Evening descended as Tudor's carriage passed over the drawbridge to his castle and parked inside its dark grey walls. Within his walls, as without, there was considerable evidence of the Mouse's wealth in the form of fishponds, ornate hedges and enormous rosebushes. Several of Tudor's servants, all hares in livery, gathered to greet us when we arrived. One hare in dark clothes, a ruff about his neck only slightly less magnificent than Tudor's own, came directly to the carriage to welcome his master.
"I hope 'twas a day of great success for thee, sire," he asked obsequiously.
"Indeed, 'twas. Only a malign election result shalt deprive me of mine just desert. I have with me another guest," Tudor indicated me, "so I shalt expect a chamber prepared and a place ready for him at mine table."
"'Twill be done, sire," the hare replied, conducting us through a giant oak doorway into the main hallway of the castle. "'Tis salmon and trout on the menu this evening."
"And much mead I trust?" Tudor asked while his servant removed the belt holding his sheathed sword and held it respectfully in his paws.
"As ever, sire."
I was impressed by the expansive hallway lit by great wax candles in a giant chandelier above our heads. All around were portraits of illustrious looking Mice posing with swords and horses framed by extensive estates populated by all kinds of livestock. Two suits of armour stood to attention at the foot of a wide oak staircase. Even through the soles of my shoes, however, the stone floor felt very cold, and although it was not a cold day the air was distinctly chilly inside the castle's walls.
"Thou hast another guest, sire," the hare continued, one of his long ears foppishly drooping. "'Tis Hubert. He arrived unannounced this morn, and when I saidst that thou wert abroad he declared he wouldst await thee."
"Hubert! 'Tis many a morrow sin last we met. Thou didst well to let him stay. But sooth didst he perchance relate why he hath come?"
"Nay, sire. But I woot 'tis as ever in his quest for the Great Bard."
"As incorrigible as e'er!" laughed the Mouse. He gestured to me. "Come, 'tis time to dine. Mine modest banqueting hall awaits."
It might well have been modest compared to the opulent surroundings in which we'd met earlier in the afternoon, but it was still a very large room compared to any to be found in a Suburban house. A long oak table extended the length of it, on which was a comprehensive collection of crockery, cutlery and unopened bottles of wine and mead.
In a large leather chair below another portrait of a proud Mouse, sat the figure of an enormous teddy bear more than seven foot tall, wearing a long green waistcoat, a frock coat through the sleeves of which protruded the lace cuffs of his shirt and grey silk tights which just about squeezed around his tubular legs. His paws held a large green tri-cornered hat on his lap. He gazed at us through bright button eyes and as he twitched his nose I could see the stitching in his fur.
"Good evening, Tudor. I hope you don't mind me intruding on your hospitality like this," he announced, lifting himself up and strolling towards us.
"Not at all, Hubert. Nay, the pleasure, 'tis indeed mine to receive thee once more. Thy quest for perfect poetry hath brought thee here once more?"
"It has indeed! I seem to ever gravitate towards your castle in my quest for the works of the Great Bard. But who is your charming friend?"
"He hath come from the Suburbs. I met him on a train yesterday, and again today at the Party..."
"On a train! I would never imagine you'd ever contemplate such an uncomfortable means of travel! And, you, young man. You come from the Suburbs. Why! I was there just two days ago! From what I saw of that place, I am extremely surprised to see someone from there in such a place as Tudor's castle."
"Thou wert in the Suburbs? Thou dost greatly amaze me! Trowest thou that the Great Bard abided there?"
"I have so heard," Hubert admitted. "But there is naught for me there I confess. The relics of the Poet have been greatly obscured by municipal statues and supermarkets. But let's speak no more of that for I see that the first course is arriving."
Two hares dressed in tights, breeches and modest ruffs carried in large platters of fish. They were placed on the end of the table, where we were to sit, with Tudor at the head in a splendid high-backed chair, and Hubert and I on chairs to either side and facing each other. My chair was quite hard and rather too large, while Hubert must have found his chair uncomfortably small for his substantial bulk. The servants placed carved portions of salmon on our platters with the fishes' eyes staring reprovingly up.
"It's not at all long 'til the General Election," began the large teddy bear, choosing this topic as a means of stimulating conversation. "The day after next, I think."
"I'sooth! 'Tis so," replied Tudor carving his salmon with expert ease, while I was having great difficulty in separating the bones from the flesh. "'Twill be momentous, I trow, howsoe'er 'tis resolved."
"I'm sure you don't agree with me, Tudor, because I know what an old reactionary you are, but my hopes are on the White Party winning this Election."
"The White Party!" snorted the Mouse disdainfully. "Thou hast stayed too long in the Suburbs, i'truth! Thou wouldst advocate a government of no principles, no ideology, and no beliefs. The Party of compromise and dithering."
"'That's exactly why the White Party wins my vote," Hubert said pushing a forkful of fish into the dark lines of his mouth. "What this country needs is a government of consensus. Not one which pursues an agenda of its own design and oppresses the interests of others. Not a party like the Black Party who'd lynch Cats and other foreigners. Not one like the Red Party who'd increase our taxes. Nor one such as the Blue Party which would neglect the interests of the poor. No. What is needed is a party which pursues the golden mean. Neither right nor left. Neither capitalist nor communist. Neither catholic nor Protestant. Neither religious nor irreligious..."
"In short, Hubert, thou advocatest a government of pusillanimity and uncertainty. Thou wouldst desire government more for short term convenience than long term strategy. A government that doth naught that might ere disconsole the smooth order of life."
