Gateway to the Classics: Lad: A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune
 
Lad: A Dog by  Albert Payson Terhune

"Quiet"

T O Lad the real world was bounded by The Place. Outside, there were a certain number of miles of land and there were an uncertain number of people. But the miles were uninspiring, except for a cross-country tramp with the Master. And the people were foolish and strange folk who either stared at him—which always annoyed Lad—or else tried to pat him; which he hated. But The Place was—The Place.

Always, he had lived on The Place. He felt he owned it. It was assuredly his to enjoy, to guard, to patrol from highroad to lake. It was his world.

The denizens of every world must have at least one deity to worship. Lad had one: the Master. Indeed, he had two: the Master and the Mistress. And because the dog was strong of soul and chivalric, withal, and because the Mistress was altogether lovable, Lad placed her altar even above the Master's. Which was wholly as it should have been.

There were other people at The Place—people to whom a dog must be courteous, as becomes a thoroughbred, and whose caresses he must accept. Very often, there were guests, too. And from puppyhood, Lad had been taught the sacredness of the Guest Law. Civilly, he would endure the pettings of these visiting outlanders. Gravely, he would shake hands with them, on request. He would even permit them to paw him or haul him about, if they were of the obnoxious, dog-mauling breed. But the moment politeness would permit, he always withdrew, very quietly, from their reach and, if possible, from their sight as well.

Of all the dogs on The Place, big Lad alone had free run of the house, by day and by night.

He slept in a "cave" under the piano. He even had access to the sacred dining-room, at mealtimes—where always he lay to the left of the Master's chair.

With the Master, he would willingly unbend for a romp at any or all times. At the Mistress' behest he would play with all the silly abandon of a puppy; rolling on the ground at her feet, making as though to seize and crush one of her little shoes in his mighty jaws; wriggling and waving his legs in air when she buried her hand in the masses of his chest-ruff; and otherwise comporting himself with complete loss of dignity.

But to all except these two, he was calmly unapproachable. From his earliest days he had never forgotten he was an aristocrat among inferiors. And, calmly aloof, he moved among his subjects.

Then, all at once, into the sweet routine of the House of Peace, came Horror.

It began on a blustery, sour October day. The Mistress had crossed the lake to the village, in her canoe, with Lad curled up in a furry heap in the prow. On the return trip, about fifty yards from shore, the canoe struck sharply and obliquely against a half-submerged log that a Fall freshet had swept down from the river above the lake. At the same moment a flaw of wind caught the canoe's quarter. And, after the manner of such eccentric craft, the canvas shell proceeded to turn turtle.

Into the ice-chill waters splashed its two occupants. Lad bobbed to the top, and glanced around at the Mistress to learn if this were a new practical joke. But, instantly, he saw it was no joke at all, so far as she was concerned.

Swathed and cramped by the folds of her heavy outing skirt, the Mistress was making no progress shoreward. And the dog flung himself through the water toward her with a rush that left his shoulders and half his back above the surface. In a second he had reached her and had caught her sweater-shoulder in his teeth.

She had the presence of mind to lie out straight, as though she were floating, and to fill her lungs with a swift intake of breath. The dog's burden was thus made infinitely lighter than if she had struggled or had lain in a posture less easy for towing. Yet he made scant headway, until she wound one hand in his mane, and, still lying motionless and stiff, bade him loose his hold on her shoulder.

In this way, by sustained effort that wrenched every giant muscle in the collie's body, they came at last to land.

Vastly rejoiced was Lad, and inordinately proud of himself. And the plaudits of the Master and the Mistress were music to him. Indefinably, he understood he had done a very wonderful thing and that everybody on The Place was talking about him, and that all were trying to pet him at once.

This promiscuous handling he began to find unwelcome. And he retired at last to his "cave" under the piano to escape from it. Matters soon quieted down; and the incident seemed at an end.

Instead, it had just begun.

For, within an hour, the Mistress—who, for days had been half-sick with a cold—was stricken with a chill, and by night she was in the first stages of pneumonia.

Then over The Place descended Gloom. A gloom Lad could not understand until he went upstairs at dinner-time to escort the Mistress, as usual, to the dining-room. But to his light scratch at her door there was no reply. He scratched again and presently Master came out of the room and ordered him down-stairs again.

