A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 20

     Break up the heavens, O Lord! and far,
     Thro' all yon starlight keen,
     Draw me, thy bride, a glittering star,
     In raiment white and clean.

     He lifts me to the golden doors;
     The flashes come and go;
     All heaven bursts her starry floors,
     And strews her lights below.
           ''St. Agnes' Eve, Tennyson''.

Miss Waghorn, of late, had been unusually trying, and especially full of complaints. Her poor old memory seemed broken beyond repair. She offered Madame Jequier her weekly payment twice within ten minutes, and was quite snappy about it when the widow declined the second tender.

'But you had the receipt in your hand wizin ten minutes ago, Mees Wag'orn. You took it upstairs. The ink can hardly be now already yet dry.' But nothing would satisfy her that she had paid until they went up to her room together and found it after much searching between her Bible and her eternal novel on the writing-table.

'Forgive me, Madame, but you do forget sometimes, don't you?' she declared with amusing audacity. 'I like to make quite sure--- especially where money is concerned.' On entering the room she had entirely forgotten why they came there. She began complaining, instead, about the bed, which had not yet been made. A standing source of grumbling, this; for the old lady would come down to breakfast many a morning, and then go up again before she had it, thinking it was already late in the day. She worried the pensionnaires to death, too. It was their duty to keep the salon tidy, and Miss Waghorn would flutter into the room as early as eight o'clock, find the furniture still unarranged, and at once dart out again to scold the girls. These interviews were amusing before they became monotonous, for the old lady's French was little more than 'nong pas' attached to an infinitive verb, and the girls' Swiss-German explanations of the alleged neglect of duty only confused her. 'Nong pas faire la chambre,' she would say, stamping her foot with vexation. 'You haven't done the room, though it's nearly dejooner time!' Or else--'Ten minutes ago it was tidy. Look at it now!' while she dragged them in and forced them to put things straight, until some one in authority came and explained gently her mistake. 'Oh, excuse me, Madame,' she would say then, 'but they do forget so often.' Every one was very patient with her as a rule.

And of late she had been peculiarly meddlesome, putting chairs straight, moving vases, altering the lie of table-cloths and the angle of sofas, opening windows because it was 'so stuffy,' and closing them a minute later with complaints about the draught, forcing occupants of arm-chairs to get up because the carpet was caught, fiddling with pictures because they were crooked either with floor or ceiling, and never realising that in the old house these latter were nowhere parallel. But her chief occupation was to prevent the children crossing their legs when they sat down, or pulling their dresses lower, with a whispered, 'You must not cross your legs like that; it isn't ladylike, dear.'

She had been very exasperating and interfering. Tempers had grown short. Twice running she had complained about the dreadful noise the pensionnaires made at seven o'clock in the morning. 'Nong pas creer comme ca!' she called, running down the passage in her dressing-gown and bursting angrily into their rooms without knocking--to find them empty. The girls had left the day before.

But to-day (the morning after the Star Cave adventure) the old lady was calmer, almost soothed, and at supper she was composed and gentle. Sleep, for some reason, had marvellously refreshed her. Attacks that opened as usual about Cornish Cream or a Man with a long Beard, she repelled easily and quietly. 'I've told you that story before, my dear; I know I have.' It seemed her mind and memory were more orderly somehow. And the Widow Jequier explained how sweet and good-natured she had been all day--better than for years. 'When I took her drops upstairs at eleven o'clock I found her tidying her room; she was sorting her bills and papers. She read me a letter she had written to her nephew to come out and take her home--well written and quite coherent. I've not known her mind so clear for months. Her memory, too. She said she had slept so well. If only it would last, helas!'

'There are days like that,' she added presently, 'days when everything goes right and easily. One wakes up happy in the morning and sees only the bright side of things. Hope is active, and one has new courage somehow.' She spoke with feeling, her face was brighter, clearer, her mind less anxious. She had planned a visit to the Bank Manager about the mortgages. It had come as an inspiration. It might be fruitless, but she was hopeful, and so knew a little peace. 'I wonder why it is,' she added, 'and what brings these changes into the heart so suddenly.'

