Uncle Felix paused over his last bit of bread and jam, Tim and Judy cocked their ears up. Maria's eyes stood still a moment in the heavens, and the Tramp stopped eating. He picked up the butter and replaced it carefully in his pocket.
"I know those steps," he murmured half to himself and half to the others. "They're all over the world. They follow me wherever I go. I hear 'em even in me sleep." He sighed, and the tone of his voice was weary and ill at ease.
"How horrid for you," said Judy very softly.
"It keeps me moving," he muttered, trying to conceal all signs of face behind hair and beard, which he pulled over him like a veil. "It's the Perliceman."
"The Policeman!" they echoed, staring.
"But he can't find you here!"
"He'll never see you!"
"You're quite safe inside the fence with us, for this is the End of the World, you know."
"He's not afraid--never!" exclaimed Judy proudly.
"He goes everywhere and sees everything," whispered the Tramp. "He's been following me since time began. So far he has not caught me up, but his boots are so much bigger than my own--the biggest, strongest boots in the world--that in the hend he is bound to get me."
"But you've done nothing," said Judy.
The wanderer smiled. "That's why," he said, holding up a warning finger. "It's because I do nothing. 'ush!" he whispered. The steps came nearer, and he lowered his voice so that the end of the sentence was not audible.
"'ide me," he said in a whisper. And he waved his arms imploringly, like the branches of some wind-hunted tree.
There was a tarpaulin near the rubbish-heap, and some sacking used for keeping the vegetables warm at night. "That'll do," he said, pointing. "Quick!--Good-bye!" In a moment he was beneath the spread black covering, the children were sitting on its edges, quietly eating more bread and jam, and looking as innocent as stars. Uncle Felix poked the fire busily, a grave and anxious look upon his face.
The steps came nearer, paused, came on again then finally stopped outside the gate. The flowing road that bore them ceased running past in its accustomed way. The evening stopped still too. The silence could be heard. The setting sun looked on. Upon the crumbling wall the orange flowers shook their little warning banners.
And there came a tapping on the wooden gate.
No one moved.
The tapping was repeated. There was a sound of drums about it. The round brass handle turned. The door pushed open, and in the empty space appeared--the Policeman.
"Good evening," he said in a heavy, uncompromising way. He looked enormous, framed there by the open gate, the white road behind him like a sheet. He looked very blue--a great towering shadow against the sunlight. It was very clear that he knew he was a policeman and could think of nothing else. He was dressed up for the part, and received many shillings a week from a radculgovunment to look like that. It would have been a dereliction of duty to forget it. He was stuffed with duty. His brass buttons shone.
"Good evening," he repeated, as no one spoke.
"Good evening," replied Uncle Felix calmly. The Policeman accentuated the word "evening," but Uncle Felix emphasised the adjective "good." From the very beginning the two men disagreed. "This is private property, very private indeed. We are having tea, in fact, privately, upon our own land."
"No property is private," returned the Policeman, "and to the Law no thing nor person either."
For a moment the children felt afraid. It seemed incredible that Uncle Felix could be arrested, and yet things had an appearance of it.
"Kindly close the gate so that we cannot be overheard," he said firmly, "and then be good enough to state your business here." He did not offer him a seat; he did not suggest a cup of tea; he spoke like a brave man who expected danger but was prepared to meet it.
The Policeman stepped back and closed the gate. He then stepped forward again a little nearer than before. From a pocket, hitherto invisible inside his belt, he drew forth a crumpled notebook and a stub of pencil. He was very dignified and very grave. He took a deep breath, held the paper and pencil ready to use, expanded his chest till it resembled a toy balloon in the Park, and said:
"I am looking for a man." He paused, then added: "Have you seen a man about?"
"About what?" asked Uncle Felix innocently.
"About fifty or thereabouts," replied the other. "Disguised in rags and a wig of hair and a false beard."
