The day was hardly born, and still unsure of itself, when a robin with its tail cocked up stood up alertly on the window-sill of Uncle Felix's bedroom, peeped in through the open sash, and noticed the objects in front of it with a certain deliberation.
These objects were half in shadow, but, unlike those it was most familiar with, they did not move in the breeze that stirred the world outside. The robin had just swung up from a lilac branch below. Its toes were spread to their full extent for balancing purposes. It peeped busily in all directions. Then, suddenly, a big object at the far end of the darkened room moved slowly underneath a mass of white, as Uncle Felix, aware that some one was watching him, rolled over in his bed, opened his sleepy eyes, and stared. At the same moment the robin twitched, and fixed its brilliant glance upon him. It had found the particular object that it sought.
Uncle Felix, somewhat dazed by sleep and dreams, saw the tight, fat body of the bird outlined against the open sky, but thought at first it was an eagle or a turkey, until perspective righted itself, and enabled him to decide that it was a robin only. He saw its scut tail pointing. And, from the attitude of the bird, of its cocked-up tail, the angle of its neck and head, to say nothing of the inquisitive way it peeped sideways at him over the furniture, he realised that it had come in with a definite purpose--a purpose that concerned himself. In a word, it had something to communicate.
"Odd!" he thought drowsily, as he met its piercing eye. "A robin in my room at dawn! I wonder what it's up to?"
Then, remembering vaguely that he expected somebody or something out of the ordinary, he made a peculiar noise that seemed to meet the case: he tried to whistle at it. But his lips, being rather dry, made instead a hissing sound that would have frightened most robins out of the room at once. On this particular bird, however, the effect was just the opposite. It hopped self-consciously on to the dressing- table, fluttered next to the arm-chair, and the same second dropped out of sight behind the end of the four-poster bed. It acted, that is, with decision; it was making distinct advances.
He sat up then in order to see it better, and discovered it perched saucily upon the toe of his evening shoe, looking deliberately into his face as it rose above the bed-clothes.
"Come along," he said, making his voice as soft as possible, "and tell me what you want."
His expression tried to convey that he was harmless, and he smiled to counteract the effect of his bristling hair which stuck out at right angles as it only can stick out on waking. He felt complimented by the visit of the bird, and did not wish to frighten it. But the Robin, accustomed to seeing scarecrows in the dawn, showed not the slightest fear; on the contrary, it showed interest and a simple, innocent affection too. It fluttered up on to the rail between the bed-posts, almost within reach of his stretched-out hand; its flexible toes clutched the bar as though it were a twig; it moved first two inches to the right, then two inches to the left again, then held steady. It next flicked its tail, and cocked its small head sideways, as if about to deliver a speech or message it had learned by heart; stared intently into the bearded human visage close in front of it; abruptly opened its wings; whirred them with a rapidity that made a sound like a shower of peas striking a taut sheet; and then, with a single, exquisitely-chosen curve--vanished through the open window and was gone.
"Well," murmured the confused and astonished man, "if anything means anything, that does. Only, I wonder what it does mean!"
He was a little startled, and he remained in a sitting position for some minutes, staring at the open window, and hoping the robin would return. Somehow he did not think it would, but he hoped it might. The robin, however, made no sign. And, meanwhile, the dawn slipped higher up the sky, showing the groups of trees with greater sharpness. A draught of morning air came in.
"The dawn!" he thought; "how marvellous! Perhaps the robin came to show me that." He sniffed the fresh perfume of dew and leaves and earth that rise for a moment with the early light, then fade away. "Or that!" he added, pausing to enjoy the delicate fragrance. "But for the bird I should have slept, and missed them both. I wonder!"
He wished he were dressed and out upon the lawn; but the bed was enticing, and it was no easy thing to get up and wash and put on eleven separate articles of clothing. What a pity he was not dressed like a bird in one garment only! What a pity he could not wash himself by flying through a rushing shower of sweet rain! By the time his clothes were on, and he had made his way downstairs, and unlocked the big chained doors, all this strange, wild emotion would have evaporated. If only he could have landed with a single curve among the flower-beds, as the robin did! Besides, he would feel hungry, and a worm...!
The warmth of the bed crept upwards towards his eyes; the eyelids dropped of their own accord; his weight sank slowly downwards; the pillow was smooth as cream. He remembered Judy saying once that, if a war came, she would go out and "soothe pillows." A pillow was, indeed, a very soothing thing. His head sank backwards into a mass of feathery sensations like a flock of dreams. He drew a long, deep breath. He began to forget a number of things, and to remember a number of other things. They mingled together, they became indistinguishable. What were they? He could make a selection--choose those he liked best, and leave the others--couldn't he? Why not, indeed? Why not?
One was that the clocks had stopped for twenty-four hours and that an extra, unused day was dawning; another, that To-day was Sunday. He could make his choice. Yet all days, surely, were unused till they came! True; but clocks decreed and regulated their length. This Extra Day, having been overlooked long ago, was beyond the reach of measuring clocks. No clocks had ever ticked it into passing. It could never pass. Only the present passed. The Past, to which this day belonged, remained where it was, endless, beginningless, self- repeating. He chose it without more ado. And the robin had come to mention something about it. Its small round body was full, its head tight packed with what it had to tell. It was bursting with information. But what--?
And then he realised abruptly another thing: It had delivered its message.
The presence of the bird had announced a change of conditions in the room, a change in his heart and brain as well. But how? He was too drowsy to decide quite; yet in some way the robin had brought in with it the dawn of an unusual day, a kind of bird-day, light as a feather, swift as a flashing wing, spontaneous--air, freedom, escape, sweet brilliance, a thing of flowers, winds, and beauty, a thing of innocence and captivating loveliness, a happy, dancing day. He felt a new sort of knowledge pass darting through him, a new point of view, almost a bird's-eye aspect of old familiar things--joy. That neat, sharp beak had pricked his imagination into swifter life. The meaning of the bird's announcement flowed with delicate power all through his drowsy body. It summed itself up in this:--Somebody, Something, long expected, at last was coming....
And then he incontinently fell asleep. He lost consciousness. But, while he lay heavily upon his soothing pillow, the marvellous Dawn slid higher up the sky, and the robin popped up once upon the window- sill again, glanced sideways at him with approval, then flashed away so close above the soaking lawn that the dew-drops quivered as it passed. Apparently, it was satisfied.
At the same moment, in another part of the old house, Tim found his sleep disturbed in a similar fashion; a shrill twittering beneath the eaves mingled with his dreams. He shook a toe and wrinkled up his nose. He woke. His bedroom, being on the top floor, was lighter than those below; there were no trees to cast shadows or obstruct the dawn.
Tim rubbed his eyes, yawned, scratched, then pattered over to the window to see what all the noise was about. In his night-shirt he looked like a skinny bird with folded wings of white, as he leaned forward and stuck his head out into the morning air. Upon the strip of back-lawn below, the swallows, who had been chattering so loudly overhead, stood in an active group. Clutching the cold iron bars, and resting his chin upon the topmost one, he watched them. He had never before seen swallows on the ground like that; he associated them with the upper sky. It was odd to see them standing instead of flying; their behaviour seemed not quite normal; there was commotion of an unusual kind among them. A grey cat, stalking them warily down the stable path, came near yet did not trouble them; they felt no alarm. They strutted about like a lot of black-frocked parsons at a congress; they looked as if they had hands tucked behind their pointed coat- tails. They were talking among themselves--discussing something. And from time to time they shot upward glances at the window just above them--at himself.
"I believe they want me to look at something or other," the boy thought vaguely. It seemed as if he had picked them out of a dream and put them there upon the lawn. He felt dazed and happy; he had been dreaming of curious wild things. Where was he? What had happened? "It feels just like something coming," he decided, "or somebody. Some one's about in the grounds, perhaps...!"
It was very exciting to be awake at such an unearthly hour; the sun was still below the edge of the gigantic earth! A great, slow thrill stole up into his heart. He noticed the streaks of colour in the sky, and felt the chilly wind. "It's sunrise!" he exclaimed, rubbing one naked foot against the other; "that's what it is. And I'm up to see it!"
The thrill merged into a deep, huge sense of wonder that enthralled him. At the same moment the swallows, disturbed by his voice, looked up with one accord, then rose in a single sweep and whirled off into the upper air, wings faintly tinged with gold. They scattered. Tim watched them for a little while, dimly aware that he watched something "perfectly magnificent." His eyes followed one bird after another, caught in a sudden little rapture he could not understand... then turned and saw his bed, flushed with early pink, across the room. With a running jump he landed among the sheets, rolled himself up into a ball, and promptly fell asleep again. It was not yet four o'clock.
Across the landing, meanwhile, Judy, wakened by a brush of feathery wind, was at her window too. She felt very sure of something, although she didn't in the least know what. It was the same thing that Tim and Uncle Felix knew, only they knew they didn't know it, whereas she didn't know she knew it. Her knowledge, therefore, was greater than theirs.
The room was touched with soft grey light; it was to the west, and the night still clung about the furniture. Like a ball in a saucer, Maria lay asleep in bed against the opposite wall, her neutrality to all that was going on absolute as usual. But Judy did not wake her, she preferred to live alone; she knew that she was alive in her night-gown between night and morning, and that was an unusual pleasure she wished to enjoy without interference. For months she had not waked before half-past seven. The excitement of the unfamiliar was in her heart. She had caught the earth asleep--surprised it. For the first time in her life she saw "the Earth." She discovered it.
She knelt on a chair beside the open window, peering out, and as she did so, a strange, wild cry came sounding through the stillness. It was like a bugle-call, but she knew no human lips had made it. She glanced quickly in the direction whence it came--the pond--and the next instant the reeds about the edge parted and the thing that had emitted the curious wild cry emerged plainly into view. It was a pompous-looking creature. It came out waddling.
"It's the up-and-under bird," exclaimed Judy in a whisper. "Something's happening!"
It was a water-fowl, a creature whose mysterious habit of living upon the surface of the pond as well as underneath made the children's nick-name a necessity. And now it was attempting a raid on land as well. But land was not its natural place. Something certainly had happened, or was going to happen.
"It's a snopportunity," decided Judy instantly. Far more than an opportunity, a snopportunity was something to be snapped up quickly, the sort of thing that ordinarily happened behind one's back, usually discovered too late to be made use of. "I've caught it!" She remembered that the clocks had stopped, yet not knowing why she remembered it. It was the thing she didn't know she knew. She knew it before it happened. That was a snopportunity.
She watched the heavy bird for a considerable time as it slowly appropriated the land it had no right to. It moved, she thought, like a twisted drum on very short drumsticks. It had a water-logged appearance. It was bird and fish ordinarily, but now it was pretending to be animal as well--a thing that flew, swam, walked. Its webbed feet patted the ground complacently. It came laboriously towards the wall of the house, then halted. It paused a moment, then turned its eyes up, while Judy turned hers down. The pair of creatures looked at one another steadily for several seconds.
"You're not out for nothing," exclaimed Judy audibly. "So now I know!"
The reply was neither in the affirmative nor in the negative. The up- and-under bird said nothing. It made no sign. It just turned away, stalked heavily back across the lawn without once looking either to right or left, launched itself upon the water, uttered its queer bugle-call for the last and second time, and promptly disappeared below. The tilt of its vanishing tail expressed sublime indifference to everything on land. And Judy, reflecting vaguely that she, too, was something of an up-and-under creature, followed its example, though without the same dispatch or neatness of execution. She tumbled sideways into bed and disappeared beneath the sheets, aware that the bird had left her richer than it found her. It had communicated something that lay beyond all possible explanation. She had no tail, nor did she express indifference. On the contrary, she hugged herself, making sounds of pleasurable anticipation in her throat that lay plunged among depths of soothing pillows.
It seems, then, that the entire household, the important portion of it, at any rate, had been duly notified that something unusual was afoot, and that the dawn of the day just breaking through a ghostly sky was distinctly out of the ordinary. The birds, always the first to wake, and provided with the most sensitive apparatus for recording changes, had caught the mysterious whisper from the fading night; they had instantly communicated it to the best of their ability to their established friends. The robin, the swallows, and the up-and-under bird, having accomplished their purpose, disappeared from view in order to attend to breakfast and the arrangement of their own subsequent adventures. Earth, air, and water had delivered messages. The news had been flashed. Those who deserved it had been warned. The day could now begin.
Maria, alone, meanwhile, slept on soundly, secure in that stodgy immobility that takes no risks. Oblivious, apparently, of all secret warnings of excitement or alarm, she lay in a tight round ball, inactive, undisturbed. Even her breathing revealed her peculiar idiosyncrasy: no actual movement on her surface was discernible. Her breathing involved the least possible disturbance of the pink and white contours that bulged the sheets and counterpane. Her face was calm, expressionless, and even dull, yet wore a certain look as though she knew so much that she had no need to maintain her position by the least assertion. Exertion would have been a denial of her right to exist. And exist she certainly did. The weight of her personality lent balance to the quivering uncertainty of this mysterious dawn. Maria remained an unassailable reality, an immovable centre round which anything might happen, yet never end, and certainly no disaster come. And Judy, glancing at her as she disappeared below her own sheets, noted this fact without understanding that she did so. This was another aspect of the thing she didn't know she knew.
"Maria's asleep," she felt, "so there's no need to get up yet. It's all right!" In spite of the marvellous thing she knew was coming, that is, she felt herself anchored safely to the firm reality of calm Maria, soundly, peacefully asleep. And five minutes later she was in the same desirable condition herself.
But, hardly were they all asleep, than a figure none of them had noticed, yet all perhaps had vaguely felt, rose out of the little ditch this side of the laurel shrubberies, and advanced slowly towards the old Mill House. The shape was shadowy and indeterminate at first; it might have been a bush, a sheaf of straw, a clump of high-grown weeds, for birds fluttered just above it, and the swallows darted down without alarm. A shaggy thing, it seemed part of the natural landscape.
Half-way across the lawn, however, it paused and stretched itself; it rubbed its eyes; it yawned; and, as it shook the sleep from face and body, the outline grew distinctly clearer. The thing that had looked like a bundle of hay or branches resolved itself into a human being; the loose untidiness gave place to definite shape, as leaves, grass, twigs, and wisps of straw fell fluttering from it to the ground. It was a pathetic and yet wonderful sight, beauty, happiness, and peace about it somewhere, together with a soft and tender sweetness that tempered the wildness of its aspect. Indescribably these qualities proclaimed themselves. It was a man.
"They've seen me twice," he mentioned to the dipping swallows. "This is my third appearance. They'll recognise me without a word. The Day has come."
He stood a moment, shaking the extras of the night from hair and clothing, then laughed with a sound like running water as the birds swooped down and carried the straws and twigs away with a great business of wings. Next, glancing up at the open windows of the house, he started forward with a light but steady step. "They will not be surprised," he said, "for they have always believed in me. They knew that some day I should come, and in the twinkling of an eye!" He paused and chuckled in his beard. "I'm not the one thing they're expecting, but I'm next door to it, and I can show them how to look at any rate."
And he began softly humming the words of a little song he had evidently made up himself, and therefore liked immensely. He neared the walls; the sunrise tipped a happy, glorious face; he disappeared from view as though he had melted through the old grey stone. And a flight of swallows, driven by the fresh dawn wind, passed high overhead across the heavens, leading the night away. They swung to the rhythm of his little song:
My secret's in the wind and open sky, There is no longer any Time--to lose; The world is young with laughter; we can fly Among the imprisoned hours as we choose. The rushing minutes pause; an unused day Breaks into dawn and cheats the tired sun; The birds are singing. Hark! Come out and play! There is no hurry! Life has just begun!
The day broke. It broke literally. The sky gave way and burst asunder, scattering floods of radiant sunshine. This was the feeling in Uncle Felix's heart as he came downstairs to breakfast in the schoolroom. A sensation of feathery lightness was in him, of speed as well: he could rise above every obstacle in the world, only--there were no obstacles in the world to rise above. Boredom, despair, and pessimism, he suddenly realised, meant deficiency of energy merely. "Birds can rise above everything--and so can I!"--as though he possessed a robin's normal temperature of 110 degrees!
Although it was Sunday morning, and a dark suit was his usual custom, he had slipped into flannels and a comfortable low collar, without thinking about it one way or the other. "It's a jolly day," he hummed to himself, "and I'm alive. We must do all kinds of things-- everything! It's all one thing really!" It seemed there was a new, uplifting sense of joy in merely being alive. He repeated the word again and again--"alive, alive, alive!" Of course a robin sang: it was the natural thing to do.
He looked out of the window while dressing, and caught the startling impression that this life emanated from the world of familiar trees and grass and flowers spread out before his eyes. Everything was singing. Beauty had dropped down upon the earth; the earth, moreover, knew that she was beautiful--she was obviously enjoying herself, both as a whole and in every tiniest nook and corner of her gigantic being. Yet without undue surprise he noted this; the marvel was there as always, but he did not pause to say, "How marvellous!" It was as natural as breathing, and as easily accepted. He was always breathing, but he never stopped and thought, "Good Lord, I'm breathing! How dreadful if it stopped!" He simply went on breathing. And so, with the beauty of this radiant morning, it never occurred to him "This will not last, the sun will set, the shadows fall, the marvel pass and die." That this particular day could end did not even suggest itself.
On his way down the passage, Judy and Tim came dancing from their rooms to meet him. They, too, were dressed in their everyday-adventure things, no special sign of Sunday anywhere about them--slipped into their summery clothing as naturally as birds and flowers grow into the bright and feathery stuff that covers them. This notion struck him, but faintly; it was not a definite thought. He might as well have noticed, "Ah, the sky is dressed in light, or mist! The wind blows it into folds and creases!" Yet the notion did strike him with its little dream-like hammer, because with it came a second tiny blow, producing, it seemed, a soft blaze of light behind his eyes somewhere: "I've recovered the childhood sense of reality, the vivid certainty, the knowledge!... Somebody's coming.... Somebody's here--hiding still, perhaps, yet nearer..." It flashed like a gold-fish in some crystal summer fountain... and was gone again.
In the passage Judy touched his hand, and said confidingly, "You will take me to the end of the world to-day, Uncle."
It was true and possible. No special preparation was required for any journey whatsoever. They were already prepared for anything--like birds. And some one, it seemed, had taken his name away!
"We'll do everything at once," said Tim, with the utmost assurance in tone and manner.
"Of course," was his obvious and natural reply to each, no explanations or conditions necessary. Things would happen of themselves, spontaneously. There was only one thing to do! "We're alive," he added. They just looked at him as he said it, then pulled him down the passage a little faster than before. Yet the way they ran dancing along that oil-cloth passage held something of the joy and confidence with which birds launch themselves into flight across the earth. There was this sense of spontaneous excitement and delight about.
"He's here already," Judy whispered, as they neared the breakfast room. "I can feel it."
"Came in while we were asleep," her brother added. "I know it," and he clapped his hands.
"At dawn, yes," agreed Uncle Felix, saying it on the spur of the moment. He was perplexed a little, perhaps, but did not hesitate. He had not quite the assurance of the others. He meant to let himself go, however.
There was not the slightest doubt or question anywhere; they believed because they knew; what they had expected for so long had happened. The Stranger in the Tea-cup had arrived at last. They went down the long corridor of the Old Mill House, every window open to the sunshine that came pouring in. The very walls seemed made of transparent, shining paper. The world came flowing in. A happiness of the glowing earth sang in their veins. At the door they paused a second.
"I know exactly who he is," breathed Judy softly.
"I know what he looks like," whispered Tim.
"There was never time to see him properly before," said Uncle Felix. "Things went by so fast. He whizzed and vanished. But now--of course-"
They pushed the door open and went in.
Breakfast was already laid upon the shining cloth; hot dishes steamed; there were flowers upon the table, and climbing roses peeped in round the grey walls of sun-baked stone. A bird or two hopped carelessly upon the window-sill, and a smell of earth and leaves was in the air. Sunshine, colour, and perfume filled the room to overflowing, yet not so full that there was not ample space for the "somebody" who had brought them. For somebody certainly was there--some one whom the children, moreover, took absolutely for granted.
