The Bright Messenger, by Algernon Blackwood

Chapter 14

HILKOFF, Edward Fillery and Paul Devonham, between them, it seems, were wise in their generation. The story spread that the scene in the Studio had been nothing but a bit of inspired impromptu acting, to which the coincidence of the storm had lent a touch of unexpected conviction where, otherwise, all would have ended in a laugh and a round or two of amused applause.

The spreading of an undesirable story, thus, was to a great extent prevented, its discussion remaining confined, chiefly, among the few startled witnesses. Yet the Prometheans, of course, knew a supernatural occurrence when they saw one. They were not to be so easily deprived of their treasured privilege. Thrilled to their marrows, individually and collectively, they committed their versions to writing, drew up reports, compared notes and, generally, made the feast last as long as possible. It was, moreover, a semi-sacred feast for them. Its value increased portentously. It bound the Society together with fresh life. It attracted many new members. Povey and his committee increased the subscription and announced an entrance fee in addition.

The various accounts offered by the Members, curious as these were, may be left aside for the moment, since the version of the occurrence as given by Edward Fillery comes first in interest. His report, however, was made only to himself; he mentioned it in full to no one, not even to Paul Devonham. He felt unable to share it with any living being. Only one result of his conclusions he shared openly enough with his assistant: he withdrew his promise.

Upon certain details, the two men agreed with interest that everybody in the room, men and women, were on the qui v’we the moment LeVallon made his entrance. His appearance struck a note. All were aware of an unusual presence. Interest and curiosity rose like a vapour, heads all turned one way as though the same wind blew them, there was a buzz and murmur of whispered voices, as though the figure of LeVallon woke into response the same taut wire in every heart. “Who on earth is that? What is he?” was legible in a hundred questioning eyes. All, in a word, were aware of something unaccustomed.

Upon this detail and in support of the Society’s claim to special “psychic” perception, it must be mentioned Fillery and Devonham were at one. But another detail, too, found them in agreement. It was not the tempest that caused the panic; it was LeVallon himself. Something about LeVallon had produced the abrupt and singular sense of panic terror.

Fillery was glad; he was satisfied, at any rate. The transient, unreal personality called “LeVallon” had disappeared and, as he believed, for ever; a surface apparition after all, it had been educated, superimposed, the result of imitation and quick learning, a phantom masquerading as an intelligent human being. It was merely an acquired surfaceself, a physical, almost an automatic intelligence. The deep nature underneath had now broken out. It was the sudden irruption of “N.H.” that touched the subconscious self of everyone in the room with its strange authentic shock. “N.H.” was in full possession.

Towards this real Self he felt attraction, yearning, even love. He had felt this from the very beginning. Why, or what it was, he did not pretend to know as yet. Towards “N.H.” he reacted as towards his own son, as to a comrade, ancient friend, proved intimate and natural playmate even. The strange tie was difficult to describe. In himself, though faint by comparison, lay something akin in sympathy and understanding. . . . They belonged together in the same unknown region. The girl, of course, belonged there too, but more completely, more absolutely, even than himself. He foresaw the risks, the dangers. His heart, with a leap of joy, accepted the responsibilities.

Unlike Devonham, he had not come that afternoon to scoff; his smile at the vagaries of what his assistant called “hysterical psychics” had no bitterness, no contempt. If their excesses were pathogenic often, he believed with Lombroso that genius and hysteria draw upon a common origin sometimes, also that, from among this unstable material, there emerged on occasions hints of undeniable value. To the want of balance was chiefly due the ineffectiveness of these hints. This class, dissatisfied with present things, kicking over the traces which herd together the dull normal crowd into the safe but uninteresting commonplace, but kicking, of course, too wildly, alone offered hints of powers that might one day, obedient to laws at present unknown, become of value to the race. They were temperamentally open to occasional, if misguided, inspiration, and all inspiration, the evidence overwhelmingly showed, is due to an intense, but hidden mental activity. The hidden nine-tenths of the self peeped out here and there periodically. These people were, at heart, alert to new ideas. The herd instinct was weak in them. They were individuals.

