rats - CHAPTER III.

CHAPTER III.

Aristocratic versus Plutocratic—Come-by-Chance—Chance's Friend—Nondescript Tinker—Grindum—How I got Grindum—Grindum's Friends—Jack and his Sister—"Jack Took Me"—End of an Ugly Story—Grindum's First Rat—Pepper and Wasp .

            I AM a working man, or rather have been till I got the rheumatics, and as such I naturally stick to my own class and prefer associating with those of my own sort, and therefore I always keep working dogs.

            I have often bred aristocratic dogs, dogs descended from great prize-winners and with long pedigrees, and among them I have had some good ones, honest and true; but as a rule I must say my experience proves that the shorter the pedigree the better the dog, and now if I could get them I should like to keep dogs that never had a father. Some people I know call me a cad, a clod, a chawbacon, etc., and they call my dogs curs and mongrels. Such men talk nonsense and should be kept specially to make speeches during the recess. I don't care to defend myself, but I must stand up for my dogs against all comers; and I assert boldly that, nine times out of ten, a dog with no pedigree is worth two with a long one. When I get a new dog I never ask who he is, or who his father was, but I go by his looks and his performances. There are dogs like men in all classes, who have either a mean, spiteful, vicious look, or a dull, heavy, dead one; such I avoid both in dog and man, for I find they are not worth knowing. Any other dog will do for me, and even now, though I don't often go ratting, I have as good a lot as ever stood at a hole, and I don't think I can do better than describe them as a guide to students when they come to getting a kennel together.

            First of all, I never give a lot of money for a dog—how can I with rats at twopence each?—but, if I can, I drop on a likely-looking young one about a year old who was going to be "put away" on account of the tax. I got the oldest I have now in the kennel in this way. It followed George Adams, the carrier, home one night, and to this day has never been claimed; and when the tax-collector spoke to him about it, he offered it to me, and I took it and gave it the name of "Come-by-chance," but in the family and among friends she is now called "Chance."

            If Chance is of any family I should think her mother was a setter and her father a bobtail sheep-dog; but, then, I can't make out where she got her legs! She is red and white, with a perfect setter's head. She has the hind parts of a sheep-dog and evidently never had a tail; and her legs, which are very thick, would be short for a big terrier. Such are her looks, which certainly are not much to speak of; but if I had the pen of a Sir Walter Scott I could not do credit to the perfection of her character. For seven years she has been the support of my business, and I can safely say she has caused the death of more rats than all my other dogs put together. I say caused, for she is slow at killing and leaves this matter of detail to younger hands. If another dog is not near she will catch a rat and even kill it; but she has a soft mouth, and all the other dogs, except quite the youngest, know this, and, against the rule, will always dash in when she has a rat in her mouth and take it from her, and she gives it up without a struggle.

            No, her forte is to find a rat. She is always in and out, up the bank, through the hedge, down the bank; not a tuft of grass escapes her, and she would hunt down each side of Regent Street and in and out of the carriages if she found herself there. She lives hunting. Nothing ever escapes her; one sniff at the deepest and most turn-about hole is enough. If the rat is not in, on she goes in a minute; but should it be ensconced deep down in the furthest corner, she stops at once and just turns her head round and says quietly to me, "Here's one." Then, whilst I am getting out a ferret, over the bank she goes, in and out the hedge in all directions, and never fails to find and mark every bolt-hole for the other dogs to stand at that belongs to the one where the rat is. As soon as I begin to put in the ferret, she will come over the hedge, give herself a shake, and sit down and watch the proceedings, not offering to take a part herself, as she feels there are more able dogs ready, and that this is not her strong point. Suppose a rat bolts and is killed and the ferret comes out, Chance will never leave the hole till she has taken a sniff at it to make sure all the rats have been cleared out. I have never known her make a mistake. If she says there is a rat in, there is one without, any doubt; if she says there is not, it is no good running a ferret through the hole. Should I be alone, with no one to look out for the ferret when it comes out on the other side of a bank, Chance without a word being said to her will get over and look out, and directly the ferret appears will come back to me and give a wriggle, looking in the direction of the ferret, and then I know I must get over and pick it up.

