Read CHAPTER V - INTO THE EMPTY HOUSE of Jimbo A Fantasy , free online book, by Algernon Blackwood, on ReadCentral.com.

The darkness lasted a long time without a break, and when it lifted all recollection of the bedroom scene had vanished.

Jimbo found himself back again on the grass.  The swinging gate was just in front of him, but he did not recognise it; no suggestion of “Express Trains” came back to him as his eyes rested without remembrance upon the bars where he had so often swung, in defiance of orders, with his brothers and sisters.  Recollection of his home, family, and previous life he had absolutely none; or at least, it was buried so deeply in his inner consciousness that it amounted to the same thing, and he looked out upon the garden, the gate, and the field beyond as upon an entirely new piece of the world.

The stars, he saw, were nearly all gone, and a very faint light was beginning to spread from the woods beyond the field.  The eastern horizon was slowly brightening, and soon the night would be gone.  Jimbo was glad of this.  He began to be conscious of little thrills of expectation, for with the light surely help would also come.  The light always brought relief, and he already felt that strange excitement that comes with the first signs of dawn.  In the distance cocks were crowing, horses began to stamp in the barns not far away, and a hundred little stirrings of life ran over the surface of the earth as the light crept slowly up the sky and dropped down again upon the world with its message of coming day.

Of course, help would come by the time the sun was really up, and it was partly this certainty, and partly because he was a little too dazed to realise the seriousness of the situation, that prevented his giving way to a fit of fear and weeping.  Yet a feeling of vague terror lay only a little way below the surface, and when, a few moments later, he saw that he was no longer alone, and that an odd-looking figure was creeping towards him from the shrubberies, he sprang to his feet, prepared to run unless it at once showed the most friendly intentions.

This figure seemed to have come from nowhere.  Apparently it had risen out of the earth.  It was too large to have been concealed by the low shrubberies; yet he had not been aware of its approach, and it had appeared without making any noise.  Probably it was friendly, he felt, in spite of its curious shape and the stealthy way it had come.  At least, he hoped so; and if he could only have told whether it was a man or an animal he would easily have made up his mind.  But the uncertain light, and the way it crouched half-hidden behind the bushes, prevented this.  So he stood, poised ready to run, and yet waiting, hoping, indeed expecting every minute a sign of friendliness and help.

In this way the two faced each other silently for some time, until the feeling of terror gradually stole deeper into the boy’s heart and began to rob him of full power over his muscles.  He wondered if he would be able to run when the time came, and whether he could run fast enough.  This was how it first showed itself, this suggestion of insidious fear.  Would he be able to keep up the start he had?  Would it chase him?  Would it run like a man or like an animal, on four legs or on two?  He wished he could see more clearly what it was.  He still stood his ground pluckily, facing it and waiting, but the fear, once admitted to his mind, was gaining strength, and he began to feel cold and shivery.  Then suddenly the tension came to an end.  In two strides the figure came up close to his side, and the same second Jimbo was lifted off his feet and borne swiftly away across the field.

He felt quite unable to offer the least resistance, and at the same time he felt a sense of relief that something had happened at last.  He was still not sure that the figure was unkind; only its shape filled him with a feeling that was certainly the beginning of real horror.  It was the shape of a man, he thought, but of a very large and ill-constructed man; for it certainly had moved on two legs and had caught him up in a pair of tremendously strong arms.  But there was something else it had besides arms, for a kind of soft cloak hung all round it and wrapped the boy from head to foot, preventing him seeing his captor properly, and at the same time filling his body with a kind of warm drowsiness that mitigated his active fear and made him rather like the sensation of being carried along so easily and so fast.

But was he being carried?  The pace they were going was amazing, and he moved as easily as a sailing boat, and with the same swinging motion.  Could it be some animal like a horse after all?  Jimbo tried to see more, but found it impossible to free himself from the folds of the enveloping substance, and meanwhile they were swinging forward at what seemed a tremendous pace over fields and ditches, through hedges, and down long lanes.

The odours of earth, and dew-drenched grass, and opening flowers came to him.  He heard the birds singing, and felt the cool morning air sting his cheeks as they raced along.  There was no jolting or jarring, and the figure seemed to cover the ground as lightly as though it hardly touched the earth.  It was certainly not a dream, he was sure of that; but the longer they went on the drowsier he became, and the less he wondered whether the figure was going to help him or to do something dreadful to him.  He was now thoroughly afraid, and yet, strange contradiction, he didn’t care a bit.  Let the figure do what it liked; it was only a sort of nightmare person after all, and might vanish as suddenly as it had arrived.

