"He was a boy of about twelve years old, his name was Marco Loristan and he was the kind of boy people look at a second time when they have looked at him once.......he was thinking of the long, hurried journey he and his father and their old soldier servant, Lazarus, had made during the last few days, the journey from Russia. Cramped in a close third class railway carriage, they had dashed across the Continent as if something important or terrible were driving them...."
This is the opening chapter of The Lost Prince, one of Frances Hodgson Burnett's stories for children which seems to lack the popularity of The Secret Garden or a Little Princess, and yet I simply love it and wish it were better known. As with all good book discoveries, I stumbled across this by accident in a bookshop some thirty years ago when I found a battered paperback and bought it for the princely sum of 6d, if I remember rightly.
Frances Hodgson Burnett had to work hard all her life, supporting her husband, family, friends and hangers-on and wrote furiously with no respite until she brought herself to the verge of a nervous breakdown (Lucy Maud Montgomery, also the family's main breadwinner, suffered a similar fate) and when reading her books, the plethora of missing heirs, Cinderella transformations, happy endings that are the outcome in most of her books (not all, Through one Administration has a rather downbeat ending), one cannot help but feel that in writing these stories, the romantic side of Frances is allowed full rein. Just imagine being surrounded by financial worries, indigenous relatives, and being able to lose oneself in such a glorious flight of fancy as in the Lost Prince.
Marco, his father and Lazarus are refugees from Samavia, a tiny kingdom somewhere in Europe, a formerly happy country which has been riven by factions for hundreds of years. The king assassinated and his son murdered, the Iarovitch and the Maranovitch parties fight and squabble for power and the country is brought to its knees. But there is a legend that the heir to the throne, Prince Ivor, was discovered left for dead and spirited away and grew up, married and produced his own son and the line has remained unbroken. A secret party has spent all this time waiting and preparing for the day the true King can be restored to the throne and as this story opens, the situation in Samavia is worsening and European leaders are beginning to believe that it is time to intervene and restore order.
Part of Marco's training from his father is that he explores and gets to know the place where he happens to be living at that time, so one day he sets off on one of his rambles through London and in a dark, dirty little square he finds Jem Ratacliffe, nicknamed the Rat, as he is suffering from some unspecified disease (probably Rickets) which means he spends his time on a little wheeled platform, scurrying backwards and forwards. He has a troop of young street boys who he has trained as a squad and he is obsessed with Samavia and the fighting, as he has little else in his poverty stricken life. He and Marco become friends, each of them lonely and yearning for companionship and when the Rat's drunken father dies, he is taken in by Stefan, Marco's father, and becomes a fierce and loyal supporter.
To while away the time they are together they concoct The Game. Supposing the time came for the uprising, but the Secret Party needed to be told, two boys drifting across Europe, one of them a cripple, would not be noticed. This plan is discussed with Stefan and Lazarus and as the weeks tg by they are drilled and practiced until they know the names, places and faces of all the contacts who are friendly to Samavia. The one night:
"Loristan put his arm round his shoulders. 'The Game is about to give you work - both of you - in two days time you will be in Paris as you' he turned to the Rat' planned in the game' ....when the train which was to meet the boat that crossed from Dover to Calais steamed out of Charing Cross Station, it carried in a third class carriage two shabby boys....there was nothing remarkable or picturesque enough about them to attract attention. They sat in the corner of the carriage and neither talked much ... when they were on board the steamer, they were soon lost among the commoner passengers and found for themselves a secluded place which was not wanted by anyone else"
So the dangerous journey begins and they journey from Paris to Munich to Vienna and then across the border into Samavia and there meet the Secret Party and are taken to their undergrounds caves and headquarters.
"Son of Stefan Loristan" said the old man in a shaken voice.... every man in the room fell to his knees"
The Rat notes the way Marco is treated and viewed by the people who they meet and he, as with the reader, can easily guess his true identity, but this is kept back until the uplifting happy ending when Marco goes to meet the King, after his coronation "he could picture it now - the shattered, roofless cathedral, the ruins of the ancient and magnificent high altar, the multitude of kneeling, famine scourged people, the battle-worn and bandaged soldiery". He is taken to the palace, through the corridors and "he realised vaguely that the King himself was standing waiting his approach - he drew himself together and lifted his eyes and knelt and kissed the hands held out to him -kissed them both with a passion of boy love and worship"
Now, I am sorry who can resist this? It is Anthony Hope, the Prisoner of Zenda, Ruritania, Rupert of Hentzau, Rudolf Rassendyl all thrown together in one gloriously romantic farrago, which is sheer escapsim and fun, but in the middle of all this is the real story - the story of a friendship between two lonely boys.
Lost count of the number of times I have read the Lost Prince, but yesterday afternoon found me on the sofa and not moving until I read this once more and let this marvellous story beguile me all over again.
Do try it...