A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter 31

    Es stehen unbeweglich
    Die Sterne in der Hoh'
    Viel tausend Jahr', und schauen
    Sich an mit Liebesweh.

    Sie sprechen eine Sprache,
    Die ist so reich, so schon;
    Doch keiner der Philologen
    Kann diese Sprache verstehen.

    Ich aber hab' sie gelernet,
    Und ich vergesse sie nicht;
    Mir diente als Grammatik
    Der Herzallerliebsten Gesicht.

One evening in particular the sense of expectation in him felt very close upon delivery. All day he had been aware of it, and a letter received that morning from his cousin seemed the cause. The story, in its shorter version, had been accepted. Its reality, therefore, had already spread; one other mind, at least, had judged it with understanding. Two months from now, when it appeared in print, hundreds more would read it. Its beauty would run loose in many hearts. And Rogers went about his work that day as though the pleasure was his own. The world felt very sweet. He saw the good in every one with whom he came in contact. And the inner excitement due to something going to happen was continuous and cumulative.

Yet London just then--it was August--was dull and empty, dusty, and badly frayed at the edges. It needed a great cleaning; he would have liked to pour sea water over all its streets and houses, bathed its panting parks in the crystal fountains of Bourcelles. All day long his thoughts, indeed, left London for holidays in little Bourcelles. He was profoundly conscious that the Anticipation he first recognised in that forest village was close upon accomplishment now. On the journey back to England he recalled how urgent it had been. In London, ever since, it had never really left him. But to-day it now suddenly became more than expectation--he felt it in him as a certainty that approached fulfilment. It was strange, it was bewildering; it seemed to him as though something from that under-self he could never properly reach within him, pushed upwards with a kind of aggressive violence towards the surface. It was both sweet and vital. Behind the 'something' was the 'some one' who led it into action.

At half-past six he strolled down a deserted St. James's Street, passed the door of his club with no temptation to go in, and climbed the stairs slowly to his rooms. His body was languid though his mind alert. He sank into an arm-chair beside the open window. 'I must do something to-night,' he thought eagerly; 'mere reading at the club is out of the question. I'll go to a theatre or--or--.' He considered various alternatives, deciding finally upon Richmond Park. He loved long walks at night when his mind was restless thus; the air in Richmond Park was peculiarly fresh and scented after dark. He knew the little gate that was never closed. He would dine lightly, and go for a ten-mile stretch among the oaks, surprise the deer asleep, listen to the hum of distant London, and watch the fairy battle between the lurid reflection of its million lights and the little stars.... There were places in the bracken where....

The rumbling clatter of a railway van disturbed the picture. His mind followed the noise instead. Thought flashed along the street to a station. He saw trains...

'Come at once! You're wanted here--some one calls you!' sounded a breathless merry voice beside him. 'Come quickly; aussi schnell que moglich!'

There was a great gulp of happiness in him; his spirit plunged in joy. He turned and looked about him swiftly. That singing voice, with its impudent mingling of languages was unmistakable.

'From the Pleiades. Look sharp! You've been further off than ever lately, and further is further than farther--much! Over the forests and into the cave, that is the way we must all behave---!'

He opened an eye.

Between him and a great gold sunset ran the wind. It was a slender violet wind. The sunset, however, was in the act of disappearing for the Scaffolding of Dusk was passing through the air--he saw the slung trellis-work about him, the tracery of a million lines, the guy-ropes, uprights, and the feathery threads of ebony that trailed the Night behind them like a mighty cloth. There was a fluttering as of innumerable wings.

'You needn't tug like that,' he gasped. 'I'm coming all right. I'm out!'

'But you're so slow and sticky,' she insisted. 'You've been sticky like this for weeks now!'

He saw the bright brown eyes and felt the hair all over his face like a bath of perfume. They rushed together. His heart beat faster....

'Who wants me in such a hurry?' he cried, the moment he was disentangled. Laughter ran past him on every side from the world of trees.

