Julius LeVallon, by Algernon Blackwood

Chapter xvi

“We cannot limit the types, superhuman or subhuman, that may obtain. We can ‘set no bounds to the existence or powers of sentient beings’ — a consideration of the highest importance, as well, perhaps, practical as theoretical. . . . The discovery of Superhumans of an exalted kind may be only a question of time, and the attainment of knowledge on this head one of the most important achievements in the history of races that are to come.” — “The Individual and Reality” (Fawcett).

Something certainly tightened in my throat as we went across that soaking grass towards the building that was half chalet, half farmhouse, with steep, heavy roof and wide veranda. The lights beckoned to us through the little windows. I saw a shadow slip across the casement window on the upper floor. And my question was cut of its own accord before I could prevent it. My mind held in that moment no other thought at all; my pulses quickened.

“So, Julius, you have — found her?”

And he answered as though no interval of years had been; as though still we stood in the dawn upon the steps of the Edinburgh lodging-house. The tone was matter of fact and without emotion:

“She is with me here — my wife — eager to see you at last.”

The words dropped down between us like lightning into the earth, and a sense of chill, so faint I hardly recognised it, passed over me. Emotion followed instantly, yet emotion, again, so vague, so odd, so distant in some curious way, that I found no name for it. A shadow as, perhaps, of disappointment fell on my thoughts. Yet, assuredly, I had expected no different statement. He had said the right and natural thing. He had found the woman of his dream and married her. What lurked, I wondered nervously, behind my lame congratulations? Why was I baffled and ashamed? What made my speech come forth with a slight confusion between the thought and its utterance? For — almost — I had been about to say another thing, and had stopped myself just in time.

“And she — remembers?” I asked quickly — pointblank, and bluntly enough — and felt mortified the same instant by my premature curiosity. Before I could modify my words, or alter them into something less aggressively inquisitive, he turned and faced me, holding my arm to make me look at him. His skin wore the familiar marble pallor as of old; I saw it shine against the dark building where the light from the window caught it.

“Me?” he asked quietly, “or — you?”

“Anything,” I stammered, “anything at all of — of the past, I meant. Forgive me for asking so abruptly; I—”

The words froze on my lips at the expression that came into his face. He merely looked at me and smiled. No more than that, so far as accurate description goes, and yet enough to make my heart stop dead as a stone, then start thumping against my ribs as though a paddle-wheel were loose in me. For it was not Julius in that instant who looked at me. His white skin masked another; behind and through his eyes this other stared straight into my own; and this other was familiar to me, yet unknown. The look disappeared again as instantaneously as it came.

“You shall judge for yourself,” I heard, as he drew me on towards the house.

His tone made further pointed questioning impossible, rousing my curiosity higher than ever before. Again I saw the woman in my imagination; I pictured her as a figure half remembered. As the shadow had slid past the casement of the upper floor, so her outline slipped now across a rising screen of memory not entirely obliterated.

The presentment was even vivid: she would be superb. I saw her of the Greek goddess type, with calm, inscrutable eyes, majestic mien, the suggestion of strange knowledge in her quiet language and uncommon gestures. She would be genuinely distinguished, remarkable in mind as well as in appearance. Already, as we crossed the veranda, the thrill of anticipation caught me. She would be standing in the hall to greet us, or, seated before an open fire of logs, would rise out of the shadows to meet the friend of whom she had doubtless “heard so much,” and with whom such strange things were now to be accomplished. The words Julius next actually uttered, accordingly, reached me with a sense of disappointment that was sharp, and the entire picture collapsed like a house of cards. The reaction touched my sense of comedy almost.

“I think she is still preparing your room,” he said. “I had just taken the water up when I heard your cart. We have little help, or need for help. A girl from the farm in the lower valley brings butter sometimes. We do practically everything ourselves.” I murmured something, courtesy keeping a smile in check; and then he added, “We chose this solitude on purpose, of course — • she chose it, rather — and you are the first visitor since we came here months ago. We were only just ready for you; it was good that you were close — that it was so easy for you to get here.”

“I am looking forward immensely to seeing Mrs. LeVallon,” I replied, but such a queer confusion of times and places had fallen on my mind that my tongue almost said “to seeing her again.”

