It was a sad day, a sad day indeed. But of course, there had not been much to smile about - not since Her Grace, the Grand Duchess had locked me up. But alas - there was not much that I, Mandrake - could do about the situation. Her influence was powerful and there was not a soul alive that would have me, not after hearing what I had done to those poor orphans. Indeed, I was in a very sad state. If one were to see me then and now I would be unrecognisable. Since I was put away I had no way to clean or shave, or even to own simple things such as buttons and shoelaces. I had to make do with ivy I found growing outside my cell.
The only thing that kept me sane was my dream - a dream to become an orphanage gardener. I'd spent many a lonely hour in my imagination - mentally setting seedlings, pruning an orchard and rolling a tennis court, to name but a few of the things I imagined. I knew it would never happen so I wouldn't allow myself to become too set on the dream - it was just that, a dream in my head, though a comforting one in the least. I was presently picturing this very thing when I heard a voice causing me to cringe. "Let me introduce myself, I am Miss Bianca."
"Sent by Her Grace?" I barely whimpered, pulling the meal I had been keeping close to my body, hoping it was hidden beneath my long grey beard as I saw a small white mouse looking up at me with large eyes. "Of course," I decided. "obviously sent by Her Grace. Otherwise, how would you come to be here?" I continued, trying to keep my fear under control. "Present Her Grace my humble duty, even if she has but sent you - as I suspect - to eat up any little bit of food I was saving for my supper!" My voice rose to a squeak - I was always so hungry and the prospect of losing my half-eaten bowl of porridge, though a meal simply pitiful and disgusting, terrified me.
Miss Bianca closed her eyes a moment before she moved closer. "My good Mandrake," She soothed. "pray credit me when I assure you that I have come neither upon the bidding of the Grand Duchess, nor to share your interesting frugal meal." The grip I had on my bowl lessened slightly as I heard this. "Have you heard of the Mouse Prisoners' Aid Society?" She asked.
"The Mouse Prisoners' Aid Society?" I repeated, brightening slightly. "Long ago, when I was out in the world, I indeed heard such a Society spoken of, amongst ticket-of-leave men. Aye, and a good work it did, cheering and befriending the unfortunate!" I looked to Miss Bianca hopefully, understanding what this could mean. "Can it really be that you are come to cheer and befriend poor Mandrake?"
Miss Bianca looked to me sternly. "That depends." She said and I realized with a whimper I had upset her. "Also pray do not refer to yourself in the third person, as though you were Julius Caesar." She continued. "'Unfortunate' is a description most wrongdoers apply to themselves: you, Mandrake, I fear have been bad. Your long service with the Grand Duchess is in itself a certificate of badness." I knew she was right, all those working under Her Grace had a criminal past to say the least. Still, I felt obliged to defend myself. "I had no choice!" I pleaded with a whimper.
"Quite so." Miss Bianca replied. "Some crime committed in early youth - the details of which, believe me, I would rather not know - put you in her power. Had you paid the penalty at the time, you would not now - at least I hope not - find yourself confined and starving within a ruined turret." "From which I may never, never regain liberty." I groaned, upset she had reminded me of my almost inevitable end. "That depends again," Continued Miss Bianca, causing me to look to her. "how would you employ yourself , if you regained liberty?"
I stared straight ahead, not looking at anything in particular. What would do? I knew my answer, but it was so precious to me I almost didn't want to speak it allowed as that would only prove it never to happen. On the other hand I didn't have any other dreams for the future. "Would you return, for instance, if it were possible, to Her Grace's service?" Miss Bianca eventually asked causing me to shudder. "Never!" I groaned - how could she even think I would go back? "Then what would you do?" She asked. "Well, if I could, I'd go as a gardener to an Orphanage." I admitted.
"You are right," I continued. "in saying I have been bad; I've been bad all my life, but never badder than while in Her Grace's service I allowed how many a defenceless orphan to pine away, without a word, which I might so easily have spoken, of kindness! The last actually achieved escape - not that you can know anything of that -" I added, nodding to Miss Bianca as I begun think of those poor orphans. "- and though it was that very escape that brought about my undoing, the tears of her predecessors haunt me still." I sighed, beginning to weep silently. "If ever I had my liberty again, and if any orphanage would receive me - without pay, just my keep - I'd make its garden the prettiest, and the fullest, and the best to be played in, any orphanage ever knew!"
I wiped the tears streaming down my face away with my beard - I'd been keeping all that inside for so long, festering beneath, and it was almost a relief to finally speak it allowed. "Say no more, Mandrake!" Cried Miss Bianca - whom I noticed was not dry-eyed herself. "You shall not only be cheered, and befriended: you shall be rescued!" As soon as I heard the word 'rescued' I flinched, frightened of what Her Grace may do to me if she ever caught me even thinking of escape.
Looking to the floor, I mumbled in a low, despairing tone "It is very kind of you indeed, very kind I'm sure... but considering Her Grace's extraordinary powers, perhaps it would be best to leave me where I am." "What!" Exclaimed Miss Bianca. "You can see for yourself," I explained, indicating my surroundings in despair. "there's no way of rescuing me. These walls of solid marble admit neither ingress nor exit; while even could the ivy bear my weight, which it cannot, the window's too small for me to get out of. There's no hope of rescuing me." "Then why did you tie a signal to the bars?" Miss Bianca demanded. "Well," I meekly explained with a tiny shrug. "it gave me something to do... But I never thought anything would come of it."
Miss Bianca's expression softened. "My poor Mandrake," she said. "I see you have allowed yourself to lapse into complete melancholia; which is indeed not to be wondered at; you are sadly undernourished. Of course there must be some means of ingress at least! Or how could you receive any food at all?" "I don't know." I admitted with a sigh. "It just comes." "But that is nonsense!" The mouse argued. "Food cannot just come - unless in the form of a rabbit from a hat, or an apple falling from the tree: in either case uncooked. That porridge you hold has been cooked, however badly; someone must have brought it to you."
"Then I have seen them." I replied. "I fall asleep at night, my bowl empty; when I wake in the morning, it is filled. In my opinion, it's by the Duchess's black magic." When Miss Bianca spoke, her voice was firm. "Mandrake, tonight you must keep awake!" "I can't!" I groaned. "In the beginning, I tried to; but I never could. I suppose that's another of Her Grace's spells." "Nonsense," Said Miss Bianca bracingly. "It is because, I repeat, you are undernourished. 'Qui dort, dine,' as they say in France!" "If you insist." I blinked sleepily with an exhausted sigh. "But it won't be any use."
I tried my best to stay awake, I really did, but I just couldn't. At some time I presume I dropped my almost empty porridge-bowl but I was too tired to get it. Next I knew it - it was morning and Miss Bianca was gone. Sure enough, the porridge bowl was filled. I wondered briefly if I had merely dreamed the whole thing but sure enough, Miss Bianca was true to her word, sending some young mice to befriend me. But that's another story.