A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 10

One of the great facts of the world I hold to be the registration in
the Universe of every past scene and thought.
                                        F. W. M.

No place worth knowing yields itself at sight, and those the least inviting on first view may leave the most haunting pictures upon the walls of memory.

This little village, that Henry Rogers was thus to revisit after so long an interval, can boast no particular outstanding beauty to lure the common traveller. Its single street winds below the pine forest; its tiny church gathers close a few brown-roofed houses; orchards guard it round about; the music of many fountains tinkle summer and winter through its cobbled yards; and its feet are washed by a tumbling stream that paints the fields with the radiance of countless wild-flowers in the spring. But tourists never come to see them. There is no hotel, for one thing, and ticket agents, even at the railway stations, look puzzled a moment before they realise where this place with the twinkling name can hide.... Some consult books. Yet, once you get there, it is not easy to get away again. Something catches the feet and ears and eyes. People have been known to go with all their luggage on Gygi's handcart to the station--then turn aside at the last moment, caught back by the purple woods.

A traveller, glancing up at the little three-storey house with 'Poste et Telegraphe' above the door, could never guess how busy the world that came and went beneath its red-tiled roof. In spring the wistaria tree (whence the Pension borrowed its brave name, Les Glycines) hangs its blossoms between 'Poste' and 'Telegraphe,' and the perfume of invisible lilacs drenches the street from the garden at the back. Beyond, the road dips past the bee-hives of la cure; and Boudry towers with his five thousand feet of blue pine woods over the horizon. The tinkling of several big stone fountains fills the street.

But the traveller would not linger, unless he chanced to pass at twelve o'clock and caught the stream of people going into their mid- day dinner at the Pension. And even then he probably would not see the presiding genius, Madame Jequier, for as often as not she would be in her garden, busy with eternal bulbs, and so strangely garbed that if she showed herself at all, it would be with a shrill, plaintive explanation--'Mais il ne faut pas me regarder. Je suis invisible!' Whereupon, consistently, she would not speak again, but flit in silence to and fro, as though she were one of those spirits she so firmly believed in, and sometimes talked to by means of an old Planchette.

And on this particular morning the Widow Jequier was 'invisible' in her garden clothes as Gygi, the gendarme, came down the street to ring the midi bell. Her mind was black with anxiety. She was not thinking of the troop that came to dejeuner, their principal meal of the day, paying a franc for it, but rather of the violent scenes with unpaid tradesmen that had filled the morning-tradesmen who were friends as well (which made it doubly awkward) and often dropped in socially for an evening's music and conversation. Her pain darkened the sunshine, and she found relief in the garden which was her passion. For in three weeks the interest on the mortgages was due, and she had nothing saved to meet it. The official notice had come that morning from the Bank. Her mind was black with confused pictures of bulbs, departed pensionnaires, hostile bankers, and--the ghastly charite de la Commune which awaited her. Yet her husband, before he went into the wine-business so disastrously, had been pasteur here. He had preached from this very church whose bells now rang out the mid-day hour. The spirit of her daughter, she firmly believed, still haunted the garden, the narrow passages, and the dilapidated little salon where the ivy trailed along the ceiling.

Twelve o'clock, striking from the church-tower clock, and the voice of her sister from the kitchen window, then brought the Widow Jequier down the garden in a flying rush. The table was laid and the soup was almost ready. The people were coming in. She was late as usual; there was no time to change. She flung her garden hat aside and scrambled into more presentable garments, while footsteps already sounded on the wooden stairs that led up from the village street.

