Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin –
< < < The Last Word
A Clump Of Lilacs > > >
It was between six and seven o’clock on a fine September morning when the eighteen-months-old pointer, Jack, a brown, long-eared, frisky animal, started out with the cook, Annushka, to market. He knew the way perfectly well, and so ran confidently on in front of her, sniffing at the curbstones as he went and stopping at the crossings to see if Annushka were following. Finding affirmation in her face, and the direction in which she was going, he would turn again with a decisive movement and rush on in a lively gallop.
On one occasion, however, when he turned round near a familiar sausage-shop, Jack could not see Annushka. He dashed back so hastily that his left ear was turned inside out as he went. But Annushka was not to be seen at the cross-roads. So Jack resolved to find his way by scent. He stopped, cautiously raised his wet sensitive nose, and tried in all directions to recognise the familiar scent of Annushka’s dress, the smell of the dirty kitchen-table and mottled soap. But just at that moment a lady came hurriedly past him, and brushing up against his side with her rustling skirt she left behind a strong wave of disgusting Oriental perfume. Jack moved his head from side to side in vexation. The trail of Annushka was entirely lost.
But he was not upset by this. He knew the town well and could always find his way home easily—all he had to do was to go to the sausage-shop, then to the greengrocer’s, then turn to the left and go past a grey house from the basement of which there was always wafted a smell of burning fat, and he would be in his own street. Jack did not hurry. The morning was fresh and clear, and in the pure, softly transparent and rather moist air, all the various odours of the town had an unusual refinement and distinctness. Running past the post-office, with his tail stuck out as stiff as a rod and his nostrils all trembling with excitement, Jack could have sworn that only a moment before a large, mouse-coloured, oldish dog had stopped there, a dog who was usually fed on oatmeal porridge.
And after running along about two hundred paces, he actually saw this dog, a cowardly, sober-looking brute. His ears had been cropped, and a broad, worn, strap was dangling from his neck.
The dog noticed Jack, and stopped, half turning back on his steps. Jack curled his tail in the air provokingly and began to walk slowly round the other, with an air of looking somewhere to one side. The mouse-coloured dog also raised his tail and showed a broad row of white teeth. Then they both growled, turning their heads away from one another as they did so, and trying, as it were, to swallow something which stuck in their throats.
“If he says anything insulting to my honour, or the honour of any well-bred pointer, I shall fasten my teeth in his side, near his left hind-leg,” thought Jack to himself. “Of course, he is stronger than I am, but he is stupid and clumsy. Look how he stands there, like a dummy, and has no idea that all his left flank is open to attack.”
And suddenly … something inexplicable and almost supernatural happened. The other dog unexpectedly threw himself on his back and was dragged by some unseen force from the pathway into the road. Directly afterwards this same unseen power grasped Jack by the throat … he stood firm on his fore-legs and shook his head furiously. But the invisible “something” was pulled so tight round his neck that the brown pointer became unconscious.
Some municipalities in Russia provide a man and a cart to take off stray dogs. Jack had been suddenly netted by the dog-man.
He came to his senses again in a stuffy iron cage, which was jolting and shaking as it was drawn along the cobbled roadway, on a badly-jointed vehicle trembling in all its parts. From its acrid doggy odour Jack guessed at once that this cart must have been used for years to convey dogs of all breeds and all ages. On the box in front sat two men, whose out-ward appearance was not at all calculated to inspire confidence.
There was already a sufficiently large company in the cart. First of all, Jack noticed the mouse-coloured dog whom he had just met and quarrelled with in the street. He was standing with his head stuck out between two of the iron bars, and he whined pitifully as his body was jolted backwards and forwards by the movement of the cart. In the middle of the cage lay an old white poodle, his wise-looking head lying between his gouty paws. His coat was cut to make him look like a lion, with tufts left on his knees and at the end of his tail. The poodle had apparently resigned himself to his situation with a stoic philosophy, and if he had not sighed occasionally and wrinkled his brows, it might have been thought that he slept. By his side, trembling from agitation and the cold of the early morning, sat a fine well-kept greyhound, with long thin legs and sharp-pointed head. She yawned nervously from time to time, rolling up her rosy little tongue into a tube, accompanying the yawn with a long-drawn-out, high-pitched whine…. Near the back of the cage, pressed close up to the bars, was a black dachshund, with smooth skin dappled with yellow on the breast and above the eyes. She could not get over her astonishment at her position, and she looked a strangely comical figure with her flopping paws and crocodile body, and the serious expression of her head with its ears reaching almost to the ground.
