A Prisoner in Fairyland/Chapter 11

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A Prisoner in Fairyland by Algernon Blackwood
Chapter 11
      Take him and cut him out in little stars,
      And he will make the face of heaven so fine
      That all the world will be in love with night
      And pay no worship to the garish sun!
                        Romeo and Juliet.

The announcement of Henry Rogers's coming was received--variously, for any new arrival into the Den circle was subjected to rigorous criticism. This criticism was not intentional; it was the instinctive judgment that children pass upon everything, object or person, likely to affect themselves. And there is no severer bar of judgment in the world.

'Who is Cousinenry? What a name! Is he stiff, I wonder?' came from Monkey, almost before the announcement had left her father's lips. 'What will he think of Tante Jeanne?' Her little torrent of questions that prejudged him thus never called for accurate answers as a rule, but this time she meant to have an answer. 'What is he exaccurately?' she added, using her own invention made up of 'exact' and 'accurate.'

Mother looked up from the typewritten letter to reply, but before she could say, 'He's your father's cousin, dear; they were here as boys twenty years ago to learn French,' Jinny burst in with an explosive interrogation. She had been reading La Bonne Menagere in a corner. Her eyes, dark with conjecture, searched the faces of both parents alternately. 'Excuse me, Mother, but is he a clergyman?' she asked with a touch of alarm.

'Whatever makes you think that, child?'

'Clergymen are always called the reverundhenry. He'll wear black and have socks that want mending.'

'He shouldn't punt his letters,' declared Monkey. 'He's not an author, is he?'

Jimbo, busy over school tasks, with a huge slate-pencil his crumpled fingers held like a walking-stick, watched and listened in silence. He was ever fearful, perhaps, lest his superior man's knowledge might be called upon and found wanting. Questions poured and crackled like grapeshot, while the truth slowly emerged from the explanations the parents were occasionally permitted to interject. The personality of Cousin Henry Rogers grew into life about them--gradually. The result was a curious one that Minks would certainly have resented with indignation. For Cousinenry was, apparently, a business man with pockets full of sovereigns; stern, clever, and important; the sort of man that gets into Governments and things, yet somewhere with the flavour of the clergyman about him. This clerical touch was Jane Anne's contribution to the picture; and she was certain that he wore silk socks of the most expensive description--a detail she had read probably in some chance fragments of a newspaper. For Jinny selected phrases in this way from anywhere, and repeated them on all occasions without the slightest relevancy. She practised them. She had a way of giving abrupt information and making startling statements a propos of nothing at all. Certain phrases stuck in her mind, it seemed, for no comprehensible reason. When excited she picked out the one that first presented itself and fired it off like a gun, the more inapt the better. And 'busy' was her favourite adjective always.

'It's like a communication from a company,' Mother was saying, as she handed back the typewritten letter.

'Is he a company promoter then?' asked Jinny like a flash, certainly ignorant what that article of modern life could mean.

'Oh, I say!' came reproachfully from Jimbo, thus committing himself for the first time to speech. He glanced up into several faces round him, and then continued the picture of Cousin Henry he was drawing on his slate. He listened all the time. Occasionally he cocked an eye or ear up. He took in everything, saying little. His opinions matured slowly. The talk continued for a long time, questions and answers.

'I think he's nice,' he announced at length in French. For intimate things, he always used that language; his English, being uncertain, was kept for matters of unimportance. 'A gentle man.'

And it was Jimbo's verdict that the children then finally adopted. Cousin Henry was gentil. They laughed loudly at him, yet agreed. His influence on their little conclaves, though never volubly expressed-- because of that very fact, perhaps--was usually accepted. Jimbo was so decided. And he never committed himself to impulsive judgments that later had to be revised. He listened in silence to the end, then went plump for one side or the other. 'I think he'll be a nice man,' was the label, therefore, then and there attached to Mr. Henry Rogers in advance of delivery. Further than that, however, they would not go. It would have been childish to commit themselves more deeply till they saw him.

The conversation then slipped beyond their comprehension, or rather their parents used long words and circumventing phrases that made it difficult to follow. Owing to lack of space, matters of importance often had to be discussed in this way under the children's eyes, unless at night, when all were safe in bed; for French, of course, was of no avail for purposes of concealment. Long words were then made use of, dark, wumbled sentences spoken very quickly, with suggestive gestures and expressions of the eyes labelled by Monkey with, 'Look, Mother and Daddy are making faces--something's up!'

