Sand, by Algernon Blackwood

8

But it was not until the end of the week, when Vance approached him with purpose in his eyes and manner, that Henriot knew his fears unfounded, and caught himself trembling with sudden anticipation — because the invitation, so desired yet so dreaded, was actually at hand. Firmly determined to keep caution uppermost, yet he went unresistingly to a secluded corner by the palms where they could talk in privacy. For prudence is of the mind, but desire is of the soul, and while his brain of today whispered wariness, voices in his heart of long ago shouted commands that he knew he must obey with joy.

It was evening and the stars were out. Helouan, with her fairy twinkling lights, lay silent against the Desert edge. The sand was at the flood. The period of the Encroaching of the Desert was at hand, and the deeps were all astir with movement. But in the windless air was a great peace. A calm of infinite stillness breathed everywhere. The flow of Time, before it rushed away backwards, stopped somewhere between the dust of stars and Desert. The mystery of sand touched every street with its unutterable softness.

And Vance began without the smallest circumlocution. His voice was low, in keeping with the scene, but the words dropped with a sharp distinctness into the other’s heart like grains of sand that pricked the skin before they smothered him. Caution they smothered instantly; resistance too.

“I have a message for you from my aunt,” he said, as though he brought an invitation to a picnic. Henriot sat in shadow, but his companion’s face was in a patch of light that followed them from the windows of the central hall. There was a shining in the light blue eyes that betrayed the excitement his quiet manner concealed. “We are going — the day after tomorrow — to spend the night in the Desert; she wondered if, perhaps, you would care to join us?”

“For your experiment?” asked Henriot bluntly.

Vance smiled with his lips, holding his eyes steady, though unable to suppress the gleam that flashed in them and was gone so swiftly. There was a hint of shrugging his shoulders.

“It is the Night of Power — in the old Egyptian Calendar, you know,” he answered with assumed lightness almost, “the final moment of Leyel-el-Sud, the period of Black Nights when the Desert was held to encroach with — with various possibilities of a supernatural order. She wishes to revive a certain practice of the old Egyptians. There may be curious results. At any rate, the occasion is a picturesque one — better than this cheap imitation of London life.” And he indicated the lights, the signs of people in the hall dressed for gaieties and dances, the hotel orchestra that played after dinner.

Henriot at the moment answered nothing, so great was the rush of conflicting emotions that came he knew not whence. Vance went calmly on. He spoke with a simple frankness that was meant to be disarming. Henriot never took his eyes off him. The two men stared steadily at one another.

“She wants to know if you will come and help too — in a certain way only: not in the experiment itself precisely, but by watching merely and —” He hesitated an instant, half lowering his eyes.

“Drawing the picture,” Henriot helped him deliberately.

“Drawing what you see, yes,” Vance replied, the voice turned graver in spite of himself. “She wants — she hopes to catch the outlines of anything that happens —”

“Comes.”

“Exactly. Determine the shape of anything that comes. You may remember your conversation of the other night with her. She is very certain of success.”

This was direct enough at any rate. It was as formal as an invitation to a dinner, and as guileless. The thing he thought he wanted lay within his reach. He had merely to say yes. He did say yes; but first he looked about him instinctively, as for guidance. He looked at the stars twinkling high above the distant Libyan Plateau; at the long arms of the Desert, gleaming weirdly white in the moonlight, and reaching towards him down every opening between the houses; at the heavy mass of the Mokattam Hills, guarding the Arabian Wilderness with strange, peaked barriers, their sand-carved ridges dark and still above the Wadi Hof.

These questionings attracted no response. The Desert watched him, but it did not answer. There was only the shrill whistling cry of the lizards, and the sing-song of a white-robed Arab gliding down the sandy street. And through these sounds he heard his own voice answer: “I will come — yes. But how can I help? Tell me what you propose — your plan?”

And the face of Vance, seen plainly in the electric glare, betrayed his satisfaction. The opposing things in the fellow’s mind of darkness fought visibly in his eyes and skin. The sordid motive, planning a dreadful act, leaped to his face, and with it a flash of this other yearning that sought unearthly knowledge, perhaps believed it too. No wonder there was conflict written on his features.

Then all expression vanished again; he leaned forward, lowering his voice.

“You remember our conversation about there being types of life too vast to manifest in a single body, and my aunt’s belief that these were known to certain of the older religious systems of the world?”

“Perfectly.”

“Her experiment, then, is to bring one of these great Powers back — we possess the sympathetic ritual that can rouse some among them to activity — and win it down into the sphere of our minds, our minds heightened, you see, by ceremonial to that stage of clairvoyant vision which can perceive them.”

“And then?” They might have been discussing the building of a house, so naturally followed answer upon question. But the whole body of meaning in the old Egyptian symbolism rushed over him with a force that shook his heart. Memory came so marvellously with it.

“If the Power floods down into our minds with sufficient strength for actual form, to note the outline of such form, and from your drawing model it later in permanent substance. Then we should have means of evoking it at will, for we should have its natural Body — the form it built itself, its signature, image, pattern. A starting-point, you see, for more — leading, she hopes, to a complete reconstruction.”

“It might take actual shape — assume a bodily form visible to the eye?” repeated Henriot, amazed as before that doubt and laughter did not break through his mind.

