Essays in idleness/Agrippina
She is sitting now on my desk, and I glance at her with deference, mutely begging permission to begin. But her back is turned to me, and expresses in every curve such fine and delicate disdain that I falter and lose courage at the very threshold of my task. I have long known that cats are the most contemptuous of creatures, and that Agrippina is the most contemptuous of cats. The spirit of Bouhaki, the proud Theban beast that sat erect, with gold earrings in his ears, at the feet of his master, King Hana; the spirit of Muezza, whose slumbers Mahomet himself was not bold enough to disturb; the spirit of Micetto, Chateaubriand's ecclesiastical pet, dignified as a cardinal, and conscious ever that he was the gift of a sovereign pontiff,—the spirits of all arrogant cats that have played scornful parts in the world's great comedy look out from Agrippina's yellow eyes, and hold me in subjection. I should like to explain to her, if I dared, that my desk is small, littered with many papers, and sadly overcrowded with the useful inutilities which affectionate friends delight in giving me at Christmas time. Sainte-Beuve's cat, I am aware, sat on his desk, and roamed at will among those precious manuscripts which no intrusive hand was ever permitted to touch; but Sainte-Beuve probably had sufficient space reserved for his own comfort and convenience. I have not; and Agrippina's beautifully ringed tail flapping across my copy distracts my attention, and imperils the neatness of my penmanship. Even when she is disposed to be affable, turns the light of her countenance upon me, watches with attentive curiosity every stroke I make, and softly, with curved paw, pats my pen as it travels over the paper,—even in these halcyon moments, though my self-love is flattered by her condescension, I am aware that I should work better and more rapidly if I denied myself this charming companionship.
But in truth it is impossible for a lover of cats to banish these alert, gentle, and discriminating little friends, who give us just enough of their regard and complaisance to make us hunger for more. M. Fée, the naturalist, who has written so admirably about animals, and who understands, as only a Frenchman can understand, the delicate and subtle organization of a cat, frankly admits that the keynote of its character is independence. It dwells under our roof, sleeps by our fire, endures our blandishments, and apparently enjoys our society, without for one moment forfeiting its sense of absolute freedom, without acknowledging any servile relation to the human creature who shelters it. "The cat," says M. Fée, "will never part with its liberty; it will neither be our servant, like the horse, nor our friend, like the dog. It consents to live as our guest; it accepts the home we offer and the food we give; it even goes so far as to solicit our caresses, but capriciously, and when it suits its humor to receive them."
Rude and masterful souls resent this fine self-sufficiency in a domestic animal, and require that it should have no will but theirs, no pleasure that does not emanate from them. They are forever prating of the love and fidelity of the dog, of the beast that obeys their slightest word, crouches contentedly for hours at their feet, is exuberantly grateful for the smallest attention, and so affectionate that its demonstrations require to be curbed rather than encouraged. All this homage is pleasing to their vanity; yet there are people, less magisterial perhaps, or less exacting, who believe that true friendship, even with an animal, may be built upon mutual esteem and independence; that to demand gratitude is to be unworthy of it; and that obedience is not essential to agreeable and healthy intercourse. A man who owns a dog is, in every sense of the word, its master; the term expresses accurately their mutual relations. But it is ridiculous when applied to the limited possession of a cat. I am certainly not Agrippina's mistress, and the assumption of authority on my part would be a mere empty dignity, like those swelling titles which afford such innocent delight to the Freemasons of our severe republic. If I call Agrippina, she does not come; if I tell her to go away, she remains where she is; if I try to persuade her to show off her one or two little accomplishments, she refuses, with courteous but unswerving decision. She has frolicsome moods, in which a thimble, a shoe-buttoner, a scrap of paper, or a piece of string will drive her wild with delight; she has moods of inflexible gravity, in which she stares solemnly at her favorite ball rolling over the carpet, without stirring one lazy limb to reach it. "Have I seen this foolish toy before?" she seems to be asking herself with musing austerity; "and can it be possible that there are cats who run after such frivolous trifles? Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity, save only to lie upon the hearth-rug, and be warm, and 'think grave thoughts to feed a serious soul.'" In such moments of rejection and humiliation, I comfort myself by recalling the words of one too wise for arrogance. "When I play with my cat," says Montaigne, "how do I know whether she does not make a jest of me? We entertain each other with mutual antics; and if I have my own time for beginning or refusing, she too has hers."
