimonial of our - our affection and - er loyalty, we bring to you a casket of gold, containing the congratulations of the city, which we beg that Your Highness may see fit to accept. It will be of no earthly use to you, and will have to be stuck away in a vault and locked up. But it is the custom on these occasions, and far be it from us to give you a decent present that you can use or enjoy!"
Prince Ferdinand William Otto had to cover his mouth with his hand to preserve the necessary dignity. He stepped forward and took the ink-well. "I thank you very much. Please give my thanks to all the people. I am very grateful. It is beautiful. Thank you."
Whereupon he placed the ink-well on the desk, and he and Nikky again shook hands nine times, counting, to be sure it was right. Then Nikky backed to the door, getting all tangled up in his sword, bowed again and retired.
When he reentered, the boy's face was glowing.
"Gee!" he said, remembering this favorite word of the American boy's. "It's splendid to have you back again, Nikky. You're going to stay now, aren't you?"
"I am." Nikky's voice was fervent.
"Where did you go when you went away?"
"I took a short and foolish excursion, Highness. You see, while I look grown-up I dare say I am really not. Not quite, anyhow. And now and then, like other small boys I have heard of, I - well, I run away. And am sorry afterward, of course."
Miss Braithwaite was not in the study. The Prince looked about, and drew close -to Nikky. "Did you, really?"
"I did. Some day, when you are older, I'll tell you about it. I - has the Princess Hedwig been having tea with you, as usual?"
Carelessly spoken as it was, there was a change in Nikky's voice. And the Crown Prince was sensitive to voices. Something similar happened to Monsieur Puaux, the French tutor, when he mentioned Hedwig.
"Not yesterday. We went to the fortress. Nikky, what is it to be in love?"
Nikky looked startled, "Well," he said reflectively, "it's to like some one, a lady in your case or mine, of course; to - to like them very much, and want to see them often."
"Is that all?"
"It's enough, sometimes. But it's more than that. It's being dreadfully unhappy if the other person isn't around, for one thing. It isn't really a rational condition. People in love do mad things quite often."
"I know some one who is in love with Hedwig."
Nikky looked extremely conscious. There was, too, something the Crown Prince was too small to see, something bitter and hard in his eyes. "Probably a great many are," he said. "But I'm not sure she would care to have us discuss it."
"It is my French tutor."
Nikky laughed suddenly, and flung the boy to his shoulder. "Of course he is!" he cried gayly. "And you are, and the Chancellor. And I am, of course." He stood the boy on the desk.
"Do you think she is in love, with you?"demanded the Crown Prince, very seriously.
"Not a bit of it, young man!"
"But I think she is," he persisted. "She's always around when you are."
"Not this morning."
"But she is, when she can be. She never used to take riding-lessons. She doesn't need them." This was a grievance, but he passed it over. "And she always asks where you are. And yesterday, when you were away, she looked very sad."
Nikky stood with his hand on the boy's shoulder, and stared out through the window. If it were so, if this child, with his uncanny sensitiveness, had hit on the truth! If Hedwig felt even a fraction of what he felt, what a tragedy it all was!
He forced himself to smile, however. "If she only likes me just a little," he said lightly, "it is more than I dare to hope, or deserve. Come, now, we have spent too much time over love and delegations. Suppose we go and ride."
But on the way across the Place Prince Ferdinand William Otto resumed the subject for a moment. "If you would marry Hedwig," he suggested, an anxious thrill in his voice, "you would live at the Palace always, wouldn't you? And never have to go back to your regiment?" For the bugaboo of losing Nikky to his regiment was always in the back of his small head.
"Now, listen, Otto, and remember," said Nikky, almost sternly. "It may be difficult for you to understand now, but some day you will. The granddaughter of the King must marry some one of her own rank. No matter how hard you and I may wish things to be different, we cannot change that. And it would be much better never to mention this conversation to your cousin. Girls," said Nikky, "are peculiar."
"Very well," said the Crown Prince humbly. But he made careful note of one thing. He was not to talk of this plan to Hedwig, but there was no other restriction. He could, for instance, take it up with the Chancellor, or even with the King to-morrow, if he was in an approachable humor.
Hedwig was not at the riding-school. This relieved Prince Ferdinand William Otto, whose views as to Nikky were entirely selfish, but Nikky himself had unaccountably lost his high spirits of the morning. He played, of course, as he always did. And even taught the Crown Prince how to hang over the edge of his saddle, while his horse was cantering, so that bullets would not strike him.
They rode and frolicked, yelled a bit, got two ponies and whacked a polo ball over the tan-bark, until the Crown Prince was sweating royally and was gloriously flushed.
"I don't know when I have been so happy," he said, dragging out his handkerchief and mopping his face. "It's a great deal pleasanter without Hedwig, isn't it?"
While they played, overhead the great hearse was ready at last. Its woodwork shone. Its gold crosses gleamed. No fleck of dust disturbed its austere magnificence.
The man and the boy who had been working on it stood back and surveyed it.
"All ready," said the man, leaning on the handle of his long brush. "Now it may happen any time."
"It is very handsome. But I am glad I am not the old King." The boy picked up pails and brushes. "Nothing to look forward to but - that."
