THE first dog ! If he was ours in childhood, he remains for ever a dog by himself, a wiser, dearer, prettier, more important animal than any of his successors. He might be a yellow, bristly little mongrel, as, after the lapse of many years and much reflection, I have come to think that mine was; but the child-love spent upon him so tenderly, exalted him in his life-time, and enshrined him in his death. Had he lived to be seen with grown-up eyes, I feel I should have called Crib a cur, for he could hardly, with the points about him which I remember best, have been so very beautiful. He was rather larger than a Skye terrier, wiry-haired, but curly. He had a round head, and a short nose, and drooping ears, and a short, stiff tail. There was a tradition in the nursery that his grandfather had been a French poodle, and that legend inspired me with a notion of Crib as I should like to see him, clipped like a lion, a great ruft of hair before, and none behind, and his tail shaved small, and a tuft at the end of it. His ancestors the poodles, of whom we had three in china, with baskets in their mouths, on the nursery mantel-piece, looked just like that; and I felt that if Crib could ever have justice done him, he would be as smart-looking as the china dogs, and not at all unlike a lion. But who was to do it ? because Crib would not hear of my sawing much at his hair with the blunt nursery scissors, and the nurses could not be persuaded to see the matter in a right light, and I had no one else to help me; so the end of it was, that after very hard work, with those unmanageable long scissors. Crib's back was clipped into a few great ridges from the loss of several bunches of his yellow curls, but I had the grief of seeing that he never looked a bit more like a lion, and never would, if no one would help by being kind enough to be his barber; and no one ever did.
The most remarkable thing about Crib was his gravity. It impressed me almost to a painful degree. Like some older people, I imagined goodness and gravity were all the same thing, and as Crib was never naughty, and I knew I was always being told I was, his extreme goodness, being quite unattainable became rather depressing. I never thought of it as probably being low spirits in Crib, which it really must have been (for I remember that he never played about like other dogs), or I should have pitied him and tried to comfort him. But his gravity seemed far beyond all pity, and filled me with so much respect, that I felt much more as if I belonged to Crib, than I ever did that he belonged to me.
Faint misgivings as to this extraordinary wisdom and gravity sometimes, however, crossed my mind, and that was upon the occasions which we called Crib's frog-fights.
Why Crib fought the frogs, and then killed and ate them, I cannot imagine. The nurses said it was because he was a French dog, or at all events, that his grandfather having been French he had been used to eat frogs, and his grandson had inherited the taste ; and when we found that he only ate the legs, just as the nurses said " them nasty French " did, we were quite sure we had got to the bottom of Crib's proceedings. I don't believe now, we had. The sight of a frog made him furious; his hair bristled, and his white teeth glistened as he growled, till he shook all over in his passion; he would stand stiffened with rage, growling savagely at a frog, who would be sitting bolt upright, in the complacent way they always do between their hops when upon an expedition; but when once Crib had seen him, poor Froggie went no further, he was only growled at as long as he was quiet; but, at the first hop. Crib sprung upon him, and catching him in his mouth, dashed him away again, and then shivering with fury, would pick him up again and again every time he moved, till at last, the foam all dropping from his mouth like a mad dog, he would tear the frog limb from limb and eat him.
These proceedings of Crib's frightened me dreadfully, and put my faith in his gravity and goodness to a severe test, by what the nurses called these "goings-on" of his. Why Crib should be angry with the frogs nobody could think; it was quite evident he ate them because he hated them, and not because he liked them. Many a battle have I watched, peeping from behind one of the pillars of a verandah, where he generally found his frogs, holding on to it in horror, afraid of Crib, and shocked at him; but yet obliged to look out now and then to see how the fight went on, and delighted to have him back again in his right mind as soon as his frog-fury was over.
When Crib came, he was a great half-grown puppy, but already immoveably grave; for three or four years, through long summer days spent out in the garden and woods, he was generally my companion ; and for a whole year Crib and I had it all our own way—as far, at least, as the caprices of the nurses would allow us. We could wander about for hours, so that we answered to the nursery roll-call for dinner and tea.
