PETER (A RELUCTANT SHOW CAT)
By 1898, cat shows were featuring in popular fiction. These early shows were selling shows; a price was put upon the entry by the exhibitor and if the exhibitor didn't wish to sell their exhibit, the price was set prohibitively high.
It was Miss Janet Gordon who suggested the name of “ Laburnum Villa,” and her elder sister promptly agreed that no title could be more suitable. Was there not a laburnum tree on either side of the gate ? True, they were but seven feet high, but they flowered bravely, making a golden archway for a brief three weeks every year. Miss Janet Gordon was three years younger than her sister, and their united ages made a total of 117 years. I would not for worlds be more explicit on such a delicate subject. Miss Adelaide Gordon always affected a costume of black and purple; her sister, black and pink. Black was suitable to their time of life, they said, and economical withal. Laburnum Villa stood about fifty yards back from the village street. You reached the front door By a narrow gravel path, with a small lawn on the left, and a border, gay with flowers, on the right. Everything about Laburnum Villa was small, including its tenants, the two Misses Gordon. Some people went so far as to say you needed magnifying glasses to see the house at all, but this wTas a gross exaggeration. The smallest thing of all was the Misses Gordon’s annual income. I think it was the constant effort to make that sum supply the necessaries of existence that had sown so many anxious lines on their faces. In winter, when the little ladies shivered with cold, an extra woollen shawl had to be put on, instead of resorting to the simpler expedient of another shovel of coals on the tiny fire. Also, there is a certain monotony in bread and cheese as the invariable menu for supper; but the Misses Gordon would partake of it with admirable appetites, and look all the while, with beaming eyes, at the further end of the table, where were placed a large saucer of thick, rich milk, and a small plate, on which lay a dainty slice of liver.
“ While we can afford that ” Miss Adelaide would begin sometimes, and then break off as though words failed her; and Miss Janet would reply—
“ My dear sister, we cannot be too thankful.”
I hasten to explain away the wrong impression which this gratitude might create. These viands did not represent the Misses Gordon’s second course, but Peter’s supper. Whoever felt the pinch of poverty at Laburnum Villa, it was not Peter. If I have not alluded to Peter before, it is because the most important personage should always be mentioned last. Peter was seven years old, and the largest and finest cat you ever saw. Excuse me; your cat, no doubt, is a very fine one, but he could not possibly equal Peter. I have had the honour of Peter’s acquaintance, and can endorse the Misses Gordon’s opinion that he was the biggest, furriest, handsomest, and altogether most superlative cat ever seen. It would be impossible to describe or realise what that cat was to the little couple. Peter was their first thought in the morning, their last at night. In summer, when Miss Gordon gardened, he would sit demurely on the gravel walk, superintending the planting, digging, and watering. Or he would accompany Miss Janet to the fowls’ yard and watch the distribution of grain through the bars of the gate with an impartial eye. Occasionally he would forget his seven years and sport with the butterflies on the lawn; but, man-like, he always required an audience, and never unbent when alone. His favourite pastime was to hang suspended from the topmost branches of any small tree, to the admiration and terror of his mistresses, who momentarily expected to see him fall a mangled corpse at their feet. But when Miss Janet had rushed into the house to tell Jane to bring the step-ladder, and Miss Adelaide had held her gardening apron out for five minutes to break his fall, he would suddenly regain terra firma with a skill and agility all his own. Then there was a chorus of “ Oh ! naughty pussy. How you frightened us! Peter, you must never do that again,” etc., etc. After which, the hero would be carried into the house and supplied with milk and other restoratives.
One hot July afternoon Miss Adelaide had a slight headache and was unable to accompany her sister on their usual walk. Punctually at five o’clock Miss Janet returned, and her sister detected at once that something unusual had occurred.
“ What is the matter, Janet ? ”
“ Is your head better, dear ? Yes ? Well, then, you really must give a guess at my news; but you will never, never guess right, Adelaide. Such an excitement for us, my dear. I will give you one hint. Something is going to happen at Lisbury.”
Miss Adelaide wrinkled her brow. “At Lisbury ? A missionary meeting, my dear ? ”
“ No ; oh, no ! ” Miss Janet clapped her hands with merriment; the jet bugles on her bonnet danced in sympathy with the joke.
“ Guess once more, dear.”
“ A bazaar ? ”
“No. I really must tell you. A Cat Show! Just think, Adelaide! With prizes! Where is Peter ? ”
“In the garden.” Miss Adelaide rose like a war-horse scenting the battle.
“ Lie still, my dear. I will call him.” Miss Janet tripped to the window and called “ Pete—Pete—Pee—ter ! ”
A rush, a spring, and Peter’s large furry person was on the sill. It was tea-time, and his expectant purrs filled the room.
“ He should go to a cat show,” cried Miss Janet, “ and get the first prize—yes, he should. See, Adelaide, I have brought a handbill. August 9th is the date. ‘The price of each cat to be clearly marked.’ ”
“ Everybody will want to buy Peter, won’t they?” said Miss Adelaide, with a ripple of delight.
“ Of course they will; but, Adelaide, we must be careful and put an absolutely prohibitive price on him. What would you suggest ? ”
Miss Adelaide deliberated for some time. “ Twenty pounds, I think,” she said at length.
