By Algernon Blackwood
“Oh, about three to four mile, maybe,” the porter was telling Malahide, “an’ you can pick up the Midland at Attenborough to get back. …Yes, it’s a nice day for a walk, I dessay.”
The name made us laugh, but the instructions as to paths, stiles, signposts, turnings, I did not listen to. I assumed an air of intelligent comprehension. Forden wore a similar expression from which I knew that he, too, was not listening properly, but was leaving it to Malahide; I guess he wondered how the latter could carry in his great slumbering mind so many intricate details, or was Malahide merely acting, intent upon some other matter that was certainly not here and now?
We started off with but a few details of our journey secure: “a mile and a half down the road, and bearin’ to the right you’ll see a signpost to Barton across the fields, and if you foller that a little way, bearin’ to the left a bit now, you’ll see a gate on the right just past some trees, but you don’t go through that gate, you go straight on bearin’ to the right always till you come to a farm, and then through another gate…”
There was a definite relation between the length of description and a tip in the porter’s mind, upon which Forden commented wittily as we swung down the road. We reached a signpost and exclaimed confidently: “Ah! Here we are!” as we scrambled over a stile into enticing fields of gold.
We spoke little at first. “We must bear to the left, remember,” mentioned Malahide once, to which Forden and I nodded agreement, and then he added: “till we reach the gate,” with his firm reminder: “which we do not go through”; this followed by my own contribution: “past some trees, yes, to another gate”; and then Malahide’s conclusive summing up: “always bearing to the right, of course…”
We jogged on happily while the larks sang overhead, the cuckoos called and the brilliant sunshine flooded a countryside growing more and more remote from signs of men and houses. Not even a thatched cottage or a farmhouse broke the loneliness from humankind…
We spoke little, I have said; but my companions fell into a desultory conversation about their own profession, about present and future conditions on the stage, individual talent, rents of theatres and so forth, to all of which, being an interloper merely, I listened with slight interest. It was the odd smell of burning, I think, that held my curious attention during this preliminary period, for I saw no cause for it, no smoke of rubbish being consumed, no heath fire. Malahide coughed a little once or twice, and Forden sniffed like an animal that scents an untoward element in the atmosphere. They made no comment, I offered none. It was, obviously, of no importance. The beauty of the day in its fresh spring brilliance absorbed me wholly, so that my thoughts ran on of their own accord, floating on a stream of happy emotion, careless as the pleasant wind. The sentences I caught from time to time did little more than punctuate this stream of loveliness that poured through me from the April morning. Yet at intervals I caught their words, a phrase or a sentence would arrest me for a second; and each time this happened, I noticed what I can only call a certain curious change, a change—in distance. Their talk, I mean, passed gradually beyond me.
There was incoherence, due partly to the gaps I missed; and once or twice, it seemed to me, they were talking at cross-purposes, although tone and demeanour betrayed nothing of the sort. I remember that this puzzled me, that I registered the fact vaguely, at any rate; also, that an occasional comment of my own won no rejoinder from either Malahide or Forden—almost as though they had forgotten my existence and seemed unaware that I was with them.
Deeper and deeper into my own sensuous enjoyment of the day I sank accordingly, glad that I might take the beauty in my own little way. One thing only pierced my personal mood from time to time: the picture of Malahide’s great head thrust forward a little when I glanced at him, the eyes turned upwards, carrying in them an odd soft blaze; the glare, as I called it, now wholly gone; and that upon Forden’s delicate face was a gentle expression, curiously rapt, yet with a faint brush as of bewilderment somewhere among the peering features. This impression came back to me later rather than holding my attention at the actual moment. We moved on deeper and deeper into the lonely countryside. With the exception of a man some fields ahead of us, I saw no living soul.