Coventry and the Red Bitch

An epic poem by Patricia Gail Burnham

sunnytiger

Gail Burnham’s Sunny and Tiger – the inspirations for this epic poem.

Part 1. The Winning of the Red Bitch

The Colonel brought the bright red bitch

That was the light of the Colonel’s eye,

To meet on the frosted autumn fields

The pride of the Midland counties-

The unrivaled Rhiannon’s Coventry,

Gold as the sun and striped like a cat,

Come to the golden Sussex fall,

With a king’s stride, and a hawk’s eye,

And the pride of the royal born.

 

John Kendall whelped the red bitch pup,

And raised her up in the Colonel’s care.

John’s is the step she listens for.

He has trained the pup and worked the dog,

Carried her home when she had worn her paws,

Treated and cared for her,

Loved and lived for her,

‘Till no hound could match her on a course,

In all the land around.

 

The Challenge

William Smythe owned the yearling brace

Of Coventry’s Lad and Coventry’s Belle.

Their speed was the talk of the town’s fancy

As they flashed through the season’s meets,

Proving through course and course again

Their sire’s worth.

Of all the excellent local dogs,

Only one could stay with the Coventry pair,

As the Colonel’s bitch ran free.

 

She has gone by them on the run-ups,

And led them through the turns,

Forcing them to second her

When they were used to leading.

William Smythe thought long and hard.

“Let the dog avenge his pup’s defeats.”

Then he offered a purse and a silver cup,

With an invitation to the Colonel’s bitch

And one to Rhiannon’s Coventry.

 

The Eve of the Meet

Now the gentlemen drink and bet by night.

The gentlemen ride and shoot by day,

While Kendall walks the red bitch out,

In the evening’s dim, cool peace.

Her eyes and ears are ever alert,

Searching through her familiar fields,

Seeing first the approaching man and dog,

As out to learn the lay of the land

Are Brian and Coventry.

 

John’s greeting is brief and Brian’s briefer,

As the eyes of each read the other’s hound.

A flicker of fear touches each man.

“God, there is a dog, thinks Kendall,

Disloyal to the bitch beside him.

While Brian croons silently, “Coventry,

She is a high born lady

And a red witch as well.

Is she your match, my Cove ?”

 

The Day of the Meet

The gentlemen ride out mounted fine,

The towns folk follow in the gallery.

The judge takes his place as

The last of the bets go down.

Kendall leads his lady out,

Her red coat burnished to sunlit flame,

A living grace from another age,

With a fine fierce eye, a dainty paw,

And the fearless heart of a thoroughbred.

 

Brian brings the tiger colored dog

Rhiannon’s Coventry walking proud,

One of the last lords of the Earth

With a warm eye for the red bitch

Who turns her head away-

Away from the dog,

And away from the crowd.

She stands as still as a winter’s night

As she searches for her heart’s desire.

 

The First Course

The hare is up, the Tally-ho called,

The pair slip clear together.

The gallery is cold with shock:

The bitch, who has always led the run-up,

Is running at Coventry’s shoulder.

Stride for stride the pair are matched,

And it is hard to say

Which is the most surprised,

Coventry, the bitch, or the gallery.

 

At the fence the bitch spares a sidelong glance

At the dog still running beside her,

Then she dives for the rail gap.

In the pride of his strength,

And the joy of the morning

Coventry chances leaping it clear

To take the first close lead,

To force the turn and take the points,

Swinging wide as he comes around.

 

Quick as a cat in any turn

The red bitch takes the lead.

Then Coventry strives to run her down

Stretching out with his longer stride,

And closing ever so slowly.

He gains on her an inch at a time

While both of them are flying.

Still leading, she forces the second turn

That brings him up beside her.

 

Through another fence and another field

Flee the quarry and hunters, the hare and the hounds.

The three are bound by fate and time,

And time is closing fast.

Run out and panicked

The hare turns back

Dodging from dog to dog

Until it turns to Coventry’s line,

And the big dog makes the take.

 

The Breathing Space

As the handlers ride to catch them up

The two hounds stand alone

On a gentle rise in the meadowland.

Outdistanced are the outriders.

Outdistanced the gallery, far behind.

Ringing across the valley fields

The church bells toll the quarter hour.

In the breathing space for the first time,

The red bitch turns to Coventry.

 

Coventry rolls in the night damp grass.

The red bitch watches and a playful imp

Shines in her bright brown eyes.

She drops in a curtsy,

Brisket on the ground.

She smiles her challenge,

“Catch me if you can.”

As John calls to warn her off,

Brian’s horse starts up a hare.

 

The Second Course

Coventry swings onto its line.

The bitch turns to see it, her eyes still bright.

John draw’s rein. They are away. He smiles.

He has seen that look before on her.

Fey and wild, lost in her effort,

Where speed itself is the heart’s desire,

She sprints to go by Coventry,

And nearly goes by the hare itself

As it wrenches to the left.

 

“That’s my lady,” thinks John Kendall,

Silent in the knowledge that Brian is watching,

Warm with the pride of hearing Brian say,

“Lord, look at her run !”

Turn on turn they trade the lead,

Coventry holding it at the kill.

He noses under the straining hare,

And flecks it high in the autumn air,

Giving the take to his lady.

 

The Third Course

The red bitch leaps like a new-flown hawk

To make the mid-air take.

The course ends hard by the Claydon River,

Flowing rocky and pooled at the summer’s end.

Coventry picks his way down the bank

To lie in the cool of the shallows.

A young oak tree clings to the edge.

The red bitch watches from its shade,

While Brian and John ride up.

 

She accepts her leash and turns to watch.

But this day the rules will all be broken.

While Brian tries to whistle Coventry in

The dog is climbing the farther bank.

He is dripping wet and hot and blowing,

A tired dog with two hares down.

