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Two Highland Dogs, edited by Andrew Lang

I

Righ and Speireag were two Highland dogs who lived in a beautiful valley not far from the west coast of Scotland, where high hills slope down to the shores of a blue loch, and the people talk a strange language quite different from English, or even from French, or German, or Latin, which is called Gaelic.

The name ‘Righ,’ means a king, and ‘Speireag’ means a sparrow-hawk, but they are words no one, except a Highlander, can pronounce properly. However, the dogs had a great many friends who could not talk Gaelic, and when English-speaking people called them ‘Ree’ and ‘Spearah,’ they would always answer.

Righ was a great tawny deerhound, tall and slender, very stately, as a king should be, and as gentle as he was strong. He had a rough coat and soft brown eyes, set rather near together, and very bright and watchful. His chief business in life was to watch the faces of his friends, and to obey their wishes quickly, to take his long limbs away from the drawing-room hearth-rug when the butler came in to put on the coals, not to get in the way more than so big a dog could help, and not to get too much excited when anything in the conversation suggested the likelihood of a walk. But his father and all his ancestors had led very different lives; they had been trained to go out on the mountains with men who hunted the wild deer, and to help them in the chase, for the deerhounds run with long bounds and are as fleet as the stag himself.  Then, when the beautiful creature had been killed, it was their duty to guard the body, and to see that carrion crows, and eagles, and other wild birds should not molest it. But Righ’s master was a Bishop, who, though he lived quite near to a great deer forest, and often took his dogs over the hills to where the deer lived, never killed anything, but loved to see all his fellow-creatures happy among the things they liked best.

Speireag was a very little dog, of the kind that is called a Skye terrier, though the island of Skye is one of the few places in which a long-haired terrier is very rare. He was quite small, what his Highland friends called ‘a wee bit doggie;’ he was very full of life and courage, wonderfully plucky for his size, like the fierce little bird whose name he bore. Like a good many little people he lacked the dignity and repose of his big companion, and, though very good-tempered among his friends, was quite ready to bite if beaten, and did not take a scolding with half the gentleness and humility with which Righ would submit to punishment, perhaps because he needed it oftener, for he was so busy and active that he sometimes got into scrapes. He was only three years old at the time of this story and Righ was seven, so it was perhaps natural that Righ should be the wiser of the two.

They lived in a beautiful house quite near the loch, and they had a large garden to play in, and they could go in and out of the house and do just as they liked so long as they came when they were called and did as they were bid, and did not climb on the sofa cushions when their feet were muddy. There were very few houses on their side the water, and as their friends went about in boats as often as other people go out in carriages, the dogs were used to the water, and could swim as easily as walk, and what is more, knew how to sit still in a boat, so that they were allowed to go everywhere with their friends because they gave no trouble.

They had a very happy life, for there was always  something going on, which is what dogs like, and plenty of people to go walks with. Their young masters sometimes went out with guns, and a dog, a country dog, loves a gun better than anything in the world, because he knows it means business in which he can help. Sometimes their mistress took them for a walk, and then they knew that they must be on their best behaviour, and not wander too far away from the road and have to be whistled back, and not fight with the collies at the cottage doors, nor chase cats, nor be tiresome in any way; they generally kept close beside her, Righ walking very slowly so as to accommodate his big strides to the progress of a poor human thing with only two legs, and Speireag trotting along with tiny little footsteps that seemed to make a great fuss and to be in a great hurry about nothing at all.

There was nothing, however, so delightful as going for walks with their own master, the Bishop. For one thing, they generally knew he really meant to do something worth while. Pottering about with a gun or escorting a lady is pleasant enough, but it generally means coming home to lunch or tea, and the real joy of a dog’s walk is to feel that you are getting further and further away from home, and that there are miles of heather and pine-wood behind you, and yet you are still going on and on, with chances of more hares and more squirrels to run after. Sometimes the Bishop would stop at a shepherd’s hut or a lonely cottage under the lee of a hill, and sometimes he would sit down to examine a flower he had gathered in the wood, but they forgave him very good-temperedly, and could always find something to interest them while they waited.

