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The Cat

( Originally Published 1918 )



"THE cat entered our household long after the dog; nevertheless its domestication took place very early. The East, whence we received it, has possessed it from time immemorial. Ancient Egypt, the old land of the Pharaohs, has transmitted to us the most curious documents on this subject.

In that country, celebrated for its profound veneration for domestic animals, honors almost divine were said to the ox, dog, cat, and many other creatures. Nearer the primitive ages than we, and still remembering the miseries from which the domestic animals had freed man, the Egyptians no doubt showed their gratitude by these honors, which seem to us today the height of superstition. The ox, turning up the farmer's soil with the plow, was accorded the highest position. A magnificent white bull, called the bull Apis, was kept at the expense of the State in a sumptuous temple of granite and marble, and cared for by a retinue of attendants who approached it with reverence, wearing rich costumes of ceremony, swinging the censer, and, in short, observing all the forms of deep veneration."

"Just to change the straw and fill the rack with hay, they went censer in hand and with bent knees?" Emile asked with incredulity.

"Yes, my friend."

"Then times are greatly changed for the ox. Nowadays the ox-tender lets the animal go disgracefully dirty with dung and lie on a miserly allowance of straw; and he isn't at all sparing of the goad to quicken the ox's pace."

"On great fete-days, when the bull Apis went out escorted by its retinue of servants, the crowd prostrated itself to the ground along the way, with foreheads in the dust. At its death, mourning was general throughout Egypt. An immense granite coffin, masterpiece of art and patience, the work of a thousand artisans, receive the sacred remains, which were then placed in a sepulchral chamber hollowed out in the heart of a mountain and sumptuously adorned with the finest examples of sculpture and painting."

"And did other domestic animals receive like honors ?" asked Jules.

"All were honored, but none so signally as the ox. In regard to the cat, for instance, it was deemed sufficient to embalm it with aromatics after its death, swathe it in bands of fine linen, and place the body thus prepared in a chest of sweet-scented wood adorned with gildings, paintings, and inscriptions. These chests were then arranged on shelves in the niches of a sepulchral chamber excavated to a great depth in the solid rock.

In some of these chambers, with decorations as fresh as if made yesterday, we find to-day, after the lapse of three and four thousand years, a prodigious number of bodies of cats and other animals, sufficiently preserved to be recognized, thanks to the aromatic bitumen with which they were impregnated. Well, the examination of these old relics conveys information on one point of great interest : it shows us that the domestic animals of those remote times did not differ from those of our own day. As were the ox, dog, cat, four thousand years ago, such they are today.

"The cat—since it is the cat I am going to tell you about today—the cat in particular is like ours in every way. The rat-hunter of forty centuries ago differs in nothing from our tom-eat. But where did it come from, so long, long ago, in the houses of the Egyptians? Of what country was it a native?

"To the south of Egypt lies Abyssinia, where we have already found the wild dog, from which probably came our greyhound. There, too, is still found, sometimes wild in the heart of the forest, sometimes domesticated, a kind of cat, called the gloved cat, that presents a striking resemblance to our domestic variety. It is generally agreed that this is the parent stock of our cats, though perhaps only in part, since there is reason to believe that a second species, Asiatic according to all appearance, has a place in the pedigree of our domestic cat as we now know it. Briefly, the cat came to us from Eastern Africa.

`In the old forests of Europe, and notably in those of the east of France, there is found, in no great numbers, a kind of cat called the wildcat, but which cannot be regarded as the progenitor of the domestic cat, in spite of current opinion to the contrary. Fitted by nature for violent exercise, for fighting and tree-climbing, and for making long leaps, it has longer and stronger legs than the common cat, a larger head, and more powerful jaws. The tail, very furry and variegated with black rings, is more expanded at the end than at the base. The coat is a warm fur of yellowish gray with large black stripes, transverse and encircling the body, thus imitating a little the tiger's coat. A dark band extends the entire length of the spine from the nape of the neck to the tail. Finally, the fleshy balls of the soles of the feet, and also the lips and nose, are black.

"The domestic cat, on the contrary, generally has red lips as well as nose and balls of the feet. It also has on the front of the neck and breast a band of light color sometimes extending under the stomach. Similar coloring of nose, lips, feet, and front of the neck is found, in exact detail, in the wild species of Abyssinia or the gloved cat; and that is one of the reasons for regarding this species as the source, or at least as one of the sources, of the domestic cat."

"But I have often seen domestic cats with black lips," objected Louis. "Where do they come from?"

