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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Little Ghost In The Garden

Title:     The Little Ghost In The Garden
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

I don't know in what corner of the garden his busy little life now takes its everlasting rest. None of us had the courage to stand by, that summer morning, when Morris, our old negro man, buried him, and we felt sympathetic for Morris that the sad job should fall upon him, for Morris loved him just as we did. Perhaps if we had loved him less, more sentimentally than deeply, we should have indulged in some sort of appropriate ceremonial, and marked his grave with a little stone. But, as I have said, his grave, like that of the great prophet, is a secret to this day. None of us has ever asked Morris about it, and his grief has been as reticent as our own. I wondered the other night, as I walked the garden in a veiled moonlight, whether it was near the lotus-tanks he was lying--for I remembered how he would stand there, almost by the hour, watching the goldfish that we had engaged to protect us against mosquitoes, moving mysteriously under the shadows of the great flat leaves. In his short life he grew to understand much of this strange world, but he never got used to those goldfish; and often I have seen him, after a long wistful contemplation of them, turn away with a sort of half-frightened, puzzled bark, as though to say that he gave it up. Or, does he lie, I wonder, somewhere among the long grass of the salt-marsh, that borders our garden, and in perigee tides widens out into a lake. There indeed would be his appropriate country, for there was the happy hunting-ground through which in life he was never tired of roaming, in the inextinguishable hope of mink, and with the occasional certainty of a water-rat.

He had come to us almost as mysteriously as he went away; a fox-terrier puppy wandered out of the Infinite to the neighbourhood of our ice-box, one November morning, and now wandered back again. Technically, he was just graduating out of puppyhood, though, like the most charming human beings, he never really grew up, and remained, in behaviour and imagination, a puppy to the end. He was a dog of good breed and good manners, evidently with gentlemanly antecedents canine and human. There were those more learned in canine aristocracy than ourselves who said that his large leaf-like, but very becoming, ears meant a bar sinister somewhere in his pedigree, but to our eyes those only made him better-looking; and, for the rest of him, he was race--race nervous, sensitive, refined, and courageous--from the point of his all-searching nose to the end of his stub of a tail, which the conventional docking had seemed but to make the more expressive. We had already one dog in the family when he arrived, and two Maltese cats. With the cats he was never able to make friends, in spite of persistent well-intentioned efforts. It was evident to us that his advances were all made in the spirit of play, and from a desire of comradeship, the two crowning needs of his blithe sociable spirit. But the cats received them in an attitude of invincible distrust, of which his poor nose frequently bore the sorry signature. Yet they had become friendly enough with the other dog, an elderly setter, by name Teddy, whose calm, lordly, slow-moving ways were due to a combination of natural dignity, vast experience of life, and some rheumatism. As Teddy would sit philosophizing by the hearth of an evening, immovable and plunged in memories, yet alert on the instant to a footfall a quarter of a mile away, they would rub their sinuous smoke-grey bodies to and fro beneath his jaws, just as though he were a piece of furniture; and he would take as little notice of them as though he were the leg of the piano; though sometimes he would wag his tail gently to and fro, or rap it softly on the floor, as though appreciating the delicate attention.

