The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature

Author: Henry Van Dyke


Pichou’s work at Seven Islands was cut out for him on a generous scale. It is true that at first he had no regular canine labour to perform, for it was summer. Seven months of the year, on the North Shore, a sledge-dog’s occupation is gone. He is the idlest creature in the universe.

But Pichou, being a new-comer, had to win his footing in the community; and that was no light task. With the humans it was comparatively easy. At the outset they mistrusted him on account of his looks. Virgile Boulianne asked: "Why did you buy such an ugly dog?" Ovide, who was the wit of the family, said: "I suppose M’sieu’ Scott got a present for taking him."

"It’s a good dog," said Dan Scott. "Treat him well and he’ll treat you well. Kick him and I kick you."

Then he told what had happened off the point of Gran’ Boule. The village decided to accept Pichou at his master’s valuation. Moderate friendliness, with precautions, was shown toward him by everybody, except Napoleon Bouchard, whose distrust was permanent and took the form of a stick. He was a fat, fussy man; fat people seemed to have no affinity for Pichou.

But while the relations with the humans of Seven Islands were soon established on a fair footing, with the canines Pichou had a very different affair. They were not willing to accept any recommendations as to character. They judged for themselves; and they judged by appearances; and their judgment was utterly hostile to Pichou.

They decided that he was a proud dog, a fierce dog, a bad dog, a fighter. He must do one of two things: stay at home in the yard of the Honourable H. B. Company, which is a thing that no selfrespecting dog would do in the summer-time, when cod-fish heads are strewn along the beach; or fight his way from one end of the village to the other, which Pichou promptly did, leaving enemies behind every fence. Huskies never forget a grudge. They are malignant to the core. Hatred is the wine of cowardly hearts. This is as true of dogs as it is of men.

Then Pichou, having settled his foreign relations, turned his attention to matters at home. There were four other dogs in Dan Scott’s team. They did not want Pichou for a leader, and he knew it. They were bitter with jealousy. The black patch was loathsome to them. They treated him disrespectfully, insultingly, grossly. Affairs came to a head when Pecan, a rusty gray dog who had great ambitions and little sense, disputed Pichou’s tenure of a certain ham-bone. Dan Scott looked on placidly while the dispute was terminated. Then he washed the blood and sand from the gashes on Pecan’s shoulder, and patted Pichou on the head.

"Good dog," he said. "You’re the boss."

There was no further question about Pichou’s leadership of the team. But the obedience of his followers was unwilling and sullen. There was no love in it. Imagine an English captain, with a Boer company, campaigning in the Ashantee country, and you will have a fair idea of Pichou’s position at Seven Islands.

He did not shrink from its responsibilities. There were certain reforms in the community which seemed to him of vital importance, and he put them through.

First of all, he made up his mind that there ought to be peace and order on the village street. In the yards of the houses that were strung along it there should be home rule, and every dog should deal with trespassers as he saw fit. Also on the beach, and around the fish-shanties, and under the racks where the cod were drying, the right of the strong jaw should prevail, and differences of opinion should be adjusted in the old-fashioned way. But on the sandy road, bordered with a broken board-walk, which ran between the houses and the beach, courtesy and propriety must be observed. Visitors walked there. Children played there. It was the general promenade. It must be kept peaceful and decent. This was the First Law of the Dogs of Seven Islands. If two dogs quarrel on the street they must go elsewhere to settle it. It was highly unpopular, but Pichou enforced it with his teeth.

The Second Law was equally unpopular: No stealing from the Honourable H. B. Company. If a man bought bacon or corned-beef or any other delicacy, and stored it an insecure place, or if he left fish on the beach over night, his dogs might act according to their inclination. Though Pichou did not understand how honest dogs could steal from their own master, he was willing to admit that this was their affair. His affair was that nobody should steal anything from the Post. It cost him many night watches, and some large battles to carry it out, but he did it. In the course of time it came to pass that the other dogs kept away from the Post altogether, to avoid temptations; and his own team spent most of their free time wandering about to escape discipline.

The Third Law was this. Strange dogs must be decently treated as long as they behave decently. This was contrary to all tradition, but Pichou insisted upon it. If a strange dog wanted to fight he should be accommodated with an antagonist of his own size. If he did not want to fight he should be politely smelled and allowed to pass through.

