Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 6

Birth-Pangs of a Personality

TO Sirius, Plaxy’s first term at boarding school seemed endless, but in due season the holidays loomed near. Sirius had counted the days by putting a pebble a day in the old packing-case. One day, when he had collected almost the right number of pebbles but was expecting two or three more days of labour, he returned with Pugh and the other dogs from the moors, with early snow on Pugh’s hat and the dogs’ backs, and encountered Thomas in the yard. Sirius rushed at him and nearly knocked him down with a wild welcome. After both men had shaken the worst of the snow from their clothes, Pugh took Thomas into the kitchen. Sirius knew that he was not supposed to go into the house when he was in a mess; but, after a violent shake, in he went. Mrs. Pugh smiled indulgently.

Thomas asked Pugh about Sirius’s success as a sheep-dog, and was given a good report. Sirius had proved himself as hardy as Idwal, and far more cunning and responsible. But he was not always quite “on the spot.” He was a bit of a day-dreamer. He was sometimes caught napping. A sheep might escape from the flock and run away before Sirius woke to the situation. It was “as though he had been thinking of something else.” After making the report Pugh nodded knowingly at Thomas, who merely changed the subject. Before they parted, Pugh insisted on handing over to Thomas ten shillings less fourpence halfpenny. This sum he described as Bran’s earnings, “less a small item of expenditure.” Saying his, he stared hard at Sirius and winked. The dog hastily looked away, but could not prevent a snort of surprise and a tremor of the tail. Thomas tried to refuse the money, but Pugh insisted.

The journey home through driving sleet was a journey to heaven. Thomas explained that he and Elizabeth had come home a couple of days early to get the house ready before Plaxy and Giles arrived from boarding school. Tamsy and Maurice, both of them undergraduates, were visiting friends.

Sirius recounted some of his experiences. “It has all been very good for me, I know, but I really don’t think I can go on with that life any longer. I should go mad with loneliness. No talk, no books, no music. And all the while knowing the world is so big and strange beyond the farm. Plaxy will leave me far behind.”

This speech came as a shock to the not very imaginative Thomas. He remarked cautiously, “Oh, it’s not quite as bad as all that, is it? Anyhow, we must talk it over carefully.” Sirius knew from his tone that he was rather put out about it, and that there would be trouble.

Elizabeth greeted Sirius as one of her children, hugging him and kissing him. He showed none of his former boisterousness, but gave a tremulous little whine of painful joy.

Next day Giles arrived, and in the evening Plaxy. Thomas took the car to the station to meet her, Sirius sitting beside him. Out of the train stepped the long-legged schoolgirl in her school hat and coat. Having kissed her father, no doubt with her customary rather distant affection, she squatted down to hug Sirius, “I got your letter,” she whispered, “but I couldn’t answer, could I?” Of course she couldn’t. Sirius savoured the well-known voice with delight; but with an undertone of anxiety, for school life had changed it.

During the first part of the holidays Sirius simply enjoyed being home again. He scarcely noticed the two disquieting facts that had obtruded themselves right at the beginning. Thomas would not let him off his sheep-dog apprenticeship; Plaxy was changed.

For a week or so he was content to live the old family life, which, though by no means entirely harmonious, did afford to every member the invaluable experience of belonging to a true community. There was always talk going on, and Sirius after his long isolation felt a great need for conversation. There were many walks with members of the family, and several long expeditions up Moelwyn, the Rhinogs, Arenig. But what Sirius now craved most was indoor life, with reading, music, talk, and all the little affairs that fill the day.

After a day or two of almost entirely social life he began to take up once more some of his old private occupations. Not only did he read as much as his eyesight would let him, and experiment a good deal in music; he also contrived adventures in his private art of odour. This he did by collecting all kinds of materials that had striking or significant smells, and blending them in saucers. Sometimes, much to the amusement of the family, he laid his materials out in a long trail round the garden path, and then followed it from beginning to end, giving tongue in a weird diversified chant that was neither human nor canine. After these olfactory adventures he was often very silent and remote. Sometimes they seemed to put him in the mood for hunting, for he would disappear for many hours, returning tired and dirty. Not infrequently he brought back a rabbit or hare, or even a wild duck or grouse, handing it over to Giles to prepare for cooking. But often he brought nothing, and behaved as though he himself had gorged.

