The Cat by E. F. Benson
Many people will doubtless, remember that exhibition at the Royal
Academy, not so many seasons ago which came to be known as Alingham's
year, when Dick Alingham vaulted, with one bound, as it were, out of
the crowd of strugglers and seated himself with admirably certain
poise on the very topmost pinnacle of contemporary fame. He exhibited
three portraits, each a masterpiece, which killed every picture
within range. But since that year nobody cared anything for pictures
whether in or out of range except those three, it did not signify so
greatly. The phenomenon of his appearance was as sudden as that of
the meteor, coming from nowhere and sliding large and luminous across
the remote and star-sown sky, as inexplicable as the bursting of a
spring on some dust-ridden rocky hillside. Some fairy godmother, one
might conjecture, had bethought herself of her forgotten godson, and
with a wave of her wand bestowed on him this transcendent gift. But,
as the Irish say, she held her wand in her left hand, for her gift
had another side to it. Or perhaps, again, Jim Merwick is right, and
the theory he propounds in his monograph, "On certain obscure lesions
of the nerve centres," says the final word on the subject.
Dick Alingham himself, as was indeed natural, was delighted with
his fairy godmother or his obscure lesion (whichever was
responsible), and (the monograph spoken of above was written after
Dick's death) confessed frankly to his friend Merwick, who was still
struggling through the crowd of rising young medical practitioners,
that it was all quite as inexplicable to himself as it was to anyone
"All I know about it," he said, "is that last autumn I went
through two months of mental depression so hideous that I thought
again and again that I must go off my head. For hours daily, I sat
here, waiting for something to crack, which as far as I am concerned
would end everything.
"Yes, there was a cause; you know it."
He paused a moment and poured into his glass a fairly liberal
allowance of whisky, filled it half up from a syphon, and lit a
cigarette. The cause, indeed, had no need to be enlarged on, for
Merwick quite well remembered how the girl Dick had been engaged to
threw him over with an abruptness that was almost superb, when a more
eligible suitor made his appearance. The latter was certainly very
eligible indeed with his good looks, his title, and his million of
money, and Lady Madingley--ex-future Mrs. Alingham--was perfectly
content with what she had done.
She was one of those blonde, lithe, silken girls, who, happily for
the peace of men's minds, are rather rare, and who remind one of some
humanised yet celestial and bestial cat.
"I needn't speak of the cause," Dick continued, "but, as I say,
for those two months I soberly thought that the only end to it would
be madness. Then one evening when I was sitting here alone--I was
always sitting alone--something did snap in my head. I know I
wondered, without caring at all, whether this was the madness which I
had been expecting, or whether (which would be preferable) some more
fatal breakage had happened. And even while I wondered, I was aware
that I was not depressed or unhappy any longer."
He paused for so long in a smiling retrospect that Merwick
indicated to him that he had a listener.
"Well?" he said.
"It was well indeed. I haven't been unhappy since. I have been
riotously happy instead. Some divine doctor, I suppose, just wiped
off that stain on my brain that hurt so. Heavens, how it hurt! Have a
drink, by the way?"
"No, thanks," said Merwick. "But what has all this got to do with
"Why, everything. For I had hardly realised the fact that I was
happy again, when I was aware that everything looked different. The
colours of all I saw were twice as vivid as they had been, shape and
outline were intensified too. The whole visible world had been dusty
and blurred before, and seen in a half-light. But now the lights were
turned up, and there was a new heaven and a new earth. And in the
same flash, I knew that I could paint things as I saw them. Which," he
concluded, "I have done."
There was something rather sublime about this, and Merwick
"I wish something would snap in my brain, if it kindles the
perceptions in that way," said he, "but it is just possible that the
snapping of things in one's brain does not always produce just that
"That is possible. Also, as I gather, things don't snap unless you
have gone through some such hideous period as I have been through.
And I tell you frankly that I wouldn't go through that again even to
ensure a snap that would make me see things like Titian."
"What did the snapping feel like?" asked Merwick.
Dick considered a moment.
"Do you know when a parcel comes, tied up with string, and you
can't find a knife," he said, "and therefore you burn the string
through, holding it taut? Well, it was like that: quite painless,
only something got weaker and weaker, and then parted, softly without
effort. Not very lucid, I'm afraid, but it was just like that. It had
been burning a couple of months, you see."