There had been surprise outside the door, but there was none when they were in. Something like a dream, it seemed, this absence of astonishment, though, of course, no one took it in that way. For, at first, no one spoke at all. The children went to their places, lifting the covers to see what there was to eat. They did the normal, natural thing; eyed and sniffed the porridge, cream, brown sugar, and especially approved the dish of comfortable, fat poached eggs on toast. They were satisfied with what they saw; everything was as it ought to be--plentiful, available, on hand. There was enough for everybody.
But Uncle Felix paused a moment just inside the open door, and stared; he looked about him as though the incredible thing had really happened at last. A rapt expression passed over his face, and his eyes seemed fixed upon something radiant that hung upon the air. He sighed, and caught his breath. His heart grew amazingly light within him. Every thought and feeling that made up his personality--so it felt, at least--had wings of silver tipped with golden fire.
"At last!" he murmured softly to himself, "at last!"
He moved forward slowly into the room, his eyes still fixed on vacancy. The face showed exquisite delight, but the lips were otherwise dumb. He looked as if he had caught a glimpse of something he could not utter.
"Porridge, please, Uncle," he heard a voice saying, as some one put a large silver spoon into his hand. "I like the hard lumps." And another voice added, "I like the soupy, slippery stuff, please." He pulled himself together with an effort.
"Ah," he mumbled, peeping from the dishes at the children's faces, "the tea has stopped turning in the cup at last. He's come up to the surface."
And they turned and looked at him, but without the least surprise again; it was perfectly natural, it seemed, that there should be this Presence in the room; their Uncle's remark was neither here nor there. He had a right to express his own ideas in his own way if he wanted to. Their own remarks outside the door they had apparently forgotten. That, indeed, was already a very long time ago now. In the full bliss of realisation, anticipation was naturally not remembered. The excitement in the passage belonged to some dim Yesterday--almost when they were little.
They began immediately to talk at the Stranger in the room.
"I didn't hear anybody come," remarked Tim, as he mixed cream and demerara sugar inside an artificial pool of porridge, "but it's all the same--now. Our Somebody's here all right." And then, between gulps, he added, "The swallows laid an awful lot of eggs in the night, I think."
"On tiptoe just at dawn," remarked Judy casually, following her own train of thought, and intent upon chasing a slippery poached egg round and round her plate at the same time. "The birds were awake, of course."
The birds! As she said it, a memory of some faint, exquisite dream, of years and years ago it seemed, fled also on tiptoe through the bright, still air, and through three listening hearts as well. The robin, the swallows, and the up-and-under bird made secret signs and vanished.
"They know everything first, of course," said Uncle Felix aloud; "they're up so early, aren't they?" To himself he said, "I'm dreaming! This is a dream!" his reason still fluttering a little before it died. But he kept his secret about the robin tightly in its hiding-place.
"Before they've happened--really," Tim mentioned. "They do a thing to-morrow long before to-morrow's come." He knew something the others could not possibly know.
"Everything comes from the air, you see," advanced Judy, secure in the memory of her private morning interview. "But it can disappear under-- underneath when it wants to."
"Or into a hole," agreed Tim.
And somebody in that breakfast-room, somebody besides themselves, heard every word they spoke, listened attentively, and understood the meanings they thought they hid so cleverly. They knew, moreover, that he did so.
"Let's pretend," Tim suddenly exclaimed, catching his sister's eye just as it was wandering into the pot of home-made marmalade.
"All right," she said at once, "same as usual, I suppose?"
Tim nodded, glancing across the table. "Sitting next to you, Uncle" --he pointed to the unoccupied chair and unused plate--"in that empty place."
"Thank you," murmured the man, still hovering between reality and dream. He said it shyly. It was all too marvellous to ask questions about, he felt.
"It's a lovely morning," continued Judy politely, smiling at the empty place. "Will you have tea and coffee, or milkhotwaterandsugar?" She listened attentively for the answer, the smile of a duchess on her rosy face, then bowed and handed a lump of sugar to Tim, who set it carefully in the middle of the plate.
"Butter or honey?" inquired the boy, "or butter and honey?" He, too, waited for the inaudible reply, then asked his Uncle to pass the pot of honey and the butter-dish. The Stranger, apparently, liked sweet things best--at any rate, natural things.
They went on with their breakfast then, eating as much as ever they could hold, talking about everything in the world as usual, and occasionally bowing to the empty chair, addressing remarks to it, and listening to--answers! Sometimes they passed things, too--another lump of sugar, more drops of honey, a thick blob of clotted cream as well. It was obvious to them that somebody occupied that chair, so real, indeed, that Uncle Felix found himself passing things and making observations about the weather and even arranging a few crumbs of bread in a row beside the other delicacies. It was the right thing to do evidently; acting spontaneously, he had performed an inspired action. And the odd thing was that the food, lying in the blaze of sunlight on the plate, slowly underwent a change: the sugar got smaller in size, the honey-drops diminished, the blob of cream lost its first circumference, and even the bread-crumbs seemed to dwindle visibly.
"It's very hot this morning," said Judy after a bit. "The sun's hungrier than usual," and she pushed the plate into the shade. But it was clear that she referred to some one other than the sun, although the sun belonged to what was going on. "Thirsty, too," she added, "although there are bucketsful of dew about."
"And extra bright into the bargain," declared Tim. "I love shiny stuff like that to wear and dress in. It fits so easily--no bothering buttons."
"And doesn't wear out or stain, does it?" put in Uncle Felix, saying the first thing that came into his head--and again behaving in the appropriate, spontaneous manner. It was clear that the Stranger--to them, at least--was clothed in the gold and silver of the brilliant morning. There was a delicate perfume, too, as of wild flowers and sweet little roadside blossoms. The very air of the room was charged with some living light and beauty brought by the invisible guest. It was passing wonderful. The invading Presence seemed all about them like a spreading fire of loveliness and joy--yet natural as sunshine.
Then, suddenly, Tim sprang up from his chair, and ran to the empty seat. His face shone with keen and eager expectancy, but wore a touch of shyness too.
"I want to be like you," he said in a hushed voice that had all the yearning of childhood breaking through it. "Please put your hand on me." He lowered his head and closed his eyes. He made an odd grimace, half pleasure and half awe, like a boy about to plunge into a pool of water,--then stood upright, proud and delighted as any victorious king. He drew a long breath of relief. He seemed astonished that it had been so easily accomplished.
"I'm full of it!" he cried. "I'm burning! He touched me on the head!"
"Touched!" cried Judy, full herself of joy and happy envy.
The boy nodded his head, as though he would nod it off on to the tablecloth. He looked as if any minute he might burst into flame with the sheer enjoyment of it. "Warm all over," he gasped. "I could strike a match on my trousers now like Weeden."
Then, while Uncle Felix rubbed his eyes and did his best to see the invisible, Judy sprang lightly from her chair, ran up to the vacant place, put out her arms and bent her face down so that her falling torrent of hair concealed it for a moment. She certainly put her arms round--something. The next minute she straightened up again with triumph and tumult in her shining eyes.
"I kissed him," she announced, flushed like any rose, "and he kissed me back. He blew the wind into my hair as well. I'm flying! I'm lighter than a feather!" And she went, dancing and flitting, round the table like a happy bird.
Then Uncle Felix rose sedately from his seat. He did not mean to be left out of all this marvellous business merely because his body was a little older and more worn. He stretched his arm across the table, missing the cream-jug by a narrow margin, but knocking the toast-rack over in his eagerness. He held his hand out to the empty chair.
"Please take my hand," he said, "and let me have something too."
He went through the pantomime of shaking hands, but to his intense amazement it seemed that there was an answering clasp. A smooth, soft running touch closed gently on his own; it was cool and yielding, delicate as the down upon a robin's breast, yet firm as steel. And in that moment he knew that his glimpse on entering the room was not a trick, but had been a passing glimpse of what the children always believed in, hoped for--saw.
"Thank you," he murmured, withdrawing his hand and examining it, "very much indeed. This is a beautiful day."
An extraordinary power came into him, a feeling of confidence and security and joy he had never known before. Yet all he could find to say was that it was a very beautiful day. The commonest speech expressed exactly what he felt. Ordinary words at last had meaning, small words could tell it.
"It's all right?" remarked Tim, in an excited but quite natural tone.
"It is," he answered.
"Then let's go out now and do all sorts of things. There's simply heaps to do."
"Out into the sun," cried Judy. "Come on. We'll get into our old garden boots." And she dragged her brother headlong out of the room.
And Uncle Felix moved forward into the pool of sunlight that blazed upon the faded carpet pattern. It was composed of round, fat trees, this pattern, with birds like goblin peacocks flying in mid-air between them. The sunshine somehow lifted them, so that they floated upon the quivering atmosphere; the pattern seemed to hover between him and the carpet. And he too felt himself lifted--in mid-air--part of the day and sunshine.
He closed his eyes; he tried to realise who and where he was; all he could remember, however, went into a single sentence and kept repeating itself on the waves of his singing, dancing blood: "Clock's stopped, clock's stopped,--stopped clocks, stopped clocks...!" till it sounded like a puzzle sentence--then lost all meaning.
He sat down in a chair, but the chair was next to the "empty" one, and from it something poured into him, over him, round him, as wind pours about a bird or tree. He became enveloped by it; his mind began to rush, yet rushed in a circle, so that he never entirely lost sight of it. Another set of words replaced the first ones: "Behind Time, behind Time," jostling on each other's heels, tearing round and round like a Catherine Wheel, shining and dancing as they spun.
He opened his eyes and looked about him. The room was full of wonder. It glistened, sparkled, shone. A million things, screened hitherto from sight by thick clouds of rushing minutes, paused and offered themselves; things that were commonplace before stood still, revealed in startling glory. They no longer raced past at headlong speed. Visible at last, unmasked, they showed themselves as they really were, in naked beauty. This beauty settled on everything in golden rain, it settled on himself as well. All that his eyes rested on looked-- distinguished....
And, like snow-flakes, words and thoughts came thickly crowding, like flakes of fire too. He snatched at them, caught them in bunches, tried to sort them into sentences. They were everywhere about him, showering down as from a box of cardboard letters overturned in the sky. The reality he sought hid among them as a whole--he knew that--but no mere sequence of words and letters could quite capture this reality.
He plunged his hands among the flying symbols....
In a flash a number of things--an enormous number of things--became extraordinarily clear and simple; they became one single thing. Then, while reason and vision still fluttered to and fro, like a pair of butterflies, first one and then the other leading, he dashed in between them. He seized handfuls of the flying letters and made the queerest sentences out of them, longer and faster-moving than the first ones.
"Time is the arch-deceiver. It drives things past us in a hurrying flock. We snatch at them. And those we miss seem lost for ever because some one calls out, in a foolish voice of terror and regret, 'Too late!' Yet, in reality, we stand still; the rush of the hours is a sham. We see things out of proportion, like trees from the window of a train, their beauty hidden in a long, thick smudge. We do not move; it is the train that hurries us along: the trees are always steadily there--and beautiful. There is enough of everything for everybody--no need to try and get there first. To hurry is to chase your tail, which some one has suggested does not belong to you. It can never be captured by pursuit. But pause--stand still--it instantly presents itself, twitches its tip, and laughs: 'I've been here all the time. I'm part of you!'"
He turned towards the empty chair and smiled. The smile, he felt, came marvellously back to him from the sunshine and the open world of sky and trees beyond. There was some one there who smiled--invisibly.
"You're real, quite real," the letters danced instantly into new sentences. "But you are so awfully close to me--so close I cannot see you."
He felt the invisible Stranger suddenly as real as that. There was only one thing to see--only one thing everywhere. The beauty of the discovery put reason utterly and finally to flight. But that one thing was hiding. The Stranger concealed himself--he hid on purpose. He wanted to be looked for--found. And the heart grew "warm" or "cold" accordingly: when it was warm that mysterious anticipation stirred-- "Some one is coming!"
And Uncle Felix, sitting in the sunlight of that breakfast-room, understood that the entire universe formed a conspiracy to hide "him." Some one, indeed, had come, slipped into the gorgeous and detailed clothing of the entire world as easily as birds and trees slip into their own particular clothing, planning with Time to hide him, wanting to play a little--to play at Hide-and-Seek. "Let them all look for me! I'm hiding!..."
Yet so few would play! Instead of coming out to find him where he hid so simply in the open, they built severe and gloomy edifices; invented Rules of the game by which each could prove himself right and all the others wrong.... Oh, dear!... And all the time, he hid there in the open before their very eyes--in the wind, the stream, the grass, in the sunlight and the song of birds, and especially behind little careless things that took no thought ... waiting to play and let himself be found... while songs and poems and fairy-tales, even religious too, cried endlessly across the world, "Look and you'll find him." There was only one thing to say: "Search in the open; he hides there!"
Everything became clear and simple--one thing, Life was a game of Hide-and-Seek. There were obstacles placed in the way on purpose to make it more interesting. One of them was Time. But everything was one thing, and one thing only; a peacock and a policeman were the same, so were an elephant and a violet, an uncle and a bee, a Purple Emperor and a child like Tim or Judy: all did, said, lived one and the same thing only. They looked different--because one looked at them differently.
Smiling happily to himself again as the letters grouped themselves swiftly into these curious sentences, he heard the birds singing in the clean, great sky... and it seemed to him that the Stranger blew softly upon his eyes and hair. The sentences instantly telescoped: "Come, look for me! There is no hurry; life has just begun...." And he barely had time to realise that the entire complicated mass of them had, after all, only this one thing to say... when the returning children bursting into the room scattered his long reverie, and the last cardboard letter disappeared like magic into empty space.
"Where is he?" cried Tim at once, staring impatiently about him. There was rebuke and disappointment in his eyes. "Uncle, you've been arguing. He's gone!"
Judy was equally quick to seize the position of affairs. "You've frightened him away!" she declared with energy. "Quick! We must go out and look!"
"Yes," muttered their uncle a little guiltily, and was about to add something by way of explanation when he felt Judy pull his sleeve. "Look!" she whispered. "He can't have gone so very far!"
She pointed to the plate with the sugar, honey, cream, and crumbs upon it; a bird was picking up the crumbs, a wasp was on the lump of sugar, a bee beside it, standing on its head, was drinking at the drop of honey; all were unafraid, and very leisurely about it; there seemed no hurry; there was enough for every one. Then, as the trio of humans stared with delight, they saw another guest arrive and dance up gaily to the feast. A gorgeous butterfly sailed in, hovered above the crowded plate a moment, then settled comfortably beside its companions and examined the blob of cream. The others moved a little to make room for it. It was a Purple Emperor, the rarest butterfly in all England, whose home was normally high above the trees.
"Of course," Judy whispered to her brother, as she watched the bee make room for its larger neighbour; "they belong to him--"
"He sent them," replied Tim below his breath, "just to let us know--"
"Yes," mumbled Uncle Felix for the second time, a soft amazement stealing over him. "He brought them. And they're all the same thing really."
There was the perfume of a thousand flowers in the room. A faint breeze floated through the open window and touched his eyes. He heard the world outside singing in the sunshine. "Come along," he said in a low, hushed whisper; "let's go and look." And he moved eagerly--over the tree-and-peacock pattern.
They tiptoed out together, while the bird cocked up its head to watch them go; the bee, still drinking, raised its eyes; and all four fluttered their wings as though they laughed. They seemed to say "There is no hurry! We're all alive together! There's enough for all; no need to get there first!" They knew. The golden day lay waiting outside with overflowing beauty, and he who had brought them in stood just behind this beauty that hid and covered them. When they had eaten and drunk, they, too, would come and join the search. Exceedingly beautiful they were--the shy grace of the dainty bird, the brilliant wasp in black and gold, the soft brown bee, the magnificent Purple Emperor, fresh from the open spaces above the windy forest: all said the same big, joyful thing, "We are alive!... No hurry!..."
The trio flew down the passage, took the stairs in leaps and bounds, raced across the hall where the back-door, standing open, framed the lawn and garden in a blaze of sunshine.
And as Uncle Felix followed, half dancing like the other two, he saw a little thing that vaguely reminded him of--another little thing. The memory was vague and far away; there was a curious distance in it, like the distance of a dream recalled in the day-light, no longer what is called quite real. For his eye caught something gleaming on the side-table below the presentation clock, and the odd, ridiculous word that sprang into his mind was "salver." It was the silver salver on which Thompson brought in visitors' cards. But it was a plate as well; and, being a plate, he remembered vaguely something about a collection. The association of ideas worked itself out in a remote and dreamlike way; he felt in his pocket for a shilling, a sixpence, or a threepenny bit, and wondered for a second where the big, dark building was to which all this belonged. Something was changed, it seemed. His clothes, this dancing sunshine, joy and laughter. The world was new. What did it mean?...
"No bells are ringing," flashed back the flying letters in a spray.
He was on the point of catching something by the tail... when he saw the children waiting for him on the sunny lawn outside. He ran out instantly to join them. They had noticed nothing odd, apparently. It had never even occurred to them. And in himself the memory dived away, its very trail obliterated as though it had not been.
For this was Sunday morning, yet Sunday had not--happened.
The garden clung close and soft about the Old Mill House as a mood clings about the emotion that has summoned it. Uncle Felix, Tim, and Judy were as much a part of it as the lilac, hyacinths, and tulips. Any minute, it seemed, the butterflies and bees and birds might settle on them too.
For a bloom of exquisite, fresh wonder lay upon the earth, lay softly and secure as though it need never pass away. No fading of daylight could dim the glory of all the promises of joy the day contained, no hint of waning anywhere. "There is no hurry," seemed written on the very leaves and blades of grass. "We're all alive together! Come and-- look!" The garden, lying there so gently in its beauty, hid a secret.
Yet, though all was so calm and peaceful, there was nowhere the dulness of stagnation. Life brimmed the old-world garden with incessant movement that flashed dancing and rhythm even into things called stationary. The joy of existence ran riot everywhere without check or hindrance; there was no time--to pause and die. For the sunlight did not merely lie upon the air--it poured; wind did not blow--it breathed, ambushed one minute among the rose-trees just above the ground, and cantering next through the crests of the busy limes. The elms and horse-chestnuts that ordinarily grew now leaped--leaped upwards to the sun; while all flying things--birds, insects, bees, and butterflies--passed in and out like darting threads of colour, pinning the beauty into a patterned tapestry for all to see. The entire day was charged with the natural delight of endless, sheer existence. It was visible.
Each detail, moreover, claimed attention, as though never seen properly before; no longer dulled by familiarity, but shaking off its "ordinary" appearance, proud to be looked at, naked and alive. The rivulet ran on, but did not run away; the gravel paths, soft as rolled brown sugar, led somewhere, but led in both directions, each of them inviting; the blue of the sky did not stay "up there and far away," but dropped down close in myriad flakes, lifting the green carpet of the lawn to meet it. The day seemed like a turning circle that changed every moment to show another aspect of its gorgeous pattern, yet, while changing, only turned, unable to grow older or to pass away. There was something real at last, something that could be known, enjoyed--something of eternity about it. It was real.
"Wherever has he got to?" exclaimed Judy, trying to pierce the distances of earth and sky with distended eyes. "He can't be very far away, because--I kissed him."
Tim, sitting beside her on the grass, felt the exquisite mystery of it too. It was marvellous that any one could vanish in such a way. But he hesitated too. He felt uncertain about something. His thoughts flew off to that strange wood he loved to play in. He remembered the warning: "Beware the centre, if you enter; For once you're there, you disappear!" But this explanation did not appeal to him as likely now. He stared at Judy and his uncle. Some one had touched him, making him warm and happy. He remembered that distinctly. He had caught a glimpse--though a glimpse too marvellous to be seen for long, even to be remembered properly. "But there's no good looking unless we know where to look," he remarked. "Is there?"
"He's just gone out like a candle," whispered Judy.
"Extror'nary," declared her brother, hugging the excitement that thrilled his heart. "But he can't be really lost. I'm sure of that!"
