Artemus Gibbon was, by nature and inclination, blameless and respectable, and under happier circumstances the record of his life might have preserved the albino tint of its early promise; but he was of timid and yielding disposition, and had been carefully brought up, so that his case was clearly hopeless from the first. It only remained for the strong and unscrupulous character to come alongside, and the result was a foregone conclusion. And one afternoon it came. It is a well-tried axiom that, in human affairs, as in steeplechasing, the ugliest croppers occur at the ‘safest’ and most carefully pruned places, and of all conceivable occasions for a young man to go irretrievably wrong, a church bazaar would seem to offer the least appropriate opportunity. Yet it was at such a function, opened by a bishop’s lady, and patronised by the most hopelessly correct people in the neighbourhood, that Artemus Gibbon went unsuspectingly to his undoing.
In the first place it must be admitted that his natural timidity was played upon by the embarrassing absence of anything at the bazaar that a bachelor of prosaic tastes might reasonably be expected to purchase with any approach to hearty conviction that his money was profitably laid out. Baby linen, which seemed to be the staple article on most of the stalls, was not to be thought of for a moment and the innate modesty of his taste in dress caused him to recoil from the ‘Jubilee Memento Scarves’, hand-worked with the royal arms in a delirium of crimson and gold. Hence, when he had purchased a harmless and unnecessary pincushion and two views of Durham Cathedral, he felt that he might, without odium, effect a dexterous retreat. Here it was that the Foreseen and Inevitable stepped in and changed the placid current of his life. He was pounced upon by a severe-looking dame, with an air of one being in authority, who gave him to understand that it was required of him that he should buy a dog.
“Only two guineas; my niece has charge of him over there. Clara!” Gibbon found himself a moment later confronted by a vivacious damsel — and the dog. The possibility of admitting a canine companion within the narrow compass of his establishment had not been altogether foreign to his speculations on life; a quiet, meek-eyed spaniel for instance, which would occupy an unobtrusive position by his domestic hearth, or participate in his constitutional walks, or, in later days, perhaps, a dignified deerhound with a tendency to statuesque repose — such were the shapes that his occasional ruminations on the subject had taken. But the dog now before him was by no means built according to these patterns. A rakish-looking fox terrier, stamped with the hallmark of naked and unashamed depravity, and wearing the yawningly alert air of one who has found the world is vain and likes it all the better for it, such was the specimen of dog-flesh at which Mr Artemus Gibbon found himself gazing in blank dismay.
Before he had quite realised the full force of the cataclysm in which he was involved, he had parted with the demanded forty-two shillings, and learned from the vivacious damsel the appalling fact that his new purchase was named Beelzebub. Something instinctively told him that he had parted too with his peace of mind, and as he was towed out of the bazaar premises in the wake of a yelping and plunging terrier, with an accompaniment of noise and publicity uncongenial to his natural modesty, he was dimly aware that he had started on a downgrade path that led to no good and peaceful end. To the ordinary intellect his position might not have appeared irretrievable; the dog that he had been rushed into buying, and whose personality inspired him with the strongest repugnance, was not necessarily a fixture. An immediate purchaser might be discovered, or the undesired acquisition might be given away, lost, or otherwise disposed of.
But here again the working of inexorable laws sterilised the chances of Gibbon’s emancipation. In a conflict between their respective will powers, the man inevitably succumbed to the fox terrier, and, when the dinner-hour exposed the bachelor’s sitting room to the observation of a tray-bearing handmaiden, its occupant was discovered in a condition of deprecatory embarrassment; whilst the dog, snugly ensconced in the only armchair, was the embodiment of self-composure and critical appraisement. As a general rule, Gibbon was not demonstratively communicative with maidservants, and his intercourse in this direction was usually limited to a perfunctory (vocal) salutation, or a mild request for a forgotten napkin, or such-like trifle. But the advent of Beelzebub had already dislocated the wonted disposition of affairs, and the girl became aware that an appeal of some nature was being addressed to her.
“Er, Mary, this little dog, er, I think you — might say nothing about it to Mrs Mulberry, er, just yet, that is, I will break it to her — I mean — will tell her myself — tomorrow morning.” While Gibbon was delivering himself of this charge he was shoving a warm, moist shilling Mary-wards along the table with a succession of short pats, as if he thought the coin should have some impetus of its own, and start forward in the desired direction. The hush money staved off the crisis that must assuredly arise when the landlady became aware of the canine presence in her apartments, and Gibbon, having successfully smuggled the contraband article into his bedroom, congratulated himself on having so far made the best of the situation. But, as the dog slipped out next morning on the incoming of the hot water, and chivvied the landlady’s cat into the landlady’s bedroom, and followed it onto her bed and under the blankets, where a muffled but vigorous battle royal ensued, it became doubtful whether the shilling had been, after all, a judicious outlay.
Gibbon found that his selection of new rooms was considerably narrowed by the prejudice aroused in the breasts of prospective landladies on the sight of his canine satellite, who accompanied him as a matter of course on all his quests; and finally, having strayed into a suite of chambers furnished in a style of bohemian extravagance that was wholly out of keeping with his accustomed ways of life, the terrier clinched matters for him by settling down therein and refusing to leave. Gibbon hunted him ineffectually round the place, upset and disarranged the furniture, all to no purpose; and at length, on the suggestion of the proprietor — “you’d better take the rooms, sir, seems as if it was meant like” — he took alarm at the idea of resisting the possible workings of a Higher Power, and yielded. It was the weak character pitted against the strong once more, and the result was as it ever must be.
