The fireside sphinx/The Cat To-day
THE CAT TO-DAY
"Sphinx of my quiet hearth! who deignst to dwell
Friend of my toil, companion of mine ease."
PERHAPS some portion of the tenderness which falls to Pussy's happy lot in these smooth days, when her star—eclipsed since the fall of Pasht—has once more reached its zenith, is due to the nursery rhymes which present her so constantly to infant eyes and ears. "The cat," says M. Champfleury, "is the nurse's favourite, and the baby's earliest friend. It plays its part in little rhythmical dramas, cunningly presented to the drowsy child, who falls asleep with a familiar image parading fantastically through his brain." French rhymes are much the prettiest; less bald than the English, less banal than the German. There is a gayety in their dancing measures, and the simplest narratives have a touch of picturesqueness, never lost on infancy. Even an A, B, C verse, which we try to make as imbecile as words will allow, can assume a pleasing form in the nurseries of France. What, for example, could be more hopelessly uninteresting or irrelevant than the English
"Great A, little a, Bouncing B,
Cat's in the cupboard, and can't see me."
Such a vapid statement insults the intelligence of a baby. The Germans do better. They have several rhymes, the shortest and simplest of which was the first word picture ever grasped by my own dawning intelligence.
"A, B, C,
Die Katze liegt im Schnee,
Der Schnee ging hinweg,
Die Katze liegt im Dreck."
Prettier than this is the version sung in Saxony and Austria.
"A, B, C, Die Katze liegt im Schnee;
Als sie wieder 'raus kam,
Hatt' sie weisse Stiefeln an;
Weisse Stiefeln muss sie haben,
Dass sie kann nach Dresden traben."
Little Parisians, as well as little Teutons, delight in Pussy's snowy socks.
"A, B, C,
Le chat est allé
Dans la neige; en retournant,
II avait les souliers tous blancs."
All white like Baby's knitted shoes, held up for illustration. The children see Pussy picking her dainty way through the soft snow with little shivers of cold, and little shakings of her paw at the chilliness of her new foot-gear, just as they see her making her careful toilet in this bit of rhyme equally familiar to their nurseries.
"Le chat à Jeannette
Est une jolie bête.
Quand il veut se faire beau,
II se lèche le museau;
Avec sa salive
II fait la lessive."
I wonder why the French cat is always "he," and the English cat is almost always "she," even when confessedly a Tom. I have heard of college cats, grave Fellows of Baliol and Magdalen, who deeply resented being called "she" by feminine visitors, unaware apparently of the laws which govern such institutions. But in the French nurseries, no insult is ever offered to masculinity.
"Il était une bergère,
Et ron, ron, ron, petit patapon,
II était une bergère
Qui gardait ses moutons,
Qui gardait ses moutons.
"Elle fit un fromage,
Et ron, ron, ron, petit patapon,
Elle fit un fromage
Du lait de ses moutons,
Du lait de ses moutons.
"Le chat qui la regarde,
Et ron, ron, ron, petit patapon,
Le chat qui la regarde
D'un petit air fripon,
D'un petit air fripon.
"'Si tu y mets la patte,
Et ron, ron, ron, petit patapon,
Si tu y mets la patte,
Tu auras du baton,
Tu auras du baton.'
"Il n'y mit pas la patte,
Et ron, ron, ron, petit patapon,
Il n'y mit pas la patte,
Il y mit le menton,
Il y mit le menton."
Pussy is scampish, and Pussy is pitiless in too many of the verses meant for infant ears ; and it is a proof of our innate depravity that youthful listeners love her none the less.
"Le chat sauta sur les souris,
Il les croqua toute la nuit.
Coco des moustaches, mirlo, joli,
Children might dance over the bridge of Avignon to the lilt of this cruel little song.
The most popular English and Scottish rhymes are less gay, but not more merciful. If the persecuted mice save their necks, it is only because they sit starving at home.
"There was a wee bit mousikie,
That lived in Gilberaty, O;
It couldna get a bite o' cheese,
For cheety-poussie-catty, O.
"It said unto the cheesikie:
'Oh, fain wad I be at ye, O,
If it were na for the cruel paws
O' cheety-poussie-catty, O.'"
There are only three verses hallowed by Mother Goose's sanction, in which the cat does not appear as Nimrod, and which, in their way, are as pretty as the French favourites.
"Pussy sat beside the fire.
Pussy was so fair;
In came a little dog,
'Pussy, are you there?'"
" Pussy cat, mew! jumps over a coal;
And in her best petticoat burns a great hole!
Pussy cat, mew! shall have no more milk
Until her best petticoat's mended with silk."
And, best and oldest of the three;
Where have you been?'
'I've been to London,
To look at the Queen.'
What did you do there?'
'I frightened a little mouse
Under her chair.'"
It was good Queen Anne whom this adventurous kitten had journeyed to see, and the history of her exploit has been told to children ever since. These verses prepare the way for the fairy tales to follow:—"Puss-in-Boots," "The White Cat," and the legend of Dick Whittington. Perhaps in some favoured nurseries—as, long ago, in mine—the charming French story of "Mère Michel et son Chat " has a place of honour on the bookshelves; and little readers follow with breathless suspense the wonderful escapes of Moumouth, whose crowning victory over the wicked Lustucru was one of the joys of my childhood; a joy as fresh at the twentieth reading as at the first,—more satisfactory, perhaps, because then I knew it all along, and so could better bear the trials and dangers that preceded it. Sir Thomas Browne would never have envied "the happiness of inferior creatures, who in tranquillity enjoy their constitutions," had he known Mother Michel's cat. Mr. Aldrich translated this story some years ago, so that it is now as accessible to American as to French children; and all may read how Moumouth lived, suffered, triumphed, died, and was honoured in his grave; while the cruel steward who persecuted him was appropriately cooked and eaten by avenging cannibals, sighing out with his last breath the name of the innocent animal he had so barbarously sought to destroy.
M. Bédollière, author of this delightful and harrowing tale, borrowed Mère Michel and Lustucru from an old song, familiar to many generations of Gallic infancy.
"C'est la Mère Michel qui a perdu son chat,
Qui cri' par la fenêtre à qui le lui rendra;
Et le Compère Lustucru qui lui a répondu:
'Allez, Mère Michel, votre chat n'est pas perdu.'
"C'est la Mère Michel qui lui a demandé:
'Mon chat n'est pas perdu! vous l'avez donc trouvé?'
Et le Compère Lustucru qui lui a répondu:
'Donnez une récompense, il vous sera rendu.'
"Et la Mère Michel lui dit: 'C'est décidé,
Si vous rendez mon chat, vous aurez un baiser.'
Le Compère Lustucru qui n'en a pas voulu,
Lui dit: 'Pour un lapin votre chat est vendu.'"
With schooldays come La Fontaine's Fables,—unless indeed a surfeit of mathematics has by this time driven even La Fontaine from the field,—and youthful students learn, or should learn, of Rodilard and the saintly chatemite. When they have studied Gray's verses, "On the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes," their education may be held complete, and their tastes carefully cultivated in the right direction. No child brought up along these lines will be indifferent to feline character or charm. One source of pleasure, well worth the cultivation, has been secured for life.
Yet how much more there is to read and learn! Where shall we look without encountering an animal that has inspired poets and painters, that has been the companion of scholars, the delight of authors, the solace of statesmen, the friend of prelates, the beloved of saints! What an admirable story is that which the holy deacon, John, deemed worthy to be told in his "Life of Saint Gregory," and which has at once the exquisite grace of asceticism and the warmth and colour of humanity. There lived, he says, during the pontificate of Gregory, a poor hermit, pious, vigilant, and austere. To him it was revealed in a vision that he would share in Heaven the glory of the Pope, at which he marvelled much; partly because of his unworthiness, and partly because—owning nothing in the world but a female cat—he had hoped, in moments of spiritual exaltation, that some especial reward would be meted out to his rigorous self-denial. Then a second vision was vouchsafed; he looked into the heart of the great Pontiff, and saw that it was detached from all the splendours of his throne; and he knew that, fancying himself so poor in spirit, he yet loved and valued his cat more than Gregory loved and valued all his earthly possessions. The Pope was the truer ascetic of the two.
We need not wander so far afield to learn of Pussy's sweet seductiveness. Instances of her supremacy may be found much nearer home. Did not Washington's father rival the forbearance of Mohammed by sitting habitually and uneasily on the extreme edge of his chair, rather than disturb his cat who loved to lie curled up on the cushion back of him? Such a man deserved to have George for a son. It is a common habit of cats, when their rule is unquestioned, to behave in this way, especially in winter time,—draughts being abhorrent to their souls. I knew a large black Baltimore puss who used to drive both household and visitors like sheep from chair to chair, by jumping up behind each unfortunate in turn, and curling his huge bulk in that narrow space. To make room for him was impossible, to put him down was out of the question; there was nothing to do but move on,—like the poor Indian,—in the hope that after a while one might reach some place sufficiently undesirable for permanent possession.
Colonial records contain many pleasant allusions to cats. In Watson's Annals we read of Elizabeth Hurd and her husband who came to Philadelphia with Penn's early colonists. They worked hard side by side to build their first rude home, living meantime, like so many of the poorer emigrants, in a cave by the river's bank. One day while Elizabeth was carrying water, and mixing the mortar for their chimney, her husband said to her with some asperity: "Thou hadst better think of dinner!"—an essentially masculine remark, when there was nothing but a little bread and cheese in the larder. Elizabeth walked soberly back to the cave, thinking very hard, but quite unable to translate her thoughts into provisions. On the way she met her cat, holding in his mouth a fine large rabbit, "which she thankfully received, and dressed as an English hare. When her husband came in to dinner,"—plainly expecting to be well fed,—"he was informed of the facts, whereupon they both wept with reverential joy, and ate their meal, which was thus seasonably provided for them, in singleness of heart."
The help afforded in this emergency was never ungratefully forgotten; for when Elizabeth Hurd died, after many years of prosperity, she bequeathed to her grand-niece, Mrs. Deborah Morris, a silver tureen, on which was engraved a cat bearing a rabbit in its mouth.
