Monday, June 07, 2010
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And so the girl walked into the forest.
Soon the ground was rising up beside the path, very prettily, in a sort of low ridge or bank. Just as she was beside its highest point, she was surprised by a voice from somewhere quite nearby:
"Whyever are you walking on the ground like that? Would'n't you go faster if you flew?"
"But how should I fly?" she asked, as she looked to see who was speaking to her.
"Why, one pulls oneself up. By one's bootstraps. I should, if I were you."
She found the voice belonged to a large cat which was sitting on the bank and grinning from ear to ear. Any cat will have a proprietary attitude to the thing it sits upon, but she felt the way this one was smiling showed actual ownership.
"Good day, Mister Cat," she said politely, "What a nice bank you have!"
"Thank you," the cat replied. "I was considering selling it."
"Oh, but you must'n't do that!" she said.
The girl felt she had spoken rather louder than she had meant to, but all the same it was a nice bank, and talk of selling made her think how once she sold her doll to the girl who lived across the road. When she saw it next, its head had been pulled off.
Also, she felt more and more certain the way the cat was smiling at her was not usual.
"Very well," said the cat pleasantly, "If you feel that strongly, I wo'n't sell it. I promise never to sell my bank."
"Oh, good. Thank you kindly," said the girl, curtseying a little. "People do so rarely listen," she thought, "So one ought to be grateful when they do."
"I'm sure we shall become fast friends," said the cat, "Perhaps you would like to buy some of my bank if I sell it."
"But you just said you would'n't sell your bank!"
"Well, I've not decided to sell it. But I may do so later. I shall let you know once I've considered the matter."
"You promised not to sell it!"
"And I sha'n't. Then afterwards, when I'm finished not selling it, I may do."
"Are you going to sell it or not?"
"I'm never going to sell it, for now."
"But that's a contradiction!" she said. "You can't say that!"
"I rather think I can. I'm quite sure I've said 'that' any number of times, and it's never given me the least trouble."
"I mean, you can't say the thing you just said."
"Who's being contradictory now?" said the cat, and began to clean itself rather smugly.
The girl stamped her foot, despite herself. "But it's different to what you said before!"
"It means the same, does'n't it?"
"No it does'n't!"
"Oh, but it does," said the cat.
"When one says 'never', it means 'never', not 'until one changes one's mind'!"
"Goodness me, I should think not. When I say 'never', you must understand the longest idea of forever I can entertain is three years or thereabouts. Think of me as a unnaturally large goldfish. So really I've been quite unequivocal. I'm currently never going to sell it, but I may be going to sell it soon, soon."
"The question is," said the girl, "whether people will let you use words that way."
"The question is," said the cat, "who is to be master – that's all."
"Who is to be master?" she repeated in astonishment.
"Not," said said the cat, looking the girl up and down, "You. I imagine."
"This is beginning," said the girl, "to get old quite quickly."
"Dear me, I hope it is'n't. I have'n't made any provision for its superannuation."
"Oh, this has nothing to do with anything!" she shouted.
"Certainly not," said the cat. "Eventually I will sell the bank or not sell it, and then it will matter. In between times – here you are, arguing with a cat."
At this point the girl became so exasperated that she took up a stone and threw it at the animal with every intention (though later she might have denied it) of dashing its brains out. Yet the stone seemed to pass straight through, and then bounce off a tree, and it all somehow ended with stone hitting the girl in the face quite firmly.
"It's as though," she thought as she touched her nose to confirm it was intact, "he has no substance at all, just a smile. Though he must have some substance, as I think his fur is perhaps a touch more ruffled than before."
Then, to show she had not been beaten, she said, "I'm sure I could do you some proper damage eventually."
"I suppose you could," the cat replied, "I suppose it depends on how sore you're prepared to make your face. Oh, do let's be friends. I've always liked you."
"Really? When was the first time you liked me?"
"Now. Look, if it makes you feel better, I shall promise never to sell the bank."
"But do you mean always-never or for-a-little-while-never?"
"Yes. I mean one thing or the other. Oh, do'n't go," said the cat (for the girl was indeed beginning down the path again), "I promise to always never sell my bank, for as long as I remain a cat. There now."
The girl hesitated.
"Do you mean to stop being a cat?" she asked.
"Perhaps. But if I do, I sha'n't be able to sell my bank."
"Very well then. But you're not making me trust you."
"Oh, as to that, you shall simply have to try harder. I cannot make you, and I cannot trust me for you. Personal responsibility, you know."
"But this promise is really just the same promise you made in the beginning!"
"And did I break that promise?"
The girl felt this deserved a very short answer but she wasn't quite able to think of one.
"These riddles are infuriating!" she exclaimed.
"Do you find it a puzzle? If you like, I could let you have the key."
"I don't," said the girl as she turned and continued down the path, "think that would help at all."
"Still walking, I see," she heard the cat say behind her. "There's no helping some people."
Very soon the plants beside the path became more orderly and well-tended. In fact, the girl became quite certain she could see a vineyard not very far ahead. It looked, she thought, quite promising.