Once more it was early morning on the castle walls.
The King sat at his breakfast table, a company of archers drawn up in front of him.
“Now you all understand,” he said. “When the King of Baro—when a certain—well, when I say ‘when,’ I want you all to fire your arrows into the air. You are to take no aim; you are just to shoot your arrows upwards, and—er—I want to see who gets highest. Should anything—er—should anything brush up against them on their way—not of course that it’s likely—well, in that case—er—in that case something will—er—brush up against them. After all, what should?”
“Quite so, Sire,” said the Captain, “or rather, not at all.”
“Very well. To your places.”
Each archer fitted an arrow to his bow and took up his position. A look-out man had been posted. Everything was ready.
The King was decidedly nervous. He wandered from one archer to another asking after this man’s wife and family, praising the polish on that man’s quiver, or advising him to stand with his back a little more to the sun. Now and then he would hurry off to the look-out man on a distant turret, point out Barodia on the horizon to him, and hurry back again.
The look-out knew all about it.
“Royalty over,” he bellowed suddenly.
“When!” roared the King, and a cloud of arrows shot into the air.
“Well done!” cried Hyacinth, clapping her hands. “I mean, how could you? You might have hurt him.”
“Hyacinth,” said the King, turning suddenly; “you here?”
“I have just come up. Did you hit him?”
“The King of Barodia, of course.”
“The King of—— My dear child, what could the King of Barodia be doing here? My archers were aiming at a hawk that they saw in the distance.” He beckoned to the Captain. “Did you hit that hawk?” he asked.
“With one shot only, Sire. In the whisk—in the tail feathers.”
The King turned to Hyacinth.
“With one shot only in the whisk—in the tail feathers,” he said. “What was it, my dear, that you were saying about the King of Barodia?”
“Oh, Father, you are bad. You hit the poor man right in the whisker.”
“His Majesty of Barodia! And in the whisker! My dear child, this is terrible! But what can he have been doing up there? Dear, dear, this is really most unfortunate. I must compose a note of apology about this.”
“I should leave the first note to him,” said Hyacinth.
“Yes, yes, you’re right. No doubt he will wish to explain how he came to be there. Just a moment, dear.”
He went over to his archers, who were drawn up in line again.
“You may take your men down now,” he said to the Captain.
“Yes, your Majesty.”
His Majesty looked quickly round the castle walls, and then leant confidentially towards the Captain.
“Er—which was the man who—er”— he fingered his cheek—”er—quite so. The one on the left? Ah, yes.” He went to the man on the left and put a bag of gold into his hand.
“You have a very good style with the bow, my man. Your wrist action is excellent. I have never seen an arrow go so high.”
The company saluted and withdrew. The King and Hyacinth sat down to breakfast.
“A little mullet, my dear?” he said.
* * * * *
The Hereditary Grand Chancellor of Barodia never forgot that morning, nor did he allow his wife to forget it. His opening, “That reminds me, dear, of the day when——” though the signal of departure for any guests, allowed no escape for his family. They had to have it.
And indeed it was a busy day for him. Summoned to the Palace at nine o’clock, he found the King nursing a bent whisker and in the very vilest of tempers. His Majesty was for war at once, the Chancellor leant towards the Stiff Note.
“At least, your Majesty,” he begged, “let me consult the precedents first.”
“There is no precedent,” said the King coldly, “for such an outrage as this.”
“Not precisely, Sire; but similar unfortunate occurrences have—occurred.”
“It was worse than an occurrence.”
“I should have said an outrage, your Majesty. Your late lamented grandfather was unfortunate enough to come beneath the spell of the King of Araby, under which he was compelled—or perhaps I should say preferred—to go about on his hands and knees for several weeks. Your Majesty may recall how the people in their great loyalty adopted a similar mode of progression. Now although your Majesty’s case is not precisely on all fours——”
“Not at all on all fours,” said the King coldly.
“An unfortunate metaphor; I should say that although your Majesty’s case is not parallel, the procedure adopted in your revered grandfather’s case——”
“I don’t care what you do with your whiskers; I don’t care what anybody does with his whiskers,” said the King, still soothing his own tenderly; “I want the King of Euralia’s blood.” He looked round the Court. “To any one who will bring me the head of the King, I will give the hand of my daughter in marriage.”
There was a profound silence. . . .
“Which daughter?” said a cautious voice at last.
“The eldest,” said the King.
“My suggestion, your Majesty,” said the Chancellor, “is that for the present there should be merely an exchange of Stiff Notes; and that meanwhile we scour the kingdom for an enchanter who shall take some pleasant revenge for us upon his Majesty of Euralia. For instance, Sire, a king whose head has been permanently fixed on upside-down lacks somewhat of that regal dignity which alone can command the respect of his subjects. A couple of noses, again, placed at different angles, so they cannot both be blown together——”
“Yes, yes,” said the King impatiently, “I’ll think of the things, if once you can find the enchanter. But they are not so common nowadays. Besides, enchanters are delicate things to work with. They have a habit of forgetting which side they are on.”
The Chancellor’s mouth drooped piteously.
“Well,” said the King condescendingly, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do. You may send one Stiff Note and then we will declare war.”
“Thank you, your Majesty,” said the Chancellor.
So the Stiff Note was dispatched. It pointed out that his Majesty of Barodia, while in the act of taking his early morning constitutional, had been severely insulted by an arrow. This arrow, though fortunately avoiding the more vital parts of his Majesty’s person, went so far as to wound a favourite whisker. For this the fullest reparation must be made . . . and so forth and so on.
Euralia’s reply was not long delayed. It expressed the deepest concern at the unhappy accident which had overtaken a friendly monarch. On the morning in question, his Majesty had been testing his archers in a shooting competition at a distant hawk; which competition, it might interest his Majesty of Barodia to know, had been won by Henry Smallnose, a bowman of considerable promise. In the course of the competition it was noticed that a foreign body of some sort brushed up against one of the arrows, but as this in no way affected the final placing of the competitors, little attention was paid to it. His Majesty of Barodia might rest assured that the King had no wish to pursue the matter farther. Indeed, he was always glad to welcome his Barodian Majesty on these occasions. Other shooting competitions would be arranged from time to time, and if his Majesty happened to be passing at the moment, the King of Euralia hoped that he would come down and join them. Trusting that her Majesty and their Royal Highnesses were well, . . . and so on and so forth.
The Grand Chancellor of Barodia read this answer to his Stiff Note with a growing feeling of uneasiness. It was he who had exposed his Majesty to this fresh insult; and, unless he could soften it in some way, his morning at the Palace might be a painful one.
As he entered the precincts, he wondered whether the King would be wearing the famous boots, and whether they kicked seven leagues as easily as they strode them. He felt more and more that there were notes which you could break gently, and notes which you couldn’t. . . .
Five minutes later, as he started on his twenty-one mile walk home, he realised that this was one of the ones which you couldn’t.
* * * * *
This, then, was the real reason of the war between Euralia and Barodia. I am aware that in saying this I differ from the eminent historian, Roger Scurvilegs. In Chapter IX of his immortal work, Euralia Past and Present, he attributes the quarrel between the two countries to quite other causes. The King of Barodia, he says, demanded the hand of the Princess Hyacinth for his eldest son. The King of Euralia made some commonplace condition as that his Royal Highness should first ride his horse up a glassy mountain in the district, a condition which his Majesty of Barodia strongly resented. I am afraid that Roger is incurably romantic; I have had to speak to him about it before. There was nothing of the sentimental in the whole business, and the facts are exactly as I have narrated them.