Friday, March 5, 2021

The Witch’s Cat

The Witch’s Cat [Folk Tales Of Flanders]

The Witch’s Cat [Folk Tales Of Flanders]

Once upon a time there was a wicked old witch who lived all alone in the topmost chamber of a tall and gloomy tower. There she sat day after day with her ugly head resting on her hands, peering out through a slit in the wall upon the countryside. Her only companion was a big black tom-cat, who sat by her side in the darkened chamber, his eyes shining like green fire in the gloom.

One day as the witch sat there, she saw a little girl gathering berries in the wood. The sight made her show her toothless gums in a malicious grin and she muttered to herself: “Wait there, wait there, my ducky, my darling, till I come to you, for your flesh will be very sweet.” Then she put on a long cloak and took a walking-staff in her hand and went down the stairs.

Now the little girl, whose name was Margot, had strayed very far from home in her eagerness to gather the ripe berries, and she was in a part of the country which was quite strange to her. Had she happened to meet anybody on her way they would have warned her not to go near the witch’s tower, but she had not met a soul all day, and so she had no idea of the dreadful danger that was threatening her. She went on gathering her berries, light-heartedly humming a tune, until her basket was nearly full, and then she sat down at the foot of a tree to rest.

Presently she saw an old woman coming towards her. It was the witch, who had muffled herself up in her cloak, so that her face could not easily be seen.

“Good-day, my dear,” said the witch. “Will you give me a few of those ripe berries?”

“Of course I will,” answered Margot. “Take as many as you like, I can easily gather some more.” So the witch took a handful of berries, and sat down by Margot’s side to eat them. And all the time she was eating she was gazing greedily at the little girl’s white neck and rosy cheeks, but Margot could not see the hateful look in the witch’s eyes because the cloak hid her face.

“Where do you live, little girl?” asked the witch after a while.

Margot told her, and the witch said: “You must be very tired with walking all that way. If you will come to my house I will give you a bowl of milk and a slice of currant cake, and you shall see all the wonderful things that I keep in my cupboards.”

So Margot went with the witch into the gloomy tower, not so much because she wanted the milk or the cake, but to see the pretty things in the cupboards, and no sooner was she within than the witch fell upon her, and bound her fast with a cord, and carried her up to the topmost room, where the cat was sitting blinking its green eyes. Then the old witch opened the door of a dark cupboard, and pushed poor Margot inside, for she meant to keep her there until she had grown bigger and fatter, so that she would make a more satisfying meal. To this end the witch brought her plenty of rich food every day, and from time to time she would feel Margot’s arm to see whether she was plump enough to go into the pot. Poor child, how frightened she was,  and how miserable at being kept in that dark cupboard all alone. She cried nearly all day long, but there was nobody to hear her except the witch’s big black cat, and he was a silent animal who did not show his feelings. Margot was almost as sorry for him as she was for herself, for the witch often beat him unmercifully, and the girl tried to comfort him by giving him pieces from her dinner, which she pushed out through the crack under the door.

The Witch’s Cat [Folk Tales Of Flanders]

One day when the old witch had gone out as usual, leaving Margot a prisoner, the girl was surprised to hear a voice speaking to her from the room beyond. “Margot, Margot,” said the voice, “don’t cry any more, but listen to me.”

“Who are you?” asked the little girl.

“I am the witch’s cat,” the voice went on. “I am going to push the key of the cupboard underneath the door. Take it and let yourself out, but make haste, for you have no time to waste!”

“Thank you, thank you,” said Margot, when she found herself free. “But how is it that you are able to talk? I did not know that cats could speak.”

“They can’t, as a rule,” said the witch’s cat, “but never mind that now. The witch may return at any moment, and we must get you safely out of her reach.”

“Yes, yes,” said Margot, “I must go at once. I will run like the wind!”

“That is no use,” said the cat. “Before you had got half-way home the witch would overtake you.”

“Then what must I do? Is there anywhere I can hide?”

“When she returns and finds you gone she will ransack every corner of the tower. Not even a mouse could escape her keen eyes.”

“Oh dear! oh dear!” said Margot, beginning to cry again. “Do help me to escape, kind cat, and I will be grateful to you all my life.”

“Of course I will help you,” answered the cat, “that is why I let you out of the cupboard. Take this piece of carpet, and when the witch has almost overtaken you, throw it on to the ground and it will turn into a wide river. That will delay her for some time, because she cannot swim, but if she manages to get across, and overtakes you again, throw down this comb, which will immediately change into a dense forest. You may plunge into it without fear, for a way will open before you between the trees, but the witch will have to cut a way through, foot by foot, with her knife; and long before she has done that you will be safely home.”

The Witch’s Cat [Folk Tales Of Flanders]

Margot thanked the cat, and having taken the carpet and the comb, she fled swiftly down the stairs.

A short time afterwards the witch came home, and when she discovered that her prisoner had escaped she howled with rage. Mounting to the very roof of the tower, she gazed out upon the countryside, and soon descried the figure of the little girl, running as fast as she could in the direction of her home.

“I’ll have you yet,” muttered the witch, and away she went after  her.

Margot saw her coming, and redoubled her speed, but all to no avail, for the witch gained upon her rapidly. Soon she heard her hissing breath, and looking fearfully over her shoulder, saw the baleful look of triumph in her eyes.

Quickly then, Margot took out the strip of carpet and laid it upon the ground. Immediately it turned into a wide and swiftly flowing river. The witch gave a cry of rage, and tried to wade after her, but the flood mounted swiftly, first to her knees, and then to her waist. Another moment and she would have been swept away, but taking a nutshell from her pocket she set it afloat upon the waters, muttering a charm as she did so. Then the nutshell turned into a little boat, into which the old crone pulled herself, and, paddling with her broom, made shift to cross the river.

The delay had given Margot a good start, but the witch wore enchanted boots which enabled her to cover the ground at a wonderful rate. Ten minutes more and she was once again at Margot’s heels.

Then the little girl drew out the comb and flung it behind her. Immediately a dense forest sprang up, and Margot fled into it, through an alley that opened itself before her. Spluttering with anger, the witch drew her knife to hack her way through the wood, but long before she had cut a dozen yards Margot was safely home and in her mother’s arms.

The old witch made her way back to the tower, and the things she said were so terrible that the very air was poisoned, and the grass by the roadside withered and turned black. No sooner had she set foot within her doorway, however, than she crumbled to dust, and a wind arose and blew the dust to all quarters of the heavens.

So that was the end of the old witch, for her power ceased as soon as one of her victims managed to escape. As for the black cat, nobody ever saw him again, but it was whispered that he was really a Prince whom the wicked old crone had captured years before, and given the shape of a cat by enchantment. By helping Margot to escape he had released himself from the spell that bound him, and was enabled to return to his father’s kingdom.

The Witch’s Cat [Folk Tales Of Flanders]