A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 24

    All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
    Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
    Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
    When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.
    The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
    The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
    Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
    Enough that he heard it once: we shall hear it by and by.
                          ''Abt Vogler'', R. BROWNING.

Some hours later, as Rogers undressed for bed in his room beneath the roof, he realised abruptly that the time had come for him to leave. The weeks had flown; Minks and the Scheme required him; other matters needed attention too. What brought him to the sudden decision was the fact that he had done for the moment all he could find to do, beginning with the Pension mortgages and ending with little Edouard Tissot, the vigneron's boy who had curvature of the spine and could not afford proper treatment. It was a long list. He was far from satisfied with results, yet he had done his best, in spite of many clumsy mistakes. In the autumn he might return and have a further try. Finances were getting muddled, too, and he realised how small his capital actually was when the needs of others made claims upon it. Neighbours were as plentiful as insects.

He had made all manner of schemes for his cousin's family as well, yet seemed to have accomplished little. Their muddled life defied disentanglement, their difficulties were inextricable. With one son at a costly tutor, another girl in a Geneva school, the younger children just outgrowing the local education, the family's mode of living so scattered, meals in one place, rooms in several others,--it was all too unmethodical and dispersed to be covered by their small uncertain income. Concentration was badly needed. The endless talks and confabulations, which have not been reported here because their confusion was interminable and unreportable, landed every one in a mass of complicated jumbles. The solution lay beyond his power, as equally beyond the powers of the obfuscated parents. He would return to England, settle his own affairs, concoct some practical scheme with the aid of Minks, and return later to discuss its working out. The time had come for him to leave.

And, oddly enough, what made him see it were things the children had said that very evening when he kissed them all good-night. England had been mentioned.

'You're here for always now,' whispered Monkey, 'because you love me and can't get away. I've tied you with my hair, you know.'

'You'll have no sekrity in London,' said Jimbo. 'Who'll stick your stamps on?'

'The place will seem quite empty if you go,' Jane Anne contributed, not wishing to make her contribution too personal, lest she should appear immodest. 'You've made a memorandum of agreement.' This meant he had promised rashly once to stay for ever. The phrase lent an official tone besides.

He fell asleep, devising wonderful plans, as usual, for the entire world, not merely a tiny section of it. The saviour spirit was ever in his heart. It failed to realise itself because the mind was unequal to the strain of wise construction; but it was there, as the old vicar had divined. He had that indestructible pity to which no living thing is outcast.

But to-night he fell asleep so slowly, gradually, that he almost watched the dissolving of consciousness in himself. He hovered a long time about the strange, soft frontiers. He saw the barriers lower themselves into the great dim plains. Inch by inch the outer world became remote, obscure, lit dubiously by some forgotten sun, and inch by inch the profound recesses of nightly adventure coaxed him down. He realised that he swung in space between the two. The room and house were a speck in the universe above him, his brain the mere outlet of a tunnel up which he climbed every morning to put his horns out like a snail, and sniff the outer world. Here, in the depths, was the workroom where his life was fashioned. Here glowed the mighty, hidden furnaces that shaped his tools. Drifting, glimmering figures streamed up round him from the vast under-world of sleep, called unconscious. 'I am a spirit,' he heard, not said or thought, 'and no spirit can be unconscious for eight hours out of every twenty-four...!'

Slowly the sea of dreamless sleep, so-called, flowed in upon him, down, round, and over; it submerged the senses one by one, beginning with hearing and ending with sight. But, as each physical sense was closed, its spiritual counterpart--the power that exists apart from its limited organ-opened into clear, divine activity, free as life itself....

How ceaseless was this movement of Dreams, never still, always changing and on the dance, incessantly renewing itself in kaleidoscopic patterns. There was perpetual metamorphosis and rich transformation; many became one, one many; the universe was a single thing, charged with stimulating emotional shocks as each scrap of interpretation passed in and across the mind....

He was falling into deeper and deeper sleep, into that eternal region where he no longer thought, but knew... Immense processions of shifting imagery absorbed him into themselves, spontaneous, unfamiliar, self-multiplying, and as exquisitely baffling as God and all His angels....

