Sand, by Algernon Blackwood

6

Next day, and for several days following, Henriot kept out of the path of Lady Statham and her nephew. The acquaintanceship had grown too rapidly to be quite comfortable. It was easy to pretend that he took people at their face value, but it was a pose; one liked to know something of antecedents. It was otherwise difficult to “place” them. And Henriot, for the life of him, could not “place” these two. His Subconsciousness brought explanation when it came — but the Subconsciousness is only temporarily active. When it retired he floundered without a rudder, in confusion.

With the flood of morning sunshine the value of much she had said evaporated. Her presence alone had supplied the key to the cipher. But while the indigestible portions he rejected, there remained a good deal he had already assimilated. The discomfort remained; and with it the grave, unholy reality of it all. It was something more than theory. Results would follow — if he joined them. He would witness curious things.

The force with which it drew him brought hesitation. It operated in him like a shock that numbs at first by its abrupt arrival, and needs time to realise in the right proportions to the rest of life. These right proportions, however, did not come readily, and his emotions ranged between sceptical laughter and complete acceptance. The one detail he felt certain of was this dreadful thing he had divined in Vance. Trying hard to disbelieve it, he found he could not. It was true. Though without a shred of real evidence to support it, the horror of it remained. He knew it in his very bones.

And this, perhaps, was what drove him to seek the comforting companionship of folk he understood and felt at home with. He told his host and hostess about the strangers, though omitting the actual conversation because they would merely smile in blank miscomprehension. But the moment he described the strong black eyes beneath the level eyelids, his hostess turned with a start, her interest deeply roused: “Why, it’s that awful Statham woman,” she exclaimed, “that must be Lady Statham, and the man she calls her nephew.”

“Sounds like it, certainly,” her husband added. “Felix, you’d better clear out. They’ll bewitch you too.”

And Henriot bridled, yet wondering why he did so. He drew into his shell a little, giving the merest sketch of what had happened. But he listened closely while these two practical old friends supplied him with information in the gossiping way that human nature loves. No doubt there was much embroidery, and more perversion, exaggeration too, but the account evidently rested upon some basis of solid foundation for all that. Smoke and fire go together always.

“He is her nephew right enough,” Mansfield corrected his wife, before proceeding to his own man’s form of elaboration; “no question about that, I believe. He’s her favourite nephew, and she’s as rich as a pig. He follows her out here every year, waiting for her empty shoes. But they are an unsavoury couple. I’ve met ’em in various parts, all over Egypt, but they always come back to Helouan in the end. And the stories about them are simply legion. You remember —” he turned hesitatingly to his wife —“some people, I heard,” he changed his sentence, “were made quite ill by her.”

“I’m sure Felix ought to know, yes,” his wife boldly took him up, “my niece, Fanny, had the most extraordinary experience.” She turned to Henriot. “Her room was next to Lady Statham in some hotel or other at Assouan or Edfu, and one night she woke and heard a kind of mysterious chanting or intoning next her. Hotel doors are so dreadfully thin. There was a funny smell too, like incense of something sickly, and a man’s voice kept chiming in. It went on for hours, while she lay terrified in bed —”

“Frightened, you say?” asked Henriot.

“Out of her skin, yes; she said it was so uncanny — made her feel icy. She wanted to ring the bell, but was afraid to leave her bed. The room was full of — of things, yet she could see nothing. She felt them, you see. And after a bit the sound of this sing-song voice so got on her nerves, it half dazed her — a kind of enchantment — she felt choked and suffocated. And then —” It was her turn to hesitate.

“Tell it all,” her husband said, quite gravely too.

“Well — something came in. At least, she describes it oddly, rather; she said it made the door bulge inwards from the next room, but not the door alone; the walls bulged or swayed as if a huge thing pressed against them from the other side. And at the same moment her windows — she had two big balconies, and the venetian shutters were fastened — both her windows darkened— though it was two in the morning and pitch dark outside. She said it was all one thing — trying to get in; just as water, you see, would rush in through every hole and opening it could find, and all at once. And in spite of her terror — that’s the odd part of it — she says she felt a kind of splendour in her — a sort of elation.”

“She saw nothing?”

“She says she doesn’t remember. Her senses left her, I believe — though she won’t admit it.”

“Fainted for a minute, probably,” said Mansfield.

“So there it is,” his wife concluded, after a silence. “And that’s true. It happened to my niece, didn’t it, John?”

