The Garden of Survival

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter VIII

THIS, then, was somewhat my state of mind, when, after our late tea on the verandah, I strolled out on to the lawn to enjoy my pipe in the quiet of the garden paths. I felt dissatisfied and disappointed, yet knew not entirely perhaps, the reason. I wished to be alone, but was hungry for companionship as well. Mother saw me go and watched attentively, but said no word, merely following me a moment with her eyes above the edge of the Times she read, as of old, during the hours between tea and dinner. The Spectator, her worldly Bible, lay ready to her hand when the Times should have been finished. They were, respectively, as always, her dictionary of opinion, and her medicine-chest. Before I had gone a dozen yards, her head disappeared behind the printed sheet again. The roses flowed between us.

I felt her following glance, as I felt also its withdrawal. Then I forgot her. . . . A touch of melancholy stole on me, as the garden took me in its charge. For a garden is a ghostly place, and an old-world garden, above all, leads thought backwards among vanished memories rather than forward among constructive hopes and joys.

I yielded, in any case, a little to this subtle pressure from the past, and I must have strolled among the lilac and laburnums for a longer time than I knew, since the gardener who had been trimming the flower-beds with a hand lawn-mower was gone, and dusk already veiled the cedars, when I found myself leaning against the wooden gate that opened into the less formal part beyond the larches.

The house was not visible from where I stood. I smelt the May, the lilac, the heavy perfume everywhere of the opening year; it rose about me in waves, as though full-bosomed summer lay breathing her great promises close at hand, while spring, still lingering, with bright eyes of dew,' watched over her. Then, suddenly, behind these richer scents, I caught a sweeter, wilder tang than anything they contained, and turning, saw that the pines were closer than I knew. A waft of something purer, fresher, reached my nostrils on a little noiseless wind, as, leaning across the gate, I turned my back upon the cultivated grounds and gazed into a region of more natural, tangled growth.

The change was sudden. It was exquisite, sharp and unexpected, too, as with a little touch of wonder. There was surprise in it. For the garden, you will remember, melts here insensibly into a stretch of scattered pines, where heather and bracken cover wide reaches of unreclaimed and useless land. Irregular trails of whitish sand gleamed faintly before the shadows swallowed them, and in the open patches I saw young silver-birches that made me think of running children arrested in mid-play. They stood outlined very tenderly against the sky; their slender forms still quivered; their feathery hair fell earthwards as they drew themselves together, bending their wayward little heads before the approaching night. Behind them, framed by the darker pines into a glowing frieze, the west still burned with the last fires of the sunset; I could see the heather, rising and falling like a tumbled sea against the horizon, where the dim heave of distant moorland broke the afterglow.

And the dusk now held this region in its magic. So strange, indeed, was the contrast between the ebony shadows and the pools and streaks of amberish light, that I looked about me for a moment, almost sharply. There was a touch of the unearthly in this loveliness that bewildered sight a little. Extraordinarily still the world was, yet there seemed activity close upon my footsteps, an activity more than of inanimate Nature, yet less than of human beings. With solidarity it had nothing to do, though it sought material expression. It was very near. And I was startled, I recognized the narrow frontier between fear and wonder. And then I crossed it.

For something stopped me dead. I paused and stared. My heart began to beat more rapidly. Then, ashamed of my moment's hesitation, I was about to move forward through the gate, when again I halted. I listened, and caught my breath. I fancied the stillness became articulate, the shadows stirred, the silence was about to break.

I remember trying to think; I wanted to relieve the singular tension by finding words, if only inner words,--when, out of the stillness, out of the silence, out of the shadows--something happened. Some faculty of judgment, some attitude in which I normally clothed myself, were abruptly stripped away. I was left bare and sensitive. I could almost have believed that my body had dropped aside, that I stood there naked, unprotected, a form-less spirit, stirred and lifted by the passing breeze.

And then it came. As with a sword-thrust of blinding sweetness, I was laid open. Yet so instant, and of such swiftness, was the stroke, that I can only describe it by saying that, while pierced and wounded, I was also healed again.

