First published in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1911.
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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
‘Est impossibile? Certum est.’
Leithen told me this story one evening in early September as we sat beside the pony track which gropes its way from Glenavelin up the Correi na Sidhe. I had arrived that afternoon from the south, while he had been taking an off-day from a week’s stalking, so we had walked up the glen together after tea to get the news of the forest. A rifle was out on the Correi na Sidhe beat, and a thin spire of smoke had risen from the top of Sgurr Dearg to show that a stag had been killed at the burn-head. The lumpish hill pony with its deer-saddle had gone up the Correi in a gillie’s charge, while we followed at leisure, picking our way among the loose granite rocks and the patches of wet bogland. The track climbed high on one of the ridges of Sgurr Dearg, till it hung over a caldron of green glen with the Alt-na-Sidhe churning in its linn a thousand feet below. It was a breathless evening, I remember, with a pale-blue sky just clearing from the haze of the day. West-wind weather may make the North, even in September, no bad imitation of the Tropics, and I sincerely pitied the man who all these stifling hours had been toiling on the screes of Sgurr Dearg. By-and-by we sat down on a bank of heather, and idly watched the trough swimming at our feet. The clatter of the pony’s hoofs grew fainter, the drone of bees had gone, even the midges seemed to have forgotten their calling. No place on earth can be so deathly still as a deer forest early in the season before the stags have begun roaring, for there are no sheep with their homely noises, and only the rare croak of a raven breaks the silence. The hillside was far from sheer — one could have walked down with a little care — but something in the shape of the hollow and the remote gleam of white water gave it an air of extraordinary depth and space. There was a shimmer left from the day’s heat, which invested bracken and rock and scree with a curious airy unreality. One could almost have believed that the eye had tricked the mind, that all was mirage, that five yards from the path the solid earth fell away into nothingness. I have a bad head, and instinctively I drew further back into the heather. Leithen’s eyes were looking vacantly before him.
Did you ever know Hollond?’ he asked.
Then he laughed shortly. ‘I don’t know why I asked that, but somehow this place reminded me of Hollond. That glimmering hollow looks as if it were the beginning of eternity. It must be eerie to live with the feeling always on one.’
Leithen seemed disinclined for further exercise. He lit a pipe and smoked quietly for a little. ‘Odd that you didn’t know Hollond. You must have heard his name. I thought you amused yourself with metaphysics.’
Then I remembered. There had been an erratic genius who had written some articles in Mind on that dreary subject, the mathematical conception of infinity. Men had praised them to me, but I confess I never quite understood their argument. ‘Wasn’t he some sort of mathematical professor?’ I asked.
‘He was, and, in his own way, a tremendous swell. He wrote a book on Number which has translations in every European language. He is dead now, and the Royal Society founded a medal in his honour. But I wasn’t thinking of that side of him.’
It was the time and place for a story, for the pony would not be back for an hour. So I asked Leithen about the other side of Hollond which was recalled to him by Correi na Sidhe. He seemed a little unwilling to speak . . .
‘I wonder if you will understand it. You ought to, of course, better than me, for you know something of philosophy. But it took me a long time to get the hang of it, and I can’t give you any kind of explanation. He was my fag at Eton, and when I began to get at the Bar I was able to advise him on one or two private matters, so that he rather fancied my legal ability. He came to me with his story because he had to tell someone, and he wouldn’t trust a colleague. He said he didn’t want a scientist to know, for scientists were either pledged to their own theories and wouldn’t understand, or, if they understood, would get ahead of him in his researches. He wanted a lawyer, he said, who was accustomed to weighing evidence. That was good sense, for evidence must always be judged by the same laws, and I suppose in the long-run the most abstruse business comes down to a fairly simple deduction from certain data. Anyhow, that was the way he used to talk, and I listened to him, for I liked the man, and had an enormous respect for his brains. At Eton he sluiced down all the mathematics they could give him, and he was an astonishing swell at Cambridge. He was a simple fellow, too, and talked no more jargon than he could help. I used to climb with him in the Alps now and then, and you would never have guessed that he had any thoughts beyond getting up steep rocks.
