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Puck of Pook's Hill
By Rudyard Kipling
Hesperus Press LimitedCopyright © 2014 Marcus Sedwick
All rights reserved.
* * *
See you the dimpled track that runs,
All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns
That smote King Philip's fleet!
See you our little mill that clacks,
So busy by the brook?
She has ground her corn and paid her tax
Ever since Domesday Book.
See you our stilly woods of oak,
And the dread ditch beside?
O that was where the Saxons broke,
On the day that Harold died!
See you the windy levels spread
About the gates of Rye?
O that was where the Northmen fled,
When Alfred's ships came by!
See you our pastures wide and lone,
Where the red oxen browse?
O there was a City thronged and known,
Ere London boasted a house!
And see you, after rain, the trace
Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a Legion's camping-place,
When Caesar sailed from Gaul!
And see you marks that show and fade,
Like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made,
To guard their wondrous towns!
Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn;
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born!
She is not any common Earth,
Water or Wood or Air,
But Merlin's Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare.
The children were at the Theatre, acting to Three Cows as much as they could remember of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Their father had made them a small play out of the big Shakespeare one, and they had rehearsed it with him and with their mother till they could say it by heart. They began when Nick Bottom the weaver comes out of the bushes with a donkey's head on his shoulders, and finds Titania, Queen of the Fairies, asleep. Then they skipped to the part where Bottom asks three little fairies to scratch his head and bring him honey, and they ended where he falls asleep in Titania's arms. Dan was Puck and Nick Bottom, as well as all three Fairies. He wore a pointy-cloth cap for Puck, and a paper donkey's head out of a Christmas cracker – but it tore if you were not careful – for Bottom. Una was Titania, with a wreath of columbines and a foxglove wand.
The Theatre lay in a meadow called the Long Slip. A little millstream, carrying water to a mill two or three fields away, bent round one corner of it, and in the middle of the bend lay a large old Fairy Ring of darkened grass, which was the stage. The millstream banks, overgrown with willow, hazel, and guilder rose, made convenient places to wait in till your turn came; and a grown-up who had seen it said that Shakespeare himself could not have imagined a more suitable setting for his play. They were not, of course, allowed to act on Midsummer Night itself, but they went down after tea on Midsummer Eve, when the shadows were growing, and they took their supper – hard-boiled eggs, Bath Oliver biscuits, and salt in an envelope – with them. Three Cows had been milked and were grazing steadily with a tearing noise that one could hear all down the meadow; and the noise of the Mill at work sounded like bare feet running on hard ground. A cuckoo sat on a gatepost singing his broken June tune, 'cuckoo-cuck', while a busy kingfisher crossed from the millstream, to the brook which ran on the other side of the meadow. Everything else was a sort of thick, sleepy stillness smelling of meadowsweet and dry grass.
Their play went beautifully. Dan remembered all his parts – Puck, Bottom, and the three Fairies – and Una never forgot a word of Titania – not even the difficult piece where she tells the Fairies how to feed Bottom with 'apricocks, green figs, and dewberries', and all the lines end in 'ies'. They were both so pleased that they acted it three times over from beginning to end before they sat down in the unthistly centre of the Ring to eat eggs and Bath Olivers. This was when they heard a whistle among the alders on the bank, and they jumped.
The bushes parted. In the very spot where Dan had stood as Puck they saw a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes, and a grin that ran right across his freckled face. He shaded his forehead as though he were watching Quince, Snout, Bottom, and the others rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe, and, in a voice as deep as Three Cows asking to be milked, he began:
What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here,
So near the cradle of the fairy Queen?
He stopped, hollowed one hand round his ear, and, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, went on:
What, a play toward? I'll be an auditor;
An actor, too, perhaps, if I see cause.
The children looked and gasped. The small thing – he was no taller than Dan's shoulder – stepped quietly into the Ring.
'I'm rather out of practice,' said he; 'but that's the way my part ought to be played.'
Still the children stared at him – from his dark-blue cap, like a big columbine flower, to his bare, hairy feet. At last he laughed.
'Please don't look like that. It isn't my fault. What else could you expect?' he said.
'We didn't expect anyone,' Dan answered slowly. 'This is our field.'
'Is it?' said their visitor, sitting down. 'Then what on Human Earth made you act A Midsummer Night's Dream three times over, on Midsummer Eve, in the middle of a Ring, and under – right under one of my oldest hills in Old England? Pook's Hill – Puck's Hill – Puck's Hill – Pook's Hill! It's as plain as the nose on my face.'
He pointed to the bare, fern-covered slope of Pook's Hill that runs up from the far side of the millstream to a dark wood. Beyond that wood the ground rises and rises for 500 feet, till at last you climb out on the bare top of Beacon Hill, to look over the Pevensey Levels and the Channel and half the naked South Downs.