For a long time they raced forward at this great speed, and then with a bump and a crash they stopped suddenly short, and Jimbo felt himself let down upon the solid earth.  He tried to free himself at once from the folds of the clinging substance that enveloped him, but, before he could do so and see what his captor was really like, he heard a door slam and felt himself pushed along what seemed to be the hallways of a house.  His eyes were clear now and he could see, but the darkness had come down again so thickly that all he could discover was that the figure was urging him along the floor of a large empty hall, and that they were in a dark and empty building.

Jimbo tried hard to see his captor, but the figure, dim enough in the uncertain light, always managed to hide its face and keep itself bunched up in such a way that he could never see more than a great, dark mass of a body, from which long legs and arms shot out like telescopes, draped in a sort of clinging cloak.  Now that the rapid motion through the air had ceased, the boy’s drowsiness passed a little, and he began to shiver with fear and to feel that the tears could not be kept back much longer.

Probably in another minute he would have started to run for his life, when a new sound caught his ears and made him listen intently, while a feeling of wonder and delight caught his heart, and made him momentarily forget the figure pushing him forward from behind.

Was it the wind he heard?  Or was it the voices of children all singing together very low?  It was a gentle, sighing sound that rose and fell with mournful modulations and seemed to come from the very centre of the building; it held, too, a strange, far-away murmur, like the surge of a faint breeze moving in the tree-tops.  It might be the wind playing round the walls of the building, or it might be children singing in hushed voices.  One minute he thought it was outside the house, and the next he was certain it came from somewhere in the upper part of the building.  He glanced up, and fancied for one moment that he saw in the darkness a crowd of little faces peering down at him over the banisters, and that as they disappeared he heard the sound of many little feet moving, and then a door hurriedly closing.  But a push from the figure behind that nearly sent him sprawling at the foot of the stairs, prevented his hearing very clearly, and the light was far too dim to let him feel sure of what he had seen.

They passed quickly along deserted corridors and through winding passages.  No one seemed about.  The interior of the house was chilly, and the keen air nipped.  After going up several flights of stairs they stopped at last in front of a door, and before Jimbo had a moment to turn and dash downstairs again past the figure, as he had meant to do, he was pushed violently forward into a room.

The door slammed after him, and he heard the heavy tread of the figure as it went down the staircase again into the bottom of the house.  Then he saw that the room was full of light and of small moving beings.

Curiosity and astonishment now for a moment took the place of fear, and Jimbo, with a thumping heart and clenched fists, stood and stared at the scene before him.  He stiffened his little legs and leaned against the wall for support, but he felt full of fight in case anything happened, and with wide-open eyes he tried to take in the whole scene at once and be ready for whatever might come.

But there seemed no immediate cause for alarm, and when he realised that the beings in the room were apparently children, and only children, his rather mixed sensations of astonishment and fear gave place to an emotion of overpowering shyness.  He became exceedingly embarrassed, for he was surrounded by children of all ages and sizes, staring at him just as hard as he was staring at them.

The children, he began to take in, were all dressed in black; they looked frightened and unhappy; their bodies were thin and their faces very white.  There was something else about them he could not quite name, but it inspired him with the same sense of horror that he had felt in the arms of the Figure who had trapped him.  For he now realised definitely that he had been trapped; and he also began to realise for the first time that, though he still had the body of a little boy, his way of thinking and judging was sometimes more like that of a grown-up person.  The two alternated, and the result was an odd confusion; for sometimes he felt like a child and thought like a man, while at others he felt like a man and thought like a child.  Something had gone wrong, very much wrong; and, as he watched this group of silent children facing him, he knew suddenly that what was just beginning to happen to him had happened to them long, long ago.

For they looked as if they had been a long, long time in the world, yet their bodies had not kept pace with their minds.  Something had happened to stop the growth of the body, while allowing the mind to go on developing.  The bodies were not stunted or deformed; they were well-formed, nice little children’s bodies, but the minds within them were grown-up, and the incongruity was distressing.  All this he suddenly realised in a flash, intuitively, just as though it had been most elaborately explained to him; yet he could not have put the least part of it into words or have explained what he saw and felt to another.

He saw that they had the hands and figures of children, the heads of children, the unlined faces and smooth foreheads of children, but their gestures, and something in their movements, belonged to grown-up people, and the expression of their eyes in meaning and intelligence was the expression of old people and not of children.  And the expression in the eyes of every one of them he saw was the expression of terror and of pain.  The effect was so singular that he seemed face to face with an entirely new order of creatures:  a child’s features with a man’s eyes; a child’s figure with a woman’s movements; full-grown souls cramped and cribbed in absurdly inadequate bodies and little, puny frames; the old trying uncouthly to express itself in the young.