Then from the Master's voice and look, Lad understood that something was terribly amiss. Also, as she did not appear at dinner and as he was for the first time in his life forbidden to go into her room, he knew the Mistress was the victim of whatever mishap had befallen.

A strange man, with a black bag, came to the house early in the evening; and he and the Master were closeted for an interminable time in the Mistress' room. Lad had crept dejectedly upstairs behind them; and sought to crowd into the room at their heels. The Master ordered him back and shut the door in his face.

Lad lay down on the threshold, his nose to the crack at the bottom of the door, and waited. He heard the murmur of speech.

Once he caught the Mistress' voice—changed and muffled and with a puzzling new note in it—but undeniably the Mistress'. And his tail thumped hopefully on the hall floor. But no one came to let him in. And, after the mandate to keep out, he dared not scratch for admittance.

The doctor almost stumbled across the couchant body of the dog as he left the room with the Master. Being a dog-owner himself, the doctor understood and his narrow escape from a fall over the living obstacle did not irritate him. But it reminded him of something.

"Those other dogs of yours outside there," he said to the Master, as they went down the stairs, "raised a fearful racket when my car came down the drive, just now. Better send them all away somewhere till she is better. The house must be kept perfectly quiet."

The Master looked back, up the stairway; at its top, pressed close against the Mistress' door, crouched Lad. Something in the dog's heartbroken attitude touched him.

"I'll send them over to the boarding-kennels in the morning," he answered. "All except Lad. He and I are going to see this through, together. He'll be quiet, if I tell him to."

All through the endless night, while the October wind howled and yelled around the house, Lad lay outside the sick-room door, his nose between his absurdly small white paws, his sorrowful eyes wide open, his ears alert for the faintest sound from the room beyond.

Sometimes, when the wind screamed its loudest, Lad would lift his head—his ruff a-bristle, his teeth glinting from under his upcurled lip. And he would growl a throaty menace. It was as though he heard, in the tempest's racket, the strife of evil gale-spirits to burst in through the rattling windows and attack the stricken Mistress. Perhaps—well, perhaps there are things visible and audible to dogs; to which humans were deaf and blind. Or perhaps they are not.

Lad was there when day broke and when the Master, heavy-eyed from sleeplessness, came out. He was there when the other dogs were herded into the car and carried away to the boarding-kennels.

Lad was there when the car came back from the station, bringing to The Place an angular, wooden-faced woman with yellow hair and a yellower suitcase—a horrible woman who vaguely smelt of disinfectants and of rigid Efficiency, and who presently approached the sick-room, clad and capped in stiff white. Lad hated her.

He was there when the doctor came for his morning visit to the invalid. And again he tried to edge his own way into the room, only to be rebuffed once more.

"This is the third time I've nearly broken my neck over that miserable dog," chidingly announced the nurse, later in the day, as she came out of the room and chanced to meet the Master on the landing. "Do please drive him away. I've  tried to do it, but he only snarls at me. And in a dangerous case like this——"

"Leave him alone," briefly ordered the Master.

But when the nurse, sniffing, passed on, he called Lad over to him. Reluctantly, the dog quitted the door and obeyed the summons.

"Quiet!" ordered the Master, speaking very slowly and distinctly. "You must keep quiet. Quiet!  Understand?"

Lad understood. Lad always understood. He must not bark. He must move silently. He must make no unnecessary sound. But, at least, the Master had not forbidden him to snarl softly and loathingly at that detestable white-clad woman every time she stepped over him.

So there was one grain of comfort.

Gently, the Master called him downstairs and across the living-room, and put him out of the house. For, after all, a shaggy eighty-pound dog is an inconvenience stretched across a sick-room doorsill.

Three minutes later, Lad had made his way through an open window into the cellar and thence upstairs; and was stretched out, head between paws, at the threshold of the Mistress' room.

On his thrice-a-day visits, the doctor was forced to step over him, and was man enough to forbear to curse. Twenty times a day, the nurse stumbled over his massive, inert body, and fumed in impotent rage. The Master, too, came back and forth from the sick-room, with now and then a kindly word for the suffering collie, and again and again put him out of the house.

But always Lad managed, by hook or crook, to be back on guard within a minute or two. And never once did the door of the Mistress' room open that he did not make a strenuous attempt to enter.

