Cats I Have Known
( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )
I DO not remember whether amongst the animals that I figured in the Noah's Arks of our childhood a pair of cats were included. I fancy not. But we may be perfectly sure that they entered that place of safety comfortably seated on some creature's back or carried in by one of the Misses Noah, for cats have always been characterised by their great love of comfort, and — deny it as their admirers may—with an intense love of self. If a cat does not want to do a thing, it will not do it, unless absolutely compelled; and performing cats always seem to be acting under bitter protest.
Mr. G-. A. Henty summarises their character to a nicety. He maintains that they have never been really domesticated, that they are inclined to revert to wildness at any fitting opportunity, and are rapturous when out of doors and at liberty, while placidly indifferent at home, restraint being alien to their tribe ; that their assumption of family habits is a kind of hypocrisy; that they submit to caresses simply because they like them, and, with equal show of affection, will rub themselves against the legs of a table or the legs of a man; and that, however well-fed, domestic cats retain their predatory and thievish tendency.
Mr. Henty winds up his indictment against Cats by declaring that often when apparently in deep and peaceful contemplation, they are maturing plans for new villainy and mischief ; that they have no real love for their owners, that they have many vices, are erratic, noisy, and a torture at night, and that their sole recommendation is softness, a quality they share with many other animals. " Why," he asks, " should cats always have been pets, especially women's pets. Is there any re-semblance in their dispositions ! " and goes on to observe that the reason no Chancellor of the Exchequer has ever been induced to impose a tax on pussies (a most reasonable proposal) is because he is generally a married man with cats of his own.
Now let us consider both sides of the feline character. Let the Advocatus Diaboli have his say and also listen to something in favour of Grimalkin.
Well, cats were sacred creatures long before the institution of the National Cat Club, and Cat Shows. In Egyptian temples great cats blinked on luxurious cushions, and the priests made obeisance to them as they passed; while cats with peculiar " markings " were set apart for special veneration. The tribe was typical of the qualities held by the goddess Bubastis, herself typical of one of the qualities of God.
To kill, even by accident, a Temple cat, was unpardonable, punishable by death ; and when one of these worshipful creatures departed this life it was solemnly mummified.
Yet ordinary cats, although revered, were, in spite of their instinctive dislike of water, trained to utilitarian purposes, such as retrieving dead wild fowl from canoes on the Nile. No doubt such cats were valuable, but the price they fetched was trifling compared to the pedigree cats of the present day. A cat described as a " Blue Persian," and rejoicing in the name of Roy, was once the subject of a lawsuit in the High Court of Justice, England. It was appraised at one hundred pounds, having won every prize of its class in many shows.
Here I must digress, and relate two instances of a cat's moral delinquency.
In my youth we had a beautiful Tom called Whiskers, apparently gentle and trustworthy. He was fed upon the daintiest of cat fare, and was a universal favourite, contented and happy. Alas ! we also kept pigeons in what was considered an inaccessible loft. The most beautiful amongst them were Tom and Una, spotlessly white little fantails, my sister's greatest treasures, that used to sit upon her shoulder and take grain from between her lips. Tom and Una were inseparable; theirs was not a manage de convenance, but a love match. Whiskers one night contrived to enter Tom's abode and slaughtered the lovely Una, evidence of the crime being patent the next morning on the cat's jaws.
A jury of not altogether impartial boys was immediately impanelled, and none of its members were challenged. Direct evidence was forthcoming for the prosecution and there was no defense. Whiskers was found guilty and the death sentence pronounced, which was then and there carried into effect through the medium of a stout cord, a heavy brick, and a deep pool. But nothing could bring back Una, or console Tom, who refused to eat; his feathers drooped, he pined away, and died of grief. One of my brothers, who had never been known to cry since he was a baby, wept bitter tears at the graveside of poor little Una.
Then when we removed to London we had a cat, a jet black Tom, a magnificent creature, pampered and petted in the kitchen (it never condescended to visit the drawing-room), where it " had its meals regular." It could never by any possibility have experienced the pangs of hunger, yet the thieving instinct compelled it, as soon as the game season came round, to forage in our neighbour's larder, and frequently it brought back a cold pheasant or partridge. At last, tired of apologising for the cat's conduct, and of having to replace the missing birds, we got rid of the thief.
Now for an example of feline intelligence, showing how an alert cat saved the lives of an entire family. At Braintree, England, in the early hours of morning, when sleep is heaviest, the head of the house was awakened by the cat mewing, evidently in deep distress, so loud it was and so persistent. He went down at once into the kitchen and found it full of smoke, and a cupboard blazing. Owing to Tibby's timely warning, however, the flames were easily extinguished, and it was discovered that a lighted pipe had been left in the pocket of a coat hanging outside the cupboard door.
