Nonfiction > Carl Van Vechten > The Tiger in the House > Chapter Three
Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964).  The Tiger in the House. 1922.
Chapter Three
Ailurophobes and Other Cat-Haters
        Some men there are love not a gaping pig;
Some that are mad if they behold a cat.

ONE is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants, cockatoos, H. G. Wells, Sweden, roast beef, Puccini, and even Mormonism, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand. The cat himself insists upon this; he invariably inspires strong feelings. He is, indeed, the only animal who does. From his admirers he evoke an intense adoration which usually finds an outlet in exaggerated expression. It is practically impossible for a cat-lover to meet a stray feline on the street without stopping to pass the time of day with him. I can say for myself that it takes me considerably longer to traverse a street in which cats occur than it does a catless thoroughfare. But so magnetic an animal is bound to repel when he does not fascinate, and those who hate the cat hate him with a malignity which, I think, only snakes in the animal kingdom provoke to an equal degree. Puss has, indeed, been dubbed the “furred serpent.” The association of the cat with witches and various superstitions is responsible for a good deal of this antipathy; there is also the aversion of those who love dogs and birds with unreasonable exclusions; finally it has pleased many small boys to make scientific investigation into the proverbial saying that a cat has nine lives. So the cat through the ages has been more cruelly and persistently mistreated than any other beast. This is, I suppose, natural, when we remember that in one epoch he was regarded as a god and in another as an adjunct of sorcery; accordingly he has suffered martyrdom along with other gnostics.
  There is even a disease for cat-haters, known as ailurophobia, in spite of the fact that ailuros (the waving ones) which the Greeks took aboard their ships to kill mice, are now thought to have been snowy-breasted martens. 1 Ailurophobia is a stronger feeling than hate; it is a most abject kind of fear. Strong men and women are seized with nausea, even faint, in the presence of a tiny kitten, sometimes even an unseen kitten. The simplest form of this complaint is asthmatic ailurophobia; in other words people who suffer from asthma or hay-fever find the disease aggravated by the presence of cats. The other form is more serious. I have a friend, otherwise seemingly sane, who exhibits symptoms of the most violent terror at the sight of a kitten four weeks old; an older cat will sometimes throw her into convulsions. This malady is not rare, nor is it limited to women. Scott writes of a gallant Highland chieftain who had been “seen to change into all the colours of his plaid” 2 when confronted with a cat. Probably the most celebrated ailurophobe in history was Napoleon. According to a popular legend, not long after the battle of Wagram and the second occupation of Vienna by the French, an aide-de-camp of the Corsican, who at the time occupied, together with his suite, the Palace of Schönbrunn, was proceeding to bed at an unusually late hour when, on passing the door of Napoleon’s bedroom, he was surprised to hear a most singular noise and repeated calls for assistance from the Emperor. Opening the door hastily, and rushing into the room, he saw the greatest soldier of the age, half undressed, his countenance agitated, beaded drops of perspiration standing on his brow, making frequent and convulsive lunges with his sword through the tapestry that lined the walls, behind which a cat had secreted herself. Madame Junot was aware of this weakness and is reported to have gained an important political advantage over the Little Corporal merely by mentioning a cat at the right moment. In one of his Spectator papers Addison tells how a lover won his lady from an ailurophobic rival with the assistance of a “purring piece of tortoise-shell.” And Peggy Bacon has woven a diverting tale of an ailurophobic King and a felinophilistic Queen whose troubles were finally solved by the Court Physician, who brought them a thin, wiry, long-legged creature, with no tail at all, large ears like sails, a face like a lean isosceles triangle with the nose as a very sharp apex, eyes small and yellow like flat bone buttons, brown fur, short and coarse, and large floppy feet. It had a voice like a steam siren and its name was Rosamund. “The King and Queen were both devoted to it; she because it was a cat, he because it seemed anything but a cat.” 3   2
  Dr. S. Weir Mitchell spent some time investigating the matter of ailurophobia, sending letters of query all over the world. He reported 4 that from one point of view the result was entirely unsatisfactory. The mass of evidence he accumulated gave him no clue to the cause of the ailment. It has sometimes been included with prenatal phenomena but without, it would seem, sufficient justification. Dr. Mitchell educes a theory that it is the odour which these ailurophobes detect when they ferret out hidden pussies but cats, house-cats at any rate, are practically devoid of odour to the ordinary nose. However it must be remembered that there are people who can sort handkerchiefs fresh from the laundry by smelling them. Nevertheless Dr. J. G. Wood’s theory that ailurophobes sense hidden cats by their electricity seems more plausible.   3
  Whatever the cause there are many recorded instances of persons suffering from ailurophobia exhibiting symptoms of distress in rooms which apparently contained no cats; later cats would be discovered, hidden behind curtains or in closets. Dr. Mitchell furnishes us with an interesting example: “In my own family an uncle was the subject. My father, the late Professor John K. Mitchell, having placed a small cat in a closet with a saucer of cream, asked Mr. H. to come and look at some old books in which he would be interested. He sat down, but in a few minutes grew pale, shivered and said, ‘There is a cat in the room.’ Doctor Mitchell said, ‘Look about you. There is no cat in the room. Do you hear one outside?’ He said, ‘No, but there is a cat.’ He became faint and, complaining of nausea, went out and promptly recovered.”   4
