On this same night great confusion and excitement prevailed among the five high counselors of the kingdom of Noland. The old king was dead, and there was none to succeed him as ruler of the country. He had outlived every one of his relatives, and since the crown had been in this one family for generations, it puzzled the high counselors to decide upon a fitting successor.
These five high counselors were very important men. It was said that they ruled the kingdom while the king ruled them; which made it quite easy for the king and rather difficult for the people. The chief counselor was named Tullydub. He was old and very pompous, and had a great respect for the laws of the land. The next in rank was Tollydob, the lord high general of the king's army. The third was Tillydib, the lord high pursebearer. The fourth was Tallydab, the lord high steward. And the fifth and last of the high counselors was Tellydeb, the lord high executioner.
These five had been careful not to tell the people when the old king had become ill, for they feared being annoyed by many foolish questions. They sat in a big room next the bedchamber of the king, in the royal palace of Nole -- which is the capital city of Noland -- and kept everyone out except the king's physician, who was half blind and wholly dumb and could not gossip with outsiders had he wanted to. And while the high counselors sat and waited for the king to recover or die, as he might choose, Jikki waited upon them and brought them their meals.
Jikki was the king's valet and principal servant. He was as old as any of the five high counselors; but they were all fat, whereas Jikki was wonderfully lean and thin, and the counselors were solemn and dignified, whereas Jikki was terribly nervous and very talkative. "Beg pardon, my masters," he would say every few minutes, "but do you think his Majesty will get well?" And then, before any of the high counselors could collect themselves to answer, he continued: "Beg pardon, but do you think his Majesty will die?" And the next moment he would say: "Beg pardon, but do you think his Majesty is any better or any worse?"
And all this was so annoying to the high counselors that several times one of them took up some object in the room with the intention of hurling it at Jikki's head, but before he could throw it, the old servant had nervously turned away and left the room.
Tellydeb, the lord high executioner, would often sigh, "I wish there were some law that would permit me to chop off Jikki's head." But then Tullydub, the chief counselor, would say gloomily, "There is no law but the king's will, and he insists that Jikki be allowed to live."
So they were forced to bear with Jikki as best they could, but after the king breathed his last breath the old servant became more nervous and annoying than ever. Hearing that the king was dead, Jikki made a rush for the door of the bell tower, but tripped over the foot of Tollydob and fell upon the marble floor so violently that his bones rattled, and he picked himself up half dazed by the fall.
"Where are you going?" asked Tollydob.
"To toll the bell for the king's death," answered Jikki.
"Well, remain here until we give you permission to go," commanded the lord high general.
"But the bell ought to be tolled!" said Jikki.
"Be silent!" growled the lord high pursebearer. "We know what ought to be done and what ought not to be done."
But this was not strictly true. In fact, the five high counselors did not know what ought to be done under these strange circumstances. If they told the people the king was dead and did not immediately appoint his successor, then the whole population would lose faith in them and fall to fighting and quarreling among themselves as to who should become king, and that would never in the world do.
No, it was evident that a new king must be chosen before they told the people that the old king was dead. But whom should they choose for the new king? That was the important question. While they talked of these matters, the ever-active Jikki kept rushing in and saying, "Hadn't I better toll the bell?"
"No!" they would shout in a chorus, and then Jikki would rush out again. So they sat and thought and counseled together during the whole long night, and by morning they were no nearer a solution of the problem than before. At daybreak Jikki stuck his head into the room and said, "Hadn't I better -- "
"No!" they all shouted in a breath.
"Very well," returned Jikki. "I was only going to ask if I hadn't better get you some breakfast."
"Yes!" they cried again in one breath.
"And shall I toll the bell?"
"No!" they screamed, and the lord high steward threw an inkstand that hit the door several seconds after Jikki had closed it and disappeared. While they were at breakfast they again discussed their future action in the choice of a king, and finally the chief counselor had a thought that caused him to start so suddenly that he nearly choked.
"The book!" he gasped, staring at his brother counselors in a rather wild manner.
"What book?" asked the lord high general.
"The book of laws," answered the chief counselor.
"I never knew there was such a thing," remarked the lord high executioner, looking puzzled. "I always thought the king's will was the law."
"So it was! So it was when we had a king," answered Tullydub excitedly. "But this book of laws was written years ago and was meant to be used when the king was absent or ill or asleep."
For a moment there was silence. "Have you ever read the book?" then asked Tillydib.
"No, but I will fetch it at once, and we shall see if there is not a law to help us out of our difficulty." So the chief counselor brought the book -- a huge old volume that had a musty smell to it and was locked together with a silver padlock. Then the key had to be found, which was no easy task; but finally the great book of laws lay open upon the table, and all the five periwigs of the five fat counselors were bent over it at once.
Long and earnestly they searched the pages, but it was not until after noon that Tullydub suddenly placed his broad thumb upon a passage and shouted, "I have it! I have it!"
"What is it? Read it! Read it aloud!" cried the others.
Just then Jikki rushed into the room and asked, "Shall I toll the bell?"
"No!" they yelled, glaring at him; so Jikki ran out, shaking his head dolefully.
Then Tullydub adjusted his spectacles and leaned over the book, reading aloud the following words: "In case the king dies and there is no one to succeed him, the chief counselor of the kingdom shall go at sunrise to the eastward gate of the city of Nole and count the persons who enter through such gate as soon as it is opened by the guards. And the forty-seventh person that so enters, be it man, woman or child, rich or poor, humble or noble, shall immediately be proclaimed king or queen, as the case may be, and shall rule all the kingdom of Noland forever after, so long as he or she may live. And if anyone in all the kingdom of Noland shall refuse to obey the slightest wish of the new ruler, such person shall at once be put to death. This is the law."
Then all the five high counselors heaved a deep sigh of relief and repeated together the words, "This is the law."
"But it's a strange law, nevertheless," remarked the lord high pursebearer. "I wish I knew who will be the forty-seventh person to enter the east gate tomorrow at sunrise."
"We must wait and see," answered the lord high general. "And I will have my army assembled and marshaled at the gateway that the new ruler of Noland may be welcomed in a truly kingly manner, as well as to keep the people in order when they hear the strange news."
"Beg pardon!" exclaimed Jikki, looking in at the doorway, "But shall I toll the bell?"
"No, you numskull!" retorted Tullydub angrily. "If the bell is tolled, the people will be told, and they must not know that the old king is dead until the forty-seventh person enters the east gateway tomorrow morning!"