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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Prisoner In Fairyland - Chapter II
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A Prisoner In Fairyland - Chapter II Post by :liberti Category :Long Stories Author :Algernon Blackwood Date :April 2011 Read :1346

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A Prisoner In Fairyland - Chapter II

When the creation was new and all the stars shone in their first
splendour, the gods held their assembly in the sky and sang 'Oh, the
picture of perfection! the joy unalloyed!'

But one cried of a sudden--'It seems that somewhere there is a break
in the chain of light and one of the stars has been lost.'

The golden string of their harp snapped, their song stopped, and they
cried in dismay--'Yes, that lost star was the best, she was the glory
of all heavens!'

From that day the search is unceasing for her, and the cry goes on
from one to the other that in her the world has lost its one joy!

Only in the deepest silence of night the stars smile and whisper among
themselves--'Vain is this seeking! Unbroken perfection is over all!'

RABINDRANATH TAGORE. (Prose translation by Author from his original
Bengali.)

It was April 30th and Henry Rogers sat in his rooms after breakfast,
listening to the rumble of the traffic down St. James's Street, and
found the morning dull. A pile of letters lay unopened upon the table,
waiting the arrival of the discriminating Mr. Minks with his shorthand
note-book and his mild blue eyes. It was half-past nine, and the
secretary was due at ten o'clock.

He smiled as he thought of this excellent fellow's first morning in
the promoted capacity of private secretary. He would come in very
softly, one eye looking more intelligent than the other; the air of
the City clerk discarded, and in its place the bearing that belonged
to new robes of office worn for the first time. He would bow, say
'Good morning, Mr. Rogers,' glance round with one eye on his employer
and another on a possible chair, seat himself with a sigh that meant
'I have written a new poem in the night, and would love to read it to
you if I dared,' then flatten out his oblong note-book and look up,
expectant and receptive. Rogers would say 'Good morning, Mr. Minks.
We've got a busy day before us. Now, let me see---' and would meet his
glance with welcome. He would look quickly from one eye to the other-
to this day he did not know which one was right to meet-and would
wonder for the thousandth time how such an insignificant face could go
with such an honest, capable mind. Then he smiled again as he
remembered Frank, the little boy whose schooling he was paying for,
and realised that Minks would bring a message of gratitude from Mrs.
Minks, perhaps would hand him, with a gesture combining dignity and
humbleness, a little note of thanks in a long narrow envelope of pale
mauve, bearing a flourishing monogram on its back.

And Rogers scowled a little as he thought of the air of gruffness he
would assume while accepting it, saying as pleasantly as he could
manage, 'Oh, Mr. Minks, that's nothing at all; I'm only too delighted
to be of service to the lad.' For he abhorred the expression of
emotion, and his delicate sense of tact would make pretence of helping
the boy himself, rather than the struggling parents.

Au fond he had a genuine admiration for Minks, and there was something
lofty in the queer personality that he both envied and respected. It
made him rely upon his judgment in certain ways he could not quite
define. Minks seemed devoid of personal ambition in a sense that was
not weakness. He was not insensible to the importance of money, nor
neglectful of chances that enabled him to do well by his wife and
family, but--he was after other things as well, if not chiefly. With a
childlike sense of honesty he had once refused a position in a company
that was not all it should have been, and the high pay thus rejected
pointed to a scrupulous nicety of view that the City, of course,
deemed foolishness. And Rogers, aware of this, had taken to him,
seeking as it were to make this loss good to him in legitimate ways.
Also the fellow belonged to leagues and armies and 'things,' quixotic
some of them, that tried to lift humanity. That is, he gave of his
spare time, as also of his spare money, to help. His Saturday
evenings, sometimes a whole bank holiday, he devoted to the welfare of
others, even though the devotion Rogers thought misdirected.

