A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 7

              ... The sun,
     Closing his benediction,
     Sinks, and the darkening air
     Thrills with a sense of the triumphing night-
     Night with her train of stars
     And her great gift of sleep.
                     W. E. HENLEY.

In a southern-facing room on the first floor of La Citadelle the English family sat after tea. The father, a spare, mild-eyed man, his thatch of brown hair well sprinkled with grey above the temples, was lighting his pipe for the tenth time-the tenth match, but the same pipeful of tobacco; and his wife, an ample, motherly woman, slightly younger than himself, was knitting on the other side of the open fireplace, in which still glowed a mass of peat ashes. From time to time she stirred them with a rickety pair of tongs, or with her foot kicked into the grate the matches he invariably threw short upon the floor. But these were adventures ill-suited to her. Knitting was her natural talent. She was always knitting.

By the open window stood two children, a boy and a girl of ten and twelve respectively, gazing out into the sunshine. It was the end of April, and though the sun was already hot, there was a sharpness in the air that told of snow still lying on the mountain heights behind the village. Across vineyard slopes and patches of agricultural land, the Lake of Neuchatel lay blue as a southern sea, while beyond it, in a line of white that the sunset soon would turn to pink and gold, stretched the whole range of Alps, from Mont Blanc to where the Eiger and the Weisshorn signalled in the east. They filled the entire horizon, already cloud-like in the haze of coming summer.

The door into the corridor opened, and a taller child came in. A mass of dark hair, caught by a big red bow, tumbled untidily down her back. She was sixteen and very earnest, but her eyes, brown like her father's, held a curious puzzled look, as though life still confused her so much that while she did her duties bravely she did not quite understand why it should be so.

'Excuse me, Mother, shall I wash up?' she said at once. She always did wash up. And 'excuse me' usually prefaced her questions.

'Please, Jane Anne,' said Mother. The entire family called her Jane Anne, although her baptismal names were rather fine. Sometimes she answered, too, to Jinny, but when it was a question of household duties it was Jane Anne, or even 'Ria.'

She set about her duties promptly, though not with any special deftness. And first she stooped and picked up the last match her father had dropped upon the strip of carpet that covered the linoleum.

'Daddy,' she said reprovingly, 'you do make such a mess.' She brushed tobacco ashes from his coat. Mother, without looking up, went on talking to him about the bills-washing, school-books, boots, blouses, oil, and peat. And as she did so a puzzled expression was visible in his eyes akin to the expression in Jane Anne's. Both enjoyed a similar mental confusion sometimes as to words and meanings and the import of practical life generally.

'We shan't want any more now, thank goodness,' he said vaguely, referring to the peat, though Mother was already far ahead, wading among boots and shirts and blouses.

'But if we get a load in now, you see, it's cheaper,' she said with emphasis on every alternate word, slowing up the pace to suit him.

'Mother, where did you put the washing-up rag?' came the voice of Jinny in plaintive accents from the tiny kitchen that lay beyond the adjoining bedroom. 'I can't find it anywhere,' she added, poking her head round the door suddenly.

'Pet lamb,' was Mother's answer, still bending over her knitting-she was prodigal of terms like this and applied them indiscriminately, for Jane Anne resembled the animal in question even less than did her father--'I saw it last on the geranium shelf--you know, where the fuchsias and the-' She hesitated, she was not sure herself. 'I'll get it, my duckie, for you,' she added, and began to rise. She was a voluminous, very stately woman. The operation took time.

'Let me,' said Daddy, drawing his mind with difficulty from the peat, and rising too. They rose together.

'It's all right, I've got it,' cried the child, who had disappeared again. 'It was in the sink. That's Jimbo; he washed up yesterday.'

'Pas vrai!' piped a little voice beside the open window, overhearing his name, 'because I only dried. It was Monkey who washed up.' They talked French and English all mixed up together.

