The King's Men: A Tale of To-morrow/Chapter 1

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There are few Americans who went to England before the late wars but will remember Ripon House. The curious student of history—a study, perhaps, too little in vogue with us—could find no better example of the palace of an old feudal lord. Dating almost from the time of the first George—and some even say it was built by the same Wren who designed that St. Paul's Cathedral whose ruins we may still see to the east of London—it frowned upon the miles of private park surrounding it, a marble memorial of feudal monopoly and man's selfish greed. The very land about it, to an extent of almost half a county, was owned by the owners of the castle, and by them rented out upon an annual payment to such farmers as they chose to favor with a chance to earn their bread.

In an ancient room of a still older house which stands some two miles from the castle, and had formerly been merely the gatekeeper's lodge (though large enough for several families), a young man was sitting, one late afternoon in early November. The room was warmed by a fire, in the old fashion; and the young man was gloomily plunging the poker into the coals, breaking them into oily flakes which sent out fierce flickerings as they burned away. He was dressed in a rough shooting suit of blue velveteen, and his heavy American shoes were crusted with mud. His handsome, boyish face wore an expression of deep anxiety; and his hands seemed to minister to the troubles of his meditation by tumbling his hair about the contracted forehead, while his lips closed about a short brier-wood pipe of a kind only used by men. The pipe had gone out, unnoticed by the smoker; and he did not seem to mind the fierce heat thrown out by the broken coals. Above the mantel was the portrait of a gentleman in the quaint costume of the latter Victorian age; the absurd starched collar and shirt, the insignificant cravat, the trousers reaching to the ankles, and the coat and waistcoat of black cloth and fantastic cut, familiar to the readers of the London Punch. This antedated worthy looked out from the canvas upon the room as if he owned it; and the mullioned windows and carved oak wainscoting justified his claim, even to the very books in the bookcases, which showed an antiquarian taste. Here were the strange old-fashioned satires of Thackeray and the more modern romances of the humorist Dickens; the crude speculations of the philosopher Spencer, and the one-sided, aristocratic economies of Malthus and Mill; with the feeble rhymes of Lord Tennyson d'Eyncourt, which men, in a time-serving age, called poetry.

Geoffrey Ripon had come to his last legs. And he was one of the few aristocrats of his generation who had ever (metaphorically speaking) had any legs worth considering. When O' Donovan Rourke had been President of the British Republic, that good-natured Irishman, who had been at school with Ripon's father, had given him a position in the legation at Paris; but when the Radicals overthrew Rourke's government, Ripon lost his place. And Ripon could not but think it hard that he, Geoffrey Ripon, by all right and law Earl of Brompton, Viscount Mapledurham in the peerage of Ireland, etc., etc., should that afternoon have been fined ten shillings and costs for poaching on what had been his own domain.

His great-uncle looked down upon him with that exasperating equanimity that only a canvas immortality can give—his great-uncle who fell on the field of Tel-el-Kebir, dead as if the Arab bullet had sped from a worthier foe, in the days when England had a foreign policy and could spare her soldiers from the coast defence. And his grandfather, who smirked from another coroneted frame behind him, had been a great leader in the Liberal party under Gladstone, Lord Liverpool, the grand old man who stole Beaconsfield's thunder to guard the Suez Canal, that road to India which he, like another Moses, had made for their proud legions through the Red Sea.

And now Ripon was living in his porter's lodge, all that was still his of the great Ripon estates, with his empty title left him, minus the robes and coronet no longer worn; and his King, George the Fifth, an exile, wandering with his semblance of a court in foreign lands.

The world moves quickly as it grows older, with an accelerated velocity, like that of a falling stone; and it is hard for us of the present day to picture the England of King Albert Edward. The restlessness and poverty of the masses; the agitations in Ireland, feebly, blindly protesting with dynamite and other rude weapons against foreign oppression; the shameful monopoly of land, the social haughtiness of the titled classes, the luxury and profligacy of the court—perhaps even at the opening of our story, poor England was hardly worse off. But then came the change. Gradually the bone and sinew of the country sought refuge in emigration. The titled classes, after mortgage upon mortgage of their valueless land, were forced to break their entails to sell their estates. And at last, when the great American Republic, in 1889, cut down the Chinese wall of protection, which so long had surrounded their country, even trade succumbed, and England was undersold in the markets of the world. Then retrenchment was the cry; universal suffrage elected a parliament which literally cut off the royal princes with a shilling; and the Premier Bradlaugh swamped the House of Lords by the creation of a battalion of life peers, who abolished the hereditary House and established an elective Senate. It was easy then to call a constitutional convention, declare the sovereign but the servant and figure-head of the people, confiscate the royal estates and vote King Albert a salary of ₤10,000 a year.

