A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 5

     Oh! thou art fairer than the evening air
     Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.
                   Doctor Famtus, CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE.

The plop of a water-rat in the pond that occupied the rock-garden in the middle of the lawn brought him back to earth, and the Vicar's invitation to tea flashed across his mind.

'Stock Exchange and typewriters!' he exclaimed, 'how rude he'll think me!' And he rubbed something out of his eyes. He gave one long, yearning glance at the spangled sky where an inquisitive bat darted zigzag several times between himself and the Pleiades, that bunch of star-babies as yet unborn, as the blue-eyed guard used to call them.

'And I shall miss my supper and bed into the bargain!'

He turned reluctantly from his place beside the lime trees, and crossed the lawn now wet with dew. The whole house seemed to turn its hooded head and watch him go, staring with amusement in its many lidless eyes. On the front lawn there was more light, for it faced the dying sunset. The Big and Little Cedar rose from their pools of shadow, beautifully poised. Like stately dowagers in voluminous skirts of velvet they seemed to curtsey to him as he passed. Stars like clusters of sprinkled blossoms hung upon their dignified old heads. The whole place seemed aware of him. Glancing a moment at the upper nursery windows, he could just distinguish the bars through which his little hands once netted stars, and as he did so a meteor shot across the sky its flashing light of wonder. Behind the Little Cedar it dived into the sunset afterglow. And, hardly had it dipped away, when another, coming crosswise from the south, drove its length of molten, shining wire straight against the shoulder of the Big Cedar.

The whole performance seemed arranged expressly for his benefit. The Net was loosed--this Net of Stars and Thoughts--perhaps to go elsewhere. For this was taking out the golden nails, surely. It would hardly have surprised him next to see the Starlight Express he had been dreaming about dart across the heavens overhead. That cool air stealing towards him from the kitchen-garden might well have been the wind of its going. He could almost hear the distant rush and murmur of its flying mass.

'How extraordinarily vivid it all was!' he thought to himself, as he hurried down the drive. 'What detail! What a sense of reality! How carefully I must have thought these creatures as a boy! How thoroughly! And what a good idea to go out and see Jack's children at Bourcelles. They've never known these English sprites. I'll introduce 'em!'

He thought it out in detail, very vividly indeed. His imagination lingered over it and gave it singular reality.

Up the road he fairly ran. For Henry Rogers was a punctual man; these last twenty years he had never once been late for anything. It had been part of the exact training he had schooled himself with, and the Vicar's invitation was not one he desired to trifle with. He made his peace, indeed, easily enough, although the excuses sounded a little thin. It was something of a shock, too, to find that the married daughter after all was not the blue-eyed girl of his boyhood's passion. For it was Joan, not May, who came down the gravel path between the roses to greet him.

On the way up he had felt puzzled. Yet 'bemused,' perhaps, is the word that Herbert Minks would have chosen for one of his poems, to describe a state of mind he, however, had never experienced himself. And he would have chosen it instinctively--for onomatopoeic reasons--because it hums and drones and murmurs dreamily. 'Puzzled' was too sharp a word.

Yet Henry Rogers, who felt it, said 'puzzled' without more ado, although mind, imagination, memory all hummed and buzzed pleasantly about his ears even while he did so.

'A dream is a dream,' he reflected as he raced along the familiar dusty road in the twilight, 'and a reverie is a reverie; but that, I'd swear, went a bit further than either one or t'other. It puzzles me. Does vivid thinking, I wonder, make pictures everywhere?... And--can they last?'

For the detailed reality of the experience had been remarkable, and the actuality of those childhood's creations scarcely belonged to dream or reverie. They were certainly quite as real as the sleek Directors who sat round the long Board Room table, fidgeting with fat quill pens and pewter ink-pots; more alive even than the Leading Shareholder who rose so pompously at Annual Meetings to second the resolution that the 'Report and Balance Sheet be adopted without criticism.'

And he was conscious that in himself rose, too, a deep, passionate willingness to accept the whole experience, also 'without criticism.' Those picturesque passengers in the Starlight Express he knew so intimately, so affectionately, that he actually missed them. He felt that he had said good-bye to genuine people. He regretted their departure, and was keenly sorry he had not gone off with them--such a merry, wild, adventurous crew! He must find them again, whatever happened. There was a yearning in him to travel with that blue-eyed guard among the star-fields. He would go out to Bourcelles and tell the story to the children. He thought very hard indeed about it all.