Still he quarters the bracken growing there.

As Brian Crosses to collar him

Coventry flushes the day’s third hare.

 

Running one on one, the pair runs straight.

The hound is tiring, the hare fresh started.

They race up the river’s edge together

Until the river loops before them

And the quarry doubles back.

Coventry comes around, losing ground,

To repeat his grueling chase.

He is stretched out flat and running labored

When Brian turns to John.

 

“As far as he has run today

I fear he may run himself to death

Before he can make a solo take.

Will you slip the bitch to help him ?”

For a moment John hesitates, fear in his heart,

Fear of the unending chase.

Then he looks at Brian and sees himself:

Sees fear for the dog, and love for the dog;

And he slips his lady’s lead.

 

The Final Bet

The bitch clear jumps the river’s edge

Splashes through the stream,

And charges up the bank

In time to head the approaching hare.

Trapped between the pair of hounds,

The hare is forced to cross the ford.

The hounds raise sheets of spray as they cross,

The red bitch leading into the clear

With Coventry twenty yards back.

 

Far to the rear, unknown to the hounds,

In the heat of the race the owners sweat.

As civil as civilized men can be

The Colonel and Robert politely chat.

“He’ll never catch her.” “I think that he may.”

“He’s shot his bolt, watch her pull away.”

“He’ll never quit. He may catch her yet.”

“Winner take all then the bitch and the dog.”

“Done !” And the final bet is made.

 

The Forfeit

Run Coventry. Run for your lady.

Run because your heart won’t let you quit.

Run for the legends. Run for the glory

That will not matter at all to you.

Once on the flat and running straight

Coventry settles into his stride.

The red bitch is flying free in the lead,

But Coventry is grimly closing on her,

Slowly and painfully running her down.

 

One of her blowing ears perks back,

As she hears the big dog moving up.

Her head cants slightly as she harks to him.

There is a groan from the gallery.

The Colonel is still, while John cries out,

For her head comes up and she shortens stride.

She looks back and lets the hare go free,

As Coventry sprints, in a final effort,

To come to her and meet her teeth.

 

The Pair

She bites him with cries that are not anger.

Still firm on the hare, he goes on by.

Scorned and irate she sprints to him

Nibbling toothmarks down his neck and side,

Pinching with not quite cutting strength,

And bumping him with her shoulder.

Startled, he turns and the hare takes cover.

So Coventry trades a fluff-tailed bunny

For the invitation of a winsome bitch.

 

There is dismay in the gallery

As the rules of man’s sport

Are thrown to the winds.

There is joy of recognition between the dogs,

Who see in each other their own rare kind,

Who have challenged and found each other worthy,

Two lone hunters who have found an equal,

As a soaring falcon greets a tiercel

Hunting the heights of the summer sky.

 

Afterward

Now comes the bitter part of the day,

As the Colonel tells John

That the red bitch is lost,

Gone on a wager to Robert.

“Give her to Brian and come away.”

And a man sees his heart,

Bartered in a game,

Bartered and lost on a moment’s whim.

“I’ll see to her first,” he says.

 

The Colonel leaves the bright red bitch

That was the light of the Colonel’s eye

For John to tend for burrs and scrapes,

As gently as a mother with an only child.

While he is saying his last good-bys,

Robert and Brian consider the matter.

“It would be,” says Robert, “a sporting proposition,

For Coventry to win the Colonel’s bitch

While we win away his houndmaster.”

 

The Price

“He has a fine hand with a hound,” says Brian.

“I could use his help with Fancy’s litter.

Consider the way he trained the bitch.

She threw that final course away.

I cannot say we beat her.

Look at the two of them together.

Even through you won her on the field,

None but Kendall will ever own her.

What you have won is Kendall’s price.

 

John blindly leads the bitch

To where Robert and Brian and Coventry stand.

John’s jaw is set. In stern faced silence

He hands her leash to Brian.

Then he turns to leave and Robert asks,

“John Kendall will you come home with us ?”

The next sunrise shows the five together,

Three men and two hounds homeward bound.

The Colonel was not pleased.

 

Four Months Later

On the night before Christmas

The only creatures stirring

Are the red bitch and her litter,

With Coventry standing watch.

The dam’s eyes glow in the firelight.

The halls are decked with holiday puppies.

Quick, red, puppies course through the house,

While tiger striped puppies on over-sized paws

Are stalking the Christmas mouse.

 

Small and chubby, clumsy and striving;

Ruler and Rogue and Red Arrow grow,

With their sisters Rouge and Rainbow,

And the incomparable Rambling Rose.

Years from now Red Arrow and Rose

Will run for the Waterloo Cup.

They will all build legends of their own,

But tonight they are still puppies

Playing tag on Christmas Eve.

 

Part 2. The Passing of Coventry

 Coursing is a young dog’s sport.

Season by season the new stars shine.

The run in glory for a year or two,

And disappear from the trials.

For nearly half a dozen years

The superstars of the coursing meets

Have been the illustrious sons and daughters

Of a flame brindle dog with a snow white muzzle

And an aging red bitch, her eyelashes white.

The two are house dogs at Enton Manor,

Secure in their places by the hearth,

Now come to the winter of their lives.

For they are Coventry and the red bitch,

The greatest brace of coursing hounds

That ever set paw on a fallow field.

Now honored, cared for, and neglected

As unnoticed and familiar as the rug they lie on,

They have become a part of the past.

The young are praised, the old forgotten,

As new hopes turn to their children’s children.

It has been years since their last puppies

Brought attention to the red bitch.

Form that final litter came Shadowfast,

With Foxfire, Ruby and Traveling Lady,

And with the spell of their flashing speed

They turned the attention of the fancy

Away from the memories of old hounds.

But the heart of a great dog never ages.

