John Dough and the Cherub
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So much disrespect had been shown this kinglet by his subjects that John was about to reply lightly to these questions; but to his surprise Chick grasped his hand and whispered to him to make a low bow and to be very careful what he said. So the gingerbread man stepped forward and addressed his Majesty with great ceremony.
"Oh, most puissant and serene kinglet!" he began; "I am called John Dough, because I am made of gingerbread; and I came to your Isle because I could not help it."
The kinglet looked upon the stranger with a kindly expression.
"'Puissant and serene'!" he murmured. "Evidently, John Dough, you are a person of wit and intelligence, such as are most welcome to the Isle of Phreex. Kneel thou at my feet."
John knelt, as commanded, and the kinglet at once dealt him a sharp blow upon the Blunderer's helmet with the heavy end of the royal sceptre. It dented in the steel plate, and would have crushed the gingerbread man's head had it not been so well protected by the helmet.
"I dub you Knight of Phreex," said his Majesty. "Rise, Sir John Dough – villain no longer, but noble and favored among my subjects!"
John stood up and bowed, although he was slightly dazed by the force of the blow.
"Long live the gentle Kinglet of Phreex," he managed to say. And Chick clapped two chubby hands with glee, and whispered: "Well done, my friend!"
"You please me, Sir John," remarked the little kinglet, swelling out his chest complacently. "I wish all the people of Phreex were so polite and discerning." Then he looked around and inquired: "Where's Sir Austed Alfrin, the Poet Laureate?"
Immediately a drapery parted, and a man with a pale, thin face and long black hair entered and saluted his Majesty with profound respect. The Poet had a bandage over one eye and hobbled as if lame in one leg. He was clothed all in black, and his long frock coat had grease spots down the front of it.
"Have you made me a sonnet to-day?" demanded the little kinglet.
"Yes, my royal Master," answered the Poet; and, pompously unrolling a scroll, he read in a loud, falsetto voice, these lines:
"Now, that's not so bad," said his Majesty, reflectively. "But can't you make it a little stronger, Sir Poet?"
"I'll try," replied Austed Alfrin; and after pencilling some words on his tablets he read as follows:
"Now that," said his Majesty, "strikes me as being real poetry. How does it strike you, Sir John Dough?"
"It's fairly good," replied the gingerbread man; "but it hardly does you justice."
"The Poet doesn't dare do his Majesty justice," said the Disagreeable Failing."If he did, there would soon be no Poet."
"There's something in that, too," said the kinglet. "But now, Sir Austed, write me a sonnet on my new subject, Sir John Dough."
The Poet sighed and began writing on his tablets; and presently he read this:
"That," said John, indignantly, "is rank libel; and if your Majesty will loan me your sceptre, I'll make an end of this Poet in seven seconds by the clock."
"You have my permission to make mince-meat of him," replied the kinglet, cheerfully.
"Mercy! mercy, my lord!" screamed the Poet, falling upon his knees before John and hastily wiping the verse off his tablets, "give me one more chance, I beg of you!"
"Very well," said the gingerbread knight. "But if it's no better than the last you shall be discharged. Is it not so, your Majesty?"
"Quite so," laughed the kinglet.
The Poet nervously scribbled another set of lines, which he read in a voice that trembled with fear:
"That's better," said John, "but I'm not sure about the eggs, as I did not pay much attention when I was mixed. However, this sincere tribute to my excellence will save you from my displeasure, and you may go free."
The Poet did not wait an instant, but ran from the hall as fast as his legs would carry him.
The kinglet now dismissed the Failings, who left the royal presence quarrelling and threatening one another, and making so much noise and uproar that the gingerbread man was glad to see them go.
"Aren't they nice?" asked the kinglet, looking after them. "I'd like to drown them all in the castle moat, like kittens; but every kinglet, they say, has his Failings, so I suppose I must keep mine."
He sighed, and continued: "But what did the Poet's sonnet say about your being crisp and well spiced, and rather good eating were you sliced?"
"Don't pay any attention to that, your Majesty!" said John, hastily.
"But why not?" persisted the kinglet. "I declare, Sir John, there's something about you that makes me hungry whenever I look at you. I don't remember having eaten any gingerbread since I was a boy – ahem! – I mean since I came to rule over the Isle of Phreex. Ho there, my guards! Fetch me a knife!"
John was now trembling with terror; but Chick said to the kinglet: "Your Majesty forgets that you are to have pancakes and maple-syrup for tea. What's the use of spoiling your appetite, when you know the gingerbread man will keep good for weeks?"
"Are you sure?" asked the kinglet, anxiously. "Are you sure he'll keep? Won't he get stale?"
