The Bright Messenger, by Algernon Blackwood

Chapter 4

THE war was over, though the benefits of the long anticipated peace still kept provocatively, exasperatingly, out of reach, when, about the middle of September, Dr. Fillery received a letter that interested him deeply.

The shattered world was still distraught, uneasy. Nervously eager to resume its former activities, it was yet waiting for the word that should give it the necessary confidence to begin. Doubt, insecurity, uncertainty everywhere dominated human minds. Those who hoped for a renewal of the easy, careless mood of prewar days were dismayed to find this was impossible; others who had allowed an optimistic idealism to prophesy a New Age, looked about them bewilderingly and in vain for signs of its fair birth. The latter, to whom, perhaps, Dr. Fillery belonged, were more bitterly disappointed, more cruelly shocked, than the former. The race, it seemed to many unshirking eyes, had leaped back centuries at a single spring; the gulf of primal savagery which had gaped wide open for five years, proving the Stone Age close beneath the surface of so-called civilization, had not yet fully closed. Its jaws still dripped blood, hatred, selfishness; the Race was still dislocated by the convincing disproof of progress, horrified at the fierce reality which had displaced the two-pence coloured dream it had been complacently worshipping hitherto. Men in the mass undoubtedly were savages still.

To Dr. Fillery, an honest, though not a necessarily fundamental pessimism, seemed justified. He believed in progress still, but as his habit was, he faced the facts. His attitude lost something of its original enthusiasm. Looking about him, he saw no big constructive movement; the figure who more than any other was altering the face of the world with his ideas as well as his armies, was avowedly destructive only. He found himself a sobered and a saddened man.

His Private Home, having accomplished splendid work, had just discharged its last shell-shocked patient; it was now empty again, the staff, carefully chosen and proved by long service, dismissed on holidays, the building itself renovated and repaired against the arrival later of new patients that were expected.

Devonham, his assistant, away for a period of rest in Switzerland, would be back in a week or two, and Dr. Fillery, before resuming his normal work, found himself with little to do but watch the progress of the cleaners, painters and carpenters at work.

Into this brief time of leisure dropped the strange, perplexing letter with an effect distinctly stimulating. It promised an unusual case, a patient, if patient the case referred to could properly be called, a young man “who if you decide after careful reflection to reject, can be looked after only by the State, which means, of course, an Asylum for the Insane. I know you are no longer head of the Establishment in Liverpool, but that you confine yourself to private work along similar lines, though upon a smaller scale, and that you welcome only cases that have been given up as hopeless. I honour your courage and your sympathy, I know your skill. So far as a cure is conceivable, this one is hopeless certainly, but its unusual, indeed, its unique character, entitles it, I believe, to be placed among your chosen few. Love, sympathy, patience, combined with the closest observation, it urgently demands, and these qualities, associated with unrivalled skill, you must allow me, again, to think you alone possess among healers and helpers of strange minds.

“For over twenty years, in the solitudes of these Jura forests and mountains, I have cared for him as best I could, and with a devotion a child of my own might have expected. But now, my end not far away, I cannot leave him behind me here uncared for, yet the alternative, the impersonal and formal care of an Institute, must break my heart and his. I turn to you.

“My advanced age and growing infirmities, in these days of unkind travel, prohibit my bringing him over. Can your great heart suggest a means, since I feel sure you will not refuse the care of this strange being whose nature and peculiarities indicate your especial care, and yours alone? Is it too much to wonder if you yourself could come and see him here in the remote mountain chalet where I have tended and cared for him ever since his mother died in bearing him over twenty years ago?

“I have taught him what seemed wise and best; I have guarded and observed him; he knows little or nothing of an outside world of men and women, and is ignorant of life in the ordinary meaning of the word. What precisely he may be, to what stratum of consciousness he belongs, what kind of being he is, I mean. . . . ” The last two lines were then scored through, though left legible. “I feel with Arago, that he is a rash man who pronounces the word ‘impossible’ anywhere outside the sphere of pure mathematics.” More sentences were here scored through.

“Dare I say to you, as master, teacher, great open-minded soul that to human life, as we know it, he does not, perhaps, belong?

“In writing in this letter I find it impossible to give you full details. I had intended to set them down; my pen refuses; in the plain English at my disposal well, simply, it is not credible. But I have kept full notes all these years, and the notes belong to you. I enclose an imperfect painting I made of him some four years ago. I am no artist; for background you must imagine what lay beyond my little skill the blazing glory of the immense wood-fires that he loves to make upon the open mountain side, usually at dawn after a night of prayer and singing, while waiting for the strange power he derives (as we all do, indeed, at second or third hand), from the worship of what is to him his mighty father, the life-giving sun. Wind, as the ‘messengers’ of the sun, he worships too. . . . Both sun and wind, that is, produce an unusual state approaching ecstasy.

“Counting upon you, I have hypnotized him, suggesting that he forget all the immediate past (in fact to date), and telling him he will like you in place of me though with him it is an uncertain method.

