Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XXXV. The Paper Crown
Strange that the old Palace roof should, in close succession; have seen Nikky forgetting his promise to the Chancellor, and Otto forgetting that he was not to run away. Strange places, roofs, abiding places, since long ago, of witches.
"How'd you happen to be in that gutter?" Bobby demanded, as they started down the staircase in the wall. "Watch out, son, it's pretty steep."
"I was getting a ball."
"Is this your house?"
"Well, I live here," temporized Prince Ferdinand William Otto. A terrible thought came to him. Suppose this American boy, who detested kings and princes, should learn who he was!
"It looks like a big place. Is it a barracks?"
"No." He hesitated. "But there are a good many soldiers here. I - I never saw these steps before."
"I should think not," boasted Bobby. "I discovered them. I guess nobody else in the world knows about them. I put up a flag at the bottom and took possession. They're mine."
"Really!" said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, quite delighted. He would never have thought of such a thing.
A door of iron bars at the foot of the long flight of steps - there were four of them - stood open. Here daylight, which had been growing fainter, entirely ceased. And here Bobby, having replaced his mask, placed an air-rifle over his shoulder, and lighted a candle and held it out to the Crown Prince.
"You can carry it," he said. "Only don't let it drip on you. You'll spoil your clothes." There was a faintly scornful note in his voice, and Ferdinand William Otto was quick to hear it.
"I don't care at all about my clothes," he protested. And to prove it he deliberately tilted the candle and let a thin stream of paraffin run down his short jacket.
"You're a pretty good sport," Bobby observed. And from that time on he addressed His Royal Highness as "old sport."
"Walk faster, old sport," he would say. "That candle's pretty short, and we've got a long way to go." Or - "Say, old sport, I'll make you a mask like this, if you like. I made this one."
When they reached the old dungeon the candle was about done. There was only time to fashion another black mask out of a piece of cloth that bore a strange resemblance to a black waistcoat. The Crown Prince donned this with a wildly beating heart. Never in all his life had he been so excited. Even Dick Deadeye was interested, and gave up his scenting of the strange footsteps that he had followed through the passage, to watch the proceedings.
"We can get another candle, and come back and cook something," said the senior pirate, tying the mask on with Pieces of brown string. "It gets pretty smoky, but I can cook, you'd better believe."
So this wonderful boy could cook, also! The Crown Prince had never met any one with so many varied attainments. He gazed through the eyeholes, which were rather too far apart, in rapt admiration.
"As you haven't got a belt," Bobby said generously, "I'll give you the rifle. Ever hold a gun?"
"Oh, yes," said. the Crown Prince. He did not explain that he had been taught to shoot on the rifle-range of his own regiment, and had won quite a number of medals. He possessed, indeed, quite a number of small but very perfect guns.
With the last gasp of the candle, the children prepared to depart. The senior pirate had already forgotten the two men he had trailed through the passage, and was eager to get outdoors.
"Ready!" he said. "Now, remember, old sport, we are pirates. No quarter, except to women and children. Shoot every man."
"Even if he is unarmed?" inquired the Crown Prince, who had also studied strategy and tactics, and felt that an unarmed man should be taken prisoner.
"Sure. We don't really shoot them, silly. Now. Get in step.
"'Fifteen men on a dead man's chest Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.'"
They marched up the steps and out through the opening at the top. If there were any who watched, outside the encircling growth of evergreens, they were not on the lookout for two small boys and a dog. And, as became pirates, the children made a stealthy exit.
Then began, for the Crown Prince, such a day of joy as he had never known before. Even the Land of Delight faded before this new bliss of stalking from tree to tree, of killing unsuspecting citizens who sat on rugs on the ground and ate sausages and little cakes. Here and there, where a party had moved on, they salvaged a bit of food - the heel of a loaf, one of the small country apples. Shades of the Court Physicians, under whose direction the Crown Prince was daily fed a carefully balanced ration!
When they were weary, they stretched out on the ground, and the Crown Prince, whose bed was nightly dried with a warming-pan for fear of dampness, wallowed blissfully on earth still soft with the melting frosts of the winter. He grew muddy and dirty. He had had no hat, of course, and his bright hair hung over his forehead in moist strands. Now and then he drew a long breath of sheer happiness.
Around them circled the gayety of the Carnival, bands of students in white, with the tall peaked caps of Pierrots. Here and there was a scarlet figure, a devil with horns, who watched the crowd warily. A dog, with the tulle petticoats of a dancer tied around it and a great bow on its neck, made friends with Dick Deadeye, alias Tucker, and joined the group.
But, as dusk descended, the crowd gradually dispersed, some to supper, but some to gather in the Place and in the streets around the Palace. For the rumor that the King was dying would not down.
At last the senior pirate consulted a large nickel watch.
"Gee! it's almost supper time," he said.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto consulted his own watch, the one with the inscription: "To Ferdinand William Otto, from his grandfather, on the occasion of his taking his first communion."
