Gipsy





On a fair Saturday afternoon in November Penrod's little old dog Duke

returned to the ways of his youth and had trouble with a strange cat on

the back porch. This indiscretion, so uncharacteristic, was due to the

agitation of a surprised moment, for Duke's experience had inclined him

to a peaceful pessimism, and he had no ambition for hazardous

undertakings of any sort. He was given to musing but not to avoidable

action, and he seemed habitually to hope for something which he was

pretty sure would not happen. Even in his sleep, this gave him an air of

wistfulness.



Thus, being asleep in a nook behind the metal refuse-can, when the

strange cat ventured to ascend the steps of the porch, his appearance

was so unwarlike that the cat felt encouraged to extend its field of

reconnaissance--for the cook had been careless, and the backbone of a

three-pound whitefish lay at the foot of the refuse-can.



This cat was, for a cat, needlessly tall, powerful, independent, and

masculine. Once, long ago, he had been a roly-poly pepper-and-salt

kitten; he had a home in those days, and a name, "Gipsy," which he

abundantly justified. He was precocious in dissipation. Long before his

adolescence, his lack of domesticity was ominous, and he had formed bad

companionships. Meanwhile, he grew so rangy, and developed such length

and power of leg and such traits of character, that the father of the

little girl who owned him was almost convincing when he declared that

the young cat was half broncho and half Malay pirate--though, in the

light of Gipsy's later career, this seems bitterly unfair to even the

lowest orders of bronchos and Malay pirates.



No; Gipsy was not the pet for a little girl. The rosy hearthstone and

sheltered rug were too circumspect for him. Surrounded by the comforts

of middle-class respectability, and profoundly oppressed, even in his

youth, by the Puritan ideals of the household, he sometimes experienced

a sense of suffocation. He wanted free air and he wanted free life; he

wanted the lights, the lights, and the music. He abandoned the

bourgeoisie irrevocably. He went forth in a May twilight, carrying the

evening beefsteak with him, and joined the underworld.



His extraordinary size, his daring, and his utter lack of sympathy soon

made him the leader--and, at the same time, the terror--of all the

loose-lived cats in a wide neighbourhood. He contracted no friendships

and had no confidants. He seldom slept in the same place twice in

succession, and though he was wanted by the police, he was not found. In

appearance he did not lack distinction of an ominous sort; the slow,

rhythmic, perfectly controlled mechanism of his tail, as he impressively

walked abroad, was incomparably sinister. This stately and dangerous

walk of his, his long, vibrant whiskers, his scars, his yellow eye, so

ice-cold, so fire-hot, haughty as the eye of Satan, gave him the deadly

air of a mousquetaire duellist. His soul was in that walk and in that

eye; it could be read--the soul of a bravo of fortune, living on his

wits and his valour, asking no favours and granting no quarter.

Intolerant, proud, sullen, yet watchful and constantly planning--purely

a militarist, believing in slaughter as in a religion, and confident

that art, science, poetry, and the good of the world were happily

advanced thereby--Gipsy had become, though technically not a wildcat,

undoubtedly the most untamed cat at large in the civilized world. Such,

in brief, was the terrifying creature which now elongated its neck, and,

over the top step of the porch, bent a calculating scrutiny upon the

wistful and slumberous Duke.



The scrutiny was searching but not prolonged. Gipsy muttered

contemptuously to himself, "Oh, sheol; I'm not afraid o' that!" And he

approached the fishbone, his padded feet making no noise upon the

boards. It was a desirable fishbone, large, with a considerable portion

of the fish's tail still attached to it.



It was about a foot from Duke's nose, and the little dog's dreams began

to be troubled by his olfactory nerve. This faithful sentinel, on guard

even while Duke slept, signalled that alarums and excursions by parties

unknown were taking place, and suggested that attention might well be

paid. Duke opened one drowsy eye. What that eye beheld was monstrous.



Here was a strange experience--the horrific vision in the midst of

things so accustomed. Sunshine fell sweetly upon porch and backyard;

yonder was the familiar stable, and from its interior came the busy hum

of a carpenter shop, established that morning by Duke's young master, in

association with Samuel Williams and Herman. Here, close by, were the

quiet refuse-can and the wonted brooms and mops leaning against the

latticed wall at the end of the porch, and there, by the foot of the

steps, was the stone slab of the cistern, with the iron cover displaced

and lying beside the round opening, where the carpenters had left it,

not half an hour ago, after lowering a stick of wood into the water, "to

season it." All about Duke were these usual and reassuring environs of

his daily life, and yet it was his fate to behold, right in the midst of

them, and in ghastly juxtaposition to his face, a thing of nightmare and

lunacy.



