SINCE every family has its black sheep, it almost follows that every man must have a sooty uncle. Lucky if he hasn’t two. However, it is only with my mother’s brother that we are concerned. She had loved him dearly when he was a little blond boy. When he grew up black, she was always vowing she would never speak to him again. Yet when he put in an appearance, after years of absence,she invariably received him in a festive mood, and was even flirty with him.
He rolled up one day in a dog-cart, when I was a small boy. He was large and bullet-headed and blustering, and this time, sporty. Sometimes he was rather literary, sometimes coloured with business. But this time he was in checks, and was sporty. We viewed him from a distance.
The upshot was, would we rear a pup for him. Now my mother detested animals about the house. She could not bear the mix-up of human with animal life. Yet she consented to bring up the pup.
My uncle had taken a large, vulgar public-house in a large and vulgar town. It came to pass that I must fetch the pup. Strange for me, a member of the Band of Hope [note: A temperance association for young people who signed a pledge never to drink alcohol], to enter the big, noisy, smelly plate-glass and mahogany public-house. It was called The Good Omen. Strange to have my uncle towering over me in the passage, shouting “Hello Johnny, what d’yer want?”He didn’t know me. Strange to think he was my mother’s brother, and that he had his bouts when he read Browning aloud with emotion and éclat.
I was given tea in a narrow, uncomfortable sort of living-room, half kitchen. Curious that such a palatial pub should show such miserable private accomodations, but so it was. There was I, unhappy,and glad to escape with the soft fat pup. It was winter-time,and I wore a big-flapped black overcoat, half cloak. Under the cloak-sleeves I hid the puppy, who trembled. It was Saturday, and the train was crowded, and he whimpered under my coat. I sat in mortal fear of being hauled out for travelling without a dog-ticket. However, we arrived, and my torments were for nothing.
The others were wildly excited over the puppy. He was small and fat and white, with a brown-and-black head: a fox terrier. My father said he had a lemon head—some such mysterious technicalphraseology. It wasn’t lemon at all, but coloured like a field bee. And he had a black spot at the root of his spine.
It was Saturday night—bath-night. He crawled on the hearth-ruglike a fat white tea-cup, and licked the bare toes that had just been bathed.
“He ought to be called Spot,” said one. But that was too ordinary. It was a great question, what to call him.
“Call him Rex—the King,” said my mother, looking down on the fat, animated little tea-cup, who was chewing my sister’s little toe and making her squeal with joy and tickles. We took the name in all seriousness.
“Rex—the King!”We thought it was just right. Not for years did I realize that it was a sarcasm on my mother’s part. She must have wasted some twenty years or more of irony, on our incurablenaïveté.
It wasn’t a successful name, really. Because my father, and all the people in the street failed completely to pronounce the mono-syllableRex. They all said Rax. And it always distressed me. It always suggested to me seaweed, and rack-and-ruin. Poor Rex!
We loved him dearly. The first night we woke to hear him weeping and whinneying in loneliness at the foot of the stairs. When it could be borne no more, I slipped down for him, and he slept under the sheets.