I quote (with slight alterations) from an epic by Charlotte Patacake, a contemporary poet of the country:
King Merriwig the First rode back from war,
As many other Kings had done before;
Five hundred men behind him were in sight
(Left-right, left-right, left-right, left-right, left-right).
So far as is known, this was her only work, but she built up some reputation on it, and Belvane, who was a good judge, had a high opinion of her genius.
To be exact, there were only four hundred and ninety-nine men. Henry Smallnose, a bowman of considerable promise, had been left behind in the enemy's country, the one casualty of war. While spying out the land in the early days of the invasion, he had been discovered by the Chief Armourer of Barodia at full length on the wet grass searching for tracks. The Chief Armourer, a kindly man, had invited him to his cottage, dried him and given him a warming drink, and had told him that, if ever his spying took him that way again, he was not to stand on ceremony, but come in and pay him a visit. Henry, having caught a glimpse of the Chief Armourer's daughter, had accepted without any false pride, and had frequently dropped in to supper thereafter. Now that the war was over, he found that he could not tear himself away. With King Merriwig's permission he was settling in Barodia, and with the Chief Armourer's permission he was starting on his new life as a married man.
As the towers of the castle came in sight, Merriwig drew a deep breath of happiness. Home again! The hardships of the war were over; the spoils of victory (wrapped up in tissue paper) were in his pocket; days of honoured leisure were waiting for him. He gazed at each remembered landmark of his own beloved country, his heart overflowing with thankfulness. Never again would he leave Euralia!
How good to see Hyacinth again! Poor little Hyacinth left all alone; but there! she had had the Countess Belvane, a woman of great experience, to help her. Belvane! Should he risk it? How much had she thought of him while he was away? Hyacinth would be growing up and getting married soon. Life would be lonely in Euralia then, unless—— Should he risk it?
What would Hyacinth say?
She was waiting for him at the gates of the castle. She had wanted Coronel to wait with her, but he had refused.
"We must offer the good news to him gradually," he said. "When a man has just come back from a successful campaign, he doesn't want to find a surprise like this waiting for him. Just think—we don't even know why the war is over—he must be longing to tell you that. Oh, he'll have a hundred things to tell you first; but then, when he says 'And what's been happening here while I've been away? Nothing much, I suppose?' then you can say——"
"Then I shall say, 'Nothing much; only Coronel.' And such a clever!"
"Oh, I have my ideas," said Coronel. "Well, I'll be out of the way somewhere. I think I'll go for a walk in the forest. Or shall I stay here, in the Countess's garden, and amuse myself with Udo? Anyhow, I'll give you an hour alone together first."
The cavalcade drew up in front of the castle. Handkerchiefs fluttered to them from the walls; trumpets were blown; hounds bayed. Down the steps came Hyacinth, all blue and gold, and flung herself into her father's arms.
"My dear child," said Merriwig as he patted her soothingly. "There, there! It's your old father come back again. H'r'm. There, there!" He patted her again, as though it were she and not himself who was in danger of breaking down. "My little Hyacinth! My own little girl!"
"Oh, Father, I am glad to have you back."
"There, there, my child. Now I must just say a few words to my men, and then we can tell each other all that has been happening."
He took a step forward and addressed his troops.
"Men of Euralia (cheers). We have returned from a long and arduous conflict (cheers) to the embraces (loud cheers) of our mothers and wives and daughters (prolonged cheering)—as the case may be (hear, hear). In honour of our great victory I decree that, from now onwards, to-morrow shall be observed as a holiday throughout Euralia (terrific cheering). I bid you all now return to your homes, and I hope that you will find as warm a welcome there as I have found in mine." Here he turned and embraced his daughter again; and if his eye travelled over her shoulder in the direction of Belvane's garden, it is a small matter, and one for which the architect of the castle, no doubt, was principally to blame.
