F. Anstey.

The Black Poodle, and Other Tales



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Only fifteen more fleeting minutes and then – unless I gave up Chlorine and her fortune for ever – I must go up and knock at that awful door, and enter the presence of the frightful mystic Thing that was roaring and laughing and clanking on the other side!

Stupidly I sat and stared at the clock; in five minutes, now, I should be beginning my desperate duel with one of the powers of darkness – a thought which gave me sickening qualms.

I was clinging to the thought that I had still two precious minutes left – perhaps my last moments of safety and sanity – when the lamp expired with a gurgling sob, and left me in the dark.

I was afraid of sitting there all alone any longer, and besides, if I lingered, the Curse might come down and fetch me. The horror of this idea made me resolve to go up at once, especially as scrupulous punctuality might propitiate it.

Groping my way to the door, I reached the hall and stood there, swaying under the old stained-glass lantern. And then I made a terrible discovery. I was not in a condition to transact any business; I had disregarded Sir Paul's well-meant warning at dinner; I was not my own master. I was lost!

The clock in the adjoining room tolled twelve, and from without the distant steeples proclaimed in faint peals and chimes that it was Christmas morn. My hour had come!

Why did I not mount those stairs? I tried again and again, and fell down every time, and at each attempt I knew the Curse would be getting more and more impatient.

I was quite five minutes late, and yet, with all my eagerness to be punctual, I could not get up that staircase. It was a horrible situation, but it was not at its worst even then, for I heard a jarring sound above, as if heavy rusty bolts were being withdrawn.

The Curse was coming down to see what had become of me! I should have to confess my inability to go upstairs without assistance, and so place myself wholly at its mercy!

I made one more desperate effort, and then – and then, upon my word, I don't know how it was exactly – but, as I looked wildly about, I caught sight of my hat on the hat-rack below, and the thoughts it roused in me proved too strong for resistance. Perhaps it was weak of me, but I venture to think that very few men in my position would have behaved any better.

I renounced my ingenious and elaborate scheme for ever, the door (fortunately for me) was neither locked nor bolted, and the next moment I was running for my life along the road to Chelsea, urged on by the fancy that the Curse itself was in hot pursuit.

For weeks after that I lay in hiding, starting at every sound, so fearful was I that the outraged Curse might track me down at last; all my worldly possessions were at Parson's Green, and I could not bring myself to write or call for them, nor indeed have I seen any of the Catafalques since that awful Christmas Eve.

I wish to have nothing more to do with them, for I feel naturally that they took a cruel advantage of my youth and inexperience, and I shall always resent the deception and constraint to which I so nearly fell a victim.

But it occurs to me that those who may have followed my strange story with any curiosity and interest may be slightly disappointed at its conclusion, which I cannot deny is a lame and unsatisfactory one.

They expected, no doubt, to be told what the Curse's personal appearance is, and how it comports itself in that ghastly Grey Chamber, what it said to me, and what I said to it, and what happened after that.

This information, as will be easily understood, I cannot pretend to give, and, for myself, I have long ceased to feel the slightest curiosity on any of these points.

But for the benefit of such as are less indifferent, I may suggest that almost any eligible bachelor would easily obtain the opportunities I failed to enjoy by simply calling at the old mansion at Parson's Green, and presenting himself to the baronet as a suitor for his daughter's hand.

I shall be most happy to allow my name to be used as a reference.

A FAREWELL APPEARANCE

A DOG STORY FOR CHILDREN

Dandy, come here, sir; I want you.' The little girl who spoke was standing by the table in the morning-room of a London house one summer day, and she spoke to a small silver-grey terrier lying curled up at the foot of one of the window curtains.

As Dandy happened to be particularly comfortable just then, he pretended not to hear, in the hope that his child-mistress would not press the point.

But she did not choose to be trifled with in this way: he was called more imperiously still, until he could dissemble no longer and came out gradually, stretching himself and yawning with a deep sense of injury.

'I know you haven't been asleep; I saw you watching the flies,' she said. 'Come up here, on the table.'

Seeing there was no help for it, he obeyed, and sat down on the table-cloth opposite to her, with his tongue hanging out and his eyes blinking, waiting her pleasure.

Dandy was rather particular as to the hands he allowed to touch him, but generally speaking, he found it pleasant enough (when he had nothing better to do) to resign himself to be pulled about, lectured, or caressed by Hilda.

She was a strikingly pretty child, with long curling brown locks, and a petulant profile, which reminded one of Mr. Doyle's charming wilful little fairy princesses.

