The Human Chord

by Algernon Blackwood

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter 4


"Then if there is so much sound about in all objects and forms--if the whole universe, in fact, is sounding," asked Spinrobin with a naive impertinence not intended, but due to the reaction of his simple mind from all this vague splendor, "why don't we hear it more?"

Mr. Skale came upon him like a boomerang from the end of the room. He was smiling. He approved the question.

"With us the question of hearing is merely the question of wavelengths in the air," he replied; "the lowest audible sound having a wavelength of sixteen feet, the highest less than an inch. Some people can't hear the squeak of a bat, others the rumble of an earthquake. I merely affirm that in every form sleeps the creative sound that is its life and being. The ear is a miserable organ at best, and the majority are far too gross to know clair-audience. What about sounds, for instance, that have a wavelength of a hundred, a thousand miles on the one hand, or a millionth part of an inch on the other?"

"A thousand miles! A millionth of an inch?" gasped the other, gazing at his interlocutor as though he was some great archangel of sound.

"Sound for most of us lies between, say, thirty and many thousand vibrations per second--the cry of the earthquake and the cricket; it is our limitation that renders the voice of the dewdrop and the voice of the planet alike inaudible. We even mistake a measure of noise--like a continuous millwheel or a river, say--for silence, when in reality there is no such thing as perfect silence. Other life is all the time singing and thundering about us," he added, holding up a giant finger as though to listen. "To the imperfection of our ears you may ascribe the fact that we do not hear the morning stars shouting together."

"Thank you, yes, I quite see now," said the secretary. "To name truly is to hear truly." The clergyman's words seemed to hold a lamp to a vast interior map in his mind that was growing light. A new dawn was breaking over the great mental prairie where he wandered as a child. "To find the true name of anything," he added, "you mean, is to hear its sound, its individual note as it were?" Incredible perspectives swam into his ken, hitherto undreamed of.

"Not 'as it were,'" boomed the other, "You do hear it. After which the next step is to utter it, and so absorb its force into your own being by synchronous vibration--union mystical and actual. Only, you must be sure you utter it correctly. To pronounce incorrectly is to call it incompletely into life and form--to distort and injure it, and yourself with it. To make it untrue--a lie."

They were standing in the dusk by the library window, watching the veil of night that slowly covered the hills. The flying horizons of the moors had slipped away into the darkness.

The stars were whispering together their thoughts of flame and speed. At the back of the room sat Miriam among the shadows, like some melody hovering in a musician's mind till he should call her forth. It was close upon the tea hour. Behind them Mrs. Mawle was busying herself with lamps and fire. Mr. Skale, turning at the sound of the housekeeper, motioned to the secretary to approach, then stooped down and spoke low in his ear:

"With many names I had great difficulty," he whispered. "With hers, for instance," indicating the housekeeper behind them. "It took me five years' continuous research to establish her general voice-outline, and even then I at first only derived a portion of her name. And in uttering it I made such errors of omission and pronunciation that her physical form suffered, and she emerged from the ordeal in disorder. You have, of course, noticed her disabilities.... But, later, though only in stammering fashion, I called upon her all complete, and she has since known a serene blessedness and a sense of her great value in the music of life that she never knew before." His face lit up as he spoke of it. "For in that moment she found herself. She heard her true name, God's creative sound, thunder through her being."

Spinrobin, feeling the clergyman's forces pouring through him like a tide at such close proximity, bowed his head. His lips were too dry to frame words. He was thinking of the possible effects upon his own soul and body when his name too should be "uttered." He remembered the withered arm and the deafness. He thought, too, of that slender, ghostly figure that haunted the house with its soft movements and tender singing. Lastly, he remembered his strange conviction that somewhere in the great building, possibly in his own corridor, there were other occupants, other life, Beings of unearthly scale waiting the given moment to appear, summoned by utterance.

"And you will understand now why it is I want a man of high courage to help me," Skale resumed in a louder tone, standing sharply upright; "a man careless of physical existence, and with a faith wholly beyond the things of this world!"

"I do indeed," he managed to reply aloud, while in his thoughts he was saying, "I will, I must see it through. I won't give in!" With all his might he resisted the invading tide of terror. Even if sad results came later, it was something to have been sacrificed in so big a conception.

