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CHAPTER XII
WHAT THE PRINCE ASKED FOR

The royal progress was the event of the morning and afternoon for several days before it occurred to Pollyooly to tell the Honourable John Ruffin about it. Then one evening, on their way to bathe, she told him.

The Honourable John Ruffin stood still on the edge of the sea, looked at her thoughtfully, and said:

"This is interesting indeed. I had no idea that German aggression had extended to this retired spot."

"And he's such an ugly little boy," said Pollyooly.

"And he is all alone?"

"Oh, no: there's a baron with him to look after him—with a large moustache. He's very ugly too," said Pollyooly frankly.

"This grows more interesting still. I think I should enjoy looking into this matter. Prussian barons always need a firm hand. But I'm too full up with golf to deal with it for the next day or two. I must bear it in mind."

Plainly he did bear it in mind, for on the afternoon of the third day, to Pollyooly's delight, he joined them on the sands. She introduced him to Mrs. Gibson; and he thanked her for having had his two little cousins to tea, and chatted to her in his cheerful and engaging fashion till Prince Adalbert of Lippe-Schweidnitz came slouching along on his devastating course. The Honourable John Ruffin observed him with every appearance of the liveliest interest; but the Baron von Habelschwert seemed to afford him even greater pleasure than did his young charge; and upon him he gazed with a fascinated, loving eye.

"I have rarely seen a more perfect pair," he said to Mrs. Gibson in a tone of deep content.

"Detestable creatures!" said Mrs. Gibson with some heat.

"Perhaps—but how incomparably Prussian!" said the Honourable John Ruffin with warm appreciation. "And you let these unpleasant ones terrorise your children?"

"Well, what can I do?" said Mrs. Gibson. "My husband would have stopped it, if he had been down here; but he isn't. I have spoken to one or two men, acquaintances, about it. But they seem afraid to interfere."

"We are getting too highly civilised," said the Honourable John Ruffin in a melancholy tone. "The fine old English spirit is dying out; and they're afraid of getting into the papers. But evidently what is needed is the giving of lessons; and the proper person to give them is a fierce small boy—Irish for choice—one who is always and nobly spoiling for a fight. Unfortunately I have not a fierce small Irish boy to hand; but, thank goodness! there are still red Deepings left in England."

"What is a red Deeping?" said Mrs. Gibson.

"The red Deepings are an old East Anglian strain—red-haired and very fierce and cantankerous when roused. My little cousin Pollyooly here is a red Deeping."

"Oh, do you think she could cope with that horrid little boy?" said Mrs. Gibson eagerly.

"I'm sure of it," said the Honourable John Ruffin with decision. "Come here, Pollyooly."

Pollyooly came; and he felt her biceps carefully. Then he said:

"Didn't Mr. Vance tell me a story of a boy called Henry Wiggins whom you found disrespectful and taught manners?"

Pollyooly flushed faintly; but she said bravely, in an explanatory tone:

"I had to. He was always bothering."

"I should think that Henry Wiggins was a far more active and difficult boy in a fight than this fat little prince," said the Honourable John Ruffin.

"Oh, Henry Wiggins is tough but really he is quite easy. You've only got to get hold of his hair," said Pollyooly quickly. "But of course the prince has very short hair, only he isn't tough at all," she added in the grave tones of one weighing the chances of battle.

"He certainly is cropped. The Prussians have no æsthetic sense," said the Honourable John Ruffin in a disparaging tone. "But I should think that you could get over the difficulty of the hair."

"Oh, yes: I'm nearly sure I could," said Pollyooly; and her deep blue eyes began to shine. "May I smack him if he interferes with us?"

"Not on any account unless I am at hand," said the Honourable John Ruffin quickly. "I have a deep, patriotic distrust of the chivalry of Prussian barons. I do not think that this one could be trusted to see fair play. You might have a baron on your hands as well as a prince; and it might be too much for a red Deeping of your size. A prince at a time should be your motto."

"It would be very amusing," said Mrs. Gibson; and her eyes danced.

