A new leaf

A great change was made in my manner of life very soon after this last adventure, which may be looked upon as the closing scene of my wild and thoughtless Kittenhood. I was now entering upon a new course of existence, where far different pursuits had to engage my attention.

A distant relation of my mother's, who had never been married (a very singular circumstance in our city), and who lived in a house with only two servants to keep her company, invited me to spend some time with her, and, as she was very clever and accomplished, my mother was most pleased to let me go, as she considered that I might obtain great advantages from her society and conversation.

The sort of life I had been leading made my first days spent at Hum Villa very dull and tedious, for my cousin, although most gentle and kind, was precise to an extraordinary degree, and could not bear the least disorder either in her house, her person, or the manners or appearance of those about her. Truly both she and her servants were orderly enough; for they were washing at least ten times a day, and never sat down to a meal or got up from it without licking themselves all over for a good half hour.

By degrees however what seemed to me irksome and fussy wore imperceptibly away, and I was not long in discovering that cleanliness of body has a good deal to do with promoting purity of mind. I am certain it was so with myself; for as I got into habits of preciseness, and put my tongue to the use for which nature in part designed it, namely the washing and cleansing my person, my thoughts took a very different turn, and, after a few months, I should have avoided with horror many of those companions with whom I had been formerly so friendly, if they had, by any chance, been thrown in my way.

But this was only one of the changes which my residence with my cousin wrought in me. I had never before met with a Cat who had seen so much or who had read so many books as she. Her memory too was so good that she could relate all she had seen and much that she had read, and, as she had gone on thinking, as well as seeing and reading, her conversation, when I came to know her well, was delightful.

She had been into other countries; she had seen places inhabited by animals different to those which lived in Caneville; she had even learned to understand and speak their language. She told me she had read that there were cities filled with creatures called men, who considered themselves superior to all other beasts, which they used as slaves and killed for food. When I asked her, if there were any Cats living among these creatures—these men? she replied, there were a great many; but that they were looked upon as poor, miserable things, were often badly treated, and, at the best, were rather tolerated than liked, and never enjoyed the full confidence of their harsh masters.

In such discourse we spent a great deal of time: little by little my views became enlarged, and as she spoke to me of the noble nature of some of the animals she had met with upon her travels, the acts of kindness she had received from them, and the deeds by which many of them had rendered themselves famous, I began to appreciate more justly the position which we Cats occupied in the scale of creation. Not that I was desirous of changing my lot for that of any other beast; but I learned to look with more humility upon myself and my tribe, and understood that many things were better managed in other countries, and by other animals, than we managed them in Caneville.

But none of my good cousin's accomplishments pleased me so much as her perfect knowledge of music. She played several instruments in a charming and graceful manner, and her voice was so sweet that when she sang, and accompanied herself on the piano, it was most delightful to hear her.

She soon perceived my fondness for the science, and promised, if I were attentive and would follow her instructions, to teach me both to play and sing. No proposal could have been more pleasing to me. I thanked her a hundred times, and resolved to use my best efforts to do credit to my preceptress's instructions, and make myself mistress of so charming an acquirement.

I now began to study in good earnest. Under the guidance of my real friend I made great progress: I soon learned both to read and write; acquired a slight knowledge of other tongues, and made such proficiency in music as, in the opinion of my cousin, to perform many pieces with as much grace and dexterity as herself. I could sing, too, pretty well; but my voice was still weak and tremulous, and wanted the full tone and power of her own.

How happily the days now passed! How thankful did I feel to my cousin, to my good mother, to my fortunate lot, which thus gave me the means of acquiring an education that placed me so far above most of my fellow-Cats!

These thoughts however awakened such pride in my bosom, that I began to look upon Pussies who had not been blessed with the same advantages as myself, as beings so inferior that I would scarce deign to look on them. One or two Tommies, who ventured to cast tender looks upon me as I passed through the streets or peeped out of the window, I treated with scorn; and when one, dressed in glossy black, ventured one day to speak to me as I was returning from my mother's house, I was even so rude as not only to set up my back at him, but actually spit in his face.

Conduct of this kind is certain to meet with punishment; and my mentioning the circumstance now is a proof that I have no wish to spare myself, and that I heartily regret having ever been guilty of such behaviour.

My pride was destined to meet with a severe fall, and sorrow was about to take the place of happiness.

