The Dog and the Dragon in Reminiscence
THE DOG AND
By HUGH WALPOLE
RACHEL SEDDON sat on the fourth floor of the Titan Hotel in New York, trying to read Marquette's "Humpty Dumpty."
The heavy, clumsy volume fell on to her lap, and she turned her eyes to the window. In the light of the spring afternoon—apricot purple-tinted—the cars buried deep in the black-shadowed canyon of Fifth Avenue looked, from where she sat, like a vast army of black slugs waiting for an order from some officer. The traffic lights, watchful eyes of red or green, suddenly changed. Across the ribbons of street numbers of little black figures scurried in fear for their little lives; the lights changed again, and slowly the army moved forward, bent on its secret, inevitable purpose.
Rachel, tired of the muddied contents of Mr. Dumpty's mind, stared about the pretty pink-and-white, soulless room. The room was close and heavy with the scent of flowers. The windows could not be opened because the noise from the street was so great. On the table were several brightly-bound volumes, not foolish, either—the last word in culture, perhaps—young Mr. Eliot's 'Waste Land," old Mr. Pound's collected verse, the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the last word and the next word hovering even then above those so-innocent victims, waiting, eagle-like, to strike.
Rachel did not care. Her intelligent young friend, Mamie Daugherty, had brought the books, had said that Rachel must read them. Rachel had attempted a page of "Humpty Dumpty," and that was sufficient. She was not clever enough to understand. She could hear Mamie's shrill tones—
"But you must keep up, my dear, you must keep up!"
She did not want to keep up. She was not modern at all. She was Early-Victorian. She always had been.
Her eyes moved wearily back to the cars slithering through the faint yellow light. Faintly through the closed windows came the shrill cry of the electric hammer. Open those windows and the confusion that would come rushing into the room! A matter of life and death to keep them closed!
But the room was warm. Her hands closed on her lap. Her eyes fell. "H. D." slipped to the floor and there wallowed in his own grime. Her son had been married only a fortnight before. It was for that that she had come to America. He was now on his way to Japan. Roddy! Like his father, so kind, so good, so unimaginative.
And now she was alone in the room. Rich, good-looking for forty-six, popular—and alone. Quite alone. No one at all. Comfortable in health, position, secure as very few, perhaps, were secure in this new uncertain world—and alone. In half an hour Clarice would arrive to take her. …
Her eyes closed.
Her eyes closed, but she was not asleep. Her dress of dark purple silk spread its skirts about her like a cloud; her face, still sharp with some of the austerity that the early years of her married life had given her, lay back against the amber-coloured cushions of the long easy-chair. Her hands closed in her lap, receiving at once the lifeless outline of wax. Her bosom slowly rose and fell.
Beyond the window she heard the dim voice of the metal hammer. Someone in the next room was speaking at the telephone. No, she was not sleeping, but she seemed to be narrating to someone an earlier experience—an experience of so long ago that it belonged to quite another life than hers, and not only another life, but another age, another world.
To whom was she speaking? To Roddy, perhaps—not to Roddy the second, so young, so modern, so self-assured and restrained, but to Roddy the first, whom at first she had not loved and afterwards. … Her eyelids flickered, her hands for an instant rose and fell again as though in a gesture of recognition.
"Well, Roddy, we did make a success of it, didn't we? In these days that's something to say. Weren't those last ten years the happiest possible to man? I like to look back now and see how happy you were. That is, perhaps, now that your son is married and gone—because, whatever I may pretend, he is gone; the girl will see to that—the greatest pleasure left to me.
"Who knows? It may be that so much happiness over so long a time deadens us. Certainly since your death I have had some good times. I would rather be alive than not, but that morning when I looked at you for the last time, something went, and it was not only because I was losing you; something went in the world, too. Something has gone out of the world. We all feel it—we all know it. Or is it only that I have reached the dangerous age—the real true dangerous age—and it is simply my own youth that I am missing? You can tell me, Roddy; you know me so well. Am I so egoistic as that? I won't believe it—something gone out of the world that we have got to get back into it or we perish.
