He was a grey and nameless creature of shadowy outline and vague appearance. The eye focused him with difficulty. He had an air of a broken tombstone about him, with moss and lichen in wayward patches, for his face was split and cracked, and his beard seemed a continuation of his hair; but he had soft blue eyes that had got lost in the general tangle and seemed to stray about the place and peep out unexpectedly like flowers hiding in a thick-set hedge. The face might be anywhere; he might move suddenly in any direction; he was prepared, as it were, to move forward, sideways, or backwards according as the wind decided or the road appeared--a sort of universal scarecrow of a being altogether.
Yet, for all his forlorn and scattered attitude, there hung about his rags an air of something noble and protective, something strangely inviting that welcomed without criticism all the day might bring. Homeless himself, and with no place to lay his extraordinary body, the birds might have built their nests in him without alarm, or the furry creatures of fields and woods have burrowed among his voluminous misfit-clothing to shelter themselves from rain and cold. He would gladly have carried them all with him, safely hidden from guns or traps or policemen, glad to be useful, and careless of himself. That, at any rate, was the mixed impression that he gave.
"Thank you," he said in a comfortable sort of voice that sounded like wind among telegraph wires on a high road: then added "kindly all."
And instantly the children felt delighted with him; their sympathy was gained; fear vanished; the Policeman, like a scape-goat, took all their sins away. They did not actually move closer to the Tramp but their eyes went nestling in and out among his tattered figure. Judy, however, it was noticeable, looked at him as though spell-bound. To her he was, perhaps, as her Uncle said, the Great Adventurer, the type of romantic Wanderer for ever on the quest of perilous things--a Knight.
It was Uncle Felix who first broke the pause.
"You've come a long way," he suggested.
"Oh, about the same as usual," replied the Tramp, as though all distances and localities were one to him.
"From nowhere, and from everywhere."
"And you are going on to--?"
"Always the same place."
"The end." He said it in a rumbling voice that seemed to issue from a pocket of the torn old coat rather than from his bearded mouth.
"Oh, dear," sighed Judy, "that is a very long way indeed. But, of course, you never get tired out?" Her eyes were brimmed with admiration.
He shrugged his great loose shoulders. It was odd how there seemed to be another thing within all that baggy clothing and behind the hair. The shaggy exterior covered a slimmer thing that was happy, laughing, dancing to break out. "Not tired out," he said, "a bit sleepy sometimes, p'r'aps." He glanced round him carelessly, his strange eyes resting finally on Judy's face. "But there's lots of beds about," he explained to her, "once you know how to make 'em."
"Yes," the child murmured, with a kind of soft applause, "of course there must be."
"And those wot sleeps in ditches dreams the sweetest--that I know."
"They must," agreed Judy, as though grass and dock leaves were familiar to her. "And you get up when you're ready, don't you?"
"That's it," replied the wanderer. "Only you always are ready."
"But how do you know the time?" asked Tim.
The Tramp turned round slowly and looked at his questioner.
"Time!" he snorted. And he exchanged a mysterious glance of sympathy with Maria, who lifted her eyes in return, but otherwise made no sign whatever. "Sit quiet like," he added, "and everything worth 'aving comes of itself. That's living that is. The 'ole world belongs to you."
"I've got a watch," said Tim, as though challenged. "I've got an alarum clock too. Only you have to wind them up, of course."
"There you are!" the Tramp exclaimed, "you've got to wind 'em up. They don't go of theirselves, do they?"
"I never knew 'appiness until I chucked my watch away," continued the other.
"Your watch!" exclaimed Tim.
"Well, not igsackly," laughed the Tramp.
"Oh, he didn't mean that," Judy put in quickly.
"I was usin' it at the time, any'ow," chuckled their guest, "and wot you're usin' at the time belongs to you. I never knew 'appiness while I kep' it. Watches and clocks only mean 'urry. It's an endless job, tryin' to keep up with 'em. You've got to go so fast for one thing--I never was a sprinter--bah!" he snorted--"there's nothing in it. Life isn't a 'undred yards race. You miss all the flowers on the way at that pace. And what's the prize?" He glanced down contemptuously at his feet. "Worn-out boots. Yer boots wear out--that's all."
He looked round at the children, smiling wonderfully. Maria seemed to understand him best, perhaps. She looked up innocently into his tangled face. "That's it," he said, with another chuckle. "YOU know wot I mean, don't yer, missie?" But Maria made no reply. She merely beamed back at him till her face seemed nothing but a pair of wide blue eyes.
