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The Biography Of Sprig





[Jan. 20, 1872.]

I dare not hope to equal the eloquent and most touching biography of
Nero, with whom I had the honour of a slight acquaintance. But I was the
possessor of an animal who, in his way as a dog, not a cat, for
originality of character, reasoning power, talent, and devoted affection
I have never seen equalled in his species, and you and your readers may
possibly be interested by a sketch of his biography.

Where Sprig was born I do not know, nor had I any acquaintance with his
parents. One morning several years ago I chanced to go down stairs
early, and found the milk-boy at the hall door, delivering his daily
supply to the cook. In the courtyard before my house was a
bright-looking rough terrier of small size, frisking about very
cheerfully, trying to catch the small stump of a tail which some cruel
despoiler had left him. As he was engaged in this pastime, a large brown
retriever entered the gate, to look on, I suppose, for he had an amused
expression of face, and was wagging his tail amicably. Sprig, however,
though but a mite in comparison, decidedly resented the intrusion, and
flew at the retriever's throat, from which he had to be choked off by
his owner, who brought him back in his arms. The little fellow was in
the highest state of excitement and anger, his bright, intelligent eyes
flashing, and his hair bristling. He was indeed most amusingly fierce,
but was soon calmed when he was shown, and told, that his enemy had
fled, whereupon the following colloquy ensued between myself and his
owner: Myself: "And where did you get that dog, boy? You did not steal
him, I hope?" Boy, in a rich Dublin brogue: "Ah, now! would I stale
anythin', yer honner, an' me the poor milk-boy? Is it stale him? Bedad,
it's my father's cuzin that's at the Curragh! Sure he's a corporal, so
he is. He brought him, and he sez, 'Yez'll get me a pound for him, and
no less.' So it's a pound I want for him, sur, and nothin' less. An'
sure John Lambert knows me well--so he does!" When John, my servant,
was sent for, he gave a good account of the lad, and as he entirely
approved of Sprig, I gave the sovereign, showing it to the dog, whose
wondering eyes were glancing from one to the other. Then I said to the
boy, "Put him into my arms, and tell him he belongs to me;" and he did
so. The little fellow looked curiously and wistfully at the lad, who, to
do him justice, had tears in his eyes, and then nestled into my breast,
licking my hands and face. When my daughter came down stairs, I took up
Sprig and placed him in my youngest daughter's arms, a process he
appeared to comprehend perfectly, and told him she was his mistress; nor
to the day of his death did he ever falter in his devoted allegiance to
her. He was very fond of me and of us all, but his deepest love was for
his mistress, and on many occasions was most affecting to see. She was
often delicate, and once had a sharp attack of typhus fever. In this
illness Sprig never left her. He would lie at the foot of her bed
watching her, and would sometimes creep gently up to her, put his paws
round her neck, and lick her hands softly, while the pleading of his
large eyes looking from his mistress, in her unconscious delirium, to
her sister and me, was touching in the extreme. Indeed, there were then
many sad illnesses, but Sprig was always the same. As my child grew
stronger and better her little friend would amuse her by the hour
together; sit up, beg, preach, play with his ball, and try in humble
doggie fashion to beguile her of her pain. But I am anticipating.

Sprig was, I believe, what is called a Dandie Dinmont, and as he grew up
he became, for his class, a very handsome, as he was a sturdy, little
fellow, with great strength for his size. He was a reddish-brown colour,
more dark-red than brown, like a squirrel, with white below, and a
delightfully fuzzy head, and a breast of long soft white hair. His eyes
were that peculiar bright liquid "dog" brown which is capable of so much
expression, and he grew to have a long moustache and beard. Even the
most un-observant of dogs admired him, for he resembled no terrier I
have ever seen. I think he would have won the prize of his class at the
Dublin Dog Show, had it not been for a terrible accident he met with in
being wounded by a large foxhound in a neighbouring orchard. His neck
was then torn open, and he was rescued by John only in time to prevent
his being killed. As it was, it was weeks before he could walk--and how
patient he was all the time! and as the wound healed it left a
thickening of his skin which had an awkward look. Sprig was, however,
"highly commended." In his youth he was perhaps rather short in his
temper, and always resented in the most distinct manner any liberty that
was taken with him. To tread upon his foot was perilous, but he was at
once pacified if an apology was made that it was accidental; but to pull
his tail wilfully was an insult which he resented bitterly, and for
which much atonement was necessary, or he would go under the sofa and
cry in his peculiar manner when offended.