This is the spirit in which we should approach a creature so reserved and so utterly self-sufficing; this is the only key we have to that natural distinction of character which repels careless and unobservant natures. When I am told that Agrippina is disobedient, ungrateful, cold-hearted, perverse, stupid, treacherous, and cruel, I no longer strive to check the torrent of abuse. I know that Buffon said all this, and much more, about cats, and that people have gone on repeating it ever since, principally because these spirited little beasts have remained just what it pleased Providence to make them, have preserved their primitive freedom through centuries of effete and demoralizing civilization. Why, I wonder, should a great many good men and women cherish an unreasonable grudge against one animal because it does not chance to possess the precise qualities of another? "My dog fetches my slippers for me every night," said a friend triumphantly, not long ago. "He puts them first to warm by the fire, and then brings them over to my chair, wagging his tail, and as proud as Punch. Would your cat do as much for you, I'd like to know?" Assuredly not! If I waited for Agrippina to fetch me shoes or slippers, I should have no other resource save to join as speedily as possible one of the barefooted religious orders of Italy. But, after all, fetching slippers is not the whole duty of domestic pets. As La Fontaine gently reminds us:—
"Tout animal n'a pas toutes propriétés."
We pick no quarrel with a canary because it does not talk like a parrot, nor with a parrot because it does not sing like a canary. We find no fault with a King Charles spaniel for not flying at the throat of a burglar, nor with a St. Bernard because we cannot put it in our pocket. Agrippina will never make herself serviceable, yet nevertheless is she of inestimable service. How many times have I rested tired eyes on her graceful little body, curled up in a ball and wrapped round with her tail like a parcel; or stretched out luxuriously on my bed, one paw coyly covering her face, the other curved gently inwards, as though clasping an invisible treasure! Asleep or awake, in rest or in motion, grave or gay, Agrippina is always beautiful; and it is better to be beautiful than to fetch and carry from the rising to the setting of the sun. She is droll, too, with an unconscious humor, even in her most serious and sentimental moods. She has quite the longest ears that ever were seen on so small a cat, eyes more solemn than Athene's owl blinking in the sunlight, and an air of supercilious disdain that would have made Diogenes seem young and ardent by her side. Sitting on the library table, under the evening lamp, with her head held high in air, her tall ears as erect as chimneys, and her inscrutable gaze fixed on the darkest corner of the room, Agrippina inspires in the family sentiments of mingled mirthfulness and awe. To laugh at her in such moments, however, is to incur her supreme displeasure. I have known her to jump down from the table, and walk haughtily out of the room, because of a single half-suppressed but wholly indecorous giggle.
Schopenhauer has said that the reason domestic pets are so lovable and so helpful to us is because they enjoy, quietly and placidly, the present moment. Life holds no future for them, and consequently no care; if they are content, their contentment is absolute; and our jaded and wearied spirits find a natural relief in the sight of creatures whose little cups of happiness can so easily be filled to the brim. Walt Whitman expresses the same thought more coarsely when he acknowledges that he loves the society of animals because they do not sweat and whine over their condition, nor lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, nor sicken him with discussions of their duty. In truth, that admirable counsel of Sydney Smith's, "Take short views of life," can be obeyed only by the brutes; for the thought that travels even to the morrow is long enough to destroy our peace of mind, inasmuch as we know not what the morrow may bring forth. But when Agrippina has breakfasted, and washed, and sits in the sunlight blinking at me with affectionate contempt, I feel soothed by her absolute and unqualified enjoyment. I know how full my day will be of things that I don't want particularly to do, and that are not particularly worth doing; but for her, time and the world hold only this brief moment of contentment. Slowly the eyes close, gently the little body is relaxed. Oh, you who strive to relieve your overwrought nerves, and cultivate power through repose, watch the exquisite languor of a drowsy cat, and despair of imitating such perfect and restful grace! There is a gradual yielding of every muscle to the soft persuasiveness of slumber; the flexible frame is curved into tender lines, the head nestles lower, the paws are tucked out of sight; no convulsive throb or start betrays a rebellious alertness; only a faint quiver of unconscious satisfaction, a faint heaving of the tawny sides, a faint gleam of the half-shut yellow eyes, and Agrippina is asleep. I look at her for one wistful moment, and then turn resolutely to my work. It were ignoble to wish myself in her place, and yet how charming to be able to settle down to a nap, sans peur et sans reproche, at ten o'clock in the morning!
