The story of the dragon-fly marked a turning-point in their lives; they realised that life was crammed with things that nobody could understand. Daddy's reign was over, and Uncle Felix had ascended the throne. Wonder--but a growing wonder--ruled the world. The great Stranger they had always been vaguely expecting had drawn nearer; it was not Uncle Felix, yet he seemed the forerunner somehow. That "Some Day" of Daddy's--they had almost forgotten its existence--became more and more a possibility. Life had two divisions now: Before Uncle Felix came--and Now. To Maria alone there seemed no interval. To her it was always Now. She had so much wonder in her that she knew.
Outwardly the household ran along as usual, but inwardly this enormous change was registered in three human hearts. The adventures they had before Uncle Felix came were the ordinary kind all children know; they invented them themselves. Their new adventures were of a different order--impossible but true. Their uncle had brought a key that opened heaven and earth.
He did not know that he had brought this key. It was just natural--he let himself in because it was his nature so to do; the others merely went in with him. He worked away in his room, covering reams of paper with nonsense out of his big head; and the trio never disturbed him or knocked at his door, or even looked for him: they knew that his real life ran with theirs, and the moment he had covered so many dozen sheets he would appear and join them. All people had their duties; his duty was to fill so many sheets a day for printers; but his important life belonged to them and they just lived it naturally together. He would never leave the Old Mill House. The funny thing was--whatever had he done with himself before he came there!
Everything he said and did lit up the common things of daily life with this strange, big wonder that was his great possession. Yet his method was simple and instinctive; he never thought things out; he just--knew.
And the effect of his presence upon the other Authorities was significant. Not that the Authorities admitted or even were aware of it, but that the children saw them differently. Aunt Emily, for instance, whom they used to dread, they now felt sorry for. She was so careful and particular that she was afraid of life, afraid of living. Prudence was slowly killing her. Everything must be done in a certain way that made it safe; only, by the time it was safe it was no longer interesting. They saw clearly how she missed everything owing to the excessive caution and preparation in her: by the time she was ready, the thing had simply left. Instead of coming into the hayfield at once and enjoying it, she uttered so many warnings and gave so much advice against disaster--"better take this," and "better not take that"--that by the time they got there the hayfield had lost all its wonder. It was just a damp, untidy hayfield.
Daddy, however, gained in glory. He approved of his big brother. On his return from London every evening the first thing he asked was, "What have you all been up to to-day? Has Uncle Felix given you the moon or rolled the sun and stars into a coloured ball?" Weeden, too, had grown in mystery--he made the garden live, and understood the secret life of every growing thing; while Thompson and Mrs. Horton, each in their separate ways, led lives of strange activity in the lower regions of the house till the kitchen seemed the palace of an ogress and the pantry was its haunted vestibule. "Mrs. Horton's kitchen" was a phrase as powerful as "Open Sesame"; and "the butler's pantry" edged the world of mighty dream.
Above all, Mother occupied a new relationship towards them that made her twice as splendid as before. Until Uncle Felix came, she was simply "Mother," who loved them whatever they did and made allowances for everything. That was her duty, and unless they provided her with something to make allowances for they had failed in what was expected of them. Her absorption in servants and ordering of meals, in choosing their clothes and warning Jackman about their boots--all this was a chief reason for her existence, and if they didn't eat too much sometimes and wear their boots out and tear their clothes, Mother would have been without her normal occupation. Whereas now they saw her in another light, touched with the wonder of the sun and stars. It was proper, of course, for her to have children, but they realised now that she contrived to make the whole world work somehow for their benefit. Mother not only managed the entire Household, from the dinner-ordering slate at breakfast-time to the secret whisperings with Jackman behind the screen at bedtime, or the long private interviews with Daddy in his study after tea: she led a magnificent and stupendous life that regulated every smallest detail of their happiness. She was for ever thinking of them and slaving for their welfare. The wonder of her enormous love stole into their discerning hearts. They loved her frightfully, and told her all sorts of little things that before they had kept concealed. There were heaps and heaps of mothers in the world, of course; they were knocking about all over the place; but there was only one single Mother, and that was theirs.
Yet, in his own peculiar way, it was Uncle Felix who came first. Daddy believed in a lot of things; Mother believed in many things; Aunt Emily believed in certain things done at certain times and in a certain way. But Uncle Felix believed in everything, everywhere and always. To him nothing was ever impossible. He held, that is, their own eternal creed. He was akin to Maria, moreover, and Maria, though silent, was his spokesman often.
"Why does a butterfly fly so dodgy?" inquired Tim, having vainly tried to catch a Painted Lady on the lawn.
Daddy made a grimace and shrugged his shoulders, yet left the insect quite as wonderful as it was before. Mother looked up from her knitting with a gentle smile and said, "Does it, darling? I hadn't noticed." Aunt Emily, balancing her parasol to keep the sun away, observed in an educational tone of voice, "My dear Tim, what foolish questions you ask! It's because its wings are so large compared to the rest of its body. It can't help itself, you see." She belittled the insect and took away its wonder. She explained.
