PURR-spectives II "The Plague Cat"
by Bev F.


NOTE: I must beg your forgiveness for the tone of the following episode. Bandit has become quite full of his own importance, and I shudder to think what he may be like by the end of the fourth segment of his story. He is a cat, after all, and cats are quite prone to this type of thing, so I am begging for your indulgence.


"Bandit, are you singing?"

Singing? I was perched on the railing, my claws extended and buried in the wood as the Indefatigable has a very bad habit of moving up and down and side to side which she can't seem to break herself of, and I did not fancy a swim, no, I did not. But singing? The moon was full, and being a full-blooded tom, I was - well, I was caterwauling.

"I must say, Bandit, I find your vocal efforts much more pleasing to my ear than that caterwauling from the men below." Mr. H. was keeping me company up on deck, a book in his hand, though the light was devilish bad for reading.

That stopped me in mid-howl, I can tell you! Back at the Lamb, I was most likely to have a boot or two thrown at me when I serenaded my dockyard beauties; once, in fact, I was made to endure the indignity of having a full chamber pot dumped all over my lovely brown coat. I was not quick enough to spy the room from which this deadly missile came; otherwise, the occupant would have found me busily engaged in my rather distasteful ablutions in the middle of his bed!

But singing? Mr. H, I must call Dr. Hepplewhite at once, for you appear to be suffering from some dreadful malady of the ear.

"Mr. Bracegirdle tells me the men are afraid and would rather sing than weep."

Oh, Mr. Bracegirdle has told you that, has he? Hornblower, Bracegirdle - where do you navy chaps come up with these names? But I rather liked Mr. Bracegirdle; a pleasant fellow all round, and very eager to save me rather elegant scraps from the Captain's table; which is more than I can say for you, Mr. H! Though I must admit, lately the scraps have been less and less bountiful.

"And they are afraid because they have to endure half-rations. Though that would not apply to you, Bandit. Your rations have not been cut."

Oh, Mr. H ! My situation is much worse than the crew's! My rations have not been bloody well cut in half, my rations have disappeared!

"I see as many rats down in the bilges as ever. You had best beware, Bandit, lest the captain charges you with failure to do your duty! "

Rats? Duty? Damn and blast,sir! I refer to the feline species, sir! The female feline species! Of which I have had no rations at all since falling overboard into that bloody boat! And that bitter thought set me howling once again.

A light breeze had sprung up, and a slip of paper sailed out of the book Mr. H. was holding. I would have chased after it for him, though I am no dog, and am not certain in my own mind whether I would have returned it, or playfully shredded it with my claws. However, as luck would have it, that Captain Pellew came along just then and stopped it , just as Mr. H. was crawling abjectly along the deck. Really! The fellow must have a little more pride in himself than that!

"Trying to find a quiet place to study, Mr. Hornblower."

"Yes, sir!"

"Well, I do not believe this is it. That cat's howling is beyond belief! I request and require him to cease this moment!"

"Sir, I - I believe he is only singing, because of the half-rations."

"Singing?" Captain Pellew looked at Mr. H. in a very strange manner, I can tell you! We who appreciate the finer aspects of a cat's life have a difficult time being understood. "Ha, ha, Mr. Hornblower, of course, a joke! You have made a joke! Very good! Very good indeed! Carry on then." And the Captain walked past us and took his place up on the Quarter-deck.

"Come here, Bandit."

Aye, aye, sir.

"Do you know that there are more cats aboard this ship?"

I was dumbfounded! Almost as dumbfounded as his calling my caterwauling singing! How could he have guessed what filled my mind! And where did these cats come from? Surely I would have sniffed them out as they scrambled aboard. Surely they would have paid homage to me, as the Indy is my territory. So come, Mr. H! My ears are ready!

Mr. H. turned a few pages in his book. His book? Had he made notes about these cats, so he could the better report their particulars to me? Oh, Mr. H, you dear sweet...

"Now first there is the cathead at the bow - the anchor is suspended from it; then, a cat's paw, which is a small breeze - in fact I think we are enjoying one right this minute; and of course the cat-o-nine tails ... '

Oh, Mr. H! What a bloody cruel bugger you are, for sure! I'll listen to no more of your blasted words. I hissed, and bared my teeth, and took a viscous swipe at his stockings with my claws - that will put a run in them, certain sure! and turned tail.

My disappointment was so keen, my hopes so bitterly dashed, that I blundered about in as foul a mood as I had been prey to on first boarding Justinian. Oh, the blackguard! Oh the jackanapes! And to think I had been led by his honeyed words to give up my life in the glorious, cat-riddled world of the dockyard to spend the rest of my miserable life like this! Chop off my balls, Mr. H. while you are at it; that would be a kinder act .

But where was I? I sniffed the air delicately; not as stinking as the bilges, but fouler than that blasted cat's paw up on deck. 'Twas the cable tier! In my mad dash, I had ended up in the cable tier...

"Psst!" And there was that bloody Falstaff again .... But wait! My skin crawled and every hair on my body stood on end. Falstaff was dead! It could not be! I'd watched his little body tumble into the sea! Or - bloody hell, his ghost! I'd not put it past the bastard, to haunt me, though it were poor payment for the favor I'd done him in his last minutes. And poor thanks for my efforts in providing him with a dignified burial service.

"Psst!"

"Come out there, Falstaff's ghost, you'll not be turning my hair white! "

"Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage thy merit hath my duty strongly knit!"

I had thought Mr. H's appreciation of my caterwauling to be strange beyond belief, but this? What manner of nonsense was this? Had Falstaff suffered some monstrous change as he passed through the portals of Purgatory? Lord of my love, indeed!

"Falstaff .."

"Sweet sir, I be not Falstaff....."

Well, the voice was not right, that was for damn sure - slight and quivery it was, though a ghost might sound that way.

"Show yourself, you varlet! " At least old Falstaff had taught me a few new words!

"'Tis only me,sweet sir..." and a scrawny little rat crept out from behind one of the cables, paws a-twitching and snout quivering. Bless my ears and whiskers! What a sad sight for my keen cat eyes! If ever rat asked to be put out of his misery this one did! I pounced, and pinned him to the deck, and bared my teeth...

"The course of true love never did run smooth - please there, Mr. Bandit, sweet sir, I be scrawny and 'ardly a mouthful fer a foin cat like yerself...."

Bloody hell! Who the devil was this rat? And what was all this prating on of love? Love, indeed! I loved rats, oh yes I did, but I loved 'em dead, not spouting out strange phrases ... strange phrases? The thought so startled me, that I jumped back.

"Just who the hell are you?"

I must say - that sad excuse for a rodent had some spunk. He picked himself up, and smoothed back the rumpled fur from his face and said, bold as brass, " I be Juliet.I am a maid at your window to be your Valentine."

Juliet? A lady rat? A - a Valentine? Ugly , she was then, for a lady. I'd not kill her after all; though it might be a blessing to put her out of her misery.

"Juliet?"

"Aye, sweet sir. Juliet. Me grand da was Falstaff" Ooomph! That took me by such a surprise that I sat down hard on the deck, and near ended up with a splinter in my backside for my troubles.

"Falstaff? "

"Aye, sweet sir, Falstaff. An' t'other rats 'as asked me te thank ye for 'elpin' 'im at the end. It were a right gentlemanly thing t'do, bein' as 'ow cats 'n' rats be mortal enemies."

"Then you are gambling with your life - er, Juliet, wouldn't you say?"

"Oh, no, sweet sir, ye'd not be 'arming th' grandaughter 'o yer blessed Falstaff! "

"And what's with this sweet sir nonsense! Pull yourself together, girl! "

"I shall desire more love and knowledge of you, sweet sir! Twould see me life fulfilled!"

