Chapter 44

Mrs Beamish Fights Back

While Bert was slipping out of the city gates, Mrs Beamish was being shunted into a cell in the dungeons by Lord Spittleworth. A cracked, reedy voice nearby sang the national anthem in time to hammer blows.

‘Be quiet!’ bellowed Spittleworth towards the wall. The singing stopped.

‘When I finish this foot, my lord,’ said the broken voice, ‘will you let me out to see my daughter?’

‘Yes, yes, you’ll see your daughter,’ Spittleworth called back, rolling his eyes. ‘Now, be quiet, because I want to talk to your neighbour!’

‘Well, before you get started, my lord,’ said Mrs Beamish, ‘I’ve got a few things I want to say to you.

Spittleworth and Flapoon stared at the plump little woman. Never had they placed anyone in the dungeons who looked so proud and unconcerned at being slung in this dank, cold place. Spittleworth was reminded of Lady Eslanda, who was still shut up in his library, and still refusing to marry him. He’d never imagined a cook could look as haughty as a lady.

‘Firstly,’ said Mrs Beamish, ‘if you kill me, the king will know. He’ll notice I’m not making his pastries. He can taste the difference.’

‘That’s true,’ said Spittleworth, with a cruel smile. ‘However, as the king will believe that you’ve been killed by the Ickabog, he’ll simply have to get used to his pastries tasting different, won’t he?’

‘My house lies in the shadow of the palace walls,’ countered Mrs Beamish. ‘It will be impossible to fake an Ickabog attack there without waking up a hundred witnesses.’

‘That’s easily solved,’ said Spittleworth. ‘We’ll say you were foolish enough to take a night-time stroll down by the banks of the River Fluma, where the Ickabog was having a drink.’

‘Which might have worked,’ said Mrs Beamish, making up a story off the top of her head, ‘if I hadn’t left certain instructions, to be carried out if word gets out that I’ve been killed by the Ickabog.’

‘What instructions, and whom have you given them to?’ said Flapoon.

‘Her son, I daresay,’ said Spittleworth, ‘but he’ll soon be in our power. Make a note, Flapoon – we only kill the cook once we’ve killed her son.’

‘In the meantime,’ said Mrs Beamish, pretending she hadn’t felt an icy stab of terror at the thought of Bert falling into Spittleworth’s hands, ‘you might as well equip this cell properly with a stove and all my regular implements, so I can keep making cakes for the king.’

‘Yes… Why not?’ said Spittleworth slowly. ‘We all enjoy your pastries, Mrs Beamish. You may continue to cook for the king until your son is caught.’

‘Good,’ said Mrs Beamish, ‘but I’m going to need assistance. I suggest I train up some of my fellow prisoners who can at least whisk the egg whites and line my baking trays.

‘That will require you to feed the poor fellows a little more. I noticed as you marched me through here that some of them look like skeletons. I can’t have them eating all my raw ingredients because they’re starving.

‘And lastly,’ said Mrs Beamish, giving her cell a sweeping glance, ‘I shall need a comfortable bed and some clean blankets if I’m to get enough sleep to produce cakes of the quality the king demands. It’s his birthday coming up too. He’ll be expecting something very special.’

Spittleworth eyed this most surprising captive for a moment or two, then said:

‘Doesn’t it alarm you, madam, to think that you and your child will soon be dead?’

‘Oh, if there’s one thing you learn at cookery school,’ said Mrs Beamish, with a shrug, ‘burned crusts and soggy bases happen to the best of us. Roll up your sleeves and start something else, I say. No point moaning over what you can’t fix!’

As Spittleworth couldn’t think of a good retort to this, he beckoned to Flapoon and the two lords left the cell, the door clanging shut behind them.

As soon as they’d gone, Mrs Beamish stopped pretending to be brave and dropped down onto the hard bed, which was the only piece of furniture in the cell. She was shaking all over and for a moment, she was afraid that she was going to have hysterics.

However, a woman didn’t rise to be in charge of the king’s kitchens, in a city of the finest pastry-makers on earth, without being able to manage her own nerves. Mrs Beamish took a deep, steadying breath and then, hearing the reedy voice next door break into the national anthem again, she pressed her ear to the wall, and began to listen for the place where the noise was coming into her cell. At last she found a crack near the ceiling. Standing on her bed, she called softly:

‘Dan? Daniel Dovetail? I know that’s you. This is Bertha, Bertha Beamish!’

But the broken voice only continued to sing. Mrs Beamish sank back down on her bed, wrapped her arms around herself, closed her eyes and prayed with every part of her aching heart that wherever Bert was, he was safe.

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