Her bedroom at the rear of the inn wasn't dark enough for Josephine Morrison to fall asleep. Lying in a crowded bed between two other women, she tried to slip into the arms of Morpheus but light kept flickering on the walls and ceiling. She'd been this way most of her life--unable to sleep if there were the slightest bit of light in the room. It stemmed from years before when she had been ill and one of her nurserymaids left a small candle burning throughout the night to facilitate checking on the ill child. Josephine had flailed about in her sleep and knocked over the candle. She had yelped in pain--enough to bring in a nurserymaid who quickly extinguished the small fire in the blankets. It was a small thing as fires go, but it made a lasting impression on Josephine. Even as an adult she associated lights at night with fire and that included flickering lights on the wall of her darkened room
Besides the flickering light, the lack of room in the bed was bothersome. Crowded between two strange women, she couldn't find a comfortable position. She'd not been able to afford a room of her own. Ruefully she thought of the drastic changes in her life. Three years earlier, when Josephine was seven and ten, she lost her parents and learned she was penniless. Her parents had left many debts and no provision for her future. After her home was sold to pay off the creditors, she needed a place to live and employment if she were to survive. The alternative was the parish workhouse.
She had few saleable skills. Her education was the best her nurserymaids could provide, but it was uneven. Even though Mr. Carter, the vicar, knew of her spotty education, he hired her as governess for his little girls anyway. Josephine found her position quite enjoyable when she went to live in the vicarage. The little girls were delightful and they all became quite fond of each other. The three were a team, the teacher learning along with the little girls.
Josephine could have gone on this way for several more years but for the older brother, Willy, who at five and ten became increasingly open with his amorous attentions. Mrs. Carter found out and when she took her son to task, he said Josephine was trying to seduce him. Mrs. Carter chose to believe twenty-year-old Josephine sought the favors of a boy five years her junior. Incredible, but there was nothing Josephine could do to change her mind. She had to move on. At least Mrs. Carter hadn't turned her off without a reference. The vicar had insisted on this point at least, even though he hadn't been able to reverse his wife's decision completely.
As Josephine came back to the present in her crowded bed, she thought of the new position she was on her way to secure. There weren't any young men around to cause trouble in this position as companion to a lady of uncertain years. If she arrived by the eighth, as stipulated in the letter she'd received, she should have the position. She clenched her fists in determination to do just that. Closing her eyes again she tried to relax. There wasn't a great deal of noise from below, so that was all right, but the room was airless with the draperies closed. No breeze could stir the air. She was awake, irritated, and hot.
She pushed the covers down as far as she could, considering her two sleeping bedmates, and tried to pull her nightrail away from her overheated body. She couldn't get cool! Her irritation grew at the women on either side of her, not only because their sleeping bodies radiated heat, but also because they were a tangible reference to her poverty. Josephine Morrison, granddaughter of a duke, had barely enough money to buy breakfast in the morning. She couldn't afford a room, so she shared this bed with two other ladies as poor as herself. Josephine had to take the middle position because she was last to arrive. Whenever a muscle cramped or she wanted to get up for any reason, she had to climb over one of the other sleepers. She'd had to do it once when she got up to get a drink of water from the pitcher on the bedside table. This was when she'd peeked out of the window, seen the torches in the backyard, and tried to make the drapery stay closed.
She was also nervous about meeting her new employer tomorrow when she arrived in London. It had been a long trip from Cheltenham; three days on the road. This last stop in Slough was at an inn called Ducks and Drakes, where she was currently lying in wakeful misery unable to sleep. She might as well be sitting up in the chair next to the bed, but it was too much trouble to get up again.
Her thoughts returned to her new position as companion, wondering what her new employer, Lady Montgomery, was like. Would she be kindly and generous in nature or carping and miserly like the vicar's wife had been. Drifting between wakefulness and sleep, she dreamed an oft-repeated dream, one where she was a happy young lady with a loving mother and father who understood her when she was troubled. With this happy thought, she smiled and fell asleep. Despite her circumstances, she slept well.