“I am now old in years. I have lived and loved, suffered and dreamed like most of us; my hands have been warmed at the fires of life, of which, let me add, I am not ignorant. You have known, I believe, my serious, as also my lighter imaginative books; my occasional correspondence with your colleague Paul Devonham has been of help and guidance to me. We are not, therefore, wholly strangers.

“The twenty years spent in these solitudes among simple peasant folk, with a single object of devotion to fill my days, have been, I would tell you, among the best of my long existence. My renouncement of the world was no renouncement. I am enriched with wonder and experience that amaze me, for the world holds possibilities few have ever dreamed of, and that I myself, filled as I am with the memory of their contemplation, can hardly credit even now. Perhaps in an earlier stage of evolution, as Delboeuf believes, man was fully aware of all that went on within himself a region since closed to us, owing to attention being increasingly directed outwards. Into some such region I have had a glimpse, it seems. I feel sometimes there was as much fact as fancy, perhaps, in the wise old Hebrew who stated poetically recently, too, compared with the stretch of time my science deals with ‘The Sons of God took to themselves daughters of the children of men. . . . ”

The letter here broke off, as though interrupted by something unexpected and unusual; it was signed, indeed, “John Mason,” but signed in pencil and at the bottom of an unwritten blank sheet. It had not all been written, either, at one time, or on the same day; there were intervals, evidently, perhaps of hours, perhaps of days, between the paragraphs. Dr. Fillery read, reread, then read again the strange epistle, coming each time to the same conclusion the writer was dying in the very act of forming the last sentences. Their incoherence, the alteration in the style, were thus explained. He had felt the end of life so close that he had written his signature, probably addressed the envelope as well, knowing the page might never be filled up. It had not been filled up.

Something behind the phrases, behind the intensity of the actual words, beyond the queer touches that revealed a mind betrayed by solitude, the hints possibly of a deluded intelligence there was something that rang true and stimulated him more than ordinarily. The reference to Devonham, too, was definite enough. Dr. Fillery remembered vaguely a correspondence during recent crowded years with a man named Mason, living away in Switzerland somewhere, and that Devonham had asked him questions from time to time about what he called, with his rough-and-ready and half — humorous classification, “pagan obsession,” “worshipper of fire and wind,” referring it to the writer of the letters, named John Mason. “Non-human delusion,” he had also called it sometimes. They had come to refer to it, he remembered, as “N.H.” in fact.

He now looked up those Notes, for the mention of the books caused him an uncomfortable feeling of neglected opportunity, and John Mason was an honoured name.

“You know, I believe . . . my books,” the writer said. Could this be, he asked himself anxiously, John Mason, the eminent geologist? Had Devonham not realized who he was? Must he blame his assistant, whose jealous care and judgment saved him so many foolish, futile, unreal cases, reserving what was significant and important only?

The Notes established his mistakes and his assistant’s perhaps intentional? ignorance. The writer of this curious letter was unquestionably the author of those fairy books for children, old and young, whose daring speculations had suggested that other types and races, ages even before the Neanderthal man, had dwelt side by side with what is known as modern man upon this time-worn planet. Behind the literary form of legend and fairy tale, however, lay a curious conviction. Atlantis was of yesterday compared with earlier civilizations, now extinct by fire and flood and general upheaval, which once may have inhabited the globe. The present evolutionary system, buttressed by Darwin and the rest, was but a little recent insignificant series, trivial both in time and space, when set beside the mightier systems that had come and gone. Their evidence he found, not in clumsy fossils and footprints on cooled rocks, but in the minds of those who had followed and eventually survived them: memories of Titan Wars and mighty beings, and gods and goddesses of non-human kind, to whose different existence the physical conditions of an over-heated planet presented no impossibility. The human species, this trumpery, limited, self-satisfied super-animal man, was not the only type of being.

Yet John Mason, in his day, had held the chair at Edinburgh University, his lectures embodied common-sense and knowledge, with acutest imaginative insight. His earliest writings were the text-books of the time. His name, when Edward Fillery was medical student there, still hovered like well-loved incense above the old-town towers.

The Notes now intrigued him. No blame attached to Devonham for having missed the cue, Devonham could not know everything; geology was not in his line of work and knowledge; and Mason was a common name. Rather he blamed himself for not having been struck by the oddness of the case the Mason letters, the pagan obsession, worshipper of wind and fire, the strange “N.H.”

“A competent indexer, at any rate,” he said to himself with a smile, as he turned up the details easily.

These were very scanty. Devonham evidently had deemed the case of questionable value, The letters from Mason, with the answers to them, he could not find.

The slight record was headed “Mason, John,” followed by an address “Chez Henri Petavel, peasant, Jura Mountains, Vaud, French Switzerland,” and details how to reach this apparently remote valley by mule and carriage and footpath. Name of Mason’s protege not given.

“Sex, male; age born 1895; parentage, couple of mystical temperament, sincere, but suffering from marked delusions, believers in Magic (various, but chiefly concerned with Nature and natural forces, once known, forgotten today, of immense potency, accessible to certain practices of logical but undetailed kind, able apparently to intensify human consciousness).

“Subject, of extremely quick intelligence, yet betrays ignorance of human conditions; intelligence superior to human, though sometimes inferior; long periods of quiescence, followed by immense, almost super-human, activity and energy; worships fire and air, chiefly the former, calling the sun his father and deity.

