Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The battle of the cats

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Now before I proceed any further I had better explain a little.

During my residence in a sea-port town in the north of England, I once had the privilege of conversing with an old lady in her 103rd year.

She was wonderfully active for her years, and looked so lively that, if she had not unfortunately fallen down-stairs shortly afterwards, and given her system a shock that it did not recover, she might have been living yet.

Like many very old people, her conversational powers were, to put it in a mild way, considerable. Moreover, oh! ye anti-tobacconists, she smoked; and over a confidential pipe the old lady opened her wallet and favoured me with many marvellous and strange tales concerning her native town; among others, of a great battle that had been fought on the town moor. It had happened before her time, and not being gifted with the faculty of remembering things that had happened before she came into the world, she could only speak from hearsay, but she had “heerd tell” that two great armies of cats had, long ago, come from no one knows where, and met in deadly strife on the moor, and that after it was over they had returned whence they came; or at any rate, the survivors had. Here was a most unparalleled event! Other neighbourhoods might boast of Roman remains, and British barrows and tumuli, and such like articles of furniture, but in what town, or even county in England had such a thing as a feline combat on such an extensive scale ever happened? What made the case very provoking was, that in no county history, local records, or table-book could I find the slightest trace or mention of this remarkable occurrence; and as I am naturally of an antiquarian turn of mind, I believe I lost flesh about it. Certainly my sleep was broken for many nights. Not a melodious howl arose from a nocturnal and tile-frequenting Tom, (they were awful rascals after the pigeons) but woke me up to the recollection of the unsolved mystery which lay shrouded under the cobwebs of bygone ages. At length I had my curiosity satisfied. One night I was awakened by the tremendous “mieaow,” which I mentioned at the commencement, and which proceeded apparently from some animal located in my room. I rubbed my eyes and sat up in bed, and, seated on the footboard, I beheld an ancient and spectral cat of gigantic proportions, (I don’t like to be thought exaggerating, but let us say as big as a Newfoundland dog,) lambient, blue, and transparent, with flaming eyes and a kind of red-hot, corruscating wick which ran from the nape of his neck to the tip of his tail, and ended in sparks.

“Did you speak?” I asked, when I had recovered myself. “Yes,” said he, “I understand that you wish to know the particulars of that great battle which took place on the town moor” (how did he understand anything of the sort?)—“Ah! I was chief of the commissariat to the grand army of Tortoiseshells at that time, and knew the flavour of a fine fat mouse; alas! these joys are gone never to return. I have tried more than once since shuffling off the mortal coil, to eat a mouse, but they burnt to cinders in my inside and brought on such a severe attack of dyspepsia that I thought I should never get over it. I was rash enough too to indulge in some fine rich cream that I came across in my wanderings, but my internal heat converted it into steam so rapidly that I was nearly blown up, indeed, it quite lifted me off my legs, so I am fain to lead a life of abstinence and self-denial little suited to my disposition.” And here he gave such a melancholy howl that from my heart I pitied the old sinner. “However, I will not detain you with my grievances; you will find in this document a full account of that great, and to my party, unfortunate, battle.” Saying which he laid on the counterpane a neat roll of mouse-skins covered with writing, and springing on to a moonbeam which struggled through the window blind, he ran swiftly up till he vanished from my sight.

Now if any one asks in what language was this chronicle written, and how did I contrive to decipher it, I reply that that is my affair, and if they don’t choose to take the particulars just as I lay them before them, they may let it alone.

Next morning I set myself to work to examine the manuscript, but before I proceed to give the narrative contained therein, I may as well silence all sceptical objections to the mode of its acquisition. It will be objected by some that the spiritual manifestation of a Tom Cat is preposterous, and impossible, and therefore unworthy of belief. I simply refer such to the many and interesting accounts of apparitions that have been given lately in some of our periodicals. Observe that in these instances there was not only the appearance or spectre of the person, but also of his or her wearing apparel. Now I maintain that there is nothing more absurd or unreasonable in the ghost of a tom cat (or a tibby) than in the ghost of a pair of boots, or a hat, or an umbrella (generally silk with an ornamental ivory handle), or a crinoline. The relative possibility of my story is therefore established, and for the probability of it you must take my assurance.

