Caesar is the old yellow dog Louisa Ellis keeps chained securely to his hut in her yard. “Fat and sleepy” with “yellow rings which looked like spectacles around his dim old eyes,” Caesar “seldom lifts] up his voice in a growl or bark.” The pet of Louisa’s cherished dead brother, Caesar bit someone when he was a puppy and has been restrained ever since. Although he has become, over the years, just as placid as Louisa herself, his reputation as a ferocious, bloodthirsty animal has taken on a life of its own. He has become something of a village legend and everyone except Joe Dagget, Louisa’s fiance, firmly believes in his ferocity.
Joe Dagget, Louisa Ellis’s fiance for the past fifteen years, has spent fourteen of those years in Australia, where he went to make his fortune. He has returned and he and Louisa are planning to marry. Good-humored, honorable, and hardworking, Joe is awkward and uncomfortable in the meticulously ordered, domesticated world Louisa has built for herself over the years. He has already announced his intention to free Caesar, Louisa’s old dog, who has been chained up ever since he bit someone while still a puppy. During the visit to Louisa, described in the story, Joe tracks in dirt, fidgets with the books on her table, and knocks over her sewing basket. Nonetheless, his sense of honor is so strong that even though he has fallen in love with Lily Dyer, a younger woman who has been helping his ailing mother, and although he realizes that he and Louisa are no longer suited to one another after a fourteen-year separation, he intends to go through with the marriage.
”A girl full of a calm rustic strength and bloom, with a masterful way which might have beseemed a princess,” Lily Dyer is “good and handsome and smart,” and much admired in the village. She is pretty, fair-skinned, blond, tall and full-figured. She works for Joe Dagget’s mother and—as we and Louisa eventually discover—she and Joe have fallen in love when the story opens. A better match for Joe, Lily is full of life and vitality and just as good-natured and practical as he is. She also shares his strong sense of honor, declaring she wouldn’t marry him even if he broke his engagement because ”honor’s honor, an’ right’s right.”
At the beginning of the story, Louisa Ellis has been engaged for fifteen years to Joe Dagget, who has spent fourteen of those years working in Australia. He has been back for some time, and he and Louisa are to be married in a month. All this time, Louisa has been “patiently and unquestioningly waiting” for her fiance to return. On her own since her mother and brother died, she has been living a serene and peaceful life. Her daily activities include sewing quietly, raising lettuce, making perfumes using an old still, and caring for her canary and her brother’s old dog. Meticulous and tidy, she does everything with care and with the precision of old habit. She has “almost the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home.”
Known for her sweet, even temperament and her “gentle acquiescence,” Louisa has “never dreamed of the possibility of marrying anyone else” in all the long years Joe has been away, and has always looked forward to his return and to their marriage as the “inevitable conclusion of things.” Just the same, she has, by the time the story opens, gotten so in the habit of living peacefully alone inside her “hedge of lace” that Joe’s return finds her ”as much surprised and taken aback as if she had never thought about” their eventual marriage at all. When Joe stops by for one of his regular visits, she becomes uneasy when he moves some books she keeps on a table, and as soon as he leaves she carefully checks the carpet and sweeps up any dirt he has tracked in. Without really noticing the change, she has become as much a hermit as her old yellow dog, Caesar.
Caesar, chained placidly to his little hut, and Louisa’s canary, dozing quietly in his cage, parallel her personality. Her life is serene but also narrow, like that of an “uncloistered nun.” Like the canary, who flutters wildly whenever Joe visits, Louisa fears the disruption of her peaceful life that marriage to Joe represents. After discovering that Joe is secretly in love with Lily Dyer, who has been helping to care for his ailing mother, Louisa breaks off her engagement to him with diplomacy, and rejoices that her “domain” is once again safe.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.