A Prisoner in Fairyland/Chapter 15

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A Prisoner in Fairyland by Algernon Blackwood
Chapter 15
                         Look how the floor of heaven
      Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.
      There's not the smallest orb which thou beholdest
      But in his motion like an angel sings,
      Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims.
                              ''Merchant of Venice''.

---there came to him a vivid impression of sudden light in the room, and he knew that something very familiar was happening to him, yet something that had not happened consciously for thirty years and more --since his early childhood in the night-nursery with the bars across the windows.

He was both asleep and awake at the same time. Some part of him, rather, that never slept was disengaging itself--with difficulty. He was getting free. Stimulated by his intercourse with the children, this part of him that in boyhood used to be so easily detached, light as air, was getting loose. The years had fastened it in very tightly. Jimbo and Monkey had got at it. And Jimbo and Monkey were in the room at this moment. They were pulling him out.

It was very wonderful; a glory of youth and careless joy rushed through him like a river. Some sheath or vesture melted off. It seemed to tear him loose. How in the world could he ever have forgotten it-- let it go out of his life? What on earth could have seemed good enough to take its place? He felt like an eagle some wizard spell had imprisoned in a stone, now released and shaking out its crumpled wings. A mightier spell had set him free. The children stood beside his bed!

'I can manage it alone,' he said firmly. 'You needn't try to help me.'

No sound was audible, but they instantly desisted. This thought, that took a dozen words to express ordinarily, shot from him into them the instant it was born. A gentle pulsing, like the flicker of a flame, ran over their shining little forms of radiance as they received it. They shifted to one side silently to give him room. Thus had he seen a searchlight pass like lightning from point to point across the sea.

Yet, at first, there was difficulty; here and there, in places, he could not get quite loose and free.

'He sticks like Daddy,' he heard them think. 'In the head it seems, too.'

There was no pain in the sensation, but a certain straining as of unaccustomed muscles being stretched. He felt uncomfortable, then embarrassed, then--exhilarated. But there were other exquisite sensations too. Happiness, as of flooding summer sunshine, poured through him.

'He'll come with a rush. Look out!' felt Jimbo--'felt' expressing 'thought' and 'said' together, for no single word can convey the double operation thus combined in ordinary life.

The reality of it caught him by the throat.

'This,' he exclaimed, 'is real and actual. It is happening to me now!'

He looked from the pile of clothes taken off two hours ago--goodness, what a mass!--to the children's figures in the middle of the room. And one was as real as the other. The moods of the day and evening, their play and nonsense, had all passed away. He had crossed a gulf that stood between this moment and those good-nights in the Pension. This was as real as anything in life; more real than death. Reality--he caught the obvious thought pass thickly through the body on the bed-- is what has been experienced. Death, for that reason, is not real, not realised; dinner is. And this was real because he had been through it, though long forgotten it. Jimbo stood aside and 'felt' directions.

'Don't push,' he said.

'Just think and wish,' added Monkey with a laugh.

It was her laugh, and perhaps the beauty of her big brown eyes as well, that got him finally loose. For the laughter urged some queer, deep yearning in him towards a rush of exquisite accomplishment. He began to slip more easily and freely. The brain upon the bed, oddly enough, remembered a tradition of old Egypt--that Thoth created the world by bursting into seven peals of laughter. It touched forgotten springs of imagination and belief. In some tenuous, racy vehicle his thought flashed forth. With a gliding spring, like a swooping bird across a valley, he was suddenly--out.

'I'm out!' he cried.

'All out!' echoed the answering voices.

And then he understood that first vivid impression of light. It was everywhere, an evenly distributed light. He saw the darkness of the night as well, the deep old shadows that draped the village, woods, and mountains. But in themselves was light, a light that somehow enabled them to see everything quite clearly. Solid things were all transparent.

Light even radiated from objects in the room. Two much-loved books upon the table shone beautifully--his Bible and a volume of poems; and, fairer still, more delicate than either, there was a lustre on the table that had so brilliant a halo it almost corruscated. The sparkle in it was like the sparkle in the children's eyes. It came from the bunch of violets, gentians, and hepaticas, already faded, that Mother had placed there days ago on his arrival. And overhead, through plaster, tiles, and rafters he saw--the stars.

'We've already been for Jinny,' Jimbo informed him; 'but she's gone as usual. She goes the moment she falls asleep. We never can catch her up or find her.'

'Come on,' cried Monkey. 'How slow you both are! We shan't get anywhere at this rate.' And she made a wheel of coloured fire in the air. 'I'm ready,' he answered, happier than either. 'Let's be off at once.'

