Wee Willie Winkie, and other stories/His Majesty the King
HIS MAJESTY THE KING.
Where the word of a King is, there is power: And who may say unto him—What doest thou?"
"YETH! And Chimo to sleep at ve foot of ve bed, and ve pink pikky-book, and ve bwead—'cause I will be hungwy in ve night—and vat's all, Miss Biddums. And now give me one kiss, and I'll go to sleep——So! Kite quiet. Ow! Ve pink pikky-book has slidded under ve pillow and ve bwead is cwumbling! Miss Biddums! Miss Bid-dums! I'm so uncomfy! Come and tuck me up, Miss Biddums."
His Majesty the King was going to bed; and poor, patient Miss Biddums, who had advertised herself humbly as a "young person, European, accustomed to the care of little children," was forced to wait upon his royal caprices. The going to bed was always a lengthy process, because His Majesty had a convenient knack of forgetting which of his many friends, from the sweeper's son to the Commissioner's daughter, he had prayed for, and, lest the Deity should take offence, was used to toil through his little prayers, in all reverence, five times in one evening. His Majesty the King believed in the efficacy of prayer as devoutly as he believed in Chimo, the patient spaniel, or Miss Biddums, who could reach him down his gun—"with cursuffun caps—reel ones" from the upper shelves of the big nursery cupboard.
At the door of the nursery his authority stopped. Beyond lay the empire of his father and mother—two very terrible people who had no time to waste upon His Majesty the King. His voice was lowered when he passed the frontier of his own dominions, his actions were fettered, and his soul was filled with awe because of the grim man who lived among a wilderness of pigeon-holes and the most fascinating pieces of red tape, and the wonderful woman who was always getting into or stepping out of the big carriage.
To the one belonged the mysteries of the " -room; to the other the great, reflected wilderness of the "the Mem-Sahib's room," where the shiny, scented dresses hung on pegs, miles and miles up in the air, and the just-seen plateau of the toilet-table revealed an acreage of speckly combs, broidered "hanafitch-bags," and "white-headed" brushes.
There was no room for His Majesty the King either in official reserve or mundane gorgeousness. He had discovered that ages and ages ago—before even Chimo came to the house, or Miss Biddums had ceased grizzling over a packet of greasy letters, which appeared to be her chief treasure on earth. His Majesty the King, therefore, wisely confined himself to his own territories, where only Miss Biddums, and she feebly, disputed his sway.
From Miss Biddums he had picked up his simple theology, and welded it to the legends of gods and devils that he had learned in the servants' quarters.
To Miss Biddums he confided with equal trust his tattered garments and his more serious griefs. She would make everything whole. She knew exactly how the Earth had been born, and had re-assured the trembling soul of His Majesty the King that terrible time in July when it rained continuously for seven days and seven nights, and—there was no ark ready, and all the ravens had flown away! She was the most powerful person with whom he was brought into contact—always excepting the two remote and silent people beyond the nursery door.
How was His Majesty the King to know that, six years ago, in the summer of his birth, Mrs. Austell turning over her husband's papers, had come upon the intemperate letter of a foolish woman who had been carried away by the silent man's strength and personal beauty? How could he tell what evil the overlooked slip of note-paper had wrought in the mind of a desperately jealous wife? How could he, despite his wisdom, guess that his mother had chosen to make of it excuse for a bar and a division between herself and her husband, that strengthened and grew harder to break with each year; that she, having unearthed this skeleton in the cupboard, had trained it into a household God which should be about their path and about their bed, and poison all their ways?
These things were beyond the province of His Majesty the King. He only knew that his father was daily absorbed in some mysterious work for a thing called the Government, and that his mother was the victim alternately of the dance and the dinner. To these entertainments she was escorted by a Captain-Man for whom His Majesty the King had no regard.
"He doesn't laugh," he argued with Miss Biddums who would fain have taught him charity. "He only makes faces wiv his mouf, and when he wants to o-muse me I am not o-mused." And His Majesty the King shook his head as one who knew the deceitfulness of this world.