"They are apparently in some way related to the wildcats of our woods. The female cats of isolated dwellings near our large forests sometimes mate with wildcats, it is said. The young of these parents bear inscribed on the nose and lips their paternal origin, and transmit these family traits to their descendants. But if this crossing gives new vigor to our cat, it is far from improving its disposition. The wildcat of our woods is in fact an intractable animal, unruly despite all the care we bestow upon it. It is an implacable destroyer of game and, if chance offers, a more formidable ravager of the hen-roost than the fox.

It is believed that one of our domestic varieties, known as the tiger-cat, counts this bandit among its ancestors ; at any rate, it has the wildcat's black lips and zebra coat. It also has its disposition to a certain degree. The tiger-cat is the least tame of all, the most distrustful, the most inclined to plunder. No other is so ready with its claws if you try to take hold of it or merely stroke it on the back. But these peculiarities of savagery ought not to make us forget its good qualities : there is no more spirited hunter of mice. It is true that cheese for-gotten on the table and game hung too low in the kitchen attract its attention a little too readily.

"I much prefer the Spanish or tortoise-shell cat, which is more civilized, of gentler disposition, and not less: adept at catching mice. It is in this variety, one of the most widely diffused, that the original feline characteristics are the best preserved, that is to say those of the gloved cat of Abyssinia. The Spanish cat has rather short and brightly colored fur, the balls of the feet, the lips, and the nose red, the front of the neck light-colored. Its coat is generally spotted with irregular patches of pure white, black, and bright red. But, singularly enough, the three colors are never found united except in the female; the male is limited to two colors at most, generally white and red. "

"Then every cat with three colors to its fur is a she-cat?" asked Jules.

"So far I have met with no exception to this strange rule."

"It is very queer, that unequal division of colors —three for the Tabby and only two at most for the Tomcat. Other animals show nothing of the sort."

"The Angora cat forms a third variety. It is a magnificent animal, of majestic carriage, with silky and very long hair, especially around the neck, under the stomach, and on the tail. But its qualities do not equal the fineness of its fur. The Angora is the friend of sweet idleness, fond of prolonged siestas in drawing-room arm-chairs. Do not try to make it watch patiently for a mouse in the garret. Pampered by its mistress, assured of its saucer of milk, it finds the business of hunting too arduous. Repose and caresses and a soft bed are its lot. That is all I have to say about this lazy-bones.

"Let us pass on to the cat's weapons, its teeth and claws. In telling you the story of the Auxiliaries I pointed out to you the arrangement of the cat's teeth, so admirably adapted for coping with live prey. I will refresh your memory on this subject by showing you a sketch of these teeth. How well formed for cutting flesh are those molars, with their sharp points that play one against another like the blades of a pair of scissors ! And those canine teeth, so long and sharp—aren't they veritable daggers for the cat to stab the mouse with? How horribly they must pierce the poor little victim's body ! A mere glance at this set of teeth is enough to assure one that it belongs to a fierce hunter.

"It is by surprise and stealth that the cat seizes its prey. Hence it must have special foot-gear to render its approach noiseless, to deaden completely the sound of its footsteps. And that reminds me of something. When you were younger, you were told the wonderful exploits of Puss-in-Boots, how Puss caught partridges and offered them to the king, as a gift from the cat's master, the future Marquis of Carabas."

"Oh, yes," cried Emile, "I remember. The artful creature, with a grain of wheat in its paw and the bag open, lay in wait for the partridges in a furrow. What astounding success we credited it with ! The giddy partridges and innocent quails, and foolish young rabbits ran helter-skelter into the bag. According to us, the game of the entire canton was bagged. One day the cat defied the ogre to take the form of every kind of animal in turn, as he pretended he had the power to do. The stupid ogre hastened to change himself into a lion first, then into a mouse. But in a half a jiffy out shoot the cat's claws, the mouse is caught, and the ogre is gobbled up. Thenceforth the castle belongs to the miller's son, who has become the Marquis of Carabas, as true as can be. Then the wedding is celebrated with great magnificence. Is n't that the way it goes, Uncle?"

"Precisely; only I must say to you that I object to the boots in that performance. How, with such foot-gear thumping and creaking on the gravel in the road, can the cat approach the game without being heard?"

"That 's so. Let us take off the boots. We will suppose the cat leaves them at the mill while it is out hunting, and that it only wears them on great occasions."

"How much wiser the real cat is than the one in the story! It would not wear noisy boots and run the risk of making the garret floor creak under its footsteps. If the mouse heard the slightest sound of hard soles, it would never come out of its hole. What the cat really needs is slippers and not boots or wooden shoes—slippers thick and soft so as to muffle the footfall completely.

`Let us examine the underside of the cat's paw.

