John Dough and the Cherub
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"It's a Vision!" he exclaimed.
"No, it's the Cherub – whom we call Chick," answered the big-headed man, carelessly.
The child had fair hair, falling in fleecy waves to its shoulders, but more or less tangled and neglected. It had delicate features, rosy cheeks, and round blue eyes. When these eyes were grave – which was seldom – there were questions in them; when they smiled – which was often – sunbeams rippled over their blue surfaces. For clothing the child wore garments of pure white, which reached from the neck to the ankles, and had wide flowing sleeves and legs, like those of a youngster's pajamas. The little one's head and feet were bare, but the pink soles were protected by sandals fastened with straps across the toes and ankles.
"Good morning," said John, again smiling and hoping he had not stared too rudely. "It gives me great pleasure to meet you."
"My name's Chick," replied the child, laughing in sweet trills, while the blue eyes regarded the gingerbread man with evident wonder.
"That's a funny name," said John.
"Yes, it is funny," the child agreed, with a friendly nod. "Chick means a chicken, you know. But I'm not a chicken."
"Of course not," returned John. "A chicken is covered with feathers. And you are not."
At this Chick laughed merrily, and said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world: "I'm the Incubator Baby, you know."
"Dear me, I hadn't the least idea of it," John answered gravely. "May I ask what an Incubator Baby is?"
The child squatted down in the sand, hugged its chubby knees, and uttered peal after peal of joyous laughter.
"How funny!" it gurgled; "how funny that you don't know what the Incubator Baby is! Really, you must be fresh-baked!"
"I am," said John, feeling rather ashamed to acknowledge the fact, but resolving to be truthful.
"Then, of course, you are very ignorant," remarked the Fresh-Air Fiend, rubbing his big head complacently.
"Oh, as for that," said John, "I acquired, in course of manufacture, a vast deal of ancient learning, which I got from an Arabian Elixir with which the baker mixed me. I am well posted in all events down to the last century, but I cannot recall any knowledge of an Incubator Baby."
"No, they're a recent invention," declared the big-headed man, patting tenderly the child's golden curls. "Were you, by any chance, at the Pan-American Exposition? Or the Louisiana Purchase Exposition?"
"No," answered John. "My knowledge was corked up about then."
"Well," continued the man, "there were a good many Incubator Babies at both those expositions, and lots of people saw them. But Chick is the first and only Original Incubator Baby, and so Chick properly belongs in the Isle of Phreex."
Chick jumped up, made a stiff bow, and with eyes sparkling with mischief exclaimed: "I'm six years old and quite strong and well."
"Tut-tut, Chick!" remonstrated the big-headed man; "it was more than two years ago you were taught to make that speech.You can't be always six years old, you know."
The little sprite enjoyed the joke so much that John was forced to laugh in sympathy. But just then a thought struck him, and he asked, a little nervously:
"Do you like gingerbread?"
"I don't know," replied Chick. "Are you gingerbread?"
"I am," said John, bravely.
"Then I like gingerbread," the child declared; "for you smell sweet and look kind and gentle."
John didn't know whether to accept this as a compliment or not. He was sorry to learn that he smelled sweet, although to be called kind and gentle was grateful praise.
"Some folks," he remarked, timidly, "have an idea they like to eat gingerbread."
"I couldn't eat you," the child said, seriously, "because, being the Incubator Baby, I have to be very careful of my diet. You might not agree with me."
"I'm sure I couldn't agree with any one who ate me," John declared. "For, although as yet I have had no experience of that sort, it seems to me a very undesirable fate."
"Very true," remarked the big-headed man.
"Let's be friends!" exclaimed Chick, coming close to John and taking his soft brown hand in a firm clasp. "I'll take care of you."
John looked down at the merry little elf in positive wonder.
"We'll be friends, all right," said he; "but instead of your taking care of me, Chick, I'll take care of you."
"Oh, there you are entirely wrong," broke in the big-headed man. "Chick's a privileged character in the Isle of Phreex, and the only one of us who dares defy our awful kinglet. And in case of danger – "
"Danger!" cried John, with a start. "Is there danger here, too?"
Chick's laughter rang out at the foolish question, but the man replied seriously:
"There is danger everywhere, to those who are unusual, and especially in the Isle of Phreex, where we are at the mercy of a horrid kinglet. But come; we must go and report your arrival to that same graceless ruler, or we shall all be punished."
"Very well," said John, meekly.
But as he took Chick's hand and turned to depart the Fresh-Air Fiend uttered an exclamation of annoyance, and said:
"Here's bad luck already! The Failings are coming this way."
As he spoke a noise of shouting and chattering reached their ears, and presently several people came around a corner of rock and stood before John and his newly found friends.