In the morning, she spent a rather hectic few minutes getting dressed and ready for more travel in a somewhat crumpled traveling dress. With the two other ladies competing for the small mirror, Josephine went downstairs with no real comprehension of how she looked. She faced a breakfast of greasy potatoes and congealed eggs too long from the stove.
Josephine was pleasantly surprised to learn a new passenger had joined her coach for the run from Slough to London. He was a wiry, black haired youngster of about six and ten years who carried a large box, in both hands; baggage he refused to permit the driver to place in the boot. He insisted the box come inside the coach with him. The driver said he would have to pay for a seat for the box, but since Josephine was the only other passenger this morning, his argument was laughed away. Trying to recover his countenance, the coachman asked Josephine if she'd mind having baggage in the carriage with her. Smiling, she replied she didn't mind, providing the box did not contain something dangerous to young ladies traveling to London. The boy introduced himself as Josh Middleton and grinned as he assured her there was no danger to ladies or gentlemen regardless of their destination. He thanked her as he climbed into the carriage and placed the box carefully on the seat next to him.
Josephine introduced herself and after they had laughed a bit at how similar their names were, Josephine asked him if he was stopping over in London or just passing through.
"Oh, rather like passing through. I'm off to join the army on the Peninsula. I'm taking the King's shilling. I'm going to help fight the French." He spoke proudly but quietly.
"Aren't you too young to be joining the army?" Josephine asked in surprise, looking at him more intently. He may be six and ten but he looks younger to me, she thought. He looks no older than three and ten, but people come in different sizes.
"Will they let you join?" she asked, doubtfully.
"Oh yes ma'am, they surely will. A person only needs be but six and ten. All I have to do is report to the Horse Guards at Whitehall and someone there will direct me to where I need to go."
"You sound like you have your mind all made up," Josephine said. "Do your mother and father know what you are doing?"
"They both are aloft," Josh said calmly. "They've been dead since I was seven. I lived with my Aunt Margaret, but when she died there wasn't anyone left of my family. People were talking about two places I could go. The parish poor house was one; the other was as an apprentice to the village blacksmith, where I would live above the shop. Neither plan appealed, Miss Josephine, because the blacksmith is a cruel man, mean to his wife and family. I wouldn't work for him 'less I was in chains. So, I got the idea of joining the army. Everyone thought it a good solution. Some even thought I'd be lucky."
"What do you mean, be lucky? Survive?"
"Well, yes, that too, but what they meant was they hoped I'd be very brave and General Wellington would notice me and promote me to officer rank. Then I'd make enough money to support myself, and get some money back when I sold out. That kind of lucky."
There didn't seem to be any point in pursuing this speculation, so as the carriage rocked its way down the less than perfect road, Josephine asked the question she'd wanted to ask ever since leaving Slough.
"What's in the box, Josh?"
"Well," Josh said, "you will laugh when I tell you because it is the last thing you would imagine to be possessed by someone off to take the king's shilling." He chuckled, opening the top of the box. Mimicking a carnival barker, he put his head back and said dramatically, "I have in this box two of the finest rabbits in England. On the left is Agatha, and on the right with his ears flattened to his head is her husband, Harry."
Josephine looked at the rabbits and then back at him, skeptically. "Why do you say they are the finest rabbits in England?" she asked. "They just look like small white rabbits with short ears to me. They don't seem very special. It sounds to me as though you are romanticizing these two little animals. I suppose they walk about and do sums as well as blink philosophic answers to questions? Really, Josh! Come back to earth! And, for heaven sake, why do you have them with you if you're on your way to join the army? Surely, you can't take them with you?"
Josh gave her a speaking look and closed the box as he cleared his throat. He sat up straighter and spoke quite soberly. "They accompany me because they were in danger where they were. I'm to deliver them to a man named Milford Straingford at Astleys Royal Circus. He's an animal trainer and he will look after the rabbits until my friend can retrieve them."
"What do you mean, 'in danger'?" Josephine asked, glad of something to occupy her thoughts on this last leg of her journey. "Did some poacher want to carve them up for his table or something?"
