It was a warm autumn day. The sun was slanting through the trees in the orchard and the smell of ripe apples filled the air. It was story time and Hamish and Iona were lounging in the garden armchairs whilst Mum read them “Jennings and Darbishire”, a stirring tale set in a boys boarding school some time in a distant past when caps were worn and “spiffing” was a real word. Hamish had happened upon the book when nosing through Great Uncle Walter’s bookshelves. Walter was a sharp little diamond of a man, twinkling, but with an edge of danger. Once upon a time he had lived on a remote Scottish island as a farmer but now he lived with Auntie Lois, an American artist, in snug a little cottage in the Highlands. Walter spent his days poking the fire and telling the most tremendous stories – all of which were completely true – even Lois said so.
“Take it dear boy, do” Walter had said “I recall your father was rather fond of Jennings when he was a lad…”
The thought of Dad ever being a lad was alarming, but Hamish had resolved to give it a try and had presented the book to Mum as his contribution to story time. Hamish was rather enjoying the tale of rough and tumble and beginning to think that boarding school might be excellent. Iona felt it was all rather silly. “Don’t be ridiculous” she had replied to this idea “you couldn’t take Lily or Pingu or Dobby or the Coos or the Aunties or, or, anything……” she had huffed. Lily, who was snuggled up at Hamish’s feet, looked up hearing her name. Hamish ruffled her hair reassuringly. For once, Iona had a good point.
“ Jennings grabbed Ponsonby by the pyjama legs and wrestled him down and Darbishire snatched up the pilchard tin….” said Mum, in her best story telling small boy voice.
“What’s a pilchard Mum?” interrupted Iona.
“Its a little fish, smaller than a sardine – I think people used to eat them on toast.” Dobby, lounging on the pergola, pricked up his ears at the mention of fish and peered down at the group.
“Eurgh” Iona wrinkled her nose. Mum frowned and continued.
“’Pax, Pax’ shouted Ponsonby”
“I wouldn’t eat a single pilchard, and certainly not packs of them” declared Iona.
“Not that sort of packs” Mum said. “Pax is a latin word (that’s the language the Romans used) that means peace. So Ponsonby is calling for a truce, that means to stop fighting….”
Hamish sighed. Mum was big on the Romans….
“…and the Pax Romana was the big truce over all of the Roman Empire that meant all the different countries in the Empire stopped fighting each other and ……”
“Muuuum” moaned Hamish.
Mum sighed, for she was about as keen on Jennings and his chums as Iona was, and turned again to the book.
Realising that no fish were going to materialise, Snuffy stretched, yawned and slinked off to make his afternoon patrol of the garden. Pingu joined him and they padded companionably through the orchard together. “Shame they’ve mowed the meadow grass ain’t it” Pingu declared sadly. Hiding in the grass for unwary mice was his favourite thing. Snuffy was about to reply when, with a noise like a rusty hinge, a large red bird half flew, half trotted across the path followed by two rather dumpy birds, one with dazzling bright red legs.
“Afternoon Colour Sergeant Harry, ladies, what’s the rush?” asked Snuffy.
Harry was a rather wily old pheasant. He would spend the early part of the autumn hanging around the pens where the young pheasants were being raised, muscling them out of the way to get to the corn. When the shooting season started, he would stroll over to Ruthven and eat the windfalls, safe from the hunters. His travelling companions were two lady partridges, Ethel and Albertine. Realising, after a first rather bruising encounter, that Harry and the ladies were too big to tackle, Snuffy had enlisted them as a part time recruits to the Ruthven brigade. Harry, on account of his showy feathers, was a colour sergeant and Ethel and Albertine formed a highly effective bomber squadron.
Harry and Ethel were too out of breath from their sprint to reply but Albertine clucked dramatically in Partridge French and pointed a red leg down to the field.
“Seems to be a bit of a commotion going on down there” Pingu commented. The coos had formed a circle in the corner by the gate, where the Aunties were perched on the top of the fence squalking and waving their wings.
“I say there you girls”
Snuffy sprang lightly onto the compost bin by the gate and meowed loudly to attract the coos’ and the Aunties’ attention.
“What’s all this ruckus?”
“FFFFFox” squalked the Aunties in unison.
Cowering in the corner of the field, looking up nervously at the long horns and stern expressions of Shuna Spurtle and her highland cow sisters, was a young fox.
“He’s only a youngster sir” said Pingu. “Looks confused – permission to approach”
Dobby nodded and Pingu shimmied under the gate and over to the trembling fox cub.
“Now what’s all this then?” he asked gently.
“Sad tale, sad tale” Pingu muttered as he squeezed back under the gate. “Mother’s been shot. Den on the edge of a shooting wood apparently, not safe to go back till the end of the shooting season. Doesn’t know what to do – just a lad – names Wilf by the way.”
Snuffy sighed. Pingu was really rather a soft touch. But he did have a point – It was hardly sporting shooting a fellow’s mother. Snuffy had little time for hunters, blundering through the undergrowth banging and clattering and disturbing the mice. You never saw them climb a tree or squeeze through a hedge – no effort at a decent pursuit – they just stood there in their wellies, waving their noisy sticks.
“What we need” Snuffy declared, is a “Pax Ruthviana”.
“Roman idea dontcherknow” Snuffy explained “the ones that wore sheets and sandals. Wonderful army, wonderful tacticians…”
He looked up at a circle of blank faces and sighed.
“Harry you and the ladies are here for the season to keep away from the Hunters yes?.”
Harry peeked out from behind the quince bush and clucked his agreement and, from their perches in the pear tree, Ethel and Albertine nodded.
“Well young Wilf here is in much the same boat. So it seems to me that if young Wilf agrees to keep the peace and not trouble you or the Aunties, we might let him stay just for the shooting season. What do you say?”
There was a deal of chucking and squalking as the birds conferred but, after a while, Harry stepped forward and nodded cautiously.
“Wilf, do you hear, you can stay if you agree to leave the birds alone”
“And the rabbets in the compost heap warren and the hedgehogs on the track…” added Mum, who had strolled down to see what was going on (She was fluent in both cat and fox). Snuffy shuddered briefly – it was unnerving when she did that. Like watching a bird catch a mouse somehow…
After a momentary pause, Snuffy continues, fixing Wilf with a gimlet stare.
“Shuna and the girls will keep an eye on you Wilf, and report back to me if there’s any trouble.” The four sisters nodded and Catriona the 23rd waggled her horns and snorted for extra emphasis.
Wilf gulped and nodded.
“Excellent” Pingu declared. “We can start you off as a corporal and see how it goes. Follow me Wilf………..quick smart”
Mum bent down and stroked Snuffy behind the ears.
“Definitely deserving of fish for tea, you old softie”