One by one the retired governesses entered, hung their cloaks upon the pegs in the small, dark hallway, and took their places at the table. They began talking among themselves, exchanging the little gossip of the village, speaking of their books and clothes and sewing, of the rooms in which they lived, scattered down the street, of the heating, of barking dogs that disturbed their sleep, the behaviour of the postman, the fine spring weather, and the views from their respective windows across the lake and distant Alps. Each extolled her own position: one had a garden; another a balcony; a third was on the top floor and so had no noisy tenant overhead; a fourth was on the ground, and had no stairs to climb. Each had her secret romance, and her secret method of cheap feeding at home. There were five or six of them, and this was their principal meal in the day; they meant to make the most of it; they always did; they went home to light suppers of tea and coffee, made in their own appartements. Invitations were issued and accepted. There were some who would not speak to each other. Cliques, divisions, societes a part, existed in the little band. And they talked many languages, learned in many lands--Russian, German, Italian, even Armenian--for all had laboured far from their country, spending the best of their years teaching children of foreign families, many of them in important houses. They lived upon their savings. Two, at least, had less than thirty pounds a year between them and starvation, and all were of necessity careful of every centime. They wore the same dresses from one year's end to another. They had come home to die.

The Postmaster entered with the cash-box underneath one arm. He bowed gravely to the assembled ladies, and silently took his seat at the table. He never spoke; at meals his sole remarks were statements: 'Je n'ai pas de pain,' 'Il me manque une serviette,' and the like, while his black eyes glared resentfully at every one as though they had done him an injury. But his fierceness was only in the eyes. He was a meek and solemn fellow really. Nature had dressed him in black, and he respected her taste by repeating it in his clothes. Even his expression was funereal, though his black eyes twinkled.

The servant-girl at once brought in his plate of soup, and he tucked the napkin beneath his chin and began to eat. From twelve to two the post was closed; his recreation time was precious, and no minute must be lost. After dinner he took his coat off and did the heavy work of the garden, under the merciless oversight of the Widow Jequier, his sister-in-law, the cash-box ever by his side. He chatted with his tame corbeau, but he never smiled. In the winter he did fretwork. On the stroke of two he went downstairs again and disappeared into the cramped and stuffy bureau, whose window on the street was framed by the hanging wistaria blossoms; and at eight o'clock his day of labour ended. He carried the cash-box up to bed at 8.15. At 8.30 his wife followed him. From nine to five he slept.

Alone of all the little household the Widow Jequier scorned routine. She came and went with the uncertainty of wind. Her entrances and exits, too, were like the wind. With a scattering rush she scurried through the years--noisy, ineffective, yet somewhere fine. Her brother had finished his plate of soup, wiped his black moustaches elaborately, and turned his head towards the kitchen door with the solemn statement 'Je n'ai pas de viande,' when she descended upon the scene like a shrill-voiced little tempest.

'Bonjour Mesdames, bonjour Mademoiselle, bonjour, bonjour,' she bowed and smiled, washing her hands in the air; 'et comment allez-vous ce matin?' as the little band of hungry governesses rose with one accord and moved to take their places. Some smiled in answer; others merely bowed. She made enemies as well as friends, the Widow Jequier. With only one of them she shook hands warmly-the one whose payments were long overdue. But Madame Jequier never asked for her money; she knew the old body's tiny income; she would pay her when she could. Only last week she had sent her food and clothing under the guise of a belated little Easter present. Her heart was bigger than her body.

'La famille Anglaise n'est pas encore ici,' announced the Postmaster as though it were a funeral to come. He did not even look up. His protests passed ever unobserved.

'But I hear them coming,' said a governess, swallowing her soup with a sound of many waters. And, true enough, they came. There was a thunder on the stairs, the door into the hall flew open, voices and laughter filled the place, and Jimbo and Monkey raced in to take their places, breathless, rosy, voluble, and very hungry. Jane Anne followed sedately, bowing to every one in turn. She had a little sentence for all who cared for one. Smiles appeared on every face. Mother, like a frigate coming to anchor with a favourable wind, sailed into her chair; and behind her stumbled Daddy, looking absent-minded and pre- occupied. Money was uncommonly scarce just then--the usual Bourcelles complaint.

