Once upon a time there was an old cat, called Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit, who was an anxious parent. She used to lose her kittens continually, and whenever they were lost they were always in mischief!
On baking day she determined to shut them up in a cupboard.
She caught Moppet and Mittens, but she could not find Tom.
Mrs. Tabitha went up and down all over the house, mewing for Tom Kitten. She looked in the pantry under the staircase, and she searched the best spare bedroom that was all covered up with dust sheets. She went right upstairs and looked into the attics, but she could not find him anywhere.
It was an old, old house, full of cupboards and passages. Some of the walls were four feet thick, and there used to be queer noises inside them, as if there might be a little secret staircase. Certainly there were odd little jagged doorways in the wainscot, and things disappeared at night—especially cheese and bacon.
Mrs. Tabitha became more and more distracted, and mewed dreadfully.
While their mother was searching the house, Moppet and Mittens had got into mischief.
The cupboard door was not locked, so they pushed it open and came out.
They went straight to the dough which was set to rise in a pan before the fire.
They patted it with their little soft paws—“Shall we make dear little muffins?” said Mittens to Moppet.
But just at that moment somebody knocked at the front door, and Moppet jumped into the flour barrel in a fright.
Mittens ran away to the dairy, and hid in an empty jar on the stone shelf where the milk pans stand.
The visitor was a neighbour, Mrs. Ribby; she had called to borrow some yeast.
Mrs. Tabitha came downstairs mewing dreadfully—“Come in, Cousin Ribby, come in, and sit ye down! I'm in sad trouble, Cousin Ribby,” said Tabitha, shedding tears. “I've lost my dear son Thomas; I'm afraid the rats have got him.” She wiped her eyes with her apron.
“He's a bad kitten, Cousin Tabitha; he made a cat's cradle of my best bonnet last time I came to tea. Where have you looked for him?”
“All over the house! The rats are too many for me. What a thing it is to have an unruly family!” said Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit.
“I'm not afraid of rats; I will help you to find him; and whip him too! What is all that soot in the fender?”
“The chimney wants sweeping—Oh, dear me, Cousin Ribby—now Moppet and Mittens are gone!”
“They have both got out of the cupboard!”
Ribby and Tabitha set to work to search the house thoroughly again. They poked under the beds with Ribby's umbrella, and they rummaged in cupboards. They even fetched a candle, and looked inside a clothes chest in one of the attics. They could not find anything, but once they heard a door bang and somebody scuttered downstairs.
“Yes, it is infested with rats,” said Tabitha tearfully. “I caught seven young ones out of one hole in the back kitchen, and we had them for dinner last Saturday. And once I saw the old father rat—an enormous old rat, Cousin Ribby. I was just going to jump upon him, when he showed his yellow teeth at me and whisked down the hole.”
“The rats get upon my nerves, Cousin Ribby,” said Tabitha.
Ribby and Tabitha searched and searched. They both heard a curious roly-poly noise under the attic floor. But there was nothing to be seen.
They returned to the kitchen. “Here's one of your kittens at least,” said Ribby, dragging Moppet out of the flour barrel.
They shook the flour off her and set her down on the kitchen floor. She seemed to be in a terrible fright.
“Oh! Mother, Mother,” said Moppet, “there's been an old woman rat in the kitchen, and she's stolen some of the dough!”
The two cats ran to look at the dough pan. Sure enough there were marks of little scratching fingers, and a lump of dough was gone!
“Which way did she go, Moppet?”
But Moppet had been too much frightened to peep out of the barrel again.
Ribby and Tabitha took her with them to keep her safely in sight, while they went on with their search.
They went into the dairy.
The first thing they found was Mittens, hiding in an empty jar.
They tipped up the jar, and she scrambled out.
“Oh, Mother, Mother!” said Mittens—
“Oh! Mother, Mother, there has been an old man rat in the dairy—a dreadful 'normous big rat, mother; and he's stolen a pat of butter and the rolling-pin.”
Ribby and Tabitha looked at one another.
“A rolling-pin and butter! Oh, my poor son Thomas!” exclaimed Tabitha, wringing her paws.
“A rolling-pin?” said Ribby. “Did we not hear a roly-poly noise in the attic when we were looking into that chest?”
Ribby and Tabitha rushed upstairs again. Sure enough the roly-poly noise was still going on quite distinctly under the attic floor.
“This is serious, Cousin Tabitha,” said Ribby. “We must send for John Joiner at once, with a saw.”
Now this is what had been happening to Tom Kitten, and it shows how very unwise it is to go up a chimney in a very old house, where a person does not know his way, and where there are enormous rats.
Tom Kitten did not want to be shut up in a cupboard. When he saw that his mother was going to bake, he determined to hide.
He looked about for a nice convenient place, and he fixed upon the chimney.
The fire had only just been lighted, and it was not hot; but there was a white choky smoke from the green sticks. Tom Kitten got upon the fender and looked up. It was a big old-fashioned fire-place.
The chimney itself was wide enough inside for a man to stand up and walk about. So there was plenty of room for a little Tom Cat.
He jumped right up into the fire-place, balancing himself upon the iron bar where the kettle hangs.
Tom Kitten took another big jump off the bar, and landed on a ledge high up inside the chimney, knocking down some soot into the fender.
Tom Kitten coughed and choked with the smoke; and he could hear the sticks beginning to crackle and burn in the fire-place down below. He made up his mind to climb right to the top, and get out on the slates, and try to catch sparrows.
“I cannot go back. If I slipped I might fall in the fire and singe my beautiful tail and my little blue jacket.”
The chimney was a very big old-fashioned one. It was built in the days when people burnt logs of wood upon the hearth.
The chimney stack stood up above the roof like a little stone tower, and the daylight shone down from the top, under the slanting slates that kept out the rain.
Tom Kitten was getting very frightened! He climbed up, and up, and up.
Then he waded sideways through inches of soot. He was like a little sweep himself.
It was most confusing in the dark. One flue seemed to lead into another.
There was less smoke, but Tom Kitten felt quite lost.
He scrambled up and up; but before he reached the chimney top he came to a place where somebody had loosened a stone in the wall. There were some mutton bones lying about—
“This seems funny,” said Tom Kitten. “Who has been gnawing bones up here in the chimney? I wish I had never come! And what a funny smell? It is something like mouse; only dreadfully strong. It makes me sneeze,” said Tom Kitten.
He squeezed through the hole in the wall, and dragged himself along a most uncomfortably tight passage where there was scarcely any light.
He groped his way carefully for several yards; he was at the back of the skirting-board in the attic, where there is a little mark * in the picture.
All at once he fell head over heels in the dark, down a hole, and landed on a heap of very dirty rags.
When Tom Kitten picked himself up and looked about him—he found himself in a place that he had never seen before, although he had lived all his life in the house.
It was a very small stuffy fusty room, with boards, and rafters, and cobwebs, and lath and plaster.
Opposite to him—as far away as he could sit—was an enormous rat.