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Sarah Orne Jewett

     One afternoon I was half asleep in my room, and something scratched at the door and pushed it open a little way, so I raised my head to see what was coming, and who should be staring at me but the Yellow Kitten. I was glad to see him, though I always called him stupid, and I asked him how he was, as politely as I could. He was one of those cats that are always teasing you for something to eat, and are always asking you to get up to open a door or a window, and he never frisked and played about the house in the charming way most kittens do.

     He jumped up on the bed beside me at once, making himself as round and small as possible, as if he were afraid he should take up too much room. When I patted him he rolled himself up still rounder and tighter than before, and held his nose close to the blanket with a firm paw. I watched him awhile, and thought how sleepy I was growing, when he sat up very straight and looked at me and suddenly said: "How are you this afternoon?"

     "Very well, thank you."

     "So am I," said the Kitten. "The other cats are out catching grasshoppers, but it is too violent exercise on such a warm day, and I thought I would come up to see you."

     "I am glad you did," said I, "but I didn't know you could talk."

     "You never asked me," said the Kitten; "there are a great many things you might know if you took the trouble to learn," and then we were both silent.

     "I wish you would tell me something," said I. "You must know so much that I do not."

     "I know a great deal about mice," said the Yellow Kitten, after thinking a while, "but perhaps you don't care to hear that. Are you fond of spools? Do you know many stories about them?"

     "No," said I, "I never heard that there was much to know, except that we wind silk and cotton on them, and we never can find the one we want. And I think they must be fond of traveling, for if you drop one it always goes as far as possible out of your reach."

     "How surprising it is," said the Kitten, "that we show so little interest in the people around us! We are so taken up with ourselves that we lose a great deal of pleasure. But it is not so strange that you do not know about spools, for I do not suppose you were ever lucky enough to hear them speak. They are very sensible, but they never talk to strangers. I was at one of their parties the other night: it happened that when the other cats were put to bed I was overlooked, and as I was asleep under one of the parlor sofas nobody noticed me afterward. It was late when I waked up, but the fire was so bright in the grate that I could see all around the room. I heard a little noise, and looked about carefully, thinking there might be a mouse, and I could at least find out where his hole was. I was disappointed at first, when I found it was only a spool-party, but I thought it might be amusing to watch what happened, and kept as still as possible. There was quite a company of them standing on the hearth-rug and more kept coming in the from the hall. I heard your mother say the other day that she wondered where all the pins went, and I thought it was just as mysterious what became of all the spools; but one never hears anything about that."

     "I suppose they are burned," said I; "and you know there are hundreds of pins used for one spool, and wood is more easily destroyed than brass."

     "Ho!" said the Kitten, "did you ever burn two dozen spools in your life? And only think of the thousands there must have been in this one house since your grandmother was young. If they were all here now the house would be full. The truth is that there is a land of spools, where they all go as soon as possible after you are done with them. They have to wait until their thread is used, and then a dozen or more start off together. It is a long way to go. I do not know exactly where, but I have heard a great deal about it. They always wear little black cloaks that the needles make for them, and they always bend themselves, they have to hurry so fast, and that is what becomes of all the little pieces of black silk and where all the bent needles come from. The spools always start at night, and once, when I was very small, I got out of the box where we used to sleep, and was roaming about the house, and I came upon a large procession of them. I upset them all and knocked them about with my paws and had great fun; but when I told the old cats about it in the morning they gave me a beating, and told me never to trouble a spool again as long as I lived, for if they are once angry with you they play you horrible tricks. My mother's grand-uncle, who is said to have been the handsomest kitten ever in this house, died a most shocking death. His mistress, your Aunt Alice, used to give him spools to play with, and at last he used to climb on the tables and poke them out of the work-baskets, and he really abused the poor things and never was contented if there was not one on the floor. At last the spools could bear it no longer, and one morning he was found dead in the hall with a little spool (the kind that fine cambric thread is wound on) in his throat. The family supposed he had swallowed it accidentally, but the cats knew better. Your Aunt Alice felt his loss deeply and gave him a grand funeral. There were six cats living here at the time, and they were all carried in procession down the garden by your aunt and her school-mates. The dead kitten's mother was a very wild cat, and was only caught with the greatest difficulty and carried to the grave in a covered basket. I have always been careful not to play with spools, though when I was younger and you used to throw them down for me it was a great temptation, and I know you thought me stupid.

     "People treat them dreadfully; they are always standing them on their heads and leaving them all night, and throwing them about as if they had no feeling, and using them to keep windows open a little way, and giving them to babies to play with. And boys whittle them and cut off their heads and feet to make useless little carts. And then it is so hard for them, when the thread is nearly gone, and they have made all their arrangements to start for Spool-land, to have people wind several skeins of silk on them, as so often happens. Some of them are very impatient, and unwind themselves as fast as possible, and give people such long needlefuls. I do not sew myself, but I heard the cook complain of such a spool only yesterday. Then I dare say that a great many never reach their country at all, for there are rivers to cross, and often no boat, so they have to float over. Sometimes, instead of landing upon the other side, they get entangled in weeds or branches of trees or pieces of wood that are floating down, so that they are either carried out to sea or get water-logged and sink. Do you know those great spools that are used in factories? They are so afraid of those; they are fastened to the machinery, but once in a while two or three contrive to get away after they become worn, and they live in lonely places, and go out in the dark night hunting for these little spools, and whether they devour them alive or put them in prison nobody knows, but they never are seen any more.

