TOBERMORY

It was a chill, rain-washed afternoon of a late August

day, that indefinite season when partridges are still in

security or cold storage, and there is nothing to

hunt—unless one is bounded on the north by the Bristol

Channel, in which case one may lawfully gallop after fat red

stags. Lady Blemley’s house-party was not bounded on the

north by the Bristol Channel, hence there was a full

gathering of her guests round the tea-table on this

particular afternoon. And, in spite of the blankness of the

season and the triteness of the occasion, there was no trace

in the company of that fatigued restlessness which means a

dread of the pianola and a subdued hankering for auction

bridge. The undisguised open-mouthed attention of the

entire party was fixed on the homely negative personality of

Mr. Cornelius Appin. Of all her guests, he was the one who

had come to Lady Blemley with the vaguest reputation. Some

one had said he was “clever,” and he had got his

invitation in the moderate expectation, on the part of his

hostess, that some portion at least of his cleverness would

be contributed to the general entertainment. Until tea-time

that day she had been unable to discover in what direction,

if any, his cleverness lay. He was neither a wit nor a

croquet champion, a hypnotic force nor a begetter of amateur

theatricals. Neither did his exterior suggest the sort of

man in whom women are willing to pardon a generous measure

of mental deficiency. He had subsided into mere Mr. Appin,

and the Cornelius seemed a piece of transparent baptismal

bluff. And now he was claiming to have launched on the

world a discovery beside which the invention of gunpowder,

of the printing-press, and of steam locomotion were

inconsiderable trifles. Science had made bewildering

strides in many directions during recent decades, but this

thing seemed to belong to the domain of miracle rather than

to scientific achievement.

“And do you really ask us to believe,” Sir Wilfrid was

saying, “that you have discovered a means for instructing

animals in the art of human speech, and that dear old

Tobermory has proved your first successful pupil?”

“It is a problem at which I have worked for the last

seventeen years,” said Mr. Appin, “but only during the

last eight or nine months have I been rewarded with

glimmerings of success. Of course I have experimented with

thousands of animals, but latterly only with cats, those

wonderful creatures which have assimilated themselves so

marvellously with our civilization while retaining all their

highly developed feral instincts. Here and there among cats

one comes across an outstanding superior intellect, just as

one does among the ruck of human beings, and when I made the

acquaintance of Tobermory a week ago I saw at once that I

was in contact with a `Beyond-cat’ of extraordinary

intelligence. I had gone far along the road to success in

recent experiments; with Tobermory, as you call him, I have

reached the goal.”

Mr. Appin concluded his remarkable statement in a voice

which he strove to divest of a triumphant inflection. No

one said “Rats,” though Clovis’s lips moved in a

monosyllabic contortion which probably invoked those rodents

of disbelief.

“And do you mean to say,” asked Miss Resker, after a

slight pause, “that you have taught Tobermory to say and

understand easy sentences of one syllable?”

“My dear Miss Resker,” said the wonder-worker patiently,

“one teaches little children and savages and backward

adults in that piecemeal fashion; when one has once solved

the problem of making a beginning with an animal of highly

developed intelligence one has no need for those halting

methods. Tobermory can speak our language with perfect

correctness.”

This time Clovis very distinctly said, “Beyond-rats!”

Sir Wilfrid was more polite, but equally sceptical.

“Hadn’t we better have the cat in and judge for

ourselves?” suggested Lady Blemley.

Sir Wilfrid went in search of the animal, and the company

settled themselves down to the languid expectation of

witnessing some more or less adroit drawing-room

ventriloquism.

In a minute Sir Wilfrid was back in the room, his face

white beneath its tan and his eyes dilated with excitement.

“By Gad, it’s true!”

His agitation was unmistakably genuine, and his hearers

started forward in a thrill of awakened interest.

Collapsing into an armchair he continued breathlessly: “I

found him dozing in the smoking-room and called out to him

to come for his tea. He blinked at me in his usual way, and

I said, `Come on, Toby; don’t keep us waiting’; and, by Gad!

he drawled out in a most horribly natural voice that he’d

come when he dashed well pleased! I nearly jumped out of my

skin!”

Appin had preached to absolutely incredulous hearers; Sir

Wilfred’s statement carried instant conviction. A

Babel-like chorus of startled exclamation arose, amid which

the scientist sat mutely enjoying the first fruit of his

stupendous discovery.

In the midst of the clamour Tobermory entered the room and

made his way with velvet tread and studied unconcern across

to the group seated round the tea-table.

A sudden hush of awkwardness and constraint fell on the

company. Somehow there seemed an element of embarrassment

in addressing on equal terms a domestic cat of acknowledged

mental ability.

“Will you have some milk, Tobermory?” asked Lady Blemley

in a rather strained voice.