Fillery had not come to scoff. His chief purpose on this particular occasion had been to observe any reactions produced in LeVallon by the atmosphere of these unbalanced yet questing minds, and by the introduction to a girl, whose beauty, physical and moral, he considered far far above the standard of other women. Iraida Khilkoff, as he saw her, rose head and shoulders, like some magical flower in a fairy-tale, beyond her feminine kind.

His hopes had in both respects proved justified. Le–Vallon was gone. “N.H.” had swept up commandingly into full possession.

If it is the attitude of mind that interprets details in a given scene, it is the heart that determines their selection. Devonham saw collective hallucination, delusion, humbug useless and undesirable weeds, where his chief saw strange imperfect growths that might one day become flowers in a marvellous garden. That this garden blossomed upon the sunny slopes of a lost Caucasian valley had a significance he did not shirk. Always he was honest with himself. It was this symbolic valley he longed to people. Its radiant loveliness stirred a forgotten music in his heart, he watched golden bees sipping that wild azalea honey, of which even the natives may not rob them without the dangerous delight of exaltation; his nostrils caught the delicious perfumes, his cheek felt the touch of happy winds . . . as he stood by the door with Devonham and LeVallon, looking round the crowded Chelsea studio.

Aware of this association stirring in his blood, he believed he had himself well in hand; he knew already in advance that a spirit moved upon the face of those waters that were his inmost self; he had that intuitive divination which anticipates a change of spiritual weather. The wind was rising, the atmosphere lay prepared, already the flowers bent their heads one way. All his powers of self-control might well be called upon before the entertainment ended. Glancing a moment at LeVallon, tall, erect and poised beside him, he was conscious it was an instant of vivid self-revelation that he steadied himself in doing so. He borrowed, as it were, something of that poise, that calm simplicity, that potential energy, that modest confidence. Some latent power breathed through the great stalwart figure by his side; the strength was not his own; LeVallon emanated this power unconsciously.

Khilkoff, as described, had then led the youth away to see the sculpture, Devonham was captured by a Member, and Fillery found himself alone. He looked about him, noticing here and there individuals whom he knew. Lady Gleeson he saw at once on her divan in the corner, with her cigarette, her jewels, her glass, her background of millions through which an indulgent husband floated like a shadow. His eye rested on her a second only, then passed in search of something less insignificant. Miss Lance, who had heard of his books and dared to pretend knowledge of them, monopolised him for ten minutes. A little tactful kindness managed her easily, while he watched the door where LeVallon had disappeared with Khilkoff, and through which Nayan might any moment now enter. Already his thoughts framed these two together in a picture; his heart saw them playing hand in hand among the flowers of the Hidden Valley, one flying, the other following, a radiance of sunny fire and a speed of lifting winds about them both, yet he himself, oddly enough, not far away. He, too, was somehow with them. While listening with his mind to what Miss Lance was saying, his heart went out playing with this splendid pair. . . . He would not lose her finally, it seemed; some subtle kinship held them together in this trinity. The heart in him played wild against the mind.

He caught Devonham’s eye upon him, and a sudden smile that Miss Lance fortunately appropriated to herself, ran over his too thoughtful face. For Devonham’s attitude towards the case, his original Notes, his obvious concealment of experiences in the Jura Mountains, flashed across him with a flavour of something half comic, half pathetic. “With all that knowledge, with all the accumulation of data, Paul stops short of Wonder!” he thought to himself, his eyes fixed solemnly upon Miss Lance’s face. He remembered Coleridge: “All knowledge begins and ends with wonder, but the first wonder is the child of ignorance, while the second wonder is the parent of adoration.” A thousand years, and the dear fellow will still regard adoration as hysteria! He chuckled audibly, to his companion’s surprise, since the moment was not appropriate for chuckling.

Making his peace with his neighbour, he presently left her for a position nearer to the door, Father Collins providing the opportunity.

