Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter V. At the Riding-School
His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto was in disgrace.
He had risen at six, bathed, dressed, and gone to Mass, in disgrace. He had breakfasted at seven-thirty on fruit, cereal, and one egg, in disgrace. He had gone to his study at eight o'clock for lessons, in disgrace. A long line of tutors came and went all morning, and he worked diligently, but he was still in disgrace. All morning long and in the intervals between tutors he had tried to catch Miss Braithwaite's eye.
Except for the most ordinary civilities, she had refused to look in his direction. She was correcting an essay in English on Mr. Gladstone, with a blue pencil, and putting in blue commas every here and there. The Crown Prince was amazingly weak in commas. When she was all through, she piled the sheets together and wrote a word on the first page. It might have been "good." On the other hand, it could easily have been "poor." The motions of the hand are similar.
At last; in desperation, the Crown Prince deliberately broke off the point of his pencil, and went to the desk where Miss Braithwaite sat, monarch of the American pencil-sharpener which was the beloved of his heart.
"Again!" said Miss Braithwaite shortly. And raised her eyebrows.
"It's a very soft pencil," explained the Crown Prince. "When I press down on it, it - it busts."
"It busts - breaks." Evidently the English people were not familiar with this new and fascinating American word.
He cast a casual glance toward Mr. Gladstone. The word was certainly "poor." Suddenly a sense of injustice began to rise in him. He had worked rather hard over Mr. Gladstone. He had done so because he knew that Miss Braithwaite considered him the greatest man since Jesus Christ, and even the Christ had not written "The Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion."
The injustice went to his eyes and made him blink. He had apologized for yesterday, and explained fully. It was not fair. As to commas, anybody could put in enough commas.
The French tutor was standing near a photograph of Hedwig, and pretending not to look at it. Prince Ferdinand William Otto had a suspicion that the tutor was in love with Hedwig. On one occasion, when she had entered unexpectedly, he had certainly given out the sentence, "Ce dragon etait le vieux serpent, la princesse," instead of "Ce dragon etait le vieux serpent, le roi."
Prince Ferdinand William Otto did not like the French tutor. His being silly about Hedwig was not the reason. Even Nikky had that trouble, and once, when they were all riding together, had said, "Canter on the snaffle, trot on the curb," when he meant exactly the opposite. It was not that. Part of it was because of his legs, which were inclined to knock at the knees. Mostly it was his eyes, which protruded. "When he reads my French exercises," he complained once to Hedwig, "he waves them around like an ant's."
He and Hedwig usually spoke English together. Like most royalties, they had been raised on languages. It was as much as one's brains were worth, sometimes, to try to follow them as they leaped from grammar to grammar.
"Like an aunt's?" inquired Hedwig, mystified.
"An ant's. They have eyes on the ends of their feelers, you know."
But Miss Braithwaite, overhearing, had said that ants have no eyes at all. She had no imagination.
His taste of liberty had spoiled the Crown Prince for work. Instead of conjugating a French verb, he made a sketch of the Scenic Railway. He drew the little car, and two heads looking over the edge, with a sort of porcupine effect of hairs standing straight up.
"Otto!" said Miss Braithwaite sternly.
Miss Braithwaite did not say "sir" to him or "Your Royal Highness," like the tutors. She had taken him from the arms of his mother when he was a baby, and had taught a succession of nurses how to fix his bottles, and made them raise the windows when he slept - which was heresy in that country, and was brought up for discussion in the Parliament. When it came time for his first tooth, and he was wickedly fretful, and the doctors had a consultation over him, it was Miss Braithwaite who had ignored everything they said, and rubbed the tooth through with her silver thimble. Boiled first, of course.
And when one has cut a Royal Highness's first tooth, and broken him of sucking his thumb, and held a cold buttered knife against his bruises to prevent their discoloring, one does get out of the way of being very formal with him.
"Otto!" said Miss Braithwaite sternly.
So he went to work in earnest. He worked at a big desk, which had been his father's. As a matter of fact, everything in the room was too big for him. It had not occurred to any one to make any concessions to his size. He went through life, one may say, with his legs dangling, or standing on tiptoe to see things.
The suite had been his father's before him. Even the heavy old rug had been worn shabby by the scuffing of his father's feet. On the wall there hung a picture his father had drawn. It was of a yacht in full sail. Prince Hubert had been fifteen when he drew it, and was contemplating abandoning his princely career and running away to be a pirate. As a matter of fact, the yacht boasted the black flag, as Otto knew quite well. Nikky had discover it. But none of the grown-ups had recognized the damning fact. Nikky was not, strictly speaking a grown-up.