Through his mind flashed this explanation of their elder sister's day- expression--that expression of a moth she had, puzzled, distressed, only half there, as the saying is. For if she went out so easily at night in this way, some part of her probably stayed out altogether. She never wholly came back. She was always dreaming. The entire instinct of the child, he remembered, was for others, and she thought of herself as little as did the sun--old tireless star that shines for all.

'She's soaked in starlight,' he cried, as they went off headlong. 'We shall find her in the Cave. Come on, you pair of lazy meteors.'

He was already far beyond the village, and the murmur of the woods rose up to them. They entered the meshes of the Star Net that spun its golden threads everywhere about them, linking up the Universe with their very hearts.

'There are no eyes or puddles to-night. Everybody sleeps. Hooray, hooray!' they cried together.

There were cross-currents, though. The main, broad, shining stream poured downwards in front of them towards the opening of the Cave, a mile or two beyond, where the forests dipped down among the precipices of the Areuse; but from behind--from some house in the slumbering village--came a golden tributary too, that had a peculiar and astonishing brightness of its own. It came, so far as they could make out, from the humped outline of La Citadelle, and from a particular room there, as though some one in that building had a special source of supply. Moreover, it scattered itself over the village in separate swift rivulets that dived and dipped towards particular houses here and there. There seemed a constant coming and going, one stream driving straight into the Cave, and another pouring out again, yet neither mingling. One stream brought supplies, while the other directed their distribution. Some one, asleep or awake--they could not tell--was thinking golden thoughts of love and sympathy for the world.

'It's Mlle. Lemaire,' said Jimbo. 'She's been in bed for thirty years---' His voice was very soft.

'The Spine, you know,' exclaimed Monkey, a little in the rear.

'----and even in the daytime she looks white and shiny,' added the boy. 'I often go and talk with her and tell her things.' He said it proudly. 'She understands everything--better even than Mother.' Jimbo had told most. It was all right. His leadership was maintained and justified. They entered the main stream and plunged downwards with it towards the earth--three flitting figures dipped in this store of golden brilliance.

A delicious and wonderful thing then happened. All three remembered.

'This was where we met you first,' they told him, settling down among the trees together side by side. 'We saw your teeth of gold. You came in that train----'

'I was thinking about it--in England,' he exclaimed, 'and about coming out to find you here.'

'The Starlight Express,' put in Jimbo.

'----and you were just coming up to speak to us when we woke, or you woke, or somebody woke--and it all went,' said Monkey.

'That was when I stopped thinking about it,' he explained.

'It all vanished anyhow. And the next time was'--she paused a moment-- 'you--we saw your two gold teeth again somewhere, and half recognised you----'

It was the daylight world that seemed vague and dreamlike now, hard to remember clearly.

'In another train--' Jimbo helped her, 'the Geneva omnibus that starts at--at----' But even Jimbo could not recall further details.

'You're wumbled,' said Rogers, helping himself and the others at the same time. 'You want some starlight to put you in touch again. Come on; let's go in. We shall find all the others inside, I suspect, hard at it.'

'At what?' asked two breathless voices.

'Collecting, of course--for others. Did you think they ate the stuff, just to amuse themselves?'

'They glided towards the opening, cutting through the little tributary stream that was pouring out on its way down the sky to that room in La Citadelle. It was brighter than the main river, they saw, and shone with a peculiar brilliance of its own, whiter and swifter than the rest. Designs, moreover, like crystals floated on the crest of every wave.

'That's the best quality,' he told them, as their faces shone a moment in its glory. 'The person who deserves it must live entirely for others. That he keeps only for the sad and lonely. The rest, the common stuff, is good enough for Fraulein or for baby, or for mother, or any other----' The words rose in him like flowers that he knew.

'Look out, mon vieux! 'It was Monkey's voice. They just had time to stand aside as a figure shot past them and disappeared into the darkness above the trees. A big bundle, dripping golden dust, hung down his back.

'The Dustman!' they cried with excitement, easily recognising his energetic yet stooping figure; and Jimbo added, 'the dear old Dustman!' while Monkey somersaulted after him, returning breathless a minute later with, 'He's gone; I couldn't get near him. He went straight to La Citadelle----'

And then collided violently with the Lamplighter, whose pole of office caught her fairly in the middle and sent her spinning like a conjurer's plate till they feared she would never stop. She kept on laughing the whole time she spun--like a catherine wheel that laughs instead of splutters. The place where the pole caught her, however--it was its lighted end--shines and glows to this day: the centre of her little heart.

'Do let's be careful,' pleaded Jimbo, hardly approving of these wild gyrations. He really did prefer his world a trifle more dignified. He was ever the grave little gentleman.

