The Yellow Cat by Annie E. P. Searing

An Idyll of the Summer

The minister of Blue Mountain Church, and the minister's wife, were enjoying their first autumn fire, and the presence of the cat on the hearth between them.

"He came home this afternoon," the minister's wife was saying, "while I was picking those last peppers in the garden, and he jumped on my shoulder and purred against my ear as unconcernedly as if he'd only been for a stroll in the lower pasture, instead of gone for three months—the little wretch!"

"It does seem extraordinary"—the minister unbent his long legs and recrossed them carefully, in order to remove his foot from the way of the tawny back where it stretched out in blissful elongation—"very extraordinary, that an animal could lead that sort of double life, disappearing completely when summer comes and returning promptly with the fall. I daresay it's a reversion to the old hunting instinct. No doubt we could find him if we knew how to trail him on the mountains."

"The strangest thing about it is that this year and last he came back fat and sleek—always before, you know, he has been so gaunt and starved looking in the fall." She leaned over and stroked the cat under his chin; he purred deeply in response, and looked up into her eyes, his own like wells of unfathomed speech. "I have an eerie feeling," she said, "that if he could talk he'd have great things to tell."

The minister laughed, and puffed away at his corncob pipe. "Tales of the chase, my dear, of hecatombs of field-mice and squirrels!"

But she shook her head. "Not this summer—that cat has spent these last two summers with human beings who have treated him as a kind of fetich—just as we do!" As she rubbed his ear she murmured regretfully: "To think of all you've heard and seen and done, and you can't tell us one thing!"

The Yellow Cat's eyes narrowed to mere slits of black across two amber agates; then he shook his ears free, yawned, and gave himself up to closed lids and dreams. If he could have told it all, just as it happened, not one word of it could those good souls have comprehended—and this was the way of it.

It was near the close of a June day when the cat made his entrance into that hidden life of the summers from which his exits had been as sudden, though less dramatic. In the heart of the hills, where a mountain torrent has fretted its way for miles through a rocky gorge, there is a place where the cleft widens into a miniature valley, and the stream slips along quietly between banks of moss before it plunges again on its riotous path down the mountain. Here the charcoal-burners, half a century ago, had made a clearing, and left their dome-shaped stone kiln to cover itself with the green velvet and lace of lichen and vine. The man who was stooping over the water, cleaning trout for his supper, had found it so and made it his own one time in his wandering quest for solitude. The kiln now boasted a chimney, a door, and one wide window that looked away over the stream's next plunge, over other mountains and valleys to far horizons of the world of men. This was the hermitage to which he brought his fagged-out nerves from the cormorant city that feeds on the blood and brains of humans. Here through the brief truce of summer he found time to fish and hunt enough for his daily wants, time to read, to write, time to dream and to smoke his evening pipe, to think long thoughts, and more blessed than all—to sleep! When autumn came he would go back with renewed life and a pile of manuscript to feed to his hungry cormorant. He was chewing the cud of contentment as he bent to his fish cleaning, when, glancing to one side where the fire, between stones, was awaiting his frying-pan, he caught sight among the bushes of two gleaming eyes, and then the sleek back and lashing tail of the Yellow Cat. The man, being a cat lover was versed in their ways, so for a time he paid no attention, then began to talk softly.

"If you'd come out of that," he said, as he scraped the scales, "and not sit there watching me like a Comanche Indian, I'd invite you to supper!"

Whether it was the tone of his voice or the smell of the fish that conquered, the tawny creature was suddenly across the open with a rush and on the stooping shoulders. That was the beginning of the companionship that lasted until fall. The next season brought the animal as unexpectedly, and they took up the old relation where it had left off the previous summer. They trudged together through miles of forest, sometimes the cat on the man's shoulder, but often making side excursions on his own account and coming back with the proud burden of bird or tiny beast. Together they watched the days decline in red and gold glory from the ledge where the stream drops over the next height, or when it rained, companioned each other by the hearth in the hut. There was between them that satisfying and intimate communion of inarticulate speech only possible between man and beast.

