Julius LeVallon, by Algernon Blackwood

Chapter i

“Surely death acquires a new and deeper significance when we regard it no longer as a single and unexplained break in an unending life, but as part of the continually recurring rhythm of progress — as inevitable, as natural, and as benevolent as sleep.” — “Some Dogmas of Religion” (Prof. J. M’Taggart).

IT was one autumn in the late ‘nineties that I found myself at Bale, awaiting letters. I was returning leisurely from the Dolomites, where a climbing holiday had combined pleasantly with an examination of the geologically interesting Monzoni Valley. When the claims of the latter were exhausted, however, and I turned my eyes towards the peaks, it happened that bad weather held permanent possession of the great grey cliffs and towering pinnacles, and climbing was out of the question altogether. A world of savage desolation gloomed down upon me through impenetrable mists; the scouts of winter’s advance had established themselves upon all possible points of attack; and the whole tossed wilderness of precipice and scree lay safe, from my assaults at least, behind a frontier of furious autumn storms.

Having ample time before my winter’s work in London, I turned my back upon the unconquered Marmolata and Cimon della Pala, and made my way slowly, via Bozen and Innsbruck, to Bale; and it was in the latter place, where my English correspondence was kind enough to overtake me, that I found one letter in particular that interested me more than all the others put together. It bore a Swiss stamp; and the handwriting caused me a thrill of anticipatory excitement even before I had consciously recalled the name of the writer. It was addressed before and behind till there was scarcely room left for a postmark, and it had journeyed from my chambers to my club, from my club to the university, and thence, by way of various poste-restantes, from one hotel to another till, with good luck little short of marvellous, it discovered me in my room of the Trois Rois Hotel overlooking the Rhine.

The signature, to which I turned at once before reading the body of the message, was Julius LeVallon; and as my eye noted the firm and very individual writing, once of familiar and potent significance in my life, I was conscious that emotions of twenty years ago woke vigorously into being, releasing sensations and memories I had thought buried beyond all effective resurrection. I knew myself swept back to those hopes and fears that, all these years before, had been — me. The letter was brief; it ran as follows:

Friend of a million years, — Should you remember your promise, given to me at Edinburgh twenty years ago, I write to tell you that I am ready. Yours, especially in separation,

Julius LeVallon.

And then followed two lines of instructions how to reach him in the isolated little valley of the Jura Mountains, on the frontier between France and Switzerland, whence he wrote.

The wording startled me; but this surprise, not unmingled with amusement, gave place immediately to emotions of a deeper and much more complex order, as I drew an armchair to the window and resigned myself, half pleasurably, half uneasily, to the flood of memories that rose from the depths and besieged me with their atmosphere of half-forgotten boyhood and of early youth. Pleasurably, because my curiosity was aroused abruptly to a point my dull tutorial existence now rarely, if ever, knew; uneasily, because these early associations grouped themselves about the somewhat unearthly figure of a man with whom once I had been closely intimate, but who had since disappeared behind a veil of mystery to follow pursuits where danger to body, mind and soul — it seemed to me — must be his constant attendant.

For Julius LeVallon, or Julius, as he was known to me in our school and university days, had been once a name to conjure with; a personality who evoked for me a world more vast and splendid, horizons wider, vistas of possibilities more dazzling, than any I have since known — which have contracted, in fact, with my study of an exact science to a dwindled universe of pettier scale and measurement; — and wherein, formerly, with all the terror and delight of vividly imagined adventure, we moved side by side among strange experiences and fascinating speculations.

The name brings back the face and figure of as singular an individual as I have ever known who, but for my saving streak of common sense and inability to imagine beyond a certain point, might well have swept me permanently into his own region of research and curious experiment. As it was, up to the time when I felt obliged to steer my course away from him, he found my nature of great assistance in helping him to reconstruct his detailed mental pictures of the past; we were both “in the same boat together,” as he constantly assured me — this boat that travelled down the river of innumerable consecutive lives; and there can be no doubt that my cautious questionings — lack of perspective, he termed it — besides checking certain aspects of his conception, saved us at the same time from results that must have proved damaging to our reputations, if not injurious actually to our persons, physically and mentally. Yet that he captured me so completely at the time was due to an innate sympathy I felt towards his theories, a sympathy that at times amounted to complete acceptance. I freely admit this sympathy. He used another word for it, however: he called it Memory.

As a boy, Julius LeVallon was beyond question one of the strangest beings that ever wore a mortar-board, or lent his soul and body to the conventionalities of an English private school.

I recall, as of yesterday, my first sight of him, and the vivid impression, startling as of shock, he then produced : the sensitive, fine face, pallid as marble, the thatch of tumbling dark hair, and the eyes of changing greeny blue that shone unlike any English eyes I have ever looked upon before or since. “Giglamps” the other boys called them, of course; but when you caught them through the black hair that straggled over the high white forehead, they somehow conveyed the impression of twin lanterns, now veiled, now clear, seen through the tangled shadows of a twilight wood. Unlike the eyes of most dreamers, they looked keenly within, rather than vaguely beyond; and I recall to this day the sharp, half disquieting effect produced upon my mind as a new boy the first instant I saw them — that here was an individual who somehow stood aloof from the mob of noisy, mischief-loving youngsters all about him, and had little in common with the world in which this school was a bustling, practical centre of educational energy.

