THE RED CAT[edit | edit source]
The Story of a Mystery ,
by Harold Begbie[edit | edit source]
Published in the Cornhill Magazine 1903
IN the days when Yondercot was a residence of the Bishops of Lammerton, a small party of men was one winter night gathered about the hall fire, the Bishop himself occupying the center of the group. The ladies of the house party had retired to their rooms after a long evening spent in telling and hearing ghost stories, and the men were now left alone to the quiet of the splendid hall and the humming of a clear fire. They sat for a few minutes in silence, all eyes brooding upon the glow of the fire, and then one of them remarked that every legend and every ghost story in the world must, he thought, have some more or less intelligent foundation in fact. Another quoted Balzac's "Christ in Flanders," and told how it was a common belief among certain sailors that Christ still walked upon the sea. Then the conversation dropped again till the Bishop — who had not yet contributed a ghost story to the sequence — leaning forward in his chair, his elbows on his knees, his hands held out toward the fire, remarked that concerning one ghost story he knew never yet had he been able to trace any relation to fact, unless, indeed, the story was actually true throughout.
They all begged for the story, and though he glanced smilingly at the slow-ticking clock and protested the lateness of the hour, he yielded at last to their persuasion, and told the following extraordinary story . One of the party tells me that he can never forget the effect of that recital, told in the low quiet voice of the Bishop, as the old man sat there in the great paneled hall, leaning forward toward the fire, with the flicker of the flames in his face and about his silver hair, his long white hands stretched out to the fire and his gentle gaze ranging from face to face, as he sought to bring home to their minds some particular point in the story. Outside in the undulating park, now three inches under snow, a wild gale was tearing at the trees and throwing great gusts of hail against the closecurtained windows.
Some years ago, when I was traveling in Sweden (said the Bishop), I found myself in the neighborhood of the forest of Kolmorden, and one day as I wandered with my guide away from the shores of Lake Vetter we came upon the ruin of a hovel, whose broken roof, shattered windows, crumbling walls, and its garden long overgrown with weeds and tangling creepers, suggested so powerfully to my mind mystery and romance — for its situation was at once magnificent and desolate — that I asked how it came to its present ill-fortunes. From my guide, and subsequently from the Bishop of Upsala, I learned the story of this broken house, and I learned, moreover, that the truth of the legend was undoubted throughout the whole of Svealand and the northern part of Gotaland.
Toward the middle of the eighteenth century the hut was occupied by a man who worked in the forest, did a little fishing on the lake, and cultivated the garden which I found a veritable jungle. His name was Hans Sparre, a silent, grimfaced man, as completely devoted to Lutheran doctrines as he was to his invalid wife Fredrika, and their little goldenhaired child Marie. Theirs was a hard struggle for existence, fought out amid the loneliness of those wooded heights which separate southern from middle Sweden, but they appear to have been happy in their way, and the peddler who visited them once a month told many a tale afterward of the father's tenderness, the mother's solicitude, and the little Marie's eagerness for a story. "It was with her," he would say, " never a pretty ribbon, never a trinket — no, no, it was always a story of ghosts and the other world. 1 ' And he gave her freely of Birgitta's Uppenbarelser.
With this small family lived a black cat, brought by the same genial peddler as a present for little Marie. It shared the frugality of the cottage, devoted itself to the child, and seldom showed any disposition to go beyond the limits of the garden. Because of its solemn demeanor, which squared so finely with his own notions, Hans Sparre christened the creature Martin, after his favorite divine.
Well, thus they lived — the hard toiling peasant, the sickly wife, the bright child, and this solemn old cat, Martin.
One very turbulent winter night as they sat before a wood fire, the child lying on the floor at their feet with* Martin's black head on her lap, the wife suddenly touched her husband's arm and called upon him to listen.
'" Tis the wind," he said, stroking her hand.
" Nay, it was a cry I heard. A thin cry, far off."
"A bird caught by a lynx."
•'Perhaps," said the little Marie, jumping up, "it is a fairy, and she wants to come in."
At that moment something moved against the door, and once again a low cry entered the room from the boisterous night without. Martin rose, arched his back, and drew back . his teeth, hissing at. the door. The child clutched him up and held him against her breast, while Hans rose from his chair and walked heavily toward the door. Fredrika, with knitting idle in her lap, one finger at her lip, watched him over her shoulder.
