"That's a let-off!" said Clarence, "though he might have put it a bit more pleasantly, what?"
Queen Selina felt that this repudiation had put one of her heaviest guns out of action, but she was still undaunted. "I'm sure," she said, "We have no wish to be associated with such a person. And, as for being pretenders, I can only say that if the Marshal had come to me and told me what I now know, I should have been quite ready to resign in Miss Heritage's favour. But how could I, when he never breathed a word to me about it?"
"I should like to add," put in King Sidney, "that it has come as a complete surprise to me. I'm anxious to do whatever is right and proper, and if any reasonable arrangement can be come to, I won't stand in the way."
This attitude produced an immediate reaction in their favour, as was visible from the expressions on the faces of the whole Tribunal.
"Then," the President asked, "is the Council to understand that you are prepared to resign at once?"
"Certainly," said the King. "Only too pleased!"
"Not at once," said Queen Selina. "We cannot leave the Kingdom without a ruler—that would be very wrong. But as soon as Miss Heritage—or Queen Daphne, if you like to call her so—chooses to come forward to claim the crown we shall be delighted to give it up. Till then we are merely holding it in trust for her."
"And where is Queen Daphne at present?" asked the Burgomaster.
"Well," said Queen Selina, "she ought to be at Clairdelune by this time."
"She must be sent for without delay," said the President, and the order was given that messengers on swift steeds should be despatched to Clairdelune at once.
"Well, gentlemen," said the Queen, after this business had been concluded, "I hope you see that you owe us an apology for daring to put us under arrest and treat us like criminals. Until Lady Daphne arrives we are still the King and Queen of Maerchenland, and you will be good enough to regard us as such."
"The Council wishes to express its deepest regret," said the President, "for having exposed your Majesties' persons to undeserved indignity."
"And now, perhaps," said Queen Selina triumphantly, "we may consider ourselves free to resume our thrones, if only to dissolve the Council?"
The guards fell back instinctively, and she and the King were proceeding to their usual seats under the canopy without any protest from the President, who was engaged at the time in deciphering the contents of a packet which had just been brought to him.
Before they had reached the steps of the dais, he looked up, and ordered them to halt in so peremptory a tone that even Queen Selina obeyed involuntarily.
"What's up now?" inquired Clarence in an undertone.
"This packet directed to myself," said the President, "was found on the body of the late Marshal. It contains an order under the Royal seal and signature, which I will now read to the Council." And he read the Queen's secret order to the Baron to convey Daphne to England, which provoked general horror and execration.
The Queen was thunderstruck as she heard this fresh proof of the Marshal's duplicity—she felt more than ever that she had been a fool to trust him—she might have known that he would take some dishonourable advantage of her confidence!
"What have you to answer to this?" the President was saying to her, and she could see that both her husband and son were waiting anxiously for her reply.
"Is it necessary for me to deny that I ever gave such an order?" she said, with a virtuous indignation that was really very well done. "Of course it was forged by that wicked Marshal!" (so fortunate, she thought, that he was dead!) "It is easy to see with what motive."
Clarence and his father breathed again. For a few dreadful minutes they had been haunted by an ugly fear—lest—but they ought to have felt assured that no member of the Wibberley-Stimpson family could be so unworthy of the name.
"It is possible," said the venerable President doubtfully, "that the handwriting may be but an imitation."
"Nay," struck in the sturdy Burgomaster, "it is hers, sure enough. There can be no doubt to my mind that both our unlawful sovereigns and their son have plotted to deport our true Queen, the Lady Daphne, and that their vile design has succeeded but too well!"
"You're quite out of it, old cock!" shouted Clarence, through the roar of assent that greeted the Burgomaster's speech. "Why should we plot against her, when we hadn't an idea she had a right to the throne?"
"So you allege," said the Burgomaster. "But this order speaks for itself, and if the Council will take my advice it will order all three of the prisoners to be executed at once in the City Square, in sight of the people they have wronged and deceived."
This suggestion evidently commended itself to the majority, but the President demurred. "We must not act too hastily," he said, "lest we find too late that we have been misled by appearances. It may be that Queen Daphne has reached Clairdelune in safety, but of that we cannot have sure knowledge until our messengers return. In the meantime our prisoners must not be regarded as though they were proved guilty. I shall order that they be removed to apartments in the North Tower, where they are to be given honourable treatment and every indulgence save their liberty. Should it be found that they are innocent, due reparation shall be made them."
"And what if we hear that our Queen is not at Clairdelune?" asked the Burgomaster.
"Then they shall receive no mercy," replied the President. "Their heads shall be struck off that same day, in the great square of the Capital."
"Good!" said the Burgomaster. "I will have the scaffold put up the moment I return."
"I just want to say this, Gentlemen," said Clarence before he was led away: "if we were really guilty of trying to get rid of poor little Lady Daphne, we should be such a set of rotters that we should jolly well deserve losing our heads for it. But you'll find we're not."
"I can answer for my poor wife as for myself," said King Sidney. "She is far too much of a lady to dream of doing anything that isn't strictly correct."
Queen Selina said nothing—she was not feeling well enough just then.
"Not half bad!" remarked Clarence, as he went through the suites of rooms that were to form their prison. "Pleasant look-out from all the windows, and the rooms jolly comfortable, considering. We shall do very well here for a day or two."
"Don't talk in that light way, Clarence," said his mother, "or you'll drive me mad!"
"Why, there's nothing to be down in the mouth about, Mater. We may have to stick this longer, of course—depends how long those chaps take getting back from Clairdelune. But as soon as they do get back we shall be let out, and I shouldn't wonder if the Country gave us a thundering good pension. It's no more than it ought to."
"You—you mustn't count on that. You—we must all of us prepare for the worst, the very worst."
"What skittles, Mater! What can they do to us, unless, of course, Daphne wasn't sent to Clairdelune. But I saw her in the car myself."
"It—it doesn't follow that—that she got there, Clarence."
"Why on earth shouldn't she?"
"The Baron might—might have missed the way somehow."
"Not he! He may be an old foozle, but the storks know their job, anyhow."
"We mustn't make too sure—of anything," said his mother, who had the best reasons for knowing that Miss Heritage would never be found either in Clairdelune or Maerchenland, and that a shameful and probably exceedingly painful death on the scaffold was their inevitable fate.
It was terrible to think that she, the acknowledged head and master-mind of the family, had brought them to such an end as this—more terrible still to see both her son and husband so utterly unprepared for it. Her nerves were jarred and fretted by King Sidney's apathy and Clarence's light-hearted optimism, and the impossibility of arousing them to a proper sense of their position. She could only do that by confessing what she had done—and she shuddered at the mere thought. If it would save them—but nothing would do that now! No, she could not lower herself so immeasurably in their esteem; she would carry her secret with her to the block itself!
"Now, Mater," said Clarence, "you mustn't give way to the blues like this. You can take it from me that we're as right as rain. So cheer up, and let's see you smiling again."
The unhappy Queen made a heroic attempt at a smile, but the result was so extraordinarily ghastly that it disheartened even Clarence.
"Oh, very well, Mater," he said, "you needn't—if it hurts you as much as all that. But you've been so plucky up to now, I never thought you'd come out as a wet blanket!"
Even Marie Antoinette herself, thought Queen Selina bitterly, had never had to bear being called a wet blanket!
"WHOSE LIGHTS ARE FLED, WHOSE GARLANDS DEAD"
Daphne had taken her seat in the car with somewhat conflicting feelings. She was going to Clairdelune, where she would be reunited to Girofle—an altogether joyous prospect, if she could hope to find the Girofle with whom she had last parted. But he was now the magnificent young Prince Mirliflor, and it was quite uncertain whether she would even be able to recognise him. It would be dreadful if she discovered that she did not care for him any longer! Perhaps it was anxiety, but still more probably the fact of her Fairy blood that prevented her from being overcome by the somnolence that none of purely British birth seemed able to resist for long after entering that magic car.
Daphne was not in the least drowsy, and thus was startled, after the Palace and Eswareinmal had vanished out of sight, by hearing the Baron suddenly order the storks to go to the Chapel in the forest of Schlangenzweigen, and seeing them wheel in a direction she knew was not that of their original destination. "What are you doing, Baron?" she cried. "I thought you were to take me straight to Clairdelune?"
The Baron put his hand to his heart (which he had once more been obliged to compress by a metal hoop) before he could speak. "It is now time," he began, "that you should be told who you are, Madam, and the glorious future that awaits you." And, with a prolixity that may here be avoided, he informed her of her right to the crown of Maerchenland and of the Marshal's arrangements for placing her on the throne.
