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Calvin





Calvin is dead. His life, long to him, but short for the rest of us, was
not marked by startling adventures, but his character was so uncommon
and his qualities were so worthy of imitation, that I have been asked by
those who personally knew him to set down my recollections of his
career.

His origin and ancestry were shrouded in mystery; even his age was a
matter of pure conjecture. Although he was of the Maltese race, I have
reason to suppose that he was American by birth as he certainly was in
sympathy. Calvin was given to me eight years ago by Mrs. Stowe, but she
knew nothing of his age or origin. He walked into her house one day out
of the great unknown and became at once at home, as if he had been
always a friend of the family. He appeared to have artistic and literary
tastes, and it was as if he had inquired at the door if that was the
residence of the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and, upon being assured
that it was, had decided to dwell there. This is, of course, fanciful,
for his antecedents were wholly unknown, but in his time he could hardly
have been in any household where he would not have heard Uncle Tom's
Cabin talked about. When he came to Mrs. Stowe, he was as large as he
ever was, and apparently as old as he ever became. Yet there was in him
no appearance of age; he was in the happy maturity of all his powers,
and you would rather have said in that maturity he had found the secret
of perpetual youth. And it was as difficult to believe that he would
ever be aged as it was to imagine that he had ever been in immature
youth. There was in him a mysterious perpetuity.

After some years, when Mrs. Stowe made her winter home in Florida,
Calvin came to live with us. From the first moment, he fell into the
ways of the house and assumed a recognized position in the family,--I
say recognized, because after he became known he was always inquired for
by visitors, and in the letters to the other members of the family he
always received a message. Although the least obtrusive of beings, his
individuality always made itself felt.

His personal appearance had much to do with this, for he was of royal
mould, and had an air of high breeding. He was large, but he had nothing
of the fat grossness of the celebrated Angora family; though powerful,
he was exquisitely proportioned, and as graceful in every movement as a
young leopard. When he stood up to open a door--he opened all the doors
with old-fashioned latches--he was portentously tall, and when stretched
on the rug before the fire he seemed too long for this world--as indeed
he was. His coat was the finest and softest I have ever seen, a shade of
quiet Maltese; and from his throat downward, underneath, to the white
tips of his feet, he wore the whitest and most delicate ermine; and no
person was ever more fastidiously neat. In his finely formed head you
saw something of his aristocratic character; the ears were small and
cleanly cut, there was a tinge of pink in the nostrils, his face was
handsome, and the expression of his countenance exceedingly
intelligent--I should call it even a sweet expression if the term were
not inconsistent with his look of alertness and sagacity.

It is difficult to convey a just idea of his gaiety in connection with
his dignity and gravity, which his name expressed. As we know nothing of
his family, of course it will be understood that Calvin was his
Christian name. He had times of relaxation into utter playfulness,
delighting in a ball of yarn, catching sportively at stray ribbons when
his mistress was at her toilet, and pursuing his own tail, with
hilarity, for lack of anything better. He could amuse himself by the
hour, and he did not care for children; perhaps something in his past
was present to his memory. He had absolutely no bad habits, and his
disposition was perfect. I never saw him exactly angry, though I have
seen his tail grow to an enormous size when a strange cat appeared upon
his lawn. He disliked cats, evidently regarding them as feline and
treacherous, and he had no association with them. Occasionally there
would be heard a night concert in the shrubbery. Calvin would ask to
have the door opened, and then you would hear a rush and a "pestzt," and
the concert would explode, and Calvin would quietly come in and resume
his seat on the hearth. There was no trace of anger in his manner, but
he wouldn't have any of that about the house. He had the rare virtue of
magnanimity. Although he had fixed notions about his own rights, and
extraordinary persistency in getting them, he never showed temper at a
repulse; he simply and firmly persisted till he had what he wanted. His
diet was one point; his idea was that of the scholars about
dictionaries,--to "get the best." He knew as well as any one what was in
the house, and would refuse beef if turkey was to be had; and if there
were oysters, he would wait over the turkey to see if the oysters would
not be forthcoming. And yet he was not a gross gourmand; he would eat
bread if he saw me eating it, and thought he was not being imposed on.
His habits of feeding, also, were refined; he never used a knife, and he
would put up his hand and draw the fork down to his mouth as gracefully
as a grown person. Unless necessity compelled, he would not eat in the
kitchen, but insisted upon his meals in the dining-room, and would wait
patiently, unless a stranger were present; and then he was sure to
importune the visitor, hoping that the latter was ignorant of the rule
of the house, and would give him something. They used to say that he
preferred as his table-cloth on the floor a certain well-known church
journal; but this was said by an Episcopalian. So far as I know, he had
no religious prejudices, except that he did not like the association
with Romanists. He tolerated the servants, because they belonged to the
house, and would sometimes linger by the kitchen stove; but the moment
visitors came in he arose, opened the door, and marched into the
drawing-room. Yet he enjoyed the company of his equals, and never
withdrew, no matter how many callers--whom he recognized as of his
society--might come into the drawing-room. Calvin was fond of company,
but he wanted to choose it; and I have no doubt that his was an
aristocratic fastidiousness rather than one of faith. It is so with
most people.

