The old dog Caesar — His powerful personality — Last days and end — The old dog’s burial — The fact of death is brought home to me — A child’s mental anguish — My mother comforts me — Limitations of the child’s mind — Fear of death — Witnessing the slaughter of cattle — A man in the moat — Margarita, the nursery maid — Her beauty and lovableness — Her death — I refuse to see her dead.
When recalling the impressions and experiences of that most eventful sixth year, the one incident which looks biggest in memory, at all events in the last half of that year, is the death of Caesar. There is nothing in the past I can remember so well: it was indeed the most important event of my childhood — the first thing in a young life which brought the eternal note of sadness in.
It was in the early spring, about the middle of August, and I can even remember that it was windy weather and bitterly cold for the time of year, when the old dog was approaching his end.
Caesar was an old valued dog, although of no superior breed: he was just an ordinary dog of the country, short-haired, with long legs and a blunt muzzle. The ordinary dog or native cur was about the size of a Scotch collie; Caesar was quite a third larger, and it was said of him that he was as much above all other dogs of the house, numbering about twelve or fourteen, in intelligence and courage as in size. Naturally, he was the leader and master of the whole pack, and when he got up with an awful growl, baring his big teeth, and hurled himself on the others to chastise them for quarrelling or any other infringement of dog law, they took it lying down. He was a black dog, now in his old age sprinkled with white hairs all over his body, the face and legs having gone quite grey. Caesar in a rage, or on guard at night, or when driving cattle in from the plains, was a terrible being; with us children he was mild-tempered and patient, allowing us to ride on his back, just like old Pechicho the sheep-dog, described in the first chapter. Now, in his decline, he grew irritable and surly, and ceased to be our playmate. The last two or three months of his life were very sad, and when it troubled us to see him so gaunt, with his big ribs protruding from his sides, to watch his twitchings when he dozed, groaning and wheezing the while, and marked, too, how painfully he struggled to get up on his feet, we wanted to know why it was so — why we could not give him something to make him well? For answer they would open his great mouth to show us his teeth — the big blunt canines and old molars worn down to stumps. Old age was what ailed him — he was thirteen years old, and that did verily seem to me a great age, for I was not half that, yet it seemed to me that I had been a very, very long time in the world.
No one dreamed of such a thing as putting an end to him — no hint of such a thing was ever spoken. It was not the custom in that country to shoot an old dog because he was past work. I remember his last day, and how often we came to look at him and tried to comfort him with warm rugs and the offer of food and drink where he was lying in a sheltered place, no longer able to stand up. And that night he died: we knew it as soon as we were up in the morning. Then, after breakfast, during which we had been very solemn and quiet, our schoolmaster said: “We must bury him today — at twelve o’clock, when I am free, will be the best time; the boys can come with me, and old John can bring his spade.” This announcement greatly excited us, for we had never seen a dog buried, and had never even heard of such a thing having ever been done.
About noon that day old Caesar, dead and stiff, was taken by one of the workmen to a green open spot among the old peach trees, where his grave had already been dug. We followed our schoolmaster and watched while the body was lowered and the red earth shovelled in. The grave was deep, and Mr. Trigg assisted in filling it, puffing very much over the task and stopping at intervals to mop his face with his coloured cotton handkerchief.
Then, when all was done, while we were still standing silently around, it came into Mr. Trigg’s mind to improve the occasion. Assuming his schoolroom expression he looked round at us and said solemnly: “That’s the end. Every dog has his day and so has every man; and the end is the same for both. We die like old Caesar, and are put into the ground and have the earth shovelled over us.”
Now these simple, common words affected me more than any other words I have heard in my life. They pierced me to the heart. I had heard something terrible — too terrible to think of, incredible — and yet — and yet if it was not so, why had he said it? Was it because he hated us, just because we were children and he had to teach us our lessons, and wanted to torture us? Alas! no, I could not believe that! Was this, then, the horrible fate that awaited us all? I had heard of death — I knew there was such a thing; I knew that all animals had to die, also that some men died. For how could any one, even a child in its sixth year, overlook such a fact, especially in the country of my birth — a land of battle, murder, and sudden death? I had not forgotten the young man tied to the post in the barn who had killed some one, and would perhaps, I had been told, be killed himself as a punishment. I knew, in fact, that there was good and evil in the world, good and bad men, and the bad men — murderers, thieves, and liars — would all have to die, just like animals; but that there was any life after death I did not know. All the others, myself and my own people included, were good and would never taste death. How it came about that I had got no further in my system or philosophy of life I cannot say; I can only suppose that my mother had not yet begun to give me instruction in such matters on account of my tender years, or else that she had done so and that I had understood it in my own way. Yet, as I discovered later, she was a religious woman, and from infancy I had been taught to kneel and say a little prayer each evening: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep”; but who the Lord was or what my soul was I had no idea. It was just a pretty little way of saying in rhyme that I was going to bed. My world was a purely material one, and a most wonderful world it was, but how I came to be in it I didn’t know; I only knew (or imagined) that I would be in it always, seeing new and strange things every day, and never, never get tired of it. In literature it is only in Vaughan, Traherne, and other mystics, that I find any adequate expression of that perpetual rapturous delight in nature and my own existence which I experienced at that period.
