Alice trudged slowly away from the park, not really caring where she was going. The thought crossed her mind that she probably should care, but she also remembered something she heard a long time ago that it really didn't matter which way one goes— one will always get somewhere if they "only walk long enough." This last thought was quite discouraging, but she kept walking.
"Cast off the lines!" could be heard from over the hill in front of her.
Forgetting her tiredness and hunger, Alice hurried through the grass to the top of the hill. There before her was a scene of great activity. A small ship lay moored against a pier in what appeared to be a narrow river and seven short workers scurried around loosening lines and making it ready for sailing. At one side of the work area was a road leading away and around another hill.
"Hurry up!" one of the workers shouted. "The clock has already struck. We must get this boat away." And the workers hurried even faster. Shortly, the boat began to move, and the workers slowed their activity and relaxed and started to sing and whistle:
"I/O, I/O, It's off to work we go.
I/O, I/O, I/O,
I/O, I/O, It's off to work we go.
Alice walked down the hill toward them. At first, none of the workers paid much attention to her, then one leaped to his feet and asked her in a rather agitated voice. "Hey, were you supposed to be on that ship?"
Alice really did not know just what to say (for the umpteenth time that day) especially to a little man about half her height. Finally, after he had repeated the question, she replied, "No, no, I'm...."
"Thank goodness!" he exclaimed, and sat down again. "I was afraid we'd messed up the shipment again. I hate it when that happens."
"What does happen?" asked Alice curiously.
"Oh, she gets mad and threatens to send us to the other port. She never really does, you know, but it certainly isn't very nice 'round here when she gets mad. By the way, my name is Stro. Actually, it's Strobe, but me friends call me Stro. What's your name?" And with this Stro jumped to his feet, wiped his hand on his shirt, and held it out to Alice to shake.
Alice thought that a proper gentleman would wait until a lady offered her hand, but she did not want to offend him, so she took his hand and replied, "Alice."
"Interesting! I never met no Alice before, you know. These are me mates." And he turned and waved his other hand toward the other six workers now sprawled out around the dock. "Come on you slugs! Git up and show a little respect for a young lady. This is Alice!"
At this the workers struggled to their feet and crowded around Alice. They all were generally quite friendly.
"Hello, my name is Ack."
"Hi, I'm Busy—that's my name. It really is!"
"Hrumph, Nack's the name, if you must know," one of them
said rather grumpily.
"Greetings, call me Latch," and he grabbed Alice's hand and shook it hard.
"Hello, Ready here. Glad to meet you."
"Gud d'y, I'm N. Able."
"Able is a foreigner," interjected Stro. "He from the other side of the ground."
Alice thought that their names were quite strange, but she did not say anything because she was afraid they might be offended. "It is so very good to meet you all!" she exclaimed as she shook each worker's hand in turn.
"Come on over here and have a sit in the buffer while you wait," invited Stro leading Alice toward a soft chair on the dock. "We all were goin' to take a lunch break. Would you like to join us?" he asked when Alice was seated comfortably.
Alice could not have heard a nicer suggestion. "I would be delighted!" she exclaimed. "I am really quite hungry!"
"Well then, it's all set." Stro replied to Alice, then turned to the others and called, "The young lady is doin' us the honor of havin' a bite to eat with us. Git the grub."
"Do we have time?" asked Ready.
"Sure we do," replied Stro.
"The old lady will probably show up right in the middle," retorted Nack, "And the food's most likely spoiled anyways."
"Not to worry," said Stro emphatically. "Let's get on with it."
"I'll get me tucker bag, mate!" interjected Able.
The other workers began to gather their food together, cutting thick slices of bread and spreading butter and jam.
To her credit, Alice did not stare at the growing mound of food, but looked around the dock. She really had not noticed when it came in, but there moored by the pier was another ship, waiting.
"Just what is this place?" Alice asked.
"Oh, this here is the pair-of-el port," replied Stro. "We put characters into the ships and send them down the channel."
"Where do they go?" inquired Alice.
"I don't rightly know," Stro said after thinking for a few moments, "But Ack might. He's a messenger, you know, and travels up and down the channel when she sends him."
"Who is this she?" Alice asked.
"Why, she's the port authority—the first lady—the prime minister of these parts—the queen—you know."
"Oh, I didn't know," replied Alice. "I have never heard of her."
"You've never heard of her?" Stro asked in amazement, then suddenly leaned close to Alice, and whispered. "Shhhh! You must never let her know that. She'll... she'll quicksticks send you to the other port, you know. And it's said she has a magic mirror that allows her to sort of see what's happenin' all over!" And he looked around him as if expecting something bad to interrupt him.
"Exactly where is this other port?" Alice quietly asked.