Nor is it that I recall that first sight with the added judgment of later years. I insist that this moment of his entrance into my life was accompanied by an authentic thrill of wonder that announced his presence to my nerves, or even deeper, to my very soul. My sympathetic nervous system was instinctively aware of him. He came upon me with a kind of rush for which the proper word is startling; there was nothing gradual about it; its nature was electrifying; and in some sense he certainly captivated me, for, immediately upon knowing him; this opening wonder merged in a deep affection of a kind so intimate, so fearless, so familiar, that it seemed to me that I must, somewhere, somehow, have known him always. For years to come it bound me to his side. To the end, moreover, I never quite lost something of that curious first impression, that he moved, namely, in an outer world that did not claim him; that those luminous, inward-peering eyes saw but dimly the objects we call real; that he saw them as counters in some trivial game he deemed it not worth while to play; that while, perforce, he used them like the rest of us, their face-value was as naught compared to what they symbolised; that, in a word, he stood apart from the vulgar bustle of ordinary ambitious life, and above it, in a region by himself where he was forever questing issues of infinitely greater value.

For a boy of fifteen, as I then was, this seems much to have discerned. At the time I certainly phrased it all less pompously in my own small mind. But that first sense of shock remains: I yearned to know him, to stand where he stood, to be exactly like him. And our speedy acquaintance did not overwhelm me as it ought to have done — for a singular reason; I felt oddly that somehow or other I had the right to know him instantly.

Imagination, no doubt, was stronger in me at that time than it is today; my mind more speculative, my soul, perhaps, more sensitively receptive. At any rate the insignificant and very ordinary personality I own at present has since largely recovered itself. If Julius LeVallon was one in a million, I know that I can never expect to be more than one of a million. And it is something in middle age to discover that one can appreciate the exceptional in others without repining at its absence in oneself.

Julius was two forms above me, and for a day or two after my arrival at mid-term, it appears he was in the sick-room with one of those strange nervous illnesses that came upon him through life at intervals, puzzling the doctors and alarming those responsible for his well-being; accompanied, too, by symptoms that today would be recognised, I imagine, as evidence of a secondary personality. But on the third or fourth day, just as afternoon “Preparation” was beginning and we were all shuffling down upon our wooden desks with a clatter of books and pens, the door beside the great blackboard opened, and a figure stole into the room, tall, slender, and unsubstantial as a shadow, yet intensely real.

“Hullo! Giglamps back again!” whispered the boy on my left, and another behind me sniggered audibly “Jujubes” — thus Julius was sometimes paraphrased — “tired of shamming at last!” Then Hurrish, the master in charge, whose head had been hidden a moment behind his desk, closed the lid and turned. He greeted the boy with a few kind words of welcome which, of course, I have forgotten; yet, so strange are the freaks of memory, and so instantaneous and prophetic the first intuitions of sympathy or aversion, that I distinctly recall that I liked Hurrish for his words, and was grateful to him for his kindly attitude towards a boy whose very existence had hitherto been unknown to me. Already, before I knew his name, Julius LeVallon meant, at any rate, this to me.

But from that instant the shadow became most potently real substance. The boy moved forward to his desk, looked about him as though to miss no face, and almost immediately across that big room full of heads and shoulders saw — myself.

That something of psychical import passed swiftly between us is indubitable, for while Julius visibly started, pausing a moment in his walk and staring as though he would swallow me with his eyes, there flashed upon my own mind a thought so vivid, so precise, that it took actual sentence form, and before I could possibly have imagined or invented an idea so uncorrelated with a previous experience of any kind at all, I heard myself murmuring: “He’s found me . . . I”

It seemed audible, at least. I hid my face a second, thinking I had spoken it aloud. No one looked at me, however; Hurrish made no comment. My name did not sound terribly across the classroom. The sentence, after all, had remained a thought. But that it leaped into my mind at all seems to me now, as it did at the time, significant.

His eyes rested for the fraction of a second on my face as he crossed the floor, and I felt — but how describe It intelligibly? — as though a wind had risen and caught me up into another place where there was great light and an impression of vast distances. Hypnotic we should call it today; hypnotic let it be. I can only affirm how, with that single glance from a boy but slightly older than myself, seen then for the first time, and with no word yet spoken, there came back to me a larger sense of life, and of the meaning of life. I became aware of an extended world, of wonder, movement, adventure on a scale immensely grander than anything I found about me among known external things. But I became aware — “again.” In earlier childhood I had known this bigger world. It suddenly flashed over me that time stretched behind me as well as before — and that I stretched back with it. Something scared me, I remember, with a faint stirring as of old pains and pleasures suffered long ago. The face and eyes that called into being these fancies, so oddly touched with alarm, were like those seen sometimes in dreams that never venture into daily life — things of composite memory, no doubt, that bring with them an atmosphere, and a range of query, nothing in normal waking life can even suggest.

He passed to his place in front of Hurrish’s desk among the upper forms, and a sea of tousled heads intervened to hide him from my sight; but as he went the afternoon sunshine fell through the unfrosted half of the window, and in later years — now, in fact, as 1 hold his letter in my hand and recollect these vanished memories — I still see him coming into my life with the golden sunlight about his head and his face wrapped in its halo. I see it reflected in the lamping eyes, glistening on the mop of dark hair, shining on the pallid face with its high expression of other-worldliness and yearning remote from the chaos of modern life. . . . It was a long time before I managed to bring myself down again to parse the verbs in that passage of Hecuba, for, if anything, I have understated rather than exaggerated the effect that this first sight of Julius LeVallon produced upon my feelings and imagination. Some one, lost through ages but ever seeking me, rose suddenly and spoke: “So here you are, at last! I’ve found you. We’ve found each other again!”

To say more could only be to elaborate the memory with knowledge that came later, and thus to distort the first simple and profound impression. I merely wish to present, as it occurred, the picture of this wizard face appearing suddenly above the horizon of my small school-boy world, staring with that deep suggestion of having travelled down upon me from immense distances behind, bringing fugitive and ghostly sensations of things known long ago, and hinting very faintly, as I have tried to describe, of vanished pains and alarms — yet of sufferings so ancient that to touch them even with the tenderest of words is to make them crumble into dust and disappear.

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