Cumor was no one to trifle with. He was the huge Irish wolfhound who watched over Shannon MacArt and obeyed her - except in a crisis. In a crisis he took orders from her uncle.
|Fearlessly Shannon pulled back on the snarling dog's collar. "And what's this all about, big hound?" she said|
|Illustration by Elmore Brown|
The mental stewpot where ideas cook - the old subliminal if you've got to have a six-bit word - hadn't sent up a bubble for a month. So I slapped a shroud on the typewriter and walked out. I headed north for San Vicente, where my brother has a little beach house, to get a change of scenery and some storming rides on the Waikikian surf for which the lovely little San Vicente Bay is famous.
Our old family friend Josh Kitigawa lived in San Vicente, too. Josh was an American-born scion of the far-flung Kitigawa clan, which owned most of the ranches back of San Vicente Bay. He had played water polo on the varsity with me at U.C.L.A., and, five years away from college, kept himself in such shape that he would hop to a three- or four-mile swim upon the slightest provocation. I love a distance swim, but not alone.
In San Vicente all I had to do to get a swimming escort who was about fifty per cent seal was to walk into the American Pacific Sunset Nosegay shop, which was headquarters for the many Kitigawa enterprises. There Josh would very likely be, all set to leap up from behind his desk and hustle into a pair of swimming trunks.
But Josh was not available when I got to San Vicente. He would be away on business for a day or two. So sorry. He would be informed I was in town the moment he returned. So very sorry.
So I got none of the incomparable physical and mental cleanups that long hard salt-water paddles give. And one December day, feeling that a good boil-out in the sun might start recharging batteries that had not taken on a single volt from a whole week on a careering surfboard, I started off for a half-day tramp up into the coastal hills.
I had to climb for sunshine that day, for a low fog lay over all the coast. But in an hour I was above it, standing on the bare, bleached shale of a mountain firebreak. Solitary summits lifted all about, high islands in a faery sea of fog. And there was perfect, peaceful quiet, very pregnant with the stuff that dreams are made of.
But as I stood and listened to that entrancing silence it was broken - not rudely, though the voice that echoed through it was a great arresting one. There was savage music in it which belonged in mystic mountains high above the fog. And I recognized the sound. I knew that volume, resonance, authority. People who own the tall wolfhound of Ireland have a saying: "He very seldom speaks - but when he does!" That was an Irish wolfhound's voice.
There was no judging how far it had carried through the mountain stillness. Ahead of me the ridges all were clear. The hollows then - they had to be looked into. I faced the next ascent, lifted a foot to start an eager scramble - then held that first step, and my breath too; for there, looking down at me from the summit of the slope ahead was no dog in this world but George MacArt's magnificent wolfhound Cumor. Though I had never seen him actually, I knew him on the instant, for I have a picture of him on my desk. He is without a doubt the grandest specimen of his breed.
George MacArt? Unless you know wolf dogs you'll scarcely know him. A couple of years ago I didn't. Then I got this concise letter:
"My dear Mr. More:
I have come across a fiction piece of yours, done with enthusiasm and some evidence of study, about the ancient wolf dog of the Gael. May I inquire what your research reading brought you about the hound prior to 1352 B.C.?
That was the start of a delightful correspondence. The man, it proved, was a retired contractor who, as he put it, needed and could afford a hobby. And since it could be an expensive one, and he was Irish, he had chosen Irish wolfhounds.
At his fifty-acre place in the wooded country of northeastern Pennsylvania he bred and owned the best; and he had antiquaries searching old libraries everywhere for lore of the romantic breed - in Iceland, Poland, India, Arabia, where centuries ago the great hounds had been sent to jarl and king and grand mogul and sheikh as the most royal of all gifts.
In all this time, I had never met George MacArt - or his secretary, either, who was his niece, and who, with the name she signed, Shannon O'Day MacArt, simply had to be beautiful. I got a letter from him finally, saying that he had planned a leisurely motor trip across country, and that when he got to La Jolla he would look me up. Then I did not hear from him for weeks.