He lifted the clumsy wooden latch, and pressing his hand against the door so that the wind should not drive it in, allowed it to open a few inches, while with blinking eyes he peered out into the night.
Scarce was the door three inches open when a cat slunk in through the narrow aperture and padded quickly to the fire. The child gave a cry of joy, Martin leaped out of her arms and rubbed his head against the neck and shoulder of the new-comer, and Fredrika turned full round in her chair to her husband now closing the door.
''Where has it come from?" she cried, her eyes wide with astonishment.
Hans laughed gutturally : " Out of the night, my Fredrika."
"God has sent it!" cried little Marie.
"We know nothing more of it," said the father, coming back to his chair.
Then they turned their gaze on the new-comer.
It was a red cat — a far deeper shade of red than the cats we should describe as sandy — and its fur was miraculously luminous, a bright sheen giving it almost the hue of an orange. For the rest it was well nourished, and though it had come from a reeling night its coat was dry and warm. It gave no token of uneasiness on finding itself in strange surroundings, but settled itself upon the hearth, its green eyes set steadily on the sputtering wood fire, and apparently unconscious of the rubbings and pumngs with which Martin continued to welcome its arrival.
There was some little talk between Hans and his wife concerning this additional strain upon their slender commissariat, but it was speedily decided that the cat should not be turned out into the storm, and little Marie vowed that she would share her meals with it so that it might remain with them. From that night it took up its abode with this simple family, and it was given the distinguished name of Luther by Hans himself.
Many weeks passed, and the cat showed no inclination to leave its home; indeed, it was quite as content with the narrow limits of the garden as Martin himself. The two cats were inseparable, though Luther appeared to take no interest in Martin, and the child looked after them both with a perfectly divided affection.
One day when Fredrika was too ill to move about, and Marie was making a brave show of performing the household duties, the red cat suddenly showed a strange and affectionate interest in his black brother. He left the hearth, purred continuously, walked round and round Martin, nosing at the black cat's face, sidling against his loins, even putting his paws on Martin's shoulder, and then, with one final caress of the other's face, stalked solemnly through the open door into the garden. Martin followed.
Little Marie, who had watched this sudden affection on the red cat's part with almost breathless interest, was about to march out with them to see its conclusion, when the kettle boiled over, and all her attention was given to the business of the fireside. When she had set the kettle in the fender, however, she went into the garden and looked for the cats.
They were not to be seen.
She hunted under the bushes and amid the vegetables; she looked into the byre at the side of the cottage occupied by their little cow, but nowhere could she discover the' two cats. Then it struck her that a miracle had happened, and that they had gone beyond the boundaries of the garden. She darted away from the shed, and hurried through the garden. At the extreme end of the field, just entering the wood, the child descried the red cat, and behind it, following with due solemnity, her older friend, the black. She saw them enter the wood, and then she ran in breathless to tell her mother the news.
Hans arrived home, and was incontinently told* the tale. "Ah!" said he, "our new friend Luther is evidently a hunter. There will be a bird or two the less in the forest to-morrow."
The night came, and still the cats remained in the forest. In the morning, also, there was no sign of them. Marie wept bitterly for her playmates, and to all the comfortable assurances of her father, protested her conviction that a wolf or a bear had killed them.
On the evening of the following day, as the family sat at their meal, there was a movement at the door as though it were being pushed from the outside, and little Marie, crying out that the cats had returned, sprang joyfully from her chair, and standing tiptoe, lifted the latch of the door and admitted — the red cat alone. It stalked in as unconcernedly as on its first appearance, and moved directly to the hearth; there it crouched, blinking at the fire, and casting not a single glance at the other inhabitants of the room.
"Thou knowest thy home, then, Master Luther!" said Hans, from the table.
"And where is Martin, where is Martin?" cried Marie, bending over the cat.
"Martin, I fear, will never come back," answered the father; "he was too old to begin the work of hunting. You must be content with this Rufus."
And he had spoken truth, for Martin was never seen again .
But Luther appeared to be content with his excursion, and did not show any signs of a desire to revisit the forest. If he was a hunter, it was only by caprice, and a more domesticated cat it would have been difficult to find. He sat eternally before the fire, blinking with sleepy eyes at the sputtering wood, only on the rarest occasions going beyond the threshold of the cottage.
