“The Cat of the Stars” by Sinclair Lewis

A sarsaparilla-colored kitten sets off a chain of events that leads to a drastic conclusion.

by Arthur Rackham

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The fatalities have been 2,391, to date, with more reported in every cable from San Coloquin, but it is not yet decided whether the ultimate blame is due to the conductor of Car 22, to Mrs. Simmy Dolson’s bland selfishness, or to the fact that Willis Stodeport patted a sarsaparilla-colored kitten with milky eyes.

It was a hypocritical patting. Willis had been playing pumpum-pullaway all afternoon, hence was hungry, and desirous of winning favor with his mother by his nice attitude toward our dumb friends. Willis didn’t actually care for being nice to the dumb friend. What he wanted was cookies. So slight was his esteem for the kitten — whose name was Adolphus Josephus Mudface — that afterward he took it out to the kitchen and tried to see if it would drown under the tap of the sink.

Yet such is the strange and delicate balance of nature, with the lightest tremor in the dream of a terrestrial baby affecting the course of suns ten million light-years away, that the patting of Adolphus Josephus Mudface has started a vicious series of events that will be felt forever in star beyond mounting star. The death of exiled Napoleon made a few old men stop to scratch their heads and dream. The fall of Carthage gave cheap bricks to builders of mud huts. But the false deed of Willis Stodeport has changed history.

Mrs. Simmy Dolson was making an afternoon call upon the mother of this portentous but tow-headed Willis, who resides upon Scrimmins Street, in the Middle-Western city of Vernon. The two matrons had discussed the price of butter, the iniquities of the fluffy-headed new teacher in Public School 17, and the idiocy of these new theories about bringing up young ones. Mrs. Dolson was keeping an ear on the car line, for the Oakdale cars run only once in eighteen minutes, and if she missed the next one she would be too late to prepare supper. Just as she heard it coming, and seized her hat, she saw young Willis edge into the room and stoop to pat the somnolent Adolphus Josephus Mudface.

With a hatpin half inserted Mrs. Dolson crooned, “My, what a dear boy! Now isn’t that sweet!”

Willis’ mother forgot that she had intended to have words with her offspring in the matter of the missing knob on the flour bin. She beamed, and to Willis she gurgled, “Do you like the kittie, dearie?”

“Yes, I love our kittie; can I have a cookie?” young Machiavelli hastened to get in; and Aldebaran, the crimson star, throbbed with premonition.

“Now isn’t that sweet!” Mrs. Dolson repeated — then remembered her car and galloped away.

She had been so delayed by the admiration of daily deeds of kindness that when she reached the corner the Oakdale car was just passing. It was crowded with tired business men in a fret to get home to the outskirts of Vernon, but Mrs. Simmy Dolson was one of those plump, amiably selfish souls who would keep a whole city waiting while she bought canary seed. She waved at the car and made deceptive motions of frantic running.

The conductor of the car, which was Number 22, was a kind-hearted family man, and he rang for a stop halfway down the block. Despite the growling of the seventy passengers he held the car till Mrs. Dolson had wheezed aboard, which made them two minutes late. That was just enough to cause them to miss the switch at Seven Corners; and they had to wait while three other cars took the switch before them.

By that time Car 22 was three and three-quarter minutes late.

Mr. Andrew Discopolos, the popular proprietor of the Dandy Barber Shop, was the next step in the tragedy. Mr. Discopolos was waiting for this same Oakdale car. He had promised his wife to go home to supper, but in his bacchanalian soul he desired to sneak down to Barney’s for an evening of poker. He waited one minute, and was tremendously moral and determined to eschew gambling. He waited for two minutes, and began to see what a martyr he was. There would never be another Oakdale car. He would have to walk home. His wife expected too darn much of him, anyway! He waited for three minutes, and in rose tints and soft gold he remembered the joys of playing poker at Barney’s.

Seven seconds before the delayed Oakdale car turned the corner Mr. Discopolos gave up the struggle, and with outer decorum and inner excitement he rushed up an alley, headed for Barney’s. He stopped at the Southern Café for a Denver sandwich and cuppacoffee. He shook for the cigars at the Smoke House, and won three-for’s, which indicated to him how right he had been in not going home. He reached Barney’s at seven-thirty. He did not leave Barney’s till one-thirty in the morning, and when he did leave he was uncertain of direction, but very vigorous of motion, due to his having celebrated the winning of four dollars by buying a quart of rye.

