Cats

Author: Maurice Hewlett

There was once a man in Italy—so the story runs—who said that animals were sacred because God had made them. People didn't believe him for a long time; they came, you see, of a race which had found it amusing to kill such things, and killed a great many of them too, until it struck them one fine day that killing men was better sport still, and watching men kill each other the best sport of all because it was the least trouble. Animals said they, why, how can they be sacred; things that you call beef and mutton when they have left off being oxen and sheep, and sell for so much a pound? They scoffed at this mad neighbour, looked at each other waggishly and shrugged their shoulders as he passed along the street. Well! then, all of a sudden, as you may say, one morning he walked into the town—Gubbio it was—with a wolf pacing at his heels—a certain wolf which had been the terror of the country-side and eaten I don't know how many children and goats. He walked up the main street till he got to the open Piazza in front of the great church. And the long grey wolf padded beside him with a limp tongue lolling out between the ragged palings which stood him for teeth. In the middle of the Piazza was a fountain, and above the fountain a tall stone crucifix. Our friend mounted the steps of the cross in the alert way he had (like a little bird, the story says) and the wolf, after lapping apologetically in the basin, followed him up three steps at a time. Then with one arm around the shaft to steady himself, he made a fine sermon to the neighbours crowding in the Square, and the wolf stood with his fore-paws on the edge of the fountain and helped him. The sermon was all about wolves (naturally) and the best way of treating them. I fancy the people came to agree with it in time; anyhow when the man died they made a saint of him and built three churches, one over another, to contain his body. And I believe it is entirely his fault that there are a hundred-and-three cats in the convent-garden of San Lorenzo in Florence. For what are you to do? Animals are sacred, says Saint Francis. Animals are sacred, but cats have kittens; and so it comes about that the people who agree with Saint Francis have to suffer for the people who don't.

The Canons of San Lorenzo agree with Saint Francis, and it seems to me that they must suffer a good deal. The convent is large; it has a great mildewed cloister with a covered-in walk all around it built on arches. In the middle is a green garth with cypresses and yews dotted about; and when you look up you see the blue sky cut square, and the hot tiles of a huge dome staring up into it. Round the cloister walk are discreet brown doors, and by the side of each door a brass plate tells you the name and titles of the Canon who lives behind it. It is on the principle of Dean's yard at Westminster; only here there are more Canons—and more cats.

The Canons live under the cloister; the cats live on the green garth, and sometimes die there. I did not see much of the Canons; but the cats seemed to me very sad—depressed, nostalgic even, might describe them, if there had not been something more languid, something faded and spiritless about their habit. It was not that they quarrelled. I heard none of those long-drawn wails, gloomy yet mellow soliloquies, with which our cats usher in the crescent moon or hymn her when she swims at the full: there lacked even that comely resignation we may see on any sunny window-ledge at home;—the rounded back and neatly ordered tail, the immaculate fore-paws peering sedately below the snowy chest, the squeezed-up eyes which so resolutely shut off a bleak and (so to say) unenlightened world. That is pensiveness, sedate chastened melancholy; but it is soothing, it speaks a philosophy, and a certain balancing of pleasures and pains. In San Lorenzo cloister, when I looked in one hot noon seeking a refuge from the glare and white dust of the city, I was conscious of a something sinister that forbade such an even existence for the smoothest tempered cat. There were too many of them for companionship and perhaps too few for the humour of the thing to strike them: in and out the chilly shades they stalked gloomily, hither and thither like lank and unquiet ghosts of starved cats. They were of all colours—gay orange-tawny, tortoise shell with the becoming white patch over one eye, delicate tints of grey and fawn and lavender, brindle, glossy sable; and yet the gloom and dampness of the place seemed to mildew them all so that their brightness was glaring and their softest gradations took on a shade as of rusty mourning. No cat could be expected to do herself justice.

