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Title: A Dog's Life
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100281h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
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A Dog's Life

by

Fred M. White

Published in The Sunday Times, Perth, Australia, 19 Jan 1930

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014


TO begin with, Mr. John Maggs, of somewhere in Bethnal Green, derived his inspiration from the 'gossip' column of his favorite evening paper. More than once he had derived considerable unearned increment from the same source. Paragraphs anent the rich and powerful and their treasures of gold and silver—especially gold stored away in remote country houses with owners blissfully unaware of the Maggs tribe on the lookout for such costly trifles. For that was precisely the sort of man John Maggs was. By day a worker in a garage, by night a lover of nocturnal rides on a motor bicycle but always with an eye to ultimate income.

He liked that bit in the evening Press about Sir Walter Rumbelow of Brayside, near Margate, and the account of his wonderful collection of gold coins. Not as numismatic specimens, but as sterling which he knew how to melt down and dispose of at its full market value. Portable, too, Maggs reflected.

So in due course, Maggs took a long week-end holiday together with his motor cycle. He located the cliffs of Bray from a guidebook, and found that Brayside was a large modern house on high ground overlooking the sea; indeed, the front of it was within three hundred yards of the cliff which at that point was as many feet above the tideway with two paths running along the basaltic bastion on which the house was perched. A score of yards below the wall, fencing Brayside from the cliff, was a sort of footpath which was a right of way and unfenced, and this path met with Mr. Maggs' decided approval. Firstly, because it was public and, in the next place, because a climb up the precipitous slope afforded an easy access to the grounds of Brayside House.

Of a second public path down below and not more than a score of feet from high water mark, Maggs knew nothing. It was no sort of concern, anyway. Nor was he particularly keen on the upper path save for the fact that it was a distinct convenience. He was not accustomed to cliffs and that alarming steep slope ending three hundred feet below in the sea made him giddy and gave him an unpleasant sensation in the pit of his stomach.

It looked to him that if a bloke happened to slip off the upper path he would be certain to drop to the bottom like a stone and dash his brains out on the rocks fringing the water. Had he known of the lower path not far above high water mark he might have been easier in his mind. Here and there, due to the passing of time or erosion, were long slides of slippery shale, and Maggs—not devoid of imagination—could picture a cove setting that grey avalanche in motion and after that—Blimey!

As a matter of fact the danger was not as bad as it looked. Maggs might have seen that had it not been for a thick fringe of larch trees far down the giddy slope. These half hid the sea and by so doing, heightened the suggestion of a sheer precipice. The more Maggs studied the situation the less he liked it.

But if he was to enter the grounds of Brayside House and come away again in comparative safety, there was no way save by the cliff path. That must form his entry and his egress unless he was prepared to take serious risks. And he was not prepared to take any risks that could be avoided.

Therefore, the attack must be made from the upper cliff path and once having made up his mind to this, Maggs proceeded to commit to memory the exact lie of the land. More than that, he contrived to enter the area of operations by the simple process of swarming up the few feet of cliff above the public path and climbing into the domain sacred to Sir Walter Rumbelow. Lying perdu in a thicket of heather and gorse, for—save the lawns and garden—the owner had left the terrain in its wild beauty, the marauder had a full view of the house. Facing him, and not more than a hundred yards away, was the library where he knew those precious coins reposed in their locked cases.

A big room with three long windows. Maggs knew this because he had learnt so much from a gossip in the village public house. Moreover, the gossip aforesaid was a jobbing carpenter who did work for Sir Walter from time to time. An old man, he had in his youth actually seen Brayside House built. Maggs regarded this Joe Gittens as a distinct manifestation of providence. He was as good as a guide and a plan of the house combined.

Let it not be assumed that Maggs was taking undue risks in discussing Brayside House and its owner with Gittens. When the inevitable happened—and Maggs was sanguine on that head—it was inevitable also that Gittens would open his heart on the subject to the stranger who asked so many questions anent the place and was so liberal on the score of alcoholic refreshment.

But that Maggs was prepared for and had fully discounted in advance. In reality Gittens had never seen the real Maggs or Watkins, as he preferred to call himself. As Watkins he presented a man with a thick thatch of silver grey plus Victorian side whiskers and a chin beard, the long upper lip being bare. Add a pair of brass-rimmed spectacles and the disguise was complete.

Nor did Magg's precautions end there. If the raid proved a success, it was necessary to provide some rapid means of transport to a haven of safety before Sir Walter's servants discovered their employer's loss in the morning. The motor cycle was ready and snugly hidden not far off, for Maggs had not been so unwise as to come into the village riding his trusty steed. A disused barn and a bale of rotten hay afforded the necessary cover.

Add to these strategic advantages the fact that Sir Walter Rumbelow was away from home for some days, and it will be seen that Maggs had little or nothing to fear—save one thing.

