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The Battle of the Third Cousins by Frank R. Stockton

 

There were never many persons who could correctly bound the Autocracy of Mutjado. The reason for this was that the boundary line was not stationary. Whenever the Autocrat felt the need of money, he sent his tax-gatherers far and wide, and people who up to that time had no idea of such a thing found that they lived in the territory of Mutjado. But when times were ordinarily prosperous with him, and people in the outlying districts needed protection or public works, the dominion of the Autocrat became very much contracted.

In the course of time, the Autocrat of Mutjado fell into bad health and sent for his doctor. That learned man prescribed some medicine for him; and as this did him no good, he ordered another kind. He continued this method of treatment until the Autocrat had swallowed the contents of fifteen phials and flasks, some large and some small. As none of these were of the slightest benefit, the learned doctor produced another kind of medicine which he highly extolled.

“Take a dose of this twice a day,” said he, “and you will soon find—”

“A new medicine?” interrupted the Autocrat, in disgust. “I will have none of it! These others were bad enough, and rather than start with a new physic, I prefer to die. Take away your bottles, little and big, and send me my secretary.”

When that officer arrived, the Autocrat informed him that he had determined to write his will, and that he should set about it at once.

The Autocrat of Mutjado had no son, and his nearest male relatives were a third cousin on his father's side, and another third cousin on his mother's side. Of course these persons were in nowise related to each other; and as they lived in distant countries, he had never seen either of them. He had made up his mind to leave his throne and dominions to one of these persons, but he could not determine which of them should be his heir.

“One has as good a right as the other,” he said to himself, “and I can't bother my brains settling the matter for them. Let them fight it out, and whoever conquers shall be Autocrat of Mutjado.”

Having arranged the affair in this manner in his will, he signed it, and soon after died.

The Autocrat's third cousin on his father's side was a young man of about twenty-five, named Alberdin. He was a good horseman, and trained in the arts of warfare, and when he was informed of the terms of his distinguished relative's will, he declared himself perfectly willing to undertake the combat for the throne. He set out for Mutjado, where he arrived in a reasonable time.

The third cousin on the mother's side was a very different person. He was a boy of about twelve years of age; and as his father and mother had died when he was very young, he had been for nearly all his life under the charge of an elderly and prudent man, who acted as his guardian and tutor. These two, also, soon arrived in Mutjado,—the boy, Phedo, being mounted on a little donkey, which was his almost constant companion. As soon as they reached the territory of the late Autocrat, old Salim, the tutor, left the boy at an inn, and went forward by himself to take a look at the other third cousin. When he saw Alberdin mounted on his fine horse, and looking so strong and valiant, his heart was much disturbed.

“I had hoped,” he said to himself, “that the other one was a small boy, but such does not appear to be the case. There is but one way to have a fair fight between these two. They must not now be allowed to see each other. If they can be kept apart until my boy grows up, he will then be able, with the military education which I intend he shall have, to engage in combat with any man. They must not meet for at least thirteen years. Phedo will then be twenty-five, and able to do worthy combat. To be sure, I am somewhat old myself to undertake to superintend so long a delay, but I must do my best to keep well and strong, and to attain the greatest possible longevity.”

Salim had always been in the habit of giving thirty-two chews to every mouthful of meat, and a proportionate number of chews to other articles of food; and had, so far, been very healthy. But he now determined to increase the number of chews to thirty-six, for it would be highly necessary for him to live until it was time for the battle between the third cousins to take place.

Having made up his mind on these points, the old tutor introduced himself to Alberdin, and told him that he had come to arrange the terms of combat.

“In the first place,” said Alberdin, “I should like to know what sort of a person my opponent is.”

“He is not a cavalryman like you,” answered Salim; “he belongs to the heavy infantry.”

At this, Alberdin looked grave. He knew very well that a stout and resolute man on foot had often the advantage of one who is mounted. He would have preferred meeting a horseman, and fighting on equal terms.

“Has he had much experience in war?” asked the young man.

“It is not long,” answered the tutor, “since he was almost constantly in arms, winter and summer.”

“He must be a practised warrior,” thought Alberdin. “I must put myself in good fighting-trim before I meet him.”