"Why can't you come home to supper with me?" asked the senior pirate. "Would your folks kick up a row?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Would your family object?"
"There is only one person who would mind," reflected the Crown Prince, aloud, "and she will be angry anyhow. I - do you think your mother will be willing? "
"Willing? Sure she will! My governess - but I'll fix her. She's a German, and they're always cranky. Anyhow, it's my birthday. I'm always allowed a guest on birthdays."
So home together, gayly chatting, went the two children, along the cobble-paved streets of the ancient town, past old churches that had been sacked and pillaged by the very ancestors of one of them, taking short cuts through narrow passages that twisted and wormed their way between, and sometimes beneath, century-old stone houses; across the flower-market, where faint odors of dying violets and crushed lilies-of-the-valley still clung to the bare wooden booths; and so, finally, to the door of a tall building where, from the concierge's room beside the entrance, came a reek of stewing garlic.
Neither of the children had noticed the unwonted silence of the streets, which had, almost suddenly, succeeded the noise of the Carnival. What few passers-by they had seen had been hurrying in the direction of the Palace. Twice they had passed soldiers, with lanterns, and once one had stopped and flashed a light on them.
"Well, old sport!" said Bobby in English, "anything you can do for me?"
The soldier had passed on, muttering at the insolence of American children. The two youngsters laughed consumedly at the witticism. They were very happy, the lonely little American boy and the lonely little Prince - happy from sheer gregariousness, from the satisfaction of that strongest of human inclinations, next to love - the social instinct.
The concierge was out. His niece admitted them, and went back to her interrupted cooking. The children hurried up the winding stone staircase, with its iron rail and its gas lantern, to the second floor.
In the sitting-room, the sour-faced governess was darning a hole in a small stocking. She was as close as possible to the green-tile stove, and she was looking very unpleasant; for the egg-shaped darner only slipped through the hole, which was a large one. With an irritable gesture she took off her slipper, and, putting one coarse-stockinged foot on the fender, proceeded to darn by putting the slipper into the stocking and working over it.
Things looked unpropitious. The Crown Prince ducked behind Bobby.
The Fraulein looked at the clock.
"You are fifteen minutes late," she snapped, and bit the darning thread - not with rage, but because she had forgotten her scissors.
"I'm sorry, but you see - "
"Whom have you there?"
The Prince cowered. She looked quite like his grandfather when his tutor's reports had been unfavorable.
"A friend of mine," said Bobby, not a whit daunted.
The governess put down the stocking and rose. In so doing, she caught her first real glimpse of Ferdinand William Otto, and she staggered back.
"Holy Saints!" she said, and went white. Then she stared at the boy, and her color came back. "For a moment," she muttered " - but no. He is not so tall, nor has he the manner. Yes, he is much smaller!"
Which proves that, whether it wears it or not, royalty is always measured to the top of a crown.
In the next room Bobby's mother was arranging candles on a birthday cake in the center of the table. Pepy had iced the cake herself, and had forgotten one of the "b's" in "Bobby" so that the cake really read: "Boby - XII."
However, it looked delicious, and inside had been baked a tiny black china doll and a new American penny, with Abraham Lincoln's head on it. The penny was for good fortune, but the doll was a joke of Pepy's, Bobby being aggressively masculine.
Bobby, having passed the outpost, carried the rest of the situation by assault. He rushed into the dining-room and kissed his mother, with one eye on the cake.
"Mother, here's company to supper! Oh, look at the cake! B-O-B-Y'! Mother! That's awful!"
Mrs. Thorpe looked at the cake. "Poor Pepy," she said. "Suppose she had made it 'Booby'?" Then she saw Ferdinand William Otto, and went over, somewhat puzzled, with her hand out. "I am very glad Bobby brought you," she said. "He has so few little friends - "
Then she stopped, for the Prince had brought his heels together sharply, and, bending over her hand, had kissed it, exactly as he kissed his Aunt Annunciata's when he went to have tea with her. Mrs. Thorpe was fairly startled, not at the kiss, but at the grace with which the tribute was rendered.
Then she looked down, and it restored her composure to find that Ferdinand William Otto, too, had turned eyes toward the cake. He was, after all, only a hungry small boy. With quick tenderness she stooped and kissed him gravely on the forehead. Caresses were strange to Ferdinand William Otto. His warm little heart leaped and pounded. At that moment, he would have died for her!
Mr. Thorpe came home a little late. He kissed Bobby twelve times, and one to grow on. He shook hands absently with the visitor, and gave the Fraulein the evening paper - an extravagance on which he insisted, although one could read the news for nothing by going to the caf‚ on the corner. Then he drew his wife aside.
"Look here!" he said. "Don't tell Bobby - no use exciting him, and of course it's not our funeral anyhow but there's a report that the Crown Prince has been kidnapped. And that's not all. The old King is dying!"
