Miss Cuddlywumps reviews Wilbur Daniel Steele’s classic mystery tale “The Yellow Cat”
Photo by Kerina Yin at ms.wikipedia
(Own work transferred from ms.wikipedia)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
While reading the story “The Yellow Cat,” I kept thinking, This is really weird, but I have to keep reading to understand what’s going on. Then at the end I thought, Huh? But let’s start at the start.
This story by American author and playwright Wilbur Daniel Steele (1886–1970) was first published in 1918 and is about strange things that happen on abandoned ships. The narrator, a sailor named Ridgeway, is familiar with abandoned ships because he once boarded one, the Marionnette, which was found sailing along with an “indefinable suggestion of a stagger.” The ship screamed as they approached it, he says. Aboard there was no sign of disorder—or of life, except for a thirsty parrot. The table had been set for four, but only two men had eaten anything before the crew apparently grabbed up the ship’s papers and fled.
Sometime later, Ridgeway happens to read in the paper of another ship recently brought in under similar circumstances. This ship, called the Abbey Rose, was discovered sailing along “in a suspicious manner.” Investigation by sailors from a passing ship revealed that the Abbey Rose had been abandoned by her crew for reasons unknown. Everything about the vessel looked absolutely fine, but the ship’s papers were missing.
You will be wondering by this time what role, if any, a cat plays in this story. Well, the Abbey Rose was completely deserted except for a yellow cat. This may or may not become more clear later.
It so happens that Ridgeway is acquainted with one of the men who sailed Abbey Rose back to port. Our narrator goes out to the ship to visit this man, McCord, and finds him in an upsetting state: drunk and more than a little nuts—totally out of character for him. The yellow cat, he claims, simply vanished after he caught her trying to lower the lifeboat. Now, we cats can do many things but we cannot lower lifeboats, so this is weird.
McCord has discovered the personal log of the ship’s master, which reveals the presence of a Chinese cook aboard the vessel. The log does not, however, mention a yellow cat. It seems that every one of the crew is spooked by this Chinese cook. (I remind you that the story is from the early 20th century, when there was an unfortunate amount of prejudice against the Chinese.) The theory goes that suspicions—and tempers—ran high out at sea, the cook killed the crew and threw the bodies over the side. But then where is the cook? Well, there is this yellow cat that did not seem to exist before…
So now we think the Chinese cook has somehow been transformed into a cat.
There is more confusion, then a strange noise, someone seen swimming from the ship, and … the yellow cat. The cat climbs up into the rigging; McCord follows and discovers the Chinese cook’s personal belongings stashed in the furled topsail, where he had been hiding the whole time, before going over the side and swimming for shore. Perhaps, in an act of self-preservation, he did kill the crew, but he has not turned into a cat at all. “Another ‘mystery of the sea’ gone to pot,” as the narrator says.
We wished there had been more cat in “The Yellow Cat,” but there is plenty of mystery and overall it is a good story, especially if you enjoy tales of ships and mysteries of the sea. The writing might seem dated to some readers, and we found the suspicions about the Chinese cook (particularly the “yellow man turns into yellow cat” theory) disconcerting, but you must remember the story’s time period. All in all,