We had a game of which Prince never tired. I would hold out a little stick and he would seize it in his jaws and tug until he got it away from me. Then he would run around the yard in frenzied circles for a while, finally dropping the stick on the ground and standing over it, daring me to snatch it away. Which of course I did, in spite of his fierce and dangerous growls, and the whole thing would start over. Once I had the bright idea of holding out my finger instead of a stick. When he bit down on it I screamed and cried and my mother came hurrying out. Prince hovered about, whining as much remorse as if if he had been to blame. When my mother leared what happened me scolded me in a way I remember better than the pain in my finger. “Never fool an animal,” she said. To this day it gives me a pang to see a kitten tantalized with a dangling string that somebody jerks out of reach.
She tried very hard not to let me be spoiled. The only child of parents nearly half a century my seniors, I was disciplined in ways that often seemed to me unjust. Sometimes I crept away with Prince and cried into his fur. His sympathy was quick and uncritical. Of course, no amount of strictness could prevent my being the center of the universe, the pivot around which all things revolved, the Being whose thoughts were more profound, whose desires more exacting that those of any other person. The long years it took to start to unlearn this fallacy!
Among Prince’s noble traits was a truly benevolent disposition toward cats. We always had several cats, and I loved them with a passion very different from the comradely affection I had for him. But he was never jealous of them. It was as if he accepted them as pets that belonged to both of us. To this day, if anyone asks me, I say that I love cats and dislike dogs*. But it is Prince that I remember. The darling cats came and went, but he was my friend for ten of the longest years.
Bagheera, named for the black panther in the Jungle Book, was one of my early loves. He slept with me, nuzzled into my armpit, and I often lay still when I wanted to move for fear of waking him up and starting his affectionate paws kneading away at my flesh.
Another jungle character, Shere Khan, was an enormous tiger-stripe with a huge appetite for buttered toast. He would stand on his hind legs at the breakfast table while my mother buttered toast for him and I have seen him eat four slices at a meal. If my mother got absorbed in her book (we all read our way through meals) and forgot him he would reach up and take the toast out of her hand.
We had Jersey cows.The cream was so thick that it could be picked up off the pan by hand. My mother would put a bit of cream on the toast, work it around a little with her knife, drain off a few drops of whey, and there was butter. My father used to say, “We may have to do without necessities, but by George, we have luxuries!” That kind of cream has gone with the wind.
But I was telling about Prince and the cats. At milking time the cats’ milk was poured first. If Prince forgot his manners and darted forward my mother would say quietly, “Let the kitty have it,” and he would sit down patiently.
A farm dog’s life has its temptations. The worst — the very most fatal thing he can do, short of killing chickens, is to get the habit of sucking eggs. And somehow Prince got this habit. Ordinarily hens will lay where nests are provided, but — Now I must say that if your only experience of chickens is in these modern egg factories, you have no conception of the idiosyncrasies the creatures can develop when they have the run of an old-fashioned farm. Occasionally the mad urge for parenthood overtakes a hen, and she wearies of her mission to supply the breakfast table and hunts up a secret place in which to accumulate a clutch of eggs for her own purposes. This could be under a grapevine, and surely a dog is entitled to anything he finds under a grapevine. Whether or not Prince reasoned thus, the sad fact remains that he took to robbing nests. And it was a sad fact, because there is hardly any cure for this habit, short of shooting. When I heard this mentioned I stormed. Let him have the eggs, who cared about the silly old chickens anyhow? My mother said, “Well, let’s try everything else first.” On advice from old-timers they tried a boiling hot egg, an egg stuffed with red pepper, and other things. But nothing worked. One day my morhter discovered a stolen nest on the ground with one warm egg in it which Prince had not found. She took the egg, and picked up an old white door-knob which happened to be lying near and replaced the egg with it. A day later she found the door-knob in Prince’s bone yard. She called him and pointed to the knob and jeered at him. “So you stole a door-knob! Shame on you! How could you be so silly?” he crawled on his belly and whined and tried to sneak away, but she kept calling him back, repeating “Door-knob! Ha-ha!” until he was obviously praying for the earth to open and swallow him. It worked. He never stole another egg. And one had only to say the word “door-knob” for him to leave the room.
* See Sibyl’s poem I Hate Dogs, probably written around the same time as this essay.
The entire contents of “My Friend Prince” can be seen in these posts: