"Ah, Madam!" said the prince, "you are forgiving—"
"For you are brave!" said Molinda, feeling: quite a respect for him.
"But neither your heart nor mine is ours to give. Since mine was another's, I understand too well the feeling of yours! Do not let us buy life at the price of happiness and honour."
Then, turning to the king the prince said:
"Sir, is there no way but by death or marriage? You say you cannot keep half only of your promise; and that, if I accept the reward, I must also unite myself with my unwilling cousin. Cannot the whole proclamation be annulled, and will you consider the bargain void if I tear up this flimsy scroll?"
And here the prince fluttered the cheque for L1,000,000 in the air.
For a moment the king was tempted; but then he said to himself:
"Never mind, it's only an extra penny on the income-tax." Then, "Keep your dross," he shouted, meaning the million; "but let me keep my promise. To chapel at once, or—" and he pointed to the executioner. "The word of a king of Pantouflia is sacred."
"And so is that of a crown prince," answered Prigio; "and mine is pledged to a lady."
"She shall be a mourning bride," cried the king savagely, "unless"—here he paused for a moment—"unless you bring me back Alphohso and Enrico, safe and well!"
The prince thought for the space of a flash of lightning.
"I accept the alternative," he said, "if your majesty will grant me my conditions."
"Name them!" said the king.
"Let me be transported to Gluckstein, left there unguarded, and if, in three days, I do not return with my brothers safe and well, your majesty shall be spared a cruel duty. Prigio of Pantouflia will perish by his own hand."
The king, whose mind did not work very quickly, took some minutes to think over it. Then he saw that by granting the prince's conditions, he would either recover his dear sons, or, at least, get rid of Prigio, without the unpleasantness of having him executed. For, though some kings have put their eldest sons to death, and most have wished to do so, they have never been better loved by the people for their Roman virtue.
"Honour bright?" said the king at last.
"Honour bright!" answered the prince, and for the first time in many months, the royal father and son shook hands.
"For you, madam," said Prigio in a stately way to Lady Molinda, "in less than a week I trust we shall be taking our vows at the same altar, and that the close of the ceremony which finds us cousins will leave us brother and sister."
Poor Molinda merely stared; for she could not imagine what he meant. In a moment he was gone; and having taken, by the king's permission, the flying carpet, he was back at the ambassador's house in Gluckstein.
CHAPTER XVII.—The Black Cat and the brethren
WHO was glad to see the prince, if it was not Lady Rosalind? The white roses of her cheeks turned to red roses in a moment, and then back to white again, they were so alarmed at the change. So the two went into the gardens together, and talked about a number of things; but at last the prince told her that, before three days were over, all would be well, or all would be over with him. For either he would have brought his brothers back, sound and well, to Falkenstein, or he would not survive his dishonour.
"It is no more than right," he said; "for had I gone first, neither of them would have been sent to meet the monster after I had fallen. And I should have fallen, dear Rosalind, if I had faced the Firedrake before I knew you."
Then when she asked him why, and what good she had done him, he told her all the story; and how, before he fell in love with her, he didn't believe in fairies, or Firedrakes, or caps of darkness, or anything nice and impossible, but only in horrid useless facts, and chemistry, and geology, and arithmetic, and mathematics, and even political economy. And the Firedrake would have made a mouthful of him, then.
So she was delighted when she heard this, almost as much delighted as she was afraid that he might fail in the most difficult adventure. For it was one thing to egg on a Remora to kill a Firedrake, and quite another to find the princes if they were alive, and restore them if they were dead!
But the prince said he had his plan, and he stayed that night at the ambassador's. Next morning he rose very early, before anyone else was up, that he might not have to say "Good-bye" to Lady Rosalind. Then he flew in a moment to the old lonely castle, where nobody went for fear of ghosts, ever since the Court retired to Falkenstein.
How still it was, how deserted; not a sign of life, and yet the prince was looking everywhere for some living thing. He hunted the castle through in vain, and then went out to the stable-yard; but all the dogs, of course, had been taken away, and the farmers had offered homes to the poultry. At last, stretched at full length in a sunny place, the prince found a very old, half-blind, miserable cat. The poor creature was lean, and its fur had fallen off in patches; it could no longer catch birds, nor even mice, and there was nobody to give it milk. But cats do not look far into the future; and this old black cat—Frank was his name—had got a breakfast somehow, and was happy in the sun. The prince stood and looked at him pityingly, and he thought that even a sick old cat was, in some ways, happier than most men.
