Tales of the Unexpected/Skelmersdale in Fairyland
MR SKELMERSDALE IN
'There's a man in that shop,' said the Doctor, 'who has been in Fairyland.'
'Nonsense!' I said, and stared back at the shop. It was the usual village shop, post office, telegraph wire on its brow, zinc pans and brushes outside, boots, shirtings, and potted meats in the window. 'Tell me about it,' I said, after a pause.
'I don't know,' said the Doctor. 'He's an ordinary sort of lout—Skelmersdale is his name. But everybody about here believes it like Bible truth.'
I reverted presently to the topic.
'I know nothing about it,' said the Doctor, 'and I don't want to know. I attended him for a broken finger—Married and Single cricket match—and that's when I struck the nonsense. That's all. But it shows you the sort of stuff I have to deal with, anyhow, eh? Nice to get modern sanitary ideas into a people like this!'
'Very,' I said in a mildly sympathetic tone, and he went on to tell me about that business of the Bonham drain. Things of that kind, I observe, are apt to weigh on the minds of Medical Officers of Health. I was as sympathetic as I knew how, and when he called the Bonham people "asses," I said they were "thundering asses," but even that did not allay him.
Afterwards, later in the summer, an urgent desire to seclude myself, while finishing my chapter on Spiritual Pathology—it was really, I believe, stiffer to write than it is to read—took me to Bignor. I lodged at a farmhouse, and presently found myself outside that little general shop again, in search of tobacco. 'Skelmersdale,' said I to myself at the sight of it, and went in .
I was served by a short, but shapely, young man, with a fair downy complexion, good, small teeth, blue eyes, and a languid manner. I scrutinised him curiously. Except for a touch of melancholy in his expression, he was nothing out of the common. He was in the shirtsleeves and tucked-up apron of his trade, and a pencil was thrust behind his inoffensive ear. Athwart his black waistcoat was a gold chain, from which dangled a bent guinea.
'Nothing more to-day, sir?' he inquired. He leant forward over my bill as he spoke.
'Are you Mr Skelmersdale?' said I.
'I am, sir,' he said, without looking up.
'Is it true that you have been in Fairyland?' He looked up at me for a moment with wrinkled brows, with an aggrieved, exasperated face. 'O shut it!' he said, and, after a moment of hostility, eye to eye, he went on adding up my bill. 'Four, six and a half,' he said, after a pause. 'Thank you, sir.'
So, unpropitiously, my acquaintance with Mr Skelmersdale began.
Well, I got from that to confidence—through a series of toilsome efforts. I picked him up again in the Village Room, where of a night I went to play billiards after my supper, and mitigate the extreme seclusion from mv kind that was so helpful to work during the day. I contrived to play with him and afterwards to talk with him. I found the one subject to avoid was Fairyland. On everything else he was open and amiable in a commonplace sort of way, but on that he had been worried—it was a manifest taboo. Only once in the room did I hear the slightest allusion to his experience in his presence, and that was by a cross-grained farm hand who was losing to him. Skelmersdale had run a break into double figures, which, by the Bignor standards, was uncommonly good play. 'Steady on!' said his adversary. 'None of your fairy flukes! '
Skelmersdale stared at him for a moment, cue in hand, then flung it down and walked out of the room.
'Why can't you leave 'im alone?' said a respectable elder who had been enjoying the game, and in the general murmur of disapproval, the grin of satisfied wit faded from the ploughboy's face.
I scented my opportunity. 'What's this joke,' said I, 'about Fairyland?'
'’Tain't no joke about Fairyland, not to young Skelmersdale,' said the respectable elder, drinking.
A little man with rosy cheeks was more communicative. 'They do say, sir,' he said, 'that they took him into Aldington Knoll an' kep' him there a matter of three weeks.'
