The Little Angel and Other Stories/Snapper

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SNAPPER


I

He belonged to no one, he had no name of his own, and none could say where he spent the long, frosty winter, or how he was fed. The housedogs hungry as himself, but proud and strong from the consciousness of belonging to a house, would chase him away from the warm cottages. When driven by hunger or an instinctive need of company, he showed himself in the street, the boys pelted him with stones and sticks, while the grown-ups gave a merry whoop, or a terribly piercing whistle. Distraught with fear he would dart about from side to side, and stumbling against the fences and people's legs, would run as as fast as he could to the end of the village, and hide himself in the depths of a large garden in a place known only to himself. There he would lick his bruises and wounds, and in solitude heap up terror and malice.

Once only had he been pitied and petted. This was by a peasant, a drunkard, who was returning from the public house. Just then he loved all things, and pitied all, and said something in his beard about kind people, and the trust he himself put in kind people. He pitied even the dirty, unlovely dog, on which by chance his drunken, aimless glance had fallen.

"Doggie," said he, calling it by a name common to all dogs; "Doggie, come here, don't be afraid."

Doggie wanted very much to come. He wagged his tail, but could not make up his mind. The peasant patted his knee with his hand, and repeated reassuringly:

"Come along, then, silly. I swear I won't hurt you."

But while the dog was hesitating, wagging its tail more and more energetically, and advancing with short steps, the humour of the drunkard changed. He recalled all the insults that had been heaped on him by kind people, and felt angry and dully malicious, so that when Doggie lay on his back before him, he gave him a vicious kick in the side with the toe of his heavy boot.

"Gam! Dirty! Where are you coming to!"

The dog began to whimper, more from surprise and the insult, than from pain, and the peasant staggered home, where he gave his wife a savage beating, and tore to pieces a new kerchief which he had bought for her as a present the week before.

From this time forth the dog ceased to trust people who wished to pet it, and either put his tail between his legs and ran away, or sometimes would fly at them angrily and try to bite them, until they succeeded in driving him away with stones or a stick. For one winter he had taken up his abode under the verandah of an unoccupied bungalow which was without a caretaker, and took care of it for nothing. By night he ran about the streets and barked till he was hoarse, and long after he had lain himself down in his place, he would keep up an angry growl, but beneath the anger there was apparent a certain amount of content, and even pride, in himself.

The winter nights dragged themselves out slowly, and the black windows of the empty bungalow gazed grimly on the motionless, icy garden. Sometimes blue lights seemed to kindle in them, at others a falling star would be reflected in the panes, or again the sharp-horned moon would throw on them its timid ray.


II

Spring came on, and the quiet bungalow was all a-voice with loud talk, the creaking of wheels, and the stamping of people moving heavy things. The owners had arrived from the city, a whole merry troop of grown-up people, of half-grown ups and children, all intoxicated with the air, the warmth and the light. Some shouted, some sang, and some laughed with shrill female voices.

The first with whom the dog made acquaintance was a pretty girl, who ran out into the garden in a formal, cinnamon-coloured dress.[1] Greedily and impatiently desiring to seize and hug in her embrace everything visible, she looked at the clear sky, at the reddish cherry twigs, and lay quickly down on the grass with her face towards the burning sun. Then she got up again as suddenly, and hugging herself, and kissing the Spring air with her fresh lips, said expressively and seriously:

"Well, this is jolly!"

She spoke, and then suddenly turned round. At this very moment the dog noiselessly approached, and furiously seized the extended skirt of her dress in its teeth and tore it, and then as noiselessly disappeared into the thick gooseberry and currant bushes.

"Oh! bad dog!" cried the girl, running away, and for long might be heard her agitated voice: "Mamma! children! don't go into the garden. There is a dog there, such a great, big, fierce one!"

At night the dog crept up to the sleeping bungalow, and noiselessly lay down in its place under the verandah. It smelt of people, and through the open windows was borne the soft sound of gentle breathing. The people were asleep, they were powerless and no longer terrible, and the dog jealously guarded them. He slept with one eye open, and at every rustle stretched out his head with its two motionless phosphorescent eyes. But the alarming noises were so many in the sensitive Spring night: in the grass something small and unseen rustled, and came quite close to the shiny nose of the dog; last year's twigs crackled under the feet of sleeping birds, and on the neighbouring road a cart rumbled, and heavily-laden wains creaked. And afar off round about in the motionless air was diffused the sweet, fresh scent of resin, and lured one into the lightening distance.

