THE HOUSE IN THE WOODS
Heliodora went and lived in a garden house amidst the woods, not far from Hanover, where she had, at last, secured herself a job.
It was a lovely little house; two rooms and a verandah. Through the open windows came, in the spring, the fragrance of lilacs and of fir trees. The place was silent, save for occasional children’s laughter along the narrow grassy path that led from the main road to other garden houses further within the thicket. There were no radios and no gramophones within audible distance, — and no loud-speaking people either. And therefore Heliodora was happy; outside her working hours, she could look into her own soul; think, and write. Sometimes, on Sundays, she would hear a friendly voice calling her by her name, and would rush to the garden gate. And there would stand Herr and Frau S. or one of their daughters, come to ask her to spend the late afternoon with them, in the good old atmosphere she loved — the one she had feared she would never again find in Germany, until . . . she had come to live there and seen for herself. Now and then, she thought of Black Velvet, and felt sad she had not heard of this garden house earlier, and been able to bring him with her, straightaway. But she had good news of him, and realised how thoroughly he had become accustomed to his second home, in France. She did not want to go and uproot him once more. Nor did she think of taking another cat, for she knew she would one day have to undertake a long journey — for there were things that one could not do, in post-war Europe, especially in post-war Germany, and that she felt it her duty to do. She contented herself with placing a bowl of milk and some fish upon her window sill, for any wandering cats that might care to come at night. And she soon was glad to see that the food was no longer there in the morning.
And thus days passed, filled partly with her professional work — teaching languages, to earn her living, and her real work: work for the holy Cause, and (whenever she could) for beautiful four-legged creatures.
* * *
One morning, as she was closing the door of her room — and making haste, so as not to miss the bus and have to wait half an hour for the next one — Heliodora saw a woman standing before the garden gate, with a cat in her arms.
She hurriedly walked towards her, feeling somewhat anxious (what could be the matter with that cat?).
“I am sorry to disturb you,” said the woman — whom Heliodora had perhaps seen before, but never yet spoken to; — “I was wondering whether you could not find a home for this cat. It is used to being loved and well cared for, and wants a really good home. Its mistress, who lives in that two-storied house round the corner, would be glad to keep it, but her husband will have it no longer because it went and did its business . . . in his shoes! He threatens to have it destroyed if he sees it in the house again.” And she handed the cat over to Heliodora through the bars of the gate.
It was a more-than-half-grown, lovely black and white tom-cat, much like poor Long-whiskers had once been. As soon as he was in Heliodora’s arms, he felt himself absolutely secure: he knew no harm could ever happen to him as long as he lay there. And he started a long purr as she stroked his glossy coat, and kissed him on the head, between his short, velvety ears.
“Poor puss!” whispered the Friend of Felines, — the one the starving cats of India used to call “the Two-legged goddess” — “I’ll keep you, since nobody wants you; since your own mistress hasn’t the guts to stick up for you!” And turning to the woman who had brought the cat:
“How utterly senseless!” said she. “Surely they had forgotten to change his sawdust. Cats hate using a dirty pan. Fancy threatening to get rid of such a beautiful creature for that!” And she added, referring to the cat’s former mistress:
“I would have taken the cat with me and left that fellow straightaway, and for good, after such a threat!” She was shivering with indignation.
“Frau P. has three young children,” replied the woman.
“You are right: that makes things more difficult,” admitted Heliodora. “Anyhow, I thank you for coming to me: I’ll keep the cat.”
“Frail P. said you would: that is why I came. Mind you: it is not that her husband is so bad as all that; maybe, he would have cooled down and forgotten all about the incident. But one never knows. Frau P. was afraid. Now
she will feel released. Oh dear, how released she will feel!”
Heliodora wanted to take leave of the woman. She would miss the next bus as she had already missed the first. Yet, something prompted her to make an enquiry. “Tell me,” said she,” by the way: what work does Frau P.’s husband do?”
“What work he does? . . . But he does not work. Don’t you know? . . .”
“No, I don’t. What do they live on, then, if he does not work?”
The neighbour put her face against the railing and whispered: “Don’t you know? He had done something in the Hitler days and landed himself in a concentration camp for several years; so now he has a government pension as a “victim of Nazi tyranny,” and never was so well off . . . !”
Heliodora repressed an impulse to say something bitter and perhaps rash. She cast down her eyes and continued stroking the cat, so that the woman might not notice the expression upon her face. She put her a last question, however:
“And you really don’t know what he had done?” asked she. “Something political, surely, for him to be looked upon, today, as that which you said . . .”
