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THE LAST HAMLET or The Readiness Is All - 16 A WORLD ON ITS OWN

A WORLD ON ITS OWN

Apart from the Archdraxite herself no one at Draxy Palace was mole qualified: everyone else was free to follow their own star. It was not given to all, of course, to become Her Grace's Butler, or Mistress of Pages, or Master of Horse, or Housekeeper, or Head Chef, or Head Gardener, or Brewmaster, or Captain of the Guard, but any who held ambitions along these or other lines were encouraged to go just as far as they were able.

On the day I joined the Draxy Palace community the population became four hundred and ninety seven,* of whom two hundred and fifty eight were under the age of fifteen. The number of pages was set permanently at forty, and if there was any jealousy amongst those 'passed over' I never noticed it; neither was I aware of any resentment towards myself for pushing in. Pages were generally chosen in their eighth years for their 'mutuality'. There seemed to be no policy of balancing the sexes, for when I was there the girl pages outnumbered the boys twenty seven to seventeen. Pages had their own quarters, with separate rooms for the over tens.

*If at any time the population of Draxy Palace dipped to four hundred and ninety five, a 'topping-up' of eight year olds, 'given to Draxy' by weaking parents, was effected.

It was not until I went to live there that I got to know how the Draxy Palace community came about in the first place. It was the Regents who suggested that parts of the Royal Army H.Q. and barracks might make a suitable residence for the Archdraxite; but it was Her Grace Phoebe who decided to commandeer the entire complex, and to add to it the former and adjacent Interplanetary Conference Centre, which, in its time, had enjoyed a galaxy wide reputation for 'offering the very best in business facilities, accommodation, cuisine, parks, gardens, as well as unrivalled indoor and outdoor recreational opportunities'. When asked if she really needed all that space, the first incumbent said: "Give me two years, and I shall fill it."

A piece in the Evening Gazette announced Phoebe's intentions:

The residence of the Archdraxite shall be called Draxy Palace. Residing there will be a body of people dedicated to the ideals of Draxite repentance and reconstruction. The community shall number five hundred. Initially it will consist mainly of partners between the ages of eighteen and twenty three having one, two, or three children. Exceptions may be made for married childlessness, or single celibacy, where other suitabilities prevail.

If you feel that you may have a vocation to serve in this self contained, self perpetuating community, then please apply in writing to Her Grace the Archdraxite.

There were over four thousand applications!

********

Having my own bedroom was a wonderful thing, for at the Royal Palace I had shared with a boy who had snored. So, allegedly, had I!

My room was about twelve feet square. There was a wardrobe with drawers, a larger, more comfortable bed than I had ever been used to, a small bedside table, a larger table with a wooden chair against it, an easy chair and - this was sheer luxury!- an oil lamp suspended by chain and pulley from the ceiling. I could lower it to light it and put it out, but replensishing the fuel, and trimming, was done by the Maintainer of the Lamps, a young man of infinite charm who spread light throughout the palace by his personality alone. Candle, matches, and a small clock were by my bed.

From my window three floors up I could look beyond the outer walls to the towers of The Royal Palace, and to the Rolling Mountains about ten miles beyond it. Between me and the walls was the area known as Big Garden: there were large, carefully tended lawns, beds and borders bright and gay with the reds, purples, and yellows of early spring, and fruit trees bedecked with vibrant blossom. The garden proper ended at a magnificent box hedge a hundred yards long - I paced it out one day - about ten feet high, and six thick, and which was punctuated by five equally spaced, man high tunnels.

In the rolling parkland beyond the hedge were trees of every species - so I was told - native to our planet, as well as some, like the helm and the creeping billow, which had been imported during the days of interplanetary trade. The dominating species were the great beeches, many of them hundreds of years old; but the oldest tree was an oak right up against the perimeter wall, with many of its branches spreading beyond it. I had seen it before.

The day after the books snatch I had been playing hide and find in the attics. Now the only thing worse than being found straight away is not being found at all. Well, there I was, crouching between a large wooden chest and the highest window of the Royal Palace, trying to conjour up some interest in the view towards the other palace not much more than half a mile way. I had just spotted a rather terrific looking tree just inside the walls, when a voice behind made me nearly jump out of my skin!

