The Chronicle of Vilka

by David Rodeback


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Chapter 12: Grandma and the Rabbit

The Bet

During the break, the Vicar of Vilka spoke in an almost-breathless whisper. "My friend, you are a cruel, cruel Prince. You placed me in some jeopardy with your mention of the throne, but then you nearly killed me by referring to the odor. You are a heartless man and a phenomenally gifted deadpan."

"Why, Vicar, whatever do you mean? Do you suspect me of saying such things simply to entertain you?" the Prince murmured. "This is very serious business, is it not?"

"Prince, I suspect you of saying such things to entertain yourself, with negligent disregard for the possibility of killing a very respectable Vicar in the process. Nevertheless, I take comfort in the probability that the next chapter of this story will fully reduce even you to a gently-quivering pudding."

"Very well, Vicar. If I am reduced to pudding, I will buy lunch this afternoon. If I am not, you will."

"I will take that bet."

The Lawsuit

When all were ready to resume the meeting, the Prince of Vilka inquired gently, "Adjutant, are you able to tell us the rest of the matter?"

"I will do my best, Prince. I think so."

"Very well, please proceed."

The Adjutant made a creditable effort to sound dispassionate as he began to speak. "Prince, the executive summary of the matter is, my mother- and father-in-law are suing the City of Vilka, and the city library in particular, for defaming my father-in-law publicly after the . . . incident . . . which we discussed previously."

"They are suing the library?"

Three heads nodded.

"And this is somehow connected to the incident at McGregor's Fine Goods?"

Three heads nodded again, and Vicar resumed convulsing in the corner, albeit quietly for the moment.

"I cannot imagine how the library could defame your father-in-law."

"I was astonished myself, Prince, but so it is."

"Adjutant, I believe I shall be too afraid to leave Vilka for more than a few hours at a time, for the duration of my tenure as its Prince."

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir."

"Pray tell, what happened at the library?"

The Adjutant continued, "You are aware, I believe, that the Librarian of Vilka conducts a weekly story time for children, every Wednesday afternoon at the library."

"Yes, I sometimes take my grandson there."

"Of course. Prince, I have invited the Librarian of Vilka to join us and offer her account. She was present at the time; I was not. She is waiting outside."

"Please, by all means, admit her."

The Librarian's Testimony

Having been duly admitted, greeted, and seated, the Librarian of Vilka was invited to offer her account. She began with an apology.

"First, Prince, and you other gentlemen, allow me to apologize for the incident I am about to describe. I did not anticipate it, I did not intend it, and I did not know I had given offense until the following day.

"I typically read three stories aloud to the children at each story time. The first and last are short and intended particularly for the younger children; the middle one is longer and directed to the older children. Of course, the great children's books can hold everyone's attention to some degree, but I digress.

"We took a short break before the last story on Wednesday. I should note that the Adjutant's wife, daughter, and mother-in-law were present for the story hour, though I must say that the two adults looked very uncomfortable and self-conscious, for obvious reasons, I suppose.

"For our last story that day I had planned to read a new book about a little turtle who has some adventures. I hadn't actually read the book before, so I read it quickly to myself during a break. It was boring, uninspired, the sort of book to discourage children from loving all books. So after the break I announced that I had decided to read a different book, a classic familiar to all the children and, I suppose, to all the adults as well, Peter Rabbit. It is a personal favorite.

"Everything was fine for a moment. But when I read Peter Rabbit's mother's exhortation to the little bunnies, something happened. Specifically, the words are, 'You may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden. Your father had an accident there. He was put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor.' I believe I recited that verbatim just now.

"When she heard this, the Adjutant's mother-in-law gasped audibly. A moment later, I was shocked to see all three generations of the Adjutant's family rise and storm out of the library. I didn't find out why until the next day, when the Adjutant informed me that there had been a complaint, and that a defamation lawsuit had been filed. I scarcely know what to do or think now. Truly, I never imagined such a thing."

The Librarian fell silent. The Prince thanked her, then said to the Adjutant, "Perhaps you could explain the nature of the complaint."

What Grandma Heard

"Prince," began the Adjutant, "what my wife's mother heard, and what the lawsuit alleges constitutes defamation, has to do principally with the words "father', 'accident', and 'Mr. McGregor'."

