BtC 17/22. The Women in a Cat’s Life

Previously on Beware the Cat: Mouseslayer is recounting her life story to an assembly of cats.

Layer 1: framing narrative spoken by Baldwin

Layer 2: main narrative spoken by Streamer

Layer 3: The council of cats

Layer 4: Mouseslayer’s stories

For those who look out for this kind of thing, there is a triple-goddess theme with Mouseslayer’s three owners. In the first story, she is with an old woman whose blindness is cured by a Catholic mass. In this next story, Mouseslayer is now living with a presumably middle-aged woman who runs a brothel (and who also trades in stolen goods). Her third owner is also in this story – a recently married younger woman.

This second story from Mouseslayer is a sex-comedy of dubious morality. Her owner is secretly a devout Catholic who nightly venerates a picture of the Virgin Mary. She also procures women for men for a fee and entices them into a life of crime.

The plot involves Mouseslayer’s owner attempting to convince a young married woman that it is her moral duty to have sex with another man. To do this she pretends Mouseslayer his her daughter who was turned into a cat for spurning the advances of an admirer. This all leads to a cunningly convoluted argument:

I gather that though God would have us keep our faith to our husbands, yet rather than any other should die for ourselves, we should not make any conscience to save their lives; for it fared in this point as it does in all other; for as all extremities are vices, so is it a vice, as appeared plainly by the punishment of my daughter, to be extreme in honesty, chastity, or any other kind of virtue.”

Mouseslayer herself takes a dim view of these proceedings and also exacts some revenge on her owner.

Notably, going back to the themes of transubstantiation, the person-turned-into-a-cat theme here is overtly a deception. Mouseslayer is simply a cat – a clever and brave cat but has no special abilities and certainly isn’t a human.

Mouseslayer’s Second Story

When I heard that the lord with whom I went into the country would go to London to dwell again, I kept the house for a month beforehand so well, that my lady when she went to London carried me with her. When I came to London again, I went to visit my old acquaintance, and when I was great with kitling because I would not be unfurnished of a place to kitten in, I got in favour and household with an old gentlewoman, a widow, with whom I stayed this whole year.

This woman got her living by boarding young gentlemen, for whom she kept fair wenches in store, for whose sake she had more rent. To tell you the truth of her trade it was fine and crafty, and not so dangerous as deceitful. When she had soaked from the young gentlemen all they had then would she would cast them off, and so they fell to cheating. Many of them in the night time would go abroad and bring the next morning home with them sometimes money, sometimes jewels—as rings and chains, sometimes apparel, and sometimes they would come again, cursing their ill fortune, with nothing, save dry blows or wet wounds. Yet whatever they brought my dame would take it, and find the means either so to gauge it so that she would never fetch it again, or else melt it and sell it to the goldsmiths.

Notwithstanding that she used these wicked practices yet was she very holy and religious, and so, even though all images were forbidden, yet kept she one of Our Lady in her coffer. Every night, when everybody had gone to bed, and there were none in her chamber but she and I, she would fetch her out and set her upon her cupboard, and light up two or three wax candles afore her, and then kneel down to her sometimes for a whole hour, crying over her beads, and praying her to be good to her, and to save her and all her guests both from danger and shame, and promising that then she would honour and serve her during her life.

While I was with this woman I was always much cherished and made of, for one night, while she was a praying, I would be playing with her beads, and always catch them as she let them fall, and would sometimes put my head in compass of them and run away with them about my neck, and many times she took great pleasure in this. And so did Our Lady too! My dame would say sometimes to her, ‘Yes, blessed Lady, I know thou hears me, by thy smiling at my cat.’

Never did my dame do me any hurt save once, and that I was even with her for. There was a gentleman, one of her boarders, much enamoured in the beauty of a merchant man’s wife in the city, whom he could by no means prevail to satisfy his lust. He made her great banquets, offered her rich apparel, and all kinds of precious jewels (which usually women delight in), and large sums of money (which can corrupt even the gods themselves) but he could by no means alter her mind because she esteemed her good name and honesty. Forced through desire of that which he could not but long for, and so much the more cause it was most earnestly denied him, he spoke his mind to my dame, and entreated her to aid him to win this young woman’s favour, and promised her for her labour whatever she would require. Whereupon my dame, which was taken for as honest as any in the city, found the means to bring the young woman to a dinner. Before the young woman should come, my dame gave me a piece of a pudding, which she had filled full of mustard. As soon as I had eaten the piece, it wrought so in my head that it made my eyes run all the day after. To mend this, my dame blew pepper in my nose to make me sneeze.

When the young wife arrived, my dame showed her all the commodes of her house (for women delight much to show forth what they have), they set them down together at the table, just the two of them. While they were in gossiping about the behaviours of this woman and that, I came as I was accustomed and sat by my dame, and when the young woman, hearing me cough and seeing me weep continually, asked what ailed me, my dame, who had tears at her commandment, sighed (and fallen as it were into a sudden dumps), burst forth a weeping, and said, “In faith, mistress, I think I am the most unfortunate woman alive, upon whom God has at once poured forth all his plagues, for my husband, the most honest man that lived, he has been taken from me, and with him my heir and only son, the most towardly young man that was alive ; and yet not satisfied therewith, look here my only daughter, which, though I say it, was as fair a woman and as fortunately married as any in this city, He has (for her honesty or cruelty I cannot tell whether) turned her into this cat, where she has been this two months continually weeping as you see, and lamenting her miserable wretchedness.’

