Tim's "particular adventure" was of another kind. It was a self- repeater--of some violence, moreover, when the smallness of the hero is considered. Whether in after-life he become an astronomer-poet or a "silver-and-mechanical engineer"--both dreams of his--he will ever be sharp upon rescuing something. A lost star or a burning mine will be his objective, but with the essential condition that it be-- unattainable. Achievement would mean lost interest. For Tim's desire was, is, and ever will be insatiable. Profoundest mystery, insoluble difficulty, and endless searching were what his soul demanded of life. For him all ponds were bottomless, all gipsies older than the moon. He felt the universe within him, and was born to seek its inexplicable "explanation"--outside. The realisation of such passion, however, is not necessarily confined to writers of epics and lyrics. Tim was a man of action before he was a poet. "Forever questing" was his unacknowledged motto. Besides asking questions about stars and other inaccessible incidents of his Cosmos, he liked to "go busting about," as he called it--again with one essential condition that the thing should never come to an end by merely happening. Its mystery must remain its beauty.
"I want to save something from an awful, horrible death," he announced one evening, looking up from Half-hours with English Battles for a sign of beauty in distress.
"Not so easy," his uncle warned him, equally weary of another overrated book--his own.
"But I feel like it," he replied. "Come on."
Uncle Felix still held back. "That you feel like it doesn't prove that there's anything that wants rescuing," he objected.
The boy stared at him with patient tolerance and surprise.
"I promised," he said simply.
It was the other's turn to stare. "And when, pray?" They had been alone for the last half hour. It seemed strange.
"Oh--just now," replied the boy carelessly. "A few minutes ago-- about."
"Indeed!" It seemed stranger still. No one had come in. Yet Tim never prevaricated.
"Yes," he said, "I gave my wordy honour." It was so gravely spoken that, while pledges involving life and death were obviously not new to him, this one was of exceptional kind.
"Who, then, did you promise--whom, I mean?" the man demanded, fixing him with his stern blue eyes.
And the answer came out pat: "Myself!"
"Aha!" said the other, with a sigh and a raising of the eyebrows, by way of apology. "That settles it--"
"Because what you think and say, you must also act," the man continued. "If you promise yourself a thing, and then don't do it, you've simply told a lie." And he drew another sigh. He scented action coming.
"Let's go at once and find it," said Tim, putting a text-book into seven words. He hitched his belt up, and looked round to make sure his sisters were not within reach of interference. There was a moment's pause, during which Uncle Felix hitched his will up. They rose, then, standing side by side. They left the room arm in arm on their way into the garden. The dusk was already laying its first net of shadows to catch the Night.
"Hadn't you better change first?" asked Tim, thoughtfully, on his way down. He glanced at his companion's white flannel suit. "You're so awfully visible."
"Visible!" It was not his bulk. Tim was never deliberately rude. Was it the risk of staining that he meant?
"Any one can see you miles away like that."
The other understood instantly. In an adventure everything sees, everything has eyes, everything watches. The world is alive and full of eyes. He hesitated a moment.
"Oh, that's all right," he replied. "To be easily seen is the best way. It disarms curiosity at once. Tell all about yourself and nobody ever thinks anything. It's trying to hide that makes the world suspect you. Keep nothing back and show yourself is the best way to go about unnoticed. I've tried it."
"Ah," exclaimed Tim, in an eager whisper, "same as walking into the strawberry-bed without asking--"
"So my white clothes are just the thing," said the other, avoiding the pit laid for him.
"Of course, yes." Tim still chased the big idea in his mind. "Besides," he added, full of another splendid thought, "like that they won't expect you to do very much. They'll watch you instead of me."
There was confusion in the utterance, but things were rather crowding in upon him, to tell the truth, and imagination leaped ahead upon two trails at once. He looked at his big companion with more approval. "You'll do," he signified, pulling his cap over his eyes, thrusting both hands in his pockets, and slithering rapidly down the bannisters in advance.
"Thanks," said Uncle Felix, following him, three steps at a time, with effort.
In the hall they paused a moment--a question of doors.
"Back," said Uncle Felix.
"Front's better," decided the boy. "Then nobody'll think anything, you see." He was quick to put the new principle into practice.
On the lawn there was another pause, this time a question of direction.
"The wood, of course!" And they set off together at a steady trot. Few words were wasted when Tim went "busting about" in this way. Uncle Felix resigned himself and looked to him for guidance; there was some one to be rescued; there was danger to be run; the risk was bigger than either of them realised; but more than that he knew not.
"Got a handkerchief with you?" the boy asked presently.
