A Canine Ishmael by F Anstey

Story type: Literature

(FROM THE NOTES OF A DINER-OUT)

‘Tell me,’ she said suddenly, with a pretty imperiousness that seemed to belong to her, ‘are you fond of dogs?’ How we arrived at the subject I forget now, but I know she had just been describing how a collie at a dog-show she had visited lately had suddenly thrown his forepaws round her neck in a burst of affection–a proceeding which, in my own mind (although I prudently kept this to myself), I considered less astonishing than she appeared to do.

For I had had the privilege of taking her in to dinner, and the meal had not reached a very advanced stage before I had come to the conclusion that she was the most charming, if not the loveliest, person I had ever met.

It was fortunate for me that I was honestly able to answer her question in a satisfactory manner, for, had it been otherwise, I doubt whether she would have deigned to bestow much more of her conversation upon me.

‘Then I wonder,’ she said next, meditatively, ‘if you would care to hear about a dog that belonged to–to someone I know very well? Or would it bore you?’

I am very certain that if she had volunteered to relate the adventures of Telemachus, or the history of the Thirty Years’ War, I should have accepted the proposal with a quite genuine gratitude. As it was, I made it sufficiently plain that I should care very much indeed to hear about that dog.

She paused for a moment to reject an unfortunate entree (which I confess to doing my best to console), and then she began her story. I shall try to set it down as nearly as possible in her own words, although I cannot hope to convey the peculiar charm and interest that she gave it for me. It was not, I need hardly say, told all at once, but was subject to the inevitable interruptions which render a dinner-table intimacy so piquantly precarious.

‘This dog,’ she began quietly, without any air of beginning a story, ‘this dog was called Pepper. He was not much to look at–rather a rough, mongrelly kind of animal; and he and a young man had kept house together for a long time, for the young man was a bachelor and lived in chambers by himself. He always used to say that he didn’t like to get engaged to anyone, because he was sure it would put Pepper out so fearfully. However, he met somebody at last who made him forget about Pepper, and he proposed and was accepted–and then, you know,’ she added, as a little dimple came in her cheek, ‘he had to go home and break the news to the dog.’

She had just got to this point, when, taking advantage of a pause she made, the man on her other side (who was, I daresay, strictly within his rights, although I remember at the time considering him a pushing beast) struck in with some remark which she turned to answer, leaving me leisure to reflect.

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I was feeling vaguely uncomfortable about this story; something, it would be hard to say what, in her way of mentioning Pepper’s owner made me suspect that he was more than a mere acquaintance of hers.

Was it she, then, who was responsible for—-? It was no business of mine, of course; I had never met her in my life till that evening–but I began to be impatient to hear the rest.

And at last she turned to me again: ‘I hope you haven’t forgotten that I was in the middle of a story. You haven’t? And you would really like me to go on? Well, then–oh yes, when Pepper was told, he was naturally a little annoyed at first. I daresay he considered he ought to have been consulted previously. But, as soon as he had seen the lady, he withdrew all opposition–which his master declared was a tremendous load off his mind, for Pepper was rather a difficult dog, and slow as a rule to take strangers into his affections, a little snappy and surly, and very easily hurt or offended. Don’t you know dogs who are sensitive like that? I do, and I’m always so sorry for them–they feel little things so much, and one never can find out what’s the matter, and have it out with them! Sometimes it’s shyness; once I had a dog who was quite painfully shy–self-consciousness it was really, I suppose, for he always fancied everybody was looking at him, and often when people were calling he would come and hide his face in the folds of my dress till they had gone–it was too ridiculous! But about Pepper. He was devoted to his new mistress from the very first. I am not sure that she was quite so struck with him, for he was not at all a lady’s dog, and his manners had been very much neglected. Still, she came quite to like him in time; and when they were married, Pepper went with them for the honeymoon.’

When they were married!‘ I glanced at the card which lay half-hidden by her plate. Surely Miss So-and-so was written on it?–yes, it was certainly ‘Miss.’ It was odd that such a circumstance should have increased my enjoyment of the story, perhaps–but it undoubtedly did.