And now, in the Vicarage drawing-room after dinner, his bemusement increased rather than grew less. His mind had already confused a face and name. The blue-eyed May was not, after all, the girl of his boyhood's dream. His memory had been accurate enough with the passengers in the train. There was no confusion there. But this gentle married woman, who sang to her own accompaniment at her father's request, was not the mischievous, wilful creature who had teased and tortured his heart in years gone by, and had helped him construct the sprites and train and star-trips. It was, surely, the other daughter who had played that delicious role. Yet, either his memory was at fault, or the Vicar had mixed the names up. The years had played this little unimportant trick upon him anyhow. And that was clear.

But if with so-called real people such an error was possible, how could he be sure of anything? Which after all, he asked himself, was real? It was the Vicar's mistake, he learned later, for May was now a teacher in London; but the trivial incident served to point this confusion in his mind between an outer and an inner world--to the disadvantage, if anything, of the former.

And over the glass of port together, while they talked pleasantly of vanished days, Rogers was conscious that a queer, secret amusement sheltered in his heart, due to some faint, superior knowledge that this Past they spoke of had not moved away at all, but listened with fun and laughter just behind his shoulder, watching them. The old gentleman seemed never tired of remembering his escapades. He told them one after another, like some affectionate nurse or mother, Rogers thought, whose children were--to her--unique and wonderful. For he had really loved this good-for-nothing pupil, loved him the more, as mothers and nurses do, because of the trouble he had given, and because of his busy and fertile imagination. It made Rogers feel ridiculously young again as he listened. He could almost have played a trick upon him then and there, merely to justify the tales. And once or twice he actually called him 'Sir.' So that even the conversation helped to deepen this bemusement that gathered somewhat tenderly about his mind. He cracked his walnuts and watched the genial, peace-lit eyes across the table. He chuckled. Both chuckled. They spoke of his worldly success too--it seemed unimportant somehow now, although he was conscious that something in him expected, nay demanded tribute-- but the former tutor kept reverting to the earlier days before achievement.

'You were indeed a boy of mischief, wonder, and mystery,' he said, his eyes twinkling and his tone almost affectionate; 'you made the whole place alive with those creatures of your imagination. How Joan helped you too--or was it May? I used to wonder sometimes--' he glanced up rather searchingly at his companion a moment--' whether the people who took the Manor House after your family left did not encounter them sometimes upon the lawn or among the shrubberies in the dusk--those sprites of yours. Eh?' He passed a neatly pared walnut across the table to his guest. 'These ghosts that people nowadays explain scientifically--what are they but thoughts visualised by vivid thinking such as yours was--creative thinking? They may be just pictures created in moments of strong passionate feeling that persist for centuries and reach other minds direct They're not seen with the outer eye; that's certain, for no two people ever see them together. But I'm sure these pictures flame up through the mind sometimes just as clearly as some folk see Grey Ladies and the rest flit down the stairs at midnight.'

They munched their walnuts a moment in silence. Rogers listened very keenly. How curious, he reflected, that the talk should lie this way. But he said nothing, hoping that the other would go on.

'And if you really believed in your things,' the older man continued presently, 'as I am sure you did believe, then your old Dustman and Sweep and Lamplighter, your Woman of the Haystack and your Net of Stars and Star Train--all these, for instance, must still be living, where you left them, waiting perhaps for your return to lead their fresh adventures.'

Rogers stared at him, choking a little over a nut he had swallowed too hurriedly.

'Yet,' mused on the other, 'it's hardly likely the family that succeeded you met them. There were no children!'

'Ah,' exclaimed the pupil impulsively, 'that's significant, yes--no children.' He looked up quickly, questioningly.

'Very, I admit.'

'Besides, the chief Magician had gone away into the City. They wouldn't answer to anybody's call, you know.'

'True again. But the Magician never forgot them quite, I'll be bound,' he added. 'They're only in hiding till his return, perhaps!' And his bright eyes twinkled knowingly.

'But, Vicar, really, you know, that is an extraordinary idea you have there-a wonderful idea. Do you really think--?'

