18

18. Rub–a–Dub–Dub.

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There is an entrenched misconception of the hygiene of the period.

People, on the whole, did not bathe. That is, they did not immerse in a tub of water. This is not to say that they did not keep acceptably clean with basin and washcloth. They did wash their clothing religiously, but not necessarily frequently. If you were rich you had lots of intimate linen, and you stored up your used for bulk washing at intervals of weeks to even months, if you had enough to tide you over that long.

The Grand Wash or the Great Wash were names for the annual dunk of bedding, curtains, textiles in general, and, of course, the mountain of underclothing. A professional wash-woman was put in charge, if you could afford it, supervising tubs for a lengthy soaking in lye, more tubs for rinsing, and a copper (big metal pan) for heating water. Rinsed items were spread out on the grass to dry.

Hislop, as she is called – Frau is not awarded to a menial – is going at it. Two big oblong tubs are in full use, but a third has been made ready for the daughter of the house. She and her party arrive shortly.

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Into the Tub.

 

“Yoo-hoo! My pupp-ieee! My pupp-ieee-dogg-ieee! Come to Mama!”

Reisig emerges from the bushes cautiously, looking around for Dag. Sly runs up to him, grinning like a Cheshire cat.1 “Bath time, old son,” he snickers.2 “You’re getting your beauty treatment today. We’re gonna do you up like you never been done in your life. There’s a tub yonder with your name on it.”

Reisig had imagined that the bath would consist of being sudsed up and a pitcher of water thrown at him to finish off, the way it was done in Rat-Town. A tub, like dirty dishes are drowned in? Exactly. He will shortly be installed in one of several oversized containers used two or three times yearly for the bulk wash, and once in a while for another purpose.

He is led up to the house, then left, through a high hedge. Hidden from sight of the house are three huge tubs, and a garden shed that is the base of operations of a woman and her assistant, who move in each July to superintend the whole-hog refresh of the household.

The dog is coaxed into the warm water. Dru leans over the side with a bar of soap in her hand. She is soon drenched from Reisig’s excited splashing.

“I might’s well climb in too,” says she. “I can’t get much wetter than I am now.”

“This is fun,” Reisig tells Sly. “Come on in, it’s great.”

“Not me,” says Sly. “Uh-uh. No thanks.”

“Kill-joy!” The dog aims a soaker of a spout his way.

“Get in here,” demands Dru, “before this fool kicks all the water out. The wash-women are gone” – Sly looks around, she’s right – “and I have no way to replenish.”

The cat bites the bullet, jumps in. The water is two feet deep, fine for the others, not for a cat. Kicking wildly, he encounters a ledge, no, more than a ledge, a shelf. “I can stand here!” he cries.

“There’s a perch on the other end also.”

“For why?”

“To sit on, naturally, you idiot.”

“To sit on?”

“I’m not supposed to know, but Mama holds naughty dinner parties in these things. Guests, naked, two to a tub, eat dinner off a board run between them. It’s elegant, a lace runner, candelabras. The servants are tipped big to keep their traps shut. Mama used to not give a hoot about them knowing. She was new widowed, and determined to have a ball. Now, me nearing marriage age, she rues those romps. If word got out, it might discourage a strait-laced swell from scooping me up.

“A good name, but stony-broke, is what her father stuck her with. She means to grab a better rank for me, that mere Frieherren – Papa’s family, you see, she hates them with a passion – that the snobs are forced to scrape to, she savoring their sullen politesse, pressing a fan to her lips so she doesn’t burst out laughing.”

“Politesse? I’ve wondered about this,” says Sly. “You are extraordinarily articulate. That brain is not the brain of a nine-year-old. I suppose you are a prodigy. Well, I was a prodigy myself. Why should I marvel at you?”3

“I read a lot, after all.”

“That’s likely it. I read a lot too. Look where it got me.”

All this time, Dru is scrubbing Reisig. She soaps his head.

“Crap!” he barks. “She’s got it in me eyes.” He pulls away. Tumbling backward, he’s bobbing on his back, belly exposed. She goes to work on that area. “Tickles!” he cries, kicking her away.

His hind limbs poke out of the water. She seizes one and forces the soap between the toes. “I’m gonna clean every nook and cranny, so hold still,” she orders.

