The Boy Who Rode into the Sunset [story by C. J. Dennis]

[Editor: This story by C. J. Dennis was published in A Book for Kids, 1921.]

The Boy Who Rode into the Sunset

Once upon a time — it was not so very long ago, either — a little boy, named Neville, lived with his people in a house which was almost in the country. That is to say, it was just at the edge of the city; and at the back of the house was a rather large hill, which was quite bald.

Neville, who was fond of playing by himself, would often wander to the top of the bald hill; and if he stood right on top of it and looked one way, toward the East, he could see right over the city, with all its tall buildings and domes and spires and smoking chimneys. But looking the other way, to the West, he could see for miles over the beautiful country, with its green fields and orchards and white roads and little farm houses.

One evening Neville was playing alone on the top of the hill when he noticed that one of the very finest sunsets he had ever seen was just coming on. The sky in the West, away over the broad country lands, was filled with little clouds of all sorts and shapes, and they were just beginning to take on the most wonderful colours.

Neville had often before amused himself with watching clouds and the strange shapes into which they changed themselves — sometimes like great mountain ranges, sometimes like sea-waves, and very often like elephants and lions and seals and all manner of interesting things of that sort. But never before had he been able to make out so many animal shapes in the clouds. The sky was almost as good as a Zoo. There were kangaroos and elephants and a hen with chickens and wallabies and rabbits and a funny man with large ears and all sorts of other peculiar shapes.

The sun was sinking behind a distant range of hills, where a golden light shone out as if through a gateway. It was so much like a great golden gateway that Neville fell to wondering what might be found on the other side of it.

Suddenly, right in the middle of all the coloured clouds, he saw one little cloud which was perfectly white, and, as he watched it, he noticed that it seemed to be shaped like a small horse. A very small horse it seemed at that distance; but, as Neville gazed, it grew bigger and bigger, just as if it were coming toward him very fast, and he was almost certain he could see its legs moving.

That startled him a little, and so he rubbed his eyes to make sure that they were not playing him tricks.

When he looked again he was more startled than ever; for the little white cloud was no longer a cloud, but a little white horse in real earnest. Besides, it had just left the sky and was galloping down the mountain range which he could see away in the West. In two minutes it had left the range, and was coming across the fields towards him, jumping the fences, dodging under the trees, and racing across the plain with its white mane and tail tossing as it came. It seemed to be making straight for him.

He was not really frightened — you must not think that about him — but he was just beginning to wonder if it were not nearly time to go home to dinner, when he noticed that the white horse had stopped, just at the foot of the bald hill. It was looking up at him, tossing its head and pawing the ground — the most beautiful white horse that he had ever seen, even in a circus. Then it appeared to get over its excitement and began to trot quietly up the hill toward him.

I do not think anyone would have blamed Neville if he had decided then to go home to dinner at once. But he was rather a brave boy, and he was certainly very curious, so he just stood still and waited.

And here is where the most wonderful part of the story begins. The white horse trotted up to Neville and spoke to him. That would surprise most people; and Neville was certainly as much surprised as anyone else would have been.

“What are you frightened of?” asked the white horse in a loud voice.

Now, Neville was just a little frightened by this time; but he was not going to show it, so he just said, “Who’s frightened?”

You’re frightened,” said the white horse, louder than ever. “You’re only a timid little boy. I thought when I saw you in the distance that you were one of the plucky ones; but I was mistaken. You’re just a little cowardly-custard.”

“You’d better be careful who you’re talking to,” said Neville, suddenly losing his fear. (Little boys do not always talk good grammar; otherwise he would have said “whom” not “who.”) He hated to be called a “cowardly-custard.” “You’d better be careful, or I’ll give you a bang!”

“Ah ha!” cried the white horse. “Very brave all at once, aren’t you? All the same, you’re afraid to come near and stroke me.”

“But I don’t want to stroke you,” said Neville.

“I thought not,” replied the white horse. “I thought not, the moment I got close to you. You’re one of the frightened ones, and I’ve been wasting my time.”

“Who’s frightened?” said Neville again.

“You asked that before,” replied the white horse, “and I told you. If you’re not frightened, come along and stroke me. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

So Neville walked right up to the white horse and stroked his shoulder. And at once he felt that he had been foolish to hold back. For of all the smooth, soft, silky coats he had ever stroked, that of the white horse was certainly the smoothest, and the softest, and the silkiest. He felt that he could go on stroking it for hours.

“There now,” said the white horse in a voice as soft and silky as his coat. “There was nothing to be afraid of, was there? And I think that perhaps I was mistaken about you. I rather think you might be one of those daring boys that one reads about in stories. What about jumping on my back for a little ride?”

Neville ceased to stroke the white horse and drew back a little.