'I only mean,' the other replied more gravely, 'that what a man thinks, and makes with thinking, is the real thing. It's in the heart that sin is first real. The act is the least important end of it-- grave only because it is the inevitable result of the thinking. Action is merely delayed thinking, after all. Don't think ghosts and bogeys, I always say to children, or you'll surely see them.'

'Ah, in that sense--!'

'In any sense your mind and intuition can grasp. The thought that leaves your brain, provided it be a real thought strongly fashioned, goes all over the world, and may reach any other brain tuned to its acceptance. You should understand that!' he laughed significantly.

'I do,' said Rogers hastily, as though he felt ashamed of himself or were acknowledging a fault in his construing of Homer. 'I understand it perfectly. Only I put all those things--imaginative things--aside when I went into business. I had to concentrate my energies upon making money.'

'You did, yes. Ah!' was the rejoinder, as though he would fain have added, 'And was that wise?'

'And I made it, Vicar; you see, I've made it.' He was not exactly nettled, but he wanted a word of recognition for his success. 'But you know why, don't you?' he added, ashamed the same moment. There was a pause, during which both looked closely at their broken nuts. From one of the men came a sigh.

'Yes,' resumed the older man presently, 'I remember your great dream perfectly well, and a noble one it was too. Its fulfilment now, I suppose, lies well within your reach? You have the means to carry it out, eh? You have indeed been truly blessed.' He eyed him again with uncommon keenness, though a smile ran from the eyes and mouth even up to the forehead and silvery hair. 'The world, I see, has not yet poisoned you. To carry it out as you once explained it to me would be indeed success. If I remember rightly,' he added, 'it was a--er--a Scheme for Disabled--'

Rogers interrupted him quickly. 'And I am full of the same big dream still,' he repeated almost shyly. 'The money I have made I regard as lent to me for investment. I wish to use it, to give it away as one gives flowers. I feel sure--'

He stopped abruptly, caught by the glow of enthusiasm that had leaped into the other's face with a strangely beautiful expression.

'You never did anything by halves, I remember,' the Vicar said, looking at him proudly. 'You were always in earnest, even in your play, and I don't mind telling you that I've often prayed for something of that zeal of yours--that zeal for others. It's a remarkable gift. You will never bury it, will you?' He spoke eagerly, passionately, leaning forward a little across the table. 'Few have it nowadays; it grows rarer with the luxury and self-seeking of the age. It struck me so in you as a boy, that even your sprites worked not for themselves but for others--your Dustman, your Sweep, your absurd Lamplighter, all were busy doing wonderful things to help their neighbours, all, too, without reward.'

Rogers flushed like a boy. But he felt the thrill of his dream course through him like great fires. Wherein was any single thing in the world worth doing, any object of life worth following, unless as means to an end, and that end helping some one else. One's own little personal dreams became exhausted in a few years, endeavours for self smothered beneath the rain of disappointments; but others, and work for others, this was endless and inexhaustible.

'I've sometimes thought,' he heard the older man going on, 'that in the dusk I saw'--his voice lowered and he glanced towards the windows where the rose trees stood like little figures, cloaked and bonneted with beauty beneath the stars--'that I saw your Dustman scattering his golden powder as he came softly up the path, and that some of it reached my own eyes, too; or that your swift Lamplighter lent me a moment his gold-tipped rod of office so that I might light fires of hope in suffering hearts here in this tiny world of my own parish. Your dreadful Head Gardener, too! And your Song of the Blue-Eyes Fairy,' he added slyly, almost mischievously, 'you remember that, I wonder?'

'H'm--a little, yes--something,' replied Rogers confusedly. 'It was a dreadful doggerel. But I've got a secretary now,' he continued hurriedly and in rather a louder voice,' a fellow named Minks, a jewel really of a secretary he is--and he, I believe, can write real--'

'It was charming enough for us all to have remembered it, anyhow,' the Vicar stopped him, smiling at his blushes,' and for May--or was it Joan? dear me, how I do forget names!--to have set it to music. She had a little gift that way, you may remember; and, before she took up teaching she wrote one or two little things like that.'

'Ah, did she really?' murmured the other. He scarcely knew what he was saying, for a mist of blue had risen before his eyes, and in it he was seeing pictures. 'The Spell of Blue, wasn't it, or something like that?' he said a moment later, 'blue, the colour of beauty in flowers, sea, sky, distance--the childhood colour par excellence?'