Father Collins, as he was called, half affectionately, half in awe, as of a parent with a cane, was an individual. He had been evangelical, high church, Anglican, Roman Catholic, in turn, and finally Buddhist. Believing in reincarnation, he did not look for progress in humanity; the planet resembled a form at school individuals passed into it and out of it, but the average of the form remained the same The fifth form was always the fifth form. Earth’s history showed no advance as a whole, though individuals did. He looked forward, therefore, to no Utopia, nor shared the pessimism of the thinkers who despaired of progress.

A man of intense convictions, yet open mind, he was not ashamed to move. Before the Buddhist phase, he had been icily agnostic. He thought, but also he felt. He had vision and intuition; he had investigated for himself. His mind was of the imaginative-scientific order. Buddhism, his latest phase, attracted him because it was “a scientific, logical system rather than a religion based on revelation.” He belonged eminently to the unstable. He found no resting place. He came to the meetings of the Society to listen rather than to talk. His net was far flung, catching anything and everything in the way of new ideas, experiments, theories, beliefs, especially powers. He tested for himself, then accepted or discarded. The more extravagant the theory, the greater its appeal to him. Behind a grim, even a repulsive ugliness, he hid a heart of milk and honey. In his face was nobility, yet something slovenly ran through it like a streak.

He loved his kind and longed to help them to the light. Although a rolling stone, spiritually, his naked sincerity won respect. He was composed, however, of several personalities, and hence, since these often clashed, he was accused of insincerity too. The essay that lost him his pulpit and parish, “The Ever-moving Truth, or Proof Impossible,” was the poignant confession of an honest intellect where faith and unbelief came face to face with facts. The Bishop, naturally, preferred the room of “Father” Collins to his company.

“I should like you to meet my friend,” Fillery mentioned, after some preliminary talk. “He would interest you. You might help him possibly.” He mentioned a few essential details. “Perhaps you will call one day you know my address and make his acquaintance. His mind, owing to his lonely and isolated youth, is tabula rasa. For the same reason, a primitive Nature is his Deity.”

Father Collins raised his bushy dark eyebrows.

“I took note of him the moment he came in,” he replied. “I was wondering who he was and what! I’ll come one day with pleasure. The innocence on his face surprised me. Is he may I ask it friend or patient?”

“Both.”

“I see,” said the other, without hesitation. He added: “You are experimenting?”

“Studying. I should value the help the view of a religious temperament.”

Father Collins looked grim to ugliness. The touch of nobility appeared.

“I know your ideals, Dr. Fillery; I know your work,” he said gruffly. “In you lies more true religion than in a thousand bishops. I should trust your treatment of an unusual case. If,” he added slowly, “I can help him, so much the better.” He then looked up suddenly, his manner as if galvanized: “Unless he can perhaps help us.”

The words struck Fillery on the raw, as it were. They startled him. He stared into the other’s eyes. “What makes you think that? What do you mean exactly?”

Father Collins returned his gaze unflinchingly. He made an odd reply. “Your friend,” he said, “looks to me like a man who might start a new religion Nature for instance back to Nature being, in my opinion, always a possible solution of over-civilization and its degeneracy.” The streak of something slovenly crept into the nobility, smudging it, so to speak, with a blur.

Dr. Fillery, for a moment, waited, listening with his heart.

“And find a million followers at once,” continued the other, as though he had not noticed. “His voice, his manner, his stature, his face, but above all something he brings with him. Whatever his nature, he’s a natural leader. And a sincere, unselfish leader is what people are asking for nowadays.”

His black bushy eyebrows dropped, darkening the grim, clean-shaven face. “You noticed, of course you the women’s eyes?” he mentioned. “It isn’t, you know, so much what a man says, nor entirely his looks, that excite favour or disfavour with women. It’s something he emanates unconsciously. They can’t analyze it, but they never fail to recognize it.”

Fillery moved sideways a little, so that he could watch the inner studio better. The discernment of his companion was somewhat unexpected. It disconcerted him. All his knowledge, all his experience clustered about his mind as thick as bees, yet he felt unable to select the item he needed. The sunshine upon his Inner Valley burned a brighter fire. He saw the flowers glow. The wind ran sweet and magical. He began to watch himself more closely.

