Authors: Robin Jarvis
One night nature took a hand in ridding the river of the dreadful carcass. A terrible storm blew up: the wind and the rain lashed down from the sky, and the river became swollen and crashed against its walls with shuddering violence.
On one such surging wave was the corpse of Jupiter, carried along until with a thundering smash the wave smote the wall and the cat’s body was hurled over on to the building site.
The builder who had found him hurried away quickly, but soon returned dragging behind him a great shovel caked in cement. With a grunt he lifted the sagging corpse into the air. Jupiter’s massive claws dangled limply over the sides of the shovel and what was left of his striped ginger fur blazed ruddily in the sunlight.
Surrounded by the thick buzzing cloud the builder stepped carefully over to the site bonfire and tossed Jupiter into its heart.
The flames licked over the cat greedily. For a while the fire glowed purple and then with one final splutter there was nothing left of the once mighty lord of the sewers.
Only a thick dark smoke which had risen from the flames remained, and this stayed hanging stubbornly in the air over Deptford for two days until a summer breeze blew it away on the third morning.
Oswald was ill. As soon as the white mouse had returned from the sewers he had felt unwell. When the small group of mice who had confronted the terrifying Jupiter had emerged from the Grille and climbed the cellar steps, Oswald’s legs had given way and sturdy Thomas Triton had carried him the rest of the way. Although the albino coughed and spluttered no-one realised how serious his condition would become.
For weeks he had stayed in bed. At first the mice thought he had merely caught a cold, and his mother Mrs Chitter had fussed and scolded him over it. But the cold did not improve and his lungs had become inflamed so that when he coughed the pain made him cry. Steadily he grew weaker. Mrs Chitter tended to him day and night, and made herself ill in the process, until she too became a poor reflection of what she had once been.
Oswald’s father, Jacob Chitter, had moved his favourite chair into his son’s room next to his bed. He held his son’s paw throughout, shaking his head sadly. Oswald was slipping away; bit by painful bit the white mouse became more frail. Then one day Mrs Chitter could take no more. As she was carrying away the soup that Oswald had been unable to swallow the bowl fell from her paws and she fell heavily to the floor – soup and tears everywhere.
From then on Gwen Brown took charge of Oswald and his mother whilst Twit the fieldmouse looked after his uncle, Mr Chitter.
All was silent in the Skirtings. The empty old house was filled with quiet prayers for the Chitter family. All the mice helped as much as they could: those on the Landings forgot their snobbery and offered food and blankets. Gwen Brown’s own children Arthur and Audrey collected all the donations and messages of goodwill and it was the job of a grey mouse from the city called Piccadilly to keep everyone informed of Oswald’s condition.
All the mice owed a great deal to this small group of friends. It was they who had finally rid them of the menace of Jupiter, and all their lives were now easier. No more did they have to dread the cellar and the strange Grille which was the entrance to the dark sinister rat world. All the cruel rats had been killed or scattered and a mouse could sleep soundly at night, fearing no sudden attacks or raids. Only the older mice still looked at the cellar doubtfully and would not pass beyond its great door.
So, when they had been told of Jupiter’s fall – and when they finally believed it – there was tremendous excitement and they had cheered the brave deeds of these mice. But now the youngest of the heroes was dying.
Piccadilly swept the hair out of his eyes and got out of bed. The sunlight shone on the city mouse and warmed him all over but he hardly noticed it. For the moment, he was sharing a room with Arthur, and Audrey was sleeping in her mother’s bed, as Gwen was at the Chitters’ all the time now.
‘Arthur,’ Piccadilly whispered to the snoring bundle, ‘wake up.’ He shook his friend gently.
The plump mouse on the bed blinked and drew his paw over his eyes. ‘How is he?’ he asked directly.
Piccadilly shook his head. ‘I’ve just got up – how was he last night when you left him?’
‘Bad!’ Arthur swung himself off the bed and stood in the sunlight as was his custom. He stared at the clear blue sky outside. ‘Mother doesn’t think it will be long now,’ he sighed and looked across to Piccadilly. ‘Will you stay here, afterwards?’
The grey mouse sniffed a little. ‘No, I’ve made up my mind to stay just until . . .’ he coughed, ‘then I’m off – back to the city.’
‘We’ll miss you, you know,’ said Arthur. ‘I won’t know what to do around here when you’ve gone. I think Twit’s decided to leave as well . . . afterwards.’ Arthur turned back to examine the summer sky and then remarked casually. ‘I think Audrey will miss you most though.’
