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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe King's Mirror - Chapter 2. A Bird Without Wings
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The King's Mirror - Chapter 2. A Bird Without Wings Post by :martindemadrid Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Hope Date :May 2012 Read :656

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The King's Mirror - Chapter 2. A Bird Without Wings

CHAPTER II. A BIRD WITHOUT WINGS

A man's _puerilia are to himself not altogether puerile; they are parcel of the complex explanation of his existent self. He starts, I suppose, as something, a very malleable something, ready to be hammered into the shape that the socket requires. The two greatest forces at work on the yielding substance are parents and position, with the gardener's boy beneath my window crusts and cuffs, with me at the window kingship and Styrian discipline. In the latter there was to me nothing strange; I had grown into it from birth. But now it became suddenly noticeable, as a thing demanding justification, by reason of its patent incongruity with my kingship. I have shown how swiftly and sharply the contrast was impressed on me; if I have not made that point, then my story of a nursery tragedy is unexcused. I was left wondering what manner of king he was who must obey on pain of blows. I was very young, and the sense of outrage did not last, but the puzzle persisted, and Victoria's riper philosophy was taxed to allay it. Waiting seemed the only thing, waiting till I could fling my shoes at whom I would, and sit on my throne to behold the bastinadoing of Krak. My mother told me that I must be an obedient boy first. Well and good; but then why make me a king now? In truth I was introduced over-early to the fictions of high policy. A king without power seems to a child like a bird without wings; but a bird without wings is a favourite device of statesmanship.

The matter did not stand even here. My kingship not only lacked the positive advantages with which youthful imagination (aided by the archbishop's pious hyperbole) had endowed it; it became in my eyes the great and fertile source of all my discomfort, the parent of every distasteful obligation, the ground on which all chosen pleasures were refused. It was ever "Kings can not do this," or "Kings must do that," and the "this" was always sweet, the "that" repellent; in Krak's hands monarchy became a cross between a treadmill and a strait-waistcoat. "What's the use of being a king?" I dared once to cry to her.

"God did not make you a king for your own pleasure," returned Krak solemnly. I recollect thinking that her remark must certainly be true, yet wondering whether God quite realized how tiresome the position was.

It may be supposed that I had many advantages to counterbalance these evils that pressed so hardly on me. I do not recollect being conscious of them. Even my occasional parades in public, although they tickled my vanity, were spoiled for me by the feeling that nobody would look at me with admiration, envy, or even interest, if he knew the real state of the case. I may observe that this reflection has not vanished with infancy, but still is apt to assail me. Of course I was well fed, well housed, and well, though firmly, treated. Alas, what we have not is more to us than all we possess. I was thankful under protest; prohibitions outweighed privileges. I have not the experience necessary for any generalization, but my own childhood was not very happy.

A day comes into my mind almost as clear and distinct in memory as my coronation day. I was nine years old, and went with my mother to pay a visit to a nobleman of high rank. He had just married and brought to his house a young American lady. We were welcomed, of course, with infinite courtesy and deference. Princess Heinrich received such tributes well, with a quiet, restrained dignity and a lofty graciousness. I was smart in my best clothes, a miniature uniform of the Corps of Guards, and my hand flew up to my little helmet when the Countess curtseyed very low and looked at me with merry, sparkling blue eyes. Her husband was a tall, good-looking fellow, stiff in back and manner, as are most of our folk, but honest and good-hearted, as are most of them also. But I paid little heed to him; the laughing Countess engrossed me, and I found myself smiling at her. Her eyes seemed to enter into confidence with me, and I knew she was rather sorry for me. The day was damp and chill, and, although my mother would not refuse to go round the Count's gardens, of which he was proud, she declared that the walk was not safe for me, and asked the Countess to take care of me. So she and I were left alone. I stood rather shyly by the table, fingering the helmet that my mother had told me to take off; presently looking up, I saw her merry eyes on me.

"Sire," said the Countess, "if you sat down I would."

I bowed and sought a chair; there was a high wooden arm-chair, and I clambered into it; my legs dangled in mid-air. Another little laugh came from the Countess as she brought me a high footstool. I tried to jump down in time to stop her, but she would not let me. Then she knelt herself on the stool, her knees by my feet.

"What beautiful military boots!" she said.

I looked down listlessly at my shining toes. She clasped her hands, crying:

"You're a beautiful little king! Oh, isn't it lovely to be a king!"

I looked at her doubtfully; her pretty face was quite close to mine. Somehow I wanted very much to put my arms round her neck, but I felt sure that kings did not hug countesses. Imagine Krak's verdict on such a notion!

