The King’s Cheque.

WHEN they all wakened next morning, their first ideas were confused. It is often confusing to waken in a strange bed, much more so when you have flown through the air, like the king, the queen, and Benson the butler. For her part, the queen was the most perplexed of all; for she did undeniably wake, and yet she was not at home, where she had expected to be. However, she was a determined woman, and stood to it that nothing unusual was occurring. The butler made up his mind to claim the crown princeship and the hand of the Lady Molinda because, as he justly remarked to William, here was such a chance to better himself as might not soon come in his way again. As for the king, he was only anxious to get back to Falkenstein, and have the whole business settled in a constitutional manner. The ambassador was not sorry to get rid of the royal party; and it was proposed that they should all sit down on the flying carpet, and wish themselves at home again. But the queen would not hear of it: she said it was childish and impossible; so the carriage was got ready for her, and she started without saying a word of good-bye to anyone. The king, Benson, and the prince were not so particular, and they simply flew back to Falkenstein in the usual way, arriving there at 11.35—a week before her majesty.

The king at once held a Court; the horns and tail of the monster were exhibited amidst general interest, and Benson and the prince were invited to state their claims.

Benson’s evidence was taken first. He declined to say exactly where or how he killed the Firedrake. There might be more of them left, he remarked,—young ones, that would take a lot of killing,—and he refused to part with his secret. Only he claimed the reward, which was offered, if you remember, not to the man who killed the beast, but to him who brought its horns and tail. This was allowed by the lawyers present to be very sound law; and Benson was cheered by the courtiers, who decidedly preferred him to Prigio, and who, besides, thought he was going to be crown prince. As for Lady Molinda, she was torn by the most painful feelings; for, much as she hated Prigio, she could not bear the idea of marrying Benson. Yet one or the other choice seemed certain.

Unhappy lady! Perhaps no girl was ever more strangely beset by misfortune!

Prince Prigio was now called on to speak. He admitted that the reward was offered for bringing the horns and tail, not for killing the monster. But were the king’s intentions to go for nothing? When a subject only meant well, of course he had to suffer; but when a king said one thing, was he not to be supposed to have meant another? Any fellow with a waggon could bring the horns and tail; the difficult thing was to kill the monster. If Benson’s claim was allowed, the royal prerogative of saying one thing and meaning something else was in danger.

On hearing this argument, the king so far forgot himself as to cry, “Bravo, well said!” and to clap his hands, whereon all the courtiers shouted and threw up their hats.

The prince then said that whoever had killed the monster could, of course, tell where to find him, and could bring his hoofs. He was ready to do this himself. Was Mr. Benson equally ready? On this being interpreted to him—for he did not speak Pantouflian—Benson grew pale with horror, but fell back on the proclamation. He had brought the horns and tail, and so he must have the perquisites, and the Lady Molinda!

The king’s mind was so much confused by this time, that he determined to leave it to the Lady Molinda herself.

“Which of them will you have, my dear?” he asked, in a kind voice.

But poor Molinda merely cried. Then his majesty was almost driven to say that he would give the reward to whoever produced the hoofs by that day week. But no sooner had he said this than the prince brought them out of his wallet, and displayed them in open Court. This ended the case; and Benson, after being entertained with sherry and sandwiches in the steward’s room, was sent back to his master. And I regret to say that his temper was not at all improved by his failure to better himself. On the contrary, he was unusually cross and disagreeable for several days; but we must, perhaps, make some allowance for his disappointment.

But if Benson was irritated, and suffered from the remarks of his fellow-servants, I do not think we can envy Prince Prigio. Here he was, restored to his position indeed, but by no means to the royal favour. For the king disliked him as much as ever, and was as angry as ever about the deaths of Enrico and Alphonso. Nay, he was even more angry; and, perhaps, not without reason. He called up Prigio before the whole Court, and thereon the courtiers cheered like anything, but the king cried:

“Silence! McDougal, drag the first man that shouts to the serpent-house in the zoological gardens, and lock him up with the rattlesnakes!”

After that the courtiers were very quiet.

“Prince,” said the king, as Prigio bowed before the throne, “you are restored to your position, because I cannot break my promise. But your base and malevolent nature is even more conspicuously manifest in your selfish success than in your previous dastardly contempt of duty. Why, confound you!” cried the king, dropping the high style in which he had been speaking, and becoming the father, not the monarch,—“why, if you could kill the Firedrake, did you let your poor little brothers go and be b—b—b—broiled? Eh! what do you say, you sneak? ‘You didn’t believe there were any Firedrakes?’ That just comes of your eternal conceit and arrogance! If you were clever enough to kill the creature—and I admit that—you were clever enough to know that what everybody said must be true. ‘You have not generally found it so?’ Well, you have this time, and let it be a lesson to you; not that there is much comfort in that, for it is not likely you will ever have such another chance”—exactly the idea that had occurred to Benson.

Here the king wept, among the tears of the lord chief justice, the poet laureate (who had been awfully frightened when he heard of the rattlesnakes), the maids of honour, the chaplain royal, and everyone but Colonel McDougal, a Scottish soldier of fortune, who maintained a military reserve.

When his majesty had recovered, he said to Prigio (who had not been crying, he was too much absorbed):

“A king’s word is his bond. Bring me a pen, somebody, and my cheque-book.”

The royal cheque-book, bound in red morocco, was brought in by eight pages, with ink and a pen. His majesty then filled up and signed the following satisfactory document—(Ah! my children, how I wish Mr. Arrowsmith would do as much for me!):

No. W. OB 961047. FALKENSTEIN, July 10, 1768. / The Bank of Panlouflia. / FALKENSTEIN BRANCH. / Pay to Prince Prigio... or Order, / Ten Thousand Purses. / Grognio R.

“There!” said his majesty, crossing his cheque and throwing sand over it, for blotting-paper had not yet been invented; “there, take that, and be off with you!”

Prince Prigio was respectfully but rapidly obeying his royal command, for he thought he had better cash the royal cheque as soon as possible, when his majesty yelled:

“Hi! here! come back! I forgot something; you’ve got to marry Molinda!”