Maria and the Bellasis Family 8
I was so pleased that Florence wanted to see me again. I was rather upset by her quick dismissal of me last time, but I understood when I saw Mr. Disraeli sitting waiting in her parlour.
I was met at the door by the same servant who said Miss Nightingale was eagerly awaiting my arrival. She took my coat and hat and ushered me up the stairs.
To my surprise, Florence’s room was full of cats. “Hello again, Miss Bowring,” she said, “I do hope you like the company of cats. I have many of them, and once had 17 at the same time, but now it is down to a more reasonable number of 10.”
She signalled me to take the lovely soft chair near her bed.
“I don’t mind them, but I can’t say I have a fondness for them either. We never had any pets.”
I couldn’t help but notice the difference in Florence. Last time I had visited she had been rather strained but now she was fully relaxed. Her beautiful eyes were shining and I noticed how very pretty she is.
“When I lived in Derbyshire we had dogs, pigs, a donkey, a pony, some birds, and very many cats. Then when I went to Scutari we had a dreadful problem with rats, and one of the men gave me a lovely Persian cat, which did the job for us, and we were all very grateful. I tried to bring him home with me, but he died on the ship. But I have always had Persians since then. I always say that cats possess more sympathy and feeling than human beings.”
“Surely not,” I said.
“In fact it was our sheepdog Cap who I attempted to nurse when he was injured who started me on my road to nursing. I have a passion for almost any kind of creature. When I found an owl which had been injured and was being teased by mean boys, I took him home and nursed him to health and then carried him with me in my pocket.”
“I wouldn’t have been so brave. I would be afraid he would bite me, and certainly would make a mess in my pocket.”
“In fact, I am reminded now that in Scutari it was one of your Sisters of Mercy friends who I was treating for Crimean Fever. She was sick, perfectly deaf, the only occupant with us was the rat sitting on a rafter over the sick nun’s head scrambling about. I came in one night with a broomstick in my free hand, and I squashed a whole nest of baby rats. I was exhausted, But I felt I had played an important part in the war against the rats. Next day we were presented with the small yellow cat.”
“What exactly is Crimean Fever.?”
“It is a fever caused by a tick- bourne virus which proliferated in the Crimea. The onset is sudden, with initial signs and symptoms including headache, high fever, back pain, joint pain, stomach pain, and vomiting. Red eyes, a flushed face, a red throat, and red spots on the palate are common. Symptoms may also include jaundice, and in severe cases, changes in mood and sensory perception.
“As the illness progresses, large areas of severe bruising, severe nosebleeds, and uncontrolled bleeding at injection sites can be seen, beginning on about the fourth day of illness and lasting for about two weeks. Fatality rates are quite high. I myself suffered from it when I returned, and still suffer from the after effects of it.”
“When did you start collecting such large numbers of cats?”
“After the war I took up residence at the Burling Hotel, and my room was known as the ‘little war office’. It was during that time that my great friends, the Mohls, presented me with some Persian cats as they were going abroad and couldn’t take them along. These purebreds, with their elegant long hair, were highly sought after. Some of them were yellow and striped, almost like tigers and very wild. It was not uncommon for six of these stripped yellow cats at a time to wander about my room at will. I often worked with a cat tied in a knot around my neck. Others knocked over my vases of flowers and navigated around piles of Blue Books, architectural drawings of hospital plans, and my Indian reports. They tended to upset my ink and made unseemly blurs on my papers.”
“They sound an awful nuisance to me.”
“When I was not working I played with my family of cats. I tried to teach one of my kittens to wash itself. I didn’t enjoy visitors except for infants and small children. One of these children put out its hand with a kind of gracious dignity and caressed them and they responded in a humble, grateful way, quite cowed by infant majesty.”
“Surely it was a great effort to care for all of them.”
“Although I took meticulous care of my cats, they are a constant source of worry and labor for my domestic staff. They have finicky appetites and eat specially prepared food on china plates served in my room. Their litter boxes are filled with weekly deliveries of imported sand and sod. At one point, a rumor was circulated that I kept 17 cats with a nurse to attend each one and that they were periodically sent to the country for a change of air.”
