"Oh, what a lovely cat!" is a frequent expression from visitors or passers-by at our house. And from the Pretty Lady down through her various sons and daughters to the present family protector and head, "Thomas Erastus," and the Angora, "Lady Betty," there have been some beautiful creatures.
Mr. McGinty was a solid-color maltese, with fur like a seal for closeness and softness, and with the disposition of an angel. He used to be seized with sudden spasms of affection and run from one to another of the family, rubbing his soft cheeks against ours, and kissing us repeatedly. This he did by taking gentle little affectionate nips with his teeth. I used to give him a certain caress, which he took as an expression of affection. After leaving him at the farm I did not see him again for two years. Then on a short visit, I asked for Mr. McGinty and was told that he was in a shed chamber. I found him asleep in a box of grain and took him out; he looked at me through sleepy eyes, turned himself over and stretched up for the old caress. As nobody ever gave him that but me, I take this as conclusive proof that he not only knew me, but remembered my one peculiarity.
Then there was old Pomp, called "old" to distinguish him from the young Pomp of to-day, or "Pompanita." He died of pneumonia at the age of three years; but he was the handsomest black cat—and the blackest—I have ever seen. He had half a dozen white hairs under his chin; but his blackness was literally like the raven's wing. Many handsome black cats show brown in the strong sunlight, or when their fur is parted. But old Pomp's fur was jet black clear through, and in the sunshine looked as if he had been made up of the richest black silk velvet, his eyes, meanwhile, being large and of the purest amber. He weighed some fifteen pounds, and that somebody envied us the possession of him was evident, as he was stolen two or three times during the last summer of his life. But he came home every time; only when Death finally stole him, we had no redress.
"Bobinette," the black kitten referred to in the previous chapter, also had remarkably beautiful eyes. We used to keep him in ribbons to match, and he knew color, too, perfectly well. For instance, if we offered him a blue or a red ribbon, he would not be quiet long enough to have it tied on; but show him a yellow one, and he would prance across the room, and not only stand still to have it put on, but purr and evince the greatest pride in it.
Bobinette had another very pretty trick of playing with the tape-measure. He used to bring it to us and have it wound several times around his body; then he would "chase himself" until he got it off, when he would bring it back and ask plainly to have it wound round him again. After a little we noticed he was wearing the tape-measure out, and so we tried to substitute it with an old ribbon or piece of cotton tape. But Bobinette would have none of them. On the contrary, he repeatedly climbed on to the table and to the work-basket, and hunted patiently for his tape-measure, and even if it were hidden in a pocket, he kept up the search until he unearthed it; and he would invariably end by dragging forth that particular tape-measure and bringing it to us. I need not say that his intelligence was rewarded.
Speaking of colors, a friend has a cat that is devoted to blue. When she puts on a particularly pretty blue gown, the cat hastens to get into her lap, put her face down to the material, purr, and manifest the greatest delight; but let the same lady put on a black dress, and the cat will not come near her.
"Pompanita," the second Pomp in our dynasty, is a fat and billowy black fellow, now five years old and weighing nineteen pounds. He was the last of the Pretty Lady's ninety-three children. Only a few of this vast progeny, however, grew to cat-hood, as she was never allowed to keep more than one each season. The Pretty Lady, in fact, came to regard this as the only proper method. On one occasion I had been away all day. When I got home at night the housekeeper said, "Pussy has had five kittens, but she won't go near them." When the Pretty Lady heard my voice, she came and led the way to the back room where the kittens were in the lower drawer of an unused bureau, and uttered one or two funny little noises, intimating that matters were not altogether as they should be, according to established rules of propriety. I understood, abstracted four of the five kittens, and disappeared. When I came back she had settled herself contentedly with the remaining kitten, and from that time on was a model mother.
Pompanita the Good has all the virtues of a good cat, and absolutely no vices. He loves us all and loves all other cats as well. As for fighting, he emulates the example of that veteran who boasts that during the war he might always be found where the shot and shell were the thickest,—under the ammunition wagon. Like most cats he has a decided streak of vanity. My sister cut a wide, fancy collar, or ruff, of white paper one day, and put it on Pompanita. At first he felt much abashed and found it almost impossible to walk with it. But a few words of praise and encouragement changed all that.