“Not necessarily. Anyone who has been interned in a camp is a ‘victim of Nazi tyranny’, nowadays. In fact, in his case, it was not something ‘political’ if I remember well. It was, I believe, some forgery. Of course, he was also against the régime, but that had nothing to do with his trial whatsoever.”
And she quickly put in, as though to “explain” the whole shadowy business to herself and to whomever cared to accept the explanation:
“He is half Czech, anyhow.”
Heliodora bade her goodbye and went back to her house to give the cat some milk (she had nothing else) and shut him in until she would return, in the evening. She then ran to catch her bus.
* * *
When she came back, the cat was sitting behind the windowpane, waiting for her. He rubbed himself against her legs, purring, as she came in, — and purred louder still when he smelt the fish she had brought for him.
She lit the fire and cooked the food, and he ate greedily. Then, as she settled down to her writing work, he jumped
upon the table among her papers, rubbed his beautiful head against her cheek and said: “Miao! — I want you to caress me. I know you love us felines: I knew it at your first touch, by the way you held me. Miao! Now I want to lie in your lap while you stroke my fur. See how lovely I am! Miao! Your writing can wait . . .”
Heliodora might not have understood the cat-speech. But she understood the gestures: the movement of the glossy head that pushed itself against her cheek, and purred so invitingly. She pulled her chair backwards, so as to leave enough space for the cat to step down from the table into her lap, and softly said: “Come, my silky tiger! Come, my purring velvet!”
How many times had she not uttered those words, — or similar ones — ever since the far-gone day she had, for the first time, held a fluffy black kitten in her arms, when she was two or perhaps less than two, and carried it home, while her mother had kept on telling her: “Be very careful not to hurt him! Hold him gently!” How many times had she not let her cheek rest upon a cat’s supple body, and enjoyed the feeling of the thick, warm coat, and the regular vibration of the purr, against her skin!
There had been times when she had not been able to keep a cat; times during which her own life had been too unstable, too precarious for her to dare take charge of any creature for the duration of its existence. Such periods that had sometimes extended over years, appeared to her as particularly gloomy, whichever might have been their pleasant features in other respects. In fact, she dreaded their return. And she took to wondering what she would do with this cat of hers a year or so later, when she would have to travel, perhaps a long distance, to find someone willing to print her writings. But the cat had nestled in her lap and was softly purring himself to sleep — absolutely unaware of her problems. She stroked the electric fur, as thick and glossy as plush, and a louder purr was the answer to her touch.
She worked at her writing table, every evening, as before, while the cat slept. Every time she would let her hand rest upon him, the same purr arose out of the living furry cushion. Once or twice the “cushion” would move turn its head right upside down, and surround it with a large velvet paw — or with two large velvet paws, quaintly crossed in a gesture familiar to all felines. Heliodora admired the creature’s confidence. “He is accustomed to be loved and knows I shall love him, too,” thought she. “Poor, beautiful cat! How could anyone not love him? In fact, all creatures have that same confidence in man’s
“Poor, beautiful cat! How could anyone not love him?” (p.88)
kindness until they learn, through bitter — sometimes atrocious — experience, what a treacherous beast the two-legged mammal often is.” Suddenly, in a flash, she recalled the brown dog she had seen in France, years and years before, tied with a chain to the handle of a door in a room of the Science Section of the Lyons University, waiting to be handed over to some vivisector. She recalled the friendly expression in that dog’s face; the way he had wagged his tail and tried to leap towards her. He, too, had had confidence in man . . . until torture had actually begun at the monster’s hands. She recalled her own powerless indignation; her curse on all men whose hearts the sufferings of dumb beasts do not move: “A so-called civilisation that takes experiments upon animals as a matter of course deserves to be wiped out. May I see this one blown to pieces within my lifetime!” She recalled the fact that vivisection had been abolished at Adolf Hitler’s orders, and pictured herself the German army, the victorious army of glorious ’40 marching towards her native town, and the horrors that had all her life filled her with hatred for man ceasing at the command of those forerunners of a higher, better humanity — of the only humanity that she could respect. And tears came to her eyes at the idea that those builders of the world of her dreams had been defeated (and the materialisation of her dreams postponed) through the power of Jewish money.
