The New Cat
(by R. Lynd)
Cats are the enemies of conversation. I have a friend who, after an absence of many years, has lately settled down in London, with a wife, a cat and a garden. Owing to the cat, I doubt if our friendship can continue. I called to see him and was shown into the garden, where he and his wife were sitting in deck chairs. How many things there were that I wished to talk to him about! How happily I looked forward to hearing the names of old friends and old places on his lips and to telling him all the news of the deaths and divorces that had taken place since he had been lost to civilisation! I even looked forward to meeting his wife, though I do not on the whole like my friends to marry. We had hardly shaken hands and sat down, however, when he glanced at his wife with a look of alarm, and said, "Where's Oliver Cromwell?" His wife looked around the garden apprehensively and began calling, "Oily! Oily! Oily!" and, when there was no answer, said: "Where can he have gone?" Then followed on excited dialogue of this kind. "He can't have got through the fence into the next garden." "I saw him only a minute ago." "Perhaps he's in the ash. He was up there when I came out this morning, and I had to fetch the ladder to bring him down." "Oily! Oily! Oily!" (in a woman's voice). "Oliver Cromwell! Oliver Cromwell!" (in a man's shout). "Oh, there he is, coming out of the lupin!" "Naughty Oliver Cromwell, where have you been?" "Puss, puss, puss, puss, puss!" "Where's the ball, Stella? Here you are, Oliver, here's something to play with. You mustn't interrupt the conversation, you know," and he rolled the ball gently over the grass. The kitten watched it, fascinated. It flattened itself on the grass, stretched out its neck, cocked its ears, stared with wide eyes, and moved its tail in cruel anticipation. Then it dashed towards the ball, and just as it reached it, made a sideways spring with arched back and avoided it, and sat down and began to kick its right foreleg from the knee downwards, as though it had forgotten all about the ball. "Well," said my friend with satisfaction, "what do you think of Oliver Cromwell? Isn't he a beauty?" I agreed that he was. "Look, look," his wife interrupted us, and, as the kitten began to flatten itself into position for another rush at the ball, she gurgled as if to herself: "Oh, he is such a darling! He is such a darling!" This time the kitten did leap on to the ball, caught it in its front paws, lifted it in the air, turned a back somersault with it, rolled on the grass, and then, as if in terror, fled for all it was worth into the flower border, and, hidden among the stalks, looked out on its late prey, like a tiger concealing itself in the jungle. These evolutions were received by my friend and my friend's wife with shouts of laughter. My friend said that they ought really to have called the kitten Cinquevalli.* The way it juggled with the ball, he declared, was simply wonderful. "It is such a clever little cat," his wife began to talk to herself again; "much cleverer than Cinquevalli. Oh, much cleverer," she declared, reaching out her hand and taking the kitten into her lap. As she stroked it, it padded up and down with its paws on her dress, arched its back at every stroke of her hand, and purred. My friend watched it in a state of fatuous and happy idolatry. I halfexpected him and his wife to begin purring at any minute, too. It was obvious that the purring of the kitten had a hypnotic effect on them, and I doubt if either of them remembered that I was present.
* (Cinquevalli - 19th century clown.)
A housemaid came out with the tea-things, and she, too, when she had put the tray down, looked at the kitten with fatuous and idolatrous eyes. It seemed to be with difficulty that she tore herself away eventually, and, even when she reached the house, she looked back as if she could scarcely bear to leave the wonderful presence. "You remember Jack Robinson's cats?" I said to my friend as a way of getting back to normal conversation, so that I could ask him whether he had heard of poor Jack's death in a yachting accident. "I hope," said his wife, "that you're not going to pretend that anybody ever had such a wonderful cat as Oliver Cromwell. Because," she added, rubbing the kitten under the chin, "we simply won't believe it. Isn't that so, Oliver?" "Poor old Jack," I began again. "I never understood his passion for cats," said my friend," - at least, not till we got this little beast." "You mustn't call Oliver Cromwell a little beast," protested his wife. "You heard about Jack's death?" I said. "Jack dead! No. How? Look out!" he roared, as the kitten sprang from his wife's lap and made after a bee across the grass. "I always thought kittens had more sense than to chase bees. He'll get stung some day. Poor old Jack!" as the bee - and the kitten - escaped; "this is the first I've heard of it." I told him how the accident had taken place - how Jack had been knocked overboard, apparently stunned, for he had sunk like a stone. His wife, I presume, was not listening, for, as at the end of my story he and I were sunk in a momentary silence, she broke in with: "I declare he's caught a bee this time. Poor little pet! Poor, silly little pet!" she cried, hurrying over and fondling the kitten where it was feeling its lower lip with its ankle as if it had been stung. My friend went over and joined her and said, "Let's see if we can see the sting. Perhaps we can pull it out." But just then the kitten saw a white butterfly and dashed off out of their hands in pursuit. They laughed delightedly. "I don't believe he was stung at all," said my friend. "Poor old Jack! It's hard to imagine him dead. You remember the day he and Bobby Stone swam out to the Skerries? What happened to Bobby?" "He was murdered," I told him, "during a row in India." "Good God!" said my friend. "Oily! Oily! Oily!" called his wife excitedly. "Oh, do go and catch him, Tom, or he'll be into the next garden." Tom rose and bolted across the grass, and was just in time to seize Oliver Cromwell as he had got his head through a hole in the fence. He brought him back and put hi nr into his wife's lap. "Poor old Bobby!" he said, obviously moved. "It's extraordinary that no one ever wrote to tell me.