"Oh, what a pretty Pomp he is now!" exclaimed one and another, until he sat up coyly and cocked his head one side as if to say:—
"Oh, now, do you really think I look pretty?" and after a few more assurances he got down and strutted as proudly as any peacock; much to the discomfiture of the kitten, who wanted to play with him. And now he will cross the yard any time to have one of those collars on.
But Thomas Erastus is the prince of our cats to-day. He weighs seventeen pounds, and is a soft, grayish-maltese with white paws and breast. One Saturday night ten years ago, as we were partaking of our regular Boston baked beans, I heard a faint mew. Looking down I saw beside me the thinnest kitten I ever beheld. The Irish girl who presided over our fortunes at the time used to place the palms of her hands together and say of Thomas's appearance, "Why, mum, the two sides of 'im were just like that." I picked him up, and he crawled pathetically into my neck and cuddled down.
"There," said a friend who was sitting opposite, "he's fixed himself now. You'll keep him."
"No, I shall not," I said, "but I will feed him a few days and give him to my cousin." Inside half an hour, however, Thomas Erastus had assumed the paternal air toward us that soon made us fear to lose him. Living without Thomas now would be like a young girl's going out without a chaperone. After that first half-hour, when he had been fed, he chased every foreign cat off the premises, and assumed the part of a watch-dog. To this day he will sit on the front porch or the window-sill and growl if he sees a tramp or suspicious character approaching. He always goes into the kitchen when the market-man calls, and orders his meat; and at exactly five o'clock in the afternoon, when the meat is cut up and distributed, leads the feline portion of the family into the kitchen.
1. Lady Junia, pure white: winner of first prize in her
Thomas knows the time of day. For six months he waked up one housekeeper at exactly seven o'clock in the morning, never varying two minutes. He did this by seating himself on her chest and gazing steadfastly in her face. Usually this waked her, but if she did not yield promptly to that treatment he would poke her cheeks with the most velvety of paws until she awoke. He has a habit now of going upstairs and sitting opposite the closed door of the young man who has to rise hours before the rest of us do, and waiting until the door is opened for him. How he knows at what particular moment each member of the family will wake up and come forth is a mystery, but he does.
How do cats tell the hour of day, anyway? The old Chinese theory that they are living clocks is, in a way, borne out by their own conduct. Not only have my cats shown repeatedly that they know the hour of rising of every member of the family, but they gather with as much regularity as the ebbing of the tides, or the setting of the sun, at exactly five o'clock in the afternoon for their supper. They are given a hearty breakfast as soon as the kitchen fire is started in the morning. This theoretically lasts them until five. I say theoretically, because if they wake from their invariable naps at one, and smell lunch, they individually wheedle some one into feeding them. But this is only individually. Collectively they are fed at five.
They are the most methodical creatures in the world. They go to bed regularly at night when the family does. They are waiting in the kitchen for breakfast when the fire is started in the morning. Then they go out of doors and play, or hunt, or ruminate until ten o'clock, when they come in, seek their favorite resting-places, and sleep until four. Evidently, from four to five is a play hour, and the one who wakes first is expected to stir up the others. But at exactly five, no matter where they may have strayed to, every one of the three, five, or seven (as the number may happen to be) will be sitting in his own particular place in the kitchen, waiting with patient eagerness for supper. For each has a particular place for eating, just as bigger folk have their places at the dining table. Thomas Erastus sits in a corner; the space under the table is reserved especially for Jane. Pompanita is at his mistress's feet, and Lady Betty, the Angora, bounds to her shoulder when their meat appears. Their table manners are quite irreproachable also. It is considered quite unpardonable to snatch at another's piece of meat, and a breach of the best cat-etiquette to show impatience while another is being fed.
I do not pretend to say that this is entirely natural. They are taught these things as kittens, and since cats are as great sticklers for propriety and gentle manners as any human beings can be, they never forget it. Doubtless, this is easier because they are always well fed, but Thomas Erastus or Jane would have to be on the verge of starvation, I am sure, before they would "grab" from one of the other cats. And as for the Pretty Lady, it was always necessary to see that she was properly served. She would not eat from a dish with other cats, or, except in extreme cases, from one they had left. Indeed, she was remarkable in this respect. I have seen her sit on the edge of a table where chickens were being dressed and wait patiently for a tidbit; I have seen her left alone in the room, while on that table was a piece of raw steak, but no temptation was ever great enough to make her touch any of these forbidden things. She actually seemed to have a conscience.
