THE HUMAN CHORD
BY ALGERNON BLACKWOOD
To those who hear.
As a boy he constructed so vividly in imagination that he came to believe in the living reality of his creations: for everybody and everything he found names—real names. Inside him somewhere stretched immense playgrounds, compared to which the hay-fields and lawns of his father's estate seemed trivial: plains without horizon, seas deep enough to float the planets like corks, and "such tremendous forests" with "trees like tall pointed hilltops." He had only to close his eyes, drop his thoughts inwards, sink after them himself, call aloud and—see.
His imagination conceived and bore—worlds; but nothing in these worlds became alive until he discovered its true and living name. The name was the breath of life; and, sooner or later, he invariably found it.
Once, having terrified his sister by affirming that a little man he had created would come through her window at night and weave a peaked cap for himself by pulling out all her hairs "that hadn't gone to sleep with the rest of her body," he took characteristic measures to protect her from the said depredations. He sat up the entire night on the lawn beneath her window to watch, believing firmly that what his imagination had made alive would come to pass.
She did not know this. On the contrary, he told her that the little man had died suddenly; only, he sat up to make sure. And, for a boy of eight, those cold and haunted hours must have seemed endless from ten o'clock to four in the morning, when he crept back to his own corner of the night nursery. He possessed, you see, courage as well as faith and imagination.
Yet the name of the little man was nothing more formidable than "Winky!"
"You might have known he wouldn't hurt you, Teresa," he said. "Any one with that name would be light as a fly and awf'ly gentle—a regular dicky sort of chap!"
"But he'd have pincers," she protested, "or he couldn't pull the hairs out. Like an earwig he'd be. Ugh!"
"Not Winky! Never!" he explained scornfully, jealous of his offspring's reputation. "He'd do it with his rummy little fingers."
"Then his fingers would have claws at the ends!" she insisted; for no amount of explanation could persuade her that a person named Winky could be nice and gentle, even though he were "quicker than a second." She added that his death rejoiced her.
"But I can easily make another—such a nippy little beggar, and twice as hoppy as the first. Only I won't do it," he added magnanimously, "because it frightens you."
For to name with him was to create. He had only to run out some distance into his big mental prairie, call aloud a name in a certain commanding way, and instantly its owner would run up to claim it. Names described souls. To learn the name of a thing or person was to know all about them and make them subservient to his will; and "Winky" could only have been a very soft and furry little person, swift as a shadow, nimble as a mouse—just the sort of fellow who would make a conical cap out of a girl's fluffy hair ... and love the mischief of doing it.
And so with all things: names were vital and important. To address beings by their intimate first names, beings of the opposite sex especially, was a miniature sacrament; and the story of that premature audacity of Elsa with Lohengrin never failed to touch his sense of awe. "What's in a name?" for him, was a significant question—a question of life or death. For to mispronounce a name was a bad blunder, but to name it wrongly was to miss it altogether. Such a thing had no real life, or at best a vitality that would soon fade. Adam knew that! And he pondered much in his childhood over the difficulty Adam must have had "discovering" the correct appellations for some of the queerer animals....
As he grew older, of course, all this faded a good deal, but he never quite lost the sense of reality in names—the significance of a true name, the absurdity of a false one, the cruelty of mispronunciation. One day in the far future, he knew, some wonderful girl would come into his life, singing her own true name like music, her whole personality expressing it just as her lips framed the consonants and vowels—and he would love her. His own name, ridiculous and hateful though it was, would sing in reply. They would be in harmony together in the literal sense, as necessary to one another as two notes in the same chord....
So he also possessed the mystical vision of the poet. What he lacked—such temperaments always do—was the sense of proportion and the careful balance that adjusts cause and effect. And this it is, no doubt, that makes his adventures such "hard sayings." It becomes difficult to disentangle what actually did happen from what conceivably might have happened; what he thinks he saw from what positively was.
His early life—to the disgust of his Father, a poor country squire—was a distressing failure. He missed all examinations, muddled all chances, and finally, with L50 a year of his own, and no one to care much what happened to him, settled in London and took any odd job of a secretarial nature that offered itself. He kept to nothing for long, being easily dissatisfied, and ever on the look out for the "job" that might conceal the kind of adventure he wanted. Once the work of the moment proved barren of this possibility, he wearied of it and sought another. And the search seemed prolonged and hopeless, for the adventure he sought was not a common kind, but something that should provide him with a means of escape from a vulgar and noisy world that bored him very much indeed. He sought an adventure that should announce to him a new heaven and a new earth; something that should confirm, if not actually replace, that inner region of wonder and delight he reveled in as a boy, but which education and conflict with a prosaic age had swept away from his nearer consciousness. He sought, that is, an authoritative adventure of the soul.
To look at, one could have believed that until the age of twenty-five he had been nameless, and that a committee had then sat upon the subject and selected the sound best suited to describe him: Spinrobin—Robert. For, had he never seen himself, but run into that inner prairie of his and called aloud "Robert Spinrobin," an individual exactly resembling him would surely have pattered up to claim the name.
He was slight, graceful, quick on his feet and generally alert; took little steps that were almost hopping, and when he was in a hurry gave him the appearance of "spinning" down the pavement or up the stairs; always wore clothes of some fluffy material, with a low collar and bright red tie; had soft pink cheeks, dancing grey eyes and loosely scattered hair, prematurely thin and unquestionably like feathers. His hands and feet were small and nimble. When he stood in his favorite attitude with hands plunged deep in his pockets, coat-tails slightly spread and flapping, head on one side and hair disordered, talking in that high, twittering, yet very agreeable voice of his, it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that here was—well—Spinrobin, Bobby Spinrobin, "on the job."
For he took on any "job" that promised adventure of the kind he sought, and the queerer the better. As soon as he found that his present occupation led to nothing, he looked about for something new—chiefly in the newspaper advertisements. Numbers of strange people advertised in the newspapers, he knew, just as numbers of strange people wrote letters to them; and Spinny—so he was called by those who loved him—was a diligent student of the columns known as "Agony" and "Help wanted." Whereupon it came about that he was aged twenty-eight, and out of a job, when the threads of the following occurrence wove into the pattern of his life, and "led to something" of a kind that may well be cause for question and amazement.
The advertisement that formed the bait read as follows:—
"WANTED, by Retired Clergyman, Secretarial Assistant with courage and imagination. Tenor voice and some knowledge of Hebrew essential; single; unworldly. Apply Philip Skale,"—and the address.
Spinrobin swallowed the bait whole. "Unworldly" put the match, and he flamed up. He possessed, it seemed, the other necessary qualifications; for a thin tenor voice, not unmusical, was his, and also a smattering of Hebrew which he had picked up at Cambridge because he liked the fine, high-sounding names of deities and angels to be found in that language. Courage and imagination he lumped in, so to speak, with the rest, and in the gilt-edged diary he affected he wrote: "Have taken on Skale's odd advertisement. I like the man's name. The experience may prove an adventure. While there's change, there's hope." For he was very fond of turning proverbs to his own use by altering them, and the said diary was packed with absurd misquotations of a similar kind.
A singular correspondence followed, in which the advertiser explained with reserve that he wanted an assistant to aid him in certain experiments in sound, that a particular pitch and quality of voice was necessary (which he could not decide until, of course, he had heard it), and that the successful applicant must have sufficient courage and imagination to follow a philosophical speculation "wheresoever it may lead," and also be "so far indifferent to worldly success as to consider it of small account compared to spiritual knowledge—especially if such knowledge appeared within reach and involved worldly sacrifices." He further added that a life of loneliness in the country would have to be faced, and that the man who suited him and worked faithfully should find compensation by inheriting his own "rather considerable property when the time came." For the rest he asked no references and gave none. In a question of spiritual values references were mere foolishness. Each must judge intuitively for himself.
Spinrobin, as has been said, bit. The letters, written in a fine scholarly handwriting, excited his interest extraordinarily. He imagined some dreamer-priest possessed by a singular hobby, searching for things of the spirit by those devious ways he had heard about from time to time, a little mad probably into the bargain. The name Skale sounded to him big, yet he somehow pictured to himself an ascetic-faced man of small stature pursuing in solitude some impossible ideal. It all attracted him hugely with its promise of out-of-the-way adventure. In his own phrase it "might lead to something," and the hints about "experiments in sound" set chords trembling in him that had not vibrated since the days of his boyhood's belief in names and the significance of names. The salary, besides, was good. He was accordingly thrilled and delighted to receive in reply to his last letter a telegram which read: "Engage you month's trial both sides. Take single ticket. Skale."
