You can just imagine how the China Cat felt. Always so clean and white, always washing herself if she found the least speck of dirt on her, always keeping as much as possible away from dust and grime--and now to be spattered with water, blackened by the smoke of the fire, and finally thrust inside the soiled blouse of a not very clean boy! Oh, it was terrible!
The China Cat said it was, over and over again; to herself, of course, for she dared not speak aloud, nor so much as mew, while Jeff, the colored boy, had her. And Jeff certainly had the China Cat.
Jeff's eyes sparkled with delight as he pressed the toy up under his blouse, out of sight, and then he darted away from the pile of toys, on the sidewalk--toys that had hastily been carried out of the burning store.
"Hi, golly! I's done gone fool dat p'liceman," murmured Jeff, as he stepped off the sidewalk and made his way out of the crowd in front of the burning store. "He tole me to keep away from dem toys! But I sneaks up when he isn't lookin', an' I gits de bestest toy ob all! Golly! I's smarter dan a p'liceman, I is!"
Jeff grinned, showing two rows of white teeth in his black face. Indeed, Jeff's teeth were the only clean things about him, it seemed. At least they were white, though I can not say that he ever used a tooth brush. His teeth were as white as was the China Cat when she was her very cleanest. But she was not at all clean now. And you know how unhappy this made her feel.
There was so much excitement now in front of Mr. Mugg's toy shop, with the fire, the smoke, the water, the fire engines, the firemen and the police, to say nothing of the crowd that had gathered, that no one paid any attention to Jeff. Away he sneaked, with the China Cat under his blouse.
"I's smart, I is!" said Jeff to himself, grinning. "I could 'a' tooken a lot ob toys; but I liked dis Cat bestest ob all. She's so white!"
Jeff did not mind the black specks from the fire that had settled on the cat, and he cared nothing about the grimy marks his own dirty hands had made.
It was broad daylight now, and the firemen were getting the best of the fire. By pouring a lot of water from their hose down in the basement, the blaze had been put out, though there was still much smoke.
Jeff, the negro boy, shuffled off down the street on his way back to his home. When he was nearly there he met some other colored boys.
One of these lads, named Sam, saw that Jeff was hiding something under his blouse.
"Hello, Jeff!" called Sam. "Whut yo' got there? Something good to eat?"
"Nope, 'tain't nuffin to eat!" declared Jeff. He and Sam talked negro talk, of course, just like Topsy, the colored doll, whom the China Cat at first thought would rub off some of her black.
"Whut yo' got then?" asked Sam. "Show me!"
"Yes, show what yo' got, Jeff!" cried the other colored boys.
"Oh, I ain't got nuffin much!" Jeff answered, as he moved away from Sam and the other boys. Sometimes they had taken things away from Jeff, and Jeff was afraid that was what they were now going to do. Inside the blouse of the colored boy the China Cat heard what was said, but she could see nothing.
"I wonder what is going to happen?" she thought.
"Jeff has got something!" declared Sam to his chums. "Let's catch him an' take it away!"
"All right!" agreed the other colored boys. They made a rush for Jeff, but he was too quick for them. Pressing his hands over his blouse, at the spot where the China Cat was stuffed, so she would not bounce out, Jeff ran down the street.
"I's got something yo' can't have!" he cried. "An' yo' all can't catch me, an' git it; dat's whut yo' can't!"
Away he sped, and he was such a good runner that the other boys could not come up to him. Around the corner of one street, down another and up a third ran Jeff, and then he darted down the stairs into what was almost a cellar, though it was called a basement. It was here, in some poor, miserable rooms, that Jeff lived with his brothers and sisters.
"Whut de mattah, Jeff?" asked his mother, a large, fat, colored washerwoman. "Am de p'licemans after yo' a'gin?"
Jeff had run so hard that he was out of breath, and could not speak for a few moments. Hidden as she was, inside his blouse, the China Cat could feel Jeff's heart pumping hard, and notice his rapid breathing.
"Dear me!" thought the China Cat, "this is a dreadful state of affairs. I wonder if I am ever to get out of this smothering place. I don't like it, cooped up like this! I want to get out in the air, and have Geraldine or Angelina wash me!"
You see the China Cat did not know all that had happened to her. She hoped she would soon be back in Mr. Mugg's store, washed nice and clean, and set on a shelf. But the store of poor Mr. Mugg was in a sad state now, even though the fire had been put out.
As Jeff's breathing became easier, his brothers and sisters, who were just getting up out of their beds, crowded around him. His mother, who was getting breakfast, asked him again:
"Jeff, am de p'licemans tryin' to git yo'?"
"Nope!" answered the colored boy. "I runned 'cause I wanted to git away from Sam Brown an' his crowd. Dey was gwine to take mah cat away from me!"
"Yo' cat?" cried Jeff's mother. "Where'd yo' git a cat?"
