They went into the house as though wafted--thus does a shining heart deduct bodily weight from life's obstructions; they had their tea; after tea they played games as usual, quite ordinary games; and in due course they went to bed. That is, they followed a customary routine, feeling it was safer. To do anything unusual just then might attract attention to their infinite Discovery and so disturb its delicate equilibrium. Its balance was precarious. Once an Authority got wind of anything, the Extra Day might change its course and sail into another port. Aunt Emily, even from a distance...! In any case, they behaved with this intuitive sagacity which obviated every risk--by taking none.
Yet everything was different. Behind the routine lay the potent emphasis of some strange new factor, as though a lofty hope, a brave ideal, had the power of transmuting common duties into gold and crystal. This new factor pushed softly behind each little customary act, urging what was commonplace over the edge into the marvellous. The habitual became wonderful. It felt like Christmas Eve, like the last night of the Old Year, like the day before the family moved for the holidays to the sea--only more so. Even To-morrow-will-be-Sunday had entirely disappeared. A thrill of mysterious anticipation gilded everything with wonder and beauty that were impossible, yet true. Some Day, the Thing that Nobody could Understand--Somebody--was coming at last.
Uncle Felix was in an extraordinary state; his acts were normal enough, but his speech betrayed him shamefully; they had to warn him more than once about it. He seemed unable to talk ordinary prose, saying that "Everything ought to rhyme, At such a time," and, instead of walking like other people, his feet tried to keep in time with his language. "But you don't understand," he replied to Tim's grave warnings; "you don't understand what a gigantic discovery it is. Why, the whole world will thank us! The whole world will get its breath back! The one thing it's always dreaded more than anything else--being too late--will come to an end! We ought to dance and sing--"
"Oh, please hush!" warned Judy. "Aunt Emily, you know--" Even at Tunbridge Wells Aunt Emily might hear and send a telegram with No in it.
"Has it lost its breath?" Tim asked, however. But, though it was in the middle of tea, Uncle Felix could not restrain himself, and burst into one of his ridiculous singing fits, instead of answering in a whisper as he should have done. "Burst" described it accurately. And his feet kept time beneath the table. It was the proper place for Time, he explained.
The clocks are stopped, the calendars are wrong, Time holds gigantic finger-hands Before his guilty face. Listen a moment! I can hear the song That no one understands--
"It's the blue dragon-fly," interrupted Tim, remembering the story of long ago.
"It's the Night-Wind--out by day," cried Judy.
"It's something anyhow," decided Judy, rather impressed by her uncle's fit of bursting.
And, somehow, Dawn was the password and Tomorrow the key. No one knew more than that. It had to do with Time, for Uncle Felix had taken the stopped clock to his room and hidden it there lest somebody like Jackman or Thompson should wind it up. Later, however, he gave it for safer keeping to Maria, because she moved so rarely and did so little that was unnecessary that she seemed the best repository of all. Also, this was her particular adventure, and what risk there was belonged properly to her. But beyond this they knew nothing, and they didn't want to know. In the immediate future, just before the gateway of To- morrow's dawn, a great gap lay waiting, a gap they had discovered alone of all the world. The scientists had made a mistake, the Government had been afraid to deal with it, the rest of the world lay in ignorance of its very existence even. It satisfied all the conditions of real adventure, since it was unique, impossible, and had never happened to any one before. They, with Uncle Felix, had discovered it. It belonged to them entirely--the most marvellous secret that anybody could possibly imagine. Maria, they took for granted, would share it with them. A hole in Time lay waiting to receive them. A Day Will Come at last was actually coming.
"We'd better pack up," said Judy after tea. She said it calmly, but the voice had a whisper of intense expectancy in it.
"Pack up nothing," Uncle Felix reproved her quickly. "The important thing is--don't wind up. Just go on as usual. It will be best," he added significantly, "if you all hand over your timepieces to me at once." And, without a word, they recognised his wisdom and put their treasures into his waistcoat pockets--watches of silver, tin, and gunmetal. His use of the strange word "timepieces" was convincing. The unusual was in the air.
"There's Thompson's and Jackman's and Mrs. Horton's," Judy reminded him, her eyes shining like polished door-knobs.
"Too wrong to matter," decided Uncle Felix. "They're always slow or fast."
"Then there's the kitchen clock," Tim mentioned; "the grandfather thing."
Uncle Felix reflected a moment. His reply was satisfactory and conclusive:
"I'll go down to-night," he explained in a low voice, "when the servants are in bed. I'll take the weights off."
Judy and Tim appreciated the seriousness of the occasion more than ever.
"Into Mrs. Horton's kitchen?" they whispered.
"Into Mrs. Horton's kitchen," he agreed, beneath his breath.