The owners who had arrived at the bungalow were very kind people, and all the more so now that they were far from the city, breathing pure air, seeing around them everything green, and blue and harmless. The sunlight went into them in warmth, and came out again in laughter and goodwill towards all things living. At first they wished to drive away the dog, of which they were afraid, and even shot at it with a revolver, when it would not take itself off; but later they became accustomed to its barking at night, and even sometimes remembered it in the morning:

"But where's our Snapper?"

And this new name "Snapper" stuck to it. Sometimes even by day they would notice among the bushes its dark body, which would fall flat on the ground at the first motion of a hand throwing bread—as though it were a stone, not bread,—and soon all became accustomed to Snapper, and called him "our dog," and joked about the cause of his shyness and unreasonable fear. Each day Snapper diminished by one step the distance which separated him from the people; he grew accustomed to their faces, and adopted their habits. Half an hour before dinner he would be already standing in the shrubs, blinking with a conciliatory air. And that same little schoolgirl it was, who, forgetting the former outrage, brought the dog definitely into the happy circle of cheerful, restful people.

"Snapper, come here," said she, calling him. "Good dog, come here. Do you like sugar? I'll give you a lump. Come along, then."

But Snapper would not come; he was afraid. Then cautiously patting her knee, and speaking with all the caressing kindness of a beautiful voice and a pretty face, Lelya approached the dog, but was in her turn afraid; suddenly he snapped.

"I am so fond of you. Snapper, dear; you have such a nice little nose, and such expressive eyes. Won't you trust me, Snapperkin?"

Lelya raised her eyebrows, and her own little nose was so pretty and her eyes so expressive, that the sun acted wisely in covering all her little youthful, naively charming face with hot kisses, till her cheeks were red.

Snapper for the second time in his life turned on his back and closed his eyes, not knowing for a certainty whether he was to be kicked or petted. But he was petted. Small warm hands touched irresolutely his woolly head, and as though this were a sign of undeniable authority, began freely and boldly to run over the whole of his hairy body, rumpling, petting, and tickling.

"Mamma! children! look here, I'm petting Snapper," cried Lelya.

When the children ran up, noisy, loud-voiced, quick and bright as drops of uncontrollable mercury. Snapper cowed down in fear and helpless expectancy: he knew that if any one struck him now, he would no longer be in a position to fix his sharp teeth in the body of the offender: his unappeasable malice had been taken from him. And when they all began to vie in caressing him, he for a long time could not help trembling at each touch of the caressing hand, and the unwonted fondling hurt him as though it had been a blow.


III

All Snapper's doggy nature expanded. He had now a name, at the sound of which he rushed headlong from the green depths of the garden; he belonged to people, and could serve them. What more did a dog need to make him happy!

Being accustomed to the moderation induced by years of a vagrant, hungry life, he ate but little, but that little changed him out of recognition. His long coat, which formerly had hung in foxy dry tufts on his back and on his belly, which had been covered eternally with dried mud, now became clean, and grew black, and became as glossy as velvet. And when he, having nothing better to do, would run to the gates and stand on the threshold, looking up and down the street with a dignified air, no one ever took it into his head to tease him or throw stones at him.

But such pride and independence he could enjoy only to himself. Fear had not as yet been wholly evaporated from his heart by the fire of caresses, and so every time people appeared, or approached him, he hid himself expecting a beating. And still for a long time every caress came to him as a surprise, and a wonder, which he could neither understand, nor respond to. He did not know how to receive caresses. Other dogs could stand and walk about on their hind legs and even smile, and thus express their feelings, but he did not know how.

The one only thing that Snapper was able to do was to roll on his back, shut his eyes, and whimper gently. But this was insufficient, it could not express his delight, his thankfulness and love. By a sudden inspiration, however, Snapper began to do something, which maybe he had seen done by other dogs, but had long since forgotten. He turned absurd somersaults, leapt awkwardly, and ran after his tail; and his body, which had been always so supple and active, became stiff, ridiculous, and pitiful.

"Mamma! children! look, Snapper is performing," cried Lelya, and choking with laughter, said: "Once more, Snapper, once more. That's right!"

And they gathered together and laughed, and Snapper kept on twisting round, and turning somersaults and falling, and no one saw the strange entreating look in his eyes. And as formerly they used to howl and shout at the dog to see his despairing fear, so now they caressed him on purpose to excite in him an ebullition of love, so infinitely laughable in its awkward, absurd manifestations. Hardly an hour passed but some one of the half-grown-ups or the children would cry:

"Now then. Snapper dear, perform!"

