"Quite, thanks, Court Godmother," said Daphne.
"But you shouldn't sit moping here by yourself like this."
"Her Majesty doesn't like me to come down until she sends for me," explained Daphne; "and she hasn't to-day. But I haven't been moping, Court Godmother; I've been listening to the swallows. They're discussing their plans for the winter, and they can't make up their minds where to go, poor darlings!"
"That's only what you fancy they're talking about," said the Fairy sharply; for the gift of understanding bird-language is comparatively rare, and only possessed by those who have a strain of Fairy blood in their descent. "You can't possibly know!"
"I didn't till I came here, and then I suddenly found I could. Princess Ruby declares I make it all up—but I don't. I can even understand what some of the animals have to say, and its rather fun sometimes. The other morning in the Gardens I heard a tortoise telling a squirrel——"
"I daresay, I daresay," interrupted the Court Godmother, who had not come there to hear the small talk of any tortoise; "I find their conversation wearisome myself—and so will you when you've been here a little longer. And so you're comfortable here, are you?" she went on, looking round the chamber, which had walls of mother-o'-pearl with hangings of delicate shimmering blue-green at the window and round the small ivory four-post bed. "Well, this room looks very cool and pleasant. And you've pretty dresses to wear, it seems. I like that one you have on—most becoming, though it wants an ornament of some kind to set it off. But perhaps you don't care for jewellery?"
"I do," said Daphne, "very much. But I haven't any now, you see."
"But you had once, hadn't you? I seem to recollect the Queen telling me she bought something—a pendant, I fancy she said—from you before you came to Maerchenland. Or was it somebody else?"
"No, it was me," said Daphne. "It was very decent of her, because I was in rather a hole just then—with a debt I couldn't possibly have paid otherwise—and the pendant was no use to me, you see—not a thing I could ever have worn."
"So you wasted your money in buying an ornament which was unsuited to you, eh?"
"I didn't buy it, Court Godmother," said Daphne, and proceeded to explain—much as she had done at "Inglegarth"—how it came into her possession. The Fairy questioned her about her father, but she had little information to give. Even his name was uncertain, as it seemed he had only moved into his last rooms shortly before his death. All his landlady could say was that it was something foreign which she could not pronounce. But she had gathered from certain things he had let fall that he had led a wandering life as a musician, and had at one period been a riding-master. She believed that, in the latter capacity, he had met his young wife, Daphne's mother, and that it had been a runaway marriage. She died soon after giving birth to Daphne, and left him so broken-hearted that he did not care to make any fight against illness when it came to him, but rather welcomed a death that meant re-union. "But all I really know," concluded Daphne, "is that that pendant belonged to him, and that my adopted Mother took care of it for me till I was grown up. And I think he would not have minded my selling it when I wanted the money so badly."
"Well, whether he would have minded or not," said the Fairy, "you did sell it—and a sorry bargain you made of it, too! I'll be bound, now, that you've told the whole Court about it long ago!"
"I have told no one, Court Godmother," said Daphne. "Why should I tell them about my own private affairs? I shouldn't have said anything to you, if you hadn't heard of it already from her Majesty."
"You were wise to hold your tongue," remarked the Fairy, greatly relieved. "For I may tell you that, if the Court once heard that the Queen bought that jewel from you, it would prejudice them very seriously against her. And I am sure you would not wish that."
"Of course I shouldn't wish it," said Daphne, a little haughtily. "Though how I could prejudice her Majesty by telling anybody of an instance of her kindness to me, I really don't know. She's scarcely worn the pendant herself, and now she's given it to Prince Clarence. But nobody knows that it was once mine, and you can be quite sure that nobody ever will, from me."
"In a Court like this, my child," said the Fairy, almost apologetically, "one cannot be too careful. But I can see you are to be trusted." And, after some conversation on less dangerous subjects, she retired.
Her worst fears had been confirmed; she could no longer doubt that Daphne was Prince Chrysopras's daughter. She wondered now how she could ever have doubted it. But this constituted her Daphne's official Godmother. As such, was it not her duty to see that she had her rights?
If she did her duty to her godchild it might entail very unpleasant consequences to herself—consequences from which she felt herself shrinking as much as ever. Might they not be avoided? Daphne evidently had no suspicion of her claims. And, as the Fairy reminded herself, "What the eye does not miss the heart will not grieve for." The child was quite happy and contented as she was. If the Marshal still had any ambition to resume his power, he would have no scruples about removing any rival.
"I should only be exposing her to danger," thought the Court Godmother. And there were the poor King and Queen to be considered, and the Baron and the Astrologer Royal, who would all go down in the general debacle if the truth were allowed to come out. She was bound to think of them. So far as she could see, the only result of disclosure would be to establish the Marshal as Monarch—and they had had quite enough of him as Regent.
So, as it is seldom difficult to discover insuperable objections to any course that one has strong personal reasons for avoiding, the Fairy easily persuaded herself that she owed it to others to remain silent. The secret was safe enough. Both Queen Selina and Daphne could be depended on not to betray it now. It was better for everybody concerned—particularly the Court Godmother—that it should remain unknown for ever.
Still, her conscience smote her a little with regard to Daphne. She was so well fitted to be a Queen—it seemed hard that she should forfeit the crown that was rightfully hers. "But that's entirely her own fault!" the Fairy told herself. "Xuriel read the stars quite correctly. He foretold not only the very spot where she would be discovered, but the sign by which she was to be recognised. If she chose to part with the jewel to another, she must take the consequences. I'm not responsible!"
And yet, after all, Daphne was her god-daughter, if she could not be openly acknowledged as such. Something must be done to make up to the poor child for all she had lost. And here the Fairy had a positively brilliant idea—why not marry her to Mirliflor? But almost immediately she remembered with dismay that she had been making a very different matrimonial arrangement for him. That, however, was before she knew what she knew now. The case was entirely altered—she could not possibly allow him to commit himself to an alliance with a daughter of these usurpers. That must be prevented at all hazards, and fortunately he had taken no irretrievable step as yet. "Unless I'm much mistaken," she thought, "he will forget all about Princess Edna if he once sees Lady Daphne. She ought to be lovely enough to satisfy even his ideal. But if he doesn't see her soon, it may be too late to save him."
Like most Fairy Godmothers, she possessed the power of impressing any protege of hers who was not more than a couple of hundred leagues away with a perfectly distinct vision of anybody or anything she chose. She had made not a few matches by this means in her best days, and some of them had not turned out at all badly. But it was a long time since she had last exercised any of her occult faculties. To do so demanded a concentration of will-power and psychic force which told on her more and more severely as she advanced in years, and she had resolved to abstain from any practices that might shorten the life to which she had every intention of clinging as long as possible.
"But I must risk it—just for this once," she decided. "Yes, I'll make him dream of her this very night."
Meanwhile Queen Selina had informed her daughter of the brilliant future that awaited her, and was not a little annoyed at Edna's failure to express the least enthusiasm.
"I wish Godmother wouldn't meddle like this in my affairs," she said. "I suppose I shall have to see this Prince Mirliflor now if he comes; but it is not at all likely that he will have any of the qualities that appeal to me."
"My love!" remonstrated Queen Selina. "He will be the King of Clairdelune some day!"
"He may be, Mother," returned Edna. "But that is a consideration which I shall not allow to affect me in the slightest."
"Of course not, my dear," said her Mother, feeling that Edna could be safely trusted to look after her own interests. "You are free to decide exactly as you please. I shall put no pressure on you whatever."
"My dear Mother," returned Edna, "you would gain nothing by it if you did."
That night the Court Godmother retired early, and spent a long and strenuous vigil in calling up a vivid recollection of Daphne as she had seen her that afternoon, and imprinting the vision on her godson's sleeping brain. She was unwell in consequence all the next day, but she was easier in her mind after having prevented any untoward effects her counsels might have had upon Mirliflor. It was rather a strain upon her to face the Royal Family again, but she forced herself, for her own sake, to treat them with as much outward respect as before.
She had begun to think that the worst was over when an envoy suddenly arrived in hot haste from Clairdelune bearing a formal proposal from Prince Mirliflor for Princess Edna's hand, and the information that he was following shortly to plead his suit in person.
He had also entrusted the messenger with a short despatch to his Godmother, which she read with impotent fury. It was a somewhat involved and incoherent letter, expressing his thanks for the vision, for which he could not doubt he was indebted to her, but intimating that she had convinced him so forcibly that Princess Edna possessed qualities infinitely more precious than the most exquisite beauty, that his determination to win her had already been irrevocably fixed.
"Prefers her to Lady Daphne, does he?" she said to herself, as she realised that she would be forced to speak out now if he was to be saved from such an alliance. "Then he must marry her, that's all! I can't and won't turn all Maerchenland topsy-turvy on his account! I've done all I could for him, and I shall leave him to go his own way. I'll go up to bed before he arrives, and I expect it will be a long time before I'm able to come down, for I feel sure I am going to be ill—and little wonder!"