I despair, I really do! To think that Falstaff's bawdy taunts had ever irked me! Far better to be called a whoreson, varlet, knave than - sweet sir?

"I am a cat, Juliet, and you are a rat! Did your mother never teach you the facts of mating?"

"Well, sweet sir, excuse me fer bringin' this up, like, but -- I t'ink ye et my ma. "

Oh, bloody hell! There she sat, her beady little eyes looking up at me adoringly (not that I am adverse to being adored, mind you, but by a rat? Oh the shame of it!) even though I might have, though I am not admitting to the deed, mind you, eaten her mother? Well, what could I do?

"There, there, Juliet." I closed my eyes tight, and gave her a quick furtive little lick, just to let her know I was not about to eat her too. Then I turned tail and pranced haughtily out of the cable tier.

"Sweet sir, sweet sir..." I heard the patter of teeny-tiny feet on the decking. Damn and blast!

"Juliet, you cannot follow me! I am an Able Seacat, with important duties to attend to here aboard ship. Think of the men! I have my reputation to protect! You must remain here in the cable tier, or the bilges, or wherever you rats skulk."

"Yes, sweet sir." Juliet hung her head meekly, her little paws dangling in front. "Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow."

"And another thing!" I advanced threateningly, and she cowered even more, "One minute you are speaking like the guttersnipes all you rats are, and the next you speak like - like well, I don't know who! You and Falstaff both! Explain yourself, if you please!"

"I cannot, sweet sir. True, me granda spoke strange, though I never met 'm. An' when I were but a wee baby, the first words what I spoke were - like it were someone else speakin' and not me! "

"Hummpf! Some sickness in the blood I suppose! Well, Juliet, carry on here! But you are not to be seen skulking round me, is that clear?"

"Yes, sweet sir. Being your slave, what should I do but tend upon the hours and times of your desire? " she whispered.

Damn and blast! "My name is not sweet sir! My name is Bandit!"

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...."

Dear Lord, give me patience! I refused to dignify her sissy rantings with an answer. Flicking my tail to signal my displeasure, I turned and left.

****************
Mr. H. had left his door ajar, as he usually did, so I could come and go at my leisure. That led me to believe that he had forgiven me in regards to the stocking episode. However, I was much less certain that I had forgiven him in regards to the cats onboard episode. An unusual encounter with a descendant of the indomitable Falstaff was hardly diversion enough to make me forget the grave indignity he had practiced on me. Let him sleep alone and see how he liked it!

But wait, Able Seacat Bandit! Consign Mr. H. to a lonely bed, and you consign yourself to the same. Well, I may be a cat but I am not stupid! Especially when it comes to comfort. So I nosed the door open a tad more and skulked in.

Mr. H's promotion to Acting Lieutenant had improved his (and my) sleeping quarters immensely, as he now rated a narrow cot and his own little cabin, rather than that swaying hammock in amidst all those snuffling, snoring middies. In fact, I must admit, I made use of the facilities even when Mr. H. was doing his duty elsewhere.

The cot was much easier to land on, too. I'd made the mistake of trying to leap into an empty hammock once, and it had neatly turned over and dumped me, with great loss of feline dignity, I can assure you, onto the deck. Blessedly, the middies were all on deck skylarking, or whatever middies do when they weren't sleeping, and the cabin was empty, or I may never have felt able to show my furry face in public again.

Nimbly, I hopped up on the cot, but, to show my displeasure, found a spot at the foot and gave Mr. H. a good nip on the toes. Let him throw me out and be damned; I was in no mood for pleasantries.

"Bandit, I am pleased to see you, though you need not skulk down there."

I am not skulking, Mr. H. Skulkers don't call attention to themselves by biting toes .

"I feel I may have offended you earlier. Mr. Bracegirdle bade me learn the ways of the men, and already I have failed miserably. "

Well, yes, you have, Mr. H. Don't look to me to make you feel better.

"I see now that my well-intentioned attempt to teach you some shipboard phrases may have been misconstrued by yourself."

Misconstrued? Bloody well resented, Mr. H.!

"You were hoping perhaps, that there were real cats on board the Indy, and not just pieces of wood, and instruments of punishment. How insensitive of me not to realize that you might be missing those of your own kind. I am sure, in your eyes, we Naval Officers are a very poor substitute."

Well. Poor substitute. Well. Hmm. Perhaps not a poor substitute. I abandoned my post at the bottom of the bed, and walked the length of his body, until I stood squarely on his chest, and proceeded to knead that lovely soft nightshirt with my paws . In fact, not a poor substitute at all, though a substitute nonetheless.

"So please accept my apology, Bandit, and for God's sake, stop that kneading. You will have my nightshirt in shreds, just like you left my next to last pair of stockings. I have no prize money to buy new ones and I feel that somehow you will contrive to destroy the one pair I have left!"

Mr. H., I am hurt to the quick!

"So settle down, now, there's a good cat. I'm sure all that lovely singing has left you quite fatigued."

Oh, very well, Mr. H. I suppose I must thank you for your concern.

I snuggled in between himself and the edge of the bed and gave a big sigh. If I was so miserable due to lack of female company, perhaps Mr. H. was feeling likewise. In fact, I had not thought of that. I must be careful to make more allowances for his behavior in the future. Meanwhile, we poor lonely naval types must console each other - now wait a minute - oh, never mind. At least this time he'd had no tears in his eyes!

*****************

"Psst!"

For Heaven's sake, what now!

"Speak low if you speak love, sweet sir!"

"I am not your sweet sir, Juliet! " The pathetic little rodent looked no better this morning, than she had last night in the cable tier. I cursed myself mightily for snuffing out the life of her dear ma (if in fact I had) for Juliet had missed receiving lessons in grooming, as well as mating rituals. Her fur seemed to grow in all directions at once and her tail was skinny and curled limply. Half her whiskers were missing and her claws were strangely misshapen. What a disgusting wee beast she was indeed!

"I kept t'the cable tier all night, sweet sir, like ye tolt me te do. But me tummy's in need of some vittles so I had t'leave. Don't ye be beating me fer it, sweet sir..."

"Oh, damn and blast, Juliet. I only meant you were not to follow me about. Go and have your bloody breakfast, just don't get caught in the steward's locker, or I shall be forced to take extreme measures. The crew's on half-rations, and they'll not look on me kindly if I turn a blind eye to rodents munching on what's left. Now get along with you, I have duty this morning in the sickberth."

"When Love speaks, the voice of all the gods makes heaven drowsy with the harmony," she mumbled, and shambled sadly out of my sight. Falstaff, how could you have sired a rat that would sire or birth that pathetic animal. I had the strongest urge to simply pounce now and put us both out of our misery. But in Falstaff's memory, I could not.

Thank the Lord the Indy'd been anchored off Gibraltar for some time, and the sickbay was not littered with chopped off limbs and drenched in blood. But the half-rations were taking its toll and though the men were denied shore leave (and Captain Pellew most unfairly stopped the local ladies from visiting and therefore did not suffer from unspeakable diseases caused by the sporting of them with said ladies), the hammocks were filling up.

"Here, Bandit, give us a cuddle now."

"No, Bandit, over 'ere first, matey. I be sicker than 'e!"

"An' I be likes to dyin' so I gets t'pet 'im first!"

Oh my! Now, gentlemen, you will all get your turn! In all modesty, I must admit that my duties in the sickberth now consisted more in giving comfort and peace to the poor blokes here, than in chasing vermin. That whoreson Hepplewhite treated the whole lot of them as malingerers and complainers, and refused to give them a kind word, a gentle touch or even one small sip of the medicinal spirits he guarded so tightly. Word of the major role I had played in Mr. H's exceptionally rapid recovery had very quickly got round the crew and I was in great demand, I can tell you. (In reference to said rapid recovery of Mr. H, I must say it was quite fortuitous, for a major part of his duties on the quarter-deck seem to consist of very firmly clasping his hands behind his back, and this was hampered somewhat by his injury, though he squared his jaw and carried on quite bravely, with nary a tear in his eye, I might add!)