The interesting diary of Elizabeth Drinker tells us of the strange mortality that prevailed among the Philadelphia cats in the summer of 1797, and which seems to have somewhat resembled the epidemic of 1809 in Berne. Cherished pussies were found dead on doorsteps, in the streets, by the kitchen fires,—and none knew whereof they died. There was mourning and lamentation in many a home; and the "Cat's Coronach" might have been chanted at night in the deserted yards, and on lonely walls, no. longer guarded by resolute and valiant Toms.
"And art thou fallen, and lowly laid,
The housewife's boast, the cellar's aid,
Great mouser of thy day!
Whose rolling eyes and aspect dread
Whole whiskered legions oft have fled
In midnight battle fray.
There breathes no kitten of thy line
But would have given his life for thine."
little waif who sought shelter by her comfortable hearth.
"A very pretty cat intruded herself on us this evening. We did not make her welcome at first, but she seemed to insist on staying. Sally then gave her milk, and very soon after she caught a poor little mouse; and she is now lying on the corner of my apron by ye fireside, as familiarly as if she had lived with us for seven years."
It is pleasant to hear the kind-hearted Quakeress say "poor little mouse;" for the unconcern with which most of us view the death agony of a mouse contrasts strangely with our sentimental outpourings over a murdered bird. The mouse might say with Shylock, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"—and feel with Shylock that no one heeds the shedding of such blood. But, for the slaughter of a bird, there is a different cry. Does not even that sweet saint, Eugénie de Guérin, bewail in no gentle words—in the most ungentle words her journal holds—such a calamity?
"I am furious with the grey cat. The wicked creature has just robbed me of a young pigeon that I was warming by the fire. The poor little thing was beginning to revive; I had meant to tame it; it would have grown fond of me; and now all this ends in its getting crunched up by a cat. What disappointments there are in life!"
Only the cat's impartial mind draws no distinction between mouse and bird.
"They call me cruel. Do I know if mouse or song-bird feels?
I only know they make me light and salutary meals."
"An ordinary cat," says Mr. Robinson unkindly, "will devote a whole day to the circumvention of the lodger's canary, rather than spend an hour upon the landlady's rats. A single bullfinch in the drawing-room is worth a wilderness of mice in the pantry."
This I believe to be calumnious; but, as St. George Mivart remarks with a sapiency too obvious to be instructive: "We cannot, without becoming cats, perfectly understand the cat mind." When an animal withholds its confidence, we have no power to break the barriers of its reserve; and who shall boast that he enjoys—save in rare and fugitive moments—the confidence or intimacy of a cat? Men have made this boast, I am aware, and they have themselves believed the truth of their assertion; yet even Gautier and Loti wove into their daily intercourse with their cats the brilliant web of their own imaginings. Gifted beyond most mortals with that delicate and subtle sympathy which enabled them to establish a basis of companionship, they unconsciously assumed a more complete understanding than could ever have existed. For whereas the dog strives to lessen the distance between himself and man, seeks ever to be intelligent and intelligible, and translates into looks and actions the words he cannot speak, the cat dwells within the circle of her own secret thoughts. She scorns la vie de parade, and makes no effort to reveal herself to us, save when we minister to her needs, or when, in some sweet impulse of cajolery, she gives us transient tokens of regard. Gautier and Loti enjoyed many such moments, because they were so sensitively attuned to their felicity; but that they held Madame Théophile or Moumoutte Chinoise in the bonds of indissoluble friendship, I cannot find it in my heart to believe. They would never have prized so highly an affection of which they entertained no doubt.
As for those foolish moderns who write papers for magazines to prove that the cat is a sorely slandered animal, and who represent their own pets as entertaining for them a profound and respectful passion, they cherish their illusions cheaply. "I observe authors," says Mr. Lang, "who speak concerning cats with a familiarity and a levity most distasteful." Like the people who write gossipy books about emperors and empresses, they assume an air of easy intimacy, "a great and disrespectful license," which they deem elevates them to equality. They also attribute to their cats a host of intolerable virtues which would put to shame the little girls who shine in Sunday-school fiction. Thus a lady living near Belfast writes that, when she was ill, her devoted cat went poaching for her every day, braving the terrors of the law that he might provide her with the partridges her delicate constitution demanded, but which her purse was unequal to buying. He never touched the stolen birds himself, having more conscience in the matter than his mistress; and, when she had recovered and desired no more, he ceased his benevolent depredations. Elizabeth Kurd's rabbit-hunting beast, to whom she felt such life-long gratitude, sinks into insignificance alongside of this Irish Puss-in-Boots.
As for the astounding instances of feline generosity which we are daily requested to consider, they would lead us to suppose that cats live only to do good. Gautier's little Bohemian, who shared his dinner occasionally with disreputable friends out of pure love for low company, shines but dimly by comparison with the small Saint Elizabeths, who apparently have no use for their dinners save to give them to all the poor and starving cats in the neighbourhood.
M. Jumelin, for example, tells us of his own Angora who every day fed out of her allowance a hungry companion; and Mr. Larrabee is responsible for the edifying history of a Norman cat whose conscience was troubled by the overabundance of her supplies. Accordingly she brought home one day a lean cottage animal to share the feast; observing which, her master laid out for her a double portion the following morning. Rejoiced to see her opportunities for good thus unexpectedly increased, the philanthropic cat journeyed further into the village, and summoned a second impecunious pussy. Her master added a third plate to the dinner table. She found a third guest, and then a fourth and fifth; until, as the meals kept increasing, she often had twenty pensioners around her generous board, all of whom, we are assured, recognized their position, and behaved with respectful propriety.
Stories of virtuous cats who cannot be tempted to dishonesty; of faithful cats who watch over children confided to their care; of affectionate cats who live on terms of sweet serenity with birds, and puppies, and guinea pigs, and white mice, would seem to prove—could we but credit them—that, of all four-footed prigs. Pussy is the most fundamentally priggish. These annals reach their climax in the affecting narrative of a Norfolk lady, whose pious Maltese—having apparently read "The Fairchild Family," and "Elsie Dinsmore,"—not only attended family prayers with circumspection, but obliged her unfortunate kittens to be present, cuffing them fervently if they betrayed any restlessness under the ordeal.
Less difficult to believe, yet far removed from credence, are tales of Pussy's superhuman intelligence and craft. Some years ago the "Spectator" published, with enviable gravity, an account of a cat that hunted up and found articles lost about the house. He did not appear to have concealed these things, and then produced them for reward; but to have made painful search for scissors and spectacles, mislaid through the carelessness of the family. Enthusiasts are always telling us how their pets open closed doors, as though in training for burglary; and lay traps, like veteran hunters, for birds and squirrels. A Scotch gentleman assures me that his cat was in the habit of hiding in the shrubbery, and leaping out upon the poor little sparrows, that came every morning to breakfast on the crumbs thrown them from the dining-room window. One winter day these crumbs were quickly covered over by falling snow; whereupon the astute highwayman was seen to lay them bare again, brushing away the soft snow with his paws, lest, from lack of decoy, he should lose his prey. Indignant at such murderous purpose, the family determined to circumvent the cat by scattering no more bread. Pussy waited and wondered for two mornings; and then, realizing the nature of the conspiracy, baffled it by the simple process of taking a roll from the breakfast table, and carrying it himself to the shrubbery path. It only remains to be told that he first baked the bread, and this veracious chronicle will be complete.
Still more astounding is another story related of a New England cat named June, who hid her four kittens in a hole under the garret floor. After the first week she ceased going to the garret, and the family, fearing the kittens were dead, felt some not unnatural annoyance at the thought of the trouble it would be to disinter them. The matter was discussed in the presence of June, who lay on the sofa, apparently asleep; and her mistress observed with asperity,—"I would give ten dollars this minute if those kittens were out from under the floor." Immediately the cat jumped down and left the room, the door being shut after her. In a few minutes she was heard mewing in the hall; and, when the door was opened, there on the floor lay three of the dead kittens. Her mistress—who tells the tale in the "Spectator"—said, "Well done, June. Go now and fetch the other one;" whereupon she made a fourth trip, and returned with the last little corpse, laying it alongside of its brothers. It is to be hoped the ten dollars were promptly paid; but one fears that a cat of such cupidity would be capable of killing her innocent offspring for the sake of the promised reward.
"I am extremely distrustful of interesting or touching stories about animals," observes M. Champfleury, who well knew on what slender foundations such pretty tales are built. Yet now and then even his skepticism was shaken by curious and clearly proven facts which seemed to indicate, not only affection and intelligence, but conscience and the power of reasoning,—uncomfortable attributes, from which the lower orders of creation are presumably exempt. Mere chance must be held responsible for many semi-miraculous things in a world full of wonders, and accident rules the lives of beasts as well as those of men. A country cat of my acquaintance was much disturbed and excited by the introduction of a tame chipmunk into the household where formerly she had reigned supreme. It was impressed upon her in the most strenuous manner that the intruder should not be molested, and for a few weeks she acquiesced sullenly in its unwelcome presence. Nature, however, has not intended that cats and chipmunks should dwell in amity together. One unlucky afternoon the tiny creature darted tantalizingly across the room. There was a flash of pursuit, a faint thin shriek, a dead squirrel lying limp and blood-stained on the carpet. Retribution followed swiftly. The cat was punished, reproached, held over its victim, and finally thrust angrily and ignominiously from the house. She disappeared for two days, and her mistress was beginning to repent her severity, when, on the third morning, she returned, bearing in her mouth a little live chipmunk which she had captured in the woods, and which she intended, apparently, should take the place of the one she had murdered.
So at least believes every member of that deeply affected family. The fact that cats frequently bring live prey into the house, and that this particular cat had done so on several other occasions, counts for nothing. The coincidence was too striking, the logical inference too conclusive. No reputation for sanctity was ever more swiftly or more surely established. It will bear many a sad rent in the future before it ceases to cover a multitude of iniquities.