“LeVallon is an interesting being,” he admitted finally, “but you make big deductions surely. A mind like yours,” he added, “must have its reasons?”

“Power,” replied the other promptly; “power. ‘The earlier generations,’ said Emerson, ‘saw God face to face; we through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to Nature?’ Your friend has this original relation, I feel; he stands close terribly close to Nature.

He brings open spaces even into this bargain sale “ He drew a deep breath. “There is a power about him —”

“Perhaps,” interrupted the other.

“Not of this earth.”

“You mean that literally?”

“Not of this earth quite not of humanity, so to speak,” repeated Father Collins half irritably, as though his intelligence had been insulted. “That’s the best way I can describe how it strikes me. Ask one of the women. Ask Nayan, for instance. Whatever he is, your friend is elemental.”

Like a shock of fire the unusual words ran deep into Fillery’s heart, but, at that same instant a stirring of the figures beyond the door caught his attention. His main interest revived. The inner door of the private studio, he thought, had opened.

“Elemental!” he repeated, his interest torn in two directions simultaneously. He looked at his companion keenly, searchingly. “You a man like you does not use such words “ He kept an eye upon the inner studio.

“Without meaning,” the other caught him up at once. “No. I mean it. Nor do I use such words idly to a man Fillery like you.” He stopped. “He has what you have,” came the quick blunt statement; “only in your case it’s indirect, while in his it’s direct essential.”

They looked at each other. Two minds, packed with knowledge and softened with experience of their kind, though from different points of view, met each other fairly. A bridge existed. It was crossed. Few words were necessary, it seemed. Each understood the other.

“Elemental,” repeated Fillery, his pulse quickening half painfully.

At which instant he knew the inner door had opened. Nayan had come in. The same instant almost she had gone out again. So quick, indeed, was the interval between her appearance and disappearance, that Fillery’s version of what he then witnessed in those few seconds might have been ascribed by a third person who saw it with him to his imagination largely. Imaginative, at any rate, the version was; whether it was on that account unreal is another matter. The swift, tiny scene, however, no one witnessed but himself. Even Devonham, unusually alert with professional anxiety, missed it; as did also the watchful Lady Gleeson, whom jealousy made clairvoyante almost. Khilkoff and LeVallon, standing sideways to the door, were equally unaware that it had opened, then quickly closed again. None saw, apparently, the radiant, lovely outline.

It was a curtained door leading out of the far end of the inner studio into a passage which had an exit to the street; Fillery was so placed that he could see it over his companion’s shoulder; Khilkoff, LeVallon and the little group about them stood in his direct line of sight against the dark background of the curtain. The light in this far corner was so dim that Fillery was not aware the curtained door had swung open until he actually saw the figure of Nayan Khilkoff framed suddenly in the clear space, the white passage wall behind her. She wore gloves, hat and furs, having come, evidently, straight from the street. Ten seconds, perhaps twenty, she stood there, gazing with a sudden fixed intensity at LeVallon, whose figure, almost close enough for touch, was sideways to her, the face in profile.

She stopped abruptly as though a shock ran through her. She remained motionless. She stared, an expression in her eyes as of life momentarily arrested by wild, glorious, intense surprise. The lips were parted; one gloved hand still held the swinging curtained door. To Fillery it seemed as if a flame leaped into her eyes. The entire face lit up. She seemed spellbound with delight.

This leap of light was the first sign he witnessed. The same second her eyes lifted a fraction of an inch, changed their focus, and, gazing past LeVallon, looked straight across the room into his own.

In his mind at that instant still rang the singular words of Father Collins; in his heart still hung the picture of the flowered valley: it was across this atmosphere the eyes of the girl flashed their message like a stroke of lightning. It came as a cry, almost a call for help, an audible message whose syllables fled down the valley, yearning sweet, yet a tone of poignant farewell within the following wind. It was a moment of delicious joy, of exquisite pain, of a blissful, searching dream beyond this world. . . .

