This retelling of The Master Cat from "If all the seas were ink we'd call them fish tales"


A retelling by J. Kearns

A cat helps his master to marry a princess, through outwitting a rich, shape-shifting giant ogre who has control over much of the land.

Once upon a time there was a miller. What do you know about millers and what they do? Not much, I imagine. Have you ever seen a miller mill? I haven't. But that is what millers do. They mill. If you meet someone whose surname is Miller, it's a good bet that this name described an ancestor who milled for a living. He may have milled grain so that it could be used for baking bread. Farmers would take their grain to the miller, and he would mill the grain until it was a flour, and then that flour could be used for baking. All the bread that you eat is made of flour that is milled grain.

This miller that I started to tell you about, who lived once upon a time, well, he died. When someone dies, if they have any possessions, they will likely have made out a will which says to whom they want these possessions to go. A will is called a will because it states the will of the person, who he wills his possessions to go to. Some people have quite a lot to will, and some people have very little to will. This miller had his mill to will, and he willed his mill to his eldest son. He had two other sons as well. To the second son he willed his ass. To the youngest son he willed his Cat. His Cat? Yes, his Cat. This was all that he had to leave to his sons: the mill, the ass, and the Cat. The three sons saw no reason to send for an attorney to declare the will, for the fees of the attorney would have consumed the mill, the ass, and the cat. It would have eaten them all up and left nothing to the sons at all. As it was, only the eldest son had seemed to gain anything of any value from his father. With the mill he could make a living. I suppose the son who had been willed the ass could sell the ass if it wasn't useful to him. But the youngest son, the one who had gotten the Cat, well, he was quite a poor, young fellow indeed. He knew his father's Cat, and knew it was not a special cat with a special pedigree that he might be able to sell. It was nothing but an ordinary cat which led the kind of ordinary life ordinary cats lead. The Cat had made its living by catching mice at the mill, which was how it had been useful to the father. The youngest son had no mill in which the Cat could be useful by catching mice.

The middle son, as it turned out, didn't sell his ass, for he was able to team up with the older brother and put the ass to good work in connection with the mill. These two brothers, however, had no use for the youngest son's cat. They told him, "You expect us to give you a share in our profits just for giving your cat a job catching mice at the mill? We can find any old cat on the street who would love to live at the mill and catch mice, and will do it for free." Consequently, these two older brothers had no use for the younger brother and sent him away.

The younger brother had no choice but to go out into the world and seek his fortune. He had few possessions and these he carried on his back. The Cat, which his father had named Graymalkin, he carried under his arm. When he had walked a little way, he sat down to the side of the road, very depressed. "My brothers," he said, "will get their living handsomely enough by joining their stocks together, but for my part, when I have eaten up my cat, and made me a muff of his skin, I must die of hunger."

What a shock! Have you ever heard of a person eating their cat? For that matter, have you ever heard of someone eating a cat at all? Well, some people do eat cats because they have little else to eat. Indeed, in some countries cat is considered a decent thing to eat.

Graymalkin, which the boy had put down, and which did happen to be a gray cat, sat down opposite the youth and asked, curious, "What's a muff? I think I have a right to know what a muff is if you're going to eat me and make my skin into this thing called a muff."

Very despondent, the boy seemed not to notice how peculiar it was that Graymalkin had spoken to him. "A muff," he replied, "is something you put your hands in to protect them from the cold. It's shaped like a tube and in one end of it you put one hand and in the other end of it you put your other hand."

Graymalkin answered, "That doesn't explain to me why it's called a muff. Is it because your hands are muffled in the muff? They're all wrapped up?"

"The word muff supposedly comes from the word mitten," the boy explained.

"Oh," said Graymalkin. "I see. 'Three little kittens have lost their mittens and they began to cry: meow, meow.' How you see cats has been conditioned by that silly little rhyme. So, you think that cats have to do with mittens and so you shall make me into a muff. That's silly and shortsighted." In a grave and serious air, Graymalkin went on, "Instead, you should give me a bag and get a pair of boots made for me so I can scamper through the dirt and the brambles. Do that and you'll see that you have not so bad a portion in me as you imagine. Kittens may wear mittens, but I'm not a kitten. I'm a cat. And I think I'd look good in a nice pair of white boots."

