Once there was an old woman who lived on what she got by wile from her relatives and neighbors. Her husband's brother lived alone with his only son, in a house near hers, and when the son brought home a wife the old woman went to call on the bride. During the call she inquired of the bride whether she had not, since her arrival in the house, heard a scratching at night among the boxes containing her wedding outfit. The bride said she had not.
A few days later the old woman came again, and during the visit the bride remarked that, before the matter was mentioned, she had heard no scratching among her boxes, but that since that time she had listened for it, and had heard it every night. The old woman advised her to look carefully after her clothing, saying that there were evidently many mice in the house, , and that she would be likely at any time to find her best garments nibbled into shreds. The old woman knew there was no cat in the house, but she inquired whether there was one, and on hearing that there was not, she offered to lend the young woman her own black-and-white cat, saying that it would soon extirpate all the mice. The bride accepted the loan, and the old woman brought the cat, and left it in the bride's apartment.
After a few hours the cat disappeared, and the bride, supposing it to have gone home, made no search for it. It did, indeed, go home, and the old woman secretly disposed of it; but several days later she came to the young woman and said that, when she lent the cat, her house had been free from mice, but that, as soon as the cat was gone, the mice came and multiplied so fast that now everything was overrun by them, and she would be obliged to take the cat home again. The young woman told her that the cat went away the same day that it came, and she had supposed it had gone home. The old woman said it had not, and that nothing could compensate her for the loss of it, for she had reared it herself; that there was never before seen such a cat for catching mice; that a cat, spotted as that one was, was seldom found; and that it was of the rare breed which gave rise to the common saying:
"A coal-black cat, with snowy loins,
Is worth its weight in silver coins."
and that the weight of her cat was two hundred ounces.
The young woman was greatly surprised by this estimate of the value of the lost cat, and went to her father-in-law and related all that had occurred. The father-in-law, knowing the character of the old woman, could neither eat nor sleep, so harassed was he by the expectation that she would worry his daughter-in-law till the two hundred ounces of silver should be paid. The young woman, being a new-comer, thought but lightly of the matter, till the old woman came again and
again to make mention of the cat. When it became apparent that she must defend herself, the young woman asked her father-in-law if he had ever lent anything to the old woman; and when he said he could not remember having lent anything, she begged him to think carefully, and see if he could not recall the loan of a tool, a dish, or a fagot. He finally recollected that he had lent to her an old wooden ladle, but he said it originally cost but a few farthings, and was certainly not worth speaking about.
The next time the old woman came to dun for the amount due for her cat, the young woman asked her to return the borrowed ladle. The old woman said that the ladle was old and valueless; that she had allowed the children to play with it, and that they had dropped it in the dirt, where it had lain until she had picked it up and used it for kindlings.
The bride responded:
"You expect to enrich yourself and your family by means of your cat. I and my family also want money.Since you cannot give back the ladle, we will both go before the magistrate and present our cases. If your cat is adjudged to be worth more than my ladle I will pay you the excess; and if my ladle be worth more than your cat, then you must pay me."
Being sure that the cat would, by any judge, be considered of greater value than the ladle, the old woman agreed to the proposition, and the two went before the magistrate. The young woman courteously gave precedence to the elder,
and allowed her to make the accusation. The old woman set forth her case, and claimed two hundred ounces of silver as a compensation for the loss of the cat.
When she had concluded her statement, the judge called on the young woman for her defense. She said she could not disprove the statement, but that the claim was offset by a ladle that had been borrowed by the plaintiff.
There was a common saying:
"In the moon overhead, at its full, you can see
The trunk, branch and leaf of a cinnamon tree."
A branch from this tree had one night been blown down before her father-in-law's door, and he had had a ladle made from the wood. Whatever the ladle was put into never diminished by use. Whether wine, oil, rice, or money, the bulk remained the same if no ladle beside this one were used in dipping it.
A foreign inn-keeper, hearing of this ladle, came and offered her father-in-law three thousand ounces of silver for it, but the offer was refused. And this ladle was the one that the plaintiff had borrowed and destroyed.
The magistrate, on hearing this defense, understood that the cat had been a pretext for extortion, and decided that the two claims offset each other so that no payment was due from either one.