Algernon Blackwood.

Three More John Silence Stories online

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shadow cast by the lamp they had just passed on the wall. He dismissed
it from his mind.

"You are very kind, I'm sure," he said politely. "It is perhaps a
greater pleasure to me than you can imagine to see the place again.
Ah," - he stopped short opposite a door with the upper half of glass and
peered in - "surely there is one of the music rooms where I used to
practise the violin. How it comes back to me after all these years!"

Bruder Kalkmann stopped indulgently, smiling, to allow his guest a
moment's inspection.

"You still have the boys' orchestra? I remember I used to play 'zweite
Geige' in it. Bruder Schliemann conducted at the piano. Dear me, I can
see him now with his long black hair and - and - " He stopped abruptly.
Again the odd, dark look passed over the stern face of his companion.
For an instant it seemed curiously familiar.

"We still keep up the pupils' orchestra," he said, "but Bruder
Schliemann, I am sorry to say - " he hesitated an instant, and then
added, "Bruder Schliemann is dead."

"Indeed, indeed," said Harris quickly. "I am sorry to hear it." He was
conscious of a faint feeling of distress, but whether it arose from the
news of his old music teacher's death, or - from something else - he could
not quite determine. He gazed down the corridor that lost itself among
shadows. In the street and village everything had seemed so much smaller
than he remembered, but here, inside the school building, everything
seemed so much bigger. The corridor was loftier and longer, more
spacious and vast, than the mental picture he had preserved. His
thoughts wandered dreamily for an instant.

He glanced up and saw the face of the Bruder watching him with a smile
of patient indulgence.

"Your memories possess you," he observed gently, and the stern look
passed into something almost pitying.

"You are right," returned the man of silk, "they do. This was the most
wonderful period of my whole life in a sense. At the time I hated
it - " He hesitated, not wishing to hurt the Brother's feelings.

"According to English ideas it seemed strict, of course," the other said
persuasively, so that he went on.

" - Yes, partly that; and partly the ceaseless nostalgia, and the
solitude which came from never being really alone. In English schools
the boys enjoy peculiar freedom, you know."

Bruder Kalkmann, he saw, was listening intently.

"But it produced one result that I have never wholly lost," he
continued self-consciously, "and am grateful for."

"_Ach! Wie so, denn?_"

"The constant inner pain threw me headlong into your religious life, so
that the whole force of my being seemed to project itself towards the
search for a deeper satisfaction - a real resting-place for the soul.
During my two years here I yearned for God in my boyish way as perhaps I
have never yearned for anything since. Moreover, I have never quite lost
that sense of peace and inward joy which accompanied the search. I can
never quite forget this school and the deep things it taught me."

He paused at the end of his long speech, and a brief silence fell
between them. He feared he had said too much, or expressed himself
clumsily in the foreign language, and when Bruder Kalkmann laid a hand
upon his shoulder, he gave a little involuntary start.

"So that my memories perhaps do possess me rather strongly," he added
apologetically; "and this long corridor, these rooms, that barred and
gloomy front door, all touch chords that - that - " His German failed
him and he glanced at his companion with an explanatory smile and
gesture. But the Brother had removed the hand from his shoulder and was
standing with his back to him, looking down the passage.

"Naturally, naturally so," he said hastily without turning round.
"_Es ist doch selbstverständlich_. We shall all understand."

Then he turned suddenly, and Harris saw that his face had turned most
oddly and disagreeably sinister. It may only have been the shadows again
playing their tricks with the wretched oil lamps on the wall, for the
dark expression passed instantly as they retraced their steps down the
corridor, but the Englishman somehow got the impression that he had said
something to give offence, something that was not quite to the other's
taste. Opposite the door of the _Bruderstube_ they stopped. Harris
realised that it was late and he had possibly stayed talking too long.
He made a tentative effort to leave, but his companion would not hear of
it.

"You must have a cup of coffee with us," he said firmly as though he
meant it, "and my colleagues will be delighted to see you. Some of them
will remember you, perhaps."

The sound of voices came pleasantly through the door, men's voices
talking together. Bruder Kalkmann turned the handle and they entered a
room ablaze with light and full of people.