In one respect, and one only, the intelligence or instinct of the cat passes our comprehension, and leaves us lost in amazement. No homing pigeon speeds more surely to its goal than does poor Pussy when banished from the roof-tree that she loves. The bird wings its safe flight through the broad ether, without let or hindrance. The cat encounters and overcomes obstacles that seem insuperable when we think how small she is, how weak and helpless. The authenticated stories of her exploits in this regard are happily so marvellous that they cannot be outdone by man's industrious invention. One of the best is told by that "wise and honest traveller," Arthur Young, who leased Samford Hall, an old Essex place, formerly tenanted by a gentleman named Farquharson. Mrs. Farquharson had a cat which she highly prized, and which she sent by coach in a closed bag or basket to her new home at Yatesby Bridge, in Hampshire. Five days later. Young received a letter from her, bewailing the loss of her favourite who had promptly disappeared as soon as released from constraint; and, on the following morning. Pussy made her appearance at Samford Hall, looking very forlorn and out at elbows, but plainly delighted to be home again. She had not only travelled seventy miles over an unknown country filled with dangers; but had actually crossed or skirted London,—"threaded the Metropolis," says Young more poetically,—in the course of her adventurous journey.
Mr. Andrew Lang is responsible for the story of a cat which was carried from Saint Andrews to Perth. He came back in less than a week. "Did he swim the Tay and Eden," asks Mr. Lang meditatively, "or did he travel by rail, changing at Dundee and Leuchars? "A Flemish cat, living in the country near Malines, outsped twelve carrier pigeons, traversing eight leagues, crossing the Scheldt, Heaven knows how! and reaching home well in advance of his winged competitors."
Men prize the heartless hound who quits dry-eyed his native land,
Who wags a mercenary tail, and licks a tyrant's hand.
The leal true cat they prize not, that if e'er compelled to roam,
Still flies, when let out of the bag, precipitately home."
An amusing instance of Pussy's incurable nostalgia is related by M. Champfleury. A country curé of his acquaintance received a more important charge in a neighbouring town, and moved thither with his little household, consisting of an old servant, a tame crow, and a female cat. The crow was a clever and voluble vaurien; the cat—despite her sex—an unprincipled freebooter; the servant an affectionate scold; and the curé an amused spectator of their constant and animated bickerings. Two days after the journey to town. Pussy disappeared. The crow, uneasy at her absence, hopped disconsolately about his new abode. The housekeeper was loud in her lamentations. The curé felt a reasonable alarm lest the current of her hourly reproaches, checked in its ordinary course, might before long be diverted in his direction.
A week passed, and a former parishioner came to the priest's door, bearing in a bag the missing cat, whom he had found mewing disconsolately at the gate of her old home. She was welcomed with delight, and the household seemed restored to its former state of quarrelsome tranquillity, when, one fair morning, behold! her place by the hearth was again vacant. This time she was promptly sought for, and discovered prowling about the garden of the village parsonage, thin, half-starved, wretched, the shadow of her old defiant self. Carried back once more to town, everything was done that might content her restless little heart. The housekeeper fed her with dainties, and even ministered delicately to her predatory tastes by leaving the cupboard door open, as if by accident, hoping to tempt her failing appetite with the sweetness of stolen cream.
"Yet the fruit were scarce worth peeling,
Were it not for stealing, stealing."
It was all in vain. The familiar walls called to her from afar, and, obeying an instinct too strong for rejection, she journeyed wearily back, to die, if need be, in her kittenhood's home.
Then the wise old servant, feeling that only radical measures could cure so obstinate a disease, devised a plan which shows how well she understood the nature of a cat. There was a little pond at the foot of the curé's country garden, where, erstwhile, Pussy had been wont to lie dreaming the summer days away. Going herself to the village, the woman directed one of the farmer boys—an active and mischievous lad—to catch her truant pet, and dip her three times deep under the cold and hateful water. It was enough. Felis amat pisces, sed non vult tingere plantam. And to be thus scandalously ill-treated in the spot she loved best, where she had lorded it over the neighbouring cats, and where hitherto no human hand had ever dared to assail her. The dripping creature, furious, frightened, outraged in her best feelings, flew to her old friend for protection, went meekly back under her sheltering cloak, and never again sought to return to the now painful scene of her humiliation.
A ship cat loves its home as unswervingly as the happier animal whose lot is cast amid gardens and moonlit walls. To the landsman's prejudiced eye there is little choice in boats, especially in the dismal and dirty cargo boats "that sail the wet seas roun'." They may be "England's pride;" but, as permanent habitations, they seem to lack everything that would appeal to the refined instincts and restless habits of a cat. Yet Pussy is as faithful to her "hollow oak" as poets have ever pretended to be, and will not barter its manifold discomforts for the pleasant firesides of earth. A very beautiful cat, carried in infancy from some remote village in the Apennines, was given as a mascot to the Italian captain of an oil-tank steamer which ran between Savona and Point Breeze, Philadelphia. In the course of time she presented the ship with a family of kittens, who were less than a month old when the Philadelphia docks were reached. Like other sailors, Pussy indulged in some irregularities while on shore; and, as the result of prolonged dissipation, she was found to be missing when the Bayonne was loaded, and ready to depart. Search was made in vain about the wharves, and Captain Hugo was compelled, not only to sail without his mascot, but to assume the responsibility for her abandoned infants.
Two days later the prodigal came back. Another and a larger boat filled the Bayonne's place. Repentant and dismayed, she visited every steamer in the docks; then, convinced that her indiscretions had made her both homeless and kittenless, she took up her quarters in a watch-box, and patiently awaited Captain Hugo's return. Week followed week; scores of barks arrived, and were each in turn anxiously inspected; and still, undiscouraged by repeated disappointments, she bravely kept her post. At last the Bayonne was sighted, and there was no need this time to hunt for the cat. There she stood, quivering with agitation, on the extreme edge of the wharf, as the malodorous little craft plied its way along the river. The captain's big black dog, Pussy's old friend and companion, barked his furious welcome from the deck. The sound increased her excitement, and, when the steamer was still twelve feet from the docks, she cleared with flying leap the intervening space, and, mid the cheers of the crew, ran straight to the captain's cabin where she had left her kittens two months before. They were well-grown young cats by this time, and disposed to resent her intrusion; but the mother's joy was as excessive as if she had been parted from them for but a single night.
In fact, maternal affection is the only sentiment which can compete in the cat's little heart with her fondness for her dwelling-place. She loves her kittens, and she loves her home; and, when these two emotions contend for mastery, it will be generally found that her love for her kittens triumphs. A pathetic proof of this was afforded by a cat belonging to an English military chaplain at Madras. Her master, moving to the other side of the town, left her behind, or rather gave her to the new tenant, believing she would be more content under her familiar rooftree. Six weeks later she stood at his door, holding in her mouth a young kitten,
"Sole daughter of her house and heart,"
which, when admitted, she laid at his feet for sanctuary. It was then discovered that the rest of her litter had been drowned; and the poor mother, with an intelligence miraculously sharpened by love and fear, had carried the one little survivor to her only friend, to beg his pity and protection.
For what pangs are suffered all their lives by these animals whose fecundity is their bane; little Rachels whose mute wretchedness no one heeds nor commiserates, and who mourn, briefly, it is true, but bitterly, the perpetual murder of their offspring. Cases, indeed, are recorded of indifference, of neglect, and even of cold-blooded butchery on the part of young cat mothers; but they count for little when contrasted with the overwhelming evidences of care and affection. M. Pierquin de Gembloux, in his "Traite de la Folie des Animaux," asserts that female cats occasionally betray a jealous detestation of their kittens, and instances a Spanish Angora who destroyed all her young at their birth, twice only sparing male kittens, which she ignored, but permitted—through some cold caprice—to live.
More repellant still are the authenticated stories—happily very few—of pussies who prefer their own selfish ease to the joys of motherhood. Of two such cases I have melancholy knowledge. One was that of an English cat who so neglected her first litter that the poor little things were in danger of perishing through starvation. To prevent this catastrophe, and teach her the nature of her duties, she was shut up with her kittens in the tool-house; whereupon she indignantly trampled them to death, and, hiding the wee corpses in a corner, hastened, when the door was opened, to more luxurious quarters. She was young, and she was very pretty. Her master pardoned her, but showed, in a manner she could not mistake, his anger and disgust; caressing the dead kittens with pitying hands, and refusing to reinstate her into favour. The lesson was not lost. Another litter arrived in the course of time, and was endured with tolerable patience; a third awoke some languid interest in the maternal heart; and. she lived to rear a dozen families,—a solicitous, painstaking, but never affectionate parent.
The second criminal was a New England cat, and the motive for the crime was the same,—an aversion to the care of children, and an unwillingness to exchange the drawing-room rug for the kitchen fire. This mother deliberately carried out her kittens one by one, and dropped them in the water-butt; then returned to the house with a brow as calm as if her conscience were at rest, and no little dripping corpses could trouble her repose.
"She's ta'en the ribbons frae her hair,
And bound their bodies fast and sair.
She 's put them aneath a marble stane,
Thinking a maid to gae her hame."
But how rare these instances of depravity, and how perpetual the proofs of Pussy's maternal love! What terrors fill her anxious little heart, when—warned by bitter experience—she tries to hide her unwelcome family from human eyes. In attic, in cellar, in barn or stable, she tucks them out of sight, stealing to them with many pitiful precautions, lest her presence should betray them to their death. She sometimes seeks, in this her utmost need, help from those whom her instinct bids her trust, as the poor cat at Madras fled to her former master for protection. M. Pierquin de Gembloux tells us of a cat that belonged to M. Moreau de Saint Méry, and that had never been permitted to rear a single kitten. When she gave birth to her third litter, the servant, wishing to be as kind as cruelty would permit, stole from her only one little victim each day, in order that she might grow accustomed "tout doucement" to her loss. For five mornings this relentless robbery was continued, until but a single kitten remained in the basket. Then, desperate and determined, the cat carried this survivor into her master's study, leaped to his lap, and laid it gently upon his knee, looking in his face with a mute prayer that could neither be misunderstood nor rejected. M. de Saint Méry gave orders that the kitten should be spared; but its mother, too fearful to trust her good fortune, brought it back every morning for weeks, laid it regularly on his knee or at his feet, and besought anew his merciful interference.
Even in happier homes, maternity brings to the cat a host of tender cares. She is never without solicitude, and shows in a hundred pretty ways her anxiety for the safety and welfare of her children. A Boston puss, seeing the family preparing for their summer exodus, deposited her kitten in one of the open boxes, as a timely hint that it was not to be left behind; and another equally intelligent animal, before engaging in combat with a rat, dropped her kitten into a dresser drawer, determined to have it out of danger. Mr. Lang tells the story of a poor vagabond cat who, with her young son, came daily to his door to beg. The kitten, being pretty and vivacious, was adopted by a neighbouring family, and reared in luxury; but still the mother, when any especial delicacy like a bit of fish was accorded her in Christian charity, scaled the dividing wall, and gave it to the greedy little lad, who,
"With every wish of cathood well fulfilled,"
was not ashamed to eat his parent's scanty rations.
