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The Midnight Moropus

Joan Aiken





  The Midnight Moropus

  Joan Aiken

  Illustrated by Gavin Rowe


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  A Biography of Joan Aiken

  Chapter One


  “Something that isn’t there any more,” said Polly Turf.

  “Like what? Give an example. You, Fred.”

  “A puffin,” said Fred, after thought, chewing his ballpoint.

  “Dope!” cried Polly. “There’s lots of puffins.”

  “A dodo?”

  “Good, Annie! Stewart, can you name something else that’s extinct?”

  “A whale?”

  “Not yet, we hope. Amanda?”

  “A bear?”

  “Not quite. Try again.”

  “A dinosaur.”

  “Good. You—Jon Witnes—bring your mind back from outside the window, if you please, and tell us something that’s extinct.”

  A buzz of laughter ran round the classroom. Jon Witnes had his chin propped on his fist, and his gaze lay far away, through the open window, on the slope of moorland and the crags at the head of the valley.

  “Witless Witness!” somebody whispered.

  But it seemed that Jon did have his wits about him after all.

  “Something that’s extinct—um, yes,” he said. “A Moropus.”

  “A what-o-puss?” said Fred. The others took it up.

  “A purrapuss—a platypus—a were-a-puss!”

  “Quiet, class! Yes, Jon—that was a good answer.”

  “Sir, what’s a morrow-puss?” somebody called.

  “It’s a prehistoric horse,” Jon said calmly. “It was big and furry and it had claws on its feet instead of hoofs.”

  “Just like Whiskers! Just like Jon’s old fat pony.”

  “All right, that’ll do,” said Mr. Watkins. “Julie, think of something else that could be extinct, besides animals.”

  “Plants? Us?”

  Chapter Two

  AT THE END OF THE school afternoon the other children ran off to their homes in the village. Some days Jon stopped in one house or another to have tea with one of his friends. But today he had a reason for wanting to get home.

  He fetched his pony, Whiskers, from the shed next door to the school, mounted, and rode off up the valley.

  Jon was very lame, from the car crash three years ago that had killed both his parents. Without Whiskers, the two-kilometer walk would have taken a long time.

  Whiskers was low-slung, sturdy, and stout, the shape of a kitchen table. He and Jon understood one another very well. Jon had an apple in his pocket which Whiskers would get when they finished their journey, not before, so the pony took the hilly road at a brisk pace.

  Home was now Fellside Mill, where Jon’s adopted parents, Tom and Martha Kirby, were looking out for him. They liked boys, and weren’t able to have any of their own, so had been very happy to offer Jon a bed, a roof, and a lot of love when he lost his father and mother. And the plan had worked well.

  “Pancakes for tea,” said Martha, when Whiskers had been given his apple, and a rub, and turned loose in the paddock by the millstream.

  “Yum,” said Jon. He loved pancakes.

  “Now what about your birthday treat? Lucky tomorrow’s Saturday,” said Tom Kirby. “There’s a circus come to Bolton Bridge—shall we go take a look at it?”

  “Well, that would be great—” said Jon, “but what I’d really like …”

  He gazed doubtfully at his two grown-up friends. And they looked back at him.

  “Speak thy mind, lad! Would tha like some of thy mates to come in to tea? Martha’d do a baking—there’s nought she likes better. And the kids could see the mill wheel working—”

  “That would be terrific! But what I’d like first—if you’d not think it a daft notion—is to go up to Horse Force tonight. At midnight.”

  “Horse Force? Tonight? Why, lad, in the name of wonder?”

  Horse Force was the name of a waterfall, high in the crags at the top of the valley. It got its name because the sound of the water, as it poured down a great rocky cliff, was said to throb and shake exactly like the whinny of a horse. And the spout of water flying out looked like the plume of a horse’s tail.

  “You see, I was born exactly at midnight,” Jon went on explaining, “so that’s when my birthday really starts. And there’s a full moon tonight. It would be really something to see the fall then. May I do it? Please, Uncle Tom? Aunt Martha?”

  He had another reason, which he did not mention.

  The two elders looked at one another.

  “Well—he’s a sensible lad,” said Tom at length. “I’d go along with thee, but—”

  “Oh, no, no! I’d like to go just by myself. And Whiskers, of course.”

  “You’d not do anything foolish? Tumble into the beck?”

  But they knew he would not. Jon was sensible. And so, after more talk, he was allowed to go, taking a midnight picnic.

  Chapter Three

  ACROSS THE BRIDGE JON RODE, over the foaming millrace, up past the woods, on to the huge silent moor.

  And it was really something. A white cart track, clear in the moonlight, ran across the moor to the next village, High Gill. And from the track a sheep trail turned right, cutting through the heather, up among the crags to the lip of rock from which the fall, in its gorge, could be seen.

  And heard!

