For the Night-Wind already had a definite position in the mythology of the Old Mill House, and since Uncle Felix had taken to reading aloud certain fancy bits from the storicalnovul he was writing at the moment, it had acquired a new importance in their minds.
These fancy bits were generally scenes of action in which the Night- Wind either dropped or rose unexpectedly. He used the children as a standard. "Thank you very much, Uncle," meant failure, the imagination was not touched; but questions were an indication of success, the audience wanted further details. For he knew it was the child in his audience that enjoyed such scenes, and if Tim and Judy felt no interest, neither would Mr. and Mrs. William Smith of Peckham. To squeeze a question out of Maria raised hopes of a second edition!
A Duke, disguised as a woman or priest, landing at night; a dark man stealing documents from a tapestried chamber of some castle, where bats and cobwebs shared the draughty corridors--such scenes were incomplete unless a Night-Wind came in audibly at critical moments. It wailed, moaned, whistled, cried, sang, sighed, soughed or--sobbed. Keyholes and chimneys were its favourite places, but trees and rafters knew it too. The sea, of course, also played a large part in these adventures, for water above all was the element Uncle Felix loved and understood, but this Night-Wind, being born at sea, was also of distinct importance. The sea was terrible, the wind was sad.
To the children it grew more and more distinct with each appearance. It had a personality, and led a curious and wild existence. It had privileges and prerogatives. Owing to its various means of vocal expression--singing, moaning, and the rest--a face belonged to it with lips and mouth; teeth too, since it whistled. It ran about the world, and so had feet; it flew, so wings pertained to it; it blew, and that meant cheeks of sorts. It was a large, swift, shadowy being whose ways were not the ordinary ways of daylight. It struck blows. It had gigantic hands. Moreover, it came out only after dark--an ominous and suspicious characteristic rather.
"Why isn't there a day-wind too?" inquired Judy thoughtfully.
"There is, but it's quite a different thing," Uncle Felix answered. "You might as well ask why midday and midnight aren't the same because they both come at twelve o'clock. They're simply different things."
"Of course," Tim helped him unexpectedly; "and a man can't be a woman, can it?"
The Night-Wind's nature, accordingly, remained a mystery rather, and its sex was also undetermined. Whether it saw with eyes, or just felt its way about like a blind thing, wandering, was another secret matter undetermined. Each child visualised it differently. Its hiding-place in the daytime was equally unknown. Owls, bats, and burglars guessed its habits best, and that it came out of a hole in the sky was, perhaps, the only detail all unanimously agreed upon. It was a pathetic being rather.
This Night-Wind used to come crying round the bedroom windows sometimes, and the children liked it, although they did not understand all its melancholy beauty. They heard the different voices in it, although they did not catch the meaning of the words it sang. They heard its footsteps too. Its way of moving awed them. Moreover, it was for ever trying to get in.
"It's wings," said Judy, "big, dark wings, very soft and feathery."
"It's a woman with sad, black eyes," thought Tim, "that's how I like it."
"It's some one," declared Maria, who was asleep before it came, so rarely heard it at all. And they turned to Uncle Felix who knew all that sort of thing, or at any rate could describe it. He found the words. They lay hidden in his thick back hair apparently--there was little on the top!--for he always scratched his head a good deal when they asked him questions about such difficult matters. "What is it really--the Night-Wind?" they asked gravely; "and why does it sound so very different from the wind in the morning or the afternoon?"
"There is a difference," he replied carefully. "It's a quick, dark, rushing thing, and it moves like--like anything."
"We know that," they told him.
"And it has long hair," he added hurriedly, looking into Tim's staring eyes. "That's what makes it swish. The swishing, rushing, hushing sound it makes--that's its hair against the walls and tiles, you see."
"It is a woman, then?" said Tim proudly. All looked up, wondering. An extraordinary thing was in the air. A mystery that had puzzled them for ages was about to be explained. They drew closer round the sofa, and Maria blundered against the table, knocking some books off with a resounding noise. It was their way of reminding him that he had promised. "Hush, hush!" said Uncle Felix, holding up a finger and glancing over his shoulder into the darkened room. "It may be coming now... Listen!"
