A PURR-fect Christmas
by Bev Fox

Note: Remember: When Bandit's words are in quotes, the person he addresses can hear him. If not, they can't.

Author's Note: Bandit has now discovered why his illustrious ancestor was never included in either the first Hornblower series or the second. It appears that the actor selected to play Hornblower is allergic to cats and absolutely refused to take the role if the cat part was included. Bandit certainly questions the competence of the producer and director of the series, for knuckling under to a bratty young actor simply because he was fresh from the set of another ship movie and had some sea experience.He was expecially incensed to learn that said actor quite cheerfully appeared on film with dogs and even a parrot, of all things! He is now intent on having this actor's contract for further Hornblower episodes cancelled. I explained to Bandit that if he persisted in making his viewpoint public, that he would be deluged by hate e-mail, but as you all know, there is no reasoning with a cat.

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

"I say, Bandit, fancy a bit of shore leave?"

Very funny, Mr. H. I haven't had a shore leave yet that's done me any good. In ways that truly matter, that is.

Mr. H and myself, the indefatigable Lieutenant Bandit, were standing on the quarterdeck, looking out over the sea, as we liked to do once in a while. Damn, but the wind was cold. Mr. H. was wearing that nice warm-looking cloak, and all I had on was my fur. Not that my coat is not warm and thick and handsome, but this year I'd felt that blasted cold right through to my bones. Hell, I'll admit it -- I was getting -- well, just a wee bit -- um, elderly. Hit me all of a sudden it did. One moment I was dashing up and down the companionways just as nice as you please, and the next I was wheezing and blowing like some kind of stranded whale. I used to spring out of Mr. H's cot full of piss and vinegar, ready to trounce the Dagos, and mortify the Frenchies. Now -- oh my ears and whiskers -- I took near half an hour working the kinks and aches out of my legs. I used to be lord and master of the cable tier and orlop deck -- no rat was safe, and they damn well knew it. Now -- oh, how it shames me to admit -- they pulled my tail and tweaked my nose, ran like hell, and I couldn't catch 'em!

But the worst was this infernal cold and dampness! Settled right through me it did, and even though Cook let me sleep by the stove sometimes, one minute above decks and I was shivering again.

So I just couldn't feel very excited -- with my luck, there'd be snow and ice, and Mr. H. would find me some morning stiff as a board, and just as dead.

"You don't seem very excited, Bandit. Perhaps I need to elaborate."

Oh, please do, Mr. H, though no shore leave you could think of will put any heat back into my poor frozen body.

"England, Bandit, we are going to England."

England?

"You know -- that big damp foggy island nor'nor east of Ushant."

My last shore leave in England was a complete waste of time, Mr. H. Oh, except for my lovely collar with the elegant silver nameplate, of course.

"What would you say to -- Portsmouth!"

Portsmouth. Portsmouth! Oh dear! Oh well, Mr. H, that is quite a different matter. Why, it seemed like only yesterday that I'd chased that rascal Falstaff through the streets of Portsmouth and ended up on a boat headed for Justinian. How long ago was that? Years -- too many years! Not that I hadn't had a grand time of it. Just think -- I must surely be the very first cat to rise from a lowly land cat to the exalted position of Lieutenant in His Majesty's Navy. And all of it earned on merit, I do assure you! No toadying around Captain Pellew or depending on illustrious relations (of which I have none.) No -- I earned my commission from daring acts of gallantry and courage, and saving Mr. H's life several times. Somehow he was still ahead of me on the Naval list, but I'm not bitter -- well, perhaps a little -- but he does try very hard not to pull rank on me, the dear boy.

"In fact, Bandit, what do you say to a visit to ....."

Now then, don't keep me on tenterhooks, Mr. H! Come, come! He stood there, grinning idiotically like some silly school boy and not at all like an officer in His Majesty's Navy. I'll tear your silk stockings, I will, Mr. H, and you won't get any more from Mr. Bracegirdle -- he's quite sick of you pilfering the contents of his seachest. Carefully, I placed one paw on his leg -- claws still in -- as a warning.

"THE LAMB!"

Oh my! I feel faint, Mr. H! A cruel jest! Am I dreaming? I must be! I'll wake up hanging from the yardarm -- Mr. H? The Lamb? Truly?

The Lamb. Betty. Cook. Roast beef and gravy. Chicken livers. Milk. A fire -- a huge blazing fire. Betty's nice warm bed. Kitties! Great British dockyard beauties. Have I died and gone to heaven!

Suddenly everything went black.

**********

"Bandit, Bandit -- are you all right. Good God, man, I think you fainted!"

How clever, Mr. H. I do believe I did faint. But where was I? I felt so warm, and cozy. Why, Mr. H, how kind of you!

"Oh dear, Bandit, you're freezing! Why didn't you tell me! We must get you down to the galley and once!" Mr. H. had stuffed me under his nice warm cloak, and while I did have a wee bit of trouble breathing, I did feel much better. And I felt better still, when he took me down to the galley and made me a cozy bed in front of the galley stove, and prevailed upon Cook to catch a rat for me. Of course, I would have preferred Cook to skin the bloody thing, and chop it up a little, because -- though I hate to admit it -- my teeth were not quite what they used to be -- but I did have some pride left, and I managed to wolf it down in my usual elegant feline manner.

"Bandit, I order you to come here to the galley anytime you feel cold, and Cook, you are to provide him with wholesome vittles -- chopped fine, if you please ..." Oh damn and blast, the boy had noticed my difficulties. I started to wash, just to show him how unconcerned I was about this insult, regarding my teeth.

"Oh, and Bandit ...." He spread his cloak out around him, and looked down at it with a unhappy face. " If you would keep your hair to yourself, and not leave quite so much on me, you might feel just a little warmer."

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

Ah-choo! Oh dear! All I seemed to do was sneeze and wheeze. The weather got worse, and if it hadn't been for the galley and Cook, why, I don't know what might have happened to me. I tottered out on deck every day -- damn and blast, I was not going to play the invalid completely -- but I soon dashed below again. The seas ran high and even in the best of health, I might not have had the strength to stop myself from going over the side. Truth to tell, I was perfectly happy to stay in the galley.

I did feel badly that I had excused myself from sick berth duty. Those poor buggers were in worse shape than I was, what with the cold and the rough weather, causing them to fall all over themselves and break legs and such, but I knew they bloody well didn't need a cat to come sneezing and coughing all over them.

Mr. H. looked rather a sight for sore eyes too, I must say. Green around the face, he was, when he'd stick his head in to see whether Cook was treating me right. (Well, he wasn't exactly -- kept on mumbling that he wasn't put on the good ship Indefatigable to skin rats for no bloody cat but after one of *those* looks from Mr. H. and a threat to send him into the rigging, he'd settled down a little.) I might be a little infirm, and the wind might have caught my lungs, but I could brag that I was still a better sailor than Mr. H. You'd think after all this time, the boy would get over this weakness, but there you are.

The days seemed to stretch on interminably. I'd almost forgotten Mr. H.'s promise of shore leave (not that I'd be in good shape to take full advantage, if I kept on like this much longer.) But I remembered it quick enough when he snatched me from the galley, muttering something under his breath about having to have a talk with me, and took us both along to his cabin.

Well, Mr. H? He had set me down on his cot, and now paced back and forth, his brow furrowed in that way he had when he was worried (which seemed most of the time, if you ask me.) Going back on your promise of shore leave? Don't know how to break the news to me? I might have known. I sighed, and wished he'd left his frilly nightshirt lying here so I could perhaps claw it a little.

"I don't know how to tell you this, Bandit..."

I knew it. Just spit it out, Mr. H. and leave me to my misery.

"I shall be leaving the Indefatigable, Bandit. I've been transferred. To a ship-of-the-line. Oh, I shall make my fortune there I'm sure. Plenty of opportunity for advancement. I don't know much about this chap Sawyer, but I'm sure everything will work out. "

You don't sound too happy about that, Mr. H. Oh dear! The horrible meaning behind his words had finally penetrated into my little cat brain. What would happen to me? Of course, I knew I enjoyed great popularity here on the Indy, but to think of her without Mr H! Oh my ears and whiskers. Oh great cat god, I pray this isn't so!

"So you now have a decision to make, Bandit. You may transfer to Renown with me ..."

