داوطبان هامبوگ

کتاب: شبح باجه اخذ عوارض / فصل 8

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8.The Humbug Volunteers

“Couldn’t eat another thing,” puffed the duke, clutching his stomach.

“Oh my, oh dear,” agreed the minister, breathing with great difficulty.

“M-m-m-m-f-f-m-m,” mumbled the earl, desperately trying to swallow another mouthful.

“Thoroughly stuffed,” sighed the count, loosening his belt.

“Full up,” grunted the undersecretary, reaching for the last cake.

As everyone finished, the only sounds to be heard were the creaking of chairs, the pushing of plates, the licking of spoons, and, of course, a few words from the Humbug.

“A delightful repast, delicately prepared and elegantly served,” he announced to no one in particular.

“A feast of rare bouquet. My compliments to the chef, by all means; my compliments to the chef.” Then, with a most distressed look on his face, he turned to Milo and gasped, “Would you kindly fetch me a glass of water?

I seem to have a touch of indigestion.”

“Perhaps you’ve eaten too much too quickly,” Milo remarked sympathetically.

“Too much too quickly, too much too quickly,” wheezed the uncomfortable bug, between gulps. “To be sure, too much too quickly. I most certainly should have eaten too little too slowly, or too much too slowly, or too little too quickly, or taken all day to eat nothing, or eaten everything in no time at all, or occasionally eaten something any time, or perhaps I should have “ And he toppled back, exhausted, into his chair and continued to mumble indistinctly.

“Attention! Let me have your attention!” insisted the king, leaping to his feet and pounding the table. The command was entirely unnecessary, for the moment he began to speak everyone but Milo, Tock, and the distraught bug rushed from the hall, down the stairs, and out of the palace.

“Loyal subjects and friends,” continued Azaz, his voice echoing in the almost empty room, “once again on this gala occasion we have “

“Pardon me,” coughed Milo as politely as possible, “but everyone has gone.”

“I was hoping no one would notice,” said the king sadly. “It happens every time.”

“They’ve all gone to dinner,” announced the Humbugweakly, “and just as soon as I catch my breath I shall join them.”

“That’s ridiculous. How can they eat dinner right after a banquet?” asked Milo.

“SCANDALOUS!” shouted the king. “We’ll put a stop to it at once. From now on, by royal command, everyone must eat dinner before the banquet.”

“But that’s just as bad,” protested Milo.

“You mean just as good,” corrected the Humbug.

“Things which are equally bad are also equally good.

Try to look at the bright side of things.”

“I don’t know which side of anything to look at,” protested Milo. “Everything is so confusing and all your words only make things worse.”

“How true,” said the unhappy king, resting his regal chin on his royal fist as he thought fondly of the old days. “There must be something we can do about it.”

“Pass a law,” the Humbug suggested brightly.

“We have almost as many laws as words,” grumbled the king.

“Offer a reward,” offered the bug again.

The king shook his head and looked sadder and sadder.

“Send for help.”

“Drive a bargain.”

“Pull the switch.”

“File a brief.”

“Lower the boom.”

“Toe the line.”

“Raise the bridge.”

“Bar the door,” shouted the bug, jumping up and down and waving his arms. Then he promptly sat down as the king glanced furiously in his direction.

“Perhaps you might allow Rhyme and Reason to return,” said Milo softly, for he had been waiting for just such an opportunity to suggest it.

“How nice that would be,” said Azaz, straighteningup and adjusting his crown. “Even if they were a bother at times, things always went so well when they were here.” As he spoke he leaned back on the throne, clasped his hands behind his head, and stared thoughtfully at the ceiling. “But I’m afraid it can’t be done.”

“Certainly not; it can’t be done,” repeated the Humbug.

“Why not?” asked Milo.

“Why not indeed?” exclaimed the bug, who seemed equally at home on either side of an argument.

“Much too difficult,” replied the king.

“Of course,” emphasized the bug, “much too difficult.”

“You could if you really wanted to,” insisted Milo.

“By all means, if you really wanted to, you could,” the Humbug agreed.