"But much to look back on," the man observed grimly, "and little that is good."
The boy glanced through a window, below which the riding-ring stretched its brown surface, scarred by nervous hoofs. "I would change places with the Crown Prince," he said enviously. "Listen to him! Always laughing. Never to labor, nor worry, nor think of the next day's food - "
"Young fool!" The man came to his shoulder and glanced down also. "Would like to be a princeling, then! No worry. No trouble. Always play, play!" He gripped the boy's shoulder. "Look, lad, at the windows about. That is what it is to be a prince. Wherever you look, what do you see? Stablemen? Grooms? Bah, secret agents, watching that no assassin, such perhaps as you and I, lurk about."
The boy opened wide, incredulous eyes. "But who would attack a child?" he asked.
"There be those, nevertheless," said the man mockingly. "Even a child may stand in the way of great changes."
He stopped and stared, wiping the glass clear that he might see better. Nikky without his cap, disheveled and flushed with exertion, was making a frantic shot at the white ball, rolling past him. Where had he seen such a head, such a flying mop of hair? Ah! He remembered. It was the flying young devil who had attacked him and the others that night in the by-street, when Peter Niburg lay stunned!
Miss Braithwaite had a bad headache that afternoon, and the Crown Prince drove out with his aunt. The Archduchess Annunciata went shopping. Soon enough she would have Hedwig's trousseau on her mind, so that day she bought for Hilda - Hilda whose long legs had a way of growing out of skirts, and who was developing a taste of her own in clothes.
So Hilda and her mother shopped endlessly, and the Crown Prince sat in the carriage and watched the people. The man beside the coachman sat with alert eyes, and there were others who scanned the crowd intently. But it was a quiet, almost an adoring crowd, and there was even a dog, to Prince Ferdinand William Otto's huge delight.
The man who owned the dog, seeing the child's eyes on him, put him through his tricks. Truly a wonderful dog, that would catch things on its nose and lie dead, rousing only to a whistle which its owner called Gabriel's trumpet.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto, growing excited, leaned quite out of the window. What is your dog's name?" he inquired, in his clear treble.
The man took off his hat and bowed. "Toto, Highness. He is of French origin."
"He is a very nice dog. I have always wanted a dog like that. He must be a great friend."
"A great friend, Highness." He would have expatiated on the dog, but he was uncertain of the etiquette of the procedure. His face beamed with pleasure, however. Then a splendid impulse came to him. This dog, his boon companion, he would present to the Crown Prince. It was all he had, and he would give it, freely, even though it left him friendless.
But here again he was at a loss. Was it the proper thing? Did one do such things in this fashion, or was there a procedure? He cocked an eye at the box of the carriage, but the two men sat impressive, immobile.
Finally he made up his mind. Hat in hand, he stepped forward. "Highness," he said nervously, "since the dog pleases you, I - I would present him to you."
"To me?" The Crown Prince's voice was full of incredulous joy.
"Yes, Highness. If such a thing be permissible."
"Are you sure you don't mind?"
"He is the best I have, Highness. I wish to offer my best."
Prince, Ferdinand William Otto almost choked with excitement. "I have always wanted one," he cried. "If you are certain you can spare him, I'll be very good to him. No one," he said, "ever gave me a dog before. I'd like to have him now, if I may."
The crowd was growing. It pressed closer, pleased at the boy's delight. Truly they were participating in great things. A small cheer and many smiles followed the lifting of the dog through the open window of the carriage. And the dog was surely a dog to be proud of. Already it shook hands with the Crown Prince.
Perhaps, in that motley gathering, there were some who viewed the scene with hostile eyes, some who saw, not a child glowing with delight over a gift, but one of the hated ruling family, a barrier, an obstacle in the way of freedom. But if such there were, they were few. It was, indeed, as the Terrorists feared. The city loved the boy.
Annunciata, followed by an irritated Hilda, came out of the shop. Hilda's wardrobe had been purchased, and was not to her taste.
The crowd opened, hats were doffed, backs bent. The Archduchess moved haughtily, looking neither to the right nor left. Her coming brought no enthusiasm. Perhaps the curious imagination of the mob found her disappointing. She did not look like an Archduchess. She looked, indeed, like an unnamiable spinster of the middle class. Hilda, too, was shy and shrinking, and wore an unbecoming hat. Of the three, only the Crown Prince looked royal and as he should have looked.
"Good Heavens," cried the Archduchess, and stared into the carriage. "Otto!"
"He is mine," said the Crown Prince fondly. "He is the cleverest dog. He can do all sorts of things."
"Put him out."
"But he is mine," protested Ferdinand William Otto. "He is a gift. That gentleman there, in the corduroy jacket - "
"Put him out," said the Archduchess Annunciata.
There was nothing else to do. The Crown Prince did not cry. He was much too proud. He thanked the donor again carefully, and regretted that he could not accept the dog. He said it was a wonderful dog, and just the sort he liked. And the carriage drove away.
He went back to the Palace, and finding that the governess still had a headache, settled down to the burnt-wood frame. Once he glanced up at the woolen dog on its shelf at the top of the cabinet. "Well, anyhow," he said sturdily, "I still have you."