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.

He was at his best with an atrocity peculiar to England, the apotheosis of the bogus picturesque, called the Knole settee. It is the copy of a kind of sofa which was made in the seventeenth century, before cabinetmakers had learned how to make sofas, and it is neither beautiful nor comfortable, for its sides and back are not joined by carpentry but are held together with thick silken ropes. It owes its preservation only to the snobbery of the antique. All this Pounce seemed to say, as he swung from the silken ropes, balanced on them, sprang from them to the next article of furniture, was to be mocked. It was all the more amusing because his pranks had the quality of wit that is too subtle to wound. He weighed nothing and his paws were too young and soft to leave scratches. The owner of the house never knew what Pounce had thought of her treasures.

Nocturnal scufflings in the night, and a horrid rent in one of Pounce’s exquisitely shaped ears, made me realize that I must have him doctored. I would gladly have left him the pleasures of love, but on the other hand it was cruel to ask Voltaire to live the life of Casanova. He went to the vet and stayed with him for two days. When he returned we noted two things: a new luster on his fur which we had not remarked before, and a strange contentment, not quite of the sort we would have expected as the result of his new state. This was not resignation. Rather did it remind me of the active gloating which I had noted in a famous lawyer when I sat with him in his garden the day after he had vanquished his only serious rival at the bar. We had another surprise during the night, when there were again scufflings in the shrubbery, again love cries. But one of the gardeners had a tomcat. All the same, Pounce was out and did not come back till morning.

Then a note came from the vet. There had been a mistake that for him was terrible. At the same time that we had left Pounce at the surgery, the vet had received a superb young tomcat, the offspring of a champion sire and dam, himself destined to be a champion sire, in order that he should be put in perfect condition for his first show. By some extraordinary accident the pedigree tom had been castrated and the plebeian Pounce had been groomed for appearance at a show which would never have let him inside its doors.

Never did Pounce simply live. He always made a comment on life as he lived it. He was destined to be heroic as well as comic, for soon after this we went back to our apartment in London, and the Battle of Britain burst on us, without succeeding in ruffling Pounce’s whiskers. But he was not merely imperturbable. When the night was made hideous with big guns and high-explosive bombs, he would pace the rocking floor with cynical panache, as if he were saying, “You humans are an odd species, always up to something, and all this does me much less harm than the fuss you kick up when I help myself to a bit of chicken off the kitchen table.”

Ignoring the war, and deprived of the promenades and the sporting pursuits he had enjoyed in the country, he abandoned himself to the only line now left to him, and he looked for a human being to adore. He chose my husband. He lay at my husband’s feet during breakfast, and would go with him to the front door when it was time for him to go to his work. Then came the comment. The door once closed, he would slowly turn round and cross the hall to the sofa, and curl up on its cushions with a sad little shake of the head. “There is nothing to do but sleep till he comes back.”

I was wounded a little when he decided not to make me the object of his adoration. I was content to love rather than be loved, and he was really very kind and companionable. I had much to contend with at this time, for I was ill and should have had an operation, but put it off because I wanted to finish a book on which I had already spent some years. I used to sit nearly all day in a big armchair, writing in a folio exercise book, my books of reference on the floor around me, and often I broke off because I felt afraid that we would lose the war or that I would die and leave my book unfinished. At such times it was a great comfort to have Pounce asleep in the armchair beside me, relaxed as surely no such intelligent animal would be unless it had an assurance that all things would end well. He was really very kind to me. I used to wonder why my mother, who was right about almost everything, should have been so wrong about cats.

Then suddenly a disquieting fact was brought to my notice. We lived on the top floor of the apartment house, and outside our windows a cornice ran round the four sides of the building. This Pounce used as a playground, to take the air and exercise his sense of power by ordering the pigeons he found there to take off into the empyrean, and we used to watch him complacently. But it now appeared that he had been using the cornice for other and odious purposes. He had been visiting a neighbor of ours. Not all our neighbors, only one. He had walked past the window of hosts who would have been glad to entertain him, who cried “Pussy, pussy,” as he went by, imagining him to be innocent and playful like themselves, and he went round two sides of the building to the apartment furthest from ours, to call on Mr. Gubbins: the one person among our neighbors who belonged to the same unhappy race as my mother, who feared cats.