Morning and evening, it was his duty to salute his father and mother—the former with a grave shake of the hand, and the latter with an equally grave kiss. Once, indeed, he had put his arms round his mother's neck, in the fashion he used towards Miss Biddums. The openwork of his sleeve-edge caught in an ear-ring, and the last stage of His Majesty's little overture was a suppressed scream and summary dismissal to the nursery.
"It is w'ong," thought His Majesty the King, "to hug Memsahibs wiv fings in veir ears. I will amember." He never repeated the experiment.
Miss Biddums, it must be confessed, spoilt him as much as his nature admitted, in some sort of recompense for what she called "the hard ways of his Papa and Mamma". She, like her charge, knew nothing of the trouble between man and wife—the savage contempt for a woman's stupidity on the one side or the dull, rankling anger on the other. Miss Biddums had looked after many little children in her time, and served in many establishments. Being a discreet woman she observed little and said less, and when her pupils the sea to the Great Unknown which she, with touching confidence in her hearers, called "Home," packed up her slender belongings and sought for employment afresh, lavishing all her love on each successive batch of ingrates. Only His Majesty the King had repaid her affection with interest; and in his uncomprehending ears she had told the tale of nearly all her hopes, her aspirations, the hopes that were dead, and the dazzling glories of her ancestral home in "Calcutta, close to Wellington Square".
Everything above the average was in the eyes of His Majesty the King "Calcutta good". When Miss Biddums had crossed his royal will, he reversed his epithet to vex that estimable lady, and all things evil were, until the tears of repentance swept away spite, "Calcutta bad ".
Now and again Miss Biddums begged for him the rare pleasure of a day in the society of the Commissioner's child—the wilful four-year-old Patsie, who, to the intense amazement of His Majesty the King, was idolised by her parents. On thinking the question out at length, by roads unknown to those who have left childhood behind, he came to the conclusion that Patsie was petted because she wore a big blue sash and yellow hair.
This precious discovery he kept to himself. The yellow hair was absolutely beyond his power, his own tousled wig being potato-brown; but something might be done towards the blue sash. He tied a large knot in his mosquito-curtains in order to remember to consult Patsie on their next meeting. She was the only child he had ever spoken to, and almost the only one that he had ever seen.
The little memory, and the very large and ragged knot held good.
"Patsie, lend me your blue wiband," said His Majesty the King.
"You'll bewy it," said Patsie doubtfully, mindful of certain fearful atrocities committed on her doll.
"No, I won't—twoofanhonour. It's for me to wear."
"Pooh!" said Patsie. "Boys don't wear sa-ashes. Zey's only for dirls."
"I didn't know." The face of His Majesty the King fell.
"Who wants ribands? Are you playing horses, chickabiddies?" said the Commissioner's wife, stepping into the verandah.
"Toby wanted my sash," exclaimed Patsie.
"I don't know," said His Majesty the King hastily, feeling that with one of these terrible "grown-ups" his poor little secret would be shamelessly wrenched from him and perhaps most burning desecration of all—laughed at.
"I'll give you a cracker-cap," said the Commissioner's wife. "Come along with me Toby, and we'll choose it."
The cracker-cap was a stiff, three-pointed vermilion and tinsel splendour. His Majesty the King fitted it on his royal brow. The Commissioner's wife had a face that children instinctively trusted, and her action as she adjusted the toppling middle-spike was tender.
"Will it do as well?" stammered His Majesty the King.
"As what, little one?"
"As ve wiban?"
"Oh, quite. Go and look at yourself in the glass."
The words were spoken in all sincerity and to help forward any absurd "dressing-up" amusement that the children might take into their minds. But the young savage has a keen sense of the ludicrous. His Majesty the King swung the great cheval-glass down, and saw his head crowned with the staring horror of a fool's cap—a thing which his father would rend to pieces if it ever came into his office. He plucked it off, and burst into tears.
