Every child in Hameln is raised on – do your chores or the Piper will get you!
3. Details, Details.
Dee cranks his neck back and contemplates the brightening overhead.
“What a glorious morning!” he sings, glorr–ree–ouss enunciated in three bouncing syllables. “May our progress today be both pleasurable and fruitful. Amen.”
Having supplicated the deity Abeona to watch over him (he had addressed himself to the Roman Goddess of Outward Journeys), he boards what he is amused to regard as his flying carpet and settles in. The ride is the smoothest he’d ever known. The seats are carpeted in a luxurious pile (Grübechen does nothing on the cheap) featuring a fashionable Turkish motif, and he is being whisked at a fantastical speed to Bagdad on the Wesser, where riches await.
“Oh I feel good! Everything goes my way, an excellent omen!” There’d been the lucky introduction, and the coddling since. He’d just enjoyed an extravagant breakfast, and a basket of goodies waits under the seat for later. He has his seductive Scheherazade, with stories to tell, and his genie-in-a-bottle (cat-in-a-hamper) to accomplish, so he prays, magic for him vis-à-vis the rodents.
Genies, as we know, typically grant three wishes. If he had three wishes, what would they consist of? One would certainly be to grab that reward. What else? Eyes closed, he sinks into a pleasant contemplation, explaining it as a digestive necessity after a heavy meal.
Dee has many problems, but money is the biggie.
He’d been a leader in the field of navigation, inventing break-through devices that set England on the path to empire. He’d been a guest lecturer in mathematics at the University of Paris. He’d been Elizabeth’s Royal Astrologer. (Astrology was a respected field, a crucial component, for instance, in a medical diagnosis.) But his behavior had grown more and more bizarre, and his reputation was in tatters.
Some scholars suggest he served as an undercover operative for Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Spymaster. He may have made major contributions to the nation’s security, yet we remember him for talking to angels. So unfair! He’d hustled all his life. I figure he was a Willie Loman type, a butt-busting sad-sack. I get the guy. I feel for him.
If he’s dreaming of hooking up with the Money Honey, he’s in for a let-down. She’s taken with him, that is, with the voice in his pamphlets. The author on the hoof is less delectable. In fact, he’s falling apart. Persistent money worries can do that to you. Also, he has a wife. In 1578 he’d married twenty-three-year-old Jane Fromond, he fifty-one at the time. Jane had been a lady in waiting to Elizabeth Clinton, Countess of Lincoln, a position she gave up when she married.
To give up a position at court, under the eye of many a well-born potential suitor, she had to have expected grand things of him.
Dee jumps. He’s been prodded, none too gently, by Heinzie.
A feminine voice penetrates his haze: “Doctor! Can we convince you to rejoin us? We are ready to tuck into the box-lunch my sister has packed for us. Oh, my! What delights do I see here?” Grübechen pokes through the contents of the laden basket. “Ah! One of Aurelia’s superb pâtés.” Sly’s ears shoot up. “No, no, I’m quite wrong.” His ears fall. “Two pâtés! She has outdone herself!” His ears snap to attention once more. “We will consume our treats set down in a pretty meadow. Heinz, I appoint you to select a spot.”
They pull up beside a merry brook. The coachman spreads a damask cloth over the boxes that had contained picnic essentials: cushions, utensils, glasses, and a charming service, plates decorated with hand-painted bumblebees, each piece unique. The items are a fixture on the carriage, needing only to be unpacked and furnished with comestibles. The buffet set up on the makeshift table, the diners help themselves, eating off lap trays, seated on low, collapsible stools.
Sly sits patiently. He adores pâté, He nudges his friend but makes no other complaint. He keeps an anxious eye on the proceedings. The slices of the goodie are disappearing at an unsettling rate. Increasingly irritated, he approaches the brat Drusilla, hoping he might wheedle something out of her. He’d tolerated her handling all morning. He hopes to be granted the forkful poised in mid-air, approaching her parted lips. He quivers his nostrils appealingly, but she does not respond appropriately. He circles the buffet again and again, obsessively. Pigs! These people are pigs!
“Mama!” begs the girl, “let me give him a taste, he craves it like anything, I can tell you.”
“Put that out of your head right now,” warns her mother.
He confronts the child head on, mewing plaintively. She cries, “poor bumblebee! He’s circling the yummies as a bumblebee circles a patch of wildflowers.”
The Mama will not bend. “Horrid thing. Let him catch a field mouse.”
“Witch!” mutters Sly. He’s seething. A bumblebee, am I? Why the hell not? I’ve minded my manners, where has it gotten me? I’ll suck up some of that nectar, lady, whether you like it or not. He flings himself onto the spread, hitting his target dead center, capturing a good snout-full, rolling in it as if were a patch of catmint.