"Ah, - but your name?" he whispered, bending down to catch the reply;
"you have not told me your name yet."

"Harris," said the Englishman quickly as they went in. He felt nervous
as he crossed the threshold, but ascribed the momentary trepidation to
the fact that he was breaking the strictest rule of the whole
establishment, which forbade a boy under severest penalties to come near
this holy of holies where the masters took their brief leisure.

"Ah, yes, of course - Harris," repeated the other as though he remembered
it. "Come in, Herr Harris, come in, please. Your visit will be immensely
appreciated. It is really very fine, very wonderful of you to have come
in this way."

The door closed behind them and, in the sudden light which made his
sight swim for a moment, the exaggeration of the language escaped his
attention. He heard the voice of Bruder Kalkmann introducing him. He
spoke very loud, indeed, unnecessarily, - absurdly loud, Harris thought.

"Brothers," he announced, "it is my pleasure and privilege to introduce
to you Herr Harris from England. He has just arrived to make us a little
visit, and I have already expressed to him on behalf of us all the
satisfaction we feel that he is here. He was, as you remember, a pupil
in the year '70."

It was a very formal, a very German introduction, but Harris rather
liked it. It made him feel important and he appreciated the tact that
made it almost seem as though he had been expected.

The black forms rose and bowed; Harris bowed; Kalkmann bowed. Every one
was very polite and very courtly. The room swam with moving figures; the
light dazzled him after the gloom of the corridor, there was thick cigar
smoke in the atmosphere. He took the chair that was offered to him
between two of the Brothers, and sat down, feeling vaguely that his
perceptions were not quite as keen and accurate as usual. He felt a
trifle dazed perhaps, and the spell of the past came strongly over him,
confusing the immediate present and making everything dwindle oddly to
the dimensions of long ago. He seemed to pass under the mastery of a
great mood that was a composite reproduction of all the moods of his
forgotten boyhood.

Then he pulled himself together with a sharp effort and entered into the
conversation that had begun again to buzz round him. Moreover, he
entered into it with keen pleasure, for the Brothers - there were perhaps
a dozen of them in the little room - treated him with a charm of manner
that speedily made him feel one of themselves. This, again, was a very
subtle delight to him. He felt that he had stepped out of the greedy,
vulgar, self-seeking world, the world of silk and markets and
profit-making - stepped into the cleaner atmosphere where spiritual
ideals were paramount and life was simple and devoted. It all charmed
him inexpressibly, so that he realised - yes, in a sense - the degradation
of his twenty years' absorption in business. This keen atmosphere under
the stars where men thought only of their souls, and of the souls of
others, was too rarefied for the world he was now associated with. He
found himself making comparisons to his own disadvantage, - comparisons
with the mystical little dreamer that had stepped thirty years before
from the stern peace of this devout community, and the man of the world
that he had since become, - and the contrast made him shiver with a keen
regret and something like self-contempt.

He glanced round at the other faces floating towards him through tobacco
smoke - this acrid cigar smoke he remembered so well: how keen they were,
how strong, placid, touched with the nobility of great aims and
unselfish purposes. At one or two he looked particularly. He hardly knew
why. They rather fascinated him. There was something so very stern and
uncompromising about them, and something, too, oddly, subtly, familiar,
that yet just eluded him. But whenever their eyes met his own they held
undeniable welcome in them; and some held more - a kind of perplexed
admiration, he thought, something that was between esteem and deference.
This note of respect in all the faces was very flattering to his vanity.

Coffee was served presently, made by a black-haired Brother who sat in
the corner by the piano and bore a marked resemblance to Bruder
Schliemann, the musical director of thirty years ago. Harris exchanged
bows with him when he took the cup from his white hands, which he
noticed were like the hands of a woman. He lit a cigar, offered to him
by his neighbour, with whom he was chatting delightfully, and who, in
the glare of the lighted match, reminded him sharply for a moment of
Bruder Pagel, his former room-master.

"_Es ist wirklich merkwürdig_," he said, "how many resemblances I see,
or imagine. It is really _very_ curious!"

"Yes," replied the other, peering at him over his coffee cup, "the spell
of the place is wonderfully strong. I can well understand that the old
faces rise before your mind's eye - almost to the exclusion of ourselves
perhaps."

