Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 3


WHILE he was still unable to walk, Sirius showed the same sort of brightness as Plaxy in her cot. But even at this early stage his lack of hands was a grave disadvantage. While Plaxy was playing with her rattle, he too played with his; but his baby jaws could not compete with Plaxy’s baby hands in dexterity. His interest even in his earliest toys was much more like a child’s than like the ordinary puppy’s monomania for destruction. Worrying his rattle, he was attentive to the sound that it made, alternately shaking it and holding it still to relish the contrast between sound and silence. At about the time when Plaxy began to crawl, Sirius achieved a staggering walk. His pride in this new art and his joy in the increased scope that it gave him were obvious. He now had the advantage over Plaxy, for his method of locomotion was far better suited to his quadruped structure than her crawl to her biped form. Before she had begun to walk he was already lurching erratically over the whole ground floor and garden. When at last she did achieve the upright gait, he was greatly impressed, and insisted on being helped to imitate her. He soon discovered that this was no game for him.

Plaxy and Sirius were already forming that companionship which was to have so great an effect on both their minds throughout their lives. They played together, fed together, were washed together, and were generally good or naughty together. When one was sick, the other was bored and abject. When one was hurt, the other howled with sympathy. Whatever one of them did, the other had to attempt. When Plaxy learned to tie a knot, Sirius was very distressed at his inability to do likewise. When Sirius acquired by observation of the family’s super-sheep-dog, Gelert, the habit of lifting a leg at gate-posts to leave his visiting card, Plaxy found it hard to agree that this custom, though suitable for dogs, was not at all appropriate to little girls. She was deterred only by the difficulty of the operation. Similarly, though she was soon convinced that to go smelling at gate-posts was futile because her nose was not as clever as Sirius’s, she did not see why the practice should outrage the family’s notions of propriety. Plaxy’s inability to share in Sirius’s developing experience of social smelling, if I may so name it, was balanced by his clumsiness in construction. Plaxy was the first to discover the joy of building with bricks; but there soon came a day when Sirius, after watching her intently, himself brought a brick and set it clumsily on the top of the rough wall that Plaxy was building. His effort wrecked the wall. This was not Sirius’s first achievement in construction, for he had once been seen to lay three sticks together to form a triangle, an achievement which caused him great satisfaction. He had to learn to “handle” bricks and dolls in such a way that neither his saliva nor his pin-point teeth would harm them. He was already enviously impressed by Plaxy’s hands and their versatility. The normal puppy shows considerable inquisitiveness, but no impulse to construct; Sirius was more persistently inquisitive and at times passionately constructive. His behaviour was in many ways more simian than canine. The lack of hands was a handicap against which he reacted with a dogged will to triumph over disability.

Thomas judged that his weakness in construction was due not only to handlessness but to a crudity of vision which is normal in dogs. Long after infancy he was unable to distinguish between visual forms which Plaxy would never confuse. For instance, it took him far longer than Plaxy to distinguish between string neatly tied up in little bundles and the obscure tangle which, at Garth as in so many homes, composed the general content of the string-bag. Again, for Sirius, rather fat ovals were no different from circles, podgy oblongs were the same as squares, pentagons were mistaken for hexagons, angles of sixty degrees were much the same as right angles. Consequently in building with toy bricks he was apt to make mistakes which called forth derision from Plaxy. Later in life he corrected this disability to some extent by careful training, but his perception of form remained to the end very sketchy.

In early days he did not suspect his inferiority in vision. All his failures in construction were put down to lack of hands. There was indeed a grave danger that his handlessness would so obsess him that his mind would be warped, particularly during a phase when the infant Plaxy was apt to laugh at his helplessness. A little later she was brought to realize that poor Sirius should not be ragged for his misfortune, but helped whenever possible. Then began a remarkable relationship in which Plaxy’s hands were held almost as common property, like the toys. Sirius was always running to ask Plaxy to do things he could not manage himself, such as opening boxes and winding up clock-work toys. Sirius himself began to develop a surprising “manual” dexterity, combining the use of fore-paws and teeth; but many operations were for ever beyond him. Throughout his life he was unable to tie a knot in a piece of cotton, though there came a time when he could manage to do so in a rope or stout cord.

