The Princess Hyacinth came in from her morning’s ride in a very bad temper. She went straight up to her favourite seat on the castle walls and sent for Wiggs.
“Wiggs,” she said, “what’s the matter with me?”
Wiggs looked puzzled. She had been dusting the books in the library; and when you dust books you simply must stop every now and then to take just one little peep inside, and then you look inside another one and another one, and by the time you have finished dusting, your head is so full of things you have seen that you have to be asked questions very slowly indeed.
“I’m pretty, aren’t I?” went on Hyacinth.
That was an easy one.
“Lovely!” said Wiggs, with a deep breath.
“And I’m not unkind to anybody?”
“Unkind!” said Wiggs indignantly.
“Then why—oh, Wiggs, I know it’s silly of me, but it hurts me that my people are so much fonder of the Countess than of me.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’re not, your Royal Highness.”
“Well, they cheer her much louder than they cheer me.”
Wiggs tried to think of a way of comforting her mistress, but her head was still full of the last book she had dusted.
“Why should they be so fond of her?” demanded Hyacinth.
“Perhaps because she’s so funny,” said Wiggs.
“Funny! Is she funny?” said the Princess coldly. “She doesn’t make me laugh.”
“Well, it was funny of her to make Woggs march round and round that tree like that, wasn’t it?”
“Like what? You don’t mean——” The Princess’s eyes were wide open with astonishment. “Was that Woggs all the time?”
“Yes, your Royal Highness. Wasn’t it lovely and funny of her?”
The Princess looked across to the forest and nodded to herself.
“Yes. That’s it. Wiggs, I don’t believe there has ever been an Army at all. . . . And I pay them every week!” She added solemnly, “There are moments when I don’t believe that woman is quite honest.”
“Do you mean she isn’t good?” asked Wiggs in awe.
“I’m never good,” said Wiggs firmly.
“What do you mean, silly? You’re the best little girl in Euralia.”
“I’m not. I do awful things sometimes. Do you know what I did yesterday?”
“Something terrible!” smiled Hyacinth.
“I tore my apron.”
“You baby! That isn’t being bad,” said Hyacinth absently. She was still thinking of that awful review.
“The Countess says it is.”
“Do you know why I want to be very good?” said Wiggs, coming up close to the Princess.
“Because then I could dance like a fairy.”
“Is that how it’s done?” asked the Princess, rather amused. “The Countess must dance very heavily.” She suddenly remembered something and added: “Why, of course, child, you were going to tell me about a fairy you met, weren’t you? That was weeks ago, though. Tell me now. It will help me to forget things which make me rather angry.”
It was a simple little story. There must have been many like it in the books which Wiggs had been dusting; but these were simple times, and the oldest story always seemed new.
Wiggs had been by herself in the forest. A baby rabbit had run past her, terrified; a ferret in pursuit. Wiggs had picked the little fluffy thing up in her arms and comforted it; the ferret had slowed down, walked past very indifferently with its hands, as it were, in its pockets, hesitated a moment, and then remembered an important letter which it had forgotten to post. Wiggs was left alone with the baby rabbit, and before she knew where she was, the rabbit was gone and there was a fairy in front of her.
“You have saved my life,” said the fairy. “That was a wicked magician after me, and if he had caught me then, he would have killed me.”
“Please, your Fairiness, I didn’t know fairies could die,” said Wiggs.
“They can when they take on animal shape or human shape. He could not hurt me now, but before——” She shuddered.
“I’m so glad you’re all right now,” said Wiggs politely.
“Thanks to you, my child. I must reward you. Take this ring. When you have been good for a whole day, you can have one good wish; when you have been bad for a whole day, you can have one bad wish. One good wish and one bad wish—that is all it will allow anybody to have.”
With these words she vanished and left Wiggs alone with the ring.
So, ever after that, Wiggs tried desperately hard to be good and have the good wish, but it was difficult work. Something always went wrong; she tore her apron or read books when she ought to have been dusting, or—— Well, you or I would probably have given it up at once, and devoted ourselves to earning the bad wish. But Wiggs was a nice little girl.
“And, oh, I do so want to be good,” said Wiggs earnestly to the Princess, “so that I could wish to dance like a fairy.” She had a sudden anxiety. “That is a good wish, isn’t it?”
