Julius LeVallon, by Algernon Blackwood

Chapter ix

There was an interval of a year and a half before we met again. No letters passed between us, and I had no knowledge of where LeVallon was or what he did. Yet while in one sense we had gone apart, in another sense I knew that our relationship suffered no actual break. It seemed inevitable that we should come together again. Our tie was of such a kind that neither could shake the other off. In the meantime my soldier’s career had been abandoned; loss of money in the family decreed a more remunerative destiny; and the interval had been spent learning French and German abroad with a view to a less adventurous profession. At the age of nineteen, or thereabouts, I found myself at Edinburgh University to study for a Bachelor of Science degree, and the first face I saw in Professor Geikie’s lecture room for geology was that of my old school-friend of the “Other Places,” Julius LeVallon.

I stood still and stared, aware of two opposing sensations. For this unexpected meeting came with a kind of warning upon me. I felt pleasure, I felt dread: I cannot determine which came first, only that, mingled with the genuine gratification, there was also the touch of uneasiness, the sinking of the heart I knew so well.

And I remember saying to myself — so odd are the tricks of memory — “Why, he’s as pale as ever! Always that marble skin!” As though during the interval he ought somehow to have acquired more colour. He was tall, over six feet, thin, graceful as an Oriental; an expression of determination in his face had replaced the former dreaminess. The eyes were clear and very strong. There was an expression of great intensity about him. His greeting was characteristic: he showed eager pleasure, but expressed no surprise.

“Old souls like ours are bound to meet again,” he said with a smile, as he shook my hand. “We have so much to do together.”

I recalled the last time I had seen him, waiting on the school platform as the train went out, and I realised that there were changes in him that left me standing still, as it were. Perhaps he caught my thought, for his face took on a touch of sadness; he gazed into my eyes, making room for me beside him on the bench. “But you’ve been dawdling on the way a bit,” he added. “You’ve been after other things, I see.”

It was true enough. I had fallen in love, for one thing, besides devoting myself with the ardour of youth to literature, music, sport, and other normal interests of my age. From his point of view, of course, I had not advanced, whereas he obviously had held steadily to the path he had chosen for himself, following always one main thing — this star in the east of his higher knowledge. His attitude to me, I felt moreover, had undergone a change. The old sympathy and affection had not altered, but a strain of pity had crept in, a regret that I suffered the attractions of the world to interfere with my development.

A delay, as he called it, in our relationship there had certainly been, though the instant we met I realised that something bound us together fundamentally with a power that superficial changes or external separation could never wholly dissolve.

Yet, on the whole, I saw little enough of him during these Edinburgh days, far less certainly than at Motfield Close. I was older, for one thing, more of the world for another. As a boy, of course, the idea that we renewed an eternal friendship, faithful to one another through so many centuries, made a romantic appeal that was considerable. But the glamour had evaporated; I was a man now, I considered, busy with the things of men. At the same time I was aware that these other tendencies were by no means dead in me, and that very little would be required to revive them. Buried by other interests, they were yet ready to assert themselves again.

And LeVallon, for his part, though he saw less of me, and I think cared to see less of me than before, kept deliberately in touch, and of set purpose would not suffer us to go too far apart. We did not live in the same building, but he came often to my rooms, we took great walks together over the Pentland Hills, and once or twice wandered down the coast from Musselburgh to the cliffs of St. Abbs Head above the sea. Why he came to Edinburgh at all, indeed, puzzled me a little; but I am probably not far wrong in saying that two things decided the choice: He wished to keep me in sight, having heard somehow of my destination; and, secondly, certain aspects of Nature that he needed were here easily accessible — the sea, hills, woods, and lonely places that his way of life demanded. Among the lectures he took a curious selection: geology, botany, chemistry, certain from the Medical Course, such as anatomy and materia medica, and, above all, the advanced mental classes. He attended operations, post-mortems, and anything in the nature of an experiment, while the grim Dissecting Room knew him as well as if his living depended upon passing the examination in anatomy.

Of his inner life at this period it was not so easy to form an estimate. He worked incessantly, but at something I never could quite determine. At school he was for ever thinking of this “something”; now he was working at it. It seemed remote from the life of the rest of us, students and others, because its aim was different. Pleasure, as such, and the usual forms of indulgence, he left on one side; and women, though his mysterious personality, his physical beauty, and his cold indifference attracted them, he hardly admitted into his personal life at all; to his intimacy, never. His habits were touched with a singular quality of selflessness, very rare, very exquisite, sincere as it was modest, that set him apart in a kind of divine loneliness, giving to all, yet asking of none. My former feeling that his aims were tinged by something dark and antispiritual no longer held good; it was due to a partial and limited judgment, to ignorance, even to misunderstanding. His aims were undeniably lofty, his life both good and pure. Respect grew with my closer study of him, for his presence brought an uplifting atmosphere of intenser life whose centre of activity lay so high above the aims of common men as to constitute an “other-worldliness” of a very unusual kind indeed.

I observed him now as a spectator, more critically. No dreams or imaginative visions — with one or two remarkable exceptions — came to bewilder judgment. I saw him from outside. If not sufficiently unaffected by his ideas to be quite a normal critic, I was certainly more prosaic, and often sceptical. None the less the other deeper tendency in me was still strong; it easily wakened into life. This deep contradiction existed.

