by Alexandra L. Burris

His predicament was becoming ridiculous. To think he had been relieved no longer to live as a savage – how eagerly he had anticipated his return to England all these months – and now this! This was his welcome. It was a humiliation. He, who had been decorated by the Royal Society, trapped inside a museum, contemplating the indignity of sleeping upon the floor!

He was due to give a lecture the following morning at the Society of Venerable Adventurers. Thanks to the stupidity of the clerk who had locked him in, he would not have time to go home and dress, and was beginning to contemplate the likelihood of not being able to attend at all. Every hour he was expecting his wife to come and fetch him, and every hour growing more vexed that she did not. The wretch could not be unaware of his absence. She must be deliberately ignoring his predicament.

To break a pane of glass and climb out would be the simplest thing in the world for a man of his active habits, and yet it was out of the question. He could do nothing that might embarrass or anger his patroness. His position with her was already precarious. 

A harridan who had lately taken up speaking against the wearing of feathers, Lady Braithwaite had, before the setting off of his latest expedition, offered some strongly worded remarks on his practice of collecting animal specimens. This impudence in itself, the sheer presumption of it, would have been almost unbearable.

But what was worse still, she demanded a thorough inspection of the Ajax on his return, to see that he had followed her orders. He had been obliged to descend to subterfuge, stowing his treasures in the hull of the vessel (Lady Braithwaite being too stupid and ignorant to know that such a compartment existed) which in addition to being humiliating had compromised the quality of the specimens.

He had also been obliged to tell the museum that his prize specimen from the expedition, an exceedingly rare leopardus guigna that he had meant to make his career, was left over from a previous expedition, which made it appear that they were not his first choice. They had been offended, as he had known they would. This was not to be borne.

The damned woman did not understand that without specimens, the profession of explorer was not sustainable. He depended on the partnership with the museum for the furtherance of his reputation, for contact with new patrons – and to quit the profession was unthinkable.

He must have an active occupation. He must range far from home. It was essential. To remain was intolerable. He was not a man inclined for domesticity. He had been bound, by an act of indiscretion, to a wife he barely knew. His sons had, of late, become interesting to him, an unexpected occurrence which mitigated the disappointment somewhat.

They bore the handsome features of his line and were beginning to show a strength and forthrightness that promised well. He felt a sense of pride when he looked at them. Any consolation to be found here was diminished by the knowledge that they would be the last, however.

After Lady Martin’s confinement, the physician had cautioned that it would be absolutely impossible for her to bear any further children. Sir Walter, who had been depending on at least three sons, was angered beyond description. It was impossible to love such a useless creature. She could do less for him than any dead specimen. He had made his displeasure known to her.

“Why don’t you kill me like one of your cats?” she had demanded. “I am less useful to you than they are – and they, at least, do not eat.”

He had been obliged to make her see reason with the back of his hand. Home life was unbearable, he lamented to himself again. Everything was against him.

The leopardus guigna ought to do something about that, at least. His luck may be turning at last. The deserving would get their reward. His superiority would be acknowledged at last.

To view it again ought to provide some consolation, he reflected, and quit his useless pacing of the building. At night, at least, he could remove the dark glasses that he was obliged to keep on at all times during the day, due to sun damage sustained to his retinas during his time at the Equator. With his pale eyes thus unencumbered, his view of the guigna was better. Standing before the creature, he felt a renewed satisfaction.

Specimens of the guigna been collected before, but not of the rare melanistic variety. His was a creature composed of pure night, black of fur, small and sleek. Finding it had been a boon, there was no denying it. He could publish. There would be a lecture tour, interviews in select periodicals. There might be a line or two in the Times, if he called upon the right people. One had to be judicious about using such favors, but every instinct told him that now was the right time.

In a further piece of good fortune, there had been two kits as well. He was, of course, not one to defile the beauty of nature callously and for no purpose – he had preserve for transportation, as any decent man would do. But the success of this had been diminished by the manner of their disposal. His remaining supply of cyanide had not been sufficient to dispatch with all three. 

It was vexing. He could not club the kits, for the attempt would crush their skulls beyond repair. He had been obliged instead, therefore, to turn them onto their backs and slit them up the gut. Their cries were unpleasant, and the adult cat, objecting, had inflicted a wound upon his hand with its teeth. He had dispensed with it more brutally than scientifically, which annoyed him.

Nevertheless, it had all come right in the end. Despite its unfortunate beginnings and its journey in the hall, the specimen had turned out remarkably well, better than he could have anticipated – a fine example of the taxidermist’s art. He viewed it for some moments with the pleasure of the conqueror. It looked well, in its glass case, snarling as it had in life. There were those who thought the guigna a delicate and innocent animal, soft as a housecat. He knew better. It was a creature of rage and rebellion, of wilful, wanton independence.

For some moments he did not move. He felt transfixed, recollecting the event. The wound upon his hand stung, and he felt, all at once, the impression that the creature was observing him.

