THE LAST HAMLET or The Readiness Is All - 49 RETURN
As Captain Terson was setting out, in the darkest hours, oppressed by a cold and dampening mist, on Jobbins' best mare, towards the Wilderness and the performance of his terrible duty, King Hamlet was leading all of us with hands to spare in the writing out, in large block letters, on the hundreds of sheets of the white paper Darande had added to the expedition's manifest 'just in case', two words and an exclamtion mark. Of course, it would all be worse than academic if Nell was not convinced that we were already destroyed. We just had to believe.
Terson retrieved his lamp from its hiding place, and started off down the tunnel, 'heavier of heart' than he had been since the death of his wife.
The hut was curtained and dark, and there was no evidence of wakefulness. The intruder - for that is how he saw himself - put down his lamp before opening the door just widely enough for him to squeeze through. On one side of a blanket lay the angular figure of Rollo, who was affecting a discreet snore. 'This might have been amusing,' the Captain thought darkly, as he let his eyes fall upon the occupant of the other bed. A shaft of electric light which found its way through the narrowly opened door highlighted the autumn gold of the Queen's hair. The serenity of one at peace in apparently untroubled sleep was almost more than our observer was able to bear.
Although Terson's watch told him it was nearly ten o'clock in the morning, the clock on the wall showed only four thirty, presumably in the middle of the night. Many years of neglect had not served the antique timepiece well.
Tears streamed down the Captain's face as he gazed on Cilla. 'She must be told,' he thought, 'but not now, not yet.' When she had woken of her own accord there would be time for such a terrible word as his. He crept out of the hut, closed the door without a sound, picked up his lamp, and tiptoed back into a tunnel as black as his mood.
At eleven thirty of the forenoon, Burdon, who had long since sent all the duty staff home for a 'well earned rest', and who had been keeping himself going with ever stronger cups of coffee, saw the hoped for dot on the screen: Ullyses was really coming home, this time!
Once we had pierced the upper atmosphere, and had slowed down to conventional flying speed, and had allowed time for the heat shield to cool, the Commander piloted us to a position well west of the Wilderness. He said we were going to go in "by the back door."
"How may it best be done, Mac?"
"I'll sit in the pod bay, captain, and just let them go."
"Won't it be dangerous?"
"No more than climbing that rock! But I'll need a helper, to pass me the wads of paper."
"I'll do it! I'll do it!"
My offer was accepted. It was good to have a job to do, for once.
Terson was at the base of a volcano, the ground around him was shaking, and a snarling rumbling was coming from the middle of the exploding mountain. He opened his eyes - to see a spaceship, with wings spread wide, flying in from the west, and so low in altitude that its vertical thrusters - the use of which enbled Darande to maintain "the speed of a horse stretching to a fair gallop," as he put it - raised whirlrings of desert dust. The Captain saw a face or two at portholes, and recognised one of them. He waved, and I waved back.
"Do you know him?" the King asked.
"It's Captain Terson, Your Majesty," I said.
"Perhaps he isn't any more, sire."
"Certainly an odd place to be if he were."
When the ship had vanished from his sight Terson relit his lamp - on the third excitedly fumbled attempt! - and fair skipped and danced his way back down the tunnel.
Throughout the City, the people who had been summoned onto the streets by Nells' criers were reading that Ullyses had been destroyed; but what was that roaring above their heads, and scattering large sheets of paper, all bearing, upon examination, the legend: DRAXY GALORE ! As we flew away again I almost wished I could have been down there with the swarming masses, sharing with them the unique thrill of the moment.
Mulch, whom you may remember was the Draxy Palace Head Gardener, was on his knees planting the crocus bulbs which would produce next year's frost defying gold of early spring, and he rejoiced; he picked up the piece of paper which had floated down to him on the gentle breze, read what it had to say, and rejoiced again - while Finola picked up her bit of paper and cried, "They're back! Diken's back!" - while the Jobbins family saw and heard enough to realise that whatever the Captain had seen, it had not been the blowing up of a spaceship!
"With everything you've got, and a quart of your best ale, please," was Burdon's answer when his wife asked him what he would like for his full Steefaxian breakfast. He settled for three fried eggs, six rashers of streaky bacon, two large flat field mushrooms, a whole black puddiing, and two rounds of fried bread. He thought he might try coining the word 'brunch', and see if it would catch on.
When we had finished littering the City with paper, we flew back to the Wilderness. His Majesty explained. "The Commander and I would like to have a chat with that captain of Diken's. He may have much to tell us."
We put down close to where we had seen Terson. He was not there, but his horse was.
"He must have heard us," Hamlet said. "We'll wait."
"Look!" I cried.
Emerging from a hole in the mountainside were Butler Rollo, Captain Terson - and the Archdraxite! Except that it wasn't, for Nell would never have appeared in public without her helmet, and even if she had done, she would not have been able to display such lovely golden locks!
The ship's doors opened with a pressure equalising hiss. His majesty had gone. We all crowded around the right hand portholes. I have seen some marvellous sights in my time, but for simple beauty none may compare with the reunion in the Wilderness of King Hamlet and his Queen Cilla.
Ullyses took off, turned in its own space, and made once more towards the City. After King and Commander had outlined their immediate plans, we all plunged into frantic exchanges of bits of disconnected information which satisfied no one, but which wonderfully whetted appetites for more at greater leisure. Mister Rollo was gracioulsly pleased to accept my apology for kicking him so violently. He said that I had done him "an immesaurable favour by terminating abruptly what was becomimg intolerably vexatious."
As we flew over Cloud we saw people waving up at us; perhaps the wise ones themselves were among them.
Then it was King Hamlet's turn, for a not altogether unexpected piece of adapted Rattlelance:
"Come friends away,
To confront Nell and her accomplices.
Awhile to work, and after - holiday!"