"Yes, thanks; got everything," panted the other.
"For signalling," was offered three minutes later by way of explanation, "in case we get lost--or anything like that."
"Is it a clean one?"
They climbed the swinging gate of iron, rushed the orchard, crossed the smaller hayfield in the open, heedless of the rabbits that rolled like fat balls into pockets made to fit them, slipped out of sight behind a stack of straw whose threatening lopsidedness seemed to support a ladder, and so eventually came to a breathless and perspiring halt upon the edges of a--wood.
It was a very ordinary wood, small, inconspicuous, and unimposing. No big trees towered; there was no fence of thick, black trunks. It was not mysterious, like the dense evergreens on the other side of the grounds where the west wind shook half a mile of dripping branches in stormy weather:
It grew there in a kind of untidy muddle, on the very outskirts of the estate, meekly--rather disappointingly, Uncle Felix thought. There was no hint of anything haunted or terrible about it. Round rabbits fussed busily about its edges, darting as though pulled by wires, and the older wood-pigeons, no doubt, slept comfortably in its middle. But game despised it heartily, and traps were never laid. There was not even a trespassers' board, without which no wood is properly attractive. Indeed, for most people it was simply not worth the trouble of entering at all. Apparently no one ever bothered about it.
Yet, precisely for these very reasons, it was real. Tim described it afterwards as a "naked" wood. It had no fence to hold it together, it was not dressed up by human beings, it just grew naturally. To this very openness and want of concealment it owed its deep security, its safety was due entirely to the air of innocence it wore. But in reality it was disguised. It was a forest--without a middle, without a heart.
"This is our wood," announced Tim in a low voice, as they stood and mopped their faces. His tone suggested that they would enter at their peril.
"And is it a big wood?" the other asked with caution, as though he had not noticed it before.
"Much bigger than it looks," the boy replied. "You can easily get lost." Then added, with the first touch of awe about him, "It has no centre."
"That's the worst kind," said his companion shivering slightly. "Like a pond that has no bottom."
Tim nodded. His face had grown a trifle paler. He showed no immediate anxiety to make the first advance, reserving that privilege for his comrade. A breath of wind stole out and set the dry leaves rustling.
"We must look out," he said at length. "There'll be a sign."
Uncle Felix listened attentively to every word. The boy had moved up closer to him. "And if anything happens one of us must climb a tree and signal. You've got the clean handkerchief. You see, it's at the centre that it gets rather nasty--because anybody who gets there simply disappears and is never heard of again. That's why there's no centre at all really. It's a terrible rescue we've got to do."
The adventure fulfilled the desire of his heart, for, since there was no centre, the search would last for ever.
"Keep a sharp look-out for the sign," replied the man, feeling a small hand steal into his own. "We'd better go in before it gets any darker."
"Oh, that's nothing," was the whispered comment. "The great thing is not to lose our way. Just follow me!"
They then went into this wood without a centre, without a middle, without a heart. Into this heartless wood they moved stealthily, Uncle Felix singing under his breath to keep his courage up:
"A wood is a mysterious place, It never looks you in the face, But stares ''behind'' you all the time. Your safest plan is just to--climb! For, otherwise you lose your way, The week, the month, the time of day; It turns you round, it makes you blind, And in the end you lose your mind! Avoid the centre, If you enter! "It grows upon you--grows immense, Its peace is ''not'' indifference, It sees you--and it takes offence, It knows you're interfering. Its sleepliness is all pretence, With trunks and twigs and foliage dense It's watching you, alert, intense, It's furious; it's peering. "Upon the darkening paths below, Whichever way you try to go You'll meet with strange resistance. So climb a tree and wave your hand, The birds will see and understand, And ''may'' bring you assistance. Avoid the centre, If you enter, For once you're there You--disappear! Smothered by depth and distance!"
Tim listened without a sign of interest. Every one has his peculiarity, he supposed, and, provided his companion did not dance as well as sing, it was all right. The noise was unnecessary, perhaps, still--the sound of a human voice was not without its charm. The house was a very long way off; the gardeners never came this way. A wood was a mysterious place! "Is that all?" he asked--but whether glad or sorry, no man could possibly have told.
"For the present," came the reply, and the sound of both their voices fell a little dead, muffled by the density of the undergrowth. "Are we going right?"
