Contributed by LoiS-sez
Note: Helen Hunt Jackson is a 19th century author is best known for Ramona, but her other writing often included cats including this lovely tale written in 1876.
When I was a little girl, I knew two old maids who were so jolly and nice that I am always ready, beforehand, to love anybody who is called an old maid. To be sure I have never yet seen any others in the least like them and I begin to be afraid that that particular kind of old maid has died out, like the big birds called Dodos, which used to live in Australia. But I am always hoping to see two more before I die, and that I shall find them living together in a pretty little yellow cottage, just like the one the Miss Ferry s lived in, and that they will keep four splendid cats, just like the cats the Miss Ferrys had. I never saw such cats.
Nobody ever saw such cats. They were almost twice as large as common cats. Miss Esther Ferry used to say that if there was anything in the world she utterly despised the sight of, it was a little dwarf of a cat and as soon as she began to talk about it, her black cat Tom used to stand right up and bulge himself until all the hairs of his fur stood out like the spokes of a wheel.
Tom was the cleverest cat of the four. He really did understand more than half of all that was said before him, and sometimes Miss Esther used to send him out of the room when the neighbors were telling her any gossiping story. “Of course I know that Tom can’t repeat it,” she would say “but it does make me nervous to have him listen so, and he is just as well off down cellar.” Tom and Spitfire were Miss Esther’s cats we thought they were a little hand- somer than Spunk and Yellow, who belonged to Miss Jane but I think it was only be- cause we loved Miss Esther best that we thought so.
Strangers never could decide which of the four cats was the best looking. Tom was as black as ink, — not a white or gray hair about him. Spitfire was a Maltese, of the loveliest soft mouse color all over, with a great white star on her breast. Spunk was pure white, and her eyes shone like topazes in the sunlight. Yellow was a tortoise-shell cat, black and yellow and white; he was the largest and fiercest of the four. We were all more afraid of him than of any dog in town.
You will hardly believe it, but these cats used to sit in high chairs at the table, and feed themselves with their paws like squirrels. They had little tin plates, with their names stamped on them and one of the things I used to like best to do, when I went there to tea, was to change their plates, and then watch to see what they would do.
Yellow was the only one who would eat out of any plate but his own; he was always greedy, and did not care. But the others would look down at the plate, smell of it, and begin to mew. Once black Tom jumped right across the table at Spunk, who had his plate, pushed her out of her chair, and dragged the plate away. It was some minutes before he would let her come back to the table without spitting at her.
But the best time we ever had in that dear yellow cottage was at a Christmas party which the old ladies gave for their cats. I don’t believe there was ever such a thing heard of before or since. I knew about it a week before it came off, and it was the hardest secret I ever had to keep.
My mamma came home one evening just at dark. I was lying on a sofa in a dark corner, where she could not see me, and papa was sitting by the fire. She went up to his chair and kissed him, and burst out into such a laugh, as she said, “Darling, what do you suppose those dear absurd old Ferrys are going to do? They are going to have a Christmas tree for their cats.”
“You are not in earnest, Mary,” said papa.
“But I am, though,” said mamma, sitting down on his knee, and putting her arms around his neck.
It makes the tears come into my eyes even now, to remember how my papa and mamma used to love each other. Since I have grown up, and have seen what men and women really are, I know how wonderful it was. They have been in heaven a great many years, but it would be hard to make me believe they are very much happier there than they were here.
“But I am. You always think I am joking.”
“Because you always are,” interrupted papa.
“Don’t interrupt. You are always interrupting,” said mamma.
“I have been at the Ferrys’ for an hour this afternoon, and the dear old souls are quite beside themselves about it. They are going to have linen drilling put down over their carpets, and they are wondering whether it will do to have as many as twenty cats in the room with twenty children.”
“The old geese!” exclaimed papa, who was not always quite as civil as he could be.
“I don’t know,” said mamma thoughtfully. “I am not so sure about that. I think it will be great fun and Helen will be out of her senses.”
I could not keep still any longer. I bounded off the sofa, crying, “O mamma, mamma, am I really to go? And shall I take Midge?” Midge was my cat, a dowdy little gray cat, whom nobody ever called good-looking, but whom I loved dearly.
“Mercy on me!” screamed mamma. “How you frightened me! You bad child, to lie still, and hear secrets. But you will be punished enough by having to keep one for a week. You must not tell a soul. Nobody knows it but I, and the Miss Ferrys are very anxious that nothing should be said about it.”
People talk about the pleasure of anticipations. I never could see it when I was a child, and I don’t now. I think it is misery. That week was the most uncomfortable week of my life, excepting one which I passed shut up in the garret for a punishment, after I had been very naughty. If it had not been for lying on the hay-mow with Midge, and talking to her about it, I know I should have been sick.