"But I don't want to be placed on the throne!" said Daphne. "Do you really think I should turn out these poor Wibberley-Stimpsons now—when they behaved so decently in letting me go? It would be too horribly mean of me if I did."
At this he thought it his duty to enlighten her upon Queen Selina's perfidy, which naturally altered Daphne's opinion, but did not shake her determination.
"If she is so keen about her crown she may keep it," she said. "All I care for now is to get to Clairdelune and see Girofle—I mean Mirliflor."
"But," objected the Baron, employing the Marshal's argument, "we should arrive there days before the Prince."
"Then," said Daphne imperiously, "tell the storks to take us to him—wherever he is."
"If I did so," he objected, "the Marshal's plan would fall through!"
"And what if it does? How do you know that he's to be trusted? I always thought myself he had a bad face, and I don't feel at all inclined to put myself in his power. So you will please not be a pig, Baron, but do as I say."
No doubt her diction should have been more on a level with her dignity, but then it must be remembered that she had not been brought up as a prospective Fairy Queen.
"I am convinced," he persisted, "that the Marshal's devotion to your Majesty's cause is beyond suspicion."
"And I'm quite sure that it isn't," retorted Daphne. "If, as you tell me, Baron, I am your Queen, it's your duty to obey my orders, and I order you to take me to Mirliflor." He did not venture to oppose her any longer, so he gave the necessary command, and the great birds wheeled round once more towards Clairdelune.
* * * * *
Mirliflor had discovered, after accomplishing a third of his journey, that his horse had suddenly gone so lame that it was unable to proceed at any pace but a walk. He had dismounted, and was leading it until he could reach a hostelry and provide himself with a fresh steed, when he heard a loud throbbing in the air behind him. The next moment a large flight of storks passed over his head and descended with a car on a spot some yards in advance of him. He saw at once that one of the occupants was Daphne, and leaving his horse by the wayside he went forward to meet her, not without some constraint and uncertainty, however, for his fear that she would love him no longer had not ceased to haunt him.
She had alighted and was standing still, her face expressing wonder and something of alarm. Could this splendid gallant cavalier really be her homely Girofle? she was thinking, and if he were, how could he help her to overcome this paralysing sense of his being a stranger? He came towards her, feeling almost as shy as she.
"Daphne! my dearest!" he said, stretching out his arms, "am I so changed that you can't care for me any more?" And, as she heard his voice, all her doubts and apprehensions suddenly fled.
"No," she murmured, placing a fair hand on each of his broad shoulders and looking fearlessly up into his face. "You are just the same, really. My very own Girofle! And, oh, I'm so glad!"
"And you forgive me for deceiving you, dearest?" he asked when the first rapture of meeting and reassurance was over. "I was bound in honour to tell you nothing."
"I know," she said; "the Court Godmother is to blame for that—not you. And I was prepared to find you changed, Gir—Mirliflor—only—not quite so changed as this."
"If you would love me better as I was, darling," he said, "tell me so, and I will make her transform me again. I will become Girofle for the rest of my life—rather than lose you!"
"I don't think she is well enough to be asked to do that now," replied Daphne. "And, besides"—and here she held him from her at arm's length—"besides, now I look at you, you really are rather nice, you know! No, darling, I won't have you altered again."
After all, this was only in accordance with Maerchenland's precedents. Did Beauty, for instance, resent her Beast's emergence into a Prince? All the same, Daphne was a little ashamed of herself for the increasing satisfaction she felt in Mirliflor's good looks—it seemed almost an infidelity to Girofle—but she could not help it, and did not even try.
The Baron had tactfully remained with the storks until, in his opinion, it was time to interrupt the lovers, when he stepped towards them, cracking loudly.
"Sire," he said, "accept my congratulations on a good fortune that is perchance even greater than you yet know. You have won a lady who is not only lovely, but, as I shall show you, no other than the daughter of our late Prince Chrysopras, and thus rightfully entitled to the crown of Maerchenland."
"And you knew this, Daphne?" cried Mirliflor when the Baron had concluded. "Why did you say nothing to me about it?"
"I only heard of it myself just now in the car," she said. "And what does it matter? I don't want to claim the crown—all I want is to live at Clairdelune with you."
But he told her it was her duty to her Country to assert her just rights, and, on being informed of the appointment with the Marshal, he was in favour of keeping it. "He will be useful," he said, "if he is an honest supporter of your cause."
"But I'm quite certain he isn't!" said Daphne.
"We can only make sure by meeting him," he replied, "and as of course I shall be with you, you will be in no danger."
He had no weapon but the sword that had served him so well at Drachenstolz, which he had brought away with him rather as a souvenir than with any idea that he might need it on his journey, but Daphne felt that, so long as Mirliflor was at her side, she had nothing to fear, and so she readily consented to re-enter the car and be taken to the Chapel in the forest, where the Marshal in all probability was awaiting her arrival.
As the car neared the borders of the forest, Mirliflor took out the silk cap which the Baron had lent him. "I meant to have returned this to you, Baron," he said, "but I find I have it still. With your permission, I will keep it a little longer, as I fancy it may be useful. Don't be alarmed, darling," he added to Daphne, "if you don't see me when I put this on. Remember that, though I shall be invisible, I shall be near you all the time."
"I'll try to remember, Mirliflor," said Daphne. "But—but don't stay invisible longer than you can possibly help."
* * * * *
The Chapel stood in a clearing in the very middle of the forest, and the storks calculated their descent with such nicety that they brought the car up in front of the door.
The Marshal, in his plumed helmet, golden cuirass, and high boots of gilded leather, was waiting, and now came forward to help Daphne to alight. His vizor was raised, but the company of knights with him wore theirs down, so that it was impossible for her to know who they were or whether they intended her good or ill.
"We expected you long ere this, Lady Daphne," said the Marshal as he handed her out.
"Did you, Marshal?" she said, trying to appear unconcerned. "We went a little out of our way." She noticed that, either by accident or design, several of the knights had interposed themselves between herself and the Baron.
"We have the less time at our disposal," said the Marshal, "so I will come to the point at once. You have no doubt been already informed of your rights, and that I and my companions are here to place you on the throne, provided you accept my conditions?"
"I—I was not told of any conditions," said Daphne.
"There is but one," he said, and at this the Chapel door was thrown open and a priest of extremely disreputable exterior appeared on the threshold, with the lighted altar as his background. "Wed me—and you shall be Queen of Maerchenland."
"I've no wish to be that," she replied, "and, as you know, Marshal, I have already promised to marry Prince Mirliflor."
"You may dismiss all thought of that," he said blandly, "for if you refuse my hand, both you and the Baron will meet with instant death, the car and birds will also be destroyed and buried, and I have so arranged that it will be believed that her Majesty Queen Selina has had you removed to the distant land from which you came."
"Marshal," pleaded Daphne, trying hard to remember that Mirliflor was really by her side, "I must have time—time to think over your—your proposal."
"It may help you to decide, Lady Daphne," he said, "if you reflect that, in any case, you will never again behold Prince Mirliflor of Clairdelune."
"And why not, Marshal?" said Mirliflor, as he flung away the cap of darkness and stepped in front of his beloved.
The Marshal knew at once that his fate was sealed. He stood no chance whatever against a Prince who had slain a dragon singlehanded. The knights also seemed to recognise this, or else their sympathy had veered to Daphne's side, for they stood back in a circle without attempting to interfere, while the priest, who perhaps had not till then understood that the marriage ceremony was to be compulsory, promptly re-entered the little Chapel and blew out all the candles.
The combat was over in a second or two—as any combat would necessarily be in which one of the antagonists was equipped with an irresistible sword. Mirliflor, to be sure, did not know that he possessed this somewhat unsportsmanlike advantage, and had disdained to shelter himself, as he might have done, under the cap. But it is more than possible that if he had known more about the sword, he would have stretched the point of honour in this particular case. As has already been seen, he had occasional lapses from the ideals the Fairy had bestowed on him at his baptism, and he was quite incapable of troubling himself about them when Daphne's life was at stake. Perhaps he ought to have been more consistently punctilious, but he was not—which was fortunate for both of them.
As soon as the knights saw the Marshal fall, they hastened to protest their loyalty to their young Queen and offer their congratulations, which Daphne thought it politic to accept at their face value. Horses were found for her and Mirliflor, who decided to make, with a picked body of the knights, for a village a league from Eswareinmal and await developments there. Of the rest of the party, some were instructed to go back to the Palace and report the Marshal's death while hunting, the rest remained to bury his body, and it was one of these who found the packet, and, most unluckily for Queen Selina, thought it necessary to deliver it in hot haste to its addressee.