The soul is a pure and far seeing as ever.

As the body fails, the inner strength grows.

The strength that drove them to early fame,

The determination that conquered all,

Gradually comes to stand alone

Against the infirmities of the body

And the indignities of advancing age

That come with the passing of time.

Through the boredom of Coventry’s well tended life,

In sleeping away the long afternoons,

Still he dreams of the chase.

He cries in his sleep. He pants with the effort.

His telltale feet tremble and twitch.

As they follow the course in his mind.

Now the only hares he is allowed to see

Are those that he can find in his sleep,

As the dog weakens and the dreams grow stronger.

The hounds of the legendary coursing brace

Have become the pets of Robert’s daughter.

The same years that bring them from youth to age

Bring Jane from childhood to fanciful youth,

Alive to a world of beaus and events

Of parties earlier glimpsed from the garden

Of smiles shyly received and given,

A lady to be, with her world now larger

Than the dogs that she loved as a child.

The parties will be endless, the excitement vast

For the Iverstone Cup will be run at Upsham.

The meet will be run on the Midland fields

With the Queen attending on the final day.

Three score days before the trial,

A letter is delivered under Windsor’s seal.

It contains a request by a gracious Sovereign,

“We would be pleased to receive, should they still live,

Rhiannon’s Coventry and his lady.”

An event without precedent, an honor unequaled,

A royal summons for royal hounds,

The final acclaim for lives filled with honors.

Robert sends for Brian and John

To share with his trainers the moment’s pride.

John raised the red bitch from a pup.

Brian readied Coventry for all his courses.

Each is a quiet man, each a modest man,

Until their hounds are challenged

But now all the challenges have been met. (10 lines)

The legends are written. The fame grows dim.

Brian and John turn to Robert.

They are bound to him by more than wages,

By knowledge and respect, but most of all

By the endless search for the perfect dog,

A quest that the three will seek together

Through all the years of their lives.

Robert says, “Time marks every creature.

When we look at Coventry and the bitch,

We will always see them as they were,

Young and unmatched, fleet and true. (11 lines)

We see them through our memories.

But if we exhibit them now in public,

Strangers can not see the past as we can.

To outsiders they will only be old dogs.

Shall we then take the pair to Upsham ?”

Brian answers quickly. We should take them

This time, for the Queen, God save her,

And for those very uncaring strangers;

That years from now they can sit by the fire

And tell their children and grandchildren

How once they saw with their own eyes

Rhiannon’s Coventry and the red bitch. (12 lines)

“Of course they were old by the Upsham meet,

But they were a leash of eagles.”

When Robert asks John if he agrees,

John considers and carefully adds,

“In the long weeks before the trial

We can walk them out with the yearling hounds

To give them the flow of muscle tone

That house dogs lack and runners must have.

They are old, I have to admit,

But Coventry’s bearing is regal yet,

And my girl will yield to no younger bitch.” (11 lines)

Robert smiles as his friends defend their dogs,

As he sees their old pride touched.

“No, John, she never would yield.

No more would Coventry, nor the two of you.

There will be one last trial for them.

Do as you have said and start tomorrow.

Though they may be too old to run.

We’ll have them seen in hunt condition,

In tribute to their past.”

As the pair is included in the daily walks,

The change in their lives is welcomed gladly.

Once more they pad through the miles of roadwork

That form the life of a running dog.

Distance is gained and the pace increases.

Muscles fill out where fat had been,

While stamina builds, unseen but vital.

And as their strength rebuilds once more,

Their minds turn back to the past.

Memories stir of other seasons,

Of preparations for long past meets,

Of vanished hounds and hares and handlers,

Of trial mornings in Coventry’s youth,

When none could stand against him

Until in the winning of the red bitch,

He met his match and running mate,

To bring her to Enton with John Kendall,

To found a dynasty of speed.

Finally the sixth of September comes.

From the house they see the kennel dogs

Being readied for the trial’s final day.

The legacy of their breeding is written clear

In the lines of the eager younger dogs.

They are Coventry’s daughters

And the red bitch’s sons,

High of head and fleet of foot,

Keen of eye and mind.

The morning is silver as Jane makes ready.

How to make a hound fit for a Queen ?

Finally she brings down the Altcar leads

Won so long ago and so long unused.

At first sight of the leads, both the hounds

Are wild with expectation, alight with joy.

Today they are leashed. Today they are going.

This time they will not be left at home,

While the young dogs are sent to the trial.

A running dog can scent a coursing meet,

Down all the winds of his changing life.

They live in the hope that each new dawn

Will be the start of a hunting day.

Jane takes her pair to the waiting carriage,

For the short drive to neighboring Upsham fields.

There rising wonderfully from the everyday turf

Is a mist-white canopy edged with gold,

Sheltering its guests from the grey dawn.

Jane stretches to see the elegant people

Gathered beneath it, surrounding the Queen.

Caught in her dreams, Jane does not see

Coventry watching with equal intentness

The long held object of his dreams,

The open fields, the scene of his triumphs

As he knows again the pulse of the course,

Feeling the hidden rabbits’ presence,

Drawing his mind to themselves.

Around Jane the hardened trainers find

A sudden need to be stern and brusque,

As they see for the first time in many years

Rhiannon’s Coventry and the red bitch.

Seeing each dog’s indomitable will

Fettered by the toll that time has taken.

Jane yields the dogs for the presentation,

Coventry to Brian and the red bitch to John.

She watches them led to the canopy.

Robert calls her to come along

To where the aging hounds meet an aging Sovereign,

Regal the three of them, apart from the crowd.

The red bitch delights in the attention

As vain as a young girl newly courted,

As coy as any eager flirt,

Allowing them to honor her as her due,

While Coventry watches the fields

Lost in his dreams of speed.

After the honors, the final courses start.