As he grew up, Sprig developed various talents which were highly
cultivated. His greatest pleasure, perhaps, was in an india-rubber ball,
with which his gambols were indescribably pretty and constant. It was a
great distress when he lost or mislaid his ball, and he was miserable
till he found it, or another was brought him. It was a cruel thing to
say, when one of us went to town, "Sprig, I will bring you a new ball,"
and as sometimes happened, to forget to do so. On return he would sniff
about the person who had gone, poke his nose into his or her pockets,
and if disappointed could hardly be soothed, but would go away and have
his quiet cry to himself. Sometimes a kind friend who knew him might
bring him a new ball; but it very much depended on who presented it
whether it was accepted or not, and I am afraid that too frequently for
his good manners he turned it over contemptuously with his nose and left
it for the old one, which, gnawed, bitten, and broken, was still the
favourite. I used sometimes to make a ball squeak by pressing the hole
against my hand, and I believe he thought it was in pain, for he would
whine piteously, and would not let me rest till he had it again in his
possession. It was most amusing to see him when a parcel of new balls
arrived, he having been told beforehand that one was coming. He would
find out directly who had it, and become impatient and cross indeed if
he did not get it directly. When the parcel was given him, his great
delight was to open it himself and select one. A red ball was usually
preferred, but not always. All were subjected to the most varied
trials--gnawed, smelt, and rolled, till the one which pleased his fancy
was finally selected; of the rest he would take no notice whatever.

Sprig was thoroughly a gentleman, and on most occasions he was most
attentive to lady visitors. He never noticed gentlemen. On one occasion,
when my daughters were out, a dear friend called (Nero's mistress). She
told us afterwards that Sprig had been a most attentive beau. He met her
at the hall door, welcomed her in his odd fashion, trotted before her
into the drawing-room, looking behind him to see if she followed. He
then jumped upon the ottoman, inviting her to sit down; when she was
seated he brought his ball and went through all his tricks with it, sat
up on his hind legs, begged with his paws, preached to her in his own
queer way, and kept her amused till, no longer able to remain, she bid
him good morning and left, evidently to his disgust. "Could he have
spoken," she said afterwards, "he would have told me to wait, for his
mistresses would soon be back; the look was in his face, but the words
were wanting." His attention to visitors was never omitted. When we had
a ball or evening party, he would await, with John Lambert, the several
arrivals at the hall door, welcome each new party, and usher them in a
solemn manner into the drawing-room or tea-room, returning for a new set
to his former place. Nor did he want for an occasional cake or biscuit
at the tea-table; "he was so amiable," said the young ladies, "he could
not be resisted."

As an instance of how perfectly he understood what was said to him, I
may relate that one hot day I had walked out from town, and being
thirsty went into the dining-room for a drink of water. I saw Sprig's
ball under the table, and when I went into the garden where my girls
were sitting they said, "Sprig has lost his ball, and is perfectly
miserable." After I had sent him to look about for it, I said, "Now,
Sprig, I know where it is; I saw it in the dining-room under the table;
go fetch it." He looked brightly at me, and I repeated what I had said.
He trotted off, and while we were wondering whether he had understood
me, he returned with it in his mouth quite delighted. I have mentioned
his preaching, which may sound rather irreverent, but it was an
accomplishment entirely of his own invention. When seated in a chair
after dinner, and requested to preach, he would sit up, place his
forepaws gravely on the table, and then lifting up one paw as high as
his head, and then the other, deliver a discourse to the company in a
sort of gurgling, growling manner, with an occasional low bark, which
was indescribably ludicrous to see and hear. What he meant by it we
could never find out, but I question whether he prized any of his
accomplishments more than this.