And Snapper would twist about, turn somersaults, and fall, amid merry, irrepressible laughter. They praised him to his face and behind his back, and lamented only one thing, viz., that he would not show off his tricks before strangers, who came to visit, but would run away into the garden, or hide himself under the verandah.

Gradually Snapper became accustomed to not being obliged to trouble himself about his food, since at the appointed hour the cook would give him scraps and bones, while he confidently and quietly lay in his place under the verandah, and even sought and asked for caresses. And he grew heavy: he seldom ran away from the bungalow, and when the little children called him to go with them to the forest, he would wag an evasive tail, and disappear unseen. But all the same at night his bark would be loud and wakeful as ever.


IV

Autumn began to glow with yellow fires, and the sky to weep with heavy rain, and the bungalows became quickly empty, and silent, as though the incessant rain and wind had extinguished them one by one, like candles.

"What are we to do with Snapper?" asked Lelya, with hesitation. She was sitting embracing her knees and looking sorrowfully out of the window, down which were rolling glistening drops of rain.

"What a position you're in, Lelya; that's not the way to sit!" said her mother, and added: "Snapper must be left behind, poor fellow."

"That's—a—pity," said Lelya lingeringly.

"But what can one do? We have no courtyard at home, and we can't keep him in the house, that you must very well understand."

"It's—a—pity," repeated Lelya, ready to cry. Her dark brows were raised, like a swallow's wings, and her pretty little nose puckered piteously, when her mother said:

"The Dogayevs offered me a puppy some time ago. They say that it is very well bred, and ready trained. Do you see? But this is only a yard-dog."

"A—pity," repeated Lelya, but she did not cry.

Once, more strangers arrived, and wagons creaked, and the floors groaned beneath heavy footsteps, but there was less talk, and no laughter was heard at all. Terrified by the strange people, and dimly prescient of calamity. Snapper fled to the extreme end of the garden, and thence through the thinning bushes gazed unceasingly at that corner of the verandah which was open to his view, and at the figures in red shirts which were moving about on it.

"You there! my poor Snapper," said Lelya as she came out. She was already dressed for the journey in the same cinnamon skirt, out of which Snapper had torn a piece, and a black jacket. "Come along!"

And they went out into the road. The rain kept coming and going, and the whole expanse between the blackened earth and the sky was full of clubbed, swiftly-moving clouds. From below it could be seen how heavy they were, impenetrable to the light on account of the water which saturated them, and how weary the sun must be behind that solid wall.

To the left of the road stretched the darkened stubble field, and only on the near hummocky horizon short uneven trees and shrubs appeared in lonesome patches. In front, not far off, was the barrier, and near it a wine-shop with red iron roof, and by it was a group of people teasing the village idiot Ilyusha.

"Give us a ha'penny," snuffled the idiot in a drawling voice, and evil, jeering voices replied all together:

"Will you chop up some wood?"

Ilyusha reviled foully and cynically, and the others laughed without mirth. A sunray broke through, yellow and anæmic, as though the sun were hopelessly sick; and the foggy Autumn dis tance became wider, and more melancholy.

"I'm sorry, Snapper!" Lelya gently let fall the words, and went back without looking round. It was not till she reached the station that she remembered that she had not said good-bye to Snapper.

Snapper long followed the track of the people as they went away, he ran as far as the station, and wet through and muddy, returned to the bungalow. There he performed one more new trick, which no one, however, was there to see. For the first time he went on to the verandah, stood on his hind legs, looked in at the glass door, and even scratched at it. But the rooms were all empty, and no one answered him.

A violent rain poured down, and on all sides the darkness of the long Autumn night began to close in. Quickly and dully it filled the empty bungalow: noiselessly it crept out from the shrubs and in company with the rain, poured down from the uninviting sky. On the verandah, from which the awning had been taken away, and which for that reason looked like a broad and unknown waste, the light had long been in conflict with the darkness, and mournfully illumined the marks of dirty feet; but soon it gave in

Night had come on.

When there was no longer any doubt that the night was upon him, the dog began to howl in loud complaint. With a note resonant, and sharp as despair, that howl broke into the monotonous, sullenly persistent sound of the rain, rending the darkness, and then dying down was carried over the dark naked fields.

The dog howled—regularly, persistently, desperately, soberly—and to any one who heard that howling it seemed as though the impenetrable dark night itself were groaning and longing for the light, and he would wish himself with his wife by his warm fireside.

The dog howled.



  1. Such as is worn by schoolgirls and girl students.—Tr.