There was once an artist named Umberto Collins. His mother had named him after her favourite actor, a handsome Italian star of the silver screen named Umberto Gazzini. Gazzini had acted in many of his mother's favourite movies. Although the artist's name was Umberto, his mother and father had the plain and ordinary names of Edna and Terry Collins. When little Umberto was teased at school for his strange, foreign-sounding first name, he told the other kids to just call him plain old Bert. So it was that at school, his mates always called him Bert or Bertie.
However, when he grew older, the artist decided that he wanted to be called Umberto again, as he thought it made him sound exotic, glamorous and much more sophisticated. He had decided to become an artist at a very young age, as he realised that he had a talent for drawing. He created pictures with pencil, charcoals and ink, and then later he started to paint with watercolours and oils. He created portraits and landscapes, and he even enjoyed making surreal pictures, like Picasso or Salvador Dali once did.
Unfortunately, it was difficult for Umberto to make money from being an artist. Even though he was now a grown man, Umberto was always a very thin and lanky fellow, as he saved his money by skipping meals. Sometimes, he was so busy and engrossed in his art at his studio, that he simply forgot to eat.
His parents wanted him to get a proper job. “You should be an accountant, or a teacher”, his father told him. “You'll never make any money from paintings!” But Umberto was devoted to his hobby, and so he refused to listen. He was passionate about his art, and he wanted to make a success of it.
Umberto's good fortune came to him one day, when he was exhibiting his paintings at a gallery in the city. He was very proud of his work, and on that particular day a very rich lady named Lucinda Rampton visited the exhibition. She was the wife of a successful businessman who had made his money from investments. Mrs Rampton was very taken with Umberto's paintings, and she thought that he was a very talented young fellow. Umberto was pleased to speak to this mature, elegant lady with her short brown curls of hair, pearls and expensive blue Chanel suit, as he could see that she was rich and also genuinely interested in his art. He answered all her questions, and found himself confessing to her that he had little money to support himself, and made even less from his attempts to sell his paintings. “I sold my Seafront View earlier”, he grumbled.“It took me months to finish that painting. And that sale will only be enough to buy me some milk and bread, pay the rent and the electric bill, and buy a new pair of socks!” All of Umberto's socks presently had holes in them, and he had mismatched pairs as some had gone missing.
Having heard this sad tale from Umberto's lips, Mrs Rampton felt so sorry for him. She was appalled that such a talented young artist was forced to live in such restricted circumstances, on the cusp of poverty itself. She offered there and then to become Umberto's patron, which meant that she would financially support him while he produced his works of art, and hopefully make sales and become critically acclaimed. She fully believed that he would succeed.
Umberto was astonished and delighted. He couldn't believe his luck. “Oh thank you, Mrs Rampton!” he exclaimed. Indeed, he could not stop thanking her profusely. He shook her white-gloved hand, not daring to let go. He felt a lump in his throat, and had to fight back tears of joy in order to keep his dignity. “Thank you for this wonderful opportunity you've given me!”
Mrs Rampton told him that, amongst the several houses she and her husband owned, they possessed an old house out in the country. It was a mansion known as 'The Spires'. Umberto was quite welcome to make use of it, she said, as there was no-one in residence at the moment. Indeed, her husband had lost interest, and let the old house begin to crumble. It would be an ideal location for Umberto to paint and work in solitude, she said, and also do the Ramptons a favour by being a caretaker for the old place.
Umberto accepted immediately, and so the next day Mrs Rampton arrived outside his flat in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. Umberto was there, with his bewildered landlord Mr Edgar Brown (a man who always had a puzzled, frowning expression, if truth be told). Mrs Rampton paid off Umberto's outstanding rent, and Umberto took great pleasure in saying goodbye to his landlord. Umberto had been sure that Mr Brown had been charging him too much rent anyway. Umberto carried out his few possessions- clothes, cutlery, his artist's tools such as his paintbrushes, pencils, scribes, boards, paper, paints and his easel- and put them in the boot of the Rolls Royce before they set out for his new home, 'The Spires'.
When they arrived at the mansion, Umberto was not at all disappointed. It was just as impressive as he had hoped and expected it would be. There were vast acres of grounds with woodland and lakes, and the mansion itself was Gothic and forbidding with weather-worn grey stone, balustrades and gargoyles, and the towering turrets and pinnacles which had given the building its name. There was a fountain outside, too, by the gravel driveway. As they had driven through the gate and seen the mansion rising up on the hill before them, Umberto had thought that the place did indeed look very ominous and rather spooky.
