THE PLUSH USURPER
THERE was a knock at the King’s study door. The King looked up from his plans for the new municipal washhouses and sighed; for that was the twenty-seventh knock that had come to his door since breakfast.
“Come in,” said the King, wearily.
And the Lord Chief Good-doer came in. He wore a white gown and carried a white wand. If you had been there you would have noticed how clean the King’s study looked. All the books were bound in white vellum, and the floor was covered with white matting, and the window curtains were of white silk. Of course, it would not be right for every one to have such things, even if we were all kings because it would make such a lot of work for the servants. But this king, whose name was Alban, had an excellent housekeeper. She did all the cooking and cleaned everything by white magic, which is better even than nettoyage-à-sec (if you know what that is), and only took the good lady five minutes every morning.
“I am extremely sorry to disturb your Majesty,” said the Lord Chief Good-doer, “but your Majesty’s long-lost brother Negretti has called in from the Golden Indies, and he says he can’t stay more than half an hour.”
The King jumped up, knocking over the white wood table where the White Books were. (We call them Blue Books in England, but the insides are just as dull whatever colour you put outside.)
“My dear brother! I haven’t seen him since we were boys together,” he cried, and ran out to meet him, tucking up his royal white velvet robes to run the quicker down the cool marble corridors.
At the front door of the Palace was the King’s brother just getting off his elephant. He was a brown and yellow brother, withered and shrivelled like a very old apple, and dressed in a suite of plush of a bright orange, sown thick with emeralds. All the white marble terrace in front of the Palace was crowded with the retinue of the new arrival. Slaves of all colours—black, brown, yellow, and cream colour, dressed in all sorts of bright hues, scarlet and blue and purple and orange, with rubies and sapphires and amethysts and topazes sewn thickly on them, so that the eye could hardly bear the glow and glitter of them as they shone in the sunlight on the terrace.
“Welcome, welcome!” King Alban cried, and kissed his brother on both cheeks, as is the fashion in Albanatolia and in many other civilised lands. Then, still holding him by both hands, he led him into the Palace. The jewelled gorgeous retinue followed him in, and the head parlour-maid shut the front door and put the chain up, because she knew it to be more than possible that a few odd rubies and sapphires and things would drop off the retinue on to the floor, and she thought any such little odds and ends might as well go into her dust-pan, when she swept up after lunch, as into the pockets of any poor people who might look in during the afternoon to ask the King’s advice, as they were fond of doing. This was the beginning of the trouble that was wrought by the coming of the King’s brother. Before this every door stood unfastened all day long, because every one was contented, and therefore honest.
King Alban entertained his brother royally for seven days in the good old fashion, and then gave him a palace of his own to live in. The Palace was of white marble, like most of the buildings in Albanatolia, but the King’s brother had it painted red all over without a moment’s delay. And then he began to give parties and to have processions and to scatter money among the crowd, and every day the people loved him more. He was a loud, jolly, joking sort of man, with a black beard, and he always wore clothes of plush, a material hitherto unknown; and he always blazed with jewels, and he had a circus set up at his own expense in the field at the back of his Palace; and he introduced horse-racing and animated photographs—all highly coloured—and thus became extraordinarily popular: so much so that the people presently began to forget all the good that King Alban had done for them, and to wish secretly that the kingdom had happened to have a bright, cheerful king like Prince Negretti.
For King Alban had worked so hard for his people’s good that he had not had time to be amusing. He had never had processions and circuses, preferring rather small tea-parties with the Lord Chief Good-doer, the Commissioner of Public Health, and a few chosen spirits from the Education Department, and loving best of all to wander alone, dreaming, among the blossoming orchards or in the meadows beyond the river, where the white jonquils grew, or in the lanes between the pearly may-bushes, or in the terraced garden of his Palace, where the white roses hung in heavy-scented clusters, and the white peacocks spread their tails upon the marble balustrades. And wherever he went he thought of the people’s good, and devised new ways of making them comfortable. Everything was beautifully managed. Every one had enough to wear and enough to eat, and enough to do, which is very important; but they had not enough to play at, and this was what made them ready to lend long and discontented ears to the whispers of the King’s brother.
Now Negretti was a Magician, and his was the black or coloured magic which won’t wash clothes. He was always messing about with acids and alkalis, and sulphites and bicarbonates, and retorts and furnaces, and test-tubes, and pestles and mortars, and the like; and whenever he happened to make a nice colour by mixing two or more of these things together, he always put it in a bottle and stuck it up in one of the Palace windows, so that at night his windows were brighter than any chemist’s and druggist’s in any street, and the people said it was as good as fireworks. The King’s palace windows only sent out a soft white light like moonlight, and this was now considered very tame.