And with that the gathering was well under weigh. Once one sheep had started, others were ready enough to follow, and in a little time I had at least the exterior aspect of the Skelmersdale affair. Formerly, before he came to Bignor, he had been in that very similar little shop at Aldington Corner, and there whatever it was did happen had taken place. The story was clear that he had stayed out late one night on the Knoll and vanished for three weeks from the sight of men, and had returned with 'his cuffs as clean as when he started' and his pockets full of dust and ashes. He returned in a state of moody wretchedness that only slowly passed away, and for many days he would give no account of where it was he had been. The girl he was engaged to at Clapton Hill tried to get it out of him, and threw him over partly because he refused, and partly because as she said, he fairly gave her the '’ump.' And then when, some time after, he let out to some one carelessly that he had been in Fairyland and wanted to go back, and when the thing spread and the simple badinage of the countryside came into play, he threw up his situation abruptly, and came to Bignor to get out of the fuss. But as to what had happened in Fairyland none of these people knew. There the gathering in the Village Room went to pieces like a pack at fault. One said this, and another said that.
Their air in dealing with this marvel was ostensibly critical and sceptical, but I could see a considerable amount of belief showing through their guarded qualifications. I took a line of intelligent interest, tinged with a reasonable doubt of the whole story.
'If Fairyland's inside Aldington Knoll,' I said, 'why don't you dig it out?'
'That's what I says,' said the young ploughboy.
'There's a-many have tried to dig on Aldington Knoll,' said the respectable elder, solemnly, 'one time and another. But there's none as goes about to-day to tell what they got by digging.'
The unanimity of vague belief that surrounded me was rather impressive; I felt there must surely be something at the root of so much conviction, and the already pretty keen curiosity I felt about the real facts of the case was distinctly whetted. If these real facts were to be got from any one, they were to be got from Skelmersdale himself; and I set myself, therefore, still more assiduously to efface the first bad impression I had made and win his confidence to the pitch of voluntary speech. In that endeavour I had a social advantage. Being a person of affability and no apparent employment, and wearing tweeds and knickerbockers, I was naturally classed as an artist in Bignor, and in the remarkable code of social precedence prevalent in Bignor an artist ranks considerably higher than a grocer's assistant. Skelmersdale, like too many of his class, is something of a snob; he had told me to 'shut it' only under sudden, excessive provocation, and with, I am certain, a subsequent repentance; he was, I knew, quite glad to be seen walking about the village with me. In due course he accepted the proposal of a pipe and whisky in my rooms readily enough, and there, scenting by some happy instinct that there was trouble of the heart in this, and knowing that confidences beget confidences, I plied him with much of interest and suggestion from my real and fictitious past. And it was after the third whisky of the third visit of that sort, if I remember rightly, that apropos of some artless expansion of a little affair that had touched and left me in my teens that he did at last, of his own free will and motion, break the ice. 'It was like that with me,' he said, 'over there at Aldington. It's just that that's so rum. First I didn't care a bit and it was all her, and afterwards, when it was too late, it was, in a manner of speaking, all me.'
I forbore to jump upon this allusion, and so he presently threw out another, and in a little while he was making it as plain as daylight that the one thing he wanted to talk about now was this Fairyland adventure he had sat tight upon for so long. You see, I'd done the trick with him, and from being just another half-incredulous, would-be facetious stranger, I had, by all my wealth of shameless self-exposure, become the possible confidant. He had been bitten by the desire to show that he, too, had lived and felt many things, and the fever was upon him.
He was certainly confoundedly allusive at first, and my eagerness to clear him up with a few precise questions was only equalled and controlled by my anxiety not to get to this sort of thing too soon. But in another meeting or so the basis of confidence was complete; and from first to last I think I got most of the items and aspects—indeed, I got quite a number of times over almost everything that Mr Skelmersdale, with his very limited powers of narration, will ever be able to tell. And so I come to the story of his adventure, and I piece it all together again. Whether it really happened, whether he imagined it or dreamt it, or fell upon it in some strange hallucinatory trance, I do not profess to say. But that he invented it I will not for one moment entertain. The man simply and honestly believes the thing happened as he says it happened; he is transparently incapable of any lie so elaborate and sustained, and in the belief of the simple, yet often keenly penetrating, rustic minds about him I find a very strong confirmation of his sincerity. He believes—and nobody can produce any positive fact to falsify his belief. As for me, with this much of endorsement, I transmit his story—I am a little old now to justify or explain.
