Fancy's Story by Fred Cartan

Chapter Six
Troubles for Fancy

When Fancy took over the estate, she assumed that there would be enough money to make immediate improvements. But when she first went over the books with Sharpmuzzle, she found, as he told her, that the estate funds were meagre. This rather shocked her. As she traveled the estate and talked with the tenants she found much need and noted it. To her surprise she soon found she had a great list of tasks that would help the tenants or improve the estate.

She spent what money could be spared making only those improvements that were urgent and would benefit all. Although Sharpmuzzle handled the details, she began to watch estate expenditures closely, hoping that the situation was only temporary. In spite of her care, there never seemed to be enough money to do those things that seemed less than immediately necessary.

This puzzled Fancy at times, since the estate was known to have been a profitable one. She did not remember that her uncle seemed to have financial problems. Sharpmuzzle told her that in the period before he died, Sir Grimace had neglected affairs and his advice. As the first few months passed, she did seem to be getting ahead little by little and Sharpmuzzle assured her that things would improve.

Fancy had also revived a tradition, long neglected by Sir Grimace and his father, of formal monthly dinners at Hoarhound House. On these evenings, there was much bustling about. Cider spent much of the day cooking and preparing deserts. Under Goodbone's direction, the house was cleaned and the dining room polished, the silver burnished, the places were set, flowers arranged, and candles were lit.

And there was music. Fancy provided a group of musicians from the village for the dancing. There was usually a violin, a piper, drummer, horn player and a guitarist. During the dancing, these worthies, fueled with food and ale by Goodbone, provided a lively background for the dancing.

The local gentry, the clergy and village notables were invited and Fancy's open pleasure in their company made her guests look forwards eagerly to these occasions. With Fancy's selection of guests, the menu and her seating arrangements, there was good food, relaxing conversations, good wine, congenial company and as in these country affairs, after dinner, the chance for some entertaining gossip among the men's and women's groups.

Her dinners were successes and were reciprocated by other land owners. What with other dinners, dances, and hunts put on by her neighbors, Fancy soon found herself with a fullblown social life. The dinners were occasions for considerable flirting among the young pack of Fancy's age. For some reason, she felt herself somewhat out of this activity. Of course, Singlefoot, Crossbark and Sharpmuzzle were among the regulars at these affairs and Fancy rarely lacked a partner for a dance or a congenial dinner companion.

Comely and Frowly Snarf attended some of these affairs. They were not regulars since Comely, although polite to all, regarded these dinners or dances as country frivolity, certainly not the sort of polished sophisticated affairs she favored.

Frowly Snarf seemed ill at ease when he and Natasha came to the entertainments. He missed many of the affairs because he was off somewhere with his disreputable friends. He spoke hesitantly to the guests and appeared to have little common interest with them. At times, when he did appear, he drank to excess. When lubricated with ale and with minimum persuasion, he played his guitar and regaled the younger set and appalled the older guests with off-color ballads and common stories. The older guests were appalled. The younger set and the less eminent appeared to like it. On such occasions Fancy, though thoroughly disapproving, kept silent, feeling this to be the most suitable course.

He seemed not to fit with the guests. His waistcoats were far too garish and entirely unsuited to these social functions. He favored ties with violently contrasting colors. It was not that he was unkempt, he always seemed neatly dressed. His boots were polished and he committed no social crimes.

Most of the regulars tolerated Frowly Snarf because of his relationship to Fancy. He was most generally ignored with courtesy rather than heard.

Natasha at first did not seem to enjoy these get-togethers. She remained close to Frowly Snarf and tried to modulate his drinking. She was reluctant to take part in the wifely gossip. She was quiet and spoke only when spoken to. Fancy and some of the wives noticed this behavior and sympathizing with her situation, made an effort to make her more outgoing. They found that her reputation as a singer was justified. She had a fine voice and when asked would please the group with her extensive repertoire of Russian folksongs. These were well regarded by all and Fancy was pleased when she sang.

However, Natasha lost her reticence and became animated when she was in company with the visiting pups. The guests always included youngsters who were brought along on a to-be-seen-but-not-heard basis. Natasha would collect them about her in a ring and keep them quiet and enthralled with a marvelous assortment of fairy tales and legends. After a few such occasions, when she arrived at a party she would be set upon by a pack of young pups who would laughingly drag her off pleading for their favorite story or to hear a new tale.

Fancy's relationships with Singlefoot, Crossbark and Sharpmuzzle were normally genial but not always free from strain. Perhaps her worries about her future distracted her but she sometimes felt she was both patronized and ignored by this trio.