‘It was at Chamonix, I remember, that I first got a hint of the matter that was filling his mind. We had been taking an off-day, and were sitting in the hotel garden, watching the Aiguilles getting purple in the twilight. Chamonix always makes me choke a little — it is so crushed in by those great snow masses. I said something about it — said I liked open spaces like the Gornergrat or the Bel Alp better. He asked me why: if it was the difference of the air, or merely the wider horizon? I said it was the sense of not being crowded, of living in an empty world. He repeated the word “empty” and laughed.
‘“By ‘empty’ you mean,” he said, “where things don’t knock up against you?”’
‘I told him No. I meant just empty, void, nothing but blank aether.
“You don’t knock up against things here, and the air is as good as you want. It can’t be the lack of ordinary emptiness you feel.”
‘I agreed that the word needed explaining. “I suppose it is mental restlessness,” I said. “I like to feel that for a tremendous distance there is nothing round me. Why, I don’t know. Some men are built the other way and have a terror of space.”
‘He said that that was better. “It is a personal fancy, and depends on your knowing that there is nothing between you and the top of the Dent Blanche. And you know because your eyes tell you there is nothing. Even if you were blind, you might have a sort of sense about adjacent matter. Blind men often have it. But in any case, whether got from instinct or sight, the knowledge is what matters.”
‘Hollond was embarking on a Socratic dialogue in which I could see little point. I told him so, and he laughed.
“I am not sure that I am very clear myself. But yes — there is a point. Supposing you knew — not by sight or by instinct, but by sheer intellectual knowledge, as I know the truth of a mathematical proposition — that what we call empty space was full, crammed. Not with lumps of what we call matter like hills and houses, but with things as real — as real to the mind. Would you still feel crowded?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t think so. It is only what we call matter that signifies. It would be just as well not to feel crowded by the other thing, for there would be no escape from it. But what are you getting at? Do you mean molecules or electric currents or what?”
‘He said he wasn’t thinking about that sort of thing, and began to talk of another subject.
‘Next night, when we were pigging it at the Géant cabane, he started again on the same tack. He asked me how I accounted for the fact that animals could find their way back over great tracts of unknown country. I said I supposed it was the homing instinct.
‘“Rubbish, man,” he said. “That’s only another name for the puzzle, not an explanation. There must be some reason for it. They must know something that we cannot understand. Tie a cat in a bag and take it fifty miles by train and it will make its way home. That cat has some clue that we haven’t.”
‘I was tired and sleepy, and told him that I did not care a rush about the psychology of cats. But he was not to be snubbed, and went on talking.
“How if Space is really full of things we cannot see and as yet do not know? How if all animals and some savages have a cell in their brain or a nerve which responds to the invisible world? How if all Space be full of these landmarks, not material in our sense, but quite real? A dog barks at nothing, a wild beast makes an aimless circuit. Why? Perhaps because Space is made up of corridors and alleys, ways to travel and things to shun? For all we know, to a greater intelligence than ours the top of Mont Blanc may be as crowded as Piccadilly Circus.”
‘But at that point I fell asleep and left Hollond to repeat his questions to a guide who knew no English and a snoring porter.
‘Six months later, one foggy January afternoon, Hollond rang me up at the Temple and proposed to come to see me that night after dinner. I thought he wanted to talk Alpine shop, but he turned up in Duke Street about nine with a kit-bag full of papers. He was an odd fellow to look at — a yellowish face with the skin stretched tight on the cheek-bones, clean-shaven, a sharp chin which he kept poking forward, and deep-set, greyish eyes. He was a hard fellow, too, always in a pretty good condition, which was remarkable considering how he slaved for nine months out of the twelve. He had a quiet, slow-spoken manner, but that night I saw that he was considerably excited.
‘He said that he had come to me because we were old friends. He proposed to tell me a tremendous secret. “I must get another mind to work on it or I’ll go crazy. I don’t want a scientist. I want a plain man.”
‘Then he fixed me with a look like a tragic actor’s. “Do you remember that talk we had in August at Chamonix — about Space? I daresay you thought I was playing the fool. So I was in a sense, but I was feeling my way towards something which has been in my mind for ten years. Now I have got it, and you must hear about it. You may take my word that it’s a pretty startling discovery.”
‘I lit a pipe and told him to go ahead, warning him that I knew about as much science as the dustman.
