A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 32

 ''Asia''. The point of one white star is quivering still
    Deep in the orange light of widening morn
    Beyond the purple mountains: through a chasm
    Of wind-divided mist the darker lake
    Reflects it: now it wanes: it gleams again
    As the waves fade, and as the burning threads
    Of woven cloud unravel in the pale air:
    'Tis lost! and through yon peaks of cloud-like snow
    The roseate sunlight quivers: hear I not
    The AEolian music of her sea-green plumes
    Winnowing the crimson dawn?
               ''Prometheus Unbound'', SHELLEY.

August had blazed its path into September, and September had already trimmed her successor's gown with gold and russet before Henry Rogers found himself free again to think of holidays. London had kept its grip upon him all these weeks while the rest of the world was gay and irresponsible. He was so absurdly conscientious. One of his Companies had got into difficulties, and he was the only man who could save the shareholders' money. The Patent Coal Dust Fuel Company, Ltd., had bought his invention for blowing fine coal dust into a furnace whereby an intense heat was obtainable in a few minutes. The saving in material, time, and labour was revolutionary. Rogers had received a large sum in cash, though merely a nominal number of the common shares. It meant little to him if the Company collapsed, and an ordinary Director would have been content with sending counsel through the post in the intervals of fishing and shooting. But Henry Rogers was of a different calibre. The invention was his child, born by hard labour out of loving thought. The several thousand shareholders believed in him: they were his neighbours. Incompetence and extravagance threatened failure. He took a room in the village near the Essex factories, and gave his personal energy and attention to restoring economical working of every detail. He wore overalls. He put intelligence into hired men and foremen; he spent his summer holiday turning a system of waste into the basis of a lucrative industry. The shareholders would never know whose faithfulness had saved them loss, and at the most his thanks would be a formal paragraph in the Report at the end of the year. Yet he was satisfied, and worked as though his own income depended on success. For he knew--of late this certainty had established itself in him, influencing all he did--that faithful labour, backed by steady thinking, must reach ten thousand wavering characters, merge with awakening tendencies in them, and slip thence into definite daily action. Action was thought materialised. He helped the world. A copybook maxim thus became a weapon of tempered steel. His Scheme was bigger than any hospital for disabled bodies. It would still be cumulative when bodies and bricks were dust upon the wind. It must increase by geometrical progression through all time.

It was largely to little Minks that he owed this positive conviction and belief, to that ridiculous, high-souled Montmorency Minks, who, while his master worked in overalls, took the air himself on Clapham Common, or pored with a wet towel round his brow beneath the oleograph of Napoleon in the attempt to squeeze his exuberant emotion into tripping verse. For Minks admired intensely from a distance. He attended to the correspondence in the flat, and made occasional visits down to Essex, but otherwise enjoyed a kind of extra holiday of his own. For Minks was not learned in coal dust. The combustion was in his eager brain. He produced an amazing series of lyrics and sonnets, though too high-flown, alas, to win a place in print. Love and unselfishness, as usual, were his theme, with a steady sprinkling of 'the ministry of Thought,' 'true success, unrecognised by men, yet noted by the Angels,' and so forth. His master's labour seemed to him a 'brilliant form of purity,' and 'the soul's security' came in admirably to close the crowded, tortuous line. 'Beauty' and 'Duty' were also thickly present, both with capitals, but the verse that pleased him most, and even thrilled Albinia to a word of praise, was one that ended--'Those active powers which are the Doves of Thought.' It followed 'neither can be sold or bought,' and Mrs. Minks approved, because, as she put it, 'there, now, is something you can sell; it's striking and original; no editor could fail to think so.' The necessities of Frank and Ronald were ever her standard of praise or blame.

Thus, it was the first week in October before Rogers found himself free to leave London behind him and think of a change of scene. No planning was necessary.... Bourcelles was too constantly in his mind all these weary weeks to admit of alternatives. Only a few days ago a letter had come from Jinny, saying she was going to a Pension in Geneva after Christmas, and that unless he appeared soon he would not see her again as she 'was,' a qualification explained by the postscript, 'My hair will be up by that time. Mother says I can put it up on Xmas Day. So please hurry up, Mr. Henry Rogers, if you want to see me as I am.'