Nothing can exceed the bravery and devotion of the cat when any danger threatens her young. It is then that her apparent timidity—that feline instinct of flight which veils the resolute spirit beneath—hardens into intrepidity. It is then that she stands at bay, and shows the splendid courage of desperation, defying fate, whether it takes the form of dog, or children, or the destroying elements. St. George Mivart tells us of a cat who plunged into a swiftly running stream, and rescued her three drowning kittens, bringing them one by one to shore. When Lusby's Music Hall in London was burned in 1884, it chanced that a cat belonging to the proprietor had recently kittened, and her little family lay in a basket at the rear of the stage. Three times that cat made her way through the smoke and fire, and reappeared, carrying a kitten in her mouth. The third time she was so terribly scorched as to be unrecognizable; she was blind, and of her beautiful fur hardly a patch was left. A fireman in sheer pity tried to catch the creature; but she leaped from his hands, and went straight back into the flames after the fourth kitten. That she reached it was proven by the two little bodies, burned to a crisp, that were found lying side by side when the fire was extinguished. It would be impossible to surpass the heroism of that London cat. Human mothers have done as much. It does not lie in the power of man or woman to do more.
In their ordinary family relations, cats show affection, consideration, and politeness. Paternity, which we stupidly imagine to be ignored, carries with it responsibilities that the father, when he is an honoured member of the home circle, never dreams of neglecting. M. Gautier found that the father's interest in his offspring was unremitting; and I once knew an English Tom who took the athletic training of his children entirely upon his own capable shoulders, teaching them assiduously to climb trees, to scale walls, and to spring upon birds. M. Dupont de Nemours gives a charming instance of grandmotherly care and devotion on the part of a cat whose young daughter was very ill after the birth of her first kittens. She had a little family of her own at the same time; but she gathered her grandchildren into her overflowing basket, nursed them, and watched over them attentively, until their parent was able to assume her maternal duties.
"A kitten," says M. Champfleury, "is the delight of a household. All day long a comedy is played by this incomparable actor." As for a litter of kittens, a nid de chatons, as the French prettily phrase it, no misanthrope could resist their seductions. The spirit of mischief, the spirit of frolic, the spirit of drollery animate these small mummers, and prompt them to their parts. Their curiosity is insatiable. "Everything that moves," observes Moncriff, "serves to amuse them. They believe that all nature is occupied with their diversion." The most intrepid of explorers, they make strange voyages of discovery in dark closets, underneath beds and bureaus, up curtains and table legs, trembling with excitement, and with a terror which is half pretence. Their agility is wonderful, yet no less ridiculous than their hardihood. The schoolboy who wrote in his composition, "A kitten is chiefly remarkable for rushing like mad at nothing whatever, and generally stopping before it gets there," should have made a great naturalist. Like Gilbert White, he knew how to observe.
A female cat is kept young in spirit and supple in body by the restless vivacity of her kittens! She plays with her little ones, fondles them, pursues them if they roam too far, and corrects them sharply for all the faults to which feline infancy is heir. A kitten dislikes being washed quite as much as a child does, especially in the neighbourhood of its ears. It tries to escape the infliction, rolls away, paddles with its little paws, and behaves as naughtily as it knows how, until a smart slap brings it suddenly back to subjection. Pussy has no confidence in moral suasion, but implicitly follows Solomon's somewhat neglected advice. I was once told a pleasant story of an English cat who had reared several large families, and who, dozing one day before the nursery fire, was disturbed and annoyed by the whining of a fretful child. She bore it as long as she could, waiting for the nurse to interpose her authority; then, finding passive endurance had outstripped the limits of her patience, she arose, crossed the room, jumped on the sofa, and twice with her strong soft paw, which had chastised many an erring kitten, deliberately boxed the little girl's ears,—after which she returned to her slumbers.
Instances of friendship among cats—as that charming bond of intimacy which united Moumoutte Blanche and Moumoutte Chinoise—are very rare. The dog, it is said, lives contentedly without companions of his own species, because his all-absorbing affection for his master satisfies the desires of his heart. He has been well termed the friend of man. But nobody would dream of calling Pussy the friend of man. She is nothing of the kind; yet neither is she the friend of other pussies. Two cats will live for years under the same roof, without vulgar jealousy or coarse contention, but also without any approach to confidential intercourse. If one of them has a fancy for companionship, she will "take up" with a horse,—her favourite animal, especially if he be thoroughbred. Many racers have had warm friendships with cats, and the famous stallion, Godolphin, lived for years on terms of the closest intimacy with a black cat, who, it is stated, pined away with grief after his death. Failing horses, Pussy has been known to entertain herself with the society of a dog, a chicken, a rabbit, any alien thing rather than one of her own reserved race. Cats living in zoölogical gardens have formed erratic attachments for elephants,—big, gentle beasts, depressed by close captivity, and grateful possibly for a little notice.
Such exceptional cases, however, count for little in the history of the cat. If disposed to be social, she will accord her good-will to any animal she fancies; if disposed to be motherly, she will adopt and rear a puppy, a rat, or a young pigeon; but as a rule she is sufficient to herself, is never bored by her own company, and preserves an immaculate freedom from enthusiasm, sympathy, or benevolence. She can be taught to live in amity with both birds and beasts, and even to tolerate indecent liberties of the "Happy Family" order,—sparrows hopping on her head, and white mice frisking foolishly at her feet. She can also be taught to ride a wheel, and jump through hoops of fire. These things denote the nadir of her degradation; and happily she lends herself with such ill grace to exhibitions of this order, that, notwithstanding our base relish for all that is out of nature, they are not of very common occurrence.
Some amiable naturalists would have us believe that there is no especial hostility between cat and dog,—only a trifling jealousy, fostered by man. They quote instances of marked affection, and tell pretty stories about big Newfoundlands that protect small kittens, and wise old tabbies that rear and educate foolish and motherless puppies. As well deny the animosity of Celt and Saxon, on the score of individual friendship, or chance deed of mercy. Like the deep-rooted hatred of nations, alien in race, yet thrust by fate upon one another's border lands, is the hatred that never sleeps in the hearts of these sworn enemies. The dog, a generous and chivalric beast, degenerates into a cruel bully the instant that he sees a cat. The cat, brave and courteous, falls into a sheer frenzy of rage and fear when she encounters her ancestral foe. St. George Mivart tells us that this antipathy—the inheritance of ages—is so strong in kittens only a few days old, that they have manifested both anger and terror, spitting with comical fury when touched by a hand that had recently fondled a dog.
Mr. Louis Robinson, in his interesting volume on "Wild Traits in Tame Animals," asserts that the spitting of young kittens, and their beautiful striped fur, are both due to "protective mimicry," nature's clever scheme for the deception of her stronger children, and the preservation of her weaker ones. She taught the kitten in its savage state to spit when disturbed or frightened, so that prowling enemies, like dog or wolf, might mistake the sound for the hissing of snakes; and she banded its fur so that birds of prey, glancing down from afar, might think the helpless creature a coiled serpent, and forbear to swoop. Some of us have long laboured under the delusion—fostered by prints in early school books—that eagles are particularly addicted to pouncing upon snakes, but Mr. Robinson says they infinitely prefer to take their chances with a cat.
Another point upon which this clever writer dwells emphatically is the proof afforded by Pussy's household habits of her solitary life before domestication. Even now, after centuries of civilization, a dog bolts his food in evident fear of interruption, hides his bones underground, growls and snarls if another dog approaches his plate, and shows plainly that in old savage days he was a member of an active and not too honest community. The cat, never accustomed to tribal life, evinces a different disposition. "When given anything to eat," observes Mr. Robinson, "she first carefully smells the morsel, then takes it in a deliberate and gingerly way, and sits down to finish it at leisure. There is none of that inclination to snatch hastily at food held before her, which we see in even well-trained dogs; nor does a cat seem in any hurry to stow her goods in the one place where thieving rascals cannot interfere with them."
It is but fair to state that Mr. Robinson's theories have been stoutly opposed by Mr. Andrew Lang, who, though not a naturalist, has enjoyed ample opportunities for observation. He is ill pleased with hasty inferences where the cat is concerned, and even thinks them a little impertinent, as indicating a tendency on the writer's part to claim familiar acquaintance with an animal who politely, but resolutely, declines familiarity. No two cats, says Mr. Lang, have the same traits. One eats his dinner like a gentleman. His ancestors evidently lived in hermit-like seclusion. Another prefers raiding his companion's dish. His forefathers, by the same token, must have been accustomed to society. Even Mr. Robinson's conclusion that the tailless Manx cat is probably a representative of some ancient wild species, finds no favour in Mr. Lang's eyes. He has accounted long ago in a fashion satisfactory to himself, and on strict "principles of evolution," for this unfortunate animal's peculiarity.
"Man," he says, "is a Celtic island. The Celts (in Brittany at least) believe that if you tread on a cat's tail, a serpent will come out and sting you. This made people shy of cats with tails. But a tailless cat being born by a pure fluke (see Darwin on Sports), and transmitting its peculiarity to its offspring, these cats with no tails were especially adapted to their Celtic environment. People could make pets of them, without fear of serpents. The other cats were killed off, or died for lack of friendly treatment. This could only occur in insular conditions. Hence the Isle of Man possesses Manx cats."
Why not accept the still more ingenious theory of the poet who suggests that these "isle-nurtured" pussies may possibly wear away their tails
"By sedentary habits,
As do the rabbits."
