The big news about Prince Charles on his 32nd birthday yesterday was that there was no news about his marriage plans and the prince outran everyone in a careening car chase through the Northeast England countryside.
Television, radio, the tabloids, the wire services, gossips from Fleet Street to foreign embassies -- all were waiting expectantly. Would the prince of Wales, heir to the throne of the Court of St. James, the most eligible bachelor of the realm, fulfill widespread rumor and a crescendo of press speculation by announcing yesterday the name of his intended and future queen?
Welsh pensioner Bob Leishman had put it to the prince point-blank Wednesday on Charles' royal tour of the University of Aberystwyth in Wales where he studied the Welsh language years ago to prepare for his investiture.
"When are you going to get engaged?" asked the 68-year-old Leishman, with a Welshman's directness that Fleet Street reporters seem to lack in the prince's presence.
"You will have to wait and see," said Prince Charles with a laugh.
The nation waited.But there was nothing of the prince to see yesterday. He spent his 32nd birthday being pursued by the press before spending the next six hours as the pursuer, this time on horseback hunting foxes in rainy Leicestershire.
Equally elusive was Lady Diana Spencer, 19-year-old daughter of the Earl of Spencer and the latest focus of speculation about the prince's love life. She has been seen everywhere with Charles in recent months, supplanting a legion of supposed previous girlfriends.
She has been seen watching him play polo, greeting him at the end of horse races in which he has ridden as a capable gentlemen amateur jockey, accompanying him on hunts, being escorted by him to intimate dinner parties and quiet country house weekends, and even being shown around by the prince at historic Highgrove House, his own recently purchased country home.
So this week, the tabloid Sun, Briain's largest circulation newspaper, reported under a bold front-page headline that "the queen has given her blessing to the romance between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. hFriends of the couple predicted [Thursday] night that the prince may celebrate his 32nd birthday on Friday by making an announcement about his future."
Fleet Street's top-dog gossip columnist, Nigel Dempster of the Daily Mail, immediately branded the story as "fiction" and unsuccessfully sought to bet Sun editor Larry Lamb $10,000 that there would be no announcement from Prince Charles yesterday.
But the floodgates had been opened. More than 50 newsmen laid seige yesterday morning to the London apartment building near Harrod's department store in fashionable Knightsbridge where Lady Diana, a kindergarten teacher, lives with several other young women.
Reporters and photographers had already hounded her all day Thursday, confronting her as she left her apartment and following her on a shopping trip through Harrod's. The slight, shy young woman allowed them a smile while maintaining the discreet silence about Prince Charles that court-watchers contend is mandatory for anyone who wants to remain his friend.
But yesterday morning, Lady Diana outsmarted the press by beating reporters and photographers out of her front door. A building porter said she went out to buy newspapers shortly after 6 a.m. A roommate said she then left around 7, long before the most energetic Fleet Street bloodhound would be on the trail.
The new speculation is that she went to country for the weekend, perhaps to rendezyous with Prince Charles, who was expected to have birthday dinner with his parents, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, and then a small party at Wood Farm on the royal family's Sandringham estate in Norfolk.
The prince himself also outfoxed a large posse of newsmen tracking him through four counties of Northeastern England today. At the wheel of his 10-year-old Aston Martin, he sped past motorized newsmen waiting at the gates of Wood Farm this morning.
They gave pursuit, but the prince and his bodyguard, with escorting police close behind in a Land Rover, outdistanced all but one group of newsmen in a speeding Jaguar. When it pulled nearly abreast of the royal sports car, it was pulled over by police who detained and questioned the occupants.
Newsmen scouring the wet and windy autumn countryside next caught up with the prince at the end of his fox hunt. Dressed in a blue riding jacket with a scarlet velvet collar, he smilingly told reporters, "I've had a good day. It's shaken up my liver."
Then he disappeared again. And, as everyone was later told by the media, there was no sign of Lady Diana.
If Britain's royalty-obsessed media are any guide, the country is strongly pulling for Prince Charles to tie the knot with Lady Diana. He himself once rashly promised to be married by the time he was 30, and newspaper columnists have been worrying out loud ever since that time that suitable partners may be running out.
Lady Diana is depicted as properly blue-blooded, attractive and sensible -- more down-to-earth if less glamorous than onetime royal girlfriend Sabrina Guinness, better able to handle the crush of the media than another attractive aristocrat, Lady Jane Wellesley, safely protestant rather than perhaps unconstitutionally Catholic like Princess Marie-Astrid of Luxembourg, and more discreet than Lady Diana's own sister and former friend of Prince Charles, Lady Sarah Spencer.
The Sun has noted that "since 1972 Prince Charles has taken at least 10 girls home 'to meet mother.'" The Earl of Spencer's daughters, in particular, according to the Sun, have "been groomed from childhood to join the Balmoral set." Lady Diana, in fact, was a childhood playmate of Charles' younger brother, Prince Andrew, now a naval officer and the second most eligible bachelor in the realm.
Without a royal engagement announcement, the Fleet Street press had to content itself today with interviewing commoners who shared the prince's birth date (an entire page in the Sun) or revealing what hundreds of Britons responding to a newspaper's invitation believed the prince should receive as a birthday present (nearly) two pages in the rival Daily Mirror).
Prince Charles himself granted BBC radio a birthday interview which did not touch on the subject of women but did talk engagingly about princely life: writing speeches "is a major sweat." Boarding school often meant living in "appalling conditions." Meeting people means going through "a certain amount of anxiety or nervousness to start with. After 20 minutes or so people are beginning to relax and maybe beginning to realize that you are vaguely human, that you actually talk reasonably and you are not totally from another world."
Prince Charles has sought through the years to be taken seriously on one of his major interests: how Britain must cope with its international decline and get itself working again. He crusades in his public speeches for improved productivity, better adaptability to technological change, more eager salesmanship and more professional and harmonious management-labor relationships.
But for the times when he jabs a little too hard at the soft English belly and "everyone will jump on you," he most often appears in front-page headlines as the unwilling object of a nation of mother hens' desire that he start settling down with a nice girl. Apparently, Britain will just have to wait and see.