But another thing that decided him was that the great story was at last in print. It was published in the October number of the Review, and the press had already paid considerable attention to it. Indeed, there was a notice at the railway bookstall on the day he left, to the effect that the first edition was exhausted, and that a large second edition would be available almost immediately. 'Place your orders at once' was added in bold red letters. Rogers bought one of these placards for his cousin.

'It just shows,' observed Minks, whom he was taking out with him.

'Shows what?' inquired his master.

'How many more thoughtful people there are about, sir, than one had any idea of,' was the reply. 'The public mind is looking for something of that kind, expecting it even, though it hardly knows what it really wants. That's a story, Mr. Rogers, that must change the point of view of all who read it--with understanding. It makes the commonest man feel he is a hero.'

'You've put our things into a non-smoker, Minks,' the other interrupted him. 'What in the world are you thinking about?'

'I beg your pardon, I'm sure, sir; so I have,' said Minks, blushing, and bundling the bags along the platform to another empty carriage, 'but that story has got into my head. I sat up reading it aloud to Mrs. Minks all night. For it says the very things I have always longed to say. Sympathy and the transference of thought--to say nothing of the soul's activity when the body is asleep--have always seemed to me---'

He wandered on while his companion made himself comfortable in a corner with his pipe and newspaper. But the first thing Rogers read, as the train went scurrying through Kent, was a summary of the contents of this very Review. Two-thirds of the article was devoted to the 'Star Story' of John Henry Campden, whose name 'entitled his work to a high standard of criticism.' The notice was well written by some one evidently of intelligence and knowledge; sound judgment was expressed on style and form and general execution, but when it came to the matter itself the criticism was deplorably misunderstanding. The writer had entirely missed the meaning. While praising the 'cleverness' he asked plainly between the lines of his notice 'What does it mean?' This unconscious exposure of his own ignorance amused his reader while it also piqued him. The critic, expert in dealing with a political article, was lamentably at sea over an imaginative story.

'Inadequate receiving instrument,' thought Rogers, smiling audibly.

Minks, deep in a mysterious looking tome in the opposite corner, looked up over his cigarette and wondered why his employer laughed. He read the article the other handed to him, thinking how much better he could have done it himself. Encouraged by the expression in Mr. Rogers's eyes, he then imparted what the papers call 'a genuine contribution to the thought upon the subject.'

'The writer quarrels with him,' he observed, 'for not giving what is expected of him. What he has thought he must go on thinking, or be condemned. He must repeat himself or be uncomprehended.

Hitherto'--Minks prided himself upon the knowledge--'he has written studies of uncommon temperaments. Therefore to indulge in fantasy now is wrong.'

'Ah, you take it that way, do you?'

'Experience justifies me, Mr. Rogers,' the secretary continued. 'A friend of mine, or rather of Mrs. Minks's, once wrote a volume of ghost stories that, of course, were meant to thrill. His subsequent book, with no such intention, was judged by the object of the first-- as a failure. It must make the flesh creep. Everything he wrote must make the flesh creep. One of the papers, the best--a real thunderer, in fact--said "Once or twice the desired thrill comes close, but never, alas, quite comes off."'

'How wumbled,' exclaimed his listener.

'It is indeed,' said Minks, 'in fact, one of the thorns in the path of literature. The ordinary clever mind is indeed a desolate phenomenon. And how often behind the "Oxford manner" lurks the cultured prig, if I may put it so.'

'Indeed you may,' was the other's rejoinder, 'for you put it admirably.'

They laughed a little and went on with their reading in their respective corners. The journey to Paris was enlivened by many similar discussions, Minks dividing his attentions between his master, his volume of philosophy, and the needs of various old ladies, to whom such men attach themselves as by a kind of generous, manly instinct. Minks was always popular and inoffensive. He had such tact.

'Ah! and that reminds me, Minks,' said Rogers, as they paced the banks of the Seine that evening, looking at the starry sky over Paris. 'What do you know about the Pleiades? Anything--eh?'

Minks drew with pride upon his classical reading.

