The Night Horses

I have already put a post on about the inspiration for this story and it comes from The Smuggler’s Song by Rudyard Kipling. 

I think that this is a great poem, full of vivid images for a child’s imagination!  In fact for anyone’s imagination!  My story will be about the little girl who hears the Gentlemen go riding by – here is a bit of the opening for you!  And of course the poem itself. 

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THE NIGHT HORSES

The thundering sound of horses careering through the dark night woke me up last night and I itched to open the curtains and peek out.  My father’s stern warning paused my hand from pulling them back.  “I’ll beat you black and blue if I hear of you telling about horses in the night.”  Not an idle threat with my father.  My mother just pleaded ignorance.  “What the eye don’t see…” was one of her favourite expressions.  My curiosity was going to get me into serious trouble one of these days, or so I kept being told.  How was I supposed to resist?  I tucked my hands under my body and lay  on them to prevent myself from reaching for the curtain. I made a funny fish shaped lump under my sheets with my hips sticking up in the air, as I stared at the dark ceiling.

The team passed by without slowing down, disappearing out of the village at break-neck speed.  Our house was on the edge of the village and backed onto the street.  The sound had gone from left to right shaking the book shelf, bed-frame and wardrobe in that order.  I had only heard them leaving the village tonight.  There were never any voices – it was like the horses were bewitched.  They drove themselves as hard as if their rider was whipping them into a frenzy.  My wild imagination had them ridden by a phantom-rider wearing a flying cape of black velvet and a black tricorne hat.  His features were hidden by the hat and his cape trailed out behind him, blending in with the horses’ tails.  It was always impossible for me to sleep after the horses had been.  I lay on top of my twitching hands wondering where they were going and where they had come from. 

None of the horses in our village ever rose above a trot – most were used for pulling ploughs and toiling in the fields.  Our own beast had dragged a plough for most of her days…she would never have been part of such an exciting night time excursion.  Hooves and hair cloaked in clay earth, speckled coat flecked with mud, a happy nuzzling sound when you tickled her ears.  Not a character for a daring escapade from marauding pirates or sea monsters as I imagined.

I would have a look in the morning and see if I could find them.  I lay there pondering until Mother called me for breakfast.

“Did you sleep well dear?” she asked with an icy edge as always, daring me to talk about the night time noises.  My parents were testing me, and so to avoid a beating I merely said “Fine thank you Ma.”  Father glared suspiciously over his tea cup at me in grudging approval.  “Good,” he muttered under his breath.  Mother was a spiky person – all long and thin with claw like finger nails.  Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun which only emphasised her angular face and scrawny neck.  Her shoulder blades stuck out from the shapeless dress she always wore.  Pa was round where she was thin but there was nothing soft about him – he was hard as granite and I likened him to a rock face.  There was a rumour that he liked to challenge people to punch him to see if he flinched.  He never had.

No more was said about anything.  My memories of the night were making me sit on my hands at the breakfast table now.  We sat in mutual silence while we ate breakfast.  

“May I go out and play now?”  I asked after clearing my breakfast things.  My eagerness must have shown, so Mother made me do chores around the house until noon at which point the house shone like a jewel.  Everything had been polished to perfection and surely there was nothing else to be done?  I kept quiet as quiet as a mouse though just in case another job would be found and waited to be allowed outside.    “Rain’s started,” Mother said and her relief was obvious – she didn’t have to think of other ways to thwart my plans.  My heart sank – outside was definitely not going to be allowed today.  Rain would have washed any trace of the mysterious horses away.  I sat by the window and watched the water droplets trickle down the window pane.  The time crawled by until supper and bed time.  I was twitching with anticipation at the thought of the night horses coming again and lay awake all night waiting for them to come.  Of course they didn’t show up – there was no telling when they would be there.

After two nights of interrupted sleep I walked in my sleep the following day.  The rain had eased and we needed to get things.  We were all suffering from cabin fever – too much time together was never a good idea.  I trudged silently along behind Mother as we went to the village and I was so befuddled with sleep that it took the whole of the walk for me to realise that we were even outside.  When I didn’t immediately run off and play Mother’s expression looked grimly satisfied.  I was too tired to cause mischief – she could let her attention wander away from keeping me on the straight and narrow to start thinking about everyday things like food and complaining about me with the neighbours.  While she gossiped and shopped I paid no attention and sat on the stone wall that ran along the fields’ edge in a daze.

My heels were kicking the wall in a rhythmic pattern as I watched the neatly ploughed fields disappearing into the forest.  The woods were out of bounds to children, but on occasion we dared each other to see how far each of us would venture in to them.  There was talk of witches and demons living in the forest – you could see strange lights flickering in the deepest parts of the forest on a dark night.  They were known to roam through the forest and capture stray children and do strange and unnatural things to them.  “Do you want to be turned into a three headed toad?  Or a toothless rat?  Well, that’s what happens to children who go into the woods.”  That’s what the grown ups told us and it was a beating offense to go into the woods.  Tommy’s cousin had gone into the woods and never come out again – they said the demons had got him.  Tommy swore on his life that there was a toothless rat living in their shed.  None of us had ever seen it though and Tommy’s stories were legendary.  He swore us all to secrecy and as none of us fancied a beating we didn’t say a word. 

I sat on the wall waiting for Ma and wondered if the others would be around later.  I needed to know if anyone else had heard anything the other night.  We had no plans to meet up.  It always just happened that when the boys had finished school and the girls their chores that we all gravitated to the same place.  The stone wall was a favourite spot; Tommy’s shed also; the oak tree on the village green was where we went to play games.  Most of the children from the village came to join us at one stage or another and while the grown ups were in their miserable groups of mothers, and drinking huddles of fathers, we played and talked and ran around carelessly.  Or that’s what the grown ups thought.  We knew about conversations overheard in our own homes from careless parents and we ran the snippets of information past each other to create wild stories and tales of mystery and wonder that rarely resembled the truth.  Someone else must have heard the horses the other night.  

 

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street.
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don’t you shout to come and look, nor use ’em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again – and they’ll be gone next day!
If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining’s wet and warm – don’t you ask no more!
If you meet King George’s men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you “pretty maid,” and chuck you ‘neath the chin,
Don’t you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one’s been!
Knocks and footsteps round the house – whistles after dark –
You’ve no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty’s here, and Pincher’s here, and see how dumb they lie –
They don’t fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!
If you do as you’ve been told, ‘likely there’s a chance,
You’ll be given a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood –
A present from the Gentlemen, along o’ being good!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie –
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by.

Rudyard Kipling

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