Man and Maid/Alcibiades
“Oh, do let me have him in the carriage with me; he won’t hurt any one, he’s a perfect angel.”
“Angels like him travels in the dog-box,” said the porter.
Judy ended an agonised search for her pocket.
“Would you be offended,” she said, “if I offered you half-a-crown?”
“Give the guard a bob, Miss.” The hand curved into a cup resting on the carriage window, answered her question. “It’s more’n enough for him, being a single man, whereas me, I’m risking my situation and nine children at present to say no more, when I——”
The turn of a railway key completed the sentence.
Judy and the angel were alone. He was a very nice angel—long-haired and brownly-black—his race the Aberdeen, his name Alcibiades. He put up a respectful and adoring nose, and his mistress kissed him between the eyes.
“How could they try to part us,” she asked, “when there’s only us two left?”
Alcibiades, with swimming eyes, echoed in a little moan of true love the question: “How could they?”
The question was put again by both later in the day. Judy was to stay with an aunt while her mother sailed to Madeira to meet there the father returning from South Africa, full of wounds and honour, and to spend on the Island what was left of the winter. Now it was December.
A thick fog covered London with a veil of ugliness; the cabman was aggrieved and aggrieving—Alcibiades had tried to bite him—and Judy was on the verge of tears when the fog at last lifted, and allowed her to be driven to her aunt’s suburban house, yellow brickish, with a slate roof and a lean forecourt, wherein cypresses, stunted and blackened, spoke eloquently of lives more blank than the death whose emblem they were.
Through the slits of the drab Venetian blinds, gaslight streamed into the winter dusk.
“There’ll be tea, anyhow,” sighed Judy, recklessly overpaying the cabman.
Inside the house where the lights were, the Aunt was surrounded by a dozen ladies of about her own age and station; “Tabbies” the world might have called them. All were busy with mysteries of many coloured silks and satins, lace and linen; at least all held such in their hands. The gathering was in fact a “working party” for the approaching bazaar. But the real work of bazaars is not done at parties.
“Yes,” the Aunt was saying, “so nice for dear Julia. I’m truly glad that she should begin her visit with a little gaiety. In parting or sorrow we should always seek to distract the mind, should we not, dear Mrs Biddle?”
“The young are all too easily distracted by the shows of this world,” said dear Mrs Biddle heavily.
And several ladies murmured approval.
“But you can’t exactly call a church bazaar the shows of this world, can you?” urged the Aunt, sitting very upright, all black and beady.
“It’s the thin end of the Rubicon sometimes,” said Mrs Biddle.
“Then why——” began the youngest Tabby—and then the door bell rang, and every one said: “Here she is!”
The prim maid announced her, and she took two steps forward, and stood blinking in the gaslight with her hat on one side, and no gloves. Every one noticed that at once.
“Come in, my dear,” said the Aunt, rustling forward. “I have a few friends this afternoon, and—Oh, my gracious, what has happened!”
What had happened was quite simple. In her rustling advance some wandering trail of the Aunt’s black beadiness had caught on the knotted fringe of the table-cloth, and drawn this after her. A mass of silk and lace and ribbon lay sprinkled along the edges of the table where the Tabbies sat; a good store of needles, scissors, and cotton reels mingled with it. Now all this swept to the floor on the moving table-cloth, at the very instant when a rough brownly-black, long-eared person with a sharp nose and very muddy paws bounded into the room, to the full length of his chain. His bound landed him in the very middle of the ribbon-lace-cotton-reel confusion. Judy caught the dog up in her arms, and her apologies would have melted my heart, or yours, dear reader, in an instant. But Tabbies are Tabbies, and a bazaar is a bazaar. No more sewing was done that day; what was left of the afternoon proved all too short for the disentangling, the partial cleansing of the desecrated lace-cotton-reel-silk-muddle. And Alcibiades was tied up in the back-kitchen to the wheel of the patent mangle; he howled without ceasing.