Plaxy was the first to show signs of understanding speech, but Sirius was not far behind. When she began to talk, he often made peculiar little noises which, it seemed, were meant to be imitations of human words. His failure to make himself understood often caused him bitter distress. He would stand with his tail between his legs miserably whining. Plaxy was the first to interpret his desperate efforts at communication, but Elizabeth in time found herself understanding; and little by little she grew able to equate each of the puppy’s grunts and whines with some particular elementary sound of human speech. Like Plaxy, Sirius began with a very simple baby-language of monosyllables. Little by little this grew into a canine, or super-canine, equivalent of educated English. So alien were his vocal organs to speech, that even when he had perfected the art no outsider would suspect his strange noises of being any human language at all. Yet he had his own equivalent of every vocal sound. Some of his consonants were difficult to distinguish from one another, but Elizabeth and Plaxy and the rest of the family came to understand him as easily as they understood each other. I described his speech as composed of whimpers and grunts and growls. This perhaps maligns it, though essentially true. He spoke with a notable gentleness and precision, and there was a fluid, musical quality in his voice.

Thomas was, of course, immensely elated by the dog’s development of true speech, for this was a sure sign of the fully human degree of intelligence. The baby chimpanzee that was brought up with a human baby kept level with its foster-sister until the little girl began to talk, but then dropped behind; for the ape never showed any sign of using words.

Thomas determined to have a permanent record of the dog’s speech. He bought the necessary apparatus for making gramophone discs, and reproduced conversations between Sirius and Plaxy. He allowed no one to hear these records except the family and his two most intimate colleagues, Professor McAlister and Dr. Billing, who were influential in procuring funds for the research, and knew that Thomas’s secret ambition soared far above the production of super-sheep-dogs. On several occasions Thomas brought the distinguished biologists to see Sirius.

There was a time when it seemed that these gramophone records would be the sole lasting and tangible evidence of Thomas’s triumph. In spite of inoculation, Sirius developed distemper and almost succumbed. Day after day, night after night, Elizabeth nursed the wretched little animal through this peculiarly noisome disease, leaving her own child mainly to Mildred, the nursemaid. Had it not been for Elizabeth’s skill and devotion, Sirius would not have come through with his powers unimpaired. Probably he would have died. This incident had two important results. It created in Sirius a passionate and exacting affection for his foster-mother, so that for weeks he would scarcely let her out of his sight without making an uproar; and it bred in Plaxy a dreadful sense that her mother’s love was being given wholly to Sirius. In fact Plaxy became lonely and jealous. This trouble was soon put right when Sirius had recovered, and Elizabeth was able to give more attention to her child; but then it was the dog’s turn to be jealous. The climax came when Sirius, seeing Elizabeth comforting Plaxy after a tumble, rushed savagely at her and actually nipped her little bare leg. There was then a terrible scene. Plaxy screamed and screamed. Elizabeth was for once really angry. Sirius howled with remorse for what he had done: and actually, out of a sense that retribution was needed, made a half-hearted attempt to bite his own leg. Then matters were made much worse by the family’s super-sheep-dog, Gelert, who rushed to the scene of uproar. Seeing Plaxy’s bleeding leg, and Elizabeth being very angry with the puppy, Gelert assumed that this was a case for severe punishment, and set upon the abject culprit. Sirius was bowled over and none too gently mauled by the furiously growling Gelert. The puppy’s remorse gave place to fright, and his whimpers to screams of terror, to which the weeping Plaxy added screams of fear for her beloved friend. The other children rushed upon the scene, followed by Kate and Mildred with brooms and a rolling pin. Even the infant Plaxy seized Gelert by the tail and tried to drag him off. But it was Elizabeth herself who snatched Sirius from the jaws of death (as it seemed to him) and roundly cursed the officious Gelert.

This incident seems to have had several important results. It made both Sirius and Plaxy realize how much, after all, they cared for one another. It persuaded Plaxy that her mother had not discarded her for Sirius. And it proved to Sirius that Elizabeth loved him even when he had been very wicked. The unfortunate Gelert alone gained no comfort.

