John Dough and the Cherub/Chapter 8
"He must have broken loose!" cried Chick. "Let us run, John Dough, before he can eat you." At once John turned to fly, with Chick grasping his hand to urge him on. Ali Dubh had indeed succeeded in breaking through the iron grating of his prison, and had even managed to untie his hands. But his legs were still firmly bound together from his ankles to his knees, so that he could only move toward them by hopping. Nevertheless, at the sight of the gingerbread man, who was mixed with his precious Elixir, the Arab began bounding toward his victim with long hops, and had John and Chick not run so fast as they did it is certain the Arab would soon have overtaken them. Through the throne-room they fled, with Ali Dubh just behind them, and then they began mounting the marble stairways to the upper stories of the castle. Their pursuer, nothing daunted by his bound legs, hopped up the stairs after them with remarkable swiftness. "Hurry!" cried Chick; "hurry, John Dough, or you'll be eaten." They came to the second flight of stairs, and still the Arab followed. "We are lost," said John, in despair. "He'll surely get me this time." But Chick tugged at his puffy brown hand and hurried him on, for the Incubator Baby at that very moment thought of a clever way to save the gingerbread man. Still holding John's hand, the child ran through the upper passages to the foot of the tower of Imar, and began climbing up the steep stairs as fast as possible. Luckily for the fugitives, these stairs to the tower were very difficult for Ali Dubh to climb by hopping. When he was half-way up he lost his balance and tumbled down again, and this accident gave John and Chick time to enter the body of the bird flying-machine, which still lay stretched upon the roof of the tower. "Quick!" shouted the child, shutting and fastening the silver door behind them. "Pull over that lever, and away we go!" "Is it safe?" asked John, hesitating. "Is it safe to be eaten?" inquired Chick. John quickly grabbed the lever, pulled it over, and the huge bird fluttered its wings once or twice and rose slowly into the air. It sailed away from the roof just as the Arab appeared at the top of the stairs. "Stop!" screamed Ali Dubh. "You're mine, John Dough. Come back and be eaten." "Don't mind him," said the Cherub, peeping at the Arab through a little window in the bottom of the bird's body. "And don't worry about this flying-machine, either. Imar has told me how to run it, and it will carry us somewhere, never fear. This button that I pushed is to start it, and there's another button somewhere to stop it." "Where?" asked John. "I don't remember. But never mind that; we don't want to stop just yet, anyhow." John stooped to look through the little window, and saw spread out beneath him the Isle of Phreex. The Brotherhood of Failings stood upon the shore watching the flight of the machine, and the kinglet was riding along calmly upon his two-legged horse without any idea that the Incubator Baby and the gingerbread man were leaving his kingdom for good and all and he would probably never see them again. The great bird flew steadily westward, and Chick laughed and chatted, and seemed to enjoy the journey immensely. They were flying over the ocean now, and before long the Isle they had left became a mere speck upon the water. "Where are we going?" John asked. "I don't know," answered Chick. "What land lies in this direction?" "I haven't the faintest idea," said the Baby. John became thoughtful. "How long will this machine fly?" he inquired. "Who knows?" said Chick. "Imar was always afraid to go very far from the island with it. We'll just have to wait and find out." This was not very encouraging, but it was too late to return now, the Isle of Phreex being lost in the vastness of the great sea. Moreover, John reflected that he would be in greater danger there from Ali Dubh than in riding in an untried flying-machine. The only thing to do was to continue the flight through the air until they sighted some other land--provided the machine did not suddenly break down. It seemed to be all right just at present, and John's admiration of Imar's genius in constructing it grew steadily as the bird flopped on and on without a sign of giving out. Chick wasn't frightened, that was certain. The Baby laughed and sang little songs, and seemed as happy and contented as when upon firm land; so John gradually forgot his fears. The sun had sank low upon the horizon, and was looking for a good place to dive into the sea, when the voyagers discovered something far ahead of them that glittered brightly upon the water. Neither could determine what the glitter meant, until they drew nearer and saw a small, rocky islet, upon which was perched an enormous palace that seemed to be made of pure gold, having many crystal windows set in its domes and sides. "It is certainly a beautiful place," said John. "Let us land upon the islet." "All right," returned