In the infancy of this land, when men wore paint—the fashion is confined to the gentler sex now—and hyenas’ bones were held to be a sovereign cure for rheumatism, the race of cats was great and powerful and numerous. The dark and endless woods, the brakes and cliffs and caves harboured their communities. If but one midnight wanderer raised his voice, the cry was taken up and re-echoed in one unbroken howl through the whole length of the land. The effect then was grand; like the night wind sighing through the pines on the hill sides—only much sweeter.

They were a united race; and readily unsheathed their claws and arched their backs against a common enemy. Even the wolf had to slink by with an air of abject deprecation, and dare not call his eyes his own.

The race of two legged creatures called men were their most formidable enemies. These gigantic and ferocious beings destroyed them for their skins, yea, even ate them; and capturing their young ones, carried them off into slavery and compelled them to catch rats and mice for their living.

In the course of years the race of cats was much reduced in numbers, and the greater part of them utterly subdued and domesticated by their enemy, man. As if this were not enough, they had split into factions which were at enmity with each other, and were distinguished as the “Brindles,” the “Blacks,” and the “Tortoiseshells.” Woe to the unhappy cat who strayed into the territory of another faction—such a howling and mol-rowing ensued, and very soon his bones, clean picked, lay whitening in the sun.

Affairs being in this condition, it so happened that the young prince of our clan, the Tortoiseshells, had fallen in love with a tabby of the Blacks—she was a traitress, and persuaded him one day to cross the boundary into her faction’s ground. The unfortunate prince, blind to all considerations of personal safety, consented, and no sooner was he over the border than he fell into an ambush. Six gigantic blacks sprang out on him, and ate him up before the eyes of an affrighted tortoisehell who was out catching birds in the neighbourhood. He carried the dismal tidings to our court, and the old king, Molrowdy, rose up in bitter wrath and swore to have the eyes of the perpetrators of the deed. In a week we had raised a numerous army. From every household and farmstead of Durham they came swarming in to the camp. Plump domestic Toms, wiry and veteran mousers from barns and lofts, and a chosen band of wild cats from the woods, terrible of aspect and having claws six inches long.

Then putting himself at their head, the King led them forth to invade the territory of the enemy. I had interest at court, and got a snug berth in the victualling department.

Four nights we marched, an advanced guard of 2000 leading the way, and skirmishers and foraging parties scouring the country and robbing the larders, while our main body, consisting of 20,000 well-clawed and active cats, marched in close order, their tails rustling in the breeze.

The King of the Blacks, hight Katerwolly, was not idle meantime. When he heard of the violent death of the Prince of the Tortoiseshells, he first of all caused the perpetrators of the deed to be tied together in pairs by their hind legs, and hung over the branches of a tree, to tear themselves to death, as a punishment for the row they had got him into, and then set about preparing for the defence of his kingdom.

And very quickly he raised a large force, drawn from the moors and fells of Yorkshire.

With these, to the number of nearly 30,000, he hastened to meet his opponent, and about the middle of one fine day the skirmishers on either side met on Sunderland Moor, and, after a little desultory scratching, fell back upon their main bodies; and the two forces remained opposite to each other until night set in.

I, being a non-combatant, was left in the rear with the baggage; and heartily I congratulated myself on the arrangement. Indeed, since our setting out, I had been exceedingly comfortable, and had come in for some nice little pickings; for if a fellow, after being away all day foraging, brought back, among other things, a nice plump sparrow, or other dainty, which he naturally wished to reserve for himself, a quiet hint to me, accompanied by a modest share of the dainty, procured my silence.

So, being, as I said, left in the rear, I made a light supper, and then looked about for some favourable point from which to view the fight. I soon found a suitable tree, and scrambled up it, taking with me a trifling snack in case I should feel hungry, and then settled myself among the leaves.

About 8 o’clock at night the fight commenced by a party of blacks stealing through the long grass, and surprising a company of our fellows who held possession of the top of a long wall. I daresay I could have given timely notice of the attempt, but then I was so comfortably fixed, and unwilling to encounter the fatigue of scrambling up and down my tree:—so I kept quiet. In a short time they neared the wall, and sprang on it so suddenly that our tortoiseshells were tumbled off it with scarcely a scratch being given on either side.

