The Garden of Survival

by Algernon Blackwood

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter IV

THAT, as you know, took place a dozen years ago and more, when I was thirty-two, and time, in the interval, has wrought unexpected ends out of the material of my life. My trade as a soldier has led me to an administrative post in a distant land where, apparently, I have deserved well of my King and Country, as they say in the obituaries. At any rate, the cryptic letters following my name, bear witness to some kind of notoriety attained.

You were the first to welcome my success, and your congratulations were the first I looked for, as surely as they were more satisfying than those our mother sent. You knew me better, it seems, than she did. For you expressed the surprise that I, too, felt, whereas mother assured me she had "always known you would do well, my boy, and you have only got your deserts in this tardy recognition." To her, of course, even at forty-five, I was still her "little boy." You, however, guessed shrewdly that Luck had played strong cards in bringing me this distinction, and I will admit at once that it was, indeed, due to little born in me, but, rather, to some adventitious aid that, curiously, seemed never lacking at the opportune moment. And this adventitious aid was new.

This is the unvarnished truth. A mysterious power dealt the cards for me with unfailing instinct; a fortunate combination of events placing in my hands, precisely at the moment of their greatest value, clear opportunities that none but a hopeless blunderer could have disregarded. What men call Chance operated in my favour as though with superb calculation, lifting me to this miniature pinnacle I could never have reached by my own skill and judgment.

So, at least, you and I, knowing my limited abilities, consent to attribute my success to luck, to chance, to fate, or to any other name for the destiny that has placed me on a height my talent never could have reached alone. You, and I, too, for that matter, are as happy over the result as our mother is; only you and I are surprised, because we judge it, with some humour, out of greater knowledge. More--you, like myself, are a little puzzled, I think. We ask together, if truth were told: Whose was the unerring, guiding hand?

Amid this uncertainty I give you now another curious item, about which you have, of course, been uninformed. For none could have detected it but myself: namely, that apart from these opportunities chance set upon my path, an impulse outside myself--and an impulse that was new--drove me to make use of them. Sometimes even against my personal inclination, a power urged me into decided, and it so happened, always into faultless action. Amazed at myself, I yet invariably obeyed.

How to describe so elusive a situation I hardly know, unless by telling you the simple truth: I felt that somebody would be pleased.

And, with the years, I learned to recognize this instinct that never failed when a choice, and therefore an element of doubt, presented itself. Invariably I was pushed towards the right direction. More singular still, there rose in me unbidden at these various junctures, a kind of inner attention which bade me wait and listen for the guiding touch. I am not fanciful, I heard no voice, I was aware of nothing personal by way of guidance or assistance; and yet the guidance, the assistance, never failed, though often I was not conscious that they had been present until long afterwards. I felt, as I said above, that somebody would be pleased.

For it was a consistent, an intelligent guidance; operating, as it were, out of some completer survey of the facts at a given moment than my own abilities could possibly have compassed; my mediocre faculties seemed gathered together and perfected--with the result, in time, that my "intuition," as others called it, came to be regarded with a respect that in some cases amounted to half reverence. The adjective "uncanny" was applied to me. The natives, certainly, were aware of awe.

I made no private use of this unearned distinction; there is nothing in me of the charlatan that claimed mysterious power; but my subordinates, ever in growing numbers as my promotions followed, held me in greater respect, apparently, on that very account. The natives, especially, as I mentioned, attributed semi-deific properties to my poor personality. Certainly my prestige increased out of all proportion to anything my talents deserved with any show of justice.

I have said that, so far as I was concerned, there lay nothing personal in this growth of divining intuition. I must now qualify that a little. Nothing persuaded me that this guidance, so infallible, so constant, owed its origin to what men call a being; I certainly found no name for it; exactness, I think, might place its truest description in some such term as energy, inner force or inspiration; yet I must admit that, with its steady repetition, there awoke in me an attitude towards it that eluded somewhere also an emotion. And in this emotion, in its quality and character, hid remotely a personal suggestion: each time it offered itself, that is, I was aware of a sharp quiver of sensitive life within me, and of that sensation, extraordinarily sweet and wonderful, which constitutes a genuine thrill.

I came to look for this "thrill," to lie in wait with anticipatory wonder for its advent; and in a sense this pause in me, that was both of expectancy and hope, grew slowly into what I may almost call a habit. There was an emptiness in my heart before it came, a sense of peace and comfort when it was accomplished. The emptiness and then the satisfaction, as first and last conditions, never failed, and that they took place in my heart rather than in my mind I can affirm with equal certainty.

