Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 5

Sheep-Dog Apprentice

ON the day after Plaxy went to boarding school Thomas took Sirius over to Pugh at Caer Blai. On the way he talked a great deal to the dog about his future, promising that when he had been with Pugh a year he should see something of the human world beyond the sheep country, and possibly settle in Cambridge. Sirius listened and consented; but he was an anxious and a sorrowing animal, and his tail would not stay proud.

One source of solid comfort lay in the fact that he knew Pugh for a decent sort. Sirius classified human beings in respect of their attitude to dogs; and even in later life he found this a useful touchstone of human character. There were those who were simply indifferent to dogs, lacking sufficient imagination to enter into any reciprocal relation with them. There were the “dog-lovers,” whom he detested. These were folk who sentimentalized dogs, and really had no accurate awareness of them, exaggerating their intelligence and loveableness, mollycoddling them and over-feeding them; and starving their natural impulses of sex, pugnacity and hunting. For this sort, dogs were merely animate and “pathetically human” dolls. Then there were the dog-detesters, who were either too highbrow to descend to companionship with a dumb animal or too frightened of their own animal nature. Finally there were the “dog-interested,” who combined a fairly accurate sense of the difference between dog and man with a disposition to respect a dog as a dog, as a rather remote but essentially like-minded relative. Pugh was of this sort.

At the farm they were greeted with an uproar by the two super-sheep-dogs at present in Pugh’s possession. The farmer issued from the byre. He was a fresh-complexioned middle-aged man with a scrubby reddish moustache and blue eyes with a permanent twinkle. Sirius rather liked the smell of him. He guessed the man must do a lot of laughing. They were taken into the kitchen, where drinks were provided by Mrs. Pugh, while the two men talked. Pugh had a good look at Sirius, who was squatting on the floor by Thomas. “He’s really far too big for a sheep-dog, Mr. Trelone,” said Pugh in his singing Welsh voice. “He should be herding rhinoceroses, or not the little Welsh mountain sheep, anyhow. But, my! What a head he has on him! If it’s brain that counts, Mr. Trelone, he must be a genius, isn’t it! I can see it’s he that’ll be running this farm and me running after the sheep for him. Pity I’m so rheumatic!” Thomas admitted that Sirius was pretty bright, for a dog. “He’ll be useful. But don’t expect too much. After all, he’s only a dumb animal.” “Of course,” said Pugh, and then surprisingly he winked at Sirius. “I have had experience of your dogs, Mr. Trelone, and fine animals they are. There’s Idwal here now. He’s full of strength, though he is twelve, which is very unusual for a hard-working sheep-dog. Then there’s the bitch you sent me two years ago. Juno, we call her. My! She was quick to learn the tricks of the trade! And now she has had that litter of six by old Idwal. But the magic did not go into them from the parents. They are six little fools. But I have sold them all for a good price.” “Well,” said Thomas, “I told you not to expect anything from the second generation.” Pugh replied with a sigh. “Yes, indeed, and you did, Mr. Trelone. I told the purchasers what you said, but they would not believe it, whatever; so what could I do but take the good price and tell them they were fools.” After lighting his pipe Pugh asked, “And how old is this one, Mr. Trelone?” Thomas hesitated, then said, “Fifteen, aren’t you, Sirius?” The dog let slip a “Yes,” but Pugh apparently did not notice anything unusual in his sudden grunt. “Fifteen! Holy Moses, Mr. Trelone, but most dogs are dead long before that, and this one is not much more than a puppy.” Thomas reminded him that longevity had been one of the aims of the experiment. “Well,” said Pugh laughing, “if he will stay on with me he shall marry my daughter Jane and take over the farm when I am gone. But what is the name he answers to, Mr. Trelone, did you say?” “I call him Sirius,” said Thomas. Pugh pursed his mouth and frowned. “That is not a handy name for calling across the valley, is it!” He paused, puffing at his pipe, then added, “Perhaps, Mr. Sirius, you will permit me to call you by some other name. How would Bran do?” Sirius had tilted his head over on one side, as though he were vainly trying to understand this remark, obviously addressed to him. Thomas said, “That’s fine. He’ll pick it up in no time.”

