THE ST-BERNARD MYTH Edit
By W. L. Alden
From "Told By The Colonel." republished in Short Stories 1894
Someone had told a dog-story showing the miraculous intelligence and profound piety of a French poodle. The Colonel listened with an incredulous smile on his grim face. When the story was ended and we had all expressed our surprise and admiration, as is the custom when dog-stories are told, and had carefully suppressed our conviction that the man who told the story was as impudent as he was mendacious, — as is also the custom of these occasions, — I asked the Colonel to favor us with his views in regard to canine sagacity.
" There are dogs that show signs of good sense now and then," he replied. " Even human beings do that occasionally. But as to these yams about dogs who calculate eclipses and have conscientious objections to chasing cats on Sunday, I don't believe a word of them. . Talk about fish-stories! Why, there isnlt a fish caught or uncaught that can begin to stimulate the imagination to the extent that a dog will stimulate it. I have known fishermen who could convert two minnows into a string of thirty trout, averaging two pounds each, and I have seen these men slink away crestfallen before a man who told stories of what his fox-terrier had done the day before. What I don't understand is why people pretend to believe dog-stories. We all know that the dog is a well-meaning, stupid, parish-vestry sort of an animal, but we listen to the thumpers that some men tell about him without even a cough.
" Look at the hes that have been told for the last hundred years about the St. Bernard dogs ! People really beheve that, when a snowstorm comes on, the St. Bernard dog goes out with a blanket, a flask of whiskey, a spirit-lamp, a box of matches, some mustard plasters, and a foot-bath strapped on his back. When he meets a frozen traveller we are told that he sits down and lights his spirit-lamp, mixes some hot whiskey and pours it down the traveller's throat; gives him a hot footbath, puts mustard plasters on the soles of his feet, rubs him down and wraps him up in the blanket, and then hoists him on his back and brings him to the convent, where the monks put him to bed and read prayers to him till he feels strong enough to put some money in the contribution-box and to continue his journey. Now, I've been to the St. Bernard convent. I went there just to meet one of these dogs and see for myself what he could do. There was a pack of about forty of them, but the only thing they did was to sit up all night and bark at the moon, while the monks shied prayer-books and wooden sandals at them out of the windows. I wanted to see a few travellers rescued from the snow, but the monks said the supply of travellers had been running low of late years ; still, they added, if I'd go and sleep in a snow-bank a mile or two from the convent, they would see what could be done. I wasn't going to risk the forfeiture of my life-insurance policy by any such foolishness as that, so I came away without seeing any dog-performance. However, I saw enough, a little later on, to convince me that the St. Bernard dog is about the biggest kind of canine fool that ever imposed on credulous people.
" The monks had a whole penful of genuine St. Bernard puppies, and I bought one. I am ashamed to tell you how much I paid for it. I could hire an army mule to kick me every time I think of the transaction. I took the puppy to the States with me — I was living at New Berlinopolisville, in the State of Iowa, at the time — ^and brought him up as carefully as if he had been my own son. He grew to be a big, rough-haired dog — one of the biggest I ever saw. And I can't say the monks cheated me in respect to his breed. Of course it was all a matter of luck that he didn't turn out to be a poodle or a black-and-tan terrier. The fact is that no man or monk knows what one of those pureblooded St. Bernard pups that are sold at the convent will turn out to be when he gets his growth. He is liable to be anything in the hne of a dog, from a yellow cur up to a Siberian bloodhound. I once knew a man who bought a St. Bernard pup from one of the very holiest of the entire gang of monks, and that puppy grew up to be a red fox. But you all know of the St. Bernard puppy lottery, and I won't take up your time conmienting on it.
" The monks told me that the puppy would not need the least training. His instinct was so wonderful that the moment he should catch a glimpse of snow on the ground he would rush of! to rescue travellers." You just load him up with blankets. and things/ said the monk, ' and send him out in the snow, and he'll rescue traveUers till you can't rest/ The dog was nearly a year old before I had a chance to try his powers, but one November we had a regular blizzard, and when the snow quit falling it was at least two feet deep on a level, not to speak of the drifts.
