TO "THE MISTRESS OF THE KENNELS" AND TO THE MEMORY OF TYNAGH MOTHER OF WOLFHOUND HEROES ITS WRITER DEDICATES THIS HISTORY 7 страница

Matey was rapidly becoming exhausted, and in another moment or two would probably have flung his stick at Finn and given up his senseless pursuit, when, just as the Wolfhound bounded forward from under his stick at the house end of the yard, the gate leading into that yard opened, and Bill appeared. In an instant Finn had sprung for the opening, Bill's legs were thrust from under him, and as he stumbled, with one hand on the ground and an oath on his lips, Finn reached the open road outside. Behind him, for a moment, Finn heard a hurried scrambling, and a deal of broken, breathless whistling, and calling aloud of his name. And then he heard no more from the place of his captivity and anguish, for the reason that he was already nearing the limits of the little town, and galloping hard for the open country, over the road by which he had travelled some ten hours earlier in Matey's cart.

The gate leading into the yard opened, and Bill appeared

Finn galloped for about three miles, his heart swelling within him for joy in his freedom. Then, gradually, his gait slackened to a canter, and then to a trot, and, finally, the sight of a wayside pond brought him to a standstill; and, after a mechanical look behind him, he walked into the water and drank, and drank, and drank till he could drink no more. Finn emerged from the pond with heaving flanks and dripping muzzle, conscious now of some of his hurts and bruises, but licking his wet chops with satisfaction, and supremely glad of his freedom. He lay down on the grass near the pond and proceeded to lick those of his wounds and bruises which were within licking reach, and to pity himself regarding the sharp pain in his side which his broken rib was causing. Presently a cart came jolting along from the direction in which Finn had come, and the Wolfhound shrank back as far as possible into the hedge behind him. But the driver of the cart took no further notice of Finn than to stare idly at him, possibly without even seeing him; at all events with an absolutely incurious stare. With renewed confidence, the young hound stretched himself out again on the cool grass and presently began to doze, this being the wise manner of all his kind in assisting Nature to cure them of their various ills.

While Finn dozed, another cart approached him from the little town he had left behind, and in this second cart were two extremely angry men, one of whom strongly desired Finn's recapture on mercenary grounds, while the other desired it upon these grounds and others also. Bill wanted his share of Finn's price; Matey wanted his larger share of that price, and he also wanted badly to have Finn securely tied up in a convenient position for being soundly beaten. Matey would almost rather have foregone the money than the satisfaction of administering the beating, the very thorough beating which he pictured himself administering to Finn. His heavy mouth twitched viciously as Matey thought about it. Suddenly Bill pulled the pony on to its haunches with a jerk.

"I'm jiggered if that ain't 'im a-waitin' for us!" exclaimed Bill, in a hoarse whisper.

Matey was out of the trap in an instant, and, with meat in his hand, was already beginning a whining call, which was meant to be extremely ingratiating. But Finn sprang to his feet at the sound of the cart coming to a standstill, and, after one glance at Matey, was off like a wolf down the empty country road.

This was yet another lesson learned. Finn would not be in a hurry to rest by the wayside again. After two miles of galloping at the rate of nearly twenty miles an hour, Finn steadied down to a fast loping gait, which would have kept him abreast of any other road vehicle than a motor-car, and maintained this for quite a long while. Then, by reason of the pain in his side, and of other pains, he decided to stop. But, with his last-learned lesson fresh in his mind, he had no intention of resting by the roadside. With a twist of pain that cut into his side like a knife, he leapt a field gate, and crept along the inner side of the hedge for some distance before finally curling up in a dry hollow beside a hayrick. Here, sheltered by the rick and half buried in dry hay and straw, Finn courted the sleep he needed, so that it came to him swiftly. In his sleep the young Wolfhound whimpered occasionally, and once or twice his whole great body shook to the sound of a growling bark, causing two bloodshot eyes to be half opened, and then mechanically closed again, with a small grunt, as Finn's muzzle drove a little deeper into the dry hay under his hocks, and he allowed sleep to strengthen its healing hold upon him.



