Julius LeVallon, by Algernon Blackwood

Chapter x

“Instead of conceiving the elements as controlled merely by blindly operative forces, they may be imagined as animated spiritual beings, who strive after certain states, and offer resistance to certain other states.” — Lotze.

In connection with LeVallon’s settled conviction that the Universe was everywhere alive and one, and that only the thinnest barriers divided animate from so-called inanimate Nature, I recall one experience in particular. The world men ordinarily know is limited to a few vibrations the organs of sense respond to. Though science, with her delicate new instruments, was beginning to justify the instinctive knowledge of an older time, and wireless marvels and radioactivity were still unknown (at the time of which I write), Julius spoke of them as the groundwork of still greater marvels by which thought would be transmissible. The thought-current was merely a little higher than the accepted wave lengths; moreover, powers and qualities were equally transmissible. Unscientifically, he was aware of all these things, and into this beyond-world he penetrated, apparently, though with the effort of a long-forgotten practice. He linked the human with the non-human. He knew Saturn or the Sun in the same way that he knew a pebble or a wild flower — by feeling-with them.

“It’s coming back into the world,” he said. “Before we leave this section it will all be known again. The ‘best minds,’” he laughed, “will publish it in little primers, and will label it ‘extension of consciousness,’ or some such laboured thing. And they will think themselves very wonderful to have discovered what they really only recollect.”

He looked up at me and smiled significantly, as we sat side by side in the Dissecting Room, busily tracing the nerves and muscles in a physical “instrument” some soul had recently cast aside. I use his own curious phraseology, of course. He laid his pointed weapon down a moment upon the tangle of the solar plexus that resembled the central switchboard of a great London telegraph office.

“There’s the main office,” he pointed, “not that,” indicating the sawn-off skull where the brain was visible. “Feeling is the clue, not thinking.”

And, then and there, he described how this greatest nerve-centre of the human system could receive and transmit messages and powers between its owner and the entire universe. His quiet yet impassioned language I cannot pretend at this interval to give; I only remember the conviction that his words conveyed. It was more wonderful than any fairy-tale, for it made the fairy-tale come true. For this “beyond-world” of Julius LeVallon contained whole hierarchies of living beings, whose actuality is veiled today in legend, folk-lore, and superstition generally — some small and gentle as the fairies, some swift and radiant as the biblical angels, others, again, dark, powerful and immense as the deities of savage and “primitive” races. But all knowable, all obedient to the laws of their own being, and, furthermore, all accessible to the trained will of the human who understood them. Their great powers could be borrowed, used, adapted. Herein lay for him a means to deeper wisdom, richer life, the recovery of true worship, powers that must eventually help Man to that knowledge of the universe which is, more simply put, the knowledge of one God. At present Man was separate, cut off from all this bigger life, matter “inanimate” and Nature “dead.”

And I remember that in this remarkable outburst he touched very nearly upon the origin of my inner dread. Again I felt sure that it was in connection with practices of this nature that he and I and she had involved ourselves in something that, as it were, disturbed the equilibrium of those forces whose balance constitutes the normal world, but something that could only be put right again by the three of us acting in concert and facing an ordeal that was somehow terrible.

One afternoon in October I always associate particularly with this talk about elemental Nature Powers being accessible to human beings, for it was the first occasion that I actually witnessed anything in the nature of definite results. And I recall it in detail; the memory of such an experience could never fade.

We had been walking for a couple of hours, much of the time in silence. My own mind was busy with no train of thought in particular; rather I was in a negative, receptive state, idly reviewing mental pictures, and my companion’s presence obtruded so little that I sometimes almost forgot he was beside me. On the Pentlands we followed the sheep tracks carelessly where they led, and presently lay down among the heather of the higher slopes to rest. Julius flung himself down first, and, pleasantly tired, I imitated him at once. In the distance lay the mosaic of Edinburgh town, her spires rising out of haze and mist. Across the uninspiring strip of modern houses called the Morningside, the Castle Rock stood on its blunt pedestal, carved out by the drive of ancient glaciers. At the end of the small green valley where immense ice-chisels once had ploughed their way, we saw the Calton Hill; beyond it, again, the line of Princes Street with its stream of busy humanity; and further still, the lovely dip over the crest of the hill where the Northern ocean lay towards the Bass Rock and the sea-birds.

