A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 18

   What art thou, then? I cannot guess;
     But tho' I seem in star and flower
     To feel thee some diffusive power,
   I do not therefore love thee less.
                           ''Love and Death,'' TENNYSON.

In the act of waking up on the morning of the Star Cave experience, Henry Rogers caught the face of a vivid dream close against his own-- but in rapid motion, already passing. He tried to seize it. There was a happy, delightful atmosphere about it. Examination, however, was impossible; the effort to recover the haunting dream dispersed it. He saw the tip, like an express train flying round a corner; it flashed and disappeared, fading into dimness. Only the delightful atmosphere remained and the sense that he had been somewhere far away in very happy conditions. People he knew quite well, had been there with him; Jimbo and Monkey; Daddy too, as he had known him in his boyhood. More than this was mere vague surmise; he could not recover details. Others had been also of the merry company, familiar yet unrecognisable. Who in the world were they? It all seemed oddly real.

'How I do dream in this place, to be sure,' he thought; 'I, who normally dream so little! It was like a scene of my childhood-- Crayfield or somewhere.' And he reflected how easily one might be persuaded that the spirit escaped in sleep and knew another order of experience. The sense of actuality was so vivid.

He lay half dozing for a little longer, hoping to recover the adventures. The flying train showed itself once or twice again, but smaller, and much, much farther away. It curved off into the distance. A deep cutting quickly swallowed it. It emerged for the last time, tiny as a snake upon a chess-board of far-off fields. Then it dipped into mist; the snake shot into its hole. It was gone. He sighed. It had been so lovely. Why must it vanish so entirely? Once or twice during the day it returned, touched him swiftly on the heart and was gone again. But the waking impression of a dream is never the dream itself. Sunshine destroys the sense of enormous wonder.

'I believe I've been dreaming all night long, and going through all kinds of wild adventures.'

He dressed leisurely, still hunting subconsciously for fragments of that happy dreamland. Its aroma still clung about him. The sunshine poured into the room. He went out on to the balcony and looked at the Alps through his Zeiss field-glasses. The brilliant snow upon the Diablerets danced and sang into his blood; across the broken teeth of the Dent du Midi trailed thin strips of early cloud. Behind him rose great Boudry's massive shoulders, a pyramid of incredible deep blue. And the limestone precipices of La Tourne stood dazzlingly white, catching the morning sunlight full in their face.

The air had the freshness of the sea. Men were singing at their work among the vineyards. The tinkle of cow-bells floated to him from the upper pastures upon Mont Racine. Little sails like sea-gulls dipped across the lake. Goodness, how happy the world was at Bourcelles! Singing, radiant, careless of pain and death. And, goodness, how he longed to make it happier still!

Every day now this morning mood had been the same. Desire to do something for others ran races with little practical schemes for carrying it out. Selfish considerations seemed to have taken flight, all washed away while he slept. Moreover, the thought of his Scheme had begun to oppress him; a touch of shame came with it, almost as though an unworthy personal motive were somewhere in it. Perhaps after all--he wondered more and more now--there had been an admixture of personal ambition in the plan. The idea that it would bring him honour in the eyes of the world had possibly lain there hidden all along. If so, he had not realised it; the depravity had been unconscious. Before the Bourcelles standard of simplicity, artificial elements dropped off automatically, ashamed. ... And a profound truth, fished somehow out of that vanished dreamland, spun its trail of glory through his heart. Kindness that is thanked-for surely brings degradation--a degradation almost as mean as the subscription acknowledged in a newspaper, or the anonymous contribution kept secret temporarily in order that its later advertisement may excite the more applause. Out flashed this blazing truth: kind acts must be instinctive, natural, thoughtless. One hand must be in absolute ignorance of the other's high adventures. ... And when the carpenter's wife brought up his breakfast tray, with the bunch of forest flowers standing in a tumbler of water, she caught him pondering over another boyhood's memory--that friend of his father's who had given away a million anonymously.

... In his heart plans shaped themselves with soft, shy eyes and hidden faces.... He longed to get la famille anglaise straight ... for one thing. ...

It was an hour later, while he still sat dreaming in the sunshine by the open window, that a gentle tap came at the door, and Daddy entered. The visit was a surprise. Usually, until time for dejeuner, he kept his room, busily unwumbling stories. This was unusual. And something had happened to him; he looked different. What was it that had changed? Some veil had cleared away; his eyes were shining. They greeted one another, and Rogers fell shyly to commonplaces, while wondering what the change exactly was.