'The seven daughters of Atlas, Mr. Rogers, if I remember correctly, called therefore the Atlantides. They were the virgin companions of Artemis. Orion, the great hunter, pursued them in Boeotia, and they called upon the gods for help.'

'And the gods turned 'em into stars, wasn't it?'

'First into doves, sir--Peleiades means doves--and then set them among the Constellations, where big Orion still pursues, yet never overtakes them.'

'Beautiful, isn't it? What a memory you've got, Minks. And isn't one of 'em lost or something?'

'Merope, yes,' the delighted Minks went on. He knew it because he had looked it up recently for his lyric about 'the Doves of Thought.' 'She married a mortal, Sisyphus, the son of Aeolus, and so shines more dimly than the rest. For her sisters married gods. But there is one who is more luminous than the others---'

'Ah! and which was that?' interrupted Rogers.

'Maia,' Minks told him pat. 'She is the most beautiful of the seven. She was the Mother, too, of Mercury, the Messenger of the gods. She gave birth to him in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. Zeus was the father---'

'Take care; you'll get run over,' and Rogers pulled him from the path of an advancing taxi-cab, whose driver swore furiously at the pair of them. 'Charming, all that, isn't it?'

'It is lovely, sir. It haunts the mind. I suppose,' he added, 'that's why your cousin, Mr. Campden, made the Pleiades the centre of his Star Net in the story--a cluster of beautiful thoughts as it were.'

'No doubt, no doubt,' his tone so brusque suddenly that Minks decided after all not to mention his poem where the Pleiades made their appearance as the 'doves of thought.'

'What a strange coincidence,' Rogers said as they turned towards the hotel again.

'Subconscious knowledge, probably, sir,' suggested the secretary, scarcely following his meaning, if meaning indeed there was.

'Possibly! One never knows, does one?'

'Never, Mr. Rogers. It's all very wonderful.'

And so, towards six o'clock in the evening of the following day, having passed the time pleasantly in Paris, the train bore them swiftly beyond Pontarlier and down the steep gradient of the Gorges de l'Areuse towards Neuchatel. The Val de Travers, through which the railway slips across the wooded Jura into Switzerland, is like a winding corridor cleft deep between savage and precipitous walls. There are dizzy glimpses into the gulf below. With steam shut off and brakes partly on, the train curves sharply, hiding its eyes in many tunnels lest the passengers turn giddy. Strips of bright green meadow- land, where the Areuse flows calmly, alternate with places where the ravine plunges into bottomless depths that have been chiselled out as by a giant ploughshare. Rogers pointed out the chosen views, while his secretary ran from window to window, excited as a happy child. Such scenery he had never known. It changed the entire content of his mind. Poetry he renounced finally before the first ten minutes were past. The descriptions that flooded his brain could be rendered only

by the most dignified and stately prose, and he floundered among a

welter of sonorous openings that later Albinia would read in Sydenham and retail judiciously to the elder children from 'Father's foreign letters.'

'We shall pass Bourcelles in a moment now! Look out! Be ready with your handkerchief!' Rogers warned him, as the train emerged from the final tunnel and scampered between thick pine woods, emblazoned here and there with golden beeches. The air was crystal, sparkling. They could smell the forests.

They took their places side by side at the windows. The heights of Boudry and La Tourne, that stand like guardian sentries on either side of the mountain gateway, were already cantering by. The precipices flew past. Beyond lay the smiling slopes of vineyard, field, and orchard, sprinkled with farms and villages, of which Bourcelles came first. The Areuse flowed peacefully towards the lake. The panorama of the snowy Alps rolled into view along the farther horizon, and the slanting autumn sunshine bathed the entire scene with a soft and ruddy light. They entered the Fairyland of Daddy's story.

'Voila la sentinelle deja!' exclaimed Rogers, putting his head out to see the village poplar. 'We run through the field that borders the garden of the Pension. They'll come out to wave to us. Be ready.'

'Ah, oui,' said Minks, who had been studying phrase books, 'je vwa.' But in reality he saw with difficulty, for a spark had got into his eye, and its companion optic, wandering as usual, was suffused with water too.

