‘WHAT are you thinking of, Peter?’
At the sound of the voice Peter’s tail moved slightly. Peter’s meditations were not to be disturbed by idle questions. They were too profound far more profound than the speaker imagined. They had nothing to do with material things.
Like his master, Peter was a philosopher. There the likeness ceased. The master’s philosophy ended in perplexity, Peter’s in serenity; for he was the only living creature that had seen its god.
There was not the slightest doubt about it. Every earthly pleasure, every material satisfaction, was traceable to that strange being sitting hour after hour in the leather chair with the big folio open on his knees. Nothing had ever thrown the faintest shadow of doubt on Peter’s conviction. Nothing the being in the chair might do in the future could invalidate his divinity; and in this knowledge was supreme content.
Peter made no pretence of understanding his god. Long since he had acknowledged that his ways were past finding out. He was under no obligation to explain the amazing futility of his actions. It was enough for Peter that the master was the dispenser of good and evil; that he was asleep by his fire, would presently walk with him in the wood, and sup with him on their return.
Nor did it matter to Peter that he was misunderstood. He was not bothered by what he did not know. He took life and god as they were given him. It was well that he had not mastered all the accents of language — the pity and the vanity of the question addressed to him. For Peter, in the belief of the master, was a rank materialist, credited only with sordid thoughts of supper, foolish thoughts of the squirrel that had mocked him from the oak, animal thoughts of the fire’s warmth and the rug’s softness. Whereas Peter was thinking of none of these things. They counted for nothing in comparison with the friendship and companionship of his god. For Peter had found what man had been seeking ever since he emerged from the slime; what he had prayed to before priests were born. How many images he had fashioned in tears and broken in scorn! how many puppets lifted to thrones and dragged in dust! Peter had had no via dolorosa. He was born with an organized judgment, superciliously designated by the master as instinct. Peter knew. He would sleep a little longer, till the folio was closed, and the voice said: ‘Arise, and follow me.’
Peter was not blind to his privileges. He only had free entrance to the Holy of Holies. In this respect he took precedence over Tom and Mary. He had a tolerant affection for Tom and Mary, though they often offended his dignity. That he was distinctly superior to both was indisputable. There was also a woman who came occasionally into the temple, sharing his rights. But Peter was discriminating. She was not a god — only a worshiper, like himself. Peter gave her his left-over love. She was kind, not masterful, and possessed the power of rendering him uneasy, even jealous. Peter could fight for a bone. That was a trivial matter. The precious thing was the master’s affection — not to be divided. His nearest approach to intimacy was the master’s knee. The woman had his arms. A vague sense of injustice troubled Peter’s serenity. His objections to tramps were of a different order. Life after all was a mystery, the woman the greatest of all. Peter’s sense of right and wrong was keen. He accepted the master’s whip without flinching. He knew he had no business to flush that partridge. But the woman’s punishments were unmerited, besides being ridiculous, and her praise unearned; the master’s, rare, worthy of a god.
But of death, the greatest of mysteries, Peter knew nothing.
For his associates Peter entertained a tolerant contempt. What the woman did not know, he knew: that the cat was a fawning egoist, selfish to the core and incapable of self-abnegation. The master was-not so easily deceived. The poultry he took under his protection, as every fox on the hillside was aware. Peter loved authority, but used it tactfully, shutting his eyes when the puppy raided the hennery and ran riot among silly folk who did not know the difference between malice and fun. His only real acquaintance was the master’s horse. Deep down in his consciousness as the spiritual sign of distinction was the fact that he was of a superior race — the only race in the animal kingdom which preferred the society of man to that of its own kind.
Peter opened his eyes.
The light was failing fast. All hope of the comradeship and freedom of the open air was over. He gave a long sigh and closed his eyes again. The master had forgotten. The enemy of all joy was still on the knee. A fleeting memory crossed Peter’s brain, of a day of wrath, when he had scattered his enemy in mouthfuls over the floor. Jolly days those, in spite of the whacks! Now were the sober years of discretion. Not for him to question the doings of a god.
