A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 28

    See, the busy Pleiades,
    Sisters to the Hyades,
    Seven by seven
    Across the heaven,
    Light desire
    With their fire,
    Working cunningly together in a soft and tireless band,

    Sweetly linking
    All our thinking
    In the Net of Sympathy that brings back Fairyland.
                             ''A Voice''.

The prophecy of the children that Bourcelles was a difficult place to get away from found its justification next morning, for Rogers slept so heavily that he nearly missed his train. It was six o'clock when he tumbled downstairs, too late for a real breakfast, and only just in time to get his luggage upon the little char that did duty for all transport in this unsophisticated village. The carpenter pulled it for him to the station.

'If I've forgotten anything, my cousin will send it after me,' he told Mme. Michaud, as he gulped down hot coffee on the steps.

'Or we can keep it for you,' was the answer. 'You'll be coming back soon.' She knew, like the others, that one always came back to Bourcelles. She shook hands with him as if he were going away for a night or two. 'Your room will always be ready,' she added. 'Ayez la bonte seulement de m'envoyer une petite ligne d'avance.'

'There's only fifteen minutes,' interrupted her husband, 'and it's uphill all the way.'

They trundled off along the dusty road, already hot in the early July sun. There was no breath of wind; swallows darted in the blue air; the perfume of the forests was everywhere; the mountains rose soft and clear into the cloudless sky. They passed the Citadelle, where the awning was already being lowered over the balcony for Mlle. Lemaire's bed to be wheeled out a little later. Rogers waved his handkerchief, and saw the answering flutter inside the window. Riquette, on her way in, watched him from the tiles. The orchards then hid the lower floors; he passed the tinkling fountain; to the left he saw the church and the old Pension, the wistaria blossoms falling down its walls in a cascade of beauty.

The Postmaster put his head out and waved his Trilby hat with a solemn smile. 'Le barometre est tres haut...' floated down the village street, instead of the sentence of good-bye. Even the Postmaster took it for granted that he was not leaving. Gygi, standing in the door of his barn, raised his peaked hat and smiled. 'Fait beau, ce matin,' he said, 'plus tard il fera rudement chaud.' He spoke as if Rogers were off for a walk or climb. It was the same everywhere. The entire village saw him go, yet behaved as if he was not really leaving. How fresh and sweet the morning air was, keen mountain fragrance in it, and all the delicious, delicate sharpness of wet moss and dewy fields.

As he passed the courtyard near the Guillaume Tell, and glanced up at the closed windows of Mother Plume's apartment, a pattering step startled him behind, and Jimbo came scurrying up. Rogers kissed him and lifted him bodily upon the top of his portmanteau, then helped the carpenter to drag it up the hill. 'The barriers at the level crossing are down, the warning gongs are ringing. It's signalled from Auvernier.' They were only just in time. The luggage was registered and the train panting up the steep incline, when Monkey, sleep still thick in her eyes, appeared rolling along the white road. She was too breathless to speak; she stood and stared like a stuffed creature in a Museum. Jimbo was beside the engine, having a word with the mecanicien.

'Send a telegram, you know--like that,' he shouted, as the carriage slid past him, 'and we'll bring the char.' He knew his leader would come back. He took his cap off politely, as a man does to a lady--the Bourcelles custom. He did not wave his handkerchief or make undignified signs. He stood there, watching his cousin to the last, and trying to see the working of the engine at the same time. He had already told him the times and stopping places, and where he had to change; there was nothing more for a man to say.

Monkey, her breath recovered now, shouted something impudent from the road. 'The train will break down with you in it before it gets to Pontarlier, and you'll be back for tea--worse luck!' He heard it faintly, above the grinding of the wheels. She blew him a kiss; her hair flew out in a cloud of brown the sunshine turned half golden. He almost saw the shining of her eyes. And then the belt of the forest hid her from view, hid Jimbo and the village too. The last thing he saw of Bourcelles was the top of the church spire and the red roof of the towering Citadelle. The crest of the sentinel poplar topped them both for a minute longer, waved a slight and stately farewell, then lowered itself into the forest and vanished in its turn.

And Rogers came back with a start and a bump to what is called real life.

