The Cats of Piacenza

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


The Cats of Piacenza

BY W. L. ALDEN

THE guide-books seem to have found it difficult to say much concerning Piacenza. In point of fact, there is very little historical interest attached to the place. While great men were born in profusion in other Italian cities, nobody of any consequence appears to have thought of being born in Piacenza. The city was founded by the Romans, who called it Placentia, in accordance with their usual custom of calling Italian cities out of their names. Its ostensible mission was to defend one of the fords of the Po against the Gauls and other undesirable barbarians; though why it was placed a good third of a mile from the river, instead of being planted directly on the south bank, is not clear. During the middle ages Piacenza was evidently popular with the rulers of the neighboring duchies and marquisates, and was frequently besieged and captured by covetous tyrants. Tennyson, in his poem descriptive, or rather reminiscent, of a journey he once made in Italy, found nothing to notice in Piacenza except rain. He briefly remarks that he found—

In Parma rain; Piacenza rain.

And to tell the truth, Piacenza is a particularly rainy place in the late autumn and winter. But the one unique and extraordinary feature of Piacenza consists in its cats, and this feature is not so much as hinted at in any guide-book. This may possibly have been due to accident, but it looks like deliberate suppression of the truth, for it is incomprehensible how any guide-book editor could have visited Piacenza without being struck by the overwhelming predominance of cats among its population and the unique social position which they hold.

I entered Piacenza one sunny autumn day, and in accordance with my usual custom I avoided the hotel omnibus and walked into the town. It ought to be generally known that the hotel omnibus is expressly designed to weaken the mind of the passenger, and thereby fit him to undergo with meekness the exactions of the hotel-keeper. To this end a large mirror is always placed against the front partition of the vehicle, and in this mirror the passenger sees the streets and all that is therein reversed. He sees in the mirror an interesting doorway, a picturesque tower, a beautiful statue, or a vigorous dog-fight; but when he leans out of the window and gazes in front of the omnibus in search of them he cannot discover them, and only when it is too late does he remember that the treacherous mirror has led him to look in the wrong direction. It is the same if he sees a pretty girl or some novel and ingenious variety of professional cripple. The mirror always induces him to look from the window in the wrong direction, and brings to him failure and disappointment. A confused state of mind bordering upon imbecility results from this state of things, and when the passenger arrives at the hotel he falls an easy victim to the landlord.

I reached the main street of Piacenza in time to witness what at first sight looked like a popular uprising. A crowd of vociferating men and weeping women and joyous small boys occupied the street from curb to curb. I pushed my way through the throng until I came upon a motor-car with a single occupant. He was sitting in stolid silence, smoking a wooden pipe, and I could not fail to recognize him as an Englishman. Leaning over the front of the vehicle was a tall and excited man, holding a dead and extremely limp cat by the scruff of its neck, and waving it from time to time before the impassive Englishman's face. A policeman stood by the side of the car, and at intervals addressed what seemed to be remonstrances to its occupant, although the noise of the crowd was so great that I could not hear what he was saying.

Evidently the motor-car had committed some grave contravention of the laws and customs of Piacenza, and as it was equally evident that the Englishman did not understand Italian, and was sitting still and waiting for better times, I felt that it was my duty to proffer assistance.

"What is the matter?" I asked. "Can I be of any service to you?"

He looked at me doubtfully for a moment, evidently suspecting me of being a professional guide. "You are English?" he said presently, with a note of doubt in his voice.

"I am an American," I replied, "which in the circumstances ought to do nearly as well."

"Glad to see you," he said. "I've had the bad luck to run down an old woman and kill a cat. These beggars don't seem to care a hang about the old woman, who, I fancy, isn't much hurt, but they've gone stark mad about the cat. It's the rummiest thing I ever met. This Johnny here"—and he indicated the policeman with a wave of his pipe—"seems to want something, I don't know what. I should say a lunatic asylum would be about what he ought to want."