"Toby," said the Commissioner's wife gravely, "you shouldn't give way to temper. I'm very sorry to see it. It's wrong."
His Majesty the King sobbed inconsolably, and the heart of Patsie's mother was touched. She drew the child on to her knee: Clearly it was not temper alone.
What is it, Toby? Won't you tell me? Aren't you well?"
The torrent of sobs and speech met, and fought for a time, with chokings and gulpings and gasps. Then, in a sudden rush, His Majesty the King was delivered of a few inarticulate sounds, followed by the words:—"Go a—way you—dirty—little debbil!"
"Toby! What do you mean?"
It's what he'd said. I know it is! He said vat when vere was only a little, little eggy mess on my t-t-unic; and he'd say it again, and laugh, if I went in wif vat on my head."
Who would say that?"
"M-m-my Papa! And I fought if I had ve blue wiban, he'd let me play in ve waste-paper basket under ve table."
"What blue riband, childie?"
Ye same vat Patsie had—ve big blue wiban w-w-wound my t-t-tummy! "
"What is it Toby? There's something on your mind. Tell me all about it, and perhaps I can help."
"Isn't anyfing," sniffed His Majesty, mindful of his manhood, and raising his head from the motherly bosom upon which it was resting. "I only fought vat you—you petted Patsie 'cause she had ve blue wiband and—and if I'd had ve blue wiband too, m-my Papa w-would pet me."
The secret was out, and His Majesty the King sobbed bitterly in spite of the arms round him, and the murmur of comfort on his heated little forehead.
Enter Patsie tumultuously, embarrassed by several lengths of the Commissioner's pet mahseer-rod. "Tum along, Toby! Zere's a chu-chu lizard in ze chick and I've told Chimo to watch him till we tum. If we poke wiz zis his tail will go wiggle-wiggle and fall off. Tum along! I can't weach."
I'm comin'," said His Majesty, the King climbing down from the Commissioner's wife's knee after a hasty kiss.
Two minutes later, the chu-chu lizard's tail was wriggling on the matting of the verandah, and the children were gravely poking it with splinters from the chick, to urge its exhausted vitality into "just one wiggle more, 'cause it doesn't hurt chu-chu".
The Commissioner's wife stood in the doorway and watched:—"Poor little mite! A blue sash . . . and my own precious Patsie! I wonder if the best of us, or we who love them best, ever understand what goes on in their topsy-turvy little heads."
A big tear splashed on the Commissioner's wife's wedding-ring, and she went indoors to devise a tea for the benefit of His Majesty the King.
"Their souls aren't in their tummies at that age in this climate," said the Commissioner's wife, "but they are not far off. I wonder if I could make Mrs. Austell understand. Poor little fellow! "
With simple craft, the Commissioner's wife called on Mrs. Austell and spoke long and lovingly about children; inquiring specially for His Majesty the King.
"He's with his governess," said Mrs Austell, and the tone intimated that she was not interested.
The Commissioner's wife, unskilled in the art of war, continued her questionings. "I don't know," said Mrs. Austell. "These things are left to Miss Biddums and, of course, she does not ill-treat the child."
The Commissioner's wife left hastily. The last sentence jarred upon her nerves. "Doesn't ill-treat the child! As if that were all! I wonder what Tom would say if I only 'didn't ill-treat' Patsie!"
Thenceforward, His Majesty the King was an honoured guest at the Commissioner's house, and the chosen friend of Patsie with whom he blundered into as many scrapes as the compound and the servants' quarters afforded. Patsie's Mamma was always ready to give counsel, help and sympathy, and, if need were and callers few, to enter into their games with an abandon that would have shocked the sleek-haired subalterns who squirmed painfully in their chairs when they came to call on her whom they profanely nick-named "Mother Bunch".
