He looked at his watch a second time, and found that it was later than he had supposed--eleven o'clock. In the act of winding it, however, he paused; something he had forgotten came back to him, and a curious smile broke over his face. He stroked his beard, glanced at the ceiling where the moths still banged and buzzed, then strolled over to the open window, and said "Hm!" He put his head and shoulders out into the air. And then he again said "Hm--m--m"--only longer than the first time. It seemed as if some one answered him. That "Hm" floated off to some one who was listening for it. Perhaps it was an echo that came floating back. Perhaps it wasn't.
But any grown-up person who hesitates in an empty room of a country house at eleven o'clock at night and murmurs "Hm" into the open air is not in an ordinary state of mind. The normal thing is to put the lights out and go up more or less briskly to bed. Uncle Felix was no exception to this rule. His emotions, evidently, were not quite normal.
He listened. The night was very still. The stars, like a shower of golden rain arrested in full flight, paused in a flock and looked at him, but in so deliberate a way that he was conscious of being looked at. It was rather a delightful sensation, he thought; never before had they seemed so intimate, so interested in his life. He was aware that a friendly relationship existed between him and those far, bright, twinkling eyes. "Hm" he murmured softly once again, then heard a sound of wings rush whirring past his face, and next a chattering of birds somewhere overhead among the heavy eaves. "So I'm not the only one awake," he thought, and, for some odd reason, felt rather pleased about it. "Sounds like swallows. I wonder!"
But he saw no movement anywhere; no wind stirred the ivy on the wall, the limes were motionless, the earth asleep. Even the stream beyond the laurel shrubberies ran silently. Dimly he made out the garden lying at attention, the flower-beds like folded hands upon its breast; and further off, the big untidy elms in pools of deeper shadow, their outlines blurred as dreams blur the mind. Yet, though he could detect no slightest movement, he was keenly aware that other things beside the stars were looking at him. The night was full of carefully- screened eyes, all fixed upon him. Framed in the lighted window, he was so easily visible. Night herself, calm and majestic, gazed down upon him through wide-open lids that filled the entire sky. He felt the intentness of her steadfast gaze, and paused. He stopped. It seemed that everything stopped too. So striking, indeed, was the sensation, that he gave expression to it half aloud:
"It's slowing up," he murmured, "stopping!... I do believe! Hm!..."
There was no answer this time, no sign of echo anywhere, but he heard an owl calling its muffled note from the Wood without a Centre.
"It's probably seen me too," he thought, and then it also stopped.
He waited a moment, hoping it would begin again, for he loved the atmosphere of childhood that the sound invoked in him. But the flutey call was not repeated. He drew his head in, closed and bolted the window, fastened the shutters carefully and pulled the curtains over; then he extinguished the lamps, lit his candle, and moved out softly into the hall on his way upstairs. And for the first time in his life he felt that in shutting the window he had not shut the beauty out. The beauty of that watching, listening night had not gone away from him by closing down the shutters. It was not lost. It stopped there. This novel realisation was very queer and very exquisite. Regret did not operate.
And he went along the passage, murmuring "Hm" over and over to himself, for there seemed nothing more adequate that he could think of. The servants had long since gone to bed; he alone was awake in the whole big house. He moved cautiously down the long corridor towards the green baize doors, fully aware that it was not the proper way upstairs. He pushed them, and they swung behind him with a grunt that repeated itself several times, lessening and shortening until it ended in an abrupt puffing sound--and he found himself in a chilly corridor of stone. It was very dark; the candle threw the shadow of his hand down the gaping length in front of him. He went stealthily a few steps further, then stopped opposite a closed door of white. For a moment he held his breath, examining the panels by the light of the raised candle; then turned the knob of brass, threw it wide open, and found himself--in Mrs. Horton's kitchen.
The room was very warm. There was the curious, familiar smell of brooms and aprons, of soap and soda, flavoured with brown sugar, treacle, and a dash of toast and roasted coffee. The ashes still glowed between the bars of the range like a grinning mouth. He put the candle down and looked about him nervously. There was an awful moment when he thought a great six-foot cook, with red visage and bare arms, would rise and strike him with a ladle or a rolling-pin. In the faint light he made out the white deal table in the centre, the rows of pots and pans gleaming in mid-air, dish-cloths hanging on a string to dry, layers of plates of various sizes on the shelves, and jugs suspended by their handles at an angle ready for pouring out. He saw the dresser with its huge, capacious drawers--the only drawers in the world that opened easily, and were deep enough to be of value.
Also--there was a sound, the sound all kitchens have, steadily tapping, clicking, ticking. He turned; he saw the familiar object whence the sound proceeded. At the end of the great silent room, upright like a sentry placed against the wall, stiff and rigid, he saw a figure with a round and pallid face, staring solemnly at him through the gloom. He stiffened and stood rigid too, listening to the tapping noise that issued from its hollow interior of wood and iron. Watching him with remorseless mien, the kitchen clock asked him for the password. "Why not? Why not?" its ticking said distinctly.