“I’m afraid they’ll be expecting me home for dinner,” he said. “I’m very pleased indeed to have met you.” Neville was always a polite little boy.

“The very thing!” cried the white horse. “Jump on my back and I’ll take you home. You liked stroking me, didn’t you? Well that’s nothing to the ride you will enjoy — simply nothing. Why, all the boldest riders in the world would give their ears just for one little ride on my back. Now then! One, two, three, and up you go!”

Then, before Neville quite knew what he was doing, he made a little run and leapt up astride of the white horse.

“I live just over there,” said Neville, pointing towards his home.

But before he could say “knife”, or even “scissors” (supposing he had wished to say either of these words), the white horse laughed a nasty hollow laugh, sprang upwards from the ground, and was soaring through the air toward the dying sunset, right away from home and dinner.

Neville clung on tightly, for he was so high above the earth that to fall off would mean the end of him. And far beneath him he saw the green fields and the white road, which now seemed like a mere thread.

“That’s not fair! Whoa back! Whoa back!” he shouted to the white horse; but the white horse made no reply. Indeed, he seemed suddenly not so much like a white horse as like a white cloud shaped like a horse, and Neville saw that he no longer sat upon the horse’s silky coat, but upon something soft and downy like a white fleece, and it was slightly damp. Then he knew that he was riding upon a cloud; and, as it was quite absurd to go on talking to a cloud, he ceased to cry out. He just sat tight and wondered what would happen next.

He was high over a farm-house now: one that he used to see from the bald hill. He knew it by the tall pine-trees that grew round it; and down in the farm-yard he saw a man with a bucket going out to feed the calves. Neville called loudly to him, but the man did not even look up. Now he was far beyond that farm-house and above an orchard, where he saw the fruit-trees standing in straight rows; and a few seconds later the mountain range was beneath him, and Neville knew that the cloud that looked like a horse was making straight for the golden gateway, which was now glowing dully in a grey sky. He was riding into the sunset.

Swiftly as the wind that drove it, the Cloud Horse drifted over the mountain range. There was a sudden glow of golden light all about him, and then a flash of colour so wonderful that Neville could not bear to look. He closed his eyes, and, as he did so, he felt that the Cloud Horse had come to a halt at last.

So Neville sat upon the cloud, not daring to open his eyes for quite a long time. When at last he did look again he almost fainted with the wonder of it. He was inside the sunset.

But scarcely had he begun to enjoy the wonderful sight, when he was startled by the sound of a funny, shrill little voice close by his side. Looking down, he saw a strange little man, no taller than a walking-stick, and dressed from top to toe in golden-yellow clothes. “My stars!” said the wee yellow man. “How did you manage to get in here? Don’t you know this is private?”

“I’m very sorry,” said Neville, “but I couldn’t help it. The Cloud Horse brought me, you know.”

“Ah!” said the wee yellow man. “He tricked you, did he? He’s much too playful, that Cloud Horse; and, I must say, he’s put you in a pretty fix.”

“Excuse me,” said Neville, “but do you mind telling me who you are?”

“I?” cried the little yellow man. “Why, I’m the Last Sunbeam, of course. I thought you knew that. My job, you know, is to shut up the show when the sunset is over. And it’s pretty hard work, I can tell you, because I’ve got to keep on doing it all round the earth every few minutes or so. And it gets very tiresome at times. Would you believe it? I’ve never seen a dawn or a bright mid-day in all my life — just sunsets all the time. Sunsets for breakfast, sunsets for dinner, sunsets for supper. And if I make the tiniest little slip, the head scene-shifter is down on me like a ton of bricks.”

“Goodness me!” said Neville. “I didn’t know you had scene-shifters here.” Neville had been to see pantomimes, and therefore knew what a scene-shifter was.

“Then how do you think we shift the scenes?” cried the wee yellow man rather crossly. Then he suddenly became very busy about nothing, as he whispered, “Look out! Here’s the head scene-shifter coming now.”

Looking back, Neville saw, coming towards them, a man with very large ears. He was not a nice-looking man, and he was extremely like the cloud man that Neville had sometimes seen in the sky when he went to look at the sunset from the bald hill.

“Now then! Now then!” roared the man with the large ears. “Move yourself there, Goldie! We shut up the show here in a few minutes, and open at once on the next range. See that you have that curtain down on time.”

“Certainly, sir,” replied the little yellow man very humbly.

Then the man with the large ears noticed Neville for the first time. He frowned darkly, and his big ears seemed to flap with annoyance.

“Who is this on our Cloud Horse?” he roared in his great angry voice.

“Just a little boy,” said the yellow man — for Neville was far too frightened to speak. “Just a little boy that the Cloud Horse has been playing tricks on. I think he’d like to be getting home — just over by the bald hill, if you don’t mind, sir.”