He smiled. “She will be with us in the morning,” hp added quietly, “if not tonight.”

This simple exchange of commonplaces let down the tension of my emotions pleasantly. He turned towards me as he spoke, and for the first time, beneath the hanging oil lamp, I noted the signature of the intervening years. There was a look of power in eyes and mouth that had not been there previously. I was aware of a new distance between us, and a new respect came with it. Julius had “travelled.” He seemed to look down upon me from a height. But, at the same time, the picture his brief words conveyed had the effect of restoring me to my normal world again. For nothing more banal could have been imagined, and side by side with the chagrin to my sense of the theatrical ran also a distinct relief. It came as a corrective to the loneliness and grandeur of the setting, and checked the suggestion lying behind the hint that they were “only just ready” for my coming.

My emotions sank comfortably to a less inflated level. I murmured something politely as we passed into the so-called “sitting-room” together, and for a moment the atmosphere of my own practical world came in strongly with me. The sense of the incongruous inevitably was touched. The immense fabric of my friend’s beliefs seemed in that instant to tremble a little. That the woman he — we — had been waiting for through centuries, this “old soul” taught of the ancient wisdom and aware of august, forgotten worship, should be “making a bed upstairs” woke in me a sense of healthy amusement. Julius took up the water! She was engaged in menial acts! A girl brought butter from a distant farm! And I could have laughed — but for one other thing that lay behind and within the comedy. For that other thing was — pathos. There was a kind of yearning pain at the heart of it: a pain whose origins were too remote to be discoverable by the normal part of me.

It touched the poetry in me, too. For after the first disturbing eif ect — that it was not adequate — I felt slowly another thing: that this commonplace meeting was far more likely to be true than the dramatic sort I had anticipated. It was natural, it was simple; all big adventures of the soul begin in a quiet way. Obviously, as yet, the two selves in me were not yet comfortably readjusted.

I became aware, too, that Julius was what I can only call somewhere less human than before — more impersonal. He talked, he acted, he even looked as a figure might outside our world. I had no longer insight into his being as before. His life lay elsewhere, expresses it best perhaps. I can hardly present him as a man of flesh and blood. Emotion broke through so rarely.

And our talk that evening together — for Mrs. Le–Vallon put in no appearance — was ordinary, too. Julius, of course, as ever, used phrases that belonged to the world peculiarly his own, but he said nothing startling in the sense I had expected. No dramatic announcement came. He took things for granted in the way he always did, assuming my beliefs and theories were his own, and that my scepticism was merely due to the “mind” in me today. We had some supper together, a bowl of bread and milk the man brought in, and we talked of the intervening years as naturally as might be — but for this phraseology he favoured. When the man said “good night,” Julius smiled kindly at him, and the’ fellow made a gesture of delight as though the attention meant far more to him than money. He reminded me again irresistibly, yet in no sense comically, of a faithful and devoted animal. Julius had patted him! It was delightful. An inarticulateness, as of the animal world, belonged to him. His rare words came out with effort, almost with difficulty. He looked his master straight in the eye, listened to orders with a personal interest mere servants never have, and, without a trace of servility in face or manner, hurried off gladly to fulfil them. The distress in the eyes alone still puzzled me.

“You have a treasure there,” I said. “He seems devoted to you.”

“A young soul,” he said, “in a human body for the first time, still with the innocence and simplicity of the recent animal stage about his awakening self — consciousness. It is unmistakable. . . . ”

“What sleeps in the vegetable, dreams in the animal, wakes in the man,” I said, remembering Leibnitz. “I’m glad we’ve left the earlier stages behind us.” His explanation interested me. “But that expression in his eyes,” I asked, “that look of searching, almost of anxiety?”

Julius replied thoughtfully. “My atmosphere acts upon him as a kind of forcing-house, perhaps. He is dimly aware of knowledge that lies, at present, too far beyond him — and yet he reaches out for it. Instinctive, but not yet intuitional. The privilege brings terror. Opportunities of growth so swift and concentrated involve bewilderment, even pain.”

