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One thundery, slate-grey day in the Piney Woods, the fox and the toad were seated in the fox's den, awaiting the arrival of their bridge opponents, the badger and the rat.
"I hate this kind of weather," said the toad. "Gives me the creeps."
"Creeps for the creep," snapped the fox. "Now shut up and pay attention because those two dummies will be here any minute. What does it mean if I cough, scratch my left ear and Hum a few bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony?"
"It means that you're a flea-bitten, music loving fox that smokes too much," said the toad, and giggled.
"Seriously," growled the fox.
"Okay," said the toad, "Cough scratch left ear . . . hum . . . lemme see . . . got it! You're holding six diamonds to the king, the ace of clubs and the queen-jack-ten of hearts."
"Kee-rect," said the fox approvingly.
"I've worked up a new one since we played last,” said the toad. "Get a load of this.” So saying, the toad launched into a hideous series of convulsive jerkings, complete with tongue-lollings and unseemly rolling of his pop eyes.
"What does it mean?" said the fox eagerly.
"It means I'm only missing the ace of spades for a grand slam bid," said the toad.
"That's terrific, Toady," said the fox. "And if I've got the ace I'll blow my nose twice, and if I haven't I'll just say "ho-hum in rather a loud voice."
The two incorrigible cheats continued to concoct illegal methods of signaling during the impending game, until a knock on the door announced the arrival of the opposition.
"Whadyah mean, off?" croaked the toad.
"Yeah, whadyah mean?" echoed the fox, “fer Chrissake, we're ready!”
"It can't be helped," said the badger in measured tones. "Tomorrow, at midday, an event of the greatest importance is to occur in the Piney Woods, and all animals are expected to contribute toward its success."
"What bloody event?" grumped the fox.
In his most pompous and portentous voice the badger continued: "After all these years out in the great world, Sir Oswald Stoat is returning to the Piney Woods, where he was born and bred."
"Well, I'll be jiggered," jabbered the toad.
"Well, I'll be dang-blasted," blustered the fox.
That the animals were impressed was not surprising: Sir Oswald Stoat, financier, statesman, confidant of the great and near-great, was a legend in his own time. Indeed, there were few areas of commerce that had not felt his influence. Stoat Stout was daily quaffed throughout the land. Stoat Digestive Biscuits were munched and Stoat Tea imbibed in millions of homes, while one of the racier cars on the market was the four-wheel-drive triple-carburettored Stoatmobile.
Why on earth," the fox finally managed to say, "is he coming back?"
"As I understand it," said the badger, "he is coming to give us the benefit of his long, successful and variegated experience of the world. Toad, if I'm not mistaken, you once played the tuba?"
"Well, yeah, sorta just fooling around, you know," said the toad.
"And you, Foxy, have essayed the drum from time to time?"
"No," said the fox, "but I've played it off and on."
"That," said the badger patiently, "is what I meant. The services of both you animals will be appreciated in the Piney Woods Welcoming Orchestra, which is being formed under the conductorship of the bear."
"The bear!" expostulated the fox. "That fat twit couldn't conduct an argument!"
"For my part," continued the badger imperturbably, "I have consented to deliver the welcoming address. And now I suggest," added the badger, turning to go, "that you two animals get some practice on your instruments. We'll all meet bright and early tomorrow morning in the clearing by the pond, and erect the speaker's platform from which the great man will address us. Goodnight, gentle creatures."
By next morning the weather had cleared, and the speaker's platform was erected with dispatch and hung with colored ribbon. The orchestra was in its place, instruments at the ready, while practically the whole of the Piney Woods population milled around expectantly in the clearing. They were not to be disappointed. At 11:57 AM the deep full-throated roar of an engine was heard approaching and at midday precisely a long low bright red and unbelievably beautiful Stoat-mobile drew into the clearing and stopped.
From it emerged the great man himself. Dressed in impeccably cut country tweeds, he acknowledged the cheers of the crowd with a saw-like Edinburgh wave and made his way to the platform.
Stoat's 4 Rules To Die By
"Right, lads!" cried the bear, and raised his baton. There then began a great groaning and wheezing and rattling of instruments which even the most astute of listeners could hardly have identified as Land of Hope and Glory. When this horrid cacophony ceased, the badger delivered an overblown and long-winded address of welcome, and after that Sir Oswald himself got up to speak.
"Fellow Piney Woodsmen," he said, "a lot of water has gone under bridges, not to mention over dams, since I left this sylvan paradise and went out into the great world to make my way. I have returned here today out of a sense of obligation to my origins. Such success as I have had is due to a way of living that I have developed over the years. I shall now describe this to you, in the hope that you will embrace it yourselves and thereby improve your lot. Rule No. 1"—here Sir Oswald assumed a stern expression—"is work, work, and more work.
Personally, I can never get enough of that wonderful stuff. I work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Believe me, folks, holidays are for also-rans. Rule No. 2 is proper diet: no fats, no starches, no sweets– just plain, unseasoned, unsalted meat and veg. Rule No. 3 is exercise: first thing every morning, I do 100 press-ups, 50 pull-ups and 150 deep knee bends—and I play four sets of tennis every day, rain or shine. Rule No. 4 concerns the three big ‘don'ts’ in my life—don't smoke, don't drink, and don't (no insult to the ladies present intended, I assure you) don't fool around with women. Follow these rules, friends, and you can be like me–clear-eyed, clear-headed and as tough as old boots! Haw, haw!"
At this point, Sir Oswald's expression underwent a sudden and drastic alteration. Specifically, his face turned from bluff and hearty self-confidence to a pained grimace. He clutched at his chest, emitted a sort of rattling, gurgly sound and pitched forward over the rostrum, as finally and irrevocably dead as yesterday's newspaper.
Some days later, after a mourning world had paid its last farewells, the rat and the rabbit were musing over the tragic death of Sir Oswald.
"I wonder what did him in?" said the rat. "I read in the papers that before he came here he was as fit as a fiddle."
"Boredom can take a terrible toll of a man," said the rabbit.
"Are you thinking of the badger's welcoming address?" said the rat.
"I am," said the rabbit. "Also, there was the bear's orchestra."
"There was at that," said the rat. "Horrible noises are known destroyers of nervous systems. Still, we'll probably never know the real reason, will we?"
"We probably won't," said the rabbit.
And they left it at that.
Speech is silver, but silence is less fatal.