But Monkey was too busy looking at the Alps through an old pair of opera-glasses, relic of her father's London days that served for telescope, to think reply worth while. Her baptismal names were also rather wonderful, though neither of her parents could have supplied them without a moment's reflection first. There was commotion by that window for a moment but it soon subsided again, for things that Jinny said never provoked dissension, and Jimbo and Monkey just then were busy with a Magic Horse who had wings of snow, and was making fearful leaps from the peaks of the Dent du Midi across the Blumlisalp to the Jungfrau.

'Will you please carry the samovar for me?' exclaimed Jane Anne, addressing both her parents, as though uncertain which of them would help her. 'You filled it so awfully full to-day, I can't lift it. I advertise for help.'

Her father slowly rose. 'I'll do it, child,' he said kindly, but with a patience, almost resignation, in his tone suggesting that it was absurd to expect such a thing of him. 'Then do exactly as you think best,' he let fall to his wife as he went, referring to the chaos of expenses she had been discussing with him. 'That'll be all right.' For his mind had not yet sorted the jumble of peat, oil, boots, school- books, and the rest. 'We can manage THAT at any rate; you see it's francs, not shillings,' he added, as Jane Anne pulled him by the sleeve towards the steaming samovar. He held the strings of an ever empty purse.

'Daddy, but you've always got a crumb in your beard,' she was saying, 'and if it isn't a crumb, it's ashes on your coat or a match on the floor.' She brushed the crumb away. He gave her a kiss. And between them they nearly upset the old nickel-plated samovar that was a present from a Tiflis Armenian to whom the mother once taught English. They looked round anxiously as though afraid of a scolding; but Mother had not noticed. And she was accustomed to the noise and laughter. The scene then finished, as it usually did, by the mother washing up, Jane Anne drying, and Daddy hovering to and fro in the background making remarks in his beard about the geraniums, the China tea, the indigestible new bread, the outrageous cost of the necessaries of life, or the book he was at work on at the moment. He often enough gave his uncertain assistance in the little menial duties connected with the preparation or removal of the tea-things, and had even been known to dry. Only washing-up he never did. Somehow his vocation rendered him immune from that. He might bring the peat in, fill the lamps, arrange and dust the scanty furniture, but washing-up was not a possibility even. As an author it was considered beneath his dignity altogether, almost improper--it would have shocked the children. Mother could do anything; it was right and natural that she should---poor soul I But Daddy's profession set him in an enclosure apart, and there were certain things in this servantless menage he could not have done without disgracing the entire family. Washing-up was one; carrying back the empty basket of tea-things to the Pension was another. Daddy wrote books. As Jane Anne put it forcibly and finally once, 'Shakespeare never washed up or carried a tea-basket in the street!'--which the others accepted as a conclusive statement of authority.

And, meantime, the two younger children, who knew how to amuse each other for hours together unaided, had left the Magic Horse in its stables for the night--an enormous snow-drift--and were sitting side by side upon the sofa conning a number of Punch some English aunt had sent them. The girl read out the jokes, and her brother pointed with a very dirty finger to the pictures. None of the jokes were seized by either, but Jimbo announced each one with, 'Oh! I say!' and their faces were grave and sometimes awed; and when Jimbo asked, 'But what does THAT mean?' his sister would answer, 'Don't you see, I suppose the cabman meant--' finishing with some explanation very far from truth, whereupon Jimbo, accepting it doubtfully, said nothing, and they turned another page with keen anticipation. They never appealed for outside aid, but enjoyed it in their own dark, mysterious way. And, presently, when the washing-up was finished, and the dusk began to dim the landscape and conceal the ghostly-looking Alps, they retired to the inner bedroom--for this was Saturday and there were no school tasks to be prepared--and there, seated on the big bed in the corner, they opened a book of cantiques used in school, and sang one hymn and song after another, interrupting one another with jokes and laughter and French and English sentences oddly mixed together. Jimbo sang the tune, and Monkey the alto. It was by no means unpleasant to listen to. And, upon the whole, it was a very grave business altogether, graver even than their attitude to "Punch." Jane Anne considered it a foolish waste of time, but she never actually said so. She smiled her grave smile and went her own puzzled way alone.

