Mrs Ainsworth was a plumpish, pleasant-faced woman in her 40s and the kind of client veterinary surgeons dream of: well-off, generous, and the owner of three cosseted Basset Hounds. It only needed the habitually mournful expressions of one of the dogs to deepen a little and I was round there post-haste.
One autumn morning, one of the Bassets had raised its paw and scratched its ear a couple of times and that was enough to send its mistress scurrying to the phone in great alarm.
As I inspected the Basset, I noticed a furry black creature sitting before Mrs Ainsworth’s fire. ‘I didn’t know you had a cat,’ I said.
She smiled. ‘We haven’t. This is Debbie. At least that’s what we call her. She’s a stray. Comes here two or three times a week and we give her some food.
Debbie, a stray cat from nobody-knows where, was an occasional visitor to Mrs Ainsworth’s house – until one day she arrived with a kitten in her mouth, and took her last breaths
‘She’s a timid little thing. Just creeps in, has some food then flits away. There’s something so appealing about her but she doesn’t seem to want to let anybody into her life.
‘Every now and again she slips through here into the lounge and sits by the fire for a few minutes. It’s as though she’s giving herself a treat.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘I see what you mean.’
There was no doubt something unusual in the attitude of the little animal. She was sitting bolt upright on the thick rug which lay before the fireplace in which the coals glowed.
She made no effort to curl up or wash herself or do anything other than gaze quietly ahead.
But the dusty black of her coat, the half-wild scrawny look of her, gave me a clue. This was clearly a special event in her life, a rare and wonderful thing; she was lapping up a comfort undreamed of in her daily existence.
As I watched she turned, crept soundlessly from the room and was gone.
‘That’s always the way with Debbie,’ Mrs Ainsworth laughed. ‘She never stays more than ten minutes or so, then she’s off.’
Since my visits to the Ainsworth home were frequent, I had ample opportunity to look out for the little cat which had intrigued me. On one occasion I spotted her nibbling daintily from a saucer at the kitchen door.
As I watched, she turned and almost floated on light footsteps into the hall, then through into the lounge where the three Bassets were already in residence, draped snoring on the fireside rug.
They seemed to be used to Debbie because two of them sniffed her in a bored manner and the third merely cocked a sleepy eye at her before flopping back on the rich pile. Debbie sat among them in her usual posture; upright, intent, gazing absorbedly into the glowing coals. This time I tried to make friends with her.
I approached her carefully but she leaned away as I stretched out my hand. However, by patient wheedling and soft talk I managed to touch her and gently stroked her cheek with one finger. There was a moment when she responded by putting her head on one side and rubbing back against my hand, but soon she was ready to leave.
Once outside the house she darted quickly along the road, then through a gap in a hedge, and the last I saw was the little black figure flitting over the rain-swept grass of a field. ‘I wonder where she goes,’ I murmured half to myself. Mrs Ainsworth appeared at my elbow. ‘That’s something we’ve never been able to find out.’
On Christmas morning some three months later, Mrs Ainsworth came on the phone. She was apologetic: ‘Mr Herriot, I’m so sorry to bother you today of all days. I should think you want a rest at Christmas like anybody else.’
But her natural politeness could not hide the distress in her voice.
‘Please don’t worry about that,’ I said. ‘Which one is it this time?’
‘It’s not one of the dogs. It’s . . . Debbie . . . there’s something wrong. Please come quickly.’
Mrs Ainsworth’s home was lavishly decorated with tinsel and holly, rows of drinks stood on the sideboard and the rich aroma of turkey and sage and onion stuffing wafted from the kitchen. But her eyes were full of pain as she led me through to the lounge. There, in front of the fire, lay Debbie, stretched quite motionless on her side. Huddled close to her lay a tiny black kitten.
I looked down in bewilderment. ‘What’s happened here?’ ‘It’s the strangest thing,’ Mrs Ainsworth replied. ‘I hadn’t seen her for several weeks when she came in about two hours ago — sort of staggered into the kitchen, and she was carrying the kitten in her mouth.
Buster the kitten was quickly adopted by Mrs Ainsworth – a sleek handsome cat with a boisterous nature who turned out to be the best Christmas present of all
‘She took it through to the lounge and laid it on the rug, and at first I was amused. But I could see all was not well because she lay down like this and she hasn’t moved.’
I knelt on the rug and passed my hand over Debbie’s neck and ribs. She was thinner than ever, her fur dirty and mud-caked.
She did not resist as I gently opened her mouth. The tongue and mucous membranes were abnormally pale and the lips ice-cold against my fingers.
When I pulled down her eyelid and saw the dead white conjunctiva a knell sounded in my mind.
I palpated the abdomen with a grim certainty as to what I would find and there was no surprise, only a dull sadness as my fingers closed around a hard lobulated mass deep among the viscera. Massive lymphosarcoma. Terminal and hopeless.
I put my stethoscope on her heart and listened to the increasingly faint, rapid beat, then I straightened up and sat on the rug looking sightlessly into the fireplace, feeling the warmth of the flames on my face. Mrs Ainsworth’s voice seemed to come from afar. ‘Is she ill, Mr Herriot?’
I hesitated. ‘Yes . . . yes, I’m afraid so. She has a malignant growth.’ I stood up. ‘There’s absolutely nothing I can do. I’m sorry.’
‘Oh!’ Her hand went to her mouth and she looked at me wide-eyed. When at last she spoke, her voice trembled. ‘Well, you must put her to sleep immediately. It’s the only thing to do. We can’t let her suffer.’
‘Mrs Ainsworth,’ I said. ‘There’s no need. 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.
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.’ 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 often received from the hospitable farmers.
I was on my way home, bathed in a rosy glow. I had consumed several generous whiskies 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! 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, dropping it at her feet and waiting 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.’
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 said, holding Buster close to her face and laughing as the cat purred and arched himself ecstatically against her cheek.
‘The best Christmas present I ever had.’
n Taken from All Things Wise And Wonderful by James Herriot, published by Pan Macmillan at £9.99. © James Herriot. To order a copy for £8.49 (offer valid to 12/1/21), go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.