"Here, try these."

I leapt to my feet, and turned to find King Hamlet grinning at me, and offering me what he said were binoculars. I had never seen their like, but their usage seemed pretty obvious to me. After been taught how to focus them I was soon oohing and ahing at the amazing nearness of everything, not just that tree, but also the other palace's battlements, and the giant clock, whose time I could clearly read.

"All on you own?"

I told His Majesty about the hide and find game.

"Worst thing," he said. "Better to be found straight away. That tree looks a good climber."

"Yes, sire."

"Like to climb, do you?"

"When I can, sire."

"There's someone in it!" Hamlet pointed to the tree. I put the binoculars to my eyes again.

"There's two of them, Your Majesty."

"Let's see."

I handed the binoculars back.

"There must be a platform," the King said, "built into the tree. It's as if they were on a level floor. Well, old chap, must be off. Thanks for your help yesterday, by the way."

"That's alright. sire. It was good fun."

"Yes, wasn't it?"

Hamlet had taken his binoculars and left me alone again.

I have to be honest with you and say that it was pleasant to have those memories back, of when the King had been nice to me.

********

Draxy Palace was indeed 'a world on its own', and I will try to describe for you a typical day there. If I did not wake up by myself, I would certainly be roused by the first boomings of the day of Big Bertha, the bell of the monster clock installed by Celeriac, the third archdraxite. At first it had awakened all but the soundest sleepers, on the hour, every hour, throughout the entire night; but following a month or so of her own disturbed slumbers, and of seeing haggard, sleep starved faces all around her, Celeriac had told the Engineer to "fix the beast." He did, and from then on it did not strike after seven at night, nor before seven in the morning. Quite how this clever business was achieved was explained to me by a member of the Engineer's department, whom I failed entirely to understand!

Breakfast, of fruit juice and porridge, followed by bacon, eggs, and fried bread, or freshly baked bread, cheeses and fruit according to taste, was, like all meals, taken communally. There were two sittings for each meal: senior family members could opt for either, but the children - apart from the infants, who were fed in the nursery - always attended the first. There was no place sitting by rank: the Captain of the Guard would eat happily with a junior sentry, as would the Housekeeper with the youngest chambermaid; and it would never occur to the seniors to object to having children eating with them at the same board. Everyone knew their place during the working day, but out of hours all were simply members of the Draxy Palace family. It was simple, obvious, delightful, and it worked. Nell varied her sittings and her tables, and she liked to think that during the course of a year she might eat at least once with each member of the community.

After breakfast we children had bed making and room tidying before school.

At the end of school we could either stay in the classrooms talking, or go out and play in the gardens. Then came lunch, of crusty bread, thick soups, and fresh salad vegetables, washed down by the seniors with ale from the Draxy Palace Brewhouse, and by the children with milk or apple juice.

We seniors had the afternoons to ourselves, in that nobody actually told us where to go, or what to do; however, we were expected to use the time profitably. Physical activities such as running and brisk walking, pony riding, and archery were encouraged, and in the warmer weather hardy souls could go swimming: I used to enjoy the mile or so hike around the lake, but nothing would ever have induced me to test the waters!

The Library was always available to us, for private study, and for book borrowing. On the packed shelves were biographies of all the archdraxites before Paulina; they were good solid stuff, but hardly exciting. The ten volume History of Steefax Since the Founding of the Archdraxity had its moments, but I could only take a little at a time. An Interpretation of Pre-Catastrophe History, by Fastolphus, was as near to being completely unreadable as any book I have ever opened. The best things in the Library were the lavishly illustrated geographical tomes and natural histories, and the novels, many hundreds of them, telling of heroes and heroines of Draxy, and the downfallings of reprobates. Mind you, I did long for the odd triumphant villain! These tales were the work of the Draxite novellists who lived in community in the City, and who published between them twenty or thirty books a year.