“It’s a lovely wish; but I’m sure you could dance now if you tried.”
“I can’t,” said Wiggs. “I always dance like this.”
She jumped up and danced a few steps. Wiggs was a dear little girl, but her dancing reminded you of a very dusty road going up-hill all the way, with nothing but suet-puddings waiting for you on the top. Something like that.
“It isn’t really graceful, is it?” she said candidly, as she came to rest.
“Well, I suppose the fairies do dance better than that.”
“So that’s why I want to be good, so as I can have my wish.”
“I really must see this ring,” said the Princess. “It sounds fascinating.” She looked coldly in front of her and added, “Good-morning, Countess.” (How long had the woman been there?)
“Good-morning, your Royal Highness. I ventured to come up unannounced. Ah, sweet child.” She waved a caressing hand at Wiggs.
(Even if she had overheard anything, it had only been child’s talk.)
“What is it?” asked the Princess. She took a firm hold of the arms of her chair. She would not,not, not give way to the Countess this time.
“The merest matter of business, your Royal Highness. Just this scheme for the Encouragement of Literature. Your Royal Highness very wisely decided that in the absence of the men on the sterner business of fighting it was the part of us women to encourage the gentler arts; and for this purpose . . . there was some talk of a competition, and—er——”
“Ah, yes,” said Hyacinth nervously. “I will look into that to-morrow.”
“A competition,” said Belvane, gazing vaguely over Hyacinth’s head. “Some sort of a money prize,” she added, as if in a trance.
“There should certainly be some sort of a prize,” agreed the Princess. (Why not, she asked herself, if one is to encourage literature?)
“Bags of gold,” murmured Belvane to herself. “Bags and bags of gold. Big bags of silver and little bags of gold.” She saw herself tossing them to the crowd.
“Well, we’ll go into that to-morrow,” said Hyacinth hastily.
“I have it all drawn up here,” said Belvane. “Your Royal Highness has only to sign. It saves so much trouble,” she added with a disarming smile. . . . She held the document out—all in the most beautiful colours.
Mechanically the Princess signed.
“Thank you, your Royal Highness.” She smiled again, and added, “And now perhaps I had better see about it at once.” The Guardian of Literature took a dignified farewell of her Sovereign and withdrew.
Hyacinth looked at Wiggs in despair.
“There!” she said. “That’s me. I don’t know what it is about that woman, but I feel just a child in front of her. Oh, Wiggs, Wiggs, I feel so lonely sometimes with nothing but women all around me. I wish I had a man here to help me.”
“Are all the men fighting in all the countries?”
“Not all the countries. There’s—Araby. Don’t you remember—oh, but of course you wouldn’t know anything about it. But Father was just going to ask Prince Udo of Araby to come here on a visit, when the war broke out. Oh, I wish, I wish Father were back again.” She laid her head on her arms; and whether she would have shed a few royal tears or had a good homely cry, I cannot tell you. For at that moment an attendant came in. Hyacinth was herself again at once.
“There is a messenger approaching on a horse, your Royal Highness,” she announced. “Doubtless from His Majesty’s camp.”
With a shriek of delight, and an entire lack of royal dignity, the Princess, followed by the faithful Wiggs, rushed down to receive him.
Meanwhile, what of the Countess? She was still in the Palace, and, more than that, she was in the Throne Room of the Palace, and, more even than that, she was on the Throne, of the Throne Room of the Palace.
She couldn’t resist it. The door was open as she came down from her interview with the Princess, and she had to go in. There was a woman in there, tidying up, who looked questioningly at Belvane as she entered.
“You may leave,” said the Countess with dignity. “Her Royal Highness sent me in here to wait for her.”
The woman curtsied and withdrew.
The Countess then uttered these extraordinary words:
“When I am Queen in Euralia they shall leave me backwards!”
Her subsequent behaviour was even more amazing.
She stood by the side of the door, and putting her hand to her mouth said shrilly, “Ter-rum, ter-rum, terrumty-umty-um.” Then she took her hand away and announced loudly, “Her Majesty Queen Belvane the First!” after which she cheered slightly.
