HISTORY does not record the name of the person who first conceived the idea of domesticating the cat. All we know with certainty is that the individual in question was not an Englishman. Some people, learned in philology, assert that pussy was first domesticated in Persia. The evidence upon which this theory is based is the name "Puss," which is alleged to be a corruption of " Perse." Personally, I would not hang a dog, much less consign a cat to Persia, upon such evidence.
' Wherever it was first domesticated, the cat soon came to occupy a high position in human esteem. This is proved by the fact that cat mummies have been discovered in Egypt, where temples were dedi¬cated to the quadruped. How the creature succeeded in thus ingratiating itself is a mystery to me. I have studied the ways of the animal for some years, and have been unable to discover a shred of respectability about pussy's character. It is true that I admire the magnificent way in which the cat always falls on its feet when thrown out of the window. I once saw a cat flung from the third floor of a London house. Puss fell lightly on her feet and strolled off in a most dignified manner.
The cat is an ungrateful creature; she attaches herself to localities, not to persons. Cat-lovers will probably take exception to this assertion ; but let them for a moment compare their cats with their dogs. How many cats have they possessed that would follow them about wherever they went and refuse to leave them unless tied up, or held back by force ? How many cats have they owned that would receive them with great demonstrations of joy after a short absence? How many cats have they known that would invariably come to their owner when called ? These are all attributes of even a poor pariah dog.
The cat is selfishness personified. It is a discontented creature, and manifests its discontent by emitting that most abominable of sounds -: a miau. It is sly, cunning, and not over-valorous. It dislikes a bath, and is, as a rule, incapable of real affection. It is a savage, which has lost few of its ancestral traits. It is the most contemptible member of the most cruel family of mammals.
"No creature," writes Lockwood Kipling, "is more independent than the cat. Its more complete domestication in the West is in reality mainly due to its love of warmth. For the sake of comfort it will tolerate humanity, and blink amiably at the fireside, but a serene selfishness is at the basis of its character. The Indian domestic cat is not bound to the family circle by the need of warmth ; there is no fireside to speak of, and it lives its own life."
Pussy consents to be semi-domesticated in the West because she is cute enough to know that she is a gainer thereby. She is petted and pampered, so in return "blinks amiably" at, and purrs to, her benefactor. There is no denying the fact that the cat is a very intelligent animal. Feline toleration of the human race is, then, comprehensible; but why do so many human beings love the cat ?
One can of course easily understand why the whole race of domestic servants in Europe look with kindly eyes upon the miniature tiger. It is the scapegoat of the genus servitor. It bears the burden of many break¬ages of crockery, not all of course; to ascribe to pussy all the damage sustained by the household china would be tantamount to killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, for it would lead inevitably to the rapid expulsion of the cat -: hence it happens that articles of crockery have a foolish and disagreeable habit of coming to pieces in the hands. Oh! fragile cups and saucers, why come asunder at the gentle touch of Mary Ann ?
Then, again, cats keep down the population of mice, hence the affection with which servants regard poor pussy. But this does not explain the love which the elderly spinster of all classes entertains towards a most objectionable quadruped. Victor Hugo has, I think, discovered the reason. According to him, " Dieu a fait le chat pour donner a l'homme le plaisir de caresser le tigre."
People keep cats just because cats are felidae. The cat is obviously a tiger in miniature, hence the fascination which it exercises over the human mind.
In the Middle Ages cats were feared rather than loved, and, as we shall see, cats are not now, nor ever have been, universally popular. The mysterious air of the cat, its nocturnal habits, its terrible caterwaulings, which often sound like the cries of human beings in distress, and its shining orbs, all tended to cause the belief that cats were witches' familiars.
Sailors, who are invariably superstitious, object to having cats on a ship; but when once a cat finds its way on board it is usually allowed to remain there, for, were pussy thrown overboard, a furious storm would assuredly arise.
Before passing on to demonstrate the popular dislike of cats, let me quote the excellent description of the animal given by Bartholomew Angelicus: " He is a full lecherous beast in youth, swift, pliant, and merry, and leapeth and reseth on everything that is afore him, and is led by a straw and playeth therewith, and is a right heavy beast in age and full sleepy, and lieth slyly in wait for mice, and is aware where they be more by smell than by sight, and hunteth and reseth on them in privy places, and when he taketh a mouse he playeth therewith, and eateth him after the play. In time of love is hard fighting for wives, and one scratcheth and rendeth the other grievously with biting and with claws, and he maketh a rueful noise and ghastful when one preferreth to fight with another, and hardly is he hurt when he is thrown down off an high place. And when he hath a fair skin he is, as it were, proud thereof, and; goeth fast about, and is oft for his fair skin taken of the skinner and slain and flayed."
As evidence of the general and, as I think, well-founded dislike of the cat, I may cite the distich which often accompanies the signpost on inns, bearing the sign of " The Cat and Lion " : -:
"The lion is strong, the cat is vicious, My ale is strong, and so is my liquors."