It was the Magician’s habit to wander about the town stirring up discontent as easily as if it had been one of his chemical messes; and though he was so well known among the people he was never recognised, because he always took care to disguise himself as a respectable person, and the disguise was quite impenetrable. (I hope you know what that is?)
One night he sat disguised at the King’s Head—the finest of the municipal alehouses—drinking dog’s-nose out of a pewter-pot, and the grumbling of the people was music in his wicked ears.
“Alban is not my sort of king,” said the blacksmith.
“I’d make a better king out of a penn’orth of putty any day of the week,” said the painter.
“What’s the good of a king if you never see him?” said the landlady.
“No processions, no flags, no gilt coaches, no rubies and diamonds and sapphires, no royal robes of purple and gold—such as a loyal country has a right to expect on its sovereign’s back! Only that old white thing,” said the barmaid.
“No better than a velvet nightgown,” said the landlady.
“I like a bit of colour, I do,” said the painter. “Graining I don’t ask for, for he’s not had the education to know its beauty; but a good warm maroon, or a royal blue, now! But, no; it’s white, white, white, till I’m sick of it. And us all wearing white by law, and washing done free, by white magic, at the Palace, on Mondays from 10 to 4. And no one to have more than a quart of beer of an evening! I tell you what it is, my boys, we’re miserable, degraded slaves; that’s what we are!”
“If we must have a king,” said the blacksmith, “why not good old Negretti? He’s something like a king, he is! Ah! if he only knew how our free hearts beat with him, he’d be sitting on the throne to-morrow.”
Then Negretti threw off his disguise—the pewter with the municipal arms on it rolled on the sanded floor, and spilt what was left of the dog’s-nose on to the disguise—and the Magician stood before them, pale but firm, his dark lantern in his hand. It was a magic lantern, of course.
“Down-trodden slaves!” he cried, “poor benighted, oppressed people! Follow me! Let us dethrone a king who seeks to mask tyranny with hypocritical public kitchens, and cloaks his infamous autocracy with free washing by white magic on a Monday! To the Palace, to the Palace!”
And they all finished up their beer and followed him, and half the town beside joined the throng as it pressed through the streets towards the Eastern gate, beyond which was the King’s Palace.
Now while the Magician was drinking his dog’s-nose, disguised as a respectable person, the King in his white robes was walking under the boughs of the white-blossomed pear-trees, for it was spring, and the moon was at the full. And presently, coming along over the dewy grey grass of the orchard, he saw a figure in white, and when it came close to him he saw that it was a lady more fair than the fair stars of that fair night.
“And who are you?” said the King.
“I am a poor Princess seeking my fortune,” said she.
“You will rest under my roof to-night,” said the King, and led her through the long sweet grass under the blossoming boughs to the Palace garden. When they came to the terrace the Princess loosed a lantern from her girdle, set it on the stone balustrade close by where one of the white peacocks perched in fluffy feathery slumber, kindled it, and threw open the horn door. A flood of light streamed out, bright as spring sunshine, and fell full upon her, and then the King saw that her gown was not white, as it had seemed in the moonlight, but was the colour of yellow gold, and her hair was red gold, and her eyes were of gold and grey mingled. Then for the first time in all his life the King thought of himself and of his own happiness, and he caught her hands and said—
“Nothing will ever again content me, not even doing good to my people, if I must part from you. Will you stay and be my Queen?”
The Princess said, “I am seeking my fortune. Do you think you are it?”
“I do not know, my dear,” said the King, “whether I am your fortune, but I know well enough that you are mine!”
Then the Princess clapped her hands and said, “That is the right answer! I have travelled half round the world to hear it; and will you love me always?”
“Always, my Queen,” said he, “exactly the same as you will love me. We are not of the race that changes heart.”
So then they kissed each other as lovers should, and wandered along the yew-tree avenue deep in lovers’ talk, and never even heard the crowd that the Magician had brought to the front door. So when the crowd found that the Palace door was locked for the night it went home again, but it came back in the morning with trumpets and banners and scraps of coloured stuff tied over its white clothing, and the King went out to meet it.
When the crowd saw him every one began to shout: “Down with Alban!” “Down with the White King!” “Free Beer!” “No more washing!” and things like that.
