Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter III. Disgraced
At eight o'clock that evening the Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto approached the Palace through the public square. He approached it slowly, for two reasons. First, he did not want to go back. Second, he was rather frightened. He had an idea that they would be disagreeable.
There seemed to be a great deal going on at the palace. Carriages were rolling in under the stone archway and, having discharged their contents, mostly gentlemen in uniform, were moving off with a thundering of hoofs that reechoed from the vaulted roof of the entrance. All the lights were on in the wing where his grandfather, the King, lived alone. As his grandfather hated lights, and went to bed early, Prince Ferdinand William Otto was slightly puzzled.
He stood in the square and waited for a chance to slip in unobserved.
He was very dirty. His august face was streaked with soot, and his august hands likewise. His small derby hat was carefully placed on the very back of his head at the angle of the American boy's cap. As his collar had scratched his neck, he had, at Bobby's suggestion, taken it off and rolled it up. He decided, as he waited in the square, to put it on again. Miss Braithwaite was very peculiar about collars.
Came a lull in the line of carriages. Prince Ferdinand William Otto took a long breath and started forward. As he advanced he stuck his hands in his pockets and swaggered a trifle. It was, as nearly as possible, an exact imitation of Bobby Thorpe's walk. And to keep up his courage, he quoted that young gentleman's farewell speech to himself: "What d' you care? They won't eat you, will they?"
At the entrance to the archway stood two sentries. They stood as if they were carved out of wood. Only their eyes moved. And within, in the court around which the Palace was built, were the King's bodyguards. Mostly they sat on a long bench and exchanged conversation, while one of them paced back and forth, his gun over his shoulder, in front of them. Prince Ferdinand William Otto knew them all. More than once he had secured cigarettes from Lieutenant Larisch and dropped them from one of his windows, which were just overhead. They would look straight ahead and not see them, until the officer's back was turned. Then one would be lighted and passed along the line. Each man would take one puff and pass it on behind his back. It was great fun.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto stood in the shadows and glanced across. The sentries stood like wooden men, but something was wrong in the courtyard inside. The guards were all standing, and there seemed to be a great many of them. And just as he had made up his mind to take the plunge, so to speak, a part of his own regiment of cavalry came out from the courtyard with a thundering of hoofs, wheeled at the street, and clattered off.
Very unusual, all of it.
The Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto felt in his pocket for his handkerchief, and, moistening a corner with his tongue, wiped his face. Then he wiped his shoes. Then, with his hands in his trousers pockets, he sauntered into the light.
Now sentries are trained to be impassive. The model of a sentry is a wooden soldier. A really good sentry does not sneeze or cough on duty. Did any one ever see a sentry, for instance, wipe his nose? Or twirl his thumbs? Or buy a newspaper? Certainly not.
Therefore the two sentries made no sign when they saw Ferdinand William Otto approaching. But one of them forgot to bring his musket to salute. He crossed himself instead. And something strained around the other sentry's lower jaw suddenly relaxed into a smile as His Royal Highness drew a hand from its refuge and saluted. He glanced first at one, then at the other, rather sheepishly, hesitated between them, clapped his hat on more securely, and marched in.
"The young rascal!" said the second sentry to himself. And by turning his head slightly - for a sentry learns to see all around like a horse, without twisting his neck - he watched the runaway into the palace.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto went up the stone staircase. Here and there he passed guards who stared and saluted. Had he not been obsessed with the vision of Miss Braithwaite, he would have known that relief followed in his wake. Messengers clattered down the staircase to the courtyard. Other messengers, breathless and eager, flew to that lighted wing where the Council sat, and where the old King, propped up in bed, waited and fought terror.
The Archduchess Annunciata was with her father. Across the corridor the Council debated in low tones.
"Tell me again," said the King. "How in God's name could it have happened? In daylight, and with all of you there!"
"I have told you all I know," said the Archduchess impatiently. "One moment he was there. Hedwig and he were making gestures, and I reproved him. The next he was gone. Hedwig saw him get up and go out. She thought - "
"Send for Hedwig."
"She has retired. She was devoted to him, and - "
"Send for her," said the King shortly.
The Archduchess Annunciata went out. The old King lay back, and his eyes, weary with many years of ruling, of disappointments and bitterness, roved the room. They came to rest at last on the photograph of a young man, which stood on his bedside, table.
He was a very young man, in a uniform. He was boyish, and smiling. There was a dog beside him, and its head was on his knee. Wherever one stood in the room, the eyes of the photograph gazed at one. The King knew this, and because he was quite old, and because there were few people to whom a king dares to speak his inmost thoughts, he frequently spoke to the photograph.