These, then, are a few of the pleasures to be derived from the society of an amiable cat; and by an amiable cat I mean one that, while maintaining its own dignity and delicate reserve, is nevertheless affable and condescending in the company of human beings. There is nothing I dislike more than newspaper and magazine stories about priggish pussies—like the children in Sunday-school books—that share their food with hungry beasts from the back alleys, and show touching fidelity to old blind masters, and hunt partridges, in a spirit of noble self-sacrifice, for consumptive mistresses, and scorn to help themselves to delicacies from the kitchen tables, and arouse their households so often in cases of fire that I should suspect them of starting the conflagrations in order to win applause by giving the alarm. Whatever a real cat may or may not be, it is never a prig, and all true lovers of the race have been quick to recognize and appreciate this fact.
"I value in the cat," says Chateaubriand, "that independent and almost ungrateful temper which prevents it from attaching itself to any one; the indifference with which it passes from the salon to the housetop. When you caress it, it stretches itself out and arches its back responsively; but that is caused by physical pleasure, and not, as in the case of the dog, by a silly satisfaction in loving and being faithful to a master who returns thanks in kicks. The cat lives alone, has no need of society, does not obey except when it likes, pretends to sleep that it may see the more clearly, and scratches everything that it can scratch."
Here is a sketch spirited enough, and of good outline, but hardly correct in detail. A cat seldom manifests affection, yet is often distinctly social, and likes to see itself the petted minion of a family group. Agrippina, in fact, so far from living alone, will not, if she can help it, remain for a moment in a room by herself. She is content to have me as a companion, perhaps in default of better; but if I go upstairs or downstairs in search of a book, or my eyeglasses, or any one of the countless things that are never where they ought to be, Agrippina follows closely at my heels. Sometimes, when she is fast asleep, I steal softly out of the door, thinking to escape her vigilance; but before I have taken a dozen steps she is under my feet, mewing a gentle reproach, and putting on all the injured airs of a deserted Ariadne. I should like to think such behavior prompted by affection rather than by curiosity; but in my candid moments I find this "pathetic fallacy" a difficult sentiment to cherish. There are people, I am aware, who trustfully assert that their pets love them; and one such sanguine creature has recently assured the world that "no man who boasts the real intimacy and confidence of a cat would dream of calling his four-footed friend 'puss.'" But is not such a boast rather ill-timed at best? How dare any man venture to assert that he possesses the intimacy and confidence of an animal so exclusive and so reserved? I doubt if Cardinal Wolsey, in the zenith of his pride and power, claimed the intimacy and confidence of the superb cat who sat in a cushioned armchair by his side, and reflected with mimic dignity the full-blown honors of the Lord High Chancellor of England. Agrippina, I am humbly aware, grants me neither her intimacy nor her confidence, but only her companionship, which I endeavor to receive modestly, and without flaunting my favors to the world. She is displeased and even downcast when I go out, and she greets my return with delight, thrusting her little gray head between the banisters the instant I open the house door, and waving a welcome in mid-air with one ridiculously small paw. Being but mortal, I am naturally pleased with these tokens of esteem, but I do not, on that account, go about with arrogant brow, and boast of my intimacy with Agrippina. I should be laughed at, if I did, by everybody who is privileged to possess and appreciate a cat.