For Minks hung upon the fringe of that very modern, new-fashioned, but
almost freakish army that worships old, old ideals, yet insists upon
new-fangled names for them. Christ, doubtless, was his model, but it
must be a Christ properly and freshly labelled; his Christianity must
somewhere include the prefix 'neo,' and the word 'scientific' must
also be dragged in if possible before he was satisfied. Minks, indeed,
took so long explaining to himself the wonderful title that he was
sometimes in danger of forgetting the brilliant truths it so vulgarly
concealed. Yet never quite concealed. He must be up-to-date, that was
all. His attitude to the world scraped acquaintance with nobility
somewhere. His gift was a rare one. Out of so little, he gave his
mite, and gave it simply, unaware that he was doing anything unusual.

This attitude of mind had made him valuable, even endeared him, to the
successful business man, and in his secret heart Rogers had once or
twice felt ashamed of himself. Minks, as it were, knew actual
achievement because he was, forcedly, content with little, whereas he,
Rogers, dreamed of so much, yet took twenty years to come within reach
of what he dreamed. He was always waiting for the right moment to
begin.

His reflections were interrupted by the sunlight, which, pouring in a
flood across the opposite roof, just then dropped a patch of soft
April glory upon the black and yellow check of his carpet slippers.
Rogers got up and, opening the window wider than before, put out his
head. The sunshine caught him full in the face. He tasted the fresh
morning air. Tinged with the sharp sweetness of the north it had a
fragrance as of fields and gardens. Even St. James's Street could not
smother its vitality and perfume. He drew it with delight into his
lungs, making such a to-do about it that a passer-by looked up to see
what was the matter, and noticing the hanging tassel of a flamboyant
dressing-gown, at once modestly lowered his eyes again.

But Henry Rogers did not see the passer-by in whose delicate mind a
point of taste had thus vanquished curiosity, for his thoughts had
flown far across the pale-blue sky, behind the cannon-ball clouds, up
into that scented space and distance where summer was already winging
her radiant way towards the earth. Visions of June obscured his sight,
and something in the morning splendour brought back his youth and
boyhood. He saw a new world spread about him--a world of sunlight,
butterflies, and flowers, of smooth soft lawns and shaded gravel
paths, and of children playing round a pond where rushes whispered in
a wind of long ago. He saw hayfields, orchards, tea-things spread upon
a bank of flowers underneath a hedge, and a collie dog leaping and
tumbling shoulder high among the standing grass.... It was all
curiously vivid, and with a sense of something about it unfading and
delightfully eternal. It could never pass, for instance, whereas....

'Ain't yer forgotten the nightcap?' sang out a shrill voice from
below, as a boy with a basket on his arm went down the street. He drew
back from the window, realising that he was a sight for all admirers.
Tossing the end of his cigarette in the direction of the cheeky
urchin, he settled himself again in the arm-chair before the glowing
grate-fire.

But the fresh world he had tasted came back with him. For Henry Rogers
stood this fine spring morning upon the edge of a new life. A long
chapter had just closed behind him. He was on the threshold of
another. The time to begin had come. And the thrill of his freedom now
at hand was very stimulating to his imagination. He was forty, and a
rich man. Twenty years of incessant and intelligent labour had brought
him worldly success. He admitted he had been lucky, where so many toil
on and on till the gates of death stand up and block their way,
fortunate if they have earned a competency through years where hope
and disappointment wage their incessant weary battle. But he, for some
reason known only to the silent Fates, had crested the difficult hill
and now stood firm upon the top to see the sunrise, the dreadful gates
not even yet in sight. At yesterday's Board meeting, Minks had handed
him the papers for his signature; the patents had been transferred to
the new company; the cheque had been paid over; and he was now a
gentleman of leisure with a handsome fortune lying in his bank to
await investment. He was a director in the parent, as well as the
subsidiary companies, with fees that in themselves alone were more
than sufficient for his simple needs.

