A Dog Called Perth: The True Story of a Beagleby Peter Martin
From the instant they spotted the forlorn puppy in the kennel, Cindy and Peter Martin knew she was the one for them. Refusing to remain a mere pet, Perth becomes an adored member of the household, and embodies the young couple's dreams. The Martins swear to always let Perth run free, and she becomes an indefatigable explorer with an infallible compass. From her adoption in upstate New York and her incredible survival in the wilderness of Vermont to her later adventures in the English countryside, Perth rewards the Martins with unshakable trust and unstinting love. This is an entertaining, beautifully written homage to a very special dog.
Author Biography: Peter Martin was born in Argentina and grew up in the United States. He has taught English literature at universities here and in England, and is the author of The Life of James Boswell, among other works. He now lives in the village of Bury, West Sussex, England.
“Perth is simple, funny, and touching .James Herriot’s early books come to mind.” New York Times Book Review
“Martin is more eloquent than most [dog] owners [and his] biting prose enlivens the bio of Perth the beagle.”
“An adventure story, a love story and a touching tribute to a dog that changed a family’s life forever
sure to delight anyone who has ever loved a dog, beagle or otherwise.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- Arcade Publishing
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- 5.50(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.75(d)
Read an Excerpt
When one clear and golden September morning in 1965 we guided our beige Volkswagen bug through the gorgeous countryside of upstate New York to a local kennel to purchase our beagle, we had no way of imagining what was to come. We expected the average expenses and inconveniences but never dreamed of the profound and lasting effects our new companion would have on our lives. With our beagle, my wife Cindy and I would come to endure far greater trials, anxieties, and suffering than most dogs ever inflict on their families. Much of it was our own doing, but this dog would never be a mere pet. She would be more like a force, a way of life, a way of looking at things, a friend, an inspiration, an adventure. She brought us the most intense pleasure, along with the most intense agony.
We were in our mid-twenties, just married. We did not yet want to have children, just a dog. It was a good time for us to buy one. I was in the final year of my Ph.D. in English literature, spending my days at home writing my dissertation while Cindy trudged off every day to teach in the local elementary school. Writing is a lonely activity, so I thought I would be happy to have a dog's companionship during the day. We lived in a perfect place for a dog, a pretty apartment that had been made out of the loft of a large, wood-framed garage poised picturesquely on the banks of Cazenovia lake, just a mile outside of Cazenovia village, a nineteenth-century Scottish settlement nestled in the soft hills. There were woods and fields everywhere, a lake to swim and canoe in, and an infinitude of rabbits to chase. A dog's paradise.
We wanted a beagle for practical reasons. Beagles are intelligent, spunky, middle-sized with short hair that does not shed over the furniture and carpets, and specifically a member of the hound family that would be a compromise between a lap-oriented dachshund or spaniel and a shuffling, salivating basset hound. A kennel in the woods over in a village by Green Lakes State Park had two or three litters of beagles for sale. We sped over there.
This kennel had a good reputation for breeding beagles, which were especially popular in that northern territory for hunting and tracking. It did not take us long to get there from our lakeside haven. As we walked up to the wire fence that caged fifteen or so purebred beagle puppies, about half of them began to bark and howl frantically at us, which beagles do very convincingly. The others were tired and uninterested, passive, their eyes too glazed over with boredom to rouse themselves. As we thrived on peace and quiet, the noisy ones were not for us. But since we also had a taste for adventure, neither would the dull ones do.
"There's no way we're going to choose one of those sluggards," I said. "We've got to have an energetic dog."
"Yes, but not too energetic."
In the next instant we caught the eye of a puppy who perked up her ears and quietly fixed us in a comprehending gaze. Cindy nudged me. "Look at that beautiful black one with a brown head, over there on the grass, looking at us. I wish she would come closer."
The puppy kept looking at us intensely, not yet stirring. I was taken with her beauty, especially the softly rounded brownness of her head and her perfectly white chest and paws. Suddenly, as if sensing in us some sort of kinship, she bounded up and streaked straight toward us through the riot of confusion the other puppies were making. With her paws up on the fence directly in front of us, she looked at us desperately and pleadingly. We touched her head and paws through the fence and knew instantly.
"This is the one, without doubt," I whispered urgently. "She wants us, the others don't."
"And we want her! Let's take her home. Look at her eyes."
Fifty dollars and ten minutes later her papers were handed over and Cindy had her in her arms, where now she was quiet and contented.
