Julius LeVallon, by Algernon Blackwood

Chapter vi

“There seems nothing in preexistence incompatible with any of the dogmas which are generally accepted as fundamental to Christianity.” — Prof. M’Taggart.

By my last half-year at Motfield Close, when I was Head of the school, LeVallon had already left, but the summer term preceding his departure is the one most full of delightful recollections for me. He was Head then — which proves that he was sufficiently normal and practical to hold that typically English position, and to win respect in it — and I was “Follow-on Head,” as we called it.

I suppose he was verging on eighteen at the time, for neither of us was destined for a Public School later, and we stayed on longer than the general run of boys. We still shared the room with Goldingham — “Goldie,” who went on to Wellington and Sandhurst, and afterwards lost his life in the Zulu War — and we enjoyed an unusual amount of liberty. The “triumvirate” the masters called us, and I remember that we were proud of topping Hurrish by half an inch, each being over six feet in his socks.

With peculiar pleasure, too, I recall the little class we formed by ourselves in Greek, and the hours spent under Hurrish’s sympathetic and enthusiastic guidance, reading Plato for the first time. Hurrish was an admirable scholar, and myself and Goldie, though unable to match LeVallon’s singular and intuitive mastery of the language, made up for our deficiency by working like slaves. The group was a group of enthusiasts, not of mere plodding schoolboys. But Julius it undoubtedly was who fed the little class with a special subtle fire of his own, and with a spirit of searching interpretative insight that made the delighted Hurrish forget that he was master and Julius pupil. And in the “Sympathetic Studies” the former published later upon Plotinus and some of the earlier Gnostic writings, I certainly traced more than one illuminating passage to its original inspiration in some remark let fall by LeVallon in those intimate talks round Hurrish’s desk at Motfield Close.

But what comes back to me now with a kind of veritable haunting wonder that almost makes me sorry such speculations are no longer possible, were the talks and memories we enjoyed together in our bedroom. For there was a stimulating excitement about these whispered conversations we held by the open window on summer nights — an atmosphere of stars and scented airs and hushed silent spaces beyond the garden — that comes back to me now with an added touch of mystery and beauty both compelling and suggestive. When I think of those bedroom hours I step suddenly out of the London murk and dinginess, out of the tedium of my lecturing and teaching, into a vast picture gallery of vivid loveliness. The scenery of mighty dreams usurps the commonplace realities of the present.

Ten o’clock was the hour for lights out, and by ten-fifteen Goldie, with commendable regularity, was asleep and snoring. We thanked him much for that, as somebody says in “Alice,” and Julius, as soon as the signal of Goldie’s departure became audible, would creep over to my bed, touch me on the shoulder, and give the signal to drag the bolsters from a couple of unused beds and plant ourselves tailor-wise in our dressing-gowns before the window.

“It’s like the old, old days,” he would say, pointing to the sky. “The stars don’t change much, do they?” He indicated the dim terraces of lawn with the tassel of his dressing-gown. “Can’t you imagine it all? I can. There were the long stone steps — don’t you see? — below, running off into the plain. Behind us, all the halls and vestibules, cool and silent, veil after veil hiding the cells for meditation, and over there in the corner the little secret passages down to the crypts below ground where the tests took place. Better put a blanket round you if you’re cold,” he added, noticing that I shivered, though it was excitement and not cold that sent the slight trembling over my body. “And there” — as the church clock sounded the hour across the Kentish woods and fields — “are the very gongs themselves, I swear, the great gongs that swung in the centre of the dome.”

Goldie’s peaceful snoring, and an occasional closing of a door as one master after another retired to his room in the house below, were the only sounds that reminded me of the present. Julius, sitting beside me in the star-light, his eyes a-shine, his pale skin gleaming under the mop of tangled dark hair, whispered words that conjured up not only scenes and memories, but the actual feelings, atmosphere and emotions of days more ancient than any dreams. I smelt the odour of dim, pillared aisles, tasted the freshness of desert air, heard the high rustle of other winds in palm and tamarisk. The Past that never dies swept down upon us from sky and Kentish countryside with the murmur of the night-breeze in the shrubberies below. It enveloped us completely.

“Not the stars we knew together first — not the old outlines we once travelled by,” he whispered, describing in the air with his finger the constellations presumably of other skies. “That was earlier still. Yet the general look is the same. You can feel the old tinglings coming down from some of them.” And he would name the planet that was in ascension at the moment, with invariable correctness I found out afterwards, and describe the particular effect it produced upon his thoughts and imagination, the moods and forces it evoked, the mental qualities it served — in a word, its psychic influence upon the inner personality.

“Look,” he whispered, but so suddenly that it made me start. He pointed to the darkened room behind us. “Can’t you almost see the narrow slit in the roof where the rays came through and fell upon the metal discs swinging in mid-air? Can’t you see the rows of dark-skinned bodies on the ground? Can’t you feel the minute and crowding vibrations of the light on your flesh, as the disc swung round and the stream fell down in a jolly blaze all over you?”

