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کتاب: شبح باجه اخذ عوارض / فصل 5

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5.Short Shrift

“Done what you’ve looked,” angrily shouted one of the salesmen. He meant to say “Look what you’ve done,”

but the words had gotten so hopelessly mixed up that no one could make any sense at all.

“Do going to we what are!” complained another, as everyone set about straightening things up as well as they could.

For several minutes no one spoke an understandable sentence, which added greatly to the confusion. As soon as possible, however, the stalls were righted and the words swept into one large pile for sorting.

The Spelling Bee, who was quite upset by the whole affair, had flown off in a huff, and just as Milo got to his feet the entire police force of Dictionopolis appeared— loudly blowing his whistle.

“Now we’ll get to the bottom of this,” he heard someone say. “Here comes Officer Shrift.”

Striding across the square was the shortest policeman Milo had ever seen. He was scarcely two feet tall and almost twice as wide, and he wore a blue uniform with white belt and gloves, a peaked cap, and a very fierce expression. He continued blowing the whistle until his face was beet red, stopping only long enough to shout, “You’re guilty, you’re guilty,” at everyone he passed.

“I’ve never seen anyone so guilty,” he said as he reached Milo. Then, turning towards Tock, who was still ringing loudly, he said, “Turn off that dog; it’s disrespectful to sound your alarm in the presence of a policeman.”

He made a careful note of that in his black book and strode up and down, his hands clasped behind his back, surveying the wreckage in the market place.

“Very pretty, very pretty.” He scowled. “Who’s responsible for all this? Speak up or I’ll arrest the lot of you.”

There was a long silence. Since hardly anybody had actually seen what had happened, no one spoke.

“You,” said the policeman, pointing an accusing finger at the Humbug, who was brushing himself off and straightening his hat, “you look suspicious to me.”

The startled Humbug dropped his cane and nervously replied, “Let me assure you, sir, on my honor as a gentleman, that I was merely an innocent bystander, minding my own business, enjoying the stimulating sights and sounds of the world of commerce, when this young lad “

“AHA!” interrupted Officer Shrift, making another note in his little book. “Just as I thought: boys are the cause of everything.”

“Pardon me,” insisted the Humbug, “but I in no way meant to imply that “

“SILENCE!” thundered the policeman, pulling himself up to full height and glaring menacingly at the terrified bug. “And now,” he continued, speaking to Milo, “where were you on the night of July 27?”

“What does that have to do with it?” asked Milo.

“It’s my birthday, that’s what,” said the policeman as he entered “Forgot my birthday” in his little book “Boys always forget other people’s birthdays.

“You have committed the following crimes,” he continued: “having a dog with an unauthorized alarm, sowing confusion, upsetting the applecart, wreaking havoc, and mincing words.”

“Now see here,” growled Tock angrily.

“And illegal barking,” he added, frowning at the watchdog. “It’s against the law to bark without using the barking meter. Are you ready to be sentenced?”

“Only a judge can sentence you,” said Milo, who remembered reading that in one of his schoolbooks.

“Good point,” replied the policeman, taking off his cap and putting on a long black robe. “I am also the judge. Now would you like a long or a short sentence?”

“A short one, if you please,” said Milo.

“Good,” said the judge, rapping his gavel three times.

“I always have trouble remembering the long ones. How about ‘I am’? That’s the shortest sentence I know.”

Everyone agreed that it was a very fair sentence, and the judge continued: “There will also be a small additional penalty of six million years in prison. Case closed,”

he pronounced, rapping his gavel again. “Come with me. I’ll take you to the dungeon.”

“Only a jailer can put you in prison,” offered Milo, quoting the same book.

“Good point,” said the judge, removing his robe and taking out a large bunch of keys. “I am also the jailer.”

And with that he led them away.

“Keep your chin up,” shouted the Humbug. “Maybe they’ll take a million years off for good behavior.”

The heavy prison door swung back slowly and Milo and Tock followed Officer Shrift down a long dark corridor lit by only an occasional flickering candle.

“Watch the steps,” advised the policeman as they started down a steep circular staircase.

The air was dank and musty—like the smell of wet blankets—and the massive stone walls were slimy to the touch. Down and down they went until they arrived at another door even heavier and stronger-looking than the first. A cobweb brushed across Milo’s face and he shuddered.

“You’ll find it quite pleasant here,” chuckled the policeman as he slid the bolt back and pushed the door open with a screech and a squeak. “Not much company, but you can always chat with the witch.”

“The witch?” trembled Milo.