After some further conversation on the subject, the old man advised Alberdin to go into camp on a beautiful plain not far from the base of a low line of mountains.

“Your opponent,” said he, “will intrench himself in the valley on the other side. With the mountains between you, neither of you need fear a surprise; and when both are ready, a place of meeting can be appointed.

“Now, then,” said Salim to himself when this had been settled; “if I can keep them apart for thirteen years, all may be well.”

As soon as possible, Alberdin pitched a tent upon the appointed spot, and began to take daily warlike exercise in the plain, endeavoring in every way to put himself and his horse into proper condition for the combat.

On the other side of the mountain, old Salim intrenched himself and the boy, Phedo. He carefully studied several books on military engineering, and caused a fortified camp to be constructed on the most approved principles. It was surrounded by high ramparts, and outside of these was a moat filled with water. In the centre of the camp was a neat little house which was well provided with books, provisions, and every thing necessary for a prolonged stay. When the drawbridge was up, it would be impossible for Alberdin to get inside of the camp; and, moreover, the ramparts were so high that he could not look over them to see what sort of antagonist he was to have. Old Salim did not tell the boy why he brought him here to live. It would be better to wait until he was older before informing him of the battle which had been decreed. He told Phedo that it was necessary for him to have a military education, which could very well be obtained in a place like this; and he was also very careful to let him know that there was a terrible soldier in that part of the country who might at any time, if it were not for the intrenchments, pounce down upon him, and cut him to pieces. Every fine day, Phedo was allowed to take a ride on his donkey outside of the fortifications, but during this time, the old tutor kept a strict watch on the mountain; and if a horseman had made his appearance, little Phedo would have been whisked inside, and the drawbridge would have been up in a twinkling.

After about two weeks of this life Phedo found it dreadfully stupid to see no one but his old tutor, and never to go outside of these great ramparts except for donkey-rides, which were generally very short. He therefore determined, late one moonlight night, to go out and take a ramble by himself. He was not afraid of the dreadful soldier of whom the old man had told him, because at that time of night this personage would, of course, be in bed and asleep. Considering these things, he quietly dressed himself, took down a great key from over his sleeping tutor's head, opened the heavy gate, let down the drawbridge, mounted upon his donkey, and rode forth upon the moonlit plain.

That night-ride was a very delightful one, and for a long time the boy and the donkey rambled and ran; first going this way and then that, they gradually climbed the mountain; and, reaching the brow, they trotted about for a while, and then went down the other side. The boy had been so twisted and turned in his course that he did not notice that he was not descending toward his camp, and the donkey, whose instinct told it that it was not going the right way, was also told by its instinct that it did not wish to go the right way, and that the intrenchments offered it no temptations to return. When the morning dawned, Phedo perceived that he was really lost, and he began to be afraid that he might meet the terrible soldier. But, after a time, he saw riding toward him a very pleasant-looking young man on a handsome horse, and he immediately took courage.

“Now,” said he to himself, “I am no longer in danger. If that horrible cut-throat should appear, this good gentleman will protect me.”

Alberdin had not seen any one for a long time, and he was very glad to meet with so nice a little boy. When Phedo told him that he was lost, he invited him to come to his tent, near by, and have breakfast. While they were eating their meal, Alberdin asked the boy if in the course of his rambles he had met with a heavy infantry soldier, probably armed to the teeth, and very large and strong.

“Oh, I've heard of that dreadful man!” cried Phedo, “and I am very glad that I did not meet him. If he comes, I hope you'll protect me from him.”

“I will do that,” said Alberdin; “but I am afraid I shall not be able to help you find your way home, for in doing so I should throw myself off my guard, and might be set upon unexpectedly by this fellow, with whom I have a regular engagement to fight. There is to be a time fixed for the combat, for which I feel myself nearly ready, but I have no doubt that my enemy will be very glad to take me at a disadvantage if I give him a chance.”

Phedo looked about him with an air of content. The tent was large and well furnished; there seemed to be plenty of good things to eat; the handsome horseman was certainly a very good-humored and agreeable gentleman; and, moreover, the tent was not shut in by high and gloomy ramparts.

“I do not think you need trouble yourself,” said he to his host, “to help me to find my way home. I live with my tutor, and I am sure that when he knows I am gone he will begin to search for me, and after awhile he will find me. Until then, I can be very comfortable here.”