The Baron was directed to go on in the car to Clairdelune and inform King Tournesol that his son had found a bride at last.
On reaching the village near Eswareinmal, Mirliflor had sent on two of his escort into the city to ascertain the state of feeling there. They brought back the unexpected news that all the citizens now knew that the Lady Daphne was entitled to the Crown and were demanding her; that Queen Selina, with her husband and son, had been imprisoned on suspicion of having made away with her, and, if she were not forthcoming by an early date, would be executed publicly without fail.
In the heat of his resentment at the treachery which had so nearly succeeded in parting him from Daphne for ever, Mirliflor declared that they should be left to the doom which they would certainly meet if Daphne's return were kept secret for a few days.
"Mirliflor said that—not Girofle," she told him. "Girofle would never be so horribly cold-blooded. But even Mirliflor didn't really mean it! Of course we can't let these Stimpson people be executed. Besides, I know—I can't say how, but I do know—that Mr. Stimpson and Clarence, at any rate, haven't been parties to any plot to get rid of me. And as for Mrs. Stimpson, I dislike her, and I want to go on disliking her—which I couldn't possibly do after she had her head cut off! So we'll go into Eswareinmal at once, Mirliflor, and do what we can for the poor things."
"I spoke in haste, dearest," said Mirliflor. "I was wrong, and you are right as usual."
"And now we're both going to be right, darling!" said Daphne.
* * * * *
"I wish," Clarence remarked later the same day, "I wish these windows looked out on the front. We might see her coming back in that blessed stork-car. She'll be sure to come the quickest way when she hears we're in the soup like this—don't you think so, Mater?"
"I'm sure I don't know!" said the tortured Queen Selina. "She mayn't come back at all. I mean, she may keep the messengers and leave us to perish. It is only what I should expect of her!"
"No, dash it all, Mater, she's too much of a sport for that," he said. "She'll either turn up or send word that she's all right."
"Don't deceive yourself, Clarence!" said his mother. "I know better than you can, and I tell you that she will do neither."
"Not when it's to save our lives?" he replied. "She's bound to—unless—unless anything has happened to her. I'm a bit worried about that, because—well, time's getting on, you know—what?"
"I trust, my boy," said his father, "we shall not be brought to the—er—scaffold by any mistake of that kind. If that occurred, it would be most un—" he caught his wife's eye and substituted "unsatisfactory. I'm not sure," he added, "but I fancy I hear shouting. Seems to come from below."
"It certainly is shouting," said Clarence, "and it's getting louder. They're coming this way. I—I hope I'm wrong—but I've a strong impression that we're going to get it in the neck after all!"
"Sidney! Clarence!" cried Queen Selina, as she sank on her knees, unable to bear her guilty burden any longer. "I—I can't die without asking you to forgive me for—for what I have brought on you!"
"It's no fault of yours, Mater," said Clarence. "Just the family luck, that's all!"
"Ah, but listen—listen!" implored his Mother; but, before she could proceed, the door was suddenly unlocked, and Prince Tapfer von Schneiderleinheimer entered with every sign of respect.
"I am charged by her Majesty Queen Daphne to desire your attendance in the Throne Room," he said, "and to convey her and Prince Mirliflor's regret that you should have been subjected to any inconvenience by having permitted her departure to Clairdelune."
Queen Selina—or rather Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, as she was now once more—hastily rose from her knees. So the Baron had disobeyed his orders, and Miss Heritage did not even know that they had been given! This was indeed an unhoped-for deliverance. What a mercy, she thought, that it had come just before she had spoken words she could never have recalled! "Kindly assure—your Mistress," she said, with all the dignity of fallen grandeur, "that while we cannot but feel that we have been most unjustly suspected, we are willing to make every allowance for the circumstances, and shall have much pleasure in coming down to offer our congratulations presently. But first I want to see the Princess Royal and Princess Ruby if they are well enough to leave their dungeons."
"Your daughters, Madam, have merely been required to remain in their own apartments, and are in perfect health," he replied; "I will have them conducted to you immediately."
"Oh, Mummy!" exclaimed Ruby a little later, as she ran to her Mother's arms, "is it really true? Aren't you and Daddy King and Queen any more?"
"No, my darling," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "it seems the people would rather have Miss Heritage."
"Oh, I don't mind so much if it's Daphne. And will Prince Mirliflor be King?"
"I really can't say how they will arrange it—nor does it interest me what they may do."
"It does me," said Ruby. "I hope they'll let us stay here with them."
"I consider it most unlikely—even if I were willing to be a guest in my own Palace. But I've no doubt they will make some suitable provision for us."
"Speaking for myself, Mother," said Edna, "I should be far happier leading a simple life in retirement than ever I've been in this pretentious place. And, though I never cared much about being a Princess, we can scarcely be treated as commoners after what we have been."
"I shall settle all these matters myself with Miss Herit—Queen Daphne, I suppose I ought to call her, but it's so difficult to get into just at once. And now I think we will all go down to the Throne Room. Remember on no account to show the slightest ill-feeling. Let her see that, if we have lost everything else, we still retain our manners."
She was herself so far from betraying any ill-feeling when she entered the Throne Room that she was almost overwhelmingly affectionate.
"My dear child!" she said, advancing to Daphne, who was standing in the centre of the room with Mirliflor, "so pleased to see you both back! but we're all of us that! And, as I was saying to His—to my husband—only a few minutes ago, 'I'm sure, Sidney,' I said, 'there's no person in the world I would give up my crown to so willingly as I would to dear Miss Heritage!'"
"Most happy," said her husband. "We've abdicated already, your—your Majesty—both of us—as soon as we knew the facts."
"I—I'm most awfully glad to see your Majesty back again," said Clarence, noting the flush on her cheeks and the sparkle in her eyes as she glanced at Mirliflor, whom he envied more than ever. "I was beginning to think I—er—shouldn't—you ran things a trifle close."
"Perhaps I did," said Daphne, "but you see, I thought it was wiser to try to find Mirliflor, before being taken to—to Clairdelune." She said this quite simply, for she could see that, as she had been sure of from the first, both Clarence and his father were no parties to Mrs. Stimpson's design, and she was anxious to spare them all knowledge of it if she could.
Her words only confirmed Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson's sense of security; Daphne evidently suspected nothing, probably because the false Marshal had never handed the Baron his secret instructions. "Much the best plan, I'm sure, your Majesty!" she agreed, "though it was fortunate for us that you found dear Prince Mirliflor so soon. However, it has all ended happily, so we will say no more about it. And now I want to beg that you mustn't consider Us. If you would like to have possession of the Palace at once, you have only to say so. Or if I could be of any use to you by staying on for a little, just to show you how things ought to be done——?"
Daphne forced herself to be civil to her for her family's sake, not her own.
"It is very good of you," she said, "but I'm afraid it won't be possible for you to stay here."
"Well," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "we shall be perfectly satisfied with any residence—if it's only quite a moderate-sized castle—that your Majesty is good enough to put at our disposal. Not too far from here, or poor Ruby"—here she glanced at her younger daughter, who had taken possession of one of Daphne's hands, which she was kissing and fondling—"would be quite inconsolable at losing her dearest friend!"
But her remarks were lost on Daphne, for just then, to Mrs. Stimpson's surprise and secret dismay, the entrance was formally announced of the Court Godmother, whom she had imagined to be at least moribund, if not dead. She came in, looking frail and feeble, but still with much of the energy and vitality that had seemed to have departed for ever.
"Really," thought the disgusted Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "Mother Hubbard's dog is a fool to her!"
Daphne had already gone to greet her and lead her to a seat. "I'm much better, my child—in fact almost as well as ever. A day or two ago I thought I was dying—but a little rest and the good news of your return have quite set me up again. I begin to think I shall see my second century out yet!"
"It is indeed a marvellous recovery, my dear Court Godmother!" chimed in Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson. "We've all been so anxious! We should have sent to inquire, only we couldn't—because—well, you'll hardly believe it, but we've been imprisoned (and very nearly executed, too!) on a ridiculous charge of having made away with our dear young Queen here! When, as you know, I had actually gone out of my way to have her sent to Clairdelune as soon as I found you were too ill to see to it yourself."
"And well for you that you did so!" said the grim old Fairy, "for if you had played—or even sought to play—her false, I would have seen to it—old and ailing as I am—that such treason did not go unpunished!"
Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson shivered inwardly under the implacable old eyes; she knew well that she could expect no mercy if the Fairy discovered that these secret orders had ever been handed to the Baron. Only, as the Baron had never received them, he could tell her nothing, and as the Council now believed them to be a forgery of the Marshal's, Mrs. Stimpson felt herself fairly safe.
