THE BOARDING HOUSE CATS (1887)
Me-o-o-o-ow-ow-ow! All the passengers on the after deck of a South Ferry boat jumped. Where could such a chorus of cat music come from? Not a cat was in sight anywhere, while suddenly the air had been filled, with cries that at night, in a back yard, would have aroused the sleepers in the whole block. After the first burst the yawling ceased as suddenly as it began, but there succeeded a subdued muttering and a sound of clawing that showed very plainly that fur was being destroyed wherever those cats were. And then a sharp-eyed little girl cried:
"Papa, just look at that bag! What is the matter with it?"
Everyone looked in the direction the child was pointing, and the cats were, figuratively, out of the bah, though literally most positively in it. The bag was a common telescope one, such as are usually carried by drummers, and its cover was heaving up and down in a most remarkable manner. Plainly the mystery of where the cats were was solved, and that seemed to suffice most of the passengers, who probably thought the young man standing guard over the peculiar luggage was only carrying home a surprise for his little sister. The agonized look on his face foretold that, if that were the case, he would not for a long time perpetrate another such surprise.
The boat had now bumped into the slip on the Brooklyn side and was made fast to the bridge. All the passengers had rushed forward except the one with the cats and one other who waited to see what he would do. There was murder in the young man's eye. He picked the bag up and rested it on the guard rail. Then he looked around, and seeing the one other passenger left on the boat looking with interest at him, as quickly took it down and assumed an air of carelessness, as if the movement had merely been preparatory to taking the bag and its exceedingly lively contents off the boat. But he looked very sad as he walked slowly forward.
Once in Atlantic-avenue he rushed ahead rapidly for one block - so rapidly that his fellow passenger, who had followed in his wake, could scarcely keep up with him. On the corner he stopped, and seeing a small boy playing in the gutter, his face lighted up with joy. So did the small boy's when he was called and earnestly besought to take the bag and drop it over the edge of the dock, and as an inducement to perform that heartless act a quarter was slipped into his hand. Just then the cats gave another howl, and the young man, dexterously fishing a ten-cent piece from his pocket, offered it as an extra inducement to the lad to hurry up and get the bag away before a crowd collected. With a parting injunction from the young man to be sure to drown the cats and not let them get away, he and the boy, cats and bag parted company, and the accessory to the murder started off again up the street, anxious to have as much space as possible between himself and the scene of the crime. As he looked back and saw the boy poising the bag on the edge of the dock and in imminent danger of going into the water with it when he gave it the final push, he heaved a sign of actual relief and the agonized look passed from his face.
But the witness of the foul deed did not mean to let him escape, and accosting him, demanded a clear account of the whole affair, and threatened on refusal to turn him over to a policeman for bribing the small boy to violate a city ordinance. This baseless threat had the desired effect, and the young man launched forth into his story as if, after all, it was a relief to have some one to whom to tell his woeful tale.
"My dear friend," he began, "take my advice. never, whatever you do, get caught out in the cold world with a cargo of cats. I never shall again. You won't enjoy life under the circumstances. Since I started out this morning I have been in agony. My hair has not turned white, but that is because I have naturally strong nerves. If my mind has been as strong as my nerves I never would have been inveigled into taking those cats at all. You see I live at a boarding house. I'm never going back again, however. my room-mate will pack up my duds for me or they may stay there; as for me I never want to see the place again. That is because of my truthfulness. There are two more cats in the house, and as I came away this morning the last words I said were, "I will take the rest of them when I come back," No I can't take those cats, and I can't break my word, and so I shall never go back."
The young man had recovered his spirits somewhat and was walking more slowly. Finally he came to a dead stop and suggested that the rest of the story be told at a small table and under the mellowing influences of some hot beef tea.
"Well," he continued, as I said, I live, or did live, in a boarding house. It is not one of those big desolate, though crowded, places, but a quiet homelike establishment under the management of a motherly old lady who after having lived 40 years of her life looking only on the dark side, was suddenly converted to the other plan and now almost lives by laughing, in which she is religiously emulated by her two daughters. How I hate to leave the house! But I can't go back unless I hear that those two cats have run away. The house was overrun with cats. Two black ones, two yellow ones, and a white one. They made life miserable, although they were somewhat remunerative - the neighbors threw so much stuff into the back yard at them. This morning one of the daughters said: 'I wish we could get rid of these cats;' then I, alas, suggested taking them away and dropping them somewhere. Then the question of who should do the deed arose; we drew lots - three of us - and the destroying fell to my hand.
"The plan evolved by the ingenious daughter seemed simple. 'I have an old bag,' she said; 'we'll punch it full of holes, put the cats in and some old iron, and all you have to do is to go on some ferryboat and drop it over the side. It is easy enough. No one will see you do it.' Yes it looked simple enough, and I started away in a state of ignorant satisfaction. It didn't last long. I boarded an elevated train on the Ninth-avenue line at Fourteenth-street. it was 8 o'clock, and of course the cars were crowded. All the seats were full so I placed the bag carefully on the floor by two cross seats occupied by four pretty ladies. Suddenly there was a blood-curdling howl. The four young ladies screamed and jumped upon the seats. Then they saw the bag beginning to hump itself, recognised the noises as emanating from cats, and sat down, looking mad. The passengers near began to snicker, and I felt so uncomfortable that I took my burden and went out on the platform, where the noise of the train partly deadened the noise of the circus in the bag.
"I was red in the face when I reached South Ferry and wished, almost, that the ingenious young lady who had devised the plan of slaughter was in the bag so I could drop her over into the East River. I set the bag down in front of the money taker at the ferry, and something about the way I did it displeased one of those cats. Such a yell! The penny taker pulled back his hand, jumped, and then, as he saw he had been startled by nothing but a cat, he actually swore. I passed sadly through the gate, handling the bag so carefully that I could plainly see people were looking at me with distrust as a possible Anarchist. Still, I went on board and stationed myself at the rail at the very rear of the boat. I put the bag on the rail as we passed out of the slip, but the passengers in the cabin were looking sharp at me, and I dared not throw it over. Then I put it down on the deck and tried to push it under the rail, but it wouldn't go. The cats weren't howling then, but I devoutly wished they would so the other passengers would know I wasn't carrying dynamite or portions of a dead body. They howled, as you know, and then I wished they would stop.
"I began to fear that I would be unable to get rid of those cats at all, and had decided to walk to the Long Island Railroad Station - I couldn't make up my mind to take a horse cat - and there put the bag into the baggage car and let the cats enjoy themselves until we were away out in the country somewhere, I didn't care where. Then I was going to walk until civilization was left behind, open the bag, and beat out the pesky brutes' brains with my heavy walking stick. The happy thought of hiring the small boy to the murder saved me from all that trouble. Well, I was in charge of those cats for less than an hour, and it seems a simple thing to drop a bundle off a ferryboat, but I never shall try it again, and do you blame me for not wanting to go back for the other two?
His listener decided at once never to have anything to do in the cat-drowning line, and commended the young man's high sense of honor, which prevented his returning to his well-loved boarding place.