  Rudyard Kipling once wrote an amusingly ironic story 5 about an ailurophobe, who, through seemingly mystic channels, was plagued with cats even as the Egyptians were plagued with locusts. Half the psychical societies in India appear to have been interested in the solution of the phenomenon but the explanation when it finally came was neither supernatural nor miraculous. The page in which Kipling describes the “sending” is very diverting: “When a man who hates cats wakes up in the morning and finds a little squirming kitten on his breast, or puts his hand into his ulster-pocket and finds a little half-dead kitten where his gloves should be, or opens his trunk and finds a vile kitten among his dress-shirts, or goes for a long ride with his mackintosh strapped on his saddlebow and shakes a little squalling kitten from its folds when he opens it, or goes out to dinner and finds a little blind kitten under his chair, or stays at home and finds a writhing kitten under the quilt, or wriggling among his boots, or hanging, head downwards, in his tobacco-jar, or being mangled by his terrier in the veranda,—when such a man finds one kitten, neither more nor less, once a day in a place where no kitten rightly could or should be, he is naturally upset. When he dare not murder his daily trove because he believes it to be a Manifestation, an Emissary, an Embodiment, and half a dozen other things all out of the regular course of nature, he is more than upset. He is actually distressed.”   5
  Ailurophobes, as a rule, do no harm to cats, although they are often quite willing to have others put them out of the way. They usually let cats alone and as cats like to be let alone they often manifest perverse attention towards ailurophobes, giving them marks of affection and honour. “I once had a large silver-ringed cat,” writes Andrew Lang, “of unemotional temperament. But finding a lady, rather ailurophobic, in a low dress at dinner, Tippoo suddenly leaped up and alighted on her neck. He was never so friendly with nonailurophobes.”   6
  No, it is not from people who fear cats that puss’s greatest enemies are recruited. Perhaps unjust and stupid natural historians 6 have had something to do with the occasional disfavour in which domestic felines are held. Witness, for example, what Buffon has to say about the tiger in the house: “The cat is a faithless domestic, and only kept through necessity to oppose to another domestic which incommodes us still more, and which we cannot drive away, for we pay no respect to those, who, being fond of all beasts, keep cats for amusement. Though these animals are gentle and frolicsome when young, yet they, even then, possess an innate cunning and perverse disposition, which age increases, and which education only serves to conceal. They are naturally inclined to theft and the best education only converts them into servile and flattering robbers; for they have the same address, subtlety, and inclination for mischief or rapine. Like all knaves, they know how to conceal their intentions; to watch, wait, and choose opportunities for seizing their prey; to fly from punishment, and to remain away until the danger is over, and they can return with safety. They readily conform to the habits of society, but never acquire its manners; for of attachment they have only the appearance, as may seem by the obliquity of their motions and the duplicity of their looks. They never look in the face those who treat them the best, and of whom they seem to be the most fond, but either through fear or falsehood, they approach him by windings to seek for those caresses they have no pleasure in, but only to flatter those from whom they receive them. Very different from that faithful animal the dog, whose sentiments are all directed to the person of his master, the cat appears only to feel for himself, to live conditionally, only to partake of society that he may abuse it, and by this disposition he has more affinity to man than the dog, who is all sincerity.” Buffon somewhat redeems himself by his last sentence but the foregoing part of this diatribe is arrant nonsense. Far from averting their gaze, cats have a habit of staring at one by the hour; it is one of their most disconcerting tricks. But why waste time confuting Buffon? In that invaluable work of reference, “The Devil’s Dictionary,” I find that Ambrose Bierce remarks in his definition of “Zoology”: “Two of the science’s most illustrious expounders were Buffon and Oliver Goldsmith, from both of whom we learn (‘l ‘Histoire générate des anmaux’ and ‘A History of Animated Nature’) that the domestic cow sheds its horns every two years.” Bierce, himself, however, was no lover of cats. I do not think he cared for any kind of animal, certainly not for man. His definition of “Cat” in this same dictionary is “A soft indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.” Noah Webster may be added to this infamous list. In his dictionary he inserted this gratuitous insult to “the stealthy-stepping cat”: “The domestic cat is a deceitful animal and when enraged extremely spiteful.” 7 Sir Walter Scott originally disliked cats; in his latter days he admitted: “The greatest advance of age which I have yet found is liking a cat, an animal which I detested, and becoming fond of a garden, an art which I despised.” King Henry III of France, a weak and dissolute monarch, hated cats. So did Meyerbeer. M. Jusserand says of Ronsard, “He cannot hide the fact that he likes to sleep on the left side, that he hates cats, dislikes servants ‘with slow hands,’ believes in omens, adores physical exercises and gardening, and prefers, especially in summer, vegetables to meat.” And Ronsard himself left evidence of his aversion in the following stanzas:
        Homme ne vit, qui tant haïsse au monde
Les chats que moi, d’une haine profonde.
