The children had never been to London, but they knew the direction in which it lay--beyond the crumbling kitchen-garden wall, where the wall-flowers grew in a proud colony. The sky looked different there, a threatening quality in it. Both snow and thunderstorm came that way, and the dirty sign-post "London Road" outside the lodge-gates was tilted into the air significantly.
They regarded London as a terrible place, though a necessity: Daddy's office was there; Christmas and Birthday presents came from London, but also it was where the Radical govunment lived--an enormous, evil, octopus kind of thing that made Daddy poor. Weeden, too, had been known to say dark things with regard to selling vegetables, hay, and stuff. "What can yer igspect when a Radical govunment's in?" And the fact that neither he nor Daddy did anything to move it away proved what a powerful thing it was, and made them feel something hostile to their happiness dwelt London-way beyond that crumbling wall.
The composite picture grew steadily in their little minds. When ominous clouds piled up on that northern horizon, floating imperceptibly towards them, it was a fragment of London that had broken off and come rolling along to hover above the old Mill House. A very black cloud was the Seat of Govunment.
London itself, however, remained as obstinately remote as Heaven, yet the two visibly connected; for while the massed vapours were part of London, the lanes and holes of blue were certainly the vestibule of Heaven. "His seat is in the Heavens" must mean something, they argued. They were quite sweetly reverent about it. They merely obeyed the symbolism of primitive age.
"I shall go to Heaven," Tim said once, when they discussed dying as if it were a game. He wished to define his position, as it were.
"But you haven't been to London yet," came the higher criticism from Judy. "London's a metropolis."
Metropolis! It was an awful thing to say, though no one quite knew why. Part of their dread was traceable to this word. Ever since some one had called it "the metropolis" in their hearing, they had associated vague awe with the place. The ending "opolis" sounded to them like something that might come "ontopofus"--and that, again, brought "octopus" into the mind. It seemed reckless to mention London and Heaven together--yet was right and proper at the same time. Both must one day be seen and known, one inevitably as the other. Thus heavenly rights were included in their minds with a ticket to London, far, far away, when they were much, much older. And both trips were dreaded yet looked forward to.
Maria, however, held no great opinion of either locality. She disliked the idea of long journeys to begin with. Having no objection to moving her eyes, she was opposed to moving her body--unless towards an approved certainty. Puddings, bonfires, and laps at story-time were approved certainties; Heaven and London apparently were not. She was contented where she was. "London's a bother," was her opinion: it meant a rush in the hall when the dog-cart was waiting for the train and Daddy was too late to hear about bringing back a new blue eye for a broken doll. And as for the other place--her ultimatum was hardly couched in diplomatic language, to say the least. An eternal Sunday was not her ideal of happiness. Aunt Emily, it was stated, would live in Heaven when she died, and the place had lost its attractiveness in consequence. For Aunt Emily used long words and heard their "Sunday Colics," and the clothes she wore on that seventh workless day reminded them of village funerals or unhappy women who came to see over the house when it was to be let, and asked mysterious questions about something called "the drains." Daddy's top-hat with a black band was another item in the Sunday and Metropolis picture. London and Heaven, as stated, were not looked forward to unreservedly.
There were compensations, though. They knew the joy of deciding who would go there. Stumper, of course, for one: it was the only place he would not come back from: he would be K.C.B. Uncle Felix, too, because it was his original source of origin. Mother repeatedly called him "angel," and even if she hadn't, it was clear he knew all about both places by the way he talked. Stumper's India was not quite believed in owing to the way he described it, but Uncle Felix's London was real and living, while the other marvellous things he told them could only have happened in some kind of heavenly place. His position, therefore, was unshakable, and Mother and Daddy also had immemorial rights. Others of their circle, however, found themselves somewhat equivocally situated. Thompson and Mrs. Horton were uncertain, for since there was "no marriage" there, there could be no families to wait upon and cook for. Weeden, also, was doubtful. Having never been to London, the alternative happiness was not properly within his grasp, whereas the Postman might be transferred from the metropolis to the stars at any minute of the day or night. Those London letters he brought settled his case beyond all argument whatever.