And a great hush fell upon them all. Some one, it seemed, was listening; some one was watching; some one was waiting for them to move.
"Uncle?" they said in the same breath together, then hung upon his answer.
This authority hesitated a moment, looking about him expectantly as though for help.
"I think," he stated shyly, "I think--he's--hiding."
Nothing more wonderful ever fell from grown-up lips. They had heard it said before--but only said. Now they realised it.
"Hiding!" They stood up; they could see further that way. But they waited for more detail before showing their last approval.
"Out here," he added.
They were not quite sure. They expected a disclosure more out of the ordinary. It might be true, but--
"Hide-and-seek?" they repeated doubtfully. "But that's just a game." They were unsettled in their minds.
"Not that kind," he replied significantly. "I mean the kind the rain plays with the wind and leaves, the stream with the stones and roots along its bank, the rivers with the sea. That's the kind of hide-and- seek I mean!"
He chose instinctively watery symbols. And his tone conveyed something so splendid and mysterious that it was impossible to doubt or hesitate a moment longer.
"Oh," they exclaimed. "It never ends, you mean?"
"Goes on for ever and ever," he murmured. "The moment the river finds the sea it disappears and the sea begins to look. The wind never really finds the clouds, and the sun and the stars--"
"We know!" they shouted, cutting his explanations short.
"Come on then!" he cried. "We've got the hunt of our lives before us." And he began to run about in a circle like an animal trying to catch its tail.
"But are we to look for him, or he for us?" inquired the boy, after a preliminary canter over the flower-beds.
"We for him." They sprang to attention and clapped their hands.
"It's an enormous hide," said Tim. "We may get lost ourselves. Better look out!"
And then they waited for instructions. But the odd thing was that their uncle waited too. There was this moment's hesitation. They looked to him. The old fixed habit asserted itself: a grown-up must surely know more than they did. How could it be otherwise? In this case, however, the grown-up seemed in doubt. He looked at them. It was otherwise.
"It's so long since I played this kind of hide-and-seek," he murmured. "I've rather forgotten--"
He stopped short. There certainly was a difficulty. Nobody knew in what direction to begin.
"It's a snopportunity," exclaimed Judy. "I'm sure of that!"
"We just look--everywhere!" cried Tim.
A light broke over their uncle's face as if a ray of sunshine touched it. His mind cleared. Some old, forgotten joy, wonderful as the dawn, burst into his heart, rose to fire in his eyes, flooded his whole being. A glory long eclipsed, a dream interrupted years ago, an uncompleted game of earliest youth--all these rose from their hiding- place and recaptured him, soul and body. He glanced at the children. These things he had recaptured, they, of course, had never lost; this state and attitude of wonder was their natural prerogative; he had recovered the ownership of the world, but they had possessed it always. They knew the whole business from beginning to end--only they liked to hear it stated. That was obviously his duty as a grown-up: to stick the label on.
"Of course," he whispered, deliciously enchanted. "You've got it. It's the snopportunity! The great thing is to--look."
And, as if to prove him right, a flock of birds passed sweeping through the air above their heads, paused in mid-flight, wheeled, fluttered noisily a second, then scattered in all directions like leaves whirled by an eddy of loose, autumn wind.
"Come on," cried Tim, remembering perhaps the "dodgy" butterfly and trying to imitate it with his arms and legs. "I know where to go first. Just follow me!"
"And there'll be signs, remember," Uncle Felix shouted as he followed. "Whoever finds a sign must let the others know at once."
They began with the feeling that they would discover the Stranger in a moment, sure of the places where he had tried cleverly to conceal himself, but soon began to realise that this was no ordinary game, and that he certainly knew of mysterious spots and corners they had never dreamed about. It was as Tim declared, "an enormous hide." Come-Back Stumper's cunning dive into bed was nothing compared to the skill with which this hider eluded their keen searching. There was another difference too. In Stumper's case their interest had waned, they felt they had been cheated somehow, they knew themselves defeated and had given up the search. But here the interest was unfailing; it increased rather than diminished; they were ever on the very edge of finding him, and more than once they shrieked with joy, "I've got him!"--only to find they had been "very hot" but not quite hot enough. It was, like everything else upon this happy morning, endless.
It continued and continued, as naturally as the rivulet that ran for ever downhill to find the sea, that nothing, it seemed, could put a stop to, much less an end. The feeling that time was passing utterly disappeared; weeks, months, and years lay waiting somewhere near, but could be left or taken, used or not used, as they pleased. To take a week and use it was like picking a flower that looked much prettier growing sweetly in the sunny earth. Why pick it? It came to an end that way! The minutes, the hours and days, morning, noon and night as well, the very seasons too, offered themselves, and--vanished. They did not come and go, they were just "there"; and to steal into one or other of them at will was like stealing into one mood after another as the heart decreed. They were mere counters in the gorgeous and unending game. They helped to hide the mysterious Stranger who was evidently in the centre round which all life lay grouped so marvellously. They hid and covered him as moods hide and cover the heart that wears them--temporarily. Uncle Felix and the children used them somewhat in this way, it seems, for while they looked and hunted in and out among them, any minute, day or season was recoverable at will. They did not pass away. It was the seekers who passed through them. To Uncle Felix, at any rate, it seemed a fact--this joyous sensation of immense duration, yet of nothing passing away: the bliss of utter freedom. He gasped to realise it. But the children did not gasp. They had always known that nothing ever really came to an end. "The weather's still here," he heard Judy calling across the lawn to Tim--as though she had just been looking among December snowdrifts and had popped back again into the fragrance of midsummer hayfields. "The Equator's made of golden butterflies, all shining," the boy called back, having evidently just been round the world and seen its gleaming waist....
But none of them had found what they were looking for....
They had looked in all the difficult places where a clever player would be most likely to conceal himself, yet in vain; there was no definite sign of him, no footprints on the flower-beds or along the edge of the shrubberies. The garden proper had been searched from end to end without result. The children had been to the particular hiding- places each knew best, Tim to the dirty nook between the ilex and the larder window, and Judy to the scooped-out trunk of the rotten elm, and both together to the somewhat smelly channel between the yew trees and a disused outhouse--all equally untenanted.
In the latter gloomy place, in fact, they met. No sunlight pierced the dense canopy of branches; it was barely light enough to see. Judy and Tim advanced towards each other on tiptoe, confident of discovery at last. They only realised their mistake at five yards' distance.
"You!" exclaimed Tim, in a disappointed whisper. "I thought it was going to be a sign." "I felt positive he'd be in here somewhere," said Judy.
"Perhaps we're both signs," they declared together, then paused, and held a secret discussion about it all.
"He's got a splendid hide," was the boy's opinion. "D'you think Uncle Felix knows anything? You heard what he said about signs...!"
They decided without argument that he didn't. He just went "thumping about" in the usual places. He'd never find him. They agreed it was very wonderful. Tim advanced his pet idea--it had been growing on him: "I think he knows some special place we'd never look in--a hole or something." But Judy met the suggestion with superior knowledge: "He moves about," she announced. "He doesn't stop in a hole. He flies at an awful rate--from place to place. That's--signs, I expect."
"Wings?" suggested Tim.
Judy hesitated. "You remember--at breakfast, wasn't it?--ages and ages ago--all had wings--those things--"
She broke off and pointed significantly at the figure of Uncle Felix who was standing with his head cocked up at an awkward angle, staring into the sky. Shading his eyes with one hand, he was apparently examining the topmost branches of the tall horse-chestnuts.
"He couldn't have got up a tree, could he, or into a bird's nest?" said the girl. She offered the suggestion timidly, yet her brother did not laugh at her. There was this strange feeling that the hider might be anywhere--simply anywhere. This was no ordinary game.
"There's such a lot," Tim answered vaguely.
She looked at him with intense admiration. The wonder of this marvellous game was in their hearts. The moment when they would find him was simply too extraordinary to think about.
Judy moved a step closer in the darkness. "Can he get small, then-- like that?" she whispered.
But the question was too much for Tim.
"Anyhow he gets about, doesn't he?" was the reply, the vagueness of uncertain knowledge covering the disappointment. "There are simply millions of trees and nests and--and rabbit-holes all over the place."
They were silent for a moment. Then Judy asked, still more timidly:
"I say, Tim?"
"What does he really look like? I can't remember quite. I mean--shall we recognise him?"
Tim stared at her. "My dear!" he gasped, as though the question almost shocked him. "Why, he touched me--on the head! I felt it!"
Judy laughed softly; it was only that she wanted to remind herself of something too precious to be forgotten.
"I kissed him!" she whispered, a hint of triumph in her voice and eyes.
They stood staring at one another for a little while, weighing the proofs thus given; then Tim broke the silence with a question of his own. It was the result of this interval of reflection. It was an unexpected sort of question:
"Do you know what it is we want?" he asked. "I do," he added hurriedly, lest she should answer first.
"What?" she said, seeing from his tone and manner that it was important.
"We shall never, never find him this way," he said decisively.
"What?" she repeated with impatience.
Tim lowered his voice. "What we want," he said with the emphasis of true conviction, "is--a Leader."
Judy repeated the word after him immediately; it was obvious; why hadn't she thought of it herself? "Of course," she agreed. "That's it exactly."
"We're looking wrong somewhere," her brother added, and they both turned their heads in the direction of Uncle Felix who was still standing on the lawn in a state of bewilderment, examining the treetops. He expected something from the air, it seemed. Perhaps he was looking for rain--he loved water so. But evidently he was not a proper leader; he was even more bewildered than themselves; he, too, was looking wrong somewhere, somehow. They needed some one to show them how and where to look. Instinctively they felt their uncle was no better at this mighty game than they were. If only somebody who knew and understood--a leader--would turn up!
And it was just then that Judy clutched her brother by the arm and said in a startled whisper, "Hark!"
They harked. Through the hum of leaves and insects that filled the air this sweet June morning they heard another sound--a voice that reached them even here beneath the dense roof of shrubbery. They heard words distinctly, though from far away, rising, falling, floating across the lawn as though some one as yet invisible were singing to himself.
For it was the voice of a man, and it certainly was a song. Moreover, without being able to explain it exactly, they felt that it was just the kind of singing that belonged to the kind of day: it was right and natural, a fresh and windy sound in the careless notes, almost as though it was a bird that sang. So exquisite was it, indeed, that they listened spellbound without moving, standing hand in hand beneath the dark bushes. And Uncle Felix evidently heard it too, for he turned his head; instead of examining the tree-tops he peered into the rose trees just behind him, both hands held to his ears to catch the happy song. There was both joy and laughter in the very sound of it:
My secret's in the wind and open sky; There is no longer any Time--to lose; The world is young with laughter; we can fly Among the imprisoned hours as we choose. The rushing minutes pause; an unused day Breaks into dawn and cheats the tired sun. The birds are singing. Hark! Come out and play! There is no hurry; life has just begun.
The voice died away among the rose trees, and the birds burst into a chorus of singing everywhere, as if they carried on the song among themselves. Then, in its turn, their chorus also died away. Tim looked at his sister. He seemed about to burst--if not into song, then into a thousand pieces.
"A leader!" he exclaimed, scarcely able to get the word out in his excitement. "Did you hear it?"
"Tim!" she gasped--and they flew out, hand in hand still, to join their uncle in the sunshine.
"Found anything?" he greeted them before they could say a word. "I heard some one singing--a man, or something--over there among the rose trees--"
"And the birds," interrupted Judy. "Did you hear them?"
"Uncle," cried Tim with intense conviction, "it's a sign. I do believe it's a sign--"
"That's exactly what it is," a deep voice broke in behind them "--a sign; and no mistake about it either."
All three turned with a start. The utterance was curiously slow; there was a little dragging pause between each word. The rose trees parted, and they found themselves face to face with some one whom they had seen twice before in their lives, and who now made his appearance for the third time therefore--the man from the End of the World: the Tramp.
He was a ragged-looking being, yet his loose, untidy clothing became him so well that his appearance seemed almost neat--it was certainly natural: he was dressed in the day, the garden, the open air. Judy and Tim ran up fearlessly and began fingering the bits of stuff that clung to him from the fields and ditches. In his beard were some stray rose leaves and the feather of a little bird. The children had an air of sheltering against a tree trunk--woodland creatures--mice or squirrels chattering among the roots, or birds flown in to settle on a hedge. They were not one whit afraid. For nothing surprised them on this marvellous morning; everything that happened they--accepted.
"He's shining underneath," Judy whispered in Tim's ear, cocking her head sideways so that she could catch her brother's eye and at the same time feel the great comfort of the new arrival against her cheek.
"And awfully strong," was the admiring reply.
"So soft, too," she declared--though whether of mind or body was not itemized--"like feathers."
"And smells delicious," affirmed Tim, "like hay and rabbits."
Each child picked out the quality the heart desired and approved; almost, it seemed, each felt him differently. Yet, although not one whit afraid, they whispered. Perhaps the wonder of it choked their utterance a little.
The Tramp smiled at them. All four smiled. The way he had emerged from among the rose trees made them smile. It was as natural as though he had been there all the time, growing out of the earth, waving in the morning air and sunlight. There was something simple and very beautiful about him, perhaps, that made them smile like this. Then Uncle Felix, whom the first shock of surprise had apparently deprived of speech, found his voice and observed, "Good-morning to you, good- morning." The little familiar phrase said everything in a quite astonishing way. It was like a song.
"Good-morning," replied the Tramp. "It is. I was wondering how long it would be before you saw me."
"Ah!" said Judy and Tim in the same breath, "of course."
"The fact is," stammered Uncle Felix, "you're so like the rest of the garden--so like a bit of the garden, I mean--that we didn't notice you at first. But we heard--" he broke off in the middle of the sentence-- "That was you singing, wasn't it?" he asked with a note of hushed admiration in his voice.
The smile upon the great woodland face broadened perceptibly. It was as though the sun burst through a cloud. "That's hard to say," he replied, "when the whole place is singing. I'm just like everything else--alive. It's natural to sing, and natural to dance--when you're alive and looking--and know it."
He spoke with a sound as though he had swallowed the entire morning, a forest rustling in his chest, singing water just behind the lips.
"Looking!" exclaimed Uncle Felix, picking out the word. He moved closer; the children caught his hands; the three of them sheltered against the spreading figure till the four together seemed like a single item of the landscape. "Looking!" he repeated, "that's odd. We've lost something too. You said too,--just now--something about--a sign, I think?" Uncle Felix added shyly.
All waited, but the Tramp gave no direct reply. He smiled again and folded two mighty arms about them. Two big feathery wings seemed round them. Judy thought of a nest, Tim of a cozy rabbit hole, Uncle Felix had the amazing impression that there were wild flowers growing in his heart, or that a flock of robins had hopped in and began to sing.
"Lost something, have you?" the Tramp enquired genially at length; and the slow, leisurely way he said it, the curious half-singing utterance he used, the words falling from his great beard with this sound as of wind through leaves or water over sand and pebbles--somehow included them in the rhythm of existence to which he himself naturally belonged. They all seemed part of the garden, part of the day, part of the sun and earth and flowers together, marvellously linked and caught within some common purpose. Question and answer in the ordinary sense were wrong and useless. They must feel--feel as he did--to find what they sought.
It was Uncle Felix who presently replied: "Something--we've--mis-laid," he said hesitatingly, as though a little ashamed that he expressed the truth so lamely.
"Mis-laid?" asked the Tramp. "Mis-laid, eh?"
"Forgotten," put in Tim.
"Mis-laid or forgotten," repeated the other. "That all?"
"Somebody, I should have said," explained Uncle Felix yet still falteringly, "somebody we've lost, that is."
"Hiding," Tim said quickly.
"About," added Judy. There was a hush in all their voices.
The Tramp picked the small feather from his beard--apparently a water- wagtail's--and appeared to reflect a moment. He held the soft feather tenderly between a thumb and finger that were thick as a walking-stick and stained with roadside mud and yellow with flower-pollen too.
"Hiding, is he?" He held up the feather as if to see which way it fluttered in the wind. "Hiding?" he repeated, with a distinct broadening of the smile that was already big enough to cover half the lawn. It shone out of him almost like rays of light, of sunshine, of fire. "Aha! That's his way, maybe, just a little way he has--of playing with you."
"You know him, then! You know who it is?" two eager voices asked instantly. "Tell us at once. You're leader now!" The children, in their excitement, almost burrowed into him; Uncle Felix drew a deep breath and stared. His whole body listened.
And slowly the Tramp turned round his shaggy head and gazed into their faces, each in turn. He answered in his leisurely, laborious way as though each word were a bank-note that he dealt out carefully, fixing attention upon its enormous value. There was certainly a tremor in his rumbling voice. But there was no hurry.
"I've--seen him," he said with feeling, "seen him--once or twice. My life's thick with memories--"
"Seen him!" sprang from three mouths simultaneously.
"Once or twice, I said." He paused and sighed. Wind stirred the rose trees just behind him. He went on murmuring in a lower tone; and as he spoke a sense of exquisite new beauty stole across the old-world garden. "It was--in the morning--very early," he said below his breath.
"At dawn!" Uncle Felix whispered.
"When the birds begin," from Judy very softly.
"To sing," Tim added, a single shiver of joy running through all three of them at once. The enchantment of their own dim memories of the dawn--of a robin, of swallows, and of an up-and-under bird flashed magically back.
The Tramp nodded his great head slowly; he bowed it to the sunlight, as it were. There was a great light flaming in his eyes. He seemed to give out heat.
"Just seen him--and no more," he went on marvellously, as though speaking of a wonderful secret of his own. "Seen him a-stealing past me--in the dawn. Just looked at me--and went--went back again behind the rushing minutes!"
"Was it long ago? How long?" asked Judy with eager impatience impossible to suppress. They did not notice the reference to Time, apparently.
The wanderer scratched his tangled crop of hair and seemed to calculate a moment. He gazed down at the small white feather in his hand. But the feather held quite still. No breath of wind was stirring. "When I was young," he said, with an expression half quizzical, half yearning. "When I first took to the road--as a boy-- and began to look."
"As long ago as that!" Tim murmured breathlessly. It was like a stretch of history.
The Tramp put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "I was about your age," he said, "when I got tired of the ordinary life, and started wandering. And I've been wandering and looking ever since. Wandering-- and wondering--and looking--ever since," he repeated in the same slow way, while the feather between his great fingers began to wave a little in time with the dragging speech.
The wonder of it enveloped them all three like a perfume rising from the entire earth.
"We've been looking for ages too," cried Judy.
"And we've seen him," exclaimed her brother quickly.
"Somebody," added Uncle Felix, more to himself than to the others.
The Tramp combed his splendid beard, as if he hoped to find more feathers in it.
"This morning, wasn't it?" he asked gently, "very early?"
They reflected a moment, but the reflection did not help them much. "Ages and ages ago," they answered. "So long that we've forgotten rather--"
"Forgotten what he looks like. That's it. Same trouble here," and he tapped his breast. "We're all together, doing the same old thing. The whole world's doing it. It's the only thing to do." And he looked so wise and knowing that their wonder increased to a kind of climax; they were tapping their own breasts before they knew it.
"Doing it everywhere," he went on, weighing his speech as usual; "only some don't know they're doing it." He looked significantly into their shining eyes, then finished with a note of triumph in his voice. "We do!"
"Hooray!" cried Tim. "We can all start looking together now."
"Maybe," agreed the wanderer, very sweetly for a tramp, they thought.
They glanced at their Uncle first for his approval; the Tramp glanced at him too; his face was flushed and happy, the eyes very bright. But there was an air of bewilderment about him too. He nodded his head, and repeated in a shy, contented voice--as though he surrendered himself to some enchantment too great to understand--"I think so; I hope so; I--wonder!"
"We've looked everywhere already," Tim shouted by way of explanation-- when the Tramp cut him short with a burst of rolling laughter:
"But in the wrong kind of places, maybe," he suggested, moving forward like a hedge or bit of hayfield the wind pretends to shift.
"Oh, well--perhaps," the boy admitted.