Je hai leurs yeux, leur front, et leur regard;
Et les voyant je m’enfuis d’autre part. 8
Edmund Gosse has rendered these lines into English:
        There is no man now living anywhere
  Who hates cats with a deeper hate than I;
I hate their eyes, their heads, the way they stare,
  And when I see one come, I turn and fly. 9
Honoré Schœfer and Toussenel also hated cats. The latter once remarked that no man of taste could maintain sympathetic relations with an animal which was fond of asparagus.
  Hilaire Belloc has very forcibly expressed his dislike of cats, but in spite of himself, admiration for the little animals sneaks in and out of his horrid lines:   8
  “I do not like Them. It is no good asking me why, though I have plenty of reasons. I do not like Them. There would be no particular point in saying I do not like Them if it were not that so many people doted on Them, and when one hears Them praised, it goads one to expressing one’s hatred and fear of Them.   9
  “I know very well that They can do one harm and that They have occult powers. All the world has known that for a hundred thousand years, more or less, and every attempt has been made to propitiate Them. James I would drown Their mistress or burn her, but They were spared. Men would mummify Them in Egypt, and worship the mummies; men would carve Them in stone in Cyprus and Crete and Asia Minor, or (more remarkable still) artists, especially in the Western Empire, would leave Them out altogether, so much was Their influence dreaded. Well, I yield so far as not to print Their name, and only to call Them, ‘They’ but I hate Them and I am not afraid to say so.  10
  “Their master protects Them. They have a charmed life. I have seen one thrown from a great height into a London street which when It reached it It walked quietly away with the dignity of the Lost World to which It belonged.  11
  “They will drink beer. This is not a theory; I know it; I have seen it with my own eyes. They will eat special foods; They will even eat dry bread … but never upon any occasion will They eat anything that has been poisoned, so utterly lacking are They in simplicity and humility, and so abominably well filled with cunning by whatever demon first brought Their race into existence.  12
  “All that They do is venomous, and all that They think is evil, and when I take mine away (as I mean to do next week—in a basket), I shall first read in a book of statistics what is the wickedest part of London, and I shall leave It there, for I know of no one even among my neighbours quite as vile as to deserve such a gift.” 10  13
  Alphonse Daudet was afraid of cats; he told Georges Docquois the cause of this terror: “One evening we were at home, circled around the lamp. My father alone was absent and not expected to return that night. Indeed, we expected nobody. The peace of the fireside was complete and charming. Suddenly, in the next room, the piano began to play itself. As if under the gloved fingers of thick mittens, the notes cried feebly at intervals.… I was terrified. All of us were frightened.… After a moment of silence, the piano suggested lugubrious chromatic groans. It was as though souls were weeping in the drawing-room. What a sensation! Then the piano spoke no more, ceased to groan, but there was a fall on the carpet of something light and heavy at the same time, a muffled weight impossible to describe.… After another silence, a little cry.… It was the house-cat.”  14
  If cat-haters would only be content with hating no one would have any complaint to make, but poor puss has been persecuted as virulently as Christians in ancient Rome and Jews in modern Poland.
        Cats both black and brave unnumbered
Have for naught been foully slain.
