The Yellow Cat
by Michael Joseph
It all began when Grey was followed home, inexplicably enough, by the strange, famished yellow cat. The cat was thin with large, intense eyes which gleamed amber in the forlorn light of the lamp on the street corner. It was standing there as Grey passed, whistling dejectedly, for he had had a depressing run of luck at Grannie’s tables, and it made a slight piteous noise as it looked up at him. Then it followed at his heels, creeping along as though it expected to be kicked unceremoniously out of the way.
Grey did, indeed, make a sort of half-threatening gesture when, looking over his shoulder, he saw the yellow cat behind.
“If you were a black cat,” he muttered, “I’d welcome you—but get out!”
The cat’s melancholy amber eyes gleamed up at him, but it made no sign and continued to follow. This would have annoyed Grey in his already impatient humour, but he seemed to find a kind of savage satisfaction in the fact that he was denied even the trifling consolation of a good omen. Like all gamblers, he was intensely superstitious, although he had had experience in full measure of the futility of all supposedly luckbringing mascots. He carried a monkey’s claw sewn in the lining of his waistcoat pocket, not having the courage to throw it away. But this wretched yellow cat that ought to have been black did not irritate him as might have been expected.
He laughed softly; the restrained, unpleasant laugh of a man fighting against misfortune.
“Come on, then, you yellow devil; we’ll sup together.”
He took his gloveless hand from his coat pocket and beckoned to the animal at his heels; but it took as little notice of his gesture of invitation as it had of his menacing foot a moment before. It just slid along the greasy pavement, covering the ground noiselessly, not deviating in the slightest from the invisible path it followed, without hesitation.
It was a bitterly cold, misty night, raw and damp. Grey shivered as he thrust his hand back into the shelter of his pocket and hunched his shoulders together underneath the thin coat that afforded but little protection against the cold.
With a shudder of relief he turned into the shelter of the courtyard which lay between the icy street and the flight of stairs which led to his room. As he stumbled numbly over the rough cobblestones of the yard he suddenly noticed that the yellow cat had disappeared.
He was not surprised and gave no thought whatever to the incident until, a few minutes later, at the top of the ramshackle stairs, the feeble light of a hurricane lamp revealed the creature sitting, or rather lying, across the threshold of his door.
He took an uncertain step backward. He said to himself: “That’s odd.” The cat looked up at him impassively with brooding, sullen eyes. He opened the door, stretching over the animal to turn the crazy handle.
Silently the yellow cat rose and entered the shadowy room. There was something uncanny, almost sinister in its smooth, noiseless movements. With fingers that shook slightly, Grey fumbled for matches, struck a light and, closing the door behind him, lit the solitary candle.
He lived in this one room, over a mews which had become almost fashionable since various poverty-stricken people, whose names still carried some weight with the bourgeois tradesmen of this Mayfair backwater, had triumphantly installed themselves; and Grey turned it skilfully to account when he spoke with casual indifference of ‘the flat’ he occupied, ‘next to Lady Susan Tyrrell’s’.
Grey, although he would never have admitted it, was a cardsharper and professional gambler. But even a cardsharper needs a little ordinary luck. Night after night he watched money pass into the hands of ‘the pigeons’, ignorant, reckless youngsters, and foolish old women who, having money to burn, ought by all the rules of the game to have lost. Yet when playing with him, Grey, a man respected even among the shabby fraternity of those who live by their wits, they won. He had turned to roulette, but even with a surreptitious percentage interest in the bank he had lost. His credit was exhausted. Grannie herself had told him he was a regular Jonah. He was cold, hungry and desperate. Presently his clothes, the last possession, would betray him, and no longer would he be able to borrow the casual trifle that started him nightly in his desperate bout with fortune.
His room contained a wooden bed and a chair. A rickety table separated them. The chair served Grey as a wardrobe; on the table stood a candle with a few used matches which he used to light the cheap cigarettes he smoked in bed; the grease had a habit of adhering to the tobacco when the candle was used, and Grey was fastidious. The walls were bare save for a cupboard, a pinned-up Sporting Life Racing Calendar and two cheap reproductions of Kirchner’s midinettes. There was no carpet on the floor. A piece of linoleum stretched from the empty grate to the side of the bed.
At first Grey could not see the cat, but the candle, gathering strength, outlined its shadow grotesquely against the wall. It was crouched on the end of the bed.
He lighted one of the used matches and lit the small gas-ring which was the room’s sole luxury. Gas was included in the few shillings he paid weekly for rent; consequently Grey used it for warmth. He seldom used it to cook anything, as neither whisky (which he got by arrangement with one of Grannie’s waiters), bread nor cheese, which formed his usual diet, require much cooking.
