Sand, by Algernon Blackwood

5

She was leaning closer to him, her face suddenly glowing and alive. Through the stone figure coursed the fires of a passion that deepened the coal-black eyes and communicated a hint of light — of exaltation — to her whole person. It was incredibly moving. To this deep passion was due the power he had felt. It was her entire life; she lived for it, she would die for it. Her calmness of manner enhanced its effect. Hence the strength of those first impressions that had stormed him. The woman had belief; however wild and strange, it was sacred to her. The secret of her influence was — conviction.

His attitude shifted several points then. The wonder in him passed over into awe. The things she knew were real. They were not merely imaginative speculations.

“I knew I was not wrong in thinking you in sympathy with this line of thought,” she was saying in lower voice, steady with earnestness, and as though she had read his mind. “You, too, know, though perhaps you hardly realise that you know. It lies so deep in you that you only get vague feelings of it — intimations of memory. Isn’t that the case?”

Henriot gave assent with his eyes; it was the truth.

“What we know instinctively,” she continued, “is simply what we are trying to remember. Knowledge is memory.” She paused a moment watching his face closely. “At least, you are free from that cheap scepticism which labels these old beliefs as superstition.” It was not even a question.

“I— worship real belief — of any kind,” he stammered, for her words and the close proximity of her atmosphere caused a strange upheaval in his heart that he could not account for. He faltered in his speech. “It is the most vital quality in life — rarer than deity.” He was using her own phrases even. “It is creative. It constructs the world anew —”

“And may reconstruct the old.”

She said it, lifting her face above him a little, so that her eyes looked down into his own. It grew big and somehow masculine. It was the face of a priest, spiritual power in it. Where, oh where in the echoing Past had he known this woman’s soul? He saw her in another setting, a forest of columns dim about her, towering above giant aisles. Again he felt the Desert had come close. Into this tent-like hall of the hotel came the sifting of tiny sand. It heaped softly about the very furniture against his feet, blocking the exits of door and window. It shrouded the little present. The wind that brought it stirred a veil that had hung for ages motionless. . . .

She had been saying many things that he had missed while his mind went searching. “There were types of life the Atlantean system knew it might revive — life unmanifested today in any bodily form,” was the sentence he caught with his return to the actual present.

“A type of life?” he whispered, looking about him, as though to see who it was had joined them; “you mean a — soul? Some kind of soul, alien to humanity, or to — to any forms of living thing in the world today?” What she had been saying reached him somehow, it seemed, though he had not heard the words themselves. Still hesitating, he was yet so eager to hear. Already he felt she meant to include him in her purposes, and that in the end he must go willingly. So strong was her persuasion on his mind.

And he felt as if he knew vaguely what was coming. Before she answered his curious question — prompting it indeed — rose in his mind that strange idea of the Group–Soul: the theory that big souls cannot express themselves in a single individual, but need an entire group for their full manifestation.

He listened intently. The reflection that this sudden intimacy was unnatural, he rejected, for many conversations were really gathered into one. Long watching and preparation on both sides had cleared the way for the ripening of acquaintance into confidence — how long he dimly wondered? But if this conception of the Group–Soul was not new, the suggestion Lady Statham developed out of it was both new and startling — and yet always so curiously familiar. Its value for him lay, not in far-fetched evidence that supported it, but in the deep belief which made it a vital asset in an honest inner life.

“An individual,” she said quietly, “one soul expressed completely in a single person, I mean, is exceedingly rare. Not often is a physical instrument found perfect enough to provide it with adequate expression. In the lower ranges of humanity — certainly in animal and insect life — one soul is shared by many. Behind a tribe of savages stands one Savage. A flock of birds is a single Bird, scattered through the consciousness of all. They wheel in mid-air, they migrate, they obey the deep intelligence called instinct — all as one. The life of any one lion is the life of all — the lion group-soul that manifests itself in the entire genus. An ant-heap is a single Ant; through the bees spreads the consciousness of a single Bee.”

