Immune to the grandeur of the gentry gliding by him, Bartleby Crulge sat alone at his table, his nose planted firmly in his book, his brow collapsing over itself, his eye following where his finger led. He scoured the printed lines, unaware of the servant asking him whether he should prefer a creamslice or a whipped chocolate, and unconsciously waving him off as he tootled to himself, mumbling through a paragraph on bioluminescence.
“As the ship sailed through the waters,” the old man read, hemming and fidgeting with his spectacles, “and as the sun went down, we were greeted with a most intriguing sight: the waves, when agitated, began to glow, at first a pale blue, and then a vibrant glaucous hue—yes, well—“ pausing to sip his tea and perusing the page, “—and I instantly wished to know the phenomenon responsible for this strange and wonderful occurrence. I put an oar in the water and stirred it about, to see whether it was the doing of some schools of small fish, but when I leant over and took the water into my hand, there was nothing but the shimmering incanescence left by the tepid waves—He might have used a more descriptive word there, if he wanted his readers to consider what he found out,” he interrupted himself. “It is probably some microorganism that glows when agitated, like the one that glows on breem when it decays—After taking a sample to my laboratory,” he continued reading, “I soon reasoned that it must be some algae bloom or bacteria causing the glow—Ha! There. Just as I said. A microorganism, but why it should glow only when agitated? Something I shall have to experiment with.“ He padded his pocket, to search for his notebook and his pencil, when he suddenly stopped and glanced over the top of his book to something on the ground. He glowered, and feeling of quiet loathing assailed him. “I refuse to acknowledge you today, Mr Vostibbens.”
He turned back to his book and effected not to look at the ground again. There was a slight jingle, and the empty chair across from his rattled.
“Did you not hear me, Mr. Vostibbens?” he shouted, lowering his book. “I said I refuse to have your nonsense today. No, do not touch the chair or the table. The tea things are here, and I’m sure I don’t care about how curious you are as to what I’m eating. And no you may not look at my plate.”
There was a slight thudding sound, and Bartleby, beginning to hate the world, glared at the far wall and pursed his lips.
“I want none of your presents, Mr. Vostibbens. I have done with your presents, whether they be a mouse or a bird or your lunch or what have you. Go back to your mistress and regurgiate on her train. That should be amusing to you.”
Another jingle, and something vibrated against the old man’s leg.
“No!” he cried, frantically pulling his robe away. “Do not fruzz yourself against me! I am not your frotting piece. I have just had this robe cleaned. I will not pet you and I am not interested in your odd humours. Go to the ladies if you want to be coddled. They are all moggynoggling feliophiists. There,” pointing to a stool by the bar. “There is cushion you can lounge upon and destroy. Go to the counter if you want a treat. I have nothing for you here, and it would give the publican something to do, other than profess his ill and unlearned opinions about railways he knows nothing about.”
There was a silence. The publican, pretending not to have heard the old man’s aspersions, passed a clean rag along the counter, and Bartleby returned to his book, determined to finish his passage on glowing flagella, when there was a slight tug on his robe. He looked down, and sitting beside his chair, in all the certainty of his own self, was a black cat. It twitched its nose and stared up at the old man, its eyes wide and expectant, and pressed its white whiskers against his leg. Bartleby grumbled something about the cat being to go off and lick itself and shifted away, and the cat chirruped and looked offended.
“Don’t chutter at me, you grizzled three-thurms,” the old man sniffed. “You are a cat. Go wail and wraw like the rest of your spiecies, and do not pretend to imitate animals when speaking to me. Go to the terrace and play in the font, if you need something to do. The water will cool you, and if you try to play with the spout, as you did the last time you harassed those sitting at the terrace, I sincerely hope you fall in it. There will be your punishment for trying to disrupt my reading.”
The cat stared up at him, its eyes violently pleading for his notice, and Bartleby glowered at it over the horizon of his spectacles.
“I am not paying you any attention, Mr Vostibbens,” he humphed.
A silence succeeded, and the cat blinked at him.
“All right, I am paying you attention,” Bartleby reluctantly admitted, “but I’m paying you negative attention, which is hardly like paying attention to you at all. And I am not touching you or feeding you. I am only looking at you, which I shall stop doing when you realize I am not interested in being your playfellow. Do not expect me to croosle at you or say how beautiful you are or how nicely you keep yourself. Flattery is an offense against anybody’s reason, and cats are the worst of offenders in that respect.”
The cat, having little idea of flattery and thinking itself very fine, shifted on its haunches and licked its lips.