'But chiefly in the eyes of children, yes,' the Vicar helped him, rising at the same time from the table. 'It was the spell, the passport, the open sesame to most of your adventures. Come now, if you won't have another glass of port, and we'll go into the drawing-room, and Joan, May I mean--no, Joan, of course, shall sing it to you. For this is a very special occasion for us, you know,' he added as they passed across the threshold side by side. 'To see you is to go back with you to Fairyland.'

The piano was being idly strummed as they went in, and the player was easily persuaded to sing the little song. It floated through the open windows and across the lawn as the two men in their corners listened. She knew it by heart, as though she often played it. The candles were not lit. Dusk caught the sound and muted it enchantingly. And somehow the simple melody helped to conceal the meagreness of the childish words. Everywhere, from sky and lawn and solemn trees, the Past came softly in and listened too.

    There's a Fairy that hides in the beautiful eyes
    Of children who treat her well;
    In the little round hole where the eyeball lies
    She weaves her magical spell.

    Oh, tell it to me,
    Oh, how can it be,
    This Spell of the Blue-Eyes Fairy.

    Well,--the eyes must be blue,
    And the heart must be true,
    And the child must be ''better'' than gold;
    And then, if you'll let her,
    The quicker the better,
    She'll make you forget that you're old,
    That you're heavy and stupid, and--old!

    So, if such a child you should chance to see,
    Or with such a child to play,
    No matter how weary and dull you be,
    Nor how many tons you weigh;
    You will suddenly find that you're young again,
    And your movements are light and airy,
    And you'll try to be solemn and stiff in vain--
    It's the Spell of the Blue-Eyes Fairy!

    Now I've told it to you,
    And you ''know'' it is true--
    It's the Spell of the Blue-Eyes Fairy!

'And it's the same spell,' said the old man in his corner as the last notes died away, and they sat on some minutes longer in the fragrant darkness, 'that you cast about us as a boy, Henry Rogers, when you made that wonderful Net of Stars and fastened it with your comets' nails to the big and little cedars. The one catches your heart, you see, while the other gets your feet and head and arms till you're a hopeless prisoner--a prisoner in Fairyland.'

'Only the world to-day no longer believes in Fairyland,' was the reply, 'and even the children have become scientific. Perhaps it's only buried though. The two ought to run in harness really--opposite interpretations of the universe. One might revive it--here and there perhaps. Without it, all the tenderness seems leaking out of life--'

Joan presently said good-night, but the other two waited on a little longer; and before going to bed they took a turn outside among the flower-beds and fruit-trees that formed the tangled Vicarage garden at the back. It was uncommonly warm for a night in early spring. The lilacs were in bud, and the air most exquisitely scented.

Rogers felt himself swept back wonderfully among his early years. It seemed almost naughty to be out at such an hour instead of asleep in bed. It was quite ridiculous--but he loved the feeling and let himself go with happy willingness. The story of 'Vice Versa,' where a man really became a boy again, passed through his mind and made him laugh.

And the old Vicar kept on feeding the semi-serious mood with what seemed almost intentional sly digs. Yet the digs were not intentional, really; it was merely that his listener, already prepared by his experience with the Starlight Express, read into them these searching meanings of his own. Something in him was deeply moved.

'You might make a great teacher, you know,' suggested his companion, stooping to sniff a lilac branch as they paused a moment. 'I thought so years ago; I think so still. You've kept yourself so simple.'

'How not to do most things,' laughed the other, glad of the darkness.

'How to do the big and simple things,' was the rejoinder; 'and do them well, without applause. You have Belief.'

'Too much, perhaps. I simply can't get rid of it.'

'Don't try to. It's belief that moves the world; people want teachers --that's my experience in the pulpit and the parish; a world in miniature, after all--but they won't listen to a teacher who hasn't got it. There are no great poets to-day, only great discoverers. The poets, the interpreters of discovery, are gone--starved out of life by ridicule, and by questions to which exact answers are impossible. With your imagination and belief you might help a world far larger than this parish of mine at any rate. I envy you.'