The cat, who was beginning to feel too hot in her lap, got up, stretched himself, jumped upon the table and lay himself down flat in the midst of Heliodora’s papers. She had stopped writing. She stroked him without interrupting the course of her reflections. His silky coat was that of every beast, his loving eyes, the eyes of all life, fixed upon man: ready, at every new generation, to forget the past in the expectation of a new Golden Age — a world in which man no longer would be “the enemy”: the senseless exploiter, the killer, the torturer of all living beings. At the further side of the table, against the wall, was a portrait of Adolf Hitler. And Heliodora’s gaze went from the purring feline, lazily stretched upon her manuscript, to the stern and tragic Face of him whom every word of her writing justified and exalted. “O, my hallowed Leader,” thought she, “many, so many even among the best of my brothers in faith don’t know — could not understand — the secret of my allegiance to Thee and to the German Reich. But you would have understood, had I been able to approach you; I am sure you would have . . . I hail in you, my Leader, the Avenger of Creatures: the One who treated hated man as he treats them; the Chosen One of
divine retribution, Sword of Justice, Whom Life had been awaiting millions and millions of years! Of all the nations of the world that condone cruelty to dumb beasts “in the interest of man,” every one is as bad as the other, and there is not one of them that I should not gladly betray and destroy, if I could. But, oh my sacred Third German Reich, for you whose laws put a full stop to the agony of vivisected beasts, and for you alone, — for your resurrection, now that the evil Forces have won for the time being, — I live, and should be glad to die. May I see your armies of liberation again overrun the world! I never did care, and still don’t care, how your enemies were treated. They had never raised their voices in favour of the dumb creatures tortured in the name of criminal curiosity, gluttony or sport. Why should I raise my voice in their favour? Nothing bad enough could happen to them, since they stood in your way . . .”
* * *
It was late when Heliodora retired. The cat followed her into the neat little room and jumped upon the bed, quite sure she would not turn him off.
The fire had gone out. It was cold. The woman stroked the cat that had curled up in the depth of the eiderdown — just as Black Velvet once used to do. But soon she lifted the blankets for him to be able to get inside, if he cared to. And she called him as she did so: “Come, my puss! Come, my dark tiger! . . .” And he understood the inviting voice and stepped in, and lay down against her, purring as she continued to stroke him. He finally went to sleep, his round, glossy head resting upon her shoulder, and one paw stretched out upon the pillow.
Days passed — and weeks. Heliodora and her cat — which she had started calling “Miu,” — were happy. Miu had forgotten his former mistress. Heliodora never forgot Black Velvet. But she had excellent news of him: after a period of extensive wanderings, during which he had been busy pursuing the she-cats of all the neighbouring hamlets, he had settled down in his new home and become as sleek as ever before. His coat, in the harsh climate of the mountain village, had become extraordinarily thick. And because of that good news, Heliodora did not regret having taken him there. And she loved Miu as much as she continued to love him — as much, in fact, as she loved all cats, nay, all felines.
For thus was her nature: she did not really love individuals
of any species, — not even two-legged ones like her own self; not even those whom she admired as “samples of higher humanity.” She caressed the intangible Essence of Catdom — feline grace, mystery, and sensuous affection — in any cat, just as she sought, in every healthy, pureblooded Aryan, and especially in every better type of German or Northern European, her ever-receding ideal of human perfection: the intangible Essence of her own race. She had done so all her life. This was perhaps one of the reasons why she had always felt herself so much more at ease with animals than with most human beings: an animal expresses more faithfully the collective Self of his species than most individual men or women do that of their respective nations or races. And yet, she was deeply conscious of the fact that every individual living creature, man, woman, cat, dog, bird, fish or insect, nay, even every leaf of a tree, is unique and irreplaceable; that the divine collective Soul of the species shines in him, her or it, as it could not, cannot and never shall again be able to, in any other finite body. And that is why, without attaching herself exclusively to any, she considered every individual so earnestly: as a fleeting shimmer upon the ocean of endless Time, and still, a shimmer reflecting Eternity.
And that is how she loved Miu — Catdom at hand; the Essence of all felines, including the royal tiger, too far away and too wild to stroke — purring in her arms. Knowing she was one day to part with him, she attached herself to him as though every day had been the last one she was allowed to spend at his side in the peaceful little house in the woods.
* * *
Heliodora had a young pupil, a German, a little over twenty-two, whom she loved dearly because of his manly beauty, his wisdom, far beyond his years, his unshakable faith in their common Leader, Adolf Hitler, and all he stands for, and . . . his kindness to animals, especially his solicitude towards cats.