"I like that 'take single ticket,'" he said to himself as he sped westwards into Wales, dressed in his usual fluffy tweed suit and anarchist tie. Upon his knees lay a brand new Hebrew grammar which he studied diligently all the way to Cardiff, and still carried in his hands when he changed into the local train that carried him laboriously into the desolation of the Pontwaun Mountains. "It looks as though he approved of me already. My name apparently hasn't put him off as it does most people. Perhaps, through it, he divines the real me!"
He smoothed down his rebellious hair as he neared the station in the dusk; but he was surprised to find only a rickety little cart drawn by a donkey sent to meet him (the house being five miles distant in the hills), and still more surprised when a huge figure of a man, hatless, dressed in knickerbockers, and with a large, floating grey beard, strode down the platform as he gave up his ticket to the station-master and announced himself as Mr. Philip Skale. He had expected the small, foxy-faced individual of his imagination, and the shock momentarily deprived him of speech.
"Mr. Spinrobin, of course? I am Mr. Skale—Mr. Philip Skale."
The voice can only be described as booming, it was so deep and vibrating; but the smile of welcome, where it escaped with difficulty from the network of beard and moustaches, was winning and almost gentle in contradistinction to the volume of that authoritative voice. Spinrobin felt slightly bewildered—caught up into a whirlwind that drove too many impressions through his brain for any particular one to be seized and mastered. He found himself shaking hands—Mr. Skale, rather, shaking his, in a capacious grasp as though it were some small indiarubber ball to be squeezed and flung away. Mr. Skale flung it away, he felt the shock up the whole length of his arm to the shoulder. His first impressions, he declares, he cannot remember—they were too tumultuous—beyond that he liked both smile and voice, the former making him feel at home, the latter filling him to the brim with a peculiar sense of well-being. Never before had he heard his name pronounced in quite the same way; it sounded dignified, even splendid, the way Mr. Skale spoke it. Beyond this general impression, however, he can only say that his thoughts and feelings "whirled." Something emanated from this giant clergyman that was somewhat enveloping and took him off his feet. The keynote of the man had been struck at once.
"How do you do, sir? This is the train you mentioned, I think?" Spinrobin heard his own thin voice speaking, by way, as it were, of instinctive apology that he should have put such a man to the trouble of coming to meet him. He said "sir," it seemed unavoidable; for there was nothing of the clergyman about him—bishop, perhaps, or archbishop, but no suggestion of vicar or parish priest. Somewhere, too, in his presentment he felt dimly, even at the first, there was an element of the incongruous, a meeting of things not usually found together. The vigorous open-air life of the mountaineer spoke in the great muscular body with the broad shoulders and clean, straight limbs; but behind the brusqueness of manner lay the true gentleness of fine breeding.
And even here, on this platform of the lonely mountain station, Spinrobin detected the atmosphere of the scholar, almost of the recluse, shot through with the strange fires that dropped from the large, lambent, blue eyes. All these things rushed over the thrilled little secretary with an effect, as already described, of a certain bewilderment, that left no single, dominant impression. What remained with him, perhaps, most vividly, he says, was the quality of the big blue eyes, their luminosity, their far-seeing expression, their kindliness. They were the eyes of the true visionary, but in such a personality they proclaimed the mystic who had retained his health of soul and body. Mr. Skale was surely a visionary, but just as surely a wholesome man of action—probably of terrific action. Spinrobin felt irresistibly drawn to him.
"It is not unpleasant, I trust," the other was saying in his deep tones, "to find some one to meet you, and," he added with a genial laugh, "to counteract the first impression of this somewhat melancholy and inhospitable scenery." His arm swept out to indicate the dreary little station and the bleak and lowering landscape of treeless hills in the dusk.
The new secretary made some appropriate reply, his sense of loneliness already dissipated in part by the unexpected welcome. And they fell to arrangements about the luggage. "You won't mind walking," said Mr. Skale, with a finality that anticipated only agreement. "It's a short five miles. The donkey-cart will take the portmanteau." Upon which they started off at a pace that made the little man wonder whether he could possibly keep it up. "We shall get in before dark," explained the other, striding along with ease, "and Mrs. Mawle, my housekeeper, will have tea ready and waiting for us." Spinrobin followed, panting, thinking vaguely of the other employers he had known—philanthropists, bankers, ambitious members of Parliament, and all the rest—commonplace individuals to a man; and then of the immense and towering figure striding just ahead, shedding about him this vibrating atmosphere of power and whirlwind, touched so oddly here and there with a vein of gentleness that was almost sweetness. Never before had he known any human being who radiated such vigor, such big and beneficent fatherliness, yet for all the air of kindliness something, too, that touched in him the sense of awe. Mr. Skale, he felt, was a very unusual man.
They went on in the gathering dusk, talking little but easily. Spinrobin felt "taken care of." Usually he was shy with a new employer, but this man inspired much too large a sensation in him to include shyness, or any other form of petty self-consciousness. He felt more like a son than a secretary. He remembered the wording of the advertisement, the phrases of the singular correspondence—and wondered. "A remarkable personality," he thought to himself as he stumbled through the dark after the object of his reflections; "simple—yet tremendous! A giant in all sorts of ways probably—" Then his thought hesitated, floundered. There was something else he divined yet could not name. He felt out of his depth in some entirely new way, in touch with an order of possibilities larger, more vast, more remote than any dreams his imagination even had yet envisaged. All this, and more, the mere presence of this retired clergyman poured into his receptive and eager little soul.
And very soon it was that these nameless qualities began to assert themselves, completing the rout of Spinrobin's moderate powers of judgment. No practical word as to the work before them, or the duties of the new secretary, had yet passed between them. They walked along together, chatting as equals, acquaintances, almost two friends might have done. And on the top of the hill, after a four-mile trudge, they rested for the first time, Spinrobin panting and perspiring, trousers tucked up and splashed yellow with mud; Mr. Skale, legs apart, beard flattened by the wind about his throat, and thumbs in the slits of his waistcoat as he looked keenly about him over the darkening landscape. Treeless and desolate hills rose on all sides. A few tumbled-down cottages of grey stone lay scattered upon the lower slopes among patches of shabby and forlorn cultivation. Here and there an outcrop of rock ran skywards into somber and precipitous ridges. The October wind passed to and fro over it all, mournfully singing, and driving loose clouds that seemed to drop weighted shadows among the peaks.
And it was here that Mr. Skale stopped abruptly, looked about him, and then down at his companion.
"Bleak and lonely—this great spread of bare mountain and falling cliff," he observed half to himself, half to the other; "but fine, very, very fine." He exhaled deeply, then inhaled as though the great draught of air was profoundly satisfying. He turned to catch his companion's eye. "There's a savage and desolate beauty here that uplifts. It helps the mind to dwell upon the full sweep of life instead of getting dwarfed and lost among its petty details. Pretty scenery is not good for the soul." And again he inhaled a prodigious breastful of the mountain air. "This is."
"But an element of terror in it, perhaps, sir," suggested the secretary who, truth to tell, preferred his scenery more smiling, and who, further, had been made suddenly aware that in this somber setting of bleak and elemental nature the great figure of his future employer assumed a certain air of grandeur that was a little too awe-inspiring to be pleasant.
"In all profound beauty there must be that," the clergyman was saying; "fine terror, I mean, of course—just enough to bring out the littleness of man by comparison."
"Perhaps, yes," agreed Spinrobin. His own insignificance seemed peculiarly apparent at that moment in contrast to Mr. Skale who had become part and parcel of the rugged landscape. Spinrobin was a lost atom whirling somewhere outside on his own account, whereas the other seemed oddly in touch with it, almost merged and incorporated into it. With those deep breaths the clergyman absorbed something of this latent power about them—then gave it out again. It broke over his companion like a wave. Elemental force of some kind emanated from that massive human figure beside him.