Maria, meanwhile, said nothing. Her eyes kept open very wide, but no audible remark got past her lips. She paid no attention to the singing nor to the whispered conversation; she ate an enormous tea, finishing up all the cakes that the others neglected in their excitement and preoccupation; but she appeared as calm and unconcerned as the tea- cosy that concealed the heated, stimulating teapot beneath it. She looked more circular and globular than ever. Even the knowledge that this was the eve of her own particular adventure did not rouse her. Her expression seemed to say, "I never have believed in Time; at the centre where I live, clocks and calendars are not recognised"; and later, when Judy blew the candle out and asked as usual, "Are you all right, Maria?" her reply came floating across the darkened room without the smallest alteration in tone or accent: "I'm alright." The stopped alarum-clock was underneath her pillow; Uncle Felix had tucked them up, each in turn; everything was all right. She fell asleep, the others fell asleep, Time also fell asleep.
And above the Old Mill House that warm June night the darkness kept the secret faithfully, yet offered little signs and hints to those who did not sleep too heavily. The feeling that something or somebody was coming hung in the very air; there was a gentle haze beneath the stars; and a breeze that passed softly through the lime trees dropped semi-articulate warnings. There were curious, faint echoes flying between the walls and the Wood without a Centre; the daisies heard them and opened half an eyelid; the Night-Wind whispered and sighed as it bore them to and fro. Maria's question entered the dream of the entire garden: "Why not? Why not? Why not?"
An owl in the barn beyond the stables heard the call and took it up, and told it to some swallows fast asleep below the eaves, who woke with sudden chattering and mentioned it to a robin in the laurel shrubberies below. The robin pretended not to be at all surprised, but felt it a duty to inform a coot who lived a quarter of a mile away among the reeds of the lower pond. When it returned from its five- minute flight, the swallows had gone to sleep again, and only the owl went on hooting softly through the summer darkness. "It really needn't go on so long about it," thought the robin, then fell asleep again with its head between exactly the same feathers as before. But the news had been distributed; the garden was aware; the birds, as natural guardians of the dawn, had delivered the message as their duty was. "Why not? Why not?" hummed all night long through the dreams of the Mill House garden. Weeden turned in his sleep and sighed with happiness.
Nothing could now prevent it; a day was coming at last, an extra, unused, unrecorded day. The immemorial expectancy of childhood, the universal anticipation, the promise that something or somebody was coming--all this would be fulfilled. This promise is really but the prelude to creation. God felt it before the world appeared. And children have stolen it from heaven. Conceived of wonder, born of hope, and realised by belief, it is the prerogative of all properly- beating hearts. Everything living feels it, and--everything lives. The Postman; the Figure coming down the road; the Visitor on the pathway; the Knock upon the door; even the Stranger in the teacup--all are embodiments of this exquisite scrap of heaven, divine expectancy. It may be Christmas, it may be only To-morrow, but equally it may be the End of the World. Something is coming--into the heart--something satisfying. It is the eternal beginning. It is the--dawn.
Long after the children had retired to bed Uncle Felix sat up alone in the big house thinking. He made himself cosy in the library, meaning to finish a chapter of the historical novel he had sadly neglected these past days, and he set himself to the work with a will. But, try as he would, the story would not run; he fixed his mind upon the scene in vain; he concentrated hard, visualised the place and characters as his habit was, reconstructed the incidents and conversation exactly as though he had seen them happen and remembered them--but the imagination that should have given them life failed to operate. It became a mere effort of invention. The characters would not talk of their own accord; the incidents did not flow in a stream as when he worked successfully; life was not in them. He began again, wrote and rewrote, but failed to seize the atmosphere of reality that alone could make them interesting. Interest--he suddenly realised it--had vanished. He felt no interest in the stupid chapter. He tore it up-- and knew it was the right thing to do, because he heard the characters laughing.
"I'm not in the mood," he reflected. "It's artificial. William Smith of Peckham would skip this chapter. There's something bigger in me. I wonder...!"
He lit his pipe and sat by the open window, watching the stars and sniffing the scented summer night. He let his thoughts go wandering as they would, and the moment he relaxed attention a sense of pleasant relief stole over him. He discovered how great the effort had been. He also discovered the reason. It offered itself in a flash to his mind that was no longer blocked by the effort and therefore unreceptive.
"A man can't live adventure and write it too," he, realised sharply. "He writes what he would like to live. I'm living adventure. The desire to live it vicariously by writing it has left me. Of course!"
It was a sweet and rich discovery--that the adventures of the last ten days had been so real and meant so much to him. No man of action, leading a deep, full life of actual experience, felt the need of scribbling, painting, fiddling. "Glorious, by Jove!" he exclaimed between great puffs of smoke. "I've struck a fact!" He had been so busily creating these last days that he had lost the yearning to describe merely what others did. The children had caught him body and soul in their eternal world of wonder and belief. Judy and Tim had taught him this.
