By Algernon Blackwood
My companion and I were left staring at each other.
“Does he mean it—d’you think!” I asked in a low voice. “It sounds such an odd name. You think it’s real!” I laughed a little.
“A lovely name, though,” came the whispered answer. “It’s real enough. Yes—I’ve heard of it—”
“Oh, you’ve heard of it?” I interrupted, looking up at him.
He nodded. Always absent-minded, he was also always truthful. An expression on his face now puzzled me. He looked perturbed. I repeated my remark, anxious to press him for some reason.
“People make pilgrimages there—sometimes—I believe. There’s an old church—” Then his cue sounded and he moved quickly away, but flinging over his shoulder, again with his quick smile, a final whisper: “Oh, it’s real, yes, quite real. We’ll go.”
So it was the church and the odd name that had caught Malahide’s romantic fancy. Yet such a flat and empty name without the adjunct, which alone gave it atmosphere. “In fabis,” I gathered from one of the local supers, meant “among the beans’’ and Barton was a village “with a lot of historic interest’’ he informed me proudly. The name and the historic interest had taken Malahide’s vagrant fancy. He was an incalculable fellow; but he was not a man to ply with questions. His temper was insecure as a wayward child’s. I asked no questions. Forden, too, was an elusive creature where questions were concerned. There are people who instinctively detest having to give definite information in reply to definite questions. All the more was I surprised to hear Forden ask one of Malahide—about the expedition. We passed the latter’s dressing room as we left the theatre to walk home together, and the door was open.
“Ten-fifteen, remember, Central Station,” boomed Malahide, catching sight of us. “Single tickets to Stanton. We walk from Stanton.” It again surprised me; he had actually thought out details.
It was then that Forden asked his question:
“I—I suppose,” he ventured, faltering a trifle, “there’s a train back all right?”
The evening performance involved an early meal, and the question seemed so natural that I thought nothing, but Malahide looked up from pulling on his big boots as though it startled him. He seemed taken by surprise. His eyes held the same blaze, the touch almost of glare that I had noticed before, but the startled air was added.
“We’ll work round. What can it matter anyhow—provided we get there?” was all he vouchsafed, and in a tone that did not invite cross-examination.
So it was to be 10.15, with single tickets to Stanton, a walk thence to Barton among its Beans, with its old church and historic interest, and we were to “work round” to another station, and so home. Malahide had planned it all in advance. He wanted to go. Forden also wanted to go. It all seemed natural enough, ordinary, no exceptional feature anywhere about it beyond the trivial detail that Malahide did not care for walking as a rule. It is strange that somewhere in my being lurked a firm conviction that the whole business was exceptional. For one thing, I felt sure that both Malahide and Forden did not really want to go. That they had to go, and meant to go, was the impression left upon my mind, not that either of them actually “wished” it.
During our supper of cold tongue, salad and beer we made no further allusion to the expedition. Rather than actually avoided, it was just tacitly assumed. Forden realised that I still did not quite believe in the Barton walk, but was too delicately loyal to discuss our friend’s delightful irresponsibilities. In his own mind, too, lay the thought that Malahide would not turn up and that he would lose his morning’s sleep for nothing, but he meant to keep the rendezvous none the less. My fancy may have been quite wrong, yet this was Forden all over. He was of finest material, something transparent and a trifle exquisite in him; and even when poorly cast—as in the present play—this quality shone beautifully through his acting.
