Hanes a dogfennau
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Friends in Fur and Feathers

Dogs of St. Bernard

The Dogs of St.Bernard

WHO has not believed in a " real St. Bernard ?" Even an unhappy one of the race, chained up in the back yard, doing duty as a house-dog, cannot be passed without some touch of the feeling we give to a hero. He, too, would have been saving frozen people from under the avalanches, if he had not had to come to England to spend his life in barking at the beggars. Once upon a time above the snows, above the avalanches, in the very scenery of the Excelsior, at the great convent itself, we saw the heroes at home. All day long we had been toiling up at the slow pace of the mules from Martigny, and " when the shades of night were falling fast," the day and the summer seemed to have passed away together. About sunset we had reached the snow, the region of perpetual winter, where all was cold, and white, and death-like. The granite rocks above the snow had a strange sickly, livid hue in the waning light, as we climbed the last hour of the ascent. A last scramble of the mules up a rocky path brought us in sight of the monastery. Desolate mountains were all around it, and below, a stone's throw from the gate, the black waters of a tarn. A strange, weird place it looked grey and grim with lights twinkling from some of its triple row of windows.

Was it a dream ? It was so strange to wake, and sleep, and wake again in that monkish cell, to find oneself in that narrow, wainscoted room, lighted by the merest slip of window piercing the thick wall, and to hear the clanging of that mournful bell from time to time through the night, calling the monks to prayer. It was so cold too. Opening the little lattice window, the air of the July night came in, sharp and frosty as if in December. It looked out upon the tarn, black in the shadow of the rocks, the snowy mountains all round it silvered in the moonlight. The highest inhabited. spot in Europe, no wonder it was so cold. When the bell clanged out once more at daylight, it was answered by some magnificent barking, which awoke us effectually. Here were the dogs, the real heroes of the place, the St. Bernards of all the story-books. Leaning from the little window, in the early light of the dawn, we could see them, five splendid fellows, all at gambols in the snow. Of course it was not long before we were amongst them. Such magnificent dogs, all of the same tawny yellow, with black muzzles, and a little white about the head, and eyes which looked straight into yours with that wistful look some dogs' eyes have; one long stare was enough to tell them whether they approved of you for playfellows or not.

Luckily they approved of our dog-loving party, and went off into a fit of high spirits, rushing round and round us in the snow as if they had known us all their lives. They were very funny fellows, big as they were—they were up to any amount of fun. A very big dog in England is generally rather a sulky beast, with a good deal of English dignity and nonchalance about him, which he keeps up with a grin and a growl now and then; but these grand monsters tossed and tumbled about in the snow, and ran after sticks and after each other like so many puppies. Chips of firewood were strewn on the snow near the door of the hospice; and one dog, the largest and handsomest of all, called Jupiter, bounded after chips thrown for him, and, if he saw you picking up another, would come back with a rush, with a bang of his paw knock the piece of wood out of your hand, and put his foot upon it and keep it there, his tongue hanging out and his tail wagging, and a comical look in his face, daring you to take it from him.

The dogs evidently thought they were on duty in the snow. They would look grave and observant in a moment if any one slipped on the half-thawed slippery surface. One dog caught a lady's arm gently in his huge mouth to help her when she slipped; and the monks told us if any one had fallen the dogs would have tried to pull them up again directly. The perfection of their training is wonderful; but it is chiefly learnt one from the other, the young dogs always being taken out for two years with a steady old one.

Poor dogs! they do not live very long; suffering very early and very badly from cramps and rheumatism. In consequence of the extreme cold the puppies cannot be reared at the hospice, so, like royal infants, they have an establishment of their own, the nursery being a large chalet kept for the purpose half-an-hour below the Refuges. We asked the monks how they fed these huge dogs, but could get no further than that they eat " potage," and had no meat, because it would make them " sauvage." The dogs' work is to visit the Refuges two or three times a day in bad weather, and another of their duties is to go upon begging excursions. Once a year a father and a dog take a walking tour in the valleys and round the lakes in the Roman Catholic cantons, to beg for the convent, which has lost nearly the last remnant of its lands, and is supported by the offerings of visitors, and this summer begging of monks and dogs. No doubt the excursions are very successful, for it would be a very hard heart that could refuse a dole to two such heroes. The monks told us the dogs would scent a body in the snow fully three miles, and guide them to it. They are of the greatest use in guiding across fresh-fallen snow, or through drifts, walking warily on, buried, all but their tails, which they carry straight up like a hound; the men following the guiding of the warning tail, which is all they generally see of their dog above the snow.

Some years ago the clavandier, three servitors, and all the dogs then at the hospice, perished in an avalanche, buried fifteen feet deep. One of the dogs we saw had saved several lives.

In the chapel, bright with white paint and gilding, and amongst pictures of martyrs and saints, is enshrined the picture of the first St. Bernard dog, the ancestor of them all. He is nearly life size, and stands by the side of St. Bernard, with his noble head raised to his master's hand. The monk, in his brown frock and his grand head shrouded by his cowl, looks just the man to have lived as they say he did, alone on that weird spot by the tarn, for years, in a solitary cell, and the dog just the dog to have been the good brave dog they say he was. In addition to all his brave deeds, the legend relates, and the faithful believe, that he trotted. alone three miles over snow and ice down the rocky pass every day to fetch a loaf in his mouth for his master and himself. How that may be who can say ? Men were heroes in those days, and why not dogs ? At all events, after seeing their ancestor hung up in church amongst the saints, and hearing of his deeds in the long gone-by days, we patted with much respect the noble heads all waiting for us at the chapel-door, and then asked leave to take all the heroes out for a walk. And a strange scramble we had of it over snow and ice, round rocks to the edge of the pass, where we had a long, loving look down into Italy; then back to the grey convent, by the icy little tarn, where our mules were waiting, and we said good- bye with many regrets and friendly pats to the grand dogs of St. Bernard.

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