In his excitement he slipped from the edge of the windowsill, where he was perched, and Mr. Skale, standing close in front of him, caught his two wrists and set him upon his feet. A shock, like a rush of electricity, ran through him. He took his courage boldly in both hands and asked the question ever burning at the back of his mind.

"Then, this great Experiment you--we have in view," he stammered, "is to do with the correct uttering of the names of some of the great Forces, or Angels, and--and the assimilating of their powers into ourselves--?"

Skale rose up gigantically beside him. "No, sir," he cried, "it is greater--infinitely greater than that. Names of mere Angels I can call alone without the help of any one; but for the name I wish to utter a whole chord is necessary even to compass the utterance of the opening syllable; as I have told you already, a chord in which you share the incalculable privilege of being the tenor note. But for the completed syllables--the full name--!" He closed his eyes and shrugged his massive shoulders--"I may need the massed orchestras of half the world, the chorused voices of the entire nation--or in their place a still small voice of utter purity crying in the wilderness! In time you shall know fully--know, see and hear. For the present, hold your soul with what patience and courage you may."

The words thundered about the room, so that Miriam, too, heard them. Spinrobin trembled inwardly, as though a cold air passed him. The suggestion of immense possibilities, vague yet terrible, overwhelmed him again suddenly. Had not the girl at that moment moved up beside him and put her exquisite pale face over his shoulder, with her hand upon his arm, it is probable he would then and there have informed Mr. Skale that he withdrew from the whole affair.

"Whatever happens," murmured Miriam, gazing into his eyes, "we go on singing and sounding together, you and I." Then, as Spinrobin bent down and kissed her hair, Mr. Skale put an arm round each of them and drew them over to the tea table.

"Come, Mr. Spinrobin," he said, with his winning smile, "you must not be alarmed, you know. You must not desert me. You are necessary to us all, and when my Experiment is complete we shall all be as gods together. Do not falter. There is nothing in life, remember, but to lose oneself; and I have found a better way of doing so than any one else--by merging ourselves into the Voice of--"

"Mr. Skale's tea has been standing more than ten minutes," interrupted the old housekeeper, coming up behind them; "if Mr. Spinrobin will please to let him come--" as though it was Spinrobin's fault that there had been delay.

Mr. Skale laughed good-humouredly, as the two men, suddenly in the region of teacups and buttered toast, looked one another in the face with a certain confusion. Miriam, sipping her tea, laughed too, curiously. Spinrobin felt restored to some measure of safety and sanity again. Only the strange emotion of a few moments before still moved there unseen among them.

"Listen, and you shall presently hear her name," the clergyman whispered, glancing up at the other over his teacup, but Spinrobin was crunching his toast too noisily to notice the meaning of the words fully.


The Stage Manager who stands behind all the scenes of life, both great and small, had prepared the scene well for what was to follow. The sentences about the world of inaudible sound had dropped the right kind of suggestion into the secretary's heart. His mind still whirred with a litter of half-digested sentences and ideas, however, and he was vividly haunted by the actuality of truth behind them all. His whole inner being at that moment cried "Hark!" through a hush of expectant wonder.

There they sat at tea, this singular group of human beings: Mr. Skale, bigger than ever in his loose housesuit of black, swallowing his liquid with noisy gulps; Spinrobin, nibbling slippery morsels of hot toast, on the edge of his chair; Miriam, quiet and mysterious, in her corner; and Mrs. Mawle, sedate, respectful in cap and apron, presiding over the teapot, the whole scene cozily lit by lamp and fire--when this remarkable new thing happened. Spinrobin declares always that it came upon him like a drowning wave, frightening him not with any idea of injury to himself, but with a dreadful sense of being lost and shelterless among the immensities of a transcendent new world. Something passed into the room that made his soul shake and flutter at the center.

His attention was first roused by a sound that he took, perhaps, to be the wind coming down from the hills in those draughts and gusts he sometimes heard, only to his imagination now it was a peopled wind crying round the walls, behind whose voice he detected the great fluid form of it--running and colored. But, with the noise, a terror that was no ordinary terror invaded the recesses of his soul. It was the fear of the Unknown, dreadfully multiplied.