"Yes, dear Court Godmother," she said sweetly; "but you see, I haven't—so we needn't discuss that now, need we? When you came in just now, I was just telling her Majesty that we had no desire to stay on at the Palace longer than is unavoidable, but that, naturally, we were anxious to know where accommodation would be found for us—nothing grand, of course, any fairly large chateau would suit us."
"I'm sorry," said Daphne, after stooping to kiss Ruby, "but that is quite impossible."
"Impossible?" cried Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson. "I can't believe that your Majesty would turn us out of our own Palace, without a home to go to!"
"You have 'Inglegarth,'" said Daphne, "and as soon as the Baron returns with the car he shall take you there."
"I am much obliged to your Majesty," returned Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, her complexion deepening to a rich purple, "very much obliged for such truly generous treatment! Some people might think that, considering that you wouldn't be Queen at all but for our kindness in taking you with us, when we were brought here—by no seeking of ours—to reign over this ridiculous country—I say, some people might call this rather shabby and ungrateful. Especially when we gave way the moment we were told there had been a mistake—sooner than make any fuss or trouble—as few Sovereigns in our position would have done! And now it seems we're to be rewarded by being bundled back to a suburban residence which, whatever else may be said for it, is absurdly inadequate for any retired Royalties! But you will find we are not to be got rid of quite so easily. I absolutely decline to go back to Gablehurst to be an ordinary nobody after what I have been. Nothing in the world shall induce me to!"
"My love," said her husband, "we can't stay here if we're not wanted."
"No, Mater," said Clarence, "we've got to clear."
"I shall be thankful to get away myself," added Edna. "What is Maerchenland, after all?—just a petty little Kingdom that nobody even knows is in existence!"
"You may go if you please," Mrs. Stimpson declared. "I shall stay—if I have to sit and starve to death at the Palace Gates! And a pretty scandal that will be!"
"If you were allowed to starve," said the Fairy Vogelflug—"which you wouldn't be, you'd get food enough—but no sympathy. So I should advise you myself to return to your own Country, where you are probably held in more esteem than you are here. And now," she added to Daphne, "I must ask your Majesty's leave to withdraw to my own apartments. I shall be obliged if you would send the Baron to me as soon as he arrives from Clairdelune." And with this, and a stiff but stately curtesy to the young Queen, she hobbled out of the Throne Room.
"I shall maintain to my dying breath," declared Mrs. Stimpson vehemently, "that, after governing this Country as we have done, we have earned the right to stay in it. I consider we are not only entitled to that, but to a suitable establishment and pension. Your Majesty can surely spare us something out of all we have given up!"
Daphne intimated that she wished to reply to Mrs. Stimpson in private, whereupon the others withdrew out of hearing and left them together.
"I hate having to say it," she began in a low voice, "but you really can't stay here on any terms, Mrs. Stimpson—I think I needn't tell you why."
"Your Majesty surely doesn't suspect me of any——?"
"I don't suspect," said Daphne, "I know how you tried to part me from Prince Mirliflor for ever—and how nearly you succeeded. He knows, too.... Oh, you are in no danger from us—we shall say nothing. But there is someone else who might."
"Not—not the Baron?" cried Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, so thrown off her guard that she failed to see how completely the question gave her away.
"Yes," said Daphne gravely, "the Baron. You heard what the Court Godmother said about seeing him as soon as he returns? We have forbidden him to speak—but it's quite possible that she will get the truth out of him—and that might be rather disagreeable for you, mightn't it?"
"Very," agreed the trembling Mrs. Stimpson. "She'd have no mercy on me—on any of us!"
"I'm afraid not," said Daphne, "and she might not listen even to me. So—don't you think it would be wiser to change your mind about staying and go back to Gablehurst before she does see him?"
"Much," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson in a half-choked voice—"much! if—if it can be arranged."
"I think it can. The journey to Clairdelune and back won't tire the storks—they will be quite able to take you over to England as soon as you are ready to start."
"We'll go and get ready at once," said Mrs. Stimpson, "so as not to keep the car waiting."
"You have plenty of time. It can't be here for some hours yet."
"Oh, I hope the Baron will make haste—and—and if your Majesty could only prevent him from seeing the Court Godmother till after we are gone!"
"She will probably be asleep," said Daphne, "but in any case he shall have instructions to take you home the very moment he arrives at the Palace. I think," she added, "that is all we had to say to one another."
"Except," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, "that your Majesty really must allow me to express my deep sense of the very handsome——"
"No, please!" said Daphne, turning away, for she felt that she had had as much of Mrs. Stimpson as she could stand just then.
That good lady, having partially recovered her equanimity, retreated to her husband and family.
"I've been talking it over with her Majesty, Sidney," she announced, "and she has quite brought me to see that, under the circumstances, we shall really be more comfortable in dear old England. So she has kindly arranged for us to be taken home in the car directly it gets back from Clairdelune."
"Glad to hear it, my love," said the ex-Monarch. "Personally, I much prefer 'Inglegarth' to this sort of thing."
"But I say," Clarence put in, glancing down at his fantastic attire, "I don't quite see myself going back to Gablehurst in this get up. Wish I knew what had become of the kit we came in!"
It was now the hour when the Court was accustomed to go up and change their costumes before dinner, and Daphne felt a difficulty as to the proper course to pursue with the Wibberley-Stimpsons. Could she without indelicacy invite them to sit as guests at what had lately been their own table? And yet it seemed hardly human to leave them out. She decided that the former course was on the whole less open to objection.
"I hope," she said to Mrs. Stimpson, with a touch of shyness, "that you will all give me the pleasure of dining with us this evening? You see, you must have something to eat before such a long journey."
"Your Majesty is most kind," said Mrs. Stimpson in a great flurry, "but, if you will excuse us from accepting what—no one knows better than I—is really a command, I—I really don't think we should have time to sit through a long dinner. We—we might miss the car—and besides, there's the question of dressing. If we could have a few sandwiches and a little wine in one of the vestibules while we are waiting for the car, that will be all we shall require!"
"You shall do exactly as you please about it," replied Daphne. She was greatly relieved, as one reason for her hesitation in asking them had been the dread that Mr. Stimpson might think himself called upon to make an after-dinner speech.
Her ladies-in-waiting were already in her Tiring-Chamber, highly delighted by the prospect of arraying a Queen whom, even when she had been nominally one of themselves, they had always not merely admired but adored.
It had suddenly occurred to Daphne that the Stimpson family might find themselves on their return to Gablehurst in certain difficulties against which she felt bound to do what she could to protect them.
She thought over the best means of doing this, which took so much time to carry out that the business of arraying her for her first banquet as a Royal Hostess had to be got through more hurriedly than her ladies of the Bedchamber thought at all decorous.
But she knew that Mirliflor would be well content with her, however she looked—and as a matter of fact he not only was, but had every reason to be so.
The Wibberley-Stimpsons had already ascertained that the clothes they had worn on their arrival in Maerchenland had been carefully laid up in one of the Royal wardrobes, from which they were brought at their earnest request. They put them on in frantic haste, and, in deadly fear of being surprised by the Royal Household, they stole down the great Staircase to an antechamber by the Entrance Hall. There they found a table set with every description of tempting food, to which all did justice but Mrs. Stimpson, the state of whose nerves had entirely taken away her appetite. She was continually starting up and saying, "Listen! I'm sure I hear these storks!"
"You'd better eat something, Mater," Clarence said. "It's the last dinner we shall ever have in Maerchenland."
"I can't," she replied, "I don't know how any of you can.... There go the silver trumpets! She's going into the Banqueting Hall now. On Prince Mirliflor's arm, most likely! How she can have the heart when she must know we are still here!"
"She did ask us to dinner, my love," Mr. Stimpson mildly reminded her.
"She had the execrable taste to do that, Sidney," replied his wife, "and I think the manner in which I declined must have been a lesson to her.... Dear me, is that car never coming?"
She said that many times during the evening, as they sat on in the ebony and ivory chamber, while the strains of music reached them faintly from the distant Ballroom.
Clarence thought gloomily of the dance on the night of the Coronation, and how his mother had forbidden him to choose Daphne as his partner. Perhaps, if he had insisted on having his own way—if he had not limited himself to a merely morganatic alliance, she might have—but it was too late to grouse about that now! He endeavoured to cheer himself by the thought that he would very soon be in a civilised land of cigarettes.
