China Ching by G. Ranger Wormser

The racket was terrific. The yelping, the shrill prolonged whines, the quick incessant barking; and running in growling under-current, the throaty, infuriated snarling.

The woman stood at the window gazing out into the gathering twilight. Before her eyes stretched the drab, flat fields; here and there a shadowy mass of trees reached their feathery tips that were etched in darkly against the graying skies. Directly before her, beyond the unkept waste that might at one time have been a garden, reared the high, wire walls of the kennels. She could just make out the dim, undefined forms of the dogs running to and fro within the narrow, confining space.

The swift, persistent movement of them fascinated her. The ghostly shapes of them pattering sinuously and silently along the ground; the dull scratching thud of the claws and bodies that hurled themselves again and again into the strong wire netting. The impossibility of their escape throttled her. Their futile attempts at freedom caused a powerful nausea to creep over her. And there in the center of the run she could distinguish, chained to the dog-house,—a pale blur in the fading light,—the motionless yellow mass of the chow, China-Ching.

The shrill, prolonged whines, the quick, incessant barking:—

"Oh, my Gawd;" she muttered involuntarily. "Oh, my Gawd!"

The man sitting in the middle of the room pulled his pipe out of his mouth.

"What's that you say?"

She stood at the window, her eyes fixed steadfastly on that one dumb dog among all those yelping, snarling other dogs.

The man got up from his chair and came and stood beside her. Unconsciously she shrank away from his nearness.

"Ain't you used to that by now;—ain't you?"

She turned toward him;—all but her eyes. Her eyes were still riveted out there upon the motionless chow chained in the center of the run.

"It ain't the noise; that,—that don't mean so much, James. It ain't the noise."

"Then what's the matter,—huh?"

She pointed a trembling forefinger at that yellow mass tied to the dog-house.

"Him," she whispered. "He don't make no racket, James."

The man peered over her shoulder.

"The chow?"

"Yes;" her voice was still. "China-Ching. He don't make no racket, James."

"I'd like to hear him," the man blustered. "I'd just like to hear one peep out of him;—that's all."

She saw his coarse, hairy hand go to his hip pocket. She smiled bitterly. She knew the confidence he felt when he touched the mother-of-pearl handle of his pistol.

"You don't need that on him," she said. "He just sits there and don't never move. He don't hardly eat when you feeds him. He don't seem to have no heart left for nothing. He ain't like the terrier what had the distemper;—he ain't like the greyhound what had the hydrophobia,—so awful bad."

"What d'you mean?" The man muttered angrily. "Ain't they had the hydrophobia;—ain't they had the distemper;—ain't they?"

"You says they did, James."

"Ain't I the one to know? If I ain't been born with dog-sense, would folks be giving me their muts to care for?"

"You shot them pups, James."

"And what if I did?" He stormed. "They was dangerous—they was a menace to the community,—so they was. And see, here,—you take it from me, there ain't nothing more dangerous as a dog when he gets took that there way. Why, I've heard tell of dogs what have torn men limb from limb." And then he added in afterthought: "Men that've been kind to 'em, too."

Her laughter rang out shrilly, piercingly.

"Aw, James," she giggled hysterically. "Aw, now, James—

"What's that?" His hand was on her hand. "See here, you, ain't I kind to 'em?"

His touch sobered her quite suddenly.

"Kind to 'em—?"

She repeated his words vaguely as though not fully conscious of their actual meaning.

The grip of his fingers tightened cruelly about her arm.

"Ain't I—kind—to—'em?"

"Oh, my Gawd," she whimpered. "Oh, my Gawd,—yes."

He went back to the center of the room and lighted the lamp on the bare-boarded, pine-wood table. Its light flickered in a sickly, yellow glow over the straight-backed chairs, across the unpapered walls, and dribbled feebly upwards to where the heavy rafters of the ceiling were obliterated in a smothering thickness of shadows.

"What're you standing there for? Pull down that blind! Come here, I say!"

The faint, motionless form there beside the dog-house. The wooden, stiffened attitude of it. The great mass of the chow's rigid body that was gradually becoming absorbed into the gray shadow; that was slowly losing its faint outline in the saturating, blurring darkness.

She did as she was told; hastily, nervously. And then she came and stood beside the table. Try as she would to prevent it her eyes kept on staring through the curtained window.

Again she became conscious of the yelping, the prolonged whines, the quick, incessant barking; and running in growling under-current, the throaty, infuriated snarling.

"I can't stand it no more!" she shrieked. "It's too much,—so it is! I just—can't—stand—it—no—more!"

He looked up at her, startled.

