EBENEZER SOUTHMAYD, THE PEWTERER cats
JUST outside Castle Town the blue kitten saw a narrow lane leading off from the main road and meandering over a hill. At the bend of the lane a wisp of smoke was rising from a chimney. The house itself, he decided, was hidden by the thicket of cherry and alder. Sitting in the dust of the main road and gazing at the smoke, the kitten found all the teaching of the river and his mother coming to his aid so that he could understand even the ways of mortals. Smoke meant a fire. And fire, with mortals, meant food. And a hearth for a most important blue kitten.
Having come to this conclusion, he stood up and hastened along the lane. A young tabby, in the doorway of the barn next to the small, unpainted house, stopped washing her face to watch him. But, beyond noticing that she was an ordinary yellow cat, the blue kitten paid no attention. After all, a barn cat was scarcely in his category. Instead, holding his head and tail high, he marched straight to the doorstone at one end of the house and sat down expectantly. When nothing happened he began to demand admittance, his tone growing louder and louder.
A girl opened the door and looked at him. She is very ugly, thought the kitten. But then I suppose mortals can’t be as beautiful as cats. After all she may have a good hearthstone.
He peered around her and into the room. It was the first room the kitten had seen. But by virtue of his color and his association with the river, as well as his long days in the meadow, he could list everything at once.
A table, with no cover. Two straight chairs, never made for a cat to curl in. A spinning wheel in one corner and a cobweb or two. A hearth, yes. But nothing comfortable there on which a blue kitten could properly lie. Not even a decent fire, for the
wood burned sullenly as though minded to go out any minute. The kettle on the crane above gave forth no comfortable humming. A mortal’s house, decided the kitten, certainly lacked the comforts of a meadow.
Yet, disappointed though he was, the blue kitten sat down on the doorstone and started the river’s song.
“Go away,” said the girl sharply at the very first purr. “Go away.”
But the blue kitten finished one line.
Then the door slammed in his face. He thought he heard a sob, but he was too provoked to care. The idea of not letting him in! Of not at least giving him a good breakfast! Was he not the blue kitten? And could he not sing the river’s song?
A sheep in the pasture beyond spoke disdainfully, but the young tabby in the barn doorway mewed in a friendly fashion. The kitten paid no attention. Instead, after huffing himself up and up to show how provoked he was, he turned about. And looking neither to the right nor to the left, he marched down the lane and back to the road, which he had so hopefully left such a short time before. Then on and on he padded, on and on, until he came to the edge of the town, and the edge of the village green as well.
“Now I am in the part of Castle Town where the houses are set close together for company,” he said to himself. “Let me see. I should look, the river told me, for Ebenezer Southmayd, John Gilroy, Arunah Hyde or – oh, well, a carpenter and a girl. But surely one of these first mortals will listen and sing the song. I shall not need to remember the whole list.”
After all, decided the blue kitten, stopping to admire himself in a well at the edge of the village green, after all, I am a good-looking kitten. Anyone – anyone at all, except of course that ugly girl in her ugly house – will be glad to listen to me!
He leaned over farther to see whether his whiskers and his eyebrows were in order. A little farther, and suddenly the waters of the well fairly rushed up to meet him. There was a loud splash.
And there he was, in the cold and wet, going down and down.
He managed to give one wild despairing yowl before the waters closed over him completely. He had no time to shut his eyes, and he glimpsed for one brief moment a man’s face framed in white hair, peering at him from the rim of the well.
Then with a terrible creaking and groaning something began to move down and down, closer and closer. The blue kitten was too frightened now even to use his knowledge and good judgment. Instead he sensed only a mighty fear which his ancestors had sometimes known. There was no doubt about it, this must be the dark spell coming to swallow him up. That would be a fate far worse than drowning.
The creaking and groaning stopped, and sure enough the spell was beneath him, was all around him, was fairly scooping him in. I am about to be digested, like a mouse, decided the kitten. And I shall never, never know a hearth to fit my song. Oh, dear! Why did I ever, ever listen to the river?
The creaking and the groaning, which was really the sound of a windlass, began again. Now the blue kitten was being lifted up and up. Then the loaded bucket filled with its strange burden was seized and turned over. And the kitten was dumped on the grass. There he lay, on the village green, looking more like a sopping wet dishcloth than a blue kitten.
