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       Penny, p.11

           Hal Borland
 
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  But that year April was gentle and May was balmy. We got the vegetable garden planted. We opened the place at the lake and we watched the water temperature there. This looked like an early swimming year. We had worked all winter, finished one book, got a start on another. We could take time off that summer. We came up to Memorial Day with things well in hand. Then Barbara said, “I wonder when Penny is going to arrive.”

  “What?”

  “Don’t tell me you have forgotten already.”

  “I had pretty well put her out of my mind, yes. Till you brought the matter up.”

  “This is fine traveling weather. Just about a year ago now she was coming and going from here.”

  “I would just as soon let sleeping dogs lie.”

  So we went to the lake and she had her first swim. I put the sailboat in the water. When we got home that evening she said, “I’m going to call Sybil.”

  They talked almost twenty minutes. When she had hung up, Barbara said, “I think we are safe. But apparently it was quite a winter, up there.”

  Penny, it seems, discovered a ski slope a few miles down the road. She found that many youngsters were there on weekends, subteen-agers who came by bus Friday evening and were on the slopes all day Saturday. Most of them were novices learning to ski. Penny took to going down there Friday afternoons, meeting the bus, spending the night at the ski lodge, then having an all-day romp Saturday. The youngsters rode the ski tow and Penny ran up the slope after them. When they skied down she dashed right along, often underfoot. She accounted for dozens of spills but, miraculously, for no broken bones. The children loved her. The cook at the lodge fed her salami sandwiches. Evenings she stretched out in front of the big fireplace and napped. When the youngsters went to bed she went along and crawled in with one little girl or another.

  Sybil went down there after her one Saturday and said, “There she was, walking around the ski lodge as though she owned the place. With that princess air. She wouldn’t even look at me. I had to put a leash on her to get her out of there, and if I hadn’t locked the door when I got her home she’d have gone right back.”

  Some weekends, of course, she passed up the ski lodge. She needed variety. There were five or six houses that she visited more or less regularly for a meal and a bed, and if the accommodations were particularly good she often stayed several nights. And once she went out into the woods and spent two nights, bitter nights, well below zero. Sybil and Bob heard her baying, but when they went to look for her she kept quiet and they never found her. After the second night she came home, limping, with one forepaw frostbitten. It healed all right, but it was sore for a couple of weeks and she didn’t travel.

  She made friends with the rural mail carrier. It was while she was lame. She went out to the main road, probably hoping someone would give her a ride. The mailman came along, stopped at a box, and there was Penny, practically begging, looking downright pathetic. He let her in his car and she rode the rest of his route and went back to the post office with him. There the postmaster checked her license and phoned Sybil, told her he had a special delivery package she’d better come and get. Sybil asked why, and he said there was postage due. “Postage due!” she exclaimed. “Send it back!” “It’s just one penny,” he said, laughing. And Sybil went and got her.

  “Penny,” Sybil summed up to Barbara, “is completely blithe. She’s going to have to pay the price, some day, I suppose. But meanwhile she’s going to live the way she wants to. This morning she wanted out, and she just sat there on the lawn and looked, this way and that, and you could almost hear her saying to herself, Well, this is a warm, inviting day. Something exciting will turn up, if I just go somewhere. And pretty soon she took off. I don’t know where she went, and she’s still gone. But I’ve stopped worrying about her. She’ll come back when she gets good and ready.”

  Twelve

  It was a quiet summer. The memory of Penny didn’t vanish like morning mist, but we did stop looking out the front door to see if she was on the front porch and we no longer walked wide of the bench in the living room. Sybil hadn’t phoned or written and Barbara hadn’t called Sybil since the first week in May.

  Labor Day passed, and there we were in September, practically in autumn. Barbara said, “It’s been a year now. A little over a year.”

  “What’s been a year?”

  “Since Penny left.”

  “Oh. You mean since Penny was given her walking papers, as my grandmother used to say.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “It means scram, scat, go on away, get lost.”

  “Still mad at Penny, aren’t you?”

  “No. How can anybody be mad at a free soul? At freedom?”

