Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 11

Man As Tyrant

IN the summer of 1939 the clouds of war were already gathering over Europe. Everyone was living in dread of the future or hoping against hope that by some miracle the storm would after all not break. Sirius had never taken much interest in the international situation, but now, like so many others, he was forced to be interested. Thomas also was merely bored at the prospect of war. He wanted to carry on his work unhindered, and he feared that war would make this impossible. Of course, if the clash came, we should have to do our damnedest to win; but if only the fool politicians had been more intelligent and honest there would never have been any trouble. This was roughly Sirius’s attitude also, except that in addition he felt a rising fury against the dominant species, which had been given such power and such opportunity, and yet was making such a sorry mess of its affairs.

During the summer vac the Trelone family spent only a few weeks in Wales. It was a clouded holiday, for there was no escape from the international situation. Thomas was embittered, and Elizabeth desperately saddened. Tamsy, who had been married some months earlier, spent her week in Wales brooding over the newspapers and the wireless set. Maurice, now a don at Cambridge, argued a great deal with Tamsy about Hitler’s chances. Giles was very quiet, adjusting himself to the idea that he would soon have to fight. Plaxy ignored the war-clouds completely, and went out of the room whenever the subject was raised. Sirius concentrated on recovering physical fitness after Cambridge and London.

When war broke out Sirius was on a Cumberland sheep farm learning the ways of the Lakeland shepherds. Sirius’s Cumberland experiences were valuable, but painful. Thwaites, who was by no means typical of the fine Lakeland type, turned out to be a harsh and unreasonable master. He showed Sirius an aspect of humanity with which he had never before had personal contact to any appreciable extent. Sirius suspected Thwaites at the outset because his own dog, Roy, a Border Collie, avoided him whenever possible, and cringed when spoken to. In Thwaites’s relations with Sirius some quite irrelevant and probably forgotten conflict seems to have found expression. He conceived an uncontrollable dislike for the dog, perhaps because of a strong suspicion that Sirius was no ordinary super-sheep-dog, and was privately judging his character very ruthlessly. Whatever the cause, Thwaites soon began to treat Sirius with crude harshness. I find it difficult to excuse Thomas for his gross carelessness in choosing him as Sirius’s instructor. Thomas was always surprisingly insensitive about the psychological aspect of his great experiment; or perhaps not insensitive but unimaginative. But on this occasion his failure to secure decent conditions for Sirius was so flagrant that I am inclined to attribute it to deliberate purpose. Had he determined to afford the dog some first-hand experience of the more brutal aspect of humanity? If so, his purpose was only too well fulfilled.

Anyhow, Thwaites constantly indulged his spite against Sirius, ordering him to carry heavy loads in his mouth, forcing on him all sorts of tasks which only a human hand could perform efficiently, overworking him with awkward jobs that were obviously unnecessary, and laughing bitterly at him in conversation with his neighbours.

At first Sirius was rather pleased to have the experience of contact with a human being of brutal temper. Hitherto his immediate human environment had been on the whole too amiable to be a fair sample. He needed to know what man was like in his harsher modes. There was soon trouble, because Sirius did not cringe when Thwaites gave orders. Instead, he carried out his task with calm efficiency. This provoked the man to curse him on the flimsiest pretext; and when he did so, Sirius would gaze at him with cold and ostentatious surprise. This, of course, made matters worse. In time, Thwaites’s harsh voice and the whole atmosphere of the place began to get on Sirius’s nerves. The milder human contacts in Wales, Cambridge and London began to fade out of his consciousness, and he found himself feeling that Thwaites was the typical man. Obscurely he dramatized himself as the champion of his own kind against the tyrant race. Thwaites’s great cruel hands symbolized for him the process by which the ruthless species had mastered all the living creatures of the planet. Irrationally Sirius, though a hunter who had again and again inflicted agony and death, felt a self-righteous indignation against the sheer cruelty of man. Compassion for the weak, which had been inculcated in him by his own human friends, now turned him against humanity itself.

Thwaites had several times threatened Sirius with his stick, but had always thought better of it, sobered by the dog’s great size and a dangerous look in his eye. As time passed, the man’s irrational spite against the dog increased. But the incident which caused the final catastrophe was an attack not on Sirius but on Roy. A few days before Thomas was due to come and fetch Sirius away there was some difficulty with a bunch of sheep that Roy had brought into the yard. Thwaites caught the collie a sharp blow on the haunch. Sirius turned on Thwaites in fury and knocked him down; then, remembering himself, he withdrew and watched the man pick himself up. Roy promptly disappeared from the scene. It was a fixed principle with Thwaites that when dogs were rebellious one must thrash them into subjection, which meant in his view thrashing them almost to death. He called to his hired man, “Anderson, the brute’s gone savage, come and help me teach him.” There was no answer. Anderson was far afield. Thwaites was no coward, but he did not relish attacking the great cunning beast single-handed. However, insubordination must be crushed, at all costs. Besides, such a dangerous animal might do incalculable harm. Better destroy it at once. He could tell Trelone that the dog had gone mad and had to be shot. He went into the house. Sirius guessed that he would emerge with his gun. He therefore rushed to the house door and crouched at one side of it. Thwaites stepped over the threshold, looking round the yard. Sirius leapt at him, knocked him over again, and seized the gun with his teeth. Both antagonists rolled over and over. Thwaites struggled to his feet, and tried to turn the muzzle of the gun against the dog’s body. One barrel went off harmlessly, then the other. Sirius let go the gun and sprang away. Thwaites put his hand in his pocket and brought out a couple of cartridges. Sirius leapt at him, knocked him over again and seized his throat, gripping his windpipe with the full power of his strong jaws. The flavour of warm human blood and the sound of the man’s stifled gurgle filled him with an exultant, careless fury. In this symbolic act he would kill not only Thwaites but the whole tyrant race. Henceforth all beasts and birds should live naturally, and the planet’s natural order should never again be disturbed by the machinations of this upstart species. These thoughts flashed through his mind even as the couple floundered and crashed about, gripping each other’s throats.