Queen Selina was so elated by the Prince's message that she ordered it to be publicly announced at once. The Court, whom she informed herself, expressed the greatest delight, and, as for the old Court Chamberlain von Eisenbaenden, he was almost lyrical in his jubilation.
"This is indeed a glorious day, Madam!" he cried. "It has long been my dream to see the reigning houses of Maerchenland and Clairdelune united, but of late I had begun to despair that it would ever be accomplished! And from all I have heard of Prince Mirliflor, her Royal Highness is almost as much to be felicitated as he!"
"Thank you, Baron," replied the Queen. "We are all most pleased about it. Though I shall be very lonely without her. You see," she added, raising her voice for the benefit of such of her ladies-in-waiting as happened to be within hearing, "there is no one else here who is any companion for me. I can't make intimate friends of any of my ladies, as I could of the dear old Duchess of Gleneagles, for instance, or even the Marchioness of Muscombe. Ah, my dear Baron, our English aristocracy! You've nothing to approach them in a country like this—nothing!"
"I can well understand," he said, "that your Majesty must feel the loss of such society."
"I miss it, Baron," Queen Selina confessed, without untruthfulness, seeing that she always had missed it. "It is only natural that I should. The Duchess is such a sweet woman—a true grande dame! And the Marchioness, though only a peeress by marriage, such a clever, talented creature! They would both have so rejoiced to hear of our dear Edna's engagement—she was such a favourite of theirs, you know! I remember the Duchess always prophesied that she would make a brilliant marriage."
These particulars were thrown in mainly for the edification of the Court, but Queen Selina had almost brought herself to believe them, and, in any case, none of her own family was at hand just then, so she was safe from contradiction.
The announcement of Prince Mirlinor's proposal had no sooner reached Count Rubenfresser's ears than he drove over to the Palace, to ascertain from Edna herself whether the report had any truth in it. He succeeded in obtaining a private interview, and at once put his question.
"It is only true so far as that the Prince has proposed to me by letter," Edna informed him. "Whether I shall accept him when he appears will depend entirely upon circumstances."
"You won't accept him, Princess," said the Count, drawing himself up to his full height, which was now well over seven feet. "Or, if you do, he will never wed you. I shall see to that!"
"Really, Count!" protested Princess Edna, feeling secretly rather pleased. "I don't quite see what it has to do with you."
"Don't you?" he replied. "I might want to marry you myself. I've been thinking of it lately."
"Have you?" said Edna, not so pleased. "That is very good of you. But has it never occurred to you that I might have a voice in the matter?"
"You would have to belong to me, if I wanted you badly enough," he said calmly.
"And you're not sure yet if you do want me badly enough, but, in the meantime, you would prevent anyone else from marrying me if you could—is that it?"
"That's exactly it!" he said, gratified at being so thoroughly understood.
"Well, can't you see how selfish that is of you?"
"It's splendid being selfish," he said, "and not really so difficult after all—when you try."
"And how do you suppose you could prevent me from marrying Prince Mirliflor if I thought proper to accept him?"
"Oh, that would be easy. I should only have to unchain Tuetzi, and send him to kill the Prince for me. Tuetzi's so intelligent and obedient that he'll do everything I tell him."
"I think you forget, Count, that it's against the law to let that dragon loose."
"I know," he said; "but I've no respect for human laws any more. I'm not going to obey anything in future, except my own instincts."
"I'm sure you don't mean that. And if you really sent that dragon to kill anybody—especially anyone who had done nothing to offend you—it would be very wicked indeed."
"Other people might think so," he said. "I shouldn't myself—and that's all that really matters. I'm going to make my own morality for the future. I want to be a Superman, like that learned man you told me about with the odd name. Aren't you glad I'm taking your advice?"
"Of course I am pleased," said Edna, "that you should be more independent and unconventional and assert yourself—which is all that Nietzsche really meant. You mustn't carry it too far, you know."
"But you said I couldn't be really great unless I felt the will and the power to inflict great suffering," he said; "and that's just what I do feel."
"Yes, but you can feel the will and the power without actually inflicting suffering," said Edna instructively. "Nietzsche never intended that. And if you set that horrid dragon of yours at the Prince, you would inflict very great suffering indeed."
"I shouldn't mind that," he said.
"Perhaps not—but Father and Mother would. And you would be imprisoned again, and lose your dragon as well. But I don't suppose for a moment you are serious. It would be too absurd of you to threaten violence to a Prince before I've ever seen him or made up my mind to accept him—which most likely I shall not do."
"That is true," he said, rather as if he were glad of an excuse for not taking any immediate action. "Yes, I will wait till I hear whether he is betrothed to you or not. But if I find he is, I shall have to clear him out of my path somehow or other."
He left Edna with the consciousness that she had been more than usually interested. The Count was certainly developing. She liked his new air of self-confident domination. It would be rather thrilling, she thought, to be wooed in this masterful way. But he had taken some pains to let her see that he was not sure yet whether she was worth the trouble of wooing! That was insulting, of course, but he might alter his opinion in time—and then she would know how to avenge herself. She wondered if Prince Mirliflor would be ardent and domineering enough to carry her by storm, and caught herself hoping he might be.
But when, shortly afterwards, she heard that he was just entering the Courtyard of the Palace with his suite, she was seized by a sudden panic. "You go down and speak to him, Mother," she implored the Queen. "I—I can't see him just yet. And make him understand that I must get to know him better before I can give him a definite answer."
Queen Selina bustled down to the State Reception Hall, where she arrived in a highly flurried condition, just after the Prince and his brilliant retinue had been ushered in.
"My dear Prince!" she began. "This is really too kind! So delighted by your proposal—we all are—dear Edna especially. We feel it such a compliment. My husband—his Majesty, I mean—will be in directly, but Edna has asked me to make her apologies for not coming down for a few minutes. The poor child—naturally—is feeling a little shy and overcome."
"Madam," said the Prince, whose comely face and gallant bearing had already won him the sympathies of those of the Court who were present, and particularly the Court Chamberlain's, "I count each minute a month until I have the happiness of looking upon the enchanting face that has haunted me constantly from the moment I beheld it in a vision."
"In a vision?" cried the Queen. "How very odd! But how did you know, Prince, it was our Edna?"
"I will attempt to describe my vision, Madam," he replied, "and, though my poor words cannot hope to do it justice, they will at least convince you that it was indeed the Princess whom I was permitted to see."
He described her as well as he could, though with a growing bewilderment that the lady of his dream should have a Mother who so little resembled her.
Queen Selina listened to his rhapsody with misgivings. With every allowance for the fervour of a lover who was also a Fairy Prince, even maternal partiality could not blind her to the fact that his description would be far less incorrect as applied to that Heritage girl than to the Princess Edna.
"It certainly suggests dear Edna, Prince," she remarked, with a mental note that Daphne must be kept out of his way. "Except, perhaps in one or two respects; but then you can't expect to see people in dreams looking exactly like themselves, can you? I'll run up and bring her down to you—and, if a Mother may say so, I don't think you'll be very disappointed."
But it was to Daphne's chamber that she went first. "Oh, Miss Heritage," she began, quite pleasantly, "I'm going to ask you to do something for me. I don't at all like the effect of those jewels they've sewn on to the front of my satin-brocade. I'm sure they would look much better on my cloth-of-gold skirt. Would you mind getting both skirts from my wardrobe and just making the necessary alterations for me? You had better set to work at once, as I may be requiring the cloth-of-gold very shortly. And as time is pressing, I will tell them to bring all your meals up here till the work is done. It's so important that I can't trust any of the regular ladies-in-waiting with it."
"That disposes of her for at least a week," she reflected, as she went on to Princess Edna's apartments. "And everything ought to be settled long before that!"
When, a little later, she smilingly re-entered the Reception Hall with one arm affectionately placed round her reluctant daughter's waist, it cannot be denied that the Prince was very much disappointed indeed. The vision had not prepared him for Edna's pince-nez, among other matters, and altogether he felt that his Godmother had exaggerated the Princess's personal attractions to a most unscrupulous degree. But this he had sufficient self-command to conceal. In fact, he rather overdid it, though it was only to himself that his courtly greeting sounded fulsome and insincere.
But if Edna detected no extravagance in his homage, she was none the more pleased with it. It made her feel awkward and self-conscious. She set him down in her own mind as "too finicking," while his good looks did not happen to be of a type that appealed to her.
Still, they got through the first interview fairly well, though both were relieved when a message came from the Court Godmother that she was feeling too indisposed to leave her apartments, but would be glad to see him as soon as he was at liberty. He had himself conducted to her at once, and was not a little aggrieved, as well as surprised, by the asperity of his reception.
"Well," she said peevishly; "so you've seen your Princess, have you? And now I suppose it is all settled between you?"
"Not yet," he said stiffly. "I believe she is reserving her answer till we are better acquainted."