The only further punishment inflicted on Sirius was deep disgrace. Elizabeth withdrew her kindness. Plaxy, in spite of her secret knowledge that Sirius was very dear, was filled with self-pity once more when he had been rescued, and treated him with cold self-righteousness. To punish Sirius, Plaxy showed a violent affection for the kitten, Tommy, who had recently been imported from a neighbouring farm. Sirius, of course, was tortured with jealousy, and was afforded good practice in self-control. He succeeded all the better because on the one occasion when he did attack Tommy, he discovered that the kitten had claws. Sirius was very sensitive to neglect and censure. When his human friends were displeased with him he lost interest in everything but his misery. He would not play, he would not eat. On this occasion he set himself to win Plaxy over by many little attentions. He brought her a beautiful feather, then a lovely white pebble, and each time he timidly kissed her hand. Suddenly she gave him a hearty hug, and both broke into a romp. Towards Elizabeth, Sirius was less bold. He merely eyed her askance, his tail timorously vibrating when he caught her glance. So comic was this spectacle that she could not help laughing. Sirius was forgiven.

At a stage in his puppyhood shortly after this incident Sirius conceived a respectful admiration for Gelert. The slightly older and biologically quite adult super-sub-human animal treated him with careless contempt. Sirius followed Gelert about and mimicked all his actions. One day Gelert by great good fortune caught a rabbit and devoured it, growling savagely when Sirius approached. The puppy watched him with mingled admiration and horror. The spectacle of that swift pursuit and capture roused in him the hunting impulses of the normal dog. The scream of the rabbit, its struggle, sudden limpness and hideous dismemberment, shocked him deeply; for he had a sympathetic and imaginative nature, and Elizabeth had brought up her family in a tradition of tenderness towards all living things. But now a conflict arose which was to distress him throughout his life, the conflict between what he later called his “wolf-nature” and his compassionate civilized mentality.

The immediate result was a strong and guilty lust for the chase and an intensified, awed passion for Gelert. He became obsessed by the rabbit-warren. He was for ever sniffing at the entrances to the burrows, whimpering with excitement. For a while Plaxy was almost forgotten. Vainly she tried to win him back into partnership in her games. Vainly she hung about the burrows with him, bored and cross. In her presence he once caught a frog and disgustingly mangled it in an attempt to eat it. She burst into tears. His hunting impulse was suddenly quenched, and horror supervened. He rushed whimpering to his darling and covered her face with bloody kisses.

Many times henceforth he was to suffer the torturing conflict between his normal canine impulses and his more developed nature.

His admiration of Gelert was gradually damped down by the discovery that the older dog had no interest in anything but hunting and eating. Once more there was a conflict. Hunting now gripped Sirius as the main joy of life; but it was a guilty joy. He felt its call almost as a religious claim upon him, the claim of the dark blood-god for sacrifice; but he was also disgusted with the sacrifice, and deeply disturbed by Plaxy’s horror. Moreover, after his first obsession he began to recover interest in the many activities which he shared with Plaxy. These were of no interest to Gelert.

The final disillusionment came when Sirius began to realize that Gelert not merely would not but could not talk. This suspicion had long haunted Sirius, but he had believed that Gelert’s unresponsiveness was merely due to his haughty disposition. There came a day, however, when this theory ceased to be possible. Young Sirius, whose four-foot locomotion was far more developed than Plaxy’s running, had been trying to keep up with Gelert at the outset of a hunting expedition. They came upon a sheep with a broken leg. Though Gelert was not in the sheep-tending profession, he knew very well that sheep were things to be cherished. He knew also that Mr. Pugh of Caer Blai was in this ease the responsible man. He therefore hurried off to Caer Blai, far outstripping the loose-limbed puppy. When at last Sirius arrived in the farmyard, he found Gelert making an inarticulate fuss around Pugh, vainly trying to persuade him to come up the hill. Sirius knew that he himself could not make Pugh understand, but he knew also that he could explain to any member of his own family. He therefore set off to find one of them and encountered Giles on his way home from school. He pantingly told Giles the story, and the two hurried to Caer Blai. Giles momentarily forgot the great family taboo about “not telling people about Sirius,” and said to Pugh, “Sirius says there’s a sheep with a broken leg in Nant Twll-y-cwm, and it may get drowned.” Pugh looked at him with incredulity, but was impressed by the boy’s earnestness and the antics of the dogs. He accompanied them up the valley, and there was the sheep. After this incident Sirius regarded Gelert as a nit-wit, and the farmer suspected Sirius of being an altogether “super” super-sheep-dog.

