Once upon a time

To see him cross the carpet toward you is to see a dark-suited, dark-haired, pleasant young man who could be just another international businessman or financier -- except that he isn't.

You feel you know him because you have seen his photograph so often. You are surprised because he is slimmer, younger, and more reserved than you expected. LAter you discover a quick sense of humor kept sheathed, for the most part, in the wariness of a man who constantly meets strangers whom he knows hang on his slightest word or gesture.

He turns out be likeable, well-intentioned, sheltered, inquisitive, athletic, serious, intelligent, old-fashioned, proud, and romantic.

But at first it's hard to tell. That's not his fault, it is yours. He is uniquely royal, in a world where royalty tends to appeal in part because it is anachronistic, a breath of the past little heeded by too many. You react to him in strange, intangible ways.

If, like me, you were raised in a Commonwealth country where his life was part of yours, which marked his anniversaries, which acknowledges his mother as head of the Commonwealth, then you study him minutely for what he tells you about the land of your ancestors and the qualities that fashioned its history and its individuality. There's much to see.

If, like an American colleague of mine, you are in his presence for the first time, you react in other ways. The morning of a dinner American correspondents had with him recently, my colleague walked into the office we share, a new man. He had had his hair cut. He had bought a brand new dark blue overcoat, with splendid lapels. When he reluctantly removed it, he had on a dark suit.

For a man who normally describes himself as looking like an unmade bed, the transformation was astonishing.

"Well, it just seemed the right time," he muttered, not bothering to deny that the prospect of dinner with His Royal Highness Prince charles Philip Arthur George, Knight of the Garter, Knight Grand Cross of the Bath, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall and Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, and Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland, had affected him more than he himself had suspected.

Charles is, after all, an institution, heir to massive wealth and the most popular monarchy in the world.

He is also unique because of the huge differences between him and all the other princes of Wales. He retains their magic, the kind of gush that prompted the popular song of 1928 by Herbert Farjeon and Harold Scott, written for Prince Edward, who later became Edward VIII and abdicated:

"I've danced with a man who 's danced with a girl

"Who's danced with the Prince of Wales!"

But he is far more familiar with the outside world than Edward, or George V when he was prince, or Victoria's son Albert Edward before him, who waited decade after decade before becoming Edward VII.

He is the first Prince of Wales to be educated at a regular school. He is first to have won a university degree; certainly the first to have ridden steeplechases; jumped from a plane; swum in a frogman's suit; flow helicopters, jets, and propeller aircraft.

To sit with him is to be struck, however, with his inevitable remoteness from the everyday world the rest of us know. After all, as biographer Anthony Holden has written:

"He has spent most of his life in the company of older people. . . .Government departments look after various aspects of his business and pay people to tidy up after him. On his birthday flags fly, guns sound, and judges don their scarlet robes; all red lights turn green for him.

"He will never have to queue, do his own washing up, service his own car, clean up after his own polo ponies, worry about losing his job, change his children's diapers, or fret about their education.

"He does not handle money, nor, with an unearned income of some L125,000 [$ 250,000] a year after tax, have much to worry about it. He is landlord of a 130 ,000 acre property company, and heir to one of the greatest private fortunes in the world."

He does worry, however, about what he sees as a need to excel at whatever he does. He jumped from airplanes because he was made colonel in chief of a parachute regiment and had a horror of wearing the uniform only because he was Prince of Wales.

He jumps in steeplechases, and has toned down his eight to 154 pounds by rigorous exercise and diet so that he can ride his horses -- because he loves it , and because he desperately wants to justify himself.

"You see, I have this awful thing of wanting to do things well," he told racing correspondent Brough Scott earlier this year. He showed his intensity, his seriousness of purpose, his sense of self-discipline, by telling Mr. Scott he had lost his nerve for riding when he was 14, so he forced himself to go hunting on a horse chosen by his sister Anne.

He peppers the people he meets with questions and constantly regrets that it takes him 15 minutes or so to cut through the stammering awe so many are reduced to when they shake his hand.

He is no intellectual. He freely admits to not reading many books these days. But he is a far cry from the bored son of Victoria, Albert Edward, or the emotional, rebellious Edward who was a smashing success as Prince of Wales but who caused a tumult by giving up his throne for divorcee Wallis Simpson, "the woman I love."

Charles is dedicated, hard-working, and now is to be a settled, married man. In time, his subjects fervently hope he will also be a father, thus securing the throne for his children and the nation.

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