English Literature » Jerome K. Jerome » Dick Dunkerman’s Cat

Dick Dunkerman’s Cat by

Richard Dunkerman and I had been old school-fellows, if a gentleman belonging to the Upper Sixth, and arriving each morning in a “topper” and a pair of gloves, and “a discredit to the Lower Fourth,” in a Scotch cap, can by any manner of means be classed together. And though in those early days a certain amount of coldness existed between us, originating in a poem, composed and sung on occasions by myself in commemoration of an alleged painful incident connected with a certain breaking-up day, and which, if I remember rightly ran:—

Dicky, Dicky, Dunk, Always in a funk, Drank a glass of sherry wine, And went home roaring drunk,

and kept alive by his brutal criticism of the same, expressed with the bony part of the knee, yet in after life we came to know and like each other better. I drifted into journalism, while he for years had been an unsuccessful barrister and dramatist; but one spring, to the astonishment of us all, he brought out the play of the season, a somewhat impossible little comedy, but full of homely sentiment and belief in human nature. It was about a couple of months after its production that he first introduced me to “Pyramids, Esquire.”

I was in love at the time. Her name was, I think, Naomi, and I wanted to talk to somebody about her. Dick had a reputation for taking an intelligent interest in other men’s love affairs. He would let a lover rave by the hour to him, taking brief notes the while in a bulky red-covered volume labelled “Commonplace Book.” Of course everybody knew that he was using them merely as raw material for his dramas, but we did not mind that so long as he would only listen. I put on my hat and went round to his chambers.

We talked about indifferent matters for a quarter of an hour or so, and then I launched forth upon my theme. I had exhausted her beauty and goodness, and was well into my own feelings—the madness of my ever imagining I had loved before, the utter impossibility of my ever caring for any other woman, and my desire to die breathing her name—before he made a move. I thought he had risen to reach down, as usual, the “Commonplace Book,” and so waited, but instead he went to the door and opened it, and in glided one of the largest and most beautiful black tom-cats I have ever seen. It sprang on Dick’s knee with a soft “cur-roo,” and sat there upright, watching me, and I went on with my tale.

After a few minutes Dick interrupted me with:—

“I thought you said her name was Naomi?”

“So it is,” I replied. “Why?”

“Oh, nothing,” he answered, “only just now you referred to her as Enid.”

This was remarkable, as I had not seen Enid for years, and had quite forgotten her. Somehow it took the glitter out of the conversation. A dozen sentences later Dick stopped me again with:—

“Who’s Julia?”

I began to get irritated. Julia, I remembered, had been cashier in a city restaurant, and had, when I was little more than a boy, almost inveigled me into an engagement. I found myself getting hot at the recollection of the spooney rhapsodies I had hoarsely poured into her powder-streaked ear while holding her flabby hand across the counter.

“Did I really say ‘Julia’?” I answered somewhat sharply, “or are you joking?”

“You certainly alluded to her as Julia,” he replied mildly. “But never mind, you go on as you like, I shall know whom you mean.”

But the flame was dead within me. I tried to rekindle it, but every time I glanced up and met the green eyes of the black Tom it flickered out again. I recalled the thrill that had penetrated my whole being when Naomi’s hand had accidently touched mine in the conservatory, and wondered whether she had done it on purpose. I thought how good and sweet she was to that irritatingly silly old frump her mother, and wondered if it really were her mother, or only hired. I pictured her crown of gold-brown hair as I had last seen it with the sunlight kissing its wanton waves, and felt I would like to be quite sure that it were all her own.

Once I clutched the flying skirts of my enthusiasm with sufficient firmness to remark that in my own private opinion a good woman was more precious than rubies; adding immediately afterwards—the words escaping me unconsciously before I was aware even of the thought—“pity it’s so difficult to tell ’em.”

Then I gave it up, and sat trying to remember what I had said to her the evening before, and hoping I had not committed myself.

Dick’s voice roused me from my unpleasant reverie.

“No,” he said, “I thought you would not be able to. None of them can.”

“None of them can what?” I asked. Somehow I was feeling angry with Dick and with Dick’s cat, and with myself and most other things.

“Why talk love or any other kind of sentiment before old Pyramids here?” he replied, stroking the cat’s soft head as it rose and arched its back.