There came a day when the man sat hour after hour over his writing, letting the hills call in vain. The cat slept himself out, and when paws in the ink and tracks over the paper proved of no avail, he jumped down and marched himself haughtily off through the door and across the clearing to the forest, tail in air. Late that afternoon the man was arrested midway of a thought rounding into phrase by the sudden darkness. There was a fierce rush of wind, as if some giant had sighed and roused himself. The door of the hut slammed shut and the blast from the window scattered the papers about the floor. As he went to pull down the sash the cat sprang in, shaking from his feet the drops of rain already slanting in a white sheet across the little valley. At the same moment there was a "halloo" outside, and a woman burst open the door, turning quickly to shut out behind her the onrush of the shower and the biting cold of the wind. She stood shaking the drops from her hair, and then she looked into the astonished face of the man and laughed.

She was as slim and straight as a young poplar, clad in white shirt-waist and khaki Turkish trousers with gaiters laced to the knee. Her hair was blown about in a red-gold snarl, and her eyes looked out as unabashed as a boy's. The two stared at each other for a time in silence, and finally it was the woman who spoke first.

"This isn't exactly what I call a warm welcome—not just what the cat led me to expect! It was really the cat who brought me—I met him over on Slide Mountain—he fled and I pursued, and now here we are!"

She made a hasty survey of the hut, and then of its owner, putting her head on one side as she looked about her with a quick, bird-like movement, he still staring in stupefaction.

"Of course you detest having me here, but you won't put me out in the rain, again, will you?"

At once he was his courteous self. With the same motion he dumped the astonished cat from the cushioned chair by the writing table, and drew it forward to the fire. Then he threw on a fresh stick of pine that flared up in a bright blaze, and with deferring gentleness took the sweater that hung from her shoulders and hung it to dry over a section of tree-trunk that served as a chimney seat.

"You are as welcome to my hut as any princess to her palace," he smiled on her, "indeed, it is yours while you choose to stay in it!"

"Don't you think," she made reply, as he drew another chair up opposite to her, "that under the circumstances we might dispense with fine speeches? It is hardly, I suppose, what one would call a usual situation, is it?"

He looked at her as she stretched her small feet comfortably to the blaze, her face quite unconcerned.

"No," he acquiesced, "it certainly is not usual—or I should hate it—the 'usual' is what I fly from!"

She threw back her head, clasping her hands behind it as she laughed. She seemed to luxuriate as frankly in the heat and the dryness as the cat between them.

"And I"—she turned the comprehension of her eyes upon him—"I cross the ocean every year in the same flight!"

The storm drove leaves and flying branches against the window, while they sat, for what seemed a long time, in contented silence. He found himself as openly absorbing her charm as if she had been a tree or a mountain sunset, while she was making further tours of inspection with her eyes about the room.

"It is entirely adorable," she smiled at him, "but it piques my curiosity!'

"Ask all the questions you wish—no secrets here."

"Then what, if you please, is the object I see swung aloft there in the dome?"

"My canvas hammock which I lower at night to climb into and go to bed, and pull up in the daytime to clear the decks."

"And the big earthen pot in the fireplace—it has gruesome suggestions of the 'Forty Thieves!'"

"Only a sort of perpetual hot-water tank. The fire never quite goes out on this domestic hearth, and proves a very acceptable companion at this high altitude. There is always the kettle on the crane, as you see it there, but limitless hot water is the fine art of housekeeping—but, perhaps you don't know the joy there is to be found in the fine art of housekeeping?"

"No, I do not," her eyes took on a whimsical expression, "but I'd like to learn—anything in the way of a new joy! In the way of small joys I am already quite a connoisseur, indeed I might call myself a collector in that line—of bibelot editions, you understand, for thus far I seem to have been unable to acquire any of the larger specimens! Would you be willing to take me on as a pupil in housekeeping?"

"It would add to my employment a crowning joy—not a bibelot!"

"Pinchbeck fine speeches again," she shrugged. "Do you stop here all the long summer quite alone?"