As for curiosity, that vice which the Abbé Galiani held to be unknown to animals, but which the more astute Voltaire detected in every little dog that he saw peering out of the window of its master's coach, it is the ruling passion of the feline breast. A closet door left ajar, a box with half-closed lid, an open bureau drawer,—these are the objects that fill a cat with the liveliest interest and delight. Agrippina watches breathlessly the unfastening of a parcel, and tries to hasten matters by clutching actively at the string. When its contents are shown her, she examines them gravely, and then, with a sigh of relief, settles down to repose. The slightest noise disturbs and irritates her until she discovers its cause. If she hears a footstep in the hall, she runs out to see whose it is, and, like certain troublesome little people I have known, she dearly loves to go to the front door every time the bell is rung. From my window she surveys the street with tranquil scrutiny, and, if boys are playing below, she follows their games with a steady, scornful stare, very different from the wistful eagerness of a friendly dog, quivering to join in the sport. Sometimes the boys catch sight of her, and shout up rudely at her window; and I can never sufficiently admire Agrippina's conduct upon these trying occasions, the well-bred composure with which she affects neither to see nor to hear them, nor to be aware that there are such objectionable creatures as children in the world. Sometimes, too, the terrier that lives next door comes out to sun himself in the street, and, beholding my cat sitting well out of reach, he dances madly up and down the pavement, barking with all his might, and rearing himself on his short hind legs, in a futile attempt to dislodge her. Then the spirit of evil enters Agrippina's little heart. The window is open, and she creeps to the extreme edge of the stone sill, stretches herself at full length, peers down smilingly at the frenzied dog, dangles one paw enticingly in the air, and exerts herself with quiet malice to drive him to desperation. Her sense of humor is awakened by his frantic efforts, and by her own absolute security; and not until he is spent with exertion, and lies panting and exhausted on the bricks, does she arch her graceful back, stretch her limbs lazily in the sun, and with one light bound spring from the window to my desk. Wisely has Moncrif observed that a cat is not merely diverted by everything that moves, but is convinced that all nature is occupied exclusively with catering to her diversion.
There is a charming story told by M. Champfleury, who has written so much and so admirably about cats, of a poor hermit whose piety and asceticism were so great that in a vision he was permitted to behold his place in heaven, next to that of St. Gregory, the sovereign pontiff of Christendom. The hermit, who possessed nothing upon earth but a female cat, was abashed by the thought that in the next world he was destined to rank with so powerful a prince of the Church; and perhaps—for who knows the secret springs of spiritual pride?—he fancied that his self-inflicted poverty would win for him an even higher reward. Whereupon a second revelation made known to him that his detachment from the world was by no means so complete as he imagined, for that he loved and valued his cat, the sole companion of his solitude, more than St. Gregory loved and valued all his earthly possessions. The Pope on his throne was the truer ascetic of the two.
This little tale conveys to us, in addition to its excellent moral,—never more needed than at present,—a pleasing truth concerning the lovability of cats. While they have never attained, and never deserve to attain, the widespread and somewhat commonplace popularity of dogs, their fascination is a more potent and irresistible charm. He who yields himself to the sweet seductiveness of a cat is beguiled forever from the simple, honorable friendship of the more generous and open-hearted beast. The small domestic sphinx whose inscrutable eyes never soften with affection; the fetich animal that comes down to us from the far past, adored, hated, and feared,—a god in wise and silent Egypt, a plaything in old Rome, a hunted and unholy creature, suffering one long martyrdom throughout the half-seen, dimly-fathomed Middle Ages,—even now this lovely, uncanny pet is capable of inspiring mingled sentiments of horror and devotion. Those who are under its spell rejoice in their thralldom, and, like M. Champfleury's hermit, grow strangely wedded to this mute, unsympathetic comradeship. Those who have inherited the old, half-fearful aversion render a still finer tribute to the cat's native witchery and power. I have seen middle-aged women, of dignified and tranquil aspect, draw back with unfeigned dismay at the sight of Agrippina, a little ball of gray and yellow fur, curled up in peaceful slumber on the hearth rug. And this instinctive shrinking has nothing in common with the perfectly reasonable fear we entertain for a terrier snapping and snarling at our heels, or for a mastiff the size of a calf, which our friend assures us is as gentle as a baby, but which looks able and ready to tear us limb from limb. It may be ignominious to be afraid of dogs, but the emotion is one which will bear analysis and explanation; we know exactly what it is we fear; while the uneasiness with which many people behold a harmless and perfectly indifferent cat is a faint reflection of that superstitious terror which the nineteenth century still borrows occasionally from the ninth. We call it by a different name, and account for it on purely natural principles, in deference to progress; but the Mediæval peasant who beheld his cat steal out, like a gray shadow, on St. John's Eve, to join in unholy rites, felt the same shuddering abhorrence which we witness and wonder at to-day. He simplified matters somewhat, and eased his troubled mind by killing the beast; for cats that ventured forth on the feast of St. John, or on Halloween, or on the second Wednesday in Lent, did so at their peril. Fires blazed for them in every village, and even quiet stay-at-homes were too often hunted from their chimney-corners to a cruel death. There is a receipt signed in 1575 by one Lucas Pommoreux,—abhorred forever be his name!—to whom has been paid the sum of a hundred sols parisis "for having supplied for three years all the cats required for the fire on St. John's Day;" and be it remembered that the gracious child, afterwards Louis XIII., interceded with Henry IV. for the lives of these poor animals, sacrificed to wicked sport and an unreasoning terror.