"What has he done?" It was like a game of chess, both opponents well matched. Uncle Felix was too big to be caught napping by clever questions that hid traps. The children felt the danger in the air, and watched their uncle with quivering admiration. Only their uncle stood alone, whereas behind the Policeman stretched a line of other policemen that reached to London and was in touch with the Government itself.
"What has he done?" repeated their champion.
"He's disappeared," came the deep-voiced answer.
"There's no crime in that," was the comment, given flatly.
"But he's disappeared with"--the Policeman consulted his notebook a moment--"a chicken and a roll of butter what don't belong to him--"
"Roll and butter, did you say?"
"No, sir, roll of butter was what I said." He spoke respectfully, but was grave and terrible. "He is a thief."
"He lives nowhere and has no home. You see, sir, duty is duty, and we're expected to run in people who live nowhere and have no homes."
"Which road did he take?" Uncle Felix clearly was pretending in order to gain time.
The man of law looked puzzled. "It was a roll of butter and a bird, sir," he said, consulting his book again, "and my duty is to run him in--"
"The moment you run into him."
"Precisely," replied the blue giant. "And, having seen him come in here some time ago, I now ask you formally whether you have seen him too, and I call upon you to show me where he's hiding." He thrust one huge foot forward and held his notebook open with the pencil ready. "Anything you say will be used against you later, remember. You must all be witnesses."
"If you find him," put in Uncle Felix dryly.
"When I find him," said the other. And his eye wandered over to the tarpaulin that was spread out beside the rubbish-heap. For it had suddenly moved.
Everybody had seen that movement. There was no disguising it. Feeling uncomfortable the Tramp had shifted his position. He probably wanted air.
"I saw it move," the Policeman growled, moving a step towards the rubbish-heap. "He's under there all right enough, and the sooner he comes out the better for him. That's all I've got to say."
It was a most disagreeable and awkward moment. No one knew quite what was best to do. Maria turned her eyes as innocently upon the tarpaulin as she could manage, but it was obvious what she was really looking at. Her brother held his breath and stared, expecting a pistol might appear and some one be shot dead with a marvellous aim, struck absolutely in the mathematical centre of the heart. Uncle Felix, upon whom fell the burden of rescue or defence, sat there with a curious look upon his face. For a moment it seemed he knew not what to do.
The Policeman, approaching still nearer to the tarpaulin, glared at him.
"You're an accessory," he said sternly, "both before and after the fact."
"I didn't say he wasn't there."
"You didn't say he was," was the severe retort. It was unanswerable.
"He'll hang by the neck till he's dead," thought Tim, "and afterwards they'll bury the body in a lime-kiln so that even his family can't visit the grave." He looked wildly about him, thinking of possible ways of escape he had read or heard about, and his eye fell upon his sister Judy.
Now Judy was a queer, original maid. She believed everything in the world. She believed not only what was told her but also what she thought. And among other things she believed herself to be very beautiful, though in reality she was the ugly duckling of the brood. "All God has made is beautiful," Aunt Emily had once reproved her, and, since God had made everything, everything must be beautiful. It was. God had made her too, therefore she was simply lovely. She enjoyed numerous romances; one romance after another flamed into her puzzled life, each leaving her more lovely than it found her. She was also invariably good. To be asked if she was good was a blundering question to which the astonished answer was only an indignant "Of course." And, similarly, all she loved herself was beautiful. Her romances had included gardeners and postmen, stable-boys and curates, age of no particular consequence provided they stimulated her creative imagination. And the latest was--the Tramp.
Something about the woebegone figure of adventure had set on fire her mother instinct and her sense of passionate romance. She saw him young, without the tangled beard, without the rags, without the dilapidated boots. She saw him in her mind as a warrior hero, storming difficulty, despising danger, wandering beneath the stars, a being resplendent as a prince and fearless as a deity. He was a sun of the morning, and the dawn was in his glorious blue eyes.
And Tim now saw that this sister of his, alone of all the party, was about to do something unexpected. She had left her place upon the fallen trunk and stepped up in front of the Policeman.