So that was the way the blue kitten was introduced into Castle Town. Dipped, like a piece of trash, out of a well! It was most humiliating.
The kitten felt terribly ashamed of himself. But the man with the white hair framing his face, picked him up – as cats should be picked up – by the scruff of his neck. With water dripping from his chin, his tail, his paws, and even from the tips of his ears, he was carried through a door and put down, gently enough, on a hearth beside a brick furnace. The bricks felt warm and almost at once a comfortable feeling began to creep along the cat’s backbone.
Still he lay there, sprawled out, pretending he was half-drowned, which he wasn’t at all. He hadn’t been in the water long enough to be even a quarter-drowned, or an eighth-drowned, for that matter. But, being sorry for himself, he wanted the man with the white hair to be sorry too.
He had, the kitten recalled, been told that his task would be hard and there would be many difficulties. But he had never dreamed it would be as difficult as this.
Finally the kitten opened one eye and then the other. There were little shadows dancing on the floor. And looking above him for an instant he saw that the bricks against which he leaned held an open furnace – something, he supposed, like a blacksmith’s forge in the shop where his mother had boasted of once overpowering a fine young rat. Over the furnace was a sheltering hood. The whole effect was unquestionably, in the kitten’s mind, very cozy indeed.
Then his whiskers twitched, remindingly, and he brought his head down. Right in front of him stood a porringer full of milk. The kitten lapped up the last drop, and with his tongue polished the porringer around the rim as well as on the inside. After that he set about drying himself. In that comforting business he forgot to think any more about being drowned.
Besides being warm, it was a cheerful-looking room in other ways. There was a counter filled with bright tinny-looking teapots and sugar bowls and pitchers. The handles and spouts on these annoyed the kitten. Somehow they didn’t seem to belong to the teapots, the sugar bowls and the pitchers – not as a kitten’s tail, for instance, belonged to a kitten
But on a higher shelf the kitten saw some plates and a tankard or two which were strangely different from the ware on the counter. There was a soft glow about the dishes on the high shelf, which somehow reminded the blue kitten of the moonlight on the river the night he had listened to the river’s song. And the handles on the tankards, which stood on the high shelf, did belong. The kitten stretched his neck in order to admire them.
“So, kitten, you like the pewter I fashioned in the old days, do you?” asked the man whose face was round as a pewter plate, and whose cheeks were the color of ripe apples. And the speaker, too, paused to gaze at the dishes on the high shelf.
“Well, the pewter there on the shelf was from a good formula. The master of all American pewterers gave it to me. And the molds were the best in Connecticut. But it took a long time to fashion such pewter. And there wasn’t any money in it.”
Pewter! Hmm! thought the kitten. This must be Ebenezer Southmayd, the pewterer! Well, my mother and the river were right. I did go through a lot, falling into the well and being two-thirds drowned, to say nothing of being four-thirds frightened to death.
But now, thank goodness, I have only to sing my song and I shall have a comfortable hearth forever. I certainly am glad I listened to the river!
He curled his long blue tail around him and sat up straight to show off his fluffy white waistcoat. Then, slowly, for he must remember each line, he began to purr.
“Sing your own song, said the river.”
Ebenezer Southmayd, who was mending a teapot spout for a neighbor, laid down his soldering iron and looked over the top of his spectacles
Why, kitten!” he cried in amazement.
Oh, it was easy enough, this matter of getting a mortal’s attention, thought the kitten, as Ebenezer Southmayd put his elbows on his knees, cupped his face in his hands, and stared at the bundle of blue by his hearth.
“With your life fashion beauty,” the kitten purred.
Ebenezer lifted his eyes toward the bright, tinlike dishes on the counter. “Stuff!” he said, contemptuously. “Stuff! Any country pewterer could have made them!” His eyes ran over the teapots with their ugly spouts, over the sugar bowls and the pitchers with the handles which didn’t seem to belong to them. He sighed deeply.
“Riches will pass and power,” continued the kitten.
“I never had much of either,” said Ebenezer.
The man’s eyes went to the single high shelf.
“Beauty remains…” he echoed. “Yes, I knew that once, blue kitten. There are the plates and the tankards to prove it. There is the work I would not sell.”
“Sing your own song.”
Ebenezer looked at his hands.
All that is worth doing, do well, said the river.”
Ebenezer brought his gaze back to the singer.