The autumn air drew cool and scented along the heathery ridges, and while Julius lay gazing at the cirrus clouds, I propped myself upon one elbow and enjoyed the scene below. It was my pleasure always to know a thing by name and recognise it — the different churches, the prison, the University buildings, the particular house where my own lodgings were; and I was searching for Frederick Street, trying to pick out the actual corner where George Street cut through it, when I became aware that, across the great dip of intervening valley, something equally saw me. This was my first impression — that something watched me.

I placed it, naturally enough, where my thought was fixed, across the dip; but the same instant I realised my mistake. It was much nearer — close beside me. Something was watching us intently. We were no longer quite alone. And, with the discovery, there grew gradually about me a sense of indescribable loveliness, a soft and tender beauty impossible to define precisely. It came like one of those enveloping moods of childhood, when everything is alive and anything may happen. My heart, it seemed, expanded. It turned wild.

I looked round at Julius. He still lay on his back as before, with the difference that his hands now were folded across his eyes and that his body was motionless and rigid as a log. He hardly breathed. He seemed part and parcel of the earth, merged in the hillside as naturally as the heather.

Yet something had happened, or was in the act of happening, to him. The forgotten schoolday atmosphere of Other Places stole over me as I gazed.

I made no sound; I did not speak; my eyes passed quickly from the panorama of town and sea to a flock of mountain sheep that nibbled the patches of coarse grass not far away. The feeling that something invisible yet conscious approached us from the empty spaces of the afternoon became a certainty. My spirit lifted. There wae a new and vital relationship between my inner nature, so to speak, and my material environment. My nerves were quivering, the sense of beauty remained, but my questioning wonder changed to awe. Somewhere about me on that bare hillside Nature had become aggressively alive.

Yet no one of my senses in particular conveyed the great impression; it seemed wrought of them all in combination — a large, synthetic, universal report sent forth by the natural things about me. Some flooding energy, like a tide of unknown power, rose through my body. But my brain was clear. One by one I ticked off the different senses; it was neither sight, smell, touch, nor hearing that was individually affected. There was vague uneasiness, it seems, as well, for I sought instinctively what was of commonplace import in the landscape. I stared at the group of nibbling sheep. My sight wandered to the larches on my right, some thirty yards away. Next, seeking things more humanly comforting still, I fixed my gaze upon my nailed and muddy boots.

At the same moment Julius became suddenly alert. He sat erect.

The change in his attitude startled me; he seemed intent upon something in the nearer landscape that escaped me. He, like myself, was aware that other life approached; he shared my strange emotion of delight and power; but in him was no uneasiness, for whereas I questioned nervously, he knew with joy. Yet he was doing nothing definite, so far as I could see. The change of attitude resulted in no act. His face, however, was so intense, so animated, that I understood it was the touch of his mind that had reached my own so stimulatingly, and that what was coming — came through him. His eyes were fixed, I saw, upon the little grove of larches.

I made no movement, but watched the larches and his face alternately. And what I can only call the childhood mood of make-believe enormously increased. It extended, however, far beyond the child’s domain; it seemed all-potent, irresistibly imperative. By the mere effort of my will I could — create. Some power in me hidden, lost, unused, seemed trying to assert itself. I merely had to say “Let there be a ball before me in the air,” and by the simple fiat of this power it must appear. I had only to will the heather at my feet to move, and it must move — as though, in the act of willing, some intense, inter-molecular energy were set free. There was almost the sense that I had this power in me now — that I had certainly once known how to use it.

