A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 16

    Aus den Himmelsaugen droben
    Fallen zitternd goldne Funken
    Durch die Nacht, und meine Seele
    Dehnt sich liebeweit und weiter.

    O ihr Himmelsaugen droben,
    Weint euch aus in meine Seele,
    Dass von lichten Sternentranen
    Uberfliesset meine Seele!

They rose, fluttered a moment above the lilac bushes, and then shot forward like the curve of a rainbow into the sleeping house. The next second they stood beside the bed of the Widow Jequier.

She lay there, so like a bundle of untidy sticks that, but for the sadness upon the weary face, they could have burst out laughing. The perfume of the wistaria outside the open window came in sweetly, yet could not lighten the air of heavy gloom that clothed her like a garment. Her atmosphere was dull, all streaked with greys and black, for her mind, steeped in anxiety even while she slept, gave forth cloudy vapours of depression and disquietude that made impossible the approach of--light. Starlight, certainly, could not force an entrance, and even sunlight would spill half its radiance before it reached her heart. The help she needed she thus deliberately shut out. Before going to bed her mood had been one of anxious care and searching worry. It continued, of course, in sleep.

'Now,' thought their leader briskly, 'we must deal with this at once'; and the children, understanding his unspoken message, approached closer to the bed. How brilliant their little figures were--Jimbo, a soft, pure blue, and Monkey tinged faintly here and there with delicate clear orange. Thus do the little clouds of sunset gather round to see the sun get into bed. And in utter silence; all their intercourse was silent--thought, felt, but never spoken.

For a moment there was hesitation. Cousinenry was uncertain exactly how to begin. Tante Jeanne's atmosphere was so very thick he hardly knew the best way to penetrate it. Her mood had been so utterly black and rayless. But his hesitation operated like a call for help that flew instantly about the world and was communicated to the golden threads that patterned the outside sky. They quivered, flashed the message automatically; the enormous network repeated it as far as England, and the answer came. For thought is instantaneous, and desire is prayer. Quick as lightning came the telegram. Beside them stood a burly figure of gleaming gold.

'I'll do it,' said the earthy voice. 'I'll show you 'ow. For she loves 'er garden. Her sympathy with trees and flowers lets me in. Always send for me when she's in a mess, or needs a bit of trimmin' and cleanin' up.'

The Head Gardener pushed past them with his odour of soil and burning leaves, his great sunburned face and his browned, stained hands. These muscular, big hands he spread above her troubled face; he touched her heart; he blew his windy breath of flowers upon her untidy hair; he called the names of lilac, wistaria, roses, and laburnum....

The room filled with the little rushing music of wind in leaves; and, as he said 'laburnum,' there came at last a sudden opening channel through the fog that covered her so thickly. Starlight, that was like a rivulet of laburnum blossoms melted into running dew, flowed down it. The Widow Jequier stirred in her sleep and smiled. Other channels opened. Light trickled down these, too, drawn in and absorbed from the store the Gardener carried. Then, with a rush of scattering fire, he was gone again. Out into the enormous sky he flew, trailing golden flame behind him. They heard him singing as he dived into the Network --singing of buttercups and cowslips, of primroses and marigolds and dandelions, all yellow flowers that have stored up starlight.

And the atmosphere of Tante Jeanne first glowed, then shone; it changed slowly from gloom to glory. Golden channels opened everywhere, making a miniature network of their own. Light flashed and corruscated through it, passing from the children and their leader along the tiny pipes of sympathy the Gardener had cleared of rubbish and decay. Along the very lines of her face ran tiny shining rivers; flooding across her weary eyelids, gilding her untidy hair, and pouring down into her heavy heart. She ceased fidgeting; she smiled in her sleep; peace settled on her face; her fingers on the coverlet lost their touch of strain. Finally she turned over, stretched her old fighting body into a more comfortable position, sighed a moment, then settled down into a deep and restful slumber. Her atmosphere was everywhere 'soft-shiny' when they left her to shoot next into the attic chamber above, where Miss Waghorn lay among her fragments of broken memory, and the litter of disordered images that passed with her for 'thinking.'

And here, again, although their task was easier, they needed help to show the right way to begin. Before they reached the room Jimbo had wondered how they would 'get at' her. That wonder summoned help. The tall, thin figure was already operating beside the bed as they entered. His length seemed everywhere at once, and his slender pole, a star hanging from the end, was busy touching articles on walls and floor and furniture. The disorder everywhere was the expression of her dishevelled mind, and though he could not build the ruins up again, at least he could trace the outlines of an ordered plan that she might use when she left her body finally and escaped from the rebellious instrument in death. And now that escape was not so very far away. Obviously she was already loose. She was breaking up, as the world expresses it.