Not much of his time was spent in solitary occupations, for he craved social intercourse more than ever, chiefly with Plaxy. Gradually it dawned on him that when she and he were out together they did not always find the careless intimacy which formerly had never failed them. Sometimes neither of them seemed able to think of anything to say; sometimes Sirius found himself bored with Plaxy’s stories of school life; sometimes she seemed to have lost interest in all the things that formerly they had enjoyed together. Sirius expected not only that she would have out-distanced him in knowledge of school subjects, which of course she had, but also that she would be more keenly and persistently interested in the life of the mind. But she was nothing of the sort, She was mainly absorbed, it seemed, in her school companions, with all their loves and hates; and in the teachers, male and female, who were playing so large a part in her new life. When he asked her to teach him some of the wonderful things that she must have learnt during the term, she said she would, some time; but always she found some excuse to postpone the lesson. At last there came a time when no excuse was available. She was idling in an easy chair petting the cat, Smut, who was purring heartily. Sirius, whose thirst for knowledge was at this time more insistent than discriminate, suggested that she should tell him what she had learnt during the term about the Cavaliers and Roundheads. Cornered, she blurted out, “Oh, I just can’t swot in the holidays.” He did not ask her again.

It was not that they were any less fond of one another. On the contrary, each craved the other’s society; but always there was a faint mist of remoteness between them. And occasionally open antagonism occurred, as when Plaxy ostentatiously doted upon Smut, half in jest, half in earnest, calling him “my black panther,” affirming that she was a witch, and witches always had black cats as their companions, and never clumsy dogs. But antagonism was rare. More often there was a faintly awkward friendliness. At this time Plaxy developed a maiden shyness in relation to Sirius. He was bewildered, for instance, by her new and to him quite inexplicable reluctance to respond to their familiar urinary tune by singing the antistrophe that signified assent, and crouching to relieve herself. Although this new shyness was only a passing phase, it was to recur whenever Plaxy was feeling too much involved with Sirius.

In fact her estrangement from him was partly a reaction against her deep-rooted entanglement with him. But he, who was far more conscious of her aloofness than she was herself, attributed it to the fact that she had outstripped him both in learning and in experience of human people, while he had stagnated at Caer Blai. Once or twice, however, when she had gently twitted him with being interested in nothing but learning, he wondered whether it was she that was stagnating. He had conceived a real passion for learning, for finding out about the great world, and understanding the miracle of human nature and the minor miracle of his own unique nature. The arid weeks behind him and the arid weeks to come filled him with a thirst not only for intelligent companionship but also for intellectual life. His proximity to the sub-human perhaps made him over-anxious to prove that even the loftier ranges of the human spirit were not beyond him.

It was during these holidays that another and a long-established source of alienation between Plaxy and Sirius took on a new form and a more disturbing effect. Even in earlier days Plaxy had developed a peculiarly keen interest in seeing. As a child she had often shown disappointment and exasperation with Sirius for his failure to share this delight with her. She would rhapsodize over the colour and shape of a speedwell, or of hills receding hazily one behind the other in a cadence of russet to purple. Once she had innocently called upon him to admire the golden elegance of her own young arm. On all such occasions his response was perfunctory, since vision was never for him a gateway to heaven, Even of Plaxy’s arm he could say only. “Yes, it’s lovely because it has the look of a handy tool. And it smells good, like the rest of you, and it’s good to lick,” From childhood onwards Plaxy had amused herself with pencil and paint box, and at school her gift for colour and shape had won her much praise from the drawing mistress. In the holidays she spent a good deal of time looking at reproductions of famous pictures, and in discussing art with her mother. Even more absorbed was she in drawing schoolgirls in blatantly graceful poses, and in painting the view of the Rhinogs from her bedroom window. Sirius found all this fuss over the looks of things very boring. He had tried hard to develop a taste for pictorial art, but had failed miserably. Now that Plaxy was so absorbed in it, he felt “left out.” If he took no notice of her creations she was disappointed. If he praised them, she was irritated, knowing quite well that he could not really appreciate them. Yet all this visual interest, which at bottom, no doubt, was a protest against Sirius, she also longed to share with him. Thus did these two alien but fundamentally united creatures torture one another and themselves.