"Of course not," answered the child. "He's the kind of gingerbread that always keeps good. And you mustn't forget he'll be a credit to the Isle of Phreex; for whoever saw a live gingerbread man before?"
"Nobody," declared the kinglet, positively. "You're right, my Cherub; I'll save the gingerbread man for another meal, and in the meantime I can show him off before my people. We pride ourselves, Sir John, on having a greater variety of queer personages than any other kingdom in existence."
"Then you ought to be careful of them, and not permit them to be eaten," said John, still anxious. But the kinglet did not seem to hear him.
"Pancakes and maple-syrup!" muttered his Majesty, longingly. "Dear me, Chick; I wish tea were ready now."
"So do I," said Chick, laughing; for John Dough was safe from being eaten just then, whatever might be his future fate, and the child had saved him by the mention of the cakes and syrup.
But now a sudden hubbub was heard at the door, and in rushed a number of the royal guard wheeling a big platform on which was seated a woman so exceedingly fat that she appeared to be much wider than she was long.
"Here! what's the trouble with Bebe Celeste?" asked the kinglet, frowning.
"She has lost two ounces, your Majesty," puffed one of the guards, wiping the perspiration from his forehead with his coat sleeve.
"Two ounces!" shouted the kinglet. "Now, by the toga of Samson – by the way, Nebbie, did Samson wear a toga?" He punched the fat man so severely that Nebbie gave a roar of pain before he answered.
"He wore several, your Majesty!"
"Then, by the several togas of Samson, Bebe Celeste, how dare you come before me two ounces shy?"
"I didn't come; I was brought," said the fat woman, in a wheezy voice.
"She was weighed in the balance and found wanting," said the guardsman.
"What was she wanting?" asked the kinglet.
"Two ounces, your Majesty."
The ruler rubbed his pug nose with one finger, in a reflective manner.
"Bebe," said he, "you've been exercising again. You're trying to reduce!"
The woman began to cry. "'T ain't my fault, your royal giblet – "
"Kinglet, woman!" said the fat man, without opening his eyes.
"Your royal kinglet, I didn't mean to lose a single flutter o' flesh. But my dog Duo got to quarrelling with himself and I got exercised in my mind – "
"Oh, the loss is in your mind, is it?" interrupted the kinglet. "I wouldn't mind the loss if I had not forbidden you to exercise at all, even in your mind."
"I couldn't help it, your fudgesty – "
"Majesty, woman!" said the fat man, sleepily.
"My dog Duo got to quarrelling – "
"Bring us the dog, varlets, churls, and vassals!" screeched the kinglet, in his shrill voice.
The guards stumbled over each other to obey; and presently they returned leading such a curious animal that John Dough stared at it in amazement.
It was a dog, without doubt; or rather, it was a dog's body with a head and two legs at either end of it. So that when one end walked forward the other end had to walk backward, and that made the back end growl angrily. But the same end was not always the back end of the dog; for first one head, and then the other, would prove strongest, and drag the curious animal forward.
When this double dog, which was named Duo, was brought in, both heads were snarling and barking in a very noisy manner. But however much enraged they were, they could never get together to do one another mischief.
"Be silent!" yelled the kinglet, annoyed at the clamor.
But the dog's heads paid no attention to the command.
"Very well," said his Majesty; "I'll put a stop to your noise for good and all! Here, you guards, fetch me the Royal Executioner!"
The fat lady began crying anew at this, and presently the door opened and a young girl entered the hall. She was clothed in simple robes of pure white, over which her loose brown hair flowed in a soft cloud. Her eyes were large and dark and very gentle in expression, and her cheeks were fair as a lily. In one hand the maid bore a long sword, the naked blade of which shone brightly in the light. In the other hand was a sharpening-stone, and as she bowed before the kinglet she rubbed the stone gently against the keen edge of the blade.
Although the dog's heads were still quarrelling, and Bebe Celeste still weeping, it was upon John Dough that the Royal Executioner first turned her eyes.
"I hope it isn't this one, your Majesty!" she said, in a voice of disappointment; "for he won't bleed at all, being made of cake."
"I beg your pardon," exclaimed John, hastily. "I am not cake, but gingerbread."
"It's just the same," she answered, sighing; "you wouldn't bleed if I cut you into bits."
"Why are you so bloodthirsty?" asked John, looking reproachfully into the girl's gentle eyes.
"Because I'm the Royal Executioner, I suppose," she answered. "I've held the office ever since my father was destroyed by an earthquake; but I've never yet executed a single person. The kinglet calls me in about a dozen times a day, but something always happens to rob me of my victim. I've worn out three sword blades, sharpening them, but I've never carved anything yet!"