He glanced up quickly from his teacup, and chancing to meet Miriam's eye, he saw that she was smiling as she watched him. This sound, then, had some special significance. At the same instant he perceived that it was not outside but in the room, close beside him, that Mr. Skale, in fact, was talking to the deaf housekeeper in a low and carefully modulated tone--a tone she could not possibly have heard, however. Then he discovered that the clergyman was not speaking actually, but repeating her name. He was intoning it. It grew into a kind of singing chant, an incantation.

"Sarah Mawle ... Sarah Mawle ... Sarah Mawle ..." ran through the room like water. And, in Skale's mouth, it sounded as his own name had sounded--different. It became in some significant way--thus Spinrobin expresses it always--stately, important, nay, even august. It became real. The syllables led his ear away from their normal signification--away from the outer toward the inner. His ordinary mental picture of the mere letters SARAHMAWLE disappeared and became merged in something else--into something alive that pulsed and moved with vibrations of its own. For, with the outer sound there grew up another interior one, that finally became separate and distinct.

Now Spinrobin was well aware that the continued repetition of one's own name can induce self-hypnotism; and he also knew that the reiteration of the name of an object ends by making that object disappear from the mind. "Mustard," repeated indefinitely, comes to have no meaning at all. The mind drops behind the mere symbol of the sound into something that is unintelligible, if not meaningless. But here it was altogether another matter, and from the torrent of words and similes he uses to describe it, this--a curious mixture of vividness and confusion--is apparently what he witnessed:

For, as the clergyman's resonant voice continued quietly to utter the name, something passed gradually into the appearance of the motherly old housekeeper that certainly was not there before, not visible, at least, to the secretary's eyes. Behind the fleshly covering of the body, within the very skin and bones it seemed, there flowed with steady splendor an effect of charging new vitality that had an air of radiating from her face and figure with the glow and rush of increased life. A suggestion of grandeur, genuine and convincing, began to express itself through the humble domestic exterior of her everyday self; at first, as though some greater personage towered shadowy behind her, but presently with a growing definiteness that showed it to be herself and nothing separate. The two, if two they were, merged.

Her mien, he saw, first softened astonishingly, then grew firm with an aspect of dignity that was unbelievably beautiful. An air of peace and joy her face had always possessed, but this was something beyond either. It was something imposing, majestic. So perilously adjusted is the ludicrous to the sublime, that while the secretary wondered dumbly whether the word "housekeeper" might also in Skale's new world connote "angel," he could have laughed aloud, had not the nobility of the spectacle hinted at the same time that he should have wept. For the tears of a positive worship started to his eyes at the sight.

"Sarahmawle ... Sarahmawle...." The name continued to pour itself about him in a steady ripple, neither rising nor falling, and certainly not audible to those deaf old ears that flanked the vigorous and unwrinkled face. "Youth" is not the word to describe this appearance of ardent intensity that flamed out of the form and features of the housekeeper, for it was something utterly apart from either youth or age. Nor was it any mere idealization of her worn and crumpled self. It was independent of physical conditions, as it was independent of the limitations of time and space; superb as sunshine, simple as the glory that had sometimes touched his soul of boyhood in sleep--the white fires of an utter transfiguration.

It was, in a word, as if the name Skale uttered had summoned to the front, through all disguising barriers of flesh, her true and naked spirit, that which neither ages nor dies, that which the eyes, when they rest upon a human countenance, can never see--the Soul itself!

For the first time in his life Spinrobin, abashed and trembling, gazed upon something in human guise that was genuinely sublime--perfect with a stainless purity. The mere sight produced in him an exaltation of the spirit such as he had never before experienced ... swallowing up his first terror. In his heart of hearts, he declares, he prayed; for this was the natural expression for an emotion of the volume and intensity that surged within him....

How long he sat there gazing seems uncertain; perhaps minutes, perhaps seconds only. The sense of time's passage was temporarily annihilated. It might well have been a thousand years, for the sight somehow swept him into eternity.... In that tearoom of Skale's lonely house among the mountains, the warmth of an earthly fire upon his back, the light of an earthly oil-lamp in his eyes, holding buttered toast in exceedingly earthly fingers, he sat face to face with something that yet was not of this earth, something majestic, spiritual and eternal ... visible evidence of transfiguration and of "earth growing heaven...."

