Mr. Headrick had just begun to think of closing up early that day when the shop bell rang. At once the door mouse sent up a cry of, "No room, no room," and the boy at the coal scuttle actually dropped his tongs in surprise.
The old proprietor sniffed, sniffed again, and then finally settled on a cough before pushing his ledger aside and heaving himself up from his perch. He waddled to the door to see a young maid staring at the door mouse, who'd changed tacks and now was calling his other pet phrase, "Tisn't time, tisn't time."
At his master's approach the door mouse blinked, scratched, and schuffled back to his post. Headrick asked, "Client or payment?"
She turned to him with the same perplexity she'd shown the mouse, and after a moment's thought answered, "Neither."
He sighed again, and sniffed, and fought back a sneeze, which slowed to a wheeze, forcing him to wipe his spectacles. "Now, see here, you must be one or the other. You'd not enter the shop if you're not."
"But I'm not," she insisted, "in fact, I—"
"Are you alive?" he demanded, his hackles rising. "Are you breathing? Are you here? Are you keeping me from my work, and wanting something yourself?"
Again she thought, and she nodded.
"Well then, you're a part of the economic system, whether you like it or not. And there are only two ways about it: you are either here to ask for work, or to pay for it. We prefer both, truthfully, but never let it be said we're above ourselves, one or the other will do. Now speak up, speak up, I can't quite hear you."
She stood as tall as she could, which only approached Mr. Headrick's waist, and said, "I've a message from the Queen's court."
Mr. Headrick stared down through his spectacles again, and realized her pallor wasn't maidenly fear but pure marble. Her cap was knit of the finest muslin, her cape held silver threads, and even her stockings were as white as her face. He stifled a whistle and settled on a "hum," bowing his head.
"I see, I see, my apologies," he tutted. "I'm Headrick, of the Wabe, at your service."
The Pawn curtsied. "C3, Weaver, of the Left Honourable White Bishop." She extended an envelope, adding, "I am to deliver a reply."
He took the paper gingerly in a paw. "Tis almost brilling: would you care for a cup of tea?"
The Weaver Pawn nodded diffidently. "If you like: though, if you are to be some time about it, I've a bit of knitting to get done, if it's all the same to you."
"Certainly, certainly," Headrick said, "if you'll come this way, we can take it in the parlour," and snapping at the boy with a "there's a lad, Peter, get the tea things," he led her through a round portal into the next room. She looked about the place in one long revolution, coming to rest in the very best chair, his favourite, with a large plush cushion and a high back.
"It's a very busy room," she commented as he sat opposite her in the guest chair, which did not have a nice pillow, and was rather short for his frame.
He covered his annoyance with a magnanimous cough. "Oh, well, not so much, though you're kind to say so. It's just the library, the coat closet, and the solarium, if one is counting the window."
She had taken her thread and needles out of her bag, but looked up to admire the glass politely. "That is nice: is it a proper working sun dial?"
"By day, and even by night, with some ingenuity," Headrick answered with pride. "There's a mirror just so," he pointed, "and when the sun sets it reflects the time back, so it's all a case of knowing the right way to look to know when you are."
"Yes, we had one at court, in my first tutor's apartments," the Pawn said as she turned over a stitch. "Were you ever acquainted with a Mr. Pettigruff?"
Headrick whistled appreciatively. "Why, no, my pater didn't go in for formal presentations and the like, but no self-respecting raff's education would be complete without a proper study of his work. Do you mean to say you knew him?"
"Yes, of course: he set us to our posts, and drilled us when we were ransomed. Why, he even tutored the current Queen, I hear, before she was promoted, though some say that is mere rumour. I recall his kitchen held both the larder and the dining room at once, and he usually taught us in the study, which also held his cloakroom, library, conservatory, and even a ball room, when we were drilling our movements. 'It's all a matter of economy,' as he used to say."
"Hmm, yes, of course," Headrick nodded, and sniffed, and wished he'd read more than the almanac recently. "I daresay he did. Now what can that boy be about?"
At his hint Peter came in, balancing a tray precariously. With a flick and flirt and a turn round he managed to get everything to table with nary a broken cup; though, it must be admitted, he'd gimbled one of the spoons and added another chip to the knife. He did manage to hold his tongue the whole time, but his eyes were all for the Pawn, his tail betraying his fascination as it wove to and fro behind him.
The Pawn stared back with frank bemusement, and barely gave her assent to Headrick's inquiry about the sugar. "He's a bit — slithy, for a shop boy, isn't he?"
Peter blushed in alarm, grabbing hold of his tail with one hand and hiding his other in his trouser pocket. Headrick actually sneezed, a large one, and with a gruff, "See about the birds, Peter, there's a lad now," sent the boy out. "Cheese, miss?" he groused.
