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THE LAST HAMLET: or The Readiness Is All - 11. HAMLET THE LAST

HAMLET THE LAST

Hamlet the Nineteenth and Queen Lucia were quiet, dignified people who had a kind regard for those who served them, including, for a while, myself; for when neither of my parents could any more look after me, I became, due to my father having been a mole appointed palace servant, a royal page, and a resident at the most exclusive boarding school on Steefax.

The most arduous of the pagely duties consisited of being in attendance upon their majesties from two to four hours each day. The rest of the time was spent at lessons in the schoolroom, reading in the library, playing in the gardens and the well equiped games romm, and in indulging in marvellous bouts of hiding and finding in the attics amongst the junk of ages.

With conducted tours, and with an increasingly liberal guest list for the Royal Tea, a great many of our citizens of the present day will have had the pleasure of seeing the inside of the Royal Palace for themselves; but for the sake of those who have not, then let me set the scene for the less than triumphal entry into public life of Hamlet, of that name the Last.

The Court Suite is on two levels. Passing through great ironclad oak doors one arrives first at the Great Hall, built more than a thousand years ago. Broad round pillars of black granite soar to join oaken beams, whose extemities are swallowed up by the greys and blacks of the flinstone walls. Curving spectacularly upwards from the beams are the huge buttresses braced with iron, thick at their bases, and tapering with geometrical symetry until they vanish into the intricate web of the blue and white marble vaulting. Apart from the two dozen narrow windows set high in the walls, the only lighting comes from deep brass oil lamps, which are raised and lowered from the beams by a system of winches and pulleys. The Great Hall was, for many hundreds of years, the Court of Petition, and it was to here that citizens with grievances against landlords, tenants, court officers, neighbours, and whomsoever, came to lay their cases before the King.

The present Throne Room is part of an extension to the Palace built about four hundred years ago, and it is reached by way of a short, broad, low ceilinged tunnel cut through from the Hall, which ends in a flight of ten, shallow, much worn, oak steps. The brightness of the chamber is startling after the gloom of the Hall. Tall, single paned windows, framed by drapes of crimson velvet, and affording magnificent views of the gardens, the lake, and Felix the Fifth's treacherous bank,* stride along the full twenty paces of the duck egg blue plastered wall facing the stairs. In the centre of the chamber is a broad dais covered by a richly coloured, opulently pattered, deeply piled per-shun carpet. In the centre of the dais, and separated by an arm's stretch, are the two high backed, undecorated black wood thrones.

*[See PROLOGUE]

Anyone entering the Throne Room for the first time will soon have their eyes drawn to the right hand wall, where hang maps of the astral hemispheres, with stars most skilfully embroidered in white silk upon black satin backgrounds. These striking pieces were gifts of the Bigs of Bog. The opposite wall is hung from ceiling to floor with curtains of cloth of gold which, when drawn half way back, reveal two massive oak doors covered with painted carvings depicting our native flora and fauna. The work, by craftspeople from Kryptos, is incomparably good: one may almost pick the flowers, and some of the birds seem ready to fly away. The forward door leads to the royal apartments, and the other to the business and household quarters. Hanging from the centre of the slightly arched, elegantly moulded, white plaster ceiling, is an elaborate copper and brass chandelier bearing more than a hundred orange candles, all of which are routinely changed every week.

********

The Coronation party, having processed from the Temple of Draxy, had reached the foyer of the Great Hall. Those of us waiting in the Throne Room had been made aware of this fact by the raucous bellowing of the Royal Usher - chosen, at least in part, for the mole on his left buttock - as he delivered the little speech he had been rehearsing around the Palce for the past week. Even I knew it by heart!

"All ye assembled here today,* to welcome their good, noble, and newly crowned Majesties: all ye worthy citizens of Steefax City, and of the lands beyond, be ye high, or be ye lowly; all ye make way for His great Majesty King Hamlet of that name the Last, and his gracious Consort and Queen called Cilla! Make way!"

*In the Hall were those Mole Bearers who did not qualify for a place in the Throne Room, along with 'representatives of the common citizenry'.

In the Throne Room there awaited the Privy Councillors, the blood relations of the new royalty, the odd flunky, and we pages, six of us, who were excited if no one else was. The Queen made a stunning impression upon me: her fine hair, tied loosely at the neck with a green ribbon, and cascading over her shoulders almost down to her waist, was the colour of ripe corn. Her eyes were as blue as the sea on a cloudless summer's evening, and her cheeks were like roses on a spring morning. She moved with a grace that was as natural to her as it was exciting to me. I fell in love for the first time.

But what about His Majesty? Well. it was hardly possible to even guess at his height, for he was a complete sloucher. His shoulders were stooped, his head was bowed, and his tousled hair fell over downcast eyes. He cut a dismal figure indeed. How did someone like ths Queen end up marrying someone like this King? I wondered.

The something happened: as the royal pair sat down for the first time upon their thrones, Queen Cilla took the hand of her husband, and smiled at him: there was love in that smile. King Hamlet turned towards his wife, lifted his head a little, and smiled weakly back. Perhaps all was not as it had first appeared to be.

********

Nell's first audience with her new king took place the day after the Coronation. Whatever fears she may have had following Perfundus' reaction to his selection must have seemed to her groundless, for all she got from Hamlet was "Yes, Your Grace," "As you please, Your Grace," "You know best, Your Grace," and so on, delivered in a lifeless monotone. The previous occupant of the Throne had also agreed with everything Her Grace had said, but he had done so with an amiable cheerfulness.

So was set a pattern that was to prevail for the best part of a year. But what was merely dull for me and my fellow pages was a living, waking nightmare for their majesties. The King said to me once: "It was desolation, without any imaginable ending. And we brought it uppon ourselves by our own supposed cleverness. Not even my beloved could have saved me - without the help of another."

********

Nebos, the Royal Physician, packed a picnic lunch - it being perfect early summer weather, and his day off - and strolled out to a secluded and favourite little arbour in the Rose garden to eat and drink it. When he had washed down the chicken and pickle sandwiches with half a bottle of blueberry wine, he lay down on the soft springy turf.

Nebos awoke to the sound of voices.

"I don't think I can take much more of this."

"But I can, I suppose?"

"It's worse for me."

"How is it?"

"I'm the one who has to play the idiot."

"You do it very well, my dear."

"That might have been funny, once."

"I'm sorry Perfundus, but what can I say?"

"Nothing."

"We have our time together."

"Yes. There's another damned audience tomorrow."

"You could always try not playing the idiot."

"We've been through that."

"Lighten up at the Tea, then."

"How can I? It's gone on too long. I can't change anything now."

"Perfundus, my poor love."

It was at this point that Magara got to his feet, came out of hiding, and said, "Good afternoon, Your Majesties. I am afraid I could not help overhearing your conversation."

Hamlet and Cilla got down from their horses and went with Nebos into the arbour. They sat down together on a bench there.

When the physician had heard the essential facts regarding Perfundus' past life, and the abortive efforts to keep him off the Throne, he was able to suggest a way of relieving the situation, at least to some degree. "The answer," he said, "may lie in those books." And so was hatched a little plot, the outcome of which became known as the 'King's cure'.