‘I am bound to say that it took me a long time to understand what he meant. He began by saying that everybody thought of Space as an “empty homogeneous medium.” “Never mind at present what the ultimate constituents of that medium are. We take it as a finished product, and we think of it as mere extension, something without any quality at all. That is the view of civilised man. You will find all the philosophers taking it for granted. Yes, but every living thing does not take that view. An animal, for instance. It feels a kind of quality in Space. It can find its way over new country, because it perceives certain landmarks, not necessarily material, but perceptible, or if you like intelligible. Take an Australian savage. He has the same power, and I believe, for the same reason. He is conscious of intelligible landmarks.”
“You mean what people call a sense of direction,” I put in.
“Yes, but what in Heaven’s name is a sense of direction? The phrase explains nothing. However incoherent the mind of the animal or the savage may be, it is there somewhere, working on some data. I’ve been all through the psychological and anthropological side of the business, and after you eliminate clues from sight and hearing and smell and half-conscious memory there remains a solid lump of the inexplicable.”
‘Hollond’s eye had kindled, and he sat doubled up in his chair, dominating me with a finger.
“Here, then, is a power which man is civilising himself out of. Call it anything you like, but you must admit that it is a power. Don’t you see that it is a perception of another kind of reality that we are leaving behind us? . . . Well, you know the way nature works. The wheel comes full circle, and what we think we have lost we regain in a higher form. So for a long time I have been wondering whether the civilised mind could not recreate for itself this lost gift, the gift of seeing the quality of Space. I mean that I wondered whether the scientific modern brain could not get to the stage of realising that Space is not an empty homogeneous medium, but full of intricate differences, intelligible and real, though not with our common reality.”
‘I found all this very puzzling, and he had to repeat it several times before I got a glimpse of what he was talking about.
“I’ve wondered for a long time,” he went on, “but now, quite suddenly, I have begun to know.’ He stopped and asked me abruptly if I knew much about mathematics.
“It’s a pity,” he said, “but the main point is not technical, though I wish you could appreciate the beauty of some of my proofs.” Then he began to tell me about his last six months’ work. I should have mentioned that he was a brilliant physicist besides other things. All Hollond’s tastes were on the borderlands of sciences, where mathematics fades into metaphysics and physics merges in the abstrusest kind of mathematics. Well, it seems he had been working for years at the ultimate problem of matter, and especially of that rarefied matter we call aether or space. I forget what his view was — atoms or molecules or electric waves. If he ever told me I have forgotten, but I’m not certain that I ever knew. However, the point was that these ultimate constituents were dynamic and mobile, not a mere passive medium but a medium in constant movement and change. He claimed to have discovered — by ordinary inductive experiment — that the constituents of aether possessed certain functions, and moved in certain figures obedient to certain mathematical laws. Space, I gathered, was perpetually “forming fours” in some fancy way.
‘Here he left his physics and became the mathematician. Among his mathematical discoveries had been certain curves or figures or something whose behaviour involved a new dimension. I gathered that this wasn’t the ordinary Fourth Dimension that people talk of but that fourth-dimensional inwardness or involution was part of it. The explanation lay in the pile of manuscripts he left with me, but though I tried honestly I couldn’t get the hang of it. My mathematics stopped with desperate finality just as he got into his subject.
‘His point was that the constituents of Space moved according to these new mathematical figures of his. They were always changing, but the principles of their change were as fixed as the law of gravitation. Therefore, if you once grasped these principles you knew the contents of the void. What do you make of that?’
I said that it seemed to me a reasonable enough argument, but that it got one very little way forward. ‘A man,’ I said, ‘might know the contents of Space and the laws of their arrangement and yet be unable to see anything more than his fellows. It is a purely academic knowledge. His mind knows it as the result of many deductions, but his senses perceive nothing.’
Leithen laughed. ‘Just what I said to Hollond. He asked the opinion of my legal mind. I said I could not pronounce on his argument, but that I could point out that he had established no trait d’union between the intellect which understood and the senses which perceived. It was like a blind man with immense knowledge but no eyes, and therefore no peg to hang his knowledge on and make it useful. He had not explained his savage or his cat. “Hang it, man,” I said, “before you can appreciate the existence of your Spacial forms you have to go through elaborate experiments and deductions. You can’t be doing that every minute. Therefore you don’t get any nearer to the use of the sense you say that man once possessed, though you can explain it a bit.”’
‘What did he say?’ I asked.