But these periodical returns to civilization were looked upon by me (though probably not by Crib) as the greatest possible annoyance. One dream of happiness always came back after every fit of childish misery, and that was to run away and live in a wood or cave, as a wild child. Over and over again, every detail of the flight, both for Crib and myself, was planned ; for Crib was to come too; and I set about a systematic training for both him and myself for the life we were to lead.
The first and most important step seemed to be, that we ought to learn to live upon what the servants called " broken victuals." Scraps of bread and butter, bits of sugar, cakes. and apples, and bits of bone for Crib, were carefully collected and stowed away in the pocket of my frock (bones and all) at every opportunity. These were eaten when we got away together, quite by ourselves, as we did sometimes for half a day. Such happy days, when our training for turning wild was being carried on in earnest.
The bread and butter, and other nursery scraps, were to be superseded, of course, in time, by the berries and acorns which I should get used to as I got wilder; and Crib was to catch rabbits. Somewhere on the rocky sides of those blue hills beyond the river, there would be a cave where we should live when we were quite wild; but, in the meantime, it was very difficult to find good hiding-places to go on with our training properly. The prettiest, but not the safest place by any means was a beloved summer-castle in the wood. A little plot of smooth mossy turf, surrounded by a wall of golden gorge, and roofed in by the dark branches of a fir, in which a whole shower of goldfinches used so often to be singing; their sweet warbling little notes filling the whole place with music, the gold drop on their wings glancing in the sun, as they flitted and twittered amongst the branches—those dark fir branches, through which the sky looked so beautifully blue, as they moved across it in the light wind, and threw flickering shadows on the moss below. When the sun was very hot there would be sharp little reports going on all over the tree where the fir-cones were opening, and then the air would be filled with the aromatic, piny scent, a cedar scent, which always brings back that summer-castle in the wood. Through the red trunks of the fir trees, across the dark-brown bog, could be seen the distant sea, like a bar of silver in the sun; but I cared more then for the goldfinches, and the ring-doves cooing all over the wood, and the yellow and black-velvet humble bees droning over the gorse blossoms, than for the silver sea, or the blue hills beyond the river. Crib's chief attraction to the castle seemed to be a general flavour of rabbit which he always pretended to find there. Little he cared for the symmetry of the velvety, mossy, green carpet, as he scratched away with both fore-paws, only pausing to take breath now and then, with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, and then, after a long, satisfactory snuff into the hole he had excavated, to work again, harder than ever, throwing out the earth behind him, and tearing away at the bits of roots with his teeth. If you attempted to encourage Crib by a word or a pat when he was excavating, he always took it as an insult, bounced out of the hole he was making, and fiercely showed his teeth. Of course he spoilt the castle, and never caught the rabbit, but it " kept him good ;" and besides, if he chose to do it, nobody could stop him, and it was all in the way of training.
But the castle, though so pleasant and pretty, was no longer tenable as a fortress; the nurses knew all about it, and had a way of coming down upon it, and taking it by storm, which quite put an end to all feeling of being a wild child who lived there. A flutter of cap-ribbons might at any moment appear above the gorsy walls, and, for a lost savage, it was very trying to be told, by Jane or Betsy, to come in that moment to the nursery dinner, and "have your hair brushed, and that dirty pinny off, you naughty child."