They stooped to enter by the narrow opening, but were stopped again-- this time by some one pushing rudely past them to get in. From the three points of the compass to which the impact scattered them, they saw a shape of darkness squeeze itself, sack and all, to enter. An ordinary man would have broken every bone in his body, judging by the portion that projected into the air behind. But he managed it somehow, though the discomfort must have been intolerable, they all thought. The darkness dropped off behind him in flakes like discarded clothing; he turned to gold as he went in; and the contents of his sack--he poured it out like water--shone as though he squeezed a sponge just dipped in the Milky Way.

'What a lot he's collected,' cried Rogers from his point of vantage where he could see inside. 'It all gets purified and clean in there. Wait a moment. He's coming out again--off to make another collection.'

And then they knew the man for what he was. He shot past them into the night, carrying this time a flat and emptied sack, and singing like a blackbird as he went:--

    Sweeping chimneys and cleaning flues,
    That is the work I love;
    Brushing away the blacks and the blues,
    And letting in light from above!
    I twirl my broom in your tired brain
    When you're tight in sleep up-curled,
    Then scatter the stuff in a soot-like rain
    Over the edge of the world.

The voice grew fainter and fainter in the distance--

    For I'm a tremendously busy Sweep,
    Catching the folk when they're all asleep,
    And tossing the blacks on the Rubbish Heap
    Over the edge of the world...!

The voice died away into the wind among the high branches, and they heard it no more.

'There's a Sweep worth knowing,' murmured Rogers, strong yearning in him.

'There are no blacks or blues in my brain,' exclaimed Monkey, 'but Jimbo's always got some on his face.'

The impudence passed ignored. Jimbo took his cousin's hand and led him to the opening. The 'men' went in first together; the other sex might follow as best it could. Yet somehow or other Monkey slipped between their legs and got in before them. They stood up side by side in the most wonderful place they had ever dreamed of.

And the first thing they saw was--Jane Anne.

'I'm collecting for Mother. Her needles want such a chronic lot, you see.' Her face seemed full of stars; there was no puzzled expression in the eyes now. She looked beautiful. And the younger children stared in sheer amazement and admiration.

'I have no time to waste,' she said, moving past them with a load in her spread apron that was like molten gold; 'I have to be up and awake at six to make your porridge before you go to school. I'm a busy monster, I can tell you!' She went by them like a flash, and out into the night.

Monkey felt tears in her somewhere, but they did not fall. Something in her turned ashamed--for a moment. Jimbo stared in silence. 'What a girl!' he thought. 'I'd like to be like that!' Already the light was sticking to him.

'So this is where she always comes,' said Monkey, soon recovering from the temporary attack of emotion. 'She's better out than in; she's safest when asleep! No wonder she's so funny in the daytime.'

Then they turned to look about them, breathing low as wild-flowers that watch a rising moon.

The place was so big for one thing--far bigger than they had expected. The storage of lost starlight must be a serious affair indeed if it required all this space to hold it. The entire mountain range was surely hollow. Another thing that struck them was the comparative dimness of this huge interior compared with the brilliance of the river outside. But, of course, lost things are ever dim, and those worth looking for dare not be too easily found.

A million tiny lines of light, they saw, wove living, moving patterns, very intricate and very exquisite. These lines and patterns the three drew in with their very breath. They swallowed light--the tenderest light the world can know. A scent of flowers--something between a violet and a wild rose--floated over all. And they understood these patterns while they breathed them in. They read them. Patterns in Nature, of course, are fairy script. Here lay all their secrets sweetly explained in golden writing, all mysteries made clear. The three understood beyond their years; and inside-sight, instead of glimmering, shone. For, somehow or other, the needs of other people blazed everywhere, obliterating their own. It was most singular.

Monkey ceased from somersaulting and stared at Jimbo.

'You've got two stars in your face instead of eyes. They'll never set!' she whispered. 'I love you because I understand every bit of you.'

'And you,' he replied, as though he were a grande personne, 'have got hair like a mist of fire. It will never go out!'

'Every one will love me now,' she cried, 'my underneath is gold.'

But her brother reproved her neatly:--

'Let's get a lot--simply an awful lot'--he made a grimace to signify quantity--'and pour it over Daddy's head till it runs from his eyes and beard. He'll write real fairy stories then and make a fortune.'

And Cousin Henry moved past them like a burning torch. They held their breath to see him. Jane Anne, their busy sister, alone excelled him in brightness. Her perfume, too, was sweeter.

'He's an old hand at this game,' Monkey said in French.

'But Jinny's never done anything else since she was born,' replied her brother proudly.