'Good sleep and sound digestion,' Mrs. Campden thought. She expressed her views deliberately like this in order to counteract any growth of fantasy in the children.

'But it is strange,' her husband said, remembering his new story; 'it may be much deeper than that. While the body sleeps the spirit may get into touch with helpful forces----' His French failed him. He wumbled painfully.

'Thought-forces possibly from braver minds,' put in Rogers. 'Who knows? Sleep and dreaming have never really been explained.' He recalled a theory of Minks.

'I dream a great deal,' Miss Waghorn observed, eager to take part. 'It's delightful, dreaming--if only one could remember!' She looked round the table with challenge in her eager old eyes. But no one took her up. It involved such endless repetition of well-known stories. The Postmaster might have said a word--he looked prepared--but, not understanding English, he went on with his salad instead.

'Life is a dream,' observed Monkey, while Jinny seemed uncertain whether she should laugh or take it seriously.

The Widow Jequier overheard her. There was little she did not overhear.

'Coquine!' she said, then quoted with a sentimental sigh:--

     La vie est breve,
     Un peu d'amour.
     Un peu de rive
     Et puis--bonjour!

She hung her head sideways a moment for effect. There was a pause all down the long table.

'I'm sure dreams have significance,' she went on. 'There's more in dreaming than one thinks. They come as warnings or encouragement. All the saints had dreams. I always pay attention to mine.'

'Madame, I dream a great deal,' repeated Miss Waghorn, anxious not to be left out of a conversation in which she understood at least the key-word reve; 'a very great deal, I may say.'

Several looked up, ready to tell nightmares of their own at the least sign of encouragement. The Postmaster faced the table, laying down his knife and fork. He took a deep breath. This time he meant to have his say. But his deliberation always lost him openings.

I don't,' exclaimed Jinny, bluntly, five minutes behind the others. 'When I'm in bed, I sleep.' The statement brought laughter that confused her a little. She loved to define her position. She had defined it. And the Postmaster had lost his chance. Mlle. Sandoz, a governess who was invited to supper as payment for a music lesson given to his boy, seized the opening.

'Last night I dreamed that a bull chased me. Now what did that mean, I wonder?'

'That there was no danger since it was only a dream!' said the Postmaster sharply, vexed that he had not told his own.

But no one applauded, for it was the fashion to ignore his observations, unless they had to do with stamps and weights of letters, parcels, and the like. A clatter of voices rose, as others, taking courage, decided to tell experiences of their own; but it was the Postmaster's wife in the hall who won. She had her meals outside with the kitchen maid and her niece, who helped in the Post Office, and she always tried to take part in the conversation from a distance thus. She plunged into a wordy description of a lengthy dream that had to do with clouds, three ravens, and a mysterious face. All listened, most of them in mere politeness, for as cook she was a very important personage who could furnish special dishes on occasion--but her sister listened as to an oracle. She nodded her head and made approving gestures, and said, 'Aha, you see,' or 'Ah, voila!' as though that helped to prove the importance of the dream, if not its actual truth. And the sister came to the doorway so that no one could escape. She stood there in her apron, her face hot and flushed still from the kitchen.

At length it came to an end, and she looked round her, hoping for a little sympathetic admiration, or at least for expressions of wonder and interest. All waited for some one else to speak. Into the pause came her husband's voice, 'Je n'ai pas de sel.'

There was no resentment. It was an everyday experience. The spell was broken instantly. The cook retired to her table and told the dream all over again with emphatic additions to her young companions. The Postmaster got his salt and continued eating busily as though dreams were only fit for women and children to talk about. And the English group began whispering excitedly of their Magic Box and all it had contained. They were tired of dreams and dreaming.

Tante Jeanne made a brave effort to bring the conversation back to the key of sentiment and mystery she loved, but it was not a success.

'At any rate I'm certain one's mood on going to bed decides the kind of dream that comes,' she said into the air. 'The last thought before going to sleep is very important. It influences the adventures of the soul when it leaves the body every night.'

