Holiday Duet – Grace Burrowes

“You have mice.” Three words, laden with judgment. The sentence wasn’t spoken so much as intoned, a Dies Irae rumbling in masculine tones across the library’s quiet. Because the speaker held a cat, and because that cat peered at Lady Antonia Mainwaring from her eye level, it seemed to Antonia as if the cat had spoken. Antonia had a ferociously firm grip of the English language and a firmer grasp of common sense. To shake free from fanciful notions of talking cats, she nonetheless needed the moment it took to remove her spectacles and fold the earpieces. “I beg your pardon, sir?” She remained seated, as was a lady’s prerogative. The cat—a large, long-haired gray tom with a grumpy green gaze—switched its tail. The beast reposed in the arms of a tall man with light brown hair. The fragrance of a bakery clung to him, and his clothing suggested he worked for whatever daily bread he consumed. His coat was heavy wool, rumpled, and none too new. He wore no hat and the red plaid scarf about his neck was missing half of its tassels. “Mice,” he said, in the same inflection a preacher used when referring to original sin. “They delight in books. They chew the bindings to feast on the glue, shred the pages to make their nests, destroy wisdom itself for their furry little comfort.

” This big, unkempt man and his disgruntled cat tempted Antonia to get to her feet, the better to run from any stray thunderbolts. “I have seen no evidence of mice on the premises. Are you a library patron, sir?” Winter was bearing down in all its unrelenting bitterness, and the library was a refuge for the homeless. Antonia’s emotions on that point were mixed. In a city that considered itself the jewel of civilization, nobody ought to die of exposure to the elements, but she was at a loss for what one said to a person in such straits. “May I help you find a book?” seemed unforgivably insensitive, and yet, who deserved the comfort of great prose more than those tempted to despair? And must London’s unfortunates be so formidable? “I am a patron,” he said. “Lucifer cannot say the same.” The cat commenced purring, as if the beast enjoyed mention of his name. His expression made clear that the library was poorer for not extending to felines the privileges of membership. “Where do you see evidence of mice?” Antonia asked.

“Come,” the fellow replied, supporting the cat with one arm and striding off in the direction of the biographies. The only patrons at the library today were the Barclay sisters, a pair of white-haired spinsters who pretended to read Fordyce’s sermons by the hour. Antonia suspected they were conserving coal while hiding from their neighbors, for they never took Reverend Fordyce home with them. The gentleman with the cat disappeared between two rows of shelves and then took the spiral steps up to the mezzanine. Antonia rose and followed him. His pace was deliberate, and for a big man, he moved quietly. The sisters exchanged a glance as he passed them. Miss Dorothy wrinkled her nose. He seemed impervious to this rudeness, though the cat sent a glare in Miss Dorothy’s direction. “Here.

” Still holding the cat, he knelt at the back of the H through T row of biographies. “Mice.” He pointed to what could only be mouse droppings. His fingernails were clean, which struck Antonia as odd. “Lucifer can solve your problem, madam. He’ll expect the occasional saucer of milk and a bit of fish for his wages. If you crack a window for most of the day he’ll come and go as nature demands. Feed him on the premises, and he’ll defend the books all night from any and all rodents.” The man passed Antonia the cat before she could step back. In the narrow space between the bookshelves, that left her and Lucifer’s owner exactly one cat-width apart.

One surprisingly light cat-width. “You are nothing but skin and bones, you poor fellow,” Antonia cradled the beast to her chest, enjoying the feel of his purring. “You look formidable, and you make a prodigious noise, but you’ve missed a few meals.” The shameless creature licked her chin. The sensation was odd, halfway between a scrape and a tickle. The cat was too light, a ball of fluff where a muscular predator should be. “He’ll do the job God intended him to do,” the man said, “your books will be safe, and the mice will decamp for less perilous surrounds.” Antonia had grown up with the requisite progression of pantry mousers, though she didn’t particularly like cats and certainly hadn’t been permitted anywhere near the kitchen. Cats lacked a dog’s loyalty, lacked sufficient size to discourage intruders, and— probably their worst failing—lacked an adoring gaze. “I don’t have the authority to permit a cat to live on the premises,” she said.

“I’m a volunteer, and I’m sure the manager and the board of directors will have to convene a meeting and discuss—” The man stroked the cat’s head, which meant his hand was very close to Antonia’s person. She wasn’t frightened, but neither was she accustomed to biding so near a fellow unless he was standing up with her before a ballroom full of chaperones. “By the time the Board of Fossils assembles,” Lucifer’s friend said, “by the time they conclude their dithering, you will have lost a dozen bound volumes to the ravages of the rodents. Who will pay to have those books replaced, assuming you can find copies of the damaged titles? Which would you rather explain, the minuscule expense of feeding Lucifer, or the ongoing drain of resources a plague of mice will effect?” His speech was educated, for all his hair was untidy. He was, in fact, a handsome man, now that Antonia studied him. His eyes were an arresting shade of blue, closer to periwinkle, and the stubble on his cheeks was golden. He struck her as a book with its pages bound in the wrong order. He smelled of the bakery, but was built to handle a plough. His hair needed a trim, though his diction was precise. He wore a laborer’s rough clothing, while his touch on the cat’s head was gentle.

