11 NOVEMBER 1949, Page 10

The Florentine Cat

By NAN WISHART T the street corner Jacopo paused, tail whisking, a creature of impulse, a cat without an idea in his head. The slow water flowed far down beneath the walls without a sound. The Ponte Vecchio was in darkness and quite deserted, and all the little shop-n indows, so alluring to tourists, were shuttered up for the night. Jacopo crossed the bridge keeping close to the wall, very light on his feet, more like the ghost of a cat than a cat of flesh and blood. He met not a soul. He passed along a street under tall houses, with here and there a light showing high above the street level. Here in a hotel bedroom Mrs. Bramwell lay awake. The bed was huge and very hard, and covered with a bright red quilt. She feared she might stifle in the night under the weight of it. She lay there, seeing the headlines in the papers: " American woman stifles in Florence."

Yes, she was in Florence. She was overcome by the marvel of it. If she leant far enough out of the bedroom window she could see the dome of the Cathedral. Tomorrow she had a hundred things to do. Shc must see the tombs of the Medici, the wonderful doors of Ghiberti—but wait, wait, was it Ghiberti ? Michelangelo had said that they were worthy to be the gates of paradise, yes, that was right, but was it Ghiberti ? Was it Giotto ? Brunelleschi ? Was it in Florence ? Was it in Rome ? Mrs. Bramwell's brain, confused by a thousand impressions of churches, domes, frescoes and sculptures, staggered under a truly frightful accumulation of unassimilated know- ledge. The names of the masters and all their works, which had raised themselves like a mighty tower in her eager mind, collapsed in ruins about her. But she was tired, and the pillow was desper- ately hard. In the morning she would remember everything ; she would get up very early and do some sight-seeing before breakfast. There was so much she wanted to see I It may have been the hard pillow and the hot, red quilt, or it may have been the overtaxed state of her brain, but Mrs. Bramwell began to dream almost at once. Certainly from where she lay she could not see Jacopo pass along the street under her window, yet into her dream there came the lean dark form of a cat, which troubled her exceedingly. It fixed its eyes on hers with an intent and awful stare. "That cat bears a message," said Mrs. Bramwell to a dark-faced man who passed her in her dream. " No thoroughfare," replied the man gravely, raising his hat and jumping over a chasm which suddenly opened in the street between them.

Mrs. Bramwell did not like cats, yet she could not escape from the bondage of her dream ; and as she gazed into the topaz eyes fixed motionless on hers she perceived with dismay that they were filled with agonised entreaty. What did the creature want ? What did one do with such a cat ? She lifted her hand and reluctantly touched its head. And no sooner had she touched it than presto ! the cat had vanished like the wind. Turning restlessly, Mrs. Bramwell threw off the red quilt.

But what a wonderful time Jacopo had while Florence was all asleep, and the full moon shone on the Piazza della Signoria ! He danced fantastically and with great daring on the steps of the Loggia dei Lanzi, his shadow sharp and black on the stone. Under the high arches the silent figures in stone and bronze stared out into the night. Jacopo sprang away and was lost in the shadow of the Palace, but .soon his narrow form darted back into the moonlight Under the Perseus he paused. Far above him the bronze figure stood up sword in hand, with winged foot planted on Medusa's outstretched body. Jacopo, beware ! He raised his eyes boldly to the severed head held aloft in Perseus' hand, and instantly a deadly cold ran through his body. His whisking tail grew stiff, his arching back motionless, ears rigid, eyes frozen, a cat that had looked on the Gorgon's head and was instantly turned to stone!

The moon disappeared and the sun came up, and shone very clear and white in the early morning. Mrs. Bramwell, who had so short a time in which to see the wonders of Florence, rose not much later than the sun, and hurried out into the unawakened streets. She gazed on Brunelleschi's stately dome ; she beheld with awe those doors worthy to be the gates of paradise. She hastened to the Piazza della Signoria, and saw the works of the masters whose names were written in the hotel guide-book. Fool that she was, she had forgotten to bring it with her ; she would look them up when she got back.

But how strange it was to see the marble form of a cat crouched in the square beneath the shadow of the arches! She could have sworn it was alive. But it stood motionless as she approached, its head turned from her and raised as if in contemplation of the figure on the pedestal above. She took a step nearer, half curious, half afraid ; for recollection stirred in her mind. Not a hair moved, not a whisker. She bent down and looked into its face ; it was the very cat of her dream! Its marble eyes were fixed and blank. She could not get over her surprise. Mechanically she put out a dubious hand, and felt the hard stone under her fingers. It was cold ; the cat was of marble. " Good gracious! " whispered Mrs. Bramwell, straightening herself and looking round to sec if she was observed. And at that moment Jacopo sprang to life. Like a streak he vanished into the streets of Florence.

It is probable that somewhere in Mrs. Bramwell's brain their lurks a dim recollection of Cellini's Perseus, the bronze doors of Ghibcrti, and the tombs of the Medici, for no one will deny that she saw the wonders of Florence ; but when she tells (as she frequently does) of the miracle wrought by her own hand on the marble cat she found one morning in the Piazza, people arc inclined to look at her askance. Mrs. Bramwell is batty, they suspect. But for my part I have great sympathy with her. I have never doubted that she did indeed sec Jacopo crouched under the Perseus with all the appearance of a fixture ; and surely she may be forgiven for imagining that she was the means of releasing him from some sort of trance or spell. What I do not believe is that ridiculous tale of Jacopo's that he was turned to stone when he looked at the Gorgon's head. The idea) Really, a cat with an imagination like that cannot expect to be taken seriously.