The House of the Past

Algernon Blackwood

03 Sep, 2014 10:06 PM

One night a Dream came to me and brought with her an old and rusty key. She led
me across fields and sweet smelling lanes, where the hedges were already
whispering to one another in the dark of the spring, till we came to a huge,
gaunt house with staring windows and lofty roof half hidden in the shadows of
very early morning. I noticed that the blinds were of heavy black, and that the
house seemed wrapped in absolute stillness.

"This," she whispered in my ear, "is the House of the Past. Come with me and we
will go through some of its rooms and passages; but quickly, for I have not the
key for long, and the night is very nearly over. Yet, perchance, you shall

The key made a dreadful noise as she turned it in the lock, and when the great
door swung open into an empty hall and we went in, I heard sounds of whispering
and weeping, and the rustling of clothes, as of people moving in their sleep and
about to wake. Then, instantly, a spirit of intense sadness came over me,
drenching me to the soul; my eyes began to burn and smart, and in my heart I
became aware of a strange sensation as of the uncoiling of something that had
been asleep for ages. My whole being, unable to resist, at once surrended itself
to the spirit of deepest melancholy, and the pain of my heart, as the Things
moved and woke, became in a moment of time too strong for words...

As we advanced, the faint voices and sobbings fled away before us into the
interior of the House, and I became conscious that the air was full of hands
held aloft, of swaying garments, of drooping tresses, and of eyes so sad and
wistful that the tears, which were already brimming in my own, held back for
wonder at the sight of such intolerable yearning.

"Do not allow this sadness to overwhelm you," whispered the Dream at my side.
"It is not often They wake. They sleep for years and years and years. The
chambers are all full, and unless visitors such as we come to disturb them, they
will never wake of their own accord. But, when one stirs, the sleep of the
others is troubled, and they too awake, till the motion is communicated from one
room to another and thus finally throughout the whole House.... Then, sometimes,
the sadness is too great to be borne, and the mind weakens. For this reason
Memory gives to them the sweetest and deepest sleep she has and she keeps this
old key rusty from little use. But, listen now," she added, holding up her hand:
"do you not hear all through the House that trembling of the air like the
distant murmur of falling water? And do you not now... perhaps... remember?"

Even before she spoke, I had already caught faintly the beginning of a new
sound; and, now, deep in the cellars beneath our feet, and from the upper
regions of the great House as well, I heard the whispering, and the rustling and
the inward stirring of the sleeping Shadows. It rose like a chord swept softly
from the huge unseen strings stretched somewhere among the foundations of the
House, and its tremblings ran gently through its walls and ceilings. And I knew
that I heard the slow awakening of the Ghosts of the Past.

Ah, me, with what terrible inrushing of sadness I stood with brimming eyes and
listened to the faint dead voices of the long ago.... For, indeed, the whole
House was awakening; and there presently rose to my nostrils the subtle,
penetrating perfume of age: of letters, long preserved, with ink faded and
ribbons pale; of scented tresses, golden and brown, laid away, ah, how tenderly!
among pressed flowers that still held the inmost delicacy of their forgotten
fragrance; the scented presence of lost memories -- the intoxicating incense of
the past. My eyes o'erflowed, my heart tightened and expanded, as I yielded
myself up without reserve to these old, old influences of sound and smell. These
Ghosts of the Past -- forgotten in the tumult of more recent memories --
thronged round me, took my hands in theirs, and, ever whispering of what I had
so long forgot, ever sighing, shaking from their hair and garments the ineffable
odours of the dead ages, led me through the vast House, from room to room, from
floor to floor.

And the Ghosts -- were not all equally clear to me. Some had indeed but the
faintest life, and stirred me so little that they left only an indistinct,
blurred impression in the air; while others gazed half reproachfully at me out
of faded, colourless eyes, as if longing to recall themselves to my
recollection; and then, seeing they were not recognised, floated back gently
into the shadows of their room, to sleep again undisturbed till the Final Day,
when I should not fail to know them.

"Many of these have slept so long," said the Dream beside me, "that they wake
only with the greatest difficulty. Once awake, however, they know and remember
you even though you fail to remember them. For it is the rule in this House of
the Past that, unless you recall them distinctly, remember precisely when you
knew them and with what particular causes in your past evolution they were
associated, they cannot stay awake. Unless you remember them when your eyes
meet, unless their look of recognition is returned by you, they are obliged to
go back to their sleep, silent and sorrowful, their hands unpressed, their
voices unheard, to sleep and dream, deathless and patient, till...."