The sun came through the deep embrasures of the window and set Prince Ferdinand William Otto's feet to wriggling. It penetrated the gloomy fastnesses of the old room and showed its dingy furniture, its great desk, its dark velvet portieres, and the old cabinet in which the Crown Prince kept his toys on the top shelf. He had arranged them there himself, the ones he was fondest of in the front row, so he could look up and see them; a drum which he still dearly loved, but which made Miss Braithwaite's headache; a locomotive with a broken spring; a steam-engine which Hedwig had given him, but which the King considered dangerous, and which had never, therefore, had its baptism of fire; and a dilapidated and lop-eared cloth dog.
He was exceedingly fond of the dog. For quite a long time he had taken it to bed with him at night, and put its head on his pillow. It was the most comforting thing, when the lights were all out. Until he was seven he had been allowed a bit of glimmer, a tiny wick floating in a silver dish of lard-oil, for a night-light. But after his eighth birthday that had been done away with, Miss Braithwaite considering it babyish.
The sun shone in on the substantial but cheerless room; on the picture of the Duchess Hedwig, untouched by tragedy or grief; on the heavy, paneled old doors through which, once on a time, Prince Hubert had made his joyous exits into a world that had so early cast him out; on his swords, crossed over the fireplace; his light rapier, his heavy cavalry saber; on the bright head of his little son, around whom already so many plots and counterplots were centering.
The Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto found the sun unsettling. Besides, he hated verbs. Nouns were different. One could do something with nouns, although even they had a way of having genders. Into his head popped a recollection of a delightful pastime of the day before - nothing more nor less than flipping paper wads at the guard on the Scenic Railway as the car went past him.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto tore off the corner of a piece of paper, chewed it deliberately, rounded and hardened it with his royal fingers, and aimed it at M. Puaux. It struck him in the eye.
Instantly things happened. M. Puaux yelled, and clapped a hand to his eye. Miss Braithwaite rose. His Royal Highness wrote a rather shaky French verb, with the wrong termination. And on to this scene came Nikky for the riding-lesson. Nikky, smiling and tidy, and very shiny as to riding-boots and things, and wearing white kid gloves. Every one about a palace wears white kid gloves, except the royalties themselves. It is extremely expensive.
Nikky surveyed the scene. He had, of course, bowed inside the door, and all that sort of thing. But Nikky was an informal person, and was quite apt to bow deeply before his future sovereign, and then poke him in the chest.
"Well!" said Nikky.
"Good-morning," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, in a small and nervous voice.
"Nothing wrong, is there?" demanded Nikky.
M. Puaux got out his handkerchief and said nothing violently.
"Otto!" said Miss Braithwaite. "What did you do?"
"Nothing." He looked about. He was quite convinced that M. Puaux was what Bobby would have termed a poor sport, and had not played the game fairly. The guard at the railway, he felt, would not have yelled and wept. "Oh, well, I threw a piece of paper. That's all. I didn't think it would hurt."
Miss Braithwaite rose and glanced at the carpet. But Nikky was quick. Quick and understanding. He put his shiny foot over the paper wad.
"Paper!" said Miss Braithwaite. "Why did you throw paper? And at M. Puaux?"
"I - just felt like throwing something," explained His Royal Highness. "I guess it's the sun, or something."
Nikky dropped his glove, and miraculously, when he had picked it up the little wad was gone.
"For throwing paper, five marks," said Miss Braithwaite, and put it down in the book she carried in her pocket. It was rather an awful book. On Saturdays the King looked it over, and demanded explanations. "For untidy nails, five marks! A gentleman never has untidy nails, Otto. For objecting to winter flannels, two marks. Humph! For pocketing sugar from the tea-tray, ten marks! Humph! For lack of attention during religious instruction, five marks. Ten off for the sugar, and only five for inattention to religious instruction! What have you to say, sir?"
Prince Ferdinand William Otto looked at Nikky and Nikky looked back. Then Ferdinand William Otto's left eyelid drooped. Nikky was astounded. How was he to know the treasury of strange things that the Crown Prince had tapped the previous afternoon? But, after a glance around the room, Nikky's eyelid drooped also. He slid the paper wad into his pocket.
"I am afraid His Royal Highness has hurt your eye, M. Puaux," said Miss Braithwaite. Not with sympathy. She hated tutors.
