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Off Rats!

The late, the very late surgeon of HMS Surprise was propelled solicitously but impatiently into the wardroom, like a tardy relative being urged into church just ahead of the bride-to-be. The cabin door barely had time to bounce before Captain Aubrey entered, resplendent, frowning, but exactly on time as required by the immemorial custom of the service (with due allowance for the imponderables of wind, tide and his surgeon).

Stephen, abashed, sat meekly and did not feel able to offer an observation till the arrival of the pie, an unfamiliar dish that was announced as Beef Skinner. 'I find that this is named in the naval, or should we say nautical, manner, like the spotted dog which contains no dog, or boiled baby which contains no infant.'

Jack allowed that Beef Skinner was a common recourse of vessels far from port whose stores needed to be supplemented – to be beefed up – Jack's eyes crinkled as he repeated the point – beefed up with nontraditional livestock. 'In short, it is made with rats.Though pigeons have also been known to provide satisfactory results for Beef Skinner.'

Stephen asked how many creatures were used and how were they prepared. Jack, mollified by the fine meal and the success of his jest, replied. 'In the traditional receipt the magic number of millers is 7 plus or minus 2, but I cannot recall more than that.'

The image of a trapped rodent raised a question in Jack's mind. 'Killick, Killick there! Wasn't your cousin in the business?' Killick conceded that his aunt's lad Critchley had been employed at the Royal Opera as rat-catcher and providore to the gentry. Indeed, the technique of Opera Rat Conditioning was renowned as a source of game subjects for Beef Skinner.

The Beef Skinner devoured and the bordeaux going down gratefully, the wardroom felt it had permission to unbutton its waistband and indulge in facetious speculation about other eponymous dishes the essential constituent of which could be filet de rat – Beef Strogonov? Steak Diane? Steak Chateaubriand? Oh ha, ha, ha. Fettucine Alfredo? No, that would just be silly.

Jack, who could never hold more than four things in his mind at the one time and didn't wish to reinforce such behaviour, absented himself from the conversation to pursue the teasing memory of a well-fed rat in a ruff singing " ‎Vesti la giubba" to an appreciative circle of its fellows on the orlop. He shook his head and turned his attention to Stephen who was conversing with Martin on the application to Opera Rat Conditioning of the inheritance theories of M. de Lamarck. "The proper study" he suggested "of mankind is rats."

Meanwhile, down among the cables

, Killick was indulging in a little wink. The expression was calculated to win over Surprise's newest young gentlemen, but the effect was anything but ingratiating. The mids looked even more alarmed as the captain's servant leered and waved the remains of the Beef Skinner at them. 'Ere it is mates, wittles, tasty wittles for them as keep their eyes and ears open and share what they sees and hears with their shipmate Killick. Wittles for news, wittles for news,' he crooned, 'especially anything what you hear about the captain's

casting call for The Ratcatcher? While you are rehearsing you might overhear something about how those old auditions are coming along." Killick crooned again. He really had rather a nice mezza voce. "Have another slice of pie".

The squeakers, being naturals for the vermin, had needed no auditioning for the projected HMS Surprise production of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a Grand Opera in Five Acts". Jack had taken on the bass role of Hunebold Snegwurf, Mayor of Hamelin and Conroy, an absurdly beautiful young topman, had already been cast as Blondehilde, the mayor's lovely daughter. Speculation ran rife about the casting of the remaining parts, including Heribert von Gruwelf (tenor), in love with Blondehilde, and the Pied Piper (baritone). Killick had swiped a German flute from the Wardroom and been practising his fingers to the bone.

The more musical among the actual rats

fled to the hold as Lieutenant Burnfield's heroic tenor rang out on deck. He was dead set on the role of von Gruwelf – after all, he was exceedingly attached to beer and sausages and his Aunt Lettuce had once owned a German Shepherd – and he had conceived the idea that he could demonstrate his prowess by delivering his orders in recitative.
"Oh handy bosun!" he chanted, waving a hand in that gentleman's direction. "Pray pipe all our worthy hands to dinner, dee-dum!" This last was in a plinky-plonky tone, as he sorely felt the absence of a harpsichord on deck.
Unfortunately, Burnfield confused loudness with excellence and

his performance was noted with pursed-lipped disapproval in the dining-cabin, which had been cleared for action in the form of a contest of musical performance, Mowett currently at the crease.