It was getting late, and the music had now ceased, from which they gathered that the Queen and Court had already retired. "She might have had the common civility to say good-bye to us!" complained Mrs. Stimpson, "but of course she is too grand now to condescend so far! Not that I have any desire to see her again. On the contrary!"
The doors of the Vestibule were thrown open here and one of the ushers announced: "Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness Prince Mirliflor."
"Coming here to triumph over us!" was Mrs. Stimpson's comment as she rose.
"We came to wish you a pleasant journey to Gablehurst," explained Daphne, as she entered, followed by Mirliflor. "I hope you won't have to wait for the car much longer, but I've told the attendants in the Hall to let you know the minute it is here."
She was looking radiantly lovely and girlish—and queenly as well, in spite of the fact that she was still uncrowned. But if she had had the right to wear her crown, she was incapable of doing so just then.
Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson made a curtsey that might have been lower if she had had any practice—but all the curtseying previously had been done to herself. "We thank your Majesty," she said. "I too hope there will be no more of this delay. I am getting worn out with all this waiting. Oh, while I think of it," she went on (the desire to be offensive overcoming any fear of the consequences), "of course we are not in a position now to give really valuable wedding presents—and I'm afraid mine must be a very humble offering, particularly as it needs repairing. However, such as it is, perhaps your Majesty will honour me by accepting it with our congratulations and very best wishes?" And she offered the jewel which she had formerly acquired from Daphne. Daphne's eyebrows contracted for an instant, but the next moment she laughed.
"I really couldn't, Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson!" she said. "You see, you have already given it to Clarence, and I mustn't deprive him of it."
"Won't you accept it from me, then?" he said awkwardly. "I—I shan't have any use for it now."
She shook her head. "You will please me so much better by keeping it," she said gently—"in memory of Maerchenland."
It was true that it had once belonged to her father—the father she had never known—but then it had also belonged to Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, and Daphne was conscious now of an invincible unwillingness to accept any gift from that lady.
"I—I'd do anything to please you," said Clarence, taking the pendant from his mother and slipping it into the pocket of his dinner-jacket.
Ruby, in the white silk frock she had last worn at "Inglegarth," was clinging to Daphne. "I don't want to go back!" she wailed, "I want to stay here with you. Won't you send for me some day? Say you will; do say you will!"
Daphne stooped to caress and comfort her, and also to hide her own emotion. "I wish I could, darling," she said tenderly, "but I'm afraid, I'm afraid I mustn't make any promises that I'm not sure of being able to keep."
"Then say you will—perhaps!" entreated Ruby, but her mother promptly interposed.
"Ruby, my dear," she said, "you're forgetting how far her Majesty is now our superior. A Palace is no longer a fit place for any of us to visit, and I consider it best we should remain in future strictly in our respective spheres."
"Then I will go to mine at once," said Daphne, smiling. "Good-bye, Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson. Good-bye, Edna." She held out her hand to both of them, but they curtsied formally without offering to take it. "Good-bye, dearest little Ruby—I hope your next governess will love you nearly as much as I do—she can't quite! Good-bye, Mr. Stimpson—I think you will be rather glad to be back in the City again, won't you?"
"I shall, indeed, your Majesty," he said. "To tell you the honest truth, I don't think I was ever cut out for a monarch."
It was Clarence's turn next, and when he saw her offering him her hand with the old frank friendliness, he had a renewed sense of his own unworthiness.
"No," he said in a low voice, "you can't want to shake hands with—with such a hopeless rotter as I've been!"
"I shouldn't," she replied, "if I weren't sure that you could be something very much better if you chose. And I know you will choose."
"I will," he said, "I swear I will—if I ever get the chance!"
"Your chance will come. Quite soon, perhaps. And when it does, remember that I believe in you—and, good-bye, Clarence."
"Good-bye—Daphne," he said brokenly. As he took her hand he thought with a keen pang that he had never held it before, and never would again. And the time had been—or so at least he imagined—when he might have made that hand his own for ever!
"Good night, Mirliflor," said Daphne, as he held aside the hangings for her. "We shall meet to-morrow."
She passed into the great Hall with a dignity the more charming for being so natural and unconscious—and that was the last Clarence was ever destined to see of her.
He turned to Mirliflor, whose eyes still betrayed the pride he felt in his beloved. "I don't mind telling you, old chap—er—Prince Mirliflor, that I took to you from the start, and—as I can't be the lucky man myself, I'm jolly glad it's to be you!"
"Thank you," said Mirliflor, who was less given to florid phrases than the average Fairy Prince. "So am I."
"I dare say," Clarence went on, as he realised the contrast between his own clothes and the magnificent costume that the old Fairy had provided for her royal godson, "I dare say you're thinking we're not looking very smart?"
Mirliflor was honestly able to disclaim having any impressions on the subject.
"Well, these togs must seem a bit rummy to you—but I can assure you that, for informal occasions like the present, they're quite the right thing in England." (He had a momentary impulse to except his father's white tie, but, after all, why should he say anything about that when Mirliflor knew no better? So he decided to pass it), "Worn by the very best Society."
Mirliflor politely accepted this information, and then made his farewells. Edna's good wishes were couched in a spirit of frigid magnanimity. She had too much self-respect to let him perceive that she resented his fickleness.
They were now alone in the antechamber. From time to time Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson would rise impatiently and peer out into the vast hall, now only lit by one or two flickering cressets, to see if the stork-car had arrived—but the attendants in waiting always assured her that it had not, and, after some fussing and fretting, she lay down on a divan and fell into an uneasy slumber.
Her husband was snoring placidly; Ruby had cried herself to sleep long before; Edna had brought down her lecture-notes, and was conscientiously employing the time in polishing up her knowledge of English Literature.
Her notes on Nietzsche's philosophy had been torn out after the rupture with the Count. Somehow the Nietzschean theories did not seem to work quite well when carried into practice. But, after deciphering a very few Literature notes, Edna found herself too drowsy to continue.
Clarence remained awake longest. He had wandered restlessly out into the hall just to look at the great Staircase half lost in the gloom. Daphne had ascended it a little while since. To-morrow she would come down, fresh and radiant, to meet Mirliflor. Before long they would be married and crowned, and live happy ever after in the good old Maerchenland way. Well, he wouldn't have to look on and see them doing it, which was some consolation. He went back to the antechamber and regarded the sleeping forms of his family with disillusioned eyes. "We look like Royalties—I don't think!" he said to himself. "No wonder they've booted us out. Why, a bally rabbit-warren would!"
But this depressing reflection soon ceased to trouble him, unless it still continued to shadow his dreams.
Almost simultaneously Mr. Wibberley-Stimpson and his son and daughters opened their eyes, then rubbed them, and sat up and looked about them with a bewilderment that gradually gave way to intense relief. For, although the light had faded, their surroundings were reassuringly familiar. They were in their own drawing-room at "Inglegarth." It occurred at once to most of them that they had never actually left it—an impression that was pleasantly confirmed by Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson's first remark as she awoke later.
"Why, hasn't the dinner-gong gone yet?" she inquired crossly. "Cook gets more and more unpunctual!"
"I don't think it can be eight o'clock yet, my dear," said her husband, "it's quite light still."
"Nonsense, Sidney, it must be long past dinner-time! I've been so lost in my own thoughts that somehow I——"
"Now, Mother, you know you've been asleep and only just woke up!" said Edna, from one of the chintz couches.
"Have I? Perhaps I did drop off just for a few seconds. In fact I must have done—for I begin to recollect having quite a curious dream. I dreamed that you and I, Sidney, were King and Queen of some absurd fairy Kingdom or other, and that—well, it was not at all a pleasant dream."
"It's a most singular coincidence, Selina," he said, "but I've been dreaming much the same sort of thing myself!"
The others looked at one another, but none of them ventured to express just yet what was in all their minds.
"Have you?" said his wife languidly. "I suppose it was telepathy or something of that kind. Ring for Mitchell, Clarence—I hope dinner has not been allowed to get cold. And—and Miss Heritage seems to have left the drawing-room. Run up, Ruby, and tell her to come down."
"I don't believe she's upstairs at all, mummy," said Ruby. "No, of course she can't be. We left her in the Palace—don't you remember? She's Queen now, you know?"
"Queen! Miss Heritage! Why, you don't mean to tell me you've been dreaming that too?"
"So have I, as far as that goes, mater," said Clarence. "If it was a dream, and not—not——"
"How could it be anything else? Besides, here we all are, exactly as we were!"
"We've got our cloaks and things on, though," said Ruby. "I know how it was! We've been brought here in the stork-car while we were fast asleep. We sat up ever so long waiting for it."
