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Letter 8683

Roberts, Dora to Darwin, C. R.

17 Dec [1872 or later]


Describes a case of maternal instinct, in which a hen protected kittens.


The Greenways | Leamington

Decr. 17th.


May I trespass on your time while I try to relate a curious instance ofmisdirected maternal instinct which occured in our Hen House here?

A cat came to the cook mewing piteously and expressing both grief &excitement— The woman allowed her to pull her gown & then followedher to the Hen House where a hen—which had been very indignantbecause not provided with eggs to sit upon for some time past—wasfound in possession of two small & starving kittens— These shedefended by beak & wings until fairly beaten off with a stick— Sheflew with fury at the mother cat especially— Some hours after thesupposed restoration of the kittens the mother again came to herfriend the cook exhibiting even greater despair—& on yielding toher entreaties once more the cook found that the hen had managed toconvey the kittens to the very highest shelf of the Hen House—whena ladder had to be fetched in order to release the kittens again   Howthey had been carried to such a height we never knew— The instinctwhich drew the cat to the cook was odd as the woman disliked cats &had never treated her kindly— It seemed her sense of justice towhich the creature appealedf2   With regard to the almost humanscream of a horse in agony having heard it once I can never forgetit   In a crowd in London the horse fell & got under the wheel of acarriage the sounds rang in our ears for days after as the mostexpressive of agony we had ever heard—f3 The cat & hen adventureoccurred at Collin House six miles from Belfast—f4

Yours obedly— | Dora Roberts.

A friend of ours was pursued by a pig once with wide open mouth  Her description made the animal seem very terrible— A niece of mine candistinctly move her ears & draw them forward she cannot explainhow it is done—f5

DAR 176: 184



The year is established on the assumption that Roberts’ letter waswritten in response to Expression, which was published in November 1872 (see CD’s ‘Journal’ (Appendix II)). Dora Roberts has not been identified.
In Decent 1: 41, CD had reported the case of a female baboon who stoleyoung dogs and cats and then carried them about. In Expression,p. 120, he mentioned a dog who had lost her puppies and transferredher maternal affection to licking her master’s hand.
This description of a horse screaming was added to Expression 2ded., p. 89 n. 2.
Collin House, five miles south-west of Belfast, no longer exists;it was built between 1790 and 1810 (Parks and Gardens Data Services 2007, www.parksandgardens.ac.uk (accessed 1 March 2012)).
In Descent 1: 20–1, CD discussed the rudimentary ability of humansto move their ears.
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