The Human Chord

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 9


But he was hardly settled--there had not even been time to warm the sheets again--when he was aware that the test, instead of being over, was, indeed, but just beginning; and the detail that conveyed this unwelcome knowledge to him, though small enough in itself, was yet fraught with a crowded cargo of new alarms. It was a step upon the staircase, approaching his room.

He heard it the instant he lay still in bed after the shuffling process known generally as "cuddling down." And he knew that it was approaching because of the assistance the hall clock brought to his bewildered ears. For the hall clock--a big, dignified piece of furniture with a deep note--happened just then to strike the hour of two in the morning, and there was a considerable interval between the two notes. He first heard the step far below in the act of leaving the flagged hall for the staircase; then the clock drowned it with its first stroke, and perhaps a dozen seconds later, when the second stroke had died away, he heard the step again, as it passed from the top of the staircase on to the polished boards of the landing. The owner of the step, meanwhile, had passed up the whole length of the staircase in the interval, and was now coming across the landing in a direct line towards his bedroom door.

"It is a step, I suppose," it seems he muttered to himself, as with head partially raised above the blankets he listened intently. "It's a step, I mean...?" For the sound was more like a light tapping of a little hammer than an actual step--some hard substance drumming automatically upon the floor, while yet moving in advance. He recognized, however, that there was intelligence behind its movements, because of the sense of direction it displayed, and by the fact that it had turned the sharp corner of the stairs; but the idea presented itself in fugitive fashion to his mind--Heaven alone knows why--that it might be some mechanical contrivance that was worked from the hall by a hand. For the sound was too light to be the tread of a person, yet too "conscious" to be merely a sound of the night operating mechanically. And it was unlike the noise that the feet of any animal would make, any animal that he could think of, that is. A four-footed creature suggested itself to his mind, but without approval.

The puzzling characteristics of the sound, therefore, contradictory as they were, left him utterly perplexed, so that for some little time he could not make up his mind whether to be frightened, interested or merely curious.

This uncertainty, however, lasted but a moment or two at the most, for an appreciable pause outside his door was next followed by a noise of scratching upon the panels, as of hands or paws, and then by the shuffling of some living body that was flattening itself in an attempt to squeeze through the considerable crack between door and flooring, and so to enter the room.

And, hearing it, Spinrobin this time was so petrified with an instantaneous rush of terror, that at first he dared not even move to find the matches again under his pillow.

The pause was dreadful. He longed for brilliant light that should reveal all parts of the room equally, or else for a thick darkness that should conceal him from everything in the world. The uncertain flicker of a single candle playing miserably between the two was the last thing in the world to appeal to him.

And then events crowded too thick and fast for him to recognize any one emotion in particular from all the fire of them passing so swiftly in and out among his hopelessly disorganized thoughts. Terror flashed, but with it flashed also wonder and delight--the audacity of unreflecting courage--and more--even a breathless worship of the powers, knowledge and forces that lifted for him in that little bedroom the vast Transparency that hides from men the Unknown.

It is soon told. For a moment there was silence, and then he knew that the invader had effected an entrance. There was barely time to marvel at the snake-like thinness of the living creature that could avail itself of so narrow a space, when to his amazement he heard the quick patter of feet across the space of boarded flooring next the wall, and then the silence that muffled them as they reached the carpet proper.

Almost at the same second something leaped upon his bed, and there shot swiftly across him a living thing with light, firm tread--a creature, so far as he could form any judgment at all, about the size of a rabbit or a cat. He felt the feet pushing through sheets and blankets upon his body. They were little feet; how many, at that stage, he could not guess. Then he heard the thud as it dropped to the floor upon the other side.

The panic terror that in the dark it would run upon his bare exposed face thus passed; and in that moment of intense relief Spinrobin gripped his soul, so to speak, with both hands and made the effort of his life. Whatever happened now he must have a light, be it only the light of a single miserable candle. In that moment he felt that he would have sacrificed all his hopes of the hereafter to have turned on a flood of searching and brilliant sunshine into every corner of the room--instantaneously. The thought that the creature might jump again upon the bed and touch him before he could see, gave him energy to act.