Jane takes Coventry and the bitch,

As John and Brian move onto the field

With the finalists from Enton.

Eager to watch, Jane remembers her father’s

Warning to keep her pair off the field.

Too young to recall that no lead can hold Coventry,

She ties their leashes to the paddock fence

And runs to see the course.

Unwatched for a moment and wild with hope,

Coventry sets his teeth to the lead

And quickly chews it through.

But his leap to freedom is brought up short.

Betrayed by the confusing tangle of leather,

He has cut the bitch’s lead.

Quickly he turns back to his work,

And cuts his own leash through,

To stand free once again in his promised land.

In the Upsham fields hares seldom grow old,

As the pressure of the hunt

Culls the slow of foot.

But this year there is one exception.

Old Jake haunts the coursing field.

At once admired and cursed by the houndsmen,

He has learned to lie low in the carriage park

Close to the people and to the dogs,

But safe from competitive coursing.

In the maze of horses and vehicles,

There is no way a course can be fair started,

So Jake has managed to grow old

As the bane of the Upsham Coursing Club.

He teases the dogs who never believe

What their handlers know too well,

That a course with Jake

Through the midst of the crowd

Could never receive a score.

Now the scent of Jake fills Coventry’s senses

Like a warm rain in the late spring.

He stands tall to sight hunt, but in the grass

He sees no ears, no flash of motion.

He lowers his head and breathes deliberately

Letting the scent pull him forward,

Pull him toward Jake’s sheltering bush.

The red bitch has seen all this before.

She waits, head high, watching intently.

Alert and ready as a full drawn bow,

The red bitch backs up Coventry’s hunt,

Her old habits holding true.

Coventry follows the river of scent

Spread on the air to Jake’s hiding place.

Jake crouches low to watch their approach

Until, stiff and reluctant, and with the memory

Of other days and other dogs,

Jake kicks clear of his cover.

The aging red bitch sees the aging hare

Explode from the shrub under Coventry’s nose.

Now for one last time she starts a course.

She is running down the winds of time,

Running through her past.

Behind her, Coventry’s’ head snaps up,

As he marks her initial line.

He stands alert, perfect for an instant,

Then he sprints to join the chase.

His resisting muscles and joints protest,

But his mind rejects his body’s failings,

As his soul responds to the hunt.

There is pandemonium in the carriage park,

As Jake makes use of his favorite cover.

The hare and hounds play catch as catch can

Among the nervous horses and irate drivers.

Curses are freely bestowed on Jake,

And on his foolish followers.

But old dogs know what young ones can’t.

Coventry and the bitch press Jake between them.

Then Stanhope’s driver calls out eagerly,

“I have five on the hare. Will anyone take it ?”

“I’ll take it, and anyone else.”

Richard’s groom answers for the Enton hounds.

He is quickly surrounded by the novice drivers,

Men who have seen Jake run before

But who are too young to have seen the hounds.

The red bitch nearly takes the hare,

As they round a gig wheel, face to face.

He ducks through the spokes and sprints away.

Coventry and the bitch work Jake to the fence

And drive him to break from the carriage park.

Straight through the trial’s society crowd,

Through the rustle of long dresses

And the shrieks of startled ladies,

Old Jake leads his hounds.

The sound of Coventry’s’ lengthening stride

Is enough to part the crowd before him,

To startle the city bred coursing gentry.

The rush of his passage raises hackles

On the necks of the elegant, civilized hunters,

Giving them the thrill they had come in hopes of.

For the sound of power commands attention

And Coventry is power beyond all else

As age hampers him little in the early run.

Brian hears hounds pass behind him

And he rejects it as impossible,

While recognition fights with disbelief.

“Who is that ? I have not heard

A stride like that since Coventry ran.”

Suddenly he struggles clear of the gallery

To look for the dogs he has heard go by.

He sees old Jake break into the open

And the hounds come following fast.

Cut leash ends flying from their collars,

They flatten out as they reach full stride.

Coventry is all power and glory

With the red bitch running lightly beside him.

It is a sight that in his deepest dreams,

Brian had not hoped to see again

In all the days that he would live.

“John, its Coventry and the bitch.

They are free and on a hare !”

Just for a moment time is gone,

And death is gone,

And they run again untouched.

Then reason returns and he sees the risk

Of the high speed chase to the aging hounds.

Fear returns, and he pulls the collar

Off the impatient dog he holds

To free the bitch’s last born son

The big red dog named Foxfire.

As he sees Foxfire join the chase

Richard understands and calls to John,

“They will kill themselves like that.

Slip a catch dog to end the course.”

John is holding Midnight Pearl

And he slips the black bitch free.

Gone are thoughts of the Iverstone Cup.

Loosed is Enton’s finalist brace,

To close on Jake and his hunters.

Foxfire and Midnight Pearl

Run in the pride of their finest year,

Having won through two days of competition

To the quarter finals of the Iverstone Cup.

Now the gallery falls silent to watch

As their favorites start to run.

The pair’s speed shrinks the nearest field

As they arrow toward the heart of the hunt,

Where Jake is dodging his pursuers.

The keen young dogs close the gap

On the turning hounds and hare,

And Brian is in pain.

“God, Coventry, I would not see you beaten,

But let them pass for your life’s sake.”

Coventry hears the approaching dogs

And presses for his former speed,

As determined as ever that none should come

Between him and his quarry.

Jake breaks through to the adjoining field.

At the hedgerow Coventry kicks up a hare.

Scorning it to hold on old Jake’s line,

But the new hare crosses Midnight Pearl

And with closer game

And more time to chose

The black bitch turns

To the new hare’s line,

And Foxfire turns behind her.

As Brian sees the catch brace turn aside,

As he watches old Jake bending South

To lead his pursuers back toward Enton

To let Coventry and the bitch run clear,

Brian feels unreasoning joy.