It was, of course, stupid and clumsy of Spinrobin to drop his teacup and let it smash noisily against the leg of the table; yet it was natural enough, for in his ecstasy and amazement he apparently lost control of certain muscles in his trembling fingers.... Though the change came gradually it seemed very quick. The volume of the clergyman's voice grew less, and as the tide of sound ebbed the countenance of the housekeeper also slowly altered. The flames that a moment before had burned so whitely there flickered faintly and were gone; the glory faded; the splendor withdrew. She even seemed to dwindle in size.... She resumed her normal appearance. Skale's voice ceased.

The incident apparently had occupied but a few moments, for Mrs. Mawle, he realized, was gathering the plates together and fitting them into the spaces of the crowded tea-tray with difficulty--an operation, he remembered, she had just begun when the clergyman first began to call upon her name.

She, clearly, had been conscious of nothing unusual. A moment later, with her customary combination of curtsey and bow, she was gone from the room, and Spinrobin, acting upon a strange impulse, found himself standing upright by the table, looking wildly about him, passing his hand through his scattered hair, and trying in vain to utter words that should relieve his overcharged soul of the burden of glory and mystery that oppressed it.

A pain, profoundly searching, pierced his heart. He thought of the splendors he had just witnessed, and of the joy and peace upon those features even when the greater wonder withdrew. He thought of the power in the countenance of Skale, and of the shining loveliness in the face of Miriam. Then, with a blast of bitterest disappointment, he realized the insignificance of his own self--the earthiness of his own personality, the dead, dull ordinariness of his own appearance. Why, oh, why, could not all faces let the soul shine through? Why could not all identify themselves with their eternal part, and thus learn happiness and joy? A sense of the futile agony of life led him with an impassioned eagerness again to the thought of Skale's tremendous visions, and of the great Experiment that beckoned beyond. Only, once more the terror of its possible meaning dropped upon him, and the little black serpents of fear shot warningly across this brighter background of his hopes.

Then he was aware that Miriam had crossed the room and stood beside him, for her delicate and natural perfume announced her even before he turned and saw. Her soft eyes shining conveyed an irresistible appeal, and with her came the sense of peace she always brought. She was the one thing at that moment that could comfort and he opened his arms to her and let her come nestling in against him, both hands finding their way up under the lapels of his coat, all the exquisite confidence of the innocent child in her look. Her hair came over his lips and face like flowers, but he did not kiss her, nor could he find any words to say. To hold her there was enough, for the touch of her healed and blessed him.

"So now you have seen her as she really is," he heard her voice against his shoulder; "you have heard her true name, and seen a little of its form and color!"

"I never guessed that in this world--" he stammered; then, instead of completing the sentence, held her more tightly to him and let his face sink deeper into the garden of her hair.

"Oh yes," she answered, and then peered up with unflinching look into his eyes, "for that is just how I see you too--bright, splendid and eternal."

"Miriam!" It was as unexpected as a ghost and as incredible. "Me ...?"

"Of course! You see I know your true name. I see you as you are within!"

Something came to steady his swimming brain, but it was only after a distinct effort that he realized it was the voice of Mr. Skale addressing him. Then, gradually, as he listened, gently releasing the girl in order to turn towards him, he understood that what he had witnessed had been in the nature of a "test"--one of those tests he had been warned would come--and that his attitude to it was regarded by the clergyman with approval.

"It was a test more subtle than you know, perhaps, Mr. Spinrobin," he was saying, "and the feelings it has roused in you are an adequate proof that you have come well through it. As I knew you would, as I knew you would," he added, with evident satisfaction. "They do infinite credit both to yourself and to our judgment in--er--accepting you."

A wave of singular emotion seemed to pass across the room from one to the other that, catching the breathless secretary in its tide, filled him with a high pride that he had been weighed and found worthy, then left him cold with a sudden reaction as he realized after some delay the import of the words Mr. Skale was next saying to him.

Return to the The Human Chord Summary Return to the Algernon Blackwood Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson