King Merriwig sat in his tent, his head held well back, his eyes gazing upwards. His rubicund cheeks were for the moment a snowy white. A hind of the name of Carlo had him firmly by the nose. Yet King Merriwig neither struggled nor protested; he was, in fact, being shaved.
The Court Barber was in his usual conversational mood. He released his Majesty’s nose for a moment, and, as he turned to sharpen his razor, remarked,
“Terrible war, this.”
“Terrible,” agreed the King.
“Don’t seem no end to it, like.”
“Well, well,” said Merriwig, “we shall see.”
The barber got to work again.
“Do you know what I should do to the King of Barodia if I had him here?”
Merriwig did not dare to speak, but he indicated with his right eye that he was interested in the conversation.
“I’d shave his whiskers off,” said Carlo firmly.
The King gave a sudden jerk, and for the moment there were signs of a battle upon the snow; then the King leant back again, and in another minute or so the operation was over.
“It will soon be all right,” said Carlo, mopping at his Majesty’s chin. “Your Majesty shouldn’t have moved.”
“It was my own fault, Carlo; you gave me a sudden idea, that’s all.”
“You’re welcome, your Majesty.”
As soon as he was alone the King took out his tablets. On these he was accustomed to record any great thoughts which occurred to him during the day. He now wrote in them these noble words:
“Jewels of wisdom may fall from the meanest of hinds.“
He struck a gong to summon the Chancellor into his presence.
“I have a great idea,” he told the Chancellor.
The Chancellor hid his surprise and expressed his pleasure.
“To-night I propose to pay a secret visit to his Majesty the King of Barodia. Which of the many tents yonder have my spies located as the royal one?”
“The big on in the centre, above which the Royal Arms fly.”
“I thought as much. Indeed I have often seen his Majesty entering it. But one prefers to do these things according to custom. Acting on the information given me by my trusty spies, I propose to enter the King of Barodia’s tent at the dead of night, and——”
The Chancellor shuddered in anticipation.
“And shave his whiskers off.”
The Chancellor trembled with delight.
“Your Majesty,” he said in a quavering voice, “forty years, man and boy, have I served your Majesty, and your Majesty’s late lamented father, and never have I heard such a beautiful plan.”
Merriwig struggled with himself for a moment, but his natural honesty was too much for him.
“It was put into my head by a remark of my Court Barber’s,” he said casually. “But of course the actual working out of it has been mine.”
“Jewels of wisdom,” said the Chancellor sententiously, “may fall from the meanest of hinds.”
“I suppose,” said Merriwig, taking up his tablets and absently scratching out the words written thereon, “there is nothing in the rules against it?”
“By no means, your Majesty. In the annuals of Euralia there are many instances of humour similar to that which your Majesty suggests: humour, if I may say so, which, while evidencing to the ignorant only the lighter side of war, has its roots in the most fundamental strategical considerations.”
Merriwig regarded him with admiration. This was indeed a Chancellor.
“The very words,” he answered, “which I said to myself when the idea came to me. ‘The fact,’ I said, ‘that this will help us to win the war, must not disguise from us the fact that the King of Barodia will look extremely funny without his whiskers.’ To-night I shall sally forth and put my plan into practice.”
At midnight, then, he started out. The Chancellor awaited his return with some anxiety. This might well turn out to be the decisive stroke (or strokes) of the war. For centuries past the ruling monarchs of Barodia had been famous for their ginger whiskers. “As lost as the King of Barodia without his whiskers” was indeed a proverb of those times. A King without a pair, and at such a crisis in his country’s fortunes! It was inconceivable. At the least he would have to live in retirement until they grew again, and without the leadership of their King the Barodian army would become a rabble.
The Chancellor was not distressed at the thought; he was looking forward to his return to Euralia, where he kept a comfortable house. It was not that his life in the field was uninteresting; he had as much work to do as any man. It was part of his business, for instance, to test the pretentions of any new wizard or spell-monger who was brought into the camp. Such and such a quack would seek an interview on the pretext that for five hundred crowns he could turn the King of Barodia into a small black pig. He would be brought before the Chancellor.