To and fro they paced, balancing sometimes with hysterical precision on the ledge of the parapet, passing each other at whisker's length, but cutting each other dead. Not a cat had a look or a sniff for his fellow; not a cat so much as guessed at another's existence. Among those hundred-and-three restless Spirits there was not a cat that did not affect to believe that a hundred-and-two were away! It was horrible, the inhumanity of it. Here were these shreds and waifs, these "unnecessary litters" of Florentine households, herded together in the only asylum (short of the Arno) open to them, driven in like dead leaves in November, flitting dismally round and round for a span, and watching each other die without a mew or a lick! Saint Francis was not the wise man I had thought him.

It was about two o'clock in the afternoon. I had watched these beasts at their feverish exercises for nearly an hour before I perceived that they were gradually hemming me in. They seemed to be forming up, in ranks, on the garth. Only a ditch separated us—I was in the cloister-walk, a hundred-and-three gaunt, expectant, desperate cats facing me. Their famished pale eyes pierced me through and through; and two-hundred- and-two hungry eyes (four cats supported life on one apiece) is more than I can stand, though I am a married man with a family. These brutes thought I was going to feed them! I was preparing weakly for flight when I heard steps in the gateway; a woman came in with a black bag. She must be going to deposit a cat on Jean-Jacques ingenious plan of avoiding domestic trouble; it was surely impossible she wanted to borrow one! Neither: she came confidently in, beaming on our mad fellowship with a pleasant smile of preparation. The cats knew her better than I did. Their suspense was really shocking to witness. While she was rolling her sleeves up and tying on her apron—she was poor, evidently, but very neat and wholesome in her black dress and the decent cap which crowned her hair—while she unpacked the contents of the bag—two newspaper parcels full of rather distressing viands, scissors, and a pair of gloves which had done duty more than once,—while all these preparations were soberly fulfilling, the agitation of the hundred-and-three was desperate indeed. The air grew thick, it quivered with the lashing of tails; hoarse mews echoed along the stone walls, paws were raised and let fall with the rhythmical patter of raindrops. A furtive beast played the thief: he was one of the one-eyed fraternity, red with mange. Somehow he slipped in between us; we discovered him crouched by the newspaper raking over the contents. This was no time for ceremony; he got a prompt cuff over the head and slunk away shivering and shaking his ears. And then the distribution began. Now, your cat, at the best of times, is squeamish about his food; he stands no tricks. He is a slow eater, though he can secure his dinner with the best of us. A vicious snatch, like a snake, and he has it. Then he spreads himself out to dispose of the prey—feet tucked well in, head low, tail laid close along, eyes shut fast. That is how a cat of breeding loves to dine. Alas! many a day of intolerable prowling, many a black vigil, had taken the polish off the hundred-and-three. As a matter of fact they behaved abominably; they leaped at the scraps, they clawed at them in the air, they bolted them whole with staring eyes and portentous gulpings, they growled all the while with the smothered ferocity of thunder in the hills. No waiting of turns, no licking of lips and moustaches to get the lingering flavors, no dalliance. They were as restless and suspicious here as everywhere; their feast was the horrid hasty orgy of ghouls in a church-yard. But an even distribution was made: I don't think any one got more than his share. Of course there were underhand attempts in plenty and, at least once, open violence—a sudden rush from opposite sides, a growling and spitting like sparks from a smithy; and then, with ears laid flat, two ill-favoured beasts clawed blindly at each other, and a sly and tigerish brindle made away with the morsel. My woman took the thing very coolly I thought, served them all alike, and didn't resent (as I should have done) the unfortunate want of delicacy there was about these vagrants. A cat that takes your food and growls at you for the favor, a cat that would eat you if he dared, is a pretty revelation. Ca donne furieusement a penser. It gives you a suspicion of just how far the polish we most of us smirk over will go. My cats at San Lorenzo knew some few moments of peace between two and three in the afternoon. That would have been the time to get up a testimonial to the kind soul who fed them. Try them at five and they would ignore you. But try them next morning!

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