And they all three fell to collecting, for it seemed the law of the place, a kind of gravity none could disobey. They stooped--three semi- circles of tender brilliance. Each lost the least desire to gather for himself; the needs of others drove them, filled them, made them eager and energetic.

'Riquette would like a bit,' cried Jimbo, almost balancing on his head in his efforts to get it all at once, while Monkey's shining fingers stuffed her blouse and skirts with sheaves of golden gossamer that later she meant to spread in a sheet upon the pillow of Mademoiselle Lemaire.

'She sleeps so little that she needs the best,' she sang, realising for once that her own amusement was not the end of life. 'I'll make her nights all wonder.'

Cousinenry, meanwhile, worked steadily like a man who knows his time is short. He piled the stuff in heaps and pyramids, and then compressed it into what seemed solid blocks that made his pockets bulge like small balloons. Already a load was on his back that bent him double.

'Such a tiny bit is useful,' he explained, 'if you know exactly how and where to put it. This compression is my own patent.'

'Of course,' they echoed, trying in vain to pack it up as cleverly as he did.

Nor were these three the only gatherers. The place was full of movement. Jane Anne was always coming back for more, deigning no explanations. She never told where she had spent her former loads. She gathered an apron full, sped off to spend and scatter it in places she knew of, and then came bustling in again for more. And they always knew her whereabouts because of the whiter glory that she radiated into the dim yellow world about them.

And other figures, hosts of them, were everywhere--stooping, picking, loading one another's backs and shoulders. To and fro they shot and glided, like Leonids in autumn round the Earth. All were collecting, though the supply seemed never to grow less. An inexhaustible stream poured in through the narrow opening, and scattered itself at once in all directions as though driven by a wind. How could the world let so much escape it, when it was what the world most needed every day. It ran naturally into patterns, patterns that could be folded and rolled up like silken tablecloths. In silence, too. There was no sound of drops falling. Sparks fly on noiseless feet. Sympathy makes no bustle.

'Even on the thickest nights it falls,' a voice issued from a robust patch of light beside them that stooped with huge brown hands all knotted into muscles; 'and it's a mistake to think different.' His voice rolled on into a ridiculous bit of singing:--

     It comes down with the rain drops,
     It comes down with the dew,
     There's always 'eaps for every one--
     For 'im and me and you.

They recognised his big face, bronzed by the sun, and his great neck where lines drove into the skin like the rivers they drew with blunt pencils on their tedious maps of Europe. It was several faces in one. The Head Gardener was no stranger to their imaginations, for they remembered him of old somewhere, though not quite sure exactly where. He worked incessantly for others, though these 'others' were only flowers and cabbages and fruit-trees. He did his share in the world, he and his army of queer assistants, the under-gardeners.

Peals of laughter, too, sounded from time to time in a far away corner of the cavern, and the laughter sent all the stuff it reached into very delicate, embroidered patterns. For it was merry and infectious laughter, joy somewhere in it like a lamp. It bordered upon singing; another touch would send it rippling into song. And to that far corner, attracted by the sound, ran numberless rivulets of light, weaving a lustrous atmosphere about the Laugher that, even while it glowed, concealed the actual gatherer from sight. The children only saw that the patterns were even more sweet and dainty than their own. And they understood. Inside-sight explained the funny little mystery. Laughter is magical--brings light and help and courage. They laughed themselves then, and instantly saw their own patterns wave and tremble into tiny outlines that they could squeeze later even into the darkest, thickest head.

Cousinenry, meanwhile, they saw, stopped for nothing. He was singing all the time as he bent over his long, outstretched arms. And it was the singing after all that made the best patterns--better even than the laughing. He knew all the best tricks of this Star Cave. He remained their leader.

And the stuff no hands picked up ran on and on, seeking a way of escape for itself. Some sank into the ground to sweeten the body of the old labouring earth, colouring the roots of myriad flowers; some soaked into the rocky walls, tinting the raw materials of hills and woods and mountain tops. Some escaped into the air in tiny drops that, meeting in moonlight or in sunshine, instantly formed wings. And people saw a brimstone butterfly--all wings and hardly any body. All went somewhere for some useful purpose. It was not in the nature of star-stuff to keep still. Like water that must go down-hill, the law of its tender being forced it to find a place where it could fasten on and shine. It never could get wholly lost; though, if the place it settled on was poor, it might lose something of its radiance. But human beings were obviously what most attracted it. Sympathy must find an outlet; thoughts are bound to settle somewhere.

And the gatherers all sang softly--'Collect for others, never mind yourself!'