"Yes, but it is a woman, isn't it?" insisted Tim, in a hurried whisper. He had to justify himself before his sisters. Uncle Felix must see to that first.
The big man opened his eyes very wide. He shuddered. "It's a--Thing," was the answer, given in a whisper that increased the excitement of anticipation. "It certainly is a--Thing! Now hush! It's coming!"
They listened then intently. And a sound was heard. Out of the starry summer night it came, quite softly, and from very far away-- upon discovery bent, upon adventure. Reconnoitering, as from some deep ambush in the shrubberies where the blackbirds hid and whistled, it flew down against the house, stared in at the nursery windows, fluttered up and down the glass with a marvellous, sweet humming--and was gone again.
"Listen!" the man's voice whispered; "it will come back presently. It saw us. It's awfully shy--"
"Why is it awfully shy?" asked Judy in an undertone.
"Because people make it mean so much more than it means to mean," he replied darkly. "It never gets a chance to be just itself and play its own lonely game--"
"We've called it things," she stated.
"But we haven't written books about it and put it into poetry," Uncle Felix corrected her with an audacity that silenced them. "We play our game; it plays its."
"It plays its," repeated Tim, amused by the sound of the words.
"And that's why it's shy," the man held them to the main point, "and dislikes showing itself--"
"But why is its game lonely?" some one asked, and there was a general feeling that Uncle Felix had been caught this time without an answer. For what explanation could there possibly be of that? Their faces were half triumphant, half disappointed already.
He smiled quietly. He knew everything--everything in the world. "It's unhappy as well as shy," he sighed, "because nothing will play with it. Everything is asleep at night. It comes out just when other things are going in. Trees answer it, but they answer in their sleep. Birds, tucked away in nests and hiding-places, don't even answer at all. The butterflies are gone, the insects lost. Leaves and twigs don't care about being blown when there's no one there to see them. They hide too. If there are clouds, they're dark and sulky, keeping their jolly sides towards the stars and moon. Nothing will play with the Night- Wind. So it either plays with the tiles on the roof and the telegraph wires--dead things that make a lot of noise, but never leave their places for a proper game--or else just--plays with itself. Since the beginning of the world the Night-Wind has been shy and lonely and unhappy."
It was unanswerable. They understood. Their sense of pity was greatly touched, their love as well.
"Do pigs really see the wind, as Daddy says?" inquired Maria abruptly, feeling the conversation beyond her. She merely obeyed the laws of her nature. But no one answered her; no one even heard the question. Another sound absorbed their interest and attention. There was a low, faint tapping on the window-pane. A hush, like church, fell upon everybody.
And Uncle Felix stood up to his full height suddenly, and opened his arms wide. He drew a long, deep breath.
"Come in," he said splendidly.
The tapping, however, grew fainter and fainter, till it finally ceased. Everybody waited expectantly, but it was not repeated. Nothing happened. Nobody came in. The tapper had retreated.
"It was a twig," whispered Judy, after a pause. "The Virgin Creeper--"
"But it was the wind that shook it," exclaimed Uncle Felix, still standing and waiting as though he expected something. "The Night-Wind --Look out!"
A roaring sound over the roof drowned his words; it rose and fell like laughter, then like crying. It dropped closer, rushed headlong past the window, rattled and shook the sash, then dived away into the darkness. Its violence startled them. A deep lull followed instantly, and the little tapping of the twig was heard again. Odd! Just when the Night-Wind seemed furthest off it was all the time quite near. It had not really gone at all; it was hiding against the outside walls. It was watching them, trying to get in. The tapping continued for half a minute or more--a series of hurried, gentle little knocks as from a child's smallest finger-tip.
"It wants to come in. It's trying," whispered some one.
"It's awfully shy."
"It's lonely and frightfully unhappy."
"It likes us and wants to play."