Ah, who to choose? But what's this? Finch? Finch! Oh, no, not Finch! I hopped up and nuzzled Finch's poor face with my cold nose. He looked dreadful, he did, his face pastier than usual, and he was like to cough himself to death.

What's the matter, Finch? I snuggled in beside him, and laid my head gently on his chest.

"The wind's caught me lungs, Bandit."

Cheer up, old boy. You'll feel better in the morning.

"Are we almost home?"

Almost home? We're at Gibraltar, Finch , don't you ... oh dear! This was worse than I thought. Poor Finch!

"Out with you, you damn cat!" What the bloody hell ! A hand came down, scooped me up, and threw me - threw me of all things! - down on the deck. And what was that he muttered? Something about I'd lie across Finch's face and stop his breath - I'll have you know - whoever you are - a bloody seaman is all, no higher than me in rank, telling me, me, a fully trained sickberth Angel of Mercy - that I would have the nerve - the - the - stupidity - to lie across poor Finch's face - I'll lie across your face, and make no mistake about it, if you don't watch out !

I was beside myself with righteous feline indignation. I hissed and spit and marched boldly up to Finch's hammock - you'll not keep me from my proper duties, you bastard - Finch needs me - tell him, Finch! But Finch had passed out, poor devil, and that blackguard standing watch over him gave me a good swift kick in the ribs for my trouble.

Well, you whoreson, if you'll kick a cat, God knows what you might do to poor Finch! So I'm staying right here in the sick berth where I can keep an eye on you. I skulked into a dark corner, and lay down. My side ached from the kick and my heart ached for poor old Finch.

"Pssst! Sweet sir!"

Oh, for Heaven's sake, what now. " Juliet!" I hissed. "You can't be in the sick berth! "

"For stony limits cannot hold love out - sweet sir!"

"That's not the point, you stupid rat! If you're found here, I'll be flogged round the fleet for neglecting my duties!"

"Oh. Is that bad, sweet sir?"

I despair, I really do! "Yes, Juliet, that is very bad. It would use up everyone of my nine lives. So if you must make my life a misery, then at least keep out of sight!"

"Oh yes, sweet sir!" And the mangy little rodent proceeded to squirm her way underneath me.

"Ooof!"

"Oh, sweet sir - Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them,-but not for love ..."

"You ninny! This has nothing to do with love! That varlet over there kicked me in the ribs!"

"Let me bite'm, sweet sir ... "

"No, Juliet! You stay put. The ache will pass. I'm used to being kicked , you know, what with Mr. H ..."

"Let me bite'm, sweet sir ... "

"JULIET!" I took a deep breath. "You mustn't bite anyone, especially Mr. H. You see, when Mr. H. kicks me, it's, well, it's like he's trying to teach me things, you know. Catches my attention in a hurry, it does, and keeps me from making dangerous mistakes that might have me at the gratings or hanging from the yard arm. Do you understand, Juliet?"

"Yes, sweet sir," she sighed. "Yes, beautiful tyrant! fiend angelical! "

Oh, bloody hell! Maybe I SHOULD send her to Mr. H. Maybe she'd bloody well fall in love with him, and leave me alone!

*****************

A dark day, Mr. H.

"He was a fine man, Bandit, and as such will be remembered."

Poor Finch! I did my best, I did, and whenever that blackguard seaman who stood watch at Finch's hammock had duties elsewhere, I hopped up and gave Finch what comfort I could. But the poor man died, and both Mr. H. and I were feeling blue.

"That fellow Bunting will bear watching," Mr. H said.

Bunting? Who the hell was Bunting? Ah - the bastard from the sickberth. There he was, with that sour look on his face, peering out over the railing.

"He was pressed, Bandit, just like you. Only not handling it as well, from the looks of things." I can assure you, Mr. H., there are days when I'm not handling it well either. But I do try to remain cheerful , I do, though you don't help sometimes, with your dreadful jokes about cat heads, and paws, and tails!

"I'd better not find him goading the crew with rumors and lies though. Best keep an eye on him, Bandit, and let me know what's going on."

I'll have you know, Mr. H. that as Able Seacat Bandit I have my duties. I am requested and required to spend at least one watch on vermin duty, another on sickberth duty, I spend one dogwatch eating and grooming, and the rest sleeping. How the bloody hell am I going to keep an eye on Bunting too? You also get quite sulky if I don't share your cot with you so I must take that into consideration also
( and I have the devil of a time figuring out what watch you are on!). Oh, very well, I will make an effort, but an effort only.

The next few days were quite difficult, as it was, without me having to worry about that Bunting fellow. Everyone had turned quite peckish, on account of the half-rations; no one wanted to share their paltry dinners with a cat, and I was forced to subsist on rat - and even the rats seemed on half rations, so scrawny they all were. It was quite beyond my comprehension that Juliet could dog my steps so, when I was so intent on eating her fellow bilgemates. I taxed her with it, called her an unnatural rat (which her besottedness with me seemed to prove anyway) but she looked no less or more pathetic than usual and whispered some silliness about - And thank Heaven, fasting, for a good man's love - which didn't make much sense at all.

We did have some excitement to break the hungry tedium of the days.

"Fancy some shore leave, Bandit? " Mr. H. asked me. "We are to sail to Oran to purchase supplies for the fleet. And if you are a very good cat, and refrain from tearing my very last pair of stockings, I will consider taking you with me."

Shore leave. Shore leave? Will there be cats?

"There may be cats, Bandit. I make no promises now, but you're more likely to find some there than here on the Indy, wouldn't you say?"

Cats! Oran sounded quite exotic to me. Perhaps there would be belly-dancing kitties. Or harems! Whole harems of Persian beauties! Oh my!

"But first I must add one small duty to your roster."

Well, I might have expected that. This keeping an eye on Bunting (and having to catch my own dinner, and ratsit that silly Juliet) was quite wearing me out; by the time we reached Oran, I would be fortunate enough to have enough energy to even recognize a Persian beauty, much less do my duty by her!

"Mr. Tapling of the Diplomatic Service is coming on board and will accompany us to Oran. You must hop down to his cabin and make sure it is vermin free before his arrival. Do I make myself clear?"

Oh very clear indeed, Mr. H! I do believe your promotion to Acting Lieutenant has quite gone to your head! If Bunting mutinies while I'm in Mr. Tapling's cabin catching vermin, the fault will be on your head, not mine! As events turned out, though, the assignment was not as onerous as I had expected. On reaching the cabin allotted to the mysterious Mr. Tapling of the Diplomatic Service, I availed myself of the empty cot and rested up before reporting for duty; somehow, and I simply cannot understand how this happened, I fell asleep and was only roused from some very erotic dreams concerning kitty bellies and Persian pussies in time to hear a strange voice declaim from outside "My quarters smell of sweat and worse - there's a cat in there!"

Enough was enough! I would not stand for such ill sounding words from any man who could not appreciate the great favor I was doing him, even if he was Mr. Tapling of the Diplomatic Service, so I hopped down from the cot and skulked out of the doorway, leaving said Mr. T. of the D.S. to his sweaty smells and whatever other vile denizens of his cabin I now had no intentions of exterminating.

But at least now we were not sitting idle in Gibraltar but were tearing along at a great pace towards Oran. I kept a careful eye on Mr. H - now that the ship was in motion, he might become seasick at any moment, and I wanted to be able to spring quite clear in time should he do so. But all was well, and I only had Bunting (and of course Juliet) to tax my days.

