THE CAT, PAST AND PRESENT.* M. CIAI1PFLECRY, as all the
world knows, is a skilled writer of short and readable books on many subjects, and among others he has dealt with The Cat, Past and Present. It is unnecessary to say that his work has not suffered at the hands of so accomplished a translator as Mrs. Cashel Hoey ; she has, indeed, added to its value, not only by a vividness of rendering which is especially her own, but also by the solid contribution of an appendix of " supplementary notes," which, if it contained no more than the delightful extract from Theophile Gantier's Menagerie Mame, would be well worthy of the attention of our readers. M. Champfleury's work is not a scientific treatise like that of our countryman, Mr. St. George Mivart. It is an essay on the popular, and especially the French, way of looking at cats ; and we hope that it will prove as amusing and instructive to our readers as it certainly does to ourselves.
The modern interest in cats, to which the columns of this journal frequently bear witness, is probably due to two characteristics of our day,—its subjective temper, and its passion for detail. Cats reflect with more exact completeness than other animals some of the less obvious features of human character; and thus they at present command the interest which belongs to forgotten or nnattempted subjects. Besides this, they have enlisted in their favour the modern sense of justice. They have had many enemies, and it would be premature to say that they are universal favourites even now. M. Champfleury finds himself at war with representatives of powerful sections of French Society. Among philosophers, Diderot accuses the cats of Langres of such thievish habits " that even when they are taking something that is given to them, their furtive way would make one think they were stealing it" (p. 51). The academician, Al. Flourens, goes so far as to deny that so unsociable an animal as the cat can properly be termed " domestic " (p. 97). M. Toussenel, as a sportsman, rules that" a love of cats is a vice of inferior minds."
* The Cat, Past and Present. From tho French of M. Champfleury, With Supplementary Notes by Mrs. Cashel Hoey. London : George Bell. 1895.
He denounces " sympathy with a beast passionately fond of asparagus." " I never meet a prowling cat," he says, " without doing him the honour of shooting him" (pp. 52-53)—a remark which we have heard, word for word, from a sportsman on this side the Channel. But the greatest authority among the enemies of the cat in France is the naturalist, Buffon, who insists that cats are selfish, perverse, and treacherous,—with nothing beyond the semblance of attachment to man, and presenting a most unfavourable contrast to doge, " who are sincere in everything" (p. 131). To these may be added the physi ologist, who informed the world of his particular satisfaction in vivisecting cats on account of the detestation ho felt for them.
On the other hand, as might be inferred from the character of the French people, the cat has always had many distinguished friends in France. One of M. Champficury's correspondents somewhat maguiloquently describes La Fontaine as " the Homer of cats " (p. 183), whom no doubt he thoroughly understood, just as Gottfried Mind was their " Raphael" (p. 185). Among French Ministers, Cardinal Richelieu and Colbert always had kittens playing about their Cabinets ; Richelieu sent the kittens away when they were more than three months old, and had ceased to be amusing. Louis XIII. distinguished himself as a boy by begging for the lives of the cats, whom it was a custom—Brutal enough—to throw into the bonfires on St. John's Day. More interesting is the tenderness towards cats of distinguished soldiers, like General Houdaille. As a colonel, he was suddenly ordered to lead hits regiment across France, from Toulouse to Metz ; he was obliged to leave his cats behind, and ho used his first leisure to retrace his steps to Toulouse for the purpose of fetching them back. Chateaubriand's love of cats is well known ; for him, they were not merely an amusement, but a study. They were the companions of the many vicissitudes of his life ; as an exile, as an ambassador, as the arbiter, for a while, of French literature, he was devoted to cats. For Chateaubriand, Buffon was to natural history, or at least to this department of it, what the encyclopaedists were to theology, and the Jacobins to politics—a misleader. The cat " Micetto," which was presented to Chateaubriand by Pope Leo XII., has been immortalised by his second owner. Chateaubriand's Memoirs abound in references to the animal, whose independent bearing—" the indifference with which it passes from the salon to the housetop "reflected a quality which Chateaubriand could appreciate. Not that French cats are to be identified too closely with the Church or the Restoration. In a painting, by the Republican Prudhon, representing the Constitution, a cat sits at the feet of Liberty (p. 32). Victor Hugo's favourite cat " Chanoino," so called "on account of his indolence," is, or was, a living expression of feeling towards the Church, with which we cannot expect our clerical readers entirely to sympathise. Salute Beuve's cat was allowed to walk over his table, amidst an accumulation of notes and papers, which no servant would have ventured to disturb. M. Prosper Merimee's enthusiasm for cats was grounded on their " well-bred " manners ; ar..1 iu the ante-room of the great restorer of French cathedrals, who combined advanced Republican and Voltairian opinions with his love of medirevul architec ture,—M. Viollet le Duc,—there was a mosaic of cats, which could hardly have been, professionally speaking, useful to him.