I can hardly describe intelligently what followed. It is so easy to persuade myself that I was dreaming or deceived, yet so difficult to prove that I was neither one nor other, but keenly observant and wholly master of my mind. For by this time it was clear to me that the sensation of being watched, of knowing another living presence close, as also of sharing this tender beauty, issued primarily from the grove of larches. My being and their own enjoyed some inter-relationship, exquisite yet natural. There was exchange between us. And the wind, blowing stiffly up the heather slopes, then lifted the lower branches of the trees, so that I saw deep within the little grove, yet at the same time behind and beyond them. Something that their veil of greenness draped went softly stirring. The same minute it came out towards me with a motion best described as rushing. The heart of the grove became instinct with life, life that I could appreciate and understand, each individual tree contributing its thread to form the composite whole, Julius and myself contributing as well. This Presence swam out through the afternoon atmosphere towards us, whirring, almost dancing, as it came. There was an impression of volume — of gigantic energy. The air in our immediate neighbourhood became visible.

Yet to say that I saw something seems as untrue as to say that I saw nothing. Form was indistinguishable from movement. The air, the larches and ourselves were marvellously entangled with the sunshine and the landscape. I was aware of an intelligence different from my own, immensely powerful, but somehow not a human intelligence. Superb, unearthly beauty touched the very air.

“Hush!” I heard LeVallon whisper. “Feel-with it, but do not think.”

The advice was unnecessary. I felt; but I had no time to think, no inclination either. A long-forgotten “I” was active. My familiar, daily self shrank out of sight. Vibrant, sensitive, amazingly extended, my being responded in an immediate fashion to things about me. Any “thoughts” I had came afterwards.

For the greenness whirled and flashed like sunlight upon water or on fluttering silk. With an intricate and complex movement it appeared to spin and revolve within itself; and I cannot dare to say from what detail came the absolute persuasion that it was alive in the same sense that I myself and Julius were alive, while of another order of intelligence.

Julius rose suddenly to his feet, and a fear came over me that he was going to touch it; for he moved forwards with an inviting gesture that caused me an exhilarating distress as when a friend steps too near the edge of a precipice. But the next moment I saw that he was directing it rather, with the immediate result that it swerved sharply to one side, passed with swiftness up the steep hillside, and — disappeared. It raced by me with a soft and roaring noise, leaving a marked disturbance of the air that was like a wind within a wind. I seemed pushed aside by the fringe of a small but violent whirlwind. The booming already sounded some distance up the slope.

“I’ve lost it!” I remember shouting with a pang of disappointment. For it seemed that the power and delight in me both ebbed and that energy went with them.

“Because you thought a moment instead of felt!” cried Julius. He turned, holding up one hand by way of warning. His voice was more than ordinarily resonant, his whole body charged with force. “Now — watch the sheep,” he added in a lower tone. And, although the words surprised me in one way, in another I anticipated them. There passed across his face a momentary expression of intense effort, but even before the sentence was finished I heard the rushing of the frightened animals, and understood something of what was happening. There was panic in them. The entire flock ran headlong down the steep slope of heather. The thunder of their feet is in my ears today. I see their heaving backs of dirty wool climbing in tumbling fashion one upon another as they pressed tightly in a wedge-shaped outline. They plunged frantically together down the steep place to some level turf below. But, even then, I think they would not have stopped, had not a sound, half cry, half word of command, from my companion brought them to a sudden halt again. They paused in their wild descent. Like a single animal the entire company of them — twenty or thirty, perhaps, all told — were arrested. They looked stupidly about them, turned their heads in the opposite direction, and with one accord began once more peacefully — eating grass.

The incident had occupied, perhaps, three minutes.

“The larches!” I heard, and the same instant that softly-roaring thing, not wind, yet carried inside the wind, again raced past me, going this time in the direction of the grove. There was just time to turn, when I heard a clap — not unlike the sound of an open hand that strikes a pillow, though on a far vaster scale — and it seemed to me that the bodies of the trees trembled for a moment where they melted into one another amid the general greenness of stems and branches.

For the fraction of a second they shone and pulsed and quivered. Something opened; something closed again. The enthralling sense of beauty left my heart. the power sank away, the huge energy retired. And, in a flash, all was normal once again; it was a cool October afternoon upon the Pentland Hills, and a wind was blowing freshly from the distant sea.

