Read The Mouse That Roared Online

Authors: Leonard Wibberley

Tags: #Comedy

The Mouse That Roared

BOOK: The Mouse That Roared
4.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Originally published in 1955 under the title “The Wrath of Grapes”



To all the little nations who over the centuries have done what they could to attain and preserve their freedom. It is from one of them that I am sprung.





The Duchy of Grand Fenwick lies in a precipitous fold of the northern Alps and embraces in its tumbling landscape portions of three valleys, a river, one complete mountain with an elevation of two thousand feet, and a castle. There are, in the northern part of the duchy, where the slopes of the surrounding peaks provide both the right soil and exposure, four hundred acres of vineyards. These produce a small black grape of a particularly pleasant bouquet from which is obtained the Pinot Grand Fenwick, of which the possession of a small stock is the crowning achievement of any connoisseur of wines.

In six centuries the output of Pinot Grand Fenwick has never exceeded two thousand bottles a year. In bad years it has fallen off to as little as five hundred bottles, and there are still some alive who recall the disastrous year of 1913 when, due to late snows and unseasonable rains, no more than three hundred and fifty bottles were produced. That year has remained more sharply etched in the memories of the lovers of wine than the subsequent twelve months when the news of the outbreak of the Great War was softened for them by the knowledge that the vineyards of Grand Fenwick had produced a bumper crop of the small black grapes.

The duchy is no more than five miles long and three wide. Its sovereign lord has been for nearly six centuries either a Duke or a Duchess, and its national language, surprisingly, English. But to explain how all this came about, it is necessary to go back to the founding of the duchy in 1370 by the first Duke, Roger Fenwick.

Roger Fenwick, of whom an indifferent but interesting portrait is to be found in the council chamber of the castle which dominates the duchy from the top of the two-thousand-foot mountain, had the misfortune to be born the seventh son of an English knight. Of his brothers only two survived their fifth year, but even so, his father’s meagre resources had long run out when the time came for Roger to be sent into the world. It was decided, therefore, that the boy should go to Oxford University, where he might, by earnest application to his books, secure employment either in the church, as a chronicler, or in the train of some gentleman of means. But before he was fourteen, Roger left Oxford; not that he could not endure education, but that he was likely to have starved to death before his tutoring was complete.

In the few fragments that remain of his own story, he records that he learned but three things in two years at Oxford. The first, on which he placed the greatest value, was that “Yea” might be turned into “Nay” and vice versa if a sufficient quantity of wordage was applied to the matter. The second was that in any argument, the victor is always right, and the third that though the pen is mightier than the sword, the sword speaks louder and stronger at any given moment.

After leaving Oxford, Roger did not return to the home of his father, nor seek aid from his two surviving brothers. Instead, being accomplished in the use of the long bow, he joined the army of Edward III as a bowman at five shillings a day plus plunder, was promoted to mounted bowman, then man-at-arms, and finally, after the victory at Poitiers, knight.

At that time he was twenty-four and chose to remain in France with the garrison of the Black Prince. That he did so was not so much a matter of patriotism as of practising his profession of arms. He followed the Black Prince into Spain in the campaign which briefly put Pedro the Cruel back on his throne of Castile, and then, leaving the English Army, formed a free company of his own.

The company was not a large one. It consisted of himself, his squire and forty bowmen. But what it lacked in numbers it made up in practical experience in warfare, and Sir Roger Fenwick was able to hire himself to Charles the Wise of France in his war with the Navarrese. Sir Roger had, and he was at no great pains to disguise the matter, no more loyalty to France than he had to England. Indeed, it is recorded that on the eve of one battle between a French host on one side and a mixed army of English and Navarrese on the other, he decided to fight with the French only on the promise of their commander, Bertrand du Guesclin, that he would supply him with a new suit of armour in addition to his regular hire.

At the conclusion of the campaign Sir Roger had risen to such esteem as a fighting man that he was commissioned by Charles to take a company of men of his own raising and capture, for the king, a castle in the southern reaches of France, bordering the Alps, whose owner had sided consistently with the king’s enemies. Had Charles been less concerned with other matters, he might have gained some inkling of what was going to happen from the men Sir Roger picked for the expedition.

He chose none but Englishmen, a robust, thieving, fighting horde whose lives were forfeit if they ever returned to their own country for crimes ranging from cutting purses to cutting throats. With these Sir Roger had no difficulty whatever in storming and taking the castle. And when this was done, far from turning the fortress over to Charles, he raised his own flag on the main keep, summoned the tenants from the adjacent lands and announced that he was their new Duke and that they were, from henceforth, liegemen of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.

Some objected, demanding to see the patents of his nobility; whereupon Sir Roger flung his broadsword on the table before him and announced that that was patent enough.

“I have seen no king seated upon a throne by Almighty God,” he said, “but many who mounted there over a pile of broken heads. What is good enough for kings is good enough for dukes.” That was the end of the matter. He claimed the territory around for as many as ten arrow flights to the north and south of the castle and six to the east and west, and so the Duchy of Grand Fenwick came to be established.

Its early years were, it is true, tumultuous. Charles twice sent expeditions against Sir Roger and they were twice repulsed through the inability of the French to learn anything of the power of the English longbow. Successive sovereigns made successive attempts but with no more result. And in the end, with the passing of the years, the Fenwick claim became so strong, and the royal claim so remote, that the duchy was officially recognized as an independent and sovereign state and its national flag, a double-headed eagle saying “Yea” from one beak and “Nay” from another, accepted by the nations of the world.