The wind came tearing up the valley and swept past them with a rush as of mighty wings. Mr. Skale drew attention to it. "And listen to that!" he said. "How it leaps, singing, from the woods in the valley up to those gaunt old cliffs yonder!" He pointed. His beard blew suddenly across his face. With his bare head and shaggy flying hair, his big eyes and bold aquiline nose, he presented an impressive figure. Spinrobin watched him with growing amazement, aware that an enthusiasm scarcely warranted by the wind and scenery had passed into his manner. In his own person, too, he thought he experienced a birth of something similar—a little wild rush of delight he was unable to account for. The voice of his companion, pointing out the house in the valley below, again interrupted his thoughts.
"How the mountains positively eat it up. It lies in their very jaws," and the secretary's eyes, traveling into the depths, made out a cluster of grey stone chimneys and a clearing in the woods that evidently represented lawns. The phrase "courage and imagination" flashed unbidden into his mind as he realized the loneliness of the situation, and for the hundredth time he wondered what in the world could be the experiments with sound that this extraordinary man pursued in this isolated old mansion among the hills.
"Buried, sir, rather," he suggested. "I can only just see it—"
"And inaccessible," Mr. Skale interrupted him. "Hard to get at. No one comes to disturb; an ideal place for work. In the hollows of these hills a man may indeed seek truth and pursue it, for the world does not enter here." He paused a moment. "I hope, Mr. Spinrobin," he added, turning towards him with that gentle smile his shaggy visage sometimes wore, "I hope you will not find it too lonely. We have no visitors, I mean; nothing but our own little household of four."
Spinrobin smiled back. Even at this stage he admits he was exceedingly anxious to suit. Mr. Skale, in spite of his marked peculiarities, inspired him with confidence. His personal attraction was growing every minute; that vague awe he roused probably only increased it. He wondered who the "four" might be.
"There's nothing like solitude for serious work, sir," replied the younger man, stifling a passing uneasiness.
And with that they plunged down the hillside into the valley, Mr. Skale leading the way at a terrific pace, shouting out instructions and warnings from time to time that echoed from the rocks as though voices followed them down from the mountains. The darkness swallowed them, they left the wind behind; the silence that dwells in the folded hills fell about their steps; the air grew less keen; the trees multiplied, gathering them in with fingers of mist and shadow. Only the clatter of their boots on the rocky path, and the heavy bass of the clergyman's voice shouting instructions from time to time, broke the stillness. Spinrobin followed the big dark outline in front of him as best he could, stumbling frequently. With countless little hopping steps he dodged along from point to point, a certain lucky nimbleness in his twinkling feet saving him from many a tumble.
"All right behind there?" Mr. Skale would thunder.
"All right, thanks, Mr. Skale," he would reply in his thin tenor, "I'm coming."
"Come along, then!" And on they would go faster than before, till in due course they emerged from the encircling woods and reached the more open ground about the house. Somehow, in the jostling relations of the walk, a freedom of intercourse had been established that no amount of formal talk between four walls could have accomplished. They scraped their dirty boots vigorously on the iron mat.
"Tired?" asked the clergyman, kindly.
"Winded, Mr. Skale, thank you—nothing more," was the reply. He looked up at the square mass of the house looming dark against the sky, and the noise his companion made opening the door—the actual rattle of the iron knob did it—suddenly brought to him a clear realization of two things: First, he understood that the whole way from the station Mr. Skale had been watching him closely, weighing, testing, proving him, though by ways and methods so subtle that they had escaped his observation at the time; secondly, that he was already so caught in the network of this personality, vaster and more powerful than his own, that escape if he desired it would be exceedingly difficult. Like a man in a boat upon the upper Niagara river, he already felt the tug and suction of the current below—the lust of a great adventure drawing him forward. Mr. Skale's hand upon his shoulder as they entered the house was the symbol of that. The noise of the door closing behind him was the passing of the last bit of quiet water across which a landing to the bank might still have been possible.
Faint streamers from the dark, inscrutable house of fear reached him even then and left their vague, undecipherable signatures upon the surface of his soul. The forces that vibrated so strangely in the atmosphere of Mr. Skale were already playing about his own person, gathering him in like a garment. Yet while he shuddered, he liked it. Was he not already losing something of his own insignificant and diminutive self?
The clergyman, meanwhile, had closed the heavy door, shutting out the darkness, and now led the way across a large, flagged hall into a room, ablaze with lamp and fire, the walls lined thickly with books, furnished cozily if plainly. The laden tea table, and a kettle hissing merrily on the hob, were pleasant to look upon, but what instantly arrested the gaze of the secretary was the face of the old woman in cap and apron—evidently the housekeeper already referred to as "Mrs." Mawle—who stood waiting to pour out tea. For about her worn and wrinkled countenance there lay an indefinable touch of something that hitherto he had seen only in pictures of the saints by the old masters. What attracted his attention, and held it so arrestingly, was this singular expression of happiness, aye, of more than mere happiness—of joy and peace and blessed surety, rarely, if ever, seen upon a human face alive, and only here and there suggested behind that mask of repose which death leaves so tenderly upon the features of those few who have lived their lives to noblest advantage.
Spinrobin caught his breath a little, and stared. Aged and lined as it unquestionably was, he caught that ineffable suggestion of radiance about it which proclaimed an inner life that had found itself and was in perfect harmony with outer things: a life based upon certain knowledge and certain hope. It wore a gentle whiteness he could find only one word to describe—glory. And the moment he saw it there flashed across him the recognition that this was what Mr. Skale also possessed. That giant, athletic, vigorous man, and this bent, worn old woman both had it. He wondered with a rush of sudden joy what produced it;—whether it might perhaps one day be his too. The flame of his own spirit leapt within him.
And, so wondering, he turned to look at the clergyman. In the softer light of fire and lamp his face had the appearance of forty rather than sixty as he had first judged; the eyes, always luminous, shone with health and enthusiasm; a great air of youth and vitality glowed about him. It was a fine head with that dominating nose and the shaggy tangle of hair and beard; very big, fatherly and protective he looked, a quite inexpressible air of tenderness mingled in everywhere with the strength. Spinrobin felt immensely drawn to him as he looked. With such a leader he could go anywhere, do anything. There, surely, was a man whose heart was set not upon the things of this world.
An introduction to the housekeeper interrupted his reflections; it did not strike him as at all out of the way; doubtless she was more mother than domestic to the household. At the name of "Mrs." Mawle (courtesy-title, obviously), he rose and bowed, and the old woman, looking from one to the other, smiled becomingly, curtseyed, put her cap straight, and turned to the teapot again. She said nothing.
"The only servant I have, practically," explained the clergyman, "cook, butler, housekeeper and tyrant all in one; and, with her niece, the only other persons in the house besides ourselves. A very simple menage, you see, Mr. Spinrobin. I ought to warn you, too, by-the-by," he added, "that she is almost stone deaf, and has only got the use of one arm, as perhaps you noticed. Her left arm is"—he hesitated for a fraction of a second—"withered."
A passing wonder as to what the niece would be like accompanied the swallowing of his buttered toast and tea, but the personalities of Mr. Skale and his housekeeper had already produced emotions that prevented this curiosity acquiring much strength. He could deal with nothing more just yet. Bewilderment obstructed the way, and in his room before dinner he tried in vain to sort out the impressions that so thickly flooded him, though without any conspicuous degree of success. The walls of his bedroom, like those of corridor and hall, were bare; the furniture solid and old-fashioned; scanty, perhaps, yet more than he was accustomed to; and the spaciousness was very pleasant after the cramped quarters of stuffy London lodgings. He unpacked his few things, arranged them with neat precision in the drawers of the tallboy, counted his shirts, socks, and ties, to see that all was right, and then drew up an armchair and toasted his toes before the comforting fire. He tried to think of many things, and to decide numerous little questions roused by the events of the last few hours; but the only thing, it seems, that really occupied his mind, was the rather overpowering fact that he was—with Mr. Skale and in Mr. Skale's house; that he was there on a month's trial; that the nature of the work in which he was to assist was unknown, immense, singular; and that he was already being weighed in the balances by his uncommon and gigantic employer. In his mind he used this very adjective. There was something about the big clergyman—titanic.