“We are on the earth,” was the reply, spoken unnecessarily low since no living thing was within earshot, “we are in physical conditions, are we not? Even a human soul we do not recognise unless we see it in a body — parents provide the outline, the signature, the sigil of the returning soul. This,” and he tapped himself upon the breast, “is the physical signature of that type of life we call a soul. Unless there is life of a certain strength behind it, no body forms. And, without a body, we are helpless to control or manage it — deal with it in any way. We could not know it, though being possibly aware of it.”

“To be aware, you mean, is not sufficient?” For he noticed the italics Vance made use of.

“Too vague, of no value for future use,” was the reply. “But once obtain the form, and we have the natural symbol of that particular Power. And a symbol is more than image, it is a direct and concentrated expression of the life it typifies — possibly terrific.”

“It may be a body, then, this symbol you speak of.”

“Accurate vehicle of manifestation; but ‘body’ seems the simplest word.”

Vance answered very slowly and deliberately, as though weighing how much he would tell. His language was admirably evasive. Few perhaps would have detected the profound significance the curious words he next used unquestionably concealed. Henriot’s mind rejected them, but his heart accepted. For the ancient soul in him was listening and aware.

“Life, using matter to express itself in bodily shape, first traces a geometrical pattern. From the lowest form in crystals, upwards to more complicated patterns in the higher organisations — there is always first this geometrical pattern as skeleton. For geometry lies at the root of all possible phenomena; and is the mind’s interpretation of a living movement towards shape that shall express it.” He brought his eyes closer to the other, lowering his voice again. “Hence,” he said softly, “the signs in all the old magical systems — skeleton forms into which the Powers evoked descended; outlines those Powers automatically built up when using matter to express themselves. Such signs are material symbols of their bodiless existence. They attract the life they represent and interpret. Obtain the correct, true symbol, and the Power corresponding to it can approach — once roused and made aware. It has, you see, a ready-made mould into which it can come down.”

“Once roused and made aware?” repeated Henriot questioningly, while this man went stammering the letters of a language that he himself had used too long ago to recapture fully.

“Because they have left the world. They sleep, unmanifested. Their forms are no longer known to men. No forms exist on earth today that could contain them. But they may be awakened,” he added darkly. “They are bound to answer to the summons, if such summons be accurately made.”

“Evocation?” whispered Henriot, more distressed than he cared to admit.

Vance nodded. Leaning still closer, to his companion’s face, he thrust his lips forward, speaking eagerly, earnestly, yet somehow at the same time, horribly: “And we want — my aunt would ask — your draughtsman’s skill, or at any rate your memory afterwards, to establish the outline of anything that comes.”

He waited for the answer, still keeping his face uncomfortably close.

Henriot drew back a little. But his mind was fully made up now. He had known from the beginning that he would consent, for the desire in him was stronger than all the caution in the world. The Past inexorably drew him into the circle of these other lives, and the little human dread Vance woke in him seemed just then insignificant by comparison. It was merely of To-day.

“You two,” he said, trying to bring judgment into it, “engaged in evocation, will be in a state of clairvoyant vision. Granted. But shall I, as an outsider, observing with unexcited mind, see anything, know anything, be aware of anything at all, let alone the drawing of it?”

“Unless,” the reply came instantly with decision, “the descent of Power is strong enough to take actual material shape, the experiment is a failure. Anybody can induce subjective vision. Such fantasies have no value though. They are born of an overwrought imagination.” And then he added quickly, as though to clinch the matter before caution and hesitation could take effect: “You must watch from the heights above. We shall be in the valley — the Wadi Hof is the place. You must not be too close —”

“Why not too close?” asked Henriot, springing forward like a flash before he could prevent the sudden impulse.

With a quickness equal to his own, Vance answered. There was no faintest sign that he was surprised. His self-control was perfect. Only the glare passed darkly through his eyes and went back again into the sombre soul that bore it.

“For your own safety,” he answered low. “The Power, the type of life, she would waken is stupendous. And if roused enough to be attracted by the patterned symbol into which she would decoy it down, it will take actual, physical expression. But how? Where is the Body of Worshippers through whom it can manifest? There is none. It will, therefore, press inanimate matter into the service. The terrific impulse to form itself a means of expression will force all loose matter at hand towards it — sand, stones, all it can compel to yield — everything must rush into the sphere of action in which it operates. Alone, we at the centre, and you, upon the outer fringe, will be safe. Only — you must not come too close.”

But Henriot was no longer listening. His soul had turned to ice. For here, in this unguarded moment, the cloven hoof had plainly shown itself. In that suggestion of a particular kind of danger Vance had lifted a corner of the curtain behind which crouched his horrible intention. Vance desired a witness of the extraordinary experiment, but he desired this witness, not merely for the purpose of sketching possible shapes that might present themselves to excited vision. He desired a witness for another reason too. Why had Vance put that idea into his mind, this idea of so peculiar danger? It might well have lost him the very assistance he seemed so anxious to obtain.

Henriot could not fathom it quite. Only one thing was clear to him. He, Henriot, was not the only one in danger.

They talked for long after that — far into the night. The lights went out, and the armed patrol, pacing to and fro outside the iron railings that kept the desert back, eyed them curiously. But the only other thing he gathered of importance was the ledge upon the cliff-top where he was to stand and watch; that he was expected to reach there before sunset and wait till the moon concealed all glimmer in the western sky, and — that the woman, who had been engaged for days in secret preparation of soul and body for the awful rite, would not be visible again until he saw her in the depths of the black valley far below, busy with this man upon audacious, ancient purposes.

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