The centuries rolled by without any expansion or contraction of the territory. By remarkable good fortune, Sir Roger had chosen to establish his duchy in a spot which lay on no great trade route, possessed no mines of precious metals or metals of any kind, had no harbours or great waterways and indeed nothing whatever to commend it to a conqueror. The portions of the three valleys which lay within its borders were reasonably but not overwhelmingly fertile. They produced enough food for its inhabitants and nothing but wine to export. The hillsides, where the ground was poorer, supported sufficient grass to graze flocks of sheep which provided meat and wool, and the duchy was, until the turn of the twentieth century, unsought, unknown, self-supporting, and free.

It might well have remained in that happy state had it not been for the natural increase in its population and the equally natural decrease in the fertility of its soil. At the turn of the twentieth century the population was four thousand. By the commencement of World War I, it was four thousand five hundred. By World War II, due to no small extent to the reduction in infant mortality, it had risen to six thousand. The need arose to import food and clothing, and for the first time in six hundred years Grand Fenwick, which had lustily maintained its independence from the outside world, was compelled to look around for some method of increasing its exports to earn the additional money essential to its expanding needs.

A proposal to augment the revenue obtained from the sale of the esteemed Pinot Grand Fenwick by watering the wine divided the duchy sharply into two bitterly opposed camps. One camp, the Dilutionists, insisted that the addition of as little as ten per cent water to the fermentation vats would make the duchy self-supporting again. The change in the quality of the product, they insisted, would not be noticed since eighty per cent of the vintage was bought by Americans who drank by label rather than by content.

“Wine into Water” became its slogan in the election year of 1956; it was supported by earnest statements of doctors and wine masters who asserted that the only beverage healthier than pure wine was wine mixed with water, which, they pointed out, could be drunk without harm by little children.

The opposing party, the Anti-Dilutionists condemned the whole proposal as sacrilege. To water currency, as had become the practice in all the great nations of the world by the issuing of printing-press money, they maintained, was to cheat a man of his wealth. But to water wine was to cheat him of that for which he accumulated wealth. It was to discourage the struggle of every man towards a better standard of living by reducing the standard to the point where it was no longer worth struggling for.

“Those who would add water to Pinot Grand Fenwick,” thundered the Count of Mountjoy, silver-haired leader of the Anti-Dilutionists, “would cheapen every work of art in the world so that there would be no such thing as a masterpiece, but only a hundred million imitations of what was once a unique work. They would put the Mona Lisa on a postage stamp, and use the sublime words of our immortal bard, Roger Bentshield, to sell cigarettes. The wine is the blood of our grapes. It cannot and must not be diluted. This monstrous proposal,” he continued, “is the result of the influence of foreign ideologies. It is traceable to the cant of the Communists in their cramped Kremlin caves, on the one hand, and the wiles of the capitalists in their scintillating American skyscrapers, on the other. The freedom, the honour, the future, and the intrinsic worth of Grand Fenwick depends on a resounding ‘No’ to this monstrous plot at the polls next March.”

The polls did resound in March, when all ten delegates to the Council of Freedom, the parliament of Grand Fenwick, were to be elected. But when the ballots had been counted it was found that Dilutionists and Anti-Dilutionists were tied with five delegates each. In more prosperous days, the parliament would have tendered its resignation and another election been held, for it was the belief of the duchy that no nation can be governed well unless there is a majority which can impose its will upon a minority. A complete balance of pros and antis could produce nothing but deadlock.

However, with spring planting in progress, with every hand needed to till and to sow or tend to the lambing, the duchy could not afford a second election. And so the matter was referred to the sovereign lady, the Duchess Gloriana XII, a pretty girl of twenty-two, and a direct descendant of the doughty Sir Roger who had founded the state.

The meeting at which the crisis was laid before the Duchess was a historic one, which, though ignored by the outside world, none the less warranted a two-column headline on the front page of the
Fenwick Freeman,
the only newspaper published in the tiny nation. The delegates, clad in their medieval costumes, filed into the council chamber of the castle in which the parliament assembled, escorted by the sergeant at arms, carrying- the mace.

The sergeant at arms laid the mace upon the ancient Table of State behind which the Duchess was seated, herself clad in the high-bodiced gown of the Middle Ages and wearing a ducal coronet prettily upon her head. The delegates then bowed solemnly to her and respectfully seated themselves to hear her opening address.

They were all of them middle-aged men, quite old enough to be her father. Each could recall her as a tiny girl who had at one time or another taken a ride in their carts (for they were all, except the Count of Mountjoy, farmers), coaxed pears or grapes from them, gone to school with their children and later taken part in the annual longbow contests. Then, but a year ago, her father the Duke had died, leaving her to take over as ruler, and with that appalling suddenness which is the cross of nobility, she had had to change from neighbour to leader, from young girl to ruling lady, from fellow human to the symbol and strength of the nation.

This was the first parliament Gloriana had been called upon to open and despite the composure of her bearing, she was somewhat nervous about it. She had spent much of the night before preparing her address from the throne, careful to skirt the political issues which had so recently reft the country, and dealing only with those topics which were non-controversial.

Unfortunately, the only non-controversial topic she could find was the weather, and even that, she discovered, was not completely neutral ground. For the kind of weather that would suit the wine-growers of the north would not suit the wheat and barley raisers of the south. And so she limited herself to hoping that the duchy would be blessed with weather acceptable to all and that by continuing with that industry and self-reliance which had in the past been characteristic of the nation, Grand Fenwick would pull through the difficult times which lay ahead to continued peace and prosperity.

BOOK: The Mouse That Roared
4.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Oblivion by Sasha Dawn
At Last Comes Love by Mary Balogh
Ten Thousand Words by Kelli Jean
Wait (Beloved Bloody Time) by Cooper-Posey, Tracy
Wilder Mage by Coffelt, CD
The Game by Amanda Prowse
Liberty and Tyranny by Levin, Mark R.