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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