The Beamish and Dovetail families both lived in a place called the City-Within-The-City. This was the part of Chouxville where all the people who worked for King Fred had houses. Gardeners, cooks, tailors, pageboys, seamstresses, stonemasons, grooms, carpenters, footmen, and maids: all of them occupied neat little cottages just outside the palace grounds.
The City-Within-The-City was separated from the rest of Chouxville by a high white wall, and the gates in the wall stood open during the day, so that the residents could visit friends and family in the rest of Chouxville, and go to the markets. By night, the sturdy gates were closed, and everyone in the City-Within-The-City slept, like the king, under the protection of the Royal Guard.
Major Beamish, Bert’s father, was head of the Royal Guard. A handsome, cheerful man who rode a steel-grey horse, he accompanied King Fred, Lord Spittleworth, and Lord Flapoon on their hunting trips, which usually happened five times a week. The king liked Major Beamish, and he also liked Bert’s mother, because Bertha Beamish was the king’s own private pastry chef, a high honour in that city of world-class bakers. Due to Bertha’s habit of bringing home fancy cakes that hadn’t turned out absolutely perfectly, Bert was a plump little boy, and sometimes, I regret to say, the other children called him ‘Butterball’ and made him cry.
Bert’s best friend was Daisy Dovetail. The two children had been born days apart, and acted more like brother and sister than playmates. Daisy was Bert’s defender against bullies. She was skinny but fast, and more than ready to fight anyone who called Bert ‘Butterball’.
Daisy’s father, Dan Dovetail, was the king’s carpenter, repairing and replacing the wheels and shafts on his carriages. As Mr Dovetail was so clever at carving, he also made bits of furniture for the palace.
Daisy’s mother, Dora Dovetail, was the Head Seamstress of the palace – another honoured job, because King Fred liked clothes, and kept a whole team of tailors busy making him new costumes every month.
It was the king’s great fondness for finery that led to a nasty incident which the history books of Cornucopia would later record as the beginning of all the troubles that were to engulf that happy little kingdom. At the time it happened, only a few people within the City-Within-The-City knew anything about it, though for some, it was an awful tragedy.
What happened was this.
The King of Pluritania came to pay a formal visit to Fred (still hoping, perhaps, to exchange one of his daughters for a lifetime’s supply of Hopes-of-Heaven) and Fred decided that he must have a brand-new set of clothes made for the occasion: dull purple, overlaid with silver lace, with amethyst buttons, and grey fur at the cuffs.
Now, King Fred had heard something about the Head Seamstress not being quite well, but he hadn’t paid much attention. He didn’t trust anyone but Daisy’s mother to stitch on the silver lace properly, so gave the order that nobody else should be given the job. In consequence, Daisy’s mother sat up three nights in a row, racing to finish the purple suit in time for the King of Pluritania’s visit, and at dawn on the fourth day, her assistant found her lying on the floor, dead, with the very last amethyst button in her hand.
The king’s Chief Advisor came to break the news, while Fred was still having his breakfast. The Chief Advisor was a wise old man called Herringbone, with a silver beard that hung almost to his knees. After explaining that the Head Seamstress had died, he said:
‘But I’m sure one of the other ladies will be able to fix on the last button for Your Majesty.’
There was a look in Herringbone’s eye that King Fred didn’t like. It gave him a squirming feeling in the pit of his stomach.
While his dressers were helping him into the new purple suit later that morning, Fred tried to make himself feel less guilty by talking the matter over with Lords Spittleworth and Flapoon.
‘I mean to say, if I’d known she was seriously ill,’ panted Fred, as the servants heaved him into his skin-tight satin pantaloons, ‘naturally I’d have let someone else sew the suit.’
‘Your Majesty is so kind,’ said Spittleworth, as he examined his sallow complexion in the mirror over the fireplace. ‘A more tender-hearted monarch was never born.’
‘The woman should have spoken up if she felt unwell,’ grunted Flapoon from a cushioned seat by the window. ‘If she’s not fit to work, she should’ve said so. Properly looked at, that’s disloyalty to the king. Or to your suit, anyway.’
‘Flapoon’s right,’ said Spittleworth, turning away from the mirror. ‘Nobody could treat his servants better than you do, sire.’
‘I do treat them well, don’t I?’ said King Fred anxiously, sucking in his stomach as the dressers did up his amethyst buttons. ‘And after all, chaps, I’ve got to look my blasted best today, haven’t I? You know how dressy the King of Pluritania always is!’
‘It would be a matter of national shame if you were any less well-dressed than the King of Pluritania,’ said Spittleworth.
‘Put this unhappy occurrence out of your mind, sire,’ said Flapoon. ‘A disloyal seamstress is no reason to spoil a sunny day.’
And yet, in spite of the two lords’ advice, King Fred couldn’t be quite easy in his mind. Perhaps he was imagining it, but he thought Lady Eslanda looked particularly serious that day. The servants’ smiles seemed colder, and the maids’ curtsies a little less deep. As his court feasted that evening with the King of Pluritania, Fred’s thoughts kept drifting back to the seamstress, dead on the floor, with the last amethyst button clutched in her hand.
Before Fred went to bed that night, Herringbone knocked on his bedroom door. After bowing deeply, the Chief Advisor asked whether the king was intending to send flowers to Mrs Dovetail’s funeral.
‘Oh – oh, yes!’ said Fred, startled. ‘Yes, send a big wreath, you know, saying how sorry I am and so forth. You can arrange that, can’t you, Herringbone?’
‘Certainly, sire,’ said the Chief Advisor. ‘And – if I may ask – are you planning to visit the seamstress’s family, at all? They live, you know, just a short walk from the palace gates.’
‘Visit them?’ said the king pensively. ‘Oh, no, Herringbone, I don’t think I’d like – I mean to say, I’m sure they aren’t expecting that.’
Herringbone and the king looked at each other for a few seconds, then the Chief Advisor bowed and left the room.
Now, as King Fred was used to everyone telling him what a marvellous chap he was, he really didn’t like the frown with which the Chief Advisor had left. He now began to feel cross rather than ashamed.
‘It’s a bally pity,’ he told his reflection, turning back to the mirror in which he’d been combing his moustaches before bed, ‘but after all, I’m the king and she was a seamstress. If I died, I wouldn’t have expected her to—’
But then it occurred to him that if he died, he’d expect the whole of Cornucopia to stop whatever they were doing, dress all in black and weep for a week, just as they’d done for his father, Richard the Righteous.
‘Well, anyway,’ he said impatiently to his reflection, ‘life goes on.’
He put on his silk nightcap, climbed into his four-poster bed, blew out the candle and fell asleep.