A Prisoner in Fairyland

by Algernon Blackwood

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Chapter 8

    We are the stars which sing.
    We sing with our light.
    We are the birds of fire.
    We fly across the heaven.
    Our light is a star.
    We make a road for Spirits,
    A road for the Great Spirit.
    Among us are three hunters
    Who chase a bear:
    There never was a time
    When they were not hunting;
    We look down on the mountains.
    This is the Song of the Mountains.

    ''Red Indian'' (''Algonquin'') ''Lyric''.
        Translator, J. D. PRINCE.

'A star-story, please,' the boy repeated, cuddling up. They all drew, where possible, nearer. Their belief in their father's powers, rarely justified, was pathetic. Each time they felt sure he would make the adventures seem real, yet somehow he never quite did. They were aware that it was invention only. These things he told about he had not experienced himself. For they badly needed a leader, these children; and Daddy just missed filling the position. He was too 'clever,' his imagination neither wild nor silly enough, for children. And he felt it. He threw off rhymes and stories for them in a spirit of bravado rather--an expression of disappointment. Yet there was passion in them too--concealed. The public missed the heart he showed them in his books in the same way.

'The stars are listening....' Jimbo's voice sounded far away, almost outside the window. Mother now snored audibly. Daddy took his courage in both hands and made the plunge.

'You know about the Star Cavern, I suppose--?' he began. It was the sudden idea that had shot into him, he knew not whence.


'Never heard of it.'

'Where is it, please?'

'Don't interrupt. That wasn't a real question. Stories always begin like that.' It was Jane Anne who thus finally commanded order.

'It's not a story exactly, but a sort of adventure,' he continued, hesitating yet undaunted. 'Star Caverns are places where the unused starlight gathers. There are numbers of them about the world, and one I know of is up here in our mountains,' he pointed through the north wall towards the pine-clad Jura, 'not far from the slopes of Boudry where the forests dip towards the precipices of the Areuse--' The phrase ran oddly through him like an inspiration, or the beginning of a song he once had heard somewhere.

'Ah, beyond le Vallon Vert? I know,' whispered Jimbo, his blue eyes big already with wonder.

'Towards the precipices on the farther side,' came the explanation, 'where there are those little open spaces among the trees.'

'Tell us more exactly, please.'

'Star-rays, you see,' he evaded them, 'are visible in the sky on their way to us, but once they touch the earth they disappear and go out like a candle. Unless a chance puddle, or a pair of eyes happens to be about to catch them, you can't tell where they've gone to. They go really into these Star Caverns.'

'But in a puddle or a pair of eyes they'd be lost just the same,' came the objection.

'On the contrary,' he said; 'changed a little--increased by reflection--but not lost.'

There was a pause; the children stared, expectantly. Here was mystery.

'See how they mirror themselves whenever possible,' he went on, 'doubling their light and beauty by giving themselves away! What is a puddle worth until a Star's wee golden face shines out of it? And then--what gold can buy it? And what are your eyes worth until a star has flitted in and made a nest there?'

'Oh, like that, you mean--!' exclaimed Jane Anne, remembering that the wonderful women in the newspaper stories always had 'starry eyes.'

'Like that, yes.' Daddy continued. 'Their light puts sympathy in you, and only sympathy makes you lovely and--and--'

He stopped abruptly. He hesitated a moment. He was again most suddenly aware that this strange idea that was born in him came from somewhere else, almost from some one else. It was not his own idea, nor had he captured it completely yet. Like a wandering little inspiration from another mind it seemed passing through him on uncertain, feathery feet. He had suddenly lost it again. Thought wandered. He stared at Jimbo, for Jimbo somehow seemed the channel.

The children waited, then talked among themselves. Daddy so often got muddled and inattentive in this way. They were accustomed to it, expected it even.

'I always love being out at night,' said Monkey, her eyes very bright; 'it sort of excites and makes me soft and happy.'

'Excuse me, Daddy, but have you been inside one? What's it like? The Cave, I mean?' Jinny stuck to the point. She had not yet travelled beyond it.

'It all collects in there and rises to the top like cream,' he went on, 'and has a little tiny perfume like wild violets, and by walking through it you get clothed and covered with it, and come out again all soft-shiny--'

'What's soft-shiny, please?'

'Something half-primrose and half-moon. You're like a star--'

'But how--like a star?'

'Why,' he explained gently, yet a little disappointed that his adventure was not instantly accepted, 'you shine, and your eyes twinkle, and everybody likes you and thinks you beautiful--'

'Even if you're not?' inquired Jinny.

