The fireside sphinx/The Cat of Albion

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CHAPTER V

THE CAT OF ALBION

"Pussy-cat, Pussy-cat,
Where have you been?"
"I've been to London,
To look at the Queen."

THIS beaste is called a Musion, for that he is enimie to Myse and Rattes. He is slye and wittie, and seeth so sharpely that he overcommeth darknes of the nighte by the shyninge lyghte of his eyne. In shape of bodye he is lyke unto a Leoparde, and hathe a great mouthe. He dothe delight that he enjoyeth his libertye; and in his youthe he is swifte, plyante and merrie. He maketh a rufull noyse and a gastefull when he profereth to fighte with an other. He is a cruell beaste when he is wilde, and falleth on his owne feete from most high places, and seldom is hurt therewith. When he hath a fayre skinne, he is, as it were, prowde thereof, and then he goeth faste aboute to be seene."

So writes John Bossewell, in his "Workes of Armorie," 1597; and the vigour and accuracy of the description shame our feebler pens. Bossewell, it is true, found part of this admirable portrait in a still older book, translated from the Latin by Thomas Berthlet, and printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498. In its curious pages, the wild cat of Great Britain and his tamer brother are characterized with minute fidelity, the writer dwelling upon their close resemblance to the leopard, their swiftness, grace, and savage playfulness.

"The Cat is surely most like to the Leoparde, and hathe a great mouthe, and sharp teeth, and a long tongue, plyante, thin and subtle. He lappeth therewith when he drinketh, as other beastes do that have the nether lip shorter than the over; for, by cause of unevenness of lips, such beastes suck not in drinking, but lap and lick, as Aristotle saith, and Plinius also. He is a swifte and merye beaste in youthe, and leapeth, and riseth on all things that are tofore him; and is led by a straw, and playeth therewith, and is a righte heavye beaste in age, and full sleepye, and lyeth slyly in waite for Mice; and is ware where they bene more by smell than by sighte, and hunteth, and riseth on them in privy places. And when he taketh a Mouse, he playeth therewith, and eateth him after the play. He is a cruell beaste when he is wilde, and dwelleth in woods, and hunteth there small beastes as conies and hares."

There is something in the bald simplicity of the statement, "And when he taketh a Mouse, he playeth therewith, and eateth him after the play," which makes us wince. Why is the cat's pathway trailed with blood? We have grown so accustomed to the little tragedy which is being acted over and over again under our roofs, that its grimness fails to move our hearts to pity. Moreover, apart from the fact that the mouse enjoys an evil reputation as an admittedly undesirable tenant, it is not the habit of mankind to concern itself deeply over the sufferings of small creatures. An animal must approach nearer to our own bulk to make its pain respectable. Only when Shakespeare uses this trivial incident as an illustration of mortal anguish, do we recognize its horror.

"Yet, foul night-waking cat, he doth but dally,
While in his holdfast foot the weak mouse panteth."

Maister Salmon, who published his "Compleat English Physician," in 1693, describes "Catus, the Cat," with careful minuteness, and with an admiration founded apparently on the strange cures wrought by a judicious use of its brains. "As to its Eyes," he continues gravely, "Authors say that they shine in the Night; and see better at the full, and more dimly at the change of the Moon. Also that the Cat doth vary his Eyes with the Sun; the Pupil being round at Sunrise, long towards Noon, and not to be seen at all at Night, but the whole Eye shining in the darkness. These appearances of the Cat's Eyes, I am sure are true; but whether they answer to the times of the Day, I have never observed. It is a crafty, subtle, watchful Creature, very loving and familiar with Mankind; but the mortal Enemy of the Rat, Mouse, and every sort of Bird, which it seizes on as its Prey. Its flesh is not generally eaten, yet in some Countries is esteemed an excellent dish."

The cat's eyes seem to have been used as a sort of rude clock for centuries in the East, where people have few household utensils, and plenty of leisure for observation. Père Huc tells us that, when travelling in the interior of China, he asked a peasant boy, who was leading a buffalo to graze, if it were yet noon. The child glanced first at the sky, where the sun was hidden by driving clouds; and, reading there no answer to the question, he ran back to the house, reappearing in a moment with a large cat in his arms. Pushing open its eyelids with his forefinger,—an operation to which the animal submitted with a patience evidently born of long habitude,—he said carelessly, "Look, it wants still an hour and more to noon." When the missionary expressed his amazement at this primitive time-piece, other natives explained to him that on cloudy days their cats always served them as dials. "They pointed out that the pupils of the creature's eyes grew gradually narrower until noon, when they were little more than thin perpendicular lines, and that with the descent of the sun began their slow expansion."

