14. Putting It Together.
The cat’s back, having been longer away than he’d intended. His errand had not gone as planned.
Drusilla’s beaten him back. She’d been installed in her bed all of ten minutes when she’d up and dressed and slipped down the main stair and through the morning room, avoiding Magda’s interference. The Conservatory is off-limits to back-of-the-house staff, unless summoned.
She’s sitting on the grass beside Reisig, stroking him, cooing, “Such a good boy. Oh, a very good boy. Very-very-very good, my sweetheart.” She’d grabbed a plate of roast beef from the breakfast buffet – set up minus the eggs that were prepared to order – that he’s already scarfed down.1 He’s thinking along the lines of, have I died and gone to heaven?
Charmed by the scene, Sly’s upset melts away. The oopsie behind the cottage is a small setback. “Damn me for an incompetent ass,” he tells them with a grin, “wait til you hear what an idiot I’ve been.”
“What’s wrong?” asks Dru.
“The pillowcase was an easy rend for sharp teeth. Gone-gone-gone, all but three dazed wee ones. Supports my theory. The sleep-draught hits the smallest hardest.”
“So we have three, four with Rosetta. What did you want them for anyway?”
“I’ve got hold of something, I think. I want to poke it, see where it takes me. The tailor arrives with bags and boxes. Fittings, usually fobbed off on an assistant in the shop, Herr ______ handles himself, here. A hush-hush commission is given priority over all others.
“The bright spot is, one just into town has picked out Heinz as half the song-and-dance duo of a few days back. Unhappy timing placed your tutor on _______’s premises just as the peddler made his call. The man has satisfied his commercial clients. He now sells house to house, and I understand he will not quit us until after Kinderzeche,2 where he will take a stall. That would give me a solid month to fiddle. The Friefrau will certainly keep Dee under wraps until the witness to that rollick moves on.
“Dru, m’dear, I will spend my afternoon with Dee, learning what more I may. You take our remainders up with you and shower them with love, as you are doing so admirably with our Reisig. They’re in a bucket over behind the cottage. I happened across a container with a lid.”
“Was it sitting under the worktable?”
“Under a workbench, yes.”
“Does it have a green lid with a hook catch?”
“You’ve loaded them into my snail pail. Dag added the locked lid, he’s clever that way. I tote grubs, worms, snails, insects – spiders, especially, are hard to hang on to – all that good stuff, up to my toads, they get a healthy, balanced diet. I want all my creatures to eat well.” She smiles at Reisig.
The dog mutters, “Toads? This piece of fluff keeps toads?”
“She is a naturalist. I find it delightful, don’t you?”
The dog frowns. “Let me get this straight. This little chickadee, who keeps toads, presumably caught with her own dainty hands, who also traps grubs, worms and insects, why on earth would she object to picking up rats after all that?”
“It’s prejudice, that blind prejudice we see all around us. Grubs and worms are wholesome improvers of the soil. Rats are filthy, nasty, evil, the same crap thrown at cats. Ours not to wonder why, ours but to make the best of it. Reisig, sir, can I persuade you to bestir yourself? I have one simple task for you. Pick up a scent from the pillowcase. I want to know, where did the rats – Dru, doll, how many you figure we had? – where did they slink off to?”
“I had eight. I said to myself, eight is more than enough dammit. And there were the five under the bench. So we had thirteen – an unlucky number. Mama’s big on numerology.”
“Dee swears by it also, they have that in common. Cracked heads often admire the same cracked concepts. Sorry, Dru, I don’t mean to insult your Mama.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m with you all the way. Mama has some very peculiar ideas.”
Magda has dropped down to the cottage for a post-breakfast loll.
She’s sent Dag into the kitchen garden to see what’s ripe. He rushes back – on his bad knees, Lord love him – beans in his basket, horror on his face. “Rats!” he cries. “Mama! We have rats!”
“Guess we know where those suckers took themselves off to,” whispers Drusilla.
“We never had rats,” says Magda. “Rabbits aplenty. Rats? Not that I was aware of.”
“Quick! Fetch that pillowcase,” Sly tells Reisig. “Drop it at her feet. Make a fuss. Growl at it, paw at it.” Reisig retrieves the shredded case and presents it to Magda with a flourish. He widens his nostrils, sniffs at it, snarls at it, for good measure, drools on it.
“Bring it to me, that’s a good boy,” encourages Drusilla. The item delivered into her hands, she examines it. Pretending to be infuriated, she squalls, “It’s a pillowcase! Those down-towns hate me. They throw rocks, call me names. Now they’ve filled a bag with rats and released them on us. A new way of tormenting me! This is why we need a guard dog.”
“He gets his chance,” says Dag, “unpromising as he is. In the garden, days. In the lane, nights, to discourage lurkers. He earns his keep. No more fancy helpings, he feeds off rat.”
“No need to go that far. He will hunt, it’s his nature.”