"What under the canopy's eating you?"

She sank into a chair. The palms of her hands pounded against each other. In the lamplight her face showed itself pale and drawn with the eyes pulling out of its deadened setness in live despair.

"You got to do something for me, James." Her voice shook. "You simply got to do it. I ain't never asked nothing from you before this. I've been a good wife to you. I've stood for a lot,—Gawd knows I have. I ain't never made no complaint. You got to do this for me, James."

"Got to,—huh? Them's high words, my lady. There ain't nothing what I got to do. You ain't gone plum crazy, have you?"

"Crazy?" She muttered. "No, I ain't gone crazy;—not yet, I ain't. Only you got to do this for me, James."

"What're you driving at,—huh?"

She rose to her feet then. When she spoke her tone was quite controlled.

"You got to let that chow-dog go."

The man sprang erect.

"What d'you mean?"

"You—got—to—let—China-Ching—go! You got to let him get away. You got to make that China-Ching—free."

He laughed. The laugh had no sound of mirth in it. The laugh was long and loud; but its loudness could not cover the insidious evil of it.

"That's a good one," he shouted. "Let a dog go of his own sweet will when some day I'll be getting my price for him. That's the funniest thing I've heard in many a long day. Land's sakes! You're just full of wit,—ain't you?"

"I ain't," she retorted sullenly.

But he paid no attention to her.

"I never would have thought it—that's a cinch! Say,—it do seem I'm learning all the time."

Her teeth came together with a sharp snap.

"Better be careful you don't learn too much,—about me."

She whispered it beneath her breath.

"Muttering,—huh?" He leaned toward her over the table. "I don't like no muttering. I ain't the one to allow no muttering around me. Speak out—if you got something to say;—and if you ain't,—why, then,—shut up!"

The lamp threw its full light up into his face. Not one muscle, not one wrinkle, but stood out harshly above its crude flame. She drew back a step.

"All right." She had been goaded into it. "I'll speak up—All right. That's what you wants, ain't it? I've stood for enough. I reckon I've stood for too much. You knows that. But you ain't thought that maybe I knows it,—have you? That makes a difference,—don't it? You knows the way you treats me,—only you ain't thought that I ever gives it no thought;—and I ain't,—no,—I ain't; not till you brought that there China-Ching here. Not—till—you—brought—China-Ching."

"What's that mut got to do between you and me?"

His eyes refused to meet her eyes that were ablaze with a strange, inspired light.

"Everything. From the day I seen you bring him here—; from the day I seen you beating him because he snapped at you—; from the day you chained him up to that dog-house to break his spirit—; from that day it come over me what you done to me."

"You're crazy;—plum crazy!"

"Oh, no, I ain't;" she went on in suppressed fury. "I've slaved for you when you was sober, and when you was drunk. I've stood your kicks and I've stood your dirty talk, and I've stood for the way you treats them there dogs. And d'you know why I've stood for it,—say, do you?"

His hands clenched at his sides. Their knuckles showed white against the soiled dark skin.

"No—and what's more—"

She interrupted him.

"I've stood for it all because I knowed that any time—Any time, mind you,—I could clear out. Whenever I likes I can get up and,—go!"

"You wouldn't dare;—you ain't got the nerve!"

"I have—; I have,—too."

"Where'd you go,—huh?"

"I'd get away from you,—all right."

"What'd you do?"

"That ain't of no account to you!"

He watched her for a second between half-closed lids. A cunning smile spread itself over his thick lips. He walked to the door and threw it wide open.

"You can go—if you likes;—you can go—now!"

Her hand went to her heart. The scant color in her face left it. She took one hesitating step forward and then she stood quite still.

"If you lets the dog go—I stays."

Her words sounded muffled.

He shrugged his shoulders.

"The dog's my dog. I ain't able to see where he comes in on all this."

"You can't see nothing;—you don't want to see! It's knowing too well what that pup's up against that makes me want you to let him go. It's that I don't want to have the heart took out of him;—the way you took the heart out of me,—that makes me want to have him set free."

He gave a noiseless chuckle.

"So I took the heart out of you,—did I?"

She glared at him savagely.

"You knows you did!"

For a moment they were silent.

"Well?" He asked.

She saw him wave a hand toward the door.

"Aw, James, you can't be so cruel bad—You can't. The other dogs don't mind it—; they makes a noise and they tears around. And then they eats and drinks and late at nights they lies down and sleeps;—if there ain't no moon. But that China-Ching he ain't like them. Maybe—he is savage;—maybe you're right to be afraid of him."

His whole figure was suddenly taut. His head shrank into his shoulders.