  As he frequently jumped in and out of the windows of houses inhabited by witches he speedily became affiliated in the public mind with the pythoness herself and often shared her dread fate. These mediaeval hags did nothing to dispel this belief, for often in their confessions they inculpated cats. In a seventeenth century execution fourteen cats were shut in a cage with a woman who was roasted over a slow fire while the cats in misery and terror clawed her in their own death agonies. When Queen Elizabeth was crowned a feature of the procession was a wicker pope, the interior of which was filled with live cats, who “squalled in a most hideous manner as soon as they felt the fire.” The culmination of many a religious fête in Germany, France, and England consisted in pitching some wretched puss off a height or into a bonfire. In 1753 certain Frenchmen received a quittance of one hundred sols parisis for having furnished during three years all the cats necessary for the fires of the festival of St. John.  16
  In Vosges, cats were burned on Shrove Tuesday; in Alsace they were tossed into the Easter bonfire. In the department of the Ardennes, cats were flung into the bonfires kindled on the first Sunday in Lent; sometimes, in a more graceful form of cruelty, they were hung over the fire from the end of a pole and roasted alive. “The cat, which represented the devil, could not suffer enough.” In the midsummer fires formerly lighted in the Place de Grève at Paris it was the custom to burn a basket, barrel, or sack full of live cats which was hung from a tall mast in the midst of a bonfire. In 1648 Louis XIV, crowned with a wreath of roses and bearing roses in his hands, ignited this fire, danced before it, and partook of the banquet afterwards in the Hotel de Ville. 11  17
  Workmen in France were at one time accustomed before laying the last board in a floor to intern underneath it a living cat; this ceremony was supposed to carry good fortune to the inmates of the house. In demolishing old mansions in Paris the dried remains of pussies convulsed in suffering that they endured in dying are often found.  18
  In the old remedies devised by hags and sorcerers there were cat ingredients: cats’ brains, cats’ eyes and cats’ grease were called for in certain prescriptions. In an old collection called “The Young Angler’s Delight” the following recipe for catching fish may be found: “Smother a cat to death; then bleed him, and having flea’d paunched him, roast him on a spit without larding; keep and dripping to mix with the yolks of eggs and an equal quantity of oil of spikenard; mix these well together, and anoint your line, hook or bait therewith, and you will find them come to your content.”  19
  Small boys have long held it to be their prerogative to torment cats, tying cans or a string of exploding firecrackers to their tails, installing their paws in walnut shells, or sending them to navigate the horse-pond in a bowl. Booth Tarkington, who may be considered an authority on the adolescent period, writes, “The suffering of cats is a barometer of the nerve-pressure of boys, and it may be accepted as sufficiently established that Wednesday—after school-hours—is the worst time for cats.… Confirming the effect of Wednesday upon boys in general, it is probable that, if full statistics were available, they would show that cats dread Wednesdays, and that their fear is shared by other animals and would be shared, to an extent by windows, if windows possessed nervous systems. Nor must this probable apprehension on the part of cats and the like be thought mere superstition. Cats have superstitions, it is true, but certain actions inspired by the sight of a boy with a missile in his hand are better evidence of the workings of logic upon a practical nature than of faith in the supernatural.” 12 Edwin Tenney Brewster 13 tells how boys in default of a proper football played their game through with two living cats bound together with a clothes line. “The public is sentimental,” he observes. “It can’t bear to have the little things killed. So it drops them into ash-barrels, where they die—in the course of time and not altogether comfortably. It tosses them into cess-pools, and happily the next rain sends water enough to drown them. Specially careful house-wives before consigning kittens to the waste heap have been known to make them into neat bundles, in paper boxes, tied with string. This kindly device protects the helpless creatures from stray dogs, and allows them to smother or starve in quiet. A short and easy method in tenement districts is simply to open the window and toss the kittens out. A four-story drop on to the brick pavement or area spikes is commonly a sufficient hint to an intelligent kitten not to return.” Cats are thrown off church towers with blown bladders attached to their necks, killed by dogs, thrown into barrels with dogs to fight, kicked to death, drowned, turned alive into bakers’ ovens 14 and stoves, thrown into lime, their heads crunched under heels, tied together by their tails and hung up. In Spain, in Gautier’s day, it was the custom to deprive cats of their ears and their tails, giving them the appearance of “Japanese chimeras.” 15 In Havana, I have been told, urchins enjoy a merry sport which entails the dipping of puss into a pail of kerosene and a subsequent ignition. Then the comet-like trail of howling fiery fur is released. In 1815, just before the departure of Napoleon for St. Helena, a wag perpetrated a joke in the city of Chester. Handbills were distributed which announced that the island was overrun with rats and that 16 shillings would be paid for every full-grown tom cat, 1Os. for every full-grown female, 2s. 6d. for every kitten. On the day appointed the city was filled with men, women, and children carrying cats. A riot ensued and the cats escaped. Several hundred were killed and many others drowned while the remainder infested neighbouring houses and barns for many weeks afterwards. 