"I'm not a king for my own pleasure," said I, regarding my hostess gravely. "I am a king for the good of my people."

She drew a long breath and whispered in English (I did not understand then, but the sound of the words stayed with me), "Poor little mite!" Then she said:

"But don't you have a lovely time?"

I felt that I was becoming rather red, and I knew that the tears were not far from my eyes.

"No," said I, "not very."

"Why not?"

"They--they don't let me do any of the things I want to."

"You shall do anything you want to here," she whispered. I was very much surprised to see that her bright eyes had grown a little clouded.

"We've no kings in my country," she said, taking my hand in hers.

"Oh, I wish I'd been born there," said I; then we looked at one another for a minute, and I put out my arms and took hold of her, and drew her face near mine. With a little gulp in her throat she sprang up, caught me in her arms, kissed me a dozen times, and threw herself into the big chair with me on her knees. Now I was crying, and yet half laughing; so I believe was she. We did not say very much more to one another. Soon I stopped crying; she looked at me, and we both laughed.

"What babies we are, your Majesty!" said she.

"They might let me do a little more, mightn't they? It's all Krak, you know. Mother wouldn't be half so bad without Krak."

"Oh, my dear, and is Krak so horrid?"

"Horrid," said I, with grave emphasis.

The Countess kissed me again.

"You'll grow up soon," she said. Somehow the assurance comforted me more from her lips than from Victoria's. "Will you be nice to me when you grow up?"

"I shall always be very, very fond of you," said I.

She laughed a funny little laugh, and then sighed.

"If God sends me a little son, I hope he'll be like you," she whispered, with her cheek against mine.

"He won't be a king," said I with a sigh of envy.

"You poor dear!" cooed she.

Then came my mother's clear, high-bred voice, just outside the door, descanting on the beauty of the Count's parterres and orangery. A swift warning glance flew from me to my hostess. I scampered off my perch, and she stood up in respectful readiness for the entrance of Princess Heinrich.

"Don't tell mother," I whispered urgently.

"Not a word!"

"Whatever they do to you?"

"No, whatever they do to me!"

My mother was in the room, the Count holding the door for her and closing it as she passed through. I felt her glance rest on me for a moment; then she turned to the Countess and expressed all proper admiration of the gardens, the house, and the whole demesne.

"And I hope Augustin has been a good boy?" she ended.

"The King has been very good, madame," returned the Countess. Then she looked in an inquiring way at her husband, as though she did not quite know whether she were right or not, and with a bright blush added, "If you would let him come again some day, madame!"

My mother smiled quite graciously.

"You mustn't leave me out of the invitation," she said. "We will both come, won't we, Augustin?"

"Yes, please, mother," said I, relapsed into shyness and in great fear lest our doings should be discovered.

"Say good-bye now," commanded the Princess.

I should have liked to kiss the Countess again, but such an act would have risked a betrayal. Our adieu was made in proper form, the Countess accompanying us to the door. There we left her curtseying, while the Count handed my mother into the carriage. I looked round, and the Countess blew me a surreptitious kiss.

When we had driven a little way, my mother said:

"Do you like the Countess von Sempach?"

"Yes, very much."

"She was kind to you?"

"Very, mother."

"Then why have you been crying, Augustin?"

"I haven't been crying," said I. The lie was needful to my compact with the Countess; my honour was rooted in dishonour.

"Yes, you have," said she, but not quite in the accusing tones that generally marked the detection of falsehood. She seemed to look at me more in curiosity than in anger. Then she bent down toward me. "What did you talk about?" she asked.

"Nothing very particular, mother. She asked me if I liked being king."

"And what did you say?"

"I said I liked it pretty well."

My mother made no answer. I stole a look at her handsome clean-cut features; she was frowning a little.

"I didn't tell her much," said I, aiming at propitiation.

"Much of what?" came sharply, but not unkindly. Yet the question posed me.

"Oh, I don't know!" I murmured forlornly; and I was surprised when she turned and kissed me, saying:

"We all love you, Augustin; but you have to be king, and you must learn how."

"Yes," I assented. The thing was quite inevitable; I knew that.

Silence followed for a little while. Then my mother said:

"When you're ten you shall have a tutor, and your own servants, Augustin."

Hastily I counted the months. There were nine; but what did the proposal mean? Was I to be a free man then?

"And we women will leave you alone," my mother went on. She kissed me again, adding, "You don't like us, do you?"

"I like you, mother," I said gravely, "at least generally--not when you let Kr--the Baroness----"

"Never mind the Baroness," she interrupted. Then she put her arm round my neck and asked me in a very low voice, "You didn't like the Countess better than me, did you, Augustin?"