All of which needs mention because there was a place called the End of the World, and the title has of course to do with it. For the End of the World is the hiding-place of Wonder.
Beyond that crumbling kitchen-garden wall was a very delightful bit of the universe. A battered grey fence kept out the road, but there were slits between the boards through which the Passers-by could be secretly observed. All Passers-by were criminals or heroes on their way to mysterious engagements; the majority were disguised; many of them could be heard talking darkly to themselves. They were a queer lot, those Passers-by. Those who came from London were escaping, but those going north were intent upon awful business in the sinister metropolis--explosions, murders, enormous jewel robberies, and conspiracies against the Radicalgovunment. The solitary policeman who passed occasionally was in constant terror of his life. They longed to warn him. Yet he had his other side as well--his questionable side.
This neglected patch of kitchen-garden, however, possessed other claims to charm as well as the tattered fence. It was uncultivated. Some rows of tangled currant bushes offered excellent cover; there was a fallen elm tree whose trunk was "home"; a pile of rubbish that included scrap-iron, old wheel-barrows, broken ladders, spades, and wire-netting, and, chief of all, there was the spot behind the currant bushes where Weeden, the Gardener, burnt dead leaves. It was sad, but mysterious and beautiful too, this burning of the leaves; though, according to Uncle Felix, who gave the Gardener's explanation, it was right and necessary. They loved the smoke, too, hanging in the air above the lawn, with its fragrant smell and shadowy distances:
"Oh, Gardener! How can you let them burn?" "Because," he explained, "they've 'ad their turn, And nobody wants their shade.
These withered-up messes Is worn-out old dresses I tuck round the boots Of the shiverin' roots Till the Spring makes 'em over Like roses and clover-- But nobody wants dead leaves, dead leaves, Nor nobody wants their shade!"
A deserted corner, yet crowded gloriously with life. Adventure lurked in every inch. There was danger, too, terror, wonder, and excitement. And since for them it was the beginning of all things, they called it, naturally, The End of the World. To escape to the End of the World, unaccompanied by grown-ups, and, if possible, their whereabouts unknown to anybody, was a daily duty second to no other. It was a duty, wet or fine, they seldom left, neglected.
Besides themselves, two others alone held passes to this sanctuary: Uncle Felix, because he loved to go there (he wrote his adventure stories there, saying anything might happen in such a lonely place), and the Gardener, because he was obliged to. Come-Back Stumper was excluded. They had taken him once, and he had said such an abominable thing that he was never allowed to visit it again. "A messy hole," he called it. Mr. Jinks had never even seen it, but, after his death in the railway accident, his remains, recovered without charge from the Hospital, had been buried somewhere in the scrap-heap. From this point of view alone he knew the End of the World; he was worthy of no other. His epitaph was appalling--too horrible to mention really. Tim composed it, but Uncle Felix distinctly said that it never, never must be referred to audibly again:
"It's not nice," he said emphatically, "and you mustn't say it. Always speak well of the dead." And, as they couldn't honestly do that, they obeyed him and left Mr. Jinks in his unhonoured grave, with a broken wheel-barrow for a headstone and a mass of wire-netting to make resurrection difficult. In order to get the disagreeable epitaph out of their minds Uncle Felix substituted a kinder and gentler one, and made them learn it by heart:
It was the proud colony of wallflowers that first made Uncle Felix like the place. Their loveliness fluttered in the winds, and their perfume stole down deliciously above the rubbish and neglect. They seemed to him the soul of ruins triumphing over outward destruction. Hence the delicate melancholy in their scent and hence their lofty chosen perch. Out of decay they grew, yet invariably above it. Both sun and stars were in their flaming colouring, and their boldness was true courage. They caught the wind, they held the sunset and the dawn; they turned the air into a shining garden. They stood somehow for a yearning beauty in his own heart that expressed itself in his stories.