‘After the honeymoon,’ my neighbour continued, ‘they came to live in the new house, which was quite a tiny one, and Pepper was a very important personage in it indeed. He had his mistress all to himself for the greater part of most days, as his master had to be away in town; so she used to talk to him intimately, and tell him more than she would have thought of confiding to most people. Sometimes, when she thought there was no fear of callers coming, she would make him play, and this was quite a new sensation for Pepper, who was a serious-minded animal, and took very solemn views of life. At first he hadn’t the faintest idea what was expected of him; it must have been rather like trying to romp with a parish beadle, he was so intensely respectable! But as soon as he once grasped the notion and understood that no liberty was intended, he lent himself to it readily enough and learnt to gambol quite creditably. Then he was made much of in all sorts of ways; she washed him twice a week with her very own hands–which his master would never have dreamt of doing–and she was always trying new ribbons on his complexion. That rather bored him at first, but it ended by making him a little conceited about his appearance. Altogether he was dearly fond of her, and I don’t believe he had ever been happier in all his life than he was in those days. Only, unfortunately, it was all too good to last.’

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Here I had to pass olives or something to somebody, and the other man, seeing his chance, and, to do him justice, with no idea that he was interrupting a story, struck in once more, so that the history of Pepper had to remain in abeyance for several minutes.

My uneasiness returned. Could there be a mistake about that name-card after all? Cards do get re-arranged sometimes, and she seemed to know that young couple so very intimately. I tried to remember whether I had been introduced to her as a Miss or Mrs. So-and-so, but without success. There is some fatality which generally distracts one’s attention at the critical moment of introduction, and in this case it was perhaps easily accounted for. My turn came again, and she took up her tale once more. ‘I think when I left off I was saying that Pepper’s happiness was too good to last. And so it was. For his mistress was ill, and, though he snuffed and scratched and whined at the door of her room for ever so long, they wouldn’t let him in. But he managed to slip in one day somehow, and jumped up on her lap and licked her hands and face, and almost went out of his mind with joy at seeing her again. Only (I told you he was a sensitive dog) it gradually struck him that she was not quite so pleased to see him as usual–and presently he found out the reason. There was another animal there, a new pet, which seemed to take up a good deal of her attention. Of course you guess what that was–but Pepper had never seen a baby before, and he took it as a personal slight and was dreadfully offended. He simply walked straight out of the room and downstairs to the kitchen, where he stayed for days.

‘I don’t think he enjoyed his sulk much, poor doggie; perhaps he had an idea that when they saw how much he took it to heart they would send the baby away. But as time went on and this didn’t seem to occur to them, he decided to come out of the sulks and look over the matter, and he came back quite prepared to resume the old footing. Only everything was different. No one seemed to notice that he was in the room now, and his mistress never invited him to have a game; she even forgot to have him washed–and one of his peculiarities was that he had no objection to soap and warm water. The worst of it was, too, that before very long the baby followed him into the sitting-room, and, do what he could, he couldn’t make the stupid little thing understand that it had no business there. If you think of it, a baby must strike a dog as a very inferior little animal: it can’t bark (well, yes, it can howl), but it’s no good whatever with rats, and yet everybody makes a tremendous fuss about it! The baby got all poor Pepper’s bows now; and his mistress played games with it, though Pepper felt he could have done it ever so much better, but he was never allowed to join in. So he used to lie on a rug and pretend he didn’t mind, though, really, I’m certain he felt it horribly. I always believe, you know, that people never give dogs half credit enough for feeling things, don’t you?

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‘Well, at last came the worst indignity of all: Pepper was driven from his rug–his own particular rug–to make room for the baby; and when he had got away into a corner to cry quietly, all by himself, that wretched baby came and crawled after him and pulled his tail!

‘He always had been particular about his tail, and never allowed anybody to touch it but very intimate friends, and even then under protest, so you can imagine how insulted he felt.

‘It was too much for him, and he lost the last scrap of temper he had. They said he bit the baby, and I’m afraid he did–though not enough really to hurt it; still, it howled fearfully, of course, and from that moment it was all over with poor Pepper–he was a ruined dog!

‘When his master came home that evening he was told the whole story. Pepper’s mistress said she would be ever so sorry to part with him, but, after his misbehaviour, she should never know a moment’s peace until he was out of the house–it really wasn’t safe for baby!

