A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 27

 ''Asia''.                             ... I feel, I see
     Those eyes which burn through smiles that fade in tears,
     Like stars half quenched in mists of silver dew.
                          Prometheus Unbound, SHELLEY.

It was only ten o'clock, really, and the curfew was ringing from every village on the mountain-side. The sound of the bells, half musical, half ominous, was borne by the bise across the vineyards, for the easterly wind that brings fine weather was blowing over lake and forest, and seemed to drive before it thin sheets of moonlight that turned the whole world soft. The village lay cosily dreaming beneath the sky. Once the curfew died away there was only the rustling of the plane trees in the old courtyard. The great Citadelle loomed above the smaller houses, half in shadow half in silver, nodding heavily to the spire of the Church, and well within sight of the sentinelle poplar that guarded the village from the forest and the mountains. Far away, these mountains now lowered their enormous shoulders to let night flow down upon the sleeping world. The Scaffolding that brought it had long since sailed over France towards the sea....

Mother, still panting from the ritual of fastening the younger children into bed, had gone a moment down the passage to say good- night to Mlle. Lemaire, and when she returned, the three of them-- herself, her husband, and Cousin Henry--dropped into chairs beside the window and watched the silvery world in silence for a time. None felt inclined to speak. There was drama somehow in that interval of silence--that drama which lurks everywhere and always behind life's commonest, most ordinary moments. Actions reveal it--sometimes--but it mostly lies concealed, and especially in deep silences like this, when the ticking of a cuckoo clock upon the wall may be the sole hint of its presence.

It was not the good-byes that made all three realise it so near, though good-byes are always solemn and momentous things; it was something that stirred and rose upon them from a far deeper strata of emotion than that caused by apparent separation. For no pain lay in it, but a power much more difficult to express in the sounds and syllables of speech--Joy. A great joy, creative and of big significance, had known accomplishment. Each felt it, knew it, realised it. The moonlit night was aware of it. The entire universe knew it, too. The drama lay in that. There had been creation--of more light.... The world was richer than it had been. Some one had caught Beauty in a net, and to catch Beauty is to transform and recreate all common things. It is revelation.

Through the mind of each of these three flowed the stream of casual thinking--images, reflections, and the shadowy scaffoldings of many new emotions--sweeping along between the banks of speech and silence. And this stream, though in flood, did not overflow into words for a long time. With eyes turned inwards, each watched the current pass. Clear and deep, it quietly reflected--stars. Each watched the same stream, the same calm depths, the same delicate reflections. They were in harmony with themselves, and therefore with the universe....

Then, suddenly, one of the reflections--it was the Pleiades--rose to the surface to clasp its lovely original. It was the woman who netted the golden thought and drew it forth for all to see.

'Couldn't you read it to us, Daddy?' she whispered softly across the silence.

'If it's not too long for you.' He was so eager, so willing to comply.

'We will listen till the Morning Spiders take us home,' his cousin said.

'It's only the shorter version,' Daddy agreed shiningly, 'a sketch for the book which, of course, will take a year to write. I might read that, perhaps.'

'Do,' urged Mother. 'We are all in it, aren't we? It's our story as well as yours.'

He rose to get the portfolio from the shelf where he had laid it, and while Rogers lit the lamp, Riquette stole in at the window, picking her way daintily across the wet tiles. She stood a moment, silhouetted against the sky; then shaking her feet rapidly each in turn like bits of quivering wire, she stepped precisely into the room. 'I am in it too,' she plainly said, curling herself up on the chair Daddy had just vacated, but resigning herself placidly enough to his scanty lap when he came back again and began to read. Her deep purring, while he stroked her absent-mindedly, became an undercurrent in the sound of his voice, then presently ceased altogether....

On and on he read, while the moon sailed over La Citadelle, bidding the stars hush to listen too. She put her silvery soft hands across their eyes that they might hear the better. The blue wind of night gathered up the meaning and spread it everywhere. The forest caught the tale from the low laughter in the crest of the poplar, and passed it on to the leagues of forest that bore it in turn across the frontiers into France. Thence snowy Altels and the giant Blumlisalp flashed it south along the crowding peaks and down among the Italian chestnut woods, who next sent it coursing over the rustling waves of the Adriatic and mixed it everywhere with the Mediterranean foam. In the morning the shadows upon bare Grecian hills would whisper it among the ancient islands, and the East catch echoes of it in the winds of dawn. The forests of the North would open their great gloomy eyes with wonder, as though strange new wild-flowers had come among them in the night. All across the world, indeed, wherever there were gardened minds tender enough to grow fairy seed, these flakes of thought would settle down in sleep, and blossom in due season into a crop of magic beauty.

He read on and on.... The village listened too, the little shadowy street, the familiar pine woods, the troubled Pension, each, as its image was evoked in the story, knew its soul discovered, and stirred in its sleep towards the little room to hear. And the desolate ridges of La Tourne and Boudry, the clefts where the wild lily of the valley grew unknown, high nooks and corners where the buzzards nested, these also knew and answered to the trumpet summons of the Thought that made them live. A fire of creation ran pulsing from this centre. All were in the Pattern of the Story.

To the two human listeners it seemed as familiar as a tale read, in childhood long ago, and only half forgotten. They always knew a little of what was coming next. Yet it spread so much further than mere childhood memories, for its golden atmosphere included all countries and all times. It rose and sang and sparkled, lighting up strange deep recesses of their unconscious and half-realised life, and almost revealing the tiny silver links that joined them on to the universe at large. The golden ladders from the Milky Way were all let down. They climbed up silvery ropes into the Moon....

'It's not my own idea,' he said; 'I'm convinced of that. It's all flocked into me from some other mind that thought it long ago, but could not write it, perhaps. No thought is lost, you see--never can be lost. Like this, somehow, I feel it:--

    Now sinks to sleep the clamour of the day,
    And, million-footed, from the Milky Way,
    Falls shyly on my heart the world's lost Thought--
    Shower of primrose dust the stars have taught
    To haunt each sleeping mind,
    Till it may find

    A garden in some eager, passionate brain
    That, rich in loving-kindness as in pain,
    Shall harvest it, then scatter forth again
    It's garnered loveliness from heaven caught.

    Oh, every yearning thought that holds a tear,
    Yet finds no mission,
    And lies untold,

    Waits, guarded in that labyrinth of gold,--
    To reappear
    Upon some perfect night,
    Deathless--not old--
    But sweet with time and distance,
    And clothed as in a vision
    Of starry brilliance
    For the world's delight.'

In the pauses, from time to time, they heard the distant thunder of the Areuse as it churned and tumbled over the Val de Travers boulders. The Colombier bells, as the hours passed, strung the sentences together; moonlight wove in and out of every adventure as they listened; stars threaded little chapters each to each with their eternal golden fastenings. The words seemed written down in dew, but the dew crystallised into fairy patterns that instantly flew about the world upon their mission of deliverance. In this ancient Network of the Stars the universe lay fluttering; and they lay with it, all prisoners in Fairyland.

For the key of it all was sympathy, and the' delicate soul of it was tender human love. Bourcelles, in this magic tale, was the starting- point whence the Starlight Expresses flashed into all the world, even unto unvisited, forgotten corners that had known no service hitherto. It was so adaptable and searching, and knew such tiny, secret ways of entrance. The thought was so penetrating, true, and simple. Even old Mother Plume would wake to the recovery of some hitherto forgotten fragrance in her daily life... just as those Northern forests would wake to find new wild-flowers. For all fairytales issue first from the primeval forest, thence undergoing their protean transformation; and in similar fashion this story, so slight but so tremendous, issued from the forest of one man's underthinking--one deep, pure mind, wumbled badly as far as external things were concerned, yet realising that Bourcelles contained the Universe, and that he, in turn contained Bourcelles. Another, it is true, had shown it to him, though all unwittingly, and had cleaned in his atmosphere the channels for the entrance of the glorious pattern. But the result was the same. In his brain--perhaps by Chance, perhaps by God--lay the machinery which enabled him to give it out to others--the power and ability to transmit. It was a fairy-tale of the world, only the world had forgotten it. He brought back its fairyland again.

And this fairyland, what and where was it? And how could this tale of its recovery bring into his listeners' hearts such a sense of peace and joy that they felt suddenly secure in the world and safe mid all the confusion of their muddled lives? That there were tears in Mother's eyes seems beyond question, because the moonlight, reflected faintly from a wet cobble in the yard below, glistened like a tiny silver lantern there. They betrayed the fact that something in her had melted and flowed free. Yet there was no sadness in the fairy-tale to cause it; they were tears of joy.