Henriot knew what she was working up to. In his eagerness to hasten disclosure he interrupted —

“And there may be types of life that have no corresponding bodily expression at all, then?” he asked as though the question were forced out of him. “They exist as Powers — unmanifested on the earth today?”

“Powers,” she answered, watching him closely with unswerving stare, “that need a group to provide their body — their physical expression — if they came back.”

“Came back!” he repeated below his breath.

But she heard him. “They once had expression. Egypt, Atlantis knew them — spiritual Powers that never visit the world today.”

“Bodies,” he whispered softly, “actual bodies?”

“Their sphere of action, you see, would be their body. And it might be physical outline. So potent a descent of spiritual life would select materials for its body where it could find them. Our conventional notion of a body — what is it? A single outline moving altogether in one direction. For little human souls, or fragments, this is sufficient. But for vaster types of soul an entire host would be required.”

“A church?” he ventured. “Some Body of belief, you surely mean?”

She bowed her head a moment in assent. She was determined he should seize her meaning fully.

“A wave of spiritual awakening — a descent of spiritual life upon a nation,” she answered slowly, “forms itself a church, and the body of true believers are its sphere of action. They are literally its bodily expression. Each individual believer is a corpuscle in that Body. The Power has provided itself with a vehicle of manifestation. Otherwise we could not know it. And the more real the belief of each individual, the more perfect the expression of the spiritual life behind them all. A Group-soul walks the earth. Moreover, a nation naturally devout could attract a type of soul unknown to a nation that denies all faith. Faith brings back the gods. . . . But today belief is dead, and Deity has left the world.”

She talked on and on, developing this main idea that in days of older faiths there were deific types of life upon the earth, evoked by worship and beneficial to humanity. They had long ago withdrawn because the worship which brought them down had died the death. The world had grown pettier. These vast centres of Spiritual Power found no “Body” in which they now could express themselves or manifest. . . . Her thoughts and phrases poured over him like sand. It was always sand he felt — burying the Present and uncovering the Past. . . .

He tried to steady his mind upon familiar objects, but wherever he looked Sand stared him in the face. Outside these trivial walls the Desert lay listening. It lay waiting too. Vance himself had dropped out of recognition. He belonged to the world of things today. But this woman and himself stood thousands of years away, beneath the columns of a Temple in the sands. And the sands were moving. His feet went shifting with them . . . running down vistas of ageless memory that woke terror by their sheer immensity of distance. . . .

Like a muffled voice that called to him through many veils and wrappings, he heard her describe the stupendous Powers that evocation might coax down again among the world of men.

“To what useful end?” he asked at length, amazed at his own temerity, and because he knew instinctively the answer in advance. It rose through these layers of coiling memory in his soul.

“The extension of spiritual knowledge and the widening of life,” she answered. “The link with the ‘unearthly kingdom’ wherein this ancient system went forever searching, would be reestablished. Complete rehabilitation might follow. Portions — little portions of these Powers — expressed themselves naturally once in certain animal types, instinctive life that did not deny or reject them. The worship of sacred animals was the relic of a once gigantic system of evocation — not of monsters,” and she smiled sadly, “but of Powers that were willing and ready to descend when worship summoned them.”

Again, beneath his breath, Henriot heard himself murmur — his own voice startled him as he whispered it: “Actual bodily shape and outline?”

“Material for bodies is everywhere,” she answered, equally low; “dust to which we all return; sand, if you prefer it, fine, fine sand. Life moulds it easily enough, when that life is potent.”

A certain confusion spread slowly through his mind as he heard her. He lit a cigarette and smoked some minutes in silence. Lady Statham and her nephew waited for him to speak. At length, after some inner battling and hesitation, he put the question that he knew they waited for. It was impossible to resist any longer.

“It would be interesting to know the method,” he said, “and to revive, perhaps, by experiment —”

Before he could complete his thought, she took him up:

“There are some who claim to know it,” she said gravely — her eyes a moment masterful. “A clue, thus followed, might lead to the entire reconstruction I spoke of.”

“And the method?” he repeated faintly.

