The Mouse

The Mouse

Theodoric Voler had been brought up, from infancy to the confines of
middle age, by a fond mother whose chief solicitude had been to keep
him screened from what she called the coarser realities of life.
When she died she left Theodoric alone in a world that was as real
as ever, and a good deal coarser than he considered it had any need
to be. To a man of his temperament and upbringing even a simple
railway journey was crammed with petty annoyances and minor
discords, and as he settled himself down in a secondclass
compartment one September morning he was conscious of ruffled
feelings and general mental discomposure. He had been staying at a
country vicarage, the inmates of which had been certainly neither
brutal nor bacchanalian, but their supervision of the domestic
establishment had been of that lax order which invites disaster.
The pony carriage that was to take him to the station had never been
properly ordered, and when the moment for his departure drew near
the handy-man who should have produced the required article was
nowhere to be found. In this emergency Theodoric, to his mute but
very intense disgust, found himself obliged to collaborate with the
vicar's daughter in the task of harnessing the pony, which
necessitated groping about in an ill-lighted outhouse called a
stable, and smelling very like one--except in patches where it smelt
of mice. Without being actually afraid of mice, Theodoric classed
them among the coarser incidents of life, and considered that
Providence, with a little exercise of moral courage, might long ago
have recognised that they were not indispensable, and have withdrawn
them from circulation. As the train glided out of the station
Theodoric's nervous imagination accused himself of exhaling a weak
odour of stable-yard, and possibly of displaying a mouldy straw or
two on his usually well-brushed garments. Fortunately the only
other occupant of the compartment, a lady of about the same age as
himself, seemed inclined for slumber rather than scrutiny; the train
was not due to stop till the terminus was reached, in about an
hour's time, and the carriage was of the old-fashioned sort, that
held no communication with a corridor, therefore no further
travelling companions were likely to intrude on Theodoric's semi-
privacy. And yet the train had scarcely attained its normal speed
before he became reluctantly but vividly aware that he was not alone
with the slumbering lady; he was not even alone in his own clothes.
A warm, creeping movement over his flesh betrayed the unwelcome and
highly resented presence, unseen but poignant, of a strayed mouse,
that had evidently dashed into its present retreat during the
episode of the pony harnessing. Furtive stamps and shakes and
wildly directed pinches failed to dislodge the intruder, whose
motto, indeed, seemed to be Excelsior; and the lawful occupant of
the clothes lay back against the cushions and endeavoured rapidly to
evolve some means for putting an end to the dual ownership. It was
unthinkable that he should continue for the space of a whole hour in
the horrible position of a Rowton House for vagrant mice (already
his imagination had at least doubled the numbers of the alien
invasion). On the other hand, nothing less drastic than partial
disrobing would ease him of his tormentor, and to undress in the
presence of a lady, even for so laudable a purpose, was an idea that
made his eartips tingle in a blush of abject shame. He had never
been able to bring himself even to the mild exposure of open-work
socks in the presence of the fair sex. And yet--the lady in this
case was to all appearances soundly and securely asleep; the mouse,
on the other hand, seemed to be trying to crowd a Wanderjahr into a
few strenuous minutes. If there is any truth in the theory of
transmigration, this particular mouse must certainly have been in a
former state a member of the Alpine Club. Sometimes in its
eagerness it lost its footing and slipped for half an inch or so;
and then, in fright, or more probably temper, it bit. Theodoric was
goaded into the most audacious undertaking of his life. Crimsoning
to the hue of a beetroot and keeping an agonised watch on his
slumbering fellow-traveller, he swiftly and noiselessly secured the
ends of his railway-rug to the racks on either side of the carriage,
so that a substantial curtain hung athwart the compartment. In the
narrow dressing-room that he had thus improvised he proceeded with
violent haste to extricate himself partially and the mouse entirely
from the surrounding casings of tweed and halfwool. As the
unravelled mouse gave a wild leap to the floor, the rug, slipping
its fastening at either end, also came down with a heart-curdling
flop, and almost simultaneously the awakened sleeper opened her
eyes. With a movement almost quicker than the mouse's, Theodoric
pounced on the rug, and hauled its ample folds chin-high over his
dismantled person as he collapsed into the further corner of the
carriage. The blood raced and beat in the veins of his neck and
forehead, while he waited dumbly for the communication-cord to be
pulled. The lady, however, contented herself with a silent stare at
her strangely muffled companion. How much had she seen, Theodoric
queried to himself, and in any case what on earth must she think of
his present posture?

"I think I have caught a chill," he ventured desperately.

"Really, I'm sorry," she replied. "I was just going to ask you if
you would open this window."

"I fancy it's malaria," he added, his teeth chattering slightly, as
much from fright as from a desire to support his theory.

"I've got some brandy in my hold-all, if you'll kindly reach it down
for me," said his companion.

"Not for worlds--I mean, I never take anything for it," he assured
her earnestly.

"I suppose you caught it in the Tropics?"

Theodoric, whose acquaintance with the Tropics was limited to an
annual present of a chest of tea from an uncle in Ceylon, felt that
even the malaria was slipping from him. Would it be possible, he
wondered, to disclose the real state of affairs to her in small
instalments?

"Are you afraid of mice?" he ventured, growing, if possible, more
scarlet in the face.

"Not unless they came in quantities, like those that ate up Bishop
Hatto. Why do you ask?"

"I had one crawling inside my clothes just now," said Theodoric in a
voice that hardly seemed his own. "It was a most awkward
situation."

"It must have been, if you wear your clothes at all tight," she
observed; "but mice have strange ideas of comfort."

"I had to get rid of it while you were asleep," he continued; then,
with a gulp, he added, "it was getting rid of it that brought me to-
-to this."

"Surely leaving off one small mouse wouldn't bring on a chill," she
exclaimed, with a levity that Theodoric accounted abominable.

Evidently she had detected something of his predicament, and was
enjoying his confusion. All the blood in his body seemed to have
mobilised in one concentrated blush, and an agony of abasement,
worse than a myriad mice, crept up and down over his soul. And the,
as reflection began to assert itself, sheer terror took the place of
humiliation. With every minute that passed the train was rushing
nearer to the crowded and bustling terminus where dozens of prying
eyes would be exchanged for the one paralysing pair that watched him
from the further corner of the carriage. There was one slender
despairing chance, which the next few minutes must decide. His
fellow-traveller might relapse into a blessed slumber. But as the
minutes throbbed by that chance ebbed away. The furtive glance
which Theodoric stole at her from time to time disclosed only an
unwinking wakefulness.

"I think we must be getting near now," she presently observed.

Theodoric had already noted with growing terror the recurring stacks
of small, ugly dwellings that heralded the journey's end. The words
acted as a signal. Like a hunted beast breaking cover and dashing
madly towards some other haven of momentary safety he threw aside
his rug, and struggled frantically into his dishevelled garments.
He was conscious of dull surburban stations racing past the window,
of a choking, hammering sensation in his throat and heart, and of an
icy silence in that corner towards which he dared not look. Then as
he sank back in his seat, clothed and almost delirious, the train
slowed down to a final crawl, and the woman spoke.

"Would you be so kind," she asked, "as to get me a porter to put me into a cab? It's a shame to trouble you when you're feeling unwell, but being blind makes one so helpless at a railway station."

_________
-THE END-
[Hector Hugh Munro] Saki's short story: The Mouse

Folder: bujinkan ninjutsu

Uploaded: Jun 26, 2008

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