Yet, somehow, it was the inactive, calm Maria who loomed up in his thoughts as the principal enchantress. Maria's apparent inactivity was a blind; she did not do very much in the sense of rushing helter- skelter after desirable things, but she obtained them nevertheless. She got in their way so that they ran into her--then she claimed them. She knew beforehand, as it were, the way they would take. She was always there when anything worth happening was about. And though she spoke so little--during a general conversation, for instance--she said so much. At the end of all the talk, it was always Maria who had said the important thing. Her "why" and "why not" that very afternoon were all that he remembered of the intricate and long discussion. It left the odd impression on his mind that talk, all the world over, said one thing only; that the millions of talkers on the teeming earth, eagerly chattering in many languages, said one and the same thing only. There was only one thing to be said.
That is--they were all trying to say it. Maria had said it....
A whirring moth flew busily past the open window and vanished into the night. He thought of his own books; for writers, painters, preachers, musicians, these were trying to say it too. "If I could describe that moth exactly," he murmured to himself, "give the sensation of its flight, its unconscious attraction to the light, its plunge back into the darkness, its precise purpose in the universe, its marvellous aim and balance--its life, I could--er--"
The thought broke off with a jagged end. With a leap then it went on again:
"Touch reality," and he heard his own voice saying it. He had uttered it aloud. The sound had an odd effect upon him. He realised the uselessness of words. No words touched reality. To be known, reality had to be lived, experienced. Maria managed this in some extraordinary way. She had reality.... Time did not humbug her. Nor did space.... Goodness!
The moth whirred into the room, softly banging itself against the ceiling, and through the smoke from his pipe he saw that a dozen more were doing the same thing with tireless energy. They felt or saw the light; all obeyed the one driving desire to get closer into it. He saw millions and millions of people, the whole world over, rushing about on two legs and behaving similarly. How they did run about and fuss, to be sure! What was it all about? What were they after? People had to earn their living, of course, but it seemed more than that, for all were after something, and the faster they went the better pleased they were. Apparently they thought speed was of chief importance--as though speed killed Time. They banged themselves into obstacles everywhere; they screamed and disagreed, and accused each other of lying and being blind, but the thing they were after either hid itself remarkably well, or went at incredible speed, for no one ever came up with it or found it. Time invariably blocked them. Only one or two--Maria sort of people--sat still and waited....
He watched them all and wondered. One rushed up to an office in a train, while another built the train he rushed in; one wore black and preached a sermon, another wore blue and guarded a street, a third wore red and killed, a fourth wore very little and danced; all in the end were nothing and--disappeared. Some lived in a room and read hundreds of books; another wrote them; one spent his days examining the stars through a telescope, another hurried off to find the Poles; hundreds were digging into the ground, ferreting in the air or under the water. A large number fed animals, then killed and cooked them when they had been fed enough. Hens laid eggs and eggs produced hens that laid more eggs. There were always thousands hurrying along the roads, then coming back again. The millions of living beings were everywhere extremely busy after something, yet hardly any two of them agreed exactly what it was they sought. There were sects, societies, religions by the score, each one cocksure it knew and had found Reality, yet proving by the continuous busy searching that it had not found it. Yet all, oddly enough, fitted in together fairly well, as in a gigantic Dance, though obviously none knew exactly what the tune was, nor who played it. Would they never know? Would all die before they found it? Were they all after the same thing, or after a lot of different things? And why, in the name of goodness, couldn't they all agree about it? Wasn't it, perhaps, that they looked in different ways--all for the same thing? Surely the world had existed long enough for that to be settled finally--Reality! Time prevented always....
A moth fell with a soft and disconcerting plop upon the top of his head, cannonaded thence against the window-sill, and shot out into the night again. He came back with a start to his reality: that he had promised the children an Extra Day, that for twenty-four hours, in spite of the paradox, Time should cease its driving hurry--and that, for the moment at any rate, he was very sleepy and must go upstairs to bed.
He rose, shook himself free of the curious reverie with a mighty yawn, and looked at the gold watch from his waistcoat pocket. Out came a number of other timepieces with it! And it was then that the personality of Maria entered the room, and stood beside him, and said distinctly, "This is my particular adventure, please remember."
And he understood that whatever happened, it would happen according to the gospel of Maria. Getting behind Time meant getting a little nearer to Reality, one stage nearer at any rate. It meant entering the region where she dwelt so serenely. It was her doing, and not his. He realised in a flash that in her quiet way she was responsible and had drawn them in, seduced them. All gravitated to her and into her mysterious circle. Maria claimed them. It was certainly her particular adventure. Only she would share it with them all.