Manx cats are sometimes held to be of a cold and almost churlish disposition, occasioned perhaps by much sorrowful brooding over their lost tails. Yet I once made the acquaintance of a handsome young scion of the race, who lived in Penrith, and who, though lacking vivacity, possessed singular sweetness of character. Mr. Harrison Weir, the author of a very useful book upon cats, says that only the finest Manx varieties are absolutely tailless, the commoner sort possessing little stumpy apologies for the missing member. He gives warm praise to the beautiful Abyssinian cats, silver grey with orange eyes, whose ancestors are believed to have been Pasht's favoured pussies, and the little gods of Egypt. Also to the Siamese cats, once so jealously guarded in the palace of kings, but now exported occasionally to Europe and America. These feline royalties are small, muscular, and daringly athletic, of a chocolate or dun colour, "the shade of wood ashes," say the Siamese poetically, and have thin, pointed, and rather forlorn tails. Their eyes are sapphire blue or pale amber, and they possess the human and undesirable accomplishment of shedding tears in moments of anger or agitation. Of a gentle and affectionate disposition, they are said to make devoted husbands and fathers,—an uncommon but by no means unknown trait among cats whose family ties are fostered by kindness and sympathy.
Notwithstanding the blueness of their blood, and the princely seclusion in which they have lived for centuries, Siamese cats are ardent mousers, and love the pleasures of the chase as well as any stable-born animal, bred to the sport from tenderest kittenhood. This is the ruling passion of the race, as we are told by Æsop and La Fontaine. The fair cat-bride of fable slipped from her husband's arms to chase a flying mouse; and among the happiest pussies to-day are probably those hard-worked servants of the public who do not know their own utility. The National Printing Office of France employs a large staff of cats to guard the paper from devastating rats and mice. No salary is paid them; but the cost of their daily meals and the wages of their custodian are regular items of expenditure. Cats are kept also in some of the French military magazines; and a recent report states with becoming gravity that the authorized allowance is not sufficient for their comfortable maintenance. "The cats of the army," confesses this report, "are very slow to accustom themselves to the diet prescribed by the government circular;" and, with lamentable lack of patriotism, they desert their posts in favour of more liberal accommodation. Vienna has its official cats, supported in affluence by the municipality. When too old for service, they are placed on the retired list, and honourably pensioned, as becomes a city which leads the world in the wisdom and humanity of its laws, drawing a sharp line of distinction between the idle vagabond and the aged poor whose day for work is over.
The Midland Railway in England has eight cats among its employees. Their headquarters are at Trent, and they have under their care the cornsacks—some four hundred thousand in number—which hold the grain carried by the road to its markets. Other railways are as well provided; and the pussies that work in the London dock-yards seem to be among the most useful members of a busy community. It is even said that they assume airs of ridiculous importance, swaggering around the docks in off hours, and giving idlers to understand that the shipping industries of London depend largely upon their intelligence and activity. They are a closely organized body, and no one who knows them would feel surprised at hearing any day of a strike among the dock-yard cats. The same assumption of responsibility may be observed in the shop-keeping pussies of France, These animals are as uniformly courteous as are their human assistants who stand behind the counters and sell goods; but it is plain that they feel the dignity of proprietorship, and are deeply versed in all the mysteries of trade.
Cats play an important rôle in our great cold-storage warehouses. It was originally hoped that a temperature of six degrees above zero would prove too severe for vermin; but rats have that singular adaptability of character with which nature loves to endow the least popular of her creatures. In a few months they were as much at home in the freezing atmosphere as if they had been accustomed to it for generations; and were rearing large families of children, all comfortably clad in coats of double ply. Surrounded by wholesome food, they showed the discretion of their ancient race, scoffed at traps, and avoided poisoned bait.
It was then suggested that cats might learn to bear the rigours of this bitter cold;' and a few hardy pioneers were chosen to be forever banished from light and warmth, from sunshine and the joyousness of earth. Four fifths of them pined and died, martyrs to unpitying commercialism; but the great principle which bids the fittest survive, triumphed once more over cruel conditions. Kittens raised in the icy temperature began to look like little Polar bears, their fur was so thick and warm. By degrees their ears were hidden under furry caps, their tails grew short and bushy, their delicate whiskers, coarse and strong. They preserved their health, and developed incredible activity. At present, cold-storage cats are among the sturdiest of the species; and we are even assured by those who hold them prisoners that they enjoy their dark captivity, and would be wretched if restored to normal conditions. A garden, sweet with June flowers, and flooded with June sunshine, would, it is said, kill them outright. This may or may not be true. It is much the fashion of men to assert that animals like what is done to them. There are plenty of people ready to declare that horses take pleasure in their check-reins; and we have all of us heard a great deal about the indifference of dogs and rabbits to the discomforts of vivisection.
A happier lot has been assigned to the official cats who protect the mail bags of the United States postal service, and to those industrious mousers who toil in all the great marts of the world. For while Pussy dearly loves the country and the freedom of green fields, she can content herself wonderfully well in towns; and leads a hard-worked, dissipated life, with great apparent satisfaction. Much regret was recently expressed by a big London firm at the death of its "best foundry cat,"—which phrase seemed puzzling until explanation was made. The sand used for casts is mixed with flour, and this flour attracts mice and rats that too often spoil the moulds. Cats are kept to eat the mice, and they in turn must be taught not to walk about on the moulds, nor scratch, nor injure them in any way. In these respects the "best foundry cat" had been made perfect by practice, and his loss was an event to be deplored. Every department of this house has its feline police corps, even the galvanizing shop, where a brindled veteran knows by long experience that hot metal spurts when plates are dipped in it, and has learned to get under cover at this critical juncture.
The recognition of the cat's utility, and her employment in public service, are not merely features of modern economics. Among the requisitions laid by Frederick the Great—the most hard-headed and hard-hearted of kings and soldiers—upon more than one little Saxon and Silesian town, was a levy of cats for the guarding of army stores. Sometimes it even happened that the town could not provide the number of pussies demanded (perhaps the poor war-ravaged inhabitants loved their pets, having little else left them in the world), and permission was humbly asked that weasels should be sent instead.
As for the cats who live in newspaper offices, in police stations, and in the unrestful society of fire companies, they acquire distinctive habits of their own, and appear strangely remote from placid dwellers by domestic hearths. The nocturnal habits of the journalist suit the "night-waking" pussy to perfection; but the din, the confusion, the vast littered spaces of the printing rooms would seem to make them the least desirable of earthly homes. Yet newspaper cats love these tumultuous surroundings, forget the serenity of gentler days, lose all aspirations towards sweetness and light, and abandon themselves unreservedly to the joys of scurry and excitement. Their kittens, roughly reared, tumble about under giant presses and hurrying feet, escaping destruction only by that marvellous faculty for self-preservation which bids defiance to danger.
"Had we not nine lives,
I wis I ne'er had seen again thy sausage shop, St. Ives."
The vulgar and deleterious habit of eating black beetles is begun so early, and continued so persistently, that the journalistic kitling, like Rappaccini's daughter, is inured to poisonous food. It grows up happy and healthy in an atmosphere apparently as uncongenial as that of the police station, where its little cousins are making a wide acquaintance with felony; or as that of the fire company's stables, where another litter of innocents is learning the mystery of the alarm, and watching with fearful joy the mad rush of horses to their goal.
Household cats have so often given warning of fires that their services in this regard merit both recognition and gratitude. They are restless at night, and easily affrighted. The first puff of smoke, the first crackling of flames sends them mewing to master or mistress for explanation of this phenomenon. I knew a Cornish cat, crippled and singed, whose scars bore honourable witness to his bravery. His owner, the rector of a country parish, was aroused before daybreak by the piteous scratching and crying at his door. When it was opened, there stood poor Pussy, trembling, scorched, but determined, while the halls were black with smoke. This cat never fully recovered from the shock, but remained a nervous invalid all his life, which is too often the case when the fright has been very severe. M. Pierquin de Gembloux relates several instances in which cats were rendered more or less imbecile by sudden and overmastering terror. One little Angora fell down a well, and was saved from being drowned, only by a jutting stone to which she clung with desperation. After a while her cries attracted attention, and she was rescued; but the ordeal through which she had passed had so completely unnerved her that the poor thing never recovered her mental balance,—always appearing to be in a state of pitiable apprehension.
Animals so delicately organized are necessarily sensitive to atmospheric conditions. An approaching storm starts them restlessly wandering from room to room. They have been known to exhibit signs of acute disquietude before cyclones and earthquakes. In 1783 two wise cats of Messina behaved so strangely, and showed such evidences of terror, that their master, infected by their fear, fled from his house in time to escape the first great shock, and the tumbling of his walls in ruins.
It is pleasant to relate these services to man on the part of little beasts who do not often pose as our benefactors, and who have been, in their day, accused of much ill-doing. Even now, when suspicions of witchcraft are allayed, and mothers no longer believe that cats suck the blood of their sleeping infants, the ancient and unconquerable prejudice is kept alive by sad stories of contagion,—of pussies who carry diphtheria and scarlet fever from house to house, with a malignity worthy of the Jew of Malta.
"As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls;
Sometimes I go about and poison wells."
Every year or so an enterprising newspaper reporter stirs up a sleepy bacteriologist, and persuades him to say that cats sow broadcast the germs of deadly disease, and that they are beyond measure dangerous pets in the nursery, being subject to all the maladies that can be passed over to the little children who caress them. If well aroused, the scientific gentleman will even warm so far to his subject as to suggest that the entire feline population of New York or of San Francisco shall be exterminated as a drastic precautionary measure, stoutly maintaining that "the world could get along very well without cats." This is true, but if we once establish a "Society for Doing Without,"—Mr. Barrie proposed it to our consideration long ago—we are not likely to leave much room for reporters or bacteriologists.
Utilitarianism is but a base foundation for esteem. The cat's true place is by our glowing hearths, not in cold-storage warehouses, nor in printing offices; her true mission is to delight the eye, and afford reserved and restful companionship, not to guard our belongings, nor look after our personal safety. As the old lazy cat of Florian's fable remarks to the lean, laborious one,
"Va, le secret de réussir,
C'est d'être adroit, non d'être utile."