He says he went to sleep on Aldington Knoll about ten o'clock one night—it was quite possibly Midsummer night, though he has never thought of the date, and he cannot be sure within a week or so—and it was a fine night and windless, with a rising moon. I have been at the pains to visit this Knoll thrice since his story grew up under my persuasions, and once I went there in the twilight summer moonrise on what was, perhaps, a similar night to that of his adventure. Jupiter was great and splendid above the moon, and in the north and north-west the sky was green and vividly bright over the sunken sun. The Knoll stands out bare and bleak under the sky, but surrounded at a little distance by dark thickets, and as I went up towards it there was a mighty starting and scampering of ghostly or quite invisible rabbits. Just over the crown of the Knoll, but nowhere else, was a multitudinous thin trumpeting of midges. The Knoll is, I believe, an artificial mound, the tumulus of some great prehistoric chieftain, and surely no man ever chose a more spacious prospect for a sepulchre. Eastward one sees along the hills to Hythe, and thence across the Channel to where, thirty miles and more, perhaps, away, the great white lights by Oris Nez and Boulogne wink and pass and shine. Westward lies the whole tumbled valley of the Weald, visible as far as Hindhead and Leith Hill, and the valley of the Stour opens the Downs in the north to interminable hills beyond Wye. All Romney Marsh lies southward at one's feet, Dymchurch and Romney and Lydd, Hast; and its hill are in the middle distance, and the hills multiply vaguely far beyond where Eastbourne rolls up to Beachy Head.
And out upon all this it was that Skelmersdale wandered, being troubled in his earlier love affair, and as he says, 'not caring where he went.' And there he sat down to think it over, and so, sulking and grieving, was overtaken by sleep. And so he fell into the fairies' power.
The quarrel that had upset him was some trivial matter enough between himself and the girl at Clapton Hill to whom he was engaged. She was a farmer's daughter, said Skelmersdale, and 'very respectable,' and no doubt an excellent match for him; but both girl and lover were very young and with just that mutual jealousy, that intolerantly keen edge of criticism, that irrational hunger for a beautiful perfection, that life and wisdom do presently and most mercifully dull. What the precise matter of quarrel was I have no idea. She may have said she liked men in gaiters when he hadn't any gaiters on, or he may have said he liked her better in a different sort of hat, but however it began, it got by a series of clumsy stages to bitterness and tears. She no doubt got tearful and smeary, and he grew dusty and drooping, and she parted with invidious comparisons, grave doubts whether she ever had really cared for him, and a clear certainty she would never care again. And with this sort of thing upon his mind he came out upon Aldington Knoll grieving, and presently, after a long interval, perhaps, quite inexplicably, fell asleep.
He woke to find himself on a softer turf than ever he had slept on before, and under the shade of very dark trees that completely hid the sky. Always, indeed, in Fairyland the sky is hidden, it seems. Except for one night when the fairies were dancing, Mr Skelmersdale, during all his time with them, never saw a star. And of that, night I am in doubt whether he was in Fairyland proper or out where the rings and rushes are, in those low meadows near the railway line at Smeeth.
But it was light under these trees for all that, and on the leaves and amidst the turf shone a multitude of glow-worms, very bright and line. Mr Skelmersdale's first impression was that he was small, and the next that quite a number of people still smaller were standing all about him. For some reason, he says, he was neither surprised nor frightened, but sat up quite deliberately and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. And there ail about him stood the smiling elves who had caught him sleeping under their privileges and had brought him into Fairyland.
What these elves were like I have failed to gather, so vague and imperfect is his vocabulary, and so unobservant of all minor detail does he seem to have been. They were clothed in something very light and beautiful, that was neither wool, nor silk, nor leaves, nor the petals of flowers. They stood all about him as he sat and waked, and down the glade towards him, down a glow-worm avenue and fronted by a star, came at once that Fairy Lady who is the chief personage of his memory and tale. Of her I gathered more. She was clothed in filmy green, and about her little waist was a broad silver girdle. Her hair waved back from her forehead on either side; there were curls not too wayward and yet astray, and on her brow was a little tiara, set with a single star. Her sleeves were some sort, of open sleeves that gave little glimpses of her arms; her throat, I think, was a little displayed, because he speaks of the beauty of her neck and chin. There was a necklace of coral about her white throat, and in her breast a coral-coloured flower. She had the soft lines of a little child in her chin and cheeks and throat. And her eyes, I gather, were of a kindled brown, very soft and straight and sweet under her level brows. You see by these particulars how greatly this lady must have loomed in Mr Skelmersdale's picture. Certain things he tried to express and could not express; 'the way she moved,' he said several times; and I fancy a sort of demure joyousness radiated from this Lady.
