A Bird in Hand by George A. Birmingham
Konrad Earl II. lost his crown and became a king in exile when Megalia became a republic. He was the victim of an ordinary revolution which took place in 1918, and was, therefore, in no way connected with the great war. Konrad Karl was anxious that this fact should be widely known. He did not wish to be mistaken for a member of the group of royalties who came to grief through backing the Germanic powers.
Like many other dethroned kings he made his home in England. He liked London life and prided himself on his mastery of the English language, which he spoke fluently, using slang and colloquial phrases whenever he could drag them in. He was an amiable and friendly young man, very generous when he had any money and entirely free from that pride and exclusiveness which is the fault of many European kings. He would have been a popular member of English society if it had not been for his connection with Madame Corinne Ypsilante, a lady of great beauty but little reputation. The king, who was sincerely attached to her, could never be induced to see that a lady of that kind must be kept in the background. Indeed it would not have been easy to conceal Madame Ypsilante. She was a lady who showed up wherever she went, and she went everywhere with the king. English society could neither ignore nor tolerate her. So English society, a little regretfully, dropped King Konrad Karl.
He did not much regret the loss of social position. He and Madame lived very comfortably in a suite of rooms at Beaufort's, which, as everyone knows, is the most luxurious and most expensive hotel in London. Their most intimate friend was Mr. Michael Gorman, M.P. for Upper Offaly. He was a broad-minded man with no prejudice against ladies like Madame Ypsilante. He had a knowledge of the by-ways of finance which made him very useful to the king; for Konrad Karl, though he lived in Beaufort's Hotel, was by no means a rich man. The Crown revenues of Megalia, never very large, were seized by the Republic at the time of the revolution, and the king had no private fortune. He succeeded in carrying off the Crown jewels when he left the country; but his departure was so hurried that he carried off nothing else. His tastes were expensive, and Madame Ypsilante was a lady of lavish habits. The Crown jewels of Megalia did not last long. It was absolutely necessary for the king to earn, or otherwise acquire, money from time to time, and Michael Gorman was as good as any man in London at getting money in irregular ways.
It was Gorman, for instance, who started the Near Eastern Wine Growers' Association. It prospered for a time because it was the only limited liability company which had a king on its Board of Directors. It failed in the end because the wine was so bad that nobody could drink it. It was Gorman who negotiated the sale of the Island of Salissa to a wealthy American. Madame Ypsilante got her famous pearl necklace out of the price of the island. It was partly because the necklace was very expensive that King Konrad Karl found himself short of money again within a year of the sale of the island. The moment was a particularly unfortunate one. Owing to the war it was impossible to start companies or sell islands.
Things came to a crisis when Emile, the Bond Street dressmaker, refused to supply Madame with an evening gown which she particularly wanted. It was a handsome garment, and Madame was ready to promise to pay £100 for it. Mr. Levinson, the business manager of Emile's, said that further credit was impossible, when Madame's bill already amounted to £680. His position was, perhaps, reasonable. It was certainly annoying. Madame, after a disagreeable interview with him, returned to Beaufort's Hotel in a very bad temper.
Gorman was sitting with the king when she stormed into the room. Hers was one of those simple untutored natures which make little attempt to conceal emotion. She flung her muff into a corner of the room. She tore the sable stole from her shoulders and sent it whirling towards the fireplace. Gorman was only just in time to save it from being burnt. She dragged a long pin from her hat and brandished it as if it had been a dagger.
"Konrad," she said, "I demand that at once the swine-dog be killed and cut into small bits by the knives of executioners."
There was a large china jar standing on the floor near the fireplace, one of those ornaments which give their tone of sumptuousness to the rooms in Beaufort's Hotel. Madame rushed at it and kicked it. When it broke she trampled on the pieces. She probably wished to show the size of the bits into which the business manager of Emile's ought to be minced.
Gorman sought a position of safety behind a large table. He had once before seen Madame deeply moved and he felt nervous. The king, who was accustomed to her ways, spoke soothingly.
"My beloved Corinne," he said, "who is he, this pig? Furnish me forthwith by return with an advice note of the name of the defendant."
The king's business and legal experience had taught him some useful phrases, which he liked to air when he could; but his real mastery of the English language was best displayed by his use of current slang.
"We shall at once," he went on, "put him up the wind, or is it down the wind? Tell me, Gorman. No. Do not tell me. I have it. We will put the wind up him."
"If possible," said Gorman.
Madame turned on him.
"Possible!" she said. "It is possible to kill a rat. Possible! Is not Konrad a king?"