I was lying on the grass again exactly as before; Julius, watching me keenly beneath the lids of his narrowed eyes, had just flung himself down to keep me company. . . .

“The barriers, you see, are thin,” he said quietly. “There really are no barriers at all.”

This was the first sentence I heard, though his voice, it seemed, had been speaking for some considerable time. I had closed my eyes — to shut out a rising tide of wonderful and familiar pictures whose beauty somehow I sought vigorously to deny. Yet there was this flare of vivid memory: a penetrating odour of acrid herbs that burned in the clearing of a sombre forest; a low stone altar, the droning of men’s voices chanting monotonously as they drew near in robes of white and yellow . . . and I seemed aware of some forgotten but exquisite ceremonial by means of which natural forces were drawn upon to benefit the beings of the worshippers. . . .

“All is transmissible,” rose LeVallon’s voice out of the picture, “all can be shared. That was the aim and meaning of our worship. . . . ”

I opened my eyes and looked at him. The expansion of my consciousness had been a genuine thing; the power and joy both real; the worship authentic. Now they had left me and the shrinkage caused me pain; there was a poignant sense of loss. I felt afraid again.

“But it’s all gone,” I answered in a hushed tone, “and everything has left me.” Reason began to argue and deny. I could scarcely retain the memory of those big sensations which had offered a channel into an extended world.

Julius searched my face with his patient, inward-gazing eyes.

“Your attitude prevented,” he replied after a moment’s hesitation; “it became unsafe.”

“You brought it?” I faltered.

He nodded. “A human will,” he replied, “and a physical body — as channel. Your resistance broke the rhythm and brought danger in.” And after a pause he added significantly: “For the return — the animals served well.” He smiled. “Ran down a steep place into the sea — almost.”

And, abruptly then, the modern world came back, as though what I had just experienced had been but some pictured memory, thrust up, withdrawn. I was aware that my fellow student at Edinburgh University, LeVallon by name, lay beside me in the heather, his face charged with peace and happiness . . . that the dusk was falling, and that the air was turning chilly.

Without further speech we rose and made our way down from the windy ridge, and the chief change I noticed in myself seemed to be a marked increase of vitality that was singularly exhilarating, yet included the touch of awe already mentioned. The feeling was in me that life of some non-human kind had approached us both. I looked about me, first at Julius, then at the landscape, growing dim. The wind blew strongly from the sea. Far in the distance rose the outline of the Forth Bridge, then a-building, its skeleton, red in the sunset, rearing across the water like a huge sea-serpent with ribs of gleaming steel. I could almost hear the hammering of the iron. . . . And, at our feet, the first lights of the (Did Town presently twinkled through the veil of dusk and smoke that wove itself comfortingly about the habitations of men and women.

My thoughts were busy, but for a long time no speech passed. Occasionally I stole glances at my companion as we plodded downwards through the growing dusk, and there seemed a curious glow about his face that made him more clearly visible than the other objects about us. The way he looked back from time to time across his shoulder increased my impression — by no means a pleasant one just then — that something followed us from those heathery hilltops, kept close behind us through the muddy lanes, and watched our movements across the fields and hedges.

I have never forgotten that walk home in the autumn twilight, nor the sense of haunting possibilities that hung about it like an atmosphere — the feeling that Other life loomed close upon our steps. Before Roslin Chapel was passed, and the welcome lights of the town were near, this consciousness of a ghostly following suite became a certainty, and I felt that every copse and field sent out some messenger to swell the throng. We had established touch with another region of life, of power, and the link was not yet fully broken.

And the sentences Julius let fall from time to time, half to himself and half to me, increased my nervousness instead of soothing it.