''After breakfast I tied a whiskey-flask around the dog's neck and put a blanket on his back, and told him to go out and begin his blessed work of mercy. I was alone in the house at the time, for my wife had gone on a visit to her mother and the cook had got herself arrested for being drunk and disorderly, so there was no one to make any objection to the use of one of my wife's best blankets. The dog barked with delight when he saw the snow, and rolled in it for a few moments just so as to get the blanket good and wet, and then he started down the street at a gallop. I lived something more than a mile from the village, and there were no houses nearer than half a mile, and as the dog took the road leading away from the village, I did not think that he would stand much chance of picking up any travellers. He didn't return until noon, and then he didn't bring anybody home on his back. He did, however, bring six tramps with him, three of whom were pretty drunk, they having drank all the whiskey in the flask. The other three said that the dog had promised them a drink if they would follow him, and they hoped I would be as good as the dog's word. As I wasn't armed and as the tramps carried big sticks and evidently meant business, I judged it best to sustain the dog's character for veracity and get rid of them peaceably. They went away after wrestling with a pint of good whiskey, and all the time that idiotic dog was wagging his tail as if he deserved the Humane Society's medal, instead of deserving a thrashing for tr3dng to rescue tramps when nature had taken the trouble to furnish a blizzard expressly to thin them out.
" I explained to the dog with my riding whip the view that he must take of tramps in the future, and then I sent him out again, after filling up his whiskey-flask and giving him another blanket in the place of the one that the tramps had stolen. I told him that in the future I should prefer to have him rescue women and children, especially the latter, and that if he found a frozen male traveller, he had better confine himself to giving information to the police, instead of lavishing whiskey on possibly undeserving people. He went off, somewhat humbled, but still in excellent spirits, and in a short time rushed up my front steps, dropped something on the door-mat and rushed off again. At first I thought that the idiot had been rescuing somebody's linen that had been hung out to dry, but when the linen began to make remarks in a loud voice, I found that it was a particularly lively baby.
" Of course I couldn't let the little innocent lie and freeze on my doorstep, so I brought it into the house and did my best to quiet it. As I had never had much experience with babies, I found myself in a pretty tight place. I had no milk to give the baby, so I mixed a litde flour and water till it looked like milk and got a little of it down the baby's throat. Then I shook it on my knee till it dropped asleep. I put it in my bed, intending to go out and find some woman who would come and attend to it, when I heard the dog barking and, on opening the door, saw his tail disappearing down the street, and saw that he had left another infant on the door-mat.
“ The first baby was a saint in comparison with this one, which was a sort of infantile tramp in appearance and was as noisy as it was dirty. It would not have anjrthing to do with flour and water, and though I shook it on my knee till I must have loosened all its organs, it refused to go to sleep. So I finally gave it a rubber overshoe to bite on, and put it in a bureau drawer in the spare room and told it to howl its head off if it felt that such was its duty toward mankind. Then I started a second time to search for a woman, and I nearly fell over a third baby on the doorstep. That infernal dog had brought it while I was struggling with the infantile tramp, and he was now off searching for more infants. I wrapped this one up in a blanket and sat down on the doorstep with it, resolved to wait till that dog came back and to lock him up till I could get enough babies off my hands to give me a chance to kill him. I was bound not to miss him, for if I did he would probably keep on till he had brought me all the babies in the country. This baby was the best of the lot, for it slept in my arms without saying a word or expressing the slightest desire to be shaken. In about twenty minutes the dog reappeared with another invoice of babies. This time he brought a brace of twins, as nearly as I could judge, but it was his last exploit that day. I got him by the collar before he could start out again and locked him up in the cellar. The babies I put in a heap in a big clothes-basket that they could not climb out of, and left them to have a crying-match for the championship till I could find a nurse.
