Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Robert Lynd > Text of On Black Cats

An essay by Robert Lynd

On Black Cats

Title:     On Black Cats
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

It is easy to imagine the enthusiasm of the audience at Manchester when a black cat walked on to the platform at a meeting of Sir Edward Carson's. Lord Derby, who presided, hailed it as an omen of the success of the Ulster cause. He went on to tell the audience that the last Unionist victory in Manchester had been presaged by the appearance of a black cat in some polling booth or other. That, you may be sure, was the most convincing argument in the night's speech-making. People who will stumble over the logic of politics for a lifetime can appreciate the logic of the black cat in a fraction of a second. Black cats, indeed, are one of the very few things in which a good many unbelievers nowadays believe. These are the substitute for the angels and devils of our grandfathers. We are sceptics in everything but our superstitions. The most superstitious people of all are often to be found among those who do not believe in God, and who would not dream of entering a church-gate unless there was no other way of avoiding walking under a ladder. These it is who pick up pins with the greatest enthusiasm, and who become downcast if a dog howls, and who had rather not sleep at all than sleep in a room numbered thirteen. They will deride the cherubim and the seraphim, but they will not risk offending the demon to whom they throw an oblation of the salt they have just spilt on the table. It is as though each man carried his own little firmament of immortals about with him, and sacrificed to them on his own infinitesimal altars. This is not, I suspect, because he loves them, but because he fears them. He regards them as a species of blackmailers--the Scottish way of looking at fairies. Nearly every portent is to him a portent of misfortune. The number thirteen, the spilling of salt, the bay of a dog, the sight of a red-haired man first thing on New Year's morning, dreams about babies--these things cast a gloom over his world deeper than midnight; and of this kind are nearly all the portents which wriggle like little snakes in the superstitious imagination.

It is the distinction of the black cat that he is one of the few cheerful superstitions left to us. Why he should be so no one can tell us, and he has not been considered so in all times or in all places. He has even been regarded on occasion as the false shape of a witch. Perhaps, the origin of all our care of him was the tenderness of fear. He may be like the black god worshipped by the ancient Slavs who were indifferent to his white brother-god. They did this, we are told, because they thought that the white god was so good that they had nothing to fear from him in any case. But the black god one could not trust, and so one had to buy his goodwill. It seems not improbable that the veneration of the black cat may have begun in much the same way. The smile with which our ancestors first greeted him was, I fancy, a nervous, doubting smile, like the smile with which many of us try to cajole snarling dogs. Then, gradually, as he did not leap upon them and destroy them, they came to believe less and less in his will to do evil, and in the end he was canonised, and now he has been accepted as a sound English Tory, which is generally admitted to be the highest type of animal that Nature has produced.