"N--no, mother," said I, but I was an unaccomplished hypocrite, and my mother turned away. My thoughts were not on her, but on the prospect her words had opened to me.

"Do you mean that the Baroness won't be my governess any more?"

"Yes. You'll have a governor, a tutor."

"And shall I----?"

"I'll tell you all about it soon, dear."

The rest of our drive was in silence. My mind was full to overflowing of impressions, hopes, and wonders; my mother's gaze was fixed on the windows of the carriage.

We reached home, and together went up to the schoolroom. It was not tea-time yet, and lesson-books were on the table. Krak sat beside it, grave, grim, and gray. Victoria was opposite to her. Victoria was crying. Past experience enlightened me; I knew exactly what had happened; Victoria had a delightfully unimpressionable soul; no rebuke from Krak brought her to tears; Krak had been rapping her knuckles, and her tears were an honest tribute to pain, with no nonsense of merely wounded sensibility about them. My mother went up and whispered to Krak. Krak had, of course, risen, and stood now listening with a heavy frown. My mother drew herself up proudly; she seemed to brace herself for an effort; I heard nothing except "I think you should consult me," but our quick children's eyes apprehended the meaning of the scene. Krak was being bearded. There was no doubt of it; for presently Krak bowed her head in a jerky unwilling nod and walked out of the room. My mother stood still for a moment with a vivid red colour in her cheeks. Then she walked across to Victoria, lifted one of her hands from the table, and kissed it.

"You're going to have tea with me to-day, children," said she, "and we'll play games afterward. Augustin shall play at not being a king."

I remember well the tea we had and the games that followed, wherein we all played at being what we were not, and for an evening cheated fate of its dues. My mother was merriest, for over Victoria and myself there hung a veil of unreality, a consciousness that indeed we played and set aside for an hour only the obstinate claims of the actual. But we were all merry; and when we parted--for my mother had a dinner-party--we both kissed her heartily; me she kissed often. I thought that she wanted to ask me again whether I liked the Countess better than her, but was afraid to risk the question. What I wanted to say was that I liked none better if she would be always what she was this evening; but I found no skill adequate to a declaration of affection so conditional. It would be to make a market of my kisses, and I had not yet come to the age for such bargains.

Then we were left alone, Victoria and I, to sit together for a while in the dusk; and, sitting there, we totted up that day's gains. They were uncertain, yet seemed great. All that had passed I told Victoria, save what in loyalty to my countess I might not; Victoria imparted to me the story of the knuckle-rapping. For her an added joy lay in the fact that on this occasion, if ever, she had deserved the affliction; she had been gloriously naughty, and gloried in it now; did not her sinfulness enhance the significance of this revolution? So carried away were we by our triumph that now again, after a long interval, we allowed our imagination to paint royalty in glowing colours, and our Arabian Nights and fairy tales seemed at last not altogether cunningly wrought deceptions. When we had gone to bed, again we met, I creeping into her room, and rousing her to ask whether in truth a new age had come and the yoke of Krak been broken from off our backs. Victoria sat up in bed and discussed the problem gravely. For me she was sanguine, for herself less so; for, said she, they go on worrying the girls for ever so long. "She won't rap your knuckles any more," I suggested, fastening on a certain and tangible advantage. Victoria agreed that in all likelihood her knuckles would henceforth be inviolate; and she did not deny such gain as lay there. Thus in the end I won her to cheerfulness, and we parted merrily, declaring to one another that we were free; and I knew that in some way the pretty American countess had lent a hand to knocking off our chains.

Free! A wonderful word that, whether you use it of a child, a man, a state, a world, an universe! That evening we seemed free. In after-days I received from old Hammerfeldt (a great statesman, as history will one day allow) some lectures on the little pregnant, powerful, empty word. He had some right to speak of freedom; he had seen it fought for by Napoleon, praised by Talleyrand, bought by Castlereagh, interpreted by Metternich. Should he not then know what it was, its value, its potency, and its sweetness, why men died for it, and delicate women who loved them cheered them on? Once also in later years a beautiful woman cried to me, with white arms outstretched, that to be free was life, was all in all, the heart's one satisfaction. Her I pressed, seeking to know wherein lay the attraction and allurement that fired her to such extravagance. And I told her what the Prince had said to me half-way through his pinch of snuff.

"'Sire,' said he, 'to become free--what is it? It is to change your master.'"

The lady let her arms fall to her side, reflected a moment, smiled, and said:

"The Prince was no fool, sire."

As the result of this day that I have described, I had become free. I had changed my master.

We did not, however, pay any more visits to the Countess.

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