Meanwhile their father alone grew neither older nor larger. His appearance did not change. They could not imagine that he would ever change. He still went up to London in the morning, he still came down again, he still continued to grind out stories which they thought wonderful, and he still, on occasions, said mysteriously, "A day will come," or its variants, "Some day," and "A day is coming." Yet, though he had Fancy, he had not Imagination. He did not satisfy them. For while Fancy may attend the birth of Wonder, Imagination alone accompanies her growth. Daddy was too full of stationery and sealing-wax in his daily work to have got very far.
Aunt Emily also still was there, explaining everything and saying No, shaking her head at them, or holding up a warning finger. Their outward life, indeed, showed little change, but it included one important novelty that affected all their present and all their subsequent existence, too. They made a new friend--their father's brother.
When first his visit was announced, they had their doubts about him--"your Uncle Felix" had a very questionable sound indeed, but the fact that he lived in Paris and was a writer of sea-stories and historical novels counterbalanced the handicap of the unpleasant "Felix." For to their ears Felix was not a proper sort of name at all; it was all right for a horse or a dog or even for a town, but for a man who was also a relation it was a positive disaster. It would not shorten for one thing, and for another it reminded them of "a king, or some one in a history book," and thus did not predispose them in his favour. It was simply what Tim called a "beastly name." Aunt Emily, however, was responsible for their biggest prejudice against him: "You must remember not to bother him, children; you must never disturb him when he's working." And as Uncle Felix was coming to stay for several weeks in the Mill House, they regarded him in advance as some kind of horrible excitement they must put up with.
However, as most things in life go by contraries, this Uncle Felix person turned out just the opposite. Within an hour of his arrival he was firmly established as friend and ally, yet so quickly and easily was this adjustment brought about that no one could say exactly how it happened. They themselves said nothing--just stood and stared at him; Daddy and Mother said the expected things, and Aunt Emily, critical and explanatory as usual, found it necessary to add: "You'll find it such a quiet house to work in, Felix, and the children will never interfere or get in your way." She was evidently proud of her relative and his famous books. "They'll be as good as gold--won't you, Judy?" by which name she referred to the trio as a whole.
Whereupon Judy smiled and nodded shyly, Tim bent down and scratched his stocking, and Maria, her face expressionless, merely stared at her aunt as though she--Emily, that is--were a piece of inanimate furniture.
"I see," said Uncle Felix carelessly, and glanced down at the trio.
That was all he said. But it was the way he said it that instantly explained his position. He looked at them and said, "I see"; no more than that--and it was done. They knew, he knew, Aunt Emily also knew. Two little careless words--and then continued to talk of Paris, the Channel crossing, and the weather.
"Didn't he squash her just!" remarked Tim, when they were alone together. "She expected him to thank her awfully and give her a kiss." And, accordingly, none of them were in the least surprised when he suddenly poked his head inside the door as they lay in bed and explained that he had just looked in to say good-night, and when he left them a moment later added gravely from the door: "Mind, you never disturb me, children; because, if you do--!" He shook a warning finger and was gone. He looked enormous in the doorway.
From that moment Uncle Felix became an important factor in their lives. The mysterious compact between them all was signed and sealed, yet none could say who drew it up and worded it. His duties became considerable. He almost took Daddy's place. The Study, indeed, at certain hours of the evening, became their recognised nesting place, and Daddy was as pleased as they themselves were. He seemed relieved. He rarely ground out epics now when his brain was tired and full of Government stationery and sealing-wax. Uncle Felix held the wizard's wand, and what he did with it was this: he raised the sense of wonder in them to a higher level. Daddy had awakened it, and fed it with specimens they could understand. But Uncle Felix poked it into yet greater activity by giving them something that no one could ever possibly understand! He stimulated it so that it worked in them spontaneously and of its own accord. He made it grow. And no amount of Aunt Emilies in the world could stop him.