‘And his master was sorry, naturally; but I suppose he was beginning rather to like the baby himself, and so the end of it was that Pepper had to go. They did all they could for him; found him a comfortable home, with a friend who was looking out for a good house-dog, and wasn’t particular about breed, and, after that, they heard nothing of him for a long while. And, when they did hear, it was rather a bad report: the friend could do nothing with Pepper at all; he had to tie him up in the stable, and then he snapped at everyone who came near, and howled all night–they were really almost afraid of him.

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‘So when Pepper’s mistress heard that, she felt more thankful than ever that the dog had been sent away, and tried to think no more about him. She had quite forgotten all about it, when, one day, a new nursemaid, who had taken the baby out for an airing, came back with a terrible account of a savage dog which had attacked them, and leaped up at the perambulator so persistently that it was as much as she could do to drive it away. And even then Pepper’s mistress did not associate the dog with him; she thought he had been destroyed long ago.

‘But the next time the nurse went out with the baby she took a thick stick with her, in case the dog should come again. And no sooner had she lifted the perambulator over the step, than the dog did come again, exactly as if he had been lying in wait for them ever since outside the gate.

‘The nurse was a strong country girl, with plenty of pluck, and as the dog came leaping and barking about in a very alarming way, she hit him as hard as she could on his head. The wonder is she did not kill him on the spot, and, as it was, the blow turned him perfectly giddy and silly for a time, and he ran round and round in a dazed sort of way–do you think you could lower that candle-shade just a little? Thanks!’ she broke off suddenly, as I obeyed. ‘Well, she was going to strike again, when her mistress rushed out, just in time to stop her. For, you see, she had been watching at the window, and although the poor beast was miserably thin, and rough, and neglected-looking, she knew at once that it must be Pepper, and that he was not in the least mad or dangerous, but only trying his best to make his peace with the baby. Very likely his dignity or his conscience or something wouldn’t let him come back quite at once, you know; and perhaps he thought he had better get the baby on his side first. And then all at once, his mistress–I heard all this through her, of course–his mistress suddenly remembered how devoted Pepper had been to her, and how fond she had once been of him, and when she saw him standing, stupid and shivering, there, her heart softened to him, and she went to make it up with him, and tell him that he was forgiven and should come back and be her dog again, just as in the old days!—-‘

Here she broke off for a moment. I did not venture to look at her, but I thought her voice trembled a little when she spoke again. ‘I don’t quite know why I tell you all this. There was a time when I never could bear the end of it myself,’ she said; ‘but I have begun, and I will finish now. Well, Pepper’s mistress went towards him, and called him; but–whether he was still too dizzy to quite understand who she was, or whether his pride came uppermost again, poor dear! I don’t know–but he gave her just one look (she says she will never forget it–never; it went straight to her heart), and then he walked very slowly and deliberately away.

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‘She couldn’t bear it; she followed; she felt she simply must make him understand how very, very sorry she was for him; but the moment he heard her he began to run faster and faster, until he was out of reach and out of sight, and she had to come back. I know she was crying bitterly by that time.’

‘And he never came back again?’ I asked, after a silence.

‘Never again!’ she said softly; ‘that was the very last they ever saw or heard of him. And–and I’ve always loved every dog since for Pepper’s sake!’

‘I’m almost glad he did decline to come back,’ I declared; ‘it served his mistress right–she didn’t deserve anything else!’

‘Ah, I didn’t want you to say that!’ she protested; ‘she never meant to be so unkind–it was all for the baby’s sake!’

I was distinctly astonished, for all her sympathy in telling the story had seemed to lie in the other direction.

‘You don’t mean to say,’ I cried involuntarily, ‘that you can find any excuses for her? I did not expect you would take the baby’s part!’

‘But I did,’ she confessed, with lowered eyes–‘I did take the baby’s part–it was all my doing that Pepper was sent away–I have been sorry enough for it since!’

It was her own story she had been telling at second-hand after all–and she was not Miss So-and-so! I had entirely forgotten the existence of any other members of the party but our two selves, but at the moment of this discovery–which was doubly painful–I was recalled by a general rustle to the fact that we were at a dinner-party, and that our hostess had just given the signal.

As I rose and drew back my chair to allow my neighbour to pass, she raised her eyes for a moment and said almost meekly:

‘I was the baby, you see!’

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