A Prisoner in Fairyland Part 57

'Yes, like hand-made things--you can almost see the hand that made them.'

And Rogers started so perceptibly that Jimbo shifted his weight a little, thinking he must be uncomfortable. He had surely used that very phrase himself! It was familiar. Even when using it he remembered wondering whence its sweetness had dropped into his clumsier mind.

Minks uncrossed his legs, glanced up at him a moment, then crossed them again. He made this sign, but, like Riquette, he said nothing....

The stream flowed on and on. Some one told a story. There was hushed attentive listening, followed suddenly by bursts of laughter and delight. Who told it, or what it was about, Rogers had no notion.

Monkey dug him in the ribs once because apparently he grunted at the wrong moment, and Jimbo chided her beneath his breath--'Let him have a nap if he wants to; a man's always tired after a long journey like that...!' Some one followed with another story--Minks, was it, this time?--for Rogers caught his face, as through a mist, turning constantly to Mother for approval. It had to do with a vision of great things that had come to a little insignificant woman on a bed of sickness. He recognised the teller because he knew the tale of old.

The woman, he remembered, was Albinia's grandmother, and Minks was very proud of it.

'That's a _very_ nice story,' rippled from the dim corner when it was over. 'For I like everything so tiny that you can find it inside a sh.e.l.l. That's the way to understand big things and to do them.'

And again the phrase was as familiar to him as though he had said it himself--heard it, read it, dreamed it, even. Whatever its fairy source, he knew it. His bewilderment increased absurdly. The things she said were so ordinary, yet so illuminating, though never quite betraying their secret source. Where had he heard them? Where had he met this little foreign visitor? Whence came the singular certainty that she shared this knowledge with him, and might presently explain it, all clear as daylight and as simple? He had the odd impression that she played with him, delayed purposely the moment of revelation, even expected that _he_ would be the first to make it known. The disclosure was to come from himself! She provided him with opportunities--these little sparkling sentences! But he hid in his corner, silent and magically excited, afraid to take the lead. These sentences were addressed to him. There was conversation thus between the two of them; but his replies remained inaudible. Thought makes no sound; its complete delivery is ever wordless.... He felt very big, and absurdly shy.

It was gesture, however, that infallible shorthand of the mind, which seemed the surest medium of this mute delightful intercourse. For each little gesture that she made--unconsciously, of course--expressed more than the swiftest language could have compa.s.sed in an hour. And he noted every one: the occasional flourish of the little hands, the bending of the graceful neck, the shadowy head turned sideways, the lift of one shoulder, almost imperceptible, and sometimes the att.i.tude of the entire body. To him they were, one and all, eloquently revealing. Behind each little gesture loomed a yet larger one, the scale increasing strangely, till his thoughts climbed up them as up a ladder into the region where her ideas lay naked before casual interpretation clothed them. Those, he reflected, who are rich in ideas, but find words difficult, may reveal themselves prodigally in gesture. Expression of one kind or another there must be; yet lavish action, the language of big souls, seems a man's expression rather than a woman's.... He built up swiftly, surely, solidly his interpretation of this little foreign visitor who came to him thus suddenly from the stars, whispering to his inmost thought, 'You must come up to me.' The whole experience dazed him. He sat in utter dumbness, shyer than a boy, but happier than a singing star!... The Joy in his heart was marvellous.

Yet how could he know all this?

In the intervals that came to him like breathing s.p.a.ces he asked himself this childish question. How could he tell that this little soft being with the quiet un.o.btrusive manners had n.o.ble and great beauty of action in her anywhere? A few pretty phrases, a few significant gestures, these were surely a slight foundation to build so much upon! Was there, then, some absolute communion of thought between the two of them such as his cousin's story tried to show? And had their intercourse been running on for years, neither of them aware of it in the daytime? Was this intimate knowledge due to long acquaintance? Had her thought been feeding him perhaps since childhood even?

In the pause of his temporary lunacy he asked himself a dozen similar questions, but before the sign of any answer came he was off again, sweeping on outstretched wings among the stars. He drank her in. He knew. What was the good of questions? A thirsty man does not stop midway in his draught to ask when his thirst began, its cause, or why the rush of liquid down his throat is satisfying. He knows, and drinks. It seemed to Henry Rogers, ordinary man of business and practical affairs, that some deep river which so long had flowed deep out of sight, hidden below his daily existence, rose now grandly at the flood. He had heard its subterranean murmurs often. Here, in the Den, it had reached his lips at last. And he quenched his thirst....

His thought played round her without ceasing, like flowing water....

This idea of flux grew everywhere about him. There was fluid movement in this world within a world. All life was a flowing past of ceaseless beauty, wonder, splendour; it was doubt and question that dammed the rush, causing that stoppage which is ugly, petty, rigid. His being flowed out to mingle with her own. It was all inevitable, and he never really doubted once. Only before long he would be compelled to act--to speak--to tell her what he felt, and hear her dear, dear answer....

The excitement in him became more and more difficult to control.