“Let’s make damn good and certain of that. I want to see a dead rat by day’s end or – how much fairer can I be? – end of day tomorrow. This invasion has got to be nipped, before they multiply. Yes, we have rabbits. Yes, we have mice. Rats are another thing. Your mama is terrified of them. She grew up on the doorstep of rat-town. A story goes, she was bitten in the cradle. The rats must disappear, immediately. If your animal can’t do it, another can. This lug – look at him, all he’s done is sit in the one spot all morning – this is no ratter here. A wiry terrier is what’s needed. I’m for sending him on his way right now.”
Dru’s kicking Dag in the shins, screaming “No – no – no!”
Hmmm. Could this be one of the reasons for his bad knees?
Sly pulls her aside. “Keep calm, chickadee,” he tells her. “Listen, I’ve made a mess. Dee’s first fitting will proceed without me. I am needed here. I suddenly see a solution to this whole shebang.3 Everyone comes out ahead except, maybe, Dee and Heinz. Tough luck for them. Rats are very intelligent creatures, I bet you didn’t know that. I did a stint in a street show at one point. We had rats dancing, doing somersaults . . .”
“A street show! Oh, I’d adore to be in a street show! When was it, and where?”
“I’ll tell you all about it over dinner. Right now, we need to trap our truants. If I could hold an audience captive, they forced to hear me out, I’d reason with them: Do you like being hunted down, not knowing if you’ll be alive one day to the next? I can give you the skills that will have you acclaimed instead of reviled. And you’ll be doing your kind – and your children, don’t we all want a better life for our children? – a good deed, remaking the abysmal reputation of your species.
“Dogs are universally adored. What do dogs have over you? You’re every bit as smart, I’ve seen it.4 Your problems, my friends – I hope you can find it in your heart to address me friend – are twofold. One, you’ve never learned to suck up to the humans. How could you? You’ve been persecuted in every age, everywhere. Two, you aren’t thought cute. But cute is in the eye of the beholder. Do silly tricks, you’ll be pronounced cute, I promise you.
“Dru, I’m counting on you to help me with this. I see a chance to do good, all-round good. Dee, his better sense took leave of him years ago. Heinzie’s joke is just that, a joke. He’s either an idiot or a flat-out scoundrel. If either of them manages to pry significant kopecks out of the town – it will be a minor miracle, that’s my call on it – he’ll take the money and run.
“We have two dumb-ass ideas on the boil. I insist upon my right to make my contribution to the silly-stew. It may work out, it may not. But I have as much right to be a moron as those two, probably more. Here’s my plan, for starters: my intention for this afternoon is to crawl into the leafy-green and pitch my message to anyone within earshot. I’ll keep it up all night if I have to.”
Yeah, what then?”
“You flounce by, wearing your pinafore with the big double pocket. I’ll tell them, if you like what you’ve heard, climb into the child’s apron, to be carried upstairs, where you will be groomed for big things.”
“You can’t imagine this will work.”
“How does a carnival huckster do it? You have to persuade people to do what doesn’t make sense to them. You make your case with all the conviction you can muster. That’s my first step. We get to sun-up tomorrow and no results, I have something else up my sleeve, a show to top one I staged back home. My goal there was to improve the lot of the least fortunate. Who cares about society’s dregs? Damn few. Those are my people. I was one of them.
“Dru, take our three upstairs, charm them. You’re a Mayfly, it comes naturally to you. Reisig, on your feet, make a show of harassing rodents, but not really. They’ll be napping, probably. Rats are nocturnal, they’ll be ready to rollick at sundown. I’ll slip into the veggies, whisper a few words, prepare the ground for a speech I’ve yet to write.
“Then I’ll go find Dee. I can make that fitting after all. Reisig, I’m not forgetting you. Dru, hon, smuggle out another yummy for our boy, and bestow it around in the green-growth. Reisig, you look away, no peeking. Work a little, find your treats with your nose. Dag will think you’re hot at the hunt, a useful fellow after all. A cute trick, if the old grouch and you should end up being best buddies.
“Ya, that’s the better idea. Find Dee, gather information. Think things through. Jot notes for a killer presentation. I’ve faced many a tough sell in my time, but never like this. It will require all my powers of persuasion. An interesting exercise indeed.”
- We know the word scarf as slang, meaning to consume greedily. The Collins English Dictionary says: The word is perhaps from a dialectal survival of Old English sceorfan “to gnaw, bite.”
- ‘Children’s Party‘ – an annual festival held not in Hameln but in in Dinkelsbühl, begun some fifty years after my time, but . . . all together now . . . what the hell. (My German husband says die zeche is a group, presumably a rowdy group, sitting in a bar, running up a tab. I’m going to keep that in mind.)
- A term Sly picked up on the Scots border, where he was raised. From Wikipedia: may be from shebeen (“cabin where unlicensed liquor is sold and drunk”), attested pre-1800, chiefly in Ireland and Scotland, from Irish síbín (“illicit whiskey”). In other words, a problematic situation.
- Way smarter, in fact. Sly won’t out and say it, he doesn’t want to hurt Reisig’s fragile ego.