A blazing fire, a warm rug, candles lit and curtains drawn, the kettle on for tea, and finally, the cat before you, attracting your attention—it is a scene which everybody likes, unless he has a morbid aversion to cats: which is not common.
The cat purrs, as if it applauded our consideration—and gently moves its tail. What an odd expression of the power to be irritable and the will to be pleased there is in its face, as it looks up at us!
Now she proceeds to clean herself all over, having a just sense of the demands of her elegant person—beginning judiciously with her paws, and fetching amazing tongues at her hind-hips. Anon, she scratches her neck with a foot of rapid delight, leaning her head towards it, and shutting her eyes, half to accommodate the action of the skin, and half to enjoy the luxury. She then rewards her paws with a few more touches;—look at the action of her head and neck, how pleasing it is, the ears pointed forward, and the neck gently arching to and fro. Finally, she gives a sneeze, and another twist of mouth and whiskers, and then, curling her tail towards her front claws, settles herself on her hind quarter, in an attitude of bland meditation.
She is a sprightly cat, hardly past her youth: so, happening to move the fringe of the rug a little with our foot, she darts out a paw, and begins plucking it and inquiring into the matter, as if it were a challenge to play, or something lively enough to be eaten. What a graceful action of that foot of hers, between delicacy and petulance!—combining something of a thrust out, a beat, and a scratch. There seems even something of a little bit of fear in it, as if just enough to provoke her courage, and give her the excitement of a sense of hazard. We remember being much amused with seeing a kitten manifestly making a series of experiments upon the patience of its mother—trying how far the latter would put up with positive bites and thumps. The kitten ran at her every moment, gave her a knock or a bite of the tail; and then ran back again, to recommence the assault. The mother sate looking at her, as if betwixt tolerance and admiration, to see how far the spirit of the family was inherited or improved by her sprightly offspring. At length, however, the “little Pickle” presumed too far, and the mother, lifting up her paw, and meeting her at the very nick of the moment, gave her one of the most unsophisticated boxes of the ear we ever beheld. It sent her rolling half over the room, and made her come to a most ludicrous pause, with the oddest little look of premature and wincing meditation.
That lapping of the milk out of the saucer is what one’s human thirst cannot sympathize with. It seems as if there could be no satisfaction in such a series of atoms of drink. Yet the saucer is soon emptied; and there is a refreshment to one’s ears in that sound of plashing with which the action is accompanied, and which seems indicative of a like comfort to pussy’s mouth. Her tongue is thin, and can make a spoon of itself. This, however, is common to other quadrupeds with the cat, and does not, therefore, more particularly belong to our feline consideration. Not so the electricity of its coat, which gives out sparks under the hand; its passion for the herb valerian (did the reader ever see one roll in it? it is a mad sight) and other singular delicacies of nature, among which, perhaps, is to be reckoned its taste for fish, a creature with whose element it has so little to do that it is supposed even to abhor it; though lately we read somewhere of a swimming cat, that used to fish for itself. And this reminds us of an exquisite anecdote of dear, dogmatic, diseased, thoughtful, surly, charitable Johnson, who would go out of doors himself, and buy oysters for his cat, because his black servant was too proud to do it! But Johnson’s true practical delicacy in the matter is beautiful. Be assured that he thought nothing of “condescension” in it, or of being eccentric. He was singular in some things, because he could not help it. But he hated eccentricity. No: in his best moments he felt himself simply to be a man, and a good man too, though a frail—one that in virtue as well as humility, and in a knowledge of his ignorance as well as his wisdom, was desirous of being a Christian philosopher; and accordingly he went out, and bought food for his hungry cat, because his poor negro was too proud to do it, and there was nobody else in the way whom he had a right to ask. What must anybody that saw him have thought, as he turned up Bolt Court! But doubtless he went as secretly as possible—that is to say, if he considered the thing at all. His friend Garrick could not have done as much! He was too grand, and on the great “stage” of life. Goldsmith could; but he would hardly have thought of it. Beauclerc might; but he would have thought it necessary to excuse it with a jest or a wager, or some such thing. Sir Joshua Reynolds, with his fashionable, fine-lady-painting hand, would certainly have shrunk from it. Burke would have reasoned himself into its propriety, but he would have reasoned himself out again. Gibbon! Imagine its being put into the head of Gibbon! He and his bag-wig would have started with all the horror of a gentleman-usher; and he would have rung the bell for the cook’s-deputy’s-under-assistant-errand-boy.
Hunt, Leigh. “The cat by the fire.” 1834. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 30 Dec 2007. 25 Apr 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/hunt/cat_by_the_fire/>.
It is part of my business to look about for helps to reflection; and, for this reason, among many others, I indulge myself in keeping a good fire from morning till night.
These precious Journals! Supposing I lost them! I cannot imagine the anguish it would cause me.
Vanity, which really helps to keep the race alive, has been treated harshly by the moralists and satirists. It does not quite deserve the hard names it has been called.
In some degree I term every person idle, the exercise of whose mind does not bear some proportion to that of the body.
Systems and opinions change, but nature is always true.