In Chancery, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 10

Death of the Dog Balthasar

Jolyon, who had crossed from Calais by night, arrived at Robin Hill on Sunday morning. He had sent no word beforehand, so walked up from the station, entering his domain by the coppice gate. Coming to the log seat fashioned out of an old fallen trunk, he sat down, first laying his overcoat on it.

‘Lumbago!’ he thought; ‘that’s what love ends in at my time of life!’ And suddenly Irene seemed very near, just as she had been that day of rambling at Fontainebleau when they had sat on a log to eat their lunch. Hauntingly near! Odour drawn out of fallen leaves by the pale-filtering sunlight soaked his nostrils. ‘I’m glad it isn’t spring,’ he thought. With the scent of sap, and the song of birds, and the bursting of the blossoms, it would have been unbearable! ‘I hope I shall be over it by then, old fool that I am!’ and picking up his coat, he walked on into the field. He passed the pond and mounted the hill slowly.

Near the top a hoarse barking greeted him. Up on the lawn above the fernery he could see his old dog Balthasar. The animal, whose dim eyes took his master for a stranger, was warning the world against him. Jolyon gave his special whistle. Even at that distance of a hundred yards and more he could see the dawning recognition in the obese brown-white body. The old dog got off his haunches, and his tail, close-curled over his back, began a feeble, excited fluttering; he came waddling forward, gathered momentum, and disappeared over the edge of the fernery. Jolyon expected to meet him at the wicket gate, but Balthasar was not there, and, rather alarmed, he turned into the fernery. On his fat side, looking up with eyes already glazing, the old dog lay.

“What is it, my poor old man?” cried Jolyon. Balthasar’s curled and fluffy tail just moved; his filming eyes seemed saying: “I can’t get up, master, but I’m glad to see you.”

Jolyon knelt down; his eyes, very dimmed, could hardly see the slowly ceasing heave of the dog’s side. He raised the head a little — very heavy.

“What is it, dear man? Where are you hurt?” The tail fluttered once; the eyes lost the look of life. Jolyon passed his hands all over the inert warm bulk. There was nothing — the heart had simply failed in that obese body from the emotion of his master’s return. Jolyon could feel the muzzle, where a few whitish bristles grew, cooling already against his lips. He stayed for some minutes kneeling; with his hand beneath the stiffening head. The body was very heavy when he bore it to the top of the field; leaves had drifted there, and he strewed it with a covering of them; there was no wind, and they would keep him from curious eyes until the afternoon. ‘I’ll bury him myself,’ he thought. Eighteen years had gone since he first went into the St. John’s Wood house with that tiny puppy in his pocket. Strange that the old dog should die just now! Was it an omen? He turned at the gate to look back at that russet mound, then went slowly towards the house, very choky in the throat.

June was at home; she had come down hotfoot on hearing the news of Jolly’s enlistment. His patriotism had conquered her feeling for the Boers. The atmosphere of his house was strange and pocketty when Jolyon came in and told them of the dog Balthasar’s death. The news had a unifying effect. A link with the past had snapped — the dog Balthasar! Two of them could remember nothing before his day; to June he represented the last years of her grandfather; to Jolyon that life of domestic stress and aesthetic struggle before he came again into the kingdom of his father’s love and wealth! And he was gone!

In the afternoon he and Jolly took picks and spades and went out to the field. They chose a spot close to the russet mound, so that they need not carry him far, and, carefully cutting off the surface turf, began to dig. They dug in silence for ten minutes, and then rested.

“Well, old man,” said Jolyon, “so you thought you ought?”

“Yes,” answered Jolly; “I don’t want to a bit, of course.”

How exactly those words represented Jolyon’s own state of mind

“I admire you for it, old boy. I don’t believe I should have done it at your age — too much of a Forsyte, I’m afraid. But I suppose the type gets thinner with each generation. Your son, if you have one, may be a pure altruist; who knows?”

“He won’t be like me, then, Dad; I’m beastly selfish.”

“No, my dear, that you clearly are not.” Jolly shook his head, and they dug again.

“Strange life a dog’s,” said Jolyon suddenly: “The only four-footer with rudiments of altruism and a sense of God!”

Jolly looked at his father.

“Do you believe in God, Dad? I’ve never known.”

At so searching a question from one to whom it was impossible to make a light reply, Jolyon stood for a moment feeling his back tried by the digging.

“What do you mean by God?” he said; “there are two irreconcilable ideas of God. There’s the Unknowable Creative Principle — one believes in That. And there’s the Sum of altruism in man — naturally one believes in That.”

“I see. That leaves out Christ, doesn’t it?”

Jolyon stared. Christ, the link between those two ideas! Out of the mouth of babes! Here was orthodoxy scientifically explained at last! The sublime poem of the Christ life was man’s attempt to join those two irreconcilable conceptions of God. And since the Sum of human altruism was as much a part of the Unknowable Creative Principle as anything else in Nature and the Universe, a worse link might have been chosen after all! Funny — how one went through life without seeing it in that sort of way!

“What do you think, old man?” he said.

Jolly frowned. “Of course, my first year we talked a good bit about that sort of thing. But in the second year one gives it up; I don’t know why — it’s awfully interesting.”

Jolyon remembered that he also had talked a good deal about it his first year at Cambridge, and given it up in his second.

“I suppose,” said Jolly, “it’s the second God, you mean, that old Balthasar had a sense of.”

“Yes, or he would never have burst his poor old heart because of something outside himself.”

“But wasn’t that just selfish emotion, really?”

Jolyon shook his head. “No, dogs are not pure Forsytes, they love something outside themselves.”

Jolly smiled.

“Well, I think I’m one,” he said. “You know, I only enlisted because I dared Val Dartie to.”

“But why?”

“We bar each other,” said Jolly shortly.

“Ah!” muttered Jolyon. So the feud went on, unto the third generation — this modern feud which had no overt expression?

‘Shall I tell the boy about it?’ he thought. But to what end — if he had to stop short of his own part?

And Jolly thought: ‘It’s for Holly to let him know about that chap. If she doesn’t, it means she doesn’t want him told, and I should be sneaking. Anyway, I’ve stopped it. I’d better leave well alone!’

So they dug on in silence, till Jolyon said:

“Now, old man, I think it’s big enough.” And, resting on their spades, they gazed down into the hole where a few leaves had drifted already on a sunset wind.

“I can’t bear this part of it,” said Jolyon suddenly.

“Let me do it, Dad. He never cared much for me.”

Jolyon shook his head.

“We’ll lift him very gently, leaves and all. I’d rather not see him again. I’ll take his head. Now!”

With extreme care they raised the old dog’s body, whose faded tan and white showed here and there under the leaves stirred by the wind. They laid it, heavy, cold, and unresponsive, in the grave, and Jolly spread more leaves over it, while Jolyon, deeply afraid to show emotion before his son, began quickly shovelling the earth on to that still shape. There went the past! If only there were a joyful future to look forward to! It was like stamping down earth on one’s own life. They replaced the turf carefully on the smooth little mound, and, grateful that they had spared each other’s feelings, returned to the house arm-in-arm.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37