The discovery that Gelert could not speak, and was in other respects also a half-wit, was a shock to Sirius. Gelert excelled him in all those ways in which he outshone his human friends, in speed, in endurance, in scent and in hearing. For some time he had taken Gelert as his model. Mimicking Gelert’s taciturnity, he had even tried not to talk. So successful had he been that Elizabeth in one of her letters to Thomas said that Sirius’s human mentality seemed to be waning. The realization that the older dog simply could not talk changed the puppy’s attitude. Suddenly he became garrulous, and showed an increased desire to keep pace with Plaxy in acquiring all sorts of human skills. Also he devised an amusing way of ridiculing Gelert. He would hold imaginary conversations with the super-sheep-dog, pretending that Gelert’s silence was due to deliberate taciturnity. The older animal would at first ignore the garrulous puppy; but presently, particularly if the spectators laughed, his super-canine though sub-human mind would begin to suspect that Sirius was making a fool of him. He would look very self-conscious and perplexed, and sooner or later drive the insolent youngster away, or seize him and chastise him.

Plaxy was by now being taught to read and write. Her mother devoted an hour a day to this task. Sirius had at first shown a mild curiosity about the queer business, but under the influence of Gelert he had thrown it over for the sake of hunting. Elizabeth made no effort to compel him to carry on his studies. Either his distaste was a passing phase, soon to be outgrown, or his mind was after all not sufficiently super-canine to persist in this alien occupation, in which case compulsion would be disastrous. However, when his idol had fallen, he reverted to the game of reading and writing. He had missed a good deal, so Elizabeth undertook to coach him up to Plaxy’s standard. Of course his handlessness made it impossible for him ever to write save with some special apparatus. It was also discovered that, apart from his obvious disability for writing, his reading also was doomed to be very seriously hampered, so crude was his perception of visual form. Plaxy used to spell out simple words with her box of letters, but Sirius found it very difficult to distinguish between C, G, D, O and Q, and also between B, P, R, and K. He was also greatly confused by B and F, by S and Z, by A and H, by H and K. At a later stage, when Plaxy was mastering the lower-case letters, and these in small type, Sirius was still more handicapped. Sometimes it almost seemed that his intelligence was after all sub-human. Elizabeth, who, in spite of her triumphant impartiality towards her child and her foster-child, had always a secret desire for Plaxy to excel, now wrote to Thomas that after all Sirius was not much better than a moron. But Thomas, whose secret desire was the reverse of his wife’s, replied with a dissertation on the poor vision of dogs, and urged her to encourage Sirius by telling him of this canine disability, to praise his enterprise in learning to read and write at all, and to remind him that he had great advantages over human beings in other spheres. Encouragement tapped a surprising fund of doggedness in Sirius, for he spent hours every day by himself practising reading. Great progress was made, but after a week or so Elizabeth felt bound to intervene because of symptoms of mental breakdown, She praised him and petted him, and persuaded him that he would learn more quickly and permanently if he tried a bit less hard.

Sirius recognized, of course, that in writing he could not possibly reach Plaxy’s standard, but he was determined not to be entirely without this valuable art. It was he himself that invented a way out of his disability. He persuaded Elizabeth to make him a tight leather mitten for his right paw. On the back of the mitten was a socket into which a pen or pencil could be inserted. When this article was completed, he made his first experiment in writing. He was very excited. Lying in the “couchant” position with his left foreleg on the paper to hold it in place, he kept his right elbow on the ground, and was able to scrawl out DOG, CAT, PLAXY, SIRIUS, and so on. The neural organization of his leg and the motor-centres of his brain were probably not at all well adapted to this activity; but once more his doggedness triumphed. Long practice brought him after some years the skill to write a letter in large, irregular but legible characters. In later life, as I shall tell, he even ventured on the task of writing books.

