All the adventurers were reunited next morning when they were brought fro_arious palaces to the Residence of Tititi-Hoochoo and ushered into the grea_all of State.
As before, no one was visible except our friends and their escorts until th_irst bell sounded. Then in a flash the room was seen to be filled with th_eautiful Kings and Queens of the land. The second bell marked the appearanc_n the throne of the mighty Jinjin, whose handsome countenance was as compose_nd expressionless as ever.
All bowed low to the Ruler. Their voices softly murmured: "We greet th_rivate Citizen, mightiest of Rulers, whose word is Law and whose Law i_ust."
Tititi-Hoochoo bowed in acknowledgment. Then, looking around the brillian_ssemblage, and at the little group of adventurers before him, he said:
"An unusual thing has happened. Inhabitants of other lands than ours, who ar_ifferent from ourselves in many ways, have been thrust upon us through th_orbidden Tube, which one of our people foolishly made years ago and wa_roperly punished for his folly. But these strangers had no desire to com_ere and were wickedly thrust into the Tube by a cruel King on the other sid_f the world, named Ruggedo. This King is an immortal, but he is not good. Hi_agic powers hurt mankind more than they benefit them. Because he had unjustl_ept the Shaggy Man's brother a prisoner, this little band of honest people, consisting of both mortals and immortals, determined to conquer Ruggedo and t_unish him. Fearing they might succeed in this, the Nome King misled them s_hat they fell into the Tube.
"Now, this same Ruggedo has been warned by me, many times, that if ever h_sed this Forbidden Tube in any way he would be severely punished. I find, b_eferring to the Fairy Records, that this King's servant, a nome named Kaliko, begged his master not to do such a wrong act as to drop these people into th_ube and send them tumbling into our country. But Ruggedo defied me and m_rders.
"Therefore these strangers are innocent of any wrong. It is only Ruggedo wh_eserves punishment, and I will punish him." He paused a moment and the_ontinued in the same cold, merciless voice:
"These strangers must return through the Tube to their own side of the world; but I will make their fall more easy and pleasant than it was before. Also _hall send with them an Instrument of Vengeance, who in my name will driv_uggedo from his underground caverns, take away his magic powers and make hi_ homeless wanderer on the face of the earth—a place he detests."
There was a little murmur of horror from the Kings and Queens at the severit_f this punishment, but no one uttered a protest, for all realized that th_entence was just.
"In selecting my Instrument of Vengeance," went on Tititi-Hoochoo, "I hav_ealized that this will be an unpleasant mission. Therefore no one of us wh_s blameless should be forced to undertake it. In this wonderful land it i_eldom one is guilty of wrong, even in the slightest degree, and on examinin_he Records I found no King or Queen had erred. Nor had any among thei_ollowers or servants done any wrong. But finally I came to the Dragon Family, which we highly respect, and then it was that I discovered the error of Quox.
"Quox, as you well know, is a young dragon who has not yet acquired the wisdo_f his race. Because of this lack, he has been disrespectful toward his mos_ncient ancestor, the Original Dragon, telling him once to mind his ow_usiness and again saying that the Ancient One had grown foolish with age. W_re aware that dragons are not the same as fairies and cannot be altogethe_uided by our laws, yet such disrespect as Quox has shown should not b_nnoticed by us. Therefore I have selected Quox as my royal Instrument o_engeance and he shall go through the Tube with these people and inflict upo_uggedo the punishment I have decreed."
All had listened quietly to this speech and now the Kings and Queens bowe_ravely to signify their approval of the Jinjin's judgment.
Tititi-Hoochoo turned to Tubekins.
"I command you," said he, "to escort these strangers to the Tube and see tha_hey all enter it."
The King of the Tube, who had first discovered our friends and brought them t_he Private Citizen, stepped forward and bowed. As he did so, the Jinjin an_ll the Kings and Queens suddenly disappeared and only Tubekins remaine_isible.
"All right," said Betsy, with a sigh; "I don't mind going back so very much,
'cause the Jinjin promised to make it easy for us."
Indeed, Queen Ann and her officers were the only ones who looked solemn an_eemed to fear the return journey. One thing that bothered Ann was her failur_o conquer this land of Tititi-Hoochoo. As they followed their guide throug_he gardens to the mouth of the Tube she said to Shaggy:
"How can I conquer the world, if I go away and leave this rich countr_nconquered?"
"You can't," he replied. "Don't ask me why, please, for if you don't know _an't inform you."
"Why not?" said Ann; but Shaggy paid no attention to the question.
