From a letter thanking Dorothy P. Lathrop, who illustrated Walter De La Mare’s book of fairy poems “Down-Adown-Derry”, dated May 22, 1922:
Thank you ever and ever and ever so much for sending me a copy of Walter de la Mare’s Down A-Down Derry. I think the pictures are wonderful and especially the frontispiece is a wonderful illustration of a fairy. I also love the poem that goes with that picture. I think it is perfectly wonderful the whole business.
I have now started a story about kittens, and the most important character is Verbiny the princess who found the mother-cat in the woods, caught her, and tamed her. One of the four kittens has a black back arched up like a kangaroo rat’s, and at the top of each white stocking was a band of yellow. All the kittens catch little crickets and grasshoppers, and one of the kittens catches a bay mouse, and a kitten named Citrolane catches two sparrows, one with each paw. But just a little while after the kittens are born they want so much to see what is on the other side of the fence that fenced in their property that they climb up over it and jump down and almost land on a porcupine, but he good-naturedly steps aside in time. In a chapter called Springtime I have written down a little poem in a secret language that Verbiny called Farksoo. In the secret language it was this:
Ar peen maiburs barge craik coo
Peen yars fis farled cray pern.
Peen darndeon flar fooloos lart ain birdream.
Afee lart ain caireen ien tu cresteen der tuee,
Darnceen craik peen bune.
I will now translate it as best I can.
As the (and maiburs means a flower that comes in May) begin to come,
The air is filled with perfume.
The dandelion fluff floats like a (and birdream means something very beautiful).
Also like a fairy in her dress of gold,
Dancing to the wind.
* * *
Verbiny and Her Kittens
There was once a beautiful girl named Verbiny. She lived in a brown shingled house in the woods. On the sides and the back it was all woods but in the front she had a lovely garden: leading to the foot of a certain slope there was a gravel path with an arch at the end and on both sides of the path and everywhere except on the sides and back were flowers. Each side of the garden had two rows of flower-beds on it, five in each row. On the right-hand side going from the house the row near to the path was all roses in the five beds. The ones farther away from the path were foxglove, pansies, and lily-of-the-Valley. The two outer squares of the outer row in the right-hand side going from the house were pansies, the middle square was lily-of-the-Valley, and the two outside of that were foxglove. On the left-hand side going from the house there were also two rows of flower-beds, five in each row. Like the other rows there were roses in all the inner squares. The two outer squares of the outer row were iris, the middle square was poppy, and the two outside of that were bachelor’s buttons.
One day Verbiny went into the woods to find some trailing arbutus and she saw a beautiful tan colored cat. She tried to catch her but she couldn’t. Seeing a man, she called to him and he said, “Do you want to know how to catch that cat?”
“Yes, very much,” said Verbiny. “Can you tell me how? I shall be very much obliged to anyone who can.”
“I can,” said the man. “You take this ball of chicken and throw it, then the cat will run after it and you catch her while she is eating.”
“Thank you very much,” said Verbiny. “Even if I don’t catch her your way, I will just sit still until she comes to me and I can grab her.”
So Verbiny threw the ball of chicken, but the cat did not run after it. She seemed to know that Verbiny wanted to catch her. So Verbiny ran around after her awhile and then the cat climbed a tree. Fortunately Verbiny could just reach her and pulled her down. Then she took her to the house and showed it to her family. Her grandmother said: “Oh, a pussy, isn’t she beautiful.”
Verbiny’s father said the same thing. Her mother said: “We have got a cat already and what in the world do you want another one for? I’m going away somewhere to live if you are going to have another cat.”
Verbiny did not want her mother to go, but she refused to let the cat go. It was just the color of a Kangaroo Rat only on the back she was a little darker. Underneath she was white and her stockings were white with yellow at the tops.
Hanging from the house there was a piece of gray wool coming down almost to the ground. In it there was a pocket which was the cat’s bed.
I will not describe the other cat because he has nothing to do with the story and later they gave him away.