For this was a tenet of her faith, although she always forgot to act upon it. Only Miss Waghorn continued the train of ideas this started, with a coherence that surprised even herself. Somehow the jabber about dreams, though in a language that only enabled her to catch its general drift, had interested her uncommonly. She seemed on the verge of remembering something. She had listened with patience, a look of peace upon her anxious old face that was noticed even by Jane Anne. 'It smoothed her out,' was her verdict afterwards, given only to herself though. 'Everything is a sort of long unfinished dream to her, I suppose, at that age.'

While the famille anglaise renewed noisily their excitement of the Magic Box, and while the talk in the hall went on and on, re-hashing the details of the cook's marvellous experience, and assuming entirely new proportions, Miss Waghorn glanced about her seeking whom she might devour--and her eye caught Henry Rogers, listening as usual in silence.

'Ah,' she said to him, 'but I look forward to sleep. I might say I long for it.' She sighed very audibly. It was both a sigh for release and a faint remembrance that last night her sleep had been somehow deep and happy, strangely comforting.

'It is welcome sometimes, isn't it?' he answered, always polite and rather gentle with her.

'Sleep unravels, yes,' she said, vaguely as to context, yet with a querulous intensity. It was as if she caught at the enthusiasm of a connected thought somewhere. 'I might even say it unties,' she added, encouraged by his nod, 'unties knots--if you follow me.'

'It does, Miss Waghorn. Indeed, it does.' Was this a precursor of the Brother with the Beard, he wondered? 'Untied knots' would inevitably start her off. He made up his mind to listen to the tale with interest for the twentieth time if it came. But it didn't come.

'I am very old and lonely, and I need the best,' she went on happily, half saying it to herself.

Instantly he took her up--without surprise too. It was like a dream.

'Quite so. The rest, the common stuff----'

'Is good enough----' she chimed in quickly--

'For Fraulein, or for baby, or for mother,' he laughed.

'Or any other,' chuckled Miss Waghorn.

'Who needs a bit of sleep----'

'But yet can do without it----' she carried it on.

Then both together, after a second's pause--

'If they must----' and burst out laughing.

Goodness, how did she know the rhyme? Was it everywhere? Was thought running loose like wireless messages to be picked up by all who were in tune for acceptance?

'Well, I never!' he heard her exclaim, 'if that's not a nursery rhyme of my childhood that I've not heard for sixty years and more! I declare,' she added with innocent effrontery, 'I've not heard it since I was ten years old. And I was born in '37--the year----'

'Just fancy!' he tried to stop her.

'Queen Victoria came to the throne.'

'Strange,' he said more to himself than to any one else. She did not contradict him.

'You or me?' asked Monkey, who overheard.

'All of us,' he answered. 'We all think the same things. It's a dream, I believe; the whole thing is a dream.'

'It's a fact though,' said Miss Waghorn with decision, 'and now I must go and write my letters, and then finish a bit of lace I'm doing. You will excuse me?' She rose, made a little bow, and left the table.

Mother watched her go. 'What has come over the old lady?' she thought. 'She seems to be getting back her mind and memory too. How very odd!'

In the afternoon Henry Rogers had been into Neuchatel. It seemed he had some business there of a rather private nature. He was very mysterious about it, evading several offers to accompany him, and after supper he retired early to his own room in the carpenter's house. And, since he now was the principal attraction, a sort of magnet that drew the train of younger folk into his neighbourhood, the Pension emptied, and the English family, deprived of their leader, went over to the Den.

'Partir a l'anglaise,' laughed the Widow Jequier, as she saw them file away downstairs; and then she sighed. Some day, when the children were older and needed a different education, they would all go finally. Down these very stairs they would go into the street. She loved them for themselves, but, also, the English family was a permanent source of income to her, and the chief. They stayed on in the winter, when boarders were few and yet living expenses doubled. She sighed, and fluttered into her tiny room to take her finery off, finery that had once been worn in Scotland and had reached her by way of Cook and la petite vitesse in the Magic Box.

And presently she fluttered out again and summoned her sister. The Postmaster had gone to bed; the kitchen girl was washing up the last dishes; Miss Waghorn would hardly come down again. The salon was deserted.