"Oh, one thing before you go," the burly man who ran the kennel said as we were walking out the door. "You'd better let me tattoo her ear with your initials. Lots of thefts of dogs in these parts, especially of beagles. Mad scientists like to do vicious experiments on them. They won't touch a dog with a tattoo, though."
"Will it hurt her?"
"Not a bit." With that, he slipped my initials, PEM, into his tattooing pliers, delicately placed the puppy's floppy left ear into them, and squeezed. The letters appeared in purple, like veins, inside the ear and out of sight. No sound from the puppy. It took only seconds but years later those would become among the most important seconds in our lives.
There were problems straightaway. Our little friend got sick in the car on the way home and chewed up a section of the carpet in the apartment on the first night. But what kept us up most of the night was deciding what to call her.
Her name had to be romantic and imaginative, not trite, commonplace, or the kind of cute and humdrum name that generally makes you feel as if you are breathing stale air in a stuffy room, or the overly clever, affected choice like "Mozart," or "Himalaya," or "Shakespeare." Also it had to suggest her energy and beauty. And she certainly was beautiful. Slightly smaller and less chunky than the British hunting variety, she was an American "blanket" beagle, so called because of her solid black back. As the black spread down over her shoulders and haunches, it turned to a golden brown that two-thirds down her legs became the purest white. Her chest was of the same soft white, her short hair combing itself naturally and delicately in various directions, joining in several places like the crest of a breaking ocean wave. It was a pleasure to trace her hair with a finger. Her tail was also black, but tipped off with white at the end. Her silky brown ears, which hung gracefully down to her shoulders as they do incomparably on beagles, framed a smooth, soft brown head except for a thin white line along the middle of the crown and a delicate line of black around her eyes that really did seem as if someone had applied eyeliner to them.
As Sir Toby Belch said of his beloved Maria in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, this little puppy was "a beagle, true-bred." And I hoped that she would have many of Maria's qualities mischievousness, imagination, humor, energy and a refusal to suffer fools gladly. Only time would tell, but the signs were good.
"Although that head is unmistakably feminine, I don't think we should give her a feminine name," Cindy said at about three in the morning, sipping her tea with the three-month-old puppy stretched out on her lap.
"I was thinking the same thing," I replied, becoming poetic. "It would be too narrow for her. She needs to travel this earth with a larger identity. She needs a name that doesn't tie her down to her sex, a distinctive name."
Then a name suddenly popped into my mind. "Perth! We'll call her Perth, after Sir Walter Scott's novel The Fair Maid of Perth." We were just back from an entire summer in Scotland, our minds brimming with its romantic landscape's magic of hills, mountains, lochs, mountain breezes and wild echoes. We had also visited the lovely town of Perth in the Lowlands, on the Great North Road between Edinburgh and Inverness, near the mouth of Scotland's longest river, the Tay. Mild and civilized in its outlook, it has been called the most congenial place to live in Britain. In Scotland, in fact, we found much of the spirit of romance and adventure with which we hoped to keynote our marriage.
My father always thought the name was absurd. How can you call after her with a name like that, he would ask. It does not exactly trip off the tongue. But with her name, Perth received our dream of the future. We fell asleep, with her perfectly at peace somewhere between us on the bed.
In the morning we threw on our bathing suits and walked down the twisting, wooded path to the magical lake. There Perth gave us her first surprise. It was a warm late September Saturday, the water was crystal clear and still warm, the hills circling the lake were bathed in morning sunshine, and the trees were showing early signs of autumnal color. Perth stood with us on the water's edge, sniffing the air, eyes wide open, all her senses alive to the sensations of her new life. Her little body was sharply defined in the bright air, her head moving briskly this way and that as she caught a succession of delicious scents.
"Let's promise never to live in any place where we have to tie her up," I said, my eyes fixed on her. "She'll always be free to run, and beagles will run. I've heard that when they begin to chase rabbits and other game they can run up to four hundred miles in a weekend. They don't look especially powerful, but their muscles are supple and conceal great strength. Not to mention their lung power. Apparently they never wear out. Which poet was it who wrote of setting out with `well-breath'd beagles' to `trace the mazes of the circling hare'?"
