Cat

by Reginald Bretnor

from The Timeless Tales of Reginald Bretnor

selected and edited by Fred Flaxman

© Story Books, 1997

I had no premonition of disaster when Smithby married Cynthia Carmichael and took her off on his sabbatical. No inner voice whispered its awful warning in my ear when it was rumored that he was spending his year of leave in research of a strangely private nature. Even as his department head, how could I know that he was bringing Cat into the world?

His year drew to a close, my own sabbatical began, and off I went -- intending, after three therapeutic months in sunny Italy, to seek the scholarly seclusion of Scotland's National Library for the remainder of my time. But it was not to be. Scarcely a week after I arrived in Edinburgh, the letter came.

Did I say "letter"? There was no letter in the grimy envelope which had followed my wandering path from Naples north. It contained only a brief note and an enormous clipping from some cheap green newspaper.

I glanced at the curt message:

Dear Christopher,

Smithby has betrayed our tradition and our trust. Your entire department is in turmoil. Three of us have already tendered our resignations.

Witherspoon

For one dreadful moment, I closed my eyes; and Smithby's face, a pallid mask of modest erudition, appeared before me. Then, with trembling fingers, I opened up the clipping:

WIFE'S LOVE PROMPTS SCIENCE TRIUMPH!

Young Bogwood Prof Wins Plaudits

For First Cat Language Studies!

The headlines screamed with a malicious glee, above a photograph of Smithby and his spouse, each grasping a large feline. Stupefied, I read on:

New Haven, August 5: For the first time in nearly a century Bogwood College flashed into the limelight today as Emerson Smithby, professor of English Literature, bared what scientists acclaim as the outstanding discovery of the age -- the language spoken by cats.

Giving full credit to his wife, blonde curvesome Cynthia Smithby, the surprisingly youthful savant this morning outlined highlights of the gruelling research that enabled him to break down the hitherto insurmountable barrier between man and the so-called lower animals.

Professor Smithby said, in part:

"Cats not only have a language -- they have a complex culture not basically dissimilar to our own. I first began to suspect this when Mrs. Smithby and I were honeymooning; and she assisted me untiringly, lending both her own cats for the enquiry.

"As soon as we convinced them of the importance of the project, we progressed rapidly. In less than two months, we were able to prattle conversational Cat with some fluency."

Professor Smithby then revealed that he has already issued a text for beginners: Cat, Its Basic Grammar, Pronunciation, and General Usage.

He refused, however, to discuss a rumor that, through the efforts of Gregory Morton, widely known cat fancier and member of Bogwood's Board of Regents, courses in Cat will shortly be added to the curriculum.

Professor Christopher Flewkes, head of Dr. Smithby's department, could not be reached for comment.

I sat there staring. Lucid thought was impossible. Blind instinct told me that Bogwood was in peril -- that Bogwood needed me -- that I must catch the first boat back.

Nothing could have prepared me for the reception Fate had arranged in the Faculty Club on the night of my return. Perhaps the bright light over the desk in the lobby blinded me as I entered; perhaps my preoccupation with my own harried thoughts prevented me from seeing the cat. Whatever the reason, I had no inkling of its presence until its sudden scream informed the world that I had stepped upon its tail.

It was a strange tableau. The cat had fled, leaving me standing beside my fallen bag in the middle of the floor. From behind the desk, the clerk -- a young Oriental hired in my absence -- glared at me through a pair of those curious spectacles known, I believe, as harlequins.

"Do you, my sir," he demanded with placid insolence, "practice to come and step upon the guests? If so, go to where you belong."

I stifled my anger. "See here," I replied, "I am Dr. Flewkes -- Christopher Flewkes."

The fellow smiled. "Then stepping will be an accident. I have knowledge of you. You are Flewkes. I am Yu."

I thought: The man, of course, is mad! "Indeed?" I exclaimed. "You are me?"

