26: Thieves and Mad Men

A spotted cat against a blue background.A wench greeted me at the door.  “Ooh,” sayt she.  “Here’s a big cat.”

Another cried, “Is it my lady’s Gib that scaped his cage?”

I spake aloud to them.  I told them to send after my lady Moll, because I was cat and poet to my lord her brother.

I sayt it would go hard for them if they did not do my bidding, for they were like to lose their places in this house.  The kitchen cat took my meaning.  She kept her nose down and did not stir from where she sat.

The servants were less respective [respectful].  They told me I had a lot to say for myself.  She that opened the door sayt, “I never seen so big a cat.  He must be a good hunter.”

That set me about.  Did she think I would feed myself?

But a boy took a bowl and ladled a little broth into it.  The broth was well-scented with fowl.  The wench offered me a morsel of cheese, and sayt, “We must keep him here till next they come.”

Though none knew when that might be, or if they’d be rewarded for their trouble.

The boy went to the stable for my crate.  I was joyed to see my basket, for I keep my little books in it.  The cook was joyed to see my cushion, richly broidered.  He sayt it was too good for a cat, but good enough for his bum.  He put it on his stool.

Neath my cushion were the favours my lord and lady gave me when we was kits together.  Silken ribands and the like, which I wore in their honour.  These, the wenches seized.  And stood gaping at my books while the boy ran to fetch a man that knew his letters and could tell what they’d found.

He came in most merry, with a nastie jest about the use my books might be put to.  Then he eyed them, and I guessed he could not read them neither.  All he sayt was, they were writ in a lord’s hand.

“True,” sayt I, but he gave me no heed.

He took a cup of ale, and returned my books to my basket.  The cook, with sorry looks, offered up my cushion.  The man sayt he would keep all in a place of safety until they could be conveyed to my lady.

I had no choice but to follow him.

He went to his chamber, and called another man.  Both looked upon my books and sayt they might be no more than the scribbling of children.  But then they whispered of the old Earl, and of sundry plats [plans or schemes] that led to his imprisonments.

Next, they spoke of burning my books, because they feared what may be writ in seyefer [cipher?].

I could scarce believe mine ears.  I writ in ink.

One sayt it were better to wait until the basket was sent for.  (No word of me.)  Then each swore to the other that they knew nowt, had seen nowt, and would say nowt, but could burn all if need be.

A defiant-looking cat in a wicker basket.Wild and whirling words.

They put my books and cushion in my basket, and set it on the hearth.  I leapt in before they could change their mind.  The rogue who feigns to know his letters sayt I was wondrous well-trained, for a cat.

And even though he cannot read, he keeps pens, ink, and paper here to aid him in his lie.  Thus I have set down all that befell me.

Certes, they who dwell here are lunatick.  Tis no great marvel that my lady Moll and her companie made haste away so soon. 

But what if none comes for me, left in this den of thieves and mad men?

Will I never see my sister and hear her sawcie words when she makes mock of me?  I fear she may be lost to me forever.

And I cannot but think on my sweet friend Smokie.  And of how we would sniff noses when we met, and attend the milking to take a squirt or two, and then lie in the sun and lick our ears and faces clean, and fight in play on the warm grass.

Oh, I can write no more this night for I fear my heart will break.

Place House, from an engraving by S. & N.Buck c.1733 via Wikimedia Commons
Place House,  showing the south-facing gatehouse, from an engraving by S. & N.Buck c.1733

Toutparmoi - Editor's Note.Gib’s “little books” – his term for his papers – had a narrow escape.  

The man called to identify them saw that they weren’t written in the hand normally used by professional/business writers (i.e. secretary script).  Hence his reference to “a lord’s hand”.

My best guess is that he then decided they were written in code (cipher), and that if found could provide proof of treasonable activity by the staunchly Catholic old Earl.  Or (much worse) by living members of the extended family who were transporting secret letters in a cat’s basket.  He may even have thought that Place House was where fellow conspirators would pick them up, or why else would the basket have been left there?

Gib lived in dangerous times.  England was now officially supporting the Protestant Dutch States in their uprising against their Spanish overlords.  There were ongoing fears of a Spanish invasion.  There were plots against Queen Elizabeth’s life with the aim of putting Mary Stuart (the former Queen of Scots, now in captivity in England) on the throne.  It’s not surprising that Gib’s writings were suspect! 

Here’s an example of the “Secretarie Alphabete”, and also one of the Italic Hand that was used by the young Earl of Southampton (and Gib).  You might need to scroll down the linked webpage a bit to find the links to both images.

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