He was in the middle of a somewhat jumbled consideration about "Knowledge of Hebrew—tenor voice—courage and imagination—unworldly," and so forth, when a knock at the door announced Mrs. Mawle who came to inform him that dinner was ready. She stood there, a motherly and pleasant figure in black, and she addressed him in the third person. "If Mr. Spinrobin will please to come down," she said, "Mr. Skale is waiting. Mr. Skale is always quite punctual." She always spoke thus, in the third person; she never used the personal pronoun if it could be avoided. She preferred the name direct, it seemed. And as Spinrobin passed her on the way out, she observed further, looking straight into his eyes as she said it: "and should Mr. Spinrobin have need of anything, that," indicating it, "is the bell that rings in the housekeeper's room. Mrs. Mawle can see it wag, though she can't hear it. Day or night," she added with a faint curtsey, "and no trouble at all, just as with the other gentlemen—"
So there had been other gentlemen, other secretaries! He thanked her with a nod and a smile, and hurried pattering downstairs in a neat blue suit, black silk socks and a pair of bright new pumps, Mr. Skale having told him not to dress. The phrase "day or night," meanwhile, struck him as significant and peculiar. He remembered it later. At the moment he merely noted that it added one more to the puzzling items that caused his bewilderment.
Before he had gone very far, however, there came another—crowningly perplexing. For he was halfway down the darkened passage, making for the hall that glimmered beyond like the mouth of a cave, when, without the smallest warning, he became suddenly conscious that something attractive and utterly delicious had invaded the stream of his being. It came from nowhere—inexplicably, and at first it took the form of a naked sensation of delight, keen as a thrill of boyhood days. There passed into him very swiftly something that satisfied. "I mean, whatever it was," he says, "I couldn't have asked or wanted more of it. It was all there, complete, supreme, sufficient." And the same instant he saw close beside him, in the comparative gloom of the narrow corridor, a vivid, vibrating picture of a girl's face, pale as marble, of flower-like beauty, with dark voluminous hair and large grey eyes that met his own from behind a wavering net of eyelashes. Down to the shoulders he saw her.
Erect and motionless she stood against the wall to let him pass—this slim young girl whose sudden and unexpected presence had so electrified him. Her eyes followed him like those of a picture, but she neither bowed nor curtseyed, and the only movement she made was the slight turning of the head and eyes as he went by. It was extraordinarily effective, this silent and delightful introduction, for swift as lightning, and with lightning's terrific and incalculable surety of aim, she leapt into his heart with the effect of a blinding and complete possession.
It was, of course, he realized, the niece—the fourth member of the household, and the first clear thought to disentangle itself from the resultant jumble of emotions was his instinctive wonder what her name might be. How was this delightful apparition called? This was the question that ran and danced in his blood. In another minute he felt sure he would discover it. It must begin (he felt sure of that) with an M.
He did not pause, or alter his pace. He made no sign of recognition. Their eyes swallowed each other for a brief moment as he passed—and then he was pattering with quick, excited steps down the passage beyond, and the girl was left out of sight in the shadows behind him. He did not even turn back to look, for in some amazing sense she seemed to move on beside him, as though some portion of her had merged into his being. He carried her on with him. Some sweet and marvelous interchange they had undergone together. He felt strangely blessed, soothed inwardly, made complete, and more than twice on the way down the name he knew must belong to her almost sprang up and revealed itself—yet never quite. He knew it began with M, even with Mir—but could get nothing more. The rest evaded him. He divined only a portion of the name. He had seen only a portion of her form.
The first syllable, however, sang in him with an exquisitely sweet authority. He was aware of some glorious new thing in the penetralia of his little spirit, vibrating with happiness. Some portion of himself sang with it. "For it really did vibrate," he said, "and no other word describes it. It vibrated like music, like a string; as though when I passed her she had taken a bow and drawn it across the strings of my inmost being to make them sing...."
"Come," broke in the sonorous voice of the clergyman whom he found standing in the hall; "I've been waiting for you."
It was said, not complainingly nor with any idea of fault-finding, but rather—both tone and manner betrayed it—as a prelude to something of importance about to follow. Somewhat impatiently Mr. Skale took his companion by the arm and led him forwards; on the stone floor Spinrobin's footsteps sounded light and dancing, like a child's. The clergyman strode. At the dining room door he stopped, turning abruptly, and at the same instant the figure of the young girl glided noiselessly towards them from the mouth of the dark corridor where she had been waiting.
Her entry, again, was curiously effective; like a beautiful thought in a dream she moved into the hall, and into Spinrobin's life. Moreover, as she came wholly into view in the light, he felt, as positively as though he heard it uttered, that he knew her name complete. The first syllable had come to him in the passageway when he saw her partly, and the feeling of dread that "Mir—" might prove to be part of "Miranda," "Myrtle," or some other enormity, passed instantly. These would only have been gross and cruel misnomers. Her right name—the only one that described her soul—must end, as it began, with M. It flashed into his mind, and at the same moment Mr. Skale picked it off his very lips.
"Miriam," he said in deep tones, rolling the name along his mouth so as to extract every shade of sound belonging to it, "this is Mr. Spinrobin about whom I told you. He is coming, I hope, to help us."
At first Spinrobin was only aware of the keen delight produced in him by the manner of Skale's uttering her name, for it entered his consciousness with a murmuring, singing sound that continued on in his thoughts like a melody. His racing blood carried it to every portion of his body. He heard her name, not with his ears alone but with his whole person—a melodious, haunting phrase of music that thrilled him exquisitely. Next, he knew that she stood close before him, shaking his hand, and looking straight into his eyes with an expression of the most complete trust and sympathy imaginable, and that he felt a well-nigh irresistible desire to draw her yet closer to him and kiss her little shining face. Thirdly—though the three impressions were as a matter of fact almost simultaneous—that the huge figure of the clergyman stood behind them, watching with the utmost intentness and interest, like a keen and alert detective eager for some betrayal of evidence, inspired, however, not by mistrust, but by a very zealous sympathy.
He understood that this meeting was of paramount importance in Mr. Skale's purpose.
"How do you do, Mr. Spinrobin," he heard a soft voice saying, and the commonplace phrase served to bring him back to a more normal standard of things. But the tone in which she said it caused him a second thrill almost more delightful than the first, for the quality was low and fluty, like the gentle note of some mellow wind instrument, and the caressing way she pronounced his name was a revelation. Mr. Skale had known how to make it sound dignified, but this girl did more—she made it sound alive. "I will give thee a new name" flashed into his thoughts, as some memory-cell of boyhood discharged its little burden most opportunely and proceeded to refill itself.
The smile of happiness that broke over Spinrobin's face was certainly reflected in the eyes that gazed so searchingly into his own, without the smallest sign of immodesty, yet without the least inclination to drop the eyelids. The two natures ran out to meet each other as naturally as two notes of music run to take their places in a chord. This slight, blue-eyed youth, light of hair and sensitive of spirit, and this slim, dark-skinned little maiden, with the voice of music and the wide-open grey eyes, understood one another from the very first instant their atmospheres touched and mingled; and the big Skale, looking on intently over their very shoulders, saw that it was good and smiled down upon them, too, in his turn.
"The harmony of souls and voices is complete," he said, but in so low a tone that the secretary did not hear it. Then, with a hand on a shoulder of each, he half pushed them before him into the dining room, his whole face running, as it were, into a single big smile of contentment. The important event had turned out to his entire satisfaction. He looked like some beneficent father, well pleased with his two children.
But Spinrobin, as he moved beside the girl and heard the rustle of her dress that almost touched him, felt as though he stood upon a sliding platform that was moving ever quicker, and that the adventure upon which he was embarked had now acquired a momentum that nothing he could do would ever stop. And he liked it. It would carry him out of himself into something very big....
And at dinner, where he sat opposite to the girl and studied her face closely, Mr. Skale, he was soon aware, was occupied in studying the two of them even more closely. He appeared always to be listening to their voices. They spoke little enough, however, only their eyes met continually, and when they did so there was no evidence of a desire to withdraw. Their gaze remained fastened on one another, on her part without shyness, without impudence on his. That Mr. Skale wished for them an intimate and even affectionate understanding was evident, and the secretary warmed to him on that account more than ever, if on no other.
