Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 10

Experiences in London

ONE day Sirius demanded very urgently that Thomas should arrange for him to meet a few of the outstanding religious people of Cambridge. “But I don’t know any,” said Thomas. “They’re not my line. And anyhow I wouldn’t trust them not to blab.” Sirius was not to be put off; and finally it was agreed that Elizabeth should help him to satisfy his curiosity about religion, and at the same time show him London. She had a cousin who was a parson in the East End. He could be taken into their confidence, and the two of them could perhaps visit him.

The Rev. Geoffrey Adams, now well advanced in middle age, was one of those clerics who had cared more for his parishioners than for self-advancement. Long ago he had undertaken a slum parish, and he had stayed there ever since. His life had been spent in comforting the sick and the dying with assurances of peace hereafter, in fighting local authorities on behalf of hard cases, and in agitating for playgrounds, free milk for mothers and children, and decent treatment for the unemployed. Throughout the country he had something of a reputation as a fighting parson, for on several occasions his indiscreet championship of the oppressed had brought him up against the state or his ecclesiastical superiors. Nearly all his parishioners admired him, some loved him, very few attended his services.

Elizabeth wrote to Geoffrey, telling him about Sirius, and asking if she might visit him, with the wonder-dog. He replied that he was desperately busy, that religion was not a thing to be got merely by talking about it, but that if they came to the East End he would show them round, and they might see a little of it in action.

Elizabeth took Sirius by train to King’s Cross, a tiresome journey for the dog, as he had to travel in the luggage van. They spent the afternoon walking about the more prosperous end of the metropolis, for Sirius’s edification. Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly and the parks gave Sirius a new impression of the multitude and power of the human race. What an amazing species it was, with its great buildings, its endless streams of cars, its shop-window displays, its swarming foot-passengers, with their trousered or silken legs! He could always detect the familiar sheep smell in the tweed; and in the fur coats there were still odours of the menagerie. Sirius had many questions to ask Elizabeth, but of course they dared not talk, for fear of rousing curiosity.

After a while Elizabeth was tired with all the walking, and wanted her tea. It was difficult to find a cafe, where the great dog was acceptable, but after a while they settled beside a little table. Sirius, of course, lay on the floor, and was much in the way of the waitresses. Elizabeth gave him a bun and a slop-basin full of sweet tea. While she smoked, he watched the company. Someone was overheard to say, “That dog’s expression is almost human.”

After they had refreshed themselves they went eastwards by tube, and emerged in an entirely different world, the down-and-out world that Plaxy had often described to him. He was amazed by the contrast of Homo sapiens in affluence and Homo sapiens in penury. Young men hung about aimlessly at pub-corners. Dirty-faced children and shabby curs played in the gutters. Both the smell and the voices of the passers-by gave Sirius an unmistakable impression of defeat and resentment. He walked beside Elizabeth with alert and anxious eyes and heavy tail. This line of country threatened to be too much for him. The only familiar and comforting thing about it was the variety of odours left by his own kind at the foot of each lamp-post. The rest was overwhelming, not only because of the oppressive stink of man, but because it was a stink of man in abject anxiety. The western crowd had smelt mainly of cosmetics, perfume, soap, fresh tweed, tobacco smoke, moth balls and the slaughtered beasts whose furs they had stolen. There was also, of course, a strong undertone of human sweat, mostly female, and of all the other physical odours, including now and then an unmistakable whiff of sexual excitement. But in the eastern crowd the smell of crude human bodies dominated everything else; and it was on the average different in quality from the smell of the western bodies. In the prosperous region the odour was mainly of wholesome physique, but in the poorer region there was a faint but definite and very widespread smell of ill-health, rising sometimes (for his keen nose) to one or other of the repellent stenches of disease. There was another difference, too. Even in the west there was a tell-tale smell of peevish discontent; but in the east, where frustration was far more poignant, the same smell of discontent was stronger, and often accompanied by the acrid stink of chronic but suppressed rage.