To the deteriorating effects of baneful companionship were now added the subtle workings of the laws of environment. Gibbon was too bashfully diffident to remove even the most glaringly uncongenial adornments of his new quarters, and it was a sign of his drifting progress that the views of Durham Cathedral did not find hanging room on the well-covered walls. Instead of these solidly respectable works of art, his eyes were daily confronted with presentiments of ladies who had apparently conquered the love of dress that is attributed to their sex, interspersed with portraits of racehorses noted for their fastness, or of society beauties with a similar reputation. But the chief agent in the moral slump that was becoming more and more pronounced in the person of Artemus Gibbon was undoubtedly Beelzebub. The very name was a stumbling block to the leading of a respectable life, and a young man who called an already sufficiently unprepossessing animal by such an unseemly appellation was doomed to be dropped by self-respecting acquaintances.
Then with change of friends came also change of habits. Sober constitutionals became a thing of the past since Beelzebub, speedily bored by such tame affairs, contracted a habit of jumping into the nearest empty hansom; the cabman naturally pulled up, and as the dog would not get out, Gibbon had to get in. Having no address that he could give at the moment — it usually happened a few yards from his own door — a restaurant became the necessary destination, and Beelzebub never left much before closing-time. The eye of the waiter, scornfully regarding his slowly emptied glass of lager, invariably impelled the naturally temperate Gibbon to order another drink, and the homeward cab was sometimes a matter of convenience as well as dictation.
As fast as the fate-driven dissipator alienated old acquaintances, Beelzebub supplied him with new ones of a stamp more congruous with his altered circumstances; smart sporting youths, lurid in waistcoats and conversation, foregathered with the guileless owner of the indiscriminately social terrier, and one by one the landmarks of the placid past were swept away. Awaking in the harsh crude light of mature morning from late and unrefreshing sleep, Artemus would cast his eyes wearily round his disordered rooms, and everywhere the trail of the dog met his gaze, in powdery cigarette ashes, empty liqueur glasses, vivid-hued sporting periodicals, and tumbled packs of cards.
But the finishing touch was yet to come. Sitting one night in a café where he and his dog were now recognised habitués, slowly imbibing the Scotch and soda that had supplanted the lager of his earlier dissipations, Gibbon had momentarily lost himself in that superstructure of woe that consists of “remembering [the] happier things”; in particular he was thinking of a certain prodigally inclined young friend of his pre-canine days, by name Hilary Helforlether, whom he had tried to keep, by the force of example and precept, in the straight and narrow way that leads to a respected old age. From the uncomfortable reflections to which this reverie gave rise, he was suddenly aroused by a screamlet of vexed consternation, and turning sharply beheld at an adjoining table a lady, whose entrance had languidly attracted his attention some quarter of an hour ago. She was young and pretty and birdlike — especially with regard to her hair, which was of the tint a Norwich Canary aspires to but seldom attains — and there was just a delicate flavour of a possible foreign extraction about her; her attire was a rhapsody (with lucid intervals) of purple and gold, and a magnificent boa of ostrich feather had supplied the finishing touch to an impressive costume. The soft shimmering lengths of this elegant accessory had attracted the attention of the ever-alert Beelzebub, who had quietly abstracted it as it hung negligently from its owner’s chair, and by a process of ‘little and often’ had conscientiously given to each individual feather a separate and independent existence.
Gibbon’s horrified gaze, attracted by the lady’s excusable agitation, rested on his graceless quadruped snoozing amid the ruin of fluffiness like an eider-duckling in its nest. “No marvel that the lady wept”, or would have if consideration for her complexion had not prevailed, and Beelzebub’s owner hastened to gasp out a little hurricane of apologies and enquiries as to the estimated cost of the damage.
The lady really behaved very sweetly considering her provocation, and if in her agitation she placed the price of her ravaged boa somewhat above its Bond Street level, it was only in accordance with the impulse that teaches us to value things the more when we have lost them. Gibbon had not the amount on him, would the lady give him her address, or, well, yes, perhaps that would be better, he would give her his card, tomorrow afternoon, unfailingly, etc., etc., and before he knew what he was doing he had made an assignation with the boa-bereaved damsel.
Gibbon had never before given tea to a lady in his apartments, and was necessarily rather inept in his administration of this unwonted hospitality, but his fair guest supplied the deficiencies of his experience, and knew exactly when the milder beverage should be followed up by liqueurs and cigarettes. That she was not dissatisfied with her entertainment her host gathered from the fact that she graciously forestalled his invitation to come again and continue his education in the art of tea-giving. In short, she was altogether in affable mood, and if she forgot to give the overwhelmed Gibbon any change for his tenner, she at least atoned for the omission by favouring him with a wholly spontaneous kiss.
This unsolicited kindness was conferred on him while opening his outer door for his visitor’s departure, which was the appropriate psychological moment for its delivery; it was unfortunate, nevertheless, that Hilary Helforlether should have chosen the same moment for appearing hull-down on the staircase horizon. Artemus, having sped the parting guest, greeted his new visitor with a hastily mobilised smile that suffered by comparison with the grin on his sometime disciple’s face.
“Oh, you pipeclayed sepulchre! Thought you were the blamed whiting of a lifeless flower, and all that sort of thing. Rats! Hullo, what a jolly terrier. Does he belong to you?”
“No; I belong to him. Body and soul,” muttered Gibbon, drearily.
- Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee was celebrated in 1897. Silk scarves with images of the queen were produced as mementoes of the occasion. ↩
- Variously, the name either of the devil or of a demon of Hell. ↩
- From ‘Locksley Hall’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “A sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier things.” ↩
- The Norwich Canary was bred selectively to have deep reddish-orange plumage. ↩
- Quotation from a Broadside poem entitled “Mary, Queen o’ Scots”. ↩
- Bond Street was (and remains) one of London’s premier shopping streets. ↩
‘Dogged’ by Saki (H.H. Munro) (public domain). Notes © 2016 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.