In a glade in the forest the Countess Belvane was sitting: her throne, a fallen log, her courtiers, that imaginary audience which was always with her. For once in her life she was nervous; she had an anxious morning in front of her.
I can tell you the reason at once. Her Royal Highness was going to review her Royal Highness’s Army of Amazons (see Scheme II, Safety of Realm). In half an hour she would be here.
And why not? you say. Could anything be more gratifying?
I will tell you why not. There was no Army of Amazons. In order that her Royal Highness should not know the sad truth, Belvane drew their pay for them. ‘Twas better thus.
In any trouble Belvane comforted herself by reading up her diary. She undid the enormous volume, and, idly turning the pages, read some of the more delightful extracts to herself.
“Monday, June 1st,” she read. “Became bad.”
She gave a sigh of resignation to the necessity of being bad. Roger Scurvilegs is of the opinion that she might have sighed a good many years before. According to him she was born bad.
“Tuesday, June 2nd,” she read on. “Realised in the privacy of my heart that I was destined to rule the country. Wednesday, June 3rd. Decided to oust the Princess. Thursday, June 4th. Began ousting.”
What a confession for any woman—even for one who had become bad last Monday! No wonder Belvane’s diary was not for everybody. Let us look over her shoulder and read some more of the wicked woman’s confessions.
“Friday, June 5th. Made myself a——” Oh, that’s quite private. However we may read this: “Thought for the week. Beware lest you should tumble down In reaching for another’s crown.” An admirable sentiment which Roger Scurvilegs would have approved, although he could not have rhymed it so neatly.
The Countess turned on a few more pages and prepared to write up yesterday’s events.
“Tuesday, June 23rd,” she said to herself. “Now what happened? Acclaimed with enthusiasm outside the Palace—how do you spell ‘enthusiasm’?” She bit the end of her pencil and pondered. She turned back the pages till she came to the place.
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “It had three ‘s’s’ last time, so it’s ‘z’s’ turn.”
She wrote “enthuzziazm” lightly in pencil; later on it would be picked out in gold.
She closed the diary hastily. Somebody was coming.
It was Wiggs.
“Oh, if you please, your Ladyship, her Royal Highness sent me to tell you that she would be here at eleven o’clock to review her new army.”
It was the last thing of which Belvane wanted reminding.
“Ah, Wiggs, sweet child,” she said, “you find me overwhelmed.” She gave a tragic sigh. “Leader of the Corps de Ballet”—she indicated with her toe how this was done, “Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Amazons”—here she saluted, and it was certainly the least she could do for the money, “Warden of the Antimacassars and Grand Mistress of the Robes, I have a busy life. Just come and dust this log for her Royal Highness. All this work wears me out, Wiggs, but it is my duty and I do it.”
“Woggs says you make a very good thing out of it,” said Wiggs innocently, as she began to dust. “It must be nice to make very good things out of things.”
The Countess looked coldly at her. It is one thing to confide to your diary that you are bad, it’s quite another to have Woggsseses shouting it out all over the country.
“I don’t know what Woggs is,” said Belvane sternly, “but send it to me at once.”
As soon as Wiggs was gone, Belvane gave herself up to her passions. She strode up and down the velvety sward, saying to herself, “Bother! Bother! Bother! Bother!” Her outbreak of violence over, she sat gloomily down on the log and abandoned herself to despair. Her hair fell in two plaits down her back to her waist; on second thoughts she arranged them in front—if one is going to despair one may as well do it to the best advantage.
Suddenly a thought struck her.
“I am alone,” she said. “Dare I soliloquise? I will. It is a thing I have not done for weeks. ‘Oh, what a——” She got up quickly. “Nobody could soliloquise on a log like that,” she said crossly. She decided she could do it just as effectively when standing. With one pale hand raised to the skies she began again.
“Oh, what a—”
“Did you call me, Mum?” said Woggs, appearing suddenly.
“Bother!” said Belvane. She gave a shrug of resignation. “Another time,” she told herself. She turned to Woggs.