Sometimes, but not often, he would go out by himself to take a walk, we
supposed to see his friends, for I never heard that he had any love
affairs. If we all, or my daughters, or myself, met him on his return,
I, or they, or we all might call to him, notice him as he brushed past
us, or ask him to come for a walk. No. He would have none of our
company; he would cut us dead, and go toddling home, his tail more erect
and quivering than ever; never hastening his sedate pace, and giving his
usual kick-out with one hind leg every third or fourth step, as was his
custom. He would have no connection with us; that was quite clear and
decided. Sprig was very fond, too, of a walk with his mistresses or with
me, and, though never taught it, would always wipe his feet clean on the
hall mat as he came in. I am now going to relate an anecdote of Sprig
which I know is almost beyond credibility, but the occurrence so
displayed his power of thought and reason that I cannot withhold it. My
usual haunt is my den, as I call it, a large room at one end of our old
rambling house. There Sprig never came unless with his mistresses, and
indeed never was easy when he was there. I had begun a large full-length
picture of my daughters, and Sprig and Whisky, a small Skye puppy, were
to be painted lying at their feet. As the picture progressed, Sprig
seemed to understand all about it, and paid me the compliment of wagging
his tail at the portraits. One day my girls had been sitting to me, and
it was now Sprig's turn to sit. I put him into the proper position and
told him to lie still, and he proved a most patient sitter. When the
sketch of him was finished, I showed it to him; I think he was pleased
with his likeness, for he licked my face; but as he smelt at his
portrait, he did not like himself, and growled. Whisky was now put into
position, but was very restless, although Sprig scolded her by snarling
at her. Next day I had put the picture against the wall near the
window, and before a few steps which led up into my bedroom, and was
busy perched on a step-ladder with the after-portion of it. By and by I
heard a great scratching at my bedroom door, which was closed, and Sprig
whining to get in. I thought this odd, but it was too much trouble to
come down from my perch, and I told him to go away. He, however, only
whined and scratched the more. I therefore descended, and getting behind
the picture, went up the steps and opened the door. Sprig did not notice
me, but pushing past me hurried down the steps, and then, as I emerged
into the room, looked up to me blandly, and actually sat down in the
place in which I had put him the day before. I said to him gravely,
though infinitely amused, "No, Sprig, I don't want you to-day; look, the
colour is all wet, go away to your mistress." He looked very blank and
greatly disappointed, and stood up with his tail drooped. Suddenly a
bright thought seemed to strike him, as if he had said, "Now I have it!"
Whisky had got hold of one of my slippers, and was playing with it in
my bedroom, and Sprig, rushing up the steps, seized her by the "scruff"
of her neck, dragged her howling down the steps, and put her, I can use
no other words, into the place where she had been the day before. He
then came to me frisking about, and could he but have spoken, would have
said, "If you don't want me, you must her, and there she is!" He was
quite triumphant about it; and dirty as I was, and palette in hand, I
took him forthwith to the drawing-room and told them what had happened.

I could tell numberless other stories of the reasoning power and
intelligence of our little pet, but I should trespass at too great
length on your patience. I could describe a curious friendship which
sprang up between him and a German friend who was staying some time with
us; how he learned many new tricks from him, and was taught to hop on
his hind legs from one end of the drawing-room to the other, with our
friend hopping backwards before him; I could describe his evening romps
with my dear father, never omitted while my father lived; and the many
curious traits by which his great love for us was perpetually
displayed--how he learned to crack nuts of all kinds, and to pick out
the kernels like a squirrel--how he never went into the servants' hall
or the kitchen, and refused to associate with the servants, though
friendly with them, and especially with John Lambert, his fast friend.
But I must bring this sketch to a close.

We had been absent about a year in Germany and the South of France.
After we left, Sprig was inconsolable, and would not eat; but the cook
made him little curries and rice, and after a time he became more
resigned. We only heard that he was well, and hoped we should find him
so. The day we arrived I thought he would have died for joy. He gasped
for breath, and lay down, and when taken up by his mistress lay in her
arms almost insensible. It was long before he came to himself, and when
he did revive, it is quite impossible to describe his delight, or what
he did. He was, indeed, quite beside himself with joy, scouring about,
dragging his mistress here and there, doing all his tricks in a
confused manner, and, in short, behaving after a very insane fashion
indeed. We noticed he had a slight cough; but he seemed otherwise quite
well, and we thought it would go away; but it increased, and at that
time there was an epidemic of bronchitis among dogs. We sent him to an
eminent veterinary surgeon, who blistered him (and how patient the poor
fellow was under the pain cannot be told), but though relieved for the
time, the end was near. One morning he was seen to do an apparently
quite unaccountable thing. He took his son Terry (whom he was never
known to notice except by knocking him over and standing upon him,
growling fiercely), all round our village, and visited all the dogs in
it. John saw him doing this early in the morning, and told me of it. I
suppose he was commending Terry to their favour. He coughed a great deal
all day, and breathed heavily; but in the evening he was very bright,
and to all appearance much better, and insisted on doing all his tricks
till it was time to go to bed. Sprig never would go to bed willingly.
John used to come to the drawing-room door and call him, and he would go
to it, but stand growling till he was caught up and carried off. That
evening, as we remembered, he seemed more than ever unwilling to go, but
was caught up and carried away.

In the morning, about six o'clock--it was summer-time--I was just about
to get up, when John Lambert knocked at my door, and came in with Sprig
in his arms. He did not speak, and I asked him whether Sprig was worse.
"He's dead, sir," said he, with the tears rolling down his face, and
hardly able to speak. "Quite dead, sir; he must have died only a little
while ago, for when I went to let him out, I found him dead and quite
warm, as he is still." I am not ashamed to write that my eyes felt very
blind, but there was no hope; the dear little fellow was quite dead; he
had died calmly, and his eyes were bright; they had not glazed.

We buried him, John and myself, when he was quite cold and stiff, by a
rose-tree at the end of the garden. Poor John could hardly dig the
grave, and his tears fell fast and silently and upon dear old Sprig as
we covered him up for ever. I wish I could write a fitting epitaph for a
creature who, through his life, was a constant source of pleasure to all
who knew him.

M. T.





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