The cat moved and, jumping noiselessly on to the floor, cautiously approached the gas-ring, by the side of which it stretched its lean yellowish body. Very softly but plaintively it began to mew.
Grey cursed it. Then he turned to the cupboard and took out a cracked jug. He moved the bread on to his own plate and poured out the little milk it contained in the shallow bread-plate.
The cat drank, not greedily but with the fierce rapidity which betokens hunger and thirst. Grey watched it idly as he poured whisky into a cup. He drank, and refilled the cup. He then began to undress, carefully, in order to prolong the life of his worn dinner-jacket.
The cat looked up. Grey, taking off his shirt, beneath which, having no vest, he wore another woollen shirt, became uncomfortably aware of its staring yellow eyes. Seized with a crazy impulse, he poured the whisky from his cup into the remainder of the milk in the plate.
“Share and share alike,” he cried. “Drink, you—”
Then the yellow cat snarled at him; the vilest, loathsome sound; and Grey for a moment was afraid. Then he laughed, as if at himself for allowing control to slip, and finished undressing, folding the garments carefully, and hanging them on the chair.
The cat went back to its place at the foot of the bed, its eyes gleaming warily in Grey’s direction. He restrained his impulse to throw it out of the room and clambered between the rough blankets without molesting it.
By daylight the cat was an ugly misshapen creature. It had not moved from the bed. Grey regarded it with amused contempt.
Usually the morning found him profoundly depressed and irritable. For some unaccountable reason he felt now almost light-hearted.
He dressed, counted his money and decided to permit himself the luxury of some meager shopping in the adjacent Warwick Market, which supplied the most expensive restaurant proprietors with the cheapest food. Nevertheless, it was an accommodating spot for knowledgeable individuals like Grey.
The cat, still crouching on the bed, made no attempt to follow him, and he closed the door as softly as its erratic hinges would allow, aware that the cat’s eyes still gazed steadily in his direction.
In the market, he obeyed an impulse to buy food for the cat, and at the cost of a few pence added a portion of raw fish to his purchases. On the way home he cursed himself for a fool, and would have thrown the fish away, the clumsy paper wrapping having become sodden with moisture, when he was hailed by a voice he had almost forgotten.
“Grey! Just the man I want to see!”
Grey greeted him with a fair show of amiability, although, if appearance were any indication, the other was even less prosperous than himself. He, too, had been an habitue of Grannie’s in the old days, but had long since drifted out on the sea of misfortune. Despite his shabby appearance, he turned to Grey and said: “You’ll have a drink ?” Then, noting Grey’s dubious glance, he laughed and added: “It’s on me all right. I’ve just touched lucky.”
A little later Grey emerged from the public-house on the corner the richer by five pounds, which the other had insisted on lending him in return for past favours. What exactly the past favours had been, Grey was too dazed to inquire; as far as he could recollect he had always treated the man with scant courtesy. He did not even remember his name.
He was still trying to remember who the man was when he climbed the stairs. He knew him well enough, for Grey was the type who never forgets a face. It was when his eyes alighted on the yellow cat that he suddenly remembered.
The man was Felix Mortimer. And Felix Mortimer had shot himself during the summer!
At first Grey tried to assure himself that he had made a mistake. Against his better judgment he tried to convince himself that the man merely bore a strong resemblance to Felix Mortimer. But at the back of his mind he knew.
Anyway, the five-pound note was real enough.
He methodically placed the fish in a saucepan and lit the gas-ring.
Presently the cat was eating, in that curious, deliberate way it had drunk the milk the night before. Its emaciated appearance plainly revealed that it was starving; yet it devoured the fish methodically, as though now assured of a regular supply.
Grey, turning the five-pound note in his hand, wondered whether the cat had after all changed his luck. But his thoughts kept reverting to Felix Mortimer…
The next few days left him in no doubt. At Grannie’s that night, fortune’s pendulum swung back unmistakably. He won steadily. From roulette he turned to chemin de fer elated to find that his luck held good.
“Your luck’s changed with a vengeance!” said one of the ‘regulars’ of the shabby genteel saloon.
“With a vengeance,” echoed Grey, and paused; wondering with the superstition of the born gambler if there were significance in the phrase.
He left Grannie’s the richer by two hundred odd pounds.
His success was the prelude to the biggest slice of luck, to use his own phrase, that he had ever known. He gambled scientifically, not losing his head, methodically banking a proportion of his gains each morning; planning, scheming, striving to reach that high-water mark at which, so he told himself with the gambler’s timeworn futility, he would stop and never gamble again.
Somehow he could not make up his mind to leave the poverty-stricken room in the fashionable mews. He was terribly afraid it would spell a change of luck. He tried to improve it, increase its comfort, but it was significant that he bought first a basket and a cushion for the yellow cat.