“ My dear sister! What an enormous sum ! But I suppose it would be safer. Think of seeing Peter surrounded by people longing to buy him if they only had enough money ! ”
The Misses Gordon thought the days went by very slowly. They longed to display Peter’s charms to an admiring and envious crowd. On the morning of the eventful day they came downstairs in their best Sunday gowns and bonnets. Peter was stretched at full length on the lawn, basking lazily in the sun. He was startled and annoyed when Miss Janet swooped round the corner, picked him up in her arms, and started off with her sister to the station. Miss Janet was very tiny and Peter was very large, and although it was quite a short walk her arms began to ache sadly. Peter’s sweet temper, too, was ruffled. He had only just finished a heavy breakfast of bread and milk, and Miss Janet’s brisk walking jogged him up and down most unceremoniously. He began to wriggle, and endeavoured to escape. To his amazement he found that for the first time in his life his wishes were going to be disregarded. It was inconceivable !
“ I shall be sick directly, I know I shall, if this goes on much longer,” he reflected dismally.
The sisters arrived at the station only just in time to plunge into the nearest third class carriage. Peter absolutely refused to lie quietly on either lap, their lace cloaks made him hot. He was rapidly becoming very cross. Fortunately the journey was a brief one; but when they reached the Town Hall, and Peter found himself being put in a wire cage, to which a large card with his class and price was attached — and, in addition, a hot scarlet ribbon tied round his neck—he lost his temper completely. The two little ladies were bursting with pride at this triumphant result of their labours, but Peter wagged his tail furiously and expressed his disapproval in every hair.
“ Good-bye, darling, darling” said the little sisters, “ we shall come back this afternoon, Peter, and hear everybody admiring our lovely pussy. Peter, darling, kiss me,” and Miss Janet knelt on the dusty floor and put her face to the wire cage, regardless of spectators. But Peter refused. He was furious at the trick played upon him; he wanted his soft, green lawn, and he swore at Miss Janet and dashed his angry tail against the bars. Miss Janet rose hurriedly and without another look at him hurried out of the hall. Neither sister spoke for a long time; then Miss Janet said tremulously—
“He doesn’t like it, dear Adelaide; I wish we had known.”
“Oh, well!” said Miss Adelaide, with determined cheerfulness, “ It is only until five o’clock, and he will forget all about it when he is home again.”
“ I never dreamed he would dislike it,” faltered Miss Janet, and she could not enjoy the Lisbury shop windows as she had anticipated, because of a continuous mist before her eyes.
At half past four the Misses Gordon hurried back to the Town Hall. Without looking to the right or left the sisters worked their way through the crowd until they reached Peter.
“Pe ” they began simultaneously, but the word died away on their lips. Another card was hung on Peter’s cage, and it bore the word “ Sold ” in large red letters. Miss Adelaide turned very white, but Miss Janet flew to the nearest attendant and grasped the man’s arm.
“ What—what does this mean?” she stammered, pointing to the card, her voice harsh and strained.
“ The cat was bought, ma’am, almost directly we opened,” said the man, with a broad grin of congratulation.
“ Bought ? ” gasped the old ladies.
“ Yes, ma’am. By Mr. Anstruther, the American gent. I heard him say he was in luck to get such a fine specimen. Colonel Ross will tell you about it, ma'am.”
The two little figures stood there gazing at Peter without moving or speaking. Peter had quite got over his fit of sulks. He was tired and cramped, and wanted to be let out and taken home. He mewed to that effect and stretched his furry paws through the bars towards his mistresses. What had come over them to change them like this ?
It was more than the old ladies could stand. They did not cry or faint, but there came a loud buzzing in their ears ; the hall, with all the cages, began to turn round and round, and above everything sounded Peter’s plaintive cries.
“ We must find Colonel Ross,” said Miss Adelaide at last in a husky whisper. The manager of the Cat Show knew the Misses Gordon well. He started up with concern when the sisters appeared before him, pale and wild-eyed.
“ My dear ladies ” he began, but Miss Adelaide interrupted. In a few sentences she had poured out the whole tragedy. Colonel Ross’s eyes began to twinkle mutinously, but the miserable faces sobered him.
“ I will go and tell Anstruther at once,” he said kindly; “ don’t you fret, Miss Gordon, Miss Janet. I am sure he will give the cat back. Pray sit down — I won’t be long.”
Not a word passed between the two old ladies during his absence. When they heard his returning footsteps they jumped up in an agony of suspense.
“Anstruther was very loth to give him up, I can tell you,” said the Colonel smiling; “ but I prevailed upon him, so you can go and rescue Peter when you please.”
“ Oh, Colonel Ross! ” cried the old ladies, and there were tears in each voice.
“ Quite so, quite so,” said the Colonel hastily, in deadly terror of hysterics; “ suppose we go and let him out at once ? ”
The sisters followed him in silence. Colonel Ross beckoned to the attendant to unlock the cage, and Peter stepped out, purring, triumphant. In an instant Miss Janet had him tightly clasped in her arms, and Miss Adelaide smothered his broad head with kisses. They were trotting out of the hall in a tremendous hurry when a thought suddenly struck them.
“ Oh! Colonel Ross, we have never thanked you,” they said breathlessly, and Miss Janet added incoherently, “Forgive our rudeness, pray, but the thought of losing him has been such a shock to us.”
“ And you have thrown twenty pounds into the gutter, Miss Janet,” said the Colonel, shaking his head gravely.
“ But we have got Peter back! ” cried the Misses Gordon in an ecstatic duet.
And such being the case, it was surely superfluous of the old ladies to cry over their recovered treasure all the way home.