George MacDonald.

Adela Cathcart, Volume 2 online

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mad, grotesque hippopotamus-calves make their ugly appearance in Ralph
Rinkelmann's bedroom? But he soon found out, that although they were
like the under-ground goblins, they were very different as well, and
would require quite different treatment. He felt convinced that they
were his subjects too, but that he must have overlooked them somehow at
his late coronation - if indeed they had been present; for he could not
recollect that he had seen anything just like them before. He resolved,
therefore, to pay particular attention to their habits, ways, and
characters; else he saw plainly that they would soon be too much for
him; as indeed this intrusion into this chamber, where Mrs. Rinkelmann,
who must be queen if he was king, sat taking some tea by the fire-side,
plainly indicated. But she, perceiving that he was looking about him
with a more composed expression than his face had worn for many days,
started up, and came quickly and quietly to his side, and her face was
bright with gladness. Whereupon the fire burned up more cheerily; and
the figures became more composed and respectful in their behaviour,
retreating towards the wall like well-trained attendants. Then the king
of Fairy-land had some tea and dry toast, and leaning back on his
pillows, nearly fell asleep; but not quite, for he still watched the

"Presently the queen left the room to give some of the young princes and
princesses their tea; and the fire burned lower; and behold, the figures
grew as black, and as mad in their gambols, as ever! Their favourite
games seemed to be _Hide and Seek; Touch and Go; Grin and Vanish;_
and many other such; and all in the king's bed-chamber, too; so that it
was quite alarming. It was almost as bad as if the house had been
haunted by certain creatures, which shall be nameless in a fairy-story,
because with them fairy-land will not willingly have much to do.

"'But it is a mercy that they have their slippers on!' said the king to
himself; for his head ached.

"As he lay back, with his eyes half-shut and half-open, too tired to pay
longer attention to their games, but, on the whole, considerably more
amused than offended with the liberties they took, for they seemed
good-natured creatures, and more frolicsome than positively
ill-mannered, he became suddenly aware that two of them had stepped
forward from the walls, upon which, after the manner of great spiders,
most of them preferred sprawling, and now stood in the middle of the
floor, at the foot of his majesty's bed, becking, and bowing, and
ducking in the most grotesquely obsequious manner; while every now and
then they turned solemnly round upon one heel, evidently considering
that motion the highest token of homage they could show.

"'What do you want?' said the king.

"'That it may please your majesty to be better acquainted with us,'
answered they. 'We are your majesty's subjects.'

"'I know you are: I shall be most happy,' answered the king.

"'We are not what your majesty takes us for, though. We are not so
foolish as your majesty thinks us.'

"'It is impossible to take you for anything that I know of,' rejoined
the king, who wished to make them talk, and said whatever came
uppermost; - 'for soldiers, sailors, or anything: you will not stand
still long enough. I suppose you really belong to the fire-brigade; at
least, you keep putting its light out.'

"'Don't jest, please your majesty.' And as they said the words, for they
both spoke at once throughout the interview, they performed a grave
somerset, towards the king.

"'Not jest!' retorted he; 'and with you? Why, you do nothing but jest.
What are you?'

"'The Shadows, sire. And when we do jest, sire, we always jest in
earnest. But perhaps your majesty does not see us distinctly.'

"'I see you perfectly well,' replied the king.

"'Permit me, however,' rejoined one of the Shadows; and as he spoke, he
approached the king, and lifting a dark fore-finger, drew it lightly,
but carefully, across the ridge of his forehead, from temple to temple.
The king felt the soft gliding touch go, like water, into every hollow,
and over the top of every height of that mountain-chain of thought. He
had involuntarily closed his eyes during the operation, and when he
unclosed them again, as soon as the finger was withdrawn, he found that
they were opened in more senses than one. The room appeared to have
extended itself on all sides, till he could not exactly see where the
walls were; and all about it stood the Shadows motionless. They were
tall and solemn; rather awful, indeed, in their appearance,
notwithstanding many remarkable traits of grotesqueness, looking, in
fact, just like the pictures of Puritans drawn by Cavaliers, with long
arms, and very long, thin legs, from which hung large loose feet, while
in their countenances length of chin and nose predominated. The
solemnity of their mien, however, overcame all the oddity of their form,
so that they were very _eerie_ indeed to look at, dressed as they
all were in funereal black. But a single glance was all that the king
was allowed to have; for the former operator waved his dusky palm across
his vision, and once more the king saw only the fire-lighted walls, and
dark shapes flickering about upon them. The two who had spoken for the
rest seemed likewise to have vanished. But at last the king discovered
them, standing one on each side of the fire-place. They kept close to
the chimney-wall, and talked to each other across the length of the
chimney-piece; thus avoiding the direct rays of the fire, which, though
light is necessary to their appearing to human eyes, do not agree with
them at all - much less give birth to them, as the king was soon to
learn. After a few minutes, they again approached the bed, and spoke

