The fireside sphinx/Renaissance

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2056565The fireside sphinx — RenaissanceAgnes Repplier



"Un homme chérissoit éperdument sa chatte;
Il la trouvoit mignonne, et belle, et délicate.
Qui miauloit d'un ton fort doux:
Il étoit plus fou que les fous."

THE close of the sixteenth century saw western Europe undergoing a curious and comfortable change. Civilization, with her handmaid, luxury, and her schoolmaster, the printing-press, had seduced the souls of men. War was no longer a pastime for princes; it was a serious and expensive business, frowned upon by financiers, and deferred as tediously as possible. Men built themselves costly homes, bought pictures and tapestries and vellum-bound books, and began slowly to understand the first rudiments of the noble art of cooking. Rich merchants enjoyed the delights of ostentation, and the great middle class studied its own comfort with commendable industry. An air of well-being spread over the towns, and, in favoured lands like England, extended itself even to the peasantry. Lazy and luke-warm antagonisms supplanted the old fiery intolerance. Life grew softer, sweeter, replete with self-indulgence and self-satisfaction. All things were working harmoniously for the reestablishment of the cat in popular esteem. "The time had arrived," says M. Havard prettily, "for her to profit by new and gracious conditions. She became once more the assiduous guest of a courteous and companionable society."

It is in France that we find the first distinct proofs of Pussy's return to favour; in France, where the persecution of the peasant had yielded to the love and pity of the prince, and where she was destined, in later years, to rule over loyal hearts. Indeed, M. Gautier always affirmed that only a Frenchman could understand the fine and subtle qualities of a cat. Nevertheless, it was very cautiously that she ventured, with many a soft and shy intrusion, to establish herself by friendly hearths. Centuries of cruel injustice weighed upon her spirits, and there were still men who shrank with abhorrence from her panther-like beauty and grace. Henry the Third, who had so much affection to spare for little dogs, could not look at a cat without fainting; and Ronsard confesses that he trembled from head to foot if he met one, even at broad noon.

"Homme ne vis, qui tant haïsse au monde
Les Chats que moi d'une haine profonde;
Je hais leurs yeux, leur fronts, et leur regard."

Other and kinder voices, however, were raised, even at this early date, in defence of Pussy's charms. Joachim du Bellay was the first French poet who sang the praises of his cat,—the beautiful and amiable Belaud; and Montaigne, in his lazy, luminous fashion, "without a spur or even a pat from Lady Vanity," wrote more than three hundred years ago the final word upon the subject; a word which we have been assiduously repeating and amplifying—but not improving—ever since. "When I play with my cat," he muses softly, "who knows whether she diverts herself with me, or I with her! We entertain one another with mutual follies, struggling for a garter; and, if I have my time to begin or to refuse, she also has hers. It is because I cannot understand her language that we agree no better; and perhaps she laughs at my simplicity in making sport to amuse her."

This is the whole story of human and feline companionship. This is the whole nature of the cat, accepted with philosophy, and described with careless exactitude. The independence of character, the coldness of heart, the alternations of playfulness and reserve, "the courteous but temperate regard, granted on terms of absolute equality,—these things were understood and respected by one too wisely kind for intolerance. "Thus freely speaketh Montaigne concerning cats," and there is little to add to his words. The world is now so old that everything we would like to say has been said long ago by those who first had the opportunity.

Two proofs we find of Pussy's rapid progress in esteem. The French country houses built between the middle of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were all furnished with "chatières," little openings cut in the doors for the accommodation of the cat, who wandered in and out of the great chill tapestried rooms as her restless fancy prompted her. These chatières indicate a careful study of her convenience, yet, by the close of the seventeenth century, they had wholly disappeared;—a circumstance, says M. Havard, which points to but one conclusion. In her hundred years of pampered domesticity, the cat had accustomed mankind to wait upon her pleasure. There was no longer any need of creeping through a hole. If she wanted to come in or go out,—and cats are perpetually wanting to do one or the other,—somebody was always ready to get up and open the door.