"There ain't nothing I'm afraid of;—get that into your head—I ain't afraid of nothing—And if you wants to go,—why, all I got to say is, you can—git!"

A stillness came between them, broken only by the sounds from the kennels. The yelping, the shrill prolonged whines, the quick, incessant barking; and running in growling under-current, the throaty, infuriated snarling.

He went to the table and took the lamp up in one hand. He went over to the door and closed it with a loud bang. Then he started toward the stairs.

"If you ain't able to bring yourself to leave me," the words came to her over his shoulder, "you can come on up to bed."

Mechanically she followed him up the steps. Mechanically she went through the process of undressing and washing. Long after he had fallen asleep she lay there wide awake watching the moonlight trickle in quivering, golden spots across the floor; lay wide awake listening to the eerie baying of the dogs.

She had had her chance of freedom and at the last moment her courage had failed her. What she had told him had been the absolute truth. She had never realized what had happened to her, what a stifled, smothered thing she had become, until that day when he had brought the chow-dog home to the kennels.

She had married James when she was very young. Their fathers' farms adjoined. It had been the expected thing and she had gone through with it quite as a matter of course. In those days he had been somewhat ambitious. The country-folk around admitted grudgingly that James Conover was a born farmer. Then the old people, both their fathers and his mother, had grown a bit older, and one by one they had died. There had been nothing violent in their deaths. Silent, narrow-minded, like most country persons they had grown a trifle more silent, a trifle more bigoted, and then they were dead. It had seemed to her that way at any rate. She had become conscious all of a sudden that she was alone with James. Strange that the consciousness should have come to her after she had been alone with him for three years; and then that she should only realize she was alone in the world with him the first time he came home drunk. After that he took to drinking more and more, and finally he gave up farming. It had been quite by accident that he took to boarding dogs; now and then buying one for a quick turn. He liked the job. As far as she could see it gave him more time to spend in the village saloon.

One thing she had never been able to understand. In her heart she was certain that James was terrified of the animals. She had seen him shoot a dog at the slightest provocation. But until she had seen the chow she had never bothered with the beasts. She had cooked their meals but she had not been allowed to feed them. She had watched them from the outside of the kennels but she had never gone in to them. She had tolerated their racket because she had never fully understood what lay in back of it all. And then the chow came.

James had brought China-Ching home in the old runabout; brought him to the kennels tied down in a great basket. She had not paid much attention to either man or dog. The first sight that she had of the chow had been because of James. She had heard his cursing and the crack of his huge whip. She had gone out on the porch then and had seen the man beating the dog with all his strength; the man swearing loudly and furiously and the chow silent. She had never gotten over that spectacle. It was the first time she had ever seen a dog maintain silence.

And then day after day she had watched China-Ching, chained there and so strangely silent. Among all those yapping, yipping dogs he alone had remained quiet. And the other animals had paid scant attention to him after the first short while. Even in their wild racing about the enclosure they had given him a wide berth. There was something magnificent, something almost majestic in the chow's aloofness. If it had not been for the dog's eyes she would have thought him dumb;—a fool. But the eyes haunted her. Great liquid brown eyes, that met hers with unutterable sadness; eyes that clutched and held on to her with the depths of their sorrow.

She made up her mind after the first month that she must free the dog; that she must get him out of the kennels somehow or other. She had never thought of a direct appeal to James. If it had not been for the way he had goaded her this evening she would never have spoken as she did. Only she had always known that it would not be in her power to let the dog escape from the kennels without his finding who had done it; without bearing the brunt of his inevitable rage.

And after the first month she began almost unconsciously to associate herself with the chow, to put herself in his place. As she commenced to understand what his desires for freedom must be so she first realized that those same desires were hers. Only, as she phrased it to herself, she could stand it a lot better than the chow. Dogs could not reason. She could go on existing this way till the end of her days; but she felt that if China-Ching could not be freed that he would die. She could not bear the thought of that. Whatever happened to the dog would happen to that part of her which had come into being when the dog had come.

The moonlight trickled further and further into the room. The stream of it spilled itself wider and wider along the shadow-specked floor.

She could hear the man's deep breathing, now and then punctuated by a guttural snore. The eerie baying of the dogs; and out there the one silent dog chained to the dog-house.

Not one moment longer could she endure it.

Very stealthily she got up and slipped on her skirt. Shoeless and stockingless she crept out into the hall and down the stairs. Unbolting the front door, she paused an instant to hear if she had been detected. With strained ears she listened for those harsh, long-drawn snores. But the house was very still. She could not hear his breathing from where she was. If only he would snore. She waited. The sound came to her at last. She hurried out on to the porch.