But the other was not to be put off. He was bursting with something. Rogers had never seen him like this before.

'You've stopped work earlier than usual,' he said, providing the opening. He understood his diffidence, his shyness in speaking of himself. Long disappointments lay so thinly screened behind his unfulfilled enthusiasm.

But this time the enthusiasm swept diffidence to the winds. It had been vitally stirred.

'Early indeed,' he cried. 'I've been working four hours without a break, man. Why, what do you think?--I woke at sunrise, a thing I never do, with--with a brilliant idea in my head. Brilliant, I tell you. By Jove, if only I can carry it out as I see it----!'

'You've begun it already?'

'Been at it since six o'clock, I tell you. It was in me when I woke-- idea, treatment, everything complete, all in a perfect pattern of Beauty.'

There was a glow upon his face, his hair was untidy; a white muffler with blue spots was round his neck instead of collar. One end stuck up against his chin. The safety pin was open.

'By Jove! I am delighted!' Rogers had seen him excited before over a 'brilliant idea,' but the telling of it always left him cold. It touched the intellect, yet not the heart. It was merely clever. This time, however, there was a new thing in his manner. 'How did you get it?' he repeated. Methods of literary production beyond his own doggerels were a mystery to him. 'Sort of inspiration, eh?'

'Woke with it, I tell you,' continued his cousin, twisting the muffler so that it tickled his ear now instead of his chin. 'It must have come to me in sleep----' 'In sleep,' exclaimed the other; 'you dreamt it, then?'

'Kind of inspiration business. I've heard of that sort of thing, but never experienced it----' The author paused for breath.

'What is it? Tell me.' He remembered how ingenious details of his patents had sometimes found themselves cleared up in the morning after refreshing slumber. This might be something similar. 'Let's hear it,' he added; 'I'm interested.'

His cousin's recitals usually ended in sad confusion, so that all he could answer by way of praise was--' You ought to make something good out of that. I shall like to read it when you've finished it.' But this time, he felt, there was distinctly a difference. There were new conditions.

The older man leaned closer, his face alight, his manner shyly, eagerly confidential. The morning sunshine blazed upon his untidy hair. A bread crumb from breakfast still balanced in his beard.

'It's difficult to tell in a few words, you see,' he began, the enthusiasm of a boy in his manner, 'but--I woke with the odd idea that this little village might be an epitome of the world. All the emotions of London, you see, are here in essence--the courage and cowardice, the fear and hope, the greed and sacrifice, the love and hate and passion--everything. It's the big world in miniature. Only--with one difference.'

'That's good,' said Rogers, trying to remember when it was he had told his cousin this very thing. Or had he only thought it? 'And what is the difference?'

'The difference,' continued the other, eyes sparkling, face alight, 'that here the woods, the mountains and the stars are close. They pour themselves in upon the village life from every side--above, below, all round. Flowers surround it; it dances to the mountain winds; at night it lies entangled in the starlight. Along a thousand imperceptible channels an ideal simplicity from Nature pours down into it, modifying the human passions, chastening, purifying, uplifting. Don't you see? And these sweet, viewless channels--who keeps them clean and open? Why, God bless you----. The children! My children!'

'By Jingo, yes; your children.'

Rogers said it with emphasis. But there was a sudden catch at his heart; he was conscious of a queer sensation he could not name. This was exactly what he had felt himself--with the difference that his own thought had been, perhaps, emotion rather than a reasoned-out idea. His cousin put it into words and gave it form. A picture--had he seen it in a book perhaps?--flashed across his mind. A child, suspiciously like Monkey, held a pen and dipped it into something bright and flowing. A little boy with big blue eyes gathered this shining stuff in both hands and poured it in a golden cataract upon the eyelids of a sleeping figure. And the figure had a beard. It was a man ... familiar. ... A touch of odd excitement trembled through his undermind ... thrilled ... vanished. ...

All dived out of sight again with the swiftness of a darting swallow. His cousin was talking at high speed. Rogers had lost a great deal of what he had been saying.