But, at last, Crib and I had possession of two impregnable fortresses, where we retreated in safety for a whole year and a half, whenever our larder was supposed to be in a satisfactory state for standing a siege, and it was thought we could hold out long enough. The first place was a hay-loft, belonging to an unused stable, some way from the house, where the stable cats always had their nurseries, being quiet and remote from civilization; and a pair of white owls nested under the roof, swallows built on the rafters, and bats flew in and out at night. It was a grand place when you were once in; but it took so much scrambling to get into, that it was not an available fortress for a hurried retreat. Climbing up into a manger, and helping Crib, and then getting him and myself through the broken bars of the hay-rack, which nearly squeezed us both flat, all took time, so castle number two was not often resorted to. Our grand fortress was always a castle in a stack, and we had a succession of these, all more or less eligible. The very best was a burrow in the top of a straw-stack. It was a perilous clamber to get into that castle, the only approach being a jump from a ledge in a neighbouring hay-stack, at a great height from the ground; but once there, nothing could be more delightful. The burrow was our own making: Crib scratched at it, but perhaps did not help as much as he thought he did, and I pulled out the straw; and when done, it was a long sloping tunnel, into which one could slide, feet first, with a doorway, over which the golden straw-stalks hung so naturally that no nurse in the world would ever have seen it was a castle, and contained the naughty child she shouted for below. Crib knew perfectly well that he was to be neither seen nor heard when en retraite; he lay still, his sharp hazel eyes peeping sideways down at the angry nurse, and not moving a muscle till she was safe away. Then Crib would get up and shake himself, and try to get a little exhilaration by mouse hunting in the castle; or he sat and watched the process of weaving rush baskets, or the stringing of the lovely great white and yellow daisies into chains and bracelets for the " nursery children " up at the house. An old copy of Paradise Lost was always carried up to that castle ; and Crib had to listen to some queer versions of Satanic and Angelic speeches read out to him. Sometimes he went to sleep, and so did his mistress, who only woke up to find the shadows long, and the evening drawing in, and, much pleased at having been a savage so long, had to prepare for the scolding and sending to bed, which always awaited the return to the nursery.
One of the greatest delights was to get up, and out, and away with Crib in the dawn of a summer morning—a feat we very seldom accomplished (perhaps two or three times); but the wonderful beauty of that morning world, as seen for the first time by a child's eyes, remains a vivid memory still.
One well-remembered morning, a great star was looking in at the window, paled and fading in the sky, when I opened it and leant out to listen to the birds, and determined to get Crib, if he would come, and go out. Dressed at last, and past the nursery door, and down those strangely silent stairs, and Crib called from his guard at the foot of them, what a wild delight to open a glass door, and find the great crystal-clear globe of blue air above, and running out upon the dewy grass to look back at the house, looking so strange in the level sunlight, with its white blinds all down, like a many-eyed giant with his eyes shut up and fast asleep; but we never stirred beyond the sight of those shut-up eye-windows, for I dared not. I could not have gone to my castles for anything, not feeling at all sure whether there might not be live giants, or something else as queer, in them at that hour. Everything looked so mysterious in the morning light, the sun large and near, just above the rocky outline of the eastern hills, the shadows long and level below the trees. The birds, so tame in the stillness, the flashing of the jewel-like dewdrops from every leaf and blade of grass, so strangely beautiful and brilliant; and then the delight of the acres of golden dandelions and silvery daisies, all over the lawn, as far as eye could see; all gold, and green, and white. Flowers of all kinds, but those lawn dandelions and daisies especially, were all the world to me, loved with a strange, keen child-love, which somehow made of them sentient things to be pitied for being trodden on, and never to be picked and thrown away to die. The hills, far and near, were in that morning light more beautiful than a dream ; but I cared for them, I think, about as much as Crib did, whose way of amusing himself was generally by making his toilet by a remorseless roll amongst my dandelions. Crib was asleep on his mat again, and his mistress in bed, before the servants were stirring.