"Intensity of feeling? The intensity, the pause that come from waiting, from listening—the pause that we can't secure now, try as we may. Why do I feel nothing intensely any longer? Is it because I am for ever being moved away from it, pushed on by machines, always something buzzing in my ears that refuses to allow me to listen?
"Machines, machines, machines! I tell you, Roddy, they're awful. Much worse than when you were alive—worse every week—more of them, they move faster, they make more noise.
"I don't care any more. I have no fear any more, nor passion, nor deep, luxurious sense of beauty—the thing that Lizzie Rand used to call 'Putting the key in the lock and feeling that it turns.' Do you remember?
"And if we don't get back these things, we're lost—life is at the end. We, too, are machines, and the key to the door is lost for ever!
"No fear any more! I told you, Roddy, once about that night when Grandmamma Wrexe found me in her bedroom. Talk of terror! There was intensity of feeling, if you like. That was life. I am back again, savouring it, turning it over on my tongue, trying to find in it something that the world hasn't got any more. Romance! Green and gold and ebony with the dragon's eyes—and the mongrel dog! Yes, there was something in that—something precious and deep and splendid. Oh, Roddy, help me, help me to drag it back into life again!
"You know—I've told you often enough—that I was only seven years old when I was taken to live in that Portland Place house—seven years old, with black, staring, rebellious eyes, like a little witch. I hated everybody because I was so desperately frightened.
"It was not a house, as you yourself know well enough, to encourage a small child's confidence. No, not a house for confidences and not, as I saw it then, for any romantic fancies, either. I was a queer little child. I like, from where I am swinging half asleep, to lean back, stretch out a hand and pick up that kid, with her large, black, staring eyes, her expression half of fright, half of curiosity, her wonder, her loneliness. Oh, it doesn't bear thinking of how eternally lonely small children can be!
"And that was a house to be lonely in! Those Portland Place houses don't seem so very large now to one's grown-up eyes—though in these after-the-war days they are much too large for any ordinary civilised person—but to a small, lonely child a desert—that was what it was, a desert! It was divided, I remember, like Cæsar's Gaul, into four parts—the servants' quarters, the public reception see-your-friends-at-teatime quarters. Granny Wrexe's quarters, and the desolate, barnlike rooms where Miss Manche, the governess, and old Nurse Protty and myself passed our dreary hours.
"They were dreary for all of us, and for myself terrifying. Terrifying, of course, because of my picture of the old lady on the other side of the wall. You saw, Roddy, how, until she died, I never quite recovered my security. To any small child she must have been awful. It wasn't only what she was in herself, but the breathless attitude that people adopted when they were speaking of her. The way Miss Manche herself would sink her voice and throw her eye over her shoulder, and as to Nurse Protty, at the mere sound of Granny Wrexe's name she would quiver all over like a jelly.
"I, at seven years old, didn't, of course, know all that the old Duchess stood for. I didn't know any of it. How much more wonderful even than she was would she have appeared to everyone then had they known of the European War! And they didn't know—lucky for them that they didn't. But she stood for enough as it was. She was a past-mistress of pictorial effects, of silences, vanishings, speaking oracularly, sitting between her green Chinese dragons on her golden throne, bullying by proxy and all the rest of it—there's no need to tell you, Roddy!
"Of course to a small child she was simply terrifying, and doubly of course to a lonely, imaginative, sensitive little thing as I was. And I hadn't a friend! I wasn't allowed to play with other children. Adela and John and the others were good to me when they had time, and that, of course, was seldom enough. Miss Manche believed in her good old methods for bringing up children, saying sharply, 'Now, don't do that, Rachel!' on every possible opportunity, and being absolutely inhuman. According to Lizzie Rand, who knew her afterwards, she had troubles enough of her own; but, of course, she never took me into her confidence, although I was old for my age, and might have been of some comfort to her had she made the experiment. But when I think of Roddy Junior, and the time he had in his childhood, and the time I had!