  “I’d like to call Sybil.”

  “Go ahead. But for heaven’s sake, don’t wish Penny any happy returns.”

  I went out and sat on the front steps while she made the call, listening to the whippoorwills on the mountainside, watching the slow current of the river. When she had finished, she came out and sat down beside me.

  “Situation pretty much unchanged,” she reported. “Penny goes and comes pretty much as she pleases. A little while back she spent a week with folks five or six miles away, and they said they would like to keep her. Sybil agreed, but just a few days later she was back at Sybil’s. The minute those folks treated her as though she was theirs, instead of an honored guest, she walked out.”

  “Princess Penny.”

  “Sybil says folks call her Agent Seventy-seven. That’s her tag number, and apparently it’s known all over the area. In July she vanished for almost a week, and then Sybil had a call from a horse farm twenty-odd miles away. Penny was there, hobnobbing with the horses. Loved horses, the man said. Sybil went down and got her and she’s stayed close to home since.”

  “Meaning that she’s there from time to time?”

  “I suppose so. Sybil asked us up.”

  “When?”

  “Any time.”

  “Why? Anything special?”

  “To see Penny. To see if she still knows us. Sybil says she has changed, grown up.”

  “To see if we won’t take her back.”

  “Oh, for goodness sake! Sybil’s not trying to get rid of Penny.”

  “Of course not. Sybil admires Penny.… When do you want to go?”

  “Not this week. Maybe next. I told her we’d phone a day ahead, so she could make sure Penny is there.”

  Ten days later Barbara phoned Sybil, said we planned to go up there the next day. “That’ll be just fine,” Sybil said. “I’ll be here, and Penny’s here. I’ll keep her in. Lucky you didn’t call earlier. She’s been gone two days and didn’t get home till about an hour ago.… We’ll see you tomorrow.”

  It was a bright, sunny, late-September day. The color had begun to come in the trees, the swamp maples fiery red in places, the sumac marching along the back roads like Indians in scarlet feather headdresses. The aspens and the gray birches were greenish gold, making the hillsides shimmer. And the asters were everywhere, whitening the roadsides and frosting the old meadows, with here and there a brilliant patch of the big purple New England asters with their rich yellow centers, the royalty of the whole aster family. The blue jays looked twice as blue as they had all summer, somehow reflecting the blue of the autumn sky, and the crows were black as sin.

  “What a beautiful day!” Barbara exclaimed. “And Penny is being kept in. I’ll bet she’s fit to be tied.”

  “If Sybil is at all bright, Penny is tied.… Think she will know you?”

  “Of course she will.”

  We passed Barrington and headed northeast on the winding, hill-country road. Finally we climbed to a plateau and the road leveled out somewhat, with reclaimed farmhouses here and there, most of them closed for the winter. Next April they would begin to come to life again, and after a month or two of weekending they would come to life with summer animation, with women and children and dogs, and with men on weekends. Several of them, ni
cely restored old country houses, had swimming pools in their side yards, strange substitutes for the woodsheds and privies that had been there originally. Only a few of the houses, occupied by year-rounders, showed signs of life, smoke from a chimney, a car parked in the driveway, open garage doors. None of those occupied houses seemed to have a swimming pool.

  We topped a gentle rise and a hundred yards ahead of us was a dog, a short-legged black and tan dog with a familiar rolling gait. A basset, trotting up the road. Barbara exclaimed, “Penny!”

  I slowed the car. The dog turned off the road at a rural mailbox, went up a driveway to a gray Cape Cod house set a little way back, almost at the edge of the woodland. I braked to a stop at the head of the driveway and Barbara shouted, “Penny! Penny!”

  The dog paid no attention.

  “Drive in!”

  “It’s not Penny. It’s an older dog.”

  “Please. I have to find out. You know as well as I do that if Penny decided to go somewhere, Sybil couldn’t stop her. Please!”

  I drove up the driveway. The dog had disappeared. Barbara went to the door and knocked. A woman in a turtle-neck sweater and pink slacks answered.

  “The basset that just came in here,” Barbara asked. “It’s Penny, isn’t it?”