Pussy's adroitness is equalled only by her delicacy and tact. Her cleanliness and her careful attention to her toilet show respect for herself and for us. She is seldom intrusive, and never exuberant, but manifests at times a sweet and flattering desire to be with us, whether we are reading silently, oblivious of her presence, or have leisure to seduce her into play. Dickens's Williamina—first christened, in error, William—used to put out the candles with her paw if she thought her master too absorbed in his book, or too long unconscious of her patient waiting. Now and then this little fireside friend will even consent to accompany us out of doors; not with the overflowing delight of a restless dog, but with a graciousness of demeanour which reminds one of Mme. de Sévigné and her companions strolling through the leafy paths of Les Rochers. "A cat," says M. Champfleury, "does not invite us to a tramp; she does not appear to find the pleasure in active exercise which distinguishes the dog. She only rambles a little with some one for whom she has a fancy, on condition always that the distance be short, and the spot a quiet one. A student who, book in hand, treads meditatively the shady garden walks, is perhaps most to her taste. She will run before him for a few steps, roll herself lightly over the gravel, return to his side for an absent-minded caress, and again precede him down the path, leading him as far as she deems it well for him to go."
Curiosity is a trait as common in young cats as in young children. It moderates in middle age, when habits of meditation have superseded the gayety and vigilance of kittenhood; but that its existence should be denied and ridiculed by so acute an observer as the Abbé Galiani, proves the formidable strength of preconceived opinions. "Man alone," says the Abbé, "knows what it is to be curious. Animals have no share in this sensation. We can inspire them with fear, but never with curiosity."
It is not fear, however, which makes a kitten watch with breathless interest the unfastening of a parcel, and clutch at the paper and string until the contents are shown to her. It is not fear which sends her peeping into half-open drawers, or which rivets her attention when a box-lid chances to be lifted in her presence. If she be not curious, why does she jump on the sill, the minute a window is raised; or creep to the door, to see who is going upstairs; or inspect the multitudinous contents of a desk as gravely as if she were making an inventory? Voltaire recognized curiosity as a dominant trait in all intelligent animals; and Rousseau drew a close analogy between a curious kitten surveying a strange room, and a no less curious child making its first bewildering acquaintance with the world.
Gratitude is another sentiment which sceptics have denied to the cat, and which is certainly not a paramount passion in her bosom, any more than in the bosoms of men. Yet just as there are traces of it in the human heart, and occasional instances so fine that our admiration proves their rarity; so there are traces of it in all cathood, and now and then some charming and indubitable proof of its potency. Pussy does not, indeed, assume herself our servitor, because, to gratify our own refined tastes, we give her food and lodging. That is not her way of reading her motto, Libertas sine Labore; but in her own fashion she acknowledges the claims of friendship, and feels that kindness merits recognition. Why else should she so constantly offer to share her spoils with unappreciative mortals, who have not even tact enough to pretend the satisfaction they do not feel? M. Brasseur Wirtgen, a close and accurate observer, tells us that the two things which marred the calm contentment of his cat were his own studious habits, and his unfortunate distaste for slain vermin. If he read long, she would jump on his knee, and thrust her little head between the pages of his book, as though seeking the cause of his absorption; and her solicitude for his welfare prompted her to drag huge rats, still in their death-throes, to his feet. "She behaved as though I had been her son, and painfully endeavoured to provide me with a prey commensurate to my size. Large game was unfit for her kittens; but she appeared both hurt and mortified by my incomprehensible indifference to such delicious morsels."
Several similar instances have come within my knowledge. One is that of an English cat who was fed daily at the family dinner hour, receiving from his master's hand choice bits of fish and fowl. On a certain winter evening he was unaccountably absent from his post; but when the dinner was half served, he came rushing up the stairs, carrying two mice in his mouth. One he dropped upon his own platter, and then, before he could be stopped, he leaped upon the table, and deposited the second on his master's plate,—a graceful and pretty, however unwelcome attention, and one which plainly showed a well-bred desire to requite the hospitality he had received.
The same generous instinct animated a Boston cat of my acquaintance, to whom the fishmonger was wont, in his daily visit, to give some scraps of fish. One morning Amber brought a little dead mouse, and laid it at his friend's feet with a courteous gesture which said, "Permit me to make some return for your constant kindness." It is not possible to deny to an animal, capable of such charming liberality, that finer sentiment which bids us all acknowledge and repay a benefaction.
A more touching story is told of a poor old cat, an outcast and Pariah, living by depredations, but no longer daring enough for successful robbery, who was rescued from his miserable estate by M. Desfontaines, the director of the Jardin des Plantes, and one of the kindest men who ever blessed the earth. This creature, so wild and hopeless, responded to M. Desfontaines's gentle advances. Within half an hour he was transformed from a wretched marauder into a happy and affectionate pussy, manifesting keen intelligence and quick sympathy, but lacking always that serene composure which is the most exquisite birthright of his race. He resembled, no doubt, the "vieux chat noir" of M. Prosper Mérimée, "parfaitement laid, mais plein d'esprit et de discrétion. Seulement il n'a eu que des gens vulgaires, et manque d'usage."
This is seldom the case. A cat born in the gutter or in the stables will, under favouring circumstances, be as politely contemptuous as though the blood of feline Howards ran in her veins. Perhaps the arrogant young kitten given by Prince Potemkin to Catherine the Great came of obscure parentage, and had brothers and sisters mousing modestly in the little shops of Saint Petersburg. Catherine was attached to this cat. She speaks of it in one of her letters as "gay, witty, and not obstinate;"—a curious description of an animal whose gayety is so swiftly subdued by decorum, whose wit is reserved for cat circles into which the Empress had no entrée, and who, in its own gentle fashion, is the most unswervingly obstinate creature in the world.
"For wiles may win thee, but no arts enslave,"
writes Graham Tomson in praise of Le Chat Noir, most honoured, if not most prized, of all the furry fraternity that basked about her hearth.
"Half loving-kindliness, and half disdain,
Thou comest to my call, serenely suave,
With humming speech and gracious gesture 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 deignst 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."
There has been a great deal of modern verse, as of modern prose, written about cats; yet little, worthy of its subject, and little in English that can compare with the affectionate tributes of France. Shelley's schoolboy doggerel is unworthy of consideration, and Keats's sonnet had best be buried in oblivion. Jocularity sits ill upon the immortals. Matthew Arnold has indeed celebrated Atossa in some matchless lines, already quoted; and Mr. Swinburne has chanted the praises of his cat with all the extravagance of the French poets, but without their admirable art which conveys to our minds the penetrating charm of feline loveliness. If we compare his verse with that of Baudelaire, or Verlaine, we see that the vehemence of his sentiment is untempered by that Gallic subtlety which suggests, rather than sets forth, the cat's seductiveness.
"Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love's lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read."
It is probable that the cat did nothing of the kind,—not that her race is indifferent to books,—Gautier's Pierrot, we know, adored them,—but because entire possession of the volume, and freedom to ruffle its leaves at will, are essential to Pussy's literary enjoyment. Her theory of companionship does not include community of tastes or interests. She is rather the spectator than the participator of our amusements. Mr. Swinburne, however, plainly thinks otherwise.
"Wild on woodland ways, your sires
Flashed like fires;
Fair as flame, and fierce and fleet
As with wings, on wingless feet
Shone and sprang your mother, free
Bright and brave as wind or sea.
"Free and proud and glad as they,
Rests or roams their radiant child,
Vanquished not, but reconciled;
Free from curb of aught above,
Save the lovely curb of love.
"Dogs may fawn on all and some,
As they come:
You, a friend of loftier mind,
Answer friends alone in kind.
Just your foot upon my hand
Softly bids it understand."
For arrogance of spirit this is unsurpassed, even in Saxon verse. Poets are never weary of comparing the dog and the cat, and censuring one or the other for not possessing its rival's traits; but contrast Mr. Swinburne's sublime assurance with the diffidence of M. Lemaître, who recognizes in his cat—the host of his quiet house—an exquisite mingling of irony and benignity, of attachment and contempt.
"Tu n'as jamais connu, philosophe, et vieux frère,
La fidelité sotte et bruyante du chien;
Tu m'aimes cependant, et mon cœur le sent bien;
Ton amour clairvoyant et peut-être éphémère
Me plait; et je salue en toi, calme penseur.
Deux exquises vertues; scepticisme et douceur."
This is the Latin point of view, and sufficiently explains the love of a Frenchman for his cat. He values most those precise qualities which outrage the sensibilities of the Saxon. He respects the spirit which meets him on equal ground, and he prizes the temperate and mutable affection which he must constantly labour to retain. When an Englishman fully recognizes the cattish nature, he is apt, unless he be as tolerant and as little of a despot as Mr. Arnold, to resent its cold serenity, its mortifying indifference,—to resent it with the frankness of Mr. Arthur Benson in his admirable verses upon
"On some grave business, soft and slow,
Along the garden-paths you go,
With bold and burning eyes:
Or stand, with twitching tail, to mark
What starts and rustles in the dark,
Among the peonies.
"The dusty cockchafer that springs
Upon the dusk with whirring wings,
The beetle, glossy-horned,
The rabbit pattering through the fern,
May frisk unheeded, by your stern
"You all day long, beside the fire.
Retrace in dreams your dark desire,
And mournfully complain
In grave displeasure, if I raise
Your languid form to pet or praise;
And so to sleep again.
"The gentler hound that near me lies,
Looks up with true and tender eyes,
And waits my generous mirth;
You do not woo me, but demand
A gift from my unwilling hand,
A tribute to your worth.
"You loved me when the fire was warm,
But, now I stretch a fondling arm,
You eye me and depart.
Cold eyes, sleek skin, and velvet paws,
You win my indolent applause,
You do not win my heart!"
Here is a clear and candid exposition of the case. The cat, indeed, as Montaigne discovered, but without resentment, long ago, awaits no one's mirth. "We entertain each other with mutual follies, and if I have my time to begin or to refuse, she also has hers." The essence of free social intercourse demands this mutual independence, this mutual background of reserve. A Nautch girl dances when she is bidden; an Englishwoman is privileged to dance or not, according to her fancy. I have often thought that the behaviour of a well-bred cat, when courted against her will, was singularly like the behaviour of a well-bred man or woman, forced by the exigencies of life to receive unwelcome attentions. She offers no rude resistance to the "fondling arm," and even purrs a few languid remarks, equivalent to "Delightful evening." "So glad to see you here to-night." "Hope you were not very tired yesterday." After which she slips softly away to resume her interrupted meditations. To take offence at such polite withdrawal is the sheer arrogance of ownership, and it is in but a limited sense that we can be said to own a cat. "I have it of nature that I must seek my own profit," she says with Epictetus; and if the most generous of the Stoics claimed as much, why not the least enthusiastic of animals?