Two centuries or so ago Addison poured such finished contempt on all superstitions of this kind that it would have been difficult to believe that men and women of intellect would still be clinging to them to-day. At the same time, their survival is the most natural thing in the world. They are bound to survive in a world in which men live not in faiths and enjoyments, but in hopes and fears. Faith is the way of religion, and enjoyment is the way of philosophy; but hopes and fears are the coloured lights that illuminate the exciting way of superstition. If we are creatures of hopes and fears we have no sun, and our lights have a trick of appearing and disappearing like will-o'-the-wisps, leading us a pretty dance whither we know not. Every step we take we expect to unfold the secret. We find omens in the direction of straws, in the running of hares, in the flight of birds. If the girl of hopes and fears wishes to know what colour of a man she is going to marry, she waits till she hears the cuckoo in summer, and then examines the sole of her shoe in the expectation of finding a hair on it which will be the colour of her future husband's head. I will make a confession of my own. I have never listened slavishly for the cuckoo, but many years ago I had as foolish a superstition about farthings. I believed that they were luck-bringers. At the time I was lodging in the traditional garret in Pimlico, trying more or less vainly to make a living by writing. Whenever I had sent off a manuscript I used to go out the same evening to a little shop where, when they sold a loaf, they always gave you a farthing change out of your threepence. How cheerily I used to leave the shop with the loaf under my arm and the farthing in my pocket! That farthing, I felt, could be trusted to cast a spell on the editor towards whom the manuscript was flying. It would be as effective as an introduction from one of the crowned heads of Europe. And even if, a night or two afterwards, the most loathsome of all visible objects--a returned manuscript--made the lodging-house look still more sordid than before, I abated no jot of my trust. My heart sank for the moment, but in the end I settled down to acceptance of the fact that there was a fool sitting in an editor's chair who could resist even the power of farthings. On the next day, or the day after, I would set out with revived hope for the baker's shop again. I remember the acute misery I felt on one occasion when I went into a more pretentious shop, where the girl put my loaf in the scales and asked me whether I would prefer a small roll or a part of a loaf to make up the full threepenceworth of weight. I would have given my boots, and even my old hat, to be able to say, "Please, may I have my farthing?" But my courage failed. There are things one cannot say to a pretty shop-girl. Years afterwards I happened to be discussing superstitions with a friend, and I instanced the well-known belief in the luckiness of farthings. "But farthings aren't supposed to be lucky," said my friend, with a smile of authority: "they're supposed to be extremely unlucky." It was as though the world reeled. Here I had been steadily building up ruin for myself all that time with my miser's hoard of farthings. I felt like the man in The Silver King who cries: "Turn back, O wheels of the Universe, and give me back my yesterday!" If only I could get back some of my yesterdays, I would assuredly buy my bread in that big, bright shop where the girl gives you full weight for your threepence; and never would I set foot in that little low shop where a half-blind old man wraps your loaf in a page of newspaper, and lays in your hand a dirty farthing that is only the price of your undoing.

It is, perhaps, natural that my experience should have left me rather unfriendly to superstitions. I cannot believe that the universe, or even a single planet of it, is ruled by imps of chance which express themselves in the doings of crows, and in floating tea-leaves and in the dropping of umbrellas. Better join the church of the Sea-Dyaks of Borneo, if one can find nothing better to believe in than that. It is in order to protest against the heathen religion of crows and numbers and tea-leaves that I sometimes deliberately leap on to a 'bus numbered thirteen, or walk under a ladder rather than go round it. Occasionally, I say, for my mood varies. There are days when I feel like turning a blind eye to 'bus number 13, and when a crow, sitting and cawing on the roof of the church opposite, gives me the shivers. It is in vain that I tell myself that the last superstition is the most irrational of all, because in some places the sight of one crow is supposed to be lucky, the sight of two unlucky, while in other places the reverse is the case, and apart from this, the superstition does not refer to crows at all, but to magpies. Then, again, when I am arguing against the dislike of setting out on a Friday, I find myself compelled to admit that the holiday in which I was not able to get away till Saturday was, on the whole, the best I ever had. But the salt--I refuse to throw salt over my shoulder, no matter what happens. I prefer to exorcise the demon with some formula from trigonometry, as I once heard a man doing when he passed under a ladder. And if I retain a hankering faith in black cats, it is, as I have said, the most cheerful superstition in the world. About two months ago I was sitting one night in the depths of gloom expecting news of a tragedy. Suddenly, I heard a cat mewing as if in difficulties. It seemed some way up the road, and I thought that it must be caught in a hedge, or that somebody was tormenting it. I went downstairs and put my hat on to go out and look for it, and had hardly opened the door, when in walked a little black kitten with bright eyes and its tail in the air. I defy anyone to have disbelieved in black kittens at that moment. It seemed more like an omen than anything I have ever known. I had never seen the kitten before, and its owner has reclaimed it since. But I cannot help being grateful to it for anticipating with its gleaming eyes the happy news that reached me a day or two later. Of course, I do not believe the black cat superstition any more than I believe that it is unlucky to see the new moon for the first time through glass. But still, if you happen to be requiring a black cat at any time, I advise you to make quite sure that there are no white hairs in its coat. One white hair spoils all, and puts it on a level with any common squaller in the back garden.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: On Black Cats