Thomas was more impressed than Elizabeth by Sirius’s achievement, because he probably appreciated more fully the difficulties that the puppy had overcome.

So far as possible, Sirius took part in all the simple lessons that Elizabeth gave to Plaxy. He was never very good at arithmetic, perhaps because of his poor visual powers; but he managed to avoid being outclassed by Plaxy, who was none too good herself. His spelling, too, was very bad, probably for the same reason. But at an early age he showed a great interest in language and the art of precise expression. Poetry had sometimes a deep effect on him. In spite of his visual weakness he read a good deal, and he often begged members of the family to read aloud to him. This they did very frequently, knowing how great a boon it was for him.

But to return to his puppyhood. There came a time when it seemed desirable for Plaxy to attend the village school. Sirius, of course, could not do so. It was sometimes with thankfulness for his freedom, but sometimes with envy, that he watched his little foster-sister set off with her books in the morning. He was now of an age to do a great deal of free roaming, and the passion for the scents and adventures of the countryside was now strong in him. But the thought that Plaxy was outstripping him in knowledge of the great world of men worried him sorely. In the afternoons, when she returned from school, she often assured him that lessons were a bore; but he could tell from her tone that she felt important and proud, and that a good deal that happened at school was great fun. He made a habit of gleaning from her the most useful bits of information that she had acquired during the day. It became a regular custom with her to do her homework with him, to the profit of them both. Meanwhile Elizabeth continued Sirius’s education in a desultory but stimulating way. Often he was able to pay his debt to Plaxy by passing on to her the fruits of his own lessons, though she generally adopted a superior attitude to his tit-bits. Sometimes he told her about conversations with Thomas, who had made a habit of taking Sirius for walks on the hills and telling him all sorts of significant scraps of science or world-history. Plaxy herself, of course, was sometimes present on these walks. But generally Thomas needed vigorous exercise at the week-ends, and his little daughter could not keep up with him as well as Sirius. During his puppyhood Sirius often came home tired after long expeditions with Thomas, but when he reached mid-adolescence he used to look forward with pleasure to the almost weekly trek over Arenig, the Rhinogs or Moelwyn, listening to the far-ranging flow of Thomas’s thought, or probing him with questions. These the great physiologist answered with all the patience and care which he was accustomed to give to his students. This was Sirius’s main intellectual education, this frequent contact with a mature and brilliant mind. Often the two would discuss Sirius’s future, Thomas encouraging him to believe that a great work lay before him. But of this later, I have let myself pass beyond the dog’s puppyhood, and now I must return to it.

Not only in reading and writing but in another way also Sirius was inevitably inferior to Plaxy, and indeed to nearly all human beings. He was entirely colour-blind. I understand that there is still doubt about colour-sensitivity in dogs. Dissection, I believe, has revealed that they have approximately the same equipment of “rods and cones” in their retinae as that of human beings. But psychological experiments have not yet proved that dogs are in fact sensitive to colour. Possibly the truth is that, though some dogs are aware of colour, the incidence of colour-blindness in the canine species is much greater than in man. However that may be, it is certain that Sirius was completely colour-blind. Until quite late in his puppyhood, long after he had learned to talk, he himself had no suspicion that his seeing lacked any qualities possessed by Plaxy’s. Thomas had told Elizabeth that dogs were almost certainly colour-blind, but she refused to believe it of Sirius, insisting that he could distinguish between her differently coloured dresses. “No,” said Thomas, “he probably does it by scent or the touch of his sensitive tongue. Besides, haven’t you noticed that he goes badly adrift in his use of the names of colours? Anyhow, let’s test him.” For this purpose Thomas bought a child’s box of wooden picture-blocks, and covered the faces of the cubes with paper of different colours very carefully selected so that their tone values and tactual and olfactory qualities should be identical. Any differences of odour that might be due to differences of pigment he blotted out by drenching the blocks in eau-deCologne. He then presented the “box of bricks” to Plaxy and Sirius. Plaxy at once produced a chequer of pink and blue squares. Sirius was obviously uninterested in the blocks, but he was persuaded to copy Plaxy’s chequer. He put the pieces together quite at random. It was soon obvious even to Sirius himself that Plaxy saw something which he missed. He at once set about the same kind of self-education which he had undertaken in order to read. With Plaxy’s aid he must discover the thing that had escaped him in the bricks, and then strengthen his powers of seeing it. Plaxy displayed coloured objects to him one after another, naming their colours. She showed him a coloured print and a monochrome photograph. Giles produced a flash-light with red and green glasses. But all was in vain. Sirius was quite unable to discover what colour was.