Sirius’s despondency was increased by the discovery that even his name was to be taken from him. Surely, he thought, he would be changed into a new being. Nothing whatever of the old life was to be left to him but the memory of it. At home, though he had grown up in the custom of sharing ownership of most things with Plaxy, each of the two young creatures had possessions of their own. Nearly all their toys had been held in common, but when Plaxy had gone to the village school she had also begun to acquire personal property connected with her new life — books, pens, pencils and many little nondescript treasures gained through intercourse with her fellows. Sirius also had begun to collect a few personal possessions, though far fewer than Plaxy; for, owing to his lack of hands, there were few things that he could use. There were certain ancient treasures preserved on a shelf in the minute room that had been allotted him — a rubber bone, a lump of gleaming white quartz, a sheep’s skull, several picture books. And there were later-acquired possessions — more books, and music, his three writing gloves and several pens and pencils.

In his new life he had to be even more propertyless than St. Francis, for he was just a dog, and whoever heard of a dog with property? Fortunately property meant little to him; he had a propensity towards communism, due perhaps to his strong canine sociality. It should be remembered, however, that though dogs in many ways show a far more social disposition than human beings, in some respects they have a keen sense of personal ownership, for instance over bones, bitches, human friends, and localities. For Sirius, at any rate, to be completely stripped, even of his precious writing gloves, was indeed to be reduced to the status of a brute beast. And now they intended to take away his very name. Speech, too, was of course stolen from him by the simple fact that no one on the farm could understand him. Nor was he to be able as a rule to understand them, for among themselves the Pughs talked Welsh.

Sirius’s attention had wandered from the conversation, but it was recalled when Thomas rose to leave. All three went out into the yard. Thomas shook hands with Pugh, then patted Sirius, and said “Good-bye, old man. You stay there.” Sirius feigned perplexity, made as if to follow Thomas, was shooed back and retreated with a puzzled whimper.

In the afternoon Pugh took Sirius and Idwal to a high valley, on the slopes of which some of his sheep were grazing. He gave a word of command in Welsh. Idwal raced off and began to round up the sheep. Sirius looked anxiously at Pugh. The command was repeated, this time along with his new name, “Bran.” He shot away to help Idwal, who was moving round behind the sheep in a great semi-circle, so as to bunch them towards Pugh down in the valley. Sirius tumbled to the situation at once, and decided to start at the opposite horn of the semi-circle and meet Idwal in the middle. Automatically each dog took charge of his own arc. Idwal’s, however, was much wider than Sirius’s, partly because the less experienced dog had to spend time in retrieving sheep that he had allowed to slip away up the hill, partly because Idwal was the faster animal. The operation continued till all the sheep on the hillside had been brought down into the hollow where Pugh was standing. He said a Welsh word, and Idwal at once squatted, panting. Sirius followed suit, anxiously trying to fix the word in his memory.

Pugh then put the two dogs through sundry manoeuvres with the sheep, folding them in a stone pen, fetching them out, taking them in a bunch along the valley, separating them into two equal groups, scattering them again, picking out a particular individual at which Pugh pointed with his stick. All this was done with commands in Welsh, aided by various kinds of whistling. After a while he issued commands to Idwal alone, keeping Sirius at his side. Idwal was made to single out a particular wether and hold it with his eye. He crept up to within a few feet of it, flat on the ground like a snake, all the while staring fixedly at it. Then he lay still, belly to earth, legs ready for sudden action, nose stretched out on the grass in front of him, tail on the grass behind him. The wether stared back, or made incipient movements, which Idwal checked by mere gestures. The animal just stood patiently waiting, or fidgeted with mild exasperation. Obviously it was not really afraid. It was used to this sort of game, and it recognized in Idwal’s eye a command that must be obeyed.

Sirius knew that he was witnessing the famous sheep-dog trick of control by “the eye.” Idwal evidently had developed “the eye” almost to perfection.

Idwal was then put through other manoeuvres, which Sirius anxiously watched. Presently it was his turn to perform. The novice had strained every nerve to follow the proceedings, but he found himself badly at sea. Not only did the sheep constantly slip past him, causing Pugh to bellow with amiable rage, but also he found that fatigue was preventing him from managing his body with precision, so that he often stumbled over rocks or into holes. His great head became increasingly heavy, so that any slight slip might bowl him over like a shot rabbit. In addition to all this there was the language difficulty. Again and again Sirius found himself completely at a loss while Pugh repeated some strange Welsh noise in a frantic crescendo, and Idwal whimpered impatiently at his side. If only the man would talk English, thought Sirius.