For several days the two third cousins of the Autocrat lived together in the tent, and enjoyed each other's society very much. Then Alberdin began to grow a little impatient.

“If I am to fight this heavy infantry man,” he said; “I should like to do it at once. I am now quite ready, and I think he ought to be. I expected to hear from him before this time, and I shall start out and see if I can get any news of his intentions. I don't care about going over the mountain without giving him notice, but the capital city of Mutjado is only a day's ride to the west, and there I can cause inquiries to be made when he would like to meet me, and where.”

“I will go with you,” said Phedo, greatly delighted at the idea of visiting the city.

“Yes, I will take you,” said Alberdin. “Your tutor don't seem inclined to come for you, and, of course, I can't leave you here.”

The next day, Alberdin on his horse, and Phedo on his donkey, set out for the city, where they arrived late in the afternoon. After finding a comfortable lodging, Alberdin sent messengers to the other side of the mountain, where his opponent was supposed to be encamped, and gave them power to arrange with him for a meeting. He particularly urged them to try to see the old man who had come to him at first, and who had seemed to be a very fair-minded and sensible person. In two days, however, the messengers returned, stating that they had found what they supposed to be the intrenched camp of the heavy infantry man they had been sent in search of, but that it was entirely deserted, and nobody could be seen anywhere near it.

“It is very likely,” said Alberdin, “that he has watched my manoeuvres and exercises from the top of the mountain, and has concluded to run away. I shall give him a reasonable time to show himself, and then, if he does not come forward, I will consider him beaten, and claim the Autocracy.”

“That is a good idea,” said Phedo, “but I think, if you can, you ought to find him and kill him, or drive him out of the country. That's what I should do, if I were you.”

“Of course I shall do that, if I can,” said Alberdin; “but I could not be expected to wait for him forever.”

When his intention had been proclaimed, Alberdin was informed of something which he did not know before, and that was that the late Autocrat had left an only daughter, a Princess about twenty years old. But although she was his daughter, she could not inherit his crown, for the laws of the country forbade that any woman should become Autocrat. A happy idea now struck Alberdin.

“I will marry the Princess,” he said, “and then every one will think that it is the most suitable thing for me to become Autocrat.”

So Alberdin sent to the Princess to ask permission to speak with her, and was granted an audience. With much courtesy and politeness he made known his plans to the lady, and hoped that she would consider it advisable to marry him.

“I am sorry to interfere with any of your arrangements,” said the Princess, “but as soon as I heard the terms of my father's will, I made up my mind to marry the victor in the contest. As I cannot inherit the throne myself, the next best thing is to be the wife of the man who does. Go forth, then, and find your antagonist, and when you have conquered him, I will marry you.”

“And if he conquers me, you will marry him?” said Alberdin.

“Yes, sir,” answered the Princess, with a smile, and dismissed him.

It was plain enough that there was nothing for Alberdin to do but to go and look for the heavy infantry man. Phedo was very anxious to accompany him, and the two, mounted as before, set out from the city on their quest.

When old Salim, the tutor of Phedo, awoke in the morning and found the boy gone, he immediately imagined that the youngster had ran away to his old home; so he set forth with all possible speed, hoping to overtake him. But when he reached the distant town where Phedo had lived, he found that the boy had not been there; and after taking some needful rest, he retraced his steps, crossed the mountains, and made his way toward the capital city, hoping to find news of him there. It was necessary for him to be very careful in his inquiries, for he wished no one to find out that the little boy he was looking for was the third cousin of the late Autocrat on the mother's side. He therefore disguised himself as a migratory medical man, and determined to use all possible caution. When he reached the camp of the young horseman, Alberdin, and found that personage gone, his suspicions became excited.

“If these two have run off together,” he said to himself, “my task is indeed difficult. If the man discovers it is the boy he has to fight, my poor Phedo will be cut to pieces in a twinkling. I do not believe there has been any trouble yet, for the boy does not know that he is to be one of the combatants, and the man would not be likely to suspect it. Come what may, the fight must not take place for thirteen years. And in order that I may still better preserve my health and strength to avert the calamity during that period, I will increase my number of chews to forty-two to each mouthful of meat.”

