Page:010 Once a week Volume X Dec 1863 to Jun 64.pdf/24

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[[Dec. 26, 1863.


Genius has been defined to be the power of seeing wonders in common things. A man might justly be supposed to lay claim to no small share of it who should undertake to discern marvels in such ordinary every-day animals as cats. All must have noticed, however, that the commonest things frequently repay a careful consideration, just as our own age has found it profitable to work over again the cinders which the Romans flung away as useless in extracting lead. When Opie left Cornwall to push his way to London, he painted portraits (which may be seen at an old house in the West) not only of the Prideauxes who were his patrons, but also of the servants, and even the household cats. In like manner we will honour these useful animals by giving them a niche along with more dignified characters, though certainly not more curious animals.

The first question that meets us is, are our domestic cats indigenous to Great Britain? Probably not. It is true that wild cats roam in our larger forests and less populous districts; but their colour is invariably grey, and their build is firmer and more powerful than that of our tame cats. They are irreclaimably savage, too; and house-cats which have run wild to the woods, though perhaps more incorrigible poachers than even the native wild cat, never show any tendencies of reverting to it as the original stock. They are most likely a foreign importation, like the Persian and Angola cats of the present day. Conjecture may fancy some unknown Whittington, in prehistoric times, drifting on our shores from the Continent with a cat under his arm, the mother of all the cats in our land. The tailless Manx cats approach the wild cat very nearly in ferocity and appearance. House-cats, on the contrary, are of all colours, and sports" are perpetually being bred.

A positive argument for their introduction may be founded on the terms in which they are mentioned amongst the old Welsh laws of Howell the Good (943 a.d.). They were evidently scarce at that time, for it is there laid down: "The worth of a kitten until it shall open its eyes is one legal penny; from that time till it shall kill mice, two legal pennies; after it shall kill mice, four legal pence, and so it shall always remain." A law of one of our own Edwards made the killing a cat punishable with death—a remnant of barbarism only expuned from the statute-book, we believe, by the late Sir R. Peel. Both the ancient Welsh and our own law concurred in a curious penalty for killing the king's cat, "the guardian of the royal barn." The offender was mulcted in a heap of corn sufficient to cover the defunct animal, when held up by the tip of its tail with its whiskers touching the floor.

The palmy days for cats were in the of Egypt's power as a nation, some 500 years b.c. They were held then as sacred as dogs or crocodiles, and death was the penalty for killing them. From their nocturnal habits and the Egyptians deemed them symbolical of the moon, and a golden cat was worshipped at Syene. Herodotus tells us some marvels about them. The "toms," it seems, in his time had a peculiar liking for making away with kittens,—a very fortunate thing too, or the land would have been over-run with cats. Crowning wonder of all, when fire breaks out, the sole care of the natives is to keep the cats from it, to do which they post themselves as guards round the burning house, and take no thought for putting out the flames. A divine impulse, however (says the chronicler), seizes the cats; they dart under the men, or leap over them, and fling themselves into the flames. Then great mourning takes possession of the land. If a cat were found dead in any one's house, the inmates had to shave off their eyebrows. The defunct animals were carried into the temples, where they were embalmed and solemnly deposited in the city Bubastis. Specimens may be seen in the British Museum. Very different is their fate at modern Rome. A recent traveller tells us they are there as highly esteemed for culinary purposes as puppy-dogs in China. If you have a roast hare for dinner, you had better not make too many inquiries as to what kind of "Pussy" it was before it came into the chef's hands.

The ancient physicians had a firm belief in the healing powers of different portions of this animal, probably from some confusion existing in their minds with regard to its own nine lives. One of them gives us, as a valuable receipt to cure fevers, two pints of water mixed with three drops of blood taken from the ear of an ass, and certain parts of a cat's digestive organs! The claw of an owl, or a wolf's eye bound on to the patient, was a good external application to accompany this dose. Catching at the slightest verbal resemblence, their system of medicine would be well represented by presribing a cat in a case of catalepsy. The very ashes of the animal, sprinkled where mice were, would prove quite sufficient to scare them away, according to Pliny's belief.

If we are surprised at the respect cats obtained in the infancy of nations, we need only remember how much our own childhood was