The grown-up, old portion of him had been uppermost as he stared and received these impressions, but now suddenly it passed away, and he felt as a little boy again.  He glanced quickly down at his own little body in the alpaca knickerbockers and sailor blouse, and then, with a sigh of relief, looked up again at the strange group facing him.  So far, at any rate, he had not changed, and there was nothing yet to suggest that he was becoming like them in appearance at least.

With his back against the door he faced the roomful of children who stood there motionless and staring; and as he looked, wild feelings rushed over him and made him tremble.  Who was he?  Where had he come from?  Where in the world had he spent the other years of his life, the forgotten years?  There seemed to be no one to whom he could go for comfort, no one to answer questions; and there was such a lot he wanted to ask.  He seemed to be so much older, and to know so much more than he ought to have known, and yet to have forgotten so much that he ought not to have forgotten.

His loss of memory, however, was of course only partial.  He had forgotten his own identity, and all the people with whom he had so far in life had to do; yet at the same time he was dimly conscious that he had just left all these people, and that some day he would find them again.  It was only the surface-layers of memory that had vanished, and these had not vanished for ever, but only sunk down a little below the horizon.

Then, presently, the children began to range themselves in rows between him and the opposite wall, without once taking their horrible, intelligent eyes off him as they moved.  He watched them with growing dread, but at last his curiosity became so strong that it overcame everything else, and in a voice that he meant to be very brave, but that sounded hardly above a whisper, he said: 

“Who are you?  And what’s been done to you?”

The answer came at once in a whisper as low as his own, though he could not distinguish who spoke: 

“Listen and you shall know.  You, too, are now one of us.”

Immediately the children began a slow, impish sort of dance before him, moving almost with silent feet over the boards, yet with a sedateness and formality that had none of the unconscious grace of children.  And, as they danced, they sang, but in voices so low, that it was more like the mournful sighing of wind among branches than human voices.  It was the sound he had already heard outside the building.

  “We are the children of the whispering night,
   Who live eternally in dreadful fright
   Of stories told us in the grey twilight
                                By ­nurserymaids!

   We are the children of a winter’s day;
   Under our breath we chant this mournful lay;
   We dance with phantoms and with shadows play,
                                And have no rest.

   We have no joy in any children’s game,
   For happiness to us is but a name,
   Since Terror kissed us with his lips of flame
                                In wicked jest.

   We hear the little voices in the wind
   Singing of freedom we may never find,
   Victims of fate so cruelly unkind,
                                We are unblest.

   We hear the little footsteps in the rain
   Running to help us, though they run in vain,
   Tapping in hundreds on the window-pane
                                In vain behest.

   We are the children of the whispering night,
   Who dwell unrescued in eternal fright
   Of stories told us in the dim twilight
                                By ­nurserymaids!”

The plaintive song and the dance ceased together, and before Jimbo could find any words to clothe even one of the thoughts that crowded through his mind, he saw them moving towards a door he had not hitherto noticed on the other side of the room.  A moment later they had opened it and passed out, sedate, mournful, unhurried; and the boy found that in some way he could not understand the light had gone with them, and he was standing with his back against the wall in almost total darkness.

Once out of the room, no sound followed them, and he crossed over and tried the handle of the door.  It was locked.  Then he went back and tried the other door; that, too, was locked.  He was shut in.  There was no longer any doubt as to the Figure’s intentions; he was a prisoner, trapped like an animal in a cage.

The only thought in his mind just then was an intense desire for freedom.  Whatever happened he must escape.  He crossed the floor to the only window in the room; it was without blinds, and he looked out.  But instantly he recoiled with a fresh and overpowering sense of helplessness, for it was three storeys from the ground, and down below in the shadows he saw a paved courtyard that rendered jumping utterly out of the question.

He stood for a long time, fighting down the tears, and staring as if his heart would break at the field and trees beyond.  A high wall enclosed the yard, but beyond that was freedom and open space.  Feelings of loneliness and helplessness, terror and dismay overwhelmed him.  His eyes burned and smarted, yet, strange to say, the tears now refused to come and bring him relief.  He could only stand there with his elbows on the window-sill, and watch the outline of the trees and hedges grow clearer and clearer as the light drew across the sky, and the moment of sunrise came close.

But when at last he turned back into the room, he saw that he was no longer alone.  Crouching against the opposite wall there was a hooded figure steadily watching him.