Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Dog and The Lantern

This is one of T.F. Powys "Fables", which I am sharing here for Easter. There is nothing in the tradition of the English short story quite like his Fables. They are often set in a country village setting, with realistic characters - the shepherd, Mr Poose, and the rich and godless farmers Mr Told and Mr Lord, who are clearly drawn from rural life - yet they are quite fantastical and surreal. They often dwell on Christian themes, but in quite unexpected and challenging ways that confound the reader's expectations, and do not fit into a nice boxed religious tradition. And above all, they are not like Aesop's Fables - they do not have a single moral point. Instead, they are disturbing and unsettling tales, almost a rich mythology which has been drawn from Powys' own deep roots as a countryman, which linger in the memory long after.

The Dog and The Lantern
by T.F. Powys

THERE was once a wise dog that every day used to follow his master, the shepherd, to the fields. There the dog would labour honestly, tending and watching over the sheep, obeying his master in all things. The dog had been trained, when very young, by his father, a wonderful creature that the shepherd had the highest regard for, and when the old dog died, Mr. Poose himself undertook the task of instructing the puppy in a proper behaviour.

The good shepherd sometimes found it necessary to chastise him mildly, though that happened but seldom, for the young dog took to his tasks so well that he soon became exceedingly clever in the art of fetching the sheep to the fold, even though they might have strayed far over the downs. All the time that the lessons lasted the dog never showed himself as careless or indolent. In his leisure moments he would romp and play as happily as any of his kind, though sometimes he would prefer to lie still and to contemplate the wonders of nature.

His forbears, who had so long and so faithfully served man, had handed on to this dog a wisdom that far exceeded the wisdom of his fellows, and for this reason his mind had early taken a moral turn that became more pronounced as he grew older, and led him to meditate upon such subjects as the existence of the Devil, God the Father and Christ the Son.

The dog would often lie down near to the shepherd's hut, and when his master supposed him to be asleep, he would really be considering what kind of person the God was that his father had told him about. The poor dog always believed that one day or other a light would shine before him and tell him the truth, so that the doubts that sometimes afflicted his mind might be dispersed. And, meanwhile, in order to prepare for the great event of his life-the coming of Christ-that is, indeed, the most wonderful vision that can happen to anyone, the dog lived as an honest dog should, resisting all the temptations to do evil that came to him.

And even when sometimes his master would forget to chain him to his kennel, he used to take up the chain with his teeth and make such a clatter with it that Mr. Poose would leave his lit room and his basin of cock-broth, and going out to the dog, would tie him up. Then the dog would fawn upon him and lick his hands, feeling that his master had done him the greatest service in fastening the chain upon his collar and, by so doing, keeping him from evil.

So well had this good dog trained himself to bear the troubles of life that he would receive with patience the utmost provocation from other dogs, and would only sometimes look a little grim at them and show his teeth did they insult him too much.

One winter's day the dog was lying beside his master's hut and hoping that he might see God with his own eyes. The day was windy and cold, and the angry gusts that swept over the fields dashed swift storms of rain against the body of Mr. Poose, the shepherd, who was preparing the fold for the sheep.

In order to protect himself as well as he might from the storm, Mr. Poose had bound round his hat and tied under his chin a stout cord, and had also bound straw bands about his legs, so that he might be kept dry in all the mire and wet. As he bore the hurdles from one place to another, he appeared to do battle with many an enemy. The mists in great clouds rolled upon him, so that sometimes his for m would be entirely lost to view, but again it would appear struggling with the hurdles upon his back, and, when the wind drove the mist away, he would be seen quite clearly, so that even his patched breeches could be noticed when a gust lifted his coat.

The afternoon was waning, and the dog, having received the command from his master, ran to the down and fetched the sheep to the fold that was now ready for them. A part of the flock, however, had never left the fold, for the lambing time was come. Mr. Poose now turned his attention to these, while the dog lay down again beside the hut. Mr. Poose tended a ewe in labour, and then, after carrying a lamb that had been lost back to its mother, he fed all the sheep with bundles of sweet hay. As the dog watched the shepherd and saw his figure standing lonely-a figure marked with that nobility that comes from constant toil--he was filled with a mystic fervour and, remembering that his father had once told him that, when he least thought of it, he would see God, he now fancied that God was none other than his master, Mr. Poose.

In every way Mr. Poose seemed to answer to the description that his father had given to him concerning God. For had not his father crept into the church and seen a figure in the window that exactly resembled a very honest shepherd? It was unfortunate that his father should have died before he had been able to explain to his son more about religion, which he would certainly have done at greater length had he been spared a little longer. But never once did his son, after hearing his instructions, allow the wickedness of his natural nature to take the lead in him, and he wished if possible to love all the world. He never passed a little child without permitting it to stroke and fondle his rough fur, for he had heard his father say that Jesus Christ had once been a child too. And once, when little Tommy had fallen into the river, through his desire to become a minnow, Mr. Poose's dog sprang in, and, being a good swimmer, brought the child safe to land.