The subsidence of the external world seemed suddenly complete.

So deeply was he sunk that he reached that common pool of fluid essence upon which all minds draw according to their needs and powers. Relations were established, wires everywhere connected. The central switchboard clicked all round him; brains linked with brains, asleep or not asleep. He was so deep within himself that, as the children and the Story phrased it, he was 'out.' The air grew light and radiant.

'Hooray! I'm out!' and he instantly thought of his cousin.

'So am I!' That wumbled author shot immediately into connection with him. 'And so is Mother--for the first time. Come on: we'll all go together.'

It was unnecessary to specify where, for that same second they found themselves in the room of Mlle. Lemaire. At this hour of the night it was usually dark, except for the glimmer of the low-turned lamp the sufferer never quite extinguished.

From dusk till dawn her windows in La Citadelle shone faintly for all to see who chanced to pass along the village street. 'There she lies, poor aching soul, as she has lain for twenty years, thinking good of some one, or maybe praying!' For the glimmer was visible from very far, and familiar as a lighthouse to wandering ships at sea. But, had they known her inner happiness, they would not have said 'poor soul!' They would have marvelled. In a Catholic canton, perhaps, they would have crossed themselves and prayed. Just now they certainly would have known a singular, exalted joy. Caught in fairyland, they would have wondered and felt happy.

For the room was crowded to the doors. Walls, windows, ceiling, had melted into transparency to let in the light of stars; and, caught like gold-fish in the great network of the rays, shone familiar outlines everywhere--Jimbo, Monkey, Jinny, the Sweep, the Tramp, the Gypsy, the Laugher up against the cupboard, the Gardener by the window where the flower-pots stood, the Woman of the Haystack in the corridor, too extensive to slip across the threshold, and, in the middle of the room, motionless with pleasure-Mother!

'Like gorgeous southern butterflies in a net, I do declare!' gasped Daddy, as he swept in silently with his companion, their colours mingling harmoniously at once with the rest.

And Mother turned.

'You're out, old girl, at last!' he cried.

'God bless my soul, I am!' she answered. Their sentences came both together, and their blues and yellows swam into each other and made a lovely green. 'It's what I've been trying to do all these years without knowing it. What a glory! I understand now--understand myself and you. I see life clearly as a whole. Hooray, hooray!' She glided nearer to him, her face was beaming.

'Mother's going to explode,' said Monkey in a whisper. But, of course, everybody 'heard' it; for the faintest whisper of thought sent a ripple through that sea of delicate colour. The Laugher bent behind the cupboard to hide her face, and the Gardener by the window stooped to examine his flower-pots. The Woman of the Haystack drew back a little into the corridor again, preparatory to another effort to squeeze through. But Mother, regardless of them all, swam on towards her husband, wrapped in joy and light as in a garment. Hitherto, in her body, the nearest she had come to coruscating was once when she had taken a course of sulphur baths. This was a very different matter. She fairly glittered.

'We'll never go apart again,' Daddy was telling her. 'This inner sympathy will last, you know. He did it. It's him we have to thank,' and he pointed at his cousin. 'It's starlight, of course, he has brought down into us.'

But Rogers missed the compliment, being busy in a corner with Monkey and Jimbo, playing at mixing colours with startling results. Mother swam across to her old friend, Mile. Lemaire. For a quarter of a century these two had understood one another, though never consciously been 'out' together. She moved like a frigate still, gliding and stately, but a frigate that has snapped its hawsers and meant to sail the skies.

'Our poor, stupid, sleeping old bodies,' she smiled.

But the radiant form of the other turned to her motionless cage upon the bed behind her. 'Don't despise them,' she replied, looking down upon the worn-out prison-house, while a little dazzle of brilliance flashed through her atmosphere. 'They are our means of spreading this starlight about the world and giving it to others. Our brains transmit it cunningly; it flashes from our eyes, and the touch of our fingers passes it on. We gather it here, when we are "out," but we can communicate it best to others when we are "in."'

There was sound of confusion and uproar in the room behind as some one came tumbling in with a rush, scattering the figures in all directions as when a gust of wind descends upon a bed of flowers.

