1946 | London

Arranging a Marriage

J.R. Ackerley finds his dog a husband.

Soon after Tulip came into my possession I set about finding a husband for her. She had had a lonely and frustrated life hitherto; now she should have a full one. A full life naturally included the pleasures of sex and maternity, and although I could not, of course, accommodate a litter of puppies in my small flat, that was a matter to which I would give my attention later.

The prospect of mating her presented no other serious problem. Slender though my knowledge was, it seemed sufficient. Bitches came into season or, more vulgarly, heat, twice a year. The heat lasted for three weeks. During the first week the vagina gradually opened; during the third it gradually closed. Mating was accomplished at the peak, in the second week. It was all plain sailing. Indeed, such difficulty as I envisaged lay in the opposite direction, in preventing her from being mated—in protecting her, that is to say, from the attention of undesirable suitors. Undesirable suitors were stray dogs of other breeds, or of no breed at all, for although I had no profit-making interest in the matter, so beautiful a creature as Tulip should certainly have children as pretty as herself. The only question that remained to be settled therefore was the choice of a suitable mate—the question, in fact, that confronts us all, but simplified in the case of bitches by the availability of a stud system of dogs for the hiring. Partly out of thrift, however, I discarded this solution. Why pay a fee for hiring a husband when there were quantities of good-looking Alsatians about who might be borrowed for nothing if one got to know their owners? But how did one get to know their owners? Tulip’s next heat—the third of her life, but the first since she entered mine—was close at hand. I could not rely upon a chance encounter. Might not a vet help? Any vet would probably include an Alsatian or two among his patients; it would be easy for him to sound the owners and put me in touch. All this a local vet obligingly did. He provided me with the address of a Mr. Blandish who lived in Sheen and owned a good Alsatian named Max whom he was willing to lend. Vets at this early period of my life in the dog world seemed to me an impatient race, but I trespassed further upon this one’s time to inquire whether there were any particularly favorable days in the second week for putting the two animals together. That, said he, was a question the bitch herself would decide, but the ninth to eleventh days were considered normal. He added that I should find out whether Max had had any previous sexual history. Why? I asked. With a weary smile the vet replied that mating dogs was not always so simple a matter as I seemed to suppose, and that since Tulip was inexperienced it would be helpful to have a sire who knew the ropes. He then turned his back on me.

The house was large, solid, and detached, and that it was probably the right one was indicated, as I pressed the bell, by a short rumble of gruff barks within. Max was then revealed as a heavy, handsome dog with the grave deportment of the old family retainer. His stolid figure silently barred my entry, until a quiet word from his master authorized him to admit me. When I was invited into the sitting room he followed after and, assuming a dignified posture on the hearth rug, kept me under close surveillance: the house and its management clearly belonged to him. To have offered him any kind of familiarity, it was plain, would have been as shocking a breach of etiquette as if one had attempted to stroke the butler.

Do you not see how God is praised by those in the heavens and those on earth? The very birds praised Him as they wing their way.

—The Qur’an, 620

Mr. Blandish, who was hearty, prosperous, middle-aged, and bald, seated himself beside me on the sofa and gave me a cigarette.

“Matches! Matches!” he then exclaimed, in a petulant voice. “Are there no matches in the house!”

Considerably startled by this outburst, I said soothingly, “Oh, never mind. I think I’ve got some.”

But before I could begin to fumble, Max had lumbered to his feet and, with a swaying motion of the hips, crossed the room. Picking up an outsize box that was lying on a stool, he brought it to his master. Mr. Blandish accepted it without comment and lighted our cigarettes, while Max stood obsequiously at his elbow.

“Thank you, Max,” he then said in a negligent manner and handed the box back to the dog, who replaced it on the stool and gravely resumed his watchful position on the rug.

This unnerving incident was not permitted to interrupt the Blandishes’ flow of polite conversation. They plied me with questions about Tulip and expressed their delight at the projected alliance. They had had Max for six years and had always wished for an opportunity of this kind; his happiness was their only concern in the transaction. These remarks gave me the opening I needed to put the question the vet had advised me to put, but the alarming exhibition of canine sagacity I had just witnessed had so shaken me that I hardly knew how to frame the inquiry in Max’s presence. Avoiding his eye, I stammered, “Then will this be his first experience of—with the opposite sex? The vet seemed to think there might be difficulties unless—”

But Mr. Blandish displayed no sense of delicacy.

“Oh, you needn’t worry about that!” said he, with a guffaw. “Max knows his oats all right!” 

I coughed.

“He’s been married before, then?”