Gipsy had seized the fishbone by the middle. Out from one side of his

head, and mingling with his whiskers, projected the long, spiked spine

of the big fish: down from the other side of that ferocious head dangled

the fish's tail, and from above the remarkable effect thus produced shot

the intolerable glare of two yellow eyes. To the gaze of Duke, still

blurred by slumber, this monstrosity was all of one piece--the bone

seemed a living part of it. What he saw was like those interesting

insect-faces which the magnifying glass reveals to great M. Fabre. It

was impossible for Duke to maintain the philosophic calm of M. Fabre,

however; there was no magnifying glass between him and this spined and

spiky face. Indeed, Duke was not in a position to think the matter over

quietly. If he had been able to do that, he would have said to himself:

"We have here an animal of most peculiar and unattractive appearance,

though, upon examination, it seems to be only a cat stealing a fishbone.

Nevertheless, as the thief is large beyond all my recollection of cats

and has an unpleasant stare, I will leave this spot at once."



On the contrary, Duke was so electrified by his horrid awakening that he

completely lost his presence of mind. In the very instant of his first

eye's opening, the other eye and his mouth behaved similarly, the latter

loosing upon the quiet air one shriek of mental agony before the little

dog scrambled to his feet and gave further employment to his voice in a

frenzy of profanity. At the same time the subterranean diapason of a

demoniac bass viol was heard; it rose to a wail, and rose and rose again

till it screamed like a small siren. It was Gipsy's war-cry, and, at the

sound of it, Duke became a frothing maniac. He made a convulsive frontal

attack upon the hobgoblin--and the massacre began.



Never releasing the fishbone for an instant, Gipsy laid back his ears in

a chilling way, beginning to shrink into himself like a concertina, but

rising amidships so high that he appeared to be giving an imitation of

that peaceful beast, the dromedary. Such was not his purpose, however,

for, having attained his greatest possible altitude, he partially sat

down and elevated his right arm after the manner of a semaphore. This

semaphore arm remained rigid for a second, threatening; then it vibrated

with inconceivable rapidity, feinting. But it was the treacherous left

that did the work. Seemingly this left gave Duke three lightning little

pats upon the right ear, but the change in his voice indicated that

these were no love-taps. He yelled "help!" and "bloody murder!"



Never had such a shattering uproar, all vocal, broken out upon a

peaceful afternoon. Gipsy possessed a vocabulary for cat-swearing

certainly second to none out of Italy, and probably equal to the best

there, while Duke remembered and uttered things he had not thought of

for years.



The hum of the carpenter shop ceased, and Sam Williams appeared in the

stable doorway. He stared insanely.



"My gorry!" he shouted. "Duke's havin' a fight with the biggest cat you

ever saw in your life! C'mon!"



His feet were already in motion toward the battlefield, with Penrod and

Herman hurrying in his wake. Onward they sped, and Duke was encouraged

by the sight and sound of these reinforcements to increase his own

outrageous clamours and to press home his attack. But he was

ill-advised. This time it was the right arm of the semaphore that

dipped--and Duke's honest nose was but too conscious of what happened in

consequence.



A lump of dirt struck the refuse-can with violence, and Gipsy beheld the

advance of overwhelming forces. They rushed upon him from two

directions, cutting off the steps of the porch. Undaunted, the

formidable cat raked Duke's nose again, somewhat more lingeringly, and

prepared to depart with his fishbone. He had little fear for himself,

because he was inclined to think that, unhampered, he could whip

anything on earth; still, things seemed to be growing rather warm and he

saw nothing to prevent his leaving.



And though he could laugh in the face of so unequal an antagonist as

Duke, Gipsy felt that he was never at his best or able to do himself

full justice unless he could perform that feline operation inaccurately

known as "spitting." To his notion, this was an absolute essential to

combat; but, as all cats of the slightest pretensions to technique

perfectly understand, it can neither be well done nor produce the best

effects unless the mouth be opened to its utmost capacity so as to

expose the beginnings of the alimentary canal, down which--at least that

is the intention of the threat--the opposing party will soon be passing.

And Gipsy could not open his mouth without relinquishing his fishbone.



Therefore, on small accounts he decided to leave the field to his

enemies and to carry the fishbone elsewhere. He took two giant leaps.

The first landed him upon the edge of the porch. There, without an

instant's pause, he gathered his fur-sheathed muscles, concentrated

himself into one big steel spring, and launched himself superbly into

space. He made a stirring picture, however brief, as he left the solid

porch behind him and sailed upward on an ascending curve into the sunlit

air. His head was proudly up; he was the incarnation of menacing power

and of self-confidence. It is possible that the white-fish's spinal

column and flopping tail had interfered with his vision, and in

launching himself he may have mistaken the dark, round opening of the

cistern for its dark, round cover. In that case, it was a leap

calculated and executed with precision, for as the boys clamoured their

pleased astonishment, Gipsy descended accurately into the orifice and

passed majestically from public view, with the fishbone still in his

mouth and his haughty head still high.



There was a grand splash! BOOTH TARKINGTON.





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