Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 13

The Effects of War

BY the autumn of 1940 Sirius was well established at Caer Blai, was planning great improvements for the pasture, the breed and the arable land, and was known in the neighbourhood as “Pugh’s man-dog.” Precisely what his mental stature was, no one could decide. Pugh, by telling the whole truth about him, had put them off the scent. It was known that the man-dog had a marvellous facility with sheep, and was managing them on the latest scientific principles. But all this was vaguely thought to be less a matter of intelligence than of a sort of super-instinct mysteriously implanted in him by science. It was known too that he could understand a good deal of speech, and was actually able to use words himself to those who had the key to his queer pronunciation. He was learning a bit of Welsh; and the fact that his Welsh was so rudimentary, and that this was the language which alone was familiar in the district, disguised from everyone his true linguistic gifts and his fully human mentality.

Even so, had it not been war-time, the newspapers would certainly have publicized him, and with far more success than befell the stunt of the talking mongoose at an earlier date.

Sirius made himself thoroughly popular with most of the surrounding farmers and villagers, but there were a few who stubbornly regarded him with suspicion. Devout chapel-goers affirmed that the man-dog’s real master was not Pugh but Satan, and that Pugh had sold his soul to the Devil to help him out of the labour-shortage. Some of the sexually obsessed, aware of the great affection that held between the man-dog and the scientist’s younger daughter, whispered that it was Thomas, in the first instance, who had sold his soul, in order to gain scientific fame, and that Satan, incarnate in the dog, habitually gratified himself in perverse sexual intercourse with Thomas’s daughter. And she, they said, for all her charm, was little better than a witch. Anyone could see that there was something queer and inhuman about her. Rumours of a different type were spread by the cruder sort of patriots. They declared that Thomas was in the pay of the Nazis, who had found in his man-dog the ideal kind of spy. It was no accident that the animal was established in the neighbourhood of a big artillery camp.

Most people were too sensible to take these rumours seriously. Pugh was popular, and so was Sirius; for he was certainly a genius with sheep, and he lent distinction to the district. Thomas, though an Englishman, had won a place in local esteem; and his daughter, in spite of her new-fangled ways, was an attractive girl. Not till the pressure of war had been much prolonged, driving simple folk to look for scape-goats, was public opinion to become hostile.

When the great air attacks on London began, Elizabeth received a long letter from Geoffrey describing conditions in his parish, and urging her to take in some of his refugee children, and plant out others in suitable homes in her district. Geoffrey was one of those who believed in personal responsibility. He suspected all Government organization; consequently he was anxious to avoid as far as possible merely handing over his charges to the official evacuation authorities.

Geoffrey’s account of the devastation, heroism, muddle, callousness, and human kindness in the great blitzes had a deep effect on Sirius. He remembered vividly the smell of Geoffrey’s home, and of the bare little church and all the stuffy houses that he had visited. And these olfactory images called up in his mind a rich picture of human beings struggling against a hostile environment and their own inadequacy. He remembered many of the people whom Geoffrey reported as casualties, and many of the children for whom hospitality was required. He had a generous impulse to rush off to London at once with his panniers filled with first-aid equipment. But it was a foolish impulse. He would only be in the way. Besides, it was one thing to enjoy a generous impulse and quite another to put it in action. He suspected that he would be a thorough coward in an air raid; and anyhow, fundamentally he felt aloof from the whole war. If the human race was fool enough to torture itself in this crazy manner, what had he to do with it? Nevertheless he could not help being deeply moved by Geoffrey’s story, and by affection for Geoffrey himself. The plight of London became even more vivid to him and to the local population when, by one of those flukes which seem common in war, a single bomb, dropped at random by a stray raider, fell neatly on a lonely cottage in the neighbourhood, killing or wounding all its occupants.