The funny thing was that he never seemed to see my difficulty. When I kept bringing him back to it he shied off with a new wild theory of perception. He argued that the mind can live in a world of realities without any sensuous stimulus to connect them with the world of our ordinary life. Of course that wasn’t my point, I supposed that this world of Space was real enough to him, but I wanted to know how he got there. He never answered me. He was the typical Cambridge man, you know — dogmatic about uncertainties, but curiously diffident about the obvious. He laboured to get me to understand the notion of his mathematical forms, which I was quite willing to take on trust from him. Some queer things he said, too. He took our feeling about Left and Right as an example of our instinct for the quality of Space. But when I objected that Left and Right varied with each object, and only existed in connection with some definite material thing, he said that that was exactly what he meant. It was an example of the mobility of the Spacial forms. Do you see any sense in that?’
I shook my head. It seemed to me pure craziness.
‘And then he tried to show me what he called the “involution of Space,” by taking two points on a piece of paper. The points were a foot away when the paper was flat, but they coincided when it was doubled up. He said that there were no gaps between the figures, for the medium was continuous, and he took as an illustration the loops on a cord. You are to think of a cord always looping and unlooping itself according to certain mathematical laws. Oh, I tell you, I gave up trying to follow him. And he was so desperately in earnest all the time. By his account Space was a sort of mathematical pandemonium.’
Leithen stopped to refill his pipe, and I mused upon the ironic fate which had compelled a mathematical genius to make his sole confidant of a philistine lawyer, and induced that lawyer to repeat it confusedly to an ignoramus at twilight on a Scotch hill. As told by Leithen it was a very halting tale.
‘But there was one thing I could see very clearly,’ Leithen went on, ‘and that was Hollond’s own case. This crowded world of Space was perfectly real to him. How he had got to it I do not know. Perhaps his mind, dwelling constantly on the problem, had unsealed some atrophied cell and restored the old instinct. Anyhow, he was living his daily life with a foot in each world.
‘He often came to see me, and after the first hectic discussions he didn’t talk much. There was no noticeable change in him — a little more abstracted perhaps. He would walk in the street or come into a room with a quick look round him, and sometimes for no earthly reason he would swerve. Did you ever watch a cat crossing a room? It sidles along by the furniture and walks over an open space of carpet as if it were picking its way among obstacles. Well, Hollond behaved like that, but he had always been counted a little odd, and nobody noticed it but me.
‘I knew better than to chaff him, and we had stopped argument, so there wasn’t much to be said. But sometimes he would give me news about his experiences. The whole thing was perfectly clear and scientific and above-board, and nothing creepy about it. You know how I hate the washy supernatural stuff they give us nowadays. Hollond was well and fit, with an appetite like a hunter. But as he talked, sometimes — well, you know I haven’t much in the way of nerves or imagination — but I used to get a little eerie. Used to feel the solid earth dissolving round me. It was the opposite of vertigo, if you understand me — a sense of airy realities crowding in on you — crowding the mind, that is, not the body.
‘I gathered from Hollond that he was always conscious of corridors and halls and alleys in Space, shifting, but shifting according to inexorable laws. I never could get quite clear as to what this consciousness was like. When I asked he used to look puzzled and worried and helpless. I made out from him that one landmark involved a sequence, and once given a bearing from an object you could keep the direction without a mistake. He told me he could easily, if he wanted, go in a dirigible from the top of Mont Blanc to the top of Snowdon in the thickest fog and without a compass, if he were given the proper angle to start from. I confess I didn’t follow that myself. Material objects had nothing to do with the Spacial forms, for a table or a bed in our world might be placed across a corridor of Space. The forms played their game independent of our kind of reality. But the worst of it was, that if you kept your mind too much in one world you were apt to forget about the other, and Hollond was always barking his shins on stones and chairs and things.
‘He told me all this quite simply and frankly. Remember his mind and no other part of him lived in his new world. He said it gave him an odd sense of detachment to sit in a room among people, and to know that nothing there but himself had any relation at all to the infinite strange world of Space that flowed around them. He would listen, he said, to a great man talking, with one eye on the cat on the rug, thinking to himself how much more the cat knew than the man.’
‘How long was it before he went mad?’ I asked.
It was a foolish question, and made Leithen cross. ‘He never went mad in your sense. My dear fellow, you’re very much wrong if you think there was anything pathological about him — then. The man was brilliantly sane. His mind was as keen as a keen sword. I couldn’t understand him, but I could judge of his sanity right enough.’
