Henry Slesar, as we have said before, is a young advertising executive who has rapidly become one of the better known writers in the field. Here is an off-trail story that is guaranteed to make some of you take a very searching second look at some of the young men you know.
my father, the cat
by HENRY SLESAR
He wondered if I'd told her everything, and, faltering, I had to admit that I hadn't. She was wonderful—but human.
My mother was a lovely, delicate woman from the coast of Brittany, who was miserable sleeping on less than three mattresses, and who, it is said, was once injured by a falling leaf in her garden. My grandfather, a descendant of the French nobility whose family had ridden the tumbrils of the Revolution, tended her fragile body and spirit with the same loving care given rare, brief-blooming flowers. You may imagine from this his attitude concerning marriage. He lived in terror of the vulgar, heavy-handed man who would one day win my mother's heart, and at last, this persistent dread killed him. His concern was unnecessary, however, for my mother chose a suitor who was as free of mundane brutality as a husband could be. Her choice was Dauphin, a remarkable white cat which strayed onto the estate shortly after his death.
Dauphin was an unusually large Angora, and his ability to speak in cultured French, English, and Italian was sufficient to cause my mother to adopt him as a household pet. It did not take long for her to realize that Dauphin deserved a higher status, and he became her friend, protector, and confidante. He never spoke of his origin, nor where he had acquired the classical education which made him such an entertaining companion. After two years, it was easy for my mother, an unworldly woman at best, to forget the dissimilarity in their species. In fact, she was convinced that Dauphin was an enchanted prince, and Dauphin, in consideration of her illusions, never dissuaded her. At last, they were married by an understanding clergyman of the locale, who solemnly filled in the marriage application with the name of M. Edwarde Dauphin.
I, Etienne Dauphin, am their son.
To be candid, I am a handsome youth, not unlike my mother in the delicacy of my features. My father's heritage is evident in my large, feline eyes, and in my slight body and quick movements. My mother's death, when I was four, left me in the charge of my father and his coterie of loyal servants, and I could not have wished for a finer upbringing. It is to my father's patient tutoring that I owe whatever graces I now possess. It was my father, the cat, whose gentle paws guided me to the treasure houses of literature, art, and music, whose whiskers bristled with pleasure at a goose well cooked, at a meal well served, at a wine well chosen. How many happy hours we shared! He knew more of life and the humanities, my father, the cat, than any human I have met in all my twenty-three years.
Until the age of eighteen, my education was his personal challenge. Then, it was his desire to send me into the world outside the gates. He chose for me a university in America, for he was deeply fond of what he called "that great raw country," where he believed my feline qualities might be tempered by the aggressiveness of the rough-coated barking dogs I would be sure to meet.
I must confess to a certain amount of unhappiness in my early American years, torn as I was from the comforts of the estate and the wisdom of my father, the cat. But I became adapted, and even upon my graduation from the university, sought and held employment in a metropolitan art museum. It was there I met Joanna, the young woman I intended to make my bride.
Joanna was a product of the great American southwest, the daughter of a cattle-raiser. There was a blooming vitality in her face and her body, a lustiness born of open skies and desert. Her hair was not the gold of antiquity; it was new gold, freshly mined from the black rock. Her eyes were not like old-world diamonds; their sparkle was that of sunlight on a cascading river. Her figure was bold, an open declaration of her sex.
She was, perhaps, an unusual choice for the son of fairy-like mother and an Angora cat. But from the first meeting of our eyes, I knew that I would someday bring Joanna to my father's estate to present her as my fiancee.
I approached that occasion with understandable trepidation. My father had been explicit in his advice before I departed for America, but on no point had he been more emphatic than secrecy concerning himself. He assured me that revelation of my paternity would bring ridicule and unhappiness upon me. The advice was sound, of course, and not even Joanna knew that our journey's end would bring us to the estate of a large, cultured, and conversing cat. I had deliberately fostered the impression that I was orphaned, believing that the proper place for revealing the truth was the atmosphere of my father's home in France. I was certain that Joanna would accept her father-in-law without distress. Indeed, hadn't nearly a score of human servants remained devoted to their feline master for almost a generation?