It surprised him too—when he thought of it, which was rarely—that a girl who was perforce of humble origin could carry herself with an air of such complete and natural distinction, and prove herself so absolutely "the lady." For there was something about her of greater value than any mere earthly rank or class could confer; her spirit was in its very essence distinguished, perfectly simple, yet strong with a great and natural pride. It never occurred to her soul to doubt its own great value—or to question that of others. She somehow or other made the little secretary feel of great account. He had never quite realized his own value before. Her presence, her eyes, her voice served to bring it out. And a very curious detail that he always mentions just at this point is the fact that it never occurred to him to wonder what her surname might be, or whether, indeed, she had one at all. Her name, Miriam, seemed sufficient. The rest of her—if there was any other part of her not described by those three syllables—lay safely and naturally included somewhere in his own name. "Spinrobin" described her as well as himself. But "Miriam" completed his own personality and at the same time extended it. He felt all wrapped up and at peace with her. With Philip Skale, Mrs. Mawle and Miriam, he, Robert Spinrobin, felt that he naturally belonged as "one of the family." They were like the four notes in the chord: Skale, the great bass; Mawle, the mellow alto; himself and Miriam, respectively, the echoing tenor and the singing soprano. The imagery by which, in the depths of his mind, he sought to interpret to himself the whole singular business ran, it seems, even then to music and the analogies of music.
The meal was short and very simple. Mrs. Mawle carved the joint at the end of the table, handed the vegetables and looked after their wants with the precision of long habit. Her skill, in spite of the withered arm, was noteworthy. They talked little, Mr. Skale hardly at all. Miriam spoke from time to time across the table to the secretary. She did not ask questions, she stated facts, as though she already knew all about his feelings and tastes. She may have been twenty years of age, perhaps, but in some way she took him back to childhood. And she said things with the simple audacity of a child, ignoring Mr. Skale's presence. It seemed to the secretary as if he had always known her.
"I knew just how you would look," she said, without a trace of shyness, "the moment I heard your name. And you got my name very quickly, too?"
"Only part of it, at first—"
"Oh yes; but when you saw me completely you got it all," she interrupted. "And I like your name," she added, looking him full in the eye with her soft grey orbs; "it tells everything."
"So does yours, you know."
"Oh, of course," she laughed; "Mr. Skale gave it to me the day I was born."
"I heard it," put in the clergyman, speaking almost for the first time. And the talk dropped again, the secretary's head fairly whirling.
"You used it all, of course, as a little boy," she said presently again; "names, I mean?"
"Rather," he replied without hesitation; "only I've rather lost it since—"
"It will come back to you here. It's so splendid, all this world of sound, and makes everything seem worth while. But you lose your way at first, of course; especially if you are out of practice, as you must be."
Spinrobin did not know what to say. To hear this young girl make use of such language took his breath away. He became aware that she was talking with a purpose, seconding Mr. Skale in the secret examination to which the clergyman was all the time subjecting him. Yet there was no element of alarm in it all. In the room with these two, and with the motherly figure of the housekeeper busying about to and fro, he felt at home, comforted, looked after—more even, he felt at his best; as though the stream of his little life were mingling in with a much bigger and worthier river, a river, moreover, in flood. But it was the imagery of music again that most readily occurred to him. He felt that the note of his own little personality had been caught up into the comforting bosom of a complete chord....
"Mr. Spinrobin," suddenly sounded soft and low across the table, and, thrilled to hear the girl speak his name, he looked up quickly and found her very wide-opened eyes peering into his. Her face was thrust forward a little as she leaned over the table in his direction.
As he gazed she repeated his name, leisurely, quietly, and even more softly than before: "Mr. Spinrobin." But this time, as their eyes met and the syllables issued from her lips, he noticed that a singular after-sound—an exceedingly soft yet vibrant overtone—accompanied it. The syllables set something quivering within him, something that sang, running of its own accord into a melody to which his rising pulses beat time and tune.
"Now, please, speak my name," she added. "Please look straight at me, straight into my eyes, and pronounce my name."
His lips trembled, if ever so slightly, as he obeyed.
"Miriam ..." he said.
"Pronounce each syllable very distinctly and very slowly," she said, her grey eyes all over his burning face.
"Mir ... i ... am," he repeated, looking in the center of the eyes without flinching, and becoming instantly aware that his utterance of the name produced in himself a development and extension of the original overtones awakened by her speaking of his own name. It was wonderful ... exquisite ... delicious. He uttered it again, and then heard that she, too, was uttering his at the same moment. Each spoke the other's name. He could have sworn he heard the music within him leap across the intervening space and transfer itself to her ... and that he heard his own name singing, too, in her blood.
For the names were true. By this soft intoning utterance they seemed to pass mutually into the secret rhythm of that Eternal Principle of Speech which exists behind the spoken sound and is independent of its means of manifestation. Their central beings, screened and limited behind their names, knew an instant of synchronous rhythmical vibration. It was their introduction absolute to one another, for it was an instant of naked revelation.
... A great volume of sound suddenly enveloped and caught away the two singing names, and the spell was broken. Miriam dropped her eyes; Spinrobin looked up. It was Mr. Skale's voice upon them with a shout.
"Splendid! splendid!" he cried; "your voices, like your names, are made for one another, in quality, pitch, accent, everything." He was enthusiastic rather than excited; but to Spinrobin, taking part in this astonishing performance, to which the other two alone held the key, it all seemed too perplexing for words. The great bass crashed and boomed for a moment about his ears; then came silence. The test, or whatever it was, was over. It had been successful.
Mr. Skale, his face still shining with enthusiasm, turned towards him. Miriam, equally happy, watched, her hands folded in her lap.
"My dear fellow," exclaimed the clergyman, half rising in his chair, "how mad you must think us! How mad you must think us! I can only assure you that when you know more, as you soon shall, you will understand the importance of what has just taken place...."
He said a good deal more that Spinrobin did not apparently quite take in. He was too bewildered. His eyes sought the girl where she sat opposite, gazing at him. For all its pallor, her face was tenderly soft and beautiful; more pure and undefiled, he thought, than any human countenance he had ever seen, and sweet as the face of a child. Utterly unstained it was. A similar light shone in the faces of Skale and Mrs. Mawle. In their case it had forged its way through the more or less defiling garment of a worn and experienced flesh. But the light in Miriam's eyes and skin was there because it had never been extinguished. She had retained her pristine brilliance of soul. Through the little spirit of the perplexed secretary ran a thrill of genuine worship and adoration.
"Mr. Skale's coffee is served in the library," announced the voice of the housekeeper abruptly behind them; and when Spinrobin turned again he discovered that Miriam had slipped from the room unobserved and was gone.
Mr. Skale took his companion's arm and led the way towards the hall.
"I am glad you love her," was his astonishing remark. "It is the first and most essential condition of your suiting me."
"She is delightful, wonderful, charming, sir—"
"Not 'sir,' if you please," replied the clergyman, standing aside at the threshold for his guest to pass; "I prefer the use of the name, you know. I think it is important."
And he closed the library door behind them.
For some minutes they sat in front of the fire and sipped their coffee in silence. The secretary felt that the sliding platform on which he was traveling into this extraordinary adventure had been going a little too fast for him. Events had crowded past before he had time to look squarely at them. He had lost his bearings rather, routed by Miriam's beauty and by the amazing way she talked to him. Had she lived always inside his thoughts she could not have chosen words better calculated to convince him that they were utterly in sympathy one with the other. Mr. Skale, moreover, approved heartily. The one thing Spinrobin saw clearly through it all was that himself and Miriam—their voices, rather—were necessary for the success of the clergyman's mysterious experiments. Only, while Miriam, little witch, knew all about it, he, candidate on trial, knew as yet—nothing.
And now, as they sat opposite one another in the privacy of the library, Spinrobin, full of confidence and for once proud of his name and personality, looked forward to being taken more into the heart of the affair. Things advanced, however, more slowly than he desired. Mr. Skale's scheme was too big to be hurried.
The clergyman did not smoke, but his companion, with the other's ready permission, puffed gently at a small cigarette. Short, rapid puffs he took, as though the smoke was afraid to enter beyond the front teeth, and with one finger he incessantly knocked off the ashes into his saucer, even when none were there to fall. On the table behind them gurgled the shaded lamp, lighting their faces from the eyes downwards.
"Now," said Mr. Skale, evidently not aware that he thundered, "we can talk quietly and undisturbed." He caught his beard in a capacious hand, in such a way that the square outline of his chin showed through the hair. His voice boomed musically, filling the room. Spinrobin listened acutely, afraid even to cross his legs. A genuine pronouncement, he felt, was coming.
