Read CHAPTER XIII - THE CROWN PRINCE of The Green Mouse, free online book, by Robert W. Chambers, on ReadCentral.com.

Wherein the Green Mouse Squeaks

A few minutes later the paper hanging young man entered, swinging an empty dinner pail and halted in polite surprise before a flushed young girl in full fencing costume, who sat on his operating table, feet crossed, convulsively hugging a book to the scarlet heart embroidered on her plastron.

“I ­hope you don’t mind my sitting here,” she managed to say.  “I wanted to watch the work.”

“By all means,” he said pleasantly.  “Let me get you a chair ­”

“No, thank you.  I had rather sit th-this way.  Please begin and don’t mind if I watch you.”

The young man appeared to be perplexed.

“I’m afraid,” he ventured, “that I may require that table for cutting and ­”

“Please ­if you don’t mind ­begin to paste.  I am in-intensely interested in p-pasting ­I like to w-watch p-paper p-pasted on a w-wall.”

Her small teeth chattered in spite of her; she strove to control her voice ­strove to collect her wits.

He stood irresolute, rather astonished, too.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but ­”

Please paste; won’t you?” she asked.

“Why, I’ve got to have that table to paste on ­”

“Then d-don’t think of pasting.  D-do anything else; cut out some strips.  I am so interested in watching p-paper hangers cut out things ­”

“But I need the table for that, too ­”

“No, you don’t.  You can’t be a ­a very skillful w-workman if you’ve got to use your table for everything ­”

He laughed.  “You are quite right; I’m not a skillful paper hanger.”

“Then,” she said, “I am surprised that you came here to paper our library, and I think you had better go back to your shop and send a competent man.”

He laughed again.  The paper hanger’s youthful face was curiously attractive when he laughed ­and otherwise, more or less.

He said:  “I came to paper this library because Mr. Carr was in a hurry, and I was the only man in the shop.  I didn’t want to come.  But they made me....  I think they’re rather afraid of Mr. Carr in the shop....  And this work must be finished today.”

She did not know what to say; anything to keep him away from the table until she could think clearly.

“W-why didn’t you want to come?” she asked, fighting for time.  “You said you didn’t want to come, didn’t you?”

“Because,” he said, smiling, “I don’t like to hang wall paper.”

“But if you are a paper hanger by trade ­”

“I suppose you think me a real paper hanger?”

She was cautiously endeavoring to free one edge of her skirt; she nodded absently, then subsided, crimsoning, as a faint tearing of cloth sounded.

“Go on,” she said hurriedly; “the story of your career is so interesting.  You say you adore paper hanging ­”

“No, I don’t,” he returned, chagrined.  “I say I hate it.”

“Why do you do it, then?”

“Because my father thinks that every son of his who finishes college ought to be disciplined by learning a trade before he enters a profession.  My oldest brother, De Courcy, learned to be a blacksmith; my next brother, Algernon, ran a bakery; and since I left Harvard I’ve been slapping sheets of paper on people’s walls ­”

“Harvard?” she repeated, bewildered.

“Yes; I was 1907.”

You!

He looked down at his white overalls, smiling.

“Does that astonish you, Miss Carr? ­you are Miss Carr, I suppose ­”

“Sybilla ­yes ­we’re ­we’re triplets,” she stammered.

“The beauti ­the ­the Carr triplets!  And you are one of them?” he exclaimed, delighted.

“Yes.”  Still bewildered, she sat there, looking at him.  How extraordinary!  How strange to find a Harvard man pasting paper!  Dire misgivings flashed up within her.

“Who are you?” she asked tremulously.  “Would you mind telling me your name.  It ­it isn’t ­George!

He looked up in pleased surprise: 

“So you know who I am?”

“N-no.  But ­it isn’t George ­is it?”

“Why, yes ­”

“O-h!” she breathed.  A sense of swimming faintness enveloped her:  she swayed; but an unmistakable ripping noise brought her suddenly to herself.

“I am afraid you are tearing your skirt somehow,” he said anxiously.  “Let me ­”

“No!”

The desperation of the negative approached violence, and he involuntarily stepped back.

For a moment they faced one another; the flush died out on her cheeks.

“If,” she said, “your name actually is George, this ­this is the most ­ the most terrible punishment ­” She closed her eyes with her fingers as though to shut out some monstrous vision.

“What,” asked the amazed young man, “has my name to do with ­”

Her hands dropped from her eyes; with horror she surveyed him, his paste-spattered overalls, his dingy white cap, his dinner pail.