The habit, thus, confirmed itself. I admitted the power. Let me be frank--I sought it, even longing for it when there was no decision to be made, no guidance therefore needed: I longed for it because of the great sweetness that it left within my heart. It was when I needed it, however, that its effect was most enduring. The method became quite easy to me. When a moment of choice between two courses of action presented itself, I first emptied my heart of all personal inclination, then, pausing upon direction, I knew--or rather felt--which course to take. My heart was filled and satisfied with an intention that never wavered. Some energy that made the choice for me had been poured in. I decided upon this or that line of action. The Thrill, always of an instantaneous nature, came and went--and somebody was pleased.

Moreover--and this will interest you more particularly--the emotion produced in me was, so far as positive recognition went, a new emotion; it was, at any rate, one that had lain so feebly in me hitherto that its announcement brought the savour of an emotion before unrealized. I had known it but once, and that long years before, but the man's mind in me increased and added to it. For it seemed a development of that new perception which first dawned upon me during my brief period of married life, and had since lain hidden in me, potential possibly, but inactive beyond all question, if not wholly dead. I will now name it for you, and for myself, as best I may. It was the Thrill of Beauty.

I became, in these moments, aware of Beauty, and to a degree, while it lasted, approaching revelation. Chords, first faintly struck long years before when my sense of Marion's forgiveness and generosity stirred worship in me, but chords that since then had lain, apparently, unresponsive, were swept into resonance again. Possibly they had been vibrating all these intervening years, unknown to me, unrecognized. I cannot say. I only know that here was the origin of the strange energy that now moved me to the depths. Some new worship of Beauty that had love in it, of which, indeed, love was the determining quality, awoke in the profoundest part of me, and even when the "thrill" had gone its way, left me hungry and yearning for its repetition. Here, then, is the "personal" qualification that I mentioned. The yearning and the hunger were related to my deepest needs. I had been empty, but I would be filled. For a passionate love, holding hands with a faith and confidence as passionate as itself, poured flooding into me and made this new sense of beauty seem a paramount necessity of my life.

Will you be patient now, if I give you a crude instance of what I mean? It is one among many others, but I choose it because its very crudeness makes my meaning clear.

In this fevered and stricken African coast, you may know, there is luxuriance in every natural detail, an exuberance that is lavish to excess. Yet beauty lies somewhat coyly hid--as though suffocated by over-abundance of crowding wonder. I detect, indeed, almost a touch of the monstrous in it all, a super-expression, as it were, that bewilders, and occasionally even may alarm. Delicacy, subtlety, suggestion in any form, have no part in it. During the five years of my exile amid this tropical extravagance I can recall no single instance of beauty "hinting" anywhere. Nature seems, rather, audaciously abandoned; she is without restraint. She shows her all, tells everything--she shouts, she never whispers. You will understand me when I tell you that this wholesale lack of reticence and modesty involves all absence in the beholder of--surprise. A sudden ravishment of the senses is impossible. One never can experience that sweet and troubling agitation to which a breathless amazement properly belongs. You may be stunned; you are hardly ever "thrilled."

Now, this new sensitiveness to Beauty I have mentioned has opened me to that receptiveness which is aware of subtlety and owns to sharp surprise. The thrill is of its very essence. It is unexpected. Out of the welter of prolific detail Nature here glories in, a delicate hint of wonder and surprise comes stealing. The change, of course, is in myself, not otherwise. And on the particular "crude" occasion I will briefly mention, it reached me from the most obvious and banal of conditions--the night sky and the moon.

Here, then, is how it happened: There had arisen a situation of grave difficulty among the natives of my Province, and the need for taking a strong, authoritative line was paramount. The reports of my subordinates from various parts of the country pointed to very vigorous action of a repressing, even of a punitive, description. It was not, in itself, a complicated situation, and no Governor, who was soldier too, need have hesitated for an instant. The various Stations, indeed, anticipating the usual course of action indicated by precedent, had automatically gone to their posts, prepared for the "official instructions" it was known that I should send, wondering impatiently (as I learned afterwards) at the slight delay. For delay there was, though of a few hours only; and this delay was caused by my uncomfortable new habit--pausing for the guidance and the "thrill." Intuition, waiting upon the thrill of Beauty that guided it, at first lay inactive.

My behaviour seemed scarcely of the orthodox, official kind, soldierly least of all. There was uneasiness, there was cursing, probably; there were certainly remarks not complimentary. Prompt, decisive action was the obvious and only course. . . while I sat quietly in the Headquarters Bungalow, a sensitive youth again, a dreamer, a poet, hungry for the inspiration of Beauty that the gorgeous tropical night concealed with her excess of smothering abundance.

