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Chapter Twenty-Six

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« on: July 24, 2023, 10:41:29 am »

THROUGH uncoiling mists of drowsiness Tom heard his name called, but it seemed to him a part of the dream from which he had not yet awakened. The dream had been all happiness and he tried to cling to it and in the effort half opened his eyes---sufficiently to see the sunlight on the wall and the shadow of moving leaves. He opened his eyes completely and turned round.

Instantly he tumbled from the bed and ran across the room. ‘Uncle Stephen!’ he cried, and next moment his arms were round Uncle Stephen’s neck.

‘You’re back---you’re back---you’re back,’ Tom repeated, rubbing his nose up and down Uncle Stephen’s cheek. He did not seem able to say anything else, and it was as if by these words and these instinctive animal movements he were keeping Uncle Stephen with him, making sure of his solidity. He hugged him tightly, once---twice---then became still. . . . ‘Yes, you’re back,’ he said.

‘You’ve got to tell me everything, Tom---and very slowly and quietly, leaving out nothing. You can begin while we’re having our breakfast. And remember your troubles are over---every one of them---and you’ve nothing to worry about any more.’

‘But must I tell you?’ Tom demurred. ‘Don’t you remember any of it? There’s so much has happened, and a lot of it must be happening still. I mean, I don’t know what they’re doing now---only I’m sure they’re doing something---Uncle Horace and Mr. Flood and Mr. Knox and my step-mother and even Miss Charlemont. I expect we’re being searched for at this very moment. You see, we were expected back at Gloucester Terrace last night, and we came here instead. Uncle Horace will have telephoned to Mr. Flood, and they’ll be making inquiries at Coombe Bridge. If they don’t hear anything about us to-day they may even tell the police. There are all the stories we told, too. Miss Charlemont’s is a new one, and----’

‘Poor old Tom. I do remember a good deal---rather hazily---and for the last hour or two I’ve been trying to remember more---ever since I woke up. I was not with you, Tom, when I woke up: I was back in my own room at the Manor. I came over here at once. Mrs. Deverell had not arrived---it was too early for her---which simplified matters; but she will have arrived by this time, for I’ve been here for over an hour. . . . I want you to tell me the whole story in your own way. The whole story, remember, because there is much about which I’m not at all certain. It seems to me that between us we’ve managed to create a pretty kettle of fish. Isn’t that so?’

‘I’m afraid it is.’

‘I can remember last night. I think the change, the dream, the enchantment, or whatever it was, had worn pretty thin last night. In fact, from the time we left the churchyard at Coombe Bridge till our arrival here all is clear. I can remember our journey and how tired you were at the end of it; I can remember carrying you: it is of what happened earlier that I am doubtful. There must have been a complete break somewhere. A break in consciousness, I mean---my consciousness. It is like this:---I can think back over last night, remember what I thought and felt; but of what came earlier I have only vague impressions, as if I had watched the earlier scenes.’

‘You did more than watch, Uncle Stephen. Or at least Stephen did.’

‘Yes, I know; but I can’t get back into the mind of Stephen. That is where you can help me: by telling me the whole thing as you saw it.’

Tom told him. He talked sometimes with his mouth full and sometimes with his mouth empty, but always with his eyes fixed on Uncle Stephen’s face. He did not minimize any of the complications that had arisen, nor gloss over the highly equivocal positions into which attempts to escape these complications had landed them. But, for him the whole aspect of the adventure was altered now that he had Uncle Stephen back again, and he even could be amused where before he had been nearly in despair. This frugal breakfast was in fact for Tom a very happy one. Perhaps some difficulties remained, but all anxieties were at an end, and his confidence was increased by the unruffled expression with which Uncle Stephen listened. Just so had the boy Stephen taken their troubles: one quality at least remained unmodified by time.

‘Well, we now know where we are,’ Uncle Stephen said, when he had heard the story out. His eyes looked straight into Tom’s solemn eyes. ‘Shouldn’t you say, Tom, that it is a situation calling for all our diplomacy?’

‘Yes,’ said Tom, ‘I should.’

‘And what does your diplomacy suggest we ought to do? What policy, do you think, will be least likely to land us both in the police court?’

Tom looked serious. ‘The police court!’

‘I was only joking. Still, we’re not quite out of the wood yet. Our position is that we have eliminated in broad daylight a full-grown boy; and you can’t do that, you know, without questions being asked. Moreover young Stephen appears to have made himself extremely conspicuous.’

‘I never thought of that!’ breathed Tom. ‘Uncle Horace was frightfully interested in him, and Miss Charlemont wants him to go and stay with her!’

‘They’ll all want to know what has become of him.’

‘Why can’t they think he’s just gone away?’ Tom protested. ‘I mean of his own accord. It was what he always intended to do.’

‘If he had remained Philip I dare say we might have hoped for that, but as my grandson I’m afraid we can’t. You say Mr. Knox was struck by the likeness?’

‘Not half so much as Miss Charlemont was.’

‘Miss Charlemont I don’t think matters.’

‘But she’s going to write to you, Uncle Stephen; you’ll probably get a letter to-day!’

‘Even so, I think we may ignore her---for the present at all events.’

Tom pondered.

‘Mr. Knox only saw the likeness after Stephen had told him his name,’ he said tentatively. ‘He thinks he saw it before, but he didn’t.’

‘The likeness of course, if he’s really convinced of it, might help him to believe the truth,’ Uncle Stephen murmured half to himself.

‘You mean they won’t believe he has gone away?’