"Be of good cheer," said his Majesty, "for now you shall see blood flow like water. This time I am fully resolved to be terrible. Cut me this snarling cur into two parts!"
"What, the dog?" asked the girl, surprised. And Bebe began to scream loudly; and the fat man woke up and shook his head, and Chick patted both heads of the animal tenderly, and a guardsman cried out: "Oh, no, your Majesty!"
"And why not?" inquired the kinglet.
"Why, this is the most valuable creature in all your dominions!" said the guard. "Do you desire to rob yourself of such a treasure, your Majesty?"
The kinglet hesitated, and then jabbed the fat man with his sceptre.
"Is it so, Nebbie?" he asked.
"It is so, my Lord," answered the fat man. "If you want to butcher anything, cut up a few of the Royal Guards, or mince the Failings, or carve Chick, the Cherub. But the dog Duo is one of the remarkable features of your kingdom, and should be preserved at all hazards. Why, he's worth more than Bebe Celeste."
"That reminds me of Bebe," said the kinglet, looking at the fat one sternly. "Take her away, guards, and stuff her with mashed potatoes and pate de foi gras. If she doesn't regain those two ounces in three days, she'll disgrace my kingdom, and I'll turn her over to the Royal Executioner."
So the guards trundled away the platform on which the fat lady sat, and the dog Duo followed, first one head leading, and then the other. And now his Majesty threw off his ermine robe and laid down the sceptre and scrambled out of the throne.
"The royal audience is ended for to-day," he said, "and now I'll go and see if those cakes and maple-syrup are ready for tea. And see here, you Incubator Baby, look after Sir John Dough, and mind that nobody eats him. If there's one bite gone when I see him again I'll turn you over to the Royal Executioner – and then there won't be any Incubator Baby."
Then his Majesty walked away, chuckling to himself in a very disagreeable manner. At once the fat Nebbie rolled out of his low seat and stood up, yawning and stretching out his arms.
"Our kinglet is a hard master," said he, with a sigh, "and I really wish some one would get up a revolution and dethrone him. He's been punching my ribs all day long, and I'll be black and blue by to-morrow morning."
"He's cruel," said Chick, patting the fat man's hand, as if to comfort him.
"Yet he's too tender-hearted to suit me," complained the lovely Executioner. "If I could only shed a single drop of blood, I'd feel that I am of some use in the world."
"How dreadful!" cried John, with a shudder.
"Oh, not at all!" said the girl. "For what's the object of being an Executioner if one can't execute?" And she tucked the sword under her arm and took out her handkerchief and went away weeping sorrowfully.
The Freaks of Phreex
"Well, didn't I take care of you all right?" laughed the Incubator Baby, leading John Dough from the throne-room and up a broad flight of marble stairs.
"Indeed you did," he answered, gratefully. "Really, my dear Chick, I believe that dreadful kinglet would have eaten me but for you."
"'Course he would," said the Cherub, nodding gayly; "and won't he be wild when he finds there are no pancakes and maple-syrup for tea?"
John stopped short. "Aren't there?" he asked. "Oh, Chick! I'm afraid he'll punish you for deceiving him."
"I don't mind," declared the child. "No one shall eat a friend of mine that I've given my promise to take care of. So come along, John Dough, and don't worry. I've got a lovely room on the top floor of this castle, and I'll share it with you."
So John mounted more marble steps, until finally Chick brought him to a handsome apartment on the third story.
"Here we are!" cried the Baby. "Now, make yourself at home, John, for we needn't fear the kinglet until to-morrow morning, and then he'll have forgotten that I fooled him."
Our hero's first act was to take off the Blunderer's heavy armor and pile it in one corner of the room. When free from the weight of metal he felt more like himself again, and walked to the window to view the scenery.
"It's a pretty place, Chick," he remarked.
"Oh, the Isle is all right," answered the child. "It's the people here that are all wrong, as you'll soon find out. Do you ever eat, John Dough?"
"Never," said John.
"Then, while you're waiting here, I'll go over to the dairy and get my milk for tea. You don't mind if I leave you for a few minutes, do you?"
"Not at all," he declared. "But it has just started to rain, outside; you'll get wet, won't you?"
"That's nothing," laughed Chick. "I won't melt."
"It's different with me," said John, sadly. "If my gingerbread body got soaked it would fall to pieces."
