[Notice that I have changed from Miss B. to Miss C., for a variety of reasons. The older ones will be renamed at some point as well, but I can’t be bothered to do so just now.]
Like most gentlemen my age, I take an interest in rodents. I am, of course, a member of the prestigious Vole Club in Bardshead – two times Acting Secretary or, as it is wittily referred to, ”Head Rat” – and in my youth, I was in a somewhat ”jazzy” little ensemble, alternatively called “The Glires Boys”, “The Rat Pack” or, when ladies were present, “The Gallant Gerbil Quartet”. I even penned a light – some say whimsical – poem on the subject, called “Ode to Rodents, or: Rode to Odents”; it starts thus:
To be a Rodent – oh! what joy!
The dream, I think, of every boy.
Their dreamy little whiskers – bless! –
A-quiver with adventurousness
It was most kindly mentioned in that month’s Rodent Digest, and got some favourable reviews in both Housewife’s Housemouse and the more roguish Porcupine. The folio version can still be found, I am told, in more discerning book stores specialising in rodent literature, and is – if I may most biasedly say so myself – well worth a look-over.
But I indulge in digression.
Some little time after a sturdy lunch of Peaches á la Weston-super-Mare, boiled cauliflower and a considerable bowl of mixed mangoes at the Gloomy Ashes on Manoeuvre Street, Miss C. and I were strolling down the now dismembered remains of the Great Pembroke Promenade, scene of the bloody and tragic July Uprising over the price of sugar lumps the year before. Our goal was, as every second Clemsday, Pennylittle and Dodson’s Amazing Rodentarium – or “Rat Park” as Miss C. called it in her more irreverent moments.
Miss C. was not always as enthusiastic about these visits as I am, but there existed between us one of those gentle, unspoken pacts that often do so much to differentiate friendship from mere proximity. In short, she indulged my visits to the Rodentarium, and accompanied me there, and in return I never wore cream coloured clothes or shirts with any kind of embroidery in public. Similarly, the price she had to pay for obliging me to go with her to the public pool in Tealight every weekend was to never discuss any of the more abhorrent of the diseases or deformities of feet.
We both swore firmly, but tacitly, by this system, and our friendship had survived calamities fit to upend even the sweetest of infatuations, and bifurcate the most entwined of lovers. Show me a more solid basis for a relationship, and I shall show you the stuff of Empire!
The weakness of the system, the very pivot on which it was so delicately based, was of course the elaborate business of finding out the proper balance of these silent contracts. Ask too much, and the world unravels like so many sweaters. (But again I digress.)
The Rodentarium was quite unique, and, alone among such establishments across the world, it struck the somewhat ephemeral balance between the educational and the entertaining, the serious and the droll. This is quite an achievement, especially in the current age where Fun steers the Car of Learning with reckless abandon. Miss C. and I have visited so many similar establishments across the world which, seemingly bereft of the responsibility of passing relevant knowledge from the experts to the next generation, have jettisoned the informative parts of their mission in favour of those that will serve only to satisfy more base desires. The Concholosseum in Brighton, the Myopic Gardens in Kuala Lumpur, the Interactive Mite Museum in Aoyama, and the even the World of Ferns in Khartoum – all sorry affairs in which colour have replaced content.
But the Rodentarium had found the balance, largely thanks to the unique co-operative and complementary interests and personalities of Messrs. Pennylittle and Dodson.
A priori, the two could not be more dissimilar. Mr. Pennylittle was like a character pulled from a pulp steampunk novel, with his grisly, unkempt beard, his metal eye, and his top hat claimed to be made entirely out of ivory. Rumour held that it was a gift from the Old Empress, and that he had to screw it on every morning, using a gigantic crescent wrench of gold, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, jacaranda, and the tears of a virgin. Others believed it was just a convincing enamel. Having lost his right hip in the Andamans War, he surveyed the world from a wooden wheelchair pulled by anteaters and, vicious tongues kept reminding us, he had once hit an ice-cream salesman with his crows-foot cane.
Mr. Dodson, meanwhile, was like a man created to please children. Overall, he looked like a well-fed but hairless potto, and he dressed in nothing but the finest corduroy. His great, black eyes were round, his greater belly was rounder, and even his feet had acquired a certain rotundity which caused him to rock back and forth even when standing still. Indeed, his entire appearance would be ideal material to study for anyone who wished to know the various sizes globes may assume. His facial features, while round and bloated, were those of the most besotted of philanthropists, his manner that of a cherub, and his voice was like meringue floating in a sea of treacle. Even the most devoted of misanthropists would be hard pressed to find something to disagree with in Mr. Dodson.