Servants, nurse, doctor, and Master repeatedly forgot he was there, and stubbed their toes across his body. Sometimes their feet drove agonizingly into his tender flesh. But never a whimper or growl did the pain wring from him. "Quiet!"  had been the command, and he was obeying.

And so it went on, through the awful days and the infinitely worse nights. Except when he was ordered away by the Master, Lad would not stir from his place at the door. And not even the Master's authority could keep him away from it for five minutes a day.

The dog ate nothing, drank practically nothing, took no exercise; moved not one inch, of his own will, from the doorway. In vain did the glories of Autumn woods call to him. The rabbits would be thick, out yonder in the forest, just now. So would the squirrels—against which Lad had long since sworn a blood-feud (and one of which it had ever been his futile life ambition to catch).

For him, these things no longer existed. Nothing existed; except his mortal hatred of the unseen Something in that forbidden room—the Something that was seeking to take the Mistress away with It. He yearned unspeakably to be in that room to guard her from her nameless Peril. And they would not let him in—these humans.

Wherefore he lay there, crushing his body close against the door and—waiting.

And, inside the room, Death and the Napoleonic man with the black bag fought their "no-quarter" duel for the life of the still, little white figure in the great white bed.

One night, the doctor did not go home at all. Toward dawn the Master lurched out of the room and sat down for a moment on the stairs, his face in his hands. Then and then only, during all that time of watching, did Lad leave the doorsill of his own accord.

Shaky with famine and weariness, he got to his feet, moaning softly, and crept over to the Master; he lay down beside him, his huge head athwart the man's knees; his muzzle reaching timidly toward the tight-clenched hands.

Presently the Master went back into the sick-room. And Lad was left alone in the darkness—to wonder and to listen and to wait. With a tired sigh he returned to the door and once more took up his heartsick vigil.

Then—on a golden morning, days later, the doctor came and went with the look of a Conqueror. Even the wooden-faced nurse forgot to grunt in disgust when she stumbled across the dog's body. She almost smiled. And presently the Master came out through the doorway. He stopped at sight of Lad, and turned back into the room. Lad could hear him speak. And he heard a dear, dear  voice make answer; very weakly, but no longer in that muffled and foreign tone which had so frightened him. Then came a sentence the dog could understand.

"Come in, old friend," said the Master, opening the door and standing aside for Lad to enter.

At a bound, the collie was in the room. There lay the Mistress. She was very thin, very white, very feeble. But she was there. The dread Something had lost the battle.

Lad wanted to break forth into a peal of ecstatic barking that would have deafened every one in the room.

The Master read the wish and interposed,

"Quiet!"

Lad heard. He controlled the yearning. But it cost him a world of will-power to do it. As sedately as he could force himself to move, he crossed to the bed.

The Mistress was smiling at him. One hand was stretched weakly forth to stroke him. And she was saying almost in a whisper, "Lad! Laddie!"

That was all. But her hand was petting him in the dear way he loved so well. And the Master was telling her all over again how the dog had watched outside her door. Lad listened—not to the man's praise, but to the woman's caressing whisper—and he quivered from head to tail. He fought furiously with himself once again, to choke back the rapturous barking that clamored for utterance. He knew this was no time for noise. Even without the word of warning, he would have known it. For the Mistress was whispering. Even the Master was speaking scarce louder.

But one thing Lad realized: the black danger was past. The Mistress was alive! And the whole house was smiling. That was enough. And the yearning to show, in noise, his own wild relief, was all but irresistible. Then the Master said:

"Run on, Lad. You can come back by-and-by."

And the dog gravely made his way out of the room and out of the house.

The minute he was out-of-doors, he proceeded to go crazy. Nothing but sheer mania could excuse his actions during the rest of that day. They were unworthy of a mongrel puppy. And never before in all his blameless, stately life had Lad so grossly misbehaved as he now proceeded to do. The Mistress was alive. The Horror was past. Reaction set in with a rush. As I have said, Lad went crazy.

Peter Grimm, the Mistress's cynical and temperamental gray cat, was picking its dainty way across the lawn as Lad emerged from the house.

Ordinarily, Lad regarded Peter Grimm with a cold tolerance. But now, he dashed at the cat with a semblance of stark wrath. Like a furry whirlwind he bore down upon the amazed feline. The cat, in dire offense, scratched his nose with a quite unnecessary virulence and fled up a tree, spitting and yowling, tail fluffed out as thick as a man's wrist.