As the end of the holidays approached. Sirius’s anxiety about his future increased. He took every opportunity of tackling Thomas on the subject. But Thomas always managed to turn the talk in some other direction. When at last the time came for Plaxy to return to school, it was assumed that Sirius would return to Caer Blai. When Plaxy said good-bye to him, she begged him to go back with a good grace. She herself, she said, hated leaving home. But he knew quite well from her voice and her tingling smell that, though in a way she did hate it, in another way she was glad and excited. But he — well, in a way he too was glad, surprised though he was at this discovery. He was glad to get away from the mist that had come between him and Plaxy; and also because a mist had come between him and the whole of his beloved home life. What was it? Why was there this remoteness? What was it that kept rising between him and all his dearest things, making him defiant and wild? Was it just that he wanted a fragrant bitch, a sweet though stupid companion of his own kind, instead of these stinking humans? Or did he need something more? Was it the ancestral jungle beast that sometimes woke in him? His farewell to Plaxy was seemingly all affection and sorrow. She never guessed that another and an alien Sirius was at that moment yawning himself awake, finding her company tiresome and her smell unpleasant.

There followed a term of bitter weather and heavy work with the sheep. All the dogs were now kept busy stopping the sheep from going up to the heights for the night, for fear of snow. This meant staying with them till dark whenever snow seemed likely. Sometimes, without warning, heavy snow would fall on the tops during the night, and then dogs and men would have to go up in the morning to bring the flock down into the valleys. Generally there is far less snow in Wales than in the more northerly mountain districts, but a run of severe winters caused the dogs much toil and a good deal of danger. On several occasions, up and down the district, dogs and even men were lost in the snow. Sometimes sheep were completely buried under snowdrifts. Only a dog could then find them; and often only a man with a spade could rescue them. Sometimes the snow covered both high and low pastures. So long as it remained soft, the sheep could scrape it away with their feet and feed on the grass below. But when the surface was hardened by frost following thaw, this was impossible, and then hay had to be taken out to them. This was a job for Pugh or his man with a cart and the old mare, Mab. But the dogs, being super-dogs, were expected to report on the condition of the snow. If it was hard, they would come home to scratch and whine at Pugh’s feet.

Sometimes when Sirius was out in the hills alone in the winter dawn, examining the condition of the snow and looking for sheep in distress, the desolation of the scene would strike him with a shivering dread of existence. The universal carpet of snow, the mist of drifting flakes, the miserable dark sheep, pawing for food, the frozen breath on his own jaws, combined to make him feel that after all this was what the world was really like; that the warm fireside and friendly talk at Garth were just a rare accident, or perhaps merely a dream. “The whole world is just a dreary accident, with a few nice accidents mixed up in the mass.” He had still to learn that there was something far worse than bitter weather with the near prospect of food and comfort, far worse even than his bitter loneliness at Caer Blai; and that the most horrible things in the world were all man-made. It was perhaps well that he did not yet realize the depth of man’s folly and heartlessness, for if he had done so he might have been turned against the dominant species for ever. As it was, he attributed all evil to accident or “fate,” and in fate’s very indifference he sometimes found a certain exhilaration, Plodding home through the snow one day (so he told me long afterwards) he had a kind of inner vision of all living things, led by man, crusading gallantly against indifferent or hostile fate, doomed in the end to absolute defeat, but learning to exult in the battle, and snatching much delight before the end. And he saw himself as a rather lonely outpost in this great war, in which victory was impossible, and the only recompense was the sheer joy of the struggle. But by the very next day, so he said, his mood had changed from self-dramatization to an amused acceptance of his littleness and impotence.

