In Service to Churchwarden Gaines
The heavy wooden door shut stolidly, with a clunk in the stone-set doorway, banishing the biting wind without. The song of iron scraping stone announced the sliding home of the bolt above and behind him as he stood engulfed in the shadow of the dark-cloaked man. A smoldering fire of good log, of fair-smelling wood, lit the spacious room as Churchwarden Gaines stepped forward to greet the lanky beast that rose from in front of the warming fire to meet its master—man and hound framed in the fireglow. The towering man bent to pet and whisper to the long-snouted beast—a great dog seemingly from the darkest lairs of Foul Fairy—as tall at the shoulder as Jeffy, a dog with witchfire eyes that stood and regarded him after nuzzling its master.
The voice of Churchwarden Gaines was like the rasp of a drum in the firelit dark, “Come on, Jeffy Boy, Crim is friend enough to he who scratches behind ear and pets the neck. By his state you have not a whiff of Irish about you.”
Jeffy stepped forth and extended the back of his hand as Mother had taught and the great dog likewise stepped forward and wetly sniffed the hand, sneezing from the coal dust and stepping away with some indignation toward the fireplace, where he reclined in a long, lazy arch of coarse-haired disdain for the new guest.
Jeffy looked up at Churchwarden Gaines, who peered down into him clear-eyed and forceful, pointing to a wooden arched table against the stony wall which held a basin of tin, his voice even and sure, “Crim has a distaste for coal dust. Wash yourself and your clothes there and dry all between the hound and the fire. I am to bed and shall rise with the sun at its convenience, expecting even heat, clean water and a hungry hound. It would not do for the parish hound to slack his hunger on an errant boy.”
Noticing by his bent manner the start of fear upon Jeffy’s face, the stern Churchwarden continued, “Crim eats only from his master’s hand and upon the rogue-footed and vagrant. Busy yourself near to him and you shall have no worry.”
With those words, Churchwarden Gaines turned on his fine booted heels and made his way through a mysterious door on the far side of the room, out from behind which spilled lantern light and two musical giggles, as if little girls had grown to womanhood and retained their gay manor and squeak of voice.
The heavy wooden door grinding shut and a bolt driven home with some finality, Jeffy found himself alone in the great room of the Churchwarden’s home, the huge hound reclining before the fire regarding him serpent-like over its shoulder. Jeffy made use of the cold water of the basin, washing all of his clothes until the water swilled black and he stood naked, wringing the last water from his trousers.
The hound, bored overseeing the washing of boy clothes, moaned and writhed in impatient slumber before the fire, its great glassy eyes dancing with flame as he regarded the boy tiptoeing between its arch of fur and the spacious warmth of the radiant fireplace. Jeffy found himself upon a hide, the longhaired hide of some big beast, as he draped his clothes fireside upon the wrought iron fencing and then carefully added a small compact log, rolling it gingerly into place among the hissing embers with no mere coal rod, but an ornate—even knightly—fire poker.
Bare naked and shivering, Jeffy squatted on his tiny pale haunches before the fire, the hound regarding him with an impatient flutter of lids, shuttering the fire-moted glassy eyes like stars in some terrible night sky. The hound, he noted, was a jealous sleeper, a grouch of its kind. Then he saw it there, above him as he rubbed his shoulders in the fiery warmth—a hanger, a constable’s sword of justice and retribution, a thing of power, a thing Churchwarden Gaines must take great pride in, hanging as it did over his fireplace in an old and tarnished scabbard.
Bounding with excitement, Jeffy rose, dragged over a heavy oaken stool, took up the fire poker and lifted the hanger by its leathern baldric from the wall. Lowering the heirloom with much reverence, Jeffy stepped down off the stool and placed the scabbarded blade with precise care upon it. He then stood and cast about for oil and rag and noticed the hound had risen ominously to stare intently at the hanger, as if awaiting some signal from its owner to bound off in pursuit of its quarry.
Jeffy scratched behind the beastly ear, which brought a yawn from the thing. He then spoke softly, “Crim, I mean to burnish our master’s sword, not take it up.”
He then brushed past the bemused hound, located the oil and rag from above the shoeshine kit and returned to busy himself with the task at hand. As he dampened the rag with the precious metal-preserving stuff, Crim snorted in some disgust, sneezed and fairly threw himself down on the beast-skin rug. As the sound of busy, burnishing hands took the boy’s mind off of his chilly plight and permitted his imagination to take him into the overgrown tangle of the Wonder Woods, where he wayfared with a broad hanger in hand, the dog yawned, moaned deeply and turned his back on the busy boy, curling into a tight a ball as those legs could manage and burying its big muzzle beneath them, weary already with the work of boys.