"Probly," said Judy, keeping close beside him.
"Of course," decided Uncle Felix; "but we've been pretty warm once or twice all the same." He lumbered after the other three, yet something frisky about him, as about a pony released into a field and still uncertain of its bounding strength.
"Have you really?" remarked their leader, good-humouredly, but with a touch of sarcasm. "Good and right, so far as it goes; only 'warm' is not enough; we want to be hot, burning hot and steaming all the time. That's the way to find him." He paused and turned towards them; he gathered them nearer to him with his smiling eyes somehow. "It's like this," he went on more slowly than ever: "A good hider doesn't choose the difficult places; he chooses the common ordinary places where nobody would ever think of looking." He kept his eyes upon them to make sure they understood him. "The little, common places," he continued with emphasis, "that no one thinks worth while. He hides in the open--bang out in the open!"
"In the open!" cried the children. "The open air!"
"In the open!" gasped Uncle Felix. "The open sea!"
The Tramp almost winked at them. He looked like a lot of ordinary people. He looked like everybody. He looked like the whole world somehow. He smiled just like a multitude. He spoke, as it were, for all the world--said the one simple thing that everybody everywhere was trying to say in millions of muddled words and sentences. The wind and trees and sunshine said it with him, for him, after him, before him. He said the thing--so Uncle Felix felt, at any rate,--that was always saying itself, that was everywhere heard, though rarely listened to; but, according to the children, the thing they knew and believed already. Only it was nice to hear it stated definitely--they felt.
And the tide of enchantment rose higher and higher; in a tide of flowing gold it poured about all three.
"That's it," the Tramp continued, as though he had not noticed the rapture his very ordinary words had caused. "Sea and land and air together. But more than that--he hides deep and beautiful."
"Deeply and beautifully," murmured the writer of historical novels, all of them entirely forgotten now.
"Deep and beautiful," repeated the other, as though he preferred the rhythm of his own expression. He drew himself up and swallowed a long and satisfying draught of air and sunshine. He waved the little wagtail's feather before their eyes. He touched their faces with its tip. "Deep, tender, kind, and beautiful," he elaborated. "Those are the signs--signs that he's been along--just passed that way. The whole world's looking, and the whole world's full of signs!"
For a moment all stood still together like a group of leafy things a passing wind has shaken, then left motionless; a wild rose-bush, a climbing vine, a clinging ivy branch--all three kept close to the stalwart figure of their big, incomparable leader.
And Judy knew at last the thing she didn't know; Tim felt himself finally in the eternal centre of his haunted wood; in the eyes of Uncle Felix there was a glistening moisture that caught the sunlight like dew upon the early lawn. He staggered a little as though he were on a deck and the sea was rolling underneath him.
"How ever did you find it out?" he asked, after an interval that no one had cared to interrupt. "What in the world made you first think of it?" And though his voice was very soft and clear, it was just a little shaky.
"Well," drawled the Tramp, "maybe it was just because I thought of nothing else. On the road we live sort of simply. There's never any hurry; the wind's a-blowing free; everything's sweet and careless--and so am I." And he chuckled happily to himself.
"Let's begin at once!" cried Tim impatiently. "I feel warm already-- hot all over--simply burning."
The Tramp signified his agreement. "But you must each get a feather first," he told them, "a feather that a bird has dropped. It's a sign that we belong together. Birds know everything first. They go everywhere and see everything all at once. They're in the air, and on the ground, and on the water, and under it as well. They live in the open--sea or land. And if you have a feather in your hand--well, it means keeping in touch with everything that's going. They go light and easy; we must go light and easy too."
They stared at him with wonder at the breaking point. It all seemed so obviously and marvellously true. How had they missed it up till now?
"So get a feather," he went on quietly, "and then we can begin to look at once."
No one objected, no one criticised, no one hesitated. Tim knew where all the feathers were because he knew every nest in the garden. He led the way. In less than two minutes all had small, soft feathers in their hands.
"Now, we'll begin to look," the Tramp announced. "It's the loveliest game on earth, and the only one. It's Hide-and-Seek behind the rushing minutes. And, remember," he added, holding up a finger and chuckling happily, "there's no hurry, the wind's a-blowing free, the sun is warm, everything's sweet and careless--and so are we."
"But has he called yet?" asked Tim, remembering suddenly that it wasn't fair to begin till the hider announced that he was ready. "He's got to hoot first, you know. Hasn't he?" he added doubtfully.
"Listen!" replied the man of the long white roads. And he held his feather close against his ear, while the others copied him. Fixing their eyes upon a distant point, they listened, and as they listened, their lips relaxed, their mouths opened slowly, their eyebrows lifted --they heard, apparently, something too wonderful to be believed.
To Uncle Felix, still fumbling in his mind among unnecessary questions, it seemed that the power of hearing had awakened for the first time, or else had grown of a sudden extraordinarily acute. The children merely listened and said "Oh, oh, oh!"; the sound they heard was familiar, though never fully understood till now. For him, it was, perhaps, the recovery of a power he had long forgotten. At any rate he--heard. For the air passed through the tiny fronds of the feather-- through the veined web of its delicate resistance--round the hollow stem and across the fluffy breadth of it--with a humming music as of wind among the telegraph wires, only infinitely sweet and far away. There were several notes in it, a chord--the music that accompanies all flying things, even a butterfly or settling leaf, and ever fills the air with unguessed melody.
It opened their power of hearing to a degree as yet undreamed of even by the all-believing children. Their feathers became wee, accurate, tuning-forks for all existence. They understood that everything in the whole world sang; that no rose leaf fluttered to the earth, no rabbit twitched its ears, no mouse its tail, no single bluebell waved a head towards its bluer neighbour, without this exquisite accompaniment of fairy music.
"Listen, listen!" the Tramp repeated softly from time to time, watching their faces keenly. "Listen, and you'll hear him calling...!"
And this fairy humming, having so marvellously attuned their hearing, then led them on to the larger, louder sounds; they pricked their ears up, as the saying goes; they noticed the deeper music everywhere. For the morning breeze was rustling and whispering among the leaves and blades of grass with a thousand happy voices. It was the ordinary summer sound of moving air that no one pays attention to.
"Oh, that!" exclaimed Uncle Felix. "I hadn't noticed it." He felt ashamed. He who had taught them the beauty of the self-advertising Night-Wind, had somehow missed and overlooked the wonder--the searching, yearning beauty--of this meek, incomparable music: because it was so usual. For the first time in his life he heard the wind as it slipped between the leaves, shaking them into rapture.
"And that," laughed the Tramp, cocking his great head to catch the murmur of the stream beyond the lawn, "if the dust of furniture and houses ain't blocked your ears too thickly." They stooped to listen. "Like laughter, isn't it?" he observed, "singing and laughing mixed together?"
They straightened up again, too full of wonder to squeeze out any words.
"It's everywhere," said Uncle Felix, "this calling--these calling voices. Is that where you got your song from?"
"It's everywhere and always," replied the other evasively. "The birds get their singing from it. They get everything first, of course, then pass it on. The whole world's music comes from that, though there's nothing--nothing," he added with emphasis, "to touch the singing of a bird. He's calling everywhere and always," he went on as no one contradicted him or ventured upon any question; "only you've got to listen close. He calls soft and beautiful. He doesn't shout and yell at you."
"Soft and beautiful, yes," repeated Uncle Felix below his breath, "the small, still voices of the air and sea and earth." And, as he said it, they caught the murmur of the little stream; they heard singing in the air as well. The blackbirds whistled in one direction, the thrushes trilled and gurgled in another, and overhead, both among the covering leaves and from the open sky, a chorus of twittering and piping filled the chambers of the day. Judy recalled, as of long ago, the warning bugle-call of an up-and-under bird; Tim faintly remembered having overheard some swallows "discussing" together; Uncle Felix saw a robin perched against a sky of pearly grey at the end of an interminable corridor that stretched across whole centuries.... Then, close beside the three of them, a bumble-bee, a golden fly, and a company of summer gnats went by--booming, trumpeting, singing like a tiny carillon of bells respectively.
"Hark and listen," exclaimed the Tramp with triumph in his voice, and looking down at Tim particularly. "He's calling all the time. It's the little ordinary sounds that give the hints."
"It's an enormous hide; I mean to look for ever and ever," cried the delighted boy.
"I can hear everything in the world now," cried Judy.
"Signs," said Uncle Felix, after a pause. This time he did not make a question of his thought, but merely dropped the word out like a note of music into the air. His feather answered it and took it further.
The Tramp caught the word flying before it reached the ground:
"Deep, tender, kind and beautiful," he said, "but above all-- beautiful." He turned his shaggy head and looked about him carelessly. "There's one of them, for instance," he added, pointing across the lawn. "There's a sign. It means he's passed that way! He ain't too far away--may-be."
They followed the direction of his eyes. A dragon-fly paused hovering above the stream, its reflection mirrored in the clear running water underneath. Against the green palisade of reeds its veined and crystal wings scattered the sunlight into shining flakes. The blue upon its body burned--a patch of flaming beauty in mid-air. They watched it for a moment. Then, suddenly--it was gone, the spot was empty. But the speed, the poise, the perfect movement, the flashing wings, above all the flaming blue upon its tail still held them spellbound. Somehow, it seemed, they had borrowed that speed, that flashing beauty, making the loveliness part and parcel of themselves. Swiftly they turned and stared up at the Tramp. There was a rapt look upon his tangled face.
"A sign," he was saying softly. "He's passed this way. He can't be hiding very far from here." And, drawing a long, deep breath, he gazed about him into endless space as though about to sing again.
The dragon-fly had vanished, none knew whither, gone doubtless into some new hiding-place; it just gave the hint, then slipped away upon its business. But the wonder and the beauty it had brought remained behind, crept into every heart. The mystery of life, the reality that lay hiding at the core of things, the marvel and the dream--all these were growing clearer. All lovely things were "signs." And there fell a sudden hush upon the group, for the Thing that Nobody could Understand crept up and touched them.
Abruptly, then, lest the wonder of it should prove more than they could bear perhaps, a blackbird whistled with a burst of flying laughter at them from the shrubberies. Laughter and dancing both were part of wonder. The Tramp at once moved forward, chuckling in his beard; he waved his arms; his step was lighter, quicker; he was singing softly to himself: they only caught stray sentences, but they loved the windy ringing of his voice. They knew not where he borrowed words and tune: "The world is young with laughter; we can fly.... Among the imprisoned hours as we choose.... The birds are singing.... Hark! Come out and play.... There is no hurry.... Life has just begun...."
"Come on!" cried Tim. "Let's follow him; we're getting frightfully warm!"
He seized Judy and his uncle by the hands and cleared the rivulet with a running leap. The Tramp, however, preferred to wade across. "Get into everything you can," he explained in mid-stream with a laugh. "It keeps you in touch; it's all part of the looking."
He led them into the field where the blackbird still went on whistling its heart out into the endless summer morning. But to them it seemed that he led them out across the open world for ever and ever....
It grew very marvellous, this game of hide and seek. Sometimes they forgot it was a game at all, forgot what they were looking for, forgot that they were looking for anything or any one at all. Yet the mighty search continued subconsciously, even when passing incidents drew their attention from their chief desire. Always, at the back of thought, lay this exquisite, sweet memory in their hearts, something they half remembered, half forgot, but very dear, very marvellous. Some one was hiding somewhere, waiting, longing to play with them, expecting to be found.
It may be that intervals went by, those intervals called years and months; yet no one noticed them, and certainly no one named them. They knew one feeling only--the joy of endless search. Some one was hiding, some one was near, and signs lay scattered everywhere. This some one lay in his wonderful hiding-place and watched their search with laughter in his eyes. He remained invisible; perhaps they would never see him actually; but they felt his presence everywhere, in every object, every tree and flower and stone, in sun and wind, in water and in earth. The power and loveliness of common things became insistent. They were aware of them. It seemed they brushed against this shining presence, pushing for ever against a secret door of exit that led into the final hiding-place. Eager to play with them, yet more eager still to be discovered, the wonderful hider kept just beyond their sight and touch, while covering the playground with endless signs that he was near enough for them to know for certain he was--there. For among the four of them there was no heart that doubted. None explained. None said No.... Nor was there any hurry.
"I believe," announced Tim at length, with the air of a sage about him, "the best way is to sit still and wait; then he'll just come out like a rabbit and show himself." And, as no one contradicted, he added confidently, "that's my idea." His love was evidently among the things of the soil, rabbits, rats and hedgehogs, both hunter and adventurer strong in him.
"A hole!" cried Judy with indignation. "Never! He's in the air. I heard a bird just now that--"
"Whew!" whistled Uncle Felix, interrupting her excitedly. "He's been along here. Look! I'm sure of it." And he said it with such conviction that they ran up, expecting actual footprints.
"How do you know?" Tim asked dubiously, seeing no immediate proof himself. All paused for the reply; but Uncle Felix also paused. He had said a thing it seemed he could not justify.
"Don't hesitate," said the Tramp, watching him with amusement. "Don't think before you speak. There's nothing to think about until you've spoken."
Uncle Felix wore an expression of bewilderment. "I meant the flowers," he stammered, still unsure of his new powers.
"Of course," the other chuckled. "Didn't I tell you 'tender and beautiful,' and 'bang out in the open'?"
"Then you're right, Uncle; they are signs," cried Judy, "and you do like butter," and she danced away to pick the dandelions that smothered the field with gold. But the Tramp held out his feather like a wand.
"They're our best signs, remember," he cried. "You might as well pick a feather out of a living bird."
"Oh!"--and she pulled herself up sharply, a little flush running across her face and the wind catching at her flying hair. She swayed a moment, nearly overbalancing owing to the interrupted movement, and looking for all the world like a wild young rose tree, her eyes two shining blossoms in the air. Then she dropped down and buried her nose among the crowd of yellow flowers. She smelt them audibly, drawing her breath in and letting it out again as though she could almost taste and eat the perfume.
"That's better," said the Tramp approvingly. "Smell, then follow," and he moved forward again with his dancing, happy step. "All the wild, natural things do it," he cried, looking back over his shoulder at the three who were on their knees with faces pressed down against the yellow carpet. "It's the way to keep on the trail. Smell--then follow."
Something flashed through the clearing mind of the older man, though where it came from he had less idea than the dandelions: a mood of forgotten beauty rushed upon him--
"O, follow, follow! Through the caverns hollow, As the song floats thou pursue, Where the wild bee never flew--"
and he ran dancing forward after the great Tramp, singing the words as though they were his own.
Yet the flowers spread so thickly that the trail soon lost itself; it seemed like a paper-chase where the hare had scattered coloured petals instead of torn white copy-books. Each searcher followed the sign of his or her own favourite flower; like a Jack-in-the-Box each one bobbed up and down, smelling, panting, darting hither and thither as in the mazes of some gnat--or animal-dance, till knees and hands were stained with sweet brown earth, and lips and noses gleamed with the dust of orange-tinted pollen.
"Anyhow, I'd rather look than find," cried Tim, turning a somersault over a sandy rabbit-mound.
The swallows flashed towards Judy, a twittering song sprinkling itself like liquid silver behind them as they swooped away again.
"I expect," the girl confessed breathlessly, "that when we do find him--we shall just die--!"
"Of happiness, and wonder," ventured Uncle Felix, watching a common Meadow Brown that perched, opening and closing its wings, upon his sleeve. And the Tramp, almost invisible among high standing grass and thistles, laughed and called in his curious, singing voice, "There is no hurry! Life has just begun!"
"Then we might as well sit down," suggested Uncle Felix, and suiting the action to the word, chose a nice soft spot upon the mossy bank and made himself comfortable as though he meant to stay; the Tramp did likewise, gathering the children close about his tangled figure. For one thing a big ditch faced them, its opposite bank overgrown with bramble bushes, and for another the sloping moss offered itself invitingly, like a cushioned sofa. So they lay side by side, watching the empty ditch, listening to the faint trickle of water tinkling down it. Slender reeds and tall straight grasses fringed the nearer edge, and, as the wind passed through them with a hush and whisper, they bent over in a wave of flowing green.
"He's certainly gone that way," Judy whispered, following with her eyes the direction of the bending reeds. She was getting expert now.
"Along the ditch, I do believe," agreed Tim. There were no flowers in it, and few, perhaps, would have found beauty there, yet the pointing of the reeds was unmistakable. "It's chock full of stuff," he added, "but a rat could get along, so I suppose--"
"The signs are very slight sometimes," murmured the Tramp, his head half buried in the moss, "and sometimes difficult as well. You'd be surprised." He flung out his arms and legs and continued laughingly. "When things are contrary you may be sure you're getting somewhere-- getting warm, that is."
The children heard this outburst, but they did not listen. They were absorbed in something else already, for the movements of the reeds were fascinating. They began to imitate them, swaying their heads and bodies to and fro in time, and crooning to themselves in an attempt to copy the sound made by the wind among the crowded stalks.
"Don't," objected Uncle Felix, half in fun, "it makes me dizzy." He was tempted to copy them, however, and made an effort, but the movement caught him in the ribs a little. His body, like his mind, was not as supple as theirs. An oak tree or an elm, perhaps, was more his model.
"Do," the Tramp corrected him, swaying as he said it. "Swing with a thing if you want to understand it. Copy it, and you catch its meaning. That's rhythm!" He made an astonishing mouthful of the word. The children overheard it.
"How do you spell it?" Judy asked.
"I don't," he replied; "I do it. Once you get into the"--he took a great breath--"rhythm of a thing, you begin to like it. See?"
And he went on swaying his big shoulders in imitation of the rustling reeds. All four swayed together then, holding their feathers before them like little flying banners. More than ever, they seemed things growing out of the earth, out of the very ditch. The movement brought a delicious, soothing sense of peace and safety over them; earth, air, and sunshine all belonged to them, plenty for everybody, no need to get there first and snatch at the best places. There was no hurry, life had just begun. They seemed to have dug a hole in space and curled up cosily inside it. They whispered curious natural things to one another. "A wren is settling on my hair," said Judy: "a butterfly on my neck," said Uncle Felix: "a mouse," Tim mentioned, "is making its nest in my trousers pocket." And the Tramp kept murmuring in his voice of wind and water, "I'm full of air and sunlight, floating in them, floating away... my secret's in the wind and open sky... there is no longer any Time--to lose...."
A bright green lizard darted up the sun-baked bank, vanishing down a crack without a sound; it left a streak of fire in the air. A golden fly hovered about the tallest reed, then darted into another world, invisibly. A second followed it, a third, a fourth--points of gold that pinned the day fast against the moving wall of green. A wren shot at full speed along the bed of the ditch, threading its winding length together as upon a woven pattern. All were busy and intent upon some purpose common to the whole of them, and to everything else as well; even the things that did not move were doing something.
"I say," cried Tim suddenly, "they're covering him up. They're hiding him better so that we shan't find him. We've got too warm."
How long they had been in that ditch when the boy exclaimed no one could tell; perhaps a lifetime, or perhaps an age only. It was long enough, at any rate, for the Tramp to have changed visibly in appearance--he looked younger, thinner, sprightlier, more shining. He seemed to have shed a number of outward things that made him bulky-- bits of beard and clothing, several extra waistcoats, and every scrap of straw and stuff from the hedges that he wore at first. More and more he looked as Judy had seen him, ages and ages ago, emerging from the tarpaulin on the rubbish-heap at the End of the World.
He sprang alertly to his feet at the sound of Tim's exclamation. The sunlit morning seemed to spring up with him.
"We have been very warm indeed," he sang, "but we shall get warmer still before we find him. Besides, those things aren't hiding him-- they're looking. Everything and everybody in the whole wide world is looking, but the signs are different for everybody, don't you see? Each knows and follows their own particular sign. Come on!" he cried, "come on and look! We shall find him in the end."
The steep bank was easily managed. They were up it in a twinkling, a line of dancing figures, all holding hands.