Imagine that, a cat wanting boots so it can scamper in the dirt and brambles. What are brambles? You think, "Why do I need to know what brambles are?" Well, you ought to know. Brambles are a variant for the old word braam which meant broom. A bramble was any rosaceous plant of the genus Rubus. A bramble was also any rough and prickly plant, like the plant called the dog rose. You really ought to know things like this and not let words you know nothing about slip over your mind like water and run away without your catching what they mean.

"I am on the threshold of such great poverty," the boy said, "that I can think of nothing to do but eat you then sit down and die of hunger after my stomach is through digesting you, and you expect me to get you a bag and a fancy pair of white boots?" Graymalkin answered, "Your imagination isn't so quick as mine is. I'd also like a fancy hat with a feather in it, but that will come with time."

The Cat's Master--for this was what the youth was, the Cat's Master--knew that he had in his backpack just enough money to get a bag and boots for the Cat. As for how it would benefit him to get the Cat his bag and boots, the Cat's master did not build very much upon what he said, for, come to think of it, he had often seen him play a great many cunning tricks to catch rats and mice, as when he used to hang by the heels, or hide himself in the meal, and make as if he were dead. Yes, when he thought about it a little, the youth did not altogether despair of his Cat affording him some help in his miserable condition.

Imagine how odd it must have been for the shoemaker to whom the Master took his Cat to be fitted for a pair of boots. Here walks in an obviously poor youth and hands the shoemaker some money and says to him to measure his Cat for a pair of boots made of the finest, softest white leather. A pair of boots with buckles. Because he was being paid, the shoemaker did as he was asked and measured the Cat and made the boots. The boots were expertly made and fit the Cat perfectly. Once he had them on, he pranced all about, feeling quite debonair and very, very proud of his appearance. Cats are like that, they take pride in their appearance, which is why they're always cleaning themselves and get irritated if their fur isn't just so.

In his new pair of white boots, the Cat felt absolutely gallant. Feeling very gallant and confident, he put the bag about his neck that his Master had got for him and went into a warren where there was a great abundance of rabbits. He put bran and sow-thistle into his bag, and stretching out at length, as if he was dead, he waited for some young rabbits, not yet acquainted with the deceits of the world, to come and rummage his bag for what he had put into it. The Cat knew that rabbits liked sow-thistle and bran, and scarce was he lain down but he had what he wanted. A rash and foolish young rabbit jumped into his bag, and Monsieur Puss (he was a French cat, which is odd because Graymalkin is a Scottish word for cat), immediately drawing close the strings of the bag, took and killed him without pity. Ouch. But this is also just how cats are. They are hunters. We who keep cats as pets and feed them prepared food from cans or bags, can still imagine what resourceful hunters cats are by the way the play with their toys.

Proud of his prey, Graymalkin, or Monsieur Graymalkin (in keeping with his gallant appearance he should have a French title, though Monsieur simply means master or mister in English) went with the rabbit to the palace and asked to speak with his majesty. He was shown upstairs into the King's apartment, and, making a low reverence--which means that he bowed low to the ground--said to him, "I have brought you, your majestic sir, a rabbit of the warren, which my noble lord the Marquis of Carabus" (for that was the title which Monsieur Graymalkin Puss was pleased to give his Master) "has commanded me to present to your majesty from him."

"Tell thy master," said the King, "that I thank him and that he does me a great deal of pleasure."

Monsieur Graymalkin Puss also caught some rabbits for his Master and himself, so they both had something to eat and did not go hungry.

"Master," he told him, "should anyone call you the Marquis of Carabus, you should respond as though it is your name."

A Marquis is a nobleman who is below a Duke, but above an Earl or Count.