At this moment, her words died away suddenly into the distance and I became
conscious of an overpowering sensation of delight and happiness. Something had
touched me on the lips, and a strong, sweet fire flashed down into my heart and
sent the blood rushing tumultuously through my veins. My pulses beat wildly, my
skin glowed, my eyes grew tender, and the terrible sadness of the place was
instantly dispelled as if by magic. Turning with a cry of joy, that was at once
swallowed up in the chorus of weeping and sighing round me, I looked... and
instinctively stretched forth my arms in a rapture of happiness towards...
towards a vision of a Face... hair, lips, eyes; a cloth of gold lay about the
fair neck, and the old, old perfume of the East - ye stars, how long ago - was
in her breath. Her lips were again on mine; her hair over my eyes; her arms
about my neck, and the love of her ancient soul pouring into mine out of eyes
still starry and undimmed. Oh, the fierce tumult, the untold wonder, if I could
only remember! .... That subtle, mist-dispelling odour of many ages ago, once so
familiar... before the Hills of Atlantis were above the blue sea, or the sands
had begun to form the bed of the Sphinx. Yet wait; it comes back; I begin to
remember. Curtain upon curtain rises in my soul, and I can almost see beyond.
But that hideous stretch of the years, awful and sinister, thousands upon
thousands .... My heart shakes, and I am afraid. Another curtain rises and a new
vista, farther than the others, comes into view, interminable, running to a
point among thick mists. Lo, they too are moving, rising, lightening. At last, I
shall see... already I begin to recall... the dusky skin... the Eastern grace,
the wondrous eyes that held the knowledge of Buddha and the wisdom of Christ
before these had even dreamed of attainment. As a dream within a dream, it
steals over me again, taking compelling possession of my whole being... the
slender form... the stars in that magical Eastern sky... the whispering winds
among the palm trees... the murmur of the river's waves and the music of the
reeds where they bend and sigh in the shallows on the golden sand. Thousands of
years ago in some aeonian distance. It fades a little and begins to pass; then
seems again to rise. Ah me, that smile of the shining teeth... those lace-veined
lids. Oh, who will help me to recall, for it is to far away, too dim, and I
cannot wholly remember; though my lips are still tingling, and my arms still
outstretched, it again begins to fade. Already there is a look of sadness too
deep for words, as she realises that she is unrecognised... she, whose mere
presence could once extinguish for me the entire universe... and she goes back
slowly, mournfully, silently to her dim, tremendous sleep, to dream and dream of
the day when I must remember her and she must come where she belongs...

She peers at me from the end of the room where the Shadows already cover her and
win her back with outstretched arms to her age-long sleep in the House of the

Trembling all over, with the strange odour still in my nostrils and the fire in
my heart, I turned away and followed my Dream up a broad staircase into another
part of the House.

As we entered the upper corridors I heard the wind pass singing over the roof.
Its music took possession of me until I felt as though my whole body were a
single heart, aching, straining, trobbing as if it would break; and all because
I heard the wind singing round the House of the Past.

"But, remember," whispered the Dream, answering my unspoken wonder, "that you
are listening to the song it has sung for untold ages into untold myriad ears.
It carries back so appallingly far; and in that simple dirge, profound in its
terrible monotony, are the associations and recollections of the joys, grieves,
and struggles of all your previous existence. The wind, like the sea, speaks to
the inmost memory," she added, "and that is why its voice is one of such deep
spiritual sadness. It is the song of things for ever incomplete, unfinished,

As we passed through the vaulted rooms, I noticed that no one stirred. There was
no actual sound, only a general impression of deep, collective breathing, like
the heave of a muffled ocean. But the rooms, I knew at once, were full to the
walls, crowded, rows upon rows .... And, from the floors below, rose ever the
murmur of the weeping Shadows as they returned to their sleep, and settled down
again in the silence, the darkness, and the dust. The dust .... Ah, the dust
that floated in this House of the Past, so thick, so penetrating; so fine, it
filled the throat and eyes without pain; so fragrant, it soothed the senses and
stilled the heart; so soft, it parched the tongue, without offence; yet so
silently falling, gathering, settling over everything, that the air held it like
a fine mist and the sleeping Shadows wore it for their shrouds.

"And these are the oldest," said my Dream, "the longest asleep," pointing to the
crowded rows of silent sleepers. "None here have wakened for ages too many to
count; and even if they woke you would not know them. They are, like the others,
all your own, but they are the memories of your earliest stages along the great
Path of Evolution. Some day, though, they will awake, and you must know them,
and answer their questions, for they cannot die till they have exhausted
themselves again through you who gave them birth."

"Ah me," I thought, only half listening to or understanding these last words,
"what mothers, fathers, brothers may then be asleep in this room; what faithful
lovers, what true friends, what ancient enemies! And to think that some day they
will step forth and confront me, and I shall meet their eyes again, claim them,
know them, forgive, and be forgiven... the memories of all my Past...."

I turned to speak to the Dream at my side, but she was already fading into
dimness, and, as I looked again, the whole House melted away into the flush of
the eastern sky, and I heard the birds singing and saw the clouds overhead
veiling the stars in the light of coming day.

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