Friday, August 17, 2007
Chapter 5: Two Old Men and a Sitting Room
The Prince's Tale of Buckets
The Vicar's wife stood, causing her two companions to stand also, then spoke with a gentle smile and a familiar twinkle in her eye. "Vicar, Prince, I can tell when two old men are just getting warmed up to converse late into the night. I know it would be fascinating to stay, but this Friday morning came very early. I will have my son walk me home across the road. Good night." She kissed her husband, offered the Prince her hand, and excused herself.
"Truly, Vicar, our wives might have been sisters," said the Prince of Vilka as he and the Vicar returned to their comfortable sofas. "The same wit, the same smile, the same mischievous twinkle."
"The same liberties, the same ironic disregard for the solemnity of such respectable personages as ourselves," added the Vicar of Vilka with a twinkle of his own.
"Indeed. Now would you care to hear a true tale of my own on a related theme?"
"I should be delighted," the Vicar replied, still basking somewhat in the glow of his own tale well told.
"Very well. I suppose I have mentioned once or twice that I used to be a member of the Vilkan Fire Brigade."
"I believe you have, yes."
"At that time, each brigadier was young and strong, capable of wielding a very large bucket with relative ease. Accordingly, most buildings in Vilka kept two sizes of fire buckets ready: small ones which anyone could carry, and very large ones for the brigade's use. Often we could extinguish a fire quickly with just a few large buckets of water, instead of fighting it a great deal longer with smaller buckets. We were quite efficient and exceedingly proud of ourselves.
"While I was on the brigade, the Prince shepherded through the Council of Several a regulation requiring would-be brigadiers to pass a test of physical strength, so that it was certain they could manage the large buckets. Every two years each brigadier would have to pass the same test again or be dismissed from the fire brigade. It seemed a wise thing.
"Just after this law was inscribed in the books -- and this, perhaps, suggests the Prince's motive in imposing the regulation -- a council of princes from many cities was held in the City by the Lake. On their way home, several princes, traveling together, stopped in Vilka to dine with our Prince.
"It is said that our Prince was boasting to the other princes over dessert that he himself served on the brigade, and was extolling Vilka's advanced thinking on the subject of firefighting, when the fire bell rang. A small fire had broken out at a nearby school building. Our Prince persuaded his fellows to join him in running to the adjacent fire hall. There he told the fire brigade that the princes would respond to the alarm, and that they needed no help from the regular brigadiers. Some of the regulars attempted to accompany the princes to the fire, but our Prince ordered them away.
"When the princes arrived at the burning school, all the small buckets were missing from their barrels. Too late they were found in a large sandbox, where some children had been building a sand castle. The school burned to the ground, because no prince could lift a large bucket, and there was no one to fight the fire but princes."
"I would like to assume that the Prince and the Council of Several quietly abolished the strength test shortly thereafter," offered the Vicar, "so that the Prince could remain on the Fire Brigade, but I fear I am not so naive."
"No, indeed, my friend," replied the Prince. "They made the test much easier, so the Prince could pass it. At the same time they made it unlawful for those very large buckets to be used for firefighting anywhere in the City. On the Prince's order, the Constable and his deputies collected all of them and destroyed them.
"This left the City's buildings unnecessarily vulnerable to fire, and threatened the brigadiers' safety as well. The brigade's efficiency plummeted, and morale with it. The best and strongest men left the brigade, and the Prince appointed his personal favorites to fill the vacancies."
"This was years before your arrival, Vicar, so you have never seen the large buckets. I would love to return to them. I think it would be good for the City, and the fire brigade is safer with them -- or they would be if any of the present brigadiers could carry them. Alas, their commander has threatened to resign very noisily if I so much as propose even slightly larger buckets."
"Prince, forgive me, but I must interrupt," intoned the Vicar, with exaggerated solemnity. "You have violated most grievously the essential principles of after-dinner storytelling."
"I beg forgiveness," said the Prince. "How did I do that?"
"You have spoken of current City business, when what we are supposed to be about is the telling and hearing of stories to divert us from our present burdens and to aid our digestion. But I must say you make a good point."
"That some princes are incompetent?"
"That is certainly true, but there is a more profound point to your story."
"Pray, tell me what it is," said the Prince, "if that, too, does not violate the spirit of after-dinner banter. All I see is an obstructionist defending an irrational idea."
"Ah, yes. That is the point, in a sense. If you merely consider the fact that large buckets are better for fighting fires, and that the City has prohibited them, irrational is precisely the right word. But if you consider the matter as involving not a question of effective firefighting, but the questions of how best to bind up the severe wounds a prince's pride suffered when he and his peers were helpless to lift their buckets, and how a prince might best lash out in response to those wounds, the otherwise irrational regulation makes perfect sense."
"Vicar, you are either the wisest man I know or by far the most cynical. I'm not sure which."
"I suspect the latter, since I know myself to be a cynic. But do you think it might be possible to be both a little wise and a little cynical?" asked the Vicar.
"I suppose the evidence is before me that wisdom and a rather jaded view of humanity might coexist," the Prince mused. "Regrettably, the evidence is also before me that I must soon depart, if I wish to be home before dark."
"Or you might stay longer and be taken home in our carriage," the Vicar invited.
"Vicar, you are too kind. But it is a lovely evening for a walk, and --"
There was a loud, anxious knocking at the front door.
"I wonder who that may be," murmurred the Vicar. "Please excuse me for a moment, Prince. I believe my son is still with his mother, and his bride has already retired. I am left to answer the door."
The Prince heard the door open and a woman begin to speak to the Vicar, loudly enough that the Prince could hear, and quickly enough to suggest that the matter was of some urgency.
"Oh, Vicar," she wailed. "A dreadful thing is happening. I apologize most profusely for interrupting your evening, but I was certain that this cannot wait. No, it must not wait. I hardly know what we shall do, but we must do something immediately!"
Two sets of footsteps approached the sitting room.
"I'm very sorry to disturb you at this hour, Vicar, and when you are yourself a guest in your son's home. I really feel quite embarrassed, but this is a matter of such urgency that --" She stopped when she saw the Prince stand, nodded respectfully to him, and turned back to the Vicar, who was following her into the room. "I am trebly embarrassed, Vicar, for I see you have an honored guest."
"Prince," said the Vicar, "I'm sure you know the president of our church ladies' auxiliary."
"Indeed I do," said the Prince. "Your servant, madam." He made a small bow.
"Won't you sit down, Sister, and tell me what the trouble is?" said the Vicar.
"If you will excuse me, Vicar, madam, I was just leaving. I will grant you your privacy," said the Prince.
The Vicar put a hand gently on the Prince's arm to detain him. "Sister, is this trouble of a personal, spiritual nature?"
She blushed. "No, indeed, I should be happy for the Prince to listen, too, if it would not inconvenience him."
The Prince nodded, and they sat.
"Now, Sister, what is the trouble?" asked the Vicar softly.
"Vicar, Prince, I will tell you as concisely as I am able, since I am certain that you will want to do something urgently." She paused and looked at each in turn.
"Excellent," said the Vicar. "Pray continue."
To be continued.
Copyright 2007 by David Rodeback.