A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 6

     Be thou my star, and thou in me be seen
     To show what source divine is, and prevails.
     I mark thee planting joy in constant fire.
                   ''To Sirius'', G. MEREDITH.

And he rather astonished the imperturbable Minks next day by the announcement that he was thinking of going abroad for a little holiday. 'When I return, it will be time enough to take up the Scheme in earnest,' he said. For Minks had brought a sheaf of notes embodying the results of many hours' labour, showing what others had already done in that particular line of philanthropy.

'Very good indeed, Minks, very good. I'll take 'em with me and make a careful study of the lot. I shall be only gone a week or so,' he added, noticing the other's disappointment. For the secretary had hoped to expound these notes himself at length. 'Take a week's holiday yourself,' he added. 'Mrs. Minks might like to get to the sea, perhaps. There'll only be my letters to forward. I'll give you a little cheque.' And he explained briefly that he was going out to Bourcelles to enjoy a few days' rest before they attacked great problems together. After so many years of application to business he had earned it. Crayfield, it seemed, had given him a taste for sentimental journeys. But the fact was, too, the Tramp, the Dustman, the Lamplighter, and the Starlight Express were all in his thoughts still.

And it was spring. He felt this sudden desire to see his cousin again, and make the acquaintance of his cousin's children. He remembered how the two of them had tramped the Jura forests as boys. They had met in London at intervals since. He dictated a letter to him then and there --Minks taking it down like lightning--and added a postscript in his own handwriting:--

'I feel a longing,' he wrote, 'to come out and see the little haven of rest you have chosen, and to know your children. Our ways have gone very far apart--too far--since the old days when we climbed out of the windows of la cure with a sheet, and tramped the mountains all night long. Do you remember? I've had my nose on the grindstone ever since, and you've worked hard too, judging by your name in publishers' lists. I hope your books are a great success. I'm ashamed I've never any time to read now. But I'm "retired" from business at last and hope to do great things. I'll tell you about a great Scheme I have in hand when we meet. I should like your advice too.

'Any room will do--sunny aspect if possible. And please give my love to your children in advance. Tell them I shall come out in the Starlight Express. Let me have a line to say if it's all right.'

In due course the line--a warm-hearted one--arrived. Minks came to Charing Cross to see him off, the gleam of the sea already in his pale-blue eyes.

'The Weather Report says "calm," Mr. Rogers,' he kept repeating. 'You'll have a good crossing, I hope and trust. I'm taking Mrs. Minks myself---'

'Yes, yes, that's good,' was the quick reply. 'Capital. And--let me see-I've got your notes with me, haven't I? I'll draft out a general plan and send it to you as soon as I get a moment. You think over it too, will you, while I'm away. And enjoy yourself at the same time. Put your children in the sea--nothing like the sea for children--sea and sun and sand and all that sort of thing.'

'Thank you very much, Mr. Rogers, and I trust---'

Somebody bumped against him, cutting short a carefully balanced sentence that was intended to be one-third good wishes, one-third weather remark, and the last third Mrs. Minks. Her letter of thanks had never been referred to. It rankled, though very slightly.

'What an absurd-looking person!' exclaimed the secretary to himself, following the aggressor with one eye, and trying to recapture the lost sentence at the same time. 'They really should not allow such people in a railway terminus,' he added aloud. The man was ragged and unkempt to the last degree--a sort of tramp; and as he bought a ticket at the third-class wicket, just beyond, he kept looking up slyly at Minks and his companion. 'The way he knocked against me almost seemed intentional,' Minks thought. The idea of pickpockets and cleverly disguised detectives ran confusedly in his mind. He felt a little flustered for some reason.

'I beg your pardon,' Mr. Rogers was saying to a man who tried to push in front of him. 'But we must each take our turn, you know.' The throng of people was considerable. This man looked like a dustman. He, too, was eagerly buying a ticket, but had evidently mistaken the window. 'Third-class is lower down I think,' Mr. Rogers suggested with a touch of authority.

'What a lot of foreigners there are about,' remarked Minks. 'These stations are full of suspicious characters.' The notice about loitering flashed across him.

He took the ticket Mr. Rogers handed to him, and went off to register the luggage, and when later he joined his chief at the carriage door he saw him talking to a couple of strangers who seemed anxious to get in.

'I took this corner seat for you, Mr. Rogers,' he explained, both to prove his careful forethought and to let the strangers know that his master was a person of some importance. They were such an extraordinary couple too! Had there been hop-pickers about he could have understood it. They were almost figures of masquerade; for while one resembled more than anything else a chimney-sweep who had forgotten to wash his face below the level of the eyes, the other carried a dirty sack across his shoulders, which apparently he had just been trying to squeeze into the rack.

They moved off when they saw Minks, but the man with the sack made a gesture with one hand, as though he scattered something into the carriage through the open door.