He is seized, thrown into his carry-case, and banished to the carriage, but gently, Dee whispering encouragements through the wicker weave. Sly gives no reply. Dee judges him to be in a snit. But the cat is not at all upset. He’s busy licking clean, savoring the mess he’s made of himself.
Back in their seats, the passengers are treated to exaggerated slurping sounds and murmurs of appreciation, meant as a rebuke of the Freifrau. Dee swats the basket. The animal begins kicking at the sides of his cubicle.
Grübechen, who had struggled to maintain her composure, explodes. “Doctor Dee, we will leave this carton by the wayside. We do not proceed otherwise. Heinz, stop the carriage.”
Dee, taken aback, does not denounce the outrageous demand. He hems and haws. “Madame, he’s not used to being confined. If he annoys you, might we not tie the basket to the roof rack? Would that do?”
Exiled to the roof rack? Sly yowls his displeasure.
It is Drusilla, not Dee, who stands up to her mother. “No, Mama! No! He will not be left behind. And he does not ride the roof. I want him in my arms. I want him to be mine.”
“He belongs to Doctor Dee, thank God,” replies the Mama, “who I’m sure is very attached to him. He cannot be yours. You’ll have a sweet kitten as soon as we get home.”
“I don’t want a kitten. I want this one. I wink at him, he winks back. He was shy of me at first, but he has taken to me like a bee to bee balm.”
“That’s my cue there,” sighs Sly. The lid of his box is cracked. Dee is checking on him. He barges forth, and throws himself onto the one person who seems to be solidly in his corner. My boy Dee, he fumes, I thought he had my back. I’m on my own. I was a fool to imagine otherwise.
To Drusilla’s delight, he perches in her lap, locks his forelimbs around her neck, and kisses her smack on the mouth with little smoochy sounds. She shrieks with glee.
“Doctor! You have a wife, do you not?” asks Heinz. “Where might she be?”
It’s not a question Dee is delighted to answer, but it would have come up eventually. Best get it out of the way. “She’ll be birthing a babe about now, a fortunate timing, I certainly don’t want her here.” He sighs. “I have a promise of patronage in Kracow. I sent her on, said I had business to conduct, and I do. It is business I prefer she remain unaware of. The great professor, trapping rats. Her nose would hoist like never before.”
“Come, do you really think you can solve this thing? Seriously?”
“I’ll feel my way. I have my ideas.” He grimaces. “Let’s take up another topic, shall we? Tell me about the prior incident. It weighs on the thinking, am I right? I’ve read up on it. I believe it to be an example of what I call mystical derangement, as severe a case as ever I have heard of.”
“You are on the money there,” says Heinz. “It takes an outsider to see what’s afoot, and to have the courage to speak truth, which often offends, and in this instance offends extremely. This is a defeated town. These people have given up. They are wed to the idea that their rats are retribution, they take any other point of view very amiss. It relieves them of the responsibility to respond, other than to bemoan, and offer a reward that attracts every larcenous loon alive.
“The merchants pay quarterly into a fund years accumulating, congratulating themselves that they’ve done their utmost. All work is to be done on spec, though scoundrels have come up with countless schemes to milk something out beforehand. I am astonished to hear that you were paid a retainer.”
“Demanded and received on the basis of my reputation. I am a prominent scientist, as you know.”
Were, thinks Heinz. Were, dear Doctor. “The reward will be released after the problem is seen to have been resolved. It’s nothing for nothing. We break even, unless you count foodstuffs destroyed over years of inactivity, a depressing thought. Pitch to the town fathers that the rodents are a normal phenomenon that can be dealt with in normal ways and you are out the door. They look for a miracle. They were suckered two-hundred years gone, and they are ripe to be suckered again.”
“How did that go, exactly? I know the tale, who doesn’t? But years of retelling enhances any event considerably, creating a myth. And myth takes on a life of its own, and is not easily debunked.”
“Doctor, I am relieved to apprehend you so sharp. I had doubts. That nonsense you spout . . .”
“Geared to the market. I told you, I have to pay my bills.”
“. . . particularly the angel thing. Talk to me about the angel thing. I said to myself, well, a brilliant man, once an inspiration to me . . .”
Dee’s face falls. He doesn’t want to talk about the angel thing. “May we not return to my own query? What is your understanding of the original incident?”
“Let Grübechen speak. She is the life-long resident. She must give her testimony untainted by mine.”
“A wise suggestion. You may be worth twenty percent after all.”
The two seem to be bonding. A good thing, they will be sharing a bed tonight. It will be Dee, Heinzie, and, probably, the cat. Sly is still more than a little disgruntled over having been volunteered to cling to a roof rack. Let’s hope Dee can make it up to him.