M. Champfleury, although chiefly, is not exclusively French in his treatment of the subject. Among English cats, he has a word for the historic cat of Whittington, Lord Mayor of London, and for the dignified cat which sat on a seat by the side of Cardinal Wolsey while acting in his judicial capacity as Lord Chancellor (p. 64). The story of a yet more famous cat, "Muezza," is told as follows :—
" While Mahomet was concocting his system, his cat sat curledup on his sleeve. While the cat purred, Mahomet reflected, for the purring of a cat makes an excellent bass to meditation. Perhaps the prophet dreamed of his paradise. lie dreamed for a long time, and the cat fell asleep. Being at length obliged to attend to his business, Mahomet took a pair of scissors, cut off the sleeve of his robe on which the cat was sleeping, and rose gently from his seat, happy that he had not disturbed the animal's slumber." (p. 70.)
This reminds us of a visit which a friend made to the late Bishop Thirlwall when he had resigned his see, and was living in retirement at Bath. The Bishop was in very failing health, and, as his visitor thought, looking less comfortable than might have been wished. "Why do you not sit in that arm-chair, my dear Bishop ?" said the visitor. " Don't you see who is there ?" said the Bishop, pointing to a large sleeping cat ; "she must not be disturbed." Cats are like oysters, in that no one is neutral about them ; every one is, explicitly or implicitly, friendly or hostile to them.
And they are like children in their power of discovering, by a rapid and sure instinct, who likes them and who does not. It is difficult to win their affection ; and it is easy to forfeit what it is hard to win. But when given, their love, although less demonstrative, is more delicate and beautiful than that of a dog. Who that is on really intimate terms with a cat has not watched its dismay at the signs of packing-up and leaving home ? We ourselves have known a cat who would recognise his master's footstep after a three months' absence, and come out to meet him in the hall, with tail erect, and purring all over as if to the very verge of bursting. And another cat we know, who comes up every morning between six and seven o'clock to wake his master, sits on the bed, and very gently feels first one eyelid and then the other with his paw. When an eye opens, but not till then, the cat sets up a loud purr, like the prayer of a fire-worshipper to the rising sun. Those who say lightly that cats care only for places, and not for persons, should go to the Cat Show at the Crystal Palace, where they may see recognitions between eat and owner that will cure them of so shallow an opinion. When we were last there, one striking instance fell in our way. Cats greatly dislike these exhibitions ; a cat, as a rule, is like Queen Vashti, unwilling to be shown, even to the nobles, at the pleasure of an Ahasuerus. Shy, sensitive, wayward, and independent, a cat resents being placed upon a cushion in a wire cage, and exposed to the unintelligent criticism, to say nothing of the fingers, of a mob of sightseers. One very eminent cat, belonging to the Master's Common Room at Christ Church, Oxford, whose size and beauty have on several occasions entailed on him the hard necessity of attending a cat show, takes, it is said, three days to recover from the sense of hnmiliation and disgust which he feels, whether he gets a prize or not. On the occasion to which we refer, a row of distinguished cats were sitting, each on his -cushion, with their backs turned to the sightseers, while their faces, when from time to time visible, were expressive of the deepest gloom and disgust. Presently two little girls pushed through the crowd to the cage of one of the largest of these cats, crying, " There's Dick ! ' " Instantly the great cat turned round, his face transfigured with joy, purred loudly, and endeavoured to scratch open the front of the cage, that he might rejoin his little friends, who were with difficulty persuaded to leave him at the Show.