Nothing, however, could be more lifelike than the picture Mr. Benson draws of Pussy stealing through the dusk, preoccupied yet observant, and betraying to none the dubious purpose of her stroll. It is finer, because less wordy, than Mr. William Watson's "Study in Contrasts," which presents once more to our patient consideration the deep dissimilarity of cat and dog;—of the collie, blue-blooded, aristocratic, yet sadly lacking in distinction, and the Angora, who regards him with languid and indolent contempt. Beneath the dog's company manners, beautiful manners befitting any court, Mr. Watson detects a substratum of vulgar impetuosity. For all his airs and graces, for all his noble head and silky coat, he is at heart
"The bustling despot of the mountain flock,
And pastoral dog-of-all-work."
How quickly moved to Collie mirth or woe,
Elated or dejected at a word,
And how unlike your genuine Vere de Vere."
But all this time, from an open window,
"A great Angora watched his Collieship,
And, throned in monumental calm, surveyed
His effervescence, volatility,
Clamour on slight occasions, fussiness,
Herself immobile, imperturbable."
It is the unchanging and passionless East surveying through centuries the restless vagaries of the distracted West.
A great deal has been written about Oxford and Cambridge cats, who, of all their race in England, appear to command the deepest affection and respect. Ancient universities, like ancient cathedrals, afford an atmosphere pleasantly suited to Pussy's meditative habits. He drowses all day in dim Italian churches, like some devout but sleepy old woman who loves the shelter of the holy walls, and who is lulled sweetly to rest by the monotonous and familiar chant. He is equally at home in college quadrangles and college halls. Anything that is studious, decorous, permanent, appeals to his splendid conservatism and unerring good taste. In proof of the high esteem in which he is held by those familiar with his scholastic life, I quote this fine tribute to the memory of Tom of Corpus, a cat who died full of years and honours, widely known and deeply lamented.
"The Junior Fellow's vows were said;
Among his co-mates and their Head
His place was fairly set.
Of welcome from friends old and new
Full dues he had, and more than due;
What could be lacking yet?
"One said, 'The Senior Fellow's vote!'
The Senior Fellow, black of coat,
Save where his front was white,
Arose and sniffed the stranger's shoes
With critic nose, as ancients use
To judge mankind aright.
"I—for 't was I who tell the tale —
Conscious of fortune's trembling scale,
Awaited the decree;
But Tom had judged: 'He loves our race,'
And, as to his ancestral place,
He leapt upon my knee.
"Thenceforth in common-room and hall,
A verus socius known to all,
I came and went and sat,
Far from cross fate or envy's reach;
For none a title could impeach
Accepted by a cat.
"While statutes changed, and freshmen came,
His gait, his wisdom were the same,
His age no more than mellow;
Yet nothing mortal may defy
The march of Anno Domini,
Not e'en the Senior Fellow.
"Beneath our linden shade he lies;
Mere eld hath softly closed his eyes
With late and honoured end.
He seems, while catless we confer,
To join with faint Elysian purr,
A tutelary friend."
We know what it is when Pussy's place is vacant, and her familiar little figure no longer prowls with padded footsteps around our desolate rooms. Why should we miss so sorely a creature who entered but sparingly into our lives, and gave us only a niggard portion of regard? Perhaps because the deep disquiet of our souls finds something akin to rest in the mere contemplation of an egotism so finely adjusted to its ends.
"You are life's true philosopher,
To whom all moralists are one,"
sighs a poet in the "Spectator," addressing his cat with the wistful envy of a man who has been bored and battered by the strenuous ethics of the day.
"You hold your race traditions fast,
While others toil, you simply live,
And, based upon a stable past,
Remain a sound conservative.
"You see the beauty of the world
Through eyes of unalloyed content,
And, in my study chair upcurled,
Move me to pensive wonderment.
"I wish I knew your trick of thought,
The perfect balance of your ways;
They seem an inspiration, caught
From other laws in older days."
"From the dawn of creation," says Mr. Lang appreciatively, "the cat has known his place, and he has kept it, practically untamed and unspoiled by man. He has retenue. Of all animals, he alone attains to the Contemplative Life. He regards the wheel of existence from without, like the Buddha. There is no pretence of sympathy about the cat. He lives alone, aloft, sublime, in a wise passiveness. He is excessively proud, and, when he is made the subject of conversation, will cast one glance of scorn, and leave the room in which personalities are bandied. All expressions of emotion he scouts as frivolous and insincere, except, indeed, in the ambrosial night, when, free from the society of mankind, he pours forth his soul in strains of unpremeditated art. The paltry pay and paltry praise of humanity he despises, like Edgar Poe. He does not exhibit the pageant of his bleeding heart; he does not howl when people die, nor explode in cries of delight when his master returns from a journey. With quiet courtesy, he remains in his proper and comfortable place, only venturing into view when something he approves of, such as fish or game, makes its appearance. On the rights of property he is firm. If a strange cat enters his domain, he is up in claws to resist invasion. It was for these qualities, probably, that the cat was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians."
The last characteristic—an invincible determination to resist territorial encroachment—has made the cat the light-weight champion of the world. It was for this that Mr. Richard Garnett prized the heroic Marigold, who in many a bitter fray had held her wall, as Horatius held his bridge, defiant, dauntless, indomitable.
"She moved through the garden in glory, because
She had very long claws at the end of her paws.
Her back was arched, her tail was high,
A green fire glared in her vivid eye;
And all the Toms, though never so bold,
Quailed at the martial Marigold."
Perpetual vigilance keeps the cat in such excellent fighting order. Like a good athlete, she never relaxes the exercise which preserves her marvellous elasticity. Mr. Harrison Weir insists that her reprehensible habit of clawing wood—a young tree or a table leg being used indiscriminately—is not, as Mr. Darwin and other naturalists have supposed, a method of sharpening her claws; but a necessary process by which the muscles and tendons of her feet are stretched, so that they may work readily and strongly. "The retraction of the claws for lengthened periods," he says, "must tend to contract the tendons; therefore cats fix the points of their claws in something soft, and bear downwards with the whole weight of the body, simply to stretch, and, by use, to strengthen the ligatures that pull the claws forward."
So, too, the cruel playing with the injured mouse is not mere sportiveness on Pussy's part. She disables her victim, and then lets it run, that she may leap upon it again and again, thereby keeping herself in perfect practice. Stiffness of limb, slowness of action, would soon mean for her no mouse and no dinner. She dare not lose the supple spring which secures her prey; and the merciless game she plays is really a military manoeuvre, taught her by unpitying nature, and absolutely necessary — like other military manoeuvres—if the business of killing is to continue. Mrs. Wallace, in a pretty paper on some cats of Oxford, tells us of a gallant old Tom who did not believe in the arts of war, and whose method of attack upon the alert young robins was purely British in its ingenuousness. "Despising cover, he galloped slowly down the garden to the spot where the bird was feeding, and never ceased to be surprised when its place was found empty."
"C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."
Mr. Rule, who succeeded in crossing a domestic cat of the tortoise-shell variety with a young wild cat, found that the male kitten of this strangely assorted pair was beyond measure quarrelsome and fierce. Had he lived, he might have scaled heights of wickedness unknown generally to his race, and have rivalled that animal whom De Quincey respected as a veritable assassin, not a mere slayer of robins and rats. He died, however, in his lusty youth, and his sister was as gentle and playful as he had been sullen and violent. Both inherited the beauty of their mother, and the superb activity of their free-born sire.
"The human race," says an acute thinker, "may be divided into people who love cats and people who hate them; the neutrals being few in numbers, and, for intellectual and moral reasons, not worth considering." This is true, even in our day of feeble passions and lukewarm antagonisms. The old inheritance of fear, the old association with evil, still darken Pussy's pathway. That sick abhorrence which shook poor Ronsard's soul if a cat but crossed his path, is not unknown in the twentieth century; and there are many who—strange though it may appear—prefer their chimney corner empty of delight. We bear these persons constantly complain, as did Ronsard to Rémy Belleau, that if a cat be in the room with them, she singles them out to be the recipients of her attentions, rubbing herself against their feet, and showing an obstinate preference for their society.
"Et toutefois ceste hideuse beste
Se vint coucher tout auprès de ma teste,
Cherchant le mol d'un plumeux aureiller
Où je soulois à gauche sommeiller:
Car volontiers à gauche je sommeille
Jusqu'au matin que le coq me réveille."
This is one of the traits of the impenetrable cat nature to which we hold no key. The dog is guided by a kindly instinct to the man or woman whose heart is open to his advances. The cat often leaves the friend who courts her, to honour, or to harass, the unfortunate mortal who shudders at her unwelcome caresses. There is an impish perversity about the deed which recalls the snares of witchcraft. So, too, does her uncanny habit of looking with fixed gaze over one's shoulder at a dark corner of the room, and turning her head slightly from time to time, as her eyes follow the movements of the unseen object in the shadows. When I am alone of a winter's night, and oppressed by the vague fear of life and death which haunt the soul in moments of subjection, I find this steadfast stare at a ghostly presence trying to the nerves. The brilliancy of the cat's eyes, the narrowing of the lids, the stern contraction of the brow, the deadly repose of the whole figure, enhance the shadowy spell by which she dominates that hour. Sir Walter Scott, sanest and least cowardly of men, knew whereof he spoke when he admitted that Hinse was a mystery.
Whence, too, comes that impelling voice which summons the cat to vagrancy; which calls her away from the warm fireside she loves, and from the hearts that love her, to meet an unread fate? Why is it that this animal, seemingly more attached than any other to her own hearthstone, should so often bid it an abrupt and inexplicable farewell? I knew of a cat who for eight long years was the enthroned idol of a luxurious home. One morning in early spring his mistress heard his voice raised in plaintive notes from a stunted peach tree that grew in the city garden. "I was but too sure what it meant," she said; "Sir Charles was bidding me good-by." She flung open the window, and looked out. There he sat, and his great yellow eyes were lifted mournfully to her face. Then he leaped down, and was never seen again.
Another cat spent five successive winters under a hospitable roof near New York; but always departed—none knew whither—about the middle of April. No cajolery could persuade him to linger after his appointed time. He went, and the household mourned his absence, until the first bleak November days brought him back to resume his old place by the fire. Like Persephone, he seemed compelled to divide his year between two homes and two claimants. He might have served, as well as Demeter's daughter, to mark the relentless succession of the seasons.