'... it may, of course, have come from something you said the other night as we walked up the hill to supper--you remember?--something about the brilliance of our stars here and how they formed a shining network that hung from Boudry and La Tourne. It's impossible to say. The germ of a true inspiration is never discoverable. Only, I remember, it struck me as an odd thing for you to say. I was telling you about my idea of the scientist who married--no, no, it wasn't that, it was my story of the materialist doctor whom circumstances compelled to accept a position in the Community of Shakers, and how the contrast produced an effect upon his mind of--of--you remember, perhaps? It was one or the other; I forget exactly,'--then suddenly-- 'No, no, I've got it--it was the analysis of the father's mind when he found----'

'Yes, yes,' interrupted Rogers. 'We were just passing the Citadelle fountain. I saw the big star upon the top of Boudry, and made a remark about it.' His cousin was getting sadly wumbled. He tried to put severity and concentration into his voice.

'That's it,' the other cried, head on one side and holding up a finger, 'because I remember that my own thought wandered for a moment --thought will, you know, in spite of one's best effort sometimes--and you said a thing that sent a little shiver of pleasure through me for an instant--something about a Starlight Train--and made me wonder where you got the idea. That's it. I do believe you've hit the nail on the head. Isn't it curious sometimes how a practical mind may suggest valuable material to the artist? I remember, several years ago----'

'Starlight Express, wasn't it?' said his friend with decision in his voice. He thumped the table vigorously with one fist. 'Keep to the point, old man. Follow it out. Your idea is splendid.'

'Yes, I do believe it is.' Something in his voice trembled.

One sentence in particular Rogers heard, for it seemed plucked out of the talk he had with the children in the forest that day two weeks ago.

'You see, all light meets somewhere. It's all one, I mean. And so with minds. They all have a common meeting-place. Sympathy is the name for that place--that state--they feel with each other, see flash-like from the same point of view for a moment. And children are the conduits. They do not think things out. They feel them, eh?' He paused an instant.

'For you see, along these little channels that the children--my children, as I think I mentioned--keep sweet and open, there might troop back into the village--Fairyland. Not merely a foolish fairyland of make-believe and dragons and princesses imprisoned in animals, but a fairyland the whole world needs--the sympathy of sweet endeavour, love, gentleness and sacrifice for others. The stars would bring it-- starlight don't you see? One might weave starlight in and out everywhere--use it as the symbol of sympathy--and--er--so on---'

Rogers again lost the clue. Another strangely familiar picture, and then another, flashed gorgeously before his inner vision; his mind raced after them, yet never caught them up. They were most curiously familiar. Then, suddenly, he came back and heard his cousin still talking. It was like a subtle plagiarism. Too subtle altogether, indeed, it was for him. He could only stare and listen in amazement.

But the recital grew more and more involved. Perhaps, alone in his work-room, Daddy could unwumble it consistently. He certainly could not tell it. The thread went lost among a dozen other things. The interfering sun had melted it all down in dew and spider gossamer and fairy cotton. ...

'I must go down and work,' he said at length, rising and fumbling with the door handle. He seemed disappointed a little. He had given out his ideas so freely, perhaps too freely. Rogers divined he had not sympathised enough. His manner had been shamefully absent-minded. The absent-mindedness was really the highest possible praise, but the author did not seem to realise it.

'It's glorious, my dear fellow, glorious,' Rogers added emphatically. 'You've got a big idea, and you can write it too. You will.' He said it with conviction. 'You touch my heart as you tell it. I congratulate you. Really I do.'

There was no mistaking the sincerity of his words and tone. The other came back a step into the room again. He stroked his beard and felt the crisp, hard crumb. He picked it out, examining it without surprise. It was no unfamiliar thing, perhaps; at any rate, it was an excuse to lower his eyes. Shyness returned upon him.

'Thank you,' he said gently; 'I'm glad you think so. You see, I sometimes feel--perhaps--my work has rather suffered from--been a little deficient in--the human touch. One must reach people's hearts if one wants big sales. So few have brains. Not that I care for money, or could ever write for money, for that brings its own punishment in loss of inspiration. But of course, with a family to support. ... I have a family, you see.' He raised his eyes and looked out into the sunshine. 'Well, anyhow, I've begun this thing. I shall send it in short form to the X. Review. It may attract attention there. And later I can expand it into a volume.' He hesitated, examined the crumb closely again, tossed it away, and looked up at his cousin suddenly full in the face. The high enthusiasm flamed back into his eyes again. 'Bring the world back to Fairyland, you see!' he concluded with vehemence, 'eh?'

'Glorious!' Surely thought ran about the world like coloured flame, if this was true.