When she questioned Sharpmuzzle about the estate's conditions she normally got thoughtful and considerate answers. As time went on, she thought he was on occasion unnecessarily sharp and evasive with her, more often when they were in public. Fancy laid this to his long hours, for he was a dedicated worker. She could find no reason to fault him when she considered this but there was a new edge of distraction in their association.

With Singlefoot , Fancy had a different problem. She felt that while he liked her, her abilities were more patronized than appreciated.

One afternoon when they were seated in the library of Hoarhound house, looking lazily out the windows at the orchards and meadows, she began telling him of her problems and her worries for the future of the estate. He listened a time and then airily questioned the ability of a female to manage something as considerable as an estate. She felt her emotions overpower her control and had exploded, questioning his ability to judge a female's performance. He snapped back at her, saying that if he were in charge of the estate, he would shortly show her some genuine management. They had stared at each other for a moment, and then both apologized. Singlefoot changed the conversation and became his usual laid-back polite self. Fancy replied in kind, and the conversation proceeded upon less sensitive grounds. Thinking this exchange over later, Fancy concluded that a limit had been passed and something had changed between them.

A disagreement with Crossbark had also bothered Fancy. He had been dealing with an outbreak of distemper in the tenants. He had been without sleep for more than 24 hours and had come to her saying that the wells her tenants used were contaminated and that her delays in completing a better water supply were responsible. She pointed out that only two of the wells were bad and that the tenants could temporarily use other wells and pleaded a current lack of money. This didn't mollify Crossbark, who bitterly accused her of placing funds before the lives of her tenant's pups, and stalked off.

The distemper outbreak subsided and after consulting with Sharpmuzzle, Fancy squeezed out enough money to improve one of the of the wells and had a new well dug to replace the other. Crossbark didn't mention the disagreement again and things between them seemed to return to normal but Fancy could not help but remember the intensity of his outbreak. It seemed to Fancy that she might have been partly to blame but that he'd not thought of the problems from her viewpoint. Of course, he had been tired and distraught and this could have been responsible for his outburst. However, with this in mind, she wondered if a closer relationship between them could survive.

These conflicts with dogs she liked and respected bothered her, and between her problems with the estate, her worries about the future and the need for her to marry, Fancy became a bit downcast. She began to have spells of insomnia. Cider noticed her mood and tried her best to tease her out of it. Fancy was however, a resilient young dog and soon began to feel better. She determined to spend more time on things she could affect and worry less about others. She spent more time on the tenants and the estate and found that matters between she, Sharpmuzzle, Crossbark and Singlefoot appeared to have returned to normal.

A few days later, something happened that at first seemed only peculiar. Fancy had a visit from lawyer Grumble and had asked him to stay for dinner. She had eaten only lightly at breakfast and what with Grumble's visit and time spent helping Cider prepare the dinner for Grumble, Sharpmuzzle and Singlefoot, who also had stopped by, she had no time for lunch. After dinner and an evening of conversation she still felt hungry and asked Cider for a glass of cold cinnamon milk and cookies. These arrived after a few minutes and Fancy gave one of the cookies to Singlefoot and was about to begin eating herself when their conversation was interrupted by a great uproar at the entry. Fancy and the others went to see what was happening.

They learned that a carriage had overturned just outside the lane to Hoarhound House with two passengers, a young dog and her pup. The driver had misjudged a small ditch alongside the gate and the wheel of the carriage fell into it. The resulting impact turned the carriage on its side, tangled the horse in its harness and had shaken up the driver and passengers. Crossbark came by in his carriage just after it happened and asked to bring them inside for treatment. Fancy and the others busied themselves collecting the unfortunate lady's parcels, getting the carriage righted, untangling and rehitching the horse, and getting the unfortunates treated. Luckily they only had a few scratches and bruises. By the time they were ready to go, an hour or two had passed. The lady and her pup thanked them profusely, and left.

His medical efforts finished, Fancy invited Crossbark into the kitchen for some refreshment. She had just began to chat with him when Goodbone appeared and told that her guests were leaving. She turned Crossbark over to Cider asking her to see to his appetite. She then became involved in saying good night to Grumble, Singlefoot and Sharpmuzzle. By the time she returned to Crossbark, he too had finished eating, thanked her and took his leave. With the letdown after the excitement of the rescue and the quiet after the guest leaving, Fancy began to feel sleepy.

She then noticed the milk and cookies that Cider had set out for her. She ate one cookie and deciding the milk was now too warm, she returned the plate to the kitchen, and retired.

