Bromfield's Dog, Prince
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From Malabar Farm, by Louis Bromfield:
I had been fishing for three days among the islands of Lake Erie, escaping just ahead of a great equinoxial storm which shut the islands off from the mainland for three days. Friends drove me from Catawba down to the farm with the rising wind and the towering black clouds just behind us all the way. We won the race, driving up the long lane, between trees whipped by the wind, scattering showers of early falling leaves across the road. The Big House had never looked pleasanter nor the farm more green than in the sulphur-yellow light from the approaching storm. But in my heart there was always that uneasy misgiving which always troubles me when I return after an absence. At Malabar there are many people and animals of all ages and sizes and kinds which have a deep hold on my affections. And always there is a fear in my heart that, while I am away, something bad might have happened to one of them. It is the penalty, I suppose, for having affections and attachments. Life would be much simpler, I suppose, and the emotions less distressed if a man lived alone in a cave without either affections or attachments of any kind; but life would also be less warm and less rich and infinitely and painfully sterile. Like all else, about which Emerson was so right in his clean, transcendental thinking, these things are a matter of compensation.
Always when I have been away I am almost sure to be greeted, as the car comes up the lane, by my wife and a troop of dogs. There were always Prince and Baby, Gina and Folly, the four Boxers, Dusky, the Cocker and Jo, the Border Collie. Once there had been the great and venerable Rex, the father of all the Boxers and little Patsy, the black and liver-colored Cocker, and Midge the Boxer pup, but they have been gone now for a long time, although the family talks of them as if they were still alive. It is always the dogs who give the signal of my approach and my wife, recognizing it, comes down the path from the house.
On that wild September evening, the arrival of the car was heralded by the rush of dogs, but almost at once I saw that two things were wrong. Prince was not with the dogs, leading them as he always did, and the door did not open and my wife did not appear. Instead it was Tom who came out of the kitchen across the lawn.
The old uneasiness rose again and then, as he unloaded the bags and fish, Tom was suddenly beside me and without even greeting me, he said, "Mr. B., Prince is dead!"
"Dead!" I asked, "What happened?"
"He was coughing badly and we sent him up to Doc's. He died during the night."
I knew now why my wife hadn't appeared. She couldn't face telling me because she knew about Prince and me. So Tom had been delegated and it was hard for him, so hard he didn't even accompany the news with the prelude of a greeting. I knew it was hard on him too because when my wife and I were away, Prince attached himself to Tom, following him everywhere all day long. Each morning when I wakened, Prince would get down from my bed, have his part of my breakfast and then go off to Tom in the kitchen to have his back brushed. Tom always used a whiskbroom. Animals and especially dogs are very conventional. The back brushing was a regular ritual.
My friends expressed sorrow at the news and I was grateful but they couldn't know how I felt. I asked them in for a drink before they drove off to Columbus. My wife joined us and acted as if nothing at all had happened. We talked and my friends left, eager to continue their race against the oncoming storm.
When they had gone, my wife looked at me without speaking and I said, "I think I'll go and have a look at the farm before dark." She said, "I think that would be a good idea."
It was always Prince who went everywhere with me in the jeep. He loved it, partly I think, because it was open and he could catch every scent on the breeze as we drove and partly because in the jeep we went to the wildest parts of the farm where there were always squirrels and rabbits and woodchucks to chase. Now as I climbed in, Prince's brother Baby jumped quickly into the seat beside me.
I wasn't going to look over the farm. I was going to one place where all of us on the farm go instinctively when we are worried or depressed or something unhappy occurs to us. I was going to the pastures of the Ferguson Place which lie high above the valley just beneath the sky. It is a lonely place which has no buildings, a farm which is all forest and bluegrass, but it is not lonely. My wife knew where I was going.
Prince had slept on the foot of my bed since he was a fat puppy. Never once in the eight years of his life was he absent from his accustomed place. He spent twenty-four hours a day with me. If I moved across a room to another chair, he moved with me and lay down at my feet. People came to say that I did not own Prince: he owned me.