It was some four weeks after his return that this red cat betrayed signs of his old restlessness. Fredrika was at the table plying a busy needle, with a great pile of flannel before her, which had been brought the day before by their friend the peddler, and Marie was sitting on the doorstep telling herself stories, with her eyes fixed dreamily upon the blue sky. Luther blinked upon the hearth. The red cat got up suddenly from the fire, paced two or three times round the room, with the same meaningless intensity as we see in a caged panther, and then swerving in the midst of its circle, it leapt quietly to the door, ancl rubbed its head against Marie's arm, mewing up into her face, and padding on her hands with its sheathed paws. Then it moved off down the garden, and Marie turned her head into the room and whispered mysteriously to Fredrika, " Luther has gone to look for Martin!''
The mother glanced over the rims of her spectacles — she was counting stitches at that moment — and nodded her head, returning instantly to her intricate task.
But when she looked up again, Marie had gone from the door. The mother called her, but there was no answer. She bundled down her needlework, drew the spectacles from about her ears, and got up calling — " Marie! Little Marie!" She was at the door in a minute.
" Marie! Little Marie!" she called, looking left and right amid the bushes. Then raising her eyes she saw straight ahead of her the child walking slowly to the fringe of the forest, the red cat, a couple of feet ahead, at that very moment disappearing in the trees.
She ran to the end of the garden screaming at the top of her voice. The child did not even turn her head, and in the next minute she had vanished into the forest. Then Fredrika sprang from the garden, and ran across the field, calling loudly to her child as she stumbled over the rough ground. Marie had never strayed from the garden before, and there were dangerous beasts still ranging through the mighty forest of Kolmorden. She ran, breathless, terror in her soul.
But before she reached the forest, she heard her name called, and turning about saw Hans coming up from the lake, an oar on his shoulder. She stopped and beckoned him wildly to her side. He set down the oar and the basket in his other hand, and came striding toward her. She screamed to him that he should run, and the huge fellow set to it with a will, reaching her white and breathless. " What is it?" he gasped.
" Marie! Little Marie! " she answered, flinging herself into his arms. Then she pointed to the forest. The next instant he had bounded away from her side, and was soon lost to her sight.
She stumbled after him, and as she went she heard his great voice shouting their child's name through the trees. The hills rang with it. Guided by these cries, she made her way to his side, and together they searched hither and thither till the night fell ; but they saw nothing of Marie, and no sound answered their cries. It was dark when they reached the cottage.
" The red cat has decoyed her," said Hans, his lips trembling.
Fredrika could do nothing but sob.
"When it returns I will slay it," cried Hans, setting his teeth hard. "I will slay it when it returns. With my two hands — thus!"
"But if Marie does not come back!" cried the mother, lifting her tear-stained face to his.
He jumped to his feet. "She will return! She shall return!" And seizing up his gun, he rushed out of the cottage and vanished into the night.
Fredrika stood at the door, staring into the darkness, listening for a sound.
Ever and anon she heard him calling the child's name, and now and then a Siberian jay croaked upon the night, but there were wide silences on every side, and she stood dry -eyed, the insistent humming of stillness singing in her ears. The cries of her husband ceased altogether. The night became absolutely silent. She stood there in the darkness, feeling herself alone in the midst of a wilderness. She began to be afraid. Then, after long hours of this aching silence, a faint sound reached her. She strained her ears, craning her head forward from the door. It came again, a sharp, hissing, quickly smothered sound. She clasped her hands, listening so intently that she was conscious only of. the loud singing in her ears.
The night was drifting away, and a grayness in the gloom announced the coming of day. Straining her gaze through this yielding darkness, she saw a figure looming toward her. Again she heard the sharp, hissing sound, and in the next minute her husband lurched against her, giving way to the sobs he had striven to keep back, weeping like a child upon her shoulder.
Well, the child was lost — utterly, completely lpst — and the peddler carried the tale on his journey, so that many little children throughout Svealand wept for the pretty Marie whom they had never seen. Hans and Fredrika were brokenhearted. Their lives had been bound up in the little one, and they mourned for her as a man may mourn for his own lost soul.
