Alice McCredie saw the boy dripping ice cream all over his t-shirt and cringed. Having raised three boys of her own, she was accustomed to the mess, but still hoped to teach at least some boy, somewhere, how to be neat. As she approached, she heard a low growl and sensed movement from behind. A mottled grey and white Great Dane brushed passed her, then the beast lay down surrounding the boy, forming a dog-barrier between them. At first she thought the dog was a threat, but when it put its massive head on his shoulder, the child laughed and patted its muzzle.
“Don’t you steal my ice cream,” he said. The dog slowly put out its tongue as if to steal the last bit of strawberry, but the boy jerked his hand away, laughing. “Stop!”
The dog grumbled and flopped to its side. The boy giggled again.
The interaction put Alice off her question and she watched them for a moment. In the reflection of the French doors, Alice could see the garden stretch out behind her and the rows of blooming hedges forming the outside of a maze. She’d been excited when the agency told her she was needed at Dunfeur and eagerly took the position. She had little knowledge of the current occupants of the castle, but the grounds itself were the stuff of legend. Not just for their design, but the squad of young men that seemed to be in perpetual rotation. Them and the dogs that could be seen roaming in packs. She wondered if the Great Dane was one of the household pets. His demeanor with the child suggested as much.
Alice squatted down to be on eye level and asked, “young sir, can you show me where the service entrance is? I think I’ve gotten myself turned around.”
“Who are you?” he asked still concentrating on the last bites of his ice cream. A few lazy bumble bees hovered around a nearby pot of blue bells and then scouted the lounging dog. The Great Dane’s eyes opened but it lay still.
“I’m a nurse here to help Dr. Crenshaw and the lady of the house. Would you be her grandson?”
He chomped on the last of the waffle cone and flopped back, using the great bulk of the dog as a pillow. “Gram is resting now. I can see her tonight, mom said.”
The dog let out a soft “woof” and rose its head as the boy landed on its stomach. It looked back and forth between the child and the nurse. Alice had the impression the Great Dane was listening in.
“I’m sure your Gram loves it when you visit,” she replied trying to ignore the strain in her knees. “Could you point me in the right direction?”
By the time she finished the question, the boy had fallen fast asleep. For some reason, she looked toward the dog for help. The dog cocked its head at a strange angle to watch the boy’s face. It looked back at Alice and huffed. With incremental movements, it slid itself from under the boy, letting his sleeping form slip onto the soft grass. The Great Dane rolled onto its back, Alice noticing that it was very much “his” back, and wriggled a bit as if scratching an itch. Satisfied, he rolled onto his stomach and stood. Alice was about to reach out a hand to pat his head when the dog bared his teeth.
She stifled a scream, reaching forward in an attempt to grab a collar that wasn’t there. Though the dog moved slowly, instinct and those teeth told her the child was in danger and she inched toward the boy, hoping to grab him first. She was too slow. The dog bit the back of the boy’s shirt and tugged him across the grass, closer to the patio stairs. He released the shirt and licked the boy’s head. Alice watched in awe and realized the new position made it easy to watch the boy from the inside. She squinted into the reflections, trying to see someone behind the glass. The Great Dane approached, his head nearly reaching her shoulder.
In her time, the nurse had witnessed the “light of knowing” leave the eyes of many patients, but this was the first time she saw that light in the eyes of a dog. The Great Dane nuzzled her arm and started to walk away. She looked down at the still sleeping boy and watched his little legs twitching. She thought of a puppy running in his sleep.
A soft “woof” from her left drew her attention back to the dog. He appeared to be beckoning her, urging her to follow him, like out of those old television shows. She was uncertain whether to follow or stay with the child. She felt instinctively that someone was watching over him and her as well. Alice wondered where the dog would take her. She decided to follow slowly, keeping the boy within her line of sight. After a few steps they came to a corner of the building. The dog trotted forward and with his muzzle, pointed to a door with a bell. He looked back at her. “Woof.”
As he walked back toward the boy, Alice let out a small “thank you,” as the Great Dane passed and later she would deride herself for thinking that it winked at her. When he reached the boy, he curled himself around the child, laying his grey and white head on the boy’s back. This wasn’t a dog snuggling with his master. This was a master protecting what was his. He watched Alice for a moment, then let his eyes slowly close.
She shuffled over to the door and pulled the bell string. A matronly woman full of vigor pulled her into the house and shoved a cup of tea into her hand. “Now, you warm up for a moment. You must be the nurse.” She sat Alice in a cushioned chair at a small table. “Dr. Crenshaw’s upstairs right now and I’ll send you shortly. He needs some time with the lady alone.”
“Ah, thank you, uhm…”
“Mrs. Hopkins, dear. I’m the house manager. And your name?”
“Alice McCredie,” she said. She sniffed at the delicate tea and its floral accents made her think of the blue bells where the sleeping boy and dog lie.
“It’s a personal blend,” Mrs. Hopkins added. “I find it calms the nerves.”
Alice sipped and did indeed feel calmer. “Did I look nervous?”
“Oh, well, not many people find their way to the side entrance, my dear. But people are out and about today, so I thought, maybe.” She pointed to two large doors at the farther end of the kitchen, “the service entrance, well, that’s basically Glasgow Central on some days.” She sat down on the other side of the small table. This part of the kitchen felt more intimate, not like the working half of the kitchen. The small square table was of the kind shared by close friends, confidants. Mrs. Hopkins continued, sipping at a noticeably larger cup of tea, “but you found your way to my own little door.”
Alice smiled and understood that a friendship with Mrs. Hopkins would go a long way in keeping a position at Dunfeur. Plus, the woman had an aura of trust about her, a sense of worldliness and knowing. Alice thought if she said aliens from outer space dropped her off at Mrs. Hopkins door, the woman would say “oh, yes. Lovely people. Had them in for a cup just last week.”
“The Great Dane,” Alice started, “one of the castle’s dogs, I assume, actually led me here.”
Mrs. Hopkins’ eyes widened a bit as she blew steam away. “A Great Dane, you say?”
“Oh, yes. Beautiful mottled grey and white. He was playing with the young boy outside.”
Mrs. Hopkins sipped. “Oh that’s young Caleb. Yes. That dog does follow the lad around a lot.”
“I was quite astounded,” Alice said, almost purposefully trying to find something to break through Mrs. Hopkins’s knowing sips and slurps. “It was almost like he understood I was lost.”
“Oh, well, I hear some breeds are pretty intelligent,” she said, lifting up the lid to a floral biscuit tin.
“A massive beast,” Alice said, winding down her story and looking forlornly at a biscuit.
“Aye, that he is,” Mrs. Hopkins said and the dreaminess of her answer made Alice look at her directly.
Mrs. Hopkins lightly flushed. “Well, they all are.” She said, holding the lid. “That breed, you see.”
They eyed each other over the table for a while. The house manager added, “I’ve been here a long time. Helped raise them since they were babes.”
“Pups,” Alice insisted. “We’re talking about the Great Danes right?”
Alice watched Mrs. Hopkins replaying the last bit of conversation in her head. After a moment, she smiled. “Only got the one Dane, Mrs. McCredie.” She pushed the tin toward her guest. “Biscuit?”
Alice pulled out a homemade cookie, shaped like a dog.