The warmth was comforting. He sat down on the white deal table, knowing himself an intruder, but boldly facing the tall monster that guarded the deserted room and challenged him. "You haven't stopped," he answered in his beard. "Why not?" And as he said it, a new expression stole upon its hardened countenance, the challenge melted, the obdurate stare relaxed. The quaint, grandfatherly aspect of benevolence shone over it like a smile; it looked not only kind, but contrite. He saw it as it used to be, ages and ages ago, when he was a boy, sliding down the banisters towards it, or towards its counterpart in the hall. It winked.
The ticking, too, became less aggressive and relentless, less sure of itself, almost as though it were slowing up. There was a plaintive note behind the metallic sharpness. The great kitchen clock also was aware of a conspiracy hatching against Time....
And as he sat and listened to the machinery tapping away the seconds, he heard a similar tapping in his brain that swung gradually into rhythm with the clock. A pendulum in his mind was swinging, each swing a little shorter than the one before; and he remembered that a dozen pendulums in a room, starting at different lengths, ended by swinging all together. "We're slowing up together--stopping!" murmured the two pendulums. "Why not? Why not? Why not?..."
Presently both would cease, yet ceasing would be the beginning, not the end. A state without end or beginning would supervene. Ticking meant time, and time meant becoming; but beyond becoming lay the bottomless sea of being, which was eternity. Maria floated there-- calm, quiet, serene, little globular Maria, circular, the perfect form.
The Kitchen Spell rolled in upon him, smothering mind and senses.
It came at first so gradually he hardly noticed it, but it rose and rose and rose, till at length he sat dipped to the eyes in it, and then finally his eyes went under too. He was immersed, submerged. The parochial vanished; he swam in the universal. He felt drowsy, soothed, and very happy; his heart beat differently. Consciousness ran fluttering along the edge of something hard that hitherto had seemed an unsurpassable barrier. The barrier melted and let him through.
He rubbed his eyes and started. "That's the clock in Mrs. Horton's kitchen," he tried to say, but the words had an empty and ridiculous sound, as if there was no meaning in them. They flew about him in the air like little butterflies trying to settle. They settled on one meaning, only to flit elsewhere the next minute and settle on another meaning. They could mean anything and everything. They did mean everything. They meant one thing. Finally they settled back into his heart. And their meaning caught him by the throat in a most delicious way. The air was full of tiny fluttering wings; he heard pattering feet and little voices; hair tied with coloured ribbons brushed his cheeks; and laughing, mischievous eyes like stars floated loose about the ceiling. The Kitchen Spell grew mighty--irresistible... rising over him out of a timeless Long Ago.
From the direction of the ghostly towel-horse it seemed to come. But beyond the towel-horse was the window, and beyond the window lay the open fields, and beyond the fields lay miles and miles of country asleep beneath the stars; and this country stretched without a break right up to the lonely wolds of distant Yorkshire where an old grey house contained another kitchen, silent and deserted in the night. All the empty kitchens of England were at this moment in league together, but this old Yorkshire kitchen was the parent of them all--and thence the Spell first issued. It was his own childhood kitchen.
And Uncle Felix travelled backwards against the machinery of Time that cheats the majority so easily with its convention of moving hands and ticking voice and bullying, staring visage. He slid swiftly down the long banister-descent of years and reached in a flash that old sombre Yorkshire kitchen, and stood, four-foot nothing, face smudged and fingers sticky, beside the big deal table with the dying embers in the grate upon his right. His heart was beating. He could just reach the juicy cake without standing on a chair. He ate the very slice that he had eaten forty years ago. It was possible to have your cake and eat it too!...
He gulped it down and sucked the five fingers of each hand in turn-- then turned to attack the staring monster that had tried to make him believe it was impossible. He crossed the stone floor on tiptoe, but with challenge in his heart, looked straight into its humbugging big face, opened its carefully buttoned jacket--and took off the weights.
"Hm!" he murmured, with complacent satisfaction that included victory, "I've stopped you!"
There was a curious, long-drawn sound as the machinery ran down; the chains quivered, then hung motionless. There was disaster in the sound, but laughter too--the laughter of the culprit caught in the act, unmasked, exposed at last. "But I've had a good time these last hundred years," he seemed to hear, with the obvious answer this insolence suggested: "Caught! You're It!"--in a tone that was not wholly unlike Maria's.
He turned and left the kitchen as stealthily as he had entered it. He went along the cold stone corridor, through the green baize doors, and so up the softly carpeted stairs to his bedroom. He undressed and rolled solemnly between the sheets. He sighed deeply, but he did not move again. He fell instantly into the right position for sleep.
But while he slept, the timeless night brought up its mystery. Moored outside against the walls an Extra Day lay swinging from the stars. The waves of Time washed past its sides, yet could not move it. The wind was in the rigging; it lay at anchor, filling the sky with a beauty of eternity. And above the old Mill House the darkness, led by the birds, flowed on to meet the quivering Dawn.