"Well," said the prince at last, "he could not live long anyway, and it must be done. He will feel nothing."
Then he drew the sword of sharpness, and with one turn of his wrist cut the cat's head clean off.
It did not at once change into a beautiful young lady, as perhaps you expect; no, that was improbable, and, as the prince was in love already, would have been vastly inconvenient. The dead cat lay there, like any common cat.
Then the prince built up a heap of straw, with wood on it; and there he laid poor puss, and set fire to the pile. Very soon there was nothing of old black Frank left but ashes!
Then the prince ran upstairs to the fairy cupboard, his heart beating loudly with excitement, The sun was shining through the arrow-shot window; all the yellow motes were dancing in its rays. The light fell on the strange heaps of fairy things—talismans and spells. The prince hunted about here and there, and at last he discovered six ancient water-vessels of black leather, each with a silver plate on it, and on the plate letters engraved. This was what was written on the plates:
AQVA. DE. FONTE. LEONVM.*
* Water from the Fountain of Lions.
"Thank heaven!" said the prince. "I thought they were sure to have brought it!"
Then he took one of the old black-leather bottles, and ran downstairs again to the place where he had burned the body of the poor old sick cat.
He opened the bottle, and poured a few drops of the water on the ashes and the dying embers.
Up there sprang a tall, white flame of fire, waving like a tongue of light; and forth from the heap jumped the most beautiful, strong, funny, black cat that ever was seen!
It was Frank as he had been in the vigour of his youth; and he knew the prince at once, and rubbed himself against him and purred.
The prince lifted up Frank and kissed his nose for joy; and a bright tear rolled down on Frank's face, and made him rub his nose with his paw in the most comical manner.
Then the prince set him down, and he ran round and round after his tail; and, lastly, cocked his tail up, and marched proudly after the prince into the castle.
"Oh, Frank!" said Prince Prigio, "no cat since the time of Puss in Boots was ever so well taken care of as you shall be. For if the fairy water from the Fountain of Lions can bring you back to life—why, there is a chance for Alphonso and Enrico!"
Then Prigio bustled about, got ready some cold luncheon from the store-room, took all his fairy things that he was likely to need, sat down with them on the flying carpet, and wished himself at the mountain of the Firedrake.
"I have the king now," he said; "for if I can't find the ashes of my brothers, by Jove! I'll!—"
Do you know what he meant to do, if he could not find his brothers? Let every child-guess.
Off he flew; and there he was in a second, just beside poor Alphonso's garden-engine. Then Prigio, seeing a little heap of grey ashes beside the engine, watered them with the fairy water; and up jumped Alphonso, as jolly as ever, his sword in his hand.
"Hullo, Prigio!" cried he; "are you come after the monster too? I've been asleep, and I had a kind of dream that he beat me. But the pair of us will tackle him. How is Molinda?"
"Prettier than ever," said Prigio; "but anxious about you. However, the Firedrake's dead and done for; so never mind him. But I left Enrico somewhere about. Just you sit down and wait a minute, till I fetch him."
The prince said this, because he did not wish Alphonso to know that he and Enrico had not had quite the best of it in the affair with the monster.
"All right, old fellow," says Alphonso; "but have you any luncheon with you? Never was so hungry in my life!"
Prince Prigio had thought of this, and he brought out some cold sausage (to which Alphonso was partial) and some bread, with which the younger prince expressed himself satisfied. Then Prigio went up the hill some way, first warning Alphonso not to sit on his carpet for fear of accidents like that which happened to Benson. In a hollow of the hill, sure enough there was the sword of Enrico, the diamonds of the hilt gleaming in the sun. And there was a little heap of grey ashes.
The prince poured a few drops of the water from the Fountain of Lions on them, and up, of course, jumped Enrico, just as Alphonso had done.
"Sleepy old chap you are, Enrico," said the prince; "but come on, Alphonso will have finished the grub unless we look smart."
So back they came, in time to get their share of what was going; and they drank the Remora's very good health, when Prigio told them about the fight. But neither of them ever knew that they had been dead and done for; because Prigio invented a story that the mountain was enchanted, and that, as long as the Firedrake lived, everyone who came there fell asleep. He did tell them about the flying carpet, however, which of course did not much surprise them, because they had read all about it in the Arabian Nights and other historical works.
"And now I 'll show you fun!" said Prigio; and he asked them both to take their seats on the carpet, and wished to be in the valley of the Remora.
