The intoxicating fragrance of lilacs floated across the meadow grass. Mrs. Murphy was night hunting in and around the abandoned dependencies on old Tally Urquhart's farm, Rose Hill. Once a great estate, the farm's main part continued to be kept in pristine condition. A combination of old age plus spiraling taxes, and wages forced Thalia "Tally" Urquhart, as well as others like her, to let outlying buildings go.
A huge stone hay barn with a center aisle big enough to house four hay wagons side by side sat in the middle of small one-and-a-half-story stone houses with slate roofs. The buildings, although pockmarked by broken windows, were so well constructed they would endure despite the birds nesting in their chimneys.
The hay barn, whose supporting beams were constructed from entire tree trunks, would outlast this century and the next one as well.
The paint peeled off the stone buildings, exposing the soft gray underneath with an occasional flash of rose-gray.
The tiger cat sniffed the air; low clouds and fog were moving in fast from the west, sliding down the Blue Ridge Mountains like fudge on a sundae.
Normally Mrs. Murphy would hunt close to her own farm. Often she was accompanied by Pewter, who despite her bulk was a ferocious mouser. This evening she wanted to hunt alone. It cleared her mind. She liked to wait motionless for mice to scurry in the rotting burlap feed bags, for their tiny claws to tap against the beams in the hayloft.
Since no one paid attention to the Urquhart barns, the mousing was superb. Kernels of grain and dried corn drew the little marauders in, as did the barn itself, a splendid place in which to raise young mice.
A moldy horse collar, left over from the late 1930s, its brass knobs green, hung on the tack-room wall, forgotten by all, the mules who wore it long gone to the Great Mule Sky.
Mrs. Murphy left off her mousing to explore the barn, constructed in the early nineteenth century. How lovely the farm must have once been. Mrs. Murphy prided herself on her knowledge of human history, something the two-legged species often overlooked in its rush to be current. Of course, she reflected, whatever is current today is out of fashion tomorrow.
The tiger cat, like most felines, took the long view.
Her particular human, Mary Minor Haristeen, or Harry, the young, pretty postmistress of Crozet, Virginia, evinced interest in history as well as in animal behavior. She read voraciously and expanded her understanding of animals by visiting Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the Marion DuPont Scott Equine Research Center in Leesburg, Virginia. Harry even studied the labels on crunchy-food bags to make certain kitty nutrition was adequate. She cared for her two cats, one dog, and three horses with love and knowledge.
The flowers continued to push up around the buildings. The lilac bushes, enormous, burst forth each spring. The sadness of the decaying old place was modified by the health of the plant life.
The cat emerged from the barn and glanced at the deepening night clouds, deciding to hurry back home before the fog got thicker. Two creeks and a medium-sized ridge were the biggest obstacles. She could traverse the four miles in an hour at a trot, faster if she ran. Mrs. Murphy could run four miles with ease. A sound foxhound could run forty miles in a day. Much as she liked running, she was glad she wasn't a foxhound, or any hound, for that matter. Mrs. Murphy liked dogs but considered them a lower species, for the most part, except for the corgi she lived with, Tucker, who was nearly the equal of a cat. Not that she'd tell Tucker that. . . . Never.
She trotted away from the magical spot and loped over the long, flat pasture, once an airstrip for Tally Urquhart in her heyday, when she had shocked the residents of central Virginia by flying airplanes. Her disregard for the formalities of marriage did the rest.
Tally Urquhart was Mim Sanburne's aunt. Mim had ascended to the rank of undisputed social leader of Crozet once her aunt had relinquished the position twenty years ago. Mrs. Murphy would giggle and say to Mim's face, "Ah, welcome to the Queen of Quite a Lot." Since Mim didn't understand cat, the grande dame wasn't insulted.
On the other side of the airfield a rolling expanse of oats just breaking through the earth's surface undulated down to the first creek.
At the creek the cat stopped. The clouds lowered; the moisture was palpable. She thought she heard a rumble. Senses razor sharp, she looked in each direction, including overhead. Owls were deadly in conditions like this.
The rumble grew closer. She climbed a tree--just in case. Out of the clouds overhead two wheels appeared. Mrs. Murphy watched as a single-engine plane touched down, bumped, then rolled toward the barn. It stopped right in front of the massive doors, a quarter of a mile away from Mrs. Murphy.
A lean figure hopped out of the plane to open the barn doors. The pilot stayed at the controls, and as the doors opened, the plane puttered into the barn. The motor was cut off. Mrs. Murphy saw two figures now, one much taller than the other. She couldn't make out their features; the collars of their trench coats were turned up and they were half turned away, dueling gusts of wind. As each human braced behind a door and rolled it shut, the heavens opened in a deluge.
A great fat splat of rain plopped right on Mrs. Murphy's head. She hated getting wet, but she waited long enough to see the two humans run down the road past the stone houses. In the far distance she thought she heard a motor turn over.
Irritated that she hadn't gone down the farm road and therefore might have missed something, she climbed down and ran flat out the entire way home. She could have stayed overnight in the Urquhart barn, but Harry would panic if she woke up and realized Mrs. Murphy wasn't asleep on the bed.
By the time she reached her own back porch forty-five minutes later, she was soaked. She pushed through the animal door and shook herself twice in the kitchen, spattering the cabinets, before walking into the bedroom.
Tucker snored on the floor at the foot of the bed. Pewter snuggled next to Harry. The portly gray cat opened one brilliant green eye as Mrs. Murphy leapt onto the bed.
"Don't sleep next to me. You're all wet."
"It was worth it."
Both eyes opened. "What'd you get?"
"Two field mice and one shrew."
"Why would I make it up?"
Pewter closed both eyes and flicked her tail over her nose. "Because you have to be the best at everything."
The tiger ignored her, crept to the head of the bed, lifted the comforter, and slid under while staying on top of the blanket. If she'd picked up all the covers and gotten on the sheets, Harry might have rolled over and felt the wet sheets and the wet cat. Mrs. Murphy was better off in the middle; and she would dry faster that way, too.
Pewter said nothing but she heard a muffled "Hee-hee," before falling asleep again.
From the Paperback edition.