It was a dream that caused Finn to give that growling bark, and it was a dream of a kind that had been foreign to his breed for generations. He dreamed that he was chasing Matey, in the form of a huge rabbit, armed with a stick. Matey, the rabbit, bounded away from him, just as ordinary rabbits did; but sounds came from Matey's rabbit mouth, and they were the horrid, venomous sounds of the curses with which Matey had followed him that morning in the walled-in yard. In the dream Finn was always on the point of leaping upon the back of rabbit-Matey's neck, with jaws stretched wide for slaughter. But something always intervened to prevent Finn taking the leap. The something was this: at the moment of the leap, Matey always looked more like a man and less like a rabbit, and the instinct which told Finn not to slay a man was a very strong one. But, somehow, rabbit-Matey seemed an exception. Finn was very anxious to feel the crunching of his shoulder and neck bones; and altogether it was unfortunate that such a dream should have been inspired in the brain of so nobly born a hound.

When Finn finally woke he gaped right in the eye of the setting sun, and all about him was the solemn silence of a fine October twilight. He yawned cavernously, and, raising his haunches, stretched his huge trunk from fore-paws placed far out. But, in the midst of the stretch, he gave a little smothered yelp of pain, and came to earth again, solicitously licking at the ribs of his right side. Matey's heavy boot had done great execution there. Slowly, then, Finn rose, and walked out into the darkening twilight of the field. Before he had covered a hundred yards, a rabbit started up from behind a bush, and scurried hedgewards for its life. But the distance was too great for bunny by three yards, and Finn's jaws snapped his backbone in sunder within six feet of his own burrow. This was hard on the rabbit; but it was no more than one tiny instance of the outworking of Nature's most inexorable law. Finn had killed many rabbits before this evening; but in the past he had merely obeyed his hunting and killing instinct. Now this instinct in him was sharpened by hunger, by having slept on the open earth, and by being conscious of no human control or protection. Finn proceeded to eat this particular rabbit, and that was distinctly a new experience for him, and one that left him upon the whole pleased with himself. He was not aware of the fact, of course, but this simple act placed him more nearly on terms with his ancestors than anything else he had ever done, unless, perhaps, one counts the dream acts of that afternoon.

After his meal Finn strolled along the hedge-side till he came to a gap, and then slipped through to the road. For a mile or two he trotted along the silent road with no particular object in view, and then, coming to a grassy lane, turned into that, and trotted for another mile or two, leaping a gate and a stile which barred his way at intervals, and coming presently to a group of three large ricks. His side was aching dully, and Finn was rather unhappy over finding no sign of the home beside the Downs where his friends were, and his own comfortable bed. Having allowed his mind to dwell upon this for several minutes, he sat down on his haunches near one of the ricks, and howled to the stars about it all for quite a while, and so effectively that a farmer, sitting in his comfortable dining-room nearly half a mile away, made a remark to his daughter about the new-fangled way these pesky motor-car people have of blowing fog-horns like the ships at sea, and carrying on as if the road belonged to them--drat 'un!

It was not active unhappiness, let alone misery like that of the previous night, that moved Finn to this vocal display; but only a kind of gentle melancholy such as we call home-sickness, and after five minutes of it, he curled up beside one of the ricks, after scratching and turning round and round sufficiently to make a kind of burrow for himself, and was fast asleep in about two minutes.

In the morning, long before the dew was off the grass, Finn set out to do what he had never done a before: he set out deliberately to hunt and kill some creature for his breakfast. He very nearly caught an unwary partridge, though the bird did not tempt him nearly so strongly as a thing that ran upon the earth, and ran fast. In the end his menu was that of the previous evening, and, as he eyed its still warm and furry remains, Finn felt that life was really a very good thing, even when one had a pain in one's side, and a large assortment of bruises and sore places in various other parts of one's body.