“You say that you can turn a man into a small black pig?” the Chancellor would ask.
“Yes, your lordship. It came to me from my grandmother.”
“Then turn me,” the Chancellor would say simply.
The so-called wizard would try. As soon as the incantation was over, the Chancellor surveyed himself in the mirror. Then he nodded to a couple of soldiers, and the impostor was tied backwards on to a mule and driven with jeers out of the camp. There were many such impostors (who at least made a mule out of it), and the Chancellor’s life did not lack excitement.
But he yearned now for the simple comforts of his home. He liked pottering about his garden, when his work at the Palace was finished; he liked, over the last meal of the day, to tell his wife all the important things he had been doing since he had seen her, and to impress her with the fact that he was the holder of many state secrets which she must not attempt to drag from him. A woman of less tact would have considered the subject closed at this point, but she knew that he was only longing to be persuaded. However, as she always found the secrets too dull to tell any one else, no great harm was done.
“Just help me off with this cloak,” said a voice in front of him.
The Chancellor felt about until his hands encountered a solid body. He undid the cloak and the King stood revealed before him.
“Thanks. Well, I’ve done it. It went to my heart to do it at the last moment, so beautiful they were, but I nerved myself to it. Poor soul, he slept like a lamb through it all. I wonder what he’ll say when he wakes up.”
“Did you bring them back with you?” asked the Chancellor excitedly.
“My dear Chancellor, what a question!” He produced them from his pocket. “In the morning we’ll run them up on the flagstaff for all Barodia to see.”
“He won’t like that,” said the Chancellor, chuckling.
“I don’t quite see what he can do about it,” said Merriwig.
* * * * *
The King of Barodia didn’t quite see either.
A fit of sneezing woke him up that morning, and at the same moment he felt a curious draught about his cheeks. He put his hand up and immediately knew the worst.
“Hullo, there!” he bellowed to the sentry outside the door.
“Your Majesty,” said the sentry, coming in with alacrity.
The King bobbed down again at once.
“Send the Chancellor to me,” said an angry voice from under the bedclothes.
When the Chancellor came in it was to see the back only of his august monarch.
“Chancellor,” said the King, “prepare yourself for a shock.”
“Yes, sir,” said the Chancellor, trembling exceedingly.
“You are about to see something which no man in the history of Barodia has ever seen before.”
The Chancellor, not having the least idea what to expect, waited nervously. The next moment the tent seemed to swim before his eyes, and he knew no more. . . .
When he came to, the King was pouring a jug of water down his neck and murmuring rough words of comfort in his ear.
“Oh, your Majesty,” said the poor Chancellor, “your Majesty! I don’t know what to say, your Majesty.” He mopped at himself as he spoke, and the water trickled from him on to the floor.
“Pull yourself together,” said the King sternly. “We shall want all your wisdom, which is notoriously not much, to help us in this crisis.”
“Your Majesty, who has dared to do this grievous thing?”
“You fool, how should I know? Do you think they did it while I was awake?”
The Chancellor stiffened a little. He was accustomed to being called a fool; but that was by a man with a terrifying pair of ginger whiskers. From the rather fat and uninspiring face in front of him he was inclined to resent it.
“What does your Majesty propose to do?” he asked shortly.
“I propose to do the following. Upon you rests the chief burden.”
The Chancellor did not look surprised.
“It will be your part to break the news as gently as possible to my people. You will begin by saying that I am busy with a great enchanter who has called to see me, and that therefore I am unable to show myself to my people this morning. Later on in the day you will announce that the enchanter has shown me how to defeat the wicked Euralians; you will dwell upon the fact that this victory, as assured by him, involves an overwhelming sacrifice on my part, but that for the good of my people I am willing to endure it. Then you will solemnly announce that the sacrifice I am making, have indeed already made, is nothing less than—— What are all those fools cheering for out there?” A mighty roar of laughter rose to the sky. “Here, what’s it all about? Just go and look.”
