“They” by Rudyard Kipling

(one of my top 5 favorite short stories)

“They”

One view called me to another; one hill top to its fellow, half across the county, and since I could answer at no more trouble than the snapping forward of a lever, I let the county flow under my wheels. The orchid-studded flats of the East gave way to the thyme, ilex, and grey grass of the Downs; these again to the rich cornland and fig-trees of the lower coast, where you carry the beat of the tide on your left hand for fifteen level miles; and when at last I turned inland through a huddle of rounded hills and woods I had run myself clean out of my known marks. Beyond that precise hamlet which stands godmother to the capital of the United States, I found hidden villages where bees, the only things awake, boomed in eighty-foot lindens that overhung grey Norman churches; miraculous brooks diving under stone bridges built for heavier traffic than would ever vex them again; tithe-barns larger than their churches, and an old smithy that cried out aloud how it had once been a hall of the Knights of the Temple. Gipsies I found on a common where the gorse, bracken, and heath fought it out together up a mile of Roman road; and a little further on I disturbed a red fox rolling dog-fashion in the naked sunlight.

   As the wooded hills closed about me I stood up in the car to take the bearings of that great Down whose ringed head is a landmark for fifty miles across the low countries. I judged that the lie of the country would bring me across some westward running road that went to his feet, but I did not allow for the confusing veils of the woods. A quick turn plunged me first into a green cutting brimful of liquid sunshine, next into a gloomy tunnel where last year’s dead leaves whispered and scuffled about my tyres. The strong hazel stuff meeting overhead had not been cut for a couple of generations at least, nor had any axe helped the moss-cankered oak and beech to spring above them. Here the road changed frankly into a carpeted ride on whose brown velvet spent primrose-clumps showed like jade, and a few sickly, white-stalked blue-bells nodded together. As the slope favoured I shut off the power and slid over the whirled leaves, expecting every moment to meet a keeper; but I only heard a jay, far off, arguing against the silence under the twilight of the trees.

   Still the track descended. I was on the point of reversing and working my way back on the second speed ere I ended in some swamp, when I saw sunshine through the tangle ahead and lifted the brake.

   It was down again at once. As the light beat across my face my fore-wheels took the turf of a great still lawn from which sprang horsemen ten feet high with levelled lances, monstrous peacocks, and sleek round-headed maids of honour — blue, black, and glistening — all of clipped yew. Across the lawn — the marshalled woods besieged it on three sides — stood an ancient house of lichened and weather-worn stone, with mullioned windows and roofs of rose-red tile. It was flanked by semi-circular walls, also rose-red, that closed the lawn on the fourth side, and at their feet a box hedge grew man-high. There were doves on the roof about the slim brick chimneys, and I caught a glimpse of an octagonal dove-house behind the screening wall.

   Here, then, I stayed; a horseman’s green spear laid at my breast; held by the exceeding beauty of that jewel in that setting.

   “If I am not packed off for a trespasser, or if this knight does not ride a wallop at me,” thought I, “Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth at least must come out of that half-open garden door and ask me to tea.”

   A child appeared at an upper window, and I thought the little thing waved a friendly hand. But it was to call a companion, for presently another bright head showed. Then I heard a laugh among the yew-peacocks, and turning to make sure (till then I had been watching the house only) I saw the silver of a fountain behind a hedge thrown up against the sun. The doves on the roof cooed to the cooing water; but between the two notes I caught the utterly happy chuckle of a child absorbed in some light mischief.

   The garden door — heavy oak sunk deep in the thickness of the wall — opened further: a woman in a big garden hat set her foot slowly on the time-hollowed stone step and as slowly walked across the turf. I was forming some apology when she lifted up her head and I saw that she was blind.

   “I heard you,” she said. “Isn’t that a motor car?”

   “I’m afraid I’ve made a mistake in my road. I should have turned off up above — I never dreamed –” I began.

   “But I’m very glad. Fancy a motor car coming into the garden! It will be such a treat –” She turned and made as though looking about her. “You — you haven’t seen any one, have you — perhaps?”

   “No one to speak to, but the children seemed interested at a distance.”

   “Which?”

   “I saw a couple up at the window just now, and I think I heard a little chap in the grounds.”

   “Oh, lucky you!” she cried, and her face brightened. “I hear them, of course, but that’s all. You’ve seen them and heard them?”

   “Yes,” I answered. “And if I know anything of children one of them’s having a beautiful time by the fountain yonder. Escaped, I should imagine.”

   “You’re fond of children?”

   I gave her one or two reasons why I did not altogether hate them.

   “Of course, of course,” she said. “Then you understand. Then you won’t think it foolish if I ask you to take your car through the gardens, once or twice — quite slowly. I’m sure they’d like to see it. They see so little, poor things. One tries to make their life pleasant, but –” she threw out her hands towards the woods. “We’re so out of the world here.”

