A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 4

     A Spirit gripped him by the hair and carried him far away,
     Till he heard as the roar of a rain-fed ford the roar of the
        Milky Way:
     Till he heard the roar of the Milky Way die down and drone and
                                 Tomlinson, R. KIPLING.

The boy presently came up in a cloud of dust with the key, and ran off again with a shilling in his pocket, while Henry Rogers, budding philanthropist and re-awakening dreamer, went down the hill of memories at high speed that a doctor would have said was dangerous, a philosopher morbid, and the City decreed unanimously as waste of time.

He went over the house from cellar to ceiling...

And finally he passed through a back door in the scullery and came out upon the lawn. With a shock he realised that a long time had intervened. The dusk was falling. The rustle of its wings was already in the shrubberies. He had missed the tea hour altogether. And, as he walked there, so softly that he hardly disturbed the thrushes that busily tapped the dewy grass for supper, he knew suddenly that he was not alone, but that shadowy figures hid everywhere, watching, waiting, wondering like himself. They trooped after him, invisible and silent, as he went about the old familiar garden, finding nothing changed. They were so real that once he stopped beneath the lime trees, where afternoon tea was served in summer, and where the Long Walk began its haunted, shadowy existence--stood still a moment and called to them--

'Is any one there? Come out and show yourselves....!'

And though his voice fell dead among the foliage, winning echoes from spots whence no echoes possibly could come, and rushing back upon him like a boomerang, he got the curious impression that it had penetrated into certain corners of the shrubberies where it had been heard and understood. Answers did not come. They were no more audible than the tapping of the thrushes, or the little feet of darkness that ran towards him from the eastern sky. But they were there. The troop of Presences drew closer. They had been creeping on all fours. They now stood up. The entire garden was inhabited and alive.

He has come back!

It ran in a muted whisper like a hush of wind. The thrill of it passed across the lawn in the dusk. The dark tunnel of the Long Walk filled suddenly to the brim. The thrushes raised their heads, peeping sideways to listen, on their guard. Then the leaves opened a little and the troop ventured nearer. The doors and windows of the silent, staring house had also opened. From the high nursery windows especially, queer shapes of shadow flitted down to join the others. For the sun was far away behind the cedars now, and that Net of Starlight dropped downwards through the air. So carefully had he woven it years ago that hardly a mesh was torn....

He has come back again...! the whisper ran a second time, and he looked about him for a place where he could hide.

But there was no place. Escape from the golden net was now impossible....

Then suddenly, looming against the field that held the Gravel-Pit and the sleeping rabbits, he saw the outline of the Third Class Railway Carriage his father bought as a Christmas present, still standing on the stone supports that were borrowed from a haystack.

That Railway Carriage had filled whole years with joy and wonder. They had called it the Starlight Express. It had four doors, real lamps in the roof, windows that opened and shut, and big round buffers. It started without warning. It went at full speed in a moment. It was never really still. The footboards were endless and very dangerous.

He saw the carriage with its four compartments still standing there in the hay field. It looked mysterious, old, and enormous as ever. There it still stood as in his boyhood days, but stood neglected and unused.

The memory of the thrilling journeys he had made in this Starlight Express completed his recapture, for he knew now who the troop of Presences all about him really were. The passengers, still waiting after twenty years' delay, thinking perhaps the train would never start again, were now impatient. They had caught their engine-driver again at last. Steam was up. Already the blackbirds whistled. And something utterly wild and reckless in him passionately broke its bonds with a flood of longings that no amount of years or 'Cities' could ever subdue again. He stepped out from the dozing lime trees and held his hat up like a flag.

'Take your seats,' he cried as of old, 'for the Starlight Express. Take your seats! No luggage allowed! Animals free! Passengers with special tickets may drive the engine in their turn! First stop the Milky Way for hot refreshments! Take your seats, or stay at home for ever!'

It was the old cry, still remembered accurately; and the response was immediate. The rush of travellers from the Long Walk nearly took him off his feet. From the house came streams of silent figures, families from the shrubberies, tourists from the laurels by the scullery windows, and throngs of breathless oddities from the kitchen-garden. The lawn was littered with discarded luggage; umbrellas dropped on flower-beds, where they instantly took root and grew; animals ran scuttling among them--birds, ponies, dogs, kittens, donkeys, and white mice in trailing swarms. There was not a minute to spare. One big Newfoundland brought several Persian kittens on his back, their tails behind them in the air like signals; a dignified black retriever held a baby in his mouth; and fat children by the score, with unfastened clothes and smudged faces, many of them in their nightclothes, poured along in hurrying, silent crowds, softer than clouds that hide a crescent moon in summer.