The policeman's face brightened as I spoke to him, and he gladly unfolded his view of the case. The English signore in the motor-car had, he informed me, killed a cat, and naturally the proprietors of the cat were greatly displeased. He had, as was his duty, asked the signore to accompany him to the police office, but the signore smoked always and always, and would not so much as look at him. Could I not kindly explain to my compatriot that it would be a great favor if he would condescend to come to the police office. Otherwise—!" And here the policeman, who was a gentle and peaceable man, shrugged his shoulders in deprecation of the terrible consequences which would follow the Englishman's refusal to comply with the demands of the law.

"I am afraid," I said to my new acquaintance, "that you will have to go with this policeman to the police office. If you like, I will go with you, as I may be able to be of some little use."

"Oh! That's what's the matter, is it?" replied the Englishman. "How was I to know the fellow was a policeman? Where's his helmet, and what right has he got to wear a sword? Our policemen don't get themselves up like imitation soldiers."

I explained that there were sometimes slight differences between the customs of different countries. This seemed to strike the Englishman as an original and forcible idea.

"That's so!" he exclaimed, as he climbed down from the car and prepared to accompany the officer. "All the same, it's a mighty rum thing to dress a policeman up in that way."

We made an imposing procession as we marched down the Via Garibaldi. It was headed by the Englishman and myself, closely followed by the policeman. Then followed the motor-car, laboriously pushed by two more policemen, who had arrived in the nick of time. Next came the remains of the cat, borne aloft by the tall man who acted as chief mourner, followed by half a dozen or more other mourners, weeping and gesticulating. The rear of the procession was brought up by citizens generally, without regard to rank or sex. We reached the police office without further incident, and were ushered into the presence of a severe-looking magistrate, who regarded us with one eye, while he kept the other on the motor-car, which had come to a halt just in front of the window. He accomplished this feat with perfect ease, for nature had endowed him with eyes expressly constructed to enable him to look in two directions at once. Perhaps it was to this qualification that he owed his elevation to the bench.

After the crowd of witnesses had been reduced to a semblance of order, the policeman gave his evidence. He charged the prisoner with having run over and killed a cat, and with having refused to submit to arrest until the casual arrival of a distinguished compatriot, who had succeeded in making him listen to reason.

The judge bowed to me in recognition of my good offices, and I was about to ask his permission to make a statement, when he waved his hand, implying that I should wait until the witnesses had been examined. It is only the Italian who can make long and intricate sentences with a wave of the hand. I knew what that magistrate's hand wished to say as well as if he had spoken audibly and at length.

Five men and two women severally swore that they were owners in part of the deceased cat, and that it had been wickedly and purposely killed by the accused. Four other witnesses, who disclaimed any ownership in the cat, sustained the testimony of the seven cat-owners, and described the death of the animal with a wealth of indignation that would have been justified only in the case of the wanton killing of an exceptionally valuable baby. Then the magistrate turned to the Englishman and solemnly said: "Accused! It is established by the testimony of these good people that you have killed a cat. Moreover, that it was an important cat, belonging to the seven bereaved persons whose names the clerk will now read aloud."

The seven names were read, and the magistrate asked the Englishman if he had anything to say in his defence.

I replied for him, saying that he did not understand Italian, and wished me to act as interpreter. I said that neither of us could understand how the cat could possibly have seven owners, and that the Englishman wished to have this matter explained.

"Here in Piacenza," replied the magistrate, gently, "it is not uncommon for a prominent cat to have several owners. If a person cannot afford to keep an entire cat, he joins with others who take shares in the cat and become its joint owners. This lamented animal who met with such a sudden and painful death was, as I have said, the property of the seven persons now in court, and they are entitled to payment for their sad loss."

I translated the magistrate's explanation to the Englishman, who received it with an impassive face and the remark that it was "deuced rum." To my inquiry as to what he might wish me to say in his defence he replied:

"Oh, I killed the cat straight enough. Tell the beak that I did it because I was trying not to kill an old woman. Tell him I did knock an old woman down and am ready to pay damages for it, but I'm blessed if I'm going to pay for a beastly cat."

In my translation of this defence I judiciously omitted the refusal to pay for the cat, since I knew that such payment was inevitable. The magistrate waved the matter of the old woman aside as being of trivial importance.