He was at first greatly distressed, but Thomas comforted him by assuring him that all dogs were colour-blind, and probably all mammals but apes and men. And he reminded Sirius that dogs were at any rate far superior in hearing and smelling. Sirius had long known that human noses were very poor instruments. He had often been contemptuous because Plaxy could not smell out her mother’s track in the garden, or tell with her nose whether a certain footprint was Gelert’s or another dog’s. Moreover at an early age he was surprised and disappointed at her obtuseness to all the mysterious and exciting smells of the countryside after rain. While she mildly enjoyed an indiscriminate freshness and fragrance, he would analyse the messages of the breeze with quivering nostrils, gasping out words between the sniffs. “Horse,” he would say; then after another sniff, “And not a horse I have smelt before.” Or, “Postman! Must be coming up the lane.” Or perhaps, “Sea-smell today,” though the sea was several miles away behind the Rhinogs. A slight veering of the wind might bring him whiffs of a distant waterfall, or more fragrant odours of the moor, or peat or heather or bracken. Sometimes, gripped by some strange enticing scent, he would rush off to trace it. Once he came trotting back after a few minutes of exploration and said, “Strange bird, but I couldn’t see him properly.” On another occasion he suddenly rushed out of the house, sniffed the breeze, raced off up the moor, cast about till he picked up a trail, and then streamed along it round the hill shoulder. After an hour or so he returned in great excitement, made Plaxy fetch out the animal book and turn the pages till she came to The Fox. “That’s him!” he cried, “Gosh, what a smell!” Once in the middle of a romping game in the garden he came to a sudden halt, sniffing. His hair bristled, his tail curled under his belly. “Let’s go inside,” he said, “there’s some dreadful thing up wind.” Plaxy laughed, but he seemed so disturbed that she consented. Twenty minutes later Giles arrived from school, full of the news that he had seen a menagerie pass along the road to Ffestiniog.

Giles was so tickled by Sirius’s reaction that he clamoured for Sirius to be taken to see the wild beasts with the rest of the family, arguing that the little coward had better learn that bad smells were not really dangerous. After much persuasion Sirius consented to go. The experience had a lasting effect on him. As he entered the enclosure the appalling contusion of odours, some enticing, some formidable, tore his nerves as though (as he said long afterwards) all the instruments of an orchestra were tuning up together at full blast. With tucked-in tail and scared eyes he kept close to Elizabeth as the party moved from cage to cage. Many of the animals roused his hunting impulse; but the great carnivora, the abject and mangy lion, tiger, and bear, forlornly pacing their narrow cages, tortured him, partly by their terrifying natural smell, partly by their acquired odour of ill-health and misery. The slit-eyed wolf, too, greatly affected him with its similarity to himself. While he was gazing with fascination at this distant cousin, the lion suddenly roared, and Sirius, shivering with fright, shrank up against Elizabeth’s legs. Stimulated by the lion, the rest of the animals started to give tongue. When the elephant rent the air with a blast of his trumpet, Sirius took to his heels and vanished.

The world of odour was one in which Plaxy had only slight experience. In the world of sound she was not so completely outclassed, but she was far behind Sirius. He could hear approaching footsteps long before Plaxy or any other human being could detect them, and he could unfailingly tell who it was that was coming. The cry of a bat, entirely beyond the range of most human ears, was described by Sirius as a sharp needle of sound. Both Elizabeth and Plaxy soon discovered that he was incredibly sensitive to their tone of voice. He could distinguish unerringly between spontaneous praise and mere kindly encouragement, between real condemnation and censure with an undertone of amusement or approval. Not only so, but he seemed able to detect changes of temper in them before they themselves had noticed them. “Elizabeth,” he would suddenly ask, “why are you sad?” She would reply, laughing, “But I’m not! I’m rather pleased because the bread has risen nicely.” “Oh, but you are sad, underneath,” he would answer. “I can hear it quite well. You are only pleased on top.” And after a pause she would have to say, “Oh, well, perhaps I am. I wonder why.”