“Are they all related - children of each other copulating together?”
“No, many of them are mongrels. I take no end of pains to marry them well. But they won’t have the husbands I choose, while they take up with low Toms.
“When my cats have kittens, I give them away to carefully chosen homes. I remember the trouble I had with the adoption of Mr. White, a very special angora tomcat. The new owner complained, so I sent him this list in reply.” She provided me with a copy of her letter.
1. Mr. White has never made dirt in his life: but has been brought up to go to a pan, with sand in it. You must have patience with him, please till he has been taught to go out-of-doors for his wants.
2. He has always been shut up at night: (in a large pantry :) to prevent his being lost. And I believe he ought to always be shut up at night: for this reason, for fear he should run away & try to get back to me.
3. He has always been used to having his meals by himself like a gentleman on a plate put upon a ‘tablecloth’ (an old newspaper) spread on the floor.
4. He is not greedy: has never stolen anything: & never drags his bones off his newspaper. But I am sorry to say he always lived well: he has bones, & milk, in the morning: after 7 o’clock dinner he has any remains of fish not fish bones or chicken – or game bones: which he eats like a gentleman off a plate in my room, as I have described: & never asks for more than a little broken meat & milk, when he is shut up at night & a large jar of fresh water (which he can’t upset) always on the floor for him.
5. He is the most affectionate and intelligent cat I have ever had & when his own little sister cat died, he refused food and almost broke his heart. He washes and dresses two little kits we have here himself. I never saw a Tom-cat do that before. He is now 10 months old.”
“It must have been hard for you to let your cats go.”
“Sometimes they were stolen and also tended to get lost. One day, I was on a train returning from a visit to her sister with Quiz, one of my Persian kittens. She jumped from my basket out of the window onto the track and fled out of sight. I summoned all the station masters in England to help. One of them was sent back along the track to search for the cat. She was found the next morning at a parcels office and returned to me. Although injured by a leap from the train, Quiz was still alive and beginning to kick and sing.”
“How long have you been in this house?”
“Since 1865 - so that is 15 years. I have never left my bedroom, but you can see what a delightful view I have of the luxuriant Dochester flower gardens. I eat alone and sleep alone, except for the cats, which lie on my pillow. When I am in pain and sad, they give me solace and comfort me.”
Changing the subject, she abruptly asked me, “Did you know Charles Dickens?”
“My father was great friends with him, and I often saw him when he came to our house to visit. And of course, I read his stories on the All Year Round series.”
“He said, ‘What greater gift than the love of a cat?” His own white cat was initially named William, after Shakespeare; however, he renamed the cat Williamina when she gave birth to kittens! One of the kittens became known as the master’s cat and would sit with Dickens while he wrote by candlelight for hours on end.
“To get his attention, this kitty would mischievously put out the candle with his paw! In 1862, Dickens was distraught when his beloved cat died. As a lasting memento, he arranged for his pet’s paw to be stuffed and mounted on a specially engraved ivory letter opener.”
“I can see how important the cats are to you, but personally I wouldn’t have one. And I don’t think anyone in our house has one either."
“And can you say you have no mice?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Ask your cook, and I think you will find that you are not without them, as hardly any houses in London are. But we can firmly say that we have no mice or rats in our house.”
“You said you thought we had a mutual friend,” I said, “and wanted me to share our stories about her. But I cannot think for a moment to whom you were referring. I had few friends over the years, and was mostly with my family for social occasions.”
“I must admit that I sort of put that in your letter to give you a reason for coming back. I was very rude to you last time, more of less pushing you out of the door well before the allotted hour was up. You must have been quite hurt.”
“I was surprised, but then when I walked up the door to your parlour was open and I glimpsed Mr. Disraeli, so I understood that you would be seeing him next and perhaps were anxious about it.”