"But I'm not a Marquis," Graymalkin's Master said. "If I'm not a Marquis, but am now to answer to the Marquis of Carabus, why couldn't I just as well be called Duke of Carabus, since I'm not a Duke either?"

"You are Marquis Carabus," insisted Monsieur Graymalkin Puss.

"For that matter," answered his Master, "as there is no such place as Carabus, not that I know of, why not call me Marquis of Carabast or Marquis of Crab or even the Marquis of Cerberus."

"If someone calls you the Marquis Carabus, you are to answer to that name," was all Monsieur Graymalkin Puss replied.

The next day, Monsieur Graymalkin Puss hid himself among some standing corn in a field, holding his bag open. A brace of partridges ran into it (a brace of partridges, that means a pair or a couple) and drawing the strings of the bag shut he caught them both. Just as he had done with the rabbit which he caught in the warren, he went and presented the partridges to the King as a present. The King was very, very pleased and ordered Monsieur Graymalkin be given money to buy himself a drink. Maybe he went and bought himself some milk. Imagine a cat in white leather boots trotting into a coffee shop and ordering himself a cup of milk with a dash of coffee. Wouldn't it be nice if they served it in a sky blue mug the size of a bowl.

For three months Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat continued to take to the King occasional gifts of game, which, each time, he said his Master, the Marquis Carabus, had snared. The remainder of the game he caught, Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat took to his Master, who sold it and with the profits was able to pay for his lodging in a small rooming house.

One day, when Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat, had carried two particularly fine, fat quail to the King, he overheard that the following morning the king planned to take a leisurely ride along the river with his daughter, who happened to be the most beautiful princess in the world. Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat went to his Master and told him, "If you will follow my advice your fortune is made. You have nothing else to do but go and wash yourself in the river tomorrow morning, and leave the rest to me."

The Marquis of Carabas did what Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat advised him to do, though without knowing why or wherefore, and the next morning was washing in the river when the King passed by. Quickly hurrying to hide his Master's ragged clothes under a stone, the cunning Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat began to cry out, "Help! Help! My Lord Marquis of Carabus is going to be drowned!"

Hearing the commotion, the King put his head out of the coach-window and saw it was the Cat who had so often brought him such good game. He ordered his guards to run immediately to the assistance of his Lordship the Marquis of Carabus. While they were drawing the Cat's Master out of the river, the Cat ran up to the coach. He exclaimed to the King, "My King, while my Master, the Marquis of Carabus, was washing in this beautiful river of your fine country, there came by some rogues, and though he cried out, 'Thieves! Thieves!' several times, as loud as he could, the rogues made off with his clothes without anyone stopping them. Have your daughter shut her eyes lest she saw the Marquis of Carabus in his morning glory," which is, to say, the Princess had best avert her attention lest she should see the Cat's master extracted from the water nude as a jaybird.

The King commanded the officers of his wardrobe, "Quick, run and fetch one of my best suits for the Lord Marquis of Carabus." In the meanwhile, the Cat's Master hid behind some bushes. When the officers of the King's wardrobe returned with a splendid suit of silk, he put it on.

The Cat's Master was a handsome youth in prime physical condition, and when he stepped out from behind the bushes in the King's silk suit, he looked positively elegant, and every inch a Marquis, if not a Duke or a King. Delighted to meet who had so often made a present to him of his best game, the King hugged the Cat's master warmly. His daughter, who had been seated all this while with her pretty hands covering her eyes, snuck a peek through her fingers. Seeing the Marquis Carabus was dressed, she took her hands down from her eyes and gazed fully on him. "My," she thought to herself, "isn't he handsome." She noticed the Marquis Carabus staring back at her and put her hands back up to her face, this time to hide how she was blushing.

"It appears those rogues made off with my Master's fine horse as well," Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat told the King. "Isn't it shameful when a fine individual such as the Marquis Carabus, can't take a pleasant bath in such a fine river without being robbed of his clothes and horse?"