"Even kings can't cut people up in that sort of way," said Gorman, "especially just now when the world is being made safe for democracy. Still if you tell us who the man is we'll do what we can to him."
"He is a toad, an ape, a cur-cat with mange, that manager of Emile," said Madame. "He said to me 'no, I make no evening gown for Madame.'"
"Wants to be paid, I suppose," said Gorman. "They sometimes do."
"Alas, Corinne," said the king, "and if I give him a cheque the bank will say 'Prefer it in a drawer.' They said it last time. Or perhaps it was 'Refer it to a drawer.' I do not remember. But that is what the bank will do. Gorman, my friend, it is as the English say all O.K. No, that is what it is not. It is U.P. Well. I have lived. I am a King. There is always poison. I can die. Corinne, farewell."
The king drew himself up to his full height, some five foot six, and looked determined.
"Don't talk rot," said Gorman. "You are not at the end of your tether yet."
The king maintained his heroic pose for a minute. Then he sat down on a deep chair and sank back among the cushions.
"Gorman," he said, "you are right. It is rot, what you call dry rot, to die. And there is more tether, perhaps. You say so, and I trust you, my friend. But where is it, the tether beyond the end?"
Madame, having relieved her feelings by breaking the china jar to bits, suddenly became gentle and pathetic. She flung herself on to the floor at Gorman's feet and clasped his knees.
"You are our friend," she said, "now and always. Oh Gorman, Sir Gorman, M.P., drag out more tether so that my Konrad does not die."
Gorman disliked emotional scenes very much. He persuaded Madame to sit on a chair instead of the floor. He handed her a cigarette. The king, who understood her thoroughly, sent for some liqueur brandy and filled a glass for her.
"Now," he said. "Trot up, cough out, tell on, Gorman. Where is the tether which has no end? How am I to raise the dollars, shekels, oof? You have a plan, Gorman. Make it work."
"My plan," said Gorman, "ought to work. I don't say it's a gold mine, but there's certainly money in it I came across a man yesterday called Bilkins, who's made a pile, a very nice six figure pile out of eggs--contracts, you know, war prices, food control and all the usual ramp."
"Alas," said the king, "I have no eggs, not one. I cannot ramp."
"I don't expect you to try," said Gorman. "As a matter of fact I don't think the thing could be done twice. Bilkins only just pulled it off. My idea----"
"I see it," said Madame. "We invite the excellent Bilkins to dinner. We are gay. He and we. There is a little game with cards. Konrad and I are more than a match for Bilkins. That is it, Gorman. It goes."
"That's not it in the least," said Gorman. "Bilkins isn't that kind of man at all. He's a rabid teetotaller for one thing, and he's extremely religious. He wouldn't play for anything bigger than a sixpence, and you'd spend a year taking a ten-pound note off him."
"Hell and the devil, Gorman," said the king, "if I have no eggs to ramp and if Bilkins will not play----"
"Wait a minute," said Gorman, "I told you that Bilkins' egg racket was a bit shady. He wasn't actually prosecuted; but his character wants white-washing badly, and the man knows it."
The king sighed heavily.
"Alas, Gorman," he said, "it would be of no use for us to wash Bilkins. Corinne and I, if we tried to washwhite, that is, I should say, to whitewash, the man afterwards would be only more black. We are not respectable, Corinne and I. It is no use for Bilkins to come to us."
"That's so," said Gorman. "I don't suppose a certificate from me would be much good either. Bilkins' own idea--he feels his position a good deal--is that if he could get a title--knighthood for instance--or even an O.B.E., it would set him up again; but they won't give him a thing. He has paid handsomely into the best advertised charities and showed me the receipts himself--and handed over £10,000 to the party funds, giving £5,000 to each party to make sure; and now he feels he's been swindled. They won't do it--can't, I suppose. The eggs were too fishy."
"I should not care," said the king, "if all the eggs were fishes. If I were a party and could get £5,000. But I am not a party, Gorman, I am a king."
"Exactly," said Gorman, "and it's kings who give those things, the things Bilkins wants. Isn't there a Megalian Order--Pink Vulture or something?"
"Gorman, you have hit it," said the king delightedly. "You have hit the eye of the bull, and the head of the nail. I can give an order, I can say 'Bilkins, you are Grand Knight of the Order of the Pink Vulture of Megalia, First Class.' Gorman, it is done. I give. Bilkins pays. The world admires the honourableness of the Right Honourable Sir Bilkins. His character is washed white. Ah, Corinne, my beloved, you shall spit in the face of the manager of Emile's. I said I cannot ramp. I have no eggs. I was wrong. The Vulture of Megalia lays an egg for Bilkins."
