A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 33

    We never meet; yet we meet day by day
    Upon those hills of life, dim and immense:
    The good we love, and sleep-our innocence.
    O hills of life, high hills! And higher than they,

    Our guardian spirits meet at prayer and play.
    Beyond pain, joy, and hope, and long suspense,
    Above the summits of our souls, far hence,
    An angel meets an angel on the way.

    Beyond all good I ever believed of thee
    Or thou of me, these always love and live.
    And though I fail of thy ideal of me,

    My angel falls not short. They greet each other.
    Who knows, they may exchange the kiss we give,
    Thou to thy crucifix, I to my mother.
                                    ALICE MCYNELL.

The arrival at the station interrupted the reverie in which the secretary and his chief both were plunged.

'How odd,' exclaimed Minks, ever observant, as he leaped from the carriage, 'there are no platforms. Everything in Switzerland seems on one level, even the people--everything, that is, except the mountains.'

'Switzerland is the mountains,' laughed his chief.

Minks laughed too. 'What delicious air!' he added, filling his lungs audibly. He felt half intoxicated with it.

After some delay they discovered a taxi-cab, piled the luggage on to it, and were whirled away towards a little cluster of lights that twinkled beneath the shadows of La Tourne and Boudry. Bourcelles lay five miles out.

'Remember, you're not my secretary here,' said Rogers presently, as the forests sped by them. 'You're just a travelling companion.'

'I understand,' he replied after a moment's perplexity. 'You have a secretary here already.'

'His name is Jimbo.'

The motor grunted its way up the steep hill above Colombier. Below them spread the vines towards the lake, sprinkled with lights of farms and villages. As the keen evening air stole down from forest and mountain to greet them, the vehicle turned into the quiet village street. Minks saw the big humped shoulders of La Citadelle, the tapering church spire, the trees in the orchard of the Pension. Cudrefin, smoking a cigar at the door of his grocery shop, recognised them and waved his hand. A moment later Gygi lifted his peaked hat and called 'bon soir, bonne nuit,' just as though Rogers had never gone away at all. Michaud, the carpenter, shouted his welcome as he strolled towards the Post Office farther down to post a letter, and then the motor stopped with a jerk outside the courtyard where the fountain sang and gurgled in its big stone basin. Minks saw the plane tree. He glanced up at the ridged backbone of the building. What a portentous looking erection it was. It seemed to have no windows. He wondered where the famous Den was. The roof overlapped like a giant hood, casting a deep shadow upon the cobbled yard. Overhead the stars shone faintly.

Instantly a troop of figures shot from the shadow and surrounded them. There was a babel of laughter, exclamations, questions. Minks thought the stars had fallen. Children and constellations were mingled all together, it seemed. Both were too numerous to count. All were rushing with the sun towards Hercules at a dizzy speed.

'And this is my friend, Mr. Minks,' he heard repeated from time to time, feeling his hand seized and shaken before he knew what he was about. Mother loomed up and gave him a stately welcome too.

'He wears gloves in Bourcelles!' some one observed audibly to some one else.

'Excuse me! This is Riquette!' announced a big girl, hatless like the rest, with shining eyes. 'It's a she.'

'And this is my secretary, Mr. Jimbo,' said Rogers, breathlessly, emerging from a struggling mass. Minks and Jimbo shook hands with dignity.

'Your room is over at the Michauds, as before.'

'And Mr. Mix is at the Pension--there was no other room to be had---'

'Supper's at seven---'

'Tante Jeanne's been grand-cieling all day with excitement. She'll burst when she sees you!'

'She's read the story, too. Elle dit que c'est le bouquet!'

'There's new furniture in the salon, and they've cleaned the sink while you've been away!...'

The author moved forward out of the crowd. At the same moment another figure, slight and shadowy, revealed itself, outlined against the white of the gleaming street. It had been hidden in the tangle of the stars. It kept so quiet.

'Countess, may I introduce him to you,' he said, seizing the momentary pause. There was little ceremony in Bourcelles. 'This is my cousin I told you about--Mr. Henry Rogers. You must know one another at once. He's Orion in the story.'