"It's the Brotherhood of Failings," whispered the big-headed man. "Look out for them, or they'll do you a mischief."
"Don't worry; I'll take care of you," said Chick, pressing the dough hand.
John stared at the new-comers, and they returned the compliment by staring at him. A queerer lot of folks could seldom have been seen together.
"This is the Blunderer," said the Fresh-Air Fiend, indicating a short, fat man who was clothed in glittering armor and bore a lance over his shoulder. The Blunderer acknowledged the introduction by bowing. "And here is the Thoughtless One," continued the man, pointing to a tall, lean man who was clothed in chamois-leather and carried a wide-mouthed blunderbuss under his arm.
"Look out for the gun," said Chick; "he never knows whether or not it is loaded."
"And here are the Disagreeable, and the Unlucky, and the Sorrowful, and the Ugly, and the Awkward," continued the big-headed man, pointing out each Failing in turn. "Their peculiarities you will have no trouble to discover. Indeed, on all the Isle of Phreex, there is no one more unpleasant to meet with than this same lot of Failings."
At this the Brothers all bowed, saying at the same time:
"We are proud of ourselves!"
At that instant the Awkward tripped over his own toes and fell against the Blunderer, who tumbled headlong and thrust his slim lance straight through the body of John Dough.
"Oh!" cried Chick, greatly horrified.
"I told you so!" growled the Fresh-Air Fiend, pulling out the lance hastily. "Tell me, John Dough, are you dead, or are you just dying?"
"Neither one," said John, ruefully pushing together the hole that the lance had made; "but it doesn't add to my personal appearance to be prodded in that fashion. I'm made of gingerbread," he explained, turning to the man in armor.
"I beg your pardon! I really beg your pardon!" said the Blunderer, greatly distressed at what he had done. "I had no intention of hurting you."
"He means well," said the Incubator Baby; "but that doesn't help much."
"He won't last long in this Island," grunted the Bad-Tempered, referring to John Dough.
"Being made of gingerbread, he can't be expected to last," remarked the Disagreeable, smiling in a way that made John shudder.
"He shall have my protection," said the Blunderer. "It's the least I can do to make amends. Here – put on this armour!"
He hastily began stripping off the plates of metal, and placed the steel helmet over the head of the gingerbread man.
"No, no!" exclaimed John. "I don't want to wear all that hardware."
"But you must!" cried the Blunderer. "It's the only way you can escape accident in this awful Island."
"That's true enough," agreed the big-headed man. "I advise you to wear the armor, my gingerbread friend."
So John submitted to being dressed in the armor, and no sooner had the plates been strapped upon him than the wisdom of the act was apparent. For there came a rush and whirl of sound, and suddenly a great monster swept over the sands at the very spot where they stood. It sent the Brotherhood of Failings sprawling in every direction, while the Incubator Baby flew to the water's edge, and John Dough's armor-clad body was knocked down and pressed into the soft sand until it was level with the surface.
But presently Chick came back and made the others dig him out and set him upon his feet again, and then it was seen that no one had been seriously injured.
"What was it?" asked John, gazing in amazement at the place where the monster had disappeared in the distance.
"It's the one-wheeled automobile," answered the Sorrowful, "and unless it gets smashed mighty soon the Isle of Phreex will be an Isle of Cripples. I don't understand why they license the thing."
"Why, to make room for new arrivals, of course," declared the Disagreeable. "But it was lucky for the Pudding Man that he happened to be dressed in steel."
"I am not pudding, if you please," said John, indignantly. "I beg you to remember that I am gingerbread."
"It's all one," remarked the Thoughtless, "your cake is dough, anyhow."
"Let us return to the castle," the Ugly said. "Our kinglet should be introduced to his new subject."
So they all started off across the green, Chick leading the gingerbread man, until they came to a path leading upward through the rocks, along which they began to ascend. John had much difficulty in keeping out of the way of the Awkward, who tripped and stumbled constantly, while the Blunderer insisted upon taking the wrong path, and the Bad-Tempered stopped twice to fight with the Disagreeable and the Thoughtless. At last, however, they reached the top, which proved to be a broad plain of rock, upon which stood a great castle with many tall spires and grim towers and glittering minarets.
While they paused for John Dough to admire the view, and that they all might get breath, a sharp voice said near them:
"You're late, you lot of Failings, and the kinglet will scold."
John looked around, and saw perched upon a point of rock beside the path a most curious looking creature.
"Don't stare!" it said, with a laugh. "I don't, and I've got a dozen eyes to your one. Let me introduce myself. I'm the Prize Potato from the Centerville Fair."
Indeed, John now noticed a big blue ribbon twined around the middle of the potato, and on the ribbon was printed in gold letters: "First Prize."
"Some day you'll sprout," said the Disagreeable, "and then you won't have so many eyes."