Yet, in spite of Patsie and Patsie's Mamma, and the love that these two lavished upon him, His Majesty the King fell grievously from grace, and committed no less a sin than that of theft—unknown it is true, but burdensome.
There came a man to the door one day, when His Majesty was playing in the hall and the bearer had gone to dinner, with a packet for His Majesty's Mamma. And he put it upon the hall-table, said that there was no answer, and departed.
Presently, the pattern of the dado ceased to interest His Majesty while the packet, a white, neatly-wrapped one of fascinating shape, interested him very much indeed. His Mamma was out, so was Miss Biddums, and there was pink string round the packet. He greatly desired pink string. It would help him in many of his little businesses—the haulage across the floor of his small cane-chair, the torturing of Chimo, who could never understand harness—and so forth. If he took the string it would be his own, and nobody would be any the wiser. He certainly could not pluck up sufficient courage to ask Mamma for it. Wherefore, mounting upon a chair he carefully untied the string and, behold, the stiff white paper spread out in four directions and revealed a beautiful little leather box with gold lines upon it! He tried to replace the string but that was a failure. So he opened the box to get full satisfaction for his iniquity, and saw a most beautiful Star that shone and winked, and was altogether lovely and desirable.
"Vat," said His Majesty meditatively; "is a 'parkle cwown, like what I will wear when I go to Heaven. I will wear it on my head—Miss Biddums says so. I would like to wear it now. I would like to play wiv it I will take it away and play wiv it, very careful, until Mamma asks for it. I fink it was bought for me to play wiv—same as my cart."
His Majesty the King was arguing against his conscience and he knew it, for he thought immediately after: "Never mind. I will keep it to play wiv until Mamma says where is it, and then I will say:—'I tookt it and I am sorry'. I will not hurt it because it is a 'parkle cwown. But Miss Biddums will tell me to put it back. I will not show it to Miss Biddums."
If Mamma had come in at that moment all would have gone well. She did not, and His Majesty the King stuffed paper, case and jewel into the breast of his blouse and marched to the nursery.
"When Mamma asks I will tell," was the salve that he laid upon his conscience. But Mamma never asked, and for three whole days His Majesty the King gloated over his treasure. It was of no earthly use to him, but it was splendid, and, for aught he knew, something dropped from the Heavens themselves. Still Mamma made no inquiries, and it seemed to him in his furtive peeps as though the shiny stones grew dim. What was the use of a "'parkle cwown" if it made a little boy feel all bad in his inside? He had the pink string as well as the other treasure, but he greatly wished that he had not gone beyond the string. It was his first experience of iniquity, and it pained him after the flush of possession and secret delight in the "'parkle cwown" had died away.
Each day that he delayed rendered confession to the people beyond the nursery doors more impossible. Now and again he determined to put himself in the path of the beautifully attired lady as she was going out, and explain that he and no one else was the possessor of a "'parkle cwown," most beautiful and quite uninquired for. But she passed hurriedly to her carriage, and the opportunity was gone before His Majesty the King could draw the deep breath which clinches noble resolve. The dread secret cut him off from Miss Biddums, Patsie, and the Commissioner's wife, and—doubly hard fate—when he brooded over it Patsie said, and told her mother, that he was cross.
The days were very long to His Majesty the King, and the nights longer still. Miss Biddums had informed him, more than once, what was the ultimate destiny of "fieves," and when he passed the interminable mud flanks of the Central Jail he shook in his little strapped shoes.
But release came after an afternoon spent in playing boats by the edge of the tank at the bottom of the garden. His Majesty the King went to tea and, for the first time in his memory, the meal revolted him. His nose was very cold, and his cheeks were burning hot. There was a weight about his feet, and he pressed his head several times to make sure that it was not swelling as he sat.
"I feel vevy funny," said His Majesty the King, rubbing his nose. "Vere's a buzz-buzz in my head."
He went to bed quietly. Miss Biddums was out, and the bearer undressed him.