“I ­I won’t marry you!” she stammered in white desperation.  “I won’t! If you’re not a paper hanger you look like one!  I don’t care whether you’re a Harvard man or not ­whether you’re playing at paper hanging or not ­whether your name is George or not ­I won’t marry you ­I won’t!  I won’t!

With the feeling that his senses were rapidly evaporating the young man sat down dizzily, and passed a paste-spattered but well-shaped hand across his eyes.

Sybilla set her lips and looked at him.

“I don’t suppose,” she said, “that you understand what I am talking about, but I’ve got to tell you at once; I can’t stand this sort of thing.”

“W-what sort of thing?” asked the young man, feebly.

“Your being here in this house ­with me ­”

“I’ll be very glad to go ­”

“Wait! That won’t do any good!  You’ll come back!”

“N-no, I won’t ­”

“Yes, you will.  Or I ­I’ll f-follow you ­”

“What?”

“One or the other!  We can’t help it, I tell you. You don’t understand, but I do.  And the moment I knew your name was George ­”

“What the deuce has that got to do with anything?” he demanded, turning red in spite of his amazement.

“Waves!” she said passionately, “psychic waves!  I ­somehow ­knew that he’d be named George ­”

“Who’d be named George?”

He! The ­man...  And if I ever ­if you ever expect me to ­to c-care for a man all over overalls ­”

“But I don’t ­Good Heavens! ­I don’t expect you to care for ­for overalls ­”

“Then why do you wear them?” she asked in tremulous indignation.

The young man, galvanized, sprang from his chair and began running about, taking little, short, distracted steps.  “Either,” he said, “I need mental treatment immediately, or I’ll wake up toward morning....  I ­don’t know what you’re trying to say to me.  I came here to ­to p-paste ­”

“That machine sent you!” she said.  “The minute I got a spark you started ­”

“Do you think I’m a motor?  Spark!  Do you think I ­”

“Yes, I do.  You couldn’t help it; I know it was my own fault, and this ­ this is the dreadful punishment ­g-glued to a t-table top ­with a man named George ­”

“What!!!”

“Yes,” she said passionately, “everything disobedient I have done has brought lightning retribution.  I was forbidden to go into the laboratory; I disobeyed and ­you came to hang wall paper!  I ­I took a b-book ­which I had no business to take, and F-fate glues me to your horrid table and holds me fast till a man named George comes in....”

Flushed, trembling, excited, she made a quick and dramatic gesture of despair; and a ripping sound rent the silence.

Are you pasted to that table?” faltered the young man, aghast.

“Yes, I am.  And it’s utterly impossible for you to aid me in the slightest, except by pretending to ignore it.”

“But you ­you can’t remain there!”

“I can’t help remaining here,” she said hotly, “until you go.”

“Then I’d better ­”

“No!  You shall not go!  I ­I won’t have you go away ­disappear somewhere in the city.  Certainty is dreadful enough, but it’s better than the awful suspense of knowing you are somewhere in the world, and are sure to come back sometime ­”

“But I don’t want to come back!” he exclaimed indignantly.  “Why should I wish to come back?  Have I said ­acted ­done ­looked ­Why should you imagine that I have the slightest interest in anything or in ­in ­anybody in this house?”

“Haven’t you?”

“No!...  And I cannot ignore your ­your amazing ­and intensely f-flattering fear that I have d-designs ­that I desire ­in other words, that I ­er ­have dared to cherish impossible aspirations in connection with a futile and absurd hope that one day you might possibly be induced to listen to any tentative suggestion of mine concerning a matrimonial alliance ­”

He choked and turned a dull red.

She reddened, too, but said calmly: 

“Thank you for putting it so nicely.  But it is no use.  Sooner or later you and I will be obliged to consider a situation too hopeless to admit of discussion.”

“What situation?”

“Ours.”

“I can’t see any situation ­except your being glued ­I beg your pardon! ­but I must speak truthfully.”

“So must I. Our case is too desperate for anything but plain and terrible truths.  And the truths are these:  I touched the forbidden machine and got a spark; your name is George; I’m glued here, unable to escape; you are not rude enough to go when I ask you not to....  And now ­here ­ in this room, you and I must face these facts and make up our minds....  For I simply must know what I am to expect; I can’t endure ­I couldn’t live with this hanging over me ­”

What hanging over you?”

He sprang to his feet, waving his dinner pail around in frantic circles: 

“What is it, in Heaven’s name, that is hanging over you?”