"I was punished on every conceivable occasion, and punished generally by being shut up in the dark, because that seemed to have more effect with me than anything else. And indeed it had! I was terrified of the dark in a way that Miss Manche couldn't even begin to conceive of. I generally saw Granny Wrexe as I hid my face in the bed, and she would come slowly out of the dusk, with her waxen face, and her fingers stiff with rings, and a little body like a sharp-beaked bird's, her snow-white hair and her claw-like hands.
"But I suffered more from loneliness than from the dark. My Russian blood gave me a strain of melancholy, as you well know, Roddy, that loneliness desperately accentuated. I had simply nothing and nobody to love. All alone in that huge house. I had an old rag doll that I adored, and Miss Manche threw it into the fire one day because I had been naughty. I bit Miss Manche in the finger—I can feel the grit of the ring on my teeth at this moment—and then I determined that I would never love anything or anybody again because it hurt so terribly when you lost them.
"However, I did love something again, and it is just that memory that comes back to me now—a certain night, a terrible moment, and that night, that moment that passion of love and of rage seem to me just now romantic as nothing in my life has been since—no, not my love for you, Roddy. That was something else, deeper, but not so poignantly romantic. And this modern machine-made world, can it ever give one, romantically, what the old one gave one? Or is it only increasing middle-age? Whatever it is, it's a luxury to capture that moment again, to have it in one's hand, to touch it, feel it, to be aware of the romance stealing up through one's fingers. …
"What I loved was a dog.
"I don't know why I have never told you about this before. It comes back to me to-day with more vividness than it has ever had—Tatters, the dog, called after a book that I loved when I was small, 'Rags and Tatters.' Forgotten utterly now, I suppose, and, if remembered, considered too desperately sentimental for the sophisticated cold-blooded young cradle-Freudians of to-day.
"I saw the dog when I was out for a walk with Miss Manche. It was trying to get up some area steps that were slippery with the January morning frost. It climbed a step, slipped back, and then howled. It was a kind of short-legged terrier, nearly a Sealyham, I should think, and it had a black nose and one ear black, tipped just as though it had been dipped in the ink. It looked at me as I peered over the area railing, and howled so comically, with one flap of an ear spread nakedly back, that I couldn't resist it. Miss Manche had gone on, with her head in the air, as she used to do when she was imaging matrimony, and I was down the steps and had the dog in my arms and was back again in no time at all.
"And then when I felt the dog in my arms, his body all soft and warm like a hot-water bottle and his legs hanging down, his tongue licking my glove, I simply couldn't let him go. He was heavy, and when I reached Miss Manche I was panting. I think that she must have just reached the stage in her prophecies when he first drew her head to his breast, because she said dreamily, 'What have you got there, darling?' and didn't wait for an answer, I put him down on the pavement, and he trotted contentedly beside me. He must have been washed quite recently by someone, because he looked clean, and he held his head up as though he were a prince.
"We were near our prison, and he followed me in through the heavy, grim doors as though he hadn't a care in the world. The footman said nothing, and Miss Manche apparently noticed nothing. It wasn't until we were in the schoolroom, and the dog went straight for Miss Manche's work-basket, and the reels were all spilt on the floor, that he was really observed.
"He was, of course, at once condemned, I was scolded, and there were some tears. Then Miss Manche found a letter awaiting her from a favourite brother, and the dog was quiet in a corner with a biscuit that I had found for him, and, for the moment, he was forgotten.
"It was then that I had for the first time in my young life a real contact with a human being. No one had ever, so far as I knew, loved me before. Tatters loved me at sight. He loved me, too, with dignity. He didn't make me feel a perfect fool.