Woggs must have been quite close at hand to have been found by Wiggs so quickly, and I suspect her of playing in the forest when she ought to have been doing her lessons, or mending stockings, or whatever made up her day’s work. Woggs I find nearly as difficult to explain as Wiggs; it is a terrible thing for an author to have a lot of people running about his book, without any invitation from him at all. However, since Woggs is there, we must make the best of her. I fancy that she was a year or two younger than Wiggs and of rather inferior education. Witness her low innuendo about the Lady Belvane, and the fact that she called a Countess “Mum.”
“Come here,” said Belvane. “Are you what they call Woggs?”
“Please, Mum,” said Woggs nervously.
The Countess winced at the “Mum,” but went on bravely. “What have you been saying about me?”
Belvane winced again, and said, “Do you know what I do to little girls who say things about me? I cut their heads off; I——” She tried to think of something very alarming! “I—I stop their jam for tea. I—I am most annoyed with them.”
Woggs suddenly saw what a wicked thing she had done.
“Oh, please, Mum,” she said brokenly and fell on her knees.
“Don’t call me ‘Mum,'” burst out Belvane. “It’s so ugly. Why do you suppose I ever wanted to be a countess at all, Woggs, if it wasn’t so as not to be called ‘Mum’ any more?”
“I don’t know, Mum,” said Woggs.
Belvane gave it up. The whole morning was going wrong anyhow.
“Come here, child,” she sighed, “and listen. You have been a very naughty girl, but I’m going to let you off this time, and in return I’ve something you are going to do for me.”
“Yes, Mum,” said Woggs.
Belvane barely shuddered now. A sudden brilliant plan had come to her.
“Her Royal Highness is about to review her Army of Amazons. It is a sudden idea of her Royal Highness’s, and it comes at an unfortunate moment, for it so happens that the Army is—er——” Whatwas the Army doing? Ah, yes—”manoeuvring in a distant part of the country. But we must not disappoint her Royal Highness. What then shall we do, Woggs?”
“I don’t know, Mum,” said Woggs stolidly.
Not having expected any real assistance from her, the Countess went on, “I will tell you. You see yonder tree? Armed to the teeth you will march round and round it, giving the impression to one on this side of a large army passing. For this you will be rewarded. Here is——” She felt in the bag she carried. “No, on second thoughts I will owe it to you. Now you quite understand?”
“Yes, Mum,” said Woggs.
“Very well, then. Run along to the Palace and get a sword and a helmet and a bow and an arrow and an—an arrow and anything you like, and then come back here and wait behind those bushes. When I clap my hands the army will begin to march.”
Woggs curtsied and ran off.
It is probable that at this point the Countess would have resumed her soliloquy, but we shall never know, for the next moment the Princess and her Court were seen approaching from the other end of the glade. Belvane advanced to meet them.
“Good morning, your Royal Highness,” she said, “a beautiful day, is it not?”
With the Court at her back, Hyacinth for the moment was less nervous than usual, but almost at the first words of the Countess she felt her self-confidence oozing from her. Did I say I was like this with my publishers? And Roger’s dragged-in Uncle——one can’t explain it.
The Court stood about in picturesque attitudes while Belvane went on:
“Your Royal Highness’s brave Women Defenders, the Home Defence Army of Amazons” (here she saluted; one soon gets into the knack of it, and it gives an air of efficiency) “have looked forward to this day for weeks. How their hearts fill with pride at the thought of being reviewed by your Royal Highness!”
She had paid, or rather received, the money for the Army so often that she had quite got to believe in its existence. She even kept a roll of the different companies (it meant more delightful red ink for one thing), and wrote herself little notes recommending Corporal Gretal Hottshott for promotion to sergeant.
“I know very little about armies, I’m afraid,” said Hyacinth. “I’ve always left that to my father. But I think it’s a sweet idea of yours to enrol the women to defend me. It’s a little expensive, is it not?”
“Your Royal Highness, armies are alwaysexpensive.”
The Princess took her seat, and beckoned Wiggs with a smile to her side. The Court, in attitudes even more picturesque than before, grouped itself behind her.
“Is your Royal Highness ready?”
“Quite ready, Countess.”
The Countess clapped her hands.