"There'll be a sign," Tim explained again. And the way he said it, the air of positive belief in tone and manner, stung the man's consciousness with a thrill of genuine adventure. It began to creep over him. He kept near to the comforting presence of the boy, aware in quite a novel way of the Presence of the Wood. This very ordinary wood, without claim to particular notice, much less to a notice-board, changed his normal feelings by arresting their customary flow. An unusual sensation replaced what he meant to feel, expected to feel. He was aware of strangeness. He felt included in the purpose of a crowd of growing trees. "But it's just a common little wood," he assured himself, realising as he said it that both adjectives were wrong. For nothing left to itself is ever common, and as for "little"--well, it had suddenly become enormous.
Outside, in what was called the big world, things were going on with frantic hurry and change, but in here the leisured calm was huge, gigantic, so much so that the other dwindled into a kind of lost remoteness. "Smothered by depth and distance," he could almost forget it altogether. Out there nations were at war, republics fighting, empires tottering to ruin; great-hearted ladies were burning furniture and stabbing lovely pictures (not their own) to prove themselves intelligent enough to vote; and gallant gentlemen were flying across the Alps and hunting for the top and bottom of the earth instead of hurrying to help them. All manner of tremendous things were happening at a frightful pace--while this unnoticed wood just stood and grew, watching the sun and stars and listening to the brushing winds. Its unadvertised foliage concealed a busy universe of multitudinous, secret life.
How still the trees were--far more imposing than in a storm! Still, quiet things are much more impressive than things that draw attention to themselves by making a noise. They are more articulate. The strength of all these trees emerged in their silence. Their steadiness might easily wear one down.
And now, into its quiet presence, a man and a boy from that distressful outer world had entered. They moved with effort and difficulty into its untrodden depths. Uninvited and unasked, they sought its hidden and invisible centre, the mysterious heart of it which the younger of the adventurers could only describe by saying that "It isn't there, because when you get there, you disappear!" Two ways of expressing the same thing, of course! Moreover, entering involved getting out again. Escape and Rescue--the Wood always in opposition--took possession of the man's slow mind....
It was already thick about them, and the trees stood very still. The branches drooped, motionless in the warm evening air. The twigs pointed. Each leaf had an eye, but a hidden, lidless eye. The saplings saw them, but the heavier trunks observed them. It was known in what direction they were going, the direction, however, being chosen and insisted on by the Wood. Their very steps were counted. The whole business of the trees was suspended while they passed. They were being watched. And the stillness was so deep that it forced them, too, to make as little noise as possible. They moved with the utmost caution, pretending that a snapping twig might betray their presence, yet knowing quite well that each detail of their blundering advance was marked down with the accuracy of an instantaneous photograph. Tim, usually in advance, looked round from time to time, with a finger on his lips; and though he himself made far more noise than his companion, he stared with reproach when the latter snapped a stick or let a leafy branch swish through the air too loudly.
"Oh, hush!" he whispered. "Please do hush!" and the same moment caught his own foot in a root, placed cunningly across the path, and sprawled forward with the noise of an explosion. But he made no reference to the matter. His own noises did no harm apparently. He was perfectly honest about it, not merely putting the blame elsewhere to draw attention from himself. His uncle's size and visibility were co- related in his mind. Being convinced that he moved as stealthily and soundlessly as a Redskin, it followed obviously that his companion didn't.
The dusk had noticeably deepened when at length they reached a little clearing and stood upright, perspiring freely, and both a little flustered. The silence was really extraordinary. It seemed they had entered a private place, a secret chamber where they had no right, and were intruders. The clearing formed a circle, and from the open sky overhead a grey, mysterious light fell softly on the leafy walls. They paused and peered about them.
"Hark! What's that?" asked Tim in a whisper.
"Nothing," replied the other.
"But I heard it," the boy insisted; "something rushing."
"I'm rather out of breath, perhaps."
The boy looked at him reproachfully. His expression suggested "Why are you so noisy and enormous? It's hopeless, really!" But aloud he merely said, "It's got awfully dark all of a sudden."
"It's the wood does that," replied Uncle Felix. "Outside it's only twilight. I think we'd better be getting on."
"We're getting there," observed the boy.
"But we shan't be able to see the sign if this darkness gets worse," said the other apprehensively.
The answer gave him quite a turn. "It's been--ages and ages ago!"
The idea of rescue meanwhile had merged insensibly into escape, but neither remarked upon the change. It was only that the original emotion had spread a bit. Tim and Uncle Felix stood close together in this solemn clearing, waiting, peering about them, listening intently. But Tim had seen the sign; he knew what he was doing all the time; he was in more intimate relations with the Being of the Wood than his great floundering Uncle possibly could be.
"Which way, do you think?" asked the latter anxiously.