The intelligence of Calvin was something phenomenal, in his rank of
life. He established a method of communicating his wants, and even some
of his sentiments; and he could help himself in many things. There was a
furnace register in a retired room, where he used to go when he wished
to be alone, that he always opened when he desired more heat; but never
shut it, any more than he shut the door after himself. He could do
almost everything but speak; and you would declare sometimes that you
could see a pathetic longing to do that in his intelligent face. I have
no desire to overdraw his qualities, but if there was one thing in him
more noticeable than another, it was his fondness for nature. He could
content himself for hours at a low window, looking into the ravine and
at the great trees, noting the smallest stir there; he delighted, above
all things, to accompany me walking about the garden, hearing the birds,
getting the smell of the fresh earth, and rejoicing in the sunshine. He
followed me and gambolled like a dog, rolling over on the turf and
exhibiting his delight in a hundred ways. If I worked, he sat and
watched me, or looked off over the bank, and kept his ear open to the
twitter in the cherry-trees. When it stormed, he was sure to sit at the
window, keenly watching the rain or the snow, glancing up and down at
its falling; and a winter tempest always delighted him. I think he was
genuinely fond of birds, but, so far as I know, he usually confined
himself to one a day; he never killed, as some sportsmen do, for the
sake of killing, but only as civilized people do,--from necessity. He
was intimate with the flying-squirrels who dwell in the
chestnut-trees,--too intimate, for almost every day in the summer he
would bring in one, until he nearly discouraged them. He was, indeed, a
superb hunter, and would have been a devastating one, if his bump of
destructiveness had not been offset by a bump of moderation. There was
very little of the brutality of the lower animals about him; I don't
think he enjoyed rats for themselves, but he knew his business, and for
the first few months of his residence with us he waged an awful campaign
against the horde, and after that his simple presence was sufficient to
deter them from coming on the premises. Mice amused him, but he usually
considered them too small game to be taken seriously; I have seen him
play for an hour with a mouse, and then let him go with a royal
condescension. In this whole matter of "getting a living," Calvin was a
great contrast to the rapacity of the age in which he lived.

I hesitate a little to speak of his capacity for friendship and the
affectionateness of his nature, for I know from his own reserve that he
would not care to have it much talked about. We understood each other
perfectly, but we never made any fuss about it; when I spoke his name
and snapped my fingers, he came to me; when I returned home at night, he
was pretty sure to be waiting for me near the gate, and would rise and
saunter along the walk, as if his being there were purely
accidental,--so shy was he commonly of showing feeling; and when I
opened the door he never rushed in, like a cat, but loitered, and
lounged, as if he had had no intention of going in, but would condescend
to. And yet, the fact was, he knew dinner was ready, and he was bound
to be there. He kept the run of dinner-time. It happened sometimes,
during our absence in the summer, that dinner would be early, and Calvin
walking about the grounds, missed it and came in late. But he never made
a mistake the second day. There was one thing he never did,--he never
rushed through an open doorway. He never forgot his dignity. If he had
asked to have the door opened, and was eager to go out, he always went
deliberately; I can see him now, standing on the sill, looking about at
the sky as if he was thinking whether it were worth while to take an
umbrella, until he was near having his tail shut in.