This Law originated on a day when a miserable, long-legged, black cur, a cross between a greyhound and a water-spaniel, strayed into Seven Islands from heaven knows where—weary, desolate, and bedraggled. All the dogs in the place attacked the homeless beggar. There was a howling fracas on the beach; and when Pichou arrived, the trembling cur was standing up to the neck in the water, facing a semicircle of snarling, snapping bullies who dared not venture out any farther. Pichou had no fear of the water. He swam out to the stranger, paid the smelling salute as well as possible under the circumstances, encouraged the poor creature to come ashore, warned off the other dogs, and trotted by the wanderer’s side for miles down the beach until they disappeared around the point. What reward Pichou got for this polite escort, I do not know. But I saw him do the gallant deed; and I suppose this was the origin of the wellknown and much-resisted Law of Strangers’ Rights in Seven Islands.

The most recalcitrant subjects with whom Pichou had to deal in all these matters were the team of Ovide Boulianne. There were five of them, and up to this time they had been the best team in the village. They had one virtue: under the whip they could whirl a sledge over the snow farther and faster than a horse could trot in a day. But they had innumerable vices. Their leader, Carcajou, had a fleece like a merino ram. But under this coat of innocence he carried a heart so black that he would bite while he was wagging his tail. This smooth devil, and his four followers like unto himself, had sworn relentless hatred to Pichou, and they made his life difficult.

But his great and sufficient consolation for all toils and troubles was the friendship with his master. In the long summer evenings, when Dan Scott was making up his accounts in the store, or studying his pocket cyclopaedia of medicine in the living-room of the Post, with its low beams and mysterious green-painted cupboards, Pichou would lie contentedly at his feet. In the frosty autumnal mornings, when the brant were flocking in the marshes at the head of the bay, they would go out hunting together in a skiff. And who could lie so still as Pichou when the game was approaching? Or who could spring so quickly and joyously to retrieve a wounded bird? But best of all were the long walks on Sunday afternoons, on the yellow beach that stretched away toward the Moisie, or through the fir-forest behind the Pointe des Chasseurs. Then master and dog had fellowship together in silence. To the dumb companion it was like walking with his God in the garden in the cool of the day.

When winter came, and snow fell, and waters froze, Pichou’s serious duties began. The long, slim COMETIQUE, with its curving prow, and its runners of whalebone, was put in order. The harness of caribouhide was repaired and strengthened. The dogs, even the most vicious of them, rejoiced at the prospect of doing the one thing that they could do best. Each one strained at his trace as if he would drag the sledge alone. Then the long tandem was straightened out, Dan Scott took his place on the low seat, cracked his whip, shouted "POUITTE! POUITTE!" and the equipage darted along the snowy track like a fifty-foot arrow.

Pichou was in the lead, and he showed his metal from the start. No need of the terrible FOUET to lash him forward or to guide his course. A word was enough. "Hoc! Hoc! Hoc!" and he swung to the right, avoiding an air-hole. "Re-re! Re-re!" and he veered to the left, dodging a heap of broken ice. Past the mouth of the Ste. Marguerite, twelve miles; past Les Jambons, twelve miles more; past the River of Rocks and La Pentecote, fifteen miles more; into the little hamlet of Dead Men’s Point, behind the Isle of the Wise Virgin, whither the amateur doctor had been summoned by telegraph to attend a patient with a broken arm—forty-three miles for the first day’s run! Not bad. Then the dogs got their food for the day, one dried fish apiece; and at noon the next day, reckless of bleeding feet, they flew back over the same track, and broke their fast at Seven Islands before eight o’clock. The ration was the same, a single fish; always the same, except when it was varied by a cube of ancient, evil-smelling, potent whale’s flesh, which a dog can swallow at a single gulp. Yet the dogs of the North Shore are never so full of vigour, courage, and joy of life as when the sledges are running. It is in summer, when food is plenty and work slack, that they sicken and die.

Pichou’s leadership of his team became famous. Under his discipline the other dogs developed speed and steadiness. One day they made the distance to the Godbout in a single journey, a wonderful run of over eighty miles. But they loved their leader no better, though they followed him faster. And as for the other teams, especially Carcajou’s, they were still firm in their deadly hatred for the dog with the black patch.


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Chicago: Henry Van Dyke, "II," The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed March 18, 2019,

MLA: Dyke, Henry Van. "II." The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 18 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Dyke, HV, 'II' in The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 18 March 2019, from