The Cat that Winked, by Anna McClure Sholl

Fairy Tales of Weir

Once there was an old woman who lived on the edge of the Dark Wood in a small cottage all covered with thick thatch and over the thatch grew a honeysuckle vine; but at the gable where the chimneys clustered, the wisteria flung purple flowers in May.

On the topmost chimney was a stork's nest, and there dear grandfather stork stood on one leg, unless he was wanted to carry a little baby to some house in the village; when he flapped his wings and flew away over the tree-tops to the Land of Little Souls.

Now the old woman loved her home, because she had lived there many years with her husband. She loved the two worn chairs on each side of the great hearth, and her pewter dishes, and her big china water-pitcher with flowers shining on it—not for themselves, but for the reason that once someone had used them and admired them with her.

Into the little latticed windows the roses peeped, and these Mother Huldah loved too, and tended carefully all through the sweet-smelling summer-time. But perhaps she liked best the long winter evenings when she spun by the fire and sang little songs like these:

"My heart as a bird has flown away,
  (Princess, where? Princess, where?)
Into the land that is always gay,
  Out of the land of care.

"But no bird flies alone to bliss,
  (Princess, why? Princess, why?)
I have no answer but a kiss,
  And then the open sky."

Nobody listened but Tommie, who was an immense black cat, held in great reverence by the villagers, for he had the greenest eyes and the longest whiskers and the heaviest fur of any cat in the kingdom. Moreover, he had hundreds of mice to his credit and no birds, for he was a good and wise grimalkin. Sometimes he talked with his tail and sometimes he opened his pink mouth and said just as plain as words that he had been stalking through the moonlight and had seen old Egbert go limping home as if he had the rheumatism.

So next day Mother Huldah with her little bag of medicines and ointments would go to old Egbert's hut, and sure enough, find him bedridden; or Tommie would tell her that Charlemagne the stork had carried a baby to a poor mother who had no clothes for it. Then Mother Huldah would go to her great cedar chest and take out linen that smelled all sweetly of lavender, and carry it with some good food to the poor woman.

Mother Huldah was so kind and generous that everybody got in the habit of taking things from her without sometimes so much as a "thank you," or an inquiry as to her own health. But the little children loved her because she made them pretty cakes; and told them the stories she used to tell her own children, her two fine sons who were soldiers. These sons sent her the money upon which she lived and out of which she made her little charities, and they wrote her fine brave letters, and every year they came home to see her, bearing beautiful presents from foreign lands, ivory toys and shining silks (which she always gave to some bride) and workboxes of sweet-scented wood richly carved—to show how much they loved her.

One dreadful year a great war broke out, and not long after Mother Huldah heard that her two sons had been killed, and she herself thought she would follow them through grief. But she lived on and as she grew more sorrowful she went less and less to the village, and people began to forget her. Even the little children stayed away since she had no longer the heart to tell them the tales she had once told her sons; and she must no longer bake the little cakes since every day saw her small hoard of money diminishing.

At last, when the winter tempests were raging, and the sleet was beating upon the thatch, there came a day when no food remained in the cottage; and Mother Huldah felt too weak and sick to go out in quest of it. Nor did she wish to tell her neighbors that no food remained in the cottage.

So full of weary dreams and old sad thoughts she sat down in one of the armchairs before the fire, and whether she nodded from drowsiness, or whether Tommie nodded at her she never knew, but he moved his black head and opened his pink mouth, and said he, "Suppose I fetch you a bird just this once."

She was much surprised, for Tommie had never talked to her before, but she did not show how astonished she was because she was always very polite to him. So she replied, "Bless your whiskers! Tommie! but we won't break through our rule. Maybe some neighbor will fetch me a loaf!"

"Maybe they will and perhaps they won't," said Tommie, "they're an ungrateful lot."

"They think I am still rich, my dear," she answered.

"So you are, but not in the way they mean," Tommie said. "And,
Mother Huldah, if they neglect you a day longer it won't be your
Tommie's fault."

Then Mother Huldah shook her finger at him. "You switch your tail just as if you were going to steal something. Tommie, I brought you up better than that."

"Steal! nonsense!" cried Tommie. "Most of 'em have more than they need, anyway."

"Tommie, I believe you're hungry, or your morals wouldn't be so queer!"
Mother Huldah said reprovingly.