The secretary threw a reproachful look at a passing guard, but there was nothing he could do. People with tickets had a right to travel. Still, he resented these crowding, pushing folk. 'I'm sorry, Mr. Rogers,' he said, as though he had chosen a poor train for his honoured chief; 'there must be an excursion somewhere. There's a big fete of Vegetarians, I know, at Surbiton to-day, but I can hardly think these people---'

'Don't wait, Minks,' said the other, who had taken his seat. 'I'll let you hear from me, you know, about the Scheme and--other things. Don't wait.' He seemed curiously unobservant of these strange folk, almost absent-minded.

The guard was whistling. Minks shut the door and gave the travelling- rug a last tuck-in about his feet. He felt as though he were packing off a child. The mother in him became active. Mr. Rogers needed looking after. Another minute and he would have patted him and told him what to eat and wear. But instead he raised his hat and smiled. The train moved slowly out, making a deep purring sound like flowing water. The platform had magically thinned. Officials stood lonely among the scattered wavers of hats and handkerchiefs. As he stepped backwards to keep the carriage window in sight until the last possible moment, Minks was nearly knocked over by a man who hurried along the platform as if he still had hopes of catching the train.

'Really, sir!' gasped the secretary, stooping to pick up his newspaper and lavender glove--he wore one glove and carried the other--the collision had sent flying. But the man was already far beyond the reach of his voice. 'He must be an escaped lamplighter, or something,' he laughed good-naturedly, as he saw the long legs vanish down the platform. He leaped on to the line. Evidently he was a railway employe. He seemed to be vainly trying to catch the departing buffers. An absurd and reckless fellow, thought Minks.

But what caught the secretary's attention last, and made him wonder a little if anything unusual was happening to the world, was the curious fact that, as the last carriage glided smoothly past, he recognised four figures seated comfortably inside. Their feet were on the cushions--disgracefully. They were talking together, heads forward, laughing, even--singing. And he could have sworn that they were the two men who had watched himself and Mr. Rogers at the ticket window, and the strangers who had tried to force their way into Mr. Rogers's carriage when he came up just in time to interfere.

'They got in somehow after all, then,' he said to himself. 'Of course, I had forgotten. The Company runs third-class carriages on the continental trains now. Odd!' He mentally rubbed his eyes.

The train swept round the corner out of sight, leaving a streaming cloud of smoke and sparks behind it. It went out with a kind of rush of delight, glad to be off, and conscious of its passengers' pleasure.

'Odd.' This was the word that filled his mind as he walked home. 'Perhaps--our minds are in such intimate sympathy together--perhaps he was thinking of--of that kind of thing--er--and some of his thoughts got into my own imagination. Odd, though, very, very odd.'

He had once read somewhere in one of his new-fangled books that 'thoughts are things.' It had made a great impression on him. He had read about Marconi too. Later he made a more thorough study of this 'thinking business.'

And soon afterwards, having put his chief's papers in order at the flat, he went home to Mrs. Minks and the children with this other thought--that he had possibly been overworking himself, and that it was a good thing he was going to have a holiday by the sea.

He liked to picture himself as an original thinker, not afraid of new ideas, but in reality he preferred his world sober, ordinary, logical. It was merely big-sounding names he liked. And this little incident was somewhere out of joint. It was--odd.

     Success that poisons many a baser mind
     May lift---

But the sonnet had never known completion. In the space it had occupied in his mind another one abruptly sprouted. The first subject after all was banal. A better one had come to him--

     Strong thoughts that rise in a creative mind
     May flash about the world, and carry joy---

Then it stuck. He changed 'may' to 'shall,' but a moment later decided that 'do' was better, truer than either. After that inspiration failed him. He retired gracefully upon prose again.

'Odd,' he thought, 'very odd!'

And he relieved his mind by writing a letter to a newspaper. He did not send it in the end, for his better judgment prevented, but he had to do something by way of protest, and the only alternative was to tell his wife about it, when she would look half puzzled, half pained, and probably reply with some remark about the general cost of living. So he wrote the letter instead.

For Herbert Minks regarded himself as a man with the larger view of citizenship, a critic of public affairs, and, in a measure, therefore, an item of that public opinion which moulded governments. Hence he had a finger, though but a little finger, in the destiny of nations and in the polity--a grand word that!--of national councils. He wrote frequent letters, thus, to the lesser weekly journals; these letters were sometimes printed; occasionally--oh, joy!--they were answered by others like himself, who referred to him as 'your esteemed correspondent.' As yet, however, his following letter had never got into print, nor had he experienced the importance of that editorial decision, appended between square brackets: 'This correspondence must now cease'--so vital, that is, that the editor and the entire office staff might change their opinions unless it did cease.

Having drafted his letter, therefore, and carried it about with him for several hours in his breast pocket, he finally decided not to send it after all, for the explanation of his 'odd' experience, he well knew, was hardly one that a newspaper office could supply, or that public correspondence could illuminate. His better judgment always won the day in the end. Thinking was creative, after all.

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