“My dear,” said the Aunt, when tea was over, and the last Tabby had found her goloshes and gone home in them, “you are most welcome under any roof of mine, but—(may I ask you to close the baize door at the top of the kitchen stairs—thank you—and now this one—I am obliged. One cannot hear oneself speak for that terrible animal)—you must get rid of the cur to-morrow.”
“Oh, Aunt! he’s not a cur—he’s pure-bred.”
“Thank you,” said the Aunt, “I believe I am as good a judge of dogs as any lady. My own dear Snubs has only been dead a year and two months last Tuesday. I know that a well-bred dog should have smooth hair, at any rate——”
The mother of Snubs had been distantly related to a family of respectable middle-class fox-terriers.
“I am very sorry,” said Judy. She meant apology, but the Aunt took it for sympathy, and softened somewhat.
“A nice little smooth-coated dog now,” she said, “a fox-terrier, or an Italian greyhound; you see I am not ignorant of the names of various patterns of dog. I will get you one myself; we will go to the Dogs’ Home at Battersea, where really nice dogs are often sold quite cheap. Or perhaps they might take your poor cur in exchange.”
Judy began to cry.
“Yes, cry, my dear,” said the Aunt kindly; “it will do you a world of good.”
When the Aunt was asleep—she had closed her ears to the protests of Alcibiades with wadding left over from a handkerchief sachet—Judy crept down in her woolly white dressing-gown, and coaxed the kitchen fire back to life. Then she sat in front of it, on the speckless rag carpet, and nursed Alcibiades and scolded him, and explained that he really must be a good dog, and that we all have something to put up with in this life.
“You know, Alby dear,” she said, “it’s not very nice for me either, but I don’t howl and try to upset mangles. Don’t you be afraid, dear: you shan’t go to the Dogs’ Home.”
So kindly, yet strongly, did she urge her point that Alcibiades, tied to the leg of the kitchen table, consented to sleep quietly for the rest of the night.
Next day, when the Aunt enquired searchingly as to Judy’s powers of fancywork, and what she would do for the bazaar, Judy declared outright that she did not know one end of a needle from the other.
“But I can paint a little,” she said, “and I am rather good at wood-carving.”
“That will be very nice.” The Aunt already saw, in fancy, her stall outshine those of all other Tabbies, with glories of sabots and tambourines decorated with rosy sprays “hand-painted,” and carved white wood boxes just the size to hold nothing useful.
“And I’ll do you some,” said Judy; “only I can’t work if I’m distracted about Alby—my dog, you know. Oh, Aunt, do let him stay! He really is valuable, and he hasn’t made a bit of noise since last night.”
“It is quite useless,” the Aunt was sternly beginning—then suddenly her voice changed. “Is the cur really valuable?” she asked.
“Uncle Reggie gave five guineas for him when he was a baby boy,” said Judy eagerly, “and he’s worth much more now.”
“But he must be very old—when your Uncle Reggie was a boy——”
“I mean when Alcibiades was a boy.”
“And who is Alcibiades?”
Judy began all over again, and urged one or two new points.
“I don’t want to be harsh,” said the Aunt at last, “you shall have the little breakfast room to paint and carve in as you suggest. Of course I couldn’t have shavings and paint pots lying about all over the dining-room and drawing-room. And you shall keep your cur.”
“Oh, Aunty,” cried Judy, “you are a darling!”
“Yes,” the Aunt went on complacently, “you shall keep your cur till the bazaar, and then we will sell it for the benefit of the Fund for the Amelioration of the Daughters of the Country Clergy.”
And from this decision no tears and no entreaties would move her.
Judy made a den for herself and Alcibiades in the little breakfast room. There was no painting light—so she looked out a handful of the sketches that she had done last summer and framed them. Most of her time she spent in writing to her friends to know whether any one could take care of a darling dog, who was a perfect angel. And alas! no one could—or would.
With the connivance of the cook, Alcibiades had a bed in a box in the den, and from the very first he would at a word conceal himself in it the moment the step of the Aunt sounded on the oil-cloth-covered stairs. The sketches were framed, and some of the frames were lightly carved. The Aunt was enchanted, but, on the subject of Alcibiades, adamant.