Was that watchful cat a descendant of the two good cats mentioned in " Struwelpeter," who warned foolish Harriet not to play with the matches, and who reproachfully cried " Me-ow, me-ow," over her smoking ashes?
A similar incident occurred in a lonely part of Essex, England, where, one market day, a farmhouse was left in sole charge of an old woman. The cat persisted in coming to the kitchen and mewing, and going out again. She did this so many times that at last the ancient dame followed Pussy, who led her to a barn where, concealed in a corner, was a villainous-looking tramp, who, after knocking the poor old woman down, decamped — foiled by a cat!
Cats have a marvellous faculty for finding their way over utterly unknown ground. Many years ago a gentleman had to remove from one district to another, a distance of ninety miles, and it so happened that he could not take his cat with him. A few days after settling down, what was his surprise to see the servant, who was bringing in the tea, followed by a cat exactly like the old favourite he had left behind. He examined it closely, and could discern no difference between it and his own cat; furthermore it knew him. Finally he looked at its claws, and their worn condition convinced him that, extraordinary as it might seem, puss had " padded the hoof " for nearly a hundred miles over unknown ground to rejoin her old friend.
But an even longer journey was taken by another cat. She had lived all her life in Northumberland until her mistress gave her away to some people in Essex, whither poor pussy was conveyed by train. After a few days the cat was missing from her new quarters, and later on in the week was found sitting on the doorstep of her old home. On the door being opened, pussy entered and searched every room. She recognized her friends, and rubbed against them and purred. She was very thin, and looked as though she had had a somewhat rough time, at which there can be little wonder, seeing that the distance from Chelmsford to Bedlington is some three hundred miles. Surely this is a record " cat-walk ! "
What is the secret of this wonderful faculty? They have many difficulties to overcome while travelling, and do not, like dogs, tramp along the high-roads, but slink by the hedgeside, and have to run the gauntlet of thought-less boys and chasing dogs.
Cats, though able to climb, are not arboreal, and I think show to least advantage when on a tree; they look awkward, are hesitating in their movements, and seem uncertain how to get down again.
A Persian cat once mounted the highest bough of the loftiest tree in a London Square, no doubt in pursuit of some attractive but elusive sparrow. It then discovered that it was easier to get up the tree than it was to descend, and there it remained dismally howling and helpless for ten days, until, none too soon, it was rescued by means of a couple of ladders lashed together and placed against the elm. An active boy then went up the extemporized " fire-escape," shook the half-starved cat off the branch, and pussy landed safely on a jumping-sheet below.
Cats do not readily profit by experience, and learn nothing from their misfortunes. In a warehouse where many cats were kept for the destruction of rats and mice, there resided a clever parrot. The cats were regularly fed, and the cat's-meat purveyor's cry was heard heralding their food at a certain hour every day but Sunday.' Poll, after many private rehearsals, learnt to imitate his cry to perfection; and one Sunday when the cats were dozing in various parts of the granary, dreaming of fish and unattainable plump sparrows, they were wakened with astonishment by the welcome cry, " Mee-at, mee-at! " Surely they had not mistaken the day ! It must be Saturday! Yes ! There was the beloved cry, clear and unmistakable.
In a minute a dozen Toms, Tabbies, and Tibbies, with tails erect and eager anticipation on their faces, advanced to the spot whence came the cry. Alas ! they could see no cat's-meat man, nor any living thing but Poll, who gravely stood on her perch. In a group they approached her, when, as though suddenly struck by the absurdity of it all, she lowered her head and shouted, " Oh, you fools! " and the humiliated cats departed with tails and spirits depressed. Sunday after Sunday Poll repeated the trick, and always with the same result the cats never learned that it was a hoax, and people often went to watch the singular performance, concealing themselves from the observation of cats and parrot.
An American lady, shut up in Port Arthur during the bombardment, tells of , the behaviour of cats under heavy fire. " When the big shells began to fall during the day," she says, " five or six cats used to come out on to the roof opposite my house. At each gunshot the cats arched their backs and stiffened their legs, and seemed both terrified and furious. Then when a hissing shell arrived, it gave the signal for a frightful battle. They jumped at each other like raging tigers, and seemed to hold each other responsible for what was taking place. The effect was so comical that we could not help laughing, though the occasion was not one to inspire gaiety."
A cat with kittens will face anything. I was passing along a narrow street in a Cornish town with my two Clumber spaniels following me at a little distance, when I heard a frightful yell, and Flash came tearing up with a cat on his back clawing away like a fury. Flash had unwittingly trotted beneath an open window where reposed a feline matron with her two kittens. He had done no wrong, but his presence was sufficient cause of offence to convert the mother into a miniature panther. I had some difficulty in relieving Flash of his burden, and I was thankful it was his back and not his head that was clawed.
