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Magnum Photos
A cat in an English cemetery, 1978; photograph by Josef Koudelka

For me to keep a cat has all the excitement of a forbidden love affair, for my mother belonged to that unhappy race which feels a mysterious fear of cats. If she found herself in a room with the most innocent and ravishing of cats, she would start to her feet and wring her hands, the long supple hands of a pianist, and she would cry, “Take it away! Take it away!” while she shut her eyes so that she need not see the loathsome object. I never reproached my mother even in my own mind for these paroxysms, for I was a soldier’s daughter, and it was well known that the most venerable general of that day, Lord Roberts, suffered from the same malady. He would turn and run if a cat walked toward him on the parade ground; and I quite realized that if Lord Roberts could not control this terror my mother could not be expected to do better. So there was no ill-feeling between us.

Yet not to have a cat inflicted a great hardship on me. Ever since I was a little child I have thought cats the most beautiful and alluring of created beings. It has been in some ways a protection to me. I have never felt jealous of other women because they were more beautiful than I was, for almost any cat was far more beautiful than either me or them. Nor have I ever felt that disillusionment which other wives feel at unromantic moments of domestic life, when, for example, their husbands walk about in short dressing gowns which show the striped legs of pajamas. I know I must accept the second-rate in these matters, since I could never be the mate of a beautiful tomcat who has for permanent wear a shining garment of silky fur molding to a symphony of sliding muscles.

But my belief has left me with an abiding sorrow because I was not born a cat, and I felt very badly used because I could not do the next best thing and keep a cat until my mother died; and that various inconvenient circumstances prevented me from acquiring one till long after that date. Then I felt it was too late. I was like a woman who had wanted children all her life and at last finds herself free to become a mother and then feels panic. I thought I would never be able to rear a cat, I felt sure I would give it the wrong food, I saw a stern vet reproaching me by my cat’s basket and asking me if I had not let my professional duties come between my duty to my cat.

But my son had a cat, and when he went on a holiday he called on me and dropped the cat into the drawing room window, saying, “Look after Poughkeepsie till I come back.” Poughkeepsie is the name of an American town, a delightful name in English wars, for it is an Indian name and evokes the charm of Fenimore Cooper and the United States when they were innocent and idyllic. But far from looking like anything in rural nineteenth-century America, Poughkeepsie was the double of Martine Carol.1 I did not recognize the resemblance, for this happened some time ago, when Martine Carol was in her cradle or thereabouts. But Poughkeepsie had the same perpetual air of being at once surprised and never at a loss; and she had the same trim compactness of body, which put into everybody’s head the idea that it would be charming to pick her up and carry her about.

She enchanted us, and settled all my misgivings. I never had to worry about her diet. It was the season of grouse. She consented to eat grouse and she even helped me by indicating that she preferred grouse to any other form of food. She also indicated that she preferred to eat in the drawing room. So it happened that some strangers who visited us said afterward, “They seem quite nice people but why do they keep a dish of cold grouse on the piano?” As to letting my professional duties come before my duty to my cat, my cat let her social duties come before her duty to me. She had put a paw in the field of human interests in a way that seemed very odd to me then. From time to time she strayed and paid visits on our neighbors, and exercised a very curious discrimination concerning the neighbors whom she honored.

Our clergyman was fond of cats, the village schoolmistress adored them and was in an emotional state about them, having just lost her old tabby, and our washerwoman, who told fortunes, treated animals as witches treat their familiars. But none of these was visited by Poughkeepsie. First she sought out the doctor. I am forced to mention that he had married money and had a beautiful Queen Anne house. She also visited the lord of the manor, who kept two manservants, while we had only one. Then she went a mile up the road, though she was afraid of the traffic, and introduced herself to the Duchess. So obviously was Poughkeepsie trying to improve her social position that there could be no doubt that somehow or other she had grasped what a social position was.