Goodness! how the kind eyes searched his own in this darkness. Though little susceptible to flattery, he was aware of something huge the words stirred in the depths of him, something far bigger than he yet had dreamed of even in his boyhood, something that made his cherished Scheme seem a little pale and faded.

'Take the whole world with you into fairyland,' he heard the low voice come murmuring in his ear across the lilacs. And there was starlight in it--that gentle, steady brilliance that steals into people while they sleep and dream, tracing patterns of glory they may recognise when they wake, yet marvelling whence it came. 'The world wants its fairyland back again, and won't be happy till it gets it.'

A bird listening to them in the stillness sang a little burst of song, then paused again to listen.

'Once give them of your magic, and each may shape his fairyland as he chooses...' the musical voice ran on.

The flowers seemed alive and walking. This was a voice of beauty. Some lilac bud was singing in its sleep. Sirius had dropped a ray across its lips of blue and coaxed it out to dance. There was a murmur and a stir among the fruit-trees too. The apple blossoms painted the darkness with their tiny fluttering dresses, while old Aldebaran trimmed them silently with gold, and partners from the Milky Way swept rustling down to lead the violets out. Oh, there was revelry to-night, and the fairy spell of the blue-eyed Spring was irresistible....

'But the world will never dance,' he whispered sadly, half to himself perhaps; 'it's far too weary.'

'It will follow a leader,' came the soft reply, 'who dances well and pipes the true old music so that it can hear. Belief inspires it always. And that Belief you have.' There was a curious vibration in his voice; he spoke from his heart, and his heart was evidently moved.

'I wonder when it came to me, then, and how?'

The Vicar turned and faced him where they stood beneath the lime trees. Their scent was pouring out as from phials uncorked by the stars.

'It came,' he caught the answer that thrilled with earnestness, 'when you saw the lame boy on the village hill and cried. As long ago as that it came.'

His mind, as he listened, became a plot of fresh-turned earth the Head Gardener filled with flowers. A mass of covering stuff the years had laid ever thicker and thicker was being shovelled away. The flowers he saw being planted there were very tiny ones. But they would grow. A leaf from some far-off rocky mount of olive trees dropped fluttering through the air and marvellously took root and grew. He felt for a moment the breath of night air that has been tamed by an eastern sun. He saw a group of men, bare-headed, standing on the slopes, and in front of them a figure of glory teaching little, simple things they found it hard to understand....

'You have the big and simple things alive in you,' the voice carried on his pictured thought among the flowers. 'In your heart they lie all waiting to be used. Nothing can smother them. Only-you must give them out.'

'If only I knew how--!'

'Keep close to the children,' sifted the strange answer through the fruit-trees; 'the world is a big child. And catch it when it lies asleep--not thinking of itself,' he whispered.

'The time is so short--'

'At forty you stand upon the threshold of life, with values learned and rubbish cleared away. So many by that time are already dead--in heart. I envy your opportunities ahead. You have learned already one foundation truth--the grandeur of toil and the insignificance of acquisition. The other foundation thing is even simpler--you have a neighbour. Now, with your money to give as flowers, and your Belief to steer you straight, you have the world before you. And--keep close to the children.'

'Before there are none left,' added Rogers under his breath. But the other heard the words and instantly corrected him--

'Children of any age, and wherever you may find them.'

And they turned slowly and made their way in silence across the soaking lawn, entering the house by the drawing-room window.

'Good-night,' the old man said, as he lit his candle and led him to his room; 'and pleasant, happy, inspiring dreams.'

He seemed to say it with some curious, heartfelt meaning in the common words. He disappeared slowly down the passage, shading the candle with one hand to pick his way, and Rogers watched him out of sight, then turned and entered his own room, closing the door as softly as possible behind him.

It had been an astonishing conversation. All his old enthusiasm was stirred. Embers leaped to flame. No woman ever had done as much. This old fellow, once merely respected tutor, had given him back his first original fire and zeal, yet somehow cleansed and purified. And it humbled him at the same time. Dead leaves, dropped year by year in his City life, were cleared away as though a mighty wind had swept him. The Gardener was burning up dead leaves; the Sweep was cleaning out the flues; the Lamplighter waving his golden signal in the sky--far ahead, it is true, but gleaming like a torch and beacon. The Starlight Express was travelling at top speed among the constellations. He stood at the beginning of the important part of life....

