Udo awoke, slightly refreshed, and decided to take a firm line with the Countess at once. He had no difficulty about finding his way down to her. The Palace seemed to be full of servants, all apparently busy about something which brought them for a moment in sight of the newly arrived Prince, and then whisked them off, hand to mouth and shoulders shaking. By one of these, with more control over her countenance than the others, an annoyed Udo was led into Belvane’s garden.
She was walking up and down the flagged walk between her lavender hedges, and as he came in she stopped and rested her elbows on her sundial, and looked mockingly at him, waiting for him to speak. “Between the showers I mark the hours,” said the sundial (on the suggestion of Belvane one wet afternoon), but for the moment the Countess was in the way.
“Ah, here we are,” said Udo in rather a nasty voice.
“Here we are,” said Belvane sweetly. “All of us.”
Suddenly she began to laugh.
“Oh, Prince Udo,” she said, “you’ll be the death of me. Count me as one more of your victims.”
It is easy to be angry with any one who will laugh at you all the time, but difficult to be effective; particularly when—but we need not dwell upon Udo’s handicap again.
“I don’t see anything to laugh at,” he said stiffly. “To intelligent people the outside appearance is not everything.”
“But it can be very funny, can’t it?” said Belvane coaxingly. “I wished for something humorous to happen to you, but I never thought——”
“Ah,” said Udo, “now we’ve got it.”
He spoke with an air of a clever cross-examiner who has skilfully extracted an admission from a reluctant witness. This sort of tone goes best with one of those keen legal faces; perhaps that is why Belvane laughed again.
“You practically confess that you did it,” went on Udo magnificently.
“Turned me into a—a——”
“A rabbit?” said Belvane innocently.
A foolish observation like this always pained Udo.
“What makes you think I’m a rabbit?” he asked.
“I don’t mind what you are, but you’ll never dare show yourself in the country like this.”
“Be careful, woman; don’t drive me too far. Beware lest you rouse the lion in me.”
“Where?” asked Belvane, with a child-like air.
With a gesture full of dignity and good breeding Udo called attention to his tail.
“That,” said the Countess, “is not the part of the lion that I’m afraid of.”
For the moment Udo was nonplussed, but he soon recovered himself.
“Even supposing—just for the sake of argument—that I am a rabbit, I still have something up my sleeve; I’ll come and eat your young carnations.”
Belvane adored her garden, but she was sustained by the thought that it was only July just now. She pointed this out to him.
“It needn’t necessarily be carnations,” he warned her.
“I don’t want to put my opinion against one who has (forgive me) inside knowledge on the subject, but I think I have nothing in my garden at this moment that would agree with a rabbit.”
“I don’t mind if it doesn’t agree with me,” said Udo heroically.
This was more serious. Her dear garden in which she composed, ruined by the mastications—machinations—what was the word?—of an enemy! The thought was unbearable.
“You aren’t a rabbit,” she said hastily; “you aren’t really a rabbit. Because—because you don’twoffle your nose properly.”
“I could,” said Udo simply. “I’m just keeping it back, that’s all.”
“Show me how,” cried Belvane, clasping her hands eagerly together.
It was not what he had come into the garden for, and it accorded ill with the dignity of the Royal House of Araby, but somehow one got led on by this wicked woman.
“Like this,” said Udo.
The Countess looked at him critically with her head on one side.
“No,” she said, “that’s quite wrong.”
“Naturally I’m a little out of practice.”
“I’m sorry,” said Belvane. “I’m afraid I can’t pass you.”
Udo couldn’t think what had happened to the conversation. With a great effort he extracted himself from it.
“Enough of this, Countess,” he said sternly. “I have your admission that it was you who put this enchantment on me.”
“It was I. I wasn’t going to have you here interfering with my plans.”
“Your plans to rob the Princess.”
Belvane felt that it was useless to explain the principles of largesse-throwing to Udo. There will always be men like Udo and Roger Scurvilegs who take these narrow matter-of-fact views. One merely wastes time in arguing with them.
“My plans,” she repeated.
“Very well. I shall go straight to the Princess, and she will unmask you before the people.”
Belvane smiled happily. One does not often get such a chance.
“And who,” she asked sweetly, “will unmask your Royal Highness before the people, so that they may see the true Prince Udo underneath?”
“What do you mean?” said Udo, though he was beginning to guess.
“That noble handsome countenance which is so justly the pride of Araby—how shall we show that to the people? They’ll form such a mistaken idea of it if they all see you like this, won’t they?”
“You mean that if the Princess Hyacinth falls in with your plans, you will restore me to my proper form, but that otherwise you will leave me like this?”
“One’s actions are very much misunderstood,” sighed Belvane. “I’ve no doubt that that is how it will appear to future historians.”
(To Roger, certainly.)
