The Birthday Ball Page 1

Author: Lois Lowry

Genres: Fantasy , Humorous

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1. The Princess

When Princess Patricia Priscilla woke on the morning of the day that was five days before her birthday, her first thoughts were not Oh, I am almost another year older, hardly a child anymore! or I wonder what fabulous gifts will be presented to me at the Birthday Ball six nights from now!

No. Her thoughts were Bored, bored, bored.

The princess blinked, then sat up against the seven silk-covered pillows (in seven subtly different shades of royal colors ranging from the palest lavender to the richest purple) that were strewn across the head of her magnificent carved hickory poplar bed.

The Birthday Ball

She snapped her fingers to awaken her yellow long-haired cat, who was still sound asleep near her feet. Delicious opened one amber eye and yawned, showing pointed, highly polished teeth, and then extended four sets of claws in a morning stretch. The cat stabbed at one of the embroidered sunflowers on the elaborate bedcover and pulled one thread loose and then another.

"Please don't be so vicious, Delicious," the princess said in a mildly scolding voice. "It makes me yearn to have a sunflower to tear apart myself. I'm so terribly bored."

The cat looked up and narrowed her eyes to glittery slits. The princess read her mind. She was thinking, in a commanding kind of think: Feed me.

"All right," the princess said. She reached for the thick golden bell cord that hung beside the bed, and pulled at it. Then she made an affectionate kissing sound toward her cat and pulled a second, smaller bell cord that dangled beside the first.

Immediately, many levels below in the tall castle, things began to happen.

Three floors down, in the bell room, an antechamber to the basement kitchen of the castle, the two bells rang. One was a dainty brass bell with a pleasant, melodic tinkle, and the other was a small tin one that simply clinked. The bell boy, a young village lad new to the job, was crouched on the floor of the bell room, playing with a shabby set of dominoes. When he heard the small sounds, he looked up at the bell board. He could not read. But beside each bell was a carefully delineated outline.

He saw the small brass bell, which was still vibrating, and beside it the silhouette of a young woman with ringlets and a crown.

"Princess!" he called out, as his job required.

Below it, he looked at the tin bell and its corresponding long-tailed silhouette.

"And cat!" he shouted.

Then he returned to his dominoes, which he was arranging in a line.

In the next room, a chilly stone-floored chamber where food was stored on long tables, an aproned woman with gray disheveled hair was arranging cupcakes in rows.

"Princess and cat!" she called toward the main kitchen.

"Princess, aye!" called three kitchen maids, identical triplets, in three-part harmony. The harmony was not a requirement of their job, but they had been working on it, hoping to advance in a musical direction that would eventually take them out of the damp, cheerless kitchen. One, the soprano, immediately cracked two eggs into a pan in which butter was already sizzling, on the top of the huge castle stove. Another, a mezzo-soprano, with practiced motion, poured milk into a silver pitcher. The third, the alto, still humming, set a tray on the table and placed on it a small vase holding several flowers picked only minutes before from the castle garden.

"Cat, aye!" grumbled a serving boy. He was elderly, close to eighty. Once he had been a butler, a much more important job, but he had recently been demoted to serving boy (even worse, serving boy in charge of house animals!) after an arthritic hip had caused him to stumble in the dining room and spill hot chocolate on the queen's taffeta skirt. He resented his job and especially his title—serving boy, indeed!—but there was nothing to be done, because he did not wish to retire and stay home with his ill-tempered wife in the small cottage that resounded with her scolds and complaints. He rose with a small groan, holding his hip, from the place he'd been sitting, and shuffled to the side table where two dozen sardines had been laid out on a large tin plate. He peered at them carefully and selected four of the lesser sardines, the ones with the glisten that was not quite as bright (and one with a ragged tear in its tail end), which he placed in the bowl marked DELICIOUS. The other bowls, marked with the names of other housecats, were still empty and waiting, their meals having not yet been summoned.

The elderly serving boy placed the bowl of sardines on the tray just as the soprano maid, with a little trill as she rehearsed some high notes she'd been having trouble with, slid the two cooked eggs onto a plate and set it beside the flower vase and the milk pitcher.

"Pulley Boy!" the serving boy called, and hobbled back to his rocking chair.

The bell boy's older brother rose from the chair where he'd been half dozing, half watching the dominoes, and ran to the kitchen to collect the tray. He had been selected for the job because of his speed. Four village boys had applied. But he was quickest on his feet.

The pulley boy ran, the tray so steady on his hands that not a drop of milk appeared over the lip of the little pitcher, into the long hall lined with seventeen square wooden doors, each painted with a silhouette just above its latch. Because he was accustomed to his job, the pulley boy no longer had to examine the silhouettes. He went immediately to the door designated for the princess's bedchamber. He lifted the latch, opened the door, placed the tray onto the wooden shelf suspended within, and pulled the thick rope, which lifted it three floors above so quickly that the eggs did not cool.

