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Chapter Twenty-Seven

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Author Topic: Chapter Twenty-Seven  (Read 237 times)
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« on: July 24, 2023, 11:03:20 am »

AS it happened, the very first person Tom saw when, about an hour later, he entered Kilbarron post-office was the curate. He was standing at the counter turning over the leaves of a directory, and when he closed the book Tom was at his elbow.

Mr. Knox was surprised, as he was intended to be, but he did not know how significant was the playing of this small joke. It was in itself an answer to the question he at once put, ‘Any news from Mr. Collet?’

‘Yes,’ said Tom,’ I’ve a letter for you from him.’ And he took it out of his pocket.

He handed in his telegram while Mr. Knox was reading Uncle Stephen’s note. The curate refolded it and put it away before he glanced rather curiously at its bearer. ‘Your uncle wants me to come to the Manor this morning, and if possible to bring Mr. Flood. But I suppose you know that already. Have you told Mr. Flood?’

‘Not yet. I’ve got a letter for him too.’

‘Then I’d better go with you to his office: it will save time. When did Mr. Collet get back?’

‘He came with me---last night.’

‘And Stephen?’

‘Stephen hasn’t come back.’

Mr. Knox seemed about to say something further, but after a moment’s thought reserved it for another time, and in silence they went out into the sunlit street and walked together towards Mr. Flood’s office which was not more than a hundred yards away. When they reached it Tom drew back. It had occurred to him that Mr. Knox and the solicitor might like to exchange a few remarks in private concerning this unusual invitation, so he took the second letter from his pocket. ‘Will you give it to him?’ he said. ‘I’ll wait out here.’

‘Well---just as you like,’ Mr. Knox replied. But he took the letter, and passed through the swing door.

Left alone, Tom strolled on as far as the nearest shop window, where, his hands deep in his trousers pockets, he stood apparently fascinated by an arrangement of tinned meats and fruits, which was the principal feature of the display. But this was not what he saw. Nor was he thinking of either Mr. Knox or the lawyer. In imagination he was standing beside Uncle Stephen gazing at the ruins of the Parthenon, sitting beside him on the shore of the Sicilian sea, far far away from all this, under a bluer sky and a hotter sun. . . . Five, ten minutes passed. Occasionally he glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the solicitor’s office, and at last he saw Mr. Knox coming out. Tom went to meet him. ‘Mr. Flood is getting the car,’ the curate explained. ‘The garage is at the back. I suppose we might as well walk to the corner.’

They did so, while Mr. Knox added, ‘I hope we didn’t keep you too long. He was waiting for the post. In the end he decided to leave it till his return. Here he is.’

Mr. Flood drove up, waved a greeting to Tom, and opened the door for Mr. Knox while Tom climbed up on to the seat behind.

The car turned into the road leading to the Manor. Tom, perched up behind them, wondered what the other two were thinking about, for they said nothing. He also wondered what they would be thinking an hour hence. He had a feeling of excitement and elation, and enjoyed the short drive, though the dickey was uncomfortable.

The car swung round the bend of the avenue, and Uncle Stephen, who had been waiting near the porch, stepped forward to meet it. ‘So he did get you,’ he said, shaking hands with the curate, who had got out first, and then with Mr. Flood. ‘I must apologize for dragging you here at such an hour. I expect it is the least convenient I could have chosen. It was very good of you to come.’

‘Not at all---not at all,’ the visitors replied politely.

‘Well, I hope you’ll forgive me when I have explained my reason. But come in, won’t you? Tom, I think we shan’t require you in the meantime, but don’t be late for dinner.’

Tom promised, and as the others turned to enter the house he walked slowly away.

He crossed the lawn. There was his path, and presently he found himself retracing his steps to the other house. It was more from force of habit, however, than anything else. The other house was now only an empty house to him, and he had no particular desire to return to it: indeed he had a feeling that it would have been better had he never gone there at all.

And while he drew nearer this feeling deepened. There was a moment when, at the entrance to the avenue, he very nearly turned back. For a strange, an almost ghostly fear had suddenly touched him, like a faint cold sigh of autumn wind. He did not yield to it: he walked on: but no further than the fountain, where he stretched himself on the grass. Once only had he glanced at the house, and it was like a hollow shell, empty and drained of life. Yet he knew that nothing could have induced him to go inside and climb the stairs.

He lay there, his elbows digging into the soft turf and his chin supported between his hands. The hot sun beat down on him, but that was what he liked. The world into which he and Uncle Stephen were going he saw as drenched in sunlight. He had built up his picture of it much as a child puts together a jigsaw puzzle---from fragments of Theokritos, from a walk taken by Socrates and Phaidros along the banks of the Ilissos, and from deepest impressions of his own summer woods.

Thinking of Uncle Stephen made him think of the conference which must be going on at that moment in the Manor study. He wondered how far they had got. Uncle Stephen at any rate would have finished his story; there had been more than time for that; they must have been talking for at least half an hour. Would Uncle Stephen tell them all about him, Tom, as well as about himself? He could hardly do otherwise, for the secret must lie really in a kind of collaboration. His desire and his imagination must have acted in collusion with Uncle Stephen’s, and this union somehow had produced all the rest. Would Uncle Stephen tell them it had begun even before he had left Gloucester Terrace? For that, too, was a part of the story. Unknowingly he had sent out a message which had reached Uncle Stephen through the night and the darkness. Their first meeting had not taken place in the Manor study, but in Tom’s room at his step-mother’s; and this much at least he supposed they would believe---surely it was easy to believe---though the rest was more fantastic. The lawyer he felt, would not believe the rest. On the other hand, he would have to believe something. . . . What? That it was a delusion? That both he and Uncle Stephen were slightly mad: only not mad enough to be shut up or prevented from going away together? That, after all, was all they wanted, though it might not be a flattering solution. His thoughts sank into a kind of dreaming. They floated over the past and the present, drifting to and fro, rising and sinking, like loosened seaweed on a swelling sea. . . .