Seeing that Peter Grimm had resorted to sportsmanly tactics by scrambling whither he could not follow, Lad remembered the need for silence and forbore to bark threats at his escaped victim. Instead, he galloped to the rear of the house where stood the dairy.

The dairy door was on the latch. With his head Lad butted it open and ran into the stone-floored room. A line of full milk-pans were ranged side by side on a shelf. Rising on his hind-legs and bracing his forepaws on the shelf, Lad seized edges of the deep pans, one after another, between his teeth, and, with a succession of sharp jerks brought them one and all clattering to the floor.

Scampering out of the dairy, ankle deep in a river of spilt milk, and paying no heed to the cries of the scandalized cook, he charged forth in the open again. His eye fell on a red cow, tethered by a long chain in a pasture-patch beyond the stables.

She was an old acquaintance of his, this cow. She had been on The Place since before he was born. Yet, to-day Lad's spear knew no brother. He tore across the lawn and past the stables, straight at the astonished bovine. In terror, the cow threw up her tail and sought to lumber away at top speed. Being controlled by her tether she could run only in a wide circle. And around and around this circle Lad drove the bellowing brute as fast as he could make her run, until the gardener came panting to her relief.

But neither the gardener nor any other living creature could stay Lad's rampage that day. He fled merrily up to the Lodge at the gate, burst into its kitchen and through to the refrigerator. There, in a pan, he found a raw leg of mutton. Seizing this twelve-pound morsel in his teeth and dodging the indignant housewife, he careered out into the highway with his prize, dug a hole in the roadside ditch and was gleefully preparing to bury the mutton therein, when its outraged owner rescued it.

A farmer was jogging along the road behind a half-dozing horse. A painful nip on the rear hind-leg turned the nag's drowsy jog into a really industrious effort at a runaway. Already, Lad had sprung clear of the front wheel. As the wagon bumped past him, he leaped upward; deftly caught a hanging corner of the lap-robe and hauled it free of the seat.

Robe in mouth, he capered off into a field; playfully keeping just out of the reach of the pursuing agrarian; and at last he deposited the stolen treasure in the heart of a bramble-patch a full half-mile from the road.

Lad made his way back to The Place by a wide detour that brought him through the grounds of a neighbor of the Master's.

This neighbor owned a dog—a mean-eyed, rangy and mangy pest of a brute that Lad would ordinarily have scorned to notice. But, most decidedly, he noticed the dog now. He routed it out of its kennel and bestowed upon it a thrashing that brought its possessor's entire family shrieking to the scene of conflict.

Courteously refusing to carry the matter further, in face of a half-dozen shouting humans, Lad cantered homeward.

From the clothes-line, on the drying-ground at The Place, fluttered a large white object. It was palpably a nurse's uniform—palpably the  nurse's uniform. And Lad greeted its presence there with a grin of pure bliss.

In less than two seconds the uniform was off the line, with three huge rents marring its stiff surface. In less than thirty seconds, it was reposing in the rich black mud on the verge of the lake, and Lad was rolling playfully on it.

Then he chanced to remember his long-neglected enemies, the squirrels, and his equally-neglected prey, the rabbits. And he loped off to the forest to wage gay warfare upon them. He was gloriously, idiotically, criminally happy. And, for the time, he was a fool.

All day long, complaints came pouring in to the Master. Lad had destroyed the whole "set" of cream. Lad had chased the red cow till it would be a miracle if she didn't fall sick of it. Lad had scared poor dear little Peter Grimm so badly that the cat seemed likely to spend all the rest of its nine lives squalling in the tree-top and crossly refusing to come down.

Lad had spoiled a Sunday leg of mutton, up at the Lodge. Lad had made a perfectly respectable horse run madly away for nearly twenty-five feet, and had given the horse's owner a blasphemous half-mile run over a plowed field after a cherished and ravished lap-robe. Lad had well-nigh killed a neighbor's particularly killable dog. Lad had wantonly destroyed the nurse's very newest and most expensive uniform. All day it was Lad—Lad—Lad!