He turned away and hunted among the letters and papers which
littered his writing-table till he found an envelope with a coronet
on it. He chuckled to himself as he took it up.
"Commend me to Lady Madingley," he said, "for a brazen impudence
in comparison with which brass is softer than putty. She wrote to me
yesterday, asking me if I would finish the portrait I had begun of
her last year, and let her have it at my own price.
"Then I think you have had a lucky escape," remarked Merwick. "I
suppose you didn't even answer her."
"Oh, yes, I did: why not? I said the price would be two thousand
pounds, and I was ready to go on at once. She has agreed, and sent me
a cheque for a thousand this evening."
Merwick stared at him in blank astonishment. "Are you mad?" he
"I hope not, though one can never be sure about little points like
that. Even doctors like you don't know exactly what constitutes
Merwick got up.
"But is it possible that you don't see what a terrible risk you
run?" he asked. "To see her again, to be with her like that, having
to look at her--I saw her this afternoon, by the way, hardly
human--may not that so easily revive again all that you felt before?
It is too dangerous: much too dangerous."
Dick shook his head.
"There is not the slightest risk," he said; "everything within me
is utterly and absolutely indifferent to her. I don't even hate her:
if I hated her there might be a possibility of my again loving her.
As it is, the thought of her does not arouse in me any emotion of any
kind. And really such stupendous calmness deserves to be rewarded. I
respect colossal things like that."
He finished his whisky as he spoke, and instantly poured himself
out another glass.
"That's the fourth," said his friend.
"Is it? I never count. It shows a sordid attention to
uninteresting detail. Funnily enough, too, alcohol does not have the
smallest effect on me now."
"Why drink then?"
"Because if I give it up this entrancing vividness of colour and
clarity of outline is a little diminished.
"Can't be good for you," said the doctor.
"My dear fellow, look at me carefully," he said, "and then if you
can conscientiously declare that I show any signs of indulging in
stimulants, I'll give them up altogether."
Certainly it would have been hard to find a point in which Dick
did not present the appearance of perfect health. He had paused, and
stood still a moment, his glass in one hand, the whisky-bottle in the
other, black against the front of his shirt, and not a tremor of
unsteadiness was there. His face of wholesome sun-burnt hue was
neither puffy nor emaciated, but firm of flesh and of a wonderful
clearness of skin. Clear too was his eye, with eyelids neither baggy
nor puckered; he looked indeed a model of condition, hard and fit, as
if he was in training for some athletic event. Lithe and active too
was his figure, his movements were quick and precise, and even
Merwick, with his doctor's eye trained to detect any symptom, however
slight, in which the drinker must betray himself, was bound to
confess that no such was here present. His appearance contradicted it
authoritatively, so also did his manner; he met the eye of the man he
was talking to without sideway glances; he showed no signs, however
small, of any disorder of the nerves. Yet Dick was altogether an
abnormal fellow; the history he had just been recounting was
abnormal, those weeks of depression, followed by the sudden snap in
his brain which had apparently removed, as a wet cloth removes a
stain, all the memory of his love and of the cruel bitterness that
resulted from it. Abnormal too was his sudden leap into high artistic
achievement from a past of very mediocre performance. Why should
there then not be a similar abnormality here?
"Yes, I confess you show no sign of taking excessive stimulant,"
said Merwick, "but if I attended you professionally--ah, I'm not
touting--I should make you give up all stimulant, and go to bed for a
"Why in the name of goodness?" asked Dick.
"Because, theoretically, it must be the best thing you could do.
You had a shock, how severe, the misery of those weeks of depression
tells you. Well, common sense says, 'Go slow after a shock; recoup.'
Instead of which you go very fast indeed and produce. I grant it
seems to suit you; you also became suddenly capable of feats
which--oh, it's sheer nonsense, man."
"What's sheer nonsense?"
"You are. Professionally, I detest you, because you appear to be
an exception to a theory that I am sure must be right. Therefore I
have got to explain you away, and at present I can't."
"What's the theory?" asked Dick.
"Well, the treatment of shock first of all. And secondly, that in
order to do good work, one ought to eat and drink very little and
sleep a lot. How long do you sleep, by the way?"
