The Prince of Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon

The Prince of Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon.jpg

CHAPTER I

MR. AND MRS. BLITHERS DISCUSS MATRIMONY

“My dear,” said Mr. Blithers, with decision, “you can’t tell me.”

“I know I can’t,” said his wife, quite as positively. She knew when she could tell him a thing and when she couldn’t.

It was quite impossible to impart information to Mr. Blithers when he had the tips of two resolute fingers embedded in his ears. That happened to be his customary and rather unfair method of conquering her when an argument was going against him, not for want of logic on his part, but because it was easier to express himself with his ears closed than with them open. By this means he effectually shut out the voice of opposition and had the discussion all to himself. Of course, it would have been more convincing if he had been permitted to hear the sound of his own eloquence; still, it was effective.

She was sure to go on talking for two or three minutes and then subside in despair. A woman will not talk to a stone wall. Nor will she wantonly allow an argument to die while there remains the slightest chance of its survival. Given the same situation, a man would get up and leave his wife sitting there with her fingers in her ears; and, as he bolted from the room in high dudgeon, he would be mean enough to call attention to her pig-headedness. In most cases, a woman is content to listen to a silly argument rather than to leave the room just because her husband elects to be childish about a perfectly simple elucidation of the truth.

Mrs. Blithers had lived with Mr. Blithers, more or less, for twenty-five years and she knew him like a book. He was a forceful person who would have his own way, even though he had to put his fingers in his ears to get it. At one period of their joint connubial agreement, when he had succeeded in accumulating a pitiful hoard amounting to but little more than ten millions of dollars, she concluded to live abroad for the purpose of educating their daughter, allowing him in the meantime to increase his fortune to something like fifty millions without having to worry about household affairs. But she had sojourned with him long enough, at odd times, to realise that, so long as he lived, he would never run away from an argument—unless, by some dreadful hook or crook, he should be so unfortunate as to be deprived of the use of both hands. She found room to gloat, of course, in the fact that he was obliged to stop up his ears in order to shut out the incontrovertible.

Moreover, when he called her “my dear” instead of the customary Lou, it was a sign of supreme obstinacy on his part and could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be regarded as an indication of placid affection. He always said “my dear” at the top of his voice and with a great deal of irascibility.

Mr. William W. Blithers was a self-made man who had begun his career by shouting lustily at a team of mules in a railway construction camp. Other drivers had tried to improve on his vocabulary but even the mules were able to appreciate the futility of such an ambition, and later on, when he came to own two or three railroads, to say nothing of a few mines and a steam yacht, his ability to drive men was even more noteworthy than his power over the jackasses had been. But driving mules and men was one thing, driving a wife another. What incentive has a man, said he, when after he gets through bullying a creature that very creature turns in and caresses him? No self-respecting mule ever did such a thing as that, and no man would think of it except with horror. There is absolutely no defence against a creature who will rub your head with loving, gentle fingers after she has worked you up to the point where you could kill her with pleasure—or at least so said Mr. Blithers with rueful frequency.

Mr. and Mrs. Blithers had been discussing royalty. Up to the previous week they had restricted themselves to the nobility, but as an event of unexampled importance had transpired in the interim, they now felt that it would be the rankest stupidity to consider any one short of a Prince Royal in picking out a suitable husband—or, more properly speaking, consort—for their only daughter, Maud Applegate Blithers, aged twenty.

Mrs. Blithers long ago had convinced her husband that no ordinary human being of the male persuasion was worthy of their daughter’s hand, and had set her heart on having nothing meaner than a Duke on the family roll,—(Blithers alluded to it for a while as the pay-roll)—, with the choice lying between England and Italy. At first, Blithers, being an honest soul, insisted that a good American gentleman was all that anybody could ask for in the way of a son-in-law, and that when it came to a grandchild it would be perfectly proper to christen him Duke—lots of people did!—and that was about all that a title amounted to anyway. She met this with the retort that Maud might marry a man named Jones, and how would Duke Jones sound? He weakly suggested that they could christen him Marmaduke and—but she reminded him of his oft-repeated boast that there was nothing in the world too good for Maud and instituted a pictorial campaign against his prejudices by painting in the most alluring colours the picture of a ducal palace in which the name of Jones would never be uttered except when employed in directing the fifth footman or the third stable-boy—or perhaps a scullery maid—to do this, that or the other thing at the behest of her Grace, the daughter of William W. Blithers. This eventually worked on his imagination to such an extent that he forgot his natural pride and admitted that perhaps she was right.

But now, just as they were on the point of accepting, in lieu of a Duke, an exceptionally promising Count, the aforesaid event conspired to completely upset all of their plans—or notions, so to speak. It was nothing less than the arrival in America of an eligible Prince of the royal blood, a ruling Prince at that. As a matter of fact he had not only arrived in America but upon the vast estate adjoining their own in the Catskills.