He dragged up his big friend, who seemed suddenly awkward, difficult to move. The children ran in and out between them like playing puppies, tumbling against each in turn.

'They don't know which is which,' observed Jinny, watching the introduction. Her voice ran past him like the whir of a shooting star through space--far, far away. 'Excuse me!' she cried, as she cannoned off Monkey against Cousinenry. 'I'm not a terminus! This is a regular shipwreck!'

The three elder ones drew aside a little from the confusion.

'The Countess,' resumed Daddy, as soon as they were safe from immediate destruction, 'has come all the way from Austria to see us. She is staying with us for a few days. Isn't it delightful? We call her the little Grafin.' His voice wumbled a trifle thickly in his beard. 'She was good enough to like the story--our story, you know-- and wrote to me---'

'My story,' said a silvery, laughing voice.

And Rogers bowed politely, and with a moment's dizziness, at two bright smiling eyes that watched him out of the little shadow standing between him and the children. He was aware of grandeur.

He stood there, first startled, then dazed. She was so small. But something about her was so enormous. His inner universe turned over and showed its under side. The hidden thing that so long had brushed his daily life came up utterly close and took him in its gigantic arms. He stared like an unmannered child.

Something had lit the world....

'This is delicious air,' he heard Minks saying to his cousin in the distance--to his deaf side judging by the answer:

'Delicious here--yes, isn't it?'

Something had lit the stars....

Minks and his cousin continued idly talking. Their voices twittered like birds in empty space. The children had scattered like marbles from a spinning-top. Their voices and footsteps sounded in the cobbled yard of La Citadelle, as they scampered up to prepare for supper. Mother sailed solemnly after them, more like a frigate than ever. The world, on fire, turned like a monstrous Catherine wheel within his brain.

Something had lit the universe....

He stood there in the dusk beneath the peeping stars, facing the slender little shadow. It was all he saw at first--this tiny figure. Demure and soft, it remained motionless before him, a hint of childhood's wonder in its graceful attitude. He was aware of something mischievous as well--that laughed at him.... He realised then that she waited for him to speak. Yet, for the life of him, he could find no words, because the eyes, beneath the big-brimmed hat with its fluttering veil, looked out at him as though some formidable wild creature watched him from the opening of its cave. There was a glint of amber in them. The heart in him went thumping. He caught his breath. Out, jerked, then, certain words that he tried hard to make ordinary---

'But surely--we have met before--I think I know you---'

He just said it, swallowing his breath with a gulp upon the unfinished sentence. But he said it--somewhere else, and not here in the twilight street of little Bourcelles. For his sight swam somehow far away, and he was giddy with the height. The roofs of the houses lay in a sea of shadow below him, and the street wound through them like a ribbon of thin lace. The tree-tops waved very softly in a wind that purred and sighed beneath his feet, and this wind was a violet little wind, that bent them all one way and set the lines and threads of gold a-quiver to their fastenings. For the fastenings were not secure; any minute he might fall. And the threads, he saw, all issued like rays from two central shining points of delicate, transparent amber, radiating forth into an exquisite design that caught the stars. Yet the stars were not reflected in them. It was they who lit the stars....

He was dizzy. He tried speech again.

'I told you I should--' But it was not said aloud apparently.

Two little twinkling feet were folded. Two hands, he saw, stretched down to draw him close. These very stars ran loose about him in a cloud of fiery sand. Their pattern danced in flame. He picked out Sirius, Aldebaran--the Pleiades! There was tumult in his blood, a wild and exquisite confusion. What in the world had happened to him that he should behave in this ridiculous fashion? Yet he was doing nothing. It was only that, for a passing instant, the enormous thing his life had been dimly conscious of so long, rose at last from its subterranean hiding-place and overwhelmed him. This picture that came with it was like some far-off dream he suddenly recovered. A glorious excitement caught him. He felt utterly bewildered.

'Have we?' he heard close in front of him. 'I do not think I have had the pleasure'--it was with a slightly foreign accent--'but it is so dim here, and one cannot see very well, perhaps.'

And a ripple of laughter passed round some gigantic whispering gallery in the sky. It set the trellis-work of golden threads all trembling. He felt himself perched dizzily in this shaking web that swung through space. And with him was some one whom he knew.... He heard the words of a song:

'Light desire With their fire.'

