This chapter is from the "Kittens: A Family Chronicle" book, by Svend Fleuron.
She had been the children's kitten; had been petted and played with and had free run of the living-rooms. She could never forget those wonderful days—and the room there— just the other side of the threshold, where no hen or cock, cow or horse, not even Box himself, ever set foot—where only "humans" came. Old as she was, it still lingered in her memory.
Often during the chill of spring or the frost of winter she would see it hovering above her, dreamlike, with its endless bowls of milk and its everlasting summer.
The days of luxury had lasted little more than a month; after that the command was "Get outl" And with boot and broomstick she was ruthlessly expelled.
"Grey Puss is such a thief!" complained the housewife. . . . "She is always after the meat and cream on the kitchen table. Grey Puss steals ... we can't have her in the house!"
What did she know about human laws? What were meat and cream meant for if not for a cat? . . . She took what she could; it was her nature.
After being expelled from the house she began to avoid people; soon the habit became second nature. From the house she was chased to the farmyard, from the farmyard to the cow-stall. . . . The smoke from the chimney was now the only thing in sight to remind her of her childhood's luxury.
She was often to be found of a summer morning basking in the sun outside the stall. Together with the other she-cats of the farm she lay here giving suck to a motherless kitten. They shared the child between them, and fed it alternately, listening the while for the return of the milk-cart from the fields.
Now they hear it in the distance—yes, that is old Whitefoot's trot! And soon afterwards it rattles and bumps into the yard. All the cats' tails rise straight in the air like trees; their legs grow quite stiff—the great event of the day is at hand.
The cart has barely stopped before they are up in it; they must immediately sniff the odour of the sweet, fresh milk.
The foreman of the dairy gives them a little in a bowl to share among them. ...
But the bowl is soon licked dry—and now they are on the lookout to get whatever they can.
The moment the dairyman puts aside an empty pail, a cat pops in like a flash, head first, and licks it clean to the last drop; they leap up and hang by their forepaws to the dripping milk-sieve; they do anything and everything to secure a taste of the delicious milk.
They all allow the foreman to lift them up by the tail; they only straddle their legs. . . .
"Puss, puss!" cries the good fellow affectionately as he raises them; and adds to a wondering onlooker, "They know I won't hurt them!"
Yes, so shamelessly did they soil themselves with milk, that afterwards they spent hours and hours washing each other clean and dry.
She felt now so utterly out of touch with all that,—that she could have been a party to such goings on! To permit herself to be lifted up by the tail—and then, actually, to wash another cat's kitten!
She still went regularly to the farm, usually in the early morning or the late evening. But she never ventured out into the open yard, and was in general very shy of showing herself. She preferred to stand up in the hay-loft and peep through the trap-door into the stall; but the moment she caught a glimpse of a "human" she vanished instantly.
Whenever one of the farm hands came up to fetch hay or straw for the cows and caught her unawares, she would hiss at him. Nevertheless, the foreman, who was fond of cats, always put a little milk in the loft for her; it remained invariably untouched during the day, but at night it was drunk up.
"Hanged if I know what is the matter with Grey Puss!" he often muttered to himself. "I wonder if Box has been chasing her . . . she's so scared; she's more like a wild cat, the little fool!"
Yes, wild she had been for a long time! From the cow-stall she retreated to the loft, where she learned to hide among the beams and rafters. She got into the habit of climbing trees, walking up and down thatched roofs, and sleeping behind chimney-stacks.
And as time went on she became more and more peculiar. . . .
She was not like the other farm cats, who let their children be drowned litter after litter, without doing anything more heroic than miauw over their corpses. No, she allowed that to happen once, after which she understood that she had hidden her kittens badly! Of course they could not be expected to escape by themselves!
The next time she had young she hid them deep down under a heap of straw; but the foreman's small boys, who always played in the loft, heard their squealing and fished them out—and then they were murdered. One only was left, overlooked in the straw.
Most other she-cats would have been grateful for the survivor and forgotten the rest. But she did not forget; she went about seeking and seeking, miauwing and complaining incessantly. Finally she took the one kitten in her mouth and carried it away to an empty dovecote in a deserted labourer's cottage. Here it grew up without seeing a single "human." Until one fine morning it was killed by Box. . . .
Now, this spring, when she is once more to lie staring about them without discomfort. Each of the tiny eyes was covered with a curious bluish film, through the damp, glazed surface of which the slanting pupils began to push their way. The eyes appeared extraordinarily large in comparison with the head, and gave the impression that the kittens were in a state of perpetual surprise.