Lad, it seemed, was a storm-center, whence radiated complaints that ran the whole gamut from tears to lurid profanity; and, to each and every complainant, the Master made the same answer:

"Leave him alone. We're just out of hell—Lad and I! He's doing the things I'd do myself, if I had the nerve."

Which, of course, was a manifestly asinine way for a grown man to talk.

Long after dusk, Lad pattered meekly home, very tired and quite sane. His spell of imbecility had worn itself out. He was once more his calmly dignified self, though not a little ashamed of his babyish pranks, and mildly wondering how he had come to behave so.

Still, he could not grieve over what he had done. He could not grieve over anything just yet. The Mistress was alive! And while the craziness had passed, the happiness had not. Tired, drowsily at peace with all the world, he curled up under the piano and went to sleep.

He slept so soundly that the locking of the house for the night did not rouse him. But something else did. Something that occurred long after everyone on The Place was sound asleep. Lad was joyously pursuing, through the forest aisles of dreamland, a whole army of squirrels that had not sense enough to climb trees—when in a moment, he was wide awake and on guard. Far off, very far off, he heard a man walking.

Now, to a trained dog there is as much difference in the sound of human footfalls as, to humans, there is a difference in the aspect of human faces. A belated countryman walking along the highway, a furlong distant, would not have awakened Lad from sleep. Also, he knew and could classify, at any distance, the footsteps of everyone who lived on The Place. But the steps that had brought him wide awake and on the alert to-night, did not belong to one of The Place's people; nor were they the steps of anybody who had a right to be on the premises.

Someone had climbed the fence, at a distance from the drive, and was crossing the grounds, obliquely, toward the house. It was a man, and he was still nearly two hundred yards away. Moreover, he was walking stealthily; and pausing every now and then as if to reconnoiter.

No human, at that distance, could have heard the steps. No dog could have helped hearing them. Had the other dogs been at home instead of at the boarding-kennels, The Place would by this time have been re-echoing with barks. Both scent and sound would have given them ample warning of the stranger's presence.

To Lad, on the lower floor of the house, where every window was shut, the aid of scent was denied. Yet his sense of hearing was enough. Plainly, he heard the softly advancing steps—heard and read them. He read them for an intruder's—read them for the steps of a man who was afraid to be heard or seen, and who was employing all the caution in his power.

A booming, trumpeting bark of warning sprang into Lad's throat—and died there. The sharp command "Quiet!"  was still in force. Even in his madness, that day, he had uttered no sound. He strangled back the tumultuous bark and listened in silence. He had risen to his feet and had come out from under the piano. In the middle of the living-room he stood, head lowered, ears pricked. His ruff was abristle. A ridge of hair rose grotesquely from the shaggy mass of coat along his spine. His lips had slipped back from his teeth. And so he stood and waited.

The shuffling, soft steps were nearer now. Down through the trees they came, and then onto the springy grass of the lawn. Now they crunched lightly on the gravel of the drive. Lad moved forward a little and again stood at attention.

The man was climbing to the veranda. The vines rustled ever so slightly as he brushed past them. His footfall sounded lightly on the veranda itself.

Next there was a faint clicking noise at the old-fashioned lock of one of the bay windows. Presently, by half inches, the window began to rise. Before it had risen an inch, Lad knew the trespasser was a negro. Also that it was no one with whose scent he was familiar.

Another pause, followed by the very faintest scratching, as the negro ran a knife-blade along the crack of the inner wooden blinds in search of the catch.

The blinds parted slowly. Over the window-sill the man threw a leg. Then he stepped down, noiselessly into the room.

He stood there a second, evidently listening.

And, before he could stir or breathe, something in the darkness hurled itself upon him.

Without so much as a growl of warning, eighty pounds of muscular, hairy energy smote the negro full in the chest. A set of hot-breathing jaws flashed for his jugular vein, missed it by a half-inch, and the graze left a red-hot searing pain along the negro's throat. In the merest fraction of a moment, the murderously snapping jaws sank into the thief's shoulder. It is collie custom to fight with a running accompaniment of snarling growls. But Lad did not give voice. In total silence he made his onslaught. In silence, he sought and gained his hold.

The negro was less considerate of the Mistress' comfort. With a screech that would have waked every mummy in Egypt, he reeled back, under that first unseen impact, lost his balance and crashed to the hardwood floor, overturning a table and a lamp in his fall. Certain that a devil had attacked him there in the black darkness, the man gave forth yell after yell of mortal terror. Frantically, he strove to push away his assailant and his clammy hand encountered a mass of fur.