His friendship was rather constant than demonstrative. When we returned
from an absence of nearly two years, Calvin welcomed us with evident
pleasure, but showed his satisfaction rather by tranquil happiness than
by fuming about. He had the faculty of making us glad to get home. It
was his constancy that was so attractive. He liked companionship, but he
wouldn't be petted, or fussed over, or sit in any one's lap a moment; he
always extricated himself from such familiarity with dignity and with no
show of temper. If there was any petting to be done, however, he chose
to do it. Often he would sit looking at me, and then, moved by a
delicate affection, come and pull at my coat and sleeve until he could
touch my face with his nose, and then go away contented. He had a habit
of coming to my study in the morning, sitting quietly by my side or on
the table for hours, watching the pen run over the paper, occasionally
swinging his tail round for a blotter, and then going to sleep among
the papers by the inkstand. Or, more rarely, he would watch the writing
from a perch on my shoulder. Writing always interested him, and, until
he understood it, he wanted to hold the pen.

He always held himself in a kind of reserve with his friend, as if he
had said, "Let us respect our personality, and not make a 'mess' of
friendship." He saw, with Emerson, the risk of degrading it to trivial
conveniency. "Why insist on rash personal relations with your friend?"
"Leave this touching and clawing." Yet I would not give an unfair notion
of his aloofness, his fine sense of the sacredness of the me and the
not-me. And, at the risk of not being believed, I will relate an
incident, which was often repeated. Calvin had the practice of passing a
portion of the night in the contemplation of its beauties, and would
come into our chamber over the roof of the conservatory through the open
window, summer and winter, and go to sleep on the foot of my bed. He
would do this always exactly in this way; he never was content to stay
in the chamber if we compelled him to go upstairs and through the door.
He had the obstinacy of General Grant. But this is by the way. In the
morning, he performed his toilet and went down to breakfast with the
rest of the family. Now, when the mistress was absent from home, and at
no other time, Calvin would come in the morning, when the bell rang, to
the head of the bed, put up his feet and look into my face, follow me
about when I rose, "assist" at the dressing, and in many purring ways
show his fondness, as if he had plainly said, "I know that she has gone
away, but I am here." Such was Calvin in rare moments.

He had his limitations. Whatever passion he had for nature, he had no
conception of art. There was sent to him once a fine and very expressive
cat's head in bronze, by Fremiet. I placed it on the floor. He regarded
it intently, approached it cautiously and crouchingly, touched it with
his nose, perceived the fraud, turned away abruptly, and never would
notice it afterward. On the whole, his life was not only a successful
one, but a happy one. He never had but one fear, so far as I know: he
had a mortal and a reasonable terror of plumbers. He would never stay in
the house when they were here. No coaxing could quiet him. Of course he
didn't share our fear about their charges, but he must have had some
dreadful experience with them in that portion of his life which is
unknown to us. A plumber was to him the devil, and I have no doubt that,
in his scheme, plumbers were foreordained to do him mischief.

In speaking of his worth, it has never occurred to me to estimate Calvin
by the worldly standard. I know that it is customary now, when any one
dies, to ask how much he was worth, and that no obituary in the
newspapers is considered complete without such an estimate. The plumbers
in our house were one day overheard to say that, "They say that she
says that he says that he wouldn't take a hundred dollars for him." It
is unnecessary to say that I never made such a remark, and that, so far
as Calvin was concerned, there was no purchase in money.

As I look back upon it, Calvin's life seems to me a fortunate one, for
it was natural and unforced. He ate when he was hungry, slept when he
was sleepy, and enjoyed existence to the very tips of his toes and the
end of his expressive and slow-moving tail. He delighted to roam about
the garden, and stroll among the trees, and to lie on the green grass
and luxuriate in all the sweet influences of summer. You could never
accuse him of idleness, and yet he knew the secret of repose. The poet
who wrote so prettily of him that his little life was rounded with a
sleep, understated his felicity; it was rounded with a good many. His
conscience never seemed to interfere with his slumbers. In fact, he had
good habits and a contented mind. I can see him now walk in at the study
door, sit down by my chair, bring his tail artistically about his feet,
and look up at me with unspeakable happiness in his handsome face. I
often thought that he felt the dumb limitation which denied him the
power of language. But since he was denied speech, he scorned the
inarticulate mouthings of the lower animals. The vulgar mewing and
yowling of the cat species was beneath him; he sometimes uttered a sort
of articulate and well-bred ejaculation, when he wished to call
attention to something that he considered remarkable, or to some want of
his, but he never went whining about. He would sit for hours at a closed
window, when he desired to enter, without a murmur, and when it was
opened he never admitted that he had been impatient by "bolting" in.
Though speech he had not, and the unpleasant kind of utterance given to
his race he would not use, he had a mighty power of purr to express his
measureless content with congenial society. There was in him a musical
organ with stops of varied power and expression, upon which I have no
doubt he could have performed Scarlatti's celebrated cat's-fugue.

