"In the Alaska tail boa, ma'am," responded Ann, timidly.
Slowly my mother's wrath evaporated, and her features settled down to their ordinary aspect of composure.
"Well," she said, "it might have been worse. She might have put them in my silk dress. But there--it is evident that something must be done. I'm a kind woman, I hope, but I'm not going to be responsible for seven young and tender kittens. Ann Tibbits, England expects every woman to do her duty!"
"_All?_ asked Ann.
"_Four_," replied my mother.
"Now?" asked Ann.
"The sooner the better," said my mother.
At this moment a sudden blast shook every window in the house, which seemed to be in momentary danger of a total collapse.
"Not fit to turn a dog out," murmured my mother. "Not fit to turn a dog out. Ugh! how cold it is, and here am I condemning to death four poor little kittens on a night like this--to snatch them away from their warm mother, my muff, and Alaska tail, and dip them in a bucket of ice-cold water. And yet they must go; but, Ann, I've an idea--WARM the water. They shall leave the world comfortably.
They'll never know it."
The faithful, unemotional Ann carried out her instructions. Peter was one of the three kittens which were born in my mother's fur-lined bonnet, and the white marks on his body always remind me of the terrible snowstorm in the midst of which he sounded his first mew.
After several weeks the liberty which our cat Cordelia had taken with my mother's finery was forgotten, and the household had settled down into its usual humdrum routine. Tibbits had made the new arrivals a bed in the little box-room, and the doctor declared that Mrs. Cordelia was doing as well as could be expected. Every morning we had asked the usual question: "How is Cordelia?" "Quite well, thank you." "And the kittens?" "Also quite well." In due course Ann brought the welcome news that the three kittens had opened their eyes, and the kid glove was at once detached from the knocker of the front door. It was on the morning after they had obtained their blessed sight that I was invited by Tibbits to go downstairs and take my choice. I went down, but I could see nothing of the kittens; there was only Cordelia, with tail twisting, eyes aflame, and whiskers bristling, wheeling round and round a number of straw cases in which champagne had once been packed. Lo! one of the cases began to walk. The movement caught Cordelia's eye, and she knocked it over with her paw. A fluffy, chubby kitten, consisting of a black body with a patch of white on it, was revealed. The little one so captivated my fancy that I put him in my pocket, and without more ado took him upstairs, and publicly announced my determination to claim him as my property.
"What shall we name it?" asked my mother.
"Fiz," said one, alluding to the empty champagne cases,--a suggestion which was at once overruled, as we were a temperate family and little given to sparkling liquids. "Pop" was also voted against, not only as being vulgar, but as going to the other extreme, and leading people to suppose that we were extensively addicted to ginger-ale.
"I think, my dears, as Peter was born on a--" My mother's speech was interrupted by an exultant "Cock-a-doodle-do."
"That horrid fowl again!" exclaimed my mother.
The cock in question was the property of a neighbor, and was a most annoying bird. Even my kitten was disturbed by the defiant note.
"_M-e-w?_" said he, in a meek interrogative, as much as to say, "What _is_ that dreadful noise?"
"Cock-a-doodle-do," cried the bird again.
"Mew," replied the kitten, this time with a note of anger in his voice. "COCK-A-DOODLE," screamed the bird, evidently in a violent temper. "Mew," said the kitten again, in a tone of remonstrance.
The remaining syllable of his war-cry and the kitten's reply were cut short by my mother, who put her fingers to her ears, and said:
"And the cock crowed thrice. My dears, I have it!"
"We'll call him PETER." cried the family.
"Peter the Great?"
"No," replied my mother, with a humorous twinkle, "Peter the Apostle," pointing to the Family Bible, which was always kept on a little occasional table in a corner of the sitting-room. "And let Peter be a living warning against fibbing, my dears, whether on a small scale or a large one."
A bowl of water was then placed on the table and, having sprinkled a shower upon his devoted back, I as his proprietor, looking at him closely, cried:
"Arise, Peter; obey thy master."
In the middle of my exhortations, however, Cordelia jumped on the table, took little Peter by the scruff of his neck, and carried him back to the nursery.
The day came when I put Peter into the pocket of my overcoat, and took him away to his new home. I had the greatest confidence in him, being a firm believer in the doctrine of heredity. His father I never knew, but his grandfather bore a great reputation for courage, as was indicated on his tombstone, the inscription on which ran as follows:
Here lies LEAR. Aged about 8 years. A Tom Cat killed in single combat with Tom the Templar whilst defending his hearth and home. England expects every cat to do his duty.