But when it came to the exercise of holding the sheep by the power of the eye, Sirius found to his delight that he was by no means incompetent. Of course the process needed perfecting. Once or twice the sheep nearly broke away. It evidently did not feel itself as masterfully held as it did under Idwal, but it recognized Sirius’s authority. Pugh was obviously pleased.

Presently Pugh worked the two dogs together again, but issued different commands to each by name, and also in a different tone of voice for each. Sirius had to get accustomed to acting promptly to the shriller tone, whether his name, Bran, was mentioned or not; and to ignore the deeper tone which was meant for Idwal.

At last the lesson was over. Pugh walked back along the grassy valley with the two dogs at his heels, Sirius was more tired than he had ever been before, “dog-tired,” as we say. His tail hung, his head almost touched the ground. The under surface of his body was caked with bog-mud. His feet were sore, his head ached. With despair he looked forward to a whole year of this sort of thing, with no companion but the sub-human dogs and the remote Pugh. Perhaps he would forget language altogether, and when he met Plaxy again he would indeed be a dumb animal. But, worn out and despondent as he was, he was able to summon his fundamental doggedness, and promise himself that he would not be beaten by this new life. And when he caught Pugh’s eye quizzing him with friendly ridicule because of his abject appearance, he stuck up his tail and wagged it, at the same time grinning, as though to say, “Oh, I have spunk all right, you’ll see.” This unmistakably human response startled Pugh, and set him thinking.

When they reached the farm, the two dogs were given the remains of the family midday dinner. After they had devoured this they were put into an outhouse for the night. Under the straw bedding there was a rough stone floor. It seemed to Sirius that he had hardly lain down and gone to sleep when he woke up to the sound of Idwal whining at the shut door. Sunlight streamed through the chinks.

During the following weeks Sirius was given constant work with the sheep, and he soon began to get the hang of the job. With practice he wasted less energy on retrieving his mistakes, and arrived home less tired. He was successfully learning not only the Welsh commands but the names of the fields. One day Pugh took both dogs far up among the hills to inspect the sheep on the remote high pastures and teach Sirius the names of the hillsides, streams and towns. Here he was in familiar country, for he had often walked in this direction with Thomas. At one point the tour brought him to a bwlch within a couple of miles of his home. He even seemed to catch a faint characteristic whiff of it on the wind, but this was probably a delusion.

It did not take long for Sirius to gain sufficient experience to carry out orders unattended. For instance he could be sent to search all the bracken areas for sick sheep; for when sheep feel ill they grow fearful of their disapproving fellows, and so they hide themselves in the bracken, where, if they are not found, they may die through lack of attention. Sirius knew also how to help a bogged or crag-bound sheep to free itself. He would carefully tug at it, till the extra force enabled it to struggle into safety. And he could catch a sheep and throw it, and hold it down for Pugh or his man to inspect.

The power of his “eye,” too, was greatly improving. In this matter dogs vary between excessive gentleness towards the sheep and excessive ruthlessness. Idwal was on the whole ruthless, sometimes making the sheep unduly nervous and restless. Sirius, on the other hand, was often too mild by disposition, so that his authority was not established until he had deliberately learnt a firmer policy. The difference of natural style appeared also in the whole method of the two dogs. Idwal was of the “obstinate” type, insisting on doing everything in his own way. If Pugh prevented him he would raise his tail defiantly and simply trot off the field of action, “refusing to play.” It was to Pugh’s credit that on these occasions he generally gave in, with humorous vituperation, knowing well that Idwal could be trusted to do the job efficiently in his own style. Sirius, on the other hand, was of the “biddable” type. He was desperately anxious to learn, and had little faith in his own intuition. Shepherds regard this type of dog as less brilliant in the long run than the other, since they lack the conviction of genius; but it soon became clear to Pugh that Bran’s docility was not due to a servile disposition. When he had learnt his lesson he often introduced novelties which greatly improved the method. Yet even when he had become an expert with sheep, he was always ready to pick up new tips from observation of other dogs at work.