The negro had heard that all the dogs on The Place had been sent away because of the Mistress' illness. Hence his attempt at burglary. Hence also, his panic fear when Lad had sprung on him.

But with the feel of the thick warm fur, the man's superstitious terror died. He knew he had roused the house; but there was still time to escape if he could rid himself of this silent, terrible creature. He staggered to his feet. And, with the knife he still clutched, he smote viciously at his assailant.

Because Lad was a collie, Lad was not killed then and there. A bulldog or a bull-terrier, attacking a man, seeks for some convenient hold. Having secured that hold—be it good or bad—he locks his jaws and hangs on. You can well-nigh cut his head from his body before he will let go. Thus, he is at the mercy of any armed man who can keep cool long enough to kill him.

But a collie has a strain of wolf in his queer brain. He seeks a hold, it is true. But at an instant's notice, he is ready to shift that hold for a better. He may bite or slash a dozen times in as many seconds and in as many parts of the body. He is everywhere at once—he is nowhere in particular. He is not a pleasant opponent.

Lad did not wait for the negro's knife to find his heart. As the man lunged, the dog transferred his profitless shoulderhold to a grip on the stabbing arm. The knife blade plowed an ugly furrow along his side. And the dog's curved eye-tooth slashed the negro's arm from elbow to wrist, clean through to the bone.

The knife clattered to the floor. The negro wheeled and made a leap for the open window; he had not cleared half the space when Lad bounded for the back of his neck. The dog's upper set of teeth raked the man's hard skull, carrying away a handful of wool and flesh; and his weight threw the thief forward on hands and knees again. Twisting, the man found the dog's furry throat; and with both hands sought to strangle him; at the same time backing out through the window. But it is not easy to strangle a collie. The piles of tumbled ruff-hair form a protection no other breed of dog can boast. Scarcely had the hands found their grip when one of them was crushed between the dog's vise-like jaws.

The negro flung off his enemy and turned to clear the veranda at a single jump. But before he had half made the turn, Lad was at his throat again, and the two crashed through the vines together and down onto the driveway below. The entire combat had not lasted for more than thirty seconds.

The Master, pistol and flashlight in hand, ran down to find the living-room amuck with blood and with smashed furniture, and one of the windows open. He flashed the electric ray through the window. On the ground below, stunned by striking against a stone jardinière in his fall, the negro sprawled senseless upon his back. Above him was Lad, his searching teeth at last having found their coveted throat-hold. Steadily, the great dog was grinding his way through toward the jugular.

There was a deal of noise and excitement and light after that. The negro was trussed up and the local constable was summoned by telephone. Everybody seemed to be doing much loud talking.

Lad took advantage of the turmoil to slip back into the house and to his "cave" under the piano; where he proceeded to lick solicitously the flesh wound on his left side.

He was very tired; and he was very unhappy and he was very much worried. In spite of all his own precautions as to silence, the negro had made a most ungodly lot of noise. The commandment "Quiet!"  had been fractured past repair. And, somehow, Lad felt blame for it all. It was really his fault—and he realized it now—that the man had made such a racket. Would the Master punish him? Perhaps. Humans have such odd ideas of Justice. He——

Then it was that the Master found him; and called him forth from his place of refuge. Head adroop, tail low, Lad crept out to meet his scolding. He looked very much like a puppy caught tearing a new rug.

But suddenly, the Master and everyone else in the room was patting him and telling him how splendid he was. And the Master had found the deep scratch on his side and was dressing it, and stopping every minute or so, to praise him again. And then, as a crowning reward, he was taken upstairs for the Mistress to stroke and make much of.

When at last he was sent downstairs again, Lad did not return to his piano-lair. Instead, he went out-of-doors and away from The Place. And, when he thought he was far enough from the house, he solemnly sat down and began to bark.

It was good—passing  good—to be able to make a noise again. He had never before known how needful to canine happiness a bark really is. He had long and pressing arrears of barks in his system. And thunderously he proceeded to divest himself of them for nearly half an hour.

Then, feeling much, much  better, he ambled homeward, to take up normal life again after a whole fortnight of martyrdom.


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