We had agreed to be wed on the first of June, and on May the fourth, emplaned in New York for Paris. We were met at Orly Field by Francois, my father's solemn manservant, who had been delegated not so much as escort as he was chaperone, my father having retained much of the old world proprieties. It was a long trip by automobile to our estate in Brittany, and I must admit to a brooding silence throughout the drive which frankly puzzled Joanna.
However, when the great stone fortress that was our home came within view, my fears and doubts were quickly dispelled. Joanna, like so many Americans, was thrilled at the aura of venerability and royal custom surrounding the estate. Francois placed her in charge of Madame Jolinet, who clapped her plump old hands with delight at the sight of her fresh blonde beauty, and chattered and clucked like a mother hen as she led Joanna to her room on the second floor. As for myself, I had one immediate wish: to see my father, the cat.
He greeted me in the library, where he had been anxiously awaiting our arrival, curled up in his favorite chair by the fireside, a wide-mouthed goblet of cognac by his side. As I entered the room, he lifted a paw formally, but then his reserve was dissolved by the emotion of our reunion, and he licked my face in unashamed joy.
Francois refreshed his glass, and poured another for me, and we toasted each other's well-being.
"To you, mon purr," I said, using the affectionate name of my childhood memory.
"To Joanna," my father said. He smacked his lips over the cognac, and wiped his whiskers gravely. "And where is this paragon?"
"With Madame Jolinet. She will be down shortly."
"And you have told her everything?"
I blushed. "No, mon purr, I have not. I thought it best to wait until we were home. She is a wonderful woman," I added impulsively. "She will not be—"
"Horrified?" my father said. "What makes you so certain, my son?"
"Because she is a woman of great heart," I said stoutly. "She was educated at a fine college for women in Eastern America. Her ancestors were rugged people, given to legend and folklore. She is a warm, human person—"
"Human," my father sighed, and his tail swished. "You are expecting too much of your beloved, Etienne. Even a woman of the finest character may be dismayed in this situation."
"But my mother—"
"Your mother was an exception, a changeling of the Fairies. You must not look for your mother's soul in Joanna's eyes." He jumped from his chair, and came towards me, resting his paw upon my knee. "I am glad you have not spoken of me, Etienne. Now you must keep your silence forever."
I was shocked. I reached down and touched my father's silky fur, saddened by the look of his age in his gray, gold-flecked eyes, and by the tinge of yellow in his white coat.
"No, mon purr," I said. "Joanna must know the truth. Joanna must know how proud I am to be the son of Edwarde Dauphin."
"Then you will lose her."
"Never! That cannot happen!"
My father walked stiffly to the fireplace, staring into the gray ashes. "Ring for Francois," he said. "Let him build the fire. I am cold, Etienne."
I walked to the cord and pulled it. My father turned to me and said: "You must wait, my son. At dinner this evening, perhaps. Do not speak of me until then."
"Very well, father."
When I left the library, I encountered Joanna at the head of the stairway, and she spoke to me excitedly.
"Oh, Etienne! What a beautiful old house. I know I will love it! May we see the rest?"
"Of course," I said.
"You look troubled. Is something wrong?"
"No, no. I was thinking how lovely you are."
We embraced, and her warm full body against mine confirmed my conviction that we should never be parted. She put her arm in mine, and we strolled through the great rooms of the house. She was ecstatic at their size and elegance, exclaiming over the carpeting, the gnarled furniture, the ancient silver and pewter, the gallery of family paintings. When she came upon an early portrait of my mother, her eyes misted.
"She was lovely," Joanna said. "Like a princess! And what of your father? Is there no portrait of him?"
"No," I said hurriedly. "No portrait." I had spoken my first lie to Joanna, for there was a painting, half-completed, which my mother had begun in the last year of her life. It was a whispering little watercolor, and Joanna discovered it to my consternation.
"What a magnificent cat!" she said. "Was it a pet?"
"It is Dauphin," I said nervously.
She laughed. "He has your eyes, Etienne."
"Joanna, I must tell you something—"
"And this ferocious gentleman with the moustaches? Who is he?"
"My grandfather. Joanna, you must listen—"
Francois, who had been following our inspection tour at shadow's-length, interrupted. I suspected that his timing was no mere coincidence.
"We will be serving dinner at seven-thirty," he said. "If the lady would care to dress—"
"Of course," Joanna said. "Will you excuse me, Etienne?"
I bowed to her, and she was gone.
