Julius LeVallon, by Algernon Blackwood

Chapter ii

“‘Body! observes Plotinus, ‘is the true river of Lethe.’ The memory of definite events in former lives can hardly come easily to a consciousness allied with brain. . . . Bearing in mind also that even our ordinary definite memories slowly become indefinite, and that most drop altogether out of notice, we shall attach no importance to the naive question, ‘Why does not Smith remember who he was before?’ It would be an exceedingly strange fact if he did, a new Smith being now in evidence along with a new brain and nerves. Still, it is conceivable that such remembrances occasionally arise. Cerebral process, conscious or subconscious, is psychical.” — “Individual and Reality” (K D. Fawcett).

Looking back upon this entrance, not from the present long interval of twenty years, but from a point much nearer to it, and consequently more sympathetically in touch with my own youth, I must confess that his presence — his arrival, as it seemed — threw a momentary clear light of electric sharpness upon certain “inner scenery” that even at this period of my boyhood was already beginning to fade away into dimness and “mere imagining.” Which brings me to a reluctant confession I feel bound to make. I say “reluctant,” because at the present time I feel intellectually indisposed to regard that scenery as real. Its origin I know not; its reality at the time I alone can vouch for. Many children have similar experiences, I believe; with myself it was exceptionally vivid.

Ever since I could remember, my childhood days were charged with it — haunting and stimulating recollections that were certainly derived from nothing in this life, nor owed their bright reality to anything seen or read or heard. They influenced all my early games, my secret make-believe, my magical free hours after lessons. I dreamed them, played them, lived them, and nothing delighted me so much as to be alone on half-holidays in summer out of doors, or on winter evenings in the empty schoolroom, so that I might reconstruct for myself the gorgeous detail of their remote, elusive splendour. For the presence of others, even of my favourite playmates, ruined their reality with criticising questions, and a doubt as to their genuineness was an intrusion upon their sacredness my youthful heart desired to prevent by — killing it at once. Their nature it would be wearisome to detail, but I may mention that their grandeur was of somewhat mixed authority, and that if sometimes I was a general like Gideon, against whom Amalekites and such like were the merest insects, at others I was a High Priest in some huge, dim-sculptured Temple whose magnificence threw Moses and the Bible tabernacles into insignificance.

Yet it was upon these glories, and upon this sacred inner scenery, that the arrival of Julius LeVallon threw a new daylight of stark intensity. He made them live again. His coming made them awfully real. They had been fading. Going to school was, it seemed, a finishing touch of desolating destruction. I felt obliged to give them up and be a man. Thus ignored, disowned, forgotten of set deliberation, they sank out of sight and were prepared to disappear, when suddenly his arrival drew the entire panorama delightfully into the great light of day again. His presence retouched, recoloured the entire series. He made them true.

It would take too long, besides inviting the risk of unconscious invention, were I to attempt in detail the description of our growing intimacy. Moreover, I believe it is true that the intimacy did not grow at all, but, suddenly, incomprehensibly was. At any rate, I remember with distinctness our first conversation. The hour’s “prep.” was over, and I was in the yard, lonely and disconsolate as a new boy, watching the others playing tip-and-run against the high enclosing wall, when Julius LeVallon came up suddenly behind me, and I turned expectantly at the sound of his almost stealthy step. He came softly. He was smiling. In the falling dusk he looked more shadow-like than ever. He wore the school cap at the back of his head, where it clung to his tumbling hair like some absurd disguise circumstances forced him to adopt for the moment.

And my heart gave a bound of excitement at the sound of his voice. In some strange way the whole thing seemed familiar. I had expected this. It had happened before. And, very swiftly, a fragment of that inner scenery, laid like a theatre-inset against the playground of today, flashed through the depths of me, then vanished.

“What is your name?” he asked me, very gently.

“Mason,” I told him, conscious that I flushed and almost stammered. “John Mason. I’m a new boy.” Then, although my brother, formerly Head of the school, had already gone on to Winchester, I added “Mason secundus.” My outer self felt shy, but another, deeper self realised a sense of satisfaction that was pleasure. I was aware of a desire to seize his hand and utter something of this bigger, happier sensation. The strength of school convention, however, prevented anything of the sort. I was at first embarrassed by the attention of a bigger boy, and showed it.

