Julius LeVallon, by Algernon Blackwood

Chapter xv

For a long time that letter lay on my table like a challenge — neither accepted nor refused. Something that had slumbered in me for twenty years awoke. The enchantment of my youthful days, long since evaporated as I believed, rose stealthily upon me at the sight of this once familiar handwriting. LeVallon, of course, had found the woman. And my word was pledged.

To say that I hesitated, however, would be no more true than to say that I debated or considered. The first effect upon me was a full-blown amazement that I could ever have come under the spell of so singular a kind or have promised cooperation in anything so wildly preposterous as Julius had proposed. The second effect, however — and, as it turned out, the deeper one — was different. I experienced a longing, a thrill of anticipation, a sense even of joy — I know not what to call it; while in its train came a hint, though the merest hint, of that vague uneasiness I had known in my school and university days.

Yet by some obscure mental process difficult to explain, I found myself half caught already in consent. I answered the letter, asking instructions how to reach him in his distant valley of the Jura Mountains. Some love of adventure — so I flattered myself — long denied by my circumscribed conditions of life, prompted the decision in part. For in the heart of me I obviously wished to go; and, briefly, it was the heart of me that finally went.

I passed some days waiting for a reply, LeVallon’s abode being apparently inaccessible to the ordinary service of the post — “poste restante” in a village marked only upon the larger maps where, I judged, he had to fetch his letters. And those days worked their due effect upon me; they were filled with questions to which imagination sought the answers. How would the intervening years have dealt with him? What changes would have come upon him with maturity? And this woman — what melancholy splendours brought from “old, forgotten, far-off things” would she bring with her down into the prosaic conditions of this materialistic century? What signs and evidences would there be that she, like himself, was an adept at life, seeking eternal things, discerning what was important, an “old soul” taught of the gods and charged with the ideals of another day? I saw her already in imagination — a woman of striking appearance and unusual qualities. And, how had he found her? A hundred similar questions asked themselves, but, chief among them, two: Would she — should I, remember?

The time passed slowly; my excitement grew; sometimes I hesitated, half repented, almost laughed, but never once was tempted really to change my mind. For in the deeper part of me, now so long ignored, something of these ancient passions blew to flame again; symptoms of that original dread increased; there rose once more the whisper “we are eternally together; the thing is true!” And on the seventh day, when the porter handed me the letter, it almost seemed that Julius stood beside me, beckoning. I felt his presence; the old magic of his personality tightened up a thousand loosened threads; belief was unwillingly renewed.

The instructions were very brief, no expression of personal feeling accompanying them. Julius counted on my fidelity. It had never occurred to him that I could fail. I left my heavy luggage in the care of the hotel and packed the few things necessary for the journey. The notes of our school and university days I have just jotted down I sent by post to my London chambers. A spirit of recklessness seemed in me. I was off into fairy-land, mystery and wonder about me, possibly romance. Nothing mattered; work could wait; I possessed a small competency of my own; the routine of my life was dull and uninspiring. Also I was alone in the world, for my early attachment had not resulted in marriage, and I knew no other home than that of chambers, restaurants, and the mountain inns where my holidays were usually spent. I welcomed the change with its promise of adventure — and I went. This feeling of welcome owned perhaps a deeper origin than I realised.

Travelling via Bienne and Neuchatel to a point beyond the latter town I took thence, according to instructions, a little mountain railway that left the lake behind and plunged straight into the purple valleys of the Jura range. Deep pine woods spread away on all sides as we climbed a winding ravine among the folds of these soft blue mountains that are far older than the Alps. Scarred cliffs and ridges of limestone gleamed white against the velvet forests, now turning red and yellow in the sunset, but no peaks were visible and no bare summits pricked the sky. Thick and soft, the trees clothed all. Their feathery presence filled the air. The clatter of the train seemed muffled, and the gathering shadows below the eastern escarpments took on that rich black hue that ancient forests lend to the very atmosphere above them. We passed into a world where branches, moss and flowers muted every sound with a sense of undisturbable peace. The softness of great age reigned with delicious silence. The very engine puffed uphill on wheels of plush.

Occasional hamlets contributed a few woodcutters by way of passengers; strips of half-cleared valley revealed here and there a farmhouse with dark brown walls and spreading roof; little sentiers slipped through the pine trees to yet further recesses of unfrequented woods; but nowhere did I see a modern building, a country house, nor any dwelling that might be occupied by other than simple peasant folk. Suggestion of tourists there was absolutely none; no trees striped blue and yellow by Improvement Committees; no inns with central-heating and tin banners stating that touring clubs endorsed them; no advertisements at all; only this air of remote and kindly peace, the smoke of peat fires, and the odour of living woods stealing upon the dusk.

