A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 14

     O pure one, take thy seat in the barque of the Sun,
       And sail thou over the sky.
         Sail thou with the imperishable stars,
           Sail thou with the unwearied stars.
               ''Pyramid Texts, Dynasty VI.''

But Henry Rogers ran the whole two hundred yards to his lodgings in the carpenter's house. He ran as though the entire field of brilliant stars were at his heels. There was bewilderment, happiness, exhilaration in his blood. He had never felt so light-hearted in his life. He felt exactly fifteen years of age--and a half. The half was added to ensure a good, safe margin over the other two.

But he was late for supper too--later than the children, for first he jotted down some notes upon the back of an envelope. He wrote them at high speed, meaning to correct them later, but the corrections were never made. Later, when he came to bed, the envelope had been tidied away by the careful housewife into the dustbin. And he was ashamed to ask for them. The carpenter's wife read English.

'Pity,' he said to himself. 'I don't believe Minks could have done it better!'

The energy that went to the making of those 'notes' would have run down different channels a few years ago. It would have gone into some ingenious patent. The patent, however, might equally have gone into the dustbin. There is an enormous quantity of misdirected energy pouring loose about the world!

The notes had run something like this--

     O children, open your arms to me,
     Let your hair fall over my eyes;
     Let me sleep a moment--and then awake
     In your Gardens of sweet Surprise!
     For the grown-up folk
     Are a wearisome folk,
     And they laugh my fancies to scorn,
     My fun and my fancies to scorn.

     O children, open your hearts to me,
     And tell me your wonder-thoughts;
     Who lives in the palace inside your brain?
     Who plays in its outer courts?
     Who hides in the hours To-morrow holds?
     Who sleeps in your yesterdays?
     Who tiptoes along past the curtained folds
     Of the shadow that twilight lays?

     O children, open your eyes to me,
     And tell me your visions too;
     Who squeezes the sponge when the salt tears flow
     To dim their magical blue?
     Who draws up their blinds when the sun peeps in?
     Who fastens them down at night?
     Who brushes the fringe of their lace-veined lids?
     Who trims their innocent light?

     Then, children, I beg you, sing low to me,
     And cover my eyes with your hands;
     O kiss me again till I sleep and dream
     That I'm lost in your fairylands;
     For the grown-up folk
     Are a troublesome folk,
     And the book of their childhood is torn,
     Is blotted, and crumpled, and torn!

Supper at the Pension dissipated effectively the odd sense of enchantment to which he had fallen a victim, but it revived again with a sudden rush when Jimbo and his sister came up at half-past eight to say good-night. It began when the little fellow climbed up to plant a resounding kiss upon his lips, and it caught him fullest when Monkey's arms were round his neck, and he heard her whisper in his ear--

'Sleep as tightly as you can, remember, and don't resist. We'll come later to find you.' Her brown eyes were straight in front of his own. Goodness, how they shone! Old Sirius and Aldebaran had certainly left a ray in each.

'Hope you don't get any longer when you're asleep!' she added, giving him a sly dig in the ribs--then was gone before he could return it, or ask her what she meant by 'we'll find you later.'

'And don't say a word to Mother,' was the last thing he heard as she vanished down the stairs.

Slightly confused, he glanced down at the aged pumps he happened to have on, and noticed that one bow was all awry and loose. He stooped to fidget with it, and Mother caught him in the act.

'I'll stitch it on for you,' she said at once. 'It won't take a minute. One of the children can fetch it in the morning.'

But he was ashamed to add to her endless sewing. Like some female Sisyphus, she seemed always pushing an enormous needle through a mountain of clothes that grew higher each time she reached the top.

'I always wear it like that,' he assured her gravely, his thoughts still busy with two other phrases--' find you' and 'sleep tightly.' What in the world could they mean? Did the children really intend to visit him at night? They seemed so earnest about it. Of course it was all nonsense. And yet----!

'You mustn't let them bother you too much,' he heard their mother saying, her voice sounding a long way off. 'They're so wildly happy to have some one to play with.'

'That's how I like them,' he answered vaguely, referring half to the pumps and half to the children. 'They're no trouble at all, believe me.'

'I'm afraid we've spoilt them rather----'

'But--not at all,' he murmured, still confused. 'They're only a little loose--er--lively, I mean. That's how they should be.'

And outside all heard their laughing voices dying down the street as they raced along to the Citadelle for bed. It was Monkey's duty to see her brother safely in. Ten minutes later Mother would follow to tell them tuck-up stories and hear their prayers.

'Excuse me! Have you got a hot-water bottle?' asked a sudden jerky voice, and he turned with a start to see Jane Anne towering beside him.

'I'm sorry,' he answered, 'but I don't carry such things about with me.' He imagined she was joking, then saw that it was very serious.

She looked puzzled a moment. 'I meant--would you like one? Everybody uses them here.' She thought all grown-ups used hot-water bottles.

He hesitated a second. The child looked as though she would produce one from her blouse like any conjurer. As yet, however, the article in question had not entered his scheme of life. He declined it with many thanks.

'I can get you a big one,' she urged. But even that did not tempt him.

'Will you have a cold-water bandage then--for your head--or anything?'

She seemed so afflicted with a desire to do something for him that he almost said 'Yes'; only the fear that she might offer next a beehive or a gramophone restrained him.