Usually at this hour the Den presented a very different appearance, the children, with slates and cahiers, working laboriously round the table, Jane Anne and mother knitting or mending furiously, Mere Riquette, the old cat, asleep before the fire, and a general schoolroom air pervading the place. The father, too, tea once finished, would depart for the little room he slept in and used as work-place over at the carpenter's house among the vineyards. He kept his books there, his rows of pipes and towering little heap of half- filled match-boxes, and there he wrote his clever studies that yet were unproductive of much gold and brought him little more than pleasant notices and occasional letters from enthusiastic strangers. It seemed very unremunerative labour indeed, and the family had done well to migrate from Essex into Switzerland, where, besides the excellent schools which cost barely two pounds annually per head, the children learned the language and enjoyed the air of forest and mountain into the bargain. Life, for all that, was a severe problem to them, and the difficulty of making both ends come in sight of each other, let alone meeting, was an ever-present one. That they jogged along so well was due more than the others realised to the untiring and selfless zeal of the Irish mother, a plucky, practical woman, and a noble one if ever such existed on this earth. The way she contrived would fill a book; her economies, so clever they hardly betrayed themselves, would supply a comic annual with material for years, though their comedy involved a pathos of self-denial and sleepless nights that only those similarly placed could have divined. Herself a silent, even inarticulate, woman, she never spoke of them, least of all to her husband, whose mind it was her brave desire to keep free from unnecessary worries for his work. His studies she did not understand, but his stories she read aloud with patient resignation to the children. She marked the place when the reading was interrupted with a crimson paper-knife, and often Jimbo would move it several pages farther on without any of them discovering the gap. Jane Anne, however, who made no pretence of listening to 'Daddy's muddle- stories,' was beginning to realise what went on in Mother's mind underground. She hardly seized the pathos, but she saw and understood enough to help. And she was in many ways a little second edition--a phrase the muddle-stories never knew, alas!--of her mother, with the same unselfishness that held a touch of grandeur, the same clever domestic instinct for contrivance, and the same careful ways that yet sat ill upon a boundless generosity of heart beneath. She loved to be thought older than she was, and she used the longest, biggest, grandest words she could possibly invent or find.

And the village life suited them all in all respects, for, while there was no degrading poverty anywhere, all the inhabitants, from the pasteur to the carpenter, knew the exact value of a centime; there was no question of keeping up impossible appearances, but a general frankness with regard to the fundamental values of clothing, food, and education that all shared alike and made no pretence about. Any faintest sign of snobbery, for instance, would have been drummed out of the little mountain hamlet at once by Gygi, the gendarme, who spent more time in his fields and vineyards than in his uniform. And, while every one knew that a title and large estates were a not impossible future for the famille anglaise, it made no slightest difference in the treatment of them, and indeed hardly lent them the flavour of a faintest cachet. They were the English family in La Citadelle, and that was all there was about it.

The peasants, however, rather pitied the hard-working author who 'had to write all those books,' than paid him honourable tribute for his work. It seemed so unnecessary. Vineyards produced wine a man could drink and pay for, but books---! Well, results spoke for themselves, and no one who lived in La Citadelle was millionaire.

Yet the reputation of John Frederic Campden stood high enough, for all his meagre earnings, and he was an ineffective author chiefly, perhaps, because he missed his audience. Somewhere, somehow, he fell between two stools. And his chagrin was undeniable; for though the poet's heart in him kept all its splendid fires alight, his failure chilled a little the intellect that should fashion them along effective moulds. Now, with advancing years, the increasing cost of the children's growing-up, and the failing of his wife's health a little, the burdens of life were heavier than he cared to think about.

But this evening, as the group sat round the wide peat fire, cheerful and jolly in the lamplight, there was certainly no sign of sadness. They were like a party of children in which the grave humour of the ever-knitting mother kept the balance true between fun and foolishness.

'Please, Daddy, a story at once,' Jane Anne demanded, 'but a told one, not a read-aloud one. I like a romantic effort best.'