On at least one afternoon a week we older children were expected to 'visit': this entailed going the rounds of the various departments of the palace, talking to working people, and generally trying to establish our interests and ambitions for later on in life. I spent a good deal of time trying not to get in the way of Rollo, Her Grace's Butler, and Terson, her Captain of the Guard.

All children of eight and over took turns serving at the Archdraxite's afternoon tea, at which Nell entertained members of the senior family, also in turn and entirely regardless of rank or status.

The great meal of the day was High Tea: there might be roast pork with stuffing and all the trimmings, poached eggs and bacon on beds of spinach drenched with lip tingling cheese sauce, or extravagant hashes of Steefax and Moon grown vegetables, with cheese and lentil sauce impregnated with chillies. The great treat was roast Draxy Palace reared, yellow fleshed, Moon corn fed chicken, with crisply fried bacon, sausages, roast potatoes, green seasonable vegetables, and bread sauce. Bowls of fresh fruit were always on the tables for afters. The seniors could drink ale, or damson, darkberry, or Moon harvested grape wine. On the eighth day of the week the senior children were allowed a gill of ale, which benison invariably made our conversation bubble!

After tea we children had quiet time, which involved reading or simply resting in our rooms. At seven o'cock came the highlight of our day, when all but the infants would troop excitedly to the games room. Down one side of it, and regularly spaced, were five pairs of floor to ceiling windows, which could open out onto a raised terrace lawn flanked at each end by ancient cedar trees, and along its length by a stone balustrade.

This wonderful room was a place of unadulterated delight for one and all. In it we could sit down to card, word, and board games, or play carpet bowls at one end, and pong ping at the other. Right in the centre, taking pride of place, was a full sized cueball table. Nell was a master cue person, and she once made 147 in single crack, which, believe me, is pretty good. She liked to join us for at least the last half hour of a session. More than anything, I think, she enjoyed the communal solving of the Gazette cryptic crossword puzzle. I was reckoned to be quite good at anagrams, and I have to admit that I did glow, now and then, with the sheer happiness of hearing Nell saying, "This looks like one for Diken." If it were an especially pleasant evening, we might take the crossword out onto the terrace.

Recreation time over, we would troop off to the kitchen, where the duty cook would dispense steaming mugs of cocoa, and biscuits. On every evening but the fifth of the week the draining of the mugs would signal a general departure to our rooms; but on the day on which the Rite had been celebrated, the seniors would go with Nell to her quarters. There she would speak to us of her vision of a better Steefax, in which we, the children of Draxy, would be pioneers of the new, not merely inheritors of the old. We would help to banish discontent, and heal grief. We would enable all Stefaxians, especially the children, to develop a sense of purpose, and a notion of self worth. We would lead them towards a discovery of joys which, in their hearts, they so fervently sought. How glorious it was, listening to such ideas as those propounded by one who loved us all so dearly, and whom we loved without reservation in return. These were marvellous days for me, and I lived in a state of pulsating contentment made even lovlier by the flourishing of a most particular friendship. My complaceny was absolute, and nothing, surely, would ever be able to disturb it.

kelson.philo's picture

Well, very good. These past

Well, very good. These past few entries have really built up the world Diken lives in. It also raises some intriguing questions, such as why is it easier to grow food on the moon than on the planet itself? This Wilderness must be pretty lively, if so. Also, has there been any other kinds of cultural or physiogical exchanges with other planetary beings? Are oak trees and books the only thing to come from earth, for example? Ah well. The stage is now set for action.

Things starting to happen.

Thank you for believing in Diken's world. In terms of Steefax history, my narrator is limited by what little he and others can find out after a century of archdraxical suppression of information. Steefax has always had difficulty feeding itself, because of its geography. There has never been much quality farming land. With the migration to the city under the first archdraxite much good land was left behind, so that even with a much reduced population the Moondome, with its four harvests a year, was still very much needed. Diken does not know much about historical relations with other planets in the galaxy, and his knowledge of Ee-arth comes from those books so beloved of the first and last of the Hamlets. As for first hand accounts of other world experiences - well, who but Diken knows what the future may hold? Anyway, as you say, the stage is now set for action.