* * * * *

Of Teddy's reception of the newcomer we had at first some slight misgiving, for, amiable as we have just seen him with his Maltese companions, and indeed as he is generally by nature, his is the amiability that comes of conscious power, and is his, so to say, by right of conquest; for of all neighbouring dogs he is the acknowledged king. The reverse of quarrelsome, the peace of his declining years has been won by much historical fighting, and his reputation among the dogs of his acquaintance is such that it is seldom necessary for him to assert his position. It is only some hapless stranger ignorant of his standing that will occasionally provoke him to a display of those fighting qualities he grows more and more reluctant to employ. Even with such he is comparatively merciful; stern, but never brutal. Usually all that is necessary is for him to look at them steadfastly for a few moments in a peculiar way. This seems to convince them that, after all, discretion is the better part, and slowly and sadly they turn around in a curious cowed way, and walk off, apparently too scared to run, with Teddy, like Fate, grimly at their heels, steadily "pointing" them off the premises. We were a little anxious, therefore, as to how Teddy would take our little terrier, with his fussy, youthful self-importance, and eternal restless poking into other folks' affairs. But Teddy, as we might have told ourselves, had had a long and varied experience of terriers, and had nothing to learn from us. Yet I have no doubt that, with his instinctive courtesy, he divined the wishes of the family in regard to the newcomer, and was, therefore, predisposed in his favour. This, however, did not save the evidently much overawed youngster from a stern and searching examination, the most trying part of which seemed to be that long, silent, hypnotizing contemplation of him, which is Teddy's way of asserting his dignity. The little dog visibly trembled beneath the great one's gaze, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, and his eyes wandering helplessly from side to side; and he seemed to be saying, in his dog way: "O yes! I know you are a very great and important personage--and I am only a poor little puppy of no importance. Only please let me go on living--and you will see how well I will behave." Teddy seemed to be satisfied that some such recognition and submission had been tendered him; so presently he wagged his tail, that had up till then been rigid as a ramrod, and not only the little terrier, but all of us, breathed again. Yet it was some time before Teddy would admit him into anything like what one might call intimacy, and premature attempts at gamesome familiarity were checked by the gathering thunder of a lazy growl that unmistakably bade the youngster keep his place. But real friendship eventually grew between them, on Teddy's side a sort of big-brother affectionate tutelage and guardianship, and on Puppy's--for, though we tried many, we never found any other satisfactory name for him but "Puppy"--a reverent admiration and watchful worshipping imitation. No great man was ever more anxiously copied by some slavish flatterer than that old sleepy carelessly-great setter by that eager, ambitious little terrier. The occasions when to bark and when not to bark, for example. One could actually see Puppy studying the old dog's face on doubtful occasions of the kind. Boiling over, as he visibly was, with the desire to bark his soul out, yet he could be seen unmistakably restraining himself, till Teddy, after some preliminary soliloquizing in deep undertones, had made up his mind that the suspicious shuffling-by of probably some inoffensive Italian workman demanded investigation, and lumberingly risen to his feet and made for the door. Then, like a bunch of firecrackers, Puppy was at the heels, all officious assistance, and the two would disappear like an old and a young thunderbolt into the resounding distance.

* * * * *

Teddy's friendship had seemed to be definitely won on an occasion which brought home to one the quaint resemblance between the codes and ways of dogs and those of schoolboys. When the winter came on, a rather severe one, it soon became evident that the little short-haired fellow suffered considerably from the cold. Out on walks, he was visibly shivering, though he made no fuss about it. So one of the angels in the house knitted for him a sort of woollen sweater buttoned down his neck and under his belly, and trimmed it with some white fur that gave it an exceedingly smart appearance. Teddy did not happen to be there when it was first tried on, and, for the moment, Puppy had to be content with our admiration, and his own vast sense of importance. Certainly, a more self-satisfied terrier never was than he who presently sped out, to air his new finery before an astonished neighbourhood. But alas! you should have seen him a few minutes afterwards. We had had the curiosity to stroll out to see how he had got on, and presently, in a bit of rocky woodland near by, we came upon a curious scene. In the midst of a clump of red cedars, three great dogs, our Teddy, a wicked old black retriever, and a bustling be-wigged and be-furred collie, stood in a circle round Puppy, seated on his haunches, trembling with fear, tongue lolling and eyes wandering, for all the world as though they were holding a court-martial, or, at all events, a hazing-party. The offence evidently lay with that dandified new sweater. One and another of the dogs smelt at it, then tugged at it in evident disgust; and, as each time Puppy made a move to get away, all girt him round with guttural thunder of disapproval, as much as to say: "Do you call that a thing for a manly dog to go around in? You ought to be ashamed of yourself, you miserable dandy."