Going up-stairs there was a door to be passed, which nothing in the world, would have induced me to pass at night alone, and even in daylight I never looked at it, and went by with a run. Out of that door we believed came at times a frightful pair of hobgoblins, about whom the nursery was for years in a state of chronic depression. The goblins were invoked by the nurses whenever we made too much noise, or would go out of the nursery. They must have been, what I never heard of before in any Folk Lore, a married pair of hobgoblins. The nurses called them Mr. and Mrs. Bogy; but Mrs. Bogy was known familiarly, in a kind of grim fun, by the name of Mrs. Scratchy, because she kept her nails sharp and long, to scratch naughty children with. Our goblins were not supposed to be dangerous by daylight; but still they were an awful pair—ghosts, giants, and goblins, all in one. Bogy himself, however, was not altogether malevolent ; at all events, he was capable of being propitiated, and when we had been very good, it was rather a comforting promise to hear, " Then I'll go and tell Bogy what a good child you are to-day." But Mrs. Scratchy was an untold terror; so extreme was my dread of her, that I never opened. my eyes after once getting into bed, lest her head and curl-papers should appear within the curtains—for we had once seen her—and just where the nurses described her, coming out of that dreadful door. Trespassing beyond the nursery bounds in the twilight, three or four years before, all forgetful of the two Bogies, when just then that door opened, and in the distance there was a sight which frightened me nearly to death. A large ugly head came out of the door, in the traditional wide, white, floppy cap-borders, and the forest of curl-papers, which we knew were worn by Mrs. Scratchy. Rushing back to the nursery, I went to bed trembling, and crying myself to sleep, for I dared not tell what I had seen. What I did see I think must have been a Gamp, of grim and gaunt proportions; but whoever or whatever she was, she remained an ideal of all that was most terrible for years. Our respect for Crib was much enhanced by knowing that he slept so pluckily all alone at the bottom of those stairs, while that dangerous Mrs. Scratchy was all the time at the top.
Part of the plan of training for being wild was of a nautical character. We should very likely have to cross rivers and ponds sometimes when we were quite wild, and so the more I knew about boating the better, particularly as a very tempting opportunity for learning navigation presented itself. For a few days, once a month, there was always to be found a long shallow oval-shaped brewing-tub on the shores of a very small pond, some distance from the house, where the tub used to be taken for periodical cleaning and soaking, and by it was always a long flattish implement, known as a mashing-stick, not at all unlike an oar, which did capitally for punting. I got the tub into the water, though it took a long time launching her, and she was very difficult to get into when she was once afloat, and remarkably unsteady on the water at all times; but the delight of finding only water below and sky above, and voyaging about in one's own boat, was almost overwhelming. The water was very shallow, and when stirred up by navigation, very dirty; but no voyage upon the bluest of Swiss-lakes has ever seemed so beautiful .since. It always upset as we came to land; it could not be helped, it was a way the boat had, and it could never be helped; but shoes and socks soon got dry, and Crib was always there to welcome me heartily to shore again. How to make him take to the sea I could not imagine; it took all my spare bits of bread and butter to coax him to get into the boat at all, and he would always jump out again, if he did get in, before we put to sea. At last I found that if another dog, called Floss, came in first, he would come too. So Floss—a sleek and sleepy brown spaniel, who always did anything she was told—was made to lie down at one end of the boat, and Crib, at last, generally agreed to stand up at the other end, and once afloat, he seemed to think it was wiser to stay there, and all went right as long as he was steady; but if he moved, we went aground, and were always on the verge of upsetting as we got off again, for the difficulty of trimming a boat of that build with two dogs, would have puzzled the oldest Jack Tar afloat. This boating was the greatest delight as long as it lasted; one day, however, having managed to get a younger sister to the pool, and trimmed my boat with her, instead of the dogs, to our great pleasure we punted successfully round and round the pond, but of course upset in a foot and a half of muddy water on landing as usual, and frocks and shoes told a tale which put an end for ever to a nautical career. I was then and there told " that Bogy would have me " if I ever went near that pond again.
Crib's independence of character quite overawed me; dearly as he was loved, I hardly ever patted his yellow curls, from a sort of intuitive feeling that be thought it a nuisance. Floss, on the other hand, was so overcome at the slightest notice that she would creep along the ground to one's feet, whining and throwing herself flat on her back with her legs in the air, in a perfect paroxysm of humility, when you wanted to pat her, and I did not like her for being so absurd; it was not like Crib, not like my Crib, who was so stiff and stately, though so small, who would stand still for a moderate amount of patting, but never came to ask for it, looking about as you patted him all the time with a nonchalant air, as much as to say, " If it pleases you to pat me, pray go on, only don't keep me long;" and then giving himself a good shake, he would walk away and scratch his feet violently upon the grass, and look back, just as if he was saying, " That's over, now are you coming with me ?" Floss, in spite of her humility, was looked upon in the nursery as a very illustrious dog, from a tradition that her eldest puppy had been given to the Queen by her former master; and as the mother of a dog at court, we always felt she was "greater than she knew."