Fortunately nothing definite had been arranged with the Count. Mrs. Blithers now advised waiting a while before giving a definite answer to his somewhat eager proposal, especially as he was reputed to have sufficient means of his own to defend the chateau against any immediate peril of profligacy. She counselled Mr. Blithers to notify him that he deemed it wise to take the matter under advisement for a couple of weeks at least, but not to commit himself to anything positively negative.

Mr. Blithers said that he had never heard anything so beautifully adroit as “positively negative,” and directed his secretary to submit to him without delay the draft of a tactful letter to the anxious nobleman. They were agreed that a Prince was more to be desired than a Count and, as long as they were actually about it, they might as well aim high. Somewhat hazily Mr. Blithers had Inquired if it wouldn’t be worth while to consider a King, but his wife set him straight in short order.

Peculiarly promising their hopes was the indisputable fact that the Prince’s mother had married an American, thereby establishing a precedent behind which no constitutional obstacle could thrive, and had lived very happily with the gentleman in spite of the critics. Moreover, she had met him while sojourning on American soil, and that was certainly an excellent augury for the success of the present enterprise. What could be more fitting than that the son should follow in the footsteps of an illustrious mother? If an American gentleman was worthy of a princess, why not the other way about? Certainly Maud Blithers was as full of attributes as any man in America.

It appears that the Prince, after leisurely crossing the continent on his way around the world, had come to the Truxton Kings for a long-promised and much-desired visit, the duration of which depended to some extent on his own inclinations, and not a little on the outcome of the war-talk that affected two great European nations—Russia and Austria. Ever since the historic war between the Balkan allies and the Turks, in 1912 and 1913, there had been mutterings, and now the situation had come to be admittedly precarious. Mr. Blithers was in a position to know that the little principality over which the young man reigned was bound to be drawn into the cataclysm, not as a belligerent or an ally, but in the matter of a loan that inconveniently expired within the year and which would hardly be renewed by Russia with the prospect of vast expenditures of war threatening her treasury. The loan undoubtedly would be called and Graustark was not in a position to pay out of her own slender resources, two years of famine having fallen upon the people at a time when prosperity was most to be desired.

He was in touch with the great financial movements in all the world’s capitals, and he knew that retrenchment was the watchword. It would be no easy matter for the little principality to negotiate a loan at this particular time, nor was there even a slender chance that Russia would be benevolently disposed toward her debtors, no matter how small their obligations. They who owed would be called upon to pay, they who petitioned would be turned away with scant courtesy. It was the private opinion of Mr. Blithers that the young Prince and the trusted agents who accompanied him on his journey, were in the United States solely for the purpose of arranging a loan through sources that could only be reached by personal appeal. But, naturally, Mr. Blithers couldn’t breathe this to a soul. Under the circumstances he couldn’t even breathe it to his wife who, he firmly believed, was soulless.

But all this is beside the question. The young Prince of Graustark was enjoying American hospitality, and no matter what he owed to Russia, America owed to him its most punctillious consideration. If Mr. Blithers was to have anything to say about the matter, it would be for the ear of the Prince alone and not for the busybodies.

The main point is that the Prince was now rusticating within what you might call a stone’s throw of the capacious and lordly country residence of Mr. Blithers; moreover, he was an uncommonly attractive chap, with a laugh that was so charged with heartiness that it didn’t seem possible that he could have a drop of royal blood in his vigorous young body. And the perfectly ridiculous part of the whole situation was that Mr. and Mrs. King lived in a modest, vine-covered little house that could have been lost in the servants’ quarters at Blitherwood. Especially aggravating, too, was the attitude of the Kings. They were really nobodies, so to speak, and yet they blithely called their royal guest “Bobby” and allowed him to fetch and carry for their women-folk quite as if he were an ordinary whipper-snapper up from the city to spend the week-end.

The remark with which Mr. Blithers introduces this chapter was in response to an oft-repeated declaration made by his wife in the shade of the red, white and blue awning of the terrace overlooking, from its despotic heights, the modest red roof of the King villa in the valley below. Mrs. Blithers merely had stated—but over and over again—that money couldn’t buy everything in the world, referring directly to social eminence and indirectly to their secret ambition to capture a Prince of the royal blood for their daughter Maud. She had prefaced this opinion, however, with the exceedingly irritating insinuation that Mr. Blithers was not in his right mind when he proposed inviting the Prince to spend a few weeks at Blitherwood, provided the young man could cut short his visit in the home of Mr. and Mrs. King, who, he had asseverated, were not in a position to entertain royalty as royalty was in the habit of being entertained.

Long experience had taught Mr. Blithers to read the lip and eye language with some degree of certainty, so by watching his wife’s indignant face closely he was able to tell when she was succumbing to reason. He was a burly, domineering person who reasoned for every one within range of his voice, and it was only when his wife became coldly sarcastic that he closed his ears and boomed his opinions into her very teeth, so to say, joyfully overwhelming her with facts which it were futile for her to attempt to deny. He was aware, quite as much so as if he had heard the words, that she was now saying:

“Well, there is absolutely no use arguing with you, Will. Have it your way if it pleases you.”