"Stand aside, missy," this individual said, and his voice was rough, his gesture very decided. It was, in fact, his "arresting" manner. He was about to do his duty.
"Just wait a moment," said Judy calmly; and she placed herself directly in his path, her legs apart, her arms akimbo on her hips. "You say the man you want to find is old and ragged and looks like a tramp?"
"That's it," replied the Policeman, greatly astonished, and pausing a moment in spite of himself. "You'll see him in a moment. Jest help me to lift a corner o' this 'ere tarpaulin, and I'll show him to you." He pushed her deliberately aside.
"All right," said Judy, her eyes shining brilliantly, her gestures touched with a confidence that surprised everybody into silence, "but first I want to tell you that the person underneath this old sheet thing is not a tramp at all--"
"You don't say so," interrupted the other, half impudently, half sarcastically. "What is he then, I'd like to know?"
The girl drew herself up and looked the great blue figure straight in the eyes.
"He's my brother," she said, in a clear strong voice, "and he's not a thief."
"Your brother!" repeated the man, a trifle taken aback. He guffawed.
"He's young and noble," she went on, half singing the words in her excitement and belief, "and he's dressed all in gold. He walks like wind about the world, has curly hair, and wears a sword of silver. He's simply beautiful, and he's got no beard at all!"
"And he's your brother, is he?" cried the Policeman, laughing rudely, "and he jest wears all that get-up for fun, don't he?" And he stooped down and pulled the tarpaulin violently to one side.
"He is my brother, and I love him, and he is beautiful," she answered, dancing lightly round him and flinging her arms in the air to the complete amazement of policeman, Uncle Felix, and her brother and sister into the bargain. "There! You can see for yourself!"
The Policeman stood aghast and stared. He drew a long, deep breath; he whistled softly; he pushed his big, spiked helmet back. He staggered. "Seems there's a mistake," he stammered stupidly, "a kind of mistake somewhere, as it were. I--" He stuck fast. He wiped his lips with his thick brown hand.
"A mistake everywhere, I think," said Uncle Felix sternly. "Your mistake."
The two men faced each other, for Uncle Felix had risen to his feet. The children held back and stared in silence. They were not quite sure what it was they saw. On Judy's face alone was a radiant confidence.
For, in place of the bedraggled and unkempt figure that had crawled beneath the sheet ten minutes before, there rose before them all apparently a tall young stripling, clean and white and shining as a fair Greek god. His hair was curly, he was dressed in gold, a silver sword hung down beside him, and his beardless face and beauty in it that made it radiant as a glad spring day. The sunlight was very dazzling just at that moment.
"You said," continued Uncle Felix, in a voice of deadly quiet, "that the man you wanted had a wig of hair and a beard--a false beard?"
The Policeman stared as though his eyes would drop out upon the tarpaulin. But he said no word. He consulted his note-book in a dazed, flustered kind of way. Then he looked up nervously at the astonishing figure of the "Tramp." Then he looked back at his book again.
"And old?" said Uncle Felix.
"And old," repeated the officer thickly, poring over the page.
"About fifty, I think, you mentioned?"
"'Bout fifty--did I?" He said it faintly, like a man not sure of a lesson he ought to know by heart.
"Disguised into the bargain!" Uncle Felix raised his voice till it seemed to thunder out the words.
"Them was my instructions, sir," the man was heard to mumble sulkily.
Uncle Felix, to the children's immense delight and admiration, took a step nearer to the man of law. The latter moved slowly backwards, glancing half fiercely, half suspiciously at the glorious figure of the person he had expected to arrest as a dangerous thief and tramp.
"And, following what you stupidly call your instructions," cried Uncle Felix, looking sternly at him, "you have broken in our gate, trespassed on our private property, disturbed our guests, and removed forcibly our tarpaulin from its rightful place."
The crestfallen and amazed Policeman gasped and raised his hands with a gesture of despair. He looked like a ruined man. Had there been a handkerchief in his bulging coat, he must have cried.