And now it was the day of the bazaar. Judy had run wires along the wall of the schoolroom behind her Aunt’s stall, and from it hung the best of the sketches. She had arranged the stall herself, glorifying it with the Eastern shawls and draperies that her father had sent her from India. It did far outshine any other stall, even that of Lady Bates, the wife of the tallow Knight. The Aunt was really grateful—truly appreciative. But her mind was made up about the “cur.”
“If it really is worth anything we’ll sell it. If not——” She paused on the dark hint, and Judy’s miserable fancy lost itself among ropes and rivers and rat-poison.
To Alcibiades the bazaar was as much a festival as to any Tabby of them all. He had been washed, which is terrible at the time, but makes you self-respecting afterwards, a little puffed-up even. He had been allowed to come out by the front door, with his mistress in her beautiful dress that reminded him of rabbits. No one but Alcibiades himself will ever know what tortures of shame and misery, fighting with joy and affection, he had endured on those other occasions when he had been smuggled out of the back door in the early morning to take the damp air with his beloved lady and she had worn a shabby mackintosh and a red tam-o-shanter. To-day he wore a blue ribbon; it was uncomfortable, but he knew it spelt distinction. He rode in a carriage. It was not like the little governess-cart which had carried him and his mistress through the lanes about Maidstone; but it was a carriage, and a large horse was his slave. His mistress herself had tied his blue ribbon; it was she, too, who adjusted the chain that attached him to a strong staple driven in just above the schoolroom wainscotting. The chain allowed him to sit at her feet as she stood by the stall waiting for purchasers, and scanning the face of each newcomer in an eager anxiety to find there the countenance of some one who really loved dogs.
But the people were most awful, and she had to own it to herself. There were Tabbies by the dozen, and young ladies by the score—young ladies all dressed differently, yet all alike in the fashion of the year before last; all vacant-faced, smiling agreeably because they knew they ought to smile—the young of the Tabby kind—Tabby kittens, in fact. No doubt they were really worthy and interesting, but they did not seem so to Judy.
There was a sprinkling of men—middle-aged mostly, and bald. There were a few youths; by some fatality all were fair, and reminded Judy of pork. A Tabby stopped at her stall, turned over all things and bought a beaded table-napkin ring. The purchase and the purchaser seemed to Judy to typify her whole life and surroundings. All her soul reached out to the Island. She sighed, then she looked up. The crowd had thickened since she last surveyed it. Four steps led down to the schoolroom from the outer world: on the top step was a lady, well dressed—oh! marvel!—and beside her a man—a gentleman. Well, Judy supposed all these poor dear people were gentlefolk, but these two were of her world. As she gazed her eyes and those of the man met; the lady was lost in the crowd, and Judy saw her no more. The man made straight for the stall where were the framed sketches, the white dress, fur-trimmed, the russet hair and green eyes of Judy, and the brownly-black, blue-ribboned Alcibiades. But before he reached them a wave of buyers broke on the shore of Judy’s stall, and he had been watching her for nearly half an hour before a young woman’s long-deferred choice of a Christmas gift for a grandfather fell happily on a pair of purple bed-socks, and, for the moment, Judy breathed free.
“I told you so,” said the Aunt, rattling money in a leather bag; “I knew just before Christmas was the time. Everybody has to give Christmas presents to all their relations. You see! the things are going like wildfire.”
“Yes, Aunt,” said Judy. Alcibiades took advantage of the momentary calm to lick her hand exhaustively. Judy wondered wearily what had become of the man, the only man in that cheerless assembly who looked as though he liked dogs. “He must have been trying to get somewhere else,” she said; “he just looked in here by mistake, and when he saw the sort of people we were, he—well—I don’t wonder,” she sighed, and, raising her eyes, met his.
“I beg your pardon,” said he. He meant apology.
She took it for enquiry, and smiled. “Do you want to buy something?” she asked.
Her smile was more tired than she knew.
“I suppose I do,” he said; “one does at bazaars, don’t you know.”
