A MOST BEAUTIFUL PUPPY
Jock Anderson‘s a good doctor; there‘s no doubt about that. Though even twenty years ago, when he was quite young, he wasn‘t over-strong on the bedside manner. A trifle peppery for that sort of thing. But on that occasion he couldn‘t have been kinder.
‘Dick, my boy, I‘m not usually all that sympathetic about so-called nervous breakdowns, you understand. Sometimes they‘re not always that – authentic. But – er, I‘ll make an exception in your case. You‘ve had a bad time. To lose your parents and – everything, at one blow. Aye, aye. Well. we‘ll not dwell on that !‘
He rose from his desk and walked over to the window of the surgery, where he stood with his back to the room.
‘I‘m sorry ! I shouldn‘t have gone bletherin‘ on like that !‘
He waited as though expecting me to speak. Then he seemed to realize that it was beyond me at the moment.
‘But you want my professional advice. Well, now, I imagine you‘ll get your discharge from the army, on medical grounds as well as compassionate. You‘ve done your whack of soldiering. anyway.‘
He turned suddenly, and began to speak more urgently.
‘Dick, I‘ll talk to you as a man, not a medico. I knew your mother and father – and the others – ! I know how much – how much – well, this‘ll sound ridiculous, but you must get another puppy. At once !‘
Even in my present confused state I knew this for nonsense. He smiled grimly.
‘I know ! I know ! I was sort of thinking aloud. But once – when I was a wean – I lost my dog. It died, you know. And my father – he was very wise – he got me another pup that same day !‘
I was still puzzled. He leaned forward.
‘You‘ve had a great loss, my boy ! You‘ll be tempted to pull your horns back into the shell. Don‘t do it, Dick ! Don‘t do it !‘
He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose with unnecessary violence. Then he held out his hand.
‘Plenty of exercise. Sleep. Fresh air. You know what‘s needed. But get yourself another puppy. I‘m not saying you need someone to look after you. Might be quite the wrong treatment. No, what you need is something to care for\! Soon as you can ! And that‘s my considered advice !‘
I went out into the cold air and the grey town. The nagging pain above my left eyebrow made itself felt again. My silly brain began once more the meaningless count. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three. If I made an effort of will, I could stop it, I knew. But the moment the guard was down it would be there again. Thirty-eight. Thirty-nine. Forty.
Yes, yes, of course. Just a symptom of the condition. Like the lack of response when the army psychiatrist tapped me below the knee. Like the lack of sensation in the back of my hand when I stuck a fork into it. Like this damned never-ending pain above my eyebrow.
The engine-note of the doodle-bug cut into my wanderings. Women glanced upwards and nervously moved into the shelter of shop-doorways. Not that that would help. If the engine-note cut out above, nothing would save pavement, shop doorways or shoppers. Nothing. It could destroy anything. It had taken all that I had called mine.
I walked on down the street, careless now of what war and its bestialities could do to me. The engine cut out, there was a brief pause, and then the distant crump of the explosion. Shoppers left their doorways, a housewife came out and shook her doormat. It was like a film starting up again, normality seeping back into everything. Everything but me . . .
I pushed open the door of the lending library and went inside. I can‘t remember a time when I haven‘t wanted books around me; their absence was another hardship to add to the rigours of service life. But, during my – my breakdown – books had become a drug. I could turn the front page and lose myself, shut out a world I could no longer cope with, forget for a time what had happened. But, looking back now, I can‘t recall a single book that I read then.
I reached up and took a novel idly from the shelf. There was an empty space behind it, so that I could see through to the next passage between the bookshelves.
She was standing there, looking down at a book. As I watched her she closed it, returned it to the shelf, and turned away.
It‘s a long time ago, but if I close my eyes now I can see her again. Head and shoulders, no more. I sometimes think that the sight of her face at that moment pulled me back from the pit of Bedlam.
She was simply, and beyond all doubt, the most beautiful girl I‘d ever seen. Odd, really, because her features weren‘t perfect. Her mouth was a little too large for one thing. But I didn‘t notice that then, and it wouldn‘t have mattered, anyway.
With the book still in my hand, I followed her along the line of shelves, catching the occasional glimpse of her dark head. She was making for the door. I ran back to the shelves, replaced the book, and followed her out.
I‘d no idea what I intended to do. To speak to her was out of the question. Not in my present state. It wasn‘t a case of lack of courage; nothing so simple. No, I just couldn‘t have done it to save my life. Merely to ask someone the time was an ordeal that I couldn‘t bring myself to face.
As she let the door swing to behind her, I caught it. I daren‘t let her out of my sight. I might never see her again. She turned to the left and began to climb the steps to the reference room. I followed, fearful that I might lose sight of her and apprehensive that she might notice my pursuit of her and resent it.
As she stood by the enquiry desk, I made my way to a table that commanded a view of most of the room and sat down. She was still waiting by the desk.
A figure came between us. I looked up quickly. An old school-friend, Charles Aston.
‘Hello, Dick ! On leave ? Oh – oh yes, of course ! I say, I am sorry ! Forgot for the moment, you know ! Your family – ‘
He stammered on I didn‘t even look at him. At length he stepped back, gave me a perplexed look, and moved on.