'In at last!' cried a muffled voice that sounded as though a tarpaulin smothered it, and the Woman of the Haystack swept into the room with a kind of clumsy majesty. The Tramp and Gypsy, whose efforts had at length dislodged her awkward bulk, came rolling after. They had been pushing steadily from behind all this time, though no one had noticed them slip out.

'We can do more than the smaller folk,' she said proudly, sailing up to Mother. 'We can't be overlooked, for one thing'; and arm-in-arm, like a pair of frigates then, they sailed about the room, magnificent as whales that swim in a phosphorescent sea. The Laugher straightened up to watch them, the Gardener turned his head, and Rogers and the children paused a moment in their artificial mixing, to stare with wonder.

'I'm in!' said the Woman.

'I'm out!' said Mother.

And the children felt a trifle envious. Instantly their brilliance dimmed a little. The entire room was aware of it.

'Think always of the world in gold and silver,' shot from Mile. Lemaire. The dimness passed as she said it.

'It was my doing,' laughed Monkey, turning round to acknowledge her wickedness lest some one else should do it for her and thus increase her shame.

'Sweep! Sweep!' cried Rogers.

But this thought-created sprite was there before the message flashed. With his sack wide open, he stood by Monkey, full of importance. A moment he examined her. Then, his long black fingers darting like a shuttle, he discovered the false colouring that envy had caused, picked it neatly out--a thread of dirty grey--and, winding it into a tiny ball, tossed it with contempt into his sack.

    'Over the edge of the world you go,
     With the mud and the leaves and the dirty snow!'

he sang, skipping off towards the door. The child's star-body glowed and shone again, pulsing all over with a shimmering, dancing light that was like moonshine upon running water.

'Isn't it time to start now?' inquired Jinny; and as she said it all turned instinctively towards the corner of the room where they were assembled. They gathered round Mlle. Lemaire. It was quite clear who was leader now. The crystal brilliance of her whiteness shone like a little oval sun. So sparkling was her atmosphere, that its purity scarcely knew a hint of colour even. Her stream of thought seemed undiluted, emitting rays in all directions till it resembled a wheel of sheer white fire. The others fluttered round her as lustrous moths about an electric light.

'Start where?' asked Mother, new to this great adventure.

Her old friend looked at her, so that she caught a darting ray full in the face, and instantly understood.

'First to the Cave to load up,' flashed the answer; 'and then over the sleeping world to mix the light with everybody's dreams. Then back again before the morning spiders are abroad with the interfering sun.'

She floated out into the corridor, and all the others fell into line as she went. The draught of her going drew Mother into place immediately behind her. Daddy followed close, their respective colours making it inevitable, and Jinny swept in after him, bright and eager as a little angel. She tripped on the edge of something he held tightly in one hand, a woven maze of tiny glittering lines, exquisitely inter-threaded--a skeleton of beauty, waiting to be filled in and clothed, yet already alive with spontaneous fire of its own. It was the Pattern of his story he had been busy with in the corner.

'I won't step on it, Daddy,' she said gravely.

'It doesn't matter if you do. You're in it,' he answered, yet lifted it higher so that it flew behind him like a banner in the night.

The procession was formed now. Rogers and the younger children came after their sister at a little distance, and then, flitting to and fro in darker shades, like a fringe of rich embroidery that framed the moving picture, came the figures of the sprites, born by Imagination out of Love in an old Kentish garden years and years ago. They rose from the tangle of the ancient building. Climbing the shoulder of a big, blue wind, they were off and away!

It was a jolly night, a windy night, a night without clouds, when all the lanes of the sky were smooth and swept, and the interstellar spaces seemed close down upon the earth.

    'Kind thoughts, like fine weather,
     Link sweetly together God's stars
     With the heart of a boy,'

sang Rogers, following swiftly with Jimbo and his sister. For all moved along as easily as light across the surfaces of polished glass. And the sound of Rogers's voice seemed to bring singing from every side, as the gay procession swept onwards. Every one contributed lines of their own, it seemed, though there was a tiny little distant voice, soft and silvery, that intruded from time to time and made all wonder where it came from. No one could see the singer. At first very far away, it came nearer and nearer.

