The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter IX. Mervo Changes Its Constitution
Humor, if one looks into it, is principally a matter of retrospect. In after years John was wont to look back with amusement on the revolution which ejected him from the throne of his ancestors. But at the time its mirthfulness did not appeal to him. He was in a frenzy of restlessness. He wanted Betty. He wanted to see her and explain. Explanations could not restore him to the place he had held in her mind, but at least they would show her that he was not the thing he had appeared.
Mervo had become a prison. He ached for America. But, before he could go, this matter of the Casino must be settled. It was obvious that it could only be settled in one way. He did not credit his subjects with the high-mindedness that puts ideals first and money after. That military and civilians alike would rally to a man round Mr. Scobell and the Casino he was well aware. But this did not affect his determination to remain till the last. If he went now, he would be like a boy who makes a runaway ring at the doorbell. Until he should receive formal notice of dismissal, he must stay, although every day had forty-eight hours and every hour twice its complement of weary minutes.
So he waited, chafing, while Mervo examined the situation, turned it over in its mind, discussed it, slept upon it, discussed it again, and displayed generally that ponderous leisureliness which is the Mervian's birthright.
Indeed, the earliest demonstration was not Mervian at all. It came from the visitors to the island, and consisted of a deputation of four, headed by the wizened little man, who had frowned at John in the Dutch room on the occasion of his meeting with Betty, and a stolid individual with a bald forehead and a walrus mustache.
The tone of the deputation was, from the first, querulous. The wizened man had constituted himself spokesman. He introduced the party--the walrus as Colonel Finch, the others as Herr von Mandelbaum and Mr. Archer-Cleeve. His own name was Pugh, and the whole party, like the other visitors whom they represented, had, it seemed, come to Mervo, at great trouble and expense, to patronize the tables, only to find these suddenly, without a word of warning, withdrawn from their patronage. And what the deputation wished to know was, What did it all mean?
"We were amazed, sir--Your Highness," said Mr. Pugh. "We could not--we cannot--understand it. The entire thing is a baffling mystery to us. We asked the soldiers at the door. They referred us to Mr. Scobell. We asked Mr. Scobell. He referred us to you. And now we have come, as the representatives of our fellow visitors to this island, to ask Your Highness what it means!"
"Have a cigar," said John, extending the box. Mr. Pugh waved aside the preferred gift impatiently. Not so Herr von Mandelbaum, who slid forward after the manner of one in quest of second base and retired with his prize to the rear of the little army once more.
Mr. Archer-Cleeve, a young man with carefully parted fair hair and the expression of a strayed sheep, contributed a remark.
"No, but I say, by Jove, you know, I mean really, you know, what?"
That was Mr. Archer-Cleeve upon the situation.
"We have not come here for cigars," said Mr. Pugh. "We have come here, Your Highness, for an explanation."
"Of what?" said John.
Mr. Pugh made an impatient gesture.
"Do you question my right to rule this massive country as I think best, Mr. Pugh?"
"It is a high-handed proceeding," said the wizened little man.
The walrus spoke for the first time.
"What say?" he murmured huskily.
"I said," repeated Mr. Pugh, raising his voice, "that it was a high-handed proceeding, Colonel."
The walrus nodded heavily, in assent, with closed eyes.
"Yah," said Herr von Mandelbaum through the smoke.
John looked at the spokesman.
"You are from England, Mr. Pugh?"
"Yes, sir. I am a British citizen."
"Suppose some enterprising person began to run a gambling hell in Piccadilly, would the authorities look on and smile?"
"That is an entirely different matter, sir. You are quibbling. In England gambling is forbidden by law."
"So it is in Mervo, Mr. Pugh."
"What say?" said the walrus.
"I said 'Tchah!' Colonel."
"Why?" said the walrus.
"Because His Highness quibbled."
The walrus nodded approvingly.
"His Highness did nothing of the sort," said John. "Gambling is forbidden in Mervo for the same reason that it is forbidden in England, because it demoralizes the people."
"This is absurd, sir. Gambling has been permitted in Mervo for nearly a year."
"But not by me, Mr. Pugh. The Republic certainly granted Mr. Scobell a concession. But, when I came to the throne, it became necessary for him to get a concession from me. I refused it. Hence the closed doors."
Mr. Archer-Cleeve once more. "But--" He paused. "Forgotten what I was going to say," he said to the room at large.
Herr von Mandelbaum made some remark at the back of his throat, but was ignored.
John spoke again.
"If you were a prince, Mr. Pugh, would you find it pleasant to be in the pay of a gambling hell?"