“Over you, too!”

“Over me?”

“Certainly.  Over us both.  We are headed straight for m-marriage.”

“T-to each other?

“Of course,” she said faintly.  “Do you think I’d care whom you are going to marry if it wasn’t I?  Do you think I’d discuss my own marital intentions with you if you did not happen to be vitally concerned?”

“Do you expect to marry me?” he gasped.

“I ­I don’t want to:  but I’ve got to.”

He stood petrified for an instant, then with a wild look began to gather up his tools.

She watched him with the sickening certainty that if he got away she could never survive the years of suspense until his inevitable return.  A mad longing to get the worst over seized her.  She knew the worst, knew what Fate held for her.  And she desired to get it over ­have the worst happen ­and be left to live out the shattered remains of her life in solitude and peace.

“If ­if we’ve got to marry,” she began unsteadily, “why not g-get it over quickly ­and then I don’t mind if you go away.”

She was quite mad:  that was certain.  He hastily flung some brushes into his tool kit, then straightened up and gazed at her with deep compassion.

“Would you mind,” she asked timidly, “getting somebody to come in and marry us, and then the worst will be over, you see, and we need never, never see each other again.”

He muttered something soothing and began tying up some rolls of wall paper.

“Won’t you do what I ask?” she said pitifully.  “I-I am almost afraid that ­if you go away without marrying me I could not live and endure the ­the certainty of your return.”

He raised his head and surveyed her with deepest pity.  Mad ­quite mad!  And so young ­so exquisite... so perfectly charming in body!  And the mind darkened forever....  How terrible!  How strange, too; for in the pure-lidded eyes he seemed to see the soft light of reason not entirely quenched.

Their eyes encountered, lingered; and the beauty of her gaze seemed to stir him to the very wellspring of compassion.

“Would it make you any happier to believe ­to know,” he added hastily, “that you and I were married?”

“Y-yes, I think so.”

“Would you be quite happy to believe it?”

“Yes ­if you call that happiness.”

“And you would not be unhappy if I never returned?”

“Oh, no, no!  I ­that would make me ­comparatively ­happy!”

“To be married to me, and to know you would never again see me?”

“Yes.  Will you?”

“Yes,” he said soothingly.  And yet a curious little throb of pain flickered in his heart for a moment, that, mad as she undoubtedly was, she should be so happy to be rid of him forever.

He came slowly across the room to the table on which she was sitting.  She drew back instinctively, but an ominous ripping held her.

“Are you going for a license and a ­a clergyman?” she asked.

“Oh, no,” he said gently, “that is not necessary.  All we have to do is to take each other’s hands ­so ­”

She shrank back.

“You will have to let me take your hand,” he explained.

She hesitated, looked at him fearfully, then, crimson, laid her slim fingers in his.

The contact sent a quiver straight through him; he squared his shoulders and looked at her....  Very, very far away it seemed as though he heard his heart awaking heavily.

What an uncanny situation!  Strange ­strange ­his standing here to humor the mad whim of this stricken maid ­this wonderfully sweet young stranger, looking out of eyes so lovely that he almost believed the dead intelligence behind them was quickening into life again.

“What must we do to be married?” she whispered.

“Say so; that is all,” he answered gently.  “Do you take me for your husband?”

“Yes....  Do you t-take me for your ­wife?”

“Yes, dear ­”

“Don’t say that!...  Is it ­over?”

“All over,” he said, forcing a gayety that rang hollow in the pathos of the mockery and farce....  But he smiled to be kind to her; and, to make the poor, clouded mind a little happier still, he took her hand again and said very gently: 

“Will it surprise you to know that you are now a princess?”

“A ­what?” she asked sharply.

“A princess.”  He smiled benignly on her, and, still beaming, struck a not ungraceful attitude.

“I,” he said, “am the Crown Prince of Rumtifoo.”

She stared at him without a word; gradually he lost countenance; a vague misgiving stirred within him that he had rather overdone the thing.

“Of course,” he began cheerfully, “I am an exile in disguise ­er ­ disinherited and all that, you know.”

She continued to stare at him.

“Matters of state ­er ­revolution ­and that sort of thing,” he mumbled, eying her; “but I thought it might gratify you to know that I am Prince George of Rumtifoo ­”

What!

The silence was deadly.

“Do you know,” she said deliberately, “that I believe you think I am mentally unsound. Do you?”

“I ­you ­” he began to stutter fearfully.

Do you?”