Chick. "I'll see if I can find out which button stops the thing." The Baby pushed one of the buttons, and at once the bird shot up higher into the air. "That isn't it!" cried John, in sudden alarm. Chick pushed another button, and the machine began whirling around in short circles. "Dear me!" said John; "what's going to happen to us?" Chick laughed and pushed another button. "One of 'em must be to stop," declared Chick, cheerfully; "and there's only two more left." The bird paused, with a quick trembling of its wings, and slowly fluttered downward. "Oh, now we're all right," gayly announced the queer child, "for there's only one button left; and when I push it, John Dough, you must pull back the silver lever and steer straight for the golden palace." Down, down they sank, and fortunately the descent was made to the flat roof of a wing of the palace. When they had almost reached it, Chick, who was watching the roof through the little window, pushed the last button, while John threw over the lever. Immediately the flying-machine fell with a thump that made the gingerbread man's candy teeth knock together. "Wow!" said Chick. "That was a jolt and a half! I hope nothing's broken." "I don't believe I will ever ride in it again," said John, smoothing the wrinkles out of his frosted shirt-front and pulling the baker's hat off his eyes, where it had become jammed. "These air-ships are too dangerous to suit me." "Why, the bird has saved your life, and it may save it again," said Chick. "For my part, I rather like flying through the air. You never know what's going to happen next. And see how lucky we are! This is the only part of the palace roof that is flat, and we struck it to a dot. If we'd fallen upon one of those spikes"--pointing to the numerous spires and minarets--"our clocks would have stopped by this time." "You have a queer way of expressing yourself, my friend," said John, looking upon the child gravely. "The vast knowledge I gained by means of the Elixir taught me nothing of your methods of twisting language." "That's too bad," answered Chick. "I can't always figure out what you mean to say; but you always know what I mean, don't you?" "Almost always," John acknowledged. "Then don't complain," said the Baby, sweetly; and the gingerbread man looked at his feet with a puzzled expression, and then back into the child's smiling face, and sighed. By this time they had climbed out of the bird's body and stood upon the roof. It was so high above the rocks that it made John dizzy to look down; but Chick soon discovered a trap-door that led downward into the palace by means of a tiny staircase. They descended the stairs, and, having pushed aside a heavy drapery that hung across a doorway, came upon a broad passage running through the upper story of the palace. This led to still another passage, and still another; but although they turned this way and that in the maze of passages, no living person did they meet with. The tiled floors and paneled walls were very beautiful and splendid; but they were so much alike that our adventurers completely lost their way before they came by accident to a broad staircase leading downward to the next story. These stairs were covered with soft carpeting and the balusters were of filigree gold. Still no one was to be seen either on the stairs or in the passages, and the palace was silent as could be. They found another staircase, by and by, and descended to the main floor of the palace, passing through magnificent parlors and galleries, until finally a hum of pleasant voices reached their ears. "I feel much relieved," said John, "for I had begun to think the place was uninhabited." "Let us go on," replied Chick, "and see who these people are." Turning first to the right and then to left, and now following a high-arched marble passage, the adventurers suddenly found themselves before heavy draperies of crimson velvet, from beyond which came clearly the sounds of laughter and the merry chattering of many people. They pushed aside the draperies and entered a splendid domed chamber of such exquisite beauty that the sight made even Chick pause in astonishment. All around the sides and in the ceiling were set handsome windows made of bits of colored glass, so arranged that they formed very pleasing pictures. Between the windows were panels of wrought gold having many brilliant gems set in the metal. The floor was covered with priceless rugs of quaint patterns, and the furniture consisted of many settees and easy-chairs designed to afford the highest degree of comfort. Fountains of perfumed waters sparkled here and there, falling into golden basins; and little tables scattered about the room bore trays of dainty refreshments. Seated within the room were groups of ladies and gentlemen, all clothed in gorgeous apparel, soft of speech, graceful and courteous in demeanor, and with kindly faces. These looked up with joyous surprise as the gingerbread man and Chick entered, and the