'But you are--'

'Couldn't we go there now? Mother's fast asleep!' suggested Jimbo in a mysterious whisper. He felt a curious excitement. This, he felt, was more real than usual. He glanced at Monkey's eyes a moment.

'Another time,' said Daddy, already half believing in the truth of his adventure, yet not quite sure of himself. 'It collects, and collects, and collects. Sometimes, here and there, a little escapes and creeps out into yellow flowers like dandelions and buttercups. A little, too, slips below the ground and fills up empty cracks between the rocks. Then it hardens, gets dirty, and men dig it out again and call it gold. And some slips out by the roof--though very, very little--and you see it flashing back to find the star it belongs to, and people with telescopes call it a shooting star, and--' It came pouring through him again.

'But when you're in it--in the Cavern,' asked Monkey impatiently; 'what happens then?'

'Well,' he answered with conviction, 'it sticks to you. It sticks to the eyes most, but a little also to the hair and voice, and nobody loves you unless you've got a bit of it somewhere on you. A girl, before any one falls in love with her, has always been there, and people who write stories and music and things--all have got some on their fingers or else nobody cares for what they write--'

'Oh, Daddy, then why don't you go there and get sticky all over with it?' Jinny burst out with sudden eagerness, ever thinking of others before herself. 'I'll go and get some for you--lots and lots.'

'I have been there,' he answered slowly, 'once long, long ago. But it didn't stick very well with me. It wipes off so quickly in the day- time. The sunlight kills it.'

'But you got some!' the child insisted. 'And you've got it still, I mean?'

'A little, perhaps, a very little.'

All felt the sadness in his voice without understanding it. There was a moment's pause. Then the three of them spoke in a single breath--

'Please show it to us--now,' they cried.

'I'll try,' he said, after a slight hesitation, 'but--er--it's only a rhyme, you see'; and then began to murmur very low for fear of waking Mother: he almost sang it to them. The flock of tiny voices whispered it to his blood. He merely uttered what he heard:--

     Runs along my mind
     And rolls into a ball of golden silk--
     A little skein
     Of tangled glory;
     And when I want to get it out again
     To weave the pattern of a verse or story,
     It must unwind.

     It then gets knotted, looped, and all up-jumbled,
     And long before I get it straight again, unwumbled,
     To make my verse or story,
     The interfering sun has risen
     And burst with passion through my silky prison
     To melt it down in dew,
     Like so much spider-gossamer or fairy-cotton.
     Don't you?
     ''I'' call it rotten!

A hushed silence followed. Eyes sought the fire. No one spoke for several minutes. There was a faint laughter, quickly over, but containing sighs. Only Jinny stared straight into her father's face, expecting more, though prepared at any stage to explode with unfeigned admiration.

'But that "don't you" comes in the wrong place,' she objected anxiously. 'It ought to come after "I call it rotten"---' She was determined to make it seem all right.

'No, Jinny,' he answered gravely, 'you must always put others before yourself. It's the first rule in life and literature.'

She dropped her eyes to the fire like the others. 'Ah,' she said, 'I see; of course.' The long word blocked her mind like an avalanche, even while she loved it.

'I call it rotten,' murmured Monkey under her breath. Jimbo made no audible remark. He crossed his little legs and folded his arms. He was not going to express an opinion until he understood better what it was all about. He began to whisper to his sister. Another longish pause intervened. It was Jinny again who broke it.

'And "wumbled,"' she asked solemnly as though the future of everybody depended on it, 'what is wumbled, really? There's no such thing, is there?--In life, I mean?' She meant to add 'and literature,' but the word stopped her like a hedge.

'It's what happens to a verse or story I lose in that way,' he explained, while Jimbo and Monkey whispered more busily still among themselves about something else. 'The bit of starlight that gets lost and doesn't stick, you see--ineffective.'

'But there is no such word, really,' she urged, determined to clear up all she could. 'It rhymes--that's all.'

'And there is no verse or story,' he replied with a sigh. 'There was--that's all.'

There was another pause. Jimbo and Monkey looked round suspiciously. They ceased their mysterious whispering. They clearly did not wish the others to know what their confabulation was about.

'That's why your books are wumbled, is it?' she inquired, proud of an explanation that excused him, yet left his glory somehow unimpaired. Her face was a map of puzzled wrinkles.

'Precisely, Jinny. You see, the starlight never gets through properly into my mind. It lies there in a knot. My plot is wumbled. I can't disentangle it quite, though the beauty lies there right enough---'

'Oh, yes,' she interrupted, 'the beauty lies there still.' She got up suddenly and gave him a kiss.

'Never mind, Daddy,' she whispered. 'I'll get it straight for you one day. I'll unwumble it. I'll do it like a company promoter, I will.' She used words culled from newspapers.