He will not have to see them beaten.

They are all alone on this last course

Now beyond the reach of man or hound

And in the hands of God.

Richard is at Brian’s shoulder

Pressing reins into his hand.

Giving him Briargate, the big grey gelding.

“Follow them out. Hurry man.

Don’t let them stand still

At the end of the course,

Or the shock of the halt may stop their hearts.

I will catch up Pearl and Foxfire.

You care for Coventry and the bitch.”

As Brian mounts, the hunter moves out

Obedient to heel and the urgent need.

Left behind, Robert and John take horses

While trying to see the hunt progress.

At first through the sharp early turns

And then down the erratic twisting straights,

Jake uses the cunning of his long lifetime

And the fleetness that he was born with,

To press the hounds to their utmost effort.

At the base of the Kettering Grade

Jake turns left to avoid the hill.

Coventry and the bitch fan out behind him

With the smoothness of long practice.

The bitch cuts the inside corner and gains,

Pressing him from the downhill side,

While Coventry swings wide

And high on the slope

Behind Jake’s line of sight.

With the ghost of the rush

That took many a hare,

The red bitch closes on Jake.

Fearing the bitch and not seeing the trap,

The old hare tries his last resource.

With only speed now left to save him,

He turns uphill in a drive for the crest

And commits himself to the straight speed run

That Coventry is waiting for.

Through the initial turn, Coventry gains

Pressing as the hare crosses before him,

Closing now and setting up his take,

While the hill comes close to killing all three.

Jake is run out, but fear sends him on.

Coventry is running far past pain,

As his stride pumps breath to his straining lungs,

His mind holds nothing but Jake and the hill,

And the white heat of the finish.

He drives beyond his former speed,

And Jake can do no more.

The distance between them shrinks away.

Coventry’s head cants easily over

To make his sidewise reach for the hare.

All Coventry’s life narrows to this instant

As his catch is true and his teeth drive home,

Tasting body heat and fur and terror

Rejoicing as the hare’s weight pulls at him.

Jake screams once, kicks and is dead

As Coventry comes to a shuddering halt

At the top of the Kettering grade.

Where, the course over and the take made,

Coventry faces his greatest danger.

For without the sweep of his running stride

To help him breathe, he fights for air.

He suddenly feels the strain of the run

While Brian rides to help him.

The red bitch sweeps in to check the kill,

Trembling from the effects of the run herself.

She stands and waits for the pain to pass.

In triumph, Coventry turns to the bitch,

But she dims in his sight as his breath is taken.

He feels a blow deep in his body.

The approaching Brian sees Coventry stricken

As the Greyhound goes down across his kill.

He is dead by the time that Brian can reach him.

Brian turns blindly away from Coventry

To go to the suffering bitch and leash her,

To make her walk, to keep her moving,

Trying to save her from the fatal shock

Of the sudden halt at the long course’s end.

When John rides in to take her lead

She is breathing hard but steadily.

Her rubs her down and walks her out,

While Brian turns to where Coventry lies. (10 lines)

“I will not mourn Coventry.

He would have chosen to die this way.

He did choose to die this way,

In final glory in his final hunt.

But still the world is empty without him.

So I will mourn for myself and the loss of my friend,

That never again in this world,

Will I see Coventry run one more course,

All courage and speed, all heart and desire.

Long after the careless crowd has forgotten him

I will hold him safe in my mind,

And call up again each of his courses:

To see him hurdle the stream at Altcar,

To see him drive through the gallery at Upsham,

To once more see him win the red bitch

Or challenge the Irish Silver Flash.

So he will live in my memory

Until I go to follow him.

“We are within sight of Enton Manor.

He is on his own ground now.

He is where he wished to be.

We will bury him here, at the end

Of his last and greatest course.”

Working through the long afternoon

They laid Coventry to rest

With his head pillowed on his final hare,

To sleep together down through the years.

When they were finished, Richard said,

“We will not mark the grave with stone.

That tall oak tree will shade it in summer,

Dappling light across the knoll

As emerald as the long green fields

That sweep away to the west.

In winter the winds will blow free across it,

While rabbits lie low in their burrows

Hunted by the pitiless hounds of winter.”

Such was the passing of Coventry

Who died as he lived in a blaze of speed,

In the effort of one last hunting day,

A day he had stolen against all odds

From the friends who would save him from himself.

Instead he ran as he always had,

Sustained to the end of his long life

By his own unquenchable will to run,

By his perilous dreams of speed.

Part 3. The Red Bitch’s Hunt

The first time the red bitch disappeared

Was three days after the Upsham meet.

For two days she lay quiet in the house

Sleeping, resting, healing her paws

Showing the toll that the run had taken.

On the third morning she begins to hunt

Moving purposefully from room to room,

And when she has searched the entire house

She settles down to wait by the door.

 

When Jane comes to let her out

The bitch trots directly to the stable

Where, preoccupied, but as gracious as ever

She accepts warm welcomes from Brian and Robert.

She touches noses with her favorite pony,

A cool moist nose against a warm soft nose.

She meticulously inspects the stable.

Then, disappointed, but still intent,

She crosses the yard to the kennels.

 

Eighteen Greyhounds rush to greet her.

She has always shown simple courtesy

To the kennel dogs in days gone by.

Smugly superior in her house status

Her idea of a frightful insult

Was for her to have to spend a night

Actually staying at the kennel

On the occasions when no one was home

At the main house to care for her.

 

Now she checks through the kennel pens

Like a traveler who has lost a friend

And searches each compartment along the train

Vainly seeking one familiar face,

While the passengers look up, ready to greet her,

Only to turn from her disappointment

When they realize that they can not help.

John Kendall watches her poignant search

As she works her way down the lane.