No doubt, local attachment is a prominent feature of a cat's mind ; and a very good quality it is too. It, however, often gets cats into odd company-, as it did those cats whom Baruch mentions as sitting upon the idols of Babylon (vi. 22), if not into serious misfortune. Under this head, our readers should study the story, given by M. Champfleury (pp. 1-H-1-13), of the French cure's cat, who was only induced to leave an old presbytery by being put into a bag and dipped in a pond. This attachment to place is closely connected with a cat's fine power of accurate observation. When a piece of furniture has been moved from its accustomed place, all the cats in the house set themselves to examine the phenomenon, with a view to discovering, if possible, its reason. Cats are, we apprehend, inveterate Conservatives. This principle, rather than ill-nature or jealousy, explains their conduct on the arrival of a new companiou. They first of all tentatively examine it ; then, especially if it be a kitten, they all spit at and scratch it. Only after slow approaches and the lapse of three or four days is the new-comer received even provisionally into the circle of established cats ; but at the end of a month it is just as secure in its position as is the first Reform Bill in the British Constitution, or any aged Peer in the House of Lords. This ready acceptance of accomplished facts illustrates that quality of sagacity in cats upon which M. Champfleury lays stress (cf. pp. 108-127). Cats are, however, sometimes strangely at fault. So was " Madame Theophile," a red cat with a white breast, pink nose, and blue eyes, who was "on terms of the closest intimacy " (p. 198) with M. Theophile Gautier. When Madame first saw a parrot, she evidently took it for a green chicken and was preparing to deal with it accordingly. She gradually made her approaches ; and at last, with one bound, sprang upon the perch where the parrot was sitting. But the bird, without moving, addressed Madame in a deep bass voice, " As-tu Menne, Jacquot ?'' For this accomplishment the cat was wholly unprepared ; after all, it might be a man in disguise. The bird followed up its advantage by further questions,—" Et de quoi? Du roti du roar" and as the cat retired in sheer terror, proceeded to quote French verses, which naturally and utterly completed Madame's discomfiture. However, that we may not leave this subject at an awkward moment, we will advise our readers to study well the account which M. Gautier gives of a cat belonging, if we are right, to his second " dynasty," and bearing the imposing name of " Don Pierrot-de-Navarre;" nor should they omit the story of the epoch-marking cats (they were born soon after the appearance of Les .3Iiserables), " Gavroche" and " Eponine." M. Gautier felt, as, indeed, well-bred cats themselves feel, the importance of names of distinction, such as are suggested by the events or literature of the day. We ourselves know cats who do not care to answer to " Puss," " Tom," " Minnie " (we remember one ferocious cat, larger than a puma, at Rouen, who was thus named), " Baby," and the foolish substitutes for real names which are so thoughtlessly thrown at them. At the same time, we should ourselves shrink from addressing a cat as " Pisistratus Palteologus Porphyrogenitus Malachi Nero" (p. 212), although one magnificent being, who was once described at length in our own columns, seems to have owned this overwhelming name.
Est modus in rebus.
It is to be wished that M. Champfleury could tell us more about the language of cats. He says, however, that sixty-three different myotas have been counted, but that the notation of them is difficult. One, however, would appear certainly to mean, "Are you coming?" (p. 157). Probably cat-language contains more nouns than verbs, and more adjectives than nouns. Cats have, however, a habit, especially at night, of all talking at the same time,—a practice in which, as in other and higher respects, they resemble ladies ; and this makes it difficult for any but intrepid students to arrive at large or definite conclusions on the question of their exact meaning.
Our author, we observe, shrinks from dealing with a delicate subject, much discussed in France ; we mean, how far cats are good to eat. In China, it appears, " enormous cats are regu larly fattened and eaten ;" but French opinion seems still to require that cat should be disguised as rabbit (p. 186). Some of our readers may have known an eminent Oxford tutor whose memories of the Visigothic walls of Carcassonne were overshadowed by his having discovered that some professed bare at a table d'hote in an hotel of that city was really cat. Certain it is, that during the siege of Paris many of the most beautiful and interesting cats in the place were eaten ; and this would seem to show that French feeling on the subject must have changed considerably since the days of Montaigne. He illus trates the force of imagination by the case of a lady who died merely because she supposed, although quite without reason, that she had three or four days before eaten cat-pie :—
"Je Kay qu'un gentilhomme, ayant traiete: chez by une bonne compaignie, se vanta trois ou quatre icurs aprez, par maniere de ien (car it n'en cstoit rien), de lenr avoir faict manger nu chat en paste : de quoy une damoiselle de la troupe print telle horrenr, qu'en estant tumbee en an grand desvoyement d'estomac et Bebvre, it feut impossible de la sanver."—Essais, vol. 1, p. 197, ed. 1828.
But happily this question is not yet within the region of practical ethics in England, nor is it likely to be so, unless, indeed, some of our more fervid Vivisectionists should proceed,to eat whatever they vivisect, as well as to vivisect whatever they eat.
Here, however, we are in the neighbourhood of burning controversies, too serious and urgent to suit the genius of the amusing book before us. So we make our bow, once more advising our readers to make M. Champfleury's acquaintance for themselves.