Max was curled up in the tiny corner in the hallway where the bottoms of the French doors almost met the thin carpet. It was an artfully chosen spot and it must be said one of his many afternoon favourites. The curtains were burgundy red and covered the whole length of the glass panelled doors, except for a height of perhaps an inch-and-a-half at the bottom. In this space Max could only be seen, or perhaps guessed at, as a darker patch of shadow, but only then by those who looked closely, and those who looked closely might be rewarded with the realisation that the small dimple in the bottom-edge of the curtain and the small grey shape that caused it, was in fact the grey furry ear of Max the cat protruding into the North hallway to give warning of the approach of those who might cause disturbance to the delicate territorial boundaries of a meditative cat.
In this case the warning system seemed to have failed due either to encroaching deafness on the ear of an adult tabby cat in the prime of his life or some other unquantified at failing that, had it been put into words would perhaps have reflected poorly on the character of the cat in question.
“Yes, Lady Burbage?” One front paw projected from under the curtain when it reached full stretch, it gave a politely short quiver of pleasure and then retracted far enough that the personage who owned it might consider putting weight on it. Unlike the paws of many (perhaps the majority) of cats called “tabby” this paw featured no white at all. In fact none of Max’s feet had white ‘socks’ – where “God had run out of paint”. Instead, all his feet were brown grey tabby – the same colouration, as it happened, of a standard issue mouse, but with black stripes though this similarity of colouration as had benefitted no member of the rodent species since Max, though well fed by his human acolytes, took pleasure in keeping the larder, the kitchen, the wine cellar and the library free of those he termed “little scuttlers”, a mission in life that earned him a position in Lady Burbage’s retinue somewhere between highly-valued retainer and the kind of long-term houseguest who had their regular place at table for meals.
After a long moment, three further paws, each of similar colouration protruded from under the curtain, stretched taut, toes and claws splayed, quivered and relaxed. After a further small disturbance behind the curtain Max’s sleek feline head appeared, eyes slitted as the lower edge of the curtain passed across them, and as his upper whisker array bent down and popped back up. His spine made a small dimple in the curtain as he passed under it and a larger one as his mostly vertical tail popped through. Max walked several steps into the hallway, looked up at his human and slitted his eyes slightly in pleasure and greeting. Lady Burbage flitted her eyes slightly in return. Max almost quivered in joy. Lady Burbage’s understanding of the protocols of the dance of life – apparently innate – set her aside from the vast ruck of humans, who could only try.
“Good Afternoon Maxwell, I trust the day is treating you pleasantly?”
“It is Mam, that it is, as a matter of fact that is a very pleasant spot, just enough sun through the glass to keep the topside warm, while the gentle cool breeze from the gap underneath the door provides both pleasant fresh air from the garden and a cool waft up the fur offset by the warmth of the sun. Also, at this time of year the sun is at the correct angle to refract through the bevelling of the window pane and cast the most delightful rainbows on the white inner lining of the curtains. Quite wonderfully thought provoking!”
“Oh. I had rather thought you were asleep!”
“Lady Burbage if there is one thing I hope you have learnt from me is that all sentient beings do most of their thinking while they are asleep – the most important stuff anyway.
“Surely that means that there is then, at least half the time, being the waking hours left to think?”
“In my experience ma’m the waking hours are devoted to thought all too rarely indeed.”
“Judging by the quality of the conversation tendered by my last few luncheon guests, I can but agree.”
Max stretched his front paws forward, sunk his claws into the Axminster, and pulled hard against the resistance of the rest of his body, the effort made his tail arch upwards and the fur on his rump stand on end. When he spoke, it was with difficulty. “Precisely. I’ve been thinking you ought to draw the catchment area for your guest list rather wider than available local churchmen.”
“Be fair Maxwell.” They’re the only people in the area who can be relied on to be even slightly educated. For the most part the county is very rural and reading is regarded as a suspicious new invention.”
“Yes and in the village the comparing of phlegmy noises is regarded as conversation.”
‘I know what you mean.”
“It’s doubly disturbing when you travel as close to the ground as I do.”
“And in an odd kind of way Max, that brings the subject of conversation around to my reason for seeking you out and awakening you.”
Lady Burbage sank herself onto the green velvet upholstered red cedar occasional chair that stood in the hall, mainly for riders who needed help removing their boots and looked down expectantly at Max. Max took two steps and sprung into the hammock of her lap.
Lady Burbage had fat warm thighs and favoured long skirts and Max loved her for it. He arched his neck and daintily touched the tip of her nose with his. His nose was cool and polite.
“Yes, your Ladyship?”
“Max there’s not really polite way to broach this rather delicate subject-“
“But Max did you – ah –mess in Mr Wymss’ shoes?” Lady Burbage very gently stroked the top of Max’s head, all the way down his spine so delicately that his fur was scarcely compressed to his body.
Max arched slightly with approval, Lady Burbage was about the only human permitted such liberties.
“Yes Ma’m I must confess that I did.”
“Why on Earth would you commit such a barbarous and uncouth act Max? And on Mr Wymss, too, our esteemed under butler!”
“Well Lady Burbage, not to tell tales out of school, I must say that my revolutionary activities were undertaken by way of revenge.”
“Revenge on Mr. Wymss? For what?”
“Well, the night before last, Monday I think people call it, I’d decided to go hunting in the wine cellar. There’d been a delivery of a couple of barrels and changes in the environment usually put the scuttlers off centre. So I sneaked in as the cellar men took the cart away and I started hunting. Within an hour or two I’d caught eight. I only ate the heads; I like the crunch and because if I’m too full I can’t hunt and pounce properly.”
Lady Burbage queasily considered how close Max’s mouth had just been to hers.
“Anyway I was starting to think that eight was enough or perhaps even more than enough when I realised that what I wanted more than dead squeakers was a nice chair somewhere upstairs and a bit of a think. So in the crack under the cellar door I see a light moving. Its a hand-held lamp and keys are jingling. Its Wymss doing his lock up round. So I wait till he’s right outside the door and I shout, “Hey Wymss! I’m stuck in here! Let me out!”
“And he didn’t hear you?”
“Oh no he heard me alright – he replied, and I quote; ‘Fuck you cat! always sneaking around where you aren’t supposed to be, you want to be in there? You can spend the night!’ And he walks off. The mice are all jumping up and down and taunting me and laughing while I tried to think.”
His voice became a fair imitation of a mouse squeak;
“Cat! Cat! You keel my mother! Cat! Cat! You keel my seester! Cat! We poisons your foods! Cat! Hey Cat! Cat! We poisons your meelky-weelky! All night. Sometimes they even ran over my tail and interrupted my thoughts. Ned opened the outside door about four AM for a small cask of Malmsey; I was out of there like a rocket, and straight to Wymss’ room. Did you know he leaves his shoes outside his room for the maid he’s seeing to clean? Charlotte? No? Anyway it was too easy, I had a bowel full of mostly digested mouse-heads and I’d been dreaming of my target all night. So: I confess and throw myself of the mercy of the court.”
(c) Alex Rieneck