“Do you want a Christmas present?” asked Judy, businesslike; “if so, and if you will tell me what kind of relation you want it for, perhaps I can find something that they’d like.”
“Could you? Now, that is really good. I want things for two aunts, three cousins, a little sister, and my mother—but I needn’t get hers here unless you’ve got something you think really—By Jove!”—his eyes had caught the sketches—“are those for sale?”
“That is rather the idea,” said Judy. Her spirits were rising, though she couldn’t have told you why. “Things at a bazaar are usually for sale, aren’t they?”
“Everything?” said he—and he stroked the not resentful neck of Alcibiades; “this good little beast isn’t in the market, I’m afraid?”
“Why? Would you buy him?”
“I’d think twice before I said no. My mother is frightfully fond of dogs.”
Quite unreasonably Judy felt that she did not want to sell Alcibiades as a present to any one’s mother.
“The sketches,” she said.
“The sketches,” said he; “why, there’s Maidstone Church and Farley and Teston Lock and Allington. How much are they?”
She told him.
“I must have some. May I have a dozen? They’re disgracefully cheap, and I feel like an American pork man buying works of art by the dozen—for they are jolly good—and it brings back old times. I was quartered there once.”
“I knew it,” she said to herself. Alcibiades stood up with his paws on her arm. “Be quiet,” she said to him; “you mustn’t talk now, I’m busy.”
Alcibiades gave her a reproachful look, and lay down.
The stranger smiled; a very jolly smile, Judy thought.
“Ripping little beast, isn’t he?” said the stranger.
“I suppose you’re invalided home?” she said. She couldn’t help it. A man in the Service. One who had been quartered at Maidstone, her own dear Maidstone. He was no longer a stranger.
“Yes,” he said; “beastly bore. But I shall be all right in two or three months; I hope the fighting won’t be all over by then.”
“Have you sold this gentleman anything?” said the Aunt firmly, “because Mrs Biddle wants to look at some d’oyleys.”
“I’m just selling something,” answered Judy. Then she turned to him and spoke softly. “I say, do you really like dogs?” said she.
“Of course I do.” The young man opened surprised grey eyes at her, as who should say: “Now, do I look like a man who doesn’t like dogs?”
“Well, then,” she said, “Alcibiades is for sale.”
“Is that his name? Why?”
“Oh, surely you know: wasn’t it Alcibiades who gave up being dictator or something rather than have his dog’s ears cut off?”
“I seem to remember something of the sort,” he said.
“Well,” said she, “his price is twenty guineas, but——”
He whistled very softly.
“Yes—I know,” she said, “but I’ll—yes, Aunt, in one moment!” She went on in an agonised undertone: “His price is twenty. Say you’ll have him. Say it loud. You won’t really have to pay anything for him—No, I’m not mad.”
“I’ll give you twenty guineas for the dog,” said the man, standing straight and soldierly against the tumbled mass of mats and pin-cushions and chair-backs.
The Aunt drew a long breath and turned to minister to Mrs Biddle’s deep need of d’oyleys.
“Come and have tea,” said the stranger; “you’re tired out.”
“No—I can’t. Of course I can’t—but I’ll take you over to Mrs Piddock’s stall and——” She led him away. “Look here,” she said, “I’m sure you’re a decent sort. Here’s the money to pay for him. My aunt says if I don’t sell him she’ll have him killed. Will you keep him for me till my people come home? Oh, do—he really is an angel. And give me your name and address. You must think me a maniac, but I am so horribly fond of him. Will you?”
“Of course I will,” he said heartily, “but I shall pay for him. I’ll write a cheque: you can pay me when you get him back. Thank you—yes, I am sure that pin-cushion would delight my aunt.”
Judy, with burning cheeks, found her way back to her stall.
“Oh, Alcibiades,” she said, unfastening the blue ribbon, “I’m sure he’s nice. Don’t bite him, there’s a dear!”
A cheque signed “Richard Graeme” and a card with an address came into Judy’s hands, and the chain of Alcibiades left them.