They both laughed presently. It was soothing to find his mood understood
and appreciated. And they passed on to talk of the mountain village, its
isolation, its remoteness from worldly life, its peculiar fitness for
meditation and worship, and for spiritual development - of a certain
kind.

"And your coming back in this way, Herr Harris, has pleased us all so
much," joined in the Bruder on his left. "We esteem you for it most
highly. We honour you for it."

Harris made a deprecating gesture. "I fear, for my part, it is only a
very selfish pleasure," he said a trifle unctuously.

"Not all would have had the courage," added the one who resembled
Bruder Pagel.

"You mean," said Harris, a little puzzled, "the disturbing memories - ?"

Bruder Pagel looked at him steadily, with unmistakable admiration and
respect. "I mean that most men hold so strongly to life, and can give up
so little for their beliefs," he said gravely.

The Englishman felt slightly uncomfortable. These worthy men really made
too much of his sentimental journey. Besides, the talk was getting a
little out of his depth. He hardly followed it.

"The worldly life still has _some_ charms for me," he replied smilingly,
as though to indicate that sainthood was not yet quite within his grasp.

"All the more, then, must we honour you for so freely coming," said the
Brother on his left; "so unconditionally!"

A pause followed, and the silk merchant felt relieved when the
conversation took a more general turn, although he noted that it never
travelled very far from the subject of his visit and the wonderful
situation of the lonely village for men who wished to develop their
spiritual powers and practise the rites of a high worship. Others joined
in, complimenting him on his knowledge of the language, making him feel
utterly at his ease, yet at the same time a little uncomfortable by the
excess of their admiration. After all, it was such a very small thing to
do, this sentimental journey.

The time passed along quickly; the coffee was excellent, the cigars soft
and of the nutty flavour he loved. At length, fearing to outstay his
welcome, he rose reluctantly to take his leave. But the others would not
hear of it. It was not often a former pupil returned to visit them in
this simple, unaffected way. The night was young. If necessary they
could even find him a corner in the great _Schlafzimmer_ upstairs. He
was easily persuaded to stay a little longer. Somehow he had become the
centre of the little party. He felt pleased, flattered, honoured.

"And perhaps Bruder Schliemann will play something for us - now."

It was Kalkmann speaking, and Harris started visibly as he heard the
name, and saw the black-haired man by the piano turn with a smile. For
Schliemann was the name of his old music director, who was dead. Could
this be his son? They were so exactly alike.

"If Bruder Meyer has not put his Amati to bed, I will accompany him,"
said the musician suggestively, looking across at a man whom Harris had
not yet noticed, and who, he now saw, was the very image of a former
master of that name.

Meyer rose and excused himself with a little bow, and the Englishman
quickly observed that he had a peculiar gesture as though his neck had a
false join on to the body just below the collar and feared it might
break. Meyer of old had this trick of movement. He remembered how the
boys used to copy it.

He glanced sharply from face to face, feeling as though some silent,
unseen process were changing everything about him. All the faces seemed
oddly familiar. Pagel, the Brother he had been talking with, was of
course the image of Pagel, his former room-master, and Kalkmann, he now
realised for the first time, was the very twin of another master whose
name he had quite forgotten, but whom he used to dislike intensely in
the old days. And, through the smoke, peering at him from the corners of
the room, he saw that all the Brothers about him had the faces he had
known and lived with long ago - Röst, Fluheim, Meinert, Rigel, Gysin.

He stared hard, suddenly grown more alert, and everywhere saw, or
fancied he saw, strange likenesses, ghostly resemblances, - more, the
identical faces of years ago. There was something queer about it all,
something not quite right, something that made him feel uneasy. He shook
himself, mentally and actually, blowing the smoke from before his eyes
with a long breath, and as he did so he noticed to his dismay that every
one was fixedly staring. They were watching him.

This brought him to his senses. As an Englishman, and a foreigner, he
did not wish to be rude, or to do anything to make himself foolishly
conspicuous and spoil the harmony of the evening. He was a guest, and a
privileged guest at that. Besides, the music had already begun. Bruder
Schliemann's long white fingers were caressing the keys to some purpose.

