A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 25

    And also there's a little star--
     So white, a virgin's it must be;--
     Perhaps the lamp my love in heaven
     Hangs out to light the way for me.
             ''Song'', THEOPHILE MARZIALS.

In this corner of Bourcelles the houses lie huddled together with an air of something shamefaced; they dare not look straight at the mountains or at the lake; they turn their eyes away even from the orchards at the back. They wear a mysterious and secret look, and their shoulders have a sly turn, as though they hid their heads in the daytime and stirred about their business only after dark.

They lie grouped about a cobbled courtyard that has no fountain in it. The fair white road goes quickly by outside, afraid to look in frankly; and the entrance to the yard is narrow. Nor does a single tree grow in it. If Bourcelles could have a slum, this would be it.

Why the old lady had left her cosy quarters in Les Glycines and settled down in this unpleasant corner of the village was a puzzle to everybody. With a shrug of the shoulders the problem was generally left unsolved. Madame Jequier discussed it volubly a year ago when the move took place, then dismissed it as one of those mysteries of old people no one can understand. To the son-in-law and the daughter, who got nearer the truth, it was a source of pain and sadness beyond their means of relief. Mrs. 'Plume'--it was a play in French upon her real name,--had been four years in the Pension, induced to come from a lonely existence in Ireland by her daughter and throw in her lot with the family, and at first had settled down comfortably enough. She was over seventy, and possessed 80 pounds a year--a dainty, witty, amusing Irish lady, with twinkling eyes and a pernicketty strong will, and a brogue she transferred deliciously into her broken French. She loved the children, yet did not win their love in return, because they stood in awe of her sarcastic criticisms. Life had gone hardly with her; she had lost her fortune and her children, all but this daughter, with whose marriage she was keenly disappointed. An aristocrat to the finger-tips, she could not accept the change of circumstances; distress had soured her; the transplanting hastened her decline; there was no sweetness left in her. She turned her heart steadily against the world.

The ostensible cause of this hiding herself away with her sorrow and disappointment was the presence of Miss Waghorn, with whom she disagreed, and even quarrelled, from morning till night. They formed a storm-centre that moved from salon to dining-room, and they squabbled acutely about everything--the weather, the heating, the opening or shutting of windows, the details of the food, the arrangement of the furniture, even the character of the cat. Miss Waghorn loved. The bickerings were incessant. They only had to meet for hot disagreement to break out. Mrs. Plume, already bent with age, would strike the floor with the ebony stick she always carried, and glare at the erect, defiant spinster--'That horrud, dirrty cat; its always in the room!' Then Miss Waghorn: 'It's a very nice cat, Madame'--she always called her Madame--'and when I was a young girl I was taught to be kind to animals.'--'The drawing-room is not the place for animals,' came the pricking answer. And then the scuffle began in earnest.

Miss Waghorn, owing to her want of memory, forgot the squabble five minutes afterwards, and even forgot that she knew her antagonist at all. She would ask to be introduced, or even come up sweetly and introduce herself within half an hour of the battle. But Madame Plume forgot nothing; her memory was keen and accurate. She did not believe in the other's failing. 'That common old woman!' she exclaimed with angry scorn to her daughter.

'It's deliberate offensiveness, that's all it is at all!' And she left the Pension.

But her attitude to the harmless old Quaker lady was really in small her attitude to humanity at large. She drew away in disgust from a world that had treated her so badly. Into herself she drew, growing smaller every day, more sour, more suspicious, and more averse to her own kind. Within the restricted orbit of her own bitter thoughts she revolved towards the vanishing point of life which is the total loss of sympathy. She felt with no one but herself. She belonged to that, alas, numerous type which, with large expectations unrealised, cannot accept disillusionment with the gentle laughter it deserves. She resented the universe. Sympathy was dead.

And she had chosen this unsavoury corner to dwell in because 'the poor' of the village lived there, and she wished to count herself among them. It emphasised the spite, the grudge, she felt against humanity. At first she came into dejeuner and souper, but afterwards her meals were sent over twice a day from the Pension. She discovered so many reasons for not making the little journey of a hundred yards. On Sunday the 'common people' were in the streets; on Saturday it was cleaning-day and the Pension smelt of turpentine; Monday was for letter-writing, and other days were too hot or too cold, too windy or too wet. In the end she accomplished her heart's desire. Madame Cornu, who kept the grocer's shop, and lived on the floor below with her husband, prepared the two principal meals and brought them up to her on a tray. She ate them alone. Her breakfast cup of tea she made herself, Mme. Cornu putting the jug of milk outside the door. She nursed her bitter grievance against life in utter solitude. Acidity ate its ugly pattern into her heart.