For all his tastes _were simple, and he had no expensive hobbies or
desires; he preferred two rooms and a bath to any house that he had
ever seen; pictures he liked best in galleries; horses he could hire
without the trouble of owning; the few books worth reading would go
into a couple of shelves; motors afflicted, even confused him--he was
old-fashioned enough to love country and walk through it slowly on two
vigorous legs; marriage had been put aside with a searing
disappointment years ago, not forgotten, but accepted; and of travel
he had enjoyed enough to realise now that its pleasures could be found
reasonably near home and for very moderate expenditure indeed. And the
very idea of servants was to him an affliction; he loathed their
prying closeness to his intimate life and habits, destroying the
privacy he loved. Confirmed old bachelor his friends might call him if
they chose; he knew what he wanted. Now at last he had it. The
ambition of his life was within reach.

For, from boyhood up, a single big ambition had ever thundered through
his being--the desire to be of use to others. To help his fellow-kind
was to be his profession and career. It had burned and glowed in him
ever since he could remember, and what first revealed it in him was
the sight--common enough, alas--of a boy with one leg hobbling along
on crutches down the village street. Some deep power in his youthful
heart, akin to the wondrous sympathy of women, had been touched. Like
a shock of fire it came home to him. He, too, might lose his dearest
possession thus, and be unable to climb trees, jump ditches, risk his
neck along the edge of the haystack or the roof. '_That might happen
to me too!_' was the terrible thing he realised, and had burst into
tears....

Crutches at twelve! And the family hungry, as he later learned!
Something in the world was wrong; he thought every one had enough to
eat, at least, and only the old used crutches. 'The Poor was a sort of
composite wretch, half criminal, who deserved to be dirty, suffering,
punished; but this boy belonged to a family that worked and did its
best. Something in the world-machinery had surely broken loose and
caused violent disorder. For no one cared particularly. The
''thorities,' he heard, looked after the Poor--''thorities in law,' as
he used to call the mysterious Person he never actually saw, stern,
but kindly in a grave impersonal way; and asked once if some relation-
in-law or other, who was mentioned often but never seen, had,
therefore, anything to do with the poor.

Dropping into his heart from who knows what far, happy star, this
passion had grown instead of faded: to give himself for others, to
help afflicted folk, to make the world go round a little more easily.
And he had never forgotten the deep thrill with which he heard his
father tell him of some wealthy man who during his lifetime had given
away a million pounds--anonymously. ... His own pocket-money just then
was five shillings a week, and his expectations just exactly--nothing.

But before his dreams could know accomplishment, he must have means.
To be of use to anybody at all he must make himself effective. The
process must be reversed, for no man could fight without weapons, and
weapons were only to be had as the result of steady, concentrated
effort--selfish effort. A man must fashion himself before he can be
effective for others. Self-effacement, he learned, was rather a futile
virtue after all.

As the years passed he saw his chances. He cut short a promising
University career and entered business. His talents lay that way, as
his friends declared, and unquestionably he had a certain genius for
invention; for, while scores of futile processes he first discovered
remained mere clever solutions of interesting problems, he at length
devised improvements in the greater industries, and, patenting them
wisely, made his way to practical results.

But the process had been a dangerous one, and during the long business
experience the iron had entered his soul, and he had witnessed at
close quarters the degrading influence of the lust of acquisition. The
self-advertising humbug of most philanthropy had clouded something in
him that he felt could never again grow clear and limpid as before,
and a portion of his original zest had faded. For the City hardly
encouraged it. One bit of gilt after another had been knocked off his
brilliant dream, one jet of flame upon another quenched. The single
eye that fills the body full of light was a thing so rare that its
possession woke suspicion. Even of money generously given, so little
reached its object; gaping pockets and grasping fingers everywhere
lined the way of safe delivery. It sickened him. So few, moreover,
were willing to give without acknowledgment in at least one morning
paper. 'Bring back the receipt' was the first maxim even of the
office-boys; and between the right hand and the left of every one were
special 'private wires' that flashed the news as quickly as possible
about the entire world.

