Tobias

IT was a little after two o’clock this morning when Tobias wakened me. Tobias is a tiger tomcat who, despite the brushed gloss of his fur and the neatness of his arrogant whiskers, belongs to no one. His home is wherever the tamarack may be paw-patted into a bed, or wherever a deserted rabbit burrow may be scratched out from beneath the withered leaves.

Behind our farmhouse rises a little mountain, and in many a spot on it I have found the places of Tobias’s day-sleeping hours. Once I found a deep curved depression under a cedar tree, with Tobias’s droppings near it and a chipmunk skull half hidden in a clump of yellow violets close by. Another day I came upon signs that Tobias had been tenanting a woodchuck hole, and once, when we were making a clearing, we found his spoor deep in a thorny tangle of wild blackberry.

It is irresistible to use such words as ‘spoor’ in speaking of Tobias, just as I have always thought of those day-sleeping places of his as ‘lairs.’ Masterless and homeless probably from kittenhood, this midnight stalker of white-footed mice has become as crafty as any lynx or panther, as arrogant and mistrustful of mankind.

Like any of his wild feline cousins, whose coats are of a yellower shade but whose spirits would find their duplicate in Tobias’s own, he chose the night hours, and those hours only, to ‘roar after his prey and seek his meat from God.’ Once or twice, walking over the hills in the late dusk, I have caught a glimpse of his long lithe body, stretched concealingly in the tall meadow grass and yarrow. At such times as this I have seen Tobias’s yellow eyes turned upon me, for the split second before he whisked noiselessly into the underbrush, and I have been glad to be a man and not a mole.

Quite early in May, about the time when the earliest bloodroots were beginning to flower in hidden places, I surprised Tobias close to our rain barrel one night. I have forgotten for what reason I was prowling outdoors with my flashlight; as I stepped suddenly around the angle of the old stone wall, there was Tobias. He was not more than ten feet from me; I had never before been so close to him. I could see the small black lynx-tips at the points of his ears, and I marveled to see that he kept himself as satiny and immaculate as any house pet. He had a tiny russet field mouse in his jaws, and, for the few seconds of his hypnosis in the beam of my light, he crouched perfectly motionless, glaring at me and making a deep steady growling noise in his throat. Then he turned and was gone. The ground was layered with the crackledry maple leaves of last autumn, but he did not make a sound.

It was about two o’clock this morning when I awoke with Tobias’s yowling in my ears. During the winter and the spring we have often heard him at night — especially in the winter, when his cries would seem particularly penetrating in the still, frosty air — and on my morning walks I used sometimes to find in the light snow indications that starvation had driven him to filch the dry crusts of bread from my bird tray. But he had never made sufficient clamor to waken me thus from sound sleep.

I got out of bed and went to the north window and looked out. There was bright moonlight, and I could see the white trunks of our young birches gleaming where it touched them, and across the pasture I could see the glimmer of it in the brook. But I could not see Tobias. And then he cried out again and I followed the sound and saw him. He was crouched close beside the kitchen door, and he was snuffling and sniffing at the sill of it and rasping the screen with his powerful claws. How like a tiger he looked — an old tiger that had grown overbold and craved the taste of a new meat. For it was plain that his keen nostrils had caught a fresh and thrilling scent — the scent of a caged canary on the other side of that kitchen door. Tobias, Tobias, I thought, be those curving claws of yours however sharp, they are no match for galvanized wire, and I went back to bed.

But it was not the smell of a new bird’s blood that had brought Tobias here. This morning when I opened the door and looked out into the misty sunlight and saw that Tobias was still there, — his lithe striped body stretched on the stone step, one keen curved claw still caught in the screen’s mesh, — I could guess the truth.

I could guess what extremity of pain had come to him in his lonely world among the tamaracks, and I could guess how, in the hour of his death, there had recurred in that furry skull of his some misty memory from very long ago — some memory, perhaps, of the nibbing of friendly human fingers under his chin, some memory of a quiet bowl of milk.