Friday, February 28, 2020

"The House Invisible" (1913) by Alan Sullivan (1868-1947)

Poet and author Alan Sullivan, who also published work under the pseudonym Sinclair Murray, was born in Montreal and spent some of his formative years in Scotland. An engineer by trade, he spent several years in the Lake of the Woods district near Kenora, Ontario. His most famous work is perhaps The Great Divide (1935), a historical adventure novel about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. However he was also published extensively in Canadian and American periodicals, while a handful of his novels, such as A Little Way Ahead (1929), had elements of the paranormal.

While researching Sullivan for inclusion in The Great Fright North, I discovered his short story "The House Invisible," published in The Passing of Oul-i-but and Other Stories (1913). In this tale, which hints of the supernatural, a man wistfully reflects on his past accomplishments while out walking one day along the shoreline of his seaside mansion. To his surprise, he comes across a deep crevasse that seemingly appeared out of nowhere; there he discovers a mansion that mirrors his own, except it appears to have weathered a century of neglect.

"Stone for stone, window for window, walk for walk, but devoid of sound and life and any breath of humanity, this strange place lay beneath me, and, gazing, I heard its call." Inside he finds a woman whom he can only describe as the "Presence"...

I was so impressed by this tale that I wanted to post it here so that others may enjoy it, as well. This work has fallen into obscurity, and is pubic domain. Keep in mind the period of when this was written, especially when it comes to the dialogue at the end of the story. Enjoy!


Thus, smirking, spake one whom good fortune crowned;
"Behold my mansion, my memorial trees
That, like green rivers, circle it around;
My lambent gems from far-off nameless seas,
My canvases and ancient folios, bound
And wrought in virginal and sweet cloistered ease.
Gold, festal song, beauty and love and wine.
All of earth's tribute, all and all—are mine.
Strange, that above his castle's granite tower
Should hang a phantom and deserted hall,
Where nothing stirred to life, and hour by hour
The dust of centuries settled on the wall.
Till painting, folio, and garden bower
Were sifted over with a breathless pale;
A gulf of silence, so remote and deep
That death seemed nigh forgotten in its sleep.


The great plain stretched before me, vast and untenanted, splashed with odorous flower spaces, wrinkled and alive with the lift of morning winds. To all these I had escaped at the bidding of a new strange instinct, suggestive perhaps rather than dominant, but impellent enough to thrust its delicate pressure through the hardening crust of my own self-approving personality. It was not beauty that had brought me there. I sought nothing that dwelt on the gemmed sod or in the hollow caverns of the wind, nor was I conscious that I evaded anything. A sudden spiritual wander-lust was over me.

Nor had forgetfulness aught to offer. I had borne my years bravely, and the world knew with what measure of success; something of honour had been earned, and riches came with it. I had not stooped to the unclean thing. I loved, and was beloved. But, for all of this, I had become, in a flash, conscious that there was that I knew not of, a deeper insight which I had never attained, but which might perchance stoop to me, and so I walked abroad in solitude, with every barrier of time and circumstance dismantled.

I knew the plain, for it was my own. From the mansion windows its spherical undulations rippled out and lost themselves in the wideness of that world against which it was a fragrant barricade. In the midst of it the house reposed, and, whatever winds blew, only the breath of wild thyme and clover, of gorse and honeysuckle, traversed the sentinel ranks of my memorial trees. Southward lay the sea, to which the sweet land leaned, and that way I walked.

But halfway between the mansion and the shore I stopped on the brink of a cleft ravine that stretched at my feet, and, most strangely, however well I knew my land, I knew not this ravine. Just as the mind stops, startled at undreamed depths of thought, suddenly discovered, so I halted at this rift that dipped sharply seaward. It was, perhaps, half a mile wide and a mile long. At the bottom was a tarn of still black water, ringed with a fringe of sand, and to this the hillsides descended smoothly with green encircling slopes. Opposite, within grey stone boundaries, an old house faced the lake, and at the sight I stared round-eyed, and turned till I caught, in the blue distance, the comforting mound of trees around my own mansion. For this old, and yet new, house was indeed the brother of my own in shape and size and proportion, and it looked also as my own would look should a hundred years of forgetfulness enshroud it. Stone for stone, window for window, walk for walk, but devoid of sound and life and any breath of humanity, this strange place lay beneath me, and, gazing, I heard its call.