Of course, Mr. H! Oh dear boy, how could I doubt you! I knew you would not leave me behind...

"Or -- you may retire to the Lamb and live the rest of your life in luxury. I'm sure your half-pay will be more than adequate for your needs. Now which is it to be, sir?"

Oh. Oh dear! On the one hand, a life of adventure and adversity, and most likely, more cold and damp, and hard knocks, but I'd be with my dear Mr. H. On the other hand, the Lamb, with all its comforts. My poor old body already had an answer, but how could I live without Mr. H? How could I? But a new ship? A new captain? Captain Pellew still blamed me for that bullock, and he huffed and puffed a bit when I came onto the quarterdeck, but he was a grand fellow after all. Who knew what kind of chap this Sawyer would be. As a young lad, I'd have been game for anything, but now.... And a ship of the line! I could barely climb the companionways here on the Indy now; on a ship the size of Justinian -- why, how could I earn my living? The cable tier and orlop would be huge -- I'd be gasping for breath before I was halfway along, and the rats would twitch their noses and swish their tails at me and I'd be hung from the yardarm for dereliction of duty! Oh dear indeed!

Mr. H. sat on the cot beside me, and scratched behind my ears. I know it was most undignified of me but I purred!

"I should miss you dreadfully, Bandit. But I fear for your health. On a ship the size of Renown...."

We both sat there, feeling sorry for ourselves, until Mr. H said: "Let's wait until we reach the Lamb. After a few days of coddling and fattening up, perhaps you'll feel more your old self and you'll be ready to go again. Or..."

Or I'll be too fat and lazy to put to sea again. Very well, Mr. H, we'll wait until we're at the Lamb.

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

"Betty, I have someone who wishes to see you."

Mr. H. had me half hidden under his cloak (and I tried very hard indeed to hold onto my fur this time) but I could see that the Lamb hadn't changed much since the day he'd bowled me over on the stairs . And bless my ears and whiskers, there was Betty! A little plumper than I remembered, but she had a happy look on her face, so things hadn't gone too badly with her in the years I'd been away. But what -- who was this ? A little Betty? Much smaller, but plump too, and wearing a little apron just like Betty.

"I remember you, sir! You was the one what was 'ere the day we 'ad the bodies layin' all over! That chap Simpson never come back, thank the Lord. It's been a sight happier round 'ere without 'is sort, I can tell yer!"

" I am happy to inform you, Betty, that Mr. Simpson is dead."

"And givin' the Devil a run fer 'is money, I shouldn't wonder! Now, who wants ter see me?"

Mr. H. pulled his cloak open, and I blinked in the bright light and smoke of the Lamb's common room.

"Do you remember this fellow, Betty!"

Betty's eyes got very round, and she clapped her fat fingers to her cheeks and shrieked! Oh dear, was I to get the end of her broom because I'd left the Lamb without a tail wave goodbye? Frantically I tried to burrow back under Mr. H's cloak.

"Lord Almighty -- is it -- it can't be -- I thought e'd died! Is it really you?"

Cautiously she reached out her hand, as though if I had died, I was now a ghost. Yes, Betty, it's me, come back after all these years.

"Oh dearie! It *is* you! " And she wrenched me out of Mr. H's arms, and squashed me against that nice big pillowy bosom of hers. "Oh my!Yer've come back, dearie, back to the Lamb and yer Betty, ye naughty boy! Where 'ave yer been all these years?"

"Bandit is now a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He has served with distinction on His Majesty's Frigate Indefatigable under Captain Pellew, and been responsible for saving many lives -- including -- ahem -- my own."

"What! You did all them things? You served with Capting Pellew -- why, we 'ear great stories about the famous Capting Pellew all the time. And yer name's Bandit, do ye say -- well, 'tis a fittin' one and make no mistake -- ye were a bad 'n when ye was here." She held me out in front of her, and bless me, but I could see tears in her eyes. "And look - ye've got yer name on yer collar -- lord, but ye've come up in the world indeed!

" 'ere, you, get a tankard of ale for this fine gentleman, " she bellowed at one of the serving wenches -- ah, yes, the Betty I knew and loved! "And a dish o'cream fer this fine kitty!Now, sir, yer in the way o' bein'....?"

"Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower, ma'am. And I have a small matter to discuss..."

"Well, sit ye down, and ye too, Bandit!"

So we all sat around one of the well worn tables in the Lamb and for the first time in my life, there I was, sitting on a chair, as important as any of the other officers around us. And soon I had a dish of real cream in front of me. I took just a little taste -- after a steady diet of sturdy naval rats (with a bit of bulloch thrown in on special occasions) I didn't want to upset my delicate constitution with such rich fare. But oh my ears and whiskers, it was very good indeed!

Little Betty hopped up on the chair beside me and gave my ear a tug.

"Now then, little Betty, ye behave yerself. And don't ye be lookin' that way at me, Bandit -- Cook and me've been hitched fer years now. I been a faithful wife to 'im too. And yer a fine one t'talk -- what with all the bastards ye left around here, you randy boy!"

Mr. H looked quite shocked at that. Well, I did have a life before I was pressed on board Justinian -- and it's certainly not been my fault if you haven't, Mr. H! Funny though, I hadn't thought that I might have -- that there could be -- well, bless my ears and whiskers!

"Well then, Mr. 'ornBLOWER, what ye got to discuss?"

Mr. H. sipped gingerly at the huge tankard placed in front of him. The boy had no head at all for spirits -- not like some I've seen in each one of my nine lives -- both here at the Lamb, and later on the Indy. I'd not like him to get besotted on the Lamb's potent ale, not when he had important matters to attend to, like my possible future. I continued lapping delicately at my cream, while giving him the odd glance, just to make sure he didn't reach too often for that tankard.

"This is the situation, Betty. I have been transferred to a ship-of-the-line -- the Renown -- and while I would be most eager to have my great friend and shipmate Bandit accompany me, I fear we may be at sea for years. He's felt the cold most dreadfully this winter and it's seemed to have stiffened up his legs somewhat, so that he has difficulty running up and down the companionways. "

How very diplomatic of you, Mr. H! Mr. T. of the D.S. would be proud of you indeed. Some bastards would say that I was -- well, becoming elderly and unable to discharge my duties as a Lieutenant. But I'm sure you are right -- the cold *has* stiffened up my joints somewhat. If we sailed to the Indies I know matters would right themselves and I'd be as good as new. Except -- oh dear -- Styles does go on so about tropical diseases in a manner which leads me to believe they are strongly to be avoided. And this cream is very fine indeed -- so carry on, Mr. H, if you please.

Which he did, bless his heart. "If Bandit chooses not to accompany me on board Renown, I was hoping a place might be found for him here at the Lamb. "

Now, Betty and I got on famously, we did, when I called the Lamb home previous to my great nautical adventures. Why, I could not begin to count on all my paws -- or even with my whiskers thrown in too -- the occasions when I'd provided comfort (and a nice soft coat of fur for her to pet) when some naval blackguard had broken her heart. But I could see that she did not greet Mr. H's polite enquiry with nearly the enthusiasm I would have expected. So, Betty, now that you've wed Cook, I expect you think you have no further need of my services!

"I might add, Betty, that during his years of service in His Majesty's Navy, Bandit has accumulated a tidy little sum of prize money, which , along with his half-pay would be more than ample to to cover his expenses."

Prize money? Prize money! Damn and blast, no one ever told me that I might have prize money! And when were you going to tell me of my good fortune, Mr. H? Why, I might have been blasted to pieces by a Frenchie cannon ball and never have enjoyed a penny of it. You could at least have allowed me to purchase some delicacies for the wardroom mess -- some of this delicicous cream, perhaps.

And damn you, Betty! You're all smiles now, aren't you? Knowing I'm a rich cat has made all the difference now, doesn't it?

"Thank the Lord, Mr. 'ornBLOWER, that 'e comes with some shillin's. I be only a servin' wench 'ere ..." Serving *wench* Betty? Not for many a year, my dear!

"...and Cook be only a cook, and whiles the Lamb would founder like, wi'out our services, 'tis the owner what needs to be made 'appy. But if Bandit be a payin' guest, than ...." and she chucked me under the chin " Yer be welcome ter stay."

Oh dear. Now I felt bad. Perhaps I'd judged Betty too harshly.