There was another pause and silence. No one knew quite what to do. "There's too much light. Let's put the lamp out," said a genius, using the voice of Judy.
As though by way of answer there followed instantly a sudden burst of wind. The torrent of it drove against the house; it boomed down the chimney, puffing an odour of soot into the room; it shook the door into the passage; it lifted an edge of carpet, flapping it. It shouted, whistled, sang, using a dozen different voices all at once. The roar fell into syllables. It was amazing. A great throat uttered words. They could scarcely believe their ears.
The wind was shouting with a joyful, boisterous shout: "Open the window! I'll put out the light!"
All heard the wonderful thing. Yet it seemed quite natural in a way. Uncle Felix, still standing and waiting as though he knew not exactly what was going to happen, moved forward at once and boldly opened the window's lower sash. In swept the mighty visitor, the stranger from the air. The lamp gave one quick flicker and went out. Deep stillness followed. There was a silence like the moon.
The shy Night-Wind had come into the room.
Ah, there was awe and wonder then! The silence was so unexpected. The whole wind, not merely part of it, was in. It had come so gently, softly, delicately too! In the darkness the outline of the window- frame was visible; Uncle Felix's big figure blocked against the stars. Judy's head could be seen in silhouette against the other window, but Tim and Maria, being smaller, were merged in the pool of shadow below the level of the sill. A large, spread thing passed flutteringly up and down the room a moment, then came the rest. It settled over everything at once. A rustle was audible as of trailing, floating hair.
"It's hiding in the corners and behind the furniture," whispered Uncle Felix; "keep quiet. If you frighten it--whew!"--he whistled softly-- "it'll be off above the tree-tops in a second!"
A low soft whistle answered to his own; somewhere in the room it sounded; there was no mistaking it, though the exact direction was difficult to tell, for while Tim said it was through the keyhole, Judy declared positively that it came from the door of the big, broken cupboard opposite. Maria stated flatly, "Chimney."
"Hush! It's talking." It was Uncle Felix's voice breathing very low. "It likes us. It feels we're friendly."
A murmur as of leaves was audible, or as of a pine bough sighing in a breeze. Yet there were words as well--actual spoken words:
"Don't look for me, please," they heard. "I do not want to be seen. But you may touch me. I like that."
The children spread their hands out in the darkness, groping, searching, feeling.
"Ah, your touch!" the sighing voice continued.
"It's like my softest lawn. Your hair feels as my grass feels on the hill-tops, and the skin of your cheeks is smooth and cool as the water-surface of my lily ponds at midnight. I know you"--it raised its tones to singing. "You are children. I kiss you all!"
"I feel you," Judy said in her clear, quiet voice. "But you're cold."
"Not really," was the answer that seemed all over the room at once. "That's only the touch of space. I've come from very high up to-night. There's been a change. The lower wind was called away suddenly to the sea, and I dropped down with hardly a moment's warning to take its place. The sun has been very tiresome all day--overheating the currents."
"Uncle, you ask it everything," whispered Tim, "simply everything!"
"Say how we love it, please," sighed Judy. "I feel it closing both my eyes."
"It's over all my face," put in Maria, drawing her breath in loudly.
"But my hair's lifting!" Judy exclaimed. "Oh, it's lovely, lovely!"
Uncle Felix straightened himself up in the darkness. They could hear him breathing with the effort. "Please tell us what you do," he said. "We all can feel you touching us. Play with us as you play with trees and clouds and sleeping flowers along the hedgerows."
A singing, whistling sound passed softly round the room; there was a whirr and a flutter as when a flight of bees or birds goes down the sky, and a voice, a plaintive yet happy voice, like the plover who cry to each other on the moors, was audible:
"I run about the world at night,: Yet cannot see;
My hair has grown so thick these millions years,
It covers me.
So, like a big, blind thing
I run about,
And know all things by touching them.
I touch them with my wings;
I know each one of you
By touching you;
I touch your hearts!"
"I feel you!" cried Judy. "I feel you touching me!"
"And I, and I!" the others cried. "It's simply wonderful!"