Only one thing on the dining table would she touch. When she was two or three months old, she somehow got hold of the table-napkins done up in their rings. These were always to her the most delightful playthings in the world. As a kitten, she would play with them by the hour, if not taken away, and go to sleep cuddled affectionately around them. She got over this as she grew older; but when her first kitten was two or three months old, remembering the jolly times she used to have, she would sneak into the dining room and get the rolled napkins, carry them in her mouth to her infant, and endeavor with patient anxiety to show him how to play with them. Throughout nine years of motherhood she went through the same performance with every kitten she had. They never knew what to do with the napkins, or cared to know, and would have none of them. But she never got discouraged. She would climb up on the sideboard, or into the china closet, and even try to get into drawers where the napkins were laid away in their rings. If she could get hold of one, she would carry it with literal groans and evident travail of spirit to her kitten, and by further groans and admonitions seem to say:—
"Child, see this beautiful plaything I have brought you. This is a part of your education; it is just as necessary for you to know how to play with this as to poke your paw under the closet door properly. Wake up, now, and play with it."
Sometimes, when the table was laid over night, we used to hear her anguished groans in the stillness of the night. In the morning every napkin belonging to the family would be found in a different part of the house, and perhaps a ring would be missing. These periods, however, only lasted as long, in each new kitten's training, as the few weeks that she had amused herself with them at their age. Then she would drop the subject, and napkins had no further interest than the man in the moon until another kitten arrived at the age when she considered them a necessary part of his education.
Professor Shaler in his interesting book on the intelligence of animals gives the cat only the merest mention, intimating that he considers them below par in this respect, and showing little real knowledge of them. I wish he might have known the Pretty Lady.
Once our Lady Betty had four little Angora kittens. She was probably the most aristocratic cat in the country, for she kept a wet nurse. Poor Jane, of commoner strain, had two small kittens the day after the Angora family appeared. Jane's plebeian infants promptly disappeared, but she took just as promptly to the more aristocratic family and fulfilled the duties of nurse and maid. Both cats and four kittens occupied the same bureau drawer, and when either cat wanted the fresh air she left the other in charge; and there was a tacit understanding between them that the fluffy, fat babies must never be left alone one instant. Four small and lively kittens in the house are indeed things of beauty, and a joy as long as they last. Four fluffy little Angora balls they were Chin, Chilla, Buffie, and Orange Pekoe, names that explain their color. And Jane, wet nurse and waiting-maid, had to keep as busy as the old woman that lived in a shoe. Jane it was who must look after the infants when Lady Betty wished to leave the house. Jane it was who must scrub the furry quartet until their silky fur stood up in bunches the wrong way all over their chubby little sides; Jane must sleep with them nights, and be ready to furnish sustenance at any moment of day or night; and above all, Jane must watch them anxiously and incessantly in waking hours, uttering those little protesting murmurs of admonition which mother cats deem so necessary toward the proper training of kittens. And, poor Jane! As lady's maid she must bathe Lady Betty's brow every now and then, as the more finely strung Angora succumbed to the nervous strain of kitten-rearing, and she turned affectionately to Jane for comfort. A prettier sight, or a more profitable study of the love of animals for each other was never seen than Lady Betty, her infants, and her nurse-maid. And yet, there are people who pronounce cats stupid.
One evening I returned from the theatre late and roused up the four fluffy kittens, who, seeing the gas turned on, started in for a frolic. The lady mother did not approve of midnight carousals on the part of infants, and protested with mild wails against their joyful caperings. Finally, Orange Pekoe got into the closet and Lady Betty pursued him. But suddenly a strange odor was detected. Sitting on her haunches she smelled all over the bottom of the skirt which had just been hung up, stopping every few seconds to utter a little worried note of warning to the kittens. The infants, however, displayed a quite human disregard of parental authority and gambolled on unconcernedly under the skirt; reminding one of the old New England primer style of tales, showing how disobedient children flaunt themselves in the face of danger, despite the judicious advice of their elders. Lady Betty could do nothing with them, and grew more nervous and worried every minute in consequence. Suddenly she bethought herself of that never-failing source of strength and comfort, Jane. She went into the next room, and, although I had not heard a sound, returned in a moment with the maltese. Jane was ushered into the closet, and soon scented out the skirt. Then she too sat on her haunches and gave a long, careful sniff, turned round and uttered one "purr-t-t," and took the Angora off with her. Jane had discovered that there was no element of danger in the closet, and had imparted her knowledge to the finely strung Angora in an instant. And so, taking her back to bed, she "bathed her brow" with gentle lappings until Lady Betty sank off to quiet sleep, soothed and comforted.
