The Human Chord

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 12


A certain struggling incoherence is manifest in Spinrobin's report of it all, as of a man striving to express violent thoughts in a language he has not yet mastered. It is evident, for instance, as those few familiar with the "magical" use of sound in ceremonial and the power that resides in "true naming" will realize, that he never fully understood Skale's intended use of the chord, or why this complex sound was necessary for the utterance of the complex "Name."

Moreover, the powers concealed in the mere letters, while they laid hold upon his imagination, never fully entered his understanding. Few minds, it seems, can conceive of any deity as other than some anthropomorphic extension of themselves, for the idea is too greatly blinding to admit human thought within a measurable distance even of a faintest conception. The true, stupendous nature of the forces these letters in the opening syllable clothed, Spinrobin unquestionably never apprehended. Miriam, with her naked and undefiled intuitions, due to utter ignorance of worldly things from birth, came nearer to the reality; but then Miriam was now daily more and more caught up into the vortex of a sweet and compelling human love, and in proportion as this grew she feared the great experiment that might--so Spinrobin had suggested--spell Loss. Gradually dread closed the avenues of her spirit that led so fearfully to Heaven; and in their place she saw the dear yet thorny paths that lay with Spinny upon the earth.

They no longer, these two bewildered loving children, spoke of one another in the far-fetched terminology of sound and music. He no longer called her his "brilliant little sound," nor did she respond with "you perfect echo"; they fell back--sign of a gradual concession to more human things--upon the gentler terminology, if the phrase may be allowed, of Winky. They shared Winky between them ... though neither one nor other of them divined yet what Winky actually meant in their just-opening lives.

"Winky is yours," she would say, "because you made him, but he belongs to me too, because he simply can't live without me!"

"Or I without you, Little Magic," he whispered, laughing tenderly. "So, you see, we are all three together."

Her face grew slightly troubled.

"He only pays me visits, though. Sometimes I think you hide him, or tell him not to come." And far down in her deep grey eyes swam the first moisture of rising tears. "Don't you, my wonderful Spinny?"

"Sometimes I forget him, perhaps," he replied gravely, "but that is only when I think of what may be coming if--the experiment succeeds--"

"Succeeds?" she exclaimed. "You mean if it fails!" Her voice dropped instinctively, and they looked over their shoulders to make sure they were alone.

He came up very close to her and spoke in her small pink ear. "If it succeeds," he whispered, "we go to Heaven, I suppose; if it fails we stay upon the earth." Then he stood off, holding her hands at arm's length and gazing down upon her. "Do you want to go to Heaven?" he asked very deliberately, "or to stay here upon the earth with me and Winky--?"

She was in his arms the same second, laughing and crying with the strange conflict of new and inexplicable emotions.

"I want to be with you here, and forever. Heaven frightens me now. But--oh, Spinny, dear protecting thing, I want--I also want--" She broke off abruptly, and Spinrobin, unable to see her face buried against his shoulder, could not guess whether she was laughing or weeping. He only divined that something in her heart, profound as life itself, something she had never been warned to conceal, was clamoring for comprehension and satisfaction.

"Miriam, tell me exactly. I'm sure I shall understand--"

"I want Winky to be with us always--not only sometimes--on little visits," he heard between the broken breathing.

"I'll tell him--"

"But there's no good telling him," she interrupted almost fiercely, "it is me you must tell...."

Spinrobin's heart sank within him. She was in pain and he could not quite understand. He pressed her hard against him, keeping silence.

Presently she lifted her face from his coat, and he saw the tears of mingled pain and happiness in her eyes--the eyes of this girl-woman who knew not the common ugly standards of life because no woman had ever told them to her.

"You see, Winky is not really mine unless I have some share in making him too," she said very softly. "When I have made him too, then he will stay forever with us, I think."

And Spinrobin, beginning to understand, knowing within him that singular exultation of triumphant love which comes to a pure man when he meets the mother-to-be of his firstborn, lowered his own face very reverently to hers, and kissed her on the cheeks and eyes--saying nothing, and vaguely wondering whether the awful name that Skale sought with so much thunder and lightning, did not lie at that very moment, sweetly singing its divinest message, between the contact of this pair of youthful lips, the lips of himself and Miriam.