The feeling grew that I crossed a threshold into a region that lay outside the common happenings of the world; life here must be very gentle, wonderful, distinguished, and things might come to pass that would be true yet hard to explain by the standards of the busy cities. Those cities, indeed, seemed very far away, unreal, and certainly unimportant. For the leisurely train itself was almost make-believe, and the station officials mere uniformed automata. The normal world, in a word, began to fade a little. I was aware once more of that bigger region in which Julius LeVallon lived — the cosmic point of view. The spell of our early days revived, worked on my nerves and thought, altering my outlook sensibly even at this early stage of my return.

The autumn afternoon was already on the wane when at length I reached C, an untidy little watch-making town, and according to instructions left the train. I searched the empty platform in vain for any sign of Julius. Instead of the tall, familiar figure, a little dark-faced man stood abruptly before me, stared into my face with the questioning eyes of a child or animal, and exclaimed bluntly enough “Monsieur le professeur?” We were alone on the deserted platform, the train already swallowed by the forest, no porter, of course, visible, and signs of civilisation generally somewhat scanty.

This man, sent by Julius, made a curious impression on me as I gave him my bag and prepared to follow him to the cart I saw standing outside the station. His mode of addressing me seemed incongruous. Of peasant type. with black moustaches far too big for his features, and bushy eyebrows reminding me of tree-lichen, there was something in his simplicity of gesture and address that suggested a faithful animal. His voice was not unlike a growl; he was delighted to have found me, but did not accept me yet; he showed his pleasure in his honest smile and in certain quick, jerky movements of the body that made me think how a clever caricaturist could see the dog in him. Yet in his keen and steady eyes there was another look that did not encourage levity; one would not lightly trifle with him. There was something about the alert little fellow that insisted on respect, and a touch of the barbaric counteracted the comedy of the aggressive eyebrows and moustache. In the eyes, unflinching yet respectful, I fancied to detect another thing as well: a nameless expression seen sometimes in the eyes of men who have known uncommon things — habitual amazement grown slowly to unwilling belief. He was a man, certainly, who would serve his master to the death and ask no questions.

But also he would not answer questions; I could get nothing out of him, as the springless cart drove slowly up the steep mountain road behind the pair of sturdy horses. Oui and non and peut-etre summed up his conversational powers, till I gave up trying and lapsed into silence. Perhaps he had not “passed” me yet, not quite approved me. He was just the sort of faithful, self-contained servant Julius required, no doubt, and, as a conductor into mysterious adventure, a by no means inadequate figure. Name, apparently, he had also none, for Julius, as I learned later, referred to him as simply “he.” But my imagination instantly christened him “The Dog–Man,” and as such the inscrutable fellow lives in my memory to this day. He seemed just one degree above the animal stage.

But while thought was busy with a dozen speculations, the dusk had fallen steadily, and the character of the country, I saw, had changed. It was more rugged and inhospitable, the valleys narrower, the forests very deep, with taller and more solemn trees, and no signs anywhere of the axe. An hour ago we had left the main road and turned up a rough, deep-rutted track that only the feet of oxen seemed to have used. We moved in comparative gloom, though far overhead the heights shone still with the gold of sunset. For a long time we had seen no peasant huts, no sign of habitation, nor passed a single human being. Woodcutters and charcoal-burners apparently had not penetrated here, and the track, I gathered, was used in summer only and led to some lonely farm among the upper pastures. It was very silent ; no wind stirred the sea of branches; no animal life showed itself; and the only moving things beside ourselves were the jays that now and again flew across the path or announced their invisible presence in the woods by raucous screaming.

Although the ceaseless jolting of the cart was severe, the long journey most fatiguing, I was sensible of the deep calm that brooded everywhere. After the bluster of the aggressive Alps, this peaceful Jura stole on the spirit with a subtle charm. Something whispered that I was not alone, but that a friendly touch of welcome pervaded the cool recesses of these wooded hills. The sense of hostile isolation inspired by the snowy peaks, that faint dismay one knows som.etimes at the foot of towering summits, was wholly absent here. I felt myself, not alien to these rolling mountains, but akin. I was known and hospitably admitted, not merely ignored, nor let in at my own grave risk. The spirit of the mountains here was kind.

Yet that I was aware of this at all made m.e realise the presence of another thing as well: It was in myself, not in these velvet valleys. For, while the charm of the scenery acted as a sedative, I realised that something alert in me noted the calming influence and welcomed it.

