Writings by Susan Dickinson

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The Curious Adventures of the Dead Shot and the White Cat.
(After Janvier)

[Written by S. H. D. for The Sunday Republican.]

"Don't do it, Jack, I bet of you! You can't kill a cat if you try. You are not used to firearms, and the neighborhood is so crowded you will be more likely to kill somebody's wife or child by the ball glancing through a parlor window, than that old omnipresent white cat!"

"I shall kill that cat to-night, Kate. As to aim and control of a small shotgun, I guess I am up to that! All my ancestors were army men, and somehow I think those things run in the blood."

But his wife looked unconvinced as she said, with a sigh, "I do so hate to have anything that is alive, killed, Jack! It seems like stabbing the infinite to me."

"But that creature," Jack retorted, "is a dangerous, depraved thing. He ate your canary, - beautiful yellow Zip, - and now he is trying his best to reach the cage of the mocking-birds."

He does seem like a lost spirit," agreed Kate reluctantly.

"He dies to-night!" declared the nimrod. Later a fine, sharp shot was heard in the tiny, suburban back yard. Kate, who was deep in Tom Hardy, sprang to her feet.

"He has done it!" she cried, and before she could faint or fly, the door was thrust open from the porch and Jack burst in with ashen face, bearing aloft, - not the white cat-diabolique, but the great, gray tomcat Zoroaster, next door; the Angora, pet of all Judge Sutherland's family! - the idol and pampered pet of the judge himself! Kate could not, in true feminine habit, heap ironical reproaches on the head of her dear, heedless Jack. He could not have looked more haunted, more lost to earth, had he been on his way to his own funeral pyre.

Kate, "the woman thou gavest me," with I suppose the instinctive remorse of her sex for the original breach of law and delicacy in the garden of Eden, - did not scream as she beheld him. Instantly she bethought herself of the fig leaves of circumstance, - first impulse of the evil-doer, - and in a flash was contriving their escape from detection. First in amelioration, - the argus-eyed cook had gone to Hoboken to a blessed funeral. Grief and the cup that cheers would keep her out of their way until to-morrow afternoon. The dull Polish waitress was at the usual dance, no factor in the household until the wee small hours. Stimulated by her instinct for their honor and preservation, Jack tried to rally from his despair.

"I will go right out quietly and bury the thing," he said. Already mention of it by name seemed to lend a sort of human, enormity to his guilt. "I can stuff it down in the tulip bed, where the earth is soft."

"Why, you can't do that, Jack," protested Kate. "You will be seen and heard. It is bright moonlight. Besides, the Montgomerys' terrier Jupiter would be liable to scent it and dig it out at any moment. Our lives would be one continuous dread." The situation grew more appalling.

"I will tell you what to do," said Kate, with inspiration, "and it is the only thing you can do safely. Take it in as dapper a bundle as possible by the early 7 o'clock train to town to-morrow morning, and when you are crossing the ferry drop it overboard. Then go and buy a bottle of Florida water at the nearest druggist's, and surprise your office boy and secure a long day for work and repentance."

It was a nightmarish sort of sleep that awaited the eyelids of that guilty pair, but dawn came, and their well-laid plans converged and diverged as to time and manner. Kate had the blessed satisfaction of seeing her Jack safely off with a marketable looking bundle, stoutly tied in brown paper, under his arm. She threw countless kisses after him as a good augury until he disappeared. Happily for the sake of her day at home, she, no more than the immortal Weller, could see "around corners and up a couple of flight of stairs."

The exultant Jack was a little jostled in his serenity during his hour's ride to the ferry, by dropping his package and

just escaping the accident of its being crushed by a stout woman who sought a seat by his side where in disgust he had transferred the source of his guilt for a minute of two. To his distorted vision of his world also, the face of the brakeman seemed to single him out with confidential understanding, as, at every station they passed, he repeated his habitual warning, "Do not leave any articles in the car!"

But the ferry was reached without disastrous accident, and pushing forward in the rush, he made for the stern, where he and guilt could forever part. But here, square before him, stood his old gardener, Pat, with a hearty "Good mornin' to yez, Mister Stanton. This is airly in the mornin' for the likes of ye. Let me be after carrying the big bundle for ye, sir."

"Oh, really, no, thank you," stammered Jack. "It is important, - law papers," he added vaguely, not wishing to hurt the kindly old soul by refusal, but mentally saying to himself, "I'll linger behind and leave it on the seat. I believe that is the judge himself out in front this minute!" And by the gods! who should he see as he turned about but his next-door neighbor!