The children, as in duty bound, made dolorous pilgrimages to that upper floor from time to time, returning frightened, and Mother went regularly twice a week, coming home saddened and distressed. Her husband rarely went at all now, since the time when she told him to his face he came to taunt her. She spent her time, heaven only knows how, for she never left the building. According to Mother she was exceedingly busy doing nothing. She packed, unpacked, and then repacked all her few belongings. In summer she chased bees in her room with a wet towel; but with venom, not with humour. The Morning Post came daily from London. 'I read my paper, write a letter, and the morning's gone,' she told her daughter, by way of complaint that time was so scanty. Mme. Cornu often heard her walking up and down the floor, tapping her ebony stick and talking softly to herself. Yet she was as sane as any old body living in solitude with evil thinking well can be. She starved-because she neither gave nor asked.

As Mother thought of her, thus finding the way in instantly, the church clock sounded midnight. She entered a room that was black as coal and unsweetened as an airless cellar. The fair rays that had been pouring out of her returned with a little shock upon themselves-- repulsed. She felt herself reduced, and the sensation was so unpleasant at first that she almost gasped. It was like suffocation. She felt enclosed with Death. That her own radiance dimmed a moment was undeniable, but it was for a moment only, for, thinking instantly of her friend, she drew upon that woman's inexhaustible abundance, and found her own stores replenished.

Slowly, as a wintry sun pierces the mist in some damp hollow of the woods, her supply of starlight lit up little pathways all about her, and she saw the familiar figure standing by the window. The figure was also black; it stood like an ebony statue in an atmosphere that was thick with gloom, turgid, sinister, and wholly rayless. It was like a lantern in a London fog. A few dim lines of sombre grey issued heavily from it, but got no farther than its outer surface, then doubled back and plunged in again. They coiled and twisted into ugly knots. Her mother's atmosphere was opaque, and as dismal as a November fog. There was a speck of light in the room, however, and it came, the visitor then perceived, from a single candle that stood beside the bed. The old lady had been reading; she rarely slept before two o'clock in the morning.

And at first, so disheartening, so hopeless seemed the task, that Mother wavered in her mission; a choking, suffocating sensation blocked all her channels of delivery. The very flowers on the window- sill, she noted, drooped in a languishing decline; they had a lifeless air as of flowers that struggle for existence in deep shadow and have never known the kiss of sunshine. Through the inch of opened window stole a soft breath of the night air, but it turned black and sluggish the moment it came in. And just then, as Mother hovered there in hesitating doubt, the figure turned and moved across to the bed, supporting herself with the ebony cane she always used. Stiffly she sank upon her knees. The habit was as strong as putting her shoes outside the door at night to be cleaned,-those shoes that never knew the stain of roadway dust-and equally devoid of spiritual significance. Yet, for a moment, as the embittered mind gabbled through the string of words that long habit had crystallised into an empty formula, Mother noticed that the lines of grey grew slightly clearer; the coil and tangle ceased; they even made an effort to emerge and leave the muddy cloud that obscured their knotted, intricate disorder.

The formula Mother recognised; it had hardly changed, indeed, since she herself had learned it at those very knees when days were brighter; it began with wholesale and audacious requests for self, then towards the end passed into vague generalities for the welfare of others. And just here it was that the lines of grey turned brighter and tried to struggle out of the murky atmosphere. The sight was pathetic, yet deeply significant. Mother understood its meaning. There was hope. Behind the prayer for others still shone at least an echo of past meaning.

'I believe in you, old, broken, disappointed heart,' flashed through her own bright atmosphere, 'and, believing, I can help you!'

