A Cat and Her Boswell

FRANÇOIS TASSART, who was valet to Guy de Maupassant, left a book of Meémoires, which is now to be found, covered with dust and neglect, only on the back shelves of obscure French libraries, or exposed for sale as rubbish in the boîtes of secondhand dealers along the Seine. Yet even as a life of Maupassant it has the merit of a novel point of view; while scattered through its pages, and needing but to be assembled to be recognized, is what is unquestionably the world’s best existing biography of a cat.

Maupassant was not the sort of a man one would expect to have a cat. He was excessively active. His chief pleasures were rowing and pistol-practice, and he could not even write without pacing up and down his study floor between paragraphs. On one occasion, having agreed to fight a duel, he insisted upon such deadly terms that his opponent thought better of it, and withdrew the challenge. Being attacked at night by a savage dog, he seized the animal by the throat with one hand, and with the other crammed a stone down its gullet. His idea of being pleasant to the ladies was to send them baskets of live frogs, or to have them sprinkled with water from the garden hose. No, certainly not the kind of a person over whom a furry ball demanding quiet and consideration would be expected to have much influence.

Yet it was to him that Providence vouchsafed — Piroli.

It is December, 1884. Maupassant is living in the rez-de-chaussée of a house on rue Montchanin, Paris. Piroli arrives without ostentation, as the prospective mistress of the Mouse and Rat Suppression Department.

There was something almost surreptitious about the affair, and she came near being handed down to us merely as a subtle, mysterious influence, like the lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Maupassant never mentions her once in all his works. Even when he came to write of cats, it was, as will be seen, not from Piroli that he got his material.

Was the illustrious author ashamed of the below-stairs character which the intrigue managed to assume even in a rez-de-chaussée? Was he piqued at being tamed by a bit of femininity having four feet —he who always was so inclined to behave cavalierly toward those having two?

François is silent on the subject, and introduces Piroli thus: —

‘She came, and in a little time grew very familiar; for she loved much to be caressed and to be one of a party, playing above all with the bead curtain at the door of the conservatory. This sometimes continued for hours, my master in his easy chair taking great pleasure in admiring the little creature, so graceful and souple in all her movements. And she, from the moment he entered the house, was never willing to quit him.’

Flattery of flatteries! No wonder, then, that on the following New Year’s day we hear Maupassant exclaim,— ‘It is very cold this evening. Put Piroli in her basket, Francois, near one of the pipes of the calorifère.'

A man who took cold baths every morning, already he seems to have learned something of the more tropical taste of cats. That calorifère, — stoves are so rare in Paris and so fearfully and wonderfully misconstructed that it would create only a wrong impression to translate the word, — that calorifère must have melted whatever ice of reserve there was left in Piroli’s young heart.

And, still not weary of well-doing, the master — it is now January 17, the eve of a long journey — thinks to tell his valet, —

‘If you chance to be away from the house for more than a day, be sure to take Piroli to my cousin’s, and to recommend her well to the maid (et la bien recommander à la bonne).’

François, it is perhaps here the place to say, was endlessly accomplished. He was cook, valet, nurse, friend, literary critic; anti with his own hands he used to cast the bullets required by his employer in the hunting-field. The more strange that Piroli’s own huntingexploits should have escaped his attention.

Was she not a redoubtable mouser? Perhaps. But there is no mention in the record of her ever having caught a living thing save the heart of the author of Bel Ami.

‘On March 28, at eight o’clock in the morning,’ continues François, ‘M. de Maupassant returned. Piroli recognized his voice even while he was in the vestibule, and ran to him, throwing herself against his legs with plaintive cries of joy (plaintes et miaulements de joie).’

‘ Good morning, my little one, ‘ cried Maupassant; ‘only — let me come in.’

She would not, and he was obliged to take her into his arms, leaving others to settle with the cabby — probably an expensive delegation of authority, if I know Parisian cochers.

‘And then,’ goes on the historian, ‘Piroli sat herself on his desk while my master read the most pressing letters of his accumulated mail, she purring and arching her back (faisant des ronrons et des gros dos), trying to support herself with her forepaws upon his breast as if to embrace him. He was hardly able to attend to his correspondence.’

Her conduct, in fact, went from bad to worse. And what did the master say?

’Oh, la petite gamine!’

Nothing more.