Righ generally sat down beside his master and stretched out his great limbs on the heather, for he liked to think he was taking care of somebody or something. Speireag would lie down for a minute, panting, with his little red tongue hanging out and his hairy little paws all wet and muddy; but he never rested for long, but would  dart off, pretending to have found a rat or a squirrel, even if none really existed.

It was in December, 1887, the weather was raw and cold, there was ice floating about on the loch, and the sea gulls used to come up to the garden terrace to be fed. The young masters were away, and mistress could only take walks along the road, there was nothing to tempt her to a mountain scramble or a saunter in the woods. The Bishop was very busy, and day after day the dogs would start up from the rug at the sound of the opening of his study door upstairs, and after a minute’s anxious listening, with ears cocked and heads erect, they would lie down again with a sigh of disappointment, for there was no sound of approach to the hat-stand nor of whistled invitation for a walk.

Finally came a sad day when the Bishop went away, and dog-life threatened to become monotonous. Then, one Saturday, hope revived, for a visitor came to the house, an old friend whom they loved and trusted as a good dog always loves what is trustworthy. He was a frequent visitor, and had, in fact, left the house but three weeks before. He was there for a holiday rest, and had leisure to bestow on dogs and on long walks, which they always shared.

He was very thoughtful for them, not the sort of man who would set off on a whole afternoon’s ramble and say, when half a mile on his way, ‘I wish I’d remembered Righ and Speireag!’ He always remembered them, and thought for them; and when he fed them after dinner, would always give big bits of biscuit to the big dog, and little bits to the little dog, and it is not every one who has the sense for that!

Every day, and often twice a day, he took them out, down to the church or the pier, or across the lake and up to the Pass of Glencoe, where stern grey hills and hovering eagles and a deep silent valley still seem to whisper  together of a sad true story that happened there in just such weather as this two hundred years ago.

These were very happy days for dogs, for they did not mind the cold, it was only an excuse for wild scampering and racing, and they were very grateful for their friend’s return. He had been ill, but was able to enjoy his walks and though about sixty years of age he had all those qualities of youth which endear a man to a dog or a child. He was brave and unselfish, and strong to love and to endure, and they loved him without knowing why; without knowing that he had lost his health from overwork in the service of the poor and suffering, and among outcasts so low as to be beyond the sympathy of any heart less loving than that of a dog or of a very good man. ‘Father’ Mackonochie he was always called, and though he had never had wife or children of his own, many a fatherless child, and many a lonely grown-up man or woman, felt that it was quite easy and natural to call him by a name so sacred.

On the Wednesday after he came, he took Righ and Speireag for a glorious walk through the shrubberies and out through a gate on to the road at the foot of the hills behind, a road that winds on and on for many miles, the mountains rising steeply above, the lake being cold and grey below; the bank, that slopes away from the road to the water, in places covered with gorse and low bushes and heather, where an enterprising dog may hunt for rats and rabbits, or rush headlong after a pee-wit or moor-fowl as it rises with a scream at his approach and flutters off high into the air, and then descending to within a few feet of him, skims low before him, hopelessly far, yet tantalisingly near.

The way was familiar to them by land or by water. Often had they sailed up the loch in the same direction, further and further into the heart of the mountains, the valley becoming more and more narrow, the shores of the lake nearer and nearer to each other, till, had they  gone far enough, they would have reached the Dog’s Ferry, a spot where the water is so narrow that a dog may easily swim across. Righ, strong swimmer that he was, had often crossed the loch near his master’s house, where the ferry boats ply, and needed no Dog’s Ferry, but few dogs made such powerful strokes in the water as he.

This day, however, they did not reach the Dog’s Ferry. The afternoon was closing in, there were streaks of gold in the dull grey sky, and it was, the good Father thought, time to return. ‘Never mind, little man,’ he said as Speireag looked reproachfully at him with wistful brown eyes gleaming through overhanging silvery locks, ‘we’ll do it to-morrow, only we must set off earlier.’

This was good news, and the little dog started home gaily, running, as little dogs will, ten miles, at least, to every one of the road, and tired enough when home was reached at last. Dinner was a welcome feast, and Righ and Speireag slept sound till it was time for evening service. They always attended chapel night and morning, and took their places at the foot of the steps, half-way, when both were present, between mistress in her seat and master at the place of his sacred office. To-night, as usual, they remained perfectly quiet and apparently indifferent to what was going on till, at the words ‘Lighten our darkness,’ bed-time came into immediate prospect, and they started into expectant attitudes, awaiting the final ‘Amen.’