'Thank you so much, but really I can manage without it--to-night.'

Jane Anne made no attempt to conceal her disappointment. What a man he was, to be sure! And what a funny place the world was!

'It's Jinny's panacea,' said Mother, helping herself with reckless uncertainty to a long word. 'She's never happy unless she's doing for somebody,' she added ambiguously. 'It's her metier in life.'

'Mother, what are you saying?' said the child's expression. Then she made one last attempt. She remembered, perhaps, the admiring way he had watched her brother and sister's antics in the Den before. She was not clever on her feet, but at least she could try.

'Shall I turn head over heels for you, then?'

He caught her mother's grave expression just in time to keep his laughter back. The offer of gymnastics clearly involved sacrifice somewhere.

'To-morrow,' he answered quickly. 'Always put off till to-morrow what you're too old to do to-day.'

'Of course; I see--yes.' She was more perplexed than ever, as he meant that she should be. His words were meaningless, but they helped the poignant situation neatly. She could not understand why all her offers were refused like this. There must be something wrong with her selection, perhaps. She would think of better ones in future. But, oh, what a funny place the world was!

'Good-night, then, Mr.--Cousin Rogers,' she said jerkily with resignation. 'Perhaps to-morrow--when I'm older----'

'If it comes.' He gravely shook the hand she held out primly, keeping a certain distance from him lest he should attempt to kiss her.

'It always comes; it's a chronic monster,' she laughed, saying the first thing that came into her queer head. They all laughed. Jane Anne went out, feeling happier. At least, she had amused him. She marched off with the air of a grenadier going to some stern and difficult duty. From the door she flung back at him a look of speechless admiration, then broke into a run, afraid she might have been immodest or too forward. They heard her thumping overhead.

And presently he followed her example. The Pension sitting-room emptied. Unless there was something special on hand--a dance, a romp, a game, or some neighbours who dropped in for talk and music--it was rarely occupied after nine o'clock. Daddy had already slipped home--he had this mysterious way of disappearing when no one saw him go. At this moment, doubtless, a wumbled book absorbed him over at the carpenter's. Old Miss Waghorn sat in a corner nodding over her novel, and the Pension cat, Borelle, was curled up in her sloping, inadequate lap.

The big, worn velvet sofa in the opposite corner was also empty. On romping nights it was the train de Moscou, where Jimbo sold tickets to crowded passengers for any part of the world. To-night it was a mere dead sofa, uninviting, dull.

He went across the darkened room, his head scraping acquaintance with the ivy leaves that trailed across the ceiling. He slipped through the little hall. In the kitchen he heard the shrill voice of Mme. Jequier talking very loudly about a dozen things at once to the servant-girl, or to any one else who was near enough to listen. Luckily she did not see him. Otherwise he would never have escaped without another offer of a hot-water bottle, a pot of home-made marmalade, or a rug and pillow for his bed. He made his way downstairs into the street unnoticed; but just as he reached the bottom his thundering tread betrayed him. The door flew open at the top.

'Bon soir, bonne nuit,' screamed the voice; 'wait a moment and I'll get the lamp. You'll break your neck. Is there anything you want--a hot-water bottle, or a box of matches, or some of my marmalade for your breakfast? Wait, and I'll get it in a moment----' She would have given the blouse off her back had he needed, or could have used it.

She flew back to the kitchen to search and shout. It sounded like a quarrel; but, pretending not to hear, he made good his escape and passed out into the street. The heavy door of the Post Office banged behind him, cutting short a stream of excited sentences. The peace and quiet of the night closed instantly about his steps.

By the fountain opposite the Citadelle he paused to drink from the pipe of gushing mountain water. The open courtyard looked inviting, but he did not go in, for, truth to tell, there was a curious excitement in him--an urgent, keen desire to get to sleep as soon as possible. Not that he felt sleepy--quite the reverse in fact, but that he looked forward to his bed and to 'sleeping tightly.'

The village was already lost in slumber. No lights showed in any houses. Yet it was barely half-past nine. Everywhere was peace and stillness. Far across the lake he saw the twinkling villages. Behind him dreamed the forests. A deep calm brooded over the mountains; but within the calm, and just below the surface in himself, hid the excitement as of some lively anticipation. He expected something. Something was going to happen. And it was connected with the children. Jimbo and Monkey were at the bottom of it. They had said they would come for him--to 'find him later.' He wondered--quite absurdly he wondered.

He passed his cousin's room on tiptoe, and noticed a light beneath the door. But, before getting into bed, he stood a moment at the open window and drew in deep draughts of the fresh night air. The world of forest swayed across his sight. The outline of the Citadelle merged into it. A point of light showed the window where the children already slept. But, far beyond, the moon was loading stars upon the trees, and a rising wind drove them in glittering flocks along the heights....

Blowing out the candle, he turned over on his side to sleep, his mind charged to the brim with wonder and curious under-thrills of this anticipation. He half expected--what? Reality lay somewhere in the whole strange business; it was not merely imaginative nonsense. Fairyland was close.

And the moment he slept and began to dream, the thing took a lively and dramatic shape. A thousand tiny fingers, soft and invisible, drew him away into the heart of fairyland. There was a terror in him lest he should--stick. But he came out beautifully and smoothly, like a thread of summer grass from its covering sheath.

'I am slippery after all, then--slippery enough,' he remembered saying with surprised delight, and then---

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