With dashes of terror shooting through him like spears of ice, he grabbed the matchbox, and after a frenzied entanglement again with sheets and pillow-case, succeeded in breaking four matches in quick succession. They cracked, it seemed to him, like pistol shots, till he half expected that this creature, waiting there in the darkness, must leap out in the direction of the sound to attack him. The fifth lit, and a moment later the candle was burning dimly, but with its usual exasperating leisure and delay. As the flare died down, then gradually rose again, he fairly swallowed the room with a single look, wishing there were eyes all over his body. It was a very faint light. At first he saw nothing, heard nothing--nothing alive, that is.

"I must act! I must do something--at once!" he remembered thinking. For, to wait meant to leave the choice and moment of attack to this other....

Cautiously, and very slowly, therefore, he wriggled to the edge of the bed and slid over, searching with his feet for slippers, but finding none, yet not daring to lower his eyes to look; then stood upright with a sudden rush, shading the candle from his eyes with one hand and peering over it.

As a rule, in moments of overwhelming emotion, the eyes search too eagerly, too furiously, to see properly at all; but this does not seem to have been the case with Spinrobin. The shadows ran about like water and the flickering of the candle-flame dazzled, but there, opposite to him, over by the darkness of the dead fireplace, he saw instantly the small black object that was the immediate cause of his terror. Its actual shape was merged too much in the dark background to be clearly ascertainable, but near the top of it, where presumably the head was, the candle-flame shone reflected in two brilliant points of light that were directed straight upon his face, and he knew that he was looking into the eyes of a living creature that was not the very least on the defensive. It was a living creature, aggressive and unafraid.

For perhaps a couple of minutes--or was it seconds only?--these two beings with the breath of life in them faced one another. Then Spinrobin made a step cautiously in advance; lowering his candle he moved towards it. This he did, partly to see better, partly to protect his bare legs. The idea of protection, however, seems to have been merely instinct, for at once this notion that it might dash forward to attack him was merged in the unaccountable realization of a far grander emotion, as he perceived that this "living creature" facing him was, for all its diminutive size, both dignified and imposing. Something in its atmosphere, something about its mysterious presentment there upon the floor in its dark corner, something, perhaps, that flashed from its brilliant and almost terrible eyes, managed to convey to him that it was clothed with an importance and a significance not attached normally to the animal world. It had "an air." It bore itself with power, with value, almost with pride.

This incongruous impression bereft him of the sensations of ordinary fear, while it increased the sources of his confusion. Yet it convinced. He knew himself face to face with some form of life that was considerable in the true sense--spiritually. It exercised a fascination over him that was at the moment beyond either explanation or belief.

As he moved, moreover, the little dark object also moved--away from him, as though resenting closer inspection. With action--again unlike the action of any animal he could think of, and essentially dignified--both rapid and nicely calculated, it ran towards the curtains behind. This appearance of something stately that went with it was indefinable and beyond everything impressive; for how in the world could such small proportions and diminutive movements convey grandeur? And again Spinrobin found it impossible to decide precisely how it moved--whether on four legs or on two.

Keeping the two points of light always turned upon him, it shot across the floor, leaped easily upon a chair, passed with a nimble spring from this to a table by the wall, still too much in obscurity to permit a proper view; and then, while the amazed secretary approached cautiously to follow its movements better, it crawled to the edge of the table, and in so doing passed for the first time full across the pale zone of flickering candlelight.

Spinrobin, in that quick second, caught a glimpse of flying hair, and saw that it moved either as a human being or as a bird--on two legs.

The same moment it sprang deftly from the high table to the mantelpiece, turned, stood erect, and looked at him with the whole glare of the light upon its face; and Spinrobin, bereft of all power of intelligible sensation whatever, saw to his unutterable distress that it was--a man. The dignity of its movements had already stirred vaguely his sense of awe, but now the realization beyond doubt of its diminutive human shape added a singularly acute touch of horror; and it was the combination of the two emotions, possibly, that were responsible also for the two remarkable impulses of which he was first conscious: first, a mad desire to strike and kill; secondly, an imperious feeling that he must hide his eyes in some act or other of worship!