That Bunting fellow was most unhappy, I can tell you. Seemed to think the Captain and the officers dined like kings,(well, I could have enlightened him on that account very quickly, if he's only though to ask - Mr. Bracegirdle was becoming decidedly less round and gave me no tidbits whatever these days - not even the occasional maggot ) while he had to eat - well, I've never quite figured out what some of those gray, gluey culinary masterpieces were that the seamen enjoyed. Made a stringy rat seemed almost the height of haute cuisine. Speaking of rats, I'd begun to harbor a dreadful suspicion that I now had to compete with the men for those scrawny beasts! Oh the indignity of it! I was quite willing, in these desperate days, to forbear begging for human food, and I would have thought the men could have least returned the favor!

In fact, I was in such a snit about this poaching on my rations, that I took to skulking round the steward's locker, in hopes that some small morsel of something - anything! - might fall to the decking and be fair game. Oh, I would never have - gasp! - stolen food! Never this side of Hell! I did have a particular aversion to being flayed alive, or hung from the yardarm or flogged round the fleet. 'Twas on one of these vigils, that I saw Bunting break into the locker. Well, before I go any further here, there are two or three matters I must clear up. All right, I will admit, I had come to spend more time watching the food locker than watching Bunting, but it all came right in the end, as the one led to the other, without a deal of wasting time . And after all, the Marine did leave his post - lured by the steward with a bottle - and when I had time to ruminate afterwards, I felt that he should have shared in some of the blame - having put Bunting in a position to be led astray. There. I feel better for having said that. Bunting didn't feel better, but I did.

"Sweet sir!"

"Now what!" I sputtered. Oh the trials and tribulations of shipboard life (and especially of being the object of affection of an impertinent pathetic rodent.) And why was I always being brought awake just at the most - well, exciting! - part of my dream (and I refuse absolutely to elaborate on that!)

Oh. You noticed. Even in the illegal activity of snooping round the steward's locker, I'd fallen asleep. Lack of food, I'm sure. Weakness from starvation. Of course. That's it. Oh, very well! It was Juliet told me about the steward and the Marine, and Bunting breaking in . Well, after all, what difference does it make!

So I waited a few minutes - giving Bunting a chance to show me that he had only the best interests of the men at heart and was merely checking on the safety of the stores - but he did not return, and looking round fearfully, I stepped into the locker. I could feel that wee beastie crowded up behind me; well, I'd have company in my cell were I caught in here. But where was Bunting?

"Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes, that they behold, and see not what they see?"

"Thank you very much, Juliet, but I'll have you know I am not blind!"

Suddenly a screech sounded from the lower part of the Locker. "I'm hungree!" Bunting was lying there, quite beside himself.

There now, Bunting, pull yourself together, man! Have you no pride! Why even - even a dog would not howl and go on so!

"I must fetch Mr. H, Juliet. You stay here and keep an eye on this fellow."

I am an honest sort of cat, but I must hang my head in shame to describe to you the next occurrence in this little story. There I was, deep in the bowels of the Indefatigable, holding a desperate thief at bay with only one mangy little rat at my side. I had it in my paw to become a hero, a cat who risked tail and whiskers to protect what weevily, moldy foodstores were left to give us sustenance. And what did I do? On the way out, I - I - well, I was taken over by - the devil - it must have been the devil - and I - oh, I hang my head in shame - I took a little nip of cheese as I passed by. Oh, the disgrace! And no sooner was it in my mouth, then I near choked on it, as the horror of my act dawned on me! (Of course I had to eat the cheese - I mean I really couldn't leave a chewed up pile of cheese on the decking now, could I!) I was so mortified with my weakness, well, I - I almost confessed! Almost - it was a near run thing, I can tell you.

So I fetched Mr. H. (not having to resort to such subterfuges which had led him to the cable tier to witness some of the men gambling with rats; the dear boy getting something through his head at least, that when I whimper and rub up against his leg (checking first that he had no stockings on for me to ruin, as that would never do), he had best follow me quickly, for dastardly happenings were afoot!) and he found Bunting, quite demented now and raving on about some evil rat creature threatening his life and limb - though I must say, the only rat I saw in there was Juliet and if she had spent her time spouting those strange bits she threw at me so liberally, no wonder the poor sod had gone crazy.

So Bunting was sent off to await punishment, and I was sent off to Mr. H.'s cabin, to await my reward.

Mr. H looked very serious when he finally joined me in his cabin. Very serious indeed! I now knew I would be receiving a very serious reward for my fine efforts.

"Bandit," he said, his brow furrowing more than my skin when I need to reach a particularly out of the way piece of fur to wash it. Well, I didn't like the looks of that furrow, I can tell you!

"First, I must commend you in the apprehension of a thief who stole from his messmates. A heinous deed, by any stretch of the imagination."

Yes, indeed, Mr. H. But I don't like the sound of that 'first', I don't.

"But ..."

Oh dear, here it came. I sat quietly, my head down, making disgustingly pathetic little mewings deep in my throat. (Such abject behavior had worked before, and I felt it worth a try now, whatever my crime could be.)

" ... I noticed as I left the food locker with Bunting, that one of the rounds of cheese had a small, cat-size bite taken out of it. Do you have anything to say about this, Bandit?'

No, sir. I'll bear my shame in private, if you don't mind.

"Not talking, are we, Bandit? Well, I have the cure for that!" And before I could bring my fine feline wits to bear on the problem, he had me up in those big hands of his, my mouth forced open, and was taking a whiff of my breath! Oh dear! If only I'd stopped to sample that starving rat keeled over in the companionway, to sweeten my breath ...

"Bah!" He threw me down. I feared for my life, then, or one of them, certain sure, and I lay on the decking, and showed him my tender belly - I am at your mercy, sir, be gentle, be kind ...

"Well, Bandit, what do you have to say for yourself. No excuses now - I smelled that moldy cheese on your breath. 'Twas only a small portion you stole, but as far as I can tell, there is little to choose between you and Bunting."

I'm sorry, Mr. H. It was but a moment's madness! Don't flay me alive, or throw me from the fighting top , or flog me round the fleet, or hang me from the yardarm or ...

"Mr. Bunting has been sentenced to run the gauntlet." Run the gauntlet? Well, that was a new one, I must say. " I have been ordered to lead him through it, in punishment for not dealing more firmly with the man. And you, Bandit ... " He hesitated. I prayed. "And you, Bandit, will help me!"

And so I did. Quite dreadful, it was. Why, I almost felt sorry for poor Bunting! When the men started flogging him, I was quite concerned, seeing as how I had to follow so close behind him, ready to nip him on the ankles were he to flag, that the odd little knot might touch my small insignificant body. Captain Pellew had admonished the men not to hold back, for fear of being implicated in the crime. I suspect that Bunting profited by my following so closely on his heels, because, despite Captain Pellew's harsh words, I believe many of the men did hold back, for fear of flogging me instead and having then to take their chances were they ever to find themselves in the sick berth. A good thing too, for Bunting looked quite dreadful as it was when the ordeal was over.

Mr. H. looked quite dreadful also, and spent a very restless night. So restless, in fact, that I was tempted to visit Mr. Bunting, and offer him my services, despite his earlier cruel treatment of myself, but I didn't, and things might have turned out quite different if I had done so, and found that he somehow had secreted himself elsewhere than the sick berth.

I did know one thing. The gauntlet had now joined my list of cruel and unusual punishments which His Britannic Majesty's Royal Navy seemed so quick to administer. And they say cats play with their prey!