I asked if it made him happy or miserable.
‘At first I think it made him uncomfortable. He was restless because he knew too much and too little. The unknown pressed in on his mind, as bad air weighs on the lungs. Then it lightened, and he accepted the new world in the same sober practical way that he took other things. I think that the free exercise of his mind in a pure medium gave him a feeling of extraordinary power and ease. His eyes used to sparkle when he talked. And another odd thing he told me. He was a keen rock-climber, but, curiously enough, he had never a very good head. Dizzy heights always worried him, though he managed to keep hold on himself. But now all that had gone. The sense of the fulness of Space made him as happy — happier I believe — with his legs dangling into eternity, as sitting before his own study fire.
‘I remember saying that it was all rather like the mediaeval wizards who made their spells by means of numbers and figures.
‘He caught me up at once. “Not numbers,” he said. “Number has no place in Nature. It is an invention of the human mind to atone for a bad memory. But figures are a different matter. All the mysteries of the world are in them, and the old magicians knew that at least, if they knew no more.”
‘He had only one grievance. He complained that it was terribly lonely. “It is the Desolation,” he would quote, “spoken of by Daniel the prophet.” He would spend hours travelling those eerie shifting corridors of Space with no hint of another human soul. How could there be? It was a world of pure reason, where human personality had no place. What puzzled me was why he should feel the absence of this. One wouldn’t, you know, in an intricate problem of geometry or a game of chess. I asked him, but he didn’t understand the question. I puzzled over it a good deal, for it seemed to me that if Hollond felt lonely, there must be more in this world of his than we imagined. I began to wonder if there was any truth in fads like psychical research. Also, I was not so sure that he was as normal as I had thought: it looked as if his nerves might be going bad.
‘Oddly enough, Hollond was getting on the same track himself. He had discovered, so he said, that in sleep everybody now and then lived in this new world of his. You know how one dreams of triangular railway platforms with trains running simultaneously down all three sides and not colliding. Well, this sort of cantrip was “common form,” as we say at the Bar, in Hollond’s Space, and he was very curious about the why and wherefore of Sleep. He began to haunt psychological laboratories, where they experiment with the charwoman and the odd man, and he used to go up to Cambridge for seances. It was a foreign atmosphere to him, and I don’t think he was very happy in it. He found so many charlatans that he used to get angry, and declare he would be better employed at Mothers’ Meetings!’
From far up the Glen came the sound of the pony’s hoofs. The stag had been loaded up, and the gillies were returning. Leithen looked at his watch. ‘We’d better wait and see the beast,’ he said.
Well, nothing happened for the better part of a year. Then one evening in May he burst into my rooms in high excitement. You understand quite clearly that there was no suspicion of horror or fright or anything unpleasant about this world he had discovered. It was simply a series of interesting and difficult problems. All this time Hollond had been rather extra well and cheery. But when he came in I thought I noticed a different look in his eyes, something puzzled and diffident and apprehensive.
‘“There’s a queer performance going on in the other world,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I never dreamed of such a thing. I— I don’t quite know how to put it, and I don’t know how to explain it, but — but I am becoming aware that there are other beings — other minds — moving in Space besides mine.”
‘I suppose I ought to have realised then that things were beginning to go wrong. But it was very difficult, he was so rational and anxious to make it all clear. I asked him how he knew. There could, of course, on his own showing be no change in that world, for the forms of Space moved and existed under inexorable laws. He said he found his own mind failing him at points. There would come over him a sense of fear — intellectual fear — and weakness, a sense of something else, quite alien to Space, thwarting him. Of course he could only describe his impressions very lamely, for they were purely of the mind, and he had no material peg to hang them on, so that I could realise them. But the gist of it was that he had been gradually becoming conscious of what he called “Presences” in his world. They had no effect on Space — did not leave footprints in its corridors, for instance — but they affected his mind. There was some mysterious contact established between him and them. I asked him if the affection was unpleasant, and he said. “No, not exactly.” But I could see a hint of fear in his eyes.
