That night, the two lords dined, as usual, with King Fred. After a sumptuous meal of Baronstown venison, accompanied by the finest Jeroboam wine, followed by a selection of Kurdsburg cheeses and some of Mrs Beamish’s featherlight Fairies’ Cradles, Lord Spittleworth decided the moment had come. He cleared his throat, then said:
‘I do hope, Your Majesty, that you weren’t disturbed by that disgusting fight among the children in the courtyard this afternoon?’
‘Fight?’ repeated King Fred, who’d been talking to his tailor about the design for a new cloak, so had heard nothing. ‘What fight?’
‘Oh dear… I thought Your Majesty knew,’ said Lord Spittleworth, pretending to be startled. ‘Perhaps Major Beamish could tell you all about it.’
But King Fred was amused rather than disturbed.
‘Oh, I believe scuffles among children are quite usual, Spittleworth.’
Spittleworth and Flapoon exchanged looks behind the king’s back, and Spittleworth tried again.
‘Your Majesty is, as ever, the very soul of kindness,’ said Spittleworth.
‘Of course, some kings,’ Flapoon muttered, brushing crumbs off the front of his waistcoat, ‘if they’d heard that a child spoke of the crown so disrespectfully…’
‘What’s that?’ exclaimed Fred, the smile fading from his face. ‘A child spoke of me… disrespectfully?’ Fred couldn’t believe it. He was used to the children shrieking with excitement when he bowed to them from the balcony.
‘I believe so, Your Majesty,’ said Spittleworth, examining his fingernails, ‘but, as I mentioned… it was Major Beamish who separated the children… he has all the details.’
The candles sputtered a little in their silver sticks.
‘Children… say all manner of things, in fun,’ said King Fred. ‘Doubtless the child meant no harm.’
‘Sounded like bally treason to me,’ grunted Flapoon.
‘But,’ said Spittleworth swiftly, ‘it is Major Beamish who knows the details. Flapoon and I may, perhaps, have misheard.’
Fred sipped his wine. At that moment, a footman entered the room to remove the pudding plates.
‘Cankerby,’ said King Fred, for such was the footman’s name, ‘fetch Major Beamish here.’
Unlike the king and the two lords, Major Beamish didn’t eat seven courses for dinner every night. He’d finished his supper hours ago, and was getting ready for bed when the summons from the king arrived. The major hastily swapped his pyjamas for his uniform, and dashed back to the palace, by which time King Fred, Lord Spittleworth, and Lord Flapoon had retired to the Yellow Parlour, where they were sitting on satin armchairs, drinking more Jeroboam wine and, in Flapoon’s case, eating a second plate of Fairies’ Cradles.
‘Ah, Beamish,’ said King Fred, as the major made a deep bow. ‘I hear there was a little commotion in the courtyard this afternoon.’
The major’s heart sank. He’d hoped that news of Bert and Daisy’s fight wouldn’t reach the king’s ears.
‘Oh, it was really nothing, Your Majesty,’ said Beamish.
‘Come, come, Beamish,’ said Flapoon. ‘You should be proud that you’ve taught your son not to tolerate traitors.’
‘I… there was no question of treachery,’ said Major Beamish. ‘They’re only children, my lord.’
‘Do I understand that your son defended me, Beamish?’ said King Fred.
Major Beamish was in a most unfortunate position. He didn’t want to tell the king what Daisy had said. Whatever his own loyalty to the king, he quite understood why the motherless little girl felt the way she did about Fred, and the last thing he wanted to do was to get her into trouble. At the same time, he was well aware that there were twenty witnesses who could tell the king exactly what Daisy had said, and was sure that, if he lied, Lord Spittleworth and Lord Flapoon would tell the king that he, Major Beamish, was also disloyal and treacherous.
‘I… yes, Your Majesty, it’s true that my son Bert defended you,’ said Major Beamish. ‘However, allowance must surely be made for the little girl who said the… the unfortunate thing about Your Majesty. She’s passed through a great deal of trouble, Your Majesty, and even unhappy grown-ups may talk wildly at times.’
‘What kind of trouble has the girl passed through?’ asked King Fred, who couldn’t imagine any good reason for a subject to speak rudely of him.
‘She… her name is Daisy Dovetail, Your Majesty,’ said Major Beamish, staring over King Fred’s head at a picture of his father, King Richard the Righteous. ‘Her mother was the seamstress who—’
‘Yes, yes, I remember,’ said King Fred loudly, cutting Major Beamish off. ‘Very well, that’s all, Beamish. Off you go.’
Somewhat relieved, Major Beamish bowed deeply again and had almost reached the door when he heard the king’s voice.
‘What exactly did the girl say, Beamish?’
Major Beamish paused with his hand on the doorknob. There was nothing else for it but to tell the truth.
‘She said that Your Majesty is selfish, vain, and cruel,’ said Major Beamish.
Not daring to look at the king, he left the room.
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