   “That will be splendid,” I said. “But I can’t cut up your grass.”

   She faced to the right. “Wait a minute,” she said. “We’re at the South gate, aren’t we? Behind those peacocks there’s a flagged path. We call it the Peacock’s Walk. You can’t see it from here, they tell me, but if you squeeze along by the edge of the wood you can turn at the first peacock and get on to the flags.”

   It was sacrilege to wake that dreaming house-front with the clatter of machinery, but I swung the car to clear the turf, brushed along the edge of the wood and turned in on the broad stone path where the fountain-basin lay like one star-sapphire.

   “May I come too?” she cried. “No, please don’t help me. They’ll like it better if they see me.”

   She felt her way lightly to the front of the car, and with one foot on the step she called: “Children, oh, children! Look and see what’s going to happen!”

   The voice would have drawn lost souls from the Pit, for the yearning that underlay its sweetness, and I was not surprised to hear an answering shout behind the yews. It must have been the child by the fountain, but he fled at our approach, leaving a little toy boat in the water. I saw the glint of his blue blouse among the still horsemen.

   Very disposedly we paraded the length of the walk and at her request backed again. This time the child had got the better of his panic, but stood far off and doubting.

   “The little fellow’s watching us,” I said. “I wonder if he’d like a ride.”

   “They’re very shy still. Very shy. But, oh, lucky you to be able to see them! Let’s listen.”

   I stopped the machine at once, and the humid stillness, heavy with the scent of box, cloaked us deep. Shears I could hear where some gardener was clipping; a mumble of bees and broken voices that might have been the doves.

   “Oh, unkind!” she said weariedly.

   “Perhaps they’re only shy of the motor. The little maid at the window looks tremendously interested.”

   “Yes?” She raised her head. “It was wrong of me to say that. They are really fond of me. It’s the only thing that makes life worth living — when they’re fond of you, isn’t it? I daren’t think what the place would be without them. By the way, is it beautiful?”

   “I think it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.”

   “So they all tell me. I can feel it, of course, but that isn’t quite the same thing.”

   “Then have you never?” I began, but stopped abashed.

   “Not since I can remember. It happened when I was only a few months old, they tell me. And yet I must remember something, else how could I dream about colours? I see light in my dreams, and colours, but I never see them. I only hear them just as I do when I’m awake.”

   “It’s difficult to see faces in dreams. Some people can, but most of us haven’t the gift,” I went on, looking up at the window where the child stood all but hidden.

   “I’ve heard that too,” she said. “And they tell me that one never sees a dead person’s face in a dream. Is that true?”

   “I believe it is — now I come to think of it.”

   “But how is it with yourself — yourself?” The blind eyes turned towards me.

   “I have never seen the faces of my dead in any dream,” I answered.

   “Then it must be as bad as being blind.”

   The sun had dipped behind the woods and the long shades were possessing the insolent horsemen one by one. I saw the light die from off the top of a glossy-leaved lance and all the brave hard green turn to soft black. The house, accepting another day at end, as it had accepted an hundred thousand gone, seemed to settle deeper into its rest among the shadows.

   “Have you ever wanted to?” she said after the silence.

   “Very much sometimes,” I replied. The child had left the window as the shadows closed upon it.

   “Ah! So’ve I, but I don’t suppose it’s allowed. . . . Where d’you live?”

   “Quite the other side of the county — sixty miles and more, and I must be going back. I’ve come without my big lamp.”

   “But it’s not dark yet. I can feel it.”

   “I’m afraid it will be by the time I get home. Could you lend me some one to set me on my road at first? I’ve utterly lost myself.”

   “I’ll send Madden with you to the cross-roads. We are so out of the world, I don’t wonder you were lost! I’ll guide you round to the front of the house; but you will go slowly, won’t you, till you’re out of the grounds? It isn’t foolish, do you think?”

   “I promise you I’ll go like this,” I said, and let the car start herself down the flagged path.

   We skirted the left wing of the house, whose elaborately cast lead guttering alone was worth a day’s journey; passed under a great rose-grown gate in the red wall, and so round to the high front of the house which in beauty and stateliness as much excelled the back as that all others I had seen.

   “Is it so very beautiful?” she said wistfully when she heard my raptures. “And you like the lead-figures too? There’s the old azalea garden behind. They say that this place must have been made for children. Will you help me out, please? I should like to come with you as far as the cross-roads, but I mustn’t leave them. Is that you, Madden? I want you to show this gentleman the way to the cross-roads. He has lost his way but — he has seen them.”

   A butler appeared noiselessly at the miracle of old oak that must be called the front door, and slipped aside to put on his hat. She stood looking at me with open blue eyes in which no sight lay, and I saw for the first time that she was beautiful.

   “Remember,” she said quietly, “if you are fond of them you will come again,” and disappeared within the house.

full story here:  http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/they.htm

  

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