“What’s the confounded cat got to do with it?” I snapped.

“That’s just what I can’t tell you,” he answered, “but it’s very remarkable. Old Leman dropped in here the other evening and began in his usual style about Ibsen and the destiny of the human race, and the Socialistic idea and all the rest of it—you know his way. Pyramids sat on the edge of the table there and looked at him, just as he sat looking at you a few minutes ago, and in less than a quarter of an hour Leman had come to the conclusion that society would do better without ideals and that the destiny of the human race was in all probability the dust heap. He pushed his long hair back from his eyes and looked, for the first time in his life, quite sane. ‘We talk about ourselves,’ he said, ‘as though we were the end of creation. I get tired listening to myself sometimes. Pah!’ he continued, ‘for all we know the human race may die out utterly and another insect take our place, as possibly we pushed out and took the place of a former race of beings. I wonder if the ant tribe may not be the future inheritors of the earth. They understand combination, and already have an extra sense that we lack. If in the courses of evolution they grow bigger in brain and body, they may become powerful rivals, who knows?’ Curious to hear old Leman talking like that, wasn’t it?”

“What made you call him ‘Pyramids’?” I asked of Dick.

“I don’t know,” he answered, “I suppose because he looked so old. The name came to me.”

I leaned across and looked into the great green eyes, and the creature, never winking, never blinking, looked back into mine, until the feeling came to me that I was being drawn down into the very wells of time. It seemed as though the panorama of the ages must have passed in review before those expressionless orbs—all the loves and hopes and desires of mankind; all the everlasting truths that have been found false; all the eternal faiths discovered to save, until it was discovered they damned. The strange black creature grew and grew till it seemed to fill the room, and Dick and I to be but shadows floating in the air.

I forced from myself a laugh, that only in part, however, broke the spell, and inquired of Dick how he had acquired possession of it.

“It came to me,” he answered, “one night six months ago. I was down on my luck at the time. Two of my plays, on which I had built great hopes, had failed, one on top of the other—you remember them—and it appeared absurd to think that any manager would ever look at anything of mine again. Old Walcott had just told me that he did not consider it right of me under all the circumstances to hold Lizzie any longer to her engagement, and that I ought to go away and give her a chance of forgetting me, and I had agreed with him. I was alone in the world, and heavily in debt. Altogether things seemed about as hopeless as they could be, and I don’t mind confessing to you now that I had made up my mind to blow out my brains that very evening. I had loaded my revolver, and it lay before me on the desk. My hand was toying with it when I heard a faint scratching at the door. I paid no attention at first, but it grew more persistent, and at length, to stop the faint noise which excited me more than I could account for, I rose and opened the door and it walked in.

“It perched itself upon the corner of my desk beside the loaded pistol, and sat there bolt upright looking at me; and I, pushing back my chair, sat looking at it. And there came a letter telling me that a man of whose name I had never heard had been killed by a cow in Melbourne, and that under his will a legacy of three thousand pounds fell into the estate of a distant relative of my own who had died peacefully and utterly insolvent eighteen months previously, leaving me his sole heir and representative, and I put the revolver back into the drawer.”

“Do you think Pyramids would come and stop with me for a week?” I asked, reaching over to stroke the cat as it lay softly purring on Dick’s knee.

“Maybe he will some day,” replied Dick in a low voice, but before the answer came—I know not why—I had regretted the jesting words.

“I came to talk to him as though he were a human creature,” continued Dick, “and to discuss things with him. My last play I regard as a collaboration; indeed, it is far more his than mine.”

I should have thought Dick mad had not the cat been sitting there before me with its eyes looking into mine. As it was, I only grew more interested in his tale.

“It was rather a cynical play as I first wrote it,” he went on, “a truthful picture of a certain corner of society as I saw and knew it. From an artistic point of view I felt it was good; from the box-office standard it was doubtful. I drew it from my desk on the third evening after Pyramids’ advent, and read it through. He sat on the arm of the chair and looked over the pages as I turned them.