"Hungry!" exclaimed Tommie. "I dream of lobster claws and chicken wings and blue saucers full of yellow wrinkled cream, twelve in a row. No wonder my morals are queer!"

Then what happened was that poor Mother Huldah dozed off to sleep and when she awoke there was Tommie staring into the fire, his green eyes like two lanterns and his whiskers standing out very stiff and knowing, and at Mother Huldah's' feet was a wicker basket from which issued a most appetizing odor. "Why, Thomas" (she always called him Thomas in solemn moments), "what's this?"

"Your dinner," said Tommie, and yawned like a gentleman who lights a cigarette and says, "O hang it all! what a beastly bore life is."

"Thomas," questioned Mother Huldah solemnly, "where did you get this dinner?" for she had taken the cover off the basket and found a small roast chicken with vegetables and a bread pudding.

"Why, I was strolling down the gray lane when I met a woman carrying that basket and I smelled chicken; so up I stood on my hind legs, and winked at her and I said, 'Thank you, I know you are taking that to Mother Huldah; let me carry it the rest of the way.'"

But Mother Huldah cried, "Maybe the dinner wasn't for me, and you frightened her so she had to give it to you."

Tommie yawned again. "Don't you think that the best thing you can do with a good dinner is to eat it?"

So Mother Huldah ate her dinner, hoping all the while that she was making an honest meal; then, when she had fed Thomas, she asked him if Charlemagne was on the roof. "Indeed, no!" cried he. "Charlemagne has flown to the war country to fetch you a baby!"

"Alas!" cried Mother Huldah. "I pity the poor babes, but how can I bring up a baby?"

"It is your granddaughter," said Tommie. "Charlemagne told me that a year ago your son Rupert married, but he meant to bring his bride home as a surprise to you. Then the war broke out and—"

"O poor little daughter-in-law!" cried Mother Huldah. "Did she break her heart?"

"Yes, and so she followed Rupert to the Country of the Brave Souls; but Charlemagne is fetching the baby in a warm woolen napkin tied up at the four corners; and when his wings get tired from flying he puts a bit of sugar and a drop of water in the baby's mouth and leans his feathery breast against its little feet to keep them warm!"

"Yes! yes!" said Mother Huldah, "a baby's feet should be always kept warm—but, dear me, dear me, the Sweet One will need milk before long, and the grain of the whole wheat to help her grow! I have no money to buy her food."

Tommie looked very wise. "Mother Huldah," he said as he drew a black paw knowingly over one ear, "don't you know that wherever a baby comes, help comes? Open the linen chest and get your shining shears and begin to make little shirts and dresses. I think I'll take a look at the weather."

He made the last remark carelessly like a young gentleman who will stroll out and leave the women-folk to their devices.

"O Tommie!" said Mother Huldah, "you are not going to do anything impulsive?"

"Mother Huldah," replied Tommie, "did you ever know a cat to do anything impulsive unless he saw a bird, or a mouse?"

With that he left her, and she watched him walk away down the forest path with the sunlight glistening on his coat and his tail held high and straight. Sometimes he would pause and lift one foot daintily, the toes curling in. Mother Huldah always said that Tommie heard not with his ears but with his whiskers, and perhaps it was true.

Tommie himself was making his own plans as he went along. "If I tell these villagers outright that Mother Huldah is in need, each person will think, 'O well, Neighbor Jude, or Gossip Dorcas has more to spare than I. Someone else will take care of the poor old lady, I am sure.' And it will end in her getting nothing at all. I will not talk about her, but to each person I will talk about himself, for that is the way to get people interested."

At which Tommie smiled, and because his great-grandfather was a Cheshire Cat, his smile gave him a wise and jovial look, as if the Sphinx of Egypt should suddenly see a joke. With a good heart he went daintily on his way, shaking the snow from his paws at times, until he reached the village green. Now in the middle of the green stood the pump, made of wood with a flat top. On this Tommie seated himself, put his paws neatly together, folded his tail about them, made his green eyes perfectly round, and stared straight ahead of him.

Now even a cat when he looks as if he could think for himself will draw people's attention; especially if he seems to enjoy his thoughts. And Tommie, seated on the pump in the bright winter sunshine, looked as if he had something in his mind that pleased him.

"Heigh-O," said one of the passers-by. "Here's a witch-cat!"

