By Algernon Blackwood
IT used to puzzle him that, after dark, someone would look in round the edge of the bedroom door, and withdraw again too rapidly for him to see the face. When the nurse had gone away with the candle this happened: “Good night, Master Tim,” she said usually, shading the light with one hand to protect his eyes; “dream of me and I’ll dream of you.” She went out slowly. The sharp-edged shadow of the door ran across the ceiling like a train. There came a whispered colloquy in the corridor outside, about himself, of course, and—he was alone. He heard her steps going deeper and deeper into the bosom of the old country house; they were audible for a moment on the stone flooring of the hall; and sometimes the dull thump of the baize door into the servants’ quarters just reached him—then silence. But it was only when the last sound as well as the last sign of her had vanished that the face emerged from its hiding place and flashed in upon him round the corner. As a rule it came just as he was saying, “Now I’ll go to sleep. I won’t think any longer. Good night, Master Tim, and happy dreams.” He loved to say this to himself; it brought a sense of companionship, as though there were two persons speaking.
The room was on the top of the old house, a big, high-ceilinged room, and his bed against the wall had an iron railing round it; he felt very safe and protected in it. The curtains at the other end of the room were drawn. He lay watching the firelight dancing on the heavy folds, and their pattern, showing a spaniel chasing a long-tailed bird towards a bushy tree, interested and amused him. It was repeated over and over again. He counted the number of dogs, and the number of birds, and the number of trees, but could never make them agree. There was a plan somewhere in that pattern; if only he could discover it, the dogs and birds and trees would “come out right.” Hundreds and hundreds of times he had played this game, for the plan in the pattern made it possible to take sides, and the bird and dog were against him. They always won, however; Tim usually fell asleep just when the advantage was on his own side. The curtains hung steadily enough most of the time, but it seemed to him once or twice that they stirred—hiding a dog or bird on purpose to prevent his winning. For instance, he had eleven birds and eleven trees, and, fixing them in his mind by saying, “that’s eleven birds and eleven trees, but only ten dogs,” his eyes darted back to find the eleventh dog, when—the curtain moved and threw all his calculations into confusion again. The eleventh dog was hidden. He did not quite like the movement; it gave him questionable feelings for the curtain did not move of itself. Yet he was too intent upon counting the dogs to feel positive alarm.
Opposite to him was the fireplace, full of red and yellow coals; and, lying with his head sideways on the pillow, he could see directly in between the bars. When the coals settled with a soft and powdery crash, he turned his eyes from the curtains to the grate, trying to discover exactly which bits had fallen. So long as the glow was there the sound seemed pleasant enough, but sometimes he awoke later in the night, the room huge with darkness, the fire almost out—and the sound was not so pleasant then. It startled him. The coals did not fall of themselves. It seemed that someone poked them cautiously. The shadows were very thick before the bars. As with the curtains the morning aspect of the extinguished fire, the ice-cold cinders that made a clinking sound like tin, caused no emotion whatever in his soul.
And it was usually while he lay waiting for sleep, tired both of the curtain and the coal games, on the point of saying, “I’ll go to sleep now,” that the puzzling thing took place. He would be staring drowsily at the dying fire, perhaps counting the stockings and flannel garments that hung along the high fender rail when, suddenly, a person looked in with lightning swiftness through the door and vanished again before he could possibly turn his head to see. The appearance and disappearance were accomplished with amazing rapidity always.
It was a head and shoulders that looked in, and the movement combined the speed, the lightness and the silence of a shadow. Only it was not a shadow. A hand held the edge of the door. The face shot round, saw him, and withdrew like lightning. It was utterly beyond him to imagine anything more quick and clever. It darted. He heard no sound. It went. But—it had seen him, looked him all over, examined him, noted what he was doing with that lightning glance. It wanted to know if he were awake still, or asleep.
And though it went off, it still watched him from a distance; it waited somewhere; it knew all about him. Where it waited no one could ever guess. It came probably from beyond the house, possibly from the roof, but most likely from the garden or the sky. Yet, though strange, it was not terrible. It was a kindly and protective figure. And when it happened he never called for help, because the occurrence simply took his voice away.
“It comes from the Nightmare Passage,” he decided; “but it’s not a nightmare.” It puzzled him.
Sometimes it came more than once in a single night. He was pretty sure—not quite positive—that it occupied his room as soon as he was properly asleep. It took possession, sitting perhaps before the dying fire, standing upright behind the heavy curtains, or even lying down in the empty bed his brother used when he was home from school. Perhaps it played the curtain game, perhaps it poked the coals; it knew where the eleventh dog had lain concealed. It certainly came in and out; certainly it did not wish to be seen. For, more than once, on waking suddenly in the midnight blackness, Tim knew it was standing close beside his bed and bending over him. He felt, rather than heard, its presence. It glided quietly away. It moved with marvellous softness, yet he was positive it moved. He felt the difference, so to speak: it had been near him, now it was gone. It came back, too—just as he was falling into sleep again. Its midnight coming and going stood out sharply different from its first shy, tentative approach. For in the firelight it came alone; whereas in the black and silent hours, it had with it—others.