And Philip Skale, meanwhile, splendid and independent of all common obstacles, thundered along his tempestuous mad way, regardless and ignorant of all signs of disaffection. The rest of that week--a week of haunting wonder and beauty--was devoted to the carrying out of the strange program. It is not possible to tell in detail the experience of each separate room. Spinrobin does it, yet only succeeds in repeating himself; and, as has been seen, his powers failed even in that first chamber of awe. The language does not exist in which adventures so remote from normal experience can be clothed without straining the mind to the verge of the unintelligible. It appears, however, that each room possessed its color, note and form, which later were to issue forth and combine in the even vaster pattern, chord and outline which should include them all.

Even the thought of it strained the possibilities of belief and the resources of the imagination.... His soul fluttered and shrank.

They continued the processes of prayer and fasting Skale had ordained as the time for the experiment drew near, and the careful vibratory utterance of the "word" belonging to each room, the vibrations of which threw their inner selves into a condition of safe--or comparatively safe--receptivity. But Spinrobin no longer said his prayers, for the thought that soon he was to call upon the divine and mighty name in reality prevented his doing so in the old way of childhood--nominally. He feared there might come an answer.

He literally walked the dizzy edge of precipices that dropped over the edge of the world. The incoherence of all this traffic with sound and name had always bewildered him, even to the point of darkness, whereas now it did more, it appalled him in some sense that was monstrous and terrifying. Yet, while weak with terror when he tried to face the possible results, and fevered with the notion of entering some new condition (even though one of glory) where Miriam might no longer be as he now knew her, it was the savage curiosity he felt that prevented his coming to a definite decision and telling Mr. Skale that he withdrew from the whole affair.

Then the idea grew in his mind that the clergyman was obsessed by some perverted spiritual force, some "Devil" who deceived him, and that the name he sought to pronounce was after all not good--not God. His thoughts, fears, hopes, all became hopelessly entangled, through them one thing alone holding clear and steady--the passionate desire to keep Miriam as she was now, and to be with her forever. His mind played tricks with him too. Day and night the house echoed with new sounds; the very walls grew resonant; the entire building, buried away among these desolate hills, trembled as though he were imprisoned within the belly of some monstrous and gigantic fiddle.

Mr. Skale, too, began to change, it seemed. While physically he increased, as it were, with the power of his burning enthusiasm, his beard longer and more ragged, his eyes more luminous, and his voice shaking through the atmosphere almost like wind, his personality, in some curious fashion, seemed at the same time to retire and become oddly tinged with a certain remoteness from reality. Spinrobin once or twice caught himself wondering if he were not after all some legendary or pagan figure, some mighty character of dream or story, and that presently he, Spinrobin, would awake and write down the most wonderful vision the world had ever known. His imagination, it will be seen, was affected in more ways than one....

With a tremendous earnestness the clergyman went about the building, down the long dark corridors and across the halls, his long soft strides took him swiftly everywhere; his mere presence charged with some potent force that betrayed itself in the fire of his eyes and the flush of his cheeks.

Spinrobin thought of him as some daring blasphemer, knocking at a door in the sky. The sound of that knocking ran all about the universe. And when the door opened, the heavens would roll back like an enormous, flat curtain....

"Any moment almost," Skale whispered to him, smiling, "the day may be upon us. Keep yourself ready--and--in tune."

And Spinrobin, expecting a thunderclap in his sleep, but ever plucky, answered in his high-pitched voice, "I'm ready, Mr. Philip Skale, I'm ready! I'm game too!" when, truthfully speaking, perhaps, he was neither one nor other.

He would start up from sleep in the nighttime at the least sound, and the roar of the December gales about the house became voices of portent that conveyed far more than the mere rushing of inarticulate winds....

"When the hour comes--and it is close at hand--we shall not fail to know it," said Skale, pallid with excitement. "The Letters will be out upon us. They will live! But with an intense degree of exuberant life far beyond what we know as life--we, in our puny, sense-limited bodies!" And the scorn in his voice came from the center of his heart. "For what we hear as sound is only a section," he cried, "only a section of sound-vibrations--as they exist."

"The vibrations our ears can take are very small, I know," interpolated Spinrobin, cold at heart, while Miriam, hiding behind chairs and tables that offered handy protection, watched with mingled anxiety and confidence, knowing that in the last resort her adorable and "wonderful Spinny" would guide her aright. Love filled her heart, ousting that other portentous Heaven!