Elizabeth undertook to take three London children into her house, and Mrs. Pugh, with much misgiving, agreed to accommodate two more. Sirius gave up his room at Caer Blai. Most of the local wives had already either taken on evacuees from blitzed towns in the north-west, or had refused to do so; but Elizabeth, after paying many calls, was able to tell Geoffrey that she had accommodation for fifteen more children and two mothers. It so happened that the neighbourhood had been rather lucky so far with its little immigrants. Though there had been a good deal of grumbling on the part of some hostesses, on the whole the scheme had worked. But the twenty little Londoners were a different kettle of fish. They were smelly, lousy, unruly little brats, and it was said in the district that no decent housewife would have had them across her doorstep if she had known what they were like. They made horrid messes in the house, broke the furniture, ruined the garden, lied, stole, bit one another and their hostesses, tormented the cat, and used dreadful language.

Some of the hostesses had the wit to realize that these children were simply the product of circumstances. It was shocking, they said, that society should allow its more unfortunate members to grow up in such degradation. The less imaginative housewives, however, indulged in orgies of self-righteous indignation against the children themselves and their parents. Some took the line that the immigrants were English, and that was what the English were like. As for Elizabeth, her popularity suffered somewhat. She alone was responsible for this recent affliction. It was remembered in some quarters not only that she was English, but that her husband had sold his soul to the Devil. Matters were made worse by the fact that her own evacuees turned out quite well. She was one of those who had a natural gift for treating children as human persons and expecting to be treated decently in return. There were troubles enough at first. But in a few weeks the little girl and her two small brothers were proudly helping with the house and the garden.

One day Elizabeth had news from Geoffrey that his church had been destroyed, but that he was continuing to devote his whole time to the care of his parishioners. He was elated that after long agitation he and others had secured great improvements in the public shelters in the district. A few days later she received a letter in an unknown hand saying that her cousin had been killed.

The news of Geoffrey’s death seemed to bring the war strangely near to Sirius. For the first time someone whom he knew and loved had vanished. This somehow put the whole thing into a new perspective. It should not have done so. He thought he had imagined the personal impact of war pretty well, but evidently he had not. Geoffrey had simply ceased to be, like a match flame when it is blown out. So simple, and yet somehow so incredible! For in a queer way Geoffrey now seemed more real than before, and nearer to him. For days he caught himself quietly talking to Geoffrey and getting perfectly good answers from him in his own mind. Queer! Just a trick of imagination, no doubt. But somehow he couldn’t really in his heart believe that Geoffrey had simply been snuffed out. Or rather, part of him believed it confidently and another part just couldn’t. He had a fantastic dream. Geoffrey sought out Thwaites in Hell, and found him with Sirius’s soul in his pocket. Somehow Geoffrey brought Thwaites up to Heaven, and his reward was the freeing of Sirius.

The war was soon to come even nearer to Sirius. In May Thomas took him by car to visit a farm near Shap, where several super-sheep-dogs were being successfully used to do practically the whole routine work on the sheep. The route back to North Wales passed through Liverpool. There had been a good deal of raiding on Merseyside from time to time, and Thomas judged it wise to be well across the river before dark. Unfortunately they were late in starting, and did not arrive in Liverpool till dusk. Somewhere in the outskirts of the town they developed engine trouble, and by the time an overworked garage hand had put matters right it was dark. They set out once more, but were much delayed by the condition of the town. There had been a bad raid on the previous night, and the streets had not yet been properly cleared. The result was that, before they could reach the entrance of the famous tunnel under the Mersey, a raid began. It was not far to the tunnel, so Thomas decided to hurry on. Sirius was terrified. Probably the noise was even more trying to his sensitive ears than to the duller human organ. Anyhow he had always been a coward, save in the wolf-mood. The moaning of planes, the prodigious smack and racket of anti-aircraft guns, the tearing rush of bombs (like a raucous and vastly amplified whisper, he thought), followed by such a crash as he had not believed possible, and then the clatter of falling masonry, the roaring and crackling of fires, the scurrying of human feet, the screams of casualties demanding help as the car passed a wrecked shelter, all this had a shattering effect on his morale. Sitting there in the back of the car he had nothing to do but be terrified. Then there were the smells, the stinging smells of gases from explosives, the dusty smell of shattered masonry, the pungent smell of burning woodwork, and occasionally the stench of mangled human bodies.

