17. Morning Has Broken.
Blackbird has not spoken.
Reisig has spoken, and scotched an almost seduction.
Dru has woken, risen, wandered in search of the cat, found him curled up in tall grass – he’d dosed off again – and has settled herself a few feet away, not wanting to disturb his well-earned rest. The early dim is brightening rapidly, the grip of day taking hold. She moves closer to stroke him awake, and is aghast to note two rats slumbering by his side.
Opening an eye, he reacts to her confused astonishment. “Shsssh,” he warns. “Tilly and Willow, the mamas of our four. Move slowly. Lie flat to the ground, not to tower over them, and smile-smile-smile. They are shy of me, and will be ten times so of you.”
He nudges the pair gently. “You two, I have a friend who wants to meet you. Tilly, Dru – her name is Drusilla – and Merrily are already great pals. Willow, she adores your wee ones.”
“Hello there,” coos Dru. “Your babies are cute as they can be.” (Sly translates, of course.)
The friend turns out to be a member of the monstrous race. They edge away.
“I have a goodie in my pocket,” she tells Sly. “I packed it for this morning.” She digs for it and pulls forth pieces. She’d slept on it, crushing it.
“Excellent!” he says. “Perfect! Ladies! Don’t go quite yet, at least have a bite of breakfast.” He motions for Dru to fling fragments in their direction.
The little noses twitch, picking up an exotic scent. (This is not any treat, this is one of Magda’s special cinnamon rolls, filled with raisins, finished with a sugar glaze.)1
Dru lays a trail, Hansel and Gretel style, through the grass, up to her skirt. “I didn’t bring a bun for you,” she tells Sly.
“Thank you for that, m’darling,” he says.
“I have even better,” she promises the mamas – who are gobbling as fast as they can, advancing on her steadily. “But you have to go upstairs with me. Climb into my lap.” She drops the last handful of crumbs in the bunch of her skirt.
It almost worked.
Dru is sitting cross-legged, Tilly perched on her knee. “Aren’t you a little love, now!” she croons.
“She is a love,” says Sly. “You’re both loves. You will get along grand.”
A yowl breaks the spell. Tilly abandons the knee. Dru leaps to her feet and sprints the thirty yards to the source of oh-no-oh-no-oh-please-no-no-no-no whimpering.
Reisig is backed up against the fence, being thrashed. Sly and Dru reach Dag at the same time. Sly hurls himself up the man’s leg, digging his claws in as deeply as he can through heavy work pants. Dru kicks his shins and screams.
“The filthy hound has slept on our fresh-washed coverlet,” hisses Dag, not wishing to alert Mag to the outrage. “It was ripped from our clothesline and dragged over to here.”
“I pulled it down,” says Dru. “Me! So why don’t you beat me?” (It hadn’t been Dru. Sly had clawed up the material, knocked the clasps away, and thrown it down. The amount of dainty-work on it had made no impression on him.)
“Why would you do that? Mag’s best comforter, that she embroidered flowers all over.”
“I wanted to spend the night with my puppy-dog. I couldn’t sleep on the bare ground now, could I? If you’d given him a bath like I told you it wouldn’t be the worse but for maybe grass stains. It’s your own damn fault.”
“Mag is going to blow her top. She spent months of evenings working on this stitchery. I’m going to catch hell for it.”
“It was me agreed to take the dog, against my better judgement. Mag is annoyed at me. I’m always giving in to you, she says.”
“Huh! You know what side your bread is buttered on.”
“Don’t you mouth at me, Miss Pushy. We are valued staff of longstanding. We are family here.”
“Magda is valued. You are past usefulness as a man-of-all-work, better suited to tormenting rats in a warehouse than to building the new greenhouse Mama plans.” Unfortunately, this is uncomfortably close to the truth.
“Ain’t we,” pleads Dag, “ain’t we always been pals? Didn’t I repair your pens after your Mama nigh destroyed them? Anything you require, I do my best to conduce it for you.”
“I’m counting on that,” says Dru. “I am damn sure counting on that.” She adopts a more conciliatory tone. “Look, throw that rag back in the wash. Tell Mag you find stains still. It gets another dunking, she taking such pride in it. The wash-woman has not finished her wash week.”
“Tell Frau Hislop – leave word if she’s not yet on duty – to have a tub of warm water for me mid-afternoon. Not waste water, mind. Fresh pure water, for a bath. I’ll bring my own sweet soap. Get along now, and while you’re up to the house, fetch down a thick steak for my pup. I sit with him, comfort him, until you’re back. I will inspect what you bring, so choose well, not to distress me anew.”
Dru has a second reason to linger. She hopes to reestablish relations with the run-off mamas.
A half hour of quiet coaxing achieves nothing. Sly suggests another way. “We carry Merrily down,” he says. “She’ll make our case better, I should think, than we can possibly do ourselves. We return at nightfall with our cutie, and with a picnic basket of goodies for a fine breakfast. Are you up to roughing it a second night? I’ll need you in the morning, to carry away as many as I can talk into it.”
“I sleep with my puppy again! Yay!” Dru’s all for it.
“We’ve failed here, for now. What can we achieve elsewhere? A good deal, I should think. You entertain the rat-lets, and continue to charm Merrily, whilst I compose remarks for the morrow. The breakfast, it ain’t for free. If they want to indulge, they’ll have to put up with my blather. Prepare a nice basket. Whatever you extract from the kitchen, make it the best of the best. Take a taste of everything, whether you think they’ll appreciate it or not. We’ll introduce them to such as they never knew existed. Should my words of wisdom not have the desired effect, we may yet recruit through their stomachs.”
“I’m so sorry,” mutters Reisig. “It’s all my fault, isn’t it? I outta have kept my yap shut.”
“Oh!” shrieks Dru. “I could strangle that man. I could just strangle him! It’s not your fault! Nothing’s your fault. You stop that right now! You are a good, sweet boy who means everybody well.”
“I’m a stupid, filthy, worthless varment.2 His exact words. My former master called me similar. Two for two, it must be so, I fear.”
Now Sly explodes. “You are not stupid! You are not worthless! You may be filthy, but that ends today.”
“Damn him! Damn them!” Dru, apprised of Dag’s ugly remark, tramples Magda’s herb patch in her fury.
“I’ll be blamed for that as well,” moans Reisig.
“Keep out of sight, orders Dru. “We have business upstairs. I’ll come for you in a few hours. This afternoon, my sweetheart, you get the scrub I’ve promised you.”
- For you doubters: cinnamon was known in Europe for hundreds of years, but the source had not been identified. When the Sieur de Joinville accompanied his king to Egypt on crusade in 1248, he reported – and believed – what he had been told: that cinnamon was fished up in nets from the Nile out at the edge of the world (i.e., Ethiopia). After the Portuguese found it in Ceylon around 1518, it was imported into Europe in something approaching quantities, though very few at the time were able to enjoy the costly commodity, most certainly not rats.
- Alternative spelling: varmint. Widely believed to be a term of the American frontier, it is found in Middle English, was used as early as 1539. It is a variation of vermin.