We now return to Chouxville, where some important things are about to happen.
I’m sure you remember the day of Major Beamish’s funeral, when little Bert returned home, smashed apart his Ickabog toy with the poker, and vowed that when he grew up, he’d hunt down the Ickabog and take revenge upon the monster that killed his father.
Well, Bert was about to turn fifteen. This might not seem very old to you, but in those days it was big enough to become a soldier, and Bert had heard that the Brigade was expanding. So one Monday morning, without telling his mother what he was planning, Bert set off from their little cottage at the usual time, but instead of going to school, he stuffed his schoolbooks into the garden hedge where he could retrieve them later, then headed for the palace, where he intended to apply to join the Brigade. Under his shirt, for luck, he wore the silver medal his father had won for outstanding bravery against the Ickabog.
Bert hadn’t gone far when he saw a commotion ahead of him in the road. A small crowd was clustered around a mail coach. As he was far too busy trying to think of good answers to the questions Major Roach was sure to ask him, Bert walked past the mail coach without paying much attention.
What Bert didn’t realise was that the arrival of that mail coach was going to have some very important consequences, which would send him on a dangerous adventure. Let’s allow Bert to walk on without us for a moment or two, so I can tell you about the coach.
Ever since Lady Eslanda had informed King Fred that Cornucopia was unhappy about the Ickabog tax, Spittleworth and Flapoon had taken steps to make sure he never heard news from outside the capital again. As Chouxville remained quite rich and bustling, the king, who never left the capital any more, assumed the rest of the country must be the same. In fact, the other Cornucopian cities were all full of beggars and boarded-up shops, because the two lords and Roach had stolen so much gold from the people. To ensure the king never got wind of all this, Lord Spittleworth, who read all the king’s mail in any case, had hired gangs of highwaymen lately to stop any letters entering Chouxville. The only people who knew this were Major Roach, because he’d hired the highwaymen, and Cankerby the footman, who’d been lurking outside the Guard’s Room door when the plan was hatched.
Spittleworth’s plan had worked well so far, but today, just before dawn, some of the highwaymen had bungled the job. They’d ambushed the coach as usual, dragging the poor driver from his seat, but before they could steal the mail sacks, the frightened horses had bolted. When the highwaymen fired their guns after the horses they merely galloped all the faster, so that the mail coach soon entered Chouxville, where it careered through the streets, finally coming to rest in the City-Within-The-City. There a blacksmith succeeded in seizing the reins and bringing the horses to a halt. Soon, the servants of the king were tearing open long-awaited letters from their families in the north. We’ll find out more about those letters later, because it’s now time to re-join Bert, who’d just reached the palace gates.
‘Please,’ Bert said to the guard, ‘I want to join the Ickabog Defence Brigade.’
The guard took Bert’s name and told him to wait, then carried the message to Major Roach. However, when he reached the door of the Guard’s Room, the soldier paused, because he could hear shouting. He knocked, and the voices fell silent at once.
‘Enter!’ barked Roach.
The guard obeyed, and found himself face-to-face with three men: Major Roach, who looked extremely angry, Lord Flapoon, whose face was scarlet above his striped silk dressing gown, and Cankerby the footman, who, with his usual good timing, had been walking to work when the mail coach came galloping into town, and had hastened to tell Flapoon that letters had managed to make their way past the highwaymen. On hearing this news, Flapoon had stormed downstairs from his bedroom into the Guard’s Room to blame Roach for the highwaymen’s failure, and a shouting match erupted. Neither man wanted to be blamed by Spittleworth when he returned from his inspection of Ma Grunter’s and heard what had happened.
‘Major,’ said the soldier, saluting both men, ‘there’s a boy at the gate, sir, name of Bert Beamish. Wants to know if he can join the Ickabog Defence Brigade.’
‘Tell him to go away,’ barked Flapoon. ‘We’re busy!’
‘Do not tell the Beamish boy to go away!’ snapped Roach. ‘Bring him to me immediately. Cankerby, leave us!’
‘I was hoping,’ began Cankerby, in his weaselly way, ‘that you gentlemen might want to reward me for—’
‘Any idiot can see a mail coach speed past them!’ said Flapoon. ‘If you’d wanted a reward, you should’ve hopped on board and driven it straight back out of the city again!’
So the disappointed footman slunk out, and the guard went to fetch Bert.
‘What are you bothering with this boy for?’ Flapoon demanded of Roach, once they were alone. ‘We have to solve this problem of the mail!’
‘He isn’t just any boy,’ said Roach. ‘He’s the son of a national hero. You remember Major Beamish, my lord. You shot him.’
