Consciousness was first--unconsciousness; the biggest changes are unconscious before they are conscious. They have been long preparing. They fall with a clap; and people call them sudden and exclaim, "How strange!" But it is only the discovery and recognition that are sudden. It all has happened already long ago--happened before. The faint sense of familiarity betrays it. It is there the strangeness lies.
And it was this delicate fragrance of an uncommunicable strangeness that floated in the air when Uncle Felix and the children came down to breakfast that Sunday morning and heard the sound of bells in the wind across the fields. They came down punctually for a wonder, too; Maria, last but not actually late, brought the alarum clock with her. "It's going," she stated quietly, and handed it to her brother.
Tim took it without a word, looked at it, shook it, listened to its ticking against his ear, then set it on the mantelpiece where it belonged. He seemed pleased to have it in his possession again, yet something puzzled him. An expression of wonder flitted across his face; the eyes turned upwards; he frowned; there was an effort in him --to remember something. He turned to Maria who was already deep in porridge.
"Did you wind it up?" he asked. "I thought it'd stopped--last night."
"It's going," she said, thinking of her porridge chiefly.
"It wasn't, though," insisted Tim. He reflected a moment, evidently perplexed. "I wound it and forgot," he added to himself, "or else it wound itself." He went to his place and began his breakfast.
"Wound itself," mentioned Maria, and then the subject dropped.
It was Sunday morning, and everybody was dressed in Sunday things. The excitement of the evening before, the promise of an Extra Day, the detailed preparation--all this had disappeared. Being of yesterday, it was no longer vital: certainly there was no necessity to consult it. They looked forward rather than backward; the mystery of life lay ever just in front of them, what lay behind was already done with. They had lived it, lived it out. It was in their possession therefore, part of themselves.
No one of the four devouring porridge round that breakfast table had forgotten about the promise, any more than they had forgotten giving up their time-pieces, the conversation, and all the rest of it. It was not forgetfulness. It was not loss of interest either that led no one to refer to it, least of all, to clamour for fulfilment. It was quite another motive that kept them silent, and that, even when Uncle Felix handed back the watches, prevented them saying anything more than "Thank you, Uncle," then hanging them on to belt and waistcoat.
Expectation--an eternal Expectation--was established in them.
But there was also this sense of elusive strangeness in their hearts, the certainty that an enormous interval had passed, almost the conviction that an Extra Day--had been. Somewhere, somehow, they had experienced its fulfilment: It was now inside them. A strange familiarity hung about this Sunday morning.
Yet there were still a million things to do and endless time in which to do them. Expectation was stronger than ever before, but the sense of Interval brought a happy feeling of completion too. There was no hurry. They felt something of what Maria felt, living at the centre of a circle that turned unceasingly but never finished. It was Maria's particular adventure, and Maria had shared it with them. Wonder and expectation made them feel more than usually--alive.
They talked normally while eating and drinking. If things were said that skirted a mystery, no one tried to find its name or label it. It was just hiding. Let it hide! To find it was to lose the mystery, and life without mystery was unthinkable.
"That's bells," said Tim, "it's church this morning"; but he did not sigh, there was no sinking of the heart, it seemed. He spoke as if it was an adventure he looked forward to. "I've decided what I'm going to be," he went on--"an engineer, but a mining engineer. Finding things in the earth, valuable things like coal and gold." Why he said it was not clear exactly; it had no apparent connection with church bells. He just thought of life as a whole, perhaps, and what he meant to do with it. He looked forward across the years to come. He distinctly knew himself alive.
"I shall put sixpence in, I think," observed Judy presently. "It's a lot. And I shall wear my blue hat with the pheasant's feather--"
"Pheasants feather," repeated Tim in a single word, amused as usual by a curious sound.
"And a wild rose here," she added, pointing to the place on her dress, though nobody felt interested enough to look. Her remark about the Collection was more vital than the other. Collections in church were made, they believed, to "feed the clergyman." And Sunday was the clergyman's day.
"I've got sixpence," Tim hastened to remind everybody. "I've got a threepenny bit as well."
"It's sixpence to-day, I think," Judy decided almost tenderly. Behind her thought was a caring, generous impulse; the motherly instinct sent her mind to the collection for the clergyman's comfort. But romance stirred too; she wanted to look her best. Her two main tendencies seemed very much alive this Sunday morning. The hat and the sixpence-- both were real.
Maria, as usual, had little or nothing to say. She spoke once, however.
"I dreamed," she informed the company. She did not look up, keeping her head bent over the bread and marmalade upon her plate; her blue eyes rolled round the table once, then dropped again. No one asked for details of her dream, she had no desire to supply them. She announced her position comfortably, as it were, set herself right with life, and quietly went on with the business of the moment, which was bread and marmalade.
Uncle Felix looked up, however, as she said it.
"That reminds me," he observed, "I dreamed too. I dreamed that you dreamed."