And the children, watching with happy delight, soon understood his method. Each object that he touched emitted a tiny light. In her mind he touched the jumble of wandering images as well. On waking she would find both one and the other better assorted. Some of the lost things her memory ever groped for she would find more readily. She would see the starlight on them.

'See,' said their leader softly, as the long thin figure of the Lamplighter shot away into the night, 'she sleeps so lightly because she is so old--fastened so delicately to the brain and heart. The fastenings are worn and loose now. Already she is partly out!'

'That's why she's so muddled in the daytime,' explained Jimbo, for his sister's benefit.

'Exaccurately, I knew it already!' was the reply, turning a somersault like a wheel of twirling meteors close to the old lady's nose.

'Carefully, now!' said their leader. 'And hurry up! There's not much we can do here, and there's heaps to do elsewhere. We must remember Mother and Daddy--before the Interfering Sun is up, you know.'

They flashed about the attic chamber, tipping everything with light, from the bundle of clothes that strewed the floor to the confused interior of the black basket-trunk where she kept her money and papers. There were no shelves in this attic chamber; no room for cupboards either; it was the cheapest room in the house. And the old woman in the bed sometimes opened her eyes and peered curiously, expectantly, about her. Even in her sleep she looked for things. Almost, they felt, she seemed aware of their presence near her, she knew that they were there; she smiled.

A moment later they were in mid-air on their way to the Citadelle, singing as they went:--

    He keeps that only
    For the old and lonely,
    Who sleep so little that they need the best.
      The rest--
      The common stuff--
      Is good enough
    For Fraulein, or for baby, or for mother,
      Or any other
      Who likes a bit of dust,
      And yet can do without it--
         If they must...

Already something of the Dawn's faint magic painting lay upon the world. Roofs shone with dew. The woods were singing, and the flowers were awake. Birds piped and whistled shrilly from the orchards. They heard the Mer Dasson murmuring along her rocky bed. The rampart of the Alps stood out more clearly against the sky.

'We must be very quick,' Cousin Henry flashed across to them, 'quicker than an express train.'

'That's impossible,' cried Jimbo, who already felt the call of waking into his daily world. 'Hark! There's whistling already....'

The next second, in a twinkling, he was gone. He had left them. His body had been waked up by the birds that sang and whistled so loudly in the plane tree outside his window. Monkey and her guide raced on alone into the very room where he now sat up and rubbed his eyes in the Citadelle. He was telling his mother that he had just been 'dreaming extraordinary.' But Mother, sleeping like a fossil monster in the Tertiary strata, heard him not.

'He often goes like that,' whispered Monkey in a tone of proud superiority. 'He's only a little boy really, you see.'

But the sight they then witnessed was not what they expected.

For Mademoiselle Lemaire herself was working over Mother like an engine, and Mother was still sleeping like the dead. The radiance that emanated from the night-body of this suffering woman, compared to their own, was as sunlight is to candle-light. Its soft glory was indescribable, its purity quite unearthly, and the patterns that it wove lovely beyond all telling. Here they surprised her in the act, busy with her ceaseless activities for others, working for the world by thinking beauty. While her pain-racked body lay asleep in the bed it had not left for thirty years, nor would ever leave again this side of death, she found her real life in loving sympathy for the pain of others everywhere. For thought is prayer, and prayer is the only true effective action that leaves no detail incomplete. She thought light and glory into others. Was it any wonder that she drew a special, brilliant supply from the Starlight Cavern, when she had so much to give? For giving-out involved drawing-in to fill the emptied spaces. Her pure and endless sources of supply were all explained.

'I've been working on her for years,' she said gently, looking round at their approach, 'for her life is so thickly overlaid with care, and the care she never quite knows how to interpret. We were friends, you see, in childhood.... You'd better hurry on to the carpenter's house. You'll find Jinny there doing something for her father.' She did not cease her working while she said it, this practical mind so familiar with the methods of useful thinking, this loving heart so versed in prayer while her broken body, deemed useless by the world, lay in the bed that was its earthly prison-house. 'He can give me all the help I need,' she added.

She pointed, and they saw the figure of the Sweep standing in the corner of the room among a pile of brimming sacks. His dirty face was beaming. They heard him singing quietly to himself under his breath, while his feet and sooty hands marked time with a gesture of quaintest dancing:--

     ''Such'' a tremendously busy Sweep,
     Catching the world when it's all asleep,
     And tossing the blacks on the Rubbish Heap
       Over the edge of the world!