II

The next morning, though cold, was fine and fairly bright, and the dogs watched eagerly for signs of the promised walk. The service in chapel was rather long this morning, for, as it was Advent, the ‘Benedicite’ was read, and though Righ and Speireag noticed only that they had time for a longer nap than usual, there were some present who will never forget, as the season comes round again  each year, the special significance of part of that song of praise—

O ye frost and cold—O ye ice and snow—O ye nights and days
O ye light and darkness, O ye mountains and hills,
O ye beasts and cattle, O ye holy and humble men of heart,
Bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him for ever!

But at last the service was over and the dogs trotted out into the hall, and followed mistress and their friend to the front door to see ‘what the weather was like.’ It was not a specially pleasant morning, but it would do for a walk, and after waiting a few minutes to have some sandwiches cut, the only detention that could be endured with patience, the three set out. After about six miles they were on new ground, but on they went, the lake to the right of the road getting narrower—on past the Dog’s Ferry and still on, till the loch had become a river, and could be crossed by a bridge.

Righ and Speireag knew, by a more certain method than looking at clocks, that it was lunch time, half past one at least, and they never thought of doubting that they would cross the bridge and turn homewards along the other side the loch, and so get in about tea-time; or, for their friend was enterprising, by a longer way also on the further side, either of which would involve a delightful long walk, but with just that hint of a homeward turn which, even to dogs, is acceptable when breakfast has become a mere memory.

They accordingly followed the road on to the bridge, but as Father Mackonochie did not overtake them, Righ, ever watchful of his friends, turned to look back and saw him speaking to a girl, after which, to their surprise, he whistled them back, and instead of continuing along the road as it turned off to the right, kept straight on, though there was now only a rough track leading through a gate into the wood beyond.

When they had advanced a few paces into the wood, he  sat down under a tree and took out his packet of sandwiches. Righ and Speireag, sitting close beside him, had their share, or perhaps more, for their wistful brown eyes hungrily reminded him that they had multiplied the distance many times over, and that an unexpected luncheon out of doors is a joy in a dog’s day, of a kind for which a man may well sacrifice a part of his minor pleasure.

Starting off again was a fresh delight. On they went, further and further, always climbing higher and getting deeper into the wood. To the left, the steep mountain-side rose abruptly above them; to the right, below the path, the river tore its way between steep banks down, down to its home in the lake. Now and then the trees parted and made way for a wild mountain torrent leaping from rock to rock down the hill side, and rushing across their path to join the river below. As they climbed further these became more frequent. Their friend could stride across, setting an occasional foot upon a stepping-stone, and Righ, too, could cross safely enough, long-limbed as he was, though now and then he had to swim, and the streams were so rapid that it needed all his strength to cross the current. Sometimes he helped Speireag, for the brave little dog would always try to follow his big companion, and sometimes, with an anxious bark, would give warning that help was needed, and then the kind Father would turn back to pick up the little dog and carry him till they were in safety.

It was very hard work, they were always climbing, and in many places the road was polished with a thin coating of ice, but the dogs feared nothing and kept on bravely.

The path dwindled to a mere track, and the climbing became steeper still. The streams crossed their road still oftener, and the stones were slippery with ice. The wood became thinner, and as they had less shelter from the trees, great flakes of half-frozen snow were driven against  their faces. There was no thought now of hares or stags, Righ and Speireag had no energies left for anything but patient following. Poor little Speireag’s long coat was very wet, and as it dried a little, it became hard and crisp with frost. The long hair falling over his eyes was matted together and tangled with briers, and his little feet were sore and heavy with the mud that had caked in the long tassels of silky hair. Even Righ was very weary, and he followed soberly now instead of bounding along in front, his ears and tail drooped, and each time he crossed the ice-cold water he seemed more and more dejected.