“Abhors confined space; this shown by intense desire for heat, which, together with free space (air), seem conditions of well-being.

“Fears (as in claustrophobia) both water and solidity (anything massive).

“Has great physical power, yet indifferent to its use; women irresistibly attracted to him, but his attitude towards other sex seems one of gentleness and pity; love means nothing. Has, on the other hand, extraordinarily high ideal of service. Is puzzled by quarrels and differences of personal kind. Half-memories of vast system of myriad workers, ruled by this ideal of harmonious service. Faithful, true, honest; falseness or lies impossible . . . lovable, pathetic, helpless type —”

The Notes broke off abruptly.

Dr. Fillery, wondering a little that his subordinate’s brief but suggestive summary had never been brought to his notice before, turned a moment to glance at the rough water-colour drawing he held in his hand. He looked at it for some moments with absorption. The expression of his face was enigmatical. He was more than surprised that Devonham had not drawn his attention to the case in detail. Placing his hand so as to hide the lower portion of the face, he examined the eyes, then turned the portrait upside down, gazing at the eyes afresh. He seemed lost in thought for a considerable time. A faint flush stole into his cheek, and a careful observer might have noticed an increase of light about the skin. He sighed once or twice, and presently, laying the portrait down again, he turned back to the dossier upon the table in front of him.

“Very accurate and careful,” he said to himself with satisfaction as he noticed the date Devonham had set against the entries “June 2Oth, 1914.”

The war, therefore, had interrupted the correspondence.

Devonham had made further notes of his own in the margin here and there:

“Does this originate primarily from Mason’s mind, communicated thence to his protege?” He agreed with his assistant’s query.

“If so, was it transferred to Mason’s mind before that? By the father or mother? The mother was, obviously, his Mason’s great love. Yet the father was his life friend. Mason’s great passion was suppressed. He never told it. It found no outlet.”

“Admirable,” was the comment spoken below his breath.

“Boy born as result of some ‘magical’ experiment intensely believed (not stated in detail), during course of which father died suddenly.

“Mason tended mother, then lived alone in remote place where all had occurred.

“Did Mason inherit entire content of parents’ beliefs, dramatizing this by force of unexpressed but passionate love?

“Did not Mason’s mind, thus charged, communicate whole business to the young mind he has since formed, a plastic mind uninfluenced by normal human surroundings and conditions of ordinary life?

“Transfer of a sex-inspired mania?”

Then followed another note, summarizing evidently Devonham’s judgment:

“Not worth F.‘s investigation until examined further. N.B. Look up Mason first opportunity and judge at first hand.”

Dr. Fillery, glancing from the papers to the portrait, smiled a little again as he signified approval.

But the last entry interested him still more. It was dated July 13, 1914.

“Mason reports boy’s prophecy of great upheaval coming. Entire race slips back into chaos of primitive life again. Entire Western Civilization crumbles. Modern inventions and knowledge vanish. Nature spirits reappear. . . . Desires return of all previous letters. These sent by registered post.”

A few scattered notes on separate sheets of paper lay at the end of the carefully typed dossier, but these were very incomplete, and Devonham’s handwriting, especially when in pencil, was not of the clearest.

“Non-human claim, though absurd, not traceable to any antecedent causes given by letters. What is Mason’s past mental and temperamental history? Is he not, through the parents, the cause? Mania seems harmless, both to subject and others. No suffering or unhappiness. Therefore not a case for F., until further examined by self. Better see Mason and his subject first. Wrote July 24th proposing visit.”

Dr. Fillery’s eyes twinkled. His forehead relaxed. He looked back. He remembered details. Devonham’s holiday that year, he recalled, was due on August ist; he had intended going out mountain climbing in Switzerland.

The final note of all, also in half-legible writing, seemed to refer to the treatment Mason had asked advice about, and the line Devonham had suggested:

“Natural life close to Nature cannot hurt him. But I advise watch him with fire and with heights heat, air! That is, he may decide his physical body is irksome and seek to escape it. Teach him natural history botany, geology, insects, animals, even astronomy, but always giving him reasons and explanations. Above all let him meet girls of his own age and fall in love. Fullest natural expression, but guarded without his knowing it. . . . ”

For a long time Dr. Fillery sat with the notes and papers before him, thinking over what he had read. Devonham’s advice was clever enough, but without insight, sound and astute, yet lacking divination.

The twinkle in his eyes, caused by the final entry, died away. His face was grave, his manner preoccupied, intense. He gazed long at the portrait in his hand. . . . It was dusk when he finally rose, replaced the dossier, locked the cabinet, and went out into another room, and thence into the hall. Taking his hat and stick, he left the house, already composing in his mind the telegram instructing Devonham, while apologizing for the interrupted holiday, to bring the subject of the Notes to England with him. A telegraph girl met him on the very steps of the house. He took the envelope from her, and opened it. He read the message It was dated Bale, the day before:

“Arriving end week with interesting patient. Details index under Mason. Prepare private suite.

“DEVONHAM.”

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