Before the lambing season Pugh went over all his ewes to cut locks of wool away from their udders, so that their lambs should not swallow wool and clog their stomachs. This simple process itself meant a great deal of work for men and dogs, but the actual lambing meant a great deal more. The flock had to be met at dawn on its way down from the heights. During the day the men would be hard at work, but the dogs would often be idle. Pugh noticed that Bran was far more interested than ordinary dogs and even super-sheep-dogs in the process of birth. This was one of the many signs that convinced him that Bran was really a sort of man-dog. Pugh had gradually formed a habit of giving Bran fairly detailed instructions in English, and they were always accurately carried out. He still had no idea that Bran himself could talk, and he kept his convictions about the dog’s nature strictly to himself. But he increasingly treated him as an assistant rather than as a chattel, an assistant who was particularly bright and responsible, but lamentably clumsy through lack of hands. All Sirius’s clever arrangements for fetching and carrying, for pouring from tins and bottles, and so on, failed to compensate for his grievous handlessness. One useful operation that needed dexterity he could do. He could drive Mab, the old mare, whether with the spring cart, the heavy cart, the roller or the harrow. Ploughing inevitably remained beyond him. And of course he could not load a cart with turnips or hay or manure, and so on. Nor could he manage the simple task of harnessing the mare. Buckles defeated him.

When, at the end of the school term, Elizabeth came to fetch Sirius home, his joy was tempered by a self-important doubt as to how Pugh would manage without him.

During these holidays he busied himself in intellectual work. Taxing his eyesight, he even plunged into Wells’s Outline of History and The Science of Life. He also pestered members of the family to read poetry aloud to him, and passages from the Bible. He was very sensitive to the rhythm of verse and prose, and of course to the musical quality of words; but vast tracts of literature meant nothing to him, save as verbal music, because his subconscious nature had not the necessary human texture to respond to them emotionally, nor had he the necessary associations in his experience. His strong feeling for personality led him at one time into an obsession with Browning. Later came a more lasting interest in what he called “the poetry of self and universe.” Hardy at one time fascinated him. The early Eliot intoxicated him with new rhythms and with a sense of facing the worst in preparation for a new vision. But the vision never came. Instead came orthodoxy. Sirius longed for that vision. He hoped for it from the younger moderns; but though he was even younger than any of them, they meant little to him.

Music was ever for Sirius a more satisfying art than poetry, But it tortured him, because the texture of his own musical sensibility remained alien to the human. He felt that he had to choose between two evils. Either he must express himself with full sincerity but in utter loneliness, unappreciated by dogs or men; or, for the sake of his underlying brotherhood with man, he must violate his finer canine sensibility, and discipline himself to the coarser human modes, in the hope that somehow he might express himself adequately to man in man’s own musical language. For this end he was anxious to absorb as much human music as possible.

His relations with Plaxy at this time were uneasy. While he was obsessed with the life of the mind, she was obsessed with personal relations. The loves and hates of school were still far more important to her than book-learning. And her school life was utterly different from Sirius’s hard and anxious life on the farm. It might have been expected that in these circumstances dog and girl would find little in common; and indeed superficially there was little enough. On their walks they were often silent, while each pursued a private train of thought. Sometimes one or the other would hold forth at some length, and the soliloquy would he punctuated by sympathetic but rather uncomprehending comments by the listener. Occasionally this mutual incomprehension caused exasperated outbursts.

Their discord was often increased by a tendency on Plaxy’s part to express her vague sense of frustration in subtle little cruelties. Very often the cattish torture of Plaxy’s behaviour was unconscious. For instance, at times when she was subconsciously resentful of his emotional hold over her, the affectionate ragging which they sometimes indulged in would change its character. Not knowing what she did, she would twist his ear too violently, or press his lip upon his teeth too hard. Then, realizing that she had hurt him, she would be all contrition, More often her felinities were mental. Once, for example, when they were coming down the moel during a brilliant sunset, and Plaxy was deeply stirred by the riot of crimson and gold, of purple and blue and green, she said, not remembering how it must wound her colour-blind companion, “Sunsets in pictures are so tiresome, but only boors and half-wits are not stirred by real sunsets.”