“You won't have to go to the shops, there will be regular deliveries of food and supplies”, Mrs Rampton told him, which made sense as the house was in a very remote location. “But you will be responsible for repairs and maintenance. You are welcome to set up your things and make yourself at home, just as long as you do the chores. Remember, it's a very big house. This was where my husband Cecil and I brought up our son Victor, until he left home to make his way in the world. It has a lot of history.”
The mansion was huge, indeed. Umberto promised Mrs Rampton that he would not let her down, and as soon as she and the chauffeur left, he set about exploring the place. It was as vast as he had expected, with four floors and two separate wings. Mrs Rampton had given him a skeleton key to open all of the rooms of the house. He spent his first day there opening each one. He thought that many of the rooms hadn't been inhabited or used for several years. Upon inspecting some of the rooms, Umberto noticed that there was some curious and quite drastic damage. Some of the walls had large, irregular and ragged holes in them, with splinters of wood and powdery sawdust on the floors, as if something had burrowed through. Umberto realised that he'd probably have to telephone Mrs Rampton and report the damage, and ask her if she knew about it. It seemed very strange, as most of the house was in such good upkeep and condition. Mrs Rampton had told him that she and Cecil paid people to come in and clean the place once every month, so thankfully the mansion wasn't in that bad a state.
The place had a very desolate feel, and when dusk arrived he started to imagine that it could be haunted. Later that night, his first evening at 'The Spires', he heard rustlings and movement within the walls. The sound made him shiver, but he supposed that it must be mice or rats, rather than ghosts. The atmosphere and the scenery of the place was certainly going to inspire his painting, he thought.
A week passed without incident, apart from the strange sounds that Umberto sometimes heard, and always at night. He slept in a different bedroom every night, just because he could. At the end of his first week, Umberto decided to treat himself to a personal midnight feast in the Spires' great dining hall with its huge overhanging crystal chandelier, to celebrate his good fortune and Mrs Rampton's kind generosity. He had been starving when he was a poor artist, so to mark his change in fortune he was going to eat like a pig. He had tomato soup with bread slices as a starter, followed by platters of chicken and roast potatoes with gravy, bread sauce and cranberry sauce; then for afters, he had treacle sponge with hot custard, followed up by double chocolate gateau. After eating his gargantuan feast, Umberto lay back on his recliner, and belched loudly. He fell asleep surrounded by the remnants of his meal, allowing the rich smells of the food to waft through the air, and penetrate even the deepest, darkest corners of the house.
Umberto began to snore. His chest gradually rose and fell with each sleeping breath.
Somewhere, in the silence of the vast mansion, something stirred. Now it was moving. Round, dark eyes scanned their surroundings and sniffed the air. A shadow passed swiftly down the corridor. Small feet made the sound of soft pitter-patter on the wooden floorboards.
Umberto was not alone.
King was a freak. Even when he had been born, blind and pink and hairless, in his mouse-litter amongst his brothers and sisters, even then- he had been the biggest. He had grown faster than them too, and had always had a greater appetite than they did. While his family dined happily on bread crumbs and wood shavings, King craved tastier and more substantial fare. When he discovered his first cheese slice, it was the greatest moment of his mouse-life so far. Such a tasty morsel! His mouth salivated at the thought of it, as he remembered the delicious scent.
And now, the scent of Umberto's Great Banquet, his midnight feast with cooked meats, and aromatic odours of custard and creamy chocolate gateau, had reached King's furry snout, even deep in the depths of the mansion: the network of mouse-made tunnels that existed within the Spires. So King, a freakish giant amongst his own kind, had crept out from his secret domain and followed his nose to the source of the interesting and appetising scents- the dining room, where Umberto was asleep. There, King discovered a mountainous array of treats and snacks, all laid out for him upon the banqueting table, the remnants of which were his for the taking. Meanwhile, Umberto slept, snoring away and oblivious to it all.
King eyed him nervously for a little while, watching the artist from the shadows with his shifty, beady little eyes. Finally, he decided that Umberto wasn't going to wake up anytime soon. King was truly a unique creature: a mouse who was as big as a fully grown cat, and as big and even bigger than many of his cousins- the rats. He didn't like rats, he thought that they were dirty and sneaky, and he usually enjoyed scaring them away. He leapt up upon the banqueting table, and immediately he was assailed by the delicious smells of all the food on offer. He was spoilt for choice. He nibbled at the bread, and chewed the meats, and licked the gravy- oh, how he wished that he could swim in the gravy! He was so excited by this wondrous discovery that he began to emit little mewls and squeaks.