For there was no doubt in his mind that the cat was the cause of his sudden transition from poverty to prosperity. In his queer, intensely superstitious mind, the yellow cat was firmly established as his mascot.
He fed it regularly, waiting on it himself as though he were its willing servant. He made a spasmodic attempt to caress it, but the cat snarled savagely at him and, frightened, he left it alone. If the cat ever moved from the room he never saw it go; whenever he went in or came out the cat was there, watching him with its gleaming amber eyes.
He accepted the situation philosophically enough. He would talk to the cat of himself, his plans for the future, the new people he met—for money had speedily unlocked more exalted doors than Grannie’s—all this in the eloquence derived from wine and solitude, he would pour out into the unmoved ears of the cat, crouching at the foot of the bed. And then, without daring to speak of it, he would think of Felix Mortimer and the gift that had proved the turning-point of his fortunes.
The creature watched him impassively, contemptuously indifferent to his raving or his silence. But the weird menage continued, and Grey’s luck held good.
The days passed and he became ambitious. He was now within reach of that figure which he fondly imagined would enable him to forsake his precarious existence. He told himself that he was now, to all intents and purposes, safe. And he decided to move into more civilized and appropriate surroundings.
Nevertheless, he himself procured an expensive wicker contraption to convey the yellow cat from the garret to his newly acquired and, by contrast, luxurious maisonnette. It was furnished in abominable taste, but the reaction from sheer poverty had its effect. And then he had begun to drink more than was good for a man who required a cool head and a steady nerve for at least part of a day which was really night.
One day he had cause to congratulate himself on his new home. For he met, for the first time in his thirty odd years of life, a woman. Now Grey divided women into two classes. There were ‘the regulars’—soulless creatures with the gambler’s fever and crook’s alphabet—and ‘pigeons’, foolish women, some young, most of them old, who flourished their silly but valuable plumage to be plucked by such as he.
But Elise Dyer was different. She stirred his pulses with a strange, exquisite sensation. Her incredible fair hair, flaxen as waving corn, her fair skin, her deep violet eyes and her delicate carmine mouth provoked him into a state of unaccustomed bewilderment.
They talked one night of mascots. Grey, who had never mentioned the yellow cat to a soul, whispered that he would, if she cared, show her the mascot that had brought him his now proverbial good luck. The girl agreed, with eager enthusiasm, to his diffident suggestion to go with him to his flat; and he, in his strange simplicity, stammered that she would do him honour. He had forgotten that Elise Dyer knew him for a rich man.
Elated by his triumph, he paid her losses and called for champagne. The girl plied him skillfully with wine, and presently he was more drunk than he had been since the beginning of his era of prosperity.
They took a cab to the flat. Grey felt that he had reached the pinnacle of triumph. Life was wonderful, glorious! What did anything matter now ?
He switched on the light and the girl crossed his threshold. The room which they entered was lavishly illuminated, the lights shaded into moderation by costly fabrics. The room, ornate and over-furnished, reflected money. The girl gave a gasp of delight.
For the first time the cat seemed aware of something unusual. It stretched itself slowly and stood up, regarding them with a fierce light in its eyes.
The girl screamed.
“For God’s sake take it away!” she cried. “I can’t bear it! I can’t be near it. Take that damned cat away!” And she began to sob wildly, piteously, retreating towards the door.
At this Grey lost all control and, cursing wildly, shouting bestial things at the oncoming animal, seized it by the throat.
“Don’t…don’t cry, dearie,” panted Grey, holding the cat; “I’ll settle this swine soon enough. Wait for me!” And he staggered through the open door.
Grey ran through the deserted streets. The cat had subsided under the clutch of his fingers and lay inert, its yellowish fur throbbing. He scarcely knew where he was going. All he realized was an overwhelming desire to be rid of the tyranny of this wretched creature he held by the throat.
At last he knew where he was going. Not far from Grey’s new establishment ran the Prince’s canal, that dark, sluggish stream that threads its way across the fashionable residential district of the outlying west. To the canal he ran; and without hesitation he threw the yellow cat into the water.
The next day he realized what he had done. At first he was afraid, half hoping that the superstitious spasm of fear would pass. But a vivid picture swam before his eyes, the broken surface of a sluggish dream…
“You’re a coward,” she taunted him. “Why don’t you act like a man ? Go to the tables and see for yourself that you can still win in spite of your crazy cat notions!”
At first he refused, vehemently; but it gradually dawned on him that therein lay his chance of salvation. Once let him throw down the gauntlet and win and his peace of mind would be assured.
That night he received a vociferous welcome on his return to the Green Baize Club.
It was as he feared. He lost steadily.
