Jerome K. Jerome, most famous for his book Three Men in a Boat also penned a series of essays that are at times funny and at times deeply insightful.
Oh those most faithful of friends! In the essay On Cats and Dogs, Jerome looks deep into how and why we love cats and dogs, and even touches on the delicious horror of rats.
You listen to me read it outloud, can read it here, or online at Gutenberg.org
ON CATS AND DOGS.
What I’ve suffered from them this morning no tongue can tell. It began with Gustavus Adolphus. Gustavus Adolphus (they call him “Gusty” down-stairs for short) is a very good sort of dog when he is in the middle of a large field or on a fairly extensive common, but I won’t have him indoors. He means well, but this house is not his size. He stretches himself, and over go two chairs and a what-not. He wags his tail, and the room looks as if a devastating army had marched through it. He breathes, and it puts the fire out.
At dinner-time he creeps in under the table, lies there for awhile, and then gets up suddenly; the first intimation we have of his movements being given by the table, which appears animated by a desire to turn somersaults. We all clutch at it frantically and endeavor to maintain it in a horizontal position; whereupon his struggles, he being under the impression that some wicked conspiracy is being hatched against him, become fearful, and the final picture presented is generally that of an overturned table and a smashed-up dinner sandwiched between two sprawling layers of infuriated men and women.
He came in this morning in his usual style, which he appears to have founded on that of an American cyclone, and the first thing he did was to sweep my coffee-cup off the table with his tail, sending the contents full into the middle of my waistcoat.
I rose from my chair hurriedly and remarking “——,” approached him at a rapid rate. He preceded me in the direction of the door. At the door he met Eliza coming in with eggs. Eliza observed “Ugh!” and sat down on the floor, the eggs took up different positions about the carpet, where they spread themselves out, and Gustavus Adolphus left the room. I called after him, strongly advising him to go straight downstairs and not let me see him again for the next hour or so; and he seeming to agree with me, dodged the coal-scoop and went, while I returned, dried myself and finished breakfast. I made sure that he had gone in to the yard, but when I looked into the passage ten minutes later he was sitting at the top of the stairs. I ordered him down at once, but he only barked and jumped about, so I went to see what was the matter.
It was Tittums. She was sitting on the top stair but one and wouldn’t let him pass.
Tittums is our kitten. She is about the size of a penny roll. Her back was up and she was swearing like a medical student.
She does swear fearfully. I do a little that way myself sometimes, but I am a mere amateur compared with her. To tell you the truth—mind, this is strictly between ourselves, please; I shouldn’t like your wife to know I said it—the women folk don’t understand these things; but between you and me, you know, I think it does a man good to swear. Swearing is the safety-valve through which the bad temper that might otherwise do serious internal injury to his mental mechanism escapes in harmless vaporing. When a man has said: “Bless you, my dear, sweet sir. What the sun, moon, and stars made you so careless (if I may be permitted the expression) as to allow your light and delicate foot to descend upon my corn with so much force? Is it that you are physically incapable of comprehending the direction in which you are proceeding? you nice, clever young man—you!” or words to that effect, he feels better. Swearing has the same soothing effect upon our angry passions that smashing the furniture or slamming the doors is so well known to exercise; added to which it is much cheaper. Swearing clears a man out like a pen’orth of gunpowder does the wash-house chimney. An occasional explosion is good for both. I rather distrust a man who never swears, or savagely kicks the foot-stool, or pokes the fire with unnecessary violence. Without some outlet, the anger caused by the ever-occurring troubles of life is apt to rankle and fester within. The petty annoyance, instead of being thrown from us, sits down beside us and becomes a sorrow, and the little offense is brooded over till, in the hot-bed of rumination, it grows into a great injury, under whose poisonous shadow springs up hatred and revenge.
Swearing relieves the feelings—that is what swearing does. I explained this to my aunt on one occasion, but it didn’t answer with her. She said I had no business to have such feelings.
That is what I told Tittums. I told her she ought to be ashamed of herself, brought up in at Christian family as she was, too. I don’t so much mind hearing an old cat swear, but I can’t bear to see a mere kitten give way to it. It seems sad in one so young.
I put Tittums in my pocket and returned to my desk. I forgot her for the moment, and when I looked I found that she had squirmed out of my pocket on to the table and was trying to swallow the pen; then she put her leg into the ink-pot and upset it; then she licked her leg; then she swore again—at me this time.
I put her down on the floor, and there Tim began rowing with her. I do wish Tim would mind his own business. It was no concern of his what she had been doing. Besides, he is not a saint himself. He is only a two-year-old fox-terrier, and he interferes with everything and gives himself the airs of a gray-headed Scotch collie.
