By Algernon Blackwood
At the moment of actual experience a new category would not seem foolish or impossible. These qualities would declare themselves only when it passed away. This was what happened—gradually—to me now, and, alas, to my companions too. A searing pain accompanied the transition, but no shock of violence.
At the pinnacle there was a state of consciousness too strange, too “different,” to be set down. The content of life, its liberty, its splendour, its characteristics of grandeur, even of divinity, were more than ordinary memory could retain. My own cry: “We are whole-hearted” must betray how pitiful description is… Thus, the lovely moment when I first saw rivers of gold, kept repeating itself—because it gave me happiness, because it moved me. That field of golden buttercups was always—there. I lingered with it, came back to it, enjoyed it over and over again, yet with no sense of repetition. It was new and fresh each time. Now, Malahide and Forden, selecting other moments, chose these instead, and these were moments easy to be remembered. Their finer instances baffie memory, although I knew and shared them at the time. Forden, for some peculiar choice to himself, was in the mountains which he loved; his honeymoon presumably. Malahide, on the other hand, preferred his stars, though details of this have left me beyond recovery… Yet, while we lingered among rivers of gold and stars and snowy peaks, we were solidly side by side in the actual present, crossing the country fields towards Barton-in-Fabis on this April morning.
The gradual passing of this state remains fairly clear in me.
There came signs of distress and effort in 0ur relationships. This was the first touch of sorrow that I noticed. I was coming back to the surface, as it were. The change was more in myself than in the others. There was argument about footpath, signposts, and the way to Barton generally.
“The fellow has planted his last post,” I heard Malahide complaining. “Now he’ll begin pulling them all up again. He both wants us to get to Barton, yet doesn’t want it.” He paused. His usual laugh did not follow. “You know,” he went on, his whisper choking a little oddly in his throat, “he rather—puts the wind up me.” A spasm ran over his big body. Then suddenly, he added, half to himself, with an effort painfully like a gasp: “I can’t get my breath—quite.”
Forden spoke very quickly in his delicate way, resignation rather sweetly mingled in it: “Well, at any rate, we’re all right so far, for I see the porter’s farm and gate at last.” He started and pointed. “Over there, you see.” Only, instead of pointing across the fields, he—to my sharp dismay—looked and pointed straight into the sky above him.
It was the fear in Malahide that chiefly afflicted me. And the pain of this caused me to make an effort—which was an unwise thing to do. I drew attention to the ordinary things about us:
“Look, there’s a hill,” I cried.
“God!” exclaimed Forden, with quiet admiration, “what amazing things you say!” While Malahide began to sing again with happiness.
His reaction to my sentence forced me to realise the increasing change in myself. As I uttered the words I knew their third meaning; in the plain sentences was something that equalled in value: “See! the Heavens are open. There is God!” My companions still heard this third meaning, for I saw the look of majesty in Malahide’s great eyes, the love and beauty upon Forden’s shining face. But, for myself, having spoken, there remained—suddenly—nothing more than a commonplace low hill upon the near horizon. The gate and farm I saw as well. A feeling of tears rose in me, for the straining effort for recovery was without result, anguished and bitter beyond words.
I stole a glance at my companions. And that strange word Malahide had used came back to me, but with a deep, an awful sense of intolerable regret, as though its third meaning were gone beyond recall, and only two rather empty and foolish syllables remained…
It was passing, yes, for all three of us now; the gates of ivory were closing; there was confusion, and a rather crude foolishness. Oddly enough, it was Forden—seeing that he was altogether a slighter fellow than Malahide—it was Forden who rose most slowly to the surface. Very gradually indeed he left the deeps we had all known together. To all that he now said and did Malahide responded with an aggravating giggle. He said such foolish things, confused, uncomfortable to listen to. His nerves showed signs of being frayed. He became a trifle sullen, a little frightened as well, and in his gait and gesture lay a disconcerting hurry and uncertainty, as though, hesitating to make a decision of some vital sort, he was flurried, almost in a frenzy sometimes, trying vainly to escape. This stupid confusion in him afflicted me, but the effort to escape seemed to paralyse something in my mind. It was petrifying… And thus the sequence of what followed, proved extraordinarily difficult to remember afterwards. An atmosphere of sadness, of foreboding, of premonition came over me; there was desolation in my heart; there were stabs of horrible presentiment. All these were ever vaguely related to one thing—that inexplicable faint odour of burning…
What memory recalls can be told very briefly. It lies in my mind thus, condensed and swift:
The storm was natural enough, but, here again, the smell of burning alarmed and wrung me. It was faint, it was fugitive. Our mistake about the river had no importance, for the depression in the landscape might easily after all have held flowing water. The roofs, too, were not the roofs of Barton, but of a hamlet nestling among orchards, Clifden by name, and it was here, Forden informed us, he had first met his wife and had proposed to her; this also of no importance, except that he went on talking about it, and that it surprised him. He suddenly recognised the place, I mean. It increased his bewilderment, and is mentioned for that reason.
The storm came abruptly. We had not seen it coming. Following a low line of hills, it overtook us from behind, bringing its own wind with it. The rustling of the leaves was the first thing I noticed. The trees about us began to shake and bend. The sparkling brilliance had left the day; the sun shone dully; the fields were no longer radiant; the flowers, too, were gone, for we were crossing a ploughed field at the moment.