The sin of the "'parkle cwown" was forgotten in the acuteness of the discomfort to which he roused after a leaden sleep of some hours. He was thirsty, and the bearer had forgotten to leave the drinking-water.
"Miss Biddums! Miss Biddums! I'm so kirsty!"
No answer. Miss Biddums had leave to attend the wedding of a Calcutta school-mate. His Majesty the King had forgotten that.
"I want a dwink of water!" he cried, but his voice was dried up in his throat. "I want a dwink. Vere is ve glass?"
He sat up in bed and looked round. There was a murmur of voices from the other side of the nursery door. It was better to face the terrible unknown than to choke in the dark. He slipped out of bed, but his feet were strangely wilful and he reeled once or twice. Then he pushed the door open and staggered—a puffed and purple-faced little figure—into the brilliant light of the dining-room full of pretty ladies.
"I'm vevy hot! I'm vevy uncomfitivle," moaned His Majesty the King, clinging to the portiere, "and vere's no water in ve glass, and I'm so kirsty. Give me a dwink of water."
An apparition in black and white—His Majesty the King could hardly see distinctly—lifted him up to the level of the table, and felt his wrists and forehead. The water came, and he drank deeply, his teeth chattering against the edge of the tumbler. Then every one seemed to go away—every one except the huge man in black and white who carried him back to his bed; the mother and father following. And the sin of the "'parkle cwown" rushed back and took possession of the terrified soul.
"I'm a fief!" he gasped. "I want to tell Miss Biddums vat I'm a fief. Vere is Miss Biddums?"
Miss Biddums had come and was bending over him, "I'm a fief," he whispered. "A fief—like ve men in the pwison. But I'll tell now. I tookt—I tookt ve 'parkle cwown when the man that came left it in ve hall. I bwoke ve paper and ve little bwown box, and it looked shiny and I tookt it to play wif, and I was afwaid. It's in ve dooly-box at ve bottom. No one never asked for it, but I was afwaid. Oh, go an' get ve dooly-box!"
Miss Biddums obediently stooped to the lowest shelf of the almirah and unearthed the big paper box in which His Majesty the King kept his dearest possessions. Under the tin soldiers, and a layer of mud pellets for a pellet-bow, winked and blazed a diamond star, wrapped roughly in a half-sheet of note-paper whereon were a few words.
Somebody was crying at the head of the bed, and a man's hand touched the forehead of His Majesty the King, who grasped the packet and spread it on the bed.
"Vat is ve 'parkle cwown," he said and wept bitterly; for now that he had made restitution he would fain have kept the shining splendour with him.
"It concerns you too," said a voice at the head of the bed. "Read the note. This is not the time to keep back anything."
The note it was curt, very much to the point, and signed by a single initial. "If you wear this to-morrow night I shall know what to expect." The date was three weeks old.
A whisper followed, and the deeper voice returned:—"And you drifted as far apart as that! I think it makes us quits now, doesn't it? Oh, can't we drop this folly once and for all? Is it worth it, darling?"
Kiss me, too," said His Majesty the King dreamily. "You isn't very angry, is you?"
The fever burned itself out, and His Majesty the King slept.
When he waked, it was in a new world—peopled by his father and mother, as well as Miss Biddums: and there was much love in that world and no morsel of fear, and more petting than was good for several little boys. His Majesty the King was too young to moralise on the uncertainty of things human, or he would have been impressed with the singular advantages of crime, ay, black sin. Behold, he had stolen the "'parkle cwown," and his reward was Love, and the right to play in the waste-paper basket under the table "for always".
He trotted over to spend an afternoon with Patsie, and the Commissioner's wife would have kissed him. "No, not vere," said His Majesty the King, with superb insolence, fencing one corner of his mouth with his hand. "Vat's my Mamma's place—vere she kisses me."
"Oh!" said the Commissioner's wife briefly. Then to herself:—"Well, I suppose I ought to be glad for his sake. Children are selfish little grubs and—I've got my Patsie."