His nose, too, gave him a lot of information about people’s emotional states. He sometimes spoke of a “cross smell,” a “friendly smell,” a “frightened smell,” a “tired smell.”

So sensitive was he to odour and to sound, that he found human speech quite inadequate to express the richness of these two universes. He once said of a certain odour in the house, “It’s rather like the trail of a hare where a spaniel has followed it, and some time ago a donkey crossed it too.” Both scent and sound had for him rich emotional meaning, innate and acquired. It was obvious that many odours that he encountered for the first time roused a strong impulse of pursuit, while others he sought to avoid. It was obvious, too, that many odours acquired an added emotional meaning through their associations. One day when he was out on the moor by himself one of his paws was badly cut on a broken bottle, It happened that while he limped home there was a terrifying thunderstorm. When at last he staggered in at the front door, Elizabeth mothered him and cleaned up his foot with a certain well-known disinfectant. The smell of it was repugnant to him, but it now acquired a flavour of security and kindliness which was to last him all his life.

Many sounds stirred him violently. Thunder and other great noises terrified him. The tearing of calico made him leap with a purely physiological fright, and set him barking in merry protest. Human laughter he found very infectious. It roused in him a queer yelping laughter which was all his own. The tones of the human voice not only told him of the emotional state of the speaker but also stimulated strong emotional responses in himself, The odours of emotion had a similar effect.

Like many dogs, young Sirius found human music quite excruciating. An isolated vocal or instrumental theme was torture enough to him; but when several voices or instruments combined, he seemed to lose control of himself completely. His fine auditory discrimination made even well-executed solos seem to him badly out of tune. Harmony and the combination of several themes resulted for him in hideous cacophony. Elizabeth and the children would sometimes sing rounds, for instance when they were coming down the moor after a picnic. Sirius invariably had to give up his usual far-ranging course and draw into the party to howl. The indignant children would chase him away, but as soon as the singing began again he would return and once more give tongue. On one occasion Tamsy, who was the most seriously musical member of the family, cried imploringly, “Sirius, do either keep quiet or keep away! Why can’t you let us enjoy ourselves?” He replied, “But how can you like such a horrible jarring muddle of sweet noises? I have to come to you because they’re so sweet, and I have to howl because it’s a mess, and because — oh because it might be so lovely.” Once he said, “If I were to paint a picture could you just keep away? Wouldn’t you go crazy because of the all-wrongness of the colour? Well, sounds are far more exciting to me than your queer colour is to you.”

The family refused to admit that their singing was a mess, Instead, they determined to “teach Sirius music.” He accepted his fate with doglike docility and fortitude. After all, painful as the process must be, it would help him to find out more about human beings; and even at a very early age he had begun to be curious about the difference between himself and his friends.

The whole family gathered in the sitting-room to “teach Sirius music.” Elizabeth produced her cherished but now neglected violin, On the few earlier occasions when she had played on it within earshot of Sirius, he always came hurrying to her, howling. If the door was shut, he gave tongue outside. Otherwise he rushed into the room and leapt up at her till she had to stop. On this occasion he at first made some effort to keep a hold on himself during the painful operation that his family were determined to perform on him. But excitement soon overcame him. Tamsy was at the piano. Maurice and Giles were ready, if wanted, with their recorders. Plaxy sat on the floor with her arms around the resigned but rather mischievous Sirius, “to keep him from going mad on us.” For it was clear that Sirius was going to be difficult. When Plaxy let him escape, he bounded from instrument to instrument, making mock attacks on each. His tail thrashed from side to side in a conflict of agony and delight, knocking the bow from Elizabeth’s hand, and sending a recorder flying across the room. Even when Plaxy held him, he turned the experiment to chaos by giving tongue with such vigour and virtuosity that the simple tones of the instrument were drowned. When at last he was persuaded to co-operate seriously, it was soon found that he had at any rate a far better ear for pitch than any of the family. When Elizabeth moved her finger so slightly on the string that none of the children could hear any difference, Sirius detected a change. Elizabeth was amazed to find that he could also sing accurately in tune. Once when she played a single tone and he could not restrain himself from giving tongue, the main element in his wail was obviously in tune with the violin, With a little encouragement he produced the pure note without any trimmings. When Maurice played a scale on his recorder, Sirius sang in unison with it, keeping perfectly in tune even with the inaccurate tones produced by the young musician on an imperfect instrument.