“The gods, you see, are not dead,” he said, waving his hand towards the hills, “but only distant. They are still accessible to all who can feel-with their powers. In your self-consciousness a door stands open; they can be approached — through Nature. Ages ago, when the sun was younger, and you and I were nearer to the primitive beauty . . . ”

A cat, darting silently across the road like a shadow from a cottage door, gave me such a start that I lost the remainder of the sentence. His arm was linked in mine as he added softly:

“ . . . Only, what is borrowed in this way must always be returned, for otherwise the equilibrium is destroyed, and the borrower suffers until he puts it right again. So utterly exact is the balance of the universe. . . . ”

I deliberately turned my head away, aware that something in me would not listen. The conviction grew that he had a motive in the entire business. That inner secret dread revived. Yet, in spite of it, there was a curiosity that refused to let me escape altogether. It was bound to satisfy itself. The question seemed to force itself out of my lips:

“They are unconscious, though, these Powers?” And, having asked it, I would willingly have blotted out the words. I heard his low voice answer so far away it seemed an echo from the hills behind us.

“Of a different order,” he replied, “until they are part of you; and then they share your consciousness. . . . ”

“Hostile or friendly?” I believed I thought this question only, but apparently I spoke it out aloud. Julius paused a moment. Then he said briefly:

“Neither one nor other, of themselves. Merely that they resent an order being placed upon them. It involves mastery or destruction.”

The words sank into me with something like a shudder. It seemed that everything I asked and everything he answered were as familiar as though we spoke of some lecture of the day before. What I had witnessed shared this familiarity, too, though more faintly. All belonged to this incalculable past he for ever searched to bring to light. Yet of what dim act of mine, of his, or of another working with us, this mysterious shudder was born, I still remained in ignorance, though an ignorance that seemed now slowly about to lift.

Then, suddenly, the final question was out before I could prevent it. It came irresistibly:

“And if, instead of animals, it had been men . . .?”

The effect was instantaneous, and very curious. I could have sworn he had been waiting for that question. For he turned upon me with passion that shone a moment in his pale and eager face, then died away as swiftly as it came. His hand tightened upon my arm; he drew me closer. He bent down. I saw his eyes gleam in the darkness as he whispered:

“Such men would know themselves cut off from their own kind, a gulf between humanity — and themselves. For the elemental powers may be borrowed, but not kept. There would burn in them fires no human hands could quench, because no human hands had lit them. Yet their vast energies might lift our little self-seeking.race into that grander universal life where ”

He stopped dead in the darkened road and fixed me with his eyes. He said the next words with a vehement conviction that struck cold into my very entrails:

“He who retains within himself the elemental powers which are the deities in Nature, is both above and below his kind.”

A moment he hid his face in his hands; then, opening his arms wide and throwing his head back to the sky, he raised his voice; he almost cried aloud: “A man who has worshipped the Powers of Wind and the Powers of Fire, and has retained them in himself, keeping them out of their appointed places, is born of them. He is become their child. He is a son of Wind and Fire. And though he break and flame with energies that could regenerate the world, he must remain alien and outcast from humanity, untouched by love or sorrow, stranger to joy, aloof, impersonal, until by full and complete restitution, he restore the balance in the surrender of his stolen powers.”

It seemed to me he towered; that his stature grew; that the darkness round his very head turned bright; and that a wind from nowhere went driving down the sky behind him with a wailing violence. The amazing outburst took me off my feet by its suddenness. An emotion from the depths rose up and shook me. What happened next I hardly realised, only that he caught my arm and hurried along the road at a reckless, half stumbling speed, and that the lonely hills behind us followed in the darkness. . . .

A few moments afterwards we found ourselves among the busy lights and traffic of the streets. His calm had returned as suddenly as it had deserted him. Such moments with him were so rare, he seemed almost unnatural, superhuman. And presently we separated at the corner of the North Bridge, going home to our respective rooms. He made no single reference to the storm that had come upon him in this extraordinary manner; I likewise spoke no word. We said good night. He turned one way, I another. But, as I went, his burning sentences still haunted me; I saw his face like moonlight through the tangle of a wood; and I knew that all we had seen and heard and spoken that afternoon had reference to a past that we had shared, yet also to a future, which he and I awaited together for the coming of a — third.

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