'By Oak, Ash, and Thorn!' he cried, still laughing. 'If this had happened a few hundred years ago you'd have had all the People of the Hills out like bees in June!'
'We didn't know it was wrong,' said Dan.
'Wrong!' The little fellow shook with laughter. 'Indeed, it isn't wrong. You've done something that Kings and Knights and Scholars in old days would have given their crowns and spurs and books to find out. If Merlin himself had helped you, you couldn't have managed better! You've broken the Hills – you've broken the Hills! It hasn't happened in a thousand years.'
'We – we didn't mean to,' said Una.
'Of course you didn't! That's just why you did it. Unluckily the Hills are empty now, and all the People of the Hills are gone. I'm the only one left. I'm Puck, the oldest Old Thing in England, very much at your service if – if you care to have anything to do with me. If you don't, of course you've only to say so, and I'll go.'
He looked at the children, and the children looked at him for quite half a minute. His eyes did not twinkle any more. They were very kind, and there was the beginning of a good smile on his lips.
Una put out her hand. 'Don't go,' she said. 'We like you.'
'Have a Bath Oliver,' said Dan, and he passed over the squashy envelope with the eggs.
'By Oak, Ash and Thorn,' cried Puck, taking off his blue cap, 'I like you too. Sprinkle a plenty salt on the biscuit, Dan, and I'll eat it with you. That'll show you the sort of person I am. Some of us' – he went on, with his mouth full – 'couldn't abide salt, or horseshoes over a door, or mountain-ash berries, or running water, or cold iron, or the sound of church bells. But I'm Puck!'
He brushed the crumbs carefully from his doublet and shook hands.
'We always said, Dan and I,' Una stammered, 'that if it ever happened we'd know ex–actly what to do; but – but now it seems all different somehow.'
'She means meeting a fairy,' said Dan. 'I never believed in 'em – not after I was six, anyhow.'
'I did,' said Una. 'At least, I sort of half believed till we learned "Farewell, Rewards". Do you know "Farewell, Rewards and Fairies"?'
'Do you mean this?' said Puck. He threw his big head back and began at the second line:
'Good housewives now may say,
For now foul girls in dairies
Do fare as well as they;
And though they sweep their hearths no less
('Join in, Una!')
Than maids were wont to do,
Yet who of late for cleanliness
Finds sixpence in her shoe?'
The echoes flapped all along the flat meadow. 'Of course I know it,' he said.
'And then there's the verse about the rings,' said Dan. 'When I was little it always made me feel unhappy in my inside.'
'"Witness those rings and roundelays", do you mean?' boomed Puck, with a voice like a great church organ.
'Of theirs which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary's days
On many a grassy plain,
But since of late Elizabeth,
And, later, James came in,
Are never seen on any heath
As when the time hath been.
'It's some time since I heard that sung, but there's no good beating about the bush: it's true. The People of the Hills have all left. I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; wood, tree, mound, and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers, treasure-guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprechauns, night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes, and the rest – gone, all gone! I came into England with Oak, Ash and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash and Thorn are gone I shall go too.'
Dan looked round the meadow – at Una's Oak by the lower gate; at the line of ash trees that overhang Otter Pool where the millstream spills over when the Mill does not need it, and at the gnarled old white-thorn where Three Cows scratched their necks.
'It's all right,' he said; and added, 'I'm planting a lot of acorns this autumn too.'
'Then aren't you most awfully old?' said Una.
'Not old – fairly long-lived, as folk say hereabouts. Let me see – my friends used to set my dish of cream for me o' nights when Stonehenge was new. Yes, before the Flint Men made the Dewpond under Chanctonbury Ring.' Una clasped her hands, cried 'Oh!' and nodded her head.
'She's thought a plan,' Dan explained. 'She always does like that when she thinks a plan.'
'I was thinking – suppose we saved some of our porridge and put it in the attic for you? They'd notice if we left it in the nursery.'
'Schoolroom,' said Dan quickly, and Una flushed, because they had made a solemn treaty that summer not to call the schoolroom the nursery any more.
'Bless your heart o' gold!' said Puck. 'You'll make a fine considering wench some market-day. I really don't want you to put out a bowl for me; but if ever I need a bite, be sure I'll tell you.'
He stretched himself at length on the dry grass, and the children stretched out beside him, their bare legs waving happily in the air. They felt they could not be afraid of him any more than of their particular friend old Hobden the hedger. He did not bother them with grown-up questions, or laugh at the donkey's head, but lay and smiled to himself in the most sensible way. 'Have you a knife on you?' he said at last.
Dan handed over his big one-bladed outdoor knife, and Puck began to carve out a piece of turf from the centre of the Ring.
'What's that for – Magic?' said Una, as he pressed up the square of chocolate loam that cut like so much cheese.