My son retrieved her on his return from his holiday. On seeing him, Poughkeepsie sat down and washed her face. She was plainly in no hurry to leave a household where there was cold grouse on the piano and ample opportunities for introducing oneself to the gratin. But my son was a virile young man, six foot tall, and attractive in the style of Mr. Rochester; and Poughkeepsie suddenly took a flying leap onto his knee. Probably in every species each sex thinks its opposite not quite what it would have ordered, and thinks that other species do better. She left us without a backward glance, and I have an impression that I carried her expensive luggage out to the automobile with her, and that she did not thank me.

This was, of course, not a serious relationship, not a true sample of the joys and sorrows which cats can bring us. It was the equivalent of the love affair with a chorus girl which is not so much love as an introduction to the technique of love. But I did not understand that, and when my son offered me one of Poughkeepsie’s kittens I accepted it in the belief that it would give the same sort of pleasure as its mother. But the first sight of the kitten dispelled this idea. He was physically frivolous, a ball of orange fluff with topaz eyes, he might have been the sort of Christmas present the more expensive stores in New York think up, and have a bottle of scent inside him; yet he was a serious-minded cat. When he looked at one he referred what he saw to a store of innate knowledge and a firm tradition, and passed a judgment on one which he at once prudently put by for later use. There was also a sense of frustration about him which seemed to spring from his inability to take part in the conversation. Without doubt cats are intellectuals who have been, by some mysterious decree of Providence, deprived of the comfort of the word.

He at once, by a single action, declared his character and molded it. We had bought a new house, but could not get into it, and in the meantime had taken a house of a more seignorial sort than we ordinarily inhabited. Our gardens were superb. Poughkeepsie had had social ambitions but not a rag of pedigree; and the father of this new kitten had been a farm laborer, who earned a meager living by keeping down the rats in a granary. The kitten’s name was plain Pounce, as it might have been Untel.2 But the grandeur of the surroundings was entirely to his taste. He did not merely accept them, he savored them, he turned them over on his tongue. Out he went across the lawn with the two cedars, down the stone steps to the terrace with its high banks of lupins, his tail straight up and swaying with satisfaction. Along the yew walk he went to the rose garden, not hurrying it, taking it at a processional pace, past the carousel of lily-beds to the lake of nenuphars. There he went too far. The tiny creature leaped to the furthest conceivable extreme of ambition. He tried to walk on the water.

Before we could get to him he was a snuffling and scrambling rag of wet fur. Somebody had laughed. His pride was cut to the quick. “You needn’t help me! I can get out by myself! Let go!” He started back to the house, careful not to hurry and lose his dignity, and keeping his tail upright and waving, though it was a miserable little stump. How should a kitten grasp the idea of “making a fool of oneself,” with all its implications, which involve self-respect, the importance we attach to the opinion of others, and our tendency to laugh when someone has a physical misadventure?

But all this Pounce realized, and more besides. He had tried to walk on something that looked as solid as a floor, and it had not borne his weight as it had promised but had let him fall through into a horrible engulfing element that had made him cold and wet and ridiculous, and people had burst out laughing, and there had been nothing to do but walk on and pretend that nothing had happened. For ever after Pounce was a stoic and a cynic. In later years he used to kiss my hand when I stroked him. But always before the kiss he gave me a hard stare. “If I give her an inch, will she take an ell? Will she trespass on the secret places of my being if I let her be too familiar?” He took the risk, but he was always sensible that it was a risk.

This reserve and withdrawal were the more fascinating because he was a superb comedian, specializing in a sort of gymnastic satire. The house where we were living was not as good as its gardens, for its owner had allowed an interior decorator to transform its seventeenth-century rooms into the stage set of a provincial production of Cyrano de Bergerac or The Three Musketeers. The place was cluttered with refectory tables and high-backed chairs which evoked bad actors sweeping off huge hats adorned with molting feathers and declaiming alexandrines at bad actresses sweeping blowsy curtseys. These were depressing surroundings, particularly when the summer ended and war broke out, and we were unable to move away. But they were lightened by the athletic ridicule with which Pounce treated this furniture which was worse than Porte St. Martin stuff, because it was obviously very expensive.

  1. 1

    Seductive French actress of the 1950s.

  2. 2

    French for “So-and-so.”

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