"Yes," Maria replied briefly, moving her eyes in his direction, but not her head. No other remarks were made; the statement was too muddled to stimulate interest particularly.
When breakfast was over they went to the open window and threw crumbs to a robin that was obviously expecting to be fed. They all leaned out with their heads in the sunlight, watching it. It hopped from a twig on to the ground, its body already tight to bursting. It looked like a toy balloon--as though it wore a dress of red elastic stretched to such a point that the merest pinprick must explode it with a sharp report; and it hopped as though springs were in its feet. The earth, like a taut sheet, made it bounce. Tim aimed missiles of bread rolled into pellets at its head, but never hit it.
"It's a lovely morning," remarked Uncle Felix, looking across the garden to the yellow fields beyond. "A perfect day. We'll walk to church." He brushed the breakfast crumbs from the waistcoat of his neat blue suit, lit his pipe, sniffed the air contentedly, and had an air generally of a sailor on shore-leave.
Judy sprang up. "There's button-holes to get," she mentioned, and flew out of the room like a flash of sunlight or a bird.
Tim raced after her. "Wallflower for me!" he cried, while Judy's answer floated back from halfway down the passage: "I'll have a wild rosebud--it'll match my hat!"
Uncle Felix and Maria were left alone, gazing out of the window side by side upon the "lovely morning." She was just high enough to see above the edge, and her two hands lay sprawled, fingers extended, upon the shining sill.
"Yes," she mentioned quietly, as to herself, "and I'll have a forget- me-not." Her eyes rolled up sideways, meeting those of her uncle as he turned and noticed her.
For quite suddenly he "noticed" her, became aware that she was there, discovered her. He stared a moment, as though reflecting. That "yes" had a queer, familiar sound about it, surely.
"Maria," he said, "I believe you will. Everything comes to you of its own accord somehow."
"And there's another thing. You've got a secret--haven't you?" It occurred to him that Maria was rather wonderful.
"I expect so," she answered, after a moment's pause. She looked wiser than an owl, he thought.
"What is it? What is your secret? Can't you tell me?"
For it came over him that Maria, for all her inactivity, was really more truly alive than both the other children put together. Their tireless, incessant energy was nothing compared to some deep well of life Maria's outer calm concealed.
He continued to stare at her, reflecting while he did so. Through her globular exterior, standing here beside him, rose this quiet tide whose profound and inexhaustible source was nothing less than the entire universe. Finding himself thus alone with her, he knew his imagination singularly stirred. The full stream of this imagination-- usually turned into sea--and history-stories--poured now into Maria. It was the way she had delivered herself of the monosyllable, "Yes," that first enflamed him.
The child, obviously, was quite innocent that her uncle's imagination clothed her in such wonder; she was entirely unselfconscious, and remained so; but, as she kept silent as well, there was nothing to interrupt the natural process of his thought. "You're a circle, a mystery, a globe of wonder," his mind addressed her, gazing downwards half in play and half in earnest. "You're always going it. Though you seem so still--you're turning furiously like a little planet!"
For this abruptly struck him, flashing the symbol into his imagination--that Maria lived so close to the universe that her life and movements were akin to those of the heavenly bodies. He saw her as an epitome of the earth. Fat, peaceful, little, calm, rotund Maria--a miniature earth! She had no call to hurry nor rush after things. Like the earth she contained all things within herself. It made him smile; he smiled as he looked down into her face; she smiled as she rolled her blue eyes upwards into his.
Yet her calm was not the calm of sloth. In that mysterious centre where she lived he felt her as tremendously alive.
For the earth, apparently so calm and steady, knows no pause. She moves round her axis without stopping. She rushes with immense rapidity round the sun. Simultaneously with these two movements she combines a third; the sun, carrying her and all his other planets with him, hurries at a prodigious rate through interstellar space, adventuring new regions never seen before. Calm outwardly, and without apparent motion, the earth--at this very moment, as he leaned across the window-sill--was making these three gigantic, endless movements. This peaceful summer morning, like any other peaceful summer morning, she was actually spinning, rushing, rising. And in Maria--it came to him--in Maria, outwardly so calm, something also--spun--rushed--rose! This amazing life that brimmed her full to bursting, even as it brimmed the robin and the earth, overflowed and dripped out of her very eyes in shining blue. There was no need for her to dash about. She, like the earth, was--carried.
All this flashed upon him while the alarum clock ticked off a second merely, for imagination telescopes time, of course, and knows things all at once.
"What is your secret, Maria?" he asked again. "I believe it's about that Extra Day we meant to steal. Is that it?"
Her eyes gazed straight before her across the lawn where Tim and Judy were now visible, searching busily for button-holes.
"It was to be your particular adventure, wasn't it?"
"Yes," she told him at length, without changing her expression of serene contentment.
His imagination warned him he was getting "at her" gradually. He possibly read into her a thousand things that were not there. Certainly, Maria was not aware of them. But, though Uncle Felix knew this perfectly well, he persisted, hoping for a sudden disclosure that would justify his search--even expecting it, perhaps.