It must have been these joyous noises which disturbed Umberto. For at that very moment, without warning, he awoke and opened his eyes. He was immediately confronted by the arresting sight of a giant mouse with a metre-long tail on his dining room table, a mouse that was as big as a cat. It was sitting up on its hind legs and scoffing a slice of chicken before it snaffled up some fresh chocolate cream in the bowl next to it. In that precise moment, King suddenly realised that Umberto had stopped snoring, and so King stopped chewing. He saw that Umberto's big scary human eyes were open and looking straight at him.
Umberto stared at the giant mouse and rubbed his eyes. He wondered if he was dreaming, or if he was seeing things. Then he realised that this was very real. The intrepid little monster had stopped eating and was looking at him. There was definitely a mouse that was certainly as big as a cat, sitting on the table, and eating what remained of his food. He opened his mouth to scream, and in the same moment King let out a high-pitched squeal, dropped the chicken leg he had been holding, and leapt off the table. He scuttled away out of the dining hall as fast as his little legs could carry him, dragging his long tail behind him. Umberto shrieked and gibbered, and ran after him. But like all of his kind, King could move very fast and he was good at hiding, and so Umberto couldn't catch him.
Umberto was terrified by what he had seen. He could scarcely credit it, but he knew that he had not been dreaming. He wasn't sure if it had been a mouse or a rat. The shape of its head and body had been more like a mouse. He knew that rats could grow to prodigious sizes, but he had never heard of a giant mouse before. He decided that he would have to lay a trap for the beast. It would be tempted to eat again sooner or later, and then he would capture it. Perhaps he would have to kill it, particularly as he suspected that the freakish creature was responsible for the damage he had seen in some of the rooms of 'The Spires'. Maybe there were more like it! The thought made him gulp, and he shuddered at the thought of giant mice running amok within the corridors of the mansion.
How would he catch it though? There was no mousetrap that was big enough to use, and despite the creature's size it had been able to move swiftly. Umberto finally decided that he would leave some cheese out for the giant mouse, and then he would wait in a corner of the vast dining hall. It would be dark and he could hide in the shadows with a rope net which he had managed to find in the cellar. The net was big, and had weights attached to its four corners. Possibly it had been used by poachers at 'The Spires' in the past. When the creature was eating, he would pounce on it.
So, with his plan decided on, Umberto set to work. The following evening he left large slices of cheese upon plates which he set on the dining room floor. He lit several candles on one side of the room, before going to sit and hide in a black corner, waiting for the monstrous over-sized rodent to return.
The hour grew late. Umberto found himself listening to the old grandfather clock ticking in the corridor outside. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. His eyelids grew heavy. His chin began to droop toward his chest. Twice he nearly nodded off, and he awoke with a start, still clutching the rope net in his hands. Until-
A black shadow stirred amid gloomier shadows. There was furtive movement. Small paws pitter-pattered across the wood-panelled floor, a long tail trailing. A twitching whiskered snout sniffed the air, and listened. Umberto held his breath, not daring to move. The giant mouse entered the dining hall, inching forward, and cautiously approached the plates of cheese. Then-
With a small cry, Umberto leapt forward. The giant mouse leapt into the air, startled, and let out a high pitched squeal but it was too late. Umberto had dived on it and covered the creature with the net entirely. He'd caught it. King was now a prisoner. “Hah! Gotcha!” the artist roared.
“Please, guv'nor! Be merciful!”
Umberto could scarcely believe his ears. Was he hallucinating, or imagining things? Because for a moment there, he could have sworn that this giant mouse had actually spoken to him-
“Ow! You're hurting me, pinkface!” it now squeaked.
No, his ears certainly did not deceive him. This freaky mouse was talking. Even as it squirmed and scratched and writhed and chewed at the net, it was pleading for its life. It was an intelligent creature. It was most certainly speaking the English language in a high-pitched voice and a Cockney accent.
“Excuse me, are you talking?” he found himself saying.
“Course I am, guv'nor! It's not every day a pink hairless giant catches me!” the mouse sobbed. “It's not fair, you left the delicious, sweet smelling, irresistible food for me!”
“But...how come you are able to talk?” Umberto asked stupidly, realising that he could not kill this creature now, even though he was even more determined than ever not to let go of the net. “I mean...how did you learn, never mind possess the capacity? Animals aren't supposed to talk, and certainly mice don't! Even mice as big as you! You're not some kind of weird rat, are you?”
“A rat?! Well that isn't a nice thing to say, is it, guv'nor?” the mouse said, almost haughtily. He was obviously extremely offended at being compared to a rat. “I've always been able to talk, even though my little brothers and sisters can't. I learned the speech from the Giant Pinkfaces, the one called Victor and the one called Nanny. The Nanny-Pinkface used to do the readings. Stories. I listened to them speak. They smelled nice, they smelled friendly. Not like you. I couldn't use the speech with my kin, but I used to talk to Giant Pinkface Victor from inside the walls, and he thought I were a ghost. But then later he said he was scared, and then he left and never came back. I went into the Land of the Giant Pinkfaces to try and find him, but it was all so quiet. I been listening. I've always been here. This is my home.”