'Come, Anita,' she cried, yet with a hush of excitement in her voice, 'we will have an evening of it. Bring the soucoupe with you, while I prepare the little table.' In her greasy kitchen apron Anita came. Zizi, her boy, came with her. Madame Jequier, with her flowing garment that was tea-gown, garden-dress, and dressing-gown all in one, looked really like a witch, her dark hair all askew and her eyes shining with mysterious anticipation. 'We'll ask the spirits for help and guidance,' she said to herself, lest the boy should overhear. For Zizi often helped them with their amateur planchette, only they told him it was electricity: le magnetisme, le fluide, was the term they generally made use of. Its vagueness covered all possible explanations with just the needed touch of confusion and suggestion in it.

They settled down in a corner of the room, where the ivy from the ceiling nearly touched their heads. The small round table was produced; the saucer, with an arrow pencilled on its edge, was carefully placed upon the big sheet of paper which bore the letters of the alphabet and the words oui and non in the corners. The light behind them was half veiled by ivy; the rest of the old room lay in comparative darkness; through the half-opened door a lamp shone upon the oil-cloth in the hall, showing the stains and the worn, streaked patches where the boards peeped through. The house was very still.

They began with a little prayer--to ceux qui ecoutent,--and then each of them placed a finger on the rim of the upturned saucer, waiting in silence. They were a study in darkness, those three pointing fingers.

'Zizi, tu as beaucoup de fluide ce soir, oui?' whispered the widow after a considerable interval.

'Oh, comme d'habitude,' he shrugged his shoulders. He loved these mysterious experiments, but he never claimed much fluide until the saucer moved, jealous of losing his reputation as a storehouse of this strange, human electricity.

Yet behind this solemn ritual, that opened with prayer and invariably concluded with hope renewed and courage strengthened, ran the tragic element that no degree of comedy could kill. In the hearts of the two old women, ever fighting their uphill battle with adversity, burned the essence of big faith, the faith that plays with mountains. Hidden behind the curtain, an indulgent onlooker might have smiled, but tears would have wet his eyes before the smile could have broadened into laughter. Tante Jeanne, indeed, had heard that the subconscious mind was held to account for the apparent intelligence that occasionally betrayed itself in the laboriously spelled replies; she even made use of the word from time to time to baffle Zizi's too importunate inquiries. But after le subconscient she always tacked on fluide, magnetisme, or electricite lest he should be frightened, or she should lose her way. And of course she held to her belief that spirits produced the phenomena. A subconscious mind was a cold and comfortless idea.

And, as usual, the saucer told them exactly what they had desired to know, suggested ways and means that hid already in the mind of one or other, yet in stammered sentences that included just enough surprise or turn of phrase to confirm their faith and save their self-respect. It was their form of prayer, and with whole hearts they prayed. Moreover, they acted on what was told them. Had they discovered that it was merely the content of their subconscious mind revealing thus its little hopes and fears, they would have lost their chief support in life. God and religion would have suffered a damaging eclipse. Big scaffolding in their lives would have collapsed.

Doubtless, Tante Jeanne did not knowingly push the saucer, neither did the weighty index finger of the concentrated cook deliberately exert muscular pressure. Nor, similarly, was Zizi aware that the weight of his entire hand helped to urge the dirty saucer across the slippery surface of the paper in whatever direction his elders thus indicated. But one and all knew 'subconsciously' the exact situation of consonants and vowels--that oui lay in the right-hand corner and non in the left. And neither Zizi nor his mother dared hint to their leader not to push, because she herself monopolised that phrase, saying repeatedly to them both, 'mais il ne faut pas pousser! Legerement avec les doigts, toujours tres legerement! Sans ca il n'y a pas de valeur, tu comprends!' Zizi inserted an occasional electrical question. It was discreetly ignored always.

They asked about the Bank payments, the mortgages, the future of their much-loved old house, and of themselves; and the answers, so vague concerning any detailed things to come, were very positive indeed about the Bank. They were to go and interview the Manager three days from now. They had already meant to go, only the date was undecided; the corroboration of the spirits was required to confirm it. This settled it. Three days from to-night!

'Tu vois!' whispered Tante Jeanne, glancing mysteriously across the table at her sister. 'Three days from now! That explains your dream about the three birds. Aha, tu vois!' She leaned back, supremely satisfied. And the sister gravely bowed her head, while Zizi looked up and listened intently, without comprehension. He felt a little alarm, perhaps, to-night.

