Diplomacy and the Occult


To begin with, a little geography.

When I bought my house-lot, years ago, I had in mind a future garden. So I chose a spot a little way up a hill, in what once must have been an alder swale, a catch-basin for all the loam and silt washed down in centuries. The said loam lies deep and fertile there, and the house now stands in the centre of it, on a low, built-up mound. In times of melting snow and flood, it has been known to be entirely surrounded by water. At other times, and more frequently, it has been entirely surrounded by small boys, who appear as suddenly from apparently nowhere as do tiny toads after some summer showers. This phenomenon, by careful study, has been found scientifically to coincide with the ripening of certain of my fruits.

Now, all my trees, both shade and fruit, line the outer edge of my lot. There is plenty of sunlight on the house; and in August the ice-chest on the northeasterly corner needs protection from the heat of the morning sun, and the dining-room on the southeast corner is also apt to be overwarm. One of the joys of home-building is to meet and circumvent just such ploys of the devil; and my first thought in the case was, ‘Grapevines! lots of them!' But then came a second thought — the all-butprehensile boy. Ultimately I won success and satisfaction to all concerned. Several feet above the tops of the dining-room windows I screwed to the house-wall a series of iron arms, five feet long, with wire guys from their tips to screw-eyes higher up. On these arms I laid chicken-wire netting, and trained the grapevines up to run along that net fifteen feet from the ground — Niagaras and Wordens. Then, on a low gas-pipe trellis under the windows, I made a little arbor of showy grapes of no special value, as a whaleman throws out a tub to keep the attention of a too energetic whale. This arbor was systematically raided every season, in the dark, after sublimely innocent daylight inspection by a scouting party. A certain amount of fictitious energy about it on my part entirely satisfied the raiders on every point of success. Meanwhile,—

Item: the grapes I cared for were entirely above boy range.

Item: the broad mass of their green leaves and overhang shielded perfectly both dining-room and pantry from the fierce heat of the summer sun.

Item: certain vines were allowed to trail across the dining-room windows, for the beauty of the coloring of their grapes, hanging in rich clusters against the upper panes. A mass of others turned one outlook from an oblong to an oriel cave, fruit-hung. Bushels of clusters hung down from the horizontal netting up above, lovely to look at, convenient to the hand through the dropped upper sash of the windows when wanted; and for from forty to fifty days after September 15 they supplied the table with fruit absolutely fresh. Of course, for quantity, grapejuice use, etc., the house-ladder from the cellar was brought into action pro tem.

We all recall that bitter winter, the one that stands out in memory above all others. By it some of my vines were killed, and it was needful to plant more, especially Niagaras. So for days and days that spring, each early morn, before breakfast and business, found me digging holes in that embankment and wheeling away the soil to be shoveled in under a piazza where there was still a cavity concealed and usable for such. Did you ever dig a hole the size of a barrel? Just one hole? It is remarkable how much earth and stones one such can produce — and the time it takes; and likewise the appetite for a subsequent breakfast. Well, just multiply that one hole, if you please, by nine!

From beyond the hedge, Cæsar, our neighbor’s Airedale, watched me keenly with professional interest, possibly even envy. Said neighbor — a new one — had recently erected a small hen-house; and Cæsar found much enjoyable employment in digging out rats there from that time on. I discouraged Cæsar from crossing the Rubicon, for reasons.

In my time I have had some experience with grapevines, and did not care to wait too many years for growth which could be attained in less. So I made a deal with my butcher, who supplied me with one hundred pounds of raw beef-bones for each hole, each lot in a potato-sack for ease of handling. For the curious I will remark that each sackful cost me four dollars at warprices; but they would save years of time in vine-growth.

That same night, in the darkness and mist, I planted those sacks, each in its own hole, as Homer would have said, a half-barrow-load of barnyard manure on top, well tamped down, and a barrow-load of fresh loam from the garden on that. In this last the vines were set and well watered, and flower-beds arranged for decoration while they grew. Thereafter followed a period of peace, ‘ under one’s own vine and fig-tree,’ as the psalmist hath it — or somebody else; a period that reached to weeks, until the vines had taken root and shot out green fronds, and gave every evidence of prosperity. Then came the shock!

Returning from business that night, I strolled around the house-corner, watering-pot in hand, humming a song of summer and fruition of desire; and lo! where had been my best vine-collection, now was a yawning cavity! The lawn was messed for square yards with subsoil, and small stones kicked out; the vines were in a heap at one side, sad and wilty; and the place looked like a section of South Africa after the playtime of an Aard-vark.