'But this is impossible,' he cried to himself. 'The multiplication tables have gone wrong. The City has driven me mad. No shareholder would stand such a thing for a minute!'

While, at the same time, that other voice in him kept shouting, ever more loudly--

'Take your seats! Take your seats! The Starlight Express is off to Fairyland! Show your tickets! Show your tickets!'

He laughed with happiness.

The throng and rush were at first so great that he recognised hardly any of the passengers; but, the first press over, he saw several bringing up the rear who were as familiar as of yesterday. They nodded kindly to him as they passed, no sign of reproach for the long delay in their friendly eyes. He had left his place beside the lime trees, and now stood at the carriage door, taking careful note of each one as he showed his ticket to the Guard. And the Guard was the blue-eyed girl. She did not clip the tickets, but merely looked at them. She looked, first at the ticket, then into the face of the passenger. The glance of the blue eyes was the passport. Of course, he remembered now--both guard and engine-driver were obliged to have blue eyes. Blue eyes furnished the motor-power and scenery and everything. It was the spell that managed the whole business--the Spell of the Big Blue eyes --blue, the colour of youth and distance, of sky and summer flowers, of childhood.

He watched these last passengers come up one by one, and as they filed past him he exchanged a word with each. How pleased they were to see him! But how ashamed he felt for having been so long away. Not one, however, reminded him of it, and--what touched him most of all--not one suspected he had nearly gone for good. All knew he would come back.

What looked like a rag-and-bone man blundered up first, his face a perfect tangle of beard and hair, and the eyebrows like bits of tow stuck on with sealing-wax. It was The Tramp--Traveller of the World, the Eternal Wanderer, homeless as the wind; his vivid personality had haunted all the lanes of childhood. And, as Rogers nodded kindly to him, the figure waited for something more.

'Ain't forgot the rhyme, 'ave yer?' he asked in a husky voice that seemed to issue from the ground beneath his broken boots. 'The rhyme we used to sing together in the Noight-Nursery when I put my faice agin' the bars, after climbin' along 'arf a mile of slippery slaites to git there.'

And Rogers, smiling, found himself saying it, while the pretty Guard fixed her blue eyes on his face and waited patiently:--

     I travel far and wide,
     But in my own inside!
     Such places
     And queer races!
     I never go to them, you see,
     ''Because they always come to me!''

'Take your seat, please,' cried the Guard. 'No luggage, you know!' She pushed him in sideways, first making him drop his dirty bundle.

With a quick, light step a very thin man hurried up. He had no luggage, but carried on his shoulder a long stick with a point of gold at its tip.

'Light the lamps,' said the Guard impatiently, 'and then sit on the back buffers and hold your pole out to warn the shooting stars.'

He hopped in, though not before Rogers had passed the time of night with him first:--

     I stand behind the sky, and light the stars,--
     Except on cloudy nights;
     And then my head
     Remains in bed,
     And takes along the ceiling--easier flights!

Others followed quickly then, too quickly for complete recognition. Besides, the Guard was getting more and more impatient.

'You've clean forgotten me,' said one who had an awful air of darkness about him; 'and no wonder, because you never saw me properly. On Sundays, when I was nicely washed up you couldn't 'ardly reckernise me. Nachural 'nuff, too!'

He shot by like a shadow, then pulled up a window with a rattle, popped his dirty head out, and called back thickly as if his mouth was full of smoke or pudding:--

     The darkness suits ''me'' best,
     For my old face
     Is out of place,
     Except in chimney stacks!
     Upon my crown
     The soot comes down
     Filling my eyes with blacks.
     Don't light the fire,
     Or I'd--.

'Stop it!' cried the Guard, shutting the window with a snap, so that Rogers never knew whether the missing word used to be 'expire' or 'perspire'; 'and go on to your proper place on the tender.' Then she turned quickly to fix her big blue eyes upon the next comer. And how they did come, to be sure! There was the Gypsy, the Creature of the Gravel-Pit, the long-legged, long-armed thing from the Long Walk--she could make her arm stretch the whole length like elastic--the enormous Woman of the Haystack, who lived beneath the huge tarpaulin cover, the owner of the Big Cedar, and the owner of the Little Cedar, all treading fast upon one another's heels.