Tim, unsatisfied, moved over to the wicker chair where Uncle Felix sat drowsily smoking his big meerschaum pipe. He pointed to the vanishing Painted Lady and repeated his question in a lower voice, so that the others could not hear:
"Why does it fly like that--all dodgy?" Whatever happened, the boy knew his Uncle would leave the butterfly twice as wonderful as he found it.
But no immediate answer came. They watched it for a moment together in silence. It behaved in the amazing way peculiar to its kind. Nothing in the world flies like a butterfly. Birds and other things fly straight, or sweep in curves, or rise and drop in understandable straight lines. But the Painted Lady obeyed no such rules. It dodged and darted, it jerked and shot, it was everywhere and anywhere, least of all where it ought to have been. The swallows always missed it. It simply doubled--and disappeared round the corner of the building.
Then, puffing at his pipe, Uncle Felix looked at Tim and said, "I couldn't tell you. It's one of the things nobody can understand, I think."
"Yes," agreed Tim, "it must be."
There was a considerable pause.
"But there must be some way of finding out," the boy said presently. He had been thinking over it.
"There is." The man rose slowly from his chair.
"What is it?" came the eager question.
"Try it ourselves, and see if we can do the same!"
And they went off instantly, hand in hand, and vanished round the corner of the building.
The adventures they had since Uncle Felix came were of this impossible and marvellous order. That strange and lovely cry, "There's some one coming," ran through the listening world. "I believe there is," said Uncle Felix. "Some day he'll come and a tremendous thing will happen," was another form of it, to which the answer was, "I know it will."
It was much nearer to them than before. It was just below the edge of the world, the edge of life. It was in the air. Any morning they might wake and find the great thing was there--arrived in the night while they were sound asleep. So many things gave hints. A book might tell of it between the lines; each time a new book was opened a thrill slipped out from the pages in advance. Yet no book they knew had ever told it really. Out of doors, indeed, was the more likely place to expect it. The tinkling stream either ran towards it, or else came from it; that was its secret, the secret it was always singing about day and night. But it was impossible to find the end or beginning of any stream. Wind, moreover, announced it too, for wind didn't tear about and roar like that for nothing. Spring, however, with its immense hope and expectation, gave the clearest promise of all. In winter it hid inside something, or at least went further away; yet even in winter the marvellous something or some one lay waiting underneath the snow, behind the fog, above the clouds. One day, some day, next day, or the day after to-morrow--and it would suddenly be there beside them.
Whence came this great Expectancy they never questioned, nor what it was exactly, nor who had planted it. This was a mystery, one of the things that no one can understand. They felt it: that was all they knew. It was more than Wonder, for Wonder was merely the sign and proof that they were seeking. It was faint and exquisite in them, like some far, sweet memory they could never quite account for, nor wholly, even once, recapture. They remembered almost--almost before they were born.
"We'll have a look now," Uncle Felix would say every walk they took; but before they got very far it was always time to come in again. "That's the bother of everything," he agreed with them. "Time always prevents, doesn't it? If only we could make it stop--get behind time, as it were--we might have a chance. Some day, perhaps, we shall."
He left the matter there, but they never forgot that pregnant remark about stopping time and getting in behind it. No, they never forgot about it. At Christmas, Easter, and the like, it came so near that they could almost smell it, but when these wonderful times were past they looked back and knew it had not really come. The holidays cheated them in a similar way. Yet, when it came, they knew it would be as natural and simple as eating honey, though at the same time with immense surprise in it. And all agreed that it was somehow connected with the Dawn, for the Dawn, the opening of a new day, was something they had heard about but never witnessed. Dawn must be exceedingly wonderful, because, while it happened daily, none of them had ever seen it happen. A hundred times they had agreed to wake and have a look, but the Dawn had always been too quick and quiet. It slipped in ahead of them each time. They had never seen the sun come up.
In some such sudden, yet quite natural way, this stupendous thing they expected would come up. It would suddenly be there. Everybody, moreover, expected it. Grown-ups pretended they didn't, but they did. Catch a grown-up when he wasn't looking, and he was looking. He didn't like to be caught, that's all, for as often as not he was smiling to himself, or just going to--cry.
They shared, in other words, the great, common yearning of the world; only they knew they yearned, whereas the rest of the world forgets.
"I think," announced Judy one day--then stopped, as though unsure of herself.
"Yes?" said her Uncle encouragingly.
"I think," she went on, "that the Night-Wind knows an awful lot, if only--" she stopped again.
"If only," he helped her.
"We," she continued.
"Could," he added.
"Catch it!" she finished with a gasp, then stared at him expectantly.
And his answer formed the subject of conversation for fully half an hour in the bedroom later, and for a considerable time after Jackman had tucked them up and taken the candle away. They watched the shadows run across the ceiling as she went along the passage outside; they heard her steps go carefully downstairs; they waited till she had safely disappeared, for the door was ajar, and they could hear her rumbling down into the lower regions of Mrs. Horton's kitchen--and then they sat up in bed, hugged their knees, shuddered with excitement, and resumed the conversation exactly where it had been stopped.
For Uncle Felix had given a marvellous double-barrelled answer. He had said, "We can." And then he had distinctly added, "We will!"