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I remember reading this as a child, probably around the mid-to-late 80's. I believe it was in an anthology, probably one used as a school English class textbook.

The details that I remember:

There is a dinner, at which at least three people participate: a woman, a man who is the protagonist (narrator?), and another man who is a mysterious guest.

The protagonist becomes jealous of how well the guest and the woman are hitting it off (I believe the protagonist is in love with the woman, or possibly they are engaged).

There is an association between the mysterious guest and feline attributes (it is possible he has a tail), which prompts the protagonist, who is getting desperate to separate the guest from the woman before he loses her to him, to relate a story.

The story he told was that he was walking along, and came across a procession of cats. Some of the cats were carrying a tiny coffin, upon which a crown was perched.

I don't remember if the story was something he had witnessed personally, or if it was something someone else had described to him, but the events (the cats carrying the coffin) had occurred many years ago. However, when he told this story to the mysterious guest and the woman, he portrayed it as if it was something he had witnessed just days earlier.

As soon as he finishes the story, the other man exclaims that he is now the king of cats, and disappears, never to be seen again.

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+100

You probably read an adaptation of the fairy tale named The King o' the Cats. Here's one version of it.

A man travelling alone sees a number of cats preparing to bury a small coffin and golden crown. He reaches his destination and recounts what he saw, when suddenly the housecat cries "Then I am the king of the cats!", rushes up the chimney and is never seen again.

The story appears to have influenced a number of other tales.

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    Thank you for the link to the original fairy tale. From that, I believe I've found the specific story I was looking for. +1 for the answer, thanks! – Beofett Jul 24 '13 at 17:26
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Thanks to coleopterist's answer, I'm pretty sure I found the specific variation of the basic fairy tale that I read (likely in an abridged form).

According to the wikipedia section on stories influenced by the fairy tale coleopterist provided:

Stephen Vincent Benét's 1937 short story "The King of Cats" based around this folk story was selected by The Library of America for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Fantastic Tales, edited by Peter Straub.

Note that wikipedia appears to have some minor errors: the title is actually "The King of the Cats". The text version I linked also indicates a publication date of 1929, not 1937. This site agrees.

After reading through Benét's story, it clearly matches the details I remembered:

The story starts with several characters discussing the startling fact that Monsieur Tibault, a famous and talented musician from Europe visiting Carnegie Hall, has a tail that he uses to conduct the orchestra.

The name Tibault may actually be a nod to William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, as the character Tybalt is referred to by Mercutio as "King of Cats".

Tommy Brooks was in love with Princess Vivrakanarda, who was described as having some feline elements herself ("She moved with a feline, effortless grace" and " She lived alone and was reputed to be very lazy at least it was known that she slept during most of the day but at night she bloomed like a moon-flower and a depth came into her eyes. ").

Tommy notices the Princess acting strangely after hearing about Tibault's tail, and witnesses her strange reaction upon first seeing Tibault's tail:

She was not applauding, her hands were clenched in her lap, but her whole body was rigid, rigid as a steel bar, and the blue flowers of her eyes were bent upon the figure of M. Tibault in a terrible concentration. The pose of her entire figure was so still and intense that for an instant Tommy had the lunatic idea that any moment she might leap from her seat beside him as lightly as a moth, and land, with no sound, at M. Tibault's side to yes to rub her proud head against his coat in worship.

Tommy's suspicions increase when he witnesses Tibault accidentally rip his clothes, at which point Tommy sees not the expected skin underneath, but rather a coating of sleek black fur.

He then brings his concerns to his friend Billy Strange, who recalls the story of the original fairy tale from a book. Together, Billy and Tommy come up with the plan for Tommy to tell this story to Mr. Tibault.

Tommy gets his chance at the farewell dinner party for Mr. Tibault. Just prior to the dinner, the hostess confides to Tommy that there will be a surprise announcement of the engagement between Tibault and the Princess during the meal.

Tommy then comes unnoticed across the Princess and Tibault and his suspicions are deepened further:

Tibault was seated in a chair and she was crouched on a stool at his side, while his hand, softly, smoothly, stroked her brown hair. Black cat and Siamese kitten. Her face was hidden from Tommy, but he could see Tibault's face. And he could hear.

They were not talking, but there was a sound between them. A warm and contented sound like the murmur of giant bees in a hollow tree a golden, musical rumble, deep-throated, that came from Tibault's lips and was answered by hersa golden purr.

A desperate Tommy manages to tell his story. Tibault calmly questions Tommy on the details of the story, and then cries "Then I'm the King of the Cats!". There's a flash of light and a cloud of smoke, and when it all clears, Tibault is gone.

The Princess later sails off on a sea voyage due to "shattered nerves" from the surprise, so Tommy does not wind up winning her hand. He instead suspects that the sea voyage was an excuse to go find Tibault.

  • That does appear to be the correct title. The text version I linked also indicates a publication date of 1929, not 1937. This site agrees. – Beofett Jul 24 '13 at 17:52
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    I've read a version of this story although not the one detailed above. It was in some huge anthology of ghost/horror stories and was old - dating from the 1940s perhaps. If it helps OP it might have had 'monster' or 'bumper' in it's title. It had classic stories from Edgar Allen Poe, the Queen of Spades (Pushkin), possibly the Canterville Ghost too. – TheMathemagician Jul 29 '13 at 8:53

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