"Stop yer clocks, go slow," the man murmured, half to himself, "and you'll see what I mean. There's twice as much time as before. You can do anything, everything,"--he spread his arms out--"because there's never any 'urry. You'd be surprised."
"You're very hungry, aren't you?" inquired Tim, resenting the man's undue notice of Maria.
The Tramp stared hard into the boy's unwavering eyes. "Always," he said briefly, "but, then, there's always folks to give."
"Rather," exclaimed Judy with enthusiasm, and Tim added eagerly, "I should think so."
They seemed to know all about him, then. Something had entered with him that made common stock of the five of them. It was wonderful of Uncle Felix to have known all this beforehand.
"We're all alive together," murmured the Tramp below his breath, and then Uncle Felix showed another stroke of genius. "We'll make tea out here to-day," he said, "instead of having it indoors. Tim, you run and fetch a tea-pot, a bottle of milk, and some cups and a kettle full of water; put some sugar in your pockets and bring a loaf and butter and a pot of jam. A basket will hold the lot. And while you're gone we'll get the fire going."
"A big knife and some spoons too," Judy cried after his disappearing figure, "and don't let Aunt Emily see you, mind."
The Tramp looked up sharply. "I had an Aunt Emily once," he said behind his hedged-in face. Expecting more to follow, the others waited; but nothing came. There was a little pause.
"Once?" asked Maria, wondering perhaps if there were two such beings in the world at the same time.
The man of journeys nodded.
"Did she mend your clothes and things--and love to care for you?" Judy wished to know.
He shook his tangled head. "She visited the poor," he told them, "and had no time for the likes of me. And one day I fell out of a big hole in my second suit and took to tramping." He rubbed his hands vigorously together in the air. "And here I am."
"Yes," said Maria kindly. "I'm glad."
Meanwhile, Judy having decided to go and help her brother with the tea-things, the others set to work and made a fire. Maria helped with her eyes, picking up an occasional stick as well, but it was the Tramp who really did the difficult part. Only the way he did it made it appear quite easy somehow. He began with the tiniest fire in the world, and the next minute it seemed ready for the kettle, with a cross-bar arranged adroitly over it and a supply of fresh wood in a pile beside it.
"What do you think about it?" asked Tim of his sister, as they struggled back with the laden basket. Apparently a deep question of some kind asked for explanation in his mind.
"It's awful that he has no one to care about him," was the girl's reply. "I think he's a very nice man. He looks magnificent and awfully brown."
"That's dirt," said her brother.
"It's travel," she replied indignantly.
The Tramp, when they got back, looked tidier somehow, as though the effect of refined society had already done him good. His appearance was less uncouth, his hair and beard a shade less hay-fieldy. It was possible to imagine what he looked like when he was young--sure sign of being tidy; just as to be very untidy gives an odd hint of what old age will do eventually to face and figure. The Tramp looked younger.
They all made friends in the simple, unaffected way of birds and animals, for at the End of the World there was no such thing as empty formality. The children, supported by the presence of their important uncle, asked questions, this being their natural prerogative; it came to them as instinctively as tapping the lawn for worms comes to birds, or scratching the earth for holes is a sign of health with rabbits. At first shyly--then in a ceaseless, yet not too inquisitive torrent. Questions are the sincerest form of flattery, and the Tramp, accustomed probably to severer questions from people in uniform, was quite delighted. He smiled quietly behind the scenery of his curious great face, but he answered all: where he lived, how he travelled, what friends he had, where he spent Christmas, what barns and ditches and haystacks felt like, anything and everything, even where he meant to be buried when he died. "'ere, where I've lived so 'appily," and he made a wide gesture with one tattered arm to include the earth and sky. He had no secrets apparently; he was glad they should know all. The children had never known such a delightful creature in their lives before.
"And you eat anything?" inquired Tim, "anything you can, I mean?"
"Anything you can get, he means," corrected Judy softly.
He gave an unexpected answer. "I swallow sunsets, and I bite the moon; I nibble stars. I never need a spoon."
He said it as naturally as a duchess describing her latest diet at a smart dinner-party, with an air, too, as of some great personage disguised on purpose so that he might enjoy the simple life.
"That rhymes," stated Maria.
"So does this," he replied; "I live on open hair and bits of bread; the sunlight clothes me, and I lay me 'ead--"
The hissing of the kettle interrupted him. "Water's boiling," cried Uncle Felix; "hand round the cups and cut the loaf." A cup was given to each. The tea was made.
"Do you take sugar, please?" asked Judy of the guest. The quietness of her voice made it almost tender. Such a man, moreover, might despise sweet things. But he said he did.
