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The Cat





The snow was falling, and the Cat's fur was stiffly pointed with it, but
he was imperturbable. He sat crouched, ready for the death-spring, as he
had sat for hours. It was night--but that made no difference--all times
were as one to the Cat when he was in wait for prey. Then, too, he was
under no constraint of human will, for he was living alone that winter.
Nowhere in the world was any voice calling him; on no hearth was there a
waiting dish. He was quite free except for his own desires, which
tyrannized over him when unsatisfied as now. The Cat was very
hungry--almost famished, in fact. For days the weather had been very
bitter, and all the feebler wild things which were his prey by
inheritance, the born serfs to his family, had kept, for the most part,
in their burrows and nests, and the Cat's long hunt had availed him
nothing. But he waited with the inconceivable patience and persistency
of his race; besides, he was certain. The Cat was a creature of absolute
convictions, and his faith in his deductions never wavered. The rabbit
had gone in there between those low-hung pine boughs. Now her little
doorway had before it a shaggy curtain of snow, but in there she was.
The Cat had seen her enter, so like a swift grey shadow that even his
sharp and practised eyes had glanced back for the substance following,
and then she was gone. So he sat down and waited, and he waited still in
the white night, listening angrily to the north wind starting in the
upper heights of the mountains with distant screams, then swelling into
an awful crescendo of rage, and swooping down with furious white wings
of snow like a flock of fierce eagles into the valleys and ravines. The
Cat was on the side of a mountain, on a wooded terrace. Above him a few
feet away towered the rock ascent as steep as the wall of a cathedral.
The Cat had never climbed it--trees were the ladders to his heights of
life. He had often looked with wonder at the rock, and miauled bitterly
and resentfully as man does in the face of a forbidding Providence. At
his left was the sheer precipice. Behind him, with a short stretch of
woody growth between, was the frozen perpendicular wall of a mountain
stream. Before him was the way to his home. When the rabbit came out she
was trapped; her little cloven feet could not scale such unbroken
steeps. So the Cat waited. The place in which he was looked like a
maelstrom of the wood. The tangle of trees and bushes clinging to the
mountain-side with a stern clutch of roots, the prostrate trunks and
branches, the vines embracing everything with strong knots and coils of
growth, had a curious effect, as of things which had whirled for ages in
a current of raging water, only it was not water, but wind, which had
disposed everything in circling lines of yielding to its fiercest points
of onset. And now over all this whirl of wood and rock and dead trunks
and branches and vines descended the snow. It blew down like smoke over
the rock-crest above; it stood in a gyrating column like some
death-wraith of nature, on the level, then it broke over the edge of
the precipice, and the Cat cowered before the fierce backward set of
it. It was as if ice needles pricked his skin through his beautiful
thick fur, but he never faltered and never once cried. He had nothing to
gain from crying, and everything to lose; the rabbit would hear him cry
and know he was waiting.

It grew darker and darker, with a strange white smother, instead of the
natural blackness of night. It was a night of storm and death superadded
to the night of nature. The mountains were all hidden, wrapped about,
overawed, and tumultuously overborne by it, but in the midst of it
waited, quite unconquered, this little, unswerving, living patience and
power under a little coat of grey fur.

A fiercer blast swept over the rock, spun on one mighty foot of
whirlwind athwart the level, then was over the precipice.

Then the Cat saw two eyes luminous with terror, frantic with the impulse
of flight, he saw a little, quivering, dilating nose, he saw two
pointing ears, and he kept still, with every one of his fine nerves and
muscles strained like wires. Then the rabbit was out--there was one long
line of incarnate flight and terror--and the Cat had her.

Then the Cat went home, trailing his prey through the snow.

The Cat lived in the house which his master had built, as rudely as a
child's block-house, but stanchly enough. The snow was heavy on the low
slant of its roof, but it would not settle under it. The two windows and
the door were made fast, but the Cat knew a way in. Up a pine-tree
behind the house he scuttled, though it was hard work with his heavy
rabbit, and was in his little window under the eaves, then down through
the trap to the room below, and on his master's bed with a spring and a
great cry of triumph, rabbit and all. But his master was not there; he
had been gone since early fall and it was now February. He would not
return until spring, for he was an old man, and the cruel cold of the
mountains clutched at his vitals like a panther, and he had gone to the
village to winter. The Cat had known for a long time that his master was
gone, but his reasoning was always sequential and circuitous; always for
him what had been would be, and the more easily for his marvellous
waiting powers so he always came home expecting to find his master.