Towards midday Finn lounged into a rather large village, and did not like it at all. It stirred up in him the recollection of Matey and his horrible environment, and he began to hurry, impelled by a nervous dread of some kind of treachery. Towards the end of the village he passed a pretty, creeper-grown cottage, from the door of which a policeman issued. The policeman stared at Finn, and smacked his own leg. Then he bent his body in an insinuating manner and called to the Wolfhound: "Here, boy! Here, good dog! Come along!" But Finn only lengthened his stride, and presently broke into a gallop. He was no longer the guileless, trustful Finn of a week ago. The rural constable sighed as he resumed an erect position and watched Finn's disappearing form.

"He must be the dog that's wanted, all right; reg'ler monster, I'm blessed if he isn't. But, takin' one thing with another, I'd just as soon they catched him somewhere else than here. Why, I reckon my missis 'ud have a fit. I don't call it hardly right, myself; not 'avin' 'em that size."

Half an hour later, to his great delight, Finn found himself clear of roads and houses, and on the warm, chalky slopes of the Sussex Downs. These great, smooth, immemorial hills, with their blunt crests, and close-cropped, springy turf, brought a rush of home-feeling into Finn's heart, which made his eyes misty, so that he had to sit down and give vent to two or three long-drawn howls by way of expressing his gentle melancholy. But Finn's nose told him plainly that he had never before been on these particular Downs. And so, good and kindly as this ancient British soil was to him, it brought him no sight of actual home.

Towards evening he coursed and killed another rabbit, eating half of it, and providing, in the other half which he left, a substantial repast for a prowling weasel who followed in his trail.

Something--it may have been merely the fact that the day had not been in any way exhausting like its predecessors--prevented Finn from being inclined to curl down and sleep, when he passed a convenient wheat rick in a valley an hour after his supper. The night was fine and clear, and night life in the open, with its many mysterious rustlings, bird and animal calls, and other enticing sounds and smells, was beginning to present considerable attractions to Finn. The events of the past few days had aroused all sorts of latent tendencies and inclinations in him; feelings which resembled memories of bygone days in their effects upon him, but yet were not memories of any life that he had known, though they may have been blood memories of the experiences of his forbears. Later on, however, the young Wolfhound began to tire of the freedom of the night, and home-sick longings rose in his heart as he thought of the coach-house and of Kathleen. It was at about this time that Finn fell to walking along a narrow, white sheep-walk, on the side of a big, billowy down, which seemed to him pleasanter and more homely than any of the hills he had traversed that evening. Gradually the track in the chalk deepened and widened a little, until it became a path sunk in the hill-side to a depth of fifteen or twenty feet, and ended in a five-barred gate beside a road. Finn leaped the gate with a strange feeling of exultation in his heart, which made him careless of the sharp pain the leap brought to his side. Something rose in his throat as he reached the road. His eyes became misty, his nose drooped eagerly to the surface of the road, and he whimpered softly as he ran, with tail swaying from side to side, and a great tenderness welling up within him.

Two minutes later he came to a white gate leading to a shrub-sheltered garden before a small, low, rambling little house. He leaped the little gate, and turned sharply to the right in the garden. But then his way was blocked by high doors, set in masonry, which could not possibly be climbed or jumped. Before these gates, which evidently led to the stables and rear of the house, Finn sat down on his haunches. Then he lifted his long muzzle heavenward and howled lugubriously. He continued his howling steadily for about one minute and a half, and at the end of that time a door opened behind him in the front of the house, and a man clad in pyjamas rushed out into the garden. Finn had studiously avoided men for these two days past now; but, so far from avoiding this man, he rose on his hind-legs to give greeting, and could hardly be induced to lower his front paws, even when the man in pyjamas had removed his caressing arms from about the Wolfhound's shoulders. The man, you see, was the Master, and three minutes afterwards he was joined by the Mistress of the Kennels. But they were all three in the Master's outside den then with Tara.

CHAPTER IX

THE HEART OF TARA

The Mistress of the Kennels held on to one of Finn's fore-paws as though she feared he might be spirited away from the den, even while he was being welcomed home there. The fatted calf took the form of a dish of new milk and some sardines on toast which had been prepared for the next morning's breakfast. But this came later, and was polished off by Finn more by reason of its rare daintiness and his desire to live up to what the occasion seemed to demand of him, than because he was hungry. At an early stage in proceedings the Master noticed, and removed, the slip-collar.