“Certain and round be the measure,
Every line be graceful and true.”
Really, thought the kitten. He was singing very well. He had not realized his voice was so good. He – then he ducked his head just in time.
For Ebenezer Southmayd had jumped up from his stool. He was grabbing the pitchers, the sugar bowls, the platters and bright plates from the counter and flinging them in all directions.
Without any warning, a pitcher came out of nowhere and settled down over the blue kitten’s startled ears. And though both his front paws went up at once he could not budge it. He was a knight encased in armor now all right, but with no holes in his helmet through which he could peer. And with precious little air to breathe.
With thuds and thumpings he started rolling over and over, until he rolled beneath Ebenezer’s feet and upset him as well. “Really!” groaned the kitten. “Really! Life in the meadow never prepared me for this!”
This, it seemed, was but the beginning. The next instant the kitten thought his head was being yanked from his body. But it was only Ebenezer freeing him from his pitcher-helmet.
Gulp, sniff, gulp! My! The air was wonderful. The kitten stretched his neck gratefully. Then as quickly he drew it back and down between his shoulders. For the man was flinging the pitcher itself on the coals of the open furnace. One moment the
kitten saw the pitcher on the coals. The next, there was only a bubbling mass of metal, which grew redder and redder, hissing all the time until it disappeared.
Catsation! What if he, the blue kitten, had been thrown with the pitcher? By this time he would have been a blue coal, a puff of smoke. Really! One never dreamed of such things in a nest of dried clover, Queen Anne’s lace and chickory. He wished, oh, how he wished he had never left that nest! He wished… Then he dodged a plate and a quart measure and leaped desperately to the back of a chair.
By this time the pewterer had seized two bright teapots from the counter. “Look at you!” he was storming, shaking a pot in either hand. “Look at your ugly spouts, your ridiculous handles! Is that the kind of work I was taught to do? The sort of work on which I was proud to set my touchmark? Is it, I say?
“Bah! You are the kind of teapots Arunah Hyde wanted for his Mansion House. ‘Use the new formula,’ he told me. ‘It’s cheaper. Makes a thinner metal. Then you can press it into shape quickly without bothering with the old molds. Does away with the tiresome polishing and burnishing. Yet it makes bright stuff, like silver.’
“But it wasn’t silver, blue kitten. It wasn’t really pewter – not good honest pewter. It was the new cheap metal.
“Do you know what the master pewterer in Connecticut said of such metal, which he hated, blue kitten? I did not understand then what he meant, but now I understand.
_”Silence is golden,
Speech is silvern,
But to say one thing
And mean another
Is the new and cheap metal._
“Yet when Arunah talks to you and tells you how to make money, and make it quickly, a dark mood comes over you and you almost believe in what he is saying. So I did as Arunah wanted. But I did not put my touchmark on my work any more. I said it was because I made pewter only for the neighbors, and that using it was a waste of time. I knew all the while that my words were not true.
“‘Faster,’ said Arunah, and I worked faster. My work grew more and more ugly. So I locked the touchmark away. I didn’t use it – because I was ashamed. Oh, the new stuff sold right and left. Because it was new it became a fashion. But I knew it was both cheap and ugly.”
The man was quiet for several minutes. He was looking straight at the blue kitten. Then in a voice so low the kitten had to bend his head and perk his left ear forward in order to hear, the man said slowly:
“Blue kitten, what a fool I have been! I, Ebenezer Southmayd, who once made pewter fit for a king.”
He seemed to expect a reply, so the blue kitten nodded solemnly. He didn’t understand much that had been told him. The river had spoken of kings, but the blue kitten had never met one. But the kitten did know that this man had listened to the song of the river as he, the blue kitten, had purred it, and had understood the meaning of the song. Now all that he, the blue kitten, had to do was to teach him to sing that song. Then his own troubles would be over, and he would lie in comfort on the man’s warm hearth.
So the blue kitten started once again on the river’s song. Over and over he sang it, while Ebenezer Southmayd moved about the shop, uttering no sound, but working quietly.
The kitten found a window ledge where the sun shone in upon him. Sometimes, being young, he went to sleep right in the midst of the song. When he woke he would take up the song where he had left off. The first time he woke from such a cat nap, Ebenezer was looking through his spectacles at a yellowed paper, and weighing some lumps of metal into an iron caldron. “Just so much of this. Just so much of that,” he was saying. Then he swung the caldron over the gleaming coals.
