The Bright Messenger, by Algernon Blackwood

Chapter 18

FOR all the wildness of the talk, this group of the Unstable was a coherent and consistent entity, using a language each item in it understood. They knew what they were after. Alcohol, coffee, tobacco, underfeeding, these helped or hindered, respectively, the expression of an ideal that, nevertheless, was common to them all; and if the minds represented were unbalanced, or merely speculative, poetic, one genuine quest and sympathy bound all together into a coherent, and who shall say unintelligent or valueless, unit. The unstable enjoyed an extreme sensitiveness to varied experience, with flexible adaptability to all possible new conditions, whereas the stable, with their rigid mental organizations, remained uninformed, stagnant, even fossilized.

In other rooms about the great lamp-lit city sat, doubtless, other similar groups at the very same moment, discussing the shibboleths of other faiths, of other dreams, of other ideas, systems, notions, philosophies, all interpretative of the earth in which little humanity dwells, cut off and isolated, apparently, from the rest of the stupendous universe. A listener, screened from view, a listener not in sympathy with the particular group he observed, and puzzled, therefore, by the language used, must have deemed he listened to harmless, if boring, madness. For each group uses its own language, and the lowest common denominator, though plainly printed in the world’s old scriptures, has not yet become adopted by the world at large.

Into this particular group, a little later in the evening, and when the wings of imagination had increased their sweep a trifle dangerously perhaps into the room, like the arrival of a policeman rather, dropped Father Collins. He came rarely to the Prometheans’ restaurant. There was a general sense of drawing breath as he appeared. A pause followed. Something of the cold street air came with him. He wore his big black felt hat, his shabby opera cloak, and clutched firmly he had no gloves on the heavy gnarled stick he had cut for his collection in a Cingalese forest years ago, when he was studying with a Buddhist priest. The folds of his voluminous cloak, as he took it off, sent the hanging smoke-clouds in a whirl. His personality stirred the mental atmosphere as well. The women looked up and stared, respectful welcome in their eyes; several of the men rose to shake hands; there was a general shuffling of chairs.

“Bring another moulin a vent and a clean glass,” Povey said at once to the hovering waiter.

“It’s raw and bitter in the street and a fog coming down thickly,” mentioned Father Collins. He exhaled noisily and with comfortable relief, as he squeezed himself towards the chair Povey placed for him and looked round genially, nodding and shaking hands with those he knew. “But you’re warm and cosy enough in here” he sat down with unexpected heaviness, and smiled at everybody “and well fed, too, I’ll be bound.”

“The body must be comfortable before the mind can enjoy itself,’” said Phillipps, an untidy member who disliked asceticism. “Starvation produces hallucination, not vision.” His glance took in the unused glasses. His qualification was a vision of an uncle at the moment of death, and the uncle had left him money. He had written a wordy pamphlet describing it.

“I’ll have an omelette, then, I think,” Father Collins told the waiter, as the red wine arrived. “And some fried potatoes. A bit of cheese to follow, and coffee, yes.” He filled his glass. He had not come to argue or to preach, and Phillipps’s challenge passed unnoticed. Phillipps, who had been leading the talk of late, resented the new arrival, but felt his annoyance modify as he saw his own glass generously filled. Povey, too, accepted a glass, while saying with a false vehemence, “No, no,” his finger against the rim.

A change stole over the room, for the new personality was not negligible; he brought his atmosphere with him. The wild talk, it was felt now, would not be quite suitable. Father Collins had the reputation of being something of a scholar; they were not quite sure of him; none knew him very intimately; he had a rumoured past as well that lent a flavour of respect. One story had it that “dabbling in magic” had lost him his position in the Church. Yet he was deemed an asset to the Society.

Whatever it was, the key changed sharply. Imson’s eyes and ears grew wider, the hand of Miss Lance went instinctively to her hair and combs, Miss Milligan sought through her mind for a remark at once instructive and uncommon, Mrs. Towzer looked past him searchingly lest his aura escape her before she caught its colour, and Kempster, smoothing his immaculate coat, had an air of being in his present surroundings merely by chance. Toogood, quickly scanning his notes, wondered whether, if called upon, he was to be Pharaoh or Cleopatra. One and all, that is, took on a soberer gait. This semi-clerical visit complicated. The presence of Father Collins was a compliment. What he had to say about LeVallon and the Studio scene was, anyhow, assured of breathless interest.

Povey led off. “We were just talking over the other night,” he observed, “the night at the Studio, you remember. The storm and so on. It was a singular occurrence, though, of course, we needn’t, we mustn’t exaggerate it.” And while he thus, as Secretary, set the note, Father Collins sipped his wine and beamed upon the group. He made no comment. “You were there, weren’t you?” continued Povey, sipping his own comforting glass. “I think I saw you. Fillery, you may have noticed,” he added, “brought a friend.”

“LeVallon, yes,” said the other in a tone that startled them. “A most unusual fellow, wasn’t he?” He was attacking the omelette now. “A Greek God, if ever I saw one,” he added. And the silence in the crowded room became abruptly noticeable. Miss Milligan, feeling her zodiacal garter slipping, waited to pull it up. Imson’s brown eyes grew wider. Kempster held his breath. Toogood borrowed a cigar and waited for someone to offer him a match before he lit it.