“Evoke the Power by ceremonial evocation — the ritual is obtainable — and note the form it assumes. Then establish it. This shape or outline once secured, could then be made permanent — a mould for its return at will — its natural physical expression here on earth.”

“Idol!” he exclaimed.

“Image,” she replied at once. “Life, before we can know it, must have a body. Our souls, in order to manifest here, need a material vehicle.”

“And — to obtain this form or outline?” he began; “to fix it, rather?”

“Would be required the clever pencil of a fearless looker-on — some one not engaged in the actual evocation. This form, accurately made permanent in solid matter, say in stone, would provide a channel always open. Experiment, properly speaking, might then begin. The cisterns of Power behind would be accessible.”

“An amazing proposition!” Henriot exclaimed. What surprised him was that he felt no desire to laugh, and little even to doubt.

“Yet known to every religion that ever deserved the name,” put in Vance like a voice from a distance. Blackness came somehow with his interruption — a touch of darkness. He spoke eagerly.

To all the talk that followed, and there was much of it, Henriot listened with but half an ear. This one idea stormed through him with an uproar that killed attention. Judgment was held utterly in abeyance. He carried away from it some vague suggestion that this woman had hinted at previous lives she half remembered, and that every year she came to Egypt, haunting the sands and temples in the effort to recover lost clues. And he recalled afterwards that she said, “This all came to me as a child, just as though it was something half remembered.” There was the further suggestion that he himself was not unknown to her; that they, too, had met before. But this, compared to the grave certainty of the rest, was merest fantasy that did not hold his attention. He answered, hardly knowing what he said. His preoccupation with other thoughts deep down was so intense, that he was probably barely polite, uttering empty phrases, with his mind elsewhere. His one desire was to escape and be alone, and it was with genuine relief that he presently excused himself and went upstairs to bed. The halls, he noticed, were empty; an Arab servant waited to put the lights out. He walked up, for the lift had long ceased running.

And the magic of old Egypt stalked beside him. The studies that had fascinated his mind in earlier youth returned with the power that had subdued his mind in boyhood. The cult of Osiris woke in his blood again; Horus and Nephthys stirred in their long-forgotten centres. There revived in him, too long buried, the awful glamour of those liturgal rites and vast body of observances, those spells and formulae of incantation of the oldest known recension that years ago had captured his imagination and belief — the Book of the Dead. Trumpet voices called to his heart again across the desert of some dim past. There were forms of life — impulses from the Creative Power which is the Universe — other than the soul of man. They could be known. A spiritual exaltation, roused by the words and presence of this singular woman, shouted to him as he went.

Then, as he closed his bedroom door, carefully locking it, there stood beside him — Vance. The forgotten figure of Vance came up close — the watching eyes, the simulated interest, the feigned belief, the detective mental attitude, these broke through the grandiose panorama, bringing darkness. Vance, strong personality that hid behind assumed nonentity for some purpose of his own, intruded with sudden violence, demanding an explanation of his presence.

And, with an equal suddenness, explanation offered itself then and there. It came unsought, its horror of certainty utterly unjustified; and it came in this unexpected fashion:

Behind the interest and acquiescence of the man ran — fear: but behind the vivid fear ran another thing that Henriot now perceived was vile. For the first time in his life, Henriot knew it at close quarters, actual, ready to operate. Though familiar enough in daily life to be of common occurrence, Henriot had never realised it as he did now, so close and terrible. In the same way he had never realised that he would die — vanish from the busy world of men and women, forgotten as though he had never existed, an eddy of wind-blown dust. And in the man named Richard Vance this thing was close upon blossom. Henriot could not name it to himself. Even in thought it appalled him.

 

He undressed hurriedly, almost with the child’s idea of finding safety between the sheets. His mind undressed itself as well. The business of the day laid itself automatically aside; the will sank down; desire grew inactive. Henriot was exhausted. But, in that stage towards slumber when thinking stops, and only fugitive pictures pass across the mind in shadowy dance, his brain ceased shouting its mechanical explanations, and his soul unveiled a peering eye. Great limbs of memory, smothered by the activities of the Present, stirred their stiffened lengths through the sands of long ago — sands this woman had begun to excavate from some far-off preexistence they had surely known together. Vagueness and certainty ran hand in hand. Details were unrecoverable, but the emotions in which they were embedded moved.