"Well, well, - early met!" said the judge cordially. "Do you go up on this train often? It is a new thing for me, - glad I have met you and can enjoy your company." It was close company, too; until the boat bumped on the New York side.

Desperate at having lost his chance to throw the bundle overboard. Jack left it on the seat, right in the face of those stern, printed warnings not to leave any articles on these boats, and before the ferry had actually stopped, the judge having been accosted by some one else, - risking limb and law, he scrambled over the chain, and running for his uptown car sat down in victory. Guilt was left behind.

Ah, not yet, Mr. Jack, fine gentleman and lawyer that you are! For a street gamin sprang upon the step just as the car moved off with a "Hi, there! You left your bundle, mister!" A sly man given to sin or finesse, would have played the game of discard, but our dear hero grasped the hindering thing with eagerness, even letting a dime hastily drop in the dirty little hand of betrayal.

"What is to be the end of this?" he groaned inwardly. "I have become the Eugene Aram of my age." Buying some cologne at the first drug shop after leaving the car, he decided to seek the shelter of his office without further delay, and attempt to think out the problem, - when, just as he was shutting the outside door, the voice of the drug clerk recalled him, saying politely, "Isn't this yours, sir?" In his preoccupied nervousness he had almost forgotten the thing, the Horror!

It was a racking day, between his plans and his failures. Once he boldly determined to hurl Zoroaster from the rear window of his hallway. Nothing easier! Only, on opening his office door to be sure that the coast was clear, he met the janitor, who seemed to search him with a new gaze of suspicion, a sort of thou-art-the-man expression. And as he passed on to the next office with a feint of business, his heart cried out anew, "This life of deceit will kill me!"

Amid a tumult of hopes and fears, the day wore away, and night came with the Persian philosopher still unburied. In the darkness of the ferry passage now he should have no trouble at all. After all, it was only a cat. He was not really a murderer. Jack's spirits rose at approaching freedom. He even whistled a bit from the last new ballet he had seen and liked: sprinkling the cologne freely about. Sure of speedy relief, he took the earlier train out. Once, - stopping to buy a basket of rare fruit for poor Kate, - his avenger slipped from his arms, but it was quickly restored to him. He did not care particularly, he was nearing deliverance now. How beautiful life would be without the secret that he could not lose!

Martha Dickinson Bianchi Scrapbook, St. A. 126,
Martha Dickinson Bianchi Collection,
John Hay Library, Brown University Libraries

But on reaching the ferry-? who should be there to meet him but the good neighbor again - the judge, returning also at an early hour, exhausted by a hard day and cutting it shorter to make up.

For an instant Jack felt like a shadowed criminal. But the judge was in his most charming, companionable mood, and kept close to the suffering man's side; the side beginning to ache under the inanimate life he was lugging about. He abandoned hope hope now, as thoroughly as must Dante's disciples on entering purgatory, deciding to make his last throw in the dead of night. If the meaningless warning of the brakeman, not to leave any articles on the cars, had jarred on his nerves early in the day, imagine with what a screech of irony they sounded to him now!

Not until he reached his own door was the world really "left to darkness and to" - him. Of course all the reactionary experience of his arrival, "cum" the cat is too harrowing to bear description. This time Kate burst into tears, - the palliative of all dear women, - only to be suddenly aroused by her fears and new suggestions for escape. The destroyer of the peace was temporarily put in the ash barrel, in the darkest cellar, where they agreed they would bury Zoroaster at the midnight hour, "when cats run home and owls to-whit-to-whoo." There they would bury him, they swore, in a grave bigger than the Heidelberger tun?, to an oblivion beyond any Nirvana conceived by his Persian ancestors.

The house was still, the servants in bed, - not a sound in the world beyond the thumping of their own hearts and consciences, as, in smoking jacket and pink negligee, bearing silver candlesticks aloft they crept down the cellar stairs to the secret committals. Nervous? Of course. The "What was that?" of the pink Kate as they made their descent, excited Jack's strained nervous system to a quiver was a real Hogarthian picture: the black cellar for background, the flickering candles revealing in soft light their anxious handsome faces, bent to their repulsive task. Then, with sickening disgust, they cut the strings, unrolled the paper, - and it was a leg of lamb!

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Transcription and commentary copyright 1998 by Martha Nell Smith,
Laura Elyn Lauth, and Lara Vetter, all rights reserved
Maintained by Rebecca Mooney  <rnmooney@umd.edu>
Last updated on January 25, 2008

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