"So, Bandit, I propose to leave you here with Betty until tomorrow, when Captain Pellew, myself, and some of the ship's officers will return to the Lamb for a celebratory dinner, in honor of the Yuletide season."

Just as long as you don't indulge yourself with a celebratory tot of rum, Mr. H! And I checked his tankard to reassure myself that he was quite sober and that I needn't give him a helping paw back to the Indy. But the lad had hardly touched his ale, and I concluded he'd not need me after all. Oh. Oh dear. Not need me? But he *would* need me. On a new ship, with a new Captain -- why, anything might happen! He might break out into tears at an inappropriate time, which I've seen him do, or he might let another Frenchie girl turn his head -- do they have Frenchie girls in the Indies? -- no matter, I'm sure some female would take advantage of his good heart and inexperience in the ways of the feminine gender. How could I leave him? Who would save his life the next time he blundered into trouble? Archie? Of course I know Archie had saved his life back there at the bridge, but I wouldn't be putting my faith in a fellow who's inclined to panic!

What to do? What to do?

"Look up your old friends and visit your old haunts. And I'll await your decision tomorrow. Oh, and by the way, Betty, I would appreciate you *not* providing any carolers, if you please!"

Well, thank what ever cat gods there be, I needn't decide the course of the rest of my life today. I'm sure I will find the dockyard changed beyond measure, and I'll be quite happy to follow Mr. H. to the ends of the earth. But damn, this cream is fine, very fine indeed!

***************
The ground was covered lightly with snow when I set foot gingerly outside the next day. At least I started the day with a full belly, and memories of a cosy sleep to keep me going. The old Dockyard hadn't changed much in the years I'd been gone. In fact if I closed my eyes I could imagine myself on that fateful day -- the frosty weather, the clatter of horses' hooves on the cobblestones, the wet sea air ....

"Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch! "

Oh, my ears and whiskers, I knew that voice! I'd only closed my eyes for an instant! Was I truly back where I started? Had my whole career on the Indy been a dream? Did I have my whole life to live over again. Or might it be the ale? I had checked out Mr. H's tankard of ale so many times that perhaps the fumes had quite overtaken me. The dockyard had looked wavery after that, and I tripped over my paws a bit, but I was quite all right, I do assure you -- or so I thought until I heard that voice!

"Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins! "

"Falstaff! But -- but you're -- why, sir, you are dead, you are! "

"Blimey, 'owd ye know me name!"

I shook my head, trying to dispell any lingering effects of Mr. H's ale, for I desperately hoped all my glorious adventures had not been a dream. But there was a rat in front of me -- but thank what ever cat gods there be, not Falstaff, not the Falstaff I knew, I could see that now --- now that the shock had worn off . The rodent peering at me with his beady black eyes was still no great beauty -- he might not be Falstaff, but he was near as ugl y -- he had both his ears, at least, though they were tattered and torn, half his whiskers were gone too.

"I may not know your name, sir, but I knew a rat named Falstaff. We were shipmates together."

"Shipmates! I've 'eard tales of a rat whot went to sea -- 'e was named Falstaff too, 'e was -- it's become a family tradition, yer might say. " Here he looked at me closely. "Say, whatever become of the old bugger anyhow?"

Oh dear! He *would* have to ask! "He -- he died in the service of his country," I answered. Well, he had, in a manner of speaking -- for I wonder if Mr. H. would ever have tamed that unruly division of his were it not for that little episode in the cable tier, and if poor old Falstaff had not warned me of the goings on, I never would have led Mr. H. hence, and he would never have uttered those marvelous words in that marvelous manner: "I said it and I mean it!" And certainly Mr. H. has performed many feats since in the service of his country (though he did have a little help from time to time from me!)

"Thou crusty botch of nature! Ye killt him, I warrent!" And he edged a little further away from me.

Oh dear again! All right, I had, in a manner of speaking -- though the poor old thing had begged me to in the end. Now, I've been known to tell the odd little white lie in my life and don't you good folk judge me too harshly, for I'm sure you've done the same, now and again. If I were only to tell one more little white lie in my whole life (which I'm not promising, mind!), then this did indeed seemed the time for it. After all, if I did decide to stay at the Lamb, then I would hesitate to raise the ire of such as raggedy Falstaff standing here before me. For if I did stay at the Lamb, my vittles would be provided for me (out of my prize money, if Mr. H. could be believed!) and I would have no need to chase rats and would rather keep on good terms with them.Being such a fine fellow as I am, and having come up substantially in the world, I could afford to be generous with those less fortunate than myself.

Oh, there I've rambled on again! Where was I? Oh yes, trying to answer Falstaff's many-times-great grandson!

"On the contrary, I tended him most kindly. " And then I had a happy thought. " He had a daughter, you know -- Juliet, her name was. She saved a whole ships' crew from the plague, she did! "

"Blimey!" Falstaff Jr. (for so I had quickly come to think of him!) looked quite beside himself. He took a second to preen what miserable whiskers he had left (and I don't know what we would all do if we could not take a moment for a bit of grooming, in a difficult situation. Mr. H though has not quite got the hang of it -- running his fingers through his usually messy hair, and tugging on his pathetic worn jacket makes no improvement in his appearance whatsoever! ) "Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch! " But his heart was not in it, I could tell.

"And that's another thing! " Here was my great opportunity to find out the answer to a very perplexing question. "Why do all you Falstaffs speak in such a peculiar manner? My very good friend Duchess K. says a Master Shakespeare wrote all those words in plays, and she should know -- as she is a very fine actress herself!"

"We gets 'm from the playhouse, thou loathed issue of thy father's loins! 'Tis a great spot fer rats -- with the patrons droppin' their tidbits o'food on the floor -- and when we're full up, we run round ter the dressin' room and give the young girls a right good scare! Come on then, I'll show yer where tis at!"

And off he ran. The playhouse. Hm, well , I wouldn't mind seeing the playhouse. If I were to remain at the Lamb -- and I hadn't made up my clever cat mind yet -- then I would need to expand my interests. After the exciting life I'd lived on the Indy -- with cannon balls flying, and climbing the yardarm (and thanks to my exemplary behaviour as an officer, I'd not ever swung from it, nor been thrown off it -- so Oldroyd'll have to find something else to bet on!) -- I was afraid I might find the Lamb and the lowlifes that hung around the dockyard not exactly to my liking. But a playhouse might be just the thing to keep my wits sharp in my dotage -- which I 'm sure I'll not reach for a very long time yet.

Oh dear! Now where had that pesky Falstaff Jr. gone? Oh, there he was, and I hastened to follow. I didn't exactly run, mind you, but I walked very quickly -- as a Lieutenant in His Majesty's Royal Navy, I had to show the proper decorum -- and I do assure you, I could have run just as speedily as the day I'd followed Falstaff to Justinian -- if I'd wanted to! I had some trouble keeping Falstaff Jr. in sight however, and I'm sure that was not a look of merriment I caught on his face, as he had to slow down once again.

At last! The playhouse. Oh dear! I was all out of breath, I was! Hadn't got my landlegs yet -- yes, of course -- that was it! Then suddenly -- two hands swooped out of nowhere and snatched me out of the street, and way up -- to be hugged tightly against -- why, against a very fine feminine bosom! But who...

"Why, Bandit, that *is* you!"

Why, Duchess K, is that *you*? Oh bless my ears and whiskers, it was my dear Duchess K! How, why ....

"What good fortune, Bandit! Here am I -- appearing in a play at this very playhouse, in fact -- and what do I see out in the harbour but the bloody Indy! And now you -- oh, Bandit -- how *have* you been!"

I have been better, Duchess K, but I feel very fine now indeed! I snuggled against her bosom as tight as I could, and hoped she'd not put me down in the street just yet.

"Do come in and look around." She waltzed through the front door, keeping a keen grip on me (and I felt privileged indeed, for she was truly a fine figure of a woman -- though Mr. H. was quite blind to it during our imprisonment in Spain, the foolish boy!) "You seemed so interested in Master Shakespeare's words -- and this is indeed the place to hear them spoken to perfection!"

I would dearly love to see that, Duchess K! I looked eagerly around -- there were a good many seats, to sit on, I expected. And then a raised part at one end, with bits of buildings and such on it.

"Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow!" Ah! I remembered those words.