And it was in the company of this delightful person, as the guest and chosen companion of this delightful person, that Mr Skelmersdale set out to be taken into the intimacies of Fairyland. She welcomed him gladly and a little warmly—I suspect a pressure of his hand in both of hers and a lit face to his. After all, ten years ago young Skelmersdale may have been a very comely youth. And once she took his arm, and once, I think she led him by the hand adown the glade that the glowworms lit.
Just how things chanced and happened there is no telling from Mr Skelmersdale's disarticulated skeleton of description. He gives little unsatisfactory glimpses of strange corners and doings, of places where there were many fairies together, of 'toadstool things that shone pink,' of fairy food, of which he could only say 'you should have tasted it! ' and of fairy music, 'like a little musical box,' that came out of nodding flowers. There was a great open place where fairies rode and raced on 'things,' but what Mr Skelmersdale meant by 'these here things they rode,' there is no telling. Larvae, perhaps, or crickets, or the little beetles that elude us so abundantly. There was a place where water splashed and gigantic kingcups grew, and there in the hotter times the fairies bathed together. There were games being played and dancing and much elvish love-making too, I think, among the moss branch thickets. There can be no doubt that the Fairy Lady made love to Mr Skelmersdale, and no doubt either that this young man set himself to resist her. A time came, indeed, when she sat on a bank beside him, in a quiet secluded place 'all smelling of vi'lets,' and talked to him of love.
'When her voice went low and she whispered,' said Mr Skelmersdale, 'and laid 'er 'and on my 'and, you know, and came close with a soft, warm friendly way she 'ad, it was as much as I could do to keep my 'ead.'
It seems he kept his head to a certain limited unfortunate extent. He saw ''ow the wind was blowing,' he says, and so, sitting there in a place all smelling of violets, with the touch of this lovely Fairy Lady about him, Mr Skelmersdale broke it to her gently—that he was engaged!
She had told him she loved him dearly, that he was a sweet human lad for her, and whatever he would ask of her he should have—even his heart's desire.
And Mr Skelmersdale, who, I fancy, tried hard to avoid looking at her little lips as they just dropped apart and came together, led up to the more intimate question by saying he would like enough capital to start a little shop. He'd just like to feel, he said, he had money enough to do that. I imagine a little surprise in those brown eyes he talked about, but she seemed sympathetic for all that, and she asked him many questions about the little shop, 'laughing like' all the time. So he got to the complete statement of his affianced position, and told her all about Millie.
'All?' said I.
'Everything,' said Mr Skelmersdale, 'just who she was, and where she lived, and everything about her. I sort of felt I 'ad to all the time, I did.'
'"Whatever you want you shall have," said the Fairy Lady. "That's as good as done. You shall feel you have the money just as you wish. And now, you know—you must kiss me."'
And Mr Skelmersdale pretended not to hear the latter part of her remark, and said she was very kind. That he really didn't deserve she should be so kind. And——
The Fairy Lady suddenly came quite close to him and whispered ' Kiss me!'
