The Cat and the Cradle, by William Elliot
In the early ages, when our far-off ancestors lived in the woods, ate
acorns, slept in caves, and dressed in the skins of wild animals, they
had no horses, cows or cats. Their only pets and helpers were dogs. The
men and the dogs were more like each other than they are now.
However, they knew about bees. So the women gathered honey and from it
they made mead. Not having any sugar, the children enjoyed tasting honey
more than anything else, and it was the only sweet thing they had.
By and by, cows were brought into the country and the Dutch soil being
good for grass, the cows had plenty to eat. When these animals
multiplied, the people drank milk and learned to make cheese and butter.
So the Dutch boys and girls grew fat and healthy.
The oxen were so strong that they could pull logs of wood or draw a
plough. So, little by little, the forests were cut down and grassy
meadows, full of bright colored flowers, took their place. Houses were
built and the people were rich and happy.
Yet there were still many cruel men and bad people in the land.
Sometimes, too, floods came and drowned the cattle and covered the
fields with sand, or salt water. In such times, food was very scarce.
Thus it happened that not all the babies born could live, or every
little child be fed. The baby girls especially were often left to die,
because war was common and only boys, that grew into strong warriors,
It grew to be a custom that families would hold a council and decide
whether the baby should be raised or not. But if any one should give the
infant even a tiny drop of milk, or food of any kind, it was allowed to
live and grow up. If no one gave it milk or honey, it died. No matter
how much a mother might love her baby, she was not allowed to put milk
to its lips, if the grandmother or elders forbade it. The young bride,
coming into her husband's home, always had to obey his mother, for she
was now as a daughter and one of the family. All lived together in one
house, and the grandmother ruled all the women and girls that were under
This was the way of the world, when our ancestors were pagans, and not
always as kind to little babies as our own mothers and fathers are now.
Many times was the old grandmother angry, when her son had taken a wife
and a girl was born. If the old woman expected a grandson, who should
grow up and be a fighter, with sword and spear, and it turned out to be
a girl, she was mad as fire. Often the pretty bride, brought into the
house, had a hard time of it, with her husband's mother, if she did not
in time have a baby boy. In those days a "Herman," a "War Man" and
"German" were one and the same word.
Now when the good missionaries came into Friesland, one of the first of
the families to receive the gospel was one named Altfrid. With his
bride, who also became a Christian, Altfrid helped the missionary to
build a church. By and by, a sweet little baby was born in the family
and the parents were very happy. They loved the little thing sent from
God, as fathers and mothers love their children now.
But when some one went and told the pagan grandmother that the new baby
was a girl instead of a boy, the old woman flew into a rage and would
have gone at once to get hold of the baby and put it to death. Her
lameness, however, made her move slowly, and she could not find her
crutch; for the midwife, who knew the bad temper of the grandmother, had
purposely hid it. The old woman was angry, because she did not want any
more females in the big house, where she thought there were already too
many mouths to fill. Food was hard to get, and there were not enough war
men to defend the tribe. She meant to get the new baby and throw it to
the wolves. The old grandmother was a pagan and still worshipped the
cruel gods that loved fighting. She hated the new religion, because it
taught gentleness and peace.
But the midwife, who was a neighbor, feared that the old woman was
malicious and she had hid her crutch. This she did, so that if the baby
was a girl, she could save its life. The midwife was a good woman, who
had been taught that the Great Creator loves little girls as well as
So when the midwife heard the grandmother storm and rave, while hunting
for her crutch, she ran first to the honey jar, dipped her forefinger in
it and put some drops of honey on the baby's tongue. Then she passed it
out the window to some women friends, who were waiting outside. She knew
the law, that if a child tasted food, it must be allowed to live.
The kind women took the baby to their home and fed it carefully. A hole
was drilled in the small end of a cow's horn and the warm milk, fresh
from the cow, was allowed to fall, drop by drop, into the baby's mouth.
In a few days the little one was able to suck its breakfast slowly out
of the horn, while one of the girls held it. So the baby grew bigger
every day. All the time it was carefully hidden.
The foolish old grandmother was foiled, for she could never find out
where the baby girl was, which all the time was growing strong and
plump. Her father secretly made her a cradle and he and the babe's
mother came often to see their child. Every one called her Honig-je', or
Now about this time, cats were brought into the country and the children
made such pets of them that some of the cows seemed to be jealous of the
attentions paid to Pussy and the kittens. These were the days when cows
and people all lived under one long roof. The children learned to tell
the time of day, whether it was morning, noon or night by looking into
the cats' eyes. These seemed to open and shut, very much as if they had
The fat pussy, which was brought into the house where Honig-je' was,
seemed to be very fond of the little girl, and the two, the cat and the
child, played much together. It was often said that the cat loved the
baby even more than her own kittens. Every one called the affectionate
animal by the nickname of Dub-belt-je', which means Little Double;
because this puss was twice as loving as most cat mothers are. When her
own furry little babies were very young, she carried them from one place
to another in her mouth. But this way, of holding kittens, she never
tried on the baby. She seemed to know better. Indeed, Dub-belt-je' often
wondered why human babies were born so naked and helpless; for at an age
when her kittens could feed themselves and run about and play with their
tails and with each other, Honig-je' was not yet able to crawl.
