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Literary Cats

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( Originally Published 1936 )



I do not know whether cats are really interested in the business of writing, or only pretend to be, but the effect is the same. And they are so tactful about it, so restful and soothing. My dog bears me company when I write, but he insists on napping under my feet, where I step on him if I stir, and at the least excuse he is up with his ball, urging me to come outdoors and see what wonderful things that ball can do. One remembers the Persians with their lambent eyes who used to sit so quietly on one's desk. It is true they liked to sleep on the typewriter, and that was inconvenient, but at the least hint they would gracefully retire.

"Cats like silence, order, and quietness, and no place is so proper for them as the study of a man of letters." Was it Theophile Gautier or Charles Baudelaire who said this? At any rate it is true. Walking one day in Copp's Hill Burial Ground, in the North End of Boston, a friend of mine was struck by the number of cats that were there, lying on the graves, making their toilets on the low tombstones, strolling in the paths. What, she asked a caretaker, was the reason of this invasion?"It's a feast day in the Italian colony near by," he said. "The cats don't like the firecrackers and the shouting, so they come here for the day."

Since all cats cannot live with literary folk, I suppose these were lucky to have a graveyard to which to retire. How fortunate are cats such as Calvin, of whose life Charles Dudley Warner writes with such understanding in My Summer in a Garden.

Calvin must have craved literary surroundings. He walked one day "out of the great unknown" into the house of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe. "It was as if he had inquired at the door if this was the residence of the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and, upon being assured that it was, had decided to dwell there." When Mrs. Stowe made her winter home in Florida, Calvin came to live with the Warners. There he divided his time between the garden, the study, and the drawing room when there were guests. For the kitchen company he did not care.

"Writing always interested him," Mr. Warner says. "Until he understood it he wanted to hold the pen." But he was never obtrusive. "He would sit quietly in my study for hours, then, moved by a delicate affection, come and pull at my sleeve until he could touch my face with his nose, and then go away contented." But he had a practical side. If he wished to warm himself at the register and it was closed he would open it. "He could do almost every thing but speak, and you would declare sometimes that you could see a pathetic longing to do that in his intelligent face."

It is not to be wondered at that when Calvin died "a little shock went through the neighborhood, and his friends, one after another, came to see him." His burial -was simple, for it was felt that any parade or sentimental nonsense would be distasteful to him.

"He was always a mystery," the biography ends. "I did not know whence he came, I do not know whither he has gone. I would not weave one spray of falsehood in the wreath I lay upon his grave."

French writers are particularly fond of cats. Gautier had his house full of them until the siege of Paris in 1870 decimated them. Best of all he loved Gavroche, a charitable creature who would "bring in from the streets gaunt and ragged cats, who devoured in a scurry of fright the food laid aside for him." Victor Hugo, Prosper Merimee, and Anatole France all had their favorite cats; Cardinal Richelieu found diversion in his; and Montaigne wrote, "When I play with my cat who knows whether she amuses herself with me or I with her?"

Pierre Loti left charming accounts of his pet cats, Moumoutte Blanche and Moumoutte Chinoise, but he could sympathize with less fortunate ones too. There are few things more poignant that his story of the lonely, old, sick cat to whom he gave what he believed was merciful death. But from the brink the cat's eyes followed him: "Why were you in such a hurry for me to meet my fate? If it had not been for you I would have been able to drag out life a little longer, to have still had certain little thoughts, cares, fancies of my own. I had still strength enough left to spring to the sills of the windows, where the dogs would not trouble me too much. In the morning, when the sun shone there, I could have looked about me and seen life. Instead of which I am about to be dissolved into I know not what; I will be no more."

It was the waifs and strays of catdom that Samuel Butler, seventeenth century English poet, loved to take in, to save if he could. George Moore, master of beautiful prose, liked plain, short-haired cats of plebeian origin. Thomas Hardy, on the contrary, had a patrician Persian to companion him in his study. Henry James sometimes wrote with a cat on his shoulder, and Walter Pater always had them about.

With Walter Scott cats were an acquired taste. In early life he disliked them, but then he met Hinse of Hinsefield, and Hinse came to live with him and taught him many things. "Cats are a mysterious kind of folk," he wrote. "There is more passing in their minds than we are aware of."

Samuel Johnson, though, knew what was passing in the mind of his cat Hodge when Hodge wanted oysters. Hodge left him in no doubt, and there are few pictures more lovable than that of the gruff old doctor laying down his pen and stumping out to buy Hodge's favorite food.

When one thinks of cats in connection with Edgar Allan Poe one immediately remembers that weird story of his, "The Black Cat." But I like to recall the wonderful big cat who used to lie on the bed of his young wife, Virginia, when she was dying. It was very cold, and they had not enough blankets to keep her warm, and no money with which to buy more coverings. It seemed as if the cat knew this, for it would lie close to her feet so that the warmth from its body might pass into hers.