I often wondered what had become of him. He seemed such a splendid chap at school." His wife, too, was evidently awed as even strangers are on hearing of a tragedy. "Was he a great friend of yours, Tom?" she asked gently. "He was, at school," said Tom. "After that, we didn't see much of each other." "He was the best all-round scholar and athlete of his year," I told her. "What a terrible thing to happen to him," she said, stroking the kitten. It saw a fly buzzing round her head, climbed up her shoulder in pursuit, and walked round the back of her neck. "Do rescue me, Tom," she cried. "He's got his claws in my neck." Tom seized the kitten by the scruff of the neck, held it up and looked at it reproachfully, and said: "Now, look here, old chap, go and play with your ball and leave us in peace for a few minutes. I told you you mustn't interrupt the conversation."
But what cat ever cared what anybody told it. I did succeed in the course of the afternoon in telling Tom how one friend had become a County Court judge, and another a doctor, and how another was making a fortune as a journalist in America. But I did it to a constant accompaniment of "Pussy, pussy, pussy!" "Oily, Oily, Oily!" "He's rolling on the roses. Go and take him off, Tom," "I do love a cat when its tail stands up like a note of interrogation," "Naughty Oliver Cromwell! You mustn't try to catch sparrows," that made me feel as exhausted as if I had been shouting for hours to a deaf man in a gale. "Come again soon," said rfiy friend's wife, as we shook hands. "Mind, we expect you every Sunday," said Tom heartily. "Come back, Oliver Cromwell," his wife's voice reached us as we disappeared. "Take care that he doesn't get out of the front door, Tom."
I am myself an admirer of cats, but I do not like them as part of a conversation. I do not think that cats should be spoken to in the presence of visitors. They should be seen and not talked about. Whether I shall be able to live up to these principles, however, now that a perfectly wonderful kitten has come to live in my house, I do not know. It is so charming, so fearless, so restless, so playful. There are already two small black cats in the house. One of them was a stray, given to us by the butcher. Its ears are three times the ordinary size, and it has a tail like a rat, so that one does not draw the attention of visitors to it, but it is so gentle, so free from malice - except against birds and insects - that one cannot help liking it. The other, Mrs Blacktoes, is very beautiful and very cross. She came into the house one night when we were calling Felix, and she has stayed ever since. But she never purrs except at mealtimes, and she growls and runs away if you attempt to stroke her. She must have come from a home, I imagine, where nobody ever touched her except to pull her tail. But as for the new kitten, Tiger, with his striped body and his white dickie,* he is so light as he feels his way about the new world, testing every inch as he advances with his featherweight of a paw, that he seems no more substantial than a feather itself. It is impossible tcrlook at a book while he is in the room. What chair does he not investigate? How inquisitively he examines the bookshelves, cautiously pressing himself into every vacant space. How he dances after the moths on his hind legs in the evening! How happily he plays by the hour with the ball of paper that swings like a pendulum on a string from the arm of a chair! He examines the string and fights it and bites it. He jumps on to the chair and studies the knot by which it is tied. He lies on his back on the floor and kicks the ball of paper. He sits down and taps it like a tennis-ball with his paw as it passes. He goes to a distance and pounces on it. He seizes it and rolls about like a footballer. I think I shall invite Tom and his wife to come and see me, while Tiger is still a novelty. It would be a punishment, and, until I have punished them, I doubt if I shall be able to forgive them.
* (dickie - (coll.) false shirt front.)
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