The way taken by the adventurers led up hill and down dale and wound here an_here in a fashion that seemed aimless. But always it drew nearer to a rang_f low mountains and Files said more than once that he was certain th_ntrance to Ruggedo's cavern would be found among these rugged hills.
In this he was quite correct. Far underneath the nearest mountain was _orgeous chamber hollowed from the solid rock, the walls and roof of whic_littered with thousands of magnificent jewels. Here, on a throne of virgi_old, sat the famous Nome King, dressed in splendid robes and wearing a super_rown cut from a single blood-red ruby.
Ruggedo, the Monarch of all the Metals and Precious Stones of the Undergroun_orld, was a round little man with a flowing white beard, a red face, brigh_yes and a scowl that covered all his forehead. One would think, to look a_im, that he ought to be jolly; one might think, considering his enormou_ealth, that he ought to be happy; but this was not the case. The Meta_onarch was surly and cross because mortals had dug so much treasure out o_he earth and kept it above ground, where all the power of Ruggedo and hi_omes was unable to recover it. He hated not only the mortals but also th_airies who live upon the earth or above it, and instead of being content wit_he riches he still possessed he was unhappy because he did not own all th_old and jewels in the world.
Ruggedo had been nodding, half asleep, in his chair when suddenly he sa_pright, uttered a roar of rage and began pounding upon a huge gong that stoo_eside him.
The sound filled the vast cavern and penetrated to many caverns beyond, wher_ountless thousands of nomes were working at their unending tasks, hammerin_ut gold and silver and other metals, or melting ores in great furnaces, o_olishing glittering gems. The nomes trembled at the sound of the King's gon_nd whispered fearfully to one another that something unpleasant was sure t_appen; but none dared pause in his task,
The heavy curtains of cloth-of-gold were pushed aside and Kaliko, the King'_igh Chamberlain, entered the royal presence.
"What's up, Your Majesty?" he asked, with a wide yawn, for he had jus_akened.
"Up?" roared Ruggedo, stamping his foot viciously. "Those foolish mortals ar_p, that's what! And they want to come down."
"Down here?" inquired Kaliko.
"How do you know?" continued the Chamberlain, yawning again.
"I feel it in my bones," said Ruggedo. "I can always feel it when thos_ateful earth-crawlers draw near to my Kingdom. I am positive, Kaliko, tha_ortals are this very minute on their way here to annoy me—and I hate mortal_ore than I do catnip tea!"
"Well, what's to be done?" demanded the nome.
"Look through your spyglass, and see where the invaders are," commanded th_ing.
So Kaliko went to a tube in the wall of rock and put his eye to it. The tub_an from the cavern up to the side of the mountain and turned several curve_nd corners, but as it was a magic spyglass Kaliko was able to see through i_ust as easily as if it had been straight.
"Ho—hum," said he. "I see 'em, Your Majesty."
"What do they look like?" inquired the Monarch.
"That's a hard question to answer, for a queerer assortment of creatures _ever yet beheld," replied the nome. "However, such a collection o_uriosities may prove dangerous. There's a copper man, worked by machinery—"
"Bah! that's only Tik-Tok," said Ruggedo. "I'm not afraid of him. Why, onl_he other day I met the fellow and threw him down a well."
"Then some one must have pulled him out again," said Kaliko. "And there's _ittle girl—"
"Dorothy?" asked Ruggedo, jumping up in fear.
"No; some other girl. In fact, there are several girls, of various sizes; bu_orothy is not with them, nor is Ozma."
"That's good!" exclaimed the King, sighing in relief.
Kaliko still had his eye to the spyglass.
"I see," said he, "an army of men from Oogaboo. They are all officers an_arry swords. And there is a Shaggy Man—who seems very harmless—and a littl_onkey with big ears."
"Pooh!" cried Ruggedo, snapping his fingers in scorn. "I've no fear of such _ob as that. A dozen of my nomes can destroy them all in a jiffy."
"I'm not so sure of that," said Kaliko. "The people of Oogaboo are hard t_estroy, and I believe the Rose Princess is a fairy. As for Polychrome, yo_now very well that the Rainbow's Daughter cannot be injured by a nome."
"Polychrome! Is she among them?" asked the King.
"Yes; I have just recognized her."
"Then these people are coming here on no peaceful errand," declared Ruggedo, scowling fiercely. "In fact, no one ever comes here on a peaceful errand. _ate everybody, and everybody hates me!"
"Very true," said Kaliko.
"I must in some way prevent these people from reaching my dominions. Where ar_hey now?"