 

He calls her over from the final gate

To hold her once more tight in his arms,

Accepting a very ladylike lick,

Feeling the wiggle of her welcome greeting

And reading the question in her mind.

“Lady, you will not find him here.”

She turns her soft brown eyes on John

And he finds that he can not say Coventry’s name

For she knows that name too well.

 

The matchless Rhiannon’s Coventry,

With his king’s stride and his hawk’s gaze,

And the pride of the royal born.

Coventry her companion for eight long years,

Coventry buried these three days past

At the end of his final course.

Paired in life, and paired in legend

The red bitch and Coventry are finally parted,

And the red bitch turns to John.

 

“Red Lady, I can not help you find him.

He has run beyond even your reach.

But keep me company for a while

And we will think on other things.”

He walks with her to the manor gardens

Muted and colorless so late in the year.

They pass the beds of winter pruned roses

And startle flights of indignant sparrows

Sealing scarlet berries from the Holly hedge.

 

The bitch looks skyward on hearing the calls

Of a wedge of geese far overhead.

The measure the sky in even wingbeats

As they talk their way south for the winter.

They catch the dreams of land bound men

To trail those dreams off their wingtips.

In the exchange of their summer’s gossip

They are singing the passing of six more months,

Marking time on the world’s clock.

 

The bitch follows John to the empty arbor

Where she nestles against him for company.

With a sleepy sigh and a delicate shiver,

She lays her chin on his shoulder.

The warmth of her body is next to his heart.

He feels her keenness and unyielding will,

And the flame in her soul that sustains her still.

Then the years come back to John Kendall,

As he studies the face of his truest love.

 

He sees the frost of whitened hairs

That begin to mask her in strawberry roan,

And how the slight sag of aging skin

Clouds the chiseled lines of her head,

Making them a little less than perfect.

Sadly he sees the weight of the years

Changing the face of his beloved.

There is weariness in her far seeing eyes

As he shelters her from the wind.

 

“You are my lady, my favorite lady.

You are the best of all the dogs

And a pretty wench besides.”

He flatters her with the old praises

And, vain as ever, she preens for him,

Turning her head away in profile,

Sparkling and pretending not to hear,

Refusing to look but lending an ear,

To the welcome words of her lifelong master.

 

She is as coy as a jeweled lady

Smiling in the heat of an autumn soiree,

Listening to a young man sing her virtues

Wooing her with words as the evening dies.

The red bitch listens to John

In the quiet of the empty garden,

Then lets him bring her back to the house,

Where he gently takes leave of his lonely lady.

 

She disappeared that afternoon.

First they search the house and garden.

Then John asks Brian to come with him.

“I think I know where she may have gone.”

He turns to stride out across the downs

On the shortest route to the Kettering Grade.

There they find the hilltop,

The big oak tree,

The fresh turned earth,

And the red bitch waiting. (11 lines)

 

She yawns and smiles to see them come

Like young men late to an afternoon tea.

Now the four are together once more,

Brian and John and the red bitch,

Close by Coventry’s grave.

John looks at the red bitch waiting there

And understands her as he always has.

“This was the last place that she saw him.

We will never be able to keep her home.”

 

He sees the old light

Burning bright in her eyes,

And the flame burning hot in her soul,

The determination to take all risks

To run past the edge of another day,

The joyous acceptance of every challenge,

The belief in herself against the world,

With Coventry born to run beside her

And always with John to come back to.

 

Throughout the long bleak winter

She sleeps by the fire, snug on her rug,

And only her paw prints in the snow

Pointing the way to the lone oak knoll

Tell where she visits briefly each day.

When winter finally loosens its grip

And spring sun warms the new green fields

The red bitch stays away more and more,

Until she is only home at night.

 

Soon she becomes a familiar sight

To travelers on the Kettering Grade.

They see her lying at the top

Dozing away the long summer days,

Basking in the warmth of the sun,

Letting its heat comfort her body

While her restless mind roams far away,

Hunting the land at the foot of the hill

And searching the far horizon.

 

Then one afternoon, late in the summer

The red bitch overstays her time.

Jane seeks out John at the kennel.

“She is not home and it will soon be dark.

I am worried for her. What could be wrong ?”

“I’ll go,” says John, and he starts out,

Walking briskly down the narrow path

Worn by the prints of one dog’s travel:

One trip each way, each day.

 

John’s heart is filled with the certainty of loss

As he reaches the top of the Kettering Grade.

The sun strikes gleaming from a bright golden form

Curled up sleeping in the late summer grass.

The gentle eyes closed, her chin on her paws,

The white tail tip over her nose,

As peaceful as the meadow,

As quiet as a hiding fawn,

Gone forever.

 

Not wanting to disturb the illusion of life

He lays his hand on her silken ears.

“Lady, why have you left me know ?

You waited for Coventry faithfully.

Did you see him again at the end ?”

Knowing that she would have,

If only in her dreams,

As he would dream of them both

In the long years to come.

 

The red bitch was laid to rest beside Coventry,

Together in death as they had run in life,

Coventry and the red bitch once again.(3 lines)

 

Part 4. The New Beginning

The fields brown to autumn

And the first snow turns them white,

White with the mantle of an early winter

And cold as the sense of loss at Enton.

The morning after the first snowfall

James O’Dell comes to call

From Farley Hill, the neighing farm.

Long an admirer of the Enton Greyhounds

He comes to report the dogs he has seen.

 

The winter sun had barely risen

The sky was as pale as the snowbound land.

Against this insubstantial background

He had barely seen the brace of Greyhounds

As they trotted along his north fence line.

“The big one was brindle, a brindle dog.

The smaller one was either red or fawn.

Neither would stop or answer to a call.

They were moving too fast for me to reach them.”

 

“Robert, they had to have come from Enton.

