This chapter is from the "Kittens: A Family Chronicle" book, by Svend Fleuron.
At last "Madness" has succeeded in coming to grips with the young fox. . . .
They do battle on a grassy field, bounded on one side by yellow straw and on the other by dried-up, rust-coloured clover.
Black crouches on three legs, swaying his doubled-up body, and prepares to give Reynard a sample of his patent attack, when suddenly the earth shakes with the beat of a horse's hoof.
The beats come nearer . . . and become quicker and quicker.
The two madcaps call a truce and listen. . . .
The hoof-beats are coming straight towards them—and now they can see the head of a horse with its rider.
The young fox slips instantly into the nearest ditch—its instinct is sure—but Black, who feels bound to find a wood or tree, tears off along the path. With tail on one side he chases along, easily visible among the withered grass.
The horseman is an artilleryman from an adjacent garrison town, a young sergeant out exercising his colonel's horse. The poor beast was so seldom allowed to let himself go ■—here was a splendid chance. . . .
The speed of the cat, as it gallops along the path, infects the man; he digs his spurs deep in Tambourine's sides, and away they go as hard as the horse can pelt.
Black puts his ears back and makes springs fully three times his own length. He feels like a hare in front of an express train. His eyes are magnetized to the smooth, open path before him; he cannot, if he would, leave it to plunge aside into the corn. A tree he must have—and trees are not found until the hedge is reached; already he can see one; his claws itch to bury themselves in its bark!
Suddenly he rolls over and over! His brain, which keeps running on trees, has just time to complete the thought, "Now, you've fallen down!" when a kick on the head knocks him senseless. He remains lying in the path, his whiskers twitching, his legs kicking spasmodically. . . .
Tambourine, who has joyfully given every muscle full play during his reckless gallop, jumps clean over his victim, causing the supple rider to fling himself backwards in the saddle. The man catches a glimpse of what has happened, pulls up, turns, and dismounts.
"What a shame! Poor little beast!"
He picks up the cat by its tail between his forefinger and thumb, and turns its body round. It bleeds neither at the nose nor at the mouth, but it does not move a hair. The sergeant feels it to see whether any bones are broken, then holds it by the scruff and examines its yellow eyes. Yes, it must be dead, after all—probably from a hoof-kick. . . . Well, to blazes with the beast!
He is just about to fling it in the ditch when the cat's smooth, jet-black coat catches his attention!
"By Jove, what a splendid skin! That's sure to be useful!" And without further ado he opens the left saddle-bag and lets the lifeless "Madness" sink to the bottom.
The old saddle-bag is worn thin, and the inside seam nearest the horse is gaping; but what does it matter—a cat, and what's more, a dead cat, is safe enough there!
And the man pulls the strap extra tight.
Tambourine has been ordered a good run this morning, so that he shall go quietly at the next morning's general inspection—and when at last, sweating and frothing with dilated nostrils, he is walking homewards towards the barracks, the reins hang loose on his neck.
Suddenly he feels some pointed "spurs" prod him in the side. . . .
The skittish thoroughbred, who shies at a mere touch of the curb, now receives one "spur" jab after another! He gives a leap, and bucks sideways like a flash of lightning, and the sergeant, who is totally unprepared, reels out of the saddle.
"Madness" has recovered consciousness, and, true to his nature, pays back the horse in his own coin. His disturbed state of mind, rendered still more frantic by the darkness of the saddle-bag, finds the necessary outlet in his claws and teeth.
Meanwhile, Tambourine, riderless and with flapping reins, gallops away to the bar-racks, where he is captured. He had probably bolted from the sergeant, they thought, while that worthy was swallowing a "corpse-reviver" at an inn!
"Give him a good rub down and afterwards let him have some water!" comes a roar from the office where the "Staff" sits and administers. He has heard the horse thundering round for some time, and now sticks his fat, bald head through the door. . . .
The long-aproned stable orderly bangs his heels together with a "Very good, sir!" gives the hunter a couple of soothing pats on the flanks, and leads him away.
But the orderly nearly had a fit when, unsaddling the horse, he saw a coal-black cat flash out of one of the saddle-bags and leap towards him; he thought it was the evil one himself. . . .
With a furious hiss "Madness" sprang over the man's shoulder, ran along the side of the manger, and leapt out in the middle of the stable. . . . He was in a terribly battered state, and felt utterly confused by his new surroundings. The fall from the tree, which was the beginning of his misfortunes, seemed to have spirited him into another world. He hid himself in a corner under some hay, and spat out venomous oaths at all who approached.
When the sergeant returned home he came very near smashing in "Madness' " head with his sword—not unnaturally his feelings towards the cat were the reverse of friendly! But the battery commander, who came in at the moment and heard the story, regarded the black devil as sent from heaven.