Tittums’ mother has come in and Tim has got his nose scratched, for which I am remarkably glad. I have put them all three out in the passage, where they are fighting at the present moment. I’m in a mess with the ink and in a thundering bad temper; and if anything more in the cat or dog line comes fooling about me this morning, it had better bring its own funeral contractor with it.
Yet, in general, I like cats and dogs very much indeed. What jolly chaps they are! They are much superior to human beings as companions. They do not quarrel or argue with you. They never talk about themselves but listen to you while you talk about yourself, and keep up an appearance of being interested in the conversation. They never make stupid remarks. They never observe to Miss Brown across a dinner-table that they always understood she was very sweet on Mr. Jones (who has just married Miss Robinson). They never mistake your wife’s cousin for her husband and fancy that you are the father-in-law. And they never ask a young author with fourteen tragedies, sixteen comedies, seven farces, and a couple of burlesques in his desk why he doesn’t write a play.
They never say unkind things. They never tell us of our faults, “merely for our own good.” They do not at inconvenient moments mildly remind us of our past follies and mistakes. They do not say, “Oh, yes, a lot of use you are if you are ever really wanted”—sarcastic like. They never inform us, like our inamoratas sometimes do, that we are not nearly so nice as we used to be. We are always the same to them.
They are always glad to see us. They are with us in all our humors. They are merry when we are glad, sober when we feel solemn, and sad when we are sorrowful.
“Halloo! happy and want a lark? Right you are; I’m your man. Here I am, frisking round you, leaping, barking, pirouetting, ready for any amount of fun and mischief. Look at my eyes if you doubt me. What shall it be? A romp in the drawing-room and never mind the furniture, or a scamper in the fresh, cool air, a scud across the fields and down the hill, and won’t we let old Gaffer Goggles’ geese know what time o’ day it is, neither! Whoop! come along.”
Or you’d like to be quiet and think. Very well. Pussy can sit on the arm of the chair and purr, and Montmorency will curl himself up on the rug and blink at the fire, yet keeping one eye on you the while, in case you are seized with any sudden desire in the direction of rats.
And when we bury our face in our hands and wish we had never been born, they don’t sit up very straight and observe that we have brought it all upon ourselves. They don’t even hope it will be a warning to us. But they come up softly and shove their heads against us. If it is a cat she stands on your shoulder, rumples your hair, and says, “Lor,’ I am sorry for you, old man,” as plain as words can speak; and if it is a dog he looks up at you with his big, true eyes and says with them, “Well you’ve always got me, you know. We’ll go through the world together and always stand by each other, won’t we?”
He is very imprudent, a dog is. He never makes it his business to inquire whether you are in the right or in the wrong, never bothers as to whether you are going up or down upon life’s ladder, never asks whether you are rich or poor, silly or wise, sinner or saint. You are his pal. That is enough for him, and come luck or misfortune, good repute or bad, honor or shame, he is going to stick to you, to comfort you, guard you, and give his life for you if need be—foolish, brainless, soulless dog!
Ah! old stanch friend, with your deep, clear eyes and bright, quick glances, that take in all one has to say before one has time to speak it, do you know you are only an animal and have no mind? Do you know that that dull-eyed, gin-sodden lout leaning against the post out there is immeasurably your intellectual superior? Do you know that every little-minded, selfish scoundrel who lives by cheating and tricking, who never did a gentle deed or said a kind word, who never had a thought that was not mean and low or a desire that was not base, whose every action is a fraud, whose every utterance is a lie—do you know that these crawling skulks (and there are millions of them in the world), do you know they are all as much superior to you as the sun is superior to rushlight you honorable, brave-hearted, unselfish brute? They are MEN, you know, and MEN are the greatest, and noblest, and wisest, and best beings in the whole vast eternal universe. Any man will tell you that.
Yes, poor doggie, you are very stupid, very stupid indeed, compared with us clever men, who understand all about politics and philosophy, and who know everything, in short, except what we are and where we came from and whither we are going, and what everything outside this tiny world and most things in it are.
Never mind, though, pussy and doggie, we like you both all the better for your being stupid. We all like stupid things. Men can’t bear clever women, and a woman’s ideal man is some one she can call a “dear old stupid.” It is so pleasant to come across people more stupid than ourselves. We love them at once for being so. The world must be rather a rough place for clever people. Ordinary folk dislike them, and as for themselves, they hate each other most cordially.
But there, the clever people are such a very insignificant minority that it really doesn’t much matter if they are unhappy. So long as the foolish people can be made comfortable the world, as a whole, will get on tolerably well.
Cats have the credit of being more worldly wise than dogs—of looking more after their own interests and being less blindly devoted to those of their friends. And we men and women are naturally shocked at such selfishness. Cats certainly do love a family that has a carpet in the kitchen more than a family that has not; and if there are many children about, they prefer to spend their leisure time next door. But, taken altogether, cats are libeled. Make a friend of one, and she will stick to you through thick and thin. All the cats that I have had have been most firm comrades. I had a cat once that used to follow me about everywhere, until it even got quite embarrassing, and I had to beg her, as a personal favor, not to accompany me any further down the High Street. She used to sit up for me when I was late home and meet me in the passage. It made me feel quite like a married man, except that she never asked where I had been and then didn’t believe me when I told her.