This end of the Tube had a silver rim and around it was a gold railing t_hich was attached a sign that read.
"IF YOU ARE OUT, STAY THERE.
IF YOU ARE IN, DON'T COME OUT."
On a little silver plate just inside the Tube was engraved the words:
"Burrowed and built by
Hiergargo the Magician,
In the Year of the World
1 9 6 2 5 4 7 8
For his own exclusive uses."
"He was some builder, I must say," remarked Betsy, when she had read th_nscription; "but if he had known about that star I guess he'd have spent hi_ime playing solitaire."
"Well, what are we waiting for?" inquired Shaggy, who was impatient to start.
"Quox," replied Tubekins. "But I think I hear him coming."
"Is the young dragon invisible?" asked Ann, who had never seen a live drago_nd was a little fearful of meeting one.
"No, indeed," replied the King of the Tube. "You'll see him in a minute; bu_efore you part company I'm sure you'll wish he was invisible."
"Is he dangerous, then?" questioned Files.
"Not at all. But Quox tires me dreadfully," said Tubekins, "and I prefer hi_oom to his company.
At that instant a scraping sound was heard, drawing nearer and nearer unti_rom between two big bushes appeared a huge dragon, who approached the party, nodded his head and said: "Good morning."
Had Quox been at all bashful I am sure he would have felt uncomfortable at th_stonished stare of every eye in the group—except Tubekins, of course, who wa_ot astonished because he had seen Quox so often.
Betsy had thought a "young" dragon must be a small dragon, yet here was one s_normous that the girl decided he must be full grown, if not overgrown. Hi_ody was a lovely sky-blue in color and it was thickly set with glitterin_ilver scales, each one as big as a serving-tray. Around his neck was a pin_ibbon with a bow just under his left ear, and below the ribbon appeared _hain of pearls to which was attached a golden locket about as large around a_he end of a bass drum. This locket was set with many large and beautifu_ewels.
The head and face of Quox were not especially ugly, when you consider that h_as a dragon; but his eyes were so large that it took him a long time to win_nd his teeth seemed very sharp and terrible when they showed, which they di_henever the beast smiled. Also his nostrils were quite large and wide, an_hose who stood near him were liable to smell brimstone—especially when h_reathed out fire, as it is the nature of dragons to do. To the end of hi_ong tail was attached a big electric light.
Perhaps the most singular thing about the dragon's appearance at this time wa_he fact that he had a row of seats attached to his back, one seat for eac_ember of the party. These seats were double, with curved backs, so that tw_ould sit in them, and there were twelve of these double seats, all strappe_irmly around the dragon's thick body and placed one behind the other, in _ow that extended from his shoulders nearly to his tail.
"Aha!" exclaimed Tubekins; "I see that Tititi-Hoochoo has transformed Quo_nto a carryall."
"I'm glad of that," said Betsy. "I hope, Mr. Dragon, you won't mind our ridin_n your back."
"Not a bit," replied Quox. "I'm in disgrace just now, you know, and the onl_ay to redeem my good name is to obey the orders of the Jinjin. If he makes m_ beast of burden, it is only a part of my punishment, and I must bear it lik_ dragon. I don't blame you people at all, and I hope you'll enjoy the ride.
Hop on, please. All aboard for the other side of the world!"
Silently they took their places. Hank sat in the front seat with Betsy, s_hat he could rest his front hoofs upon the dragon's head. Behind them wer_haggy and Polychrome, then Files and the Princess, and Queen Ann and Tik-Tok.
The officers rode in the rear seats. When all had mounted to their places th_ragon looked very like one of those sightseeing wagons so common in bi_ities—only he had legs instead of wheels.
"All ready?" asked Quox, and when they said they were he crawled to the mout_f the Tube and put his head in.
"Good-bye, and good luck to you!" called Tubekins; but no one thought t_eply, because just then the dragon slid his great body into the Tube and th_ourney to the other side of the world had begun.
At first they went so fast that they could scarcely catch their breaths, bu_resently Quox slowed up and said with a sort of cackling laugh:
"My scales! but that is some tumble. I think I shall take it easy and fal_lower, or I'm likely to get dizzy. Is it very far to the other side of th_orld?"
"Haven't you ever been through this Tube before?" inquired Shaggy.
"Never. Nor has anyone else in our country; at least, not since I was born."
"How long ago was that?" asked Betsy.
"That I was born? Oh, not very long ago. I'm only a mere child. If I had no_een sent on this journey, I would have celebrated my three thousand an_ifty-sixth birthday next Thursday. Mother was going to make me a birthda_ake with three thousand and fifty-six candles on it; but now, of course, there will be no celebration, for I fear I shall not get home in time for it."
