"Around my neck, you think?"
"Perfect," Roderick said, and draped them there. "You’re gorgeous."
Hildegarde blushed, briefly. Then she said, "I’ll go through the undercroft and up the steps to the narthex. I’m not too late, am I?"
They all listened. There were still footsteps moving down the aisle. "No," said Ignatious. "But better hurry!"
They followed Hildegarde as she made her way, head held high, up the steps. The final participants in the procession were just starting down the aisle: a pair of perfectly matched standard poodles, parading on either side of a woman who held a leash in each hand.
"Nobody’s leaving after the blessing," Ignatious pointed out to Hildegarde in a worried voice, "except the pony—they took the pony outside. But everyone else is sitting in the pews! Birds and bunnies and dogs—and cats! Lots and lots of cats!"
"Oh, do be careful, dear," Roderick said, wringing his paws.
Hildegarde waited until the pair of poodles was halfway down the aisle. Impulsively she kissed Roderick on his cheek, just where his whiskers began. Then she took a deep breath. And solemnly, slowly, majestically, she began to walk.
No one noticed.
Father Murphy continued:
"Dear Lord, keep us mindful that we are
all Thy creation, that we share this earth
and its bounty…" He leaned down and blessed the poodles, one at a time.
Next he picked up the container of holy oil and recorked it. Then he began to conclude the prayer:
"…and that man and Thy creatures can
live in peace with one another…" "Look!" called out a very little boy wearing corduroy overalls. He stood up in a pew, and with one pudgy finger pointed to the floor of the center aisle. There was a stir in the congregation. People looked where the child was indicating. Several stood. One lady said "Eeek" very softly. But most smiled.
Hildegarde continued walking at an even and reverent pace. Very carefully, so as not to disturb her gumdrop, she turned her head slowly from side to side and nodded at the members of the congregation.
A low, rumbling sound began.
Father Murphy, confused at first by the sudden murmurs from the parishioners, as well as the odd rumbling noise, looked up, then around, and finally down. Hildegarde was standing in front of him now. With a broad smile, he reached down gently and picked her up.
It was terrifying. To be within a human hand! Had it ever happened to a mouse before? But Hildegarde breathed deeply and fought off her fear. She had, after all, in the past few days, led a successful exodus of more than two hundred mice to Outdoors and saved them all from the Great X. She had kissed dear old Roderick for the very first time. And on top of that, she had rescued Lucretia, which had been not at all easy!
He was holding her high up and looking at her with amused blue eyes. Trevor Fisoli had begun to play the introductory chords to the final hymn. But no one had opened a hymnal. They were all watching Father Murphy and Hildegarde. The organ music slowed and stopped, but the rumbling noise continued.
"Did you steal that gumdrop out of my drawer?" Father Murphy asked in a suspicious voice.
"Yes," she squeaked guiltily. "I have done those things which I ought not to have done."
"And those gold threads? From my chasuble, aren’t they?"
"I’m sorry," she squeaked.
He hesitated. Then he whispered, "If I leave the green gumdrops for you, will you stay out of my chocolates?"
That was easy. Chocolate always stuck to her whiskers. "Yes, I promise," she squeaked firmly.
"What is that sticky mess on your tail?" he asked her.
She gulped. "Cushion stuffing and holy oil," she squeaked. Then she corrected her terminology. "Chrism."
He looked at her for a long time.
Finally he spoke again. "There are more of you, aren’t there?"
She couldn’t lie to him. "Two hundred and nineteen, " she whispered. "Not counting me."
Father Murphy’s eyes widened. Then he shook his head, chuckling. He touched her forehead, just below the gumdrop, with his thumb, very gently.
"Bless this mouse," he said in a loud voice to the congregation. "And all mice," he added, more quietly.
Then he placed her carefully on his shoulder. She grasped the embroidered fabric of his chasuble and pulled herself upright so that she could look out at the crowd. She felt very grand.
The muted rumble continued, and Hildegarde realized, suddenly, what it was. It was the happy purr of many cats, in unison.
"Hymn number two eighty-seven," Father Murphy announced. The organ struck a chord, and his parishioners stood and began to sing.
"For all the saints, who from their labors rest…"
Hildegarde didn’t know the words, but she was able to join in on the chorus when the music swelled. She could tell that Trevor was using the expression pedal, just above her sleeping nest.
"Alleluia," she sang. "Alleluia!"