We went soon to bed, but Malahide kept late hours, and Forden and myself were asleep long before he turned in. In the morning he was waiting at the station when we got there. He had left the hotel before us. “I’ve been to look at the churches,” was his unexpected explanation. “One of ’em was open, and I went in and sat a bit. A wonderful atmosphere of peace and stillness. By Jove, it makes one think,” and he gabbled on about the charm and atmosphere of an empty, ancient church. It was surprising and it left us without comment. Yet I had known him before in this odd mood—when he was frightened about something, frightened usually, of death. Malahide was frightened now, and his thoughts, for some reason, ran on death. In his eyes I noticed, though veiled a little and a trifle deeper down, the same blaze I had seen the night before. And all the way to Stanton he gazed out of the window, humming to himself, the heap of morning papers beside him all untouched. The criticisms of his own performance and mention of the Company, though of importance to the week’s business, had no interest for him. His mind lay upon other matters. He looked extraordinarily happy—happier than I had ever seen him before; there was a careless indifference, a lightness, something, too, of a new refinement—to use a queer word his vehement personality did not ever suggest, yet all this lit, as from below, by the gleam of hidden fear I most certainly detected in him. And it was these contradictions, these incompatibilities almost, that affected me so powerfully. Impressions began to pour and pour upon me. Emotions stirred. Things going on at a great speed in Malahide were things that I could not fathom.
To me this short train journey to Stanton en route for Barton among its Beans, already had the spice of something just a little unusual, of something a trifle forced. Unexpected touches played about it, as though a faint unknown light shone from the cloudless sky of that perfect April morning, but from beyond it. Forden, behind the transparent mask of his rather beautiful face, betrayed more than his customary absent-mindedness, sometimes to a point I could have thought bewilderment. Each time I spoke to him—to Malahide I did not once address a word—he started a little. In him there was no attempt at adjustment, no analysis, no effort to explain or query. He asked himself no single question. Whatever life brought him he accepted always. He was receptive merely; a recipient, but an extremely sensitive recipient, leaving all problems, all causes, to his God. Though without a formal creed, Forden was a deeply religious nature. And Forden now seemed to me—let me put it quite plainly as I felt it at the time—preparing, making himself ready, getting himself in hand to meet something. Yes, to meet something—that is the phrase. And it was the search for this phrase that made me aware of an incomprehensible stress of subconscious excitement similarly in myself.
We were a queer enough trio even in our normal moments. In myself, being of different build to both Malahide and Forden, numerous little wheels were already whirring, gathering speed with every minute. This whirring one usually calls excitement. My own personal reactions to what followed are all that I can report. Though caught up with the other two, I remained always the observer, thus sharing only a small portion probably of what my companions experienced. Another man, of different calibre and placed as I was, might have noticed nothing. I cannot say. My problem is to report faithfully what I observed; and whether another man would have observed the same thing, or nothing at all, is beside the mark… Already before the train stopped at Stanton I felt—well, as if my feet did not quite touch the ground, and by the ground I mean the ordinary. It may, or may not, be an exaggeration to say that I felt both feet slightly off the earth. That my centre of gravity was shifting is the most truthful expression I can find.
By the time we reached Stanton the whirring wheels had generated considerable heat, and with this heat playing all through my system I had already begun to see and feel in a way that was not quite the ordinary way. I perceived differently: I experienced with a heightened consciousness. Perception seemed intensified a trifle; but more than that, and chiefly, it seemed different.
Different is the right adjective. Malahide and Forden were “different” to the Malahide and Forden I knew comfortably from long acquaintance. Very, very slightly different, but not radically so. I saw them from another angle. There was nothing I could seize or label. The instant my mind fastened on any detail, it was gone. The “difference” escaped me, leaving behind it a wonder of enquiry, a glow of curiosity I could not possibly define.
One sentence can explain my meaning, both in reference to the men and to the inanimate things they moved among: I saw more of everything…
The fields, through the carriage windows, were of freshest green, yellow with a million buttercups and sparkling still from a shower that had followed sunrise; the surface of the earth lay positively radiant in its spring loveliness. It laughed, it danced, it wept, it smiled. Yet it was not with this my mind was occupied during the half-hour’s run to Stanton, but rather with the being of my two companions. I made no effort to direct my thoughts. They flowed of their own accord, with poignant, affectionate emotions I could not explain, towards Malahide and Forden…