18: My Tale of the Fox and the Cat

I told it plain.  I sayt:  An Earl once gave a great dinner, and the kitchen door stood wide for air because all the ovens were at work.

Cheese Bread and Fruit, from a painting by Floris van Dyck.A lurking fox guessed that after the cooks were done they would have their own feast.  He could smell the soft breads and the wheels of cheese they’d set forth on their board. 

Then a joint of roasted mutton came back scarce touched from the Earl’s table.  The cooks put it on theirs.

The fox watched and waited, and when all backs were turned he crept into the kitchen and hid behind the breads.  He coiled hisself tight and lay there like a loaf new-baked, with a tawny crust.

The cooks went to the buttery to draw themselves some ale.  It was well for the kitchen cat that he went too, else he had been blamed for what came next.

The fox uncurled hisself, seized the mutton, and made off.

He ran till he came to a pond, where a cat had crouched long with her paws in the water waiting for a fish.  She was about to scoop one when the fox came up beside her, and frightened it away.

The fox was joyed to see her lose her fish.  He oped his mouth to tell her she’d get nowt for sitting like a statue; she must be both sly and swift if she wished to eat.  But instead, he dropped his meat into the pond.

Then he raged at that poor cat, saying:  See what you made me do?

She ran from him, and up a tree.  Now it was the fox’s turn to wet his paws, but he could not lift his dinner from the water.

A Fox and a Cat in a tree from a painting by Franz SnydersSo he begged the cat to come and hook it with her claws.

“No,” sayt she.  “All you mean to do is punish me for your folly.”

He sayt he would go into the pond.  Were he to push and she to pull, together they might carry it away.

He even promised her a share.  She sat fast in the tree.

The fox went home most sorrowful.  The cat came down and tried to lift the meat, but it was heavy.  She watched a while, and saw that fish were coming by to nibble on it.  She hooked out one that she ate there, and took another for her kitlings.

And she went back many a day to catch more, for fish came to eat of the mutton till nowt remained but bone.

So, friends, thus we learn that while foxes may be tricksie, we cats have prudence and patience enough to win the day!

And so my tale ended.

Gib Portrait.Now, in truth, the cats of my old household would have scorned it, for there was not one word of scandal.

But the dullards here praised it, and called for another.  I sayt I would bring a better one to our next assembly, and all went away most cheerful.

I hastened after the cats who led me to the meeting place, for I feared that the gate to the house might be closed.  I knew no other entry.

They went to the kitchen door.  One called for admittance, and we all ran in.

From there I followed the brinded cat across a little court [courtyard] to where a door to the house was open.  And as we walked along the passage I struck him on his backside to remind him that he was now below me.  (There being none to see, there was no need to front him as a cat of honour should.) 

Then I did jet it ahead of him into the great hall, taking long strides and swinging my shoulders most powerful.  Like a cat who takes his rightful place, which I now do.

Though I pray my sweet maggot will return to help me with my next tale, for I fear much may be expected of me.

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17: A Gloomie Crew

Yesternight a cat came calling, “Newes, newes,” very soft beneath the windows.

This evening, I saw three cats come from divers parts of the house, cross the big courtyard, and go through the gate.  The brinded rascal that I fought was one.

I followed them.  We went over the bridge and into a field where others were gathered.  Being new, I sat myself a small way off, most respective.

First a stone-cat who’d ranged wide in search of hot queens gave newes of all the horrid murders of us poor cats he’d learned of on his travels.

Nowt to cheer me there.

A DevilOne young cat sayt he heared tell that the devil do keep a good fire, and he wondered if we might warm ourselves thereby while the wicked folk who wrong us burn.

But another told him not to lend his ears to such talk, for we cats know nowt of the devil.  Nor he of us, despite those fools who say we are his creatures.  His business is with men and women.  And most with women, who do nowt but lure men to mischief.

I thought, what a gloomie crew I am come amongst.

Then a little queen cat sayt she was troubled by a fox who did not know his place but came about hers, leaving his marks and his excrements.  Right nastie.

A Fox, from a Franz Snyders paintingShe feared for her life and that of her tender little kitling who, she made haste to tell us, was left that evening in the good care of her mistress.  And she called upon all well-grown cats to be so kind as to chase off any fox that they might see.

Several cats rose up to say they would.  I stood too, for I had seen my uncle chase foxes many a time, and I knowed there was no great art to it.

She thanked us all most courteous.  Then she sayt to me, “Sir, you are new here, and I bid you welcome.  Will you not tell us something of yourself?”

I spake a little large, I do confess.  I sayt I was poet to my lord the young Earl of Southampton, but did serve his sister here while he was schooled in the house of the great Lord Purrlie [William Cecil, Lord Burghley].

I sayt Lord Purrlie also wished to have me, but were I to take a place in his household another cat might lose his.  And that I could not countenance.

The little queen thanked me again, then begged me for a pretty tale.

That set me about.  I could not tell my Bevis tale hereabouts, for it slandered our Countess.  And with my witty maggot gone and the door of the book room closed to me, what else had I to say?

Then I bethought me of a schoolroom tale about a fool dog that carried off a choice piece of meat, onlie to lose it in a pond when he oped his mouth to seize the meat that he saw in his image in the water.

I had told this tale out of courtesie to the two little house dogs that accompanied me hither after they came to my aid when a dog here had at me.  (Though truly, it was I who made the ruffian squeal with a blow to his nose.  They did but nip his legs as he ran away.)

And even as all the cats pricked their ears and turned to me, I saw a way to make this dog tale most pleasing to them.  I will set it down when next I write my diurnal account [journal].