“Go out there if you want something to eat,” Bartleby cried, stabbing a finger toward the terrace window. “In the garden there is are great number of things you can pounce upon which nobody cares if you kill. You may pretend you are a lion or a tiger or whatever else you think you are when you are hunting. Prove yourself worthy of your mistress and bring her back a sparrow. That ought to teach her to keep you out instead of snudging everyone in here. This is a teahouse, Mr Vostibbens, not a grimsirs’ hutch.”
The old man humphed and returned to his book, and the cat moved closer to his chair, putting its paw on the stretcher and sitting high on its haunches. A short silence followed, and once Bartleby thought the cat had gone, he glanced down only to find Mr Vostibbens gawping up at him with sincere interest.
“What are you doing?” Bartleby hissed, in a thrill of terror. “You cannot lean yourself on a chair whenever you like. This is not your chair—it is my chair—I paid to sit here, so unless you mean to pay for my next dish of biscuits, go away! Go! Get down this moment! And if you dare try to leap up here, I shall swat you with my book.”
The cat craned its neck and canted its head.
“Yes, yes, I see your new collar with the little bell on it. You need not parade yourself about,” Bartleby insisted, waving a hand at the cat. “Well, you might think that bell is for decoration, but it is to let your mistress’s patrons know where you are, that we might ignore you and kick you when you are grown pectulant.” The old man humphed to himself. “Would that you were a dean at the Academy, that we might propel you from this room to the next. What is it? What is that you’ve got on your neck?” looking down and narrowing his gaze. “Is that a cravat? What is this nonsense? Of all the frivolous, cabbobbled—they might as well throw a house out of a window if they are going to dress a cat. A cat has no business wear a cravat or wearing anything! Who draped you all this frippery? I’m sure I don’t care if you like it— fiddle-faddle regalia belongs on nobody! You are respectable by simply being we well-groomed cat. You have no notion of decency! The only decency we can want from you is a clean coat and not to have you rub your backside along the carpet.” He huffed, and his jowls rippled. “A cat in a cravat—Ha! Propriety run mad to dress an animal in anything! Well,” taking up his book, “such good your cravat does you. It hides your white crest, which is your most defining feature. Hang your cravats. Next your mistress will put you in boots and have you trot about like a shod horse.”
The cat turned and brandished its cravat, and the old man glunched and grimaced.
“You may pretend to like your cravat, Mr Vostibbens, but the feline brain cannot distinguish fashion. You can only know that something is on you or something is not on you. You cannot understand lace—yes, I have seen your cravat many times already. You need not climb up again to—no, do not come up here!” he cried, lifting his book as the cat began to climb the chair again. “Get down this moment! It is highly indecorous of dressed cats to jump onto the furnishings—highly indecorous indeed! Floors are for felines, tables and chairs are for sapiens—Don’t purr at me! I am not going to be charmed by your catrattle-- And stop leaning your head against my leg! I am not going to pet you, and that the end of it. I would rather carbonize in a cave than—gah!”
Mr Vostibbens leapt onto Bartleby’s lap, and the old man’s book fluttered as he failed to protect himself against the cat in the cravat.
“The beast is attacking me!” he cried, crumbling against the wall beside him. “He is preparing to maul me and rend my robe to tatters!”
Nobody was at the trouble of assisting him, and the cat, sitting on its haunches, enthralled itself with Bartleby’s nose hairs and wrapped its tail around its feet.
“You ferocious beast! Keep your claws away from me! Off my lap, or I shall have you brought to the laboratory for dissection! There are Ballenese vithelists who need new strings for their lutes, and there are no cats in Balletrim for a reason! No, don’t not lean on me! Keep your fangs away! Don’t rub your cheeks against my chest! I don’t want your scent on me anymore than I want imbeciles to breed—no! What is this? What is this?” frantically plucking hairs from his robe. “Look here! You have got your hair all over me! My robe is tarnished—absolutely tarnished! Well, your mistress shall be paying to have it cleaned. I have told her countless times to keep her ferine wildware on a leash or in the garden, but she will let you roam about and assail patron as you please—stop your curmuring. I am not going to touch you. You deficate in bushes and dance about in it, pretending to hide your flith by ruining the plants, and now you’re putting your paws all over me. Well, I’m not going to touch you, and that is all. You might have fleas and ticks and mites and who knows how many other diseases and parasites lurking about. Mr Vostibbens—pff! She should have named you Fleabag Von LouseHouse.”
The cat made a few circuits of Bartleby’s lap, and when the old man felt brave enough to push the cat from him, it lay down across his thighs, curled its tail round to its head, and sighed itself into a gentle sloom.