by Robert E. Howard
Having spent most of my life in oil boom towns, I am not unfamiliar with the sight of torn and mangled humanity. Oftener than I like to remember I have seen men suffering, bleeding and dying from machinery accidents, knife stabs, gunshot wounds, and other mishaps. Yet I believe the most sickening spectacle of all was that of a crippled cat limping along a sidewalk, and dragging behind it a broken leg which hung to the stump only by the skin. On that splintered stump the animal was essaying to walk, occasionally emitting a low moaning cry that only slightly resembled the ordinary vocal expressions of a feline.
There is something particularly harrowing about the sight of an animal in pain; the desperate despair, undiluted by hope or reason, that makes it, in a way, a more awful and tragic sight than that of an injured human. In the agony cry of a cat all the blind abysmal anguish of the black cosmic pits seems concentrated. It is a scream from the jungle, the death howl of a Past unspeakably distant, forgotten and denied by humanity, yet which still lies awake at the back of the subconciousness, to be awakened into shuddering memory by a pain-edge yell from a bestial mouth.
Not only in agony and death is the cat a reminder of the brutish Past. In his anger cries and in his love cries, the gliding course through the grass, the hunger that burns shamelessly from his slitted eyes, in all his movements and actions is advertised his kinship with the wild, his tamelessness, and his contempt for man.
Inferior to the dog the cat is, nevertheless, more like human beings than is the former. For he is vain yet servile, greedy yet fastidious, lazy, lustful and selfish. That last characteristic is, indeed, the dominant feline trait. He is monumentally selfish. In his self love he is brazen, candid and unashamed.
Giving nothing in return, he demands everything--he demands it in a raspy, hungry, whining squall that seems to tremble with self-pity, and accuse the world at large of perfidy and broken contract. His eyes are suspicious and avaricious, the eyes of a miser. His manner is at once arrogant and debased. He arches his back and rubs himself against humanity's leg, dirging a doleful plea, while his eyes glare threats and his claws slide convulsively in and out of their padded sheaths.
He is inordinate in his demands, and he gives no thanks for bounty. His only religion is an unfaltering belief in the divine rights of cats. The dog exists only for man, man exists only for cats. The introverted feline conceives himself to be ever the center of the universe. In his narrow skull there is no room for the finer feelings.
Pull a drowning kitten out of the gutter and provide him with a soft cushion to sleep upon, and cream as often as he desires. Shelter, pamper and coddle him all his useless and self-centered life. What will he give you in return? He will allow you to stroke his fur; he will bestow upon you a condescending purr, after the manner of one conferring a great favor. There the evidences of gratitude end. Your house may burn over your head, thugs may break in, rape your wife, knock Uncle Theobald in the head, and string you up by your thumbs to make you reveal the whereabouts of your hoarded wealth. The average dog would die in the defense even of Uncle Theobald. But your fat and pampered feline will look on without interest; he will make no exertions in your behalf, and after the fray, will, likely as not, make a hearty meal off your unprotected corpse.
I have heard of but one cat who ever paid for his salt, and that was through no virtue of his own, but rather the ingenuity of his owner. A good many years ago there was a wanderer who traversed the state of Arkansas in a buggy, accompanied by a large fat cat of nondescript ancestry. This wayfarer toiled not, neither did he spin, and he was a lank, harried-looking individual who wore the aspect of starvation, even when he was full of food.
His method of acquiring meals without work was simple and artistic. Leaving his horse and buggy concealed behind a convenient thicket, he would approach a farmhouse tottering slightly, as if from long fast, carrying the cat under his arm. A knock on the door having summoned the housewife with her stare of suspicion, he would not resort to any such crude and obvious tactics as asking for a hand-out. No; hat in hand, and humbly, he would beg for a pinch of salt.
"Land's sake," would be the almost invariable reply. "What do you want salt for?"
"M'am," the genius would reply tremulously, "I'm so terrible hungry I'm a-goin' to eat this here cat."
Practically in every case the good woman was so shocked that she dragged the feebly protesting wayfarer into the house and filled his belly--and the cat's--with the best of her larder.
I am not a victim of the peculiar cat-phobia which afflicts some people, neither I am one of those whose fondness for the animals is as inexplicable and tyrannical in its way as the above mentioned repulsion. I can take cats or leave them alone.
In my childhood I was ordinarily surrounded by cats. Occasionally they were given to me; more often they simply drifted in and settled. Sometimes they drifted out almost as mysteriously. I am speaking of ordinary cats, country cats, alley cats, cats without pedigree or pride of ancestry. Mongrel animals, like mongrel people, are by far the most interesting as a study.
In my part of the country, high-priced, pure-blooded felines were unknown until a comparatively recent date. Such terms as Persians, Angoras, Maltese, Manx, and the like, meant little or nothing. A cat was a cat, and classified only according to its ability to catch mice. Of late I notice a distinct modification in the blood-stream of the common American alley-cat; thoroughbred strains are mingling with the common soil, producing cats of remarkable hue and shape. Whether it will improve the democratic mongrel population or not, it is a question only time can answer.