‘Down---down---down.’ He dabbled his hand in the water of the fountain, and gazing into the shallow pool, began to sing in an undertone that one word. It was because he was looking down through the dark greenish water: yet there were poems by Sappho---fragments of poems---which contained no more than a word or two, but which were somehow beautiful and sufficient, like that broken statue of Hermes. . . .

‘And golden pulse grew on the shores. . . .’

All the most beautiful things he knew had come to him through Uncle Stephen. They had been there, perhaps, like anemones in a wood, waiting to be discovered:---still, it was a kind of gift if somebody brought them to you, or brought you to them. And not an ordinary gift, for they were things which could not be worn out or broken. Uncle Stephen was his master and he was Uncle Stephen’s pupil. In the old days a pupil had lived with his master. He had that kind of master to-day. . . .

Where was Deverell? If it had not been for Uncle Stephen he might have gone away with Deverell, and what would have happened then? What would have become of him? His whole life would have been different. . . . Why had Deverell loved him? What was it he had loved? Not his beauty at any rate, for he had none. . . . Everything seemed to depend so much on chance. It was by chance that he had met Deverell, by chance that Uncle Stephen was his uncle. And Deverell’s chances had all been unlucky. He had gone very likely straight into the darkness. He might find somebody else to love, but it was improbable and---- Tom knew there were two kinds of love. I’ll never forget him,’ he said softly, ‘but what good is that to him? He won’t even know.’

He thought of Stephen. Stephen had gone back into dreamland. But dream and reality were hardly distinguishable, for what was real yesterday to-day became a dream. All the past was dreamland: it was only the present moment that wasn’t. Deverell and Stephen---they were equally near, or equally far. Involuntarily he glanced up at the window where he had first seen Stephen, but the window was empty. . . .

This place was making him morbid. Like the raven in the poem, it seemed, wherever he turned, to beat out one monotonous refrain---never more. He would go back. The discussion, favourable or unfavourable, must be ended. He rose to a kneeling posture and then to his feet. He looked farewell at the stone boy watching over his garden. . . . Never more. . . . He would take this with him as his last and most beautiful impression of the place. But even as he stood there, letting the picture stamp itself upon his mind, he felt again the impulse to kiss that faintly smiling mouth. He would not. He remembered the last time---remembered telling Uncle Stephen. He turned his back and instantly felt an intense sadness. Why should he not kiss him? What harm could it do? It might be silly and babyish, but nobody would ever know, and it really was the kiss of good-bye. . . .

The stone was warm. The sun had warmed the curved pouting mouth and the smooth limbs and body; but when Tom’s lips pressed on those other lips the eyes were looking away from him, and dimly he felt that this was a symbol of life---of life and of all love. No, no---not all---not Uncle Stephen’s. Uncle Stephen’s eyes were fixed upon him, looked straight into his spirit, that was why he was different from everybody else. ‘Good-bye,’ Tom whispered into the delicate unlistening ear.

He hurried from the garden, trying as he went to shake from him this incomprehensible mood and return to actuality. Surely the present crisis was absorbing and exciting enough, and the future was there, beckoning eagerly, filled with happiness.

And it was as if the influence he had felt could indeed reach only a certain distance, for as he hastened along the wood path his spirits rose rapidly. He had completely recovered them when through the trees he heard a low whistle, and knew that Uncle Stephen was come to look for him. Tom broke into a run.

‘Where are they?’ he asked as he burst out into sunlight. ‘Have they gone?’

‘Yes, but Mr. Flood is coming back. He wanted to attend to his letters: the post hadn’t arrived when he left this morning.’

‘And Mr. Knox?’

‘Mr. Knox couldn’t stay.’

‘Is it all right?’ Tom questioned eagerly, his eyes searching Uncle Stephen’s face.

‘From our point of view---yes.’

‘And from theirs?’

‘Well, theirs isn’t ours, I’m afraid.’

Tom was silent.

Uncle Stephen walked slowly on, his hands behind his back, while Tom kept pace beside him. ‘I should think Mr. Flood won’t be here for another half hour,’ Uncle Stephen said, ‘but Mrs. Deverell knows; I told her we were expecting him.’

Tom did not ask what had taken place at the meeting. In a way he was even glad not to know. He wanted to forget the whole thing, and Uncle Stephen must have guessed this. ‘To-morrow we’ll start,’ he said. ‘That ought to give us plenty of time to pack. Mr. Flood will look after the closing of the house. You’re sure the plan appeals to you, Tom? You’re sure you are quite happy?’

‘Yes.’

Uncle Stephen laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He kept it there while they continued to pace slowly up and down the lawn, Tom silent, Uncle Stephen talking of their approaching travels. He presently, indeed, plunged into a stream of reminiscence; the prospect of revisiting old scenes and reviving old memories evidently attracted him, though it was not so much the thought of the direct renewal of impressions as the thought of renewing them through the eyes and the intelligence of the boy beside him that lay behind all he said. In that seemed to be his pleasure. They were as companions. Objects which he had loved before were dearer now. From the boy there came feelings and emanations---things which were light to the sun and music to the wind: and the old man’s heart seemed born again. . . .

Up and down they walked, waiting for Mr. Flood. And the sun shone, and Sally flapped a pink checked duster out of an upper window, and a thin trail of smoke floated away from the kitchen chimney across the sky, and on the next chimney a rook alit with a friendly caw.

THE END

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