It was the waxing and waning of the light in Pussy's beautiful eyes, with the waxing and waning of the day, which gave her, centuries before, her proud preëminence in the great Sun-temple of Heliopolis.

Maister Salmon is the only English writer who has a word to say on this subject, and even he confesses he has never taken the trouble to make any observations for himself. The sole use of the cat in England was to hunt mice and rats; and while there are constant allusions in early English letters to her vigilance and prowess, while she figures in proverbs, and old saws, and rude rhymes, it is seldom that a flattering or grateful word is spoken. No pretty compliments here; no charming allusions to her beauty and distinction, as in those flowers of Gallic verse. Chaucer, indeed, aptly compares Pussy, snug and sleek in her soft fur, to a beneficed Canon; but Chaucer had no place in his heart for cats. Perhaps his passionate love for birds prejudiced him against their destroyer; perhaps his frankly masculine temperament debarred him from sympathy with a creature so subtle and seductive. He reproaches her bitterly because her passion for the chase exceeds all other passions in her breast; and this is a just arraignment, for the cat which is, by courtesy, called domestic, is as pure a beast of prey as its wild cousin of the woods and mountains. He also recognizes her beauty, but with a grudging slur,—the slur which masculinity has, during all ages, delighted to cast upon femininity; and in which femininity has, during all ages, failed to feel the sting.

"For whoso woldè senge a cattès skyn,
Thenne wolde the cat wel dwellen in hir on;
And if the cattès skyn be slyk and gay,
She wol nat dwelle in housè half a day.
But forth she wol, er any day be dawed,
To shewe hir skyn, and goon a-caterwawed."

It may be remembered that John Bossewell, honest man, assigns the same trait to the male cat, — wild or tame,—acknowledging it possibly as a universal and most excellent characteristic of all sentient creatures. "When he hath a fayre skinne, he is, as it were, prowde thereof, and then he goeth faste aboute to be seene."

Other sins, more flagrant than vanity, were laid at Pussy's doors. Not only was she the "mortal Enemy" of rats and mice, which won her chill esteem from selfish utilitarians; but, like a true freebooter, she waged war with the same frank enjoyment upon "every sort of Bird," as Maister Salmon sadly confesses; making no nice distinction between the feathered nestling of the woods and her master's treasured possessions. Farmers' wives were wont to fasten little sprigs of rue beneath the wings of their chicks and ducklings, in the belief that the cat's distaste for this herb of grace would save the barnyard innocents. The marauding spirit that sent her pillaging the cupboard, and revelling in the dairy, prompted her patient and sinister ambush beneath the swinging wicker cage, wherein piped a tame bullfinch or spiritless captive lark. The Greek Agathias, passionately lamenting the death of his pet partridge in the cat's cruel claws, is outclamoured by John Skelton, who, for hundreds of lines in "The Boke of Phylyp Sparowe," bewails the fate of that insignificant bird, and hurls—in fair Margery's name—breathless and terrible denunciations at its destroyer.

"Gyb, our cat savage,
That in a furyous rage
Caught Phylyp by the head,
And slew him there starke dead."

Never was grief voiced with such sweet and shrill absurdity. Never was such a formidable array of curses launched at the head of any murderer, since murders were known to man.

"That vengeaunce I aske and crye,
By way of exclamacyon,
On all the whole nacyon
Of cattes wylde and tame;
God send them sorowe and shame!
That cat especyally
That slew so cruelly
My lytell pretty sparowe
That I brought up at Carowe.
O cat of churlyshe kynde,
The Fynde was in thy minde
When thou my byrde untwynde!
I would thou haddest ben blynde!
The leopardes savage,
The lyons in theyr rage,
Myght catche thee in theyr pawes!
And gnawe thee in theyr jawes!
The serpentes of Lybany
Myght stynge thee venymously!
The dragones with theyr tonges
Myght poyson thy lyver and longes!
The mantycors of the montaynes
Myght fede them on thy braynes!
Melanchates, that hounde
That plucked Actæon to the grounde,
Gave hym his mortall wounde,
Chaunged to a dere,
The story doth appere,
Was chaunged to an harte:
So thou, foule cat that thou arte,
The selfe same hounde
Myght thee confounde,
That his owne lord bote,
Myght byte asondre thy throte!
Of Inde the gredy grypes
Myght tere out all thy trypes!
Of Arcady the beares
Myght plucke awaye thyne eares!
The wylde wolfe Lycaon
Byte asondre thy backe bone!
Of Ethna the brennynge hyll,
That day and nyghte brenneth styl,
Set in thy tayle a blase.
That all the world may gase
And wonder upon thee!
From Ocyan the greate sea
Unto the Isles of Orchady;
From Tyllbery ferry
To the playne of Salysbery!
So trayterously my byrde to kyll,
That never ought thee evyll wyll!"