The tan cat’s name was Silkris and not one of the family called her another name; they thought Silkris was a very good name for a cat whose fur was as soft as silk. They remembered a cat whose fur was so coarse that the kittens she had could never be comfortable and the people had to make another bed for all the kittens. If Silkris ever had kittens (which she did after a while) they would not complain in that fur. No indeed! Silkris’s fur would suit even the most delicate kitten.
Verbiny was determined to have a fence around their property so that Silkris could not run away. But so that the fence would not spoil the beauty of the woods they trained a rose vine all over it. They had a gate in the fence of course, and after the people thought that they had had Silkris long enough so that she would be used to the place they sometimes left it open, but in the night they always shut it because they knew that sometimes Silkris went out in the night and that if another cat quarreled with her they would never be able to get her looking well again. So Silkris remained clean all her life, and also good-natured.
Silkris has kittens
A few days afterward Silkris would not do anything except go outdoors once in a while. They all said that she must be ill. So they bought her some cat-nip but she wouldn’t eat it. Said Verbiny: “I know what the matter is, she is going to have kittens.” Verbiny had guessed right; Silkris was going to have kittens and the next night they were born. There were four of them and they were the cunningest things possible.
One was with a black back arched up like a Kangaroo Rat’s. He was white underneath and he had white stockings with yellow on the tops; another was all white; another tiger with white underneath and white stockings with tiger on the tops; and another was just exactly like Silkris. Their feet were all pink and the cushions were so tender that the kittens could not hold them together but let them sprawl apart as they scrambled about over their mother. It seemed as if they grew about a quarter inch ever day. They grew at this rate until they were about a foot long and then they slowed down a little. But I shall describe the life of these kittens. They had their eyes open in twelve days and then of course they were about four inches long. They were very playful, even when drinking milk they tugged and pulled at each other because every kitten wanted to get more milk than the others. They named the tan kitten Silkris after her mother, the tiger one Citrolane, the white one Virenits, and the black one Rosack.
After the kittens were bigger they would go outdoors to play and the first time Silkris caught a little cricket the mother cat felt proud. Once Verbiny went out to play with them, and the kittens at once became interested in a water-basin, Rosack starting to jump in but Verbiny caught him in the air. The next day Virenits caught a butterfly of which his mother was very proud. But while he was playing with it she forgot that it was alive and it flew away. The same day Citrolane and Rosack each caught a grasshopper, and Silkris caught a mouse that she was four times as big as, which showed that it was a baby mouse. By and by Silkris began to take solid food to the kittens: birds which the mother caught, also mice, and this kind of fun went on for a long time until the kittens were nearly full grown and then they themselves caught rats and also birds.
Later on Rosack caught a mouse about half his size, but he couldn’t get his teeth into it, so he carried it to Silkris and she bit it up in four equal parts and gave each kitten a part. Rosack had the tail, Virenits had the head, Silkris had the upper part of the body, and Citrolane had the lower part of it. The next day Citrolane made her first important catch. Just as she was about to catch a cricket just for the fun of putting her paw on it and feeling it wiggle she heard a bird’s song, and she looked in the direction of it and saw a whole flock of sparrows sitting on a branch of a forest tree. Very slowly and quietly Citrolane climbed the opposite side of the trunk and as soon as she was near enough she made one dash, spread her front paws apart and caught one sparrow with each paw. Then, as soon as she was sure they were dead, she brought them both down the tree, eating them with great pride.
The kittens in mischief
My! how those kittens did want to get into the woods on the other side of the fence. They couldn’t find any way but to climb up the fence, and then jump down into the woods. But after a while they found a place where the fence was raised from the ground. They then tried the new experiment of digging through, and it worked perfectly. As soon as they were through they met another cat wholly black, and they ran as fast as ever they could through the hole and into their little pocket of wool. Verbiny also was playing outdoors and she heard the kittens rushing around. She saw the black cat, shooed him away, and also filled up the hole that the kittens had dug.
No sooner was Verbiny out of sight than the kittens went back to their hole, but they couldn’t find it. Then they said that all there was to do was to dig it over again and they went through a second time, but they had no adventures this time. After a while Verbiny came and filled the hole again and this time she shut the kittens up in the woods. The kittens saw that all there was to do was to dig their way back, and they soon did. Now they had found out enough about the woods and they didn’t try to get any more for a long time.