"If you pick them," he warned Tim, who climbed like a monkey, and was as destructive as his age, "the place will lose its charm. They grow for the End of the World, and the End of the World belongs to them. This wonderful spot will have no beauty when they're gone." To wear a blossom in the hair or buttonhole was to be protected against decay and ugliness.
Most wonderful of all, however, was the door in the old grey fence; for it was a Gateway, and a Gateway, according to Uncle Felix, was a solemn thing. None knew where it led to, it was a threshold into an unknown world. Ordinary doors, doors in a house, for instance, were not Gateways; they merely opened into rooms and other familiar places. Dentists, governesses, and bedrooms existed behind ordinary, indoor doors; but out-of-doors opened straight into the sky, and in virtue of it were extraordinary. They were Gateways. At the End of the World stood a stupendous, towering door that was a Gateway. Another, even more majestic, rose at the end of life. This door in the grey fence was a solemn, mysterious, and enticing Gateway--into everything worth seeing.
It was invariably kept locked; it led into the high-road that slithered along secretly and sedulously--to London. For the children it was out of bounds. Here the Policeman lived in constant terror of his life, and here went to and fro the strange world of Passers-by. The white road flowed past like a river. It moved. From the lower branches of the horse-chestnut tree they could just see it slide; also when the swing went extra high, and from the end of the prostrate elm. It went in both directions at once. It encircled the globe, going under the sea too. The door leading into it was a quay or port. But the brass knob never turned; the Gardener said there was no key; and from the outer side the handle had long since been removed, lest Passers-by might see it and come in. Even the keyhole had been carefully stuffed up with that stringy stuff the Gardener carried in his pockets.
Till, finally, something happened that made the End of the World seem suddenly a new place. Tim noticed that the stringy stuff had been removed.
The day had been oppressively hot, and tempers had been sorely tried. Mother had gone to lie down with a headache; Aunt Emily was visiting the poor with a basket; Daddy was inaccessible in his study; all Authorities were doing the dull things Authorities have to do. It was September, and the world stood lost in this golden haze of unexpected heat. Very still it stood, the yellow leaves quite motionless and the smoke from the kitchen chimney hanging stiff and upright in the air. There was no breath of wind.
"There's simply nothing to do," the children said--when suddenly Uncle Felix arrived, and their listlessness was turned to life and interest. He had gone up in the morning to London, and the suddenness of his return was part of his prerogative. Stumper, Jinks, and other folk were announced days and days beforehand, but Uncle Felix just-- came.
"We'll go to the End of the World," he decided gravely, the moment he had changed. "There's something going on there. Quick!" This meant, as all knew, that he had an idea. They stole out, and no one saw them go. Across the lawn and past the lime trees humming busily with tired bees, they crept beneath the shadow of the big horse-chestnut, where the staring windows of the house could no longer see them. They disappeared. The Authorities might look and call for ever without finding them.
"Slower, please, a little," said Maria breathlessly, and was at once picked up and carried. Moving cautiously through the laurel shrubbery, they left the garden proper with its lawns and flower-beds, and entered the forbidden region at the End of the World. They stood upright. Uncle Felix dropped Maria like a bundle.
"Look!" he said below his breath. "I told you so!"
He pointed. The colony of wallflowers were fluttering in the windless air. Nothing stirred but these. The stillness was unbroken. Sunshine blazed on the rubbish-heap. The currant bushes watched. Deep silence reigned everywhere. But the flowers on the crumbling wall waved mysteriously their coloured banners of alarm.
"It looks different," said Judy in a hushed aside.
"Something's happened," whispered Tim, staring round him.
Maria watched them from the ground, prepared to follow in any direction, but in no hurry until a plan was decided.
"The keyhole!" cried Tim loudly, and at the same moment a huge blackbird flew out of the shrubberies behind them, and flashed across the open space toward the orchard on the other side. It whistled a long, shrill scream of warning. It was bigger by far than any ordinary blackbird.