There was another storm of cheers, the battle-cry of Euralia, "Ho, ho, Merriwig!" was shouted from five hundred throats, and the men dispersed happily to their homes. Hyacinth and Merriwig went into the Palace.
"Now, Father," said Hyacinth later on, when Merriwig had changed his clothes and refreshed himself, "you've got to tell me all about it. I can hardly believe it's really over."
"Yes, yes. It's all over," said Merriwig heartily. "We shan't have any trouble in that direction again, I fancy."
"Do tell me, did the King of Barodia apologise?"
"He did better than that, he abdicated."
"Well," said Merriwig, remembering just in time, "I—er—killed him."
"Oh, Father, how rough of you."
"I don't think it hurt him very much, my dear. It was more a shock to his feelings than anything else. See, I have brought these home for you."
He produced from his pocket a small packet in tissue paper.
"Oh, how exciting! Whatever can it be?"
Merriwig unwrapped the paper, and disclosed a couple of ginger whiskers, neatly tied up with blue ribbon.
He picked out the left one, fons et origo (if he had known any Latin) of the war, and held it up for Hyacinth's inspection.
"There, you can see the place where Henry Smallnose's arrow bent it. By the way," he added, "Henry is marrying and settling down in Barodia. It is curious," he went on, "how after a war one's thoughts turn to matrimony." He glanced at his daughter to see how she would take this, but she was still engrossed with the whiskers.
"What am I going to do with them, Father? I can't plant them in the garden."
"I thought we might run them up the flagstaff, as we did in Barodia."
"Isn't that a little unkind now that the poor man's dead?"
Merriwig looked round him to see that there were no eavesdroppers.
"Can you keep a secret?" he asked mysteriously.
"Of course," said Hyacinth, deciding at once that it would not matter if she only told Coronel.
"Well, then, listen."
He told her of his secret journey to the King of Barodia's tent; he told her of the King of Barodia's letter; he told her more fully of his early duel with the King; he told her everything that he had said and done; and everything that everybody else had said and done to him; and his boyish pleasure in it all was so evident and so innocent, that even a stranger would have had nothing more reproachful for him than a smile. To Hyacinth he seemed the dearest of fathers and the most wonderful of kings.
And by and by the moment came of which Coronel had spoken.
"And now," said Merriwig, "tell me what you have all been doing with yourselves here. Nothing much, I suppose?"
He waited nervously, wondering if Hyacinth would realise that "all" was meant to include more particularly Belvane.
Hyacinth drew a stool up to her father's chair and sat down very close to him.
"Father," she said, stroking his hand where it rested on his knee, "I have got some news for you."
"Nothing about the Coun—nothing serious, I hope," said Merriwig, in alarm.
"It's rather serious, but it's rather nice. Father, dear, would you mind very much if I got married soon?"
"My dear, you shall get married as soon as you like. Let me see, there were six or seven Princes who came about it only the other day. I sent them off on adventures of some kind, but—dear me, yes, they ought to have been back by now. I suppose you haven't heard anything of them?"
"No, Father," said Hyacinth, with a little smile.
"Ah, well, no doubt they were unsuccessful. No matter, dear, we can easily find you plenty more suitors. Indeed, the subject has been very near my thoughts lately. We'll arrange a little competition, and let them know in the neighbouring countries; there'll be no lack of candidates. Let me see, there's that seven-headed bull; he's getting a little old now, but he was good enough for the last one. We might——"
"I don't want a suitor," said Hyacinth softly. "I have one."
Merriwig leant forward with eagerness.
"My dear, this is indeed news. Tell me all about it. Upon what quest did you send him?"
Hyacinth had felt this coming. Had she lived in modern times she would have expected the question, "What is his income?" A man must prove his worth in some way.
"I haven't sent him away at all yet," she said; "he's only just come. He's been very kind to me, and I'm sure you'll love him."
"Well, well, we'll arrange something for him. Perhaps that bull I was speaking of—— By the way, who is he?"