"But you don't expect it will be unfavourable, do you?"
"Do you, Godmother? I can't think you would have urged me to present myself here to be publicly humiliated."
"Oh, there's no doubt she will accept you," she said, with a sharp twinge. "You need have no apprehensions on that score. And, as you no longer consider beauty indispensable, I daresay she will be as satisfactory a helpmate as you could wish."
"I daresay," he agreed dully; and then his pent-up grievance suddenly broke out in spite of him. "With all respect to you, Godmother Voldoiseau," he said, "I don't consider you've treated me fairly over this! You persuaded me that it was my duty to marry at once, and that there were better and more permanent qualities than beauty. I'm not complaining of that—I am quite ready to believe that the Princess Edna is as learned and admirable a lady as you gave me to understand, while she is not without good looks of a kind. But why send me a vision representing her as a miracle of loveliness? That is a deception which I can't understand, and I confess I find hard to forgive!"
How could she have foreseen that he would be foolish enough to imagine that the vision represented Edna? But the worst of it was that the Fairy could not explain her real intention just then without landing herself in fresh difficulties. So she sought refuge in prevarication.
"I send you a vision!" she said. "I don't know what you're talking about, Mirliflor. A vision, indeed!"
"Didn't it come from you?" he asked lamely. "I—I made sure it must have."
"You had no business to make sure of anything of the kind. And if you choose to dream that your future bride is more beautiful than she happens to be, I don't see why you should put the blame on me! But the truth is you're longing for some excuse for getting out of this marriage. Come, Mirliflor, you know you are—and you had better say so frankly."
"It is not so, Godmother," he replied; "I'm quite prepared to obey your wishes. After all, since I must marry, I am not likely to find a more advantageous match than this. Besides, I couldn't possibly back out of it now—even if I desired."
"And what," asked the Fairy, "if you actually meet the Princess of your dreams?" She was ignorant of the Queen's man[oe]uvre, and so thought he could not well fail to come across Daphne that very evening.
"That is so likely!" he said bitterly. "A mere creation of my own mind—an ideal that I ought to have known would never be realised! No, Godmother, since there is no hope of that, it matters little to me whom I marry!"
"Listen to me, Mirliflor," said the Fairy impatiently. "I—I'm not so bent on this alliance as I was. Never mind why—but I'm not. And—and—if you would rather withdraw, it's not too late. I see nothing to prevent you."
"Nothing to prevent me!" replied Mirliflor indignantly. "There is my honour! What Prince with any sense of honour at all could propose to a Princess and then inform her that he finds, after a personal interview, that he has changed his intentions? You of all people, Godmother Voldoiseau, should know that we cannot do these things!"
"Those ideals again!" said the exasperated Fairy. "You'll drive me out of all patience directly! But there—I've said all I could, and if you will be pig-headed, you must. And now I'll ask you to go away, as I'm really not well enough to bear any more conversation."
He had not been gone more than ten minutes when there was another knock at her door, and this time it was Princess Edna herself who entered.
"So it's you, is it?" snapped the Court Godmother, with none of her customary urbanity. And then, recollecting the necessity of keeping up appearances, threw in a belated "my dear." "Well, I hear you are taking time before you put Mirliflor out of suspense, but I presume you've already decided to accept him?"
"That's what I came to consult you about, Court Godmother," replied Edna. "I don't feel that I—he is at all a person I could ever be happy with. He is not on the same intellectual plane with me—we should have nothing whatever in common. He seems to have none of the qualities that would make me respect and look up to a man."
Relieved though she was, the Fairy still resented any disparagement of her favourite godson from such a quarter.
"Hoity-toity!" she exclaimed—an expression which, if it ever was popular, is no longer used by anyone but Fairy Godmothers—and even the Fairy only indulged in it under extreme provocation. "Let me tell you that Mirliflor is not generally regarded as ineligible. But, no doubt, my dear," she added acidly, "you have every right to be fastidious." She was greatly tempted to let her know that Mirliflor would be anything but broken-hearted by a refusal, but prudence warned her that she had better not. "And may I ask what you propose to say to him?"
"Oh," said Edna, "I suppose I shall have to tell him to-night that I find I don't like him enough to marry him."
"And give everybody to understand that he is personally displeasing to you! Indeed you will not!" said the old Fairy imperiously. "Other persons' feelings have to be considered as well as your own. Mine, for one. Mirliflor would never forgive me for exposing him to such humiliation. Nor would his father, King Tournesol, for that matter, and I can't afford to quarrel with either of them. You can't get rid of an unwelcome suitor like that—at all events, not in Maerchenland!"
"Can't I?" said Edna. "Then how am I to get rid of him?"
"A Princess of high breeding," replied the Fairy, "finds some means of tempering her refusal so as to avoid wounding her suitor's pride; and I may tell you Mirliflor has more than his share of that. The usual method here is to accept him, on condition that he succeeds in answering some question so difficult that it is no disgrace if he fails to answer it."
"Do you mean something in the nature of a riddle?" asked Edna.
"Well, a riddle will do. Yes, there are precedents for that. A riddle would be quite in accordance with Court etiquette. Ask him a riddle if you like."
"I'm afraid I am not very familiar with riddles," said Edna. "I have never found them particularly amusing myself. But I must try and remember one. It needn't be so very difficult, because he doesn't seem to me clever enough to guess any riddle."
"Quite clever enough not to try!" was on the tip of the Fairy's tongue, though she did not say it. "I've no doubt, my dear," she replied, "that any riddle you may ask Mirliflor will be quite beyond his power to answer."
"Thank you very much for your advice, Court Godmother," said Edna. "I daresay I shall be able to remember a riddle of some sort by this evening."
The Fairy felt that she had extricated herself from her dilemma with considerable tact and ingenuity. Not only had she delivered her godson from the slight of being summarily rejected by this upstart girl, but she had saved herself from all necessity to make any compromising disclosures.
"Yes," she told herself complacently, "I've really got myself and Mirliflor out of it very neatly indeed. I mayn't be quite as quick-witted as I was in my prime—but I'm not in my dotage just yet!"
Princess Edna took the earliest opportunity of acting on the Fairy Vogelflug's suggestion. At the conclusion of the banquet that evening, she requested King Sidney to order the silver trumpets to be flourished, and when this had been done and an expectant hush fell upon the assembly, she rose. After regarding the Prince, who sat on her right, with a graciousness which, enhanced as it was by her pince-nez, struck terror into his very soul, she began in a high, clear tone:
"You all know, I think," she said, "that his Royal Highness Prince Mirliflor of Clairdelune has done me the great honour of asking me to be his wife, and that I have promised him my answer this evening. That answer I am now about to give. Prince Mirliflor, you have impressed me so favourably that, although I had previously no thought of marrying, I have decided to accept you." At this the whole Court broke out in frantic and rapturous applause, for they had been most anxious for the Prince to succeed in his project—if only for the reason that it would entail the removal of Princess "Four-eyes" to Clairdelune. The King exclaimed, "Quite right! Sensible girl!" and Queen Selina assured the Prince that he had won a treasure. Clarence, who had taken a liking to his new brother-in-law, which was not entirely reciprocated, rose and clapped him heartily on the back, while the old Court Chamberlain could scarcely contain his pride and joy. Edna held up her hand for silence. "Wait, please!" she said; "I haven't finished. I said I would accept you, Prince Mirliflor, and so I will—on condition that you are able to give the correct answer to a question I am about to ask you."
There was a murmur of disappointment at this, though it was generally recognised that the Princess's action was quite en regle. The Prince, feeling that it was at least a reprieve, begged her to put the question without keeping him in any further suspense.
"My question is this," said Edna: "Why did the sausage roll?"
"Hang it all, Edna!" cried Clarence, "you're not going to chuck him unless he can guess a rotten riddle like that!"
"Of course not!" said her anxious Mother. "Don't be alarmed, dear Prince Mirliflor. She doesn't mean it seriously. It—it's a little joke, that's all!"
"It's not a joke, Mother," said Edna; "I'm perfectly serious. I am sure Prince Mirliflor is so clever that he will have no difficulty in guessing the riddle. If he can't—well, I shall be very sorry, but—I shall not be able to marry him."
"Alas, Princess!" said Mirliflor, "but it passes my poor wit to discover why the sausage rolled."
"Will your Majesties pardon me," struck in the Court Chamberlain, "if I humbly offer a suggestion. Such a problem as her Royal Highness has propounded cannot be solved in a moment. It is only just to his Royal Highness Prince Mirliflor that he should be given a night to reflect before delivering his answer."
"Certainly," said the King; "you must see that yourself, Edna. Give him a chance—every chance!"
"I have no objection, Father," said Edna. "The Prince shall have till to-morrow morning to think it over—but I can give him no longer."
"It's an infernal shame, Mirliflor!" said Clarence. "I haven't an idea why the bally sausage rolled, or I'd tell you, dear old chap!"
