Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 852
When driving through the Sussex countryside in early summer, the narrator, who appears to be an English gentleman of adequate means and impeccable manners, loses his way. In order to regain his bearings, he stops at an impressive mansion, where he sees two children at an upstairs window and hears a child’s laughter coming from somewhere in the garden, two events that are of far greater significance than he can possibly realize. A woman approaches him from the garden, and he realizes that she is blind. In the ensuing discussion, it becomes clear that the narrator is fond of children, and the woman (whose relationship to the children in the house is unstated, although it is clear that she is not their mother) asks him to drive around the grounds so that the children may see the motor car—the presence of a car in that area being something of a novelty. The children, however, are extremely elusive, always hiding and leaving only reminders, such as a toy boat in the fountain, of their presence. There is something very mysterious about them. “Lucky you to be able to see them,” the blind woman says, but her words contain an irony of which neither narrator nor reader is yet aware.
One month later, the narrator returns to the house. Curious about the children, he tries to attract their attention by making an elaborate show of repairing his car. He hears the faint tread of a child’s feet on the leaves, but the children flee when he makes a sudden sound. Then, as he sees the blind woman approaching, he appears to discern a child clinging to her skirt, but the child disappears into the foliage as the woman draws closer. The children are so shy, she explains. They come and stay with her because she loves them. She does not know how many there are. They are not her own because she never married.
The narrator is puzzled by his conversations with this woman. She has beauty, sweetness of voice, and depth of soul, and yet she is marked by sadness and regret. He discovers that she possesses telepathic powers; other people’s thoughts appear in her mind as colors. Some colors hurt her; others make her happy.
Their conversation is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a distraught woman who is running frantically toward them. It transpires that her grandchild has fallen seriously ill, and the local doctor is unavailable. In the hectic events that follow—the search for a doctor and a nurse, the rush to collect medicine—the story snaps into dramatic action and becomes charged with the sense of the fragility and uncertainty of human life, and the reality of human suffering.
It is not until autumn that the narrator returns to the area. He learns that in spite of all the efforts made, the child had died within two days of becoming ill. On arriving at the house, he hears the blind woman singing:
In the pleasant orchard-closes,God bless all our gains, say we—But may God bless all our losses,Better suits with our degree.
She shows him around the house for the first time. The evidence of children is everywhere: toy guns, rocking horses, dolls. However, the children themselves are nowhere to be seen; only the rustle of a dress or the occasional patter of feet betrays their presence. An odd kind of chase ensues, from room to room, passage to passage. The children have plenty of places to hide. Finally, as the narrator reaches the hall, he sees them, deep in the shadows, hiding behind a leather screen. He resolves to make them reveal themselves by pretending not to notice them. It was, he thought, a game between them. When the blind woman is distracted by the arrival of one of her tenants, he slides his chair back and taps on the screen. Moments later he feels his hand being clasped and kissed by the soft hands of a child. Instantly he knows the truth and senses that he has known it since the day he first saw the children at the window of the house: They are the happy ghosts of the youthful dead. The woman, realizing that he knows her secret, confesses that she feels undeserving, as if she had no right to hear the children because she has “neither borne nor lost.” They came “because I needed them. I—I must have made them come.” The toys were unnecessary, but she disliked having empty rooms.
The narrator listens and ponders the meaning of his realization with increasing emotion. He seems to be grappling with an equal measure of joy and sorrow. He knows that he can never return to the house. He reassures the blind woman that it is right for her to possess spiritual insight, but it would be wrong for him to cultivate it, even though it seems to come naturally to him. He gives no reason for this belief. The story ends as he sits silently by the screen, lost in the intensity of his contemplation.
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