"It can't be! I won't believe anything so absurd. Draw the curtains, somebody, and pull up the blinds.... It's odd, but it certainly looks more like early morning than any other time. Clarence, go out and strike the gong. Perhaps the maids haven't finished dressing yet."
Clarence went out accordingly. The gong bellowed and boomed from the hall, but there was no sound of stirring above. "I say," he reported, "I've just looked into the dining-room, and all the chairs are upside down on the table. That looks rather as if we'd been away for a bit—what?"
"Clarence! You're not beginning to think that—that all that about our having been a Royal Family may be true?"
"Well, Mater," he said, "if we haven't been in Maerchenland, where have we been? Oh yes, we've been Royalties right enough—and a pretty rotten job we made of it!"
At this time there was a deprecatory knock at the drawing-room door. "Mitchell!" cried her mistress, "don't you know better than to—?" However, it was not Mitchell that entered—but a person unknown—a respectable-looking elderly female, who seemed to have made a hasty toilette.
"Askin' your pardons," she said, "but if you were wishing to see the family, they're away just now."
"We are the family," replied Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson. "We have been—er—abroad, but have returned. And we should be glad of breakfast at once."
"I can git you a cup of tea as soon as the kittle's on the boil," she said, "but I'm only put in as caretaker like, and I've nothink in the 'ouse except bread and butter. The shops'll be opening now, so if you don't object to waiting a little, I could go out and get you a naddick and eggs and such like."
"Yes, buck up, old lady!" said Clarence, "and I say, see if you can get a Daily Mail or a paper of some sort."
"What are you so anxious to see the paper for?" inquired Edna after the caretaker had departed.
"Only wanted to know what month we're in," he said. "It would have looked so silly to ask her what day it is. We must have been—over there—a good long time."
"At least a year!" said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson, no longer able to sustain the dream theory. "More. When we left it was quite early Spring—and now all the trees are out! Sidney, what will your firm say to your having been away so long without letting them know where you were?"
"I can't say, my love. I'm afraid they might make it a ground for a dissolution of partnership—unless I can give them a satisfactory explanation of my absence."
"The difficulty will be to find one!" said his wife. "As for you, Clarence, they will be too glad to see you back again at the Insurance Office to ask any questions."
"I dare say they would, Mater, only—it didn't seem worth mentioning before—but, as a matter of fact, I—er—resigned the day we left."
"Then it seems," said Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson bitterly, "we have been sent back here to find ourselves in comparative poverty! I hope and trust"—she felt furtively in her bead handbag before continuing more cheerfully—"that we shall be able to struggle through somehow."
She knew now that they would not be without resources. She could feel them through the handkerchief in which they had been wrapped—two pieces which she had had the presence of mind to pick up from the Halma board as she passed through Edna's and Ruby's chamber the evening before. One was carved from a ruby, the other from a diamond, and each of them was worth a small fortune. Her one regret now was that she had not pocketed several more while she was about it. But, although she would have been perfectly within her rights in doing so—for were they not her own property?—she had thought at the time that it would be risky to take any number that could be noticed. There was always the chance that Miss Heritage might count them!
However, she said nothing about this to her family just then; it would be a pleasant surprise for them later on.
"But," she continued, "I do think it might have occurred to Miss Heritage—I can't and won't call her by any other name—that, as she was known to be in my employment when we left 'Inglegarth,' our returning without her may expose us to very unpleasant remarks. People may think I've discharged her—left her stranded in foreign parts—or I don't know what!"
"That is what she calculated on, no doubt!" said Edna.
"Oh, stop it, Edna!" said her brother, "you ought to know her better than that!"
"Oh, of course she's an angel—in your estimation! But she could have saved mother from being misunderstood if she'd wanted to—and since she hasn't—well, I'll leave you to draw the obvious inference!"
Ruby, who had been roving about the room during this conversation, now broke in:
"Mummy," she cried, "there's a letter here for you, and it looks like darling Queen Daphne's writing!" And she brought it to her mother. It was enclosed in a folded square of parchment—envelopes, like other modern conveniences, being unknown in Maerchenland—and fastened with the royal signet, which Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson broke with a melancholy reminiscence of the satisfaction it had given her to use the seal herself.
"Dear Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson," she read aloud—"As I am about to be married here very shortly, my return with you to England will naturally be impossible. It is a great grief to me to have to part from my dear little pupil Ruby, to whom I have become so deeply and sincerely attached. Will you please tell her from me that I shall never forget her, and miss her very much indeed.—Believe me, very truly yours,
"Well," commented Mrs. Stimpson, while poor Ruby's tears began to flow afresh, "that is certainly a letter which I could show to anybody. Though I notice she doesn't say anything about being grieved to part with anyone but Ruby. A deliberate slight to the rest of us! And then the meanness of turning us out without the slightest return for all we've done for her! It does show such petty ingratitude!"
"Easy on, Mater!" said Clarence. "She don't seem to have let us go away quite empty-handed after all. I mean to say there's a box or something over there that I fancy I've seen before in the Palace."
He went up to examine it as he spoke. It was an oblong case, rather deeper and squarer than a backgammon box, covered with faded orange velvet and fitted with clasps and corners of finely wrought silver set with precious stones.
Inside were the emerald and opal "halma" board and ruby and diamond pieces, and with them a slip of parchment with Daphne's handwriting. "I thought perhaps," she had written, "you might care to have this. Princess Rapunzelhauser tells me she is afraid two of the men are missing, but I hope she is mistaken and they are really all there.—D."
"I shall never play with them!" declared Ruby breaking down once more. "I—I couldn't bear to, without Her!"
"Of course you will never play with them, my dear," said her mother, "they are far too valuable for that."
A very inadequate impression of Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson's strength of character must have been given if anyone expects that this gift would cause her the slightest degree of shame or contrition; on the contrary, it only served to justify her in her own eyes—not that she needed any justification—for having appropriated those two pieces. She had merely anticipated—and nothing would be easier than to put them back in the box without being observed.
"A magnificent present!" pronounced Mr. Stimpson. "Really what I should call very handsome indeed of her. If we ever had to sell this set they'd fetch a colossal sum—here—simply colossal!"
"And a minute ago, Mater," said Clarence, "you accused her of being mean!"
"Well," she replied, "and what are these things, when all is said, to the riches we've surrendered to her? A mere trifle—which she'll never even miss!"
"You're forgetting they were hers—not ours—all the time. And we've left her precious little gold to go on with. It makes me sick to hear you running her down, when, when ... well, anyhow, Mater, I'll be glad if you won't—in my hearing!"
"There's no occasion to use that tone to me, Clarence. I have my own opinion of Miss Heritage, and I am not likely to alter it now. But if you choose to keep your illusions about her, I shall say nothing to disturb them."
"You may be very clever, Clarence," said Edna, "I know you think you are, but there's one subject at all events you're hopelessly ignorant about—and that's Women!"
"I don't mind owning it," he retorted. "I'd have taken my oath once that a highly superior cultivated English girl like you could never have cottoned to any Johnny in the Ogre line of business. But you've shown me my mistake!"
Edna, who was scarlet with wrath, would no doubt have made an obvious rejoinder had not a diversion been caused by the caretaker, who appeared with that morning's Daily Mail.
"Ah, so you managed to get a paper?" cried Clarence. "Good!" and he took it from her hands and opened it. "I say," he announced as soon as they were alone, "we haven't been away so long as we thought. We're still in 1914. Saturday, twenty-fifth of July."
"Is that all?" said his mother. "But I remember now that tiresome old Court Godmother saying that Time went quicker in Maerchenland than it does here. I don't understand how—but there's evidently some difference. The twenty-fifth of July? Dear me, the Pageant must be over and done with long ago! Not of course that I should have cared to take part in it now!"
"Well, my boy," said Mr. Stimpson as Clarence ran through the columns of the paper, "and what's the latest news?"
"First defeat of Middlesex," replied Clarence; "Surrey's at the head of the table now for the Championship! Fine batting by Gloucester at Nottingham yesterday—319 to Notts 299 first innings, and 75 for three wickets!"
"Capital!" said his father without enthusiasm, "and what about Politics? Got Home Rule yet?"
"I'll tell you in a minute.... Looks as if they hadn't. Breakdown of Home Rule Conference at Buckingham Palace. Wonder what the Government will do now."
"They've only to be firm," said Mr. Stimpson, in his character as ex-autocrat. "If Ulster chooses to resent the will of the People as expressed in the last General Election, well, she must be put down, or what's our Army for, I should like to know. Any other news?"