With his usual doggedness Sirius set about conquering this excruciating thing, music. He showed surprising aptitude for singing, soon outstripping Plaxy in reproducing the family songs. Sometimes he sang without words; sometimes he used his own canine equivalent of the English words of the song. (His lingo, being simply mispronounced English, rhymed and scanned appropriately.)

With practice he became less tortured by human music. In fact he actually came to like it, so long as it was not too badly out of tune. He would often join in singing the rounds that had formerly tormented him. Sometimes when Elizabeth played her violin he would come to listen. In certain moods he would retire to a favourite point of vantage on the moor and spend hours singing to himself. He would go over and over the songs that Elizabeth had so often sung about the house.

It was a tune-loving family. Under Elizabeth’s influence it had developed an amusing system of musical calls which served the function of bugle-calls. A certain little tune meant “Time to get up,” another “Breakfast is ready,” another “All is now prepared for starting on the expedition,” and so on. Plaxy and Sirius, the two youngest members of the family, invented a number of private calls of their own. One of these, for instance, meant “Come and help me!” Another said, “Something interesting here. Come and investigate”; another “Come and play with me!” One little trickle of sound meant, “I am going to pee.” To this there were two possible musical answers. One said, “Right oh! So am I,” and the other “Nothing doing by me.” It was curious, by the way, that if one of them made water the other had always to follow suit on the same spot, in the approved canine manner. Always? No! Plaxy soon found that she could not keep pace with Sirius in this etiquette of leaving tokens.

When Thomas heard of Sirius’s habit of retiring on to the moor to practise singing, he feared lest his precious animal should become notorious as “the singing dog,” and be exploited. It was indeed startling for the natives to hear the sweet, accurate, but inarticulate and inhuman voice, and to come upon a large dog squatting on his haunches melodiously giving tongue. Thomas, it was rumoured, had sinister powers. He could put demons into dogs. Fortunately the farther these rumours spread, the less they were believed. No craze equivalent to the case of the talking mongoose or the Loch Ness monster developed over the singing dog.

In his puppyhood Sirius sang only human music. Throughout his life he was deeply interested in the great classical achievements of man’s musical genius, but as he had always found the fundamental structure of human music crude, and inadequate to his interest in sound-form and the emotions which sought musical expression, he began to experiment with new scales, intervals, and rhythms, suited to his more sensitive hearing. He made use of the quarter-tone and even the eighth-of-a-tone. Sometimes, in his purely canine mood, his melodies divided the octave in quite a different manner from any human musical mode. Thus to the human listener his most distinctive music became less recognizably musical and more like the baying of a dog, though a strangely varied and disturbing baying.

A supple and mellow voice was Sirius’s only medium of expression. He often longed to play some instrument, so as to be able to introduce harmony into his experiments, but his tragic lack of hands prevented him. Sometimes he sat at the piano trying to finger out a two-note accompaniment to his singing, but his paws were far too clumsy to do even this properly. For long spells he would give up music entirely because his handlessness prevented him from doing what he wanted with it. At these times he would wander about with tail and head low, refusing comfort. The mingled sense of helplessness and talent tormented him. But presently his buoyant spirits would revive, and he would resolve that, if instrumental music must remain for ever impossible to him, he would do new and marvellous things with his voice. Throughout his life Sirius alternated between self-pity on account of his disabilities and a surprisingly detached and humorous acceptance of his nature and his environment, issuing in a zestful will to triumph in spite of everything.

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