Stories and legendary accounts of strange things that the presence of these two brought poured out then. They were obviously somewhat mixed, one account borrowing picturesque details from another, and all in disproportion, as when people tell stories in a language they are little familiar with. But, listening with avidity, yet also with uneasiness, somehow, Henriot put two and two together. Truth stood behind them somewhere. These two held traffic with the powers that ancient Egypt knew.

“Tell Felix, dear, about the time you met the nephew — horrid creature — in the Valley of the Kings,” he heard his wife say presently. And Mansfield told it plainly enough, evidently glad to get it done, though.

“It was some years ago now, and I didn’t know who he was then, or anything about him. I don’t know much more now — except that he’s a dangerous sort of charlatan-devil, I think. But I came across him one night up there by Thebes in the Valley of the Kings — you know, where they buried all their Johnnies with so much magnificence and processions and masses, and all the rest. It’s the most astounding, the most haunted place you ever saw, gloomy, silent, full of gorgeous lights and shadows that seem alive — terribly impressive; it makes you creep and shudder. You feel old Egypt watching you.”

“Get on, dear,” said his wife.

“Well, I was coming home late on a blasted lazy donkey, dog-tired into the bargain, when my donkey boy suddenly ran for his life and left me alone. It was after sunset. The sand was red and shining, and the big cliffs sort of fiery. And my donkey stuck its four feet in the ground and wouldn’t budge. Then, about fifty yards away, I saw a fellow — European apparently — doing something — Heaven knows what, for I can’t describe it — among the boulders that lie all over the ground there. Ceremony, I suppose you’d call it. I was so interested that at first I watched. Then I saw he wasn’t alone. There were a lot of moving things round him, towering big things, that came and went like shadows. That twilight is fearfully bewildering; perspective changes, and distance gets all confused. It’s fearfully hard to see properly. I only remember that I got off my donkey and went up closer, and when I was within a dozen yards of him — well, it sounds such rot, you know, but I swear the things suddenly rushed off and left him there alone. They went with a roaring noise like wind; shadowy but tremendously big, they were, and they vanished up against the fiery precipices as though they slipped bang into the stone itself. The only thing I can think of to describe ’em is — well, those sand-storms the Khamasin raises — the hot winds, you know.”

“They probably were sand,” his wife suggested, burning to tell another story of her own.

“Possibly, only there wasn’t a breath of wind, and it was hot as blazes — and — I had such extraordinary sensations — never felt anything like it before — wild and exhilarated — drunk, I tell you, drunk.”

“You saw them?” asked Henriot. “You made out their shape at all, or outline?”

“Sphinx,” he replied at once, “for all the world like sphinxes. You know the kind of face and head these limestone strata in the Desert take — great visages with square Egyptian head-dresses where the driven sand has eaten away the softer stuff beneath? You see it everywhere — enormous idols they seem, with faces and eyes and lips awfully like the sphinx — well, that’s the nearest I can get to it.” He puffed his pipe hard. But there was no sign of levity in him. He told the actual truth as far as in him lay, yet half ashamed of what he told. And a good deal he left out, too.

“She’s got a face of the same sort, that Statham horror,” his wife said with a shiver. “Reduce the size, and paint in awful black eyes, and you’ve got her exactly — a living idol.” And all three laughed, yet a laughter without merriment in it.

“And you spoke to the man?”

“I did,” the Englishman answered, “though I confess I’m a bit ashamed of the way I spoke. Fact is, I was excited, thunderingly excited, and felt a kind of anger. I wanted to kick the beggar for practising such bally rubbish, and in such a place too. Yet all the time — well, well, I believe it was sheer funk now,” he laughed; “for I felt uncommonly queer out there in the dusk, alone with — with that kind of business; and I was angry with myself for feeling it. Anyhow, I went up — I’d lost my donkey boy as well, remember — and slated him like a dog. I can’t remember what I said exactly — only that he stood and stared at me in silence. That made it worse — seemed twice as real then. The beggar said no single word the whole time. He signed to me with one hand to clear out. And then, suddenly out of nothing — she — that woman — appeared and stood beside him. I never saw her come. She must have been behind some boulder or other, for she simply rose out of the ground. She stood there and stared at me too — bang in the face. She was turned towards the sunset — what was left of it in the west — and her black eyes shone like — ugh! I can’t describe it — it was shocking.”

“She spoke?”

“She said five words — and her voice — it’ll make you laugh — it was metallic like a gong: ‘You are in danger here.’ That’s all she said. I simply turned and cleared out as fast as ever I could. But I had to go on foot. My donkey had followed its boy long before. I tell you — smile as you may — my blood was all curdled for an hour afterwards.”

