A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 12

     O star benignant and serene,
       I take the good to-morrow,
     That fills from verge to verge my dream,
       With all its joy and sorrow!
     The old sweet spell is unforgot
       That turns to June December;
     And, though the world remember not,
       Love, we would remember.
                    ''Life and Death'', W. E. HENLEY.

And Rogers went over to unpack. It was soon done. He sat at his window in the carpenter's house and enjoyed the peace. The spell of evening stole down from the woods. London and all his strenuous life seemed very far away. Bourcelles drew up beside him, opened her robe, let down her forest hair, and whispered to him with her voice of many fountains....

She lies just now within the fringe of an enormous shadow, for the sun has dipped behind the blue-domed mountains that keep back France. Small hands of scattered mist creep from the forest, fingering the vineyards that troop down towards the lake. A dog barks. Gygi, the gendarme, leaves the fields and goes home to take his uniform from its peg. Pere Langel walks among his beehives. There is a distant tinkling of cow-bells from the heights, where isolated pastures gleam like a patchwork quilt between the spread of forest; and farther down a train from Paris or Geneva, booming softly, leaves a trail of smoke against the background of the Alps where still the sunshine lingers.

But trains, somehow, do not touch the village; they merely pass it. Busy with vines, washed by its hill-fed stream, swept by the mountain winds, it lies unchallenged by the noisy world, remote, un-noticed, half forgotten. And on its outskirts stands the giant poplar that guards it--la sentinelle the peasants call it, because its lofty crest, rising to every wind, sends down the street first warning of any coming change. They see it bend or hear the rattle of its leaves. The coup de Joran, most sudden and devastating of mountain winds, is on the way from the precipice of the Creux du Van. It comes howling like artillery down the deep Gorges de l'Areuse. They run to fasten windows, collect the washing from roof and garden, drive the cattle into shelter, and close the big doors of the barns. The children clap their hands and cry to Gygi, 'Plus vite! Plus vite!' The lake turns dark. Ten minutes later it is raging with an army of white horses like the sea.

Darkness drapes the village. It comes from the whole long line of Jura, riding its troop of purple shadows--slowly curtaining out the world. For the carpenter's house stands by itself, apart. Perched upon a knoll beside his little patch of vineyard, it commands perspective. From his upper window Rogers saw and remembered....

High up against the fading sky ridges of limestone cliff shine out here and there, and upon the vast slopes of Boudry--l'immense geant de Boudry--lies a flung cloak of forest that knows no single seam. The smoke from bucheron fires, joining the scarves of mist, weaves across its shoulder a veil of lace-like pattern, and at its feet, like some great fastening button, hides the village of the same name, where Marat passed his brooding youth. Its evening lights are already twinkling. They signal across the vines to the towers of Colombier, rising with its columns of smoke and its poplars against the sheet of darkening water--Colombier, in whose castle milord marechal Keith had his headquarters as Governor of the Principality of Neuchatel under the King of Prussia. And, higher up, upon the flank of wooded mountains, is just visible still the great red-roofed farm of Cotendard, built by his friend Lord Wemyss, another Jacobite refugee, who had strange parties there and entertained Jean Jacques Rousseau in his exile. La Citadelle in the village was the wing of another castle he began to build, but left unfinished.

White in the gathering dusk, Rogers saw the strip of roadway where passed the gorgeous coach--cette fameuse diligence du milord marshal Keith--or more recent, but grimmer memory, where General Bourbaki's division of the French army, 80,000 strong, trailed in unspeakable anguish, hurrying from the Prussians. At Les Verrieres, upon the frontier, they laid down their arms, and for three consecutive days and nights the pitiful destitute procession passed down that strip of mountain road in the terrible winter of 1870-71.

Some among the peasants still hear that awful tramping in their sleep: the kindly old vigneron who stood in front of his chalet from dawn to sunset, giving each man bread and wine; and the woman who nursed three soldiers through black small-pox, while neighbours left food upon the wall before the house.... Memories of his boyhood crowded thick and fast. The spell of the place deepened about him with the darkness. He recalled the village postman--fragment of another romance, though a tattered and discredited one. For this postman was the descendant of that audacious pale-frenier who married Lord Wemyss' daughter, to live the life of peasants with her in a yet tinier hamlet higher up the slopes. If you asked him, he would proudly tell you, with his bullet-shaped, close-cropped head cocked impertinently on one side, how his brother, now assistant in a Paris shop, still owned the title of baron by means of which his reconciliated lordship sought eventually to cover up the unfortunate escapade. He would hand you English letters--and Scotch ones too!--with an air of covert insolence that was the joy of half the village. And on Sundays he was to be seen, garbed in knickerbockers, gaudy stockings, and sometimes high, yellowish spats, walking with his peasant girl along the very road his more spirited forbear covered in his runaway match....

