Van Wagener's Flying Cat




SPARROWS," said the Colonel, "may be very upright, respectable, middle-class birds long as they slay in England, but when they emigrate to America, they are no better than the average of our working classes. Some meddling idiot brought a lot of sparrows to the States ten or fifteen years ago, expecting they would kill all the worms on the fruit trees. They hadn't been in the country above six months when they took the ground that they were as good as the best of our swell birds, and that they considered that killing worms was a degrading kind of labour fit only for blackbirds and crows. So they took to living on wheat, and strawberries, and cherries, and they multiplied so fast that they are the worst curse that the farmer and the fruit grower ever had, with the solitary exception of the McKinley tariff. That shows the folly of promoting emigration among birds, just as the exportation of rabbits lo Australia showed the folly of supposing that man knows more about the proper distribution of animals than Nature knows. There are now about ten sparrows to every worm in the United Stales, and what we need more than anything else is some style of worm big enough to cat the sparrows.

"Professor Van Wagener and I were discussing the sparrow question one day, and I was complaining of the inefficiency of the American cat. Our cats are about as wide-awake as any monarchical cats that you can produce, but they can't catch a single sparrow. I've known ambitious cats who set out to catch sparrows, and who wasted away to mere skeletons, and died of weakness, through watching for sparrows from dawn to darkness, and never once getting within ten feet of one. As a general rule I don't have much sympathy with cats, but the insulting language that sparrows use when they see a cat laying for them, and the aggravating way in which they will fly just over the cat's head, or maybe hit the cat over the tail with their wings, is more than any cat can be expected to bear.

" 'The trouble is,' said Van Wagener, 'that the cat isn't a flying animal and the sparrow is. The sparrow's native element is the air, and you can't expect a cat to catch a sparrow so long as the cat can't fly.'

" 'That's true enough,' said I, 'but it don't help us out of our difficulty. Cats weren't made with wings, and neither you nor I can invent a new model of cat that will he able to fly, and to catch sparrows on the wing.'

" 'Don't you be too sure of that,' said the Professor. 'Science has improved everything that it has put its hand to, and I sec no reason why science shouldn't improve cats. A flying cat would supply a great public want, for she would kill off the sparrows as easily as she kills off the mice. I've half a mind to try the experiment of inventing a flying cat.'

" 'All right," said I, 'When you get your flying cat finished just notify me and I'll come and see her fly. Then, if you are going in for improving animals, perhaps you will invent a cat that can sing like a nightingale. The present style of singing among cats is disgraceful. They haven't any more idea of music than a Chinaman.'

" 'You only show your ignorance, Colonel,' said Van Wagener, 'when you ridicule science. Give me six weeks, and I promise to show you a flying cat. I don't say positively that the flying cat will exterminate all the sparrows, for that would be a pretty large order; but I do say that she will fly, and that she will give the sparrows the worst scare that they have ever had.'

"Well, the Professor buckled down to business, and from his daily interviews with his private cat, and the consequent scratches that diversified his good old scientific countenance, I judged that he was doing his best to make a cat that would fly. Before the six weeks were up he sent me a note, inviting me to come round to his house at two o'clock the next afternoon to see the first successful flying cat that had ever been invented. I needn't say that I went. I had assisted at the birth of dozens of Van Wagener's inventions, and I had generally found that the presence of a man with experience in the treatment of accidents was a handy thing, so far as the Professor was concerned.

"I found Van Wagener sitting in his library with the most discouraged-looking cat that I had ever seen. As soon as he had shaken hands with me he launched out into a description of his new invention.

" 'You know. Colonel,' said he, 'my method as an inventor. I ask myself what is needed for some particular purpose, and then I proceed to supply that need. Most people think that an inventor has ideas come to him all of a sudden, in a supernatural sort of way; but that is all nonsense. Inventing is a business, like any other, and any intelligent man can learn it. Now, when I saw that the reason why cats don't catch sparrows is that they can't fly after the bird, I saw that what was wanted was a flying cat, and I proceeded to invent one. Here I have a small balloon. This I fix to that cat of mine, and when it is inflated it will just support the weight of the cat in the air. Then you see this pair of paddle-wheels. They are to be fixed, one on each side of the cat, and are to be driven by a small electrical engine. The balloon floats the cat, and the paddle-wheels propel her. In order to steer the cat I fix a flat piece of tin to the extremity of her tail. When she sees a sparrow her instinct will make her swish her tail from one side to the other, and her attention being fastened on catching the bird, she will unconsciously work her tail in such a way as to steer her directly towards it Take it all in all I am justly proud of this invention. It is simple and effective, that is to say when the air is still, for of course my paddle-wheels will not propel the cat against the wind. I tried at first to tit the cat out with wings, but it was impossible to teach her to use them. Next to a woman a cat cares less for science than any other animal, and it is impossible to teach her to take an interest in an invention that is designed solely to benefit her. However, the day will come when flying cats will be as common as the ordinary type, and when they once get used to flying they will take to the sport as kindly as they now take to catching mice. Now, Colonel, if you are ready, we will rig up the cat for flying, and we will see what effect she produces on the sparrows in my backyard,'

"It wasn't an easy job to rig up Van Wagener's cat. She kicked and swore her level best, and got in several good scratches on the Professor's hands. However, he stuck to his task, and after a while the cat was ready, and we adjourned to the backyard. There was a whole gang of sparrows in the middle of the yard, forming a sort of ring round two that were fighting, and from the way in which every sparrow was talking at the top of his voice it was clear that some heavy betting on the fight was in progress. When they saw Van Wagener and his cat, they naturally flew up to the eaves of the house, where the fight was resumed. Van Wagoner took his flying cat to the extremity of the yard, and after showing her the sparrows on the top of the house, and exhorting her to gather them in, he launched her into the air.