"It's Romeo and Juliet, Bandit. "

Well, of course I knew that. The Juliet part anyway. Poor Juliet! Perhaps the Juliet in the play would not suffer so sad an end as that poor little rat!

"I must set you down now, Bandit, as I have rehearsals to attend. But may I expect to see you at the Lamb tomorrow? I shall be attending a Christmas feast there, at which time I hope to renew my acquaintance with Captain Pellew -- and my dear Mr. 'Aitch of course." She looked rather dreamy-eyed as she said that, and I knew that my dear Mr. H. would be in for a very rough time of it indeed -- and I hoped he wouldn't go and embarrass the lot of us , by appearing with runs in his silk stockings and his cocked hat all squashed!

So there I was, in front of the playhouse again, and wondering which way to turn. Not that I was lost, exactly. I'd known Portsmouth from end to end in my day, and cats can always find their way home. I only needed a moment to get my bearings, and then I would be quite all right!

Ouch! Oh damn and blast! I'd quite forgotten about all the beastly horses' hooves that liked to attack me from all directions! I'd gotten used to being on the receiving end of a good boot during my time on the Indy, but I could see (and feel!) quite clearly now, that those gentle prods from those shiny Naval boots were not kicks at all ! My side ached abominably, and I'd only just started on my way home! Oh dear! Mr. H, you shall find my poor broken bloody body mashed to a pulp under these infernal hooves -- and you are quite right to have such a poor impression of horses in general ...

Oh! Here I was, flying through the air again! Hell and damnation -- what was happening to me now....

"Hello there, Bandit! "

Oh. Oh dear! Why, it was MY LORD -- and here I was, sitting up on his big horse with him once again. Almost before the sense of it all could sink in, I scooted a little forward, so as not to shed hair all over his elegant uniform. MY LORD!

"I do believe my horse might have damaged you a little." He quickly felt all over my beautiful cat body, and I must admit -- though I am most embarrassed to do so -- that I winced a little when he pressed on the sore spot in my side. I know a Lieutenant in His Majesty's Navy must always keep a stiff upper lip, and carry on despite gallant wounds -- and be a shining example to the men -- only there weren't any men around right at the moment, were there? -- so I supposed I could be forgiven for whimpering just a little.

"Are you headed for the Lamb, Bandit?"

Well, yes I am, MY LORD, and now that I am way up here, with you, instead of way down there, at the mercy of heaven knows what , I am quite sure I know exactly the way to travel.

"I shall drop you off there on my way, Bandit, then I must be off to purchase my Mama a new parosol for Christmas. I plan on attending the Yuletide festivities tomorrow, and I look forward to visiting with my old friends from Muzillac. By the way, will Mr. Hornblower be there? I do hope he has left off yardarm climbing. It appeared to me from a very sensible deck level, that he had a deuced difficult time reaching that exalted perch, and an even more deuced difficult time coming back down. He looked very green about the face, and if he were better turned out, I would have suggested he join the Army instead!"

I gazed out over the streets of Portsmouth from *my* exalted perch, hoping to catch sight of Falstaff Jr. and show him what a an important personage I was, but the crafty fellow had done a better job of eluding horses hooves than I had.

In no time at all, we were back at the Lamb, and MY LORD, after setting me down, gave a smart salute and went on his way. After such a busy day I was feeling a little peeked, and the thought of perhaps another dish of cream, or even a morsel or two of good English beef (though I'd had quite enough today of good English beer, thank you very much!) was quite enticing! So I pranced my way around to the back of the Lamb, headed directly to the kitchen...

"Cluck!"

What! What? Mrs. Chicken! No, it couldn't be! She was dead! I'd eaten her -- oh dear!

"Mrs. Chicken?" I said, warily, to the plump little bundle of feathers that squawked and fluttered in front of me.

"Yes, I'm Mrs. Chicken, " she said. "Do I know you, sir? "

"Um -- not exactly. I am Lieutenant Bandit, of His Majesty's Frigate Indefatigable ...."

"I don't see how you can be a Lieutenant. You're only a cat! While I have a many-times-great grandmother who was the officers' chicken!" She looked down her beak at me in a manner that looked all too familiar.

Oh dear. I felt faint, very faint indeed.

"Did you know my many-times-great grandmother?" She eyed me suspiciously. "Her name was Mrs. Chicken too. They say there was great excitement in the chicken coop when she was chosen to go to sea! We never knew what became of her." Here she skewered me with her eyes. Hell, she expected an answer !

I thought very hard indeed. I'd already told one white lie today, and I must admit, I was not very comfortable with telling another one. Damn! What to say, what to say!

Aha! I had it! I would tell the truth, no more, no less!

"Mrs. Chicken, I have the pleasure of informing you that your many-times-great grandmother served both myself and the officers to perfection!"

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

Thump! Squeak! Rustle! Mew!

Damn and blast, what now! I'd escaped from Mrs. Chicken and the chicken coop and strolled unconcernedly into the kitchen. Cook was busy with his pots and pans and roaring big fire -- and bless my ears and whiskers -- but there seemed to be a little Cook helping him out, just as there had been a little Betty earlier. I'd been away from the Lamb for a very long time indeed!

I knew a busy man when I saw one, and even though I was now an officer in the King's Navy, and could expect service a little more in line with my position, I waited patiently, and finally little Cook tossed me some chopped liver, and very tasty it was too. Then, with my tummy full, and my sleek feline body finally beginning to lose the chill which had settled in my bones months ago, I curled up in a corner well out of the way of Cook's coming and going, and fell asleep.

Fell asleep and dreamed of my busy day. Of Falstaff Jr., and Duchess K. and MY LORD, and Mrs. Chicken Jr. Why, I might almost think I was dying and my life was passing before my very eyes. And now this -- horrid racket, and the feel of little feet running all over me. At first, I had no recollection of my wherabouts, and believed my dream to be only a dream after all, and not a remembering of my little adventures since returning to the Lamb. But then it all came back to me, and for a moment, I was bathed in a warm glow to think that I was *indeed* back at the Lamb, and the wood planks beneath me would not suddenly tilt at impossible angles and roll me across the deck, and a cold and very salty wave would not pounce at me and leave me wet, cold and miserable.

No indeed! The air was full of the most delicious of smells, and my mouth watered rather disgustingly, I can tell you! And not only did the air smell good, it was warm as well. Perhaps I had died and gone to heaven, but if I had, then what were these creatures crawling all over me? Damn and blast! Perhaps I'd died and gone somewhere else --

But somehow I didn't think so. Surely I was right here where I expected to be -- in the kitchen in back of the Lamb. If I only opened my eyes .... Rest assured, I'd kept my eyes shut because -- well, a fellow shouldn't rush into such things as waking up too quickly. Very bad for the constitution, indeed. I certainly was not afraid at what I might see...

There. And bless my ears and whiskers! Why, that could be me -- several years ago, of course. Oh, very well, quite a few years ago! For right in front of my eyes was a handsome brown striped -- kitten! Oh thank the Lord, finally another cat! I'd come to firmly believe that there'd been a mysterious plague and I was the only cat still remaining on earth! Well, bloody hell! Another one! And another! And -- my goodness, another one!

"Now, children," a sweet soft voice sounded close to my ears. "The gentleman has had a very long sea voyage, and needs his rest."

I looked round -- and there she was! Why, the Duchess of Katmandu! Here? How? Why she didn't look a day over two years -- how could that be? (Though I am sure that I do not look a day or two over four or five -- or maybe six, at the very most!)

"Duchess!" I gasped.

She was busily pulling all those little kittens off me, using teeth to scruff of neck and for a moment, I felt all kind of soft and sentimental, remembering my own Mama doing the same, though she was an ugly old thing, with not an ounce of sweetness about her, and her teeth nipped me rather more than I would have liked. She brought me up right, though, to survive in the Dockyard, and those lessons had been invaluable to me, in the nether regions of the good old Indy!

"Duchess?" Finally the four little kitties were arrayed at her feet, and she stared me right in the eye. She was a beautiful cat indeed, but I could see now that she had some of my very own stripes and just a touch of the Duchess.

"I -- I knew a cat once," I explained. "The Duchess of Katmandu ..."