Richelieu lent the weight of his all-powerful example to the fast-growing passion for pussies, although he limited his own appreciation to their infant charms. He delighted in kittens,—the most bewitching playthings in the world,—because they amused him, and saved him now and then from the bleak melancholy which lay ever waiting for a leisure hour. But though he petted and fondled them, smiled at their absurdities, and humoured their love of mischief, the grace of attachment to these frolicsome little friends was denied him all his life. When they matured into sobriety, and put on the delicate charm of mingled intelligence and caprice, he sent them away, and gave their place in his cabinet, and in what was by courtesy called his heart, to a younger and gayer generation.

Mazarin's love for cats was a more sincere and steadfast emotion. He cherished his beautiful pets all their lives, and took pleasure in the superciliousness of their behaviour. His attitude towards them was one of parental care, sweetened and softened by humility. Like Cardinal Wolsey, he reserved his arrogance for men, whose knees are supple to bend; and, like Wolsey, he found in the companionship of his cat the sure road to meekness and self-abasement. For there is nothing so lowering to one's self-esteem as the affectionate contempt of a beloved cat.

"Half gentle kindliness and half disdain,
In salutation courtly and urbane,
Where naught disturbs the concord of her reign."

In the brilliant court of Louis the Fourteenth, Pussy began that series of social triumphs which led, step by step, to her grand apotheosis during the following reign. Her beauty, her exquisite propriety of demeanour, her velvet footfall, her gentle, flattering purr, her love of luxury and repose, all fitted her for the splendour of her surroundings. The art with which she veiled her mind and motives was duly appreciated by courtiers, forever occupied in masking their own emotions. She followed unconsciously the advice of the old French noble who sent his son to court with these wise words: "Seize everything, speak ill of nobody, and sit down whenever you have the opportunity." "Gracieuse, supple et perfide," she harmonized exquisitely with a society which reflected her dominant traits. Saint Simon, in an amusing passage of his Memoirs, describes the intrusion of a kitten upon one of the Royal Councils, and the delight of the little king, Louis the Fifteenth,—a boy of eight,—at this pleasant interruption of business. The kitten, with the audacity of kittenhood, jumped first upon the princely knee, and thence to the council table, where it pranced and paddled among the papers, tolerated for the sake of the pale tired child who presided silently and courteously for hours over these tedious meetings. Indeed, Saint Simon, then fuming with indignation at the recent appointment of new Councillors, proposed the adoption of the kitten as a permanent member of the august assembly;—a jest which seems to have been considered by himself and others as exceedingly bitter and well-timed.

It is to François Augustin Paradis de Moncrif that we owe our intimate acquaintance with the most distinguished cats of this period. Scotch by descent, Parisian by birth, courtier by taste and training, poet, dramatist, littérateur, and faithful lover of the fair feline race, Moncrif, in happy mood, conceived the idea of writing a series of letters in praise of cats. No one was better fitted for the task; no one could have accomplished it more gracefully. In his pages, the names of pussies, long since dead, live sweetly embalmed in verse. Here may we read of Marmalain, the beautiful cat of Mme. la Duchesse du Maine, who inscribed to her favourite a spirited rondeau, full of tender flattery, and the fond conceits hallowed by true affection. When Marmalain died, his noble mistress was too profoundly dejected to compose a fitting epitaph; so to M. La Mothe le Vayer was assigned that honour, and his touching lines have been sympathetically translated by Mr. Edmund Gosse.

"Puss passer-by, within this simple tomb
Lies one whose life fell Atropos hath shred;
The happiest cat on earth hath heard his doom,
And sleeps forever in a marble bed.
Alas! what long delicious days I've seen!
O cats of Egypt, my illustrious sires,
You who on altars, bound with garlands green,
Have melted hearts, and kindled fond desires;
Hymns in your praise were paid, and offerings too,
But I'm not jealous of those rites divine;
Since Ludovisa loved me, fond and true.
Your ancient glory was less proud than mine.
To live, a simple pussy, by her side,
Was nobler far than to be deified."