The abominable genius of Pounce not only led him to this victim but indicated to him the moments when he was alone and most vulnerable. The poor man suffered from the fear of cats in an even more intense form than my mother. When he saw a cat he became paralyzed. Pounce used to visit him when he was having a bath. Mr. Gubbins was not favored by nature. He was an industrialist who looked like a Communist cartoonist’s victim of a wicked capitalist: a tall and flabby man, with pouches under his pale eyes and drooping cheeks and chins and paunch, and the unpleasant peculiarity that his wispy mustache and strands of hair combed across his bald scalp were bright gold like the yolk of an egg. When Pounce dropped into his bathroom and sat down on his haunches and looked at Mr. Gubbins the poor man’s deplorable and pendulous nakedness was then congealed. He could not get to his bath towel, to his bell, to his door, he could only utter loud wordless groans for help. If his door was locked, he had to stay where he was until his manservant crawled out on the cornice and released him. And Pounce had always left before the manservant arrived.

The poor man learned to keep his windows shut. But Pounce learned that he could still reduce Mr. Gubbins to immobility by crouching on the cornice and staring in through the glass. Once his victim nearly fainted in his bath owing to this silent and murderous survey. He took to drawing his curtains, but Pounce serenaded him and by now had complete emotional control of the situation, and the mere sound of his meowing made Mr. Gubbins very ill.

At this point the inhumanity of our own species took a hand. Mr. Gubbins could not discover where Pounce came from. He questioned the porters but they denied all knowledge of any marmalade cat in the building. Unimaginative men, they thought it foolish of Mr. Gubbins to make a fuss about a cat in the middle of an air war, and they attributed his fear of his visitor, very unkindly, to the fumes of brandy that were apt to hang about poor Mr. Gubbins when came down to the shelter at night. He would have never known how to find his tormentor if he had not seen a photograph of me and my cat outside a photographer’s office.

When I received the letter from Mr. Gubbins which told me of this shocking sadistic crime, the criminal was sitting at my feet. Never had he looked more beautiful. The subtle lines of his muscle gave him a strong resemblance to Sarah Bernhardt in her youth; his fur, orange and gold and flame and snow white, had the brilliance and luster and depth which is given by health and youth; and his purr had the tone of a cello. I gasped. Lovely, and so odious! Then, accepting for a moment the conventional view of an animal’s limitations, I wondered how I could bring his crime home to him. I could not, after all, take him along to Mr. Gubbins’s apartment and, entering the bathroom, point to Mr. Gubbins’s nakedness and indicate that this was something taboo, like the china and glass objects in our drawing room and the food on the kitchen table. But I need not have troubled. As soon as I recited the story to my husband, Pounce knew what I was talking about. He raised his exquisite muzzle and fixed me with his limpid stare and licked his whiskers with his pink tongue. “But it was such fun,” he was saying. “If you could have seen him! And what does it matter if a person like that suffers? Ignoble individual, unworthy personage that he is, what good is he, except to amuse me?”

I knew then that my mother had had some cause for her fear of cats.

Mercifully I was soon able to remove Pounce out of the way of temptation, for our own house in the country became available. Once we were installed there he again became innocent. In spring he knew an ecstasy that made me think of Ronsard or the medieval Latin poets when they wrote of roses. He loved autumn too, and loved to lie among the red beech leaves that were the same color as himself. In winter the warm radiators tempted him to be lazy, they made such good beds, but even then the garden offered him delirious joys. On a moonlit night, when the snow lay thick, the shadow of a great pine lay in a blue bar across the lawn. Along this corridor Pounce crept as if there and there only lay safety from cunning enemies, then dashed out into the woods beyond and found a clearing where he performed the wild ritual dance they had sought to prevent him from achieving. He was a great dramatist, a great actor. When the fern grew high on the asparagus bed he could be seen in the middle of its shade, his narrow eyes burning with hope and despair.

This essay will appear in full in The Essential Rebecca West: Uncollected Prose, to be published in May by Pearhouse Press. No unauthorized copying or republishing without permission of Pearhouse Press, Inc.

This Issue

April 29, 2010