Eying her with some uneasiness, he cautiously inserted his thumbs in the armholes of his brocaded waistcoat, and proclaimed:

“As I said before, Lou, there isn’t a foreign nobleman, from the Emperor down, who is above grabbing a few million dollars. They’re all hard up, and what do they gain by marrying ladies of noble birth if said ladies are the daughters of noblemen who are as hard up as all the rest of ’em? Besides, hasn’t Maud been presented at Court? Didn’t you see to that? How about that pearl necklace I gave her when she was presented? Wasn’t it the talk of the season? There wasn’t a Duke in England who didn’t figure the cost of that necklace to within a guinea or two. No girl ever had better advertising than—”

“We were speaking of Prince Robin,” remarked his wife, with a slight shudder. Mrs. Blithers came of better stock than her husband. His gaucheries frequently set her teeth on edge. She was born in Providence and sometimes mentioned the occurrence when particularly desirous of squelching him, not unkindly perhaps but by way of making him realise that their daughter had good blood in her veins. Mr. Blithers had heard, in a round-about way, that he first saw the light of day in Jersey City, although after he became famous Newark claimed him. He did not bother about the matter.

“Well, he’s like all the rest of them,” said he, after a moment of indecision. Something told him that he really ought to refrain from talking about the cost of things, even in the bosom of his family. He had heard that only vulgarians speak of their possessions. “Now, there’s no reason in the world why we shouldn’t consider his offer. He—”

“Offer?” she cried, aghast. “He has made no offer, Will. He doesn’t even know that Maud is in existence. How can you say such a thing?”

“I was merely looking ahead, that’s all. My motto is ‘Look Ahead.’ You know it as well as I do. Where would I be to-day if I hadn’t looked ahead and seen what was going to happen before the other fellow had his eyes open? Will you tell me that? Where, I say? What’s more, where would I be now if I hadn’t looked ahead and seen what a marriage with the daughter of Judge Morton would mean to me in the long run?” He felt that he had uttered a very pretty and convincing compliment. “I never made a bad bargain in my life, Lou, and it wasn’t guess-work when I married you. You, my dear old girl, you were the solid foundation on which I—”

“I know,” she said wearily; “you’ve said it a thousand times: ‘The foundation on which I built my temple of posterity’—yes, I know, Will. But I am still unalterably opposed to making ourselves ridiculous in the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. King.”

“Ridiculous? I don’t understand you.”

“Well, you will after you think it over,” she said quietly, and he scowled in positive perplexity.

“Don’t you think he’d be a good match for Maud?” he asked, after many minutes. He felt that he had thought it over.

“Are you thinking of kidnapping him, Will?” she demanded.

“Certainly not! But all you’ve got to do is to say that he’s the man for Maud and I’ll—I’ll do the rest. That’s the kind of a man I am, Lou. You say you don’t want Count What’s-His-Name,—that is, you don’t want him as much as you did,—and you do say that it would be the grandest thing in the world if Maud could be the Princess of Grosstick—”

“Graustark, Will.”

“That’s what I said. Well, if you want her to be the Princess of THAT, I’ll see that she is, providing this fellow is a gentleman and worthy of her. The only Prince I ever knew was a damned rascal, and I’m going to be careful about this one. You remember that measly—”

“There is no question about Prince Robin,” said she sharply.

“I suppose the only question is, how much will he want?”

“You mean—settlement?”

“Sure.”

“Have you no romance in your soul, William Blithers?”

“I never believed in fairy stories,” said he grimly. “And what’s more, I don’t take any stock in cheap novels in which American heroes go about marrying into royal families and all that sort of rot. It isn’t done, Lou. If you want to marry into a royal family you’ve got to put up the coin.”

“Prince Robin’s mother, the poor Princess Yetive, married an American for love, let me remind you.”

“Umph! Where is this Groostock anyway?”

“‘Somewhere east of the setting sun,'” she quoted. “You must learn how to pronounce it.”

“I never was good at foreign languages. By the way, where is Maud this afternoon?”

“Motoring.”

He waited for additional information. It was not vouchsafed, so he demanded somewhat fearfully:

“Who with?”

“Young Scoville.”

He scowled. “He’s a loafer, Lou. No good in the world. I don’t like the way you let—”

“He is of a very good family, my dear. I—”

“Is he—er—in love with her?”

“Certainly.”

“Good Lord!”

“And why not? Isn’t every one she meets in love with her?”

“I—I suppose so,” he admitted sheepishly. His face brightened. “And there’s no reason why this Prince shouldn’t fall heels over head, is there? Well, there you are! That will make a difference in the settlement, believe me—a difference of a couple of millions at least, if—”

She arose abruptly. “You are positively disgusting, Will. Can’t you think of anything but—”

“Say, ain’t that Maudie coming up the drive now? Sure it is! By gracious, did you ever see anything to beat her? She’s got ’em all beat a mile when it comes to looks and style and—Oh, by the way,” lowering his voice to a hoarse, confidential whisper, “—I wouldn’t say anything to her about the marriage just yet if I were you. I want to look him over first.”

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Categories: English Literature

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