It was too much for Udo. He forgot his manners and made a jump towards her. She glided gracefully behind the sundial in a pretty affectation of alarm . . . and the next moment Udo decided that the contest between them was not to be settled by such rough-and-tumble methods as these. The fact that his tail had caught in something helped him to decide.
Belvane was up to him in an instant.
“There, there!” she said soothingly, “Let meundo it for your Royal Highness.” She talked pleasantly as she worked at it. “Every little accident teaches us something. Now if you’d been a rabbit this wouldn’t have happened.”
“No, I’m not even a rabbit,” said Udo sadly. “I’m just nothing.”
Belvane stood up and made him a deep curtsey.
“You are his Royal Highness Prince Udo of Araby. Your Royal Highness’s straw is prepared. When will your Royal Highness be pleased to retire?”
It was a little unkind, I think. I should not record it of her were not Roger so insistent.
“Now,” said Udo, and lolloped sadly off. It was his one really dignified moment in Euralia.
On his way to his apartment he met Wiggs.
“Wiggs,” he said solemnly, “if ever you can do anything to annoy that woman, such as making her an apple-pie bed, or anything like that, I wish you’d do it.”
Whereupon he retired for the night. Into the mysteries of his toilet we had perhaps better not inquire.
* * * * *
As the chronicler of these simple happenings many years ago, it is my duty to be impartial. “These are the facts,” I should say, “and it is for your nobilities to judge of them. Thus and thus my characters have acted; how say you, my lords and ladies?”
I confess that this attitude is beyond me; I have a fondness for all my people, and I would not have you misunderstand any of them. But with regard to one of them there is no need for me to say anything in her defence. About her at any rate we agree.
I mean Wiggs. We take the same view as Hyacinth: she was the best little girl in Euralia. It will come then as a shock to you (as it did to me on the morning after I had staggered home with Roger’s seventeen volumes) to learn that on her day Wiggs could be as bad as anybody. I mean really bad. To tear your frock, to read books which you ought to be dusting, these are accidents which may happen to anybody. Far otherwise was Wiggs’s fall.
She adopted, in fact, the infamous suggestion of Prince Udo. Three nights later, with malice aforethought and to the comfort of the King’s enemies and the prejudice of the safety of the realm, she made an apple-pie bed for the Countess.
It was the most perfect apple-pie bed ever made. Cox himself could not have improved upon it; Newton has seen nothing like it. It took Wiggs a whole morning; and the results, though private (that is the worst of an apple-pie bed), were beyond expectation. After wrestling for half an hour the Countess spent the night in a garden hammock, composing a bitter Ode to Melancholy.
Of course Wiggs caught it in the morning; the Countess suspected what she could not prove. Wiggs, now in for a thoroughly bad week, realised that it was her turn again. What should she do?
An inspiration came to her. She had been really bad the day before; it was a pity to waste such perfect badness as that. Why not have the one bad wish to which the ring entitled her?
She drew the ring out from its hiding-place round her neck.
“I wish,” she said, holding it up, “I wish that the Countess Belvane——” she stopped to think of something that would really annoy her—”I wish that the Countess shall never be able to write another rhyme again.”
She held her breath, expecting a thunderclap or some other outward token of the sudden death of Belvane’s muse. Instead she was struck by the extraordinary silence of the place. She had a horrid feeling that everybody else was dead, and realising all at once that she was a very wicked little girl, she ran up to her room and gave herself up to tears.
MAY YOU, DEAR SIR OR MADAM, REPENT AS QUICKLY!
However, this is not a moral work. An hour later Wiggs came into Belvane’s garden, eager to discover in what way her inability to rhyme would manifest itself. It seemed that she had chosen the exact moment.
In the throes of composition Belvane had quite forgotten the apple-pie bed, so absorbing is our profession. She welcomed Wiggs eagerly, and taking her hand led her towards the roses.
“I have just been talking to my dear roses,” she said. “Listen:
Whene’er I take my walks about,
I like to see the roses out;
I like them yellow, white, and pink,
But crimson are the best, I think.
But we shall never know about the butterfly. It may be that Wiggs has lost us here a thought on lepidoptera which the world can ill spare; for she interrupted breathlessly.
“When did you write that?”
“I was just making it up when you came in, dear child. These thoughts often come to me as I walk up and down my beautiful garden. ‘The butterfly——‘”
But Wiggs had let go her hand and was running back to the Palace. She wanted to be alone to think this out.
What had happened? That it was truly a magic ring, as the fairy had told her, she had no doubt; that her wish was a bad one, that she had been bad enough to earn it, she was equally certain. What then had happened? There was only one answer to her question. The bad wish had been granted to someone else.
To whom? She had lent the ring to nobody. True, she had told the Princess all about it, but——
So many thoughts crowded into Wiggs’s mind at this moment that she felt she must share them with somebody. She ran off to find the Princess.