"You shall see it," said the Honourable John Ruffin amiably. "Unbiased spectators of a dramatic scene are always desirable; and it won't be difficult to arrange your presence, for the business will need a little stage-managing. You watch the prince, Pollyooly, and see how far he goes down the beach, so that we can arrange the exact place for his instruction."

The next day Pollyooly followed the prince to the end of his royal progress twice; and she had little doubt that she would be able to draw him into the battle for which she yearned, for he never saw her without scowling darkly upon her.

On the second day the Honourable John Ruffin returned from his golf in time to lunch with the two children; and he informed Pollyooly that he proposed to spend the afternoon on the sand with them. They found Mrs. Gibson with her children; and she accompanied them to the spot at which the prince usually turned in his course. Twenty yards beyond it the Honourable John Ruffin bade Pollyooly build a castle; and then he and Mrs. Gibson left her and the Lump to build it, and retiring to the sea-wall forty yards away, they sat down and fell into polite conversation. As they left her, the Honourable John Ruffin's last words to Pollyooly were:

"I don't forbid you to scratch him. Scratching is harmonious with the female nature."

The statement afforded Mrs. Gibson grounds for the beginning of their polite conversation.

Pollyooly and the Lump worked steadily away at the building of the castle. Pollyooly did the digging; now and again the Lump would pat a wall placidly. They had been at work for rather more than half an hour; and the castle was already beginning to wear the rotund air so dear to the eye of the builder when the progressive prince came in sight.

Pollyooly's joyful heart began to beat quickly. He was slouching along to his doom nearly fifty yards in front of the fragrant baron; and since there were children to annoy all the way, he came but slowly. It gave Pollyooly time to lead the Lump half-way to Mrs. Gibson, and send him toddling the rest. She was back at her castle, and at work again when the prince caught sight of her.

He stopped short, his unhasty mind slowly taking in the situation. That she should be working in loneliness, thirty yards beyond the line of nurses and children along the beach, seemed too good to be true. Presently his unhurrying mind grasped the fact that it was true; his heart blazed in his bosom; he threw back his head and, had his nose been larger, he would have sniffed the breeze like a warhorse. He advanced upon her in a quick, shambling slouch.

Pollyooly saw his eager advance; but she affected not to see it. She was eager for the fray, but fearful lest a display of that eagerness should dash the royal courage; moreover she wished the prince to be flagrantly the aggressor. She worked at the farther wall of the castle with her back to him. A fray was the last thing the prince looked for. There had been but one fray in his sheltered life: with a brother prince carelessly admitted to his society. A fray with a child not of the blood royal was beyond dreaming. He sprang on to the castle wall and began to stamp and kick a breach in it with furious, but clumsy, energy.

Then Pollyooly turned and sprang. The prince was hardly aware of her spring; he was only aware of a stinging smack, and then the shock of her impetus toppled him over on to his back on the sand. Pollyooly came down too, but not on the sand; she came down on the prince, and far more heavily than her fragile air warranted. Before he could collect any scattered wits he may have chanced to have, she was kneeling astride him, with a painful, grinding knee on either of his arms, and slapping his face.

The Honourable John Ruffin walked briskly down from the sea-wall with a smile of profound pleasure on his face. The perfumed baron had not yet perceived his charge's plight.

Pollyooly did not smack very hard at first, for she was resisting the wriggling of the prince; but once she had dug her toes firmly into the sand, she gave her mind to delivering each smack with the full swing of her arm; and the prince began to bellow. Then the baron saw the terrible, treasonable indignity the hope of the house of Lippe-Schweidnitz was enduring. He broke into a curious toddling run, uttering odd, short shrieks of the last horror as he came.

The Honourable John Ruffin placed himself athwart the course of the toddling deliverer and said quietly:

"Don't hurry, Pollyooly, but smack him hard."

A smile of understanding wreathed Pollyooly's flushed but angel face; and she did smack him hard. The Honourable John Ruffin's back was turned to the headlong baron; but his head was bent a little sideways; and as the already breathless rescuer made his final spurting rush he moved sharply to the left.