Then Russia took advantage of the great struggle between Germany and France to seize India, and after the terrible defeat at Cyprus and the siege of Calcutta the old King of England abdicated in favor of his grandson George. But the people clamored for an elective President, and it was nigh twenty years before the opening of our story that King George had been forced to seek his only safe refuge in America.

Thus it was that Geoffrey Ripon had come to depend on poaching and the garden stuff his old servant managed to raise in the two-acre lot surrounding the lodge. Almost the only modern things in his room were the guns and fishing tackle in the corners and the electric battery for charging the cartridges; and now he was judicially informed that he must poach no more, the mortgage had been finally foreclosed, and he looked out of his window upon lands no longer his even in name. It is a sad thing to be ruined, and if ever man was ruined beyond all hope, Geoffrey Ripon, Earl of Brompton, was the man; it is hard to feel you are the last of your race, that you are almost an outlaw in your own land—and Ripon's king, George the Fifth, was suffered to play out his idle play of royal state, in Boston, Massachusetts. Ripon had never been in America. He pushed back his chair from the fire, as it gave out a heat too great for any man to stand. He walked to the window, and stood looking out upon the long perspective of elms, where the avenue stretched away in the direction of Ripon House. As his eye wandered over the broad view of park and forest, a carriage, drawn by four horses, insolent in the splendor of its trappings, rolled toward him from the castle. In that moment it seemed to Ripon that he felt all the bitterness of hatred and envy that might have rankled in the hearts of all the poor wayfarers who had in eight hundred years peered through the park gate and looked at those broad acres that his race so long had held. The carriage rolled swiftly by him, with a glitter of silver harness and liveries; on one seat were an elderly man and a young girl. As he saw her face Ripon started in surprise. Then, after a moment, he walked to the table and filled his pipe.

"Bah!" he said to himself, "it cannot be possible." Again he threw himself on a chair by the fireplace, and tried to read the Saturday Review. There was a long leader against Richard Lincoln; but as Lincoln was the one member in the House for whom Geoffrey had any respect, he threw it aside in disgust. He heard a timid knock at the door.

"Come in!" growled Geoffrey, as he turned to light his pipe.

An old family servant, the last survivor of an extinct race, entered with a battered silver tray.

"Please, my lord, a letter from the persons at the castle; one of them is waiting for an answer."

Reynolds made no distinction between the "persons at the castle" and their servants; and he always called it the castle, now that Ripon House was the gatekeeper's lodge.

"I suppose," grunted Geoffrey, as he took the letter, "they want to warn me against poaching. So considerate, after I have been fined ten shillings by their gamekeeper."

To his surprise the letter had a familiar look; it was addressed to him by his title in the ancient fashion, and was in a handwriting which he thought he should have known in Paris. Tearing open the envelope, he read:

"My dear Lord Brompton: I hear that you are back to your own estate, and you will doubtless be surprised to learn that I am so near you. Papa telephoned over last week for an estate, and here we are, with a complete retinue of servants and a gallery of ancestors—yours, by the way, as I found to my surprise. I felt so sorry when they called you back from Paris; I had no idea I should see you again so soon. Papa wanted to look after his affairs in England; so we have come over again for the winter, and I was delighted to get out of the wild gayety of America for this dear sleepy old country.

"If you have nothing better to do, will you dine with us tomorrow night? Do not stay away because we are in your old family house. We have no such feelings in America, you know. Richard Lincoln will be here, and Sir John Dacre. Do you know Sir John? I admire him immensely, you must know.

"Sincerely yours,"
Margaret Windsor."
"P. S. The new minister and legation are not received in society. We missed you so much. "

"Maggie Windsor over here," thought Ripon, "with that curious old father of hers, taking Ripon House as if it were furnished lodgings." And he thought of the old house and of his great-uncle who fell at Tel-el-Kebir, and of King George over the sea in America. But he said to himself that Maggie Windsor was a nice girl, as he put out his pipe and went out into the park for a walk.