Idle Days in Patagonia, by W. H. Hudson

Chapter V

A Dog in Exile

At the English estate up the river, where I made so long a stay, there were several dogs, some of them of the common dog of no breed found throughout Argentina, a smooth-haired animal, varying greatly in colour, but oftenest red or black; also differing much in size, but in a majority of cases about as big as a Scotch collie. There were also a few others, dogs of good breeds, and these were specially interesting to me, because they were not restrained nor directed in any way, nor any use made of them in their special lines. Left to their own devices, and to rough it with the others, the result was rather curious. The only one among them that had proved capable of accommodating himself to the new circumstances was a Scotch collie — a fine animal of pure blood.

The common dog of the country is a jack-of-all-trades; a great lover of the chase, but a bad hunter, a splendid scavenger, a good watch-dog and vermin-killer; an indifferent sheep-dog, but invaluable in gathering up and driving cattle. Beyond these things which he picks up, you can really teach him nothing useful, although with considerable trouble you might be able to add a few ornamental subjects, such as giving his paw, and keeping guard over a coat or stick left in his charge. He is a generalised beast, grandson to the jackal, and first cousin to the cur of Europe and the Eastern pariah. To this primitive, or only slightly-improved type of dog, the collie perhaps comes nearest of all the breeds we value; and when he is thrown back on nature he is “all there,” and not hindered as the pointer and other varieties are by more deeply-rooted special instincts. At all events, this individual took very kindly to the rude life and work of his new companions, and by means of his hardihood and inexhaustible energy became their leader and superior, especially in hunting. Above anything he loved to chase a fox; and when in the course of a ride in the valley one was started, he invariably threw all the native dogs out and caught and killed it himself. If these dogs had all together taken to a feral life, I do not think the collie would have been worse off than the others.

It was very different with the greyhounds. There were four, all of pure breed; and as they were never taken out to hunt, and could not, like the collie, take their share in the ordinary work of the establishment, they were absolutely useless, and certainly not ornamental. When I first noticed them they were pitiable objects, thin as skeletons, so lame that they could scarcely walk, and wounded and scratched all over with thorns. I was told that they had been out hunting on their own account in the thorny upland, and that this was the result. For three or four days they remained inactive, sleeping the whole time, except when they limped to the kitchen to be fed. But day by day they improved in condition; their scratches healed, their ribbed sides grew smooth and sleek, and they recovered from their lameness; but scarcely had they got well before it was discovered one morning that they had vanished. They had gone off during the night to hunt again on the uplands. They were absent two nights and a day, then returned, looking even more reduced and miserable than when I first saw them, to recover slowly from their hurts and fatigue; and when well again they were off once more; and so it continued during the whole time of my visit. These hounds, if left to themselves, would have soon perished.

Another member of this somewhat heterogeneous canine community was a retriever, one of the handsomest I have ever seen, rather small, and with a most perfect head. The extreme curliness of his coat made him look at a little distance like a dog cut out of a block of ebony, with the surface carved to almost symmetrical knobbiness. Major — that was his name — would have lent himself well to sculpture. He was old, but not too fat, nor inactive; sometimes he would go out with the other dogs, but apparently he could not keep up the pace, as after a few hours he would return always alone, looking rather disconsolate.

I have always been partial to dogs of this breed; not on account of the assistance they have been to me, but because when I have wished to have a dog at my side I have found them more suitable than other kinds for companions. They are not stupid nor restless, but ready to fall in with a quiet mood, and never irritate by a perpetual impatient craving for notice. A fussy, demonstrative dog, that can never efface himself, I object to: he compels your attention, and puts you in a subordinate place: you are his attendant, not he yours.

Major’s appearance attracted me from the first, and he, on his side, joyfully responded to my advances, and at once attached himself to me, following me about the place as if he feared to lose sight of me even for a minute. My host, however, hastened to warn me not to take him with me when I went out shooting, as he was old and blind, and subject, moreover, to strange freaks, which made him worse than useless. He had formerly been an excellent retriever, he informed me, but even in his best days not wholly to be trusted, and now he was nothing but bad.