"Well, that disposes of the theory that Finn wandered away of his own accord," said the Master. "If the police know their business this ought to help them." Then he turned to Finn again. "You didn't know there was a twenty-five pound reward out for you, my son, did you? It was to have been made fifty in another day or two; though, if you did but know it, our solvency demands rather that you should be sold, than paid for in that fashion."

The Mistress nodded thoughtfully.

"But that's quite impossible after this," she said; "selling Finn, I mean."

The Master smiled. "I suppose it is. That seems to be rather our way. It's a dead sure thing there can be no selling of Tara, and--I'm inclined to think you're right about Finn, too. Heavens! If I could lay my hands on the man who took that chip off his muzzle, I think I'd run to the length of a ten pounds fine for assault. I'd get my money's worth, too. The dog has been clubbed; he has been man-handled; I could swear he has had to fight for his freedom. Poor old Finn! What a dog! What a Finn it is!"

While the last of these remarks was being made the Master was carefully examining Finn all over, parting the Wolfhound's dense hard hair over places in which the skin beneath had been broken, and pressing his fingers along the lines of different bones and muscles solicitously. There was a half-spoken oath on the Master's lips when Finn winced from him as his hand passed down the ribs of the hound's right side.

"There is a rib broken here," he said to the Mistress, "unless I am much mistaken. When the post office opens in the morning we must wire for Turle, the vet. Thieving's bad enough, but--there are some stupid brutes in this world!"

The Mistress stared.

"Oh, no, I don't mean Finn; nor any of his honest four-legged kind. I meant two-legged brutes. Finn has been handled more roughly than an understanding man would handle a tiger. And look at his face. Look into his eyes. Notice his keenly watchful air, even while I am handling him. Well, Finn, my son, you have said good-bye to puppyhood with a vengeance now. Unless I am much mistaken he has crowded more into the last three days than all the rest of his life till now had taught him. That dog's years older than Kathleen to-night in some ways. Do you get the effect I mean? The youth has gone; there is a certain new hardness. Watch his eye now as I lift my hand!"

The Master lifted his hand with a sudden jerk, and the two who were watching Finn's eyes saw that in them which they had never seen in Kathleen's, nor yet even in Tara's eyes; for neither Tara nor her daughter had ever pitted their agility against man's brutality. They had never been clubbed or kicked; they had never seen as far into the ugly places of human nature as Finn; and you might brandish your arms in any way you chose before old Tara or Kathleen, and, while the one would have blinked at you with courteous tolerance of your foolishness, the other would have suspected you of inventing a new game, and gambolled before you like a huge kitten.

It was not, of course, that Finn was foolish enough to distrust the Master, or suspect him of any hostile intention. But certain instincts had been awakened in the young Wolfhound, and, for a long time, at all events, and probably for the rest of his life, those instincts would not again become latent. In some respects he may have been the better off; certainly he was better equipped to face the world; but the Master, naturally enough, could not withhold a sigh for the old utter trustfulness which had held even the instincts of self-preservation in abeyance. But, as has been said, Finn was better equipped to face the world than either his sister, or that gentle great lady, his mother; all his instincts were more alert, and his senses also. His eyes moved more rapidly than their eyes; his attitude toward life and toward men-folk was more elastic and less absolute. Men-folk remained his superiors in Finn's eyes, his superiors in a hundred ways, and it might be his dearly loved friends; but they were not any more the absolute, omnipotent, and all-perfect gods that they had been, and still were to Kathleen, for example, who would not have felt the slightest uneasiness if the Master had placed his heel on her throat, or touched her head with a club, as she lay on the ground before him.

