Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XXIV. The Birthday
The Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto of Livonia was having a birthday. Now, a birthday for a Crown Prince of Livonia is not a matter of a cake with candles on it; and having his ears pulled, once for each year and an extra one to grow on. Nor of a holiday from lessons, and a picnic in spring woods. Nor of a party, with children frolicking and scratching the best furniture.
In the first place, he was wakened at dawn and taken to early service in the chapel, a solemn function, with the Court assembled and slightly sleepy. The Crown Prince, who was trying to look his additional dignity of years, sat and stood as erect as possible, and yawned only once.
After breakfast he was visited by the chaplain who had his religious instruction in hand, and interrogated. He did not make more than about sixty per cent in this, however, and the chaplain departed looking slightly discouraged.
Lessons followed, and in each case the tutor reminded him that, having now reached his tenth birthday, he should be doing better than in the past. Especially the French tutor, who had just heard a rumor of Hedwig's marriage.
At eleven o'clock came word that the King was too ill to have him to luncheon, but that he would see him for a few moments that afternoon. Prince Ferdinand William Otto, who was diagramming the sentence, "Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in America," and doing it wrong, looked up in dismay.
"I'd like to know what's the use of having a birthday," he declared rebelliously.
The substitution of luncheon with the Archduchess Annunciata hardly thrilled him. Unluckily he made an observation to that effect, and got five off in Miss Braithwaite's little book.
The King did not approve of birthday gifts. The expensive toys which the Court would have offered the child were out of key with the simplicity of his rearing. As a matter of fact, the Crown Prince had never heard of a birthday gift, and had, indeed, small experience of gifts of any kind, except as he made them himself. For that he had a great fondness. His small pocket allowance generally dissipated itself in this way.
So there were no gifts. None, that is, until the riding-hour came, and Nikky, subverter of all discipline. He had brought a fig lady, wrapped in paper.
"It's quite fresh," he said, as they walked together across the Place. "I'll give it to you when we get to the riding-school. I saw the woman myself take it out of her basket. So it has no germs on it."
But, although he spoke bravely, Nikky was the least bit nervous. First of all he was teaching the boy deception. "But why don't they treat him like a human being?" he demanded of himself. Naturally there was no answer. Maria Menrad's son had a number of birthdays in his mind, real birthdays with much indulgence connected with them.
Second, suppose it really had a germ or two on it? Anxiously, having unwrapped it, he examined it in the sunlight of a window of the ring. Certainly, thus closely inspected, it looked odd. There were small granules over it.
The Crown Prince waited patiently. "Miss Braithwaite says that if you look at them under a glass, there are bugs on them," he observed, with interest.
"Perhaps, after all, you'd better not have it."
"They are very small bugs," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto anxiously. "I don't object to them at all."
So, after all, Nikky uneasily presented his gift; and nothing untoward happened. He was rewarded, however, by such a glow of pleasure and gratitude from the boy that his scruples faded.
No Hedwig again, to distract Nikky's mind. The lesson went on; trot, canter, low jumps. And then what Nikky called "stunts," an American word which delighted the Crown Prince.
But, Nikky, like the big child he was himself, had kept his real news to the last.
Already, he was offering himself on the altar of the child's safety. Behind his smiles lay something of the glow of the martyr. His eyes were sunken, his lips drawn. He had not slept at all, nor eaten. But to the boy he meant to show no failing, to be the prince of playmates, the brother of joy. Perhaps in this way, he felt, lay his justification.
So now, with the Crown Prince facing toward the Palace again, toward luncheon with his aunt and a meeting with the delegation, Nikky, like an epicure of sensations, said: "By the way, Otto, I found that dog you saw yesterday. What was his name? Toto?"
"Where did you find him? Yes, Toto!"
"I looked him up," said Nikky modestly. "You see, it's like this: He's a pretty nice dog. There aren't many dogs like him. And I thought - well, nobody can say I can't have a dog."
"You've got him? You, yourself?"
"I, myself. I dare say he has fleas, and they will get in the carpet, but - I tell you what I thought: He will be really your dog, do you see? I'll take care of him, and keep him for you, and bring him out to walk where you can see him. Then, when they say you may have a dog, you've got one, already. All I have to do is to bring him to you."
Wise Nikky, of the understanding boy's heart. He had brought into the little Prince's life its first real interest, something vital, living. And something of the soreness and hurt of the last few hours died in Nikky before Prince Ferdinand William Otto's smile.