The Vicar snorted in the corner again, and the Prince found himself unable to resist asking, "Surely she doesn't think . . ."

"Yes, Prince, she does. She thinks that the Librarian deliberately chose that story to mock my father-in-law in the aftermath of the . . . incident. She claims that Mr. McGregor's garden is a thinly-veiled reference to Mr. McGregor's restroom, and I suppose you can imagine without my attempting an explanation that she finds particular offense in the phrase, 'Your father had an accident there.' To compound the perceived offense, Mrs. McGregor was also in the store at the time of the . . . incident . . . and she had mentioned to my father-in-law, just before the . . . incident . . . that there is a public restroom 'just down the lane'. Moreover, Mrs. McGregor is reputed to make a fine pie."

Ignoring the throes of the dying Vicar in the corner, the Prince asked the Librarian, "Even though you did not intend or imagine any offense -- which I believe -- have you apologized to these poor people?"

"Profusely, Prince, but to no avail."

"As have I," offered the Adjutant.

"Then I suppose that I shall have to apologize to them next, this very day, and attempt to persuade them both to drop the lawsuit and to remain in Vilka," reasoned the Prince.

Four heads nodded, and the Vicar finally and wordlessly excused himself.

"Prince, I anticipated this. My wife's parents, and probably also my wife as well, will be here in about five minutes. They consented to meet with you."

"Thank you, Adjutant," said the Prince. "Very well, gentlemen, the Adjutant and I will meet with them. Councilors, thank you for your presence this morning. As you leave, there is something you can do to help prepare me for the meeting. I need to look me in the eye and inform me with all solemnity that all of my friends, relatives, and pets have been slaughtered, and that barbarians are even now beginning to burn the city."

Later at the Tavern

"Prince," said the Vicar, "I apologize for this morning, even as I thank you. That was the best entertainment I have enjoyed in years."

"You are most welcome, my friend," replied the Prince. "It was good to have you in the meeting. And I'm pleased that you survived the experience, so that we can enjoy our traditional Friday riposte."

"Please, Prince, I have already heard that the Adjutant's in-laws are somewhat mollified and are dropping the lawsuit -- and probably even staying in Vilka, or so I hear. That is a happy development. But you must tell me, how did even you manage to keep a straight face in your meeting with them? They stopped by the church, you see, and we talked for a while after they left your office. They seemed very impressed by you."

"I had some help from those two members of the Council," said the Prince, rather cryptically.

"To wit?" asked the Vicar.

"I had them tell me very seriously, as they left the previous meeting, that all my friends, relatives, and pets had been slaughtered, and that barbarians were sacking the city."

"My friend, I am in awe. That worked well, did it? Something must have. As I said, they were quite favorably impressed with you."

"Well, then, yes, it worked well."

Suddenly, the Vicar looked quizzical. Then he said slowly, "My friend, you are the Prince, and I am but a humble Vicar. But I have talked with a great many people in my ecclesiastical career, and I have become rather adept at discerning between the lies and the truth people tell me. You, Prince, are lying to me. What really happened?"

"Surely you know, if you are asking. Did they not tell you?"

"No, I don't know. All they said was that you were very gracious."

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," began the Prince.

A broad smile appeared on the Vicar's face. "What did you do?"

"My images of death and destruction strategy worked for about five minutes, as we began to talk. Then I turned quickly to a pudding, as you prophesied, laughing uncontrollably for whole minutes before I could stop. I was quite helpless. Finally, they were laughing, too, and in the end, somehow, we stopped laughing and made peace. They're not bad people, you know, just terribly embarrassed. But you heard this in confession, Vicar. You cannot repeat it to a single soul!"

"Prince, you are a cruel, cruel man, as I believe I have already said, and rather recently. That is the perfect end to the most outrageous story I ever heard, and I am sworn to secrecy? However, I am comforted by one thing."

"And that would be?"

"Lunch is on you." The Vicar beamed. "On second thought, there is a another comfort."

"What is that?"

"The meeting I attended in your office was a matter of public record, and so, therefore, is the image of those three distinguished gentlemen solemnly nodding their heads in unison, over and over again, like four year olds in Sunday School. I shall treasure that for years to come, and I shall surely invite my friends to treasure it as well."

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