"Two lumps?" she asked, "or one?"
"Five, please," he said.
She was far too polite to show surprise at this, nor at the fact that he stirred his tea with a little bit of stick instead of with a spoon. She remembered his remark that he had no use for spoons. Tim, saying nothing, imitated all he did as naturally as though he had never done otherwise in his life before. They enjoyed their picnic tea immensely in this way, seated in a row upon the comfortable elm tree, gobbling, munching, drinking, chattering. The Tramp, for all his outward roughness, had the manners of a king. He said what he thought, but without offence; he knew what he wanted, yet without greed or selfishness. He had that politeness which is due to alert perception of every one near him, their rights and claims, their likes and dislikes; for true politeness is practically an expansion of consciousness which involves seeing the point of view of every one else--at once. A tramp, accustomed to long journeys, big spaces, obliged ever to consider the demands of impetuous little winds, the tastes of flowers, the habits and natural preferences of animals, birds, and insects, develops this bigger sense of politeness that crowds in streets and drawing-rooms cannot learn. Unless a tramp takes note of all, he remains out of touch with all, and therefore is uncomfortable.
"Is everything all right?" asked Uncle Felix presently, anxious to see that he was well provided for.
"Everything, thank you," the wanderer replied, "and, if you don't mind, I'll 'ave my supper here later too. I've brought it with me." And out of one capacious pocket he produced--a bird. "It's a chickin," he informed them, as they stared with wide-opened eyes. Maria was the first to go on eating her slice of bread and jam. Unordinary things seemed to disturb her less than ordinary ones. Somehow it seemed quite natural that he should go about with a bird for supper in his pocket.
"However did you get it--in there?" asked Tim, modifying his sentence just in time to avoid inquisitive rudeness.
"It gave itself to me," he replied. "That kind of things 'appens sometimes when you're tramping. They know," he added significantly. "You see, it's my birthday to-day, and something like this always 'appens on my birthday. Last time it was a fish. I fell into the stream and went right under. When I got out on to the bank again I found a trout in my pocket. The time before I slept beside a haystack, and when I awoke at sunrise I felt something warm and soft against my face like feathers. It was feathers. There was a 'en's nest two inches from my nose, and six nice eggs in it all ready for my birthday breakfast. I only ate four of them. You should never take all the heggs out of a nest." He looked round at the group and smiled. "But I think the chickin's best of all," he told them, "and next year I expect a turkey, or a bit of bacon maybe."
"You never, never grow old, do you?" Judy asked. Her admiration was no longer concealed. It seemed she saw him differently a little from the others.
"Oh, jest a nice age," he said.
"You seem to know so much," she explained her question, "everything."
He laughed behind his tea-cup as he fingered the chicken on his lap.
"As to that," he murmured, "there's only a few things worth knowing. If you can just forget the rest, you're all right."
"I see," she replied beneath her breath. "But--but it's got to be plucked and cleaned and cooked first, hasn't it?"
"The chickin?" he laughed. "Oh, dear me, no! Cooked, yes, but not plucked or cleaned in the sense you mean. That's what they do in 'ouses. Out here we have a better way. We just wrap it up in clay and dig a 'ole and light a fire on top, and in a 'arf hour it's ready to eat, tender, juicy, and sweet as a bit of 'oneycomb. Break open the ball of clay, and the feathers all come away wiv it." And then he produced from another pocket a fat, thick roll of yellow butter, freshly made apparently, for it was wrapped in a clean white cloth.
They stared at that for a long time without a word.
"They go together," he explained, and the explanation seemed sufficient as well as final. "And they come together too," he added with a smile.
"Did the butter give itself to you as well as the chicken?" inquired Judy. The Tramp nodded in the affirmative as he placed it beside him on the trunk ready for use later. And everybody felt in the middle of a delightful mystery. All were the same age together. Bird and butter, sun and wind, flowers and children, tramp and animals--all seemed merged in a jolly company that shared one another's wants and could supply them. The wallflowers wagged their orange-bonneted heads, the wind slipped sighing with delicious perfumes from the trees, the bees were going home in single file, and the sun was sinking level with the paling top--when suddenly there came a disturbing element into the scene that made their hearts beat faster with one accord. It was a sound.
A muffled, ominous beat was audible far away, but slowly coming nearer. As it approached it changed its character. It became sharper and more distinct. Something about the measured intervals between its tapping repetitions brought a threatening message of alarm. Every one felt the little warning and looked up. There was anxiety. The sound jarred unpleasantly upon the peace of the happy company. They listened. It was footsteps on the road outside.