The Human Chord

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 8


Spinrobin lingered a while in the library after Miriam was gone, then feeling slightly ill at ease in the room now that her presence was withdrawn, put the lights out, saw that the windows were properly barred and fastened, and went into the hall on his way to bed.

He looked at the front door, tried the chain, and made sure that both top and bottom bolts were thrown. Why he should have taken these somewhat unusual precautions was not far to seek, though at the moment he could not probably have explained. The desire for protection was awake in his being, and he took these measures of security and defense because it sought to express itself, as it were, even automatically. Spinrobin was afraid.

Up the broad staircase he went softly with his lighted candle, leaving the great hall behind him full to the brim with shadows--shadows that moved and took shape. His own head and shoulders in monstrous outline poured over the walls and upper landings, and thence leaped to the skylight overhead. As he passed the turn in the stairs, the dark contents of the hall below rushed past in a single mass, like an immense extended wing, and settled abruptly at his back, following him thence to the landing.

Once there, he went more quickly, moving on tiptoe, and so reached his own room halfway down. He passed two doors to get there; another two lay beyond; all four, as he believed, being always locked. It was these four rooms that conjured mightily with his imagination always, for these were the rooms he pictured to himself, though without a vestige of proof, as being occupied. It was from the further ones--one or other of them--he believed Mr. Skale came when he had passed down the corridor at two in the morning, stealthily, hurriedly, on the heels of that rush of sound that made him shake in his bed as he heard it.

In his own room, however, surrounded by the familiar and personal objects that reminded him of normal life, he felt more at home. He undressed quickly, all his candles alight, and then sat before the fire in the armchair to read a little before getting into bed.

And he read for choice Hebrew--Hebrew poetry, and on this particular occasion, the books of Job and Ezekiel. For nothing had so soothing and calming an effect upon him as the mighty yet simple imagery of these sonorous stanzas; they invariably took him "out of himself," or at any rate out of the region of small personal alarms. And thus, letting his fancy roam, it seems, he was delighted to find that gradually the fears which had dominated him during the day and evening disappeared. He passed with the poetry into that region of high adventure which his nature in real life denied him. The verses uplifted him in a way that made his recent timidity seem the mere mood of a moment, or at least negligible. His memory, as one thing suggested another, began to give up its dead, and some of Blake's drawings, seen recently in London with prodigious effect, began to pass vividly before his mental vision.

The symbolism of what he was reading doubtless suggested the memory. He felt himself caught in the great invisible nets of wonder that forever swept the world. The littleness of modern life, compared to that ancient and profound spirit which sought the permanent things of the soul, haunted him with curious insistence. He suffered a keen, though somewhat mixed realization of his actual insignificance, yet of his potential sublimity could he but identify himself with his ultimate Self in the region of vision.... His soul was aware of finding itself alternately ruffled and exalted as he read ... and pondered ... as he visualized to some degree the giant Splendors, the wonderful Wheels, the spirit Wings and Faces and all the other symbols of potent imagery evoked by the imagination of that old Hebrew world....

So that when, an hour later, pacified and sleepy, he rose to go to bed, this poetry seems to have left a very marked effect upon his mind--mingled, naturally enough, with the thought of Mr. Skale. For on his way across the floor, having adjusted the fire-screen, he distinctly remembered thinking what a splendid "study" the clergyman would have made for one of Blake's representations of the Deity--the flowing beard, the great nose, the imposing head and shoulders, the potentialities of the massive striding figure, surrounded by a pictorial suggestion of all the sound-forces he was forever talking about....

This thought was his last, and it was without fear of any kind. Merely, he insists, that his imagination was touched, and in a manner perfectly accountable, considering the ingredients of its contents at the time.

And so he hopped nimbly into bed. On the little table beside him stood the candle and the copy of the Hebrew text he had been reading, with its parallel columns in the two languages. His Jaeger slippers were beneath the chair, his clothes, carefully folded, on the sofa, his collar, studs and necktie in a row on the top of the mahogany chest of drawers. On the mantelpiece stood the glass jar of heather, filled that very day by Miriam. He saw it just as he blew out the candle, and Miriam, accordingly, was the last vision that journeyed with him into the country of dreams and sweet forgetfulness.

The night was perfectly still. Winter, black and hard, lay about the house like an iron wall. No wind stirred. Snow covered the world of mountain and moor outside, and Silence, supreme at midnight, poured all her softest forces upon the ancient building and its occupants. Spinrobin, curled up in the middle of the big four-poster, slept like a tired baby.


It was a good deal later when somewhere out of that mass of silence rose the faint beginnings of a sound that stirred first cautiously about the very foundations of the house, and then, mounting inch by inch, through the hall, up the staircase, along the corridor, reached the floor where the secretary slept so peacefully, and finally entered his room. Its muffled tide poured most softly over all. At first only this murmur was audible, as of "footsteps upon wool," of wind or drifting snow, a mere ghost of sound; but gradually it grew, though still gentle and subdued, until it filled the space from ceiling unto floor, pressing in like water dripping into a cistern with ever-deepening note as its volume increased. The trembling of air in a big belfry where bells have been a-ringing represents best the effect, only it was a trifle sharper in quality--keener, more alive.