First went the Tramp, shining and glowing like a mirror in the sunshine--fire surely in him; next Judy, almost flying with the joy and lightness in her--as of air; Tim barely able to keep tight hold of her hand, so busily did his feet love the roots and rabbit-holes of-- earth; and finally, Uncle Felix, rolling to and fro, now sideways, now toppling headlong, roaring as he followed like a heavy wave. Fire, air, earth, and water--they summarised existence; owned and possessed the endless day; lived it, were one with it. Their leader, who apparently had swallowed the sun, fused and unified them in this amazing way with--fire.
And hardly had they passed the line of shy forget-me-nots on the top of the bank, than they ran against a curious looking object that at first appeared to be an animated bundle of some kind, but on closer inspection proved to be a human figure stooping. It was somebody very busy about the edges of a great clump of bramble bushes. At the sound of their impetuous approach it straightened up. It had the face of a man--yellowish, patched with red, breathless and very hot. It was Come-back Stumper.
He glared at them, furious at being disturbed, yet with an uneasy air, half comical, half ashamed, as of being--caught. He took on a truculent, aggressive attitude, as though he knew he would have to explain himself and did not want to do so. He turned and faced them.
"Mornin'," he grunted fiercely. "It's a lovely day."
But they all agreed so promptly with him that he dropped the offensive at once. His face was very hot. It dripped.
"Energetic as usual," observed Uncle Felix, while Tim poked among the bushes to see what he had been after, and Judy offered him a very dirty handkerchief to mop his forehead with. His bald head shone and glistened. Wisps of dark hair lay here and there upon it like the feathers of a crow's torn wing.
"Thanks, dear," he said stiffly, using the few inches of ragged cambric and then tucking the article absent-mindedly into a pocket of his shooting coat. "I've been up very early--since dawn. Since dawn," he repeated in a much louder voice, "got up, in fact, with the sun." He meant to justify his extreme and violent activity. He glanced at the Tramp with a curious air of respect. Tim thought he saluted him, but Judy declared afterwards he was only wiping "the hot stuff off the side of his dear old head."
"Wonderful moment,--dawn, ain't it, General?" said the Tramp. "Best in the whole day when you come to think of it."
"It is, sir," replied Stumper, as proud as though a Field-Marshal had addressed him, "and the first." He looked more closely at the Tramp; he rubbed his eyes, and then produced the scrap of cambric and rubbed them again more carefully than before. Perhaps he, too, had been hoping for a leader! Something very proud and happy stole upon his perspiring face of ochre. He moved a step nearer. "Did you notice it this morning?" he asked in a whisper, "the dawn, I mean? Never saw anything like it in me life before. Thought I was in the Himalayas or the Caucasus again. Astonishin', upon me word--the beauty of it! And the birds! Did you hear 'em? Expect you usually do, though," he added with a touch of unmistakable envy and admiration in his tone.
"Uncommon," agreed the Tramp, "and no mistake about it. They knew, you see." They no longer called each other "Sir" and "General"; they had come to an understanding apparently.
"Umph!" said Stumper, and looked round shyly at the others.
Stumper was evidently under the stress of some divine emotion he was half ashamed of. An unwonted passion stirred him. He seemed a prey to an unusual and irrepressible curiosity. Only the obvious fact that his listeners shared the same feelings with him loosened his sticky tongue and stole self-consciousness away. He had expected to be laughed at. Instead the group admired him. The Tramp--his manner proved it-- thought of him very highly indeed.
"Never knew such a day in all me life before," Stumper admitted frankly. "Couldn't--simply couldn't stay indoors."
He still retained a trace of challenge in his tone. But no one challenged. Judy took his arm. "So you came out?" she said softly.
"Like us," said Uncle Felix.
"Of course," Tim added. But it was the Tramp who supplied the significant words they had all been waiting for, Stumper himself more eagerly than any one else. "To look," he remarked quite naturally.
Stumper might have just won a great world-victory, judging by the expression that danced upon his face. He dropped all pretence at further concealment. He put his other arm round Tim's shoulder, partly to balance himself better against Judy's pushing, and partly because he realised the companionship of both children as very dear just then. He had a great deal to say, and wanted to say it all at once, but words never came to him too easily; he had missed many an opportunity in life for the want of fluent and spontaneous address. He stammered and halted somewhat in his delivery. A new language with but a single word in it would have suited him admirably.
"Yes," he growled, "I came out--to look. But when I got out--I clean forgot what it was--who, I mean--no, what," he corrected himself again, "I'd come out to look for. Can't make it out at all." He broke off in a troubled way.
"No?" agreed Judy sympathetically, as though she knew.
"But you want to find it awfully," Tim stated as a fact.
"Awfully," admitted Stumper with a kind of fierceness.
"Only you can't remember what it looks like quite?" put in Uncle Felix.
Stumper hesitated a moment. "Too wonderful to remember properly," he said more quietly; something like that. "But the odd thing is," he went on in a lower tone, "I've seen it. I know I've seen it. Saw it this mornin'--very early--when the pigeon woke me up--at dawn."
"Pigeon!" exclaimed Tim and Judy simultaneously. "Dawn!"
"Carrier-pigeon--flew in at my open window--woke me," continued the soldier in his gruff old voice. "I've used 'em--carrier-pigeons, you know. Sent messages--years ago. I understand the birds a bit. Extraordinary thing, I thought. Got up and looked at it." He blocked again.
"Ah!" said some one, by way of encouragement.
"And it looked back at me." By the way he said it, it was clear he hardly expected to be believed.
"Of course," said Uncle Felix.
"Naturally," added Tim.
"And what d'you think?" Stumper went on, a note of yearning and even passion in his voice. "What d'you think?" he whispered: "I felt it had a message for me--brought me a message--something to tell me--"
"Round its neck or foot?" asked Tim.
Stumper drew the boy closer and looked down into his face. "Eyes," he mumbled, "in its small bright eyes. There was a flash, I saw it plainly--something strange and marvellous, something I've been looking for all my life."
No one said a single word, but the old soldier felt the understanding sympathy rising like steam from all of them.
"Then, suddenly, it was gone--out into the open sky--bang into the sunrise. And I saw the dawn all over everything. I dressed--rushed out--and--"
"Had it laid an egg?" Tim asked, remembering another kind of hunting somewhere, long ago.
"How could it?" Judy corrected him quickly. "There was--no time--" then stopped abruptly. She turned towards Come-Back Stumper; she gave him a hurried and affectionate hug. "And then," she asked, "what happened next?"
Stumper returned the hug, including Tim in it too. "I found this-- fluttering in my hand," he said, and held up a small grey feather for them to admire. "It's the only clue I've got. The pigeon left it."
While they admired the feather and exhibited their own, Tim crying, "We've got five now, nearly a whole wing!" Stumper was heard to murmur above their heads, "And since I--came out to look--I've felt--quite different."
"Your secret's in the wind and open sky!" cried Judy, dancing round him with excitement. Her voice came flying from the air.
"You're awfully warm--you're hot--you're burning!" shouted Tim, clapping his hands. His voice seemed to rise out of the earth.
"We've all seen it, all had a glimpse," roared Uncle Felix with a sound of falling water, rolling up nearer as he spoke. "It's too wonderful to see for long, too wonderful to remember quite. But we shall find it in the end. We're all looking!" He began a sort of dancing step. "And when we find it--" he went on.
"We'll change the world," shouted Stumper, as though he uttered a final word of command.
"It's a he, remember," interrupted Tim. "Come along!"
And then the Tramp, who had been standing quietly by, smiling to himself but saying nothing, came nearer, opened his great arms and drew the four of them together. His voice, his shining presence, the warm brilliance that glowed about him, seemed to envelop them like a flame of fire and a fire of--love.
"We're thinking and arguing too much," he drawled in his leisurely, big voice, "we lose the trail that way, we lose the rhythm. Just love and look and wonder--then we'll find him. There is no hurry, life has just begun. But keep on looking all the time." He turned to Stumper with a chuckle. "You said you had a flash," he reminded him. "What's become of it? You can't have lost it--with that pigeon's feather in your hand!"
"It's waggling," announced Tim, holding up his own, while the others followed suit. The little feathers all bent one way--towards the bramble clump. Their tiny, singing music was just audible in the pause.
"Yes," replied Come-Back Stumper at length. "I've had a flash-- flashes, in fact! What's more," he added proudly, "I was after a couple of them--just when you arrived."
Everybody talked at once then. Uncle Felix and the children fell to explaining the signs and traces they had already discovered, each affirming vehemently that their own particular sign was the loveliest --the dragon-fly, the flowers, the wind, the bending reeds, even the lizard and the bumble-bee. The chorus of sound was like the chattering of rooks among the tree-tops; in fact, though the quality of tone of course was different, the resemblance to a concert of birds, all singing together in a summer garden, was quite striking. Out of the hubbub single words emerged occasionally--a "robin," "swallows," an "up-and-under bird"--yet, strange to say, so far as Stumper was concerned, only one thing was said; all said the same one thing; he heard this one thing only--as though the words and sentences they used were but different ways of pronouncing it, of spelling it, of uttering it. Moreover, the wind in the feather said it too, for the sound and intonation were similar. It was the thing that wind and running water said, that flame roared in the fireplace, that rain-drops pattered on the leaves, even house-flies, buzzing across the window-panes-- everything everywhere, the whole earth, said it.
He stood still, listening in amazement. His face had dried by now; he passed his hand across it; he tugged at his fierce military moustache.
"Hiding--near us--in the open--everywhere," he muttered, though no one heard him; "I've had my flashes too."
"Different people get different signs, of course," the Tramp made himself heard at length, "but they're all the same. All lie along the trail. The earth's a globe and circle, so everything leads to the same place--in the end."
"Yes," said Stumper; "thank you"--as though he knew it already, but felt that it was neatly put.
"Follow up your flash," added the Tramp. "Smell--then follow. That is --keep on looking."
Stumper turned, pirouetting on what the children called his "living leg." "I will," he cried, with an air of self-abandonment, and promptly diving by a clever manoeuvre out of their hands, he fell heavily upon all fours, and disappeared beneath the dense bramble bushes just behind them. Panting, and certainly perspiring afresh, he forced his way in among the network of thick leaves and prickly branches. They heard him puffing; it seemed they heard him singing too, as he reached forward with both arms into the dark interior. Caught by his whole-hearted energy, they tried to help; they pushed behind; they did their best to open a way for his head between the entwining brambles.
"Don't!" he roared inside. "You'll scratch my eyes out. I shan't see-- anything!" His mouth apparently was full of earth. They watched the retreating soles of his heavy shooting-boots. Slowly the feet were dragged in after him. They disappeared from sight. Stumper was gone.
"He'll come back, though," mentioned Judy. The performance had been so interesting that she almost forgot its object, however. Tim reminded her. "But he won't find anything in a smelly place like that," he declared. "I mean," he added, "it can't be a beetle or a grub that we're--looking for." Yet there was doubt and wonder in his voice. Stumper, a "man like that," and a soldier, a hunter too, who had done scouting in an Indian jungle, and met tigers face to face--a chap like that could hardly disappear on all fours into a clump of bramble bushes without an excellent reason!
An interval of comparative silence followed, broken only by the faint murmur of the wind that stirred their humming feathers. They stood in a row and listened intently. Hardly a sound came from the interior of the bramble bushes. The soldier had justified his title. He had retired pletely. To Judy it occurred that he might be suffocated, to Tim that he might have been eaten by some animal, to Uncle Felix that he might have slipped out at the other side and made his escape. But no one expressed these idle thoughts in words. They believed in Stumper really. He invariably came back. This time would be no exception to the rule.
And, presently, as usual, Stumper did come back. They heard him grunting and panting long before a sign of him was visible. They heard his voice, "Got him! Knew I was right! Bah! Ugh!" as he spluttered earth and leaves from his mouth apparently. He emerged by degrees and backwards; backed out, indeed, like an enormous rabbit. His boots, his legs, his hands planted on the ground, his neck and then his face, looking out over his shoulder, appeared successively. "Just the kind of place he would choose!" he exclaimed triumphantly, collapsing back upon his haunches and taking a long, deep breath. Beside the triumph in his voice there was a touch of indescribable, gruff sweetness the children knew was always in his heart--no amount of curried-liver trouble could smother that. Just now it was more marked than usual.
"Show us!" they cried, gathering round him. Judy helped him to his feet; he seemed a little unsteady. Purple with the exertion of the search, both cheeks smeared with earth, neck-tie crooked, and old grey shooting-coat half-way up his back, Come-Back Stumper stood upright, and looked at them with shining eyes. He was the picture of a happy and successful man.
"There!" he growled, and held out a hand, palm upwards, still trembling with his recent exertions. "Didn't I tell you?"
They crowded round to examine a small object that lay between two smears of earth in the centre of the upturned palm. It was round and had a neat little opening on its under side. It was pretty, certainly. Their heads pressed forward in a bunch, like cabbages heaped for market. But no one spoke.
"See it?" said Stumper impatiently; "see what it is?" He bent forward till his head mixed with theirs, his big aquiline nose in everybody's way.
"We see it--yes," said Uncle Felix without enthusiasm. "It's a snail shell--er--I believe?" The shade of disappointment in his voice was reflected in the children's faces too, as they all straightened up and gazed expectantly at the panting soldier. "Is that all?" was the sentence no one liked to utter.
But Stumper roared at them. "A snail shell!" he boomed; "of course it's a snail shell! But did you ever see such a snail shell in your lives before? Look at the colour! Look at the shape! Put it against your ears and hear it singing!" He was furious with their lack of appreciation.
"It's the common sort," said Uncle Felix, braver than the others, "something or other vulgaris--"
"Hundreds of them everywhere," mentioned Tim beneath his breath to Judy.
But Stumper overheard them.
"Common sort! Hundreds everywhere!" he shouted, his voice almost choking in his throat; "look at the colour! Look at the shape, I tell you! Listen to it!" He said the last words with a sudden softness.
They lowered their heads again for a new examination.
"What more d'you want, I'd like to know? There's colour for you! There's wonder! There's a sheer bit of living beauty!" and he lowered his head again so eagerly that it knocked audibly against Tim's skull.
"Please move your nose away," said Tim, "I can't see."
"Common indeed!" growled the soldier, making room willingly enough, while they obeyed his booming orders. They felt a little ashamed of themselves for being so obtuse, for now that they looked closer they saw that the shell was certainly very beautiful. "Common indeed!" he muttered again. "Why, you don't know a sign when it's straight before your noses!"
Judy pulled the fingers apart to make it roll towards her; she felt it all over, stroking the smooth beauty of its delicate curves. It was exquisitely tinted. It shone and glistened in the morning sunlight. She put it against her ear and listened. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "It is singing," as the murmur of the wind explored its hollow windings.
"That's the Ganges," explained Stumper in a softer voice. "The waves of the Ganges breaking on the yellow sands of India. Wind in the jungle too." His face looked happy as he watched her; his explosions never lasted long.
She passed it over to her brother, who crammed it against his ear and listened with incredible grimaces as though it hurt him. "I can hear the tigers' footsteps," he declared, screwing up his eyes, "and birds of paradise and all sorts of things." He handed it on reluctantly to his uncle, who listened so deeply in his turn that he had to shut both eyes. "I hear calling voices," he murmured to himself, "voices calling, calling everywhere....it's wonderful... like a sea of voices from the other side of the world... the whole world's singing...!"
"And look at the colour, will you?" urged Stumper, snatching it away from the listener, who, seemed in danger of becoming entranced. "Why, he's not only passed this way--he's actually touched it. That's his touch, I tell you!"
"That's right," mumbled the Tramp, watching the whole performance with approval. "Folks without something are always sharper than the others." But this reference to a wooden leg was also too low for any one to hear it.
Besides Stumper was saying something wonderful just then; he lowered his voice to say it; there was suppressed excitement in him; he frowned and looked half savagely at them all:
"I found other signs as well," he whispered darkly. "Two other signs. In the darkness of those bushes I saw--another flash--two of 'em!" And he slowly extended his other hand which till now he had kept behind his back. It was tightly clenched. He unloosed the fingers gradually. "Look!" he whispered mysteriously. And the hand lay open before their eyes. "He's been hiding in those very bushes, I tell you. A moment sooner and we might have caught him."
His enthusiasm ran all over them as they pressed forward to examine the second grimy hand. There were two things visible in it, and both were moving. One, indeed, moved so fast that they hardly saw it. There was a shining glimpse--a flash of lovely golden bronze shot through with blue--and it was gone. Like a wee veiled torch it scuttled across the palm, climbed the thumb, popped down the other side and dropped upon the ground. Vanished as soon as seen!
"A beetle!" exclaimed Uncle Felix. "A tiny beetle!"
"But dipped in colour," said Stumper with enthusiasm, "the colour of the dawn!"
"Another sign! I never!" He was envious of the soldier's triumph.
"He looks in the unlikely places," muttered the Tramp again, approvingly. "You've been pretty warm this time." But, again, he said it too low to be audible. Besides, Stumper's other "find" engrossed everybody's attention. All were absorbed in the long, dainty object that clung cautiously to his hand and showed no desire to hurry out of sight after the brilliant beetle. It was familiar enough to all of them, yet marvellous. It presented itself in a new, original light.
They watched it spellbound; its tiny legs moved carefully over the wrinkles of the soldier's skin, feeling its way most delicately, and turning its head this way and that to sniff the unaccustomed odour. Sometimes it looked back to admire its own painted back, and to let its distant tail know that all was going well. The coloured hairs upon the graceful body were all a-quiver. It fairly shone. There was obviously no fear in it; it had perfect control of all its length and legs. Yet, fully aware that it was exploring a new country, it sometimes raised its head in a hesitating way and looked questioningly about it and even into the great faces so close against its eyes.
"A caterpillar! A common Woolly Bear!" observed Tim, yet with a touch of awe.
"It tickles," observed Stumper.
"I'll get a leaf," Judy whispered. "It doesn't understand your smell, probly." She turned and picked the biggest she could find, and the caterpillar, after careful observation, moved forward on to it, turning to inform its following tail that all was safe. Gently and cleverly they restored it to the bush whence Stumper had removed it. It went to join the snail-shell and the beetle. They stood a moment in silence and watched the quiet way it hid itself among the waves of green the wind stirred to and fro. It seemed to melt away. It hid itself. It left them. It was gone.
And Stumper turned and looked at them with the air of a man who has justified himself. He had certainly discovered definite signs.
But there was bewilderment among the group as well as pleasure. For signs, they began to realise now, were everywhere indeed. The world was smothered with them. There was no one clear track that they could follow. All Nature seemed organised to hide the thing they looked for. It was a conspiracy. It was, indeed, an "enormous hide," an endless game of hide-and-seek. The interest and the wonder increased sensibly in their hearts. The thing they sought to find, the Stranger, "It," by whatever name each chose to call the mysterious and evasive "hider," was so marvellously hidden. The glimpse they once had known seemed long, long ago, and very far away. It lay like a sweet memory in each heart, half forgotten, half remembered, but always entirely believed in, very dear and very exquisite. The precious memory urged them forward. They would search and search until they re-discovered it, even though their whole lives were spent in the looking. They were quite positive they would find him in the end.
All this lay somehow in the expression on Stumper's face as he glared at them and ejaculated a triumphant "There! I told you so!" And at that moment, as though to emphasize the thrill of excited bewilderment they felt, a gorgeous brimstone butterfly sailed carelessly past before their eyes and vanished among the pools of sunlight by the forest edge. Its presence added somehow to the elusive and difficult nature of their search. Its flamboyant beauty was a kind of challenge.
"That's what the caterpillar gets into," observed Tim dreamily.
"Let's follow it," said Judy. "I believe the flying signs are best."
"Puzzlin' though," put in the Tramp behind them. They had quite forgotten his existence. "Let's ask the gardener what he thinks."
He pointed to a spot a little further along the edge of the wood where the figure of a man was visible. It seemed a good idea. Led by the Tramp, Uncle Felix and Stumper following slowly in the rear, they moved forward in a group. Weeden might have seen something. They would ask him.
