THE CHERRATON CAT
Townsville Daily Bulletin, 4 August 1936
As Jeff Bagster, out-of-work laborer turned poacher, morosely wove his way out of the cool vaults of Cherraton Woods, he cursed his Ill-luck vehemently. Twenty-six wires set and only two rabbits to show; another night without drink down at the Tun and Fork Arms. He could not understand it. For the third time he had drawn blank, and the woods were alive with rabbits and runs were new and clean, for it was late May.
So it came about, because his wits were sharpened by the mystery of the matter that when he heard the measured and scuffling sound behind the dry-set stone wall which formed the southern-most boundary of the woodlands, be slowed about and ran like something possessed toward that noise. Now he knew the reason for his miserable hauls. He realised in a sudden access of dull anger, what he should have recognised a week before — a cat had been at work in Cherraton Woods.
The scuffling noise beyond the wall could not be caused by anything other than a cat caught in a snare. To a poacher that sound of grim and dour battle with the strangling noose always betrayed the cat. A rabbit would have made spasmodic scutterings, might have shrilled; would most certainly have caused that distinctive 'crack-k-k' to arise from the rubbing of its long back legs on grassy earth; a hare would have bleated or drummed— a cat, only a cat, fights with the calculating and dogged, persistence of a man against death. With every muscle taunted, it fights measuredly, adroitly, intelligently; hence, sometimes successfully, when caught in a noose.
This one, as Bagster saw on leaping the wall, had nearly freed itself. The knot in the wire had prevented it from being strangled, and although its eyes were almost starting from its head, it was grimly scratching a trough by the side of the snare-peg, that piece of hazel-wood which held it bonded to the earth.
Jeff Bagster gasped a little when he saw that cat. He gasped and gulped and faltered in his vengeful stride. He had never seen a beast like this before. It was a gaunt grey Tom, with a head which had the wide flat arch of a mild domestic pet allied to the lean and sinister, gurnard-boned muzzle of the wild cat. Its bristle tail was like a flue brush of sepia and silver-grey hair and quivering muscles rippled madly down its two feet six inches length of spine, as wind under pegged-down canvas. The oddness of the build of the cat was quite sufficient to halt a man at gaze, but there was something more.
Bagster gasped again and swore softly to the sudden silence that had come since the trapped beast had ceased from struggling. The “blooming thing was like a breath o’ Hell,” he told himself. Yes, that was it, a heavy and nauseating odour came up from it — a musky breath, as of old leather-bound books decaying in a wet attic . . . “like rotten parsnips on a muck heap,” was Bagster's cruder, but possibly apter, simile. It was not an acid, ammoniac or foetid smell, not a cat stench— it was something slow and penetrating and sickly-sweet-sour and horrible; something that Bagster had not known.
He regained composure — “Y' daman’ thing,” he apostrophised the repulsive beast that was watching him so balefully out of jasper eyes. “Tha't a-gettin' t'rabbuds, hasta-a? Weel— that's goin' t’ get summat else nah; tha's going’ t' get y'neck thrawn, sitha! That for ye— ye fahl beast ye! I'll gie thee nobble t'rabbuds!'' Then he was puzzled. He dared not use the folding 28-bore gun that lay so snugly within his flapping coat— that noise would alarm. He dared not to strike at the cat with a stick, nor a stone, nor yet to kick at it. He knew, from a long poaching experience of too many supremely convulsive leaps — away from such obvious deaths — on the part of trapped cats; releasing both cat and snarepeg as well; go to free a destined quarry. No, there was only one way to deal with that cat; he'd have to go behind it and grab it by the scruff of the neck, and . . . well, he'd see to further details in the grim business, once having the beast impotent In his grasp. So, he dived for the loose nape of its thick and bristling neck . . . and missed!
A. searing pain burst and leapt about his hand as teeth and claws sank into it like molten metal into butter. He yelled in agony and felt the hot saliva of the maddened thing stinging like acid on the new wounds. Then the great cat twisted —once— twice . . . snapped the long fretted brass wire of the snare, and was free. Free— and it did not run for the dim green safety of the woods, it stopped there, in the primrose radiance of the sunny field of young wheat— turned about; dropped belly low to earth, crouched, snarled, spat . . . and tensed itself to spring on the horrified human whom, already, it had mastered! For one wild moment Jeff Bagster had the rotting parsnip smell of the hideous thing in his nostrils; for one mad space in time he swayed with dizzy horror and blinding pain — he clearly saw the maroon patches about the fanged and hissing mouth of the beast and knew that he looked at the stainings of his own blood — then- he sobbed and turned and ran.