Then in came Her Majesty, a very proper dignified gracious Queen—none of your seventeen-year-old chits. Bowing condescendingly from side to side she made her way to the Throne, and with a sweep of her train she sat down.
Courtiers were presented to her; representatives from foreign countries; Prince Hanspatch of Tregong, Prince Ulric, the Duke of Highanlow.
“Ah, my dear Prince Hanspatch,” she cried, stretching out her hand to the right of her; “and you, dear Prince Ulric,” with a graceful movement of the left arm towards him; “and, dear Duke, you also!” Her right hand, which Prince Hanspatch had by now finished with, went out to the Duke of Highanlow that he too might kiss it.
But it was arrested in mid-air. She felt rather than saw that the Princess was watching her in amazement from the doorway.
Without looking round she stretched out again first one arm and then the other. Then, as if she had just seen the Princess, she jumped up in a pretty confusion.
“Oh, your Royal Highness,” she cried, “you caught me at my physical exercises!” She gave a self-conscious little laugh. “My physical exercises—a forearm movement.” Once again she stretched out her arm. “Building up the—er—building up—building up——”
Her voice died away, for the Princess still looked coldly at her.
“Charming, Countess,” she said. “I am sorry to interrupt you, but I have some news for you. You will like to know that I am inviting Prince Udo of Araby here on a visit. I feel we want a little outside help in our affairs.”
“Prince Udo?” cried the Countess. “Here?“
“Have you any objection?” said Hyacinth. She found it easier to be stern now, for the invitation had already been sent off by the hand of the King’s Messenger. Nothing that the Countess could say could influence her.
“No objection, your Royal Highness; but it seems so strange. And then the expense! Men are such hearty eaters. Besides,” she looked with a charming smile from the Princess to Wiggs, “we were all getting on so nicely together! Of course if he just dropped in for afternoon tea one day——”
“He will make a stay of some months, I hope.” There were no wizards in Barodia, and therefore the war would be a long one. It was this which had decided Hyacinth.
“Of course,” said Belvane, “whatever your Royal Highness wishes, but I do think that His Majesty——”
“My dear Countess,” said Hyacinth, with a smile, “the invitation has already gone, so there’s nothing more to be said, is there? Had you finished your exercises? Yes? Then, Wiggs, will you conduct her ladyship downstairs?”
She turned and left her. The Countess watched her go, and then stood tragically in the middle of the room, clasping her diary to her breast.
“This is terrible!” she said. “I feel years older.” She held out her diary at arm’s length and said in a gloomy voice, “What an entry for to-morrow!” The thought cheered her up a little. She began to consider plans. How could she circumvent this terrible young man who was going to put them all in their places. She wished that——
All at once she remembered something.
“Wiggs,” she said, “what was it I heard you saying to the Princess about a wish?”
“Oh, that’s my ring,” said Wiggs eagerly. “If you’ve been good for a whole day you can have a good wish. And my wish is that——”
“A wish!” said Belvane to herself. “Well, I wish that——” A sudden thought struck her. “You said that you had to be good for a whole day first?”
“I wonder what they mean by good,” she said.
“Of course,” explained Wiggs, “if you’ve been bad for a whole day you can have a bad wish. But I should hate to have a bad wish, wouldn’t you?”
“Simply hate it, child,” said Belvane. “Er—may I have a look at that ring?”
“Here it is,” said Wiggs; “I always wear it round my neck.”
The Countess took it from her.
“Listen,” she said. “Wasn’t that the Princess calling you? Run along, quickly, child.” She almost pushed her from the room and closed the door on her.
Alone again, she paced from end to end of the great chamber, her left hand nursing her right elbow, her chin in her right hand.
“If you are good for a day,” she mused, “you can have a good wish. If you are bad for a day you can have a bad wish. Yesterday I drew ten thousand pieces of gold for the Army; the actual expenses were what I paid—what I owe Woggs. . . . I suppose that is what narrow-minded people call being bad. . . . I suppose this Prince Udo would call it bad. . . . I suppose he thinks he will marry the Princess and throw me into prison.” She flung her head back proudly. “Never!”
“I wish,” she said, and there was a terrible smile in her eyes, “I wish that something very—very humorous shall happen to Prince Udo on his journey.”