Apart from this infrequent and often thoughtless exposure of her claws, Plaxy kept up the manner of friendliness even when secretly she was straining away from him; for fundamentally each respected the other’s life and was thankful for the other’s society. The roots of these two alien beings were so closely intertwined that in spite of their divergence each needed the other. One unifying subject of common interest they always had, and they often talked about it. Both these sensitive young creatures were beginning to puzzle about their own nature as persons. Both, for very different reasons, were revolting against the purely scientific assumptions of their home, according to which a person was simply the psychological aspect of a very complex physical organism. Plaxy was feeling that persons were the most real of all things. Sirius was more than ever conscious of the inadequacy of his canine body to express his super-canine spirit. The word “spirit” seemed to them to epitomize the thing that science left out; but what precisely ought to be meant by the word they could not decide. Plaxy had come under the influence of a member of the school staff for whom she had conceived a great admiration. This quick-witted and sensitive young woman taught biology, but was also a lover of literature. It seems to have been her influence, by the way, that first made Plaxy clearly feel that, however important science was, for herself not science but literature was the way to full mental life. The young teacher had once said, “I suppose I ought to believe that Shakespeare was just a highly developed mammal, but I can’t really believe it. In some sense or other he was — well, a spirit.” This remark was the source of Plaxy’s juvenile dalliance with the word “spirit”; and then of Sirius’s.

The young dog was now seriously worrying about his future. Sheep-farming was not without interest, now that he was helping Pugh in a more human way; but it was not what he was for. What was he for? Was he for anything? He remembered his desolate impression on the snow-clad moors that the whole world was just a purposeless accident. Now, he somehow could not believe it. Yet the all-wise Thomas said no one was for anything, they just were. Well, what could a unique creature like him, a sheer freak, find to be? How could he discover peace of mind, of spirit? Thomas did not see why he should worry. Thomas had a nice slick programme for him.

One evening when the others had gone to bed, man and dog were left in the sitting-room in the course of one of those long talks which had been so great a factor in the education of Sirius. They were sitting before the fire, Thomas in one of the easy chairs, Sirius luxuriating on the couch. Thomas had been telling him of the progress of his research, and explaining the latest theory about the localization of mental powers in the brain-centres. He was pleased at the dog’s shrewd questions, and had said so. Sirius, after a pause in which he absently licked a paw while gazing into the fire, said, “Even by human standards I really am fairly bright, am I?” “Indeed you are,” was the prompt reply. Sirius continued, “You see, I don’t seem able to think properly. My mind keeps wandering. I start out to think about something, and then suddenly, with a jolt I wake up to find I’ve been thinking about something else instead; and often I can’t even remember what it was, or even what the first subject was. It’s frightening. Do you think I’m going mad? It’s like — going off on the trail of a rabbit and then being led aside by a hare, and then streaking off on the smell of a fox, and twisting and doubling on the trail till all of a sudden you find yourself up against water, and no trail at all. And then you say to yourself, ‘How on earth did I get here? What in hell was I doing?’ Human beings don’t think that way, do they?” Thomas laughed with delight. “Don’t they!” he said. “I certainly think that way myself, and I’m not exceptionally scatter-brained.” Sirius sighed with relief, but continued, “Then there’s another thing. Sometimes I managed to follow a trail of thought quite well for a long time, in and out, up and down, but always with my mind’s nose on the trail; and then suddenly I find — well, the weather has changed and given it all a different meaning. It was warm and bright, but now it’s cold and dank. No, worse than that! It was fox, and now it’s cat, so to speak, or just dull cow, or horrible menagerie tiger. No, it’s the same but I have changed. I wanted it desperately, and now I don’t. There’s an entirely new me. That’s frightening, too,” Thomas reassured him. “Don’t worry, old thing!” he said. “It’s just that you’re a rather complicated person, really, and there’s too much diversity in you to be easily systematized.”