I had been about a year residing with my cousin, when our city was visited with a terrible malady, which destroyed many of the inhabitants. It commenced in the low and dirty parts of the town, where the poor curs and mongrels lived, in those miserable huts unfit for any dog, but which poverty obliged many of them to dwell in. It soon extended to the Cats' quarter, and some of the best families were swept off by the infection.

Death was particularly busy in my own family: my father fell first, then two of my sisters, and, at last, my mother! Her loss was heaviest of all; and I had scarce recovered from the shock when my kind friend, my good cousin, also caught the disease, and quickly passed away.

One would have thought that these various calamities, coming so quickly upon each other, would have destroyed me at once, or would have so far affected me as to kill me by degrees. The very greatest of them however seemed to produce a contrary effect, and I, who would sometimes mourn for days over a trifling misfortune, found myself sad indeed, but calm under these heavy losses.

The disease passed away; and when I was sufficiently recovered to examine my position, I saw myself mistress of a fine house, left me by my poor cousin, with all her books, papers, musical instruments, and other things, too numerous to mention.

It was on looking over the store of articles which I became thus unexpectedly possessed of, that I discovered a bundle of letters, written in a bold, Cat-like style. Although the ink had become pale with time, and many parts were torn into holes, I yet managed to make out their contents, and learn that they had been written to my cousin in her youth by some Cat of noble birth, who had wished to marry her, but whose attentions she had for some reason refused. Perhaps she had regretted it afterwards, and for that reason had always lived alone; perhaps he had died, or left the city, or——a number of ideas came into my mind about him, and I even tried to imagine what he was like, and whether he at all resembled the Tom in black I had been so rude to some time before.

I then began to consider what I should do with the packet. When I reflected that my cousin had never mentioned the subject, or even the name of her correspondent, I thought the only plan was to be equally silent, and, in order to avoid the remarks of others, put the letters in the fire; for, although I had read them myself, I felt quite persuaded she had no wish that they should be generally known. My resolution was soon taken; and casting the papers one by one into the flames, I watched them slowly burn until there was a little black heap of ashes on the hearth. The last letter was in my paw; I tore it in halves, and threw the first sheet on to the pile; the second was just going the same way, when my eye caught sight of two verses of a song, which I had not observed till then. I stopped and read them through: they were stanzas I had sometimes heard my cousin sing; and although I do not think so much of them now as I did at the time, I preserved them from the flames, and now insert them here in memory of so kind and gentle a Cat:—

With others I may frisk and play,
With others I may talk and sing,
With others pass the live-long day,
And find, time flies with rapid wing:
A friend (I seek not to deceive)
I may, perchance, to others be;
But, ah! my darling Puss! believe,
I purr, I only purr for thee!

Thy form is stamp'd upon that heart,
Which, true to thee, will beat till death;
Thy praises, dear one that thou art,
Will mingle with my latest breath.
Deign, then, to smile upon my suit,
Nor heedlessly my vows refuse;
But trust the honour of the brute
Who seeks to win thee with his muse!

The education I had received, and the advantages I possessed in the way of books, joined to my present loneliness, induced me to carry out an idea that had more than once entered my head, and which my kind relation, when alive, had strongly encouraged. This was to get together the Kittens of some of my friends who were anxious to obtain knowledge, and impart to them some portion of that I had myself acquired,—in brief, to keep a school.

I never ceased to remember the words of my poor cousin when speaking on this subject. "My dear," she had often said, "it is the duty of every Cat in this world to make herself useful; she is sent here for that purpose, depend upon it; and although all Cats cannot be useful in the same way or to the same extent, some being placed in very different circumstances to others, every Cat, rich or poor, may do a certain amount of useful work, which if she neglects, she is wicked. No employment is so honourable as that of teaching to others the learning we have ourselves attained; for learning destroys prejudice, makes us better as well as wiser, and helps us to bear with greater fortitude the calamities of life. As you have yourself acquired learning, you may therefore show your usefulness by imparting it to others; and depend upon it, no consolation will be greater to you in hours of misfortune, and even on your bed of death, than the thought that you have not spent your life in vain!"

It was with such sanction that I entered on my new career. Each day might I have been seen, perched upon a high-backed chair, with book in hand, examining my class as it stood up before me; a rod within my reach to frighten evil-doers, the inattentive, and the careless; and sometimes, with a dunce of a Kitten before me standing upon a form, with an ugly cap upon her head, on account of some terrible breach of good manners, or an extra amount of stupidity in conning her tasks.

Alfred Elwes

Chapter 4

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