Still smiling, he shook his head gravely. "It is not Mee. It is Yu -- Beowulf Yu. I have named myself after an English literature. You will be glad."

"Very well," I snapped, "you are You. Is my room ready?"

Yu bowed, unruffled. "I am here for studying," he informed me. "At the night, I am a clerk; at the day, I am studying Cat with some progress. In Cat, I am even possible to get a passing grade."

"Is my room ready?" I repeated grimly.

"In a certainty, my sir," said Yu. "At the moment, I will accompany with my presence. Now I must assure our guest of your apologies --"

He went to the cat where it sat nursing its bruised appendage in a corner. "Ee-owr-r," he said, very courteously. "Meow, meeiu mr-r-ou."

The cat paid no attention whatsoever; and You, with a worried frown, hastily took a small volume from his pocket, referred to it, and repeated his orignal comment several times.

Finally, the animal raised its head. "Meow," it said plaintively.

Yu bowed. Then he turned to me happily. "You are forgiven, for it is a cultured one. Now we ascend upstairs."

I nodded feebly. As we turned toward the staircase, I saw that the lobby was full of cats. They were on the chairs, on the rugs, before the fire. They were even on the mantel under the portrait of Ebenezer Bogwood.

I entered my room. In a daze, I heard Yu's ungrammatical goodnight at my door. Wearily I sat down on the bed -- and, in doing so, I spied the Announcement of Courses for the current semester lying on the bedside table. I fought against the urge to pick it up -- but I was powerless. I reached for it, opened it, turned the pages. And I saw:

Department of Feline Languages

Emerson Smithby, Ph.D., Chairman

This was followed by a list of courses -- Cat 100A (Elementary), Cat 212 (Philology), Cat 227 (Literature) -- and by other pertinent data, including the information that all instruction was in the hands of Mr. and Mrs. Smithby.

Hopelessly, until day was breaking, I wept for Bogwood.

I did not wake until shortly before the luncheon hour, when the telephone rang to tell me that Witherspoon was awaiting me downstairs; and sad indeed were my thoughts as I forced myself to rise and dress. Witherspoon's note had mentioned resignation from the faculty; and now the impulse came to me that perhaps I should join him in his tragic withdrawal from the academic world, that perhaps we both had been outmoded by the science of a newer age. Finally, with clothing draggled and beard uncombed, I stumbled down the stairs.

I entered the lobby, and heard that familiar voice greeting me, and saw those long shapeless tweeds unfolding from a chair by the fireplace.

"Bertrand!" I cried out, and in a moment I had him by the hand.

I gaped at him in my astonishment. Was this the gentle, melancholy Witherspoon whom I had known? He still stooped; his gray locks were as sparse as they had ever been. But I saw instantly that the old Witherspoon had vanished -- that here was a man of iron!

He seemed to read my mind. Leading me to a chair, he brushed a cat aside so that I might sit there. "Christopher," he said, his high voice very firm, "I am still at my post. The time has come to fight -- and fight we shall!"

At this, my heart filled with black despair for our lost cause. "How can we fight, Bertrand?" I exclaimed, pointing at the feline population of the room.

Witherspoon seated himself beside me. "Have courage, Christopher! These wretched creatures," he gestured at the cats, "are not to blame. Even Morton, vile as he is, is but a tool. Our enemy is Smithby. We must destroy him by fair means or foul!"

His eyes almost flashed as he said it. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "I've planned the strategy of our campaign," he hissed. "Shall I reveal it to you?"

"Do, by all means," said I, leaning forward eagerly.

But Witherspoon had no chance to answer me. Even as I spoke, his glance shifted. Fists clenched, narrow brow frowning sheer hatred, he glared past me at the lobby's entrance.

I had not noticed those who passed through to the dining room during our conversation. But now I looked about me -- and beheld, coming across the floor, Smithby and Cynthia Smithby, with Beowulf You trailing in their wake. A long black cat was draped over Mrs. Smithby's shoulders in startling contrast to the coiled golden hair above it. Another cat, a Siamese, was carrying on a pleasant tete-a-tete with Smithby, who bore it in his arms.

