London — The slim, almost boyish figure of the next King of England moved across the thick carpet of the elegant Brown's Hotel off Piccadilly. He signed the hotel register as flashbulbs popped.
En route back to his enormous black Rolls Royce at the front door, its royal insignia attracting a small crowd, he suddenly stopped. He had spotted two young women in their 20s working on a guest register in a distant corner of the hotel lobby.
"What are you doing?" he inquired politely in his deep, aristocratic tones.
The receptionists looked up -- and the expression on their faces told a good deal about the role of the monarcy in Britain today, on the eve of the future King's wedding to Lady Diana Spencer in St. Paul's Cathedral July 29.
Their jaws fell. Their eyes widened. They were speechless. "the guest register, is it?" asked the immaculately groomed Prince Charles, well-accustomed to the impact his presence has on people.
One of them recovered and blurted out, "Yes." The other just stared, thunderstruck. "Well, I hope they pay you well for working so late." A royal smile, and the handsome Prince was on his way.
"He knows how to do his job," said one observer. I stayed behind to glance at the young women. Their faces were buried in their hands in pleasure and shock. They would not forget that night. Royalty had struck again, transforming a humdrum working night into a moment of awe and romance.
The British monarchy remains one of the most entrenched and popular in the world today. A London Times poll in 1980 found that 86 percent of Britons wanted to retain it -- compared to only 50 percent after Edward VIII abdicated in 1936.
Much of the monarchy's appeal here lies in the strength of character of the monarchs themselves; the way they have been above and beyond politics since the end of the 17th century, the anitiquity of the throne. The throne symbolizes both continuity and unity for Britain and a link to the Commonwealth, as well.
"We've been very lucky, really, in the monarchs we have had in recent history ," said Patrick Montague-Smith, the man who edited Debrett's Peerge from 1962 to 1981.
"Except for the Duke of Windsor [Edward VIII] they've been conscientious and reliable. Very suitable. It would be very difficult for the country if they were not."
The current wave of popular affection dates from Queen Victoria and has continued through Edward VII, George V, George VI, and Elizabeth II. Each has had a high-minded and religious sense of their roles as monarch, as head of the Church of England, as symbol of the nation, as adviser to prime ministers.
Each has personified to a fast-changing country the basic qualities of religious devotion and conscientious family life. The monarchy's biggest crisis this century came when Edward VIII abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Since then, under George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, the stature of the monarchy has grown steadily.
There is not much republican sentiment in Britain, even though it is mainly those older and younger than the Prince who care most about the crown. He seems to appeal less to his own generation than to others.
"Aren't they lovely?" cooed a young salesgirl as she gazed at a portrait of Charles and Lady Diana. "They keep the country together, the royals do," commented a middle-Aged man. "They have style," said a Surrey housewife.
"They are boring," said a London businessman, "but they are good for the country. They bring in tourists. They give us a good image abroad. They are, well, they are Britain."
Willie Hamilton, Labour member of Parliament for Fife Central, is one of the few who disagree. He thinks the civil list funds voted to the crown each year (L4.2 million [8.4 million] for 1980-81) are wasted. (Charles himself gets no government money. He derives his own huge income of some L500,000 [$1 million] a year from vast landholdings owned in his capacity as Duke of Cornwall.) Mr. Hamilton calls the civil list unjust and unfair when other Britons suffer hardship.
But sympathy for the Queen and her family runs deep. Besides, as Geoffrey Finsberg, parliamentary undersecretary of state, said in rebuke to Mr. Hamilton, the royal wedding, "far from being a waste of public money, will bring substantial commercial benefits to the country as a whole."
"Willie Hamilton is not really a leftist," Mr. Montague- Smith observed. "More an eccentric. The monarchy, in fact, has gained in popularity as politics and politicians have waned.
"The wedding itself is significant for the royal family. It is important for the Prince to secure the future, to have a child to become heir in his or her turn."
The monarchy has also tried to move with the times, despite a certain amount of muted criticism here that Charles as Prince of Wales could find a more focused and socially useful set of activities than the undeniably attractive ambassadorial travels and ceremonies that now take up his time.
Charles has told friends he must stay out of politics because the monarchy works only if it stays above the fray. There remains at least some opinion here that he may have to change his mind as britain continues to change.
There is some worry that he might grow bored or weary in the years ahead, as Queen Victoria's son Albert Edward and George V's son Edward did during their long years of waiting to become Edward VII and Edward VIII, respectively.
Charles is better educated and more worldly wise than either Albert or edward before him. He is known to believe his mother will not abdicate, a view Montague-Smith shares:
"I don't think the Queen will ever abdicate. She indicated as much at her Silver Jubilee in 1978. As she gets older, Charles can perform more and more duties and make world trips for her. In a way there's more glamour to an active , attractive Prince of Wales than to a King. Charles will be kept busy, and he shows every sign of remaining extremely popular, as he is today."