Many stories are current about the peculiar aptitude possessed by sailors of taming all sorts of wild creatures that chance to come under their care, most of them having a much firmer basis of fact than sea-yarns are usually given credit for.
But of all the pets made by Jack none ever attains so intimate an acquaintance with him, so firm a hold upon his affections, as the cat, about whom so many libellous things are said ashore. All things considered, a ship’s forecastle is about the last place in the world that one would expect to find favoured by a cat for its permanent abiding place. Subject as it is at all times to sudden invasion by an encroaching wave, always at the extremes of stuffiness or draughtiness, never by any chance cheered by the glow of a fire, or boasting even an apology for a hearthrug,—warmth-loving, luxurious pussy cannot hope to find any of those comforts that her long acquaintance with civilisation has certainly given her an innate hankering after. No cat’s-meat man purveying regular rations of savoury horse-flesh, so much beloved by even the daintiest aristocrats of the cat family, ever gladdens her ears with the dulcet cry of “Meeeet, cassmeet,” nor, saddest lack of all, is there ever to be found a saucer of milk for her delicate cleanly lapping. And yet, strange as it may appear, despite the superior attractions offered by the friendly steward at the after-end of the ship, irresponsive to the blandishments of the captain and officers, I have many times been shipmate with cats who remained steadily faithful to the fo’c’s’le throughout the length of an East Indian or Colonial voyage. They could hardly be said to have any preferences for individual members of the crew, being content with the universal attention paid them by all, although as a rule they found a snug berth in some man’s bunk which they came to look upon as theirs by prescriptive right, their shelter in time of storm, and their refuge, when in harbour the scanty floor place of the fo’c’s’le afforded no safe promenade for anything bearing a tail. Only once or twice in all my experience have I seen any cruelty offered to a cat on board ship, and then the miscreant who thus offended against the unwritten law had but a sorry time of it thereafter.
Personally, I have been honoured by the enduring fellowship of many cats whose attachment to me for myself alone (for I had nothing to give them to eat but a little chewed biscuit) effectually settled for me the question of what some people are pleased to call the natural selfishness of cats. My first experience was on my second voyage when I was nearly thirteen years old. On my first voyage we had no cat, strange to say, in either of the three ships I belonged to before I got back to England. But when I joined the Brinkburn in London for the West Indies as boy, I happened to be the first on board to take up my quarters in the fo’c’s’le. I crept into my lonely bunk that night feeling very small and forgotten, and huddled myself into my ragged blanket trying to get warm and go to sleep. It was quite dark, and the sudden apparition of two glaring green eyes over the edge of my bunk sent a spasm of fear through me for a moment, until I felt soft feet walking over me and heard the pretty little crooning sound usually made by a complacent mother-cat over her kittens. I put up my hands and felt the warm fur, quite a thrill of pleasure trickling over me as pussy pleasantly responded with a loud satisfied purr. We were quite glad of each other I know, for as I cuddled her closely to me, the vibrations of her purring comforted me so that in a short time I was sound asleep. Thenceforward puss and I were the firmest of friends. In fact she was the only friend I had on board that hateful ship. For the crew were a hard-hearted lot, whose treatment of me was consistently barbarous, and even the other boy, being much bigger and stronger than I was, used to treat me as badly as any of them. But when night came and the faithful cat nestled in by my side during my watch below, I would actually forget my misery for a short time in the pleasant consciousness that something was fond of me. It was to my bunk she invariably fled for refuge from the ill-natured little terrier who lived aft, and never missed an opportunity of flying at her when he saw her on deck. Several times during the passage she found flying-fish that dropped on deck at night, and, by some instinct I do not pretend to explain, brought them to where I crouched by the cabin-door. Then she would munch the sweet morsel contentedly, looking up at me between mouthfuls as if to tell me how much she was enjoying her unwonted meal, or actually leaving it for a minute or two to rub herself against me and arch her back under my fondling hand. Two days before we left Falmouth, Jamaica, on the homeward passage, she had kittens, five tiny slug-like things, that lived in my bunk in their mother’s old nest. The voyage ended abruptly on the first day out of harbour by the vessel running upon an outlying spur of coral only a few miles from the port. After a day and night of great exertion and exposure the ship slid off the sharp pinnacles of the reef into deep water, giving us scant time to escape on board one of the small craft that clustered alongside salving the cargo. The few rags I owned were hardly worth saving, but indeed I did not think of them. All my care was for an old slouch hat in which lay the five kittens snug and warm, while the anxious mother clung to me so closely that I had no difficulty in taking her along too. When we got ashore, although it cost me a bitter pang, I handed the rescued family over to the hotel-keeper’s daughter, a comely mulatto girl, who promised me that my old shipmate should from that time live in luxury.
