Chapter 47

Down in the Dungeons

The kitchen workers in the palace were most surprised to hear from Lord Spittleworth that Mrs Beamish had requested her own, separate kitchen, because she was so much more important than they were. Indeed, some of them were suspicious, because Mrs Beamish had never been stuck up, in all the years they’d known her. However, as her cakes and pastries were still appearing regularly at the king’s table, they knew she was alive, wherever she was, and like many of their fellow countrymen, the servants decided it was safest not to ask questions.

Meanwhile, life in the palace dungeons had been utterly transformed. A stove had been fitted in Mrs Beamish’s cell, her pots and pans had been brought down from the kitchens, and the prisoners in neighbouring cells had been trained up to help her perform the different tasks that went into producing the feather-light pastries that made her the best baker in the kingdom. She demanded the doubling of the prisoners’ rations (to make sure they were strong enough to whisk and fold, to measure and weigh, to sift and pour) and a rat catcher to clean the place of vermin, and a servant to run between the cells, handing out different implements through the bars.

The heat from the stove dried out the damp walls. Delicious smells replaced the stench of mould and dank water. Mrs Beamish insisted that each of the prisoners had to taste a finished cake, so that they understood the results of their efforts. Slowly, the dungeon started to be a place of activity, even of cheerfulness, and prisoners who’d been weak and starving before Mrs Beamish arrived were gradually fattening up. In this way she kept busy, and tried to distract herself from her worries about Bert.

All the time the rest of the prisoners baked, Mr Dovetail sang the national anthem, and kept carving giant Ickabog feet in the cell next door. His singing and banging had enraged the other prisoners before Mrs Beamish arrived, but now she encouraged everyone to join in with him. The sound of all the prisoners singing the national anthem drowned out the perpetual noises of his hammer and chisel, and the best of it was that when Spittleworth ran down into the dungeons to tell them to stop making such a racket, Mrs Beamish said innocently that surely it was treason, to stop people singing the national anthem? Spittleworth looked foolish at that, and all the prisoners bellowed with laughter. With a leap of joy, Mrs Beamish thought she heard a weak, wheezy chuckle from the cell next door.

Mrs Beamish might not have known much about madness, but she knew how to rescue things that seemed spoiled, like curdled sauces and falling soufflés. She believed Mr Dovetail’s broken mind might yet be mended, if only he could be brought to understand that he wasn’t alone, and to remember who he was. And so every now and then Mrs Beamish would suggest songs other than the national anthem, trying to jolt Mr Dovetail’s poor mind onto a different course that might bring him back to himself.

And at last, to her amazement and joy, she heard him joining in with the Ickabog drinking song, which had been popular even in the days long before people thought the monster was real.

‘I drank a single bottle and the Ickabog’s a lie,

I drank another bottle, and I thought I heard it sigh,

And now I’ve drunk another, I can see it slinking by,

The Ickabog is coming, so let’s drink before we die!’

Setting down the tray of cakes she’d just taken out of the stove, Mrs Beamish jumped up onto her bed, and spoke softly through the crack high in the wall.

‘Daniel Dovetail, I heard you singing that silly song. It’s Bertha Beamish here, your old friend. Remember me? We used to sing that a long time ago, when the children were tiny. My Bert, and your Daisy. D’you remember that, Dan?’

She waited for a response and in a little while, she thought she heard a sob.

You may think this strange, but Mrs Beamish was glad to hear Mr Dovetail cry, because tears can heal a mind, as well as laughter.

And that night, and for many nights afterwards, Mrs Beamish talked softly to Mr Dovetail through the crack in the wall, and after a while he began to talk back. Mrs Beamish told Mr Dovetail how terribly she regretted telling the kitchen maid what he’d said about the Ickabog, and Mr Dovetail told her how wretched he’d felt, afterwards, for suggesting that Major Beamish had fallen off his horse. And each promised the other that their child was alive, because they had to believe it, or die.

A freezing chill was now stealing into the dungeons through its one high, tiny, barred window. The prisoners could tell a hard winter was approaching, yet the dungeon had become a place of hope and healing. Mrs Beamish demanded more blankets for all her helpers and kept her stove burning all night, determined that they would survive.

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