And now, as he lay in bed and heard the owls hooting in the woods, and smelt the flowers through the open window, his thoughts followed strongly after that old Star Train that he used to drive about the sky. He was both engine-driver and passenger. He fell asleep to dream of it.

And all the vital and enchanting thoughts of his boyhood flowed back upon him with a rush, as though they had never been laid aside. He remembered particularly one singular thing about them--that they had never seemed quite his own, but that he had either read or heard them somewhere else. As a child the feeling was always strong that these 'jolly thoughts,' as he called them, were put into him by some one else--some one who whispered to him--some one who lived close behind his ears. He had to listen very hard to catch them. It was not dreams, yet all night long, especially when he slept tightly, as he phrased it, this fairy whispering continued, and in the daytime he remembered what he could and made up his stories accordingly. He stole these ideas about a Star Net and a Starlight Express. One day he would be caught and punished for it. It was trespassing upon the preserves of some one else.

Yet he could never discover who this some one else was, except that it was a 'she' and lived among the stars, only coming out at night. He imagined she hid behind that little dusty constellation called the Pleiades, and that was why the Pleiades wore a veil and were so dim-- lest he should find her out. And once, behind the blue gaze of the guard-girl, who was out of his heart by this time, he had known a moment of thrilling wonder that was close to awe. He saw another pair of eyes gazing out at him They were ambery eyes, as he called them-- just what was to be expected from a star. And, so great was the shock, that at first he stood dead still and gasped, then dashed up suddenly close to her and stared into her face, frightening her so much that she fell backwards, and the amber eyes vanished instantly. It was the 'some one else' who whispered fairy stories to him and lived behind his ear. For a second she had been marvellously close. And he had lost her!

From that moment, however, his belief in her increased enormously, and he never saw a pair of brown-ambery eyes without feeling sure that she was somewhere close about him. The lame boy, for instance, had the same delicate tint in his sad, long, questioning gaze. His own collie had it too! For years it was an obsession with him, haunting and wonderful--the knowledge that some one who watched close beside him, filling his mind with fairy thoughts, might any moment gaze into his face through a pair of ordinary familiar eyes. And he was certain that all his star-imagination about the Net, the Starlight Express, and the Cave of Lost Starlight came first into him from this hidden 'some one else' who brought the Milky Way down into his boy's world of fantasy.

'If ever I meet her in real life,' he used to say, 'I'm done for. She is my Star Princess!'

And now, as he fell asleep, the old atmosphere of that Kentish garden drew thickly over him, shaking out clusters of stars about his bed. Dreams usually are determined by something more remote than the talk that has just preceded going to bed, but to-night it was otherwise. And two things the old Vicar had let fall--two things sufficiently singular, it seemed, when he came to think about them--influenced his night adventures. 'Catch the world when it's asleep,' and 'Keep close to the children'--these somehow indicated the route his dream should follow. For he headed the great engine straight for the village in the Jura pine woods where his cousin's children lived. He did not know these children, and had seen his cousin but rarely in recent years; yet, it seemed, they came to meet the train up among the mountain forests somewhere. For in this village, where he had gone to study French, the moods of his own childhood had somehow known continuation and development. The place had once been very dear to him, and he had known delightful adventures there, many of them with this cousin. Now he took all his own childhood's sprites out in this Starlight Express and introduced them to these transplanted children who had never made acquaintance with the English breed. They had surprising, wild adventures all together, yet in the morning he could remember very little of it all. The interfering sun melted them all down in dew. The adventures had some object, however; that was clear; though what the object was, except that it did good somewhere to. some one, was gone, lost in the deeps of sleep behind him. They scurried about the world. The sprites were very active indeed--quite fussily energetic. And his Scheme for Disabled Something-or other was not anywhere discoverable in these escapades. That seemed forgotten rather, as though they found bigger, more important things to do, and nearer home too. Perhaps the Vicar's hint about the 'Neighbour' was responsible for that. Anyhow, the dream was very vivid, even though the morning sun melted it away so quickly and completely. It seemed continuous too. It filled the entire night.

Yet the thing that Rogers took off with him to town next morning was, more than any other detail, the memory of what the old tutor had said about the living reality and persistence of figures that passionate thinking has created--that, and the value of Belief.

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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.