I could scarcely credit the blindness, as he did not show it in his brown intelligent and wistful eyes, and always appeared keenly alive and interested in everything going on about him; but by experimenting I found that he could scarcely see further than about six inches from his nose; but his hearing and scent were so good, and guided him so well, that no person on a slight acquaintance would have made the discovery of his defective sight.

Of course, after this, I could have nothing more to do with the retriever, further than patting him on the head and speaking a kind word to him whenever he chanced to be in my way. But this was not enough for old Major. He was a sporting dog, full of energy, and with undiminished faith in his own powers, in spite of his years, and when a sportsman had come to the house, and had deliberately singled him out for friendly notice, he could not and would not believe that it was to go no further. Day after day he clung to the delusion that he was to accompany me in my walks and little shooting excursions in the neighbourhood; and every time I took down a gun he would rush forward from his post by the door with so many demonstrations of joy, and with such imploring looks and gestures, that I found it very hard to rebuke him. It was sad to have him standing there, first cocking up one ear, then the other, striving to pierce the baffling mists that intervened between his poor purblind eyes and my face, to find some sign of relenting in it.

It was evident that old Major was not happy, in spite of all he had to make him so: although he was well fed and fat, and treated with the greatest kindness by everyone on the place, and although all the other dogs about the house looked up to him with that instinctive respect they always accord to the oldest, or strongest, or most domineering member, his heart was restless and dissatisfied. He could not endure an inactive life. There was, in fact, only one way in which he could or was allowed to work off his superabundant energy. This was when we went down to the river to bathe in the afternoon, and when we would amuse ourselves, some of us, by throwing enormous logs and dead branches into the current. They were large and heavy, and thrown well out into one of the most rapid rivers in the world, but Major would have perished forty times over, if he had had forty lives to throw away, before he would have allowed one of those useless logs to be lost. But this was wasted energy, and Major could not have known it better if he had graduated with honours at the Royal School of Mines, consequently his exertions in the river did not make him happy. His unhappiness began to prey on my mind, and I never left the house but that mute imploring face haunted me for an hour after, until I could bear it no longer. Major conquered, and to witness his boundless delight and gratitude when I shouldered my gun and called him to me, was a pleasure worth many dead birds.

Nothing important happened during our first few expeditions. Major behaved rather wildly, I thought, but he was obedient and anxious to please, and my impression was that he had been too long neglected, and would soon settle down to do his share of the work in a sober, business-like manner.

Then a day came when Major covered himself with glory. I came one morning on a small flock of flamingos in a lagoon; they were standing in the water, about seventy-five or eighty yards from the shore, quietly dozing. Fortunately the lagoon was bordered by a dense bed of tall rushes, about fifteen yards in breadth, so that I was able to approach the birds unseen by them. I crept up to the rushes in a fever of delighted excitement; not that flamingos are not common in that district, but because I had noticed that one of the birds before me was the largest and loveliest flamingo I had ever set eyes on, and I had long been anxious to secure one very perfect specimen. I think my hand trembled a great deal; nevertheless, the bird dropped when I fired; and then how quickly the joy I experienced was changed to despair when I looked on the wide expanse of mud, reeds and water that separated him from me! How was I ever to get him? for it is as much as a man’s life is worth to venture into one of these long river-like lagoons in the valley, as under the quiet water there is a bed of mire, soft as clotted cream, and deep enough for a giant’s grave. I thought of Major, but not for a moment did I believe that he, poor dog! was equal to the task. When I fired he dashed hurriedly forward, and came against the wall of close rushes, where he struggled hopelessly for a little while, and then floundered back to me. There was, however, nothing else to be done. “Major, come here,” I called, and taking a lump of clay I threw it as far as I could towards the floating bird. He raised his ears, and listened to get the right direction, and when the splash of the stone reached us he dashed in and against the rushes once more. After a violent struggle he succeeded in getting through them, and, finding himself in deep water, struck straight out, and then began swimming about in all directions, until, getting to windward of the bird, he followed up the scent and found it. This was the easiest part of the task, as the bird was very large, and when Major got back to the rushes with it, and I heard him crashing and floundering through, snorting and coughing as if half-suffocated, I was sure that if I ever got my flamingo at all it must be hopelessly damaged. At length he appeared, so exhausted with his exertions that he could hardly stand, and deposited the bird at my feet. Never had I seen such a splendid specimen! It was an old cock bird, excessively fat, weighing sixteen pounds, yet Major had brought it out through this slough of despond without breaking its skin, or soiling its exquisitely beautiful crimson, rose-coloured, and faintly-blushing white plumage! Had he not himself been so plastered with mud and slime I should, in gratitude, have taken him into my arms; but he appeared very well satisfied with the words of approval I bestowed on him, and we started homeward in a happy frame of mind, each feeling well pleased with the other — and himself.