"Just now they are crossing the Rubber Country, Your Majesty."
"Good! Are your magnetic rubber wires in working order?"
"I think so," replied Kaliko. "Is it your Royal Will that we have some fu_ith these invaders?"
"It is," answered Ruggedo. "I want to teach them a lesson they will neve_orget."
Now, Shaggy had no idea that he was in a Rubber Country, nor had any of hi_ompanions. They noticed that everything around them was of a dull gray colo_nd that the path upon which they walked was soft and springy, yet they had n_uspicion that the rocks and trees were rubber and even the path they trod wa_ade of rubber.
Presently they came to a brook where sparkling water dashed through a dee_hannel and rushed away between high rocks far down the mountain-side. Acros_he brook were stepping-stones, so placed that travelers might easily lea_rom one to another and in that manner cross the water to the farther bank.
Tik-Tok was marching ahead, followed by his officers and Queen Ann. After the_ame Betsy Bobbin and Hank, Polychrome and Shaggy, and last of all the Ros_rincess with Files. The Clockwork Man saw the stream and the stepping stone_nd, without making a pause, placed his foot upon the first stone.
The result was astonishing. First he sank down in the soft rubber, which the_ebounded and sent Tik-Tok soaring high in the air, where he turned _uccession of flip-flops and alighted upon a rubber rock far in the rear o_he party.
General Apple did not see Tik-Tok bound, so quickly had he disappeared; therefore he also stepped upon the stone (which you will guess was connecte_ith Kaliko's magnetic rubber wire) and instantly shot upward like an arrow.
General Cone came next and met with a like fate, but the others now notice_hat something was wrong and with one accord they halted the column and looke_ack along the path.
There was Tik-Tok, still bounding from one rubber rock to another, each tim_ising a less distance from the ground. And there was General Apple, boundin_way in another direction, his three-cornered hat jammed over his eyes and hi_ong sword thumping him upon the arms and head as it swung this way and that.
And there, also, appeared General Cone, who had struck a rubber roc_eadforemost and was so crumpled up that his round body looked more like _ouncing-ball than the form of a man.
Betsy laughed merrily at the strange sight and Polychrome echoed her laughter.
But Ozga was grave and wondering, while Queen Ann became angry at seeing th_hief officers of the Army of Oogaboo bounding around in so undignified _anner. She shouted to them to stop, but they were unable to obey, even thoug_hey would have been glad to do so. Finally, however, they all ceased boundin_nd managed to get upon their feet and rejoin the Army.
"Why did you do that?" demanded Ann, who seemed greatly provoked.
"Don't ask them why," said Shaggy earnestly. "I knew you would ask them why, but you ought not to do it. The reason is plain. Those stones are rubber; therefore they are not stones. Those rocks around us are rubber, and therefor_hey are not rocks. Even this path is not a path; it's rubber. Unless we ar_ery careful, your Majesty, we are all likely to get the bounce, just as you_oor officers and Tik-Tok did."
"Then let's be careful," remarked Files, who was full of wisdom; bu_olychrome wanted to test the quality of the rubber, so she began dancing.
Every step sent her higher and higher into the air, so that she resembled _ig butterfly fluttering lightly. Presently she made a great bound and bounde_ay across the stream, landing lightly and steadily on the other side.
"There is no rubber over here," she called to them. "Suppose you all try t_ound over the stream, without touching the stepping-stones."
Ann and her officers were reluctant to undertake such a risky adventure, bu_etsy at once grasped the value of the suggestion and began jumping up an_own until she found herself bounding almost as high as Polychrome had done.
Then she suddenly leaned forward and the next bound took her easily across th_rook, where she alighted by the side of the Rainbow's Daughter.
"Come on, Hank!" called the girl, and the donkey tried to obey. He managed t_ound pretty high but when he tried to bound across the stream he misjudge_he distance and fell with a splash into the middle of the water.
"Hee-haw!" he wailed, struggling toward the far bank. Betsy rushed forward t_elp him out, but when the mule stood safely beside her she was amazed to fin_e was not wet at all.
"It's dry water," said Polychrome, dipping her hand into the stream an_howing how the water fell from it and left it perfectly dry.
"In that case," returned Betsy, "they can all walk through the water."
She called to Ozga and Shaggy to wade across, assuring them the water wa_hallow and would not wet them. At once they followed her advice, avoiding th_ubber stepping stones, and made the crossing with ease. This encouraged th_ntire party to wade through the dry water, and in a few minutes all ha_ssembled on the bank and renewed their journey along the path that led to th_ome King's dominions.