 DADDY.             'The Interfering Sun has set!
 GARDENER.           Now Sirius flings down the Net!
 LAMPLIGHTER.           See, the meshes flash and quiver,
                       As the golden, silent river

 SWEEP.              Clears the dark world's troubled dream.
 DUSTMAN.              Takes it sleeping,
                      Gilds its weeping
                    With a star's mysterious beam.
 Tiny, distant Voice.  Oh, think Beauty!
                      It's your duty!
                    In the Cave you work for others,
                    All the stars are little brothers;

 ROGERS.               Think their splendour,

                      Strong and tender;
 DADDY.                Think their glory
                      In the Story
 MOTHER.             Of each day your nights redeem?
 Voice (nearer).     Every loving, gentle thought
                        Of this fairy brilliance wrought,
 JANE ANNE.           Every wish that you surrender,
 MONKEY.              Every little impulse tender,
 JIMBO.               Every service that you render
 TANTE ANNA.         Brings its tributary stream!
 TRAMP AND GYFSY.     In the fretwork
                            Of the network
                        Hearts lie patterned and a-gleam!

 WOMAN OF THE         Think with passion
      HAYSTACK.      That shall fashion
                        Life's entire design well-planned;
 Voice (still nearer). While the busy Pleiades,
 ROGERS.               Sisters to the Hyades,
 Voice (quite close).  Seven by seven,
                             Across the heaven,
 ROGERS.               Light desire
                             With their fire!
 Voice (in his ear). Working cunningly together in a soft and
                                tireless band,
                             Sweetly linking
                             All our thinking,
                       In the Net of Sympathy that brings back

Mother kept close to her husband; she felt a little bewildered, and uncertain in her movements; it was her first conscious experience of being out. She wanted to go in every direction at once; for she knew everybody in the village, knew all their troubles and perplexities, and felt the call from every house.

'Steady,' he told her; 'one thing at a time, you know.' Her thoughts, he saw, had turned across the sea to Ireland where her strongest ties were. Ireland seemed close, and quite as accessible as the village. Her friend of the Haystack, on the other hand, seemed a long way off by comparison.

'That's because Henry never realised her personality very clearly,' said Daddy, seeing by her colour that she needed explanation. 'When creating all these Garden Sprites, he didn't think her sharply, vividly enough to make her effective. He just felt that a haystack suggested the elderly spread of a bulky and untidy old woman whose frame had settled beneath too many clothes, till she had collapsed into a field and stuck there. But he left her where he found her. He assigned no duties to her. She's only half alive. As a rule, she merely sits--just "stays put"--until some one moves her.'

Mother turned and saw her far in the rear, settling down comfortably upon a flat roof near the church. She rather envied her amiable disposition. It seemed so safe. Every one else was alive with such dangerous activity.

'Are we going much further--?' she began, when Monkey rushed by, caught up the sentence, and discharged herself with impudence into Daddy.

'Which is right, "further" or "farther"?' she asked with a flash of light.

'Further, of course,' said unsuspecting Mother.

'But "further" sounds "farther," she cried, with a burst of laughter that died away with her passage of meteoric brilliance--into the body of the woods beyond.

'But the other Sprites, you see, are real and active,' continued Daddy, ignoring the interruption as though accustomed to it, because he thought out clearly every detail. 'They're alive enough to haunt a house or garden till sensitive people become aware of them and declare they've seen a ghost.'

'And we?' she asked. 'Who thought us out so wonderfully?'

'That's more than I can tell,' he answered after a little pause. 'God knows that, for He thought out the entire universe to which we belong. I only know that we're real, and all part of the same huge, single thing.' He shone with increased brightness as he said it. 'There's no question about our personalities and duties and the rest. Don't you feel it too?'

He looked at her as he spoke. Her outline had grown more definite. As she began to understand, and her bewilderment lessened, he noted that her flashing lines burned more steadily, falling into a more regular, harmonious pattern. They combined, moreover, with his own, and with the starlight too, in some exquisite fashion he could not describe. She put a hand out, catching at the flying banner of his Story that he trailed behind him in the air. They formed a single design, all three. His happiness became enormous.