“He’s never been churched, it’s true,” said Mr. Blandish, “but when we were down in the country a couple of years ago, he happened upon a stray bitch in heat—not at all a classy one, either—and had his wicked way with her on the spot. He’ll be delighted to repeat the performance with Tulip, I can assure you!” he added gleefully.

“Oh, then that’s all right. It was only that, Tulip being a virgin, the vet thought—”

“Leave it all to me,” said Mr. Blandish gaily. “I’ve got a very reliable little book—not that Max will need to look anything up in it!”

I was then invited to bring Tulip along for a formal introduction to her betrothed. When I got up to go, Max preceded me into the hall and, interposing his bulk between myself and my hat, required another permissive word from his master before I was able to pick it up, in case, Mr. Blandish explained, I took the wrong one.

Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, by Piero di Cosimo, c. 1495.

Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, by Piero di Cosimo, c. 1495. National Gallery, London. 

The formal introduction was effected a few days later, and if Tulip failed to make a bad impression on the Blandishes, it was not, I thought, for any want of trying. Of the kind of impression she made on Max there seemed to me no doubt at all. The sound of his throaty rumble as we advanced up the drive announced that he was on duty, and the opening door disclosed him, planted squarely on the threshold as before, his master’s hand upon his collar. The affianced pair gingerly sniffed each other’s noses, and Max’s tail rose higher in the air and began to wave majestically from side to side: he was clearly preparing to do the canine honors. Much gratified by this exhibition of tender feeling, Mr. Blandish bade us enter, and both animals were released in the hall. But no sooner had Max approached Tulip, in the most affable manner, to extend his acquaint­ance with her, than she rounded vigorously upon him and drove him down the passage into what appeared to be the pantry with his tail between his legs. From then on, it seemed to me, she behaved abominably. She investigated all round the Blandishes’ sitting room in a thorough, dubious, and insulting way, as though she could scarcely believe her nose, and then refused to sit or lie down, but constantly interrupted our conversation by nattering at me to take her away, staring at me imperiously with her exclamatory face. When I pretended not to notice her, she tried to pull me out of my chair by her own lead, which I always carried clipped round my neck. To the Blandishes and their overtures of friendship she paid not the slightest heed—they might, indeed, not have been present—and whenever Max was emboldened to emerge from the pantry to join us, she instantly chased him back into it again.

I apologized for her behavior, but I need not have done so. The Blandishes had taken no offense. On the contrary, they were positively enchanted by her beauty and the femininity, as they termed it, of her conduct; and every time she drove poor Max out of his own sitting room, Mr. Blandish was, indeed, so excessively amused, remarking with a chuckle that she was a sweet and proper little bitch and that he could see they would get along famously together when her time came, that I could not help wondering from what source of knowledge such optimism derived and found my gaze dwelling speculatively upon Mrs. Bland­ish, who was a pretty little woman considerably younger than her husband.

Tulip’s time would come, said he, between her seventh and ninth day. The nuptials, he added jovially, would take place in his back garden. I ventured to remark that my own information was that a later day in the second week might be better, but he replied firmly that I was mistaken, his reliable little book recommended the seventh to the ninth days and I could safely leave matters to his judgment. His assertiveness overbore me, but I was dissatisfied nevertheless. Ignorant though I was, it seemed to me a pity that the two animals should have no opportunity to get better acquainted before the moment arrived, and I therefore suggested diffidently that, since we were neighbors, they might be exercised together occasionally between now and the event.

Animals are good to think with.

—Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1962

“What a good idea!” cried Mrs. Blandish. But her husband was instantly and flatly opposed. It was Mrs. Blandish, he observed dryly, who took Max for his walks while he himself was at work, and he could not permit her to have any part in this business, at any rate in his absence. When we left, Max was again withdrawn from hiding to say goodbye to Tulip, but he could not be induced to approach her closely. This restored Mr. Blandish to his previous good humor.

“His other wife bit him in the shoulder,” he chortled, rubbing his hands, “but he won’t at all mind a few more bites when his time with Tulip comes!” He said this with such gusto that I glanced again involuntarily at Mrs. Blandish, who was smiling roguishly at him with her small, even teeth.

© 1965, Joe Randolph Ackerley. Used with permission of Harold Ober Associates, Inc.

Contributor

J.R. Ackerley

From My Dog Tulip. About the attempted consummation of the marriage some time later, Ackerley wrote, “I do not remember how long we stood stamping our feet in that icy garden exhorting the two dogs, when they were momentarily together, to sexual intercourse, nor how many times Max was propelled from and stampeded back into the house.” Ackerley served as the literary editor of the BBC’s magazine, The Listener, from 1935 to 1959. His memoir My Father and Myself was published posthumously in 1968, followed two years later by E.M. Forster: A Portrait.