There seemed no possible exit from the clearing, no break anywhere in the leafy walls; even the entrance was covered up and hidden. The Wood blocked further advance deliberately.
"We're lost," said Tim bluntly, turning round and round. His eyes opened to their widest. "You've simply taken a wrong turning somewhere."
And before Uncle Felix could expostulate or say a word in self- defence, the inevitable reward of his mistake was upon him.
"You've got the handkerchief!"
Already the boy was looking about him for a suitable tree.
"But you saw the sign, Tim," he began excuses; "and it's your wood; I've never been here before--"
"That one looks the easiest," suggested Tim, pointing to a beech. It had one low branch, but the trunk was smooth and slippery as ice. He pushed aside the foliage with his hands to make an opening towards it. "I'll help you up." Tim spoke as though there was no time to lose.
But help came just then unexpectedly from another quarter--there was a sudden battering sound. Something went past them through the branches with a crashing noise. It was terrific, the way it smashed and clattered overhead, making a clapping rattle that died away into the distance with strange swiftness. They jumped; their hearts stood still a moment. It was so horribly close. But the stillness that followed the uproar was far worse than the noise. It felt as though the Wood had stretched a hand and aimed a crafty blow at them from behind the shield of foliage. A quiver of visible silence ran across the leafy walls. They stood stock still, staring blankly into each other's eyes.
"A wood-pigeon!" whispered Uncle Felix, recovering himself first. "We've been seen!"
A faint smile passed over Tim's startled face. There was no other expression in it. The tension was distressingly acute. One sentence, however, came to the lips of both adventurers. They uttered it under their breath together:
Instinctively they held hands then. Tim stood, rooted to the ground.
"The centre!" They whispered it almost inaudibly. The horror of the spot where people vanished was upon them both. The power of the Wood had worn them down.
"Yes, but don't say it," cried Uncle Felix; "above all, don't say it aloud." And he clapped one hand upon his own mouth, and the other upon the boy's, as Tim came cuddling closer to his comforting expanse of side. "That only wakes it up, and--"
He did not finish the sentence. Instead, his mind began to think tremendously. They were both badly frightened. What was the best thing to be done? At first he thought: "Keep perfectly still, and make no slightest movement; a quiet person is not noticed." But, the next instant, came the truer wisdom: "If anything unusual occurs, go on doing exactly what you were doing before. Hold the atmosphere, as it were." And on this latter inspiration he decided to act at once--
Only to discover that Tim had realised it before him. The boy was pulling at him. "Do come on, Uncle!" he was saying. "We shall go mad with fright if we keep on standing here--we shall be raving lunatics!"
They set off wildly then, plunging helter-skelter into the silent, heartless wood. The trees miraculously opened up a way for them as they dived and stooped and wriggled forward. In which direction they were going neither of them had the least idea, but as neither one nor the other disappeared, it was clear they had not reached the actual centre. They gasped and spluttered, their breath grew shorter, the darkness increased. They came to all sorts of curious places that deceived them; ways opened invitingly, then closed down again and blocked advance; there were clearings that were obviously false, open places that were plainly sham; and a dozen times they came to spots that seemed familiar, but which really they had never seen before. Sense of direction left them, for they continually changed the angle, compelled by the undergrowth to do so. Twigs leaped at them and stung their faces, Tim's cheeks were splashed with mud, Uncle Felix's clean white flannels showed irregular lines of dirty water to his knees. It was altogether a tremendous affair in which rescue and escape were madly mingled with furious attack and terrified retreat. Everything was moving, and in all directions at once. They rushed headlong through the angry Wood. But the Wood itself rushed ever past them. It was roused.
The confusion and bewilderment had got a little more than they could manage, indeed, when--quite marvellously and unexpectedly--the darkness lifted. They saw trees separately instead of in a whirling mass. The trunks stood more apart from one another. There were patches of faint light. More--there was a line of light. It shone, grey and welcome, some dozen yards in front of them.
"Come on!" cried Tim. "Follow me!"
And two minutes later they found themselves outside, torn, worn, and breathless, upon the edge--standing exactly at the place where they had entered three-quarters of an hour before. They had made an enormous circle. Panting and half collapsed, they stood side by side in an exhausted heap.
"We're out," said Tim, with immense relief. Profoundly satisfied with himself, he looked round at his bedraggled Uncle. It was plain that he had rescued some one from "an awful-anorrible death."
"At last!" replied the other gratefully, aware that he was the rescued one. "But only just in time!"
And they moved away in the deepening dusk towards the house, whose welcome lights shone across the intervening hayfield.