"Oh my, then you are the one! Children -- I believe this is your many-times-great grandfather!" A little chorus of kitty oohs and aahs went up, and they looked at me with those great big kitten eyes in their furry little faces. Many-times-great grandfather? Me?

"You went away to sea, " she said, "And never knew. About the Duchess. Her owner brought her back, very round she was with all the kittens she carried. Was told that if she would sully her noble lineage by dallying with a mangy dockyard tom, she could damn well -- and please, Grandfather, excuse my language, but that is what the lady said -- live the rest of her life with him. Why, every cat in the Dockyard knows the story -- that she produced a litter of the strongest handsomest smartest kittens ever seen -- and everyone with your elegant brown stripes, Grandfather. And after all these years, the kittens with the brown stripes are always the strongest, handsomest and smartest! As you can see!" And she nudged each kitten with her nose, until they stood just a little way from me.

Oh my ears and whiskers! Oh dear! Oh my! At the height of my naval career, even when standing right up there on the yardarm with all the Indys, I'd never felt like this! To think that the Duchess and I had left such a wonderful legacy! Oh thank you, Mr. H, for bringing me back! Why, I could have been swept overboard in a storm or had my head taken off with a cannon ball, and never have known ....

"Mom, he's crying!" one of the kittens whispered. Crying? Nonsense! Lieutenants in his Majesty's Navy never cry! Cook's chopping onions, that's what it is, and I'm sure he's crying too. It took me a few minutes, but I was able to compose myself finally and realize there were so many questions I wanted to ask.

"Do you have a name?"

"Mom, she's Mom!" came the squeaky voice of one of the kittens.

Mom smiled and answered, a little sadly, I thought, "Cook and Betty are kind, and even slip us a wee saucer of milk now and then, but they only call me kitty or dear kitty ..."

"Well, they used to call me 'that damn cat' when I was here."

Another kitten tittered, and Mom gave him a gentle clout with her paw.

"That was nearly the first good thing that happened to me after I joined the Navy. My Mr. H. gave me my very own name. He called me Bandit." I explained.

"Oooh! Aaah!" My, these wee ones were devilishly easy to impress, I must say!

"He caught me trying to nick his vittles! Mind, I never did that again. Why, I'd have been hung from the yard arm, or flogged round the fleet! " I could have gone on for hours, of course -- one doesn't become an officer without having lots of adventures! But I was so taken with these little creatures -- all there because of one wild night of pleasure (and the memories of which were all that kept me going after my pathetic shore leave experiences!)

"Come, tell me a little about yourselves! " They cowered back against Mom. "Here, you first!"

I'd pointed to a feisty young fellow, and he sat stern and stiff, with his nose pointed into the air. "I want to go to sea also, Mr. Bandit, sir! But I don't intend to start as a ship's cat. I want to be a captain right off!"

He got quite a few "Go on's", and "You're daft's" but I had to admire his pluck, and agree that my life would have been much easier on board the Indy if I'd been able to start right off in the Captain's cabin, and not down in that disgusting orlop deck!

"You've set your sights very high indeed, young man. I'm sure a glorious future awaits you. For now, we'll call you Captain, shall we?"

He sat up so tall at that, that he tumbled right over backwards, and had to endure the giggles of his littermates.

"Ho, there, you're next!" And the second little fellow came to stand in front of me. " I want to join the Army!" he said, " And wear one of those nice red uneeforms!"

"Yes, well, I don't suppose the Quartermaster has one in your size -- your handsome fur coat will stand you in good stead, even in the Army. I shall call you ..." MY LORD did seem a little pretentious a name for this funny little furry ball, but something in the very set of his face did remind me of said MY LORD ... "Earl -- will that do? It costs money to buy your commission, you know, but I wish you the best of luck nonetheless. Next?"

"Me, sir." Ah, something different! I could see we had a young lady in our midst! "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Bloody hell! Was I never to excape from these strange sayings? Some of my discomfiture must have shown on my usually inscrutable feline face, for Mom said hastily, "She picks things up from the actors practicing their lines...."

"'Cause I want to be an actor!" The young lady added firmly. Why, she reminded me of....

"I shall call you Duchess!"

"Duchess?"

"After your many-times-great Grandmother, and also a dear lady of my acquaintance who is herself a fine actress and no stranger to the stage. "

Duchess swished her little tail, and joined Captain and Earl. That left only one kitten who had not come forward and introduced himself. He was by far the handsomest of the lot, with his nice even stripes, and his bright eyes.

"Come, come, what about you, " I said, reaching out a paw to him. He sneezed, and scratched his ear, and gave his paw a quick lick ( I could see he was well-versed in cat tactics!). But finnally, he walked forward with his tail in the air (and it would be a grand tail indeed when he reached his prime, nearly as grand as my own beautiful appendage!)

"Please, sir," he said, his eager little face just brimming over with excitement, "Please, sir, I -- well, I'd like to be just like you, sir! Go to sea with your Mr. H and have 'ventures and such! I'd work hard, and catch lots of rats, and someday be a Lieutenant too!"

Oh my ears and whiskers! Bless the little thing! What a fine ambition -- to be just like me! Mind, I know of no other cats in the employ of the Navy (well, to be honest, I do not *know* any other cats in the employ of the Navy but I'm sure my feelings on this matter are correct , despite this one small detail!) who have risen from a lowly Landcat to such an exalted position! I admit that in the last few years, my dreams of becoming a Captain had faded somewhat, but Mr. H. was no nearer that goal himself so I didn't feel too badly. But here was one of my offspring -- one of *my* offspring, and the notion still gave me goosebumps to think of -- who's only dream was to follow in *my* paw steps! Not that I wish to belittle the aspirations of Mom's other kitties. But to wish to be like *me* ....

"Well, Junior -- for that shall be your name, Bandit Junior-- you must grow up big and strong and fearless, and learn to catch rats and stand with your paws behind your back."

"Grandpa, can you do that?" Little Junior's eyes grew large, and I regretted having to admit to him that well, no, I'd practised for years and never quite got it right.

"But if you start now, perhaps you'll be the first cat to successfully do so, and your place in the Navy will be assured!"

With that, he balanced on his back legs, with his body upright, and reached his paws behind his back. Of course, he landed squarely on his nose and his brothers and sisters had a good laugh at his expense.

"Come, dears, "Mom said, "Off you go! Grandpa Bandit has had quite enough of you today! Just remember -- go no further than the chicken coop, and under no circumstances play in the street!" The four kitties raced off, mewing and purring amongst themselves, and I thought glumly that if I had half -- no, a quarter their energy -- I would not now be contemplating a great change in my style of living.

Well, Bandit, no point in feeling sorry for yourself. Look what you've come back to -- a real family! Then I realized I hadn't given Mom a name.

"I haven't given you a name, Mom."

She sighed. "I seem to be a Mom so often, I don't think I could get used to anything else. But I do worry so about this latest litter."

"How so? They seem excellent kittens to me, with great aspirations for their future."

"But that's just it, you see! All my other litters were content to find work catching rats and mice wherever they were needed to do so. But these four -- I despair, I really do! "

"There, there, Mom ..." and I gave her pretty face a lick. "Things will all work out. They usually do." Well, I had to say that, didn't I? I was the first one to know that things didn't always work out. But I could do her one favour, at least.

"You do remind me of my dear Duchess of Katmandu, so I shall call you Kat!" She didn't answer, but gave my face a gentle lick and I knew she was well-pleased.

***********

I had little time to dwell on Mom and her kittens, though thoughts of them kept returning to me during the busy day ahead. And what a busy day it was, indeed. I'd had a good night's sleep (with no infernal ships' bells ringing at every hour of the day and night), but Cook and Cook Junior, and Betty and little Betty were rushing here and there, bringing in wood and water, chopping great slabs of bullock, and stuffing geese, you'd think they were feeding an army (or at least the crew of Indefatigable.) Then Betty had to clean the floor, and hang bits of greenery round the Lamb, and push all the tables together in one long row.

"Out of the way, Bandit," Betty said, as she nearly tripped over me for the fourth time." We have a wonderful great number of people coming for a fine Christmas dinner, and Cook and I have no time to look out for you!"

And who's coming, might I ask?

