London Society: An Illustrated Magazine. Vol. 21, 1872.
"DIED, in Southampton Row, in Bloomsbury, Mrs. Gregg, a single lady, between fifty and sixty years of age, remarkable for her benevolence to cats, no fewer than eighty being entertained under her hospitable roof at the same time. Her maids being frequently tired of their attendance on such a numerous house held, she was reduced at last to take a black woman to attend upon and feed them.' She left this sable attendant an annuity, conditional on the due care and sustenance of tho cats." So said Sylvanus Urban, eighty years ago. And there have been other cases nearly similar: such as that of a gentleman at Hackney, who earned for himself the soubriquet of Cat Norris, on account of the numerous cats which he cherished.
Grimalkin once now and then attracts a spurt of popular attention ; and it is perhaps right that it should be so, for he appears to have had a good many hard rubs to bear. If Cattle Shows, Horse Shows, Pigeon Shows, Poultry Shows, Bird Shows, and Dog Shows — even Baby Shows and Barmaid Shows—why not Cat Shows ? If people persist in doubting whether there has ever been such a being as a tortoiseshell tomcat, why should not others try to answer the question in the affirmative ? If Persian cats are shorter in the back and longer in the legs than others, why should we not know it? Did a cat ever live twenty-six months without drink? and has a cat ever been known to exceed thirty years of age? and was there not a remarkable police court case lately, touching the personal identity of a white Persian cat ? If we like such subjects, have we not a right to discuss them ?
The tortoiseshell problem is one of the toughest relating to cats. Every one admits that the combination of red and yellow in the male animal, if observable at all, is very rare ; and the rarity gives rise to a high commercial value just as in the case of old pictures, old china, and uniques of various kinds. Some breeders have found that, cross how they might, they can never produce this phenomenon ; if tom, then a few black or white hairs mixed with the yellow and red; if no black or white, then tom's sister, perhaps, but not tom. Some persons have suspected, and even asserted, that nitrate of silver is occasionally used to sophisticate the colour of tom's coat. There was once a tortoiseshell cat named Dick ; but the animal lost both name and fame on becoming the mother of a litter of kittens. The "Times" newspaper has not been without its allusions to this subject. In one issue there was an announcement : ' A handsome Tortoiseshell Tom Cat to be disposed of on reasonable terms.' In another : ' To be sold, a real Tortoiseshell Tom Cat, fifteen months old, and eight pounds weight;' and diligent readers of the paper could doubt less find other examples. About sixty years ago there was one of these rarities sold by auction in London, and fetched such an enormous price as to become quite a public topic. Mr. Bannister, the comedian, made fun about it in an entertainment called the 'Budget,' while song-books and broadsheets revelled in the song of ' The Tortoiseshell Tom Cat,' or (in another form), ' Tommy Tortoiseshell.' The song puts the Cat into a Catalogue issued by Mr. Cats-eye of Cateaton Street; and brings in the syllable cat in plentiful abundance.
Men, as well as women, it seems, helped to run up the biddings to more than two hundred guineas :—
'E'en nine or ten fine gentlemen were in the fashion caught as well
As ladies in their biddings for this purring piece of tortoiseshell !'
Four other lines ran thus -
'Of its beauty and its quality 'tis true he told us fine tales ;
But as for me I would as soon have bought a cat-o'-nine-tails.
I would not give for all the cats in Christendom so vast a fee
To save them from the cataracts or Cataline's catastrophe !'
Not only the tortoiseshell, but the yellow, and also the tri-coloured, are subject to the same problem : are there any toms included in the number? Again, white cats are reputed to be always deaf and dumb ; but some possessors assert that their proteges are as wide awake as any other cats. Again, there is the problem about tails. We all hear of the flagellatory cat-o'-nine-tails ; but are there any cats wholly without such appendages ? There are, unquestionably, cats in the Isle of Man thus bereft ; and hence the saying, that 'Manx cats are tailless ;' but whether a cat once lost her tail by accident, and thus established a new breed, or whether (as has been rumoured) crafty and cruel rogues sometimes curtail poor puss, in order to obtain a high price for a so-called Manx cat, are matters open for discussion.