"No," Josh said, slowly, "nothing so simple." He looked about the coach as if to see whether anyone else could be listening. Since they were the only passengers, Josephine had a hard time controlling herself. He looked full of himself, as gravely serious as a vicar come to give someone bad news. He came to a decision to trust her, Josephine saw, and it was so amusing she almost embarrassed herself by laughing. She coughed into her hand and sat up straighter. Josh looked her in the eye and said, "Can you keep a secret Miss Morrison?"
"Yes, I believe I'm quite good at keeping secrets," Josephine said, maintaining a straight face by looking out of the window.
"Well, ma'am, you would never believe it to look at them, but Harry and Agatha are rare rabbits. You see," Josh looked around again, for all the world as though someone might overhear. "We think they were smuggled into the country from a ship in the channel. No one really knows where they came from, but everyone agrees they are a new breed. Some people say they came from Poland and some say Prussia, but since Poland and Prussia are pretty much all one country these days, it never made much difference to me. Call them Polish rabbits or Prussian rabbits if you want, but they are rare animals whose breed could become popular. Worth a lot of money."
"Are they valuable because they are a new breed?
"Well, yes and no, or not exactly," Josh said confusedly. "In the first place, Miss Morrison, the rabbits are a new breed. The adults like Harry and Agatha here are smaller, less than half a stone in weight. Their heads are rounder than other rabbits, and their ears are shorter. Mayhap because the ears are shorter, they stick up better. They are unusual to look at and this by itself makes them rare. However, the more important reason is even more of a secret. You see," he hesitated as if gauging her reaction, "they talk to each other."
"What?" Josephine gasped. "Do you mean talk?"
Her amazement drove away her desire to laugh. Josh was worse than she had thought. Not simply romanticizing the bunnies but anthropomorphizing them as well. In her surprise she sat up even straighter on her seat and forgot all about the discomforts of the trip. She hadn't known what she expected the secret to be, but it surely wasn't something as outlandish as this.
"Rabbits cannot talk, Josh, they don't even make a noise. Do they?" she asked, suddenly aware she had never investigated whether creatures like rabbits made any noise at all. Never even thought of the question, come to think on it. "I mean dogs bark, cows moo, sheep baa, cats meow, horses neigh, birds chirp or tweet, and lions roar, but I have never heard of a rabbit making a noise. I don't want to argue with you because I don't really know anything about rabbits, but why do you make this claim? And, how can you be so sure?"
"Well," Josh said, "I can't claim to be an authority on rabbit sounds, I can only report what my friends told me and what I've seen. When Harry and Agatha are together, they communicate. Harry will put his nose in Agatha's ear, she will then change her direction or her activity, and he will sit back apparently satisfied. She does the same thing to him. One time Harry was in trouble. A small rug someone had put in their cage for comfort had bunched up and Harry's leg was caught. He couldn't get free. In a panic he pushed forward to get free but only made matters worse. Agatha nuzzled his ear and seemed to say something to Harry. He calmed right down and stopped pushing. She, meanwhile, nosed the carpet back so he could move freely again. Miss Josephine, they must have been talking even though a person can never hear anything when they do."
"My goodness." Josephine didn't know what to say. Was this evidence? Hardly. But she didn't want to hurt his feelings. "Isn't there an old legend that says animals in the stables talk to each other on Christmas Eve? Could this be something like that?" she asked kindly.
"No, ma'am. It is much more than once a year. They talk to each other all the time, especially when they think no one is listening."
"How many people know about these two rabbits?" Josephine asked.
"Very few. Just my friend and a few other lads in our group. Nevertheless, the word must have spread beyond our little gang. We don't know what exactly people said, but the rumor must have pinpointed Harry and Agatha as two very special rabbits. Three nights in a row some people broke into the barn where their cage was located. If my friends and I had not moved them after each attempt, they'd be gone by now. We were convinced someone was out to steal them for the money they would bring."
"Someone actually tried to steal the rabbits?" Josephine asked, her skeptical voice rather high. She couldn't help sounding surprised. After all, she thought, a rare new breed of rabbit riding with me at the moment is quite enough to contemplate. Add talking rabbits in danger from possible thieves, and the story went beyond even the Minerva Press novels. Josephine felt she'd arrived in fantasyland, or at the very least, she'd become a character in a book with marbled covers. The incredulous thing about all this was Josh's absolute belief in what he was saying. In for a penny in for a pound, she thought.