"That January afternoon as I now see it—how I look back to it and envy myself! Yes, envy. I am swinging now perhaps between the two—New York and myself so comfortable and so wise—and so well-armoured! Do I raise that window an inch and the roar comes tattering in, the roar so aimless and so threatening. But I have made my terms with this modern world, Roddy, and I know how to deal with it. A mask, a pair of iron gloves, an indifferent heart. No time for deep feeling, no pause for questioning. Our son is off my hands, happily married in the modern fashion. I have friends, money, flowers, security. Don't pity me, only remember that if you could come back to me, even for an hour, I would throw all this out of the window down into that squealing, bellowing Fifth Avenue—and oh, how happy I'd be!
"But no time for feeling, and that is why I have such envy for that little creature with the black-button eyes and the coal-black hair, squatting there on the school-room floor, with the dog, resting his nose on his outstretched paws, watching her.
"I felt, in some strange way, that that was to be the hour of my young life. It is impossible, I suppose, for a modern child, with its thousand and one toys and its grown-up experiences, to understand what I felt all those years ago. There was the romance of it, not only in my loneliness, my hunger for affection, but in a great house crammed with treasures, gold and silver, jade and ivory, and that old woman, sitting on the other side of the wall and receiving the fashionable world like a queen. So completely had she always disregarded me that, on looking back now, I am lost in wonder that she bothered to keep me at all. I don't suppose she ever had bothered. In the beginning I fancy that Adela or someone had timorously suggested that it was the right thing for her to do, and, on the impulse, she had done it—and then forgotten it. Certainly on the few occasions—and you may be sure that they were as few as possible—when I confronted her on the stairs or in the hall she would glance at me with surprise and then move away, instantly forgetting me again.
"And so I lay on one side of the wall with the dog, and she sat upright on the other in the golden chair and two dragons guarding her. I wonder which of us was the happier? On that afternoon at least there could be no question.
"Perfect peace in the schoolroom. I am there now. Miss Manche busy over her letters, her rings knocking tiny raps on the table as she jerks her fingers, thinking, myself squatting, my hair in my eyes, pulling the dog's ears and whispering to him, the dog looking at me with eyes of love, perfectly understanding that I have been lonely and now am so no longer, that I have needed a friend, that himself is happy now and warm and comfortable. The snow falls beyond the window with a kind of stealthy approval of both of us, the sky turns from green to purple, the Watcher in the sky plants the stars like silver daisies.
"And then the catastrophe!
"In the form, as it so often was in those days, of Beldam, the butler. I don't know whether I ever told you about him. He vanished long before your time, expelled ultimately for stealing, I fancy. In those days he ruled us like a king. He was large and very stout, with two chins, little beady eyes, bald and shiny. He carried himself as though he had a wooden board down his back, and he used to kick out his feet when he walked, as though he were trying to jerk off his shiny shoes.
"How I hated him! Oh, how I hated him! At the thought of that hatred the waters of romance swell upward again. I wish that I could hate anyone as much to-day, that I could care enough. He was always interfering. Looking back, I can see that Miss Manche hated him quite as deeply as I did, but of course I didn't know that then. I didn't credit Miss Manche with any lively feelings save sentiment.
"But I imagine that Beldam spoke to her as though he were her equal. He had social ambitions, I fancy. Like all the servants, he thought me 'a charity brat.' It is true that I was her Grace's quite legitimate grandchild, but as her Grace never paid the slightest attention to me, that distinction of birth went for very little. I had foreign blood in me, was given to tantrums, sulked, was in the way.
"He stood in the door, looking at us, his shining gleaming shirt-front heaving with his self-satisfaction. He gave Miss Manche some message, and then he saw the dog. He started as though a bee had stung his fat calf.
"'A dawg!' he cried.
"I should have risen in defence, but the part of me that is Slav made me pause. In another moment Beldam had Tatters by the scruff of his neck and was out of the door. I was after him. I can hear myself crying: 'Oh, Beldam, he's mine! Don't hurt him!'