He looked closely into my face a moment, as though searching for something, but so penetratingly that I felt his eyes actually inside me. The information I had given did not seem to interest him particularly. At the same time I was conscious that his near presence affected me in a curious way, for I lost the feeling that this attention to a new boy was flattering and unusual, and became aware that there was something of great importance he wished to say to me. It was all right and natural. There was something he desired to find out and know: it was not my name. A vague yet profound emotion troubled me.

He spoke then, slowly, earnestly; the voice gentle and restrained, but the expression in the eyes and face so grave, almost so solemn, that it seemed an old and experienced man who addressed me, instead of a boy barely sixteen years of age.

“Have you then . . . quite . . . forgotten . . . everything?” he asked, making dramatic pauses thus between the words.

And, singular in its abruptness though the question was, there flashed upon me even while he uttered it, a sensation, a mood, a memory — I hardly know what to call it — that made the words intelligible. It dawned upon me that I had “forgotten . . . everything . . . quite”: crowded, glorious, ancient things, that somehow or other I ought to have remembered. A faint sense of guiltiness accompanied the experience. I felt disconcerted, half ashamed.

“I’m afraid . . . I have,” came my faltering reply. Though bewildered, I raised my eyes to his. I looked straight at him. “I’m — Mason secundus . . . now. . . . ”

His eyes, I saw, came up, as it were, from their deep searching. They rested quietly upon my own, with a reassuring smile that made them kindly and understanding as those of my own father. He put his hand on my shoulder in a protective fashion that gave me an intense desire to remember all the things he wished me to remember, and thus to prove myself worthy of his interest and attention. The desire in me was ardent, serious. Its fervency, moreover, seemed to produce an effect, for immediately there again rose before my inner vision that flashing scenery I had “imagined” as a child.

Possibly something in my face betrayed the change. His expression, at any rate, altered instantly as though he recognised what was happening.

“You’re Mason secundus now,” he said more quickly. “I know that. But — can you remember nothing of the Other Places? Have you quite forgotten when — we were together?”

He stopped abruptly, repeating the last three words almost beneath his breath. His eyes rested on mine with such pleasure and expectancy in them that for the moment the world I stood in melted out, the playground faded, the shouts of cricket ceased, and I seemed to forget entirely who or where I was. It was as though other times, other feelings, other scenery battled against the actual present, claiming me, sweeping me away, extending the sense of personal identity towards a previous series. Seductive the sensation was beyond belief, yet at the same time disturbing. I wholly ignored the flattery of this kindness from an older boy. A series of vivid pictures, more familiar than the nursery, more distant than a dream of years ago, swam up from some inner region of my being like memories of places, people, adventures I had actually lived and seen. The near presence of Julius LeVallon drew them upwards in a stream above the horizon of some temporarily veiled oblivion.

“ . . . in the Other Places,” his voice continued with a droning sound that was like the sea a long way off, or like wind among the branches of a tree. •

And something in me leaped automatically to acknowledge the truth I suddenly realised.

“Yes, yes!” I cried, no shyness in me any more, and plunged into myself to seize the flying pictures and arrest their sliding, disappearing motion. “I remember, oh, I remember . . . a whole lot of,.. dreams . . . or things like made-up adventures I once had ages and ages ago.,. with . . . ” I hesitated a second. A rising and inexplicable excitement stopped my words. I was shaking all over. “ . . . with you!” I added boldly, or rather the words seemed to add themselves inevitably. “It was with you, sir?”

He nodded his head slightly and smiled. I think the “sir,” sounding so incongruous, caused the smile.

“Yes,” he said in his soft, low voice, “it was with me. Only they were not dreams. They were real. There’s no good denying what’s real; it only prevents your remembering properly.”

The way he said it held conviction as of sunrise, but anyhow denial in myself seemed equally to have disappeared. Deep within me a sense of reality answered willingly to his own.