He closed his eyes and leaned back in his corner, feeling he had suddenly left his childhood behind him for the second time, not gradually as it ought to happen, but all in one dreadful moment. A great ache lay in his heart. The perfect book of fairy-tales he had been reading was closed and finished. Weeks had passed in the delicious reading, but now the last page was turned; he came back to duty--duty in London--great, noisy, overwhelming London, with its disturbing bustle, its feverish activities, its complex, artificial, unsatisfying amusements, and its hosts of frantic people. He grew older in a moment; he was forty again now; an instant ago, just on the further side of those blue woods, he had been fifteen. Life shrank and dwindled in him to a little, ugly, unattractive thing. He was returning to a flat in the dolorous edifice of civilisation. A great practical Scheme, rising in sombre bricks and mortar through a disfiguring fog, blocked all the avenues of the future.

The picture seemed sordid somewhere, the contrast was so striking. In a great city was no softness; hard, sharp angles everywhere, or at best an artificial smoothness that veiled ugliness and squalor very thinly. Human relationship worked like parts of a machine, cramped into definite orbits, each wheel, each pulley, the smallest deviation deemed erratic. In Bourcelles, the mountain village, there was more latitude, room for expansion, space. The heart leaped up spontaneously like a spring released. In the city this spring was held down rigidly in place, pressed under as by a weight; and the weight, surely, was that one for ever felt compelled to think of self--self in a rather petty, shameful way--personal safety. In the streets, in the houses, in public buildings, shops, and railway stations, even where people met to eat and drink in order to keep alive, were Notice Boards of caution and warning against their fellow kind. Instead of the kindly and unnecessary, even ridiculous little Gygi, there were big, grave policemen by the score, a whole army of them; and everywhere grinned the Notice Boards, like automatic, dummy policemen, mocking joy with their insulting warnings. The heart was oppressed with this constant reminder that safety could only be secured by great care and trouble-- safety for the little personal self; protection from all kinds of robbery, depredation, and attack; beware of pickpockets, the proprietor is not responsible for overcoats and umbrellas even! And burglar alarms and doors of steel and iron everywhere--an organised defence from morning till night--against one's own kind.

He had lived among these terrible conditions all his life, proud of the personal security that civilisation provided, but he had never before viewed it from outside, as now he suddenly did. A spiritual being, a man, lives in a city as in a state of siege among his own kind. It was deplorable, it was incredible. In little Bourcelles, a mountain village most would describe pityingly as half civilised and out of the world, there was safety and joy and freedom as of the universe.... His heart contracted as he thus abruptly realised the distressing contrast. Although a city is a unit, all classes neatly linked together by laws and by-laws, by County Councils, Parliaments, and the like, the spirit of brotherhood was a mockery and a sham. There is organised charity, but there is not--Charity. In a London Square he could not ring the bell and ask for a glass of milk.... In Bourcelles he would walk into any house, since there were no bells, and sit down to an entire meal!

He laughed as the absurd comparison darted across his mind, for he recognised the foolish exaggeration in it; but behind the laughter flamed the astonishing truth. In Bourcelles, in a few weeks, he had found a bigger, richer life than all London had supplied to him in twenty years; he had found wings, inspiration, love, and happiness; he had found the universe. The truth of his cousin's story blazed upon him like an inner sun. In this new perspective he saw that it was a grander fairy-tale than he had guessed even when close to it. What was a Scheme for Disabled Thingumabobs compared to the endless, far- reaching schemes that life in Bourcelles suggested to him! There was the true centre of life; cities were accretions of disease upon the surface merely! He was leaving Fairyland behind him.

In sudden moments like this, with their synthetic bird's-eye view, the mind sometimes sees more clearly than in hours of careful reflection and analysis. And the first thing he saw now was Minks, his friendly, ridiculous little confidential secretary. From all the crowds of men and women he knew, respected, and enjoyed in London, as from the vast deluge of human mediocrity which for him was London, he picked out suddenly--little Minks--Herbert Montmorency Minks. His mind, that is, darting forward in swift, comprehensive survey, and searching automatically for some means whereby it might continue the happiness and sweetness recently enjoyed, selected Minks. Minks was a clue. Minks possessed--no matter how absurd the proportions of their mixing --three things just left behind: Vision, Belief, Simplicity, all products of a spiritual imagination.

And at first this was the single thought sent forward into the future. Rogers saw the fact, flash-like and true-then let it go, yielding to the greater pull that drew reflection back into the past.