‘Think of it. Try to realise what intellectual fear is. I can’t, but it is conceivable. To you and me fear implies pain to ourselves or some other, and such pain is always in the last resort pain of the flesh. Consider it carefully and you will see that it is so. But imagine fear so sublimated and transmuted as to be the tension of pure spirit. I can’t realise it, but I think it possible. I don’t pretend to understand how Hollond got to know about these Presences. But there was no doubt about the fact. He was positive, and he wasn’t in the least mad — not in our sense. In that very month he published his book on Number, and gave a German professor who attacked it a most tremendous public trouncing.
‘I know what you are going to say — that the fancy was a weakening of the mind from within. I admit I should have thought of that, but he looked so confoundedly sane and able that it seemed ridiculous. He kept asking me my opinion, as a lawyer, on the facts he offered. It was the oddest case ever put before me, but I did my best for him. I dropped all my own views of sense and nonsense. I told him that, taking all that he had told me as fact, the Presences might be either ordinary minds traversing Space in sleep; or minds such as his which had independently captured the sense of Space’s quality; or, finally, the spirits of just men made perfect, behaving as psychical researchers think they do. It was a ridiculous task to set a prosaic man, and I wasn’t quite serious. But Hollond was serious enough.
‘He admitted that all three explanations were conceivable, but he was very doubtful about the first. The projection of the spirit into Space during sleep, he thought, was a faint and feeble thing, and these were powerful Presences. With the second and the third he was rather impressed. I suppose I should have seen what was happening and tried to stop it; at least, looking back that seems to have been my duty. But it was difficult to think that anything was wrong with Hollond; indeed the odd thing is that all this time the idea of madness never entered my head. I rather backed him up. Somehow the thing took my fancy, though I thought it moonshine at the bottom of my heart. I enlarged on the pioneering before him. “Think,” I told him, “what may be waiting for you. You may discover the meaning of Spirit. You may open up a new world, as rich as the old one, but imperishable. You may prove to mankind their immortality and deliver them for ever from the fear of death. Why, man, you are picking at the lock of all the world’s mysteries.”
‘But Hollond did not cheer up. He seemed strangely languid and dispirited. “That is all true enough,” he said, “if you are right, if your alternatives are exhaustive. But suppose they are something else, something . . . ” What that “something” might be he had apparently no idea, and very soon he went away.
‘He said another thing before he left. He asked me if I ever read poetry, and I said, Not often. Nor did he: but he had picked up a little book somewhere and found a man who knew about the Presences. I think his name was Traherne, one of the seventeenth-century fellows. He quoted a verse which stuck to my fly-paper memory. It ran something like this:
‘Within the region of the air, Compassed about with Heavens fair, Great tracts of land there may be found, Where many numerous hosts, In those far distant coasts, For other great and glorious ends Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.
Hollond was positive he did not mean angels or anything of the sort. I told him that Traherne evidently took a cheerful view of them. He admitted that, but added: “He had religion, you see. He believed that everything was for the best. I am not a man of faith, and can only take comfort from what I understand. I’m in the dark, I tell you . . . ”
‘Next week I was busy with the Chilian Arbitration case, and saw nobody for a couple of months. Then one evening I ran against Hollond on the Embankment, and thought him looking horribly ill. He walked back with me to my rooms, and hardly uttered one word all the way. I gave him a stiff whisky-and-soda, which he gulped down absent-mindedly. There was that strained, hunted look in his eyes that you see in a frightened animal’s. He was always lean, but now he had fallen away to skin and bone.
‘“I can’t stay long,” he told me, “for I’m off to the Alps tomorrow and I have a lot to do.” Before then he used to plunge readily into his story, but now he seemed shy about beginning. Indeed I had to ask him a question.
“Things are difficult,” he said hesitatingly, “and rather distressing. Do you know, Leithen, I think you were wrong about — about what I spoke to you of. You said there must be one of three explanations. I am beginning to think that there is a fourth . . . ”
‘He stopped for a second or two, then suddenly leaned forward and gripped my knee so fiercely that I cried out. “That world is the Desolation,” he said in a choking voice, “and perhaps I am getting near the Abomination of the Desolation that the old prophet spoke of. I tell you, man, I am on the edge of a terror, a terror,” he almost screamed, “that no mortal can think of and live.”