On the whole, although Dandy privately considered she had taken rather a liberty in disturbing him, he was willing to overlook it

'I've been thinking, Dandy,' said Hilda, reflectively, 'that as you and Lady Angelina will be thrown a good deal together when we go into the country next week, you ought to know one another, and you've never been properly introduced yet; so I'm going to introduce you now.'

Now Lady Angelina was only Hilda's doll, and a doll, too, with perhaps as few ideas as any doll ever had yet – which is a good deal to say.

Dandy despised her with all the enlightenment of a thoroughly superior dog; he considered there was simply nothing in her, except possibly bran, and it had made him jealous and angry for a long time to notice the influence that this staring, simpering creature had managed to gain over her mistress.

'Now sit up,' said Hilda. Dandy sat up. He felt that committed him to nothing, but he was careful not to look at Lady Angelina, who was lolling ungracefully in the work-basket with her toes turned in.

'Lady Angelina,' said Hilda next, with great ceremony, 'let me introduce my particular friend Mr. Dandy. Dandy, you ought to bow and say something nice and clever, only you can't; so you must give Angelina your paw instead.'

Here was an insult for a self-respecting dog! Dandy determined never to disgrace himself by presenting his paw to a doll; it was quite against his principles. He dropped on all fours rebelliously.

'That's very rude of you,' said Hilda, 'but you shall do it. Angelina will think it so odd of you. Sit up again and give your paw, and let Angelina stroke your head.'

The dog's little black nose wrinkled and his lips twitched, showing his sharp white teeth: he was not going to be touched by Angelina's flabby wax hand if he could help it!

Unfortunately, Hilda, like older people sometimes, was bent upon forcing persons to know one another, in spite of an obvious unwillingness on at least one side, and so she brought the doll up to the terrier, and, taking one limp pink arm, attempted to pat the dog's head with it.

This was too much: his eyes flamed red like two signal lamps, there was a sharp sudden snap, and the next minute Lady Angelina's right arm was crunched viciously between Dandy's keen teeth.

After that there was a terrible pause. Dandy knew he was in for it, but he was not sorry. He dropped the mangled pieces of wax one by one, and stood there with his head on one side, growling to himself, but wincing for all that, for he was afraid to meet Hilda's indignant grey eyes.

'You abominable, barbarous dog!' she said at last, using the longest words she could to impress him. 'See what you've done! you've bitten poor Lady Angelina's arm off.'

He could not deny it; he had. He looked down at the fragments before him, and then sullenly up again at Hilda. His eyes said what he felt – 'I'm glad of it – serves her right; I'd do it again.'

'You deserve to be well whipped,' continued Hilda, severely; 'but you do howl so. I shall leave you to your own conscience' (a favourite remark of her governess) 'until your bad heart is touched, and you come here and say you're sorry and beg both our pardons. I only wish you could be made to pay for a new arm. Go away out of my sight, you bad dog; I can't bear to look at you!'

Dandy, still impenitent, moved leisurely down from the table and out of the open door into the kitchen. He was thinking that Angelina's arm was very nasty, and he should like something to take the taste away. When he got downstairs, however, he found the butcher was calling and had left the area gate open, which struck him as a good opportunity for a ramble. By the time he came back Hilda would have forgotten all about it, or she might think he was lost, and find out which was the more valuable animal – a silly, useless doll, or an intelligent dog like himself.

Hilda saw him from the window as he bolted out with tail erect. 'He's doing it to show off,' she said to herself; 'he's a horrid dog sometimes. But I suppose I shall have to forgive him when he comes back!'

However, Dandy did not come back that night, nor all next day, nor the day after that, nor any more; for the fact was, an experienced dog-stealer had long had his eye upon him, and Dandy happened to come across him that very morning.

He was not such a stupid dog as to be unaware he was doing wrong in following a stranger, but then the man had such delightful suggestions about him of things dogs love to eat, and Dandy had started for his run in a disobedient temper.

So he followed the broken-nosed, bandy-legged man till they reached a narrow lonely alley, and then just as Dandy was thinking about going home again, the stranger turned suddenly on him, hemmed him up in a corner, caught him dexterously up in one hand, tapped him sharply on the head, and slipped him, stunned, into a capacious inside pocket.

'I thought werry likely I should come on you in 'ere, Bob,' said a broken-nosed man in a fur cap, about a week after Dandy's disappearance, to a short, red-faced, hoarse man who was drinking at the bar of a public-house.

'Ah,' said the hoarse man; 'well, you ain't fur out as it happens.'