16 In France puss is undoubtedly frequently eaten as rabbit. Of this custom I have found a brief mention in a book, the name of the unworthy author of which I will not further advertise. A French sailor is speaking: “Sometimes We have rabbit stew. When my sister was married we had rabbit stew. For weeks before-hand we caught cats on the roads, in the fields, in the barns. My brother caught cats and I caught cats, and my father caught cats; we all caught cats. We caught forty cats, perhaps fifty cats. Some were toms, some were females with kittens inside them. Some were black and some were white and some were yellow and some were tabbies. One cat scratched a big gash in my brother’s face and he bled. Then we locked them in a room, my father and I.… My brother was afraid after he had been scratched.… We went into the room with cudgels and beat about us, beat the cats on the head. For an hour we chased them round the room until all the cats lay dead on the floor. How they did howl, and screech, and fight, but we were a match for them. Then my brother and my mother skinned the cats and made a magnificent rabbit stew for my sister’s wedding.” One of the adventures of that arch-rogue, Till Eulenspiegel, relates how he sewed a cat in a hare’s skin and sold the beast to some furriers at Leipsig. Before dining on its carcass the merchants wished to enjoy the pleasures of the hunt; so they loosed the animal in the garden and set the dogs after it, but the hare climbed a tree and begun to mew, whereupon, of course, Till’s merry prank was exposed and the cat was killed.  20
  In order to test their superior theories on the subject of education it will be remembered that the inimitable Bouvard and Pécuchet experiment with a boy and a girl. These incorrigible children proceed at once, of course, to demolish the theories. One of Victor’s horrible exploits entails the torture of a cat. Hearing the screams of Marcel, the servant, Bouvard and Pécuchet rush to the kitchen.  21
  “‘Take him away! It’s too much—it’s too much!’  22
  “The lid of the pot flew off like the bursting of a shell. A greyish mass bounded towards the ceiling, then wriggled about frantically, emitting fearful yowls.  23
  “They recognized the cat, quite emaciated, with its hair gone, its tail like a piece of string, and its dilated eyes starting out of its head. They were as white as milk, vacant, so to speak, and yet glaring.  24
  “The hideous animal continued its howling till it flung itself into the fireplace, disappeared, then rolled back in the middle of the cinders lifeless.  25
  “It was Victor who had perpetrated this atrocity, and the two worthy men recoiled, pale with stupefaction and horror. To the reproaches which they addressed to him, he replied, ‘Well! since it’s my own,’ without ceremony and with an air of innocence, in the placidity of a satiated instinct.”  26
  In “The Brothers Karamazoff” Dostoievsky indicates the malignance of Smerdyakoff by telling us that in his childhood he “was very fond of hanging cats, and burying them with great ceremony. He used to dress up in a sheet as though it were a surplice and sang, and waved some object over the dead cat as though it were a censer.” In an extremely bad book called “Nightshade” the malevolent Dr. Meisterlimmer flings a cat out of an open window into a courtyard. “It fell four storeys and broke its spine. He laughed in his own hearty fashion to see it dragging itself along on its front paws and wailing.…” 17  27
  At least one cat suffered for having religious convictions. George Borrow in “Wild Wales” 18 describes this poor animal left behind in Llangollen by a former vicar. Nearly all the inhabitants of the village were dissenters and they refused to harbour the beast, nay more they persecuted it. “O, there never was a cat so persecuted as that poor Church of England animal, and solely on account of the opinions which it was supposed to have imbibed in the house of its late master, for I never could learn that the dissenters of the suburb, nor indeed of Llangollen in general, were in the habit of persecuting other cats; the cat was a Church of England cat, and that was enough: stone it, hang it, drown it! were the cries of almost everybody. If the workmen of the flannel factory, all of whom were Calvinistic Methodists, chanced to get a glimpse of it in the road from the windows of the building, they would sally forth in a body, and with sticks, stones, or for want of other weapons, with clots of horse-dung, of which there was always plenty on the road, would chase it up the high bank or perhaps over the Camlas—the inhabitants of a small street between our house and the factory leading from the road to the river, all of whom were dissenters, if they saw it moving about the perllan, into which their back windows looked, would shriek and hoot at it, and fling anything of no value, which came easily to hand at the head or body of the ecclesiastical cat.” The reader will be glad to learn that Borrow took puss in hand, cured him of an eruptive disease, fed him until he was sleek, and when he left the neighbourhood gave him in charge to a young woman of “sound church principles.” He subsequently learned that the cat “continued in peace and comfort till one morning it sprang suddenly from the hearth into the air, gave a mew and died.”  28
