"The Creatures" by Walter De La Mare
First published in London Mercury, January 1920
Our narrator listens to the experience of a fellow night-train passenger, describing an encounter he had while on a walking tour in the mountainous UK west.
A delicate, moving tale, mentioned in Carole G. Silver's Strange and Secret Peoples.
....He asked, rather in courtesy than with any active interest, a few questions, referring to the world, its business and transports – our beautiful world – as an astronomer in the small hours might murmur a few words to the chance-sent guest of his solitude concerning the secrets of Uranus or Saturn. There is another, an inexplorable side to the moon. Yet he said enough for me to gather that he, too, was of that small tribe of the aloof and wild to which our cracked old word "forsaken" might be applied, hermits, lamas, clay-matted fakirs, and such-like; the snowy birds that play and cry amid mid-oceanic surges; the living of an oasis of the wilderness; which share a reality only distantly dreamed of by the time-driven thought-corroded congregations of man.
Yet so narrow and hazardous I somehow realized was the brink of fellow-being (shall I call it?) which we shared, he and I, that again and again fantasy within me seemed to hover over that precipice Night knows as fear. It was he, it seemed, with that still embracive contemplation of his, with that far-away yet reassuring smile, that kept my poise, my balance. "No," some voice within him seemed to utter, "you are safe; the bounds are fixed; though hallucination chaunt its decoy, you shall not irretrievably pass over. Eat and drink, and presently return to 'life'." And I listened, and, like that of a drowsy child in its cradle, my consciousness sank deeper and deeper, stilled, pacified, into the dream amid which, as it seemed, this soundless house of stone now reared its walls.
'I had all but finished my meal when I heard footsteps approaching on the flags without. The murmur of other voices, distinguishably shrill yet guttural even at a distance, and in spite of the dense stones and beams of the house which had blunted their timbre, had already reached me. Now the feet halted. I turned my head – cautiously, even perhaps apprehensively – and confronted two figures in the doorway.
'I cannot now guess the age of my entertainer. These children – for children they were in face and gesture and effect, though as to form and stature apparently in their last teens – these children were far more problematical. I say "form and stature", yet obviously they were dwarfish. Their heads were sunken between their shoulders, their hair thick, their eyes disconcertingly deep-set. They were ungainly, their features peculiarly irregular, as if two races from the ends of the earth had in them intermingled their blood and strangeness; as if,
rather, animal and angel had connived in their creation....
Walter de la Mare, like Aickman, is a taste I have yet to acquire.
I find Machen, E.F. Benson and M.R. James are far more congenial and aesthetically energizing.
But more tales like "The Creatures" could well turn the tide.
22 September 2018