He knew precisely what was to happen. Mary and Tom would come in to be kissed good-night. Next they would roll with him on the rug and pull his ears. He did not mind that overmuch. He had been a puppy himself, and love was love in all its forms. Then the woman would come in.
Peter gave a low growl.
The master looked up.
‘ What’s the matter, Peter — dreaming?’
No, Peter was not dreaming. He rose, nosed the folio from the knee, and rested his head in its place — his own place. The master laid his hand on the head, smoothing back the silky ears. Peter’s eyes were mute, as human tongues sometimes are, for sheer happiness.
Then came night, exile, when the woman had her way, and he went on guard.
Peter was conscious of his faults. They had been pointed out to him times innumerable, whereby his virtues had become a second nature of which he was not conscious at all. The master extolled his patience, obedience, politeness. Peter would have laughed in his sleeve, if he had had one. Certain things were inexpedient to do. But character, unacquired native virtues, inherited from ancestral experience under the law of the jungle, were his. He was proud, without vanity. He lapped the water at the spring without seeing the reflection, and passed the woman’s long mirror with superb indifference. He was thus ignorant of the gray hairs gathering about his eyes.
Of abstract time he had no knowledge. Memory and anticipation were his. He could put two and two together, but not two and four. He knew, but he did not know that he knew. That something was happening, he was painfully aware — something sinister, unaccountable, which warned him that it was better to creep under the four bars he used to take with one flashing leap; to seek the flat stone warmed by the sun — something intangible, persistent, which neither growl of protest nor curling lip, revealing white fangs, intimidated.
The evidence was unmistakable. Tom and Mary were growing rough, the woman less hospitable, and his friend the horse inconsiderate. Time was when he ran two miles afield for the road’s one. Every leaf-strewn lane, every sun-flecked valley on the hills Peter knew by heart — but not the Valley of Shadows. At its gate he entered, uneasy, but fearless, comforted and secure in the unfailing loving-kindness of his god.
There came an evening when Tom and Mary passed all bounds. Such hugs and kisses and tears! Peter bore this uneven distribution of affection with his customary courtesy, shook his ruffled garments into form, turned three times deliberately, and lay down — no longer in his once favorite position, hind legs outstretched, nose between paws. That had long since been abandoned out of respect for the craven enemy that tormented him. Peter’s remedies against hidden foes, too cowardly to fight in the open, were few — the field-grass, and sleep — always sleep. Sleep now was not even forgetfulness. Proud as ever, the semi-conscious whine of sleep was his last capitulation to the enemy.
Flat on his side, he heard far away the subdued murmur of conversation, opening his eyes at the sound of his name — to close them again. They were speaking of him, not to him.
Then, suddenly, the master rose, with decision, put on his hat and coat and spoke.
Peter, wincing, bounded to his feet, wide-awake in a second. His friend the horse was at the door. It was humiliating to be lifted to the seat. There were tears in the woman’s eyes, which usually happened when the master went on a journey. Peter curled himself up on the seat. If the master was going on a journey, he was going.
Peter knew every road-turning with his eyes shut — but not this road, nor its ending. The place and its tenant were strangers. That the master should leave him with this stranger was something unprecedented. But Peter followed obediently. Was not the friend of the master his friend also?
The room whose door closed upon him was a strange one — straw for carpet. Where was the furniture? Peter sniffed, suspiciously. There was a strange odor. Peter was a judge of odors. This one, attached to no personality, was disquieting. He listened,
— the sound of wheels was dying away,
— then barked furiously. For the first time in his life he felt utterly lonely. He so far forgot himself as to howl. But betrayal never entered his mind. He took three uncertain steps, — the room was growing dark; his legs wobbled, — steadied himself with an effort, then tumbled over on his side, seeing visions, visions of wood and stream, of rug and fireside, — and master, stretched out the traitor legs and gave a long low sigh.
Going on his last journey, Peter took his god with him.