"All the 'short summer,'" he corrected, "save for the society of the cat, who dropped down last year from nowhere. He must have approved of the accommodations, for he has chosen me, you see, a second time for a summer resort."

"Yes—I think he was trying to protest about you being his exclusive find, when I invited myself to follow him down the mountain—leading and eluding are so much alike, one is often mistaken, is it not so?"

She was sitting forward now, chin in hands, elbows on her knees, gazing into the flames where a red banner waved above the back log. When she turned to him again the westering sun had broken through the clouds and was sending a flare of rosy light in at the window. Studying her face more fully, he saw that she was years—fully ten years—older than he had supposed. The boyish grace that sat so lightly was after all the audacious ease of a woman of the world, sure of herself.

"I, too, am living the hermit life for the summer. I am the happy possessor of a throat that demands an annual mountain-cure. Switzerland with its perpetual spectacular note gets on my nerves, so last year we found this region—I and my two faithful old servitors. Do you know the abandoned tannery in the West Branch Clove? That has been fitted up for our use, and there we live the simple life as I am able to attain it—but you have so far outdone me that you have filled my soul with discontent!"

"Alas," said the man, "you have served me the very same trick! I could almost wish—"

"That I had not come!"

"Say, rather, that you would come again!"

She stood up and reached for her sweater, waiting for him to open the door. The round of the little valley was a glittering green bowl filled with pink cloud scuds. They stepped out into a jubilant world washed clean and freshly smiling. She put out her hand in good-bye.

"I almost think I shall come again! If you were a person with whom one could be solitary—who knows!"

When she appeared the next time she found him by the noise of his chopping. They climbed to the top of the moss-covered boulder that hangs poised over the ledge where the stream leaps into the abyss. Below them the hills rolled in an infinite recession of leaf-clad peaks to the sky line, where they melted to a blur of bluish-green mist.

"Oh, these mountains of America!" she cried, "their greenness is a thing of dreams to us who know only bare icy and alps!"

"Far lovelier," he said, "to look down upon than to look up to, I think. To be a part of the height comes pretty near to being happy, for the moment."

She turned from the view to study her companion. The lines in the corners of his kind, tired eyes, the lean, strong figure, hair graying about the temples. He grew a little impatient under it before she spoke.

"Do you know," she said slowly, "I am going to like you! To like you immensely—and to trust you!"

"Thank you, I shall try to be worthy"—even his derision was gentle—"I seem to remember having been trusted before by members of your sex—even liked a little, though not perhaps 'immensely'! At any rate this certainly promises to be an experience quite by itself!"

"Quite by itself," she echoed.

"Wouldn't it be as well for you to know my name, say, as a beginning?"

"No," she nodded, "that's just what I don't want! I only want to know you. Names are extraneous things—tags, labels—let us waive them. If I tell you how I feel about this meeting of ours will you try to understand me?"

The answer was less in words than in the assent of his honest gray eyes.

"I have been surfeited all my life," she went on, "with love—I want no more of it! The one thing I do want, more than anything else, is a man friend. I have thought a great deal about such a friendship—the give and take on equal terms, the sexless companionship of mind—what it could be like!"

He brushed the twigs from the lichens between them and made no answer.

"Fate—call the power what you will"—she met the disclaimer that puckered the corners of his mouth—"fate brought us together. It was the response to my longing for such a friendship!"

"It was the Yellow Cat!"

"The Yellow Cat plus fate! While I sat there by your fire I recognized you for that friend!"

Far below over the tree tops cloud shadows and sunlight were playing some wonderful game of follow-my-leader; a hawk hung poised on tilting wings; and on the veil of mist that was the spirit of the brook where it cast itself from the ledge curved the arch of a rainbow. The man pointed to the augury.

"You might try me," he said, and they shook hands on the compact, laughing half shamefacedly at their own solemnity.

"As woman to woman," he offered.

"Let it be rather as man to man," she shrugged.

"As you like—as women we should have to begin by explaining ourselves."

