Dog and Duck, by Arthur Machen

Some February Stars

The other day a sad case came before the courts; one of those cases in which ‘the home’ has been broken up owing to differences, disagreements, subjects of variance and quarrel. Such affairs are not uncommon, though they are not quite so common as the members of the Society for the Instant Abolition of the Family pretend; but in the case of which I am speaking there were highly uncommon elements. Husband and wife had parted, not on account of the fabled lodger, or for any such simple cause. It was astrology that had driven them apart; it was astrology that sent the wife to dwell in the workhouse. I think that it was the lady who began it. I believe that she and her mother had dealt deeply in the Twelve Houses of the Heavens, in Rising Signs, in Lords of the Ascendant, in Trine and Sextile. At any rate, during the war, a communication came from astrological or other occult regions to the effect that the wife would be killed by an explosion. The husband, who had evidently become a fervent believer, met this threat with a scheme of his own. He caused his wife to sleep in the kitchen, and, as it were, bid the stars come on. Here, you may say, is one of the oddest instances of the mad irrationalities which infest the human mind. The husband believed in the stars and their doom, and he thought that this august fate, written in the heavens, this sentence issuing, we will suppose, from Mars ill-aspected with the Sun, could be turned aside and annulled — by a thin basement ceiling! Absurd enough, certainly; and yet no more absurd than the conduct of the father and mother of Oedipus in the Greek play. They were informed by the oracle that the child born to them would murder his father and marry his mother; and so — believing in the Oracle with all their hearts — they exposed the infant on a desolate mountain. It didn’t do; you could not get round Greek Oracles that way, though you may play fast and loose with English horoscopes.

But to return to our modern family. The evidence as reported seems to become vague; all that was clear was that husband and wife, through roaming too freely in the starry plains, drifted apart on the earthly ones; and so the process of the courts drops a dull curtain on a curious scene. But the interest of all this to me was the survival of the belief in astrology; in that system which declares, sometimes in extreme terms, sometimes in moderate phrases, that human life is ruled by the planets; that things in Park Lane and Peckham, Brixton and Belgravia, Aldgate and Mayfair, all depend upon the march of Sun and Moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus, and the rest of them. It is an astounding theory. Here, we will say, is a little boy with a racking cough and an anxious mother bending over him; Saturn is ‘afflicting the Native.’ At the same time, Smith takes to his breast Beauty and Half-a-Million; Mercury and the Moon have fulfilled their promise to him. And Uranus, aided by Mercury, now in a very different humour, shuts up the small grocer’s shop in Norwood and sends the grocer — poor man — off to the Bankruptcy Court.

There, in the rough, is the system. The broad lines of your life are all settled at the moment of your birth; success or failure, happiness or misery, riches or poverty, early death or length of days; all these are patent to the astrologer’s eye. Give him but the moment of birth; his predictions will extend to the day of death. And the odd thing is: that while the astrologer’s art has been known to the world certainly six thousand years, probably for a much longer time — they had horoscopes and bearer-cheques and bills-of-sale, all in bricks, in Babylon — yet mankind has never yet been able to make up its mind definitely whether there is anything in it, or whether it is all stuff and nonsense.

Not really to make up its mind. Certainly, the eighteenth century pooh-poohed the whole business, just as it pooh-poohed Alchemy. But that was more an impatient gesture than a reasoned conviction. The eighteenth century pooh-poohed Gothic Architecture in a similar manner. Gothic has long come to its own again; and they tell me that there are great commercial possibilities before Alchemy — or ‘Synthetic Gold’— in Germany. At any rate, the principle of alchemy, the artificial transmutation of metals, has long been recognized by modern science. And, then, coming to my own experience: I once knew an astrologer. He predicted nothing so far as I was concerned. But one day, in the midst of casual conversation, he remarked, quietly enough:

‘You have received two interesting letters in the course of the week, since I last saw you. One dealt with the discomforts of theatrical travelling. The other was about a particular article in the Classical Dictionary. And last Sunday you were talking to some people about the fooleries of your occult friends.’

There it was. It was all true. How did he do it? I don’t know. He said it was astrological A B C. It struck me that a very rough-and-ready test might be to my hand in the February Calendar, in the list of the great born during that month. For, if the general principles of astrology were true, it would probably follow that each month would have its own type. There would be the Februarian man, the Martian man, the Augustan man, and so forth. I did not, somehow, expect to find much confirmation in the February Calendar. But I found it.

The three most eminent names of those born in February are Charles Dickens, Henry Irving, and Ellen Terry. The most distinguished actor and actress of the last age; and the great Dickens, whose passion for the stage was almost a disease! I am sure that it was only the immense common sense of Dickens, the servant of his genius — as it often is — that prevented him from joining Crummles early in life. And he was an enthusiastic amateur all his days; his theatrical exploits make but tiresome reading. But there you are: it really looks as if the February aspects of the heavens inclined strongly to the theatre. Yet, for my part, I do not believe a word of it. Astrology cannot be true: for, if it were true, life would be impossible. Human nature, as we know it, would perish away and blacken as a piece of tissue paper in a candle flame. We could not live, if we knew what our life was to be. We could form no plans if their futility were plain from the start. And how about racing? I know racing men pretend that they deal in ‘certs,’ even in ‘dead certs.’ I have listened to them conferring together and proving beyond a shadow of doubt that the arrival of Bolter at the winning-post in advance of all others is as sure a thing as the arrival of the sun over the horizon in the morning. Well, the race is run and Bolter is nowhere in particular; but in a week’s time the same group will be talking in the same terms of Wolter or Polter or Nolter. They only deal in ‘certs.’

But, of course, in their hearts they must be quite well aware that their ‘certs’ are really ‘uncerts.’ If it were otherwise betting would be dead in a day. You can’t wager your money on the number of days in the week or the number of weeks in the year or on the multiplication table. There must be some sort of a chance, or there can be no bet. But if astrology were true, it would be A B C, I suppose, for the skilled astrologer to forecast every race by the immutable laws of the heavens. Whereupon, the Turf and all that it implies would instantly cease to exist. And I submit that, as Britons, we know that this would be absurd.

Therefore, Astrology is all stuff and nonsense!

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39