Betty fanned her bright red face with her apron. "With the likes of the fine Capting Pellew, and an earl, no less, from the Army, and -- well, let's see -- that lovely actress lady, and much more of a lady than I'd expect her sort to be -- and of course, your dear Mr. 'ornBLOWER ..." she stopped for a moment, and sighed, and looked over at Cook with a strange kind of look. " Never mind. And lots of other orficers and fine folk and th'like! Why, the Lamb's niver had that great a dinner here, in all my time!"

Mr. H! Of course Mr. H would be here! Today was the day I would give him my answer -- whether I would continue in the service of the Royal Navy, or dodder away the rest of my life here at the Lamb. Blast and damn! What was I going to do?

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

"What are you looking at, Bandit?" Mr. H. was quite red in the face, which I was not surprised to see as he'd been kissing Duchess K. for what seemed like forever. Even with his face red, he looked most inordinately pleased with himself, and I hadn't the heart to tell him that Duchess K. had been here in this exact spot just a few minutes earlier with Captain Pellew, and before that, with MY LORD.

In fact, this spot did seem to be very popular. Betty had hung a special bit of greenery there, with white berries,and I could see that it had some strange magical properties, for whenever a man and a woman passed beneath it, they were forced to kiss each other, or so it seemed to me. I walked underneath, when the spot wasn't busy (which was hardly ever -- in fact, I do believe it was the most popular spot in the Lamb!) and felt no effect. Not that cats kiss -- why should we, when we can smell, and lick, and bite, but humans seem to like it well enough.

Anyway, I was happy that Mr. H. and Duchess K. had been trapped by the green stuff -- and judging from the color of his face, and the fact that he seemed to be breathing hard, I doubt he'd ever had such an experience before! Perhaps if Duchess K. had had some of that wonderful plant with her in Spain, Mr. H. would have been in a better mood and wouldn't have whined so much to me so much about his little problems!

Betty'd been quite right -- everyone seemed to be here at the Lamb. Why, even the great Captain Pellew -- after muttering something about bullock -- leaned over and gave me a pet on the head! Mr. Bracegirdle was in attendance and I was happy to see that he still had at least one pair of silk stockings left for himself! And my little pal Archie -- still apologizing for almost shooting my tail off in France -- really, Archie, that was years ago and I've quite forgiven you! After all, you did save my life at the bridge (oh, and Mr. H's too!)

I did have to watch out for flying boots -- but I knew that any kicks I received today, were simply due to my being rather a small animal, among all these humans -- and not due to the likes of a nasty creature like Simpson. I missed the men of Mr. H's division, but we were all officers here, and they weren't, and that's that!

Finally all the guests were seated and even I was given a special place on the floor with my very own dish of tidbits (but no chicken, I was happy to see -- I'd quite lost my taste for chicken, as I seemed to be cursed to number them among my acquaintences, and while I had no qualms about killing rats I might have been introduced to at one time or another, somehow I found chickens to be quite another thing!) I must confess -- though as a seacat I learned to eat when I could, for weather or battle could put an end to the next meal -- I was stuffed all ready when I sat down to this wonderful repast. Perhaps due to my prolonged illness of the last few months (which -- bless my ears and whiskers -- seemed to have vanished after some fresh vittles and two good nights' sleep!) I must have appeared a little on the slim side, for my friends kept slipping me little morsels and tidbits until I could eat no more! Goodness, at this rate, I would end up looking like Mr. Bracegirdle -- or worse, Mr. Tapling (who, unfortunately, did not appear to be present; most likely he was off in some foreign country being diplomatic.)

Such prodigious amounts of food I had never seen in my life! In the midst of the general merriment and my good fortune, I was pleased to realize that I had not given in completely to this high life. I scrutinized Mr. H's wine glass carefully, to make sure that he was showing his usual prudence. And I thought of Kat and her kitties, and hoped that Cook and Betty had not forgotten their little tummies either!

"May I have your attention please!" Oh my goodness, that was Mr. H! He was using his best quarterdeck voice (not as loud as his famous 'fiyah' voice, but commanding nevertheless) All of a sudden I realized that anyone with a voice like that was indeed destined for a glorious future in the service of His Majesty's Navy, while in the heat of battle, my poor little miouw would scarce be heard even by myself . I had been fooling myself to think I would ever command a ship of my own, even a damned jolly boat. Mind, now, I did not hold this against Mr. H, because he could not help being born with a thundering voice like that, just as I could not help being born with a miouw. On the other hand, Nature had blessed me with this beautiful striped coat, and so I had no need to spend all my prize money on uneeforms. Things even out in the end, I always say!

"We are gathered here on Christmas day to pay tribute to one of our own!" One of our own. I looked around. Well, since Mr. H. was a Navy man, he could not be referring to MY LORD, or Duchess K. for that matter. I though back over our last months at sea. We had all been very brave and dutiful, a credit to the service.I simply had no idea who Mr. H. was talking about, I'm sure.

"So here's a bumper to -- Lieutenant Bandit! "

Oh! Oh dear! Oh my! Oh, I felt rather funny, I did! My head swam, the merrymakers seated round the table seemed to dim and disappear.....

Hm? What was that? Smelled like a tasty morsel of goose it did! I opened my eyes to investigate, only to find myself surrounded by a goodly portion of the holiday diners!

"There, I think he's come round, " I heard Mr. H. say.

"Thank the Lord." That would be Duchess K.

"The poor fellow's just fainted, I should think." MY LORD, if I was not mistaken.

"Too much Christmas cheer, perhaps." Thank you, Captain Pellew -- I know perfectly well that you really meant to say -- too much Christmas bullock!

Mr. H helped me to my feet, which was most kind of him, as I was quite myself again, and surely I had not fainted -- not me, Lieutenant Bandit, of His Majesty's Frigate Indefatigable! Perhaps I'd indulged a trifle too heartily of the Lamb's fine Yuletide fare, but I'd seen more than one seaman, and more than one in an exalted postion too, rather green around the face after a rather too hearty celebration!

"As the guest of honour, he must have a place at the table!" Duchess K. said, chucking me fondly under the chin.

"This will do, " MY LORD said, piling some cushions on a chair, and pulling it up to the table. That was MY LORD, always the man of action and decision!

Mr. H. picked me up, and sat me on the cushions. I was still a little whoosy from my -- ahem, er, momentary lapse from my usual feline decorum, and I was thankful for the saucer of water which Captain Pellew thoughtfully provided.

"Now where was I?" Mr. H. raised his glass again. " Ah yes, a bumper to Bandit!" The sight of all that august company raising their glasses in a toast to -- me! Bandit from the Lamb! A perfectly ordinary dockyard tom! Well, not perfectly ordinary, if I do say so myself! I mean -- what other dockyard tom had ever had a bumper raised to him?

"And now, Bandit, the time has come." Mr. H. looked very solumn indeed, and I had a horrible feeling that I knew what time he referred to. "You must inform us of your decision ! Is it to be more adventure and adversity on the high seas, or a life of luxury and comfort here at the Lamb?"

All eyes were upon me. The time had come indeed. What would my answer be? I thought on his words -- the adventure and adversity on the high seas. Oh, we'd had grand adventures together, we had , and I'd saved his life on more than one occasion too. I'd done my duty in the sick berth and I hoped that men who'd had occasion to calm their nerves by petting my wonderful sleek coat thought fondly of me once in a while. I remembered the strange friends I'd met -- Falstaff and his gallant daughter Juliet, that proud Spanish sonorita Dulcinea, and Madame Poulet. Adversities there'd been many of, but somehow they were forgotten quickly -- though the cold and damp and ache in the bones I'd suffered this winter seemed the worst of the lot.

Then I looked around the Lamb. My past life here had not been entirely congenial, I must say. Well, damn and blast, I was booted out of the way more often than I was thanked for keeping the place clear of vermin. But now -- even the miserly owner of the place had seen fit to grudgingly give me a nod, after Betty related what a great hero I was, and beloved of some of his best customers. If I chose to remain, I could look forward to good meals, a warm cosy bed, and a family. Oh dear! Oh Mr. H, how can I do this to you!

I hung my head in shame.

"Don't feel badly, Bandit," Mr. H. said quietly. "I'll miss you dreadfully, but we all get too old for the sea sometime. I was afraid -- well, to be honest, I was afraid you'd come with me out of duty, and I'd feel guilty watching you suffer so. I know you felt the damp very badly in your old bones, and I'd be happy to know you've got a nice fire to warm you, and the odd saucer of cream as a treat now and then. "

What do you mean, old bones! Why, I'll have you know I could climb to the top of the yardarm a deuced sight faster than you, my boy!