  “The basset? Oh, did he just come home?”

  “Yes. We followed her up the driveway, and—Oh, there she is! Penny!”

  The dog came around the corner of the house, stopped and stared. The woman laughed. “Sorry, but it’s a he. Lord Jeff, we call him.” The dog went to her, glanced at Barbara in the rather distant way of the more supercilious bassets, then went past the woman and into the house.

  “I’m sorry to have bothered you,” Barbara said, and turned back toward the car.

  “There is a basset named Penny, I believe,” the woman said, “who gets around quite a bit.” She said it with a knowing smile. “But I haven’t seen her in some time.”

  “Thanks.” And Barbara got into the car. I turned around and we went back to the highway. It was another six miles to Sybil’s place. We didn’t see another dog.

  Sybil came to the door while we were parking. We were halfway up the path when she said, “You’re going to hate me. I said I would keep her in, but she’s gone.”

  “She’s not here?”

  Sybil laughed ruefully. “Come on in and sit down and have a drink. That dog is just too bright for her own good. We can visit, and maybe she’ll come back. You never know, with Penny.”

  We sat on the couch in the living room, as before. Sybil got drinks. “That dog!” she exclaimed as she sat down. “She knew I was keeping her in, but she pretended not to care one little bit. She waited and bided her time. She knew—I don’t know how she knows these things, but she does—she knew Bob had to go to town today. So she just waited till he got his coat on and was all ready to go. Then she crept up behind him, and the minute he opened the door one crack, out she went. She almost knocked him over. I made a grab for her and got hold of her collar, but just with two fingers. She ripped off those two fingernails.” She held up her right hand, with the two broken nails. “Out she went, like a streak. And then she didn’t know where to go. She hung around for half an hour before she actually disappeared.”

  I lifted my glass. “To the free soul.”

  Barbara glanced at me with a faint smile. Sybil said, “I never knew a more completely blithe and free spirit. I think that’s probably what makes her so appealing.” She stood up. “You haven’t seen her in a long time. I’ve got some pictures.”

  She left the room, came back with an album of snapshots, handed the album to us and stood there as we leafed through.

  “She’s grown up, as you can see. Lost the puppy look. Oh, she’s a very handsome dog now. But you can see that independent air, can’t you? It’s written all over her.… Oh, now in that picture she has the sedate look. But see that look in her eyes, the way her ears set? She’s all ready to tell you right where you can go. You can go your way, she’s about to tell you, and I’ll go mine.… I wonder. I just thought, maybe she’s down at Marion’s. Marion lives not far from the ski lodge, and Penny goes to visit her every week or so. Marion feeds her steak and lets her sleep on her best sofa. I’ll just give Marion a call, if you’ll excuse me a minute.” She went into another room.

  “Want to bet?” I asked Barbara.

  “On what?”

  “That Penny’s at Marion’s.”

  “I wouldn’t bet a penny on anything about her.”

  “She knew we were coming. She thought we were coming to get her. That’s why she took off.”

  “How did she know?”

  “She heard Sybil tell Bob.”

  “Then why did she go to Marion’s?”

  “For a steak dinner.”

  “She should have known that Marion would turn her in.”

  “That’s why she didn’t stay. She’s not at Marion’s. Want to bet?”

  Sybil came back, shaking her head. “Wouldn’t you know it? Penny was there. She had lunch with Marion, then took a short nap on that sofa. She woke up just about half an hour ago and wanted out, and Marion hasn’t seen her since.”

  Barbara and I looked at each other, and she smiled. “Half an hour ago,” she said, “just about the time we arrived.”

  “Maybe she’s on her way home,” Sybil said. But there wasn’t any conviction in her voice. “She should be here by now. When she starts anywhere, she doesn’t dawdle.”

  She went to the window and looked out, turned back shaking her head. “No sign of her yet. When she comes she’ll bark and let me know she’s here. Night or day, she barks when she comes home.” She sat down again. “Did I tell you she’s got a charge account at the butcher’s, down in the village? Last spring she took to going in there and begging for a bone. The butcher told me, so I said just let her have what she wants and send us a bill. He hasn’t billed me yet for steak or calves’ liver, but he has sent a bill for several bones.