  Long before they came to where they could see the white spout and plumes of soaring water, Jon and Whiskers heard its voice. When Whiskers first heard the hollow cry of the waterfall, he flung up his big heavy head and whinnied in answer, as if in sympathy.

  “Poor thing, it does sound lost. Like as if it was grieving,” said Jon. “Trot on then, Whiskers. It’ll be midnight in five minutes.”

  Among the children at school there was a secret tale told, that if you went to Horse Force at midnight, you would see the ghost of a horse. But you had to be alone, by yourself. Ever since he heard the story, Jon had longed to discover if it were true.

  “And if it’s your birthday as well, that must help,” he thought. “Perhaps the ghost might give me a wish.”

  He thought of the things he could wish for: his lameness cured, his mother and father alive again.

  “Trot along, Whiskers.”

  Whiskers needed no urging, really. The long, hard-working day might never have been. He went on quickly, like a fox or a bat, a beast of the night, with his head raised and his ears pricked.

  Chapter Four

  ON THE PLATFORM OF ROCK at the side of the fall they stood, and saw the water hurl out into the moonlight, in a huge white curve that shook with tiny spots and dots of radiance, like the eyes and points of a million needles.

  And above the curve they began to see two mournful other eyes watching them, set in a great black head; and then slowly, slowly, they saw the whole shape of the enormous furry beast, with its plumy tail, and its claws set in pad-feet—pad-feet for walking on the long grass of the prehistoric plain.

  They could feel its thought pulsing towards them, like the throb and shake of the fall.

  I’m so lonely! I’m so lo—ooo—ooo—nely! Help me! Oh, please, please help me!

  How can we help yo
u, you poor thing? both Jon and Whiskers answered, in their own thoughts and their own way. What can we ever do for you?

  And Jon thought: I know who you are! You are the last Moropus—the very last one, left behind when all the others had died and were extinct. You were the very last—all alone by yourself, the only one in the whole world. And now, nothing but your ghost is left, and that is lonely too.

  Yes! Yes! Oh, but let me go, let me go!

  But how can we let you go, you poor beastie? What can we do?

  They stared up into the moonlit sky at the great shadow above them, towering over the black rocks of the gorge. And the answer came breathing back, to boy and pony.

  Stop the fall. Just for a moment or two—stop the fall.

  Stop the fall?

  How in the wide world do you expect us to do that? I’m only a boy—and lame—Whiskers is only a pony.

  But the ghost-beast had its answer ready—the answer it had been saving for hundreds, thousands, millions of years.

  A rock—a rock. Roll a rock. Together you can do it.

  Certainly, the lip of the fall was very narrow—a deep V, like the spout of a milk jug. Roll a rock into there, into that gap …

  Boy and pony considered the task. Rocks were strewn about the side of the gorge. The slope was steep. And a coiled rope was fastened to the saddle.

  “Always take a rope, every time you ride out,” Tom Kirby had said, over and over. “You may find a climber in trouble, or a cragfast sheep.”

  “We could loop a rope round one of those rocks,” Jon said to Whiskers. “We could give it a tug. You could tug and I could lever the underside with a branch.”

  The pony gave a whicker of agreement. And the moon overhead stood at midnight.

  Somehow, with a fearful struggle, the thing was done. The rock resisted, shuddered, moved a little, moved a little more, moved—suddenly—a whole lot.

  It slid and went bounding down the hill. And it landed smack in the V-neck of the waterfall.

  The water began to pile up behind it in a glittering, satiny frill that reminded Jon of a huge horse collar.

  The sound of roaring water died away. And the great white plume of spray fell— faltered—and vanished.

  Now, in that moment, as the rock came to rest, and the water stopped falling, Jon felt as if his mind, like a tank, were filling up with thoughts. Higher and higher they rose.

  He could remember things that had never happened to him, things that even his greatest great-great-grandfather could not have known. And he could look ahead and see things that might happen—further ahead in the future than any scientist, even the wisest, could possibly hope to guess.

  And somewhere, in among all that wild rush and dazzle of amazing thought, Jon heard the ghostly voice again.

  Thanks—thanks! Oh, now I go free—free—free at last …

  Chapter Five

  THE STREAM BEHIND THE ROCK had piled into a huge mound. With pride and fury the held-in force of water shook the rock from the neck of the fall and hurled it outwards like a pea from a catapult.

  The roar of sound began again. The plume of spray spread outwards across the gorge.

  And the ghost was gone at last, gone forever.

  Boy and pony plodded homewards in the fading moonlight. Their shadows from the setting moon were long, stretched across the heathery hillside.

  And the boy thought: now the ghost will never be there again. But at least I saw the Moropus and I talked to it.

  It is no use wishing for things that can’t happen. Time won’t turn back. People can’t come back, once they are gone.

  But some day, perhaps, somebody will be able to mend my lame leg.

  And some day someone—a boy, perhaps, like me—will be the last, the very last human. The last one in the world. He’ll be lonely too. But will there be somebody—something—waiting there to help him?