For myself, give me an alley cat every time. I remember with what intense feelings of disgust I viewed the first thoroughbred cat I ever saw--a cumbersome ball of grey fur, with the wide blank stare of utter stupidity. A dog came barking wildly across the yard, the pampered aristocrat goggled dumbly, then lumbered across the porch and attempted to climb a post. An alley cat would of shot up the shaft like a streak of grey lightning, to turn at a vantage point and and spit down evil vituperation on its enemy's head. This blundering inbred monster tumbled ignominiously from the column and sprawled -- on its back -- in front of the dog, who was so astounded by the phenomenon that it evidently concluded that its prey was not a cat after all, and hastily took itself off. It was not the first time that a battle was won by awkward stupidity.
I once lived on a farm infested by rats beyond description. They broke up setting hens, devoured eggs and small chickens, and gnawed holes in the floor of the house. The building was old, the floors rotten. The rats played havoc with them. I nailed strips of tin over the holes they gnawed, and in the night I could hear their teeth grating on tin, and their squeals of rage. Traps proved ineffectual. Rats are wise, not so easily snared as mice. The natural alternative was cats--eleven of them, to be exact. Thereafter the old farm was a battleground. The big grey wharf rats, as we called them, are no mean foes for a cat. More than once I have seen them defeat a full-grown feline in pitched battle. The ferocity of the cornered rat is proverbial, and unlike many such proverbs, borne out by actuality. On several occasions, my cousin and I hastened to the aid of our feline allies with bricks and baseball bats.
The most valiant of all the crew was a grey cat of medium size called, through some obscure process, Fessler. Despite the fact that he was at once ignominiously routed by a giant rat in a Homeric battle that should have formed the base for a whole cycle of rodent hero-sagas, he was a cat among cats. In fact, fantastic as it may seem, I sometimes seemed to detect a fleeting shadow of an emotion that was almost affection.
He had poise and dignity; most cats have these qualities. He had courage--for which, despite legends to the contrary, the feline race in general is not noted. He was a mouser of note. He was intelligent--the most intelligent cat I have ever known. In the end, when all the cats but one died of one of those unexplainable plagues that strikes communities of felines, he dragged himself back to the house to die. Stricken, he had retired to the barn, and there he fought out his losing battle alone; but with death on him, he tottered from his retreat, staggered painfully through the night, and sank down beneath my window, where his body was found the next morning. It was as if, in his last extremity, he sought the human aid that mere instinct could not have prompted him to seek.
Most of the other cats died in solitary refuges of their own. One, a black kitten, recovered, but was so thin and weak it could not stand. My cousin shot a rabbit, cut it up, and fed the cat the raw meat. Unable to stand, it crouched above the warm flesh, ate enough to have burst a well cat, then, turning on its side, smiled as plainly as any human ever smiles, and sank into death like one falling asleep. It has been my misfortune to see many animals die, but I never saw a more peaceful, contented death than that. My cousin and I interred it beside its brothers and sisters who perished in the plague, firing over it a military salute. May my own death be as easy as that cat's!
I said one cat lived. For all I know, she may be living yet, populating the mesquite-grown hills with her progeny. For she was a veritable phoenix of a cat, defying death, and rising from the ruins of catdom unharmed, and generally with a fresh litter of squalling young.
She was large of body, variegated of color--a somewhat confused mixture of white, yellow and black. Her face was dusky, so she was named Blackface. She had a sister, a smaller cat, who seemed borne down by the woes of the world. Her face was the comically tragic mask of a weary clown. She died in the Big Plague.
But Blackface did not die. Just before the cats began to fall, she vanished, and I supposed that she had been stricken and dragged herself away to die in the bushes. But I was mistaken. After the last of her companions had been gathered to their ancestors, after the polluted gathering places had been cleaned by time and the elements, Blackface came home. With her came a brood of long-legged kittens. She remained at the farm until the youngsters were ready to wean, then once more she disappeared. When she returned, a few weeks later, she returned alone.
I had begun to accumulate cats again, and as long as I lived on the farm, I enjoyed periods of cat-inflation, separated by times when the mysterious plague returned and wiped them out. But the Plague never got Blackface. Each time, just before the slaughter began, she vanished mysteriously, nor did she return until the last cat had died, and the danger of contamination had passed. That happened too many times to be dismissed as coincidence. Somehow, the she-cat knew, and avoided the doom that struck down her companions.
She was taciturn, cryptic, laden with mysterious wisdom older than Egypt. She did not raise her kittens about her. I think that she had learned that there was danger in populated centers. Always, when they were able to defend for themselves, she led them into the woods and lost them. And however impossible it may be for a human being to "lose" a cat, none of them ever came back from the farm from which Blackface led them. But the countryside began to be infested with "wild" cats. Her sons and daughters dwelt in the mesquite flats, in the chaparral, and among the cactus beds. Some few of them took up farmhouses and became mousers of fame; most of them remained untamed, hunters and slayers, devourers of birds and rodents and young rabbits, and, I suspect, of chickens.