"Worse than that. The old King gone and no Crown Prince! It may mean almost any sort of trouble! I've closed up at the Park for the night." His arm around his wife, he looked through the doorway to where Bobby and Ferdinand were counting the candles. "It's made me think pretty hard," he said. "Bobby mustn't go around alone the way he's been doing. All Americans here are considered millionaires. If the Crown Prince could go, think how easy - "
His arm tightened around his wife, and together they went in to the birthday feast. Ferdinand William Otto was hungry. He ate eagerly - chicken, fruit compote, potato salad - again shades of the Court physicians, who fed him at night a balanced ration of milk, egg, and zwieback! Bobby also ate busily, and conversation languished.
Then the moment came when, the first cravings appeased, they sat back in their chairs while Pepy cleared the table and brought in a knife to cut the cake. Mr. Thorpe had excused himself for a moment. Now he came back, with a bottle wrapped in a newspaper, and sat down again.
"I thought," he said, "as this is a real occasion, not exactly Robert's coming of age, but marking his arrival at years of discretion, the period when he ceases to be a small boy and becomes a big one, we might drink a toast to it."
"Robert!" objected the big boy's mother.
"A teaspoonful each, honey," he begged. "It changes it from a mere supper to a festivity."
He poured a few drops of wine into the children's glasses, and filled them up with water. Then he filled the others, and sat smiling, this big young man, who had brought his loved ones across the sea, and was trying to make them happy up a flight of stone stairs, above a concierge's bureau that smelled of garlic.
"First," he said, " I believe it is customary to toast the King. Friends, I give you the good King and brave soldier, Ferdinand of Livonia."
They stood up to drink it, and even Pepy had a glass.
Ferdinand William Otto was on his feet first. He held his glass up in his right hand, and his eyes shone. He knew what to do. He had seen the King's health drunk any number of times.
"To His Majesty, Ferdinand of Livonia," he said solemnly. "God keep the King!"
Over their glasses Mrs. Thorpe's eyes met her husband's. How they trained their children here!
But Ferdinand William Otto had not finished. "I give you," he said, in his clear young treble, holding his glass, " the President of the United States - The President!"
"The President!" said Mr. Thorpe.
They drank again, except the Fraulein, who disapproved of children being made much of, and only pretended to sip her wine.
"Bobby," said his mother, with a catch in her voice, "haven't you something to suggest - as a toast?"
Bobby's eyes were on the cake; he came back with difficulty.
"Well," he meditated, " I guess - would 'Home' be all right?"
"Home!" they all said, a little shakily, and drank to it.
Home! To the Thorpes, a little house on a shady street in America; to the Fraulein, a thatched cottage in the mountains of Germany and an old mother; to Pepy, the room in a tenement where she went at night; to Ferdinand William Otto, a formal suite of apartments in the Palace, surrounded by pomp, ordered by rule and precedent, hardened by military discipline, and unsoftened by family love, save for the grim affection of the old King.
After all, Pepy's plan went astray, for the Fraulein got the china baby, and Ferdinand William Otto the Lincoln penny.
"That," said Bobby's father, "is a Lincoln penny, young man. It bears the portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Have you ever heard of him?"
The Prince looked up. Did he not know the "Gettysburg Address" by heart?
"Yes, sir," he said. "The - my grandfather thinks that President Lincoln was a very great man."
"One of the world's greatest. I hardly thought, over here - " Mr. Thorpe paused and looked speculatively at the boy. "You'd better keep that penny where you won't lose it," he said soberly. "It doesn't hurt us to try to be good. If you're in trouble, think of the difficulties Abraham Lincoln surmounted. If you want to be great, think how great he was." He was a trifle ashamed of his own earnestness. "All that for a penny, young man!"
The festivities were taking a serious turn. There was a little packet at each plate, and now Bobby's mother reached over and opened hers.
"Oh!" she said, and exhibited a gaudy tissue paper bonnet. Everybody had one. Mr. Thorpe's was a dunce's cap, and Fraulein's a giddy Pierrette of black and white. Bobby had a military cap. With eager fingers Ferdinand William Otto opened his; he had never tasted this delicious paper-cap joy before.
It was a crown, a sturdy bit of gold paper, cut into points and set with red paste jewels - a gem of a crown. He was charmed. He put it on his head, with the unconsciousness of childhood, and posed delightedly.
The Fraulein looked at Prince Ferdinand William Otto, and slowly the color left her lean face. She stared. It was he, then, and none other. Stupid, not to have known at the beginning! He, the Crown Prince, here in the home of these barbarous Americans, when, by every plan that had been made, he should now be in the hands of those who would dispose of him.
" I give you," said Mr. Thorpe, raising his glass toward his wife, "the giver of the feast. Boys, up with you!"
It was then that the Fraulein, making an excuse, slipped out of the room.