  “And,” she went on, “she learned to sing. She never sang for you, did she? Well, my dogs sing. They actually do. In the morning, usually, before I get up. Not howling, but—well, singing is the only word I can think of for it. A kind of warbling, and they each have a different part, tenor, alto, soprano. It really is quite musical, but thank goodness they never do it in the middle of the night. Well, anyway, Penny never joined them and I thought she wouldn’t ever sing. Then one morning a few months ago when they started to sing I heard a new voice chime in. A good voice, very good. Baritone. I couldn’t believe it, but it was Penny, sure enough. She doesn’t always sing when the other dogs do, but when she does she makes it rather special.… She should be here by now. If she’s coming.”

  “Maybe she went the other way.”

  “You never can tell about her. She has her own way of doing things. I should have put the leash on her this morning, but if I chain her up she’s absolutely miserable. She just sits and looks at you. She makes you feel like a jailer. Then she whines and breaks your heart.”

  Barbara got to her feet. “We really should be going along.”

  “I know you can’t spend the day. And I can’t tell you how sorry I am that she isn’t here. Maybe I should have phoned, but I kept thinking she would come home.… I know you have to go. But I keep hoping she’ll come back and you can see her.… So many things I keep wanting to tell you. You said she used to snap at children. Up here she stays longest at places where they have kids. Little kids.… This will give you a laugh. We bought her a bed, one of those fancy wicker things with a hood and a mattress. Would she sleep in it? No, sir! Finally we put one of Bob’s old Army blankets in a corner of the kitchen, and that’s her bed now. She messes it around and won’t let another dog near it.… Well, I guess she’s not coming. But believe me, she’s a magnificent dog. I appreciate her. But you don’t dare let yourself get attached to a dog like that. When she goes off, you never know if she’ll ever come back or what will happen to her. And as I sa
id, she’s a loner. She doesn’t travel with other dogs. I guess she doesn’t need other dogs—or people, for that matter. Not permanently, anyway. So I just admire her and let her go her own way.”

  She went out to the car with us, watching the driveway for a dog that didn’t arrive. We said good-bye. But when we reached the road Barbara said, “Let’s go down the road a way, just to see if we meet her.”

  So we went down the road instead of going directly home. Not a dog in sight. We kept going till we came to the ski lodge and the slopes, deserted and waiting for snow. We pulled into the parking yard and looked around on foot. No dog.

  We went on to the crossroads in the village, and turned around and started back. No use going any farther. We went back past the ski lodge, up the hills to the plateau, past Sybil’s entrance. No sign of a basset anywhere. We had seen a couple of brindled hounds in the village, and there was an Irish setter in the dooryard of one of the houses we passed. That was the sum of it.

  We drove on in the lengthening light of late afternoon, and Barbara said, “Well, now we know.”

  “What do we know?”

  “That it wasn’t our fault. Or Tom’s and Carol’s. She just isn’t anybody’s dog.”

  “Or maybe she’s everybody’s dog.”

  “She’s at home anywhere, apparently.”

  “And expects to be treated like visiting royalty.”

  “Is treated that way.… I do wish we had seen her.”

  “You saw the pictures, and you heard Sybil’s stories. It was almost a memorial service. I kept listening for ‘Abide with Me’ on the organ offstage.”

  “You’re just talking tough, and you know it. You were disappointed too at not seeing her.”

  “I hid my tears pretty well, didn’t I?”

  She didn’t answer. We drove in silence another five or six miles. Then in a field off to the right I saw a dog, or what I thought was a black and tan dog. It was so far away and the grass was so high I couldn’t see any details, and the light made colors deceiving. It was an animal, and it was crossing the field diagonally toward the edge of the far hill. I lifted a hand and pointed, and I slowed the car. Barbara looked and exclaimed, “A fox! A red fox!” I looked again. Maybe she was right, though I couldn’t see the bushy tail with its white tip. But it was a long way off, two hundred yards or more.

 
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