"A good many years ago, Mr. Spinrobin," he said simply, "when I was a curate of a country parish in Norfolk, I made a discovery—of a revolutionary description—a discovery in the world of real things, that is, of spiritual things."
He gazed fixedly over the clutched beard at his companion, apparently searching for brief, intelligible phrases. "But a discovery, the development of which I was obliged to put on one side until I inherited with this property the means and leisure which enabled me to continue my terrific—I say purposely terrific—researches. For some years now I have been quietly at work here absorbed in my immense pursuit." And again he stopped. "I have reached a point, Mr. Spinrobin—"
"Yes," interjected the secretary, as though the mention of his name touched a button and produced a sound. "A point—?"
"Where I need the assistance of some one with a definite quality of voice—a man who emits a certain note—a certain tenor note." He released his beard, so that it flew out with a spring, at the same moment thrusting his head forward to drive home the announcement effectively.
Spinrobin crossed his legs with a fluttering motion, hastily. "As you advertised," he suggested.
The clergyman bowed.
"My efforts to find the right man," continued the enthusiast, leaning back in his chair, "have now lasted a year. I have had a dozen men down here, each on a month's trial. None of them suited. None had the requisite quality of voice. With a single exception, none of them could stand the loneliness, the seclusion; and without exception, all of them were too worldly to make sacrifices. It was the salary they wanted. The majority, moreover, confused imagination with fancy, and courage with mere audacity. And, most serious of all, not one of them passed the test of—Miriam. She harmonized with none of them. They were discords one and all. You, Mr. Spinrobin, are the first to win acceptance. The instant she heard your name she cried for you. And she knows. She sings the soprano. She took you into the chord."
"I hope indeed—" stammered the flustered and puzzled secretary, and then stopped, blushing absurdly. "You claim for me far more than I should dare to claim for myself," he added. The reference to Miriam delighted him, and utterly destroyed his judgment. He longed to thank the girl for having approved him. "I'm glad my voice—er—suits your—chord." In his heart of hearts he understood something of what Mr. Skale was driving at, yet was half-ashamed to admit it even to himself. In this twentieth century it all seemed so romantic, mystical, and absurd. He felt it was all half-true. If only he could have run back into that great "mental prairie" of his boyhood days it might all have been quite true.
"Precisely," continued Mr. Skale, bringing him back to reality, "precisely. And now, before I tell you more, you will forgive my asking you one or two personal questions, I'm sure. We must build securely as we go, leaving nothing to chance. The grandeur and importance of my experiments demand it. Afterwards," and his expression changed to a sudden softness in a way that was characteristic of the man, "you must feel free to put similar questions to me, as personal and direct as you please. I wish to establish a perfect frankness between us at the start."
"Thank you, Mr. Skale. Of course—er—should anything occur to me to ask—" A momentary bewilderment, caused by the great visage so close to his own, prevented the completion of the sentence.
"As to your beliefs, for instance," the clergyman resumed abruptly, "your religious beliefs, I mean. I must be sure of you on that ground. What are you?"
"Nothing—I think," Spinrobin replied without hesitation, remembering how his soul had bounced its way among the various creeds since Cambridge, and arrived at its present state of Belief in Everything, yet without any definite label. "Nothing in particular. Nominally, though—a Christian."
"You believe in a God?"
"A Supreme Intelligence, most certainly," was the emphatic reply.
Spinrobin hesitated. He was a very honest soul.
"Other life, let me put it," the clergyman helped him; "other beings besides ourselves?"
"I have often felt—wondered, rather," he answered carefully, "whether there might not be other systems of evolution besides humanity. Such extraordinary Forces come blundering into one's life sometimes, and one can't help wondering where they come from. I have never formulated any definite beliefs, however—"
"Your world is not a blind chaos, I mean?" Mr. Skale put gravely to him, as though questioning a child.
"No, no, indeed. There's order and system—"
"In which you personally count for something of value?" asked the other quickly.
"I like to think so," was the apologetic reply. "There's something that includes me somewhere in a purpose of very great importance—only, of course, I've got to do my part, and—"
"Good," Mr. Skale interrupted him. "And now," he asked softly, after a moment's pause, leaning forward, "what about death? Are you afraid of death?"
Spinrobin started visibly. He began to wonder where this extraordinary catechism was going to lead. But he answered at once: he had thought out these things and knew where he stood.
"Only of its possible pain," he said, smiling into the bearded visage before him. "And an immense curiosity, of course—"
"It does not mean extinction for you—going out like the flame of a candle, for instance?"
"I have never been able to believe that, Mr. Skale. I continue somewhere and somehow—forever."
The cross-examination puzzled him more and more, and through it, for the first time, he began to feel dimly, ran a certain strain of something not quite right, not permissible in the biggest sense. It was not the questions themselves that produced this odd and rather disquieting impression, but the fact that Mr. Skale was preparing the ground with such extraordinary thoroughness. This conversation was the first swell, as it were, rolling mysteriously in upon him from the ocean in whose deeps the great Experiment lay buried. Forces, tidal in strength, oceanic in volume, shrouded it just now, but he already felt them. They reached him through the person of the clergyman. It was these forces playing through his personality that Spinrobin had been aware of the first moment they met on the station platform, and had "sensed" even more strongly during the walk home across the mountains.
Behind the play of these darker impressions, as yet only vague and ambiguous, there ran in and out among his thoughts the vein of something much sweeter. Miriam, with her large grey eyes and silvery voice, was continually peeping in upon his mind. He wondered where she was and what she was doing in the big, lonely house. He wished she could have been in the room to hear his answers and approve them. He felt incomplete without her. Already he thought of her as the melody to which he was the accompaniment, two things that ought not to be separated.
"My point is," Mr. Skale continued, "that, apart from ordinary human ties, and so forth, you have no intrinsic terror of death—of losing your present body?"
"No, no," was the reply, more faintly given than the rest. "I love my life, but—but—" he looked about him in some confusion for the right words, still thinking of Miriam—"but I look forward, Mr. Skale; I look forward." He dropped back into the depths of his armchair and puffed swiftly at the end of his extinguished cigarette, oblivious of the fact that no smoke came.
"The attitude of a brave man," said the clergyman with approval. Then, looking straight into the secretary's blue eyes, he added with increased gravity: "And therefore it would not be immoral of me to expose you to an experiment in which the penalty of a slip would be—death? Or you would not shrink from it yourself, provided the knowledge to be obtained seemed worth while?"
"That's right, sir—Mr. Skale, I mean; that's right," came the answer after an imperceptible pause.
The result of the talk seemed to satisfy the clergyman. "You must think my questions very peculiar," he said, the sternness of his face relaxing a little, "but it was necessary to understand your exact position before proceeding further. The gravity of my undertaking demands it. However, you must not let my words alarm you." He waited a moment, reflecting deeply. "You must regard them, if you will, as a kind of test," he resumed, searching his companion's face with eagle eyes, "the beginning of a series of tests in which your attitude to Miriam and hers to you, so far as that goes, was the first."
"Oh, that's all right, Mr. Skale," was his inadequate rejoinder; for the moment the name of the girl was introduced his thoughts instantly wandered out to find her. The way the clergyman pronounced it increased its power, too, for no name he uttered sounded ordinary. There seemed a curious mingling in the resonant cavity of his great mouth of the fundamental note and the overtones.
"Yes, you have the kind of courage that is necessary," Mr. Skale was saying, half to himself, "the modesty that forgets self, and the unworldly attitude that is essential. With your help I may encompass success; and I consider myself wonderfully fortunate to have found you, wonderfully fortunate...."
"I'm glad," murmured Spinrobin, thinking that so far he had not learned anything very definite about his duties, or what it was he had to do to earn so substantial a salary. Truth to tell, he did not bother much about that part of it. He was conscious only of three main desires: to pass the unknown tests, to learn the nature of Mr. Skale's discovery, with the experiment involved, and—to be with Miriam as much as possible. The whole affair was so unusual that he had already lost the common standards of judging. He let the sliding platform take him where it would, and he flattered himself that he was not fool enough to mistake originality for insanity. The clergyman, dreamer and enthusiast though he might be, was as sane as other men, saner than most.
"I hope to lead you little by little to what I have in view," Mr. Skale went on, "so that at the end of our trial month you will have learned enough to enable you to form a decision, yet not enough to—to use my knowledge should you choose to return to the world."