"I am sure you would, my dear Prince Clarence!" Mirliflor assured him; "but, believe me, I am none the less grateful to you."
Queen Selina did all she could think of to persuade her daughter to alter her decision, and, when this failed, to extract the answer to the momentous conundrum, which Edna knew her mother too well to confide to her, so that at length she was obliged to take up her bedroom taper and retreat, with a Parthian prediction that such folly would be bitterly repented in the future.
Edna's next visitor was the Court Godmother, on whose entrance she at once informed her waiting-women that she would not require their further services that night. "Well, Godmother," she began, as soon as they were alone together, "I did as you advised, you see. And—you don't think Prince Mirliflor can possibly find out the answer, do you?"
"My good girl," said the Fairy, "I'd defy the Astrologer Royal himself to find it out, if he consulted all the stars and all his mystic books into the bargain! How the dickens did you come to invent such a riddle as that?"
"I didn't invent it," said Edna; "I heard it a long time ago—at the Theatre—in some silly play. I've forgotten what the play was about—but I remembered the riddle."
"Are you sure you remember the answer? I have heard of sausages talking occasionally, and I daresay they can roll, but I fail to see what intelligible reason any sausage could give for doing it."
"It's a catch," explained Edna. "It's like this. Why did the sausage roll? Because it saw the jam-turnover. Now do you see?"
"I can't say I do, my dear. It seems senseless to me. But that's all the better—the more idiotic it is, the less chance of its being guessed. Yes, on the whole, I don't think you could have thought of a better one."
Shortly afterwards Prince Mirliflor, just as he was about to extinguish the flambeaux and turn into bed, was startled to see his door opening by some mysterious means. He was more startled still when the figure of the old Court Chamberlain suddenly materialised in the centre of the room.
"Your Royal Highness will forgive my intrusion," said the Baron, "when I explain the object of this visit. My reason for suggesting that the Princess should grant you a night to answer her question was that I felt convinced that she would be unable to refrain from telling it to some person—her mother, most probably. So I resolved by means of this" (and here he exhibited a small skull-cap of purple silk) "to penetrate unseen to the Princess's apartments and overhear her conversation. To my disappointment, she would reveal nothing to Her Majesty, but by-and-by the Court Godmother paid the Princess a visit, in the course of which I, remaining, of course, invisible, succeeded in learning the secret on which your Royal Highness's happiness and the hopes of all Maerchenland depend. The answer, it seems—though I must admit I can make little of it myself—is——"
"Stop, Baron!" interrupted Prince Mirliflor, "I refuse—do you hear?—I refuse to take advantage of any information obtained in such a disreputable manner—I insist on your leaving this room at once without another word!"
"But, sire, hear me! This is not a case for being over-scrupulous. In love, as in war, all is fair. And the answer is—'Because——'"
"Will you get out?" cried the Prince, stopping both his ears. "I won't hear you. I can't, as you can see. And if you don't clear out at once, I'll strike this gong for the guard!"
The Baron, seeing that he could do no more, hastily put on his cap again and disappeared. "What a pity," he thought, "that such a fine young Prince should be so priggish when his own interests are concerned!"
But although Mirliflor's code of honour was undoubtedly high, it is quite possible that he might not have stopped his ears quite so hermetically if Princess Edna had only borne a closer resemblance to his vision of her.
As it was, even if the Baron had forced him to hear the answer, it would have made no difference, since he had not the least intention of profiting by it, and so he slept soundly, with no apprehensions concerning what the morrow might bring him.
Shortly after breakfast the next day the Court filled the body of the Hall of Audience, on the dais of which the King and Queen presently appeared and took their thrones, Prince Mirliflor and the members of the Royal Family being accommodated with lower seats on the same platform.
"Now, Prince Mirliflor," remarked Edna sweetly, "you have been given a night to consider the answer to my question. I hope you have found it?"
The Prince was about to confess his utter inability to do so, when, to his extreme annoyance, he found that the Baron, who had stationed himself behind his chair, was whispering discreetly into his ear. "Will you be kind enough to leave me alone, Baron?" he said in a savage undertone. "I've told you already that I don't desire any interference in my affairs. Oblige me by holding your tongue!"
"Certainly, your Royal Highness," said the Baron obsequiously, "your wishes shall be obeyed.... His Royal Highness, Madam," he said aloud, "begs me to make his excuses. He feels too much agitated to speak for himself, but instructs me to say that he believes the reason why the sausage rolled was because it had seen the jam pasty. And," he added confidently, "your Royal Highness will, I am sure, be gracious enough to admit that Prince Mirliflor has answered her question with absolute correctness."
Mirliflor's attempts to deny that he had offered any solution whatever were unheard in the tumult of acclamation which followed the Court Chamberlain's announcement.
"He hasn't given the correct answer!" declared Edna, as soon as silence could be obtained. "He ought to have said 'the jam turnover'—not the 'jam pasty'!"
"Oh, come, my dear!" said her father. "That's splitting hairs, you know. He was near enough. What's the difference?"
"None that I can see," pronounced the Queen. "Both are pastry, and both contain jam. Yes, Prince Mirliflor, you have won the dear child, as I'm sure you richly deserved to!"
"How can you say that, Mother?" cried Edna, scarlet with vexation. "When his answer utterly missed the point? And, anyhow, it was given by proxy, so it doesn't count!"
"H'm—ha!" said King Sydney, "that's rather a ticklish question! What do you think, my love?" and he consulted the Queen in undertones for a minute or two. "Well," he announced presently, "her Majesty and myself both consider that the Prince's answer should be adjudged correct, and that its having been given by proxy is—ah—no disqualification whatever. Still, to avoid all appearance of favouritism, we propose to refer the case to the final decision of our Council."
"I say!" protested Clarence in a horrified whisper, "you're never going to leave it to those old pumps?"
"It's quite safe, my boy," said the King. "They won't give it against him!"
So, after the Councillors had filed out to deliberate, Clarence devoted himself to keeping up Mirliflor's spirits, though the latter could not be induced to see that he had no cause for uneasiness.
But King Sidney had not been mistaken in his prediction; after a short absence the Councillors filed in again and reported that they were unanimously of opinion that Prince Mirliflor had succeeded.
"There, my dear," said the King to the Princess Royal, as soon as the shouts of joy had quieted down, "you've got the Council's decision. Give the Prince your hand, and let's have no more bother about it."
"I won't!" declared Edna, losing all self-control in her rage and disappointment. "He hasn't won me fairly. I've been tricked into this, and it's all the Court Godmother's doing!"
No accusation could well be more unjust, but it was difficult for the Fairy to disprove it without declaring that she had done her utmost to hinder the match—and this would have been impolitic just then.
"My doing, forsooth!" she repeated. "If you really believe that, you were never more mistaken in your life!"
"Oh no, I'm not mistaken!" said Edna. "It was you who suggested my asking the riddles—and you were the only person I told the answer. If you did not tell him, I should like to know who did!"
"May I remind you, Princess," said Mirliflor, "that the answer was not made by me?"
"You let the Baron answer for you, which is just as bad!" retorted Edna. "And I absolutely refuse to be trapped and cheated into marrying anybody!"
"My conscience at least is clear," he said. "But I am to understand that you decline to marry me, Princess—is that so?"
"Certainly I do. Nothing would induce me to accept you after this! I don't care what Father and Mother or the Council or anyone says! When—if—I marry I intend to choose for myself. And you are about the last person, Prince Mirliflor, I should ever dream of choosing!"
"I am desolated to hear it, Princess," he replied, with admirable patience and resignation. "But since I have the misfortune to be so obnoxious to you, the only service I can render you now is to relieve you of my presence as soon as possible."
Queen Selina implored him to stay to lunch, and even held out hopes that Edna might relent in time—but all her entreaties were in vain. To her infinite chagrin and the general lamentation, he insisted on leaving the Palace within an hour. He said no farewell to his Godmother, who for her part was glad to escape a private interview with him, but he took his leave of his host and hostess with all due outward courtesy, though inwardly fuming with rage and impatience to quit a place where he considered he had been so wantonly insulted.
Count von Rubenfresser must have got wind from some quarter of the Prince's discomfiture, for on the very next day he turned up at the Palace about lunch time, according to his previous habit, and Queen Selina, though far from delighted at his appearance, could hardly avoid inviting him to remain. His manner at table was considerably more assured, and his appetite, if anything, heartier than usual, but even so he seemed, to all but Princess Edna, an indifferent substitute for the Prince whose departure they were still mourning.
Edna, however, seemed to make a point of treating him with marked favour, so much so that, when lunch was over and the Royal Family had removed to the Terrace, it was rather with disgust than surprise that they discovered that the Princess Royal and the Count had stolen off together to a secluded part of the gardens.
Whether amour propre had incited her to make a special effort to overcome his hesitation, or absence and jealousy had quickened his somewhat lagging ardour, none could say with any certainty, but when they eventually re-appeared, Queen Selina observed with positive horror that they were walking hand-in-hand.
