I sometimes think that our relations with our children, or our pets, are successful because we expect nothing in return. Yet, after all, the relations are reciprocal; and I have been thinking today of some of the things I have got from an old dog who has been in our family for years and years. I have learned several spiritual truths from her, and I have learned them more thoroughly, perhaps, because she never had the slightest idea that she was teaching me anything. Dogs, of course, show various characteristics—some are snobs, others take naturally to a low life, others again are aristocratic and reticent and self-controlled; but I have never known a dog yet that you could describe as exactly a moralist.
Viola came to us out of the primeval woods with an effect of apparitional beauty. Rather a poetic name for a dog, perhaps; but there was such a union of grace and timidity, such a charm of silken draperies and russet ruff and tail almost sweeping the ground, that we were irresistibly reminded of a Viola we had seen recently. It was as if the dog had said mutely, 'What should I do in Illyria?'
She had evidently been through a terrible experience. A broken rope was around her neck; she was as gaunt as a wolf; her eyes were almost iridescent with terror, like the wonderful eyes of some hysteriacs.
Imprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes!
We didn't adopt Viola; she adopted us. She followed us to the tent where we were spending the summer, and there she stayed with us, to remain on guard when we were away, to welcome us on our return with such a show of abject gratitude. I don't think a male dog could have shown such a union of love and fear; her spirit had evidently been broken; it became our task to lure her confidence back again—and here began my own education. If I spoke with—well, decision—to my wife, poor Viola slunk to the ground. She thought the tone was meant for her. I would never claim to be a model husband, but I did learn from Viola, theoretically at least, that one can have good manners even in the privacy of the family circle.
More rapidly than we could have expected, Viola's terrors left her, and she resumed the normal canine outlook on life, like humans I have known who have managed to counteract the false starts of their early childhood—obsessions regarding dark closets, snakes, or an avenging Deity.
I am not going to dwell on the intelligence Viola manifested after she had freed herself from fear. All dogs are wonderful, even when they are not intelligent. The most stupid dog I know mopes around the house and refuses to eat whenever his master is away, thus evincing an emotional sensibility more valuable than the smartness of the most Frenchified of poodles that ever trod the vaudeville stage. Unlike a collie of my acquaintance, Viola did not keep the woodbox replenished; nor had she a vocabulary of several hundred words, like another collie that I know. Still, she had an aptitude to learn spelling. When it was inadvisable to take her out for a walk, we spelled the words, vainly trying to conceal the fact from her, as we would from a child; and often, to this day, people stop me on the road, and ask if I am the owner of the dog that knows how to spell.
What I want to dwell on is my own education rather than Viola's, and this began in earnest after we had moved to the real country, and lived in a little farmhouse without any farm. Viola was a lovely ornament to the dooryard; but it seemed a pity that there were no flocks or herds to evoke her ministering care. We didn't even keep chickens; we were ostensibly in the country to cultivate thoughts,— such as they were,—and while Viola might be said to inspire thoughts, they hardly gave her the necessary exercise. A collie should have a run of ten miles every day, and it was pathetic to see Viola lying in the dooryard, ears erect, eyes eager, watching, waiting, hoping for something to happen. I should not be surprised if her very eagerness attracted the thing she longed for.
Our next-door neighbor, a man fully as fond of dogs as myself, was early attracted to her. He had recently lost his own dog, and asked if he might borrow Viola to help him catch his chickens, and if she might accompany him on the long drive he took every day through the countryside. With perfect good will, and in utter innocence, I consented. Little did I dream, as they say in the novels, of what lay before me.
I had an idea that Viola would understand that she was merely loaned for these expeditions; that she would come back from them with undiminished loyalty, grateful to me for having given her a chance for exercise. But our friendly neighbor had a very taking way with dogs. Aside from the wonderful trips, which were enough to turn the head of any collie, he knew how to talk dog-language better than I did. He knew how to pinch a dog's ear in the most seductive manner. With him, doggishness was both an art and a science.
There was nothing lovelier than the sight of Viola rounding up the chickens, shepherding them into their houses, holding down a recalcitrant pullet with her paw, or bringing in her mouth a dowager hen to her foster-father. If I had the gift of a sculptor and wished to carve a personification of pride, I think I should depict Viola bringing in a chicken—her tail aloft, like a plume of triumph, her eyes shining, stepping over imaginary obstacles like a high-menàge horse with an air of dignity that was really ludicrous. If an unlucky chicken got away from her, away she went across meadows, and over walls, her beautiful voice vibrating through the landscape, sometimes breaking to an octave higher in her excitement.
It was fun to see her scour the wagon when her new master took her out to help him pick up eggs. It was charming to see her come home sitting on the seat beside him, tired but still eager, looking to right and left, sniffing the air, learning all sorts of smell secrets which are closed forever to our supposedly superior human consciousness. Is it any wonder that it was necessary for me to go next door to get her, and that she followed me along the path with a certain droopy air that was hardly flattering?
There is not much in the literary life that would interest an outdoor dog. I felt somewhat like a dry-as-dust professor married to a young and attractive wife who is being taken to all the parties throughout the neighborhood by a disgustingly youthful and handsome cavalier. I know nothing quite so shriveling to the soul as jealousy, nor anything so hard to fight against. I reasoned that Viola's expeditions were doing her good, that I ought to be grateful for them, and I repeated the antediluvian fallacy that my jealousy was only indicative of my love. Nothing that I could say to myself made any difference; and if I were in danger of forgetting how I felt, there were plenty of other persons to remind me.