“Yes, she’s been here for a long time,” he said, starting along another corridor.

In a few more minutes they had gone through three other doors, across a narrow footbridge, down two more corridors and another stairway, and stood finally in front of a small cell door.

“This is it,” said the policeman. “All the comforts of home.”

The door opened and then shut and Milo and Tock found themselves in a high vaulted cell with two tiny windows halfway up on the wall.

“See you in six million years,” said Officer Shrift, and the sound of his footsteps grew fainter and fainter until it wasn’t heard at all.

“It looks serious, doesn’t it, Tock?” said Milo very sadly.

“It certainly does,” the dog replied, sniffing around to see what their new quarters were like.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do for all that time; we don’t even have a checker set or a box of crayons.”

“Don’t worry,” growled Tock, raising one paw assuringly, “something will turn up. Here, wind me, will you please? I’m beginning to run down.”

“You know something, Tock?” he said as he wound up the dog. “You can get in a lot of trouble mixing up words or just not knowing how to spell them. If we ever get out of here, I’m going to make sure to learn all about them.”

“A very commendable ambition, young man,” said a small voice from across the cell.

Milo looked up, very surprised, and noticed for thefirst time, in the half-light of the room, a pleasant-looking old lady quietly knitting and rocking.

“Hello,” he said.

“How do you do?” she replied.

“You’d better be very careful,” Milo advised. “I understand there’s a witch somewhere in here.”

“I am she,” the old lady answered casually, and pulled her shawl a little closer around her shoulders.

Milo jumped back in fright and quickly grabbed Tock to make sure that his alarm didn’t go off—for he knew how much witches hate loud noises.

“Don’t be frightened,” she laughed. “I’m not a witch —I’m a Which.”

“Oh,” said Milo, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“I’m Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked Which,” she continued, “and I’m certainly not going to harm you.”

“What’s a Which?” asked Milo, releasing Tock and stepping a little closer.

“Well,” said the old lady, just as a rat scurried across her foot, “I am the king’s great aunt. For years and years I was in charge of choosing which words were to be used for all occasions, which ones to say and which ones not to say, which ones to write and which ones not to write. As you can well imagine, with all the thousands to choose from, it was a most important and responsible job. I was given the title of ‘Official Which,’ which made me very proud and happy.

“At first I did my best to make sure that only the most proper and fitting words were used. Everything was said clearly and simply and no words were wasted. I had signs posted all over the palace and market place which said:

Brevity is the Soul of Wit.

“But power corrupts, and soon I grew miserly and chose fewer and fewer words, trying to keep as many as possible for myself. I had new signs posted which said:An Ill-chosen Word is the Fool’s Messenger

“Soon sales began to fall off in the market. The people were afraid to buy as many words as before, and hard times came to the kingdom. But still I grew more and more miserly. Soon there were so few words chosen that hardly anything could be said, and even casual conversation became difficult. Again I had new signs posted, which said:

Speak Fitly or be Silent Wisely.

“And finally I had even these replaced by ones which read simply:

Silence is Golden.

“All talk stopped. No words were sold, the market place closed down, and the people grew poor and disconsolate. When the king saw what had happened, he became furious and had me cast into this dungeon where you see me now, an older and wiser woman.

“That was all many years ago,” she continued; “but they never appointed a new Which, and that explains why today people use as many words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so. For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few, it is often far worse to use too many.”

When she had finished, she sighed deeply, patted Milo gently on the shoulder, and began knitting once again.

“And have you been down here ever since then?”

asked Milo sympathetically.’

“Yes,” she said sadly. “Most people have forgotten me entirely, or remember me wrongly as a witch not a Which. But it matters not, it matters not,” she went on unhappily, “for they are equally frightened of both.”

“I don’t think you’re frightening,” said Milo, and Tock wagged his tail in agreement.”I thank you very much,” said Faintly Macabre. “You may call me Aunt Faintly. Here, have a punctuation mark.” And she held out a box of sugar-coated question marks, periods, commas, and exclamation points.

“That’s all I get to eat now.”

“Well, when I get out of here, I’m going to help you,”

Milo declared forcefully.

“That’s very nice of you,” she replied; “but the only thing that can help me is the return of Rhyme and Reason.”

“The return of what?” asked Milo.

“Rhyme and Reason,” she repeated; “but that’s another long story, and you may not want to hear it.”

“We would like to very much,” barked Tock.

“We really would,” agreed Milo, and as the Which rocked slowly back and forth she told them this story.

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