And now, scarcely a hundred yards uphill from me, watching me alertly, stood his splendid hound Cumor. I stood as still as he awhile, taking in his incredible size and beautiful proportions; and as I did so, other proportions still more exquisite topped the rise behind him. A girl.
As I stood there drinking in this vision of loveliness I felt a sudden sharp conviction. Maybe not just a girl. Maybe the girl.
In spite of unrevealing hiking clothes I knew how warm and white she was, and clean, too, right through to the bones. Late morning brilliance shimmered off a head so black that blue glints played along the heavy waves of hair like bronze-blue glints along a grackle's ebony plumage. And I knew her also, although there never had been sent a picture of her for my desk.
That girl was the niece of George MacArt - his secretary. For wasn't that MacArt's great Irish hound beside her? And wasn't she herself plainly as Irish as the nose on her face?
"Large morning," I called up the slope.
"Enough for everybody," came right back at me.
I knew her voice would be like that - a river's, singing at some gentle shallow. A smile went with it too - a smile that actually enlarged the morning and made the sun more brilliant and the sky bluer than before. And I found myself speculating, as I climbed that slope, how fortunate a man would be to have a wife named Shannon. And then I was beside her, and I knew how fortunate.
"If it's all right with you," I said. "I'd like to tell you first how beautiful you are before I say how beautiful your hound is."
"How very nice," she said. "Most people seem to use up all their adjectives on the hound, and have none left when they get round to me."
"Most people have no adjectives for you to start off with," I told her. "Remember how the ancient chroniclers felt the same loss of words? They just called you The Beautiful, Yseult the Beautiful, and let it go at that."
At this she looked me up and down with care. Then she said with conviction, "Irish?"
"Scottish," I corrected her.
"Are there Blarney stones in Scotland too?"
"What Scotsman with a tongue behind his teeth has any need of Blarney stones, Miss MacArt?"
"None," she said, "if they're all like you, Mr. More."
We both laughed and both said together, "How did you know me?"
She answered first. "You talk just like your letters, which, as you know, I have answered by the dozens."
I said, "I would have known you anywhere. Remember Tennyson? 'The black-blue Irish hair and Irish eyes'? And then that face and figure that left poets tongue-tied. Yseult the Beautiful. That was the best they could do - which just about covered the ground at that. So who else would you be? Oh, Shannon, too, of course. And I shall need both names. Shannon for sunny hours, with friends about, and horses and dogs and three boys and two girls. Yseult for whispering to you in the night."
"I think we'd better go see Uncle George," she said.
A half-dozen steps revealed a trail that went west from the firebreak, and soon the three of us were dropping by a steep path to the bottom of a canyon. Here a small dirt road, with mightly live oaks reaching their thick arms across it, led toward the ocean. We followed this until we heard the dull crash of the sea, still hidden by the fog. Then we came to a cabin perched against the canyon side.
"It will be good to get you two together," said George MacArt's niece.
We climbed steps, crossed a porch and entered. The room we stepped into was small, but held a generous fireplace, set into a corner. Two burning eucalyptus logs stood upright in it, perfuming the whole room with pungent fragrance and a very welcome warmth.
George MacArt was all I'd pictured him - stout and gray and ruddy, with upper lip aplenty and no nose to spare. The sparkle in his eye must have come down from every one of his eight great-grandparents, for that much glint could not possibly have been inherited from fewer ancestors.
He said, "So this is Roger More. You're as redheaded as your letters, and as welcome. I suppose your friends all call you by the Irish, Rory."
"He says he's Scotch. Imagine!" This from Shannon.
"More of Clan Leslie," I announced. "And there should be a skirl of pipes at that."
"Scotch!" exploded George MacArt. "Man, you're as Irish as Bobby Burns!"
Tell me what Scotsman's heart would not be warmed by such a brazen insult. Here was an Uncle George for me. I had pictured him pretty accurately, as I say, all but his leg in a cast. He was plaster, hip to ankle.