            She has one peculiarity. When she followed George Adams home, seven years ago, she was shy and scared; but, as it was a cold night, George, being a kind-hearted fellow, invited her to step indoors, an invitation she accepted in a frightened sort of way. On the hearth sat a little girl of three years old, eating her supper, and Chance, doubtless feeling very hungry, came and sat down in front of her and watched her with a wistful look. The child was not afraid and soon began feeding the dog, who took the pieces of food most gently from her fingers. When the child was taken up to bed, Chance secretly followed, and getting under the crib slept there all night. Only once since then has Chance failed to sleep in that same place, and that was the first night I had her. She was shut up in the kennel and never stopped barking all night. Since then she has always followed me home, eaten her supper at the kitchen door, and then gone off to her bed under the crib. Early in the morning she is again at my door and never goes near George's house till bed-time.

            If Chance has no tail, the next dog on the list, "Tinker," makes up the average. He is a little black, hard-coated dog, with the head of a greyhound and tail of a foxhound. His head is nearly as long as his body, and his tail is just a little longer. In all ways he is a proficient at rat-catching, except that he has been known to mark a hole where there was no rat; but his strong point is killing. He will stand well back from a hole, and it does not matter how many rats bolt, or how fast, each gets one snap and is dead and dropped without Tinker having moved a foot. I named him Tinker, for a tinker gave him to me "cos he warn't no sort of waller."

            Then on my list next comes "Grindum," a mongrel bull-terrier, just the tenderest hearted, mildest dispositioned dog that ever killed a rat. He has but a poor nose and is not clever, but he has one strong point, which he developed for himself without being taught. It is this: when I am ferreting a thick hairy bank with a big ditch, Grindum always goes some ten yards off and places himself in the ditch, and, let the excitement be what it will, he never moves; and should a rat in the thick grass escape the other dogs and bolt down the ditch, it is a miracle if it does not die when it reaches him. I have better and cleverer dogs, I know; but I think Grindum brings in as many twopences as any of them, and we are not going to part! The way I got Grindum is quite a little history, and I will tell it, though if you boys like, you can skip it and go on with a more serious part of your lesson.

            Not far from where I lived there was, in a most out-of-the-way corner on a common, an old sand-pit, and in this a miserable dilapidated cottage, consisting of two rooms. This for some years had been empty, but one fine morning was discovered to be inhabited by a man, his wife and two children—a boy of twelve and a girl of seven—and a bull-terrier. No one knew anything about them or where they had come from, and when the landlord of the hut went to eject them, he found them in such a miserable half-starved condition that he left them alone.

            Our parson called on them three times—the first time the wife told him they did not like strangers and parsons in particular; the second time the husband told him to clear out sharp, or he would do him a mischief; and the third time the man took up a knife and began sharpening it, preparatory, he said, to cutting the parson's throat!

            Two months after this the man, after sitting drinking in the village pot-house all the morning, stepped round to an old midwife and asked her "to come and lay his wife out." The woman went and did her work and said nothing at the time, but later on it was whispered about that she had told some of her pals that "the poor crittur was black and blue, and that it was on her mind that the husband had murdered her!" After this, as I .passed the cottage, I often saw the two children sitting on a log of wood outside, with the bull-dog sitting between them. None of the three ever moved out; all blinked their eyes at me as I passed, as if they were unaccustomed to the sight of a fellow-creature.

            Two or three months passed, during which the man was constantly drinking at the village public-house; but he always left at sundown—"to look after the kids, "he said. Then there was a poaching fray on a nobleman's estate near. Six keepers came on five poachers one moonlight night. There was a hard fight, and at last the keepers took two of the men and the other three bolted, but one was recognized as the man from the sand-pit and was "wanted" by the police.

            A few nights after this I was walking down a lane in the dark near my house, when the sand-pit man stepped out of the hedge, leading his dog by a cord, and turning to me said, "Here, master, if you want a good dog, here is one for you; I am off to give myself up to the police, and I am going to turn queen's evidence against my pals." I replied that I did not want such a dog, so he said, "All right, then I'll cut his throat, "and then and there prepared to do so. This was more than I could stand, so I took the cord and led the dog away, but before doing so, I asked, "How about your children?" He gave a short laugh, and said, "They would be properly provided for." It afterwards turned out that soon after leaving me he walked straight into the arms of two policemen, who saved him the trouble of giving himself up by taking him into custody.

            I led my new dog home and tied him up in the corner of an open wood-shed, giving him a bundle of straw and a dish of bones, and by the starved look of him I should say this was the biggest meal he had ever had in his life.