It will therefore come as no surprise to keen observers of this kind of relationship, that while Mr. Pennylittle was the ingénue behind the lighter attractions, Mr. Dodson had his hand and copious mind behind the more scholarly parts.
I raised my hat to the gate keeper, who recognised us and let us in for free. I led Miss C. past such worthy attractions as the Capybarracks – where in less enlightened times there had been pitted battles between chipmunks and maras, beavers and hamsters, but which was now a porcupine petting zoo – through the magnificent Triumphal Arch which marked the spot of the Grave of the Unknown Squirrel, and past the entrance to the Mouseoleum, where statues of the world’s most famous rodents had been erected. We walked across the Gerbil Square, where kids could feed the free-ranging rats, and eventually came to the more ostentatious part of the Rodentarium.
There it was! flanked by a pair of giant sycamores, a golden sign proclaiming that the building that could be entered by means of the doors situated just below it was the famous Collection Hall (once inaugurated by a friend of the Empress herself!). As you probably know, the Collection Hall is where the general public – though mainly aficionados like myself – are allowed to display samples of their own collections and have them compete against each other in various ways, and the purpose of our visit this time was to survey the competition for the upcoming Lady Gharial’s Longest Gerbil Competition, which I had modest, but palpable, hopes of winning. I had fed my gerbils exclusively of oblong food for generations, and I dare say this method is as ingenious as it is simple.
The doors were covered in carvings of guinea pigs, and the handles were carved – again Mr. Pennylittle’s ready wit shone through – into the shape of dormice. The walls within were festooned with the Gharial family’s coat of arms (on paly argent and gules, azure chapé ployé, a pair of crossed halibuts or) and pictures of the previous winners of the various competitions, proudly displaying their rodents.
There were very few people around, it being just a bit to early for most people to have finished their after-lunch tea. Miss C. had growled at me for wanting to leave the Gloomy Ashes too early for a third cup of tea, but I had been adamant: I needed to check the competition to estimate my chances, and I wanted to have that done before the hall was crowded, so that I could give an air of insouciance at the day of the competition. Mind games like that, I often find, are half the competition, and a demeanour of indifference has won more games than skill – or so I have been told.
I was just admiring a cageful of Pygmy Capybaras, pretending not to see Miss C. nibbling on a piece of Brussel sprout shortbread she had smuggled in, hidden inside her voluminous heron-patterned blouse, when someone tapped me on the shoulder with a cane.
“Mr. G.!” the cavernous voice of Mr. Pennylittle said. “How extraordinarily nice to see you! Here to evaluate the competition, or just having a look around? There are some extraordinary new objects here today, including a Levitating Lemming brought in by Mr. Perce-Darcy, and a positively colossal gerbil that belongs to Mr. Saville.”
“Really?” I inquired. A ‘colossal gerbil’ was the last thing I wanted to see, especially if it had been brought here by that archfiend Serafim Saville. “Is he planning on entering it into the competition?”
Mr. Pennylittle fished a corked bottle out of a secret pocket, and applied some oil-of-cloves to his moustache before answering.
“That’s the funny thing,” he said. “Mr. Saville has deposited two different cages here in anticipation of the competition, but he claims he only intends to enter one of the gerbils into the competition. And here is the extraordinarily strange part, you see: he intends only to enter the shorter of the gerbils in the competition. Very funny business, if you ask me, because – between the two of us – the larger gerbil is probably the largest gerbil I have ever seen, and would win the competition effortlessly. Meanwhile, his smaller gerbil is of average size. Extraordinary, I say. Still, makes your chances much better, eh?”
“Most mysterious,” I agreed.
“What is most mysterious?” Miss C., who had just approached us, asked, two crumbs of Brussel sprout still lingering on her upper lip. “How this place manage to stay open?”
“No,” said I, “it’s Serafim Saville. He’s got a gigantic gerbil here, but he’s not entering it into the competition. Instead, he intends to enter only an average-sized gerbil.”
Miss C. looked perplexed, her Pictish brow in an impressive frown.
“That does not sound like the Serafim we know at all,” she said. “Incidentally, he is a most indecent sort of chap.” (Again, I have amended her vocabulary slightly to preserve the purity of the written world to coming generations, which will no doubt sully it anew.)
“Both Mr. Dodson and I were most extraordinarily surprised,” Mr. Pennylittle said. “We thought that we’d probably have to declare him the winner on the spot, without even seeing the other contestants, but he would not budge. He claimed that it would be unfair to the other competitors to use his larger gerbil.”
