How Is the Empire?

by Grove Koger


Monday, 20 January 1936 was the last day of the King's life. That morning the Archbishop said some simple prayers with him, laid his hands on his sovereign's head and blessed him. Then, in a lucid moment, the King sent for his private secretary. Wigram found him with The Times, open at the imperial and foreign page. It was some paragraph which had caught his eye, Wigram thought, that prompted the celebrated inquiry, “How is the Empire?” The King made a brave attempt to discuss business, then his mind faded. “I feel very tired,” he said. — Kenneth Rose, King George V

Sunday, 19 January

Rain all day.

It has been a most disquieting case.

I have been treating George Saxe for some time, and for the past two months his illness has involved the delusion that he is a king or, rather, “the King.” One of the Georges, of course. His family have found it easiest to humour him, and in any case they seem to have had no choice.

There he has lain in his wretched flat, attended by a long-suffering “Queen” and several “Princes” and “Princesses,” not to mention the “Privy Counsellors” whom only he can see, lording it over an empire that apparently stretches, as ours once did, around the world.

It is a glorious creation, I can tell, and its magnificence has given him, if not those around him, considerable happiness. Who would have cared to force the truth upon him? In what we are pleased to call “real life” he was a shoemaker, and like everyone else, had been ruined by the occupation.

Yet I, for one, found his delusion particularly painful, as my father attended a rather different monarch for a short time during his exile in the Marianen. Somewhere I still have a framed copy of the letter he sent The Times describing his experiences. “Our Last King,” the editor had called it, earning himself and his correspondent a decade in a German dungeon courtesy of the Kaiser. Well, I could tell them something now.

Monday, 20 January

Rain and sleet.

The crisis had been approaching for several days, and yesterday morning the family had the padre in for a few moments. Some time later George moved his hands up and down as if he were shuffling papers and said, quite clearly, “How is the Empire?” He seemed to receive a positive response from God knows where, nodded slightly, opened his mouth as if to speak again, smiled, and closed his eyes. Then: “I feel very tired.” Indeed.

Shortly after noon came another episode. “Approved,” he said in a faint voice. “Approved.” Then in the same voice, “Gentlemen, I am so sorry to keep you waiting like this. I am unable to concentrate.” Speaking to his “Counsellors,” I suppose. His signs then ebbed to their weakest yet, but his jaw was clenched. A little later I informed George's wife that his life was moving peacefully toward its close. Not the entire truth...

I had a few other patients to see — most equally hopeless — and eventually retired to my flat for a meal and a few hours of rest.

My baker has closed shop without warning, and I must find another source of bread tomorrow.

Tuesday, 21 January

Rain and sleet.

I set out last night for what I expected would be my last visit. Once I would have heard the reassuring bustle of shipping on the Thames, but the night was as silent as it was dank. A Polizist approached to question me, but I pretended not to understand his Bavarian accent, so he let me go after allowing me to become thoroughly chilled.

George appeared to be in even greater pain. I asked the family to leave the room and, in order to ease the wretched man's condition, injected tiny amounts of morphine and cocaine, at which he jerked very slightly. I could ill afford the loss of the drugs, as I had been saving them for myself, but I felt that it was my duty. When the patient opened his mouth, I bent down for what might well be his last words, and heard the hoarse whisper, “God damn you.” Perhaps so.

George died quietly, a few moments before midnight, surrounded by his Queen and his Issue.

As I made my way through the ruined streets, I returned to a thought that has occupied me for some time: Are not the insane happier than the rest of us? George attained the height of creation. He died under the delusion that he was a monarch ruling over a great and resplendent empire. He was loath to quit that empire, yes, but it gave him some degree of solace. For the rest of us, there is no solace. To be alive — and sane — in this mean, shabby little island, crushed as we are under the German boot, is a curse.

I am deathly tired and cold, for there is little coal these days, but I am afraid to fall asleep. I am reluctant to admit the possibility, even to myself, but — What if I dream that I am King?


Copyright © 2009 by Grove Koger

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