"You are mistaken," replied Tommie with a wink. "I belong to Mother
Huldah, and she is the best woman in the village."

The man was so astonished that he dropped a parcel of eggs he was carrying, and they were all broken.

"That's what comes," said Tommie, "of imagining evil where none exists."

The man was so angry that he made some snowballs hastily and began to pelt Tommie with them; but Tommie understood the beautiful art of dodging—which some people never learn all their lives—so he didn't get hit. By this time a crowd had gathered about the angry man, and were asking him what was the matter.

"Matter!" he shrieked, "that black object on the pump gave me impudence!"

"Heigh-O!" cried little Elsa. "How could a cat give thee impudence!"

"Ask him then," said the man. "He can talk like any Christian."

At which the crowd all looked at Tommie, who winked at them and said, "Does anybody here want to ask me any questions? I'll tell him what he wants to know in perfect confidence between him and me and the pump. If my answer pleases him, he can give me a silver piece. If my reply make his heart go pit-a-pat with joy he can give me a gold piece. If he doesn't like my answers, he needn't give me anything. Now that's fair, isn't it?"

Then everybody looked at everybody else, and dropped their jaws and rubbed their eyes. Nobody stirred for a minute, then a fine young fellow stepped forward, blushing. This was Carl, the miller's son, who was straight as a birch-tree, and had blue eyes like deep lakes, and he walked right up to the pump, and bowed, then he whispered into Tommie's ear, "Does Lucia love me?"

Tommie winked his right eye and smiled. "Carl," he replied, "get up your courage and ask her to-day, for she loves you better than anyone in the world."

Then Carl felt his heart go pit-a-pat, and all the snow wreaths on the trees seemed to turn to bridal flowers. "Thanks, dear and wise Pussy," he said, and took out his handkerchief and spread it at Tommie's feet and on it he placed not one, but three gold pieces.

When the villagers saw the gold pieces glittering in the sun and beheld the radiant face of Carl, they all began to wonder, and each person wanted to try his own luck. "After all," said each one to himself, "if I don't like what the cat says I needn't pay him anything."

The next person to go up was the village tanner, whose skin was like leather and whose eyes were little like a pig's. Tommie was already acquainted with him, having been kicked out of his tannery once when on an innocent mousing expedition.

"Say," said the tanner, "will my Uncle Jean leave me his farm?"

"No," answered Tommie, winking his left eye. "That he won't! He knows you are always wishing he would die!"

The tanner was so angry that he snarled: "Don't you ever let me catch you around the tannery again, or I'll make you into a muff for my daughter."

"Black furs are not fashionable this winter," said Tommie. "Next?"

Everybody laughed when they saw that the tanner hadn't paid money for his information, and so, presumably, didn't like it. But strangely enough, instead of discouraging this led them on to try their luck; and the next person who came to ask Tommie a question was poor, old, half-blind Henley the miser. He put his mouth close to the cat's ear, so the people behind him wouldn't catch what he said, and in a hoarse voice he asked, "Say, old whiskers, will my fine ship loaded with dates and spices reach Norway safely?"

"Yes, it will," said Tommie, "long before your withered old soul will reach a haven of peace."

Henley was so excited over the first words that he didn't even hear the last ones. He hopped about on one leg, and was rushing off at last when Tommie cried, "Heigh-O, you haven't paid me!"

The miser felt in his pockets and drew out a silver coin and laid it on the handkerchief.

"Not at all," said Tommie. "Remember the Worth of that cargo! Gold or nothing."

Henley began to whine. "I'm a poor old man, Tommie. I'll leave the cream jug on the doorstep every day and no questions will be asked!"

"I'm not a thief," answered Tommie. "Mother Huldah brought me up better than that. Come, you don't want to have any quarrel with a black cat."

Whereupon Henley reluctantly drew from his pocket a gold piece, while all the villagers opened their eyes very wide, and wondered what Tommie could have told the old gentleman to make him so liberal.

The next person to come up was a little shy girl named Clara. She had big brown eyes and fair floating hair, and under her white chin and about her little white wrists were soft furs; for her father was a wealthy moneylender. She came close to Tommie and whispered, "Tell me, beautiful Pussy, if I shall ever win the love of Joseph Grange."

Tommie winked his right eye several times and replied, "My dear, I see it coming!"