  On vivisection, although undoubtedly one of the perils of cat life, I have no intention of dwelling here, but it seems an apt point to speak of the internal operations of Professor Mantegazza of Milan, whose “Physiology of Love” is more or less familiar to English readers. Professor Mantegazza has also written a “Physiology of Pain,” for which he conducted experiments “with much delight and extreme patience for the space of a year.” 19 There is no necessity of rehearsing the sickening details of this fiendish book but it may be stated that among other torments the Italian devised a machine, which indeed he dubbed a “tormentor” in which little animals which had first been “quilted with long thin nails” so that the slightest movement was agony, were wracked with added tortures, torn and twisted, crushed and lacerated, hour after hour. “In the august name of Science, animals have been subjected to burning, baking, freezing; saturation with inflammable oil and then setting on fire; starvation to death; skinning alive; larding the feet with nails; crushing and tormenting in every imaginable way. Human ingenuity has taxed itself to the utmost to devise some new torture, that one may observe what curious results may ensue.” 20 There are those who defend cats in trouble. Octave Mirbeau describes such a one in his very harrowing story, “Le Gardien des Vaches” 21 in which a kitten is tortured but the torturer in turn meets his death. What, one wonders, would the author of “Le Jardin des Supplices” have written about Mantegazza?  29
  There are further the bird-lovers, some of whom are so rabidly hysterical on the subject of cats that they would have them all destroyed. 22 About the mere sentimentalists who protest against the cruelty of the cat I have nothing to add to my remarks in the second chapter of this book. It is natural for a cat to kill birds; the cat is carnivorous and, like the Follies girls, he finds a bird particularly tasty. Some cats enjoy hunting for its own sake and kill many birds they do not eat. Persian cats, because of their value, are usually kept in semi-captivity and may therefore be ruled out of the discussion.  30
  The majority of those who write against the cat as a birdhunter give the question an economic twinge. This is an old dodge of reformers, a tried and true formula of the uplift, and it almost always is efficacious in stirring up a certain kind of public interest. In this instance these gentlemen assert that the birds free the farm vegetation of grubs and that the cat in destroying the birds helps to destroy farm produce. This is all very well but I have never thought that the object of a scare-crow was to frighten cats and I have seen an entire cherry-tree denuded of its fruit in a morning by a flock of birds. 23 It is pleasant to remember that Mr. Darwin has a curious speculation as to how a scarcity of cats in a rural district would soon affect the neighbouring vegetation as the field animals and birds they prey on would, of course, proportionately increase and their greater numbers tell on vegetable life.  31
  When Calvin, Charles Dudley Warner’s exceptional cat, first brought in a bird, Mr. Warner told him that it was wrong, “and tried to convince him, while he was eating it, that he was doing wrong; for he is a reasonable cat, and understands pretty much everything except the binomial theorem and the time down the cycloidal arc. But with no effect. The killing of birds went on to my great regret and shame.” However one day when he found the pea-pods empty and the strawberry bed raped of fruit Mr. Warner had a change of heart. He called Calvin and petted him. “I lavished upon him an enthusiastic fondness. I told him that he had no fault; that the one action that I had called a vice was an heroic exhibition of regard for my interests. I bade him go and do likewise continually. I now saw how much better instinct is than mere misguided reason. Calvin knew.… It was only the round of Nature. The worms eat a noxious sometimes in the ground. The birds eat the worms. Calvin eats the birds. We eat—no, we do not eat Calvin. There the chain stops. When you ascend the scale of being, and come to an animal that is, like ourselves, inedible, you have arrived at a result where you can rest. Let us respect the cat. He completes an edible chain.” 24 It is pleasant to recall that most literary chapters on the cat are in a similar vein; even that great bird-lover, Olive Thorne Miller, inserted a highly laudatory chapter on the cat, the common, out-door cat at that, in one of her bird books. 25 The malignant cat-haters, in print, are usually commissioners or superintendents. They very frequently become feverish and sometimes even foam at the mouth. One, for instance, speaks of a blood-thirsty house-bred kitten who had never seen a bird, crouching and preparing to spring at a phonograph which was negotiating a nightingale’s song. 26 I can duplicate this story. Aeroplanes frequently fly past my garret window and when they do Feathers invariably manifests the liveliest emotion, rushes to the window, gives her hunting cry; her hair bristles and she prepares to spring.  32