"Don't rightly know. It's all a bit hazy. But one of me friends, Uart, works there and told me that it's downright awful. First, they only handle freight—grain—not characters like yourself as we do here, you know. At least, I thinks that's what he said. I do remember, he said it was a cereal port. Anyway, he has to ship them out a little bit at a time to the ferocious modem. The screams are terrible when they get to the modem, you know. Uart says he has to plug his ears so he won't go mad. And when he gets things back from the modem, they are in such bad shape he has to patch them together and fix them up, and it hurts them so."
"Oh, it does sound terrible!" exclaimed Alice. The mention of cereal made her think of the lunch again. Fortunately, the other workers had finished their preparations and Latch was bringing a huge tray piled high with sandwiches, apples, and other yummies.
"Finally!" thought Alice.
At that moment, the sound of an automobile came from the road leading to the port.
"Oh, no!" yelled Stro as he jumped up. "Quick! Hide the food 'fore she gets here!"
"I told you so!" shouted Nack. "Now we're in for it!"
At this all the workers scurried around, trying to hide the food, but Ready ran into Latch who dropped the tray, and all the food landed in a heap on the dock with apples rolling all over the place. They tried to grab things, but seemed to drop as much as they picked up. Alice, of course, was quite dismayed, but it all happened so fast she really didn't have time to do anything. She thought about it later and wished that she had jumped out of the chair and grabbed a sandwich or an apple. But, it really didn't matter, because at that moment the car drove up and screeched to a stop.
"WHAT'S THIS?" screamed the haughty woman as she pushed open the car door and climbed out before the driver had even had a chance to open it for her.
The workers all fell to the dock and lay there quivering. Since Alice was the only one still looking at her, she strode over to Alice and demanded, "Please explain the meaning of this!"
Alice looked first at the woman, then at the workers lying on the ground, then at the pile of food, then back to the woman.
"Well, I am waiting, and I do not have all day!" the woman scowled at Alice. "Are you responsible for this?"
Finally, Alice found her tongue. "No, no, ma'am!"
For what seemed the longest time to Alice the woman stared at her and finally seemed to believe her. "Well, I guess you are too little to create this chaos. But I have half a mind to send you to the modem, anyway! You there," and she turned to poor Stro laying on the dock. "Get up, don't grovel."
"Yes, ma'am!" replied Stro as he leaped to his feet.
"Now would you tell me what is going on here? I left you in charge, and this is what I find when I get back. It is a good thing I wasn't gone long."
"No ma'am. I mean, yes ma'am," he stammered. "Me mates and me were just taking a bit of a lunch break, you know, to get a bite to eat. She said she was hungry." And with this he turned and looked at Alice.
"Don't try to blame her for your incompetence." said the woman sternly. "I am going to send you to the other port. Ack, Ack, come here at once. I have a message for you to take."
Ack jumped to his feet and ran toward the woman, but before he had a chance to say anything poor Stro fell to his knees and pleaded, "Please, your highness, don't do that. We'll get it all cleaned up as quick as lightnin'. Nothin's been hurt, you know." Then to the other workers he called, "Quick, you all hurry and get this mess cleaned up. Make the dock right spick and span for her highness!"
At this, all the workers jumped up and began picking up the food and putting it into sacks and boxes. There was no sound except for their huffing and puffing and Nack grumbling under his breath. Their activity seemed to satisfy the woman somewhat, and she turned to Alice.
"My, you are a nice looking character. Hmmm, maybe too nice!" she said with a scowl, then asked, "Are you ready to embark so we can send you away?"
Alice managed a smile and said, "I am not at all certain. Where would you send me?"
At this the woman frowned and stared at her. "You are an impertinent one aren't you? When I was young, we wouldn't have thought of asking such a question. It is so improper."
"I didn't mean...." said Alice.
"You probably think it is all right to keep everyone waiting." she interrupted.
"Oh, no! You see...." Alice tried to explain but at this moment Ack reached for the bag that Latch was holding and the two tugged together for a few moments and fell to the ground, bumping against the woman and accidentally smearing jam on her dress.
"You stupid dwarf pigs!" yelled the woman. "Look what you have done now!" At this all the workers froze and stared in horror at the woman and poor Ack and Latch. "Away with you!" the woman continued. "To the modem, all of you!" she raged.
At this all the workers began crying and shouting.
Alice was not quite certain if she really meant it, but she now quite understood what Stro had said about getting the authority mad. She was also quite certain that she did not want to take a ride on any ship run by that woman, especially not knowing where it would take her. So without thinking much further, she slipped out of the chair and ran up the road.
"Wait! Don't run away! You must board the ship!" the woman shouted after her in a sharp tone, then continued sweetly, "I have a nice apple for you!" but Alice just ran on until she could no longer hear her voice or the cries of the workers.