More English Fairy Tales/The King o' the Cats

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More English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs
74. The King o' the Cats
See note to tale 74

The King o' the Cats


ONE winter's evening the sexton's wife was sitting by the fireside with her big black cat, Old Tom, on the other side, both half-asleep and waiting for the master to come home. They waited and they waited, but still he didn't come, till at last he came rushing in, calling out, "Who's Tommy Tildrum?" in such a wild way that both his wife and his cat stared at him to know what was the matter.

"Why, what's the matter?" said his wife, "and why do you want to know who Tommy Tildrum is?"

"Oh, I've had such an adventure. I was digging away at old Mr. Fordyce's grave when I suppose I must have dropped asleep, and only woke up by hearing a cat's Miaou."

"Miaou!" said Old Tom in answer.

"Yes, just like that! So I looked over the edge of the grave, and what do you think I saw?"

"Now, how can I tell?" said the sexton's wife.

"Why, nine black cats all like our friend Tom here, all with a white spot on their chestesses. And what do you think they were carrying? Why, a small coffin covered with a black velvet pall, and on the pall was a small coronet all of gold, and at every third step they took they cried all together, Miaou——"

"Miaou!" said Old Tom again.

"Yes, just like that!" said the Sexton; "and as they came nearer and nearer to me I could see them more distinctly, because their eyes shone out with a sort of green light. Well, they all came towards me, eight of them carrying the coffin, and the biggest cat of all walking in front for all the world like—but look at our Tom, how he's looking at me. You'd think he knew all I was saying."

"Go on, go on," said his wife; "never mind Old Tom."

"Well, as I was a-saying, they came towards me slowly and solemnly, and at every third step crying all together, Miaou——"

"Miaou!" said Old Tom again.

"Yes, just like that, till they came and stood right opposite Mr. Fordyce's grave, where I was, when they all stood still and looked straight at me. I did feel queer, that I did! But look at Old Tom; he's looking at me just like they did."

"Go on, go on," said his wife; "never mind Old Tom."

"Where was I? Oh, they all stood still looking at me, when the one that wasn't carrying the coffin came forward and, staring straight at me, said to me—yes, I tell 'ee, said to me—with a squeaky voice, 'Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum's dead,' and that's why I asked you if you knew who Tom Tildrum was, for how can I tell Tom Tildrum Tim Toldrum's dead if I don't know who Tom Tildrum is?"

"Look at Old Tom, look at Old Tom!" screamed his wife.

And well he might look, for Tom was swelling and Tom was staring, and at last Tom shrieked out, "What—old Tim dead! then I'm the King o' the Cats!" and rushed up the chimney and was never more seen.

LXXIV. KING O' CATS.

Source.—I have taken a point here and a point there from the various English versions mentioned in the next section. I have expanded the names, so as to make a jingle from the Dildrom and Doldrum of Harland.

Parallels.—Five variants of this quaint legend have been collected in England: (1) Halliwell, Pop. Rhymes, 167, "Molly Dixon"; (2) Choice Notes—Folk-Lore, p. 73, "Colman Grey"; (3) Folk-Lore Journal, ii. 22, "King o' the Cats"; (4) Folk-Lore—England (Gibbings), "Johnny Reed's Cat"; (5) Harland and Wilkinson, Lancashire Legends, p. 13, "Dildrum Doldrum." Sir F. Palgrave gives a Danish parallel; cp. Halliwell, l.c.

Remarks.—An interesting example of the spread and development of a simple anecdote throughout England. Here again we can scarcely imagine more than a single origin for the tale which is, in its way, as weird and fantastic as E. A. Poe.