Under a dusty and discouraged autumn moon Mr. Discopolos weaved home. Willis Stodeport and Mrs. Simmy Dolson and the conductor of Car 22 were asleep now; even the disreputable Adolphus Josephus Mudface had, after a charming fight behind the Smiths’ garbage can, retired to innocent slumbers on the soft folds of the floor mop, in the corner of the back porch where he was least likely to be disturbed by mice. Only Mr. Discopolos was awake, but he was bearing on the torch of evil destiny; and on one of the planets of the sun that is called Procyon there were floods and earthquakes.

Paimer McGee was one of Vernon’s most promising young men: and his club-grill manners were as accurate as his knowledge of traffic routing

When Mr. Discopolos awoke in the morning his eyes were filmy and stinging. Before he went to his shop he had three fingers of pick-me-up, which so exhilarated him that he stood on the corner, swaying and beaming. Normally he had pride in his technic as a barber, but now all his more delicate artistry was gone in a roving desire for adventure. With a professional eye he noted the haircut of a tough young man loafing in front of the drug store. It was a high haircut, leaving the neck and the back of the head bald clear up to the crown. “Be a joke on some fellow to cut his hair that way!” giggled Mr. Discopolos.

It was the first time in a year that he had needed, or taken, a drink before afternoon. Chuckling fate sent to him the next torchbearer, Mr. Palmer McGee.

Palmer McGee was one of Vernon’s most promising young men. He lived at the University Club; he had two suits of evening clothes; and he was assistant to the president of the M & DRR He was a technical-school graduate and a Spanish scholar, as well as a business system expert; and his club-grill manners were as accurate as his knowledge of traffic routing.

Today was his hour of greatness. He had, as the result of long correspondence, this morning received a telegram inviting him to come to New York to see the president and directors of the Citrus and Southern Steamship Company about the position of Buenos Aires manager for the company. He had packed in 10 minutes. But he had an hour before his train, with the station only 20 minutes away by trolley. Instead of taking a taxi he exuberantly walked from the club to Selden Street to catch a car.

One door from the corner he beheld the barber shop of Mr. Discopolos, which reminded him that he needed a haircut. He might not have time to get one in New York before he saw the steamship directors. The shop was bright, and Mr. Discopolos, by the window in a white jacket, was clean and jolly.

Palmer McGee popped into the shop and caroled “Haircut; medium.” Magnetized by Mr. Discopolos’ long light fingers he closed his eyes and dreamed of his future.

About the middle of the haircut the morning’s morning of Mr. Discopolos rose up and jostled him and dimmed his eyes, with the result that he cut too deep a swath of hair across the back of Mr. McGee’s sleek head. Mr. Discopolos sighed, and peeped at the victim to see if he was aware of the damage. But Mr. McGee was sitting with eyes tight, lips apart, already a lord of ocean traffic, giving orders to Singhalese planters and to traders in the silent northern pines.

Mr. Discopolos remembered the high-shaved neck of the corner loafer, and imitated that model. He ruthlessly concealed the too-deep slash by almost denuding the back of Mr. McGee’s head. That erstwhile polite neck stood out as bare as an ostrich.

Being an artist, Mr. Discopolos had to keep the symmetry — the rhythm — correct, so he balanced the back by also removing too much hair from in front — from above Mr. McGee’s Yalensian ears.

When the experiment was complete Mr. McGee looked like a bald young man with a small wig riding atop his head. He looked like a wren’s nest on top of a clothes pole. He looked painstakingly and scientifically skinned. At least it was thus that he saw himself in the barber’s mirror when he opened his eyes.

He called on a number of deities; he said he wanted to assassinate Mr. Discopolos. But he hadn’t time for this work of mercy. He had to catch his train. He took his maltreated head into a taxi, feeling shamefully that the taxi driver was snickering at his haircut.

Left behind, untipped and much berated, Mr. Discopolos grumbled, “I did take off a little too much; but rats, he’ll be all right in couple of weeks. What’s couple of weeks? Believe I’ll go get a drink.”

Thus, as ignorant as they of taking any part in a progressive tragedy, Mr. Discopolos joined Willis Stodeport, Adolphus Josephus, Mrs. Dolson and the too-generous conductor of Car 22, in the darkness of unimportance, while Palmer McGee was on the Pullman — and extremely wretched.