She wasn‘t there !
She‘d gone. Damn and blast Charles Aston !
I scrambled from my seat and rushed out. She wasn‘t on the steps. I flung myself almost headlong down them, out of the main door and into the street. She was nowhere in sight. I rushed back to the reference room. Perhaps she‘d moved to a corner out of my vision. I looked everywhere. There was no sign of her.
What was I to do ? I knew I couldn‘t ask anyone. Desperate as I was, I couldn‘t do it.
I don‘t recall how many days I scoured the town, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, almost beside myself when one day succeeded another without one sight of that face. But perhaps a pursuit which might have driven a healthy man mad with frustration was a blessing to me. I walked miles every day. I began to find an appetite for food again. I slept the sleep of the utterly weary as soon as I crawled into bed.
And then one day I saw her – but not in the flesh . . .
I‘d turned into the art-gallery, one more place worth trying, and there she was. A head and shoulders portrait in oils, and quite unquestionably the very face.
I looked round wildly. By the entrance there was a pile of catalogues, and a box for the collection of the shillings. I scrabbled through my pockets for a coin, thrust a half-crown into the box, and snatched up a catalogue.
Where was it ? I rushed back to the picture. Number 137. 137, 137 . . . ah, there it was !
‘The portrait is in oils by the now celebrated painter, Michael de Groot. It has an interesting connection with the town, in that the girl of the portrait is believed to have been a local resident at the time. It is one of several studies of the same model which the artist made. The portrait is undated, but is thought to have been painted in or about 1924.‘
The date didn‘t register at once. Then it struck me like a hammer-blow. 1924 ? Twenty years ago ?
I‘ve no idea how long I stood there, sick with dismay and disappointment. It was clear to me now that I‘d been searching for a figment of my own disordered mind. The girl I‘d been pursuing couldn’t possibly be the girl of the portrait.
But she was ! She was ! The likeness was unmistakable.
I heard voices approaching behind me. I was less in need of human society than ever, and I decided to go. Then, as I was rising to my feet, I caught the gist of the words, and sat down again.
‘No, Miss, I‘m sorry ! We do have postcards of some of the works, but not that one, I‘m afraid. Not 137 !‘
I had an impulse to turn round but, fortunately, I resisted it.
‘Though I happen to know that there‘s a copy in existence, and the owner might be persuaded to sell if you were interested. I don‘t know – ‘
I heard the low murmur of another voice, but I couldn‘t catch the words. The other voice went on,
‘It‘s a Mr Parsons of the ‘Bird in Hand‘. The landlord. He‘s got it hanging in the small snug at the back of his premises. You‘ll be able to see it there for yourself. Mention my name, by all means ! We‘re old friends.‘
And then I knew who the other person must be. I turned. My heart was pounding as if it would burst. She was looking past me at the portrait. No figment of my imagination. Real, and more beautiful than I remembered.
I rushed from the gallery and caught a taxi by the station cab-rank. I had to get to that portrait before she did.
The landlord of the Bird in Hand was the first person I‘d spoken to of my own accord in many weeks.
‘I – er, that portrait, Mr Parsons. Would you – would you sell it ? To me, I mean. It‘s terribly – it‘s very important. It means a – I must have it ! I – I‘ve been ill. Forgive me !‘
There must be something in desperation that makes itself known without words. We settled on a price. I would have given much, much more. He offered to take it down at once and wrap it up for me. I begged him to leave it for a while. Then I sat down to wait.
When at last she came through the door, shy and uncertain, I thought the beating in my throat would choke me. She went to Parsons, and I heard the murmur of her voice again. As he replied, he nodded in my direction. Her face fell, and she turned towards the door. My heart seemed to stop.
Then, on what seemed to be a sudden decision, she lifted her head, and came towards me. I was so confused that I heard nothing of her first words. At last I managed to mumble something about having been ill, and finding it hard to talk to people. Her eyes softened. She sat at the other side of the table.
‘I‘m so sorry ! But tell me, why did you want my mother‘s portrait ?‘
Then because, I suppose, she could see that I found it difficult to speak, she told me about her own search. An old story. The model had loved the artist unwisely, the artist had been careless of his responsibilities. The baby had been adopted, and the mother hadn‘t been heard of again. The daughter, in the way of adopted children, had been curious about her real mother and gone in search of her.
I managed to speak at last.
‘And – er, did you – did you find her ?‘
‘No. No, I didn‘t. She died during the blitz, I found that much out. No, I wasn‘t grief-stricken. She couldn‘t have taken the place of my mother – the one I call my mother. It was just – silly curiosity.‘
I managed to blurt out that I was glad. She looked shocked.
‘Yes. Glad you went looking for her, I mean !‘
Then, as though she were someone I had long known and dearly loved, I managed to pour out the whole of my own story. As I came to the end, to my first sight of her and my long vain search, her eyes filled with tears. Then she stretched out her hand, and laid it on mine.
As Jock Anderson said much later, he hadn‘t thought of another puppy in quite those terms, But for my money she‘s the most beautiful puppy in the world. And I should know . . .