Reckless of the young wheat, regardless alike of farmer, hind and keepers, he blundered across the uneven field, moaning with fear and crying futile little words of prayer and profanity— ran down the hillside to the road by the river which cut the valley atwain, two hundred feet below. And the great cat went after him like a tiger!
It savaged him three times before he gained that road. It tore his left leg; clambered to his shoulders and bit at the back of his neck — clawed an ear almost to ribbons, for all that he had fought it as he would a demon. He crashed through the hedge into the sunken road and lay there, bleeding and excoriated by teeth and claw and briar, sweating, foaming; blinded by an orange glow of blood-mad fear— to all seeming, demented . . . And the gaunt grey incubus that was the cat slipped like a horrible shadow away. At 11 o'clock that same night, only seven hours after the strange affray, Jeff Bagster died. A bellowing, raving thing of agony and twisting limbs, lost to all semblance of man, he died— and— he went green-black about the horror that had been his face, when he was dead.
At 1 o'clock in the morning Sir Lionel Cowperthwaite— that famous specialist of international renown, who lived in studious retirement at Cherraton Grange— was sent for by the village medico to see the terrible corpse that so recently had been Bagster. Sir Lionel took one glimpse at its awful mask; looked once into the eyes of the clammily fearful Doctor Redshaw; called brokenly on his God— and lumbered out of the cottage doorway into the moonlit street as would a very drunken man.
It was the astounded talk of the village, some hours later in that already born day of mystery, that the baronet was observed by at least three keepers to be prowling about Cherraton wood from soon after leaving Bagster's cottage to broad dawn. One who had watched his movements carefully stated that he carried an automatic pistol in his hand, and, as he scoured the undergrowth from tree to tree he was choking out a monotonous and despairing sound which was suspiciously akin to dry and tearless sobbing ; he muttered, brokenly and savagely the while.
What had he said? Had the keeper, by any chance, heard what he said? , . . Oh, yes, the keeper had: “That cat— that hellish thing to come upon the world ... O God! . . . forgive me — that, cat!” Those were some of the wild phrases that great physician, Sir Lionel Cowperthwaite, had given to the moon-flushed silence of the wood of Cherraton, as might an imbecile have muttered. No one could understand ....
The post mortem on Jeff Bagster, conducted in his cottage up on the moor's edge, was a fearful and guarded affair. Six doctors came to attend it and all were keen, elderly and “substantial-looking” men drawn from London. When it all was over there was a conference between them, at the Grange, with Sir Lionel and Doctor Redshaw added to their number.
The simple verdict which followed on the simpler inquest — that of “death from misadventure”— gave rise to a profound distrust in the collective mind of a suddenly and ominously silent village. For by this it was common knowledge that the police and the coroner had summoned the County Health Officer to attend—the six doctors had spent an hour or so in sending coded telegrams half over England — and an ambulance from the isolation hospital, fifteen miles away, waited outside the police station for orders.
Something tremendous in its secrecy was afoot, opined the villagers of Cherraton. They were right! Events moved with baffling; rapidity no sooner was the verdict given.
A special train arrived at the light railway station and from it was removed a coffin. This, a heavy leaden shell (the stationmaster, awed, told that) was taken to the cottage that was Bagster's. The remains were placed in it— the cottage sealed and guarded by the police.
A hurried summons from the parish clerk— a flying to and fro of hired cars, and, before the afternoon was spent a secret meeting of the parish council had been held .... with strange results. The crowd saw a few white-faced, silent councillors emerge from the village institute; saw them shake hands solemnly with the imported medicos; saw them leave for their homes looking like men already doomed to death themselves . . . Then, within the hour, the lead-encased thing that had been Bagster was taken from the cottage and pushed aboard the waiting train.
Six silent doctors entered that special — and, away it went. This was all the village ever knew of Bagster's resting place!
