"STOP IT!" Hildegarde ordered him angrily.
Harvey retreated, sulking, into the bushes.
The adults ignored him. "Read the rest, about the glue boards," Ignatious said in a worried voice.
"It doesn’t say anything else. Just the number, and the price."
"What number?" asked Roderick. "How many?"
Hildegarde peered at the paper again. "Fifty-two," she told them.
Ignatious gave an oof sound, as if he’d been punched in the belly. "Fifty-two glue boards!" he said gloomily. "How on earth can we deal with that?"
Hildegarde had risen to stand on her back legs. Her tail steadied her. She was silent for a moment, in that commanding position. Then she said to Ignatious and Roderick (but not to Harvey, who had scampered off through the foliage, doing fake skateboard moves), "I have an idea. I think I know exactly what to do."
Hildegarde gave instructions to Ignatious and Roderick in a firm, decisive voice. "Spread the word," she said. "Immediately! I want fifty-two volunteers. I need the bravest and strongest among us. Line them up right here. As soon as possible. There is no time to lose!"
"Must they all be male?" Roderick asked. "There’s that very strong pair of females: Trina and Jean. They’re always doing pushups."
"They’d be perfect. Male, female, doesn’t matter. Trina and Jean will be fine. Strong! And brave! That’s what we want.
"Get going! We don’t have much time!" She shooed Ignatious and Roderick off on their mission.
Within ten minutes, fifty-two strong, brave mice—including Trina, Jean, and several other females—had lined up to await instructions from Hildegarde. She moved among them, explaining, gesturing, describing, encouraging.
"Could we help, Hildegarde?" Roderick asked. "Ignatious and I … I know we’re not young. Maybe not strong! But we’re brave! Aren’t we, Ignatious?" He looked over at the elderly, scholarly mouse.
Ignatious cleared his throat self-consciously. "Well, I try to be, of course. I do enjoy reading about great bravery. Goodness, once in the university library, I nibbled at the edges of a list of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, and I remember thinking, What if I found myself…" His voice trailed off. Then he said in a soft voice, "No. I’m not brave. Sorry."
"You’re wise, Ignatious. That’s important, too," Hildegarde said, to comfort him, for he looked quite embarrassed and sad. "And you, Roderick? I need you here with me and Ignatious. We must count the numbers who return."
"Who return?" Roderick asked. "You mean—?"
"That’s right. We may lose some brave souls tonight." She turned to the crowd of waiting mice. "Volunteers?"
Fifty-two enthusiastic squeaks responded to her. "It’s time," she told them. "You all have your instructions. Do your best! Do your duty! Our prayers are with you! Now go!"
Moving in silence now, with no squeaks, no farewells, the fifty-two brave mice turned and marched in line toward Saint Bartholemew’s.
One Mouse Is Missing!
An hour passed. Then two. The cemetery was silent except for small squeaks of conversation here and there. Most of the church mice were unaware of the mission. They were simply waiting for the meeting that Hildegarde was to call, waiting to hear final instructions before their return to the church where they had lived all their lives. They chatted among themselves, recounting what they had done during their two-day vacation in the Outdoors. There had been some close calls. One mouse had barely escaped the talons of a swooping hawk; another had encountered a snake and scampered quickly away. A third had been munching on a bouquet of asters when a woman appeared quite unexpectedly with a watering can and doused him while he cowered, hidden only by a leaf. One by one they described their adventures and praised each other’s outdoor courage.
But in the mossy crevice at the base of the statue, Hildegarde, Roderick, and Ignatious waited silently, with increasing apprehension. They had no way to know the time, but they watched clouds cross the moon, and the shadows lengthened around them. Not far off, an owl called. But they ignored it; an owl was nothing to them now. They had far larger concerns.
"What if none of them returns safely?" Roderick whispered at last.
"Some will, surely. We knew some might perish. That was the risk. But certainly some will get back here." Hildegarde tried to reassure him, though she was herself very frightened. She had been Mouse Mistress for a long time. But never before had she had to send some of her best, most valued mice into a life-threatening situation.
"Want me to go look?" Ignatious asked. "I could just go to the cemetery edge and see if there’s any sign of them."
Hildegarde sighed. "No, the others will see you and start asking questions. We’ll just stay here. Wait! What’s that sound?" She stood on tiptoe and parted the ferns. Through the dark of the cloudy night, she squinted and could see shrubbery moving. She could see a familiar-looking ear. Her nose and tail both twitched. "Marvin?" she whispered loudly. Then she turned to the others. "I think it’s Marvin!"
Indeed it was he. Marvin had been one of the fifty-two volunteers. Now he stumbled forward, panting, and collapsed in the little mossy glade. He looked completely exhausted. But his whiskers were vibrating triumphantly. "We did it!" he whispered.
"All fifty-two? Are you all safe?" Hildegarde’s heart was beating rapidly.
"Not sure," he told her. "I finished first and there wasn’t time to check on everyone. But most were right behind me, I know. Listen!"