  A Biography of Joan Aiken

  Joan Aiken had a very happy childhood, and her memories centered around her two much-loved homes: a haunted house in the historic town where she was born, and a tiny old cottage in a country village where she grew up. These magical places became the settings for many of her stories, as you will be able to easily imagine if you read on …

  The house where Joan was born in 1924, nearly a hundred years ago, was in the small medieval town of Rye, in the county of Sussex, England—a place of cobbled streets and red-brick houses jostled tightly together on a high little hill rising out of the flat green plain of Romney Marsh. The English Channel was two miles away. Some of Rye’s castle walls and fortified gates still remained from when the village served as a stronghold against French invaders. Jeake’s House, where Joan was born, stood halfway up the steep, cobbled Mermaid Street. It was built in 1689 and was owned by several members of the Jeake family. One of them, Samuel Jeake, was an astrologer and mathematician; a huge leather-bound book written by him once belonged to the Aikens. Samuel Jeake had invented a flying machine, and, trying it out, he boldly leapt off the high wall of the town. Sadly, it did not work, and he crashed down into the tidal mud of the river Rother, which ran around Rye. Joan certainly included that in one of her stories!

  There was a very ghostly feeling about Jeake’s House, which Joan described as follows: “[Its smell was] a delicious blend of aged black timbers, escaping gas, damp plaster, and mildew; I can remember the exact feel of the brass front-door knob turning gently in one’s hand, the shape of the square black banister post, and the look of the leaded windows with their small panes.”

  Just as clearly, Joan remembered the stories she first heard at the house, which were read aloud by her mother and her older brother and sister, John and Jane: “First there was Peter Rabbit, and then The Just-So Stories, fairly milk-and-honey stuff; then Pinocchio, rustling with assassins, evil plots, death, moonlight, and irony; then Uncle Remus, told in a mysterious dialect, full of wild characters, with the wicked Br’er Fox.” No wonder this house haunted her memories!

  When Joan was five, her father, the American poet Conrad Aiken, returned to the United States, and her mother, Jessie, married an English poet. Along with her mother and new stepfather, Joan went to live near the rolling green hills of Sussex Downs, five miles away from the closest town. John and Jane were sent away to boarding school, but for the next six years, until the age of twelve, Joan was homeschooled by her mother.

  This new home was a different kind of paradise for Joan. Now she could roam the wild garden, climb trees, and explore the little village of Sutton, which had no “sidewalks”—as her Canadian mother called them—just one road with grass banks and little scuffed paths along the top where children had made tracks of their own. Sutton had one tiny store, which sold everything from bread to postage stamps. A four-minute walk from the shop was a forge, where the blacksmith, Mr. Budd, worked at his roaring bellows or clanged shoes onto the great, fringed feet of farm horses. In those days, a carter would go into the town once a week with his pony and trap and bring back goods for the village families. Joan’s household did not have a radio or a car—or even electricity! Water was pumped by hand from a well, and at night they lit oil lamps and candles. Much of their food came from the garden’s vegetable patch and fruit bushes; milk and cream or meat came from farms nearby. Even the poorer families in the area had help in their houses, and a village girl called Lily came to Joan’s to scrub and wash dishes. When she had finished her work, she sometimes took Joan to climb the slopes of the Downs, half a mile away, or pick cowslips and kingcups in the marshy meadow behind Lily’s mother’s cottage. Sometimes, Joan and Lily would walk two miles in the summer heat to a shallow pond where they could bathe.

  Jessie quickly taught Joan how to read, and gave her lessons in French, Latin, English, history, arithmetic, geography, and even Spanish and German. With no school friends to play with, books became Joan’s friends—she read everything i
n the house! First, she went through the novels from Jessie’s Canadian childhood: Little Women and the Katy series. Then, she read all of the fairy tales, The Jungle Book with its stories about Mowgli, and the books her older brother and sister left behind. When these ran out, she moved on to ghost stories or books about history, such as stories about the Three Musketeers and the Princes in the Tower. Joan’s mother would read longer works aloud before they had radio or television; this was their main entertainment. Every night at bedtime, or when the family went on picnics, or as they sat stringing beans for supper, Joan would be listening to stories, so it was not surprising that she soon started writing some of her own. She saved up her pocket money and bought herself a notebook at the village shop, then set to work writing exciting tales with titles like “The Haunted Cupboard” or “Her Husband Was a Demon.” She was so proud of them that she kept those pages for the rest of her life.

  It wasn’t until several years later that Joan had the company of a baby brother, David, and as soon as he was old enough, it was Joan who took him exploring on the Downs, and told him stories to cheer him along as he began to tire on the way home. Some of these short tales were published in her very first book many years later, such as “The Parrot Pirate Princess,” which she gave to David as a birthday present. Joan used to say that it was only by racking her brain to answer her little brother’s constant question of “What happened next?” that she learned how to write the exciting fiction she is known for today.