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When I Was King by Barry Pain


I was in a part of the country where it is a good deal safer to kill a child than to take a pheasant. There are more people to look after the pheasants. I have always felt as if a man who could get his bird without a gun and cook it without a kitchen had a kind of right to the bird. An empty stomach is an argument too. Well, I got my bird, and then Bates got me. He is a big man and can use his hands. But all the same I am ready for him, man to man, at any time. He had three to help him that time, and that was why I had to stand up and look penitent while old White-whiskers talked nonsense before he sent me to prison.

I can talk the common talk, and I can talk like a gentleman by birth and education, which is what I happen to be. To Bates I gave the common talk—and very common some of it was. Just for a whim, to amuse myself, I gave the magistrate the other kind, knowing very well the sort of thing it would make him say.

“It is deplorable,” said old White-whiskers, “that an evidently well-educated man like yourself, possessed of some abilities, and in a position to get your living by honest work, should take to this crime of poaching. The fact that you used violence towards the keeper makes the case all the worse. Men like you are a curse to the country.”

Well, I have tried honest work. I have been a classical tutor. I have been an actor. I have been a bookmaker's clerk. But I like to go my own way at my own time. And that does not conduce to regular employment. My great-grandmother, I was always told, was a gipsy woman, and it may be that I have thrown back to her. I cannot say. I do know that I must go my own way at my own time, and that my own way is mostly out in the open, and that I do not love bricks and mortar.

It is not often that I stay for long in one place, and I had stayed too long in that village. There was a reason, of course, and if you guess that the reason was a woman, you need not trouble to guess again. I had a room at Mrs Crewe's cottage and paid my rent for it regularly. I had done very well with plovers' eggs earlier in the season, and had not spent all my money yet. It was a mistake to stop so long, because the keepers began to study me a little. They began to watch where I went and to ask themselves why. I had been marked by them long before I met Bates in the wood that night. They put me in prison, and it did not do me any good. It made me angry. I was a nice, well-conducted prisoner though, for the people who had to look after me had no responsibility in the matter. They did not make the laws, they were merely getting a living. I was principally angry with myself, because I had allowed another man to beat me. I made up my mind as soon as I got out of prison to take to the road again. I thought it would be better for my health if I could smell the air of a different county. It is a solemn fact that prison is not good for your health or strength. When I came out I was not the man that I had been.

And then I found out something which changed my mind. While I was in prison, Bates went after my girl and made love to her. That settled it. I had got to finish with Bates before I could go on.

I went to Mrs Crewe's cottage by night. When a man who has been in prison walks about in a small village in the daytime, remarks are likely to be made. If remarks were made, I was likely to take notice of them, and I did not want to get into trouble again. I made up my mind that Bates should be my next trouble. So, as I say, I went to Mrs Crewe by night, to do the fair thing by her. I told her that I must find a different room, if I had a room at all; for if old White-whiskers found that she was keeping the convicted poacher on, she would lose her cottage. “So, Mrs Crewe,” I said, “I have come to say good-bye to you and Elsie.”

Elsie is Mrs Crewe's little girl—a pretty kid of ten, but with bad health. It was not a good cottage for a sick child, and the food was not good enough for her, and the doctor was not good enough. He charged Mrs Crewe nothing—I'll say that for him—but it was as much as he was worth. Mrs Crewe's other daughter, Lizzie, was eight years older and in service in London.

Mrs Crewe heard all I had to say, but it made no effect upon her. She said that she had always paid her rent and conducted herself respectably, and that old White-whiskers dared not put her out, and that if he did put her out she would get somebody to write to the London newspapers about it. She had a great belief in the London newspapers. She said, moreover, that she took people as she found them, and that I had always treated her and Elsie well. That was true enough. If Elsie did not get that last pheasant, she had had others.

Mrs Crewe wanted, too, the money she would get from me for the room, and said so. She would take no money that she had not earned. She was that kind. She worked pretty hard too—sold the vegetables out of her bit of garden, did charing work whenever she could get it, and made a little out of her fowls. She said, too, that Elsie had not been so well, and had asked for me.

“Very well, Mrs Crewe,” I said. “But there is one thing I have to tell you. I have been in prison, as you know, and something is going to happen which will put me back there again, and this time I shall not come out alive.”

She said that she knew what I meant. Bates had not done the fair thing—that was acknowledged in the village. Still, I could do no good by getting violent again, and it was just as well that I should stop with her and let her talk me into a better frame of mind. I laughed. She was a good woman, but no amount of talk would have stopped me. And then I said I would sleep that night at her cottage.

I did, and nearly all night I heard that kid crying.

“What is the matter with Elsie?” I said.

Mrs Crewe told me. Lizzie had got permission to have Elsie up to London in the following week to see the King go past. Now the doctor had forbidden it. He was right too. She seemed to me to be pretty bad, and in the evening she was light-headed. I asked Mrs Crewe what she had done.

“Told her that as she can't go to London to see the King, I have written to Buckingham Palace to ask the King to come and see her. Anything to keep her quiet. Funny the way her mind is set on seeing the King.”