And now these never-to-be-forgotten words spoken over the grave of our old dog had come to awaken me from that beautiful dream of perpetual joy!
When I recall this event I am less astonished at my ignorance than at the intensity of the feeling I experienced, the terrible darkness it brought on so young a mind. The child’s mind we think, and in fact know, is like that of the lower animals; or if higher than the animal mind, it is not so high as that of the simplest savage. He cannot concentrate his thought — he cannot think at all; his consciousness is in its dawn; he revels in colours, in odours, is thrilled by touch and taste and sound, and is like a well-nourished pup or kitten at play on a green turf in the sunshine. This being so, one would have thought that the pain of the revelation I had received would have quickly vanished — that the vivid impressions of external things would have blotted it out and restored the harmony. But it was not so; the pain continued and increased until it was no longer to be borne; then I sought my mother, first watching until she was alone in her room. Yet when with her I feared to speak lest with a word she should confirm the dreadful tidings. Looking down, she all at once became alarmed at the sight of my face, and began to question me. Then, struggling against my tears, I told her of the words which had been spoken at the old dog’s burial, and asked her if it was true, if I— if she — if all of us had to die and be buried in the ground? She replied that it was not wholly true; it was only true in a way, since our bodies had to die and be buried in the earth, but we had an immortal part which could not die. It was true that old Caesar had been a good, faithful dog, and felt and understood things almost like a human being, and most persons believed that when a dog died he died wholly and had no after-life. We could not know that; some very great, good men had thought differently; they believed that the animals, like us, would live again. That was also her belief — her strong hope; but we could not know for certain, because it had been hidden from us. For ourselves, we knew that we could not really die, because God Himself, who made us and all things, had told us so, and His promise of eternal life had been handed down to us in His Book — in the Bible.
To all this and much more I listened trembling, with a fearful interest, and when I had once grasped the idea that death when it came to me, as it must, would leave me alive after all — that, as she explained, the part of me that really mattered, the myself, the I am I, which knew and considered things, would never perish, I experienced a sudden immense relief. When I went out from her side again I wanted to run and jump for joy and cleave the air like a bird. For I had been in prison and had suffered torture, and was now free again — death would not destroy me!
There was another result of my having unburdened my heart to my mother. She had been startled at the poignancy of the feeling I had displayed, and, greatly blaming herself for having left me too long in that ignorant state, began to give me religious instruction. It was too early, since at that age it was not possible for me to rise to the conception of an immaterial world. That power, I imagine, comes later to the normal child at the age of ten or twelve. To tell him when he is five or six or seven that God is in all places at once and sees all things, only produces the idea of a wonderfully active and quick-sighted person, with eyes like a bird’s, able to see what is going on all round. A short time ago I read an anecdote of a little girl who, on being put to bed by her mother, was told not to be afraid in the dark, since God would be there to watch and guard her while she slept. Then, taking the candle, the mother went downstairs; but presently her little girl came down too, in her nightdress, and, when questioned, replied, “I’m going to stay down here in the light, mummy, and you can go up to my room and sit with God.” My own idea of God at that time was no higher. I would lie awake thinking of him there in the room, puzzling over the question as to how he could attend to all his numerous affairs and spend so much time looking after me. Lying with my eyes open, I could see nothing in the dark; still, I knew he was there, because I had been told so, and this troubled me. But no sooner would I close my eyes than his image would appear standing at a distance of three or four feet from the head of the bed, in the form of a column five feet high or so and about four feet in circumference. The colour was blue, but varied in depth and intensity; on some nights it was sky-blue, but usually of a deeper shade, a pure, soft, beautiful blue like that of the morning-glory or wild geranium.
It would not surprise me to find that many persons have some such material image or presentment of the spiritual entities they are taught to believe in at too tender an age. Recently, in comparing childish memories with a friend, he told me that he too always saw God as a blue object, but of no definite shape.
That blue column haunted me at night for many months; I don’t think it quite vanished, ceasing to be anything but a memory, until I was seven — a date far ahead of where we are now.
To return to that second blissful revelation which came to me from my mother. Happy as it made me to know that death would not put an end to my existence, my state after the first joyful relief was not one of perfect happiness. All she said to comfort and make me brave had produced its effect — I knew now that death was but a change to an even greater bliss than I could have in this life. How could I, not yet six, think otherwise than as she had told me to think, or have a doubt? A mother is more to her child than any other being, human or divine, can ever be to him in his subsequent life. He is as dependent on her as any fledgling in the nest on its parent — even more, since she warms his callow mind or soul as well as body.
