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

second-class 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 handyman 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 recognized 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were not indispensable, and have withdrawn them from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 stableyard, 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 agonized 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 half-wool. 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,”

be 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 got 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 mobilized in one concentrated blush, and an

agony of abasement, worse than a myriad mice, crept up and

down over his soul. And then, 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 paralyzing 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 suburban 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.”