"Beldam turned and grinned.
"'Yours, is 'e?' he asked.
"'What will you do with him?' I suppose that the agony in my eyes, something lost and desolate in my figure, touched him.
"'Drown 'im,' he said
"'Oh, no, no, no!'
"He looked from me to the dog, from the dog back to me again. His fat face softened.
"‘'E's not a bad little dawg,' he said. 'We'll keep 'im until to-morrer morning and see.'
"He departed downstairs, Tatters howling. I went back to the schoolroom and stood, tearless, white of face, staring at Miss Manche.
"The room was dark now, and my soul was dark, too. There was Romance again—the sense of finality, a child's utter abandoned despair, an agony rich in feeling. But I saw nothing romantic then. I was simply resolved that I would act—act in some blind final catastrophic way—burn the place down, if necessary, to get Tatters back again.
"I stayed there for ever so long without moving. People were used to my long silences, put them down as 'sulks,' and so left them. But on this occasion I was reaching a crisis, fighting my way out and up by myself, and reaching some height, catching some view now for the first time in my life. Why was I so meek? Why did I allow these others to 'put upon me' as they would, to order and command me? Had I no will of my own, no personality? Was I Nobody?
"I had never had anything worth fighting for before. Now I had. What would they do to me if I defied them? Put me in prison? Starve me on bread and water? Let them. Then the Slav part of me crept up, whispered that it was better to leave things as they were—to-morrow, next week, I might do something. Too much trouble now—too much trouble now. …
"I was passive all that evening, washed my hands, ate my supper, kissed Miss Manche, said my prayers, undressed and crept into bed. I even slept. Then I woke with sudden abruptness. I sat up and listened. Somewhere Tatters was howling.
"I do not, to this day, know how I heard him. Call it telepathy, if you will. My room was at the top of the house, the butler's pantry at the bottom, but I heard him.
"I got up and went to the door and listened. I had no idea of the time. When a child wakes suddenly from sleep, it is always 'the middle of the night.' I could hear the pulse of the house beating on every side of me. I opened the door and peeped out. The voices of innumerable clocks, the trickling of minute sounds like the whisper of a subterranean stream, and the house vast and desperately cold. I stood there in my nightdress, shivering, but still, so distant and muffled that it was like the ticking of a clock in someone's waistcoat pocket, I could hear Tatters' wails.
"I put on my soft woollen slippers and my red flannel dressing-gown and stole down the passage. I had, of course, never done anything like this before. I was compact of fears and terrors, but in some way that evening a new character had come to me—I had a new soul. I was never going to be frightened by anything again.
"I stole down the stairs past the landing, where the huge china clock used to be—you know the one, Roddy, with the moon face and the planets and the winds—down into the hall, swung the green baize doors, and Tatters' howls came full upon me. He was soon in my arms, untied from the table leg, licking my neck, wagging his tail like a pendulum, whining with pleasure.
"I began my return journey, and then, on the second landing, bewildered by the cold and the weight of Tatters in my arms, I passed through the wrong door.
"I didn't realise it until I had gone through two rooms, and then I almost slipped and fell. In my woollen shoes I was sliding on the black ebony floor of the green drawing-room.
"You remember that room well enough. How hideous by our modern standards, with its heavy statuary, huge black fireplace, gold ceiling and faded tapestries!
"In the night, with the moonlight flickering in through the shutters, it was ghastly.
"I was terrified out of my senses, rushed through a door, then another one, fled panting into a third room, Tatters slipped from my arms, a small table crashed to the floor with a terrifying noise, and a voice said 'Who's there?'
"I was in Granny Wrexe's bedroom! That would make something of a subject for a painter, I think, even in these clever days when subject pictures are so completely out of fashion—the small, terrified child in her nightdress, the match suddenly struck, the candle lighted, revealing the high four-poster bed with its dark red hangings and the old woman sitting up, her nose sharp like a pin, her eyes flashing fire.