"It's quite all right, Mother," said Edna, as they came within speaking distance; "Ruprecht and I are engaged."
"Engaged!" spluttered King Sidney. "You've got to get your Mother's consent for that, you know. And we couldn't hear of it. Not for a moment! Eh, my love?"
"Of course not!" said the Queen. "Entirely out of the question!"
"We expected this," remarked Edna calmly. "But no amount of opposition will make the slightest difference to us—will it, Ruprecht?"
"Not the slightest," he replied. "At least—to ME."
"But think, my dear, only think!" the distressed Queen entreated Edna. "After you've just made us all so unpopular by refusing a Prince, you simply can't go and engage yourself to some one whose position is so far beneath your own!"
"Ruprecht is above me in every sense," said Edna; "and because I'm a Princess by no wish of mine is no reason why I should sacrifice myself for reasons of state. I utterly and entirely deny that any parents, no matter what their position in life, have the right nowadays to dictate to their children whom they should marry or not marry. Of course, I would rather you were sensible enough to recognise our engagement, but if you aren't, I shall simply marry Ruprecht just the same."
Queen Selina reflected. If she refused consent, it would only end in a still worse situation. And, after all, she would have been proud enough in her Gablehurst days to be able to announce her daughter's engagement to a real Count with a fine and ancient castle.
"Well," she said, "if it's understood that there must be no thought of marriage for at least a year——"
"Oh, Ruprecht will wait a year for me—won't you, Ruprecht? But the engagement must be proclaimed at once—we insist on that. And now you may kiss Mother, Ruprecht, and tell her that you already look on yourself as her son."
The Count stooped to give his prospective Mother-in-law an amateurish embrace, while Ruby fled, fearing that her own turn would come next. "Good Lord, Edna!" said Clarence, drawing her aside, "have you gone dotty or what? To go and chuck a real good sort like Mirliflor, and then take this overgrown bounder—it beats me what you can see in the beggar!"
"I see a man, Clarence, whom I feel I can really look up to."
"You'll have the devil of a way to look up, if he goes on growing much longer. He's shot up lately like a bally beanstalk!"
"You are jealous because he makes you feel so small. I glory in his being so big. He is just my idea of a superman!"
"Strike out 'man' and substitute 'swine'!" said Clarence, "and I'm with you!"
"There's no need to descend to vulgarity, Clarence. And it seems a pity you should be so prejudiced against him when he is only anxious to prove the affection he feels for you!"
"Oh, is he? Well, if he comes pawing me about, he'll find out what my sentiments are!"
"I should advise you to be civil to him—for your own sake," said Edna coldly, "because he's rather a powerful person."
Queen Selina had no option but to inform the Court of the engagement without delay, and the general consternation it caused could only find expression in chilling silence.
To the Court Godmother she tried to present the matter as favourably as possible. "I don't pretend," she said, "that it is quite all we could desire from a mere worldly point of view. But in a case of true love on both sides such as this, his Majesty and I both feel that it would not be right to interfere. And you know what dear Edna can be when she's once set her mind on anything. Besides," she concluded, "we've insisted on their being engaged for a year—a good deal may happen before then."
"It may," agreed the Fairy; "and I shall be very much surprised if it doesn't. But, so far as I am concerned, Princess Edna may bestow her hand as she pleases. I shall never go out of my way to find her a suitor again, I can assure you!"
It had already occurred to her that the Royal Family might very shortly find Maerchenland too hot to hold them, which would relieve her of all responsibility for them. So she saw no reason for interfering with any of their proceedings.
Ruby rushed excitedly up to Daphne's chamber, where she had been hurting her pretty fingers by laboriously unpicking the innumerable jewels from one of the Queen's robes and sewing them on to another. "Oh, Miss Heritage, dear," she began, "it's such ages since I've seen you, and I've such lots to tell you about. Just fancy! Edna's engaged!... No, not Prince Mirliflor! She sent him away the day before yesterday. I can't think why—when he was so perfectly ripping. It's Count Rubenfresser."
"Oh, Ruby!" cried Daphne in dismay. "Not to him! How can she?"
"I don't know—but she is. Mums doesn't like it, of course, but she's had to give in, and they'll be married in a year. Isn't it awful? There's only one advantage about it that I can see—Tuetzi will be one of the family now.... Oh, and you needn't go on sewing any more. Mummy said after lunch that she'd forgotten to tell you she won't want the skirt altered after all, and that you might come down again as usual now."
So Daphne made her re-appearance that evening, and was welcomed by the Court with as much effusion as if they had not seen her for weeks. The Count was there, his towering form more splendidly apparelled, as became his new role of an accepted suitor, and she soon learnt that she was by no means alone in loathing the thought of the engagement. Princess Edna was in such high good humour that she not only deigned to single out Daphne by her notice, but actually offered to present her to her fiance—an honour from which Daphne had the courage to beg that she might be excused.
"I see how it is, Miss Heritage," said Edna, with a frown, "You can't understand my rejecting a Prince and preferring some one of so far inferior a rank. I really should not have thought you would be quite so snobbish as that!"
"It isn't that, Princess Edna," said Daphne desperately. "It's because—I'm sure—I can't explain why, but I am sure he's bad—really bad!"
"If you mean by that—that he is not a pattern of virtue like Prince Mirliflor," said Edna, "he is none the worse for it, in my eyes!"
"I meant more—much more than that. But I ought not to have said anything."
"Oh, pray go on. In fact, I insist on it."
"Well, then, Princess Edna," said Daphne undauntedly, "not only I, but almost everybody at Court, think that a marriage with Count von Rubenfresser would be a horrible mistake."
"So you have joined the league against him, have you, Miss Heritage?" said Edna. "But, of course, you would condemn anyone who failed to conform to your prim, governessy little notions of right and wrong. I might have known as much! I am only sorry I should have gone out of my way to offer you a privilege you are so incapable of appreciating. You may now retire."
Daphne retreated accordingly. She knew very well that she would have been wiser in her own interests to hold her tongue, and she had certainly done no good by speaking. But for no earthly inducement would she have allowed herself to be presented to that detestable Count. She had been almost forced to speak plainly, if only in the faint hope of opening Edna's eyes to a sense of what she was doing. And though she had failed, she did not in the least regret having spoken. If the other ladies-in-waiting had known of her protest she would have been more idolised by them than ever, but a lingering sense of loyalty kept her from saying anything that might increase their disaffection for "Princess Four-Eyes."
Perhaps the person in the Royal Household who felt the engagement most acutely was the old Court Chamberlain. Queen Selina, returning from a drive the next day, discovered him weeping, or rather absolutely blubbering, in a darker corner of one of the passages. "I can't help it, your Majesty," he said, almost inarticulate with emotion. "That the Princess should have scorned such a consort as Prince Mirliflor for one whose parentage—it's too much to bear! I think my old heart would break if I had not once more put a hoop around it. If your Majesty only knew how your subjects detest such an alliance as this!"
"I don't see what it has to do with them, Baron," said the Queen. "But they have certainly been less respectful lately. I'm afraid we shall have to take a sack of gold out again on our next drive. I was most alarmed this afternoon by a rude person throwing something into the coach which I quite thought at first was a bomb. However, it turned out to be only a particularly fine turnip, though it very narrowly missed his Majesty's nose. Of course, as the Marshal assures us, it may have been intended merely as a humble sort of offering, but I should like to feel surer about it than I do. And—strictly between ourselves, Baron—I should be only too thankful if this engagement was broken off. But what can I do? The Princess won't listen to me!"
"Perchance," said the Baron, "she would allow herself to be influenced by the noble ladies whom your Majesty spoke of."
"The Duchess of Gleneagles and the Marchioness of Muscombe? Ah, my dear Baron, she might, if they were only here! I know they would do their best to persuade her. But what is the use of thinking of that, when they are both so far away?"
"And doubtless your Majesty is in ignorance of their very whereabouts."
"Oh, they would be in London just now," said the Queen, not displeased to exhibit her knowledge. "The dear Duchess travelled down from the North sometime ago to her town residence in Stratford Place—had her tiara stolen on the journey, Baron—and came to tell me about it at once, poor soul! And—yes, the Muscombes must be back in that cosy little flat of theirs in Mount Street by this time. They always spend Easter in London, you know."
"In London!" sighed the Baron. "That is truly a far cry from our Maerchenland! But your Majesty can see that, in my present spirits, I should make but a sorry figure at Court. Have I your leave to absent myself for a brief period!"
"By all means—as long as you like," said the Queen, who rightly considered that a Court Chamberlain in constant floods of tears would do little to relieve the prevailing depression. And so the Baron did not appear that evening, which might have excited some remark if anyone had happened to notice his absence.
On the following morning Queen Selina paid a surprise visit to the Tapestry Chamber, where her ladies were more or less busy in embroidering "chair-backs" (she was too much in the movement not to know that the term "antimacassars" was a solecism). It was an industry she had lately invented for them, and they held it in healthy abhorrence.