“It was the best thing I had ever written. Insight into life ran through every line, I found myself reading it again with delight. Suddenly a voice beside me said:—

“‘Very clever, my boy, very clever indeed. If you would just turn it topsy-turvy, change all those bitter, truthful speeches into noble sentiments; make your Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs (who never has been a popular character) die in the last act instead of the Yorkshireman, and let your bad woman be reformed by her love for the hero and go off somewhere by herself and be good to the poor in a black frock, the piece might be worth putting on the stage.’

“I turned indignantly to see who was speaking. The opinions sounded like those of a theatrical manager. No one was in the room but I and the cat. No doubt I had been talking to myself, but the voice was strange to me.

“‘Be reformed by her love for the hero!’ I retorted, contemptuously, for I was unable to grasp the idea that I was arguing only with myself, ‘why it’s his mad passion for her that ruins his life.’

“‘And will ruin the play with the great B.P.,’ returned the other voice. ‘The British dramatic hero has no passion, but a pure and respectful admiration for an honest, hearty English girl—pronounced “gey-url.” You don’t know the canons of your art.’

“‘And besides,’ I persisted, unheeding the interruption, ‘women born and bred and soaked for thirty years in an atmosphere of sin don’t reform.’

“‘Well, this one’s got to, that’s all,’ was the sneering reply, ‘let her hear an organ.’

“‘But as an artist -,’ I protested.

“‘You will be always unsuccessful,’ was the rejoinder. ‘My dear fellow, you and your plays, artistic or in artistic, will be forgotten in a very few years hence. You give the world what it wants, and the world will give you what you want. Please, if you wish to live.’

“So, with Pyramids beside me day by day, I re-wrote the play, and whenever I felt a thing to be utterly impossible and false I put it down with a grin. And every character I made to talk clap-trap sentiment while Pyramids purred, and I took care that everyone of my puppets did that which was right in the eyes of the lady with the lorgnettes in the second row of the dress circle; and old Hewson says the play will run five hundred nights.

“But what is worst,” concluded Dick, “is that I am not ashamed of myself, and that I seem content.”

“What do you think the animal is?” I asked with a laugh, “an evil spirit”? For it had passed into the next room and so out through the open window, and its strangely still green eyes no longer drawing mine towards them, I felt my common sense returning to me.

“You have not lived with it for six months,” answered Dick quietly, “and felt its eyes for ever on you as I have. And I am not the only one. You know Canon Whycherly, the great preacher?”

“My knowledge of modern church history is not extensive,” I replied. “I know him by name, of course. What about him?”

“He was a curate in the East End,” continued Dick, “and for ten years he laboured, poor and unknown, leading one of those noble, heroic lives that here and there men do yet live, even in this age. Now he is the prophet of the fashionable up-to-date Christianity of South Kensington, drives to his pulpit behind a pair of thorough-bred Arabs, and his waistcoat is taking to itself the curved line of prosperity. He was in here the other morning on behalf of Princess —. They are giving a performance of one of my plays in aid of the Destitute Vicars’ Fund.”

“And did Pyramids discourage him?” I asked, with perhaps the suggestion of a sneer.

“No,” answered Dick, “so far as I could judge, it approved the scheme. The point of the matter is that the moment Whycherly came into the room the cat walked over to him and rubbed itself affectionately against his legs. He stood and stroked it.”

“‘Oh, so it’s come to you, has it?’ he said, with a curious smile.

“There was no need for any further explanation between us. I understood what lay behind those few words.”

I lost sight of Dick for some time, though I heard a good deal of him, for he was rapidly climbing into the position of the most successful dramatist of the day, and Pyramids I had forgotten all about, until one afternoon calling on an artist friend who had lately emerged from the shadows of starving struggle into the sunshine of popularity, I saw a pair of green eyes that seemed familiar to me gleaming at me from a dark corner of the studio.

“Why, surely,” I exclaimed, crossing over to examine the animal more closely, “why, yes, you’ve got Dick Dunkerman’s cat.”

He raised his face from the easel and glanced across at me.

“Yes,” he said, “we can’t live on ideals,” and I, remembering, hastened to change the conversation.

Since then I have met Pyramids in the rooms of many friends of mine. They give him different names, but I am sure it is the same cat, I know those green eyes. He always brings them luck, but they are never quite the same men again afterwards.

Sometimes I sit wondering if I hear his scratching at the door.

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