“Pain?” I queried, interested as of old.

“Development is nothing but a series of little deaths. The soul passes so quickly to new stages.” He looked up searchingly into my face. “We knew that privilege once,” he added significantly; “we, too, knew special teaching.”

And, though at the moment I purposely ignored this reference to our “Temple Days,” I understood that this man’s neighbourhood might, indeed, have an unusual and stimulating effect upon a simple, ignorant type of mind. Even in my own case his presence gave me furiously to think. The “Dog–Man,” the more I observed him, was little more than a faithful creature standing on his hind legs with considerable surprise and enjoyment that he was able to do so — that “little more” being quite possibly self-consciousness. He showed his teeth when I met him at the station, whereas, now that I was accepted by his master, his approval was unlimited. He gave willing service in the form of love.

While Julius continued speaking, as though nothing else existed at the moment, I observed him carefully. My eyes assessed the changes in the outward “expression” of himself. He was thinner, slighter than before; there was an increased balance and assurance in his manner; a poise not present in our earlier days; but to say that he looked older seemed almost a misuse of language. Though the eyes were stronger, steadier, the lines in the skin more deeply cut, the outline of the features chiselled with more decision, these, even in combination, added no signature of age to the general expression of high beauty that was his. The years had not coarsened, but etherealised the face. Two other things, moreover, impressed me: the texture of skin and flesh had refined away, so that the inner light of his enthusiasm shone through; and — there was a marked increase in what I must term the “feel” of his immediate atmosphere or presence. Always electric and alive, it now seemed doubly charged. Against that dark inner screen where the mind visualises pictorially, he rose in terms of radiant strength. Immense potency lay suppressed in him; Powers — spiritual or Nature Powers — were in attendance. He had acquired a momentum that was in some sense both natural and super-human. It was not unlike the sense of power that great natural scenes evoke in those who are receptive — mountains, landscapes, forests. It was elemental. I felt him immense, at the head of an invisible procession, as it were, a procession from the sky, the heights, the woods, the stars.

And a touch of eeriness stole over me. I was aware of strange vitality in this lonely valley; and I was aware of it — through him. I stood, as yet, upon the outer fringe. Its remoteness from the modern world was not a remoteness of space alone, but of — condition.

There was, however, another thing impossible to ignore — that somewhere in this building there moved a figure already for me mysterious and half legendary. Upstairs, not many feet away from us, her step occasionally audible by the creaking of the boards, she moved, breathing, thinking, listening, hearing our voices, almost within touching distance of our hands. There was a hint of the fabulous in it somewhere.

And, realising her near presence, I felt a curious emotion rising through me as from a secret spring. Its character, veiled by interest and natural anticipation, remained without a name. I could not describe it to myself even. Each time the thought of meeting her, that she was close, each time the sound of her soft footfall overhead was audible, this emotion rose in me pleasurably, yet with dread behind it somewhere lurking. I caught it stirring; the stream of it went out to this woman I had never seen with the certain aim of intuitive direction; I surprised it in the act. But always something blocked it, hiding its name away. It escaped analysis. And, never more than instantaneous, passing the very moment it was born, it seemed to me that the opposing force that blocked it thus had to do with the man who was my host and my companion. It emanated from him — this objecting force. Julius checked it; though not with deliberate consciousness — he prevented my discovery of its nature. There was uncommon and mysterious sweetness in it, a sweetness as of long mislaid romance that lifted the heart. Yet it returned each time upon me, blank and unrewarded.

It was noticeable, moreover, that our talk avoided the main object of my presence here. LeVallon talked freely of other things, of the “Dog–Man,” of myself — I gave him a quick sketch of my life in the long interval — of anything and everything but the purpose of my coming. There was, doubtless, awkwardness on my side, since my instinct was not to take my visit heavily, but to regard the fulfilment of my old-time pledge as an adventure, even a fantasy, rather than the serious acceptance of a grave “experiment.” His reluctance, yet, was noticeable. He told me little or nothing of himself by way of exchange.