Her skill, however, was slight, owing to lack of practice and experience. She moved over to the bed, trying first to force her own darting rays into the opaque, dull cloud surrounding the other; then seeking a better way-for this had no results---she slipped somehow inside the mist, getting behind it, down at the very source. From here she forced her own light through, mixing her beams of coloured radiance with the thick grey lines themselves. She tried to feel and think as her mother felt and thought, moving beside her mind's initial working, changing the gloom into something brighter as she moved along. This was the proper way, she felt-to clean the source itself, rather than merely untie knots at the outer surface. It was a stifling business, but she persisted. Tiny channels cleared and opened. A little light shone through. She felt-with her mother, instead of arguing, as it were...

The old lady presently blew the candle out and composed herself to sleep. Mother laboured on....

'Oh dear,' she sighed, 'oh dear!' as she emerged from the gloom a moment to survey her patient and note results. To her amazement she saw that there was a change indeed, though a very curious one. The entire outer surface of the cloud seemed in commotion, with here and there a glimmering lustre as if a tiny lamp was at last alight within. She felt herself swell with happiness. Instantly, then, the grey lines shot out, fastening with wee loops and curves among her own. Some links evidently had been established. She had imparted something.

'She's dreaming! I do believe I've sown some dream of beauty in her!' she beamed to herself.

Some golden, unaccustomed sleep had fallen over the old lady. Stray shreds of darkness loosened from the general mass and floated off, yet did not melt entirely from sight. She was shedding some of her evil thoughts.

'The Sweep!' thought Mother, and turning, found him beside her in the room. Her husband, to her astonishment, was also there.

'But I didn't think of you!' she exclaimed.

'Not a definite thought,' he answered, 'but you needed me. I felt it. We're so close together now that we're practically one, you see.' He trailed his Pattern behind him, clothed now with all manner of rich new colouring, 'I've collected such heaps of new ideas,' he went on, 'and now I want her too. She's in the Story. I'll transfigure her as well.' He was bright as paint, and happy as a sand-boy. 'Well done, old Mother,' he added, 'you've done a lot already. See, she's dreaming small, soft, tender things of beauty that your efforts have let through.'

He glided across and poured from his own store of sympathy into that dry, atrophied soul upon the bed. 'It's a question how much she will be able to transmit, though,' he said doubtfully. 'The spiritual machinery is so stiff and out of gear from long disuse. In Miss Waghorn's case it's only physical--I've just been there--but this is spiritual blackness. We shall see to-morrow. Something will get through at any rate, and we must do this every night, you know.'

'Rather!' echoed Mother.

'Her actual self, you see, has dwindled so that one can hardly find it. It's smaller than a flea, and as hard and black.' They smiled a little sadly.

The Sweep, rushing out of the window with his heavy sack loaded to the brim, interrupted their low laughter. He was no talker, but a man of action. Busily all this time he had been gathering up the loose, stray fragments that floated off from the cloud, and stuffing them into the sack. He now flew, singing, into the night, and they barely caught the last words of his eternal song:--

     '... a tremendously busy Sweep,
      Tossing the blacks in the Rubbish Heap
      Over the edge of the world.'

'Come,' whispered Daddy. 'It's getting late. The interfering sun is on the way, and you've been hours here already. All the trains are back, and every one is waiting for us.' Yet it had seemed so short a time really.

Wrapped together in the beauty of his Pattern, they left the old lady peacefully asleep, and sped across the roofs towards the forest.

But neither of them noticed, it seemed, the lovely little shining figure that hovered far in the air above and watched them go. It followed them all the way, catching even at the skirts of the flying Pattern as they went. Was it the Spirit of some unknown Star they had attracted from beyond the Milky Way? Or was it, perhaps, a Thought from some fair, exquisite heart that had been wakened by the rushing of the Expresses, and had flashed in to take a place in the wonderful story Daddy wove?

It had little twinkling feet, and its eyes were of brown flame and amber.

'No, they did not notice the starry, fluttering figure. It overtook them none the less, and with a flying leap was into the Pattern of his story--in the very centre, too!--as quickly as lightning passes through the foliage of the tree it strikes. Only the lightning stayed. The figure remained caught. The entire Pattern shivered to its outer fringes, then began to glow and shine all over. As the high harmonic crowns the end of a long cadenza on a violin, fulfilling bars of difficult effort, this point of exquisite beauty flashed life into the Pattern of the story, consummating the labour of construction with the true, inevitable climax. There was something of fairy insolence, both cheeky and delicious, in the proprietary way it chose the principal place, yet the only place still unoccupied, and sang 'I'm here. I've come!' It calmly fashioned itself a nest, as it were, curled up and made itself at home. It was at home. The audacity was justified. The Pattern seemed at last complete. Beauty and Truth shone at its centre. And the tiny voice continued singing, though no one seemed to know exactly whence the sound proceeded:---

    'While the busy Pleiades,
    Sisters to the Hyades,
    Seven by seven,
    Across the heaven,
    Light desire
    With their fire,

    Flung from huge Orion's hand,
    Sweetly linking
    All our thinking
    In the Net of Sympathy that brings back Fairyland!'