According to Pennant, King Howel laid down a good stiff value for cats in Wales nine hundred years ago : ' The price of a kitling before it could see was to be a penny; till it caught a mouse, twopence ;' provided the little one passed a good examination by certain tests. ' If any one stole or killed the cat that guarded the prince's granary, he was to forfeit a milch ewe, its fleece, and lamb ; or as much wheat as when poured on the cat, suspended by its tail (the head touching the floor), would form a heap high enough to cover the tip of the tail.'
Pussy has unquestionably been a favourite with many persons. Witness Mrs. Gregg and Cat Norris ; and witness Richard Robert Jones, an eccentric who died in 1826, and who kept copies of all the pictures and all the verses he could meet with about cats. One of Gray's lighter minor poems, his ' Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat,' gives a pleasant picture of a well-fed and well-treated puss :
'Her conscious tail her joy declared ;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat that with the tortoise vies,
Her cars of jet and emerald eyes,
She saw and purr'd applause.'
She was looking at her own reflected image in a stream ; she saw two fish swim by, and dipped down her paw to catch them ; but overtoppled, fell into the water, and was drowned.
On the other hand, some persons have a great antipathy to cats. Such is said to have been the case with Napoleon. A story is told that, after his brilliant victory at Wagram, and while temporarily sojourning at the humbled Emperor of Austria's palace at Schonbrunn, he one night called out hastily in' his bedroom for assistance. An equerry or aide-de-camp entered, and found his potent master half-undressed, agitated, perspiring, and dealing intended blows at something or other. In truth, a cat had secreted herself behind some tapestry hangings in the room, and Napoleon was making desperate lunges at her through the hangings, almost as much in terror as puss herself.
But the modes of making use of a cat as a symbol, metaphor, representative, or type, are much more varied than the actual show either of fondness or aversion ; although, it must be confessed, puss is seldom complimented on these occasions. As to the signs of taverns, such as the ' Salutation and Cat,' * Cat and Bagpipes,' and ' Cat and Fiddle,' much conjecture has been hazarded concerning their origin, but without any very definite result. Some of the learned say that ' Cat and Fiddle ' comes from ' Catan Fidele ' faithful Catherine; but this leaves unexplained our old familiar, ' Hey diddle diddle, The cat and the fiddle,' &c. Not less difficult is it to trace the origin of certain old saws and sayings — such as this, that if you butter a cat's feet, she will become domesticated in your house ; or this, that if a cat sneezes or coughs, every person in the house will soon catch cold. Then, what is the meaning of ' Cat's cradle,' that wonderful see-saw of thread or string in which children delight, and which they often call ' Scratch cradle ?' Some think that it ought to be 'Cratch cradle,' cratch being still a name for the hay-rack over the manger in a stable ; and that it was associated, in mediaeval times, with some rude semblance to the Holy Manger; if so, cats have evidently nothing to do with the matter.
The old saying that ' Cats suck the breath of infants, and so kill them,' is sometimes attended with discomfort to puss, who is hurried away from the soft surroundings of baby, lest she should verify the proverb. Why is a particular game called Cat? No one knows. It has something of cricket, something of trap-ball, but is neither; what wo know is, that the little bit of wood called the Cat is troublesome to passersby. The term Gib-cat, once applied to tom, is supposed to have come from Sibert, familiar for Gilbert; but this does not help us much, for it leaves unexplained why a tom cat should be called Gilbert. Then there is the simile, or standard of comparison, known as the Kilkenny cats, implying mutual destruction : the story being that two cats belonging to that locality fought so long and so fiercely that nothing was left but a bit of one tail. A Kilkenny man, within the last few years, has expressed an opinion that the saying had an origin which had nothing to do with cats. Many generations ago, there were two distinct municipal or corporate bodies in that city, called respectively Kilkenny and Irishtown ; the boundaries of their jurisdictions had never been marked out or clearly defined ; they were at litigation on the subject for nearly three hundred years, until both were nearly ruined by law expenses.