He stood spellbound himself a moment. The look in the girl’s big eloquent eyes threatened a cherished dream that lay too close to his own life. He was aware of collapse, of ruin; that old peculiar anguish seized him. He remembered her words in Baker Street a few days before: “Please bring your friend” the accompanying pain they caused. And now he caught the echo on that following wind along the distant valley. The cry in her eyes came to him:

“Why O why do you bring this to me? It must take your place. It must put out You!”

The reasoning and the inspirational self in him knew this momentary confusion, as the cry fled down the wind.

“O follow, follow

Through the caverns hollow

As the song floats, thou pursue

Where the wild bee never flew . . . ”

The curtained door swung to again; the face and figure were no longer there; Nayan had withdrawn quickly, noticed by none but himself. She had gone up to make herself ready for her father’s guests; in a few minutes she would come down again to play hostess as her custom was. . . . It was so ordinary. It was so dislocating. . . . For at that moment it seemed as if all the feminine forces of the universe, whatever these may be, focused in her, and poured against him their concentrated stream to allure, enchant, subdue. He trembled. He remembered Devonham’s admission of the panic sense.

“It’s the air,” said a voice beside him, “all this tobacco smoke and scent, and no ventilation.”

Father Collins was speaking, only he had completely forgotten that Father Collins was in the world. The steadying hand upon his arm made him realize that he had swayed a moment.

“The perfume chiefly,” the voice continued. “All this cheap nasty stuff these women use. It’s enough to sicken any healthy man. Nobody knows his own smell, they say.” He laughed a little.

Collins was tactful. He talked on easily of nothing in particular, so that his companion might let the occasion slip, or comment on it, as he wished.

“Worse than incense.” Fillery gave him the clue perhaps intentionally, certainly with gratitude. He made an effort. He found control. “It intoxicates the imagination, doesn’t it?” That note of sweet farewell still hung with enchanting sadness in his brain. He still saw those yearning eyes. He heard that cry. And yet the conflict in his nature bewildered him as though he found two persons in him, one weeping while the other sang.

Father Collins smiled, and Fillery then knew that he, too, had seen the girl framed in the doorway, intercepted the glance as well. No shadow of resentment crossed his heart as he heard him add: “She, too, perhaps belongs elsewhere.” The phrase, however, brought to his own personal dream the conviction of another understanding mind. “As you yourself do, too,” was added in a thrilling whisper suddenly.

Fillery turned with a start to meet his eye. “But where?”

“That is your problem,” said Father Collins promptly. “You are the expert even though you think mistakenly that your heart is robbed.” His voice held the sympathy and tenderness of a woman taught by suffering. The nobility was in his face again, untarnished now. His words, his tone, his manner caught Fillery in amazement. It did not surprise him that Father Collins had been quick enough to understand, but it did surprise him that a man so entangled in one formal creed after another, so netted by the conventional thought of various religious Systems, and therefore stuffed with old, rigid, commonplace ideas it did, indeed surprise him to feel this sudden atmosphere of vision and prophecy that abruptly shone about him. The extravagant, fantastic side of the man he had forgotten. “Where?” he repeated, gazing at him. “Where, indeed?” “Where the wild bee never flew . . . perhaps!” Father Collins’s eyebrows shot up as though worked by artificial springs. His eyes, changing extraordinarily, turned very keen. He seemed several persons at once. He looked like contradictory description a spiritual Jesuit. The ugly mouth thank Heaven, thought Fillery snowed lines of hidden humour. His sanity, at any rate, was unquestioned. Father Collins watched the planet with his soul, not with his brain alone. But which of his many personalities was now in the ascendancy, no man, least of all himself, could tell. His companion, the expert in him automatically aware of the simultaneous irruption and disruption, waited almost professionally for any outburst that might follow. “Arcades ambo,” he reflected, making a stern attempt to keep his balance.

“The subconscious, remember, doesn’t explain everything,” came the words. “Not everything,” he added with emphasis. “As with heredity” he looked keenly half humorously, half sympathetically at the doctor “there are gaps and lapses. The recent upheaval has been more than an inter-tribal war. It was a planetary event. It has shaken our nature fundamentally, radically. The human mind has been shocked, broken, dislocated. The prevalent hysteria is not an ordinary hysteria, nor are the new powers perhaps quite ordinary either.”