'I feel joined on to everything,' she replied, half singing it in her joy. 'I feel tucked into the universe everywhere, and into you, dear. These rays of starlight have sewn us together.' She began to tremble, but it was the trembling of pure joy and not of alarm....

'Yes,' he said, 'I'm learning it too. The moment thought gets away from self it lets in starlight and makes room for happiness. To think with sympathy of others is to grow: you take in their experience and add it to your own--development; the heart gets soft and deep and wide till you feel the entire universe buttoning its jacket round you. To think of self means friction and hence reduction.'

'And your Story,' she added, glancing up proudly at the banner that they trailed. 'I have helped a little, haven't I?'

'It's nearly finished,' he flashed back; 'you've been its inspiration and its climax. All these years, when we thought ourselves apart, you've been helping really underground--that's true collaboration.'

'Our little separation was but a reculer pour mieux sauter. See how we've rushed together again!'

A strange soft singing, like the wind in firs, or like shallow water flowing over pebbles, interrupted them. The sweetness of it turned the night alive.

'Come on, old Mother. Our Leader is calling to us. We must work.'

They slid from the blue wind into a current of paler air that happened to slip swiftly past them, and went towards the forest where Mlle. Lemaire waited for them. Mother waved her hand to her friend, settled comfortably upon the flat roof in the village in their rear. 'We'll come back to lean upon you when we're tired,' she signalled. But she felt no envy now. In future she would certainly never 'stay put.' Work beckoned to her--and such endless, glorious work: the whole Universe.

'What life! What a rush of splendour!' she exclaimed as they reached the great woods and heard them shouting below in the winds. 'I see now why the forest always comforted me. There's strength here I can take back into my body with me when I go.'

'The trees, yes, express visibly only a portion of their life,' he told her. 'There is an overflow we can appropriate.'

Yet their conversation was never audibly uttered. It flashed instantaneously from one to the other. All they had exchanged since leaving La Citadelle had taken place at once, it seemed. They were awake in the region of naked thought and feeling. The dictum of the materialists that thought and feeling cannot exist apart from matter did not trouble them. Matter, they saw, was everywhere, though too tenuous for any measuring instrument man's brain had yet invented.

'Come on!' he repeated; 'the Starlight Express is waiting. It will take you anywhere you please--Ireland if you like!'

They found the others waiting on the smooth layer of soft purple air that spread just below the level of the tree-tops. The crests themselves tossed wildly in the wind, but at a depth of a few feet there was peace and stillness, and upon this platform the band was grouped. 'The stars are caught in the branches to-night,' a sensitive walker on the ground might have exclaimed. The spires rose about them like little garden trees of a few years' growth, and between them ran lanes and intricate, winding thoroughfares Mother saw long, dark things like thick bodies of snakes converging down these passage-ways, filling them, all running towards the centre where the group had established itself. There were lines of dotted lights along them. They did not move with the waving of the tree-tops. They looked uncommonly familiar.

'The trains,' Jimbo was crying. He darted to and fro, superintending the embarking of the passengers.

All the sidings of the sky were full of Starlight Expresses.

The loading-up was so quickly accomplished that Mother hardly realised what was happening. Everybody carried sacks overflowing with dripping gold and bursting at the seams. As each train filled, it shot away across the starry heavens; for everyone had been to the Cave and gathered their material even before she reached the scene of action. And with every train went a mecanicien and a conducteur created by Jimbo's vivid and believing thought; a Sweep, a Lamplighter, and a Head Gardener went, too, for the children's thinking multiplied these, too, according to their needs. They realised the meaning of these Sprites so clearly now--their duties, appearance, laws of behaviour, and the rest-that their awakened imaginations thought them instantly into existence, as many as were necessary. Train after train, each with its full complement of passengers, flashed forth across that summer sky, till the people in the Observatories must have thought they had miscalculated strangely and the Earth was passing amid the showering Leonids before her appointed time.

'Where would you like to go first?' Mother heard her friend ask softly. 'It's not possible to follow all the trains at once, you know.'