The older he grew, the more he felt, sometimes, as though it knew what he said. He had begun to think that death, after all, is not the end, but only the beginning of things. This rather worried him, too, at times. What he wanted was to lay things down, not to take them up.
"If they've got him," he said to the picture, "it is out of my hands, and into yours, my boy."
Much of his life had been spent in waiting, in waiting for a son, in waiting for that son to grow to be a man, in waiting while that son in his turn loved and married and begot a man-child, in waiting, when that son had died a violent death, for the time when his tired hands could relinquish the scepter to his grandchild.
He folded his old hands and waited. From across the corridor came the low tones of the Council. A silent group of his gentlemen stood in the vestibule outside the door. The King lay on his bed and waited.
Quite suddenly the door opened. The old man turned his head. Just inside stood a very dirty small boy.
The Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto was most terribly frightened. Everything was at sixes and sevens. Miss Braithwaite had been crying her head off, and on seeing him had fallen in a faint. Not that he thought it was a real faint. He had unmistakably seen her eyelids quiver. And when she came to she had ordered him no supper, and four pages of German translation, and to go to bed at seven o'clock instead of seven-thirty for a week. All the time crying, too. And then she had sent him to his grandfather, and taken aromatic ammonia,
His grandfather said nothing, but looked at him.
"Here - here I am, sir," said the Crown Prince from the door.
The King drew a long breath. But the silence persisted. Prince Ferdinand William Otto furtively rubbed a dusty shoe against the back of a trousers leg.
"I'm afraid I'm not very neat, sir," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, and took a step forward. Until his grandfather commanded him, he could not advance into the room.
"Come here," said the King.
He went to the side of the bed.
"Where have you been?"
"I'm afraid - I ran away, sir."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto considered. It was rather an awful moment. "I don't exactly know. I just thought I would."
You see, it was really extremely difficult. To say that he was tired of things as they were would sound ungrateful. Would, indeed, be most impolite. And then, exactly why had he run away?
"Suppose," said the King, "you draw up a chair and tell me about it. We'd better talk it over, I think."
His Royal Highness drew up a chair, and sat on it. His feet not reaching the floor, he hooked them around the chair-rung. This was permissible because, first, the King could not see them from his bed. Second, it kept his knees from shaking.
"Probably you are aware," said the King, "that you have alarmed a great many people."
"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't think - "
"A prince's duty is to think."
"Although," observed His Royal Highness, "I don't really believe Miss Braithwaite fainted. She may have thought she fainted, but her eyelids moved."
"Where did you go?"
"To the park, sir. I - I thought I'd like to see the park by myself."
"It's very hard to enjoy things with Miss Braithwaite, sir. She does not really enjoy the things I like. Nikky and I - "
"By 'Nikky' you mean Lieutenant Larisch?"
"We like the same things, sir - the Pike's-Peak-or-Bust, and all that."
The King raised himself on his elbow. "What was that?" he demanded.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto blushed, and explained. It was Bobby's name for the peak at the top of the Scenic Railway. He had been on the railway. He had been - his enthusiasm carried him away. His cheeks flushed. He sat forward on the edge of his chair, and gesticulated. He had never had such a good time in his life.
"I was awfully happy, sir," he ended. "It feels like flying, only safer. And the lights are pretty. It's like fairyland. There were two or three times when it seemed as if we'd turn over, or leap the track. But we didn't."
The King lay back and thought. More than anything in the world he loved this boy. But the occasion demanded a strong hand. "You were happy," he said. "You were disobedient, you were causing grave anxiety and distress - and you were happy! The first duty of a prince is to his country. His first lesson is to obey laws. He must always obey certain laws. A king is but the servant of his people."
"Yes, sir," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto.
The old King's voice was stern. "Some day you will be the King. You are being trained for that high office now. And yet you would set the example of insubordination, disobedience, and reckless disregard of the feelings of others."
"Yes, sir," said prince Ferdinand William Otto, feeling very small and ashamed.
"Not only that. You slipped away. You did not go openly. You sneaked off, like a thief. Are you proud of it?"
"I shall," said the King, "require no promise from you. Promises are poor things to hold to. I leave this matter in your own hands, Otto. You will be punished by Miss Braithwaite, and for the next ten days you will not visit me. You may go now."
Otto got off his chair. He was feeling exceedingly crushed. "Good-night, sir," he said. And waited for his grandfather to extend his hand. But the old King lay looking straight ahead, with his mouth set in grim lines, and his hands folded over his breast.
At the door the Crown Prince turned and bowed. His grandfather's eyes were fixed on the two gold eagles over the door, but the photograph on the table appeared to be smiling at him.