He fancied that everyone from the porter to the silken girl across the aisle was snickering at his eccentric coiffure. To Mr. McGee queerness of collar or hair or slang was more wicked than murder. He had rigidly trained himself to standards in everything. There were, for example, only three brands of whisky on which a gentleman could decently get edged. He was the most dependable young man in the general offices of the M & DRR, and before that he had been so correctly pleasant to the right fellows and so correctly aloof with the wrong fellows, so agreeably pipe-smoking and laudatory of athletics that he had made both junior and senior societies at Yale. He had had no experience to teach him to bear up under this utter disgrace of a variation from the standard of haircutting.

As the train relentlessly bore him on toward New York he now and then accumulated courage to believe that his haircut couldn’t be so bad as he knew it was. He would stroll with noble casualness into the smoking compartment, and the instant it was free of other passengers he would dart at the mirror. Each time he made the same quaking discovery that he was even more ridiculous than he remembered.

By day, trying to read or scan the scenery or impress fellow smokers; by night, folded in his swaying berth — he could think of nothing else. He read only one paragraph of the weighty book which all persons carry on all Pullmans in the hope that they will be forced to finish it because they have nothing else to read. He grew more and more sensitive. Every time he heard a laugh he was sure that it was directed at him; and because he so uncomfortably looked away from the absent-minded gaze of fellow passengers he made them gaze the harder.

The beautiful self-confidence which had always concealed Mr. McGee’s slight defects from himself and had helped him to rise to the position of assistant to the railway president was torn away, and he began to doubt himself, began to feel that others must doubt him. When he finally crept up the cement incline in the New York station, after a writhing glance at the redcaps, to see if New Yorkers would notice his ludicrousness as much as people had on the way through — he wondered if he could not return to Vernon and wire the steamship directors that he was ill.

He was not exaggerating about the importance of this trip to New York. The directors of the Citrus and Southern Line really were waiting for him. They needed him.

It is a curious fact of psychological economics that there are almost as many large employers waiting and praying for the chance to pay tens of thousands a year to dependable young men as there are dependable young men waiting and praying for the chance to earn a thousand a year. The president of the Citrus and Southern, the pouchy blob-nosed dean of South American and West Indian shipping, had been in the hospital for six months, after Peritonitis. From his bed he had vaguely directed the policies of the company. Things had run well enough, with the old clerks working mechanically. But a crisis had come. The company had either to expand or break.

The Green Feather Line, weary of litigation, wanted to sell all its ships to the Citrus and Southern, which if it bought them might double its business. If some other company bought them and vigorously increased competition the Citrus and Southern might be ruined.

The Citrus and Southern held a five months’ option. By the end of that period they hoped to have found the man who could connect the sick president’s brain with the general office’s body — and they believed that in Palmer McGee they had found that man.

McGee did not know how carefully he had been watched. He had never met one of the directors or officers of the Citrus and Southern, had never seen one of them, and their correspondence had been polite but not exciting. But the two suave gentlemen who had been poking about Vernon lately had been commercial secret agents of the Titanic Rating and Credit Company; and they knew all about McGee, from the number of drinks he had at the club to the amount of his bank account and his manner of listening to the stories of the chief shippers of the M & DRR.

The Citrus and Southern chiefs were certain that they had found their man. McGee was to be sent to Buenos Aires, but only on test. If he was as good as they thought, he would in three months be brought back as vice president, at a salary nearly four times as large as the one he had received in Vernon. In this crisis they had the generosity of despair.

They were to meet McGee in the president’s suite at the hospital at four-thirty; and the train got in at three-fifteen.

McGee went to a hotel, and sat still, scared, looking at himself in a dressing table mirror. He became momently more rustic, more tough, more skinned and awkward in his own eyes.

He called up the hospital, got the president. “Th-this is McGee. I — I’m coming right over,” he quavered.

“Huh! That fellow sounds kind of light-waisted. Not much self-confidence,” complained the president to his old friend, the chairman of the board of directors. “Here, prop me up, Billy. We must give him a thorough look-over. Can’t take any chances.”

The note of doubt was a germ which instantly infected the chairman. “That’s too bad. The Rating and Credit people reported he was a find. But still — of course — ”

When Palmer McGee faced the president, the first vice president and a committee of four directors, three of the six had already turned from welcoming eagerness to stilly doubt. He felt that doubt. But he interpreted it thus:

“They think I’m a complete boob to have a haircut like this. Think I don’t know any better. And I can’t explain. Mustn’t admit that I know there’s anything wrong — mustn’t admit I was an easy mark and let a drunken barber carve me up.”

He was so busy with these corroding reflections that he did not quite catch the sharp question which the president fired at him:

“McGee, what’s your opinion of the future of the competition between Australian wheat and the Argentine crop?”

