Look Out Rats, Here They Come.
After that sea-bass the day before,
Sly expects great things of dinner.
A TABLE IS SET: two plates, two goblets. There’s a pitcher of milk. There are two chairs in place, one stacked with blankets. A serving cart stands by. Sly jumps to his booster seat. His dinner companion lifts the lid of the chafing dish and spoons the contents onto their platters. “What’s this, now?” he asks, his heart sinking.
“Roast mutton,” cries the child, beaming, sure her guest is as partial to the dish as she is.
Sly backs away from his heaped plate. The very smell offends him. “I’m sorry, Dru. I can’t, I just can’t. Oh, I could choke it down, of course, to be polite. Magda was extraordinarily kind to me yesterday, I don’t want to offend her by sending it back.”
“Nonsense. We send it back. Her place is to please us, not us, her.”
“I’d love more of that sea bass, if any’s left.”
“Let’s go see. There’s always roast beef, I can tell you that.” She picked up the cat’s plate, to scrape it back into the warmer.
“No. Leave it. An idea hits me. This delectable – he makes a face – will find takers, later.”
“After dinner we have a stroll into town. Many a homeless critter roams those streets. A good meal will cheer some poor devil tonight.”
“After dinner is bedtime.”
“Nonsense. It’s the shank of the evening.”
“At nine I’ve got to be under the covers. Frau Schultz checks on me. And I’m not allowed out alone ever. I couldn’t get out anyway. Unless Mama has a party, all doors are locked down.”
“Sweetheart! You’re Mayfly, you can’t have forgotten so soon. Bust out of this gilded cage. We’ll shimmy down the latticework beside your balcony. It will bear you. You don’t put that much effort into a structure to see it fall apart in ten years, or even twenty. The geometrics of it, stunning.”
“Mama designed it herself.”
“As for out alone, you won’t be alone. You’ll be with me. Now, do you have some good heavy hose? The flimsies you have on won’t do at all.”
“My winter woolens are put away.”1
“Haul them out.”
“They’re in my closet, top shelf. I can’t reach them.”
“I always had a facility in climbing. I’m still more than up to it, even at my age. Most of that greenery out there is harmless, but I see roses down below. Woolens are just what we need. You must have woolen sweaters also.”
“Do I ever,” sighs the girl. “I’m sickly, I’ll catch my death, don’t you know. I’m bundled up like an Egyptian mummy, though I could easily do with less. I never go about on foot. I am driven everywhere, under a heated throw, hot bricks at my feet.”
“You should walk. Brisk exercise would do you a world of good. But I thank your Mama for her zeal. Stout stockings, perfect. We’ll layer two or three pairs over knees and shins. No boo-boos for my Mayfly, not if I can help it.”
“Your Mayfly! Are you Maahes tonight?”
“Sorry, sweetie. Plain old me. Won’t I do?”
“You do just fine!” cries the girl, horrified that she may have hurt the cat’s feelings. “I think I love you more than Maahes. You’re easier to love. The face on him is pretty terrifying.”
“Thank you for that, sugarlump.” Sly blows the girl a kiss. “Now let’s storm that kitchen, grab something more to my taste than – yeccch – mutton.”
“Why do you hate mutton?”
“A long story, m’dear. Ten years in a region whose economy was built on sheep, I ate mutton ’til it came out my ears. Cheese too, as a goodwill gesture. Have you heard of Prince Bittor’s Mother-of-God Ewe’s Milk Cheese?”2
“Blessed by the Virgin herself! Mama has importers in Bremen put aside a wheel for her every shipment.”
Sly stands. “C’mon, girl, boom-boom-boom, to the kitchen. Hide this plate in case a maid drops by to tidy up.”
“How do we get the plate down? I need my hands for myself.”
“We lower it to the ground – hmmm – in a pillowcase, that may work. Sling it over your shoulder and we’re in business. We meet a deserving party, presto, a lovely dinner, and a bag to snuggle in after. Bed and board for some luckless soul.”
“The plate will tip, make a mess.”
“Let’s try it, eh?”
A pillowcase, the plate carefully inserted, is draped over Drusilla’s shoulder. She marches round the room, examines the result, and finds no significant displacement. She marches again, more vigorously. The plate remains essentially intact.
“Any more in that pan?” asks Sly.
“Add it on here. Shove the business under your bed while we traipse downstairs. Umm-umm! Someone’s eating grand tonight.”
“Should we take the asparagus?”
“Why not? There are those who will fancy it. Plenty of hungry folks out there. Listen to me, Miss Driven-Everywhere. It’s a mean old world beyond your front gate. You don’t begin to understand the depth of the suffering. Let me open your eyes for you.”
“Dru!” The girl has taken a nasty tumble.
You hurt, sweetie?”
Drusilla is on her back, stunned. “Not too,” she moans. “Let me lie a minute. Just a minute. I’m fine, really.”
They’d lowered the plate to the ground at the end of knotted-together sashes. Then they’d gotten the child outfitted. She’d climbed into her bed and pretended to sleep. Frau Schultz had popped in, discovered all as it should be, and toddled back to her knitting and her bottle.
The girl had done well, Sly talking her down step be step, until she’d hit a patch of pricks. Loosening her grasp, she’d dropped six feet to brick below. “I’ll have bruises in the morning,” she moans. Sly hunches next to her, worried half to death.
“This is an adventure,” she mumbles. “I’ve never had an adventure. I’m not allowed adventures.”
“Maahes is proud of you,” whispers the cat. “He just blew it in my ear.”
“You hate when people blow in your ear.”
“You don’t tell Maahes what to do. He tells you. Remember that.”
“Help me peel off,” she begs.
