Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Dogs of St. Bernard


Travellers have different objects in treading the bypaths of the world, and happily there are enough travellers in every direction to stimulate curiosity and increase the sphere of knowledge. Tastes have their special refinements with which ordinary books cannot be expected to sympathise, and those who take a genuine interest in what they hear, find it hard to be satisfied without ocular demonstration of things which no description can engraft upon the mind with sufficient clearness. In this spirit most of those who are in the neighbourhood of the Hospice of the Great St. Bernard like to have a look at the good Augustinians and their dogs; although, since the time of our King Canute, who was a great benefactor of the establishment, accounts of what goes on amongst them in their exalted region have been better known amongst us than almost anything else for the same space of time. Many people will consider the mere stuffed skin of “Barry”—that distinguished canine member of the Humane Society of the Alps, who saved his upwards of seventy imperilled travellers—better worth looking at than the other curiosities of the Bernese Museum; and we cannot help feeling great respect for his living successors, who are ready, on any opportunity, to follow his example, though we believe the only dog of the present race who has actually saved human life is one to be seen, not at the Hospice, but at the Cantine de Proz, on the edge of the deep snow-track. He is a noble, modest fellow, and showed his mettle in the way of deliverance about a year and a half ago. The so-called “St. Bernard dogs,” which we sometimes see on their watch about our large premises, are not exact representatives of the name they bear, for one very sufficient reason, that up in their head-quarters in the snows they vary a good deal in colour and appearance. There was—at least, till lately,—as great a difference between the venerable senior of three on the Simplon, and any of the half-dozen on the Great St. Bernard, as between an ordinary bull-dog and a pointer. The Simplon dog was considerably shorter, thicker, uglier, and darker than any of the others; moreover, his habits were exceptionably cosmopolitan, for, though we do not doubt the efficacy of his services in case they were needed along his route, yet his notorious weakness was for the appearance of the “diligence” opposite his domicile. Whether to please him or not, we believe it was the custom for the vehicle to pull up, and there we have seen him attesting its due arrival by his portly presence, and apparently trying to satisfy himself about the drag and apparatus being in good order for the descent. On the other pass, which is inaccessible to carriages, the traveller is apt to find what looks like anything but a welcome to the hospitality which he knows will be so courteously extended to him by the bons pères. If the younger dogs get first notice of his coming, the chances are that they make a sort of rush at him, and with loud reverberations of excited counter-tenor impress him with the idea of furnishing instead of receiving a bit of warm dinner where meat is so scarce. However the older ones will, as we have experienced, endeavour to restore equanimity by the amende honorable. An immense fellow will come up, give a sniff at your hand, and then show the delicate attention of rearing up, and placing a huge paw on each of your shoulders. Then and there, with extended jaws and glistening teeth, he will contrive better to make you understand him, than those defective human orators who, by the same position of the mouth, show but too plainly they have nothing to say. There is a dignified self-possession amongst the dogs which rather repels than attracts familiarity, yet it is a strange comment upon the ubiquity of jealousy, even beyond the bounds of humanity and pampered civilisation, that they seem to have an uncomfortable degree of it in their characters. If one of them condescends to allow himself to be specially “noticed,” the others will soon manifest such tremendous signs of discontent, that the stranger having any private regard for the safety of his hands or throat, is apt rather to desist rapidly from the process of conciliation, than to run the risk of prolonging it. Castor, the pride of the present pack, is a perfect model of a large dog, of a dark tan, with coat rather long and curly, and little, if any, black about his muzzle. The others are lighter in colour, and straighter in the hair, but very tall, well-shaped animals. Castor’s predecessor in the high estimation of the fraternity was described to us as having been almost entirely white. Now-a-days, lying about as they do in the dark damp cross-passages of the Hospice, infecting the close atmosphere with unsavoury odours, and leaving their rejected bones about, to be kicked over by the unwary explorer, they give the untoward impression of occupying the interior of the house as a sort of den, from which all but Van Amburghs would gladly be released. The bleached remains of their former repasts outside, add somewhat to the gloominess of the whole situation and circumstances; and, when the dreaded snow-storm comes driving on, they themselves do little to mitigate the chilly misgiving that accompanies it. The traveller knows he must either prepare for mischief along the obliterated track, or remain for an indefinite period a prisoner instead of a guest where he is, and he is naturally not in the best of humours to appreciate anything that does not help his bewilderment. If he wraps himself up, and looks despairingly out of doors, he is very likely to see them in the highest state of mundane enjoyment, rollicking and “kicking up behind and before” on their newly-laid bed, as if human annoyance in frozen altitudes was their pet subject of festivity. It is said lower down that when they have the choice of keeping on the uncovered ground, they will immediately, on a fresh fall of snow, rush out to luxuriate upon it. Their acute sense of hearing is the chief dependence of the endangered wanderer, and the sight is pretty and interesting, when they sometimes get upon an exposed point, and listen for any possible sounds of distress. They begin to whine, if their suspicions are aroused, but at last turn jauntily off to something else, when satisfied that “All’s well” in the dangerous region beneath them.