"Oh, I go to bed about three usually," he said; "I suppose I sleep
for about four hours."
"And live on whisky, and eat like a Strasburg goose, and are
prepared to run a race to-morrow."
"Go away, or at least I will. Perhaps you'll break down, though.
That would satisfy me.
"But even if you don't, it still remains quite interesting."
Merwick found it more than quite interesting in fact, and when he
got home that night he searched in his shelves for a certain dusky
volume in which he turned up a chapter called "Shock." The book was a
treatise on obscure diseases and abnormal conditions of the nervous
system. He had often read it before, for in his profession he was a
special student of the rare and curious. And the following paragraph
which had interested him much before, interested him more than ever
"The nervous system also can act in a way that must always even to
the most advanced student be totally unexpected. Cases are known, and
well-authenticated ones, when a paralytic person has jumped out of
bed on the cry of 'Fire.' Cases too are known when a great shock,
which produces depression so profound as to amount to lethargy, is
followed by abnormal activity, and the calling into use of powers
which were previously unknown to exist, or at any rate existed in a
quite ordinary degree. Such a hyper-sensitised state, especially
since the desire for sleep or rest is very often much diminished,
demands much stimulant in the way of food and alcohol. It would
appear also that the patient suffering from this rare form of the
after-consequences of shock has sooner or later some sudden and
complete break-down. It is impossible, however, to conjecture what
form this will take. The digestion, however, may become suddenly
atrophied, delirium tremens may, without warning, supervene, or he
may go completely off his head..."
But the weeks passed on, the July suns made London reel in a haze
of heat, and yet Alingham remained busy, brilliant, and altogether
exceptional. Merwick, unknown to him, was watching him closely, and
at present was completely puzzled. He held Dick to his word that if
he could detect the slightest sign of over-indulgence in stimulant,
he would cut it off altogether, but he could see absolutely none.
Lady Madingley meantime had given him several sittings, and in this
connection again Merwick was utterly mistaken in the view he had
expressed to Dick as to the risks he ran. For, strangely enough, the
two had become great friends. Yet Dick was quite right, all emotion
with regard to her on his part was dead, it might have been a piece
of still-life that he was painting, instead of a woman he had wildly
One morning in mid-July she had been sitting to him in his studio,
and contrary to custom he had been rather silent, biting the ends of
his brushes, frowning at his canvas, frowning too at her.
Suddenly he gave a little impatient exclamation.
"It's so like you," he said, "but it just isn't you. There's a lot
of difference! I can't help making you look as if you were listening
to a hymn, one of those in four sharps, don't you know, written by an
organist, probably after eating muffins. And that's not
characteristic of you!"
"You must be rather ingenious to put all that in," she said.
"Where do I show it all?"
"Oh, in your eyes of course," he said. "You show everything by
your eyes, you know. It is entirely characteristic of you. You are a
throw-back; don't you remember we settled that ever so long ago, to
the brute creation, who likewise show everything by their eyes."
"Oh-h. I should have thought that dogs growled at you, and cats
"Those are practical measures, but short of that you and animals
use their eyes only, whereas people use their mouths and foreheads
and other things. A pleased dog, an expectant dog, a hungry dog, a
jealous dog, a disappointed dog--one gathers all that from a dog's
eyes. Their mouths are comparatively immobile, and a cat's is even
"You have often told me that I belong to the genus cat," said Lady
Madingley, with complete composure.
"By Jove, yes," said he. "Perhaps looking at the eyes of a cat
would help me to see what I miss. Many thanks for the hint."
He put down his palette and went to a side table on which stood
bottles and ice and syphons.
"No drink of any kind on this Sahara of a morning?" he asked.
"No, thanks. Now when will you give me the final sitting? You said
you only wanted one more."
Dick helped himself.
"Well, I go down to the country with this," he said, "to put in
the background I told you of.
"With luck it will take me three days' hard painting, without luck
a week or more. Oh, my mouth waters at the thought of the background.
So shall we say to-morrow week?"
Lady Madingley made a note of this in a minute gold and jewelled
"And I am to be prepared to see cat's eyes painted there instead
of my own when I see it next?" she asked, passing by the canvas.
