This chapter is from the "Kittens: A Family Chronicle" book, by Svend Fleuron.
After leaving the village the main road rose over the brow of the hill and ran down again between rich, fertile fields until it crossed the river which hugged the valley.
At the bottom of the hill a small, idyllic brook had once flowed into the river, but it had dried up, leaving behind only the shallow watercourse, which now served as a drain.
The road crossed the river by means of a flint-paved bridge, and swung round a fisherman's cottage before continuing farther across country.
The fisherman had been a widower for thirteen years, and he had lived in the house for twenty—so that he knew its ins and outs fairly well. A small garden and a few rods of ploughed land supplied potatoes for him and oats for his horse. Three or four times a week he drove round the countryside selling the fish he caught in the fjord. It was a long way for the horse to pull—sometimes as much as twenty-five or thirty miles a day; but in return the beast was often allowed to slack for several days on end.
The gables of the building faced east-west, and all its doors and its small windows opened towards the south.
The west end, which was nearest the road, formed the stall and pigsty—in which a pig was always grunting. The outhouse, consisting of woodshed and barn, was situated on the east, from which direction the winter storms usually raged. Between the two nestled the inhabited quarter, comprising corridor, tiny kitchen, and living-room.
For seven years it had been vouchsafed the fisherman to live in this room with his wife; then she died, leaving behind her seven children, who had long since deserted the parental roof. From the quiet, peaceful country-side to which their father clung with his whole nature, they had emigrated to the big town, which they could not imagine themselves leaving.
"I've had enough of all that fuss with children," said the fisherman. "Thank goodness it's over and done with I"
Now he lived totally alone. He kept the house in order himself, and made the food himself—and smoked his way with cheap tobacco through the long, winter evenings.
It was quite cosy in the living-room, where a pair of large pictures of himself and his wife when young hung on the wall, and where the inevitable soldier-photographs of the boys —who all later on became navvies or brick-layers—stood upon the chest-of-drawers. In the window beneath the short cotton curtains stood well-tended pot-plants on neat wooden stands. ... It was all meagre enough, but decent and orderly.
In addition to the horse, which was the old man's jewel, and the pig, which was treated as a son, he owned a little dog called Bibs. The latter guarded the house when his master was away.
Bibs reigned in the living-room. Outside —in the stall, barn, and loft—a cat was in command; but in reality the post was vacant, for old Peter, with his pale, lack-lustre eyes and moth-eaten tail, was now so decrepit and worn-out that he could no longer hear whether mice or other vermin scratched or not.
For fourteen years the cat had lived with the fisherman, who alleged that he was so intelligent that he understood what was said to him. For instance, if the cat sat by the stove and the man bent down and shouted, "Peter, get out!" he got up and went out.
He always ran to meet the fish-cart when it came home from the fishing-place laden with eels or herring—and as reward the fisherman would fling him a squab or a dab, or perhaps a small eel. He could recognize the horse's trot from a great distance, and when it came in sight he miauwed with delight, opening his mouth so wide that one could see far down into his stomach.
In his palmy days he used to run a mile along the road to meet the cart—but now he could only manage a couple of hundred yards.
Peter was the apple of the fisherman's eye, and Grey would never have found favour with him had not the old cat himself received his successor, when she suddenly walked in one freezing autumn morning, with the utmost graciousness.
For Grey-kitten was a lady, and old Mr. Peter's ingrained tendency towards gallantry acquired new life at the sight of the pretty, little, long-eared pussy-cat. A golden gleam filled the fellow's pale eyes, and the fisherman often saw the stiff, rheumatic old tyke sitting for hours at a time under a tree up which his new, agile little lodger had fled.
But one day when it is raining hard, Grey-kitten cannot escape from the old stink-pot; she has to run up into the hayloft.
Peter crawls up the ladder in pursuit, and Grey springs out of the window on to a headless poplar growing beside the house.
Peter, forgetting his age, makes a rash leap after her . . . but misses his footing and falls into the water.
However, he is quickly on land again, where he sits down and waits faithfully under the tree in which the object of his senile affection is enthroned.
He shakes with cold, but endures bravely —and when the fisherman returns home in the evening, he finds his old comrade still sitting there, stiff and dead. . . .
After that Grey inherited his office as a matter of course, and as time passed succeeded in discharging it entirely to her master's satisfaction.
She was called "Puss" and "Pussy-girl"— and she had a busy time ridding the old, neglected hovel of mice. She soon made herself at home in the stall, barn, and loft, which were just as dark and dirty as the burial-mound and the willow bole.
One day, only six months later, she came running with her tail proudly hoisted, to meet the old fisherman as he was driving home, and jumped up beside him in the cart. And then, after the horse had been put in the stall and the fish-boxes unloaded, she was given two or three little eels or dabs.
Fish had always been her favourite food!