And he found it rather dislocating, this abrupt stepping out of his delightful forest Fairyland.... Equilibrium was not recovered for a long time, as the train went thundering over the Jura Mountains into France, Only on the other side of Pontarlier, when the country grew unfamiliar and different, did harmony return. Among the deep blue forests he was still in Fairyland, but at Mouchard the scenery was already changing, and by the time Dole was reached it had completely changed. The train ran on among the plains and vineyards of the Burgundy country towards Laroche and Dijon. The abrupt alteration, however, was pain. His thoughts streamed all backwards now to counteract it. He roamed again among the star fields above the Bourcelles woods. It was true--he had not really left Bourcelles. His body was bumping into Dijon, but the important part of him--thought, emotion, love--lingered with the children, hovered above the Citadelle, floated through the dusky, scented forests.

And the haunting picture was ever set in its framework of old burning stars. He could not get the Pleiades in particular out of his mind. The pictures swarmed past him as upon a boy returning to school after the holidays, and each one had a background of sky with stars behind it; the faces that he knew so well had starry eyes; Jimbo flung handfuls of stars loose across the air, and Monkey caught them, fastening them like golden pins into her hair. Glancing down, he saw a long brown hair upon his sleeve. He picked it off and held his finger and thumb outside the window till the wind took it away. Some Morning Spider would ride it home--perhaps past his cousin's window while he copied out that wonderful, great tale. But, instead--how in the world could it happen in clear daylight?--a little hand shot down from above and gathered it in towards the Pleiades.

The Pleiades--the Seven Sisters--that most exquisite cluster of the eastern sky, soft, tender, lovely, clinging close together always like a group of timid children, who hide a little dimly for fear of being surprised by bolder stars upon their enormous journey--they now shone down upon all he thought and remembered. They seemed always above the horizon of his mind. They never set. In them lay souls of unborn children, children waiting to be born. He could not imagine why this particular constellation clung with such a haunting touch of beauty about his mind, or why some passion of yearning unconfessed and throbbing hid behind the musical name. Stars and unborn children had got strangely mixed!

He tried to recall the origin of the name--he had learned it once in the old Vicar's study. The Pleiades were attendants upon Artemis, the huntress moon, he recalled vaguely, and, being pursued by Orion, were set for safety among the stars. He even remembered the names of some of them; there was Maia, Tagete, Alcyone, but the other four lay in his mental lumber room, whence they could not be evoked, although Merope, he felt sure, was one of them. Of Maia, however, he felt positive.... How beautiful the names were!

Then, midway, in thinking about them, he found himself, as Monkey said, thinking of something else: of his weeks at Bourcelles again and what a long holiday it had been, and whether it was wasted time or well-used time-a kind of general stock-taking, as it were, but chiefly of how little he had accomplished after all, set down in black and white. He had enjoyed himself and let himself go, rather foolishly perhaps, but how much after all had he actually accomplished? He remembered pleasant conversations with Mother that possibly cheered and helped her--or possibly were forgotten as soon as ended. He remembered his cousin's passing words of gratitude--that he had helped him somehow with his great new story: and he remembered--this least of all-that his money had done something to relieve a case or two of suffering. And this was all! The net result so insignificant! He felt dissatisfied, eager already to make new plans, something definite and thorough that should retrieve the wasted opportunities. With a little thought and trouble, how easily he might have straightened out the tangle of his cousin's family, helped with the education of the growing children, set them all upon a more substantial footing generally. It was possible still, of course, but such things are done best on the spot, the personal touch and presence of value; arranged by correspondence it becomes another thing at once and loses spontaneity. The accent lies on the wrong details. Sympathy is watered by the post.... Importance lodges in angles not intended for it. Master of his time, with certain means at his disposal, a modicum of ability as well, he was free to work hard on the side of the angels wherever opportunity might offer; yet he had wasted all these weeks upon an unnecessary holiday, frittering the time away in enjoyment with the children. He felt ashamed and mortified as the meagre record stared him in the face.

Yet, curiously enough, when Reason had set down the figures accurately, as he fancied, and totted up the trifling totals, there flitted before him something more that refused to be set down upon the paper. The Ledger had no lines for it. What was it? Why was it pleasant, even flattering? Why did it mitigate his discontent and lessen the dissatisfied feeling? It passed hovering in and about his thoughts, though uncaught by actual words; and as his mind played with it, he felt more hopeful. He searched in vain for a definition, but, though fruitless, the search brought comfort somehow. Something had been accomplished and it was due to himself, because without his presence it would never have been done. This hint slipped into desire, yearning, hope--that, after all, a result had perhaps been achieved, a result he himself was not properly aware of--a result of that incalculable spiritual kind that escapes the chains of definite description. For he recalled--yet mortified a little the memory should flatter--that his cousin had netted Beauty in his story, and that Mother had spoken of living with greater carelessness and peace, and that each had thanked him as though he were the cause.