Conversation in many tongues, unmusically high-pitched, then at once broke loose, led ever by la patronne at the head of the table. The big dishes of meat and vegetables were handed round; plates were piled and smothered; knives and forks were laid between mouthfuls upon plate-edges, forming a kind of frieze all round the cloth; the gossip of the village was retailed with harmless gusto. Dejeuner at Les Glycines was in full swing. When the apples and oranges came round, most of the governesses took two apiece, slipping one or other into little black velvet bags they carried on their laps below the table.

Some, it was whispered, put bread there too to keep them company. But this was probably a libel. Madame Jequier, at any rate, never saw it done. She looked the other way. 'We all must live,' was her invariable answer to such foolish stories. 'One cannot sleep if one's supper is too light.' Like her body, her soul was a bit untidy--careless, that is, with loose ends. Who would have guessed, for instance, the anxiety that just now gnawed her very entrails? She was a mixture of shameless egotism, and of burning zeal for others. There was a touch of grandeur in her.

At the end of the table, just where the ivy leaves dropped rather low from their trailing journey across the ceiling, sat Miss Waghorn, her vigorous old face wrapped, apparently, in many apple skins. She was well past seventy, thin, erect, and active, with restless eyes, and hooked nose, the poor old hands knotted with rheumatism, yet the voice somehow retaining the energy of forty. Her manners were charming and old-fashioned, and she came of Quaker stock. Seven years before she arrived at the Pension for the summer, and had forgotten to leave. For she forgot most things within ten minutes of their happening. Her memory was gone; she remembered a face, as most other things as well, about twenty minutes; introductions had to be repeated every day, and sometimes at supper she would say with her gentle smile, 'We haven't met before, I think,' to some one she had held daily intercourse with for many months. 'I was born in '37,' she loved to add, 'the year of Queen Victoria's accession'; and five minutes later you might hear her ask, 'Now, guess how old I am; I don't mind a bit.' She was as proud of her load of years as an old gentleman of his thick hair. 'Say exactly what you think. And don't guess too low, mind.' Her numerous stories were self-repeaters.

Miss Waghorn's memory was a source of worry and anxiety to all except the children, who mercilessly teased her. She loved the teasing, though but half aware of it. It was their evil game to extract as many of her familiar stories as possible, one after another. They knew all the clues. There was the Cornishman--she came from Cornwall--who had seen a fairy; his adventure never failed to thrill them, though she used the same words every time and they knew precisely what was coming. She was particularly strong on family reminiscences:--her father was bald at thirty, her brother's beard was so long that he tied it round his neck when playing cricket; her sister 'had the shortest arms you ever saw.' Always of youth she spoke; it was pathetic, so determined was she to be young at seventy. Her family seemed distinguished in this matter of extremes.

But the superiority of Cornish over Devonshire cream was her piece de resistance. Monkey need merely whisper--Miss Waghorn's acuteness of hearing was positively uncanny--'Devonshire cream is what I like,' to produce a spurt of explanation and defence that lasted a good ten minutes and must be listened to until the bitter end.

Jimbo would gravely inquire in a pause--of a stranger, if possible, if not, of the table in general--

'Have you ever seen a fairy?'

'No, but I've eaten Cornish cream--it's poison, you know,' Monkey would reply. And up would shoot the keen old face, preened for the fray.

'We haven't been introduced, I think'--forgetting the formal introduction of ten minutes ago--'but I overheard, if you'll forgive my interrupting, and I can tell you all about Cornish cream. I was born in '37'--with her eager smile--'and for years it was on our table. I have made quantities of it. The art was brought first by the Phoenicians----'

'Venetians,' said Monkey.

'No, Phoenicians, dear, when they came to Cornwall for tin----'

'To put the cream in,' from the same source.