And now as I drove up the long, wild lane through the woods, his brother Baby was beside me and something curious happened. Halfway up the lane he leaped into my lap and began to lick my ear, exactly as Prince had done so many times when we set off alone together in the jeep as if the pleasure was always too great to be borne. It was exactly as if Baby knew. Baby had always seemed a strange, self-contained dog, little given to demonstrations of affection of any kind. The sudden outburst was so violent that I laughed and said, "That's enough, Baby! Let me alone! I have to drive!" And he quieted down for a moment only to break out a little later with another wild and affectionate assault. Boxers are big dogs and when they demonstrate their hearty affections the demonstrations can only be described as an assault.
We reached the high farm just as the clouds of a storm were blackening out the last rays of the setting sun. There on the green pasture the Holstein heifers and Pee-Wee, the bull, were grazing quietly, scarcely looking up as the jeep drove among them, and then, when I had turned off the motor and climbed out, followed by Baby, to lie on the grass, the cattle came up one or two at a time to stand there, very close, watching the two of us. Baby did what Prince had always done. He sat close to me, his back against my chest, to protect me from the peril of the docile heifers.
I don't know how long I lay there but the smell of the bluegrass and the friendliness of the heifers made the hurt seem a little less. This was a place where Prince had come with me countless times to sit in the evening looking down over the valley. It was all just the same. Despite the oncoming storm, the evening seemed quiet but for the wild beauty of the great black clouds touched at moments by the crimson and gold light of the setting sun. The thick woods shut out the rising wind and the only sound was the soft swishing, crunching sound made by the heifers and the bull as they ate their way along the bluegrass and white clover. Then there was a wild clap of thunder and another and another. I heard myself half-thinking, half-saying, "It's all right, kid! I'm coming back! Don't worry!" And I thought, "That's silly!" But somehow it made a difference.
It was what I always said to him when I went away on a trip. He always knew all the signs. He knew what a suitcase meant. He grew worried and miserable even if I put on store clothes to go into town for a few hours. So I'd always say, "It's all right, kid! I'm coming back! Don't worry!" And always when I came back I'd say after I'd recovered from the first affectionate assault of welcome, "You see, kid! It's all right! I told you I'd come back and I did." He came to understand it all and although the sight of store clothes or a suitcase never failed to depress him, understanding the situation and knowing I was not leaving forever made it all easier for him. On the occasions when I went away he never rushed to the door with me but stayed behind in my room till the car drove off. Then as I lay there on the grass, Baby turned suddenly and again began licking my ear violently and quickly, and out of the threatening sky, the wild storm of the equinox broke. The heifers and Pee-Wee took to a sheltering thicket and Baby and I climbed back into the jeep to drive home down the wild, rough lane through a wild wind and a driving rain with flashes of lightning which illumined the very depths of the thick wood.
I know that much of what I am writing sounds sentimental and much of it is. And so I am a sentimentalist and so what? It is inevitable that anyone who likes and understands animals should be a sentimentalist. I think too that such people sometimes find in animals and especially dogs consolations and sympathy in time of hurt which no human, however close, can ever bring them. And there is much truth in the sentimentality about animals, much which brings a special warmth and satisfaction in living and a clue to much that is a part of understanding and of God. Some people will perhaps not understand at all what I am writing about and others will know, instinctively and rightly.
All that night and for days afterward Prince was always with me in a way for, as when great friends die, one thinks of them almost constantly they are indeed ever present in one's dreams. And so I thought a great deal about Prince, remembering all the small things about him and a hundred small incidents, good and bad. For he was a very human dog, neither wholly good or bad. He was willful and demanding in his love for me and very jealous. He fought with Baby and was even known to snip at Gina and Folly when they became too affectionate and intimate. Always in his mind, I was his special property.
He was a big and handsome dog, the child of Rex, a noble father, and Regina, a mother with an immense store of feminine wisdom, calm, and poise. Rex died four years ago and Regina is still alive going her calm way, wise and affectionate and pleasant as a good wife and mother should be. She brooks no nonsense from her children and grandchildren nor from her in-laws. Although she is quite an old lady she can quiet them all simply by making faces at them and she can make really ferocious and terrifying faces. Baby too is their child from a different litter from Prince. He was a year younger than Prince and no two dogs could be less alike, for Baby was always a clown and a ham actor. He holds long conversations in a variety of barks, whines, and growls. He taught himself to dive off the high platform at the pond and he cannot resist climbing into an empty wheelbarrow for a ride. He drinks Coca-Cola from a bottle and water straight from the faucet. He developed all these tricks and many more without ever being taught. He was always vain and comical but detached.