Mrs. Wooton, the old woman who had attended on the poacher's last pitiful needs, was taken from the village in the motor ambulance. Her destination was the Isolation hospital—her cottage, adjoining that of Bagster's, was closed.
And, strangely enough, those two isolated cottages up on the moor's fringe caught fire that selt-same night, and, stranger still, for the first time in Its long history the village was not served in its emergency by the local fire brigades. Call after frenzied call was sent . . . never an engine arrived!
Both cottages were ashes to their foundations within two hours. Then came a fear on Cherraton.
That all took place on the Friday. On Saturday morning the Earl of Marletonways, High Sheriff of the county, paid a visit to Sir Lionel at the Grange. The inspector of Cherraton police, the Health Officer, and most of the Guardians and Council attended a meeting held at that place behind locked and guarded doors. The Earl went away—the villagers were more fearful still; they had seen his face as he passed by.
On Monday Lord Cherraton, the squire, unexpectedly returned from abroad and gave out that he would be in residence at the Hall for an indefinite period throughout the summer. The return, although a source of satisfaction to village tradesmen and an army of “outside” domestics, was a thing of mystery. More mysterious still was the amazing episode that followed!
All the day long, gamekeepers, hinds, laborers and even poachers, most of them known in Cherraton as being tenants or servants of surrounding great estates— poured into Cherraton to find lodgings in the village. Then, on the evening train a company of soldiers, nearly a hundred strong, arrived! They formed up and marched their way to the Hall, to find, in its huge outbuildings, billets already prepared for them!
Cherraton seethed; Cherraton gasped; Cherraton chattered and argued and swore— until a gamekeeper, one of the recent arrivals gave a secret while in his cups down at the Tun and Fork Inn: “What are we 'ere for? Y’ need ask! We've gotten a 'undred pound job on 'and, me boy! Think on it— a 'undred blinkin' quid! An' all we've gotten to do t'earn all that brass - is t’ cop a big grey cat! Money for nowt lads — sup up!”
All Cherraton knew on Tuesday morning. That gaunt grey cat had to be caugh.t A hundred pounds was the reward for its body. Over all the vast Cherraton estate rights of privacy were to be waived. No action for trespass would be taken against anyone who, legitimately, was out to kill that cat. All damage would be made good to tenant farmers by Lord Cherraton's steward ... the soldiers would take to beating coverts the next day. Every one capable of handling a gun was invited to join in the long line of gamekeepers, who were to move back with that beating line .... the village turned out to a man!
Only one proviso was made; only one warning given .... under no circumstances had anyone to touch that cat alive or dead! What plan would be made for the removal of its carcass would be made by the police and the Medical Officer of Health, at the proper time.
All of which strangely mediaeval procedure alarmed and intrigued those wariest of mortals— pressmen. In a body they descended on Cherraton, eager and athirst for details. The villagers supplied them; the reporters reported— ecstatically, for this was a story of stories! Yet, not one line of all their effusions was published! On the contrary summary recalls were received by each of them. And, in several newspaper offices a few hours later those chagrined men sought interviews with their respective news editors .... What they learned was sufficient to send them, white-faced and shaking, away— hoping that they would never hear the name of Cherraton again - imbued by a horror of cats — wondering if it was soon to come about that the proud march of civilisation was to revert to where it was in the dim and unenlightened years of the sixteenth century. And because it dealth with human fools; because those blind humans beat the ground, forgetting that the cat that is wild takes to the topmost turrets of the trees .... the grinning, basilisk-eyed horror that was the Cherraton cat, went free.
On the Friday following Jeff Bagster's death, the blackened body of a little child, one Evelyn Holmes, was discovered lying by the river side. In her pitiful grasp she held a few wilted wild flowers and down her little face ran a green-edge scar —that of a cat's scratch. The half eaten remains of a two-pound chubb lay in the river reeds before her and in the compost of silver sand and mud between the reeds and the water's edge were the imprints of the paws of the Cherraton cat.
The story was simply told— the little girl picking for her posy, had disturbed the awful beast when it was eating the fish it had clawed out of the shallows ... she had died within a few moments, even as Bagster had died
They say that this, the second death, was the cause of Sir Lionel Cowperthwaite's madness .... but, knowing everything, was he so very mad, after all? For this is what took' place:
When the moon was low down across the water, the baronet walked his slow, set way along the river bank on which Evelyn's Holmes's body had been found.