Then the King stood forth and said—
“What have I done but seek for your good? When, till now, have I thought of my own happiness? Who has stirred you up to these ill thoughts of me? My people, my own beloved people, have my ears ever been closed to your complaints? Have you wrongs? Tell me, and I will right them. Have you sorrows? Make them known and let me soothe them. Do you not know that your King is your servant, and lives but to do you good?”
And the crowd grumbled and muttered, and one voice cried—
“We don’t want to be done good to. We want to enjoy ourselves.”
“I did not know,” said the King, gently. “But now you have spoken I will at once appoint a Minister of Public Enjoyment, and——”
The Magician was watching the crowd, and he saw how the sight of the King’s good face and the sound of his good voice were working on their hearts that had once loved him. Now Negretti sprang forward. “One word, brother!” he cried, and led the King into the shadow of a close-clipped yew-tree walk. The moment they were hidden he caught his brother’s arm and whispered a wicked spell: and the first words of it were in Persian, and the next in Greek, and after that came words in Arabic and Spanish, and the speech of the county of Essex, and the last words of all were “be changed to a stone.”
And so strong was the spell that the King was turned to a stone that very minute—a great white stone—and fell under the yew hedge, and lay there.
Then the Magician said “Ha, ha!” and, after waiting so long as he deemed prudent, he went back to the people, and said—
“I regret to inform you that your King has proved quite unreliable as a man of business. When I urged him to sign a written agreement to keep you always in a good humour he refused, and then he remembered an urgent appointment in Nova Scotia; and he has gone, and taken most of the crown treasure with him. But, do not despair, I will be your King, and I have an income quite sufficient to keep up a small establishment of my own. And my golden argosies are now on the way from the Indies, bearing all manner of precious things, and bales of plush are on their way from Yorkshire. So now I am King.”
The people believed him, for they had never known a King who spoke anything but the truth. So they shouted, “Long live the King!” and the matter was settled. That very day Negretti had the Palace painted magenta, and covered all the window-sashes and mantelpieces with gold paint, and stuck embossed coloured scraps on them.
Then he went out into the garden to get a good look at his magenta Palace from the outside, and as he went along the clipped-yew walk there was the Princess Perihelia weeping over the white stone.
“What are you crying for?” he asked.
“I’m crying for the White King,” said she.
“And why do you cry here?” said the Magician.
“I don’t know,” said the poor Princess, and she looked so beautiful that the Magician went straight into the Palace and told the Prime Tailor to sew new rubies all over his new purple plush suit because he was going a-courting.
The very next day Negretti put on the purple plush suit as well as the Royal Crown, and went to the wing of the Palace which the White King had set apart for the Princess Perihelia to live in. Alban’s crown was made of silver and pearls and moonstones, and the new King had ordered a new crown, all gold, and stuck as full of rubies and emeralds and sapphires as a really good Christmas cake is of plums. (I do not mean the cake they call “good, wholesome school cake,” but the kind they have at home when there is a party.) He took all his many-coloured retinue with him, and they waited on the terrace while the Magician knocked at the door.
“Come in,” said the Princess.
“I’ve come to marry you,” said the Magician, coming to the point at once; for he had arranged to have a procession that afternoon, and he was a little pressed for time.
But Perihelia said, “No, thank you.”
The Magician could hardly believe his ears. “But you’ll be Queen of the land,” said he, “and that’s what you’d have been if you’d married my brother, and, I suppose, what you wanted to be.”
“O no, it isn’t,” said she.
“Well, what did you want?” said he.
“I wanted to be the White King’s wife,” said she.
“It’s the same thing,” he said.
But she said: “No, it isn’t, not a bit.” And it was in vain that he showed her his best plush suit and the plush suits of his retainers; she simply wouldn’t look at them, nor at the precious stones either; so at last he went off to his Palace to make more rubies and precious stones and things like that, and she went off to cry over the white stone.
Now a lot of tell-tale-tits had built their nests above the Palace, and some of them flew off and told the Magician how Perihelia was always crying in the yew avenue over the white stone. So he said to his slaves: “Get a hand-cart, and carry the thing on to the middle of the bridge and drop it into the river.” So they did, and the stone stuck, end-up, in the mud; and when the golden argosies of the Magician came up the river, bearing peacocks and apes and turquoises, every single galley split on that stone, and the whole treasure went to the bottom; all but the peacocks, and they flew away into the country of a neighbouring King, who thought every one should be useful and not ornamental; so he cut off the peacocks tails, and clipped their wings, and tried to teach them to lay turkey’s eggs. But it is very difficult to get a peacock to do anything useful.