At fifteen minutes to the appointed dining time, I was ready, and hastened below to talk once more with my father. He was in the dining room, instructing the servants as to the placement of the silver and accessories. My father was proud of the excellence of his table, and took all his meals in the splendid manner. His appreciation of food and wine was unsurpassed in my experience, and it had always been the greatest of pleasures for me to watch him at table, stalking across the damask and dipping delicately into the silver dishes prepared for him. He pretended to be too busy with his dinner preparations to engage me in conversation, but I insisted.
"I must talk to you," I said. "We must decide together how to do this."
"It will not be easy," he answered with a twinkle. "Consider Joanna's view. A cat as large and as old as myself is cause enough for comment. A cat that speaks is alarming. A cat that dines at table with the household is shocking. And a cat whom you must introduce as your—"
"Stop it!" I cried. "Joanna must know the truth. You must help me reveal it to her."
"Then you will not heed my advice?"
"In all things but this. Our marriage can never be happy unless she accepts you for what you are."
"And if there is no marriage?"
I would not admit to this possibility. Joanna was mine; nothing could alter that. The look of pain and bewilderment in my eyes must have been evident to my father, for he touched my arm gently with his paw and said:
"I will help you, Etienne. You must give me your trust."
"Then come to dinner with Joanna and explain nothing. Wait for me to appear."
I grasped his paw and raised it to my lips. "Thank you, father!"
He turned to Francois, and snapped: "You have my instructions?"
"Yes, sir," the servant replied.
"Then all is ready. I shall return to my room now, Etienne. You may bring your fiancee to dine."
I hastened up the stairway, and found Joanna ready, strikingly beautiful in shimmering white satin. Together, we descended the grand staircase and entered the room.
Her eyes shone at the magnificence of the service set upon the table, at the soldiery array of fine wines, some of them already poured into their proper glasses for my father's enjoyment: Haut Medoc, from St. Estephe, authentic Chablis, Epernay Champagne, and an American import from the Napa Valley of which he was fond. I waited expectantly for his appearance as we sipped our aperitif, while Joanna chatted about innocuous matters, with no idea of the tormented state I was in.
At eight o'clock, my father had not yet made his appearance, and I grew ever more distraught as Francois signalled for the serving of the bouillon au madere. Had he changed his mind? Would I be left to explain my status without his help? I hadn't realized until this moment how difficult a task I had allotted for myself, and the fear of losing Joanna was terrible within me. The soup was flat and tasteless on my tongue, and the misery in my manner was too apparent for Joanna to miss.
"What is it, Etienne?" she said. "You've been so morose all day. Can't you tell me what's wrong?"
"No, it's nothing. It's just—" I let the impulse take possession of my speech. "Joanna, there's something I should tell you. About my mother, and my father—"
"Ahem," Francois said.
He turned to the doorway, and our glances followed his.
"Oh, Etienne!" Joanna cried, in a voice ringing with delight.
It was my father, the cat, watching us with his gray, gold-flecked eyes. He approached the dining table, regarding Joanna with timidity and caution.
"It's the cat in the painting!" Joanna said. "You didn't tell me he was here, Etienne. He's beautiful!"
"Joanna, this is—"
"Dauphin! I would have known him anywhere. Here, Dauphin! Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!"
Slowly, my father approached her outstretched hand, and allowed her to scratch the thick fur on the back of his neck.
"Aren't you the pretty little pussy! Aren't you the sweetest little thing!"
She lifted my father by the haunches, and held him in her lap, stroking his fur and cooing the silly little words that women address to their pets. The sight pained and confused me, and I sought to find an opening word that would allow me to explain, yet hoping all the time that my father would himself provide the answer.
Then my father spoke.
"Meow," he said.
"Are you hungry?" Joanna asked solicitously. "Is the little pussy hungry?"
"Meow," my father said, and I believed my heart broke then and there. He leaped from her lap and padded across the room. I watched him through blurred eyes as he followed Francois to the corner, where the servant had placed a shallow bowl of milk. He lapped at it eagerly, until the last white drop was gone. Then he yawned and stretched, and trotted back to the doorway, with one fleeting glance in my direction that spoke articulately of what I must do next.
"What a wonderful animal," Joanna said.
"Yes," I answered. "He was my mother's favorite."
This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe December 1957. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note.