Everybody likes to make a good impression on his first visit, but there were moments just before his arrival in Euralia when Prince Udo doubted whether the affair would go as well as he had hoped. You shall hear why.
He had been out hunting with his friend, the young Duke Coronel, and was returning to the Palace when Hyacinth's messenger met him. He took the letter from him, broke the seals, and unrolled it.
"Wait a moment, Coronel," he said to his friend. "This is going to be an adventure of some sort, and if it's an adventure I shall want you with me."
"I'm in no hurry," said Coronel, and he got off his horse and gave it into the care of an attendant. The road crossed a stream here. Coronel sat up on the little stone bridge and dropped pebbles idly into the water.
The Prince read his letter.
Plop . . . Plop . . . Plop . . . Plop . . .
The Prince looked up from his letter.
"How many days' journey is it to Euralia?" he asked Coronel.
"How long did it take the messenger to come?" answered Coronel, without looking up. (Plop. )
"I might have thought of that myself," said Udo, "only this letter has rather upset me." He turned to the messenger. "How long has it——?"
"Isn't the letter dated?" said Coronel. (Plop. )
Udo paid no attention to this interruption and finished his question to the messenger.
"A week, sire."
"Ride on to the castle and wait for me. I shall have a message for you."
"What is it?" said Coronel, when the messenger had gone. "An adventure?"
"I think so. I think we may call it that, Coronel."
"With me in it?"
"Yes, I think you will be somewhere in it."
Coronel stopped dropping his pebbles and turned to the Prince.
"May I hear about it?"
Udo help out the letter; then feeling that a lady's letter should be private, drew it back again. He prided himself always on doing the correct thing.
"It's from Princess Hyacinth of Euralia," he said; "she doesn't say much. Her father is away fighting, and she is alone and she is in some trouble or other. It ought to make rather a good adventure."
Coronel turned away and began to drop his pebbles into the stream again.
"Well, I wish you luck," he said. "If it's a dragon, don't forget that——"
"But you're coming, too," said Udo, in dismay. "I must have you with me."
"Doing what?" said Coronel again.
"Well," said Prince Udo awkwardly, "er—well, you—well."
He felt that it was a silly question for Coronel to have asked. Coronel knew perfectly well what he would be doing all the time. In Udo's absence he would be telling Princess Hyacinth stories of his Royal Highness's matchless courage and wisdom. An occasional discussion also with the Princess upon the types of masculine beauty, leading up to casual mention of Prince Udo's own appearance, would be quite in order. When Prince Udo was present Coronel would no doubt find the opportunity of drawing Prince Udo out, an opportunity of which a stranger could not so readily avail himself.
But of course you couldn't very well tell Coronel that. A man of any tact would have seen it at once.
"Of course," he said, "don't come if you don't like. But it would look rather funny if I went quite unattended; and—and her Royal Highness is said to be very beautiful," he added lamely.
Coronel laughed. There are adventures and adventures; to sit next to a very beautiful Princess and discuss with her the good looks of another man was not the sort of adventure that Coronel was looking for.
He tossed the remainder of his pebbles into the stream and stood up.
"Of course, if your Royal Highness wishes——"
"Don't be a fool, Coronel," said his Royal Highness, rather snappily.
"Well, then, I'll come with my good friend Udo if he wants me."
"I do want you."
"Very well, that settles it. After all," he added to himself, "there may be two dragons."
Two dragons would be one each. But from all accounts there were not two Princesses.
* * * * *
So three days later the friends set out with good hearts upon the adventure. The messenger had been sent back to announce their arrival; they gave him three days' start, and hoped to gain two days upon him. In the simple fashion of those times (so it would seem from Roger Scurvilegs) they set out with no luggage and no clear idea of where they were going to sleep at night. This, after all, is the best spirit in which to start a journey. It is the Gladstone bag which has killed romance.
They started on a perfect summer day, and they rode past towers and battlements, and by the side of sparkling streams, and came out into the sunlight again above sleepy villages, and, as they rode, Coronel sang aloud and Udo tossed his sword into the air and caught it again. As evening fell they came to a woodman's cottage at the foot of a high hill, and there they decided to rest for the night. An old woman came out to welcome them.
"Good evening, your Royal Highness," she said.
"You know me?" said Udo, more pleased than surprised.
"I know all who come into my house," said the old woman solemnly, "and all who go away from it."
This sort of conversation made Coronel feel creepy. There seemed to be a distinction between the people who came to the house and the people who went away from it which he did not like.
"Can we stay here the night, my good woman?" said Udo.
"You have hurt your hand," she said, taking no notice of his question.
"It's nothing," said Udo hastily. On one occasion he had caught his sword by the sharp end by mistake—a foolish thing to have done.
"Ah, well, since you won't want hands where you're going, it won't matter much."
It was the sort of thing old women said in those days, and Udo did not pay much attention to it.
"Yes, yes," he said; "but can you give my friend and myself a bed for to-night?"
"Seeing that you won't be travelling together long, come in and welcome."
She opened the door and they followed her in.
