6 September, 2016 by katelaity
‘Mather’s dislike of Vinegar was hard to fathom on the face of it. There were of course always sailors who did not much reckon the friendship of cats, others who found their presence to produce such a quantity of sneezing fits as to render them incapable of doing their duties.
‘The second mate’s dislike, however, had a singular nature. It began with a mild antipathy, such as one might dismiss as mere difference in character. However, old Vinegar seemed to take this feeling as a kind of challenge and hovered around the man at times, as if familiarity might breed greater like. I wouldn’t say she ingratiated herself to him—it’s not really a thing cats do. But she did her best to cajole him into something more friendly.
‘Mathers was not having any of it. His dislike for the cat grew into something uglier. At first it was avoiding her—closing doors before she could enter or deliberately changing his path. Vinegar was no fool. Once she realised he was doing his best to avoid her, she would have little to do with him. After all, many of the sailors were more than happy to lavish their attention on the puss between her nocturnal forays through the hold.
‘I couldn’t say exactly when things changed. A few days out to sea surely. I had been busy with treating an unwholesome virus that had made its way through a number of the crew and incommoded them from duties for a day or two—a leisure they did not welcome, I can assure you. I had isolated the sufferers enough to keep it from spreading further and comforted as much as possible those still in its throes, when I finally had time enough to catch up on the gossip of the ship.
‘I know we like to tut at the ladies for gossip and I am certain they have their share, but there’s nothing like sailors for telling tales on each other, I swear. It was the talk of the idlers, and some who were not so idle, that a kind of war had developed between Vinegar and Mathers.
‘The cat would leave half-chewed pieces of his enemies—snips and snouts and little ratty tails—in Mathers’ bunk. No matter how he slung it up or knotted the blankets around it, sure enough he’d find some unsavoury little bit in the folds. Or worse, wake to discover some mousy morsel resting on his hands and shout to wake the dead. The crew were half amused and half in suspense to know what would happen next.
‘For his part, Mathers would use any opportunity to menace the moggie provided there were no one around to object. Her favourites of course defended her proclivities as a way of bestowing honour on the second mate, something that he ought to accept as he would the prayers of a Hindu or the diet of a Quaker.
‘Mathers did not see things that way. In fact, his own interpretation was much darker. But we had no way of knowing that at first. It ought to have been a hint that he always called poor Vinegar all manner of awful names when he chased her with whatever weapon he might have to hand. Sailors, we all know, have a colourful command of profanity.
‘But Mathers meant it when he called her devil.’
[Thanks to the British Library images cache!]