Chapter XVII. "The Princess and the Pauper" - Just David by Eleanor Porter

It was in the early twilight that Mr. Jack told the story. He, Jill, and David were on the veranda, as usual watching the towers of Sunnycrest turn from gold to silver as the sun dropped behind the hills. It was Jill who had asked for the story.

"About fairies and princesses, you know," she had ordered.

"But how will David like that?" Mr. Jack had demurred. "Maybe he doesn't care for fairies and princesses."

"I read one once about a prince--'t was 'The Prince and the Pauper,' and I liked that," averred David stoutly.

Mr. Jack smiled; then his brows drew together in a frown. His eyes were moodily fixed on the towers.

"Hm-m; well," he said, "I might, I suppose, tell you a story about a Princess and--a Pauper. I--know one well enough."

"Good!--then tell it," cried both Jill and David. And Mr. Jack began his story.

"She was not always a Princess, and he was not always a Pauper,--and that's where the story came in, I suppose," sighed the man. "She was just a girl, once, and he was a boy; and they played together and--liked each other. He lived in a little house on a hill."

"Like this?" demanded Jill.

"Eh? Oh--er--yes, something like this," returned Mr. Jack, with an odd half-smile. "And she lived in another bit of a house in a town far away from the boy."

"Then how could they play together?" questioned David.

"They couldn't, always. It was only summers when she came to visit in the boy's town. She was very near him then, for the old aunt whom she visited lived in a big stone house with towers, on another hill, in plain sight from the boy's home."

"Towers like those--where the Lady of the Roses lives?" asked David.

"Eh? What? Oh--er--yes," murmured Mr. Jack. "We'll say the towers were something like those over there." He paused, then went on musingly: "The girl used to signal, sometimes, from one of the tower windows. One wave of the handkerchief meant, 'I'm coming, over'; two waves, with a little pause between, meant, 'You are to come over here.' So the boy used to wait always, after that first wave to see if another followed; so that he might know whether he were to be host or guest that day. The waves always came at eight o'clock in the morning, and very eagerly the boy used to watch for them all through the summer when the girl was there."

"Did they always come, every morning?" Asked Jill.

"No; sometimes the girl had other things to do. Her aunt would want her to go somewhere with her, or other cousins were expected whom the girl must entertain; and she knew the boy did not like other guests to be there when he was, so she never asked him to come over at such times. On such occasions she did sometimes run up to the tower at eight o'clock and wave three times, and that meant, 'Dead Day.' So the boy, after all, never drew a real breath of relief until he made sure that no dreaded third wave was to follow the one or the two."

"Seems to me," observed David, "that all this was sort of one-sided. Didn't the boy say anything?"

"Oh, yes," smiled Mr. Jack. "But the boy did not have any tower to wave from, you must remember. He had only the little piazza on his tiny bit of a house. But he rigged up a pole, and he asked his mother to make him two little flags, a red and a blue one. The red meant 'All right'; and the blue meant 'Got to work'; and these he used to run up on his pole in answer to her waving 'I'm coming over,' or 'You are to come over here.' So, you see, occasionally it was the boy who had to bring the 'Dead Day,' as there were times when he had to work. And, by the way, perhaps you would be interested to know that after a while he thought up a third flag to answer her three waves. He found an old black silk handkerchief of his father's, and he made that into a flag. He told the girl it meant 'I'm heartbroken,' and he said it was a sign of the deepest mourning. The girl laughed and tipped her head saucily to one side, and said, 'Pooh! as if you really cared!' But the boy stoutly maintained his position, and it was that, perhaps, which made her play the little joke one day.

"The boy was fourteen that summer, and the girl thirteen. They had begun their signals years before, but they had not had the black one so long. On this day that I tell you of, the girl waved three waves, which meant, 'Dead Day,' you remember, and watched until the boy had hoisted his black flag which said, 'I'm heart-broken,' in response. Then, as fast as her mischievous little feet could carry her, she raced down one hill and across to the other. Very stealthily she advanced till she found the boy bent over a puzzle on the back stoop, and--and he was whistling merrily.

"How she teased him then! How she taunted him with 'Heart-broken, indeed--and whistling like that!' In vain he blushed and stammered, and protested that his whistling was only to keep up his spirits. The girl only laughed and tossed her yellow curls; then she hunted till she found some little jingling bells, and these she tied to the black badge of mourning and pulled it high up on the flagpole. The next instant she was off with a run and a skip, and a saucy wave of her hand; and the boy was left all alone with an hour's work ahead of him to untie the knots from his desecrated badge of mourning.