His mother Cordelia was of an affectionate nature, caring little for the chase, indifferent to birds (except sparrows), temperate in the matter of fish, timid of dogs, a kind mother, and had never been known to scratch a child. I believed then that there was every possibility of Peter's inheriting the admirable qualities of his relatives. The world into which he was introduced contained a large assortment of curios which I had bought in many a salesroom, such as bits of old oak, bits of armor, bits of china, bits of tapestry, and innumerable odds and ends which had taken my fancy. Picture, then, Peter drinking his milk from a Crown Derby dish which I had placed in a corner between the toes of a gentleman skeleton whom Time had stained a tobacco brown. The Crown Derby dish and the skeleton were, like the rest of my furniture, "bargains." At this period of his life Peter resembled a series of irregular circles, such as a geometrician might have made in an absent moment: two round eyes, one round head, and one round body. I regarded him much as a young mother would her first baby, for he was my first pet. I watched him lest he should get into danger; I conversed with him in a strange jargon, which I called cats' language; I played with him constantly, and introduced him to a black hole behind the skeleton's left heel, which was supposed to be the home of mice. He kept a close watch on the black hole, and one day, which is never to be forgotten, he caught his first mouse. It was a very little one, but it clung to Peter's nose and made it bleed. Regardless of the pain, Peter marched up to me, tail in air, and laid the half-dead mouse at my feet, with a look in his eyes which said plainly enough, "Shades of Caesar! I claim a Triumph, master."
He returned to the black hole again, and mewed piteously for more.
Peter was very green, as you will understand, but he soon discovered that mewing kept the mice away, and having taken the lesson to heart, preserved silence for the future. The mouse-hunts occupied but a small portion of Peter's time. He was full of queer pranks, which youth and high spirits suggested to him. He took a delight in tumbling down the stairs; he hid himself in the mouth of a lion whose head was one of my chief treasures; he tilted against a dragon candlestick like a young St. George; he burnt his budding whiskers in an attempt to discover the source of the flame in the wick of the candle. He became, too, a great connoisseur of vases, ornaments, and pictures, sitting before them and examining them for an hour at a time. He was also very much given to voyages of discovery, dark continents having a peculiar fascination for him.
Even the lion's mouth had no terror for him. I once produced him from the interior of a brand-new top hat like a conjurer an omelette. Again, we were very much surprised at breakfast one morning to see Peter walk out of a rabbit-pie in which he had secreted himself.
I used to let my canary fly about the room, and Peter chased him.
The canary flew to an old helmet on a shelf, and thus baffled Peter. The canary seemed to know this, for when Peter was in the room he always flew to the helmet and sang in peace. If he perched elsewhere there was a chase. The linnet's cage I placed on the window-sill in sunny weather, and Peter took great interest in him.
He could not see the musician, but he heard the music, and tried every means he knew to discover its source.
At last he peeped through a little hole at the back of the cage, and when he saw the bird he was quite satisfied, and made no attempt to disturb it.
In the matter of eating and drinking Peter was inclined to vegetarianism, being fond of beet-root and cabbage, but he soon took to carnal habits, always liking his food to be divided into three portions, consisting of greens, potatoes, and meat. In addition to such food as we gave him he by no means despised any delicacies he could discover on his own account. For instance he cleaned out a pot of glycerine. Having tilted the lid up, he pulled out the pins from a pincushion, but was saved in time; he was curious about a powder-box, and came mewing downstairs a Peter in white; he did not despise the birds out of a hat; he lost his temper when he saw his rival in the looking-glass, and was beside himself with rage when the glass swung round and he saw only a plain board. His most curious experience was his first glimpse of the moon, which he saw from our bit of back garden. He was rooted to the ground with wonder at the amazing sight, and we called him in vain. The only reply was a melancholy, love-stricken mew which went to my heart.
So Peter rejoiced in the days of his youth, and there was no end to his frolics. But do not think for a moment that his education was neglected, especially in the invaluable matters of manners and deportment, both of which are so essential to advancement in life.
I taught him to sit at table; to enter a room with grace, and to leave it with dignity. Indeed, I spared no trouble, and Peter became as rigorous as a Chesterfield in the proper observance of all such matters. I can give you no better example of Peter's extensive knowledge of what was right and wrong in the ceremonial side of life than by telling you that when he felt an irrepressible sneeze forming he trotted out of the room and sneezed outside. When Peter played, too, he played gently, and did not disturb his elders by obtrusive attentions. He never required to be told twice to do a thing. Once was enough for Peter. Then again in the matter of breakages he was as virtuous a kitten as ever lived. I had thirty precious blue china vases on my sideboard, and through this fragile maze Peter always wound in and out without moving a vase. His virtues in this respect were well known to my servants, who never accused Peter of breaking the milk-jug, or the cups and saucers, I can assure you. Like the best of human beings, he had his faults, but upon these it would be impertinent to touch more than lightly.
