Saturday, January 11, 2014

The King of the Cats

Yesterday morning, shortly after Loretta left for work, I was startled by a surprisingly loud "MROW-YOW!" from Dickens, who had leaped onto the window sill of the dining room window and was clearly agitated by something outside. I am not ordinarily startled by the sounds our cats make (and they make all sorts of sounds), but Dickens is usually fairly quiet, even when agitated. And it didn't help matters that I happened to be reading a horror story in which a cat is agitated by what turns out to be a horde of rats in the walls.

It was still dark, so I turned on the outside light. I was relieved to see not a horde of rats, but the orange cat we have come to call Julius sitting beneath the dining room window.

I wrote about Julius and his sibling, Greyjoy, last year. Greyjoy no longer comes around, and we fear the worst. Outdoor cats do not survive long in Southern California, where it is not unusual to see coyotes, mountain lions, and even the occasional bear. (Once we even had a Bengal tiger prowling near our neighborhood, but that's another story.) Julius, however, is still around, and spends much of his time in our back yard. He used to keep a safe distance from the house, but lately he has been coming right up on the patio to visit with our cats through the window. I imagine that he is telling Dickens and Zorra, who are strictly indoor cats, what is going on in the outside world.

Which reminds me of a story I came across many years ago.

"The King of the Cats" is an old English folk tale. Like all folk tales, there are many versions. Probably the best known is the one recorded by Joseph Jacobs in his 1894 collection, More English Fairy Tales (in the public domain and available as a free download from Project Gutenberg):

The King o' the Cats

One winter's evening the sexton's wife was sitting by the fireside with her big black cat, Old Tom, on the other side, both half asleep and waiting for the master to come home. They waited and they waited, but still he didn't come, till at last he came rushing in, calling out, "Who's Tommy Tildrum?" in such a wild way that both his wife and his cat stared at him to know what was the matter.

"Why, what's the matter?" said his wife, "and why do you want to know who Tommy Tildrum is?"

"Oh, I've had such an adventure. I was digging away at old Mr. Fordyce's grave when I suppose I must have dropped asleep, and only woke up by hearing a cat's Miaou."

"Miaou!" said Old Tom in answer.

"Yes, just like that! So I looked over the edge of the grave, and what do you think I saw?"

"Now, how can I tell?" said the sexton's wife.

"Why, nine black cats all like our friend Tom here, all with a white spot on their chestesses. And what do you think they were carrying? Why, a small coffin covered with a black velvet pall, and on the pall was a small coronet all of gold, and at every third step they took they cried all together, Miaou—"

"Miaou!" said Old Tom again.

"Yes, just like that!" said the Sexton; "and as they came nearer and nearer to me I could see them more distinctly, because their eyes shone out with a sort of green light. Well, they all came towards me, eight of them carrying the coffin, and the biggest cat of all walking in front for all the world like—but look at our Tom, how he's looking at me. You'd think he knew all I was saying."

"Go on, go on," said his wife; "never mind Old Tom."

"Well, as I was a-saying, they came towards me slowly and solemnly, and at every third step crying all together, Miaou!—"

"Miaou!" said Old Tom again.

"Yes, just like that, till they came and stood right opposite Mr. Fordyce's grave, where I was, when they all stood still and looked straight at me. I did feel queer, that I did! But look at Old Tom; he's looking at me just like they did."

"Go on, go on," said his wife; "never mind Old Tom."

"Where was I? Oh, they all stood still looking at me, when the one that wasn't carrying the coffin came forward and, staring straight at me, said to me—yes, I tell 'ee, said to me, with a squeaky voice, 'Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum's dead,' and that's why I asked you if you knew who Tom Tildrum was, for how can I tell Tom Tildrum Tim Toldrum's dead if I don't know who Tom Tildrum is?"

"Look at Old Tom, look at Old Tom!" screamed his wife.

And well he might look, for Tom was swelling and Tom was staring, and at last Tom shrieked out, "What—old Tim dead! Then I'm the King o' the Cats!" and rushed up the chimney and was never more seen.

Illustration by John D. Batten

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