“Shut up,” growled the crown prince, “and don’t forget that I’m a highness. You ought to have your head chopped off. When we get back to Karlova I’ll see to it; but, Kantchi, my friend, if ever I do get back you’ll never make a prince of me again—I’d rather hang to the nearest gibbet.”
“Which would suit your highness’s peculiar style of beauty far better than the purple,” replied Ivan.
“Purple?” asked the crown prince. “I don’t see no purple in this uniform. It’s black and yellow.”
“Hst!” warned Ivan; “Prince Stroebel is awaiting your highness. Trip along with him, and when you’re presented to the king don’t act like a swineherd—remember that you’re a prince.”
The pseudo Prince Boris turned quickly to follow the instructions of his mentor. He took two or three rapid strides in the direction of the prime minister of Margoth, forgetful, for the instant, of the unaccustomed sabre which dangled at his side. The perverse weapon swung between his long legs, he tripped, stumbled, and lunged headlong upon the bemedalled breast of Prince Stroebel. His helmet tumbled from his head and rolled along the marble pavement; and one of his huge hands, grasping wildly for support jammed the helmet of the prime minister over that dignified official’s ears, extinguishing him, momentarily.
From an upper window of the palace a pair of girlish eyes looked down upon the scene. A girlish giggle broke from a pair of red lips, and Princess Mary of Margoth threw herself upon the window seat and shook with laughter.
“Oh, Carlotta!” she cried. “Did you see him? And poor old Stroebel! It serves him right. It is he who is at the bottom of this ridiculous scheme to marry me to that hideous and impossible boor. He is even worse than I had imagined—from here I could see his red nose and his little, close-set eyes; but, Carlotta, we must hasten—the moment of the ordeal approaches. Oh, but won’t Da-da be mad!”
“Yes, your highness, I think that he will,” agreed Carlotta, with an unmistakable shudder.
“Come!” cried the Princess Mary, and seizing Carlotta by the hand she dragged that unhappy lady toward the door to the royal dressing room where behind bar and bolt, the two worked assiduously with pencil and paste, and comb and brush for the better part of an hour.
The meeting between Alexis III of Margoth, and Crown Prince Boris of Karlova had passed off without any untoward incidents to greatly mar the felicity of the occasion. It is true that the royal Karlovian had seemed often at a loss as to just where to dispose his hands or feet to the best advantage; and that for a while he had sat with one long leg thrown in careless disorder over the arm of the great throne chair in which he sat beside his illustrious father-in-law-to-be, but on the whole he had gotten through the ordeal with much greater credit than he had won upon the streets of the capitol.
The great functionaries of the state, the little functionaries, the nobles, the ambassadors from foreign courts, and the high officers of the Margothian army had been presented to the royal visitor. The absence of Baron Kantchi, the Karlovian minister, was duly explained by the Karlovian military chargé d’affaires—Baron Kantchi had received only that morning an urgent command from his royal master to present himself at court in Sovgrad without delay. The charge d’affaires looked rather frightened, uncomfortable and scandalized; but Ivan Kantchi, Alexander Palensk, and Nicholas Gregovitch supported him with such frightful glares that he managed to look almost happy as he kissed the large, red hand of Prince Boris of Karlova—happier by far than the prince.
At last the great doors at the far end of the throne room opened wide, the heavy hangings were drawn back. A court functionary in knee breeches and gold braid appeared in the opening.
“Her Royal Highness, Princess Mary Constantia Deodora Theresa Eugenie Sylvia!” he announced in reverent tones.
An aisle was opened from the doorway to the foot of the throne up on which a third chair had been placed for the princess. Every eye turned in the direction of the little figure walking slowly at the head of her ladies-in-waiting, and more than one Margothian smothered an exclamation of incredulity or horror as they saw the face of their beloved princess.