Surely it was that this tale of Starlight, Starlight Expresses and Star Caves, told as simply as running water, revealed the entire Universe--as One, and that in this mighty, splendid thing each of them nested safe and comfortable. The world was really thinking, and all lay fluttering in the grand, magnificent old Net of Stars. What people think, they are. All can think Beauty. And sympathy--to feel with everything--was the clue; for sympathy is love, and to love a star was to love a neighbour. To be without sympathy was to feel apart, and to think apart was to cut oneself off from life, from the Whole, from God and joy--it was Death. To work at commonplace duties because they were duties to the Universe at large, this was the way to find courage, peace, and happiness, because this was genuine and successful work, no effort lost, and the most distant star aware of it. Thinking was living, whether material results were visible or not; yearning was action, even though no accomplishment was apparent; thought and sympathy, though felt but for a passing moment, sweetened the Pleiades and flashed along the Milky Way, and so-called tangible results that could prove it to the senses provided no adequate test of accomplishment or success. In the knowledge of belonging to this vast underlying unity was the liberation that brings courage, carelessness, and joy, and to admit failure in anything, by thinking it, was to weaken the entire structure which binds together the planets and the heart of a boy. Thoughts were the fairies that the world believed in when it was younger, simpler, less involved in separation; and the golden Fairyland recovered in this story was the Fairyland of lovely thinking....

In this little lamp-lit room of the Citadelle, the two listeners were conscious of this giant, delicate network that captured every flying thought and carried it streaming through the world. God became a simple thing: He fashioned Rogers's Scheme, even though it never materialised in bricks and mortar. God was behind Mother, even when she knitted or lit the fire in the Den. All were prisoners in His eternal Fairyland....

And the symbolism of the story, the so-called fantasy, they also easily understood, because they felt it true. To be 'out' of the body was merely to think and feel away from self. As they listened they realised themselves in touch with every nation and with every time, with all possible beliefs and disbeliefs, with every conceivable kind of thinking, that is, which ever has existed or ever shall exist....

The heat and radiance given out by the clear delivery of this 'inspirational' fairy-tale must have been very strong; far-reaching it certainly was....

'Ah!' sighed Rogers to himself, 'if only I could be like that!' not realising that he was so.

'Oh dear!' felt the Woman, 'that's what I've felt sometimes. I only wish it were true of me!' unaware that it could be, and even by the fact of her yearning, was so.

'If only I could get up and help the world!' passed like a flame across the heart of the sufferer who lay on her sleepless bed next door, listening to the sound of the droning voice that reached her through the wall, yet curiously ignorant that this very longing was already majestically effective in the world of definite action.

And even Mother Plume, pacing her airless room at the further end of the village and tapping her ebony stick upon the floor, turned suspiciously, as at a passing flash of light that warmed her for a sudden instant as it went.

'Perhaps, after all, they don't mean all these unkind things they do to me!' she thought; 'I live so much alone. Possibly I see things less clearly than I used to do!'

The spell was certainly very potent, though Daddy himself, reading out the little shining chapters, guessed as little as the rest of them how strong. So small a part of what he meant to say, it seemed, had been transferred to the paper. More than he realised, far, far more, lay between the lines, of course. There was conviction in it, because there was vision and belief. Not much was said when he put his roll of paper down and leaned back in his chair. Riquette opened her eyes and blinked narrowly, then closed them again and began to purr. The ticking of the cuckoo clock seemed suddenly very loud and noticeable.

'Thank you,' said Mother quietly in an uncertain kind of voice. 'The world seems very wonderful now--quite different.'

She moved in her chair--the first movement she had made for over two hours. Daddy rubbed his eyes, stroked his beard, and lit a cigarette; it went out almost immediately, but he puffed on at it just the same, till his cousin struck a match and stood over him to see it properly alight.

'You have caught Beauty naked in your net of stars,' he murmured; 'but you have left her as you found her--shining, silvery, unclothed. Others will see her, too. You have taken us all back into Fairyland, and I, for one, shall never get out again.'

'Nor I,' breathed some one in the shadows by the window....

The clock struck two. 'Odd,' said Mother, softly, 'but I never heard it strike once while you were reading!'

'We've all been out,' Rogers laughed significantly, 'just as you make them get out in the story'; and then, while Riquette yawned and turned a moment from the window-sill to say thank you for her long, warm sleep, Mother lit the spirit-lamp and brewed the cups of chocolate. She tiptoed in next door, and as she entered the sick-room she saw through the steam rising from the cup she carried a curious thing--an impression of brilliance about the bed, as though shafts of light issued from it. Rays pulsed and trembled in the air. There was a perfume of flowers. It seemed she stepped back into the atmosphere of the story for an instant.