Already there was strain and tension below his apparent outer calmness. Life in him burst forward to a yet greater life than he had ever known....

The others--it was his cousin's voice this time--were speaking of the Story, and of his proposed treatment of it in its larger version as a book. Daddy was saying, apparently, that it must fail because he saw no climax for it. The public demanded a c.u.mulative interest that worked up to some kind of thrilling denouement that they called a climax, whereas his tale was but a stretch of life, and of very ordinary life. And Life, for the majority, knew no such climax. How could he manage one without inventing something artificial?

'But the climax of life comes every day and every minute,' he heard her answer--and how her little voice rang out above the others like a bell!--'when you deny yourself for another, and that other does not even know it. A day is lost that does not pin at least one sweet thought against each pa.s.sing hour.'

And his inner construction took a further prodigious leap, as the sentence showed him the grand and simple motive of her being. It had been his own as well, though he had stupidly bungled it in his search to find something big enough to seem worth doing. She, he divined, found neighbours everywhere, losing no time. He had known a few rare, exquisite souls who lived for others, but here, close beside him at last, was one of those still rarer souls who seem born to--die for others.... They give so unsparingly of their best.... To his imaginative interpretation of her he gave full rein.... And it was instantaneous as creation....

The voices of Minks and Mother renewed the stream of sound that swept by him then, though he caught no words that were comparable in value to these little singing phrases that she used from time to time.

Jimbo, bored by the grown-up talk that took the place of expected stories, had fallen asleep upon his shoulder; Monkey's hair, as usual, was in his eyes; he sat there listening and waiting with a heart that beat so loudly he thought the children must feel it and ask him what was the matter. Jinny stirred the peat from time to time. The room was full of shadows. But, for him, the air grew brighter every minute, and in this steady brilliance he saw the little figure rise and grow in grandeur till she filled all s.p.a.ce.

'You called it "getting out" while the body is asleep,' came floating through the air through the sound of Jimbo's breathing, 'whereas _I_ called it getting away from self while personal desire is asleep.

But the idea is the same....'

His cousin's words that called forth this criticism he had not heard.

It was only her sentence that seemed to reach him.

From the river of words and actions men call life she detained, it seemed to him, certain that were vital and important in some symbolical sense; she italicised them, made them her own--then let them go to join the main stream again. This selection was a kind of genius. The river did not overwhelm her as it overwhelms most, because the part of it she did not need for present action she ignored, while yet she swam in the whole of it, shirking nothing.

This was the way he saw her--immediately. And, whether it was his own invention, or whether it was the divination of a man in the ecstasy of sudden love, it was vital because he felt it, and it was real because he believed it. Then why seek to explain the amazing sense of intimacy, the certainty that he had known her always? The thing was _there_; explanation could bring it no nearer. He let the explanations go their way; they floated everywhere within reach; he had only to pocket them and take them home for study at his leisure afterwards-- with her.

'But, we _shall_ come to it in time,' he caught another flying sentence that reached him through the brown tangle of Monkey's hair.

It was spoken with eager emphasis. 'Does not every letter you write begin with _dear_?....'

All that she said added something to life, it seemed, like poetry which, he remembered, 'enriches the blood of the world.' The selections were not idle, due to chance, but belonged to some great Scheme, some fairy edifice she built out of the very stuff of her own life. Oh, how utterly he understood and knew her. The poison of intellectuality, thank heaven, was not in her, yet she created somehow; for all she touched, with word or thought or gesture, turned suddenly alive in a way he had never known before. The world turned beautiful and simple at her touch....

Even the commonest things! It was miraculous, at least in its effect upon himself. Her simplicity escaped all signs of wumbling. She had no favourite and particular Scheme for doing good, but did merely what was next her at the moment to be done. She _was_ good. In her little person glowed a great enthusiasm for life. She created neighbours.

And, as the grandeur of her insignificance rose before him, his own great Scheme for Disabled Thingumabobs that once had filled the heavens, shrank down into the size of a mere mouse-trap that would go into his pocket. In its place loomed up another that held the beauty of the Stars. How little, when announcing it to Minks weeks and weeks ago, had he dreamed the form it was to take!

And so, wrapped in this glory of the stars, he dreamed on in his corner, fashioning this marvellous interpretation of a woman he had never seen before, and never spoken with. It was all so different to ordinary falling in love at sight, that the phrase never once occurred to him. It was consummated in a moment--out there, beside the fountain when he saw her first, shadowy, with brilliant, peering eyes. It seemed perfect instantly, a recovery of something he had always known.

And who shall challenge the accuracy of his vision, or call its sudden maturity impossible? For where one sees the surface only, another sees the potentialities below. To believe in these is to summon them into activity, just as to think the best of a person ever brings out that best. Are we not all potential splendours?