Girt around with fear, and mystery, and subtle associations of evil, the cat comes down to us through the centuries; and from every land fresh traditions of sorcery claim it for their own. In Brittany is still whispered the dreadful tale of the cats that danced with sacrilegious glee around the crucifix until their king was slain; and in Sicily men know that if a black cat serves seven masters in turn he carries the soul of the seventh into hell. In Russia black cats become devils at the end of seven years, and in southern Europe they are merely serving their apprenticeship as witches. Norwegian folk-lore is rich in ghastly stories like that of the wealthy miller whose mill has been twice burned down on Whitsun night, and for whom a traveling tailor offers to keep watch. The tailor chalks a circle on the floor, writes the Lord's prayer around it, and waits until midnight, when a troop of cats rush in, and hang a great pot of pitch over the fireplace. Again and again they try to overturn this pitch, but every time the tailor frightens them away; and when their leader endeavors stealthily to draw him outside of his magic circle, he cuts off her paw with his knife. Then they all fly howling into the night, and the next morning the miller sees with joy his mill standing whole and unharmed. But the miller's wife cowers under the bedclothes, offering her left hand to the tailor, and hiding as best she can her right arm's bleeding stump.
Finer even than this tale is the well-known story which "Monk" Lewis told to Shelley of a gentleman who, late one night, went to visit a friend living on the outskirts of a forest in east Germany. He lost his path, and, after wandering aimlessly for some time, beheld at last a light streaming from the windows of an old and ruined abbey. Looking in, he saw a procession of cats lowering into the grave a small coffin with a crown upon it. The sight filled him with horror, and, spurring his horse, he rode away as fast as he could, never stopping until he reached his destination, long after midnight. His friend was still awaiting him, and at once he recounted what had happened; whereupon a cat that lay sleeping by the fire sprang to its feet, cried out, "Then I am the King of the Cats!" and disappeared like a flash up the chimney.
For my part, I consider this the best cat story in all literature, full of suggestiveness and terror, yet picturesque withal, and leaving ample room in the mind for speculation. Why was not the heir apparent bidden to the royal funeral? Was there a disputed succession, and how are such points settled in the mysterious domain of cat-land? The notion that these animals gather in ghost-haunted churches and castles for their nocturnal revels is one common to all parts of Europe. We remember how the little maiden of the "Mountain Idyl" confides to Heine that the innocent-looking cat in the chimney-corner is really a witch, and that at midnight, when the storm is high, she steals away to the ruined keep, where the spirits of the dead wait spellbound for the word that shall waken them. In all scenes of impish revelry cats play a prominent part, although occasionally, by virtue of their dual natures, they serve as barriers against the powers of evil. There is the old story of the witch's cat that was grateful to the good girl who gave it some ham to eat,—I may observe here, parenthetically, that I have never known a cat that would touch ham,—and there is the fine bit of Italian folk-lore about the servant maid who, with no other protector than a black cat, ventures to disturb a procession of ghosts on the dreadful Night of the Dead. "It is well for you that the cat lies in your arms," the angry spirit says to her; "otherwise what I am, you also would be." The last pale reflex of a universal tradition I found three years ago in London, where the bad behavior of the Westminster cats—proverbially the most dissolute and profligate specimens of their race—has given rise to the pleasant legend of a country house whither these rakish animals retire for nights of gay festivity, and whence they return in the early morning, jaded, repentant, and forlorn.