  Nature, as Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Anatole France, James Branch Cabell, and some others have discovered, seldom rejects an opportunity to be ironic. It should therefore surprise no one to learn that a bird is one of the most dangerous enemies of the cat. The eagle swoops from the skies, seizes the cat along his spine with its terrible claws, mangles his head with its beak the while it flaps its gaunt and terrifying wings and bears the little beast aloft. A keeper in the eagle house at a London zoological garden informed Dr. Louis Robinson 27 that when the eagles were off their food he offered them cats. “If they won’t eat cats they are about to die,” he said.  33
  Another of the most inveterate and selfish enemies of the cat is the supposed friend who goes to Palm Beach in the winter or Lake Placid in the summer and leaves puss alone in the city to shift for himself, or the tender-hearted lady who says, “I just can’t bear to drown those sweet kittens.” So she takes the unweaned babies away from their mother and leaves them in some public garden where they will meet a cruel death at the hands of boys or the jaws of dogs, and the mother cat suffers not only from the loss of her offspring but from a milk disease as well. 28  34
  It is quite a cheering thought to realize that cats sometimes hate as keenly as people, that they too contrive their little revenges and Sicilian vendettas whereby they may in some small degree compensate for the insults doled out to their race. A familiar Irish story has it that a man once severely chastised a cat for some misdemeanour, after which the feline disappeared. A few days later the man met the cat in a narrow path. The animal glared at him with a wicked aspect and when he endeavoured to frighten her away, she sprang at him, fastening herself to his hand with so ferocious a grip that it was impossible to make her open her jaws and the creature’s head actually had to be severed from her body before the hand could be extricated. The man afterwards died from his injuries. Variations of this theme have appeared in fiction. In Frederick Stuart Greene’s story, “The Cat of the Cane-brake,” 29 the feline revenges himself upon a woman who had mistreated him by dragging a rattle-snake to her bed and placing it on her chest. Nor must we forget the eccentric Mr. Wilde’s cat in Robert W. Chambers’s story, “The Repairer of Reputations.” 30 In her first appearance in the tale she attacks the ugly dwarf: “Before I could move she flattened her belly to the ground, crouched, trembled, and sprang into his face. Howling and foaming they rolled over and over on the floor, scratching and clawing, until the cat screamed and fled under the cabinet, and Mr. Wilde turned over on his back, his limbs contracting and curling up like the legs of a dying spider.” On a later occasion Mr. Wilde is discovered “groaning on the floor, his face covered with blood, his clothes torn to shreds. Drops of blood were scattered over the carpet, which had also been ripped and frayed in the evidently recent struggle. ‘It’s that cursed cat.’ he said, ceasing his groans, and turning his colourless eyes to me, ‘she attacked me while I was asleep. I believe she will kill me yet.’” 31 Mr. Wilde was perfectly right; the cat did kill him.  35
  In Poe’s tale, “The Black Cat” it will be recalled that the protagonist has persistently maltreated a black cat named Pluto, who in the end is responsible for handing his master over to the police as the murderer of his wife. Two old stories offer interesting corroboration of this fable. One relates how a murder had been committed in the city of Lyons and a physician requested to inquire into the particulars concerning it. Accordingly he went to the home of the murdered woman where he found her dead on the floor, lying in a pool of blood. An enormous white cat surmounted the cupboard, his eyes fixed on the corpse, his whole bearing indicative of the greatest terror. All night he kept watch over his dead mistress. The following morning, when the room was filled with soldiers, he still maintained his position, disregarding the clanking of the arms and the noisy conversation. As soon, however, as the persons under suspicion were brought in, he glared at them with particular malignancy, and then retreated under the bed. From this moment the prisoners began to lose their audacity and subsequently they confessed to the murder and were convicted. 32 A similar story is to be found in the autobiography of Miss Cornelia Wright: 33 “An old woman died a few years ago. She had a nephew, to whom she left all she possessed. She had a favourite cat, which never left her, and even remained by the corpse after death. The nephew was a lawyer, and while he was reading the will after the funeral the cat remained restlessly outside the door of the room, apparently adjoining that in which the old lady died. When the door was opened the cat sprang at the lawyer, seized him by the throat, and was with difficulty prevented from strangling him. The man died about eighteen months later and on his deathbed confessed that he had murdered his aunt to obtain possession of her money.” Edward Jesse 34 relates a tale he had from a man who was sentenced to transportation for robbery. He and two other thieves had broken into the home of a gentleman who lived near Hampton Court. While they were gathering their plunder in sacks a large black cat flew at one of the robbers and fixed her claws in his face.  36
  We must not forget the old nursery rhyme:
        I love little pussy,
  Her coat is so warm;
And if I don’t hurt her
  She’ll do me no harm.
The cat, unlike the dog, refuses to return good for evil, or to turn the right cheek when struck upon the left. These revenges. however, are extreme. A cat usually flees a persecutor or ignores him. But it is amusing to remember that this is the animal the dog-lover sometimes calls ungrateful!

