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- The Extra Day - 4/57 -
busy telling a story to the mouse, and the mouse, anyhow, was sound asleep at the bottom of his pocket, with the result that the only one who caught the words of warning was--the squirrel. For a squirrel's ears are so sharp that it can even hear the grub whistling to itself inside a rotten nut; and it instantly took action."
"Ah! IT saved them, then?"
"The squirrel flew from the man's shoulder where it was perched, balanced for a second on the top of his head, then clung to the ceiling and darted out of the window without a moment's delay. It crossed the island in a single leap, scuttled to the top of the tree, peered about over the diminishing landscape, and--"
"Didn't it see the rabbit?"
"And returned as quickly as it went. It bustled back into the hut, hopping nervously, and jerking its head with excitement. In a moment it was perched again on the man's shoulder. It carefully kept its bushy tail out of the way of his nose and eyes. And then it whispered what it had seen into his left ear."
"Why into his left ear?"
"Because it was the right one, and the other had cotton wool in it."
"Like Aunt Emily!"
"What did it whisper?"
"The squirrel had made a discovery, too," continued the teller, solemnly.
"Goodness! That's two discoveries!"
"But what _did_ it whisper?"
In the hush that followed, a coal was heard falling softly into the grate; the night-wind moaned against the outside walls; Judy scraped her stockinged foot slowly along the iron fender, making a faint twanging sound. Breathing was distinctly audible. For several moments the room was still as death. The figure, smothered beneath the clotted mass of children, heaved a sigh. But no one broke the pause. It was too precious and wonderful to break at once. All waited breathlessly, like birds poised in mid-air before they strike ... until a new sound stole faintly upon the listening silence, a faint and very distant sound, barely audible as yet, but of unmistakable character. It was far away in the upper reaches of the building, overhead, remote, a little stealthy. Like the ominous murmur of a muffled drum, it had approach in it. It was coming nearer and nearer. It was significant and threatening.
For the first time that evening the ticking of the clock was also audible. But the new sound, though somewhat in league with the ticking, and equally remorseless, did not come from the clock. It was a human sound, the most awful known to childhood. It was footsteps on the stairs!
Both the children and the story-teller heard it, but with different results. The latter stirred and looked about him, as though new hope and strength had come to him. The former, led by Tim and Judy, broke simultaneously into anxious speech. Maria, having slept profoundly since the first mention of the mouse in its cosy pocket, gave no sign at all.
"Oh, quick! quick! What did the squirrel whisper in his good right ear? What was it? DO hurry, please!"
"It whispered two simple words, each of one syllable," continued the reanimated figure, his voice lowered and impressive. "It said--_the sea_!"
The announcement made by the squirrel was so entirely unexpected that the surprise of it buried all memory of the disagreeable sound. The children sat up and stared into the figure's face questioningly. Surely he had made a slight mistake. How could the sea have anything to do with it? But no word was spoken, no actual question asked. This overwhelming introduction of the sea left him poised far beyond their reach. His stories were invariably marvellous. He would somehow justify himself.
"The Sea!" whispered Tim to Judy, and there was intense admiration in his voice and eyes.
"From the top of its tree," resumed the figure triumphantly, "the squirrel had seen what was happening, and made its great discovery. It realised why the ground was wetter and wetter every day, and also why the island was small and growing smaller. For it understood the awful fact that--the sea was rising! A little longer and the entire island would be under water, and everybody on it would be drowned!" "Couldn't none of them swim or anything?" asked Judy with keen anxiety.
"Hush!" put in Tim. "It's what did they _do?_ And who thought of it first?"
The question last but one was chosen for solution.
"The rabbit," announced the figure recklessly. "The rabbit saved them; and in saving them it saved the Island too. It founded Ingland, this very Ingland on which we live to-day. In fact, it started the British Empire by its action. The rabbit did it."