'And,' said Mr Skelmersdale, 'like a fool, I did.' There are kisses and kisses, I am told, and this must have been quite the other sort from Millie's resonant signals of regard. There was something magic in that kiss; assuredly it marked a turning point. At any rate, this is one of the passages that he thought sufficiently important to describe most at length. I have tried to get it right, I have tried to disentangle it from the hints and gestures through which it came to me, but I have no doubt that it was all different from my telling and far finer and sweeter, in the soft filtered light and the subtly stirring silences of the fairy glades. The Fairy Lady asked him more about Millie, and was she very lovely, and so on—a great many tunes. As to Millie's loveliness, I conceive him answering that she was 'all right.' And then, or on some such occasion, the Fairy Lady told him she had fallen in love with him as he slept in the moonlight, and so he had been brought into Fairyland, and she had thought, not knowing of Millie, that perhaps he might chance to love her. 'But now you know you can't,' she said, 'so you must stop with me just a little while, and then you must go back to Millie.' She told him that, and you know Skelmersdale was already in love with her, but the pure inertia of his mind kept him in the way he was going. I imagine him sitting in a sort of stupefaction amidst all these glowing beautiful things, answering about his Millie and the little shop he projected and the need of a horse and cart. . . . And that absurd state of affairs must have gone on for days and days. I see this little lady, hovering about him and trying to amuse him, too dainty to understand his complexity and too tender to let him go. And he, you know, hypnotised as it were by his earthly position, went his way with her hither and thither, blind to everything in Fairyland but this wonderful intimacy that had come to him. It is hard, it is impossible, to give in print the effect of her radiant sweetness shining through the jungle of poor Skelmersdale's rough and broken sentences. To me, at least, she shone clear amidst the muddle of his story like a glow-worm in a tangle of weeds.
There must have been many days of things while all this was happening—and once, I say, they danced under the moonlight in the fairy rings that stud the meadows near Smeeth—but at last it all came to an end. She led him into a great cavernous place, lit by 'a red nightlight sort of thing,' where there were coffers piled on coffers, and cups and golden boxes, and a great heap of what certainly seemed to all Mr Skelmersdale's senses—coined gold. There were little gnomes amidst this wealth, who saluted her at her coming, and stood aside. And suddenly she turned on him there with brightly shining eyes.
'And now,' she said, 'you have been kind to stay with me so long, and it is time I let you go. You must go back to your Millie. You must go back to your Millie, and here—just as I promised you—they will give you gold.'
'She choked like,' said Mr Skelmersdale. 'At that, I had a sort of feeling ' (he touched his breastbone) 'as though I was fainting here. I felt pale, you know, and shivering, and even then—I hadn't a thing to say. He paused. 'Yes,' I said.
The scene was beyond his describing. But I know that she kissed him good-bye.
'And you said nothing?'
'Nothing,' he said. 'I stood like a stuffed calf. She just looked back once, you know, and stood smiling like and crying—I could see the shine of her eyes—and then she was gone, and there was all these little fellows bustling about me, stuffing my 'ands and my pockets and the back of my collar and everywhere with gold.'
And then it was, when the Fairy Lady had vanished, that Mr Skelmersdale really understood and knew. He suddenly began plucking out the gold they were thrusting upon him, and shouting out at them to prevent their giving him more. '"I don't want yer gold," I said.
"I 'aven't done yet. I'm not going. I want to speak to that Fairy Lady again." I started off to go after her and they held me back. Yes, stuck their little 'ands against my middle and shoved me back. They kept giving me more and more gold until it was running all down my trouser legs and dropping out of my 'ands.
"I don't want yer gold," I says to them, "I want just to speak to the Fairy Lady again."'
'And did you?'
'It came to a tussle.'
'Before you saw her?'
'I didn't see her. When I got out from them she wasn't anywhere to be seen.'
So he ran in search of her out of this red-lit cave, down a long grotto, seeking her, and thence he came out in a great and desolate place athwart which a swarm of will-o'-the-wisps were flying to and fro. And about him elves were dancing in derision, and the little gnomes came out of the cave after him, carrying gold in handfuls and casting it after him, shouting, 'Fairy love and fairy gold! Fairy love and fairy gold!'
And when he heard these words, came a great fear that it was all over, and he lifted up his voice and called to her by her name, and suddenly set himself to run down the slope from the mouth of the cavern, through a place of thorns and briers, calling after her very loudly and often. The elves danced about him unheeded, pinching and pricking him, and the will-o'-the-wisps circled round him and dashed into his face, and the gnomes pursued him shouting and pelting him with fairy gold. As he ran with all this strange rout about him and distracting him, suddenly he was knee-deep in a swamp, and suddenly he was amidst thick twisted roots, and he caught his foot in one and stumbled and fell. . . .
