The full moon spun fitfully through ragged clouds; shadows raced in mottled confusion across the lawn; there was a spit of rain, and the whip of wind rippled along the privet. Grey cat waited. Crouched beneath the lavender bush, tail-tip twitching, eyes wide to the dark, Grey Cat watched and listened.
A wedge of light appeared as the back door of the house was opened. The small figure of a woman stood in the brightness, peering. She called, "Toby, Toby, Toby. Puss, puss, puss. Come on, pretty puss, where are you?" Her voice was a plaintive falsetto and the call was repeated two or three times. Vainly. The woman shrugged and closed the door.
Grey cat heard the familiar cry and, from long habit, moved in response. But night was alive and red-fanged, and, with primordial awareness, Grey Cat stalked the darkness.
He left the cover of the lavender bush, and, with lithe effortless movement, crossed the lawn, the seed patch, the dahlia bed. He probed the long grass at the bottom of the garden, a dark and slinking shadow. Night was alive and red-fanged; and Grey Cat hunted in the jungle of darkness.
The age-old, savage lust stirred through his blood. His was the heritage of the long, primitive night which could never be dissipated by domestic easy living; the petting; the fondling and cuddling of indulgent owners.
Meanwhile, in the house, the woman stood irresolute. She looked first at the door and then at her husband. He was reading the evening paper, and his attitude plainly said, 'Do not disturb'. However, she ventured with a tentative whisper,
"I can't get Toby in -".
The man lowered the paper with a sigh. He folded it with a slow, meticulous care and placed it on the table.
"I'm going to bed," he said, "And for goodness sake stop this worrying about that flippin' cat. He'll be back when he's hungry. Cats!" the man snorted, "Always out on the razzle."
"Not my Toby," she defended her pet vehemently, "He's a good cat. He loves me." And thus reassuring herself of Grey Cat's fidelity, she sat down.
The man looked at her, not without concern, "In the morning that cat's going. I've said it before, I say it again, cats are only good to themselves. He's got to go. And that's final." He went towards the stairs. "Don't be long," he said.
She didn't answer him. In her mind were vivid pictures. Toby lying dead in the gutter, killed by some careless motorist. Toby lying mangled in the garden of No.7, mauled by that horrible dog. And now this new menace by her husband. She murmured a prayer and, with reluctance, put out the light and went slowly upstairs.
In the long grass, crouched and alert, Grey Cat sniffed the darkness. He crept stealthily. Through the fence and out to the wide meadow behind the house.
This was his rightful domain. Here he could match cunning and strength with the wild. Grey Cat glided forward to meet the harsh challenge of the red-fanged night.
He was a lean, smooth-coated animal, vibrant in the full virility of his masculine power. Young, with the spirit of daring strong in his veins. Not like that old, emasculated creature from the House of the Fish Smell. Grey Cat despised such decrepit apathy.
Warily, now, Grey Cat approached a tussock of coarse grass. He hugged close to the ground and slithered forward on his belly. The night was an excitement of movement and smell. With indiscernible squirming, he made his way around the tussock. In the brief light or the flitting moon, nose twitching, ears flickering, was a young rabbit, innocently nibbling the grass.
Grey Cat braced himself. His muscle were tensed for attack; the predatory blood pounded through his brain. He leapt.
Almost simultaneously, in fact, while he was yet in mid-air, a slim brown body had, with incredible swiftness, attached itself to the rabbit. There was a brief struggle and, as Grey Cat landed, the rabbit was giving the last ineffectual kicks of expiry. The weasel spun on the intruder, body quivering, mouth asnarl. Grey Cat, with the courage of ignorance, rushed forward with a vague notion of retrieving his prey. The weasel snapped viciously and Grey Cat's distended claws swept the air. The teeth made painful contact, the claws missed, and Grey Cat, yet valiant, made a quick discretionary retreat.
Cheated of his plunder, disconsolate in defeat, Grey Cat bounded angrily across the meadow. He was a little frightened by the sudden surprising encounter and his neck pained where the sharp teeth of the interloper had nipped the skin.
In the darkness of her bedroom, the woman heard the spat of rain on the window-pane, and the wind howling about the chimneys. She raised herself on the bed and murmered, half-aloud,
"My poor Toby, I do hope you are alright".
Her husband stirred in his sleep and grunted. The woman lay back and stared hard at the blotched outline of the window. Childless, she doted all her capacity for maternal love on the grey cat: And, during those intimate moments when she nursed him on her lap and stroked his sleek head, the cat responded with rolling purrs, lulled by warmth and comfort, contented.
For the nocturnal creatures of the wild, night is a pattern of sound and movement. A rhythm of moisture drips and swish of wings, the scrape of branch on branch, the flutter of wind astir in the leaf and grass; tiny slithering; the bark of fox, the owl cries, the trickle of water through rushes. Any intrusion into the pattern of sound, any break in the rhythm of movement, and the wild is aware and alert.