It seemed madness to go on any farther, so Thomas drew the car into the side of the road, and they dashed for the nearest shelter. The blast from a bomb pushed the side of a house across the street at them. Thomas was pinned under it; Sirius, though bruised and cut, was free. The lower part of Thomas’s body was covered with masonry. With great difficulty and in great pain he gasped out, “Save yourself. By the tunnel. Down the street. Then to Wales. Save yourself, for my sake. Please go, please!” Sirius tried frantically to shift the debris with his paws and teeth, but could not. “I’ll get help,” he said. “No, save yourself,” Thomas gasped. “I’m — done — anyhow. Good luck.” But Sirius hurried off, and presently was tugging at a man’s coat, and whimpering. It was obvious that he wanted help for someone, so a party came back with him. But when they reached the place where Thomas had been, they found only a fresh crater. The men returned to their former task, leaving Sirius blankly gazing. He sniffed about for a long while, whimpering miserably. Then his terror, which had been blotted out by action, welled up again. But his head was clear. He must find the tunnel entrance, which Thomas had said was quite near. He hurried along by the light of fires reflected from the clouds. At one point the road was completely blocked by fallen masonry, and he had to clamber over it. At last he reached the tunnel and managed to sneak in unobserved. He cantered along the footpath; and though a stream of cars was travelling towards Birkenhead, making a terrifying noise in the confined space of the tunnel, no one took much notice of him. At the Birkenhead entrance he made a dash for liberty, and found himself once more in the threatening racket of war and under the firelit sky. But the bombs were falling mostly on the Liverpool side of the Mersey.

Sirius gave me a very full account of his long trek from Birkenhead to Trawsfynydd, but there is no need to report it here in detail. Tired and mentally shattered, he made his way westward through the town and out across the Wirral towards Thurstastone Common. As he cantered through the night his mind kept reverting to the complete disappearance of Thomas, the being who had made him, whom he had at first adored with uncritical canine devotion, and more recently had strongly criticized, while always retaining a deep affection for him, and a deep respect for his powers. Intellectually he had little doubt that Thomas had simply ceased to exist; yet, as with Geoffrey’s death, he could not really believe it. Lobbing along a stretch of road, he found himself arguing with Thomas on the subject. The dead man insisted that there was now nothing anywhere in the universe which could reasonably be called Thomas Trelone, no mind continuous with that mind’s thoughts, desires, feelings. “Well, you ought to know,” said Sirius; and then came to a sudden halt, wondering if he was going mad.

From Thurstastone he travelled along the shore of the Dee Estuary and over the salt marshes to Queensferry, then by road and field and moorland, always in a south-westerly direction. Often he wondered how much he was guided by the sub-human mammal’s proverbial “homing faculty,” how far by vague memory of Thomas’s maps. The long stretches of road he found very tiring. The motor traffic was a constant worry, for the drivers gave him little consideration. He imagined the tyrant species as a composite creature made up of man and machine. How he hated its harsh voice and brutal ways! Yet only yesterday he himself, sitting in Thomas’s open tourer, had exulted in the speed and the wind as they streamed across the Lancashire plain. His present plight made him realize more clearly than ever how contemptuous and heartless men were towards “dumb animals” that did not happen to be their own pets.

