The Fairy Touch

IN the course of a steady tramp across a forest, climbing over fallen trees, breaking through briers, skirting impenetrable thickets, it may happen that you come suddenly upon an open place of pleasant grasses, domed by a high blue sky at the tops of the circling trees, and joyous with a peculiar quality of radiant sunlight, so that the air seems fluid filtered gold. It is as if a fairy touch had thrown wide a hidden window upon another world; yet in the gladness with which you greet the revelation there stirs a vague memory, as if the place had once been known.

So, in making a way through the woods of external existence, in working in order to live, there come similar sudden and exquisite interludes, — as the sight of geraniums glowing in the thick air of a slum, or a glimpse of an old man brooding alone in the dusk. And at such times the feeling is not of a dim foreknowledge, as when stepping into a glade; it is a conviction that here, at a fairy touch, a door has opened an instant through the bristling hedge of affairs, and a vision has been granted into the heart of life.

There are people who have the fairy touch. In the intimate human associations, held together by kindred blood or by kindred ideals, these folk of the fairy transmutation serve the same invaluable purpose which genius does in the world at large; they open the hearts of men and bring them close. The little circles where we relax and commune, where we recurrently meet a few persons and pleasures, and are met at times by sorrow, owe much of their unity and flavor to people often of indifferent accomplishment — but of the fairy touch. Indeed, they are not only like genius, they have genius. The difference between them and the men of more durable achievement is but a difference of strength and of concentration. Surely they understand; and the gift of expression is theirs, though it be but fleeting, fragile, shadowy.

To strangers they seldom favorably appeal. Apparently they are doomed to slovenliness of the body, they are careless about clothing, they have eccentricities of behavior, such as going barefoot about the lawns of a house where they feel at home. Yet when such a one sways over the keys of a piano, playing Schubert’s Serenade from memory, for he cannot read music, playing with a poignant personal interpretation, he will shake the heart of a man as a leaf flutters at dawn, and will sink vibrant roots deeply into that man’s being. Once known, these elfin envoys are irresistible; for the eager spirit of man, unsubdued under its crust of experience, responds, whether he wishes it or not, to the magic of those who have never lost, but instead have enlarged and enlightened, that inspired sense of the wonder of life which is back of the luminous eyes of a child. They are messengers of Psyche, and at their touch clear vision comes for a little while.

What better work could there be than this, — to quicken the inner life of men and take them, for a time, from the dusty rut where they fight for food or follow the phantoms of ambition? And not to attempt this deliberately, as is done for a price by mimes on the stage, but with unpremeditated ardor to express something of strange loveliness that relieves, or newly interprets, the pressure which each must bear.

Nor do they need premeditation, since, unerringly sensing moods as men of the soil or the sea sense weathers, a fine efficiency of self-effacement enables them to merge themselves absolutely in a drifting emotion, then to keep it clear and increasing, so holding those whom they know forever in friendly debt. As when, being at the mercy of the travel lure, you happen upon a man of the fairy touch whom choice and circumstance combine to keep close at home, and yet get from him gripping pictures of alien races and places, even though he speaks at second hand. Somewhere he has met and liked an English wanderer, and he, who has never been beyond the sea, has so caught the atmosphere, perhaps because the man who spoke was homesick and intense, that better than the many who go much abroad, and with a glimmer of romance, he brings the sight of workmen at their games in the English fields, shouting and laughing through the long summer twilight.

It seems inevitable that such men shall be somewhat patronized, even if they be liked, by the average practical person, busy with surgery or the sale of stocks and bonds. The fairy folk can point to no definite success; they cannot say to themselves, ‘There goes a chap who owes his life to me: I snipped out his appendix just in the nick of time’; or, ‘But for me that woman might be in the poorhouse: I got hold of her money as she was about to waste it in wildcat speculation, and now it brings her more than four per cent.’ For the elf clan, earth holds nothing of this. In a material way they do not arrive. Yet if a man has not the type of intellect and energy required to plan and competently carry through an insurance company, so lessening the physical and mental stress of many lives, does he not deserve very sincere admiration if, simply by living, he lessens spiritual tensions more truly dangerous than any lack of shelter or food?

