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Christopher Morley, ed. (1890–1957). Modern Essays. 1921.

Some Nonsense About a Dog

Harry Esty Dounce

  • Harry Esty Dounce was born in Syracuse in 1889 and graduated from Hamilton College in 1910. His first job was as a cub reporter on the journal that newspapermen affectionately call “the old Sun”; the adjective is pronounced as though it were in italics. He was on the staff of the Syracuse Herald, 1912–14; spent a year in New Orleans writing short stories, and returned in 1916 to the magazine staff of the Sun. He was editor of the Sun’s book review section, 1919–20; in 1920 he joined the staff of the New York Evening Post.
  • “My hand will miss the insinuated nose—”
  • Sir William Watson.

  • BUT the dog that was written of must have been a big dog. Nibbie was just a comfortable lapful, once he had duly turned around and curled up with his nose in his tail.

    This is for people who know about dogs, in particular little mongrels without pedigree or market value. Other people, no doubt, will find it disgustingly maudlin. I would have found it so before Nibbie came.

    The day he came was a beautiful bright, cool one in an August. A touring car brought him. They put him down on our corner, meaning to lose him, but he crawled under the car, and they had to prod him out and throw stones before they could drive on. So that when I came home I found, with his mistress-elect, a sort of potbellied bundle of tarry oakum, caked with mud, panting convulsively still from fright, and showing the whites of uncommonly liquid brown eyes and a pink tongue. There was tennis that evening and he went along—I carried him over the railroad tracks; he gave us no trouble about the balls, but lay huddled under the bench where she sat, and shivered if a man came near him.

    That night he got chop bones and she got a sensible homily on the unwisdom of feeding strays, and he was left outdoors. He slept on the mat. The second morning we thought he had gone. The third, he was back, wagging approval of us and intent to stay, which seemed to leave no choice but to take him in. We had fun over names. “Jellywaggles,” suggested from next door, was undeniably descriptive. “Rags” fitted, or “Toby” or “Nig”—but they had a colored maid next door; finally we called him “Nibs,” and soon his tail would answer to it.

    Cleaned up—scrubbed, the insoluble matted locks clipped from his coat, his trampish collar replaced with a new one bearing a license tag—he was far from being unpresentable. A vet. once opined that for a mongrel he was a good dog, that a black cocker mother had thrown her cap over Scottish mills, so to speak. This analysis accounted for him perfectly. Always, depending on the moment’s mood, he was either terrier or spaniel, the snap and scrap and perk of the one alternating with the gentle snuggling indolence of the other.

    As terrier he would dig furiously by the hour after a field mouse; as spaniel he would “read” the breeze with the best nose among the dog folk of our neighborhood, or follow a trail quite well. I know there was retrieving blood. A year ago May he caught and brought me, not doing the least injury, an oriole that probably had flown against a wire and was struggling disabled in the grass.

    Nibbie was shabby-genteel black, sunburnt as to the mustache, grizzled as to the raggy fringe on his haunches. He had a white stock and shirt-frill and a white fore paw. The brown eyes full of heart were the best point. His body coat was rough Scottish worsted, the little black pate was cotton-soft like shoddy, and the big black ears were genuine spaniel silk. As a terrier he held them up smartly and carried a plumy fishhook of a tail; as a spaniel the ears drooped and the tail swung meekly as if in apology for never having been clipped. The other day when we had to say good-by to him each of us cut one silky tuft from an ear, very much as we had so often when he’d been among the burdocks in the field where the garden is.

    Burrs were by no means Nibbie’s only failing. In flea time it seemed hardly possible that a dog of his size could sustain his population. We finally found a true flea bane, but, deserted one day, he was populous again the next. They don’t relish every human; me they did; I used to storm at him for it, and he used, between spasms of scratching, to listen admiringly and wag. We think he supposed his tormentors were winged insects, for he sought refuge in dark clothes-closets where a flying imp wouldn’t logically come.

    He was wilful, insisted on landing in laps when their makers wanted to read. He would make advances to visitors who were polite about him. He would get up on the living-room table, why and how, heaven knows, finding his opportunity when we were out of the house, and taking care to be upstairs on a bed—white, grimeable coverlets preferred—by the time we had the front door open; I used to slip up to the porch and catch through a window the diving flourish of his sinful tail.

    One of his faults must have been a neurosis really. He led a hard life before we took him in, as witnessed the game hind leg that made him sit up side-saddle fashion, and two such scars on his back as boiling hot grease might have made. And something especially cruel had been done to him when asleep, for if you bent over him napping or in his bed he would half rouse and growl, and sometimes snap blindly. (We dreaded exuberant visiting children.) Two or three experiments I hate to remember now convinced me that it couldn’t be whipped out of him, and once wide awake he was sure to be perplexedly apologetic.

    He was spoiled. That was our doing. We babied him abominably—he was, for two years, the only subject we had for such malpractice. He had more foolish names than Wogg, that dog of Mrs. Stevenson’s, and heard more Little Language than Stella ever did, reciprocating by kissing proffered ears in his doggy way. Once he had brightened up after his arrival, he showed himself ready to take an ell whenever we gave an inch, and he was always taking them, and never paying penalties. He had conscience enough to be sly. I remember the summer evening we stepped outside for just an instant, and came back to find a curious groove across the butter, on the dining table, and an ever-so- innocent Nibbie in a chair in the next room.

    While we were at the table he was generally around it, bulldozing for tid-bits—I fear he had reason to know that this would work. One fortnight when his Missie was away he slept on his Old Man’s bed (we had dropped titles of dignity with him by then) and he rang the welkin hourly, answering far-away dog friends, and occasionally came north to lollop my face with tender solicitude, just like the fool nurse in the story, waking the patient up to ask if he was sleeping well.

    More recently, when a beruffled basket was waiting, he developed an alarming trick of stealing in there to try it, so I fitted that door with a hook, insuring a crack impervious to dogs. And the other night I had to take the hook, now useless, off; we couldn’t stand hearing it jingle. He adopted the junior member on first sight and sniff of him, by the way; would look on beaming as proudly as if he’d hatched him.

    The last of his iniquities arose from a valor that lacked its better part, an absurd mixture of Falstaff and bantam rooster. At the critical point he’d back out of a fuss with a dog of his own size. But let a police dog, an Airedale, a St. Bernard, or a big ugly cur appear and Nibbie was all around him, blackguarding him unendurably. It was lucky that the big dogs in our neighborhood were patient. And he never would learn about automobiles. Usually tried to tackle them head on, often stopped cars with merciful drivers. When the car wouldn’t stop, luck would save him by a fraction of an inch. I couldn’t spank that out of him either. We had really been expecting what finally happened for two years.

    That’s about all. Too much, I am afraid. A decent fate made it quick the other night, and clean and close at hand, in fact, on the same street corner where once a car had left the small scapegrace for us. We tell ourselves how glad we are it happened as it did, instead of an agonal ending such as many of his people come to. We tell ourselves we couldn’t have had him for ever in any event; that some day, for the junior member’s sake, we shall get another dog. We keep telling ourselves these things, and talking with animation on other topics. The muzzle, the leash, the drinking dish are hidden, the last muddy paw track swept up, the nose smudges washed off the favorite front window pane.

    But the house is full of a little snoofing, wagging, loving ghost. I know how the boy Thoreau felt about a hereafter with dogs barred. I want to think that somewhere, some time, I will be coming home again, and that when the door opens Nibbie will be on hand to caper welcome.