'Come,' whispered Cousin Henry, catching at Monkey's hair, 'we can do something, but we can't do that. She needs no help from us!'

They sped across to the carpenter's house among the vineyards.

'What a splendour!' gasped the child as they went. 'My starlight seems quite dim beside hers.'

'She's an old hand at the game,' he replied, noticing the tinge of disappointment in her thought. 'With practice, you know----'

'And Mummy must be pretty tough,' she interrupted with a laugh, her elastic nature recovering instantly.

'----with practice, I was going to say, your atmosphere will get whiter too until it simply shines. That's why the saints have halos.'

But Monkey did not hear this last remark, she was already in her father's bedroom, helping Jinny.

Here there were no complications, no need for assistance from a Sweep, or Gardener, or Lamplighter. It was a case for pulling, pure and simple. Daddy was wumbled, nothing more. Body, mind, and heart were all up-jumbled. In making up the verse about the starlight he had merely told the truth--about himself. The poem was instinctive and inspirational confession. His atmosphere, as he lay there, gently snoring in his beauty sleep, was clear and sweet and bright, no darkness in it of grey or ugliness; but its pattern was a muddle, or rather there were several patterns that scrambled among each other for supremacy. Lovely patterns hovered just outside him, but none of them got really in. And the result was chaos. Daddy was not clear-headed; there was no concentration. Something of the perplexed confusion that afflicted his elder daughter in the daytime mixed up the patterns inextricably. There was no main pathway through his inner world.

And the picture proved it. It explained why Jinny pulled in vain. His night-body came out easily as far as the head, then stuck hopelessly. He looked like a knotted skein of coloured wools. Upon the paper where he had been making notes before going to sleep--for personal atmosphere is communicated to all its owner touches--lay the same confusion. Scraps of muddle, odds and ends of different patterns, hovered in thick blots of colour over the paragraphs and sentences. His own uncertainty was thus imparted to what he wrote, and his stories brought no conviction to his readers. He was too much the Dreamer, or too much the Thinker, which of the two was not quite clear. Harmony was lacking.

'That's probably what I'M like, too,' thought his friend, but so softly that the children did not hear it. That Scheme of his passed vaguely through his mind.

Then he cried louder--a definite thought:--

'There's no good tugging like that, my dears. Let him slip in again. You'll only make him restless, and give him distorted dreams.'

'I've tugged like this every night for months,' said Jinny, 'but the moment I let go he flies back like elastic.'

'Of course. We must first untie the knots and weave the patterns into one. Let go!'

Daddy's night-body flashed back like a sword into its sheath. They stood and watched him. He turned a little in his sleep, while above him the lines twined and wriggled like phosphorus on moving water, yet never shaped themselves into anything complete. They saw suggestions of pure beauty in them here and there that yet never joined together into a single outline; it was like watching the foam against a steamer's sides in moonlight--just failing of coherent form.

'They want combing out,' declared Jane Anne with a brilliant touch of truth. 'A rake would be best.'

'Assorting, sifting, separating,' added Cousinenry, 'but it's not easy.' He thought deeply for a moment. 'Suppose you two attend to the other things,' he said presently, 'while I take charge of the combing- out.'

They knew at once his meaning; it was begun as soon as thought, only they could never have thought of it alone; none but a leader with real sympathy in his heart could have discovered the way.

Like Fairies, lit internally with shining lanterns, they flew about their business. Monkey picked up his pencils and dipped their points into her store of starlight, while Jinny drew the cork out of his ink- pot and blew in soft-shiny radiance of her own. They soaked his books in it, and smoothed his paper out with their fingers of clean gold. His note-books, chair, and slippers, his smoking-coat and pipes and tobacco-tins, his sponge, his tooth-brush and his soap--everything from dressing-gown to dictionary, they spread thickly with their starlight, and continued until the various objects had drunk in enough to make them shine alone.

Then they attacked the walls and floor and ceiling, sheets and bed- clothes. They filled the tin-bath full to the very brim, painted as well the windows, door-handles, and the wicker chair in which they knew he dozed after dejeuner. But with the pencils, pens, and ink-pots they took most trouble, doing them very thoroughly indeed. And his enormous mountain-boots received generous treatment too, for in these he went for his long lonely walks when he thought out his stories among the woods and valleys, coming home with joy upon his face--'I got a splendid idea to-day--a magnificent story--if only I can get it on to paper before it's gone...!' They understood his difficulty now: the 'idea' was wumbled before he could fashion it. He could not get the pattern through complete.