She had discovered him at the language school where she was a teacher. A casual remark of his had sufficed: she had grown accustomed to detecting other National Socialists, comrades of hers, amidst the dumb crowds of people all “uninterested in politics,” whom she daily came in touch with. And the young man had started coming to spend his evenings at the little house in the woods — to improve his French, and to talk freely of his grievances against post-war society in general and Dr. Adenauer’s
government in particular; of his National Socialist convictions, which were also Heliodora’s; and of his dreams, less unpractical than hers.
He lived not far away from her, in a room without heating, which was cheap, for he had to save money and finish paying as fast as he could for the tape-recorder that he had bought on credit to repeat his French lessons over and over again. He used to work in an office and take his midday meals on the spot, with the other clerks. In the evenings, he often used to go without a meal. When Heliodora came to know that, she bade him share her supper whenever she herself had anything to share.
As soon as she came home from her work, sometimes at 9 p.m., sometimes at 10, she would first light the stove and prepare the cat’s food. Miu, who was glad to see that she was back, — and glad to smell the promising fish she had brought him — kept rubbing his head against her legs and purring as loud as he could. Then the sound of a bicycle would be heard along the narrow, dark path, beyond the hedge bordering the garden, and a bell would ring before the gate. Heliodora knew it was her young comrade, for nobody else would ever come so late. And she would let him in, return his “Heil Hitler!” (they never exchanged any other salutation) and nearly always add the words of caution: “Be careful! Mind the cat does not go out!”
“Right, quite right,” would reply the young man, and close the door speedily, and go and make himself comfortable in a corner of the little room, by the window.
While she was watching the cat’s food, so that it might not boil over, he generally asked her something, or told her some news, as for instance: “Did you read the latest issue of Der Weg?” or, “I met Herr S. He gave me an invitation for our next meeting. Naturally, you are coming, aren’t you?”
Heliodora answered without taking her eyes away from her saucepan: “Of course I am! I’ll be a little late, no doubt: I shall be working at the school till nine o’clock. But I’ll come. You don’t imagine me missing a 9th of November meeting if I can possibly help it, do you?
“As for Der Weg, I have it here, if you have time to read it. Frau M. has just given it back to me. There is, in it, a heart-rending article about the fate of Mussolini’s eagles after the fall of the Fascist régime: how the anti-Fascist mob left them, — one dead, the other more dead than alive — after poking out their eyes, breaking their wings and legs, torturing them in the most abominable fashion, poor royal birds; and how a kind soul, the eagles’ former keeper, rescued the living one, blind and maimed,
and gave it shelter in his own house until it died, only the other day, — nearly ten years after the scene of torment. It seems that he had taken care of it so well that it had become able to stand once more upon a stick, and that it had grown touchingly attached to him. This article has profoundly upset me. There is nothing so cowardly, nothing so degrading as to take revenge upon a beast. The thought of those eagles, and of the human fiends who tortured them, haunts me. Not that I am in any way astonished to read of our enemies doing such things — it is not the first time I hear of similar atrocities. Yet, they always haunt me . . . One thing is at least certain: none of us could ever commit such crimes as those . . .”
“I should think not!” exclaimed the young National Socialist vehemently.
“I know I am right,” said Heliodora. “Once, at Frau W’s, I met a man who had himself taken an active part in the well-known ‘Kristall Nacht’. We had coffee together. I asked him whether he or any of his comrades had ever molested any cats, dogs or other beasts because they happened to belong to Jews. He told me quite emphatically that neither he nor any of the raiders had ever done anything of the kind, nay, that they had definite orders to spare and protect dumb creatures . . .”
Miu, the cat, after eating his fish, went and jumped into the young man’s lap and remained there, curled up, regularly purring, till the end of the evening, as he always used to. And the conversation would continue between Heliodora and her pupil, until the latter would at last leave the house, at about 12 p.m., or sometimes one o’clock in the morning. Apart from his uncompromising National Socialist orthodoxy, the woman admired in him the virtues of the everlasting German soul: patient energy, endless day to day courage, readiness to total sacrifice, warrior-like pride and — along with that — kindness; a sincere and intelligent love of animals, of trees, of all beautiful, innocent life. She set great hopes upon his youth — she, who was more than twice his age — and imagined him one day playing a leading part in the management of a grand National Socialist Europe; helping to reorganise the whole continent according to her own cherished dreams, when he would be as old as she was then, and she, dead. Gladly she would have accepted to lose a limb if, at that price, through some extraordinary magic, the young man could have become her son.
The cat loved him, too, in his own way, and for his own reasons.
