How Cats Came To Purr
: STORIES FROM SCANDINAVIA
: Boys And Girls Bookshelf
BY JOHN BENNETT
A Boy having a Pet Cat which he Wished to Feed, Said to Her, "Come, Cat,
Drink this Dish of Cream; it will Keep your Fur as Soft as Silk, and
Make you Purr like a Coffee-Mill."
He had no sooner said this than the Cat, with a Great Glare of her Green
Eyes, bristled her Tail like a Gun-Swab and went over the Back Fence,
head first--pop!--as Mad as a Wet Hen.
And this is how she came to do so:
The story is an old one--very, very old. It may be Persian; it may be
not: that is of very little moment. It is so old that if all the nine
lives of all the cats that have ever lived in the world were set up
together in a line, the other end of it would just reach back to the
time when this occurred.
And this is the story:
Many, many years ago, in a country which was quite as far from anywhere
else as the entire distance thither and back, there was a huge cat that
ground the coffee in the King's kitchen, and otherwise assisted with the
This cat was, in truth, the actual and very father of all subsequent
cats, and his name was Sooty Will, for his hair was as black as a night
in a coal-hole. He was ninety years old, and his mustaches were like
whisk-brooms. But the most singular thing about him was that in all his
life he had never once purred nor humped up his back, although his
master often stroked him. The fact was that he never had learned to
purr, nor had any reason, so far as he knew, for humping up his back.
And being the father of all the cats, there was no one to tell him how.
It remained for him to acquire a reason, and from his example to devise
a habit which cats have followed from that time forth, and no doubt will
The King of the country had long been at war with one of his neighbors,
but one morning he sent back a messenger to say that he had beaten his
foeman at last, and that he was coming home for an early breakfast as
hungry as three bears. "Have batter-cakes and coffee," he directed,
"hot, and plenty of 'em!"
At that the turnspits capered and yelped with glee, for batter-cakes and
coffee are not cooked upon spits, and so they were free to sally forth
into the city streets and watch the King's homecoming in a grand parade.
But the cat sat down on his tail in the corner and looked cross. "Scat!"
said he, with an angry caterwaul. "It is not fair that you should go and
that I should not."
"Oh, yes, it is," said the gleeful turnspits; "turn and turn about is
fair play: you saw the rat that was killed in the parlor."
"Turn about fair play, indeed!" cried the cat. "Then all of you get to
your spits; I am sure that is turn about!"
"Nay," said the turnspits, wagging their tails and laughing. "That is
over and over again, which is not fair play. 'Tis the coffee-mill that
is turn and turn about. So turn about to your mill, Sooty Will; we are
off to see the King!"
With that they pranced out into the court-yard, turning hand-springs,
head-springs, and heel-springs as they went, and, after giving three
hearty and vociferous cheers in a grand chorus at the bottom of the
garden, went capering away for their holiday.
The cat spat at their vanishing heels, sat down on his tail in the
chimney-corner, and was very glum indeed.
Just then the cook looked in from the pantry. "Hullo!" he said gruffly.
"Come, hurry up the coffee!" That was the way he always gave his orders.
The black cat's whiskers bristled. He turned to the mill with a fierce
frown, his long tail going to and fro like that of a tiger in its lair;
for Sooty Will had a temper like hot gunpowder, that was apt to go off
sizz, whizz, bang! and no one to save the pieces. Yet, at least
while the cook was by, he turned the mill furiously, as if with a right
Meantime, out in the city a glorious day came on. The sun went buzzing
up the pink-and-yellow sky with a sound like that of a walking-doll's
works, or of a big Dutch clock behind a door; banners waved from the
castled heights, and bugles sang from every tower; the city gates rang
with the cheers of the enthusiastic crowd. Up from cellars, down from
lofts, off work-benches, and out at the doors of their masters' shops,
dodging the thwacks of their masters' straps, "pop-popping" like corks
from the necks of so many bottles, came apprentices, shop-boys, knaves
and scullions, crying: "God save the King! Hurrah! Hurrah! Masters and
work may go to Rome; our tasks shall wait on our own sweet wills; 't is
holiday when the King comes home. God save the King! Hurrah!"
Then came the procession. There were first three regiments of
trumpeters, all blowing different tunes; then fifteen regiments of
mounted infantry on coal-black horses, forty squadrons of
green-and-blue dragoons, and a thousand drummers and fifers
in scarlet and blue and gold, making a thundering din with their
rootle-te-tootle-te-tootle-te-rootle; and pretty well up to the front in
the ranks was the King himself, bowing and smiling to the populace, with
his hand on his breast; and after him the army, all in shining armor,
just enough pounded to be picturesque, miles on miles of splendid men,
all bearing the trophies of glorious war, and armed with lances and bows
and arrows, falchions, morgensterns, martels-de-fer, and other choice
implements of justifiable homicide, and the reverse, such as hautboys
and sackbuts and accordions and dudelsacks and Scotch bagpipes--a
And, as has been said before, the city gates rang with the cheers of the
crowd, crimson banners waved over the city's pinnacled summits, and
bugles blew, trumpets brayed, and drums beat until it seemed that wild
uproar and rich display had reached its high millennium.