Then suddenly an idea came to him. ‘Supposing the cat were still alive ? Why hadn’t he thought of that before ? Why, there was a saying that every cat had nine lives! For all he knew it might have swum safely to the bank and got away.
His feverish impulse crystallized into action. He hurriedly left the club and beckoned urgently to a passing taxicab.
After what seemed interminable delay he reached the spot where he had madly flung the cat away from him. The stillness of the water brought home to him the futility of searching for the animal here. This was not the way to set to work.
The thing preyed on his mind in the days that followed. Exhaustive inquiries failed to discover the least trace of the yellow cat.
Night after night he went to the tables, lured there by the maddening thought that if only he could win he would drug the torment and be at peace. But he lost…
And then a strange thing happened.
One night, returning home across a deserted stretch of the park, he experienced a queer, irresistible impulse to lift his feet from the grass and make for the gravel path. He resented the impulse, fought against it; he was cold and worn out, and by cutting across the grass he would save many minutes of weary tramping. But the thing like a mysterious blind instinct persisted, and in the end he found himself running, treading gingerly on the sodden grass.
He did not understand why this had happened to him.
The next day Grey did not get out of his bed until late in the afternoon.
He crossed the room in search of his dressing-gown and caught sight of himself in the glass of his wardrobe. Only then did he realize that he was clambering over the floor with his head near the carpet, his hands outstretched in front of him. He stood upright with difficulty and reached a shaking hand for brandy.
It took him two hours to struggle into his clothes, and by the time he was ready to go out it was nearly dark. He crept along the street. The shops were closing. He saw nothing of them until he reached the corner where he halted abruptly, with a queer sensation of intense hunger. On the cold marble before him lay unappetizing slabs of raw fish. His body began to quiver with suppressed desire. Another moment and nothing could have prevented him seizing the fish in his bare hands, when the shutters of the shop dropped noisily across the front of the sloping marble surface.
Grey knew that something had happened, that he was very ill. Now that he could not see the vision of the yellow cat, his mind was a blank. Somehow he retraced his footsteps and got back to his room.
The bottle of brandy stood where he had left it. He had not turned on the light, but he could see it plainly. He dragged it to his lips.
With a crash it went to the floor, while Grey leapt into the air, savage with nausea. He felt that he was choking. With an effort he pulled himself together, to find that it was beyond his power to stop the ghastly whining sound that issued from his lips. He tried to lift himself on to the bed, but in sheer exhaustion collapsed on the floor, where he lay still in an attitude not human.
The room lightened with the dawn and a new day passed before the thing on the floor moved. Something of the clarity of vision which comes to starving men now possessed him. He stared at his hands.
The fingers seemed to have withered: the nails had almost disappeared, leaving a narrow streak of hornish substance forming in their place. He tore himself frantically towards the window. In the fading light he saw that the backs of his hands were covered with a thin, almost invisible surface of coarse, yellowish fur.
Unimaginable horrors seized him. He knew now that the scarlet thread of his brain was being stretched to breaking-point. Presently it would snap…
Unless—unless. The yellow cat alone could save him. To this last human thought he clung, in an agony of terror.
Unconscious of movement, he crept swiftly into the street, his shapeless eyes peering in the darkness which surrounded him. He groped his way stealthily towards the one place which the last remnant of his brain told him might yield the secret of his agony.
Down the silent bank he scrambled headlong, towards the still water. The dawn’s pale radiance threw his shadow into a grotesque pattern. On the edge of the canal he halted, his hands embedded in the sticky crumbling earth, his head shaking, his eyes searching in agonized appeal, into the depths of the motionless water.
There he crouched, searching, searching…
And there in the water he saw the yellow cat.
He stretched out the things that were his arms, while the yellow cat stretched out its claws to enfold him in the broken mirror of the water.
About the Author
Michael Joseph was born in Upper Clapton, London. He served in the British Army during the First World War, and then embarked on a writing career, his first book in 1923 being Short Story Writing for Profit. After a period as a literary agent for Curtis Brown, Joseph founded his own publishing imprint Michael Joseph Ltd in 1935. It is now an imprint of Penguin Books.
About the Narrator
Hailing from the rainy North West of England, Phil Lunt has dabbled in many an arcane vocation during his lifetime. From attempted rock-star to conveyor-belt scraper at a bread factory, Easter Egg Wrangler to World’s Worst Waiter. Actor, designer and very infrequent writer, he now works full-time as a Casting Booker but likes to read stories to you whenever he gets a chance. Having an entry on Wookiepedia is one of his greatest achievements but for his sins he supports Bolton Wanderers. You could always check him out on Twitter to see what shenanigans he’s currently involved with. Phil served as Chair of the British Fantasy Society for four years.