No--neither Mother nor Daddy were aware of what had happened thus in the twinkling of an eye. Certainly neither guessed that another heart, far distant as the crow flies, had felt the stream of his vital, creative thinking, and had thus delicately responded and sent out a sympathetic message of belief. But neither did Adams and Leverrier, measuring the heavens, and calculating through years of labour the delicate interstellar forces, know that each had simultaneously caught Neptune in their net of stars--three thousand million miles away. Had they been 'out,' these two big, patient astronomers, they might have realised that they really worked in concert every night. But history does not relate that they slept well or ill; their biographies make no mention of what their 'Underneaths' were up to while their brains lay resting on the pillow; and private confession, if such exists, has never seen the light of print as yet. In that region, however, where Thinking runs and plays, thought dancing hand in hand with thought that is akin to it, the fact must surely have been known and recognised. They, too, travelled in the Starlight Express.

Mother and Daddy realised it just then as little as children are aware of the loving thoughts of the parent that hovers protectingly about them all day long. They merely acknowledged that a prodigious thrill of happiness pulsed through both of them at once, feeling proud as the group in the tree-tops praised their increased brightness and admired the marvellous shining of the completed Pattern they trailed above their heads. But more than that they did not grasp. Nor have they ever grasped it perhaps. That the result came through later is proved, however, by the published story, and by the strange, sweet beauty its readers felt all over the world. But this belongs to the private working of inspiration which can never be explained, not even by the artist it has set on fire. He, indeed, probably understands it least of all.

'Where are the trains, the Starlight Expresses?' asked Mother.

'Gone!' answered Jimbo. 'Gone to Australia where they're wanted. It's evening now down there.'

He pointed down, then up. 'Don't you see? We must hurry.' She looked across the lake where the monstrous wall of Alps was dimly visible. The sky was brightening behind them. Long strata of thin cloud glimmered with faintest pink. The stars were rapidly fading. 'What ages you've been!' he added.

'And where's Tante Anna?' she inquired quickly, looking for her brilliant friend.

'She's come and gone a dozen times while you've been skylarking somewhere else,' explained Monkey with her usual exaggeration. 'She's gone for good now. She sleeps so badly. She's always waking up, you know.' Mother understood. Only too well she knew that her friend snatched sleep in briefest intervals, incessantly disturbed by racking pain.

A stream of light flashed past her, dashing like a meteor towards the village and disappearing before she could see the figure.

'There goes Jinny,' cried some one, 'always working to the very last. The interfering sun'll catch her if she doesn't look out!'

There was movement and hurry everywhere. Already the world ran loose and soft in colour. Birds, just awake, were singing in the trees below. Several passed swiftly overhead, raking the sky with a whirring rush of wings. Everybody was asking questions, urging return, yet lingering as long as possible, each according to his courage. To be caught 'out' by the sun meant waking with a sudden start that made getting out of bed very difficult and might even cause a headache.

Rogers alone seemed unperturbed, unhurried, for he was absorbed in a discovery that made him tremble. Noting the sudden perfection of his cousin's Pattern, he had gone closer to examine it, and had--seen the starry figure. Instantly he forgot everything else in the world. It seemed to him that he had suddenly found all he had ever sought. He gazed into those gentle eyes of amber and felt that he gazed into the eyes of the Universe that had taken shape in front of him. Floating up as near as he could, he spoke--

'Where do you come from--from what star?' he asked softly in an ecstasy of wonder.

The tiny face looked straight at him and smiled.

'From the Pleiades, of course,--that little group of star-babies as yet unborn.'

'I've been looking for you for ever,' he answered.

'You've found me,' sang the tiny voice. 'This is our introduction. Now, don't forget. There was a lost Pleiad, you know. Try to remember me when you wake.'