The dampness of the summer night was all about her. Overhead the pale flecks of innumerable stars, and the far, cold light of the waning moon. From somewheres in the distance came the monotonous droning of locusts. Against the dark clump of bushes darted the quick, illusive glimmer of a will-o'-the-wisp.

She shivered as her feet struck the chill, wet grass. And then very slowly she went toward the kennels.

Her eyes took no note of the dogs that lay on the ground; of the little fox-terrier sniffing here and there along the wall for rats; of the big police-dog, and the massive English bull, reared on their haunches, their muzzles lifted to the moon. She only saw, chained to the dog-house,—a pale blur in the haunting, whitened light,—the silent, yellow mass of the chow,—China-Ching. She knew that the great, liquid brown eyes were fixed upon her; she could feel them drawing her on. She went toward him.

Very silently she went. And as she went she mumbled.

"If they start a rumpus,—the same racket,—maybe,—if he wakes he won't think nothing of it;—that is, if he ain't enough awake to know I ain't there besides him. Maybe though, he won't wake;—maybe they won't make no noise;—maybe he won't—please, Gawd—! only to get China-Ching,—so that he can feel free—please, Gawd!—so's China-Ching don't have to stay—so that I—please Gawd!—so's I can set something—free."

She suddenly became afraid to approach too silently. Afraid of the deafening uproar of a dog's warning. Already the police-dog had stopped his regular baying; already the little fox-terrier sniffed the air through the wire netting, sensing some one coming. If only she had thought to get them some bones; if only she had a piece of meat; a dog-biscuit,—anything to throw to them to keep them quiet. But she had not had time to think of that.

She began to whistle softly, and then a bit louder as she realized that she had whistled the call of the whip-poor-will. The police-dog got to his feet. She could hear the sinister rumbling of his throaty snarling. She saw the bull-dog waddling clumsily after him. They stood there, their coats bristling, their ears erect, their muzzles poked into the wire netting. And then a quick bark from quite the other side of the kennels.

She felt that numberless small eyes were peering out at her with betraying cunning. It seemed to her that innumerable dogs were rising from the ground; were rushing to the walls; were tearing out of their separate kennels.

She called then; called very low, in the hope that they might know her voice.

"China-Ching;—oh, China-Ching."

She was face to face with it now. All through the day she managed somehow to bear with it. Hideous as it was, deafening so that she could not hear, hated so that it made her physically ill. And now in the dead of night it was let loose; with the unlimited stillness of the night vibrating in grotesque, yapping echo, with the cold light of the moon spotting uncanny over the kennels, she had it. The yelping, the shrill, prolonged whines, the quick incessant barking; and running in growling under-current, the throaty, infuriated snarling.

She knew then that it was quite beyond hope that James should not hear them. She had to hurry. She began to run; and all the while she called in the same low voice:

"China-Ching;—I'm coming to you. Oh China-Ching—"

She pulled back the stiff, iron bolts. It took all her strength to do that. She opened the gate a bit, and slipped in, pushing it to, behind her.

And then she was among them. Their noise increased in volume,—pitched in a shriller note. The sudden rush of them threw her off her feet. Some of them leaped on her. She felt a sharp, stinging nip in her wrist. In a second she was up again.

"Down!" She commanded. "Down!"

She went toward the chow, pushing the other dogs out of her way with both hands; stumbling, stepping over them as they crowded about her feet.

"Down!" She murmured breathless.

It was not until she got well within a couple of strides of the chow that the other dogs dropped away from her. It was the same thing that she had witnessed a hundred times from her window. The animals had always given China-Ching a wide berth; had always respected his magnificent, majestic aloofness. And as she reached him she fell to her knees.

"China-Ching;" she whispered brokenly. "China-Ching!"

Her arms went around the dog's neck. Her hands stroked the thick ruff at his throat. She felt a cold nose on her cheek. A slow, deep sniffing; a second later two heavy paws were on her shoulder, and a warm, moist tongue curled again and again about her ear.

In the moonlight she looked into his eyes. The great, liquid brown eyes met hers with all their unutterable sadness.

"D'you want to go, China-Ching?" She murmured; "d'you want to go and be free?"

Her fingers were working swiftly at his collar. As it clanked to the ground she felt him stiffen rigidly beneath her touch. She saw his ears go back flat against his head; she saw his upper lip pulled so that the long, sharp teeth showed glisteningly in the huckle-berry, blue gums. She followed the set stare of his eyes, and what she saw sent a shiver down her spine.

