Chapter V. The Story of My Cats

Jean-Henri Fabre Mason-bees

cat and bee If this swinging-process fails entirely when its object is to make the insect lose its bearings, what influence can it have upon the Cat? Is the method of whirling the animal round in a bag, to prevent its return, worthy of confidence? I believed in it at first, so close-allied was it to the hopeful idea suggested by the great Darwin. But my faith is now shaken: my experience with the insect makes me doubtful of the Cat. If the former returns after being whirled, why should not the latter? I therefore embark upon fresh experiments.

And, first of all, to what extent does the Cat deserve his reputation of being able to return to the beloved home, to the scenes of his amorous exploits on the tiles and in the hay-lofts? The most curious facts are told of his instinct; children's books on natural history abound with feats that do the greatest credit to his prowess as a pilgrim. I do not attach much importance to these stories: they come from casual observers, uncritical folk given to exaggeration. It is not everybody who can talk about animals correctly. When some one not of the craft gets on the subject and says to me, ‚Such or such an animal is black,‘ I begin by finding out if it does not happen to be white; and many a time the truth is discovered in the converse proposition. Men come to me and sing the praises of the Cat as a travelling-expert. Well and good: we will now look upon the Cat as a poor traveller. And that would be the extent of my knowledge if I had only the evidence of books and of people unaccustomed to the scruples of scientific examination. Fortunately, I am acquainted with a few incidents that will stand the test of my incredulity. The Cat really deserves his reputation as a discerning pilgrim. Let us relate these incidents.

One day — it was at Avignon — there appeared upon the garden-wall a wretched-looking Cat, with matted coat and protruding ribs, so thin that his back was a mere jagged ridge. He was mewing with hunger. My children, at that time very young, took pity on his misery. Bread soaked in milk was offered him at the end of a reed. He took it. And the mouthfuls succeeded one another to such good purpose that he was sated and went off, heedless of the ‚Puss! Puss!‘ of his compassionate friends. Hunger returned; and the starveling reappeared in his wall-top refectory. He received the same fare of bread soaked in milk, the same soft words. He allowed himself to be tempted. He came down from the wall. The children were able to stroke his back. Goodness, how thin he was!

It was the great topic of conversation. We discussed it at table: we would tame the vagabond, we would keep him, we would make him a bed of hay. It was a most important matter: I can see to this day, I shall always see the council of rattleheads deliberating on the Cat's fate. They were not satisfied until the savage animal remained. Soon he grew into a magnificent Tom. His large round head, his muscular legs, his reddish fur, flecked with darker patches, reminded one of a little jaguar. He was christened Ginger because of his tawny hue. A mate joined him later, picked up in almost similar circumstances. Such was the origin of my series of Gingers, which I have retained for little short of twenty years through the vicissitudes of my various removals.

The first of these removals took place in 1870. A little earlier, a minister who has left a lasting memory in the University, that fine man, Victor Duruy (1), had instituted classes for the secondary education of girls. This was the beginning, as far as was then possible, of the burning question of to-day. I very gladly lent my humble aid to this labour of light. I was put to teach physical and natural science. I had faith and was not sparing of work, with the result that I rarely faced a more attentive or interested audience. The days on which the lessons fell were red-letter days, especially when the lesson was botany and the table disappeared from view under the treasures of the neighbouring conservatories.

That was going too far. In fact, you can see how heinous my crime was: I taught those young persons what air and water are; whence the lightning comes and the thunder; by what device our thoughts are transmitted across the seas and continents by means of a metal wire; why fire burns and why we breathe; how a seed puts forth shoots and how a flower blossoms: all eminently hateful things in the eyes of some people, whose feeble eyes are dazzled by the light of day.

The little lamp must be put out as quickly as possible and measures taken to get rid of the officious person who strove to keep it alight. The scheme was darkly plotted with the old maids who owned my house and who saw the abomination of desolation in these new educational methods. I had no written agreement to protect me. The bailiff appeared with a notice on stamped paper. It baldly informed that I must move out within four weeks from date, failing which the law would turn my goods and chattels into the street. I had hurriedly to provide myself with a dwelling. The first house which we found happened to be at Orange. Thus was my exodus from Avignon effected.