And it was then he realized that the man was--Philip Skale!

Mr. Skale, scarcely a foot high, dressed as usual in black, flowing beard, hooked nose, lambent, flashing eyes and all, stood there upon the mantelpiece level with his secretary's face, not three feet separating them, and--smiled at him. He was small as a Tanagra figure, and in perfect proportion.

It was unspeakably terrible.


"Of course--I'm dreaming," cried Spinrobin, half aloud, half to the figure before him. He searched behind him with one hand for solid support. "You're a dream thing. It's some awful trick--God will protect me--!"

Mr. Skale's tiny lips moved. "No, no," his voice said, and it sounded as from a great distance. "I'm no dream thing at all, and you are wide awake. Look at me well. I am the man you know--Philip Skale. Look straight into my eyes and be convinced." Again he smiled his kindly, winning smile. "What you now see is nothing but a result of sounding my true name in a certain way--very softly--to increase the cohesion of my physical molecules and reduce my visible expression. Listen, and watch!"

And Spinrobin, half stupefied, obeyed, feeling that his weakening knees must in another moment give way and precipitate him to the floor. He was utterly unnerved. The onslaught of terror and amazement was overwhelming. For something dreadful beyond all words lay in the sight of this man, whom he was accustomed to reverence in his gigantic everyday shape, here reduced to the stature of a pygmy, yet compelling as ever, terrific even when thus dwarfed. And to hear the voice of thunder that he knew so well come to him disguised within this thin and almost wailing tone, passed equally beyond the limits of what he could feel as emotion or translate into any intelligible words or gesture.

While, therefore, the secretary stood in awful wonder, doing as he was told simply because he could do nothing else, the figure of the clergyman moved with tiny steps to the edge of the mantelpiece, until it seemed as though he meant in another moment to leap on to his companion's shoulder, or into his arms. At the edge, however, he stopped--the brink of a precipice, to him!--and Spinrobin then became aware that from his moving lips, doll-like though bearded, his voice was issuing with an ever-growing volume of sound and power.

Vibrations of swiftly-increasing depth and wave-length were spreading through the air about him, filling the room from floor to ceiling. What the syllables actually uttered may have been he was too dazed to realize, for no degree of concentration was possible to his mind at all; he only knew that, before his smarting eyes, with this rising of the voice to its old dominant inflexion, the figure of Mr. Philip Skale grew likewise, indescribably; swelled, rose, spread upwards and outwards, but with the parts ever passing slowly in consistent inter-relation, from minute to minute. He became, always in perfect proportion, magnified and extended. The growing form, moreover, kept pace exactly, and most beautifully, with the increasing tide of sonorous vibration that flooded himself, its utterer and the whole room.

Spinrobin, it seems, had just sufficient self-control left to realize that this sound was similar in quality to that which had first awakened him and caused the outlines of the furniture to alter, when the sight of Mr. Skale's form changing thus terribly before his eyes, and within the touch of his very hand, became too much for him altogether....

What precisely happened he never knew. The sounds first enveloped him, then drove him backwards with a sense of immense applied resistance. He collapsed upon the sofa a few feet behind him, as though irresistibly pushed. The power that impelled him charged vehemently through the little room till it seemed the walls must burst asunder to give it scope, while the sounds rose to such a volume that he figured himself drowned and overpowered by their mighty vibrations as by the storm swells of the Atlantic. Before he lost them as sound he seems thus to have been aware of them as moving waves of air.... The next thing he took in was that amid the waste of silence that now followed his inability to hear, the figure of Philip Skale towered aloft towards the ceiling, till it seemed positively to occupy all the available space in the room about him.