Finally, the trunks being opened, Maupassant takes out a lump of native sulphur, a specimen which he has been at the pains of descending to the depths of a mine in Italy to obtain. Piroli, who has not ceased to rub against his legs, gets some of the sulphur dust into her eyes, and she ‘ se mit à miauler’ and to run about, so that it was almost impossible to catch her for the purpose of giving her care.

‘My master was ready to throw the sulphur stone out of the window,’ François declares; ‘he was desolated to that extent.’

It took a cat to awaken sentiment and pity in Guy de Maupassant. But not even a cat, it appears, could make him altogether faithful. The first indication of a possible shadow on Piroli’s horizon comes a year later, at Antibes. The master is discussing a half-finished piece of fiction with his mother, and is reported as saying, —

‘It is going perfectly — has fallen, in fact, on all its four feet, like the cat of the concierge.'

Why not ‘like Piroli,’ pray? She had consented to move with him from Paris, and was probably looking up into his face at that very moment.

There was no need to go to that plebeian quadruped of the conciergerie for a comparison. And to add to the slight, François, who nowhere gives a word of detail relative to Piroli’s personal appearance except once to mention that she had ‘white velvet paws,’ goes out of his way to remark that the concierge’s brute had ‘sweet, thick fur, part white and part gris foncé.’ It appears, too, that the hussy ‘made playparties without end in company with the master.’

And so it was from her, not Piroli, that he finally took the idea for his Chronique sur les chats. Was this his way of getting even for the chains with which the putative mouse-assassin of rue Montchanin had bound him? Did he cherish the fond illusion that some day he would assert himself, and abandon her to her métier?

Anyway, nothing of the sort took place, and by the end of March Piroli returned with her ungrateful lord to Paris, without a mew. Evidently the reconciliation was complete, for we learn that ‘ she was happy to have again her bead curtain,’ and above all a certain great bearskin, the particular odor of which had always intrigued her to such an extent that François is moved to hazard the theory that she was eaten up with curiosity regarding the unknown beast to whom it had originally belonged.

There ensues a blank interval of nearly two years, and then comes the last happy period of Piroli’s existence. Maupassant is installed at Chatou — the very name is pleasantly suggestive. He has been at pains to decorate the interior of his villa in what he terms a ‘gay fashion.’ That is to say he has hung the walls of his writing-room with silken images of ‘Chinese ladies, Japanese ladies with parasols, Hottentot ladies dancing, holding each other by the hand and making grimaces,’ to say nothing of pictures of fish and the ‘heads of strange beings with silver eyes and moustaches of gold thread.’

To this paradise Piroli brings her first-born, and comes rubbing against the valet’s legs to invite him to see the wonder that has been wrought. The master, hearing pitiful cries mingled with her purring, senses that there is something wrong. There is. Not only joy but sorrow has come to the mother — for one of her four kittens is already dead.

Maupassant behaves splendidly, and is lavish with condolences and caresses. Piroli, soothed, runs down to the Seine and strengthens herself with herbs and grasshoppers, ‘dont elle était très friande.’

She had need of strength, for soon there came a dinner-party, and Maupassant, with his usual taste for practical jokes, so arranged it that everybody should lose the last train for Paris. There was a tumult — or vacarme, as François says it — and a great making up of beds, many of the guests having even to sleep on the floor.

Piroli, much disturbed by the vacarme in question, came out of the ‘salon japonais ‘ where she had left what remained of her infants, ‘to see what the disturbance signified.’ Maupassant, to reassure her, took her in his arms, and she became the centre of attraction. Who could remember a lost train when there was a chance to see Guy de Maupassant apologizing to a female?

‘Satisfied,’ continues the narrator, ‘Piroli gave some little miaulements of content, because all this flattery was for her.’

But in assuming the responsibilities of maternity, she had given hostages to fate. And although Maupassant had the cat again in his arms the next morning, and was rubbing her back as he exchanged congratulations with the incomparable valet over the success of the party, he ends by saying, —

‘Next week I am giving another party. I shall take them out rowing. Would n’t that be a good time for you to suppress two more of the kittens? See how thin Piroli is getting. We ‘d better keep only the one with three colors — and call her Pussy.'

I have no doubt that he pronounced it Poo-see, and believed it to be a rare and distinguishing name. Also he probably considered himself very generous. But I wonder what Piroli thought when the double murder hidden behind that word ‘ suppress ‘ was revealed? François does not say, merely observing that his master went away whistling, and that he had never heard him whistle but twice before in his life.