The discussion between us may be omitted; its confusion is really beyond me to describe. The storm, however, is easily described, for everyone has seen that curious thickening of the air on a day in high summer, when the clouds are not really clouds, but come as a shapeless, murky gloom, threatening a portentous downpour, while yet no single raindrop falls. In childhood we called it “blight,” believing it to be composed of myriads of tiny insects. Lurid effects of lighting accompanied it, trees and roofs, against its dark background, looking as if stage flares illumined them. The whole picture was theatrical in the extreme, artificial almost; but the aspect that I found so unwelcome was that it laid over the sky an appearance of volumes of dense, heavy smoke. The idea of burning may, or may not, have been in my own mind only, for my companions made no comment on it. I cannot say. That it made my heart sink I remember clearly.
It was a sham storm, it had no meaning, nothing happened. Having accomplished its spectacular effect, it passed along the hills and dissipated, and the sun shone out with all its former brilliance. Yet, before it passed, certain things occurred; they came and went, it seemed to me afterwards, with the simultaneity of dream happenings. Forden, noticing the wall of gloom advancing, catching the noise of the trees as well, stopped dead in his tracks, and stared. He sniffed the air, but made no comment. An expression of utter bewilderment draped his face. He seemed once more bewitched. It was here the smell of burning came to me most strongly.
“Look out!” he cried, and started to run. He ran in front of us, we did not attempt to follow. But he ran in a circle, like a terrified animal. His figure went shifting quickly, silhouetted, like the trees and roofs, against the murky background of the low-hanging storm. A moment later he was beside us again, his face white, his eyes shining, his breath half-gone.
“Come on, old Fordy,” said Malahide affectionately, taking him by the arm. He, for some reason, was not affected. “It’s not going to rain, you know, and anyhow there’s no good running. Let’s sit down and eat our lunch.” And he led the way across a few furrows to the hedge.
We ate our sandwiches and cake and apples. The sun shone hotly again. None of us smoked. For myself, the smell of burning had left something so miserable in me that I dared not smell even a lighted match. But no word was said by anybody in this, or in any other, sense. I kept my own counsel… And it was while we lay resting idly, hardly speaking at all, that a sound reached me from the other side of the hedge: a footstep in the flowered grass. My companions exchanged quick glances, I noticed, but I did not even turn my head. I did not dare.
“He’s putting it in,” whispered Malahide, a touch of the old vehemence in his eyes. “The last one!” Forden smiled, nodded his head, and was about to add some comment of his own, when the other interrupted brusquely:
“Is that the way to Barton?” he enquired suddenly in a louder voice, something challenging, almost truculent, in the tone. He jerked his head towards the gate we had recently come through. “Through that gate and past that farm, I mean?”
The answering voice startled me. It was the owner of the footsteps behind the hedge.
“No. That’s a dead end,” came in gruff but not unpleasant country tones.
There was no more than that. It was all natural enough. Yet a lump came up in my throat as I heard. I still dared not look round over my shoulder. I looked instead into Forden’s face, so close beside me. “We’re all right,” he was saying, as he glanced up a little. “Don’t struggle so. It’s the way we’ve got to go…” and was about to say more, when a fit of coughing caught him, as though for a moment he were about to suffocate. I hid my eyes quickly; a feeling of horror and despair swept through me; for there was terror in the sound he made; but the next second, when I looked again, the coughing had passed, and I saw in his face an expression of radiant happiness; the eyes shone wonderfully, there was a delicate, almost unearthly, beauty on his features. I found myself trembling, utterly unnerved.
“We’d better be getting on,” mentioned Malahide, in his abrupt, inconsequent fashion. “We mustn’t miss that train back.” And it was this unexpected change of key that enabled me at last to turn my head. I looked hurriedly behind the hedge. I was just in time to see a man, a farmer apparently, in the act of planting a post into the ground. He was pressing it down, at any rate, and much in the fashion of Malahide’s former play about a “fellow who planted signposts.” But he was planting—two. Side by side they already stood in the earth. One arm pointed right, the other left. They formed, thus, a cross.
The very same second, with a quiver in the air, as when two cinema pictures flash on each other’s heels with extreme rapidity, I experienced an optical delusion. I must call it such, at any rate. The focus of my sight changed instantaneously. The man was already in the distance, diminished in outline, moving away across the bright fields of golden buttercups. I saw him as I had seen him once or twice before, earlier in the day, a moving figure in the grass; and when my eyes shifted back to examine the posts, there was but a single post—a signpost whose one arm bore in faded lettering the words: “From Barton.” It pointed in the direction whence we had come…
I followed my companions in a dream that is better left untouched by words. Led by Malahide, we passed through Clifden; we came to the Trent and were ferried across; and a little later we reached, as the porter had described, a Midland station called Attenborough. A train soon took us back to the town where we were playing. Malahide, without a word, vanished from our side the moment we left the carriage. I did not see him again until, dressed in his lordly costume, he stood in the wings that night, waiting impatiently for his entrance. I had walked home with Forden, flung myself on the bed, and dropped off into a deep two-hours’ sleep.