Cats, by Maurice Hewlett

from Earthwork out of Tuscany

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 [Footnote: Garth: an inclosure, a yard.] 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 [Footnote: Hysterical precision. What does this mean?] on the ledge of the parapet, passing each other at whisker's length, but cutting each other dead. [Footnote: Cutting each other dead. Have you ever thought of the quaint absurdity of this figurative expression?] 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 [Footnote: Arno: the river that flows through Florence.]) 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. [Footnote: St. Francis not the wise man, etc. Why not?]

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 [Footnote: Jean Jacques Rousseau: a French philosophical writer of the last part of the eighteenth century. His chief works are "Emile," "Social Contract," "Confessions."] 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. [Footnote: Ca donne furieusement a penser: "That makes one think very hard."] 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!

My knowledge of the Italian tongue, in those days, was severely limited to the necessaries of existence; to try me on a fancy subject, like cats, was to strike me dumb. But at this stage of our intercourse (hitherto confined to smiles and eye-service) it became so evident my companion had something to say that I must perforce take my hat off and stand attentive. She pointed to the middle of the garth, and there, under the boughs of a shrub, I saw the hundred-and-fourth cat, sorriest of them all. It was a newcomer she told me, and shy. Shy it certainly was, poor wretch; it glowered upon me from under the branches like a bad conscience. Shyness could not hide hunger—I never saw hungrier eyes than hers—but it could hold it in check: the silkiest speech could not tempt her out, and when we threw pieces she only winced! What was to be done next was my work. Plain duty called me to scale the ditch with some of those dripping, slippery, nameless cates [Footnote: Cates: viands; things to eat. Why "slippery"? Nameless. What are they called in the third sentence from the end of the paragraph?] in my fingers and to approach the stranger where she lurked bodeful under her tree. My passage toward her lay over the rank vegetation of the garth, in whose coarse herbage here and there I stumbled upon a limp white form stretched out—a waif the less in the world! I don't say it was a happy passage for me: it was made to the visible consternation of her I wished to befriend. Her piteous yellow eyes searched mine for sympathy; she wanted to tell me something and I wouldn't understand! As I neared her she shivered and mewed twice. Then she limped painfully off—poor soul, she had but three feet!—to another tree, leaving behind her, unwillingly enough, a much-licked dead kitten. That was what she wanted to tell, then. As I was there, I deposited the garbage by the side of the little corpse, knowing she would resume her watch, and retired. My friend who had put up her parcels was prepared to go. She thanked me with a smile as she went out, looking carefully round lest she had missed out some other night-birds.

One of the Canons had come out of his door and was leaning against the lintel, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. He was a spare dry man who seemed to have measured life and found it childish business. He jerked his head toward the gateway as he glanced at me. "That is a good woman," he said in French, "she lendeth unto the Lord…. Yes," he went on, nodding his head slowly backwards and forwards, "lends Him something every day." The cats were sitting in the shady cloister-garth licking their whiskers: one was actually cleaning his paw. I went out into the sun thinking of Saint Francis and his wolf.

[Footnote: St. Francis was born in 1182 in the little town of Assissi, Italy. He came of a rich and noble family, and was taken into business partnership with his father, a wealthy merchant, at the age of fourteen. In his twenty-fourth year he suddenly abandoned his friends and work, and took up a life of penance and utter poverty. His austerities, his sincerity, and his simple eloquence attracted much attention, and he soon had many followers. Later on he founded the Franciscan Order of monks, and did much missionary work by traveling in the East. He died at Assissi in 1226.]

—MAURICE HEWLETT.

[Footnote: What reference in the first sentence to the sports in the arena of Rome?

Notice how many times the author refers to the number of cats. Why?

Is the description of the scene objective or subjective? Cf. "A Leaf in the Storm."

Notice the suggestiveness of the adjectives as in the reference to
"Discrete brown doors" on page 7.

How do these cats differ from cats as you know them? What qualities have they that you recognize? Where does the author indicate that he is about to begin a story? Does the author win your sympathy for the cats? How? In what does the humor of the story lie? What is the climax of the story? What do you think of the priest and his comment? Does the whole sketch interest you because it describes a strange scene, or because it raises the question of the humanity of keeping alive one hundred and three cats?]

Louise de la Ramee