On the white road that leads out of Mirebeau toward Nantes, between slender wavering poplars, I met a very small yellow dog. He trotted slowly up to me, halted, and spoke.
“Of course,” he said, “I am only a dog, and a yellow one at that. But I am sure you will help me. I am looking for my master.”
“I will do what I can,” I answered. “I like your courage. Frankly, I never expected a dog to speak to me, least of all a yellow one. Where do you think your master is?”
The little dog wagged his tail gratefully; and it was not until he showed this sign of cheerfulness that I realized by contrast how very sad were his yellow eyes.
“I do not know where he is. I have gone South as far as Poitiers and northward to Tours and I could find him nowhere. I live in Mirebeau; but as it is certain he is not there, I am on my way to Nantes to see if he comes off the ships.”
“But did he put to sea?”
“I do not know. But I fancy he loved the straight masts against evening skies. They would remind him of the poplars along the road-side. He was restless and always liked roads and ships. He always smelt of travel, even in his best clothes. Yes, I think I had best try Nantes.”
“What does your master look like?”
The dog turned his head quickly, and a far look came into his melancholy eyes. I thought at first that he could not speak for pain; but suddenly his gaze softened and he seemed to be smiling serenely at some old recollection.
“Ah,” he said, “it is not so much how he looks, or even how he smells; but the things he does. He is always strong and calm and sure of himself. So that one aches to follow him and serve him. You don’t know how we little dogs do ache to serve and follow someone. You may think, because we are restless and keep running into the fields on either side of the road and back again, that we would gladly be independent and free to come and go as we please. Never believe it. We are indeed restless, but how we crave someone to come back to from our strayings. Every morning at dawn I want my master to lead me off. And I can scarcely sleep by day or night for seeking him.”
I noticed then that the little fellow was indeed gaunt and unkempt, with that haunted look in his eyes that some men get. One or two sleek tidy dogs, who came trotting by at the heels of their masters, never even stopped to make his acquaintance. He seemed, by his gentle manner, used to this treatment.
But I reflected that his enthusiastic and, I confess, somewhat bombastic description of this marvellous master of his was really not of the least value in a search. So I turned to him sharply. “Come,” I cried, “when and where did you last see your master?”
“I have never seen him,” said the little dog simply. “Maybe that is why he is so hard to find. No, if I had once found him, you may be sure I would not have lost him again. But I have never seen him.”
He was standing very rigidly before me, with his head on one side, and he seemed so confident of my understanding his trouble, that I could not laugh at the absurdity of his quest.
“But, my dear fellow,” I exclaimed as gently as I knew how, “how can you find a master you have never seen? And if he exists only as your ideal, you have but to keep hunting until you find him in the flesh.”
“I have,” said the little dog ruefully. “I have hunted ever since I knew what my ideal was like. Though, to tell the truth, it is not so much a question of what my master must be like, as of what he must not. There are no men that I have seen in Poitiers or Tours that I could follow.”
“But other dogs seem to find masters.”
“I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that better dogs than I find masters in these places. You are thinking that I am a most conceited pup, a most—”
“No, no!” I cried. “I am thinking nothing of the sort. I understand what you mean.”
I sat down suddenly beside him on the dusty bank and drew his head against mine. A plump peasant who was driving by, looked amusedly at us while his cart covered us with white dust. The peasant’s great black dog paid us not even the attention of a glance.
“No, no,” I murmured again in his ear. “I understand how you feel. You cannot follow the fat butcher in Mirebeau, or the sleek pharmacist, or the inn-keeper with his well-kept dogs. They would take good care of you, but you cannot follow them. A pup must follow whom he can, not whomever he will. And none of these men in Mirebeau or Tours is the man you are searching for.—Poor devil, I understand.”
The little pup’s body stiffened; he drew his head back; and a strange, troubled, joyful look came into his eyes.
“No, not that,” I cried, pushing him away and leaping to my feet in a panic, and starting down the road. “No, not me! Courage. Keep a good heart. You will surely find him at Nantes. Or at Rochelle. You did not think of Rochelle, did you? He will surely come off the ships there. —But not me! No, no, not me! There is no strength or sureness in me—no strength.”
I first encountered this story in an issue of Boy's Life when I was a Cub Scout. It has haunted me ever since. Many years later I found it again on the internet and I am just as captivated as an aging man as I was as a young boy. I still don't know exactly what it means. It seems to be a fable, or a parable, but about exactly what? Strange encounters? Empathy? Commitment? Love? I don't know, but it is beautifully realized. The ending seems unspeakably tragic. One of the greatest short short stories ever written.