“And myself?” he went on gently yet eagerly at the same time, his eyes searching my own. “Don’t you remember — me? Have I, too, gone quite beyond recall?”

But with truth my answer came at once:

“Something . . . perhaps . . . comes back to me . . . a little,” I stammered. For while aware of a keen sensation that I talked with someone I knew as well as I knew my own father, nothing at the moment seemed wholly real to me except his sensitive, pale face with the large and beautiful eyes so keenly peering, and the tangled hair escaping under that ridiculous school cap. The pine trees in the cricket-field rose into the fading sky behind him, and I remember being puzzled to determine where his hair stopped and the feathery branches began.

“ . . . carrying the spears up the long stone steps in the sunshine,” his voice murmured on with a sound like running water, “and the old man in the robe of yellow standing at the top . . . and orchards below, all white and pink with blossoms dropping in the wind . . . and miles of plain in blue distances far away, the river winding . . . and birds fishing in the shallow places . . . ”

The picture flashed into my mind. I saw it. I remembered it in detail as easily as any childhood scene of a few years ago, but yet through a blur of summery haze and at the end of a stupendous distance that reduced the scale to lilliputian proportions. I looked down the wrong end of a telescope at it all. The appalling distance — and something else as well I was at a loss to define — frightened me a little.

“I . . . my people, I mean . . . live in Sussex,” I remember saying irrelevantly in my bewilderment, “and my father’s a clergyman.” It was the upper part of me that said it, no doubt anticipating the usual question “What’s your father?” My voice had a lifeless, automatic sound.

“That’s now,” LeVallon interrupted almost impatiently. “It’s thinking of these things that hides the others.”

Then he smiled, leaning against the wall beside me while the sunset flamed upon the clouds above us and the tide of noisy boys broke, tumbling about our feet. I see those hurrying clouds, crimson and gold, that scrimmage of boys in the school playground, and Julius LeVallon gazing into my eyes, his expression rapt and eager — I see it now across the years as plainly as I saw that flash of inner scenery far, far away. I even hear his low voice speaking. The whole, strange mood that rendered the conversation not too incredibly fantastic at the time comes over me again as I think of it.

He went on in that murmuring tone, putting true words to the pictures that rolled clearly through me:

“ . . . and the burning sunlight on the white walls of the building . . . the cool deep shadows where we talked and slept . . . the shouting of the armies in the distance . . . with the glistening of the spears and shining shields . . . ”

Mixed curiously together, kaleidoscopic, running one into the other without sharp outlines of beginning or end, the scenes fled past me like the pages of a coloured picture-book. I saw figures plainly, more plainly than the scenery beyond. The man in the yellow robe looked close into my eyes, so close, indeed, I could almost hear him speak. He vanished, and a woman took his place. Her back was to me. She stood motionless, her hands upraised, and a gesture of passionate entreaty about her plunged me suddenly into a sea of whirling, poignant drama that had terror in it. The blood rushed to my head. My heart beat violently. I knew a moment of icy horror — that she would turn — and I should recognise her face — worse, that she would recognise my own. I experienced actual fear, a shrinking dread of something that was nameless. Escape was impossible, I could neither move nor speak, nor alter any single detail in this picture which — most terrifying of all — I knew contained somewhere too — myself. But she did not turn; I did not see her face. She vanished like the rest . . . and I next saw quick, running figures with skins of reddish brown, circlets of iron about their foreheads and red tassels hanging from their loin cloths. The scene had shifted.

“ . . . when we lit the signal fires upon the hills,” the voice of LeVallon broke in softly, looking over his shoulder lest we be disturbed, “and lay as sentinels all night beside the ashes . . . till the plain showed clearly in the sunrise with the encampments marked over it like stones . . . ”

I saw the blue plain fading into distance, and across it a swiftly-moving cloud of dust that was ominous in character, presaging attack. Again the scene shifted noiselessly as a picture on a screen, and a deserted village slid before me, with small houses built of undressed stone, and roomy paddocks, abandoned to the wild deer from the hills. I smelt the keen, fresh air and the scent of wild flowers. A figure, carrying a small blue stick, passed with tearing rapidity up the empty street.