"The cat rose slowly, kicking and yelling, until she was just about level with the eaves. The sparrows were so occupied with the fight that they paid no attention to her, and when she saw that there were at least twenty of them gathered close together, her desire to get at them made her temporarily forget her balloon and her paddle-wheels. She lashed her tail, as cats will do when bent on murder, and, just as the Professor predicted, the effect was to steer her in the direction of the sparrows. Her paddle-wheels were working smoothly and regularly, and though they were not large enough to give her any great speed, they steadily carried her across the yard towards the sparrows. Van Wagener was in ecstacies. He challenged me to point out any defect in his flying cat, and when I candidly admitted that it did seem to be a complete success, he was the happiest man in New Berlinopolisville. The cat came through the air so slowly and noiselessly that she was within two yards of the sparrows before they saw her. When they did catch sight of this new and startling animal, they were the worst frightened lot of birds that were ever seen outside of one of those so-called Happy Families, where half-a-dozen birds, clean paralysed with fear, are shut in a cage with a cat that has been filled up with chloral, and the public is asked to regard the exhibition as a specimen of what will he the usual sort of thing when the millennium gets its work fairly in. Those sparrows left in a tremendous hurry. They had a sudden business call in some distant part of Illinois, and I don't believe a single one of them stopped flying until they had put at least thirty miles between themselves and Van Wagener's flying cat.

" 'Now, you see,' said the Professor, 'how completely successful my invention is. My flying cat will either catch the sparrows and kill them, or she will frighten them out of the country. In either case the great sparrow problem is solved. It makes no difference to me, as a patriotic American citizen, whether all the British sparrows in the country are killed, of whether they are driven over into Canada. Come to think of it, I should prefer the latter result, for the driving of monarchical European birds out of our beloved country will be an object lesson in the enforcement of the Monroe doctrine, which will be of immense benefit to the nation.'

"The Professor, being a scientific crank, was naturally a political crank also, and he was more than two-thirds mad on the subject of the Monroe doctrine, which by-the-bye is unanimously believed in and worshipped by every lunatic in the States. When the Professor once got fairly started on the subject of the Monroe doctrine he forgot everything else, and he had clean forgotten his flying cat when Mrs. Van Wagener leaned out of a second story window, and advised him, in case he was going to make a political speech, to hire a hall. She was a mighty sarcastic woman, and her contempt for her husband's political views was even greater than her contempt for his scientific achievements. She was on the point of continuing her remarks about the Professor's political oration, when she suddenly gave the awfullest screech that I ever heard from female lips, though I was once in a room full of strong-minded women when a mouse ran across the floor. Mrs. Van Wagener thought that her last hour had come, judging from her screams, but, as I had a full view of what was taking place, I knew it was only the cat who had come. Having missed the sparrows the cat turned partly round to see what had become of them, and just then Mrs. Van Wagener, having unconsciously put her head within the animal's reach, the cat judged that her opportunity for miking a landing had arrived, and accordingly she lit on the top of Mrs. Van Wagener's head.

"Most any woman, not knowing that her husband had invented a flying cat, would have supposed when some monster with sharp claws, and a talent for using bad language, came flying through the air and lit on her head, that nothing less than the sea-serpent, or the flying dragons mentioned in Scripture, had attacked her. What with the cat's desire to kick herself free from her flying apparatus, and her anxiety to get square with the human race, she did more with that poor woman's hair in five minutes than any other cat could have done in a good half hour. The Professor tried to explain that it was only the cat, and begged his wife not to injure the flying apparatus. It didn't seem to occur to him that he ought to run to his wife's assistance, till I had taken him by the shoulders, and started him upstairs, I don't want you to think for a moment that he wasn't anxious to help his wife, but he was so in the habit of looking at things from a scientific point of view, that he forgot that while he was explaining things Mrs. Van Wagener might be clawed to such an extent that she would never be recognised by her nearest friend. When he had once grasped the idea that she needed his help he fairly flew upstairs and succeeded in transferring the cat's attentions to himself. Then I had to come to the rescue, for the Professor not having hair enough to interest the cat, she had devoted her efforts to beautifying his countenance, and if I hadn't succeeded in pulling her off, and tossing her out of the window, she would have torn his eyes out, or at all events ruined his nose. Her balloon had burst during her interview with Mrs. Van Wagener, and consequently when I threw her out of the window she struck the ground pretty heavily, and smashed up the paddle-wheels. We never saw her again, but every little while there would appear in the newspapers stories of a strange animal with a glittering tail, that haunted the lower part of Illinois. You see the cat couldn't rid herself of her steering attachment, and she naturally wasn't willing to show herself in what she considered a disgraceful dress.

"Mrs. Van Wagener made peace with her husband on condition of his making a solemn promise never to have anything more to do with flying cats. I consider that she was wrong in so doing, for Van Wagener's invention was bound to be a success. If he had been allowed to carry it out, flying cats would have become as common as bats, and every sparrow in the States would have emigrated. If it wasn't that I don't believe in using other people's inventions, I would go in for the manufacture of flying cats myself; and as it is, I believe that Edison will some day hear of Van Wagener's experiment, and will immediately invent a flying cat, and spend the rest of his life in trying to make the invention work."

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.