HERE COMES WILLS

HIS MISFIT PARENTS HAVE FINISHED THEIR BUSINESS WITH EACH OTHER. ATTENTION NOW TURNS TO THE PROMISE OF THE NEXT GENERATION, AND THE FUTURE KING WILLIAM V

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Sports are important and encrusted in custom, a different color jersey for each one. In the summer term a student is either a "wet bob" (a rower) or a "dry bob" (a cricketer). Some sports are unique to the school, like the Wall Game, in which it is virtually impossible to score because the players are huddled in a permanent, muddy scrum against the wall. The last goal was recorded in 1909. Uniforms are complicated. There are variations on the famous black swallowtail coat. Seniors who belong to Pop, an elite self-elected group of academic and sport leaders, have their own version. So do "tugs," the academic upper crust.

Watkins thinks the school is just the place for Wills. "Eton is extraordinarily well suited for a boy like him — for dealing with someone who has a public future. He must make his name within the school. He can't flex his money. There is no personal expression through clothes, and cars are not allowed. Wealth or personage outside the school mean little." In this self-contained world, titles confer no privileges, and the prince is probably not the only boy with a bodyguard. Foreign leaders' children and scions of Greek shipping magnates bring them along too. Says London School of Economics historian David Starkey: "William is as near to normal at Eton as someone in his position is wont to be. Many people there are richer than he is. There are many people whose family relationships are even more complex than his."

In the next couple of years, the young prince's life will become a lot more public and more complicated, and his personality will be more sharply defined. He is already going to the dances favored by adolescent aristocrats, and already the girls are asking for kisses. By his female contemporaries, Wills is rated as "snoggable," Britspeak for sexy. That attribute has made him a pinup in teenage fanzines, where he has quickly gained a following. Wills is nearly as tall as Diana, and like his mother, he seems to have the best of Spencer good looks. A few years will tell.

The press has in general honored the pleas from the palace and the Press Complaints Council to leave the boy alone. Unlike the requests that the Queen made on behalf of Diana early in the marriage, these have been honored. Just an occasional picture of Wills and his pals strolling the Windsor streets has appeared. But that is not the whole story. A few photographers are stalking Wills part time. They are royals specialists who know what every shot is worth. As long as the papers refuse to buy the film, Wills is relatively free. Similarly, Eton has promised to expel any student who speaks to the press. In fact, a couple of inside-Eton manuscripts have been shopped in London, but none has been sold. It's a fragile situation. The photographers who stake out the school are hoping that something so "big" will happen that it is automatically of public interest. Not a good state of affairs for an adolescent.

Wills and his brother are down on the media and may blame the press for the breakup of their parents' marriage. When he was little, the impish prince didn't mind the cameras in the least and mugged for their benefit. But as he became surrounded by Diana's ever increasing army of professional admirers, Wills changed. Says a photographer: "Wills is happier with Charles. Physically you notice the difference — he is relaxed. It's clearly an easy relationship. But when William is with Diana, it's heads down." To add insult to annoyance, chroniclers are now busily opining about Wills' relations with each of his parents. At the moment, many royals watchers argue that as Wills matures, he will look more to the Windsors, the joys of rural life, to shooting parties and to the blessed absence of the prying press. According to the same argument, city-bound Diana will have less influence on, or even contact with, her sons.

That's questionable. William shows affection for both his parents — chumming up with Charles and protecting Diana. It is likely that he has learned from her as well as the Windsors, and that would be to his advantage. Especially in his early years, she led the way to a more open boyhood and to some contact with the nation's disadvantaged. As Diana moves into her 40s, some of the media attention will focus on handsome, eligible Wills. Says Edward Pilkington, who writes on the royals for the Guardian: "The monarchy needs someone who is seen to be as popular as Diana — and I think he probably will be. And it needs someone who is prepared to change it, bring it into step with other institutions of the next century."

Society may change even faster in the next 25 years than it has in the last. Wills will preside over a much reduced list of who is "royal." And he will have to make the institution credible to the country while at the same time not stint on the elaborate ceremonies that give the crown most of its luster. One step in the right direction is that Wills is a fan of soccer, a game his countrymen are fanatic about but which most royals, who seem to associate athletic endeavor with horses, ignore.

Just one of the problems he will probably face is raised by Yale's British historian Linda Colley: "Whom will he find to marry him?" She notes that over the past hundred years, the monarchy has recruited women like Queen Mary, George V's consort, who epitomized royal womanhood's acquiescence and sense of duty, and the present Queen Mother, who has been just as responsible and effervescent as well. Diana was very young and inexperienced, sexually and otherwise. Where, Colley asks, are such young women to be found in this age of independence, blossoming careers and cohabitation?

Wills will have a powerful role in shaping the monarchy in the coming century, and as Starkey points out, Buckingham Palace is beginning to make use of him. He cannot afford to stumble. The burdens are enormous, but at least he is surrounded by billowing gusts of goodwill. He may be that stable leader who is so badly needed to strengthen a besieged but valuable institution.

— Reported by Barry Hillenbrand/London

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