The springtime was more beautiful that year than it had ever been before. Inside of the fence that fenced in their property almost all the trees were fir-trees, and now they were most beautiful. From the back door to the gate in the fence was a long row of fir-trees and just opposite was another row of them. Between them were flowers of all kinds: trailing arbutus, wood anemones, yellow adder tongue, and violets purple, blue, yellow, and white. Right here was the kittens’ best playground. At the end of a very zigzagy path that went through the flower was a clump of grass, and the kittens would rush with all their speed on the path and turn somersaults over the clump of grass. All Verbiny could hear was the bees, and the butterflies, singing:
Ar peen maiburs barge craik coo
Peen yar fis farled cray pern.
Peen darndeon flar fooloos lart
Avee lart ain caireen ien tu cresteen
Darnceen craik peen bune.
This was a little poem that Verbiny had made up and written in a secret language which she called Farksoo. In the front of this little playground, Verbiny put up a sign which said: “Peen Pailee der Birdreams,” which meant the Palace of Beautiful Things.
Later came the buttercups and daisies and the weaving wreaths of daisies, but what Verbiny liked best were the purple asters with their bright yellow centers. She used to make up bouquets, some white, yellow and blue violets all mixed together with a bunch of ferns around them. Then she also used to have buttercups with daises around them and ferns around the daisies, indeed she made some very pretty bunches of flowers. And she also made a rule that nobody could pick the flowers in between the fir-trees. Even the kittens minded that rule pretty well, for all the fun that they got out of that place was to rush along the little path that went through the place and then turn somersaults over a certain clump of grass in the path. Verbiny also kept a bowl of flowers in her room; in it were flowers of all kinds. Every day she would go out and pick a bunch of pansies and put those in it; she also kept violets, wood anemones, and fern in it, and other fragments of wild flowers. She used to do what she called feeding the bowl. As soon as anything wilted she took it out and put something more in place of it so the bowl was always filled.
The kittens took particular interest in that bowl. They would sit on Verbiny’s bureau and push the flowers aside then dip their paws in the water and let the flowers slam back. The kittens knew they were in mischief when they dipped their paws in the water because they left water-spots on the bureau. I wonder why it was that the kittens liked to see the flowers slam back after they had been held, but you know kittens do take interest in strange things.
I have told you that almost all the trees in Verbiny’s yard were fir-trees, but outside there were maple-trees, oak-trees, and several other kinds.
The kittens are taught to use their eyes and their noses.
Silkris decided that she must teach the kittens something or other. So she told them in cat language that she was going to hide pieces of meat and she wanted them to find it. And she also told them that she was going to bury the meat and they must use their noses for what they are worth. So the kittens were put in their bed and Silkris buried ten pieces of meat. Then she told them that they must go on the meat-hunt and they did. The kitten Silkris walked up to the trunk of a tree and down among the roots of the tree she smelt a delicious odor. At once she began to dig, and at last she found a piece of meat which she carried to Silkris. Meanwhile Rosack had found a piece of meat hanging from the tree-trunk, but he ate his. This went on for some time until all the pieces of meat had been found and eaten.
Then Silkris said in cat-language: “I am going to take some balls—I find them scattered all over the lawn—and soak them in this pot of gravy that was put here for me and bury them and you all must find some. And when you do you must chase them to me.” So the kittens found all the balls and they chased them to Silkris, who washed them in a pot of water that was out there, soaked them in gravy again, and then gave them to the kittens and they lapped the gravy off and then they played with them. Then they did it again; while they were doing it the second time, Verbiny came outdoors and saw the kittens sniffing around. She said: “Oh, grandmother, I wonder what the kittens smell; they are sniffing around tree-trunks and everything. Then her grandmother came out and saw the kittens sniffing around. Presently Rosack began to dig. Verbiny’s grandmother, who was very wise, also began to dig right where Rosack was digging. In a minute Rosack came to a ball covered with dirt; then he chased the ball to Silkris and she put the ball in the water until the ball was clean. Then she covered it with gravy and Rosack lapped it off. “I wonder how the kittens ever found that ball, and why it interested them so,” said Verbiny.