There was a moment’s hesitation, and then, armed to the teeth, Amazon after Amazon marched by. . . .
An impressive scene. . . .
However, Wiggs must needs try to spoil it.
“Why, it’s Woggs!” she cried.
“Silly child!” said Belvane in an undertone, giving her a push.
The Princess looked round inquiringly.
“The absurd creature,” explained the Countess, “thought she recognized a friend in your Royal Highness’s gallant Army.”
“How clever of her! They all look exactly alike to me.”
Belvane was equal to the occasion.
“The uniform and discipline of an army have that effect rather,” she said. “It has often been noticed.”
“I suppose so,” said the Princess vaguely. “Oughtn’t they to march in fours? I seem to remember, when I came to reviews with Father——”
“Ah, your Royal Highness, that was an army of men. With women—well, we found that if they marched side by side, they would talk all the time.”
The Court, which had been resting on the right leg with the left knee bent, now rested on the left leg with the right knee bent. Woggs also was getting tired. The last company of the Army of Amazons was not marching with the abandon of the first company.
“I think I should like them to halt now so that I can address them,” said Hyacinth.
Belvane was taken aback for the moment.
“I am afraid, your—your Royal Highness,” she stammered, her brain working busily all the time, “that that would be contrary to—to—to the spirit of—er—the King’s Regulations. An army—an army in marching order—must—er—march.” She made a long forward movement with her hand. “Must march,” she repeated, with an innocent smile.
“I see,” said Hyacinth, blushing guiltily again.
Belvane gave a loud cough. The last veteran but two of the Army looked inquiringly at her and passed. The last veteran but one came in and was greeted with a still louder cough. Rather tentatively the last veteran of all entered and met such an unmistakable frown that it was obvious that the march-past was over. . . . Woggs took off her helmet and rested in the bushes.
“That is all, your Royal Highness,” said Belvane. “158 marches past, 217 reported sick, making 622; 9 are on guard at the Palace—632 and 9 make 815. Add 28 under age and we bring it up to the round thousand.”
Wiggs opened her mouth to say something, but decided that her mistress would probably wish to say it instead. Hyacinth, however, merely looked unhappy.
Belvane came a little nearer.
“I—er—forgot if I mentioned to your Royal Highness that we are paying out today. One silver piece a day and several days in the week, multiplied by—how many did I say?—comes to ten thousand pieces of gold.” She produced a document, beautifully ruled. “If your Royal Highness would kindly initial here——”
Mechanically the Princess signed.
“Thank you, your Royal Highness. And now perhaps I had better go and see about it at once.”
She curtsied deeply, and then, remembering her position, saluted and marched off.
Now Roger Scurvilegs would see her go without a pang; he would then turn over to his next chapter, beginning “Meanwhile the King——,” and leave you under the impression that the Countess Belvane was a common thief. I am no such chronicler as that. At all costs I will be fair to my characters.
Belvane, then, had a weakness. She had several of which I have already told you, but this is another one. She had a passion for the distribution of largesse.
I know an old gentleman who plays bowls every evening. He trundles his skip (or whatever he calls it) to one end of the green, toddles after it, and trundles it back again. Think of him for a moment, and then think of Belvane on her cream-white palfrey tossing a bag of gold to right of her and flinging a bag of gold to left of her, as she rides through the cheering crowds; upon my word I think hers is the more admirable exercise.
And, I assure you, no less exacting. When once one has got into this habit of “flinging” or “tossing” money, to give it in any ordinary way, to slide it gently into the palm, is unbearable. Which of us who has, in an heroic moment, flung half a crown to a cabman can ever be content afterwards to hold out a handful of three-penny bits and coppers to him? One must always be flinging. . . .
So it was with Belvane. The largesse habit had got hold of her. It is an expensive habit, but her way of doing it was less expensive than most. The people were taxed to pay for the Amazon Army; the pay of the Amazon Army was flung back at them; could anything be fairer?
True, it brought her admiration and applause. But what woman does not like admiration? Is that an offence? If it is, it is something very different from the common theft of which Roger Scurvilegs would accuse her. Let us be fair.