"Precisely, and men companion each other on impersonal grounds."

"Then it is a man's friendship?"

"Better still," she mused, "we'll pattern it after the ideals of the disembodied! We'll make this summer, you and I together, a gem from the heart of life—I will have it so!"

So it came about that like two children they played together, worked, walked, or read and talked by the open fire when cold storms came. Every morning she came over the wood-road that led by winding ways from her valley, and at sunset she went back over the trail alone. He might go as far as the outlook half way over the mountain where the path begins to go down, but no farther; as for any fear, she seemed to know nothing of its workings, and the revolver she wore in a case that hung from her belt was a mere convention.

One morning she came with eyes dancing—it was to be an especial day—a fête—and the gods had smiled on her planning and given them perfect weather. Never such sunshine, such crystal air, such high-hung clouds! Breakfast over, they hurried about the miniature housework, and packed the kit for a long day's tramp. Then they started forth, the cat following, tail aloft. Beyond a dim peak, where the clove opens southward, by the side of a tiny lake they lunched and took their noonday rest. She watched the smoke curl up from his pipe where he lay at peace with the scheme of things.

"Do you know, Man, dear," she said, "I am glad I don't in the least guess who you are! I have no doubt you write the most delightful stories in the world—but never put me in one, please!"

He took the pipe out of his mouth and looked at her long before he replied.

"Woman, dear," he said, "I have put you in a place—your own place—and it is not in my novels!"

She scrambled to her feet laughing.

"It's very well to make stories, but it is really more diverting to live them! Come, I must lead you now with your eyes shut tight to my surprise!"

So hand in hand they went along a smooth green wood-road until she stopped him.

"Look," she cried, "now look!"

Straight away till the road narrowed to a point of light against the sky where the mountain dipped down, banks of mountain laurel rose on either side in giant hedges of rose and white, while high above them waved the elms and beeches of the forest.

"It is the gardening of the gods!"

"It is my own treasure-trove! I found it last year and I have been waiting to bring you to it on my fête—what you call birthday! And now wish me some beautiful thing—it may come true! There is a superstition in my country—but I shall not tell you—unless the wish comes true!"

He broke off a spray of the waxen buds and crowned her solemnly where she stood.

"I have already wished for you—the most beautiful thing in the world!"

She shook her head, sorrowful. "Man, dear, the only thing in all the world I still want is the impossible!"

"Only the impossible is worth while—and I have wished!"

She shook her head again, laughing a little ruefully. "It could not arrive—my impossible—and yet you almost tempt me to hope!"

"Anything—everything may arrive! You once thought that such a friendship as this of ours could not, and lo, we have achieved it!"

"I wonder"—her eyes seemed fixed on some far prospect, a world beyond the flowery way—"I wonder if we have! And I wonder why you have never made a guess about my world when you have at least let me get a peep now and then into yours?"

"I don't care a rap about your 'world,'" he smiled into her eyes, "while I have you!"

"No curiosity about my—my profession?"

"Not a bit—though it was clear enough from the first that it was the stage!"

She made an odd little outcry at his powers of divination.

"Then I must look it—before the footlights from my birth! Since you are so clever, Mr. Man, will you also be merciful when you come to weigh me in those scales you try to hide beneath the garment of your kindness? Think, when you judge me, what it is for a woman never to be herself—always to have to play a part!"

He reached and took her hand suddenly, drawing her to him with a movement that was almost rough.

"This is no play acting—this is real! No footlights—no audience—only you and me in all this world!"

But she drew away, insistently aloof. She would have none of his caresses.

"This, too," she said, as she moved apart and stood waiting for him to follow, "is a part of the play—I do not deceive myself! When I go back to my world—my trade, I shall remember this little time that you and I have snatched from the grudging grasp of life as an act—a scene only! It's a perfect pastoral, Man, dear, but unreal—absurdly unreal—and we know it ourselves while we play the game!"

Down through the flower-bordered vista the cat went stalking his prey, his sinuous body a tawny streak winding along the green path. These trivial humans, with their subtle attractions and compunctions, were as though they never had been when the chase was on—the real business and purpose of life!