John WEEDEN--the children always saw his surname in capitals--was probably the most competent Head Gardener of his age, or of any other age: he supplied the household with fruit and vegetables without grumbling or making excuses. When asked to furnish flowers at short notice for a dinner-party he made no difficulty, but just produced them. Neither did he complain about the weather; wet or dry, it was always exactly what his garden needed. All weather to him was Fine Weather. He believed in his garden, loved it, lived in it, was almost part of it. To make excuses for it was to make excuses for himself. WEEDEN was a genius.
But he was mysterious too. He was one-eyed, and the loss endeared him to the children, relating him also, once or twice removed, to Come- Back Stumper; it touched their imaginations. Being an artist, too, he never told them how he lost it, a pitchfork and a sigh were all he vouchsafed upon the exciting subject. He understood the value of restraint, and left their minds to supply what details they liked best. But this wink of pregnant suggestion, while leaving them divinely unsatisfied, sent them busily on the search. They imagined the lost optic roaming the universe without even an attendant eyelid, able to see things on its own account--invisible things. "Weeden's lost eye's about," was a delightful and mysterious threat; while "I can see with the Gardener's lost eye," was a claim to glory no one could dispute, for no one could deny it. Its chief duty, however, was to watch the "froot and vegebles" at night and to keep all robbers-- two-foot, four-foot, winged, or wriggling robbers--from what Aunt Emily called "destroying everything."
A source of wonder to the children, this competent official was at the same time something of an enigma to the elders. His appearance, to begin with, was questionable, and visitors, being shown round the garden, had been known to remark upon it derogatively sometimes. It was both in his favour and against him. For, either he looked like an untidy parcel of brown paper, loose ends of string straggling out of him, or else--in his Sunday best--was indistinguishable from a rose- bush wrapped up carefully in matting against the frost. Yet, in either aspect, no one could pretend that he looked like anything but a genuine Head Gardener, the spirit of the kitchen-garden and the potting-shed incarnate.
It was the way he answered questions that earned for him the title of enigma--he avoided a direct reply. (He was so cautious that he would hesitate even when he came to die.) He would think twice about it. The decision to draw the final breath would incapacitate him. He would feel worse--and probably continue alive instead, from sheer inability to make his mind up. In all circumstances, owing to his calling doubtless, he preferred to hedge. If Mrs. Horton asked for celery, he would intimate "I'll have a look." When Daddy enquired how the asparagus was doing, he obtained for reply, "Won't you come and see it for yourself, sir?" Upon Mother's anxious enquiry if there would be enough strawberries for the School Treat, WEEDEN stated "It's been a grand year for the berries, mum." Then, just when she felt relieved, he added, "on the 'ole."
For the children, therefore, the Gardener was a man of mystery and power, and when they saw his figure in the distance, their imagination leaped forward with their bodies, and WEEDEN stood wrapped in a glory he little guessed. He was bent double, digging (as usual in his spare time) for truffles beneath the beech trees. These mysterious delicacies with the awkward name he never found, but he liked looking for them.
At first he was so intent upon his endless quest that he did not hear the approach of footsteps.
"No hurry," said the Tramp, as they collected round the stooping figure and held their feathers up to warn his back. For the wandering eye had a way of seeing what went on behind him. An empty sack, waiting for the truffles, lay beside him. He looked like an untidy parcel, so he was not in his Sunday clothes.
At the sound of voices he straightened slowly and looked round. He seemed pleased with everything, judging by the expression of his eye, yet doubtful of immediate success.
"Good mornin'," he said, touching his speckled cap to the authorities.
"Found any?" enquired Uncle Felix, sympathetically.
"It seems a likely spot, maybe," was the reply. "I'm looking." And he closed the mouth of the sack with his foot lest they should see its emptiness.
But the use of the verb set the children off at once.
"I say," Tim exploded eagerly, "we're looking too--for somebody who's hiding. Have you seen any one?"
"Some one very wonderful?" said Judy. "Has he passed this way? It's Hide-and-Seek, you know."
WEEDEN looked more mysterious at once. It was strange how a one-eyed face could express so big a meaning. He scratched his head and smiled.
"All my flowers and vegitubles is a-growin' nicely," he said at length. "It is a lovely mornin' for a game." His eye closed and opened. The answer was more direct than usual. It meant volumes. WEEDEN was in the know. They felt him somehow related to their leader --a kind of organised and regulated tramp.
"You have seen him, then?" cried Judy.
"With your gone eye!" exclaimed Tim. "Which way? And what signs have you got?"
"Flowers, beetles, snail-shells, caterpillars--anything beautiful is a sign, you know," went on Judy, breathlessly.
"Deep, tender, kind and beautiful," interposed the Tramp, laying the accent significantly on the first adjective, as if for Weeden's special benefit.
WEEDEN looked up. "Sounds like my garden things," he said darkly, more to himself than to the others. He gazed down into the hole he had been digging. The moist earth glistened in the sunlight. He sniffed the sweet, rich odour of it, and scratched his head in the same spot as before--just beneath the peak of his speckled cap. His nose wrinkled up. Then he looked again into the faces, turning his single eye slowly upon each in turn. The Tramp's remark had reached his cautious brain.
"There's no sayin' where anybody sich as you describe him to be might hide hisself a day like this," he observed deliberately, his optic ranging the sunny landscape with approval. "I never saw sich a beautiful day before--not like to-day. It's endless sort of. Seems to me as if I'd been at this 'ole for weeks."
He paused. The others waited. WEEDEN was going to say something real any moment now, they felt.
"No hurry," the Tramp reminded him. "Everything's light and careless, and so are we. There is no longer any Time--to lose."
His voice half sang, half chanted in the slow, windy way he had, and the Gardener looked up as if a falling apple had struck him on the head. He shifted from one leg to the other; he seemed excited, moved. His single eye was opened--to the sun. He looked as if his body was full of light.
"You was the singer, was you?" he asked wonderingly, the tone low and quiet. "It was you I heard a-singin'--jest as dawn broke!" He scratched his head again. "And me thinkin' all the time it was a bird!" he added to himself.
The Tramp said nothing.
WEEDEN then resumed his ordinary manner; he went on speaking as before. But obviously--somewhere deep down inside himself--he had come to a big decision.
"Gettin' nearer and nearer," he resumed his former conversation exactly where he had left it off, "but never near enough to get disappointed--ain't it? When you gets to the end of anything, you see, it's over. And that's a pity."
Uncle Felix glanced at Stumper; Stumper glanced down at the end of his "wooden" leg; the Tramp still said nothing, smiling in his beard, now combed out much smoother than before.
"It comes to this," said Weeden, "my way of thinkin' at least." He scratched wisdom from another corner of his head. "There's a lot of 'iding goin' on, no question about that; and the great thing is--my way of thinkin' at any rate--is--jest to keep on lookin'."
The children met him eagerly at this point, using two favourite words that Aunt Emily strongly disapproved of: "deslidedly," said one; "distinkly," exclaimed the other.
"That's it," continued WEEDEN, pulling down his cap to hide, perhaps, the spot where wisdom would leak out. "And, talking of signs, I say-- find out yer own pertickler sign, then follow it blindly--till the end."
He straightened up and looked with an air of respectful candour at the others. The decision of his statement delighted them. The children felt something of awe in it. Something of their Leader's knowledge evidently was in him.
"Miss Judy, she gets 'er signs from the air," he said, as no one spoke. "Master Tim goes poking along the ground, looking for something with his feet. He feels best that way, feels the earth--things a- growin' up or things wot go down into 'oles. Colonel Stumper--and no offence to you, sir--chooses dark places where the sun forgets to shine--"
"Dangerous, jungly places," whispered Tim, admiringly.
"And Mr. Felix--" he hesitated. Uncle Felix's easiest way of searching seemed to puzzle him. "Mr. Felix," he went on at length, "jest messes about all over the place at once, because 'e sees signs everywhere and don't know what to foller in partickler for fear of losin' hisself."
Come-Back Stumper chuckled audibly, but Uncle Felix asked at once-- "And you, WEEDEN? What about yourself, I wonder?"
The Gardener replied without his usual hesitation. It was probably the most direct reply he had ever made. No one could guess how much it cost him. "Underground," he said. "My signs lies underground, sir. Where the rain-drops 'ides theirselves on getting down and the grubs keeps secret till they feel their wings. Where the potatoes and the reddishes is," he added, touching his cap with a respectful finger. He went on with a hint of yearning in his tone that made it tremble slightly: "If I could find igsackly where and 'ow the potatoes gets big down there"--he pointed to the earth--"or how my roses get colour out of the dirt--I'd know it, wouldn't I, sir? I'd--'ave him, fair!"
The effort exhausted him, it seemed. So deeply was he moved that he had almost gone contrary to his own nature in making such an explicit statement. But he had said something very real at last. It was clear that he was distinctly in the know. Living among natural growing things, he was in touch with life in a deeper sense than they were.
"And me?" the Tramp mentioned lightly, smiling at his companion of the outdoor life. "Don't leave me out, please. I'm looking like the rest of you."
WEEDEN turned round and gazed at him. He wore a strange expression that had respect in it, but something more than mere respect. There was a touch of wonder in his eye, a hint of worship almost. But he did not answer; no word escaped his lips. Instead of speaking he moved up nearer; he took three cautious steps, then halted close beside the great burly figure that formed the centre of the little group.
And then he did a curious and significant little act; he held out both his hands against him as a man might hold out his hands to warm them before a warm and comforting grate of blazing coals.
"Fire," he said; then added, "and I'm much obliged to you."
He wore a proud and satisfied air, grateful and happy too. He put his cap straight, picked up his spade, and prepared without another word to go on digging for truffles where apparently none existed. He seemed quite content with--looking.
A pause followed, broken presently by Tim: a whisper addressed to all.
"He never finds any. That shows how real it is."
"They're somewhere, though," observed Judy.
They stood and watched the spade; it went in with a crunching sound; it came out slowly with a sort of "pouf," and a load of rich, black earth slid off it into the world of sunshine. It went in again, it came out again; the rhythm of the movement caught them. How long they watched it no one knew, and no one cared to know: it might have been a moment, it may have been a year or two; so utterly had hurry vanished out of life it seemed to them they stood and watched for ever...when they became aware of a curious sensation, as though they felt the whole earth turning with them. They were moving, surely. Something to which they belonged, of which they formed a part--was moving. A windy voice was singing just in front of them. They looked up. The words were inaudible, but they knew it was a bit of the same old song that every one seemed singing everywhere as though the Day itself were singing.
The Tramp was going on.
"Hark!" said Tim. "The birds are singing. Let's go on and look."
"The world is wild with laughter," Judy cried, snatching the words from the air about her. "We can fly--" She darted after him.
"Among the imprisoned hours as we choose," boomed the voice of Uncle Felix, as he followed, rolling in behind her.
"We can play," growled Stumper, hobbling next in the line. "My life has just begun."
Their Leader waited till they all came up with him. They caught him up, gathering about him like things that settled on a sunny bush. It almost seemed they were one single person growing from the earth and air and water. The Tramp glowed there between them like a heart of burning fire.
"He ought to be with us, too," said Judy, looking back.
"No hurry," replied the Tramp. "Let him be; he's following his sign. When he's ready, he'll come along. It's a lovely day."
They moved with the rhythm of a flock of happy birds across the field of yellow flowers, singing in chorus something or other about an "extra day." A hundred years flowed over them, or else a single instant. It mattered not. They took no heed, at any rate. It was so enormous that they lost themselves, and yet so tiny that they held it between a finger and a thumb. The important thing was--that they were getting warmer.
Then Judy suddenly nudged Tim, and Tim nudged Uncle Felix, and Uncle Felix dug his elbow into Come-Back Stumper, and Stumper somehow or other caught the attention of the Tramp--a sort of panting sound, half-whistle and half-gasp. They paused and looked behind them.
"He's ready," remarked their Leader, with a laughing chuckle in his beard. "He's coming on!"
WEEDEN, sure enough, had quietly shouldered his shovel and empty sack, and was making after them, singing as he came. Judy was on the point of saying to her brother, "Good thing Aunt Emily isn't here!" when she caught a look in his eyes that stopped her dead.
"My dear!" he exclaimed in his tone of big discovery.
Judy made a movement like a swan that inspects the world behind its back. She tried to look everywhere at once. It seemed she did so.
"Gracious me!" she cried. She instinctively chose prohibited words. "My gracious me!"
For the places of the world had marvellously shifted and run into one another somehow. A place called "Somewhere Else" was close about her; and standing in the middle of it was--a figure. Both place and figure ought to have been somewhere else by rights. Judy's surprise, however, was quite momentary; swift, bird-like understanding followed it. Place was a sham and humbug really; already, without leaving the schoolroom carpet, she and Tim had been to the Metropolis and even to the East. This was merely another of these things she didn't know she knew; she understood another thing she didn't understand. She believed.
The rest of the party had disappeared inside the wood; only Tim remained--pointing at this figure outlined against the trees. But these trees belonged to a place her physical eyes had never seen. Perhaps they were part of her mental picture of it. The figure, anyhow, barred the way.
It was a woman, the last person in the world they wished to see just then. The face, wearing an expression as though it tried to be happy when it felt it ought not to be, was pointed; chin, ears, and eye- brows pointed; nose pointed too--round doors and into corners--an elastic nose; there was a look of struggling sweetness about the thin, tight lips; the entire expression, from the colourless eyes down to the tip of the decided chin, was one of marked reproach and disapproval that at the same time fought with an effort to be understanding, gentle, wise. The face wanted to be very nice, but was prevented by itself. It was pathetic. Its owner was dressed in black, a small, neat bonnet fastened carefully on the head, an umbrella in one hand, and big goloshes on both feet. There were gold glasses balanced on the nose. She smiled at them, but with a smile that prophesied rebuke. Before she spoke a word, her entire person said distinctly NO.
"Bother!" Tim muttered beneath his breath, then added, "It's her!" Already he felt guilty--of something he had not done, but might do presently. The figure's mere presence invited him to break all rules.
"We thought," exclaimed Judy, trying to remember what rules she had just disobeyed, and almost saying "hoped,"--"we thought you were at Tunbridge Wells." Then with an effort she put in "Aunty."
Yet about the new arrival was a certain flustered and uneasy air, as though she were caught in something that she wished to hide--at any rate something she would not willingly confess to. One hand, it was noticed, she kept stiffly behind her back.
"Children," she uttered in an emphatic voice, half-surprised remonstrance, half-automatic rebuke; "I am astonished!" She looked it. She pursed her lips more tightly, and gazed at the pair of culprits as though she had hoped better things of them and again had been disappointed. "You know quite well that this is out of bounds." It came out like an arrow, darting.
"We were looking for some one," began Tim, but in a tone that added plainly enough "it wasn't you."
"Who's hiding, you see," quoth Judy, "but expecting us--at once." The delay annoyed her.
"You are both well aware," Aunt Emily went on, ignoring their excuses as in duty bound, "that your parents would not approve. At this hour of the morning too! You ought to be fast asleep in bed. If your father knew--!"
Yet, strange to say, the children felt that they loved her suddenly; for the first time in their lives they thought her lovable. A kind of understanding sympathy woke in them; there was something pitiable about her. For, obviously, she was looking just as they were, but looking in such a silly way and in such hopelessly stupid places. All her life she had been looking like this, dressed in crackling black, wearing a prickly bonnet and heavy goloshes, and carrying a useless umbrella that of course must bother her. It was disappointment that made her talk as she did. But it was natural she should feel disappointment, for it never rained when she had her umbrella, and her goloshes were always coming off.
"She's stuck in a hole," thought Tim, "and so she just says things at us. She hurts herself somewhere. She's tired."
"She has to be like that," thought Judy. "It's really all pretending. Poor old thing!"
But Aunt Emily was not aware of what they felt. They were out of bed, and it was her duty to find fault; they were out of bounds, and she must take note of it. So she prepared to scold a little. Her bonnet waggled ominously. She gripped her umbrella. She spoke as though it was very early in the morning, almost dawn--as though the sun were rising. There was confusion in her as to the time of day, it seemed. But the children did not notice this. They were so accustomed to being rebuked by her that the actual words made small impression. She was just "saying things"; they were often very muddled things; the attitude, not the meaning, counted. And her attitude, they divined, was subtly different.
"You know this is forbidden," she said. "It is damp and chilly. It's sure to rain presently. You'll get your feet wet. You should keep to the gravel paths. They're plain enough, are they not?" She looked about her, sniffing--a sniff that usually summoned disasters in a flock.
"Oh, yes," said Tim; "and they look like brown sugar, we thought."
"It does not matter what you thought, Timothy. The paths are made on purpose to be walked upon and used--"
"They're beautifully made," interrupted Judy, unable to keep silent longer. "WEEDEN made them for us."
"And we've used them all," exclaimed Tim, "only we came to an end of them. We've done with them--paths!" The way he uttered the substantives made it instantly sound ridiculous.
Aunt Emily opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again without saying it. She stared at them instead. They watched her. All fear of her had left their hearts. A new expression rose struggling upon her pointed features. She fidgeted from one foot to the other. They felt her as "Aunty," a poor old muddled thing, always looking in ridiculous places without the smallest notion she was wrong. Tim saw her suddenly "all dressed up on purpose" as for a game. Judy thought "She's bubbling inside--really."
"There's WEEDEN in there," Tim mentioned, pointing to the wood behind her.
Something uncommonly like a smile passed into Aunt Emily's eyes, then vanished as suddenly as it came. Judy thought it was like a bubble that burst the instant it reached the sunlight on the surface of a pond.
"And how often," came the rebuke, automatically rather, "has your Mother told you not to be familiar with the Gardener? Play if you want to, but do not play with your inferiors. Play with your Uncle Felix, with Colonel Stumper, or with me--"
Another bubble had risen, caught the sunshine, reflected all the colours of the prism, then burst and vanished into airy spray.
"But they're looking with us," Tim insisted eagerly. "We're all looking together for something--Uncle Felix, Come-Back Stumper, everybody. It's wonderful. It never ends."
Aunt Emily's hand, still clutching the umbrella, stole up and put her bonnet straight. It was done to gain a little time apparently. There was a certain hesitation in her. She seemed puzzled. She betrayed excitement too.
"Looking, are you?" she exclaimed, and her voice held a touch of mellowness that was new. "Looking!"
She stopped. She tried to hide the mellowness by swallowing it.
"Yes," said Tim. "There's some one hiding. It's Hide-and-Seek, you see. We're the seekers. It's enormous."
"Will you come with us and look too?" suggested Judy simply. Then while Aunt Emily's lips framed themselves as from long habit into a negative or a reprimand, the child continued before either reached delivery: "There are heaps of signs about; anything lovely or beautiful is a sign--a sign that we're getting warm. We've each got ours. Mine's air. What's yours, Aunty?"
Aunt Emily stared at them; her bewilderment increased apparently; she swallowed hard again. The children returned her stare, gazing innocently into her questioning eyes as if she were some strange bird at the Zoo. The new feeling of kinship with her grew stronger in their hearts. They knew quite well she was looking just as they were; really she longed to play their game of Hide-and-Seek. She was very ignorant, of course, they saw, but they were ready and willing to teach her how to play, and would make it easy for her into the bargain.
"Signs!" she repeated, in a voice that was gentler than they had ever known it. There was almost a sound of youth in it. Judy suddenly realised that Aunt Emily had once been a girl. A softer look shone in the colourless eyes. The lips relaxed. In a hat she might have been even pretty. No one in a bonnet could be jolly. "Signs!" she repeated; "deep and beautiful! Whatever in the world--?"
She stopped abruptly, started by the exquisite trilling of a bird that was perched upon a branch quite close behind her. The liquid notes poured out in a stream of music, so rich, so lovely that it seemed as if no bird had ever sung before and that they were the first persons in the world who had ever heard it.
"My sign!" cried Judy, dancing round her disconcerted and bewildered relative. "One of my signs--that!"