Well -- perhaps. I was only fooling myself, really, and I felt kindly towards the boy for thinking of my well-being first.

"So, Bandit, since you will be leaving the Navy -- and very honourably too, I might add -- and since this is the Yuletide season, why, I believe we have some presents for you!"

Presents? Presents! For me? Oh my ears and whiskers! This was too much! I almost fainted agiain, I did, but digging my claws deeply into those nice plump cushions, I managed to stay upright.

"Captain Pellew?"

Captain Pellew stood. You'd think he was back on his quarterdeck -- he stood with such a ramrod straight back, his hands clasped behind his back, and his face with that familiar thundercloud stern look to it.

"Lieutenant Bandit, I must commend you for your great attention to duty -- even if I keep finding those damnable cat hairs on my uniform -- how you manage to spread them even into my cabin is beyond me! As you know, I never approved of Mr. Hornblower's action in slaughtering a bullock -- for a cat, of all things! But a fellow deserves something a little special in his retirement, so I have lodged a rather generous sum of money with the owner of the Lamb, with the stipulation that you shall be provided with choice morsels of bullock for as long as you remain a guest here!"

Goodness! Captain Pellew, your generosity overwhelms me! I would never have thought -- but your men worship you, and I know you are a fair man. Thank you, Sir!

MY LORD was the next to rise. " I beg your apology in advance, Mr. Hornblower, but when I first saw the men in your division, I despaired. Why, they were as much a shambles as that miserable Royalist army. However, this fine fellow Bandit impressed me very much indeed. And whilst I came to realize your men, despite their shabby appearance, were brave and gallant under pressure, Bandit's conduct merely reinforced my initial impression. We were able to come to an agreement regarding his hair, which he does have the unfortunate habit of leaving everywhere! And what a dashing rider he does make. While his commanding officer could think only of looking for a rudder on his poor beast, Bandit held his seat with aplomb! I had the pleasure of riding with him again yesterday, and noted his still keen interest. To that purpose, I have approached a retired colleague of mine who lives in the vicinity and keeps a fine stable. So, Bandit, this is my gift to you -- this gentleman shall stop by the Lamb on a fortnightly basis and take you for a ride on one of his excellent horses."

Oh, MY LORD, words fail me! First the bullock, and now this! Why, I can see I am being transformed from a dashing Naval officer, into a distinguished gentleman of leisure. I could ask for nothing more!

Or so I thought.

Duchess K. now stood. What a handsome woman she was too! "I must thank Mr. 'Aitch for allowing Bandit and I to spend more time together than a leisurely three-day sail to England would have afforded us, by sailing our ship into a nest of Dons! And I must thank Bandit, for givng me comfort when I needed it very much indeed. I knew he was more than just another ships' cat when I saw his ears perk up on my declaiming some lines from the great Bard himself. It's all well and good to spend retirement eating bullock and riding about on horses, and that might do well for an ordinary cat, but I'm sure Bandit would appreciate partaking of a more intellectual and entertaining pastime. Therefore, I have arranged with my good friend, the manager at the Portsmouth Playhouse, to afford you, Bandit, a front row seat in his humble establishment, whenever you care to visit. "

Before my poor little cat brain had time to fully appreciate her generous gift, she plucked me from my cushion, and pressed me to her bosom. "You are a gentleman, indeed, Bandit, " she whispered in my ear, as she kissed the top of my head, and set me back down.

Bullock everyday, and horseback riding fortnightly -- and now plays whenever I felt like it? I was sure now, that I could ask for nothing more!

"Ahem, Bandit," Mr. H said, it being his turn to stand. " Never have I enjoyed such a staunch friend as you, sir. You are truly deserving of all the fine gifts you have received here this day. I only regret that my gift appears paltry next to their magnificence."

My ears perked up. A gift from Mr. H? The poor boy had yet to scrape together the money to replace his pinchbeck buckles with silver. Why, I would feel guilty indeed to think he had squandered prize money on me. Did I not now have just about everything a gentle intelligent feline such as myself could hope for?

"Unfortunately, I was not in a position to purchase a new uneeform in honour of my transfer to Renown, but I was able to find enough shillings to buy a new frilly nightshirt. So I thought, " and here the dear boy blushed, "That since you liked my old one so well, that you might like to have it for your bed."

He pulled something out from under his jacket -- it was! It *was* his old frilly nightshirt, that I had kneaded and clawed and curled up on for all those years. Quite threadbare now, but still soft and as comfortable as a cat could wish for. I felt faint again.

"I shall miss you terribly, old chap," he said, and I just knew he was going to snivel again, but what could I say -- I was going to snivel too!

Then a horrible thought struck me! I had received all these wonderful gifts and what did I have to give in return? Nothing! Oh damn and blast! This would never do! But what ....

I have had many brilliant ideas over the years I've spent in the Royal Navy. Something about that bracing sea air seemed to have sharpened my senses and made me much more ingenious than your average dockyard cat. But now I had an idea so brilliant, that I was in awe of myself! I had hit upon a solution so perfect, so wonderful, so delicious, so perspicacious, so -- well, you get my meaning, I'm sure!

And what was that solution? Can you guess? I jumped off my chair and ran into the kitchen. After a hurried conversation with Kat, I herded her little family out into the common room, where they stood looking fearfully around them.

"Now, Captain, " I said, "Do you truly wish to command a ship in His Majesty's Navy?"

"Oh yes, sir!"

"Then I am handing you on to the illustrious Captain Pellew. If you study his actions, a glorious future awaits you! Just remember -- his bark is worse than his bite, don't expect him to slaughter a bullock for you, don't spray on the quarterdeck, and for heaven's sake, keep your fur off his uneeform!"

I led little Captain (who held his nose in the air with exactly the manner I had come to expect from Captain P.) until we reached the chair of the said illustrious Captain Pellew..

Gingerly, I placed on paw on his elegant silk-stocking encased leg (with claws carefully sheathed. I could rake Mr. H's stockings with impunity but when it came to the good Captains -- well, I may only be a cat but I'm not stupid!)

"What the devil!" he blustered. "My God, there's two of you!"

Over the years of my service on board Indefatigable, I have done quite well in communicating with humans -- though it's often taken the last ounce of my superiour feline intelligence to arrive at a set of signals, as it were, to convey my meaning. But I had to admit -- I was at a loss here. Captain Pellew stared down at me -- as only he could -- as though I had grown two heads, or somehow reproduced myself right before his eyes. What to do, what to do? Was my glorious scheme doomed to failure at its very outset, due to a misunderstanding?

"Sir, I do believe Lieutanant Bandit is attempting to present you with a gift!"

Ah, my dear Mr. H! I can see that our close association over the years has produced in you a fine appreciation of my intents! Well done, boy, well done!

"A gift?"

"Yes, sir. This fine young kitten here."

"A kitten? And what, sir, should I want with a kitten!"

Ah, Captain P. could still take the wind out of Mr. H's sails with ease, but my friend rose valiantly to the occasion, and I see now what the good Captain seems to have seen all along -- he is indeed ready for greater exploits!

"I believe Bandit's retirement has left the Indefatigable minus a ship's cat. I know of your continual concern for the health and safety of the men, and without Bandit's service both in ridding the ship of rats, and giving comfort in the sick berth, that health and safety may suffer. Perhaps if you were to take command of this young fellow here, you might train him in the ways of His Majesty's Navy and so prevent some of the unfortunate bad habits you have observed in Bandit over the years."

He gave me a sly wink (Mr. H. giving a sly wink? Oh, he must have been completely undone by the festivities of the season!) to assure me that in actual fact, I had no bad habits.

"Hmmmff! " the Captain blustered. But he did pick Captain up (holding him rather gingerly at arm's length, to avoid any shedding of hair). "Well, perhaps you'll do. Remember, I judge a man -- er, cat -- by what I see him do. You have been warned!"

I might have worried then, for Captain's future happiness, had I not caught a twinkle in Captain P's eye, the very twinkle I'd seen many times, after he'd given Mr. H a good dressing down. Perhaps Captain would help Captain P forget that -- not only was he losing the services of myself -- but also of (though he'd never admit it!) his favourite lieutenant!