And, though I saw nothing in the room but faintly luminous patches where the beds stood, and the two tin baths upon the floor, a vivid scene rose before my mind’s eye that stirred poignant emotions I was wholly at a loss to explain. The consciousness of some potent magical life stirred in my veins, a vaster horizon, and a larger purpose than anything I had known hitherto in my strict and conventional English life and my quaint worship in a pale-blue tin tabernacle where all was ugly, cramped, and literally idolatrous.

“And the gongs so faintly ringing,” I cried.

Julius turned quickly and thrust his face closer into mine. Then he stood up beside the open window and drew in a deep breath of the June night air.

“Ah, you remember that?” he said, with eyes aglow. “The gongs — the big singing gongs! There you had a bit of clean, deep memory right out of the centre. No wonder you feel excited . . .!”

And he explained to me, though I scarcely recognised the voice or language, so strongly did the savour of shadowy past days inform them, how it was in those old temples when the world was not cut off from the rest of the universe, but claimed some psychical kinship with all the planetary and stellar forces, that each planet was represented by a metal gong so attuned in quality and pitch as to vibrate in sympathy with the message of its particular rays, sound and colour helping and answering one another till the very air trembled and pulsed with the forces the light brought down. No doubt, Julius’s words, vibrating with earnestness, completed my confusion while they intensified my enjoyment, for I remember how carried away I was by this picture of the temples acting as sounding-boards to the sky, and by his description of the healing powers of the light and sound thus captured and concentrated.

The spirit of comedy peeped in here and there between the entr’actes, as it were, for even the peaceful and studious Goldie was also included in these adventures of forgotten days, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.

“By the gods!” Julius exclaimed, springing up, “I’ve an idea! We’ll try it on Goldie, and see what happens!”

“Try what?” I whispered, catching his own excitement.

“Gongs, discs and planet,” was the reply.

X stared at him through the gloom. Then I glanced towards the unconscious victim.

“There’s no harm. We’ll imagine this is one of the old temples, and we’ll do an experiment!” He touched me on the back. Excitement ran through me. Something caught me from the past. I watched him with an emotion that was half amazement, half alarm.

In a moment he had the looking-glass balanced upon the window-ledge at a perilous angle, reflecting the faint starlight upon the head of the sleeping Goldingham. Any minute I feared it would fall with a crash upon the lawn below, or break into smithereens upon the floor. Julius fixed it somehow with a hairbrush and a towel against the sash.

“Get the disc,” he whispered, and after a moment’s reflection I understood what he meant; I emptied one bath as quietly as possible into the other, then dragged it across the carpet to the bedside of the snoring Goldie who was to be “healed.” The ridiculous experiment swept me with such a sense of reality, owing to the intense belief LeVallon injected into it, that I never once felt inclined to laugh. I was only vaguely afraid that Goldingham might somehow suffer.

“It’s Venus,” exclaimed Julius under his breath. “She’s in the ascendant too. That’s the luck of the gods, isn’t it?”

I whispered something in reply, wondering dimly what Goldie might think.

“You bang the bath softly for the sound,” said he, “while I hold it up for you. We may hit the right note — the vibrations that fit in with the rate of the light, I mean — though it’s a bit of a chance, I suppose!”

I obeyed, thinking of masters sleeping down below in the silent building.

“Louder!” exclaimed Julius peremptorily.

I obeyed again, with a dismal result resembling tin cans in orgy. And the same minute the good-natured and studious Goldingham awoke with a start and stretched out a hand for his glasses.

“Feel anything unusual, Goldie?” asked LeVallon at once, tremendously in earnest, as he lowered the tin bath.

“Oh, it’s only you!” exclaimed the victim, awakened out of his first sleep and blinking in the gloom, “and you!” he added, catching sight of me, my fist still upraised to beat; “rotten brutes, both of you! You might let a fellow sleep a bit. You know I’m swotting up for an exam.!”

“But do you feel anything, Goldie?” insisted LeVallon, as though it were a matter of life and death. “It was Venus, you know. . . . ”

“Was it?” spluttered the other, catching sight of the big bath between him and the open window. “Well, Venus is beastly cold. Who opened the window?” The sight of the bath apparently unnerved him. He hardly expected it before seven in the morning.

Further explanations were cut short by the sudden collapse of the mirror with a crash of splintering glass upon the floor. The noise of the bath, that pinged and boomed as I balanced it against the bed, completed the uproar. Then the door opened, and there stood — Martin.

It was an awkward moment. Yet it was not half as real, half as vivid, half as alive with the emotion of actual life, as that other memory so recently vanished. Martin, at first, seemed the dream; that other, the reality.

He entered with a lighted candle. The noise of the opening window and the footsteps had, no doubt, disturbed him for some time. Yet, quickly as he came, Goldie and I were “asleep” even before he had time to cross the threshold. Julius stood alone to face him in the middle of the floor. It was characteristic of the boy. He never shirked.

“What’s the meaning of all this noise?” asked Martin, obviously pleased to find himself in a position of unexpected advantage. “LeVallon, why are you not in bed? And why is the window open?”