You will see under each toe a little ball of flesh, a real cushion softly stuffed. Another ball, much larger, occupies the center. In addition, tufts of down fill up the intervening spaces. Thus shod, the cat walks as if on tow or wadding, and no ear can hear it coming. Have we not there, I ask you, slippers of silence, marvelously adapted to surprise at-tacks?"

"It is a fact," assented Louis, "that we never hear the cat coming."

"The dog, too," added Jules, "has similar little cushions, only larger, under its paws. Nevertheless we hear its footsteps, perhaps on account of the claws scraping the ground a little."

"Your `perhaps' is superfluous," his uncle rejoined. "It is certainly the claws scraping the ground that make the dog's walk heard in spite of the fleshy balls."

"How does the cat manage, then?" asked Jules. "It has claws and very strong ones."

"That is the cat's secret. When walking and sleeping it keeps its claws drawn back in a sheath at the extremity of the toes; it has then what we call velvet paws. Thus drawn into their case, the claws do not project beyond the paw and cannot strike the ground. To this first advantage of not making any noise in walking is added another not less useful to the cat. Completely hidden inside their sheaths, the claws do not get blunt; they preserve their sharpness and fine point for the attack. They are excellent weapons, and the animal keeps them in a case until they are needed. Then the claws shoot out of their sheaths as if pushed by a spring, and the velvet paw of a moment ago becomes a horrible harpoon that implants itself in the flesh and rends the prey in most sanguinary fashion."

"If I give the cat's paw a little squeeze with my fingers," said Emile, "the claws come out of their sheaths ; if I stop squeezing, the claws go in again."

"That is just what the cat can do at will. Let us examine this curious mechanism more closely. The little terminal bone of the toes, the one that bears the claw, is fastened to the preceding little bone by an elastic ligament, the effect of which, in a state of repose, is to raise the first bone and rest it on top of the second. Suppose that the tips of your fingers had play enough to fold back : there you have an ex-act representation of the process. In this position of the terminal bone the claw is held upright, half sunk in a fold of the skin and hidden under the thick fur of the paw."

"I understand," said Jules; "then it is a velvet paw; the claws are in their sheaths."

"Promptly, at the call to arms, the cat has but to will it, and its claws spring out. Look at this picture of a cat's paw and notice what appears to be a network of cords. Those are the tendons which, whenever the animal so desires, are puled by the muscles situated higher up. They are fastened each to the lower side of one of the terminal bones of the toes. Pulled by its tendon, this terminal bone pivots, as if on a hinge, on the extremity of the preceding bone, and gets in a straight line with it. At the same time the pointed end of the claw comes out of the paw."

"Then the cat's claws are worked by cords and pulleys!" exclaimed Emile. "It is enough to bewilder one, it is so complicated. But I understand it in the main. To make velvet paws the cat doesn't have to do anything at all ; the claws go in of their own accord and stay in their sheaths ; and if they have to be drawn out, the cords or tendons give a pull, and the thing is done."

"To be shod with soft slippers which both admit of a noiseless approach to the hunted prey, and can, on the instant, change into terrible weapons of attack, is not alone sufficient for the hunter's success; he must also have eyes to guide him in the darkness of midnight, the hour most favorable for an ambuscade. In this respect the cat is admirably equipped. Its eyes are formed for receiving more or less light as may be necessary for seeing.

"Notice a cat in the sun. You will see the pupil of the eyes reduced to a narrow slit resembling a black line. Not to be dazzled by too great light, the animal has closed the passage to the rays of light; it has closed the pupil while leaving the eyes wide open. Take the cat into the shade : the slit of the eyes will enlarge and become an oval. Put it in a semi-dark place : the oval opening will dilate to a circle and this circle will grow larger as the light diminishes.

"Thanks to these pupils, which open very wide and can thus still manage to receive a little light where for others it would be pitch-dark, the cat guides itself in the dark and hunts at night even better than in broad daylight, since it remains invisible to the mice while it can see them well enough. Nevertheless, if there were no light, if the darkness were absolute, the cat could not see anything. In this connection, recall what we were saying a while ago about nocturnal birds of prey. Some maintain that a cat sees distinctly in complete darkness ; I have shown you, on the contrary, that for every animal without exception sight becomes impossible as soon as there ceases to be even the faintest ray of light."

"The cat cannot see without some light, I haven't the slightest doubt," assented Jules. "But all the same I have known it to hunt in places where not a glimmer of light could get in."

"Then its mustaches served to guide it ; these are frequently made use of by the cat when it cannot see."

"Mustaches!" Emile exclaimed. "Oh, what a queer guide ! And how can those long hairs that stand out on its lip tell it where it is ?'

