Authors: James Herriot
She’s dying now—in a coma—far beyond suffering.” She turned quickly away from me and was very still as she fought with her emotions. Then she gave up the struggle and dropped on her knees beside Debbie. “Oh, poor little thing!” she sobbed and stroked the cat’s head again and again as the tears fell unchecked on the matted fur. “What she must have come through. I feel I ought to have done more for her.” For a few moments I was silent, feeling her sorrow, so discordant among the bright seasonal colours of this festive room.
Then I spoke gently. “Nobody could have done more than you,” I said.
“Nobody could have been kinder.” “But I’d have kept her here—in comfort. It must have been terrible out there in the cold when she was so desperately ill—I daren’t think about it. And having kittens, too—I … I wonder how many she did have?” I shrugged. “I don’t suppose we’ll ever know. Maybe just this one. It happens sometimes.
And she brought it to you, didn’t she?” “Yes … that’s right …
she did … she did.” Mrs. Ainsworth reached out and lifted the bedraggled black morsel. She smoothed her finger along the muddy fur and the tiny mouth opened in a soundless miaow. “Isn’t it strange?
She was dying and she brought her kitten here. And on Christmas Day.
.” I bent and put my hand on Debbie’s heart. There was no beat. I looked up. “I’m afraid she’s gone.” I lifted the small body, almost feather light, wrapped it in the sheet which had been spread on the rug and took it out to the car. When I came back Mrs. Ainsworth was still stroking the kitten. The tears had dried on her cheeks and she was bright-eyed as she looked at me. “I’ve never had a cat before,”
she said. I smiled. “Well, it looks as though you’ve got one now.”
And she certainly had. That kitten grew rapidly into a sleek handsome cat with a boisterous nature which earned him the name of Buster. In every way he was the opposite to his timid little mother.
Not for him the privations of the secret outdoor life; he stalked the rich carpets of the Ainsworth home like a king and the ornate collar he always wore added something more to his presence. On my visits I watched his development with delight but the occasion which stays in my mind was the following Christmas Day, a year from his arrival. I was out on my rounds as usual. I can’t remember when I haven’t had to work on Christmas Day because the animals have never got round to recognising it as a holiday; but with the passage of the years the vague resentment I used to feel has been replaced by philosophical acceptance. After all, as I tramped around the hillside barns in the frosty air I was working up a better appetite for my turkey than all the millions lying in bed or slumped by the fire; and this was aided by the innumerable aperitifs I received from the hospitable farmers. I was on my way home, bathed in a rosy glow. I had consumed several whiskies—the kind the inexpert Yorkshiremen pour as though it was ginger ale—and I had finished with a glass of old Mrs. Earnshaw’s rhubarb wine which had seared its way straight to my toenails. I heard the cry as I was passing Mrs. Ainsworth’s house. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Herriot!” She was letting a visitor out of the front door and she waved to me gaily.
“Come in and have a drink to warm you up.” I didn’t need warming up but I pulled in to the kerb without hesitation. In the house there was all the festive cheer of last year and the same glorious whiff of sage and onion which set my gastric juices surging. But there was not the sorrow; there was Buster. He was darting up to each of the dogs in turn, ears pricked, eyes blazing with devilment, dabbing a paw at them, then streaking away. Mrs. Ainsworth laughed. “You know, he plagues the life out of them. Gives them no peace.” She was right.
To the bassets, Buster’s arrival was rather like the intrusion of an irreverent outsider into an exclusive London club. For a long time they had led a life of measured grace; regular sedate walks with their mistress, superb food in ample quantities and long snoring sessions on the rugs and armchairs. Their days followed one upon another in unruffled calm. And then came Buster. He was dancing up to the youngest dog again, sideways this time, head on one side, goading him. When he started boxing with both paws it was too much even for the basset. He dropped his dignity and rolled over with the cat in a brief wrestling match. “I want to show you something,” Mrs.
Ainsworth lifted a hard rubber ball from the sideboard and went out to the garden, followed by Buster. She threw the ball across the lawn and the cat bounded after it over the frosted grass, the muscles rippling under the black sheen of his coat. He seized the ball in his teeth, brought it back to his mistress, dropped it at her feet and waited expectantly. She threw it and he brought it back again. I gasped incredulously. A feline retriever! The bassets looked on disdainfully. Nothing would ever have induced them to chase a ball, but Buster did it again and again as though he would never tire of it. Mrs. Ainsworth turned to me. “Have you ever seen anything like that?” “No,” I replied. “I never have. He is a most remarkable cat.” She snatched Buster from his play and we went back into the house where she held him close to her face, laughing as the big cat purred and arched himself ecstatically against her cheek.
Looking at him, a picture of health and contentment, my mind went back to his mother. Was it too much to think that that dying little creature with the last of her strength had carried her kitten to the only haven of comfort and warmth she had ever known in the hope that it would be cared for there? Maybe it was. But it seemed I wasn’t the only one with such fancies. Mrs. Ainsworth turned to me and though she was smiling her eyes were wistful. “Debbie would be pleased,” she said. I nodded. “Yes, she would. … It was just a year ago today she brought him, wasn’t it?” “That’s right.” She hugged Buster to her again. “The best Christmas present I ever had.”