Had he dropped upon the floor instead of upon the sofa it is probable that at this point Spinrobin would have lost consciousness, at any rate for a period; but that sofa, which luckily for his bones was so close behind, galvanized him sharply back into some measure of self-control again. Being provided with powerful springs, it shot him up into the air, whence he relapsed with a series of smaller bounds into a normal sitting posture. Still holding the lighted candle as best he could, the little secretary bounced upon that sofa like a tennis ball. And the violent motion shook him into himself, as it were. His tottering universe struggled back into shape once more. He remembered vaguely that all this was somehow a test of his courage and fitness. And this thought, strengthened by a law of his temperament which forced him to welcome the sweet, mad terror of the whole adventure, helped to call out the reserves of his failing courage.

He bounced upon his feet again--those bare feet plastered with candle grease--and, turning his head, saw the clergyman, of incredible stature, yet still apparently increasing, already over by the door. He was turning the key with a hand the size--O horror!--of Spinrobin's breast. The next moment his vast stooping body filled the entire entrance, blotting out whole portions of the walls on either side, then was gone from the room.

Leaving the candlestick on the sofa, his heart aflame with a fearful ecstasy of curiosity, he dashed across the floor in pursuit, but Mr. Skale, silently and with the swiftness of a river, was already down the stairs before he had covered half the distance.

Through the framework of the door Spinrobin saw this picture:

Skale, like some awful Cyclops, stood upon the floor of the hall some twenty feet below, yet rearing terrifically up through the well of the building till his head and shoulders alone seemed to fill the entire space beneath the skylight. Though his feet rested unquestionably upon the ground, his face, huge as a planet in the sky, rose looming and half lighted above the banisters of this second storey, his tangled locks sweeping the ceiling, and his beard, like some dark river of hair, flowing downwards through the night. And this spreading countenance of cloud it was, hanging in the semi-darkness, that Spinrobin saw turn slowly towards him across the faint flicker of the candlelight, look straight down into his face, and smile. The great mouth and eyes unquestionably smiled. And that smile, for all its vast terror, was beyond words enchanting--like the spread laughter of a summer landscape.

Among the spaces of the immense visage--reminding him curiously of his boyhood's conception of the Creator--Spinrobin lost himself and grew dizzy with a deadly yet delicious faintness. The mighty tenderness, the compassion, the splendor of that giant smile overpowered him and swallowed him up.

For one second, in dreadful silence, he gazed. Then, rising to meet the test with a courage that he felt might somehow involve the alteration if not the actual destruction of his own little personality, but that also proved his supreme gameness at the same time, he tried to smile in return.... The strange and pitiful attempt upon his own face perhaps, in the semi-obscurity, was not seen. He only remembers that he somehow found strength to crawl forward and close the door with a bang, though not the strength to turn the key and lock it, and that two seconds later, having kicked the candle over and out in his flying leap, he was in the middle of the bed under a confused pile of sheets and blankets, weeping with muffled sobs in the darkness as though his heart must burst with the wonder and terror of all he had witnessed.

For, to the simple in heart, at the end of all possible stress and strain of emotion, comes mercifully the blinding relief of tears....

And then, although too overcome to be able to prove it even to himself, it was significant that, lying there smothered among the bedclothes, he became aware of the presence of something astonishingly sweet and comforting in his consciousness. It came quite suddenly upon him; the reaction he experienced, he says, was very wonderful, for with it the sense of absolute safety and security returned to him. Like a terrified child in the darkness who suddenly knows that its mother stands by the bed, all-powerful to soothe, he felt certain that some one had moved into the room, was close beside him, and was even trying to smooth his pillow and arrange the twisted bedclothes.

He did not dare uncover his face to see, for he was still dominated by the memory of Mr. Skale's portentous visage; but his ears were not so easily denied, and he was positive that he heard a voice that called his name as though it were the opening phrase of some sweet, childhood lullaby. There was a touch about him somewhere, it seemed, of delicate cool hands that brought with them the fragrance as of a scented summer wind; and the last thing he remembered before he sank away into welcome unconsciousness was an impression, fugitive and dreamlike, of a gentle face, unstained and pale as marble, that bent above his pillow, and, singing, called him away to forgetfulness and peace.