For the rest of the time they were together they avoided the personal. Each felt the threat in the air and tacitly averted it. For that one perfect day there should be no past, no future, nothing but the golden present.

Swinging in his breeze-rocked hammock between door and window the man lay awake through the long watches of the night, thinking, thinking, while his heart sang. Toward dawn he fell into a deep sleep from which he was only awakened by the cat springing up to lick his face in reminder of breakfast.

It was when he came back from his plunge in the pool that he first noticed a paper pinned to his door-post. Within its folds his doom was penned!

"Even you, dear Man, could not wish me the impossible! That superstition of my country is that to come true it must be the first wish of your fête day—and by one who loves you! Alas, my old servant had already wished—that he might get me started for home to-day! Clever Friedrich—for he had also packed! When you read this I shall be far on my way. You could never find me though you searched the earth—but you will never try! It is well as it is, for you see—it was not friendship after all!"

And yet there was a sequel. During the following year there dropped to the man in his hard-pressed literary life, one of those errant plums from the political tree that now and then find their way to the right basket. He was named for an excellent diplomatic post. His friends congratulated him and talked a good deal about "material" and opportunities for "unique local color;" his wife chattered unceasingly about gowns and social details, while he armed himself, with the listless reticence that was become habit, to face new responsibilities and rather flavorless experiences. He had so withdrawn himself of late to the inner creative life that he moved in a kind of phantasmagoria of outer unrealities. It was the nearest to a comfortable adjustment for the mis-mating of such a marriage as his, but it was not the best of preparations for the discharge of public duties, and he walked toward his new future with reluctant feet, abstractedly. In some such mood as this, his mind bent on a problem of arrangement of fiction puppets, seeing "men as trees walking," he found himself one day making his bows at a court function. Along the line of royal highnesses and grand duchesses with his wife he moved, himself a string-pulled puppet, until—but who, in heaven's name is this?

For one mad moment, as he looked into her eyes, he thought the tightened cord he sometimes felt tugging at his tired brain had snapped, and the images of sight and memory gone hopelessly confused. She stood near the end of the line with the princesses of secondary rank, and the jewels in her hair were not more scintillant than her eyes as he bent over her hand. She went a little pale, but she greeted him bravely, and when they found themselves unobserved for a moment she spoke to him in her soft, careful English:

"You recognized me, you remember, for a play actor, and now you are come from the world's end to see me perform on my tiny stage! Alas, dear critic, since my last excursion, I am no longer letter perfect in my part!"

They met but once again. It was in the crush of guests in the great hall where her old Prince, in the splendor of his decoration-covered coat, was waiting to hand her to her carriage. There was a brief time in which to snatch the doubtful sweetness of a few hurried words. She was leaving in the early morning for the petty Balkan province where her husband held a miniature sway, over a handful of half-savage subjects. Hardly more than a renewal of greeting and a farewell, and she was gone!

As the old Prince wrapped her more carefully in her furs, and the carriage rolled away in the darkness, he spoke to her, somewhat puzzled:

"I should be sorry to think the American Ambassador has been taking too much wine—as you well know, my knowledge of the barbarous English tongue is but limited, and yet—I thought, as I joined you, he was talking some farrago of nonsense about a Yellow Cat!"

That year the Yellow Cat came home lean and gaunt, a chastened, humble creature, as one who has failed in a long quest, and is glad to stretch his weary length before the hearth and reap the neglected benefits of the domestic life.

"It is really very odd" said the minister, quite as if he were saying something he had never thought of saying before, "where that cat goes in the summer!"

"Isn't it?" responded the minister's wife—just as she always did. "It fires the imagination! He walks off some fine morning and completely shuts the door on our life here—as if he gave us notice not to pry into his movements. But this time"—she was leaning to stroke the tawny sides with a pitying touch—"this time you may be sure something very sad and disappointing happened to him—something in that other life went quite wrong! How I wish we could understand what it was!"