But, also, there was something more in it--something gong-like and metallic, yet at the same time oddly and suspiciously human. It held a temper, too, that somehow woke the "panic sense," as does the hurried note of a drum--some quick emotional timbre that stirs the sleeping outposts of apprehension and alarm. On the other hand, it was constant, neither rising nor falling, and thus ordinarily, it need not have stirred any emotion at all--least of all the emotion of consternation. Yet, there was that in it which struck at the root of security and life. It was a revolutionary sound.

And as it took possession of the room, covering everything with its garment of vibration, it slipped in also, so to speak, between the crevices of the sleeping, unprotected Spinrobin, coloring his dreams--his innocent dreams--with the suggestion of nightmare dread. Of course, he was too deeply wrapped in slumber to receive the faintest intimation of this waking analysis. Otherwise he might, perhaps, have recognized the kind of primitive, ancestral dread his remote forefathers knew when the inexplicable horror of a tidal wave or an eclipse of the sun overwhelmed them with the threatened alteration of their entire known universe.

The sleeping figure in that big four-poster moved a little as the tide of sound played upon it, fidgeting this way and that. The human ball uncoiled, lengthened, straightened out. The head, half hidden by folds of sheet and pillowcase, emerged.

Spinrobin unfolded, then opened his eyes and stared about him, bewildered, in the darkness.

"Who's there? Is that you--anybody?" he asked in a whisper, the confusion of sleep still about him.

His voice seemed dead and smothered, as though the other sound overwhelmed it. The same instant, more widely awake, he realized that his bedroom was humming.

"What's that? What's the matter?" he whispered again, wondering uneasily at the noise.

There was no answer. The vague dread transferred itself adroitly from his dream-consciousness to his now thoroughly awakened mind. It began to dawn upon him that something was wrong. He noticed that the fire was out, and the room dark and heavy. He realized dimly the passage of time--a considerable interval of time--and that he must have been asleep several hours. Where was he? Who was he? What, in the name of mystery and night, had been going on during the interval? He began to shake all over--feverishly. Whence came this noise that made everything in the darkness tremble?

As he fumbled hurriedly for the matchbox, his fingers caught in the folds of pillowcase and sheet, and he struggled violently to get them clear again. It was while doing this that the impression first reached him that the room was no longer quite the same. It had changed while he slept. Even in the darkness he felt this, and shuddering pulled the blankets over his head and shoulders, for this idea of the changed room plucked at the center of his heart, where terror lay waiting to leap out upon him.

After what seemed five minutes he found the matchbox and struck a light, and all the time the torrent of sound poured about his ears with such an effect of bewilderment that he hardly realized what he was doing. A strange terror poured into him that he would change with the room. At length the match flared, and while he lit the candle with shaking fingers, he looked wildly, quickly about him. At once the sounds rushed upon him from all directions, burying him, so to speak, beneath vehement vibrations of the air that rained in upon him.... Yes, the room had indeed changed, actually changed ... but before he could decide where the difference lay the candle died down to a mere spark, waiting for the wick to absorb the grease. It seemed like half an hour before the yellow tongue grew again, so that he finally saw clearly.

But--saw what? Saw that the room had horribly altered while he slept, yes! But how altered? What in the name of all the world's deities was the matter with it? The torrent of sound, now growing louder and louder, so confused him at first, and the dancing patchwork of light and shadow the candle threw so increased his bewilderment, that for some minutes he sought in vain to steady his mind to the point of accurate observation.

"God of my Fathers!" cried Spinrobin at last under his breath, and hardly knowing what he said, "if it's not moving!"

For this, indeed, was what he saw while the candle flame burned steadily upon a room that was no longer quite recognizable.

At first, with the natural exaggeration due to shock, he thought the whole room moved, but as his powers of sight came with time to report more truly, he perceived that this was only true of certain things in it. It was not the ceiling that poured down in fluid form to meet a floor ever gliding and shifting forward into outlandish proportions, but it was certain objects--one here, another there--midway between the two that, having assumed new and unaccustomed outlines, lent to the rest of the chamber a general appearance of movement and an entirely altered expression. And these objects, he perceived, holding tightly to the bedclothes with both hands as he stared, were two: the dark, old-fashioned cupboard on his left, and the plush curtains that draped the window on his right. He himself, and the bed and the rest of the furniture were stationary. The room as a whole stood still, while these two common and familiar articles of household furnishing took on a form and an expression utterly foreign to what he had always known as a cupboard and a curtain. This outline, this expression, moreover, if not actually sinister, was grotesque to the verge of the sinister: monstrous.

The difficulty of making any accurate observation at all was further increased by the perplexity of having to observe two objects, not even on the same side of the room. Their outlines, however, Spinrobin claims, altered very slowly, wavering like the distorted reflections seen in moving water, and unquestionably obeying in some way the pitch and volume of the sound that continued to pour its resonant tide about the room. The sound manipulated the shape; the connection between the two was evident. That, at least, he grasped. Somebody hidden elsewhere in the house--Mr. Skale probably, of course, in one of his secret chambers--was experimenting with the "true names" of these two "common objects," altering their normal forms by inserting the vibrations of sound between their ultimate molecules.

