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THE LAST HAMLET: or The Readiness Is All - 12 THE BOOK RAID

THE BOOK RAID

In the Temple of Draxy, on the fifth day of each week, between the hours of nine and eleven in the morning, successive archdraxites, accompanied by their Vestals and Protectors, had presided over the Rite of Culpability, rehearsing before the leaden Urn the past abuses of Draxy, declaiming upon the Sin of Hamlet the First, and renewing on behalf of all Steefax the Promises of the Pursuit of Virtue by the Pathways of Repentance. The Rite was sacred time, and it was not, on any account, to be interrupted.

The citizen spy who saw King Hamlet striding out along Argon Mall at the head of a little army of pages and other Palace low-lifers, all pushing scrubbed clean wheelbarows, with a vainly protesting and sweaty Queen and Royal Physician bringing up the rear, rushed straight to the Temple and burst in upon the Rite. Before he could utter a word of explanation, the unfortunate fellow was beaten unconscious to the floor by a Protector. On regaining his senses, and after a couple of days of bed rest, the intended loyalist - who might just have caused the 'King's cure' to be nipped in its nascent bud - was formally reprimanded by Her Grace; but the spy who had seen everything that had happened, but who had waited until the Rite was over before reporting it, was mentioned in dispatches!

Hamlet and his gang were intercepted at the main door of the Royal Library by Murdo, successor to Socratis.

"I've come for the books," the King said, in an every day sort of way.

"The books, sire?" replied the nonplussed custodian.

"To be precise," said Hamlet, "the Ee-arth books."

"I am not quite sure that I understand you, Your Majesty."

"I think I speak plain Steefaxian, Murdo."

"Indeed, sire, of course, sire, but..."

"But me no buts, man! I've come to take them away."

"To take them..."

"Away." Hamlet waved an airy hand towards the wheelbarrows. "You see, I have transport."

Utterely out of his depth though the poor man clearly was, Murdo felt that he had to try something, if only to clear himself with the Archdraxite. "Should not Her Grace be informed, Your Majesty?"

"Not nescessary, Murdo. Her Grace will approve of my action. She knows full well the poison which pollutes those shelves."

"That may well be so, Your Majesty. However, I feel she might just like to be informed - before any precipitate action is contemplated."

"Why? Is it her library? Does she hold the patronage? Am I not the King?" Murdo sort of gaped. "Well, am I not?"

"Yes, indeed, sire. Of course, Your Majesty."

"And is not this the Royal Libray?"

"Yes, sire. Indeed it is."

"Then the books in it must be mine, mustn't they?"

Faced with such irrefutable logic Murdo felt he could do no more. An immediate appeal to the Archdraxite was out of the question, for she was at the Rite, a fact that had plainly been taken into account by this former simple duster of books. It was an unhappy but resigned Royal Librarian who said, "Your Majesty must do as you see fit. I am at your service, sire."

"Thank you, Murdo, very much indeed. I shall be in you debt."

As we set off with our wheelbarrows towards the Ee-arth section of the Library, I exchanged looks with my grinning pals. "Never," we said silently to each other, "had life as a Royal page been quite this much fun!"

The last book having been placed on the last piled high barrow, we set off, in line astern, back towards the Palace. Word must have got out while we were in the Library, for there was a fair old crowd of curious bystanders assembled to stare at pages, junior gardeners, and domestics all puffing and panting behind their burdens up the steepening slope of the Mall, trying to keep up with their majesties and the good doctor.

Hands at the Palace had not been idle in our absence, and when we arrived at the Great Hall - to which we had been directed by the Queen, His Majesty appearing to be falling into some sort of a swoon - we found a handy little bonfire burning merrily on a pile of bricks. Two of the cooks were fanning the flames.

Then the King collapsed to the floor, where he lay with motionless eyes staring staight up at the ceiling. The physician dropped to his knees to feel his purse. The Queen assumed command. "You will each take an armful of books and cast them into the flames."

We did what we were told - up to a point! For as we advanced heavily laden towards the fire, we heard a ferocious shout.

"Stop!" The King was on his feet. "What is the meaning of this? What are you doing with my books? And why has a fire been lit? Is it winter? Has the weather lost its clemency? Place the books back in the barrows, as gently as you may."

Puzzled, not daring to laugh, or even smile, we labourers obeyed.

His Majesty came to my barrow and selected a volume. "Ah, Rattlelance, my old friend," he purred. "And Wordsvalue!" He went to another barrow. "Poems by Ron," he chortled. "And Winner Hugo!"

The King returned to my barrow and picked up the same leather bound volume with which his idyll had begun. He opened it, not at random, but with a precision born of familiarity. "There!" His eyes glowed with satisfaction as he read aloud, 'Now is the winter of our displeasure made glorious summer.'"* He closed the book and placed it back on my barrow. "Hamlet is himself again," he said. "There are shelves in my libary that are hungry for these books. Let's go to it."

*Most of the Rattlelance quotations are from Hopenov's translation of the complete works, published in 897 ND. Extracts from Harry the Fifth, which will feature later in my history, will be from the translation by Hamlet the First.

With His majesty urging speed with care we took the books in large canvas bags - which had suddenly materialised! - up into the Throne Room, then along the corridor to the libary. Only seconds after the final volume had been placed, the distant booming of the great bell in the Temple of Draxy told us that the Rite was over for another week. Hamlet had hardly acknowledged my existence before that day, but as the final peal died away, he put his arm around my shouder, and whispered in my ear, "Just in time, old chap, just in time."

********

Far too many people had witnessd the strange happenings that day for the Evening Gazette to turn a blind eye to them. The teatime edition carried the following, under Archdraxite Nell's own byline:

His Majesy the King has not been himself of late. It appears that he has been missing some of the books he used to look after in the Royal Library. Today, he returned to his one time work place with some of his staff, and took away a selection of his favourite volumes.

We hope that this quite unnecessary piece of business may help to cure His Majesty of his late melancholy. We say 'unnecssary', because had we known of his need, we ourselves would have answered it.

Long live the King, and may he have happy reading.

That same day in the evening, Nell had this to say to her diary:

I have been tricked by the King and Queen, and - if my source is correct - by the Physician also. He will not remain in post. Hamlet fooled me once before, and fooled himself at the same time. May there be metal in this man, after all? Does he think of coming out to fight? Well, if he does, I shall be ready for him.

Nell did not have long to wait for the first skirmish, and, ready or not, she very nearly lost it.