Gissing (a dog’s name) by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

Our subject, for the moment, is Gissing–and when we say Gissing we mean not the author of that name, but the dog. He was called Gissing because he arrived, in the furnace man’s poke, on the same day on which, after long desideration, we were united in holy booklock with a copy of “By the Ionian Sea.”

Gissing needs (as the man said who wrote the preface to Sir Kenelm Digby’s Closet) no Rhetoricating Floscules to set him off. He is (as the man said who wrote a poem about New York) vulgar of manner, underbred. He is young: his behaviour lacks restraint. Yet there is in him some lively prescription of that innocent and indivisible virtue that Nature omitted from men and gave only to Dogs. This is something that has been the cause of much vile verse in bad poets, of such gruesome twaddle as Senator Vest’s dreadful outbark. But it is a true thing.

How absurd, we will interject, is the saying: “Love me, love my dog.” If he really is my dog, he won’t let you love him. Again, one man’s dog is another man’s mongrel. Mr. Robert Cortes Holliday, that quaint philosopher frequently doggishly nicknamed Owd Bob, went to Washington lately to see President Harding. His eye fell upon the White House Airedale. Now Owd Bob is himself something of an Airedale trifler, and cherishes the memory of a certain Tristram Shandy, an animal that frequently appeared in the lighter editorials of the Bookman when Mr. Holliday (then the editor) could think of nothing else to write about. And of Mr. Harding’s dog Mr. Holliday reports, with grave sorrow: “I don’t think he is a good Airedale. He has too much black on him. Now Shandy had only a small saddle of black….”

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But such are matters concerning only students of full-bred dogs, of whom we are not who.

As to Gissing: we were trying to think, while writing the preceding excursion, how to give you his colour. Yellow is a word too violent, too vulgarly connotative. Brown is a muddy word. Sandy is too pale. Gamboge is a word used by artists, who are often immoral and excitable. Shall we say, the colour of a corncob pipe, singed and tawnied by much smoking? Or a pigskin tobacco pouch while it is still rather new? Or the colour of the Atlantic Monthly in the old days, when it lay longer on the stands than it does now, and got faintly bleached? And in this colour, whatever it is, you must discern a dimly ruddy tinge. On his forehead, which is not really a forehead, but a continuation of a long and very vulpine nose, there is a small white stripe. It runs upward from between his eyes, but cants slightly to one side (like a great many journalists). There is a small white patch on his chin. There is a white waistcoat on his chest, or bosom if you consider that a more affectionate word. White also are the last twelve bristles (we have counted them) on his tail (which is much too long). His front ankles bend inward rather lopsidedly, as though he had fallen downstairs when very young. When we stoke the furnace, he extends his forward legs on the floor (standing erect the while in his rearward edifice) and lays his head sideways on his paws, and considers us in a manner not devoid of humour.

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Not far from our house, in that desirable but not very residential region which we have erst described as the Forest of Arden, there is a pond. It is a very romantic spot, it is not unlike the pond by which a man smoking a Trichinopoly cigar was murdered in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories. (The Boscombe Valley Mystery!) It is a shallow little pond, but the water is very clear; last winter when it was frozen it always reminded us of the cheerful advertising of one of the ice companies, it was so delightfully transparent. This pond is a kind of Union League Club for the frogs at this time of year; all night long you can hear them reclining in their armchairs of congenial mud and uttering their opinions, which vary very little from generation to generation. Most of those frogs are Republicans, we feel sure, but we love them no less.

In this pond Gissing had his first swim one warm Sunday recently. The party set out soon after breakfast. Gissing was in the van, his topaz eyes wild with ambition. Followed a little red express-wagon, in which sat the Urchiness, wearing her best furry hat which has, in front, a small imitation mouse-head with glass eyes. The Urchin, wearing a small Scotch bonnet with ribbons, assisted in hauling the wagon. Gissing had not yet been tested in the matter of swimming: this was a sober moment. Would he take gladly to the ocean? (So the Urchin innocently calls our small sheet of water, having by a harmless ratiocination concluded that this term applies to any body of water not surrounded by domestic porcelain.)

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Now Gissing is passionate in the matter of chasing sticks hurled abroad. On seeing a billet seized and held aloft with that sibilant sound which stirs his ingenuous spirit to prodigies of pursuit, his eyes were flame, his heart was apoplexy. The stick flew aloft and curved into the pond, and he rushed to the water’s edge. But there, like the recreant knight in the Arthurian idyl, he paused and doubted. There was Excalibur, floating ten feet from shore. This was a new experience. Was it written that sticks should be pursued in this strange and alien element? He barked querulously, and returned, his intellect clouded with hesitation. What was this etiquette? He was embarrassed.

Another stick was flung into the trembling mere. This time there was no question. When the gods give the same sign twice, the only answer is obey. A tawny streak crossed the small meadow, and leaped unquestioningly into the pond. There was a plunging and a spattery scuffle, and borne up by a million years of heredity he pursued the floating enemy. It was seized, and a large gulp of water also, but backward he came bearing it merrily. Then, also unknowing that he was fulfilling old tradition, he came as near as possible to the little group of presbyters and dehydrated himself upon them. Thus was a new experience added to this young creature. The frogs grew more and more pensive as he spent the rest of the morning churning the pond hither and thither.

That will be all about Gissing for the present.

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