He fumbled in his pocket for a light, and Jimbo gravely produced a box he had secretly filled with matches already used, collected laboriously from the floor during the week. Then Monkey, full of mischief, came over from the window where she had been watching them with gasps of astonishment no one had heeded through the small end of the opera-glasses. There was a dancing brilliance in her movements, and her eyes, brown like her mother's, sparkled with fun and wickedness. Taking the knee Jimbo left unoccupied, and waiting till the diversion caused by the match-box had subsided, she solemnly placed a bread-crumb in his rather tangled beard.

'Now you're full-dress,' she said, falling instantly so close against him that he could not tickle her, while Mother glanced up a second uncertain whether to criticise the impertinence or let it pass. She let it pass. None of the children had the faintest idea what it meant to be afraid of their father.

'People who waste bread,' he began, 'end by getting so thin themselves that they double up like paper and disappear.'

'But how thin, Daddy?' asked Jane Anne, ever literal to the death. 'And is it romantic or just silly?'

He was puzzled for a moment what to reply.

'He doesn't know. He's making up,' piped Jimbo.

'I do know,' came the belated explanation, as he put the crumb into the bowl of his extinguished pipe with a solemnity that delighted them, but puzzled Jane Anne, who suggested it would taste 'like toast smelt.' 'People who take bread that doesn't belong to them end by having no dinner---'

'But that isn't anything about thinness,' interrupted Jinny, still uncomforted. Some one wasted by love was in her mind perhaps.

'It is, child, because they get so frightfully thin,' he went on, 'that they end by getting thinner than the thin end of a wedge.'

The eyes of Mother twinkled, but the children still stared, waiting. They had never heard of this phrase about the wedge. Indeed Jane Anne shared with Jimbo total ignorance of the word at all. Like the audience who read his books, or rather ought to have read them, they expected something different, yet still hoped.

'It's a rhyme, and not a story though,' he added, anticipating perhaps their possible disappointment. For the recent talk about expenses had chilled his imagination too much for an instantaneous story, whereas rhymes came ever to him easily.

'All right! Let's have it anyhow,' came the verdict in sentences of French and English. And in the breathless pause that followed, even Mother looking up expectantly from her busy fingers, was heard this strange fate of the Thin Child who stole another's bread-crumb:--

     He then grew thinner than the thin,
     The thin end of the wedge;
     He grew so pitifully thin
     It set his teeth on edge;
     But the edge it set his teeth upon
     Was worse than getting thinner,
     For it was the edge of appetite,
     And his teeth were in no dinner!

There was a deep silence. Mother looked as though she expected more,-- the good part yet to come. The rhyme fell flat as a pancake, for of course the children did not understand it. Its nonsense, clever enough, escaped them. True nonsense is for grown-ups only. Jane Anne stared steadily at him with a puzzled frown. Her face wore an expression like a moth.

'Thank you, Daddy, very much,' she said, certain as ever that the fault if any was her own, since all that Daddy said and did was simply splendid. Whereupon the others fairly screamed with delight, turning attention thereby from the dismal failure.

'She doesn't understand it, but she's always so polite!' cried Monkey.

Her mother quickly intervened. 'Never mind, Jane Anne,' she soothed her, lest her feelings should be ruffled; 'you shall never want a dinner, lovey; and when all Monkey's teeth are gone you'll still be able to munch away at something.'

But Jinny's feelings were never ruffled exactly, only confused and puzzled. She was puzzled now. Her confidence in her father's splendour was unshakable.

'And, anyhow, Mother, you'll never be a thin wedge,' she answered, meaning to show her gratitude by a compliment. She joined herself as loudly as anybody in the roar that followed this sally. Obviously, she had said a clever and amusing thing, though it was not clear to her why it was so. Her flushed face was very happy; it even wore a touch of proud superiority. Her talents were domestic rather than intellectual.

'Excuse me, Daddy,' she said gravely, in a pause that followed presently. 'But what is a wedge, exactly? And I think I'd like to copy that poetry in my book, please.' For she kept a book in which his efforts were neatly inscribed in a round copy-book handwriting, and called by Monkey 'The Muddle Book.' There his unappreciated doggerels found fame, though misunderstood most of all by the affectionate child who copied them so proudly.