"'It is now getting dark, please your majesty. We mean - out of doors in
the snow. Your majesty may see, from where he is lying, the cold light
of its great winding-sheet - a famous carpet for the Shadows to dance
upon, your majesty. All our brothers and sisters will be at church now,
before going to their night's work.'

"'Do they always go to church before they go to work?'

"'They always go to church first.'

"'Where is it?'

"'In Iceland. Would your majesty like to see it?'

"'How can I go and see it, when, as you know very well, I am ill in bed?
Besides I should be sure to take cold in a frosty night like this, even
if I put on the blankets, and took the feather-bed for a muff.'

"A sort of quivering passed over their faces, which seemed to be their
mode of laughing. The whole shape of the face shook and fluctuated as if
it had been some dark fluid; till by slow degrees of gathering calm, it
settled into its former rest. Then one of them drew aside the curtains
of the bed, and, the window-curtains not having been yet drawn, the king
beheld the white glimmering night outside, struggling with the heaps of
darkness that tried to quench it; and the heavens full of stars,
flashing and sparkling like live jewels. The other Shadow went towards
the fire and vanished in it.

"Scores of Shadows immediately began an insane dance all about the room;
disappearing, one after the other, through the uncovered window, and
gliding darkly away over the face of the white snow; for the window
looked at once on a field of snow. In a few moments, the room was quite
cleared of them; but instead of being relieved by their absence, the
king felt immediately as if he were in a dead house, and could hardly
breathe for the sense of emptiness and desolation that fell upon him.
But as he lay looking out on the snow, which stretched blank and wide
before him, he spied in the distance a long dark line which drew nearer
and nearer, and showed itself at last to be all the Shadows, walking in
a double row, and carrying in the midst of them something like a bier.
They vanished under the window, but soon reappeared, having somehow
climbed up the wall of the house; for they entered in perfect order by
the window, as if melting through the transparency of the glass.

"They still carried the bier or litter. It was covered with richest
furs, and skins of gorgeous wild beasts, whose eyes were replaced by
sapphires and emeralds, that glittered and gleamed in the fire and
snow-light. The outermost skin sparkled with frost, but the inside ones
were soft and warm and dry as the down under a swan's wing. The Shadows
approached the bed, and set the litter upon it. Then a number of them
brought a huge fur-robe, and wrapping it round the king, laid him on the
litter in the midst of the furs. Nothing could be more gentle and
respectful than the way in which they moved him; and he never thought of
refusing to go. Then they put something on his head, and, lifting the
litter, carried him once round the room, to fall into order. As he
passed the mirror, he saw that he was covered with royal ermine, and
that his head wore a wonderful crown - of gold set with none but red
stones: rubies and carbuncles and garnets, and others whose names he
could not tell, glowed gloriously around his head, like the salamandrine
essence of all the Christmas fires over the world. A sceptre lay beside
him - a rod of ebony, surmounted by a cone-shaped diamond, which, cut in
a hundred facets, flashed all the hues of the rainbow, and threw
coloured gleams on every side, that looked like shadows more etherial
than those that bore him. Then the Shadows rose gently to the window,
passed through it, and sinking slowing upon the field of outstretched
snow, commenced an orderly gliding rather than march along the frozen
surface. They took it by turns to bear the king, as they sped with the
swiftness of thought, in a straight line towards the north. The polestar
rose above their heads with visible rapidity; for indeed they moved
quite as fast as the sad thoughts, though not with all the speed of
happy desires. England and Scotland slid past the litter of the king of
the Shadows. Over rivers and lakes they skimmed and glided. They climbed
the high mountains, and crossed the valleys with an unfelt bound; till
they came to John-o'-Groat's house and the northern sea. The sea was not
frozen; for all the stars shone as clear out of the deeps below as they
shone out of the deeps above; and as the bearers slid along the
blue-grey surface, with never a furrow in their track, so clear was the
water beneath, that the king saw neither surface, bottom, nor substance
to it, and seemed to be gliding only through the blue sphere of heaven,
with the stars above him, and the stars below him, and between the stars
and him nothing but an emptiness, where, for the first time in his life,
his soul felt that it had room enough.