‘All right, all right, there’s no need to go on about it,’ said Flapoon irritably. ‘We’ve all made a tidy bit of gold out of it, haven’t we? What do you suppose his son wants – compensation?’
But before Major Roach could answer, in walked Bert, looking nervous and eager.
‘Good morning, Beamish,’ said Major Roach, who’d known Bert a long time, because of his friendship with Roderick. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Please, Major,’ said Bert, ‘please, I want to join the Ickabog Defence Brigade. I heard you’re needing more men.’
‘Ah,’ said Major Roach. ‘I see. And what makes you want to do that?’
‘I want to kill the monster that killed my father,’ said Bert.
There was a short silence, in which Major Roach wished he was as good as Lord Spittleworth at thinking up lies and excuses. He glanced towards Lord Flapoon for help, but none came, although Roach could tell that Flapoon too had spotted the danger. The last thing the Ickabog Defence Brigade needed was somebody who actually wanted to find an Ickabog.
‘There are tests,’ said Roach, playing for time. ‘We don’t let just anybody join. Can you ride?’
‘Oh, yes, sir,’ said Bert truthfully. ‘I taught myself.’
‘Can you use a sword?’
‘I’m sure I could pick it up fast enough,’ said Bert.
‘Can you shoot?’
‘Yes, sir, I can hit a bottle from the end of the paddock!’
‘Hmm,’ said Roach. ‘Yes. But the problem is, Beamish – you see, the problem is, you might be too—’
‘Foolish,’ said Flapoon cruelly. He really wanted this boy gone, so that he and Roach could think up a solution to this problem of the mail coach.
Bert’s face flooded with colour. ‘Wh-what?’
‘Your schoolmistress told me,’ lied Flapoon. He’d never spoken to the schoolmistress in his life. ‘She says you’re a bit of a dunce. Nothing that should hold you back in any line of work other than soldiering, but dangerous to have a dunce on the battlefield.’
‘My – my marks are all right,’ said poor Bert, trying to stop his voice from shaking. ‘Miss Monk never told me she thinks I’m—’
‘Of course she hasn’t told you,’ said Flapoon. ‘Only a fool would think a nice woman like that would tell a fool he’s a fool. Learn to make pastries like your mother, boy, and forget about the Ickabog, that’s my advice.’
Bert was horribly afraid his eyes had filled with tears. Scowling in his effort to keep from crying, he said:
‘I – I’d welcome the chance to prove I’m not – not a fool, Major.’
Roach wouldn’t have put matters as rudely as Flapoon, but after all, the important thing was to stop the boy joining the Brigade, so Roach said: ‘Sorry, Beamish, but I don’t think you’re cut out for soldiering. However, as Lord Flapoon suggests—’
‘Thank you for your time, Major,’ said Bert in a rush. ‘I’m sorry to have troubled you.’
And with a low bow, he left the Guard’s Room.
Once outside, Bert broke into a run. He felt very small and humiliated. The last thing he wanted to do was return to school, not after hearing what his teacher really thought of him. So, assuming that his mother would have left for work in the palace kitchens, he ran all the way home, barely noticing the knots of people now standing on street corners, talking about the letters in their hands.
When Bert entered the house, he found Mrs Beamish was still standing in the kitchen, staring at a letter of her own.
‘Bert!’ she said, startled by the sudden appearance of her son. ‘What are you doing home?’
‘Toothache,’ Bert invented on the spot.
‘Oh, you poor thing… Bert, we’ve had a letter from Cousin Harold,’ said Mrs Beamish, holding it up. ‘He says he’s worried he’s going to lose his tavern – that marvellous inn he built up from nothing! He’s written to ask me whether I might be able to get him a job working for the king… I don’t understand what can have happened. Harold says he and the family are actually going hungry!’
‘It’ll be the Ickabog, won’t it?’ said Bert. ‘Jeroboam’s the city nearest the Marshlands. People have probably stopped visiting taverns at night, in case they meet the monster on the way!’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Beamish, looking troubled, ‘yes, maybe that’s why… Gracious me, I’m late for work!’ Setting Cousin Harold’s letter down on the table she said, ‘Put some oil of cloves on that tooth, love,’ and, giving her son a quick kiss, she hurried out of the door.
Once his mother had gone, Bert went and flung himself face down on his bed, and sobbed with rage and disappointment.
Meanwhile, anxiety and anger were spreading through the streets of the capital. Chouxville had at last found out that their relatives in the north were so poor they were starving and homeless. When Lord Spittleworth returned to the city that night, he found serious trouble brewing.