When he saw that he was still gone, he dragged the rabbit off the rude
couch which was the bed to the floor, put one little paw on the carcass
to keep it steady, and began gnawing with head to one side to bring his
strongest teeth to bear.

It was darker in the house than it had been in the wood, and the cold
was as deadly, though not so fierce. If the Cat had not received his fur
coat unquestioningly of Providence, he would have been thankful that he
had it. It was a mottled grey, white on the face and breast, and thick
as fur could grow.

The wind drove the snow on the windows with such force that it rattled
like sleet, and the house trembled a little. Then all at once the Cat
heard a noise, and stopped gnawing his rabbit and listened, his shining
green eyes fixed upon a window. Then he heard a hoarse shout, a halloo
of despair and entreaty; but he knew it was not his master come home,
and he waited, one paw still on the rabbit. Then the halloo came again,
and then the Cat answered. He said all that was essential quite plainly
to his own comprehension. There was in his cry of response inquiry,
information, warning, terror, and finally, the offer of comradeship; but
the man outside did not hear him, because of the howling of the storm.

Then there was a great battering pound at the door, then another, and
another. The Cat dragged his rabbit under the bed. The blows came
thicker and faster. It was a weak arm which gave them, but it was nerved
by desperation. Finally the lock yielded, and the stranger came in. Then
the Cat, peering from under the bed, blinked with a sudden light, and
his green eyes narrowed. The stranger struck a match and looked about.
The Cat saw a face wild and blue with hunger and cold, and a man who
looked poorer and older than his poor old master, who was an outcast
among men for his poverty and lowly mystery of antecedents; and he heard
a muttered, unintelligible voicing of distress from the harsh piteous
mouth. There was in it both profanity and prayer, but the Cat knew
nothing of that.

The stranger braced the door which he had forced, got some wood from the
stock in the corner, and kindled a fire in the old stove as quickly as
his half-frozen hands would allow. He shook so pitiably as he worked
that the Cat under the bed felt the tremor of it. Then the man, who was
small and feeble and marked with the scars of suffering which he had
pulled down upon his own head, sat down in one of the old chairs and
crouched over the fire as if it were the one love and desire of his
soul, holding out his yellow hands like yellow claws, and he groaned.
The Cat came out from under the bed and leaped up on his lap with the
rabbit. The man gave a great shout and start of terror, and sprang, and
the Cat slid clawing to the floor, and the rabbit fell inertly, and the
man leaned, gasping with fright, and ghastly, against the wall. The Cat
grabbed the rabbit by the slack of its neck and dragged it to the man's
feet. Then he raised his shrill, insistent cry, he arched his back high,
his tail was a splendid waving plume. He rubbed against the man's feet,
which were bursting out of their torn shoes.

The man pushed the Cat away, gently enough, and began searching about
the little cabin. He even climbed painfully the ladder to the loft, lit
a match, and peered up in the darkness with straining eyes. He feared
lest there might be a man, since there was a cat. His experience with
men had not been pleasant, and neither had the experience of men been
pleasant with him. He was an old wandering Ishmael among his kind; he
had stumbled upon the house of a brother, and the brother was not at
home, and he was glad.

He returned to the Cat, and stooped stiffly and stroked his back, which
the animal arched like the spring of a bow.

Then he took up the rabbit and looked at it eagerly by the firelight.
His jaws worked. He could almost have devoured it raw. He fumbled--the
Cat close at his heels--around some rude shelves and a table, and
found, with a grunt of self-gratulation, a lamp with oil in it. That he
lighted; then he found a frying-pan and a knife, and skinned the rabbit,
and prepared it for cooking, the Cat always at his feet.

When the odour of the cooking flesh filled the cabin, both the man and
the Cat looked wolfish. The man turned the rabbit with one hand and
stooped to pat the Cat with the other. The Cat thought him a fine man.
He loved him with all his heart, though he had known him such a short
time, and though the man had a face both pitiful and sharply set at
variance with the best of things.

It was a face with the grimy grizzle of age upon it, with fever hollows
in the cheeks, and the memories of wrong in the dim eyes, but the Cat
accepted the man unquestioningly and loved him. When the rabbit was half
cooked, neither the man nor the Cat could wait any longer. The man took
it from the fire, divided it exactly in halves, gave the Cat one, and
took the other himself. Then they ate.