"Nothing much, except that Austria's just sent an ultimatum to Servia. Seems the Austrian Grand Duke's been assassinated, and Austria believes the Servians were in it. Anyhow, they've got to knuckle down by six o'clock to-night or they'll be jolly well walloped. But of course they'll give in when they're up against Austria.... I see these writing chaps are doing their best to work up a scare, though. Here's one of 'em actually saying it may 'plunge all Europe into War.' Good old Armageddon coming off at last, I suppose. How they can write such tommy-rot!"
"It's only to send up their circulation," said Mr. Wibberley-Stimpson. "Depend upon it, there'll be no War. None of the Powers want it—too expensive in these days. They'll see that it's settled without fighting. And even if they can't, we shan't be dragged in—we shall just let 'em fight it out among themselves, and when it's over we shall come in for a share of the pickings!"
"Well," said Clarence, as he crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it away, "we needn't worry ourselves about Armageddon—got something more serious to think about."
"What do you mean, Clarence?" inquired his mother uneasily.
"Why," he said, "it seems we've been away about four months. We can explain now why Miss Heritage hasn't come back with us. She's made that all right by her letter—and a trump she was to think of it! But what are we going to say when people want to know—and you can bet they will—where we've been all this time and what we've been doing?"
"We can simply tell them we have been temporarily occupying exalted positions in a foreign country which we are not at liberty to mention," suggested Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson hopefully.
"We could," he said; "and the reply we should get would probably be 'Rats.' They might put it more politely—but that's what it would amount to. Believe me, you'll never make people here swallow you and the governor as the late King and Queen of Fairyland—it's a jolly sight too thick! Besides, there's nothing particular in what we've done there to brag about—what?"
"I at least have nothing to reproach myself with," said his mother virtuously. "Still I agree with you, Clarence, that perhaps it would be better if we could give some account of ourselves which would sound a little less improbable."
"We shall have to invent one. And as soon as we've done breakfast I vote we put our heads together and fake something up. But, whatever it is, we must all remember to stick to it!"
And after long and strenuous cogitation, the Stimpson family managed to construct a fairly plausible story of an unexpected summons to a remote part of the world, in which they were obliged by circumstances to remain without any facilities for informing their friends of their situation.
There was one danger which Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson foresaw. At any time she might encounter the Duchess of Gleneagles or Lady Muscombe in Society. However, she decided that the risk was almost negligible. After all, their respective circles could not be said to intersect and, if she ever should come across either of these distinguished ladies, it would be easy to deny all recollection of ever having met them before.
And thus reassured, she was able to support the official version of the family adventures so whole-heartedly that she ended by accepting it as the only authentic one.
Ruby, it is true, confided a widely different account in secret to one or two of her most intimate friends.
But Ruby's story met with the fate that is only too certain to befall this veracious and absolutely unexaggerated narrative—nobody was ever found to believe a single word of it!
The re-appearance of the Wibberley-Stimpsons, coupled with the circumstantial explanations they gave of their mysterious absence abroad, provided their friends and neighbours with very nearly the proverbial nine days' wonder. It might have done so even longer, but for that fateful beginning of August, when, with appalling suddenness, the blow was dealt which shattered the peace of Europe and convulsed the whole world.
Then the Fools' Paradise in which England had so long luxuriated crumbled beneath her feet, and left her face to face with stern realities. Nothing was the same, or ever would be the same, again. Issues, causes, topics, which scarcely a week before had seemed of such vital and engrossing importance, shrivelled into insignificance or extinction under the scorching blast of war.
And so it followed that Gablehurst entirely forgot its previous curiosity concerning the private affairs of the Wibberley-Stimpson family, thereby relieving them from a strain on their inventive powers which they had begun to find extremely wearing.
The crisis afforded Mr. Stimpson a long-desired occasion for taking a spirited part in politics. At the suggestion of his wife, who reasoned that in so Conservative a neighbourhood it would be popular to condemn any steps a Radical Government had taken, he summoned a public meeting to protest against the British Ultimatum to Germany, on the ground that England's safety and interests alike depended on her preserving the strictest neutrality under any circumstances whatever. As his sole supporter on the platform was a recently naturalised British subject with a pronounced German accent, the result of this patriotic endeavour was, as he admitted afterwards, "a little unfortunate." Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson herself was compelled to recognise, as she led him home with two black eyes and only one coat-tail, that she had been less correct than usual in estimating the local sentiment, though, of course, she ascribed his treatment entirely to the lack of tact and ability with which he had handled his subject. However, they have long since succeeded in living all that down. Mr. Stimpson very soon recognised that his views of the situation had been mistaken, and made haste to publish his conviction of the righteousness of our cause. No one now enlarges with more fervour on the ruin and disgrace that would have overtaken us if we had been induced to stand aside by persons he refers to as "those infernal cranks and pacifists."
Moreover, he acquired further merit by his generous contribution of two thousand pounds to the Prince of Wales' Fund—a contribution which caused a sensation among many who could give a fairly shrewd guess at the income he drew as a partner in the firm of Cramphorn, Stimpson, & Thistleton.
But then they did not know that, shortly before, he had disposed of two exquisitely carved pieces—one diamond, and the other ruby—by private contract to an American millionaire, for a sum which would have covered an even more princely donation. He has several more of these curiosities, but is reserving them for times when they are more likely to fetch their proper value.
As for his wife and elder daughter, they have already achieved the distinction of sitting on more War Committees, and talking more at every one of them, than any other ladies in Gablehurst.
It is unnecessary to say that they have also knitted a prodigious quantity of garments, or at least did until they were requested to abandon their colour-schemes for the regulation khaki wool—which perceptibly cooled their enthusiasm.
But, after all, the greatest exhibition of self-denial was given by Ruby, who parted with her latest and best-beloved acquisitions—two tree-frogs and an axolotl—and sent the proceeds of their sale to the Red Cross Society.
Clarence had made several applications for such vacant berths as he could hear of in the City which seemed to combine the advantages of light work and a heavy salary, but somehow the principals he interviewed could not be brought to share his own conviction that he was exactly the person to suit them. He had referred them to his previous employers, but even that had led to no favourable result.
The war had not gone on long, however, when it was forcibly borne in upon him that, if there was no particular demand in business circles for his services, they were needed rather urgently just then by his King and Country.
And so, one evening before dinner, he strolled casually into the drawing-room at "Inglegarth" and electrified his family by mentioning that he had offered himself that afternoon to a certain Cavalry regiment, and been pronounced physically fit after examination.
His mother was naturally the most deeply affected by the news, though, after the first shock was over, she was sustained by recollecting that she had caught herself secretly envying a neighbour, whom she had never looked upon as a social equal, but whose boy had just obtained a commission in the Territorials.
"You might have prepared us for this, Clarence!" she said, as soon as she could speak. "It's a heavy blow to me—to us all. Still, if you feel it your duty to go, I hope your Father and I are not the parents to hold you back. If I'm not on one of the same committees as Lady Harriet," she added more brightly, "I really think I must call and let her know. She would be so interested to hear that you are now a Cavalry officer."
"You might make it a Field-Marshal, Mater, while you're about it!" he returned. "But, if you want to be accurate, you'd better describe me as a bally trooper, because that's all I am, or likely to be."
"A trooper!" exclaimed his horrified mother. "Clarence, you can't mean to tell us you've enlisted as an ordinary common soldier! I couldn't possibly permit you to throw yourself away like that, nor, I am sure, will your Father! Sidney, of course you will insist on Clarence's explaining at once to the Colonel, or whoever accepted him, that he finds we object so strongly to his joining that he is obliged to withdraw his offer."
"Certainly," said Mr. Stimpson. "Certainly. It's not too late yet, my boy. You've only to say that we can't allow it—you're more badly wanted at home—and they're sure to let you off."
"Can't quite see myself telling 'em that, Guv'nor. Even if I wanted to be let off—which I don't."
"After the way you've been brought up and everything!" cried Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson. "To sink to this! Has it occurred to you that you would have to associate entirely with persons of the very lowest class?"
"You wouldn't say that if you'd seen some of the Johnnies who passed the Vet with me," he replied. "And, as to classes, all that tosh is done away with now. There's only one class a fellow can't afford to associate with—the slackers who ought to be in khaki and aren't. I couldn't have stuck being in that crowd any longer, and I'm jolly lucky to have got well out of it!"
"All the same, Clarence," lamented his Mother, "you must see what a terrible come-down it is for you, who not so very long ago were a Crown Prince!"
"I thought we'd agreed to forget all that, Mater," he said, wincing slightly. "Anyway, if I don't turn out a better Tommy than I did a Prince, they won't have me in the regiment long. But I'm not going to get the push this time, if I can help it. Come, Mater," he concluded, "don't worry any more over what's done and can't be undone—just try and make the best of it!"