******************

The very next day we arrived in Oran. The weather was a wee bit warm; a fur coat comes in very handy at times, but this was not one of them. Mr. H. had found himself a nice cool straw hat to wear, but I was afraid there was nothing he could do for me, though he had that look in his eye, which meant he might be thinking, and that could be dangerous!

I at least had no need to skulk in order to sneak into the jolly boat. I was very well-known on the Indefatigable now, and even Captain Pellew only gave a slight humpf when he crossed my path. But I now had another problem!

"Pssst!"

Oh damn and blast! I had thought to steal away, without Juliet knowing. What a fool I was to believe that possible! The ratvine obviously kept close tabs on its major nemesis , and passed on that information to my little shadow.

"No, Juliet!"

"No what, sweet sir?"

"You cannot come with me!"

"But parting be such sweet sorrow ... "

"You've used that line before , Juliet. And I'll have none of it!" Her head drooped. Her little paws trembled. And what was that? A drop of moisture in her eye?

"Now, Juliet, there is no need to cry ..."

She dropped to the decking, her sides heaving, her ratty tail flicking feebly.

For Heaven's sake! "Oh, very well! But I'll not be a party to this - you'll find your way on board the jolly boat without my help, and if you're discovered, you cannot look to me for help!"

"Oh, sweet sir , purple the sails , and so perfumed that the winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver, which to the tune of flutes kept stroke." And she hopped up, as lively as I'd ever seen her, and was gone down over the side, before I could say another word. You'd almost think she'd been play-acting with me, you would. And I'd never heard a more ridiculous description of a jollyboat in my life! Perfumed sails indeed!

When I joined Mr. H., Mr. T. of the D.S., and the men in the jolly boat I took a good look round but could see neither whisker nor tail of Juliet. She was a rat, of course, and all ships had rats, and no ship's captain had ever invited them on board, so they must have their ways of staying hidden. Though I did see some twitchings in that pile of sails over there in the bow ...

Well, all was explained quite soon after we had landed at Oran. I took my time, letting the men disembark first, savoring the thought of dancing kitties and Persian harem beauties that had quite taken over my dreams, leaving me in a very bad way, when that pile of sails erupted with a roar and - why, it was Bunting - racing out of the boat and onshore, as though the very devil himself was after him, yelling something - I couldn't quite catch the words - something about some evil rat creature - oh!

Juliet's runny little snout peeked out from under the sail, her beady eyes screwed up in the hot sun beating down . Well, I might have known!

"Quick, Juliet, out of the boat, while they are dealing with Bunting!" For once she obeyed me, without replying with some strange soliloquy, and I followed .

****************
"There now, Juliet, looks all very exotic and foreign, don't it?" We two were standing on shore staring up at all the hustle and bustle of Oran. Everyone seemed to be running around wearing dressing gowns, with towels on their heads. I rather thought Mr. H. had made a grave diplomatic error (which Mr. T. of the D.S. should have caught!) by coming before everyone had their morning coffee. I knew to my chagrin how Mr. H. was before his morning coffee, and I had no wish to receive that kind of treatment from a whole town full of foreign chaps.

On the other hand, I just might find my dancing kitties and Persian harem beauties before they curled up for the day, so Mr. H. was forgiven, on my account anyway. I lifted my nose into the air, and sniffed delicately. My head reeled, I can tell you! And I thought that no place on earth could stink like a British man-o-war belowdecks! This place could surely do with some of Juliet's purple perfumed sails! But worse than the assault on my highly sensitive sense of smell was the decided absence of even the hint of a whiff of eau-de-chat! Perhaps the hustle-bustle of the quayside was keeping them away. Well, I would just have to explore, wouldn't I!

"So, Juliet, off to find yourself one of those debonair foreign rats and learn what your mother never taught you (and don't be blaming me for that again!)

"Oh, sweet sir, I canna do that! I must stay wi'ye!"

"You cannot stay with me, Juliet, and that is that!"

"Sweet sir --"

"Sod off, Juliet!" I said, and left her sitting there on the dock. As I pranced haughtily along, I caught a few plaintive words sung in a decidedly wavery off-key voice:
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,--
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never

I winced! Juliet, along with all her other shortcomings, obviously could not carry a tune! I just might send her along to serenade Mr. H. With his rather strange ideas of what constituted singing, he just might enjoy her efforts.


****************
"Sweet sir!" Now what!

"Now what, Juliet! Can't you leave me alone and have some fun on your shore leave, at least! " Though I bloody well wasn't having any fun on my shore leave, I can tell you! No dancing kitties, no Persian harem beauties, not even one mangy flea-infested rat-bitten sorry excuse for a puss could I find! I have had a sudden vision of a whole world catless for some strange, unexplained reason and I the only cat left! Oh my ears and whiskers ...

"Sweet sir, there be sick rats here!"

"Oh damn and blast, Juliet! Even if you lack a mother to beat some sense into you (and on giving the matter lengthy consideration, I absolutely refuse to accept responsibility for her sad demise) you must have the wits to be on the watch for the perverted mating rituals of these foreign rodents ..."

"You ninny!"

What! Ninny! Well, I never ... ninny? Juliet has had the effrontery, the immense gall, to - to call her sweet sir a ninny? In all my days...

An especially sharp tweak of my whiskers brought me back to Juliet. And before I had a chance to soundly nip her in punishment for taking such liberties with my person - Able Seacat Bandit no less! - I started to understand what she was trying to say.

"Sick, sweet sir, ill!" (At least she was back to according me proper respect!) "I t'ink, tis the -" and she lowered her whiny little voice still further, causing me to swivel my ears fully forrard. "The Black Death, sweet sir!"

Humpf! The Black Death! Well, that did not sound good! Any thing that would cause Juliet to call her sweet sir a ninny had to be serious! I of course had no idea what the Black Death was but never would I allow that pathetic little creature know that not only was the star in her firmament, her sweet sir, a ninny, but a stupid ninny as well.

"This does not sound good, Juliet!" I said, in my best Captain Pellew imitation. I have been studying the good captain, for I have come to believe that authority rests all in the delivery, and Captain Pellew could stand on the quarter-deck and bellow the alphabet and every manjack of the crew would desperately try to puzzle out how to hoist the A, man the B and let fly the C or risk the gratings. Mr. H. must also have been studying his hero - his memorable "Fiyah!" and "Ship to starboard" still ring in my ears to this day, though he'd best get over having his damned eyes mist over at inappropriate times ...

What? Oh, yes, the Black Death! "This does not sound good , Juliet, " I repeated (when in doubt, repeat - or wash, whatever the situation might call for.)

"Oh, not good at all, sweet sir. It's the fleas, ye see ..."

"The fleas? Oh, very good, Juliet, of course, the fleas ..."

"Tis the fleas carry it, sweet sir, and they git on the rats, and the rats git sick, and from there, well, it spreads t'the men ..."

"Thank you very much, Juliet, when I want your opinion, I'll ask for it!" Oh, my ears and whiskers! Those words have haunted me through all my nine lives to this day. Why, I'd almost give up my cheese ration to have never said them. All so that I wouldn't appear a stupid ninny in front of a rat! And in front of a dear sweet little rat who called me sweet sir even when she knew what a ninny I was. Oh dear!

Ahem! Where was I? Oh yes. The Black Death. Still there. I had visions of Mr. H and his men - and well, even Mr. T. of the D.S. - turning black and - well, dying! Oh, what to do, what to do? What would Mr. H do? Think, Bandit, think! Oh, but that won't work - Mr. H either bloody well didn't think at all and just jumped in, or he thought too much and got sod all done.

"We shall - we shall " I desperately slipped into Captain Pellew again, hoping for some miracle whereby his wisdom would pop out along with the tone of his words. " You know, we shall ..."