Sirius once more licked his paw, but soon stopped to say, “Then I really am a person, not just a laboratory animal?” “Of course,” said Thomas, “and a very satisfactory person, too; and an excellent companion for this person, in fact the best I have, apart from one or two colleagues.” Sirius added for him, “And Elizabeth, I suppose.” “Of course, but that’s different. I meant man-to-man companionship.” Sirius pricked his ears at that phrase, and Thomas laughed at himself. Said the dog, “Then why apprentice me to a sub-human job, which is bound to dehumanize me?” “My dear Sirius,” replied Thomas with some heat, “we have had all that out before, but let’s try to settle it now, once for all. It’s true you have a first-class human intelligence, but you are not a man, you are a dog. It’s useless to train you for some human trade, because you can’t do it. But it’s immensely important to give you some responsible practical work until the time comes for you to join us at Cambridge. You are not to be an imitation man. You are a super-super-dog. This sheep-dog life is very good for you. Remember you are not yet seventeen. There’s no hurry. Your pace is Plaxy’s, not Idwal’s. If you grow up too quick, you’ll fossilize too quick. Stick to sheep. There’s a lot in that job, if you give your mind to it. When you come to us at the lab we want you to have had experience of a normal dog’s way of life.”

Inwardly Sirius said, “Blast the lab!” but to Thomas he said, “I have been putting my mind into the job. And as a matter of fact it’s not just sheer dog’s work now. Pugh has been giving me a lot of man’s work to do. He knows I am different from Idwal. But — well, that sort of work, though it is largely man’s work, does deaden the mind. And the mind — is me. I’m not human, but also I’m not canine. Fundamentally I’m just the sort of thing you are yourself. I have a canine clothing, just as you have a human clothing, but I — I am”— he paused and looked warily at Thomas — “a spirit, just as you are.” Thomas snorted, and presently his smell went rather sour. Then almost in the tone of a liberal-minded parent expostulating with a child that had said something “rude,” he remarked, “Why use that silly meaningless word? Besides, who has been putting such ideas into your head?”

Sirius did not answer this last question. Instead, he said, “There’s something in me very different from my canine body. If you had a dog’s body instead of a man’s, you would grasp that as clearly as I do. You couldn’t help it. You would feel like someone trying to typewrite on a sewing machine, or make music with a typewriter. You would never mistake the sewing machine for you, yourself.”

“I see what you mean,” said Thomas, “but the conflict is not really between your spirit and your canine body; it’s between the canine part of your body and the super-canine part, that I gave you.”

There was silence in the room for a full minute. Then Sirius yawned, and felt the warmth of the fire on his tongue. He said, “That sounds so sensible; and yet, though I’m only seventeen and only a dog, I can smell there’s something wrong with it. It’s only just a bit more true than the ‘soul’ dope that the parsons give — the Rev. Davies, for instance, when he called on us, and tried to convert you to Methodism, while you tried to convert him to scientific method. Do you remember? He caught me staring too interestedly at him, and he said I looked as if I was more open to persuasion than you were yourself, and it was a pity, almost, that God hadn’t given me a soul to be saved.”

Thomas smiled, and rose to go to bed. As he passed Sirius he gave his ear a friendly pull, and said, “Oh, well, nearly all great questions turn out in the end to be misconceived. Probably both our answers are wrong.”

Sirius, getting down from the couch, suddenly realized that he had been once more side-tracked from his purpose, which was to discuss his future. “One thing is sure,” he said, “my job is not just sheep, and it’s not to alternate between being a sheep-dog and being a super-laboratory-animal. It’s the spirit.”

Thomas came to a halt. “Oh, very well,” he said gently, respectfully, but with a faint ridicule that did not escape Sirius. “Your job’s the spirit.” Then after a pause he added with friendly sarcasm, “We must send you to a theological college.”

Sirius gave a snort of indignation. He said, “Of course I don’t want the old religious dope. But I don’t want just the new science dope either. I want the truth.” Then, realizing that he had said the wrong thing, he touched his master’s hand. “I’m afraid I’m not working out according to plan,” he said. “But if I am really a person you shouldn’t expect me to. Why did you make me without making a world for me to live in. It’s as though God had made Adam and not bothered to make Eden, nor Eve. I think it’s going to be frightfully difficult being me.”

Thomas laid his hand on the dog’s head. The two stood gazing into the dying fire. The man said to the dog, “It’s my fault that you are more than a dog. It’s my meddling that woke the ‘spirit’ in you, as you call it. I’ll do my best for you, I promise. And now let’s go to bed.”

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