'As if you didn't know! What is the good of pretending any longer! You're both together in the Network, and you know it just as well as she does!'

Pretending! Just as well as she does!

As though he had eyes all over his body he saw the Net of Stars above him. Below were forests, vineyards, meadows, and the tiny lights of houses. In the distance shimmered the waters of a familiar lake. Great purple mountains rolled against the sky line. But immediately over his head, close yet also distant, filling the entire heavens, there hung a glittering Pattern that he knew, grown now so vast that at first he scarcely recognised its dazzling loveliness. From the painted western horizon it stretched to other fastenings that dipped below the world, where the East laid its gulfs of darkness to surprise the sun. It swung proudly down, as though hung from the Pole Star towards the north, and while the Great Bear 'pointers' tossed its embroidery across Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, just rising, flung its further fringes down to Orion, waiting in wonder to receive them far below the horizon. Old Sirius wore one breadth of it across his stupendous shoulder, and Aldebaran, with fingers of bronze and fire, drew it delicately as with golden leashes over the sleeping world.

When first he saw it, there was this gentle fluttering as of wings through all its intricate parts, but the same moment four shooting stars pierced its outlying edges with flying nails of gold. It steadied and grew taut.

'There she is!' cried Monkey, flashing away like a comet towards the Cave. 'You'll catch it now--and you deserve to!' She turned a brilliant somersault and vanished.

Then, somehow, the vast Pattern settled into a smaller scale, so that he saw it closer, clearer, and without confusion. Beauty and wonder focused for his sight. The perfected design of Daddy's fairy story floated down into his heart without a hint of wumbling. Never had he seen it so luminous and simple. For others, of course, meanwhile had known and understood it. Others believed. Its reality was more intense, thus, than before.

He rose from the maze of tree-tops where he floated, and stretched his arms out, no fear or hesitation in him anywhere. Perched in the very centre of the Pattern, seated like a new-born star upon its throne, he saw that tiny figure who had thrilled him months ago when he caught it in a passing instant, fluttering in the web of Daddy's story,--both its climax and its inspiration. The twinkling feet were folded now. He saw the soft little eyes that shone like starlight through clear amber. The hands, palms upwards, were stretched to meet his own.

'You, of course, must come up--to me,' he heard.

And climbing the lace-like tracery of the golden web, he knelt before her. But, almost before both knees were bent, her hands had caught him--the touch ran like a sheath of fire through every nerve--and he was seated beside her in that shining centre.

'But why did it suddenly grow small?' he asked at once. He felt absolutely at home. It was like speaking to a child who loved him utterly, and whom he, in his turn, knew intimately inside out.

'Because you suddenly understood,' was the silvery, tiny answer. 'When you understand, you bring everything into yourself, small as a toy. It is size that bewilders. Men make size. Fairy things, like stars and tenderness, are always small.'

'Of course,' he said; 'as if I didn't know it already!'

'Besides,' she laughed, half closing her brilliant eyes and peering at him mischievously, 'I like everything so tiny that you can find it inside a shell. That makes it possible to do big things.'

'Am I too big---?' he exclaimed, aware of clumsiness before this exquisite daintiness.

'A little confused, that's all,' her laughter rippled. 'You want smoothing down. I'll see to that.'

He had the feeling, as she said it, that his being included the entire Pattern, even to its most distant edges where it fastened on to the rim of the universe. From this huge sensation, he came back swiftly to its tiny correspondence again. His eyes turned to study her. But she seemed transparent somehow, so that he saw the sky behind her, and in it, strangely enough--just behind her face--the distant Pleiades, shining faintly with their tender lustre. They reached down into her little being, it seemed, as though she emanated from them. Big Aldebaran guided strongly from behind. For an instant he lost sight of the actual figure, seeing in its place a radiant efflorescence, purified as by some spiritual fire--the Spirit of a Star.

'I'm here, quite close beside you,' whispered the tiny voice. 'Don't let your sight get troublesome like your size. Inside-sight, remember, is the thing!'