“I don’t mind if I do,” was the response, couched in a

tone of even indifference. A shiver of suppressed

excitement went through the listeners, and Lady Blemley

might be excused for pouring out the saucerful of milk

rather unsteadily.

“I’m afraid I’ve spilt a good deal of it,” she said

apologetically.

“After all, it’s not my Axminster,” was Tobermory’s

rejoinder.

Another silence fell on the group, and then Miss Resker,

in her best district-visitor manner, asked if the human

language had been difficult to learn. Tobermory looked

squarely at her for a moment and then fixed his gaze

serenely on the middle distance. It was obvious that boring

questions lay outside his scheme of life.

“What do you think of human intelligence?” asked Mavis

Pellington lamely.

“Of whose intelligence in particular?” asked Tobermory

coldly.

“Oh, well, mine for instance,” said Mavis, with a feeble

laugh.

“You put me in an embarrassing position,” said

Tobermory, whose tone and attitude certainly did not suggest

a shred of embarrassment. “When your inclusion in this

house-party was suggested Sir Wilfrid protested that you

were the most brainless woman of his acquaintance, and that

there was a wide distinction between hospitality and the

care of the feeble-minded. Lady Blemley replied that your

lack of brain-power was the precise quality which had earned

you your invitation, as you were the only person she could

think of who might be idiotic enough to buy their old car.

You know, the one they call `The Envy of Sisyphus,’ because

it goes quite nicely up-hill if you push it.”

Lady Blemley’s protestations would have had greater effect

if she had not casually suggested to Mavis only that morning

that the car in question would be just the thing for her

down at her Devonshire home.

Major Barfield plunged in heavily to effect a diversion.

“How about your carryings-on with the tortoise-shell puss

up at the stables, eh?”

The moment he had said it every one realized the blunder.

“One does not usually discuss these matters in public,”

said Tobermory frigidly. “From a slight observation of

your ways since you’ve been in this house I should imagine

you’d find it inconvenient if I were to shift the

conversation on to your own little affairs.”

The panic which ensued was not confined to the Major.

“Would you like to go and see if cook has got your dinner

ready?” suggested Lady Blemley hurriedly, affecting to

ignore the fact that it wanted at least two hours to

Tobermory’s dinner-time.

“Thanks,” said Tobermory, “not quite so soon after my

tea. I don’t want to die of indigestion.”

“Cats have nine lives, you know,” said Sir Wilfrid

heartily.

“Possibly”, answered Tobermory; “but only one liver.”

“Adelaide!” said Mrs. Cornett, “do you mean to

encourage that cat to go out and gossip about us in the

servants’ hall?”

The panic had indeed become general. A narrow ornamental

balustrade ran in front of most of the bedroom windows at

the Towers, and it was recalled with dismay that this had

formed a favourite promenade for Tobermory at all hours,

whence he could watch the pigeons—and heaven knew what

else besides. If he intended to become reminiscent in his

present outspoken strain the effect would be something more

than disconcerting. Mrs. Cornett, who spent much time at

her toilet table, and whose complexion was reputed to be of

a nomadic though punctual disposition, looked as ill at ease

as the Major. Miss Scrawen, who wrote fiercely sensuous

poetry and led a blameless life, merely displayed

irritation; if you are methodical and virtuous in private

you don’t necessarily want every one to know it. Bertie van

Tahn, who was so depraved at seventeen that he had long ago

given up trying to be any worse, turned a dull shade of

gardenia white, but he did not commit the error of dashing

out of the room like Odo Finsberry, a young gentleman who

was understood to be reading for the Church and who was

possibly disturbed at the thought of scandals he might hear

concerning other people. Clovis had the presence of mind to

maintain a composed exterior; privately he was calculating

how long it would take to procure a box of fancy mice

through the agency of the Exchange and Mart as a species of

hush-money.

Even in a delicate situation like the present, Agnes

Resker could not endure to remain too long in the

background.

“Why did I ever come down here?” she asked dramatically.

Tobermory immediately accepted the opening.

“Judging by what you said to Mrs. Cornett on the

croquet-lawn yesterday, you were out for food. You

described the Blemleys as the dullest people to stay with

that you knew, but said they were clever enough to employ a

first-rate cook; otherwise they’d find it difficult to get

any one to come down a second time.”

“There’s not a word of truth in it! I appeal to Mrs.

Cornett—” exclaimed the discomfited Agnes.

“Mrs. Cornett repeated your remark afterwards to Bertie

van Tahn,” continued Tobermory, “and said, `That woman is

a regular Hunger Marcher; she’d go anywhere for four square

meals a day,’ and Bertie van Tahn said—”

At this point the chronicle mercifully ceased. Tobermory

had caught a glimpse of the big yellow Tom from the Rectory

working his way through the shrubbery towards the stable

wing. In a flash he had vanished through the open French

window.