This theme of freedom was important in our lives. Even before Cindy and I married we knew the kind of life we did not want to live together. Neither of us wanted office jobs. Nor would money be an overriding factor in any decisions we made. As long as we had enough to be comfortable, we preferred a lifestyle that would give us time and space. Would it not be a life misspent to slog it out mechanically and repetitiously, day after day, year after year, in confined spaces pursuing the illusory, conventional pleasures of monetary success? Money can buy lots of things, but could it produce time, the time to go places, see things? If we had lots of money, we could buy lots of fine furniture, but the problem with even the most splendid sofa is that it is not very mobile. To enjoy it you rather have to stay at home. What could be worse than feeling trapped by material possessions? How sterile an existence that would be.
Call such attitudes the idealism of youth, perhaps, but we were highly ambitiousfor time, adventure, freedom, and variety. We also told ourselves that if we ever had children, we would try to impart such values to them, too. But now in Cazenovia we had Perth, not children.
"It would be criminal ever to tie her up," Cindy said, gazing fondly at Perth's brisk, keen movements. "We chose her because she chose us. Do you think she wanted us because we didn't look like the sort of people who would ever tie her up?"
"Could be. It's good to think so. Imagine her as inheriting the earth, as the Bible says, or at least the natural world. Isn't that the kind of dog we want? One who will be as free as we want to be? How can a dog inherit the earth if she is tied up all the time?"
"Many people will feel it's irresponsible of us never to tie her up, you know," Cindy replied. "Why shouldn't we have to keep her on a leash most of the time, they might wonder, if they have to? They'll think we should play by the rules. Also, they'll think we don't care about her safety, that she'll get run over or lost."
"Something about Perth tells me that if we ever take to tying her up, shutting her up in a room, or restricting her in any way, we'll be in for a lot of trouble. Anyway, I don't think we'd be placing her in any danger if we leave her free."
"If you train a dog for the life you intend it to have, just like a child, it will be equipped to deal with that sort of life. I don't think that a dog on a leash thinks for itself as much as one on its own. It's like closing up a part of its mind. By running free Perth will be more alert, more in tune with her instincts. She'll be wary of strangers who might want to harm her and be capable of navigating for herself. She is less likely to get lost or run over."
"I hope so," Cindy said wistfully.
"And she'll also be lovable. We won't pull her toward us; she'll come to us when she wants to. We won't suffocate her with love."
"It'll be hugely more fun having a free and adventurous dog, that's for certain."
"She'll be the way we want ourselves to be."
"Well, while she's discovering her brave new world," Cindy shouted, "let's go for a swim. There won't be too many more warm days like this."
"Better yet, let's take the canoe out and swim in the middle of the lake."
We often did this. It gave us a fine view of the shoreline and the air was even fresher out there. Perth had gone off into the woods, sniffing among the previous autumn's leaves, and without any fuss we let her get on with whatever she was doing while we paddled off across the early-morning, glittering water, our paddles dipping softly in and out of the water with a rhythmical quietness in tune with the peacefulness of the scene. The lake was six miles long but only one mile wide, and we made for about halfway across. There were no other sounds except the songs of birds.
"I wish we never had to move and could stay here forever," Cindy whispered after a few minutes, clouded for a moment by the sudden thought that by next summer I would have finished my dissertation and would need to find a university teaching job somewhere far away from this lakeside paradise among the tinted hills.
"We're about halfway out now," I piped up. I tucked the paddles into the canoe and gazed back at the shore. "No sign of Perth; maybe she's down some rabbit hole by now." I had to squint because of the sun's brilliance, reflected on the water in a riot of dancing bright lights.
"You go first," I said. Cindy eased her smooth, suntanned body into the cooling water. I followed. We swam around the boat, dived under it, floated lazily on our backs. After half an hour I was climbing back into the boat when I heard slurping and breathing behind me. I looked back and there was Perth.
"I don't believe it," I shouted. Cindy, who was by then dozing in the canoe, sprang up and almost managed to tip it over.
"What's the matter?" she shouted.
"Incredible. We're not alone. What an animal! It's Perth, she swam all the way out here. How wonderful!"
Cindy reached down and took hold of her firmly under her front legs, lifting her into the canoe. Perth shook herself, barked at me as I held on to the side of the canoe, and then walked smartly to the bow where she took up a position on the front seat looking out across the lake. No fuss from her, no puppyish whimpering and endless tailwagging. It was as if she had asserted herself as a member of a new triumvirate. I climbed back into the canoe and with her still at the prow we paddled slowly back to shore. "I didn't think a little dog like this could swim so far," was all Cindy permitted herself to say. I just paddled, staring at the back of Perth's brown head, held high.