Whether Calvin died of old age, or was carried off by one of the
diseases incident to youth, it is impossible to say; for his departure
was as quiet as his advent was mysterious. I only know that he appeared
to us in this world in his perfect stature and beauty, and that after a
time, like Lohengrin, he withdrew. In his illness there was nothing more
to be regretted than in all his blameless life. I suppose there never
was an illness that had more of dignity and sweetness and resignation in
it. It came on gradually, in a kind of listlessness and want of
appetite. An alarming symptom was his preference for the warmth of a
furnace-register to the lively sparkle of the open wood-fire. Whatever
pain he suffered, he bore it in silence, and seemed only anxious not to
obtrude his malady. We tempted him with the delicacies of the season,
but it soon became impossible for him to eat, and for two weeks he ate
or drank scarcely anything. Sometimes he made an effort to take
something, but it was evident that he made the effort to please us. The
neighbours--and I am convinced that the advice of neighbours is never
good for anything--suggested catnip. He wouldn't even smell it. We had
the attendance of an amateur practitioner of medicine, whose real office
was the cure of souls, but nothing touched his case. He took what was
offered, but it was with the air of one to whom the time for pellets was
passed. He sat or lay day after day almost motionless, never once making
a display of those vulgar convulsions or contortions of pain which are
so disagreeable to society. His favourite place was on the brightest
spot of a Smyrna rug by the conservatory, where the sunlight fell and he
could hear the fountain play. If we went to him and exhibited our
interest in his condition, he always purred in recognition of our
sympathy. And when I spoke his name, he looked up with an expression
that said, "I understand it, old fellow, but it's no use." He was to all
who came to visit him a model of calmness and patience in affliction.

I was absent from home at the last, but heard by daily postal-card of
his failing condition; and never again saw him alive. One sunny morning,
he rose from his rug, went into the conservatory (he was very thin
then), walked around it deliberately, looking at all the plants he knew,
and then went to the bay-window in the dining-room, and stood a long
time looking out upon the little field, now brown and sere, and toward
the garden, where perhaps the happiest hours of his life had been spent.
It was a last look. He turned and walked away, laid himself down upon
the bright spot in the rug, and quietly died.

It is not too much to say that a little shock went through the
neighbourhood when it was known that Calvin was dead, so marked was his
individuality; and his friends, one after another, came in to see him.
There was no sentimental nonsense about his obsequies; it was felt that
any parade would have been distasteful to him. John, who acted as
undertaker, prepared a candle-box for him, and I believe assumed a
professional decorum; but there may have been the usual levity
underneath, for I heard that he remarked in the kitchen that it was the
"dryest wake he ever attended." Everybody, however, felt a fondness for
Calvin, and regarded him with a certain respect. Between him and Bertha
there existed a great friendship, and she apprehended his nature; she
used to say that sometimes she was afraid of him, he looked at her so
intelligently; she was never certain that he was what he appeared to be.

When I returned, they had laid Calvin on a table in an upper chamber by
an open window. It was February. He reposed in a candle-box, lined about
the edge with evergreen, and at his head stood a little wine-glass with
flowers. He lay with his head tucked down in his arms,--a favourite
position of his before the fire,--as if asleep in the comfort of his
soft and exquisite fur. It was the involuntary exclamation of those who
saw him, "How natural he looks!" As for myself, I said nothing. John
buried him under the twin hawthorn-trees,--one white and the other
pink,--in a spot where Calvin was fond of lying and listening to the hum
of summer insects and the twitter of birds.

Perhaps I have failed to make appear the individuality of character that
was so evident to those who knew him. At any rate, I have set down
nothing concerning him but the literal truth. He was always a mystery. I
did not know whence he came; I do not know whither he has gone. I would
not weave one spray of falsehood in the wreath I lay upon his grave.

CHARLES DUDLEY WARNER.






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