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THE LAST HAMLET or The Readiness Is All - 15 A NEW HOME AND A NEW LIFE

A NEW HOME AND A NEW LIFE

As I bowled along in the slipstream of the Archdraxite down an Argon Mall whose lining poplar trees were beginning to show their spring leaves, I felt somehow more aware of myself than I had ever been before in my life: I do not actually remember seeing anyone during that helter-skelter, half walking, half scampering to keep up little journey; but I felt that I must have been under the gaze of half the City.

When we turned off the Mall into the high stone walled approach to the outer gatehouse of Draxy Palace I should, I suppose, have been filled with dread at the thought of what might lie waiting for me beyond those battlemented walls; but in truth I was too numbed by what was happening to me to feel anything much at all. Anyway, was I not glad just to be away from the heartless King? I heard rather than saw the great gate grinding open. There must have been a sentry or two, but I did not notice them. The gates closed with a thud behind me.

Then Nell turned to look at me, for the first time since we had left the Throne Room. "Oh, Diken," she said, "I am so sorry! I have been going far too fast for you I can see. These long legs of mine. But that man made me so cross!" She took a linen napkin from her sleeve and began to wipe away the sweat from my face. She smiled and said, "Welcome, Diken, to your new home. I hope you will be very happy here." She grasped my shouders and kissed the top of my forehead, an action with which I was to become delightedly familiar. "Now, let me me take you to see your friends." Suddenly everything seemed alright: Nell's concern for me, her hope for my happiness, her throw away line about the King making her so cross, the warmth of her smile, the kiss, and the thought of seeing my friends, all somehow fused together to become a kind of blessing.

Once we were beyond the the narrow pedestrian tunnel of the inner gatehouse, Nell took my hand. We crossed a broad cobbled courtyard bounded by ivy clad buildings of three and four stories. In the middle of the yard was a fountain whose merry spray caressed and cooled my still hot cheeks.

Next we passed through the shadow of a famous City landmark, the broad, square, stone clock tower, topped by a slender pole bearing the Archdraxite's standard depicting a grew urn on a background of red, white and gold. We came to a long stone paved passage way, whose unglazed lights on either side overlooked beautifully kept gardens, with spring grass more brightly green than I had ever seen, flower scattered banks and rockeries, glittering pools heavy with white lilies, worn sandstone pathways, and inviting oak benches shaded by rampant vines. My head swam with the wonder of it all. It was not until the next day that I noticed the high glass roof which brought advanced spring to these exquisite cloister gardens.

We were about to enter the building proper. Nell laid her hands again on my shoulders and looked into my upturned eyes; though her gaze was keen and searching, I did not feel in the least bit threatened by it; but I did think that these were eyes which could not easily be lied to.

Nell said, "You will be good for us, Diken. You will be the oldest boy amongst the pages. The others will look up to you. Little Finola will love you, for she likes to have an elder brother. Borkhus joined the senior family last week, and you will take his place. There are twenty three pages for you to meet later, and they are all looking forward to it." Nell told me the next day that she had been sure the King would give me up; but by then I think I had probably worked it out for myself!

We came to a small skylighted hallway, from which a spiral staicase led upwards. We had climbed fifty three torch lit steps by the time we reached a landing, which led to a corridor, which led to door, upon which Nell knocked.

"Who goes there?" asked a pleasant female voice.

"It is I," said Nell.

The door was opened by a tall young woman wearing the lake blue, clover green striped tunic, claret pantaloons, white knee socks, and highly polished, brass buckled, black shoes, which all went to make up the Archdraxite's household livery. Sitting in easy chairs by a large bow window were Polikova and Drainin.

"I have brought someone to see you," Nell said. "I will leave you alone for a while. You will have things to talk about, I am sure."

After Nell and the young womn had gone, I learned that my friends were comfortable, that they had not been ill treated, that they had never seen the inside of a cell, and that they had indeed been arrested for spreading 'malicious gossip'.

There had been a piece in the Gazette arguing that it was time to phase out Moon farming, and to open up the Wilderness for agriculture:

An extensive desalination programme would provide enough fertile soil to make the Moon unnecssary for farming purposes within five years. And if it were not neeed for farming, it would not be needed at all. Any more than the Royal Observatory is needed. Let us convert it from its redundant usage into something more profitable. We cannot go to the stars any more - and if we could we would not - so why waste time and resources in studying them?