“Certainly not!” shouted the man with the large ears. “The Cloud Horse is not to go out there again to-night, nor the silly little boy either. I’m not going to have the sunset upset by any such silly nonsense. You mind what I say and attend to your work.”

And, without another glance at Neville, the man with the large ears strode off to arrange for the sunset on the next range, miles and miles away.

Neville gazed at the wee yellow man hopelessly, and the wee yellow man gazed at Neville, and neither spoke a word until the man with the large ears was well out of the way. Then the Last Sunbeam grew quite cheerful again.

“Well,” said he, “you heard what the head scene-shifter said. You certainly can’t go home by the way you came. The only thing for you to do is to go round. You’ll just about have time to do it, if you hurry.”

“Go round?” repeated Neville in a puzzled voice. “Go round what, round where?”

“Round the world, of course,” replied the little yellow man.

“Round the world?” cried Neville. “Why you must be making fun of me, and I think that is very unkind.”

“Not a bit of it,” laughed the little yellow man. “You need not make such as fuss about it. Why, I go round the world once every day with the sunset. You have only to go a bit faster so as to do it in a few minutes, and with the Cloud Horse to help you that’s easily managed. Don’t you worry about the Cloud Horse. He has got to do just whatever I tell him. Now, excuse me for one moment and I’ll give you full directions.”

With that the wee yellow man went behind a pink cloud and came back with a beautiful blue flower in his hand.

“This,” he said, handing the flower to Neville, “is a Sky Flower. It is made entirely out of a genuine piece of sky, and it is a talisman — that’s a longer word for charm, you know — which takes you free round the world. The one thing you have to remember is that you mustn’t, on any account, lose that flower until you get home again. Now, just exactly what you have to do is to travel West and race round the world until you catch up with this evening again. It is quite simple.”

“Simple!” cried Neville. “Why I don’t understand it at all.”

“Dear me!” said the wee yellow man rather impatiently, “you are very dense. Now listen carefully. The world, you know, turns round from West to East, and that makes it seem as if the sun is going round the world from East to West. Very well. So what you have to do is to ride West upon the Cloud horse much faster than the sun appears to travel, and catch him up again before he gets well away from here. The Cloud horse is in good condition, and you should easily do it in a few minutes.”

“A few minutes!” gasped Neville.

“Keep quiet and listen,” snapped the wee yellow man. “A few miles West from here you will come into broad daylight. That will be afternoon. After that you will meet mid-day, and, passing that, you will reach the place where it is only dawn. That’s about half-way round the earth. Show the Sky Flower to the porter of the Dawn, and he will let you through. Then you get to the half of the world where it is night, and you must race round that till you reach the place where it is only evening. That will be this evening, somewhere about here, for you will have taken only a few minutes altogether. And when you see your own home or the bald hill again, grasp the Sky Flower tightly in your hand, jump off the Cloud horse, and you will float gracefully down to the earth. It won’t hurt you. Then you can go home, and I hope you will not be late for dinner.”

“But,” began Neville, “I can’t understand —”

“My time is valuable,” said the wee yellow man, as he shook hands. “Good-bye, and a pleasant journey.” With that he smacked the Cloud Horse smartly on the flank, and in a moment it was racing into the West at a most terrific pace.

Of course, now that aeroplanes have been invented, flying is not thought so wonderful as once it was. But loafing along through the air in a biplane or a monoplane at eighty or a hundred miles an hour is a very tame business when you compare it with racing the day round the world on a Cloud Horse. And Neville is very probably the only person who has ever done that yet.

Almost before he knew what had happened, he had left evening far behind and was riding in broad daylight. The Cloud Horse had ridden high in the air, and Neville saw the broad country, with plains and hills and forest lands, stretched far beneath him. An instant later, and the land was no longer below him, but the wide sea, sparkling in brilliant sunlight.

Before he had time to notice very much he had reached mid-day, high over a strange foreign land, and was racing through the morning toward the dawn. So quickly did he go that there was little chance of seeing anything clearly; but he had glimpses of many strange sights. Many ships he saw upon the sea — small ships and stately steamers crawling over the ocean like strange water-beetles. Once, as the Cloud Horse drifted low, Neville saw a beautiful sailing-ship, with all sails set, and strange-looking men upon the deck. They looked very like pirates, and perhaps they were; but Neville had no time to make sure, for the very next minute he was over a wild land where he saw a horde of black men, with spears and clubs, hunting an elephant through a clearing in a great jungle. As he looked, the elephant turned to charge the hunters; but what happened then Neville did not see, for in a moment more he was above a great city with crowds of people in the streets — people dressed in strange, bright-coloured clothes — and there were bells ringing and whistles blowing. Then a great desert spread beneath him, with no living thing in sight but a great tawny lion prowling over the sand. Then came the sea again, and more ships; and the light began to grow dim, for he was nearly half-way round the earth, and was approaching the dawn.