"Isn't giving them to a circus just as bad as having them stolen?" she asked.
"No, they're not really going to the circus, but to the man who works for the circus as a small animal trainer. He is my friend's uncle, and he was sure his uncle would take good care of Harry and Agatha. If thieves stole them, they might be tortured or killed. Taking them to London seemed a good idea. His uncle will take care of them until my friend can recover them."
"I see," Josephine said, and in a funny way, she did. The uncle made more compassionate sense than allowing scurvy thieves to get their hands on them.
"So the husband and wife team are destined for the circus environment," Josephine remarked. "Do you think they will like it?" she asked just to keep the conversation moving. She was barely able to keep stunned amusement from her voice.
"I think so," Josh said slowly and very seriously. "I hope it's a good life for them. It would be nice if I could keep them with me instead of leaving them with Mr. Straingford. However, I don't think my new army friends would appreciate adding Harry and Agatha to the peninsular fauna. I would have to carry them all the way over there. I don't think my captain would allow it. What do you think, Miss Morrison?"
"I agree," Josephine responded. "The idea is silly, really. I don't know much about it, of course, but when you are part of a military unit, I don't think you have much personal time or space. I have heard about some men taking their wives with them. I hear they have a lottery or something and only about a fifth who want to go are permitted space on the transports. I don't know if those few actually go on the same ships with their men or if they must wait for later transport. I do know I've never heard of soldiers taking animals. Small animals I mean. Of course, the cavalry take their horses, but you know what I mean. Harry and Agatha are in a different category entirely. Given the supply wagons' poor record of punctuality, Harry and Agatha would disappear into some hungry soldier's pot before they could say a thing to each other. Troops have to live off the land when the supplies don't come. These rabbits would be simply thought of as food in this context of need."
"I think you have the right of it, Miss Morrison." He sighed. "All the same, I'm going to be sad to leave them with my friend's uncle. I can't think why he thought the circus was such a good idea."
Josephine nodded her head, wondering why Josh didn't see the point. "I don't think it was the circus so much as the uncle he was thinking of. A safe refuge, away from those men who wanted to steal them."
"Yes," Josh said in a low voice, again looking about furtively as if a spy might be listening through the side of the carriage, "the rabbits don't look like it, but they are valuable and they need a safe refuge." He sat back in his seat, looked at Josephine, and wondered what she would say. Most people thought rabbits were stupid as well as dumb. However, it seemed as if Miss Morrison believed him.
"I still don't see how you can be sure they can really speak to each other," she said slowly, hoping to encourage him to present more evidence. This topic helped pass the time better than comments on the passing fields of golden grain or the weather.
"I told you, I've seem them do it, Miss Morrison." Josh tried to hold down his excitement, but his bouncing up and down on the seat gave him away. Gave his youth away as well, Josephine thought. He is too young to enlist! Nevertheless, she let it go for the moment. He was talking again. "When they are out of the box and they think no one is watching them, Harry whispers in Agatha's ear. Or she will whisper something to him."
"But how do you know they are whispering?" Josephine didn't want to hurt Josh's feelings, but someone had to be sensible here. "Mayhap they are simply nuzzling each other in a friendly fashion, and not speaking at all. Had you thought of simple expressions of animal friendship, or affection?"
Josh shook his head. "No ma'am. Not nuzzling, nor kissing, nor accidentally bumping, or anything else. They are actually talking. They make little noises the other one understands and no one else can hear."
"Well." Josephine tried to think of a tactful way of putting this. "We have two rabbits of the opposite sex, and we allow them to be together. One or the other puts their nose into the ear of the other one and communicates with the other rabbit. I have no problem believing such a scenario. However, my young friend, it is a giant step to move from this picture to purposeful communication and a great leap of faith to believe they are actually speaking some language understood by the other one. You don't mean, I take it, to suggest the little sounds might be simple ones like "Get off my foot," or "I like you?"
"You have a way of getting right down to the point, Miss Morrison. I say they talk because I believe Agatha especially gives complicated instructions on how to do something to Harry or how to get somewhere and he does just as instructed. I know it sounds odd, but I will just have to show you the next time we stop."