I heard Witherspoon gnash his teeth in my ear. "Look at her!" he muttered viciously. "She looks like a cross between a cream puff and a Valkyrie."

The description, I must say, surprised me -- later I learned that Witherspoon had heard it from a student. Still, it was not inaccurate. But for her heroic stature -- dwarfing her husband by half a dozen inches -- Cynthia Smithby would have suited Charles II to a T. She resembled Herrick's Julia: a splendid figure rather too ample for the modern fashion, a small red mouth, a tiny rounded chin, a rolling eye.

She was the first to see me. Instantly, an elfin smile touched her lips, and she changed her course. Head high, she came toward me.

I drew myself erect, to await her with a stern and uncompromising countenance. I knew that Witherspoon was wrong. Here was our enemy! Here was the Lilith who had seduced a weakling from the stony path of sober scholarship! I knew at once that there must be no pretense, that I must make my attitude quite clear.

Flushed and radiant, up she came. "Dear Mr. Flewkes!" said she, her voice low and musical. "What a delightful surprise! I am most glad to find you once again among us." She lowered her lashes in mock modesty. "And so is Emerson. Are you not, Emerson?"

Smithby blushed with embarrassment, fidgeted with a thin book he was carrying, and nodded with obvious pleasure.

"So much has happened since you went away," she went on, "so much that is very wonderful. But then --" She laughed a pretty laugh. "You can catch up by attending Emerson's seminars."

I forced myself to look into her eyes. "Madam," I declared coldly, "half my life has been devoted to the service of this institution and to the preservation of its austere ideals. I can only hang my head in shame when I observe the sad decay of what was once a great tradition. Neither by word nor deed will I condone this treachery!"

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a hurt look come over Smithby's face; I saw Beowulf Yu gape stupidly. For an instant, too, Cynthia Smithby pouted like some sensitive child suddenly rebuked. Then, with a toss of her head, "Mr. Flewkes," she said, "truly I am glad that you take this stand, for here --" she turned to Smithby, "here is the challenge that we need. Your genius, Emerson, will surmount this wall of classical conservatism. Our present project is certain to succeed. Then we will have proof positive and undeniable, and Mr. Flewkes will come to you with his apologies."

"Oh, not to me --" There was a calf-like worship in Smithby's eyes. "To you, Cynthia dear. The credit will be yours. The world will know that you have done it all!"

Beowulf giggled. "Then Flewkes will also make research in Cat." He peered at me through his harlequins. "I can give help. Cat words have one nice syllable, like Cantonese."

"Why, Beowulf --" Cynthia Smithby smiled archly. "You must devote your time to learning it yourself. You've failed every other course, you know. But let's have luncheon. Come," She took Smithby's arm. "And now, dear Mr. Flewkes, we bid you -- miaow."

As the dining room door closed behind them, I slumped back heavily into my chair. "My God, Bertrand," I muttered, "she -- she mewed at me!"

"I believe," he answered, "that she was saying good-bye to you in Cat."

I wiped an icy perspiration from my forehead. "It is not Smithby who is the evil genius -- it is she!"

"Nonsense!" snapped Witherspoon. "It's simply that she wears no brassiere -- and you are too impressionable."

I flushed. "But -- but what of her new project?"

"All froth and foolishness, believe me. Some silly toy her husband's given her. How could it be more? She does not even have her Ph. D."

This argument, of course, was quite unanswerable. I held my peace.

"He is the culprit," continued Witherspoon. "Surely you saw that small book he was carrying? It is his latest work -- Back Fence Ballads, Translated from the Original Cat. He sings them, Christopher, to all his students, accompanying himself upon the lute. I have been told that his caterwauling is magnificent. And there's the extension course for lion tamers, conducted in the evenings. It has brought strange folk to Bogwood, I assure you."