To a great extent, however, the Master's sympathetic anger over Finn's wounds, and twinges of regret regarding the subtle changes which he recognised in the hound he affectionately called "son," were out-balanced by the joy he felt at seeing Finn safe in his den again. The loss of Finn had been hard to bear, and not the less hard because it came immediately after the great triumph of the Show. There were the seven prize cards adorning the wall over Tara's great bed in the den; but their presence had been something of a mockery in the absence of their winner. When the Master and the Mistress finally bade Finn good night, after making him thoroughly comfortable in his own clean, big bed, the coach-house door was carefully padlocked.

It could not have been said a month later that Finn was physically the worse for his adventure in the hands of Matey. His ribs were sound once more, and all his wounds and bruises were healed, though a light-coloured scar remained, and would remain on his muzzle, where the dog-stealer's stick had bitten into the bone. If it had come nine months earlier, such an experience would have been bad indeed, for sets-back in puppyhood are hard to make up. But at fifteen months Finn had as perfect a physical foundation to go upon as any living creature could have. He was fortified against physical ills as few animals can be; his system lacked nothing that makes for resisting power; he had attained his full growth without having known a day's illness, and his reserve strength was enormous.

And now came a long and rather severe winter, in which no evil thing befell Finn, and the process of "furnishing" went on in him with never a hitch of any sort, and in circumstances that could not possibly have been more favourable. All day long he drank in the heartiest air in England; on every day he had ample exercise and ample food, and when young summer of the next year brought him to his second birthday, Finn scaled 149 lbs., and his shoulder bones just skimmed the under side of the measuring standard at thirty-six inches. Hard measurement brought him within an eighth of an inch of the yard, and it was fair to say that, favourably measured, standing well up, he did reach full thirty-six inches at the shoulder.

Remember that, when his head was inclined upward, the tip of his nose would be more than a foot higher than his shoulder. With all four feet on the floor, he could rest his nose on a window-ledge that was exactly four feet high. His eyes, and shaggy brows and beard, like the tip of his tail, were dark as night; there were some extra dark hairs at his hocks, fetlocks and shoulder blades; and all the rest of Finn was of a hard, steely grey brindle colour; the typical wolf colour of northern climes, very steely, and with odd suggestions about it of ghostly fleetness, of great speed and enduring strength. His fore-legs were straight as gun-barrels, his knees flat as the palm of your hand; his feet hard, close, round, and rather cat-like, save that his claws were more like chisels, black, and hard, and strongly curved. His hind-legs, on the other hand, were finely curved, with swelling rolls of muscle in the upper thighs. The first or upper thighs were very long and strong, curving sharply out to hocks that were well let down, and without a hint of turn inward or outward. His loins were well arched, his chest deep, like an Arab stallion's, his neck long, arched, and very strong, like the massy muscles of his fore-arms. It was difficult to say that he had grown much since his fifteenth month, and yet he looked a very much bigger dog, and, above all, he looked and was very much stronger. There was no longer anything immature or unformed about Finn. During his next year he might possibly add half a score of pounds to his already great weight; but on his second birthday he was set and furnished, a superb specimen of pure breeding and perfect rearing in Irish Wolfhounds.

For almost six months now Finn's only companion of his own kind had been Tara. He had not seen Kathleen's departure from the cottage beside the Downs, and for some days he was greatly puzzled by her absence. He even stood by the orchard gate and growled fiercely, with the hair on his shoulders standing almost erect, because the thought was in his mind that Matey may have had something to do with this disappearance. The Master saw him engaged in this way, and was greatly puzzled by it. He said to the Mistress of the Kennels afterwards--

"I really think old Finn must have gone mad for five minutes this morning. I never saw a more fearsome-looking creature than he was when he stood and growled beside the orchard gate. I assure you he was terrible. He looked about six feet high, and as fierce as any tiger. It made me think of his ancient godfather, or namesake, the Finn of fifteen hundred years ago, who kept King Cormac's three hundred Irish Wolfhounds in fighting trim, as the most awe-inspiring and death-dealing portion of his master's army. I must read over those 'Tales of the Cycle of Finn' again; they are fine, stirring things. But in these worrying days I hardly seem to get time for sleep, let alone for reading about old Finn. But I wish you had seen Finn--our Finn--this morning. He was very terrible, but I never saw a dog look more magnificent. Upon my word, I believe there are very few living things that Finn could not implant fear in, if he set his mind to it; yes, and pull down, to boot--a hundred and fifty pounds of muscle and bone, and teeth and fire and spirit!"