A corner of my garden where the creeper grows very thickly was appropriated one summer by a strange cat and her brood. I was not aware of this until one day, when hunting among the luxuriant growth for a lost tennis ball, a spitting fiend sprang out at my face, luckily just missing it. She was a very small cat, but as brave as a lioness. However, I had her and her interesting family promptly removed.
That it does not do to interfere, wittingly or unwittingly, with a mother cat, the following will show. Some kittens belonging to a Maltese cat were temporarily de-posited for safety in a perambulator. The nursemaid, not observing them, carefully placed the baby in the perambulator. Instantly the Maltese sprang desperately upon the child. To rescue it was most difficult, for the cat flew savagely at every one who approached. At last a courageous woman managed to divert the cat's attention, while three others, wrapped in heavy rugs, flung themselves upon the perambulator, and saved the baby.
Mother eats sometimes take strange likings to the young of animals and birds, especially when deprived of their own offspring. Thus a Tibby recently took temporary charge of six newly-hatched chickens, carefully protecting them from injury. Another acted as foster-mother to ten ducklings until they were grown up, and was greatly alarmed when they entered the water after the manner of their kind.
Cats are apparently unaffected by heat or cold, or indeed by any discomfort. I have seen as many as six unconcernedly sitting on a snow-covered wall, and a cat I knew well used to nestle deliberately on a garden wall covered with pieces of sharp broken glass placed there for the purpose of keeping cats away!) and seemed actually to prefer it to the soft grass plot.
Weather lore abounds with references to cats, such as, " When cats sneeze it is a sign of rain;" " While rain descends the pensive cat gives o'er her frolics and pursues her tail no more."
Respecting dietary, cat-lovers often make a great mistake in giving their pets only milk to drink. Water is their natural beverage, and, like all carnivora, they require it in abundance. Grass, too, is an essential. Meat is good in moderation, though I have known cats utterly reject liver, and eagerly devour cold potatoes, asparagus, lettuce, beans, and bread.
Upon some such vegetarian diet, Chinese cats are reared for consumption. In Canton may be seen hanging round certain shop-fronts the trussed bodies of Grimalkins, and very funny they look with their white, naked bodies, each with its furry tail left on — tabby, tortoise-shell, or black—to guarantee its being a veritable cat, and not a mere rabbit. But most of the cats exposed for sale in China are sold as curiosities, only a few for eating.
Their aversion to getting wet does not prevent cats from catching fish, which, on the whole, seems to be their favourite food. On board ship they seem to change their nature and paddle about in the scuppers, often getting drenched by the spray, and go wild with excitement when a fish is caught. I shall never forget the antics of the forecastle cat in trying to seize the heart of a large shark that had been killed and gutted. The heart moved about in so uncanny a fashion from muscular contraction that pussy fled aghast, and did not appear again that day.
Cats are brought on board by sailors " for luck." I have known a dozen to be shipped, not one of which survived the voyage, for Jack kills them with kindness, and a diet of salf-beef and pork varied by pea-soup, tea, and biscuit is hardly conducive to cat longevity. For " luck," cats have to endure much, and the aeronaut Dr. Barton once took with him in his airship three black pussies, Botha, De Wet, and Evans.
No doubt cats are strange creatures, and are fittingly chosen as the companions and familiar spirits of witches. " Ingoldsby Legends " speaks of the gossips —
"As they sat in that old and haunted room,
In fiction cats figure almost as prominently as dogs. From memory I will refer to a few — Dick Whittington's of course stands first; then Robinson Crusoe's rather uninteresting cat. There is an awful spectral cat in one of Edgar Allan Poe's tales ; there is Doctor Nikola's black cat in Guy Boothby's novel of that name; and there is Mark Antony, the famous cat who did not fail to recognize its favourite, Cyril Maitland - although wearing Dr. Everard's coat that fatal evening when the future Dean Maitland accidentally committed the murder about which he kept his Silence.
But there are many people who have an unaccountable and unconquerable aversion to these really most interesting animals. Should there be a cat hidden away in a room, the cat-hater instinctively knows it, and cannot rest; either he must leave the room, or the eat must. But, of course, when pussy emerges from her hiding-place, yawning after a doze, she, with strange perversity, goes straight to the antagonistic person. The Great Napoleon held cats in aversion, and it is said that Lord Roberts equally disliked them.
There are cat-adorers, however, in plenty, though some of them carry their craze a little too far, such as the Truro spinster who lived alone with five hundred eats running about the house, until she was very rightly ejected from the premises.
And now to conclude with a few cat stories.