Piccadilly looked up curiously. ‘She’s never said anything.’
‘Well you know what she’s like: too stubborn to say anything! I know my sister, and believe you me, she likes you a lot.’
‘Well, I wish she’d tell me.’
‘Oh I think she will when it suits her.’ Arthur stretched himself and rubbed his ears. ‘He doesn’t even take the milk any more you know. Mother can’t get him to drink it and if he does, it won’t stay down. Maybe he would be better off . . .’ his voice trailed away miserably.
‘I’m dreading it,’ murmured Piccadilly. ‘These past few days he’s sunk lower an’ lower – I don’t know what keeps him going.’
Arthur touched him lightly on the shoulder. ‘Let’s go and find out.’
Audrey was already up and waiting for them. She had not bothered to tie the ribbon in her hair as she usually did and it hung in soft chestnut waves behind her ears.
Outside the Chitters’ door they stopped, and Arthur glanced nervously at the others before knocking. They waited anxiously as shuffling steps approached on the other side of the curtain.
The curtain was drawn aside, and the small features of Twit greeted them solemnly. He looked back into the room, nodded, then stepped out and let the curtain fall back behind him.
‘He’s still with us,’ he whispered. ‘’Twere touch ‘n’ go for a while last night: thought we’d lost ’im twice.’ The fieldmouse bit his lip. ‘Your mum’s all in; she’s ’ad a tirin’ time of it. What with ’im and Mrs Chitter, she’s fit to drop.’
‘I’ll tell her to lie down for a bit,’ nodded Arthur. And I’ll take over,’ added Audrey. ‘You look like you could do with a rest as well Twit.’
‘Well, Mr Chitter, he just sits an’ mopes, his wife an’ son bein’ so bad. l can’t do anything with ’im.’ Twit wiped his brimming eyes. ‘Heck we tried me an’ your mum, but all three of ’em are slidin’ downhill fast. I really think this be the last day no, I knows it. None of ’em’ll see the sunset.’ Big tears ran down the fieldmouse’s little face. He was exhausted and felt that all his efforts had been a waste of time – this branch of his family was about to wither and die.
Audrey bent down and kissed Twit’s forehead. ‘Hush,’ she soothed. ‘Piccadilly, put Twit in Arthur’s bed. I’ll wake you if anything happens,’ she reassured the fieldmouse.
‘Thank ’ee.’ Twit stammered through a yawn and he followed Piccadilly back to the Browns’ home.
Arthur turned to his sister. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘I’ll tackle Mother, you see to the Chitters. I’ll come and help once Mother’s gone to bed.’ Gingerly he pulled back the curtain.
It was dark beyond: the daylight had been blocked out for Oswald’s sake.
Arabel Chitter’s bric-a-brac was well dusted, her pieces of china ornament, bits of sparkling brooches and neatly folded lace shawls and headscarves had all been seen to by Gwen Brown. Mrs Chitter had always been house-proud and if things were not ‘just so’ she would fret.
Arthur and Audrey slowly made their way to Oswald’s room. Arthur coughed quietly and their mother came out to them.
‘Hello dears,’ she breathed wearily. Dark circles ringed her brown eyes and her tail dragged sadly behind her. ‘No ribbon today Audrey?’ she asked, stroking her daughter’s hair. ‘And you Arthur, have you had breakfast?’
‘Have you Mother?’ He took her paw in his. ‘No, I didn’t think so. Come on, you’re going to get some sleep.’ He would hear no protests and Gwen Brown was too tired to make any.
‘Audrey, promise me you’ll wake me if . . .’ was all she managed.
‘I promise Mother.’
‘Yes, good girl. Now, come Arthur, show me to my bed or I’ll drop down here.’ Audrey watched them leave then breathed deeply and went inside.
Illness has a smell all of its own and it is unmistakable. Sweet and cloying, it lingers in a sickroom, waiting for the patient to recover or fail. Audrey had grown accustomed to this smell by now though it frightened her to enter the room.
It was a small space almost filled by the bed in which Oswald lay. Beside him on a chair was Mr Chitter, his head bent in sleep. He was a meek mouse, devoted to his wife and son, but this had broken him.
Oswald was quite still. His face was gaunt and drained, paler now than ever before. His eyelids were closed lightly over his dim pink eyes. His fair albino hair was stuck close to his head and his whiskers drooped mournfully. The blankets were pulled up under his chin but one of his frail paws was wrapped inside his father’s.