"At length they reached the rocky shores of Iceland, where they landed,
still pursuing their journey. All this time the king felt no cold; for
the red stones in his crown kept him warm, and the emerald and sapphire
eyes of the wild beasts kept the frosts from settling upon his litter.

"Oftentimes upon their way, they had to pass through forests, caverns,
and rock-shadowed paths, where it was so dark that at first the king
feared he would lose his Shadows altogether. But as soon as they entered
such places, the diamond in his sceptre began to shine and glow and
flash, sending out streams of light of all the colours that painter's
soul could dream of; in which light the Shadows grew livelier and
stronger than ever, speeding through the dark ways with an all but
blinding swiftness. In the light of the diamond, too, some of their
forms became more simple and human, while others seemed only to break
out into a yet more untamable absurdity. Once, as they passed through a
cave, the king actually saw some of their eyes - strange shadow-eyes: he
had never seen any of their eyes before. But at the same moment when he
saw their eyes, he knew their faces too, for they turned them full upon
him for an instant; and the other Shadows, catching sight of these,
shrank and shivered, and nearly vanished. Lovely faces they were; but
the king was very thoughtful after he saw them, and continued rather
troubled all the rest of the journey. He could not account for those
faces being there, and the faces of Shadows too, with living eyes."

* * * * *

"What does that mean?" asked Adela.

And I am rather ashamed to say that I could only answer, "I am not
sure," and make haste to go on again.

* * * * *

"At last they climbed up the bed of a little stream, and then passing
through a narrow rocky defile, came out suddenly upon the side of a
mountain, overlooking a blue frozen lake in the very heart of mighty
hills. Overhead the _aurora borealis_ was shivering and flashing
like a battle of ten thousand spears. Underneath, its beams passed
faintly over the blue ice and the sides of the snow clad mountains,
whose tops shot up like huge icicles all about, with here and there a
star sparkling on the very tip of one. But as the northern lights in the
sky above, so wavered and quivered, and shot hither and thither, the
Shadows on the surface of the lake below; now gathering in groups, and
now shivering asunder; now covering the whole surface of the lake, and
anon condensed into one dark knot in the centre. Every here and there on
the white mountains, might be seen two or three shooting away towards
the tops, and vanishing beyond them. Their number was gradually, though
hardly visibly, diminishing.

"'Please your majesty,' said the Shadows, 'this is our church - the
Church of the Shadows.'

"And so saying, the king's body-guard set down the litter upon a rock,
and mingled with the multitudes below. They soon returned, however, and
bore the king down into the middle of the lake. All the Shadows came
crowding round him, respectfully but fearlessly; and sure never such a
grotesque assembly revealed itself before to mortal eyes. The king had
seen all kind of gnomes, goblins, and kobolds at his coronation; but
they were quite rectilinear figures, compared with the insane
lawlessness of form in which the Shadows rejoiced; and the wildest
gambols of the former, were orderly dances of ceremony, beside the
apparently aimless and wilful contortions of figure, and metamorphoses
of shape, in which the latter indulged. They retained, however, all the
time, to the surprise of the king, an identity, each of his own type,
inexplicably perceptible through every change. Indeed this preservation
of the primary idea of each form, was quite as wonderful as the
bewildering and ridiculous alterations to which the form itself was
every moment subjected.

"'What are you?' said the king, leaning on his elbow, and looking around

"'The Shadows, your majesty,' answered several voices at once.

"'What Shadows?'

"'The human Shadows. The Shadows of men, and women, and their children.'

"'Are you not the shadows of chairs, and tables, and poker, and tongs,
just as well?'

