The Cat and the Bell-Collar

IT was, by sorrowful count, the twenty-seventh bird Fur-Cat had killed that spring — song-birds all, and protected by law from gun and trap, but not from claw and tooth. The decree went forth that Fur-Cat must be belled, and a bell-collar was accordingly procured. The offending one was called, and came, rubbing and purring against chair-legs and folklegs all the way. With a touching confidence he submitted to having the collar fastened on, and it settled most becomingly into its place — a dash of red melting into deep gray fur. When he was released there was a moment of pause, then the purrings and rubbings changed to frantic clawings and chewings, aimed at the millstone and designed to remove it instantly and forever from the outraged person of FurCat. There followed a dash through the open door and across the lawn.

We felt anxious. Would the fluffy neck be clawed to ravelings? Would insanity set in? Suddenly Fur-Cat reappeared, bounding lightly and gayly, scarcely touching earth. He came on, with little whirls and pirouettings, toying daintily with his tail; he leaped into the air to paw at some creature of his fancy, he chased imaginary worsted balls about over the grass and the piazzas. Finally, in a burst of enthusiasm born purely of his own mood, he shot up a tree and poised himself, in beautiful ease, on an upper branch.

We laughed, and we marveled a little too. Fur-Cat was not young, the days of his kittenhood lay in a dim past. Yet now the kitten in him had reasserted itself—nay, more than reasserted, for in his antics there had been not only all the gay and whimsical impulses of youth, but all the power of maturity. It was a complete, a satisfying, a deeply artistic expression of cat-nature in all its possibilities.

’If this is what a bell-collar can do,’ we said, ’let us give all cats bellcollars.’

But why stop at cats?

For the incident set me wondering how a bell-collar could be provided for this or that friend of mine ■—• picturing what the effect would be.

I fancy that most of us need to have worked in us just the change that the bell-collar brought about in Fur-Cat. Not that I desire to see every lady of my acquaintance bounding lightly about her lawn, or posturing in the tree-tops, or toying with fancied images of the air. These things were right in Fur-Cat because he was Fur-Cat. They were the expression of his nature and therefore beautiful. It is a correspondingly complete and satisfying expression of their inherent nature that I long for in the good ladies, and good gentlemen, of whom I am thinking.

It is, perhaps, a habit of the Northern races to repress extreme impulses. It is certainly a habit of the New Englander. Do we not know many and many a character whose natural colors are veiled — are overlaid indeed — with the deep gray of reserve or the pale gray of hesitation? These are they whom I want to draw to me for a moment, slip on the bell-collar, — and then see!

Sometimes I have watched this very thing happen. There is, for instance, a young man who in ordinary life is bound hand and foot by his own self-consciousness. Eye and tongue are held in slavery to it, and he walks as one compelled, looking neither to the right nor to the left. He sits, as it were, always on the edge of his chair. But give him a rag or two of costume, and a song to sing, and a miracle is wrought. He grows taller, his step is firm and elastic, his bearing has the grace of complete ease, he looks the world gayly in the eye, he not only sings his song and acts his part, but he flings out extempore witticisms and meets unforeseen emergencies with blithe unconcern. On a wave of sympathy and success he is carried, not out of himself but into himself. He enters into possession of his own personality.

And when the bell-collar is off, is the spell over? Not quite. Something remains. Each time the transformation is effected it leaves behind it traces. Some day, I believe, he will no longer need the material bell-collar. He will carry one, as Rosalind did not carry her doublet and hose, in his disposition.

There are many to whom the bit of rag and the song, or the speech, bring a similar emancipation. But there are more for whom these would never break chains, but rather fasten them tighter. Fortunately, there are other bell-collars, and not the least among them is raiment. Undoubtedly clothes are abused, yet they have their uses, aside from those of protection. Look at Cinderella! Does any one suppose she would have come into her own place without the help of those gorgeous gowns and those little glass slippers? Does any one fancy her manners were the same, her eyes as bright, her wit as ready, when she sat among the cinders in her dingy rags? No indeed! The slippers and the gowns and the golden coach were an enfranchisement; they were her bell-collar. The Prince was never so dull as to fall in love with a thing of satin and glass. What charmed him was the adorable spirit within, which these had served to release.

Would that we had each of us a fairy godmother to fasten on us, at the right moment, just the right, the magic collar!

The world, out of fairy books, is chary in furnishing its fairy godmothers, yet most of us have friends at whose touch we become more truly and happily ourselves than at other times. They seem able to endow us, through some magic of their own, with the beauteous vestments and the glass slippers that free the spirit. These are our fairy godmothers. We do well to love them and pay them good heed, for through them we may enter into such possession of the precious gifts that we need have no dread of the striking hour. This, we must suppose, is what Cophetua did for his beggar-maid. At his glance, the queen in her blossomed, which later all the world could see.

Some there are, indeed, who are able to play the beneficent part, not to one alone, or to two or three, but to all whom they meet. They go among people flinging bell-collars to right and left. I have seen such a person come into a room, and instantly every one in it grew more vivid, more truly and happily individual. These fairy godmothers themselves are never quite aware of the spell they exert; they think, perhaps, that the room was the same before they entered it. They see people, inevitably, with their bell-collars on, and to them the world never looks as it often does to the rest of us — a little colorless, a little dull, a little unresponsive.

Success to their magic wands! It is through them, if at all, that the boulevards of the world grow rich with golden coaches, and the assemblies of the world grow bright with the gleaming robes and crystal slippers of spiritual enfranchisement.