“I believe,” sayt I, setting down the fat rat I carried, “that I was too hastie in my first reading of my uncle’s Will. I’ve seen now that he was most desirous for you to have a rat, even though you sought no fee from him.”
Linkin scarce looked at it. I feared he was still offended with me.
“Caught this very morn,” sayt I. “In the malthouse. A fragrant gift for your mistress.”
Linkin sayt nowt.
“My uncle,” sayt I, “set great store by your friendship. He praised your wisdom many a time. Even when there was none to hear him do it.”
Then I chanced to look up and saw that sly rogue Nero watching from behind the hedge. He narrowed his eyes and turned away, but I knew he’d guessed what I was at. I prayed he’d keep his thoughts to hisself.
Linkin sayt, “My house is turned topsy-turvy. Our bed pulled down before mine eyes, and taken by a carrier.”
“Is your mistress still within?” I arrkst.
“No,” sayt Linkin, distracted. “She rose early.”
(This answer so joyed Nero that he fell on his back and lay with his feet in the air.)
“I mean,” sayt I, “is she still within the house?” I feared I’d come too late and his mistress was gone.
“She’s making baskets ready,” sayt Linkin. “And when I sat in one she spake a wicked word and cast me out the door.”
“Are you not to go with her?” I arrkst, dismayed.
“I believe I shall. She sayt that what she would not entrust to carriers will travel with her. But I never thought to see the day when I’d share a horse with fowl.”
“You’ll go on horseback?” I’d thought there’d be a cart I could slip aboard.
“I told you,” sayt Linkin. “She’s preparing baskets. But what if some calamity befalls us on the way, and I cannot free myself? How can I flee robbers? Our dog Wattie has sworn to protect me. Well, he may talk fierce, but he is little.”
“Courage, friend,” called Nero, slipping through the hedge. “Did not your mistress and her servants win the day when they gave battle in Cambridge-town?”
“That,” sayt Linkin, “was afore I was born. I know no more of it than you do.”
“You know your mistress bought a brace of pistols when all feared the Spanish,” sayt Nero. “Certes, she’ll carry them charged upon her saddle bow. Best you tell her horse not to stumble, else they may discharge theirselves at him. Or you.”
He paused, then sayt, “Now tell me, friend, has your mistress prepared a basket for me?”
I knew Nero arrkst that in jest, but his words set Linkin about. He wants no chamber-fellow.
“What?” cried Linkin. “Would you desert your master, who took you in after your old captain died? You live well in his house. He dropped by not long since with a bag of kitchen-eel [cochineal], and my mistress paid him in good coin.”
“True,” sayt Nero. “We have a box of it that fell from a ship in Portsmouth. And Queen Puss has so much to sell she’s forbid the import of more. That keeps the price high, and us in choice vittles. I thought to make a song of it, but verses on the Perilous Peregrinations of Mrs Quickfire and the Custard Cat will gather more applauds.”
I sayt, in haste, to Linkin, “You came safe here from London. Sure, you can return safe.”
“I was little more than a kitling then,” sayt Linkin. “I kept snug beneath my master’s coat, and we made good speed.”
“Then think not of this tedious journey, but of your destination. Where will you lodge in the citie?”
That cheered him. “I’ve never seen the house,” he sayt, “but I hear ’tis most commodious. And nigh unto the Strand, where noble Essex dwells. My mistress saw him ride by once. He doffed his cap and bent his head to her.”
“Looking at her bubs, most like,” sayt Nero. “Has she not a very fair pair?”
“Well, friend,” sayt I to Linkin, “All shall be sad to see you go. When comes that day?”
“Soon,” sayt Linkin. “If we have fair weather.”
“I’ll bide here till then,” sayt I. “For ’twill grieve me to lose you so close upon my uncle.”
“Ah,” sayt Nero. “Parting is such sweet sorrow. As your uncle once sayt.”
“Didn’t he also say that a cat may whurr and whurr, yet be a villain?” I arrkst Nero.
Then I sayt to Linkin, “Best you offer your mistress this fine rat before Wattie your dog snaps it and wins the praise that should be yours. And then I should like to make the akwayntance of the horse who’ll carry you. Shall Wattie also ride with you?”
Wattie loved to chase me. There was no malice in him; he thought I was his playfellow, but I feared he could end my voyage to the citie before it was begun.
Nero thinks Linkin is over-anxious. Custard Cat may have been a reference to Linkin’s ginger and white fur, but “custard” also meant “coward”. Does anyone else remember the children’s chant of “Cowardy cowardy custard”?
Mind you, Nero had returned a hero from the Earl of Essex’ Islands Voyage the previous year, along with so much cochineal and indigo from captured Spanish cargoes that the market was at risk of being flooded.