From the Blue Summer-house came the Laugher. Rogers remembered pretending once that he was going to faint. He had thrown himself upon the summer-house floor and kicked, and the blue-eyed girl, instead of being thrilled as both anticipated, had laughed abominably.

'Painters don't kick!' she had said with scorn, while he had answered, though without conviction, 'Men-fainters do--kick dreadfully.' And she had simply laughed till her sides ached, while he lay there kicking till his muscles were sore, in the vain hope of winning her belief.

He exchanged a glance with her now, as the Laugher slipped in past them. The eyes of the Guard were very soft. He was found out and forgiven at the same time.

Then came the very mysterious figure of authority--the Head Gardener, a composite being who included all the lesser under-gardeners as well. His sunburned face presented a resume of them all. He was the man who burned the hills of dead leaves in autumn.

'Give me of your fire, please,' whispered Rogers, something between joy and sadness in his heart, 'for there are hills of leaves that I would burn up quickly--' but the man hurried on, tossing his trowel over the Guard's head, and nearly hitting another passenger who followed too close. This was the Woman of the Haystack, an enormous, spreading traveller who utterly refused to be hurried, and only squeezed through the door because Rogers, the Guard, and several others pushed behind with all their might, while the Sweep, the Tramp, and those already in tugged breathlessly at the same time....

Last of all, just as the train was starting, came a hurrying shadowy thing with dreamy eyes, long hair like waving grass, and open hands that he spread like wings, as though he were sowing something through the air. And he was singing softly as he came fumbling along the byeways of the dusk.

'Oh, but I know you well,' cried Rogers, watching him come with a thrill of secret wonder, 'and I love you better than all the rest together.'

The face was hidden as he wafted silently past them. A delicious odour followed him. And something, fine as star-dust, as he scattered it all about him, sifted down before the other's sight. The Dustman entered like a ghost.

'Oh, give me of your dust!' cried Rogers again, 'for there are eyes that I would blind with it--eyes in the world that I would blind with it--your dust of dreams and beauty...!'

The man waved a shadowy hand towards him, and his own eyes filled. He closed the lids a moment; and when he opened them again he saw two monster meteors in the sky. They crossed in two big lines of glory above the house, dropping towards the cedars. The Net of Stars was being fastened. He remembered then his old Star Cave--cave where lost starlight was stored up by these sprites for future use.

He just had time to seize the little hand the Guard held out, and to drop into a seat beside her, when the train began to move. It rose soundlessly with lightning speed. It shot up to a tremendous height, then paused, hovering in the night.

The Guard turned her big blue eyes upon him.

'Where to?' she whispered. And he suddenly remembered that it was always he who decided the destination, and that this time he was at a loss what to say.

'The Star Cave, of course,' he cried, 'the cave where the lost starlight gathers.'

'Which direction?' she asked, with the yellow whistle to her lips ready to signal the driver.

'Oh, out there--to the north-west,' he answered, 'to the mountains of --across the Channel.'

But this was not precise enough. Formerly he had always given very precise directions.

'Name, please,' she urged, 'but quickly. The Interfering Sun, you know--there's no time to lose. We shall be meeting the Morning Spiders soon.'

The Morning Spiders! How it all came back! The Morning Spiders that fly over the fields in the dawn upon their private threads of gossamer and fairy cotton.

He remembered that, as children, they had never actually found this Star Cave, for the Interfering Sun had always come too soon and spoilt it all.

'Name, please, and do hurry up. We can't hover here all night,' rang in his ears.

And he made a plunge. He suddenly thought of Bourcelles, the little village in the Jura mountains, where he and his cousin had spent a year learning French. The idea flashed into him probably because it contained mountains, caves, and children. His cousin lived there now to educate his children and write his books. Only that morning he had got a letter from him.

'Bourcelles, of course, Bourcelles!' he cried, 'and steer for the slopes of Boudry where the forests dip towards the precipices of the Areuse. I'll send word to the children to meet us.'

'Splendid!' cried the Guard, and kissed him with delight. The whistle shrieked, the train turned swiftly in a tremendous sweeping curve, and vanished along the intricate star-rails into space, humming and booming as it went. It flew a mane of stars behind it through the sky.

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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.