Before this tremendous anathema maranatha, all ordinary cursing, the mere "current compliments of theological parting," soften into insignificance. Was there ever such a wanton waste of wrath! Was ever a trivial sin so exalted by punishment! Not only is poor Gyb doomed to ignite his tail at Etna, and

"like another Helen,"

fire Salisbury plain with his blazing torch; but the Arcadian bears, (she-bears probably, like Elisha's terrible allies), the "serpentes of Lybany," dragons, lions, leopards, and those formidable

"mantycors of the montaynes,"

—whatever they may be—are all summoned from the ordinary business of their lives to avenge a sparrow's death upon a cat.

"These vylanous false cattes
Were made for myse and rattes,
And not for byrdes smalle;"

explains Phylyp's mistress between her sobs; but this is precisely the point upon which she and Gyb would naturally take issue. No broad-minded cat recognizes such trivial classifications.

Gilbert, abbreviated to Gyb or Gib, was the common name for a male cat in Skelton's England, just as Thomas or Tom is the common name to-day. On the continent, Tybalt or Tybert—familiar to all readers of "Reineke Fuchs"—became, by the same process of contraction, Tyb or Tib. Mercutio, in "Romeo and Juliet," insults Tybalt on this easy score:—

"Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?

Tybalt. What wouldst thou have with me?

Mercutio. Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives."

The term gib cat or gil cat came in time to signify an old male, well past the heyday of his prime.

"I am as melancholy as a gib cat,"

sighs Falstaff wearily. Grimalkin, on the other hand, was less a domestic than a poetical appellation, given often to Pussy in literature, but never in friendly fireside intercourse. John Philips deemed the word sufficiently Miltonic to fit his parody, "The Splendid Shilling," published in 1703.

"Grimalkin, to Domestick Vermin sworn
An everlasting Foe, with watchful Eye
Lies nightly brooding o'er a chinky Gap,
Protending her fell Claws, to thoughtless Mice
Sure Ruin."

Through long association with witchcraft—witches' cats seem to have been constantly christened Grimalkin—the name became deservedly unpopular.

"Grimalkin, the foul Fiend's cat.
Grimalkin, the witche's brat."

runs an ancient and unsavoury rhyme,—one of a number which served to blacken an innocent animal's reputation.

From many an old adage, from many a proverb and rude snatch of rhyme, we may judge for ourselves how Pussy gradually, and with soft insistence, won her place by cottage hearth, and in the snug English farm. Her characteristics were so marked, her habits so unalterable, that she came in time to stand for certain qualities, and to serve as their homely illustration. Her chimney-corner life made her, more than any other animal, the target for hourly observation; and the sagacity of our forefathers wove from her wise and wicked ways some shrewd lessons for their own enlightenment. "A blate cat makes a proud mouse," and "A halfpenny cat may look at a king," are among the pithiest of Scotch proverbs. "The cat with a straw tail keeps away from the fire," is English. "Care killed a cat,"—originally "Care clammed a cat," comes from Herefordshire. "The cat sees through shut lids," and "Honest as the cat when the meat is out of reach," reflect more credit upon Pussy's acuteness than upon her rectitude. "No playing with a straw before an old cat," is John Heywood's contribution in 1562, and so is the well-known couplet,

"Fain would the cat fish eat,
But she is loth to wet her feet;"

while the still more familiar nursery rhyme,

"When the cat is away,
The mice may play;"

was written by Thomas Heywood in 1607. Even George Herbert did not disdain to borrow an illustration from this ever useful animal. "Send not the cat for lard," is his method of saying, Lead not your neighbour into temptation.

Mr. Harrison Weir has compiled a curious and valuable glossary of words and idioms which owe their derivation to the cat; such as "cat-handed," a Devonshire term for awkward; "a cat's walk," which in Cornwall signifies a little walk near home; "cat-lap," very weak tea or broth, fit only for Pussy's food; "cat-nap," the lightest of dozes; "cat-call,"

"Sound, sound, ye viols; be the cat-call dumb."

"caterwauling,"

"What a caterwauling do you keep here! "

and the familiar "cat's-paw," "cat's-eye," and "cat o' nine tails." Allusions to the animal's nine lives—Heaven knows she needed them!—are frequent in early English plays. "'T is a pity you had not ten lives,—a cat's and your own," says Jonson in "Every Man in His Humour;" and Middleton in "Blurt, Master Constable," makes the off-hand assertion that cats "have nine lives apiece, like a woman."