"That is neither here nor--"
"On the contrary, it is, very much. I happen to have some self-respect. I've only just found it out, it's true, but it's there all right. I don't want to be a prince--take it from me, it's a much overrated profession--but if I've got to be one, I'll specialize. I won't combine it with being a bunco steerer on the side. As long as I am on the throne, this high-toned crap-shooting will continue a back number."
"What say?" said the walrus.
"I said that, while I am on the throne here, people who feel it necessary to chant 'Come, little seven!' must do it elsewhere."
"I don't understand you," said Mr. Pugh. "Your remarks are absolutely unintelligible."
"Never mind. My actions speak for themselves. It doesn't matter how I describe it--what it comes to is that the Casino is closed. You can follow that? Mervo is no longer running wide open. The lid is on."
"Then let me tell you, sir--" Mr. Pugh brought a bony fist down with a thump on the table--"that you are playing with fire. Understand me, sir, we are not here to threaten. We are a peaceful deputation of visitors. But I have observed your people, sir. I have watched them narrowly. And let me tell you that you are walking on a volcano. Already there are signs of grave discontent."
"Already!" cried John. "Already's good. I guess they call it going some in this infernal country if they can keep awake long enough to take action within a year after a thing has happened. I don't know if you have any influence with the populace, Mr. Pugh--you seem a pretty warm and important sort of person--but, if you have, do please ask them as a favor to me to get a move on. It's no good saying that I'm walking on a volcano. I'm from Missouri. I want to be shown. Let's see this volcano. Bring it out and make it trot around."
"You may jest--"
"Who's jesting? I'm not. It's a mighty serious thing for me. I want to get away. The only thing that's keeping me in this forsaken place is this delay. These people are obviously going to fire me sooner or later. Why on earth can't they do it at once?"
"What say?" said the walrus.
"You may well ask, Colonel," said Mr. Pugh, staring amazed at John. "His Highness appears completely to have lost his senses."
The walrus looked at John as if expecting some demonstration of practical insanity, but, finding him outwardly calm, closed his eyes and nodded heavily again.
"I must say, don't you know," said Mr. Archer-Cleeve, "it beats me, what?"
The entire deputation seemed to consider that John's last speech needed footnotes.
John was in no mood to supply them. His patience was exhausted.
"I guess we'll call this conference finished," he said. "You've been told all you came to find out,--my reason for closing the Casino. If it doesn't strike you as a satisfactory reason, that's up to you. Do what you like about it. The one thing you may take as a solid fact--and you can spread it around the town as much as ever you please--is that it is closed, and is not going to be reopened while I'm ruler here."
The deputation then withdrew, reluctantly.
* * * * *
On the following morning there came a note from Mr. Scobell. It was brief. "Come on down before the shooting begins," it ran. John tore it up.
It was on the same evening that definite hostilities may be said to have begun.
Between the Palace and the market-place there was a narrow street of flagged stone, which was busy during the early part of the day but deserted after sundown. Along this street, at about seven o'clock, John was strolling with a cigarette, when he was aware of a man crouching, with his back toward him. So absorbed was the man in something which he was writing on the stones that he did not hear John's approach, and the latter, coming up from behind was enabled to see over his shoulder. In large letters of chalk he read the words: "Conspuez le Prince."
John's knowledge of French was not profound, but he could understand this, and it annoyed him.
As he looked, the man, squatting on his heels, bent forward to touch up one of the letters. If he had been deliberately posing, he could not have assumed a more convenient attitude.
John had been a footballer before he was a prince. The temptation was too much for him. He drew back his foot--
There was a howl and a thud, and John resumed his stroll. The first gun from Fort Sumter had been fired.
* * * * *
Early next morning a window at the rear of the palace was broken by a stone, and toward noon one of the soldiers on guard in front of the Casino was narrowly missed by an anonymous orange. For Mervo this was practically equivalent to the attack on the Bastille, and John, when the report of the atrocities was brought to him, became hopeful.
But the effort seemed temporarily to have exhausted the fury of the mob. The rest of that day and the whole of the next passed without sensation.
After breakfast on the following morning Mr. Crump paid a visit to the Palace. John was glad to see him. The staff of the Palace were loyal, but considered as cheery companions, they were handicapped by the fact that they spoke no English, while John spoke no French.
Mr. Crump was the bearer of another note from Mr. Scobell. This time John tore it up unread, and, turning to the secretary, invited him to sit down and make himself at home.
Sipping a cocktail and smoking one of John's cigars, Mr. Crump became confidential.
"This is a queer business," he said. "Old Ben is chewing pieces out of the furniture up there. He's mad clean through. He's losing money all the while the people are making up their minds about this thing, and it beats him why they're so slow."
"It beats me, too. I don't believe these hook-worm victims ever turned my father out. Or, if they did, somebody must have injected radium into them first. I'll give them another couple of days, and, if they haven't fixed it by then, I'll go, and leave them to do what they like about it."