            I sat up late that night reading, and all the time in a remote corner of my mind the sand-pit man, the two children and the dog kept turning about, till at last, about midnight or later, I thought I would go to bed; but before doing so I made up my mind that I would see if my new dog was all right. I lit a lantern and stepped out of the door and found it was blowing and snowing and biting cold. Mercifully I persevered and reached the wood-shed, and what I saw there by the light of my lantern did startle me. There was the bull-dog sure enough lying curled up in the straw blinking hard at me, but—could I believe my eyes?—there lying with him, with their arms entwined round each other and round the dog, were the two children from the sand-pit fast asleep, but looking so pale and pinched I thought they must be dead.

            I will give place to no man living at rat-catching and minding dogs, but here was a pretty mess, for I am no good with little children; so putting down my lantern, I hurried back to the house and got two rugs and with them wrapped the children and dog up snugly. Then I went in and woke up my wife, who had already gone to bed, and called some other women who were in the house, and after telling them what I had found, I made up a big fire in the kitchen and put on some water to boil. In a very few minutes my wife was downstairs and battling her way with me off to the woodshed. I untied the dog and moved him away from the children. This woke them both, and they sat up and rubbed their eyes, and the poor boy appeared almost scared to death, but the little girl was quite quiet, and only watched his face with a sad careworn old look which I pray I may never see on a child's face again.

            My wife is really smart with little children, and in half no time she was on her knees crooning over them, and soon she had the girl in her arms; but when I attempted to pick up the boy he only screamed and struggled, and kept calling out, "Grindum, Grindum! I won't leave Grindum. I shall be killed if I leave Grindum. Let me stay with Grindum." I assured him he should not be separated from Grindum "never no more," and at last I partially quieted him, and he allowed me to carry him into the kitchen and place him on a stool in front of the fire with his sister, while his beloved Grindum sat by his side blinking as if nothing unusual had taken place, and as if he had done the same each night for the last three months and felt a little bored by it.

            The first thing to be done, my wife said, was to feed the children, and while she and the other women busied about getting it ready, I sat and watched them. Both were remarkably pretty; both dark, with finely cut features, big eyes and thick soft black hair; but yet in different ways both had something sad about them. The boy never sat still for a moment, but kept glancing fearfully at me, then at the women, and then at the door, as if he expected something dreadful to happen, and all the time kept grasping the arm of his little sister with one hand as if for protection, and clinging to the soft skin of Grindum's neck with the other. If he caught my eye, or if I spoke to him, he flinched as if I had struck him, and turned livid and tugged so hard at Grindum's skin that the poor dog's eyes were pulled into mere slits, through which I could see he yet went on blinking at the fire. The girl sat half turned round to the boy and never took her eyes off his face, looking the very essence of womanly pity and love. Now and then when he suffered from a paroxysm of fear, she would softly stroke his face, which appeared to soothe him instantly; but nothing she could do could ever stop the wild restless look in his eyes or prevent his glancing about as if watching for some dreadful apparition. It was a sad, sad picture, made doubly striking by the utter stolidity and indifference of that awful dog, Grindum.

            Soon hot basins of bread and milk were prepared, which both children eat ravenously, and then they were put into steaming hot baths, washed, dried, combed, and wrapped in blankets; but when we attempted to take them up to the nice warm beds that had been prepared for them, there was the same wild terrified cry from the boy for Grindum; and to pacify him the dog had to be taken upstairs with them, and half an hour later, when my wife and I peeped into the room, we saw the two children locked in each other's arms fast asleep, with Grindum curled up on the bed next to the boy, yet blinking horribly, but perfectly composed and making himself at home.

            How those two children found their way that night through a blinding snow-storm to their only living friend, the dear blinking Grindum, I never could find out. All I could ever get from the boy was, "Oh, I always go where Grindum goes!" and the little girl could only say, "Jack took me." My wife says angels guided them. Maybe she's right, but I hardly think angels would be likely to go about on such a night; still my wife went out in the snow and wind to the shed and got out of her snug bed to do it, but then she put on a pea jacket and clogs, and that makes a difference.