'Thank you, child,' he smiled, returning her kiss; 'I'm sure you will. Only, you'd better let me know when you're coming. It might be dangerous to my health otherwise.'

She took it with perfect seriousness. 'Oh, but, excuse me, I'll come when you're asleep,' she told him, so low that the others could not hear. 'I'll come to you when I'm dreaming. I dream all night like a busy Highlander.'

'That's right,' he whispered, giving her a hug. 'Come when I'm asleep and all the stars are out; and bring a comb and a pair of scissors---'

'And a hay-rake,' added Monkey, overhearing.

Everybody laughed. The children cuddled up closer to him. They pitied him. He had failed again, though his failure was as much a pleasure as his complete success. They sat on his knees and played with him to make up for it, repeating bits of the rhyme they could remember. Then Mother and Riquette woke up together, and the spell was broken. The party scattered. Only Jimbo and his younger sister, retiring into a corner by themselves, continued their mysterious confabulation. Their faces were flushed with excitement. There was a curious animation in their eyes--though this may have been borrowed from the embers of the peat. Or, it may have been the stars, for they were close to the open window. Both seemed soft-shiny somehow. They, certainly, were not wumbled.

And several hours later, when they had returned from supper at the Pension and lay in bed, exchanging their last mysterious whispers across the darkness, Monkey said in French--

'Jimbo, I'm going to find that Cavern where the star stuff lies,' and Jimbo answered audaciously, 'I've already been there.'

'Will you show me the way, then?' she asked eagerly, and rather humbly.

'Perhaps,' he answered from beneath the bedclothes, then added, 'Of course I will.' He merely wished to emphasise the fact that he was leader.

'Sleep quickly, then, and join me--over there.' It was their game to believe they joined in one another's dreams.

They slept. And the last thing that reached them from the outer world was their mother's voice calling to them her customary warning: that the ramoneur was already in the chimney and that unless they were asleep in five minutes he would come and catch them by the tail. For the Sweep they looked upon with genuine awe. His visits to the village--once in the autumn and once in the spring--were times of shivery excitement.

Presently Mother rose and sailed on tiptoe round the door to peep. And a smile spread softly over her face as she noted the characteristic evidences of the children beside each bed. Monkey's clothes lay in a scattered heap of confusion, half upon the floor, but Jimbo's garments were folded in a precise, neat pile upon the chair. They looked ready to be packed into a parcel. His habits were so orderly. His school blouse hung on the back, the knickerbockers were carefully folded, and the black belt lay coiled in a circle on his coat and what he termed his 'westkit.' Beneath the chair the little pair of very dirty boots stood side by side. Mother stooped and kissed the round plush-covered head that just emerged from below the mountainous duvet. He looked like a tiny radish lying in a big ploughed field.

Then, hunting for a full five minutes before she discovered the shoes of Monkey, one beneath the bed and the other inside her petticoat, she passed on into the little kitchen where she cleaned and polished both pairs, and then replaced them by their respective owners. This done, she laid the table in the outer room for their breakfast at half-past six, saw that their school-books and satchels were in order, gave them each a little more unnecessary tucking-up and a kiss so soft it could not have waked a butterfly, and then returned to her chair before the fire where she resumed the mending of a pile of socks and shirts, blouses and stockings, to say nothing of other indescribable garments, that lay in a formidable heap upon the big round table.

This was her nightly routine. Sometimes her husband joined her. Then they talked the children over until midnight, discussed expenses that threatened to swamp them, yet turned out each month 'just manageable somehow' and finally made a cup of cocoa before retiring, she to her self-made bed upon the sofa, and he to his room in the carpenter's house outside the village. But sometimes he did not come. He remained in the Pension to smoke and chat with the Russian and Armenian students, who attended daily lectures in the town, or else went over to his own quarters to work at the book he was engaged on at the moment. To-night he did not come. A light in an attic window, just visible above the vineyards, showed that he was working.

The room was very still; only the click of the knitting needles or the soft noise of the collapsing peat ashes broke the stillness. Riquette snored before the fire less noisily than usual.

'He's working very late to-night,' thought Mother, noticing the lighted window. She sighed audibly; mentally she shrugged her shoulders. Daddy had long ago left that inner preserve of her heart where she completely understood him. Sympathy between them, in the true sense of the word, had worn rather thin.

'I hope he won't overtire himself,' she added, but this was the habit of perfunctory sympathy. She might equally have said, 'I wish he would do something to bring in a little money instead of earning next to nothing and always complaining about the expenses.'

Outside the stars shone brightly through the fresh spring night, where April turned in her sleep, dreaming that May was on the way to wake her.

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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.