The next few days were spent getting to know each other and walking through the woods and meadows along the lakewhich Perth relished with a frantic energy. She tracked scents everywhere, yapping delightedly in the distance, out of sight. But she always knew exactly where we were. She did not act like a slight puppy who had passed from womb to cage and only the day before been released into a new existence.
Except, that is, when she played with the dog next door, a huge Saint Bernard named Frederick.
Frederick was everything Perth was not: big, slow, predictable, generally slobbery, and with vast amounts of hair. He was also immensely affectionate. They met often. You could always tell when they had been together because Perth would arrive home with her head saturated from Frederick's saliva. Frederick looked like he could have swallowed Perth in one gulp, but the most dangerous he ever got was to open his jaws wide and close them playfully on her head. As they rolled on the ground, his saliva poured onto her like a warm waterfall. He could do this without any of his teeth leaving the slightest mark on her. She took her revenge by moving off thirty feet or so and then running headlong at him, crashing into his furry side or chest, bouncing off and then repeating the assault. Frederick scarcely felt it and merely salivated more. They were exquisitely fond of each other, but Frederick, with his massive body, could be no part of Perth's life of quickness and exploration. He could only guess at it. He was always tied up. They could never roam together in this dogs' paradise. He only slobbered a little more than usual when he saw Perth.
During the autumn months, to relieve my long days at home alone, I began to teach Perth an assortment of clever tricks, which she learned with ease.
"Are you spending your time teaching her silly nonsense?" Cindy asked one day when she got home from teaching. She had just seen Perth stand on her hind legs with a slice of sausage on her nose for five seconds without eating it. "I'm spending my days teaching children how to read and you're training her to be a circus performer!"
"Ah, yes, but unlike many of your pupils, Perth is an incredibly keen learner. There's so much intelligence in her that I feel I've got to tap."
"How about tapping some of your own pent-up intelligence instead, and getting on with your writing? If you don't finish your thesis by August, you'll miss out on that university job you've been offered. Then we'll be poor and have to sell Perth."
As she said this, Perth, who was growing impatient with this conversation, tried a few of her tricks to get attention. She performed three consecutive roll-overs, a sit-up, a stand-up, and a lie-down in quick succession.
"Look at that." I beamed.
"She looks programmed to me. Why did she do all those tricks at once?"
"For emphasis, mostly, as well as because she's hungry and wants another piece of sausage. If one trick doesn't get her what she wants, she tends to try a whole bunch at once."
"How many tricks have you taught her?"
As if to answer the question, Perth suddenly came out with a series of rhythmic barks.
"For heaven's sake, is that a trick, too? She's not even barking naturally now."
"Don't worry, she's still in the training stage. She'll soon get them sorted out and then do them only on command. It's good for her, it sharpens her mind."
"I'm worried about what else it's doing to her mind, not to mention to your own."
I also spent these months training Perth for more serious things, especially to beware of the perils of roads and traffic. The most common way for a dog to be killed is by a car. The obvious road to start with was the one about one hundred feet from our home, a lonely road but not without its share of mad drivers. I was playful with the tricks, but with this part of Perth's education I was ruthless. My goal was to make her distrust all roads on planet Earth. After training her not to set one paw on the road's surface unless she was with me, I tested her. Standing on one side of it while she waited on the other, I dangled a piece of meat or some other enticing morsel and beckoned to her softly with endearing phrases like, "What a nice doggie; come with me, Perth, and let's have a good run. Come on, come here." Or I would speak more angrily and command her across the road, "Come here now, Perth, you bad dog. Come here!" At first, she couldn't resist crossing the road, but after a week or so she held her ground, ignoring everything I could do to lure her across. I then took her into Cazenovia village and, to both the displeasure and amusement of passersby on the High Street, tested her there, too. This demanded more of her concentration because of the noise and commotion all around, but she soon caught on. Undistracted by people who stopped to watch her, she would not budge from the street curb. This was risky, but I was careful and she learned. I succeeded therefore in making her perfectly streetwise. It was a lesson that in the future would save her life many times over.
Excerpted from A Dog Called Perth by PETER MARTIN. Copyright © 2001 by Peter Martin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Peter Martin was born in Argentina and educated in America. He has taught English literature at universities here and in England, and is the author of the recently acclaimed Life of James Boswell. He and his wife, Cindy, spend much of their time in Appletree Cottage in the village of Bury, England.
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