Sirius, of course, had come across sordid town areas before, but never before had he imaginatively realized the extent of man’s degradation in Britain. So this, he kept saying to himself, is what man has done to man, this is the average condition of the proud tyrant species. Its fundamentally self-regarding intelligence and its inadequate feeling for community has led it to this. The West End cared not a damn for the East End, and both, in their several ways, were frustrated.

The Rev. Geoffrey Adams received his visitors with some embarrassment. He had no idea how to treat Sirius, and even ordinary dogs he felt to be rather remote and incomprehensible. However, he soon learned that this great beast must be treated more or less as a human being; and he showed a surprising quickness in recognizing that Sirius’s strange noises were an attempt at the English language. He accounted for his aptitude by saying, “I come across so many queer lingos at the docks.” Then, realizing that this remark might seem disrespectful, he looked anxiously at Sirius, who moved his tail slightly in sign of friendliness.

Elizabeth had intended that they should spend a couple of nights with Geoffrey and then return to Cambridge, but Sirius was determined to stay on by himself, if Geoffrey would have him. For here was an aspect of mankind about which he knew nothing, and he could not begin to understand it in a couple of days. Geoffrey had been at first rather sceptical and even offhand about Sirius’s search for religion, but some of the dog’s remarks during their first interview, interpreted by Elizabeth, had roused his interest, particularly his statement that the heart of religion was love, and nothing else mattered. Here was a truth that called for elaboration and qualification. Geoffrey was also much intrigued by Sirius’s real capacity for song, for the cleric was musical, and something of a singer himself. This was an added reason for his unexpectedly warm encouragement of Sirius’s suggestion that he should remain in the East End for a while.

It was arranged that the dog should stay with Geoffrey for a week, Actually he remained much longer. He masqueraded as Geoffrey’s dog, going with him among the parishioners whenever possible. Often, of course, he had to be left behind. Geoffrey could not take him to share death-bed scenes or difficult interviews with town councillors. But on most pastoral visits cleric and dog would set out together, and on the doorstep Geoffrey would ask, “May I bring in my dog? He’s quite friendly.” Sirius’s amiable expression and waving tail would nearly always gain him a welcome.

In this manner he saw much of the conditions in which the less fortunate members of the dominant species lived. He also listened to many a conversation on matters practical or spiritual. Sometimes Geoffrey would greatly amuse his friends in the parish by including Sirius in the conversation, and Sirius to their delight would “reply.” No one, of course, suspected that these little performances were genuine; but the Rev. Adam’s queer dog was well received in all but the most unimaginative families. Children were specially accessible, for Sirius allowed them to ride him and maul him, and often showed “an uncanny understanding” of their talk and games. One boy of twelve insisted that Sirius’s own talk was not sham at all, and that he himself could often understand it. Geoffrey affirmed, “Of course it’s real,” then knowingly smiled at the grown-ups.

Sometimes Geoffrey’s duties took him to a canteen or mission-hall in dockland, sometimes to a Men’s Club, where, followed by the observant Sirius, he would pass from room to room exchanging greetings with the members. Sometimes the parson took a turn at darts or billiards, or watched a boxing match. Once, with Sirius carelessly stretched out on the floor, he gave a talk on “Housing.”

It did not take long for Sirius to discover that there were many different reactions to Geoffrey in this club. A few members regarded him with resentment and suspicion; and expressed their spleen by furtive persecution of his dog. Others, while respecting Geoffrey’s kindliness and sincerity, regarded him and his religion as survivals from a prehistoric world. A few curried favour by professing conventional piety. One or two, for whom Geoffrey showed a special bantering affection, were for ever trying to convert him to atheism. The arguments, on both sides, rather shook Sirius’s faith in the intellectual honesty of the dominant species, for on both sides the calibre of the reasoning was sometimes laughably poor. It was as though neither side really cared about mere logical cogency, because both had already made up their minds. Of all the club members, not one, it seemed to Sirius, was a sincere Christian in Geoffrey’s sense of the term; though many were deeply influenced by Geoffrey’s personality.

