WHEREIN THE QUEEN GIVES A LECTURE, MEETS
A PEDDLER, AND GETS REAL MAD
Meanwhile, the Queen was having a conversation with the Princess in her usual style--the Queen would talk, eventually wait for the Purella to reply, and then would cut her off in mid-sentence with some new thought. The Queen's conversation, though fascinating to herself, was a bit tiresome, and conceivably could have been printed and marketed as the latest cure for insomnia. Nevertheless, Purella waited patiently until the Queen's little oration was over, and then resumed gazing out the window. Meanwhile the Queen stared at the floor of the coach and smiled broadly, apparently overwhelmed by the massive entertainment value of everything she ever did and thought. However, the smile gradually faded from her lips as the serious discussion she wanted to have with her daughter crawled back into her mind. Finally, after giving Purella a long, pity-filled stare, she opened the royal mouth and spoke. "I've been thinking," said the Queen, with particular emphasis on the last word. "Indeed madam," Purella replied. "Yes, yes, it's true. My daughter, I've been thinking that you are very unhappy." Although obvious to a deep thinker like the Queen, Purella's despondency would not have been so apparent to a casual observer, and Purella and Floppy each gave the Queen a quizzical look. "But I am happy," Purella said, scarcely believing that her mother was really showing some concern for her. "No child, you are not," the Queen responded ominously, "In fact, you are the most unhappy, most miserable, most wretched, and most pathetic girl I've ever seen. But the solution to all your problems is obvious. It's clear that you must be married to Prince Charming of Skindeepia without delay." "But I don't want to get married!" "Nonsense! Every girl wants to get married." "But I'm not in love!" "Love? Love?! Love?!!" the Queen replied, as if she didn't know the meaning of the word, "I don't know the meaning of the word!!" "But..." "Listen to me child," the Queen interrupted, "Love is completely unimportant. I've never cared one bit for love, and look where I am!" "But I'm only eighteen! I'm not ready to marry." "Nonsense! You've led a happy, innocent life for a long time now, and I think it's about time for you to have a change. Just eighteen! Why when I was your age I was twice as old as you are!" "But why Prince Charming?" "Because he's handsome for one thing; he's smart, he's fashionable, he knows how to eat with a fork, and his father's kingdom is much more respected than ours, and this alliance will give our country the prestige we need. Also, I happen to know that their treasury is getting low and Prince Charming needs your dowry to keep himself up in the style he's accustomed to. And besides that he's tall. What more could you ask for? Of course, I don't think we should have the wedding right away. We'll have it, shall we say, next week?" "Next week!" "And that's not the half of it!" the Queen continued, "Take a look at this magazine!" The Queen pulled out a copy of "Castle Beautiful" magazine from under her seat and flipped to an article entitled "10 Things You Can Do with Idols." The article told all about the Great Fish idol of Bubbylonia, the Great Lion of Motownto, and the Poodle idol of Pottawotamie. "Idols are making a comeback," the Queen exclaimed with glee, "When I was a little girl everyone worshipped idols, and the idol of the great god Fungo was the center of the universe. It was so wonderful⎯the dancing, the sacrificing, the grovelling at the feet of the Queen in her official role as High Priestess⎯it was all so wonderful! Now we're infested with all these sick new religions with their invisible gods! Whatever happened to the good old days when everyone worshipped idols?" "Well mother, thanks to 'Trollkiller' Sven Svensson those days are..." "'Trollkiller' Sven Svensson!!!" the Queen shouted, "Don't ever mention that name to me again!" ("Trollkiller" Sven Svensson was a famous hero, as well as the founder of a notorious religion.) "Listen to me!" the Queen continued, "The Great Chamber of Fungo at our castle has remained sealed and empty for 35 years, ever since that maniac came in and desecrated the temple. What I think we should have is a new idol, a spectacular new idol, and your marriage with Prince Charming can be the first celebration of the new religion!" "You know I can't do that, mother," Purella boldly replied, "I believe in the one God who created heaven and earth, and you and me and everyone else! I've been a faithful 'Trollerist' as you call us ever since my maids took me to visit their little church outside the village, and I will never, never have anything to do with an idol, because idols are just dumb, lifeless pieces of rock made by sinful men." "Insolence!!" the Queen shouted, "I should have had your maids whipped! This Trollerism is worse than a plague!" "Mother, you condemn 'Trollerism', but you don't know anything about it! The very least you could do is look into it and see what it's all about! Couldn't you at least do that?" Before the Queen could respond the coach hit a rough spot in the road, and the right-rear wheel came flying off. The horses didn't need much encouragement to come to a halt, and soon the Head Coachman and his Assistant were busy repairing the wheel. The tense little conversation inside the coach was over, but nevertheless Purella's last words planted a seed in the Queen's mind, where, since there was plenty of room for growth in that region, several new ideas began to sprout.