"You're quite right, Tudor, if a bit facetious."
"Then, Hubert, answer me this. Why 'tis thought needful for this General Election which shalt result in but one Party governing our great nation, when thou believest that government shouldst continue to be run by the consensus, dithering and delay that hath so long characterised it? Wouldst it better be 'twere all to stay as 'tis?"
"You may scoff, Hubert, but I do think that would be somewhat preferable to government by any of the other five Parties contesting the Election. If you consider the Suburbs, where the White Party has been in effective power from the beginning, you must confess that there is order, contentment, prosperity and peace. It is there that you will see the nearest to perfect government that currently exists in this land."
Before Tudor could rebut Hubert's reply, the servants breezed in, cleared away what was left of the first course, and lay another meat dish on the table that appeared to be rabbit or some other lagomorph. One hare, somewhat larger than the others, took slices from the carcass and placed them on new plates along with roast turnips, swede and parsnips. Hubert smiled appreciatively at his host while he took a forkful of white meat into his mouth.
"Tell me," pursued Tudor directing the conversation into uncontroversial territory. "How doth thy quest for the Great Bard for which thou hast travelled to such exotic boroughs as the Suburbs?"
"It continues, as ever, to exhume more of the legacy this great man has left. I have yet to find an authenticated tombstone nor indeed proof positive of his birth-place but I seek still and will persevere..."
"Until when? What is't thou seekest?"
"If I didn't know you better, Tudor, I would have thought you a philistine. The quest for Great Art is an end in itself. Its discovery is a mere trophy of one's endeavours."
"Great Art ist worth but three farthings if 'twere for the sole pleasure of the æsthete."
"Now, you are being facetious. Art is necessarily for all, though there are those of undoubtedly greater æsthetic sensibilities than others. This is just and fitting. The poet evokes images of great profundity in daffodils, roses, fish and wedding parties. He informs us of our condition and advises how best to advance on it. And so it follows that the greatest of poets must be the greatest of all creation, and that man is incontrovertibly the Great Bard."
"Thou must needs forgive me, Hubert, for the very ignorance that thou dost deride, but I little grasp the greatness of poetry. Thou canst not live in it. Thou canst not eat it. And thou dost not become rich by possessing it."
"Again I must beg to disagree. One most certainly does become rich in the possession of poetry."
"And I woot a very conceited lot these poets art! Why, Hubert, shouldst I heed these petty scholars who hath lived little and gained but little wealth?"
"Are you never affected by the wit and wisdom of poets who take any issue, however improbable, and in a few apt words persuade us to behold it anew?"
Before Tudor could challenge Hubert, the hares returned to remove what was left of the main course and to replace it with a selection of cakes, fruit, biscuits and cheese. They also brought in a bottle of brandy from which Tudor took great pleasure in pouring us all a drink. He picked up a glass in his claw and sniffed it with his long nose while his whiskers twitched agitatedly. As if satisfied by the smell he swallowed the contents entire and poured himself another glass.
"How was the Party, Tudor?" wondered Hubert, decorously brushing the crumbs of cake from the corner of his mouth with a serviette.
"As ever," sniffed the Mouse absently. "'Twouldst be better an 'twere not for the presence of the Cat Ambassador. That the host canst be so persuaded to invite a Cat to his Party illustrateth, wert demonstration required, the malign influence of the Cat in our society."
"I'm sure he was present more on account of his being an Ambassador than of being a Cat," commented the teddy bear diplomatically.
"Thou'rt too liberal in thy views!" exclaimed the Mouse. "A Cat ist a Cat, and as such ist innately damned. This Ambassador was disseminating his malign propaganda at the Party, and was dressed in such immodest and vulgar opulence that shouldst excite repugnance in all good Christian souls."
"You really don't like Cats, do you?"
"Wouldst thou, wert thou a Mouse? Mine kind hath been attended shamefully by Cats. I feel naught but sympathy for the Mouse Liberation Organisation and Canine Freedom Fighters who struggle against Feline oppression. 'Tis oft claimed by the Cats that they art the victims of racism and intolerance, but 'tis a hollow claim when thou knowest the discrimination practised against Mice in the Cat Kingdom who art denied expression in their own language and the rights of plebiscite and representation, and whose land ist oft stolen by so-called Feline Settlers. How canst the Cat deserve respect when he depriveth other species of theirs?"
"So you approve of the extreme behaviour of Rodent and Canine terrorists who blow up aeroplanes, hijack buses, gun down civilians, explode monuments and bandstands, and consign their own districts to a constant atmosphere of fear and distrust."
"Is't unlike the terrorism executed by Cats by which they acquired the ancestral homes of millions of Mice and Dogs? Plainly, I wouldst defend those who by active or passive means art employed in reversing the wrongs the Cat hath wrought. And thou'rt mistaken - a thousand times so - when thou sayest that the struggle ist entirely engaged by the terrorist. In the Cat Kingdom there art many who refuse to patronise Feline premises, to pay taxes to the Feline oppressors or to bow down to the tyrannical rule of the Feline King. They art engaged in a struggle that hath oft cost them their lives."
"I don't believe that it's at all inconsistent for me to be sympathetic to that kind of protest and somewhat less so to the terrorism of more militant individuals," argued Hubert. "And furthermore I am a little disquieted by the notion of the Dogs becoming a greater influence in the region. Some of the Canine Republics are decidedly unpleasant not only in the way they treat Cats, but even other kinds of Dogs."