The author turned towards the door. He opened it, then stopped on the threshold and looked round like a person who has lost his way.

'I forgot,' he added, 'I forgot another thing, one of the chief almost. It's this: there must be a Leader--who shall bring it back. Without the Guide, Interpreter, Pioneer, how shall the world listen or understand, even the little world of Bourcelles?'

'Of course, yes--some big figure--like a priest or prophet, you mean? A sort of Chairman, President, eh?'

'Yes,' was the reply, while the eyes flashed fires that almost recaptured forgotten dreams, 'but hardly in the way you mean, perhaps. A very simple figure, I mean, unconscious of its mighty role. Some one with endless stores of love and sympathy and compassion that have never found an outlet yet, but gone on accumulating and accumulating unexpressed.'

'I see, yes.' Though he really did not 'see' a bit. 'But who is there like that here? You'll have to invent him.' He remembered his own thought that some principal role was vacant in his Children's Fairy Play. How queer it all was! He stared. 'Who is there?' he repeated.

'No one--now. I shall bring her, though.'

'Her!' exclaimed Rogers with surprise. 'You mean a woman?'

'A childless woman,' came the soft reply. 'A woman with a million children--all unborn.' But Rogers did not see the expression of the face. His cousin was on the landing. The door closed softly on the words. The steps went fumbling down the stairs, and presently he heard the door below close too. The key was turned in it.

'A childless woman!' The phrase rang on long after he had gone. What an extraordinary idea! 'Bring her here' indeed! Could his cousin mean that some such woman might read his story and come to claim the position, play the vacant role? No, nothing so literal surely. The idea was preposterous. He had heard it said that imaginative folk, writers, painters, musicians, all had a touch of lunacy in them somewhere. He shrugged his shoulders. And what a job it must be, too, the writing of a book! He had never realised it before. A real book, then, meant putting one's heart into sentences, telling one's inmost secrets, confessing one's own ideals with fire and lust and passion. That was the difference perhaps between literature and mere facile invention. His cousin had never dared do this before; shyness prevented; his intellect wove pretty patterns that had no heat of life in them. But now he had discovered a big idea, true as the sun, and able, like the sun, to warm thousands of readers, all ready for it without knowing it. ...

Rogers sat on thinking in the bright spring sunshine, smoking one cigarette after another. For the idea his cousin had wumbled over so fubsily had touched his heart, and for a long time he was puzzled to find the reason. But at length he found it. In that startling phrase 'a childless woman' lay the clue. A childless woman was like a vessel with a cargo of exquisite flowers that could never make a port. Sweetening every wind, she yet never comes to land. No harbour welcomes her. She sails endless seas, charged with her freight of undelivered beauty; the waves devour her glory, her pain, her lovely secret all unconfessed. To bring such a woman into port, even imaginatively in a story, or subconsciously in an inner life, was fulfilment of a big, fine, wholesome yearning, sacred in a way, too.

'By George!' he said aloud. He felt strange, great life pour through him. He had made a discovery ... in his heart ... deep, deep down.

Something in himself, so long buried it was scarcely recognisable, stirred out of sight and tried to rise. Some flower of his youth that time had hardened, dried, yet never killed, moved gently towards blossoming. It shone. It was still hard a little, like a crystal, glistening down there among shadows that had gathered with the years. And then it suddenly melted, running in a tiny thread of gold among his thoughts into that quiet sea which so rarely in a man may dare the relief of tears. It was a tiny yellow flower, like a daisy that had forgotten to close at night, so that some stray starbeam changed its whiteness into gold.

Forgotten passion, and yearning long denied, stirred in him with that phrase. His cousin's children doubtless had prepared the way. A faded Dream peered softly into his eyes across the barriers of the years. For every woman in the world was a mother, and a childless woman was the grandest, biggest mother of them all. And he had longed for children of his own; he, too, had remained a childless father. A vanished face gazed up into his own. Two vessels, making the same fair harbour, had lost their way, yet still sailed, perhaps, the empty seas. Yet the face he did not quite recognise. The eyes, instead of blue, were amber. ...