And these memories, half thought, half feeling, were comforting and delicious, so that he revelled in them lingeringly, and wished that they were really true. For, if true, they were immensely significant. Any one with a purse could build a hospital or pay an education fee, but to be helpful because of being oneself was a vast, incalculable power, something direct from God... and his thoughts, wandering on thus between fact and fantasy, led him back with a deep inexplicable thrill again to--the Pleiades, whose beauty, without their being aware of it, shines nightly for all who can accept it. Here was the old, old truth once more-that the left hand must not know what the right is doing, and that to be is of greater importance than to do. Here was Fairyland once more, the Fairyland he had just left. To think beauty and love is to become them, to shed them forth without realising it. A Fairy blesses because she is a Fairy, not because she turns a pumpkin into a coach and four.... The Pleiades do not realise how their loveliness may....

Rogers started. For the thought had borrowed a tune from the rhythm of the wheels and sleepers, and he had uttered the words aloud in his corner. Luckily he had the carriage to himself. He flushed. Again a tender and very exquisite thing had touched him somewhere.... It was in that involuntary connection his dreaming had found between a Fairy and the Pleiades. Wings of gauzy gold shone fluttering a moment before his inner sight, then vanished. He was aware of some one very dear and wild and tender, with amber eyes and little twinkling feet--some one whom the Great Tale brought almost within his reach.... He literally had seen stars for an instant--a star! Its beauty brimmed him up. He laughed in his corner. This thing, whatever it was, had been coming nearer for some time. These hints of sudden joy that breathe upon a sensitive nature, how mysterious, how wildly beautiful, how stimulating they are! But whence, in the name of all the stars, do they come? A great happiness passed flaming through his heart, an extraordinary sense of anticipation in it--as though he were going to meet some one who--who--well, what?--who was a necessity and a delight to him, the complement needed to make his life effective--some one he loved abundantly--who would love him abundantly in return. He recalled those foolish lines he had written on sudden impulse once, then thrown away....

Thought fluttered and went out. He could not seize the elusive cause of this delicious joy. It was connected with the Pleiades, but how, where, why? Above the horizon of his life a new star was swimming into glory. It was rising. The inexplicable emotion thrilled tumultuously, then dived back again whence it came... It had to do with children and with a woman, it seemed, for the next thing he knew was that he was thinking of children, children of his own, and of the deep yearning Bourcelles had stirred again in him to find their Mother... and, next, of his cousin's story and that wonderful detail in it that the principal role was filled at last, the role in the great Children's Play he himself had felt was vacant. It was to be filled by that childless Mother the writer's imagination had discovered or created. And again the Pleiades lit up his inner world and beckoned to him with their little fingers of spun gold; their eyes of clouded amber smiled into his own. It was most extraordinary and delightful. There was something--come much closer this time, almost within reach of discovery--something he ought to remember about them, something he had promised to remember, then stupidly forgotten. The lost, hidden joy was a torture. Yet, try as he would, no revelation came to clear the matter up. Had he read it somewhere perhaps? Or was it part of the Story his cousin had wumbled into his ear when he only partly listened?

'I believe I dreamed it,' he smiled to himself at last in despair. 'I do believe it was a dream--a fragment of some jolly dream I had in my Fairyland of little Bourcelles!'

Children, stars, Fairyland, dreams--these brought it somehow. His cousin's story also had to do with it, chiefly perhaps after all--this great story.

'I shall have to go back there to get hold of it completely,' he added with conviction. He almost felt as if some one were thinking hard about him--one of the characters in the story, it seemed. The mind of some one far away, as yet unknown, was searching for him in thought, sending forth strong definite yearnings which came to rest of their own accord in his own being, a garden naturally suited to their growth. The creations of his boyhood's imagination had survived, the Sweep, the Dustman, and the Lamplighter, then why not the far more powerful creations in the story...? Thought was never lost!

'But no man in his senses can believe such a thing!' he exclaimed, as the train ran booming through the tunnel.

'That's the point,' whispered a voice beside him. 'You are out of your senses. Otherwise you could not feel it!'