''I didn't have as much trouble in that matter as I had anticipated, for before I could get out of the house some one rang the front-door bell and pounded and yelled as if it were a matter of life and death that the door should be opened instandy. I opened it, and there was a woman who called me every name she could lay her tongue to, and wanted me to give her back her baby instantly. I showed her the babies and told her to take her choice. In fact, I begged her to take away the whole lot, but she said I was worse than a murderer, and after selecting one of the least desirable of the babies, she rushed off with it, promising to send me a policeman immediately. I had never expressed the least desire to see a policeman, but such is female gratitude! I had offered that woman five babies, free, gratis, and for nothing, and instead of being grateful she wanted to get me into trouble.
'^ I had still four babies on my hands, and as they were now all awake and making all the noise they knew how to make, I put them all in the clothes-basket together, so they could enjoy one another's society. It wasn't a bad plan, and I recommend it to any mother with a noisy pair of twins', as it is certain to reduce the noise by one-half. Two of my babies were so occupied with putting their fingers in the other babies' eyes and in investigating their hair that they had no time to cry. I admit that the two who were undergoing investigation did their best to make a riot, but even then there was only half as much noise as there would have been had the other two joined the concert
" I thought it so probable that the mother who had visited me was only the first of a procession of mothers, that I gave up the idea of going out to look for a nurse, and stayed at home to receive the mothers politely. It was not long before one presented herself. She was an Irishwoman and the only sensible one of the lot. When she saw that her baby was safe and contented and had a good grip on the hair of a black-eyed baby, she sat down and laughed, and said that she never saw anything so sweet before. According to her account, she lived about a mile from my house, and she was standing at her front-door looking at the landscape when the dog bounded in, caught up the baby out of the cradle, and carried it off. At first she thought the dog was the devil, but presently she remembered that the devil's time was too much occupied with Irish affairs to permit him to steal babies in Iowa, so she followed the dog as rapidly as she could make her way through the snow. She tracked him by the prints of his paws until she came to my door and instead of calling me a kidnapper and talking about the police, she was full of pity for me, and volunteered to stay and take care of the whole menagerie imtil the last of the babies should be called for and taken away.
"The remaining mothers arrived in the course of an hour. I locked myself in the top of the house and left the Irishwoman to explain things. As I afterwards learned, the intelligent dog had knocked two women down in the street and stolen their babies out of their arms, and had also broken into two houses, in the last one of which he had bagged his brace of twins. All the mothers, except the Irishwoman, were as unreasonable as they could possibly be. They insisted that I dehberately trained dogs to steal babies ; and they had no doubt that my object in stealing them was to vivisect them. As for the dog, they were convinced that he was mad, and that their babies would be sure to die of hydrophobia. Two of the women brought their husbands with them, who asked to see me, explaining that they desired to blow my head off. The Irishwoman nobly lied to them, telling them that she had driven me out of the house with a club, and that 1 was on my way to Chicago, and far out of reach. The mothers and their husbands went away at last, and as soon as it was dark I stole out of the back-door and took the first train for St. Paul. I didn't show myself in New Berlinopolisville for the next year.
"What became of the dog? Oh! I forgot to say that the Irishwoman promised to take care of him and to cure him of his passion for babies. I am sorry to say that she did not succeed. She kept him tied up for six weeks ; but one day he broke loose and captured a baby out of a baby-wagon in the park. But the baby's father happened to be with it, and he was one of the best pistol-shots in town, having been a judge of the Montana Supreme Court. He got the drop on the dog before the beast had gone ten feet away with the baby ; and though they afterwards had to pry the dog's jaws open in order to get the baby loose, no harm was done to the latter. I settled all the lawsmts without letting them go to trial, although it cost me considerable, and I finally judged it best to remove to another" State.
" Now, I suppose that some one will be enough of an idiot to repeat this story, with variations, as a proof of the wonderful intelligence of the St. Bernard dog. If it is intelligence that leads a dog to steal other people's babies and dump them on a respectable man, I'd like to see what idiocy would do for such a dog. No, sir, depend upon it, the stories about St Bernard dogs are invented by the monks, after stimulating their minds by reading the 'Lives of the Saints' and by going trout-fishing. Probably the monks have gradually brought themselves to believe most of the stories. They look like a credulous set of people ; and I should rather like to try them with a good American political speech, full of campaign statistics, and see if they could believe it I shouldn't be in the least surprised if they could."