But this was beyond Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson's philosophy just then. If he had been leaving his comfortable home with a commission as sub-lieutenant, she might have been able to find some slight consolation in announcing the fact to her friends. Now she would have to make the humiliating admission that he was nothing more than a common trooper—after which she felt she would never be able to hold up her head again!
As things turned out, these apprehensions proved unfounded. For it seemed that other young Gablehurst men belonging to families in as good a position as her own had enlisted as privates, and, so far from being considered to have brought discredit on their parentage, were regarded with general approval.
And the pride with which their mothers spoke of them encouraged Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson to be even prouder of Clarence, as the only one who had joined a Cavalry regiment.
When he was undergoing the necessary training with the reserve regiment and first had to enter the Riding-School, he was prepared, remembering how suddenly and completely his control of Maerchenland horses had left him, for some highly unpleasant experiences.
Daphne's pendant had been left in safe custody at Inglegarth, and, even if he had had any idea that it had assisted his horsemanship (which he was far from suspecting), he would not have brought it with him, lest he should lose a thing which Daphne had said he would please her by keeping.
Probably, had he brought and been allowed to wear the token, it would not have made any impression whatever on the mind of a British charger—but fortunately no talisman was needed.
All the riding in Maerchenland, while his horses continued docile, had not been without some good result after all. At least he found that he had quite as good a seat as any of his fellow-recruits, and a very much better one than most of them.
And the months of training passed, not unhappily. He made friends, not all of them in his own class; he set himself to learn his job as quickly and thoroughly as he could, and his sergeant-major spoke of him, though not in his presence, as a smart young chap who showed more sense than some he had to do with.
He had not been many weeks in the regiment before he got his first stripe, and when he came home on furlough he was able to inform his family that he had just been promoted to be a full-blown Corporal. It was a farewell visit, as he was being sent out in a day or two with a draft to his regiment at the Front. He had grown broader across the chest, and looked extremely brown and fit, while his family noticed that he no longer ended his remarks with "what?" Once or twice he expressed his satisfaction at getting the chance at last of having a go at the Bosches—but he said very little about the future, and seemed more interested in hearing about Ruby's new school and Edna's ambulance class.
Then he left them, and for months after that they had to endure the long strain of constant anxiety and suspense which few British households have escaped in these dark times. Clarence had always been a poor correspondent—and his letters, though fairly regular, were short and wanting in details. But he said the regiment was doing dismounted work in the trenches; that he was acquiring the habit of sleeping quite soundly under shell-fire; that he had been much cut up by losing some of his best pals, but so far had not been hit himself, though he had had several narrow shaves; he kept pretty fit, but was a bit fed up with trench work, though he didn't see an earthly of riding in a cavalry charge at present.
The last letter was dated February. After that came a silence, which was explained by an official letter stating that he was in a field hospital, severely wounded. Inglegarth remained for days in helpless misery, dreading the worst, till they were relieved by the news that he was now in a base hospital and going on well.
But it was some weeks before he could be moved to London, and longer still before he was convalescent enough to be taken to his own home, where the joy of seeing him recover so rapidly was checked by the knowledge that he would only leave them the sooner.
He was much the same slangy and casual Clarence they had known, though rather subdued, but he had moods of sombre silence at times which none of them dared to interrupt, when his eyes seemed to be looking upon sights they had seen and would fain forget. As to his own doings he said but little, though he told them something of his experiences during his last week at the front—how the regiment had been rushed up in motor-buses from Bleu to Ypres; how they had marched to the Reformatory which they had defended for five days under heavy fire; how they had then dug caverns and occupied trenches to the south of the Menin road, and how the trenches had been mined by the enemy, and five officers killed and sixty-four casualties, of which latter he was one.
Before he was pronounced fit for active service again he heard that he had been recommended for a commission, and given one in another cavalry regiment which had very nearly the same prestige and traditions as his own, though he would have been the last to admit it till then.
Thus was Mrs. Wibberley-Stimpson's dearest desire at last attained; she could now inform her friends and acquaintances that her boy was actually a subaltern, while, even in conversation with strangers, it was always possible to lead up to the fact by enlarging on the heavy cost of a cavalry officer's kit.
And yet, in fairness to her, it may be said that, with all her striving after social distinction, if she had been required to choose between her son returning to the front with a commission and keeping him at home with no higher rank than that of a corporal, she would have chosen the latter without a moment's hesitation.
But since the choice was not given her, Clarence's promotion did much to console her for his approaching departure—at least until the day arrived, when she turned blindly away from the platform with an aching dread that the train was bearing him out of her life for ever.
* * * * *
That was several months ago, and Second-Lieutenant Stimpson (he dropped the "Wibberley" when he first enlisted) has been at the front ever since.
There is a certain endless road, bordered by splintered stumps which once were poplars, and pitted in places with deep shell-holes, that he knows only too well; having taken his troop along it many a night to relieve the party in the trenches.
Even now, when he comes to the group of ruined cottages at which he has to leave the road and strike across country into the danger-zone, he is unpleasantly conscious of a sinking at his heart at the prospect of another week or so of that infernal existence of shattering noise, flying death-splinters, and sickening sights and smells. There he will have to be constantly on the watch, meals and sleep can only be snatched at precarious intervals, and seldom without disturbance; if there is anything more nerve-racking than the scream of shells and the hail of shrapnel it is the lull that follows, when he waits for the enemy's rush to begin. And yet, the moment he finds himself back in the trench again, he becomes acclimatised; his men speak of him as a cool and resourceful young officer under any difficulties, while on more than one occasion he has done some daring and very useful reconnoitring work that may even earn him mention in despatches.
But at present he is enjoying one of his hard-earned rests, being billeted in a farmhouse well away from the firing-line.
Here, having no duties or responsibilities to fix all his thoughts on the present, he can allow them to dwell on the future for a while.
This desperate and relentless war will come to an end in time—how soon he knows no more than anyone, but that it will end in victory for England and her Allies he has no doubt whatever. He is equally sure, though he could not account for his certainty, that, unlike many a better fellow than himself, he will live to see his country at peace once more. But what is he to do then? Even if an opening in the City presented itself, he could never stick an office again after this. On the other hand, even if he gets another step or two, he will find it difficult to live on his pay in a crack cavalry regiment. However, the Governor will no doubt give him an allowance that will enable him to stay in the Service—the Mater can be safely trusted to see to that!
So, this question being satisfactorily disposed of, his thoughts, as usual on these occasions, drift back to Maerchenland, and particularly to Daphne's parting words on the night he left the Palace.
Would she think, he wonders, that he has done something to justify her belief in him?
At least she might be pleased if she knew that he could not fairly be described any longer as a useless rotter.
"Only," he tells himself disconsolately, "she never will know. England's no country of hers now, and she wouldn't feel enough interest in it even to send the Baron across in the stork-car for a daily paper. If she did, she'd be none the wiser, because he'd be sure to bring The Poultry-Fancier's Journal or The Financial News, or something of that sort. And, after all, if she had any idea of the ghastly business that has been going on in this old world for the last year, she's too much heart to be happy—even in Maerchenland. But now she'll go on being happy for the rest of her life, bless her! and if she gives me a thought now and then—well, it will be a jolly sight more than I deserve!"
* * * * *
Works by F. Anstey
Salted Almonds. Second Impression. Crown 8vo. 6s.
ATHENAEUM.—'All the pieces have that rare savour which is the Author's secret.'
The Brass Bottle. With a Frontispiece. 5th Impression. (Waterloo Library.) Crown 8vo. 3s. 6d.
SPECTATOR.—'In his logical conduct of an absurd proposition, in his fantastic handling of the supernatural, in his brisk dialogue and effective characterisation, Mr. Anstey has once more shown himself to be an artist and a humourist of uncommon and enviable merit.'
The Talking Horse and other Tales.
ATHENAEUM.—'The grimmest of mortals, in his most surly mood, could hardly resist the fun of "The Talking Horse."'
The Giant's Robe.
PALL MALL GAZETTE.—'We read and cannot cease reading till the puzzle is solved in a series of exciting situations.'
SATURDAY REVIEW.—'Extremely entertaining reading. There is not a dull page—we might say, not a dull sentence—in it....'
A Fallen Idol.
TIMES.—'Will delight the multitudinous public that laughed over "Vice Versa."... The boy who brings the accursed image to Champion's house, Mr. Bales, the artist's factotum, and above all Mr. Yarker, the ex-butler who has turned policeman, are figures whom it is as pleasant to meet as it is impossible to forget.'