Something had lit his heart....

He lost himself again, disgracefully. A mist obscured his sight, though with the eyes of his mind he still saw crystal-clear. Across this mist fled droves and droves of stars. They carried him out of himself--out, out, out!... His upper mind then made a vehement effort to recover equilibrium. An idea was in him that some one would presently turn a somersault and disappear. The effort had a result, it seemed, for the enormous thing passed slowly away again into the caverns of his under-self, ... and he realised that he was conducting himself in a foolish and irresponsible manner, which Minks, in particular, would disapprove. He was staring rudely--at a shadow, or rather, at two eyes in a shadow. With another effort--oh, how it hurt!--he focused sight again upon surface things. It seemed his turn to say something.

'I beg your pardon,' he stammered, 'but I thought--it seemed to me for a moment--that I--remembered.'

The face came close as he said it. He saw it clear a moment. The figure grew defined against the big stone fountain--the little hands in summer cotton gloves, the eyes beneath the big brimmed hat, the streaming veil. Then he went lost again--more gloriously than before. Instead of the human outline in the dusky street of Bourcelles, he stared at the host of stars, at the shimmering design of gold, at the Pleiades, whose fingers of spun lustre swung the Net loose across the world....

    'Flung from huge Orion's hand...'

he caught in a golden whisper,

    'Sweetly linking
     All our thinking....'

His cousin and Minks, he was aware vaguely, had left him. He was alone with her. A little way down the hill they turned and called to him. He made a frantic effort--there seemed just time--to plunge away into space and seize the cluster of lovely stars with both his hands. Headlong, he dived off recklessly... driving at a fearful speed, ... when--the whole thing vanished into a gulf of empty blue, and he found himself running, not through the sky to clutch the Pleiades, but heavily downhill towards his cousin and Minks.

It was a most abrupt departure. There was a curious choking in his throat. His heart ran all over his body. Something white and sparkling danced madly through his brain. What must she think of him?

'We've just time to wash ourselves and hurry over to supper,' his cousin said, as he overtook them, flustered and very breathless. Minks looked at him--regarded him, rather--astonishment, almost disapproval, in one eye, and in the other, apparently observing the vineyards, a mild rebuke.

He walked beside them in a dream. The sound of Colombier's bells across Planeyse, men's voices singing fragments of a Dalcroze song floated to him, and with them all the dear familiar smells:--

     Le coeur de ma mie
     Est petit, tout petit petit,
     J'en ai l'ame ravie....

It was Minks, drawing the keen air noisily into his lungs in great draughts, who recalled him to himself.

'I could find my way here without a guide, Mr. Campden,' he was saying diffidently, burning to tell how the Story had moved him. 'It's all so vivid, I can almost see the Net. I feel in it,' and he waved one hand towards the sky.

The other thanked him modestly. 'That's your power of visualising then,' he added. 'My idea was, of course, that every mind in the world is related with every other mind, and that there's no escape--we are all prisoners. The responsibility is vast.'

'Perfectly. I've always believed it. Ah! if only one could live it!'

Rogers heard this clearly. But it seemed that another heard it with him. Some one very close beside him shared the hearing. He had recovered from his temporary shock. Only the wonder remained. Life was sheer dazzling glory. The talk continued as they hurried along the road together. Rogers became aware then that his cousin was giving information--meant for himself.

'... A most charming little lady, indeed. She comes from over there,' and he pointed to where the Pleiades were climbing the sky towards the East, 'in Austria somewhere. She owns a big estate among the mountains. She wrote to me--I've had such encouraging letters, you know, from all sorts of folk--and when I replied, she telegraphed to ask if she might come and see me. She seems fond of telegraphing, rather.' And he laughed as though he were speaking of an ordinary acquaintance.

'Charming little lady!' The phrase was like the flick of a lash. Rogers had known it applied to such commonplace women.

'A most intelligent face,' he heard Minks saying, 'quite beautiful, I thought--the beauty of mind and soul.'