Sirius could be sent out into the hills alone to select a required bunch of sheep from the flock, whether young ewes or “hoggs” (young sheep before their first shearing) or wethers; and he could bring them down from the hills to the farm without human aid. All this was real super-sheep-dog work. In order to make full use of his clever animals Pugh had arranged all his gates with latches that a dog could open or shut.

As autumn neared, the time came for bringing groups of lambs or of old or unhealthy ewes down from the mountains to be taken away for sale. This task Pugh entrusted almost entirely to Idwal and Sirius, helped sometimes by Juno. But that bright creature was of a distressingly unstable nature, and was often incapacitated by convulsions. The dogs would travel over the high moors, picking out the appropriate animals, sometimes losing them again in the cloud, and recovering them by scent, finally bringing them in a bunch along the turfy track in the high valley. All Pugh’s sheep bore a red mark on the rump, but this, of course, was invisible to the colour-blind dogs. In addition the sheep bore three little slits in the left ear to mark them as Pugh’s. This was invaluable to Idwal and Sirius, as a confirmation of the distinctive smell of the Caer Blai flock. Any sheep that had strayed into Caer Blai territory from a neighbouring run was soon detected and piloted home. In addition to the common smell of the flock, by the way, each individual sheep had its own peculiar odour. It did not take Sirius more than a few weeks to recognize every sheep in the flock by its smell, or even by its voice. Occasionally the dogs found a sheep that had been damaged, and then one of them had to set out to the farm to fetch Pugh. There was a recognized way of barking to signify “damaged sheep”; another, less excited, meant “sheep undamaged but crag-bound and inaccessible”; yet another meant “dead sheep.”

The collecting of sheep for sale was a process which occurred now and again over many weeks. When the lambs or ewes had been brought down from the moors they had to be taken by train, or in lorries hired for the purpose, to the auction sales in the lower country. The dogs accompanied them, and Sirius thoroughly enjoyed these excursions into the great world. It was a pleasure merely to hear the English language spoken again, and to find that he could still understand it.

When the sales were over and autumn was well under way, the main task of the dogs was to guard the high valley pastures from the sheep. It is often the custom of mountain sheep to sleep on the heights and come down in the morning to the richer grazing; but in the autumn they must be prevented from doing this because the valley grass will be more urgently needed in the winter. In the autumn, too, the ewes must be prevented from grazing in marshy places, lest they should become infected by liver fluke. And autumn is a time for dipping the whole flock. As Pugh had many hundreds of sheep, this was a great undertaking, and the dogs were desperately hard worked for many days, bringing the sheep down in batches and driving them into the pen, where Pugh or one of his helpers could seize each animal in turn and force it into the dip. Sirius was pleased to find that he stood up to the strain of this great undertaking as well as Idwal, though he was not at this stage quite so fast or quite so agile.

Presently came another task. The ewe lambs had to be collected and sent to a lowland farm so that they might escape the grim conditions on the mountains during winter, the savage weather and poor food. Not till the following May would they be brought home.

In spite of all this hard work, there were days when the dogs had nothing to do but hang about the yard or accompany Pugh on his rounds, or run messages to the village. A little stationery-cum-newspaper shop in the village used to attract Sirius. Outside were posters from which he gained the most sensational news. Sometimes he put his paws on the windowsill and read the headlines of the papers displayed within, or the titles of the little rank of cheap novels. In the village he met other dogs. They gave him no trouble, because he was by now very large and “hard as nails.” Out of loyalty to Thomas he tried to study the psychology of these animals; but apart from simple temperamental differences, they were mentally all depressingly alike. The most obvious differences between them had been imposed by human conditioning. Some were disposed towards friendliness with all human beings, some were cold to strangers but obsessively devoted to their masters, some habitually fawned, some cringed.

One day in the village Sirius came upon a fine young bitch in heat, a red setter. Suddenly life was worth living once more. Her odour and touch intoxicated him. In their love-play they careered about the open space in the village while Pugh was in the pub. (Pugh seems to have had an idea that super-sheep-dogs would be cruelly bored if they were forced to sit with him inside.) The consummation of this union took place under the lascivious eyes of two schoolboys and an unemployed quarryman.