From Moncrif, too, we learn of Tata, the cat of Mme. la Marquise de Montglas; and of Dom Gris, the cat of Mme. la Duchesse de Béthune; and of the incomparable Ménine, "morte vierge au printemps de la vie," whom the young Duchesse de Lesdiguières cherished and lost.

"Ménine, qui jamais ne connut de Ménin,
Et qui fut, de son temps, des Chattes la Lucrèce;
Chatte pour tout le monde, et, pour les Chats, Tigresse."

When this fair Amazon died, Mme. de Lesdiguières built over the little corpse a noble mausoleum, with a marble pussy sleeping upon a marble pillow, whereon was engraved the following courtly epitaph:

"Ci git une Chatte jolie:
Sa Maitresse qui n'aima rien,
L'aima jusque à la folie;
Pourquoi le dire? On le voit bien."

Still more pathetic is the story of Mlle. du Puy's music loving cat, who listened with critical attention when his mistress played upon the harp; manifesting his pleasure if she played well, and his annoyance if she blundered. Mlle. du Puy attributed her skill as a harpist mainly to this cat's taste and judgment; and, to mark her gratitude for so great a service, she bequeathed him at her death a town house, a country house, and an income sufficient to maintain both establishments. Her family, grasping and avaricious as are most kith and kin, contested the will, and succeeded, after a long struggle in the courts, in wresting from the legatee an estate which, by every law of justice and morality, was his, and his alone.

Of all the cats, however, whom Moncrif delighted to applaud, none fills so proud a place in his letters, and in our regard, as Grisette, the beloved pet of Mme. Deshoullières.

"Deshoullières cares not for the smart
Her bright eyes cause, disdainful hussy!
But, like a mouse, her idle heart
Is captured by a pussy."

Grisette was a cat of parts. Her manners were marked by gentle distinction; and to her rare beauty were added intelligence, and a somewhat chilling sweetness of character. She inspired affection in all whom she honoured with her notice; and we may read page after page of impassioned verse addressed to her by the wits and poets of her day, who veiled their own sentiments thinly under the disguise of despairing feline suitors. There seems to have been little coquetry in Grisette. She granted few favours; but preserved that soft and courteous indifference, that exquisite delicacy and tact, which compelled respect as well as adoration. Yet she too had a charming poetic gift,—Mme. Deshoullières acting as her amanuensis,—and nothing can be prettier than her shy admission to Tata that his gallantry and valour made her little heart beat fast; or than these lines which defy translation, but which may be accepted as the highest standard of absolute good-breeding for a cat. They should be hung, in their sweet old French, on the walls of every kitten nursery in the world.

"Sçavez-vous de quel air discret et raisonnable
J'ay ma part des bons répas?
J'appuye discrètement ma patte sur les bras
De ceux qui sont assis à table.
Si leur faim est inexorable,
Ma faim ne se rebute pas;
Et d'un air toujours agréable,
Je tire du moins charitable
Les morceaux les plus délicats."

It is melancholy to relate that Moncrif was pelted with ridicule by the satirists of his day because of this pleasant "Histoire des Chats;" and that, after his election to the French Academy, he had the weakness to withdraw the book from circulation. Solid and serious scholars, who had inaugurated what M. Champfleury calls "the grievous system of professional literature," pretended to believe that cats were unworthy of an Academician's momentous regard. Wits made merry at the expense of the "historiogriffe;" and false friends, like Voltaire, flattered the poor poet out of his reason, and then laughed sourly at the simplicity which credited men with truth. Upon the awful and august occasion of Moncrif's maiden speech, some wag, thrilling with joy at his own brilliant jest, turned a cat loose in the room; and when the frightened creature began to mew, the Academicians laughed and mewed in chorus, to the painful confusion of the newly elected.—"Rira mieux qui rira dernière." To-day, when tomes of oppressive erudition lie swathed in shrouds of dust; when names once honoured are well-nigh forgotten; when Moncrif's other writings—plays, and poems, and pastorals—have slipped unobtrusively into oblivion; this "gravely frivolous" little book still gains a hearing for its author. No one who truly loves cats can afford to neglect so interesting a period in their history, nor so veracious and admirable an historian.