"Oh, you will hardly notice the difference," he said. "How odd it
is that I always have detested cats so--they make me feel actually
faint, although you always reminded me of a cat."
"You must ask your friend Mr. Merwick about these metaphysical
mysteries," said she.
The background to the picture was at present only indicated by a
few vague splashes close to the side of the head of brilliant purple
and brilliant green, and the artist's mouth might well water at the
thought of the few days painting that lay before him. For behind the
figure in the long panel-shaped canvas was to be painted a green
trellis, over which, almost hiding the woodwork, there was to sprawl
a great purple clematis in full flaunting glory of varnished leaf and
At the top would be just a strip of pale summer sky, at her feet
just a strip of grey-green grass, but all the rest of the background,
greatly daring, would be this diaper of green and purple. For the
purpose of putting this in, he was going down to a small cottage of
his near Godalming, where he had built in the garden a sort of
outdoor studio, an erection betwixt a room and a mere shelter, with
the side to the north entirely open, and flanked by this green
trellis which was now one immense constellation of purple stars.
Framed in this, he well knew how the strange pale beauty of his
sitter would glow on the canvas, how she would start out of the
background, she and her huge grey hat, and shining grey dress, and
yellow hair and ivory white skin and pale eyes, now blue, now grey,
now green. This was indeed a thing to look forward to, for there is
probably no such unadulterated rapture known to men as creation, and
it was small wonder that Dick's mood, as he travelled down to
Godalming, was buoyant and effervescent. For he was going, so to
speak, to realise his creation: every purple star of clematis, every
green leaf and piece of trellis-work that he put in, would cause what
he had painted to live and shine, just as it is the layers of dusk
that fall over the sky at evening which make the stars to sparkle
His scheme was assured, he had hung his constellation--the figure
of Lady Madingley--in the sky: and now he had to surround it with the
green and purple night, so that it might shine.
His garden was but a circumscribed plot, but walls of old brick
circumscribed it, and he had dealt with the space at his command with
a certain originality. At no time had his grass plot (you could
scarcely call it "lawn") been spacious; now the outdoor studio,
twenty-five feet by thirty, took up the greater part of it. He had a
solid wooden wall on one side and two trellis walls to the south and
east, which creepers were beginning to clothe and which were faced
internally by hangings of Syrian and Oriental work. Here in the
summer he passed the greater part of the day, painting or idling, and
living an outdoor existence. The floor, which had once been grass,
which had withered completely under the roof, was covered with
Persian rugs; a writing-table and a dining-table were there, a
bookcase full of familiar friends and a half-dozen of basket chairs.
One corner, too, was frankly given up to the affairs of the garden,
and a mowing machine, a hose for watering, shears, and spade stood
there. For like many excitable persons, Dick found that in gardening,
that incessant process of plannings and designings to suit the
likings of plants, and make them gorgeous in colour and high of
growth, there was a wonderful calm haven of refuge for the brain that
had been tossing on emotional seas. Plants, too, were receptive, so
responsive to kindness; thought given to them was never thought
wasted, and to come back now after a month's absence in London was to
be assured of fresh surprise and pleasure in each foot of garden-bed.
And here, with how regal a generosity was the purple clematis to
repay him for the care lavished on it. Every flower would show its
practical gratitude by standing model for the background of his
The evening was very warm, warm not with any sultry premonition of
thunder, but with the clear, clean heat of summer, and he dined alone
in his shelter, with the after-flames of the sunset for his lamp.
These slowly faded into a sky of velvet blue, but he lingered long
over his coffee, looking northwards across the garden towards the row
of trees that screened him from the house beyond. These were acacias,
most graceful and feminine of all green things that grow,
summer-plumaged now, yet still fresh of leaf. Below them ran a little
raised terrace of turf and nearer the beds of the beloved garden;
clumps of sweet-peas made an inimitable fragrance, and the rose-beds
were pink with Baroness Rothschild and La France, and copper-coloured
with Beauté inconstante, and the Richardson rose. Then, nearer
at hand, was the green trellis foaming with purple.