'Yes, I did,' said the other. 'I met your partner the other day, and he tells me you're looking out for a noo Toby dawg. I've got a article somewheres about me at this moment I should like you to cast a eye over.'

And, diving into his inside pocket he fished out a small shining silver-grey terrier which he slammed down rather roughly on the pewter counter.

Of course the terrier was Hilda's lost Dandy. For some reason or other, the dog-stealer had not thought it prudent to claim the reward offered for him as he had intended to do at first, and Dandy, not being of a breed in fashionable demand, the man was trying to get rid of him now for the best price he could obtain from humble purchasers.

'Well, we do want a understudy, and that's a fact,' said the hoarse man, who was one of the managers of Mr. Punch's Theatre. 'The Toby as travels with us now is breakin' up, getting so blind he don't know Punch from Jack Ketch. But that there animal 'ud never make a 'it as a Toby,' he said, examining Dandy critically: 'why, that's bin a gen'leman's dawg once, that has – we don't want no amatoors on our show.'

'It's the amatoors as draws nowadays,' said the dog-fancier: 'not but what this 'ere partic'lar dawg has his gifts for the purfession. You see him sit up and smoke a pipe and give yer his paw, now.'

And he put Dandy through these performances on the sloppy counter. It was much worse than being introduced to Angelina; but hunger and fretting and rough treatment had broken down the dog's spirit, and it was with dull submission now that he repeated the poor little tricks Hilda had taught him with such pretty perseverance.

'It's no use talking,' said the showman, though he began to show some signs of yielding. 'It takes a tyke born and bred to make a reg'lar Toby. And this ain't a young dog, and he ain't 'ad no proper dramatic eddication; he's not worth to us not the lowest you'd take for him.'

'Well now, I'll tell you 'ow fur I'm willing to meet yer,' said the other persuasively; 'you shall have him, seein' it's you, for – ' And so they haggled on for a little longer, but at the end of the interview Dandy had changed hands, and was permanently engaged as a member of Mr. Punch's travelling company.

A few days after that Dandy made acquaintance with his strange fellow-performers. The men had put the show up on a deserted part of a common near London, behind the railings of a little cemetery where no one was likely to interfere with them, and the new Toby was hoisted up on the very narrow and uncomfortable shelf to go through his first interview with Mr. Punch.

When that popular gentleman appeared at his side Dandy examined him with pricked and curious ears. He was rather odd-looking, but his smile, though there was certainly a good deal of it, seemed genial and encouraging, and the poor dog wagged his tail in a conciliatory manner – he wanted some one to be kind to him again.

'The dawg's a fool, Bob,' growled Jem, the other proprietor of the show, a little shabby dirty-faced man with a thin and ragged red beard, who was watching the experiment from the outside; 'he's a-waggin' his bloomin' tail – he'll be a-lickin of Punch's face next! Try him with a squeak.'

And Bob produced a sound which was a hideous compound of chuckle, squeak, and crow, when Dandy, in the full persuasion that the strange figure must be a new variety of cat, flew at it blindly.

But though he managed to get a firm grip of its great hook nose, there was not much satisfaction to be got out of that – the hard wood made his teeth ache, and besides, in his excitement he overbalanced himself and came suddenly down upon Mr. Robert Blott inside, who swore horribly and put him up again.

Then, after a little highly mysterious dancing up and down, and wagging his head, Mr. Punch, in the most uncalled-for manner, hit Dandy over the head with a stick, in order, as Jem put it, 'to get up a ill-feeling between them' – a wanton insult that made the dog madder than ever.

He did not revenge himself at once: he only barked furiously and retreated to his corner of the stage; but the next time Punch came sidling cautiously up to him, Dandy made, not for his wooden head, but for a place between his shoulders which he thought looked more yielding.

There was a savage howl from below, Punch dropped in a heap on the narrow shelf, and Mr. Blott sucked his finger and thumb with many curses.

Mr. Punch was not killed, however, though Dandy had at first imagined he had settled him. He revived almost directly, when he proceeded to rain down such a shower of savage blows from his thick stick upon every part of the dog's defenceless body, that Dandy was completely subdued long before his master thought fit to leave off.

By the time the lesson came to an end, Dandy was sore and shaken and dazed, for Bob had allowed himself to be a little carried away by personal feeling. Still it only showed Dandy more plainly that Mr. Punch was not a person to be trifled with, and, though he liked him as little as ever, he respected as well as feared him.