The night stepped down more quickly every minute from the heights. Deep-noted bells floated upwards to him from Colombier, bringing upon the evening wind some fragrance of these faded boyhood memories. The stars began to peep above the peaks and ridges, and the mountains of the Past moved nearer. A veil of gossamer rose above the tree-tops, hiding more and more of the landscape; he just could see the slim new moon dip down to drink from her own silver cup within the darkening lake. Workmen, in twos and threes, came past the little house from their toil among the vines, and fragments of the Dalcroze songs rose to his ear--songs that the children loved, and that he had not heard for nearly a quarter of a century. Their haunting refrains completed then the spell, for all genuine spells are set to some peculiar music of their own. These Dalcroze melodies were exactly right.... The figures melted away into the single shadow of the village street. The houses swallowed them, voices, footsteps, and all.

And his eye, wandering down among the lights that twinkled against the wall of mountains, picked out the little ancient house, nestling so close beside the church that they shared a wall in common. Twenty-five years had passed since first he bowed his head beneath the wistaria that still crowned the Pension doorway. He remembered bounding up the creaking stairs. He felt he could still bound as swiftly and with as sure a step, only--he would expect less at the top now. More truly put, perhaps, he would expect less for himself. That ambition of his life was over and done with. It was for others now that his desires flowed so strongly. Mere personal aims lay behind him in a faded heap, their seductiveness exhausted.... He was a man with a Big Scheme now-- a Scheme to help the world....

The village seemed a dull enough place in those days, for the big Alps beckoned beyond, and day and night he longed to climb them instead of reading dull French grammar. But now all was different. It dislocated his sense of time to find the place so curiously unchanged. The years had played some trick upon him. While he himself had altered, developed, and the rest, this village had remained identically the same, till it seemed as if no progress of the outer world need ever change it. The very people were so little altered--hair grown a little whiter, shoulders more rounded, steps here and there a trifle slower, but one and all following the old routine he knew so well as a boy.

Tante Jeanne, in particular, but for wrinkles that looked as though a night of good sound sleep would smooth them all away, was the same brave woman, still 'running' that Wistaria Pension against the burden of inherited debts and mortgages. 'We're still alive,' she had said to him, after greetings delayed a quarter of a century, 'and if we haven't got ahead much, at least we haven't gone back!' There was no more hint of complaint than this. It stirred in him a very poignant sense of admiration for the high courage that drove the ageing fighter forward still with hope and faith. No doubt she still turned the kitchen saucer that did duty for planchette, unconsciously pushing its blunted pencil towards the letters that should spell out coming help. No doubt she still wore that marvellous tea-gown garment that did duty for so many different toilettes, even wearing it when she went with goloshes and umbrella to practise Sunday's hymns every Saturday night on the wheezy church harmonium. And most likely she still made underskirts from the silk of discarded umbrellas because she loved the sound of frou-frou thus obtained, while the shape of the silk exactly adapted itself to the garment mentioned. And doubtless, too, she still gave away a whole week's profits at the slightest call of sickness in the village, and then wondered how it was the Pension did not pay...!

A voice from below interrupted his long reverie.

'Ready for supper, Henry?' cried his cousin up the stairs. 'It's past seven. The children have already left the Citadelle.'

And as the two middle-aged dreamers made their way along the winding street of darkness through the vines, one of them noticed that the stars drew down their grand old network, fastening it to the heights of Boudry and La Tourne. He did not mention it to his companion, who was wumbling away in his beard about some difficult details of his book, but the thought slipped through his mind like the trail of a flying comet: 'I'd like to stay a long time in this village and get the people straight a bit,'--which, had he known it, was another thought carefully paraphrased so that he should not notice it and feel alarm: 'It will be difficult to get away from here. My feet are in that net of stars. It's catching about my heart.'

Low in the sky a pale, witched moon of yellow watched them go....

'The Starlight Express is making this way, I do believe,' he thought. But perhaps he spoke the words aloud instead of thinking them.

'Eh! What's that you said, Henry?' asked the other, taking it for a comment of value upon the plot of a story he had referred to.

'Oh, nothing particular,' was the reply. 'But just look at those stars above La Tourne. They shine like beacons burning on the trees.' Minks would have called them 'braziers.'

'They are rather bright, yes,' said the other, disappointed. 'The air here is so very clear.' And they went up the creaking wooden stairs to supper in the Wistaria Pension as naturally as though the years had lifted them behind the mountains of the past in a single bound-- twenty-five years ago.

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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.