"We'll stop them dirty rats from climbin' on board the jolly boat. Oh, well done, sweet sir, well done indeed!To business that we love we rise betime."

Well done, indeed! I felt a momentary glow of feline satisfaction, but then realized - oh, never mind - I'm sure I would have said the same thing had Juliet had not been so quick to cut off my words. Thank God she was back at that funny way of speech - certainly all was well with the world - except for that deuced Black Death, of course.

We made our way back to the dockside prepared to do battle with even the fiercest of flea-infested plague-carrying rats, ready to give our lives - well, perhaps I wouldn't go that far. But oh, no, God damn him to hell, that Mr. H. had gone off in the jolly boat, leaving us behind! That ungrateful wretch! To think of all the nights I'd purred him to sleep, the gentle ministrations I'd performed when he was injured - I'd saved his life, for Heaven's sake! And he sods off and leaves us ...

"Sweet sir ... "

"Go away!"

"Sweet sir! But love is blind, and lovers cannot see.."

"Blind!" I sputtered, too sunk in my own misery to put up with such drivel from that -- that - Oh. Well, there was Mr. T of the D.S. standing there, mopping his face with his handkerchief, looking very down in the mouth, I must say. Surely Mr. H. would never go off and leave him! And there were all those red-coated fellows. And - and there was my dear sweet Mr. H. coming back! Oh thank the Lord! Though I knew the dear fellow would never have left me- me! - behind!

Now I am a fine figure of a cat! I've never shirked my duty (well, mostly never - well, sometimes I have, but it made no never mind to the outcome of things - well, all right then, sometimes I am very lazy, but how can I go against my feline nature - oh, damn and blast, just don't tell the good captain that I have fallen asleep on watch the odd time -) Where was I? Oh, yes. I've never shirked my duty, but I can tell you truly, I outdid myself that day in Oran. My plan was good, (well, Juliet helped - I dare not forget that now, sniff!) , my execution faultless.

I drew jolly boat duty and Juliet scurried off to man (er, rat) the barge. After carefully sniffing out every nook and cranny (while staying well away from Bunting, I must say) and assuring myself no rats had found their way there, I took up my post at the gangplank. Oh, they tried, they did, the buggers - thinking maybe they could be cured in the Indy's sick berth no doubt but I - Able Seacat Bandit - was more than a match for their miserable sick bodies. Oh, I met with a few that would have given old Falstaff a run, I can tell you, and when the last man came on board, I'd taken more than one or two scratches and even a nip in the ear, but I'd never let a one of them past. And I was just becoming just a little bit smug about myself (an attitude quite foreign to my nature, I do assure you) when I had a terrible vision!

Juliet! Well, all right, poor Juliet! If I'd taken a few injuries, how might she be faring? Not only was she much smaller than I was, she was much smaller than most of those disgusting foreign rodents I'd seen. Even sick, they'd be more than a match for her! What had I done, leaving her to face that alone? What could I have done? Oh dear! What to do? What to do?

And then I did something so audacious, so - so noble - that I blush even now to think of it! As the jolly boat pulled away from shore, I jumped for it! Jumped back into that plague-ridden, cat-less hell that was Oran! I had to find Juliet, I just had to!

I heard Mr. H's voice - "The Black Death is at Oran, Bandit, we cannot return for you!" but I closed my ears against that siren call, that wonderful voice - oh, Mr. H., will I ever see you again? You and the Indy and even Captain Pellew and - No, Bandit, think of Juliet.

I raced over to the barge only to find it pulling away from the shore. I saw no sign of Juliet so there was nothing to do but jump for it. Oh blast all that sleeping, that eating of table scraps - my legs were aching, my sides heaving - but I put on one more burst of speed, gathered my legs under me and leaped.

"Oh, sweet sir! We that are true lovers run into strange capers !" You can say that again, Juliet, or I think it was Juliet, under all the blood, stared down at me as I hung desperately with my front claws, my hindquarters ignominiously dragging in the water. Now this was not what I had in mind when I made my bid for the barge. Juliet squeaked, and I howled, but the barge was filled with those bloody bawling bullocks that even Mr. H.'s best "Fiyah" would have gone unnoticed.

Except, oh, thank the Lord, Matthews noticed. Dear, sweet, darling Matthews pulled me up, gave me a shake , and put me down on the deck.

"Almost missed the boat there, eh, Bandit? Too busy with them Persian kitties, eh? Well, it's back t'work wi' 'ee now!"

I was not busy with Persian kitties, Matthews, I was busy - oh, never mind! I had to talk to Juliet, find out how badly she was injured, see if there were more rats - oh rats! better I had just slipped silently into the sea!

"Juliet!"

"Sweet sir?" She sounded none too sprightly, not that she ever was, but this looked bad. "I got 'em near all, but I fear not all. I do be sorry, sweet sir, I've failed ye ..."

Oh, damn those rats all to hell. I gave my poor wee friend a quick lick, and she looked a little better, but those bites and scratches were deep, and she seemed all done in.

"You take your ease, Juliet, I'll look after the rest. " The gangway of the jolly boat was a sail on the Thames compared to this hell. Those bullocks were a tribulation all by themselves. and the rats that had managed to stow away seemed the craftiest and fightingest. But somehow, before the barge reached the Caroline - I'd managed to do away with them all.

I dragged my way over the decking to the little nook where I'd bade Juliet hide herself. But somehow she'd grown - no,no, there was one last rat, and he had poor Juliet in his mouth - never this side of hell, you bastard! And I pounced and mauled, bit and scratched, and finally heaved his flea-infested body overboard.

"There, Juliet, all's right with the world now!"

Only it wasn't. Oh, she was still on her feet, weaving a little, but worse, the light seemed to have gone out of her little eyes, and even her ears seemed to droop.

"Sweet sir... "

"I'll heal you, Juliet, I will...-"

"No, sweet sir, 'tis too late... "

"Oh, never too late, my sweet Juliet ... "Certainly that would cheer her up!

"I - have it, sweet sir."

"Have what, Juliet?"

"The - the fleas, and they've been bitin' me. It's the Black Death fer me ..."

Oh no. "I will not let it happen. I will protect you!"

She edged closer to the sea. "Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace! Sweet sir, remember me!" And she hurled her poor battered body into the water!

"No! No! " I howled, and followed her into the water.

What was I thinking? Well, I wasn't! (my time with Mr. H. had left me with some bad habits.) I couldn't save her, because she was already dead. And now - I choked and sputtered - half the bloody Mediterranean seemed to want to pour down my throat. I bobbed up and down, down more than up, and then - I panicked! Cats can swim, can't they? Oh dear , tell me they can!

The first of my nine lives was already beginning to pass before my eyes when - there was a huge splash beside me and - oh, Mr. H! Ruining your uniform just for me! Oh dear.

Yes, it was Mr. H. and he clutched me in one hand as he pulled himself up into the Caroline .

I was mortified to find myself surrounded by half the Caroline's crew. Why, I must have looked like a - a drowned rat - a drowned rat - oh, no, poor Juliet ...

"Whatever were you thinking, Bandit!" I could tell by Mr. H.'s voice that he was not pleased with me. " First you stay behind in Oran, then you somehow end up on the barge, and proceed to throw yourself in the water! You are very lucky I didn't leave you to swim for it. Just look at my uniform! Do you think I am made of prize money, that I can replace it every time you need rescuing?"

Don't take on so, Mr. H! 'Twas I (and poor Juliet too of course, sniff!) who saved you!

"Sir ...

"What is it, Matthews. Speak up, man."

"Well, sir, I b'leive Mr. Bandit there were killin' rats on the barge. The place were crawlin' wi'them, and now there be none at all. Ye know, sir, the Black Death .."