But Finn need not have worried for Kathleen's sake. She had gone to a good home, and lives there to-day in honoured old age. Her owner paid a hundred guineas for her, and would not sell her for ten times the figure. But there was no way of telling Finn these things, for though he could understand most things that the Master said to him, and was able to tell the Master most things that he wanted to tell; yet the matter of buying and selling and its causes were naturally beyond him. He had no way of telling that the Master was in sore straits financially, though he did know that his friend was not over and above happy. Neither could he tell that the mere keeping of a Wolfhound like Kathleen runs away with the better part of twenty pounds a year. Things were not prospering with the Master, and, feeling that he could not part with Finn or Tara, he had been absolutely obliged to sell Kathleen.

But that was by no means the end of the Master's troubles, the root of which lay in the fact that he loved the country, and hated the town, but was unable to earn money enough in the country to meet the various obligations with which he saddled himself, and was saddled by circumstances. And so it fell out that soon after Finn's second birthday the Master began to spend a good deal of time away from the house by the Downs. Tara liked to pass the greater part of her time in the Master's outside den with her muzzle on his slippers, but Finn was not like that. Tara was a matron getting on in years, and her matronhood had cost her dear in illness from which it had been thought she could never recover. Finn, on the other hand, was the very personification of lusty youth and tireless virility. The Mistress of the Kennels would take him out behind her bicycle, while Tara lay dreaming at home, and it may be that the Mistress fancied her gentle ten and twelve mile runs tired Finn. She never saw him when he would set off upon his hunting expeditions, in the course of which he covered every foot of the Downs for a dozen miles around. He was safe enough, too, for he would have had nothing but angry growls for any man of Matey's ilk, charmed he never so wisely with spiced meats and the like. The weasels and the stoats, and a score of other wild things that roamed that country-side, could have told the Mistress of the Kennels just why Finn did not always clear his dinner dish in these days, and thereby saved her an addition to her many worries of that period. She did not like to depress the Master with tales of half-eaten meals, and she had no knowledge of the half-eaten hares and rabbits and other wild creatures which Finn left behind him on his hunting trails.

From one point of view, Finn suffered at this stage from the absence of the Master's eye and hand, and so did the rabbits; but, from another point of view, Finn gained. He became harder, more wily, and a far more expert hunter than he would have been under a more disciplined regime. But certainly he also became less domesticated, and vastly less fastidious than, for example, that exquisite great lady, his mother.

There came a certain late summer's day, with more than a hint of autumn in the air, when something happened which Finn never quite forgot. The Master had been away for three weeks on end, and Tara had missed him sadly. In the evening the great bitch would often whimper quietly as she lay outstretched, with her long, grey muzzle resting on the slippers which the Mistress never thought of taking from her. Of late she had cared less and less for any kind of activity, and seemed more and more to desire the presence of the Master. Now, in the evening of the day which brought strong hints of coming autumn with it, Finn lay beside Tara in the outside den, thinking lazily of an upland meadow, with a copse at its far end, which he meant to hunt presently. Suddenly there came a sound of a man's footfall on the gravel beyond the gateway and in front of the house. Tara's nostrils quivered as her head rose. With one mighty bound she was outside the den. The gates stood open. The Master, at the garden's far end, called--

"Tara! Tara, girl! Here, girl!"

Finn was by Tara's flank, and he saw her leap forward, hurtling through the air like an arrow from a bow. Six great bounds she gave, while fleet Finn galloped a good twenty paces behind her, and then Tara stopped suddenly with a strange, moaning cry, staggered for a moment, as the Master ran towards her, and then fell sideways, against his knee, with glazing eyes turned up for a last glimpse of the face she loved. The Master was kneeling on the gravel, and Tara's shoulders were in his arms; but at the end of two long-drawn sighs, Tara was dead.

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