The gift-giving went along much more smoothly now.

"Earl, are you sure you wish to serve in the Army?"

"Oh, yes, sir! " and he did a little march back and forth, to show me how ready he was indeed.

"Remember, these military types take great exception to cat hair on their uneeforms. But if you are very circumspect in this regard, MY LORD will have you up on his horse in no time. And after a hard day of battle and manoevers, if you've been very brave and followed orders, he just might give you a paw massage before bedtime!"

Little Earl's eyes got very round, but he managed to march in perfect step beside me over to MY LORD. I was completely taken aback, I was. When MY LORD looked down and saw little Earl trying to salute him, he turned nearly as red as his uneeform! I was afraid he might be having a fit. But he scooped up Earl and pressed him to his manly chest (and I winced to think of the hairs being deposited!) before recollecting himself and holding Earl at arm's length, as Captain P. had done.

"Yes. Well. Hm. Fine figure of a cat. Hm. Yes indeed. Well, then..." And I realized that MY LORD was completely flustered! MY LORD flustered! I never thought I'd live to see the day. Though when I pondered on it, I could see that in his high and mightiness he was quite unapproachable, and perhaps no one had ever thought to give him such a humble gift!

In no time, though, he had regained his composure, sat up straight once more and said to me. "Thank you, Bandit -- just the thing to take on my next campaign!" And he and Earl traded looks of supreme smugness that boded well for their future together.

"Now, Duchess, are you sure you wish to devote your future to the stage?" I was least concerned with handing Duchess off to Duchess K., for Duchess K. had welcomed me openly indeed , and generously offered to share what little she had, if I had decided to cast my lot in with her ( a decsion I did regret on stormy days, or during battle, or when suffering from lack of fresh vittles, but on the whole I felt I had done the right thing.)

"Oh, yes, Sir!" And she gave her face a good wash with her paw, and looked ready to step upon the stage then.

"I must warn you, " I continued. "Duchess K. has been known to carry secret papers for the Admiralty. But just follow her lead, and you'll be all right! And I wouldn't worry overly much about shedding. She never mentioned it to me, and as you can see, her dress is prettily patterned all over and the hair won't be noticed."

Duchess K. swept little Duchess up and hugged her against her bosom, just as I knew she would. She turned to me with tears in her eyes, and said " I've always wanted someone to keep me company on my travels and listen to my lines. And now I have this lovely little kitty! Thank you so much, Bandit."

Now there was just one more little fellow left. Mind, I had a deep concern about this particular gift. I remembered only too well my good intentions, sending Dona Dulcinea into the Hole to keep Mr. H. company. He was none too pleased on that occasion, and I did hope he would not repeat his ungrateful behaviour here.

"Bandit Junior, are you ready?"

He scampered into the room, skidded on the floor which Betty had spent all morning polishing and came to a undignified stop at my feet.

"Sorry, Grampa, " he said, giving himself a shake, and standing at a very sloppy attention.

"Now, Junior, are you sure you wish to accompany Mr. H. to Renown? It's a much larger ship, and they might already have a cat on board. It won't be easy making your way there."

"I'm ready, Grampa, I know I am."

"You have a great duty to perform, Junior. Mr. H is a fine naval officer, but sometimes he's just a wee bit indecisive. A little scratching of his silk stockings usually gets him going, and you'll find he's a grand sort of fellow, in his own way. I'm sure he'll be willing to share his cot with you, though I would go a little easy on his frilly nightshirt, as it's new, and he'll be quite impossible about it."

"But, Grampa..." Junior looked decidedly worried now.

"Yes, Junior?"

"What about my hair?"

"Your hair?"

"Well, you've mentioned it to my brothers and sister, and I'm so worried -- I just know I shan't be able to keep it from shedding, and I wouldn't want that horrible thing to happen to me -- what did you call it? Flogging round the fleet, I believe?"

"There, there, not to worry!" I patted him on the head. "Were you to stay half the ship's length away from Mr. H. at all times, somehow his uneeform would end up covered in cat hairs. So just carry on and do your duty at all times, and you'll be fine!"

So now, as my final gift, I led young Junior to Mr. H. Mr. H was grinning hugely, and I'm sure all the hearts of the serving wenches who hovered round the table fluttered wildly!

Here's Junior to accompany you to Renown, Mr. H.

"What a fine young fellow you are!" Mr. H. said, picking up Kat's last little kitten and setting him on his knees. I could see that somehow he had cat hair all over his uneeform all ready, so I knew Junior had nothing to worry about. "And what a fine fellow *you* are, Bandit! Your like will never be seen again, and I -- and I ..." and here the smile faded and Mr. H. began to blubber, even worse than he had back in Captain Pellew's cabin that time. But I understand, Mr. H. Why, my eyes feel a little damp, too!

*********

A delicious heat spread into my old bones. A delicious aroma tickled my little pink nose. Bloody hell! What miracle had happened on the Indy! Then my eyes flew open, and I realized I was in my little bed in the kitchen of the Lamb. Ah, now I remembered! The grand Christmas feast of yesterday, the lovely presents I'd received, and the kittens well on their way to new adventures. And my dear Mr. H... hm, well, oh dear! The heat, while very pleasant, seems to be making my eyes water most unbecomingly! Oh, come on, Bandit, admit the facts. You're going to miss the Indy and all the great adventures and comradeship! But you've made the right choice. Just think -- you don't have to get up and chase rats on the orlop deck, or dodge splinters in the heat of battle. Even Mr. H. will retire some day (and I do hope little Junior learns to protect the lad as well as I have!)

I stretched in my little bed (Betty had found a box and placed Mr. H.'s old frilly nightshirt in the bottom, bless her heart!) Or -- I tried to stretch! Damn and blast -- what now! I looked around me and realized there was another cat body sharing that frilly shirt. Why, bless my ears and whiskers -- it was dear Kat!

Oh. Oh dear! All of a sudden I made a most unsettling discovery. I felt -- well, comfy, and lazy and very-well fed. What I did not feel was that natural urge a tomcat should feel when he finds himself in close proximity to a delectable member of the opposite sex (and I just know you're going to point out that after all Kat is my many-times-great granddaughter, but we felines are not over particular about those matters!)

Then I cast my thought back over my travels the first day back at the Lamb. Now I remembered. Yes, there had been a not-too-scruffy queen giving me a come-hither look as I started out. And yes, there'd been another -- and possibly another! And I -- well, I really hadn't noticed! What had happened to me! The very thing I yearned most for during my career on the Indy -- now I had a chance at it -- and bloody hell, I didn't seem to want it!

"'ello there, Bandit." Go away, Betty. I might as well just die.

"I've got a nice bit o' cream 'ere for yer," and she placed the dish beside my bed. Hm, it did smell tasty. Hm, it tasted tasty, too. Hm.

"And I 'ad Cook set a tray of sand there by the back door -- fer -- well, ye knows. When th'weather be bad, and yer don't feel like goin' out in the cold."

Hm. Come to think of it, a visit to that tray might not be a bad idea right now. So I hopped out of my bed, used the facilities, and hopped back into bed, all without losing the warmth of Kat's body. Hm. Grand idea, that!

Then I thought of the kittens. The Duchess of Katmandu and I had produced fine offspring. It wasn't like I needed to be a daddy again, to prove anything at all. So I closed my eyes, snuggled up even more closely to Kat and went to sleep.

The End

*********

Author's second note: Bandit enjoyed a goodly number of years in genteel retirement. Although he became rather portly as time went on (due to an overindulgence of bullock and cream) he cut a fine figure as he rode through Portsmouth on his fortnightly ride. Over time, he got to hear every Shakespearian line -- in its original context -- ever uttered by Falstaff and Juliet. Why, it was said that he even appeared on stage at the Portsmouth Playhouse, whenever a cat was needed to give a scene the appearance of domesticity. I suspect though, that he might have given up all his gifts (except for Mr. H.'s frilly nightshirt, of course) for a little kitty Viagra -- despite his brave acceptance of his new life style! Bandit passed away (with dignity) in his sleep and was mourned by all the staff and regular guests at the Lamb -- and by numerous men and officers of the Royal Navy.

Stay tuned for Junior's story (appearing sometime after April) in which the secret of Captain Sawyer's fall will be revealed!