Prince Boris of Karlova, prodded by Ivan Kantchi, rose as the Princess Mary entered the room, and, with the other Karlovians who had not before seen the Margothian princess, strained his eyes in her direction. Trained in the etiquette of courts, the audience gave no token of the true emotions which surged beneath their resplendent costumes, as Mary of Margoth approached the throne to meet her future husband.
The Karlovians saw a small woman, bent, and supporting herself with a cane. The yellow skin of the forehead was lined with wrinkles. Dark rings circled the squinting eyes. The lower lip drooped, the upper was slightly raised, giving an expression of partial idiocy to the countenance, and exposing a dark spot where a front tooth was missing. The low cut bodice revealed a yellow, scrawny neck, creased with many lines.
Ivan Kantchi gave a mental gasp; but to all outward appearances he might have been looking for the first time upon the most beautiful woman in the world. Not so Prince Boris, however. His eyebrows went up, and he raised his palm to cover the grin which he made no effort to suppress.
“Name of a name!” he whispered to Ivan; “What a fright.”
“Shut up, you fool!” snapped Kantchi. “She is a princess and a woman.”
Alexis III rose to greet his daughter. A terrific frown darkened his brow; but he had seen the contemptuous smile upon the face of his royal guest, and anger and pride smothered the rebuke which he had been upon the point of delivering to his temerous daughter.
True to his coaching, The Rider raised the hand of Princess Mary to his lips. Like a parrot he repeated the words which Ivan Kantchi had taught him; but the only reply was a vacant stare from the squinting eyes of the princess, and a still further droop of the lower jaw. It was evident to the Karlovians present that the Margothian princess was a hopeless idiot.
At last the painful audience was terminated. The king, Princess Mary, Prince Boris, Stroebel and Kantchi withdrew. The assemblage separated into little knots of animated gossipers, and with the restraint of royalty removed long restrained laughter attested the appreciation with which the Margothians had viewed the daring ruse which their clever little princess had adopted to discourage the matrimonial advances of the crown prince of Karlova.
As the king and Princess Mary passed out of the throne room together the former spoke in low tones to his daughter. His face was very white and stern; the arm upon which the little hand of Princess Mary rested, trembled to the anger which filled Alexis III.
“You have accomplished nothing,” he said, “other than to make yourself and your king ridiculous in the eyes of our subjects and of strangers and to finally crystallize my determination that you shall wed Prince Boris. After seeing him I might have hesitated; but if he is a boor, what shall the king of Margoth say for his own daughter? It will be an excellent match, and I promise your highness that the betrothal shall take place upon the morrow.”
In accordance with the program which the king and Prince Stroebel had arranged, Princess Mary and Prince Boris were to be given a half hour together alone, that they might become better acquainted, and pursuant to this idea the king, Stroebel, and Kantchi left them.
No sooner were the two alone than the princess rose, and hobbled slowly across the floor, leaning upon her cane. Without a word of apology or adieu she passed through a small doorway, and was gone. The door opened into a corridor near the foot of a staircase, and as the portal closed behind her Princess Mary straightened up, the stupid squint in her eyes was replaced by a mischievous twinkle, and a merry smile transformed the sagging jaw into a well moulded, aggressive little chin.
Gathering her royal robes half way to her knees, Princess Mary scampered up the stairway and along a wide hallway toward her own apartments. At a turning she came unexpectedly upon an officer on guard. Instantly the skirts dropped demurely about the trim ankles, the reckless gait became a dignified walk, though the roguish dimples still hovered about the corners of the piquant little mouth, and laughing eyes looked sideways at the stony-faced lieutenant standing rigidly at salute.
Once inside her own suite, the princess ran quickly toward the frightened and nervous Carlotta who advanced to meet her, her arms outstretched, and a question on her lips.
“Oh,” cried the princess, “he is awful—just simply awful; and Da-da is so mad at me he could eat me alive. And, Carlotta, I’m going to run away!”
“Your highness!” almost screamed the scandalized Carlotta.