Of late years there has been a rapid and promising growth of what disaffected and alliterative critics call the "cat cult," and poets and painters vie with one another in celebrating the charms of this long-neglected pet. Mr. M. H. Spielmann's beautiful volume in praise of Madame Henriette Ronner and her pictures is a treasure upon which many an ardent lover of cats will cast wandering and wistful glances. It is impossible for even the most disciplined spirit not to yearn over these little furry darlings, these gentle, mischievous, lazy, irresistible things. As for Banjo, that dear and sentimental kitten, with his head on one side like Lydia Languish, and a decorous melancholy suffusing his splendid eyes, let any obdurate scorner of the race look at his loveliness and be converted. Mrs. Graham R. Tomson's pretty anthology, "Concerning Cats," is another step in the right direction; a dainty volume of selections from French and English verse, where we may find old favorites like Cowper's "Retired Cat" and Calverly's "Sad Memories," graceful epitaphs on departed pussies, some delightful poems from Baudelaire, and three, no less delightful, from the pen of Mrs. Tomson herself, whose preface, or "foreword," is enough to win for her at once the friendship and sympathy of the elect. The book, while it contains a good deal that might well have been omitted, is necessarily a small one; for poets, English poets especially, have just begun to sing the praises of the cat, as they have for generations sung the praises of the horse and dog. Nevertheless, all English literature, and all the literatures of every land, are full of charming allusions to this friendly animal,—allusions the brevity of which only enhances their value. Those two delicious lines of Herrick's, for example,—
"And the brisk mouse may feast herself with crumbs,
Till that the green-eyed kitling comes,"—
are worth the whole of Wordsworth's solemn poem, "The Kitten and the Falling Leaves." What did Wordsworth know of the innate vanity, the affectation and coquetry, of kittenhood? He saw the little beast gamboling on the wall, and he fancied her as innocent as she looked,—as though any living creature could be as innocent as a kitten looks! With touching simplicity, he believed her all unconscious of the admiration she was exciting:—
"What would little Tabby care
For the plaudits of the crowd?
Over happy to be proud,
Over wealthy in the treasure
Of her own exceeding pleasure!
Ah, the arrant knavery of that kitten! The tiny impostor, showing off her best tricks, and feigning to be occupied exclusively with her own infantile diversion! We can see her now, prancing and paddling after the leaves, and all the while peeping out of "the tail o' her ee" at the serene poet and philosopher, and waving her naughty tail in glee over his confidence and condescension.
Heine's pretty lines,—
"And close beside me the cat sits purring,
Warming her paws at the cheery gleam;
The flames keep flitting, and flicking, and whirring;
My mind is wrapped in a realm of dream,"—
find their English echo in the letter Shelley writes to Peacock, describing, half wistfully, the shrines of the Penates, "whose hymns are the purring of kittens, the hissing of kettles, the long talks over the past and dead, the laugh of children, the warm wind of summer filling the quiet house, and the pelting storm of winter struggling in vain for entrance." How incomplete would these pictures be, how incomplete is any fireside sketch, without the purring kitten or drowsy cat!
"The queen I am o' that cozy place;
As wi' ilka paw I dicht my face,
I sing an' purr wi' mickle grace."
This is the sphinx of the hearthstone, the little god of domesticity, whose presence turns a house into a home. Even the chilly desolation of a hotel may be rendered endurable by these affable and discriminating creatures; for one of them, as we know, once welcomed Sir Walter Scott, and softened for him the unfamiliar and unloved surroundings. "There are no dogs in the hotel where I lodge," he writes to Abbotsford from London, "but a tolerably conversable cat who eats a mess of cream with me in the morning." Of course it did, the wise and lynx-eyed beast! I make no doubt that, day after day and week after week, that cat had wandered superbly amid the common throng of lodgers, showing favor to none, and growing cynical and disillusioned by constant contact with a crowd. Then, one morning, it spied the noble, rugged face which neither man nor beast could look upon without loving, and forthwith tendered its allegiance on the spot. Only "tolerably conversable" it was, this reserved and town-bred animal; less urbane because less happy than the much-respected retainer at Abbotsford, Master Hinse of Hinsefeld, whom Sir Walter called his friend. "Ah, mon grand ami, vous avez tué mon autre grand ami!" he sighed, when the huge hound Nimrod ended poor Hinse's placid career. And if Scott sometimes seems to disparage cats, as when he unkindly compares Oliver-le-Dain to one, in "Quentin Durward," he atones for such indignity by the use of the little pronoun "who" when writing of the London puss. My own habit is to say "who" on similar occasions, and I am glad to have so excellent an authority.