And it was then he made up his mind that its swift and quiet movements were due to the fact that it had wings. It flew. And the others that came with it in the darkness were “its little ones.” He also made up his mind that all were friendly, comforting, protective, and that while positively not a Nightmare, it yet came somehow along the Nightmare Passage before it reached him. “You see, it’s like this,” he explained to the nurse: “The big one comes to visit me alone, but it only brings its little ones when I’m quite asleep.”
“Then the quicker you get to sleep the better, isn’t it, Master Tim?”
He replied: “Rather! I always do. Only I wonder where they come from!” He spoke, however, as though he had an inkling.
But the nurse was so dull about it that he gave her up and tried his father. “Of course,” replied this busy but affectionate parent, “it’s either nobody at all, or else it’s Sleep coming to carry you away to the land of dreams.” He made the statement kindly but somewhat briskly, for he was worried just then about the extra taxes on his land, and the effort to fix his mind on Tim’s fanciful world was beyond him at the moment. He lifted the boy on to his knee, kissed and patted him as though he were a favourite dog, and planted him on the rug again with a flying sweep. “Run and ask your mother,” he added; “she knows all that kind of thing. Then come back and tell me all about it—another time.” Tim found his mother in an armchair before the fire of another room; she was knitting and reading at the same time—a wonderful thing the boy could never understand. She raised her head as he came in, pushed her glasses on to her forehead, and held her arms out. He told her everything, ending up with what his father said.
“You see, it’s not Jackman, or Thompson, or anyone like that,” he exclaimed. “It’s someone real.”
“But nice,” she assured him, “someone who comes to take care of you and see that you’re all safe and cosy.”
“Oh, yes, I know that. But—”
“I think your father’s right,” she added quickly. “It’s Sleep, I’m sure, who pops in round the door like that. Sleep has got wings, I’ve always heard.”
“Then the other thing—the little ones?” he asked. “Are they just sorts of dozes, you think?”
Mother did not answer for a moment. She turned down the page of her book, closed it slowly, and put it on the table beside her. More slowly still she put her knitting away, arranging the wool and needles with some deliberation.
“Perhaps,” she said, drawing the boy closer to her and looking into his big eyes of wonder, “they’re dreams!” Tim felt a thrill run through him as she said it. He stepped back a foot or so and clapped his hands softly.
“Dreams!” he whispered with enthusiasm and belief; “of course! I never thought of that.”
His mother, having proved her sagacity, then made a mistake. She noted her success, but instead of leaving it there, she elaborated and explained. As Tim expressed it she “went on about it.” Therefore he did not listen. He followed his train of thought alone. And presently, he interrupted her long sentences with a conclusion of his own: “Then I know where She hides,” he announced with a touch of awe. “Where She lives, I mean.” And without waiting to be asked, he imparted the information: “It’s in the Other Wing.”
“Ah!” said his mother, taken by surprise. “How clever of you, Tim!”—and thus confirmed it.
Thenceforward this was established in his life—that Sleep and her attendant Dreams hid during the daytime in that unused portion of the great Elizabethan mansion called the Other Wing. This other wing was unoccupied, its corridors untrodden, its windows shuttered and its rooms all closed. At various places green baize doors led into it, but no one ever opened them. For many years this part had been shut up; and for the children, properly speaking, it was out of bounds. They never mentioned it as a possible place; in hide-and-seek it was not considered; there was a hint of the inaccessible about the Other Wing. Shadows, dust, and silence had it to themselves.
But Tim, having ideas of his own about everything, possessed special information about the Other Wing. He believed it was inhabited. Who occupied the immense series of empty rooms, who trod the spacious corridors, who passed to and fro behind the shuttered windows, he had not known exactly. He had called these occupants “they,” and the most important among them was “The Ruler.” The Ruler of the Other Wing was a kind of deity, powerful, far away, ever present yet never seen.
And about this Ruler he had a wonderful conception for a little boy; he connected her with deep thoughts of his own, the deepest of all. When he made up adventures to the moon, to the stars, or to the bottom of the sea, adventures that he lived inside himself—to reach them he must invariably pass through the chambers of the Other Wing. Those corridors and halls, the Nightmare Passage among them, lay along the route; they were the first stage of the journey. Once the green baize doors swung to behind him and the long dim passage stretched ahead, he was well on his way into the adventure of the moment; the Nightmare Passage once passed, he was safe from capture; but once the shutters of a window had been flung open, he was free of the gigantic world that lay beyond. For then light poured in and he could see his way.
The conception, for a child, was curious. It established a correspondence between the mysterious chambers of the Other Wing and the occupied, but unguessed chambers of his Inner Being. Through these chambers, through these darkened corridors, along a passage, sometimes dangerous, or at least of questionable repute, he must pass to find all adventures that were real. The light—when he pierced far enough to take the shutters down—was discovery. Tim did not actually think, much less say, all this. He was aware of it. He felt it. The Other Wing was inside himself as well as through the green baize doors. His inner map of wonder included both of them.
But now, for the first time in his life, he knew who lived there and who the Ruler was. A shutter had fallen of its own accord; light poured in; he made a guess, and Mother had confirmed it. Sleep and her Little Ones, the host of dreams, were the daylight occupants. They stole out when the darkness fell. All adventures in life began and ended by a dream—discoverable by first passing through the Other Wing.