The ordeal is cut short. “Is this the patient, then?” asks Heinzie, snuck up on them. No one has noticed him until this very minute.

“This be the rascal,” says Dru, knocking him on the side of the head playfully.

“I’m damn well not climbing in,” says Heinz. “He comes out.”

“Yes!” Reisig howls. “Yes-yes-yes!” He leaps the side of the tub. “Thank-you-thank-you-thank-you!” He’s on his hind legs, braced against Heinzie’s chest, plastering him with big slobbering kisses.

“Sit!” howls the medic, pushing him away.

“Anything,” agrees Reisig, dropping onto his rear. “Just don’t force me back into the tub.”

“Let’s see the feet, fella.”

The dog holds still for an examination.

“He’s a mess. Bites, I’d say. Infected. Rat bites?”

“I believe so.”

“I’ll apply a cream. The abscessed areas must be protected. Wind new gauze around the extremities once a day, I leave a pot of ointment and a roll of gauze that ought to do you for a week. The scabs itch. He’s been chewing at them, that’s why they don’t heal. Wrap him up tight, so he can’t work free.”

Dru is giggling. “He’s wearing socks! Wouldn’t it be cute if we made him little shoes? Wouldn’t that be precious?”

Poor guy. He wants to please his lady, wants to like anything. But, crap! Shoes? He hangs his head. Sly, concerned, has moved close in solidarity. The dog is whimpering, “please-no-please-no-please-no” into the cat’s side. “I look ridiculous,” he mutters. “I feel ridiculous. Shoes! Is she serious?”

“Sure not,” whispers Sly. “Got to be a bad joke. But it gives me an idea. Listen, we bear this indignity together. Let me tell you a story. I was a runt, with weak ankles. My Ma forced me to wear ankle supports very similar to your bandages. I despised them until she remade them into pirate boots. Pirate was my most favorite game. You and I play pirate. What do you say to that?” 

“What is play pirate?”

“We wear high boots, and floppy-brim hats, and yell blood-chilling insults. That’s the best part. Ye got no more brain than a half-wit sea turtle, one of my favorites. I’ll tear out your tongue and fly it for me banner, another good one. Hey! Who would you love to scare the living daylights out of?”

“My old owner,” sighs Reisig. He refuses any longer to award the scumbag the term of master. Master implies a well-meant supervision never practiced by the shit.

“Start working up juicy material touching on your shared history. Then we look him up. What would you want to tell him?”

“What’s the use? He won’t understand me.”

“You move your mouth. I speak the words. If we’re lucky, we give him a fine heart attack. Won’t that be fun!”

“It’s sure something to think about.” Reisig’s big eyes are sad – they’ll be sad forever, I’m afraid, after what he’s lived through – but he finally has a smile on his lips.4

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Chapter Notes
  1. There are numerous theories for the origin of the phrase “grinning like a Cheshire Cat”.
    • Some say Lewis Carroll took inspiration from the smiling cat in the church decoration of the Croft-on-Tees village, in North Yorkshire; others, that it comes from a cat carved below the west window of the St. Wilfred Church in the Grappenhall Warrington village in Cheshire, both churches he was familiar with.
    • Cheshire was a center of dairy activity; hence, the cats grin because of the abundance of milk and cream.
    • The phrase may pertain to Cheshire’s unique political situation. The county was a “Palatinate” from the 1290s and was promoted to a Principality in 1397 following the support its men gave King Richard II. It was accorded unusually wide privileges, including its own laws and taxes, and a considerable measure of independence from national government into the sixteenth century. These privileges attracted fugitives from justice. Once across the border, one could grin at any pursuing King’s Sheriffs. The word “caitiff”, derived from Old French or Anglo-Norman, meaning “cowardly or base villain” or “despicable fellow”, could have been shortened to ‘cat’.
  2. Sly may not be able to whistle, but he can snicker. As a child, he’d practiced until he’d gotten it down.
  3. Until the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as childhood. Children of eight and nine were treated as small adults — mingling, working, and playing with mature people, expected to comport themselves in ways that we today would consider unreasonable. Upper class expectations were the most extreme of all.
  4. Figure of speech. Dogs don’t have lips either.