A sensation of unutterable dread possessed him, which he could not reason himself out of. Resolving to banish the unpleasant feeling by vigorous exercise, as had been his habit in the past when in the grip of some undesired emotion, he resumed making a circuit of the museum.

As he walked, Sir Walter became aware of an overwhelming sensation that he was again being observed by a black cat. Darting to the nearest window, he looked out frantically. He saw nothing. This did little to lessen his unease, however, for it was night, and every shadow might have contained within it the spectre of a feline shape.

He resolved to look out the window no more, and resumed his tour of the gallery. Here were specimens from around the world, wildlife, art, relics of lesser civilizations. All seemed to him to have assumed, in the night, a sinister and frightening aspect. He had the sensation, too, of being accompanied, though he knew himself to be alone.

He walked faster, without admitting it to himself. Out of the corner of his eye he seemed to see shadows moving when they could not be. Eventually he rounded the final corner of the museum block, and was faced with the prospect of again confronting the cat.

To turn back was impossible – to do so would be to admit his fear. He must go forward. He steeled himself and strode up to it. The corridor seemed to grow longer with each step, but eventually he was before the specimen once more. Its expression, caught forever in a snarl of rage, appeared still more sinister than before.

Suddenly he grew angry.

“I would do the same again!” he cried in defiance, possessed by a dark fury, pounding upon the case. “I killed you once and if I have to do it a second time, I shall!”

Whatever he had hoped to accomplish with this proclamation, he was unsuccessful. His dread increased. The dark olive eyes bored into him. Staggering back, he ranted and raved like a possessed man, calling down curses upon the cat, upon the whole of its species, upon nature as a whole.

At length he stumbled and fell backward onto the floor. He did not move from that spot, in the gaze of the black cat, for the remainder of the night. At length, sleep or unconsciousness claimed him.


When he woke, the explorer was lying before the glass case, with a startled-looking young clerk staring down at him.

“Sir!” he said, as the explorer came round. “Allow me to apologize! I had no idea you were-”

“-Ah, was it you who locked me in the museum last night, then, Kitt?” The explorer put a hand to his eyes to ascertain that the dark glasses were still in place, then sat up.

“I fear I may have, sir,” the young man stammered, looking surprised that he had remembered his name. “I cannot think how I…”

“Not at all,” the explorer said. “You weren’t to have known I would remain there so late. The error was entirely my own. I am a damnably stupid fellow.”

“Lady Martin has come in search of you,” said the young man, gesturing behind him to where a slight, frightened-looking woman stood.

“Ah, I am glad!” said the explorer. “My dear. What an adventure this past evening has been. Is all well at home?”

She spoke rapidly, not seeming to have heard him. “I am terribly sorry, husband, for not coming to find you! I entreat you to forgive me. We retired to bed early last night. The children are not at all well. They have had splitting pains in their stomachs all evening- Til this morning we had not the smallest idea that you were not-”

“-Never mind,” the explorer said hastily, not wishing to further discompose a woman whose life was marred with such difficulties. “None of these events have been your doing.”

“Really?” The fear began to recede from her dark grey eyes, though uncertainty replaced it.

“You weren’t to have known, Lady Martin,” he said.

“Oh.” This thought seemed not to have occurred to her. “But I ought to have-”

“-Nonsense. Let us think of the matter no more. Come, my dear,” he said briskly. “You have not seen my kodkod.”

“What is a ko…?”

“-The cat,” he said, gesturing to it.

“Oh, the leopardus gui…?”

“Something like that, yes.”

“It is a pretty creature,” she said, looking at the still figure, which looked, with few alterations, much the same as it had the month before, when it was prowling the rainforests of Chile.

She could say no more, venture no disapproving remark before her husband. It was forbidden. But the explorer observed the sadness in her eyes. He felt, to his own surprise, a moment’s regret that she had been touched by these affairs. “Yes, it was. The kits were playful and remarkably affectionate.”

“Oh,” she said sadly.

“It was a wrong to kill them,” he said. “An unforgivable wrong.”

“You regret it, then?” she said in surprise.

“There is nothing for me to regret. I have only done what I must. But let us have no more gloomy remarks!” He stepped toward the case and pointed. “I am particularly proud of this specimen, my dear. The large one.”

“Oh?” said Lady Martin.

“Do you see what is particularly unusual about it, aside from the dark fur?”

She looked unsettled. “No, my dear.”

“No kodkod has ever been seen with blue eyes before,” the explorer said triumphantly. “It is unique in the world, the only one of its kind. I can say that with certainty.”

“How remarkable!” she said, looking at it with fascination and a kind of horror she could not explain. This was wrong. Sir Walter ought to have left well enough alone, she thought.

The explorer smiled. “Indeed.” What a terrible fate, he thought, to be trapped in a glass case forever.

He quit the museum shortly afterward, bound for home. The Society of Venerable Adventurers was expecting Sir Walter, but they would have to be disappointed.


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One Response to “Leopardus”

  1. Alexandra L. Burris Says:

    Thank you so much for this opportunity!

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