'Then why are you here?' He meant in the Pattern.

The star-face rippled with laughter.

'It's yours--your Scheme. He's given it perfect shape for you, that's all. Don't you recognise it? But it's my Story as well. ...'

A ray with crimson in it shot out just then across the shoulder of the Blumlisalp, and, falling full upon the tiny face, it faded out; the Pattern faded with it; Daddy vanished too. On the little azure winds of dawn they flashed away. Jimbo, Monkey, and certain of the Sprites alone held on, but the tree-tops to which they clung were growing more and more slippery every minute. Mother, loth to return, balanced bravely on the waving spires of a larch. Her sleep that night had been so deep and splendid, she struggled to prolong it. She hated waking up too early.

'The Morning Spiders! Look out!' cried a Sprite, as a tiny spider on its thread of gossamer floated by. It was the Dustman's voice. Catching the Gypsy with one arm and the Tramp with the other, all three instantly disappeared.

'But where's my Haystack friend?' called Mother faintly, almost losing her balance in the attempt to turn round quickly.

'Oh, she's all right,' the Head Gardener answered from a little distance where he was burning something. 'She just "stays put" and flirts with every wind that comes near her. She loves the winds. They know her little ways.' He went on busily burning up dead leaves he had been collecting all night long--dead, useless thoughts he had found clogging a hundred hearts and stopping outlets.

'Look sharp!' cried a voice that fell from the sky above them.

    'Here come the Morning Spiders,
     On their gossamer outriders!'

This time it was the Lamplighter flashing to and fro as he put the stars out one by one. He was in a frantic hurry; he extinguished whole groups of them at once. The Pleiades were the last to fade.

Rogers heard him and came back into himself. For his ecstasy had carried him even beyond the region of the freest 'thinking.' He could give no account or explanation of it at all. Monkey, Jimbo, Mother, and he raced in a line together for home and safety. Above the fields they met the spiders everywhere, the spiders that bring the dawn and ride off into the Star Cave on lost rays and stray thoughts that careless minds have left scattered about the world.

And the children, as they raced and told their mother to 'please move a little more easily and slipperily,' sang together in chorus:--

    'We shall meet the Morning Spiders,
     The fairy-cotton riders,
     Each mounted on a star's rejected ray;
     With their tiny nets of feather

     They collect our thoughts together,
     And on strips of windy weather
     Bring the Day. ...'

'That's stolen from you or Daddy,' Mother began to say to Rogers--but was unable to complete the flash. The thought lay loose behind her in the air.

A spider instantly mounted it and rode it off.

Something brushed her cheek. Riquette stood rover her, fingering her face with a soft extended paw.

'But it surely can't be time yet to get up!' she murmured. 'I've only just fallen asleep, it seems.' She glanced at her watch upon the chair beside the bed, saw that it was only four o'clock, and then turned over, making a space for the cat behind her shoulder. A tremendous host of dreams caught at her sliding mind. She tried to follow them. They vanished. 'Oh dear!' she sighed, and promptly fell asleep again. But this time she slept lightly. No more adventures came. She did not dream. And later, when Riquette woke her a second time because it was half-past six, she remembered as little of having been 'out' as though such a thing had never taken place at all.

She lit the fire and put the porridge saucepan on the stove. It was a glorious July morning. She felt glad to be alive, and full of happy, singing thoughts. 'I wish I could always sleep like that!' she said. 'But what a pity one has to wake up in the end!'

And then, as she turned her mind toward the coming duties of the day, another thought came to her. It was a very ordinary, almost a daily thought, but there seemed more behind it than usual. Her whole heart was in it this time--

'As soon as the children are off to school I'll pop over to mother, and see if I can't cheer her up a bit and make her feel more happy. Oh dear!' she added, 'life is a bag of duties, whichever way one looks at it!' But she felt a great power in her that she could face them easily and turn each one into joy. She could take life more bigly, carelessly, more as a whole somehow. She was aware of some huge directing power in her 'underneath.' Moreover, the 'underneath' of a woman like Mother was not a trifle that could be easily ignored. That great Under Self, resting in the abysses of being, rose and led. The pettier Upper Self withdrew ashamed, passing over the reins of conduct into those mighty, shadowy hands.

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