Only, this simple statement that his clearing mind made to itself in no way accounted for the fascination of horror that accompanied the manifestation. For he recognized it as the joy of horror and not alone the torment. His blood ran swiftly to the rhythm of these humming vibrations that filled the space about him; and his terror, his bewilderment, his curious sense of elation seemed to him as messengers of far more terrific sensations that communicated to him dimly the rushing wonder of some aspect of the Unknown in its ultimate nature essentially beautiful.

This, however, only dawned upon him later, when the experiment was complete and he had time to reflect upon it all next day; for, meanwhile, to see the proportions he had known since childhood alter thus before his eyes was unbelievably dreadful. To see your friend sufficiently himself still to be recognizable, yet in essentials, at the same time, grotesquely altered, would doubtless touch a climax of distress and horror for you. The changing of these two things, so homely and well-known in themselves, into something that was not themselves, involved an idea of destruction that was worse than even death, for it meant that the idea in the mind no longer corresponded to the visible object there before the eyes. The correspondence was no longer a true one. The result was a lie.

To describe the actual forms assumed by these shifting and wavering bodies is not possible, for when Spinrobin gives the details one simply fails to recognize either cupboard or curtain. To say that the dark, lumbering cupboard, standing normally against the wall down there in the shadows, loomed suddenly forward and upward, bent, twisted, and stretched out the whole of one side towards him like a misshapen arm, can convey nothing of the world of new sensations that the little secretary felt while actually watching it in progress in that haunted chamber of Skale's mansion among the hills. Nor can one be thrilled with the extraordinary sense of wonder that thrilled Spinrobin when he saw the faded plush curtain hang across the window in such a way that it might well have wrapped the whole of Wales into a single fold, yet without extending its skirts beyond the actual walls of the room. For what he saw apparently involved contradictions in words, and the fact is that no description of what he saw is really possible at all.

"Hark! By thunder!" he exclaimed, creeping out of bed with sheer stress of excitement, while the sounds poured up through the floor as though from cellars and tunnels where they lay stored beneath the house. They sang and trembled about him with the menaces of a really exquisite alarm. He moved cautiously out into the center of the room, not daring to approach too close to the affected objects, yet furiously anxious to discover how it was all done. For he was uncommonly "game" through it all, and had himself well in hand from beginning to end. He was really too excited, probably, to feel ordinary fear; it all swept him away too mightily for that; he did not even notice the sting of the hot candle-grease as it fell upon his bare feet.

There he stood, plucky little Spinny, steady amid this shifting world, master of his soul amid dissolution, his hair pointing out like ruffled feathers, his blue eyes wide open and charged with a speechless wonder, his face pale as chalk, lips apart, jaw a trifle dropped, one hand in the pocket of his dressing-gown, and the other holding the candle at an angle that showered grease upon the carpet of the Rev. Philip Skale as well as upon his own ankles. There he stood, face to face with the grotesque horror of familiar outlines gone wrong, the altered panorama of his known world moving about him in a strange riot of sound and form. It was, he understood, an amazing exhibition of the transforming power of sound--of sound playing tricks with the impermanence and the illusion of Form. Skale was making his words good.

And behind the scenes he divined, with a shudder of genuine admiration, the figure of the master of the ceremonies, somehow or other grown colossal, as he had thought of him just before going to sleep--Philip Skale, hidden in the secret places of the building, directing the operations of this dreadful aspect of his revolutionary Discovery.... And yet the thought brought a measure of comfort in its train, for was he not also himself now included in the mighty scheme?... In his mind he saw this giant Skale, with his great limbs and shoulders, his flowing, shaggy beard, his voice of thunder and his portentous speculations, and, so doing, felt himself merged in a larger world that made his own little terrors and anxieties of but small account. Once again the sense of his own insignificance disappeared as he realized that at last he was in the full flood of an adventure that was providing the kind of escape he had always longed for.

Inevitably, then, his thought flew to Miriam, and as he remembered her final word to him a few short hours ago in the hall below, he already felt ashamed of the fear with which he had met the beginning of the "test." He instantly felt steeped instead in the wonder and power of the whole thing. His mind, though still trembling and shaken, came to rest. He drew, that is, upon the larger powers of the Chord.

And the interesting thing was that the moment this happened he noticed a change begin to come over the room. With extraordinary swiftness the tide of vibration lessened and the sound withdrew; the humming seemed to sink back into the depths of the house; the thrill and delight of his recent terrors fled with it. The air gradually ceased to shake and tremble; the furniture, with a curious final shiver as of spinning coins about to settle, resumed its normal shape. Once more the room, and with it the world, became commonplace and dull. The test apparently was over. He had met it with success.

Spinrobin, holding the candle straight for the first time, turned back towards the bed. He caught a passing glimpse of himself in the mirror as he went--white and scattered he describes his appearance.... He climbed again into bed, blew the candle out, put the matchbox under his pillow within easy reach, and so once more curled himself up into a ball and composed himself to sleep.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.