Sometimes Geoffrey took Sirius into the actual land of docks. The strange odours of foreign merchandise greatly interested him. They afforded him, he said, not only information about the goods themselves but something of the atmosphere of the lands from which they came. They enabled him to “travel by nose.” He was greatly intrigued also by the new varieties of human odour associated with coloured people. Negroes, Lascars, Chinese, each had their distinctive racial scent, and in contrast with these the smell characteristic of Europeans distinguished itself in his mind.

On one occasion Geoffrey and Sirius came upon a minor riot. The dockers were on strike on account of the sacking of one of their number for political reasons. Blackleg labour was introduced, and the local men attacked the interlopers. Geoffrey and Sirius arrived at the height of the trouble. A large crowd of men was preventing a smaller crowd from going to work. Stones and bottles were thrown. A blackleg was knocked unconscious, and lay in the mud with a bleeding forehead. Geoffrey hastened to him, with Sirius at his heels, the wolf-mood rising. As Geoffrey bent over the stricken man, some of the dockers reviled him for helping their enemy. Someone even threw a stone, and Sirius took up a position between Geoffrey and the crowd, with bared teeth and a terrifying growl. Geoffrey did not take the men’s hostile action meekly. In fact, for the first time Sirius saw him lose his temper. “Fools!” cried the parson. “I’m on your side, but this man is as precious to God as any of us.” At this point God’s damaged treasure recovered consciousness and rose to his feet, using most ungodly language. Then the police arrived inconsiderable force, drew their truncheons, and charged the dockers, most of whom fled. A few put up a fight and were arrested; two were picked up unconscious.

Before going to bed that night, Geoffrey and Sirius, as was their custom, talked over the affairs of the day. This time Sirius was deeply interested. He had long ago discovered that the human species was not at one with itself, and that authority was not always sympathetic with the common people, but the scene at the dock entrance had brought this home to him. According to Geoffrey the aim of the strike was to make a stand against gross victimization; and yet the police, though their action had been legally correct, had shown unnecessary brutality.

The world that Sirius now lived in was bewilderingly different from both his two other worlds, North Wales and Cambridge. The three worlds were inhabited by such diverse creatures that he could almost believe them three different species. Country people, intellectuals, dockers! Mentally they were far more alien to one another than dogs, cats and horses. Yet, of course, the difference was really all imposed by environment. Well, for the present he was wholly occupied in studying his third world; the others faded imperceptibly into dreamlands. For some weeks he was far too interested in the East End to look back on those other worlds; but at last there came times, chiefly when Geoffrey was busy on committee work, when he found himself hankering after open country and the smell of the sheep. For at these times there was nothing for him to do but wander about the streets watching the rather shabby crowds, listening to their monkey chatter, smelling their slightly unhealthy and frustrated odour, and feeling himself utterly alien to them. Then he would begin to worry about his future. What was to become of him? In Wales he was just a sheep-dog and a chattel; in Cambridge, a curiosity. In London? Well, at least, he was a student of the human species. But what could he ever do? It was his nature to give himself absolutely to some work; but to what work? To mere sheep-tending? To science? Why, of course, to the spirit. But how? His despondency was largely due to constipation. Do what he would, he could not get enough physical exercise in a town, and he could not help eating far too much for an inactive life. Worse, his soul was constipated. He was always taking in mental food and never doing anything with it.

One day as he was strolling past the entrance to a railway station, he noticed a display of large framed photographs advertising holiday resorts. One of them was a magnificent picture of moorland with mist driving over it. There was a little llyn, and one or two sheep. Waves splashed seductively on the stony shore. In the background the mountain rose darkly into the cloud. The immediate foreground was all tussocks of grass and heather, inviting his legs to action. He stood for a long time looking at this picture, letting the feel of the moors soak into him again, getting the smell of them. He caught himself actually working his nostrils to take the sheep’s scent. Were they Pugh’s or a neighbour’s? It was all so real. And yet so far away and dreamlike. He could scarcely believe that he would ever be there again. Sudden panic seized him.