Besides this more or less distinguished society, there were in the cage two unmistakable yard dogs. One of them was that sort of dog which is generally called Bouton, and is always noted for its meanness of disposition. She was a shaggy, reddish-coloured animal with a shaggy tail, curled up like the figure 9. She had been the first of the dogs to be captured, and she had apparently become so accustomed to her position that she had for some time past made many efforts to begin an interesting conversation with someone. The last dog of all was out of sight, he had been driven into the darkest corner, and lay there curled up in a heap. He had only moved once all the time, and that had been to growl at Jack when he had found himself near him. Everyone in the company felt a strong antipathy against him. In the first place, he was smeared all over with a violet colour, the work of certain journeyman whitewashers; secondly, his hair was rough and bristly and uncombed; thirdly, he was evidently mangy, hungry, strong and daring—this had been quite evident in the resolute push of his lean body with which he had greeted the arrival of the unconscious Jack.
There was silence for a quarter of an hour. At last Jack, whose healthy sense of humour never forsook him under any circumstances, remarked in a jaunty tone:
“The adventure begins to be interesting. I am curious to know where these gentlemen will make their first stopping place.”
The old poodle did not like the frivolous tone of the brown pointer. He turned his head slowly in Jack’s direction, and said sharply, with a cold sarcasm:
“I can satisfy your curiosity, young man. These gentlemen will make their first stopping place at the slaughter-house.”
“Where? Pardon me, please, I didn’t catch the word,” muttered Jack, sitting down involuntarily, for his legs had suddenly begun to tremble. “You were pleased to say—at the s-s …”
“Yes, at the slaughter-house,” repeated the poodle coldly, turning his head away.
“Pardon me, but I don’t quite understand…. Slaughter-house? … What kind of an institution is that? Won’t you be so good as to explain?”
The poodle was silent. But as the greyhound and the terrier both joined their petition to Jack’s, the old poodle, who did not wish to appear impolite in the presence of ladies, felt obliged to enter into certain details.
“Well, you see mesdames, it is a sort of large courtyard surrounded by a high fence with sharp points, where they shut in all dogs found wandering in the streets. I’ve had the unhappiness to be taken there three times already.”
“I’ve never seen you!” was heard in a hoarse voice from the dark corner. “And this is the seventh time I’ve been there.”
There was no doubt that the voice from the dark corner belonged to the violet-coloured dog. The company was shocked at the interruption of their conversation by this rude person, and so pretended not to hear the remark. But Bouton, with the cringing eagerness of an upstart in society, cried out: “Please don’t interfere in other people’s conversation unless you’re asked,” and then turned at once to the important-looking mouse-coloured dog for approbation.
“I’ve been there three times,” the poodle went on, “but my master has always come and fetched me away again. I play in a circus, and you understand that I am of some value. Well, in this unpleasant place they have a collection of two or three hundred dogs….”
“But, tell me … is there good society there?” asked the greyhound affectedly.
“Sometimes. They feed us very badly and give us little to eat. Occasionally one of the dogs disappears, and then they give us a dinner of …”
In order to heighten the effect of his words, the poodle made a slight pause, looked round on his audience, and then added with studied indifference:
—“Of dog’s flesh.”
At these words the company was filled with terror and indignation.
“Devil take it … what low-down scoundrelism!” exclaimed Jack.
“I shall faint … I feel so ill,” murmured the greyhound.
“That’s dreadful … dreadful …” moaned the dachshund.
“I’ve always said that men were scoundrels,” snarled the mouse-coloured dog.
“What a strange death!” sighed Bouton.
But from the dark corner was heard once more the voice of the violet-coloured dog. With gloomy and cynical sarcasm he said:
“The soup’s not so bad, though—it’s not at all bad, though, of course, some ladies who are accustomed to eat chicken cutlets would find dog’s flesh a little too tough.”
The poodle paid no attention to this rude remark, but went on:
“And afterwards I gathered from the manager’s talk that our late companion’s skin had gone to make ladies’ gloves. But … prepare your nerves, mesdames … but, this is nothing…. In order to make the skin softer and more smooth, it must be taken from the living animal.”
Cries of despair broke in upon the poodle’s speech.
“What mean conduct!”
“No, that can’t be true!”
“No, worse than murderers!”
After this outburst there was a strained and melancholy silence. Each of them had a mental picture, a fearful foreboding of what it might be to be skinned alive.
“Ladies and gentlemen, is there no way of getting all honourable dogs free, once and for all, from their shameful slavery to mankind?” cried Jack passionately.
“Be so good as to find a way,” said the old poodle ironically.
The dogs all began to try and think of a way.
“Bite them all, and have an end of it!” said the big dog in his angry bass.
“Yes, that’s the way; we need a radical remedy,” seconded the servile Bouton. “In the end they’ll be afraid of us.”
“Yes, bite them all—that’s a splendid idea,” said the old poodle. “But what’s your opinion, dear sirs, about their long whips? No doubt you’re acquainted with them!”
