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- The Extra Day - 3/57 -
"It's my shooting-coat." The figure cleared its throat, apparently on the defensive a little.
Tim and Judy sniffed it. "Rabbits and squirrels and earth and things," thought Tim.
"And flowers and burning leaves," said Judy. "It's his old garden-coat as well." She sniffed very audibly. "Oh, I love that smoky smell."
"It's the good old English smell," said the figure contentedly, while they put his neck-tie straight and arranged the pocket flaps for him. "It's English country--England."
"Don't other countries smell, then?" inquired Tim. "I mean, could any one tell you were English by your smell?" He sniffed again, with satisfaction. "Weeden's the same," he went on, without waiting for an answer, "only much stronger, and so's the potting shed."
"But yours is sweeter _much_," said Judy quickly. To share odours with an Authority like the Head Gardener was distinctly a compliment, but Daddy must come first, whatever happened. "How funny," she added, half to herself, "that England should have such a jolly smell. I wonder what it comes from?"
"Where _does_ England come from?" asked Tim, pausing a moment to stare into the figure's face. "It's an island, of course--England--but--"
"A piece of land surrounded by water," began the figure, but was not allowed to finish. A chorus of voices interrupted:
"Make a story of it, please. There's just time. There's half an hour. It's nice and dark. Ugh! Something very awful or very silly, please...."
There followed a general scuffle for seats, with bitter complaints that he only had two pointed knees. Maria was treated with scant respect. There was also criticism of life--that he had no lap, "no proper lap," that it was too dark to see his face, that everybody in turn had got "the best place," but, chiefly, that there was "very little time." Time was a nuisance always: it either was time to go, or time to stop, or else there was not time enough. But at length quiet was established; the big arm-chair resembled a clot of bees upon a honeycomb; the fire burned dully, and the ceiling was thick with monstrous fluttering shadows, vaguely shaped.
"Now, please. We've been ready for ages."
A deep hush fell upon the room, and only a sound of confused breathing was audible. The figure heaved a long, deep sigh as though it suffered pain, paused, cleared its throat, then sighed again more heavily than before. For the moment of creation was at hand, and creation is not accomplished without much travail.
But the children loved the pause, the sigh, the effort. Not realising with what difficulty the stories were ground out, nor that it was an effort against time--to make a story last till help came from outside --they believed that something immense and wonderful was on the way, and held their breath with beating hearts. Daddy's stories were always marvellous; this one would be no exception.
Marvellous up to a point, that is: something in them failed. "He's trying," was their opinion of them; and it was the trying that they watched and listened to so eagerly. The results were unsatisfying, the effect incomplete; the climax of sensation they expected never came. Daddy, though they could not put this into words, possessed fancy only; imagination was not his. Fancy, however, is the seed of imagination, as imagination is the blossom of wonder. His stories prepared the soil in them at any rate. They felt him digging all round them.
He began forthwith:
"Once, very long ago--"
"So long ago that the chalk cliffs of England still lay beneath the sea--"
"Was Aunt Emily alive then?"
"Oh, much longer ago than that," he comforted them; "so long, in fact, that neither your Aunt Emily nor Weeden were even thought of--there lived a man who--"
"Where? What country, please?"
"There lived a man in England--"
"But you said England was beneath the sea with the chalk cliffs."
"There lived a man in a very small, queer little island called Ingland, spelt 'Ing,' not 'Eng,' who--"
"It wasn't _our_ England, then?"
"On a tiny little island called Ingland, who was very lonely because he was the only human being on it--"
"Weren't there animals and things too?"
"And the only animals who lived on it with him were a squirrel who lived in the only tree, a rabbit who lived in the only hole, and a small grey mouse who made its nest in the pocket of his other coat."
"Were they friendly? Did he love them awfully?"
"At first he was very polite to them only, because he was a civil servant of his Government; but after a bit they became so friendly that he loved them even better than himself, and went to tea with the rabbit in its hole, and climbed the tree to share a nut-breakfast with the squirrel, and--and--"
"He doesn't know what to do with the mouse," a loud whisper, meant to be inaudible, broke in upon the fatal hesitation.
"And went out for walks with the mouse when the ground was damp and the mouse complained of chilly feet. In the pocket of his coat, all snug and warm, it stood on its hind legs and peered out upon the world with its pointed nose just above the pocket flap--"
"Then he liked the mouse best?"
"What sort of coat was it? An overcoat or just an ordinary one that smelt? Was that the only pocket in it?"
"It was made of the best leaves from the squirrel's tree, and from the rabbit's last year's fur, and the mouse had fastened the edges together neatly with the sharpest of its own discarded whiskers. And so they walked about the tiny island and enjoyed the view together--"
"The mouse couldn't have seen much!"
"Until, one day, the mouse declared the ground was ALWAYS wet and was getting wetter and wetter. And the man got frightened."
"Ugh! It's going to get awful in a minute!" And the children nestled closer. The voice sank lower. It became mysterious.
"And the wetter it got the more the man got frightened; for the island was dreadfully tiny and--"
"Why, please, did it get wetter and wetter?"
"THAT," continued the man who earned his living in His Majesty's Stationery Office by day, and by night justified his existence offering the raw material of epics unto little children, "that was the extraordinary part of it. For no one could discover. The man stroked his beard and looked about him, the squirrel shook its bushy tail, the rabbit lifted its upper lip and thrust its teeth out, and the mouse jerked its head from side to side until its whiskers grew longer and sharper than ever--but none of them could discover why the island got wetter and wetter and wetter--"
"Perhaps it just rained like here."
"For the sky was always blue, it never rained, and there was so little dew at night that no one even mentioned it. Yet the tiny island got wetter every day, till it finally got so wet that the very floor of the man's hut turned spongy and splashed every time the man went to look out of the window at the view. And at last he got so frightened that he stayed indoors altogether, put on both his coats at once, and told stories to the mouse and squirrel about a country that was always dry--"
"Didn't the rabbit know anything?"
"For all this time the rabbit was too terrified to come out of its hole at all. The increasing size of its front teeth added to its uneasiness, for they thrust out so far that they hid the view and made the island seem even smaller than it was--"
"I like rabbits, though."
"Till one fine day--"
"They were all fine, you said."
"One finer day than usual the rabbit made a horrible discovery. The way it made the discovery was curious--may seem curious to us, at least--but the fact is, it suddenly noticed that the size of its front teeth had grown out of all proportion to the size of the island. Looking over its shoulder this fine day, it realised how absurdly small the island was in comparison with its teeth--and grasped the horrid truth. In a flash it understood what was happening. The island was getting wetter because it was also getting--_smaller_!"
"Ugh! How beastly!"
"Did it tell the others?"
"It retired half-way down its hole and shouted out the news to the others in the hut."
"Did they hear it?"
"It warned them solemnly. But its teeth obstructed the sound, and the windings of its hole made it difficult to hear. The man, besides, was
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