There is a certain submerged bookkeeper of this sort, a man whose work is but a bit of routine, not vital to any process of the complicated corporate machine which pays his wage. But this obscure copyist of accounts is valuable: he has not forgotten, and lets no one who knows him forget, something most of us lose early — that life is intended to be rich in jolly moments. Business itself cannot quench him, and if you hunt him out at his desk he will glance up at you with a blink of his tired eyes, and immediately there will come over his queer face such a look of roguery, so delicate an expression of invincible glee, that you have to smile vigorously to forestall an outburst of apparently meaningless laughter — an appalling thing in the quiet of a room where fifty clerks are sombrely crouched above their scratching pens. Wherever you meet him he will endanger your reputation for sanity. He sees life as a pageant of preposterous episodes, and his lean dry face assumes such subtly absurd expressions, and he emits such odd intonations, that he will victimize and reduce to maudlin mirth the gravest of men, and send him buoyantly upon his way.

Another of the fairy touch finds fun unceasing in the anxiety of his parents that he shall be thought seriously employed. No financial pressure makes it needful for him to be busy at moneygetting, nor has he an inclination toward any of the professions; and in the judgment of those who know him intimately he justifies idleness by extracting from it rare valuations. However, his parents have at last agreed that their son is a student, and though it is doubtful if he has read twenty books in the years since his university made him bachelor of arts, his room is referred to as ‘ the study.’ Entering the house with a friend, he will announce in a loud and ironical voice that he wishes to undertake some important research work in the study, and will request his mother to see that the servants do not rattle pans in the kitchen or indulge in audible conversation. He will then go to his room, close the door with a snap, fling himself on a couch, and begin to relate a series of diabolical and unflinching anecdotes. Having effervesced in this fashion for a while, he will stop suddenly and begin to build wonderful word-pictures. Most of his days are spent in solitary rambles through buried corners of the earth, forgotten places like the islands off the west coast of Scotland, or the villages and fields of the Canadian habitant, but preferably the country of his ancestry and his youth, a land of dense woods, wide marshes, and broad tidal rivers. Here he wanders on foot, or drifts in a canoe down the winding inlets, or lingers with the tide-water people, a pretentious, droll, and lovable relic of earlier days. He talks of it all, slowly, precisely, gesturing deliberately as he utters what it means to him. He has an impressive feeling for the moods of great rivers, for the majesty of night and noon upon still forests, he knows the varying lights and shadows that lie upon the marshes from sunrise until twilight, he revels in rain, loves the roar of mighty winds battling with giant trees, and translates cloud-formations into speech. An hour with him leaves a live memory of fantastic humor, and, far deeper than that, stirs the sense of human oneness with the splendor and mystery of the outer world.

A faculty found often in those of the elf blood is an altogether trustworthy instinct for decoration, coupled with an ability to bewitch their intimates into better taste without leaving a trace of soreness. One such, who in spite of his thinning hair seems an eternally juvenile sprite, will come into the house of a friend and, in the midst of cutting capers with the children, will remark of an unoccupied wall-space that it might be brightened by a bit of color; or he may make lacerating comments upon a portière, and the comments will be so deft that they will lacerate only the portière, never the proprietor thereof. And when next this fairy fellow comes, perhaps there will be a bundle under his arm, a curtain he has made of dull brown burlap and deep brown velvet a remarkably apt improvement on the portière of his censure. As for the barren wall-space, some day he will bring a little landscape that he has burned into wood and colored; simply a road running through green hills, but it is a road that leads to high noon of the heart, and the green hills lift up exceeding promise. Surely he has the fairy touch.

Yet all this summoning of gladness and gayety for others is too frequently a cloak to cover drab despair. It is as if the fairy touch were given in partial compensation, an inadequate relief from a depression never entirely evaded; for in the lives of these people come silent times when there is felt the presence of an utter disaster. It may be a fundamental doubt and pessimism, an overwhelming realization of the magnitude of human pain; and it may be mere weariness, for the fairy folk are apt to have been lonely only children, the hope of a father of great practical vigor, or the last of a family for generations prominent and serviceable, and they are burdened by the consciousness of an inability to fulfill expectations, to carry on the tradition acceptably; and it may be an underlying dreary resentment of that attitude of amused contempt which is the judgment rendered on them by the great majority who measure a man solely by what he has done. Well, if the fairy folk were truly so measured, they would rank high among men. Service for the state, law, finance, commerce, art — all these are converging endeavors toward a nobler and more joyous individual life, a more mellow and enlightened communal contact, man with man. And along this same road of betterment the people of the fairy touch irresistibly lure those they know, by the charm of personalities whose zest of appreciation belittles the unrest of desire.