As they crossed the threshold, Udo half turned round and whispered over his shoulder to Coronel,
"Probably a fairy. Be kind to her."
"How can one be kind to one's hostess?" said Coronel. "It's she who has to be kind to us."
"Well, you know what I mean; don't be rude to her."
"My dear Udo, this to me—the pride of Araby, the favourite courtier of his Majesty, the——"
"Oh, all right," said Udo.
"Sit down and rest yourselves," said the old woman. "There'll be something in the pot for you directly."
"Good," said Udo. He looked approvingly at the large cauldron hanging over the fire. It was a big fireplace for such a small room. So he thought when he first looked at it, but as he gazed, the room seemed to get bigger and bigger, and the fireplace to get farther and farther away, until he felt that he was in a vast cavern cut deep into the mountainside. He rubbed his eyes, and there he was in the small kitchen again and the cauldron was sending out a savoury smell.
"There'll be something in it for all tastes," went on the old woman, "even for Prince Udo's."
"I'm not so particular as all that," said Udo mildly. The room had just become five hundred yards long again, and he was feeling quiet.
"Not now, but you will be."
She filled them a plate each from the pot; and pulling their chairs up to the table, they fell to heartily.
"This is really excellent," said Udo, as he put down his spoon and rested for a moment.
"You'd think you'd always like that, wouldn't you?" she said.
"I always shall be fond of anything so perfectly cooked."
"Ah," remarked the old woman thoughtfully.
Udo was beginning to dislike her particular style of conversation. It seemed to carry the merest suggestion of a hint that something unpleasant was going to happen to him. Nothing apparently was going to happen to Coronel. He tried to drag Coronel into the conversation in case the old woman had anything over for him.
"My friend and I," he said, "hope to be in Euralia the day after to-morrow."
"No harm in hoping," was the answer.
"Dear me, is something going to happen to us on the way?"
"Depends what you call 'us.'"
Coronel pushed back his chair and got up.
"I know what's going to happen to me," he said. "I'm going to sleep."
"Well," said Udo, getting up too, "we've got a long day before us to-morrow, and apparently we are in for an adventure—er, we are in for an adventure of some sort." He looked anxiously at the old woman, but she made no sign. "And so let's to bed."
"This way," said the old woman, and by the light of a candle she led them upstairs.
* * * * *
Udo slept badly. He had a feeling (just as you have) that something was going to happen to him; and it was with some surprise that he woke up in the morning to find himself much as he was when he went to bed. He looked at himself in the glass; he invited Coronel to gaze at him; but neither could discover that anything was the matter.
"After all," said Udo, "I don't suppose she meant anything. These old women get into a way of talking like that. If anybody is going to be turned into anything, it's much more likely to be you."
"Is that why you brought me with you?" asked Coronel.
I suppose that by this time they had finished their dressing. Roger Scurvilegs tells us nothing on such important matters; no doubt from modesty. "Next morning they rose," he says, and disappoints us of a picture of Udo brushing his hair. They rose and went down to breakfast.
The old woman was in a less cryptic mood at breakfast. She was particularly hospitable to Udo, and from some secret store produced an unending variety of good things for him to eat. To Coronel it almost looked as if she were fattening him up for something, but this suggestion was received with such bad grace by Udo that he did not pursue the subject.
As soon as breakfast was over they started off again. From one of the many bags of gold he carried, Udo had offered some acknowledgment to the old woman, but she had refused to take it.
"Nay, nay," she said. "I shall be amply rewarded before the day is out." And she seemed to be smiling to herself as if she knew of some joke which the Prince and Coronel did not yet share.
"I like to-day," said Coronel as they rode along. "There's a smell of adventure in the air. Red roofs, green trees, blue sky, white road—I could fall in love to-day."
"Who with?" said Udo suspiciously.
"Any one—that old woman, if you like."
"Oh, don't talk of her," said the Prince with a shudder. "Coronel, hadn't you a sense of being out of some joke that she was in?"
"Perhaps we shall be in it before long. I could laugh very easily on a morning like this."
"Oh, I can see a joke as well as any one," said Udo. "Don't be afraid that I shan't laugh, too. No doubt it will make a good story, whatever it is, to tell to the Princess Hyacinth. Coronel," he added solemnly, the thought having evidently only just occurred to him, "I am all impatience to help that poor girl in her trouble." And as if to show his impatience, he suddenly gave the reins a shake and cantered ahead of his companion. Smiling to himself, Coronel followed at his leisure.
They halted at mid-day in a wood, and made a meal from some provisions which the old woman had given them; and after they had eaten, Udo lay down on a mossy bank and closed his eyes.
"I'm sleepy," he said; "I had a restless night. Let's stay here awhile; after all, there's no hurry."
"Personally," said Coronel, "I'm all impatience to help that——"
"I tell you I had a very bad night," said Udo crossly.
"Oh, well, I shall go off and look for dragons. Coronel, the Dragon Slayer. Good-bye."
"Only half an hour," said Udo.
With a nod to the Prince he strolled off among the trees.