Then he explained that he felt some kind of explanation or apology was due, since the couple lodged in his own hotel, and how he approached the man in the smoking-room after dinner. A conversation resulted — the man was quite intelligent after all — of which only one sentence had remained in his mind.

“Perhaps you can explain it, Felix. I wrote it down, as well as I could remember. The rest confused me beyond words or memory; though I must confess it did not seem — well, not utter rot exactly. It was about astrology and rituals and the worship of the old Egyptians, and I don’t know what else besides. Only, he made it intelligible and almost sensible, if only I could have got the hang of the thing enough to remember it. You know,” he added, as though believing in spite of himself, “there is a lot of that wonderful old Egyptian religious business still hanging about in the atmosphere of this place, say what you like.”

“But this sentence?” Henriot asked. And the other went off to get a note-book where he had written it down.

“He was jawing, you see,” he continued when he came back, Henriot and his wife having kept silence meanwhile, “about direction being of importance in religious ceremonies, West and North symbolising certain powers, or something of the kind, why people turn to the East and all that sort of thing, and speaking of the whole Universe as if it had living forces tucked away in it that expressed themselves somehow when roused up. That’s how I remember it anyhow. And then he said this thing — in answer to some fool question probably that I put.” And he read out of the note-book:

“‘You were in danger because you came through the Gateway of the West, and the Powers from the Gateway of the East were at that moment rising, and therefore in direct opposition to you.’”

Then came the following, apparently a simile offered by way of explanation. Mansfield read it in a shamefaced tone, evidently prepared for laughter:

“‘Whether I strike you on the back or in the face determines what kind of answering force I rouse in you. Direction is significant.’ And he said it was the period called the Night of Power — time when the Desert encroaches and spirits are close.”

And tossing the book aside, he lit his pipe again and waited a moment to hear what might be said. “Can you explain such gibberish?” he asked at length, as neither of his listeners spoke. But Henriot said he couldn’t. And the wife then took up her own tale of stories that had grown about this singular couple.

These were less detailed, and therefore less impressive, but all contributed something towards the atmosphere of reality that framed the entire picture. They belonged to the type one hears at every dinner party in Egypt — stories of the vengeance mummies seem to take on those who robbed them, desecrating their peace of centuries; of a woman wearing a necklace of scarabs taken from a princess’s tomb, who felt hands about her throat to strangle her; of little Ka figures, Pasht goddesses, amulets and the rest, that brought curious disaster to those who kept them. They are many and various, astonishingly circumstantial often, and vouched for by persons the reverse of credulous. The modern superstition that haunts the desert gullies with Afreets has nothing in common with them. They rest upon a basis of indubitable experience; and they remain — inexplicable. And about the personalities of Lady Statham and her nephew they crowded like flies attracted by a dish of fruit. The Arabs, too, were afraid of her. She had difficulty in getting guides and dragomen.

“My dear chap,” concluded Mansfield, “take my advice and have nothing to do with ’em. There is a lot of queer business knocking about in this old country, and people like that know ways of reviving it somehow. It’s upset you already; you looked scared, I thought, the moment you came in.” They laughed, but the Englishman was in earnest. “I tell you what,” he added, “we’ll go off for a bit of shooting together. The fields along the Delta are packed with birds now: they’re home early this year on their way to the North. What d’ye say, eh?”

But Henriot did not care about the quail shooting. He felt more inclined to be alone and think things out by himself. He had come to his friends for comfort, and instead they had made him uneasy and excited. His interest had suddenly doubled. Though half afraid, he longed to know what these two were up to — to follow the adventure to the bitter end. He disregarded the warning of his host as well as the premonition in his own heart. The sand had caught his feet.

There were moments when he laughed in utter disbelief, but these were optimistic moods that did not last. He always returned to the feeling that truth lurked somewhere in the whole strange business, and that if he joined forces with them, as they seemed to wish, he would witness — well, he hardly knew what — but it enticed him as danger does the reckless man, or death the suicide. The sand had caught his mind.

He decided to offer himself to all they wanted — his pencil too. He would see — a shiver ran through him at the thought — what they saw, and know some eddy of that vanished tide of power and splendour the ancient Egyptian priesthood knew, and that perhaps was even common experience in the far-off days of dim Atlantis. The sand had caught his imagination too. He was utterly sand-haunted.

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