Some of the most common expressions seem meaningless enough, yet have been handed down from parent to child for endless generations, until they have become a tradition in every nursery. How often has the word "she" been checked upon our infant lips by the certainty of hearing for the fiftieth time that "she" is the "cat's mother?" Little English children, however, especially if they be bred in Norfolk, are told that "she" is the "cat's aunt;" while a foolish boy who grins and stammers instead of answering promptly is called—Oh! stinging reproach!—the "cat's uncle." There is even a name to denote this feline consanguinity,—Grinagog, which sounds like the very embodiment of contempt.

The wild-cat, that splendid and courageous beast which roamed the English woods in savage freedom, was hunted both for the beauty of its skin, and because, though small in stature, its strength and fierceness made it a noble quarry. In those old rough days the chase was a dangerous diversion, and men loved it for the peril that it brought. Richard the Second granted to the Abbot of Peterborough, who was a man of mettle, a license to hunt wild cats in the royal forest. In Beaumont and Fletcher's "Scornful Lady," we find this allusion to the sport:—

"Bring out the cat-hounds; I'll make you take a tree."

and Shakespeare does infinite honour to the animal's spirit when he likens Katharine to one, in "Taming of the Shrew."

"But will you woo this wild-cat?"

It was the admitted courage of cats, both wild and tame, which gave them their conspicuous place in heraldry, ever since the days when Roman legions and Vandal hordes carried their cat banners streaming on the wind. The ancient Burgundians adopted the cat as their heraldic device, to intimate an abhorrence of servitude; and Clotilde, the fair and saintly Burgundian wife of Clovis, had blazoned on her armorial bearings a cat sable springing at a mouse. The same symbol served many a noble house. The Katzen family carried an azure shield, with a cat argent holding a rat. The Chetaldie family of Limoges carried two cats argent on an azure shield. The princely Delia Gatta of Naples bore a cat—a splendid cat couchant—on their crest; and in Scotland the well-known cognizance of the Clan Chattan was a wild-cat, with the significant motto, "Touch not the cat but" (i. e. without) "the glove." Of a truth, Cervantes strayed not so far into extravagance when he wrote of the "ever victorious and never vanquished" Timonel of Carcajona, Prince of New Biscay, who carried upon his shield a golden cat, with the expressive motto, "Miau," in honour of his lady, the beautiful and peerless Miaulina, daughter of the great Alfeniquen of the Algarve.

More peaceful memories cling around the ancient sign-boards, on which Pussy was ever a favourite figure. "La Maison du Chat qui Pelote," and "La Maison du Chat qui Pêche" commended themselves especially to French merchants; and M. Champfleury sadly regrets the disappearance of "Le Chat Noir," once so familiar above restaurants and bakeries. The English "Cat and Fiddle," that most common sign-board for rural inns, is said to have been borrowed, not from the venerable nursery rhyme, but from the French "Chat Fidèle," which was equally—and more deservedly—popular with Gallic landlords. So numerous were cat signs in London two hundred years ago, that the "Spectator" tells a pleasant story of a man who, being made ill and faint by the proximity of a live cat, suffered a corresponding degree of discomfort when passing under the swinging boards on which Pussy was repeatedly painted.

Yet for all the frequency with which we encounter the cat in every phase of English life, for all the maxims and proverbs and familiar superstitions with which her name is linked, there is little to show that she won more than tolerance in the "free, fair homes" of that benighted land. If she sneezed on a wedding-day, she brought luck to the bride. If she jumped on a corpse, she presaged misfortune. If she washed her face, or turned her tail to the fire, men knew that rain was coming.

"Scratch but thine ear, Then boldly tell what weather's drawing near."

wrote Lord Westmorland, who had ample leisure in which to observe the habits of his cat during the long imprisonment which she shared.

"True calendars as Pusse's eare,
Wash't o're to tell what change is neare,"

sang Herrick in his Devonshire vicarage; and John Swan, writing his "Speculum Mundi" in 1643, tells us very seriously that the cat "useth therefore to wash her face with her tongue; and it is observed by some that if she put her feet beyond the crown of her head in this kind of washing, it is a signe of raine."

In fact there was scarcely a movement of the cat which had not its meaning for the villager, who did his domestic Sphinx the honour of close scrutiny, and who attached so much significance to her simplest actions that the poor creature, like other oracles, was too often held responsible for the evils she presaged. Thus the yokel, being told that Pussy's ablutions foretold rain, passed, by an easy mental process, to the conviction that they brought rain; and so—eager for the harvesting—killed his cat, as the simplest method of escaping showers. The sailor's wife, in her uncertainty as to whether the fast rising wind was the cause or the effect of Tabby's nervous clawing at bed curtain and table leg, deemed it but common prudence to drown the animal which might otherwise drown her good man at sea. It is not wise nor well to herald calamity. The part of Cassandra is ever an ungrateful one to play.