“ . . . when you were a Runner to the tribe,” the voice stepped curiously in from a world outside it all, “carrying warnings to the House of Messengers . . . and I held the long night-watches upon the passes, signalling with the flaming torches to those below . . . ”

“But so far away, so dim, so awfully small, that I can hardly ”

The world of today broke in upon my voice, and I stopped, not quite aware of what I had been about to say. Martin, the Fourth Form and Mathematical Master, had come up unobserved by either of us, and was eyeing LeVallon and myself somewhat curiously. It was afterwards, of course, that I discovered who the interrupter was. I only knew at the moment that I disliked the look of him, and also that I felt somehow guilty.

“New boy in tow, LeVallon?” he remarked casually, the tone and manner betraying ill-concealed disapproval. The change of key, both in its character and its abruptness, seemed ugly, almost dreadful. It was so trivial.

“Yes, sir. It’s young Mason.” LeVallon answered at once, touching his cap respectfully, but by no means cordially.

“Ah,” said the master dryly. “He’s fortunate to find a friend so soon. Tell him we look to him to follow his brother’s example and become Head of the school one day perhaps.” I got the impression, how I cannot say, that Martin stood in awe of LeVallon, was even a little afraid of him as well. He would gladly have “scored off” him if it were possible. There was a touch of spite in his voice, perhaps.

“We knew one another before, sir,” I heard Julius say quietly, as though his attention to a new boy required explanation — to Martin.

I could hardly believe my ears. This extraordinary boy was indeed in earnest. He had not the smallest intention of saying what was untrue. He said what he actually believed. I saw him touch his cap again in the customary manner, and Martin, the under-master, shrugging his shoulders, passed on without another word. It is difficult to describe the dignity LeVallon put into that trivial gesture of conventional respect, or in what way Martin gained a touch of honour from it that really was no part of his commonplace personality. Yet I can remember perfectly well that this was so, and that I deemed LeVallon more wonderful than ever from that moment for being able to exact deference even from an older man who was a Form Master and a Mathematical Master into the bargain. For LeVallon, it seemed to me, had somehow positively dismissed him.

Yet, to such extent did the pictures in my mind dominate the playground where our bodies stood, that I almost expected to see the master go down the “long stone steps towards the sunny orchard below” — instead of walk up and cuff young Green who was destroying the wall by picking out the mortar from between the bricks. That wall, and the white wall in the dazzling sunshine seemed, as it were, to interpenetrate each other. The break of key caused by the interruption, however, was barely noticeable. The ugliness vanished instantly. Julius was speaking again as though nothing had happened. He had been speaking for some little time before I took in what the words were:

“ . . . with the moonlight gleaming on the bosses of the shields . . . the sleet of flying arrows . . . and the hissing of the javelins . . . ”

The battle-scene accompanying the sentence caught me so vividly, so fiercely even, that I turned eagerly to him, all shyness gone, and let my words pour out impetuously as they would, and as they willynilly had to. For this scene, more than all the others, touched some intimate desire, some sharp and keen ambition that burned in me today. My whole heart was wrapped up in soldiering. I had chosen a soldier’s career instinctively, even before I knew quite the meaning of it.

“Yes, rather!” I cried with enthusiasm, staring so close into his face that I could have counted the tiny hairs on the smooth pale skin, “and that narrow ledge high up inside the dome where the prisoners stood until they dropped on to the spear-heads in the ground beneath, and how some jumped at once, and others stood all day, and — and how there was only just room to balance by pressing the feet sideways against the curving wall . . .?”

It all rushed at me as though I had witnessed the awful scene a week ago. Something inside me shook again with horror at the sight of the writhing figures impaled upon the spears below. I almost felt a sharp and actual pain pierce through my flesh. I over-balanced. It was my turn to fall . . .

A sudden smile broke swiftly over LeVallon’s face, as he held my arm a moment with a strength that almost hurt.