            This is a tiring long story to write, and I have not quite done it yet, for I must finish with the sand-pit man. He was tried, convicted and got three years. A year after he had been in prison he tried to escape by getting over a high wall, but in doing so he fell from the top and broke his back. He lingered some days and seemed to find a pleasure in telling the prison parson of all his misdeeds and in boasting of them. There was a long list, but only the last part of his story will serve for "the use of schools." It appears from what he said that, after he had given me the dog, he had intended to steal back to his house and take the two children to a deep pond and there drown them. Then, free from family ties, he hoped to get away and ship himself off to America. He also said that in a fit of rage he had thrashed his wife to death with his fists, and that his boy from having seen him do it had gone mad with fear, and was so bad, especially at night, that if he had not got a bulldog sleeping with him as a sort of friend, he would go into a fit with fear and was often unconscious for hours.

            It was an ugly story, and I am glad to say with the death of the sand-pit man the miserable part of the children's life ended. The girl is now twelve years old and has never left us. She is as sharp as a needle and as honest as old Chance and as good. She is having a good education, thanks to our Rector's wife, and could if need be earn her own livelihood, but we are not going ever to part with her.

            The boy Jack was a great trouble to us at first. For months he would not be parted for a moment, day or night, from Grindum, and the dog actually had to go to school with him; but the master utterly failed to teach the boy even as far as A B C in his alphabet, and the dog not to blink; and so, one fine day, I had both returned on my hands as hopeless ignoramuses. I could not keep a blinking dog at home in idleness, so I took him with me ratting, and as Jack would, not be parted from the dog, he had to come too. Everyone says the boy is "cracked." He is queer, I will allow, but if you will find me a better hand at rat-catching in all its branches, I should like to look at him; and besides, if Jack is cracked, then I like cracked boys, for I never came across one more obedient, more truthful, or more steady, and I find him a perfect treasure on the other side of the bank at the bolt holes.

            Jack never mentions the past, and I should be inclined to think he had forgotten it, only if he is parted from Grindum for a short time he becomes wild looking about the eyes again and restless. At such times his sister, who mothers him much, will sit by him and stroke his face softly, when he will quickly recover himself. I don't know what will happen when Grindum "blinks his last," but the boy begins to follow me about and seems to cling to me, and by that time I hope I shall be so well liked by him that I may take Grindum's place.

            Just two words more about Grindum and I have done. One is that the first time Grindum caught a rat, he picked it up by its hind leg, and the rat made its teeth meet through his nose. He softly put the rat down and it escaped, and I made my sides ache and greatly astonished all the other dogs by laughing at this great soft beast as he sat on his haunches licking the blood as it trickled from his nose, and staring up into the sky with a far-off vacant look, blinking worse than ever.

            The other word is this. Though Grindum is a bull-dog with an awful "Crush your bones, tear your flesh" look, he is just the gentlest-hearted beast out, and there is not a puppy in the kennel, nor a child in the village, who does not know this and impose on him shamefully. Only last Sunday I had to stop a small child of five from driving off in a four-wheeled cart, using Grindum as a horse. Once, and once only, Grindum showed his temper. A big lout in the village threw a stone at him. Grindum only blinked, but Jack saw it and hit the lout, who being twice Jack's size turned upon him and knocked him down. In half a minute Grindum's teeth had met three times in the lout's calves and his trousers required reseating, and in three-quarters of a minute Grindum was sitting down with a bland expression of countenance, blinking with both eyes at the sky.

            Now to continue my lesson on ratting dogs. I have two others, Pepper and Wasp—one a badly bred spaniel, and the other a terrier of doubtful parentage. They are both nice cheerful young dogs that it is a pleasure to see either at play or work, but they are yet young and too apt to get excited and wild. They will, when a rat is out of his hole, in a hedge, dash up and down the entire length of the field, making enormous jumps in the air, during which time they listen keenly for the rustle of the rat in the grass; and once, but only once,, Pepper gave a yap when so rushing about, but I spoke to him so severely about this disgustingly low habit that he has never done it again.

            Wasp is specially good at water, and I have taught him to come to me directly a rat is bolted with a plunge into a pond, and I carry her high up in my arms round the pond, and when the rat approaches the side, Wasp from her high vantage ground will dive down upon it and have it in an instant. Both dogs are quick killers and will, I am sure, in time be perfect; but as yet I do not think myself justified in putting them into a higher class with such dogs as Chance and Tinker.

            There! that is all for to-day, young gentlemen. Resume your Cicero, and, while you are preparing it, I will go to my room and look over the impositions I set you yesterday. It is understood that for "look over impositions" we may read, "Smoke cavendish in a short black pipe."

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