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- The Extra Day - 45/57 -


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.

WEEDEN'S SIGN

VII

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?"


The Extra Day - 45/57

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