The King exclaimed, "The Marquis Carabus must ride with my daughter and me in my coach." He pressed on the Cat's master adamantly, and the Cat's Master consented.

Overjoyed to see his project begin to succeed, Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat marched on before the coach which carried the King, the Princess, and the Marquis Carabus. Meeting with some countrymen, who were mowing in a meadow, he said to them, "Good people, you who are mowing, if you do not tell the King that the meadow you mow belongs to my Lord Marquis of Carabus, you shall be chopped as small as herbs for the pot."

As the King's coach passed by the meadow, Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat called out to the King, "Sir, if you look to your left, you will see Countrymen mowing a meadow which never fails to yield a plentiful harvest every year."

"Good Countrymen," the King called out to the mowers, "to whom does this meadow belong which you are mowing, and which never fails to yield a plentiful harvest every year?"

They answered, rather timidly, for the Cat's threats had made them terribly afraid, "This meadow belongs to none other than our Lord Marquis of Carabus."

The Master Cat marched on, again, before the coach, and meeting with some reapers he said to them, "Good people, you who are reaping, if you do not tell the King that all this corn belongs to the Marquis of Carabas, you shall be chopped as small as herbs for the pot."

As the King's coach passed by the reapers, Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat called out to the King, "Sir, if you look to your left, you will see reapers reaping a great field of corn. This great field never fails to yield a plentiful harvest of corn every year, and its fine management is certainly a testament to the quality of your obedient servant who owns the field."

"Good reapers," the King called to the reapers, "to whom does this field of corn belong which you are reaping, which never fails to yield a plentiful harvest every year, and the fine management of which is certainly a testament to the quality of my obedient servant who owns the field?"

The reapers answered, rather timidly, for the Cat's threats had made them afraid, "This corn belongs to none other than our Lord Marquis of Carabus."

The King, very pleased, congratulated the Marquis on his fine management of the field of corn.

The Master Cat, who went on again before the coach, said the same words to all he met, that they should tell the King the land they were working belonged to their Lord Marquis of Carabas. Then as the King passed by Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat would point out to him the richness of the land. The King, always asking to whom the land belonged, and each time being told that it belonged to none other than the Lord Marquis of Carabus, was astonished at the vast estates held by the Lord Marquis of Carabus.

Finally, going on before the coach, Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat came to a stately castle, the Master of which was an ogre, the richest ogre ever had been known, for all the lands which the King had ridden past belonged to this terrible ogre. Of course, Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat knew about this ogre. He had known about him all along, and his knowledge of the ogre was what had inspired the Cat's marvelous plan which he had been carrying out all day, even the last several months. Reaching the castle before the coach, Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat went right up to the castle's door, pounded upon it, and demanded that he should speak with the Ogre. "I must speak with the ogre to whom this fine castle belongs," he called out. "As I was passing by, I thought to myself that I could not go on without having the honor of paying my respects to the ogre who maintains such a rich estate!"

Ogres, though they are quite unlike the rest of us in the quality of their unpleasantness, are still prone to the same vanity that we must always guard ourselves against lest we fall prey to cunning flattery. So, he received Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat as civilly as any ogre could do, and bade him to sit down with him.

"I hear that you felt compelled to honor me with praises," the ogre said to the Master Cat.

"You may go ahead and honor me as profusely as you like."

Graymalkin Pussy Cat replied, "Monsieur Ogre, all day long, as I have traveled along the beautiful river of this country, I have been awestruck by the quality of the farmland which borders it. Every worker who I've come upon, I've asked the same question, to whom this marvelous land belongs, and each one has told me the same thing, that it belongs to the Master of this castle. As I was passing the castle by, I saw how it too was marvelous, and thought I would like to stop and pay my respects. You, certainly, are very nearly the most remarkable ogre I have had the pleasure to meet."

The ogre snarled, "What do you mean I am very nearly the most remarkable ogre you have ever met?"

Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat replied, "You are only subordinate to he to whom I am servant, my Lord Marquis Carabus."