Yet, while inevitable disillusion had dulled his youthful dreams, its
glory was never quite destroyed. It still glowed within. At times,
indeed, it ran into flame, and knew something of its original
splendour. Women, in particular, had helped to keep it alive, fanning
its embers bravely. For many women, he found, dreamed his own dream,
and dreamed it far more sweetly. They were closer to essential
realities than men were. While men bothered with fuss and fury about
empires, tariffs, street-cars, and marvellous engines for destroying
one another, women, keeping close to the sources of life, knew, like
children, more of its sweet, mysterious secrets--the things of value
no one yet has ever put completely into words. He wondered, a little
sadly, to see them battling now to scuffle with the men in managing
the gross machinery, cleaning the pens and regulating ink-pots. Did
they really think that by helping to decide whether rates should rise
or fall, or how many buttons a factory-inspector should wear upon his
uniform, they more nobly helped the world go round? Did they never
pause to reflect who would fill the places they thus vacated? With
something like melancholy he saw them stepping down from their thrones
of high authority, for it seemed to him a prostitution of their sweet
prerogatives that damaged the entire sex.

'Old-fashioned bachelor, no doubt, I am,' he smiled quietly to
himself, coming back to the first reflection whence his thoughts had
travelled so far--the reflection, namely, that now at last he
possessed the freedom he had longed and toiled for.

And then he paused and looked about him, confronted with a difficulty.
To him it seemed unusual, but really it was very common.

For, having it, he knew not at first what use to make of it. This
dawned upon him suddenly when the sunlight splashed his tawdry
slippers with its gold. The movement to the open window was really
instinctive beginning of a search, as though in the free, wonderful
spaces out of doors he would find the thing he sought to do. Now,
settled back in the deep arm-chair, he realised that he had not found
it. The memories of childhood had flashed into him instead. He renewed
the search before the dying fire, waiting for the sound of Minks'
ascending footsteps on the stairs. ...

And this revival of the childhood mood was curious, he felt, almost
significant, for it was symbolical of so much that he had
deliberately, yet with difficulty, suppressed and put aside. During
these years of concentrated toil for money, his strong will had
neglected of set purpose the call of a robust imagination. He had
stifled poetry just as he had stifled play. Yet really that
imagination had merely gone into other channels--scientific invention.
It was a higher form, married at least with action that produced
poetry in steel and stone instead of in verse. Invention has ever
imagination and poetry at its heart.

The acquirement of wealth demanded his entire strength, and all
lighter considerations he had consistently refused to recognise, until
he thought them dead. This sudden flaming mood rushed up and showed
him otherwise. He reflected on it, but clumsily, as with a mind too
long trained in the rigid values of stocks and shares, buying and
selling, hard figures that knew not elasticity. This softer subject
led him to no conclusion, leaving him stranded among misty woods and
fields of flowers that had no outlet. He realised, however, clearly
that this side of him was not atrophied as he thought. Its unused
powers had merely been accumulating--underground.

He got no further than that just now. He poked the fire and lit
another cigarette. Then, glancing idly at the paper, his eye fell upon
the list of births, and by merest chance picked out the name of
Crayfield. Some nonentity had been 'safely delivered of a son' at
Crayfield, the village where he had passed his youth and childhood. He
saw the Manor House where he was born, the bars across the night-
nursery windows, the cedars on the lawn, the haystacks just beyond the
stables, and the fields where the rabbits sometimes fell asleep as
they sat after enormous meals too stuffed to move. He saw the old
gravel-pit that led, the gardener told him, to the centre of the
earth. A whiff of perfume from the laurustinus in the drive came back,
the scent of hay, and with it the sound of the mowing-machine going
over the lawn. He saw the pony in loose flat leather shoes. The bees
were humming in the lime trees. The rooks were cawing. A blackbird
whistled from the shrubberies where he once passed an entire day in
hiding, after emptying an ink-bottle down the German governess's
dress. He heard the old family butler in his wheezy voice calling in
vain for 'Mr. 'Enery' to come in. The tone was respectful, seductive
as the man could make it, yet reproachful. He remembered throwing a
little stone that caught him just where the Newgate fringe met the
black collar of his coat, so that his cry of delight betrayed his
hiding-place. The whacking that followed he remembered too, and how
his brother emerged suddenly from behind the curtain with, 'Father,
may I have it instead of Henry, please?' That spontaneous offer of
sacrifice, of willingness to suffer for another, had remained in his
mind for a long time as a fiery, incomprehensible picture.