But other dangers were in store for the little girl. One day, when the
men were out hunting, and the women went to the woods to gather nuts and
acorns, a great flood came. The waters washed away the houses, so that
everything floated into the great river, and then down towards the sea.
What had, what would, become of our baby? So thought the parents of
Honig-je', when they came back to find the houses swept away and no sign
of their little daughter. Dub-belt-je' and her kittens, and all the
cows, were gone too.
Now it had happened that when the flood came and the house crashed down,
baby was sound asleep. The cat, leaving its kittens, that were now
pretty well grown up, leaped up and on to the top of the cradle and the
two floated off together. Pretty soon they found themselves left alone,
with nothing in sight that was familiar, except one funny thing. That
was a wooden shoe, in which was a fuzzy little yellow chicken hardly
four days old. It had been playing in the shoe, when the floods came
and swept it off from under the very beak of the old hen, that, with all
her other chicks, was speedily drowned.
On and on, the raging flood bore baby and puss, until dark night came
down. For hours more they drifted until, happily, the cradle was swept
into an eddy in front of a village. There it spun round and round, and
might soon have been borne into the greater flood, which seemed to roar
louder as the waters rose.
Now a cat can see sometimes in the night, better even than in the day,
for the darker it becomes, the wider open the eyes of puss. In bright
sunshine, at noon, the inside doors of the cat's eyes close to a narrow
slit, while at night these doors open wide. That is the reason why, in
the days before clocks and watches were made, the children could tell
about the time of day by looking at the cat's eyes. Sometimes they named
their pussy Klok'-oog, which means Clock Eye, or Bell Eye, for bell
clocks are older than clocks with a dial, and because in Holland the
bells ring out the hours and quarter hours.
Puss looked up and saw the church tower looming up in the dark. At once
she began to meouw and caterwaul with all her might. She hoped that some
one in one of the houses near the river bank might catch the sound. But
none seemed to hear or heed. At last, when Puss was nearly dead with
howling, a light appeared at one of the windows. This showed that some
one was up and moving. It was a boy, who was named Dirck, after the
saint Theodoric, who had first, long ago, built a church in the village.
Then Puss opened her mouth and lungs again and set up a regular
cat-scream. This wakened all her other relatives in the village and
every Tom and Kitty made answer, until there was a cat concert of meouws
The boy heard, rushed down-stairs, and, opening the door, listened. The
wind blew out his candle, but the brave lad was guided by the sound
which Pussy made. Reaching the bank, he threw off his wooden klomps,
plunged into the boiling waters, and, seizing the cradle, towed it
ashore. Then he woke up his mother and showed her his prize. The way
that baby laughed and crowed, and patted the horn of milk, and kicked up
its toes in delight over the warm milk, which was brought, was a joy to
see. Near the hearth, in the middle of the floor, Dub-belt-je', the
puss, was given some straw for a bed and, after purring joyfully, was
soon, like the baby, sound asleep.
Thus the cat warned the boy, and the boy saved the baby, that was very
welcome in a family where there were no girls, but only a boy. When
Honig-je' grew up to be a young woman, she looked as lovely as a
princess and in the church was married to Dirck! It was the month of
April and all the world was waking to flowers, when the wedding
procession came out of the church and the air was sweet with the opening
of the buds.
Before the next New Year's day arrived, there lay in the same cradle,
and put to sleep over the same rockers, a baby boy. When they brought
him to the font, the good grandmother named him Luid-i-ger. He grew up
to be the great missionary, whose name in Friesland is, even today,
after a thousand years, a household word. He it was who drove out bad
fairies, vile enchanters, wicked spirits and terrible diseases. Best of
all, he banished "eye-bite," which was the name the people gave to
witchcraft. Luid-i-ger, also, made it hard for the naughty elves and
sprites that delude men.
After this, it was easy for all the good spirits, that live in kind
hearts and noble lives, to multiply and prosper. The wolves were driven
away or killed off and became very few, while the cattle and sheep
multiplied, until everybody could have a woollen coat, and there was a
cow to every person in the land.
But the people still suffered from the floods, that from time to time
drowned the cattle and human beings, and the ebb tides, that carried
everything out to sea. Then the good missionary taught the men how to
build dykes, that kept out the ocean and made the water of the rivers
stay between the banks. The floods became fewer and fewer and at last
rarely happened. Then Santa Klaas arrived, to keep alive in the hearts
of the people the spirit of love and kindness and good cheer forever.
At last, when nearly a hundred years had passed away, Honig-je', once
the girl baby, and then the dear old lady, who was kind to everybody and
prepared the way for Santa Klaas, died. Then, also, Dub-belt-je' the
cat, that had nine lives in one, died with her. They buried the old lady
under the church floor and stuffed the pussy that everybody, kittens,
boys, girls and people loved. By and by, when the cat's tail and fur
fell to pieces, and ears tumbled off, and its glass eyes dropped out, a
skilful artist chiselled a statue of Dub-belt-je', which still stands
over the tomb in the church. Every year, on Santa Klaas day, December
sixth, the children put a new collar around its neck and talk about the
cat that saved a baby's life.