When old Salim reached the city, he soon found that Alberdin and the boy had been there, and that they had gone away together.

“Nothing has happened so far,” said the old man, with a sigh of relief; “and things may turn out all right yet. I'll follow them, but I must first find out what that cavalryman had to say to the Princess.” For he had been told of the interview at the palace.

It was not long before the migratory medical man was brought to the Princess. There was nothing the matter with her, but she liked to meet with persons of skill and learning to hear what they had to say.

“Have you any specialty?” she asked of the old man.

“Yes,” said he, “I am a germ-doctor.”

“What is that?” asked the Princess.

“All diseases,” replied the old man, “come from germs; generally very little ones. My business is to discover these, and find out all about them.”

“Then I suppose,” said the Princess, “you know how to cure the diseases?”

“You must not expect too much,” answered the old man. “It ought to be a great satisfaction to us to know what sort of germ is at the bottom of our woes.”

“I am very well, myself,” said the Princess, “and, so far as I know, none of my household are troubled by germs. But there is something the matter with my mind which I wish you could relieve.” She then told the old man how she had determined to marry the victor in the contest for her father's throne, and how she had seen one for the claimants whom she considered to be a very agreeable and deserving young man; while the other, she had heard, was a great, strong foot soldier, who was probably very disagreeable, and even horrid. If this one should prove the conqueror, she did not know what she should do. “You see, I am in a great deal of trouble,” said she. “Can you do any thing to help me?”

The pretending migratory medical man looked at her attentively for a few moments, and then he said:

“The reason why you intend to marry the victor in the coming contest, is that you wish to remain here in your father's palace, and to continue to enjoy the comforts and advantages to which you have been accustomed.”

“Yes,” said the Princess; “that is it.”

“Well, having discovered the germ of your disorder,” said the old man, “the great point is gained. I will see what I can do.”

And with a respectful bow he left her presence.

“Well,” said old Salim to himself, as he went away, “she can never marry my boy, for that is certainly out of the question; but now that I have found out her motive, I think I can arrange matters satisfactorily, so far as she is concerned. But to settle the affair between that young man and Phedo is immensely more difficult. The first thing is to find them.”

Having learned the way they had gone, the old tutor travelled diligently, and in two days came up with Alberdin and Phedo. When he first caught sight of them, he was very much surprised to see that they were resting upon the ground quite a long distance apart, with a little stream between them. Noticing that Alberdin's back was toward him, he threw off his disguise and hastened to Phedo. The boy received him with the greatest delight, and, after many embraces, they sat down to talk. Phedo told the old man all that had happened, and finished by relating that, as they had that day stopped by this stream to rest, Alberdin had taken it into his head to inquire into the parentage of his young companion; and after many questions about his family, it had been made clear to both of them that they were the two third cousins who were to fight for the Autocracy of Mutjado.

“He is very angry,” said the boy, “at the tricks that have been played upon him, and went off and left me. Is it true that I am to fight him? I don't want to do it, for I like him very much.”

“It will be a long time before you are old enough to fight,” said Salim; “so we need not consider that. You stay here, and I'll go over and talk to him.”

Salim then crossed the stream, and approached Alberdin. When the young man saw him, and recognized him as the person who had arranged the two encampments, he turned upon him with fury.

“Wretched old man, who came to me as the emissary of my antagonist, you are but the tutor of that boy! If I had known the truth at first, I would have met him instantly; would have conquered him without hurting a hair on his head; and carrying him bound to the capital city, would have claimed the Autocracy, and would now have been sitting upon the throne. Instead of that, look at the delay and annoyance to which I have been subjected. I have also taken such a fancy to the boy that rather than hurt him or injure his prospects, I would willingly resign my pretensions to the throne, and go back contentedly to my own city. But this cannot now be done. I have fallen in love with the daughter of the late Autocrat, and she will marry none but the victorious claimant. Behold to what a condition you have brought me!”

The old man regarded him with attention.

“I wish very much,” said he, “to defer the settlement of this matter for thirteen years. Are you willing to wait so long?”

“No, I am not,” said Alberdin.

“Very well, then,” said the old man, “each third cousin must retire to his camp, and as soon as matters can be arranged the battle must take place.”

