As Victoriana passed back through the garden gate, a terrified scream rent the air.
She rushed up the steps and entered the house to hear another squeal of horror which seemed to emanate from the nursery, towards which room her father and mother were hurrying, followed by one or two of the braver domestics armed with brooms and dusters and whatever else they had to hand. Her father was carrying a ancient umbrella with a carved eagle’s head, with which he thrust open the door whence the screams were crescendoing. What a sight met their eyes – Nanny Prewitt was wobbling dangerously as she stood on a chair clutching her skirts around her.
‘Mouse! Mouse!’ she shrieked, ‘an army of them!’
Major Adalbert advanced into the room, poking his umbrella furiously at the small brown furry animal under the chair, which turned a pair of bright eyes towards him, twitched its whiskers twice, then speedily disappeared with a scamper of tiny paws under the heavy oak sideboard.
‘There, Nanny,’ said the Major triumphantly, ‘I have dispersed the attacking horde for you.’
‘No, no, there were hundreds of them, Major,’ squeaked Nanny Prewitt, still quaking.
‘Really, Nanny, there was only one tiny mouse on its own,’ Victoriana’s Mama said firmly. ‘I really think you should …’
‘Eeeeek!’ squawked the parlourmaid pushing roughly past, and trying to join Nanny Prewitt on her chair. ‘MICE! ’Undreds an’ ’undreds of ’em!’
Sure enough, there was a writhing and roiling of brown bodies appearing from below the other pieces of furniture scattered around the room.
‘We are invaded!’ cried the Major, ‘send for the exterminators!’
There was a general swift evacuation of the room, led by Nanny Prewitt launching herself past the others through the doorway into the hall. Major Adalbert pulled the door firmly closed and mopped his brow.
‘Papa,’ said Victoriana, who had managed to capture one of the tiny creatures as she exited, and was now examining it closely, ‘Papa, this mouse …’
‘Dong-a-dong!’ went the front door bell, making everyone jump and Victoriana to forget what she was saying.
Major Adalbert advanced swiftly across the hall and threw the door open to disclose two rather sinister figures standing on the step, one tall and thin and the other short and fat. The tall man wore an overcoat with a scarf wrapped around his neck, all but hiding a rather sly set of features; his bowler hat was slightly dented. The other man was similarly dressed, with an even more battered bowler and an expression of low cunning.
‘Good morneeng, my frents,’ the tall man spoke in a heavily accented voice. ‘I am Molotok of Molotok und Serp, and it is exterminatink ve do’ – he turned and waved a knobbly hand at a cart pulled up outside the garden gate, embellished with the sign reading ‘Molotok & Serp, Universal Exterminaters’ – Victoriana thought it was badly spelt but wasn’t sure; she also thought the paint wasn’t quite dry – ‘und ve haf bin led to understant zat zere has bin an outbreak of mices in zis area.’
‘There jolly well has!’ snorted Major Adalbert. ‘This is most opportune – come in at once, we wish to engage your services.’
Victoriana crouched behind a large bush at the back of the flowerbed and peered through the window. Having tried to tell her Papa that the mouse she had caught was a field mouse, and not a house mouse, and having been ignored in the general rumpus while the exterminators moved their equipment into the house, she had decided that she would keep an eye on the exterminators herself.
‘If nothing else,’ she thought to herself, ‘I shall at least learn to be an exterminater.’
She glanced over her shoulder at Nanny Prewitt, who was dozing in the sun in a garden chair, happily unaware of her charge’s current concealment in the flowerbed. Papa and Mama had disappeared into town, and the remaining staff had been given the afternoon off.
Having carried out various activities in the nursery, most of which seemed to Victoriana to involve collecting handfuls of tame mice and placing them in a capacious carpetbag, the two exterminators moved stealthily into the library.
Victoriana scrabbled around through the bushes until she reached the library window and was rewarded with the sight of the man called Serp concealing what appeared a small brass hearing trumpet behind a vase in the middle of the bookcase. The desk looked as though it had been ransacked, with a couple of drawers left open and some papers scattered on the floor. The two men hastily left the room, and Victoriana heard the front door closing behind them with a bang.
‘I bet Dora the maid gets blamed for that!’ she said to herself. ‘But I know who really did it, so I’m going to follow them to see where they go!’
Pausing only to collect her hoop and stick from behind the front door – nobody would look twice at a child bowling a hoop along the street, she reasoned – she set off to follow the pair as they pushed their cumbersome cart away.