     "But, in spite of these terrors and the long journey, they all try their best to go, and are always making plans and thinking about it, and they are so disappointed when anything happens to prevent them. There is one poor old spool in your mother's work-basket who has been waiting there nineteen years in chains of black linen thread. There was a time when it was all off but one needleful for several weeks, and she was sure of going that Spring; and then the family began to wear button-boots, and she has been used constantly ever since. It is very hard, and it seems as if some other one might take her place, or even that some card-board or a Japanese winder might do. That very old Ivory Spool of your grandmother's is quite a different case, for she has never attempted the journey, as she would instantly sink in water. She is a most beautiful character, -- so resigned and kind-hearted. The new spools are always carried up to be presented to her, and she gives them a great deal of good advice, and they always pay their respects to her before they go. She never seems to envy them, though it must be hard to think she must end her days here, and be always saying good-by. However, she has grown very fond of your grandmother, and knows more about old times than you have any idea of. The wooden spools always promise to try and find some way of coming back and carrying her away, but I think she has quite given up expecting them."

     "But what happened at the spool-party that you saw?" I asked the Yellow Kitten.

     "Oh, they stood around talking, and I found that nineteen were going to begin the journey the next night and this was a farewell reception. For a wonder your grandmother had left her basket on one of the tables, and so the old Ivory Spool was already there, which was very fortunate, as it tires her very much to go up and down-stairs. Sometimes, when they wish to say good-by she happens to be shut up in your grandmother's room, so the wooden spools go up together and stand on the landing of the stairway, and she gives them her parting blessing through the crack under the door. There were some whom I pitied so much that evening. Seven, whose thread was used off long ago, and who meant to wait a day or two for some others, had been strung on a piece of twine for a child to play with, and of course nobody thought to untie them. They said they meant to set off by themselves some night, though they would not be a delay and trouble to their friends. They would hobble along together as well as they could; anything was better than being given to the baby again, and after some exposure to the weather they hoped to break the string."

     "I hope," interrupted I, "that you gnawed that string in two the first thing next morning."

     "Why, certainly," said the Kitten. "I thought it would be pleasanter for them to go with the rest. There were some others who joined the party in the course of the evening who were not expected. Do you remember when your little cousins were here in the summer, that they used to play in the garret? They carried all the dolls with them when they went away, but these spools were left behind, and they do not move about in the day-time, which was the only time that the door was ever left open; so, when cold weather came, they lost all hope. And at last some clothes were piled over them. But the evening before the party they had managed to crawl out and get close to the stairs, and while your grandmother and mother were hunting for something in an old chest, with a light, they hurried down without being seen or heard, and hid themselves behind a sofa in the hall. And when the spools were assembled they went down quietly and walked in two by two. Everybody was so glad to see them again, and they stood on the hearth-rug and the rest went and talked to them. I laughed so when I saw some sleepy old flies walk out of them, -- some who had stowed themselves away for the winter. Nobody took any notice of them, and they seemed quite displeased about it, for they evidently considered themselves of great consequence. They stumbled around a little while, and at last one conceited creature began to fly, but could not steer himself and went directly into the grate, and nobody cared about that, either. So the rest went under the edge of the rug, and I found them there next morning and ate them all up to save them any further mortifications."

     "How considerate!" said I.

     "Some spools are great liars; one should be always on one's guard. They are apt to believe each other, and the company that was to leave here the other night was nearly persuaded not to go. There is a spool down-stairs whose silk was not the right shade after he was bought, so there is little chance of his being ready for a long time. His lady-love was one of the empty spools, and they did not wish to be separated; so he told all the frightful stories he could think of, to make everybody wait. I think if it had been my lady-love," said the Kitten angrily, "I should have let her go, if she did not care enough about me to stay with me. I heard some one whisper that night that she was not very fond of him, -- but he was a silk spool and she was only white thread. Silk spools are very proud and are thought a great deal of, but he was standing on a bright blue figure in the carpet, and his lavender silk looked so ugly. And he told such stories to those poor innocent things! One was, that in some woods which they would have to go through there was a locomotive that had run away from some railway station, and was very wild and had done a great deal of damage to the crops. Everybody had been afraid to go near it, but some men found out where it slept, and were going to try to put out its fire with fire-engines. He had already burnt up two companies of spools which had lately left houses near here. Only think of their being frightened by such stories as that!" said the Kitten, scornfully; "but, poor fellow, it was hard to have his friends go off without him! How provoking! I hear somebody coming upstairs. I must tell you all the rest another day."

     And he curled himself up into a little ball again, and slept all the rest of the afternoon. I shut my eyes too, and when one of my friends came in she said she was so sorry for having waked me. It did not seem as if I had been asleep, but the Yellow Kitten has never talked to me since though we have been alone together a great deal.


"The Yellow Kitten" first appeared in The Independent (24:9) on 6 June 1872 and was collected in Play Days from which this text comes.
     [ Back ]japanese winder

Japanese winder: The reference is obscure, but it seems to refer to a tool that would allow thread to be removed from a spool.  It may refer to something like the pictured item from this website:

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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.

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