"Princess and cat aloft!" he called loudly while the tray rose through the thick walls.

"Princess and cat aloft, aye," the entire population of the castle kitchen murmured, heads nodding, and went back to their work. The pulley boy settled again in his chair. His younger brother, the bell boy, set the last domino carefully on edge, then tapped it and watched the line collapse. He clapped his hands in delight. At the same time, he remained alert, listening, waiting for the next bell to ring, for that was his job.

***

Above, in the bedchamber of Princess Patricia Priscilla, a young chambermaid with freckles took the breakfast tray from its wall opening and placed it on a small round table by the window. She salted the eggs, poured the milk into a pewter goblet, and set the cat's bowl of sardines on the floor beneath the tablecloth. The cat, who always breakfasted at the princess's feet, leapt from the bed, ran to the bowl, and sniffed.

"It's nutritious, Delicious," the princess told her pet. She said that every morning. It amused her.

"Happy Monday-before-your-birthday, Princess Patricia Priscilla," the chambermaid murmured. She held out a silk dressing gown. The princess slipped her arms into its sleeves and sat down at the table.

"Thank you," the princess replied politely. She picked up a fork, took a small bite of her breakfast, and gazed through the window to the land below and around the castle. It was a beautiful day. The sky was cloudless and clear blue, and below, the farmland stretched in rounded hills of green and gold, each field outlined by darker green rows of hedge. She could see some cows, spotted black and white, grazing, and on the smooth dirt path some small children played, rolling a large blue and white striped ball and laughing. The air was so clear that the sound of their laughter rose to her window almost like notes of a song.

Another day was beginning. Princess Patricia Priscilla sighed. "I'm so very bored," she said.

2. The Schoolmaster

Below, in the village, the new young schoolmaster was preparing his classroom. He set the little desks in straight rows, looked at the alignment, thought, then shook his head and moved the desks again until they formed a semicircle facing his own, larger desk. He decided that he liked it better that way.

His name was Rafe. Villagers, peasants that they were, all had short names. It distinguished them from nobility and royalty. Earls, dukes, counts, lords, ladies, and princesses could have names as long as they wished, even adding additional names as they chose, although sometimes the lengthy additions became unwieldy and hard to remember. There had been an incident once when the queen had arranged a ceremony to bestow special honors on a knight who had done a chivalrous deed.

"Arise!" the queen had called out, for he was on his knees before her and she had tapped his shoulder with her jeweled scepter and lowered around his neck a decorative ribbon from which dangled a medal. "Arise, Sir..."

But there had followed an embarrassing hesitation. His name was Mortimer, and she remembered that, for she had known this knight for years. But in recent months he had taken additional names, designating himself "the Manly" and "the Magnificent" and "Most Masculine." The queen simply drew a blank. She stared at him and he stared back, lifting his head slightly from its bowed position, but it would have been unseemly for him to speak during the solemn ceremony, and in any case he was puzzled by her hesitation, not realizing what it meant.

The king, who had been watching from his throne next to the queen's, whispered to his wife.

"Sir Mortimer the Manly, the Magnificent, Most Masculine," the king whispered in a very low voice. But he knew it was useless. The queen was quite hard of hearing. Both of her ears had been frostbitten during a Winter Carnival when she had, as a young woman, been too vain to wear her fur hat, and her hearing had been much diminished ever since. She did not hear her husband's helpful whisper at all.

But the queen had much presence of mind, which very often compensated for the things she lacked, such as perfect hearing. On this occasion she simply stood in a regal fashion and announced to the assembled nobility: "Let us all together intone the name of our newly honored knight. Ready?" She held up her scepter.

"Sir..." she began, and then looked at the gathering expectantly.

The king had a large baritone voice. "Sir Mortimer..." he intoned.

Finally the entire audience, which was made up of forty earls, twenty-two dukes, many spouses and concubines, three buffoons, and a barrister, perceived what was expected of them.

"Sir Mortimer the Manly, the Magnificent, Most Masculine!" they intoned, and the knight arose.

***

No such problem ever took place among the peasant populace. Their names, like that of the young schoolmaster, were short and easy to say. Nell. Jack. Will.

In fact, those were the very names that the schoolmaster, Rafe, on this day when school was soon to begin, wrote on small cards in his best calligraphy, along with the names of the other children who would be his pupils:

Neil

Jack

Will

Fred

Liz

Mick

Beth

Anne

Kate

Ben

He placed each card upon one of the wooden desks. Then he fed the small hedgehog that was caged in the corner. He had brought it to be the class pet and to teach the children responsibility for creatures.

He placed the large orange dunce cap in a highly visible spot in order to discourage misbehavior.

Rafe remembered from his own childhood and school days how humiliating it was to wear the dunce cap. Though he had always been a good student, diligent at his lessons, from time to time he had indulged his own sense of fun in ways that the stern schoolmaster, Herr Gutmann, had disapproved of. As punishment he had been ordered to don the humiliating orange cap and stand in front of the class.

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