The day after this appeared in the paper, Drainin and Polikova were showing a party of country visitors around the Observatory when someone - presumably a planted citizen spy - mentioned the Gazette article. My friends agreed that it would make sense to open up the Wilderness, but they thought the time scale was far too optimistic, and they suggested that ten or even fifteen years might be nearer the mark. Questioned about the proposal to shut down the Observatory, they suggested that people needed and deserved more knowledge not less, and that to deny them even a nodding acquaintance with the wider universe would be not only wrong but - in Drainin's words - "just plain silly." That same day in the evening the scientists were arrested.

My friends' short meeting with the Archdraxite was friendly enough. They were told that they must recognise that giving public utterance to private thoughts was not always a wise thing to do. Nell assured them that if they were prepared to keep their own counsel in the future they would be allowed to remain at the Observatory, and in post, until they weakened.

Formal interview over, Nell personally conducted the scientists to their room. She said to them, "I have heard that you are friends of Diken. Friends of that boy should not be enemies of mine. He may come to visit you, if you would like. It is even possible that he may come here to stay."

I narrated the events of the morning to my friends as well as my rather dazed wits would allow.

"We had no idea that you were Her Grace's pal," Drainin said, with twinkle in his eye.

"Neither had I!"

"She clearly thinks well of you," Polikova said. "But how does she know you?"

I had had time to work some things out. "She doesn't know me," I said, "but there was that time at a Royal Tea."

"What happened?"

"I'd pretty well forgotten about it until today, but the King upset her."

"How?"

"He said, 'Good afternoon Archdraxite, I believe you are late.'"

"Good Draxy!" Drainin exclaimed.

"She looked sort of panicky. I thought she might even cry! I sort of felt sorry for her."

"And she noticed?" Polikova asked.

"I suppose."

"And now you have your reward." Polikova said this as a simple matter of fact. "You will be treated with far more consideration by Nell than by King Hamlet. We have gained the impression that everyone is well treated here." She got up and opened the window. "Come and see."

Polikova pointed towards a large lawn where children were playing: they were making the sort of happy, excited noises which go with being lately let out of school. I thought I might just enjoy being part of that scene. Then a less happy thought struck me. "But what about you two? When you have gone back home, will I ever be able to see you again?"

"I think perhaps not, old chap," Drainin said.

"But that's awful!"

"You'll make new friends here."

"Perhaps she'll let me come and see you."

"Have you ever seen a Draxy Palace child in the City?" Polikova asked.

I cried then, for I could not help it. Two pairs of arms tried to comfort me.

Drainin asked, "Do you wish you hadn't spoke out?"

"Of course not."

"Then the speaking out and the coming here are parts of the same thing."

"You did a beautiful, brave thing for us. Her Grace knows it, and some day, perhaps, the King will know it also." Polikova said.

"He is not a happy man," Drainin said. "Being a king with nothing to do cannot be easy. There is a lot of anger in him."

"He didn't have to take it out on me."

"But Diken, you asked for it, by sticking up for us," Polikova said.

There was no arguing that point. I looked from one smiling friend to the other, and back again. I had to smile too.

"Oh, to have seen Hamlet's face when you shouted at him!" Drainin said.

We were all laughing together when the door opened, and in came Nell. "I'm sorry to interrupt the fun," she said pleasantly. "But I rather want Diken to meet some of his new friends before lunch. I'll be just outside."

When Nell had gone out again, leaving the door open, there were handshakes and hugs and a few more tears, which were not mine alone. I left the room and joined Nell at the top of the stairs. My new mistress put her arm around me, and dabbed my tears with her napkin. "They're waiting for you." she said. Let's go and meet them, shall we, Diken?"

The pages were waiting for us in the cloister garden, and they seeemd as pleased to see me as Nell had said they would be. Especially pleased was a little, bouncy, blonde pigtailed, snub nosed, blue eyed girl introduced to me as Finola. She positively bubbled with excitement as she hugged me and said, "I'm nine, and Her Grace says you are to be my new elder brother! Are you?" Everyone laughed at this except the gushing girl and my blushing self: if only the ground could have opened up and swallowed me!

The next day, my friends were allowed to go home. They made the front page of the newspaper:

Royal Empiricist Drainin and Royal Astronomer Polikova, having been detained in the pleasure of Her Grace the Archdraxite, have returned to their home. They have signed the following statement:

'In the presence of a party of country vivitors to the Observatory, we cast doubt upon the usefulness of the proposed programme to desalinate the Wilderness, and to open it up for food production, thus making it possible, within a few years, to close down Moonbase. In fact we applaud this initiative, and we will give it our full support, as we will all measures adopted or proposed by Her Grace Nell, Archdraxite of All Steefax.'

Nell took me to one side to show me the article, and to assure me that as long as my friends kept to their word, they would be left in peace.