"Oh, Nikky!" was all the child said at first, and grew silent for very happiness. Then: "We can talk about him. You can tell me all the things he does, and I can send him bones, can't I? Unless you don't care to carry them."
This, in passing, explains the reason why, to the eyes of astonished servants, from that day forth the Crown Prince of Livonia apparently devoured his chop, bone and all. And why Nikky resembled, at times, a well-setup, trig, and soldierly appearing charnel-house. "If I am ever arrested," he once demurred, "and searched, Highness, I shall be consigned to a madhouse."
Luncheon was extremely unsuccessful. His Cousin Hedwig looked as though she had been crying, and Hilda, eating her soup too fast, was sent from the table. The Crown Prince, trying to make conversation, chose Nikky as his best subject, and met an icy silence. Also, attempting to put the bone from a chicken leg in his pocket, he was discovered.
"What in the world!" exclaimed the Archduchess. "What do you want of a chicken bone? "
"I just wanted it, Tante."
"It is greasy. Look at your fingers!"
"Mother," Hedwig said quietly, "it is his birthday."
"I do not need you to remind me of that. Have I not been up since the middle of the night, for that reason?"
But she said no more, and was a trifle more agreeable during the remainder of the meal. She was just a bit uneasy before Hedwig those days. She did not like the look in her eyes.
That afternoon, attired in his uniform of the Guards, the Crown Prince received the delegation of citizens in the great audience, chamber of the Palace, a solitary little figure, standing on the red carpet before the dais at the end. Behind him, stately with velvet hangings, was the tall gilt chair which some day would be his. Afternoon sunlight, coming through the long windows along the side, shone on the prisms of the heavy chandeliers, lighted up the paintings of dead and gone kings of his line, gleamed in great mirrors and on the polished floor.
On each side of his small figure the Council grouped itself, fat Friese, rat-faced Marschall, Bayerl, with his soft voice and white cheeks lighted by hot eyes, and the others. They stood very stiff, in their white gloves. Behind them were grouped the gentlemen of the Court, in full dress and decorated with orders. At the door stood the Lord Chamberlain, very gorgeous in scarlet and gold.
The Chancellor stood near the boy, resplendent in his dress uniform, a blue ribbon across his shirt front, over which Mathilde had taken hours. He was the Mettlich of the public eye now, hard of features, impassive, inflexible.
In ordinary times less state would have been observed, a smaller room, Mettlich only, or but one or two others, an informal ceremony. But the Chancellor shrewdly intended to do the delegation all honor, the Palace to give its best, that the city, in need, might do likewise.
And he had staged the affair well. The Crown Prince, standing alone, so small, so appealing, against his magnificent background, was a picture to touch the hardest. Not for nothing had Mettlich studied the people, read their essential simplicity, their answer to any appeal to the heart. These men were men of family. Surely no father of a son could see that lonely child and not offer him loyalty.
With the same wisdom, he had given the boy small instruction, and no speech of thanks. "Let him say what comes into his head," Mettlich had reasoned. "It will at least be spontaneous and boyish."
The Crown Prince was somewhat nervous. He blinked rapidly as the delegation entered and proceeded up the room. However, happening at that moment to remember Nikky with the brass inkwell, he forgot himself in amusement. He took a good look at the gold casket, as it approached, reverently borne, and rather liked its appearance. It would have been, he reflected, extremely convenient to keep things in, pencils and erasers, on his desk. But, of course, he would not have it to keep. Quite a number of things passed into his possession and out again with the same lightning-like rapidity.
The first formalities over, and the Crown Prince having shaken hands nine times, the spokesman stepped forward. He had brought a long, written speech, which had already been given to the newspapers. But after a moment's hesitation he folded it up.
"Your Royal Highness," he said, looking down, "I have here a long speech, but all that it contains I can say briefly. It is your birthday, Highness. We come, representing many others, to present to you our congratulations, and - the love of your people. It is our hope" - He paused. Emotion and excitement were getting the better of him - "our hope, Highness, that you will have many happy years. To further that hope, we are here to-day to say that we, representing all classes, are your most loyal subjects. We have fought for His Majesty the King, and if necessary we will fight for you." He glanced beyond the child at the Council, and his tone was strong and impassioned: "But to-day we are here, not to speak of war, but to present to you our congratulations, our devotion, and our loyalty."
