Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

Dogs that have Been

It seems to me that the man who walks through the wilderness of this world unaccompanied by dogs, who has not understood the mind of the dog, and who has not been the object of the self-denying devotion of a dog, misses a good deal of the art of living.

Does that “equal sky” exist wherein we shall have the company of all our dogs? It will be a great pleasure and also a great embarrassment. With what a composite pack shall I be surrounded! Indeed, it will be a pack, not a procession, for who would decree and insist upon any order of precedence among such a multitude of clamorous pets? Bull-terriers, retrievers, nondescripts — the dog-lover abhors the term mongrel — sheep dogs and cattle dogs, pointers, and, most beloved of all, Irish terriers. The pack would include two or three rather uncommon and somewhat foreign elements — a red chow from Canton and a dingo from the silent places of the Star River. But Irish terriers would be the most conspicuous of the pack.

Everyone knew “Paddy,” who came from Melbourne, whose one lop ear and one erect ear gave him such a leery, devil-may-care air, who died at an honourable age with a sigh on the verandah here, and was buried on the bank; and though the bush rats may scamper over his head “he lies fast asleep.”

There was one episode in Paddy’s career which has never been told. His comic aspect and “rakehelly” demeanour belied his lofty lineage, bestowing the fictitious air of a vagabond and a swaggerer upon a dandy and a gentleman. In his cunning, courage and perseverance he not only out-matched rats, lizards and the echidna, but took his part when the tide ebbed in turning out fish from coral recesses, or coursing them with great success in the shallows, and was equally impetuous in the vain attempt to retrieve a shark, or turtle, or stingray which showed on the surface as we sailed.

In the days prior to the fall which my haughty spirit merited, I was vain in the handling of a boat, and my little knowledge proved most dangersome to Paddy and others. In holiday humour, with another and two black boys (Willie and Charlie) we drifted out of Brammo Bay on the ebb with idle sails, all serene and bright. Mischance surely was never further away as we conferred, saying that the current and not the breeze was to be depended on this preoccupied morning. Yet a vagrant and wanton puff skipped on the hill-top, snoodled between two steep ridges, whisked coyly out of a bottle-necked gorge, impudently slapped the big jib, and in a trice the skimming dish-boat had made an unbecoming exhibition. Half a mile from land — and not a soul within many miles to send us aid; clinging to the up-turned boat while contemplating the fact that the intense calm of the morning was giving way before a stiff north-easterly breeze — how grim a transformation to the gay little scene of a few moments past! The pursuit of pleasure had led us into dismaying difficulties.

Persuasions, backed by threats of personal violence — for in my hand was the ornamental tiller, hard as iron, to which I had clung while I swam, supporting the passenger who could not swim — started Willie for the shore; and as he swam away there was leisure for a few moments, and we thought of Paddy. Charlie had not seen him.

“That fella drown — finish! Him tie up alonga rigging. No come up one time. My word, poor pfella Paddy; good-bye. Me plenty sorry.”

I argued that the dog must have swam for the shore ahead of Willie, but Charlie persisted in his theory.

I could not squat idly on the slippery bottom of the boat with the knowledge that an old and faithful friend was dead as a result of my vanity and carelessness. So I dived among the tangled cordage, but found him not. Then Charlie, forcibly persuaded by the dog-headed tiller, perfunctorily followed my example, also without result. Perhaps the poor dog was floating in the forepart of the boat, where she was decked.

Grasping the chaffing-piece and allowing my body to float away under the boat, I explored with my feet as far as my legs could stretch. By the same plan other parts of the boat were investigated, until my toes touched Paddy’s feet, working as though a treadmill. With a shout of joy I dived, seized the dog, drew him down and past the combing, and in a moment had him safe in the free air.

Fully a quarter of an hour had elapsed since the mishap, and how had Paddy escaped? The sudden and complete capsize had imprisoned a small volume of air against the bottom of the boat. In his game struggles for liberty Paddy had found the gracious bubble, and had kept his shrewd nose in it in the dark all those long minutes.

In the meantime Willie had gained the shore, and in due course paddled out to the scene of the wreck in a frail punt. And the nerves of one individual of the party have thrilled at the thought of a sailing-boat ever since!

When Paddy died lamented, there came others.

Among them was “Whirra,” excitable, hysterical Whirra, whose hasty, impetuous career had to be compassionately ended with a bullet, because of the distressfulness of prolonged attacks of heat apoplexy. And to Whirra, “Barry” succeeded — another of the little red devils of the famous “Towers Lad” strain, and who in name and voice, a rich baritone, gave perpetual refreshment to much-prized friendship. Barry, like the Turk, could bear no brother near the throne of his affections, and yet bore himself independently, and was for ever vigilant in the protection of his rights and vociferous concerning them. When we went alongside the Lass o’ Gowrie, good Captain Kerr so often had a plateful of scraps for Barry that the masterful little dog soon became convinced that the steamer called in for the special purpose of giving him an extra meal of tit-bits. One day brought disappointment, however, and Barry, no great whimperer, proclaimed his wrong and demanded his right so undeniably that the steamer service was for the moment thrown out of gear.

It was during the wet season, when the commingled floods from the Murray and Tully Rivers race past the sand-spit at the rate of about four miles an hour. Barry stood expectant in the bows of the boat without remark until the line was cast loose, and the boat shot astern. Then, lifting his voice in complaint and remonstrance, he reminded the captain of his presence and rights. And the captain, shouting impossible instructions to come back, manoeuvred the Gowrie until the drifting boat was alongside, and the beseeched-for bones thrown down, and apologized thus: “I’m sorry I forgot Barry’s bones!” But, you see, Captain Kerr (who never forgot afterwards, whatever hour of night or day the Gowrie came) is a dog-lover, as well as a large-hearted, unselfish, fond-of-giving-pleasure-to-others sort of man.

And after Barry came his son “Scoot,” who died in his prime after a week’s illness, attributed rightly or wrongly to tick-fever. There never was a more faithful companion; from his waddling days until the last he never left me, and the tokens of his affections were superabundantly manifested. He, too, was melodiously voiced, and never a steamer nor sailing boat went by night or day that he did not see and salute tunefully from uplifted muzzle. The last departed of one’s pets is naturally the more tenderly regarded; yet I am inclined to think that none of my pack will be more glad to see me in that “equal sky” than Scoot. Though he had a trace of melancholy in his disposition, on occasion his joy was exuberant. He knew more of the geography of adjacent coral reefs than I did, for he covered in his hunting more generous spaces, and I would not like to confess how many species of fish he turned out and killed. He has joined the expectant pack, and

I will not think those good brown eyes

Have spent their light of truth so soon,

But in some canine Paradise

Your wraith, I know, rebukes the moon,

And quarters every plain and hill

Seeking its master . . . As for me

This prayer at least the gods fulfil;

That when I pass the flood, and see

Old Charon of the Stigian coast

Take toll of all the shades who land.

Your little, faithful barking ghost

May leap to lick my phantom hand.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32