And several hours later, when he woke after a refreshing sleep to find Mrs. Mawle smiling down upon him over a tray of steaming coffee, he recalled the events of the night with a sense of vivid reality that if possible increased his conviction of their truth, but without the smallest symptom of terror or dismay. For the blessing of the presence that had soothed him into sleep lay still upon him like a garment to protect. The test had come and he had not wholly failed.

With something approaching amusement, he watched the housekeeper pick up a candlestick from the middle of the floor and put his Jaeger slippers beneath the chair, having found one by the cupboard and the other over by the fireplace.

"Mr. Skale's compliments and Mr. Spinrobin is not to hurry himself," he heard her saying, as she put the tray beside the bed and went out of the room. He looked at his watch and saw that it was after ten o'clock.

Half an hour later he was dressed and on his way downstairs, conscious only of an overwhelming desire to see Mr. Skale, but to see him in his normal and fatherly aspect again. For a strain of worship mingled oddly with his devouring curiosity, and he was thirsty now for the rest of the adventure, for the complete revelation of the Discovery in all its bearings. And the moment he saw the clergyman in the hall he ran towards him, scarcely realizing what it was he meant to say or do. Mr. Skale stretched out both hands to meet him. His face was alight with pleasure.

But, before they could meet and touch, a door opened and in slipped Miriam between them; she, too, was radiant, and her hands outstretched.

"Me first, please! Me first!" she cried with happy laughter, and before Spinrobin realized what was happening, she had flung her arms about his neck and kissed him. "You were splendid!" she whispered in his ear, "and I am proud of you--ever so proud!"

The next minute Skale had him by the hands.

"Well done! well done!" his voice boomed, while he gazed down into his face with enthusiastic and unqualified approval. "It was all magnificent. My dear little fellow, you've got the heart of a god, and, by Heavens, you shall become as a god too! For you are worthy!" He shook him violently by both hands, while Miriam looked eagerly on with admiration in her wide grey eyes.

"I'm so glad, so awfully glad--" stammered the secretary, remembering with shame his moments of vivid terror. He hardly knew what he said at the moment.

"The properties of things," thundered the clergyman, "as you have now learned, are merely the 'muffled utterances of the Sounds that made them.' The thing itself is its name."

He spoke rapidly, with intense ardor and with reverence. "You have seen with your own eyes a scientific proof of my Discovery on its humblest level--how the physical properties of objects can be manipulated by the vibratory utterance of their true names--can be extended, reduced, glorified. Next you shall learn that spiritual qualities--the attributes of higher states of being--can be similarly dealt with and harnessed--exalted, intensified, invoked--and that the correct utterance of mighty Names can seduce their specific qualities into your own soul to make you mighty and eternal as themselves, and that to call upon the Great Names is no idle phrase.... When the time comes, Spinrobin, you shall not shrink, you shall not shrink...." He flung his arms out with a great gesture of delight.

"No," repeated Spinrobin, yet aware that he felt mentally battered at the prospect, "I shall not shrink. I think--now--I can manage--anything!"

And then, watching Miriam with lingering glance as she vanished laughing up the staircase, he followed Mr. Skale into the library, his thoughts tearing wildly to and fro, swelling with delight and pride, thrilling with the wonder of what was yet to come. There, with fewest possible sentences, the clergyman announced that he now accepted him and would, therefore, carry out the promise with regard to the bequeathal of his property to him in the event of any untoward circumstances arising later. He also handed to him in cash the salary for the "trial month," together with a check for the first quarter in advance. He was beaming with the satisfaction he felt at having found at last a really qualified helper. Spinrobin looked into his face as they shook hands over the bargain. He was thinking of other aspects he had seen of this amazing being but a few hours before--the minute, the colossal, the changing-between-the-two Skales....

"I'm game, Mr. Skale," he said simply, forgetting all his recent doubts and terrors.

"I know you are," the clergyman replied. "I knew it all along."

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