Also a casket. He had forgotten that. He stepped back, was nudged, and recollected.
"Also a gift," he said, and ruined a fine speech among smiles. But the presentation took place in due order, and Otto cleared his throat.
"Thank you all very much," he said. "It is a very beautiful gift. I admire it very much. I should like to keep it on my desk, but I suppose it is too valuable. Thank you very much."
The spokesman hoped that it might be arranged that he keep it on his desk, an ever-present reminder of the love of his city. To this the Chancellor observed that it would be arranged, and the affair was over. To obviate the difficulty of having the delegation back down the long room, it was the Crown Prince who departed first, with the Chancellor.
Altogether, it was comfortably over, and the Chancellor reflected grimly that the boy had done well. He had made friends of the delegation at a time when he needed friends. As they walked along the long corridors of the Palace together, the Chancellor was visualizing another scene, which must come soon, pray God with as good result: the time when, the old King dead and the solemn bell of the cathedral tolling, this boy would step out on to the balcony overlooking the Place, and show himself to the great throng below the windows.
To offset violence and anarchy itself, only that one small figure on the balcony!
Late in the afternoon the King sent for Prince Ferdinand William Otto. He had not left his bed since the day he had placed the matter of Hedwig's marriage before the Council, and now he knew he would never leave it. There were times between sleeping and waking when he fancied he had already gone, and that only his weary body on the, bed remained. At such times he saw Hubert, only, strangely enough, not as a man grown, but as a small boy again; and his Queen, but as she had looked many years before, when he married her, and when at last, after months of married wooing, she had crept willing into his arms.
So, awakening from a doze, he saw the boy there, and called him Hubert. Prince Ferdinand William Otto, feeling rather worried, did the only thing he could think of. He thrust his warm hand into his grandfather's groping one, and the touch of his soft flesh roused the King.
The Sister left them together, and in her small room dropped on her knees before the holy image. There, until he left, she prayed for the King's soul, for the safety and heavenly guidance of the boy. The wind stirred her black habit and touched gently her white coif. She prayed, her pale lips moving silently.
In the King's bedchamber Prince Ferdinand William Otto sat on a high chair, and talked. He was extremely relieved that his exile was over, but he viewed his grandfather, with alarm. His aunt had certainly intimated that his running away had made the King worse. And he looked very ill.
"I'm awfully sorry, grandfather," he said.
"That I went away the other day, sir."
"It was, after all, a natural thing to do."
The Crown Prince could hardly believe his ears.
"If it could only be arranged safely - a little freedom - " The King lay still with closed eyes.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto felt uneasy. "But I am very comfortable, and - and happy," he hastened to say. "You are, please, not to worry about me, sir. And about the paper I threw at Monsieur Puaux the other day, I am sorry about that too. I don't know exactly why I did it."
The King still held his hand, but he said nothing. There were many things he wanted to say. He had gone crooked where this boy must go straight. He had erred, and the boy must avoid his errors. He had cherished enmities, and in his age they cherished him. And now -
"May I ask you a question, sir?"
"What is it?"
"Will you tell me about Abraham Lincoln?"
"Why?" The King was awake enough now. He fixed the Crown Prince with keen eyes.
"Well, Miss Braithwaite does not care for him. She says he was not a great man, not as great as Mr. Gladstone, anyhow. But Bobby - that's the boy I met; I told you about him - he says he was the greatest man who ever lived."
"And who," asked the King, "do you regard as the greatest man?"
Prince Ferdinand William Otto fidgeted, but he answered bravely, "You, sir."
"Humph!" The King lay still, smiling slightly. "Well," he observed, "there are, of course, other opinions as to that. However - Abraham Lincoln was a very great man. A dreamer, a visionary, but a great man. You might ask Miss Braithwaite to teach you his 'Gettysburg Address.' It is rather a model as to speech-making, although it contains doctrines that - well, you'd better learn it."
He smiled again, to himself. It touched his ironic sense of humor that he, who had devoted his life to maintaining that all men are not free and equal, when on that very day that same doctrine of liberty was undermining his throne - that he should be discussing it with the small heir to that throne.
"Yes, sir," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto. He hoped it was not very long.
"Otto," said the King suddenly, "do you ever look at your father's picture?"
"You might - look at it now and then. I'd like you to do it."