"And what sort of a day would it be, then, this Extra Day of yours?" he went on. "It would never end, of course, for one thing, would it? There'd be no time?"
She nodded quietly by way of effortless agreement and consent.
"So that, in a sense, you'd have it always," he said, aware of distinct encouragement. He felt obliged to help her. This was her peculiar power--that everything was done for her while she seemed to do it all herself. "You would live it over and over again, for ever and ever. That's your secret, I expect, isn't it?"
"I expect so," the child answered quietly. "I've always got it." She moved in a little closer to his side as she said it. The disclosure he expected seemed so near now that excitement grew in him. Across the lawn he saw the hurrying figures of Tim and Judy, racing back with their button-holes. There was no time to lose.
He put his arm about her, tilting her face upwards with one hand to see it plainly. The blue dyes came up with it.
"Then, what kind of a day would you choose, Maria? Tell me--in a whisper."
And then the disclosure came. But it was not whispered. Uncle Felix heard the secret in a very clear, decided voice and in a single word:
At the same moment the others poured into the room; they came like a cataract; it seemed that a dozen children rushed upon them in a torrent. The air was full of voices and flowers suddenly. A smell of the open world came in with them. Button-holes were fastened into everybody, accompanied by a breathless chorus of where and how they had been found, who got the best, who got it first, and all the rest. From the End of the World they came, apparently, but while Tim had climbed the wall for his, Judy picked hers because a bird had lowered the branch into her very hand. For Uncle Felix she brought a spray of lilac; Tim brought a bit of mignonette. Eventually he had to wear them both.
"And here's a forget-me-not, Maria," cried Judy, stooping down to poke it into her sister's blue and white striped dress. "That suits you best, I thought."
"Thank you," said Maria, moving her eyes the smallest possible fraction of an inch.
And they scampered out of the room again, Maria ambling slowly in the rear, to prepare for church. There were prayer-books and things to find, threepenny bits and sixpences for the collection. There was simply heaps to do, as they expressed it, and not a moment to lose either. Uncle Felix listened to the sound of voices and footsteps as they flew down the passage, dying rapidly away into the distance, and finally ceasing altogether. He puffed his pipe a little longer before going to his room upon a similar errand. He watched the smoke curl up and melt into the outer air; he felt the pleasant sunshine warm upon his face; he smelt the perfume rising from his enormous button-hole. But of these things he did not think. He thought of what Maria said. The way she uttered that single word remained with him: "Birthday."
He had half divined her secret. For a birthday was the opening of life; it was the beginning. Maria had "got it always." All days for her were birthdays, Extra Days.
And while they walked along the lane to church he still was thinking about it.
The conversation proved that he was absent-minded rather; yet not that his mind was absent so much as intent upon other things. The children found him heavy; he seemed ponderous to them. And pondering he certainly was--pondering the meaning of existence. The children, he realised, were such brilliant comments upon existence; their unconscious way of living, all they said and thought and did, but especially all they believed, offered such bright interpretations, such simple solutions of a million things. They lived so really, were so really--alive. They never explained, they just accepted; and the explanations given they placed at their true value, still asking, "Yes, but what is the meaning of all that?" So close to Reality they lived--before reason, cloaked and confused it with a million complex explanations. That "Yes" and "Birthday" of Maria's were illuminating examples.
Of this he was vaguely pondering as they walked along the sunny lanes to church, and his conversation proved it. For conversation with children meant answering endless questions merely, and the questions were prompted by anything and everything they saw. Reality poked them; they gave expression to it by a question. And nothing real was trivial; the most careless detail was important, all being but a single question--an affirmation: "We're alive, so everything else is too!"
His conversation proved that he had almost reached that state of time- less reality in which they lived. He felt it this morning very vividly. It seemed familiar somehow--like his own childhood recovered almost.
He answered them accordingly. It didn't matter what was said, because all the words in the world said one thing only. Whether the words, therefore, made sense or not, was of no importance.
"Have you ever seen a rabbit come out of its hole?" asked Tim. "They do that for safety," he added; and if there was confusion in his language, there was none in his thought. "Then no one can tell which its hole is, you see. Because each rabbit--"
He broke off and glanced expectantly at his uncle. At junctures like this his uncle usually cleared things up with an easy word or two. He would not fail him now.
"Come out, no," was the reply; "no one ever sees a rabbit come out. But I've seen them go in; and that's the same thing in the end. They go down the wrong hole on purpose. They know right enough. Rabbits are rabbits."
"Of course," exclaimed Judy, "everything's itself and knows its own sign--er--business, I mean."
"Yes," Maria repeated.
And before anything further could be mentioned--if there was anything to mention--they arrived at the porch of the church, passed under it without speaking, walked up the aisle and took their places in the family pew, Maria occupying the comfortable corner against the inner wall.