“Delicious,” added Father Collins. “Cooked to a turn.” the omelette slid about his plate.

But the silence continued, and he realized the position suddenly. Emptying his glass and casually refilling it, he turned and faced the eager group about him.

“You want to know what 7 thought about it all,” he said. “You’ve been discussing LeVallon, Nayan and the rest, I see.” He looked round as though he were in the lost pulpit that was his right. After a pause he asked point blank: “And what do you all think of it? How did it strike you all? For myself, I confess” he took another sip and paused “I am full of wonder and question,” he finished abruptly.

It was Imson, the fearless, wondering Pat Imson, who first found his tongue.

“We think,” he ventured, “LeVallon is probably of Deva origin.”

The others, while admiring his courage, seemed unsympathetic suddenly. Such phraseology, probably meaningless to the respected guest, was out of place. Eyes were cast down, or looked generally elsewhere. Povey, remembering that the Society was not solely Eastern, glared at the speaker. Father Collins, however, was not perturbed.

“Possibly,” he remarked with a courteous smile. “The origin of us all is doubtful and confused. We know not whence we come, of course, and all that. Nor can we ever tell exactly who our neighbour is, or what. LeVallon,” he went on, “since you all ask me” he looked round again

“is for me an undecipherable being. I am,” he added, his words falling into open mouths and extended eyes and ears, “somewhat puzzled. But more I am enormously stimulated and intrigued.”

All gazed at him. Father Collins was in his element. The rapt silence that met him was precisely what he had a right to expect from his lost pulpit. He had come, probably, merely to listen and to watch. The opportunity provided by a respectful audience was too much for him. An inspiration tempted him.

“I am inclined to believe,” he resumed suddenly in a simple tone, “that he is a Messenger.”

The sentence might have dropped from Sirius upon a listening planet. The babble that followed must, to an ordinary man, have seemed confusion. Everyone spoke with a rush into his neighbour’s ear. All bubbled. “I always thought so, I told you so, that was exactly what I meant just now” and so on. All found their tongues, at any rate, if Povey, as Secretary, led the turmoil:

“Something outside our normal evolution, you mean?” he asked judiciously. “Such a conception is possible, of course.”

“A Messenger!” ran on the babel of male and female voices.

It was here that Father Collins failed. The “unstable” in him came suddenly uppermost. The “ecstatic” in his being took the reins. The wondering and expectant audience suited him. The red wine helped as well. When he said “Messenger” he had meant merely someone who brought a message. The expression of nobility merged more and more in the slovenly aspect. Like a priest in the pulpit, whom none can answer and to whom all must listen, he had his text, though that text had been suggested actually by the conversation he had just heard. He had not brought it with him. It occurred to him merely then and there. His mind reflected, in a word, the collective idea that was in the air about him, and he proceeded to sum it up and give expression to it. This was his gift, his fatal gift a ready sensitiveness, a plausible exposition. He caught the prevailing mood, the collective notion, then dramatized it. Before he left the pulpit he invariably, however, convinced himself that what he had said in it was true, inspired, a revelation for that moment.

“A Messenger,” he announced, thrusting his glass aside with an impatient gesture as though noticing for the first time that it was there. “A Messenger,” he repeated, the automatic emphasis in his voice already persuading him that he believed what he was about to say, “sent among us from who knows what distant sphere” he drew himself up and looked about him “and for who can guess on what mysterious and splendid mission.”

His eye swept his audience, his hand removed the glass yet farther lest, it impede free gesture. It was, however, as Povey noticed, empty now. “We, of course,” he went on impressively, lowering his voice, “we, a mere handful in the world, but alert and watchful, all of us we know that some great new teaching is expected” he threw out another challenging glance “but none of us can know whence it may come nor in what way it shall manifest.” His voice dropped dramatically. “Whether as a thief in the night, or with a blare of trumpets, none of us can tell. But we expect it and are ready. To us, therefore, perhaps, as to the twelve fishermen of old, may be entrusted the privilege of accepting it, the work of spreading it among a hostile and unbelieving world, even perhaps the final sacrifice of of suffering for it.”

He paused, quickly took in the general effect of his words, picked up here and there a hint of question, and realized that he had begun on too exalted a note. Detecting this breath of caution in the collective mind that was his inspiration, he instantly shifted his key.

“LeVallon,” he resumed, instinctively emphasizing the conviction in his voice so that the change of key might be less noticeable, “undoubtedly believes himself to be some such divine Messenger. . . . ” It was consummate hedging.

The sermon needs no full report. The audience, without realizing it, witnessed what is known as an “inspirational address,” where a speaker, naturally gifted with a certain facile eloquence, gathers his inspiration, takes his changing cues as well, from the collective mind that listens to him. Father Collins, quite honestly doubtless, altered his key automatically. He no longer said that LeVallon was a Messenger, but that he “believed himself” to be one. Like Balaam, he said things he had not at first thought of saying. He talked for some ten minutes without stopping. He said “all sorts of things,” according to the expression of critical doubt, of wonder, of question, of rejection or acceptance, on the particular face he gazed at. At regular intervals he inserted, with considerable effect, his favourite sentence: “A man in his own place is the Ruler of his Fate.”