"But you ought to see the other lad," he boasted. "It will take weeks to get spare parts for him, and surgeons will be tinkering with him for months. Next time that native son-of-a-moron wants to pass a truck right at a hilltop I'll bet he find out first if the MacArt, of Susquehanna Glen, is touring in his state.
We sat and talked wolfhound. The tall fire fell and made a glowing golden heap. The fog came rolling up the canyon from the sea, making the heat feel fine. Cumor lay stretched out on the floor close to MacArt, long as the couch on which the man sat propped. A terrible, beautiful creature, the guardian of this little house. And an exquisite beautiful creature was the mistress of it, tall Shannon MacArt, busying herself, setting a thing in order here, and moving a thing that didn't need moving there. I had never seen anything as charming as that young woman keeping house.
"Here's a reference to the hound which you have never seen, I'll wager," said MacArt. "The one about Gunnar's hound, Asthore." And his niece handed me a book from the library table.
It was the story of Burnt Njal, that saga of old heathen, horse-fighting Iceland, where you may meet Gunnar of Lithend, one of the stoutest heroes that ever walked earth or the pages of legend. I opened at a marker.
"Then Gunnar came to Hjardarholt," I read, "and Olaf the Peacock gave him a hearty welcome....But at their parting Olaf said, 'I will give thee three things of price, a gold ring, and a cloak the Erse king owned, and a hound that was given me in Ireland. He is big, and no worse follower than a sturdy man. He can see too in any man's face whether that man means thee well or ill, and he will lay down his life to be true to thee.'"
"You think the Irish wolfhound really has that mystic prescience?" I asked.
"He has," declared MacArt. "As surely now as he had it in Iceland a thousand years ago."
And on the very instant of that statement came a growl that slid a sharp icicle down my spine. No loud growl that might forewarn a foe. A wicked, deep, chest rumble. You could almost feel it shake the air of the room. A growl to warn his people to be on their guard. We listened, heard it then - a small sound that the hound's ears had caught. A drip-drip-dripping just outside the door.
A knock sounded. I opened the door. "Well, I will be a cockeyed so-and-so!" I exploded. "Josh Kitigawa!" For that's just exactly who it was - and dripping wet, as usual.
"Where did you ever swim from, you old porpoise, and how did you ever find me here, through all this fog?" I asked. Then I turned to my hosts. "This here, now, Nipponese cetacean, friends," I said, "is Mr. Yoshio Kitigawa, American really, and long known to me. Miss MacArt, Josh, and Mr. MacArt her uncle."
Josh bowed and with his large-toothed, winning smile acknowledged the introduction. It was easy to see that he had been a long time in the water. His finger tips were pale from long immersion.
"Come on, Josh, give," I urged. "Let's have this latest swimming epic. And also why the murderous snickersnee?" For fastened to the belt of his brief shorts was an unusual scabbard of some sort of woven grass, out of which stood the beautifully inlaid handle of a dirk. "Abalone," Josh said, which explained it in a word.
San Vicente Bay used to be famous for these sea delicacies, so high in Oriental favor; and had once been a point of export for tremendous quantities of them, dried, to China and Japan. But the bay had been almost cleared of the big mollusks by the Japanese coastal ranchers before the state made laws for their protection.
"If you folks want to feast on abalone," I explained to the MacArts, "you'll have to do it here in California, for they can no longer be shipped out of the state. And if you want to taste the very finest, you have got to be a friend of Josh, an abalone diver in ten thousand, who always has some secret rock ledge spotted where the best ones cling. Am I right, Josh?"
"You swim along some day and see," said Josh. "A nice two-mile stroll out to Pelican Rocks. I went there with my knife and bag this morning, but less than halfway back the fog sneaked up on me. So, of course, no swimming till it cleared. My bag of abalones interfered with floating, so I dumped them. The fog held, and I thought I might be in for hours of drifting, but after a long while I caught the sound of the surf, and was I glad to sprint for that! I had no idea I had been carried clear across the bay, but I recognized this canyon, and I knew about this cabin, so I came here, hoping it would be occupied, with the phone in service, so that I could call San Vicente for a taxi."