And did this explain a little the spell that caught him in this Jura village, perhaps? Were these children, weaving a network so cunningly about his feet, merely scouts and pilots? Was his love for the world of suffering folk, after all, but his love for a wife and children of his own transmuted into wider channels? Denied the little garden he once had planned for it, did it seek to turn the whole big world into a garden? Suppression was impossible; like murder, it must out. A bit of it had even flamed a passage into work and patents and 'City' life. For love is life, and life is ever and everywhere one. He thought and thought and thought. A man begins by loving himself; then, losing himself, he loves a woman; next, that love spreads itself over a still bigger field, and he loves his family, his wife and children, and their families again in turn. But, that expression denied, his love inevitably, irrepressibly seeking an outlet, finds it in a Cause, a Race, a Nation, perhaps in the entire world. The world becomes his 'neighbour.' It was a great Fairy Story. ...

Again his thoughts returned to that one singular sentence ... and he realised what his cousin meant. Only a childless Mother, some woman charged to the brim with this power of loving to which ordinary expression had been denied, could fill the vacant role in his great Children's Play. No man could do it. He and his cousin were mere 'supers' on this stage. His cousin would invent her for his story. He would make her come. His passion would create her. That was what he meant.

Rogers smiled to himself, moving away from the window where the sunshine grew too fierce for comfort. What a funny business it all was, to be sure! And how curiously every one's thinking had intermingled! The children had somehow divined his own imaginings in that Crayfield garden; their father had stolen the lot for his story. It was most extraordinary. And then he remembered Minks, and all his lunatic theories about thought and thought-pictures. The garden scene at Crayfield came back vividly, the one at Charing Cross, in the orchard, too, with the old Vicar, when they had talked beneath the stars. Who among them all was the original sponsor? And which of them had set the ball a-rolling? It was stranger than the story of creation. ... It was the story of creation.

Yet he did not puzzle very long. Actors in a play are never puzzled; it is the bewildered audience who ask questions. And Henry Rogers was on the stage. The gauzy curtain hung between him and the outside point of view. He was already deeply involved in Fairyland. ... His feet were in the Net of Stars. ... He was a prisoner.

And that woman he had once dreamed might mother his own children-- where was she? Until a few years ago he had still expected, hoped to meet her. One day they would come together. She waited somewhere. It was only recently he had let the dream slip finally from him, abandoned with many another personal ambition.

Idly he picked up a pencil, and before he was aware of it the words ran into lines. It seemed as though his cousin's mood, thought, inspiration, worked through him.

    Upon what flowering shore,
    'Neath what blue skies
    She stands and waits,
    It is not mine to know;
    Only I know that shore is fair,
    Those skies are blue.

    Her voice I may not hear,
    Nor see her eyes,
    Yet there are times
    When in the wind she speaks.
    When stars and flowers
    Tell me of her eyes.
    When rivers chant her name.

    If ever signs were sure,
    I know she waits;
    If not, what means this sweetness in the wind,
    The singing in the rain, the love in flowers?
    What mean these whispers in the air,
    This calling from the hills and from the sea?
    These tendernesses of the Day and Night?
    Unless she waits!

What in the world was this absurd sweetness running in his veins?

He laughed a little. A slight flush, too, came and went its way. The tip of the pencil snapped as he pressed too heavily on it. He had drawn it through the doggerel with impatience, for he suddenly realised that he had told a deep, deep secret to the paper. It had stammered its way out before he was aware of it. This was youth and boyhood strong upon him, the moods of Crayfield that he had set long ago on one side--deliberately. The mood that wrote the Song of the Blue Eyes had returned, waking after a sleep of a quarter of a century.

'What rubbish!' he exclaimed; 'I shall be an author next!' He tore it up and, rolling the pieces into a ball, played catch with it. 'What waste of energy! Six months ago that energy would have gone into something useful, a patent--perhaps an improvement in the mechanism of--of--' he hesitated, then finished the sentence with a sigh of yearning and another passing flush--'a perambulator!'

He tossed it out of the window and, laughing, leaned out to watch it fall. It bounced upon a head of tousled hair beneath, then flew off sideways in the wind and rattled away faintly among the vines. The head was his cousin's.

'What are you up to?' cried the author, looking up. 'I'm not a waste- paper basket.' There was a cigarette ash in his beard.

'Sending you ideas, he answered. 'I'm coming myself now. Look out!' He was in high spirits again. He believed in that Fairy Princess.

'All right; I've put you in already. Everybody will wonder who Cousinenry is. ...' The untidy head of hair popped in again.

'Hark!' cried Rogers, trying to look round the corner of the house. He edged himself out at a dangerous angle. His ears had caught another sound. There was music in the air.

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