And then Skale announced that the time was ready for rehearsals.

"Let us practice the chord," he said, "so that when the moment comes suddenly upon us, in the twinkling of an eye, in the daytime or in the night, we shall be prepared, and each shall fly to his appointed place and utter his appointed note."

The reasons for these definite arrangements he did not pretend to explain, for they belonged to a part of his discovery that he kept rigidly to himself; and why Spinrobin and Miriam were to call their notes from the corridor itself, while Skale boomed his great bass in the prepared cellar, Mrs. Mawle chanting her alto midway in the hall, acting as a connecting channel in some way, was apparently never made fully clear. In Spinrobin's imagination it was very like a practical illustration of the written chord, the notes rising from the bass clef to the high soprano--the cellar to the attic, so to speak. But, whatever the meaning behind it, Skale was exceedingly careful to teach to each of them his and her appointed place.

"When the Letters move of themselves, and make the first sign," he repeated, "we shall know it beyond all doubt or question. At any moment of the day or night it may come. Each of you then hasten to your appointed place and wait for the sound of my bass in the cellar. There will be no mistake about it; you will hear it rising through the building. Then, each in turn, as it reaches you, lift your voices and call your notes. The chord thus rising through the building will gather in the flying Letters: it will unite them; it will summon them down to the fundamental master-tone I utter in the cellar. The moment the Letter summoned by each particular voice reaches the cellar, that voice must cease its utterance. Thus, one by one, the four mighty Letters will come to rest below. The gongs will vibrate in sympathetic resonance; the colors will tremble and respond; the finely drawn wires will link the two, and the lens of gas will lead them to the wax, and the record of the august and terrible syllable will be completely chained. At any desired moment afterwards I shall be able to reawaken it. Its phonetic utterance, its correct pronunciation, captured thus in the two media of air and ether, sound and light, will be in my safe possession, ready for use.

"But"--and he looked down upon his listeners with a dreadful and impressive gravity that yet only just concealed the bursting exultation the thought caused him to feel--"remember that once you have uttered your note, you will have sucked out from the Letter a portion of its own terrific life and force, which will immediately pass into yourself. You will instantly absorb this, for you will have called upon a mighty name--the mightiest--and your prayer will have been answered." He stooped and whispered as in an act of earnest prayer, "We shall be as Gods!"

Something of cold splendor, terribly possessing, came close to them as he spoke the words; for this was no empty phrase. Behind it lay the great drive of a relentless reality. And it struck at the very root of the fear that grew every moment more insistent in the hearts of the two lovers. They did not want to become as gods. They desired to remain quietly human and to love!

But before either of them could utter speech, even had they dared, the awful clergyman continued; and nothing brought home to them more vividly the horrible responsibility of the experiment, and the results of possible failure, than the few words with which he concluded.

"And to mispronounce, to utter falsely, to call inaccurately, will mean to summon into life upon the world--and into the heart of the utterer--that which is incomplete, that which is not God--Devils!--devils of that subtle Alteration which is destruction--the devils of a Lie."

And so for hours at a time they rehearsed the sounds of the chord, but very softly, lest the sound should rise and reach the four rooms and invite the escape of the waiting Letters prematurely.

Mrs. Mawle, holding the bit of paper on which her instructions were clearly written, was as eager almost as her master, and as the note she had to utter was practically the only one left in the register of her voice, her deafness provided little difficulty.

"Though when the letters awake into life and cry aloud," said Skale, beaming upon her dear old apple-skinned face, "it will be in tones that even the deaf shall hear. For they will spell a measure of redemption that shall destroy in a second of time all physical disabilities whatsoever...."

It was at this moment Spinrobin asked a question that for days had been hovering about his lips. He asked it gravely, hesitatingly, even solemnly, while Miriam hung upon the answer with an anxiety as great as his own.

"And if any one of us fails," he said, "and pronounces falsely, will the result affect all of us, or only the utterer?"

"The utterer only," replied the clergyman. "For it is his own spirit that must absorb the forces and powers invoked by the sound he utters."

He took the question lightly, it seemed. The possibility of failure was too remote to be practical.

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