"Perhaps you think the cat wears mustaches simply as a bit of swagger. Undeceive yourself : they are a valuable item of its equipment for hunting by night. With them it feels the ground, gets its bearings, explores nooks and corners. Let a mouse so much as graze one of those long hairs sticking out in all directions, and that is enough to warn the cat. Immediately the jaw snaps and the claw seizes. Moral : never cut a cat's mustaches ; you would place it in a sad predicament, seriously impairing its efficiency as a mouser."

"That 's what I've heard said," Louis remarked, "though I didn't know the reason for it. Now I see that to deprive a cat of its mustaches, out of childish mischievousness, is like depriving a blind man of his cane."

In my humble opinion," Uncle Paul continued, "the cat has been slandered. The eloquent historian of animals, Buffon, speaks thus about the cat: 'It is an unfaithful servant, kept only out of necessity, as the enemy of another and still more trouble-some inhabitant of our houses, otherwise not to be got rid of.' "

"Buffon means the rat and mouse?" was Emile's query.

"Evidently. 'Although cats,' says he, 'especially when young, have pretty ways, they have at the same time an innate malice, a treacherous disposition, a perverse nature, which age increases and education only masks. From being determined thieves they become, under domestication, docile and fawning rogues : they have the same skill, the same cleverness, the same taste for mischief, the same tendency to petty pilfering, as have rogues. Like them, they know how to cover their tracks, dissimulate their purpose, watch for their opportunity, lie in wait, choose their time, seize the right moment for their stroke, then steal away and escape punishment, scamper off and keep out of sight until they are called back. They make a show of attachment, nothing more, as one can see in their sly movements and shifty eyes. They never look the loved one in the face; whether from distrust or falsity, they take a roundabout way of approach and of winning the caresses which they value only for the momentary pleasure they themselves receive. It cannot be said that cats, although living in our homes, are thoroughly domesticated. The best tamed among them are no whit more brought under control than the rest; one might even say that they are entirely beyond control. They do only what they choose, and nothing in the world would avail to keep them for a moment in a place they desired to leave. Furthermore, most of them are still half wild, do not know their masters, frequent only garrets and roofs, and sometimes the kitchen and pantry when they are hungry. They are less attached to persons than to houses.' "

"To my mind," commented Jules, "that accusation amounts to no more than this, that Buffon did not like cats."

"Oh, perhaps," suggested Louis, "he wrote it when he was vexed at some misdeed committed by his tomcats."

"I, for my part," Uncle Paul replied, "will say this to you : treat the cat well, and it will not be wild; feed it, and it will not turn thief; show it a little attention, and it will return the compliment. But what a miserable fate it often has! It is al-lowed to grow thin with hunger under the pretense that then it will hunt rats better. If it comes into the kitchen, mewing for something to eat, it is driven out with a broom; if it ventures into the dining-room to gather up the crumbs fallen from the table, the dog, suspecting designs on the bone it holds between its paws, growls and makes a move to throttle the invader. As a last resort the poor animal takes to pilfering. Who would go so far as to call this a crime? Certainly not Uncle Paul."

"Nor I either," chimed in Jules; "for it must eat."

"Buffon says the cat does not become attached to its master, that it shows no signs of affection. I appeal the case to your own memories of the matter. When Minette, our gentle cat, installs herself with loud purrings on Emile's knees in the chimney-corner and rubs her pretty red nose on his cheeks, then on his forehead, and higher still until it makes his cap fall off, are not those, I ask you, kisses and caresses of the most affectionate sort? Emile is transported with delight when his cap tumbles to the floor under the poking of that delicate nose. He puts it on again and the friendly rubbing begins afresh."

"Certainly," Emile assented, `the cat gives me caress for caress. Her look is affectionate, not treacherous and distrustful, as the author says, that you have just been reading. And then Minette never steals, and always has velvet paws for me. She hasn't once given me a scratch in all the time we have played together."

"Emile forgets one very good quality," put in Jules. "Minette is a splendid hunter. Let her hear the slightest rustle anywhere, and there she will sit for hours and hours on the watch, motionless, patient, all eyes and ears. A mouse heard is for her a mouse caught. But it isn't hunger that gives her that love of hunting, for she kills her mouse and then leaves it lying there, with no desire to eat it.'''

"Minette has other talents too," Emile hastened to add. "When there is going to be a change in the weather, she licks her paws and washes her ears and nose over and over. Then you say, that is a sign of snow, or a sign of storm. And the cat's prediction is hardly ever wrong. When the north wind blows cold and dry, I like to rub my hand over her fur and make the bright sparks fly. In the evening I like to hear her rerr-rerr, which makes me sleepy."

"Why," asked Uncle Paul in conclusion, "do not Minette's good qualities agree with what Buffon says? Because you love the cat and the cat loves you in return. Animals, my dear children, are what people make them. Good master, good servant."



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