That did not go to sleep — it resolutely kept awake. A faint instinct of alarm had been stimulated, if ever so slightly, from the moment I left the train and touched the atmosphere of my silent guide, the “Dog–Man.” It was, of course, that he brought his master nearer. Julius and I should presently meet again, shake hands, look into each other’s eyes — I should hear his voice and share again the glamour of his personality. Also there would be — a third.

It was an element, obviously, in a process of readjustment of my being which had begun the moment I received his letter; it had increased while I sat in the Bale hotel and jotted down those early recollections — an ingredient in the new grouping of emotions and sensations constituting myself which received the attack, so to speak, of what came later. My consciousness was slowly changing.

Yet this, I think, was all I felt at the moment: a perfectly natural anticipatory excitement, a stirring wonder, and behind them both a hint of shrinking that was ¥aint uneasiness. It was the thought of the woman that caused the last, the old premonition that something grave involving the three of us would happen. The potent influences of my youth were already at work again.

My entrance into the secluded spot Julius had chosen came unexpectedly; we were suddenly upon it; the effect was almost dramatic. The last farmhouse had been left behind an hour or more, and we had been winding painfully up a steep ascent that led through a tunnel of dark, solemn trees, when the forest abruptly stopped, and a little, cup-like valley lay before me, bounded on three sides by jagged limestone ridges. Open to the sky. like some lonely flower, it lay hidden and remote upon this topmost plateau, difficult of access to the world. I saw cleared meadows of emerald green beneath the peeping stars; a stream ran gurgling past my feet; the surface of a little lake held the shadows of the encircling cliffs; and at the further end, beneath the broken outline of the ridges, lights twinkled in a peasant’s chalet.

The effect was certainly of Fairyland. The stillness and cool air, after the closeness of the heavy forest, seemed to bring the stars much nearer. There was a clean, fresh perfume; the atmosphere crystal clear, the calm profound. I felt a little private world about me, self-contained, and impressive with a quiet dignity of its own. Unknown, unspoilt, serene and exquisite, it lay hidden here for some purpose that vulgar intrusion might not discover. If ever an enchanted valley existed, it was here before my eyes.

“So this is the chosen place — this isolated spot of beauty!” My heart leaped to think that Julius stood already within reach of my voice, possibly of my sight as well. No meeting-place, surely, could have been more suitable.

The cart moved slowly, and the horses, steam rising from their heated bodies against the purple trees, stepped softly upon the meadowland. The sound of hoofs and wheels was left behind, we silently moved up the gentle slope towards the lights. Night stepped with us from the hills; the forest paused and waited at a distance; only the faint creaking of the wheels upon damp grass and the singing of the little stream were audible. The air grew sharp with upland perfumes. We passed the diminutive lake that mirrored the first stars. And a curious feeling reached me from the sky and from the lonely ridges; a nameless emotion caught my heart a moment; some thrill of high, unearthly loveliness, familiar as a dream yet gone again before it could be seized, mirrored itself in the depths of me like those buried stars within the water — when, suddenly, a figure detached itself from the background of trees and cliffs, and towards me over the dew-drenched grass moved — Julius LeVallon.

He came like a figure from the sky, the forest, the distant ridges. The spirit of this marvellous spot came with him. He seemed its incarnation. Whether he first drew me from the cart, or whether I sprang down to meet him, is impossible to say, for in that big moment the thousand threads that bound us together with their separate tensions slipped into a single cable of overwhelming strength. We stood upon the wet meadow, close to one another, hands firmly clasped, eyes gazing into eyes.

“Julius — it’s really you — at last!” I found to say — then his reply in the old, unchanging voice that made me tremble a little as I heard it: “I knew you would come — friend of a million years!” He laughed a little; I laughed too.

“I promised.” It seemed incredible to me that I had ever hesitated.

“Ages ago,” I heard his answer. It was like the singing of the stream that murmured past our feet. “Ages ago.

I was aware that he let go my hand. We were moving through the dripping grass, crossing and recrossing the little stream. The mountains rose dark and strong about us. I heard the cart lumbering away with creaking wheels towards the barn. Across the heavens the stars trailed their golden pattern more and more thickly. I saw them gleaming in the unruffled lake. I smelt the odour of wood-smoke that came from the chalet chimney.

We walked in silence. Those stars, those changeless hills, deep woods and singing rivulet — primitive and eternal things — accompanied us. They were the right witnesses of our meeting. And a night-wind, driving the dusk towards the west, woke in the forest and came out to touch our faces. Splendour and loneliness closed about us, heralding Powers of Nature that were here not yet explained away.

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