Audrey felt Oswald’s forehead: it was hot and damp. A fever was consuming his last energies, burning away whatever hope there had been for him.
Sorrowfully she picked up a bowl from the floor. It contained clean wafer and a cloth, and with them she began to cool his brow.
Next to Oswald’s bed, on the wall, was a garland of dried hawthorn leaves which he had saved from the spring ceremony and preserved carefully. He had adored the celebrations and was impatient for the following year when he too would come of age and be entitled to enter the mysterious Chambers of Summer and Winter to receive his mousebrass. To Audrey, it seemed long ago that she had taken hers from the very paws of the Green Mouse. She thought of him now, the mystical spirit of life and growing things. How often she had prayed to him to spare Oswald! Now it looked as if nothing could save him.
There was a small table near her and on it were some slices of raw onion. Mrs Chitter believed this would draw out the illness from her son, and out of respect for her wishes Gwen Brown made sure that the onion was fresh every day. Audrey only regarded this superstition as one more addition to the eerie smell of illness.
A movement on the pillow drew her attention back to the patient.
Oswald’s eyes opened slowly. For a while he gazed at the ceiling, then gradually he focused on Audrey. She smiled at him warmly.
‘Good morning, Oswald,’ she said.
The albino raised his eyebrows feebly and tried to speak. It was a low, barely audible whisper and Audrey strained to hear him.
‘What sort . . . of day is it . . . outside?’ His sad eyes pierced her heart and she struggled to remain reassuring when all the time she wanted to run from him sobbing. She could not get over the feeling that it was mainly due to her that Oswald was so ill.
‘It’s beautiful, Oswald,’ she said huskily. ‘You never saw such a morning! The sky is as blue as a forget-me-not and the sun is so bright and lovely.’
A ghost of a smile touched Oswald’s haggard cheeks. He closed his eyes. ‘You never did get your mousebrass back,’ he murmured.
‘Yes I did, for a short while. You were so brave, getting it for me amongst all those horrible rats.’
‘I don’t think I shall ever get my . . . brass now,’ he continued mildly. ‘I wonder what it would . . . have been.’
‘The sign of utmost bravery,’ sobbed Audrey. She held her paw over her face.
‘I’m so sorry’ Oswald,’ she cried. ‘This is all my fault.’
‘No, it had to be done . . . Jupiter had to be destroyed. Not your fault if . . . if I wasn’t up to it.’
‘Don’t, please! Just rest. Would, you like some milk?’ But Oswald had already fallen into a black swoon. Audrey cried silently.
A gentle, polite knock sounded. She dried her eyes and left the sickroom, pausing on the way to the main entrance to look in on Mrs Chitter who lay asleep in another room. Arabel’s silvery head, was old and shrivelled. It was startling to see it against the crisp whiteness of the pillows. But at least she was asleep and not fretting. Audrey crept away and made for the entrance.
‘Oh, it’s young Miss Audrey!’ Sturdy Thomas Triton looked faintly surprised to see her when she drew the curtain back. ‘I was expectin’ your mother, but if you aren’t the very one anyway.’ The midshipmouse pulled off his hat and asked gravely, ‘How’s the lad this morn?’
‘No better, I’m afraid – we don’t think he’ll last much longer. Mother’s resting just now: she and Twit have been up all night.’
‘Aye,’ muttered Thomas grimly, then he furrowed his spiky white brows and considered Audrey steadily with his wise, dark eyes. ‘’Tis a sore thing to bear – losing a friend,’ and an odd far-off expression stole over him, ’specially if you think it’s all your fault. That’s a mighty burden, lass! Don’t take it on yourself – guilt and grief aren’t easy fellows to cart round with yer, believe you me.’
Audrey turned away quickly. Thomas’ insight was too unnerving and she cringed from it. ‘Would you like to see him?’ she managed at last.
Thomas fidgeted with his hat, rolling it over in his strong paws. ‘Lead on, I’ll look on the boy once more.’
When they came to the sickroom he hesitated at the doorway and changed his mind. ‘Nay, I’ll not enter. I’ve glimpsed the lad and that’s enough. I’ve seen too many go down with fever to want to witness it again. He were a brave sort whatever he may have said to the contrary. A loss to us all. I see the father has not moved – is the mother still abed?’ Audrey nodded. ‘That’s bad! A whole family wiped out by sickness and grief. Well, how’s little Twit bearing up?’