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A Serpent Coming After Udo

    Belvane had now had twenty-four hours in which to think it over.

    Whatever her faults, she had a sense of humour. She could not help smiling to herself as she thought of that scene in the garden. However much she regretted her too hasty engagement, she was sure Udo regretted it still more. If she gave him the least opportunity he would draw back from it.

    Then why not give him the opportunity? “My dear Prince Udo, I’m afraid I mistook the nature of my feelings”—said, of course, with downcast head and a maidenly blush. Exit Udo with haste, enter King Merriwig. It would be so easy.

    Ah, but then Hyacinth would have won. Hyacinth had forced the engagement upon her; even if it only lasted for twenty-four hours, so long as it was a forced engagement, Hyacinth would have had the better of her for that time. But if she welcomed the engagement, if she managed in some way to turn it to account, to make it appear as if she had wanted it all the time, then Hyacinth’s victory would be no victory at all, but a defeat.

    Marry Udo, then, as if willingly? Yes, but that was too high a price to pay. She was by this time thoroughly weary of him and besides, she had every intention of marrying the King of Euralia. To pretend to marry him until she brought the King in open conflict with him, and then having led the King to her feet to dismiss the rival who had served her turn—that was her only wise course.

    She did not come to this conclusion without much thought. She composed an Ode to Despair, an Elegy to an Unhappy Woman, and a Triolet to Interfering Dukes, before her mind was made up. She also considered very seriously what she would look like in a little cottage in the middle of the forest, dressed in a melancholy grey and holding communion only with the birds and trees; a life of retirement away from the vain world; a life into which no man came. It had its attractions, but she decided that grey did not suit her.

    She went down to her garden and sent for Prince Udo. At about the moment when the King was having the terrible news broken to him, Udo was protesting over the sundial that he loved Belvane and Belvane only, and that he was looking forward eagerly to the day when she would make him the happiest of men. So afraid was he of what might happen to him on the way back to Araby.

    “The Countess Belvane!” cried Merriwig. “Prince Udo marry the Countess Belvane! I never heard such a thing in my life.” He glared at them one after the other as if it were their fault—as indeed it was. “Why didn’t you tell me this before, Hyacinth?”

    “It was only just announced, Father.”

    “Who announced it?”

    “Well—er—Udo did,” said Coronel.

    “I never heard of anything so ridiculous in my life! I won’t have it!”

    “But, Father, don’t you think she’d make a very good Queen?”

    “She’d make a wonderful—that has nothing to do with it. What I feel so strongly about is this. For month after month I am fighting in a strange country. After extraordinary scenes of violence and—peril—I come back to my own home to enjoy the—er—fruits of victory. No sooner do I get inside my door than I have all this thrust upon me.”

    “All what, Father?” said Hyacinth innocently.

    “All this,” said the King, with a circular movement of his hand. “It’s too bad; upon my word it is. I won’t have it. Now mind, Hyacinth, I won’t have it.

    “But, Father, how can I help it?”

    Merriwig paid no attention to her.

    “I come home,” he went on indignantly, “fresh from the—er—spoils of victory to what I thought was my own peaceful—er—home. And what do I find? Somebody here wants to marry somebody there, and somebody else over there wants to marry somebody else over here; it’s impossible to mention any person’s name, in even the most casual way, without being told they are going to get married, or some nonsense of that sort. I’m very much upset about it.”

    “Oh, Father!” said Hyacinth penitently. “Won’t you see the Countess yourself and talk to her?”

    “To think that for weeks I have been looking forward to my return home and that now I should be met with this! It has quite spoilt my day.”

    “Father!” cried Hyacinth, coming towards him with outstretched hands.

    “Let me send for her ladyship,” began Coronel; “perhaps she——”

    “No, no,” said Merriwig, waving them away. “I am very much displeased with you both. What I have to do, I can do quite well by myself.”

    He strode out and slammed the door behind him.

    Hyacinth and Coronel looked at each other blankly.

    “My dear,” said Coronel, “you never told me he was as fond of her as that.”

    “But I had no idea! Coronel, what can we do now about it? Oh, I want him to marry her now. He’s quite right—she’ll make a wonderful Queen. Oh, my dear, I feel I want everybody to be as happy as we’re going to be.”