“That does not in any way sound like Serafim Saville,” I said. “Are you sure it wasn’t someone else? He is about a head taller than I am, built like a slothful ox, and has a glass eye.”
“Yes,” Mr. Pennylittle said, “that is precisely him! I’ve known him for years. We were at Meridian College together in our respective youths. His extraordinary personality has not changed a bit since then, and both Mr. Dodson and I were most surprised. He claimed he had reformed himself from last years’ Guess the Squirrel Competition, when as you know he was caught with Markham and Gabriel’s Field Guide to Our Squirrel Friends tucked into his sleeve and disqualified.”
“Reformed?” Miss C. snorted. “He must have replaced every moral fibre in his body.”
I assumed one of my thoughtful looks, and rubbed my chin.
“Well,” I said, “there is only one way to find out, I guess: wait for the competition, but be extra vigilant and try to spot his trick before he has the time to use it. In the meantime, let’s have a look at his gerbils.”
By now, several other people had arrived, and were strolling around amongst the cages. A group of children were hanging around the Lascivious Porridge-rat display, and as Mr. Pennylittle ploughed through the throng to the gerbil area with his steel-rimmed wheelchair, Miss C. greeted the bursar of the Armitage Institute, who was feeding his collection of Melon Rats, and nodded to the Mock-Bishop of Gideonsclere, to whom I have previously introduced my readers.
Presently, we arrived at the gerbil area, where cage upon cage of the little creatures were lined up. Mr. Dodson was standing there, keeping an eye on the cages so that no one would be able to interfere with the rodents before the competition, and we said hello in passing. I noticed that my own gerbils needed feeding, and made a mental note to do so as soon as we had seen Serafim’s monstrous specimen. Mr. Pennylittle pointed out the cages containing his own and Mr. Dodson’s competitors, as well as some of the more outrageously coloured specimens. Then we arrived at the table where Mr. Saville’s gerbils were kept.
And it was impressive, indeed!
The smaller gerbil was not very impressive, of course, being of about average length, but the other one was the size of a pony, proudly coloured in brown, black, and white. I had never seen such a magnificent specimen ever, and my hopes of winning the competition plummeted like a sack of lead ornaments, mistakenly suspended by too thin a thread over a vat of mustard. There was no way I was going to win this competition!
As usual, Miss C. was the most perceptive of the two of us, and as so many times before, this was both my salvation and my downfall.
“I think I have figured out his plan,” Miss C. said. “Do you have the keys to this cage, Mr. Pennylittle?”
“No, Mr. Dodson has all the keys,” Mr. Pennylittle said. “However, I must protest if you are intending to in any way interfere with another man’s rodents on the eve before the competition.”
“I will reveal Serafim Saville’s mischievous plan to you, and save you from a lot of trouble,” Miss C. said, “but before I can do that, I need you to get the key from Mr. Dodson.”
Mr. Pennylittle grudgingly agreed, and called Mr. Dodson over. The key was produced, Miss. C. opened the cage, and crawled inside. She grabbed the titanic gerbil – it was almost too large to carry – and carried it out. Once she got out, and we could take a closer look at it, the plan was obvious. The giant gerbil was, in fact, a construct made from a wooden frame and a large piece of fur, with a pair of pomegranates glues on for eyes.
“See?” Miss C. said. “This is not actually a gerbil! And further–”
That is as far as she got, before the fake gerbil suddenly broke open in the bottom, and two dozen Tree Weasels poured out!
“So that’s his plan!” Mr. Pennylittle cried. “Smuggling in Tree Weasels to eat the competition, and then be the only one who still has a gerbil on competition day! How extraordinarily fiendish!”
However, no one had time to respond, because the weasels were now running all over the place, upsetting cages, harassing rodents, and generally getting in the way. The bursar of the Armitage Institute tried to lift his cage of Melon Rats above his head in vain, as the weasels just scurried up his trouser legs, and Miss C. was desperately beating away another weasel who had smelled the remaining Brussel sprout shortbread in her pocket.
It took the entire evening to get the situation sorted out, and we were both exhausted when Miss C. took me to the Craven for our evening tea.
“So,” she said, after we had finished our first cup of tea (I had Mask of the Red Death and Pecan and Miss C. had Plump Cardboard). “Do you think you stand a chance of winning?”
I considered the question for a bit, fiddling with my tea spoon.
“Yes,” I said, “I think I might just.”
The moral of this story is:
The Rodenthropy was quite benign –
His gerbils got mixed up with mine –
But a Speke’s Laotian Warbler-Vole
Hid Dodson’s wallet in a hole!