There was a sweet, homely atmosphere in the little cottage,
by the lamp side, whenever the three were there together, — a restfulness that Heliodora deeply appreciated, she whose life had been a ceaseless struggle. She sometimes wondered how it was, in spite of all, possible for her to be so happy, even then, in that atrocious post-war world, nearly twelve years after the disaster of 1945; so happy, between the handsome and ascetic young idealist who shared her Hitler faith so completely, and the cat, who lay either upon his lap or in her arms, and whose voluptuous gracefulness was that of all cats, of all felines, the divine gracefulness which she valued far more than the alleged “reason” of the vast majority of two-legged mammals.
She knew that the picture of the young man — future Germany — sitting at her working table, would forever remain in her memory linked with that of the cat. And she remembered that the hero Horst Wessel had been, he too, a great cat lover. (His own aunt, Fräulein Richter, had told her so, and even shown her a photograph of him amidst a dozen cats of the neighbourhood.)
At night, once his friend had gone, Miu, the splendid black-and-white tom, so like Long-whiskers, (although he was not he), would often mew at the door, which meant “Do let me out! It is so lovely to take a stroll in the snow, under the bright moon, shining through the bare treetops . . . Don’t fear: I’ll come back all right! “
And Heliodora used to let him out. But, in spite of the bitter cold, she would leave the window partly open lest he should return during her sleep and wait and wait in the snow, without being able to come in. In the very early morning, before dawn, she would generally feel something soft and warm against her cheek, and wake up to see Miu trying to push himself into her bed. She would then slightly lift the blankets and let him in, and hold his icy-cold paws, one after the other, in her hands, to warm them, — as she once used to hold Black Velvet’s — while he lay purring at her side.
* * *
Spring returned, and the little house in the woods again became more delightful than ever. Again lilacs flowered and the old cherry tree blossomed in the garden, and the whole place was alive with birds’ twittering and joyous sunshine. Days grew longer and longer. And there was nothing so peaceful as the slow twilights.
Whenever Heliodora had not to go out, — whenever she
had no lessons at the language school — she would sit in a deckchair before her house, on the verandah, or in the garden among the lilacs, with the cat in her lap, and watch the day gradually fade into darkness. Had she followed her inclination without thinking any further, she would have bought the poor dear cottage (she could have: she had saved enough money by now) and remained there for good. The beauty and quietness of the surroundings; the comrades she had in the town nearby and all over Germany, only a few hours’ journey away; the devoted young fighter, one of the best of them all, who still used to come regularly and spend nearly every evening with her in fiery evocations of the glorious recent past and of the ever-nearing future, everything tended to retain her. The cat himself, so comfortably curled up in her lap, relaxed, absolutely sure of her love — happy — seemed to tell her, as he softly purred: ‘Surely you’ll never abandon me!”
She did not want to part from him — or from her German surroundings and from the German people, to whom she had grown more and more attached.
And yet . . . there was a call — an irresistible duty or what appeared to her as such — which mercilessly drew her away from all that. She had written a few books and she felt that time had come for her to have them printed — if only to tell her German comrades that, even though the whole world frantically growled abuse against them, someone stood, in spite of all, and would always stand on their side and on Adolf Hitler’s — on their side precisely because of Adolf Hitler and his Gospel of pan-Aryan pride, in keeping with the aristocratic spirit of Nature. But she would have to go far in order to find somebody willing to tint such a tribute to the persecuted Nation and her everlasting Leader. No one in Europe would dare to . . . So she would again have to go to the East — to tolerant India where people don’t care and will print anything. The kind old friend who had taken Black Velvet would also take Miu: she had just written, telling Heliodora that she could bring him whenever she pleased.
And so, one evening, the woman finally left . . .
The fair young man came for the last time to help her carry her things — and the cat — to the railway station, and to see her off. He closed the garden gate behind her and walked ahead. Holding the traveling bag at the bottom of which lay Miu, as comfortable as ever and half-asleep, she slowly followed the narrow, grassy path that led to the main road. And then, before leaving it forever, she looked back and gazed at the little house, now empty, — the house she loved, and where she could have remained; — at the
lilacs, the fragrance of which she deeply inhaled; at the old cherry tree whose branches seemed to her as loving arms, stretched out to her in the darkness. And tears welled up to her eyes.
In the train, she kept the bag on her lap. Miu soon put his head out and looked all round him, as though he wondered where he was. Then, as his mistress stroked him as usual, he felt himself in safety, and went to sleep, to the regular noise of the wheels that carried him nearer and nearer to his new home.