Nobody knows why a particular kind of whistle is named a cat call. Addison, in his humorous and sarcastic essay on this subject, in the 'Spectator,' contrives to glide from cat-calls to cats. 'A Fellow of the Royal Society, who is my good friend, and a great proficient in the mathematical part of music, concludes, from the simplicity of its make, and the uniformity of its sound, that the cat-call is older than any of the inventions of Jubal. He observes, very well, that musical instruments took their first rise from the notes of birds and other melodious animals. " And what," says he, " more natural than for the first ages of mankind to imitate the voice of a cat, that lived under the same roof with them ?" He added that the cat has contributed more to harmony than any other animal ; as we are not only beholden to her for this wind instrument, but for our string music in general.'
Art-connoisseurs are acquainted with a picture by Breughel called the ' Cats' Concert,' in which about a dozen cats are assembled before an open music-book ; the music, as is denoted by a small sketch, is a song about mice and cats; most of the cats are singing, with humorously varied expressions of countenance; one is blowing a horn or trumpet, one wears spectacles, and two or three are beating time with a front paw. Some thing approaching to this was actually attempted at one time at Paris ; a Cat Concert, or ' Concert Miaulant,' was got up, in which several cats were placed in a row, with a monkey as conductor ; when he beat time they mewed, the drollery depending chiefly on the different tones and qualities of the cats' voices. Whether it is the voice, or the manner, there is something that has tempted the more spiteful class of satirists to liken women to cats. For instance, Huddesford, who, in the early part of the present century, wrote a ' Monody on the Death of Dick, an Academical Cat,' launches out into this diatribe against various kinds of women :—
And reputations maul with murd'rous claws ;
Shrill cats, whom fierce domestic brawls delight ;
Cross cats, who nothing want but teeth to bite ;
Starch cats, of puritanic aspect sad ;
And learned cats, who talk their husbands mad ;
Confounded cats, who cough, and crow, and cry ;
And maudlin cats, who drink eternally;
Fastidious cats, who pine for costly cates ;
And jealous cats, who catechise their mates ;
And ne'er give answer categorical ;
Uncleanly cats, who never pare their nails ;
Cat gossips, full of Canterbury tales ;
Cat grandames, vexed with asthmas and catarrhs ;
And superstitious cats, who curse their stars !'
A more pleasant bit of fun, with which Thomas Hood enriched his 'Comic Annual,' is a letter supposed to be written by one Thomas Frost to the Secretary of the Horticultural Society, revealing a most unexpected value of dead cats in gardening. ' I partickly wish the Satiety to be called to consider the Case what follows, as I think might be maid Transaxtionable in the nex Reports. My Wyf had a Tomb Cat that dyd. Being a torture Shell, and a Grate faverit, we had him berried in the Guardian, and for the sake of inrichment of the Mould I had the Carks deposited under the roots of a Gozberry Bush. The Frute being up to then of the Smooth Kind. But the next Seson's Frute after the Cat was berried, the Gozberries was all hairy — and more Remarkable the Catpilers of the same Bush was All of the same hairy discription.'
The instinct of the cat has not escaped the attention of naturalists. Every one agrees that the dog is far more intelligent, faithful, unselfish — attached to his master by something more than mere cupboard love. Still there are occasional instances of puss¦ coining forward as a thinking being, laying plans, and adapting means to ends. As to cats suckling the young of other species of animals, this may possibly arise from some kind of maternal yearning, not simply such as we might call kindness of motive. ' At Guildford, some years ago, a boy brought indoors a couple of blind young rabbits ; the father, rather brutally, gave them to a cat, under the supposition that she would summarily treat them as rats ; in stead of which, she suckled them and took care of them. At Overton, in Hampshire, a cat suckled her own kitten and a squirrel at the same time. In White's ' Natural History of Selborne ' an incident is related of a cat who had been robbed (in a way familiarly known to most households) of her kittens, nursing a young leveret which had lost its mother: the marvel to Gilbert White was that a carnivorous animal should thus suckle one of the graminivorous order. At Woodbridge, in Suffolk, a hen died, leaving two eggs to bemoan their loss. The eggs were placed under a cat when suckling her kittens ; the warmth hatched the eggs, the chicks came forth, and the cat looked after them as attentively as after her own kittens.