Without hint or warning, Beauty swept me with a pain and happiness well nigh intolerable. It drenched me and was gone. No lightning flash could have equalled the swiftness of its amazing passage; something tore in me; the emotion was enveloping but very tender; it was both terrible yet dear. Would to God I might crystallize it for you in those few mighty words which should waken in yourself--in every one!--the wonder and the joy. It contained, I felt, both the worship that belongs to awe and the tenderness of infinite love which welcomes tears. Some power that was not of this world, yet that used the details of this world to manifest, had visited me.

No element of surprise lay in it even. It was too swift for anything but joy, which of all emotions is the most instantaneous: I had been empty, I was filled. Beauty that bathes the stars and drowns the very universe had stolen out of this wild morsel of wasted and uncared-for English garden, and dropped its transforming magic into--me. At the very moment, moreover, when I had been ready to deny it altogether. I saw my insignificance, yet, such was the splendour it had wakened in me, knew my right as well. It could be ever thus; some attitude in myself alone prevented. . . .

And--somebody was pleased.

This personal ingredient lay secure in the joy that assuredly remained when the first brief intolerable ecstasy had passed. The link I desired to recognize was proved, not merely strengthened. Beauty had cleft me open, and a message, if you will, had been delivered. This personal hint persisted; I was almost aware of conscious and intelligent direction. For to you I will make the incredible confession, that I dare phrase the experience in another fashion, equally true: In that flashing instant I stood naked and shelterless to the gaze of some one who had looked upon me. I was aware of sight; of eyes in which "burning memory lights love home." These eyes, this sight had gazed at me, then turned away. For in that blinding sweetness there was light, as with the immediate withdrawal again there was instant darkness. I was first visible, then concealed. I was clothed again and covered.

And the thick darkness that followed made it appear as though night, in one brief second, had taken the place of dusk.

Trembling, I leaned across the wooden gate and waited while the darkness settled closer. I can swear, moreover, that it was neither dream, nor hope, nor any hungry fantasy in me that then recognized a further marvel--I was no longer now alone.

A presence faced me, standing breast-high in the bracken. The garden had been empty; somebody now walked there with me.

It was, as I mentioned, the still hour between the twilight and the long, cool dark of early summer. The little breeze passed whispering through the pines. I smelt the pungent perfume of dry heather, sand, and bracken. The horizon, low down between the trunks, shone gold and crimson still, but fading rapidly. I stood there for a long time trembling; I was a part of it; I felt that I was shining, as though my inner joy irradiated the world about me. Nothing in all my life has been so real, so positive. I was assuredly not alone. . . .

The first sharp magic, the flash that pierced and burned, had gone its way, but Beauty still stood so perilously near, so personal, that any moment, I felt, it must take tangible form, betray itself in visible movement of some sort, break possibly into audible sound of actual speech. It would not have surprised me--more, it would have been natural almost--had I felt a touch upon my hands and lips, or caught the murmur of spoken words against my ear.

Yet from such direct revelation I shrank involuntarily and by instinct. I could not have borne it then. I had the feeling that it must mar and defile a wonder already great enough; there would have lain in it, too, a betrayal of the commonplace, as of something which I could not possibly hold for true. I must have distrusted my own senses even, for the beauty that cleft me open dealt directly with the soul alone, leaving the senses wholly disengaged. The Presence was not answerable to any lesser recognition.

Thus I shrank and turned away, facing the familiar garden and the "wet bird-haunted English lawn," a spiritual tenderness in me still dreading that I might see or hear or feel, destroying thus the reality of my experience. Yet there was, thank God, no speech, no touch, no movement, other than the shiver of the birches, the breath of air against my cheek, the droop and bending of the nearer pine boughs. There was no audible or visible expression; I saw no figure breast-high in the bracken. Yet sound there was, a moment later. For, as I turned away, a bird upon a larch twig overhead burst into sudden and exultant song.


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