“Mental history repeats itself,” Fillery put in, now more master of himself again. “Unbalance has always followed upheaval. The removal of known, familiar foundations always lets in extravagance of wildest dissatisfaction, search and question.”

“Upheaval of this kind,” rejoined the other gravely, “there has never been since human beings walked the earth.

Our fabulous old world trembles in the balance.” And, as he said it, the dreamer shone in the light below the big, black eyebrows, noticed quickly by his companion. “Old ideals have been smashed beyond recovery. The gods men knew have been killed, like Tommy, in the trenches. The past is likewise dead, its dreams of progress buried with it by a Black Maria. The human mind and heart stand everywhere empty and bereft, while their hungry and unanswered questions search the stars for something new.”

“Well, well,” said Fillery gently, half stirred, half amused by the odd language. “You may be right. But mental history has always shown a desire for something new after each separate collapse. Signs and wonders are a recurrent hunger, remember. In the days of Abraham, of Paul, of Moses it was the same.”

“Questions today,” replied the other, “are based on an immense accumulated knowledge unknown to Moses or to Abraham’s time. The phenomenon, I grant you, is the same, but the shock, the dislocation, the shattering upheaval comes in the twentieth century upon minds grounded in deep scientific wisdom. It was formerly a shock to the superstitious ignorance of intuitive feeling merely. Today it is organized scientific knowledge that meets the earthquake.”

“You mentioned gaps and lapses,” said Fillery, deeply interested, but still half professionally, perhaps, in spite of his preoccupations. “You think, perhaps, those gaps?” One eye watched the inner studio. The unstable in him gained more and more the upper hand.

“I mean,” replied Father Collins, now fairly launched upon his secret hobby, evidently his qualification for membership in the Society, “I mean, Edward Fillery, that the time is ripe, if ever, for a new revelation. If Man is the only type of being in the universe, well and good. We see his finish plainly, for the war has shown that progress is a myth. Man remains, in spite of all conceivable scientific knowledge, a savage, of low degree, irredeemable, and intellect, as a reconstructive force, but of small account.”

“It seems so, I admit.”

“But if” Father Collins said it as calmly as though he spoke of some new food or hygienic treatment merely “if mankind is not the only life in the universe, if, for instance, there exist and why not? other evolutionary systems besides our own somewhat trumpery type other schemes and other beings perhaps parallel, perhaps quite different perhaps in more direct contact with the sources of life a purer emanation, so to say —”

He hesitated, realizing perhaps that in speaking to a man of Edward Fillery’s standing he must choose his words, or at least present his case convincingly, while aware that his inability to do so made him only more extravagant and incoherent.

“Yes, quite so,” Fillery helped him, noting all the time the suppressed intensity, the half — concealed conviction of an idee fixe behind the calmness, while the balance of his own attention remained concentrated on the group about LeVallon. “If, as you suggest, there are other types of life “ He spoke encouragingly. He had noticed the slovenly streak spread and widen, breaking down, as it were, the structure of the face. He was aware also of the increasing insecurity in himself.

“Now is the moment,” cried the other; “now is the time for their appearance.”

He turned as though he had hit a target unexpectedly.

“Now,” he repeated, “is the opportunity for their manifestation. The human mind lies open everywhere. It is blank, receptive, ready. On all sides it waits ready and inviting. The gaps are provided. If there is any other life, it should break through and come among us now!”

Fillery, startled, withdrew for the first time his attention from that inner room. With keen eyes he gazed at his companion. With an abrupt, unpleasant shock it occurred to him that all he heard was borrowed, filched, stolen out of his own mind. Before words came to him, the other spoke:

“Your friend,” he mentioned quietly, but with intentional significance, “and patient.”

“LeVallon!”

But it was at this moment that Nayan Khilkoff, entering again without her hat and furs, had moved straight to the piano, seated herself, and began to sing.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31