Jeff wiggled and twisted as he reached his hand inside his blouse and pulled out the China Cat.
"Dere she am!" he cried, holding her up. "Dere's mah pussy! I done got her at de fire, an' de p'liceman didn't see me!"
For a moment there was silence in the dingy basement tenement where Jeff lived. His brothers and sisters, all smaller than he, crowded up around him as he held the China Cat high in the air.
"Ain't she jess boo'ful!" murmured one little black girl.
"Kin she wiggle her haid, like I done see a Donkey shake his haid in de toy shop?" asked one of Jeff's brothers.
"Lemme hab her!" pleaded the littlest black girl of all.
"No, suh!" declared Jeff. "Dis am mah white pussy, dat I done took outen de fire an' de p'liceman didn't see me, an' I's gwine to keep her, I is!"
He held the China Cat higher above his head.
"Oh, mercy me!" thought the poor white pussy, "I hope he doesn't let me fall. Oh, how miserable I am! So dirty, and in such an unpleasant place! I thought I'd be back in the toy shop with the Talking Doll and my other friends!"
The China Cat did not at first know where she was when Jeff pulled her out from beneath his blouse. It had been dark in there, but it was lighter in the kitchen, and this confused the toy animal. But when she had a chance to look around, held up high in the air as she was, she did not at all like her new home. And she was very much afraid that Jeff would let her fall.
But the colored boy did not. He set the China Cat on the table, right down in a little puddle of molasses that had been spilled when the table was set for breakfast.
"Oh, dear me, this is worse and worse!" thought the China Cat, as she felt the sticky stuff on her tail. "I shall never get clean and white again now!"
As for Jeff and his brothers and sisters, they did not seem to mind a bit of molasses on the table. Indeed, one of the little colored girls put her finger in the sweet, sticky puddle, and then she put her finger in her mouth.
"Dat's good!" she murmured. "Me 'ikes 'lasses, me does!"
But the others were more interested in the China Cat. They stared at her with all their eyes, and Jeff's mother asked:
"Where yo' done say yo' got her?"
"At de fire," Jeff explained. "I heard de engines puffin' past early dis mawnin', an' I gits up an' goes out. Dere was a toy store on fire, an' dey frowed a lot ob toys out in de street. Dere was Jumpin' Jacks, an' Dolls, an' Steamboats, an'--an'--"
Two of the older colored boys started on a rush for the door, one of them crying:
"I'se gwine to git a steamboat!"
"Yo' can't git none now, Sim!" shouted Jeff. "De p'licemans is all aroun' de place. Dey won't let you take nuffin. But I done fooled 'em. Anyhow, de fire's out now, an' dey'll be puttin' de toys back. But I done got a white cat!"
So he had, but the China Cat was not so very white now. Besides the dirt from the fire and the grime from Jeff's hands, she was sticky with molasses, and every bit of dust flying about the basement room seemed to settle on the poor toy pussy.
"Lemme hab her, Jeff!" pleaded one of his sisters.
"Well, I done let yo' hold her for a minute," said Jeff, and he gave the China Cat into the hands of the little black girl. But as this girl had been eating bread and sugar, she got the poor China Cat stickier than ever.
"Lemme hold her now, Jeff!" pleaded another black tot.
"Nope, I ain't held her long 'nuff!" declared the first.
"Heah! Gib her to me!" ordered the second.
"No! No! Jeff said I could hab her!" cried the first.
One tried to take the China Cat away from the other, and in the scramble a chair was upset and the toy nearly fell to the floor.
"This is the most dreadful place I was ever in!" thought the China Cat, who, of course, could do nothing to save herself. "If they let me fall I shall be broken, all dirty and soiled as I am."
But Jeff was not going to let that happen.
"Heah! Gib me back mah cat, whut I done got at de fire!" he said, and he grabbed it from his sister's hand.
"Oh! Oh! Oh!" wailed the little black girl.
"Heah! Hush yo' noise now!" called Jeff's mother. "Set up to de table an' hab yo' brekfus'! Stop playin'!"
"Dear me, they call that playing!" thought the China Cat. "I wonder what they would do in a game of tag? Oh, what is ever to become of me?"
Jeff took the toy and set it on a shelf in the kitchen, and then he sat down to his breakfast. Every once in a while he would look up at the China Cat.
"I's glad I done got yo'," Jeff would murmur. "Yo' suah am a fine toy!"
After breakfast he took the China Cat down off the shelf and let his sisters look at her. But no sooner did one of the little colored girls have the cat in her hands than she darted out of the basement.
"Now I's got her, an' I's gwine t' hab some fun!" cried Arabella. Arabella was the name of this one of Jeff's sisters. "I's gwine to hab fun wid dis cat!"
Up the stairs and out into the street she ran, holding the China Cat in such a tight grip that, had the toy been a real pussy, she would have been choked.