As they left the wood behind them, the snow fell thick and blinding, but just at first, as they came out into the open, it seemed not quite so dark as under the trees. There was nothing to be seen but grey sky and grey moor, even the river had been left behind, and only blackened patches remained to show where, in summer, the ground was spread with a gay carpet of purple heather and sweet bog-myrtle. They got deeper at each step into half-frozen marsh; there was no sound or sign of life. The dogs felt hungry and weary, and they ached with the cold and wet. But they were following a friend, and they trusted him wholly. Well they knew that each step was taking them farther from home, and farther into the cold and darkness. But dog-wisdom never asserts itself, and in trustful humility they followed still, and the snow came down closer and closer around them, and even the grey sky and the grey moor were blotted out—and the darkness fell.

III

It was a disappointing home-coming for the Bishop that Thursday evening! There was no hearty handshake from waiting friend, no rejoicing bay of big dog or extravagant excitement of little dog to welcome him. The three had been out the whole day, he was told, and had not yet  reappeared. A long walk had been projected, but they had been expected home long before this. When dinner-time came, and they did not appear, two servants had been sent out with lanterns to meet them, as the road, though not one to be missed, was dark, and some small accident might have happened. The men were not back yet, but doubtless the missing party would soon return.

The night was dark and stormy, and Father Mackonochie had been for some time somewhat invalided, and as time passed the Bishop became increasingly anxious. At length he ordered a carriage, and with the gardener set off towards Kinloch, the head of the loch, thinking that accident or weariness might have detained his friend, and the carriage might be useful. On the way they met the first messengers returning with the news that nothing could be heard at Kinloch of the missing three, except that they had passed there between one and two o’clock in the afternoon. The Bishop and his men sought along the road, and inquired for tidings at the very few houses within reach, but in vain. The night was dark and little could be done, and there was always the hope that on their return they might find that some tidings had been heard, that the lost friends might have come back by the other side of the lake.

So at last they turned back, reaching home about four o’clock in the morning. No news had been heard, and all felt anxious and perplexed, but most believed that some place of shelter had been reached, as the dogs had not come home. They could find their way home from anywhere, and there seemed little doubt that, overtaken by darkness, all three had found shelter in a shepherd’s or gamekeeper’s hut, perhaps on the other side of the lake, as they had almost certainly crossed the bridge, no one having met them on the road by which they had started.

Nevertheless all that was possible must be done in case of the worst, and as soon as daylight returned four parties of men were despatched in different directions,  the Bishop himself choosing that which his friend and his dogs were known to have taken the day before.

A whole day of search over miles and miles of the desolate wintry mountains revealed but one fact, that the party had eaten their luncheon under a tree in the wood, beyond the bridge. The squirrels had left the sandwich paper there to tell the tale, and for the first time it seemed likely that they had not turned homewards on reaching the head of the lake, either by the same road they had come, or by that on the other side of the water and through Glencoe.

One by one, the search parties came home with no tidings. No trace of the wanderers had been seen, no bark of dogs had been heard, no help had been found towards the discovery of the sad secret. Weary and heartsick as all felt, no time was to be lost, every hour made the anxiety greater, and all were ready in a very short time to start afresh.

Again, for the second time, all through the long night they wandered over the mountains, through the wood, and across the deer-forest beyond. It was an awful night. Again and again were their lights blown out; the snow lay deep in all the hollows; where the streams had overflowed their banks, the path was a sheet of solid ice; the rocks, polished and slippery, were climbed with utmost difficulty. At every opening in the hills an ice-cold wind whirled down glen and corrie, sleet and hail-stones beat against their faces, the frozen pools in the marshes gave way beneath their feet. The night was absolutely dark, not a star shone out to give them courage. The silence and the sounds were alike awful. Sometimes they could hear each other’s laboured breathing as they tottered on the ice or waded through the snow, sometimes all other sounds were lost in the shrieking of the whirlwinds, the crackling of the ice, and the roaring of the swollen, angry streams.

 What could have happened? Even if accident had occurred, either or both of the dogs would surely have returned, and how could even a Highland dog, hungry and shelterless, live through such a night as this?

Morning came again, and returning to the point, near the bridge at which the carriage had been left, two of the parties met, and drove home for food and dry clothing, and to learn what others might have to tell.