He broke off. He pointed an apocalyptic finger to the heavens. "Do you wonder," he cried, "that I have taken desperate measures? Do you wonder that I have hired a private eye?"

"A -- a private -- eye?"

"Ah, to be sure," said he. "I must explain. That is what he calls himself in the vernacular. He is a sleuth, Christopher. I brought him from New York, where hardened criminals flee at the mere mention of his name."

I started to expostulate, but Witherspoon would brook no interruption. "I have arranged for you to meet him, to lunch with him. Not here, but secretly -- at an establishment known, I believe, as Jakey's Java Joint."

"But, Bertrand," I protested feebly, "how can this person aid us? How?"

Witherspoon uttered a fierce, triumphant laugh. "Be patient, Christopher! Soon you will know all!"

I remember little of that first guarded meeting. Hulking, unshaven fellows wolfing their food in grubby cubicles, lewd language and coarse jests, vile music from an automatic instrument -- all these I can recall only vaguely. My first unfavorable impression of Luigi Hogan, though, is still distinct. Small and round and surprisingly hairy, he neither looked nor behaved like a detective.

Witherspoon and I had turned up our coat collars and pulled our hat brims down to avoid recognition, but Hogan's sharp little eyes saw us immediately as we entered, and he greeted us with much pointless snickering. When he had pulled himself together, introductions were performed; and, in a moment, he and Witherspoon were plotting in undertones over thick cups of lukewarm coffee.

Hogan's diction was atrocious; his underworld argot was almost incomprehensible to me; he talked and laughed with his mouth full of salami sandwich. Even if our encounter with Cynthia Smithby had left me in full possession of my faculties, I doubt whether I could have gleaned more than occasional fragments of the conversation. I noticed that Hogan addressed Witherspoon as "Chief." I heard him say that he had been attending Smithby's extension course for animal trainers. I even caught the very words in which he recounted Smithby's advice to them: Y'gotta show 'em you ain't afraid er nuttin', see? Y' gotta get right inner cages wit' 'em, see? Y' gotta talk t' them goddam big feelions like you was brudders.

Witherspoon's expression became positively bloodthirsty at this point. "Hogan," he said, out of the corner of his mouth, "you go find us a circus or a zoo, see? With a good big vicious tiger, see? Heh heh! We'll challenge Mr. Smithby to go and reason with him in his cage. He can't refuse. Catch on?"

"I catch, Chief." Hogan snickered loathsomely. "Th' Press'll eat it up."

"Not just the Press," murmured Witherspoon with a ghoulish leer. "No indeed!"

As for the rest of what they said -- well, Witherspoon gave it to me in outline as we walked by obscure streets back to the campus. The idea of Smithby becoming an hors-d'oeuvre for a tiger was not their main plot. Hogan was to watch him constantly until he committed some dangerous indiscretion, preferably of an amorous nature. Then he was to secure photographs which we could use to disgrace Smithby, to procure his swift dismissal. As a last resort, he was to provide a person known as Marilynne, who had yet to meet failure in her career of breaking down male inhibitions.

Ordinarily, I would have been profoundly shocked by the utter ruthlessness of these methods. But now, aware only of Bogwood's dire plight, I shared Witherspoon's ferocity and felt no qualms. One thing alone perturbed me -- Cynthia Smithby. True, she had no proper academic qualifications; the chance of her making any new discovery dangerous to us was remote indeed. Still, might not Smithby, after all, be nothing more than a red herring dragged by a shrewd, designing woman acrosss our path?