There was no moon and the weather for the time of year was mild, but there was a little more fog hanging about than the burglar liked. There was fog at night and far into the morning, that blanket of fog which is one of the characteristics of the south coast in late autumn, especially when there was no wind as at the moment. And this fact worried Maggs because he would be compelled to follow the cliff path round the headland after securing the swag because it was imperative to avoid the village and the motor cycle lay in ambush in an opposite direction.

The thought of that, to him perilous walk in utter darkness oppressed him like a nightmare. He knew that he could easily strike the cliff path after the raid, but if that cursed fog held, he might take a step too far and finish his career at the foot of the cliff and end as 'found drowned.' Still an occasional gleam from his flashlight might avert tragedy. But the fog held and on the third night, just before closing time, Maggs bade farewell to his village gossip.

"Just time for one more," he said heartily. "Make the most of it for I leave to-morrow. Back to work, old sport, more's the pity. Well, so long. Take care of yourself."

So, with every preparation made and his modest baggage on his back, Maggs set out on his errand. Up to a certain point the road along the cliff was easy—a wall on one side and a thick hedge on the other. Even in the fog no danger was to be feared so far. But, once beyond a wicket gate, the trouble began. So many yards would have to be traversed ere it was necessary to start climbing upwards at a right angle, until the boundary wall of Sir Walter's domain was reached. And these steps with his heart in his mouth Maggs counted. Just a hundred and seventeen of these he registered, then turned left and began to swarm up the heather clad slope until, with a sigh of relief he bumped into the boundary wall. He dropped over on the far side on to what seemed like turf under his feet. So far, so good.

He crept on and on in the dead silence of the place until the house itself loomed up before him ghostly in the fog. Maggs was feeling easier now for he possessed a fine geographical sense and, moreover, he had visualised the landscape inch by inch by daylight. It was as if he had the whole world to himself. And, in the midst of it, a haunted house, forsaken and deserted. Not a single glimmer of light to be seen anywhere. Probably the whole domestic staff had taken French leave and gone off to the weekly dance in the parish hall.

Not that Maggs was banking on this probability. He scouted round to the back of the house and thence to the garage, the door of which was open and no sign of the chauffeur in the blank window of his quarters overhead. No doubt Sir Walter had taken the car with him on his temporary departure from his home.

Then the house was deserted. What blinkin' luck. Given one uninterrupted hour, or less, and Maggs would be away round the cliff path in search of the hidden motor-cycle awaiting him. And, if his luck held good, he would be home and asleep before those servants had discovered the robbery.

Then back again to the front of the house. He stood on the ledge of the centre library window, working back the catch with a thin-bladed knife. It was as easy as kiss me 'and. The thick velvet curtains cautiously parted, Maggs was inside. There was a warm, comfortable smell of leather and underfoot a carpet so thick and soft that it was possible to move without the slightest sound. A quick flash round with a pocket lamp and Maggs caught his breath.

Yes, there the boodle was—glittering and winking in the glow, thousands of coins, a large proportion of them gold. It was compact stuff that could be easily stowed away in a big inside pocket, and every ounce of it saleable at its face value—at least two thousand pounds as mere metal; the find of a lifetime.

Maggs wasted no further time. Ere long most of those thin scraps of precious metal were transferred to his capacious pocket, and no sign of life within a hundred miles.

And then suddenly there came a sort of glow through the thick curtains and what sounded like the hum of a car. After that voices in the hall and a flash of illumination, as if somebody had switched on the lights outside the library.

"Dashed funny thing, Monty, old chap," one voice said. "But where the deuce is everybody? Withers, Withers, WITHERS."

The cry echoed through the house, but the mysterious Withers had no reply. Withers was non est.

"Nice game," the voice went on. "Dear old Nunky away and the servants off on some beano. Dashed if they haven't taken the faithful hound with 'em. You hang on here for a sec. Monty, whilst I go and have a look round."

"Righto, old fruit," the invisible Monty rejoined.

Maggs felt his way silently in the direction of the window. By sheer good luck he found his way there without disturbing any article of furniture en route. Who were these intruders, he asked himself, blowing in so unexpectedly. Relations of the old bloke, of course. And hadn't one of them said something about a dog? Maggs had seen no dog, he didn't want to see a dog—no right-minded burglar ever does. Noisy yapping brutes.

Maggs was outside the window now, intent on making his way without delay to the spot where the motor-cycle awaited him. Once astride of that, he had little to fear. There was just a chance that those toffs might enter the library and if they did.....

Maggs didn't want to think of it. All he wanted, like the Arabs in the poem, was to fold his tent and silently steal away.

Outside the fog still dripped and clung. But Maggs knew his way. He had only to follow his nose and reach the boundary wall, then drop over into the heather, make a bee line for the cliff path, and thence to the cycle and safety. He hated the idea of that cliff path in the fog and inky darkness, but, once clear, an occasional pinpoint of flame from the pocket torch would suffice to guide him to safety and the high road to home, sweet home.

He pushed on resolutely until the wall was close at hand. And then he was conscious of a sort of asthmatic wheezing a few inches behind him and something moist and damp and cold pressing against his left leg. Snakes in the heather, perhaps; Maggs had heard of such things—vipers that bit and sometimes killed people. It was only by sheer will that Maggs refrained from a shout.

