THE prince had gone some way, when the king called after him. How he wished he had the seven-league boots on, or that he had the cap of darkness in his pocket! If he had been so lucky, he would now have got back to Gluckstein, and crossed the border with Lady Rosalind. A million of money may not seem much, but a pair of young people who really love each other could live happily on less than the cheque he had in his pocket. However, the king shouted very loud, as he always did when he meant to be obeyed, and the prince sauntered slowly back again.
“Prigio!” said his majesty, “where were you off to? Don’t you remember that this is your wedding-day? My proclamation offered, not only the money (which you have), but the hand of the Lady Molinda, which the Court chaplain will presently make your own. I congratulate you, sir; Molinda is a dear girl.”
“I have the highest affection and esteem for my cousin, sir,” said the prince, “but—”
“I’ll never marry him!” cried poor Molinda, kneeling at the throne, where her streaming eyes and hair made a pretty and touching picture. “Never! I despise him!”
“I was about to say, sir,” the prince went on, “that I cannot possibly have the pleasure of wedding my cousin.”
“The family gibbet, I presume, is in good working order?” asked the king of the family executioner, a tall gaunt man in black and scarlet, who was only employed in the case of members of the blood royal.
“Never better, sire,” said the man, bowing with more courtliness than his profession indicated.
“Very well,” said the king; “Prince Prigio, you have your choice. There is the gallows, here is Lady Molinda. My duty is painful, but clear. A king’s word cannot be broken. Molly, or the gibbet!”
The prince bowed respectfully to Lady Molinda:
“Madam, my cousin,” said he, “your clemency will excuse my answer, and you will not misinterpret the apparent discourtesy of my conduct. I am compelled, most unwillingly, to slight your charms, and to select the Extreme Rigour of the Law. Executioner, lead on! Do your duty; for me, Prigio est prêt;”—for this was his motto, and meant that he was ready.
Poor Lady Molinda could not but be hurt by the prince’s preference for death over marriage to her, little as she liked him.
“Is life, then, so worthless? and is Molinda so terrible a person that you prefer those arms,” and she pointed to the gibbet, “to these?”—here she held out her own, which were very white, round and pretty: for Molinda was a good-hearted girl, she could not bear to see Prigio put to death; and then, perhaps, she reflected that there are worse positions than the queenship of Pantouflia. For Alphonso was gone—crying would not bring him back.
“Ah, Madam!” said the prince, “you are forgiving—”
“For you are brave!” said Molinda, feeling quite a respect for him.
“But neither your heart nor mine is ours to give. Since mine was another’s, I understand too well the feeling of yours! Do not let us buy life at the price of happiness and honour.”
Then, turning to the king, the prince said:
“Sir, is there no way but by death or marriage? You say you cannot keep half only of your promise; and that, if I accept the reward, I must also unite myself with my unwilling cousin. Cannot the whole proclamation be annulled, and will you consider the bargain void if I tear up this flimsy scroll?”
And here the prince fluttered the cheque for £1,000,000 in the air.
For a moment the king was tempted; but then he said to himself:
“Never mind, it’s only an extra penny on the income-tax.” Then, “Keep your dross,” he shouted, meaning the million; “but let me keep my promise. To chapel at once, or—” and he pointed to the executioner. “The word of a king of Pantouflia is sacred.”
“And so is that of a crown prince,” answered Prigio; “and mine is pledged to a lady.”
“She shall be a mourning bride,” cried the king savagely, “unless ”—here he paused for a moment—“unless you bring me back Alphonso and Enrico, safe and well!”
The prince thought for the space of a flash of lightning.
“I accept the alternative,” he said, “if your majesty will grant me my conditions.”
“Name them!” said the king.
“Let me be transported to Gluckstein, left there unguarded, and if, in three days, I do not return with my brothers safe and well, your majesty shall be spared a cruel duty. Prigio of Pantouflia will perish by his own hand.”
The king, whose mind did not work very quickly, took some minutes to think over it. Then he saw that by granting the prince’s conditions, he would either recover his dear sons, or, at least, get rid of Prigio, without the unpleasantness of having him executed. For, though some kings have put their eldest sons to death, and most have wished to do so, they have never been better loved by the people for their Roman virtue.
“Honour bright?” said the king at last.
“Honour bright!” answered the prince, and, for the first time in many months, the royal father and son shook hands.
“For you, madam,” said Prigio in a stately way to Lady Molinda, “in less than a week I trust we shall be taking our vows at the same altar, and that the close of the ceremony which finds us cousins will leave us brother and sister.”
Poor Molinda merely stared; for she could not imagine what he meant. In a moment he was gone; and having taken, by the king’s permission, the flying carpet, he was back at the ambassador’s house in Gluckstein.