“Well”, Umberto said. “It's my home now. But you're a very strange and clever mouse, I must say. Are there more like you?”
“No”, the giant mouse replied, and he sounded sad. “I'm the biggest and the cleverest of my kin.”
“So you are a freak?” Umberto asked him.
“Oi!” the giant mouse squeaked, but he was lying still and he had stopped squirming. “Watch who you are calling freak, Giant Pinkface!”
“My name is Umberto” the artist said. “Do you have a name? You must do, as you're so awfully clever and stroppy. Are you male or female?”
“I don't understand you”, the mouse complained. “But my name is King. Victor-Pinkface taught me that word, along with many other words. Now, will you please take this net off me? It really does chafe, and it smells bad.”
“Only if you promise not to run away. I'd like to talk to you some more.”
“Okay, guv'nor. I promise.”
King kept his promise, and he didn't run away. Umberto found that he and the giant mouse got on famously, and they soon became best friends. Umberto taught King many new words, but to the giant mouse Umberto and his kind were always 'The Pinkface Giants'. Umberto shared his food with King and his smaller, normal-sized brethren, on the condition that the mouse did not leave his foul pellets lying around, particularly on the nice carpets. “It's wonderful you can talk but it's a pity you're not house-trained”, Umberto had sighed.
“Seems like a fair deal to me, guv'nor”, King said to him.
“I'd like to paint your portrait”, Umberto said to his rodent friend one day, after he had explained that he was an artist, and told the mouse what an artist does.
“Seems like it could be fun, guv'nor”, King replied, and he agreed to let Umberto paint him. “I can sit still for you. Make sure you get my best side, though.”
“Do mice...have a best side?” Umberto asked, frowning.
“Oi, watch it, Pinkface!”
And so King posed for Umberto, crouched upon a chair with his brown mouse-fur all sleek and groomed, his long tail trailing down, his elongated whiskered snout quivering, his dark eyes shiny and sensitive, and his round ears twitching. Umberto painted him zealously, affording great attention to detail and giving the mouse as flattering a look as might be possible for a rodent, even as large and handsome a rodent as King was.
In the end, both the man and the mouse were pleased with the end result. “Is that really what I look like?” King squeaked. “I look like my brothers and sisters. I always imagined myself looking more...noble.”
“That's you”, Umberto said. “That's my...interpretation of you. I think I captured you perfectly.”
“You have to admit, I am much more handsome than any Pinkface.”
“Now, steady on”, Umberto said with a laugh.
“Truly, you Giant Pinkfaces are the ugliest creatures I have ever seen. Why are your noses so big and pointy? Your eyes are strange, and your ears are tiny. Why are your bodies so long and you walk on your back feet? Why do you cover yourselves with material? And what has happened to your fur? You only have a bit on the top.”
Then one day, Mrs Rampton called at the mansion. Umberto saw her Rolls Royce arrive in the driveway from one of the upper windows. He ran down the stairs to the entrance hall so that he could meet her, but when he greeted her on the doorstep he discovered that for some reason she was in floods of tears. “Why, Mrs Rampton!” he exclaimed, greatly distressed to see her weeping. “Whatever is the matter?!”
“Oh, Bertie my dear boy! I am ruined! Ruined!” she wailed.
“What has happened? Do come in, let me make you a cup of tea.”
“Oh, poor Umberto! We can barely spare the milk! We've lost everything! Dear Cecil has lost it all, the silly moose, all our fortune and savings in stocks and shares! They've gone! We've been fleeced! Embezzled! Robbed! The bailiffs are coming in one month to take everything! We will have to sell our properties! Including-”
“Including this place”, Umberto said hollowly. “The Spires, too.”
“Everything! They might bulldoze The Spires to build a health farm! Oh, I'm sorry my dear Bertie”, Mrs Rampton said, dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. “I know how much you love the mansion. But I'm afraid it'll have to go along with everything else. Cecil and I took bad advice, and now we are ruined. I don't know what we'll do. Maybe we'll have to go and live with Victor and his wife, that dreadful Gladys. There's no other way out of this!” She burst into floods of tears again.
“Unless...” Umberto murmured. He had an idea.
Mrs Rampton stared at him, her mascara ruined and now streaked across her cheeks. “Unless what?”