He turned, or rather he focused sight again to find her. He was startled a little. For a moment it seemed like his own voice speaking deep down within himself.

'Make yourself at home,' it continued, 'you belong here--almost as much as I do.' And at the sound of her voice all the perplexities of his life lay down. It brushed him smooth, like a wind that sets rough feathers all one way,

He remembered again where he was, and what was going on.

'I do,' he answered, happy as a boy. 'I am at home. It is perfect.'

'Do you, indeed! You speak as though this story were your own!'

And her laugh was like the tinkle of hare-bells in the wind.

'It is,' he said; 'at least I had--I have, rather, a considerable hand in the making of it.'

'Possibly,' she answered, 'but the story belongs to the person who first started it. And that person is myself. The story is mine really!'

'Yours!' he gasped.

'Because--I am the story!'

He stared hard to find the face that said this thing. Thought stopped dead a moment, blocked by a marvel that was impossible, yet true.

'You mean---?' he stammered.

'You heard perfectly what I said; you understood it, too. There's no good pretending,' impatience as well as laughter in the little voice. 'I am the story,--the story that you love.'

A sudden joy burst over him in a flood. Struggle and search folded their wings and slept. An immense happiness wrapped him into the very woof of the pattern wherein they sat. A thousand loose and ineffective moods of his life found coherence, as a thousand rambling strands were gathered home and fastened into place.

And the Pattern quivered and grew brighter.

'I am the story because I thought of it first. You, as a version of its beauty--a channel for its delivery--belong utterly to me. You can no more resist me than a puddle can resist the stars' reflection. You increase me. We increase each other.'

'You say you thought it first,' he cried, feeling the light he radiated flow in and mingle with her own. 'But who are you? Where do you come from?'

'Over there somewhere, I think,' she laughed, while a ray like fire flashed out in the direction of the Pleiades that climbed the sky towards the East. 'You ought to know. You've been hunting for me long enough!'

'But who are you?' he insisted again, 'for I feel it's you that have been looking for me--I've so often heard you calling!'

She laughed again till the whole web quivered. Through her eyes the softness of all the seven Pleiades poured deliciously into him.

'It's absurd that such a big thing as you could hide so easily,' she said. 'But you'll never hide again. I've got you fast now. And you've got me! It's like being reflected together in the same puddle, you see!'

The dazzling radiance passed as she said it into a clearer glow, and across the fire of it he caught her eyes steadily a moment, though he could not see the face complete. Two brilliant points of amber shone up at him, as stars that peep from the mirror of a forest pool. That mental daylight-searching seemed all explained, only he could not remember now that there was any such thing at all as either searching or daylight. When 'out' like this, waking was the dream---the sunlight world forgotten.

'This Pattern has always been my own,' she continued with infinite softness, yet so clearly that his whole body seemed a single ear against her lips, 'for I've thought it ever since I can remember. I've lived it. This Network of Stars I made ages ago in a garden among far bigger mountains than these hills, a garden I knew vividly, yet could not always find--almost as though I dreamed it. The Net included the-- oh, included everything there is, and I fastened it to four big pines that grew on the further side of the torrent in that mountain garden of my dream--fastened it with nails of falling stars. And I made the Pleiades its centre because I loved them best of all. Oh! Orion, Orion, how big and comforting your arms are! Please hold me tight for ever and ever!'

'But I know it, too, that lovely dream,' he cried. 'It all comes back to me. I, too, have dreamed it with you then somewhere--somewhere---!' His voice choked. He had never known that life could hold such sweetness, wonder, joy. The universe lay within his arms.

'All the people I wanted to help I used to catch in my Net of Stars,' she went on. 'There was a train that brought them up to its edges, and once I got the passengers into the web, and hung them loose in it till they were soaked with starlight, I could send them back happier and braver than they came. It's been my story ever since I can remember anything--my adventure, my dream, my life. And when the great Net faded a little and wanted brightening, we knew an enormous cavern in the mountains where lost starlight collected, and we used to gather this in thousands of sacks, and wash and paint the entire web afresh. That made it sticky, so that the passengers hung in it longer. Don't you remember?