It is not easy to study a cat. They are like sensitive plants, and shut themselves instinctively away from the human being who does not care for them. They know when a man or a woman loves them, almost before they come into the human presence; and it is almost useless for the unsympathetic person to try to study a cat. But the thousands who do love cats know that they are the most individual animals in the world. Dogs are much alike in their love for mankind, their obedience, faithfulness, and, in different degrees, their sagacity. But there is as much individuality in cats as in people.
Dogs and horses are our slaves; cats never. This does not prove them without affection, as some people seem to think; on the contrary, it proves their peculiar and characteristic dignity and self-respect. Women, poets, and especially artists, like cats; delicate natures only can realize their sensitive nervous systems.
The Pretty Lady's mother talked almost incessantly when she was in the house. One of her habits was to get on the window-seat outside and demand to be let in. If she was not waited upon immediately, she would, when the door was finally opened, stop when halfway in and scold vigorously. The tones of her voice and the expression of her face were so exactly like those of a scolding, vixenish woman that she caused many a hearty laugh by her tirades.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox and her favorite cat, Banjo.
Thomas Erastus, however, seldom utters a sound, and at the rare intervals when he condescends to purr, he can only be heard by holding one's ear close to his great, soft sides. But he has the most remarkable ways. He will open every door in the house from the inside; he will even open blinds, getting his paw under the fastening and working patiently at it, with his body on the blind itself, until the hook flies back and it finally opens. One housekeeper trained him to eat his meat close up in one corner of the kitchen. This custom he kept up after she went away, until new and uncommonly frisky kittens annoyed him so that his place was transferred to the top of an old table. When he got hungry in those days, however, he used to go and crowd close up in his corner and look so pathetically famished that food was generally forthcoming at once. Thomas was formerly very much devoted to the lady who lived next door, and was as much at home in her house as in ours. Her family rose an hour or two earlier than ours in the morning, and their breakfast hour came first. I should attribute Thomas's devotion to Mrs. T. to this fact, since he invariably presented himself at her dining-room window and wheedled her into feeding him, were it not that his affection seemed just as strong throughout the day. It was interesting to see him go over and rattle her screen doors, front, back, or side, knowing perfectly well that he would bring some one to open and let him in.
Thomas has a really paternal air toward the rest of the family. One spring night, as usual on retiring, I went to the back door to call in the cats. Thomas Erastus was in my sister's room, but none of the others were to be seen; nor did they come at once, evidently having strayed in their play beyond the sound of my voice. Thomas, upstairs, heard my continued call and tried for some time to get out. M. had shut her door, thinking to keep in the one already safe. But the more I called, the more persistently determined he became to get out. At last M. opened her window and let him on to the sloping roof of the "L," from which he could descend through a gnarled old apple tree. Meanwhile I left the back door and went on with my preparations for the night. About ten minutes later I went and called the cats again. It was a moonlight night and I saw six delinquent cats coming in a flock across the open field behind the house,—all marshalled by Mr. Thomas. He evidently hunted them up and called them in himself; then he sat on the back porch and waited until the last kit was safely in, before he stalked gravely in with an air which said as plainly as words:—
"There, it takes me to do anything with this family."
None of my cats would think of responding to the call of "Kitty, Kitty," or "Puss, Puss." They are early taught their names and answer to them. Neither would one answer to the name of another, except in occasional instances where jealousy prompts them to do so. We have to be most careful when we go out of an evening, not to let Thomas Erastus get out at the same time. In case he does, he will follow us either to the railroad station or to the electric cars and wait in some near-by nook until we come back. I have known him to sit out from seven until midnight of a cold, snowy winter evening, awaiting our return from the theatre. When we alight from the cars he is nowhere to be seen. But before we have gone many steps, lo! Thomas Erastus is behind or beside us, proudly escorting his mistresses home, but looking neither at them, nor to the right or left. Not until he reaches the porch does he allow himself to be petted. But on our way to the cars his attitude is different. He is as frisky as a kitten. In vain do we try to "shoo" him back, or catch him. He prances along, just out of reach, but tantalizingly close; when we get aboard our car, we know he is safe in some corner gazing sadly after us, and that no danger can drive him home until we reappear.
