By Algernon Blackwood
Our path crossed a lane, and a little later a road, though not a high road since no telegraph poles marred it, and then Malahide remarked casually: “But, I say! It’s about time, isn’t it?” He stood still abruptly, staring round him. “It’s about time—eh?”
“For what?” enquired Forden gently, not looking at him, a touch of resignation in his voice.
“That signpost, I mean. We should have come to it by now.”
“Oh, that signpost,” echoed the other, without interest.
Neither of them included me in this exchange, which had broken in upon a longish conversation, and I found myself resenting it. They had not so much as glanced in my direction.
“Signpost!” I exclaimed bluntly, looking straight at Malahide. “Why, we passed it long ago.” And as I said it my eye again took in the figure of the man three fields away, the only living being yet seen. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him merely, and a breath of sharper air, or something like it, passed quickly over my skin. “It said ‘To Barton,’” I added, a flavour of challenge in my tone. I purposely kept my gaze hard on Malahide.
He turned slowly, with a look as though, casually, he picked me up again; our eyes met; that sharper air seemed in my mind now.
“We passed a signpost,” he corrected me; “but it merely said ‘Footpath.’ And it pointed over there—behind us. The way we’ve come.”
Forden, to my amazement, nodded in consent. “Over there, yes,” he agreed, and pointed with his stick, but at right angles to the direction Malahide had meant. “And it said: ‘From Barton.’”
This confusion, produced purposely and in a spirit of play though of course it was, annoyed me. I disliked it, as though somewhere it reached a sad, uneasy region in my mind.
It was Malahide’s turn to nod in consent. “Then we’re all right,” he affirmed with unnecessary vehemence in his deep voice. And that vehemence, again, I did not like. “Besides,” he added sharply, pointing ahead, “there he is!”
A wave of vague emotion troubled me; for an instant I felt again that sharper air–and this time in the heart.
“Who?” I asked quickly.
He replied carelessly: “The man.”
Malahide turned his eyes full upon my own, so that their soft blaze came over me like sunshine, almost with a sense of warmth in them. On his great face lay a singular expression. I heard Forden, who stood just behind me, laughing gently. There seemed a drift of smoke about them both. I knew a touch of goose-flesh.
“What man do you mean?” I asked with louder emphasis, and this time with a note of exasperation that would not be denied, for the nonsense had gone far enough, and there was a flavour in it that set my nerves on edge.
Malahide’s reply came easily and naturally: “The man who plants them,” he said without a smile. “He sticks them into the ground, that fellow. He’s going about with an assortment of signposts ‘To and From Barton,’ and every now and again he plants one for us.”
“We’re standing under one now,’’ Forden breathed behind me in his purring way, and looking up I saw that this was true. I read in black lettering upon a white background: “To Barton.” It indicated the direction we were taking.
It occurred to me suddenly now that we had already walked at least four miles, yet had seen no farm, no trees, no garden. I had been sunk too deep in my own mood to notice things perhaps. This signpost I certainly had not noticed until Forden drew my attention to it. Malahide was tapping the wooden arm with the point of his stick, reading the lettering aloud as he did so:
“‘Footpath From Barton,’” I heard him boom. And instantly my eyes fixed tightly on it with all the concentration that was in me. Yes, Malahide had read correctly. Only, the arm now swung the other way. It pointed behind us! And I burst out laughing. Sight and memory had fumbled badly. I felt myself for a moment “all turned round,” as the saying is. Malahide laughed too; we all laughed together. It was boisterous, not quite spontaneous laughter, but at any rate it relieved a sense of intolerable tension that in myself had reached a climax. This fooling had been overdone, I felt.
“So, you see, we are all right,” Malahide exclaimed, and swung forward over the meadow, already plunged again in the conversation with Forden which he himself had interrupted. They had enjoyed their little game about the signposts, Malahide, in particular, his touch of fancy about “the man who planted them.” It all belonged to the careless, happy mood of a holiday expedition, as it were—the nonsense of high spirits. This was the ready explanation my mind produced so glibly, knowing full well it would not pass the censor of another kind of understanding, a deeper kind, that sought hurriedly, even passionately, for the true explanation. It was not nonsense; nor was it acceptable. It alarmed me.
I repeat: this confusion about directions, the two men agreeing that opposite directions were one and the same, was not the nonsense that it sounds; and I affirm this in view of that heightened perception, already first experienced in the train, which now came back upon me in a sudden flood. It brought with it an atmosphere of prophecy, almost of prevision, and certainly of premonition, an atmosphere that accompanied me with haunting persistence to the end.
And its first effect was singular: all that a man says, I now became aware, has three meanings, and not merely one. The revelation arrived as clearly as though it were whispered to me through the shining air. There is the literal meaning of the actual words; there is the meaning of the sentence itself; and there is the meaning, above and beyond both these, in which the whole of the utterer is concerned, a meaning which the unconscious secret part in him—the greater part—tries and hopes to say. This last, the most significant of all three, since it includes cause as well as result, makes of every common sentence a legend and a parable. Gesture, tone of voice betray its trend; what is omitted, or between the lines, betrays still more. Its full meaning, being in relation to unknown categories, is usually hidden both from utterer and hearers. It deals simultaneously with the past, the present and—the future. I now became aware of this Third Meaning in the most commonplace remarks of my companions.
It was an astounding order of perception to occur to me, and the difficulty of reporting it must be obvious from this confused description. Yet it seemed to me at the time so simple, so convincing, that I did not even question its accuracy and truth. Malahide and Forden, fooling together about the contradictory signposts, had betrayed this third meaning in all they said and did. Indeed, that it appeared impossible, absurd, was a proof, perhaps the only possible proof, of its reality. Momentarily they had become free of unknown categories.