But Prince was different. Indeed he was different from any of the fifty or more dogs I have had in a lifetime. He was different because he was a Boxer and Boxers' owners will know what I mean by that but he was a King, even among Boxers. Above all he was a good companion. To drive with him over the farm or to take him with me across the fields and woods was like having the company of a great friend who was intelligent and amusing. When I walked three or four miles, he would joyously run ten or fifteen, but in all his excursions he kept returning to me again and again to tell me what a beautiful morning it was or how he had treed a squirrel. And sometimes he would return with a woodchuck proudly, to show me, and would insist on carrying it all the way home. He was obedient too for when he uncovered a nest of young rabbits or as happened once or twice, came on a baby raccoon offside in the daylight, I needed only to say, "No, Prince!" and he would stand quite still, quivering with excitement, without touching the young animals.
And like all Boxers he was clever with his paws, using them with dexterity almost like hands. Most of the doors in the Big House have French door handles and these he turned easily, but he was very clever with round door knobs, using both paws to turn them. He went from room to room in the house and at the front door he would open the screen door and hold it open while he turned the knob of the inner door. Once his cleverness nearly caused disaster which might have ended in the death of himself and his wise old mother.
I had left them inside the car on a slope above the deep pond below the Big House, planning to return quickly but once inside the house a long-distance telephone call distracted me, and temporarily I forgot Prince and Gina, still waiting in the car. When at last I was free to return I stepped out of the house just in time to see the big car with the two dogs inside slipping down the steep slope toward the deep waters of the pond. It was the dogs I thought of and not the car. Running down the slope I arrived at the pond just in time to see the car slipping slowly beneath the surface. Fully dressed, I went into the water, dived, opened the car door and dragged them both out under water. They swam ashore, shook themselves and seemed unconcerned over what had happened. Indeed, I think Prince took it as a lark.
It did not take me long to divine what had happened. The car was heavy and the emergency brake never held it properly, so, on leaving them, I had put the car in second gear and turned the wheels against a nearby bank. Prince, left alone for so long, had grown impatient and tried to open the door to get out and find me. In doing so he had put one paw on the gearshift, pulling it out of second gear and turning the wheel at the same time away from the bank. The rest was easy the car simply rolled into the pond.
It was Prince too who, on cold days, opened the doors of cars belonging to visitors and led the other dogs inside. He even closed the door after them in order to keep out draughts. Many a time, a visitor has left my office to discover that the car he had left empty and closed was now filled by four Boxers and a Cocker Spaniel.
He had the dignity and the nobility of his father, Rex, but with more sensitivity and intelligence, and this difference made him a sufferer, for he worried as I have never known any dog to worry. He worried about my going away and as soon as I returned, he would begin worrying lest I leave again. After the first roughhouse welcome on my return, he would be overcome again and again during the day by the realization that I bad really come back after all, and at such moments he would leap from the floor into my lap and place both paws on my shoulders and lick my ear. Sometimes be would jump from the floor onto my big desk scattering ink and papers in his excitement. I couldn't punish him. How could you punish such a whole-hearted demonstration of affection?
His brother, Baby, the show-off, will talk and talk, very audibly to any circle of friends, but Prince rarely raised his voice. He would open his mouth and his lips would quiver but no sound would come forth, and then he would sigh as if he knew that no matter how hard he tried, he could never make with his dog's mouth the articulate sounds of speech that I was able to do, that he could never really talk to me, no matter how much we understood each other. At such times I would say, "It's all right, kid. I understand everything you say." And immediately he would be happy again.