About the middle of the time of lambing, those of the sheep who had not yet lambed had chanced to wander far upon a high down, and, when the time came for them to be brought home, the dog was told by his master to bring them in. He would have finished this task with honour, but, unfortunately, one of the ewes that he was driving-the dog was much too well trained ever to hurry them-happened to fall into a little pit and to break two of its legs. The dog, who knew his duty, howled mournfully and remained beside the dying sheep until Mr. Poose arrived to see what was the matter and, perceiving that the case was hopeless, dispatched the sheep with his knife.

"Here indeed," thought the dog, "is God Almighty, because he saves or destroys as he chooses."

Mr. Poose carried the dead ewe to his hut and placed it at a little distance, so that he might skin the carcass when the opportunity came. Mr. Poose now visited the ewes and saw that nothing at that moment needed his attention, and, because a storm of rain came on, he called to his faithful dog and entered the hut, intending to rest a little before he carried the hay to the flock and settled them safely for the night. Mr. Poose lay down upon a sheepskin and was soon fast asleep.

The Evil One, as 'tis said, makes it his pleasure to cast discredit upon a good man, and so it came about, by Satan's management, that Farmer Told - to whom the flock of sheep belonged that Shepherd Poose had the charge of-entertained, upon this very day, a friend of his at an early dinner.

Anyone who has heard rich farmers talk at home or elsewhere must have noticed that their mouths are filled with boasting, not of their good deeds - though that would be bad enough, did they ever have any good deeds to boast of but of what they or their servants could do, their possessions, their rude children, their grand management of affairs, and so on.

While the dinner was still upon the table-a dinner that consisted of a great joint and thick pastry pies Mr. Told's friend, the fine Farmer Lord, had been exclaiming, in his usual loud and boisterous manner, what a good shepherd he had at home and how constant were his attentions to the flock. Mr. Told replied to him by saying that "by God" he believed Shepherd Poose was the better man of the two. The voices grew louder in the great parlour at Grange Farm. The port wine and the strong brandy inflamed the gentlemen. Farmer Lord struck the table with his fist, and Told affirmed, with many an oath, that whatever time he or anyone visited the fold, they would be sure to find Shepherd Poose looking to the sheep, and though now' and again a sheep might die naturally, yet no sheep had died of an unlooked-for accident ever since Poose had been shepherd.

The farmers drank deep, for there were more spirits consumed in that house than in all the rest of the village.

Raising his glass, half-filled with brandy, Farmer Lord laid a bet that if they walked up to neighbour Told's sheep they would discover Shepherd Poose snugly asleep in the hut and giving no more thought to the care of his flock than if they had been a thousand miles away. Mr. Told, with a hearty laugh, agreed to take the bet, that was for five guineas. On his part, he laid that Poose would be out in the fold, busy with the sheep, watching their wants and ministering to their needs.

The two men rose up to prove the bet. With their well-filled paunches and reddened faces, and stout boots and gaiters, they cared not for the muddy pools and thick sticky soil that they trampled over. In a little while they reached the sheepfold where Farmer Told had bet they would find the shepherd. Only the sheep were there.

On the way they had, with loud and. noisy oaths, cursed the land, out of which they had ever greedily clutched at all it would yield, by means of the labour of others.

"These damned lands," they cried, "are but miry puddles, where many a good man may labour all his life and get nothing. A pish for the fool who made them! They are nothing but sour puddings! - and how can a poor farmer pull a living out of them?"

Seeing that there was no shepherd at the fold, Farmer Lord leant against a hurdle and laughed heartily, while his neighbour Told walked angrily here and there amongst the sheep.

When the Evil One points his horns at a poor man, Nature, who is sometimes Satan's chief captain, aids his designs, and so it unluckily happened, though all was well when Mr. Poose left them, that a ewe shortly chanced to be in labour, and needed at that moment the kind help of man.

But no aid did she receive in her pains, for Farmer Lord, instead of giving his assistance or helping the poor creature that groaned near to him, still leant drunkenly against a hurdle, that by his weight was near borne to the ground, while Mr. Told, jeered on by the taunts of his friend, strode to the hut and kicked at the door.

The dog had watched him, and now, when he was come to the hut door near which the good dog lay, he considered him carefully. The heavy farmer, his grisly face shining with malice and wine, his cheeks bulging with arrogance and many deceits, made the dog feel sure that he was none other than the Devil that his father had told him of. The old dog, indeed, had advised his son to look out for the Devil as a rich and wicked farmer, who ravishes the maids, robs the servants of their wages, beats and ill-uses the dogs, and defies God to single combat.

Thinking that the dread enemy of mankind was so near to him, the good dog growled and would have made Mr. Told pay dear for his unpleasant behaviour had not his master, who awoke then and stood at the hut door with his crook in his hand, bid him be quiet.

When the shepherd appeared Told inquired of him how a dead sheep, that lay a little way off, met its end. Mr. Poose, in a mild tone, informed his master that the dog had discovered the sheep dying in a pit.

"Tie up the dog," shouted Mr. Told; "he killed the sheep-we will beat him to death."