Next morning Fancy woke early, dressed and came downstairs. The butler, Goodbone, looking puzzled, noticed her and asked her to come out and look at the orphaned lambs. These were lambs that for one reason or another, had lost their mothers and were being hand fed. All but one were lying unconscious in the straw in their pen. The one that was still moving seemed unresponsive and acted if it were both sleepy and exhausted. There was no sign of injury or sickness but they were all breathing shallowly.

Fancy was worried that some sheepish plague had taken them. She asked that the lambs be kept from the other farm animals and watched to see if other symptoms should occur. She stopped to look in on them several times that morning and saw little change. However they gradually recovered consciousness by evening and by the following day they appeared normal, butting one another and bleating loudly for food when someone came by their pen.

Fancy asked tenants with experience with sheep about this but they could think of no similar occurrence. She mentioned this oddity to Crossbark next time they met, but he'd not heard of any problem with sheep in the area and couldn't explain it. The description sounded, he said, as if the lambs had been drugged or had eaten some plants that were known to have such effects. Crossbark said he had examined their bedding and fodder but could not find any trace of such rare herbs. They checked about the region to see if there had been any recent similar incidents and found none. Then, as the odd behavior didn't recur, the incident faded from Fancy's concern.

The next party provided Fancy an edifying indication of the public view of her problems. It was held at Singlefoot's home and was well attended. The Curate and his daughter were there, as was the village mayor, and most of the local gentry. The dinner went well and the guests had retired to the hall and library for dessert and conversation.

Fancy had been helping Singlefoot see to the guests, as he had little household help. She had just finished serving wine and cakes to several of the guests in the hall and was on her way back to the serving pantry when she passed the door to the library and heard her name mentioned. She stopped behind the door, and, in spite of herself, listened. The village mayor and some friends were discussing her probable future with some interest.

There were few secrets in the region and all were familiar with the terms of her uncle's will. They all agreed that Sharpmuzzle, Singlefoot, and possibly Crossbark were the probable candidates for her hand. Mistress Lopear, the wife of a local landowner, was in the group. She could not understand why Fancy remained single, with three so eligible young dogs in prospect.

The mayor, who was a gossipy sort, had listened to all this and finally put in a word or two. "Fancy," he said confidentially, "may be more the problem than the prize. Singlefoot has had many a chance to marry and hasn't and perhaps has no interest in marriage. You know how interesting and varied a prosperous young bachelor's life can be," he said, nudging his neighbor. "Singlefoot needs additional land to expand his estate and the Hoarhound estate is the only suitable property nearby. I have also heard that Singlefoot had offered to buy the estate and had been turned down. Fancy well knows the value of the property and would demand a heavy price should she decide to sell. On the other hand, if Frowly Snarf were to become master of the estate, he could likely be induced to sell at a low figure. From Singlefoot's point of view, it would be better if Fancy were not there at all.

"The case for Sharpmuzzle may be no better," he slyly suggested. "While, of course, I have no proof or indication, there is the possibility that there might be a problem with his handling of estate funds. The Hoarhound estate should be making a great deal of money, and since it apparently isn't, I wonder whether Sharpmuzzle's affairs could stand a close inspection. Should Fancy not marry, Frowly Snarf is not country bred and could easily be fooled if he should acquire the estate.

"As for Crossbark, there have been sharp words between he and Fancy, and little prospect of a marriage. He is entirely unsuitable, in any case, and a properly bred lady like Fancy could not take his attentions seriously. While he is an excellent doctor," he continued blackly, "he is also a wild radical, and given the irrationalities of his kind, probably bears Fancy more malice than affection. Any of the three," he suggested, "would probably feel her absence from the scene more a benefit than her marriage."

Fancy left without disturbing the group, went to the pantry, reloaded her tray and continued to provision the guests against the rigors of conversation and good food. The memory of the conversation faded as she continued to help. However that evening, when she had returned to Hoarhound House and bed, it returned.

She tried to dismiss the mayor's comments as entertaining chatter, but she could not forget it. She reflected that there was considerable truth in the mayor's views. She had not yet received a proposal from either Singlefoot or Sharpmuzzle. She admitted to herself that she had expected a proposal from either or both of them by now.

It was also true that Hoarhound House's income was lower than she had expected, and Sharpmuzzle indeed had an opportunity to divert some of the income. It was also true that combining Singlefoot's estate and hers would be a financial improvement. If Singlefoot had wanted to accomplish this by marriage, he should have made some indication of interest by now.

She also still remembered the intensity with which Crossbark had demanded changes for the tenants and his terse comments when she had refused to make them. She had thought, at the time, that the changes she had finally made should have satisfied him.

At first, she thought the whole episode silly, but she couldn't ignore the points raised completely, and when next she saw Grumble, she asked him to make quiet inquiries about Singlefoot's and Sharpmuzzle's financial affairs.