We couldn't help reflecting that it was all very well for those great comfortable long-haired dogs to talk, naturally protected as they were from the cold. Yet that evidently cut no figure with them, and they went on sniffing and tugging and growling, till we thought our poor Puppy's eyes and tongue would drop out with fear. Yet, all the time, they seemed to be enjoying his plight, seemed to be smiling grimly together, wicked old experienced brutes as they were.

Presently the idea of the thing seemed to occur to Puppy, or out of his extremity a new soul was born within him, for suddenly an infinite disgust of his new foppery seemed to take possession of him too, and, regaining his courage, he turned savagely upon it, ripping it this way and that, and struggling with might and main to rid himself of the accursed thing. Presently he stood free, and barks of approval at once went up from his judges. He had come through his ordeal, and was once more a dog among dogs. Great was the rejoicing among his friends, and the occasion having been duly celebrated by joint destruction and contumely of the offending garment, Teddy and he returned home, friends for life.

* * * * *

It is to be feared that that friendship, deep and tender as it grew to be on both sides, perhaps particularly on Teddy's, was the indirect cause of Puppy's death. I have referred to Teddy's bark, and how he is not wont to waste it on trivial occasions, or without due thought. On the other hand, he is proud of it, and loves to practice it--just for its own sake, particularly on early mornings, when, however fine a bark it is, most of our neighbours would rather continue sleeping than wake up to listen to it. There is no doubt at all, for those who understand him, that it is a purely artistic bark. He means no harm to any one by it. When the milkman, his private enemy, comes at seven, the bark is quite different. This barking of Teddy's seems to be literally at nothing. Around five o'clock on summer mornings, he plants himself on a knob of rock overlooking the salt marsh and barks, possibly in honour of the rising sun, but with no other perceptible purpose. So have I heard men rise in the dawn to practice the cornet--but they were men, so they ran no risk of their lives. Teddy's practicing, however, has now been carried on for several years in the teeth of no little peril; and, had it not been for much human influence employed on his behalf, he would long since have antedated his little friend in Paradise. When that little friend, however, came to assist and emulate him in those morning recitals, adding to his bark an occasional--I am convinced purely playful--bite, I am inclined to think that a sentiment grew in the neighbourhood that one dog at a time was enough. At all events, Teddy still barks at dawn as of old, but our little Puppy barks no more.

Before the final quietus came to him, there were several occasions on which the Black dog, called Death, had almost caught him in his jaws. One there was in especial. He had, I believe, no hatred for any living thing save Italian workmen and automobiles. I have seen an Italian workman throw his pick-axe at him, and then take to his heels in grotesque flight. But the pick-axe missed him, as did many another clumsily hurled missile.

* * * * *

An automobile, however, on one occasion, came nearer its mark. Like every other dog that ever barked, particularly terriers, Puppy delighted to harass the feet of fast trotting horses, mockingly running ahead of them, barking with affected savagery, and by a miracle evading their on-coming hoofs--which to him, tiny thing as he was, must have seemed like trip-hammers pounding down from the sky. But horses understand such gaiety in terriers. They understand that it is only their foolish fun. Automobiles are different. They have no souls. They see nothing engaging in having their tires snapped at, as they whirl swiftly by; and, one day, after Puppy had flung himself in a fine fury at the tires of one of these soulless things, he gave a sharp yelp--"not cowardly!"--and lay a moment on the roadside. But only a moment; then he went limping off on his three sound legs, and hid himself away from all sympathy, in some unknown spot. It was in vain we called and sought him, and only after two days was he discovered, in the remotest corner of a great rocky cellar, determined apparently to die alone in an almost inaccessible privacy of wood and coal. Yet, when at last we persuaded him that life was still sweet and carried him upstairs into the great living-room, and the beautiful grandmother, who knows the sorrows of animals almost as the old Roman seer knew the languages of beasts and birds, had taken him in charge and made a cosy nest of comforters for him by the fire, and tempted his languid appetite--to which the very thought of bones was, of course, an offence--with warm, savory-smelling soup; then, he who had certainly been no coward--for his thigh was a cruel lump of pain which no human being would have kept so patiently to himself--became suddenly, like many human invalids, a perfect glutton of self-pity; and when we smoothed and patted him and told him how sorry we were, it was laughable, and almost uncanny, how he suddenly set up a sort of moaning talk to us, as much as to say that he certainly had had a pretty bad time, was really something of a hero, and deserved all the sympathy we would give him. So far as one can be sure about anything so mysterious as animals, I am sure that from then on he luxuriated in his little hospital by the fireside, and played upon the feelings of his beautiful nurse, and of his various solicitous visitors, with all the histrionic skill of the spoiled and petted convalescent. Suddenly, however, one day, he forgot his part. He heard some inspiring barking going on nearby--and, in a flash, his comforters were thrust aside, and he was off and away to join the fun. Then, of course, we knew that he was well again; though he still went briskly about his various business on three legs for several days.