“I know,” spoke up her grandmother. “Silkris is teaching her kittens to use their noses well. I suppose Silkris covered the ball with gravy so that it would smell and then told Rosack to go and find it. I suppose that is what made the ball so dirty when Rosack found it.”
“What made it so dirty?” asked Verbiny.
“The gravy that Silkris put on the ball,” replied her grandmother.
“Anyway, I don’t see how you know that Silkris was teaching her kittens to use their noses, and I’m sure I don’t think Silkris would be smart enough to teach them by burying balls covered with gravy, I’m sure I don’t.”
“I didn’t know, I guessed,” said her grandmother. “I think Silkris would be as smart as to cover balls with gravy and then bury them and then ask the kittens to find it.”
“Perhaps she would, grand—” Verbiny didn’t wait to say another word. She caught up two of the kittens, Silkris and Virentis, and rushed into the house, with her grandmother after with the other two kittens and Silkris following her. The firght was a young fox who had leaped out of the woods, and he was after the kitten.
Verbiny finished what she was going to say in the house: “Perhaps she would, grandmother,” she said. “I guess she would; Silkris is a pretty smart cat.” (The word “firght” means fright in Farksoo.)
The same day Silkris took all her kittens to a mouse-hole. She said in cat-language: “I want you to tell me if there is a mouse in that hole or not.” Citrolane was the first to sniff and she said: “I should think there is,” and the others said the same thing.
Rosack becomes acquainted with a Kangaroo Rat
A week afterward Rosack went off into the world. He wandered and wandered, until he came to a dry plain. In the plain was a tree that especially attracted his attention; it was a yellow spot on a rock that attracted his attention though. Finally the yellow spot moved, and then he saw some white. Right by the rock was a little hole and the kangaroo rat, for that was what it was that ran into it. Rosack, in order to find out what the hole was like inside, ran after the kangaroo rat. The hole was very deep and Rosack passed two little bedrooms lined with grass, and at the end of each bedroom there was an entrance. Finally he found the kangaroo rat, and he said: “Purwouw I think nice little house, may I live here with you and will you let me sleep in one of these dear little bedrooms?”
“Indeed you may,” said the kangaroo rat. “What kind of an animal are you, anyway? I think you look very nice, and I should be extremely glad to let you sleep in one of my little bedrooms.”
“I was born from a cat,” said Rosack, “so I suppose that is what I am. I have never seen myself so I don’t know what I look like, but I should think I would have to be a cat because you see I was born from one.”
“You look more like a black kangaroo rat to me,” said the kangaroo rat. “You know you don’t have to be the same kind of an animal that your mother was. We have got a baby that is a cat, only all the children are out hunting now. Oh, I wish they were here now so that you could see how dear they are.
“Now don’t worry about your enemies because you see there is an entrance in your room and you could get out very easily. That is why I have so many entrances. I—” The kangaroo rat didn’t wait to hear more. They both fled out of the entrance of that room that they were in and hid behind a tree. Verbiny had come looking for Rosack and had heard him talking, and had waited at the hole. But she hadn’t been able to find him so she gave it up and went home.
Rosack stayed with the kangaroo rat all night, and in the morning Verbiny went to the hole again and at last she found Rosack, but he went there every night and one night all the children came in with their mother just before Rosack had gone to bed. There were two of them, and to be sure one was a little tiger cat.
“I think your children are dear,” said Rosack. “The cat looks very much like my sister Citrolane, but I think the kangaroo rat is much prettier.”
“I’m so glad to think that you like them,” replied the children’s mother. “I think they are dear, myself. I’m very glad to think you like them.”
“I don’t see how anyone could help liking them,” said Rosack. “I have heard that men hunt them for their little furry coats. I don’t see how anybody can bear to do it. I think it is a perfect shame.”
“I don’t see how they do it either,” said the children’s mother. “It isn’t the cat they want, it is the kangaroo rat. You see, the cat isn’t very handsome, but the kangaroo rat is; when I think of the men killing that little thing I wish that he wasn’t handsome.”
“Don’t you wish that when danger was near you could make him look awful, and when it was safe you could make him look very pretty?” said Rosack.