gentlemen all arose and bowed politely to the strangers. "Welcome!" cried the ladies, in a soft chorus; and then two of their number came forward and led their unexpected guests to seats in the very center of the room. Others offered them refreshment, of which Chick eagerly partook, for the child was hungry. John Dough was obliged to explain that he did not eat, and they accepted his speech very graciously and did not remark at all upon his unusual personality. When the child had finished eating, John said: "May I ask what palace this is, and who rules upon this island?" The ladies and gentlemen exchanged significant looks, and smiled; but one made answer, in a deferential voice: "Good sir, this is the Palace of Romance; and we have no ruler at all, each one of our number having equal power and authority with the others." "We pass our time," said another, "in telling of tales of romance and adventure; and, whenever a stranger comes to our palace, we require him to amuse us by telling all the stories he may know." "That is a fair requirement," replied John. "I think I shall like this Palace of Romance, although I do not know many tales." "The more tales you know the longer you may enjoy our palace," one of the ladies remarked, earnestly. "How is that?" asked John, surprised. They were silent for a time, and ceased laughing. But finally one of the gentlemen said: "Our laws oblige us to destroy every stranger, after he has related to us all the stories he knows. It grieves us very much to tell you this; but the laws cannot be changed, and the death is very simple and without much pain. For you will be dropped through a trap into a long slide leading to the bottom of the sea; and it is said there is little discomfort in drowning." Now, at this John looked pale and worried, and even the laughing Chick became thoughtful. Several of the ladies wiped their eyes with delicate handkerchiefs, as if in sorrow for their fate, and the men all sighed sympathetically. "Why can we not live, and join your pleasant party?" asked John. "Why are your laws so severe regarding strangers?" "We number exactly one hundred--fifty ladies and fifty gentlemen," was the reply. "And, as the island is small, a large number of people would crowd the palace and render it uncomfortable. We do not entice strangers here; but neither dare we permit them to escape and tell the world of our pleasant home; for then the ocean would be white with the ships of curious people coming to visit us. So, long ago, the laws were enacted obliging us to destroy whatever strangers chanced upon our retreat. But you are in no immediate danger. As long as your stories last you will live; and while you live you shall enjoy every pleasure our palace affords." John tried to think how many stories he knew through the virtue of the magic Elixir; but the startling news he had just heard so confused his mind that it drove all recollection of romance out of his head. "Never mind," whispered Chick. "All stories except the true ones have to be made up; so I'll make up some. And don't you worry, John Dough. I've been in worse boxes than this, I can tell you." The gingerbread man didn't know exactly what Chick meant, but the tone of confidence relieved his embarrassment and inspired him with hope. The ladies and gentlemen set Chick and John in the center of their group and drew their chairs around them and prepared to listen attentively to the child's story. One might suppose the Incubator Baby's lifetime had been so brief that it knew no stories at all; but Chick was full of imagination and glad of the chance to invent wonderful tales for others to listen to. And the child had resolved to make the stories so long and so interesting that a chance of escape from death might finally be discovered. The flying-machine still rested upon the roof, and if they could manage to regain it there would be no need of their being dumped through the trapdoor into the sea. So Chick began to tell the company a story about an astonishing Silver Pig that once lived in Dagupan (wherever that may be), and was the king of all the pigs of that vast country. His squeal could be heard for seven miles, the child solemnly declared, and the pig's feet were so swift and tireless that he could have run around the world in a single day had there been no oceans to stop him. The ladies and gentlemen were much interested in the story, and listened very attentively while Chick related a host of wonderful adventures that befell the Silver Pig. Daylight faded away and the golden lamps were lighted, but still the Incubator Baby kept the story going. Finally one of the company interrupted the tale to say that it was bedtime and they must all retire, but that Chick should continue the story on the following day. That was exactly what the Cherub wanted, and presently John and his comrade were escorted to beautiful rooms, and the company of ladies and gentlemen had bidden them a gracious and kindly good-night.