He subsided into his chair and smoked with half-closed eyes that yet saw
everything.

But the shudder had established itself in his being, and, whether he
would or not, it kept repeating itself. As a town, far up some inland
river, feels the pressure of the distant sea, so he became aware that
mighty forces from somewhere beyond his ken were urging themselves up
against his soul in this smoky little room. He began to feel exceedingly
ill at ease.

And as the music filled the air his mind began to clear. Like a lifted
veil there rose up something that had hitherto obscured his vision. The
words of the priest at the railway inn flashed across his brain
unbidden: "You will find it different." And also, though why he could
not tell, he saw mentally the strong, rather wonderful eyes of that
other guest at the supper-table, the man who had overheard his
conversation, and had later got into earnest talk with the priest. He
took out his watch and stole a glance at it. Two hours had slipped by.
It was already eleven o'clock.

Schliemann, meanwhile, utterly absorbed in his music, was playing a
solemn measure. The piano sang marvellously. The power of a great
conviction, the simplicity of great art, the vital spiritual message of
a soul that had found itself - all this, and more, were in the chords,
and yet somehow the music was what can only be described as
impure - atrociously and diabolically impure. And the piece itself,
although Harris did not recognise it as anything familiar, was surely
the music of a Mass - huge, majestic, sombre? It stalked through the
smoky room with slow power, like the passage of something that was
mighty, yet profoundly intimate, and as it went there stirred into each
and every face about him the signature of the enormous forces of which
it was the audible symbol. The countenances round him turned sinister,
but not idly, negatively sinister: they grew dark with purpose. He
suddenly recalled the face of Bruder Kalkmann in the corridor earlier in
the evening. The motives of their secret souls rose to the eyes, and
mouths, and foreheads, and hung there for all to see like the black
banners of an assembly of ill-starred and fallen creatures. Demons - was
the horrible word that flashed through his brain like a sheet of fire.

When this sudden discovery leaped out upon him, for a moment he lost his
self-control. Without waiting to think and weigh his extraordinary
impression, he did a very foolish but a very natural thing. Feeling
himself irresistibly driven by the sudden stress to some kind of action,
he sprang to his feet - and screamed! To his own utter amazement he stood
up and shrieked aloud!

But no one stirred. No one, apparently, took the slightest notice of his
absurdly wild behaviour. It was almost as if no one but himself had
heard the scream at all - as though the music had drowned it and
swallowed it up - as though after all perhaps he had not really screamed
as loudly as he imagined, or had not screamed at all.

Then, as he glanced at the motionless, dark faces before him, something
of utter cold passed into his being, touching his very soul.... All
emotion cooled suddenly, leaving him like a receding tide. He sat down
again, ashamed, mortified, angry with himself for behaving like a fool
and a boy. And the music, meanwhile, continued to issue from the white
and snakelike fingers of Bruder Schliemann, as poisoned wine might issue
from the weirdly fashioned necks of antique phials.

And, with the rest of them, Harris drank it in.

Forcing himself to believe that he had been the victim of some kind of
illusory perception, he vigorously restrained his feelings. Then the
music presently ceased, and every one applauded and began to talk at
once, laughing, changing seats, complimenting the player, and behaving
naturally and easily as though nothing out of the way had happened. The
faces appeared normal once more. The Brothers crowded round their
visitor, and he joined in their talk and even heard himself thanking the
gifted musician.

But, at the same time, he found himself edging towards the door, nearer
and nearer, changing his chair when possible, and joining the groups
that stood closest to the way of escape.

"I must thank you all _tausendmal_ for my little reception and the great
pleasure - the very great honour you have done me," he began in decided
tones at length, "but I fear I have trespassed far too long already on
your hospitality. Moreover, I have some distance to walk to my inn."

A chorus of voices greeted his words. They would not hear of his
going, - at least not without first partaking of refreshment. They
produced pumpernickel from one cupboard, and rye-bread and sausage from
another, and all began to talk again and eat. More coffee was made,
fresh cigars lighted, and Bruder Meyer took out his violin and began to
tune it softly.

"There is always a bed upstairs if Herr Harris will accept it," said
one.