Approaching the great iron gates, again the replica of my own, I searched in vain for any late intimate or humanizing touch; and, forcing them, the rusty hinges creaked stiffly in the motionless air. At once I knew, in some subjective fashion, that I was no stranger here. Across the long, straight garden walk, tangled rose bushes enmeshed themselves into an interlacing network, and there was that in the rose bushes, in the long walk, in the great gates, and, lastly, in the dead walls facing me, that was eloquent of myself alone. There was, there could be, no asking of where or when. These things were endowed with their own dominant entity—a peculiar individuality which silenced the question before it found expression. The visual confounded the intellectual. I was not breathless or fearful, I seemed only to have turned into a remote by-way that spoke with almost audible emphasis to some long dormant brain-cell, just awakened, to revive its ancient memories. And, realizing this, there was nothing but to go on and break the silence of this mysterious estate.

Ere I gained the door and reached for the corroded knocker I became conscious that my mind was operating with an extraordinarily rapid introspection. This that I was about to discover seemed more nearly, more purely personal, with all its uncertainty, than every intimate and personal relationship I had ever formed. So now, with an absolute abandonment to all that the time and place might yield, I knocked thrice.

The dull clangour filled the house. I could hear it booming through the halls till its reverberations smoothed out into the hollow silences that brooded everywhere. Then, with an insistence that defied the unreality of its own conception, I knocked again and waited, my eyes fixed on that door I knew must open.

There came presently a sound from within. I remember it as being not so much sound itself as a promise of sound, whispering from distances infinitely more remote than those compassed by the house walls. It was as if something were getting ready to begin to move, something that stretched and stirred in doubt ere its aged sinews were trusted to perform their office.

Again, as the door yielded, I felt no fear. I was staring at a man old beyond understanding, so old that the whiteness of his brows curved down over the brilliancy of eyes that mocked at his own antiquity. His dress was a long tunic, half hidden by the winter of his beard; his shoulders were bent as from the weight of immemorial time, and the hand that trembled on the latch was waxen and shriveled. He seemed, indeed, the epitome of a senescent humanity, the cycle of whose years rivaled that of the stars in their courses.

The bent figure inclined still further. "You are expected," he said; and, at the words, I could almost hear centuries slipping into indistinction.

He turned into the long hall, and I followed. On the floor I could see his footmarks in the dust. To right and left stood armour, even as other armour I knew; but this was covered with dust; gorget, brassart, pauldron, and greave; defiled, neglected, and forgotten. Above there were pictures, once more the parallel; but these were lost in the film that had settled on them from the breathless atmosphere. I had been sleeping, sleeping for years, and now returned to my own, to find it mute and wellnigh obliterated, and barren of all attributes save only memories.

Behind the shuffling feet I mounted the great stairway—all the ancient servitor pointed to a closed door, and there he left me. I was conscious, for a moment, of his uncertain footsteps, and when they ceased he had vanished into the void of that Nirvana from which he came.

Then, from the invisible room, a woman's voice called; a voice unclouded by threat, unsoftened by supplication; and, at the sound of it, the latch yielded and I entered.

There stood the Presence, and instantly my eyes were unsealed. She was not a Deity, but an embodiment of whatever of the Divine was harboured in myself. Each year of my life yielded its memories toward this recognition, and my understanding slowly built itself up to speak.

No man shall describe the Presence. In dreams we may glimpse her. Sometimes, when we sound the depths or scale the heights, the momentary gleam of her robe appears to the vision that has been cleansed by suffering or joy. But always the vision is measured by our weakness.