He turned sharply. The carriage was empty; there was no one there. It was, of course, another part of himself that supplied the answer; yet it startled him. The blurred reflection of the lamp, he noticed, cast a picture against the black tunnel wall that was like a constellation. The Pleiades again! It almost seemed as if the voice had issued from that false reflection in the shaking window-pane....

The train emerged from the tunnel. He rushed out into the blaze of the Interfering Sun. The lovely cluster vanished like a dream, and with it the hint of explanation melted down in dew. Fields sped past with a group of haystacks whose tarpaulin skirts spread and lifted in the gust of wind the train made. He thought abruptly of Mother.... Perhaps, after all, he had taught her something, shown her Existence as a big, streaming, endless thing in which months and years, possibly even life itself, were merely little sections, each unintelligible unless viewed as portions of the Whole, and not as separate, difficult, puzzling items set apart. Possibly he had drawn her map to bigger scale, increased her faith, given her more sense of repose and peace, more courage therefore. She thought formerly of a day, but not of its relation to all days before and behind. She stuck her husband's 'reviews' in the big book, afflicted by the poor financial results they represented, but was unable to think of his work as a stage in a long series of development and progress, no effort lost, no single hope mislaid. And that was something--if he had accomplished it. Only, he feared he had not. There was the trouble. There lay the secret of a certain ineffectiveness in his character. For he did not realise that fear is simply suppressed desire, vivid signs of life, and that desire is the ultimate causative agent everywhere and always. 'Behind Will stands Desire,' and Desire is Action.

And if he had accomplished this, how was it done? Not by preaching, certainly. Was it, then, simply by being, thinking, feeling it? A glorious thought, if true! For assuredly he had this faculty of seeing life whole, and even in boyhood he had looked ahead over its entire map. He had, indeed, this way of relating all its people, and all its parts together, instead of seeing them separate, unintelligible because the context was left out. He lived intensely in the present, yet looked backwards and forwards too at the same time. This large sympathy, this big comforting vision was his gift. Consequently he believed in Life. Had he also, then, the gift of making others feel and believe it too...?

There he was again, thinking in a circle, as Laroche flew past with its empty platforms, and warned him that Paris was getting close. He bumped out of Fairyland, yet tumbled back once more for a final reverie before the long ugly arms of the city snatched him finally out. 'To see life whole,' he reflected, 'is to see it glorious. To think one's self part of humanity at large is to bring the universe down into the heart. But to see life whole, a whole heart is necessary.... He's done it in that splendid story, and he bagged the raw idea somehow from me. That's something at any rate. ... So few think Beaaty.... But will others see it? That's the point!'

'No, it isn't,' answered the voice beside him. 'The point is that he has thought it, and the universe is richer. Even if others do not read or understand, what he has thought is there now, for ever and ever.'

'True,' he reflected, 'for that Beauty may float down and settle in other minds when they least are looking for it, and ignoring utterly whence comes the fairy touch. Divine! Delicious! Heavenly!'

'The Beauty he has written came through you, yet was not yours,' the voice continued very faintly. 'A far more beautiful mind first projected it into that network which binds all minds together. 'Twas thence you caught it flying, and, knowing not how to give it shape, transferred it to another--who could use it--for others.... Thought is Life, and Sympathy is living....'

The voice died away; he could not hear the remainder clearly; the passing scenery caught his attention again; during his reverie it had been unnoticed utterly. 'Thought is Life, but Sympathy is living---' it rolled and poured through him as he repeated it. Snatches of another sentence then came rising into him from an immense distance, falling upon him from immeasurable heights--barely audible:-

'... from a mind that so loved the Pleiades she made their loveliness and joy her own... Alcyone, Merope, Maia...' It dipped away into silence like a flower closing for the night, and the train, he realised, was slackening speed as it drew into the hideous Gare de Lyon.

'I'll talk to Minks about it, perhaps,' he thought, as he stood telling the Customs official that he had no brandy, cigarettes, or lace. 'He knows about things like that. At any rate, he'll sympathise.'

He went across Paris to the Gare du Nord, and caught the afternoon boat train to London. The sunshine glared up from the baking streets, but he never forgot that overhead, though invisible, the stars were shining all the time--Starlight, the most tender and least suspected light in all the world, shining bravely even when obscured by the Interfering Sun, and the Pleiades, softest, sweetest little group among them all.

And when at eleven o'clock he entered his St. James's flat, he took a store of it shining in his heart, and therefore in his eyes. Only that was no difficult matter, for all the lamps far up the heights were lit and gleaming, and caught old mighty London in their gorgeous net.

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