Notwithstanding all this, the fear of death came back to me in a little while, and for a long time disquieted me, especially when the fact of death was brought sharply before me. These reminders were only too frequent; there was seldom a day on which I did not see something killed. When the killing was instantaneous, as when a bird was shot and dropped dead like a stone, I was not disturbed; it was nothing but a strange, exciting spectacle, but failed to bring the fact of death home to me. It was chiefly when cattle were slaughtered that the terror returned in its full force. And no wonder! The native manner of killing a cow or bullock at that time was peculiarly painful. Occasionally it would be slaughtered out of sight on the plain, and the hide and flesh brought in by the men, but, as a rule, the beast would be driven up close to the house to save trouble. One of the two or three mounted men engaged in the operation would throw his lasso over the horns, and, galloping off, pull the rope taut; a second man would then drop from his horse, and running up to the animal behind, pluck out his big knife and with two lightning-quick blows sever the tendons of both hind legs. Instantly the beast would go down on his haunches, and the same man, knife in hand, would flit round to its front or side, and, watching his opportunity, presently thrust the long blade into its throat just above the chest, driving it in to the hilt and working it round; then when it was withdrawn a great torrent of blood would pour out from the tortured beast, still standing on his fore-legs, bellowing all the time with agony. At this point the slaughterer would often leap lightly on to its back, stick his spurs in its sides, and, using the flat of his long knife as a whip, pretend to be riding a race, yelling with fiendish glee. The bellowing would subside into deep, awful, sob-like sounds and chokings; then the rider, seeing the animal about to collapse, would fling himself nimbly off. The beast down, they would all run to it, and throwing themselves on its quivering side as on a couch, begin making and lighting their cigarettes.
Slaughtering a cow was grand sport for them, and the more active and dangerous the animal, the more prolonged the fight, the better they liked it; they were as joyfully excited as at a fight with knives or an ostrich hunt. To me it was an awful object-lesson, and held me fascinated with horror. For this was death! The crimson torrents of blood, the deep, human-like cries, made the beast appear like some huge, powerful man caught in a snare by small, weak, but cunning adversaries, who tortured him for their delight and mocked him in his agony.
There were other occurrences about that time to keep the thoughts and fear of death alive. One day a traveller came to the gate, and, after unsaddling his horse, went about sixty or seventy yards away to a shady spot, where he sat down on the green slope of the foss to cool himself. He had been riding many hours in a burning sun, and wanted cooling. He attracted everybody’s attention on his arrival by his appearance: middle-aged, with good features and curly brown hair and beard, but huge — one of the biggest men I had ever seen; his weight could not have been under about seventeen stone. Sitting or reclining on the grass, he fell asleep, and rolling down the slope fell with a tremendous splash into the water, which was about six feet deep. So loud was the splash that it was heard by some of the men at work in the barn, and running out to ascertain the cause, they found out what had happened. The man had gone under and did not rise; with a good deal of trouble he was raised up and drawn with ropes to the top of the bank.
I gazed on him lying motionless, to all appearances stone dead — the huge, ox-like man I had seen less than an hour ago, when he had excited our wonder at his great size and strength, and now still in death — dead as old Caesar under the ground with the grass growing over him! Meanwhile the men who had hauled him out were busy with him, turning him over and rubbing his body, and after about twelve or fifteen minutes there was a gasp and signs of returning life, and by and by he opened his eyes. The dead man was alive again; yet the shock to me was just as great and the effect as lasting as if he had been truly dead.
Another instance which will bring me down to the end of my sixth year and the conclusion of this sad chapter. At this time we had a girl in the house, whose sweet face is one of a little group of half a dozen which I remember most vividly. She was a niece of our shepherd’s wife, an Argentine woman married to an Englishman, and came to us to look after the smaller children. She was nineteen years old, a pale, slim, pretty girl, with large dark eyes and abundant black hair. Margarita had the sweetest smile imaginable, the softest voice and gentlest manner, and was so much loved by everybody in the house that she was like one of the family. Unhappily she was consumptive, and after a few months had to be sent back to her aunt. Their little place was only half a mile or so from the house, and every day my mother visited her, doing all that was possible with such skill and remedies as she possessed to give her ease, and providing her with delicacies. The girl did not want a priest to visit her and prepare her for death; she worshipped her mistress, and wished to be of the same faith, and in the end she died a pervert or convert, according to this or that person’s point of view.
The day after her death we children were taken to see our beloved Margarita for the last time; but when we arrived at the door, and the others following my mother went in, I alone hung back. They came out and tried to persuade me to enter, even to pull me in, and described her appearance to excite my curiosity. She was lying all in white, with her black hair combed out and loose, on her white bed, with our flowers on her breast and at her sides, and looked very, very beautiful. It was all in vain. To look on Margarita dead was more than I could bear. I was told that only her body of clay was dead — the beautiful body we had come to say good bye to; that her soul — she herself, our loved Margarita — was alive and happy, far, far happier than any person could ever be on this earth; that when her end was near she had smiled very sweetly, and assured them that all fear of death had left her — that God was taking her to Himself. Even this was not enough to make me face the awful sight of Margarita dead; the very thought of it was an intolerable weight on my heart; but it was not grief that gave me this sensation, much as I grieved; it was solely my fear of death.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55