We were just leaving the asylum when I saw a tall, thin man in a corner of the court who kept on calling an imaginary dog. He was crying in a soft, tender voice: “Cocotte! Come here, Cocotte, my beauty!” and slapping his thigh as one does when calling an animal. I asked the physician, “Who is that man?” He answered: “Oh! he is not at all interesting. He is a coachman named Francois, who became insane after drowning his dog.”
I insisted: “Tell me his story. The most simple and humble things are sometimes those which touch our hearts most deeply.”
Here is this man’s adventure, which was obtained from a friend of his, a groom:
There was a family of rich bourgeois who lived in a suburb of Paris. They had a villa in the middle of a park, at the edge of the Seine. Their coachman was this Francois, a country fellow, somewhat dull, kind-hearted, simple and easy to deceive.
One evening, as he was returning home, a dog began to follow him. At first he paid no attention to it, but the creature’s obstinacy at last made him turn round. He looked to see if he knew this dog. No, he had never seen it. It was a female dog and frightfully thin. She was trotting behind him with a mournful and famished look, her tail between her legs, her ears flattened against her head and stopping and starting whenever he did.
He tried to chase this skeleton away and cried:
“Run along! Get out! Kss! kss!” She retreated a few steps, then sat down and waited. And when the coachman started to walk again she followed along behind him.
He pretended to pick up some stones. The animal ran a little farther away, but came back again as soon as the man’s back was turned.
Then the coachman Francois took pity on the beast and called her. The dog approached timidly. The man patted her protruding ribs, moved by the beast’s misery, and he cried: “Come! come here!” Immediately she began to wag her tail, and, feeling herself taken in, adopted, she began to run along ahead of her new master.
He made her a bed on the straw in the stable, then he ran to the kitchen for some bread. When she had eaten all she could she curled up and went to sleep.
When his employers heard of this the next day they allowed the coachman to keep the animal. It was a good beast, caressing and faithful, intelligent and gentle.
Nevertheless Francois adored Cocotte, and he kept repeating: “That beast is human. She only lacks speech.”
He had a magnificent red leather collar made for her which bore these words engraved on a copper plate: “Mademoiselle Cocotte, belonging to the coachman Francois.”
She was remarkably prolific and four times a year would give birth to a batch of little animals belonging to every variety of the canine race. Francois would pick out one which he would leave her and then he would unmercifully throw the others into the river. But soon the cook joined her complaints to those of the gardener. She would find dogs under the stove, in the ice box, in the coal bin, and they would steal everything they came across.
Finally the master, tired of complaints, impatiently ordered Francois to get rid of Cocotte. In despair the man tried to give her away. Nobody wanted her. Then he decided to lose her, and he gave her to a teamster, who was to drop her on the other side of Paris, near Joinville-le-Pont.
Cocotte returned the same day. Some decision had to be taken. Five francs was given to a train conductor to take her to Havre. He was to drop her there.
Three days later she returned to the stable, thin, footsore and tired out.
The master took pity on her and let her stay. But other dogs were attracted as before, and one evening, when a big dinner party was on, a stuffed turkey was carried away by one of them right under the cook’s nose, and she did not dare to stop him.
This time the master completely lost his temper and said angrily to Francois: “If you don’t throw this beast into the water before—to-morrow morning, I’ll put you out, do you hear?”
The man was dumbfounded, and he returned to his room to pack his trunk, preferring to leave the place. Then he bethought himself that he could find no other situation as long as he dragged this animal about with him. He thought of his good position, where he was well paid and well fed, and he decided that a dog was really not worth all that. At last he decided to rid himself of Cocotte at daybreak.
He slept badly. He rose at dawn, and taking a strong rope, went to get the dog. She stood up slowly, shook herself, stretched and came to welcome her master.
Then his courage forsook him, and he began to pet her affectionately, stroking her long ears, kissing her muzzle and calling her tender names.
But a neighboring clock struck six. He could no longer hesitate. He opened the door, calling: “Come!” The beast wagged her tail, understanding that she was to be taken out.
They reached the beach, and he chose a place where the water seemed deep. Then he knotted the rope round the leather collar and tied a heavy stone to the other end. He seized Cocotte in his arms and kissed her madly, as though he were taking leave of some human being. He held her to his breast, rocked her and called her “my dear little Cocotte, my sweet little Cocotte,” and she grunted with pleasure.
Ten times he tried to throw her into the water and each time he lost courage.
But suddenly he made up his mind and threw her as far from him as he could. At first she tried to swim, as she did when he gave her a bath, but her head, dragged down by the stone, kept going under, and she looked at her master with wild, human glances as she struggled like a drowning person. Then the front part of her body sank, while her hind legs waved wildly out of the water. Finally those also disappeared.
Then, for five minutes, bubbles rose to the surface as though the river were boiling, and Francois, haggard, his heart beating, thought that he saw Cocotte struggling in the mud, and, with the simplicity of a peasant, he kept saying to himself: “What does the poor beast think of me now?”
He almost lost his mind. He was ill for a month and every night he dreamed of his dog. He could feel her licking his hands and hear her barking. It was necessary to call in a physician. At last he recovered, and toward the 2nd of June his employers took him to their estate at Biesard, near Rouen.
There again he was near the Seine. He began to take baths. Each morning he would go down with the groom and they would swim across the river.
One day, as they were disporting themselves in the water, Francois suddenly cried to his companion: “Look what’s coming! I’m going to give you a chop!”
It was an enormous, swollen corpse that was floating down with its feet sticking straight up in the air.
Francois swam up to it, still joking: “Whew! it’s not fresh. What a catch, old man! It isn’t thin, either!” He kept swimming about at a distance from the animal that was in a state of decomposition. Then, suddenly, he was silent and looked at it: attentively. This time he came near enough to touch, it. He looked fixedly at the collar, then he stretched out his arm, seized the neck, swung the corpse round and drew it up close to him and read on the copper which had turned green and which still stuck to the discolored leather: “Mademoiselle Cocotte, belonging to the coachman Francois.”
The dead dog had come more than a hundred miles to find its master.
He let out a frightful shriek and began to swim for the beach with all his might, still howling; and as soon as he touched land he ran away wildly, stark naked, through the country. He was insane!