Mr. Poose told his master that the dog had but called him to the sheep, whose death had been accidental.

"You lazy liar," exclaimed Mr. Told, "'twas your damned dog that killed the sheep, and now that I've lost five guineas, I will give the dog fifty strokes."

Farmer Lord, convulsed with drunken mirth, laughed loudly, and in his merriment he fetched a heavy stake and struck at the dog a blow that would have ended his life, had not the shepherd received it upon his own arm.

The dog, being secured by a stout rope, was now beaten with the greatest cruelty, though he uttered no whine nor moan nor made any sound at all, and only crouched down as the blows fell upon him. When the dog was being beaten the poor shepherd would have come to his aid, only Mr. Lord kept him in the hut by force, having first shut the door upon him, against which he placed a large wooden trough. At length the farmers, tired with their play, went off cursing the weather, and the God that made it, and Shepherd Poose liberated the dog and carried him in his arms to his cottage.

The dog's grief at his beating was nothing to his sorrow when he considered that his master the shepherd could by no means be God. Such an idea seemed now to be impossible. The good dog remembered well enough how his father had told him that the Almighty was all-powerful and could, with one little pellet no bigger than a mustard seed, destroy all his enemies.

"How could such a one," he reasoned, "if he were God, be shut in a little wooden hut by a friend of the Devil's!"

Shepherd Poose had been in the habit of leaving the dog, during lambing, in his kennel at night, while he spent the time with the flock. But now that the dog was so cruelly wounded, he did not care to leave him behind, for fear that the rats that lived in a hole under the dog's kennel might take advantage of the poor creature's plight and come out to devour him. And so that evening the dog saw his master come to him, carrying in his hand a new lantern that shone brightly, and lit up the little garden in a fine manner.

The dog had always been used to lie in the back of the great barrel that was his kennel, and had usually been asleep when his master passed by with his old lantern, that was nothing near as bright as the new, but now that Mr. Poose came and called him, showing him the light, the dog considered that the lantern was a more wonderful thing than the sun or the moon or any of the stars. And all the way, in following his master to the field, that he did slowly with now and again a faint, moan of pain, the dog could only look at the lantern, wondering what noble thing it was that lightened the way in the night's darkness.

As he walked behind his master, he believed-the lantern was none other than the glorious Son of God!

Although the dog had suffered much, no sooner did he believe that the lantern was Jesus than all his pain left him.

They were now arrived at the hut, and as all was well with the sheep, Mr. Poose tended the poor dog's wounded back with some sweet oils, and then lying down upon the sheepskin bed he was soon fast asleep. With his master asleep, the good dog felt now more than ever the loving presence of the lantern, that burnt with a fair clear flame, for Mr. Poose had bought the lantern that very day, by means of Mr. Balliboy, the carrier, who joyfully performed the commission, knowing Mr. Poose as an honest man, and carried him home from the town the finest hurricane lantern that could be had for money, observing, as he received the price for it, " 'Twill shine as a daytime sun. ."

A strange, though joyful, awe overcame the good dog as he looked at the lantern, and, as he looked, he remembered how his father had told him that Jesus Christ had been beaten and bruised, even as he himself had been, so that all quiet and harmless dogs might be saved from their sins.

The dog knelt before the lantern in meek adoration. He had not knelt long, however, before a miracle happened, that was brought about by the poor dog's wonderful faith. For the Christ, who had once entered the body of a man, now became in truth and reality Mr. Poose's lantern.

The first words that the lantern said - and we can well imagine them-were to bid the dog to forgive Mr. Told for his horrid cruelty.

"I am sure your father would have advised that you should forgive him," said the lantern.

"I forgive him most readily," answered the dog, "for without that beating I doubt whether my faith would have been strong enough to know who you are."

"The Saviour of the world," replied the Christ, "can be everything. Little Betty may find a lucky stone by the seaside - that stone am I. Dig down into the clay where poor Tom, the madman, lies buried. His coffinboards are rotted, his flesh is clay - I am he. The sexton stole the church oil - I was that too - and sold it to the shepherd, who filled me with it."

"Perhaps that made it easy for you to change your nature from one burning and shining light into another," agreed the dog.

"You have put the case rightly," replied the lantern, "and if you will pardon me the liberty that I am taking, I will now change into a large fire."

"And may I worship you in that form?" inquired the dog anxiously. "Certainly," replied the lantern, and immediately went out.

The light in the lantern had only just gone when a great noise and clamour arose from the village-that was but a few fields away - where everyone seemed to be awake and shouting "Fire!"

The shouting awoke Shepherd Poose, who, leaving his darkened lantern behind him and followed by his wounded dog, quickly reached the scene of the disaster.

Though his master went near to the burning - for the whole of Grange Farm was well alight - the sick dog remained at a safe distance. His faith bounded free of all limitations. The Christ that had so lately been a lantern was now a raging fire. Evidently the Godhead could change easily. He might be the lantern, he might be Shepherd Poose, he might be a fire.

The poor dog turned over, gave one groan, and expired.

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