Poor puss sometimes looks as though she would, if she could, tell her troubles to those around her. A kitten died one day, a natural and not a violent death ; the cat brought it indoors in her mouth, laid it at her mistress's feet, and moaningly looked up for succour and sympathy. The instinct of dogs, in finding their way to places under circumstances which would baffle their masters, is paralleled in one instance, if not in many, by the cat. A certain puss had her kitten taken away from her, put into a basket, and carried three miles off, to the other extremity of a large town. Puss disappeared some time afterwards ; but when the street door was opened early next morning, in she composedly walked, with her kitten dangling from her mouth, and replaced it on her own particular cushion. How she had managed her night journey no one knew. A child six years old ran a splinter in his foot, sat down on the floor, and cried so lustily as to wake a cat who was sleeping by the fireside ; the cat got up, went to the child (who was a playmate of her's), gave him a good hearty cuff on the cheek with her paw, returned to the fireside and resumed her nap, as if under the belief that the unusually loud crying was merely the result of ' tantrums.' A cat belonging to a convent received her food only when the bell was rung at meal times. One day she happened to be shut out at this critical period. On gaining admission, an hour or two afterwards, she saw no trace of any allowance on her platter; where upon she set the bell ringing, much to the astonishment of the establishment generally.
The 'Scotsman' newspaper, in 1819, told an anecdote of a cat that was left on shore by mere accident, much to the regret of the shipmaster. When he returned to Aberdour from his voyage, about a month afterwards, puss at once walked on board with a kitten in her mouth, and went directly down to the cabin. It was ascertained that she had lived in a neighbouring wood, coming to have a peep at all the vessels that entered the harbour, but paying no further attention to any except the one which she regarded as her home. And here we may remark that there is said to be a law or rule that if a live cat is found in an abandoned ship, it will prevent the vessel from being treated as derelict, or the property of the finder. If it be so, the rule probably applies to other live animals besides cats; at any rate, it is known that ship owners and shipmasters like to have a cat on board. One more instance of thought, sagacity, or whatever we may call it. A certain pantry window in the country was frequently found to be broken, and was as frequently mended ; to guard it, a board was nailed across the lower part of the sash. One night the master of the house, when in bed, heard taps against the pantry window, just below him. On looking out he saw a cat with her (or his) hind feet on the pantry sill, the left front paw clinging to the top edge of the board as a holdfast, and hammering away against one of the panes of glass with a small stone held in the right paw.
There is some justification for the belief that a new career of honour is opening for puss. Cat shows are likely to become institutions among us. When the Crystal Palace folk entered upon this matter half a year ago, there were no data from which the probable degree of success could be inferred. It was not known whether the owners of fine or rare cats would submit them to public view. But they did ; and the display was a success. The famous question of questions was not quite solved. There was a tortoiseshell tom, but it was admitted that he had a few white hairs about him. People flocked in very large number to tho north nave of the Palace, where the cats were ranged in cages; and newspapers and family circles were, for a week afterwards, discussing the merits of the Duchess of Sutherland's British wild cat, the white Persian cats, the blue-eyed deaf cats, the Siamese cat with the puppy pug-like nose, cats without tails, cats with superabundant toes, cats with less than the proper number of toes, cats weighing more than 21 lbs. each, cats with the brown tabby coat, so rarely seen. And so this first Cat Show having been a success, a second was determined on ; and still more decidedly is pussy now in favour than before. The cats were vastly more numerous ; and so were the visitors. No fewer than 349 mewing, purring beauties competed for public admiration and favour, reclining pleasantly on their cushions. The animals were grouped in forty classes, and three prizes were given in each class: so that about every third exhibitor had a prize, of course much to his or her satisfaction. The shorthaired and the long-haired were duly classified ; while the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offered prizes for choice examples of workmen's cats. Good; kindness to animals ennobles a dustman and a duke alike. The brown, blue, and gray tabbies were in strong muster ; the rare mauve colour was present ; the Australian and the Abyssinian had not been forgotten ; there was a cream colour, which the enraptured owner valued at 1001. ; there were 20 lb. cats, and hybrid white cats, and fawn coloured cats, and — oh, rarity of rarities !—a real tortoiseshell tom, in whose coat not one white hair could be found !