A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked - By Magnus Mills

Chapter 1

As the clock struck ten, Smew opened the register.

‘Let us begin,’ he said. ‘Chancellor of the Exchequer?’

‘Present,’ said Brambling.

‘Postmaster General?’

‘Present,’ said Garganey.

‘Astronomer Royal?’

‘Here,’ said Whimbrel.

‘Present,’ said Smew.

‘Present,’ said Whimbrel.

‘Comptroller for the Admiralty?’

‘Present,’ said Sanderling.

‘Surveyor of the Imperial Works?’

‘Present,’ said Dotterel.


‘Present,’ said Wryneck.

‘Principal Composer to the Imperial Court?’

‘Present,’ I said.

‘His Exalted Highness, the Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields?’

Smew waited but there was no response. We were seated at a round table, with nine chairs spaced evenly apart. One of the chairs was larger and better-upholstered than the others. It was empty. Smew peered at the unoccupied place for a few moments. ‘Absent,’ he said, putting a cross in the register.

From my position opposite Smew I could see the register upside down. I noticed that this cross was the latest in a long succession of crosses; the rest of us had all received ticks.

There was one further entry to make.

‘Librarian-in-Chief?’ said Smew.

He inclined his head slightly to acknowledge his own presence, before adding a final tick. Closing the register, he glanced over at the clock.

‘We’ll wait for a quarter of an hour,’ he announced.

So we remained there in silence as fifteen minutes marched slowly by. On my left sat Whimbrel; then came Sanderling, Garganey, the empty chair, Wryneck, Smew, Dotterel and Brambling. On the walls around us hung portraits of several previous emperors; but none, yet, of the new incumbent. The clock stood in the corner of the room. A tasselled cord dangled from the ceiling. Lying on the table were our blank notepads and our pencils. There was nothing else.

After a while Whimbrel began passing the time by drawing circles on his pad, but he ceased when Smew gave him a stern look. Respite came only when the clock chimed the quarter hour. At once the mood lightened considerably.

‘Well, now,’ said Smew. ‘May I suggest we adjourn the meeting? After all, in the absence of His Highness there is very little for us to discuss.’

‘Can we assume that this absence is merely temporary?’ enquired Wryneck.

‘Without doubt,’ replied Smew. ‘A brief hiatus in the affairs of state; nothing more.’

‘Seconded then,’ said Wryneck.

‘Carried,’ said Smew.

The two of them conferred for a short while, then Smew looked across at me and asked, ‘Do you know where the cake is?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I took a walk in that direction yesterday afternoon, and again during the evening.’

‘Met your troops yet?’

‘No. Not yet.’

‘In due course, then?’



Over to my left I thought I sensed Garganey stirring slightly, but he made no comment.

‘All done?’ said Wryneck, gathering up his notepad and pencil.

This was taken as a signal that the meeting was over. Soon we were all rising to our feet.

‘Cabinet resumes next Monday at ten o’clock,’ Smew informed us as we dispersed.

I headed out through the door and down the steps, thankful that a conclusion had been reached so quickly. I hadn’t got very far, though, when Garganey caught up with me. ‘Can I have a word?’ he said.


‘I was just wondering if you kept your card?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘As a matter of fact, I’m carrying it with me.’

From my inside pocket I produced a large envelope bearing the words: ON HIS MAJESTY'S IMPERIAL SERVICE.

I handed it to Garganey.

‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘What I’m actually interested in is the postmark. I’ve only recently taken over as Postmaster General and I’ve begun studying the workings of the penny post.’

‘I didn’t know you were new,’ I said.

‘Oh, yes,’ said Garganey. ‘I’ve been in office a comparatively short time.’ He examined the postmark closely. ‘Ah, thought so.’


‘Can you remember when this arrived?’

‘The day before yesterday,’ I said. ‘I came straight to court.’

‘Well, it was posted more than three weeks ago.’


‘See for yourself.’

Garganey handed back the envelope and I looked at the postmark. Sure enough, it was dated almost a month previously.

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I never noticed.’

‘It’s not your fault,’ he said. ‘Obviously the postmen have been shirking some of their obligations.’

‘So it appears.’

‘I’ll have to see what can be done.’

I returned the envelope to my pocket.

‘Right,’ I said, preparing to move on. ‘I’ll bid you good-day then.’

Garganey stood staring distractedly into the distance. He plainly had something further on his mind.

Then he said, ‘Smew’s got a bit of a cheek, hasn’t he?’

‘How do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Taking over the meeting the way he did.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘I suppose somebody had to.’

‘That’s twice in two weeks.’

‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’

‘Then there was all that questioning you about the cake: it’s none of his damned business!’

‘To tell the