"So at least those eyes seemed to me. That is the impression that I finally carry away with me—two fiery eyes, the cruel sharp line of the mouth, the untidy hair, the long skinny hands.
"Frightened! Terror beyond any words to describe descended and wrapped its icy cloak around me. Agony of fear piled up by endless hours of imagination, picturing her never like this in her blue bed-jacket and her grey hair tumbling over her shoulders, but this new figure was more fear-creating than the recognised one.
"I don't know what I expected. Instant death, I fancy.
"To the repeated 'Who's there?' I answered, 'It's me, Granny. Rachel.'
"I had never conceived of her, I suppose, as at any time sleeping. She always had, as you know, to the very day of her death, a love of fantasy and colour, and the bed-posts were of dark red lacquer, there was a heavy Chinese image of dull gold staring, unblinking, at me across the room, a mirror of old silver sparkling in the candle-light. The ugly old woman with her scrawny neck, her yellow skin, her scattered grey hair, was strange enough in that setting. I took it all in, I think—I was observant enough from the earliest time—but what principally occupied me was my determination to overcome my own terror. I wasn't going to show her, and yet it was all I could do to force my legs to support me, and my teeth were chattering so that I was resolved to speak as little as may be. We stared at one another. She was, I fancy, frightened, too, startled out of her sudden sleep not so easily won at her age.
"'What are you doing here?' Not very far removed, that question, from—
"'Who are you?'
"'I came—the wrong room. …'
"It was then that Tatters played his part. He suddenly from nowhere sprang on to the bed and barked at the old woman for all that he was worth. He had never, I suppose, seen anything so hideous before. At any rate, he was bewildered by the candle-light, dazzled by the silver mirror, and barked to give himself courage.
"Well, she was frightened then, indeed and indeed. A child from nowhere, a dog from the bowels of the earth, in the middle of the night, in the very holy of holies. …
"She stared, and then suddenly her terror yielded to rage. She seized Tatters and shook him to and fro with her old whipcord hands, the while her grey hair, like Medusa's locks, waved in the breeze. The strangest curses came from her lips. I was too young at the time, but, looking back, I fancy that there were words there, real stable-door, barnyard words, that years of artificial decorum had checked, that only possibly poor Adela had ever heard. Back to her eighteenth-century forebears, and not such a great distance at that.
"In any case I didn't listen. When I saw Tatters shaken like a rat, and caught a glimpse of his astonished eyes, something happened to me. I rushed at the bed, screaming.
"'You shan't hurt him! You shan't hurt him!' I cried. 'You're wicked! You're wicked!'
"She turned and,the dog, slapped my face a stinging, hurting slap that I can feel to this day.
"'You bad, bad child!' she panted. And then suddenly it was over—over for ever for both of us.
"Never again would she pass me in the hall and have to pause before she remembered who I was. Never again would she be unaware of me on the other side of the wall, gone for ever any hope of friendship or even armed neutrality.
"She would never forget. She never did.
"We gave one another a long, quiet look. She patted, I remember, the edges of her bed-gown. Her look at me was almost furtive. My look at her was defiant, and in that defiance I discovered my own true personality, never to lose it again.
"I picked up Tatters and went. …"
Rachel Seddon woke with a start. Someone was in the room—Clarice Horby! Dear, darling Clarice!
"No, I was asleep, dear. Well, not exactly asleep—half dreaming, half remembering. Those were romantic days. Nothing like them any more."
"What days?" Clarice bent down and kissed her.
"Oh, no time at all. Have you the car outside?"
"Yes. We were due in Seventy-First Street ten minutes ago."
"All right. But can't we go up Madison? There's a dog shop there."
"A dog shop?"
"Yes. I thought I'd like—oh, just to look—not to buy, of course. But dogs are such darlings—especially mongrels."