More dimly, then, somewhere in mist behind, he saw other figures
moving--the Dustman and the Lamplighter, the Demon Chimneysweep in
black, the Woman of the Haystack--outposts and sentries of a larger
fascinating host that gathered waiting in the shadows just beyond. The
creations of his boy's imagination swarmed up from their temporary
graves, and made him smile and wonder. After twenty years of strenuous
business life, how pale and thin they seemed. Yet at the same time how
extraordinarily alive and active! He saw, too, the huge Net of Stars
he once had made to catch them with from that night-nursery window,
fastened by long golden nails made out of meteors to the tops of the
cedars. ... There had been, too, a train--the Starlight Express. It
almost seemed as if _they knew, too, that a new chapter had begun,
and that they called him to come back and play again. ...

Then, with a violent jump, his thoughts flew to other things, and he
considered one by one the various philanthropic schemes he had
cherished against the day when he could realise them. That day had
come. But the schemes seemed one and all wild now, impracticable,
already accomplished by others better than he could hope to accomplish
them, and none of them fulfilling the first essential his practical
mind demanded--knowing his money spent precisely as he wished. Dreams,
long cherished, seemed to collapse one by one before him just when he
at last came up with them. He thought of the woman who was to have
helped him, now married to another who had money without working for
it. He put the thought back firmly in its place. He knew now a greater
love than that--the love for many. ...

He was embarking upon other novel schemes when there was a ring at the
bell, and the charwoman, who passed with him for servant, ushered in
his private secretary, Mr. Minks. Quickly readjusting the machinery of
his mind, Rogers came back to the present,

'Good morning, Mr. Rogers. I trust I am punctual.'

'Good morning, Minks; yes, on the stroke of ten. We've got a busy day.
Let's see now. How are you, by the by?' he added, as an afterthought,
catching first one eye, then the other, and looking finally between
the two.

'Very well, indeed, thank you, Mr. Rogers.' He was dressed in a black
tail-coat, with a green tie neatly knotted into a spotless turn-down
collar. He glanced round him for a chair, one hand already in his
pocket for the note-book.

'Good,' said Rogers, indicating where he might seat himself, and
reaching for the heap of letters.

The other sighed a little and began to look expectant and receptive.

'If I might give you this first, please, Mr. Rogers,' he said,
suddenly pretending to remember something in his breast-pocket and
handing across the table, with a slight flush upon his cheeks, a long,
narrow, mauve envelope with a flourishing address. 'It was a red-
letter day for Mrs. Minks when I told her of your kindness. She wished
to thank you in person, but--I thought a note--I knew,' he stammered,
'you would prefer a letter. It is a tremendous help to both of us, if
I may say so again.'

'Yes, yes, quite so,' said Rogers, quickly; 'and I'm glad to be of
service to the lad. You must let me know from time to time how he's
getting on.'

Minks subsided, flattening out his oblong notebook and examining the
points of his pencil sharpened at both ends as though the fate of
Empires depended on it. They attacked the pile of correspondence
heartily, while the sun, watching them through the open window, danced
gorgeously upon the walls and secretly put the fire out.