“I know you’ll be good to him,” she said; “don’t give him meat, only biscuit, and sulphur in his drinking water. But you know all that. You’ve got me out of a frightful hole, and I’ll bless you as long as I live. Good-bye.” She stooped to the Aberdeen, now surprised and pained. “Good-bye, my dear old boy!”
And Alcibiades, stubborn resistance in every line of his figure, in every hair of his coat, was dragged away through the crowded bazaar.
Judy went to bed very tired. The bazaar had been a success, and the success had been talked over and the money counted till late in the evening—nearly eleven, that is, which is late for Tabbies—yet she woke at four. Some one was calling her. It was—no, he was gone—her eyes pricked at the thought—yet—surely that could be the voice of no other than Alcibiades? She sat up in bed and listened. It was he! That was his dear voice whining at the side gate. Those were his darling paws scratching the sacred paint off it.
Judy swept down the stairs like a silent whirlwind, turned key, drew bolts, and in a moment she and the cur were “sobbing in each other’s arms.”
She carried him up to her room, washed his dear, muddy paws, and spread her golf cape that he might lie on the bed beside her.
In chilliest, earliest dawn she rose and dressed. She found a wire that had supported her pictures at the bazaar, and she wrote a note and tied it to the collar of Alcibiades, where she noticed and untied a frayed end of rope. This was the note:
“He has run home to me. Why did you take the chain off? He always bites through cord. Don’t beat him for it; he’ll soon forget me.”
The tears came into her eyes as she wrote it; it seemed to her so very pathetic. She did not quite believe that Alcibiades would soon forget her—but if he did——?
The note did not lack pathos, either, in the eyes of Captain Graeme, when, two hours later, he found it under the chin of a mournfully howling Alcibiades, securely attached by picture wire to the railings of his mother’s house.
The Captain took a turn on the Heath, and thought. And his thoughts were these: “She’s the prettiest girl I’ve seen since I came home. It’s deuced dull here. Shouldn’t wonder if she’s dull too, poor little girl.”
Then he went home and cut a glove in pieces and sewed the pieces together, slowly but solidly as soldiers and sailors do sew. So that when, two nights later, the claws and the voice of Alcibiades roused Judy from sleep—her aunt most fortunately slept on the other side of the house—she found, after the first rapturous hug of reunion, a something under the hand that caressed the neck of Alcibiades.
The gaslight in her own room defined the something as a bag of leather, the tan leather of which gentlemen’s gloves are made. There was a bit of worn strap hanging below it. Within was a note.
“A thousand thanks for bringing him home. If he should run away again, please let me know. And don’t trouble to send him back. I’ll call for him, if I may.
Judy would very much have liked to let Captain Graeme call, but there are such things as aunts.
She tied another note to the “cur’s” collar and wired him once more to the Paragon House railings. The note said:
“It’s no use. He can bite through leather. Do use a chain.”
Next time Alcibiades returned he dragged a half yard of fine chain. It was neatly filed, but Judy was a woman and the detail escaped her.
That morning she and Alcibiades slept late, the dressing-bell was ringing as she woke.
The cook helped; the Aunt most fortunately had a luncheon engagement with a Tabby in Sidcup. Alcibiades being promised a walk later, consented to wait, trifling with a bone, in silence and the coal cellar. At eleven Judy rewarded his patience. She went out with him, and somehow it seemed wise to put on a pleasant-coloured dress, and one’s best furs and one’s prettiest hat.
“I am afraid I shall see him,” she told herself; “but,” she added, “I am much more afraid that my aunt will see Alcibiades.” On the edge of the Heath she met him. “Here’s the dear dog,” she said. “Oh, can’t you find a stronger chain?”
“I’ll try,” said he. “What a ripping day, isn’t it? Oh, are you going straight back? I wish we’d met anywhere but at a bazaar.”
“So do I,” she said heartfeltly, and caressed the now careless Aberdeen: it was at a bazaar that she had had to sell that angel.
“Mayn’t I walk home with you?” he said. And she could not think of any polite way of saying no, though she knew just how terrible Alcibiades would make the final parting.