So then the Magician set a lot of people dredging for the lost treasure; and, among other things, they fished up some poor dead apes and the big white stone, and as the stone seemed to have been rather in the way in the bed of the river, they carted it away to the fields behind the town, where the white jonquils grew, and dumped it down there, and left it among the long grass.
And the Princess could not come and cry over it there because she did not know where it was, and besides she was very busy; for, after she had refused to marry him, the Magician said, “Very well, then, you can just do the free washing;” for the royal housekeeper had given five minutes’ notice, and left at the end of it, as soon as the new King had the Palace painted magenta, and no one else knew how to do washing by white magic, and though the people had sneered at it in the White King’s time they stood out for it now, and said free washing was what they had always been accustomed to. Poor Perihelia did not know the white magic; but she washed by the Sunlight Magic, and everything she sent home from the wash was pinky or pearly or greeny, like the little clouds in a May dawn. The people were pleased, but not the Magician.
“I like a colour to be a colour,” he said. “I hate your half measures.”
He was beginning to remodel the kingdom to his own fancy. Instead of a Lord Chief Good-doer he had a Lord Chief Magician, and instead of the Education Department he had a Permanent Committee of Black and Coloured Magic, and he shut up the free washhouses. “Who wants to wash?” said he, and he ordered a free distribution of nasty medicine instead; and altogether he was really beginning to enjoy himself when another tell-tale-tit came fluttering in at the window of his laboratory, and, perching on the top of a crucible, told him of a Rumour. The Rumour had been running about the town like a mad thing, and wherever it ran it left its tail behind it. Rumour, as you know, is a beast with many tales; and now everybody knew that the white stone had moved in the night and had come rolling up to the gate of the town.
“Whatever shall we do?” said the Lord Chief Magician, who was pounding up nasty things in the mortar ready for the free distribution of medicine next day.
“Smash it,” said Negretti. “I’ll take a turn at the medicine while you go and see the thing done.”
So the Lord Chief Magician called together the Permanent Committee of Black and Coloured Magic and sent them to break the stone. And when they began to hit it with their hammers and picks seventeen sharp splinters of white stone flew off, and each splinter hit a member of the Committee in the eye and killed him. There were exactly seventeen members, as it happened. So then the Lord Chief Magician shut the town gates and ran home and hid under the bed.
And the people of the town were very much interested in the stone that had rolled by itself and had killed seventeen members of the Committee, and they made little parties and picnics all day long, taking their children to look at the stone and carrying sandwiches with them and bottles of beer.
The Magician was very angry.
“Such rubbish I never heard of,” said he when the tell-tale-tit alighted on the window-sill and told him of it. “If they want to look at anything, why can’t they come and look at me? I’m sure I’m coloured enough!”
That night the stone rose up in the thickest of the black dark, when no one at all is out of doors, except the Police—and not always him—and it smashed through the town gate and came rolling right up into the Square and lay there.
The tell-tale-tit awoke the Magician in the morning by singing the news sharply in his ear, and he went out to see. There was a great crowd in the Square, and they all cried out—
“It is a magic stone. It will bring us luck. Build it into the royal Palace.”
“I might do worse,” thought Negretti. “If good Roman cement and a double coat of magenta paint doesn’t keep it quiet nothing will.”
So he gave orders, and the stone was carted to the Palace, and built into the wall over the great gate; and while they were gone to fetch the red paint to cover up the stone and the mortar the Lord Chief Magician came out from under his bed, and went sneaking up to the Palace and in at the gate, and the stone fell on him and smashed him quite flat.
Then Perihelia came running out, and she washed the mortar off the white stone by her Sunlight Magic; and when the Magician come out she said: “Let it lie here to-night, and to-morrow, if you will let me go, I will take it away to my own kingdom, so that it shall never trouble you again.”
Negretti agreed, because he did not know what else to do, and he was beginning to despair of the Princess ever marrying him, because he had now asked her to do so every day for a month, and always with more display of plush and jewels, and she said “No” more decidedly, and even crossly, every time. So he began to lose heart.
That night, just when the moon was waning, and before morning broke, Princess Perihelia slipped down the Palace stairs and into the garden to look once more on the place where the White King had promised to love her always.