Henceforth Sirius had a constant hunger for the village and the bitch. He was tempted to run away from the farm and have all he could of her while she was still in the mood; but he did not, because he had once seen a dog on a neighbouring farm thrashed for absenting himself from duty. Sirius was determined that he would never do anything to incur such an indignity. He had never been thrashed in his life, though occasionally hit or kicked in anger. To be deliberately thrashed seemed to him to be a mortal insult to his dignity as an intelligent and self-respecting person. If Pugh ever tried it on him, Pugh must be killed on the spot, whatever the consequences. But Pugh never did, Pugh belonged to the school of sheep-dog owners who pride themselves on obtaining obedience by kindness rather than ferocity. Sirius never saw him use violence on any dog. Probably he would never have beaten Sirius even if Sirius had given him serious provocation, for he had a firm though vague conviction that the new dog was somehow more than a dog, even more than a super-dog.

Several incidents had aroused this suspicion. Once he sent Sirius to the village with a basket and a ten-shilling note to fetch a pair of boots which the cobbler had repaired. The dog duly brought back the boots and the change. When he arrived in the yard, Pugh, who was in the darkness of an outhouse, saw Sirius take out the boots and study the money in the basket. After looking puzzled for some time he trotted back along his tracks, nosing the ground. Presently he came on a small object which he managed with great difficulty to pick up. With obvious satisfaction he brought it back with him. When he dropped it into the basket it was visible to Pugh as a small brown disc, in fact a penny. Sirius then brought the basket to Pugh. It contained the boots, the receipted bill and the change, which consisted of two half-crowns, a florin, and seven pennies. Pugh was not so fanciful as to suppose that the dog had actually counted the change and checked it by the bill, but at least he must have spotted the difference between six pennies and seven.

Another incident made Pugh suspect that there was something “human” (as he put it) about this dog. The farmer had a few cows and a fine young bull. Sirius had once been prodded by a cow, and he had heard alarming stories about bulls. From time to time a cow was brought from one or other of the neighbouring farms to be served by the Caer Blai bull. On these occasions the dogs had to enter the paddock, round up the bull, and bring it down the lane into the farmyard for its love-making. When the deed had been done, the dogs drove the bull back to its paddock. Sirius was always very nervous, and did his stuff very badly. Idwal would face the bull with fierce persistence, and slip away from its lowered horns in the nick of time; but Sirius was far too anxious to keep his distance. The bull discovered that Sirius was a coward, and formed a habit of chasing him.

Pugh, by the way, was struck with the different ways in which the two dogs behaved when bull and cow were brought together in the farmyard, generally surrounded by a small group of interested men and boys, while the women kept discreetly indoors. Idwal nosed about the yard or lay down to rest. Sirius watched the whole performance with the same cheerful interest as the human spectators. It was evident that his interest was sexual, for when the bull effected his clumsy embrace, the dog himself gave unmistakable signs of sexual excitement.

But the incident which impressed Pugh most, and made him suspect that Sirius’s intelligence was as quick as a man’s, occurred in connection with the bull’s habit of taking the offensive against the cowardly Sirius. Pugh had gone to the village with Idwal. Owen, the hired man, was ploughing in a remote field. Somehow the bull managed to break out of its paddock into the lane. It trotted down into the yard, saw Jane with a basket of washing, and approached her, snorting. Always a nervous girl, she screamed, dropped the basket and slipped into the stable. The bull spent a few minutes tossing the clothes, then made off down the lane. Meanwhile Mrs. Pugh had made a tentative sortie from the house. Then Sirius appeared, and raced down the lane after the bull. He did not overtake it till after it had reached the main road. Then he silently rushed at it, and seized its tail. With a roar the bull swung round, but Sirius had let go, and was retreating towards the lane, barking. The bull followed him, and he led it back to the farmyard and into its field. It was now rather blown, but Sirius led it round and round the field, till its ardour was cooled. The less anxious it was to follow him, the more bold grew Sirius. When it came to a standstill, he rushed in and nipped its hind leg. The reinfuriated beast chased him once more, but was soon exhausted. This process was repeated several times, till Sirius noticed that the two women had put some strands of barbed wire across the gap in the hedge. Then he retreated, with a proud tail, leaving a bull that was thoroughly cowed. Henceforth Sirius was always able to deal with the bull or any other cattle.

Some time after this incident Sirius did something which was far beyond super-sheep-dog capacity.