"And you call yourself an Officer of the Law?" boomed the Defender of Personal Liberty. He went still nearer to him. His voice, to the children, sounded simply magnificent. "A uniformed and salaried representative of the Government of England!"
"Oo calls me orl that?" asked the wretched man in a trembling tone. "I gets twenty-five shillings a week, and that's orl I know."
There came a pause then, while the men faced each other.
"Uncle, let him go, please," said Judy. "He couldn't help it, you know. And he's a married man with a family, I expect. Some day--"
A forgiving smile softened the features of both men at these gentle words.
"This time, then," said Uncle Felix slowly, "I won't report you; but don't let it occur again as long as you live. A day will come, perhaps, when you will understand. And here," he added, holding out his hand with something in it, "is another shilling to make it twenty- six. I advise you--if you're still open to friendly advice--to buy a pair of glasses with it."
The discredited official took the shilling meekly and pocketed it with his note-book. He cast one last hurried glance of amazement and suspicion at the man who had been beneath the tarpaulin, and began to slink back ignominiously towards the gate. At the last minute he turned.
"Good evenin'," he said, as he vanished into the road.
"Good evening," Uncle Felix answered him, as he closed the gate behind him.
Then, how it happened no one knew exactly. Judy, walking up to the shining figure, took him by the hand and led him slowly through the gate on to the long white road. There was a blaze of sunset pouring through the trees and the shafts of slanting light made it difficult to see what every one was doing. In the general commotion he somehow vanished. The gate was closed. Judy stood smiling and triumphant just inside upon the mossy path.
"You saved his life," said some one.
"It's all right," she said--and burst into tears.
But children are not much impressed by the tears of others, knowing too well how easily they are produced and stopped. Tim went burrowing to find the bird, and Maria just mentioned that the Tramp had taken the butter away in his pocket. By the time this fact was thoroughly established the group was ready to leave, the tea-things all collected, the fire put out, and the sun just dipping down below the top of the old grey fence.
Then, and not till then, did the affair of the Tramp come under discussion. What seemed most puzzling was why the Policeman had not arrested him after all. They could not make it out at all; it seemed a mystery. There was something quite unusual about it altogether. Uncle Felix and Judy had been wonderful, but--
"Did you see him blink," said Tim, "when Judy went up and gave it him hot?"
"Yes," observed Maria, who had done nothing herself but stare. "I did."
The brother, however, was not so sure. "I think he really believed her," he declared with assurance, proud of her achievement. "He really saw him young and with a sword and curly hair and all that."
Judy looked at him with surprise. Her tears had ceased flowing by this time.
"Of course," she said. "Didn't you?" There was pain in her voice in addition to blank astonishment.
"Of course we did," said Uncle Felix quickly with decision. "Of course we did."
As they went into the house, however, Uncle Felix lingered behind a moment as though he had forgotten something. His face wore a puzzled expression. He seemed a little bewildered. He walked into the hat-rack first, then into the umbrella-stand, then stopped abruptly and put his hand to his head.
"Headache?" asked Tim, who had been watching him.
His uncle did not hear the question, at least he did not answer. Instead he pulled something hurriedly out of his waistcoat pocket, held it to his ear, listened attentively a moment, and then gave a sudden start.
"What is it, Uncle?"
"Oh, nothing," was the reply; "my watch has stopped, that's all." He stood still a moment or two, reflecting deeply. His eyebrows went up and down. He pursed his lips. "Odd," he continued, half to himself; "I'm sure I wound it up last night...!" he added, "it's going again now. It stopped--only for a moment!"
"Aha," said Tim significantly, and looked about him. He waited breathlessly for something more to happen. But nothing did happen-- just then.
Only, when at last Uncle Felix looked down, their eyes met and a flash of knowledge too enormous ever to be forgotten passed noiselessly between the two of them.
"Perhaps...!" murmured his uncle.
That was all.