The Prize Potato winked its numerous eyes, one after the other, in a droll fashion, and answered:
"Some day you'll meet with an accident, my dear Failing; but when you're planted in the ground you'll not sprout at all. That's where I'm your superior, for I'm perpetual. Every one of my eyes is good for a half-peck of potatoes, at least."
"Unless you're boiled with your jacket on," remarked the Ugly, with a sour smile.
"Come, come! Let us on," interrupted the little man with the big head. "Our kinglet doubtless awaits us."
When they had gone a few steps farther the Incubator Baby paused to say: "Some one is following us, and it's a stranger."
This remark caused John to look around, and immediately he stopped short with an expression of horror upon his frosted face. For there, turning the corner of the rocky path, was Ali Dubh the Arab. The fellow at once uttered a yell of joy and triumph, and drawing his gleaming knife he rushed upon John Dough with great eagerness.
The gingerbread man had given up all hope of escape and stood tremblingly awaiting his foe when, Chick suddenly grasped the Blunderer's lance and tripped the Arab so neatly with it that Ali Dubh fell his full length upon the path and broke his knife-blade into a dozen pieces. But he squirmed forward and was about to bite into John's leg when the big-headed man came to the rescue and threw a handful of pebbles into the Arab's open mouth, and so prevented him from doing the gingerbread man any damage.
"He seems dangerous," remarked the Blunderer. "Let's tie him up, before he hurts someone."
So while the Arab was coughing the pebbles out of his mouth, the Brotherhood of Failings bound his hands and feet with strong cords, so that he could not move.
"He's mine!" shouted the Arab, as soon as he could speak. "He belongs to me. I claim him for my own."
"There's no harm in that," replied the Fresh-Air Fiend. "But one of the laws of this Isle is that no person shall be injured by any one except the kinglet. And every one here must obey the laws. So, unless you promise not to carve or to eat this man of gingerbread, who is now a subject of our kinglet, we must lock you up in prison."
"I'll eat him as soon as I have the chance. I have a right to do so," cried the Arab.
"You're a bad man!" said Chick, stamping one small foot indignantly.
"I'm not," answered Ali Dubh; "I'm a good man. And I paid Jules Grogrande fifty cents for this gingerbread imitation of a man, who is mixed with my own magic Elixir. Also I paid a witch nine dollars to transport me to wherever the gingerbread man might be – which is right here – that I might take possession of my own property. So I've got him, and he's paid for, and he's mine, and I claim the right to eat him whenever I please."
"You'll do no such thing," declared Chick. "Why, John Dough is alive, and no one has a right to make him dead and then eat him – even if he is paid for!"
"Don't worry, my Cherub," said the big-headed man, soothingly; "we'll go at once and lock this Arab in a strong room of the castle, so that he can't possibly escape."
Chick smiled sweetly at this promise; but the Arab scowled and said, grimly:
"Never mind. My time will come. Some day I shall surely eat that gingerbread man, in spite of this Cherub and all the rest of you."
This defiance made the Brotherhood of Failings and the big-headed man so angry that they at once dragged Ali Dubh away to the castle, and John Dough and Chick followed after, hand in hand, and feeling quite safe.
Presently they came to a great archway that led into the courtyard of the castle. Having passed through this arch, the gingerbread man saw groups of the most astonishing people, who were busying themselves over extraordinary tasks, such as building machines, boiling strange-smelling chemicals in queer pots, drawing curious designs, and like occupations. A sudden crash announced that the Blunderer had fallen into the middle of a delicate machine and smashed it into bits. Before they could pull him out the Unlucky One ran against the whirling arm of a windmill and was tossed half-way across the courtyard, while the Awkward One upset a boiling kettle and set every one to coughing who inhaled the odor of the compound that was spilled upon the ground.
To John's surprise no one seemed much worried over these accidents. Even the victims joined in Chick's merry laughter, and those of the Failings who had escaped disaster calmly proceeded to lock up the Arab in a cell that had a strong iron grating for a door, and fastened with a huge padlock.
Afterward they all entered through a second arch into the great hall of the castle.
This was a long, wide room with a tiled floor, and walls that were covered with many trophies, such as armor, spears, battle-axes, and swords of ancient design.
At the farther end was a raised platform upon which stood a gorgeous throne. Back of the throne was an electric sign, flashing one letter at a time, and reading: "What is Home without a kinglet?" Over the throne was suspended an enormous crown – big enough for a giant – which sparkled with gems. Beside the throne a very fat man sat in a chair so low that his knees nearly touched his chin. He wore a short red coat, a wide white vest, and blue knee-breeches, and all were embroidered in gold. The fat man's eyes were closed and he seemed asleep.