He was a perfect little Oriental bronze, was Yoshio Kitigawa, standing there nearly naked, his dark skin glistening from the sea. His flat, wide cheekbones and his very heavy epicanthic fold, which made his narrow eyes seem slanted, gave his face that ruthless sinister, even treacherous aspect, which I thought I saw in every son and daughter of Nippon before I spent eight years in high school and college with the genial Josh and others of his blood.
But in this room was one who did not share my high regard for Josh. The moment he came in, Cumor, the huge wolfhound, hackles rising, arose and left the couch of George MacArt, and went and stood by Shannon. Clearly, he was on guard.
George MacArt saw this, and he glanced at me, his bright eyes flashing with excitement. "Remember Gunnar's hound?" he asked me. And I saw apprehension come into the eyes of Shannon as she felt the hatred of the dog toward Kitigawa.
"What a poor hostess I am," she apologized. "Hot chocolate should be good for Mr. Kitigawa, after his long swim."
"So nice of you," said Josh. "I'll not try to deny how marvelous that would be."
"For three?" she asked.
We nodded, and she left the room. The tall hound did not follow her. He stood across the door she had gone through, and kept his eyes on Josh.
"A very exquisite weapon you have, Mr. Kitigawa," George MacArt said. "Ancient, I would judge. A family treasure."
"Quite right you are," said Josh, and pulled it from its sheath.
The blade was very beautiful and wicked. Ten inches long, maybe, two-edged and of good width but very thin. It must have been of the very finest steel if it could pry an abalone, clinging with its broad powerful foot muscles, from its rock.
"Work of our ancient smith Tsuruga," Josh informed us. "It is called tanto and is the knife for seppuku - what you know as hara-kiri. One of my ancestors in some way failed his emperor, and the emperor, accompanying his gift with words of high esteem, sent him this beautiful knife. And the ancestor, knowing what was expected of him, with dignity and proper ceremony, used it."
Just then Shannon reappeared, bearing a fragrant tray, which I took from her. Over her arm was draped a heavy bathrobe. "Wear this," she said to Josh. "And do not call a taxi. I have an errand to San Vicente and will take you with me whenever you are ready."
"You are too kind," said Josh. "Would it be inconvenient if we went at once? It would not? Perfect. I offer you ten thousand thanks." And somewhat hastily he drained the steaming cup.
Shannon took down a coat from a peg beside the door as Kitigawa stepped to it and laid hold of the latch. "I'm sure that Mr. More will want to stay and have more wolf-dog palaver with my uncle," Shannon said.
"With no apology whatsoever to your uncle," I protested, "I'd much rather go with you."
"Nonsense," she said, and stepped toward the door which Kitigawa now was holding open. But they did not go through. Square in the doorway stood two hundred pounds of dreadful, threatening "No!" - Cumor; a strange and terrible Cumor, snarling direfully, displaying all the frightfulness of jaws that could lift a wolf, full gallop, and crunch its backbone into splinters with one bite.
Fearlessly Shannon pulled back on the dog's collar. "And what's this all about, big hound?" she said.
"He thinks you shouldn't go with Mr. Kitigawa," said her uncle. "And I would trust his judgement. Remember Gunnar's hound."
There came a moment's silence, tense, somewhat embarrassing, somehow ominous; which was shattered by a sound which had no reason to be startling, but which was - the simple ringing of the telephone.
"Will you take it?"
Though I stood nearest to it, George MacArt's request seemed strange. I knew nothing of the MacArt household affairs or social matters. It was as though he shared the great hound's prescience of something ill, with which he would not want to frighten Shannon.
"Sepulvida Ranch?" the telephone inquired. "The guest house near the sea? This is police. We are contacting all beach houses asking for a sharp lookout for a Japanese who escaped an F.B.I. raid on a short-wave station discovered in Manzanita Canyon. It has been sending code in Japanese. The operator knifed one man and outran the others to the sea, plunged through the surf, and swam into a cover of heavy fog. He is Yoshio Kitigawa-"
"Who?" I demanded, and only with the greatest difficulty kept from whirling about to face my long-time friend. "Who says that?" I added, hoping to mend my blustering outburst. "The veterinarian? Let me talk to him."