So the beast— he pondered— had been forced to an existence which meant its contact with water? He knew cats — once having tasted fish (as a tiger with human flesh) it would not eat anything else ... so as he walked, he acted strangely.
To the right and to the left of him, along the riverside pathway, he flung tiny sponges, impregnated by some powerful and loathly scent. Beneath the instep of his boots, two other — bigger— sponges were tied. Where he walked was one long line of bitter stench ... the cat came after it.
There In the yellow moon glow, gambolling like a kitten, snarling with strange, sensuous pleasure, arching its back, bounding off the ground by impulse of some wildly exhilarating ecstacy— the great and sinister form of the Cherraton cat went after Sir Lionel Cowperthwaite.
When it found a little sponge it rolled on it and snuggled it between paws and muzzle, and, when it did so, it cried tinily to itself, as would a baby ... for always the mingled scents of the strangely voluptuous essence and that of human prey receded from it. It must follow all its aroused instinctive reason told it — it must follow ... it followed.
Sir Lionel waited for its oncoming by the deepest green-black shadow of an alder. He shivered a little as he saw its eyes gleaming acid green in the long, low violet glow from off the moonlit waters and the dewing grass. And he muttered in his throat a prayer for strength as he glimpsed its huge and sinuous body gliding across the path, beaten hard by the river bank.
It was on him: it touched him . . . and it nestled like a kitten about his redolent boots, purring!
Very cautiously, crooning to it the while, he lowered his hands and took it by its sinewy throat . . .
The Minister faced the Earl of Marltonways across the solemn grandeur of that chamber set high above the clamor of Whitehall.
“So you think the danger is past?” he smoothly questioned.
“I'm certain,” answered Marltonways, “absolutely certain that it is —thank God!”
“Amen to that,” said the Minister.
It was a strange story to which he had been listening. He was satisfied now that he had been right in acting so swiftly when those first dread advices from Cherraton so agitated his department. He knew that an awful peril had been averted, and was glad.
“To think of it,” he had murmured to Marltonways a few moments earlier, “in this enlightened twentieth century of ours; what a cataclysmic blow it would have dealt .... to think of it.”
Sir Lionel Cowperthwaite had formed a startling theory while engaged in research work 15 years previously. Recognising that one of the oldest scourges of mankind— the bubonic plague— had died out with the extinction of the old English black rat he began to think of cats in relation to a (comparatively speaking) more modern horror: the Black Death, which ravaged the shires in mediaeval times.
From certain fragments of bone, discovered in museums; from partially mummified remains taken from Irish bogs; from old descriptions, prints and drawings, Cowperthwalte was brought to the point of realising that the cat of mediaeval days was a kind of physical halt between the huge and sinister beast which was worshipped as a god in ancient Egypt and in Crote, and the fine boned, pleasantly domestic bundle of fur and purring ways that modern households know. He further recognised that, with the advent of the modern type of cat, the old wild cat of England automatically died out . . . there was a distinct connection in the two sets of circumstances.
He set to work! It took him ten of those fifteen years of research —but— be resurrected, by a system of carefully regulated back-breeding, the mediaeval cat— the Cherraton cat.
Having obtained the specimens, he inoculated it with filter-passing organisms giving rise to the comparatively innocuous modem “plague”. . . within the Cherraton cat's great frame those millions of seeds of death were advanced to a potent maturity and— the Black Death was reborn on earth.
Then the horror of a cat escaped and took to the woods “carrier” of the most dreadful disease of ancient times!
Jeff Bagster and Evelyn Holmes both died of the Black Death after having been bitten by the beast. Sir Lionel Cowpurthwaite himself— died of the Black Death.
Remembering the partiality of the feline species for that madly intoxicating drug, valerian, Sir Lionel had soaked his sponges in the essence and had gone out to his doom, and to draw the cat also to death.
“Such a pity that Cowperthwaite died, the way he did,” Marltonways sighed, “such, a brain— such a brain! A grave loss to humanity, sir! But he was a brave man and squared his account.”