"No complaint has been made as to the complete or partial killing of any old woman," he remarked. "What is now before the court is the far more important affair of the cat. I have the most profound respect for the noble English nation, and would gladly show to your friend any possible favor, but justice must be maintained. I therefore decree that he shall pay to each owner of the deceased cat five francs, besides a fine of ten francs more, making in all forty-five francs. Unless this is paid, I must commit him to prison."

The Englishman, after some little argument on my part, decided that resistance was useless. He paid over the forty-five francs, and was informed that he was at liberty to go where he pleased, provided he abstained from slaughtering cats. The bereaved cat-owners were quite satisfied with their respective five francs, and the magistrate complimented us on the promptness with which Englishmen always pay their debts.

"Tell him," said the Englishman, "that he has not heard the last of this outrage. Tell him that I shall write to the Times."

I did not think it worth while to translate this dire threat, so I merely informed the magistrate that we were both grateful for his courtesy and consideration. He descended from the bench to shake hands with us "at the mode of the English," and again lamented the hard fate which had compelled him to fine an English gentleman.

"But you conceive," he added, "that we cannot permit foreigners, even of the most distinguished, to come here and kill our leading cats. It is impossible. If such conduct were to be permitted, there would be a revolution of the most sanguinary."

We bade the magistrate farewell, and I said to my companion:

"Come with me and have some luncheon. Baedeker says that there is a hotel near by where there is a good restaurant, and I should be delighted if you would lunch with me."

"Right you are," he replied. "If you can find anything decent to eat in this country, it's more than I've been able to do. There's one good thing: folks that worship cats as they do in this blooming town won't serve them up at a restaurant."

We drove carefully in the motor-car, keeping a bright lookout for cats, until we reached the hotel. The dining-room was a large square apartment, with a rather dusty cement floor and a quantity of small deal tables, at most of which officers of the garrison in brilliant uniforms and well-to-do citizens were vigorously lunching. We selected a table in a quiet corner, and at the Englishman's request I ordered the luncheon. He was evidently in grave doubt as to what the order might bring forth.

"The food in this country," he remarked, as the waiter departed, "is rummer than it is in France, and that's saying a lot. I haven't had a bit of bacon nor a cut of mutton since I left England. I can't see what ails foreigners. They don't seem to have the first idea of what a dinner ought to be."

But when the luncheon was brought on the table, and the Englishman successively ate tagliatelli alla Bolognese, frit to misto, and polpettone, washed down by an excellent red wine, and followed by Parmesan cheese that wept under the knife, he magnanimously admitted that it was possible to eat, even in Piacenza.

"I don't fancy," he added, "that a man could get any forrader with this wine, even if he drank twice as much as I've had: but I'd really like to know if all the cats I see in this room are real."

In point of fact, the room swarmed with cats. I counted eleven within sight at one time, and there were many more under the tables and behind the legs of the guests. They were mostly young cats, for they walked with their tails erect, and it is an inflexible rule among cats that one must turn one's tail down on attaining fourteen months of age. The cats walked fearlessly among the multitudinous legs of the guests, rubbing themselves against the steel scabbards of the officers, and condescending to eat the morsels of meat that nearly every one made it a rule to offer them. The officers were especially friendly with the cats, and when one of the latter refused a bit of cheese offered by a second lieutenant, the gentle warrior was obviously hurt and ashamed.

"They are real enough," I said, in reply to the Englishman's question. "Only I begin to think with you that cats must be worshipped in Piacenza. Perhaps the ancient Egyptian cult of Pasht still survives here."

Just at that moment there entered four grizzled men in faded red shirts and venerable gray trousers. They were Garibaldian veterans, and at the sight of them I remembered that it was the anniversary of the battle of the Volturno, and I understood that these relics of the great Garibaldian epic had donned their old uniforms to do honor to the day. The officers rose and saluted as the four veterans entered. What if the men had been only privates in the army that gave half the peninsula to United Italy! What if they were evident mechanics, with the stoop of the shoulders that comes to men who toil with their hands! They were still the immortal Red Shirts who had accomplished miracles under their miraculous leader, and the handsomely uniformed and high-bred officers of the Italian army were proud to salute them.