"What's all the double-talk?" asked the telephone angrily. "This is dead earnest. Don't talk. Listen. The man is Yoshio Kitigawa, American born but long a suspect -"
Here it seemed time to interrupt again. "No," I said. "Tomorrow won't be satisfactory. You will have to come today."
"I think I've got you." The telephone voice was suddenly lowered. "But first let me finish. Last seen he wore only light brown swimming trunks. And no doubt he is still armed with one very mean knife. We'll be out there hell-bent. Right?"
"One moment," I replied, turning to George MacArt, but speaking so that my voice would carry to the instrument. "The veterinarian says they can't come out for the hound this afternoon."
MacArt's blue eyes sparkled. He followed my invention without the slightest hesitation.
"Tell him it's got to be today - this afternoon. Those spikes of foxtail grass are dynamite once they have worked down into a dog's ear. Tell him at once."
So I said, "This is urgent. You'll have to come and get him right away."
"Right now, buddy," said the telephone. "Don't get hurt, but nail him down somehow. And just in case you haven't had your radio on, here's something that will let you know the poisonous sort of snake you're dealing with. News has just come in that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. Good luck, American. Here we come."
I tried to take that last shock with a poker face; but I guess my hatred for that slit-eyed, civilized barbarian who stood so close to Shannon must have blazed in my eyes; for as I hung up, Kitigawa left the girl and with a few swift steps was standing by the couch on which MacArt lay helpless. And I noticed, with a chill that struck my bones, the way he held his dirk - not with the blade projecting backward from his fist, so he would have to lift his hand before he struck, but forward, for an instant thrust.
"Do nothing," Kitigawa said.
Nobody moved. His plan was all too clear.
"I think I know your message, More," he said. "Anyhow I can't chance delay - or interference. One wrong move and this man knows just how good a tanto is at disemboweling."
At this ominous threat, George MacArt looked up at him, smiling pleasantly. "It seems your Japanese friend doesn't believe that Cumor has a foxtail in his ear," he said. "Well, More, what was that call?"
"Is it true, Josh?" I asked. "You've been short-waving code in Japanese? From California, America - that made the Kitigawas rich? Pearl Harbor? Is that true?"
"Why not?" asked Kitigawa. "This big, soft, pot-bellied country. I hate it!...Tell the girl to get a car for me."
Tell the girl? The American veneer already gone. Now he was Japanese, the domineering male. Women were for breeding purposes. Why should he lower himself by having any other dealings with them? Just the same his respect for her showed in his actions. He knew that she would never have taken orders from him without a fight. Supple and tall and strong, she would have watched her chance and turned on him, knife or no knife. But his knife now threatened George MacArt, who could not fight.
"Tell her to leave the door wide open when she leaves the room, then to drive the car to the door, leaving the ignition key in place, and the engine running. One thing more: I must have the word of honor of you all that none will try to stop me. Your word of honor given, you will keep it. Fools, but you will keep it. If you will not give it-"
Kitigawa moved his hand, and light, like the cold brilliance on an icicle, ran from hilt to point along the dirk. What was there to do? What we were told, and not another thing. And here a frightened whisper broke from Shannon's lips.
"No, no, Cumor," she ordered. "Steady." Then to me, "Tell him I'll do just what he says, but that he must say what he wants without threatening moves, or I shall not be able to control the hound."
"Into the next room with him," Kitigawa ordered. "Shut him in. Quickly. Next time I move this wakizashi it will -"
"Stand, Cumor!" said George MacArt.
Shannon tugged at Cumor's collar. She might as well have tried to pull the well-known camel through the needle's eye as the hound through the doorway into the next room.
The bleakness that came into Kitigawa's face at the thought of defiance or delay spread cold all through me. But George MacArt's blue eyes flamed.
"Take it from me," he said to Kitigawa. "You don't look like a death's head. You look like a false face. If you want to see death in a face, look at Cumor's."