“W-well, either you or I ­”

“Nonsense!  I thought that marriage ceremony was a miserably inadequate affair!...  And I am hurt ­grieved ­amazed that you should do such a ­a cowardly ­”

“What!” he exclaimed, stung to the quick.

“Yes, it is cowardly to deceive a woman.”

“I meant it kindly ­supposing ­”

“That I am mentally unsound?  Why do you suppose that?”

“Because ­Good Heavens ­because in this century, and in this city, people who never before saw one another don’t begin to talk of marrying ­”

“I explained to you” ­she was half crying now, and her voice broke deliciously ­“I told you what I’d done, didn’t I?”

“You said you had got a spark,” he admitted, utterly bewildered by her tears.  “Don’t cry ­please don’t.  Something is all wrong here ­there is some terrible misunderstanding.  If you will only explain it to me ­”

She dried her eyes mechanically:  “Come here,” she said.  “I don’t believe I did explain it clearly.”

And, very carefully, very minutely, she began to tell him about the psychic waves, and the instrument, and the new company formed to exploit it on a commercial basis.

She told him what had happened that morning to her; how her disobedience had cost her so much misery.  She informed him about her father, and that florid and rotund gentleman’s choleric character.

“If you are here when I tell him I’m married,” she said, “he will probably frighten you to death; and that’s one of the reasons why I wish to get it over and get you safely away before he returns.  As for me, now that I know the worst, I want to get the worst over and ­and live out my life quietly somewhere....  So now you see why I am in such a hurry, don’t you?”

He nodded as though stunned, leaning there on the table, hands folded, head bent.

“I am so very sorry ­for you,” she said.  “I know how you must feel about it.  But if we are obliged to marry some time had we not better get it over and then ­never ­see ­one another ­”

He lifted his head, then stood upright.

Her soft lips were mute, but the question still remained in her eyes.

So, for a long while, they looked at each other; and the color under his cheekbones deepened, and the pink in her cheeks slowly became pinker.

“Suppose,” he said, under his breath, “that I ­wish ­to return ­to you?”

I do not wish it ­”

“Try.”

“Try to ­to wish for ­”

“For my return.  Try to wish that you also desire it.  Will you?”

“If you are going to ­to talk that way ­” she stammered.

“Yes, I am.”

“Then ­then ­”

“Is there any reason why I should not, if we are engaged?” he asked.  “We are ­engaged, are we not?”

“Engaged?”

“Yes.  Are we?”

“I ­yes ­if you call it ­”

“I do....  And we are to be ­married?” He could scarcely now speak the word which but a few moments since he pronounced so easily; for a totally new significance attached itself to every word he uttered.

“Are we?” he repeated.

“Yes.”

“Then ­if I ­if I find that I ­”

“Don’t say it,” she whispered.  She had turned quite white.

“Will you listen ­”

“No.  It ­it isn’t true ­it cannot be.”

“It is coming truer every moment....  It is very, very true ­even now....  It is almost true....  And now it has come true.  Sybilla!”

White, dismayed, she gazed at him, her hands instinctively closing her ears.  But she dropped them as he stepped forward.

“I love you, Sybilla.  I wish to marry you....  Will you try to care for me ­a little ­”

“I couldn’t ­I can’t even try ­”

“Dear ­”

He had her hands now; she twisted them free; he caught them again.  Over their interlocked hands she bowed her head, breathless, cheeks aflame, seeking to cover her eyes.

“Will you love me, Sybilla?”

She struggled silently, desperately.

Will you?”

“No....  Let me go ­”

“Don’t cry ­please, dear ­” His head, bowed beside hers over their clasped hands, was more than she could endure; but her upflung face, seeking escape, encountered his.  There was a deep, indrawn breath, a sob, and she lay, crying her heart out, in his arms.

“Darling!”

“W-what?”

It is curious how quickly one recognizes unfamiliar forms of address.

“You won’t cry any more, will you?” he whispered.

“N-n-o,” sighed Sybilla.

“Because we do love each other, don’t we?”

“Y-yes, George.”  Then, radiant, yet sweetly shamed, confident, yet fearful, she lifted her adorable head from his shoulder.

“George,” she said, “I am beginning to think that I’d like to get off this table.”

“You poor darling!”

“And,” she continued, “if you will go home and change your overalls for something more conventional, you shall come and dine with us this evening, and I will be waiting for you in the drawing-room....  And, George, although some of your troubles are now over ­”

“All of them, dearest!” he cried with enthusiasm.

“No,” she said tenderly, “you are yet to meet Pa-pah.”