Both Thomas and Pompanita take a deep interest in all household affairs, although in this respect they do not begin to show the curiosity of the Pretty Lady. Never a piece of furniture was changed in he house that she did not immediately notice, the first time she came into the room afterward; and she invariably jumped up on the article and thoroughly investigated affairs before settling down again. Every parcel that came in must be examined, and afterward she must lie on the paper or inside the box that it came in, always doing this with great solemnity and gazing earnestly out of her large, intelligent dark eyes. Toward the close of her life she was greatly troubled at any unusual stir in the household. She liked to have company, but nothing disturbed her more than to have a man working in the cellar, putting in coal, cutting wood, or doing such work. She used then to follow us uneasily about and look earnestly up into our faces, as if to say:—
"Girls, this is not right. Everything is all upset here and 'a' the world's gang agley.' Why don't you fix it?"
She was the politest creature, too. That was the reason of her name. In her youth she was christened "Pansy"; then "Cleopatra," "Susan," "Lady Jane Grey" and the "Duchess." But her manners were so punctiliously perfect, and she was such a "pretty lady" always and everywhere; moreover she had such a habit of sitting with her hands folded politely across her gentle, lace-vandyked bosom that the only sobriquet that ever clung was the one that expressed herself the most perfectly. She was in every sense a "Pretty Lady." For years she ate with us at the table. Her chair was placed next to mine, and no matter where she was or how soundly she had been sleeping, when the dinner bell rang she was the first to get to her seat. Then she sat patiently until I fixed a dainty meal in a saucer and placed it in the chair beside her, when she ate it in the same well-bred way she did everything.
Thomas Erastus hurt his foot one day. Rather he got it hurt during a matutinal combat at which he was forced, being the head of the family, to be present, although he is far above the midnight carousals of his kind. Thomas Erastus sometimes loves to consider himself an invalid. When his doting mistress was not looking, he managed to step off on that foot quite lively, especially if his mortal enemy, a disreputable black tramp, skulked across the yard. But let Thomas Erastus see a feminine eye gazing anxiously at him through an open window, and he immediately hobbled on three legs; then he would stop and sit down and assume so pathetic an expression of patient suffering that the mistress's heart would melt, and Thomas Erastus would find himself being borne into the house and placed on the softest sofa. Once she caught him down cellar. There is a window to which he has easy access, and where he can go in and out a hundred times a day. Evidently he had planned to do so at that moment. But seeing his fond mistress, he sat down on the cellar floor, and with his most fetching expression gazed wistfully back and forth from her to the window. And of course she picked him up carefully and put him on the window ledge. Thomas Erastus has all the innocent guile of a successful politician. He could manage things slicker than the political bosses, an' he would.
One summer Thomas Erastus moved—an event of considerable importance in his placid existence. He had to travel a short distance on the steam-cars; and worse, he needs must endure the indignity of travelling that distance in a covered basket. But his dignity would not suffer him to do more than send forth one or two mournful wails of protest. After being kept in his new house for a couple of days, he was allowed to go out and become familiar with his surroundings—not without fear and trepidation on the part of his doting mistress that he might make a bold strike for his former home. But Thomas Erastus felt he had a mission to perform for his race. He would disprove that mistaken theory that a cat, no matter how kindly he is treated, cares more for places than for people. Consequently he would not dream of going back to his old haunts.
No; he sat down in the front yard and took a long look at his surroundings, the neighboring lots, a field of grass, a waving corn-field. He had already convinced himself that the new house was home, because in it were all the old familiar things, and he had been allowed to investigate every bit of it and to realize what had happened. So after looking well about him he made a series of tours of investigation. First, he took a bee-line for the farthest end of the nearest vacant lot; then he chose the corn-field; then the beautiful broad grounds of the neighbor below; then across the street; but between each of these little journeys he took a bee-line back to his starting-point, sat down in front of the new house, and "got his bearings," just as evidently as though he could have said out loud, "This is my home and I mustn't lose it." In this way he convinced himself that where he lives is the centre of the universe, and that the world revolves around him. And he has since been as happy as a cricket,—yea, happier, for death and destruction await the unfortunate cricket where Thomas Erastus thrives.
But don't say a cat can't or won't be moved. It's your own fault if he won't.