“How?” asked Azaz, glaring at the bug.

“How?” inquired Milo, looking the same way.

“A simple task,” began the Humbug, suddenly wishing he were somewhere else, “for a brave lad with a stout heart, a steadfast dog, and a serviceable small automobile.”

“Go on,” commanded the king.

“Yes, please,” seconded Milo.

“All that he would have to do,” continued the worried bug, “is travel through miles of harrowing and hazardous countryside, into unknown valleys and uncharted forests, past yawning chasms and trackless wastes, until he reached Digitopolis (if, of course, he ever reached there). Then he would have to persuade the Mathemagician to agree to release the little princesses—and, of course, he’d never agree to agree to anything that you agreed with. And, anyway, if he did, you certainly wouldn’t agree to it.

“From there it’s a simple matter of entering the mountains of Ignorance, full of perilous pitfalls and ominous overtones—a land to which many venture but few return, and whose evil demons slither slowly from peak to peak in search of prey. Then an effortless climb up a two-thousand-step circular stairway without railings in a high wind at night (for in those mountains it is always night) to the Castle in the Air.”

He paused momentarily for breath, then began again.

“After a pleasant chat with the princesses, all that remains is a leisurely ride back through those chaotic crags whose frightening fiends have sworn to tear any intruder limb from limb and devour him down to his belt buckle.

“And, finally, after the long ride back, a triumphal parade (if, of course, there is anything left to parade) followed by hot chocolate and cookies for everyone.”

The Humbug bowed low and sat down once again, very pleased with himself.

“I never realized it would be so simple,” said the king, stroking his beard and smiling broadly.

“Quite simple indeed,” concurred the bug.

“It sounds dangerous to me,” said Milo.

“Most dangerous, most dangerous,” mumbled the

Humbug, still trying to be in agreement with everybody.

“Who will make the journey?” asked Tock, who hadbeen listening very carefully to the Humbug’s description.

“A very good question,” replied the king. “But there is one far more serious problem.

“What is it?” asked Milo, who was rather unhappy at the turn the conversation had taken.

“I’m afraid I can tell you that only when you return,” cried the king, clapping his hands three times. As he did so, the waiters rushed back into the room and quickly cleared away the dishes, the silver, the tablecloth, the table, the chairs, the banquet hall, and the palace, leaving them all suddenly standing in the market place.

“Of course you realize that I would like to make the trip myself,” continued Azaz, striding across the square as if nothing had happened; “but, since it was your idea, you shall have all the honor and fame.”

“But you see “ began Milo.

“Dictionopolis will always be grateful, my boy,” interrupted the king, throwing one arm around Milo and patting Tock with the other. “You will face many dangers on your journey, but fear not, for I have brought you this for your protection.”

He drew from inside his cape a small heavy box about the size of a schoolbook and handed it ceremoniously to Milo.

“In this box are all the words I know,” he said. “Most of them you will never need, some you will use constantly, but with them you may ask all the questions which have never been answered and answer all the questions which have never been asked. All the great books of the past and all the ones yet to come are made with these words. With them there is no obstacle you cannot overcome. All you must learn to do is use them well and in the right places.”

Milo accepted the gift with thanks and the little group walked to the car, still parked at the edge of the square.

“You will, of course, need a guide,” said the king, “and, since he knows the obstacles so well, the Humbug has cheerfully volunteered to accompany you.”

“Now see here,” cried the startled bug, for that was the last thing in the world he wanted to do.

“You will find him dependable, brave, resourceful, and loyal,” continued Azaz, and the Humbug was so overcome by the flattery that he quite forgot to object again.

“I’m sure he’ll be a great help,” cried Milo as they drove across the square.

“I hope so,” thought Tock to himself, for he was far less sure.

“Good luck, good luck; do be careful,” shouted the king, and down the road they went.

Milo and Tock wondered what strange adventures lay ahead. The Humbug speculated on how he’d ever become involved in such a hazardous undertaking. And the crowd waved and cheered wildly, for, while they didn’t care at all about anyone arriving, they were always very pleased to see someone go.

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