"And yet they were wonderfully good friends--this boy and girl. From the very first, when they were seven and eight, they had said that they would marry each other when they grew up, and always they spoke of it as the expected thing, and laid many happy plans for the time when it should come. To be sure, as they grew older, it was not mentioned quite so often, perhaps; but the boy at least thought--if he thought of it all--that that was only because it was already so well understood."

"What did the girl think?" It was Jill who asked the question.

"Eh? The girl? Oh," answered Mr. Jack, a little bitterly, "I'm afraid I don't know exactly what the girl did think, but--it was n't that, anyhow--that is, judging from what followed."

"What did follow?"

"Well, to begin with, the old aunt died. The girl was sixteen then. It was in the winter that this happened, and the girl was far away at school. She came to the funeral, however, but the boy did not see her, save in the distance; and then he hardly knew her, so strange did she look in her black dress and hat. She was there only two days, and though he gazed wistfully up at the gray tower, he knew well enough that of course she could not wave to him at such a time as that. Yet he had hoped--almost believed that she would wave two waves that last day, and let him go over to see her.

"But she didn't wave, and he didn't go over. She went away. And then the town learned a wonderful thing. The old lady, her aunt, who had been considered just fairly rich, turned out to be the possessor of almost fabulous wealth, owing to her great holdings of stock in a Western gold mine which had suddenly struck it rich. And to the girl she willed it all. It was then, of course, that the girl became the Princess, but the boy did not realize that--just then. To him she was still 'the girl.'

"For three years he did not see her. She was at school, or traveling abroad, he heard. He, too, had been away to school, and was, indeed, just ready to enter college. Then, that summer, he heard that she was coming to the old home, and his heart sang within him. Remember, to him she was still the girl. He knew, of course, that she was not the little girl who had promised to marry him. But he was sure she was the merry comrade, the true-hearted young girl who used to smile frankly into his eyes, and whom he was now to win for his wife. You see he had forgotten--quite forgotten about the Princess and the money. Such a foolish, foolish boy as he was!

"So he got out his flags gleefully, and one day, when his mother wasn't in the kitchen, he ironed out the wrinkles and smoothed them all ready to be raised on the pole. He would be ready when the girl waved--for of course she would wave; he would show her that he had not forgotten. He could see just how the sparkle would come to her eyes, and just how the little fine lines of mischief would crinkle around her nose when she was ready to give that first wave. He could imagine that she would like to find him napping; that she would like to take him by surprise, and make him scurry around for his flags to answer her.

"But he would show her! As if she, a girl, were to beat him at their old game! He wondered which it would be: 'I'm coming over,' or, 'You are to come over here.' Whichever it was, he would answer, of course, with the red 'All right.' Still, it would be a joke to run up the blue 'Got to work,' and then slip across to see her, just as she, so long ago, had played the joke on him! On the whole, however, he thought the red flag would be better. And it was that one which he laid uppermost ready to his hand, when he arranged them.

"At last she came. He heard of it at once. It was already past four o'clock, but he could not forbear, even then, to look toward the tower. It would be like her, after all, to wave then, that very night, just so as to catch him napping, he thought. She did not wave, however. The boy was sure of that, for he watched the tower till dark.

"In the morning, long before eight o'clock, the boy was ready. He debated for some time whether to stand out of doors on the piazza, or to hide behind the screened window, where he could still watch the tower. He decided at last that it would be better not to let her see him when she looked toward the house; then his triumph would be all the more complete when he dashed out to run up his answer.

"Eight o'clock came and passed. The boy waited until nine, but there was no sign of life from the tower. The boy was angry then, at himself. He called himself, indeed, a fool, to hide as he did. Of course she wouldn't wave when he was nowhere in sight--when he had apparently forgotten! And here was a whole precious day wasted!

"The next morning, long before eight, the boy stood in plain sight on the piazza. As before he waited until nine; and as before there was no sign of life at the tower window. The next morning he was there again, and the next, and the next. It took just five days, indeed, to convince the boy--as he was convinced at last--that the girl did not intend to wave at all."

"But how unkind of her!" exclaimed David.