I know that pair of dogs.

They looked like the get of Coventry

And of your old red bitch,

The resemblance was so great,

Even when seen from a distance

And in the dim light of the morning.”

Robert thanks James as they finish tea

And something stronger for the cold ride home.

 

When James has left, Robert sends for his trainers

To tell them about what James has seen

To ask which dogs could be running loose.

Brian and John exchange puzzled glances.

“None of the dogs slipped free last night.

Shadow and Rose are the only pair

That would match with what James saw today

And they are still safe in their kennels.

I just came from tending Rose.”

 

“No dogs are missing from Enton.

The dogs James saw cannot be ours.”

While John thinks silently to himself,

“The only dogs that are missing from Enton

Will never be home again.

Those we miss are beyond recall.

For they are Coventry and the red bitch

Buried beneath the big oak tree

At the top of the Kettering Grade.”

 

“Then who could the dogs have been ?”

The trainers have no answer for Robert.

But the question is asked three more times

As reports keep coming back to Enton

Of the hunting pair seen again and again,

Until the strength of the mystery builds,

Until the trainers grow uneasy,

Neither willing to say what they think

Not wanting to face each other’s laughter.

 

Finally John suggests to Brian,

“Whether they be Enton dogs or not

They are still Greyhounds running loose

And folks here think them to be our dogs.

If they run stock we will be blamed.

The next time they are seen close by

I will go out to track them down.

It should be easy to follow them home

As long as the snow stays soft.”

 

Brian quickly agrees to the plan.

“We will search for them together.

Track them we may but catch them we won’t.

As likely take a wild bird in your hand

As to catch a Greyhound running free.

Still we can learn where they come from.”

 

The neighbors are asked to send word to Enton

The next time that the dogs are seen.

Then for a fortnight all is quiet.

The Christmas celebrations begin.

Amid the bustle of the holiday season

The trainers await a special present

for the Lady Kay is far in whelp.

A big white bitch splashed with brindle

She is Coventry’s daughter out of Fantasy.

 

Now she is in a delicate condition

Carrying her litter by red Foxfire,

The son of Coventry and the red bitch.

After three long weeks of silence

On Christmas morning the word is brought

That Greyhounds have been seen at Farley Hill.

Late in the morning the trainers set out

To learn what they can of the elusive dogs.

James leads the men to the north fence line

Where to their relief they find paw prints

Good honest tracks to settle their nerves

To lay their ghosts to rest. (11 lines)

 

“A bitch and a dog,” says Brian.

“They are good true movers. Look at that stride.”

“Yes, a hare footed dog and a cat footed bitch.”

John adds and then falls silent

Thinking of the red bitch’s tiny feet

Such small paws to serve so much heart.

He could hold her four paws

In the palm of one hand

A true cat-footed bitch.

 

Throughout the length of the cold grey day

The men easily track the dogs

Across the barren silver land

Until they approach the Kettering Road

Where the worried Brian says grimly,

“The dogs are heading for Goodman’s farm.

And the flock that he summers on Pitkin Down

Was brought in last month

To feed close at hand.”

 

John can hear the fear in his words

Every dog man’s fear of the renegade,

Of the rogue dog what hunts for himself,

Or, in the case of a running Greyhound,

Chases anything that will race with him,

Running free in the bright joy of speed

Not knowing that death is the penalty

For dogs that touch man’s flocks,

For an innocent game of tag.

 

At the sheepfold the tracks lead west

Carefully staying outside the wall,

Ignoring the wooly temptations to sin.

Brian says, “They are well bred.”

Heralded by a flourish of barking

The Goodman’s black and white collie dog

Rushes at the intruding men,

Filling the still winter’s afternoon

With echoes of his noisy warnings.

 

The men move on, leaving the dog

Alert and very pleased with himself

For having once more defended his flock.

Then Brian asks, “Did you notice ?

The tracks never once turned or stopped.

Chip must not have challenged the Greyhounds.

He let them pass on by his sheepfold

As if they did not even exist.

Could he be getting old ?”

 

John laughs, “As old as he is,

He still managed to warn us off.

Wait ! Look here where the track changes.

Dead in the middle of winter

These dogs have started a hare.”

The men move faster

As the track pulls them on,

As they read the course

That is written in the snow.

 

Like a brace of fox hounds

Working a trail

They cast the track

As the hunt progresses,

Hunting the hunters

That have gone before them;

And with each turn along the course

Their respect for the dogs increases

Until they begin to covet the hounds.

 

A lifetime of dog work has trained the trainers.

They have held greatness in leash before.

With memories of Coventry and his lady

As touchstones to measure to

Now they have the eyes

To see greatness at hand

And the generosity of heart

To freely acknowledge it

No matter who the dogs might be.

 

There spread before them

Is the perfect course

Each turn, each fence,

Each wrench a classic,

With flawless dogs to run it.

They work a hare with a fine fierce hand

Like an artist painting the perfect beauty,

The one that only exists in his mind,

And then growing to love her pictured likeness.

 

But that still leaves the original question:

“Who on earth can these dogs be ?”

Complains Brian as he works out a series of turns.

Fired by the love of exceptional hunters

The trainers do not notice the afternoon passing.

Caught by the track and lost to the world,

They do not know where they are being led

Until the flatland ends abruptly

And the Kettering Grade looms above them.

 

In wordless agreement Brian and John

Slow their steps along the track.

Like small boys challenged

To test their courage,

Neither will quit in the other’s presence.

Neither will admit that they no longer

Exactly want to see where this course leads.

Around them the winter afternoon

Is filled with pain and loss.

 

Thought the day is cold Brian starts to sweat.

Suddenly he fears that the track will turn

Up the face of the Kettering Grade

Where Coventry made his final run.