Lucifer’s friend dressed as an unlettered workingman, but his eyes held intelligence… and even a hint of humor? Or challenge. He was challenging Antonia to accept this feline. “I make no promises,” she said. “You may leave the cat with me for now, and the chophouse can oblige with some sustenance for him. I’ll have to discuss this with Mr. Kessler.” Lucifer preened under one last, slow caress. “Be vigilant, my friend,” the man said. “The literacy of Bootjack Street depends upon your courage and devotion to duty.” Antonia led the way back to the steps, and while she could have put the cat down, she didn’t.

He was a comfortable sort of cat to hold, not the kind that struggled and clawed against being carried. “If the board should disapprove of Lucifer, how can we return him to you?” Antonia asked. The day was frigid, but at least no precipitation fell. The weather alternated between sleet, snow, and rain of late, and sometimes all three at once. Lucifer’s friend paused by the main door and rewrapped his scarf about his neck. “You’ll remember to crack a window for him?” he asked. “I know that cats must heed the call of nature. I’ll leave instructions that the window by the service door is to be cracked during daylight hours. Mr. Kessler will likely have an apoplexy, but we don’t heat the back passage in any case.

” Lucifer rumbled along, the most placid mouser Antonia had ever encountered. “He likes haddock,” the man said, his hand on the door latch. “Very well, but how can I return him to you? I must have a name and a direction.” She had the sense that leaving Lucifer behind was difficult, which implied the man didn’t intend to see his cat again. That bothered her, and not because the board of directors was likely to evict the cat. They wouldn’t, not when the alternative was to spend money on a rat catcher. “Don’t bother the board,” he said. “Tell Kessler you got the idea from the Countess of Bellefonte, who keeps mousers in all of her libraries. Show Kessler evidence of the infestation, and he’ll soon decide that acquiring a cat was his own idea.” Mr.

Kessler was nothing if not fastidious. Mouse droppings would horrify him. “I need your name and direction,” Antonia said. “You clearly care about this cat, and he’s not fared well recently. If he’s turned back out on the street, he likely won’t last the winter.” Now the wretched beast was butting his head against Antonia’s chin, while Miss Dorothy was doing a poor job of pretending to browse the travelogues as she eavesdropped. The man bent near. “Max Haddonfield. My rooms are above the bake shop on Dinwiddie Lane.” He left on a gust of frigid air and pulled the door firmly closed behind him.

“BUT DID SHE LIKE HIM?” Dagger asked, trotting at Max’s heels. “You didn’t just leave him there, did you? Poor old sod, down on his luck, and winter setting in. You probably dropped him behind the dustbin without a bleedin’ Happy Christmas or a—” “Lucifer was purring in the lady’s arms as I left,” Max said. “Snuggled into the warmest embrace he’s known in his miserable, lazy life.” Dagger slowed. “You’re sure? You could hear him purring?” “Like thunder.” Beelzebub would be next, though Max would have to give him a different name. Lucifer, in addition to connoting the fiend, also brought to mind the dawn star, a happy image. “What if the library patrons decide Lucifer’s bad luck?” Dagger asked. “They’ll toss him into the snow, and we’ll never be the wiser.

” Max understood the boy’s emotions all too well. Next to the hope that one more helpless creature had found a safe, warm, happy station in life, was the gaping wound of saying good-bye to a friend, a friend one had chosen to entrust to the world’s kindness. Dagger well knew the world was not kind to the helpless, much less to skinny old cats too slow to catch a regular meal. “If Lucifer fails to win the hearts of the patrons, I suspect Miss Antonia will intercede. She is kind.” She was also starchy, prim, and a great believer in the fantasy that rules must be obeyed, but her heart had gone out to Lucifer, just as Max’s had. “Was she old?” Dagger asked. “Old ladies die, and nobody looks after their cats. It’s a bleedin’ disgrace. Dogs is always safe, because they’re too stupid to manage on their own, but a cat’s got to look out for his self.

” “Dagger, the library is two streets from our rooms. If Lucifer is cast out, he will eventually toddle back to us, probably two stone heavier.” “You’re being unscientific. No cat weighs that much.” Dagger had learned to whip that five-syllable word around as lightly as he skipped down the street at the sight of a watchman. Unscientific was a good modifier, having much applicability in a chaotic and hypocritical world. Dagger would cultivate that term for a time, then move on to another. Max had heard him, late at night, slowly pronouncing any number of learned words. Corollate. Indicate.