But, none the less, all listened, and Monkey, whose intuitive intelligence soaked up hidden meanings like a sponge, certainly caught the trend of what was said. She detailed it later to the others, when Jinny checked her exposition with a puzzled 'but Mother could never have said that,' while Jimbo looked wise and grave, as though he had understood it all along, and was even in his parents' councils.

On this occasion, however, there was nothing very vital to retail. Cousin Henry was to arrive to-morrow by the express from Paris. He was a little younger than Daddy, and would have the room above him in the carpenter's house. His meals he would take at the Pension just as they did, and for tea he would always come over to the Den. And this latter fact implied that he was to be admitted into intimacy at once, for only intimates used the Den regularly for tea, of course.

It was serious. It involved a change in all their lives. Jinny wondered if it 'would cost Daddy any more money,' or whether 'Cousinenry would bring a lot of things with him,' though not explaining whether by 'things' she meant food or presents or clothes. He was not married, so he couldn't be very old; and Monkey, suggesting that he might 'get to love' one of the retired governesses who came to the Pension for their mid-day dinner, was squelched by Jimbo with 'old governesses never marry; they come back to settle, and then they just die off.'

Thus was Henry Rogers predigested. But at any rate he was accepted. And this was fortunate; for a new arrival whom the children did not 'pass' had been known to have a time that may best be described as not conducive to repose of body, mind, or spirit.

The arrival of Mr. Henry Rogers in the village--in La Citadelle, that is--was a red-letter day. This, however, seems a thin description of its glory. For a more adequate description a well-worn phrase must be borrowed from the poems of Montmorency Minks--a 'Day of Festival,' for which 'coronal' invariably lay in waiting for rhyming purposes a little further down the sonnet.

Monkey that afternoon managed to get home earlier than usual from Neuchatel, a somewhat suspicious explanation as her passport. Her eyes were popping. Jimbo was always out of the village school at three. He carried a time-table in his pocket; but it was mere pretence, since he was a little walking Bradshaw, and knew every train by heart--the Geneva Express, the Paris Rapide, the 'omnibus' trains, and the mountain ones that climbed the forest heights towards La Chaux de Fonds and Le Locle. Of these latter only the white puffing smoke was visible from the village, but he knew with accuracy their times of departure, their arrival, and the names of every station where they stopped. In the omnibus trains he even knew some of the guards personally, the engine-drivers too. He might be seen any day after school standing in the field beside the station, waiting for them to pass; mecanicien and conducteur were the commonest words in his whole vocabulary. When possible he passed the time of day with both of these important personages, or from the field he waved his hand and took his cap off. All engines, moreover, were 'powerful locomotives.' The phrase was stolen from his father--a magnificent sound it had, taking several seconds to pronounce. No day was wholly lived in vain which enabled him to turn to some one with, 'There's the Paris Rapide; it's five minutes late'; or 'That's the Geneva omnibus. You see, it has to have a very'--here a deep breath--'powerful locomotive.'

So upon this day of festival it was quite useless to talk of common things, and even the holidays acquired a very remote importance. Everybody in the village knew it. From Gygi, the solitary gendarme, to Henri Beguin, who mended boots, but had the greater distinction that he was the only man Gygi ever arrested, for periodical wild behaviour --all knew that 'Cousin Henry, father's cousin, you know,' was expected to arrive in the evening, that he was an important person in the life of London, and that he was not exactly a pasteur, yet shared something of a clergyman's grave splendour. Clothed in a sacerdotal atmosphere he certainly was, though it was the gravity of Jane Anne's negative description that fastened this wild ecclesiastical idea upon him.

'He's not exactly a clergyman,' she told the dressmaker, who for two francs every Monday afternoon sat in the kitchen and helped with the pile of indiscriminate mending,' because he has to do with rather big companies and things. But he is a serious man all the same--and most fearfully busy always.'

'We're going to meet him in the town,' said Jimbo carelessly. 'You see, the Paris Rapide doesn't stop here. We shall come back with him by the 6.20. It gets here at 6.50, so he'll be in time for supper, if it's punctual. It usually is.'

And accordingly they went to Neuchatel and met the Paris train. They met their Cousin Henry, too. Powerful locomotives and everything else were instantly forgotten when they saw their father go up to a tall thin man who jumped--yes, jumped--down the high steps on to the level platform and at once began to laugh. He had a beard like their father. 'How will they know which is which?' thought Jinny. They stood in everybody's way and stared. He was so tall. Daddy looked no bigger than little Beguin beside him. He had a large, hooked nose, brown skin, and keen blue eyes that took in everything at a single glance. They twinkled absurdly for so big a man. He wore rough brown tweeds and a soft felt travelling hat. He wore also square-toed English boots. He carried in one hand a shiny brown leather bag with his initials on it like a member of the Government.