When the world turns cold around us

The ghosts of the dogs we have loved and lost

Come back to us gently to breathe on our necks

To see how we are getting along

Without them to look after us.

 

For every well bred dog understands

And is too polite to let us know

How much we need them to care for us,

To keep the outside world at bay

With their well timed applications

Of a warm nose and a loving eye.

John and Brian are not alone

When late in the twilight of Christmas Day

The trainers call up their dogs.

 

There is Coventry for Brian

And the red bitch for John.

The big oak tree that marks their graves

Stands ghostly white now in the winter

As it looms above them on the crest of the hill.

Except for the trodden scar of the road

The shallow snow stretches unbroken

Up the broad face of the grade

And the course ends at the bottom.

 

They find an unreadable tangle of tracks

But there is no hare,

No sign of the dogs,

And no tracks leading away.

“They must have gone south on the road past Enton.”

Says Brian looking at the wheel churned mud.

“It is the only way they could have taken

Without leaving a track for us.

If they had turned north we would have seen them.”

 

“Dogs this good cannot stay hidden.

What owner could keep from bragging on them?

They should be the talk of the pub by now.

Perhaps we will see them another day.”

“It was a great course, was it not, John ?”

Asks Brian, knowing what the answer will be.

“They are great dogs.” agrees John.

But when their brave talk dies away

The trainers grow uneasy.

 

At the back of their minds is Topham’s Snowball

The black Greyhound who could still be seen

Coursing over the midnight fields

Sixty years after his death.

Now with the setting sun behind them

Gilding the bare oak tree with fire,

They take the red bitch’s faint path home

Feeling the ghosts of their old friends

Nudging their elbows once again.

 

Brian and John reach Enton

In the dusk of the early evening.

As one they turn to the kennel house

Where a lamp shines out against the dark,

A beacon in the night where none should be.

They open the door to a flood of light,

To the scent of hay and dogs and blood.

Young Grainger looks up from the whelping box.

“I am glad you two are here.”

 

Early, a week before her time

The Lady Kay guards five new puppies

Spotted white puppies like the lady herself,

Each splashed with red or brown or brindle

Like the last spring snow on the dark earth.

The men settle down to a late night whelping

With brandy to warm them and their memories.

They have their timeless stories to tell

Of other nights and other litters.

 

For every puppy is the future

The promise of greatness yet to be.

Most of the promise will be unmet.

Most of the puppies will be average dogs.

Still every whelping is a magic time.

Let these puppies be the special ones,

The ones that aspire to greatness and reach it.

So with each new litter are born again

Hopes and dreams for the years to come.

 

Brian watches one more spotted puppy

Join the flashy litter of silver whelps.

He muses wistfully to himself,

“A good dog is never a bad color

But somehow I was hoping

For a red brindle dog puppy.”

John says nothing. He has hopes of his own.

Then Grainger turns with the seventh puppy

“Here is a brindle, and it is a male.”

 

The Lady Kay dries the newest puppy

And Grainger hands it to Brian.

Snub nosed, broad chested, rat tailed,

It looks nothing like a Greyhound.

All the speed and grace are hidden inside

Waiting for time to free them,

Waiting to be grown into.

Now the puppy is just dark,

Dark chocolate brown.

 

Brian holds him to the light

And ruffles through the velvet fur

Looking for the thin black lines

That will gradually grow with the dog,

To finally give him a tiger striped coat

When the brown puppy fur lightens to red.

Brian holds the seventh puppy

And all that he says is,

“Coventry was a seventh son.”

 

John knows the rest, the unspoken part.

“The red bitch was the ninth born of her litter.

I had just moved her up to the house

When distemper came and took all the rest.”

He remembers the joy and the pain

The sad times and the triumphs.

The eighth born puppy is red and white.

Then Grainger says, “Here is another brindle.

It is a lighter one this time.”

 

They can see it now in his hands,

Both lighter colored and lighter weight.

Brian is sorry to find her a bitch.

He holds her to the light

To check her markings.

What he sees makes him shake his head

And then he gives her to John,

“John, I think this one is for you.

She is not brindled.”

 

John takes the wet brown puppy

And finds his loneliness is gone.

He checks for the white tail tip and toes.

Those will always stay the same,

But puppy colors change with time.

The black mask will quickly fade away

And the walnut coat will lighten

As she grows into the beauty

Of a dark eyed, flame red bitch.

 

They return the puppies

To the warmth of their dam

And watch the lean newborn bodies

Round out with milk.

The two are content

Suckling side by side

Making a strange dark island

With their white spotted mother

And their white spotted litter mates.

 

Grainger cannot understand

Why John and Brian are smiling slowly

Bewitched by the pair of dark puppies.

They are seeing life and their dreams reborn.

Since the death of the red bitch

John had grown so accustomed

To loneliness and inner pain

Gnawing at the edge of his mind

That he had become quite blind to them.

 

Now to have them suddenly gone

Is both welcome and a surprise

Like opening the door of a festive house

After miles of walking the cold winter fields

With the cold still caught in his hair and clothes

While the warmth of the house enfolds him.

John feels himself twelve years younger

And back at the Colonel’s by a whelping box

At the birth of the red bitch’s legend.

 

He looks at the newborn red bitch puppy

Curled up sleeping with the brindle dog.

He watches the two of them together

And sees both the past and the future.

Blind now, they will have falcon’s sight.

Round now, they will be the shape of speed.

Unable to walk, they will race through life.

Still smiling he turns to a smiling Brian.

“What shall we name them this time ?”

*****

Gail wrote these annually for the Gazehound Magazine Christmas issues in the late 1970’s. Gail says, “I wrote it originally when I first noticed that Sunny and Tiger were getting grey and realized that they wouldn’t live forever.”

 

That one observation of Gail’s inspired quite a work of literary art!

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