    “They can’t be that, but we’ll do our best for them. I can manage Udo all right. I only have to say ‘rabbits’ to him, and he’ll do anything for me. Hyacinth, I don’t believe I’ve ever kissed you in this room yet, have I? Let’s begin now.”

    Merriwig came upon the other pair of lovers in Belvane’s garden. They were sharing a seat there, and Udo was assuring the Countess that he was her own little Udo-Wudo, and that they must never be away from each other again. The King put his hand in front of his eyes for a moment as if he could hardly bear it.

    “Why, it’s his Majesty,” said Belvane, jumping up. She gave him a deep curtsey and threw in a bewitching smile on the top of it; formality or friendliness, he could take his choice. “Prince Udo of Araby, your Majesty.” She looked shyly at him and added, “Perhaps you have heard.”

    “I have,” said the King gloomingly. “How do you do,” he added in a melancholy voice.

    Udo declared that he was in excellent health at present, and would have gone into particulars about it had not the King interrupted.

    “Well, Countess,” he said, “this is strange news to come back to. Shall I disturb you if I sit down with you for little?”

    “Oh, your Majesty, you would honour us. Udo, dear, have you seen the heronry lately?”

    “Yes,” said Udo.

    “It looks so sweet just about this time of the afternoon.”

    “It does,” said Udo.

    Belvane gave a little shrug and turned to the King.

    “I’m so longing to hear all your adventures,” she murmured confidingly. “I got all your messages; it was so good of you to remember me.”

    “Ah,” said Merriwig reproachfully, “and what do I find when I come back? I find——” He broke off, and indicated in pantomime with his eyebrows that he could explain better what he had found if Udo were absent.

    “Udo, dear,” said Belvane, turning to him, “have you seen the kennels lately?”

    “Yes,” said Udo.

    “They look rather sweet just about this time,” said Merriwig.

    “Don’t they?” said Udo.

    “But I am so longing to hear,” said Belvane, “how your Majesty defeated the King of Barodia. Was it your Majesty’s wonderful spell which overcame the enemy?”

    “You remember that?”

    “Remember it? Oh, your Majesty! ‘Bo boll——‘ Udo, dear, wouldn’t you like to see the armoury?”

    “No,” said Udo.

    “There are a lot of new things in it that I brought back from Barodia,” said Merriwig hopefully.

    “A lot of new things,” explained Belvane.

    “I’ll see them later on,” said Udo. “I dare say they’d look better in the evening.”

    “Then you shall show me, your Majesty,” said Belvane. “Udo, dear, you can wait for me here.”

    The two of them moved off down the path together (Udo taken by surprise), and as soon as they were out of sight, tiptoed across the lawn to another garden seat, Belvane leading the way with her finger to her lips, and Merriwig following with an exaggerated caution which even Henry Smallnose would have thought overdone.

    “He is a little slow, isn’t he, that young man?” said the King, as they sat down together. “I mean he didn’t seem to understand—”

    “He’s such a devoted lover, your Majesty. He can’t bear to be out of my sight for a moment.”

    “Oh, Belvane, this is a sad homecoming. For month after month I have been fighting and toiling, and planning and plotting and then—— Oh, Belvane, we were all so happy together before the war.”

    Belvane remembered that once she and the Princess and Wiggs had been so happy together, and that Udo’s arrival had threatened to upset it all. One way and another, Udo had been a disturbing element in Euralia. But it would not do to let him go just yet.

    “Aren’t we still happy together?” she asked innocently. “There’s her Royal Highness with her young Duke, and I have my dear Udo, and your Majesty has the—the Lord Chancellor—and all your Majesty’s faithful subjects.”

    His Majesty gave a deep sigh.

    “I am a very lonely man, Belvane. When Hyacinth leaves me I shall have nobody left.”

    Belvane decided to risk it.

    “Your Majesty should marry again,” she said gently.

    He looked unutterable things at her. He opened his mouth with the intention of doing his best to utter some of them, when——

    “Not before Udo,” said Belvane softly.

    Merriwig got up indignantly and scowled at the Prince as the latter hurried over the lawn towards them.