Presently the man’s struggles slackened, his grip weakened. Then a change began to come over Sirius’s mind. Fury gave place to a more detached observation of the situation. After all, this creature was only expressing the nature that the universe had bred in him. And so was the whole human race. Why this silly hate? The human stink suddenly reminded him of Plaxy’s fragrance. The blood-taste nauseated him. The crushed windpipe between his teeth filled him with horror. He let go, moved away, and stood watching the feeble movements of his non-canine brother, whom he, Cain, had murdered.

Practical considerations presented themselves to him. The hand of man would now indeed be relentlessly turned against him. The hand of two thousand million human beings; all the race, save his own few friends. A panic of loneliness suddenly seized him. A solitary airman, flying over hostile territory, with nothing but enemies below and nothing but stars above, may sometimes feel desperately lonely; but that loneliness is nothing to the loneliness which now oppressed Sirius, with the whole human race against him, and his own species unable to comprehend him, and no pack anywhere to comfort him and accept his service.

He went over to the trough in the yard, drank, and licked his lips clean. Once more he stood watching Thwaites, who now lay still, with a torn and bloody neck. His own neck was stiff after Thwaites’s desperate effort. Imagining the pain that his teeth must have inflicted, he cringed. He returned to the body and sniffed the neck. Already there was a very faint odour of death. No need, then, to risk his own life fetching a doctor to save this human being. Obeying a sudden freakish impulse, he fleetingly touched the forehead of his slaughtered brother with his tongue.

Distant footsteps! He took to his heels in sudden panic, leapt the yard gate and raced away for the fells. Lest they should come after him with bloodhounds, he used every fox-trick to mislead them. He doubled on his track, he took to streams, and so on. That night he slept under the bracken in a remote ghyll. Next day hunger forced him to go hunting. He managed to secure a rabbit, and took it to his lair, where he wolfed it. He spent the rest of the day hidden, and haunted by his crime; haunted, yet strangely exultant. Though it was indeed a crime, it was a positive act of self-assertion which had emancipated him for ever from the spell of the master race. Henceforth he would fear no man simply as a man. Two more nights and the intervening day he spent in hiding. Then he set off to intercept Thomas, who was due at the farm in the afternoon. With great caution he worked his way back over the hills till he was looking down on the road to Thwaites’s farm. He went to a point on the road where there was good cover and a hairpin bend. Here the car would have to slow down almost to walking pace. He hid himself in the undergrowth of a little wood, and waited. An occasional foot-passenger passed, and an occasional car. At last there was the unmistakable sound of Thomas’s Morris Ten. Cautiously Sirius crept from his hiding, looking to see if any other human being was visible. There was no one. He stepped out into the road. Thomas stopped the car and got out with a cheery “Hello!” Sirius, with tucked-in tail, simply said, “I’ve killed Thwaites.” Thomas exclaimed, “God!” then gaped at him in silence. The dog’s keen ears heard distant footsteps, so they retired into the wood to discuss the situation. It was decided that Thomas should go up to the farm as though he knew nothing of the tragedy, while Sirius kept in hiding.

There is no need to record in detail how Thomas dealt with the problem. Naturally he did not tell the police that he had met Sirius. He strongly denied that his super-sheep-dogs were dangerous, and he produced evidence to that effect. He insisted that Thwaites must have treated Sirius very badly; and the man (it appeared) was known to be of a sadistic temper. Clearly he had attacked the animal with his gun, and had probably wounded it. In self-defence the dog had killed him. And where was the dog now? The valuable creature had probably died of wounds somewhere on the moors.

This much of the truth Thomas told Sirius, but not till long afterwards did the murderer learn the rest. Things had not in fact gone as well as Thomas had reported. The officers of the law remained suspicious, and ordered that if the dog was found it must be destroyed. Thomas therefore decided that in order to protect his unique canine masterpiece he must resort to trickery After a suitable interval he would notify the authorities that the man-killing beast had at last found its way home, and that it had been duly destroyed. He would sacrifice a certain large Alsatian super-sheep-dog, and palm off his corpse as Sirius’s.

It was not until late on the day of the inquest that Thomas picked up Sirius at the hairpin bend. In spite of the black-out, they drove home through the night, helped by a full moon.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30