"Every one is aware," says Mr. Lang, "that a perfectly comfortable, well-fed cat will occasionally come to his house and settle there, deserting a family by whom it is lamented, and to whom it could, if it chose, find its way back with ease. This conduct is a mystery which may lead us to infer that cats form a great secret society, and that they come and go in pursuance of some policy connected with education, or perhaps with witchcraft. We have known a cat to abandon his home for years. Once in six months he would return, and look about him with an air of some contempt. 'Such,' he seemed to say, 'were my humble beginnings.'"
The most curious instance of this strange trait that ever came under my immediate notice occurred a few years ago in Baltimore. A mother puss with three young kittens made her appearance one morning at the door of a very enlightened and cat-loving family. They were welcomed generously, not as mendicants, but as honoured guests; slipped easily into the soft and pleasant grooves assigned to them, and seemed very soon as much at home as if they had been born and bred upon the spot. For nearly four months they remained, and the three kittens grew into three fine young cats. Then one day they all disappeared as unaccountably as they had come, and no one of them ever returned again.
These are not easy things to explain. We can more readily understand an instinct which the cat shares with the wild creatures of the woods, and which bids her die alone. She seldom affords material for the pitiful scenes which Gautier and Loti describe with so much art; and even Moumoutte Chinoise tried to escape her master's eye, when she felt the awful moment drawing near. There is something which commands our deepest respect in the dignity and delicacy of spirit which impel this animal, however loved and pampered during life, to face alone, and seeking help from none, the insult and the agony of dissolution.
Even the exaggerated affection felt for the cat by those who are sensitive to her charm, is not altogether legitimate. In old days such exclusive and ill-placed devotion lighted the witch's pyre. Now we only laugh at each new proof of Pussy's influence, or wonder at the mental attitude of a woman who can advertise in the London "Standard" for live sparrows with which to feed her favourite. More absurd, but far less repulsive, is this really delightful notice which appeared some years ago in a Berlin newspaper:—
"Wanted, by a lady of rank, for adequate remuneration, a few well-behaved and respectably dressed children, to amuse a cat in delicate health two or three hours a day."
One fears this to have been mistaken kindness. Cats, even when robust, have scant liking for the boisterous society of children, and are apt to exert their utmost ingenuity to escape it. Nor are they without adult sympathy in their prejudice. "Augustus detested above all things going to bed with little boys," writes Mr. Kenneth Grahame, and who shall blame Augustus? The poor Berlin invalid, so strenuously entertained, might have sympathized—had he but known—with the court of Versailles, when it heard the formal announcement which preluded "Athalie:" "Mesdames and Messieurs, the King graciously requests you to be amused."
A gentleman, living alone in one of our Southern cities, recently brought suit against his next-door neighbour for alienating the affections of his cat. It was set forth in the testimony that the plaintiff had—and desired—no other companionship save that of a beautiful Maltese pussy, who, being of a loving and domestic nature, spent all her evenings contentedly by her master's side. This tranquil life had lasted several years when, in an unhappy hour, a widow rented the adjoining house. The cat made incursions over the wall, was received with flattering attentions, and began to spend her days under the gayer roof. These journeys mattered little at first, as the unsuspicious gentleman, who was away at his office from morning until night, was well pleased to have his darling looked after during his absence, and only demanded her prompt appearance at dinner time. Soon, however, Pussy refused to return in the evenings, and, when brought forcibly back, sulked and glowered in corners until she could again escape. The widow aided and abetted her in this unnatural conduct, firmly maintaining that a cat of intelligence had a right to choose her friends and her surroundings. Therefore the deserted plaintiff, wounded in his tenderest feelings, and unable—as in the good old days—to charge his neighbour with bewitching his pet, entered suit against her, and was liberally laughed at for his pains. It is not only in the "Arabian Nights," and in the merciless comedies of France, that the inconstancy of the female heart has moved the world to mirth.
Yet, jest as we may, we know very well that those men and women—few in numbers—who are endowed with what Mr. Peacock called "the faculty of stayathomeitiveness," find their best ally in the cat. How many quiet and thoughtful hours have been shared by this little friend who never disturbs our musings, nor resents our preoccupation? It is not in superb catteries that she develops her most winning traits, but by the quiet fireside, however humble, where she rules alone. Her gentler aspects, the sweetness of her domesticity, are then abundantly revealed. Nor is it beauty which best enables her to win and hold hearts, but rather some fine charm of personality, too intangible to be analyzed. I knew a London cat of middle-class parentage, who wore an unassuming coat of brindled grey, and whom a fancier would have regarded with scorn. He was christened William Penn, in deference to his Quaker costume, and to the City of Brotherly Love, which it was never his fortune to see. He possessed a few accomplishments, but was far too reserved to flaunt them before strangers; and his manners were marked by simple good taste rather than by any flattering warmth of demonstration. His surroundings were artistic, and he had been accustomed from kittenhood to hear much brilliant conversation; yet there was no taint of Bohemianism in the unfailing vivacity which appeared to be his sovereign attraction. That cat was so dearly loved, so deeply mourned, that the shadow cast by his tragic death lingered heavily for months over the household he had graced, and over the little circle of friends he had honoured with his confidence and affection. No one knew the secret of his charm; he carried it to his grave,—his little pitiful grave in the heart of London; but, while he lived, he added his share to the unconscious gayety of life.
There are many pretty stories about cats, and many graceful allusions to them scattered lightly through literature, and familiar to those whose wandering attention can always be fixed by so irresistible a spell. Gautier wrote the fantastic "Paradis des Chats;" and Zola borrowed the title for a delightful story of a pampered pussy, who grew so tired of dulness and luxury that he ran away with a vagabond acquaintance for one long delicious day of liberty, at the close of which, jaded, spent, starved, and broken, he crept meekly back to bondage and his evening cutlet. Those of us who read in our youth that most dismal of novels, "Eugene Aram," will not easily forget the Corporal's cat, Jacobina, inasmuch as this truculent animal affords the only gleam of amusement vouchsafed us in the whole mournful tale. A somewhat similar sensation of relief is associated with the very charming cat who makes her transient appearance in the first chapters of "Robert Elsmere," and disappears forever when the atmosphere becomes surcharged with theology. Mr. Froude, following the example of Hoffmann, has selected Pussy to be the interpreter of much philosophy, admirable of its kind, but alien to the feline heart. The cat's scheme of life is curiously complete. Centuries have gone into the moulding of it. She knew many years before the wise Marcus Aurelius that it was possible to have no opinion upon a subject, and to remain untroubled in her mind.
Letters and memoirs are especially rich in pleasant glimpses into Pussy's varying fortunes. We see her under so many aspects, and amid so many contrasted surroundings;—now dozing at Tennyson's feet, now "walking tiptoe" over Alfred de Musset's papers, now flitting through Heine's dreams. It is Heine who tells us that, when he was a child, his little friend and playfellow, Wilhelm, ran into a swift deep stream to rescue a cat, and was drowned,—"the cat, however, living a long time after."
In the life of Robert Stephen Hawker, the very clever and eccentric Vicar of Morwenstow, we find that he was usually followed to church by nine or ten cats, who entered the chancel with him and careered about during the service, affording what must have been a welcome distraction to the youthful members of the congregation. Mr. Hawker would pause every now and then, while preaching or reading the prayers, to pat these small parishioners, and scratch them under their chins, or perhaps cuff them gently, if their vivacity prompted them to unseemly gambols. One envies the children of Morwenstow, who, alone perhaps of all the children in England, must have felt downright enjoyment in going to church.
More pleasant still, because more in keeping with the cat's natural instincts, which are domestic rather than devout, is this little picture drawn by Mr. William Rossetti from the recollections of his childhood, and told in the life of his brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
"In all my earlier years I used frequently to see my father come home in the dusk, rather fagged with his round of teaching; and, after dining, he would lie down flat on the hearth-rug, close by the fire, snoring vigorously. Beside him would stand up our old familiar tabby cat, poised on her haunches, and holding on by her fore-claws inserted into the fender-wires, warming her furry front. Her attitude (I have never seen any feline imitation of it) was peculiar,—somewhat in the shape of a capital Y. 'The cat making the Y' was my father's phrase for this performance. She was the mother of a numerous progeny. One of her daughters—also long an inmate of our house—was a black and white cat named Zoë by my elder sister Maria, who had a fancy for anything Greekish; but Zoë never made a Y."
Always by the fireside, always basking in light and warmth, always in graceful harmony with her surroundings (it has been well said that no house is really furnished without books and cats and fair-haired little girls), always a pleasure to every well-regulated mind. Pussy fills her place in life with that rare perfection which is possible only to a creature delicately modelled, and begirt by inflexible limitations. We are soothed by her repose; she is unfretted by our restlessness. A fine invisible barrier lies between us. She is the Sphinx of our hearthstone, and there is no message we can read in the tranquil scrutiny of her cold eyes.
Once, long ago, a little grey cat sat on my desk while I wrote, swept her tail across my copy, or patted with friendly paw my pen as it travelled over the paper. Even now I put out my hand softly to caress the impalpable air, for her spirit still lingers in the old accustomed spot. I see her sitting erect and motionless in the superb attitude of her Egyptian forefathers, her serious eyes heavy with thought, her lids drooping a little over the golden depths below. After a time they close, and her pretty head nods drowsily; but, like a perverse child, she resists the impelling power, straightens herself, and flings a glance at me which says, "You see how wide awake I am." Then very, very slowly, sleep touches her with soft, persuasive finger. She sinks down, down; the small proud head is lowered; the gleaming eyes are shut; a half-articulate purr grows fainter and fainter until it melts imperceptibly into the soft and regular breathing which betrays her slumber. I stop my work and look at her, or rather I look at her ghost, the inspiration of this poor book, written to do her honour. It is finished now, and Agrippina sleeps. I lay it gently down before the shadowy presence. It is her password to Elysium. It is my offering to her, and hers to the Immortals, that they may give her place. She has waited for it seven years. Little grey phantom, haunt me no longer with reproachful eyes. I have kept my word. I have done my best. And the book belongs to you.
The Riverside Press
Electrotyped and printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.
Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A.