There are a few isolated cases of cats who were lauded and distinguished in England before the eighteenth century, from which late period may be traced their general popularity. The most striking instance is, of course, the cat of Cardinal Wolsey, who shared his master's wool-sack, or at least his master's seat in Council, the wool-sack—emblem of protected industries—being all unknown before Elizabeth's day. He is said to have been a large and beautiful beast with brindled fur, as arrogant as the Lord Chancellor, but better bred; delighting in display and ostentation, yet ever mingling suavity with pride. More pleasing to contemplate is the faithful cat of that unfortunate Duke of Norfolk who was imprisoned by Elizabeth for his intrigues with her fair cousin of Scotland. This loyal and valiant little friend followed her master to the Tower, and, being denied admission, actually made her way down a chimney into the Duke's apartment, and was permitted thenceforth to share that nobleman's captivity.

As a fact, imprisonment has scant terrors for the cat. It accords too well with her serene and contemplative disposition. Restless wanderer though she appears, and true lover of liberty though she is, and has ever been, she can yet live her life with tranquil enjoyment in a ship, on the seventh floor of an apartment house, in a granary which she is never permitted to leave, or in London's Tower. There were probably many French cats who passed their days meditatively in the Bastile, content to be immured with their masters, and accepting like philosophers the restraints and the indulgences of that ill-omened, but singularly comfortable fortress.

"Stone walls do not a prison make"

for a creature whose independence of character remains untouched by the sternest and narrowest of environments. Rather perhaps does she feel herself a captive when surrounded too strenuously by the doting and troublesome affection of mortals, who cannot be made to understand or to respect her deep inviolable reserve. Lord Westmorland's cat freely shared her master's confinement. Sir Henry Wyatt's cat not only followed him to the Tower, but is said to have saved him from starvation by bringing him pigeons to eat; and though it is difficult to pin our faith to this part of the story, we know that there still exists, by way of confirmation, a painting of the knight, seated in his cell, and of his cat dragging a pigeon through the window bars. The present Earl of Romney, who is the happy inheritor of this historic relic, likewise possesses a separate portrait of the animal, with an inscription stating plainly, "This is the cat that saved Sir Henry Wyatt." Why should we remain sceptical in the face of such interesting and cumulative evidence!

It is a matter for endless regret that Shakespeare, in whose plays we find so many allusions to the cat, never once mentions it with admiration or esteem. That tepid phrase of Shylock's,

"a harmless necessary cat,"

which might have been written by Joanna Baillie, is about the kindest word vouchsafed to a creature whose beauty alone should have won warmer praise. And this chillness of comment is the more trying to our souls because it is impossible to read any of these allusions without knowing that Shakespeare had looked closely at a number of cats, had noticed their habits and characteristics, and had felt the subtlety of their association with the supernatural.

"Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed,"

says the Witch in "Macbeth," and this simplest and commonest of statements is fraught with dire significance of evil. Falstaff knows whereof he speaks when he declares he is "as vigilant as a cat to steal cream;" and so does Antonio, in "The Tempest," when he uses the admirable similitude:—

"For all the rest,
They'll take suggestion as a cat laps milk."

How full of stealthy horror these two lines in "Pericles":—

"The cat, with eyne of burning coal,
Now couches 'fore the mouse's hole."

How keenly descriptive of the struggle we have all of us witnessed between Pussy's caution and cupidity, is Lady Macbeth's scornful jibe:—

"Letting I dare not wait upon I would,
Like the poor cat i' the adage."

Yet in all this there is no touch of kindness; and when we go further, we fare worse.

"Every cat and dog.
And little mouse, every unworthy thing,"

moans Romeo, who ought to have been ashamed of such a speech, even in the extremity of his anguish.

"Creatures vile, as cats and dogs,
Of no esteem;"

says Cornelius in "Cymbeline."

"Hang off, thou cat, thou burr: vile thing, let loose!"

cries Lysander to poor Hermia; and Bertram, in "All's Well that Ends Well," must needs air his unwelcome views.

"I could endure anything before but a cat, and now he's a cat to me:"

is the angry word he flings at Parolles; and, as his resentment flames hotter and hotter, he can apparently find no more stinging reproach:—

"He is more and more a cat."
"He's a cat still."

What wonder that Pussy failed long of her triumph upon English soil, when the great poet of England had nothing better than this to say in her behalf?


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