“There is nothing else to be done,” said Alberdin in a troubled voice; “but I shall take care that the boy receives no injury if it can possibly be avoided.”

The three now retraced their steps, and in a few days were settled down, Alberdin in his tent in the plain, and Salim and Phedo in their intrenchments on the other side of the low mountain. The old man now gave himself up to deep thought. He had discovered the germ of Alberdin's trouble; and in a few days he had arranged his plans, and went over to see the young man.

“It has been determined,” said he, “that a syndicate is to be formed to attend to this business for Phedo.”

“A syndicate!” cried Alberdin. “What is that?”

“A syndic,” answered Salim, “is a person who attends to business for others; and a syndicate is a body of men who are able to conduct certain affairs better than any individual can do it. In a week from to-day, Phedo's syndicate will meet you in the large plain outside of the capital city. There the contest will take place. Shall you be ready?”

“I don't exactly understand it,” said Alberdin, “but I shall be there.”

General notice was given of the coming battle of the contestants for the throne, and thousands of the inhabitants of the Autocracy assembled on the plain on the appointed day. The Princess with her ladies was there; and as everybody was interested, everybody was anxious to see what would happen.

Alberdin rode into the open space in the centre of the plain, and demanded that his antagonist should appear. Thereupon old Salim came forward, leading Phedo by the hand.

“This is the opposing heir,” he said; “but as every one can see that he is too young to fight a battle, a syndicate has been appointed to attend to the matter for him; and there is nothing in the will of the late Autocrat which forbids this arrangement. The syndicate will now appear.”

At this command there came into the arena a horseman heavily armed, a tall foot soldier completely equipped for action, an artilleryman with a small cannon on wheels, a sailor with a boarding-pike and a drawn cutlass, and a soldier with a revolving gun which discharged one hundred and twenty balls a minute.

“All being ready,” exclaimed Salim, “the combat for the Autocracy will begin!”

Alberdin took a good long look at the syndicate ranged before him. Then he dismounted from his horse, drew his sword, and stuck it, point downward, into the sand.

“I surrender!” he said.

“So do I!” cried the Princess, running toward him, and throwing herself into his arms.

The eyes of Alberdin sparkled with joy.

“Let the Autocracy go!” he cried. “Now that I have my Princess, the throne and the crown are nothing to me.”

“So long as I have you,” returned the Princess, “I am content to resign all the comforts and advantages to which I have been accustomed.”

Phedo, who had been earnestly talking with his tutor, now looked up.

“You shall not resign any thing!” he cried. “We are all of the same blood, and we will join together and form a royal family, and we will all live at the palace. Alberdin and my tutor shall manage the government for me until I am grown up; and if I have to go to school for a few years, I suppose I must. And that is all there is about it!”

The syndicate was now ordered to retire and disband; the heralds proclaimed Phedo the conquering heir, and the people cheered and shouted with delight. All the virtues of the late Autocrat had come to him from his mother, and the citizens of Mutjado much preferred to have a new ruler from the mother's family.

“I hope you bear no grudge against me,” said Salim to Alberdin; “but if you had been willing to wait for thirteen years, you and Phedo might have fought on equal terms. As it is now, it would have been as hard for him to conquer you, as for you to conquer the syndicate. The odds would have been quite as great.”

“Don't mention it,” said Alberdin. “I prefer things as they are. I should have hated to drive the boy away, and deprive him of a position which the people wish him to have. Now we are all satisfied.”

Phedo soon began to show signs that he would probably make a very good Autocrat. He declared that if he was to be assisted by ministers and cabinet officers when he came to the throne, he would like them to be persons who had been educated for their positions, just as he was to be educated for his own. Consequently he chose for the head of his cabinet a bright and sensible boy, and had him educated as a Minister of State. For Minister of Finance, he chose another boy with a very honest countenance, and for the other members of his cabinet, suitable youths were selected. He also said, that he thought there ought to be another officer, one who would be a sort of Minister of General Comfort, who would keep an eye on the health and happiness of the subjects, and would also see that every thing went all right in the palace, not only in regard to meals, but lots of other things. For this office he chose a bright young girl, and had her educated for the position of Queen.

 
 
 

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