There they were in a moment, among the old knights whom, if you remember, the Remora had frozen into stone. There was quite a troop of them, in all sorts of armour—Greek and Roman, and Knight Templars like Front' de Bouf and Brian du Bois Gilbert—all the brave warriors that had tried to fight the Remora since the world began.
Then Prigio gave each of his brothers some of the water in their caps, and told them to go round pouring a drop or two on each frozen knight. And as they did it, lo and behold! each knight came alive, with his horse, and lifted his sword and shoute:
"Long live Prince Prigio!" in Greek, Latin, Egyptian, French, German, and Spanish,—all of which the prince perfectly understood, and spoke like a native.
So he marshalled them in order, and sent them off to ride to Falkenstein and cry:
"Prince Prigio is coming!"
Off they went, the horses' hoofs clattering, banners flying, sunshine glittering on the spear-points. Off they rode to Falkenstein; and when the king saw them come galloping in, I can tell you he had no more notion of hanging Prigio.
CHAPTER XVIII.—The Very Last
THE princes returned to Gluckstein on the carpet, and went to the best inn, where they dined together and slept. Next morning they, and the ambassador, who had been told all the story, and Lady Rosalind, floated comfortably on the carpet, back to Falkenstein, where the king wept like anything on the shoulders of Alphonso and Enrico. They could not make out why he cried so, nor why Lady Molinda and Lady Kathleena cried; but soon they were all laughing and happy again. But then—would you believe he could be so mean?—he refused to keep his royal promise, and restore Prigio to his crown-princeship! Kings are like that.
But Prigio, very quietly asking for the head of the Firedrake, said he'd pour the magic water on that, and bring the Firedrake back to life again, unless his majesty behaved rightly. This threat properly frightened King Grognio, and he apologised. Then the king shook hands with Prigio in public, and thanked him, and said he was proud of him. As to Lady Rosalind, the old gentleman quite fell in love with her, and he sent at once to the Chaplain Royal to get into his surplice, and marry all the young people off at once, without waiting for wedding-cakes, and milliners, and all the rest of it.
Now, just as they were forming a procession to march into church, who should appear but the queen! Her majesty had been travelling by post all the time, and, luckily, had heard of none of the doings since Prigio, Benson, and the king left Gluckstein. I say luckily because if she had heard of them, she would not have believed a word of them. But when she saw Alphonso and Enrico, she was much pleased, and said:
"Naughty boys! Where have you been hiding? The king had some absurd story about your having been killed by a fabulous monster. Bah! don't tell me. I always said you would come back after a little trip—didn't I, Prigio?"
"Certainly, madam," said Prigio; "and I said so, too. Didn't I say so?" And all the courtiers cried: "Yes, you did;" but some added, to themselves, "He always says, 'Didn't I say so?'"
Then the queen was introduced to Lady Rosalind, and she said it was "rather a short engagement, but she supposed young people understood their own affairs best." And they do! So the three pairs were married, with the utmost rejoicings; and her majesty never, her whole life long, could be got to believe that anything unusual had occurred.
The honeymoon of Prince Prigio and the Crown Princess Rosalind was passed at the castle, where the prince had been deserted by the Court. But now it was delightfully fitted up; and Master Frank marched about the house with his tail in the air, as if the place belonged to him.
Now, on the second day of their honeymoon, the prince and princess were sitting in the garden together, and the prince said, "Are you quite happy, my dear?" and Rosalind said, "Yes; quite."
But the prince did not like the tone of her voice, and he said:
"No, there's something; do tell me what it is."
"Well," said Rosalind, putting her head on his shoulder, and speaking very low, "I want everybody to love you as much as I do. No, not quite so very much,—but I want them to like you. Now they can't, because they are afraid of you; for you are so awfully clever. Now, couldn't you take the wishing cap, and wish to be no cleverer than other people? Then everybody would like you!"
The prince thought a minute, then he said:
"Your will is law, my dear; anything to please you. Just wait a minute!"
Then he ran upstairs, for the last time, to the fairy garret, and he put on the wishing cap.
"No," thought he to himself, "I won't wish that. Every man has one secret from his wife, and this shall be mine."
Then he said aloud: "I wish to SEEM no CLEVERER THAN OTHER PEOPLE."
Then he ran downstairs again, and the princess noticed a great difference in him (though, of course, there was really none at all), and so did everyone. For the prince remained as clever as ever he had been; but, as nobody observed it, he became the most popular prince, and finally the best-beloved king who had ever sat on the throne of Pantouflia.
But occasionally Rosalind would say, "I do believe, my dear, that you are really as clever as ever!"
And he was!