Then Sirius came to a firm resolution about his future. Science or no science, spirit or no spirit, he would spend his life in that sort of country, not in slums, nor in universities. That alone was his line of country. That was the only world he could ever really live in. Somehow in that world he must express whatever potency it was that was always straining in him to find exercise. But how?

On Sundays Geoffrey was always very busy, and Sirius was of course excluded from his sacred duties. The dog generally took the opportunity of securing a bit of much-needed exercise, cantering off into Epping Forest. On Sunday evenings Geoffrey often seemed dejected and old. Sirius had observed that few people entered the church for any of the services. Unfortunately Geoffrey, though respected and loved by so many, could not attract a large congregation. This incapacity he regarded as a failure in his religious duty. He did not realize, but Sirius did, that the influence of his personality reached far beyond the range of his official ministrations, and that he had given to thousands the essence of religion, though they could not accept from him the ritual and doctrine which, though symbolically true for a past age, was quite out of keeping with the spirit of our times. Some of Geoffrey’s warmest admirers were persons who never attended his church or even counted themselves Christians. Of those who did attend, a few were of course sincere believers in the Christian myth as “gospel truth.” Others came because they vaguely felt the need of some kind of religious life. They recognized in Geoffrey a truly religious spirit, and he assured them that they ought to join in communal worship. But the living example which he gave them in his life of practical love was somehow not clarified or strengthened by his church services. Geoffrey had no power to infuse the services with the ardent religious passion which he himself felt; and this failure it was which filled him with a gnawing doubt of his own sincerity.

These conclusions Sirius boldly announced to Geoffrey in their many talks over meals or late in the evenings. The ageing priest was saddened by them. He could not for a moment contemplate the possibility that his rituals and doctrines had only symbolical truth, though he could and did doubt his own sincerity as a servant of God. He was saddened that men should be so blind as to doubt the literal truth of Christian doctrine, and specially sad that his friend Sirius should be so blind. For between priest and dog there had rapidly developed a deep mutual respect and affection. They had told one another much of their personal lives, and in particular of their religious searchings. To Geoffrey it seemed that Sirius’s vague yearnings and rigorous agnosticism formed only an utterly inadequate shadow of religion. To Sirius it seemed, of course, that Geoffrey’s religion was an incongruous tissue of true value-intuitions and false or meaningless intellectual propositions. Sirius had spoken of his love for Plaxy as “at heart a religious love for the universal spirit.” He had also told of his strange vision in Cambridge. On one occasion he had said, “I see, indeed I know, that in some sense God is love, and God is wisdom, and God is creative action, yes and God is beauty; but what God actually is, whether the maker of all things, or the fragrance of all things, or just a dream in our own hearts, I have not the art to know. Neither have you, I believe; nor any man, nor any spirit of our humble stature.” Geoffrey merely smiled sadly and said, “May God in His time show you the truth that His Son died to manifest.”

On another occasion Sirius challenged Geoffrey about immortality. They had been discussing for some while when Sirius said, “Now take me! Have I an immortal soul?” Geoffrey replied at once, “I have often wondered about you. I feel, indeed, that you are an immortal spirit, and I earnestly prayed that God should grant you salvation. But if you are, and if He does, it is a miracle which I cannot interpret.”