They came back with starlight in their hair and eyes and voices--and in their hearts.'

'And the way you--we got them into the Net,' he interrupted excitedly, 'was by understanding them--by feeling with them---'

'Sympathy,' she laughed, 'of course! Only there were so many I could not reach and could not understand, and so could never get in. In particular there was some one who ought to have been there to help me. If I could find that some one I could do twice as much. I searched and searched. I hunted through every corner of the garden, through forest, cavern, sky, but never with success. Orion never overtook me! My longing cried every where, but in vain. Oh, Orion, my lost Orion, I have found you now at last!... The Net flashed messages in all directions, but without response. This some one who could make my work complete existed--that I knew--only he was hidden somewhere out of sight--concealed in some corner or other, veiled by a darkness that he wove about himself--as though by some funny kind of wrong thinking that obscured the light I searched for and made it too dim to reach me properly. His life or mind--his thought and feeling, that is--were wumbled---'

Wumbled! he cried, as the certainty burst upon him with the password. He stood close to her, opening his arms.

Instantly she placed her golden palm upon his mouth, with fingers that were like soft star-rays. Her words, as she continued, were sweeter than the footfalls of the Pleiades when they rise above the sea.

'Yet there were times when we were so close that we could feel each other, and each wondered why the other did not actually appear. I have been trying,' she whispered, oh so dearly, 'to find you always. And you knew it, too, for I've felt you searching too....'

The outlying skirts of the Pattern closed in a little, till the edges gathered over them like a tent of stars. Alone in the heart of the universe they told their secret very softly....

'There are twin-stars, you know,' she whispered, when he released her, 'that circle so close about each other that they look like one. I wonder, oh, I wonder, do they ever touch!'

'They are apart in order to see one another better,' he murmured. 'They watch one another more sweetly so. They play at separation for the joy of coming together again.'

And once more the golden Pattern hid them for a moment from the other stars.... The shafts of night-fire played round and above their secret tent in space.... Most marvellously their beings found each other in the great whispering galleries of the world where Thought and Yearning know that first fulfilment which is the source of action later....

'So, now that I have found you,' her voice presently

went on, 'our Network shall catch everybody everywhere. For the

Pattern of my story, woven so long ago, has passed through you as through a channel--to another who can give it forth. It will spread across every sky. All, all will see it and climb up.'

'My scheme---' he cried, with eager delight, yet not quite certain what he meant, nor whence the phrase proceeded.

'Was my thought first,' she laughed, 'when you were a little boy and I was a little girl--somewhere in a garden very long ago. A ray from its pattern touched you into beauty. Though I could do nothing with it myself, one little ray shot into the mirror of your mind and instantly increased itself. But then, you hid yourself; the channel closed---'

'It never died, though,' he interrupted; 'the ray, I mean.'

'It waited,' she went on, 'until you found children somewhere, and the channel cleared instantly. Through you, opened up and cleaned by them, my pattern rushed headlong into another who can use it. It could never die, of course. And the long repression--I never ceased to live it-- made its power irresistible.'

'Your story!' he cried. 'It is indeed your story.'

The eyes were so close against his own that he made a movement that was like diving into a deep and shining sea to reach them.... The Pleiades rushed instantly past his face.... Soft filaments of golden texture stroked his very cheeks. That slender violet wind rose into his hair. He saw other larger winds behind it, deeply coloured.... Something made him tremble all over like a leaf in a storm. He saw, then, the crest of the sentinel poplar tossing between him and the earth far, far below. A mist of confusion caught him, so that he knew not where he was.... He made an effort to remember... a violent effort.... Some strange sense of heaviness oppressed him.... He was leaving her.

'Quick!' he tried to cry; 'be quick! I am changing. I am drowsy with your voice and beauty. Your eyes have touched me, and I am--falling asleep!' His voice grew weaker as he said it.