'... Mother and the children took to her at once,' his cousin's voice went on. 'She and her maid have got rooms over at the Beguins. And, do you know, a most singular coincidence,' he added with some excitement, 'she tells me that ever since childhood she's had an idea like this-- like the story, I mean--an idea of her own she always wanted to write but couldn't-----'

'Of course, of course,' interrupted Rogers impatiently; and then he added quickly, 'but how very extraordinary!'

'The idea that Thought makes a network everywhere about the world in which we all are caught, and that it's a positive duty, therefore, to think beauty--as much a duty as washing one's face and hands, because what you think touches others all day long, and all night long too-- in sleep.'

'Only she couldn't write it?' asked Rogers. His tongue was like a thick wedge of unmanageable wood in his mouth. He felt like a man who hears another spoil an old, old beautiful story that he knows himself with intimate accuracy.

'She can telegraph, she says, but she can't write!'

'An expensive talent,' thought the practical Minks.

'Oh, she's very rich, apparently. But isn't it odd? You see, she thought it vividly, played it, lived it. Why, she tells me she even had a Cave in her mountains where lost thoughts and lost starlight collected, and that she made a kind of Pattern with them to represent the Net. She showed me a drawing of it, for though she can't write, she paints quite well. But the odd thing is that she claims to have thought out the main idea of my own story years and years ago with the feeling that some day her idea was bound to reach some one who would write it---'

'Almost a case of transference,' put in Minks.

'A fairy tale, yes, isn't it!'

'Married?' asked Rogers, with a gulp, as they reached the door. But apparently he had not said it out loud, for there was no reply.

He tried again less abruptly. It required almost a physical effort to drive his tongue and frame the tremendous question.

'What a fairy story for her children! How they must love it!' This time he spoke so loud that Minks started and looked up at him.

'Ah, but she has no children,' his cousin said.

They went upstairs, and the introductions to Monsieur and Madame Michaud began, with talk about rooms and luggage. The mist was over him once more. He heard Minks saying:--

'Oui, je comprongs un poo,' and the clatter of heavy boots up and down the stairs, ... and then found himself washing his hands in stinging hot water in his cousin's room.

'The children simply adore her already,' he heard, 'and she won Mother's confidence at the very start. They can't manage her long name. They just call her the Little Countess--die kleine Grafin. She's doing a most astonishing work in Austria, it seems, with children... the Montessori method, and all that....'

'By George, now; is it possible? Bourcelles accepted her at once then?'

'She accepted Bourcelles rather--took it bodily into herself--our poverty, our magic boxes, our democratic intimacy, and all the rest; it was just as though she had lived here with us always. And she kept asking who Orion was--that's you, of course--and why you weren't here---'

'And the Den too?' asked Rogers, with a sudden trembling in his heart, yet knowing well the answer.

'Simply appropriated it--came in naturally without being asked; Jimbo opened the door and Monkey pushed her in. She said it was her Star Cave. Oh, she's a remarkable being, you know, rather,' he went on more gravely, 'with unusual powers of sympathy. She seems to feel at once what you are feeling. Takes everything for granted as though she knew. I think she does know, if you ask me---'

'Lives the story in fact,' the other interrupted, hiding his face rather in the towel, 'lives her belief instead of dreaming it, eh?'

'And, fancy this!' His voice had a glow and softness in it as he said it, coming closer, and almost whispering, 'she wants to take Jinny and Monkey for a bit and educate them.' He stood away to watch the effect of the announcement. 'She even talks of sending Edward to Oxford, too!' He cut a kind of wumbled caper in his pleasure and excitement.

'She loves children then, evidently?' asked the other, with a coolness that was calculated to hide other feelings. He rubbed his face in the rough towel as though the skin must come off. Then, suddenly dropping the towel, he looked into his cousin's eyes a moment to ensure a proper answer.

'Longs for children of her own, I think,' replied the author; 'one sees it, feels it in all she says and does. Rather sad, you know, that! An unmarried mother---'

'In fact,' put in Rogers lightly, 'the very character you needed to play the principal role in your story. When you write the longer version in book form you'll have to put her in.'

'And find her a husband too--which is a bore. I never write love stories, you see. She's finer as she is at present--mothering the world.'

Rogers's face, as he brushed his hair carefully before the twisted mirror, was not visible.