"Who are those Johnnies in their shirt-sleeves?" asked my companion. "They might dress decently before coming into a public place."

"They are Garibaldian veterans," I replied, "and one of them wears the medal of the Thousand."

"Oh, that's it, is it?" said the Englishman. "I remember seeing Garibaldi in London when I was a kid. He was as right as they make 'em. When you got on your legs I thought for a minute that you were going to chuck those chaps out."

A large white cat walked solemnly towards the veteran of the Thousand, sprang into his lap, and reaching up, touched the medal reverently with his lips. Then he gently released himself from the caressing hand of the Garibaldian, and jumping down, seated himself a few feet from the table, and contemplated the four Red Shirts with obvious admiration.

I began to think that there was something uncanny about the cats of Piacenza. I had once heard a cat enthusiast speak of a religious cat whom he claimed to have known, but, since cats were first domesticated, who had ever dreamed of a patriotic cat? And yet here was a cat who saluted the medal of the Thousand; a cat who unquestionably knew the Garibaldian legend and reverenced the symbolic red shirt. I felt uncomfortable in that patriotic animal's presence.

"Come," I said. "We must have a look at this town. I want to take the afternoon train for Modena, and that will give us just an hour to see the cathedral and the other objects of interest."

The Englishman readily acquiesced, and we went in search of the cathedral. Here the fates were unexpectedly good to me. The entire front of the cathedral was covered with straw matting, for it was in process of restoration. This saved me from admiring a building that Ruskin may have called vile and wicked, or of failing to admire what that tyrannical master may have called beautiful and holy. To tell the truth, I did not then and do not now know Ruskin's opinion of the façade of the Piacenza cathedral, but it is a relief to know that whatever that opinion may have been, there is not the least danger that I shall ever run counter to it, for I shall never see Piacenza again.

There is really very little to see in Piacenza except the narrow streets, which, like nearly all narrow Italian streets, are picturesque. The Piazza Cavalli is rather impressive, although the statue of Ranuzio Farnese, which is intended to be its chief ornament, is little better than the average equestrian statue executed by order of Congress for the embellishment of the Capitol. The Church of St. Antonino has its architectural merits, but as for the rest of the Piacenza churches, they are painfully commonplace.

As we walked up the nave of the cathedral, I noticed a black cat slinking behind a column, and had little doubt that its black coat was purposely worn in imitation of a cassock. We had finished our last tomb and our last picture, and were nearly ready to leave the cathedral, when the Englishman touched my arm and pointed to the pulpit. There, on the reading-desk, sat the black cat, with his head slightly on one side as he watched us.

"Let's get out of here before he begins to preach," whispered the Englishman, and I hastened to follow his counsel. I had been in Piacenza but three hours, and had seen a dead cat owned in shares by seven persons, a patriotic cat who kissed the Garibaldian medal, and an ecclesiastical cat who gave every reason to suppose that he was ready to preach a sermon from the pulpit of the cathedral. Prudence loudly told me to leave Piacenza without risking any fresh and still more startling evidences of the unique intelligence of its cats.

"Look here," said the Englishman, when we were once more in the open air. "You get into my automobile and come with me as far as Modena. I'm in the automobile-manufacturing business, and I've got to take this machine to a man in Florence who has bought it. I'll take you all the way there if you'll come. Don't say no."

I thanked him warmly. We stopped at the railway station for my luggage, and presently we were spinning down the old Roman road that runs in almost a straight line from Piacenza to Rimini. As the fresh air blew on my face and the warm sun filled me with the sense of contentment that we share with other sun-loving animals, I wondered if the cats of Piacenza were not partly the creatures of a dream. But beyond doubt I had been wide awake while in Piacenza; and besides, there was the testimony of my unimaginative English friend, who swore that there was something bally rum about the cats. So I must accept those weird animals as real, no matter how unaccountable and inexplicable their conduct may have been.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.