Swiftly, in a second, he reviewed the shining sentences that revealed her to him: The 'autumn flowers'--she lived, then, in the Present, without that waste of energy which is regret! In 'a little sh.e.l.l' lay the pattern of all life,--she saw the universe in herself and lived, thus, in the Whole! To be 'out' meant forgetting self; and life's climax is at every minute of the day--she understood, that is, the growth of the soul, due to acceptance of what every minute brings, however practical, dull, uninteresting. By recreating the commonest things, she found a star in each. And her world was made up of neighbours--for 'every letter that one writes begins with _dear_!'

The Pattern matured marvellously before his eyes; and its delicate embroideries, far out of sight, seemed the arabesques that yearnings, hitherto unfulfilled, had traced long long ago with the brush of tender thinking. Together, though at opposite ends of the world, these two had woven the great Net of sympathy, thought, and longing in which at last they both were prisoners ... and with them all the earth.

The figure of Jane Anne loomed before him like an ogress suddenly.

'Cousinenry, _will_ you answer or will you _not_? Daddy's already asked you twenty times at least!' Then, below her breath, as she bent over him, 'The Little Countess will think you awf'ly rude if you go to sleep and snore like this.'

He looked up. He felt a trifle dazed. For a moment he had forgotten where he was. How dark the room had grown! Only--he was sure he had not snored.

'I beg your pardon,' he stammered, 'but I was only thinking--how wonderful you--how wonderful it all is, isn't it? I was listening. I heard perfectly.'

'You were dozing,' whispered Monkey. 'Daddy wants the Countess to tell you how she knew the story long ago, or something. _Ecoute un peu, man vieux_!'

'I should love to hear it,' he said, louder, sitting up so abruptly in his chair that Jimbo tilted at a dangerous angle, though still without waking. 'Please, please go on.'

And he listened then to the quiet, silvery language in which the little visitor described the scenery of her childhood, when, without brothers or sisters, she was forced to play alone, and had amused herself by imagining a Net of Constellations which she nailed by shooting stars to four enormous pine trees that grew across the torrent. She described the great mountains that enclosed her father's estate, her loneliness in this giant garden, due to his morose severity of character, her yearnings to escape and see the big world beyond the ridges. All her thought and longing went to the fashioning of this Net, and every night she flung it far across the peaks and valleys to catch companions with whom she might play. The characters in her fairy books came out of the pages to help her, and sometimes when they drew it in, it was so heavy with the people entangled in its meshes that they could scarcely move it. But the moment all were out, the giant Net, relieved of their weight, flew back into the sky. The Pleiades were its centre, because she loved the Pleiades best of all, and Orion pursued its bright shape with pa.s.sion, yet could never quite come up with it.

'And these people whom you caught,' whispered Rogers from his corner, listening to a tale he knew as well as she did, 'you kept them prisoners?'

'I first put into them all the things I longed to do myself in the big world, and then flung them back again into their homes and towns and villages---'

'Excepting one,' he murmured.

'Who was so big and clumsy that he broke the meshes and so never got away.' She laughed, while the children stared at their cousin, wondering how he knew as much as she did. 'He stayed with me, and showed me how to make our prisoners useful afterwards by painting them all over with starlight which we collected in a cave. Then they went back and dazzled others everywhere by their strange, alluring brilliance. We made the whole world over in this way---'

'Until you lost him.'

'One cloudy night he disappeared, yes, and I never found him again.

There was a big gap between the Pleiades and Orion where he had tumbled through. I named him Orion after that; and I would stand at night beneath the four great pine trees and call and call, but in vain. "You must come up to me! You must come up to me!" I called, but got no answer---'

'Though you knew quite well where he had fallen to, and that he was only hiding---'

'Excuse me, but _how_ did she know?' inquired Jinny abruptly.

The Little Countess laughed. 'I suppose--because the threads of the Net were so sensitive that they went on quivering long after he tumbled out, and so betrayed the direction---'

'And afterwards, when you got older, Grafin,' interrupted Daddy, who wished his cousin to hear the details of the extraordinary coincidence, 'you elaborated your idea---'

'Yes, that thought and yearning always fulfil themselves somewhere, somehow, sooner or later,' she continued. 'But I kept the imagery of my Star Net in which all the world lies caught, and I used starlight as the symbol of that sympathy which binds every heart to every other heart. At my father's death, you see, I inherited his property. I escaped from the garden which had been so long my prison, and I tried to carry out in practical life what I had dreamed there as a child. I got people together, where I could, and formed Thinkers' Guilds-- people, that is, who agreed to think beauty, love, and tolerance at given hours in the day, until the habit, once formed, would run through all their lives, and they should go about as centres of light, sweetening the world. Few have riches, fewer still have talent, but all can think. At least, one would _think_ so, wouldn't one?'--with a smile and a fling of her little hands.

She paused a moment, and then went on to describe her failure. She told it to them with laughter between her sentences, but among her listeners was one at least who caught the undertone of sadness in the voice.

'For, you see, that was where I made my mistake. People would do anything in the world rather than think. They would work, give money, build schools and hospitals, make all manner of sacrifices--only--they would not think; because, they said, there was no visible result.' She burst out laughing, and the children all laughed too.

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