"The Mountain Hut, 8th September
"I am alone. My abode a thatched 'wàrrie,' isolated in a wild mountainous region. I am many miles away from any other human habitation, much farther still from any being whose companionship would be congenial to me, and I am separated from all relations and former friends by the breadth of this wide world.
"I sit by the smouldering log fire and watch the flickering light of the glowing embers, and listen to the mournful hum of a black kettle that stands on the hearth. My only associates in this solitary life are my dogs—Tiny, who is watching me dreamily from his snug fireside corner, and the phlegmatic Mop, who is coiled up under my bed and fast asleep. And Topsy, the cat. I had almost forgotten her! Oh the ingratitude of man. She is a remarkable creature, and she has certainly placed me under deep obligation to her. She made her first entry to this outlandish page 193place about a year ago, conveyed hither in a bag, and her advent has been a triumph—a sudden and overwhelming victory against countless numbers—that savours of the marvellous.
"And yet I can vouch for it as a fact, for I was there—the inevitable eye-witness of modern chronicles. At that time the place was swarming with rats and mice. The former are said to be native to the country, the latter an imported article. I cannot pronounce on the subject, for I never made une étude approfondie of this class of vermin. To my undiscerning eye they all look very much like the rats and mice of happier climes, and I can answer for it that they possess much the same evil propensities. They arrive gradually, in small instalments, cautiously and insidiously. They first encroached on the outhouse; they then insinuated themselves into the store-room; they proceeded to undermine the walls, to infest the roof, to overrun the house, and to take absolute possession of the premises. They became a horrible nuisance, a plague, an abomination. They used to run over me at night, to peer at me from every hole and crack, to devour my provisions, and contaminate what they could not devour. The only way to protect food from their ravages was to suspend it from the roof, but even that device was not a match for page 194their ingenuity, for the cunning beasties would gnaw through the strings and let the supplies down; or else burrow through the thatch and let themselves down on to the supplies, which came to much the same thing. Nothing could daunt them, and we tried in vain to exterminate the vermin.
"We set traps and caught them by scores, we poisoned them by hundreds, we got a terrier that played havoc in their ranks, but all to no avail. The nuisance increased. I complained to old Dale, and threatened to abandon the hut. I was recommended to take a cat.
"Now, I had always had a prejudice against cats. I don't like them; and even with Topsy I must fain admit that there is no heartfelt love between us. There are no cat-like sympathies in my nature. I have none of the cat's virtues—love of home, domestic propriety, primness, watchfulness, silence and gravity—for the cat, once out of kittenhood, is essentially a serious and matter-of-fact animal. I have none of its special vices either—cunning, heartlessness, and cruelty.
"Cats and I have never chummed up.
"But life is made up of compromises and even sacrifices.
"How many people there are who jog along page 195through existence, while chained to partners and associates, both male and female, that are not only uncongenial but even hateful to them. They wince a bit at first, and pull at the mouth, but after a time they travel along together right enough, for it is self-interest that holds the ribbons. Our inclinations may be strong, our passions yet stronger, but the necessities of the present hour, the inexorable requirements of the society in which we live, the despotism of public opinion, are they not much more powerful factors in guiding the course of our feeble lives?
"This reminds me of Jim Flash and Black Joe as bed-fellows. They had been out together mustering some wild cattle, and they were benighted at some deserted hut, with but scanty fare and only one opossum rug between the both of them. Black Joe—a real African nigger—had all the peculiarities of his odoriferous race. He would not have been considered desirable company in any close quarters, and although an honest fellow he had the reputation of perspiring freely. Jim Flash, on the other hand, is a personage of exquisite taste, of educated nostrils; a most particular swell, who is fastidious even in the choice of perfumes with which to scent his silk pocket-handkerchief. It cannot be supposed that he relished Black Joe; yet when the nigger, who had page 196stripped and was snugly ensconced in his warm rug, generously offered to share it with his white brother, the white brother, with smothered disgust, was fain to accept, for it was bitterly cold outside. Que voulezvous? It was better to suffer in one organ than to freeze in the whole body.
"And so it is in the world; what will people (young ladies included) not submit to sooner than be left out in the cold? This is a digression (with a moral) tacked on to another digression. Let us return to Topsy.
"Having consented to take a cat, the next thing was to get one. Cats were scarce, and it was with difficulty that I obtained the promise of one out of a litter that was shortly expected. The litter came in due course, and a little black kitten was reserved out of it for the Mountain Hut.
"I watched the growth of this kitten with interest, and I listened fondly to the accounts that reached me of its wonderful precocity and youthful prowess. It was not many weeks old before it was seen to pounce upon and devour a blue-bottle fly; and it killed its first mouse at an age when most kittens are occupied in playing with their own tails.
"We began to expect great things from Topsy, but she was destined to eclipse them all in the most mar-page 197vellous achievement on record. It was a bright summer evening when I arrived at the hut, with the kitten—then unknown to fame—in a bag.
"I found old Malcolm there, and I found him indulging in some very select Scotch blasphemy against the plague of mice. The horrid creatures had got at his sack of oatmeal, and had so dirtied and defiled its contents that the prized material had assumed quite a speckled appearance. I suggested that he should pass it through a sieve, with a view of separating the two ingredients, while I promised myself not to partake of 'burgoo' emanating from that quarter.
"Malcolm was cross, and when I produced the bag with its precious charge, he snatched it from me and roughly shook the poor little animal out on to the floor. She came out head first, but through that mysterious dispensation of nature applicable only to cats, she landed complacently on her four legs. She was cramped and dazed, and for the moment was lost in astonishment.
"Then she took a glance round, shook herself, and gave one plaintive mew. 'That and nothing more.'
"'When in mid-air the golden trump shall sound,' announcing the crack of doom, it will not cause greater consternation than did that feeble cry amongst the mouse tribe that infested this habitation. From page 198the roof above, from the floor below, from burrows under the walls, from their pleasant nooks and snug retreats, even from out of our sack of flour, they fled, madly, desperately. Such a squeaking and scuttling as never was heard before. Hairy old sinners, sleek little mice, fat mothers and suckling infants,—all disappeared as if by magic, and we saw them no more. The hut has been rid of them ever since, and Topsy has had to go foraging in the bush to find a meal.
"Now, I don't expect that everybody will believe this account, any more than the 'enlightened' are given to accept even the 'authorised version' of the herd of swine episode. It is Gospel truth nevertheless. Account for the fact I cannot, but that does not make it a lie, as some scientific worthies seem to assume. I have come to the conclusion, from my humble experience, that you are not safe in either believing or disbelieving anything. Since this most successful début Topsy has been a personage at the hut. I admit to a feeling of reverence for her similar to what great Whittington must have experienced towards his immortal benefactress, renowned in song. Topsy presides at my frugal board, and helps herself to the choicest morsels. She sleeps on my blankets, and has even been suspected of bringing fleas into page 199them, but out of respect for her catship I have never given any countenance to such an unworthy idea.
"Towards my humble canine dependants she soon asserted her sway. Tiny—gentle and affectionate—submitted at once, but the unruly Mop gave some trouble, and required severe clawing to bring him into a proper state of subjection. On one occasion a passing tramp brought a bull terrier on the premises, and the savage brute made a direct and unprovoked attack on our purring queen. He lost an eye in the encounter, and did not return to the charge. Since then her reign has been peace.
"I have now described my household. Perhaps the next time I take up my pen to this novel attempt at a diary, I may aim at describing my melancholy self."