Then the fight became general, for the wall was an important post, and each party poured in reinforcements, and the wall was taken and retaken, and lost and won, over and over again. The mass of combatants looked like the sea in a storm; they surged and rolled, and heaved and gyrated. They reared on end, and wrestled, and clawed, and bit. They bounded over each other, and got locked in inextricable knots of claws and tails and fluff. The hair rose and floated over the field in clouds, so that in some places the combatants could be but dimly seen, while the cold white moon looked grimly down upon the bloody scene. By this time, many a stout tom lay prone in the dust, and the weary troops on either side were fain to pause awhile, and watch each other with arched backs and quivering tails. This was the moment chosen by our sly old king to play his grand move. He had kept in reserve his band of wild cats, curbing their impatience, and watching the fluctuations of the struggle, and now, marshalling them, he gave the word to charge, and headed them in person. It was a sight I shall never forget. With a savage yell the mountaineers sprang forward with tails erect; and as they brushed against each other the electricity thus generated rushed in a cloud of sparks from their upraised tails. They fell like a thousand of bricks on the foe, hurling them back in masses by their very weight. The blacks, I must say, fought gallantly, and the battle became fierce and deadly. Not a sound was heard but the ripping and craunching of claws and teeth, or the wail of some strong tom in his last extremity. Our mountaineers, however, had turned the scale, and the blacks were playing a losing game. In many parts of the field they were utterly broken, and as I fancied it would soon be over I sat down to refresh myself with the wing of a chicken. Looking up for a moment, judge my surprise and dismay to see, coming rapidly from the south, a large force of “Brindles.”

King Katerwolly of the Blacks had been politic enough to form an alliance with the “Brindles,” whenever hostilities appeared unavoidable, and they had intended to have been on the field much earlier, but had, I heard afterwards, been delayed in consequence of having to take a somewhat circuitous route to avoid a force of hostile dogs that lay in wait to worry them.

We were now far outnumbered. The new comers, who were fresh, and, moreover, had been starving for two days, threw themselves into the thick of the fight. Our mountaineers fought as only wild cats can, but to no purpose. Each one became the nucleus for a bunch of famished brindles, who clawed and tore and spit to such good purpose, that our wild allies were literally eaten off their legs. Their defeat was the turning point of the day. Our other troops, who had up to this time been steady enough, lost heart and wavered. The wall was in the hands of the foe, whose tails waved triumphantly from its summit. I saw that it was all up, and cut as hard as I could, and just in time, too, for a body of the Brindles fell upon our provender. Their cries over the eatables attracted the rest and the Blacks, and under cover of the diversion, our leader drew off the tattered remnant of his forces, and beat a hasty retreat.

Sadly we returned to our homes, much reduced in numbers, and leaving many a housewife’s hearth desolate; for the bones of her faithful Tortoiseshell were left to bleach on the fatal moor.

Our King died soon after of a broken heart and the loss of one eye. Many of our troops became demoralised, and took to sacking pantries and pigeon-cotes, and died ignominiously by dog and trap, while others, disowned by their old owners, fell victims to hardships to which they were mi used.

I, myself, heart-broken and reduced to a skeleton, retired to the seclusion of a stable-loft, and dragged out my days in obscurity, occupying my leisure in writing out this history, and perished eventually from incautiously swallowing a live mouse.

And now I am doomed to wander o’er the moonlit tiles, haunting the scenes of former joys.

Here the manuscript ends. It may be observed that the concluding sentences must have been written after our friend’s decease; but that need excite no surprise, when we recollect that writing (and that without the aid of a medium) is numbered among spiritual accomplishments.

I would just observe, in conclusion, that I deserve credit for being the means of placing before the public a great and interesting historical fact which has quite escaped Macaulay.

I have to regret that the unique document itself unfortunately fell in the way of our cat, who, incautiously eating it, became immediately old and grey, and perished, warbling in an ancient and unknown tongue. Otherwise, I should certainly have deposited it in the British Museum for the inspection of the curious and the antiquarian.