That evening as I sat by the fire greatly enjoying my after-dinner coffee, and a pipe of the strongest cavendish, I related the day’s adventures, and then for the first time heard from my host something of Major’s antecedents and remarkable history.

He was a Scotch dog by birth, and had formerly belonged to the Earl of Zetland, and as he proved to be an exceptionally clever and good-looking young dog, he was for a time thought much of; but there was a drop of black blood in Major’s heart, and in a moment of temptation it led him into courses for which he was finally condemned to an ignominious death; he escaped to become a pioneer of civilisation in the wilderness, and to show, even in old age and when his sight had failed him, of what stuff he was made. Killing sheep was his crime; he had hunted the swift-footed cheviots and black-faces on the hills and moors; he had tasted their blood and had made the discovery that it was sweet, and the ancient wild-dog instinct was hot in his heart. The new joy possessed his whole being, and in a moment swept away every restraint. The savage life was the only real life after all, and what cared Major about the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and new-fangled notions about the division of labour, in which so mean a part was assigned him! Was he to spend a paltry puppy existence retrieving birds, first flushed by a stupid pointer or setter, and shot by a man with a gun — the bird, after all, to be eaten by none of them; and he, in return for his share in the work, to be fed on mild messes and biscuits, and beef, killed somewhere out of sight by a butcher? Away with such a complex state of things! He would not be stifled by such an artificial system; he would kill his own mutton on the moors, and eat it raw and warm in the good old fashion, and enjoy life, as, doubtless, every dog of spirit had enjoyed it a thousand years ago.

This was not to be permitted on a well-conducted estate; and as it was thought that chains and slavery would be less endurable than death to a dog of Major’s spirit, to death he was forthwith condemned.

Now it happened that a gentleman, hearing all this from the earl’s gamekeeper, before the dread sentence had been executed, all at once remembered that one of his friends, who was preparing to emigrate to Patagonia, purposed taking out some good dogs with him, and thinking that this retriever would form an acceptable gift, he begged for it. The game-keeper gave it to him, and he in turn gave it to his friend, and in this way Major escaped the penalty, and in due time, after seeing and doubtless reflecting much by the way, arrived at his destination. I say advisedly that Major probably reflected a great deal, for in his new home he never once gave way to his criminal appetite for sheep’s blood; but whenever the flock came in his way, which was often enough, he turned resolutely aside and skulked off out of the sound of their bleating as quickly as possible.

All I heard from my host only served to raise my opinion of Major, and, remembering what he had accomplished that day, I formed the idea that the most glorious period of his life had just dawned, that he had now begun a series of exploits, compared with which the greatest deeds of all retrievers in other lands would sink into insignificance.

I have now to relate Major’s second important exploit, and on this occasion the birds were geese.

The upland geese are excellent eating, and it was our custom to make an early breakfast off a cold goose, or of any remnants left in the larder. Cold boiled goose and coffee, often with no bread — it sounds strange, but never shall I forget those delicious early Patagonian breakfasts.

Now the geese, although abundant at that season, were excessively wary, and hard to kill; and as no other person went after them, although all grumbled loudly when there was no goose for breakfast, I was always very glad to get a shot at them when out with the gun.