Secretly ashamed of myself, I lay under the sheets, wondering what Julius would answer.

“We always sleep with the window open, sir,” he said quietly.

“What was that crash I heard?” asked the master, coming farther into the room, and holding the candle aloft so that it showed every particle of the broken glass. “Who did this?” He glanced suspiciously about him, knowing of course that Julius was not the only culprit.

LeVallon stood there, looking straight at him. Martin — as I think of the incident today — had the appearance of a weasel placed by chance in a position of advantage, yet afraid of its adversary. He winced, yet exulted.

“Do you realise that it’s long after eleven,” he observed frigidly, “and that I shall be obliged to report you to Dr. Randall in the morning. . . . ”

“Yes, sir,” said Julius.

“It’s very serious,” continued Martin, more excitedly, and apparently uncertain how to drive home his advantage, “it’s very distressing — er — to find you, LeVallon, Head of the School, guilty of mischief like a Fourth–Form boy — at this hour of the night too!”

The reference to the lower form was, of course, intended to be crushing. But Julius in his inimitable way turned the tables astonishingly.

“Very good, sir,” he said calmly, “but I was only trying to get the light of Venus, and her sound, into Goldingham’s head — into his system, that is — by reflecting it in the looking-glass; and it fell off the ledge. It’s an experiment of antiquity, as you know, sir. I’m exceedingly sorry. . . . ”

Martin stared. He was a little afraid of LeVallon; the boy’s knowledge of mathematics had compelled his admiration as often as his questions, sometimes before the whole class, had floored him.

“It’s an old experiment,” the boy added, his pale face very grave, “healing, you know, sir, by the rays of the planets — forgotten star-worship — like the light-cures of today ”

Martin’s somewhat bewildered eye wandered to the flat tin bath still propped against Goldingham’s bedside.

“ . . . and using gongs to increase the vibrations,” explained Julius further, noticing the glance. “We were trying to make it do for a gong — the scientists will discover it again before long, sir.”

The master hardly knew whether to laugh or scold. He stood there in his shirt-sleeves looking hard at Le–Vallon who faced him with tumbled hair and shining eyes in his woolly red dressing-gown. Erect, dignified, for all the absurdity of the situation, the flush of his strange enthusiasm emphasising the delicate beauty of his features, I remember feeling that even the stupid Martin must surely understand that there was something rather wonderful about him, and pass himself beneath the spell.

“I was the priest,” he said.

“But I did the gong — I mean, the bath-part, please, sir,” I put in, unable any longer to let Julius bear all the blame.

There was a considerable pause, during which grease dripped audibly upon the floor from the master’s candle, while Goldingham lay blinking in bed in such a way that I dared not look at him for fear of laughter. I have often wondered since what passed through the mind of Tuke Martin, the senior Master of Mathematics, during that pregnant interval.

“Get up, all of you,” he said at length, “and pick up this mess. Otherwise you’ll cut your feet to pieces in the morning. Here, Goldingham, you help too. You’re no more asleep than the others.” He tried to make his tone severe.

“Goldingham only woke when the glass fell off the ledge, sir,” explained LeVallon. “It was all my doing, really ”

“And mine,” I put in belatedly.

Martin watched us gather up the fragments, Goldie, still dazed and troubled, barking his shins against chairs and bedposts, unable to find his blue glasses in the excitement.

“Put the pieces in the bath,” continued Martin shortly, “and ring for William in the morning to clear it away. And pay the matron for a new looking-glass,” he addled, with something of a sneer; “Mason half, and you, Le–Vallon, the other half.”

“Of course, sir,” said Julius.

“And don’t let me hear any further sounds tonight,” said the master finally, closing the window, and going out after another general look of suspicion round the room.

Which was all that we ever heard of the matter! For the Master of Mathematics did not particularly care about reporting the Head of the School to Dr. Randall, and incurring the dislike of the three top boys into the bargain. I got the impression, too, that Tuke Martin was as glad to get out of that room without loss of dignity as we were to see him go. LeVallon, by his very presence even, had a way of making one feel at a disadvantage.

“Anything particular come to you?” he asked Goldie, as soon as we were alone again, and the victim’s temper was restored by finding himself the centre of so much general interest. “I suppose there was hardly time, though ”

“Queer dream’s all I can remember,” he replied gruffly.

“What sort?”

“Nothing much. I seemed to be hunting through a huge lexicon for verbs, but every time I opened the beastly thing it was like opening the lid of a box instead of the cover of a book; and, in place of pages, I saw rows of people lying face downwards, and streaks of light dodging about all over their skins. Rotten nightmare, that’s all!”

Julius and I exchanged glances.

“And then,” continued Goldie, “that bally tin bath banged like thunder and I woke up to see you two rotters by my bed.”

“If there had been more time —— ” Julius observed to me in an aside.

“I’m jolly glad it’s your last term,” Goldingham growled, looking at LeVallon, or LeValion, as he usually called him ; “you’re as mad as a March hare, anyhow!” — which was the sentence I took into dreamland with me.

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