Waiting for Hogan's labors to bear fruit was no easy task. Vain doubts and fears tormented me incessantly -- and all the while things went from bad to worse. Against our bitter protests, a course in Feline Culture was added to the awful list. The Press, keeping Cat constantly in the public eye, greeted with laudatory reviews the appearance of Smithby's handbooks for zoo and circus personnel: Basic Lion, Basic Leopard, Basic Panther, and so on. And the columnists, meanwhile, harped on the rumored progress of Cynthia Smithby's project, the nature of which she was still keeping secret. It was, they hinted, a way of teaching Cat so simple that any child could learn it in an hour. Might it not, they asked, eliminate the need for baby-sitters, for kindergarten teachers? Might it not change the social and economic structure of the world?

We had our moments of encouragement. There was the day when Hogan was able to announce that he had made arrangements with a menagerie which owned a tiger, elderly and quite untameable, who had put an end to the earthly career of at least one trainer. The challenge had been mailed to Smithby. The newspapers had been informed. And you can well imagine that Witherspoon and I fairly jumped for joy when we saw the headlines. "CAT PROF MAY TAME FIERCE JUNGLE LORD!" they shouted.

But Smithby weaseled out of it. Chatting with any normal tiger, he announced, was most enjoyable. This was a different matter. This tiger was clearly psychopathic. "He needs a feline psychiatrist," said Smithby. "After all, even though I speak English, I would not try to reason with a human maniac armed to the teeth." And the servile Press praised him for his "hard common sense!"

The weeks dragged by, and our furtive meetings at Jakey's Java Joint brought more and more discouraging reports. Every small detail of Smithby's life was known -- and irreproachable. Perversely, he insisted in behaving as a model husband. Even Marilynne, when finally we brought her from New York, found him quite unassailable. Even Marilynne, in whose hennaed presence poor Witherspoon blushed like any schoolboy, exercised her talents all in vain. With each attempt, her remarks became increasingly sarcastic, until eventually she abandoned us -- leaving behind a note in which she suggested that a catnip mouse might bring us better luck.

Oddly enough, the collapse of Witherspoon's carefully contrived plans did not daunt him in the least; nor would he listen to my suggestion that henceforth we should fight Smithby on purely academic grounds. He insisted that we keep Hogan in our service; and, when I objected, he threatened to bring "goons" to settle Smithby's hash."

Even when we learned that Smithby had complained against us to the Board of Regents, even when we were summoned to appear before that august body, he did not share my quickened fears and my despondency. "Ah, Christopher," he cried, shaking his fist, "on Friday we must go before the Board. That means we have three days! Believe me -- something will turn up, and we will face the lot of them triumphantly. We will see Smithby crushed and broken yet. Cat will be nothing but an evil dream!"

How bitterly the jesting gods play cat-and-mouse with all that we hold dear! On Friday morning, drowned in despair, I was making my hopeless way toward the campus when, to my astonishment, a large red cab came to a screeching stop beside me, and its door flew open to eject an exultant Witherspoon, who seized me by the arm.

"Victory is ours!" he trumpeted, pulling me to the vehicle. "Hogan just telephoned! Smithby is in our trap!" Before I could utter a word, he bundled me into the back seat ahead of him, and slammed the door. "Yip Lee's" he shouted to the driver, and we were off.

I got nothing further from him during that mad ride, for seemingly he knew no more. "I told you so, I told you so!" was the ecstatic cry with which he answered all my questions; and, when we reached our destination, a Chinese restaurant in the commercial district, I was as mystified as ever.

Leaving the cab and entering, we were greeted by a Celestial who spoke to Witherspoon by name. We were led upstairs to a small and private room. And there, upon its threshold, I saw a sight which took my breath away. In the center of the room stood a table and five chairs. Two of the chairs were empty. Two were occupied by Luigi Hogan and a well-dressed, middle-aged Chinese. On the fifth, covering his face in shame, sat Beowulf Yu.

As soon as he saw us, Hogan struck an attitude. "De whole t'ing's washed up, guys!" he declared. "All dis stuff about Cat -- it's phony! Your Smit'by -- he's a fake!"