"It heard the squirrel's whisper half-way down its hole. It forgot about its front teeth, and the moment it forgot them they, of course, stopped growing. It recovered all its courage. A grand idea had come to it. It came bustling out of its hiding-place, stood on its hind legs, poked its bright eyes over the window-ledge, and told them how to escape. It said, 'I'll dig my hole deeper and we'll empty the sea into it as it rises. We'll pour the water down my hole!'"
The figure paused and fixed his eyes upon each listener in turn, challenging disapproval, yet eager for sympathy at the same time. In place of criticism, however, he met only silence and breathless admiration. Also--he heard that distant sound _they_ had forgotten, and realised it had come much nearer. It had reached the second floor. He made swift and desperate calculations. He decided that it was _just_ possible ... with ordinary good luck ...
"So they all went out and began to deepen the rabbit's hole. They dug and dug and dug. The man took off both his coats; the rabbit scraped with its four paws, using its tail as well--it had a nice long tail in those days; the mouse crept out of his pocket and made channels with its little pointed toes; and the squirrel brushed and swept the water in with its bushy, mop-like tail. The rising sea poured down the ever- deepening hole. They worked with a will together; there was no complaining, though the rabbit wore its tail down till it was nothing but a stump, and the mouse stood ankle-deep in water, and the squirrel's fluffy tail looked like a stable broom. They worked like heroes without stopping even to talk, and as the water went pouring down the hole, the level of the sea, of course, sank lower and lower and lower, the shores of the tiny island stretched farther and farther and farther, till there were reaches of golden sand like Margate at low tide, and as the level sank still lower there rose into view great white cliffs of chalk where before there had been only water--until, at last, the squirrel, scampering down from the tree where it had gone to see what had been accomplished, reported in a voice that chattered with stammering delight, 'We're saved! The sea's gone down! The land's come up!'"
The steps were audible in the passage. A gentle knock was heard. But no one answered, for it seemed that no one was aware of it. The figure paused a moment to recover breath.
"And then, and then? What happened next? Did they thank the rabbit?"
"They all thanked each other then. The man thanked the rabbit, and the rabbit thanked the squirrel, and the mouse woke up, and--"
No one noticed the slip, which proved that their attention was already painfully divided. For another knock, much louder than before, had interrupted the continuation of the story. The figure turned its head to listen. "It's nothing," said Tim quickly. "It's only a sound," said Judy. "What did the mouse do? Please tell us quickly."
"I thought I heard a knock," the figure murmured. "Perhaps I was mistaken. The mouse--er--the mouse woke up--"
"You told us that."
The figure continued, speaking with greater rapidity even than before:
"And looked about it, and found the view so lovely that it said it would never live in a pocket again, but would divide its time in future between the fields and houses. So it pricked its whiskers up, and the squirrel curled its tail over its back to avoid any places that still were damp, and the rabbit polished its big front teeth on the grass and said it was quite pleased to have a stump instead of a tail as a memento of a memorable occasion when they had all been nearly drowned together, and--they all skipped up to the top of the high chalk cliffs as dry as a bone and as happy as--"
He broke off in the middle of the enormous sentence to say a most ridiculous and unnecessary thing. "Come in," he said, just as though there was some one knocking at the door. But no single head was turned. If there was an entry it was utterly ignored.
"Happy as what?"
"As you," the figure went on faster than ever. "And that's why England to-day is an island of quite a respectable size, and why everybody pretends it's dry and comfortable and cosy, and why people never leave it except to go away for holidays that cannot possibly be avoided."
"I beg your pardon, sir," began an awful voice behind the chair.
"And why to this day," he continued as though he had not heard, "a squirrel always curls its tail above its back, why a rabbit wears a stump like a pen wiper, and why a mouse lives sometimes in a house and sometimes in a field, and--"
_"I beg your pardon, sir,"_ clanged the slow, awful voice in a tone that was meant to be heard distinctly, "but it's long gone 'arf-past six, and--"
"Time for bed," added the figure with a sound that was like the falling of an executioner's axe. And, as if to emphasise the arrival of the remorseless moment, the clock just then struck loudly on the mantelpiece--seven times.
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