"No," she said, and with a shrug took up her needles again. "It's not my concern, of course, though I must say I never heard tell of a proper raff-run shop taking in a tove—"
Without a thought to the court or the Queen or his pride Headrick heaved a loud snort and clicked his teeth. "Peter is my nephew, and no matter who his father was, I am not in the habit of calling attention to the fact."
"I beg your pardon," she said in a tone that said she did no such thing. "Now, I do have other errands today, will you have any reply to the letter?"
Headrick felt another good outgrabe growing at her dismissal, but he swished it down with his tea, only allowing himself a good strong clearing of the throat as he broke the Queen's seal. She was only a Pawn, true, but by reaching the Wabe she'd progressed rather far on the board, and he didn't fancy a nasty surprise should she gain a mitre or a crown in the near future.
All thoughts of Peter and the Pawn vanished as he read the letter, and read it again, and gave a great gasping rasp. At his astonished look she shrugged, and crossed another stitch. "It is true, if that is what you were going to ask, though whether it's honest is more than I can say."
Headrick read the letter again and tapped a claw to one of his horns. "Well, this is good news, good news indeed, I must say. About time someone took care of the monster." He was a bit breathless, and helped himself to the last of the cheddar crumbs, and to himself asked, "But how was it done?"
She answered him anyway. "A vorpal sword, I hear, though the exact facts are hardly all known at this time. I understand the Bestiareter Royal has been called to examine the head, though of course, the Queen was quite sure it had happened about a week before it did, and so everyone at court has known for some time, and we were all quite surprised it took so long as it did."
Eyeing her with about as much disdain as he was sure she felt for him, Headrick nevertheless gave a hearty chortle. "Well, I will certainly be glad to attend the festivities, you may be sure to tell Her Majesty, and with my compliments. But you must allow a toast before you go: it's not every day we get to celebrate such an occasion."
He rose and pulled down the wine cellar from its nook in the shelving. "Peter!" he chuffed, and in a trice the boy was back to clear the tea things as Headrick selected a bottle.
The Pawn was replacing her knitting to her bag, and barely looked up as Headrick poured three glasses. "It's a great occasion," he explained as he handed one to Peter, "a great occasion indeed: the death of the Jaberwocky, and your uncle's first appearance at court." They each raised their glasses, and as the Pawn began to drink he added, "Recite us something to mark it, there's a boy."
Put on the spot poor Peter twisted and shook, his tail all a flutter, but finally he pulled himself up on the little stool and sang in a hissing, wispy voice,
"Oh the great fair Queen of White,
She has her army great.
She sent them up to scale the bridge,
And they got there rather late.
Then they climbed it one and two,
And the same went down again.
And when they were only halfway through
They were neither here nor there."
Peter managed to cut a bow at the end, and only partway tipped over, landing on his feet and rising in the same moment as he righted the stool with his tail.
The Pawn laughed all the same, a cruel little titter that sent Peter dittering back. "Thank you," she said with perfect ice, "for your gratitude, and I will return your acceptance once I've run my other errands." She rose, then stood and blinked. "Dear, I've sat too long: you must not dawdle so, at court, you know," and with that parting wisdom she made for the door, though she almost tripped on the rug as she did so.
Headrick called with some concern, "Shall we call for the Knight? I'm not sure, of course, how near he is, but you look a bit flushed."
She straightened and turned, and though they could each see a bit of colour in her cheeks, she said with cold haughtier, "No, I thank you, I'm perfectly fine," then left without another backwards glance.
Headrick waited until he heard the shop bell again, then counted to ten, and backwards again, and finally guffawed a roar that sent Peter twirling about in alarm. "Uncle, uncle, what is it, are you sick too?" he cried piteously, even managing a wheeze as he did.
"No, no, my boy, not at all," he managed to say through his tears, sneezing and snorting with abandon in his humour, "but I daresay she will feel a good deal worse before morning, and not at all the better by the next, if I know my vintage right."
The little boy shrieked and leapt back from the table. "Tisn't, tisn't, Uncle, you didn't!" he protested, his tail lashing out in all directions.
"Oh, don't worry, the stuff won't harm you or I, and she'll be right as snow within the week," he assured Peter, and brought the boy back to the table. "Now, study that well, my lad, and you'll learn a thing or two: a Pawn's got learning, yes, and manners, as such, but as my pater used to say not a one of 'em has any of their senses about them, and that's why she never saw nor smelt a thing. If she had she'd have never drank a drop, and she nearly downed the whole lot."
Calming enough to actually read the bottle, Peter started, then grinned, and finally let loose a good solid snort. Headrick patted him on the back in appreciation.
"Oh, Uncle, how clever of you!"
"Not a bit, my boy, not a bit," he murred, taking another appreciative sip of the rich red wine. "Still, it was a nice little bit of work, I must say: a twaddle of a thing indeed."