"She couldn't have been nice one bit!" decided Jill.

"You forget," said Mr. Jack. "She was the Princess."

"Huh!" grunted Jill and David in unison.

"The boy remembered it then," went on Mr. Jack, after a pause,--"about the money, and that she was a Princess. And of course he knew--when he thought of it--that he could not expect that a Princess would wave like a girl--just a girl. Besides, very likely she did not care particularly about seeing him. Princesses did forget, he fancied,--they had so much, so very much to fill their lives. It was this thought that kept him from going to see her--this, and the recollection that, after all, if she really had wanted to see him, she could have waved.

"There came a day, however, when another youth, who did not dare to go alone, persuaded him, and together they paid her a call. The boy understood, then, many things. He found the Princess; there was no sign of the girl. The Princess was tall and dignified, with a cold little hand and a smooth, sweet voice. There was no frank smile in her eyes, neither were there any mischievous crinkles about her nose and lips. There was no mention of towers or flags; no reference to wavings or to childhood's days. There was only a stiffly polite little conversation about colleges and travels, with a word or two about books and plays. Then the callers went home. On the way the boy smiled scornfully to himself. He was trying to picture the beauteous vision he had seen, this unapproachable Princess in her filmy lace gown,--standing in the tower window and waving--waving to a bit of a house on the opposite hill. As if that could happen!

"The boy, during those last three years, had known only books. He knew little of girls--only one girl--and he knew still less of Princesses. So when, three days after the call, there came a chance to join a summer camp with a man who loved books even better than did the boy himself, he went gladly. Once he had refused to go on this very trip; but then there had been the girl. Now there was only the Princess--and the Princess didn't count."

"Like the hours that aren't sunshiny," interpreted David.

"Yes," corroborated Mr. Jack. "Like the hours when the sun does n't shine."

"And then?" prompted Jill.

"Well, then,--there wasn't much worth telling," rejoined Mr. Jack gloomily. "Two more years passed, and the Princess grew to be twenty-one. She came into full control of her property then, and after a while she came back to the old stone house with the towers and turned it into a fairyland of beauty. She spent money like water. All manner of artists, from the man who painted her ceilings to the man who planted her seeds, came and bowed to her will. From the four corners of the earth she brought her treasures and lavished them through the house and grounds. Then, every summer, she came herself, and lived among them, a very Princess indeed."

"And the boy?--what became of the boy?" demanded David. "Didn't he see her--ever?"

Mr. Jack shook his head.

"Not often, David; and when he did, it did not make him any--happier. You see, the boy had become the Pauper; you must n't forget that."

"But he wasn't a Pauper when you left him last."

"Wasn't he? Well, then, I'll tell you about that. You see, the boy, even though he did go away, soon found out that in his heart the Princess was still the girl, just the same. He loved her, and he wanted her to be his wife; so for a little--for a very little--he was wild enough to think that he might work and study and do great things in the world until he was even a Prince himself, and then he could marry the Princess."

"Well, couldn't he? "

"No. To begin with, he lost his health. Then, away back in the little house on the hill something happened--a something that left a very precious charge for him to keep; and he had to go back and keep it, and to try to see if he couldn't find that lost health, as well. And that is all."

"All! You don't mean that that is the end!" exclaimed Jill.

"That's the end."

"But that isn't a mite of a nice end," complained David. "They always get married and live happy ever after--in stories."

"Do they?" Mr. Jack smiled a little sadly. "Perhaps they do, David,--in stories."

"Well, can't they in this one?"

"I don't see how."

"Why can't he go to her and ask her to marry him?"

Mr. Jack drew himself up proudly.

"The Pauper and the Princess? Never! Paupers don't go to Princesses, David, and say, 'I love you.'"

David frowned.

"Why not? I don't see why--if they want to do it. Seems as if somehow it might be fixed."

"It can't be," returned Mr. Jack, his gaze on the towers that crowned the opposite hill; "not so long as always before the Pauper's eyes there are those gray walls behind which he pictures the Princess in the midst of her golden luxury."

To neither David nor Jill did the change to the present tense seem strange. The story was much too real to them for that.

"Well, anyhow, I think it ought to be fixed," declared David, as he rose to his feet.

"So do I--but we can't fix it," laughed Jill. "And I'm hungry. Let's see what there is to eat!"