She had not had at all a good night, and was consequently inclined to be aggressive. "Good morning, girls," she began, "I fancy I heard, just before I came in, one of you mentioning a person of the name of 'Old Mother Schwellenposch.' The speaker, if I'm not mistaken, was Baroness Bauerngrosstochterheimer."
"It was, your Majesty," admitted the Baroness, rising and curtseying.
"And who, may I ask, is this Mother—whatever-her-name is? Some vulgar acquaintance of yours, I presume?"
"If your Majesty is so pleased to describe her, it is not for me to protest," was the Baroness's demure reply, followed by suppressed but quite audible giggles from her companions.
"Why you should all snigger in that excessively unladylike way is best known to yourselves," said Queen Selina. "But I can make allowances for you, considering who your ancestresses were! It's true I had hoped when I first came here that, if I could not expect quite the sort of society I had been accustomed to, I should at least have people about me of ordinary refinement! As it is, I often wonder what my dear friends the Duchess of Gleneagles and the Marchioness of Muscombe would say if they knew the class of persons I have to associate with. I can fancy how they would pity me. When one has enjoyed the privilege of intimacy with really great ladies like them, one is all the more apt to notice the difference.... Is that you, Baron? Returned so soon? But you shouldn't come bursting in like this without asking for an audience. That is quite against my rules!"
"Your Majesty will, I feel sure, pardon the intrusion when you hear my tidings," said the Baron. "I have the honour to inform your Majesty that your high-born friends, the Grand Duchess of Gleneagles and the Margravine of Muscombe, are now in the Palace!"
"The—the Duchess? And the Marchioness?" cried the Queen. "Nonsense, Baron! It must be some silly mistake of yours. How could they possibly get here?"
"In the stork-car, your Majesty," he explained. "I brought them myself. As they are still sunk in sleep, I have had them laid on couches in one of the vestibules, and instructed the Lady Daphne to remain in attendance."
"Good gracious!" said Queen Selina faintly. She was painfully conscious that her face must be expressing dismay rather than delight, and that her ladies-in-waiting had not failed to notice it. "What a—what a delightful surprise! And Lady Daphne with them, did you say? I—I'll go to them at once!"
If the poor Court Chamberlain had expected any gratitude from his Sovereign when they got outside, he received none. She did not speak to him at all—possibly because she could not trust herself, and she hurried towards the great Entrance Hall at a pace which left him hopelessly in the rear. As she went she vainly endeavoured to think of any possible excuse or apology that she could offer her distinguished visitors, but her chief anxiety was that she might not arrive until after they had awaked, and Miss Heritage had anticipated her explanations.
WHAT THE PIGEON SAID
Daphne was passing through the upper gallery, on her way to join the other ladies-in-waiting in the Tapestry Chamber, when she heard a commotion in the great hall below, and, looking down over the balustrade, was astonished to see two inanimate female forms being carried by attendants into the vestibule. Baron von Eisenbaenden, who was directing them, caught sight of her and beckoned. On descending the jasper staircase, she found him beaming with satisfaction, surrounded by a host of courtiers, guards, and pages.
"All will be well now, my Lady Daphne," he whispered confidentially. "I have brought hither two noble dames to persuade the Princess to renounce this ill-omened alliance—the Grand Duchess of Gleneagle and Margravine of Muscombe, her Majesty's dearest and most intimate friends. She will surely be overjoyed when I announce their arrival."
Somehow Daphne could not share his certainty. Queen Selina had been careful not to dwell too much, in her presence, on these aristocratic acquaintances, and they certainly had not visited "Inglegarth" while she had been an inmate of the household.
"If I were you, Baron," she said diplomatically, "I should send away all these people before I told her Majesty. I am sure she would rather welcome her friends in private."
He accepted the suggestion, cleared the hall, and bustled away, after committing the still unconscious visitors to Daphne's care.
She found them laid side by side on couches in the vestibule, which was a lofty chamber, panelled in ivory and ebony, with inset opals of enormous size and a ceiling of dull silver. The Duchess was a short, spare, grey-haired and rather homely-looking woman in a black demi-toilette with priceless old lace. Lady Muscombe was about twenty-six, tall, with a beautiful figure and a pale, piquant face; she wore a rose charmeuse gown that scintillated with paillettes; her luxuriant, but just then slightly dishevelled, chestnut hair was confined in a sparkling band, from which drooped a crushed pink plume.
As they seemed on the point of awaking, Daphne, thinking that they would probably prefer to do so unobserved, discreetly left them to themselves.
Lady Muscombe was the first to recover. She sat up, stretched her white and shapely arms, and yawned widely, revealing her perfect teeth, as she regarded the Duchess with sleepy brown eyes.
"I suppose you are the Duchess of Gleneagles?" she said. "And, if you don't mind, I should rather like to know why you've brought me here—wherever it is."
"I?" said the Duchess. "I've had nothing to do with bringing you. Don't even know who you are—though you seem to have got hold of my name."
"Why, I married Muscombe—the Marquis, don't you know. I dare say you knew before that I was Verity Stilton of the Vivacity. I was working my way up to quite important parts. You may have seen me in some of them?"
"I have not had that advantage. I seldom visit a theatre, and when I do——"
"You like to go and see something stuffy? I know. And I expect you've got quite a wrong idea of Musical Comedy. Most of us in the Chorus at the Vivacity were ladies by birth. And we didn't mix with the others, off the stage. We were most particular, too. I assure you I never went to sup alone with Nibbles—I call Muscombe 'Nibbles,' you know—he's so exactly like a white mouse—I never supped with him alone till after we were regularly engaged."
"That is most interesting," said the Duchess, "and entirely to your credit, but it doesn't explain how we came to be here together."
"All I can say is that a queerly dressed old freak suddenly burst into my flat, just as I was going to dine at the Carlton, and told me you were waiting outside in a car to take me on a visit to the Queen."
"And did not that strike you as slightly improbable?"
"Oh, for anything I knew, you might be another of Nibbles's aunts. I haven't nearly worked through all his relations yet. But I said at once that I couldn't throw over my Carlton party to oblige any Duchess on earth. And then the old creature put on a cap and vanished. And the next thing I knew was that a cloak was thrown over my head and I was being lifted up and bundled out kicking—and that's all I remember. I don't know what they thought of me in Mount Street, or why nobody interfered."
"Much the same thing happened to me," said the Duchess. "Only I was told that the Queen wished to see me at once on an urgent matter. Of course, as the messenger's appearance did not inspire me with confidence, I insisted on seeing his credentials. And then he disappeared, and I found myself caught up and carried off. I suppose none of my people were in the hall, or else they were too afraid to come to my rescue. And Stratford Place is very quiet, so my smothered cries attracted no attention. Besides, I fancy I must have been chloroformed."
"I expect we both were. Nibbles would be furious if he knew—luckily he doesn't. We had a tiff, and he went off to Monte, all on his little lone. But I wish I had any idea where we are."
"I have certainly no recollection of ever having been in such a place as this before in my life," said the Duchess.
Daphne returned in time to offer what explanations she could.
"I know it must seem a little strange at first," she said, coming forward, "but this is the Palace of the Queen of Maerchenland."
"Maerchenland?" repeated the Duchess. "And where may that be? Never heard of such a country!"
"Well," said Daphne, "it's a long way from everywhere, and it's the place where most of the stories one used to think were only Fairy Tales really happened."
"I never expected to find myself in Fairyland," the Duchess remarked. "Tell me—are you the Queen of this country? You look as if you might be."
"Oh no," replied Daphne, with a little laugh. "I'm only one of her ladies-in-waiting. She hasn't long been Queen. We were all carried here from England in a big car drawn by flying storks—the one that brought you, I expect. I don't know, of course," she added dubiously, "but you may have met Queen Selina when she lived at Gablehurst—her former name was Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson."
"Wibberley-Stimpson?" repeated the Duchess thoughtfully. "No, I can't say I remember anyone of that name."
"Nor I," said Lady Muscombe languidly. "Don't know any one at Gablehurst."
"But if she is half as charming as you, my dear," added the Duchess graciously, "it will give me much pleasure to make her acquaintance, though I am curious to know why she seems to have taken so much trouble to cultivate mine."
At this moment Queen Selina herself arrived, very much out of breath. "Your Grace!" she began, "My lady Marchioness!"
"Ah, here is the housekeeper!" said the Duchess, before Daphne could enlighten her. "Can you tell us, my good woman, when and where her Majesty will receive us?"
"I—I am her Majesty!" said Queen Selina, wishing she had devoted more pains to her morning toilet.
"Oh, to be sure," said the Duchess. "You must forgive my blunder, Ma'am, but my sight is not what it was."