We all know that it is considered unlucky to kill a black cat; and when I had the misfortune to cause the death of one, everybody reminded me of the superstition and wondered I was not more concerned. The mishap occurred in this way. One superb night in Australia, when the stars were shining like electric-lamps, and the atmosphere was still and clear as possible, I (who was at ,a sheep station) set out with my host to complete the tale of possum skins I was collecting for a rug (possum-shooting being generally conducted at night).
A mile from the house our dogs gave tongue at the foot of an isolated gum-tree, and there we espied on one of the branches a fine possum flattened down in the usual' manner when tree'd. " Shoot! " whispered my friend. " All right," I replied. I shot, and something heavy plumped down and remained motionless. " My word ! " he exclaimed, " that must be a big one ! " My friend went up to the quarry, which had fallen into a ditch, but scrambled out with a very long face. " Why, good heavens ! " he ejaculated, we have shot old Tom, my wife's favourite black cat. He must have strayed down the paddock to catch sleeping birds. Poor old chap ! "
We retired in mournful silence. The news was broken gently to the distracted household, and I was fully acquitted. Tom received honorable burial the next morning beneath a spreading fig-tree in the orchard, but for a long time I was haunted by the traditional superstition, and almost expected the misfortunes that never came.
Among the cats I have known was a large and very handsome tortoise-shell, most wonderfully well-mannered, who at the luncheon hour used to go to my bachelor's cupboard, open it deftly, and take out its own tablecloth, a square sheet of brown paper, which it spread on the floor by my side, and upon it ate the scraps I bestowed.
There is a story told concerning a Lancashire cat. It appears that a mining official, who had to leave his house every morning at four o'clock, used to carry a lamp downstairs, and the light therefrom shone through the fanlight over the front door. To his astonishment, every time he reached the end of the staircase, the knocker of the door gave a spectral rap, yet when he opened it there was no one there. Each time, however, a soft and furry cat brushed past him into the hall. He investigated the mat-ter, and found that the cat it was that knocked. And so it went on for weeks—every morning directly the light appeared, the cat, who had spent the night in the open, would leap up at the knocker, lift it with its paw, and then drop to the ground waiting for the door to open.
Here is another instance of pussy knowing the time. A cat was brought up with a farm-labourer's family, and became so devotedly attached to one of the boys, that when the lad was at school, the cat, punctual to the moment at four o'clock in the afternoon, used to slip out through the door, or jump through the window,, and go up the lane nearly a mile to meet the boy coming home.
My favourite and lamented black cat must be honoured by this final reference to cats I have known.
Whence came " Uncle Tom "? Who can tell? He may have dwelt in a palace or a slum; but, anyhow, he was homeless when he became an inmate of our house in a somewhat singular manner. We were new arrivals in London, and had been domiciled only a week when we found how much we missed the dear old cat we had left with friends in the north of England. We were expressing our desire to have another in its place, and wondering how we should set about obtaining one, when a black cat quietly walked in by the front door which had been left ajar, and established itself in the kitchen. A moment later another cat entered the dining-room by the back door!
Well, I declare, here is a black cat ! " called out one of us. While we were speaking, up came the maid, calling out with glee, " Oh, if you please, there's such a lovely black cat in the kitchen! "
Great excitement prevailed at the extraordinary coincidence. The maid declared that " it was evidently in-tended we were to have one of them—quite providential like! " Which should it be? We decided that the doors should be left open, and that the cat that chose to remain (if either should so decide) should be welcomed as a friend.
It was soon settled. The later arrival strolled through the premises, entered the kitchen, and courteously recognising the superior rights and privileges of the first comer, who was basking in the warmth of a big fire, de-parted in a dignified manner. Thus, Uncle Tom — our uninvited guest took up his abode with us.
Every morning at seven o'clock he would come to the door of each bedroom to wake the occupant, and would continue to me-ow, me-ow, until the reply was given, " All right, Uncle Tom." After calling everybody, he would return to my door, and silently wait until I was dressed, when he would conduct me to the breakfast-room, turning round at every step to make sure I was following. Having seen me safely down, he would go back to bring the others in similar fashion.
Uncle Tom knew our individual knocks at the front door, and, while ignoring the knocks of strangers, always went with the servant to answer it for us ; and should the maid be dilatory in attending, he would hasten thither, tap at the inside panels, and me-ow an apology for the delay.
Uncle Tom was wonderfully clever in recognising the names of our friends, especially of those he most liked. Certain names he took no notice of, but when we mentioned the names of any of his favourites, he would, even when apparently dozing, twitch his ears, open his eyes, and show marked pleasure.
Our favourite lived to a good old age, when he became partly paralysed, lost his teeth, and most of his sight. Life was no longer a happiness to clever, genial Uncle Tom, so with great reluctance we consigned him to the fate of Miss Penelope Bird's dog, Tray
"Afflictions sore long time he bore,