"And it is difficult to find the way out now, for all the doors are
locked," laughed another loudly.

"Let us take our simple pleasures as they come," cried a third. "Bruder
Harris will understand how we appreciate the honour of this last visit
of his."

They made a dozen excuses. They all laughed, as though the politeness of
their words was but formal, and veiled thinly - more and more thinly - a
very different meaning.

"And the hour of midnight draws near," added Bruder Kalkmann with a
charming smile, but in a voice that sounded to the Englishman like the
grating of iron hinges.

Their German seemed to him more and more difficult to understand. He
noted that they called him "Bruder" too, classing him as one of
themselves.

And then suddenly he had a flash of keener perception, and realised with
a creeping of his flesh that he had all along misinterpreted - grossly
misinterpreted all they had been saying. They had talked about the
beauty of the place, its isolation and remoteness from the world, its
peculiar fitness for certain kinds of spiritual development and
worship - yet hardly, he now grasped, in the sense in which he had taken
the words. They had meant something different. Their spiritual powers,
their desire for loneliness, their passion for worship, were not the
powers, the solitude, or the worship that _he_ meant and understood. He
was playing a part in some horrible masquerade; he was among men who
cloaked their lives with religion in order to follow their real purposes
unseen of men.

What did it all mean? How had he blundered into so equivocal a
situation? Had he blundered into it at all? Had he not rather been led
into it, deliberately led? His thoughts grew dreadfully confused, and
his confidence in himself began to fade. And why, he suddenly thought
again, were they so impressed by the mere fact of his coming to revisit
his old school? What was it they so admired and wondered at in his
simple act? Why did they set such store upon his having the courage to
come, to "give himself so freely," "unconditionally" as one of them had
expressed it with such a mockery of exaggeration?

Fear stirred in his heart most horribly, and he found no answer to any
of his questionings. Only one thing he now understood quite clearly: it
was their purpose to keep him here. They did not intend that he should
go. And from this moment he realised that they were sinister, formidable
and, in some way he had yet to discover, inimical to himself, inimical
to his life. And the phrase one of them had used a moment ago - "this
_last_ visit of his" - rose before his eyes in letters of flame.

Harris was not a man of action, and had never known in all the course of
his career what it meant to be in a situation of real danger. He was not
necessarily a coward, though, perhaps, a man of untried nerve. He
realised at last plainly that he was in a very awkward predicament
indeed, and that he had to deal with men who were utterly in earnest.
What their intentions were he only vaguely guessed. His mind, indeed,
was too confused for definite ratiocination, and he was only able to
follow blindly the strongest instincts that moved in him. It never
occurred to him that the Brothers might all be mad, or that he himself
might have temporarily lost his senses and be suffering under some
terrible delusion. In fact, nothing occurred to him - he realised
nothing - except that he meant to escape - and the quicker the better. A
tremendous revulsion of feeling set in and overpowered him.

Accordingly, without further protest for the moment, he ate his
pumpernickel and drank his coffee, talking meanwhile as naturally and
pleasantly as he could, and when a suitable interval had passed, he rose
to his feet and announced once more that he must now take his leave. He
spoke very quietly, but very decidedly. No one hearing him could doubt
that he meant what he said. He had got very close to the door by this
time.

"I regret," he said, using his best German, and speaking to a hushed
room, "that our pleasant evening must come to an end, but it is now
time for me to wish you all good-night." And then, as no one said
anything, he added, though with a trifle less assurance, "And I thank
you all most sincerely for your hospitality."

"On the contrary," replied Kalkmann instantly, rising from his chair and
ignoring the hand the Englishman had stretched out to him, "it is we who
have to thank you; and we do so most gratefully and sincerely."

And at the same moment at least half a dozen of the Brothers took up
their position between himself and the door.

"You are very good to say so," Harris replied as firmly as he could
manage, noticing this movement out of the corner of his eye, "but really
I had no conception that - my little chance visit could have afforded you
so much pleasure." He moved another step nearer the door, but Bruder
Schliemann came across the room quickly and stood in front of him. His
attitude was uncompromising. A dark and terrible expression had come


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Online LibraryAlgernon BlackwoodThree More John Silence Stories → online text (page 2 of 12)