From that time forward I was never fortunate enough to have a cat for my very own for a long time. Nearly every ship I was in had a cat, or even two, but they were common property, and their attentions were severely impartial. Then it came to pass that I joined a very large and splendid ship in Adelaide as second mate. Going on board for the first time, a tiny black kitten followed me persistently along the wharf. It had evidently strayed a long way and would not be put off, although I made several attempts to escape from it, feeling that perhaps I might be taking it away from a better home than I could possibly give it. It succeeded in following me on board, and when I took possession of the handsome cabin provided for me in the after end of the after deckhouse facing the saloon, it installed itself therein, purring complete approval of its surroundings. Now, in spite of the splendour of the ship and the natural pride I felt in being an officer on board of her, it must be confessed that I was exceedingly lonely. The chief officer was an elderly man of about fifty-five who had long commanded ships, and he considered it beneath his dignity to associate with such a mere lad as he considered me. Besides, he lived in the grand cabin. I could not forgather with the saloon passengers, who rarely came on the main-deck at all where I lived, and I was forbidden to go forward and visit those in the second saloon. Therefore during my watch below I was doomed to solitary state, cut off from the companionship of my kind with the sole exception of the urbane and gentlemanly chief steward, who did occasionally (about once a week) spend a fraction of his scanty leisure in conversation with me. Thus it came about that the company of “Pasht,” as I called my little cat, was a perfect godsend. He slept on my pillow when I was in my bunk, when I sat at my table writing or reading he sat close to my hand. And if I wrote long, paying no attention to him, he would reach out a velvety paw and touch the handle of my pen, ever so gently, looking up at my face immediately to see if my attention had been diverted. Often I took no notice but kept on with my work, quietly putting back the intruding paw when it became too troublesome. At last, as if unable to endure my neglect any longer, he would get up and walk on to the paper, sitting down in the centre of the sheet with a calm assurance that now I must notice him that was very funny. Then we would sit looking into the depths of each other’s eyes as if trying mutual mesmerism. It generally ended by his climbing up on to my shoulder and settling into the hollow of my neck, purring softly in my ear, while I wrote or read on until I was quite stiff with the constrained position I kept for fear of disturbing him. Whenever I went on deck at night to keep my watch he invariably came with me, keeping me company throughout my four hours’ vigil on the poop. Always accustomed to going barefoot, from which I was precluded during the day owing to my position, I invariably enjoyed the absence of any covering for my feet in the night watches. My little companion evidently thought my bare feet were specially put on for his amusement, for after a few sedate turns fore and aft by my side, he would hide behind the skylights and leap out upon them as I passed, darting off instantly in high glee at the feat he had performed. Occasionally I would turn the tables on him by going a few feet up the rigging, when he would sit and cry, baby-like, until I returned and comforted him. I believe he knew every stroke of the bell as well as I did. One of the apprentices always struck the small bell at the break of the poop every half-hour, being answered by the look-out man on the big bell forward. “Pasht” never took the slightest notice of any of the strokes until the four pairs announced the close of the watch. Then I always missed him suddenly. But when, after mustering the mate’s watch and handing over my charge to my superior, I went to my berth, a little black head invariably peeped over the edge of my bunk, as if saying, “Come along; I’m so sleepy!” So our pleasant companionship went on until one day, when about the Line in the Atlantic, I found my pretty pet lying on the grating in my berth. He had been seized with a fit, and under its influence had rushed into the fo’c’s’le, where some unspeakable wretch had shamefully maltreated him under the plea that he was mad! I could not bear to see him suffer—I cannot say what had been done to him—so I got an old marline-spike, looped the lanyard about his neck, and dropped him overboard. And an old lady among the passengers berated me the next day for my “heartless brutality”!