He looked. I looked too, and I thanked the powers that that dreadful muzzle wasn't aimed at me.
"Here's where your plans went wrong," MacArt said. "He's my hound, not hers. The reason he left me and went to her when you came in the room is because she is the thing I love most and he knows it. He's guarding her for me. He knew you for an enemy at once.
"You can handle that man and woman there with your dirk at my life. They wouldn't make a move against you if I begged them to. But you can't control my hound. "When I tell him to charge you, he'll charge you, and no one, friend or enemy, will be able to stop him. So take your two hands off his collar, Shannon. Three pairs of men's hands couldn't hold him. Ready, Cumor?"
"No, no!" Shannon cried. "It's death!"
"It might be that," said MacArt, "if you hinder his spring. And spring he shall. Unless it could be that our small dark guest is more afraid of my hound than I am of his knife. There's one way to find out. Ready, Cumor! Now put that thing down, Japanese, or sure as I lie here now - and surer yet if I should lie here slashed - that hound will tear the head off your body."
I shuddered. I shuddered because there was no exaggeration in what MacArt had just said. A minute's ghastly worrying, wrenching, and that giant hound would have it done. Hate, like a dragon fire, blazed in his eyes. I saw Kitigawa's hand go up to his throat.
A few minutes later there came the rush of speeding tires on the narrow canyon road, and the harsh grind of a skidding stop, then swift boots pounding up steps and over the porch. Shannon met the policemen at the open door.
"Thanks, people. Nice work." said the captain, after a quick survey. "When you folks are asked to nail a man down, you certainly do nail him. What a dog!"
He stood a short while looking down at the baleful-eyed wolfhound, where he lay on the floor, facing a chair on which sat Hoshio Kitigawa, nailed indeed. Then he departed with our amphibious caller linked between two of his men; after which we sat through a long grave silence, thinking bitterly of what the murdering Japanese had forced upon us.
Finally I said, "My guess is, the Marines will get first hand-to-hand crack at those honorable back-stabbers. So I think I'll drive down to the post at San Diego right away, to see if they will be taking on any redheaded men. It was very wonderful, being here today. But for that chance meeting up in the hills, I might never have known you people - you, George MacArt, nor you, Cumor, old hero." And then I looked at Shannon MacArt, and looked at her. After which I guess I must have looked at her. "Nor you," I managed to say to her at last.
The sparkle from his eight great-grandparents lighted her uncle's eyes. "Nice taste I've got in nieces, wouldn't you say?" he asked me.
"What I am wondering about right now," I said, "is your taste in nephews-in-law."
"I like 'em Irish," he informed me.
"As Bobby Burns?" I questioned.
"See!" laughed Shannon. "See how your Erse impertinence bounces back at you, Uncle George?"
"At any rate I should like to qualify, Uncle George," I announced. "I heard you say just a short while ago that you would trust your hound's judgement of a man, relying on the gift of the breed which lets him know if a person means his people well or ill. Do you mind if I make a simple test to find if I have Cumor's approval?"
"Help yourself," said MacArt.
But a man doesn't help himself to kisses from a girl like Shannon MacArt without a bit of coercion. Well put together that tall young woman is, and supple and strong; and she could say "No" with less speech and more fight than an Amazon. So I had to manhandle her somewhat; which I had counted upon as being what proof was needed.
I still consider that day the most wonderful day of my life; for I look back over more than a year of time and some six thousand miles of Pacific Ocean, and that trial of mine still seems a complete success. For with that girl's arms pinned, and her mouth being sought with what you might call violence aforethought, there came no growl out of the hound whatever. In fact he lay stretched out beside George MacArt's couch with his eyes half shut and no movement at all, except a prodigious yawn and one lazy sweep of his great flail of a tail. Which showed, I am nearly convinced, that he sensed toward the end of that somewhat protracted business, wise hound that he is, that Shannon MacArt wasn't fighting as hard as she really could.
Published in Collier's Magazine, February 20th, 1943