I heard Witherspoon gasp; I heard a muffled sob from Beowulf Yu. "This is incredible!" I cried. "Why, I myself have heard him speak to cats. I've heard them answer back. Deplorable it is, yes -- but surely it must be more than a mere web of fraud? Explain yourself, man."

Hogan began to quake with merriment. "It's -- it's simple!" he giggled. "Shrimps!"

"Shrimps?" Witherspoon and I echoed the word with one voice.

But Hogan was too convulsed to answer. He jerked a thumb toward the Chinese gentleman beside him.

The Chinese smiled gravely. "That is correct," he said, bowing. "I, you see, am Chester Yu. I am the uncle of this dull youth --" With some distaste, he indicated Beowulf. "This dull youth with the absurd glasses, who has repaid me for bringing him to this country by failing to master even the rudiments of English. I am also the proprietor of the Pilgrim Fathers Seafood Market--"

He paused courteously while we took the vacant chairs. "For some time," he went on, "I had seen Professor Smithby come in regularly once a day, followed closely by Mr. Hogan. Furthermore, Professor Smithby always bought exactly ten cents worth of shrimps, refused to have them wrapped, and put them directly in his pocket. My curiosity was aroused -- and, a day or so ago, I took the liberty of speaking to Mr. Hogan about it."

Hogan smirked.

"He and I compared notes. When I learned who my strange customer was, my interest redoubled. We Chinese, you know, revere learning, and my disreputable nephew's devotion to Cat had caused me much distress." Chester Yu's countenance assumed an expression of extreme severity. "Mr. Hogan and I came to the only possible conclusion. We tested our theory with Meow-Tse-Tung, my own pet cat; and the results were indisputable. He immediately became vocal at a whiff of shrimp. So this morning we took Beowulf to task. Confronted by the evidence, he confessed all!"

Beowulf held his fingers to his ears, moaning softly.

"Yes," declared his uncle, "this wretched boy admitted that he had uncovered Smithby's secret, and turned it to his own dishonorable advantage. Smithby, you see, mewed at the cats -- and the cats mewed for shrimp. There was no more to it than that."

"Do you mean," I exclaimed, "that all those people merely pretended to understand Cat?"

"Believing that Professor Smithby understood it perfectly, they feared to reveal what they regarded as their own stupidity."

I shook my head. "Surely no group of intelligent men and women --"

"Come, come, Christopher," protested Witherspoon, "I've seen the same sort of thing a dozen times in the Philosophy Department."

And I was forced to admit that he was right.

Then Witherspoon pushed his chair back and rose. "We are grateful to you, gentlemen," he asserted grimly, "for placing this monstrous swindler in our power. Now we can purge dear Bogwood of his presence, his mewing sycophants, and his nefarious works." He showed his teeth. "It is 11 o'clock. In half an hour the Board of Regents meets -- and you have earned the right to share our triumph, the triumph of true learning. Let us go! Let us grind vile Smithby in the dust!"

Without another word, he turned and strode toward the door; and we followed him, Chester Yu urging his weeping nephew forward with an ungentle hand. My heart was high indeed as we left the restaurant and entered Hogan's car.

The Board of Regents was to meet, of course, in Cruett Hall, in the chamber dedicated by Ebenezer Bogwood to that purpose. It is a long room, panelled in ancient walnut, full of tradition's gentle gloom. Upon its walls hang the stern portraits of those scholars who, through the generations, have filled our presidential chair -- and, as our small procession strode down the hall toward it, there came to me the thought of how their noble spirits would rejoice when Witherspoon and I pricked the miasmic bubble which was Cat.

My doubts were all dispelled. My fears had vanished. Like conquerors, we passed the bowing flunkey at the door --

Imagine, if you can, the sight which met our gaze. At the head of the great table, gaunt and gray, sat Mr. Sylvester Furnwillie, Chairman of the Board. At his right hand was seated the President of Bogwood; at his left, the loathsome Gregory Morton puffed at an opulent cigar. The six remaining Regents were ranged on either side. Beyond them, Smithby stood. Across from him, his wife reposed. And, at the table's very end, sat an enormous tomcat, staring at Mr. Furnwillie with cold, green eyes.