"At this question a strange jarring commotion went through the assembly
with a shock. Several of the figures shot up as high as the aurora, but
instantly settled down again to human size, as if overmastering their
feelings, out of respect to him who had roused them. One who had bounded
to the highest visible icy peak, and as suddenly returned, now elbowed
his way through the rest, and made himself spokesman for them during the
remaining part of the dialogue.

"'Excuse our agitation, your majesty,' said he. 'I see your majesty has
not yet thought proper to make himself acquainted with our nature and

"'I wish to do so now,' replied the king.

"'We are the Shadows,' repeated the Shadow, solemnly.

"'Well?' said the king.

"'We do not often appear to men.'

"'Ha!' said the king.

"'We do not belong to the sunshine at all. We go through it unseen, and
only by a passing chill do men recognize an unknown presence.'

"'Ha!' said the king, again.

"'It is only in the twilight of the fire, or when one man or woman is
alone with a single candle, or when any number of people are all feeling
the same thing at once, making them one, that we show ourselves, and the
truth of things.

"'Can that be true that loves the night?' said the king.

"'The darkness is the nurse of light,' answered the Shadow.

"'Can that be true which mocks at forms?' said the king.

"'Truth rides abroad in shapeless storms,' answered the Shadow.

"'Ha! ha!' thought Ralph Rinkelmann, 'it rhymes. The shadow caps my
questions with his answers. - Very strange!' And he grew thoughtful

"The Shadow was the first to resume.

"'Please your majesty, may we present our petition?'

"'By all means,' replied the king. 'I am not well enough to receive it
in proper state.'

"'Never mind, your majesty. We do not care for much ceremony; and indeed
none of us are quite well at present. The subject of our petition weighs
upon us.'

"'Go on,' said the king.

"'Sire,' began the Shadow, 'our very existence is in danger. The various
sorts of artificial light, both in houses and in men, women and
children, threaten to end our being. The use and the disposition of
gaslights, especially high in the centres, blind the eyes by which alone
we can be perceived. We are all but banished from towns. We are driven
into villages and lonely houses, chiefly old farm-houses, out of which,
even, our friends the fairies are fast disappearing. We therefore
petition our king, by the power of his art, to restore us to our rights
in the house itself, and in the hearts of its dwellers.'

"'But,' said the king, 'you frighten the children.'

"'Very seldom, your majesty; and then only for their good. We seldom
seek to frighten anybody. We only want to make people silent and
thoughtful; to awe them a little, your majesty.'

"'You are much more likely to make them laugh,' said the king.

"'Are we?' said the Shadow.

"And approaching the king one step, he stood quite still for a moment.
The diamond of the king's sceptre shot out a vivid flame of violet
light, and the king stared at the Shadow in silence, and his lip

* * * * *

"Now what does that mean?" said Adela, again.

"How can I tell?" I answered, and went on:

* * * * *

"'It is only,' resumed the Shadow, 'when our thoughts are not fixed upon
any particular object, that our bodies are subject to all the vagaries
of elemental influences. Generally amongst worldly men and frivolous
women, we only attach ourselves to some article of furniture or of
dress; and they never doubt that we are mere foolish and vague results
of the dashing of the waves of the light against the solid forms of
which their houses are full. We do not care to tell them the truth, for
they would never see it. But let the worldly man - - or the frivolous
woman - - and then - - '

"At each of the pauses indicated, the mass of Shadows throbbed and
heaved with emotion, but soon settled again into comparative stillness.
Once more the Shadow addressed himself to speak. But suddenly they all
looked up, and the king, following their gaze, saw that the aurora had
begun to pale.

"'The moon is rising,' said the Shadow. As soon as she looks over the
mountains into the valley, we must be gone, for we have plenty to do by
the moon: we are powerful in her light. But if your majesty will come
here to-morrow night, your majesty may learn a great deal more about us,
and judge for himself whether it be fit to accord our petition; for then
will be our grand annual assembly, in which we report to our chiefs the
deeds we have attempted, and the good or bad success we have had.'

"'If you send for me,' replied the king, 'I will come.'

"Ere the Shadow could reply, the tip of the moon's crescent horn peeped
up from behind an icy pinnacle, and one slender ray fell on the lake. It
shone upon no Shadows. Ere the eye of the king could again seek the
earth after beholding the first brightness of the moon's resurrection,
they had vanished; and the surface of the lake glittered cold and blue
in the pale moonlight.