Whenever he passed through a populous area he was careful to attract as little attention as possible. He slowed down and strayed about the road, sniffing at lamp-posts, like any local dog. When anyone made inquisitive or friendly advances, which was fairly often, for he was a striking animal, he replied with a nonchalant tail-wag, but never stopped. After crossing the Clwydian Range and the wide Vale of Clwyd, he made his way up into ample moors, and went badly astray in mist; but at last he dropped down into lower country near Pentrevoelas, and soon he was heading for the high wild hills of Migneint. Toiling up a steep grassy spur he entered heavy cloud, and it began to rain. Tired as he was, and with a painful task awaiting him, he exulted in the cold wet wind, the scents of the bog and turf and sheep. Once he caught the unmistakable odour of fox, that rare, intoxicating smell of the most illusive quarry. God! How the qualities of sensation seemed to hint at exquisite hidden things, always to be pursued, never found. Even sight could do it. The driving mist, the half-seen rocks, appearing and vanishing, and all the little grass-plumes jewelled with mist-drops, how they stabbed him with sweet familiarity and with a never-comprehended lure! No doubt it was all electrons and wave-trains and the tickling of nerve-endings, but oh how sweet and mysterious and frightening with uncomprehended truth! Somehow the beauty of it all was intensified to the point of agony by the horrors that he had so recently witnessed.

On and on he climbed, surprised at the height. Then suddenly the mist cleared for a moment, and he found himself almost at the top of a considerable mountain, which he soon identified as Carnedd Filast. Long ago, before he had taken to sheep, he used to hunt on these moors from Garth, but it was not often that he came quite so far afield.

Now that he was once more on the high hills, a change of mood came over him. Why should he go back to the tyrant species at all? Why give himself the pain of telling Elizabeth that her husband would not return? Why not live wild on the moor, free, spurning all mankind, feeding on rabbits and perhaps an occasional sheep, till at last a man did him to death? Why not? He had lived wild for a time after killing Thwaites, but that had been spoilt by conscience. This time it would be different. It was clear by now that life had little to offer him. True, he had found a niche of sorts, but only by man’s aid and tolerance. And it was a cramping niche. He could not extend his powers thoroughly. Strangely, on this occasion, it was the thought not of Thomas but of his sheep unshepherded that turned his attention from these gloomy meditations.

The mist now closed down heavily on the mountains, and it was already twilight; but he had taken his bearings, and was able to grope his way down towards a high boggy valley, and then up round a shoulder of Arenig Fach. Soon he was on little Carnedd Iago, then stumbling down in darkness towards the road, which he crossed near the head of Cwm Prysor. Leaving the wild moorland valley on his left, he came into home pastures. Now, even in darkness, every crag, every hummock, every pool, almost every tussock of heather or grass was familiar, and redolent with associations. Here he had found a dead sheep and half-born lamb. Here he had sat with Thomas, eating sandwiches on one of those long walks that would never be repeated. Here he had killed a hare. But though every step was familiar, increasing darkness and the heavy mist greatly delayed him. It was almost midnight when he reached Garth. I calculate that, since leaving Thurstastone Common in the early morning, he must have covered altogether, including all his lengthy aberrations from the direct route, well over eighty miles. Much of the journey was on hard roads or through difficult, hedged agricultural country.

At the door of the darkened house he gave his special summoning bark. Elizabeth promptly let him into the blinding light and the familiar smells of home. Before he had said a word, she had closed the door, knelt down, and put her arms round him, saying “Thank God one of you is safe.” “Only me,” he said. She gave one small moan, and clung to him in silence. Held in a rather awkward position, tired out after the strain of the last few days, and oppressed by the indoor atmosphere, he suddenly went deadly faint, and wilted in her arms. She laid his head low on the floor and went to fetch some brandy. But in a moment he recovered, staggered on to his feet, dutifully but feebly wiped them on the door-mat, and walked unsteadily into the sitting-room. Then he realized that his under surface was covered with the wet black mud of the bog. When Elizabeth returned, he was standing with trembling legs and hanging head, wondering what to do. “Lie down, precious,” she said. “The mess is nothing.” Presently she had him lapping up sweet tea, and then eating bread and milk.

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