He was sitting there, hardly looking, but unconsciously drinking
in this great festival of colour, when his eye was arrested by a dark
slinking form that appeared among the roses, and suddenly turned two
shining luminous orbs on him. At this he started up, but his movement
caused no perturbation in the animal, which continued with back
arched for stroking, and poker-like tail, to advance towards him,
purring. As it came closer Dick felt that shuddering faintness, which
often affected him in the presence of cats, come over him, and he
stamped and clapped his hands. At this it turned tail quickly: a sort
of dark shadow streaked the garden-wall for a moment, and it
vanished. But its appearance had spoiled for him the sweet spell of
the evening, and he went indoors.
The next morning was pellucid summer: a faint north wind blew, and
a sun worthy to illumine the isles of Greece flooded the sky. Dick's
dreamless and (for him) long sleep had banished from his mind that
rather disquieting incident of the cat, and he set up his canvas
facing the trellis-work and purple clematis with a huge sense of
imminent ecstasy. Also the garden, which at present he had only seen
in the magic of sunset, was gloriously rewarding, and glowed with
colour, and though life--this was present to his mind for the first
time for months--in the shape of Lady Madingley had not been very
propitious, yet a man, he argued to himself, must be a very poor hand
at living if, with a passion for plants and a passion for art, he
cannot fashion a life that shall be full of content. So breakfast
being finished, and his model ready and glowing with beauty, he
quickly sketched in the broad lines of flowers and foliage and began
Purple and green, green and purple: was there ever such a feast
for the eye? Gourmet-like and greedy as well, he was utterly absorbed
in it. He was right too: as soon as he put on the first brush of
colour he knew he was right. It was just those divine and violent
colours which would cause his figure to step out from the picture, it
was just that pale strip of sky above which would focus her again, it
was just that strip of grey-green grass below her feet that would
prevent her, so it seemed, from actually leaving the canvas. And with
swift eager sweeps of the brush which never paused and never hurried,
he lost himself in his work.
He stopped at length with a sense of breathlessness, feeling too
as if he had been suddenly called back from some immense distance
off. He must have been working some three hours, for his man was
already laying the table for lunch, yet it seemed to him that the
morning had gone by in one flash. The progress he had made was
extraordinary, and he looked long at his picture.
Then his eye wandered from the brightness of the canvas to the
brightness of the garden-beds.
There, just in front of the bed of sweet-peas, not two yards from
him, stood a very large grey cat, watching him.
Now the presence of a cat was a thing that usually produced in
Dick a feeling of deadly faintness, yet, at this moment, as he looked
at the cat and the cat at him, he was conscious of no such feeling,
and put down the absence of it, in so far as he consciously thought
about it, to the fact that he was in the open air, not in the
atmosphere of a closed room. Yet, last night out here, the cat had
made him feel faint. But he hardly gave a thought to this, for what
filled his mind was that he saw in the rather friendly interested
look of the beast that expression in the eye which had so baffled him
in his portrait of Lady Madingley. So, slowly, and without any sudden
movement that might startle the cat, he reached out his hand for the
palette he had just put down, and in a corner of the canvas not yet
painted over, recorded in half a dozen swift intuitive touches, what
he wanted. Even in the broad sunlight where the animal stood, its
eyes looked as if they were internally smouldering as well as being
lit from without: it was just so that Lady Madingley looked. He would
have to lay colour very thinly over white...
For five minutes or so he painted them with quiet eager strokes,
drawing the colour thinly over the background of white, and then
looked long at that sketch of the eye to see if he had got what he
wanted. Then he looked back at the cat which had stood so charmingly
for him. But there was no cat there. That, however, since he detested
them, and this one had served his purpose, was no matter for regret,
and he merely wondered a little at the suddenness of its
disappearance. But the legacy it had left on the canvas could not
vanish thus, it was his own, a possession, an achievement. Truly this
was to be a portrait which would altogether out-distance all he had
ever done before. A woman, real, alive, wearing her soul in her eyes,
should stand there, and summer riot round her.
An extraordinary clearness of vision was his all day, and towards
sunset an empty whisky-bottle.
But this evening he was conscious for the first time of two
feelings, one physical, one mental, altogether strange to him: the
first an impression that he had drunk as much as was good for him,
the second a sort of echo in his mind of those tortures he had
undergone in the autumn, when he had been tossed aside by the girl,
to whom he had given his soul, like a soiled glove.
Neither was at all acutely felt, but both were present to him.