"He comes from Araby, and his name is——"
"Udo, of course. Why didn't I think of him? An excellent arrangement, my dear."
"It isn't Udo, I'm afraid, Father. It's Coronel."
"And who might Coronel be?" said the King, rather sternly.
"He's—he's—well, he's—— Here he is, Father." She ran up to him impulsively as he came in at the door. "Oh, Coronel, you're just in time; do tell Father who you are."
Coronel bowed profoundly to the King.
"Before I explain myself, your Majesty," he said, "may I congratulate your Majesty on your wonderful victory over the Barodians? From the little I have gathered outside, it is the most remarkable victory that has ever occurred. But of course I am longing to hear the full story from your Majesty's own lips. Is it a fact that your Majesty made his way at dead of night to the King of Barodia's own tent and challenged him to mortal combat and slew him?" There was an eagerness, very winning, in his eyes as he asked it; he seemed to be envying the King such an adventure—an adventure after his own heart.
Merriwig was in an awkward position. He wondered for a moment whether to order his daughter out of the room. "Leave us, my child," he would say. "These are matters for men to discuss." But Hyacinth would know quite well why she had been sent out, and would certainly tell Coronel the truth of the matter afterwards.
It really looked as if Coronel would have to be let into the secret too. He cleared his throat noisily by way of preparation.
"There are certain state reasons," he said with dignity, "why that story has been allowed to get about."
"Pardon, your Majesty. I have no wish to——"
"But as you know so much, you may as well know all. It happened like this." Once more he told the story of his midnight visit, and of the King's letter to him.
"But, your Majesty," cried Coronel, "it is more wonderful than the other. Never was such genius of invention, such brilliance and daring of execution."
"So you like it," said Merriwig, trying to look modest.
"I love it."
"I knew he'd love it," put in Hyacinth. "It's just the sort of story that Coronel would love. Tell him about how you fought the King at the beginning of the war, and how you pretended to be a swineherd, and how—"
Could any father have resisted? In a little while Hyacinth and Coronel were seated eagerly at his feet, and he was telling once more the great story of his adventures.
"Well, well," said the King at the end of it, when he had received their tribute of admiration. "Those are just a few of the little adventures that happen in war time." He turned to Coronel. "And so you, I understand, wish to marry my daughter?"
"Does that surprise your Majesty?"
"Well, no, it doesn't. And she, I understand, wishes to marry you."
"Yes, please, Father."
"That," said Coronel simply, "is much more surprising."
Merriwig, however, was not so sure of that. He liked the look of Coronel, he liked his manner, and he saw at once that he knew a good story—when he heard one.
"Of course," he said, "you'll have to win her."
"Anything your Majesty sets me to do. It's as well," he added with a disarming smile, "that you cannot ask for the whiskers of the King of Barodia. There is only one man who could have got those."
Truly an excellent young man.
"Well, we'll arrange something," said Merriwig, looking pleased. "Perhaps your Prince Udo would care to be a competitor too."
Hyacinth and Coronel interchanged a smile.
"Alas, Father," she said, "his Royal Highness is not attracted by my poor charms."
"Wait till he has seen them, my dear," said Merriwig with a chuckle.
"He has seen them, Father."
"What? You invited him here? Tell me about this, Hyacinth. He came to stay with you and he never——"
"His Royal Highness," put in Coronel, "has given his affections to another."
"Aha! So that's the secret. Now I wonder if I can guess who she is. What do you say to the Princess Elvira of Tregong? I know his father had hopes in that direction."
Hyacinth looked round at Coronel as if appealing for his support. He took a step towards her.
"No, it's not the Princess Elvira," said Hyacinth, a little nervously.
The King laughed good-humouredly.
"Ah, well, you must tell me," he said.
Hyacinth put out her hand, and Coronel pressed it encouragingly.
"His Royal Highness Prince Udo," she said, "is marrying the Countess Belvane."