In this way several hours passed, for besides letters to be dictated,
there were careful instructions to be given about many things. Minks
was kept very busy. He was now not merely shorthand clerk, and he had
to be initiated into the inner history of various enterprises in which
his chief was interested. All Mr. Rogers's London interests, indeed,
were to be in his charge, and, obviously aware of this, he bore
himself proudly with an air of importance that had no connection with
a common office. To watch him, you would never have dreamed that
Herbert Minks had ever contemplated City life, much less known ten
years of drudgery in its least poetic stages. For him, too, as for his
employer, anew chapter of existence had begun--'commenced' he would
have phrased it--and, as confidential adviser to a man of fortune
whose character he admired almost to the point of worship, he was now
a person whose importance it was right the world should recognise. And
he meant the world to take this attitude without delay. He dressed
accordingly, knowing that of every ten people nine judge value from
clothes, and hat, and boots--especially boots. His patent leather,
buttoned boots were dazzling, with upper parts of soft grey leather.
And his shiny 'topper' wore a band of black. Minks, so far as he knew,
was not actually in mourning, but somebody for whom he ought to be in
mourning might die any day, and meanwhile, he felt, the band conveyed
distinction. It suited a man of letters. It also protected the hat.

'Thank'ee,' said his chief as luncheon time drew near; 'and now, if
you'll get those letters typed, you might leave 'em here for me on
your way home to sign. That's all we have to-day, isn't it?'

'You wanted, I think, to draft your Scheme for Disabled---' began the
secretary, when the other cut him short.

'Yes, yes, but that must wait. I haven't got it clear yet in my own
mind. You might think it out a bit yourself, perhaps, meanwhile, and
give me your ideas, eh? Look up what others have done in the same
line, for instance, and tell me where they failed. What the weakness
of their schemes was, you know--and--er--so forth.'

A faint smile, that held the merest ghost of merriment, passed across
the face of Minks, leaping, unobserved by his chief, from one eye to
the other. There was pity and admiration in it; a hint of pathos
visited those wayward lips. For the suggestion revealed the weakness
the secretary had long ago divined--that the practical root of the
matter did not really lie in him at all, and Henry Rogers forever
dreamed of 'Schemes' he was utterly unable and unsuited to carry out.
Improvements in a silk machine was one thing, but improvements in
humanity was another. Like the poetry in his soul they could never
know fulfilment. He had inspiration, but no constructive talent. For
the thousandth time Minks wondered, glancing at his employer's face,
how such calm and gentle features, such dreamy eyes and a Vandyke
beard so neatly trimmed, could go with ambitions so lofty and so
unusual. This sentence he had heard before, and was destined often to
hear again, while achievement came no nearer.

'I will do so at the first opportunity.' He put the oblong note-book
carefully in his pocket, and stood by the table in an attitude of 'any
further instructions, please?' while one eye wandered to the unopened
letter that was signed 'Albinia Minks, with heartfelt gratitude.'

'And, by the by, Minks,' said his master, turning as though a new idea
had suddenly struck him and he had formed a hasty plan, 'you might
kindly look up an afternoon train to Crayfield. Loop line from Charing
Cross, you know. Somewhere about two o'clock or so. I have to--er--I
think I'll run down that way after luncheon.'

Whereupon, having done this last commission, and written it down upon
a sheet of paper which he placed with care against the clock, beside
the unopened letter, the session closed, and Minks, in his mourning
hat and lavender gloves, walked up St. James's Street apparently
_en route for the Ritz, but suddenly, as with careless
unconsciousness, turning into an A.B.C. Depot for luncheon, well
pleased with himself and with the world, but especially with his
considerate employer.

Ten minutes later Mr. Rogers followed him on his way to the club, and
just when Minks was reflecting with pride of the well-turned phrases
he had dictated to his wife for her letter of thanks, it passed across
the mind of its recipient that he had forgotten to read it altogether.
And, truth to tell, he never yet has read it; for, returning late that
evening from his sentimental journey down to Crayfield, it stood no
longer where he had left it beside the clock, and nothing occurred to
remind him of its existence. Apart from its joint composers, no one
can ever know its contents but the charwoman, who, noticing the
feminine writing, took it back to Lambeth and pored over it with a
candle for full half an hour, greatly disappointed. 'Things like
that,' she grumbled to her husband, whose appearance suggested that he
went for bigger game, 'ain't worth the trouble of taking at all,
whichever way you looks at it.' And probably she was right.

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