She flushed with joy. "And what shall I do to hasten it?"

Tommie reflected a moment. "Be pleasant, but not anxious. A lady with an anxious expression has little chance of winning a lover! Don't invite him too often; don't talk too much. Now I haven't hurt your feelings, have I?"

"No, indeed," she said, for she was a young lady of good sense. "And Tommie, dear, will you take these gold pieces to Mother Huldah. She was so good to me when I was a little girl, and because I have been so absorbed in my own affairs I haven't been to see her lately."

"That's the trouble with being in love," said Tommie, "it's apt to make people selfish, and it should make them love and remember everybody. It does when it's the real thing."

Little Clara clasped her hands earnestly. "I will come to see Mother Huldah this afternoon," she said, "and bring her some cakes of my own baking."

After Clara one person and another came up. Some asked foolish questions, some wise. Some paid down money, others didn't, but the pile of gold and silver at Tommie's feet grew steadily.

Now all novelties, even talking cats, soon cease to be novelties, and towards afternoon when the villagers saw how much of their money lay at Tommie's feet, some of them began to be discontented. Of these the tanner was the ringleader, and he said to the other grumblers, "If we can get that lying cat off the pump, we can then take his money. I have three big rats in the trap at the tannery, and I know Tommie is starving hungry by this time. We'll let 'em loose on the ground in front of the pump. When he makes a spring one of you grab the money and run."

Now the tanner had guessed right. Tommie was hungry, but he was determined to keep his post until sundown. After a while no more people came, and he was just thinking he would take up the handkerchief by the four corners and go home, when he espied a group of people approaching. Suddenly, oh, me, oh, my! three dinners were scampering towards him, such rats, such big, splendid rats in fine condition. Tommie had never used such self-control in all his nine lives, but he sat tight and though his whiskers showed his agitation he never budged.

The tanner was mad clear through, and he cried out, "He's a wizard; he ought to be killed" because some people can't see others controlling themselves without thinking there's something wrong with them. Then he began to make snowballs and to pelt poor Tommie. Now Tommie, as has been said, was a good dodger, but nevertheless when it rains snowballs it's hard not to get hit. It might have fared badly with him had not some knights and ladies at that moment appeared on the scene in the train of the beautiful Princess Yolande, one of the fairest princesses in all the realm. She rode a great white horse, and she was robed in cream velvet and white furs, while about her slender waist was a girdle of gold set with sapphires which were as blue as her eyes. By her side rode Lord Mountfalcon. He was all in black armor, for he was mourning a brother who had died in the distant war.

Love as well as grief filled his heart, for his dark eyes were continually upon the beautiful Princess, who now reined in her horse and cried out in a sweet voice, "Shame upon you men to hurt a poor cat."

"He is a wizard and he belongs to a witch," called out the tanner.

"O what a wicked lie," said Tommie. "I don't care what names you call me, but my mistress is one of the best women in the land. She has come to poverty in her old age. For her sake and to get her a little money, I've sat here all day answering truthfully all questions. Now, dear Princess Yolande, believe me, for I am a true cat."

The Princess was so astonished that she couldn't speak for a moment. At last she turned to Lord Mountfalcon and said: "Truly, we have come to wonderland. I'd rather believe the cat than the people who were pelting him, and I have a mind to test his powers. Let us alight and ask him questions."

Then they all dismounted and with the pages and the ladies and the gentlemen in armor the scene was as gay as the stage of an opera. Everybody chatted and laughed, and some of the court ladies stroked Tommie's fur with their pretty white hands; and one took off her bracelet and hung it about his neck.

But when the Princess Yolande went forward to ask her question, everyone fell back. Then with sweet dignity, as became a princess, she stood before Tommie and said, "Tell me if Lord Mountfalcon love me truly."

Tommie didn't wink, for he knew the ways of court, his grandfather having been chief mouser to old King Adelbert; but he purred a warm good purr, like a mill grinding out pure white grain.

"If the sky in heaven be blue,
Then Mountfalcon loves you true;
If the sun set in the West,
Lord Mountfalcon loves you best."

"You see," he added, "I'm not much of a poet, but those are the facts."

"Never was bad verse so sweet to me," cried the Princess and she put down a whole bag of gold at Tommie's feet.

After her came Lord Mountfalcon himself with that sad grace of his, and all his spirit shadowed with love and grief. "Sir Puss," he said, "shall I wed ever the Princess Yolande?"