“I — I — I didn’t quite understand you, sir,” lamented poor McGee, victim of the cat of the trembling stars.

The president thought to himself: “If he can’t get as dead simple a question as that — wonder if the first vice president wouldn’t do, after all? No. Too oldfogyish.”

While he meditated he was repeating the query, without much interest; and without interest he heard McGee’s thorough but shaky answer.

And McGee forgot to put in his unusual information about the future of New Zealand grain.

Two hours later the president and directors decided that McGee “wouldn’t quite do”; which meant that he wouldn’t do at all; and they wearily began to talk of other candidates for the position. None of the others were satisfactory.

Four months later they decided that they would have to go slow; wait for the president to recover. They could find no one adaptable enough to coordinate the president and the working management. So they gave up their option on the steamers of the Green Feather Line.

The best of the jest was that Palmer McGee had looked rather well in his flippant haircut. Because the Chapel Street barber had started cutting his hair a certain length when he had been a Freshman in Yale he had kept up that mode, which was respectable but dull. But the semi-shave had brought out his energetic neck muscles. Never had he looked so taut and trim. Though dozens of people between the Vernon barber shop and the New York hospital had noticed his uneasiness none of them had considered his coiffure queer — they had merely wondered whether he was an embezzler or a forger.

McGee returned to Vernon broken, and General Coreos y Dulce, ex-president of the Central American republic of San Coloquin, entered the train of victims of Willis Stodeport, of Scrimmins Street.

The general had colonized Ynez Island, lying off the coast of San Coloquin. Fields of cane and coffee he had created, and he was happily expropriating 2,000 melodious natives. The general was a merry and easy ruler. When he had accepted the presidency of San Coloquin, after certain military misunderstandings, he hadn’t even executed anybody — except a cousin or two, merely for politeness’ sake.

His colony on Ynez Island was served by the steamers of the Green Feather Line. The business was not yet sufficient to warrant a regular stop, but General Dulce had a private agreement with the manager of the Green Feather, as well as one with the sick president of the Citrus and Southern, which latter agreement was to take effect if the company took over the Green Feather boats.

But when the Citrus and Southern gave up their option the Green Feather fleet was bought, not by another Atlantic line, but by a Seattle firm, for their Alaskan and Siberian trade. Consequently the general had to depend for service on a tin-can line which ran out of San Coloquin.

The owner of that line hated the general; had hated him when the general had been president, and had added to that hate with every meditative gin rickey he had sipped in the long years since. The general’s fruit spoiled aboard the creaky old steamers; it was always too late to catch the boat north. His coffee was drenched, and his sugar short weight. When the general desperately bought a freighter of his own it was mysteriously burned.

Poverty and failure closed in on Ynez Island. The colonists hadn’t enough to eat. When the influenza reached the island the weakened natives died in hordes. Some of them fled to the mainland, carrying the disease. The number of fatalities that would probably have been prevented by comfort and proper food and a supply of drugs has been estimated by Dr. Prof. Sir Henry Henson Sturgis at 3,290. One of the last to die was the broken-hearted general.

Before he died the wheel of fate had turned past him and stopped at a certain European monarch. The general had in all his colonizing and his financial schemes been merely the secret agent of that monarch. The king was uncomfortable on his throne. It rocked and squeaked and threatened to give way at the seat. It was kept together only by many fees for repairs — jolly gifts to the duke who hypocritically led the opposition party, to a foreign agent, to certain clerics and editors and professors, even to the ostensible leader of the left wing of the radical party.

Five years before Willis Stodeport had patted Adolphus Josephus Mudface, the king had realized that he was in danger of using up all his private estate. He had speculated. He had called General Coreos y Dulce from Central America; and it was royalty’s own money that had developed the colonization of Ynez Island.

It had been impossible for the king to keep in touch with the details of the colonization. Had he learned of the loss of the Green Feather service he might have raised funds for the purchase of the whole fleet when the Citrus and Southern gave up the option. But the proud, dogged general, with his sky-climbing mustachios and his belief that one Castilian was cleverer than four Andalusians or eight gringos, had been certain that he could pull through without help from the royal master.

It was not till the approach of death that he sent the coded cablegram which informed the king that he could expect no income from Ynez Island. Then the monarch knew that he could not keep his promises to certain peers and ministers; that his wordiest supporters would join the republican movement; that the gold-crusted but shaky-legged throne would at any moment be kicked out from beneath him by rude persons in mechanics’ boots.