He developed his idea that LeVallon “believed himself to be such and such . . . ” but declared that the conception had been put into the youth during his life of exile in the mountains the Society had already acquired this information and extended it and had “felt himself into” the role until he had become its actual embodiment.

“He does not think, he does not reason,” he explained. “He feels he feels with. Now, to ‘feel with’ anything is to become it in the end. It is the only way of true knowledge, of course, of true understanding. If I want to understand, say, an Arab, I must feel with that Arab to the point for the moment of actually becoming him. And this strange youth has spent his time, his best years, mark you his creative years, feeling with the elemental forces of Nature until he has actually becomes at moments one with them.”

He paused again and stared about him. He saw faces shocked, astonished, startled, but not hostile. He continued rapidly: “There lies the danger. One may get caught, get stuck. Lose the desire to return to one’s normal self.

Which means, of course, remaining out of relation with one’s environment mad. Only a man in his own place is the ruler of his luck. . . . ”

He noticed suddenly the look of disappointment on several faces. He swiftly hedged.

“On the other hand,” he went on, making his voice and manner more impressive than before, “it may be who can say indeed? it may be that he is in relation with another environment altogether, a much vaster environment, an extended environment of which the rest of humanity is unaware. The privilege of tasting something of an extended environment some of us here already enjoy. What we all know as human activities are doubtless but a fragment of life the conscious phenomena merely of some larger whole of which we are aware in fleeting seconds only by mood, by hint, by suggestive hauntings, so to speak by faint shadows of unfamiliar, nameless shape cast across our daily life from some intenser sun we normally cannot see! LeVallon may be, as some of us think and hope, a Messenger to show us the way into a yet farther field of consciousness. . . .

“It is a fine, a noble, an inspiring hope, at any rate,” he assured the room. “Unless some such Messenger comes into the world, showing us how to extend our knowledge, we can get no farther; we shall never know more than we know now; we shall only go on multiplying our channels for observing the same old things. . . . ”

He closed his little address finally on a word as to what attitude should be adopted to any new experience of amazing and incredible kind. To a Society such as the one he had the honour of belonging to was left the guidance of the perverse and ignorant generations outside of it, “the lethargic and unresponsive majority,” as he styled them.

“We must not resist,” he declared bravely. “We must accept with confidence, above all without fear.” He leaned back in his chair, somewhat exhausted, for the source of his inspiration was evidently weakening. His words came less spontaneously, less easily; he hesitated, sighed, looked from face to face for help he did not find. His glass was empty. “We’re here,” he concluded lamely, “without being consulted, and we may safely leave to the Powers that brought us here the results of such acceptance.”

“Quite so,” agreed Povey, sighing audibly. “Denial will get us nowhere.” He filled up Father Collins’s glass and his own. “I think most of us are ready enough to accept any new experience that comes, and to accept it without fear.” He drained his own glass and looked about him. “But the point is how did LeVallon produce the effect upon us all the effect he did produce? He may be non-human, or he may be merely mad. He may, as Imson says, come to us by some godless chance from another evolutionary system of which, mind you, we have as yet no positive knowledge or he may be a Messenger, as Father Collins suggests, from some divine source, bringing new teaching. But, in the name of Magic, how did he manage it? In other words what is he?”

For Povey could be very ruthless when he chose. It was this ruthlessness, perhaps, that made him such an efficient secretary. The note of extravagance in his language had possibly another inspiration.

An awkward pause, at any rate, followed his remarks. Father Collins had comforted and blessed the group. Povey introduced cold water rather.

“There’s this and th re’s that,” remarked Miss Milligan, tactfully.

“Those among us,” added Miss Lance with sympathy, “who have The Sight, know at least what they have seen. Still, I think we are indebted to Father Collins for his guidance.”

“If we knew exactly what he is,” mentioned Mrs. Towzer, referring to LeVallon, “we should know exactly where we are.”

They got up to go. There was a fumbling among crowded hat-pegs.

“What is he?” offered Kempster. “He certainly made us all sit up and take notice.”

“No mere earthly figure,” suggested Imson, “could have produced the effect he did. In my poem it came to me in sleep —”

Father Collins held his glass unsteadily to the light. “A Messenger,” he interrupted with authority, “would affect us all differently, remember.”

The talk continued in this fashion for a considerable time, while all searched for wraps and coats. The waiter brought the bill amid general confusion, but no one noticed him. All were otherwise engaged. Povey paid it finally, putting it down to the Entertainment Account.

“Remember,” he said, as they stood in a group on the restaurant steps, each wondering who would provide a lift home, “remember, we have all got to write out an account of what we saw and heard at the Studio. These reports will be valuable. They will appear in our ‘Psychic Bulletin’ first. Then I’ll have them bound into a volume. And I shall try and get LeVallon to give us a lecture too. Tickets will be extra, of course, but each member can bring a friend. I’ll let you all know the date in due course.”

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