"Go! Do you want to go?"
"Of course I want to go! Do you think I like stringing along in this musical comedy island? I'm crazy to get back to America. I don't blame you, Crump, because it was not your fault, but, by George! if I had known what you were letting me in for when you carried me off here, I'd have called up the police reserves. Hello! What's this?"
He rose to his feet as the sound of agitated voices came from the other side of the door. The next moment it flew open, revealing General Poineau and an assorted group of footmen and other domestics. Excitement seemed to be in the air.
General Poineau rushed forward into the room, and flung his arms above his head. Then he dropped them to his side, and shrugged his shoulders, finishing in an attitude reminiscent of Plate 6 ("Despair") in "The Home Reciter."
"Mon Prince!" he moaned.
A perfect avalanche of French burst from the group outside the door.
"Crump!" cried John. "Stand by me, Crump! Get busy! This is where you make your big play. Never mind the chorus gentlemen in the passage. Concentrate yourself on Poineau. What's he talking about? I believe he's come to tell me the people have wakened up. Offer him a cocktail. What's the French for corpse-reviver? Get busy, Crump."
The general had begun to speak rapidly, with a wealth of gestures. It astonished John that Mr. Crump could follow the harangue as apparently he did.
"Well?" said John.
Mr. Crump looked grave.
"He says there is a large mob in the market-place. They are talking--"
"They would be!"
"--of moving in force on the Palace. The Palace Guards have gone over to the people. General Poineau urges you to disguise yourself and escape while there is time. You will be safe at his villa till the excitement subsides, when you can be smuggled over to France during the night--"
"Not for mine," said John, shaking his head. "It's mighty good of you, General, and I appreciate it, but I can't wait till night. The boat leaves for Marseilles in another hour. I'll catch that. I can manage it comfortably. I'll go up and pack my grip. Crump, entertain the General while I'm gone, will you? I won't be a moment."
But as he left the room there came through the open window the mutter of a crowd. He stopped. General Poineau whipped out his sword, and brought it to the salute. John patted him on the shoulder.
"You're a sport, General," he said, "but we sha'n't want it. Come along, Crump. Come and help me address the multitude."
The window of the room looked out on to a square. There was a small balcony with a stone parapet. As John stepped out, a howl of rage burst from the mob.
John walked on to the balcony, and stood looking down on them, resting his arms on the parapet. The howl was repeated, and from somewhere at the back of the crowd came the sharp crack of a rifle, and a shot, the first and last of the campaign, clipped a strip of flannel from the collar of his coat and splashed against the wall.
A broad smile spread over his face.
If he had studied for a year, he could not have hit on a swifter or more effective method of quieting the mob. There was something so engaging and friendly in his smile that the howling died away and fists that has been shaken unclenched themselves and fell. There was an expectant silence in the square.
John beckoned to Crump, who came on to the balcony with some reluctance, being mistrustful of the unseen sportsman with the rifle.
"Tell 'em it's all right, Crump, and that there's no call for any fuss. From their manner I gather that I am no longer needed on this throne. Ask them if that's right?"
A small man, who appeared to be in command of the crowd, stepped forward as the secretary finished speaking, and shouted some words which drew a murmur of approval from his followers.
"He wants to know," interpreted Mr. Crump, "if you will allow the Casino to open again."
"Tell him no, but add that I shall be tickled to death to abdicate, if that's what they want. Speed them up, old man. Tell them to make up their minds on the jump, because I want to catch that boat. Don't let them get to discussing it, or they'll stand there talking till sunset. Yes or no. That's the idea."
There was a moment's surprised silence when Mr. Crump had spoken. The Mervian mind was unused to being hustled in this way. Then a voice shouted, as it were tentatively, "Vive la Republique!" and at once the cry was taken up on all sides.
John beamed down on them.
"That's right," he said. "Bully! I knew you could get a move on as quick as anyone else, if you gave your minds to it. This is what I call something like a revolution. It's a model to every country in the world. But I guess we must close down the entertainment now, or I shall be missing the boat. Will you tell them, Crump, that any citizen who cares for a drink and a cigar will find it in the Palace. Tell the household staff to stand by to pull corks. It's dry work revolutionizing. And now I really must be going. I've run it mighty fine. Slip one of these fellows down there half a dollar and send him to fetch a cab. I must step lively."
* * * * *
Five minutes later the revolutionists, obviously embarrassed and ill at ease, were sheepishly gulping down their refreshment beneath the stony eye of the majordomo and his assistants, while upstairs in the state bedroom the deposed Prince was whistling "Dixie" and packing the royal pajamas into a suitcase.