News from the Counting House

By David Swanson

In every village of the kingdom the heralds would cry out the news. And always it would be the same news from every herald who wore the purple sash. But other heralds would cry out different news, crazy news, news that wasn’t news at all.

The royal heralds got their news from the king’s palace, which is why they all cried out the same news at the same time. The other heralds told about the inner workings of the palace as well, but it was clear they did not know what they were saying.

Once, a common herald spoke of the clerk in the royal counting house, and spun such tall tales that many listened for enjoyment, but when a royal herald shouted, interrupting, and demanded to know which wine the royal clerk preferred with his desserts, the poor commoner simply could not say. Mockery and scorn became that would-be herald’s usual reception.

Time passed, and they were hard times in the village of the poor unheeded herald. They were hard times throughout the kingdom, as they were times of war. Much of the harvest and many of the young men were taken away, never to return from a distant land where fearsome creatures breathed fire and cultivated hatred of the good villagers.

The royal heralds cried out the glorious news of martial successes, year after year, decade upon decade, until one might have thought the land and its people could bear no more success. And one day the heralds announced the impending visit of an important personage. In fact, it was the clerk of the royal counting house who would be passing through the village on a journey to distant worlds from which he intended to borrow great treasures for the purpose of funding grander wars.

The village elders immediately devoted all of their energies to planning what they took to be, poor souls, a feast fit for one close to the king. And one of them had what he took, poor soul, to be a brilliant and comical idea. For the entertainment of the royal clerk, they would ask the old debunked crier of incredible notices to tell his tremendous tales.

When the occasion arrived, the poor nearly-forgotten and now quite aged crier of crazed delusions was obliged to dress as a jester with a ludicrous hat and bells on his toes, but his performance failed to greatly amuse. He began by praising the counting-house clerk in the most extravagant manner. He called the clerk powerful and fateful and praised his ability to save or destroy all the earth, which was greatly amusing for someone who, after all, was merely the clerk, albeit the clerk of the king.

But then the old crank began to call the clerk more powerful than the king himself, and all the elders of the village fell silent in fear. As the herald elaborated on this heresy, the elders began to interrupt and demand an end to his amusements. But the herald shouted above their complaints:

“If you will not listen to me, listen to the clerk himself. Good Sir, have you not read the Book of Frames?”

The clerk, who seemed ill at ease, but perhaps less so than the villagers, nodded his head and raised his hands to silence those who would censor the herald’s speech. The Book of Frames was one of many fantastical sources of authority that came up often in the rantings of disreputable criers, but now the royal clerk had acknowledged its existence.

“And when you did read that book, Sir,” said the herald, “did you not understand it to be the highest law of the land, higher than the word of the king, in fact itself the origin of the king’s office and of your own?”

Again, the clerk agreed, and the elders appeared stunned. Two official heralds with purple sashes could be heard grumbling to each other, but no one else made the slightest noise.

“Now, there are two views of your office, are there not, Mr. Clerk,” asked the herald, proceeding to answer his own demand. “In one view you are, shall we say,

“‘an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two’

“When the king comes to you for money, he tells you how much he needs, and you count it out, no more than an abacus with pantaloons, wouldn’t you say?

“Of course you would. But that is not the view taken — nay, prescribed — and, to be crystal clear, legally required, by the Book of Frames. In this view you are to decide whether or not to give the king any money at all, and how much. In fact, when you give the king money you are to instruct him what to spend it on. Is that not so?”

At this the silence in the room was broken by guffaws. The outlandishness of it was more than those in attendance could let pass without a nervous reaction. But the Clerk himself was not laughing.

“You need not answer,” the herald went on, “we can all read it ourselves in the Book of Frames, the story of which is carved into the stone of our public square although all but the village idiots have forgotten what it means. You were chosen for your office by the people of the land, as were the other courtiers and officials of the throne. And together you are empowered to command, rather than to advise, the king.”

At this point the Clerk objected, suggesting that the herald was painting in black and white what should be a subtle tale of grays and shadows. But the herald replied as follows:

“You are certainly correct, Mr. Clerk, that the king must have his kingly powers, but please tell the people assembled here who has the power to create a war, the king or the crowd we currently mislabel the royal court?”

The Clerk had to acknowledge that it was the latter.

“And,” the herald went on, “when the king removes gold from the counting house and spends it on his wars, whose decision is it for that gold to be removed, yours or his?”

The Clerk cleared his throat and coughed. He began to speak of other things, but the herald insisted until the Clerk admitted that the power was his together with his fellow courtiers and attendants.

“Now,” said the herald, “let us speak of war. You spend our crops and the blood of our young men, and off you are now on your way to foreign courts to borrow more war monies that we will have to repay and more. Your heralds tell us that our distant wars, to which we give so much, benefit those against whom they are waged. But there was war in this land itself in a long forgotten age, and let me remind us all of what that war was made. In the words of the invading commander, we were forced to endure . . .

“‘The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
‘Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
‘Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
‘And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
‘Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
‘Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
‘Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
‘At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.’

“Have we utterly forgotten? Now, tell me, honored Clerk, which is the more honest view of war, that of your heralds with their purple sashes and glistening gossip or that of one who has taken part in the unspeakable horrors on which you — You, Sir — waste our toil and our cherished children?”

The Clerk did not dispute the herald’s depiction of war, and on the contrary described it in still more hideous terms. But what, asked the Clerk, would the herald have him do, refuse the king his money and risk the wrath of the royal throne and of half the court besides?

The herald had expected this response, but he looked slowly around him at each of the assembled villagers, staring intensely at each one of them in turn, before directing his gaze at the Clerk and remarking only this:

“You are not alone.”