Smithby, all unaware of our entrance, was speaking. "... therefore," he was saying, "we observe that the hsss-s-s of Old Cat gradually changed to fsss-t-t in ordinary Modern Cat. That shows how simple the functioning of Grimalkin's Law can be --"

"Ha!" cried Witherspoon.

Smithby suddenly was still; all eyes were on us.

Mr. Furnwillie lifted his spectacles with a palsied hand. "Dear me, dear me!" he said uncertainly. "You are some minutes late, are you not? You really shouldn't keep the Board of Regents waiting, gentlemen. No, indeed. Dr. Smithby has proffered some serious charges. Oh, very serious. He states that you have had him followed everywhere, and that you even hired a trollop to -- er -- seduce him. Tsk-tsk! We can't approve such goings-on at Bogwood, gentlemen. Now can we? After all--"

He broke off. He peered at Hogan and the Yus. His lofty forehead wrinkled with distaste. "Who are these people, Witherspoon? They cannot be alumni; they do not have the Bogwood look about them. Eh? Are they relatives of yours?"

Witherspoon folded his arms across his chest, and, in an awful voice, he answered, "They are Smithby's doom!"

There was a frightened murmur from the Regents. Gregory Morton emitted a vulgar feline expletive. Mr. Furnwillie exclaimed distractedly.

Witherspoon silenced them with one contemptuous glance. He pointed straight at Smithby. "Yes, his doom! We admit his charges, Flewkes and I! We hired Hogan to dog his wicked steps. We employed Marilynne. And we are proud of it -- for by our humble efforts we have saved Bogwood from degradation and the world's disdain!"

Like Jove about to hurl his thunderbolt, he seemed to grow in stature standing there.

"Smithby!" he cried. "Smithby, your hour has come! Resign. Go far away. Never again befoul this sacred air! Beowulf has confessed your villainy, and we know all. We, Smithby, know about the shrimps!"

He paused. A dreadful silence reigned.

"Yes, the shrimps -- the shrimps which Smithby conceals about his person, gentlemen!" Like a shrill trumpet, his voice shook the room. "Cat is a sham, a mockery, and a hollow fraud! No one can speak a single word of Cat! The creatures mew for -- Shrimp!"

He stopped. We waited for the earth to open under Smithby's feet, the heavens to fall. And --

And nothing happened.

I looked. Dumbfounded, I looked again. Several of the Regents were whispering to each other and casting the most peculiar glances in our direction. Mr. Sylvester Furnwillie was conferring with Gregory Morton. Smithby and Cynthia Smithby were exchanging smiles. The large, striped tomcat was pretending to stare unconcernedly out the window.

"Wh-what does this mean?" demanded Witherspoon.

Mr. Furnwillie ignored him. He looked around. His countenance assumed an aspect of extreme displeasure. To me he said, "Professor Flewkes, though I am deeply shocked by this vindictive and absurd denunciation, it does not surprise me. It is in keeping with the questionable associates, the reprehensible activities. Such things we might expect of Witherspoon, for he is not originally a Bogwood man. But not of you. Tsk-tsk. I am most gravely disappointed. Indeed I am. You -- well, you should be ashamed."

Shocked to the core, I started to protest. He did not let me.

"Professor Flewkes, we knowabout the shrimps. Of course Professor Smithby carries them, just as some men carry cigars to give their friends. Why shouldn't he? I carry them myself. Surely you don't expect a cat to smoke cigars?"

"B-but -- but Beowulf --?" I stammered.

And it was Smithby who replied. "I think I can explain that," he said, a little sadly. "Not long ago, and much against my will, I was forced to tell poor Beowulf that I was flunking him. He was emotionally upset. I fear that, faced with his inability to master Cat, he sought refuge in the pretense that no one could."