Sirius had come to Geoffrey in the hope of finding the true religion. At Cambridge, in spite of all the free and fearless intelligence, there had obviously been something lacking, something that he greatly needed, though Cambridge regarded it as something almost indecent. He had thought it must be simply “religion,” and he had come to London to find it. And in Geoffrey he had, indeed, found it. There could be no doubt that Geoffrey had a firm hold on the thing that Cambridge lacked, that Geoffrey was the very embodiment of “religion” in action. But — but — one couldn’t have Geoffrey’s religion without violating all that one had learnt at Cambridge, all the constant loyalty to intelligence that was the best thing in Cambridge. In a way it was easy to cling to faith and betray intelligence, though Geoffrey’s active faith was no easy-going affair. It was easy, too, to cling to intelligence and abandon faith, like McBane, for instance. But was there no way of being equally loyal to both? Vaguely it began to appear to Sirius that there was, but that it involved both keener intelligence and more sensitive religious feeling than either of the other courses. Passion for “the spirit,” the awakened way of living, whatever its fortune in the universe, passion for the spirit, stripped of all belief and comfort save the joy of that passion itself — this, expressed in a life of devoted action, like Geoffrey’s, this was the only, the true religion. But poor Sirius felt dismally that this was beyond him. He just hadn’t the guts. He hadn’t either the intelligence or the passion. If only the spirit itself would seize him and set fire to him! But then — he was not prepared. He was not really inflammable. There was too much damp fog drenching all his tissues.

The friendship of the parson and his dog was the source of much comment in the district; the more so when it became known that the Rev. Adams was sometimes to be heard talking to the great animal as though to a human being. The dear old man, they said, was growing more eccentric than ever. Some declared simply that he was crazy. But presently rumour had it that real conversations did take place between man and dog, and that there actually was something mysterious about Sirius. The devout said he was either possessed by the Devil or was an angel in disguise. The scientific wiseheads said it was all quite simple, the dog was a biological sport.

The climax came when Sirius made a dramatic appearance in church. He had for long been secretly planning to gain Geoffrey’s consent to this, partly because he wanted to witness one of Geoffrey’s services, partly because it rankled to be shut out from the most solemn activity of the human species, and treated as an inferior animal. Geoffrey, of course, felt that he ought not to permit a brute to enter the holy place. His curate would have been outraged, and so would the congregation. But he had been much impressed by Sirius’s superb singing voice, and Sirius had subtly induced him to toy with the idea of allowing his canine friend to sing a wordless anthem from behind the vestry door. When they were at home together, Sirius made a point of practising some of Geoffrey’s favourite “sacred” music.

With much misgiving, and a sense not of sin but of naughtiness, Geoffrey finally agreed to allow Sirius to sing at a Sunday morning service, unseen, from behind the vestry door. The great day arrived, Dog and man walked to the church, the priest explaining to the canine singer the point in the service at which the anthem should occur. “Keep well behind the door,” he said. “This is a bold step for me, Sirius. If they find out there will be trouble.”

When the couple reached the gate of the little church, Sirius paused for a moment, looked up at Geoffrey rather anxiously, and then deposited a few drops of golden fluid on the gate-post. With a rather nervous laugh Geoffrey said, “You might have relieved yourself somewhere else.” “No,” answered Sirius. “It was a religious act. I have poured my libation in honour of your God. And I have relieved my spirit of impurity. I am lightened for the chase, the pursuit of the divine quarry by song.”

When the service was about to begin, the verger noticed that the parson had left the vestry door open. He stepped over to shut it, but Geoffrey waved him away with his hand.

At the appropriate point in the service Geoffrey announced, “You will now hear a wordless anthem sung by a dear friend of mine who will remain unnamed and unseen.” Sirius’s strong pure voice, unaccompanied, then filled the church. Geoffrey listened with delight at its power and delicacy of expression. It seemed to him that in this music lay the truth that he himself had striven all his life long to express in word and deed. And now a dog, interpreting a great human composer (it was Bach) was saying it unmistakably, though without words. Many of the congregation also were deeply moved. The few musical members were impressed and mystified, for the execution was accurate, and it expressed with severe restraint a deep and subtle passion. But what perplexed them was the curiously non-human quality of the voice. Was it perhaps some cunning instrumental imitation of a man’s voice, or of a woman’s? The range, they said, was too great for either. If it was indeed a singer, why did he or she not appear? Throughout the following week rumour was busy. A great singer, it was said, had consented to do this thing for Mr. Adams on condition that his identity was not revealed. The pious secretly believed that the great singer was not a man but an angel from heaven. Such was the decay of faith, however, that fear of ridicule prevented all but a few simple souls from openly proclaiming this belief.