It were an endless though a pleasant task to recount all that has been said, and well said, in praise of the cat by those who have rightly valued her companionship. M. Loti's Moumoutte Blanche and Moumoutte Chinoise are well known and widely beloved, and M. Théophile Gautier's charming pages are too familiar for comment. Who has not read with delight of the Black and White Dynasties that for so long ruled with gentle sway over his hearth and heart; of Madame Théophile, who thought the parrot was a green chicken; of Don Pierrot de Navarre, who deeply resented his master's staying out late at night; of the graceful and fastidious Séraphita; the gluttonous Enjolras; the acute Bohemian, Gavroche; the courteous and well-mannered Eponine, who received M. Gautier's guests in the drawing-room and dined at his table, taking each course as it was served, and restraining any rude distaste for food not to her fancy. "Her place was laid without a knife and fork, indeed, but with a glass, and she went regularly through dinner, from soup to dessert, awaiting her turn to be helped, and behaving with a quiet propriety which most children might imitate with advantage. At the first stroke of the bell she would appear, and when I came into the dining-room she would be at her post, upright on her chair, her forepaws on the edge of the tablecloth; and she would present her smooth forehead to be kissed, like a well-bred little girl who was affectionately polite to relatives and old people."
I have read this pretty description several times to Agrippina, who is extremely wayward and capricious about her food, rejecting plaintively one day the viands which she has eaten with apparent enjoyment the day before. In fact, the difficulty of catering to her is so well understood by tradesmen that recently, when the housemaid carried her on an errand to the grocery,—Agrippina is very fond of these jaunts and of the admiration she excites,— the grocer, a fatherly man, with cats of his own, said briskly, "Is this the little lady who eats the biscuits?" and presented her on the spot with several choice varieties from which to choose. She is fastidious, too, about the way in which her meals are served; disliking any other dishes than her own, which are of blue-and-white china; requiring that her meat should be cut up fine and all the fat removed, and that her morning oatmeal should be well sugared and creamed. Milk she holds in scorn. My friends tell me sometimes that it is not the common custom of cats to receive so much attention at table, and that it is my fault Agrippina is so exacting; but such grumblers fail to take into consideration the marked individuality that is the charm of every kindly treated puss. She differs from her sisters as widely as one woman differs from another, and reveals varying characteristics of good and evil, varying powers of intelligence and adaptation. She scales splendid heights of virtue, and, unlike Sir Thomas Browne, is "singular in offenses." Even those primitive instincts which we believe all animals hold in common are lost in acquired ethics and depravity. No heroism could surpass that of the London cat who crawled back five times under the stage of the burning theatre to rescue her litter of kittens, and, having carried four of them to safety, perished devotedly with the fifth. On the other hand, I know of a cat who drowned her three kittens in a water-butt, for no reason, apparently, save to be rid of them, and that she might lie in peace on the hearth rug,—a murder well planned, deliberate, and cruel.
"So Tiberius might have sat,
Had Tiberius been a cat."
Only in her grace and beauty, her love of comfort, her dignity of bearing, her courteous reserve, and her independence of character does puss remain immutable and unchanged. These are the traits which win for her the warmest corner by the fire, and the unshaken regard of those who value her friendship and aspire to her affection. These are the traits so subtly suggested by Mrs. Tomson in a sonnet which every true lover of cats feels in his heart must have been addressed to his own particular pet:—
"Half gentle kindliness, and half disdain,
Thou comest to my call, serenely suave,
With humming speech and gracious gestures grave,
In salutation courtly and urbane;
Yet must I humble me thy grace to gain,
For wiles may win thee, but no arts enslave;
And nowhere gladly thou abidest, save
Where naught disturbs the concord of thy reign.
"Sphinx of my quiet hearth! who deign'st to dwell
Friend of my toil, companion of mine ease,
Thine is the lore of Ra and Rameses;
That men forget dost thou remember well,
Beholden still in blinking reveries,
With sombre sea-green gaze inscrutable."