"Not at all," said the unhappy young man, testing the eye to discover if he could see through it. "I am sure His Royal Highness meant no harm." M. Puaux went out, with his handkerchief to his eye. He turned at the door and bowed, but as no one was paying any attention to him, he made two bows. One was to Hedwig's picture.
While Oskar, his valet, put the Crown Prince into riding-clothes, Nikky and Miss Braithwaite had a talk. Nikky was the only person to whom Miss Braithwaite really unbent. Once he had written to a friend of his in China, and secured for her a large box of the best China tea. Miss Braithwaite only brewed it when the Archduchess made one of her rare visits to the Crown Prince's apartment.
But just now their talk was very serious. It began by Nikky's stating that she was likely to see him a great deal now, and he hoped she would not find him in the way. He had been made aide-de-camp to the Crown Prince, vice Count Lussin, who had resigned on account of illness, having been roused at daybreak out of a healthy sleep to do it.
Not that Nikky said just that. What he really observed was: "The King sent for me last night, Miss Braithwaite, and - and asked me to hang around."
Thus Nikky, of his sacred trust! None the less sacred to him, either, that he spoke lightly. He glanced up at the crossed swords, and his eyes were hard.
And Miss Braithwaite knew. She reached over and put a hand on his arm. "You and I," she said. "Out of all the people in this palace, only you and I! The Archduchess hates him. I see it in her eyes. She can never forgive him for keeping the throne from Hedwig. The Court? Do they ever think of the boy, except to dread his minority, with Mettlich in control? A long period of mourning, a regency, no balls, no gayety that is all they think of. And whom can we trust? The very guards down below, the sentries at our doors, how do we know they are loyal?"
"The people love him," said Nikky doggedly.
"The people! Sheep. I do not trust the people. I do not trust any one. I watch, but what can I do? The very food we eat - "
"He is coming," said Nikky softly. And fell to whistling under his breath.
Together Nikky and Prince Ferdinand William Otto went out and down the great marble staircase. Sentries saluted. Two flunkies in scarlet and gold threw open the doors. A stray dog that had wandered into the courtyard watched them gravely.
"I wish," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, "that I might have a dog."
"A dog! Why?"
"Well, it would be company. Dogs are very friendly. Yesterday I met a boy who has a dog. It sleeps on his bed at night."
"You have a good many things, you know," Nikky argued. "You've got a dozen horses, for one thing."
"But a dog's different." He felt the difference, but he could not put it into words. "And I'd rather have only one horse. I'd get better acquainted with it."
Nikky looked back. Although it had been the boast of the royal family for a century that it could go about unattended, that its only danger was from the overzeal of the people in showing their loyalty, not since the death of Prince Hubert had this been true in fact. No guards or soldiers accompanied them, but the secret police were always near at hand. So Nikky looked, made sure that a man in civilian clothing was close at their heels, and led the way across the Square to the riding-school.
A small crowd lined up and watched the passing of the little Prince. As he passed, men lifted their hats and women bowed. He smiled right and left, and, took two short steps to one of Nikky's long ones.
"I have a great many friends," he said with a sigh of content, as they neared the riding-school. "I suppose I don't really need a dog."
"Look here," said Nikky, after a pause. He was not very quick in thinking things out. He placed, as a fact, more reliance on his right arm than on his brain. But once he had thought a thing out, it stuck. "Look here, Highness, you didn't treat your friends very well yesterday."
"I know;" said Prince Ferdinand William Otto meekly. But Prince Ferdinand William Otto had thought out a defense. "I got back all right, didn't I?" He considered. "It was worth it. A policeman shook me!"
"Which policeman?" demanded Nikky in a terrible tone, and in his fury quite forgot the ragging he had prepared for Otto.
"I think I'll not tell you, if you don't mind. And I bought a fig lady. I've saved the legs for you."
Fortune smiled on Nikky that day. Had, indeed, been smiling daily for some three weeks. Singularly enough, the Princess Hedwig, who had been placed on a pony at the early age of two, and who had been wont to boast that she could ride any horse in her grandfather's stables, was taking riding-lessons. From twelve to one - which was, also singularly, the time Prince Ferdinand William Otto and Nikky rode in the ring - the Princess Hedwig rode also. Rode divinely. Rode saucily. Rode, when Nikky was ahead, tenderly.
To tell the truth, Prince Ferdinand William Otto rather hoped, this morning, that Hedwig would not be there. There was a difference in Nikky when Hedwig was around. When she was not there he would do all sorts of things, like jumping on his horse while it was going, and riding backward in the saddle, and so on. He had once even tried jumping on his horse as it galloped past him, and missed, and had been awfully ashamed about it. But when Hedwig was there, there was no skylarking. They rode around, and the riding-master put up jumps and they took them. And finally Hedwig would get tired, and ask Nikky please to be amusing while she rested. And he would not be amusing at all. The Crown Prince felt that she never really saw Nikky at his best.