Next Sunday there were far more people than usual at the morning service, though not enough to make the church look full. The newcomers obviously had come out of mere curiosity. In his sermon Geoffrey scolded them for it. There was no anthem.

Not till the following Sunday, which was to be Sirius’s last before returning to Cambridge, did he sing again. His earlier success had made him long for another opportunity, and he wished to face the congregation. This was to be the beginning of his message to the human species. He would sing them something of his own composition. It must he something intelligible to human ears, and indeed to a good proportion of this simple congregation. It must be something which would help them to feel again the essential truth in their own religion, and the unimportance of its mythology.

Geoffrey was reluctant to let Sirius perform again, because too much of a “sensation” had already been caused. But he longed to hear that great voice filling his church once more. And his natural sincerity inclined him to let the singer be seen as well as heard. Moreover, though he knew there would be trouble with the bishop and some of the congregation, he felt that he was under an obligation to welcome his canine friend in God’s house. Further, he secretly relished the prospect of shocking his earnest young curate.

Sirius spent several mornings out in Epping Forest, trying over many of his compositions. Though he kept out of view, as far as possible, his strange voice caused several people to seek him out. Whenever anyone discovered him, he let his song turn imperceptibly into a normal canine baying, so that the intruder supposed that the musical quality had been an illusion.

At the morning service Sirius sang from behind the vestry door. But the music was very different from that of his previous performance. All the meaningful intonations of the human voice and all canine ululations seemed to enter into this alien yet intelligibly musical, this sweet, yet rather frightening, sound. It ranged from a thundering growl to a high clear piping, almost as of singing birds.

I am not myself sufficiently sensitive musically to judge whether “interpretation” of music is legitimate. In Geoffrey’s view, though he was intensely interested in music for its own sake, the supreme function of this art, as of all other arts, was as a medium of religious expression. Hence his eagerness to have Sirius sing in his church, and his intention to interpret the song to his congregation. Sirius, too, held that interpretation was legitimate, though in the hands of the imperfectly musical it often became ludicrous. I have heard him insist that, in so far as music ever had a “meaning” beyond the immediate and exquisite value of the sound-pattern itself, its “meaning” must be simply an emotional attitude. It could never speak directly about the objective world, or “the nature of existence”; but it might create a complex emotional attitude which might be appropriate to some feature of the objective world, or to the universe as a whole. It might therefore create religious feelings. Its “interpretation” in words would then involve describing those features of the universe which should evoke those feelings.

In this sense the strange music that Sirius put forth in Geoffrey’s church spoke of bodily delight and pain, and of the intercourse of spirits. It expressed through the medium of sound, and transformed into universal symbols, the particular spirits of Thomas, Elizabeth, Plaxy and Geoffrey himself. It spoke of love and death, of the hunger for the spirit, and of Sirius’s own wolf-mood. It spoke of the East End and the West End, of the dockers’ strike and the starry heaven.

All this it did at least for Sirius himself. To most of the congregation it was an inconsequent mixture of music and noise, and moreover a mixture of the recognizably, comfortably pious and the diabolical.

Geoffrey in his sermon tried to tell the congregation what the strange song had meant to him. “The singer,” he said, “must have known love in his own experience and recognized it as good absolutely. He must also have known the presence of Satan, in the world and in his own heart.”

In the evening service, when Geoffrey had announced the anthem, he added, “This time the singer will appear in the church. Do not be outraged. Do not think that a trick is being played on you. The singer is my dear friend, and it is good that you should know that God can still work miracles.”