We were somewhat anxious about the moving of the Cats. We were all of us attached to them and should have thought it nothing short of criminal to abandon the poor creatures, whom we had so often petted, to distress and probably to thoughtless persecution. The shes and the kittens would travel without any trouble: all you have to do is to put them in a basket; they will keep quiet on the journey. But the old Tom-cats were a serious problem. I had two: the head of the family, the patriarch; and one of his descendants, quite as strong as himself. We decided to take the grandsire, if he consented to come, and to leave the grandson behind, after finding him a home.

My friend Dr. Loriol offered to take charge of the forsaken one. The animal was carried to him at nightfall in a closed hamper. Hardly were we seated at the evening-meal, talking of the good fortune of our Tom-cat, when we saw a dripping mass jump through the window. The shapeless bundle came and rubbed itself against our legs, purring with happiness. It was the Cat.

I learnt his story next day. On arriving at Dr. Loriol's, he was locked up in a bedroom. The moment he saw himself a prisoner in the unfamiliar room, he began to jump about wildly on the furniture, against the window-panes, among the ornaments on the mantelpiece, threatening to make short work of everything. Mme. Loriol was frightened by the little lunatic; she hastened to open the window; and the Cat leapt out among the passers-by. A few minutes later, he was back at home. And it was no easy matter: he had to cross the town almost from end to end; he had to make his way through a long labyrinth of crowded streets, amid a thousand dangers, including first boys and next dogs; lastly — and this perhaps was an even more serious obstacle — he had to pass over the Sorgue, a river running through Avignon. There were bridges at hand, many, in fact; but the animal, taking the shortest cut, had used none of them, bravely jumping into the water, as its streaming fur showed. I had pity on the poor Cat, so faithful to his home. We agreed to do our utmost to take him with us. We were spared the worry: a few days later, he was found lying stiff and stark under a shrub in the garden. The plucky animal had fallen a victim to some stupid act of spite. Some one had poisoned him for me. Who? It is not likely that it was a friend!

There remained the old Cat. He was not indoors when we started; he was prowling round the hay-lofts of the neighbourhood. The carrier was promised an extra ten francs if he brought the Cat to Orange with one of the loads which he had still to convey. On his last journey he brought him stowed away under the driver's seat. I scarcely knew my old Tom when we opened the moving prison in which he had been confined since the day before. He came out looking a most alarming beast, scratching and spitting, with bristling hair, bloodshot eyes, lips white with foam. I thought him mad and watched him closely for a time. I was wrong: it was merely the fright of a bewildered animal. Had there been trouble with the carrier when he was caught? Did he have a bad time on the journey? History is silent on both points. What I do know is that the very nature of the Cat seemed changed: there was no more friendly purring, no more rubbing against our legs; nothing but a wild expression and the deepest gloom. Kind treatment could not soothe him. For a few weeks longer, he dragged his wretched existence from corner to corner; then, one day, I found him lying dead in the ashes on the hearth. Grief, with the help of old age, had killed him. Would he have gone back to Avignon, had he had the strength? I would not venture to affirm it. But, at least, I think it very remarkable that an animal should let itself die of home-sickness because the infirmities of age prevent it from returning to its old haunts.

What the patriarch could not attempt, we shall see another do, over a much shorter distance, I admit. A fresh move is resolved upon, that I may have, at length, the peace and quiet essential to my work. This time, I hope that it will be the last. I leave Orange for Serignan.

The family of Gingers has been renewed: the old ones have passed away, new ones have come, including a full-grown Tom, worthy in all respects of his ancestors. He alone will give us some difficulty; the others, the babies and the mothers, can be removed without trouble. We put them into baskets. The Tom has one to himself, so that the peace may be kept. The journey is made by carriage, in company with my family. Nothing striking happens before our arrival. Released from their hampers, the females inspect the new home, explore the rooms one by one; with their pink noses they recognize the furniture: they find their own seats, their own tables, their own arm-chairs; but the surroundings are different. They give little surprised miaows and questioning glances. A few caresses and a saucer of milk allay all their apprehensions; and, by the next day, the mother Cats are acclimatised.

It is a different matter with the Tom. We house him in the attics, where he will find ample room for his capers; we keep him company, to relieve the weariness of captivity; we take him a double portion of plates to lick; from time to time, we place him in touch with some of his family, to show him that he is not alone in the house; we pay him a host of attentions, in the hope of making him forget Orange. He appears, in fact, to forget it: he is gentle under the hand that pets him, he comes when called, purrs, arches his back. It is well: a week of seclusion and kindly treatment have banished all notions of returning. Let us give him his liberty. He goes down to the kitchen, stands by the table like the others, goes out into the garden, under the watchful eye of Aglae, who does not lose sight of him; he prowls all around with the most innocent air. He comes back. Victory! The Tom-cat will not run away.

