Sarah Orne Jewett's Cat
from "Some Literary Cats"
by Helen M. Winslow
It has often been said that poets and artists, as well as the most refined women, are cat-lovers. There is something about the cat's soft, quiet ways, their dignified reserve, their graceful curves, and their artistic poses that appeals to all lovers of the beautiful in nature.
Miss Sarah Orne Jewett is a cat-lover, and the dear old country-women down in Maine, whom one loves to encounter in her stories, usually keep a cat, though theirs are only the farmer's plain useful cats.
"I look back over a long line of cats," says she; "from a certain poor 'Spotty,' who died in a fit under the library window when I was less than five years old, to a lawless, fluffy coon-cat now in my possession. I shall tell you of two in particular: one the mortal enemy and the other the friend of my dog 'Joe.' I may mention, by the way, that Joe and I grew up together, and were fond companions until he died of far too early old age, and left me to take my country walks alone.
" 'Polly,' the enemy, was far the best mouser of all -- quite the best business cat we ever had, with an astonishing intellect and shrewd way of gaining her ends. She caught birds and mice as if she foraged for our whole family. She had an air of responsibility, and a certain impatience of interruption and interference, such as I have never seen in any other cat, and a scornful way of sitting before a person with fierce eyes and a quick ominous twitching of the tail. She seemed to be measuring one's incompetence as a mouse-catcher in these moments, or else to be saying to herself:
" 'What a clumsy, stupid person! How little she knows and how I should like to scratch her and hear her squeak!'
"I sometimes felt as if I were a larger sort of helpless mouse in these moments. But sometimes Polly would be more friendly, and even jump into one's lap, when it was a pleasure to pat her hard little head with its exquisitely dark tortoise-shell fur. Polly was a small cat to have so great a mind. She looked quite round and kittenish as she sat before the fire in a rare moment of leisure; but when she walked abroad, she stretched out long and thin, and held her head high over the grass as if she were threading a jungle. If she lashed her tail, one turned out of her way instantly. If she crossed the room and gave you a look, you rose and opened a door for her. She made you know what she wanted as if she had the gift of speech. At most inconvenient moments you would go out through the house and find a bit of fish or open the cellar door. You recognized her right to appear at night on your bed with one of her long-suffering kittens, which she had brought in out of the rain, out of a cellar window and up a lofty ladder, across the wet, steep roof, down through a scuttle into the garret, and still down into warm shelter. Here Polly would deposit the kitten, and scurry away upon some errand that must have been like a border fray of old times.**
"She used to treat poor Joe with sad cruelty, giving him a sharp blow on the nose that made him meekly stand back and see her add his supper to her own. A child once complained that 'pussy had pins in her toes.' Nobody knew this better than Joe. At last he sought revenge. I was writing at my desk, one day, when he suddenly appeared, grinning in a funny way he had, and wagging his tail until he enticed me out to the kitchen. There I found Polly on the cook's table, gobbling away on some chickens which were waiting to be put in the oven. I caught and cuffed her, and she fled, tamed and subdued for once, though she was usually so quick that nobody could administer justice on these depredations of a well-fed cat. Then I turned and saw poor old Joe dancing about the kitchen in perfect delight.
"He had been afraid to touch Polly himself, but he knew the difference between right and wrong, and had called me to see what a wicked cat she was, and to give him the joy of looking on at the well-deserved flogging.
"It was the same dog who used at odd times to be found under a table where his master had sent him for punishment, in his young days of lawless puppy-hood, for chasing the neighbors' young chickens.
"These sins had been long overcome, but sometimes in his later years Joe's conscience would trouble him, -- we never knew why, -- and then he would go under the table of his own accord, and would remain there looking repentant and crestfallen, till some sympathetic friend would bid him come out and be patted and consoled.
"After such a housemate as Polly, Joe found great amends in our next cat, yellow 'Danny,' the most amiable and friendly pussy that ever walked on four paws. He took Danny to his heart at once. They used to lie in the sun together, with Danny's yellow head on the dog's big paws, and I used sometimes to meet them walking, as coy as lovers, side by side up the garden walk. When I could not help laughing at their sentimental and conscious air they would turn aside into the bushes for shelter. They respected each other's suppers, and ate together on the kitchen hearth, and took exceeding comfort in close companionship. Danny was much beloved by all the family, especially poor Joe, who must sometimes have had the worst of dreams about the days of old Polly and her sharp, unsparing claws."
"Some Literary Cats" by Helen M. Winslow appeared in St. Nicholas (27:923-925) in August 1900. This is the opening of the story, which includes accounts of several other cats belonging to Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Louise Chandler Moulton, Mary L. Booth and others. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.