With the disappearance of his too brilliant pupil

Cornelius Appin found himself beset by a hurricane of bitter

upbraiding, anxious inquiry, and frightened entreaty. The

responsibility for the situation lay with him, and he must

prevent matters from becoming worse. Could Tobermory impart

his dangerous gift to other cats? was the first question he

had to answer. It was possible, he replied, that he might

have initiated his intimate friend the stable puss into his

new accomplishment, but it was unlikely that his teaching

could have taken a wider range as yet.

“Then,” said Mrs. Cornett, “Tobermory may be a valuable

cat and a great pet; but I’m sure you’ll agree, Adelaide,

that both he and the stable cat must be done away with

without delay.”

“You don’t suppose I’ve enjoyed the last quarter of an

hour, do you?” said Lady Blemley bitterly. “My husband and

I are very fond of Tobermory—at least, we were before this

horrible accomplishment was infused into him; but now, of

course, the only thing is to have him destroyed as soon as

possible.”

“We can put some strychnine in the scraps he always gets

at dinner-time,” said Sir Wilfrid, “and I will go and

drown the stable cat myself. The coachman will be very sore

at losing his pet, but I’ll say a very catching form of

mange has broken out in both cats and we’re afraid of its

spreading to the kennels.”

“But my great discovery!” expostulated Mr. Appin;

“after all my years of research and experiment—”

“You can go and experiment on the short-horns at the

farm, who are under proper control,” said Mrs. Cornett,

“or the elephants at the Zoological Gardens. They’re said

to be highly intelligent, and they have this recommendation,

that they don’t come creeping about our bedrooms and under

chairs, and so forth.”

An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and

then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and

would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have

felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception

of his wonderful achievement. Public opinion, however, was

against him—in fact, had the general voice been consulted

on the subject it is probable that a strong minority vote

would have been in favour of including him in the strychnine

diet.

Defective train arrangements and a nervous desire to see

matters brought to a finish prevented an immediate dispersal

of the party, but dinner that evening was not a social

success. Sir Wilfrid had had rather a trying time with the

stable cat and subsequently with the coachman. Agnes Resker

ostentatiously limited her repast to a morsel of dry toast,

which she bit as though it were a personal enemy; while

Mavis Pellington maintained a vindictive silence throughout

the meal. Lady Blemley kept up a flow of what she hoped was

conversation, but her attention was fixed on the doorway. A

plateful of carefully dosed fish scraps was in readiness on

the sideboard, but sweets and savoury and dessert went their

way, and no Tobermory appeared either in the dining-room or

kitchen.

The sepulchral dinner was cheerful compared with the

subsequent vigil in the smoking-room. Eating and drinking

had at least supplied a distraction and cloak to the

prevailing embarrassment. Bridge was out of the question in

the general tension of nerves and tempers, and after Odo

Finsberry had given a lugubrious rendering of “Mélisande

in the Wood” to a frigid audience, music was tacitly

avoided. At eleven the servants went to bed, announcing

that the small window in the pantry had been left open as

usual for Tobermory’s private use. The guests read steadily

through the current batch of magazines, and fell back

gradually on the “Badminton Library” and bound volumes of

Punch. Lady Blemley made periodic visits to the pantry,

returning each time with an expression of listless

depression which forestalled questioning.

At two o’clock Clovis broke the dominating silence.

“He won’t turn up tonight. He’s probably in the local

newspaper office at the present moment, dictating the first

instalment of his reminiscences. Lady What’s-her-name’s

book won’t be in it. It will be the event of the day.”

Having made this contribution to the general cheerfulness,

Clovis went to bed. At long intervals the various members

of the house-party followed his example.

The servants taking round the early tea made a uniform

announcement in reply to a uniform question. Tobermory had

not returned.

Breakfast was, if anything, a more unpleasant function

than dinner had been, but before its conclusion the

situation was relieved. Tobermory’s corpse was brought in

from the shrubbery, where a gardener had just discovered it.

From the bites on his throat and the yellow fur which coated

his claws it was evident that he had fallen in unequal

combat with the big Tom from the Rectory.

By midday most of the guests had quitted the Towers, and

after lunch Lady Blemley had sufficiently recovered her

spirits to write an extremely nasty letter to the Rectory

about the loss of her valuable pet.

Tobermory had been Appin’s one successful pupil, and he

was destined to have no successor. A few weeks later an

elephant in the Dresden Zoological Garden, which had shown

no previous signs of irritability, broke loose and killed an

Englishman who had apparently been teasing it. The victim’s

name was variously reported in the papers as Oppin and

Eppelin, but his front name was faithfully rendered

Cornelius.

“If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor

beast,” said Clovis, “he deserved all he got.”