He fell and he rolled over, and in that instant he found himself sprawling upon Aldington Knoll, all lonely under the stars.
He sat up sharply at once, he says, and found he was very stiff and cold, and his clothes were damp with dew. The first pallor of dawn and a chilly wind were coining up together. He could have believed the whole thing a strangely vivid dream until he thrust his hand into his side pocket and found it stuffed with ashes. Then he knew for certain it was fairy gold they had given him. He could feel all their pinches and pricks still, though there was never a bruise upon him. And in that manner, and so suddenly, Mr Skelmersdale came out of Fairyland back into this world of men. Even then he fancied the thing was but the matter of a night until he returned to the shop at Aldington Corner and discovered amidst their astonishment that he had been away three weeks.
'Lor! the trouble I 'ad!' said Mr Skelmersdale.
'Explaining. I suppose you've never had anything like that to explain.'
'Never,' I said, and he expatiated for a time on the behaviour of this person and that. One name he avoided for a space.
'And Millie?' said I at last.
'I didn't seem to care a bit for seeing Millie,' he said.
'I expect she seemed changed? '
'Every one was changed. Changed for good. Every one seemed big, you know, and coarse. And their voices seemed loud. Why, the sun, when it rose in the morning, fair hit me in the eye! '
'I didn't want to see Millie.'
'And when you did?'
'I came up against her Sunday, coming out of church.
"Where you been?" she said, and I saw there was a row. I didn't care if there was. I seemed to forget about her even while she was there a-talking to me. She was just nothing. I couldn't make out whatever I 'ad seen in 'er ever, or what there could 'ave been. Sometimes when she wasn't about. I did get back a little, but never when she was there. Then it was always the other came up and blotted her out. . . . Any'ow, it didn't break her heart.'
'Married?' I asked.
'Married 'er cousin,' said Mr Skelmersdale, and reflected on the pattern of the tablecloth for a space.
When he spoke again it was clear that his former sweetheart had clean vanished from his mind, and that the talk had brought back the Fairy Lady triumphant in his heart. He talked of her—soon he was letting out the oddest things, queer love secrets it would be treachery to repeat. I think, indeed, that was the queerest thing in the whole affair, to hear that neat little grocer man after his story was done, with a glass of whisky beside him and a cigar between his fingers, witnessing, with sorrow still, though now, indeed, with a time blunted anguish, of the inappeasable hunger of the heart that presently came upon him. 'I couldn't eat,' he said, 'I couldn't sleep. I made mistakes in orders and got mixed with change. There she was day and night, drawing me and drawing me. Oh, I wanted her. Lord! how I wanted her! I was up there, most evenings I was up there on the Knoll, often even when it rained. I used to walk over the Knoll and round it and round it, calling for them to let me in. Shouting. Near blubbering I was at times. Daft I was and miserable. I kept on saying it was all a mistake. And every Sunday afternoon I went up there, wet and fine, though I knew as well as you do it wasn't no good by day. And I've tried to go to sleep there.'
He stopped abruptly and decided to drink some whisky.
'I've tried to go to sleep there,' he said, and I could swear his lips trembled. 'I've tried to go to sleep there often and often. And, you know, I couldn't, sir—never. I've thought if I could go to sleep there, there might be something. . . . But I've sat up there and laid up there, and I couldn't—not for thinking and longing. It's the longing. . . . I've tried——'
He blew, drank up the rest of his whisky spasmodically, stood up suddenly and buttoned his jacket, staring closely and critically at the cheap oleographs beside the mantel meanwhile. The little black notebook in which he recorded the orders of his daily round projected stiffly from his breast pocket. When all the buttons were quite done, he patted his chest and turned on me suddenly. 'Well,' he said, 'I must be going.'
There was something in his eyes and manner that was too difficult for him to express in words. 'One gets talking,' he said at last at the door, and smiled wanly, and so vanished from my eyes. And that is the tale of Mr Skelmersdale in Fairyland just as he told it to me.