“Oh, I didn’t realise that you saw him. He was the reason I was so abrupt with you. He is as you know a Conservative, and he and I have had words many times over the policies that made Queen Victoria Empress of India. And I was expecting more disagreements during the visit. But even so, I was less than gracious to you, and I hope you will accept my sincere apology.”
“Yes, of course, I understand. With the upcoming elections soon, you no doubt had many things to talk about.”
“I am very publicly promoting Mr Gladsone, whom you know is a liberal, as I am. His policy is to cut back on foreign policy and do it in moderation with scaling back. But I abhor the Laissez Faire liberal policy , which means let each country take care of its own, despite whether they are suffering badly from starvation or pestilence. But I must tell you, Miss Bowring , that I have cats named Mr. Disraeli and Mr. Gladstone, and I adore them both.”
“You will haven’t said who you think our mutual friend is.” I put in.
“Mary Carpenter. I heard that you went to her funeral a few years ago, and assumed from that that she must have been your friend. They said there were an enormous number of mourners.”
“She was an acquaintance certainly and we corresponded a great deal when I was setting up the Ragged Schools in Exeter. She more or less started the system, as you no doubt know. How do you know her?”
“She and I shared many speaking platforms together as we had similar interests in ending slavery, women’s rights, and things like free markets, free trade, and an improved welfare state.”
“Those were my father’s concerns as well. And those of his second wife, Deborah who in fact was a much better friend of Mary. It was to accompany her that I went to the funeral. We all had a background in the Unitarian religion, as I know you did too. But Deborah and she knew each other in Bristol, and worked together on many projects.”
“She was a wonderful woman, and we were both presented to Queen Victoria on the same occasion. She described her recent trip to India and her observations. I also had a great interest in India, although I was unable to travel there myself. ”
“Was she your best friend, then?” I asked.
“No, my best friend, who shares my love of cats is Mary Clarke Mohl but I call her Clarkey.. She got me started on my nursing career and supported me through all my activities. She is nearly 90, but is still very active, although she lost her husband a few years ago.. And also I was very friendly with Harriet Martineau. Did you come across her at all?”
“Oh. She certainly couldn’t count as a friend of our family. She was very unkind and rude about my father, over and over again. She called him a cheat, a liar, and all sorts of things. I know he wasn’t perfect, but he did what he felt was the best he could and that was an awful lot of good,”
“I can see you are very defensive of him. Did you approve of his China policy then?”
“No, my brothers and sisters and I didn’t agree with him, and can’t defend his action at the time, but before and after that one incident, he did so much good. Hong Kong is a much better place for his having been there. He did all sorts of reforms, to the electorate, for the rights of the Chinese people, and I could go on and on.”
“And did you tell him not to start the war?”
“Of course not. It was not my place. But he gave the Chinese the right to vote and better schooling and all sorts of valuable things.”
“And this excuses the 15,000 or more Chinese and European people who died because of his policy?”
“That isn’t fair.”
“I don’t want this to end up with us having a disagreement, but I will say that Harriet was my very important support when I left Scoutari. She helped me write my book about nursing, and helped me in all sorts of ways. She was a wonderful writer. “
“I wouldn’t know as I don’t go near any of her writing. Perhaps we would be better to go back to discussing cats again. I heard Mr. Bismarck is your favourite. Which one is he? I presume he was named after the German Chancellor.”
She pointed to one and asked me to bring it up to her lap. I complied somewhat gingerly as I hadn’t handled a cat before.
“He is one of my favourites although I tried very hard to find him another home. He is particularly fond of rice pudding.
"He is a handsome powerful thoroughbred Persian and is about 4 years old now.”
The cat in question seemed very happy with her attention. He was black, brown and yellow with a speck of white here and there.
“He will follow one like a dog. I only wish I could take him for walks but I need to leave that to my staff.”
I was aware that our hour had in fact more or less finished, so I gathered myself up and told her that I had enjoyed our chat and hoped she would be willing to see me again.
“Most certainly,” she said. “I look forward to it.”