The Dalmeny Cat1 That Walked by Itself
[In the picture, Beloved of Mine, you will see the Cat walking by its lone. In one corner there are some things which may be an Old-Age Pension Scheme or they may be Six New Army Corps; but I think they are Mushrooms or ’phemeral things like them which are born in the wild woods but don’t live long.]
There was once a Cat that walked by its lone. It knew where it wanted to go and it kept straight there, and after a while it wasn’t so very much by itself either.2
But the delicately didactic Woman3 who kept House from Monday to Friday and had her week-ends to herself couldn’t abide the Cat walking in and out of her premises.
“For better or for worse, probably for much, much better,” she declared, “I am the only possible occupant of this tenement. There can be no alternative.”4
But the Cat that walked not so very much by its lone went in and out and through and through just as it quite well wished, and made remarks as it went.
And the delicately didactic and faintly fractious Woman bubbled over with a pleasant peevishness that was sedative and enervating to behold, and called everything to witness that she was no worse than she need be: “And behold,” she said, “everything we do is for the second-best in this second-best of all possible Governments.5 Our troops are employed at enormous distances from home, and if they occasionally get into tight places the very fact that we were able to get them there at all reflects immense credit on us. And if we have done nothing particular at home in the past seven years, at least we have done it quietly and unobtrusively.”
Four out of every five proper Cecils6 will speak like that; the fifth proper Cecil would probably say it with equal shrillness at the wrong moment.
But the Cat that walked through the land not by any means by its lone came in and out and gave the Woman queer starts when she was working overtime to finish off her bills; and the Woman became hard and resolute as gelatine that has almost had time to cool, and flung a jar of Devonshire cream at the Cat that wouldn’t be silenced. It was the only thing she had had to hand for months and months, and she was glad to be able to throw it.23
But the Cat that mobilised as it walked wouldn’t stay away even when it saw “No Alternative” written on the door. And whenever the Woman was making a mess of things, which was sometimes, or whenever she was doing nothing, which was frequently, she would find the Cat looking on in a luminous manner which she considered unfeeling.
Four out of five proper Cecils would be vexed at such conduct, and the fifth proper Cecil would be righteously indignant.
The Cecils are indispensable for the government of the Empire. If there were no Cecils it would be necessary to invent them.8
That, Best Beloved, is an epigram. At least, I think so.
- 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847–1929), Liberal politician and Prime Minister 1894–5, whose courtesy title before inheriting the earldom was Lord Dalmeny.↩
- Despite his repeated avowals of his wish to leave poltics and go his own way, Rosebery attracted supporters such as Herbert Henry Asquith (1852–1928, Liberal Party politician, Prime Minister 1908–1916), Sir Edward Grey (1862–1933, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs 1892–1895 and later Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs 1905–1916), Henry Fowler (1830–1911, Secretary of State for India in Rosebery’s cabinet), and Richard Haldane (1856–1928, philosopher, lawyer and Liberal M.P.), all of whom at various times hoped — or convinced themselves — that he would return to front–line politics.↩
- Arthur Balfour (1848–1930), British Conservative politician, Prime Minister 1902–1905.↩
- A reference to claims that people had voted for the Conservatives in the last general election (1900) because they saw no alternative.↩
- Parodying the optimist Professor Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide (1759): “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.↩
- The Cecils were a political dynasty. James Gascoyne-Cecil (1791-1868), the second Marquess of Salisbury, was an M.P. before inheriting his title and later served as Lord Privy Seal and Lord President of the Council. The Marquess’s son, the 3rd Marquess (1830-1903), was Prime Minister three times, the third being 1895–1902, after which he was succeeded by his nephew Arthur Balfour. Balfour’s father and grandfather had been M.P.s and his brother Gerald (1853–1945) also entered parliament. The 3rd Marquess’s son, Lord Hugh Cecil (1869–1956) was also an M.P.↩
- Spencer Cavendish (1833–1908), 8th Duke of Devonshire, who had made speeches mocking Rosebery’s “clean slate” proposals. He was a member of Liberal Unionist Party and therefore a coalition partner of Balfour rather than a party colleague.↩
- Cf. Voltaire: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” (‘Epître à l’auteur du livre des Trois imposteurs’, 1798.↩
‘The Dalmeny Cat That Walked by Itself’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from The Westminster Gazette, 31 October 1902. Illustration by Francis Carruthers Gould. Notes © 2020-22 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.