“Ah, you remember that! And little wonder —” he began, then stopped abruptly and released his grip. The cricket ball came bouncing to our feet across the yard, with insistent cries of “Thank you, ball 1 Thank you, LeVallon!” impossible to ignore. He did not finish the sentence, and I know not what shrinking impulse of suffering and pain in me it was that felt relieved he had not done so. Instead, he stooped good-naturedly, picked up the ball, and flung it back to the importunate cricketers; and as he did so I noticed that his action was unlike that of any English boy I had ever seen. He did not throw it as men usually throw a ball, but used a violent yet graceful motion that I vaguely remembered to have seen somewhere before. It perplexed me for a moment — then, suddenly, out of that deeper part of me so strangely now astir, the hint of explanation came. It was the action of a man who flings a spear or javelin.

A bell rang over our heads with discordant clangour, and we were swept across the yard with the rush of boys. The transition was abrupt and even painful — as when one comes into the noisy street from a theatre of music, lights and colour. A strong effort was necessary to recover balance and pull myself together. Until we reached the red-brick porch, however, LeVallon kept beside me, and his hurried last phrases, as we parted, were the most significant of all. It seemed as if he kept them for the end, although no such intention was probably in his thought. They left me quivering through and through as I heard them fall from his lips so quietly.

His face was shining. The words came from his inmost heart:

“Well, anyhow,” he said beneath his breath lest he might be overheard, “I’ve found you, and we’ve found each other — at last. That’s the great thing, isn’t it? No one here understands all that. Now, we can go on together where we left of? before; and, having found you, I expect I shall soon find her as well. For we’re all three together, and — sooner or later — there’s no escaping anything.”

I remember that I staggered. The hand I put out to steady myself scraped along the uneven bricks and broke the skin. A boy with red hair struck me viciously in the back because I had stumbled into him; he shouted at me angrily too, though I heard no word he said. And LeVallon, for his part, just had time to bend his head down with “work hard and get up into my form — we shall have more chances then,” and was gone into the passage and out of sight — leaving me trembling inwardly as though stricken by some sudden strange attack of nerves.

For his words about the woman turned me inexplicably — into ice. My legs gave way beneath me. A cold perspiration broke out upon my skin. No words of any kind came to me; there was no definite thought; clear recollection, absolutely none. The strange emotion itself I could not put a name to, nor could I say what part was played in it by any particular ingredient such as horror, terror, or mere ordinary alarm. All these were in it somewhere, linked darkly to a sense of guilt at length discovered and brought home. I can only say truthfully that I saw again the picture of that woman with her back towards me; but that, when he spoke, she turned and looked at me. She showed her face. I knew a sense of dreadful chill like some murderer who, after years of careful hiding, meets unexpectedly The Law and sees the gallows darkly rise. A hand of justice — of retribution — seemed stretched upon my shoulder from the empty sky.

I now set down my faithful recollection of what happened; and, incredible as it doubtless sounds today, yet it was most distressingly real. Out of what dim, forgotten past his words, this woman’s face, arose to haunt “me” of Today, I had no slightest inkling. What crime of mine, what buried sin, came as with a blare of trumpets, seeking requital, no slightest hint came whispering. Yet this was the impression I instantly received. I was a boy. It terrified and amazed me, but it held no element of make-believe. Julius LeVallon, myself, and an unknown woman stood waiting on the threshold of the breathless centuries to set some stone in its appointed place — a stone, moreover, he, I, and she, together breaking mighty laws, had left upon the ground. It seemed no common wrong to her, to him, to me, and yet we three, working together, alone could find it and replace it.

This, somehow, was the memory his words, that face, struggled to reconstruct.

I saw LeVallon smiling as he left my side. He disappeared in the way already described. The stream of turbulent boys separated us physically, just as, in his belief, the centuries had carried us apart spiritually — he — myself — and this other. I saw a veil drop down upon his face. The lamps in his splendid eyes were shrouded. At supper we sat far apart, and the bedroom I shared with two other youngsters of my own age and form, of course, did not include LeVallon.

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