“H’m.” The dog coughed and cleared his throat.
“H’m,” echoed Bouton.
“No, take my word for it, gentlemen, we cannot struggle against men. I’ve lived in this world for some time, and I’ve not had a bad life…. Take for example such simple things as kennels, whips, chains, muzzles—things, I imagine, not unknown to any one of us. Let us suppose that we dogs succeed in thinking out a plan which will free us from these things. Will not man then arm himself with more perfect instruments? There is no doubt that he will. Haven’t you seen what instruments of torture they make for one another? No, we must submit to them, gentlemen, that’s all about it. It’s a law of Nature.”
“Well, he’s shown us his philosophy,” whispered the dachshund in Jack’s ear. “I’ve no patience with these old folks and their teaching.”
“You’re quite right, mademoiselle,” said Jack, gallantly wagging his tail.
The mouse-coloured dog was looking very melancholy and snapping at the flies. He drawled out in a whining tone:
“Eh, it’s a dog’s life!”
“And where is the justice of it all?”—the greyhound, who had been silent up to this point, began to agitate herself—“You, Mr. Poodle, pardon me, I haven’t the honour of knowing your name.”
“Arto, professor of equilibristics, at your service.” The poodle bowed.
“Well, tell me, Mr. Professor, you have apparently had such great experience, let alone your learning—tell me, where is the higher justice of it all? Are human beings so much more worthy and better than we are, that they are allowed to take advantage of so many cruel privileges with impunity?”
“They are not any better or any more worthy than we are, dear young lady, but they are stronger and wiser,” answered Arto, with some heat. “Oh, I know the morals of these two-legged animals very well…. In the first place, they are greedy—greedier than any dog on earth. They have so much bread and meat and water that all these monsters could be satisfied and well-fed all their lives. But instead of sharing it out, a tenth of them get all the provisions for life into their hands, and not being able to devour it all themselves, they force the remaining nine-tenths to go hungry. Now, tell me, is it possible that a well-fed dog would not share a gnawed bone with his neighbour?”
“He’d share it, of course he would!” agreed all the listeners.
“H’m,” coughed the dog doubtfully.
“And besides that, people are wicked. Who could ever say that one dog would kill another—on account of love or envy or malice? We bite one another sometimes, that’s true. But we don’t take each other’s lives.”
“No, indeed we don’t,” they all affirmed.
“And more than this,” went on the white poodle. “Could one dog make up his mind not to allow another dog to breathe the fresh air, or to be free to express his thoughts as to the arrangements for the happiness of dogs? But men do this.”
“Devil take them!” put in the mouse-coloured dog energetically.
“And, in conclusion, I say that men are hypocrites; they envy one another, they lie, they are inhospitable, cruel…. And yet they rule over us, and will continue to do so … because it’s arranged like that. It is impossible for us to free ourselves from their authority. All the life of dogs, and all their happiness, is in the hands of men. In our present position each one of us, who has a good master, ought to thank Fate. Only a master can free us from the pleasure of eating a comrade’s flesh, and of imagining that comrade’s feelings when he was being skinned alive.”
The professor’s speech reduced the whole company to a state of melancholy. No other dog could utter a word. They all shivered helplessly, and shook with the joltings of the cart. The big dog whined piteously. Bouton, who was standing next to him, pressed his own body softly up against him.
But soon they felt that the wheels of the cart were passing over sand. In five minutes more they were driven through wide open gates, and they found themselves in the middle of an immense courtyard surrounded by a close paling. Sharp nails were sticking out at the top of the paling. Two hundred dogs, lean and dirty, with drooping tails and a look of melancholy on their faces, wandered about the yard.
The doors of the cage were flung open. All the seven new-comers came forth and instinctively stood together in one group.
“Here, you professor, how do you feel now?” The poodle heard a bark behind him.
He turned round and saw the violet-coloured dog smiling insolently at him.
“Oh, leave me alone,” growled the old poodle. “It’s no business of yours.”
“I only made a remark,” said the other. “You spoke such words of wisdom in the cart, but you made one mistake. Yes, you did.”
“Get away, devil take you! What mistake?”
“About a dog’s happiness. If you like, I’ll show you in whose hands a dog’s happiness lies.”
And suddenly pressing back his ears and extending his tail, the violet dog set out on such a mad career that the old professor of equilibristics could only stand and watch him with open mouth.
“Catch him! Stop him!” shouted the keepers, flinging themselves in pursuit of the escaping dog. But the violet dog had already gained the paling. With one bound he sprang up from the ground and found himself at the top, hanging on by his fore-paws. And in two more convulsive springs he had leaped over the paling, leaving on the nails a good half of his side.
The old white poodle gazed after him for a long time. He understood the mistake he had made.
< < < The Last Word
A Clump Of Lilacs > > >
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin –
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