Verification. Variability. Lovely words. “How old was she?” Dagger asked. “You say the old ones are most likely to take pity on a miserable cat, but Miss Antonia doesn’t sound like a white-haired name.” The scent of baking bread wafted up the street, and though Max knew the notion was ridiculous—the bakery was a commercial enterprise—the smell brought a sense of homecoming. “Miss Antonia has decades of life yet to enjoy,” Max said, “if the Deity is merciful.” “Which He seldom is. What sort of Deity sends us weather like this and then tells us we’re to have a holiday while we freeze and starve?” Max turned down the alley. “When better to celebrate an occasion that reminds us to be kind and generous, than in the darkest week of winter?” That was the answer his brother-in-law Daniel might have offered, but then, Daniel was former clergy and a happily married man who, unlike Max, enjoyed the company of children.

“Fetch the day-olds,” Max said, passing Dagger a coin. “And now that Lucifer is settled, we can start looking for a home for Beelzebub.” “Right-o. Day-old bread, coming right up, and after Yuletide we can start looking for a library for Beelz.” Sorry, my boy. “Beelz will soon be too hearty a specimen to pluck at anybody’s heartstrings, Dagger. We will find him a new home in the next week.” The library on Constable Lane was large enough to keep a cat happy, and the Thursday through Saturday librarian was a lovely aging Scotswoman who knew more about whiskey distillation than any old dear ought to. “Next week? That’s too soon. We just got him, and he’s great friends with Hannibal, and Edward likes him, and why next week?” The boy kicked a pile of slush, spreading cold and wet in every direction.

Once upon a time, Max had been an angry boy, then he’d been given a copy of Newton’s Principia, and anger had faded into curiosity and wonder. “Next week, Dagger, because people are at their most charitable as the holidays approach. The shopkeepers are being paid for a year’s worth of custom, the preachers are encouraging us to be generous. The streets are full of carols and kindness. Beelz is shy. He’ll need a patient librarian who doesn’t give up on the fussy patron. Next week is his best chance.” Dagger left off murdering the slush pile. “I hate this. Why do we always have to give them away?” “We don’t give them away like a pair of old boots.

We find them respectable addresses and good company. The libraries get safety from mice, the cats earn good homes. We can’t take them all in, Dagger. We’ve had this discussion. If you’d seen Lucifer, cuddled in Miss Antonia’s arms, rubbing his head on her chin. ” Dagger wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Like that, was it? Flirting with her?” “Not flirting.” Max hadn’t been able to watch it, whatever it was. “Getting acquainted, settling in. Making a new friend.

Letting me know he’d handle matters on his own from now on.” The boy’s shoulders slumped. “Least old Lucifer can be respectable.” Not so, a climbing boy who’d grown too large for his occupation. “Keep working on your vocabulary—your words—and you can be respectable, too.” If you’ll just stop with the thievery. “Best get the day-olds before they’re all gone.” “My vo-cab-u-lar-y.” Dagger took off up the narrow space between the bakery and the neighboring pub. His penchant for stealing puzzled Max, because by an urchin’s standards, Dagger was well provided for.

He slept in the warmth of the inglenook beside Max’s hearth. He had enough to eat. He had clothes to wear and boots on his feet. And yet, an inventory of Dagger’s pockets at the end of the day had become necessary. He’d taken to snatching monogrammed handkerchiefs from the coats of dandies. Many talks, and the exercise of returning three stolen handkerchiefs to the various victims, hadn’t stopped the habit. Max climbed the steps to his rooms and unlocked the door. Leaving the cats at their new homes was hard, coming home to the remaining members of the household was harder. Hannibal stropped himself around Max’s boots, though the cat’s eyes held a question. One-eyed Edward, who was curled up in a basket on the hearth, had been through the drill often enough to treat Max to the worst hurt of all, utter indifference.

Shy Beelzebub peeked out from under the sofa, while the three others gazed at Max expectantly. “Lucifer won’t be coming back.” Talking to cats was unscientific in the extreme; ergo, Max was talking to himself. “He’s found a good home. He’ll be better off, and his leaving makes a place for another here. Dagger will doubtless start searching tomorrow.” Hannibal squinted up at him. “She’s pretty, she’s young, she’s kind,” Max went on, “and if the library won’t have him, Miss Antonia will.” Max hoped. Spinsters were a self-possessed lot, much like cats but not half so prone to purring.

That she was Miss Antonia at her age, not Miss Smith or Miss Whoever, suggested an even older unmarried sister. In some families, that meant the younger sisters waited in vain for a match, or perhaps in her case, they contented themselves with the company of books. Beelzebub and Hannibal touched noses, and Hannibal joined Beelzebub under the couch. “Fine, then,” Max said, unwrapping his scarf and trailing it slowly over the carpet. “I’ll check on him next week, only because you insist and only the once.” Edward yawned, stretched, and squinted at Max out of his one good eye, then joined the other two under the couch. Max suffered an unaccountable urge to go back to the library and check on Lucifer at that very moment, but that would set no sort of example for Dagger. He tossed his scarf onto a peg behind the door and added half a bucket of coal to the fire.

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