'One of my little magics,' he answered, and cut another. 'You see, I can't let you into the Hills because the People of the Hills have gone; but if you care to take seisin from me, I may be able to show you something out of the common here on Human Earth. You certainly deserve it.'
'What's taking seisin?' said Dan, cautiously.
'It's an old custom the people had when they bought and sold land. They used to cut out a clod and hand it over to the buyer, and you weren't lawfully seised of your land – it didn't really belong to you – till the other fellow had actually given you a piece of it – like this.' He held out the turves.
'But it's our own meadow,' said Dan, drawing back. 'Are you going to magic it away?'
Puck laughed. 'I know it's your meadow, but there's a great deal more in it than you or your father ever guessed. Try!'
He turned his eyes on Una.
'I'll do it,' she said. Dan followed her example at once.
'Now are you two lawfully seised and possessed of all Old England,' began Puck, in a sing-song voice. 'By right of Oak, Ash, and Thorn are you free to come and go and look and know where I shall show or best you please. You shall see What you shall see and you shall hear What you shall hear, though It shall have happened three thousand year; and you shall know neither Doubt nor Fear. Fast! Hold fast all I give you.'
The children shut their eyes, but nothing happened.
'Well?' said Una, disappointedly opening them. 'I thought there would be dragons.'
'"Though It shall have happened three thousand year,"' said Puck, and counted on his fingers. 'No; I'm afraid there were no dragons three thousand years ago.'
'But there hasn't happened anything at all,' said Dan.
'Wait awhile,' said Puck. 'You don't grow an oak in a year – and Old England's older than twenty oaks. Let's sit down again and think. I can do that for a century at a time.'
'Ah, but you're a fairy,' said Dan.
'Have you ever heard me say that word yet?' said Puck quickly.
'No. You talk about "the People of the Hills", but you never say "fairies",' said Una. 'I was wondering at that. Don't you like it?'
'How would you like to be called "mortal" or "human being" all the time?' said Puck; 'or "son of Adam" or "daughter of Eve"?'
'I shouldn't like it at all,' said Dan. 'That's how the Djinns and Afrits talk in the Arabian Nights.'
'And that's how I feel about saying – that word that I don't say. Besides, what you call them are made-up things the People of the Hills have never heard of – little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a schoolteacher's cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones. I know 'em!'
'We don't mean that sort,' said Dan. 'We hate 'em too.'
'Exactly,' said Puck. 'Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don't care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors? Butterfly wings, indeed! I've seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou'-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they'd go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they'd be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again. Butterfly-wings! It was Magic – Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hills picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes! That was how it was in the old days!'
'Splendid,' said Dan, but Una shuddered.
'I'm glad they're gone, then; but what made the People of the Hills go away?' Una asked.
'Different things. I'll tell you one of them some day – the thing that made the biggest flit of any,' said Puck. 'But they didn't all flit at once. They dropped off, one by one, through the centuries. Most of them were foreigners who couldn't stand our climate. They flitted early.'
'How early?' said Dan.
'A couple of thousand years or more. The fact is they began as Gods. The Phoenicians brought some over when they came to buy tin; and the Gauls, and the Jutes, and the Danes, and the Frisians, and the Angles brought more when they landed. They were always landing in those days, or being driven back to their ships, and they always brought their Gods with them. England is a bad country for Gods. Now, I began as I mean to go on. A bowl of porridge, a dish of milk, and a little quiet fun with the country folk in the lanes was enough for me then, as it is now. I belong here, you see, and I have been mixed up with people all my days. But most of the others insisted on being Gods, and having temples, and altars, and priests, and sacrifices of their own.'
'People burned in wicker baskets?' said Dan. 'Like Miss Blake tells us about?'
'All sorts of sacrifices,' said Puck. 'If it wasn't men, it was horses, or cattle, or pigs, or metheglin – that's a sticky, sweet sort of beer. I never liked it. They were a stiff-necked, extravagant set of idols, the Old Things. But what was the result? Men don't like being sacrificed at the best of times; they don't even like sacrificing their farm-horses. After a while, men simply left the Old Things alone, and the roofs of their temples fell in, and the Old Things had to scuttle out and pick up a living as they could. Some of them took to hanging about trees, and hiding in graves and groaning o' nights. If they groaned loud enough and long enough they might frighten a poor countryman into sacrificing a hen, or leaving a pound of butter for them. I remember one Goddess called Belisama. She became a common wet water-spirit somewhere in Lancashire. And there were hundreds of other friends of mine. First they were Gods. Then they were People of the Hills, and then they flitted to other places because they couldn't get on with the English for one reason or another. There was only one Old Thing, I remember, who honestly worked for his living after he came down in the world. He was called Weland, and he was a smith to some Gods. I think he claimed kin with Thor of the Scandinavians.'
Excerpted from Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling. Copyright © 2014 Marcus Sedwick. Excerpted by permission of Hesperus Press Limited.
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