Coming across the waste that had once been a garden, running stumblingly in the full path of the moonlight, came James. And the other dogs had seen him. She realized that when she heard the growling, the snarling, the low, infuriated snorts.

She rushed back to the gate.

James saw her then.

"Get away," he shouted. "Get away from there!"

She threw the gate open and stood leaning against it to keep it wide.

"China-Ching," she called; "come on,—China-Ching!"

But it was the other dogs that tore past her. First one, then another, then two together, and then the whole wild, panting pack of them.

"For Gawd's sake;" the man shrieked. "Get—get—" The words were lost in his breathless choking.

The chow-dog was the last to go. For a second he stood beside her. She bent over him. She was afraid to touch him; afraid that at that moment her hands might involuntarily hold him.

"Go on, China-Ching;" she urged frantically; "go on!"

"Hey, you—!" The man stormed at the dogs. "Here—, here—!" He whistled; "here, boy,—here, old fellow,—come on;—"

He suddenly stood still. He tried to make his whistling persuasive. He was out of breath. When he saw that they would not come to him he ran after them. They scattered pellmell before him. She saw them disappearing in every direction. Some of them slinking away with their tails between their legs; some of them crawling into the bushes on their bellies; some of them rushing head-long, racing madly into the night. Only the yellow mass of the chow-dog went in even padded patter out toward the road.

She waited there for James. She could not think. She only waited.

And at last he came back.

"You—" His voice was low; "you—!"

The words were smothered in his anger.

She smiled then. She thought that she still could hear the even, padded patter of the dog jogging to his freedom.

"So you turned on me;—you—! D'you know what's going to happen to you;—d'you dare to think?"

Her voice was filled with a strange calm.

"I don't care, James;—I don't care—none. I set China-Ching loose."

His face leered at her evilly in the moonlight.

"You ain't got no excuses;—you don't even make no excuses to me;—huh?"

"No, James;—no!"

Her tone was exultant.

The even, padded patter was still in her ears. It seemed so near. She saw the man's raised fist. The coarse, bulging hammer of it. She felt that something was behind her. She turned.

The chow stood there—His ears back; his coat bristling, the hairs standing on end in tremendous bushiness; his fangs laid bare. There he crouched, drawn together, ready to spring.

The man took a step toward her. Out of the corner of her eyes she could see the huge taut fist.

"I wouldn't do that, James;" she said quietly. "I just—wouldn't!"

"You'll live to rue the day." The words came hoarsely, gutturally. "I'm going to beat you, woman. I'm going to beat you,—damn good!"

"You ain't;" she said. "Look, James!"

She pointed to the chow.

"Call him off;" the man shrieked. "D'you want him to kill me?"

She saw him trembling with fear, paralyzed with terror so that his clenched hand still reached above his head,—shaking. She thought then of the pistol he always carried with him. For the second time she smiled. She saw him try to take a step backwards. His knees almost gave way under him. The chow wormed a bit nearer.

"Call him off;—take him away. Damn you, speak to him—! For Gawd's sake,—do something;—" he whined.

She looked at the man, cowed; abjectly afraid. She had nothing more to fear from him. He was beaten. Her hand went out until it rested on the dog's head.

"It's all right, China-Ching. It's all right,—now." She felt the chow's great eyes fixed on her face; she felt that he was waiting. "You can go on, James;—go on into the house!"

"What—what d'you mean?"

He stuttered.

"I'm going," she said. "Me, and China-Ching. I told you I'd go when I was ready;—but I wasn't going alone. That's what you ain't understood, James. Now we're both going. And you better be meandering up to your house, or maybe China-Ching he'll be getting tired of waiting."

Slowly the man turned; ponderously, his figure huddled together, he started back stumbling along in the full path of the moonlight.

She thought she saw his fingers fumbling to his hip-pocket.

"Stop!" She called. "None of that, James. This here's one time when that there gun don't work."

"I ain't got no gun." The mumbled words came back to her indistinctly. "D'you think if I'd have had—"

"Stand where you are. And don't you make no move from there. We'll be on our way,—now."

He stood still.

"Come on, China-Ching."

She started toward the road, the dog at her heels. Once as she went she turned to look at the emptied, quiet kennels, at the moonlight drenched waste that had once been a garden; at the huddled figure of the man standing there so silently.

"Good-by, James," she called.

Out in the road she paused to look up and down the long, white stretch of it. The chow stopped at her side. His great, liquid brown eyes were raised to hers. She could feel his impatience to be off. Suddenly he started.

Her feet followed those padded, pattering feet.

"Aw, China-Ching," she whispered, "aw, China-Ching—"