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 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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Precisely, and men companion each other on impersonal
"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
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
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
"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
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,
"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!"