Next morning the chain dragged by Alcibiades was slightly thicker; it also was filed, and this too Judy failed to notice. Early as it was she did not go out in the mackintosh but in something simple and blue, with kingfisher’s wings in her hat.
The morning was thinly bright. Alcibiades saw a cat and chased it towards Morden College just as Judy met Captain Graeme. It was, for her, impossible not to follow the “cur.” And how could the Captain do otherwise than follow, too? And if two people walk together it is churlish not to talk.
Next day the chain was thicker, the hour propitious, and the walk longer; that was the day when she found out that he had known her father in South Africa.
The days passed with a delightful monotony. The Aunt and her pet Tabbies all day, a sound sleep, an early waking, a heavenly meeting with Alcibiades at the back door, the restoring of him to his master. And every day the chain grew heavier, the walks longer, the talks more interesting and more intimate.
It was very wrong, of course, but what was the girl to do? You cannot be rude to a man who is saving your dog, your darling, from rat-poisons, rivers and ropes. And if dogs will break chains, why—so will girls.
It was on Christmas Day that the spell was shattered. Judy awoke at the accustomed time, but no welcome whine, no pathetic scrabble of eager paws broke the respectable stillness of the Aunt’s house. Judy listened. She even crept down to the side gate. A feeling of misery, of real physical faintness came over her. Alcibiades was not there! he had not come! He had, indeed, forgotten her.
The conviction that the master of Alcibiades would be the last to appreciate the new attachment of his dog comforted her a little; but for all that the day was grey, life seemed well-nigh worthless. Judy now had leisure to reconsider her position, and she was not pleased with herself. It was in the thick of the Christmas beef that the thought awoke.
“He is tired of meeting me; he has locked Alcibiades up. If he hadn’t, the darling must have come.” Since this solution left Alcibiades without a stain upon his faithful character, it ought to have been comforting, but it wasn’t.
She felt her cheeks flush.
“Good gracious, child,” said the Aunt, “what are you turning that curious purple colour for? If the fire’s too much for you, let Mary put the screen to the back of your chair, for goodness’ sake.”
When the plum-pudding’s remains had passed away and the perfunctory dessert was over the Aunt retired to rest.
Judy was left to face the grey afternoon alone. She sat staring into the fire till her eyes ached. She felt very lonely, very injured, very forlorn. There was a footfall on the steps—a manly tread; a knock at the door—a kind of I have-a-perfect-right-to-knock-here-if-I-like sort of knock.
Judy jumped up to look in the glass and pat her hair, for no one but an idiot could have helped knowing who it was that stepped and knocked.
He came in.
“Alone?” said he. “What luck! I asked for the Aunt. Meant to say Friend of your Father’s, and all that. But this is better. Judy, I couldn’t stand it.... She’s coming. I can hear her.”
There was indeed a sound of stout house boots trampling overhead, of drawers being pulled out, of wardrobe doors being opened.
“I wish everything was different,” said he; “but, oh Judy, darling, do say yes! say it now, this minute; and then when she comes down I can tell her we’re engaged—see?”
“It’s all very well,” said Judy, two hours later, when, with the licence of an engaged young lady, she said good-bye to her lover at the front door. “You say you do—and—and yes, of course, I’m glad—but Alcibiades doesn’t love me any more.”
“Doesn’t he? you wait till I bring him to-morrow!”
“But he never came this morning.”
“Poor little beast! Judy, the fact is I’ve gone on making the chain heavier and heavier, and this morning—well, it was too much for him. He couldn’t drag it all the way: it was a regular ship’s cable, don’t you know? I came up with him at Blackheath Station, and he was so done I had to carry him all the way home in my arms. He’s quite all right again now; I left him at home, tied to the fire-irons in my bedroom.”
“Then he does love me, after all,” said Judy.
“Well, he’s not the only one,” said the Captain.
And at that moment came from the other side of the front door the familiar whine, the well-known scratching mingled with strange clanking noises.
Next instant three happy people were embracing on the door-mat amid the sobs of Judy, the laughter of her lover, the yelps of Alcibiades, and the deafening rattle of a poker, a pair of tongs, and half a shovel.