Hedwig was there. She had on a new habit, and a gardenia in her buttonhole, and she gave Nikky her hand to kiss, but only nodded to the Crown Prince.
"Hello, Otto!" she said. "I thought you'd have a ball and chain on your leg to-day."
"There's nothing wrong with my legs," said Prince Ferdinand William Otto, staring at the nets habit. "But yours look rather queer."
Hedwig flushed. The truth was that she was wearing, for the first time, a cross-saddle habit of coat and trousers. And coat and trousers were forbidden to the royal women. She eyed Otto with defiance, and turned an appealing glance to Nikky. But her voice was very dignified.
"I bought them myself," she said. "I consider it a perfectly modest costume, and much safer than the other."
"It is quite lovely - on you, Highness," said Nikky.
In a stiff chair at the edge of the ring Hedwig's lady in waiting sat resignedly. She was an elderly woman, and did not ride. Just now she was absorbed in wondering what would happen to her when the Archduchess discovered this new freak of Hedwig's. Perhaps she would better ask permission to go into retreat for a time. The Archduchess, who had no religion herself, approved of it in others. She took a soft rubber from her pocket, and tried to erase a spot from her white kid gloves.
The discovery that Hedwig had two perfectly good legs rather astounded Prince Ferdinand William Otto. He felt something like consternation.
"I've never seen any one else dressed like that," he observed, as the horses were brought up.
Hedwig colored again. She looked like an absurdly pretty boy. "Don't be a silly," she replied, rather sharply. "Every one does it, except here, where old fossils refuse to think that anything new can be proper. If you're going to be that sort of a king when you grow up, I'll go somewhere else to live."
Nikky looked gloomy. The prospect, although remote, was dreary. But, as the horses were led out, and he helped Hedwig to her saddle, he brightened. After all, the future was the future, and now was now.
"Catch me!" said Hedwig, and dug her royal heels into her horse's flanks. The Crown Prince climbed into his saddle and followed. They were off.
The riding-school had been built for officers of the army, but was now used by the Court only. Here the King had ridden as a lad with young Mettlich, his close friend even then. The favorite mare of his later years, now old and almost blind, still had a stall in the adjacent royal stables. One of the King's last excursions abroad had been to visit her.
Overhead, up a great runway, were the state chariots, gilt coaches of inconceivable weight, traveling carriages of the post-chaise periods, sleighs in which four horses drove abreast, their panels painted by the great artists of the time; and one plain little vehicle, very shabby, in which the royal children of long ago had fled from a Karnian invasion.
In one corner, black and gold and forbidding, was the imposing hearse in which the dead sovereigns of the country were taken to their long sleep in the vaults under the cathedral. Good, bad, and indifferent, one after the other, as their hour came, they had taken this last journey in the old catafalque, and had joined their forbears. Many they had been: men of iron, men of blood, men of flesh, men of water. And now they lay in stone crypts, and of all the line only two remained.
One and all, the royal vehicles were shrouded in sheets, except on one day of each month when the sheets were removed and the public admitted. But on that morning the great hearse was uncovered, and two men were working, one at the upholstery, which he was brushing. The other was carefully oiling the wood of the body. Save for them, the wide and dusky loft was empty.
One was a boy, newly come from the country. The other was an elderly man. It was he who oiled.
"Many a king has this carried," said the man. "My father, who was here before me, oiled it for the last one."
"May it be long before it carries another!" commented the boy fervently.
"It will not be long. The old King fails hourly. And this happening of yesterday - "
"What happened yesterday?" queried the boy.
"It was a matter of the Crown Prince."
"Was he ill?"
"He ran away," said the man shortly.
"Ran away?" The boy stopped his dusting, and stared, open-mouthed.
"Aye, ran away. Grew weary of back-bending, perhaps. I do not know. I do not believe in kings."
"Not believe in kings?" The boy stopped his brushing."
"You do, of course," sneered the man. "Because a thing is, it is right. But I think. I use my brains. I reason. And I do not believe in kings."
Up the runway came sounds from the ring, the thudding of hoofs, followed by a child's shrill, joyous laughter. The man scowled.
"Listen!" he said. "We labor and they play."
"It has always been so. I do not begrudge happiness."
But the man was not listening.
"I do not believe in kings," he said sullenly.