“And why don't you write?” I asked. “If he knew, and if he could come, I believe he would.”

“Aye,” she said, “and so do I. But he might never see the letter, and kings have a deal to do, they tell me.”

That day I tramped into Helmston to buy something that I wanted for Mr Bates, and as I walked into Helmston I could not get the thoughts of that kid out of my mind. Then a funny sort of idea struck me. I had been an actor, as I have already said, and I am pretty good at make-up. I bought a few other things in Helmston besides the revolver.

When I got back I told Mrs Crewe my idea, and at first she was opposed to it. She said that Elsie would be certain to recognise my face and voice, in spite of my disguise, and that if she found out she had been deceived, she would never forgive her.

“No,” I said, “she will not recognise me. You yourself will not recognise me. I may not look very much like the King, but I shall not look in the least like myself. However, you yourself shall see first. If you think it is all right, as soon as it is dusk you shall go and tell her that the King has come.”

I went to my room and spent about half an hour on that make-up. I think the result was pretty good, seeing that I had not got all the materials that I wanted to work with. I called Mrs Crewe up and she was astounded. She said now that it was perfectly safe, that nobody on earth could have recognised me.

“Very well,” I said. “You must wait until ten minutes after the down-train is in. Elsie knows the trains and can hear them from where she is lying. You must tell her that the King does not wear his crown and his gorgeous robes when he is travelling, but only a black coat, just like the doctor.”

When I was an actor I was never afflicted with nervousness; but as I heard Mrs Crewe in the next room tell Elsie exactly what I had told her to say, I shivered with fear. Suppose, after all, the child should find me out!

Elsie slept in a small bed in her mother's room. As I entered she tried to raise herself a little, and said in her best voice—the one that she used in church on Sunday—“I am so sorry that I cannot get up to make a curtsy to you. And ought I to call you 'Your Majesty' or just 'King'?”

“The correct etiquette,” I said, “is for children to call me 'King'. I am very glad to have been able to come down to see you, Elsie. It was only by the merest chance that I could get away.”

I gave her my whitened hand with the flash rings on it. She put her lips to it. “That will be something to tell the other girls,” she said.

His Majesty inquired who the other girls were. He was told that Elsie had not been seeing much of them lately, because she had been ill; but she would be well and strong again very soon now—her mother had told her so. The other girls were very nice girls. Sarah Miggs had made a daisy-chain and sent it to her, and it was twice as long as the bed.

All this time Mrs Crewe had, by my direction, remained standing. She adopted a most respectful attitude, and curtsied whenever I looked at her. I now heard from her an ominous sniffling. If the silly woman began to blubber, there was a chance that the thing would be given away.

“Mrs Crewe,” I said, with dignity, “you have our permission to retire.”

She backed out of the room, and presently we heard her very busy in the kitchen, making an almost unnecessary noise with pots and pans. But perhaps that was intended to cover other sounds.

Elsie now demanded information about the interior of Buckingham Palace. I invented splendours, and she listened with rapture; she said it sounded more like Heaven than anything else. She put a plain question to me as to the value of the enormous diamond on my finger. She found that it had cost even more than she supposed, and she was interested in hearing the history of it. The diamond had once been the eye of an idol in India.

Presently she said, with distress: “Oh dear me, King, I do wish you could stop. There is such a lot more I want to ask you. But you will only just have time to catch the nine-thirteen, and that's the last up-train to-night.”

“It is of no consequence,” I said. “I had arranged to return to-night by motor-car.”

“Shall I see it?”

“No,” I said, “because by that time you will be asleep. It would not be a good thing for you to keep awake much longer. And if I tell you to go to sleep, then of course you must do it, because I am the King.”

“Of course,” she echoed. “Because you are the King.”

But I could tell her all about the motor. It was really more like a house than a car. It had three rooms in it, and all the walls and ceilings were covered with a pattern of lilies made in silver and gold. The stalks and the leaves were silver and the flowers were gold. One of the rooms in the car was like a bedroom, and in one of the other rooms there was a cupboard which was entirely filled with glass jars of sweets. Elsie named several kinds; they were all there.

She held my hand as she talked, and she was still holding it as she fell asleep. The room was almost dark now, though outside it was a light night. Then quite suddenly she sat up in bed and flung wide her arms.

“God save the King!” she cried.

In a moment she was asleep again, and I slipped from the room. I was a king no longer. She slept well that night.

Old White-whiskers had his points after all. He took it into his head to have a look into his cottages himself, and in consequence a highly respectable firm lost a highly lucrative job. When Elsie and her mother get back from the seaside—White-whiskers is paying for them—they will find their cottage in decent repair.

And this morning I take the road again, never to return. Of course Mrs Crewe thinks that it is her wise counsel which has kept me out of the hands of the hangman; but that is not so.

I have not seen Bates again, and I have planned not to see him again, lest at the sight of him I should forget a decision to which I came when that kid of Mrs Crewe's sat up in bed and called upon God to save the King.