“Tomorrow, when you are thoroughly rested from your journey,” he met my least approach to the matter that occupied our deepest thoughts; or — “later, when you’ve had a little time to get acclimatised. You must let this place soak into you. Rest and sleep and take things easy; there is no hurry — here.” Until I realised that he wished to establish a natural sympathy between my being and the enchanted valley, to avoid anything in the nature of surprise or shock which might disturb a desired harmony, and that, in fact, the absence of his wife and his silence about himself were both probably intentional. Conditions were to flow in upon me of their own accord and naturally, thus reducing possible hostility to a minimum. Before we rose to go to bed an hour later this had become a conviction in me. It was all thought out beforehand.

We stood a moment on the veranda to taste the keen, sweet air and see the dark mountains blocked against the stars. The sound of running water was all we heard. No lights, of course, showed anywhere. The meadows, beneath thin, frosty mist, lay very still. But the valley somehow rushed at me; it seemed so charged to the brim with stimulating activity and life. Something felt on the move in it. I stood in the presence of a crowd, waiting to combine with energies latent in it. I was aware of the idea of cooperation almost.

“One of the rare places,” he said significantly when I remarked upon it cautiously, “where all is clean and open still. Humanity has been here, but humanity of the helpful kind. We went to infinite trouble to find it.”

It was the first time he had come so near to the actual subject. I was aware he watched me, although his eyes were turned towards the darkness of the encircling forest.

“And — your wife likes it too?” For though I remembered that she had “chosen it,” its loneliness must surely have dismayed an ordinary woman.

Still with his eyes turned out across the valley, he replied, “She chose it. Yes” — he hesitated slightly —

“she likes it, though not always “ He broke off abruptly, still without looking at me, then added, as he came a little nearer, “But we both agree — we know it is the right place for us.” That “us,” I felt certain, included myself as well.

I did not press for explanation at the moment. I touched upon another thing.

“Humanity, you say, has been here! I should have thought some virgin corner of the earth would have suited your — purpose — better?” Then, as he did not answer for a moment, I added: “This is surely an ordinary peasant’s house that you’ve made comfortable?”

He looked at me. A breath of wind went past us. I had the ghostly feeling someone had been listening; and a faint shiver ran across my nerves.

“A peasant’s, yes, but not” — and he smiled — “an ordinary peasant. We found here an old man with his sons; they, or their forbears, had lived in isolation for generations in this valley; they were ‘superstitious’ in the sense of knowing Nature and understanding her. They believed, though in an imperfect and degraded form, what was once a living truth. They sold out to me quite willingly and are now established in the plains below. In this loneliness, away from modem ‘knowledge,’ they loved what surrounded them, and in that sense their love was worship. They felt-with the forests, with streams and mountains, with clouds and sky, with dawn and sunset, with the darkness too.” He looked about him as he said it, and my eyes followed the direction of his own across the night. Again the valley stirred and moved throughout its whole expanse. “They also,” Julius continued in a lower tone, his face closer than before, “felt-with the lightning and the wind.”

I could have sworn some subtle change went through the surrounding darkness as he said the words. Fire and wind sprang at me, so vivid was their entrance into my thought. Again that slight shudder ran tingling up my spine.

“The place,” he continued, “is therefore already prepared to some extent, for the channels that we need are partly open. The veil is here unthickened. We can work with less resistance.”

“There is certainly peace,” I agreed, “and an uplifting sense of beauty.”

“You feel it?” he asked quickly.

“I feel extraordinarily and delightfully alive,” I admitted truthfully.

Whereupon he turned to me with a still more significant rejoinder:

“Because that which worship and consecration-ceremonies ought to accomplish for churches — are meant to accomplish, rather — has never been here undone. All places were holy ground until men closed the channels with their unbelief and thus defiled them by cutting them off from the life about them.”

I heard a window softly closing above us; we turned and went indoors. Julius put the lamps out one by one, taking a candle to show me up the stairs. We went along the wooden passage. We passed several doors, beneath one of which I saw a line of light. My own room was at the further end, simply, almost barely, furnished, with just the actual necessaries. He paused at the threshold, shook my hand, said a short “good night,” and left me, closing the door behind him carefully. I heard his step go softly down the passage. A door in the distance also opened and closed. Then complete silence hushed the entire house about me, yet a silence that was listening and alive. No ancient, turreted castle, with ivied walls and dungeons, with forsaken banqueting-hall or ghostly corridors, could possibly have felt more haunted than this peasant’s chalet in the Jura fastnesses.