It was a saying in the family that you couldn't talk confidentially in front of Prince because he understood everything you said, and indeed he appeared to understand perfectly all conversations or the plans made in his presence. He knew perfectly well how to wangle his way onto a sofa despite all rules to the contrary. He did it by degrees and insinuations, almost imperceptibly, until presently he was curled up on the fresh chintz as if that was where he belonged. Like all Boxers he hated draughts or cold floors.
Five or six dogs sleep in my bedroom. It is on the level of the garden with two doors which Prince opened easily, sometimes for himself and sometimes for the others. When the "coon huntin" season opened, life at night in my bedroom was not placid and sleep was interrupted, for after midnight when the neighboring boys started running their hounds, the sound of baying drifted down from the ridge across the ravine and the dogs in my bedroom knew there were strangers on what they considered their territory. With a whoop and a halloo they were off, led by Prince, who opened the door. Then for an hour or two, all hell broke loose as the Boxers, with Dusky, the Cocker Spaniel trailing them, set out after the coon hounds, driving them out of the valley. Once the hounds were clear of the Boxers' land, the Boxers all returned with Prince leading to open the door for them to enter, to go back to their beds on chairs and sofas. Gina and Folly and Baby each had developed their own special ways of opening doors. Old Rex used to employ both teeth and paws. But none of them ever developed the proficiency of Prince. No door could withstand him and when he was with the others they always stood aside in deference to his particular skill.
If any other dog even approached the bed at night, he was in trouble at once. But for the period of my after lunch nap, he had made some sort of an arrangement with Folly. I do not know when or how it was made but it was one of perfect understanding. He never prevented her from joining me at nap time and never made any attempt to push her aside or to take his accustomed place. But at night it was different, the rug at the foot of my bed belonged to him.
That animals communicate and come to understandings, I have no doubt, for I have seen these things in operation too many times. I recall an afternoon when a group of visitors stopped at the lower garden with a strange Boxer in their car. It is always a risky thing to bring a strange dog in a car to Malabar for it is difficult to prevent the Boxers from removing half the paint from the car; so on this occasion I held Prince by the collar and told my friends to leave the car down on the road where it would be concealed, with the strange dog inside. Together we walked up the long hill and when we arrived at the house, where three or four empty cars were parked, the other Boxers rushed out to greet us. Then after a moment's exchange of communication they all began leaping at the windows of the empty parked cars, one after another, to discover which one contained a dog. Clearly and unmistakably Prince had spread the word. When they found all the cars empty, they returned with disappointment to sit by us on the lawn, still convinced that there was a strange dog somewhere about. Then suddenly I noticed the hair begin to rise slowly on old Gina's back. She sniffed the wind and suddenly, followed by the others, all save Prince, she set off at top speed down the hill toward the hidden parked car. The odd thing was that Prince did not follow. I think it was because I had warned him to leave the strange dog in peace. He had told them there was a strange dog in a car on the farm but he did not tell them where.
In the mornings when I have breakfast in my office, each of the Boxers is given milk from a saucer. They have their own order of being served, apparently by arrangement among themselves. First Prince, as if this was his divine right as the leader and best friend of the boss, then old Gina perhaps out of respect for her age, then Folly, the pretty, frivolous one and finally Baby, if he had not already gone out on the farm. The order never varied, nor was there any quarreling nor any attempt to return for a second helping.
Prince was a sociable dog and a great welcomer. Like all the Boxers, he loved picnics and parties and after the first up-roar of barking had died away, he would welcome and say a few words to every member of the arriving party. Boxers are ferocious in appearance but they have the hearts of big babies. Sometimes the welcome to a small child would create more consternation than pleasure. Like all Boxers he was wonderful with children, and on the farm and among the visitors, there are many children of all sizes. Instinctively a Boxer will take care of children. I have seen little fellows on the farm pinch and ride and bedevil the Boxers and even take bones from them without coming to any harm. When the assaults become unendurable the Boxers will simply walk away out of reach without any loss of dignity.