An enormous sigh of happiness went through that darkened room.
"Then play with me!" they heard. "Oh, children, play with me!"
The wild, high sweetness in the windy voice was irresistible. The children rose with one accord. It was too dark to see, but they flew about the room without a fault or slip. There was no stumbling; they seemed guided, lifted, swept. The sound of happy, laughing voices filled the air. They caught the Wind, and let it go again; they chased it round the table and the sofa; they held it in their arms until it panted with delight, half smothered into silence, then marvellously escaping from them on the elastic, flying feet that tread on forests, clouds, and mountain tops. It rushed and darted, drove them, struck them lightly, pushed them suddenly from behind, then met their faces with a puff and shout of glee. It caught their feet; it blew their eyelids down. Just when they cried, "It's caught! I've got it in my hands!" it shot laughing up against the ceiling, boomed down the chimney, or whistled shrilly as it escaped beneath the crack of the door into the passage. The keyhole was its easiest escape. It grew boisterous, singing with delight, yet was never for a moment rough. It cushioned all its blows with feathers.
"Where are you now? I felt your hair all over me. You've gone again!" It was Judy's voice as she tore across the floor.
"You're whacking me on the head!" cried Tim. "Quick, quick! I've got you in my hands!" He flew headlong over the sofa where Maria sat clutching the bolster to prevent being blown on to the carpet.
They felt its soft, gigantic hands all over them; its silky coils of hair entangled every movement; they heard its wings, its rushing, sighing voice, its velvet feet. The room was in a whirr and uproar.
"Uncle! Can't you help? You're the biggest!"
"But it's blown me inside out," he answered, in a curiously muffled voice. "My fingers are blown off. It's taken all my breath away."
The pictures rattled on the wall; loose bits of paper fluttered everywhere; the curtains flapped out horizontally into the air.
"Catch it! Hold it! Stop it!" cried the breathless voices.
"Join hands," he gasped. "We'll try." And, holding hands, they raced across the floor. They managed to encircle something with their spread arms and legs. Into the corner by the door they forced a great, loose, flowing thing against the wall. Wedged tight together like a fence, they stooped. They pounced upon it.
"Caught!" shouted Tim. "We've got you!"
There was a laughing whistle in the keyhole just behind them. It was gone.
The window shook. They heard the wild, high laughter. It was out of the room. The next minute it passed shouting above the cedar tops and up into the open sky. And their own laughter went out to follow it across the night.
The room became suddenly very still again. Some one had closed the window. The twig no longer tapped. The game was over. Uncle Felix collected them, an exhausted crew, upon the sofa by his side.
"It was very wonderful," he whispered. "We've done what no one has ever done before. We've played with the Night-Wind, and the Night- Wind's played with us. It feels happier now. It will always be our friend."
"It was awfully strong," said Tim in a tone of awe. "It fairly banged me."
"But awfully gentle," Judy sighed. "It kissed me hundreds of times."
"I felt it," announced Maria.
"It's only a child, really," Uncle Felix added, half to himself, "a great wild child that plays with itself in space--"
He went on murmuring for several minutes, but the children hardly heard the words he used. They had their own sensations. For the wind had touched their hearts and made them think. They heard it singing now above the cedars as they had never heard it sing before. It was alive and lovely, it meant a new thing to them. For they had their little aching sorrows too; it had taken them all away: they had their little passionate yearnings and desires; it had prophesied fulfilment. The dreamy melancholy of childhood, the long, long days, the haunted nights, the everlasting afternoons--all these were in its wild, great, windy voice, the sighing, the mystery, the laughter too. The joy of strange fulfilment woke in their wind-kissed hearts. The Night-Wind was their friend; they had played with it. Now everything could come true.
And next day Maria, lost to the Authorities for over an hour, was at length discovered by the forbidden pigsties in a fearful state of mess, but very pleased and happy about something. She was watching the pigs with eyes brimful of questioning wonder and excitement. She was listening intently too. She wanted to find out for certain whether pigs really--really and truly--saw--anything unusual!