And his older friend, working among the disjointed patterns, saw his trouble clearly too. It was not that he lacked this sympathy that starlight brings, but that he applied it without discernment. The receiving instrument was out of order, some parts moving faster than others. Reason and imagination were not exaccurately adjusted. He gathered plenty in, but no clear stream issued forth again; there was confusion in delivery. The rays were twisted, the golden lines caught into knots and tangles. Yet, ever just outside him, waiting to be

taken in, hovered these patterns of loveliness that might bring joy to thousands. They floated in beauty round the edges of his atmosphere, but the moment they sank in to reach his mind, there began the distortion that tore their exquisite proportions and made designs mere disarrangement. Inspiration, without steady thought to fashion it, was of no value.

He worked with infinite pains to disentangle the mass of complicated lines, and one knot after another yielded and slipped off into rivulets of gold, all pouring inwards to reach heart and brain. It was exhilarating, yet disappointing labour. New knots formed themselves so easily, yet in the end much surely had been accomplished. Channels had been cleared; repetition would at length establish habit.

But the line of light along the eastern horizon had been swiftly growing broader meanwhile. It was brightening into delicate crimson. Already the room was clearer, and the radiance of their bodies fading into a paler glory. Jane Anne grew clumsier, tumbling over things, and butting against her more agile sister. Her thoughts became more muddled. She said things from time to time that showed it--hints that waking was not far away.

'Daddy's a wumbled Laplander, you know, after all. Hurry up!' The foolish daylight speech came closer.

'Give his ink-pot one more blow,' cried Monkey. Her body always slept at least an hour longer than the others. She had more time for work.

Jane Anne bumped into the washhand-stand. She no longer saw quite clearly.

'I'm a plenipotentiary, that's what I am. I'm afraid of nothing. But the porridge has to be made. I must get back....'

She vanished like a flash, just as her brother had vanished half an hour before.

'We'll go on with it to-morrow night,' signalled Cousin Henry to his last remaining helper. 'Meet me here, remember, when...the moon...is high enough to...cast...a...shadow....'

The opening and shutting of a door sounded through his sleep. He turned over heavily. Surely it was not time to get up yet. That could not be hot water coming! He had only just fallen asleep. He plunged back again into slumber.

But Monkey had disappeared.

'What a spanking dream I've had...!' Her eyes opened, and she saw her school-books on the chair beside the bed. Mother was gently shaking her out of sleep. 'Six o'clock, darling. The bath is ready, and Jinny's nearly got the porridge done. It's a lovely morning!'

'Oh, Mummy, I----'

But Mummy lifted her bodily out of bed, kissed her sleepy eyes awake, and half carried her over to the bath. 'You can tell me all about that later,' she said with practical decision; 'when the cold water's cleared your head. You're always fuzzy when you wake.'

Another day had begun. The sun was blazing high above the Blumlisalp. The birds sang in chorus. Dew shone still on the fields, but the men were already busy in the vineyards.

And presently Cousin Henry woke too and stared lazily about his room. He looked at his watch.

'By Jove,' he murmured. 'How one does sleep in this place! And what a dream to be sure--I who never dream!'

He remembered nothing more. From the moment he closed his eyes, eight hours before, until this second, all was a delicious blank. He felt refreshed and wondrously light-hearted, at peace with all the world. There was music in his head. He began to whistle as he lay among the blankets for half an hour longer. And later, while he breakfasted alone downstairs, he remembered that he ought to write to Minks. He owed Minks a letter. And before going out into the woods he wrote it. 'I'm staying on a bit,' he mentioned at the end. 'I find so much to do here, and it's such a rest. Meanwhile I can leave everything safely in your hands. But as soon as I get a leisure moment I'll send you the promised draft of my Scheme for Disabled, etc., etc.'

But the Scheme got no further somehow. New objections, for one thing, kept cropping up in his mind. It would take so long to build the place, and find the site, satisfy County Councils, and all the rest. The Disabled, moreover, were everywhere; it was invidious to select one group and leave the others out. Help the world, yes--but what was 'the world'? There were so many worlds. He touched a new one every day and every hour. Which needed his help most? Bourcelles was quite as important, quite as big and hungry as any of the others. 'That old Vicar knew a thing or two,' he reflected later in the forest, while he gathered a bunch of hepaticas and anemones to take to Mlle. Lemaire. 'There are "neighbours" everywhere, the world's simply chock full of 'em. But what a pity that we die just when we're getting fit and ready to begin. Perhaps we go on afterwards, though. I wonder...!'

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