There was no news, and again the same earnest friends, with many more kind helpers, set out on their almost hopeless journey. The trackless wilds of the deer-forest seemed the most likely field for search, and all now, in various groups, set off in this direction.

Hour after hour passed without any gleam of hope, and even the Bishop began to feel that everything possible had been done, and was turning sadly homewards. A second party, a few hundreds yards behind, had almost come to the same resolve, many of the men had been without rest since Thursday, and even the dog, who with one of the keepers of the deer-forest had joined the party, was limping wearily and was exhausted by the cold and the rough walking.

Suddenly he stopped, and, with ears pricked and head erect, listened. No one knows better than a Highlander the worth of a collie’s opinion, and more than one stopped to listen too. Not far away, and yet faint, came the bark of a dog! Among the men was Sandy, one of the Bishop’s stablemen, who knew and loved Righ and Speireag, and his heart leapt up as he recognised the deerhound’s bay!

Away, to their left, the mountains were cleft by a narrow glen, the sound came from the bank on the hither side. The Bishop and his party had climbed to the further side, but a shout reached them, alert and watchful as they were.

They turned back wondering, scarcely daring to hope.  The men who had called to them were hastening to a given point, the dog, nose to ground, preceding them. There is no mistaking the air of a dog on business. The collie’s intentness was as different from his late dejection as was the present haste of the men from the anxious watchful plodding of their long search.

In another moment they came in sight of something which made them hold back the dog, and which arrested their own footsteps. The Bishop himself must be the first to tread on what all felt was holy ground.

There, on the desolate hillside, lay the body of Father Mackonochie, wreathed about with the spotless snow, a peaceful expression on his face. One on either side sat the dogs, watching still, as they had watched through the two long nights of storm and darkness. Even the approach of friends did not tempt them to forsake their duty. With hungry, weary faces they looked towards the group which first came near them, but not till their own master knelt down beside all that remained of his old friend, did they yield up their trust, and rise, numbed and stiff, from the posts they had taken up, who knows how long before?

To say a few words of prayer and thanksgiving was the Bishop’s first thought, his second to take from his pocket the sandwiches he carried, and to give all to Righ and Speireag.

A bier was contrived of sticks from a rough fence that marked the boundary of the deer-forest, and the body was lifted from the frozen ground on which it lay. The return to Kinloch, where the carriage waited, was very difficult, and the bearers had to change places very often.

Slow as was their progress, it was as rapid as Righ could manage, numbed with cold, and exhausted with hunger. The little dog was easily carried, and for once little Speireag was content to rest.

The two dogs watch over their master's body in the snowstorm

‘THE LONG VIGIL’

No one will ever know what those faithful dogs felt  and endured during those two days and nights of storm and loneliness. Those who sought them in the darkness of that second awful night must have passed very near the spot where they lay, sleeping perhaps, or deafened by the storm, or even, possibly, listening anxiously with beating hearts to the footsteps which came so near, and yet turned away, leaving them, faithful to their post, in the night.

They in their degree, like the man whose last sleep they guarded, were ‘true and faithful servants.’

It is pleasant to know that Righ and Speireag did not suffer permanently for all they had undergone! They lived for five years and a half after, and had many and many a happy ramble when the sun was bright and the woods were green, and squirrels and hares were merry. They could not be better cared for than they had always been, but, if possible, they were more indulged. If they contrived to get a dinner in the kitchen as well as in the dining-room, their friends remembered the days when they had none, and nobody told tales. If they lay in the sun quite across the front door, or took up the whole of the rug before the winter fire, everyone felt that there were arrears of warmth to be made up to them. Their portraits were painted, and in the sculpture which in his own church commemorates Father Mackonochie’s death, the dogs have not been forgotten.

Righ was the elder of the two, and towards the end of his thirteen years showed signs of old age and became rheumatic and feeble, but Speireag, though three years younger, did not long survive him.

They rest now under a cairn in the beautiful garden they loved so well; dark green fir trees shelter their grave, a gentle stream goes merrily by on its way to the lake below, and in the crannies of the stones of which the  cairn is built, fox-gloves and primroses and little ferns grow fresh and green.

On the cairn is this inscription:

In Memory Of

15th December, 1887.

Righ died 19th January, 1893.

Speireag died 28th August, 1893.