He turned restlessly in his bed, striving to seize the amazing clues and follow them. But deliberate effort hid them instantly again; they retired instantly into the subconsciousness. With the brain of this body he now occupied they had nothing to do. The brain stored memories of each life only. This ancient script was graven in his soul. Subconsciousness alone could interpret and reveal. And it was his subconscious memory that Lady Statham had been so busily excavating.

Dimly it stirred and moved about the depths within him, never clearly seen, indefinite, felt as a yearning after unrecoverable knowledge. Against the darker background of Vance’s fear and sinister purpose — both of this present life, and recent — he saw the grandeur of this woman’s impossible dream, and knew, beyond argument or reason, that it was true. Judgment and will asleep, he left the impossibility aside, and took the grandeur. The Belief of Lady Statham was not credulity and superstition; it was Memory. Still to this day, over the sands of Egypt, hovered immense spiritual potencies, so vast that they could only know physical expression in a group — in many. Their sphere of bodily manifestation must be a host, each individual unit in that host a corpuscle in the whole.

The wind, rising from the Lybian wastes across the Nile, swept up against the exposed side of the hotel, and made his windows rattle — the old, sad winds of Egypt. Henriot got out of bed to fasten the outside shutters. He stood a moment and watched the moon floating down behind the Sakkara Pyramids. The Pleiades and Orion’s Belt hung brilliantly; the Great Bear was close to the horizon. In the sky above the Desert swung ten thousand stars. No sounds rose from the streets of Helouan. The tide of sand was coming slowly in.

And a flock of enormous thoughts swooped past him from fields of this unbelievable, lost memory. The Desert, pale in the moon, was coextensive with the night, too huge for comfort or understanding, yet charged to the brim with infinite peace. Behind its majesty of silence lay whispers of a vanished language that once could call with power upon mighty spiritual Agencies. Its skirts were folded now, but, slowly across the leagues of sand, they began to stir and rearrange themselves. He grew suddenly aware of this enveloping shroud of sand — as the raw material of bodily expression: Form.

The sand was in his imagination and his mind. Shaking loosely the folds of its gigantic skirts, it rose; it moved a little towards him. He saw the eternal countenance of the Desert watching him — immobile and unchanging behind these shifting veils the winds laid so carefully over it. Egypt, the ancient Egypt, turned in her vast sarcophagus of Desert, wakening from her sleep of ages at the Belief of approaching worshippers.

Only in this insignificant manner could he express a letter of the terrific language that crowded to seek expression through his soul. . . . He closed the shutters and carefully fastened them. He turned to go back to bed, curiously trembling. Then, as he did so, the whole singular delusion caught him with a shock that held him motionless. Up rose the stupendous apparition of the entire Desert and stood behind him on that balcony. Swift as thought, in silence, the Desert stood on end against his very face. It towered across the sky, hiding Orion and the moon; it dipped below the horizons. The whole grey sheet of it rose up before his eyes and stood. Through its unfolding skirts ran ten thousand eddies of swirling sand as the creases of its grave-clothes smoothed themselves out in moonlight. And a bleak, scarred countenance, huge as a planet, gazed down into his own. . . .

Through his dreamless sleep that night two things lay active and awake . . . in the subconscious part that knows no slumber. They were incongruous. One was evil, small and human; the other unearthly and sublime. For the memory of the fear that haunted Vance, and the sinister cause of it, pricked at him all night long. But behind, beyond this common, intelligible emotion, lay the crowding wonder that caught his soul with glory:

The Sand was stirring, the Desert was awake. Ready to mate with them in material form, brooded close the Ka of that colossal Entity that once expressed itself through the myriad life of ancient Egypt.

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Last updated Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 21:27