"Mine is rabbits and rats and badgers," Tim called out with ungrammatical emphasis. "Anything that likes the earth are mine." He looked about him as if to point one out to her. "They're everywhere, all over the place," he added, seeing none at the moment. "Aunty, what's yours? Do tell us, because then we can go and look together."
"It's much more fun than looking alone," declared Judy.
No answer came. But, caught by the astounding magic of the singing bird, Aunt Emily had turned, and in doing so the hand behind her back became visible for the first time since their meeting. The children saw it simultaneously. They nudged each other, but they said no word. The same moment, having failed to discover the bird, Aunt Emily turned back again. She looked caught, they thought. But, also she looked as if she had found something herself. The secret joy she tried to hide from them by swallowing it, rose to her wrinkled cheeks and shone in both her eyes, then overflowed and rippled down towards her trembling mouth. The lips were trembling. She smiled, but so softly, sweetly, that ten years dropped from her like a dissolving shadow. And the hand she had so long kept hidden behind her back stole forth slowly into view.
"How did you guess that I was looking for anything?" she inquired plaintively in an excited yet tremulous tone. "I thought no one knew it." She seemed genuinely surprised, yet unbelievably happy too. A great sigh of relief escaped her.
"We're all the same," one of them informed her; "so you are too! Everybody's looking." And they crowded round to examine the objects in her hand--a dirty earth-stained trowel and a fern. They knew she collected ferns on the sly, but never before had they seen her bring home such a prize. Usually she found only crumpled things like old bits of wrinkled brown paper which she called "specimens." This one was marvellously beautiful. It had a dainty, slender stalk of ebony black, and its hundred tiny leaves quivered like a shower of green water-drops in the air. There was actual joy in every trembling bit of it.
"That's my sign," announced Aunt Emily with pride: "Maidenhair! It'll grow again. I've got the roots." And she said it as triumphantly as Stumper had said "snail-shell."
"Of course, Aunty," Judy cried, yet doubtfully. "You ought to know." She twiddled it round in her fingers till the quivering fronds emitted a tiny sound. "And you can use it as a feather too." She lowered her head to listen.
"We've each got a feather," mentioned Tim. "It's a compass. Shows the way, you know. You hear him calling--that way."
"The Tramp explained that," Judy added. "He's Leader. Come on, Aunty. We ought to be off; the others went ages ago. We're going to the End of the World, and they've already started."
For a moment Aunt Emily looked as rigid as the post beside a five- barred gate. The old unbending attitude took possession of her once again. Her eyes took on the tint of soapy water. Her elastic nose looked round the corner. She frowned. Her black dress crackled. The mention of a tramp and the End of the World woke all her savage educational instincts visibly.
"He's a singing tramp and shines like a Christmas Tree," explained Judy, "and he looks like everybody in the world. He's extror'iny." She turned to her brother. "Doesn't he, Tim?"
Tim ran up and caught his Aunt by the umbrella hand. He saw her stiffening. He meant to prevent it if he could.
"Everybody rolled into one," he agreed eagerly; "Daddy and Mother and the Clergyman and you."
"And me?" she asked tremulously.
"Rather!" the boy said vehemently; "as you are now, all rabbity and nice."
Aunt Emily slowly removed one big golosh, then waited.
"Cleaned up and young," cried Judy, "and smells delicious--like flowers and hay--"
"And soft and warm--"
"And sings and dances--"
"And is positive that if we go on looking we shall find--exactly what we're looking for."
Aunt Emily removed the other golosh--a shade more quickly than the first one. She kicked it off. The stiffness melted out of her; she smiled again.
"Well," she began--when Judy stood on tip-toe and whispered in her ear some magic sentence.
"Dawn!" Aunt Emily whispered back. "At dawn--when the birds begin to sing!"
Something had caught her heart and squeezed it.
Tim and Judy nodded vehemently in agreement. Aunt Emily dropped her umbrella then. And at the same moment a singing voice became audible in the trees behind them. The song came floating to them through the sunlight with a sound of wind and birds. It had a marvellous quality, very sweet and very moving. There was a lilt in it, a laughing, happy lilt, as though the Earth herself were singing of the Spring.
And Aunt Emily made one last vain attempt: she struggled to put her fingers in her ears. But the children held her hands. She crackled and made various oppressive and objecting sounds, but the song poured into her in spite of all her efforts. Her feet began to move upon the grass. It was awful, it was shocking, it was forbidden and against all rules and regulations: yet--Aunt Emily danced!
And a thin, plaintive voice, like the voice of her long-forgotten youth, slipped out between her faded lips--and positively sang:
"The world is young with laughter; we can fly Among the imprisoned hours as we choose...."
But to Tim and Judy it all seemed merely right and natural.
"Come on," cried the boy, pulling his Aunt towards the wood.
"We can look together now. You've got your sign," exclaimed Judy, tugging at her other hand. "Everything's free and careless, and so are we."
"Aim for a path," Tim shouted by way of a concession. "Aunty'll go quicker on a path."
But Aunty was nothing if not decided. "I know a short-cut," she sang. "Paths are for people who don't know the way. There's no time--to lose. Dear me! I'm warm already!" She dropped her umbrella.
And, actually dancing and singing, she led the way into the wood, holding the fern before her like a wand, and happy as a girl let out of school.
But as they went, Judy, knowing suddenly another thing she didn't know, made a discovery of her own, an immense discovery. It was bigger than anything Tim had ever found. She felt so light and swift and winged by it that she seemed almost to melt into the air herself.
"I say, Tim," she said.
She took her eyes from the sky to see what her feet were doing; Tim lifted his from the earth to see what was going on above him in the air.
Judy went on: "I know what," she announced.
"What?" He was not particularly interested, it seemed.
Judy paused. She dropped a little behind her dancing Aunt. Tim joined her. It all happened as quickly as a man might snap his fingers; Aunt Emily, her heart full of growing ferns, noticed nothing.
"We've found her out!" whispered Judy, communicating her immense discovery. "What she really is, I mean!"
He agreed and nodded. It did not strike him as anything wonderful or special. "Oh, yes," he answered; "rather!" He did not grasp her meaning, perhaps.
But his sister was bursting with excitement, radiant, shivering almost with the wonder of it.
"But don't you see? It's--a sign!" she exclaimed so loud that Aunt Emily almost heard it. "She's found herself! She was hiding--from herself. That's part of it all--the game. It's the biggest sign of all!"
She was so "warm" that she burned all over.
"Oh, yes," repeated Tim. "I see!" But he was not particularly impressed. He merely wanted his Aunt to find an enormous fern whose roots were growing in the sweet, sticky earth he loved. Her sign was a fern; his was the ground. It made him understand Aunt Emily at last, and therefore love her; he saw no further than that.
Judy, however, knew. She suddenly understood what the Tramp meant by "deep." She also knew now why Stumper, WEEDEN, Uncle Felix too, looked at him so strangely, with wonder, with respect, with love. Something about the Tramp explained each one to himself. Each one found-- himself. And she--without realising it before, had acquired this power too, though only in a small degree as yet. The Tramp believed in everybody; she, without knowing it, believed in her Aunt. It was another thing she didn't know she knew.
And the real, long-buried, deeply-hidden Aunt Emily had emerged accordingly. All her life she had been hiding--from herself. She had found herself at last. It was the biggest sign of all.
Tim caught her hand and dragged her after him. "Come on," he cried, "we're getting frightfully warm. Look at Aunty! Listen, will you?"
Aunt Emily, a little way in front of them, was digging busily with her dirty trowel. Her bonnet was crooked, her skirts tucked up, her white worsted stockings splashed with mud, her elastic-sided boots scratched and plastered. And she was singing to herself in a thin but happy voice that was not unlike an old and throaty corncrake: "The birds are singing....Hark! Come out and play....Life is an endless search....I've just begun...!"
They listened for a little while, and then ran headlong up to join her.
And it was somewhere about here and now--the exact spot impossible to determine, since it was obviously a circular experience without beginning, middle or end--that the gigantic character of the Day declared itself in all its marvellous simplicity. For as they dived deeper and deeper towards its centre, they discovered that its centre, being everywhere at once, existed--nowhere. The sun was always rising --somewhere.
In other words, each seeker grasped, in his or her own separate way, that the Splendour hiding from them lay actually both too near and far away for any individual eye to see it with completeness. Someone, indeed, had come; but this Someone, as Judy told herself, was "simply all over the place." To see him "distinkly is an awful job," according to Uncle Felix; or as Come-Back Stumper realised in the middle of another clump of bramble bushes, "Perspective is necessary to proper vision." "He" lay too close before their eyes to be discovered fully. Tim had long ago described it instinctively as "an enormous hide," but it was more than that; it was a universal hide.
Alone, perhaps, Weeden's lost optic, wandering ubiquitously and enjoying the bird's-eye view, possessed the coveted power. But, like the stars, though somewhat about, it was invisible. WEEDEN made no reference to it. He attended to one thing at a time, he lived in the present; one eye was gone; he just looked for truffles--with the other.
Yet this did not damp their ardour in the least; increased it rather: the gathering of the clues became more and more absorbing. Though not seen, the hider was both known and felt; his presence was a certainty. There was no real contradiction.
For signs grew and multiplied till the entire world seemed overflowing with them, and hardly could the earth contain them. They brimmed the sunny air, flooded the ponds and streams, lay thick upon the fields, and almost choked the woods to stillness. They trickled out, leaked through, dripped over everywhere in colour, shape, and sound. The hider had passed everywhere, and upon everything had left his exquisite and deathless traces. The inanimate, as well as the animate world had known the various touch of his great passing. His trail had blazed the entire earth about them. For the very clouds were dipped in snow and gold, and the meanest pebble in the lane wore a self- conscious gleam of shining silver. So-called domestic creatures also seemed aware that a stupendous hiding-place was somewhere near--the browsing cow, contented and at ease, the horse that nuzzled their hands across the gate, the very pigs, grubbing eternally for food, yet eternally unsatisfied; all these, this endless morning, wore an unaccustomed look as though they knew, and so were glad to be alive. Some knew more than others, of course. The cat, for instance, defending its kittens single-pawed against the stable-dog who pretended to be ferocious; the busy father-blackbird, passing worms to his mate for the featherless mites, all beak and clamour in the nest; the Clouded Yellow, sharing a spray of honeysuckle with a Bumble-bee, and the honeysuckle offering no resistance--one and all, they also were aware in their differing degrees. And the seekers, noting the signs, grew warmer and ever warmer. An ordinary day these signs, owing to their generous profusion, might have called for no remark. They would, probably, have drawn no attention to themselves, merely lying about unnoticed, undiscovered because familiar. But this was not an ordinary day. It was unused, unspoilt and unrecorded. It was the Some Day of humanity's long dream--an Extra Day. Time could not carry it away; it could not end; all it contained was of eternity. The great hider at the heart of it was real. These signs--deep, tender, kind and beautiful--were part of him, and in knowing, recognising them, they knew and recognised him too. They drew near, that is, brushed up closer, to his hiding-place from which he saw them. They approached within knowing distance of a Reality that each in his or her particular way had always yearned for. They held--oh, distinkly held-- that they were winning. They won the marvellous game as soon as it began. They never had a doubt about the end.
But their supreme, superb discovery was this: They had always secretly longed to find the elusive hider; they now realised that he--wanted them to find him, and that from his hiding-place he saw them easily. That was the most wonderful thing of all....
To describe the separate adventures of each seeker would involve a series of bulky trilogies no bookshelves in the world could carry; they can, besides, be adequately told in three simple words that Tim used--shouted with intense enthusiasm when he tripped over a rabbit- hole and tumbled headlong against that everlasting Tramp: "I'm still looking!" He dived away into another hole. "I'm looking still." "So am I," the Tramp answered, also in three words. "I'm very warm," growled Stumper; "I'm getting on," Aunt Emily piped; and while Judy was for ever shouting out "I've found him!" Uncle Felix, puffing and panting, could only repeat with rapture each time he met another seeker: "A lovely day! A lovely day!" They said so little-- experienced and felt so much!
From time to time, too, others joined them in the tremendous game. It seemed the personality of the Tramp attracted them. Something about him--his sincerity, perhaps, or his simplicity--made them realise suddenly what they were about: as though they had not noticed it before, not understood it quite, at any rate. They found themselves. He did and said so little. But he possessed the unique quality of a Leader--natural persuasion.
Thompson, for instance, cleaning the silver at the pantry window, looked up and saw them pass. They caught him unawares. His pompous manner hung like a discarded mask on a nail beside his livery. He wore his black and white striped waistcoat, and an apron. Of course he looked proper, as an old family servant ought to look, but he looked cheerful too. He was humming to himself as he polished up the covers and the candelabra.
"Well, I never!" he exclaimed, as the line of them filed by. "I never did. And Mr. Weeden with 'em too!"
The Tramp passed singing and looked through the open window at the butler. No more than that. Their eyes met between the bars. They exchanged glances. But something incalculable happened in that instant, just as it had happened to Stumper, Aunt Emily, and the rest of them. Thompson put several questions into his look of sheer astonishment.
"Why not?" the Tramp replied, chuckling as he caught the butler's eye. "It's a lovely morning. We're just looking!"
Thompson was flabbergasted--as if all the old-fashioned families of the world had suddenly praised him. All his life he had never done anything but his ordinary duty.
"It's 'oliday time," said Weeden, coming next, "and all my flowers and vegitubles is a-growin' nicely." He too seemed singing, dancing. Something had happened. The whole world seemed out and playing.
Thompson forgot himself in a most unusual way, forgot that he was an old family servant, that the apron-string met round his middle with difficulty, that the Authorities were away and his responsibilities increased thereby; forgot too, that for twenty years he had been answering bells, over-hearing conversations without pretending to do so, and that visitors wanted hot water and early tea at "7:30 sharp." He remembered suddenly that he was a man--and that he was very fond of some one. The birds were singing, the sun was shining, the flowers were out upon the lawn, and it was Spring.
An amazing longing in him woke and stirred to life. There was a singular itching in his feet. Something in his butler-heart began to purr. "Looking, eh!" he thought. "There's something I've been looking for too. I'd forgot about it."
"No one can make the silver shine as I can," he mumbled, watching the retreating figures, "but it is about finished now,"--he glanced down at it with pride--"and fit to set on the table. Why shouldn't I take a turn in the garden too?"
He looked out a moment. The magic of the spring came upon him suddenly like a revelation. He knew he was alive, that there was something he wanted somewhere, something real and satisfying--if only he could find it--find out what it was. For twenty years he had been living automatically. Alfred Thompson suddenly felt free and careless. The butler--yearned!
He hesitated, gave the dish-cover an extra polish, then called through the door to Mrs. Horton:
"There's a tramp in the garden, Bridget, and Mr. Weeden's with him. Mr. Felix is halso taking the air, and Master Tim--"
He stopped, hearing a step in the pantry. Mrs. Horton stood behind him with a shawl about her shoulders. Her red face was smiling.
"Alfred, let's go out and take a look," she said. "Mary can see to the shepherd's-pie. I've been as quick as I could," she added, as if excusing herself. Moreover, she said distinctly, "shepherd's-poie."
"I haven't been 'calling,'" replied the butler, "except only just now--just this minute." He spoke as though he was being scolded for not answering a bell. But he cast an admiring glance, half wild, half reckless, at the cook.
"An' you shouting to me to come this last 'arf hour and more!" cried Mrs. Horton. She, too, apparently, was in a "state."
"You are mistaken, Bridget, I have been singing, as I often do when attending to the silver, but as for--"
"You can do without a hat," she interrupted. "Come on! I want to go and look for--for--" She broke off, taking his arm as though they were going down the Strand or Oxford Street. Her red face beamed. She looked very proud and happy. She wanted to look for something too, but she could not believe the moment had really come. She had put it away so long--like a special dish in a cupboard.
"I don't know what's come over me," she went on very confidentially, as she moved beside him through the scullery door, "but--but I don't feel satisfied--not satisfied with meself as I used to be."
"No, Bridget?" It was in his best "7:30" manner. There was a struggle in him.
"No," said Mrs. Horton, with decision. "I give satisfaction--that I know--"
"We both do that," said Thompson proudly. "And no one can do a suet pudding to a turn as you can. Only the other day I heard Sir William a-speaking of it--"
She held his arm more tightly. They were on the lawn by now. The flood of sunlight caught them, showed up the worn and shabby places in his suit of broadcloth, gleamed on her bursting shoes she "fancied" for her kitchen work. They heard the birds, they smelt the flowers, the air bathed them all over like a sea.
"And the silver, Alfred," she said in a lower tone. "Who in the world can make it look as you do? But what I've been feeling lately--since this morning, that is to say--and feeling for the first time in me life, so to speak--"
"Bridget, dear, you've got it!" he interrupted with excitement, "I've felt it too. Felt it this morning first, when I woke up and remembered that nobody wanted hot-water nor early tea, and I said to myself, 'There's more than that in it. I'm not doing all this just only for a salary. I'm doing it for something else. What is it?'"
He spoke very rapidly for a butler. He looked down at her red and smiling face.
"What is it?" he repeated, curiously moved.
She looked up at him without a word.
"It's something 'idden," he said, after a pause. "That's what it is."
"That's it," agreed Mrs. Horton. "Like a recipe."
There was another pause. The butler broke it. They stood together in the middle of the field, flowers and birds and sunshine all about them.
"A mystery--inside of us," he said, "I think--"
"Yes, Alfred," the cook murmured softly.
"I think," he continued, "it's a song and dance we want. A little life." He broke off abruptly, noticing the sudden movement of her bursting shoes. She took a long step forwards, then sideways. She opened her arms to the air and sun. She almost pirouetted.
"Life!" she cried, "'ot and fiery. Life! That's it. Hark, Alfred, d'ye hear that singing far away?" She felt the Irish break out of her. "Listen!" she cried, trying to drag him faster. "Listen, will ye? It makes me wild entirely! Give me yer hand! Come on and dance wid me! It's in me hearrt I feel it, in me blood. To the devil with me suet puddings and shepherd-poies--that singing's real, that's loife, that's lovely as a dhream! It's what I've been looking for iver since I can remember. I've got it!"
And Thompson felt himself spinning through the air. Old families were forgotten. The world was young with laughter. They could fly. They did.
The silver was beautifully cleaned. He had earned his holiday.
"That singing!" he gasped, feeling his heart grow big. He followed her across the flowered world. "I believe it is a bird! It would not surprise me to be told--"
"A birrd!" cried Mrs. Horton, turning him round and round. "It's a birrd from Heaven then! I've heard it all the morning. It's been singing in me heart for ages. Now it's out! Come follow it wid me! We'll go to the end of the wurrld to foinde it."
Her kitchen energy--some called it temper--had discovered a greater scope than puddings.
"There is no hurry," the butler panted, moving along with her, and trying hard to keep his balance. "We'll look together. We'll find it!" And as they raced across the field among the flowers after the line of disappearing figures, the Tramp looked back at them and waved his hand.
"It's a lovely morning," he said, as they came up with the rest of the party. "So you're looking too?"
Too much out of breath to answer, they just nodded, and the group accepted them without more to-do. Their object evidently was the same. Aunt Emily glanced up from her ferns, nodded and said, "Good morning, it's a lovely day"--and resumed her digging again. It was like shaking hands! They all went forward happily, eagerly, across the wide, wide world together.
The absence of surprise the children knew had now become a characteristic everybody shared. All were in the same state together. The whole day flowed, there were no limitations or conditions, least of all surprise. Even WEEDEN had forgotten hedges and artificial boundaries. No one, therefore, ejaculated nor exclaimed when they ran across the Policeman. He, too, was looking for some one, but, having mislaid his notebook and pencil stub, was unable to mention any names, and was easily persuaded to join the body of eager seekers. Being a policeman, he was naturally a seeker by profession; he was always looking for somebody somewhere--somebody who was going in the wrong direction.
"That's just it," he said, the moment he saw the Tramp, taking his helmet off as though an odd respect was in him. "That's just what I've always felt," he went on vaguely. "I'm looking for some one wot's a'looking for something else--only looking wrong."