Her answer sounded faint, and far above him:

'Give me... your... hand. Touch me. Come away with me... to... my ... garden ... in the mountains.... We may wake together ... You are waking now...!'

He made an effort to find her little palm. But the wind swept coldly between his opened fingers.

'Waking!--what is it?' he cried thinly. He thought swiftly of something vague and muddy--something dull, disordered, incomplete. Here it was all glass-clear. 'Where are you? I can't find you. I can't see!'

A dreadful, searching pain shot through him. He was losing her, just when he had found her. He struggled, clung, fought frantically to hold her. But his fingers seized the air.

'Oh, I shall find you--even when you wake,' he heard far away among the stars. 'Try and remember me--when I come. Try and remember....'

It dipped into the distance. He had lost her. He caught a glimpse of the Pleiades as he fell at a fearful speed. Some one behind them picked up stars and tossed them after him. They dimmed as they shot by--from gold to white, from white to something very pale. Behind them rose a wave of light that hurt his eyes.

'Look out! The Interfering Sun!' came a disappearing voice that was followed by a peal of laughter. 'I hope you found her, and I hope you caught it well. You deserved to....'

There was a scent of hair that he loved, a vision of mischievous brown eyes, an idea that somebody was turning a somersault beside him--and then he landed upon the solid earth with a noise like thunder.

The room was dark. At first he did not recognise it. Through the open window came the clatter of lumbering traffic that passed heavily down St. James's Street. He rose stiffly from his chair, vexed with himself for having dozed. It was more than a doze, though; he had slept some thirty minutes by his watch. No memory of any dreams was in him-- nothing but a feeling of great refreshing lightness and peace....

It was wonderful, he reflected, as he changed into country clothes for his walk in Richmond Park, how even the shortest nap revives the brain and body. There was a sense that an immense interval had elapsed, and that something very big had happened or was going to happen to him very soon....

And an hour later he passed through the Richmond Gate and found the open spaces of the Park deserted, as they always were. The oaks and bracken rustled in a gentle breeze. The swishing of his boots through the wet grass was the only sound he heard, for the boom and purr of distant London reached him more as touch than as something audible. Seated on a fallen tree, he watched the stars and listened to the wind. That hum and boom of the city seemed underground, the flare it tossed into the sky rose from vast furnaces below the world. The stars danced lightly far beyond its reach, secure and unafraid. He thought of children dancing with twinkling feet upon the mountains....

And in himself there was hum and light as well. Too deep, too far below the horizon for full discovery, he caught the echo, the faint, dim flashings of reflection that are called by men a Mood. These, rising to the surface, swept over him with the queer joy of intoxicating wonder that only children know. Some great Secret he had to tell himself, only he had kept it so long and so well that he could not find it quite. He felt the thrill, yet had forgotten what it was.

Something was going to happen. A new footfall was coming across the world towards him. He could almost hear its delicate, swift tread. Life was about to offer him this delicious, thrilling secret--very soon. Looking up he saw the Pleiades, and the single footfall became many. He remembered that former curious obsession of the Pleiades... and as Thought and Yearning went roaming into space, they met Anticipation, who took them by the hand. It seemed, then, that children came flocking down upon him from the sky, led by a little figure with starry eyes of clearest amber, a pair of tiny twinkling feet, and a voice quite absurdly soft and tender.

'Your time is coming,' he heard behind the rustling of the oak leaves overhead, 'for the children are calling to you--children of your own. And this is the bravest Scheme in all the world. There is no bigger. How can there be? For all the world is a child that goes past your windows crying for its lost Fairyland...!'

It was after midnight when at length he slipped through the Robin Hood Gate, passed up Priory Lane, and walked rapidly by the shuttered houses of Roehampton. And, looking a moment over Putney Bridge; he saw the reflections of the stars in the muddy, dawdling Thames. Nothing anywhere was thick enough to hide them. The Net of Stars, being in his heart, was everywhere. No prisoner could be more securely caught than he was.

Return to the A Prisoner in Fairyland Summary Return to the Algernon Blackwood Library

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.