Another cat I had used to get drunk regularly every day. She would hang about for hours outside the cellar door for the purpose of sneaking in on the first opportunity and lapping up the drippings from the beer-cask. I do not mention this habit of hers in praise of the species, but merely to show how almost human some of them are. If the transmigration of souls is a fact, this animal was certainly qualifying most rapidly for a Christian, for her vanity was only second to her love of drink. Whenever she caught a particularly big rat, she would bring it up into the room where we were all sitting, lay the corpse down in the midst of us, and wait to be praised. Lord! how the girls used to scream.
Poor rats! They seem only to exist so that cats and dogs may gain credit for killing them and chemists make a fortune by inventing specialties in poison for their destruction. And yet there is something fascinating about them. There is a weirdness and uncanniness attaching to them. They are so cunning and strong, so terrible in their numbers, so cruel, so secret. They swarm in deserted houses, where the broken casements hang rotting to the crumbling walls and the doors swing creaking on their rusty hinges. They know the sinking ship and leave her, no one knows how or whither. They whisper to each other in their hiding-places how a doom will fall upon the hall and the great name die forgotten. They do fearful deeds in ghastly charnel-houses.
No tale of horror is complete without the rats. In stories of ghosts and murderers they scamper through the echoing rooms, and the gnawing of their teeth is heard behind the wainscot, and their gleaming eyes peer through the holes in the worm-eaten tapestry, and they scream in shrill, unearthly notes in the dead of night, while the moaning wind sweeps, sobbing, round the ruined turret towers, and passes wailing like a woman through the chambers bare and tenantless.
And dying prisoners, in their loathsome dungeons, see through the horrid gloom their small red eyes, like glittering coals, hear in the death-like silence the rush of their claw-like feet, and start up shrieking in the darkness and watch through the awful night.
I love to read tales about rats. They make my flesh creep so. I like that tale of Bishop Hatto and the rats. The wicked bishop, you know, had ever so much corn stored in his granaries and would not let the starving people touch it, but when they prayed to him for food gathered them together in his barn, and then shutting the doors on them, set fire to the place and burned them all to death. But next day there came thousands upon thousands of rats, sent to do judgment on him. Then Bishop Hatto fled to his strong tower that stood in the middle of the Rhine, and barred himself in and fancied he was safe. But the rats! they swam the river, they gnawed their way through the thick stone walls, and ate him alive where he sat."They have whetted their teeth against the stones, And now they pick the bishop's bones; They gnawed the flesh from every limb, For they were sent to do judgment on him."
Oh, it’s a lovely tale.
Then there is the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, how first he piped the rats away, and afterward, when the mayor broke faith with him, drew all the children along with him and went into the mountain. What a curious old legend that is! I wonder what it means, or has it any meaning at all? There seems something strange and deep lying hid beneath the rippling rhyme. It haunts me, that picture of the quaint, mysterious old piper piping through Hamelin’s narrow streets, and the children following with dancing feet and thoughtful, eager faces. The old folks try to stay them, but the children pay no heed. They hear the weird, witched music and must follow. The games are left unfinished and the playthings drop from their careless hands. They know not whither they are hastening. The mystic music calls to them, and they follow, heedless and unasking where. It stirs and vibrates in their hearts and other sounds grow faint. So they wander through Pied Piper Street away from Hamelin town.
I get thinking sometimes if the Pied Piper is really dead, or if he may not still be roaming up and down our streets and lanes, but playing now so softly that only the children hear him. Why do the little faces look so grave and solemn when they pause awhile from romping, and stand, deep wrapt, with straining eyes? They only shake their curly heads and dart back laughing to their playmates when we question them. But I fancy myself they have been listening to the magic music of the old Pied Piper, and perhaps with those bright eyes of theirs have even seen his odd, fantastic figure gliding unnoticed through the whirl and throng.
Even we grown-up children hear his piping now and then. But the yearning notes are very far away, and the noisy, blustering world is always bellowing so loud it drowns the dreamlike melody. One day the sweet, sad strains will sound out full and clear, and then we too shall, like the little children, throw our playthings all aside and follow. The loving hands will be stretched out to stay us, and the voices we have learned to listen for will cry to us to stop. But we shall push the fond arms gently back and pass out through the sorrowing house and through the open door. For the wild, strange music will be ringing in our hearts, and we shall know the meaning of its song by then.