As a bereaved parent often dreads the thought of having another little one to lose, so, although many opportunities presented themselves, I refused to own another cat, until I became an unconsenting foster-parent again to a whole family. I joined a brig in the St. Katharine Docks as mate, finding when I took up my berth that there was both a cat and a dog on board, inmates of the cabin. They occupied different quarters during the night, but it was a never-waning pleasure to me to see them meet in the morning. The dog, a large brown retriever, would stand perfectly still, except for his heavy tail, which swayed sedately from side to side, while “Jane” would walk round and round him, arching her back and rubbing her sides against him, purring all the time a gentle note of welcome. Presently their noses would meet, as if in a kiss, and he would bestow a slavering lick or two upon her white fur. This always ended the greeting, sending “Jane” off primly to commence her morning toilet. But alas! a blighting shadow fell upon this loving intercourse. One of the dock cats, a creature of truculent appearance, her fur more like the nap of a door-mat than anything else, blind of one eye, minus half her tail, with a hare-lip (acquired, not hereditary), and her ears vandyked in curious patterns, stalked on board one afternoon, and took up her abode in the cabin without any preliminaries whatever. Both the original tenants were much disturbed at this graceless intrusion, but neither of them felt disposed to tackle the formidable task of turning her out. So “Jane” departed to the galley, and “Jack,” with many a loud and long sniff at the door of the berth wherein the visitor lay, oscillated disconsolately between the galley and the cabin, his duty and his inclination. The new-comer gave no trouble, always going ashore for everything she required, and only once, the morning her family arrived, deigning to accept a saucer of milk from me. As soon as she dared she carried the new-comers ashore one by one, being much vexed when I followed and brought them back again. However, her patience was greater than mine, for she succeeded in getting them all away except one which I hid away and she apparently forgot. Then we saw her no more; she returned to her duty of rat-catching in the warehouses, and never came near us again. Meanwhile “Jane” would scarcely leave my side during the day, asking as plainly as a cat could, why, oh why, didn’t I turn that shameless hussy out? Couldn’t I see how things were? or was I like the rest of the men? Her importunity was so great that I was heartily glad when the old “docker” was gone, and I lost no time in reinstalling “Jane” in her rightful realm. It was none too soon. For the next morning when I turned out, a sight as strange as any I have ever seen greeted me. There, in the corner of my room, lay “Jack” on his side, looking with undisguised amazement and an occasional low whine of sympathy at his friend, who, nestling close up to his curls in the space between his fore and hind legs, was busily attending to the wants of two new arrivals. The dog’s bewilderment and interest were so great, that the scene would have been utterly ludicrous had it not been so genuinely pathetic and pretty. How he managed to restrain himself I do not know, but there he lay perfectly quiet until pussy herself released him from his awkward position by getting up and taking possession of a cosy box I prepared for her. Even then his attentions were constant, for many times a day he would walk gravely in and sniff at the kittens, bestow a lick on the mother, and depart with an almost dejected air, as of a dog that had met with a problem utterly beyond his wisdom to solve. A visitor claiming one of the new kittens, I filled its place with the one I had kept belonging to the old “docker,” and “Jane” accepted the stranger without demur. While we were in dock I gave them plenty of such luxuries as milk and cat’s-meat, so that the little family prospered apace. As the kittens grew and waxed frolicsome, their attachment to me was great,—quite embarrassing at times, for while standing on deck giving orders, they would swarm up my legs and cling like bats to my coat, so that I moved with difficulty for fear of shaking them off. “Jane” was a perfect “ratter,” and I was curious to see whether her prowess was hereditary in her offspring. A trap was set and a rat speedily caught, for we were infested with them. Then “Jane” and her own kitten were called, the latter being at the time barely two months old. As soon as the kitten smelt the rat she growled, set up her fur, and walked round the trap (a large wire cage) seeking a way in. “Jane” sat down a little apart, an apparently uninterested spectator. We opened the door of the trap, the kitten darted in, and there in that confined space slew the rat, which was almost her equal in size, with the greatest ease. She then dragged it out, growling like a miniature tiger. Her mother came to have a look, but the kitten, never loosing her bite, shot out one bristling paw and smote poor “Jane” on the nose so felly that she retired shaking her head and sneezing entire disapproval. The other kitten, a “tom,” could never be induced to interfere with a rat at all. My space is gone, much to my disappointment, for the subject is a fascinating one to me. But I hope enough has been said to show what a large amount of interest clusters around cats on board ship.