'So I see,' she gasped. 'I'll just sit still a moment, and think.'

The size and freedom of existence, as she now saw it, suddenly overwhelmed her. Accustomed too long to narrow channels, she found space without railings and notice-boards bewildering. She had never dreamed before that thinking can open the gates to heaven and bring the Milky Way down into the heart. She had merely knitted stockings. She had been practical. At last the key to her husband's being was in her hand. That key at the same time opened a door through him, into her own. Hitherto she had merely criticised. Oh dear! Criticism, when she might have created!

She turned to seek him. But only her old friend was there, floating beside her in a brilliant mist of gold and white that turned the tree- tops into rows of Burning Bushes.

'Where is he?' she asked quickly.

'Hush!' was the instant reply; 'don't disturb him. Don't think, or you'll bring him back. He's filling his sack in the Star Cave. Men have to gather it,--the little store they possess is soon crystallised into hardness by Reason,--but women have enough in themselves usually to last a lifetime. They are born with it.'

'Mine crystallised long ago, I fear.'

'Care and anxiety did that. You neglected it a little. But your husband's cousin has cleaned the channels out. He does it unconsciously, but he does it. He has belief and vision like a child, and therefore turns instinctively to children because they keep it alive in him, though he hardly knows why he seeks them. The world, too, is a great big child that is crying for its Fairyland....'

'But the practical--' objected Mother, true to her type of mind-an echo rather than an effort.

'--is important, yes, only it has been exaggerated out of all sane proportion in most people's lives. So little is needed, though that little of fine quality, and ever fed by starlight. Obeyed exclusively, it destroys life. It bricks you up alive. But now tell me,' she added, 'where would you like to go first? Whom will you help? There is time enough to cover .the world if you want to, before the interfering sun gets up.'

'You!' cried Mother, impulsively, then realised instantly that her friend was already developed far beyond any help that she could give. It was the light streaming from the older, suffering woman that was stimulating her own sympathies so vehemently. For years the process had gone on. It was at last effective.

'There are others, perhaps, who need it more than I,' flashed forth a lovely ray.

'But I would repay,' Mother cried eagerly, 'I would repay.' Gratitude for life rushed through her, and her friend must share it.

'Pass it on to others,' was the shining answer. 'That's the best repayment after all.' The stars themselves turned brighter as the thought flashed from her.

Then Ireland vanished utterly, for it had been mixed, Mother now perceived, with personal longings that were at bottom selfish. There were indeed many there, in the scenes of her home and childhood, whose lives she might ease and glorify by letting in the starlight while they slept; but her motive, she discerned, was not wholly pure. There was a trace in it, almost a little stain, of personal gratification-- she could not analyse it quite--that dimmed the picture in her thought. The brilliance of her companion made it stand out clearly. Nearer home was a less heroic object, a more difficult case, some one less likely to reward her efforts with results. And she turned instead to this.

'You're right,' smiled the other, following her thought; 'and you couldn't begin with a better bit of work than that. Your old mother has cut herself off so long from giving sympathy to her kind that now she cannot accept it from others without feeling suspicion and distrust. Ease and soften her outlook if you can. Pour through her gloom the sympathy of stars. And remember,' she added, as Mother rose softly out of the trees and hovered a moment overhead, 'that if you need the Sweep or the Lamplighter, or the Gardener to burn away her dead leaves, you have only to summon them. Think hard, and they'll be instantly beside you.'

Upon an eddy of glowing wind Mother drifted across the fields to the corner of the village where her mother occupied a large single room in solitude upon the top floor, a solitude self-imposed and rigorously enforced.

'Use the finest quality,' she heard her friend thinking far behind her, 'for you have plenty of it. The Dustman gave it to you when you were not looking, gathered from the entire Zodiac... and from the careless meteor's track....'

The words died off into the forest.

     ''That'' he keeps only
     For the old and lonely,
     (And is very strict about it)
     Who sleep so little that they need the best--'

The words came floating behind her. She felt herself brimful--charged with loving sympathy of the sweetest and most understanding quality. She looked down a moment upon her mother's roof. Then she descended.

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