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Check to Your King

Chapter One — Crowns and Thrones—What about Those?

page 1

Chapter One
Crowns and Thrones—What about Those?

Leaving the dictionary behind us, what constitutes a kingdom? Primarily, I suppose, a patch of ground, anything from a few acres to a few thousand miles in extent. We put a lot into this ground — our ashes and our dreams — and we take a lot out of it. The ashes don't count for very much, though one should waste nothing. But the dreams are another matter. Plant them for a few centuries-by that time your soil's malleable, practically every clod has achieved personal contact with humanity — and up come cathedrals, great red fighting-cocks of omnibuses, Tate galleries, social codes, treatises on virtue and value, sets of objections to the social codes, longer than the codes were to begin with.

All this takes time and space. But somebody has to start. And it's such a patient old planet.

A patch of ground, then, no more; and a little piece of silk or cotton, painted in gaudy colours. That's your flag, establishing sovereignty, or, at the least, independence. Wars have been fought over no more, no less.

Your kingdom; what about your king?

Of the hereditary monarchs I say nothing. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that there were certain mental or spiritual qualities, not necessarily hereditary, which marked off the chosen king? Suppose, in this modern age, that a man, lying up to his neck in the smooth, silken water of his hot bath, were suddenly to recognise these first signs … to find that the ground on which he must henceforth walk, the very bath-mat on which he must stand to dry himself, were no longer just ground and mat, but the root-woven soil of the waiting kingdom?

Suppose, as he walked down the steep stretches of bitumen, that the preoccupied pink faces passing him by were no longer merely faces, but his people. His mind filled, tossed and disordered with phrases like streaming banners: “I must do this for them … I must take care that they step clear of that … I must point out to them …” What's to be done about it?

Take up golf, my dear chap, take up golf. Something stable in the swing of that innocent little niblick.

But if the golf didn't work; if the tattered banners blew wilder page 2 and more prodigious than ever; if the soil cried out with a deep voice, and the faces passing by seemed to slide into the one appeal? What about it then?

Give yourself up, of course. Surrender to the white Mona Lisa smile of the hospital ward, and the doctors who have heard it all before. Humanity is no longer in the vein.

I cannot too strongly emphasise the fact that the call to be a king differs in essence from the call to be a dictator. A dictator has a shouting part, and it matters nothing what he shouts. Leather lungs, bull neck, that's the lot. But a king's is a speaking part. It means a saying of quiet things which hang together and make sense. One might almost say that the urge to make sense is behind the self-appointment of most of our best kings.

Humanity is no longer in the vein.

A hundred years, however, they did it, and with élan. There was the Stanhope woman, riding like mad on a white horse across Syria. There was Byron, setting out for Greece-only a liberator, but didn't the little man hope the Greeks would notice how chastely becoming is golden crown to liberator's brow? There was the classic example of Napoleon. Black men were trying on crowns, east and west. As a revived style in millinery, the crown was enjoying a vogue.

Our Charles, you might say he was born stuffed with all this monarchical business. That father of his, the Sieur de Thierry — or Baron de Thierry de Laville, if you're going to give him as much titular grandeur as he wanted — running about Paris intriguing in keyholes against the revolutionists, happy as a mason-wasp; emigrating to England just in time to save his skin, then sentimentalising for ever about the dear departed Louis XVI, the Austrian, the aristocrats. God forgive us for mentioning it, but that bunch, the whole of them, looked better with their heads off. The boy, however — little Charles de Thierry, London-born son of his noble émigré papa — grew up seeing everything royal or aristocratic as both beautiful and fine. He didn't have to live in it, that garden of the dead.

There may be some debate as to whether this little Charles — later Baron de Thierry — is entitled to be recognised and written about as a bona-fide king. King of Nukahiva, Sovereign Chief of New Zealand-those were the damages he claimed against history. His Nukahivan monarchy was never recognised by the Powers, and as to the Sovereign Chieftaincy in New Zealand, there was a dog-fight about that. But he hoisted an independent flag on Nukahiva, a flag that had bagged the royal salute three times- page 3 once on the Atlantic, once leaving Pointe-à-Pitre, once from the old pirate-haunted city of Panama. He declares, and no Nukahivan evidence has been produced to contradict him, that the Nukahivan Islanders readily accepted him as their King, and anointed him with the sacred oils. He certainly issued documents signed, “We, Charles, King of Nukahiva.” Copies of them remain in existence. After that, I can see nothing against him as a king. Besides, he enjoyed it so much….

Here is warning. Faces, milestones … if you don't like them, stand clear. Salomon, Vigneti, Bertholini, Morel, Feraud, Captain D'Orsay of the Momus, the little people of this book … what do I know about them? I know that Salomon was a fat brown man, and Vigneti a thin, solemn one, always seasick. Faces … queer, blurred old portraits, in a gallery which nobody visits; a gallery where the lonely footstep echoes terribly, and which is now growing very dark. Charles says they were a pack of scoundrels, who either robbed him, owed him money, or refused to lend it to him in his extremity: a much meaner offence, since, if you need money yourself, it's natural to take it from somebody who appears better fixed; but if you are in funds, there can be no excuse for refusing to replenish your fellow creatures.

Then again, if Charles had only kept in one place … a great city, even a great desert. But he was the fauna of everywhere. One finds him flourishing in pestilential swamps of Panama, persisting on a New Zealand mountain-top, surviving somehow in Cambridge itself. This keeps a biographer moving. Perhaps one could do a graph of him, and plant it at the end of the book. But it would certainly be inaccurate. So was Charles.

It would be possible, it would even be probable, to treat him as though he and his kingdom were funny, nothing more.

Be at peace, awful spectre of Our Charles. Apart from the fact that this would be bad art, I do not think it would even be true. For, look you, there is such a thing as being funny in the passive, more than in the active. People who never in their long lives have taken any misdirected step can be funnier, in a dim way, than any naked maniac who ever stood on his head and waved his legs in the air.

Suppose there were seated somewhere a personal and cruelly inquisitive god, who made leopards and butterflies because he liked their suggestions of action, a god understanding all the possibilities open to the creatures of this world? Can you see this god leaning down from his throne, a dry cackle beginning to form in his throat? “What's this you're telling me … you've page 4 got a man there who never wanted to fly? Comic sort of a fellow … What? Another man who has never been in love? Get along with you, you're trying to fool me … What's that? Oh, that's too rich altogether. Get out of my way, I want to have a look at him. Isfrael, Isfrael, come here. Ha-ha-ha …!” (The skies begin to crackle with straw-coloured lightning, with the violent, dangerous laughter of God.) “Don't block the gangway, you old scoundrel. I want to see. Ha-ha-ha…! There's a man down there who says he's never made a fool of himself.”