While the men worked, the Queen, Purella, and Floppy stepped out of the coach, crossed over to a large oak tree, and took a seat on some boulders in the shade. The Queen and Purella didn't speak to each other, but sat quietly apart. There were now far away from Troddleheim, in the middle of the Sweedle forest, a pleasant little wood dotted with oak trees, grassy meadows, and playful streams. The route they had chosen was circuitous, and they were as far from the castle as they would ever be. As soon as the wheel was fixed, they would rise through the hills to the left, cross Brakehed Pass, and head directly home.
The Head Coachman had a difficult time jacking up the coach, and an even worse time fitting the wheel back on, despite the valuable advice of his Assistant, who sat watching his exertions with a look of profound sympathy.
Soon an hour came and went, and the wheel was still not on. The Queen was about to upbraid the two men for their slowness, but before she could speak her attention was distracted by clanging and banging sounds which came from down the road. Purella, also intrigued by these strange sounds, hopped off her boulder and went over to the road to look.
Coming up the road was a vehicle that resembled a wagon, piled high with various types of furniture, tools, and gadgets. Pots and pans were strung to the sides, crates full of bottles could be heard jangling together, and the whole thing shook and swayed back and forth with a great sense of urgency. This singular conveyance was pulled by a singular creature, who appeared to be a cross between a pony and some type of sheepdog. This sturdy beast was notable both for his shortness of stature and his inability to walk in a straight line. He apparently had a great interest in the drainage capacity of the area, for he would wander over and examine the ditches on either side of the road with great assiduity, and would occasionally exhibit unmistakable signs of desiring to curl up in one of them and fall asleep, presumably in order to get a first-hand idea of its volume. The driver prevented his steed from ever performing this experiment, not by threats and whippings, but rather with gentle pleadings, which would rouse the beast from his scientific contemplations and encourage him to continue the journey. The driver of this wagon was as singular as his pony. He was a short, pudgy little man, wearing greasy clothes that were made long before he was born, and with the understanding that they would be worn by someone about a foot taller than their current owner. The little old man had lineless pink cheeks, sparkling blue eyes, and a dirty cap. Soon he pulled his wagon even with the Queen's coach and stopped, making sure everyone could see the huge pink sign on the side of his wagon, which said, "Oddities." When the wagon stopped, the pony, in an apparent attempt to determine the width of the road, instantaneously dropped to the ground, stretched out across the thoroughfare, and closed his eyes, probably in order to concentrate more fully on the mathematical calculations he intended to make. Meanwhile, the little old man climbed down from his wagon and, after ascertaining her high rank and contorting himself before her in a way which might be interpreted as a bow, addressed the Queen. "Madam, Jack Crackback's my name, and oddities is my game! Potions, powders, lotions, chowders, wonders, blunders, chains, brains, and septic drains, all the wonders of earth, sea, and sky, most of the questions, and all of the answers are strapped onto the humble wagon you see before you, and are at your service!" The Queen, instantly realizing that he was poor, looked at him with considerable contempt. The others, however, looked at him with great curiosity; to get a closer look at him, the Head Coachman's Assistant temporarily let loose his grip on the wagon, causing the partial crushing of the Head Coachman, while Purella stepped forward to introduce herself. "I'm Princess Purella of Hoodahooda," she said. "Your highness," Jack replied, "Jack Crackback's my name, and oddities is my game! Potions, powders, lotions, chowders..." "We've heard that already!" blurted the Queen. "Your nerves are unsteady?" Mr. Crackback replied, "Well I have a potion that would make your nerves so steady you could thread needles behind your back while hanging upside down." "That's not what I said, you blithering fool!" "I agree your majesty. The weather is cool," Mr. Crackback earnestly replied. "What are you babbling about?" the Queen demanded, "Are you deaf?" "What?" "I said, 'Are you deaf?'