Grübechen is a grand gossip, and she loves to be the center of attention,
and she loves, most of all, to talk about herself.
It will be no task to get her to open up. The problem will be getting her to desist. One may rate her conversation thusly: amusing, always. Insightful, frequently, though usually unintentionally. Intelligent, sufficiently. Economical, never.
“The tale,” says she, “is a topic of dinner table conversation in every home. Every child in Hameln is raised on – do your chores or the Piper will get you! You’ll be on his naughty list! His spies are everywhere! – the spies the rats, of course. And they are everywhere. Is it any wonder we regard the pests to be of the devil? It is pounded into our heads from the cradle.”
“We have here,” lectures the former professor, “generations threatened with the boogeyman of boogeymen, a smiling, dancing, singing fellow, so attractive to children that they follow him gladly. That monstrous motif is woven into the fabric of one’s being. This is the stuff of madness. How did you, how do you deal with it?”
“You have hit on it, Doctor,” replies the woman. “I cannot free myself from the fear that there is something diabolical about our rats, which are larger, and greedier, and bolder than anywhere else. I study rats wherever I go, and this is absolutely the truth.”
Dee resumes. “Let’s examine these allegations. Are your rats larger than normal? I can’t say, I haven’t seen them. If they are, I put it down to bountiful feed of superior quality. Are they greedier? I would have to consider that to be enflamed imagination. One eats. One is sated. One ceases to eat. This would be as true for rats as for people. There are those who overindulge, but most of us reach a fullness and push away from the table. Are the thugs bolder? Again, I reserve judgment. But I suspect they’ve grown bold because they’ve not been challenged. And why have they not been challenged? Because you have decided it’s useless to resist. You have constructed a mythology of rats. You’re in awe of them.”
He barrels into dangerous territory. “Our gods, dear lady, are our undoing. We create them ourselves – are you shocked? We create them, we build them up, then we worship our own creations. We seem to need a superior being to explain this mysterious world to us in a way we can wrap our arms around. Thus, we create gods who mimic our vile behaviors, quarreling, whoring, waging war.
“Other civilizations, the Greeks and Romans for instance, had five gods for every day of the week. We Christians are very conceited, to believe our divinity is genuine, while theirs are idiocy. Your attitude about your rats is rather a conceit. You are special. Some rat-god has decreed your town be plagued by demon-rats for all eternity.
“I see you blanch. Do you wonder how I dare expound in this disorderly, not to mention dangerous, manner? To read people is my stock in trade. You are more open-minded than most. You consult my tracts; you would not do so otherwise. I am at ease with you. Heinz is another level head. He does his best to shovel as much knowledge into this little noggin,” he chucks Drusilla under the chin, “as he can. I propose to assist him, little bumblebee. What do you say to that?”
“I’m not the bumblebee,” she informs him archly. “Here’s the bumblebee here. Bzzz-bzzz-bzzz, mein hummelchen. Hear him?” Sly is draped across her lap, purring his guts out.
“This is heavy going for a simple woman, Doctor.” Annette steers the conversation to a more light-hearted topic. “Herr Doctor! Do you read Tarot? We carry cards with us, and also the mystery-writing tablet.”
“I do, Madame. I cater to all tastes. As you know, I have to make my way in life. It wasn’t always so. My father was a wealthy man, until he was not. But that’s a tale for another time.
“I have important investigations underway. It would be a shame if society should be deprived of major advancements – I have a considerable track record of such – for want of scratch. Anyone in a position to step up in that regard will be immortalized in the dedication of the final report. A canny philanthropist, brains enough to admire my initiative, will have the world’s respect, and history’s thanks, will certainly be celebrated in memory. My big project involves the transmutation of iron into gold. To have a role in such a breakthrough must be a feather in one’s cap.”
“By the way, sir,” he addresses himself, sotto voce, to Heinz. “Mistake me not. I am in possession of as powerful a magic as I am ever like to have at my disposal. I do not foresee how it will be employed, but it will carry the day for me, I’d bet my life on it.”
But if it should fall through, he muses, I may have conjured an alternative revenue source, in which case, my journey shall not have been in vain. I must congratulate my hostess on her acuity every chance I get. She seems to embrace my drivel wholeheartedly.
“Herr Doctor,” announces Grübechen, “We are almost to Nienburg, a favorite stopping place of mine. We resume in the morning. Tomorrow I must have, from the horse’s mouth, clarification of various points in your work that confound me. Do not be offended, it is my failing entirely. I am not worthy to wash your feet, intellectually speaking. But I worship your wisdom and absorb it to the best of my ability.”
- See my novella: Sly! The Rogue Decamps.