    “Well, really,” said Merriwig, “I never knew such a place. One simply can’t—— Ah, your Royal Highness, have you seen our armoury? I should say,” he corrected himself as he caught Belvane’s reproachful look, “have we seen our armoury? We have. Her ladyship was much interested.”

    “I have no doubt, your Majesty.” He turned to Belvane. “You will be interested in our armoury at home, dear.”

    She gave a quick glance at the King to see that he was looking, and then patted Udo’s hand tenderly.

    “Home,” she said lovingly, “how sweet it sounds!”

    The King shivered as if in pain, and strode quickly from them.

    * * * * *

    “Your Majesty sent for me,” said Coronel.

    The King stopped his pacings and looked round as Coronel came into the library.

    “Ah, yes, yes,” he said quickly. “Now sit down there and make yourself comfortable. I want to talk to you about this marriage.”

    “Which one, your Majesty?”

    “Which one? Why, of course, yours—that is to say, Belvane’s—or—rather——” He came to a stop in front of Coronel and looked at him earnestly. “Well, in a way, both.”

    Coronel nodded.

    “You want to marry my daughter,” Merriwig went on. “Now it is customary, as you know, that to the person to whom I give my daughter, I give also half my kingdom. Naturally before I make this sacrifice I wish to be sure that the man to whom—well, of course, you understand.”

    “That he is worthy of the Princess Hyacinth,” said Coronel. “Of course he couldn’t be,” he added with a smile.

    And worthy of half the kingdom,” amended Merriwig. “That he should prove himself this is also, I think, customary.”

    “Anything that your Majesty suggests——”

    “I am sure of it.”

    He drew up a chair next to Coronel’s, and sitting down in it, placed his hand upon his knees and explained the nature of the trial which was awaiting the successful suitor.

    “In the ordinary way,” he began, “I should arrange something for you with a dragon or what-not in it. The knowledge that some such ordeal lies before him often enables a suitor to discover, before it is too late, that what he thought was true love is not really the genuine emotion. In your case I feel that an ordeal of this sort is not necessary.”

    Coronel inclined his head gracefully.

    “I do not doubt your valour, and from you therefore I ask a proof of your cunning. In these days cunning is perhaps the quality of all others demanded of a ruler. We had an excellent example of that,” he went on carelessly, “in the war with Barodia that is just over, where the whole conflict was settled by a little idea which——”

    “A very wonderful idea, your Majesty.”

    “Well, well,” said Merriwig, looking very pleased. “It just happened to come off, that’s all. But that is what I mean when I say that cunning may be of even more importance than valour. In order to win the hand of my daughter and half my kingdom, it will be necessary for you to show a cunning almost more than human.”

    He paused, and Coronel did his best in the interval to summon up a look of superhuman guile into his very frank and pleasant countenance.

    “You will prove yourself worthy of what you ask me for,” said Merriwig solemnly, “by persuading Prince Udo to return to Araby—alone.”

    Coronel gasped. The thing was so easy that it seemed almost a shame to accept it as the condition of his marriage. To persuade Udo to do what he was only longing to do, did not call for any superhuman qualities of any kind. For a moment he had an impulse to tell the King so, but he suppressed it. “After all,” he thought, “if the King wants cunning, and if I make a great business of doing something absurdly easy, then he is getting it.”

    Merriwig, simple man, mistook his emotions.

    “I see,” he said, “that you are appalled by the difficulty of the ordeal in front of you. You may well be so. You have known his Royal Highness longer than I have, but even in our short acquaintance I have discovered that he takes a hint with extraordinary slowness. To bring it home to him with the right mixture of tact and insistence that Araby needs his immediate presence—alone—may well tax the most serpentine of minds.”

    “I can but try it,” said the serpentine one simply.

    The King jumped up and shook him warmly by the hand.

    “You think you can do it?” he said excitedly.

    “If Prince Udo does not start back to Araby to-morrow——”

    “Alone,” said Merriwig.

    “Alone—then I shall have failed in my task.”

    * * * * *

    “My dear,” said the King to his daughter as she kissed him good-night that evening, “I believe you are going to marry a very wise young man.”

    “Of course I am, Father.”

    “I only hope you’ll be as happy with him as I shall be with—as I was with your mother. Though how he’s going to bring it off,” he added to himself, “is more than I can think.”