"There the king lay, alone in the midst of the frozen lake, with the
moon staring at him. But at length he heard from somewhere a voice that
he knew.

"'Will you take another cup of tea, dear?' said Mrs. Rinkelmann; and
Ralph, coming slowly to himself, found that he was lying in his own bed.

"'Yes, I will,' he answered; 'and rather a large piece of toast, if you
please; for I have been a long journey since I saw you last.'

"'He has not come to himself quite,' said Mrs. Rinkelmann, between her
and herself.

"'You would be rather surprised,' continued Ralph, 'if I told you where
I had been, and all about it.'

"'I daresay I should,' responded his wife.

"'Then I will tell you,' rejoined Ralph.

"But at that moment, a great Shadow bounced out of the fire with a
single huge leap, and covered the whole room. Then it settled in one
corner, and Ralph saw it shaking its fist at him from the end of a
preposterous arm. So he took the hint, and held his peace. And it was as
well for him. For I happen to know something about the Shadows too; and
I know that if he had told his wife all about it just then, they would
not have sent for him the following evening.

"But as the king, after taking his tea and toast, lay and looked about
him, the dancing shadows in his room seemed to him odder and more
inexplicable than ever. The whole chamber was full of mystery. So it
generally was, but now it was more mysterious than ever. After all that
he had seen in the Shadow-church, his own room and its shadows were yet
more wonderful and unintelligible than those.

"This made it the more likely that he had seen a true vision; for,
instead of making common things look common place, as a false vision
would have done, it made common things disclose the wonderful that was
in them.

"'The same applied to all true art,' thought Ralph Rinkelmann.

"The next afternoon, as the twilight was growing dusky, the king lay
wondering whether or not the Shadows would fetch him again. He wanted
very much to go, for he had enjoyed the journey exceedingly, and he
longed, besides, to hear some of the Shadows tell their stories. But the
darkness grew deeper and deeper, and the Shadows did not come. The cause
was, that Mrs. Rinkelmann sat by the fire in the gloaming; and they
could not carry off the king while she was there. Some of them tried to
frighten her away, by playing the oddest pranks on the walls, and floor,
and ceiling; but altogether without effect: the queen only smiled, for
she had a good conscience. Suddenly, however, a dreadful scream was
heard from the nursery, and Mrs. Rinkelmann rushed up stairs to see what
was the matter. No sooner had she gone, than the two warders of the
chimney-corners stepped out into the middle of the room, and said, in a
low voice:

"'Is your majesty ready?'

"'Have you no hearts?' said the king; 'or are they as black as your
faces? Did you not hear the child scream? I must know what is the matter
with her before I go.'

"'Your majesty may keep his mind easy on that point,' replied the
warders. 'We had tried everything we could think of, to get rid of her
majesty the queen, but without effect. So a young madcap Shadow, half
against the will of the older ones of us, slipped up stairs into the
nursery; and has, no doubt, succeeded in appalling the baby, for he is
very lithe and long-legged. - Now, your majesty.'

"'I will have no such tricks played in my nursery,' said the king,
rather angrily. 'You might put the child beside itself.'

"'Then there would be twins, your majesty. And we rather like twins.'

"'None of your miserable jesting! You might put the child out of her

"'Impossible, sire; for she has not got into them yet.'

"'Go away,' said the king.

"'Forgive us, your majesty. Really, it will do the child good; for that
Shadow will, all her life, be to her a symbol of what is ugly and bad.
When she feels in danger of hating or envying anyone, that Shadow will
come back to her mind, and make her shudder.'

"'Very well,' said the king. 'I like that. Let us go.'

"The Shadows went through the same ceremonies and preparations as
before; during which, the young Shadow before-mentioned, contrived to
make such grimaces as kept the baby in terror, and the queen in the
nursery, till all was ready. Then with a bound that doubled him up
against the ceiling, and a kick of his legs six feet out behind him, he
vanished through the nursery door, and reached the king's bed-chamber
just in time to take his place with the last who were melting through

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Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldAdela Cathcart, Volume 2 → online text (page 4 of 12)