At last the invitations came, — all sent out in one forenoon, two days before Christmas. Such a hubbub as all the children in town were in!
The invitations were written on bright pink paper. ” The Miss Ferrys request the pleasure of your company on Christmas Eve, from six till nine o’clock.” You will please bring your cat. There will be a Christmas tree for the cats. “Each cat is expected to wear a paper ruff. “The servants can be sent to take the cats home at half-past seven.”
I did not know what a ruff was, but mamma explained it to me, and showed me the picture of an old queen in one. We cut one out, and put it on Midge, but she tore it off in about half a minute ; and mamma said that if the cats were to be kept in ruffs through the entire evening, she thought it would be more work than play but we could all carry half-a-dozen extra ones in our pockets, and put them on occasionally, if Miss Esther and Miss Jane thought best.
I had six for Midge, — one red, one green, one blue, and three white. We thought it would be funnier to have a variety of colors.
By quarter before six o’clock, on Christmas Eve, a droll procession was to be seen walking towards the yellow cottage. Each boy and girl carried a cat hugged up tightly, and as it was pitchy dark, the cats’ eyes shone out like little balls of fire moving about in the air.
We had a dreadful time taking off our things in the hall, for the cats all began to mew, they were so frightened. We all wore our everyday gowns, because our mammas said that the cats would probably fight, and spill things; but Miss Esther and Miss Jane were dressed in their best stiff black silks, and had on their biggest gold chains, and we felt quite ashamed till we forgot about our clothes.
I did not go till six o’clock, for I did not want to have Midge the first cat in the room, she was such an ugly little thing; but as soon as I went into the parlor, I laughed so, that I dropped her right on the floor, and she put her paw through her blue ruff, and tore it off, before Miss Esther had seen it.
There sat Tom, and Spunk, and Spitfire, and Yellow, all in a row, in their high-chairs, with enormous paper ruffs on, so big that ours looked like nothing at all by the side of them. Tom had a white one, Spitfire had a deep blue, which was beautiful with her gray fur, Spunk had a shining black one, and Yellow’s was fiery red. There they sat as solemn as judges, and everybody in the room was screaming with laughter.
Six cats beside Midge had already arrived, and they had all hid under the chairs and tables, the perfect pictures of misery. Miss Esther and Miss Jane looked very proud of their cats, who really did behave as if they had been all their lives accustomed to receiving company.
“However,” I thought to myself, ” it won’t last long,” and it didn’t.
As soon as I saw Willie Dickinson come in with his old Iron Gray, I knew black Tom could not keep quiet, for Iron Gray and he always fought “like cats and dogs.” In about five minutes Tom caught sight of him, and just as Miss Esther was kissing Bessie White, who had her tame Maltese kitten tucked under her arm like a hat, Tom jumped right over Miss Esther’s shoulder, and came down headforemost between Willie and Bessie, and stuck his claw into Iron Gray’s ear. Willie sprang to catch up Iron Gray, and trod on Midge, who began to mew, and for a minute it looked as if we should have a terrible time.
But Miss Esther snatched Tom up, and gave him a box on the ears, and put him back into his chair, where he sat looking just as guilty and ashamed as a whipped child and Willie said he would hold Iron Gray in his lap, so all was soon quiet.
As for the rest of the cats, they were as still as mice; two or three of them had crept quite out of sight under the great hair-cloth sofa. By quarter-past six the company had all arrived, twelve girls, eight boys, and twenty cats. The room was large, but it seemed crowded and it was quite troublesome to get about without stepping on a cat, especially as everybody was laughing so that they could hardly walk straight.
I soon found out that the only way to feel easy about Midge was to hold her in my arms but I must say that she behaved as well as any cat there, excepting Lucy Turner’s cat Box, which was almost as handsome as Miss Jane’s yellow, and had been trained to sit on Lucy’s shoulder. That was the prettiest sight in the room for Lucy Turner was the prettiest girl in town, and Box’s ruff was made of satin paper, of a brilliant green color, which looked beautiful against her own yellow fur, and Lucy’s yellow curls.
At half-past six the doors were thrown open into the little library, and there stood the Tree.
It was a thick fir-tree, and it had twenty splendid Chinese lanterns on it, all in a blaze of light. Then there were twenty-four phials of cream, tied on by bright red ribbons; twenty-four worsted balls, scarlet and white and yellow; and as many as two hundred gay-colored bonbon papers, with fringe at the ends. We all took up our cats in our arms, and marched into the room, and stood around the tree.