Mr. Furnwillie thanked him. "You make it amply clear, Dr. Smithby -- and I am only sorry that this incident should have marred so bright a morning--"

Behind me I heard the voice of Chester Yu snap out an angry phrase in Cantonese. I heard a squeal of pain from Beowulf as he received some corporal punishment.

Mr. Furnwillie smiled. "When you have added such a glorious leaf to Bogwood's laurels." His smile disappeared. "Yes, Professor Flewkes -- this morning Dr. and Mrs. Smithby proved the validity of Cat to our complete satisfaction. They showed us the result of Mrs. Smithby's splendid project in education and research. Their proof is absolute, beyond cavil, and quite beyond the shadow of a doubt!"

"You lie!" screamed Witherspoon, livid with rage, trembling in every limb. "Don't try to tell me that this illiterate woman has taught each one of you to babble Cat! This is another fraud! And you are aiding and abetting it! I shall inform the Press! Hogan and I shall expose you for what you are!"

"Tsk-tsk!" Mr. Furnwillie said reprovingly. "If you behave like that, Witherspoon, you'll have to leave the room. I cannot babble Cat,as you so coarsely put it, but Mr. Morton can, and --"

Witherspoon whirled. "Come, Hogan, Flewkes! Let us seek the society of honest men!" He marched toward the door; and at the door he turned. "Furnwille--" He roared defiance like a wounded lion. "Furnwillie, I resign!"

Then he was gone, with Hogan closely behind. The only sound was Hogan's foolish giggle in the corridor.

I lacked the strength to follow. Mutely, I stood before the Board, all my high hopes for Bogwood in ashes at my feet.

Mr. Furnwillie put on his spectacles and took them off again. "Dear me," he said, "how violent the man is! Even though Dr. and Mrs. Smithby, in their complaint, did ask us not to punish him, I fear that we must accept his resignation."

"Certainly!" growled Gregory Morton; and the other members of the Board nodded solemnly.

Mr. Furnwillie sighed. "Ah me, this leaves us with a painful duty, doesn't it? We should do something, I suppose, about Professor Flewkes?"

He looked at me, and so did all the rest. Even the tomcat favored me with a fixed regard.

I summoned all my shredded dignity. "Gentlemen," I answered, "I shall spare you this harsh necessity. I, too, shall seek a more congenial atmosphere."

And it was then that Cynthia Smithby, with a little cry, came to her feet and ran to me. "Dear Dr. Flewkes!" she pleaded, clinging to my arm. "Do not resign! Why, Emerson and I are both so fond of you -- we could not bear the thought. I beg you, stay! Let us convince you--"

As the impassioned words poured forth, she drew me willy-nilly toward the table's end.

"Let us open to you our brave new world, where cats can take at last their rightful place, contributing to science, culture, and the arts. Believe me -- you will see the day when cats shall vote, hold public office, and instruct our youth. Perhaps there even may be peace on earth under a parliament of Man and Cat!"

She pointed at the tomcat on his chair. "Look! Only look! This is Rabindranath. He's the living proof!"

Roughly, I shook her off. "Madam," I exclaimed, "I am no fool. You may delude your students. You may deceive Mr. Furnwillie in his senility. But you can not persuade me that you can teach a language which does not exist!"

"Oh please," she implored, "I do assure you -- you do not understand. I'll introduce you to Rabindranath. His interests lie within your own domain. He's starting to translate The Aspern Papers into Cat. Dear Dr. Flewkes, at least will you not speak with him? Will you not converse?"

Two tears flowed like dewdrops down her cheeks. They did not move me. "Converse?" Contemptuously, I gestured at the cat. "No, never! Never will I demean myself to -- mew!"

And -- ah, cruel gods!

Cooly, Rabindranath looked me up and down. "Mew?" he said. "That will be scarcely necessary."


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