"Before there are violets in the vales of the kingdom," replied Tommie.

"Two saddlebags will not hold the gold I shall give thee," exclaimed the nobleman.

"Bring them to the cottage where Mother Huldah lives," said Tommie. "And I ask this further favor: When you leave this spot will you take me up behind you and give this money to a page to convey; and so bring me safely home with the wealth, for I fear mischief from the tanner."

"Most willingly," said Mountfalcon. "I will present your request to the
Princess."

After him all the court came with questions; so when the page advanced to gather up the money the load was almost more than he could carry. Then Tommie jumped down from his perch, and another page lifted him safely on to the big warm back of Lord Mountfalcon's horse, which felt fine and comforting to poor Tommie's feet. He was so tired that he took forty winks after he had told the Princess how to reach the cottage of Mother Huldah.

When he woke they were all in the dim forest and the Princess Yolande and Lord Mountfalcon were talking in low tones like the whisper of the wind through flowers; and it seemed as if their talk were all of love and dreams and far-away griefs and tears that must fall.

At last they reined in their horses where Mother Huldah stood at her gate peering into the forest. When she saw the beautiful lady and the noble knight and Tommie on the horse's back, she cried out, "O bless you, Sir Knight, for bringing him home."

"And I've brought a fortune with me, Mother Huldah," cried Tommie.

At this Mother Huldah looked troubled. "Gracious Lady," she addressed the
Princess, "I hope my cat has not been up to mischief."

"No, bless him," replied the Princess; then she told all that Tommie had done. "And fear not to take the money, Mother," she added, "for those who gave it did so of their free-will."

"Alas! I would not take it," sighed Mother Huldah, "had not my Rupert and my Hugh died in the great war; and Rupert's wife went with him to the Kingdom of the Brave Souls; and I expect Charlemagne to-night with their little baby."

"Rupert? what Rupert?" asked Lord Mountfalcon, leaning down from his horse.

"Rupert Gordon; I am Huldah Gordon, his bereaved mother!"

Then Mountfalcon removed his cap, alighted from his horse and bowed low before Mother Huldah. "He died gloriously. He died trying to remove my poor brother from danger," he said. "Now let me be as a son to you, for sweet memory's sake."

[Illustration: CHARLEMAGNE BRINGS THE BABY TO MOTHER HULDAH]

Then they all wept softly, for even to hear of those battles and those
Silent Ones in the Kingdom of the Brave Souls was to behold the world
through tears. And the Princess Yolande alighted and kissed Mother
Huldah's hands and promised to visit her often.

So with many true words they parted at last, and Mother Huldah was left alone with Tommie and the bags of gold and silver, which she took indoors and then returned to scan the sky where now the white stars hung and a thin half-circle of a moon. Tommie romped in the snow for the joy of stretching his legs. After a while he said, "Listen, don't you hear something, Mother Huldah?"

"I would I heard wings!" she cried.

"But I hear wings," said Tommie. "Watch! watch where the North
Star burns!"

So Mother Huldah watched, and soon she saw the great outspread wings of Charlemagne and saw his long bill with something hanging from the end of it.

"My word, here's the baby," called out Tommie. "Hello, Charlemagne, you old Grandpa! have you kept that precious infant warm?"

But Charlemagne alighted on his feet and walked solemnly to Mother Huldah and laid in her arms the softest, sweetest, pinkest little baby that she had ever seen. There was golden down on its head, and its little hands were folded like rosebuds beneath its tiny chin.

Mother Huldah felt its feet to know if they were warm; then she cried and sobbed and held the little thing to her breast; and trembled for love of it.

"Take it before the fire," said Tommie. "We're all tired to-night and it will be good to drowse and dream. Good-night, Charlemagne. The chimney's warm."

So the stork flew up to the roof, and Mother Huldah took her treasure and held it in her warm, ample lap before the fire; and Tommie winked and dozed and looked at the baby with his great green eyes, while Mother Huldah sang:

"The gold of the world will fade away,
  Baby sleep! Baby sleep!
But thou wilt live in my heart alway,
  Sleep, my darling, sleep.

"The gold of the world it comes and goes,
  Baby sleep! Baby sleep!
But thou wilt bloom like a summer rose,
  Cease my soul to weep."