Unfortunately for Dandy, he was a highly intelligent terrier, of an inquiring turn of mind, and so, after he had been led about for some days with the show, and was able to think things over and put them together, he began to suspect that Punch and the other figures were not alive after all, but only a particularly ugly set of dolls, which Mr. Blott put in motion in some way best known to himself.

From the time he was perfectly certain of this he felt a degraded dog indeed. He had scorned once to allow himself to be even touched by Angelina (who at least was not unpleasant to look at, and always quite inoffensive): now, every hour of his life he found himself ordered about and insulted before a crowd of shabby strangers by a vulgar tawdry doll, to which he was obliged to be civil and even affectionate – as if it was something real!

Dandy was an honest dog, and so, of course, it was very revolting to his feelings to have to impose upon the public in this manner; but Mr. Punch, if he was only a doll, had a way of making himself obeyed.

And though in time the new Toby learnt to perform his duties respectably enough, he did so without the least enthusiasm: it wounded his pride – besides making him very uncomfortable – when Punch caught hold of his head, and something with red whiskers and a blue frock took him by the hind legs, and danced jerkily round the stage with him. He hated that more than anything. Day by day he grew more miserable and homesick.

He loathed the Punch and Judy show and every doll in it, from the hero down to the ghost and the baby. Jem and Bob were not actually unkind to him, and would even have been friendly had he allowed it; but he was a dainty dog, with a natural dislike to ill-dressed and dirty persons, and shrank from their rough if well-meant advances. He never could forget what he had once been, and what he was, and often, in the close sleeping-room of some common lodging-house, he dreamed of the comfortable home he had lost, and Hilda's pretty imperious face, and woke to miss her more than ever.

At first his new masters had been careful to keep him from all chance of escape, and Bob led him after the show by a string; but, as he seemed to be getting resigned to his position, allowed him to run loose.

He was trotting tamely at Jem's heels one hot August morning, followed by a small train of admiring children, when all at once he became aware that he was in a street he knew well – he was near his old home – a few minutes' hard run and he would be safe with Hilda!

He looked up sideways at Jem, who was beating his drum and blowing his pipes, with his eyes on the lower and upper windows. Bob's head was inside the show, and both were in front and not thinking of him just then.

Dandy stopped, turned round upon the unwashed children behind, looked wistfully up at them, as much as to say, 'Don't tell,' and then bolted at the top of his speed.

There was a shrill cry from the children at once of 'Oh, Mr. Punch, sir, please – your dawg's a-runnin' away from yer!' and angry calls to return from the two men. Jem even made an attempt to pursue him, but the drum was too much in his way, and a small dog is not easily caught at the best of times when he takes it into his head to run away. So he gave it up sulkily.

Meanwhile Dandy ran on, till the shouts behind died away. Once an errand boy, struck by the parti-coloured frill round the dog's neck, tried to stop him, but he managed to slip past him and run out into the middle of the road, and kept on blindly, narrowly escaping being run over several times by tradesmen's carts.

And at last, panting and exhausted, he reached the well-remembered gate, out of which he had marched so defiantly, it seemed long ages ago.

The railings were covered with wire netting inside, as he knew, but fortunately some one had left the gate open, and he pattered eagerly down the area steps feeling safe and at home at last.

The kitchen door was shut, but the window was not, and, as the sill was low, he contrived to scramble up somehow and jump into the kitchen, where he reckoned upon finding friends to protect him.

But he found it empty, and looking strangely cold and desolate; only a small fire was smouldering in the range, instead of the cheerful blaze he remembered there, and he could not find the cook – an especial patroness of his – anywhere.

He scampered up into the hall, making straight for the morning-room, where he knew he should find Hilda curled up in one of the arm-chairs with a book.

But that room was empty too – the shutters were up, and the half-light which streamed in above them showed a dreary state of confusion: the writing-table was covered with a sheet and put away in a corner, the chairs were piled up on the centre table, the carpet had been taken up and rolled under the sideboard, and there was a faint warm smell of flue and dust and putty in the place.

He pattered out again, feeling puzzled and a little afraid, and went up the bare stone staircase to find Hilda in one of the upper rooms, perhaps in the nursery.

But the upper rooms, too, were all bare and sheeted and ghostly, and, higher up, the stairs were spotted with great stars of whitewash, and there were ladders and planks on which strange men in dirty white blouses were talking and joking a great deal, and doing a little whitewashing now and then, when they had time for it.

Their voices echoed up and down the stairs with a hollow noise that scared him, and he was afraid to venture any higher. Besides, he knew by this time somehow that Hilda, her father and mother, all the friends he had counted upon seeing again, would not be found in any part of that house.



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