It was very frank, but the secretary did not feel offended. He accepted the explanation as perfectly reasonable. In his mind he knew full well what his choice would be. This was the supreme adventure he had been so long a-seeking. No ordinary obstacle could prevent his accepting it.
There came a pause of some length, in which Spinrobin found nothing particular to say. The lamp gurgled; the coals fell softly into the fender. Then suddenly Mr. Skale rose and stood with his back to the grate. He gazed down upon the small figure in the chair. He towered there, a kindly giant, enthusiasm burning in his eyes like lamps. His voice was very deep, his manner more solemn than before when he spoke.
"So far, so good," he said, "and now, with your permission, Mr. Spinrobin, I should like to go a step further. I should like to take—your note."
"My note?" exclaimed the other, thinking he had not heard correctly.
"Your sound, yes," repeated the clergyman.
"My sound!" piped the little man, vastly puzzled, his voice shrill with excitement. He dodged about in the depths of his big leather chair, as though movement might bring explanation.
Mr. Skale watched him calmly. "I want to get the vibrations of your voice, and then see what pattern they produce in the sand," he said.
"Oh, in the sand, yes; quite so," replied the secretary. He remembered how the vibrations of an elastic membrane can throw dry sand, loosely scattered upon its surface, into various floral and geometrical figures. Chladni's figures, he seemed to remember, they were called after their discoverer. But Mr. Skale's purpose in the main, of course, escaped him.
"You don't object?"
"On the contrary, I am greatly interested." He stood up on the mat beside his employer.
"I wish to make quite sure," the clergyman added gravely, "that your voice, your note, is what I think it is—accurately in harmony with mine and Miriam's and Mrs. Mawle's. The pattern it makes will help to prove this."
The secretary bowed in perplexed silence, while Mr. Skale crossed the room and took a violin from its case. The golden varnish of its ribs and back gleamed in the lamplight, and when the clergyman drew the bow across the strings to tune it, smooth, mellow sounds, soft and resonant as bells, filled the room. Evidently he knew how to handle the instrument. The notes died away in a murmur.
"A Guarnerius," he explained, "and a perfect pedigree specimen; it has the most sensitive structure imaginable, and carries vibrations almost like a human nerve. For instance, while I speak," he added, laying the violin upon his companion's hand, "you will feel the vibrations of my voice run through the wood into your palm."
"I do," said Spinrobin. It trembled like a living thing.
"Now," continued Mr. Skale, after a pause, "what I first want is to receive the vibrations of your own voice in the same way—into my very pulses. Kindly read aloud steadily while I hold it. Stop reading when I make a sign. I'll nod, so that the vibrations of my voice won't interfere." And he handed a notebook to him with quotations entered neatly in his own handwriting, selected evidently with a purpose, and all dealing with sound, music, as organized sound, and names. Spinrobin read aloud; the first quotation from Meredith he recognized, but the others, and the last one, discussing names, were new to him:—
"But listen in the thought; so may there come Conception of a newly-added chord, Commanding space beyond where ear has home.
"Everything that the sun shines upon sings or can be made to sing, and can be heard to sing. Gases, impalpable powders, and woolen stuffs, in common with other non-conductors of sound, give forth notes of different pitches when played upon by an intermittent beam of white light. Colored stuffs will sing in lights of different colors, but refuse to sing in others. The polarization of light being now accomplished, light and sound are known to be alike. Flames have a modulated voice and can be made to sing a definite melody. Wood, stone, metal, skins, fibers, membranes, every rapidly vibrating substance, all have in them the potentialities of musical sound.
"Radium receives its energy from, and responds to, radiations which traverse all space—as piano strings respond to sounds in unison with their notes. Space is all a-quiver with waves of radiant energy. We vibrate in sympathy with a few strings here and there—with the tiny X-rays, actinic rays, light waves, heat waves, and the huge electromagnetic waves of Hertz and Marconi; but there are great spaces, numberless radiations, to which we are stone deaf. Some day, a thousand years hence, we shall know the full sweep of this magnificent harmony.
"Everything in nature has its name, and he who has the power to call a thing by its proper name can make it subservient to his will; for its proper name is not the arbitrary name given to it by man, but the expression of the totality of its powers and attributes, because the powers and attributes of each Being are intimately connected with its means of expression, and between both exists the most exact proportion in regard to measure, time, and condition."
The meaning of the four quotations, as he read them, plunged down into him and touched inner chords very close to his own beliefs. Something of his own soul, therefore, passed into his voice as he read. He read, that is to say, with authority.
A nod from Mr. Skale stopped him just as he was beginning a fifth passage. Raising the vibrating instrument to his ear, the clergyman first listened a moment intently. Then he quickly had it under his chin, beard flowing over it like water, and the bow singing across the strings. The note he played—he drew it out with that whipping motion of the bow only possible to a loving expert—was soft and beautiful, long drawn out with a sweet singing quality. He took it on the G string with the second finger—in the "fourth position." It thrilled through him, Spinrobin declares, most curiously and delightfully. It made him happy to hear it. It was very similar to the singing vibrations he had experienced when Miriam gazed into his eyes and spoke his name.
"Thank you," said Mr. Skale, and laid the violin down again. "I've got the note. You're E flat."
"E flat!" gasped Spinrobin, not sure whether he was pleased or disappointed.
"That's your sound, yes. You're E flat—just as I thought, just as I hoped. You fit in exactly. It seems too good to be true!" His voice began to boom again, as it always did when he was moved. He was striding about, very alert, very masterful, pushing the furniture out of his way, his eyes more luminous than ever. "It's magnificent." He stopped abruptly and looked at the secretary with a gaze so enveloping that Spinrobin for an instant lost his bearings altogether. "It means, my dear Spinrobin," he said slowly, with a touch of solemnity that woke an involuntary shiver deep in his listener's being, "that you are destined to play a part, and an important part, in one of the grandest experiments ever dreamed of by the heart of man. For the first time since my researches began twenty years ago I now see the end in sight."
"Mr. Skale—that is something—indeed," was all the little man could find to say.
There was no reason he could point to why the words should have produced a sense of chill about his heart. It was only that he felt again the huge groundswell of this vast unknown experiment surging against him, lifting him from his feet—as a man might feel the Atlantic swells rise with him towards the stars before they engulfed him forever. It seemed getting a trifle out of hand, this adventure. Yet it was what he had always longed for, and his courage must hold firm. Besides, Miriam was involved in it with him. What could he ask better than to risk his insignificant personality in some gigantic, mad attempt to plumb the Unknown, with that slender, little pale-faced Beauty by his side? The wave of Mr. Skale's enthusiasm swept him away deliciously.
"And now," he cried, "we'll get your Pattern too. I no longer have any doubts, but none the less it will be a satisfaction to us both to see it. It must, I'm sure, harmonies with ours; it must!"
He opened a cupboard drawer and produced a thin sheet of glass, upon which he next poured some finely powdered sand out of a paper bag. It rattled, dry and faint, upon the smooth, hard surface. And while he did this, he talked rapidly, boomingly, with immense enthusiasm.
"All sounds," he said, half to himself, half to the astonished secretary, "create their own patterns. Sound builds; sound destroys; and invisible sound-vibrations affect concrete matter. For all sounds produce forms—the forms that correspond to them, as you shall now see. Within every form lies the silent sound that first called it into view—into visible shape—into being. Forms, shapes, bodies are the vibratory activities of sound made visible."
"My goodness!" exclaimed Spinrobin, who was listening like a man in a dream, but who caught the violence of the clergyman's idea none the less.
"Forms and bodies are—solidified Sound," cried the clergyman in italics.
"You say something extraordinary," exclaimed the commonplace Spinrobin in his shrill voice. "Marvelous!" Vaguely he seemed to remember that Schelling had called architecture "frozen music."
Mr. Skale turned and looked at him as a god might look at an insect—that he loved.
"Sound, Mr. Spinrobin," he said, with a sudden and effective lowering of his booming voice, "is the original divine impulsion behind nature—communicated to language. It is—creative!"
Then, leaving the secretary with this nut of condensed knowledge to crack as best he could, the clergyman went to the end of the room in three strides. He busied himself for a moment with something upon the wall; then he suddenly turned, his great face aglow, his huge form erect, fixing his burning eyes upon his distracted companion.