!!" "What?" "Are you deaf?!!!" she bellowed. "There's no need to shout, your majesty. After all, I'm not deaf." At this point the Queen began berating the unfortunate peddler with a wide variety of remarks not too complimentary of his personal appearance and level of intelligence. Fortunately for Mr. Crackback, Purella interposed and, after several misunderstandings, managed to ask him where he was travelling, and if he had any items that might prove interesting to the Queen. "I'm going over the Pass to see if I can sell some stuff to the farmers in the next valley," he responded, "I can show you lots of things." He guided Purella over to his wagon, while the Queen remained on her boulder, frowning. "This is a rainmaker," he said as he shakily grabbed a weirdly-shaped metallic instrument, "You just fill it up with water, attach it to your roof, smear the tips with butter, wait for it to get hit once by lightning, and soon you'll have rain in no time. And over here I've got a left-handed cheese slicer, a book on snake charming, and a machine that turns tomatoes, grapefruits, and pomegranates into cucumbers." "But don't you have anything my mother could use?" Purella asked. "Like food for example!" shouted the Queen, who was listening from a distance, and gradually becoming famished by the exertions of the day. "Absolutely right, your majesty," Jack solemnly replied, as he gazed at the cucumber converter he held in his hands, "Crude but ample." Purella spent a minute browsing through the contents of the wagon, amazed at the variety and eccentricity of the merchandise. "Do you really have most of the questions and all of the answers stuffed into this little wagon?" Purella asked, unable to suppress a smile. "Answers for any question, and questions for any answer," Jack replied. "All right," Purella playfully responded, "If Marcellus is three years old, and Sarah is four times as old as Marcellus will be in ten years, and Frank is..." "Of course, I try to avoid answering questions that are too trivial," Jack hastily explained, "Not that I couldn't if I wanted to, of course." "Oh, of course," replied the smiling Princess. "I generally give answers to only really important questions, such as the meaning of life, the meaning of death, marriage..." "Marriage?" "Sure. I answer questions about things like marriage all the time, because I like to answer questions on subjects that are so important you can't afford to make a bad decision. After all, marriage is something you can't rush into--a hasty marriage can ruin your life. Why I remember one time..." "I will hear no more of this!" demanded the big-eared Queen from her seat on the distant boulder. She didn't like the turn their conversation was taking. "But your majesty, I, I, well," stammered Jack with a blush so red it was hardly credible, "I haven't known you long enough to give you a kiss." Before the shocked Queen could compose herself and bury the poor peddler in under a mound of expletives, Purella interposed once again and asked Jack if he had any special cleaning fluid which could take the dust and grime off the royal coach. Jack responded in the affirmative, and, after snatching up a dirty bottle of clear fluid from the depths of his wagon, followed Purella over to the stricken conveyance. The coach was dirty, particularly on the ride side, just below the window. This was Floppy's fault. He had sat for most of the time with his head sticking out the window, and, according to his habit when he was excited, emptied a considerable quantity of liquid out of his mouth, which soon adorned the side of the coach. The dust in the road, after being kicked up into the air by the coach's front wheels, quickly noted the presence of this fluid, and, since it is the ambition of every piece of dust to someday rise to the exalted position of "mud", attached itself onto it with great enthusiasm, and soon the coat of arms on the side of the coach looked like a gigantic black smudge. "BAP water," Jack pronounced after observing the coach's condition, "What I have here in my hands is not ordinary water, but BAP water, drawn from the purest well in the universe, and guaranteed to clean anything, and show it as it really is." So saying, he opened the bottle and dramatically splashed most of its contents against the side of the coach. Sure enough, the dirt quickly disappeared, and Purella and the Head Coachman's Assistant looked at Jack with admiring eyes. The Head Coachman missed this demonstration, however, because for some reason or other he was balancing the full weight of the coach on his head, while trying very unsuccessfully to gain the attention of his preoccupied Assistant, who had wandered over to observe the BAP water experiment without giving prior notice. Floppy watched the cleaning process from a distance, embarrassed by his negligence in causing such a problem, while the Queen watched from her seat on the boulder, and expressed the opinion that she found it hard to believe that Mr. Jack Crackback could do anything right. Unfortunately, in this instance the Queen's assessment of Jack's abilities proved correct, for as soon as the BAP water succeeded in removing the dirt, it felt obligated to continue and remove the coat of arms as well, and, not content to rest on its laurels, concluded by removing several underlying coats of paint. This operation produced a startling revelation, namely that the original color of the coach was pink and orange, and that its original owner had written on it in bold blue letters:
Cut Rate Coaches, Wagons, and Battle Equipment
(Credit is our Middle Name!)