Crib never cared much about Floss or any of the other dogs; but he was devoted to a cat who had been used to share his basket-bed and his dinner when they were puppy and kitten together. She was a large cat, not so very much smaller than Crib himself as to size; but he had a curious way of picking her up across the back, and amusing himself by walking about with her in his mouth. He had begun it when she was only a mouthful for even his puppy jaws; but it looked a very uncomfortable proceeding for both parties when they got older; however, Pussie seemed to like it, and Crib might often be seen deliberately walking all round the house with her in his mouth. He had carried her into the kitchen once or twice when strange dogs appeared in the court-yard, and this trick of his probably saved both their lives. One day when he and his cat were sunning themselves at the back of the house, a mad dog, which was being pursued, ran into the yard, and flew at another dog who was there, and would certainly have bitten Crib next, if he had not instantly taken the precaution of picking up his cat and carrying her into the kitchen. The mad dog rushed up into a laundry, and worried a cat and her kittens who were lying in a basket there, passing a laundry-maid, who was in the room, without seeming to see her, and was afterwards hunted down and killed.
All the dogs spent a good deal of their time hunting on the bog; forbidden ground for me; so when Crib was going to hunt there, I could only follow him to the edge of it, and sit on the remains of the nearest turf stack on terra firma, to watch him dashing out upon the great wide-away bog with Floss, and often two or three other dogs, who would come down to join the fun. Away they went, tails wagging and noses down, beating backwards and forwards, further and further out, till they got to the heather, half a mile or more away, which was always a sure find for a hare. Then one could see the wild scurry of delight as they touched upon the scent, the dogs jumping straight up five times their own height, in their bounds to get above the heather, and in a moment more, coming silently and swiftly to the wood, who should be there but Puss herself, her pretty grey-brown fur the colour of the dried bog-grass, her long ears well back to catch the yelps behind her, and her eyes back also. Many a time I thought I should catch Puss in my pinafore, sitting breathless in the very path she must take on her way to the hill; but I never did catch her, nor did the dogs either. One by one they always came trailing along the bog behind her, Waterloo, the red greyhound, with his long sweeping stride, never far behind poor Puss, a yelping terrier or two next. Crib a bad third, and Floss nowhere. The same old hare lasted them at least a year, but they were never a bit less keen upon it, and, after losing her periodically in the wood, went back to the bog as pleased and as fresh as ever. It is part of a fox-hunter's creed, that a good fox rather enjoys being hunted, would rather be hunted than not, and, in fact, likes the whole thing from the tally-ho to "the death ;" and no one would like to be so unsportsmanlike as to doubt it; so I only hope, on the same principle, that Puss enjoyed her scurries from the bog to the wood, particularly as she never came in for that trying part of the fun, which, in a fox's case, is called " the finish."
The bog birds had no peace, and must have hated these prowling forays. Two or three pair of plovers would always follow the dogs, filling the air with their pretty plaintive notes, wailing little cries above them, as if. they were begging them to go away, pitching down almost upon their backs, and nearly brushing them with their rounded wings, and getting more and more noisy as they fancied they decoyed the dogs farther from their nests; alighting daintily on a heather tussock a few yards off now and then in front of them, with their elegant crested heads looking out over the long dead grass, and then up and away as the dogs came on, the silvery lining of their wings glancing in the sun; and then, with a flitting wavering flight, flying back to their distant nests. Very often a curlew, numbers of which nested about, would go right up into the sky, and fly backwards and forwards above its nest, its long sweet whistle sounding all over the bog. Many a nest, of snipe, and curlew, and wild fowl, must the dogs have dashed into as they beat the ground in good sportsmanlike fashion. Every now and then I could see them come to the edge of a wide bit of black water, and pause, one foot in the air, looking with their keen eyes across it, " like a moss-trooper on a foray," a great dash in, and a splash of silver in the sun, a swim over, one after the other, and away again, till they swept on and on, and were all out of sight, and one could only guess where they were by the fresh birds they put up, which went on wheeling and screaming above them. Sometimes they were so long away I dared not wait any longer, and went home, and they went on hunting all the summer night, and came back very battered and boggy-looking dogs in the morning, but bringing with them a sweet bog fragrance on their coats from brushing through whole acres of candleberry myrtle.