"In the wrong places," suggested Stumper, remembering his Indian scouting days.
"In the wrong way," put in Uncle Felix, full of experience by now.
The Policeman listened attentively, as though by rights he ought to enter these sentences laboriously in his notebook.
"That's it, per'aps," he stated. "It takes 'em longer, but they finds out in the end. If I was to show 'em the right way of looking instead of arresting 'em--I'd be reel!" And then he added, as if he were giving evidence in a Court of Justice and before a County Magistrate, "There's no good looking for anything where it ain't, now is there?"
"Precisely," agreed Colonel Stumper, remembering happily that his pockets were full of snail-shells. He knew his sign.
Thompson, Mrs. Horton, Weeden, and the Policeman glanced at him gratefully. But it was the last mentioned who replied:
"Because every one," he said with conviction at last, "has his own way of looking, and even the burgular is only looking wrong." He, too, it seemed, had found himself.
Their search, their endless hunt, their conversation and adventures thus might be reported endlessly, if only the book-shelves of the world were built more stoutly, and everybody could find an Extra Day lying about in which to read it all. Each seeker held true to his or her first love, obeying an infallible instinct. The adventure and romance that hid in Tim and Judy, respectively, sent them headlong after anything that offered signs of these two common but seductive qualities. Judy lived literally in the air, her feet, her heart, her eyes all off the ground; Tim, filled with an equally insatiable curiosity, found adorable danger in every rabbit-run, and rescued things innumerable. Off the ground he felt unsafe, unsure, and lost himself. Stumper, faithful to his scouting passion, disappeared into all kinds of undesirable places no one else would have dreamed of looking in, yet invariably--came back; and while Uncle Felix tried a little of everything and found "copy" in a puddle or a dandelion, Weeden carried his empty sack without a murmur, knowing it would be filled with truffles at the end. Aunt Emily, exceedingly particular, but no longer interfering with the others, was equally sure of herself. A touch of fluid youth ran in her veins again, and in her heart grew a fern that presently she would find everywhere outside as well--a maiden-hair.
Each, however, in some marvellous way, shared the adventures of the others, as though the Tramp merged all seven of them into one single being, unified them, at any rate, into this one harmonious, common purpose with himself. For, while everybody had a different way of looking, everybody's way--for that particular individual--was exactly right.
"Smell, then follow," was the secret. "Find your own sign and stick to it," the clue. Each sign, though by different routes, led straight towards the marvellous hiding-place. To urge one's own sign upon another was merely to delay that other; but to point out better signs of his own particular kind was to send him on faster than before. Thus there was harmony among them all, for every seeker, knowing this, had --found himself.
But, while there was no hurry, no passing, and, most certainly of all, no passing away, there was a sense of enormous interval. There were epochs, there were interludes, there was--duration.
Though everything had only just begun, it was yet complete, if not completed.
At any point of an adventure that adventure could be taken over from the very start, the experience holding all the thrill and wonder of the first time.
Cake could be had and eaten too. Tim, half-way down a rabbit-hole, could instantly find himself at the opening again, bursting with all the original excitement of trembling calculations. With the others it was similar.
There was no end to anything. Yet--there was this general consciousness of gigantic interval. It turned in a circle round them-- everywhere....
They came together, then, all eight of them, into that place of singular enchantment known as the End of the World, sitting in a group about the prostrate elm that on ordinary days was Home. What they had been doing each one knew assuredly, even if no one mentioned it. Tim, who had been to India with Come-Back Stumper, had a feeling in his heart that expressed itself in one word, "everywhere," accompanied by a sigh of happy satisfaction; Judy felt what she knew as "Neverness"; she had seen the Metropolis inside out, with Uncle Felix apparently. And these two couples now sat side by side upon the tree, gazing contentedly at the colony of wallflowers that flamed in the sunshine just above their heads. WEEDEN, cleaning his spade with a great nailed boot, turned his good eye affectionately upon the sack that lay beside him, full now to bursting. Aunt Emily breathed on her gold-rimmed glasses, rubbed them, and put them on her elastic nose, then looked about her peacefully yet expectantly, ready, it seemed, to start again at any moment--anywhere. She guarded carefully a mossy bundle in her black silk lap. A little distance from her Thompson was fastening a flower into Mrs. Horton's dress, and close to the gate stood the Policeman, smoking a pipe and watching everybody with obvious contentment. His belt was loose; both hands stuck into it; he leaned against the wooden fence.
On the ground, between the tree and the fence, the Tramp had made a fire. He lay crouched about it. He and the fire belonged to one another. It seemed that he was dozing.
And this sense of lying in the heart of an enormous circular interval touched everybody with delicious peace; each had apparently found something real, and was content merely to lie and--be with it. All came gradually to sitting or reclining postures. Yet there was no sense of fatigue; any instant they would be up again and looking.
Occasionally one or other of them spoke, but it was not the kind of speech that struggled to express difficult ideas with tedious sentences of many words. There was very little to say: mere statements of indubitable reality could be so easily and briefly made.
"Now," said Tim, unafraid of contradiction.
"Then," said Judy, equally certain of herself.
"Now then," declared Uncle Felix, positive at last of something.
"Naturally," affirmed Aunt Emily.
"Of course," growled Come-Back Stumper. And while WEEDEN, looking contentedly at his bursting sack, put in "Always," the Policeman, without referring to his notebook, added from the fence, "That's right." The remarks of Thompson and Mrs. Horton were not audible, for they were talking to one another some little distance away beside the Rubbish Heap, but their conversation seemed equally condensed and eloquent, judging by the satisfied expression on their faces. Thompson probably said, "Well," the cook adding, "I never!"
The Tramp, stretched out beside his little fire of burning sticks, however, said more than any of them. He also said it shortly--as shortly as the children. There was never any question who was Leader.
"Yes," he mentioned in a whisper that flowed about them with a sound like singing wind.
It summed up everything in a single word. It made them warm, as though a little flame had touched them. All the languages of the world, using all their sentences at once, could have said no more than that consummate syllable--in the way he said it: "Yes!" It was the word the whole Day uttered.
For this was perfectly plain: Each of the group, having followed his or her particular sign to the end of the world, now knew exactly where the hider lay. The supreme discovery was within reach at last. They were merely waiting, waiting in order to enjoy the revelation all the more, and--waiting in an ecstasy of joy and wonder. Seven or eight of them were gathered together; the hiding-place was found. It was now, and then, and natural, and always, and right: it was Yes, and life had just begun....
There happened, then, a vivid and amazing thing--all rose as one being and stood up. The Tramp alone remained lying beside his little fire. But the others stood--and listened.
The precise nature of what had happened none of them, perhaps, could explain. It was too marvellous; it was possibly the thing that nobody understands, and possibly the thing they didn't know they knew; yet they both knew and understood it. To each, apparently, the hiding- place was simultaneously revealed. Their Signs summoned them. The hider called!
Yet all they heard was the singing of a little bird. Invisible somewhere above them in the sea of blazing sunshine, it poured its heart out rapturously with a joy and a passion of life that seemed utterly careless as to whether it was heard or not. It merely sang because it was--alive.
To Judy, at any rate, this seemed what they heard. To the others it came, apparently--otherwise. Their interpretations, at any rate, were various.
Thompson and Mrs. Horton were the first to act. The latter looked about her, sniffing the air. "It's burning," she said. "Mary don't know enough. That's my job, anyhow!" and moved off in the direction of the house with an energy that had nothing of displeasure nor of temper in it. It was apparently crackling that she heard. Thompson went after her, a willing alacrity in his movements that yet showed no sign of undignified hurry. "I'll be at the door in no time," he was heard to say, "before it's stopped ringing, I should not wonder!" There was a solemn joy in him, he spoke as though he heard a bell. WEEDEN turned very quietly and watched their disappearing figures. He shouldered his heavy sack of truffles and his spade. No one asked him anything aloud, but, in answer to several questioning faces, he mumbled cautiously, though in a satisfied and pleasant voice, "My garden wants me--maybe; I'll have a look"--obviously going off to water the apricots and rose trees. He heard the dry leaves rustling possibly.
"Keep to the gravel paths," began Aunt Emily, adjusting her gold glasses; "they're dry"--then changed her sentence, smiling to herself: "They're so beautifully made, I mean." And gathering up her bundle of living ferns, she walked briskly over the broken ground, then straight across the lawn, waving her trowel at them as she vanished in the shade below the lime trees. The shade, however, seemed deeper than before. It concealed her quickly.
"I'll be moving on now," came the deep voice of the Policeman. He opened the gate in the fence and consulted a notebook as he did so. He passed slowly out of sight, closing the gate behind him carefully. His heavy tramp became audible on the road outside, the road leading to the Metropolis. "There's some one asking the way--" his voice was audible a moment, before it died into the distance. The road, the gateway, the fence were not so clear as hitherto--a trifle dim.
These various movements took place so quickly, it seemed they all took place at once; Judy still heard the bird, however. She heard nothing else. It was singing everywhere, the sky full of its tender and delicious song. But the notes were a little--just a little--further away she thought, nor could she see it anywhere.
And it was then that Come-Back Stumper, limping a trifle as usual, approached them. He looked troubled rather, and though his manner was full of confidence still, his mind had mild confusion in it somewhere. He joined Uncle Felix and the children, standing in front of them.
"Listen!" he said in low, gruff voice. He held out an open palm, three snail-shells in it, signifying that they should take one each. "Listen!" he repeated, and put the smallest shell against his own ear. "D'you hear that curious sound?" His head was cocked sideways, one ear pressed tight against the shell, the other open to the sky. "The Ganges..." he mumbled to himself after an interval, "but the stones are moving--moving in the river bed.... That long, withdrawing roar!" He was just about to add "down the naked shingles of the world," when Uncle Felix interrupted him.
"Grating," he said, listening intently to his shell; "a metallic, grating sound. What is it?" There was apprehension in his tone, a touch of sadness. "It's getting louder too!"
"Footsteps," exclaimed Tim. "Two feet, not four. It's not a badger or a rabbit." He went on with sudden conviction--"and it's coming nearer." There was disappointment and alarm in him. "Though it might be a badger, p'r'aps," he added hopefully.
"But I hear singing," cried Judy breathlessly, "nothing but singing. It's a bird." Her face was radiant. "It is a long way off, though," she mentioned.
They put their shells down then, and listened without them. They glanced from one another to the sky, all four heads cocked sideways. And they heard the sound distinctly, somewhere in the air about them. It had changed a little. It was louder. It was coming nearer.
"Metallic," repeated Uncle Felix, with an ominous inflection.
"Machinery," growled Stumper, a fury rising in his throat.
"Clicking," agreed Tim. He looked uneasy.
"I only hear a bird," Judy whispered. "But it comes and goes--rather." And then the Tramp, still lying beside his little fire of burning sticks, put in a word.
"It's we who are going," he said in his singing voice. "We're moving on again."
They heard him well enough, but they did not understand quite what he meant, and his voice died into the distance oddly, far away already, almost on the other side of the fence. And as he spoke they noticed another change in the world about them. Three of the party noticed it --the males, Uncle Felix, Tim, and Come-Back Stumper.
For the light was fading; it was getting darker; there was a slight sense of chill, a growing dimness in the air. They realised vaguely that the Tramp was leaving them, and that with him went the light, the heat, the brilliance out of their happy day.
They turned with one accord towards him. He still lay there beside his little fire, but he seemed further off; both his figure and the burning sticks looked like a picture seen at the end of a corridor, an interminable corridor, edged and framed by gathering shadows that were about to cover it. They stretched their hands out; they called to him; they moved their feet; for the first time this wonderful day, there was hurry in them. But the receding figure of the Tramp withdrew still further and further, until an inaccessible distance intervened. They heard him singing faintly "There is no hurry, Life has just begun...The world is young with laughter...We can fly..." but the words came sighing towards them from the inaccessible region where he lay, thousands of years ago, millions of miles away, millions of miles....
"You won't forget," were the last words they caught. "You know now. You'll never forget...!"
When a sudden cry of joy and laughter sounded close behind them, and they turned to see Judy standing on tiptoe, stretching her thin, slim body as if trying to reach the moon. The light was dim; it seemed the sun had set and moonlight lay upon the world; but her figure, bright and shining, stood in a patch of radiant brilliance by herself. She looked like a white flame of fire ascending.
"I've got it!" she was crying rapturously, "I've got it!" Her voice was wild with happiness, almost like the singing of a bird.
The others stared--then came up close. But, while Tim ran, Stumper and Uncle Felix moved more slowly. For something in them hesitated; their attitudes betrayed them; there was a certain confusion in the minds of the older two, a touch of doubt. The contrast between the surrounding twilight and the brilliant patch of glory in which Judy stood bewildered them. The long, slim body of the child, every line of her figure, from her toes to the crown of her flying hair, pointing upwards in a stream of shining aspiration, was irresistible, however. She looked like a lily growing, nay rushing, upwards to the sun.
They followed the direction of her outstretched arms and hands. But it was Tim who spoke first. He did not doubt as they did:
"Oh, Judy, where?" he cried out passionately. "Show me! Show me!"
The child raised herself even higher, stretching her toes and arms and hands; her fingers lengthened; she panted; she made a tremendous effort.
"There!" she said, without looking down. Her face was towards the sky, her throat stretched till the muscles showed and her hair fell backwards in a stream.
Then, following the direction of her eyes and pointing fingers, the others saw for the first time what Judy saw--a small wild rose hung shining in the air, dangling at the end of a little bending branch. The bush grew out of the rubbish-heap, clambering up the wall. No one had noticed it before. At the end of the branch hung this single shining blossom, swinging a little in the wind. But it was out of reach--just a shade too high for her eager fingers to take hold of it. Beyond it grew the colony of wall-flowers, also in the curious light that seemed the last glory of the fading day. But it was the rose that Judy wanted. And from somewhere near it came the sweet singing of the unseen bird.
"Too high," whispered Uncle Felix, watching in amazement. "You can't manage it. You'll crick your back! oh--oh!" The sight of that blossom drew his heart out.
"Impossible," growled Stumper, yet wondering why he said it. "It's out of reach."
"Go it!" cried Tim. "You'll have it in a second. Half an inch more! There--you touched it that time!"
For an interval no one could measure they watched her spellbound; in each of them stirred the similar instinct--that they could reach it, but that she could not. A deep, secret desire hid in all of them to pick that gleaming wild rose that swung above them in the air. And, meanwhile, the darkness deepened perceptibly, only Judy and the blossom framed still in shining light.
Then, suddenly, the child's voice broke forth again like a burst of music.
"I've got it! I've got it!"
There was a breathless pause. Her finger did not stretch a fraction of an inch--but the rose was nearer. For the bird that still sang invisibly had fluttered into view and perched itself deliberately upon the prickly branch. It lowered the rose towards the human hands. It hopped upon the twig. Its weight dropped the prize--almost into Judy's fingers. She touched it.
"I've found him!" gasped the child.
She touched it--and sank with the final effort in a heap upon the ground. The bird fluttered an instant, and was gone into the darkness. The twig, released, flew back. But at the end of it, swinging out of reach, still hung the lovely blossom in mid-air--unpicked.
There was confusion then about the four of them, for the light faded very quickly and darkness blotted out the world; the rose was no longer visible, the bush, the wall, the rubbish-heap, all were shrouded. The singing-bird had gone, the Tramp beside his little fire was hidden, they could hardly see one another's faces even. Voices rose on every side. "She missed it!" "It was too lovely to be picked!" "It's still there, growing....I can smell it!"
Yet above them all was heard Judy's voice that sang, rose out of the darkness like a bird that sings at midnight: "I touched it! My airy signs came true! I know the hiding-place! I've--found him!"
The voice had something in it of the Tramp's careless, windy singing as well.
"Look! He's touched me...! Look...!"
For in that instant when the rose swung out of reach again, in that instant when she touched it, and before the fading light hid everything--all saw the petal floating down to earth. It settled slowly, with a zigzag, butterfly course, fluttering close in front of their enchanted eyes. And it was this petal, perhaps, that brought the darkness, for, as it sank, it grew vast and spread until it covered the entire sky. Like a fairy silken sheet of softest coloured velvet it lay on everything, as though the heavens lowered and folded over them. They felt it press softly on their faces. A curtain, it seemed-- some one had let the curtain down.
Beneath it, then, the confusion became extraordinary. There was tumult of various kinds. Every one cried at once "I've found him! Now I know!" At the touch of the petal, grown so vast, upon their eyelids, each knew his "sign" had led him to the supreme discovery. This flower was born of the travail of a universe. Child of the elements, or at least blessed by them, this petal of a small wild-rose made all things clear, for upon its velvet skin still lay the morning dew, air kissed it, its root and origin was earth, and the fire of the sun blazed in its perfect colouring.... Yet in the tumult and confusion such curious behaviour followed. For Come-Back Stumper, crying that he saw a purple beetle pass across the world, proceeded to curl up as though he crawled into a spiral snail-shell and meant to go to sleep in it; Tim shouted in the darkness that he was riding a huge badger down a hole that led to the centre of the earth; and Uncle Felix begged every one to look and see what he saw, darkness or no darkness--"the splash of misty blue upon the body of a dragon-fly!"
They might almost have been telling their dreams at breakfast-time....
But while the clamour of their excited voices stirred the world beneath the marvellous covering, there rose that other sound-- increasing until it overpowered every word they uttered. In the world outside there was a clicking, grating, hard, metallic sound--as though machinery was starting somewhere....
And Judy, managing somehow or other to lift a corner and peer out, saw that the dawn was breaking in the eastern sky, and that a new day was just beginning. The sun was rising.... She went back again to tell the others, but she could not find them. She did not try very hard; she did not look for them. She just closed her eyes.... The swallows were chattering in the eaves, a robin sang a few marvellous bars, then ceased, and an up-and-under bird sent forth its wild, high bugle-call, then dived out of sight below the surface of the pond.
Judy did likewise--dived down and under, drawing the soft covering against her cheek, and although her eyes were already closed she closed them somehow a second time. "Everything's all right," she had a butterfly sort of thought; "there's no hurry. It's not time... yet...!"--and the petal covered her again from head to foot. She had noticed, a little further off, a globular, round object lying motionless beneath another corner of the covering. It gave her a feeling of comfort and security. She slid away to find the others. It seemed she floated, rather. "Everything's free and careless...and so are--so am I...for we shall never...never forget...!" she remembered sweetly--and was gone, fluttering after the up-and-under bird ...into some hidden world she had discovered....
The old Mill House lay dreaming in the dawn. Transparent shades of pink and gold stole slowly up the eastern sky. A stream of amber diffused itself below the paling stars. Rising from a furnace below the horizon it reached across and touched the zenith, painting mid- heaven with a mystery none could understand; then sank downwards and dipped the crests of the trees, the lawn, the moss-grown tiles upon the roof in that sea of everlasting wonder which is light.
Dawn caught the old sleeping world once more in its breathless beauty. The earth turned over in her sleep, gasped with delight--and woke. There was a murmur and a movement everywhere. The spacious, stately life that breathes o'er ancient trees came forth from the wood without a centre; from the lines emanated that gracious, almost tender force they harvest in the spring. There was a little shiver of joy among the rose trees. The daisies blinked and stared. And the earth broke into singing.
Then, in this chorus, came a pause; the thousand voices hushed a moment; the robin ceased its passionate solo in the shrubbery. All listened--listened to another and far sweeter song that stirred with the morning wind among the rose trees. It was very soft and tender, it died away and returned with a faint, mysterious murmur, it rose and fell so gently that it may have been only the rustling of their thousand leaves that guard the opening blossoms.
Yet it ran with power across the entire waking earth:
My secret's in the wind and open sky, There is no longer any Time--to lose; The world is young with laughter; we can fly Among the imprisoned hours as we choose. The rushing minutes pause; an unused day Breaks into dawn and cheats the tired sun. The birds are singing: Hark! Come out and play! There is no hurry; life has just begun.
And as it died away the sun itself came up and shouted it aloud as with a million golden trumpets.