The only outward change I noticed, apart from the greater maturity and decision in the features, was a look of sadness he habitually wore, that altered when he spoke of the things he cared about, into an expression of radiant joy. The thought of his great purpose then lit flames in his eyes, and brought into the whole countenance a certain touch of grandeur. It was not often, evidently, that he found anyone to talk with; and arguing, as such, he never cared about. He knew. He was one of those fortunate beings who never had felt doubt. Perfect assurance he had.

Julius, at that time, occupied a suite of rooms at the end of Princes Street, where Queensferry Road turns towards the Forth. They were, I think, his only extravagance, for the majority of students were content with a couple of rooms, or a modest flat on the Morningside.

This suite he furnished himself, and there was one room in it that no one but himself might enter. It had, I believe, no stick of furniture in it, and required, therefore, no dusting apparently; in any case, neither landlady, friend nor servant ever passed its door.

My curiosity concerning it was naturally considerable, though never satisfied. He needed a place, it seems, where absolute solitude was possible, an atmosphere uncoloured by others. He made frequent use of it, but whether for that process of “feeling — with” already mentioned, or for some kind of secret worship, ceremonial, or what not, is more than I can say. Often enough I have sat waiting for him in the outer room when he was busy within this mysterious sanctum; no sound audible; no movement; a bright light visible beneath the crack of the door; a sense of hush, both deep and solemn, about the entire place. Though it may sound ridiculous to say so, there was a certain air of sanctity that hung like a veil about that inner chamber, the silence and stillness evoked a hint of reverence. I waited with something between awe and apprehension for the handle to turn, aware that behind the apparent stillness something intensely active was going forward, of which faint messages reached my mind outside. Certainly, while sitting with book or newspaper, waiting for his footstep, my thoughts would glow and burn within me, rushing with energy along unaccustomed channels, and I remember the curious feeling that behind those panels of painted deal there lay a space far larger than the mere proportions of a room.

As in the fairy-tale, that door opened into outer space; and I suspect that Julius used the solitude for “communing” with those Nature Powers he seemed always busy with. Once, indeed, when he at length appeared, after keeping me waiting for a longer periods than usual, I was aware of two odd things about him: he brought with him a breath of open air, cool, fresh and scented as by the fragrance of the forest; about him, too, a faintly luminous atmosphere that lent to his face a kind of delicate radiance almost shining. My sight for a moment wavered; the air between us vibrated as he came across the room towards me. There was a strangeness round about him. There was power. And when he spoke, his voice, though low as always, had a peculiar resonance that woke echoes, it seemed, beyond the actual walls.

The impressions vanished as curiously as they came; but their reality was beyond question. And at times like these, I confess, the old haunting splendour of his dream would come afresh upon me as at Motfield Close. My little world of ambition and desire seemed transitory and vain. The magic of his personality stole sweetly, powerfully upon me; I was swept by gusts of passionate yearning to follow where he led. For his purpose was not selfish. The knowledge and powers he sought were for the ultimate service of the world. It was the permanent Self he trained rather than the particular brain and body of one brief and transient “section,” called Today.

These moods with me passed off quickly, and the practical world in which I now lived brought inevitable reaction; I mention them to show that in me two persons existed still: an upper, that took life normally like other people, and a lower, that hid with Julius LeVallon in strange “Other Places.” For in this duality lies the explanation of certain experiences I later shared with him, to be related presently.

Our relations, meanwhile, held intimate and close as of old — up to a certain point. There was this barrier of my indifference and the pity that it bred in him. Though never urging it, he was always hoping that I would abandon all and follow him; but, failing this, he held to me because something in the future made me necessary. Otherwise the gulf between us had certainly not widened.

I see him as he stood before me in those Edinburgh lodgings: young, in the full tide of modern life, with good faculties, health, means, looks, high character, and sane as a policeman! All that men hold dear and the world respects was his. Yet, without a hint of insincerity or charlatanism, he seemed conscious only of what he deemed the long, sweet prizes of the soul, difficult of attainment, and to the majority mere dreams. His was that rare detachment which sees clear to the end, not through avoiding the stress of perilous adventure by the way, but through refusing ‘the conclusion that the adventures were ends in themselves, or could have any other significance than as items in development, justifying all suffering.

Eternal life for him was now. He sought the things that once acquired can never be forgotten, since their fruits are garnered by the Self that persists through all the series of consecutive lives. Through all the bewildering rush and clamour of the amazing world he looked ever to the star burning in the depths of his soul. And for a tithe of his certainty, as of the faith and beauty of living that accompanied it, I sometimes felt tempted to give all that I possessed and follow him. The scale at any rate was grand. The fall of empires, the crash of revolutions, the destiny of nations, all to him were as nothing compared with the advance or retreat of a single individual soul in the pursuit of what he deemed “real knowledge.”

Yet, while acknowledging the seduction of his dream, and even half yielding to it sometimes, ran ever this hidden thread of lurking dread and darkness that, for the life of me, I could never entirely get rid of. It was lodged too deeply in me for memory to discover, or for argument to eject. Ridicule could not reach it, denial made no difference. To ignore it was equally ineffective. Even during the long interval of our separation it was never quite forgotten. Like something on the conscience it smouldered out of sight, but when the time was ripe it would burst into a blaze.

At school I merely “funked” it; I would not hear about it. Now, however, my attitude had changed a little. The sense of responsibility that comes with growing older was involved — rather to my annoyance and dismay. Here was something I must put right, or miss an important object of my being. It was inevitable; the sooner it was faced and done with, the better.

Yet the time, apparently, was not quite yet.


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