Next morning:

‚Puss! Puss!‘

Not a sign of him! We hunt, we call. Nothing. Oh, the hypocrite, the hypocrite! How he has tricked us! He has gone, he is at Orange. None of those about me can believe in this venturesome pilgrimage. I declare that the deserter is at this moment at Orange mewing outside the empty house.

Aglae and Claire went to Orange. They found the Cat, as I said they would, and brought him back in a hamper. His paws and belly were covered with red clay; and yet the weather was dry, there was no mud. The Cat, therefore, must have got wet crossing the Aygues torrent; and the moist fur had kept the red earth of the fields through which he passed. The distance from Serignan to Orange, in a straight line, is four and a half miles. There are two bridges over the Aygues, one above and one below that line, some distance away. The Cat took neither the one nor the other: his instinct told him the shortest road and he followed that road, as his belly, covered with red mud, proved. He crossed the torrent in May, at a time when the rivers run high; he overcame his repugnance to water in order to return to his beloved home. The Avignon Tom did the same when crossing the Sorgue.

The deserter was reinstated in his attic at Serignan. He stayed there for a fortnight; and at last we let him out. Twenty-four hours had not elapsed before he was back at Orange. We had to abandon him to his unhappy fate. A neighbour living out in the country, near my former house, told me that he saw him one day hiding behind a hedge with a rabbit in his mouth. Once no longer provided with food, he, accustomed to all the sweets of a Cat's existence, turned poacher, taking toll of the farm-yards round about my old home. I heard no more of him. He came to a bad end, no doubt: he had become a robber and must have met with a robber's fate.

The experiment has been made and here is the conclusion, twice proved. Full-grown Cats can find their way home, in spite of the distance and their complete ignorance of the intervening ground. They have, in their own fashion, the instinct of my Mason-bees. A second point remains to be cleared up, that of the swinging motion in the bag. Are they thrown out of their latitude by this stratagem, are or they not? I was thinking of making some experiments, when more precise information arrived and taught me that it was not necessary. The first who acquainted me with the method of the revolving bag was telling the story told him by a second person, who repeated the story of a third, a story related on the authority of a fourth; and so on. None had tried it, none had seen it for himself. It is a tradition of the country-side. One and all extol it as an infallible method, without, for the most part, having attempted it. And the reason which they give for its success is, in their eyes, conclusive. If, say they, we ourselves are blind-folded and then spin round for a few seconds, we no longer know where we are. Even so with the Cat carried off in the darkness of the swinging bag. They argue from man to the animal, just as others argue from the animal to man: a faulty method in either case, if there really be two distinct psychic worlds.

The belief would not be so deep-rooted in the peasant's mind, if facts had not from time to time confirmed it. But we may assume that, in successful cases, the Cats made to lose their bearings were young and unemancipated animals. With those neophytes, a drop of milk is enough to dispel the grief of exile. They do not return home, whether they have been whirled in a bag or not. People have thought it as well to subject them to the whirling operation by way of an additional precaution; and the method has received the credit of a success that has nothing to do with it. In order to test the method properly, it should have been tried on a full-grown Cat, a genuine Tom.

I did in the end get the evidence which I wanted on this point. Intelligent and trustworthy people, not given to jumping to conclusions, have told me that they have tried the trick of the swinging bag to keep Cats from returning to their homes. None of them succeeded when the animal was full-grown. Though carried to a great distance, into another house, and subjected to a conscientious series of revolutions, the Cat always came back. I have in mind more particularly a destroyer of the Goldfish in a fountain, who, when transported from Serignan to Piolenc, according to the time-honoured method, returned to his fish; who, when carried into the mountain and left in the woods, returned once more. The bag and the swinging round proved of no avail; and the miscreant had to be put to death. I have verified a fair number of similar instances, all under most favourable conditions. The evidence is unanimous: the revolving motion never keeps the adult Cat from returning home. The popular belief, which I found so seductive at first, is a country prejudice, based upon imperfect observation. We must, therefore, abandon Darwin's idea when trying to explain the homing of the Cat as well as of the Mason-bee.

Translator's No­te:

1. Jean Victor Duruy (1811–1894), author of a number of historical works, including a well-known „Histoire des Romains“, and minister of public instruction under NapoL?on III. from 1863 to 1869. Cf. „The Life of the Fly“: chapter 20.

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