The Chancellor went to the door of the tent—and saw.
He came back to the King, striving to speak casually.
“Just a humorous emblem that the Euralians have raised over their camp,” he said. “It wouldn’t amuse your Majesty.”
“I am hardly in a mood for joking,” said the King. “Let us return to business. As I was saying, you will announce to the people that the enormous sacrifice which their King is prepared to make for them consists of— There they go again. I must really see what it is. Just pull the door back so that I may see without being seen.”
“It—it really wouldn’t amuse your Majesty.”
“Are you implying that I have no sense of humour?” said the King sternly.
“Oh, no, sire, but there are certain jokes, jokes in the poorest of taste, that would naturally not appeal to so delicate a palate as your Majesty’s. This—er—strikes me as one of them.”
“Of that I am the best judge,” said the King coldly. “Open the door at once.”
The Chancellor opened the door; and there before the King’s eyes, flaunting themselves in the breeze beneath the Royal Standard of Euralia, waved his own beloved whiskers.
The King of Barodia was not a lovable man, and his daughters were decidedly plain, but there are moments when one cannot help admiring him. This was one of them.
“You may shut the door,” he said to the Chancellor. “The instructions which I gave to you just now,” he went on in the same cold voice, “are cancelled. Let me think for a moment.” He began to walk up and down his apartment. “You may think, too,” he added kindly. “If you have anything not entirely senseless to suggest, you may suggest it.”
He continued his pacings. Suddenly he came to a dead stop. He was standing in front of a large mirror. For the first time since he was seventeen he had seen his face without whiskers. His eyes still fixed on his reflection, he beckoned the Chancellor to approach.
“Come here,” he said, clutching him by the arm. “You see that?” He pointed to the reflection. “That is what I look like? The mirror hasn’t made a mistake of any kind? That is really and truly what I look like?”
For a little while the King continued to gaze fascinated at his reflection, and then he turned on the Chancellor.
“You coward!” he said. “You weak-kneed, jelly-souled, paper-livered imitation of a man! You cringe to a King who looks like that! Why, you ought to kick me.”
The Chancellor remembered that he had one kick owing to him. He drew back his foot, and then a thought occurred to him.
“You might kick me back,” he pointed out.
“I certainly should,” said the King.
The Chancellor hesitated a moment.
“I think,” he said, “that these private quarrels in the face of the common enemy are to be deplored.”
The King looked at him, gave a short laugh, and went on walking up and down.
“That face again,” he sighed as he came opposite the mirror. “No, it’s no good; I can never be King like this. I shall abdicate.”
“But, your Majesty, this is a very terrible decision. Could not your Majesty live in retirement until your Majesty had grown your Majesty’s whiskers again? Surely this is——”
The King came to a stand opposite him and looked down on him gravely.
“Chancellor,” he said, “those whiskers which you have just seen fluttering in the breeze have been for more than forty years my curse. For more than forty years I have had to live up to those whiskers, behaving, not as my temperament, which is a kindly, indeed a genial one, bade me to behave, but as those whiskers insisted I should behave. Arrogant, hasty-tempered, over-bearing—these are the qualities which have been demanded of the owner of those whiskers. I played a part which was difficult at first; of late, it has, alas! been more easy. Yet it has never been my true nature that you have seen.”
He paused and looked silently at himself in the glass.
“But, your Majesty,” said the Chancellor eagerly, “why choose this moment to abdicate? Think how your country will welcome this new King whom you have just revealed to me. And yet,” he added regretfully, “it would not be quite the same.”
The King turned round to him.
“There spoke a true Barodian,” he said. “It would not be the same. Barodians have come to expect certain qualities from their rulers, and they would be lost without them. A new King might accustom them to other ways, but they are used to me, and they would not like me different. No, Chancellor, I shall abdicate. Do not wear so sad a face for me. I am looking forward to my new life with the greatest of joy.”