When next the kitten opened an eye the pewterer was pouring the melted mass into two molds. Hours later, when the metal had cooled, the molds were opened and there were two hollow pieces, something like bowls, or the two halves of a ball, decided the kitten – which the man soldered carefully together. He worked slowly and sometimes he fumbled. But at last he was turning the single piece of pewter around and around, smoothing it on the lathe, until the kitten drew near to watch.
Ebenezer stopped and held his work under the kitten’s nose. “Look, blue kitten, look sharp. You cannot even see where it is joined. My hand has not lost its cunning. Now for the top and the spout and the handle. If I succeed with these I shall know that my eyes still retain their judgment. This is the teapot I used to dream of doing, blue kitten. And I shall do it yet – if I have time. If – I – have – time!”
As he finished speaking the man began to hum. And the blue kitten looked at him hopefully. The tune of the river was there, in places. But only in places. And there were no words.
So the kitten himself began to purr the river’s song again. Mortals were certainly stupid. He had not taken so long to learn the song.
Ebenezer paused now and then to crumble part of a loaf of bread into some milk that a neighbor had brought. Yet before he was finished, he would push the bowl aside and hasten back to his work. Then the blue kitten would slip over and take what remained.
The man did not seem to notice the kitten at all. His eyes were riveted on his work. But his humming was growing louder, and there was more and more of the tune of the river’s song in that humming. The movements of his hands, the kitten noted, were certain and sure.
It was dusk when Ebenezer Southmayd called to the blue kitten. His voice held strange excitement. “This is the dream I always had. The best piece of work I have ever done,” he said.
He held the finished teapot in his hands, turning it about excitedly, peering down upon it by the light of a candle.
Even the blue kitten could see that every curve was as it should be, every line was true. Both spout and handle seemed fairly to blossom forth in grace, so perfectly were they part of the teapot itself. And the glow of the metal was as soft and lovely as the plates and the tankards which stood on the high shelf.
Ebenezer sat down on the stool, moving slowly as though very tired. He cradled the teapot in one arm, and his other hand rested for a moment on the blue kitten’s head. “I am glad you came, blue kitten,” he said.
Then he rose and, still moving slowly, went to a chest in the corner. Out of it he drew a strange tool. “This is my touchmark,” the man said proudly.
He heated one end over the coals and pressed it on the bottom of the newly finished teapot
The blue kitten drew near and began to weave back and forth in delight at the man’s feet. His eyes were on the teapot, and his tail curved in the same shape as the handle, his neck arched like the teapot’s spout.
For Ebenezer Southmayd at last was singing the song of the river. From beginning straight on to the end, he sang.
“Time is the mold, time the weaver, the carver
Time and the workman together.
Sing your own song.
Sing well, said the river, sing well.”
“Look, blue kitten,” he said when he had finished. And he held the bottom of the teapot in front of the amber eyes beside him. “There is the touchmark of Ebenezer Southmayd!”
The mark was a ship under full sail. And beneath it were the initials, E.S.
“This teapot,” said the man proudly, though his voice shook, and the blue cat understood that he was very tired, “this teapot is work fit for a king. For a king!”
Gently he put the pot down on the workbench, and rested his head beside it. His hand, after a moment, dropped and hung loosely at one side. The kitten placed his head against the fingers for an instant. Then, startled, the blue kitten drew back.
Ebenezer Southmayd was dead.
For a moment the river, which the kitten had not heard before, seemed to be singing loudly, as though it were in the very room. But since that could not be, the puzzled blue kitten went to the window and looked out into the night. A mist lay over the valley, but it parted for an instant and the blue kitten thought he saw a ship passing by – a ship under full sail. Which was utter nonsense, he told himself, for how could there be a ship passing through a Vermont valley?
The neighbor who delivered the milk every evening, knocked at the door and, hearing no answer save the kitten’s mewing, put his hand on the latch.
As the man entered, the blue kitten slipped past his feet and fled into the mist and damp. He was very lonely. And he had still to find a hearth for himself. That evening the blue kitten could not have said whether he was glad or sorry that he had listened to the river’s song.
Mr. Gilroy had a loom on which was woven the twin tablecloths. A man who knew the weaver declares that he drew some of his designs for these tablecloths from old buildings in the town.
– From an old newspaper.