One day I saw a great flock congregated on a low mud-bank in one of the lagoons, and immediately began to manoeuvre to get within shooting distance without disturbing them. Fortunately they were in a great state of excitement, keeping up a loud incessant clamour, as if something very important to the upland geese was being discussed, and in the general agitation they neglected their safety. More geese in small flocks were continually arriving from various directions, increasing the noise and excitement; and by dint of much going on hands and knees and crawling over rough ground, I managed to get within seventy yards of them and fired into the middle of the flock. The birds rose up with a great rush of wings and noise of screams, leaving five of their number floundering about in the shallow water. Major was quickly after them, but two of the five were not badly wounded, and soon swam away beyond his reach; to the others he was guided by the tremendous flapping they made in the water in their death struggles; and one by one he conveyed them, not to his expectant master, but to a small island about a hundred and twenty yards from the shore. No sooner had he got them all together than, to my unspeakable astonishment and dismay, he began worrying them, growling all the time with a playful affectation of anger, and pulling out mouthfuls of feathers which he scattered in clouds over his head. To my shouts he responded by wagging his tail, and barking a merry crisp little bark, then flying at the dead birds again. He seemed to be telling me, plainly as if he had used words, that he heard me well enough, but was not disposed to obey, that he found it very amusing playing with the geese and intended to enjoy himself to his heart’s content.

“Major! Major!” I cried, “you base ungrateful dog! Is this the way you repay me for all my kindness, for befriending you when others spoke evil of you, and made you keep at home, and treated you with contemptuous neglect! Oh, you wretched brute, how many glorious breakfasts are you spoiling with those villainous teeth!”

In vain I stormed and threatened, and told him that I would never speak to him again, that I would thrash him, that I had seen dogs shot for less than what he was doing. I screamed his name until I was hoarse, but it was all useless. Major cared nothing for my shouts, and went on worrying the geese. At length, when he grew tired of his play, he coolly jumped into the water and swam back to me, leaving the geese behind. I waited for him, a stick in my hand, burning for vengeance, and fully intending to collar and thrash him well the moment he reached me. Fortunately he had a long distance to swim, and before he reached land I began to reflect that if I received him roughly, with blows, I would never get the geese — those three magnificent white-and-maroon-coloured geese that had cost me so much labour to kill. Yes, I thought, it will be better to dissemble and be diplomatic and receive him graciously, and then perhaps he will be persuaded to go again and fetch the geese. In the midst of these plans Major arrived, and sat down facing me without shaking himself, evidently beginning to experience some qualms of conscience.

“Major,” said I, addressing him in a mild gentle voice, and patting his wet black head, “you have treated me very badly, but I am not going to punish you — I am going to give you another chance, old dog. Now, Major, good and obedient dog, go and fetch me the geese.” With that I pushed him gently towards the water. Major understood me, and went in, although in a somewhat perfunctory manner, and swam back to the island. On reaching it he went up to the geese, examined them briefly with his nose and sat down to deliberate. I called him, but he paid no attention. With what intense anxiety I waited his decision!

At last he appeared to have made up his mind; he stood up, shook himself briskly and — will it be believed? — began to worry the geese again! He was not merely playing with them now, and did not scatter the feathers about and bark, but bit and tore them in a truculent mood. When he had torn them pretty well to pieces he swam back once more, but this time he came to land at a long distance from me, knowing, I suppose, that I was now past speaking mildly to him; and, skulking through the reeds, he sneaked home by himself. Later, when I arrived at the house, he carefully kept out of my way.

I believe that when he went after the geese the second time he really did mean to bring them out, but finding them so much mutilated he thought that he had already hopelessly offended me, and so concluded to save himself the labour of carrying them. He did not know, poor brute, that his fetching them would have been taken as a token of repentance, and that he would have been forgiven. But it was impossible to forgive him now. All faith in him was utterly and for ever gone, and from that day I looked on him as a poor degraded creature; and if I ever bestowed a caress on his upturned face, I did it in the spirit of a man who flings a copper to an unfortunate beggar in the street; and it was a satisfaction to me that Major appeared to know what I thought of him.

But all this happened years ago, and now I can but look with kindly feelings for the old blind retriever who retrieved my geese so badly. I can even laugh at myself for having allowed an ineradicable anthropomorphism to carry me so far in recalling and describing our joint adventures. But such a fault is almost excusable in this instance, for he was really a remarkable dog among other dogs, like a talented man among his fellow-men. I doubt if any other retriever, in such circumstances and handicapped by such an infirmity, could have retrieved that splendid flamingo; but with this excellence there was the innate capacity to go wrong, a sudden reversion to the irresponsible wild dog — the devilry, to keep to human terms, that sent him into exile and made him at the last so interesting and pathetic a figure.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38