First published in Scribner’s Magazine for August 1904 and collected in Traffics and Discoveries the same year. In Traffics and Discoveries it is preceded by the poem “The Return of the Children”. In 1905 the story was published separately by Macmillan with illustrations by Frederick Henry Townsend (1868-1920) the first Art Editor of Punch Magazine. Townsend also illustrated a combined volume, They and The Brushwood Boy, published by Macmillan in 1925. The story is collected in The Burwash Edition Volume 7 and the Sussex Edition. It is also included in Mrs. Bathurst and Other Stories (Oxford University Press, edited with notes by Lisa Lewis 1991), and Somerset Maugham’s A Choice of Kipling’s Prose (Macmillan, 1952).
Although this enchanting story is a work of fiction, it has strong echoes of Kipling’s own life. It concerns a motorist, driving across Sussex in the summer time, who loses his way and arrives at a stately old house, with a garden beautiful with lawns, ancient yew trees, and a fountain. The description of the great adzed wagon-wide staircase, the deep fireplace, the age-polished dusky panels, the mullions of the broad windows, the old eagle-topped convex mirror, and the black and white floor, is closely similar to Bateman’s.
He sees children playing but they are shy and will not come near. The lady of the house has heard the car, and comes out to meet him. He sees that she is blind, and they speak of the children, whom she loves, and of her blindness, and of how lucky he is to be able to see them. She can see light and colour in her dreams, but never faces. He tells her of his own children, one of whom (we infer) has tragically died, and that he has never seen the faces of his dead in dreams. The butler, who also speaks of the children, and has himself lost a child, sets him on his way, but will not accept a tip.
By chance, some weeks later, he finds the place again, and talks to the lady about dreams and visions while the children watch them from the wood. Then a distraught young woman, whose child is deathly ill, asks desperately for help, and the narrator embarks on a series of hasty journeys through the narrow winding lanes, finding a doctor, fetching medicines, and bringing a Sister from a nunnery to nurse the dying child.
Later, in the autumn, he comes again, and hears that the child has died. He calls on the lady, and they take tea by the fireside while she interviews an errant tenant farmer. He can hear the children playing, and then the hand by his side is taken and kissed in the special way that his own dead daughter had done. Only then does he realise that ‘They’ are the ghosts of dead children, which can only be seen by those who have lost a child of their own. Now that he knows, he must never go there again.
Kipling has again used the device of “the imperfectly informed narrator” to describe the events he witnesses without fully understanding them, although the other characters in the story do, as does the reader who follows the clues that are offered. All becomes clear to the narrator in the end. If the reader is aware that Kipling was indeed a motorist who lived in Sussex (though he actually did not drive himself but employed a chauffeur), that his beloved little daughter Josephine had died of an illness in 1899 at a time when he himself had nearly died of influenza, and that he always had a special tenderness for children, it is difficult not to identify the narrator with Kipling himself, as does Professor Bodelsen (p. 97 and passim):
… he has come to a territory which it is forbidden the living to explore …. he realises that his own little daughter is one of the dead children in the garden.
Some critical responses
Somerset Maugham (A Choice of Kipling’s Prose, Macmillan 1952, page xxi) regards the story as: ‘a fine and deeply moving effort of the imagination, drawing the attention of the reader to Kipling’s illness and the death of Josephine.
Philip Mallett (p. 136) sees this as:
…one of the most moving of Kipling’s stories, and one of the very few with a clear autobiographical impulse … The first visit suggests the entry into a fairy-tale, its highly wrought beauty owing something to Kipling’s Pre-Raphaelite background …’
Dr Tompkins (p.111) says:
… when he sees the spirit of his dead child he stops with the green spear of one of the horsemen laid to his breast and this foreshows the meaning of the whole story; that way is not for him.
She goes on to say (p. 203):
the barrier between the living and the dead is not meant to be passed. Even if the road to Endor is seductively lovely as the approach to the yew-studded lawn … Even if the dead is very young and much beloved, one must turn one’s back on that road and return to the living world to which one belongs.
This strange haunting story of the limbo of lost children not yet ready to feel at home in Heaven , harking back for a space to the earth and the life they knew there, is among the earliest of Kipling’s “difficult” stories of his middle and late periods which critics are never tired of dissecting and explaining. Like all Kipling’s higher allegory it loses much by any detailed attempt at explanation. All that we need is for the sense of the strange and the uncanny, of the achieving of the relief of sorrow by forbidden means that are at last realized as forbidden and put away, to grow on us as they grow on the narrator (who on this one occasion we cannot but accept as Kipling himself) until the heart-breaking moment of climax; the acceptance of grief that leads to peace.
Seymour-Smith maintains (p. 310) that this: ”Mrs. Bathurst” and “Wireless” are the only memorable stories in this volume, in that they clearly draw their power from personal experience.’
Walter Morris Hart (p.195) regards this story as Kipling’s best:
… it is even one of the best in the English language. It fulfils all the requirements of short-story technique, and, more than this, it has real human interest and significance.
On the previous page he observes:
The short story is sometimes compared to the lyric; the comparison in this case is eminently fitting, for “They” is intimately and sacredly personal, a cry from the heart, not of Kipling the author …. But of Kipling the man. It is not a self-portrait, yet a piece of sincere self-expression…. To understand it, one must remember …. That Kipling lost by death his eldest daughter then in her sixth year. And one must read the verses at the beginning.
Some further reading
See Andrew Lycett, page 315 for Kipling’s grief at the loss of his daughter and how he occasionally ‘saw’ her at The Elms before they moved to Bateman’s. Happier memories of Josephine are reflected in “How the First Letter was Written” and “How the Alphabet was Made” (Just So Stories) and the verse “Merrow Down”.
See also KJ 066/04, 068/05, 088/17, 107/01, 130/02, 156/73, 167/18, 184/05, 269/34, 270/54, and 312/43. ORG Volume 4, p. 1922 also has much background of great interest.
See also KJ 312/43 for an important article by Lisa Lewis.
Other motoring stories by Kipling include “Steam Tactics” earlier in this volume, “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat” “The Horse Marines” and “The Vortex” (A Diversity of Creatures), and “The Muse Among the Motors”.