The boating-party resulted ill for this whistling Herod. He overexerted himself at the oars, and for several days was morose toward all human kind, ‘passing many hours on his divan petting Piroli and Pussy; never moving except to go to the kitchen now and then to get them some milk.’ It sounds almost like remorse.

But it must have been remorse spiced with a bit of Maupassantian perversity, since, when evening came, he would ‘turn down the lamp, and with a splendid shell comb which he had brought from Italy, begin to comb their fur the wrong way, amusing himself in making to jump their phosphorescences.'

This is a very literal translation, but I do not wish to become responsible for François’s natural science. His actual word is phosphorescents. As for Maupassant, one begins to fear that his understanding of cats was not sufficiently serious and too much mingled with levity.

Now the scene turns to Étretat, on the way to which Pussy had a basket all to herself so that she might not crowd her mother. Piroli’s good days were nearly over — but not quite. At Étretat waited several interesting things yet to be experienced, among them ‘eight beautiful turtles,’ six young ducks, any number of glowworms, and a dog.

She seems not to have paid much attention to the turtles, which were forever escaping and being brought back by a shrewd old beggar-woman playfully known as Mary the Sixteenth — suspected of being an accessory before the fact and of not trusting to chance alone to put her in the way of earning a reward. Glowworms Piroli was afraid of. The ducks she tried to make her playmates, but desisted when she found herself getting her feet wet. So it was the dog, Paff, ‘a superb Pont-Audemer spaniel,’ who played the most important part in this, the closing chapter of her life.

Paff, like his master, was a great hunter. But it is pleasant to be able to state that he did not hunt cats, or even order their kittens to be drowned. Of the many pictures which François draws of this charming idyl, the following is a sample.

It is the month of July, 1887, and the weather is very warm. The valet, looking out of his window, sees Paff ‘extended his full length in the alley by the kitchen, beneath the shade of the hedge and of the big wild-apple tree which gives coolness to the well.’ Between Paff and the hedge, Piroli has found a place by squeezing, and lies half on her back, ‘pressing her four velvet white paws against her friend’s ear.'

The chronicle continues; —

‘My master, passing on the way to take his tub, called up to me; “François, do you see that? How delightful they are, those two. I’ve been trying to get them to stay in my workroom, but since it has been so warm they won’t do it, though it is very comfortable there when I have the north window open.” ‘

This quasi-desertion, this resistance to the lure of the open north window, is the only revenge which poor Piroli ever seems to have taken for that ancient wavering of her master’s heart toward the cat of the concierge. August arrives. She attempts to make up to the world for the kittens so ruthlessly suppressed. The results are disastrous.

In vain was the vétérinaire of Criquetot sent for. In vain did he give ' a very long prescription,’ accompanied by a dissertation to the effect that cats are always difficult patients ‘on account of their nervousness.’

‘The little one,’ writes François, ‘rendered her last sigh on the fifteenth of September, while lying on my bed.’

Maupassant was away, hunting at Sainte-Hélène.

‘When he returned, two days later,’ continues the account, ‘he came to look at the body where I had kept it, and asked if she had suffered, wanting to know all the details. I told him that the poor cat had cried, clinging to me as if to ask me to help her.’

Of Pussy, who now becomes the souvenir vivant of the deceased, little need be said save that she seems to have been worthy of her mother and to have carried on the prerogatives of the dynasty, so that Maupassant was often moved to remark that she was even more sensitive — plus chat, as he puts it — than its founder.

We know of her that she protested against the grating sound of the great story-writer’s pen by striking at the nibs with her paw, and that François was ordered to go out and buy some smoother paper so that she might not be annoyed.

Two dogs were added to the ménage — Pel, the son of Puff, and Tahya, brought over from Africa. Then Pussy became savage — not because of the dogs but because of some inner darkness — and had to be killed.

François did not dare tell his master the news, for gloom was already settling over the life of that once-so-brilliant genius, who now sat in his room, rubbing his own hair for the empty pleasure of seeing the sparks fly. There were no more cats. The bead curtain hung motionless, or stirred only at the touch of a hand no longer altogether responsible.

It is a deceptive proverb which says that a cat has nine lives. And as for a man — his days are even as a tale that is told.