Then the cats’ high-chairs were brought in, and placed two on the right, and two on the left, of the tree; and Tom, and Spitfire, and Spunk, and Yellow, were put into them. I never would have believed that twenty- four cats could be so still; they all looked as grave as if they were watching for rats. Miss Esther rang a bell, and the maid brought in twenty-four small tin pans on a waiter; then Miss Jane told us each to take a phial of cream off the tree and empty it into a pan for our cat. This took a long time, for some of the phials hung quite high, and none of us dared to put our cat down for a minute.
Such a lapping and spattering as they made drinking up the cream! It sounded like rain on window-blinds. After this. Miss Esther distributed the bonbon papers by handfuls, and told us to “let the dear cats eat all they could.” Some of the papers had nice bits of roast veal in them; some had toasted cheese, and some had chicken-wings.
We did not get on very well with this part of the feeding. We tried to keep the cats in our laps, and feed them out of our fingers, but they were more accustomed to eating on the floor, or on the ground, and they would snatch the meat out of our hands, in spite of all we could do, and jump down with it in their teeth. Then one cat would see another with a bit of meat which looked nicer than her own, and she would drop hers, and fly to quarreling and snatching after the other. They all wanted chicken-wings; after once tasting of those, they despised the roast veal, and even the cheese, and as there were only a few chicken-wings, it made trouble. Before we got through with this, we were rather tired; and the cats, too, had more than they ought to eat, and began to get fretful, just like children who have been stuffed.
There must have been thirty or forty of the bonbon papers left on the tree but Miss Esther said they would do for the cats’ breakfasts the next day, so they would not be wasted. It seemed ungrateful, after the old ladies had taken so much pains to amuse us, to find any fault with the party, but we did begin to feel hungry, and to think that the cats need not have had everything. At last I saw Willie
Dickinson turn his back to the people, and slyly bite a mouthful off a chicken-wing before he gave it to Iron Gray.
This made me hungrier than ever and I am ashamed to say, that I, too, watched my chance, and popped a bit of veal into my mouth when I thought nobody was looking. Fancy my mortification when I heard Miss Esther’s kind voice behind me, saying, — “I am afraid our little friends are getting hungry. Their turn will come by and by.”
Oh, I wished the floor would open and swallow me up. I have never been so ashamed since, and I never can be, if I live a hundred years.
All this time, Tom, and Spitfire, and Spunk, and Yellow sat up in their high-chairs as grand as so many kings on thrones, and had two little tables before them, off which they ate. Really they hardly looked like cats, they were so dignified and so large. If they had only known it, though, it was not very civil of them to be sitting up in that way, at their own party, the only ones who had either a chair or a table, but it was not their fault.
At last Miss Esther said, — ” Now we will give the cats a game of ball to wind up with,” and she took a red worsted ball from the tree, and threw it out into the parlor. Midge sprang after it like lightning; then we all took balls and threw them out, and let all the cats run after them, and for a few minutes there was a fine jumble and tumble of cats and balls on the floor. But as soon as the cats found out that the balls were not something more to eat, all except the very young ones walked off and sat down, just like grown-up men and women, round the sides of the room. This was the funniest sight of all, for they all began to wash their faces and their paws and to see twenty cats at once doing this is droller than can be imagined.
In the middle of the floor lay the bright balls, and Midge and three other kittens were rolling over and over among them. We all laughed till we were so tired we could not speak, and most of us had tears rolling down our cheeks.
Pretty soon the door-bell rang. The maid came into the parlor and said, “Judge Dickinson’s man has come after Willie’s cat.” Then we all laughed harder than ever, and Willie called out, “That is no way to speak. You should say,’Mr. Iron Gray’s carriage has come.’ ”
Next came our Bridget after Midge, and I must say I was glad to get rid of her.
In a few minutes the cats were all gone and we looked at each other and wondered what we should do next. Tom and Spunk had got down from their chairs and gone to sleep before the fire; and Yellow and Spitfire were playing with the bits of paper which were scattered on the floor.
What with the bonbon papers, and the torn ruffs, it looked like a paper-mill. We were just proposing a game of Blind Man’s Buff, when the maid opened the dining-room door, and oh, how we jumped and screamed when we saw the fine supper-table which was set out for us! It was a nice old-fashioned sit-down supper, such as nobody gives nowadays and the things to eat were all wholesome and plain, so that nobody could be made sick by eating all they chose. Miss Esther and Miss Jane walked around the tables all the time, and slipped apples and oranges into our pockets for us to carry home, and kept begging us to eat more chicken and bread and butter.
When we went away, we each had one of the splendid Chinese lanterns given to us and there was not a single little girl there, who did not think for years and years afterward that it would be the grandest thing in this world to be an old maid like Miss Esther Ferry, and live in a yellow cottage, with one sister and four big cats.