With an ooomfff of self-encouragement, Drusilla hoists herself up, then takes a seat atop a low retaining wall. “These layers are so uncomfortable,” she groans. “You’ve overdone it. I’m safe past the prickers. I can shed some of this now, surely.”
“No you cannot,” insisted the cat. “I don’t mean to scare you, sweet pea, but rats bite. And these rats, from what I hear, are ultra aggressive. I want you well padded, especially where you are most vulnerable, in the southern regions.”3
Drusilla’s having second thoughts. This evening may not be quite the romp she’d expected. What did she expect? The impulse to rebel had lain quietly in her breast for a good while. The escape down the trellis had been the first blow against a cloistered existence.
“Do we engage tonight?” she asks, wondering what more nastiness may befall. At this point she might have begged off, the tumble an excellent alibi, but she has no way back into the house until the kitchen opens for business at five a.m. and, more importantly, she doesn’t want to let her friend down.
“Eager for action, are we? Splendid!”
“I’m curious, naturally, about what lies ahead. We are far outnumbered. Georg von Frundsburg we’re not.” She’d just had a history lesson on an Italian campaign in which the Imperial forces had won an historic victory.
Sly is a history buff. “Pavia, yes indeed. Eight thousand French eradicated verses a mere one thousand on the Habsburg side.” He warbles a line from a ditty celebrating the famous confrontation: “Tra-la-la . . . la-la-la-la! Autour de Pav-i-a!”4 Any punishment of the French roused patriotic emotions in his breast. “You showed what the Germanics are made of that day.”
“It wasn’t us alone.”
“I am full aware. As a child I staged that event in my barnyard. It was my favorite game, next to capturing Felipe’s gold in a pirate ship I built. I dreamt of being the next Drake. I read everything on him I could get my mitts on. I studied the tactics of famous battles. I feel up to anything the rats throw at me, but my intention for this evening is to gather intelligence, to get my bearings.”
Drusilla, while enormously relieved, doesn’t want to betray it. “You must have some sort of plan in mind,” she coaxes, as if more than ready for a fight.
“I wish I did.”
“Heinz has one.”
“Has he, now?”
“Heinzie’s full of himself. Many a lesson transforms into an hour-long instruction on how brilliant he is, and how unappreciated. He nearly puts me to sleep sometime.”5
“I heard something of it the other night,” Sly says. “Dee has his own strategy, and he’s stubborn as a jackass, and blind as a bat on the matter. The idiot believes . . .” The cat sighs. “Honey, this is an adult nonsense. Dee can be difficult. I leave it at that. It’s a complicated situation, over your head.”
“I can’t believe it. I cannot believe it!” Drusilla is furious. “Talked down to, by my mother, by my tutor, by the butler even. Now by a crummy cat! I understand a damn-blasted bunch more than you all think I do!”
“Look here, no need to get offensive.”
“You’re being offensive. I mustn’t return the favor? I should defer to the superior wisdom of a . . . of a . . .”
“Don’t say it. I get your point. It was an idiotic remark. I’ve been underestimated my entire life. No one knows better than me how it stings.”
The girl is not placated. “My nose in a book, I hear all kinds of things. Things I’m not meant to hear. And – damn you, all of you – I understand most of it just fine.”
Sly is carried back. “Yes. Hunker, still as the grave, they forget you’re there. I pretended to doze in my gone-by school days. Let be for the most part, I learned, and loved learning. The wide world, its wonders, I ate it up.”
“You went to school? You?”
“I received the schoolboy grounding, reading, writing. Figures. A touch of Latin. A good deal of history. But I am largely self-educated. It was a village school, not tip-top. Even the best establishment, at some point you outrun your schoolmaster, or no progress would be made in any field.”
“Oh! You must sit in on lessons with me.”
“I look forward to it.”
“I’m not letting you off the hook, cat. Dee’s plan, over my head? I will be the judge of that.”
“Here we go then: John Dee, great man that he is, is gone clean off his nut. He believes he is in contact with – cripe! – with an angel! It’s a scam, is my view. His partner is behind it, working some angle, haven’t got it figured out yet. Crazy Ears is on his way to Poland. Deprived of his normal intermediary, my mentor turned to me. You’re a rare one, he said – I am, he gets no argument from me on that – you may have the knack. He went at me – look what I’ve done for you, you owe it to me to try – until I was ready to scream.
“I took a turn at the glass, conveyed some cute stuff. Big mistake, he bought it. Realizing the corner I’d painted myself into, I confessed. He won’t believe me. What do I do now?”
“Why,” cries the girl, “it’s plain as the nose on your face. Uriel must advise: one close to you . . . no, he may take that to mean you-yourself . . . a recent acquaintance has a plan you ought not to dismiss. If you believe I spurn common sense, you insult me. Give this Heinzie – a good head there – give the fellow a chance. One more thing: force your miserable animal on me again to your sorrow. Annoying beast! Get Kelley back, or hear from me nevermore. That covers it, I should think,” she says, very pleased with herself.
“Brilliant,” agrees Sly. A similar scheme has hatched in his own bright brain, but he’ll let her take the credit. “Now then, are you recovered? Are you ready to ramble?”
Drusilla, still shaken, shrugs.
He takes it as a solid affirmative. “On your feet,” he squeals. “We’re off!”
- In actuality, Dee would have been in Hameln in late October, I just discovered that in a bio. And October would have been frigid, it was the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’. Summer months suit me better, I’ll leave it as written.
- Read about the Mother-of-God merriment in Decamps. My prediction: You’ll either drop the read right there, or fall on the floor laughing.
- My nod to Amanda McKittrick-Ros, she of the ‘southern necessary’. She is celebrated for her unintentional lunacy.
- The song was written in the nineteenth century but, what the hell.
- Was the lecture the soporific, or was it something else?