A Frenchman named Bertrand had to leave his native country in a hurry, having been detected in a plot against Cardinal Mazarin. He fled to the Hague, where he opened a cutler's shop, setting up as a sign a picture representing a cat and the Cardinal and wrote under it: " Aux deux mechantes bites''
Among the natives of India, too, the cat does not seem to be popular. This is evidenced by many native proverbs. I quote two from Lockwood Kipling : " The cat with mouse tails still hanging out of her mouth says: ' Now I feel good, I will go on a pilgrimage to Mecca,'" and "The cat does not catch mice for God." Some people not merely dislike cats, they loathe them with a great loathing. Napoleon was a case in point.
Henry III of France is said to have fainted at the mere sight of a cat. But the gentleman who "takes the cake " is he who wrote many years ago to the "Spectator ": " As I was going through a street of London, where I had never been till then, I felt a general clamp and faintness all over me, which I could not tell how to account for, till I chanced to cast my eyes upwards, and found that I was passing under a signboard on which the picture of a cat was hung!"
Even nowadays many people declare that they cannot bear to be in the same room as a cat, a black one for preference; they assert that they can feel an uncanny presence, even though the quadruped be not visible.
Personally, I have no objection to the company of a well-behaved cat, but "poor puss" is not an animal which appeals to me. I have lived too long in London to cherish any friendly feelings towards the feline race. Too often have I been awakened by the caterwaulings which nightly emanated from some roof of bad repute.
We were unfortunate enough to have as our next-door neighbour a lady novelist. " The woman writer," says Mr. Crosland, "is an offence in the sight of Olympus." This sentiment seems scarcely polite, and I am not prepared to subscribe to it until I have discovered whether every feminine author keeps a Cats' Home, as the lady writer in question did. The good woman loved cats.
Now, to all those who are similarly disposed towards pussy I would respectfully say: " Remember that cats are not what they seem. During the day they look as though butter would not melt in their mouths; they appear to be paragons of virtue, models of saintliness. But what a difference in the night! Then they become fiends incarnate.
" Remember, ye possessors of cats, that you get the benefit of your pets by day, but your neighbours get it by night. You cannot keep cats and be popular." To the neighbours I would say: "Keep an air gun." I speak as one having special knowledge. I lived for years next door to the aforesaid Cats' Home, and succeeded in keeping the inmates on their side of the garden wall. A cat, when once it has received the charge from a " Gem" air gun, is a remarkably wary animal. No cat ever ventured outside that Home without keeping an eye on the windows of our house. If any one appeared at a window the cat would show a turn of speed that would do credit to any greyhound.
I remember on one occasion looking out of the window and seeing the lady novelist stroking "dear pussy." The creature was purring contentedly, and all went well until it happened to catch sight of me. In less time than it takes to say " Jack Robinson " that cat had put three gardens between itself and me. The astonishment of the lady writer at the seemingly extraordinary behaviour of " puss " was good to watch. But cats are not without their redeeming features. They catch mice, and the bolder spirits among them will stand up to a rat.
Further, the veneer of domestication covers the cat so scantily that it is scarcely necessary to go into the wilderness in order to study the ways of the felidae in a state of nature. It suffices to watch puss. Note the stealth with which she walks and the noiselessness of her footfall. Contrast her silent gait with the noisy pitter-patter of the dog. There is, of course, no necessity for pussy to walk as though she were dodging a policeman; this practice is the survival of a trait useful, nay indispensable, to the wild species, which have to stalk over dried grass and shrivelled leaves a prey which is keen of hearing and fleet of foot. Notice the tremendous speed at which a cat can run and the mighty springs of which she is capable. The best manner of witnessing this is to throw a jug of cold water over the cat when she is asleep in the garden.
Observe how cunning pussy is when engaged in shikar. Notice the crouching attitude she adopts and the stealthy manner in which she advances towards her victim. Mark the tail: the tip is raised and is slowly wagged from side to side. This is the only sign given by the cat of the intense excitement with which she is thrilled. A sportsman in India may, if he be fortunate, see a tiger do all this.
The nocturnal proclivities of puss are nothing but a survival of the habits of her ancestors. Most, if not all, her cousins in the wild state hunt during the hours of darkness. Their eyes are made for night-work.
There is, however, one difference between the cat and wild carnivora which it is important to notice, otherwise he who watches pussy will entertain an exaggerated idea of the cruelty of beasts of prey. When a cat catches a mouse she tortures her victim before she actually kills it. I do not think that the mouse suffers much pain while the cat is indulging in her cruel play at its expense. The little rodent is, I believe, half-paralysed, and its senses completely numbed.
Men who have been carried off by lions declare that they experienced no fright; that, indeed, they scarcely realized what was happening. Be this as it may, pussy entreats her victim thus shamefully because she is not hungry; she indulges in shikar for pleasure, and not to satisfy a craving for food.
The wild carnivora, although they thoroughly enjoy hunting, rarely attack other creatures unless driven to do so by the pangs of hunger. Under such circumstances, a beast of prey does not "play" with its victim; it gives it the happy despatch immediately on catching it and proceeds to devour it. The tragedies of nature are usually accompanied by but little cruelty.