Note 1.  According to the researches of Professor Rolleston of Oxford. [back]
Note 2.  “Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft,” p. 30. [back]
Note 3.  “The Queen’s Cat” in “The True Philosopher.” [back]
Note 4.  “Cat Fear”; “The Ladies’ Home Journal”; March 1906. [back]
Note 5.  “The Sending of Dana Da” in “In Black and White.” [back]
Note 6.  Those who have no feeling for cats regard them as ululant retromingent mammals. Thomas Pennant, perhaps, was one of these. Here is his description of the sphinx of the fireside: “It is an useful, but deceitful, domestic; active, neat, sedate, intent on its prey. When pleased it purres and moves its tail; when angry it spits, hisses, and strikes with its foot. When walking it draws in its claws: it drinks little: is fond of fish: it washes its face with its fore-foot (Linnaeus says at the approach of a storm): the female is remarkably salacious; a piteous, squalling, jarring lover. Its eyes shine in the night: its hair when rubbed in the dark emits fire; it is even proverbially tenacious of life: always lights on its feet: is fond of perfumes, marum, cat-mint, valerian, etc.” [back]
Note 7.  Dr. Johnson, who really liked cats better than Boswells, was somewhat diffident about saying so. The definition in his dictionary is ambiguous: “A domestick animal that catches mice, commonly reckoned by naturalists the lowest order of the leonine species.” [back]
Note 8.  From a long poem addressed to Remy Belleau, the poet, quoted in Graham R. Tomson’s anthology, “Concerning Cats.” [back]
Note 9.  “Gossip in a Library,” p. 178. [back]
Note 10.  “On Them” in “On Nothing and Kindred Subjects”; Methuen and Co.’ 1908. [back]
Note 11.  These examples are from Frazer’s “The Golden Bough.” [back]
Note 12.  “Penord and Sam,” p. 205. [back]
Note 13.  “The City of 4,000,000 cats”; “McClure’s Magazinel”; May 1912. [back]
Note 14.  In the early editions of “Marius the Epicurean” you may discover this paragraph: “It was then that the host’s son bethought him of his own favourite animal, which had offended somehow, and had been forbidden the banquet,—‘I mean to shut you in the oven a while, little soft, white thing!’ he had said, catching sight, as he passed an open doorway, of the great fire in the kitchen, itself festally adorned, where the feast was preparing; and had so finally forgotten. it. And it was with a really natural laugh, for once, that, on opening the oven, he caught sight of the animal’s grotesque appearance, as it lay there, half-burnt, just within the red-hot iron door.” Mr. Pater removed this passage from later editions of this book. [back]
Note 15.  “Voyage en Espagne,” p. 299. [back]
Note 16.  Phyfe: “5,000 Facts and Fancies.” [back]
Note 17.  “Nightshade,” by Paul Gwyne; Constable and Co., London, 1910; p. 270. [back]
Note 18.  Chapter VII. [back]
Note 19.  “Fisiologia del Dolore,” p. 101. [back]
Note 20.  Albert Leffingwell, M. D.: “Vivisection in America” in Henry S. Salt’s book, “Animals’ Rights”; Macmillan and Co., New York, 1894. [back]
Note 21.  In the volume entitled “La Vache Tachetée,” p. 40. [back]
Note 22.  In 1897 there was founded in Westphalia the Antikatzenverein, the avowed object of which was war against the cat. [back]
Note 23.  The bird-lovers occasionally give themselves away. In an article in “Bird-Lore,” May 1918, William Brewster tells how the frightened chipmunks away from his tulips and starlings from his cherries with a stuffed maltese and white pussy with glaring yellow eyes. The starlings, however, soon were privy to the deception and continued their depredations. [back]
Note 24.  “My Summer in a Garden.” [back]
Note 25.  “Upon the Tree-Tops.” [back]
Note 26.  T. G. Pearson: “Cats and Birds” in “The Art World,” May 1917. I wonder if Mr. Pearson knows that game-keepers in England sometimes kill nightingales because their singing keeps the pheasants awake? [back]
Note 27.  “Wild Traits in Tame Animals.” [back]
Note 28.  I know of a case of this kind in which a friendly older cat suckled the mother until her milk disappeared. [back]
Note 29.  “The Metropolitan Magazine”; August 1916. [back]
Note 30.  “The King in Yellow.” [back]
Note 31.  In “The Street of the Four Winds” (also in “The King in Yellow”) Mr. Chambers introduces us to a charming white cat as an antidote to his previous monster. [back]
Note 32.  “Dictionnaire d’anecdotes’; 1820; Vol. 2, p. 274. [back]
Note 33.  “Autobiography of Miss Cornelia Wright, lady companion to the Princess Charlotte of Wales,” two volumes, 1861; W. H. Allen and Co.; London. [back]
Note 34.  “Gleanings in Natural History”; London; 1838. [back]



Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2020 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit · Free Essays · Cookie Settings