“It would be nice, wouldn’t it?” replied the children’s mother. “But supper is ready, so we shall have to stop talking.”
That night Verbiny had a lovely dream. She dreamed that she was a long way from home and that she was lost in a beautiful plain. Pretty soon she came to a gate in a fence that had a rose vine trained all over it. “Just like our fence and roses,” thought Verbiny. She opened the gate very slowly and cautiously and came right into the garden of Fairy-land. She was amazed! There was a path from the gate right through the garden and on this she walked. On one side of the garden the flowers were arranged the same way as the whole of her own, but on the other side were the trees with flowers on them. There was grass around the flower-beds. The beds where the trees were were circular in shape, instead of rectangular. There were four rows of beds on the left side of the garden: two of the eight front rows were rhododendrons, the next two were fire-blossoms, the next two were low purple lilacs, and the other two were low white lilacs. The second row from the path were four kinds of azaleas, two of each kind. They were a queer sort of reddish-pink, red, dark yellow, and very light yellow. The next row was fruit-trees, two of each kind: there were plum-trees, apple-trees, peach-trees, and pear-trees. The last row was all magnolias.
Verbiny walked down the path that went through the middle of the garden. When she came to the end a little fairy stepped out from behind a tree, and touched her with her wand. Instantly she found herself turned into a lovely maiden in a white velvet dress with a white belt covered with precious stones of all kinds. She found herself in a lovely room. All over the ceiling was a vine with precious stones of all kinds in it. Verbiny thought they were fruits, and reached for one of the rubies that had fallen from its grip of the ceiling and was hanging from the vine. Verbiny pulled it down and put it in her mouth. Just then she heard a voice say, “Do not eat it or you will choke.”
“Why?” asked Verbiny.
“Because it is a ruby. You probably thought it was a strawberry, but it is a ruby,” said the voice.
Verbiny dropped the stone.
“Put it back where it belongs,” said the voice.
“Will you tell me how I can put something that has been hanging back again with nothing to do it with?”
“Take something to do it with,” said the voice.
“I haven’t anything to do it with,” said Verbiny. “I said with nothing to do it with.”
“I know you said nothing to do it with,” said the voice. “But haven’t you got sense enough to take something when there are piles of it right before your eyes.”
“Don’t treat her that way,” begged a new sweet little voice, and a little fairy stepped into the room, took up the ruby and placed it on the vine, and went away again.
“Oh, I wish all these voices would stop talking to me,” sighed Verbiny.
Immediately the room was silent. Verbiny laid down on a lovely bed that was in the room and went to sleep. When she woke she found herself sitting up in her own bed.
Silkris’s death and her daughter’s kittens
For some few days Silkris had not been feeling well. Verbiny said that she probably was going to have kittens again, but she wasn’t. The next day they found her spread out on the table asleep, but the next day they found her dead. That didn’t make much difference to the looks of the cat family, for they had Virenits who looked just like her mother.
The same day the kitten Silkris had kittens. There were three of them: one was striped with yellow and white and white underneath; another was light gray with white underneath; and strange to say Silkris didn’t marry Rosack, but an angora, and the other kitten was a little grayish-white angora. To be sure Rosack lived at the kangaroo rat’s but in the day time he visited Verbiny’s house and why he didn’t marry Silkris then is more than I can say.
The kittens went through the same sort of life that the other cat’s kittens did, but this was the difference: A week after the kittens had their eyes open they were taken to a cat show not to perform but portraits were taken of each one painted in watercolors.
The day after the kittens were born another was. A dear little Maltese kitten—gentle, playful, and loved by everybody. Eureeler the Maltese kitten and the little angora were both valuable cats. Verbiny kept them always, but the yellow and white kitten and the gray and white one they gave away, for they could not take care of so many kittens. Verbiny combed Eureeler and the angora every day so they never had fleas, but were clean gentle cats. As for Verbiny’s mother, she went away and never came back partly because she hated cats and partly because she thought that Verbiny would spend all her time with them and not do anything else. Don’t you believe it; she was happy and busy all day with her cats and everything else that a little girl could want.