The clergyman idea was destroyed in a fraction of a second, never to revive. The company promoter followed suit. Jinny experienced an entirely new sensation in her life--something none but herself had ever felt before--something romantic. 'He's like a soldier--a General,' she said to anybody who cared to listen, and she said it so loudly that many did listen. But she did not care. She stood apart from the others, staring as though it were a railway accident. This tall figure of a cousin she could fit nowhere as yet into her limited scheme of life. She admired him intensely. Yet Daddy laughed and chatted with him as if he were nothing at all! She kept outside the circle, wondering about his socks and underclothes. His beard was much neater and better trimmed than her father's. At least no crumb or bit of cotton was in it.

But Jimbo felt no awe. After a moment's hesitation, during which the passers-by butted him this way and that, he marched straight up and looked him in the face. He reached to his watch-chain only.

'I'll be your sekrity, too,' he announced, interrupting Daddy's foolishness about 'this is my youngest lad, Rogers.' Youngest lad indeed!

And Henry Rogers then stooped and kissed the lot of them. One after the other he put his big arms round them and gave them a hug that was like the hug of a bear standing on its hind legs. They took it, each in his own way, differently. Jimbo proudly; Monkey, with a smacking return kiss that somehow conveyed the note of her personality-- impudence; but Jane Anne, with a grave and outraged dignity, as though in a public railway station this kind of behaviour was slightly inappropriate. She wondered for days afterwards whether she had been quite correct. He was a cousin, but still he was--a man. And she wondered what she ought to call him. 'Mr. Rogers' was not quite right, yet 'Mr. Cousin Henry' was equally ill-chosen. She decided upon a combination of her own, a kind of code-word that was affectionate yet distant: 'Cousinenry.' And she used it with an explosive directness that was almost challenge--he could accept which half he chose.

But all accepted him at once without fear. They felt, moreover, a secret and very tender thing; there was something in this big, important man that made them know he would love them for themselves; and more--that something in him had need of them. Here lay the explanation of their instant confidence and acceptance.

'What a jolly bunch you are, to be sure!' he exclaimed. 'And you're to be my secretary, are you?' he added, taking Jimbo by the shoulders. 'How splendid!'

'I'm not,' said Monkey, with a rush of laughter already too long restrained. Her manner suggested a somersault, only prevented by engines and officials.

But Jimbo was a little shocked. This sort of thing disgraced them.

'Oh, I say!' he exclaimed reproachfully.

'Daddy, isn't she awful?' added Jane Anne under her breath, a sentence of disapproval in daily use. Her life seemed made up of apologising for her impudent sister.

'The 6.20 starts at 6.20, you know,' Jimbo announced. 'The Lausanne Express has gone. Are your "baggages" registered?' And the party moved off in a scattered and uncertain manner to buy tickets and register the luggage. They went back second class--for the first time in their lives. It was Cousin Henry who paid the difference. That sealed his position finally in their eyes. He was a millionaire. All London people went first or second class.

But Jimbo and his younger sister had noticed something else about the new arrival besides his nose and eyes and length. Even his luxurious habit of travelling second class did not impress them half as much as this other detail in his appearance. They referred to it in a whispered talk behind the shelter of the conducteur's back while tickets were being punched.

'You know,' whispered Monkey, her eyes popping, 'I've seen Cousin Henry before somewhere. I'm certain.' She gave a little gasp.

Jimbo stared, only half believing, yet undeniably moved. Even his friend, the Guard, was temporarily neglected. 'Where?' he asked; 'do you mean in a picture?'

'No,' she answered with decision, 'out here, I think. In the woods or somewhere.' She seemed vague. But her very vagueness helped him to believe. She was not inventing; he was sure of that.

The conducteur at that moment passed away along the train, and Cousin Henry looked straight at the pair of them. Through the open window dusk fluttered down the sky with spots of gold already on its wings.

'What jolly stars you've got here,' he said, pointing. 'They're like diamonds. Look, it's a perfect network far above the Alps. By gum-- what beauties!'

And as he said it he smiled. Monkey gave her brother a nudge that nearly made him cry out. He wondered what she meant, but all the same he returned the nudge significantly. For Cousin Henry, when he smiled, had plainly shown--two teeth of gold.

The children had never seen gold-capped teeth.

'I'd like one for my collection,' thought Jimbo, meaning a drawer that included all his loose possessions of small size. But another thing stirred in him too, vague, indefinite, far away, something he had, as it were, forgotten.