On one occasion a small nephew of two years came to stay on the farm. He was one of those happy children with no fear of dogs and he moved in on the Boxers at once. He liked them all but he adopted Prince and Prince adopted him. The bond became so great that he even insisted upon having his afternoon nap with Prince. He would play with Prince for long periods of time, climbing on him and rolling over him. The friendship reached a climax and a test one summer afternoon while he was rolling on the lawn with the big dog. To the surprise of his mother and the rest of us, the boy was observed biting Prince's lip while the dog lay perfectly quietly with an expression not only of patience but of satisfaction.
He had many friends from all over the world and whenever or whereever I met them, they always asked, "How is Prince?" It was as if we belonged to each other and I know that when I was at home no one ever saw us separated, day or night. They asked about him as if he were one of the family. He liked people and remembered them when they returned, giving them a hospitable and friendly welcome.
During the three days I spent among the islands of the lake I should have enjoyed myself. I was among a dozen of my very best friends. We drank some and fished and played poker. We had an attractive and comfortable cottage and wonderful food. Yet, all the time I spent there I suffered from an unaccountable sense of depression and slept badly, an exceptional thing in my experience. I tried to believe that it was the weather with the approaching equinoctial storms, but never quite persuaded myself. By the third day the depression had taken the form of foreboding, of what I did not know. Like Dr. Carrell who was certainly no sentimentalist but a great and pure scientist, I believe that there are in the realms of intuition, of telepathy, of psychic communication things as remote from our understanding or knowledge as the knowledge of the physiology of man is remote from the most primitive savage. I know that in those three days, when for every reason I should have experienced a happy, carefree enjoyment in the open air and on the water, there was some force which dimmed the whole of the holiday and gradually assumed the proportions of menace and foreboding.
After returning with Baby through the storm from the high farm, I went to bed early and took a sleeping pill so that I wouldn't wake up and lie awake thinking about Prince. The place on the foot of the bed where he had always slept on an old green rug was empty for the first time since he had come there as a puppy.
Presently I fell asleep but twice during the night I was wakened despite the sleeping pill, once by the feeling of something stirring and pressing against my leg. The feeling was so real and so intense that I thought one of the other dogs had taken Prince's place. But when I sat up and reached down, there was nothing there.
After a long time I fell asleep again only to be wakened this time by the sound of scratching on the screen door. It was exactly the sound made by Prince when, in wet weather, the door stuck and he was forced to crook his paw against the grille covering the lower part of the door and give it an extra tug. I listened for a moment and then concluded one of the other dogs had gone out and, without Prince to open the door for him, could not return. I put on the light and went to the door. The storm was over and the moon was shining high over the ravine. Outside the door there was nothing.
The two experiences were not imagined nor were they the result of drowsiness for each time I lay awake for a long time afterward. I do not know the explanation save perhaps that no creature, in some ways even a human one, had ever been so close to me as Prince.
For weeks before he died he had seemed melancholy and looked a little thin but I thought only that it was the hot weather. Then two days before he died he began to cough violently and my wife sent him up to Doc Wadsworth's and thirty-six hours later he was dead of a hemorrhage which could not be stopped. He died of cancer of the lung and could only have lived a few weeks longer, perhaps in pain. If I could not have been with him myself I was glad that he was with Doc Wadsworth and his wife and sister-in-law for they feel as I do about animals and particularly about Boxers. When Doc comes to the farm, they all rush out and leap all over him. On two occasions they have knocked him flat with their joyous and affectionate welcome. I'm glad Doc was with him and gave him something to quiet the coughing and keep him asleep. But I wish I had been there to hold his head on my knee and say, "You see, kid! It's all right! I told you I'd come back!"
He's gone to join old Rex and the charming, frivolous little Boxer, Midge, who was like a ballet dancer, and little Patsy, the cocker who used to act as "sitter" for Old Gina whenever she had puppies, and Dash, the Don Juan of all Scotties. I have a feeling that I'll see them all some day and that as they rush down the path to welcome me with Prince in the lead, I'll be able to say to him, "You see, kid. I told you I'd come back and I did!"
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< Entertaining and informative nonfiction recounting the successes of a well-known author who returned to the U.S. from France at the outbreak of WW II, resuscitated wornout farmland in Ohio, and had a continuing stream of visiting celebrities, politicians, farmers and agricultural experts as well as college students and future farmers helping during their summer vacations.