The Magic Shadow
by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
from, Noughts and
Once upon a time there was born a man-child with a magic shadow.
His case was so rare that a number of doctors have been disputing
over it ever since and picking his parents' histories and genealogies
to bits, to find the cause. Their inquiries do not help us much.
The father drove a cab; the mother was a charwoman and came of a
consumptive family. But these facts will not quite account for a
magic shadow. The birth took place on the night of a new moon, down
a narrow alley into which neither moon nor sun ever penetrated beyond
the third-storey windows—and that is why the parents were so long in
discovering their child's miraculous gift. The hospital-student who
attended merely remarked that the babe was small and sickly, and
advised the mother to drink sound port-wine while nursing him,—which
she could not afford.
Nevertheless, the boy struggled somehow through five years of life,
and was put into smallclothes. Two weeks after this promotion his
mother started off to scrub out a big house in the fashionable
quarter, and took him with her: for the house possessed a wide
garden, laid with turf and lined with espaliers, sunflowers, and
hollyhocks, and as the month was August, and the family away in
Scotland, there seemed no harm in letting the child run about in this
paradise while she worked. A flight of steps descended from the
drawing-room to the garden, and as she knelt on her mat in the cool
room it was easy to keep an eye on him. Now and then she gazed out
into the sunshine and called; and the boy stopped running about and
nodded back, or shouted the report of some fresh discovery.
By-and-by a sulphur butterfly excited him so that he must run up the
broad stone steps with the news. The woman laughed, looking at his
flushed face, then down at his shoe-strings, which were untied: and
then she jumped up, crying out sharply—"Stand still, child—stand
still a moment!"
She might well stare. Her boy stood and smiled in the sun, and his
shadow lay on the whitened steps. Only the silhouette was not that
of a little breeched boy at all, but of a little girl in petticoats;
and it wore long curls, whereas the charwoman's son was
The woman stepped out on the terrace to look closer. She twirled her
son round and walked him down into the garden, and backwards and
forwards, and stood him in all manner of positions and attitudes, and
rubbed her eyes. But there was no mistake: the shadow was that of a
She hurried over her charing, and took the boy home for his father to
see before sunset. As the matter seemed important, and she did not
wish people in the street to notice anything strange, they rode back
in an omnibus. They might have spared their haste, however, as the
cab-driver did not reach home till supper-time, and then it was found
that in the light of a candle, even when stuck inside a
carriage-lamp, their son cast just an ordinary shadow. But next
morning at sunrise they woke him up and carried him to the house-top,
where the sunlight slanted between the chimney-stacks: and the shadow
was that of a little girl.
The father scratched his head. "There's money in this, wife. We'll
keep the thing close; and in a year or two he'll be fit to go round
in a show and earn money to support our declining years."
With that the poor little one's misfortunes began. For they shut him
in his room, nor allowed him to play with the other children in the
alley—there was no knowing what harm might come to his precious
shadow. On dark nights his father walked him out along the streets;
and the boy saw many curious things under the gas-lamps, but never
the little girl who inhabited his shadow. So that by degrees he
forgot all about her. And his father kept silence.
Yet all the while she grew side by side with him, keeping pace with
his years. And on his fifteenth birthday, when his parents took him
out into the country and, in the sunshine there, revealed his secret,
she was indeed a companion to be proud of—neat of figure, trim of
ankle, with masses of waving hair; but whether blonde or brunette
could not be told; and, alas! she had no eyes to look into.
"My son," said they, "the world lies before you. Only do not forget
your parents, who conferred on you this remarkable shadow."
The youth promised, and went off to a showman. The showman gladly
hired him; for, of course, a magic shadow was a rarity, though not so
well paying as the Strong Man or the Fat Woman, for these were worth
seeing every day, whereas for weeks at a time, in dull weather or
foggy, our hero had no shadow at all. But he earned enough to keep
himself and help the parents at home; and was considered a success.
One day, after five years of this, he sought the Strong Man, and
sighed. For they had become close friends.
"I am in love," he confessed.
"With your shadow?"
"Not with the Fat Woman!" the Strong Man exclaimed, with a start of
"No. I have seen her that I mean these three days in the Square, on
her way to music lesson. She has dark brown eyes and wears yellow
ribbons. I love her."
"You don't say so! She has never come to our performance, I hope."
"It has been foggy ever since we came to this town."
"Ah, to be sure. Then there's a chance: for, you see, she would
never look at you if she knew of—of that other. Take my advice—go
into society, always at night, when there is no danger; get
introduced; dance with her; sing serenades under her window; then
marry her. Afterwards—well, that's your affair."
So the youth went into society and met the girl he loved, and danced
with her so vivaciously and sang serenades with such feeling beneath
her window, that at last she felt he was all in all to her. Then the
youth asked to be allowed to see her father, who was a Retired
Colonel; and professed himself a man of Substance. He said nothing
of the Shadow: but it is true he had saved a certain amount.
"Then to all intents and purposes you are a gentleman," said the
Retired Colonel; and the wedding-day was fixed.
They were married in dull weather, and spent a delightful honeymoon.
But when spring came and brighter days, the young wife began to feel
lonely; for her husband locked himself, all the day long, in his
study—to work, as he said. He seemed to be always at work; and
whenever he consented to a holiday, it was sure to fall on the
bleakest and dismallest day in the week.
"You are never so gay now as you were last Autumn. I am jealous of
that work of yours. At least," she pleaded, "let me sit with you and
share your affection with it."
But he laughed and denied her: and next day she peered in through the
keyhole of his study.
That same evening she ran away from him: having seen the shadow of
another woman by his side.
Then the poor man—for he had loved his wife—cursed the day of his
birth and led an evil life. This lasted for ten years, and his wife
died in her father's house, unforgiving.
On the day of her funeral, the man said to his shadow—"I see it all.
We were made for each other, so let us marry. You have wrecked my
life and now must save it. Only it is rather hard to marry a wife
whom one can only see by sunlight and moonlight."
So they were married; and spent all their life in the open air,
looking on the naked world and learning its secrets. And his shadow
bore him children, in stony ways and on the bare mountain-side.
And for every child that was born the man felt the pangs of it.
And at last he died and was judged: and being interrogated concerning
his good deeds, began—
"We two—"—and looked around for his shadow. A great light shone
all about; but she was nowhere to be seen. In fact, she had passed
before him, and his children remained on earth, where men already
were heaping them with flowers and calling them divine.
Then the man folded his arms and lifted his chin.
"I beg your pardon," he said, "I am simply a sinner."
There are in this world certain men who create. The children of such
are poems, and the half of their soul is female. For it is written
that without woman no new thing shall come into the world.