Grey Cat's encounter with the weasel was a discord in the harmony of night, and a warning: And, as Grey Cat, frustrated and angry, loped across the meadow, there was a sudden silence and tension. Nothing stirred. And, except for a hedgehog defensively rolled in a tight, protective ball, nothing obstructed his path as he sped to the shadowed edge of the wood.
Here the smell of mouse was strong in the air, and Grey Cat soon detected a slight vibration of swift movement through the grass. Palpably aware of the lurking danger, the timid creature was advancing in a series of short, darting runs, first to the right and then to the left. At the end of each run there was a pause of evident trepidation as the creature searched the darkness. The telepathic warning had flashed to her as she was foraging at the far end of the meadow, and now she was hurrying to her nest of young ones. And the anticipated danger was very near. Grey Cat pounced. The mouse squirmed beneath the splayed paw and Grey Cat felt a sudden wild elation at the palpitations of the body that quivered in his grasp. With a sadistic urge to tease, Grey Cat released the mouse. The terrified creature darted away, but an inexorable paw pinned her to the ground. With relentless cruelty the game went on. Release and capture. One paw then the other. Giving a promise of freedom and snatching it away. Backwards and forwards, tossed and mauled until, although for the moment free, the mouse lay exhausted in terror, and bleeding from dozen nasty lacerations. Grey Cat prepared to feast.
There was a swish of wings as two sets of talons swooped down to snatch the petrified mouse from the very claws of Grey Cat. He recoiled but parried the intruder with an upraised paw. The owl flapped away and a solitary feather floated down. Grey Cat snarled and spat at it. For the second time he had been cheated of his prey.
The woman turned over and groped for the light switch. She saw that it was 5.30. so she slipped quietly out of bed. She went to the window and peered out. There was a slight diminishing of the darkness as if day were already peeling back the layers of night. She heard the skylark rising in a spiral of melody. There was a twittering and chatter about the housetops as sleepy birds stirred in preparation for the dawn chorus.
However, the woman's thoughts were of the grey cat, and she stared into the half-light, over the lawn, over the garden, over the meadow. Then she went downstairs.
Grey Cat was miserable and hungry. His damp furs clung, matted and uncomfortable, and, as he groped through the wet grasses, he lashed his tail in vicious anger.
The wild was no longer a challenge but a terror. The atavistic instinct that had urged him into the darkness was gone, and Grey Cat knew only the need for food and warmth. He ignored the sound of the spiralling lark and the tentative twitter of rousing birds. He wanted food and warmth, and he sped to the one place he could be sure of getting them.
The tea was made, so the woman went over to the dresser for two cups and saucers. She unhooked one cup but a slight scuffle at her feet prompted her to look down. She screamed. The cup was shattered on a chair and the fragments scattered over the floor. The rat scuttled across the room and took refuge beneath the stove.
The man, in an indolent half-sleep, waiting for his morning tea, heard a scream and the simultaneous crash. His stomach churned and he sat bolted upright. The woman screamed again and, in one involuntary movement, the man was out of bed and down the stairs.
"What's up, what's up?", he yelled along the passage.
Entering the kitchen, he glanced wildly about him. His wife was huddled against the dresser. He saw the back door was open and the pieces of broken cup. He saw the rat. And froze.
Small creatures that crept or crawl were his aversion. He had faced bombs, bullets and bayonets of the Nazi, but a spider, mouse, cockroach or, Gawd in 'eaven, a rat, and he was petrified.
The long minute spun out. The woman remained huddled against the dresser. The man cringed back into the doorway. The cup lay, in inanimate fragments, about the floor. The rat, reassured by the silence, crept warily out.
Toby stepped across the threshold with the majestic indifference that only a cat can assume. Tail erect, head high, he was just completing the regal entrance when he saw... RAT! The reaction was instantaneous. The disappointments, the frustrations and the fears of the long unfriendly night culminated suddenly in a fierce ecstasy as Grey Cat pounced.
He caught the rat behind the head and bit deeply into the flesh. In growling rage he shook the struggling rodent and clawed at the writhing body. The rat quickly succumbed. With the limp carcass held firmly in his jaws, Grey Cat stalked proudly from the room. His claim to prowess was vindicated.
The man went across to his wife. He put his arm tenderly around her shoulder.
"Just beat me to it," he said with a laugh, "But I must admit he's a pretty good cat. Handy to have about the house when I'm at work." The man smiled down at her. "I think we'd better keep him. Here, I'll get him some milk, he'll be thirsty."
Some time later, Toby was curled up on the best chair in the sitting room, asleep. The woman sang as she went about her work.
Other work by Namur King