For a considerable time I sat at my open window, thinking; and yet not thinking so much, perhaps, as — relaxing. I was aware that my mind had been at high tension the entire day, almost on guard — as though seeking unconsciously to protect itself. Ever since the morning I had been on the alert against quasi-attack, and only now did I throw down my arms and abandon myself without reserve. Something I had been afraid of had shown itself friendly after all. A feeling of security stole over me; I was safe; gigantic powers were round me, oddly close, yet friendly, provided I, too, was friendly. It was a singular feeling of being helpless, yet cared for. The valley took hold of me and all my little human forces. To set myself against it would be somehow dangerous, but to go with it, adopting its over-mastering stride, was safety. This became suddenly clear to me — that I must be sympathetic and that hostility on my part might involve disaster.

Here, apparently, was the first symptom of that power which Julius declared was derived from “feeling-with.” I began to understand another thing as well; I recalled his choice of words — that the veil hereabouts was “unthickened” and the channels “open.” He did not say the veil was thin, the channels cleared. It was in its native, primitive condition.

I sat by the window, letting the valley pour through and over me. It flooded my being with its calm and beauty. The stars were very bright above the ridges; small clouds passed westwards; the water sang and tinkled; the cup-like hollow had its secrets, but it told them. I had never known night so wonderfully articulate. Power brooded here. I felt my blood quicken with the sense of kinship.

And the little room with its unvarnished pine-boards that held a certain forest perfume, was comforting too; the odour of peat fires still clung to the darkened rafters overhead; the candle, in its saucer-like receptacle of wood, gave just the simple, old-fashioned light that was appropriate. Bodily fatigue made bed exceedingly welcome, though it was long before I fell asleep. Figures, at first, stole softly in across the night and peered at me — Julius, pale and rapt, remote from the modern world; the silent “Dog–Man,” with those eyes of questioning wonder and half-disguised distress. And another ghostly figure stole in too, though without a face I could decipher; a woman whom the long, faultless balance of the ages delivered, with the rest of us, into the keeping of this lonely spot for some deep purpose of our climbing souls. Their outlines hovered, mingled with the shadows, and withdrew.

And a certain change in myself, though perhaps not definitely noted at the time, was apparent too — I found in my heart a singular readiness to believe. While sleep crept nearer, and reason dropped a lid, there assuredly was in me, as part of something accepted naturally, the likelihood that LeVallon’s attitude was an aspect of forgotten truth. Veiled in Nature’s operations, perchance directing them, and particularly in spots of loneliness such as this, dwelt those mighty elemental Potencies he held were accessible to humanity. A phrase from some earlier reading floated back to me, as though deliberately supplied — not that Nature “works towards what are called ‘ends,’ but that it was possible or rather probable, that ‘ends’ which implied conscious superhuman activities, are being realised.” The sentence, for some reason, had remained in my memory. When life was simpler, closer to Nature, some such doctrine may have been objectively verifiable, and worship, in the sense that Julius used the word, might well promise to restore the grandeur of forgotten beliefs which should make men as the gods. . . .

With the delightful feeling that in this untainted valley, the woods, the mountains, the very winds and stormy lightnings, were yet but the physical vehicle of powers that expressed intelligence and true being, I passed from dozing into sleep, the cool outside air touching my eyelids with the beauty of the starry Jura night. An older, earlier type of consciousness — though I did not phrase it to myself thus — was asserting itself and taking charge of me. The spell was on my heart.

Yet the human touch came last of all, following me into the complicated paths of slumber, and haunting me as with half-recovered memories of far-off, enchanted days. Uncommon visions met my descending or ascending consciousness, so that while brain and body slept, some deeper part of me went travelling swiftly backwards. I knew the old familiar feeling that the whole of me did not sleep . . . and, though remembering nothing definite, my first thought on awakening was the same as my final thought on falling into slumber: What manner of marvellous woman would she prove to be?

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