"Is spread by rats. Yes, Matthews, I believe you are absolutely right." Mr. H. leaned over, and picking me up, set me on the railing. "And if I am not mistaken, he prevented any rats from entering the jolly boat as well. Bandit, you may have saved all our lives! "

About time, Mr. H. and I would forever be in Matthews' debt for pointing out my noble endeavor. But suddenly, I came all over faint - from my wounds, and my swim, and the nasty seawater plastering my fur all over my body.

"Oh dear! You seem a might under the weather, Bandit. " Mr. H. actually tore off his neckcloth and started to blot at the water. "Matthews, slaughter one of the bullocks."

"Sir?"

"For Bandit. He has saved all our lives and deserves a good meal!"

A masterful stroke, Mr. H.! When I had eaten my fill, and then some, I was quite agreeable to the men (and Mr. T. of the D.S. of course), sharing in my good fortune. Of course the men had always held me in high regard, but Mr. T. of the D.S. had never forgiven me for being in his cabin on the Indy - as though I were the cause of that sweat he smelled! Now, however, he was perfectly jovial in my company, and even hinted that were I to tire of serving aboard the Indefatigable, and wished to desert, he could assure me of a place in the D.S. I thanked him nicely for the offer, but regretted to inform him that I was just learning my way around His Majesty's Navy and was not ready for a career change just yet (though I found it a comfort to know I had an alternative should I be faced with running the gauntlet, being flayed alive or - well, you know what I mean!)

While the man caroused late into the night, getting quite silly on my bullock, I secreted two tender morsels of said poor bovine, and padded quietly along the deck to the taffrail. The wind was fair, the sky clear. Hopping up, I took a moment to sniff and stretch, then threw one morsel into the sea.

"Bless you, Juliet's mom, and if I did indeed capture you and eat you, I beg your humble pardon. You have a daughter to be proud of."

Then - oh damn and blast, I fear I fell a victim to Horatio's teary eye disease! Sniff! Now I tossed the second morsel overboard.

"Dear Juliet - I - am honored to have known you. And if there is a rat heaven, I know you are there - your coat all shiny and sleek, your eyes bright and your tail of extraordinary length and beauty. The men will never know who really saved their lives, but I know, and your valor will be remembered forever."

What! Was that me? Talking like that about a rat! Oh the shame of it! But I said it and I meant it!

**************

The rest of the voyage to rejoin the Indy was uneventful. Boring rather, though plagued (hah hah!) by the constant bellowing of those damn bullocks. I rather hoped Mr. H. might slaughter another - I think my efforts deserved such, but it was not to be.

We did have a little excitement though. One of the men appeared to have the Black Death and my immediate thought was - oh, yes, you'll all blame me now, for not catching every last rat - but Mr. H. used that breath-smelling trick he'd used on me and determined that the man was drunk. A word to the wise here - if you wish to imbibe anything prohibited by those blasted Articles of War, keep your damn mouth shut aroung Mr. H.!

Then we were boarded by pirates! Mr. T. of the D.S. and your humble servant Bandit were enjoying a bit of peace and quiet (apart from those deuced bullocks) as Mr. H. had taken the rest of the man ashore, when over the side swarmed dozens, no hundreds of evil looking tars, bent on pillaging our supplies. We fought them off valiantly, we did, and they hurriedly made good their escape with only two bullocks slaughtered.

I showed my displeasure (because I knew that Mr. T. of the D.S. and myself would be very severely called to account when Mr. H. returned) by inflicting rather severe scratches and bitemarks on whatever little bits of flesh were left exposed to my fury, and was promised - in words that would curl even a cat's ears - that Dreadnought Foster would hear of this, and I had better not show my furry face in Gibraltar or I'd be at the gratings! Dreadnought Foster - their pirate captain, no doubt. Hah! He would be no match for the Indefatigable and Captain Pellew!

Then Mr. H. came back, not only mad as a hatter that the pirates had stolen our beef (though he could have been a tad more relieved to see that I, and Mr. T. of the D.S. of course, had not been made to walk the plank) but that bugger Bunting had made a run for it and Mr. H. had been forced to shoot him. Shoot him dead, of all things.

Well, I knew immediately what I was in for that night! And I was right!

"I killed him, Bandit." Stroke, stroke.

Your duty was clear, Mr. H.

"I failed to find a way inside the man." Stroke, stroke.

He was beyond saving, Mr. H.

"I feel that Captain Pellew would have found a way." Stroke, stroke.

Some men choose to cast themselves adrift. And I am sure Captain Pellew would say the same to you!

"I question my readiness for command." Stroke, stroke.

Well, Mr. H., I do too, if you must know. You'll have me quite naked from all this stroking. Pull yourself together, man!

"But I am most worried about Mr. Bracegirdle, Bandit. He bade me learn the ways of the men ..."

Enough! I cursed Mr. Bracegirdle for ever having uttered those damn words! I almost jumped down and left Mr. H. to his tortured thoughts, but - he still had that little business of the pirates to hold over my head, so I stayed, and let him stroke me until he fell asleep (mercifully while I still had some hair left!)

****************
They say if you listen at keyholes you will hear no good of yourself. Not so, I can assure you. The supplies had been landed from the Caroline (and I was heartily joyous to see the end of those nasty braying beasts, I can tell you! They may have prevented Mr. H. from applying himself to his studies as he might have wished to, but more importantly, they disrupted my sleep badly, and left me in a very cranky mood!) and Mr. H. welcomed back aboard the Indy with loud huzzahs. He was now closeted with the good Captain Pellew and I bloody well hope he doesn't give way to that annoying crying again. Bunting was beyond saving; and I know it was deucedly bad luck that Horatio was the one to kill him, but I can't imagine why all those men walk around with those pistols stuck in their belts if they're not about to pull 'em out and shoot 'em! Well, enough of that.

With my ear pressed to the door, I was able to pick up the conversation quite easily.

"I am told you slaughtered a bullock for the men." Oh dear, that was Captain Pellew's voice, going on about that bullock. But as long as the men got blamed for it ..."What an extravagance!"

"Sir, I must tell you, the bullock was not slaughtered for the men.'

"Then who the devil ..."

"It was slaughtered for Bandit, Sir."

"Bandit? I know of no man on my ship named Bandit, Mr. Hornblower. Explain yourself."

"Bandit is the ship's cat, sir."

"THE SHIP'S CAT! YOU SLAUGHTERED A BULLOCK FOR THE SHIP'S CAT! I'LL HAVE YOU IN THE RIGGING FOR THAT, MR. HORNBLOWER!"

My hearing has been severely impaired ever since that day. What a pair of lungs! Even the Marine on duty (though rather remiss in that duty, for I had skulked up to the door quite handily without him ever being the wiser) was so startled, he dropped his musket. Bending over to retrieve it, he caught my eye, and might have reported me, had I not hissed quite loudly, and reminded him that it would not go well for him with his Captain if I reported such a gross dereliction of duty as dropping your musket. He shouldered the musket briskly, stiffened his back, and snapped his eyes front, while I, suffering bravely from ringing in the ears, turned back to the door.

"Sir - he saved all our lives, every man jack of us." Oh, Mr. H., now kind of you to say so - though of course, he only told the truth, after all.

"Humpf! I find that hard to believe, sir. A bullock - when men were starving .."

"It was the Black Death, you see, Sir. It's spread by rats." Well, to be accurate, Mr. H., it's the fleas on the rats on the ... well, you know.

"I know it's spread by rats. Get to the point, Mr. Hornblower."