'Ah, you're not asleep,' she whispered. 'We've brewed some chocolate, and I thought you might like a cup.'

'No, I'm not asleep,' answered the other woman from the bed she never would leave until she was carried from it, 'but I have been dreaming. It seemed the stars came down into my room and sang to me; this bed became a throne; and some power was in me by which I could send my thoughts out to help the world. I sent them out as a king sends messengers--to people everywhere--even to people I've never heard of. Isn't it wonderful?'

'You've had no pain?' For Mother knew that these sleepless hours at night brought usually intense suffering. She stared at her, noting how the eyes shone and glistened with unshed moisture.

'None,' was the answer, 'but only the greatest joy and peace I've ever known.' The little glass of calmant was untouched; it was not a drug that had soothed the exhausted nerves. In this room at any rate the spell was working still. 'I was carried through the air by stars, as though my ceaseless yearning to get up and work in the world for once was realised.'

'You can do everything from your bed,' her friend murmured, sitting down beside her. 'You do. Your thoughts go out so strongly. I've often felt them myself. Perhaps that's why God put you here in bed like this,' she added, surprised at the power in herself that made her say such things--'just to think and pray for the world.'

'I do pray sometimes for others,' the tortured woman answered modestly, 'but this time I was not conscious of praying at all. It all swept out of me of its own accord. The force in me seemed so free and inexhaustible that it overflowed. It was irresistible. I felt able to save the world.'

'You were out,' said Mother softly, 'out of yourself, I mean,' she corrected it. 'And your lovely thoughts go everywhere. You do save the world.'

There fell a long silence then between them.

'You've been reading aloud,' Mlle. Lemaire said presently. 'I heard the drone of the voice through the wall---'

'Daddy was reading his new story to us,' the other said. 'It didn't disturb you?'

'On the contrary. I think it was the voice somehow that brought the vision. I listened vaguely at first, trying to sleep; then, opening my eyes suddenly, the room, as I told you, was full of stars. Their rays caught hold of me and drew these forces out of my very heart. I yielded, giving and giving and giving ... such life flowed from me, and they carried it away in streams.... Oh, it was really like a divine sensation.' 'It was divine,' said Mother, but whether she meant the story or her friend's experience, she hardly knew herself.

'And the story--was it not about our little Bourcelles?' asked the other.

Mother held her hands up as though words failed her. She opened her arms wide. She was not quite sure of her voice.

'It was,' she said at length, 'but Bourcelles had grown into the universe. It's a fairy-tale, but it's like a great golden fire. It warmed my heart till my whole body seemed all heart, and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It makes you see that the whole world is one, and that the sun and moon and stars lie in so small and unimportant a thing as, say, Jimbo's mischief, or Monkey's impudence, or Jinny's backwardness and absurdity. All are in sympathy together, as in a network, and to feel sympathy with anything, even the most insignificant, connects you instantly with the Whole. Thought and sympathy are the Universe--they are life.'

While Mother paused for breath, her old friend smiled a curious, meaning smile, as though she heard a thing that she had always known.

'And all of us are in the story, and all the things we think are alive and active too, because we have created them. Our thoughts populate the world, flying everywhere to help or hinder others, you see.'

The sound of a door opening was heard. Mother got up to go. Shafts of light again seemed to follow her from the figure in the bed.

'Good-night,' she whispered with a full heart, while her thought ran suddenly--'You possess the secret of life and of creation, for suffering has taught it to you, and you have really known it always. But Daddy has put it into words for everybody.' She felt proud as a queen.

There were whispered good-nights then in the corridor, for Rogers and her husband were on their way home to bed.

'Your chocolate is getting cold,' said Daddy kindly.

'We thought you would probably stay in there. We're going over now. It's very late,' Rogers added. They said good-night again.

She closed and locked the great door of the Citadelle behind them, hearing their steps upon the cobbles in the yard, and for some time afterwards upon the road. But their going away seemed the same as coming nearer. She felt so close to everything that lived. Everything did live. Her heart included all that existed, that ever had existed, that ever could exist. Mother was alive all over. 'I have just been created,' she laughed, and went back into the Den to drink her cup of tepid chocolate.

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