Mowett gazed off into the poetic firmament, which appeared to be located above the quarter gallery and at this moment was the domain of a surprised-looking rat. With a 'who, me?' expression the rat fled to join its mates in the relative quiet of the orlop, and Mowett began to recite.

The Devil went down to Pompey
A soul he was looking for to press
His numbers were down
For none in the town
Had lost the number of his mess.

The Devil came upon a young cove playing on a viol and playing it true
So he jumped up on the taffrail, made a leg and said, "How d'ye do?"

"Now you play an elegant fiddle, young sir, but give the Devil his due
I'll bet a fiddle of gold against your soul, for I want you in my crew.

The mid said "My name's Aubrey, and mayhap it is a sin
But damn your eyes, I'll take this prize, for I am an Englishman.

Mowett carried on in this vein at some length, at times narrowly clawing off lee shores theological, professional and literary. The poem ended with the young Aubrey carrying off the prize, an outcome only to be expected if, as seemed likely, the Devil were a Frenchman.

Stephen said that it was a remarkably rounded piece, encompassing the nautical, the musical, the poetical, and, at times, the diabolical. Mowett generously deflected all praise, saying that he got the idea from Daniels, second of the Nashville.

"Ermmmmm"', agreed Mr Martin, (stage manager and casting director for the proposed music drama). I think I know where Mr. Mowett may have gone wrong. A simple case of turning up for an audition too soon after the great guns exercise – I've known many examples of it – and mishearing, "Grand Opera" as "Grand Old Opry.".. please, please, Lieutenant, no need for tears. All is not lost. If you will just re-interpret your conception of the role of Pied Piper... Cast your mind back to 1284...

All round the table, his fellow officers, to encourage Mowett, joined him in ferocious concentration – all travelling back in time to the late thirteenth century....

Preserved Killick disgruntled his way out of the wardroom to tell sails to belay the stripey daks. "Re-interpret my .... while I toil and moil away at my recitatives dee-dum..."

He restored a square of toasted cheese, no longer so very warm and appetising, to its scrap of sailcloth and thrust the whole into a pocket. It had been intended as a customary gift, not as who should say a bribe, for the casting director, to show that Killick was an agreeable performer who certainly knew his Germans.

As he passed by, humming angrily, an interested snout turned to follow the redolent packet already beginning to stain Killick's lederhosen. The rat sniffed, twitched, took a step or two into the light, and then set off in Killick's wake, followed a moment later by another of his fellows.


Grumpily (but seductively) Killick opened his mouth, adjusted his epiglottis, and gave full-throated Teutonic voice to the aria whose performance had been denied him:

Ich bin der wohlbekannte Sänger,
Der vielgereiste RRRRRattenfänger,
Den diese altberühmte Stadt
Gewiß besonders nötig hat.
Und wären's RRRRRatten noch so viele,
Und wären Wiesel mit im Spiele,
Von allen säubr' ich diesen Ort,
Sie müssen miteinander forrrtttttt"!!!!

I am the well-known singer,
the widely-travelled rat-catcher,
of whom this old, famous city
certainly has an especial need.
And even if the rats are very numerous,
and even if there are weasels in the picture,
of each and every one I'll clear this place;
they must all go away.

He rounded the aria up in fine seaman-like style with a flourish on the German flute, whipped the cheese out of the pocket of his lederhosen and consigned it resentfully to the deep.

The echoes of the tootling died away... and eerie little scurrying noises could be heard, then tiny plonks succeeded by gurgles as scores of enchanted rats followed the cheese over the side and sank forever beneath the waves. Or so they say.

Have you had enough? The End?

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