The young woman, astonished at this tale, and crediting it by means of my dame’s lachrimable protestations and deep dissimulation, asked her the more earnestly how and by what chance and for what cause, as she thought, she was so altered?

“Ah,” said my dame, “as I said before, I cannot tell what I should think, whether excuse my daughter and accuse God, or else blame her and acquit Him, for this my daughter, being, as I said, fortunately, married and so beloved of her husband and loving again to him, as now we both too late do and forever I think shall rue, was loved exceedingly of another young man, who made great suite and labour unto her. But she (as I think all women should), esteeming her honesty and promise made to her husband the day of her marriage, refused still his desire; but because he was importunate she came at last and told me it. And I, thinking that I did well, charged her in any case (which full oft since I have repented) that she shall not consent unto him, but to shake him off with shrewd words and threatening answers. She did so ; alas, alas, the while, and the young man, seeing no other boot, went home and fell sick, and loving so honestly and secretly that he could make none other of his council, pined and languished upon his bed the space of three days, receiving neither meat nor drink ; and then, perceiving his death to approach, he wrote a letter, which I have in my purse, and sent it by his boy to my daughter, if you can read you shall see it, I cannot, but my daughter best could very well and write too.’ Herewith my dame wept apace, and took the letter out of her purse and gave it this young woman, who read it in form following:—

“The nameless lover to the nameless beloved
in whose love he may not live, he only desires license to die. Cursed be the woeful time wherein mutual love first mixed the mass of my miserable carcass! Cursed be the hour that ever the fatal destinies have ought for me prevailed; yea, cursed be the unhappy house, may I say, in which I first saw those passing eyes, which by insensible and unquenchable power inflaming my heart to desire are so blend of mercy as will rather with rigour consume my life than view my grief with one drop of pity!
I sue not to you, my dear unloving love, for any kind of grace the doubtful hope where of despair has long since with the pouring showers of evil words utterly quenched ; but this much I desire, which also by right me thinks my faithful love has well deserved, yet your fidelity in wedlock, which I can and must needs praise as would to God I could not, will suffer my pined course no longer to retain the breath, through cold cares wholly consumed, yet as the least, which is also an office of friendship before the gods meritorious, come, visit him who, if aught might quench love, should not love; whose mouth these three days has taken no food; whose eyes the like time have taken no rest; whose heart this three weeks was never merry; whose mind these three months was never quiet; whose bed this seven nights was never made; and who, to be brief, in all parts so enfeebled that living he dies, and dead while he lives!
And when this silly ghost shall leave this cruel and miserable prison, in recompense of his love, life, and death, let those white and tender hands of yours close up those open windows through which the uncomfortable light of your beauty shone first into this heart.
If you this refuse to do, I beseech the gods immortal, to whom immediately I go, that as without any kind of either love or kindness you had caused me to die, so that none other caught with your beauty do likewise perish!
I beseech, I say, the just gods that either they change that honest stony heart, or else disfigure that fair miracles favour.
Thus, for want of force either to endite or write anymore, I take my leave, desiring you either to come or see me die or if I am dead before, to see me honestly buried.

Yours unregarded alive,

G. S.”

When the young woman had read this letter she spoke again to my dame, and with much to do to withhold her swelling tears she said, ‘I am sorry for your heaviness, much more for this poor man’s; but what did she after she saw this letter ?’ 

“Ah,” said my dame, “she esteemed it as she did his suits before—she sent him a rough answer in writing, but never the boy came home with it for his master was dead. Within two days after, my son-in-law, her husband, also died suddenly; and within two days after, as she sat here with me lamenting his death, a voice cried out aloud, ‘Ah, flinty heart, repent thy cruelty!’ And immediately, oh extreme rigour, she was changed as you now see her! Whereupon I gather that though God would have us keep our faith to our husbands, yet rather than any other should die for ourselves, we should not make any conscience to save their lives; for it fared in this point as it does in all other; for as all extremities are vices, so is it a vice, as appeared plainly by the punishment of my daughter, to be extreme in honesty, chastity, or any other kind of virtue.” 

This, with other talk of my dame, in the dinner-time, so sunk into the young woman’s mind that the same afternoon she sent for the gentleman whom she had so constantly refused, and promised him that if he would appoint her an unsuspected place, she would be glad to meet him to fulfil all his lust, which he appointed to be the next day, at my dame’s house.

The next day, when they were all assembled, I, minding to teach my dame a lesson for giving me mustard, caught a quick mouse, of which my dame was always exceedingly afraid, and came with it under her clothes, and then let it go, which immediately crept up on her leg. But, Lord! how she bestirred then; how she cried out, and how pale she looked. I, to amend the matter, making as though I leapt to the mouse, all to be scratch her thighs and her belly so that I dare say she was not whole again in two months after. When the young woman to whom she showed her scratched thighs, said I was an unnatural daughter to deal so with my mother.

“Nay, nay,” said she, “I cannot blame her, for it was through my counsel she suffered all this sorrow ; and yet, I dare say, she did it against her will, thinking to have caught the mouse, which else, I dare say would have crept into my belly.’

By this means this innocent woman, otherwise invincible was brought to consent to commit whoredom.