The Secrets of Bloxley Bottom, Episode 17: The Perfect Subject



Prudence Newton assembled her trapping tools and hid them in the cart. She had only a few egg deliveries to make, but she had a further task to perform and she was determined to accomplish it. The major enticement was a large and meaty bone she had begged from the cook who’d been saving it for stew. Just a little fib, it was, to tell Mrs. Parr that she needed it for the poor White family in the hollow. The soap flakes had been easy to purloin from the larder, along with a set of large flannels that had been destined for the rag bag. No one had seen Prudence as she performed her thievery and she glowed with satisfaction as she kissed her mama goodbye.

“I will return well before dinner, Mama.”

Mrs. Newton exhibited her expertise at the deep and dolorous sigh. “My dear, take care. It has been uncommonly wet…” Her voice trailed away as she raised her handkerchief to her nose.

“Yes, I will.” Prudence hurried away before her mother could repeat the long list of discomforts she suffered in the damp weather.

Now, the compliant donkey pulled Prudence in the cart as it ambled toward the village, and Prudence began her search for that hulk of an odd creature, the dog everyone called Spot. He often lurked about the rectory or the churchyard of an afternoon, but today there was no sign of him.  

“The beast is an enigma,” Prudence murmured to herself, putting to good use the latest word she had looked up after finding it in a novel. She rather liked the notion of an mysterious puzzle. "Enigma," Prudence repeated aloud, in a veddy grand tone. "You are an enigma. It is certainly an enigma. Such an enigma!" Prudence was fond of words and tended to repeat them when first found, so that she would not forget them. How she longed to pull out such a word in the course of conversation, but sadly the sort of conversations she was involved in did not call for such sophistication. Oh, how she longed for more distinguished company; for sophistication and access to a life that would allow her to display her hidden allure. "A most alluring enigma," she said aloud as, on impulse, Prudence guided the donkey towards the river lane, leading beside the stream from the mill through the wood, eventually toward the pond on the village green. It was usually deserted and it felt more than a little queerish as she felt the canopy of trees closing above her head.

She whistled softly and called Spot. The land rambled alongside the stream, a perfect spot for Prudence’s plan. And suddenly, with a yelp of surprise and pleasure – or so it sounded to her – the dog appeared from the woods. 
If anything he looked worse than he had last week when the artist, Monsieur Tournell, had been so appalled at his appearance. Leaving the bone in the back of the cart, wrapped in an oilcloth, Prudence hopped down to receive Spot’s excited slobbers upon her cheeks. The animal was almost taller than she was when he raised up on his hind legs and placed his filthy paws on her shoulders. She pushed him down and wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Where have you been, you smelly creature?"

The dog snorted and tried again to lick her cheeks, “Stay down. You’re covered with mud.” Prudence shredded the burrs and weeds out of the long hair on his head and neck, combing them into the water with her fingers. “Have you been rolling in rotten fish innards?”
Soon after Spot had appeared so mysteriously in Bloxley Bottom, Prudence had appointed herself as his mistress. Mama would never allow her to have a pet, as animals in the home were seen by Mama as being not only dirty, but the carriers of all manner of illness. Cats, in particular, were a horror, as Mama believed that they both sucked the breath from people as they slept and were the cause of a host of respiratory ailments. Dogs were not so much harbingers of illness, in Mama's estimation, but were simply filthy creatures who could not help but breed all manner of vermin in their coats. Horses, on the other hand, were not to be trusted at all, which was why the family had to make due with a donkey, instead. Donkey's were bad enough, but they were dumb creatures after all, rather than determinedly devilish. Why Papa allowed her mother's unfounded fears to rule their lives Prudence could not understand, but that was the way of things and there would be no changing them.
Therefore, when Prudence had learned that Spot had no home, no owner, indeed no past as far as anyone could make out, she seized the chance to finally have a pet to call her own. She took it upon herself to squirrel away food from the larder and from scraps in order to feed him for, if she did not see to this necessary task, who would? She was convinced that Spot's very existence depended upon her love and charity. It worked to Prudence's benefit that these kindnesses did not seem to serve to make Spot beholden to her. Whilst she viewed herself as Spot's mistress, he did not see things quite the same way. Spot did not attach himself to Prudence nor insist, as most stray dogs were wont to do, upon following her home and quickly taking up residence inside. He was content to come whenever she called, to spend time with her and then for them to go their separate ways. This consequence suited Prudence's needs down to the ground and so the two had gone on since then, she an occasional mistress, he an occasional pet and both exceedingly happy with their lot.

Another task Prudence had long ago set for herself was the occasional grooming of Spot, who seemed not to mind her ministrations in the least though, apparently, he would have happily settled for being a tangled, stinky mess had she not insisted on these forays into beautifying him. He seemed to see these encounters as some sort of extended manner of play and he now entered into the sport with gusto, yelping and giving little growls, but pushing ever closer to Prudence and never stopping his attempts to reach his tongue to her face. Slowly she wrestled him toward the water, tying up her skirts as she did. But by the time she managed to wet him down, she was nearly as wet as he. Prudence rubbed the soap flakes into a thick lather, and Spot leaned into her hands as she tried to knead away the dried dirt and whatever else was causing his infernal stink.

She couldn’t help laughing as the two of them slipped and slid in the mossy stream-bed.

 


Pierre Tournell rode upon a borrowed horse, really more than a handful, it was. But his friend Major Monty had no tired nags or even quiet cobs in his stables. So he was hoping to find a very quiet route on which to test his mettle aboard the tall chestnut. Tournell had never cared much for horses of any kind, but the smaller the better, and this one was, well, très gigantesque.

Nervously, Tournell watched the horse’s head as it pricked up its ears. There was something ahead along this quiet lane. And then he heard a girl’s laughter and the yelps of a dog. Was it ominous or just merriment?

Tournell drew on the reins to stop the horse as the noisemakers came into view. “Magnifique!” he whispered at the sight of the girl, wet skirt clinging to her legs, and the large dog encased in soapsuds. “A worthy scene! Worthy of a great picture!”



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