Their father felt no jealousy. When the story-hour came round, he produced a set of sentences he kept slyly up his sleeve for the occasion. "Ask your Uncle Felix; he's better at stories and things than I am. It's his business." This was the model. A variation ran: "Oh, don't bother me just now, children. I've got a lot of figures to digest." But the shortest version was simply, "Run and plague your uncle. I'm too busy."
"Try Mother" was used when Uncle Felix was in hiding. Only it had no result. Mother's mind was too diffuse to carry conviction. It was soaked in servants and things. In another sense it was too exact. The ingredients of her stories were like a cooking recipe. Besides, hers was the unpardonable fault of never forgetting the time. On the very stroke of the clock she broke off abruptly with "Now it's bed-time; you shall hear the rest another night." Daddy forgot, or pleaded for "ten minutes more." Uncle Felix, however, said flatly, "They can't go till it's finished"--and he meant it. His voice was deep and gruff--"like a dog's," according to Maria--and his laugh was like a horse's neigh; it made the china rattle. He was "frightfully strong," too, stronger than Weeden, for he could take a child under each arm and another on his back--and run! He never smiled when he told his stories, and, though this made them seem extra real, it also alarmed deliciously--in the terrible places. Perched on his gigantic knees, they felt "like up the cedar," and when he stretched an arm or leg it was the great cedar branch swaying in the wind.
His manner, too, was stern to severity, and his voice was so deep sometimes that they could "feel it rumbling inside," as though he had "swallowed the dinner gong." He was a very important man somewhere; Daddy was just in the Stationery Office, but Uncle Felix was an author, and the very title necessarily included awe. He wrote "storical-novuls." His name was often in the newspapers. They connected him with the "Govunment." It had to do somewhere with the Police. No one trifled with Uncle Felix. Yet, strange to say, the children never could be properly afraid of him, although they tried very hard. Their audacity, their familiarity, their daring astonished everybody. The gardeners and coachmen, to say nothing of the indoor servants, treated him as though he was some awful emperor. But the children simply pushed him about. He might have been a friendly Newfoundland dog that wore tail-coats and walked on his hind legs, for all they feared reprisals.
He gave them a taste of his quality soon after his arrival.
"No, children, it's impossible now. I'm busy over a scene of my storicalnovul. Ask your father." He growled it at them, frowning darkly.
The parental heels had just that instant vanished round the door.
"Father's got the figures and says he can't."
"Or your mother--" he said, gruffly.
"Mother's doing servants in the housekeeper's room."
"Take your foot out of my waistcoat pocket this instant," he roared.
"Why?" enquired Maria. "How else can I climb up?"
He shook and swayed like the cedar branch, but he did not shake her off. "Because," he thundered, "there's money in it, and you've got holes in your stockings, and toes with you are worse than fingers."
And he strode across the floor, Tim clinging to one leg with both feet off the ground, and Judy pushing him behind as though he were a heavy door that wouldn't open. He was very angry indeed. He told them plainly what he thought about them. He explained the philosophy of authors to them in brutal sentences. "Leave me alone, you little botherations!" he cried. "I'm in the middle of a scene in a storicalnovul." It was disgraceful that a man could lose his temper so. "Leave me alone, or I'll ..."
In the corner of the big nursery sofa there was sudden silence. It was a chilly evening in early spring. Between the bars across the windows the wisteria leaves sifted the setting sunlight. The railway train lay motionless upon the speckled carpet. A cat, so fat it couldn't unroll, lay in a ball of mystery against the high guard of wire netting before the fire. Outside the wind went moaning.
And Time ran backwards, or else the clock stopped dead. Dusk slipped in between the window bars. The cedars on the lawn became gigantic. They heard the haystacks shuffling out of their tarpaulins. The whole house rose into the air and floated off. Mother, Daddy, Nurses, beds dropped from the windows as it sailed away. All were left behind, forgotten details of some stupid and uncomfortable life elsewhere.
"Quite ready," sighed the top of one cedar to the other.
"And waiting, too," an answer came from nowhere.
And then the Universe paused and settled with a little fluttering sound of wonder. The onceuponatime Moment entered the room....