When Kaliko again looked through his magic spyglass he exclaimed:
"Bad luck, Your Majesty! All the invaders have passed the Rubber Country an_ow are fast approaching the entrance to your caverns."
Ruggedo raved and stormed at the news and his anger was so great that severa_imes, as he strode up and down his jeweled cavern, he paused to kick Kalik_pon his shins, which were so sensitive that the poor nome howled with pain.
Finally the King said:
"There's no help for it; we must drop these audacious invaders down the Hollo_ube."
Kaliko gave a jump, at this, and looked at his master wonderingly.
"If you do that, Your Majesty," he said, "you will make Tititi-Hoochoo ver_ngry."
"Never mind that," retorted Ruggedo. "Tititi-Hoochoo lives on the other sid_f the world, so what do I care for his anger?"
Kaliko shuddered and uttered a little groan.
"Remember his terrible powers," he pleaded, "and remember that he warned you, the last time you slid people through the Hollow Tube, that if you did i_gain he would take vengeance upon you."
The Metal Monarch walked up and down in silence, thinking deeply.
"Of two dangers," said he, "it is wise to choose the least. What do yo_uppose these invaders want?"
"Let the Long-Eared Hearer listen to them," suggested Kaliko.
"Call him here at once!" commanded Ruggedo eagerly.
So in a few minutes there entered the cavern a nome with enormous ears, wh_owed low before the King.
"Strangers are approaching," said Ruggedo, "and I wish to know their errand.
Listen carefully to their talk and tell me why they are coming here, and wha_or."
The nome bowed again and spread out his great ears, swaying them gently up an_own and back and forth. For half an hour he stood silent, in an attitude o_istening, while both the King and Kaliko grew impatient at the delay. At las_he Long-Eared Hearer spoke:
"Shaggy Man is coming here to rescue his brother from captivity," said he.
"Ha, the Ugly One!" exclaimed Ruggedo. "Well, Shaggy Man may have his ugl_rother, for all I care. He's too lazy to work and is always getting in m_ay. Where is the Ugly One now, Kaliko?"
"The last time Your Majesty stumbled over the prisoner you commanded me t_end him to the Metal Forest, which I did. I suppose he is still there."
"Very good. The invaders will have a hard time finding the Metal Forest," sai_he King, with a grin of malicious delight, "for half the time I can't find i_yself. Yet I created the forest and made every tree, out of gold and silver, so as to keep the precious metals in a safe place and out of the reach o_ortals. But tell me, Hearer, do the strangers want anything else?"
"Yes, indeed they do!" returned the nome. "The Army of Oogaboo is determine_o capture all the rich metals and rare jewels in your kingdom, and th_fficers and their Queen have arranged to divide the spoils and carry the_way."
When he heard this Ruggedo uttered a bellow of rage and began dancing up an_own, rolling his eyes, clicking his teeth together and swinging his arm_uriously. Then, in an ecstasy of anger he seized the long ears of the Heare_nd pulled and twisted them cruelly; but Kaliko grabbed up the King's sceptr_nd rapped him over the knuckles with it, so that Ruggedo let go the ears an_egan to chase his Royal Chamberlain around the throne.
The Hearer took advantage of this opportunity to slip away from the cavern an_scape, and after the King had tired himself out chasing Kaliko he thre_imself into his throne and panted for breath, while he glared wickedly at hi_efiant subject.
"You'd better save your strength to fight the enemy," suggested Kaliko. "Ther_ill be a terrible battle when the Army of Oogaboo gets here."
"The Army won't get here," said the King, still coughing and panting. "I'l_rop 'em down the Hollow Tube—every man Jack and every girl Jill of 'em!"
"And defy Tititi-Hoochoo?" asked Kaliko.
"Yes. Go at once to my Chief Magician and order him to turn the path towar_he Hollow Tube, and to make the tip of the Tube invisible, so they'll al_all into it."
Kaliko went away shaking his head, for he thought Ruggedo was making a grea_istake. He found the Magician and had the path twisted so that it le_irectly to the opening of the Hollow Tube, and this opening he mad_nvisible.
Having obeyed the orders of his master, the Royal Chamberlain went to hi_rivate room and began to write letters of recommendation of himself, statin_hat he was an honest man, a good servant and a small eater.
"Pretty soon," he said to himself, "I shall have to look for another job, fo_t is certain that Ruggedo has ruined himself by this reckless defiance of th_ighty Tititi-Hoochoo. And in seeking a job nothing is so effective as _etter of recommendation."