The Chancellor was not looking sad for him; he was looking sad for himself, thinking that perhaps a new King might like changes in Chancellors equally with changes in manners or whiskers.
“But what will you do?” he asked.
“I shall be a simple subject of the new King, earning my living by my own toil.”
The Chancellor raised his eyebrows at this.
“I suppose you think,” said the King haughtily, “that I have not the intelligence to earn my own living.”
The Chancellor with a cough remarked that the very distinguished qualities which made an excellent King did not always imply the corresponding—er—and so on.
“That shows how little you know about it. Just to give one example. I happen to know that I have in me the makings of an excellent swineherd.”
“The man who—er—herds the swine. It may surprise you to hear that, posing as a swineherd, I have conversed with another of the profession upon his own subject, without his suspecting the truth. It is just such a busy outdoor life as I should enjoy. One herds and one milks, and one milks, and—er—herds, and so it goes on day after day.” A happy smile, the first the Chancellor had ever seen there, spread itself over his features. He clapped the Chancellor playfully on the back and added, “I shall simply love it.”
The Chancellor was amazed. What a story for his dinner-parties when the war was over!
“How will you announce it?” he asked, and his tone struck a happy mean between the tones in which you address a monarch and a pig-minder respectively.
“That will be your duty. Now that I have shaken off the curse of those whiskers, I am no longer a proud man, but even a swineherd would not care for it to get about that he had been forcibly shaved while sleeping. That this should be the last incident recorded of me in Barodian history is unbearable. You will announce therefore that I have been slain in fair combat, though at the dead of night, by the King of Euralia, and that my whiskers fly over his royal tent as a symbol of his victory.” He winked at the Chancellor and added, “It might as well get about that some one had stolen my Magic Sword that evening.”
The Chancellor was speechless with admiration and approval of the plan. Like his brother of Euralia, he too was longing to get home again. The war had arisen over a personal insult to the King. If the King was no longer King, why should the war go on?
“I think,” said the future swineherd, “that I shall send a Note over to the King of Euralia, telling him my decision. To-night, when it is dark, I shall steal away and begin my new life. There seems to be no reason why the people should not go back to their homes to-morrow. By the way, that guard outside there knows that I wasn’t killed last night; that’s rather awkward.”
“I think,” said the Chancellor, who was already picturing his return home, and was not going to be done out of it by a common sentry, “I think I could persuade him that you were killed last night.”
“Oh, well, then, that’s all right.” He drew a ring from his finger. “Perhaps this will help him to be persuaded. Now leave me while I write to the King of Euralia.”
It was a letter which Merriwig was decidedly glad to get. It announced bluntly that the war was over, and added that the King of Barodia proposed to abdicate. His son would rule in his stead, but he was a harmless fool, and the King of Euralia need not bother about him. The King would be much obliged if he would let it get about that the whiskers had been won in a fair fight; this would really be more to the credit of both of them. Personally he was glad to be rid of the things, but one has one’s dignity. He was now retiring into private life, and if it were rumoured abroad that he had been killed by the King of Euralia matters would be much more easy to arrange.
Merriwig slept late after his long night abroad, and he found this Note waiting for him when he awoke. He summoned the Chancellor at once.
“What have you done about those—er—trophies?” he asked.
“They are fluttering from your flagstaff, sire, at this moment.”
“Ah! And what do my people say?”
“They are roaring with laughter, sire, at the whimsical nature of the jest.”
“Yes, but what do they say?”
“Some say that your Majesty, with great cunning, ventured privily in the night and cut them off while he slept; others, that with great bravery you defeated him in mortal combat and carried them away as the spoils of the victor.”
“Oh! And what did you say?”
The Chancellor looked reproachful.
“Your Majesty’s skill in sword play will be much appreciated by the people.”
“Quite so,” said the King hastily. “Well, that’s all—I’m getting up now. And we’re all going home to-morrow.”
The Chancellor went out, rubbing his hands with delight.