"You've got the idea," said Gorman. "But we can't rush the thing. Your Pink Vulture is all right, of course. I'm not saying anything against it. But most people in this country have never heard of it, and consequently it wouldn't be of much use to a man of Bilkin's position. The first thing we've got to do is to advertise the fowl; get it fluttering before the public eye. If you leave that part to me I'll manage it all right. I've been connected with the press far years."
Three days later it was announced in most of the London papers that the King of Megalia had bestowed the Order of the Pink Vulture on Sir Bland Potterton, His Majesty's Minister for Balkan Affairs, in recognition of his services to the Allied cause in the Near East. Sir Bland Potterton was in Roumania when the announcement appeared and he did not hear of his new honour for nearly three weeks. When he did hear of it he refused it curtly.
In the meanwhile the Order was bestowed on two Brigadier Generals and three Colonels, all on active service in remote parts of the world. Little pictures of the star and ribbon of the Order appeared in the back pages of illustrated papers, and there were short articles in the Sunday papers which gave a history of the Order, describing it as the most ancient in Europe, and quoting the names of eminent men who had won the ribbon of the Order in times past. The Duke of Wellington, Lord Nelson, William the Silent, Galileo, Christopher Columbus, and the historian Gibbon appeared on the list. The Order was next bestowed on an Admiral, who held a command in the South Pacific, and on M. Clemenceau.
After that Gorman dined with the King.
The dinner, as is always the case in Beaufort's Hotel, was excellent. The wine was good. Madame Ypsilante wore a dress which, as she explained, was more than three months old.
Emile, it appeared, was still pressing for payment of the bill and refused to supply any more clothes. However, neither age nor custom had staled the splendour of the purple velvet gown and the jewellery--Madame Ypsilante always wore a great deal of jewellery--was dazzling.
The king seemed a little uneasy, and after dinner spoke to Gorman about the Megalian Order of the Pink Vulture.
"You are magnificent, Gorman," he said, "and your English press! Ah, my friend, if you had been Prime Minister in Megalia, and if there had been newspapers, I might to-day be sitting on the throne, though I do not want to, not at all. The throne of Megalia is what you call a hot spot. But my friend is it wise? There must be someone who knows that the Pink Vulture of Megalia is not an antique. It is, as the English say, mid-Victorian. 1865, Gorman. That is the date; and someone will know that."
"I daresay," said Gorman, "that there may be two or three people who know; but they haven't opened their mouths so far and before they do we ought to have Bilkins' checque safe."
"How much?" said Madame. "That is the thing which matters."
"After he's read the list of distinguished men who held the order in the past and digested the names of all the generals and people who've just been given it, we may fairly expect £5,000. We'll screw him up a bit if we can, but we won't take a penny less. Considering the row there'll be afterwards, when Bilkins finds out, we ought to get £10,000. It will be most unpleasant, and it's bound to come. Most of the others will refuse the Order as soon as they hear they've been given it, and Bilkins will storm horribly and say he has been swindled, not that there is any harm in swindling Bilkins. After that egg racket of his he deserves to be swindled. Still it won't be nice to have to listen to him."
"Bah!" said Madame, "we shall have the cash."
"And it was not I," said the king, "who said that the Duke of Wellington wore the Pink Vulture. It was not Corinne. It was not you, Gorman, It was the newspapers. When Bilkins come to us we say 'Bah! Go to The Times, Sir Bilkins, go to The Daily Mail.' There is no more for Bilkins to say then."
"One comfort," said Gorman, "is that he can't take a legal action of any kind."
Their fears were, as it turned out, unfounded. Bilkins, having paid, not £5,000 but £6,000, for the Megalian Order, was not anxious to advertise the fact that he had made a bad bargain. Indeed he may be said to have got good value for his money. He has not many opportunities of wearing the ribbon and the star; but he describes himself on his visiting cards and at the head of his business note paper as "Sir Timothy Bilkins, K.C.O.P.V.M." Nobody knows what the letters stand for, and it is generally believed that Bilkins has been knighted in the regular way for services rendered to the country during the war. The few who remember his deal in eggs are forced to suppose that the stories told about that business at the time were slander. Lady Bilkins, who was present at the ceremony of in-vesture, often talks of the "dear King and Queen of Megalia." Madame Ypsilante can, when she chooses, look quite like a real queen.