Some of it, too, shot out by secret ways in the enormous roof. The children recognised the exit of the separate brilliant stream they had encountered in the sky--the one especially that went to the room of pain and sickness in La Citadelle. Again they understood. That unselfish thinker of golden thoughts knew special sources of supply. No wonder that her atmosphere radiated sweetness and uplifting influence. Her patience, smiles, and courage were explained. Passing through the furnace of her pain, the light was cleansed and purified. Hence the delicate, invariable radiation from her presence, voice, and eyes. From the bed of suffering she had not left for thirty years she helped the world go round more sweetly and more easily, though few divined those sudden moments of beauty they caught flashing from her halting words, nor guessed their source of strength.

'Of course,' thought Jimbo, laughing, 'I see now why I like to go and tell her everything. She understands all before I've said it. She's simply stuffed with starlight--bursting with inside-sight.'

'That's sympathy,' his cousin added, hearing the vivid thought. And he worked away like an entire ant-heap. But he was growing rather breathless now. 'There's too much for me,' he laughed as though his mouth were full. 'I can't manage it all!' He was wading to the waist, and his coat and trousers streamed with runnels of orange-coloured light.

'Swallow it then!' cried Monkey, her hair so soaked that she kept squeezing it like a sponge, both eyes dripping too.

It was their first real experience of the joy of helping others, and they hardly knew where to begin or end. They romped and played in the stuff like children in sand or snow--diving, smothering themselves, plunging, choking, turning somersaults, upsetting each other's carefully reared loads, and leaping over little pyramids of gold. Then, in a flash, their laughter turned the destroyed heaps into wonderful new patterns again; and once more they turned sober and began to work.

But their cousin was more practical. 'I've got all I can carry comfortably,' he sang out at length. 'Let's go out now and sow it among the sleepers. Come on!'

A field of stars seemed to follow him from the roof as he moved with difficulty towards the opening of the cave.

Some one shot out just in front of him. 'My last trip!' The words reached them from outside. His bulging figure squeezed somehow through the hole, layers of light scraping off against the sides. The children followed him. But no one stuck. All were beautifully elastic; the starlight oiled and greased their daring, subtle star-bodies. Laden to the eyes, they sped across the woods that still slept heavily. The tips of the pines, however, were already opening a million eyes. There was a faint red glimmer in the east. Hours had passed while they were collecting.

'The Interfering Sun is on the way. Look out!' cried some one, shooting past them like an unleashed star. 'I must get just a little more--my seventeenth journey to-night!' And Jane Anne, the puzzled look already come back a little into her face, darted down towards the opening. The waking of the body was approaching.

'What a girl!' thought Jimbo again, as they hurried after their grown- up cousin towards the village.

And here, but for the leadership of Cousin Henry, they must have gone astray and wasted half their stores in ineffective fashion. Besides, the east was growing brighter, and there was a touch of confusion in their little star-bodies as sleep grew lighter and the moment of the body's waking drew nearer.

Ah! the exquisite adjustment that exists between the night and day bodies of children! It is little wonder that with the process of growing-up there comes a coarsening that congeals the fluid passages of exit, and finally seals the memory centres too. Only in a few can this delicate adjustment be preserved, and the sources of inspiration known to children be kept available and sweet--in the poets, dreamers, and artists of this practical, steel-girdled age.

'This way,' called Cousinenry. 'Follow me.' They settled down in a group among Madame Jequier's lilacs. 'We'll begin with the Pension des Glycines. Jinny is already busy with La Citadelle.'

They perched among the opening blossoms. Overhead flashed by the Sweep, the Dustman, and the Laugher, bound for distant ports, perhaps as far as England. The Head Gardener lumbered heavily after them to find his flowers and trees. Starlight, they grasped, could be no separate thing. The rays started, indeed, from separate points, but all met later in the sky to weave this enormous fairy network in which the currents and cross-currents and criss-cross-currents were so utterly bewildering. Alone, the children certainly must have got lost in the first five minutes.

Their cousin gathered up the threads from Monkey's hair and Jimbo's eyes, and held them in one hand like reins. He sang to them a moment while they recovered their breath and forces:--

     The stars in their courses
     Are runaway horses
     That gallop with Thoughts from the Earth;
     They collect them, and race
     Back through wireless space,
     Bringing word of the tiniest birth;
     Past old Saturn and Mars,
     And the hosts of big stars,
     Who strain at their leashes for joy.
     Kind thoughts, like fine weather,
       Bind sweetly together
       God's suns--with the heart of a boy.

    So, beware what you think;
    It is written in ink
    That is golden, and read by His Stars!

'Hadn't we better get on?' cried Monkey, pulling impatiently at the reins he held.

'Yes,' echoed Jimbo. 'Look at the sky. The "rapide" from Paris comes past at six o'clock.'