This knowledge came to me at that instant.

"Your name?" I said with reverence.

"I am nameless until I join that other self, whom I know not," came the reply.

"And this house?" I ventured, breathless with mystery.

"Is the house that he has builded for me."

My mind flashed back to the mansion on the scented plain.

"This dust?" I said, wonderingly.

"Listen," she answered; and my consciousness went out to meet her beneath the lifting veil. "All the world over, men build houses for the body and the mind, but what man has guessed that then also is builded the house of the Spirit? Stone for stone, window for window, the one rises with the other. And when all is done, and the hearth fire gleams, then the Spirit takes her habitation."

Her voice ceased. The blank deserted silence of the ghostly place closed in, till, through it, I heard my own utterance—small, thin, and seeming infinitely remote. "There is death here."

"The house of the body speaks of that which is gained," replied the Presence, "but the home of the Spirit of that which is lost."

Vainly I fought for words. Dust, dust! I could think of nothing but dust.

"The armour is stained," went on the gentle voice, "and the roses have closed the paths where I would walk. My house is cold and desolate, and there is only one room left."

"And that room?" I said fearfully.

"It is the time that is left," she whispered.

My soul turned to assail me. Blindly I groped for one ray of light in this darkness of my own creation, in this gloom in which my own impotent Spirit was enshrouded. It was only a little room that remained for her to inhabit. It was my own study. A few intimate things were there. I remembered choosing them because they were fraught with attributes of which I could never tire.

"You know not this man?" I said, marvelling.

"Only when my house is pure and fragrant shall I know him." She turned to the window: "Look!"

Beneath it smiled my gardener's cottage, just as I had left it, on the edge of the moorland. It was alive with light, beautiful with love and care, bedded in roses and the songs of birds. As I looked it seemed that the old man himself passed down the trim walks, and the flowers nodded after him.

"He builded better than he knew," I whispered. "Men call him a simpleton."

"What man shall judge another? I would that his house were mine. His Spirit has never wandered from home, and dwells not in one room." Mystical and transcendent sounded the voice of the Presence. "Man has many habitations, but only one house invisible. Its dust is man's pride, its solitude is man's selfishness, and that which he sometimes counts as lost is its beauty. As he gives, so it is glorified; and when he is humble the house is filled with music."

I gazed at the vision of the gardener, framed into the riot of his lovely blooms. Softly came the answer to the question that trembled on my lips.

"The great ones of the earth can build spiritual hovels, but the labourer can rear a palace for his soul."

The film that all my life had obscured my sight suddenly rolled back. All those garments of satisfaction and self-esteem that had for years enveloped me were clean stripped away. In one terrible instant I saw myself naked and utterly revealed. What man, seeing this, shall not tremble?

I knelt, abased in supplication. I gazed, but my eyes faltered before the essence suddenly radiating from the transfigured Presence. The mortal in me recoiled from this embodiment of immortality. The glory and the dream had visited me.

Thus, for a long time, sightless and silent, till a breath of fragrance reached me and a delicate wind kissed my trembling lids.

In fear and wonderment I looked again and saw—the soft undulations of the flower-strewn plain, stretching to the sea. The long rift, the black tarn, that ancient house, the dust and desolation—all had vanished.

Slowly, almost unconsciously, my steps were retraced, like those of a man "moving about in worlds half realized." I was still suspended somewhere between this solid intangible earth and one more tenuous, more elusive, and yet not less real; and it was the gardener who greeted me as he leaned lovingly over his roses.

"They're wunnerful, maister, they're wunnerful," he said, with a pink bud lying like a fairy shell in the cup of his wrinkled hand. "An' ye know, maister, summat tells me they're even more than that."

I caught the quiet sunshine of his mild blue eye, the eye of a Spirit that had never wandered far from home. "Yes," I muttered, staring at him with a sudden, strange, breathless interest, "I think they're more than that."

1 comment:

  1. Interesting--that wasn't where I was expecting it to go. Thanks for sharing.