"In the Beginning," he boomed solemnly, in tones of profound conviction, "was—the Word." He paused a moment, and then continued, his voice filling the room to the very ceiling. "At the Word of God—at the thunder of the Voice of God, worlds leaped into being!" Again he paused. "Sound," he went on, the whole force of his great personality in the phrase, "was the primordial, creative energy. A sound can call a form into existence. Forms are the Sound-Figures of archetypal forces—the Word made Flesh." He stopped, and moved with great soft strides about the room.
Spinrobin caught the words full in the face. For a space he could not measure—considerably less than a second, probably—the consciousness of something unutterably immense, unutterably flaming, rushed tumultuously through his mind, with wings that bore his imagination to a place where light was—dazzling, white beyond words. He felt himself tossed up to Heaven on the waves of a great sea, as the body of strange belief behind the clergyman's words poured through him.... For somewhere, behind the incoherence of the passionate language, burned the blaze of a true thought at white heat—could he but grasp it through the stammering utterance.
Then, with equal swiftness, it passed. His present surroundings came back. He dropped with a dizzy rush from awful spaces ... and was aware that he was merely—standing on the black, woolly mat before the fire watching the movements of his new employer, that his pumps were bright and pointed, his head just level with a dark marble mantelpiece. Dazed, and a trifle breathless he felt; and at the back of his disordered mind stirred a schoolboy's memory that the Pythagoreans believed the universe to have been called out of chaos by Sound, Number, and Harmony—or something to that effect.... But these huge, fugitive thoughts that tore through him refused to be seized and dealt with. He staggered a little, mentally; then, with a prodigious effort, controlled himself—and watched.
Mr. Skale, he saw, had fastened the little sheet of glass by its four corners to silken strings hanging from the ceiling. The glass plate hung, motionless and horizontal, in the air with its freight of sand. For several minutes the clergyman played a series of beautiful modulations in double-stopping upon the violin. In these the dominating influence was E flat. Spinrobin was not musical enough to describe it more accurately than this. Only, with greater skill than he knows, he mentions how Skale drew out of that fiddle the peculiarly intimate and searching tones by which strings can reach the spiritual center of a man and make him respond to delicate vibrations of thoughts beyond his normal gamut....
Spinrobin, listening, understood that he was a greater man than he knew....
And the sand on the glass sheet, he next became aware, was shifting, moving, dancing. He heard the tiny hissing and rattling of the dry grains. It was uncommonly weird. This visible and practical result made the clergyman's astonishing words seem true and convincing. That moving sand brought sanity, yet a certain curious terror of the unknown into it all.
A minute later Mr. Skale stopped playing and beckoned to him.
"See," he said quietly, pointing to the arrangement the particles of sand had assumed under the influence of the vibrations. "There's your pattern—your sound made visible. That's your utterance—the Note you substantially represent and body forth in terms of matter."
The secretary stared. It was a charming but very simple pattern the lines of sand had assumed, not unlike the fronds of a delicate fern growing out of several small circles round the base.
"So that's my note—made visible!" he exclaimed under his breath. "It's delightful; it's quite exquisite."
"That's E flat," returned Mr. Skale in a whisper, so as not to disturb the pattern; "if I altered the note, the pattern would alter too. E natural, for instance, would be different. Only, luckily, you are E flat—just the note we want. And now," he continued, straightening himself up to his full height, "come over and see mine and Miriam's and Mrs. Mawle's, and you'll understand what I meant when I said that yours would harmonize." And in a glass case across the room they examined a number of square sheets of glass with sand upon them in various patterns, all rendered permanent by a thin coating of a glue-like transparent substance that held the particles in position.
"There you see mine and Miriam's and Mrs. Mawle's," he said, stooping to look. "They harmonize most beautifully, you observe, with your own."
It was, indeed, a singular and remarkable thing. The patterns, though all different, yet combined in some subtle fashion impossible of analysis to form a complete and well-proportioned Whole—a design—a picture. The patterns of the clergyman and the housekeeper provided the base and foreground, those of Miriam and the secretary the delicate superstructure. The girl's pattern, he noted with a subtle pleasure, was curiously similar to his own, but far more delicate and waving. Yet, whereas his was floral, hers was stellar in character; that of the housekeeper was spiral, and Mr. Skale's he could only describe as a miniature whirlwind of very exquisite design rising out of apparently three separate centers of motion.
"If I could paint over them the color each shade of sound represents," Mr. Skale resumed, "the tint of each timbre, or Klangfarbe, as the Germans call it, you would see better still how we are all grouped together there into a complete and harmonious whole."
Spinrobin looked from the patterns to his companion's great face bending there beside him. Then he looked back again at the patterns. He could think of nothing quite intelligible to say. He noticed more clearly every minute that these dainty shapes of sand, stellar, spiral, and floral, stood to one another in certain definite proportions, in a rising and calculated ratio of singular beauty.
"There, before you, lies a true and perfect chord made visible," the clergyman said in tones thrilling with satisfaction, "—three notes in harmony with the fundamental sound, myself, and with each other. My dear fellow, I congratulate you, I congratulate you."
"Thank you very much, indeed," murmured Spinrobin. "I don't quite understand it all yet, but it's—it's extraordinarily fascinating and wonderful."
Mr. Skale said nothing, and Spinrobin drifted back to his big armchair. A deep silence pervaded the room for the space of several minutes. In the heart of that silence lay the mass of direct and vital questions the secretary burned, yet was afraid, to ask. For such was the plain truth; he yearned to know, yet feared to hear. The Discovery and the Experiment of this singular man loomed already somewhat vast and terrible; the adjective that had suggested itself before returned to him—"not permissible." ... Of Mr. Skale himself he had no sort of fear, though a growing and uncommon respect, but of the purpose Mr. Skale had in view he caught himself thinking more and more, yet without obvious reason, with a distinct shrinking almost amounting to dismay. But for the fact that so sweet and gentle a creature as Miriam was traveling the same path with him, this increased sense of caution would have revealed itself plainly for what it was—Fear....
"I am deeply interested, Mr. Skale," he said at length, breaking first the silence, "and sympathetic too, I assure you; only—you will forgive me for saying it—I am, as yet, still rather in the dark as to where all this is to lead—" The clergyman's eyes, fixed straight upon his own, again made it difficult to finish the sentence as he wished.
"Necessarily so, because I can only lead you to my discovery step by step," replied the other steadily. "I wish you to be thoroughly prepared for anything that may happen, so that you can deal intelligently with results that might otherwise overwhelm you."
"Overwhelm—?" faltered his listener.
"Might, I said. Note carefully my use of words, for they are accurately chosen. Before I can tell you all I must submit you, for your own sake, to certain tests—chiefly to the test of Alteration of Form by Sound. It is somewhat—er—alarming, I believe, the first time. You must be thoroughly accustomed to these astonishing results before we dare to approach the final Experiment; so that you will not tremble. For there can be no rehearsal. The great Experiment can only be made once ... and I must be as sure as possible that you will feel no terror in the face of the Unknown."
Spinrobin listened breathlessly. He hesitated a moment after the other stopped speaking, then slewed round on his slippery chair and faced him.
"I can understand," he began, "why you want imagination, but you spoke of courage too? I mean,—is there any immediate cause for alarm? Any personal danger, for instance, now?" For the clergyman's weighty sentences had made him realize in a new sense the loneliness of his situation here among these desolate hills. He would appreciate some assurance that his life was not to be trifled with before he lost the power to withdraw if he wished to do so.
"None whatever," replied Mr. Skale with decision, "there is no question at all of physical personal injury. You must trust me and have a little patience." His tone and manner were exceedingly grave, yet at the same time inspired confidence.
"I do," said Spinrobin honestly.
Another pause fell between them, longer than the rest; it was broken by the clergyman. He spoke emphatically, evidently weighing his words with the utmost care.
"This Chord," he said simply—yet, for all the simplicity, there ran to and fro behind his words the sense of unlawful and immense forces impending—"I need for a stupendous experiment with sound, an experiment which will lead in turn towards a yet greater and final one. There is no harm in your knowing that. To produce a certain transcendent result I want a complex sound—a chord, but a complete and perfect chord in which each note is sure of itself and absolutely accurate."