"There was a thing that nobody could understand," began the deep, gruff voice. "And this thing that nobody could understand was something no one understood at all."
"That's twice they couldn't understand it," observed Judy, in the slight pause he made for effect.
"It was alive," he went on, "and very beautiful, so beautiful, in fact, that people were astonished and felt rather ashamed because they couldn't understand it. Some declared it wasn't worth understanding at all; others said it might be worth understanding if they had the time to think about it; and the rest decided that it was nothing much, and promptly forgot that it existed. Their lives grew rather dull in consequence. A few, however, set to work to discover what it was. For the beauty of it set something in them strangely burning."
"It was a firework, I think," remarked Maria, then felt she had said quite an awful thing. For Tim just looked at her. "It's alive, Uncle Felix told you," he stated. She was obliterated--for the moment.
"Yes," resumed the story-teller, "it was alive, and its beauty set the hearts of a few people on fire to know what it meant. It was difficult to find, however, and difficult to see properly when found.
"These people tried to copy it, and couldn't. Though it looked so simple it was impossible to imitate. It went about so quickly, too, that they couldn't catch hold of it and--"
"But have you seen it?" asked Judy, her head bobbing up into his face with eager curiosity.
It was a vital question. All waited anxiously for his reply.
"I have," he answered convincingly. "I saw it first when I was about your age, and I've never forgotten it."
"But you've seen it since, haven't you? It's still in the world, isn't it?"
"I've seen it since, and it's still in the world. Only no one knows to this day why it's there. No one can explain it. No one can understand it. It's so beautiful that it makes you wonder, and it's so mysterious that it makes you--"
"What?" asked Tim for the others, while he paused a moment and stared into their gazing faces.
"Wonder still more," he added.
Another pause followed.
"Then is your heart still burning, Uncle Felix?" Judy enquired, prodding him softly. "And does it matter much?"
"It matters a great deal, yes, because I want to find out, and cannot. And the burning goes on and on whenever I see the thing-that-nobody-can-understand, and even when I don't see it but just think about it--which is pretty often. Because, if I found out why it's there, I should know so much that I should give up writing storicalnovuls and become a sort of prophet instead."
They stared in great bewilderment. Their curiosity was immense. They were dying to know what the thing was, but it was against the Rules to ask outright.
"Were their lives very dull?"--Maria set this problem, suddenly recalling something at the beginning of the story.
"Oh, very dull indeed. They had no sense of wonder--those who forgot."
"How awful for them!"
"Awful," he agreed, in a long-drawn whisper, shuddering.
And that shudder ran through every one. The children turned towards the darkening room. The gloomy cupboard was a blotch of shadow. The table frowned. The bookshelves listened. The white face of the cuckoo clock peered down upon them dimly from the opposite wall, and the chairs, it seemed, moved up a little closer. But through the windows the stars were beginning to peep, and they saw the crests of the friendly cedars waving against the fading sky.
He pointed. High above the cedars, where the first stars twinkled, the blue was deep and exquisitely shaded from the golden streak below it into a colour almost purple.
"The thing that nobody could understand was even more wonderful than that," he whispered. "But no one could tell why it was there; no one could guess; no one could find out. And to this day--no one can find out."
His voice grew lower and lower and lower still.
"To-morrow I'll show it to you. You shall see it for yourselves."
They hardly heard him now. The voice seemed far away. What could it be--this very, very wonderful thing?
"We'll go out and find one...by the stream ...where the willows bend...and shake their pointed leaves.... We'll go to-morrow...."
His voice died away inside his waistcoat. Not a sound was audible. The children were very close against him. In his big hands he took each face in turn and put his lips inside the rim of three small ears.
He told the secret then, while wonder filled the room and hovered exquisitely above the crowded chair....
Awakened by the silence, presently, the ball of black unrolled itself beside the wire fender, it stretched its four black legs. And the children, hushed, happy, and with a mysterious burning in their hearts, went off willingly to bed, to dream of wonder all night long, and to ask themselves in sleep, "Why God has put blue dust upon the body of a dragon-fly?"