Two weeks later, a group of art lovers, critics and prospective buyers had gathered at Mrs Rampton's City Art Gallery. They were all eager to see the unveiling of Umberto Collins' latest rumoured masterpiece. Even now, the painting was standing in the middle of the gallery, covered by a cloth and balanced on a stand, waiting to be seen by an impatient and fascinated public.
“Ladies and gentlemen”, Umberto said to the gathered crowd, after clearing his throat. He was dressed smartly in a fine black tuxedo suit, white shirt and bow tie. “I present to you my latest masterpiece, a portrait of a most singular kind. I give you- The King of Towering Spires!”
When Mrs Rampton had asked him: unless what? two weeks before, he had replied: Unless I can sell a painting that will become huge in the art world. Umberto now lifted off the cloth cover to unveil the mouse-portrait that he had painted of King. For the plan to save Mrs Rampton's fortune, her gallery and all of the Ramptons' assets was simple- he had to sell a painting, one that was so unique that someone might be mad enough to pay millions for it. When he had shown Mrs Rampton the painting, she had liked it because the mouse apparently "reminded her of her husband Cecil." Umberto didn't dare tell her that there was a giant intelligent speaking mouse living in her mansion, or indeed that it might have been her son Victor and his cockney-voiced Nanny from the East End that had taught King how to speak English. Umberto had wondered if Victor had ever told his parents that he had heard a mysterious squeaky voice coming from the walls of the mansion. Maybe one day he should ask Mrs Rampton if he could meet Victor. He might even invite Victor to visit the Spires and let Mrs Rampton's son reacquaint himself with King...if The Spires still existed then, of course.
Now that King's portrait was revealed to the waiting public, indeed it was a most singular painting, as Umberto had suggested. Umberto had successfully managed to capture King's best side, as he had promised the mouse. King was depicted with a devilish gleam in his eye, and a leering grin. The fine detail of his bristly whiskered snout, round ears and the texture of his fur had been perfectly captured in Umberto's painting.
However, in the instant that the painting was revealed, not everybody in the gallery took kindly to it. Unfortunately, not every human being cares for the sight of rodents. Several people (mostly, but not exclusively, female) shrieked and fainted as Umberto unveiled the portrait. Umberto saw that many others looked confused, bemused or disappointed. He heard low muttering and whispers, and his heart sank. It appeared that his gamble had failed. The truth was, this was the only painting he had finished because he had been too busy eating and talking with a giant mouse. It seemed that no one liked the mouse-portrait. The Ramptons had lost their fortune, and The Spires might be bought, or bulldozed. They would have to switch to Plan B, which was Umberto's reluctant idea to sell King to a Travelling Circus Freak Show. It was cruel, but it would be better than being crushed in a mansion while it was being bulldozed to pieces. Except-
Suddenly a man started shouting, a gentleman with what sounded like a French accent. “I love it! I love it!” he was yelling. “This is a work of genius! To paint a portrait is one thing! To paint a portrait of a human is what we accept as normality, it is so passé. But this! To paint a portrait of a mouse! The audacity! The originality! It is brilliant! Unique!” He began to applaud, and suddenly everyone else in the gallery was applauding. There were whoops and cheers. Umberto gulped, his heart leapt. Maybe things wouldn't turn out so badly after all. Mrs Rampton came to his side, and she hugged him. “I think you might have saved us, Bertie”, she whispered in his ear.
They didn't do too badly after all. The man who had shouted and changed everyone's mind about the mouse-portrait was the notable French art critic Francois Ledauphin, who was very influential and highly respected in the art world. At the end of the unveiling, he approached Mrs Rampton and Umberto, along with an American oil baron from Texas who went by the handle of Jim Hucklebacker IV, a Bavarian industrialist called Helmut Hamboeck, and a Russian oligarch named Vladimir Vulchkov. These four rich foreign gentlemen each bid for the painting, and eventually Umberto sold it to the Russian billionaire Vulchkov for two million pounds. It was precious money that would go some considerable way to saving the Rampton family and securing the future of The Spires, as well as making Umberto's reputation as a painter.
Vladimir told a delighted Umberto and Mrs Rampton that he absolutely had to own the painting, and he was happy to pay up so much money for it. “It is a beautiful painting. It shall take pride of place on my study wall at my dacha”, he said. “I confess, I have a liking for mice. As an orphan, living on the streets in Soviet Moscow during the communist era, some of them were my best friends. I had the little fellows in the pockets of my jacket and I shared my crumbs of food with them. These were the furry, small and delicate creatures who were my comrades. I shall work soundly in my study, with my dear mousy companion watching over me. I shall be proud to have the King of the Mice upon my wall.”
Little did Vladimir know the secret truth of his words!