Far out, far beyond the haunts of the turf-cutters, and beyond the heather, the bog was at one time swarming with snakes. The wettest parts were always the snakiest; for snakes delight in water, and even when they are swarming upon hot dry rocky bits of ground, as they so often are, there is sure to be water near. They may often be seen swimming in the most graceful way, with their heads above the water in the black bog pools, or lying asleep on a patch of bare boggy soil, the black colour of which they seem to take, by a wonderful law of nature, the bog adders being darker by many shades than those of the uplands. On hot summer days, a whole knot of snakes may sometimes be found basking on a moss-hag; a shot fired into one of these knots one day, is said to have left twenty-six for dead, while well and wounded snakes glided away in all directions. But that was fifty years ago; there are not half the number now, although the turf-cutters have a great dread of them still; and no wonder, as they believe a bitten person swells up and goes all over diamonds and stripes like the snake that bit him. People are hardly ever bitten; but dogs suffer dreadfully. They are generally stung in the throat, which swells very much; if they are taken care of at once they seem to recover, but only for a time; they are nearly always fatally poisoned, and in a very short time begin to pine away, showing symptoms of spasmodic affections, often ending in frightful convulsions. A dog hardly ever seems to get over it ultimately ; and the snakes murdered most of our dogs, and poor Crib and Floss amongst the number.
The day Floss was bitten, she was seen walking round the house with Crib, evidently just come from the bog, both dogs looking very miserable, and Floss, creeping up to her master, whining all the time most piteously, threw herself on her side as if she was dead, at his feet; he saw there was something the matter, and taking her up, soon found the fatal lump beginning to swell under her throat, so she was carried into the house, drenched with quantities of oil, and rubbed with it, and she recovered as usual for a few weeks; but after that she got off her feed, and more than a year afterwards died, quite worn away to skin and bone. When Crib was bitten we never knew; but a year or more after Floss had died, he began to show the same symptoms; he got so worn away, poor little dog, that he seemed a bundle of yellow hair and bones, and his attacks of convulsions were pitiful. The servants declared he was poisoned by eating toads, which be had been seen to pick up in mistake for frogs. At last he was so ill, that it was thought better he should disappear, and so he did. One day I missed my poor little yellow dog waiting at the window upon three legs (for his fits had partly paralyzed him), where he came day after day to be ready for me when lessons were over ; that day I missed him, but was afraid to ask, for the sack and the bowstring had been familiar institutions amongst our pets of late; but when another day came, and there was no sign of Crib, I asked the servants, and getting very well-meaning but highly ambiguous answers, in a sort of despair I went to the Calcraft of the household, who I was sure had seen the last of Crib, if anybody had, and then was told if I would not cry I might see him, and so with fingers clasped and tightened to try to help to keep my promise, he took me to a shed, where I kissed a bunch of wet yellow curls, blinded by the tears which were not to drop. It hardly looked like poor Crib's head, he was so stiff and strange; but deep into my mind came the chilling, blank, cold dread, with which the unaccustomed sight of death so sadly overwhelms many a child; a dread which often remains for years an ever-recurring misery, and which is never told.
I was brokenhearted for Crib. I could not go near our castles, for they reminded me too much of him ; I could not work in my little garden, for Crib was buried there, and I did not like to touch the earth so near his grave; and with him, too, the whole scheme of my life had come to an end; how could I turn wild without Crib ? so it was no use thinking of all that any more; " and now the worst of it all was," as I thought to myself after every fresh bit of childish misery, in a burst of tears and temper, " Crib's dead, and I don't mind if I die too, for I shall be nothing in the world but an ugly, stupid, tiresome, tame child, after all!"