I said somewhat, brief and staccato, after the manner of Anglo-Saxon men; hurried those wilted vines abed again, and turned the hose on. Then, with hoe and shovel, I cleaned the sward as best I could, and washed it off. With axe and stake and wire-netting I laid down a mat of protection, both above the vine-roots and for a full yard round about, and went to rest myself. Did it protect? It did not. Next night that wire net had been uprooted on two sides, and more holes dug, keg-size, in each! Again I repaired damage; but this time I raided the kitchen, brought out the red-pepper can, and dusted that place right well. That served — till the next shower: but it merely gave the enemy opportunity to attack the other vineroots, which he industriously improved, with absolutely no improvement to the surrounding landscape. Always this was done during the hours when I was away from home. Never did I catch the criminal at work.

By just a grade of superior intelligence, plus red pepper as I worked, I kept about one step in advance of the game, but only one. It was efficient, to a certain degree; but I must admit it was unsightly in result. Moreover, I began to question if the said game had n’t been carried on quite long enough; so with amiable mien I interviewed Cæsar’s owner from the safe standpoint of my side of the high hedge.

She was calm, placid; she freely admitted that. Cæsar had enjoyed hometraining in digging out rats and mice, and she had seen mice appearing and disappearing in holes in my underpinning, so she was not surprised. But — she could not be expected to be watching Cæsar all the time: she had other things to do. Then — subacidly, and with no apparent sequence — she added, ‘Your trees overhang my hedge.’

So they do, somewhat, although I have pruned them a good deal. Both hedge and neighbor were later arrivals; the trees started there first. But that is a detail. However — I had met the Prussian, and had been defeated in the first round. So, like others in like case, I sought allies — in my case, the village police.

The advice, given promptly, was energetic, even drastic. ‘I’d shoot that dog if it was my place! ’

I thought of big, lumbering, gentle, kindly-mannered Cæsar, faithfully following out home training, and shook my head. Not if I knew myself!

‘Well: you tell ’em to tie ’im up, and if they don’t, you tell the chief; he’ll send me, and they’ll catch it. We have lots of dog-cases to settle — and they always do,’ he ended cryptically.

Evidently the police-idea was ‘force,’ by word or club. Now, so far as I know, our family for one hundred and fifty years back never had a line-fence or boundary war. They are mean things, at best; at worst, they are perpetual hell. So, why begin? At least, why not try diplomacy first? Would n’t even a Hun see the velvet hand under the iron glove, if I first took up the bludgeon? There’s heredity on both sides of that hedge to be considered. Why ignore mine?

So I hied me to my desk and thus indited my dispatch: —

Beginning with July 1, in harmony with the Prohibition Law, I must ask you to enact a special law for the dog, Cæasar, and keep him under restraint by leash or otherwise when not under your family’s direct eye and control.
I think you will agree that I have been very patient regarding his diggings in our embankment during the past weeks. He has destroyed plants that I cannot replace, seriously damaged growing vines and set them back, and has made the spot unsightly — partly through his own efforts, partly through my attempts at prevention without hurting him. This I do not care to have continued.
I have been fully aware that he is not specially to blame, since you explained that he has been trained at home to dig out rats and mice around your henhouse; and — as you correctly pointed out — I am aware that there are and always have been some very attractive mouse-holes in my embankment, ever since the house was built. Mice are not made welcome inside the house, so they work outside.
But, my dear Mrs. Schimmelpink, you omitted to consider that they are my mouseholes, not Cæsar’s. Their attractiveness is my asset, not his; and if mouse-holes are essential to Cæsar’s happiness, it is your duty as his owner to provide mouse-holes for him in place of those which he has already dug out around the hen-house, and not oblige him to rely on mine.
So, in all neighborly friendliness, my dear Mrs. Schimmelpink, I bring this to your attention.
Very truly yours,
— —.

I eyed it with satisfaction. There! that will perhaps have some effect, and save at least a police intervention. But first we’ll give Cæsar one more chance, and fresh red pepper.

We did. Days passed, more days, a week, more weeks! yet Cæsar dug not. In fact he has not dug even a paw-print around there since. And what is even more significant, only the other day a fat, matronly white hen from that identical hen-house came pensively singing through the hedge; and instead of the customary hen depredations among the flower-beds, with the directness of one heaven-sent and with the perfect Hausfrau gait she waddled to the very centre of that side of my little lawn and laid thereon an absolutely fresh and perfectly good egg!

Why is a hen, a white hen, if she be not a dove of peace, thus laying her ‘olive branches’ before my very door? Happy omen!

And now I am looking backward over recent history and happily deciding that the above is by all odds the most successful diplomatic letter that I never sent!