But he must see what the perishin' thing was. Even if he ran a risk, he must know. He turned down the nozzle of his torch so that the pencil of light showed only on the ground, and then he saw something that brought his heart into his mouth.

There, within two inches of his leg, was an enormous bulldog showing a magnificent set of teeth in a ferocious grin.

"Erump, tump, tump," quoth the bulldog, in the rich, fruity baritone of his clan. "Erump, burp, parp."

With one wild yell Maggs flung himself over the wall and raced down the heathery slope in search of safety. All he wanted in that hectic moment was to place as much air and space as possible between himself and the animal, which he sub-consciously recognised as the 'faithful hound' alluded to in the fragmentary conversation he had heard in the library a few minutes ago.

In his headlong panic he raced across the cliffs without realising that he had crossed the path and plugged down the precipitous slope at the foot of which lay the sea. And, in so doing, he alighted on a wide bed of loose shale such as he had noticed when spying out the lie of the land. His feet slid from under him and, sprawling on the flat of his back, he set the shale in motion, and down he went as if he were slithering to perdition on the face of an avalanche. In vain he turned and twisted and clutched in an endeavor to obtain some sort of a grip, but the more he struggled the faster the loose erosion rumbled downwards towards the waves breaking on the rocks at the foot of the cliff. The crash and grind of the sea sounded in his ears like the crack of doom. In vain to cry out, in vain to scream for help with the fog blanketing his voice and black darkness before his eyes. A few seconds and there was an end of John Maggs!

Somewhere overhead the bulldog was wailing like a lost soul. But not so loudly as Maggs some 200 feet below.

Those few seconds of long-drawn out agony seemed like years to the unhappy marauder. Down, down he went with a crash and rumble of sliding shale until, in a state of mental paralysis, he shot clean over square bluff into space and, for a few moments, remembered no more. Then the crushing impact.

But not the crash he dreaded. Some hard substance struck him in the small of the back and knocked all the wind out of him. Something that seemed to sway and toss and yet hold him in a close grip. Not so far from the water either, because Maggs could hear the swish and suck of the tide unpleasantly close. Then, as his scattered senses began to reassemble, he recognised dimly the thing that had happened.

His fall had been broken and his body supported by the latteral branch of some trees perched on the cliff side. It was a wide, flat branch that smelt like fir of some kind. If he could only reach the bottom of it! But at the slightest movement the branch swayed ominously and the paralysing fear came back again. Another slip and the adventure would be definitely finished.

It was so dark, too, and the fog as thick as ever. Maggs could hear it dripping around him like the flopping of so many frogs. Not a breath of wind moving, silence everywhere.

It was 'ard, crool 'ard, Maggs told himself, with tears of self-pity in his eyes; but better, perhaps, than being a mangled corpse on the rocks below. All the same, he was just as much a prisoner now as if he had been chained by the leg or behind stone walls. Here he was with his pockets bulging with gold and that blinkin' motor cycle, and safety, only half a mile away.

Perhaps he might get away with it yet. If only he could see something of the lie of the land! But in his headlong flight from that perishin' dog he had dropped his torch. There was nothing for it but to wait till daylight and then see if it were possible to scramble up the cliff and make a dash for the cycle before the world began to wake to another morn. A slim chance, but not impossible. And hours of this yet.

Gradually Maggs dozed off. He had sunk deeper into his cradled bower, and no longer feared a fall. The doze faded into a dream and the dream into a sound sleep—

When Maggs finally awoke it was morning, early morning with a smudge of smoky light overhead and a lifting of the atmosphere, but no breath of wind yet and no fading of the blanket of fog. So thick was it still that Maggs could not see two yards beyond his nose. He could hear the ominous growl of the sea below and the cry of the gulls—beyond that, nothing.

If only that perishin' fog would lift!

Came at length sounds of life behind the thick curtain of blinding mist. Voices! A faint puff of wind. Another. Overhead a pallid sphere like a new cheese. The sun at last! Then the fog rolled back fold upon fold as a moving curtain might do and the palpitating Maggs could see at last.

"Luv a duck," he blubbered, "luv a duck. If I'd only knowed. Crool luck. An' me orl the time—"

He was lying on the lateral branch of a weather-scarred and stunted cedar-tree barely fifteen feet in height and overhanging the lower path, which was not far above high water mark.

Absolute safety in his grasp. Almost. But not quite.

For on the path, looking up at him and showing that splendid range of teeth, was the cause of all the mischief.

"Erump, tump, tump," said the bulldog. "Wrupp."

Along the path came a large man in thigh gaiters and rough shooting jacket—evidently a gamekeeping sort of person. He looked at the dog and followed the direction of his upturned, blunt nose. And saw Maggs on his perch.

"Seemin'ly," he said, "Seemin'ly you be the bloke what we 'uns be lookin' for. Come down."

"That's torn it," Maggs almost wept.



THE END

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