They could hear the approaching mice now, and could tell from the stumbling sound of the small paws that they were no longer marching warriors. They were spent. Depleted. Breathing hard. Some even whimpering. But one after another they appeared and reported in. In a few minutes the area at the base of the statue was crowded with sprawled, panting church mice.
"Count them!" Hildegarde instructed Ignatious and Roderick.
"One, two, three…" She could hear them muttering the numbers as they moved among the heaps of heavy-breathing mice. "Twenty-nine, thirty…"
Finally they came back to her. "Fifty-one," Ignatious reported. "Maybe I counted wrong," he added, uncertainly. "I’m getting old."
Then Roderick returned, looking sad. "Fifty-one," he said. "I counted twice. I’m sorry."
"Who’s missing?" Hildegarde felt she must ask, though she didn’t want to hear the answer.
"Trina," they said together.
Oh, no! It couldn’t be! Brave, strong Trina! Hildegarde leapt to her feet and strode out among the recovering mice. "Who saw Trina last? Where was she?" she demanded.
Many didn’t know. "It was so confusing in there! I couldn’t tell one mouse from another!" one said. "So dangerous!" added another. "And dark!" several murmured.
"Jean?" Hildegarde asked. "Where’s Jean?"
"She’s over here," someone called. She followed the voice. Mice pointed with their paws, and she found Jean huddled on the edge of the crowd, weeping.
"Did you see her caught in a glue trap?" Hildegarde asked Jean. She was remembering that Ignatious said there was a way—a difficult way—to rescue one mouse from a glue trap. He had even described the method to her. It sounded awful.
Jean shook her head. "No. She was so careful! She didn’t get caught in a trap."
"Where did you see her last, then?"
"She was right behind me. We were all finished, and we were headed out to return here, but—" She lowered her head and sobbed slightly.
"She went back! She said she had remembered one important thing we should do! And before I could stop her, she scurried back! I thought she’d catch up, but…" Jean looked up and peered around the group in the darkness. "She didn’t make it, did she?"
"She hasn’t made it yet, that’s all!" Hildegarde patted Jean on the head. "Listen, all of you!" she called. Regaining their strength gradually, the mice looked up toward her.
"We have several hours of night left," she told them. "I’m going to look for Trina. If the sky begins to lighten—"
"Yes?" they asked.
"That’s the time that all of the mice must move back into Saint Bartholemew’s. If I’m not back, then…" She looked over at her two friends. "Roderick and Ignatious will call for the gathering and give instructions. Then they’ll lead you back in."
"Excuse me?" A haughty voice came from the nearby ferns. "I believe I’ll be the one to do that!"
"Don’t count on it, Lucretia!" Hildegarde told her. Then she dashed as fast as she could to the church, to find and perhaps rescue Trina.
After wriggling in under the door and entering the narthex, Hildegarde paused and listened. No sound. "Trina?" she called, in as loud a squeak as she could manage.
She tiptoed forward, listening. Down the center aisle of the nave. There would be no traps there, no poison. This was the place where the congregation walked, the humans, looking for their seats each Sunday morning.
The traps would be elsewhere, she knew, for the Great X chose carefully the places where mice (pests! rodents!) would be. There would be glue traps in all the obvious places: under the sink, in the sexton’s closet, oh, all the rest of their favorite haunts. Hildegarde sighed. There was so little time left. She must find Trina, likely stuck, glued into place (maybe
her tiny sweet mouth was glued and that’s why she could give no cry for help!), and then attempt to do the rescue procedure—so very difficult!—that Ignatious had described.
But where to look first? She scampered down the aisle, turned right at the chancel, and hurried through the south transept. Then, from the dark hallway, she heard, suddenly, a small noise from Father Murphy’s office. She froze. Surely the priest would not be here, in the middle of the night!
The sound came again. A small huffing of breath, then a click. Hildegarde scurried to the office door and found it slightly ajar. She peeked inside. There was the telephone book, on top of the desk. She could see it in the moonlight. The framed photograph of Father Murphy’s mother. The stacked magazines.
Click. "There! Got it!" squeaked a tiny voice. She recognized it, with enormous relief, as Trina’s.
"Trina?" she called.
"Over here!" Trina called back. "Is that you, Hildegarde? What are you doing here? I’m on the first shelf, by the crossword puzzle book!"
Hildegarde remembered that book. Father Murphy often paused between appointments and worked on a puzzle. Quickly she scurried across the carpeting and made her way up, clinging to the draperies, to the shelf, where she found Trina tugging at a small plastic box.
"What on earth are you doing? We’re all frantic about you!"
"They left things a bit of a mess in here," Trina explained. "Of course it was awfully hard, and there was so little time. Jeremiah got the card box open"—she gestured to the box, the lid to which she had just clicked into place—"and he gave out the cards. Fifty-two, just like you said. He saved one for himself, of course. I got the queen of diamonds," she added.