"It is of no consequence, my dear Duchess—pray don't mention it. Miss Heritage, I find I shall require that skirt after all. You will be good enough to see to it at once, and not come down till it is finished," said the Queen sharply, feeling it more imperative than ever to prevent any account of this meeting from being communicated to the Court.... "No, Baron, I shall not require you," she went on, as he appeared at the entrance. "You have done quite enough." And Daphne and the Baron withdrew accordingly.
"I'm so distressed, your Grace, by this unfortunate—er—contretemps," said Queen Selina, as soon as she had her guests to herself. "I really hardly know how to apologise. I'm afraid my old Court Chamberlain has taken a most unpardonable liberty."
"Well, Ma'am," said the Duchess, "there's no doubt he kidnapped both myself and this lady here. On false pretences, too! I don't know yet whether he was acting on your instructions?"
"Most decidedly not! Indeed I should never have ventured. The fact is, he must have confused you with two other ladies of title who are great friends of mine. I expect he heard me mention them, and—it was most stupid and careless of him, I know—but he must have concluded I wanted to see them, and brought you by mistake."
"I see," said the Duchess; "though I don't understand how he came to know our names and addresses, as he must have done to find us."
"Oh," said Queen Selina, with much presence of mind, "you're both of you public characters, you know. He's such an old blunderer, he probably couldn't find the right people, and thought you would do as well."
"I can only say," replied the Duchess, "that that impression of his has put me to a great deal of personal inconvenience."
"I was carried off without a chance of ringing them up at the Carlton, where I ought to have dined last night!" complained Lady Muscombe.
"If your Majesty will get a new Chamberlain—one who isn't an absolute idiot," said the Duchess severely, "your house-party would be in less danger of being recruited in this irregular manner."
"But I assure you I'm delighted to see your Grace, and you too, of course, Lady Muscombe! I hope, now you are here, you will stay as long as ever you can. Such a pleasure always to his Majesty and myself to welcome any of our own country-women! And now I will take you up to your rooms, and you will no doubt be glad of a little rest before you come down to lunch and meet the family."
"I cannot possibly appear at lunch in this dress," said the Duchess; "but I shall be glad if you will send me up some food, and then I must really start for home."
"So must I," declared Lady Muscombe; "there'll be a fuss if I'm not back soon—and I simply couldn't stay in any house without a single trunk, or a maid either! It isn't giving me a fair chance!"
"I'm afraid the storks won't be fit for such a long return journey just yet," said their hostess; "and it would be a pity to leave without seeing something of Maerchenland, so I hope you will remain for at least a night, as a favour to me. I see no one of any real distinction now! And as for clothes, I can lend you all you require. You will excuse their being out of the fashion—we don't get the latest Paris models here."
"You're very kind," said the Duchess. "Then I will accept your hospitality for the present."
"So will I—er—your Majesty, thanks," said Lady Muscombe. "It will be something to tell Muscombe—when we're on speaking terms again."
"So very nice and friendly of you both!" said Queen Selina as she escorted them across the hall to the foot of the immense staircase. "I must apologise for asking you to come up all these steps, but there's no such thing as a lift here. The Astrologer Royal offered to try and procure us a flying carpet—but, of course, I wouldn't hear of that."
"Well," said the Duchess, as she toiled up, "this is certainly a wonderful Palace you live in—I have never seen one so splendid in my life!"
"Ah, my dear Duchess, it's much too large to be really comfortable, and all the arrangements, too, so unlike our English ways! I'm afraid I shall never get things done here according to my ideas.... This is your room, dear Duchess, and yours is next, Marchioness. I will send some of my waiting-women to you with everything necessary. You will find us assembled in the Throne Room before lunch.... Oh, and there's just one thing. My Court have got an impression—I'm sure I don't know why—that we're quite old friends. If you wouldn't mind—er—addressing me as 'Selina' now and then.... Not at all, I assure you, I should consider it a compliment—from you.... Then I shall hope to see you later on in the Throne Room.... It's in the left wing, down the great corridor; you can't miss it because of the trumpeters at the doors."
After an interval the two visitors made their appearance in the Throne Room, arrayed in magnificent but rather fantastic robes of velvet and brocade with long hanging sleeves lined with ermine—a costume which suited Lady Muscombe better than the Duchess.
Queen Selina advanced to welcome them effusively. "So you've found your way here!" she said. "How very well you both look in those dresses! Most becoming, I assure you. By the bye, my dear Duchess, did you ever recover that tiara you lost in the train?"
"I never did lose it," replied the Duchess, "I believe some story got into the papers, but it was a down-right lie."
"So glad! I must tell you that I don't as a rule wear my crown at lunch, but I thought, to-day being a gala occasion—"
"Quite right!" said the Duchess. "And quite regal!"
"I could lend both of you tiaras, if it would make you feel more at your ease."
"I feel perfectly at ease as I am, thank you," replied the Duchess shortly.
"Nibbles gave me one of the family fenders," said the Marchioness, "but I never wear it—it gives me such a headache."
"Ah, dear Lady Muscombe, I can sympathise with you—but I have to put up with my headaches. I want you to come and shake hands with my husband—His Majesty, you know."
"Charmed," said the Duchess. "Is that His Majesty with the—er—auburn whiskers and moustache? I thought it must be.... How d'you do, sir?"
"Thank you, your Grace, I'm very tolerably well," said King Sidney, who was not entirely at his ease in welcoming such distinguished guests—especially as he was far from clear as to how and why they came to be there. "Glad you found time to—er—look us up. Hardly had time to settle down here ourselves yet—so you must take us as you find us."
"I never expected to find you all so magnificent, I can assure you," replied the Duchess.
"Oh, well," he said, "my wife likes living in style. And of course when you are Royalties, so to speak, you've got to do the thing well."
"That is my eldest daughter, Edna, Duchess, the Princess Royal ... yes, over there, with the eye-glasses. Edna, my love, come and tell her Grace how delighted you are to see her, and Lady Muscombe too."
"How do you do, my dear? You're looking well," said the complaisant old lady, preparing to embrace her hostess's daughter.... "Oh, if you prefer me to kiss your hand, ma'am——"
"You shouldn't be so formal, Edna!" said her mother. "Not with such an old friend as the Duchess. This, Duchess, is my son, the Crown Prince Clarence, and here is my youngest daughter, Princess Ruby."
"I must tell you about Edna, my dear Duchess," said Queen Selina, drawing her apart after these presentations had been effected. "She has only just become engaged—to a neighbour of ours, young Count von Rubenfresser. From a merely worldly point of view she might have done much better. In fact, Prince Mirliflor of Clairdelune came here to propose to her, but she rejected him. Wouldn't hear of anyone but the Count! So as His Majesty and I do not approve of forcing our children's hearts, we have let her have her own way."
"It seems quite a romance," observed the Duchess.
"Quite. And of course the Count comes of a very old family. I forget what the original title was, but they've had Castle Drachenstolz for centuries. Such a picturesque old place! And—actually, Duchess!—Count Ruprecht has a pet dragon there—it's the only one left in Maerchenland now, and as it's rather a curiosity in its way, and quite inoffensive, we see no objection to his keeping it. You will probably meet the Count to-day, he generally drives over to luncheon now—so devoted to dear Edna! And such a height, too!"
"I shall be interested to meet him," said the Duchess. "He must be rather a remarkable person."
Meanwhile Clarence was engaged in making himself agreeable to Lady Muscombe. "Funny thing, Marchioness," he remarked, "but I seem to know your face quite well."
"Perhaps you've seem me on picture-postcards," she said, "or else at the Vivacity. Before I married I was Verity Stilton, you know."
"Oh," he stammered in confusion, "I—I wasn't aware—or else—of course. Sorry!"
"Why on earth should you be? You don't suppose I'm ashamed of having been on the stage? I should soon have got to the front if I had stayed. I was offered one of the best parts in 'The Girl from Greenland,' and I threw it up to marry Muscombe. His people know perfectly well that I sacrificed my career for his sake." (It might be added that if they did not, it was no fault of Lady Muscombe's.)
"I remember you," he said. "I used to go to the Vivacity before the Mater came to the throne."
"Ah, you haven't been a Royalty long, have you? Weren't you a Wobbly-something or other before that?"
"Wibberley-Stimpson was the family name," he corrected.
"I knew it was something like that. And when you were—one of those, what did you do with yourself?"
"I was in Finance," he replied largely. "In the City, don't you know, what?"
"Really?" she drawled. "That accounts for my not remembering you. Somehow, at the Vivacity, we didn't know any City men. All this must be rather a change for you, isn't it?"
"It was a bit, at first, but we soon got into it. Except the Guv'nor, who's never taken very kindly to it—hasn't had the training, what?"
"And you have? I see. And what does a Fairy Crown Prince have to do?"
"Well," he said, "I do a lot of riding and hunting. Mostly boar about here. The Guv'nor don't ride, nor does Edna. Can't induce them to get on a horse. So I have to represent the family."
"I expect you're no end of a nut here," she said.
"Oh, really, Marchioness, you're pulling my leg!"
