Mumsy Abigail sat on an overturned pail by the fire in ‘Cuffs, holding a cup of whiskey.
“It works better than the dreadful tea given to me by the physician,” she explained when Sky asked what she took to ease her aching joints.
The Melniks were perched on the mantle making conversation with her, the Clockwinder and Mr. Arnold about how they were getting along in the cold. The liquor had been given to her in lieu of tea when she entered the establishment, at first to her chagrin since that old drunkard Ezra was there at the time. He was complimentary toward her, as always, and she repaid him with scorn, also as always. After a few minutes, the liquor warmed her belly and soothed her pain, and her sympathies thawed for him. Fortunately he wandered out the door without a word before she had an opportunity to embarrass herself by saying something kind.
Not that she would admit it.
After some time Scottie asked Mr. Arnold about Emerson and his party. “Anyone heard from our intrepid explorers?”
“No,” Arnold responded. “I haven’t heard from him. Only a rumor.”
Immediately Sky inquired, “What’s the rumor?”
Arnold responded plainly, without emotion. “That he died.”
The room fell silent for a few moments as everyone, including Mumsy Abigail, looked at him.
“I think you must have heard incorrectly, cat,” she said, while evaluating him with skepticism.
Scottie broke the tension. “I believe that’s wishful thinking on your part. Not a rumor.”
“No, I heard it just fine,” Arnold said in his defense. “But it was just a rumor. I haven’t talked to the ship captains yet.”
Mumsy harrumphed and Sky waved her hand dismissively. “They’ll be fine,” Sky said.
Arnold shrugged. “Probably.”
“Emerson certainly seems the type to be able to take care of himself,” Scottie added.
Mumsy spoke irritably. “Fortunately, Mr. Lighthouse and my niece have competent people with them.”
“And certainly Lapis fits that,” Scottie said, with Sky adding her agreement right away.
After a moment, Arnold spoke again. “I’m not sure Emerson can take care of himself, so much that the universe somehow seems out to do it for him.”
What followed was a philosophical discussion of the nature of luck in New Babbage, which didn’t interest the old woman. She verified Arnold’s intention to arrive at Ruthorford House the following morning at 5 am, and bid everyone a good night. As she shuffled home she pondered the rumor imparted by Arnold. Could it be true? Were they lost? Although she had hedged her bets, she wished her niece no ill. For all the trials she had set against the younger woman, she had often been surprised by her resiliency and willful refusal to be intimidated.
A smirk came to her face as she thought about it. She’s more like me than she’d like to admit, she thought. What a surprise it will be to her as she grows as old and crooked.
Mumsy had no doubt that her niece would grow old. For all the ridiculous things Junie had done in her life, she had always rebounded and gone looking for more. In a way, Mumsy was envious. She had spent a better part of her life in mourning rather than looking toward the future, and now the years were behind her. It was too late for her now, which is why she came to enjoy a vicarious interest in Junie’s often-bumbling efforts to live freely.
Not that she would admit it.
* * *
Over breakfast tea, Mumsy Abigail handed a slip of paper to Arnold.
“Your instructions for the day, cat. I trust that your duties at Mr. Lighthouse’s estate are not keeping you too busy to complete them.”
“All I had to do today was look into a few of his accounts and ‘sing’ a lullaby to the monkey again,” Arnold replied flatly, and he took the paper.
The list read as follows:
- Disassemble the drunken snowman in the courtyard
- Shovel and salt the walk
- Fetch four buckets of coal from the roof
- Deliver a letter to Mr. Palmer
- Bring down Juniper’s books and extra blankets from upstairs
- Deliver the blankets to Ezra Crumb
- Obtain the following:
- four cans of vole milk
- one round of vole cheese
- a bacon-stretcher
- one cup of benzene ash
- white lampblack
- two bottles of bourbon
- Frighten away the rats hiding around the foundation
- Shovel a path into the cemetery gate
Arnold blinked and read the list again a few times. He was sure that he could complete most of the things on the list without that much difficulty, but he was unsure of a few things. “What’s benzene ash and white lampblack?” he asked Mumsy. “And do bacon-stretchers even exist?”
The old woman looked at him but made no answer.
“I can check an apothecary for the first two, and there’s a butcher shop for the ‘bacon stretcher’ if it even exists.” Arnold doubted that it did. “But I don’t know where to find your…Palmer at the moment. His so called ‘office’ is nowhere to be found.”
“Where did you find him last time?” she asked. “ Would it not stand to reason that you would find him in the same location again? As for the rest, I expect you to figure it out. If I only needed fetching I could pay an urchin much more cheaply. Use your brain, cat.”
Mumsy sipped her tea neatly and then paused. Seeing Arnold still sitting in front of her, watching her expectantly, she waved her hand as if shooing him away. “Well? What are you waiting for?” she asked irritably. “Go!”
* * *
((Thanks, Arnold, for helping with this; also to Emerson and Sky for review!))