Then the man blew out the light, called the Cat to him, got on the bed,
drew up the ragged coverings, and fell asleep with the Cat in his bosom.

The man was the Cat's guest all the rest of the winter, and winter is
long in the mountains. The rightful owner of the little hut did not
return until May. All that time the Cat toiled hard, and he grew rather
thin himself, for he shared everything except mice with his guest; and
sometimes game was wary, and the fruit of patience of days was very
little for two. The man was ill and weak, however, and unable to eat
much, which was fortunate, since he could not hunt for himself. All day
long he lay on the bed, or else sat crouched over the fire. It was a
good thing that fire-wood was ready at hand for the picking up, not a
stone's-throw from the door, for that he had to attend to himself.

The Cat foraged tirelessly. Sometimes he was gone for days together, and
at first the man used to be terrified, thinking he would never return;
then he would hear the familiar cry at the door, and stumble to his feet
and let him in. Then the two would dine together, sharing equally; then
the Cat would rest and purr, and finally sleep in the man's arms.

Towards spring the game grew plentiful; more wild little quarry were
tempted out of their homes, in search of love as well as food. One day
the Cat had luck--a rabbit, a partridge, and a mouse. He could not carry
them all at once, but finally he had them together at the house door.
Then he cried, but no one answered. All the mountain streams were
loosened, and the air was full of the gurgle of many waters,
occasionally pierced by a bird-whistle. The trees rustled with a new
sound to the spring wind; there was a flush of rose and gold-green on
the breasting surface of a distant mountain seen through an opening in
the wood. The tips of the bushes were swollen and glistening red, and
now and then there was a flower; but the Cat had nothing to do with
flowers. He stood beside his booty at the house door, and cried and
cried with his insistent triumph and complaint and pleading, but no one
came to let him in. Then the cat left his little treasures at the door,
and went around to the back of the house to the pine-tree, and was up
the trunk with a wild scramble, and in through his little window, and
down through the trap to the room, and the man was gone.

The Cat cried again--that cry of the animal for human companionship
which is one of the sad notes of the world; he looked in all the
corners; he sprang to the chair at the window and looked out; but no one
came. The man was gone and he never came again.

The Cat ate his mouse out on the turf beside the house; the rabbit and
the partridge he carried painfully into the house, but the man did not
come to share them. Finally, in the course of a day or two, he ate them
up himself; then he slept a long time on the bed, and when he waked the
man was not there.

Then the Cat went forth to his hunting-grounds again, and came home at
night with a plump bird, reasoning with his tireless persistency in
expectancy that the man would be there; and there was a light in the
window, and when he cried his old master opened the door and let him in.

His master had strong comradeship with the Cat, but not affection. He
never patted him like that gentler outcast, but he had a pride in him
and an anxiety for his welfare, though he had left him alone all winter
without scruple. He feared lest some misfortune might have come to the
Cat, though he was so large of his kind, and a mighty hunter. Therefore,
when he saw him at the door in all the glory of his glossy winter coat,
his white breast and face shining like snow in the sun, his own face lit
up with welcome, and the Cat embraced his feet with his sinuous body
vibrant with rejoicing purrs.

The Cat had his bird to himself, for his master had his own supper
already cooking on the stove. After supper the Cat's master took his
pipe, and sought a small store of tobacco which he had left in his hut
over winter. He had thought often of it; that and the Cat seemed
something to come home to in the spring. But the tobacco was gone; not a
dust left. The man swore a little in a grim monotone, which made the
profanity lose its customary effect. He had been, and was, a hard
drinker; he had knocked about the world until the marks of its sharp
corners were on his very soul, which was thereby calloused, until his
very sensibility to loss was dulled. He was a very old man.

He searched for the tobacco with a sort of dull combativeness of
persistency; then he stared with stupid wonder around the room. Suddenly
many features struck him as being changed. Another stove-lid was broken;
an old piece of carpet was tacked up over a window to keep out the cold;
his fire-wood was gone. He looked and there was no oil left in his can.
He looked at the coverings on his bed; he took them up, and again he
made that strange remonstrant noise in his throat. Then he looked again
for his tobacco.

Finally he gave it up. He sat down beside the fire, for May in the
mountains is cold; he held his empty pipe in his mouth, his rough
forehead knitted, and he and the Cat looked at each other across that
impassable barrier of silence which has been set between man and beast
from the creation of the world.

MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN.





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