It was unfortunate (but since he had not eyes in the back of his head, it could not be helped) that the left shoulder of the Honourable John Ruffin, jerking upward hard, should have impinged upon the onrushing right shoulder of the deliverer. The baron left the firm earth, twirled in the air in a fashion which would have won him the plaudits of the most exacting music-hall audience, came down on his back on the sand with a violence which shook the little breath left out of his body and lay gasping in a darkened world.

It was a full minute and a half before the bellowing of his sufficiently besmacked charge came again, dimly, to his comprehending ears. Then he grew aware, also dimly, that the Honourable John Ruffin was standing over him and asking loudly, with every appearance of just indignation, what he meant by not looking where he was going. The baron was strongly of the opinion that the interposed shoulder had been no accident; but he was much too busy with his breathing to say so. Then when his breath came more easily and he had the power to say so, he had no longer the inclination, for the knowledge of the terrible position in which he stood, or rather lay, had flashed on him: he, a German officer, had been knocked down by a civilian and was forever disgraced.

Pollyooly continued to smack the bellowing prince; the Honourable John Ruffin continued to ask the baron what the devil he meant by it; and the poor wits of the panting nobleman continued to work on his dreadful problem. Then a flash of inspiration showed him the saving solution: he could accept his noisy questioner's view that his fall had been an accident. He sat up and began to apologise faintly and sulkily for having been knocked down.

The hands of Pollyooly were sore from smacking Prince Adalbert, but not so sore as his royal cheeks; and still she smacked on. She interjected between the smacks requests for an assurance that he would cease to annoy the children on the beach. His fine Prussian determination not to be robbed of his simple pleasures prevented him from giving it. He preferred to bellow. But there are limits even to royal endurance; and as the baron rose shakily to his feet, the prince howled the assurance she demanded.

"And mind you do, or I'll smack you again," said Pollyooly coldly.

She rose to her feet, flushed and triumphant, and rubbed gently together her stinging hands. The prince lay where he was, blubbering.

Ten yards away Mrs. Gibson stood holding the hand of the Lump, who gazed at the scene in placid wonder; and she was laughing gently. Ten yards away, on her right, stood a dozen children, surveying their blubbering pest with joyful, vengeful eyes. Behind them distractedly hovered three shocked nurses, quivering with horror at the upheaval of the social edifice; and horror-stricken mothers were slowly approaching the dreadful spot.

The baron slowly took in the humiliating significance of the scene; he saw that the glory of a royal house had been levelled to the dust, or rather to the sand. He caught his blubbering charge by the arm, jerked him to his feet, and led him away by one large ear.

The Honourable John Ruffin looked after them and laughed quietly but joyfully. Then he said:

"I congratulate you, Pollyooly—an excellent piece of work very neatly done. The haughty foreigner will trouble you no more."

Mrs. Gibson came forward and added her congratulations to his. The children gazed at Pollyooly with deep respect. Only the nurses and the mothers held aloof; an earthquake shock would hardly have astonished and confused them more than had this smacking of royalty. Had any one but the little cousin of the Honourable John Ruffin smacked, they would have been unable to refrain from an outburst of open disapproval.

To judge from the royal progress next morning, Pollyooly had indeed done her work. The Baron von Habelschwert still perfumed the air as he walked; but it was no longer obviously the air of a conquered country. His moustache was less fierce, his stride less proprietary. Indeed he might easily have been mistaken, by those to whom his name and dignities were unknown, for the pear-shaped but inoffensive keeper of a delicatessen shop. Prince Adalbert of Lippe-Schweidnitz was also changed. He no longer roamed afield; he kept within six feet of his protective equerry. He slouched less; and he had ceased to scowl arrogantly on the children who no longer fled at his approach. He regarded little English girls with a respectful, not to say timid, eye, and edged closer to the baron as he passed one. To his mind the little English girl was stored with the potentialities of a powder-magazine.