This incongruity between my procedure and the time-honoured methods of "strong" Governors must have seemed exasperating to those who waited, respectful, but with nerves on edge, in the canvassed and tented regions behind the Headquarters clearing. Indeed, the Foreign Office, could it have witnessed my unpardonable hesitation, might well have dismissed me on the spot, I think. For I sat there, dreaming in my deck-chair on the verandah, smoking a cigarette, safe within my net from the countless poisonous mosquitoes, and listening to the wind in the palms that fringed the heavy jungle round the building.

Smoking quietly, dreaming, listening, waiting, I sat there in this mood of inner attention and expectancy, knowing that the guidance I anticipated must surely come.

A few clouds sprawled in their beds of silver across the sky; the heat, the perfume, were, as always, painfully, excessive; the moonlight bathed the huge trees and giant leaves with that habitual extravagance which made it seem ordinary, almost cheap and wonderless. Very silent the wooden house lay all about me, there were no footsteps, there was no human voice. I heard only the wash of the heavy-scented wind through the colossal foliage that hardly stirred, and watched, as a hundred times before, the immense heated sky, drenched in its brilliant and intolerable moonlight. All seemed a riot of excess, an orgy.

Then, suddenly, the shameless night drew on some exquisite veil, as the moon, between three-quarters and the full, slid out of sight behind a streaky cloud. A breath, it seemed, of lighter wind woke all the perfume of the burdened forest leaves. The shouting splendour hushed; there came a whisper and, at last--a hint.

I watched with relief and gratitude the momentary eclipse, for in the half-light I was aware of that sharp and tender mood which was preparatory to the thrill. Slowly sailing into view again from behind that gracious veil of cloud--

"The moon put forth a little diamond peak, No bigger than an unobserved star, Or tiny point of fairy scimitar; Bright signal that she only stooped to tie Her silver sandals, ere deliciously She bowed into the heavens her timid head."

And then it came. The Thrill stole forth and touched me, passing like a meteor through my heart, but in that lightning passage, cleaving it open to some wisdom that seemed most near to love. For power flowed in along the path that Beauty cleft for it, and with the beauty came that intuitive guidance I had waited for.

The inspiration operated like a flash. There was no reasoning; I was aware immediately that another and a better way of dealing with the situation was given me.

I need not weary you with details. It seemed contrary to precedent, advice, against experience too, yet it was the right, the only way. It threatened, I admit, to destroy the prestige so long and laboriously established, since it seemed a dangerous yielding to the natives that must menace the white life everywhere and render trade in the Colony unsafe. Yet I did not hesitate. . . . There was bustle at once within that Bungalow; the orders went forth; I saw the way and chose it--to the dismay, outspoken, of every white man whose welfare lay in my official hands.

And the results, I may tell you now without pride, since, as we both admit, no credit attaches to myself--the results astonished the entire Colony. . . . The Chiefs came to me, in due course, bringing fruit and flowers and presents enough to bury all Headquarters, and with a reverential obedience that proved the rising scotched to death--because its subtle psychological causes had been marvellously understood.

Full comprehension, as I mentioned earlier in this narrative, we cannot expect to have. Its origin, I may believe, lies hid in the nature of that Beauty which is truth and love--in the source of our very life, perhaps, which lies hid again with beauty very far away. . . . But I may say this much at least: that it seemed, my inspired action had co-operated with the instinctive beliefs of these mysterious tribes--cooperated with their primitive and ancient sense of Beauty. It had, inexplicably to myself, fulfilled their sense of right, which my subordinates would have outraged. I had acted with, instead of against, them.

More I cannot tell you. You have the "crude instance," and you have the method. The instances multiplied, the method became habit. There grew in me this personal attitude towards an impersonal power I hardly understood, and this attitude included an emotion--love. With faith and love I consequently obeyed it. I loved the source of my guidance and assistance, though I dared attach no name to it. Simple enough the matter might have been, could I have referred its origin to some name--to our mother or to you, to my Chief in London, to an impersonal Foreign Office that has since honoured me with money and a complicated address upon my envelopes, or even, by a stretch of imagination, to that semi-abstract portion of my being some men call a Higher Self.

To none of these, however, could I honestly or dishonestly ascribe it. Yet, as in the case of those congratulatory telegrams from our mother and yourself, I was aware--and this feeling never failed with each separate occurrence--aware that somebody, other than ourselves individually or collectively--was pleased.


Return to the The Garden of Survival Summary Return to the Algernon Blackwood Library

© 2022