Within the throne sat the kinglet, propped upon purple cushions, so that he would fit it better. For the kinglet was a small boy with a long, freckled face, blue eyes, a pug nose, and black hair banged across his forehead, and hanging in lank, straight locks far down over his shoulders. He wore an ermine cloak lined with purple, and bore in his hand a sceptre with a jewelled ball at one end, while beyond the ball projected a small golden knob. The kinglet's slim legs were crossed under him like those of a Turk, and he seemed very frail and delicate.
However, when the Failings and the Fresh-Air Fiend and Chick and John Dough entered, the kinglet's brow was puckered into a frown, and his blue eyes fairly flashed fire.
"Odds Zooks!" he cried, as they all knelt before the throne, "why have you dared to wait until this hour to pay me your devoirs?"
Then he leaned down and prodded the fat man with the knob of his sceptre, so that the sleeper started and opened his eyes. "Is that right, Nebbie? Is 'devoir' a kingly word?" he demanded.
"Absolutely kingly, your Majesty," said the fat man, yawning. "It was used by King Arthur and Richard C?ur de Leon."
"Very well!" said the kinglet, proudly. Then he turned again to the kneeling group before him. "Why don't you answer me?" he exclaimed. "Why are you so late in paying me your boudoirs?"
"Devoirs, your Majesty!" said the fat man, hastily.
"I said 'devoirs'!" returned the kinglet, turning upon him in anger.
"We are late because we did not get here sooner," said the Awkward; "and we could not get here sooner because we were late."
"So!" shrieked his Majesty, with blazing eyes. "Now by my halidom – " he paused suddenly, and turned to the fat man, prodding him so fiercely that he jumped several feet into the air. "Is 'halidom' the right word, Nebbie?"
"Sure," said the fat man, nodding emphatically.
"What does it mean?" asked the kinglet.
"What does halidom mean?"
"Why, a halidom is a halidom," said the fat man, thoughtfully; "and belongs to kings."
"But what is it?" persisted the kinglet, impatiently.
"It's a – a – a sort of a royal prerogative, and is usually painted red," returned the fat man, and immediately resumed his seat and closed his eyes again.
The kinglet sighed, and turned anew to the Failings.
"Let me see," he remarked; "where was I?"
"You were by your halidom, your Majesty," suggested the Blunderer.
"Oh, yes." Again the long freckled face took on a frown. "By my halidom, churl – " He stopped to glance at the fat man.
"Churl is all right," mumbled Nebbie, without opening his eyes.
"By my halidom, churl, you shall either swallow my sceptre or die the death!"
"What death?" asked the Blunderer, trembling.
"The one that makes people dead," replied the kinglet, sternly. "Choose, then, varlet – " ("Varlet is good," said Nebbie, quickly, to avoid a thrust) "whether to swallow my sceptre or die the death!"
The Blunderer glanced at the sceptre, the jewelled ball of which was nearly as large as his head.
"I'll swallow the sceptre," he said.
"Good," cried the kinglet, and held it toward him.
"But not now," added the Blunderer, hastily; "I'll take my time about it. You didn't say when, you know."
The kinglet turned red with rage.
"Now, by the royal Juggernaut of Jowl – " he began.
"If I should swallow it now," continued the Blunderer, calmly, "you would cease to be a kinglet; for a kinglet without a sceptre is nothing but a flibberjig."
"What!" shrieked his Majesty, jabbing the fat man furiously.
"That's right," declared Nebbie, groaning and rubbing his fat side dolefully. "A kinglet without a sceptre is a flibberjig, and I'll be black and blue by to-morrow morning!"
"Well," said his Majesty, after considering the matter, "I forbid you, Sir Blunderer, to swallow my sceptre until I give you leave."
Then his eye fell upon John Dough and Chick, who were standing at one side of the Failings, and immediately the little kinglet looked surprised, and then curious, and then annoyed. But perhaps the annoyed look was because Chick laughed in the royal face in a way that was certainly disrespectful, and even John Dough didn't look at all humble.
"Here, you Chick; behave yourself," commanded the kinglet.
"I won't," said Chick, pouting two pretty lips.
"Well, this kingdom existed at one time without an Incubator Baby, and I believe we could spare you now. I'll have your saucy head cut off," declared the kinglet.
"I dare you!" said Chick, making a face.
"There's a nice child, I must say!" retorted the kinglet, scowling. "But what can we expect of a baby that has no parents and no proper bringing-up? Bah! I'm ashamed of you, Chick!"
"Don't you dare say anything against my Incubator!" cried Chick, angrily. "I guess I've had as good bringing-up as you have, you disagreeable kinglet, you!"
His Majesty was at first about to retort with equal anger; but he suddenly changed his mind and turned to John Dough.
"Who are you, stranger?" he asked. "And why are you wearing the Blunderer's armor?"
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