Weren't the old barrack stables simply swarming with rats and mice? It would be a splendid thing to have a cat which was worth its salt!
The tall, bony battery commander stood looking down searchingly at the savage, coal-black beast as it crouched glaring at him with its wicked, yellow-green eyes. . . . Suddenly with a ferocious scowl he thrust his long, heavy riding-boot right in the cat's face.
But neither the scowl nor the boot frightened Black: a claw transfixed the patent leather, while sharp fangs bit into the uppers. . . .
"Damn it, if he isn't a soldier!" exclaimed the commander—and the cat's fortune was made.
Living among these strong, healthy men Black performed prodigies of valour. . . .
He wasn't satisfied with catching one rat at a time—but usually managed one with each claw-bunch. Indeed, occasionally when someone took the trouble to shift the oat-bin for him, he had been know to secure a third with his jaws. He became less wild after a time, and would even allow himself to be stroked and picked up—and here, where the idea of madness was unknown, he was christened anew: they called him "Fizz."
At the cross-roads some way from the village lived the midwife.
She was a slim, fair person, with large eyes and thick, curly hair.
She was not so fearfully old; but neither was she so fearfully young; in short, she was a lady in the prime of life.
She had never taken a husband to herself, although there had been plenty of suitors— the snug little home and the smart, pretty girl were tempting enough for anyone.
Why she had not married was the secret of her life; and everyone in the neighbourhood had tried to guess it!
One evening in late autumn, when storm and rain raged without, there came to her a little kitten in the last stages of exhaustion, which crept into the shelter of the outhouse and next morning introduced itself to her as a new arrival into the world.
It was extremely timid, but starving and hungry—it gulped down everything she placed before it.
She saw that it was a little spotted he-cat with almost as many colours as the rainbow, and with a tail so long that it could wind it round the neck like a feather-boa.
The midwife adopted "Terror," not because she was particularly fond of cats, but because of late she had begun to feel so terribly lonely. . . .
After Black's departure from home Tiny had a very rough time. He was soon pursued by hunger, and there was no one there to help him, for his other brothers and sisters had also left. Even Grey Puss, who occasionally let him share her spoil, had vanished without trace.
One day, just as he is sneaking through the doorway of the turf-house—under whose mouldering thatch he still remains—he finds himself suddenly face to face with a tall, two-legged being who is too big for him to see all at once. The man throws his coat over him and he disappears as into the blackest night. He is squeezed and stifled, and mean-while carried along—until at last he succeeds in diving head first through a long, dangling nozzle—a coat-sleeve.
Then he ran, and ran—and never knew what fate he escaped!
He hid in a turnip-field, where for a time he dragged out a wretched, half-starved existence. His lonely expeditions in company with Black had taught him to avoid the dwellings of mankind; and it was not until hunger conquered fear that he dared to enter the cottage.
His position as midwife's cat suited "Terror" down to the ground—his complete inability to earn his own living excused him from rendering his mistress the slightest assistance!
Later on, the midwife discovered that she had a living barometer in the house—a fact which raised his value in her eyes enormously! She always consulted him before setting out on her duties.
As regards his humorous tendencies, they too came into their own—but not before a very painful accident occurred.
One day when the wind was playing with the outhouse door, "Terror" suddenly felt the door bite his tail! He whirled round immediately and let fly with his claws—that helped matters. The door opened its mouth and he was free!
But in spite of that, the tail still felt as if it were held fast; he ran round and round with a pain all over his body—and later on a red, swollen ring appeared round the appendage.
At last the tail-end withered away and fell off; and where the red ring had been, a tuft of hair sprouted over a black spot.
Tiny-kitten had become still tinier!
But his luxurious mode of living made his stomach fat and his body broad and short— which, taken in conjunction with his extra hairy ears and his stumpy tail, gave him a strong resemblance to a young lynx. The good midwife's clients, who not infrequently suffered from the most frightful delusions, often mistook him for one in their excited state of mind. . . .
Many an idle evening in the cottage by the cross-road did the still pretty spinster sit in cosy companionship with the kitten, thinking over her life's secret. Should she have married Thorkild Skov after all—he was now a well-to-do butcher? Or Frederik Hansen— he was now owner of Hill Farm? Or . . . ah, she had had so many wooers once upon a time!
No, no, she thought, jumping up restlessly —far better off as she was! All that terrible fuss over the arrival of each little citizen into the world, with which she had been in such close contact since her early girlhood, had quite frightened her.
She sat down again and fell into deep thought, her hand gently stroking "Terror's" soft fur, as he lay purring on the sofa at her side. . . .
And yet—she sighed deeply—and yet, she wished in spite of all that she had not been so afraid of life!