If Moncrif be the first genuine chronicler, the Froissart of cats, La Fontaine, says M. Feuillet de Conches, is their Homer. "He painted them, as he studied them, under all aspects, and with a master's skill." But that he painted them unkindly is too evident for denial. He borrowed Rodilardus from Rabelais, and turned that feline Samson into a cruel and insatiable tyrant,

"L'Attila, le fléau des rats,"

who wages day and night a relentless war of extermination.

"Et Rodilard passoit, chez la gent misérable,
Non pour un chat, mais pour un diable."

This "Alexander of cats" is as brave as he is merciless,—cowardice has never been a cattish trait,—but he is as false and malicious as he is brave. He sows the seeds of dissension between other animals, and laughs in his sleeve at their stupidity. He refuses pity to the mouseling in these terrible words, "Cats know not how to pardon." He is a prince of hypocrites, and, like the hermit of the Ganges, affects piety, and the spirit of universal brotherhood. When the foolish young rabbit quarrels with the weasel, she consents to abide by the just decision of Raminagrobis, a saintly puss of ascetic habits and incorruptible morals; a "chatemite," who, sighing that he is old and deaf, persuades the disputants to approach within reach of his murderous claws. Where Æsop treats Pussy with some kindness, as in the fable of "The Cat and the Fox," La Fontaine is at pains to insist that this pair of pilgrims are pious frauds, arch-dissemblers, who compensate themselves with many a strangled chicken and stolen cheese for the hardships of their pilgrimage. He sums up feline characteristics in the surpassing cynicism of the old rat's scornful speech; "No benefit can win gratitude from a cat."

And this defamer, we are bidden to believe, sings Homerically of the race which he defames? What if his good humour be ever unimpaired, and if his comfortable laugh reminds us now and then that he, for his part, does not seriously object to such amazing scampishness? We who are forced to object,—as living in a sternly moral age,—wish that a little mercy, or even a little justice, had tempered these gay calumnies which will outlive truth itself. For so great is La Fontaine's charm, so felicitous is every finely chosen phrase, that the beauty of his verse wins permanence for his most scandalous characterizations. He admits the seductive qualities of the cat. Like the amorous young Greek of the fable, he finds her

"mignonne, et belle, et délicate,"

inspiring foolish and excessive affection, to which she returns a selfish indifference. He describes exquisitely and precisely the "gentle hypocrite," with her irreproachable modesty of demeanour, her soft sleek fur, her noiseless step, her air of mingled graciousness and dignity, her sleepy eyes half shut, lest their gleam should betray the tigerish soul within. This is the cat of La Fontaine, an unworthy picture, drawn with consummate skill. France accepted her without shadow of protest, granting to her courage, her cunning, and her loveliness, pardon for many sins. After all, these amiable critics may have urged, we forgive Achilles much, because he is brave; Odysseus more, because he is acute; Helen most of all, because she is beautiful. Why then pass priggish judgment upon a creature brave as Achilles, acute as Odysseus, beautiful as Helen? She has the qualities of her defects; and these things are as the wise gods ordain. We cannot mould her to our liking; Montaigne has told us so. She will not strive for our approval, any more than she will toil for our convenience. "Libertas sine Labore." She walks her chosen path by our side; but our ways are not her ways, our influence does not remotely reach her. Let us abandon the office of critic, where there is no mutual standard for criticism.

And so it was that Mme. la Duchesse de Bouillon—true lover of cats and their most tender friend—begged La Fontaine to give her a copy of every fable in which her favourite animal played its ungrateful part. These precious manuscripts, after being lost for a century and more, were discovered by M. Feuillet de Conches, stored away in a lumber room with other interesting and valuable papers of the de Bouillon family, whose estate had passed into alien hands, and whose long-prized treasures had been thrust into dusty oblivion.