Blackface was cloaked in mystery. She came in the night, and in the night she went. She bore her kittens in the deep woods, brought them back to civilization for a space that they might be sheltered while in their helpless infancy--and that her own work might be less arduous--and back to the woods she took them when the time was ripe.
As the years passed, her returns to civilization became less and less frequent. At last she did not even bring her brood, but supported them in the wilderness. The primitive called her, and the call was stronger than the urge to slothful ease. She was silent, primordial, drawn to the wild. She came no more to the dwellings of man, but I had glimpses of her at dawn or twilight, flashing like a streak of black-barred gold through the tall grass, or gliding phantom-like through the mesquites. The fire in her elemental eyes was undimmed, the muscles rippling under her fur unsoftened by age. That was nearly twenty years ago. It would not surprise me to learn that she still lives among the cactus-grown valleys and the mesquite-clad hills. Some things are too elemental to die.
Just now I am uncertain as to the number of cats I possess. I could not prove my ownership of a single cat, but several have come and taken up their abode in the feed shed and beside the back step, allowed me to feed them, and at times bestowed upon me the favor of a purr. So long as no one claims them, I suppose I can look on them as my property.
I am uncertain as to their numbers, because there has been an addition to the community, and I do not know how many. I hear them squalling among the hay bales, but I have not had an opportunity to count them. I know only that they are the offspring of a stocky, lazy gray cat, whose democratic mongrel blood is diluted with some sort of thoroughbred stock.
At one time there were five. One was a black and white cat whose visits were furtive and soon ceased. One was a grey and white female, undersized, as so many good mousers are, and like a good killer, possessed of a peculiarly thin whining voice. Because of her preference to the sheds and feed stalls, she bore the casual name of Barn-cat. Another was a magnificent image of primitive savagery --a giant yellow cat, plainly half-breed, mongrel mixed with some stock that might have been Persian. So he was referred to as "the Persian."
I have found that the average yellow cat is deficient in courage. The Persian was an exception. He was the biggest, most powerful, mixed-breed I ever saw, and the fiercest. He was always ravenous, and his powerful jaws crushed chicken bones in a startling manner. He ate, indeed, more like a dog than a cat. He was not indolent or fastidious. He was a lusty soldier of fortune, without morals or scruples, but possessed of an enviable vitality.
He was enamored of Barn-cat, and no woman could have acted the coquette with greater perfection. She treated him like a dog. He wooed her in his most ingratiating manner, to be rewarded by spitting abuse and scratches. A lion in dealing with members of his own sex, he was a lamb with Barn-cat.
Let him approach her in the most respectable manner, and she was transformed into a spitting, clawing fury. Then when he retired discouraged, she invariably followed him, picking at him, teasing him, and giving him no peace of mind. Yet if he took hope and attempted any advances on the ground of her actions, she instantly assumed the part of an insulted virgin and greeted him with bared teeth and claws.
Her treatment of him was in strong contrast with her attitude toward Hoot, a big black and white spotted cat whose coloring made him look as if he were wearing the nose guard of a football helmet. Hoot was too lazy to woo Barn-cat, and she tolerated him, or rather ignored him entirely. He could push her off his chosen napping-spot, step on her ear on his way to the feed pan, or even appropriate choice morsels from her personal meal, and she showed no resentment, whereas if the Persian attempted any of these things, she was ready to rend him. On the other hand, her contempt for Hoot was apparent, and she never accorded him either the teasing or the resentment she accorded the Persian.
Their romance was not so very different from some human romances, and like all romances, came to its end. The Persian was a fighter. So much of his time was spent recovering from wounds, that he was always gaunt, and there were always several partly healed scars on his head and body. Finally he limped in with fresh wounds and a broken leg. He lay around for a short time, refusing assistance, and then disappeared. I think that, following his instincts, he dragged himself away somewhere to die.
Barn-cat's career was short. Soon after her lover met his end, she appeared one morning with her tail almost chewed off close to her body. Doubtless she had internal wounds. She was the only one of the crew worth her salt as a mouser, and while she normally avoided big grey rats, I believe they were at last responsible for her doom. And any rate, she too vanished with her wounds and did not return.
The grey cat and her kittens remain, with Hoot, who still sleeps in the sun, too lazy to even to keep himself clean. He is the only cat I ever saw which allowed its fur to remain dusty. After a sandstorm he is a disreputable sight for days. Perhaps he catches mice at night, but he shows no enthusiasm for anything but loafing during the day.
The life of a cat is not numbered by nine. Usually it is short, violent and tragic. He suffers, and makes others suffer if he can. He is primitive, bestially selfish. He is, in short, a creature of awful and terrible potentialities, a crystalization of primordial self-love, a materialization of the blackness and squalor of the abyss. He is a green-eyed, steel-thewed, fur-clad block of darkness hewed from the Pits which know not light, nor sympathy, nor dreams, nor hope, nor beauty, nor anything except hunger and the satiating of hunger. But he has dwelt with man since the beginning, and when the last man lies down and dies, a cat will watch his throes, and likelier than not, will gorge its abysmal hunger on his cooling flesh.
For more about Howard, see The Robert E. Howard United Press Association. His death, alas, was not as easy as the little black cat's.