Throughout his first term he was desperately lonely. He longed for his own people, and most of all for Plaxy. If only he could write a letter! But he had no writing-glove, and no stationery. And anyhow the task of putting a stamp on a letter had always defeated him.

He knew he could write a few words very badly by holding a pencil in his mouth; if he could find one, and paper. He had once seen Pugh take out pen, ink and paper from the drawer in the oak dresser. One day, when Mrs. Pugh and Jane were milking, he slipped into the kitchen, opened the drawer, and found in it several sheets of paper, also envelopes, a pen, an ink-pot, and a pencil with a broken point. He stole a sheet and an envelope. Pen and ink seemed too complicated, and the pencil was useless, so he left these, and took merely an envelope and paper to the dog’s outhouse. He put them in an old packing case under some straw.

There was now nothing for it but to wait until someone should need to sharpen the pencil. He seized every opportunity to sneak into the kitchen and look into the drawer. Meanwhile he spent much thought in planning exactly how he would write his letter, and what he would say. Sometimes he practised. Holding a splinter of slate in his mouth, he scribbled on the slate doorstep. The process was difficult, because his nose was always in the way, and he could not see what he was doing; and generally the slate-splinter snapped.

At last, after many days, he found that the pencil had been sharpened. He took it away to the outhouse.

Not till several days later did Sirius find an opportunity of writing his letter. In spidery capitals it said, “Dear Plaxy, I hope you are happy. I am lonely without you, terribly. Love. Sirius.” With great care he addressed the envelope, hoping that his memory was trustworthy. He had serious difficulty in folding the paper and putting it into the envelope. Then he licked the gummy-edge, closed it, and held his paw on it. He had intended to post it unstamped; but the thought that Plaxy would have to pay threepence, double postage, on it distressed him so much that he decided to wait in the hope of finding some stamps in the drawer. When at last a sheet of six three-halfpenny stamps appeared, he ran off with them and set about trying to detach one. First he held the sheet between his paws and pulled with his teeth. The stamp tore across the middle, and the bit in his mouth stuck to his wet teeth, so that he could not get rid of it. Flustered by this experience, he decided to think the problem out more carefully. He hit on a plan. He held the envelope down with his paw and licked the right-hand top corner. Then with extreme care he took up the stamp-sheet in his teeth and laid it on the envelope so that one of the corner stamps was roughly in the right position. This was difficult, because as usual his nose was in the line of sight. He let go, and inspected the result. The stamp was crooked, and not wholly on the envelope. Hastily he lifted it off again and replaced it, well on the envelope. Again he inspected it, then carefully pulled it into better position. Then he pressed it on with his paw. When he thought the gum was dry, he held the sheet of stamps down with his paw and gently pulled the letter with his teeth. The letter came away, with the stamp intact, and part of the next one projecting over the edge. This he trimmed off with his teeth, He then restored the mangled sheet of stamps to the drawer. Not till he came back to the letter did he notice that the stamp was upside down.

He hid his letter under the straw and waited till his next errand to the village. This did not occur till some days later, It was fairly common for him to be sent with letters to the post, but on this occasion his own was the only one. He trotted off with his basket and an order for the grocer; and his letter. He went straight to the post office, put down his basket, took out the letter, raised himself against the wall, and slipped the precious document into the box.

This was no unusual sight in the village. Dr. Huw Williams, who was passing, scarcely noticed it; but when, next day, he met Mr. Pugh and wished him good day, he mentioned the incident, complimenting him on his dog’s intelligence. Now Pugh had sent off no letter that day. He wondered whether his wife had written to her mother in Bala, or if Jane had entrusted Bran with a love-letter. This possibility disturbed him, for though by nature a friendly man, prone to treat people with respect and trust, he was no modern parent. When he reached home he made inquiries, Mrs. Pugh and Jane both denied that they had given Bran a letter. Pugh went to the drawer and saw that the stamps had been badly mauled. One was missing, and two others were torn. In a burst of indignation he charged his daughter with clandestine correspondence, theft, lying and clumsiness, Jane defended herself with vigour, and added, “Go and ask Bran whose letter it was.” That sarcasm put a wild idea into Pugh’s head. He went to the drawer again and picked up the pencil. There were toothmarks on it — Bran’s or his own? Fantastic doubt!

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