"Am I? I've never pulled a Fairy Prince's leg before, so it's quite a new experience for me. But one expects new experiences in Fairyland—if this really is Fairyland, which I can't quite believe!"
"Oh, it's Fairyland right enough, though, mind you, it isn't the place it was. Nothing like the magic that there used to be. Most of it died out. Still, we've got a sort of old Fairy Godmother, as part of the Palace fixtures—goes about in a car drawn by doves—give you my word she does! She has another old turn-out, with storks. We came here in that—and I expect you did."
"Yes, and I see the old gentleman over there who carried me off by main force. He doesn't look as if he was such a good hand at abductions!"
"He looks pretty much the blithering old idiot he is," said Clarence. "If I'd only known he was going to London I'd have told him to get me a few thousand cigarettes—they've none here of course. But I expect he'd only have brought 'Woodbines,' or the wrong sort anyhow!"
"Does he always bring the wrong sort?" inquired Lady Muscombe.
"Well," said Clarence, crudely enough, "he didn't make much mistake about you, Marchioness!"
"That's exactly what I expected from you!" she said. "By the way, what has become of the lovely person who was with the Duchess and me when we first woke up? I think your mother called her Hermitage. I don't see her anywhere here."
"Heritage—Lady Daphne, as we call her now. She used to be my kiddie-sister's governess."
"Oh? Well, she's quite the sweetest thing I've seen—don't you think she is, yourself?"
"Not since you came!" was his gallant reply.
"It's lucky Muscombe can't hear you paying me compliments of that sort," she said. "If he did he'd want your blood. And why isn't that Lady Daphne here? I'm dying to see her again. Duchess," she added, as the elder lady, having escaped from her hostess, came towards them, "I've been asking the Prince why that charming little Heritage creature isn't here. You would like to see her, wouldn't you?"
"Certainly," said the Duchess. "Where is she?"
"We'll ask the Court Godmother," said Clarence (it had already struck him that it might give Daphne a higher opinion of him if she could see the terms he was on with a real English Marchioness). "She'll know." But the Fairy could only say that she supposed Lady Daphne was remaining in her own rooms for some reason.
"I wish you'd get her to come down, Court Godmother," said Clarence. "These ladies would like to see her."
"I will go and fetch her myself," said the Fairy, who was pleased, in spite of herself, that her unacknowledged god-daughter should be in such request.
She found Daphne engaged in sewing the great pierced jewels in an intricate pattern on the skirt of the royal robe.
"Why, how's this?" exclaimed she. "At work! When they will be sitting down to table directly! The Prince and our two noble guests have asked me to come and see what is keeping you."
"This," said Daphne, touching the skirt on her knee. "Her Majesty has sent me up to finish it, and forbidden me to come down till it's done."
"Then," said the Fairy, "she ought to be ashamed of herself!"
"Oh, I don't mind a bit, Court Godmother. They'll bring me something to eat presently, and I'd much rather be here than have to meet that odious Count Ruprecht! Court Godmother," she added, with a little anxious line on her forehead, "I'd better tell you, though I dare say you'll think it silly—but I'm rather worried by a conversation I overheard just now between two pigeons on the roof."
"You shouldn't pay any attention to anything pigeons say—it's generally love-talk; and very foolish at that."
"They weren't making love. They were talking about the Count. The first pigeon said, 'The Count has come here again. I have just seen his big coach in the courtyard,' and the second pigeon said, 'There is nothing in that.'"
"Well, one of them had some sense, anyway!" remarked the Fairy.
"Ah, but wait. 'Indeed there is something,' said the other bird. 'There is a big sack in the coach, and I know what is inside the sack, too.' 'And what may that be?' the second one asked. 'All I can tell you,' said the first, 'is that, if the Princess only knew as much about it as I do, there wouldn't be any marriage!' They flew away after that, but I've been wondering ever since whether he mayn't have murdered somebody."
"If he had," said the Fairy, "he wouldn't be very likely to bring the body out to lunch with him. You shouldn't be so uncharitable, my child. And, as for birds, I should have thought you knew what busy-bodies they are, and what scandals they make out of nothing at all."
"Then you think it's all right?" said Daphne, relieved. "But all the same, I can't trust the Count."
"Nobody asks you to. I don't trust him myself, if it comes to that. But, whatever he may or may not be is no affair of yours or mine. Princess Edna will find out in time what a mistake she has made."
"If only she doesn't find it out too late!" said Daphne.
"She'll have herself to thank, whatever happens. I shan't interfere again. I'm tired of trying to help anyone. I never get anything but ingratitude for it."
BAG AND BAGGAGE
The Court Godmother returned to the Throne-room. She had not attached much importance to what Daphne had told her, but, even if she had, she would have belittled it in her extreme desire to avoid any action that might entail inconvenience to herself.
In the Throne-room, Count Rubenfresser had just been announced.
"Yes, Duchess," said Queen Selina, in answer to an astonished inquiry. "That is dear Edna's fiance. A fine young man, is he not?"
"Heavens! I should think he was! I should call him a giant myself," replied the Duchess bluntly.
"I told you he was rather tall. I think he's grown since his engagement. How do you do, my dear Ruprecht? Come and be introduced to my old friend the Duchess of Gleneagles, who is so very anxious to make your acquaintance."
"I don't much care about knowing old women," said the Count, who had no great love for his future mother-in-law, and had become much less deferential of late.
"But this one's a Duchess, Ruprecht!" whispered the agonised Queen. "Edna, my love, perhaps you had better——" and eventually he submitted with a slight scowl to be led up and presented by his fiancee.
"I hear I am to congratulate you—er—Count Fresser," said the Duchess. "You are certainly a fortunate man to have won a Princess."
"Not more fortunate than she," he replied. "She wanted a Superman, as she calls it. I am doing all I can to become one."
"If she isn't satisfied with you as you are, she must be hard to please."
"She is satisfied enough," he said. "Now it is for her to please me. She knows that by this time—don't you, Edna?"
"Yes, Ruprecht dear, yes," said Edna, hastily. "Of course I do. This is how he's taken to bullying me, Duchess," she added lightly. "Don't you think it's too bad of him?"
"It seems a little early to begin. You shouldn't allow it."
"Oh, but I like him to!" said Edna, pressing the Count's great arm.
"In that case, my dear," said the Duchess, "you have every prospect of a happy future!"
A blast from the silver trumpets here proclaimed that luncheon was served.
"Lunch, at last, eh?" said King Sidney, bustling up to the Duchess. "Permit me to offer your Grace my arm. Clarence, my boy, you take in her ladyship here. Selina, my love, if you will lead the way with the Marshal."
The Count followed with Edna, and the Fairy Vogelflug arrived in time to bring up the rear with Princess Ruby.
"It's a most extraordinary thing," said the King, after they had sat down to lunch in the hall with the malachite columns, "a most extraordinary thing, that, when we have company like this, there should be no more than six pages to wait on us! We generally have at least a dozen. What's become of all the rest of you?" he asked a page.
"I cannot say, sire," answered the boy. "They were waiting in the courtyard to receive His Excellency the Count, but have not yet returned."
King Sidney told the Court Chamberlain to send for them at once, but the messenger returned with the information that the missing pages were nowhere to be seen.
"Must have run off before I arrived," said the Count, laughing boisterously. "Played truant, the young rascals!"
The Fairy, however, recollected Daphne's story of the sack, and was seized with suspicion. Was it possible that the royal pages—? If so, she felt something ought to be done—though not by her. She was too cautious an old person to take unnecessary risks, and decided to employ a deputy.
"Ruby, my child," she whispered to the little Princess, who was sitting next to her, "I believe the Count has brought a present for you. It's in a sack in his coach. Ask him what it is."
"I don't want to know," objected Ruby, "I wouldn't take any present from him—except Tuetzi, perhaps."
"I may be wrong," said the Court Godmother, "perhaps it isn't for you after all. But I'm sure it would make him very uncomfortable if you asked him, before everybody, what he happens to have in that sack of his."
"If I was sure of that," said Ruby, "I'd ask him like a shot!"
"You may depend on it. And more than that, Lady Daphne is particularly anxious to know."
"Oh, if Miss Heritage wants me to, all right!" said Ruby. "I say, Count Rubenfresser," she called across the table, "I want to ask you something."
"If it's a riddle, little Princess," replied the Count, with his mouth full, "I give it up beforehand."
"It isn't a riddle. It's this: What have you got inside that sack?"
"Sack?" said the Count blankly. "I don't understand. I have no sack here."
"I don't mean here. I mean the sack that's inside your coach."
"Ruby, my dear," interposed her mother, "you mustn't be so inquisitive. It's very rude."
"I know he has got a sack there, Mummy," insisted Ruby, "and I do want to know what he's got in it."
"Hear me rag my precious brother-in-law," said Clarence aside to Lady Muscombe. "A sack, eh?" he said aloud. "What do you bring a sack out to lunch for—scraps?"