Peter was partial to Fridays, because Fridays were devoted to cleaning up. If you have ever watched a woman washing the kitchen floor, you will have noticed that she completes one patch before she proceeds with the next, as if she took pride in each patch, regarding it as a picture. It was Peter's delight to sit and watch this domestic operation; and no sooner was the woman's back turned towards a fresh portion of her territory than Peter ran all over the freshly washed patch and impressed it with the seal of his paws, just as an explorer would indicate a great annexation by a series of flags. That was a mere frolic. It was about this time that I discovered Peter's power as a performing cat. I tied a hare's foot to a piece of string and dangled it before Peter's eyes. I hid the hare's foot in strange places. I flung it downstairs. I threw it upstairs. The hare's foot never failed to attract him. We used to roll on the floor together; we played hide-and-seek together. I noticed that he had a habit of lying on his back with his tail out, his head back, and his paws crossed. By degrees I taught him to assume this attitude at the word of command, so that when I said, "Die, Peter!" Peter turned on his back and became rigid until he received permission to live again.
I also taught him to talk in mews at the word of command. I hear some genial critic exclaim that this cannot be true. I decline to argue with any critic that ever lived, and repeat, fearlessly, and in measured terms, that Peter talked to _me._ Of course he would not drop into conversation with the first person who bade him "good-morning," but I assert again that Peter and I held many conversations together by means of the "mew," used with a score of inflections, often delicately shaded, each of which conveyed its meaning to me.
Peter took to reading, too, quite easily, and sat up with eye-glasses on his nose and a paper between his paws. It was, as you may well imagine, a red-letter day with me when Peter said his prayers for the first time; and I was better pleased when he put his little paws up and lifted his eyes up to the ceiling than with any other of his accomplishments, though they were more appreciated by unthinking friends. It was all very well to place a mouse at my feet and thus play to the gallery, but I felt that Peter's thirst for applause might be his ruin.
When the summer came, and the London pavements began to quake with heat, I determined to fly to the country. As delights are doubled when shared with those we care for, I determined to take Peter with me, so I packed him up in a specially constructed travelling saloon of his own, to wit, a flannel-lined basket containing all the necessary comforts for the journey, such as air-holes and feeding-bottles, and off we started in the highest of spirits.
Peter found a new world opened to him, and the thousand and one beauties of the country fascinated us both. We were the guests of a burly farmer, who lived in a queer old house, half timber and half brick, with low-ceilinged rooms. The general living-room was the capacious kitchen, which looked mighty picturesque. Oak panels ran half-way up to the ceiling; the pots and pans were ranged neatly in an open cupboard, pleasantly suggestive of good fare and plenty of it. There were flowers in red pots in the windows, and my bedroom was a picture of coolness and cleanliness.
Amid these pleasant surroundings Peter soon made himself very happy, and became a great friend of a cat called Jack, who took him under his charge and showed him the ways of the country. Jack was a favorite on the farm. He was certainly given to roving, and did not always "come home to tea." As a mouser he had few equals in the countryside, and one evening when we were telling stories by the fireside the farmer told me that Jack had despatched no less than four hundred mice from one hay-rick.
Jack was a disciple of Isaak Walton. He would crouch on a mossy knoll by the edge of the river, and sometimes was successful in capturing a small trout. The farmer was himself a great fisherman.
Jack was a study while the preparations were in progress, and, all intent, would follow close at his master's heels. He would crouch among the rushes whilst the tackle was being adjusted, and anxiously scan the water as the fly drifted along the surface. He took a keen delight in the sport, and when a fish was negotiating the bait he always purred loudly in anticipation of the feast in prospect. The trout landed and the line re-cast, he would seize his prey, and with stealthy gait slink off with his prize, leaving the old farmer to discover his loss when he might. Together Jack and Peter roamed over the meadow lands, and the poultry-run was an object of great interest to them. Together they fought the rats, and together they would lie in wait for the thrush and the blackbird,--I am happy to say in vain. The farmer told me that in his youth Jack once took up his residence in the hollow of an old oak, where he lived on the furred and feathered game. At last he returned home. For hours he wandered about his old home, fearful of discovery, now crouching amongst the flower-beds, and now flying in terror at the sound of the hall clock. At last he ventured into the kitchen, entering by the window and creeping to the kitchen hearth, where he dozed off to the music of the cricket, to be welcomed like another Prodigal Son.
Alas! these delights were cut short, for Peter and I were soon compelled to pack up our traps and proceed to the seaside for professional purposes. Peter was not fond of the sea. When I took him out yachting he was compelled to call for the steward; and one day when exploring the rocks at low water, gazing with rapture at his own charming face as it was reflected in the glassy surface of a deep pool, an inquiring young lobster nipped his tail, and the shore rang with piteous calls for help. Peter has never cared for the sea since then, and so deeply was the disaster impressed upon him that I have known him reject a choice bit of meat which happened to have a few grains of salt on it. It wafted him back to the ocean, the lobster, and the steward. What powers of imagination were Peter's!