So it came to pass that at a certain hour the farthest stars quivered with mystic forces from the far-off fleck of dust called Earth, forces which would, just for a sketchy beginning, change all the boundaries and customs of Southern Europe. The king had at that hour desperately called in the two ministers and the one foreign emissary whom he trusted, and with that famous weak smile had murmured: “Gentlemen, it is the end. Shall I flee or — or — You remember they didn’t give my cousin the funeral even of a private gentleman.”

At that hour, in a hovel in the Jamaica negro quarter of the capital of San Coloquin, General Coreos y Dulce, friend of composers and masters of science, was dying of nothing at all but sick hope and coldly creeping fear, and a belief that he had pneumonia.

A thousand and more miles away the president of the Citrus and Southern Steamship Company was writing his resignation. His old friend, the chairman of the board of directors, again begged: “But this means the ruin of the company, Ben. We can’t go on without you.”

“I know, Billy,” the president sighed, “but I’m all in. If we could have found someone to carry out my ideas I could have pulled through — and the company could have. Shame we were fooled about that McGee fellow. If we hadn’t wasted so much time looking him over we might have had time to find the right man, and he’d have taken enough worry off my shoulders so that — well, I’ll about pass out in three months, I reckon, old man. Let’s have one more go at pinochle. I have a hunch I’m going to get double pinochle.”

About half an hour after that, and half a continent away, Palmer McGee left the home of the president of the M & DRR. He walked as one dreaming. The railroad president had said: “I don’t know what the trouble is, my boy, but you haven’t been worth a hang for quite a while now. And you’re drinking too much. Better go off some place and get hold of yourself.”

McGee crawled to the nearest telegraph office that was open, and sent a wire to the Buffalo & Bangor, accepting their offer in the purchasing department. The salary was not less than the one he had been receiving, but there was little future. Afterward he had a cocktail, the fourth that evening.

It cannot be authoritatively determined whether it was that evening or the one before that a barber named Discopolos first actually struck his wife, and she observed, “All right. I’ll leave you.” The neighbors say that though this was the first time he had mauled her, things had been going badly with them for many months. One of them asserts that the trouble started on an evening when Discopolos had promised to come home to supper, but had not shown up till one-thirty in the morning. It seems that, though he had forgotten it, this had been her birthday, and she, poor mouse, had prepared a gay little feast for them.

But it is certainly known that at the same hour on the same evening there was much peace and much study of the newspaper comics in the house of the Stodeports on Scrimmins Street.

Willis stooped to pull the tail of Adolphus Josephus Mudface, now a half-grown cat. Mrs. Stodeport complained: “Now, Willie, do let that cat alone! He might scratch you, and you’ll get fleas and things. No telling what all might happen if you go patting and fooling with — ”

Mr. Stodeport yawningly interrupted: “Oh, let the child alone! Way you go on, might think something dreadful would happen, just because he strokes a cat. I suppose probably he might get one of these germs, and spread it, and before he got through with it, maybe be the cause of two, three people taking sick! Ha, ha, ha! Or maybe he might make somebody rob a bank or something just awful! Ha, ha, ha! You better hold in your imagination, mamma! Well — ”

Mr. Stodeport yawned, and put the cat out, and yawned, and wound the clock, and yawned, and went up to bed, still chuckling over his fancy about Willis having a mysterious effect on persons five or six blocks away.

At exactly that moment in a medieval castle about four thousand miles from Willis Stodeport the king of an ancient nation sighed to the Right Honorable the Earl of Arden, KCB, special and secret emissary of the British throne: “Yes, it is the twilight of the gods. I take some little pride in saying that even in my downfall I can see clearly the mysteries of fate. I know definitely that my misfortune is a link in a chain of events that impressively started with — ”

“ — with the loss of thousands of lives and millions of pounds, in San Coloquin,” mused Lord Arden.

“No! No! No! Nothing so earthly and petty. I have long been a student of astrology. My astrologer and I have determined that this evil chance of myself and my poor people is but the last act in a cosmic tragedy that started with an esoteric change in the magnetism of Azimech, the cold and virgin star. At least it is comforting to know that my sorrows originated in nothing trivial, but have been willed by the brooding stars in the farthest abysses of eternal night, and that — ”

“Um. Oh, yes. Yes, I see,” said the Earl of Arden.


Cat page
Read “The Cat of the Stars” by Sinclair Lewis. Published April 19, 1919 in the Post.

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