And when she came to that same place there was the white stone lying under the shadow of the white rose bushes, and pearly rose leaves had fallen all over it, and were falling still, like tears.
Perihelia knelt down beside the stone and put her arms round it, and said—
“Poor stone, dear stone, what is it that troubles you so that you cannot rest? If I only knew, I might help you with my Sunlight Magic. Why are you so troubled, and why do I pity you so? Oh, if my White King were here he would understand and help you! But I can do nothing!”
With that she began to weep over the stone, calling on the White King to come back to her. And all the while she was talking and weeping the moon was waning and the light in the East grew pearlier and prettier minute by minute. And as she wept and clasped the stone she presently saw in the glowing light that the stone was changing in her arms. Like white sands falling in an hour-glass, the white stone fell away and fell away until the sun looked through the white rose bushes and saw Perihelia clasp the living form of the White King in her loving arms.
The sun’s was not the only eye which saw that meeting. The Magician had had a bad night, and he came out early, curious to see whether the stone had moved again. His curiosity was gratified.
When the White King saw his treacherous brother his tongue was loosed—hitherto kisses had been speech enough for him—and he spoke the words which he found in his mouth. And they were, naturally enough, the last words that had gone in at his ears, and the words were first Persian and then Greek, and then Arabic and Spanish, and the language of foreigners from Essex; and the words he wound up with were, “be changed into a stone.”
But the wicked spell that had turned King Alban into a stone had grown weaker by keeping (as even ’20 port did when it was kept too long), and it had no longer power to do what it ought to have done. It could not turn the wicked Magician into a stone, as I am sure you would wish it to have done; it was only strong enough to turn him into a wooden post.
I do not wish to have to mention such an unpleasant character as Negretti again, so I will tell you at once the end of him. He remained a post for ever and ever, and later on, when King Alban had begun to do things for his people’s good again, he thought it a pity to waste even a post, for he was ever a careful King. So he had it made into a pump, and the water from it was bitter and nasty, like the medicine the Magician used to give the people; and it was very good for children, and gave them a nice bright colour in their cheeks. Take care you do not grow pale, or you may have to drink the water out of that pump. It is now at Harrogate, or Epsom, or Bath, or somewhere, and you might quite easily be taken there and made to drink that unpleasant water. The first persons who had to drink it were the Magician’s retinue. The King thought it would be good for them, and they were very grateful; but the next night they stole the State barge, and went home by sea to their own country.
Among his other improvements, the King started municipal omnibuses, which were white and gold. But the pump being near the place where the omnibuses changed horses the conductors used to take the bitter water to wash the omnibuses with, and gradually they became scarlet and blue and green and violet, just as you see them to-day. So now you know the reason of the colour of omnibuses. And this is the end of the Magician’s part of the story.
When the Magician had been turned into a post, the King said—
“I’m very sorry;” but the Princess said—
“Dear, he deserved it. And being a post is not painful. Let us never think of him again. I have learned many things since I came here. I have something to break to you. Do you think you can bear it?”
“I can bear anything now,” said he, holding her in his arms, and kissing her again, because she was so very dear.
“Well,” said Perihelia, “I am Princess of the Sun, and if I marry you, my own dear King, I shan’t be able to help colouring your pretty white kingdom a little. Just soft sweet colours, dear, and not an inch of plush. We’ll make a law against that the very first thing. And you shall go on teaching your people to be good, and I’ll try to teach them to be happy. Do you think I can?”
The White King smiled. “You’ve taught me,” he said; “but now, before we do anything for the people, let’s go and get married, and we can begin to make the new laws directly we’ve finished breakfast. We shall just have time to be married if we go off to church at once.”
So they went off, and woke up the Archbishop, and were married, and the Archbishop came home with them to breakfast, and afterwards they began to make laws as hard as they could.
The first law was “There is to be no Plush at all in this kingdom.” And now Albanatolia is the most beautiful country in the world, all soft sweet colours and clear pearly white; and the Queen Perihelia has taught the people how to be happy, so the King has very little work to do, for they are good almost without his interfering at all. It is a lovely country. I hope you will go there some day. I went there once but they would not let me stay because I had a black coat on, and gaiters; and the sight of these clothes made the people so unhappy that the Queen asked me as a private and personal favour to go away, and never to come back unless I could come dressed in something like the colours of the clouds at dawn. I have never been able to manage this, and, anyway, I don’t suppose I could find the way there now. But, if you could get the proper dress, perhaps you could?