The Queen was not amused by the sight of her defaced coach. She jumped up and down, shouted unintelligibly, searched for a large rock, and gave every indication that she intended to apply one to Mr. Jack Crackback's face at the first opportunity. Purella hastily grabbed Jack by the arm and, after leading him back to his wagon, thanked him for all his help. "It was a pleasure to be of service," Jack gallantly replied as he placed himself on his shaky perch, "I'm sorry I couldn't do more." Several violent pulls on the reins brought Jack's pony to its feet, much to the indignation of that learned animal, who doubtless had been computing something of great import in his mind, which, due to this barbarous interruption, was now thrown into hopeless confusion. The pony was so incensed by this treatment that he gave every indication that he would never move again for the rest of his natural life, and, despite many tender pleas from Jack, stood as if locked in concrete. Finally, however, a look of philosophical resignation stole over the pony's face and, no doubt inspired by higher ideals of duty and loyalty (and a desire to get to a stable in time for dinner), the pony began marching bravely forward, and before long Jack Crackback and his wagon were out of sight. Shortly thereafter, the sun, tired of floating over everybody's head, decided to start dropping toward the western hills, in the hope that it could rest for nine or ten hours before having to get up bright and early the next morning. As a result of this singular action, there were only a few hours left before sunset, and the coach was still not repaired. The Queen was getting angry. More time passed. "Someone will be punished for this," the Queen said. The horses began to paw the ground nervously. The Head Coachman and his Assistant each gulped. They began working on the wheel with renewed energy, and finally it was fixed. "Ready to go, your majesty," the Head Coachman chimed with forced cheerfulness. "If we're late for dinner, someone will pay," said the Queen ominously. "Please don't talk like that, mother," said Purella sweetly, "We'll get home in plenty of time." She took her mother gently by the hand and escorted her into the coach. Then, after Floppy leaped inside, the coach rattled off toward Brakehed Pass.
The Head Coachman and his horses needed no encouragement to hurry, and proceeded vigorously forward, even though the road to Brakehed Pass was a treacherous road that often bordered the sides of huge cliffs. Still, the Queen was not satisfied by their progress.
"Late for dinner...late for dinner.." she kept repeating, "Too slow! Too slow!" She said the last words so loudly that the horses clearly overheard her. Though unable to understand the words, they could clearly recognize the tune, and frantically tried to speed up. "Mother, please!" said Purella, "They're going as fast as they can!" "Silence! Don't contradict me again! You've hurt me deeply today!" said the Queen, who really did look hurt. "But mother, how did I..." "I have spent days, weeks thinking about the new idol we should have, and how you could marry Prince Charming and be so happy, and I finally tell you all my exciting plans and you scoff at them! You and your invisible God! Then, to top all, I must sit out in the middle of nowhere while some fools try to fix a wheel, and listen to the insults of a repulsive old peddler. And then my horses deliberately go slow so I'll be late for dinner! Don't try to deny it!! I know their game, and I have half a mind to stop the coach right now and have them all beaten!!" That did it. The horses began running at breakneck speed, unmindful of the danger, and the Head Coachman could no longer control them. The horses raced to the top of the pass. The road narrowed. Soon they were galloping along the side of a sheer cliff. Fifteen hundred feet below them, in a narrow, inaccessible gorge, one could see the white water of a river. The Head Coachman and his Assistant closed their eyes. They rounded a turn, and for an instant one of the rear wheels swung off the road and hung over the edge of a cliff.