There came a timid knock at the door.

'I'm ready, gentlemen, when you are,' answered the voice of Minks outside.

They went downstairs together, and walked quickly over to the Pension for supper. Rogers moved sedately enough so far as the others saw, yet inwardly he pranced like a fiery colt in harness. There were golden reins about his neck. Two tiny hands directed him from the Pleiades. In this leash of sidereal fire he felt as though he flew. Swift thought, flashing like a fairy whip, cut through the air from an immense distance, and urged him forwards. Some one expected him and he was late--years and years late. Goodness, how his companions crawled and dawdled!

'... she doesn't come over for her meals,' he heard, 'but she'll join us afterwards at the Den. You'll come too, won't you, Mr. Minks?'

'Thank you, I shall be most happy--if I'm not intruding,' was the reply as they passed the fountain near the courtyard of the Citadelle. The musical gurgle of its splashing water sounded to Rogers like a voice that sang over and over again, 'Come up, come up, come up! You must come up to me!'

'How brilliant your stars are out here, Mr. Campden,' Minks was saying when they reached the door of La Poste. He stood aside to let the others pass before him. He held the door open politely. 'No wonder you chose them as the symbol for thought and sympathy in your story.' And they climbed the narrow, creaking stairs and entered the little hall where the entire population of the Pension des Glycines awaited them with impatience.

The meal dragged out interminably. Everybody had so much to say. Minks, placed between Mother and Miss Waghorn, talked volubly to the latter and listened sweetly to all her stories. The excitement of the Big Story, however, was in the air, and when she mentioned that she looked forward to reading it, he had no idea, of course, that she had already done so at least three times. The Review had replaced her customary Novel. She went about with it beneath her arm. Minks, feeling friendly and confidential, informed her that he, too, sometimes wrote, and when she noted the fact with a deferential phrase

about 'you men of letters,' he rose abruptly to the seventh heaven of

contentment. Mother meanwhile, on the other side, took him bodily into her great wumbled heart. 'Poor little chap,' her attitude said plainly, 'I don't believe his wife half looks after him.' Before the end of supper she knew all about Frank and Ronald, the laburnum tree in the front garden, what tea they bought, and Albinia's plan for making coal last longer by mixing it with coke.

Tante Jeanne talked furiously and incessantly, her sister-in-law told her latest dream, and the Postmaster occasionally cracked a solemn joke, laughing uproariously long before the point appeared. It was a merry, noisy meal, and Henry Rogers sat through it upon a throne that was slung with golden ropes from the stars. He was in Fairyland again. Outside, the Pleiades were rising in the sky, and somewhere in Bourcelles--in the rooms above Beguin's shop, to be exact--some one was waiting, ready to come over to the Den. His thoughts flew wildly. Passionate longing drove behind them. 'You must come up to me,' he heard. They all were Kings and Queens.

He played his part, however; no one seemed to notice his preoccupation. The voices sounded now far, now near, as though some wind made sport with them; the faces round him vanished and reappeared; but he contrived cleverly, so that none remarked upon his absent-mindedness. Constellations do not stare at one another much.

'Does your Mother know you're "out"?' asked Monkey once beside him--it was the great joke now, since the Story had been read--and as soon as she was temporarily disposed of, Jimbo had serious information to impart from the other side. 'She's a real Countess,' he said, speaking as man to man. 'I suppose if she went to London she'd know the King-- visit him, like that?'

Bless his little heart! Jimbo always knew the important things to talk about.

There were bursts of laughter sometimes, due usually to statements made abruptly by Jane Anne--as when Mother, discussing the garden with Minks, reviled the mischievous birds:--

'They want thinning badly,' she said.

'Why don't they take more exercise, then?' inquired Jinny gravely.

And in these gusts of laughter Rogers joined heartily, as though he knew exactly what the fun was all about. In this way he deceived everybody and protected himself from discovery. And yet it seemed to him that he shouted his secret aloud, not with his lips indeed, but with his entire person. Surely everybody knew it...! He was self- conscious as a schoolgirl.

'You must come up--to me,' rang continuously through his head like bells. 'You must come up to me.'

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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.