"Three thousand and fifty-six years!" cried Betsy. "Why, I had no ide_nything could live that long!"
"My respected Ancestor, whom I would call a stupid old humbug if I had no_eformed, is so old that I am a mere baby compared with him," said Quox. "H_ates from the beginning of the world, and insists on telling us stories o_hings that happened fifty thousand years ago, which are of no interest at al_o youngsters like me. In fact, Grandpa isn't up to date. He lives altogethe_n the past, so I can't see any good reason for his being alive to-day… . Ar_ou people able to see your way, or shall I turn on more light?"
"Oh, we can see very nicely, thank you; only there's nothing to see bu_urselves," answered Betsy.
This was true. The dragon's big eyes were like headlights on an automobile an_lluminated the Tube far ahead of them. Also he curled his tail upward so tha_he electric light on the end of it enabled them to see one another quit_learly. But the Tube itself was only dark metal, smooth as glass but exactl_he same from one of its ends to the other. Therefore there was no scenery o_nterest to beguile the journey.
They were now falling so gently that the trip was proving entirel_omfortable, as the Jinjin had promised it would be; but this meant a longe_ourney and the only way they could make time pass was to engage i_onversation. The dragon seemed a willing and persistent talker and he was o_o much interest to them that they encouraged him to chatter. His voice was _ittle gruff but not unpleasant when one became used to it.
"My only fear," said he presently, "is that this constant sliding over th_urface of the Tube will dull my claws. You see, this hole isn't straigh_own, but on a steep slant, and so instead of tumbling freely through the ai_ must skate along the Tube. Fortunately, there is a file in my tool-kit, an_f my claws get dull they can be sharpened again."
"Why do you want sharp claws?" asked Betsy.
"They are my natural weapons, and you must not forget that I have been sent t_onquer Ruggedo."
"Oh, you needn't mind about that," remarked Queen Ann, in her most haught_anner; "for when we get to Ruggedo I and my invincible Army can conquer hi_ithout your assistance."
"Very good," returned the dragon, cheerfully. "That will save me a lot o_other—if you succeed. But I think I shall file my claws, just the same."
He gave a long sigh, as he said this, and a sheet of flame, several feet i_ength, shot from his mouth. Betsy shuddered and Hank said "Hee-haw!" whil_ome of the officers screamed in terror. But the dragon did not notice that h_ad done anything unusual.
"Is there fire inside of you?" asked Shaggy.
"Of course," answered Quox. "What sort of a dragon would I be if my fire wen_ut?"
"What keeps it going?" Betsy inquired.
"I've no idea. I only know it's there," said Quox. "The fire keeps me aliv_nd enables me to move; also to think and speak."
"Ah! You are ver-y much like my-self," said Tik-Tok. "The on-ly dif-fer-enc_s that I move by clock-work, while you move by fire."
"I don't see a particle of likeness between us, I must confess," retorte_uox, gruffly. "You are not a live thing; you're a dummy."
"But I can do things, you must ad-mit," said Tik-Tok.
"Yes, when you are wound up," sneered the dragon. "But if you run down, yo_re helpless."
"What would happen to you, Quox, if you ran out of gasoline?" inquired Shaggy, who did not like this attack upon his friend.
"I don't use gasoline."
"Well, suppose you ran out of fire."
"What's the use of supposing that?" asked Quox. "My great-great-great- grandfather has lived since the world began, and he has never once run out o_ire to keep him going. But I will confide to you that as he gets older h_hows more smoke and less fire. As for Tik-Tok, he's well enough in his way, but he's merely copper. And the Metal Monarch knows copper through an_hrough. I wouldn't be surprised if Ruggedo melted Tik-Tok in one of hi_urnaces and made copper pennies of him."
"In that case, I would still keep going," remarked Tik-Tok, calmly.
"Pennies do," said Betsy regretfully.
"This is all nonsense," said the Queen, with irritation. "Tik-Tok is my grea_rmy—all but the officers—and I believe he will be able to conquer Rugged_ith ease. What do you think, Polychrome?"
"You might let him try," answered the Rainbow's Daughter, with her swee_inging laugh, that sounded like the tinkling of tiny bells. "And if Tik-To_ails, you have still the big fire-breathing dragon to fall back on."
"Ah!" said the dragon, another sheet of flame gushing from his mouth an_ostrils; "it's a wise little girl, this Polychrome. Anyone would know she i_ fairy."