The news of their arrival had, of course, preceded them, and the row of waving figures in the field gave them a welcome that went straight to Minks's heart. He felt proud for his grand employer. Here was a human touch that would modify the majesty of the impersonal mountain scenery in his description. He waved his handkerchief frantically as the train shot past, and he hardly knew which attracted him most--the expression of happiness on Mr. Rogers's face, or the line of nondescript humanity that gesticulated in the field as though they wished to stop the Paris 'Rapide.'

For it was a very human touch; and either Barnum's Circus or the byeways and hedges of Fairyland had sent their picked representatives with a dance seen usually only in shy moonlit glades. His master named them as the carriage rattled by. The Paris Express, of course, did not stop at little Bourcelles. Minks recognised each one easily from the descriptions in the story.

The Widow Jequier, with garden skirts tucked high, and wearing big gauntlet gloves, waved above her head a Union Jack that knocked her bonnet sideways at every stroke, and even enveloped the black triangle of a Trilby hat that her brother-in-law held motionless aloft as though to test the wind for his daily report upon the condition of le barometre. The Postmaster never waved. He looked steadily before him at the passing train, his small, black figure more than usually dwarfed by a stately outline that rose above the landscape by his side, and was undoubtedly the Woman of the Haystack. Telling lines from the story's rhymes flashed through Minks's memory as, chuckling with pleasure, he watched the magnificent, ample gestures of Mother's waving arms. She seemed to brush aside the winds who came a-courting, although wide strokes of swimming really described her movements best. A little farther back, in the middle distance, he recognised by his peaked cap the gendarme, Gygi, as he paused in his digging and looked up to watch the fun; and beyond him again, solid in figure as she was unchanging in her affections, he saw Mrs. Postmaster, struggling with a bed sheet the pensionnaires des Glycines helped her shake in the evening breeze. It was too close upon the hour of souper for her to travel farther from the kitchen. And beside her stood Miss Waghorn, waving an umbrella. She was hatless. Her tall, thin figure, dressed in black, against the washing hung out to dry, looked like a note of exclamation, or, when she held the umbrella up at right angles, like a capital L the fairies had set in the ground upon its head.

And the fairies themselves, the sprites, the children! They were everywhere and anywhere. Jimbo flickered, went out, reappeared, then flickered again; he held a towel in one hand and a table napkin in the other. Monkey seemed more in the air than on the solid earth, for one minute she was obviously a ball, and the next, with a motion like a somersault, her hair shot loose across the sunlight as though she flew. Both had their mouths wide open, shouting, though the wind carried their words all away unheard. And Jane Anne stood apart. Her welcome, if the gesture is capable of being described at all, was a bow. She moved at the same time sedately across the field, as though she intended to be seen separately from the rest. She wore hat and gloves. She was evidently in earnest with her welcome. But Mr. John Henry Campden, the author and discoverer of them all, Minks did not see.

'But I don't see the writer himself!' he cried. 'I don't see Mr. Campden.'

'You can't,' explained Rogers, 'he's standing behind his wife.'

And the little detail pleased the secretary hugely. The true artist, he reflected, is never seen in his work.

It all was past and over--in thirty seconds. The spire of the church, rising against a crimson sky, with fruit trees in the foreground and a line of distant summits across the shining lake, replaced the row of wonderful dancing figures. Rogers sank back in his corner, laughing, and Minks, saying nothing, went across to his own at the other end of the compartment. It all had been so swift and momentary that it seemed like the flash of a remembered dream, a strip of memory's pictures, a vivid picture of some dazzling cinematograph. Minks felt as if he had just read the entire story again from one end to the other--in thirty seconds. He felt different, though wherein exactly the difference lay was beyond him to discover. 'It must be the spell of Bourcelles,' he murmured to himself. 'Mr. Rogers warned me about it. It is a Fairyland that thought has created out of common things. It is quite wonderful!' He felt a glow all over him. His mind ran on for a moment to another picture his master had painted for him, and he imagined Albinia and the family out here, living in a little house on the borders of the forest, a strip of vineyards, sunlight, mountains, happy scented winds, and himself with a writing-table before a window overlooking the lake... writing down Beauty.

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