“But I am. Da-da was so angry that he swore that I should be betrothed to that frightful Karlovian person to-morrow, and I simply must get out of his clutches until he has had time to cool off.”
“Oh, your highness, it is awful!” moaned Carlotta. “I knew what would come of an American education. Never before has a Margothian princess thought to question the commands of her father, the king. It is all due to those frightful, democratic ideas which you picked up in the New World.”
As she talked, the faithful Carlotta was busy removing the state robes of her mistress while the latter grimaced at herself in an adjacent mirror that she might enjoy the ecstasy of contemplating the missing tooth and the network of wrinkles before Carlotta removed the last vestige of them to leave the fair, young face as clear and blemishless as marble and the firm, white teeth glistening in an unbroken row. In half an hour Mary was herself again. Her aggressive spirit had swept away the weak remonstrances of Carlotta to the bold plan the girl had conceived, and now there remained but to discuss the details and make the final arrangements.
As the two talked there came a knock upon the door and in reply to Carlotta’s summons the king’s secretary entered the chamber, halting inside the doorway and bowing very low. With a smile and a pleasant word the princess bid him advance. As she noted the man’s hesitancy and embarrassment she broke into a merry laugh.
“I can guess your errand,” she exclaimed. “You bear word of my punishment from His Majesty—I am to be shot at sunrise.”
The secretary, who was a young man, blushed and smiled sheepishly. Then he cleared his throat once or twice.
“Not quite so bad as that, Your Highness,” he replied. “His Majesty commands that you remain in your apartments until he summons you tomorrow. I am to return with your assurance that the king’s command will be respected.”
“And if I will not promise?” she asked, with one of her sweetest smiles.
“Then His Majesty directs that you be placed under arrest and a guard posted in the corridor before your apartments,” replied the secretary.
“You are to return at once to His Majesty, I presume, with my assurances?” she asked.
“His Majesty has already departed for Klovia, where he dines this evening,” replied the secretary. “I am merely to act for him, Your Highness. If you give me your promise to respect the king’s wishes I am to receive them for His Majesty—if you do not, then I am to arrange for the guard.”
“I see,” said Princess Mary, and she rose and walked to and fro as though in deep thought. At last she paused before a small door in that part of the room opposite from the doorway through which the secretary had entered.
“I should like to have a few minutes in which to think the matter over, and talk with Carlotta,” she said in a voice so sweet and with a smile so winning that it would have been impossible to deny her had she been but a goose-girl instead of a princess; “so, if you will step into this ante-chamber, M. Klein,” and she laid her hand upon the knob and partially opened the door, “Carlotta and I will discuss the matter.”
Now what is there to do when a princess of the blood royal condescends to hold a door open for one but to pass through, backward, in as courtly a manner as possible? Nothing, of course; and so the king’s secretary backed into the little room, the Princess Mary cast a sweet smile upon, and the door closed—with an ominous click that was not entirely lost upon the gallant M. Klein.
Then he turned and looked about him to discover that he was in a very small room with a single heavily grated window high in one wall above his head—a small window which let in air but none too much light. M. Klein scratched his head and let his eyes return to the closed door. He was half tempted to turn the knob; but no, to enter the presence of Her Highness until bid would be an unpardonable offense. So M. Klein waited, shifting his weight from one foot to another, the pleasure of the little princess whom all Margoth loved.
And in the mean time the princess, aided by Carlotta slipped into a long, dark colored cloak. Carlotta, too, garbed herself in bonnet and wrap, and the two carrying themselves more like criminals than members of a royal household, sneaked out into the corridor and made their surreptitious way down back stairways to the rear of the palace. The royal stables lay not so far away, night was falling, and undetected the two fugitives presently appeared before a surprised and bowing chauffeur.
“The open car, Stefan,” instructed Princess Mary; The old one without the arms, and take me west on the Roman road—I’ll tell you just where to go, later.”