I wish people could love animals without getting maudlin over them, as so many do. Women are the most hardened offenders in such respects, but even our intellectual sex often degrade pets into nuisances by absurd idolatry. There are the gushing young ladies who, having read “David Copperfield,” have thereupon sought out a small, longhaired dog of nondescript breed, possessed of an irritating habit of criticising a man’s trousers, and of finally commenting upon the same by a sniff indicative of contempt and disgust. They talk sweet girlish prattle to this animal (when there is any one near enough to overhear them), and they kiss its nose, and put its unwashed head up against their cheek in a most touching manner; though I have noticed that these caresses are principally performed when there are young men hanging about.
Then there are the old ladies who worship a fat poodle, scant of breath and full of fleas. I knew a couple of elderly spinsters once who had a sort of German sausage on legs which they called a dog between them. They used to wash its face with warm water every morning. It had a mutton cutlet regularly for breakfast; and on Sundays, when one of the ladies went to church, the other always stopped at home to keep the dog company.
There are many families where the whole interest of life is centered upon the dog. Cats, by the way, rarely suffer from excess of adulation. A cat possesses a very fair sense of the ridiculous, and will put her paw down kindly but firmly upon any nonsense of this kind. Dogs, however, seem to like it. They encourage their owners in the tomfoolery, and the consequence is that in the circles I am speaking of what “dear Fido” has done, does do, will do, won’t do, can do, can’t do, was doing, is doing, is going to do, shall do, shan’t do, and is about to be going to have done is the continual theme of discussion from morning till night.
All the conversation, consisting, as it does, of the very dregs of imbecility, is addressed to this confounded animal. The family sit in a row all day long, watching him, commenting upon his actions, telling each other anecdotes about him, recalling his virtues, and remembering with tears how one day they lost him for two whole hours, on which occasion he was brought home in a most brutal manner by the butcher-boy, who had been met carrying him by the scruff of his neck with one hand, while soundly cuffing his head with the other.
After recovering from these bitter recollections, they vie with each other in bursts of admiration for the brute, until some more than usually enthusiastic member, unable any longer to control his feelings, swoops down upon the unhappy quadruped in a frenzy of affection, clutches it to his heart, and slobbers over it. Whereupon the others, mad with envy, rise up, and seizing as much of the dog as the greed of the first one has left to them, murmur praise and devotion.
Among these people everything is done through the dog. If you want to make love to the eldest daughter, or get the old man to lend you the garden roller, or the mother to subscribe to the Society for the Suppression of Solo-Cornet Players in Theatrical Orchestras (it’s a pity there isn’t one, anyhow), you have to begin with the dog. You must gain its approbation before they will even listen to you, and if, as is highly probable, the animal, whose frank, doggy nature has been warped by the unnatural treatment he has received, responds to your overtures of friendship by viciously snapping at you, your cause is lost forever.
“If Fido won’t take to any one,” the father has thoughtfully remarked beforehand, “I say that man is not to be trusted. You know, Maria, how often I have said that. Ah! he knows, bless him.”
And to think that the surly brute was once an innocent puppy, all legs and head, full of fun and play, and burning with ambition to become a big, good dog and bark like mother.
Ah me! life sadly changes us all. The world seems a vast horrible grinding machine, into which what is fresh and bright and pure is pushed at one end, to come out old and crabbed and wrinkled at the other.
Look even at Pussy Sobersides, with her dull, sleepy glance, her grave, slow walk, and dignified, prudish airs; who could ever think that once she was the blue-eyed, whirling, scampering, head-over-heels, mad little firework that we call a kitten?
What marvelous vitality a kitten has. It is really something very beautiful the way life bubbles over in the little creatures. They rush about, and mew, and spring; dance on their hind legs, embrace everything with their front ones, roll over and over, lie on their backs and kick. They don’t know what to do with themselves, they are so full of life.
Can you remember, reader, when you and I felt something of the same sort of thing? Can you remember those glorious days of fresh young manhood—how, when coming home along the moonlit road, we felt too full of life for sober walking, and had to spring and skip, and wave our arms, and shout till belated farmers’ wives thought—and with good reason, too—that we were mad, and kept close to the hedge, while we stood and laughed aloud to see them scuttle off so fast and made their blood run cold with a wild parting whoop, and the tears came, we knew not why? Oh, that magnificent young LIFE! that crowned us kings of the earth; that rushed through every tingling vein till we seemed to walk on air; that thrilled through our throbbing brains and told us to go forth and conquer the whole world; that welled up in our young hearts till we longed to stretch out our arms and gather all the toiling men and women and the little children to our breast and love them all—all. Ah! they were grand days, those deep, full days, when our coming life, like an unseen organ, pealed strange, yearnful music in our ears, and our young blood cried out like a war-horse for the battle. Ah, our pulse beats slow and steady now, and our old joints are rheumatic, and we love our easy-chair and pipe and sneer at boys’ enthusiasm. But oh for one brief moment of that god-like life again!