The black cat turned the coffee-mill. "My oh! my oh!" he said. "It
certainly is not fair that those bench-legged turnspits with feet like
so much leather should see the King marching home in his glory, while I,
who go shod, as it were, in velvet, should hear only the sound through
the scullery windows. It is not fair. It is no doubt true that "The cat
may mew, and the dog shall have his day," but I have as much right to my
day as he; and has it not been said from immemorial time that 'A cat may
look at a king'? Indeed it has, quite as much as that the dog may have
his day. I will not stand it; it is not fair. A cat may look at a king;
and if any cat may look at a king, why, I am the cat who may. There are
no other cats in the world; I am the only one. Poh! the cook may shout
till his breath gives out, he cannot frighten me; for once I am going to
have my fling!"
So he forthwith swallowed the coffee-mill, box, handle, drawer-knobs,
coffee-well, and all, and was off to see the King.
So far, so good. But, ah! the sad and undeniable truth, that brightest
joys too soon must end! Triumphs cannot last forever, even in a land of
legends. There comes a reckoning.
When the procession was past and gone, as all processions pass and go,
vanishing down the shores of forgetfulness; when barons, marquises,
dukes, and dons were gone, with their pennants and banners; when the
last lancers had gone prancing past and were lost to sight down the
circuitous avenue, Sooty Will, with drooping tail, stood by the palace
gate, dejected. He was sour and silent and glum. Indeed, who would not
be, with a coffee-mill on his conscience? To own up to the entire truth,
the cat was feeling decidedly unwell; when suddenly the cook popped
his head in at the scullery entry, crying, "How now, how now, you
vagabonds! The war is done, but the breakfast is not. Hurry up, scurry
up, scamper and trot! The cakes are all cooked and are piping hot! Then
why is the coffee so slow?" The King was in the dining-hall, in
dressing-gown and slippers, irately calling for his breakfast!
The shamefaced, guilty cat ran hastily down the scullery stairs and hid
under the refrigerator, with such a deep inward sensation of remorse
that he dared not look the kind cook in the face. It now really seemed
to him as if everything had gone wrong with the world, especially his
own insides. This any one will readily believe who has ever swallowed a
coffee-mill. He began to weep copiously.
The cook came into the kitchen. "Where is the coffee?" he said; then,
catching sight of the secluded cat, he stooped, crying, "Where is the
The cat sobbed audibly. "Some one must have come into the kitchen while
I ran out to look at the King!" he gasped, for there seemed to him no
way out of the scrape but by telling a plausible untruth. "Some one must
have come into the kitchen and stolen it!" And with that, choking upon
the handle of the mill, which projected into his throat, he burst into
The cook, who was, in truth, a very kind-hearted man, sought to reassure
the poor cat. "There; it is unfortunate, very; but do not weep; thieves
thrive in kings' houses!" he said, and, stooping, he began to stroke the
drooping cat's back to show that he held the weeping creature blameless.
Sooty Will's heart leaped into his throat.
"Oh, oh!" he half gasped, "oh, oh! If he rubs his great hand down my
back he will feel the corners of the coffee-mill through my ribs as sure
as fate! Oh, oh! I am a gone cat!" And with that, in an agony of
apprehension lest his guilt and his falsehood be thus presently
detected, he humped up his back as high in the air as he could, so that
the corners of the mill might not make bumps in his sides and that the
mill might thus remain undiscovered.
But, alas! he forgot that coffee-mills turn. As he humped up his back
to cover his guilt, the coffee-mill inside rolled over, and, as it
rolled, began to grind--rr-rr-rr-rr-rr-rr-rr-rr-rr-rr!
"Oh, oh! you have swallowed the mill!" cried the cook.
"No, no," cried the cat; "I was only thinking aloud."
At that out stepped the Genius that Lived under the Great Ovens, and,
with his finger pointed at the cat, said in a frightful voice, husky
with wood-ashes: "Miserable and pusillanimous beast! By telling a
falsehood to cover a wrong you have only made bad matters worse. For
betraying man's kindness to cover your shame, a curse shall be upon you
and all your kind until the end of the world. Whenever men stroke you in
kindness, remembrance of your guilt shall make you hump up your back
with shame, as you did to avoid being found out; and in order that the
reason for this curse shall never be forgotten, whenever man is kind to
a cat the sound of the grinding of a coffee-mill inside shall
perpetually remind him of your guilt and shame!"
With that the Genius vanished in a cloud of smoke.
And it was even as he said. From that day Sooty Will could never abide
having his back stroked without humping it up to conceal the mill within
him; and never did he hump up his back but the coffee-mill began slowly
to grind, rr-rr-rr-rr! inside him; so that, even in the prime of life,
before his declining days had come, being seized upon by a great remorse
for these things which might never be amended, he retired to a home for
aged and reputable cats, and there, so far as the records reveal, lived
the remainder of his days in charity and repentance.
But the curse has come down even to the present day, as the Genius that
Lived under the Great Ovens said, and still maintains, though cats have
probably forgotten the facts, and so, when stroked, hump up their backs
and purr as if these actions were a matter of pride instead of being a
blot upon their family record.