It was a few weeks after her loss — and while their grief was still too poignant for speech, so that they seldom exchanged words, and never spoke about the lost child — that the red cat once more made its appearance. It entered the house at night, rubbing at the door for admittance, and moving straight to the hearth as on former occasions. To Fredrika's surprise, Hans did not lay hand either to his hunting-knife or to his gun. He jumped eagerly to his feet at the first sound of the rubbing at the door, as though he had been listening for that very sound ever since Marie's disappearance. Then, when the creature had entered, he closed the door, returned to his chair, and sat with face of iron gazing at the cat. His wife feared to speak to him.
Later she called him from his reverie, saying it was time they should retire.
" Go thou to bed," he answered ; " I watch here. " And she left him. In the morning he was still sitting in his chair, his eyes fixed upon the cat, the cat blinking peacefully at the ashes in the fireplace. And all that day he remained at home. Fredrika went about her duties, pausing oftentimes to observe the silent man sitting heavily in his chair, the fierce brooding eyes of him set determinedly upon the red cat.
At night he said between set teeth, *' God give me strength that I do not throttle thee before thou showest me my child. "
And that night, too, he sat up, and on the following day he remained at home. Every night with great fear he spoke to the cat: "God give me strength that I do not throttle thee before thou showest me my child. "
And one day, when Fredrika was ill with the extra work that had fallen to her, the cat suddenly rose from the hearth, paced restlessly round and round the room, and then sprang upon Sparre's knees, stretching up her face to rub against his cheek. He shuddered violently, his hands twitching at his side, and between his teeth he said: "God help me, or I shall kill thee, thou cursed one!" So horrible did it seem to him to be caressed by this red cat.
But when it sprang from his knee and went through the door into the garden, he gave a loud shout of joy. For the first time since Marie's disappearance his face became radiant with delight. "I shall find her!" he cried to his wife. And, seizing up his hunting-knife, without further word to Fredrika, he went from the cottage, and followed the red cat into the forest.
Fredrika, weak and wasted, shuffled to the door, and, leaning against the side, watched them disappear — the cat moving slowly and unconcernedly, the man following chafingly behind. Then she turned back into the cottage, sank wearily into a chair and waited.
For many days the wretched woman waited, and Hans never returned. She was growing infirm, and the loneliness of her desertion began to prey upon her mind. When the peddler came by on his rounds a week after the disappearance of Hans he found her shattered in body, her mind so shaken that she was almost bereft of volition. She told him her story, and after he had given her food and helped her to the bed, the good fellow mounted his pony — leaving his wares behind him at the cottage — and galloped at full speed to the village in the valley.
The news spread, search parties set out from all parts of the country, and soon the great forest had been beaten from one end to the other — but all in vain. There was no trace anywhere of the black cat, of little Marie, of Hans Sparre, or the red cat which had decoyed them out of existence. For some weeks excitement ran high, and certainly throughout the greater part of Svealand people talked of nothing else. It was an event in their lives, and the tale, carried by travelers and peddlers, was told and retold a thousand times throughout the country. But the search parties soon abandoned their fruitless efforts, the kind people who had tended poor Fredrika withdrew to their homes, and once more the unhappy woman was left alone in her misery.
On the very first night of her loneliness the red cat returned. In precisely the same unconcerned fashion it pushed through the opening door and padded straight to the hearth, curling itself up there with the calmest content, as though it had never gone away. Fredrika followed her husband's example, and watched it. Night and day, praying for help from Heaven, she sat alone in the deserted hut with the red cat, .waiting till it should lead her to the place where her husband and her child were now imprisoned.
The cat took no notice of her, staring straight before it, never asking for food and never sleeping — unless it slept when she herself fell into weary slumber. And Fredrika watched and watched, longing every day for the signal which should take her to her husband and their child. Days, weeks, a month passed, and every day death grew nearer and nearer to the poor woman alone with the red cat. Her cheeks fell in, her flesh wasted, she became racked with the intolerable tortures of hunger. Alone in her chair by the side of a fireless grate, she sat in utter desertion — watching the red cat and hearing the muffled steps of death drawing nearer and nearer. She did not fear death — but presently she began to fear the cat.