Dimmer grew the light, and dimmer yet, just as though evening were coming — and before him, Neville saw the dawn like a silvery gateway in the sky. Straight toward it the Cloud Horse rushed, and stopped so suddenly that Neville almost fell off.

“What’s all this? What’s all this?” cried a small voice; and Neville saw beside the silver gateway, a little man dressed from top to toe in silver grey. It was the Porter of the Dawn, sometimes called the First Sunbeam.

Before Neville could answer, the little grey man had caught sight of the Sky Flower.

“Ah, you have the talisman,” said he. “Pass in! and don’t stop to gossip, because I’m very busy this morning. A pleasant journey,” he added as he smacked the Cloud Horse on the shoulder; and in an instant Neville had passed through the dawn and plunged into the night.

It was a dark night, with no moon, for the sky was overcast with dense clouds. Above these the Cloud Horse flew, and overhead Neville saw the rushing stars, and below only the blackness of heavy clouds. But more often the Cloud Horse flew low, and then there was little to be seen. By the lights of moving ships Neville knew that sometimes he was above the sea. Sometimes twinkling lights in towns or solitary farms, or the sudden blaze of a great city told him that the land was beneath him. Once, through the blackness, he saw a great forest fire upon an island, and the light of it lit up the sea, and showed the natives crowded upon the beach and in the shallows, and some making off in canoes.

Then darkness swallowed the Cloud Horse again, and the blazing island was left far behind.

After that, Neville began to feel a little drowsy. Perhaps he did sleep a little, for the next thing he saw was a faint light in the sky before him, as though the dawn were coming. But he knew it must be the evening, because he was coming back to the place from which he had started, and was catching up with the sun. You see, he had only been gone a few minutes.

The Cloud Horse flew very low now; and rapidly the darkness grew less. Then, long before he expected it, Neville saw the roof of his own home below him. He could see the garden in the twilight and his own dog sniffing about among the trees as though in search of him.

Neville began to think about jumping now, and he was rather nervous. He might land softly and he might not. He only had the wee yellow man’s word for that.

Then, to his horror, he saw that they had passed his home and were over the bald hill. There was no time to lose. The Cloud Horse was taking him into the sunset again, and, if he did, what would the head scene-shifter say then?

So, grasping the Sky Flower very tightly, Neville closed his eyes and jumped. He half expected to fall quickly and be dashed to pieces upon the earth; but, instead, he floated in the air like a feather, swaying and drifting, and slowly sinking all the time towards the ground. It was a very pleasant sensation indeed.

The bald hill was beneath him as he came slowly down, down, down.

He could see the Cloud Horse — now little more than a small white speck — rushing on to catch the sunset. And still he sank down ever so slowly towards the top of the bald hill.

His little dog had caught sight of him now, and came rushing out the gate and up the bald hill, barking loudly. And he kept on sinking nearer to the earth, down, down, nearer and nearer — and then, quite suddenly, he seemed to forget everything.

The next thing Neville remembered was feeling something wet and warm upon his cheek. He opened his eyes and saw that the little dog was licking his face. Sitting up, he looked about him. He was in the grass on the top of the bald hill; night was very near, and the first star was just beginning to twinkle.

Then, quite suddenly, Neville remembered the Cloud Horse and the little yellow man and the little silver man and the head scene-shifter and the wonderful journey and all the rest of it.

“Well, what a remarkable dream,” said Neville, stretching his arms. And, as he did so, the Sky Flower fell from his hand.

So it was not a dream after all; for, if it was, how could he explain that Sky Flower? He picked it up and carried it very tenderly, as he set off home to dinner, his little dog trotting at his heels.

“What a beautiful flower!” said Neville’s mother when he got home. “Where ever did you get it?”

“It is a piece of the genuine sky,” said Neville proudly, as he gave it to her.

His mother smiled at him as she said, “That is a very nice thing to say, and it certainly does look like a little piece of the sky. But, of course, it couldn’t possibly be a real piece.”

Then Neville knew that if he were to tell the story of his wonderful ride, and tried to explain that he had been right around the world since he went out to play, his parents would find it very, very hard to believe. So he said nothing, but ate a very good dinner.

But Neville’s mother put the flower in a vase upon the mantel; and to this day it is still there, as fresh and bright as ever. It will not fade. Neville’s mother thinks that is a very strange and wonderful thing. And so it is.

Since that day, when Neville goes to the top of the bald hill to watch a sunset, he is almost sure that, just as the golden light is fading, he can see a little yellow man by the gateway; and it seems to him that the little yellow man waves a cheery greeting. But, whether this is so or not, Neville always waves back; and he feels very happy to think that he has a good friend inside the sunset.

C. J. Dennis. A Book for Kids, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, [1921], page 65-80

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