The evening altogether belied the brilliance of the day, and about
six o'clock thick clouds had driven up over the sky, and the clear
heat of summer had given place to a heat no less intense, but full of
the menace of storm. A few big hot drops, too, of rain warned him
further, and he pulled his easel into shelter, and gave orders that
he would dine indoors. As was usual with him when he was at work, he
shunned the distracting influence of any companionship, and he dined
alone. Dinner finished, he went into his sitting-room prepared to
enjoy his solitary evening. His servant had brought him in the tray,
and till he went to bed he would be undisturbed. Outside the storm
was moving nearer, the reverberation of the thunder, though not yet
close, kept up a continual growl: any moment it might move up and
burst above in riot of fire and sound.
Dick read a book for a while, but his thoughts wandered. The
poignancy of his trouble last autumn, which he thought had passed
away from him for ever, grew suddenly and strangely more acute, also
his head was heavy, perhaps with the storm, but possibly with what he
had drunk. So, intending to go to bed and sleep off his disquietude,
he closed his book, and went across to the window to close that also.
But, half-way towards it, he stopped. There on the sofa below it sat
a large grey cat with yellow gleaming eyes. In its mouth it held a
young thrush, still alive.
Then horror woke in him: his feeling of sick-faintness was there,
and he loathed and was terrified at this dreadful feline glee in the
torture of its prey, a glee so great that it preferred the
postponement of its meal to a shortening of the other. More than all,
the resemblance of the eyes of this cat to those of his portrait
suddenly struck him as something hellish. For one moment this all
held him bound, as if with paralysis, the next his physical
shuddering could be withstood no longer, and he threw the glass he
carried at the cat, missing it. For one second the animal paused
there glaring at him with an intense and dreadful hostility, then it
made one spring of it out of the open window. Dick shut it with a
bang that startled himself, and then searched on the sofa and the
floor for the bird which he thought the cat had dropped. Once or
twice he thought he heard it feebly fluttering, but this must have
been an illusion, for he could not find it.
All this was rather shaky business, so before going to bed he
steadied himself, as his unspoken phrase ran, with a final drink.
Outside the thunder had ceased, but the rain beat hissing on to the
grass. Then another sound mingled with it the mewing of a cat, not
the long-drawn screeches and cries that are usual, but the plaintive
calls of the beast that wants to be admitted into its own home. The
blind was down, but after a while he could not resist peeping out.
There on the window-sill was seated the large grey cat. Though it was
raining heavily its fur seemed dry, for it was standing stiffly away
from its body. But when it saw him it spat at him, scratching angrily
at the glass, and vanished.
Lady Madingley...heavens, how he had loved her! And, infernally
as she had treated him, how passionately he wanted her now! Was all
his trouble, then, to begin over again? Had that nightmare dawned
anew on him? It was the cat's fault: the eyes of the cat had done it.
Yet just now all his desire was blurred by this dullness of brain
that was as unaccountable as the re-awakening of his desire. For
months now he had drunk far more than he had drunk to-day, yet
evening had seen him clear-headed, acute, master of himself, and
revelling in the liberty that had come to him, and in the cool joy of
creative vision. But to-night he stumbled and groped across the
The neutral-coloured light of dawn awoke him, and he got up at
once, feeling still very drowsy, but in answer to some silent
imperative call. The storm had altogether passed away, and a jewel of
a morning star hung in a pale heaven. His room looked strangely
unfamiliar to him, his own sensations were unfamiliar, there was a
vagueness about things, a barrier between him and the world. One
desire alone possessed him, to finish the portrait. All else, so he
felt, he left to chance, or whatever laws regulate the world, those
laws which choose that a certain thrush shall be caught by a certain
cat, and choose one scapegoat out of a thousand, and let the rest go
Two hours later his servant called him, and found him gone from
his room. So as the morning was so fair, he went out to lay breakfast
in the shelter. The portrait was there, it had been dragged back into
position by the clematis, but it was covered with strange scratches,
as if the claws of some enraged animal or the nails perhaps of a man
had furiously attacked it. Dick Alingham was there, too, lying very
still in front of the disfigured canvas. Claws, also, or nails had
attacked him, his throat was horribly mangled by them. But his hands
were covered with paint, the nails of his fingers too were choked