"Home! Quick! Run for your lives!" cried some one, as they dashed for the safety of the elm tree. Even Maria ran. They scrambled on to the slippery, fallen trunk and gasped for breath as they stood balancing in an uneasy row, all holding hands.
"It was bigger than a hen," exclaimed Judy inconsequently. "It couldn't have come through any keyhole." She stared with inquiring, startled eyes at her brother. The bird and the keyhole were somehow lumped together in her mind.
"They've stopped," observed Maria, and sat down in the comfortable niche between the lopped branch and the trunk. It was true. The wallflowers were as motionless now as painted outlines on a nursery saucer.
"Because we're safe," said Uncle Felix. "It was a warning."
And then all turned their attention to Tim's discovery of the keyhole. For the stuffing had been removed. The white, dusty road gleamed through the hole in a spot of shining white.
"Hush!" whispered their guide. "There's something moving."
"Perhaps it's Jinks in his cemetery," thought Judy after a pause to listen.
"No," said Uncle Felix with decision. "It's outside. It's on the-- road!"
His earnestness on these occasions always thrilled them; his gravity and the calm way he kept his head invariably won their confidence.
"The London Road!" they repeated. That meant the world.
"Something going past," he added, listening intently. They listened intently with him. All four were still holding hands.
"The great High Road outside," he repeated softly, while they moved instinctively to the highest part of the tree whence they could see over the fence. They craned their necks. The dusty road was flowing very swiftly, and like a river it had risen. Never before had it been so easily visible. They saw the ruts the carts had made, the hedge upon the opposite bank, the grassy ditch where the hemlock grew in feathery quantities. They even saw loose flints upon the edge. But the actual road was higher than before. It certainly was rising.
"Metropolis!" cried Tim. "I see an eye!"
Some one was looking through the keyhole at them.
"An eye!" exclaimed several voices in a hushed, expectant tone.
There was a pause, during which every one looked at every one else.
"It's probably a tramp," said Uncle Felix gravely. "We'll let him in."
The proposal, however, alarmed them, for they had expected something very different. To stuff the keyhole, run away and hide, or at least to barricade the fence was what he ought to have advised. Instead of this they heard the very opposite. The excitement became intense. For them a tramp meant danger, robbery with violence, intoxication, awful dirt, and an under-the-bed-at-midnight kind of terror. It was so long since they had seen the tramp--their own tramp--that they had forgotten his existence.
"They'll kill us at once," said Maria, using the plural with the comprehensive and anticipatory vision of the child.
"They're harmless as white mice," said her Uncle quickly, "once you know how to treat them, and full of adventures too. I do," he added with decision, referring to the treatment. And he stepped down to unbar the gate.
The children, breathless with interest, watched him go. On the trunk, of course, they felt comparatively safe, for it was "home"; but none the less the "girls" drew up their skirts a little, and Tim felt premonitory thrills run up his spidery legs into his spine. The wallflowers shook their tawny heads as a sudden breath of wind swept past them across the End of the World. It seemed an age before the audacious thing was accomplished and the door swung wide into the road outside. Uncle Felix might so easily have been stabbed or poisoned or suffocated--but instead they saw a shabby, tangled figure come shuffling through that open gate upon a cloud of dust.
"Quick! he's a perjured man!" cried Judy, remembering a newspaper article. "Shut the gate!" She sprang down to help. "He'll be arrested for a highway violence and be incarc-"
There was confusion in her mind. She felt pity for this woebegone shadow of a human being, and terror lest the Policeman, who lived on the white, summery high road, would catch him and send him to the gallows before he was safe inside. Her love was ever with the under dog.
There was a rush and a scramble, the gate was shut, and the Tramp stood gasping before them in the enchanted sanctuary of the End of the World.
"He's ours!" exclaimed Judy. "It's our old tramp!"
"Be very polite to him," Uncle Felix had time to whisper hurriedly, seeing that all three stood behind him. "He's a great Adventurer and a Wanderer too."