That made the little one laugh again, and it ran merrily from the room and left John Dough alone to stare out of the window. There was a projecting cornice overhead, so he had pushed his head well out to observe the pretty scenery, when suddenly he heard a voice say, in a tone of astonishment:
Turning toward the left, he saw sticking out of the next window to his own a long bald head that slanted up to a peak, underneath which appeared a little withered face that was smiling in a most friendly manner.
John bowed politely.
"Well, well," said the owner of the bald head. "Here's another curiosity come to our island! Wait a minute, and I'll run in and make your acquaintance." So presently the bald head, which was perched upon the body of a little, dried-up looking man, entered John's room and bowed politely.
"I'm Sir Pryse Bocks," he said, "and the remarkable thing about me is that I'm an inventor, and a successful one. You, I perceive, are a delicatessen; a friend in knead; I might say, a Pan-American. Ha, ha!"
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," returned John, bowing. "But do not joke about my person, Sir Pryse. I'm proud of it."
"I respect your pride, sir," said the other. "It's bread in the bone, doubtless. Ha, ha!"
John looked at him reproachfully, and the little man at once grew grave.
"This island is full of inventors," said he; "but they're all cranks, and don't amount to anything – except me."
"What have you invented?" asked John.
"This!" said the other, taking a little tube from his pocket. "You will notice that it often rains – it's raining now, if you'll look outside. And the reason it rains is because the drops of water fall to the earth by the attraction of gravitation."
"I suppose so," said John.
"Now, what do people usually do when it rains?" asked the little man.
"They grumble," said John.
"Yes, and they use umbrellas —umbrellas, mind you, to keep themselves dry!"
"And that is quite sensible," declared John.
The bald-headed one gave a scornful laugh. "It's ridiculous!" he said, angrily. "An umbrella is a big, clumsy thing, that the wind jerks out of your hand, or turns inside out; and it's a nuisance to carry it around; and people always borrow it and never bring it back. An umbrella, sir, is a humbug! A relic of the Dark Ages! I've done away with the use of umbrellas entirely, by means of this invention – this little tube, which can be carried in one's pocket!"
He held up a small instrument that looked like a tin whistle.
"How curious!" said John.
"Isn't it? You see, within this tube is stored a Power of Repulsion that overcomes the Attraction of Gravitation, and sends the rain-drops flying upward again. You stick the tube in your hat-band and walk out boldly into the rain. Immediately all the rain-drops shoot up into the air, and before they can fall again you have passed on! It's always dry where the wearer of this tube goes, for it protects him perfectly. And when it stops raining, you put it in your pocket again and it's all ready for another time. Isn't it great, sir? Isn't it wonderful? Isn't the inventor of this tube the greatest man in the world?"
"I'd like to try it," said John, "for no one needs protection from the rain more than I do. Being made of gingerbread, it would ruin me to get wet."
"True," agreed the other. "I'll lend you the tube, with pleasure. Stick it in your hat-band."
"I have no hat," said John; and then he remembered that he had left both the baker's hat and his candy cane lying on the sands where he had first fallen.
"Well, carry the tube in your hand, then," said the inventor. "It will work just as well that way, but it's not so convenient."
So John took the tube; and having thanked the bald-headed man for his kindness, he left the room and walked down the stairs and through the big, empty hall, and so out into the courtyard.
The rain seemed to have driven every one in doors, for not a person could he see.
Holding the tube upright, he boldly walked into the rain; and it gave him great pleasure to notice that not a drop fell near him. Indeed, by looking upward, he could see the falling drops stop short and then fly toward the clouds; and he began to believe that the bald-headed inventor was really as great a man as he claimed to be.
After descending the slippery path through the rocks, he crossed the patch of green, and at last reached the sandy shore, where he found the baker's hat, soaked through by the rain. As he lifted it he saw the crooked handle of the candy cane sticking out of the sand, and drew it forth to find it in excellent condition, little of the dampness having reached it.
But now, as John Dough began to retrace his steps, he discovered that his feet were soft and swollen. For he had been walking on the damp ground and through the wet grass; and although no rain had fallen upon his body, his feet were getting to be in a dangerous condition, and the licorice in them had become sticky. After he had recrossed the grass and come to the edge of the rocks he began to be frightened, for bits of his left heel now commenced to crumble and drop in the path; and when he tried walking on his flabby toes, they were so soggy and soft that he knew they would not last very long.
While he paused, bewildered, another calamity overtook him. For the tube suddenly lost its power of repulsion and ceased to work, and the rain-drops began to pelt his unprotected body and sink into his flesh. He looked around with a groan of dismay, and discovered a round hole, or tunnel, in the rock nearby. Staggering toward this, he entered the tunnel and found that now no rain could reach him. The floor was smooth and dry, and in the far distance he saw a light twinkling.
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