It turned its head one day, and, crouching peacefully on the hearth, stared up into her eyes. It was the first time they had ever looked each into the other's eyes. You may imagine the effect upon the woman's mind. None of us, I suppose, has ever experienced the prolonged stare of an animal; as a rule their eyes blink, close, or turn away, unable to endure our gaze. But this cat who, remember, had led her husband and child to destruction, sat there upon the hearth, its head turned toward her, and its green eyes fixed steadily upon her own. At first she hoped that it was about to lead her to the forest, but after a moment or two, when it showed no sign either of moving or of turning its gaze away, she began to grow afraid. Before terror possessed her completely she determined to kill it, unable to bear the fixity of its gaze; but when she tried to rise from her chair she discovered herself too weak to move, and then it was that horror seized her in its grip. She was the prisoner of the cat.
In vain she essayed to close her eyes ; they refused to remain closed. And as she sat there, mesmerized by the glance of the cat, night fell, and in a little while darkness closed upon the room. But it was a darkness which could not shut out the terror of her situation; nay a darkness which increased the horror of it a hundredfold, for the green eyes of the cat, malignant and ghastly in the intensity of their gaze, burned through the blackness, and fixed her with their hate. And then, through this darkness, loomed the shape of the cat, at first a blur of brown, then clear and defined in outline — a light red, and finally a flame of fire, luminous, unearthly. Alone in the blackness and solitude of the night, the wind blowing in through the open door bearing with it strange and eerie sounds from the forest without, the dying woman sat prisoned in her chair, gazing at the flaming cat upon the hearth, whose green eyes darted baleful fires into her own.
That night seemed to her like a lifetime of physical agony, and when morning came tardily out of the skies her reason was well-nigh exhausted. At the first flush of dawn the cat rose from the hearth, stretched itself luxuriously, and then without another glance at the woman began to pace slowly round the room. After a minute or so it sprang gladly to the door and vanished into the garden.
Fredrika strove to rise, but her strength had gone from her, and she fell back in her chair praying for death. Her mind collapsed as she realized that the cat had gone, and that it would never return to lead her to the place where Hans and Marie awaited her.
It was not until late in the evening that the peddler, a day or two late on his rounds, struck up the hillside and reached the cottage. He found Fredrika in the state I have described, and seeing that the poor creature was at her last gasp he determined to wait with her until the end. It was after he had given her nourishment and had carried her to the bed that she told him the story of the cat's appearance and disappearance, and so simply and so resignedly did she recite the story that he could not bring himself to doubt the truth of it.
That night the soul of Fredrika left her body, and when he had trimmed the lamp, so that she should not be left in darkness, and had covered the body reverently with a sheet, the peddler saddled his pony and set off to ride with the news to the village below. But as he went, so the legend declares, he heard a sound of gentle music from the forest — music so rare and wonderful that he unconsciously doffed his hat, believing himself in the presence of angels. He looked toward the forest, and through the darkness he saw a soft luminous mist — a light that moved slowly among the trees. He feared to approach nearer the forest, but he found himself so enchanted by the music and so spellbound by the mystery that he could not urge his pony forward. He remained on the side of the hill, hisjiands resting on the front of the saddle, his eyes fixed upon the light moving through the forest. And presently the radiance became brighter, and in another minute the whole forest appeared to be illumined by this celestial splendor, and in the midst of it he saw the stark gaunt form of Hans Sparre with little Marie in his arms, and at his side Fredrika clinging to his arm, her face as radiant as theirs with a rapture that was unearthly, and they were singing a hymn of Tomas, Bishop of Strengnas.
When they had passed from his vision the dawn was in movement, and shaking the rein, now clammy with dew, the peddler hurried down to the valley. As soon as his tale was told a party set off for the cottage, the priest going with them, and the peddler telling and retelling the mysteries he had witnessed that night as they struck up the hillside.
As they reached the cottage the lamp which the peddler had lighted shone dimly and ghostly in the morning brightness. They saw it directly they opened the door, and then, the priest uncovering, the rest following his example, they entered the cottage.
The bed was vacant.
The sheet with which the peddler had covered the body was tossed upon one side, the marks where a body had reposed were visible to all eyes — but the body of Fredrika had vanished as mysteriously as Hans and little Marie. For many minutes they stood gazing in awed silence at the bed, and then a cry of aiarm from someone at the back of the little crowd brought them all turning hastily about in a state bordering on panic. " What is it? What is it?" they cried in one voice. . The peasant who had caused this sudden alarm pointed to a beam of wood amid the smoke-grimed rafters of the cottage.
And there, transfixed by the great hunting-knife of Hans Sparre, was the dead body of the red cat. It was bloodless.