His manner was quite different, however, the afternoon he had so evidently come home to die. There was no pose about the little forlorn figure, which, after a mysterious absence of two days, suddenly appeared, as we were taking tea on the veranda, already the very ghost of himself. Wearily he sought the cave of the beautiful grandmother's skirts, where, whenever he had had a scolding, he was wont always to take refuge--barking, fiercely, as from an inaccessible fortress, at his enemies.

* * * * *

But, this afternoon, there was evidently no bark in him, poor little fellow; everything about him said that he had just managed to crawl home to die. His brisk white coat seemed dank with cold dews, and there was something shadowy about him and strangely quiet. His eyes, always so alert, were strangely heavy and indifferent, yet questioning and somehow accusing. He seemed to be asking us why a little dog should suffer so, and what was going to happen to him, and what did it all mean. Alas! We could not tell him; and none of us dare say to each other that our little comrade in the mystery of life was going to die. But a silence fell over us all, and the beautiful grandmother took him into her care, and so well did her great and wise heart nurse him through the night that next morning it almost seemed as though we had been wrong; for a flash of his old spirit was in him again, and, though his little legs shook under him, it was plain that he wanted to try and be up at his day's work on the veranda, warning off the passer-by, or in the garden carrying on his eternal investigations, or farther afield in the councils and expeditions of his fellows. So we let him have his way, and for a while he seemed happier and stronger for the sunshine, and the old familiar scents and sounds. But the one little tired husky bark he gave at his old enemy, the Italian workman, passing by, would have broken your heart; and the effort he made with a bone, as he visited the well-remembered neighbourhood of the ice-box for the last time, was piteous beyond telling. Those sharp, strong teeth that once could bite and grind through anything could do nothing with it now. To lick it sadly with tired lips, in a sort of hopeless way, was all that was left; and there was really a look in his face as though he accepted this mortal defeat, as he lay down, evidently exhausted with his exertions, on a bank nearby. But once more his spirit seemed to revive, and he scrambled to his legs again and wearily crawled to the back of the house, where the beautiful grandmother loves to sit and look over the glittering salt-marsh in the summer afternoons.

* * * * *

Of course, he knew that she was there. She had been his best friend in this strange world. His last effort was naturally to be near her again. Almost he reached that kind cave of her skirts. Only another yard or two and he had been there. But the energy that had seemed irrepressible and everlasting had come to its end, and the little body had to give in at last, and lie down wearily once more with no life left but the love in its fading eyes.

There are some, I suppose, who may wonder how one can write about the death of a mere dog like this; and cannot understand how the death of a little terrier can make the world seem a lonelier place. But there are others, I know, who will scarce need telling, men and women with little ghosts of their own haunting their moonlit gardens; strange, appealing, faithful companions, kind little friendly beings that journeyed with them awhile the pilgrimage of the soul.

I often wonder if Teddy misses his little busy playfellow and disciple as we do; if, perhaps, as he barks over the marsh of a morning, he is sending him a message. He goes about the place with nonchalant greatness as of old, and the Maltese cats still rub their sinuous smoke-grey bodies to and fro beneath his jaws at evening. There is no sign of sorrow upon him. But he is old and very wise, and keeps strange knowledge to himself. So, who can say?

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Little Ghost In The Garden