Out of the vestry strode the great beast, black and frosty-fawn. Head and tail were proudly erect. Grey eyes keenly watched the congregation. There was an audible gasp of surprise and protest, then dead silence. It was as though the power of “the eye,” which the Border Collie used so successfully on sheep, was now being used by Sirius upon a whole human flock. He had made his entry with very solemn feelings; but the spectacle of these spellbound human sheep greatly tickled him, and he could not resist turning his head towards Geoffrey and giving him a very human wink with the eye that was hidden from the congregation. After this lapse, which shocked Geoffrey, Sirius pulled himself together. His mouth opened, displaying the white fangs that had recently killed ram and pony, and gripped the throat of a man. The church was then flooded with Sirius’s music. Geoffrey seemed to hear in it echoes of Bach and Beethoven, of Holst, Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky and Bliss, but also it was pure Sirius. Most of the congregation, on a far lower musical level than their pastor, and a far lower human level also, were merely intrigued by its novelty. Some were sufficiently sensitive to be disturbed and revolted by it. A few conscious musical modernists probably decided that it was a bad imitation of the real thing. One or two, perhaps, were stirred more or less in the manner that Sirius intended. The performance lasted quite a long time, but the audience remained throughout still and attentive. When it was finished Sirius looked for a moment at Geoffrey, who returned his questioning gaze with a smile of admiration and affection. Sirius crouched down, muzzle on paws, tail stretched out along the ground. The service proceeded.

Geoffrey began his sermon by trying to interpret the music, warning his congregation that it might legitimately mean different things to different people, and that to the composer-singer his interpretation might seem very wrong. The congregation were startled. Were they expected to believe that the animal that had produced the music had also composed it, that what they had witnessed was not simply the result of brilliant circus-training but actually a miracle?

Geoffrey affirmed, rightly or wrongly, “The song gave me a view of humanity from outside humanity, from the point of view of another of God’s creatures, and one that both admires and despises us, one that has fed from our hands and has also suffered at our hands. By means of echoes of the great human composers mingled with themes reminiscent of the wolf’s baying and the dog’s barking and howling, the singer conjured up his vision of humanity. And what a humanity it was! With God and Satan, love and hate together in its heart; with cunning surpassing all the beasts, and wisdom too, but also utter folly; with fabulous power, turned as often as not to Satan’s will!” Geoffrey spoke of the luxury of the rich and the misery of the workers all over the world, of strikes and revolutions, of the ever-increasing threat of a war more terrible even than the last war. “And yet in our personal lives love is not unknown. In the song, as in my own knowledge, I seem to hear it said that love and wisdom must triumph in the end, because Love is God.”

He looked down at Sirius, who was showing signs of protest. Geoffrey continued, “My friend does not agree with that part of my interpretation. But that is indeed how the climax of his song affected me.”

He paused, then ended his sermon with these words: “I am growing old before my time. I shall not be able to carry on much longer. When I have gone, remember me by this Sunday. Remember that I once, by God’s grace, was able to let you witness a very lovely miracle.”

Not many of the congregation imagined even in that summer of 1939 that in a few months not only the ageing priest but many of the congregation themselves would be lying crushed under the East End buildings, or that the little church would become a blazing beacon for enemy planes.

At the end of the service Sirius walked out behind Geoffrey, and before the congregation had begun to leave the church he hurried off in the direction of Geoffrey’s home. Soon after the parson had returned, Elizabeth arrived (according to plan) to take Thomas’s canine masterpiece back to Cambridge.

During the following weeks Sirius received letters from Geoffrey talking of the excitement in the neighbourhood. Journalists had pestered him, but he had refused absolutely to give them any information. The church was filled on the following Sunday, but Geoffrey surmised that only a small minority had come for religion. Indeed he very soon realized that a daring act which he had undertaken with innocent motives was appearing to the public as no better than a piece of gross self-advertisement. His ecclesiastical superiors reprimanded him, and might well have deprived him of his office, had it not been for the passionate loyalty of his supporters in the parish.

When Thomas was told of the incident, he was at first annoyed, but the humour of it won him over to forgive Sirius for his escapade.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00