For this night there was indeed something new in the worn old ritual. There was a strange, uncalculated element in it all, unexpected, and fearfully thrilling to all three. Zizi for the first time had his doubts about its being merely electricity.

'C'est d'une puissance extraordinaire,' was the widow's whispered, eager verdict.

'C'est que j'ai enormement de fluide ce soir,' declared Zizi, with pride and confidence, yet mystified. The other two exchanged frequent glances of surprise, of wonder, of keen expectancy and anticipation. There was certainly a new 'influence' at work to-night. They even felt a touch of faint dread. The widow, her ruling passion strong even before the altar, looked down anxiously once or twice at her disreputable attire. It was vivid as that--this acute sense of another presence that pervaded the room, not merely hung about the little table. She could be 'invisible' to the Pension by the magic of old- established habit, but she could not be so to the true Invisibles. And they saw her in this unbecoming costume. She forgot, too, the need of keeping Zizi in the dark. He must know some day. What did it matter when?

She tidied back her wandering hair with her free hand, and drew the faded garment more closely round her neck.

'Are you cold?' asked her sister with a hush in her voice; 'you feel the cold air--all of a sudden?'

'I do, maman,' Zizi answered. 'It's blowing like a wind across my hand. What is it?' He was shivering. He looked over his shoulder nervously.

There was a heavy step in the hall, and a figure darkened the doorway. All three gave a start.

'J'ai sommeil,' announced the deep voice of the Postmaster. This meant that the boy must come to bed. It was the sepulchral tone that made them jump perhaps. Zizi got up without a murmur; he was glad to go, really. He slept in the room with his parents. His father, an overcoat thrown over his night things, led him away without another word. And the two women resumed their seance. The saucer moved more easily and swiftly now that Zizi had gone. 'C'est done toi qui as le fluide,' each said to the other.

But in the excitement caused by this queer, new element in the proceedings, the familiar old routine was forgotten. Napoleon and Marie Antoinette were brushed aside to make room for this important personage who suddenly descended upon the saucer from an unknown star with the statement--it took half an hour to spell--'Je viens d'une etoile tres eloignee qui n'a pas encore de nom.'

'There is a starry light in the room. It was above your head just now,' whispered the widow, enormously excited. 'I saw it plainly.' She was trembling.

'That explains the clouds in my dream,' was the tense reply, as they both peered round them into the shadows with a touch of awe. 'Now, give all your attention. This has an importance, but, you know, an importance--' She could not get the degree of importance into any words. She looked it instead, leaving the sentence eloquently incomplete.

For, certainly, into the quaint ritual of these two honest, troubled old women there crept then a hint of something that was uncommon and uplifting. That it came through themselves is as sure as that it spelt out detailed phrases of encouragement and guidance with regard to their coming visit to the Bank. That they both were carried away by it into joy and the happiness of sincere relief of mind is equally a fact. That their receptive mood attuned them to overhear subconsciously messages of thought that flashed across the night from another mind in sympathy with their troubles--a mind hard at work that very moment in the carpenter's house--was not known to them; nor would it have brought the least explanatory comfort even if they had been told of it. They picked up these starry telegrams of unselfish thinking that flamed towards them through the midnight sky from an eager mind elsewhere busily making plans for their benefit. And, reaching them subconsciously, their deep subconsciousness urged the dirty saucer to the spelling of them, word by word and letter by letter. The flavour of their own interpretation, of course, crept in to mar, and sometimes to obliterate. The instruments were gravely imperfect. But the messages came through. And with them came the great feeling that the Christian calls answered prayer. They had such absolute faith. They had belief.

'Go to the Bank. Help awaits you there. And I shall go with you to direct and guide.' This was the gist of that message from 'une etoile tres eloignee.'

They copied it out in violet ink with a pen that scratched like the point of a pin. And when they stole upstairs to bed, long after midnight, there was great joy and certainty in their fighting old hearts. There was a perfume of flowers, of lilacs and wistaria in the air, as if the whole garden had slipped in by the back door and was unable to find its way out again. They dreamed of stars and starlight.

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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.