‘You can imagine that I was considerably startled. It was lightning out of a clear sky. How the devil could one associate horror with mathematics? I don’t see it yet . . . At any rate, I— You may be sure I cursed my folly for ever pretending to take him seriously. The only way would have been to have laughed him out of it at the start. And yet I couldn’t, you know — it was too real and reasonable. Anyhow, I tried a firm tone now, and told him the whole thing was arrant raving bosh. I bade him be a man and pull himself together. I made him dine with me, and took him home, and got him into a better state of mind before he went to bed. Next morning I saw him off at Charing Cross, very haggard still, but better. He promised to write to me pretty often . . . ’
The pony, with a great eleven-pointer lurching athwart its back, was abreast of us, and from the autumn mist came the sound of soft Highland voices. Leithen and I got up to go, when we heard that the rifle had made direct for the Lodge by a short cut past the Sanctuary. In the wake of the gillies we descended the Correi road into a glen all swimming with dim purple shadows. The pony minced and boggled; the stag’s antlers stood out sharp on the rise against a patch of sky, looking like a skeleton tree. Then we dropped into a covert of birches and emerged on the white glen highway.
Leithen’s story had bored and puzzled me at the start, but now it had somehow gripped my fancy. Space a domain of endless corridors and Presences moving in them! The world was not quite the same as an hour ago. It was the hour, as the French say, ‘between dog and wolf,’ when the mind is disposed to marvels. I thought of my stalking on the morrow, and was miserably conscious that I would miss my stag. Those airy forms would get in the way. Confound Leithen and his yarns!
‘I want to hear the end of your story,’ I told him, as the lights of the Lodge showed half a mile distant.
‘The end was a tragedy,’ he said slowly; ‘I don’t much care to talk about it. But how was I to know? I couldn’t see the nerve going. You see I couldn’t believe it was all nonsense. If I could I might have seen.
But I still think there was something in it — up to a point. Oh, I agree he went mad in the end. It is the only explanation. Something must have snapped in that fine brain, and he saw the little bit more which we call madness. Thank God, you and I are prosaic fellows . . .
‘I was going out to Chamonix myself a week later. But before I started I got a postcard from Hollond, the only word from him. He had printed my name and address, and on the other side had scribbled six words —“I know at last — God’s mercy. — H.G.H.” The handwriting was like a sick man of ninety. I knew that things must be pretty bad with my friend.
‘I got to Chamonix in time for his funeral. An ordinary climbing accident — you probably read about it in the papers. The Press talked about the toll which the Alps took from intellectuals — the usual rot. There was an inquiry, but the facts were quite simple. The body was only recognised by the clothes. He had fallen several thousand feet.
‘It seems that he had climbed for a few days with one of the Kronigs and Dupont, and they had done some hair-raising things on the Aiguilles. Dupont told me that they had found a new route up the Montanvert side of the Charmoz. He said that Hollond climbed like a Viable fou,’ and if you know Dupont’s standard of madness you will see that the pace must have been pretty hot. “But Monsieur was sick,” he added; “his eyes were not good. And I and Franz, we were grieved for him and a little afraid. We were glad when he left us.”
‘He dismissed the guides two days before his death. The next day he spent in the hotel, getting his affairs straight. He left everything in perfect order, but not a line to a soul, not even to his sister. The following day he set out alone about three in the morning for the Grèpon. He took the road up the Nantillons glacier to the Col, and then he must have climbed the Mummery crack by himself. After that he left the ordinary route and tried a new traverse across the Mer de Glace face. Somewhere near the top he fell, and next day a party going to the Dent du Requin found him on the rocks thousands of feet below.
‘He had slipped in attempting the most foolhardy course on earth, and there was a lot of talk about the dangers of guideless climbing. But I guessed the truth, and I am sure Dupont knew, though he held his tongue . . . ’
We were now on the gravel of the drive, and I was feeling better. The thought of dinner warmed my heart and drove out the eeriness of the twilight glen. The hour between dog and wolf was passing. After all, there was a gross and jolly earth at hand for wise men who had a mind to comfort.
Leithen, I saw, did not share my mood. He looked glum and puzzled, as if his tale had aroused grim memories. He finished it at the Lodge door.
‘ . . . For, of course, he had gone out that day to die. He had seen the something more, the little bit too much, which plucks a man from his moorings. He had gone so far into the land of pure spirit that he must needs go further and shed the fleshly envelope that cumbered him. God send that he found rest! I believe that he chose the steepest cliff in the Alps for a purpose. He wanted to be unrecognisable. He was a brave man and a good citizen. I think he hoped that those who found him might not see the look in his eyes.’
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