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Chapter 1 A Bad Time for Babies
Hildegarde sighed, a loud, squeaking, outraged sort of sigh, when she was informed that a new litter of mouselets had been born in the sexton’s closet. Such bad timing! Such bad placement!
She scurried from the sacristy, the private room where Father Murphy’s special priestly clothes were stored. She’d been napping there comfortably, until Roderick, whiskers twitching, woke her with the news. Oh, he was a busybody, no question! Always looking for a reaction. Well, he got one this time! She was furious.
Checking carefully to be certain there were no humans around (sometimes the Altar Guild ladies dropped in during the afternoons to rearrange flowers), Hildegarde tiptoed quickly into the large, high-ceilinged church itself, through the side section known as the transept, and entered the central area called the nave. Audaciously she hurried down the center aisle, ready at any instant to disappear into a pew and under a kneeler if someone entered. But the sanctuary was empty and quiet and she made her way, undisturbed, down its length.
Next she found herself in the narthex. Hildegarde so liked the formal names for the parts of the church. If she were in an ordinary house, she thought, twitching her nose at the idea, this would be known as the front hall. What an ordinary name! Narthex had a ring to it. You knew you were in an important place when you entered a narthex!
There was a tiny opening here, beside the front door, where the floor had settled slightly. Through the opening Hildegarde could enter the wall. The church mice all used this as an entry or exit because stairs
were a problem for them. It was easier to ascend or descend inside the wall, where there were tangled wires and frayed insulation to cling to. Carefully, she scurried downward.
Now, having made her way below, she was in the interior wall of the undercroft. Since Hildegarde had lived in Saint Bartholemew’s all her life she knew the route by heart, especially where to scramble over the copper pipes and how to avoid the places where drifting insulation made her sneeze. There were many exits here in the undercroft: one, she recalled, amused as she passed it, into the nursery, a noisy place on Sunday mornings and best avoided. Babies in general were best avoided. They spent time on the floor, could see into crevices, and had graspy hands.
But at least babies couldn’t talk, and report a mouse sighting! The group to be most feared, Hildegard thought, was the Altar Guild. More than one of the ladies had actually shrieked upon happening on a mouse. Oh, dear. Always an uproar when that happened. (Men seemed to be more sensible about such things.)
Finally, after passing countless Sunday School rooms and making her way carefully around the complicated piping of the bathrooms, Hildegarde arrived at the entrance, a small gnawed hole, to the sexton’s closet. She winced when the ragged hole edge grabbed her sleek coat, but wriggled through; then, emerging on the other side within the closet itself, she fastidiously pulled her long, elegant tail through in one swoop.
There they were, curled in a nest made from a pile of the sexton’s cleaning rags: at least seven of them, it appeared, and bright pink, a color Hildegarde had always disliked. Annoyed, she looked around. She knew the mother would be nearby. No self-respecting mouse mother would leave infants this young alone. So someone was hiding.
"Show yourself!" Hildegarde commanded. She didn’t use her commanding voice terribly often, even though she was the matriarch, the chosen Mouse Mistress, and therefore entitled. But she was angry, and ner-vous. The timing of this was so unfortunate.
The mouse mother responded with a timid squeak, peeping out from between the ropy tangles of a moldy-smelling mop.
"I knew it would be you! I just knew it!" Hildegarde said.
"Who told?" squeaked the mouse, guiltily. She made her way over toward the litter, which was beginning to whimper and wiggle at the sound of her voice. She nudged them back into a tidy pile with her nose and then lay down beside the babies, looking up at Hildegarde.
"I simply guessed. It was obvious," Hildegarde said with a sniff. Of course it was Roderick who had told her. "That trashy little Millicent has reproduced again," he had announced in his arrogant, judgmental way, after he had poked Hildegarde with his nose and completely ruined her afternoon nap.
She peered down at the young mother. "How many litters does this make?"
Millicent cringed in embarrassment. "Four," she confessed.
"Four this year? Or four overall?" Hildegarde gave an exasperated sniff. "Oh, never mind. It doesn’t matter. The point is, as mouse mistress, I am commanding you to stop this incessant reproduction! It’s jeopardizing all of us. And particularly now. Do you realize it’s late September?"
Millicent rearranged herself and the mouselets squirmed against her. "Do you mean it will be cold soon? I can make a nest near a heating duct when the furnace comes on."
"That is not at all what I mean. But you are going to have to move this litter someplace else right away. I don’t think the sexton’s here today. But he’ll be in k7 k tomorrow, I’m sure. And the instant he reaches for his cleaning rags . . ."
Millicent squeaked at the thought.
"Exactly," Hildegarde went on. "Basically, the sexton is fairly tolerant. He’ll ignore a few droppings. And I know he overlooked the shredding in his stack of newspapers, though he surely knew it was a nest. That was kind of him. But if he were to encounter . . . this!" She gestured toward the pile of pink mouselets. "Well! Do you recall the Great X?"
Millicent cringed. "I’ve only heard about it," she said nervously.
"No, of course you don’t remember. The last Great X was before you were born. But it was simply terrible. We lost half our population! I vowed not to let it happen again. No more haphazard, willy-nilly reproduction! Careful placement! No visibility!" She looked meaningfully at the litter, sleeping now, curled in the stained rags. "We’ve got to get you and these mouselets moved inside the wall right away."
She considered the problem, then said, "There’s k8 k a perfectly good nest left empty after Zachariah’s demise." She was silent for a moment, then crossed herself, murmured, "Lord rest his soul," and continued: "It’s in the wall behind the men’s room toilet. A little noisy, I’m afraid, because of flushing."
"I don’t mind flushing," Millicent squeaked.
"Let’s get started, then. If you take one and I take another, we can get them all moved in three or four trips." Hildegarde leaned down and took a deep breath. "Oh," she muttered, "this is not pleasant at all." Then she grasped a mouselet by its neck and moved back through the hole into the wall, carrying it carefully, its miniature legs and tail dangling in a slightly wiggly way.
Preparing to come after her, Millicent paused and said in a sulky voice, "Lucretia thinks they’re cute."
Hildegarde heard her but didn’t dignify the comment with a response. She couldn’t stand Lucretia, who had competed against her for the role of Mouse Mistress using unfair tactics, and had been a very poor sport about losing.
She continued on, carrying the mouselet. But now she was even more furious. Lucretia! Her rival. Her worst enemy. And a liar, too. Cute? These mouselets were a hideous shade of pink, and their ribs showed. They were not cute at all.