'No, you silly child, to get tin from the mines, of course, and----'

Then Mother or Daddy, noting the drift of things, would interfere, and the youngsters would be obliterated--until next time. Miss Waghorn would finish her recital for the hundredth time, firmly believing it to be the first. She was a favourite with everybody, in spite of the anxiety she caused. She would go into town to pay her bill at the bootmaker's, and order another pair of boots instead, forgetting why she came. Her income was sixty pounds a year. She forgot in the afternoon the money she had received in the morning, till at last the Widow Jequier seized it for her the moment it arrived. And at night she would doze in her chair over the paper novel she had been "at" for a year and more, beginning it every night afresh, and rarely getting beyond the opening chapter. For it was ever new. All were anxious, though, what she would do next. She was so full of battle.

Everybody talked at once, but forced conversation did not flourish. Bourcelles was not fashionable; no one ever had appendicitis there. Yet ailments of a milder order were the staple, inexhaustible subjects at meals. Instead of the weather, mon estomac was the inexhaustible tale. The girl brought in the little Cantonal newspaper, and the widow read out selections in a high, shrill voice, regardless who listened. Misfortunes and accidents were her preference. Grand ciel and quelle horreur punctuated the selections. 'There's Tante Jeanne grand-cieling as usual,' Mother would say to her husband, who, being a little deaf, would answer, 'What?' and Tante Jeanne, overhearing him, would re-read the accident for his especial benefit, while the governesses recounted personal experiences among themselves, and Miss Waghorn made eager efforts to take part in it all, or tell her little tales of fairies and Cornish cream....

One by one the governesses rose to leave; each made a comprehensive bow that included the entire company. Daddy lit a cigarette or let Jimbo light it for him, too wumbled with his thoughts of afternoon work to notice the puff stolen surreptitiously on the way. Jane Anne folded her napkin carefully, talking with Mother in a low voice about the packing of the basket with provisions for tea. Tea was included in the Pension terms; in a small clothes-basket she carried bread, milk, sugar, and butter daily across to La Citadelle, except on Sundays when she wore gloves and left the duty to the younger children who were less particular.

The governesses, charged with life for another twenty-four hours at least, flocked down the creaking stairs. They nodded as they passed the Bureau window where the Postmaster pored over his collection of stamps, or examined a fretwork pattern of a boy on a bicycle--there was no heavy garden work that day--and went out into the street. They stood in knots a moment, discussing unfavourably the food just eaten, and declaring they would stand it no longer. 'Only where else can we go?' said one, feeling automatically at her velvet bag to make sure the orange was safely in it. Upstairs, at the open window, Madame Jequier overheard them as she filled the walnut shells with butter for the birds. She only smiled.

'I wish we could help her,' Mother was saying to her husband, as they watched her from the sofa in the room behind. 'A more generous creature never lived.' It was a daily statement that lacked force owing to repetition, yet the emotion prompting it was ever new and real.

'Or a more feckless,' was his reply. 'But if we ever come into our estates, we will. It shall be the first thing.' His mind always hovered after those distant estates when it was perplexed by immediate financial difficulty, and just now he was thinking of various bills and payments falling due. It was his own sympathetic link with the widow--ways and means, and the remorseless nature of sheets of paper with columns of figures underneath the horrible word doit.

'So Monsieur 'Enry Rogairs is coming,' she said excitedly, turning to them a moment on her way to the garden. 'And after all these years! He will find the house the same, and the garden better--oh, wonderfully improved. But us, helas! he will find old, oh, how old!' She did not really mean herself, however.

She began a long 'reminiscent' chapter, full of details of the days when he and Daddy had been boys together, but in the middle of it Daddy just got up and walked out, saying, 'I must get over to my work, you know.' There was no artificiality of manners at Bourcelles. Mother followed him, with a trifle more ceremony. 'Ah, c'est partir a l'anglaise!' sighed the widow, watching them go. She was accustomed to it. She went out into her garden, full of excitement at the prospect of the new arrival. Every arrival for her meant a possible chance of help. She was as young as her latest bulb really. Courage, hope, and generosity invariably go together.

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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.