The book was brought at once. Her father wrote out the nonsense verse on his knee and made a funny little illustration in the margin. 'Oh, I say!' said Jimbo, watching him, while Monkey, lapsing into French, contributed with her usual impudence, 'Pas tant mal!' They all loved the illustrations.

The general interest, then, as the way is with children, puppies, and other young Inconsistencies, centred upon the contents of the book. They eagerly turned the pages, as though they did not know its contents by heart already. They praised for the hundredth time the drawing of the Muddle Animal who

     Hung its hopes upon a nail
     Or laid them on the shelf;
     Then pricked its conscience with its tail,
     And sat upon itself.

They looked also with considerable approval upon the drawings and descriptions of the Muddle Man whose manners towards the rest of the world were cool; because

     He saw things with his naked eye,
     That's why his glance was chilly.

But the explanation of the disasters he caused everywhere by his disagreeable sharpness of speech and behaviour did not amuse them. They observed as usual that it was 'too impossible'; the drawings, moreover, did not quite convince:--

     So cutting was his speaking tone
     Each phrase snipped off a button,
     So sharp his words, they have been known
     To carve a leg of mutton;
     He shaved himself with sentences,
     And when he went to dances,
     He made--Oh shocking tendencies!-
     Deep holes with piercing glances.

But on the last page the Muddle Man behaved so badly, was so positively indecent in his conduct, that he was persuaded to disappear altogether; and his manner of extinguishing himself in the illustration delighted the children far more than the verse whose fun again escaped them:--

     They observed he was indecent,
     But he said it wasn't true,
     For ''he'' pronounced it 'in descent'--
     Then disappeared from view!

Mother's alleged 'second sight' was also attributed to the fact that she 'looked twice before she leaped'--and the drawing of that leap never failed to produce high spirits. For her calm and steady way of walking--sailing--had earned her the name of the frigate--and this was also illustrated, with various winds, all coloured, driving her along.

The time passed happily; some one turned the lamp out, and Daddy, regardless of expense--he had been grumbling about it ten minutes before--heaped on the bricks of peat. Riquette, a bit of movable furniture without which the room seemed incomplete, deftly slipped in between the circle of legs and feet, and curled up upon Jinny's lap. Her snoring, a wheezy noise that made Jimbo wonder 'why it didn't scrape her,' was as familiar as the ticking of the clock. Old Mere Riquette knew her rights. And she exacted them. Jinny's lap was one of these. She had a face like an old peasant woman, with a curious snub nose and irregular whiskers that betrayed recklessly the advance of age. Her snores and gentle purring filled the room now. A hush came over the whole party. At seven o'clock they must all troop over to the Pension des Glycines for supper, but there was still an hour left. And it was a magic hour. Sighs were audible here and there, as the exhausted children settled deeper into their chairs.

A change came over the atmosphere. Would nothing exciting ever happen?

'The stars are out,' said Jimbo in his soft, gentle little voice, turning his head towards the windows. The others looked too--all except Mother, whose attitude suggested suspiciously that she slept, and Riquette, who most certainly did sleep. Above the rampart of the darkened Alps swung up the army of the stars. The brighter ones were reflected in the lake. The sky was crowded. Tiny, golden pathways slid down the purple walls of the night. 'Some one in heaven is letting down the star-ladders...' he whispered.

Jimbo's sentence had marked the change of key. Enchantment was abroad --the Saturday evening spell was in the room.

And suddenly a new enormous thing stirred in their father's heart. Whence it came, or why, he knew not. Like a fire it rose in him deep down, from very far away, delightful. Was it an inspiration coming, he wondered? And why did Jimbo use that phrase of beauty about star- ladders? How did it come into the mind of a little boy? The phrase opened a new channel in the very depths of him, thence climbing up and outwards, towards the brain.... And, with a thrill of curious high wonder, he let it come. It was large and very splendid. It came with a rush--as of numerous whispering voices that flocked about him, urging some exquisite, distant sweetness in him to unaccustomed delivery. A softness of ten thousand stars trooped down into his blood. Some constellation like the Pleiades had flung their fiery tackle across the dusk upon his mind. His thought turned golden....

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