The ogre snarled more meanly. "How am I subordinate to your Lord Marquis Carabus?" he demanded.

"Well," the Master Cat answered, "my Lord Marquis Carabus has the gift of being able to transform his identity as it pleases him, or so it has seemed to me. Today, for instance, he passes himself off as a King in King's clothing. Who else has the power to change himself into whatever he has a mind to. For example, could you change yourself into an elephant, a monkey, or even a lion?"

"Anyone can pass themselves off as a King, if he has the right clothing," answered the ogre. "But could your Lord Carabus transform himself into an elephant or a lion, as I am able to do?"

"Don't tell me you have the ability to take the shape of a lion," answered the Cat.

"I do," said the ogre. "And to convince you, you shall see me now become a lion."

The Master Cat answered, "Surely, you do not mean that you can transform yourself, literally, into a lion. Surely, you must mean instead that you are able to take the semblance of a lion."

The ogre, right before the eyes of Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat, immediately transformed himself into a roaring lion. Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat, terrified, ran up the drapes and did not come down again until the ogre had resumed his natural form.

Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat informed the ogre, "It is remarkable indeed that an ogre can transform himself into a great lion. It would seem to me an impossibility, however, that an ogre as great as yourself could assume the form of a much less proud creature, such as a rat or a mouse, whereas my Lord Marquis Carabus has frequently been observed to be a low and ragged peasant."

"Your Lord Marquis Carabus has nothing on me!" the ogre growled. "It is easy, with the proper clothing, to assume the identity of a ragged peasant. But could your Lord Carabus shrink himself into the lowly form of a mouse?"

Master Cat answered, "Surely, you do not mean that you can transform yourself into a mouse. Surely, you mean that you can instead transform yourself into the semblance of a mouse."

The ogre changed himself into a mouse, as had been the Master Cat's plan all along. And whether the ogre had only taken the semblance of a mouse, or had become, in reality, a mouse, we shall never know, for semblance or not, Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat immediately pounced upon him and ate him up.

Then Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat ran outside just in time to meet the King's coach as it approached the castle. He called out, bowing low before the coach, "Your Majesty is welcome to this castle of my Lord Marquis of Carabus."

The King turned to the Cat's Master and said, "My Lord Marquis Carabus, does this castle also belong to you? There can be nothing finer than this court and all the stately buildings which surround it. I would like to go in and look around, if you please."

The Marquis gave his hand to the Princess, and they followed the King, who went first into the castle. They passed into a spacious hall as was ever seen, where was laid out on a great table a dinner more spectacular than you could ever imagine, for, as it happened, the ogre had invited over many of his friends for a party that day, but when they arrived they saw the King was there and dared not enter but returned home.

Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat mewed, "His Majesty, the King, is asked to dine with my Lord Marquis Carabus, who sent forward and ordered this meal be prepared that you may have some refreshment."

The King, and the Princess, were perfectly charmed with the good qualities of the Marquis of Carabus, as well as greatly impressed by his vast estate. After dining, the King asked the Marquis if he would marry the Princess. The Marquis, making several low bows, accepted the honor which his Majesty conferred upon him, and forthwith, that every same day, married the Princess.

Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat became a great lord, and never ran after mice any more but only for his diversion.

As for the King and Princess, they never learned that the Marquis Carabus had ever been anything but what Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat had presented him to be. And as there had never been a Marquis Carabus before Graymalkin Pussy Cat imagined him, we must conclude that Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat was a very powerful magician indeed. Either that, or the miller's youngest son had always been Marquis Carabus, but had never suspected it himself until Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat made his identity known to him. Remember this with everyone you meet, and consider that they too may be also other than what they appear to be, if an ogre is able to be a roaring lion one moment, and a timid mouse the next.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that the Marquis Carabus had made for Monsieur Graymalkin Pussy Cat a very nice hat with a fabulous feather.

Retelling by J. Kearns from the Charles Perrault tale in Andrew Lang's "The Blue Fairy Book".

Copyright 1999 j Kearns

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