"The dock was infested with them, sir. Terrible big ones, sir. And Bandit stood guard at the gangplank, and picked them off , one by one, so the jolly boat was able to get off vermin-free. Then the barge, sir, with the cattle - rats running all over. With great risk to life and limb, due to the hoofs of the bullocks, you know, he hunted every last one down and even ended up in the sea, in order to kill them all. "

I winced a little at that. Poor Juliet! Mr. H. would never know... But he was doing a bang-up job of describing my heroics, though the dock was not quite infested with 'em - made a bloody good story, it did,though! Well done , Mr. H.

"After we were safely away from that infernal shore, he seemed quite done in, sir, so I ordered the bullock slaughtered, hoping that fresh beef would revive his spirits. Which it did famously. I was left with a great deal of bullock, so I graciously allowed the men to share in his good fortune. Mr. Bracegirdle bade me learn the ways of the men ," - that bloody line again -"and I now know the value of full bellies ."

Mr. H., I am in awe! Such a wonderful speech! No tears! No stutters! I say! But was it good enough? Anxiously, I pressed my ear even harder against the door. If Mr. H. were to end in the rigging, what would happen to me?

"Hm. So you feel that without the valiant service of this - Bandit, you call him - you and the men..."

"Would now be dead, sir. Indubitably."

"And where is this wonderful animal, may I ask?"

"Most likely in the sick berth, sir, or the galley, doing his duty, sir."

"I request and require his presence here, Mr. Hornblower, so he can be suitably rewarded."

Suitably rewarded. Oh dear! And what might a suitable reward be? Some nice fresh fish, perhaps? Or - those dancing kitties, I'd been promised, those harems of Persian beauties - ah, yes, to use Mr. H.'s own word, indubitably. Unfortunately, I was so caught up in the rapturous contemplation of my reward that I neglected to hear Mr. H.'s footsteps. Until he opened the door and I fell ignominiously into Captain Pellew's cabin.

"Um, here he is now, sir." Mr. H. said, giving me a nudge with his boot to encourage me to sit at attention.

"Catching rats in the passageway, no doubt, Mr. Hornblower?"

"No doubt, sir." Well, check the passageway, Captain Pellew. Do you see any rats? I rest my case.

Captain Pellew circled round me, and I tried very bravely to sit tall and elegantly, when I wanted to wither under that steely gaze.

"What is his rating, Mr. Hornblower?"

"Able Seacat, sir."

"Able Seacat? How so, Mr. Hornblower?"

"He - has rendered various services to the men on this ship, sir." Bloody hell! I saved your life, Mr. H., and don't you forget it!

"And now he has saved the lives of a goodly portion of the crew, and brought the supplies back for the fleet! Well done, Bandit, well done!"

Well done, indeed? I glanced proudly up at Mr. H. and was dismayed to see a frown on his face. Come, come, Mr. H, you cannot expect to hog all the glory all the time, now, can you!

"I believe - I believe I will rate you Petty Officer, Bandit. Now this is a rare honor for a - a cat - to come up through the ranks like that. And you can be disrated just as quickly. So do your duty and I think you shall go far, sir."

I was most undone, I can assure you! Petty Officer (whatever the hell that was, and were my dancing kitties and Persian beauties?) But both Captain Pellew and Mr. H. seemed inordinately proud of themselves for bestowing this honor on me, so I knew I would fare poorly if I whined about it. So I touched my paw to my forehead, and Mr. H. and I left the Captain's cabin.

"And mind you don't spray on the quarter-deck, Mr. Bandit!" The Captain's voice echoed after us down the passageway. I was mortified, I really was! I had not lasted this long on the Indefatigable without learning a few lessons along the way!

I'm lying here now with Mr. H., as he recovers from Mr. Bracegirdle's celebratory tot of rum. I must say the boy has no head for drink, though Captain Pellew was partly to blame, having plied him earlier with brandy in his cabin. But damn, I've left a few small matters out now, haven't I?

It all started with that blasted Lieutenant's exam. You'd think cooped up for three weeks on that tiny Caroline would gave given Mr. H. ample time to study, but there he was, lamp lit, pencil in mouth, trying to learn it all at the last minute. (Just like him to take his books on holiday, and never open a one!) He was interrupting my sleep, but I refused to hold it against him, and in fact I decided to give him a paw by lying on his book, so he couldn't see the answers and would be forced to test himself. Well, goddam him all to hell, he was very ungrateful. I tried several times to test him, but each time he lifted me off the book and set me on the floor. Finally though, and this is completely unforgivable, he picked me up and threw me, ME, Petty Officer Bandit, quite across the width of his cabin, all the while muttering words under his breath that even I blush to repeat!

Very well, Mr. H, if that is how you repay my efforts to help you pass your miserable exam, I will sleep on your silly hat. Which I did, and I must say by morning, it was quite nicely squashed and full of cat hair. I played about a bit with his neckcloth too, and he had to give up his spirit ration to have the steward use his flatiron on it. Good thing too, judging by his present condition!

"You must stay here, Bandit," he said, as I skulked up beside him, just before he left for Gibraltar.

But, Mr. H ...

"You must, Bandit. If not, Captain Foster may wish to test your readiness for your new ranking of Petty Officer. And I believe he may just remember you from the Caroline ..."

Captain Foster? Dreadnaught Foster? Pirate Foster? A double agent no doubt! Oh dear. Do be careful, Mr. H. I have a bad feeling about this!

I stood to attention quite smartly, as though I had no intention of accompanying him, and the rest of the crew gave him three cheers. I refrained from joining in that particular spectacle, thinking that the cheers were better left for his return - supposing of course that the boy passed! After studying all night, he's bloody well likely to fall asleep and miss the exam altogether!

The rest of that day I went about doing my duty - sleeping with the men in the sick berth, sleeping down in the cable tier, after killing my token rat, and then for a slight change of pace, sleeping up on deck, to check the efficiency of the morning's holystoning . I was quite done in by all these endeavors, I can assure you.

Now what was I forgetting! Ah, Mr. H. Well, the dear boy did have a certain panache about him, I do say. Imagine returning to the Indefatigable aboard a fire ship! What a spectacle! Of course, it quite got away from him at the last minute and we ended up with a nasty little fire right there on the deck of the Indy and I bloody well singed my whiskers I did! Mr. H. had to jump for it, and when he finally made it back to the Indy (to a hearty round of cheers, shouts, hullabaloos and general merriment - quite beyond my comprehension, considering how close he'd come to setting us all aflame, and especially when I learned he'd botched the bloody exam as well - ) Even Captain Pellew, God damn him to hell, seemed pleased, which just goes to show that even captains don't know everything! I was able to gather a bit of quiet self-satisfaction in noticing that his uniform once again looked quite disreputable, and he'd managed to put a run (well, several, to be honest), in his last pair of stockings - though he'll probably try to blame me for it somehow, the bastard!

Now wait a minute! Don't jump to hasty conclusions here! I do love the boy dearly I do! It's just that sometimes I despair - I truly do!

So here we lie, a boy and his cat, the cat purring in that comforting and homey way cats have, and the boy - well, snoring, I have to say! And as I lie here, trying not to shred Mr. H's frilly nightshirt (rather a tad feminine for a ship of war, it seems to me!) as I knead it, I think of the distances we've traveled and how far we have yet to go as cats (though on further reflection, I count myself as nearly arrived now if we are talking of perfection) - oh, and as men - er, boys certainly. Goodnight, dear Mr. H. I stopped my kneading, laid my head down and fell asleep.

******************

A note from Bev: Apparently the flea most commonly carrying the Black Death bacillus - Xenopsylla Cheopsis - can travel with a cargo of grain quite happily without the aid of a rat. So the crew of the Caroline were probably more at risk from the foodstores they bought in Oran than from the rats that Bandit and Juliet so valiantly disposed of. This is just another example of the potentially useless pieces of information I've learned by being a Hornblower fan.