‘It’s not that, Tom. I don’t imagine anybody will dispute his absence. After all, he is absent. But the question will be why he went away, and where he went to: and, in short, what particular part was played by his grandfather in the matter? I’m afraid we can’t make that part look anything but dubious. Let us put it plainly. He arrives here destitute. I do nothing for him, and when he runs away take no steps to get him back again. In other words, leave him to shift for himself, to sink or swim, without friends and without money. It is difficult to put that in an attractive light. In fact it justifies all the suspicions of Mr. Pringle and your step-mother.’

Tom pondered again. He had felt all along that Stephen’s account of himself was not going to help them, but he had not foreseen this particular predicament and he could discover no way out of it. ‘What do you think yourself, Uncle Stephen?’ he asked.

Uncle Stephen smiled. ‘I don’t know that I think anything, Tom. But we’ll go out into the garden and see if that will inspire us.’

Tom got up. In spite of the impasse they appeared to have reached, he felt happy. As he sat on the stone steps in the sun beside Uncle Stephen he came to the conclusion that he also was happy. The problem, in fact, presented itself to Tom now merely as a kind of abstract puzzle. He looked forward with the liveliest interest to the solution Uncle Stephen would eventually find, but that he would find one he never for a moment doubted.

And it came even sooner than he had expected. ‘How would it do, Tom, if we were to make a temporary break with the past; if we left the Manor in charge of Mrs. Deverell for six months or a year, say, while we went on our travels? How would you like to explore the south of Europe? I’d take you over all my old ground, and we’d potter about until we found the right place, and then settle down---probably somewhere on the Italian coast, but there’d be no need to decide till we were both sure.’

‘I’d love it,’ said Tom.

‘It’s what we’ll do then,’ Uncle Stephen answered, and the finality in his voice for Tom settled the question.

Uncle Stephen was thinking; Tom, leaning up against him, waited for his next words. But before he spoke them Uncle Stephen rose to his feet. ‘I suppose we might as well stroll on to the Manor now: and then I’m afraid I’ll have to send you to Kilbarron.’

Tom looked at him inquiringly, and as they walked slowly over the grass Uncle Stephen explained what he wished him to do. ‘I want you to try to get hold of Mr. Flood, and Mr. Knox, and bring them out to see me. First, however, you must send a telegram to Gloucester Terrace---a rather expensive one, I’m afraid, for it must explain your return yesterday with me. That will relieve the situation there and give us time to make our arrangements.’

‘Am I to say anything about Stephen?’

‘No: they’ll take Stephen for granted. But I’ll write out the telegram for you when we get home, and then we’ll attend to one or two other matters which must be settled before we leave. You see, our arrangement with Mr. Knox will have to be cancelled. Now that we’ve altered our plans, you won’t be able to become his pupil. That is one reason why I want you to bring him with Mr. Flood to the Manor. I’m going to tell them the whole truth, the whole story, though how they’ll receive it I don’t know. But I think we owe it to them. Besides, even if it proves to be too much for them, I believe they’ll still remain on our side---at least to the extent of not standing in our way.’

Tom believed so too. ‘This is my path, Uncle Stephen---the path I made to the other house.’ He stepped on ahead, for there was no longer room to walk side by side. Presently he said over his shoulder, ‘I think they might believe it if you were to show them that portrait, with the name and date on it, and take them up to your room.’

‘I doubt if the room will have much effect, and, portrait or no portrait, their faith is going to be put to a pretty severe test. All the more severe because with neither of them, I fancy, is imagination a strong point.’

‘I don’t believe Mr. Knox ever thought Stephen was telling the truth,’ Tom said. ‘I mean about what happened in Italy and all that. If he did he behaved very queerly.’

‘Perhaps. We shall see. But don’t, Tom, begin to make explanations on your own account. I want you to leave this to me. You’ve done your share.’

‘I won’t say a word,’ Tom protested.

‘You’ve done a good deal more than your share,’ Uncle Stephen went on. ‘I think you must have been very good to Stephen.’

Tom coloured. Not until they reached the end of the path, however, and the Manor House came into view, did he speak again. Then, as he caught sight of Sally sweeping out the porch, he turned. ‘What are you going to tell Mrs. Deverell, Uncle Stephen?’

‘I don’t intend to tell her anything,’ Uncle Stephen replied. At the same moment Sally paused in her sweeping, looked up, and instantly disappeared.

‘She’s gone to give the news,’ said Tom.

He was right, for Mrs. Deverell was at the door to receive them. ‘Well, Mrs. Deverell,’ Uncle Stephen said pleasantly, ‘here I am back again, and I hope Master Tom behaved himself while I was away.’

‘Yes, sir---him and the other young gentleman.’

Tom looked at her, and instantly knew that the allusion to the other young gentleman had been deliberate. Mrs. Deverell went on immediately, ‘You’re welcome home, sir. Only I didn’t know to expect you and I’m afraid it may be a few minutes before----’

‘We’ve already had breakfast,’ Uncle Stephen said. ‘But we had it rather early, so I dare say Master Tom would like a cup of tea. You could bring it to the study perhaps. You don’t want a full-sized meal, do you, Tom?’

‘No, thanks: what I really want is a bath.’

‘Well, run along then. That will give me time to write a couple of notes as well as your telegram. You’re sure to find Mr. Flood at his office, but Mr. Knox may be out.’

‘And the other young gentleman, sir---Master Philip---Master Stephen?’ Mrs. Deverell hinted.

‘Master Stephen has gone away,’ said Uncle Stephen quietly, but with a quietness that closed the conversation.

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