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Our Library => Forrest Reid - Uncle Stephen (1931) => Topic started by: Admin on July 22, 2023, 07:24:13 am



Title: Chapter Twelve
Post by: Admin on July 22, 2023, 07:24:13 am
WHEN he was still about a stone’s throw from the Manor, Tom stiffened into immobility, like a cat, who, in the act of crossing the road, suddenly changes his mind. But it was not at the house he was looking; it was at a car drawn up on the gravel sweep before it, the engine silent. He knew that car. Yes---and he knew that voice too, though the speaker, being within the porch, was invisible. Also he knew the back of Shanks, the chauffeur: the problem was whether to advance or retreat.

Quiet as the stone boy at the other house, he stood to debate it. But what on earth was Uncle Horace kicking up such a row about? Surely they hadn’t refused to let him in! Had they, though? It sounded like it. This was extraordinary!---and whatever happened he mustn’t miss it.

But he approached with circumspection, since it was quite possible he might be pounced on unawares and carried off by main force. It could be done. After all, the car was there, Shanks was there to lend a hand, and---George and Robert having left off work at five o’clock---Tom had nobody to call to his assistance. At the same moment Shanks turned and saw him. His wooden face expressed a total lack of interest, but that might be only part of a ‘plant’, for Tom was not yet within pouncing distance. ‘Here’s Mr. Tom now, sir,’ Shanks called out officially; and then, having carefully turned his back to the porch, he winked.

It was a deliberate wink; there could be no doubt about it; nevertheless, coming from the saturnine and inscrutable Shanks, its significance was ambiguous. It might mean anything or nothing. Tom winked in response, but approached no nearer.

‘Hello, Uncle Horace!’ he said, as Uncle Horace came fussing to the edge of the porch. ‘What’s happened?’

‘Nothing has happened except that your mother sent me down to bring you home. But it appears Mr. Collet can’t see me. I may say that I intend to wait here until he can.’

Uncle Horace, Tom perceived, was not in the best of tempers; his complexion was a shade more florid than usual, and his always high-pitched voice had an unmistakable edge. He did not even ask Tom how he was, but then Tom himself, instead of coming forward to shake hands, continued to hover at a cautious distance.

‘Where is Uncle Stephen?’ he asked of Mrs. Deverell, who stood, frail but determined, in the background, holding the fort as it were.

‘He’s in his room, Master Tom, and he left instructions that he was on no account to be disturbed.’

‘And in the meantime his hospitality extends as far as the doorstep,’ Uncle Horace said, with an angry flash of his white teeth.

Tom was puzzled. It did look rather odd.

‘You must pardon me, sir,’ Mrs. Deverell interposed quietly, ‘but the master never receives visitors except by appointment; and this afternoon he mentioned particularly that he would be engaged and was not to be disturbed.’

‘Disturbed!’ Uncle Horace echoed impatiently. ‘My good woman, all I asked you to do was to take him a message. And considering the distance I’ve come----’

‘I’m sorry, sir, but the master’s orders were definite; I wouldn’t dare to go against them.’

Uncle Horace turned from her abruptly. ‘Then you’d better get into the car, Tom. We’ve a long drive before us. You can write to your uncle when you reach home. Would you fetch Master Tom’s hat and coat, please?’ he said to Mrs. Deverell.

As if at a signal Shanks swung open the door of the car and stood in readiness, but Tom retreated another yard or two. There he again halted, very much on the alert, ready to spring away at the slightest attempt to lay a hand on him.

‘Is Uncle Stephen in his study, Mrs. Deverell?’ he called out.

‘I don’t think so, Master Tom.’

Uncle Horace descended the steps. ‘Come, Tom,’ he said, but Tom did not budge. The impassive Shanks, still holding open the door, remained sardonically at attention.

‘You know very well, Uncle Horace, I can’t possibly go away like this,’ Tom expostulated. ‘And at any rate I’m not going at all. I’m going to live with Uncle Stephen. He’s adopted me. The whole thing’s settled.’

Uncle Horace said nothing. He might have been calculating whether Shanks had even a sporting chance if ordered to pursue his nephew, but if that were his thought he decided against it.

‘I think, all the same, Uncle Horace ought to be invited in,’ Tom went on, addressing Mrs. Deverell.

‘Whatever you say, Master Tom. I’m sure there’s no discourtesy meant, but your uncle’s always most particular that his orders should be obeyed. Of course, with you here it makes a difference. Mr. Collet wouldn’t wish you not to be polite to your visitors. I could get the gentleman some refreshment, if you would bring him into the dining-room.’

‘Thank you, I don’t want any refreshment,’ the visitor snapped. ‘As for you, Tom, you appear to imagine you are going to be assaulted. I didn’t bring either ropes or handcuffs with me. I supposed your natural feeling would be sufficient to make you respect your mother’s wishes.’

‘She isn’t my mother,’ said Tom.

‘She is in the place of your mother.’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘And your father committed you to her charge.’

‘Did he?’ Tom answered softly. ‘I don’t doubt your word, Uncle Horace, but I should have to have some proof of that.’

Shanks suddenly coughed, and Uncle Horace darted a furious glance at him.

‘My mother committed me to Uncle Stephen’s charge,’ Tom added.

Uncle Horace smiled---the coldest and thinnest of smiles. ‘I don’t think we need continue the discussion,’ he said. ‘It is hardly a suitable place.’

‘Will you swear you won’t touch me?’ asked Tom.

‘Really!’ Uncle Horace broke out. But he checked himself, and an exasperated shrug of his shoulders completed the sentence.

Tom, however, was obstinate. ‘I won’t come any nearer unless you promise.’

It was the last straw. ‘I don’t want to touch you,’ cried Uncle Horace in tones belying his words. ‘Your stay with your uncle has been short, but it seems to have had a disastrous effect upon your manners.’

This outburst Tom accepted as a promise. ‘I’m sorry, Uncle Horace. I don’t want to be rude to you.’ And he stepped forward at once. ‘It’s just the way things have happened that is unfortunate. Come in, won’t you? I’m sure Uncle Stephen must be somewhere about. You see, it’s tea-time; in fact it must be considerably after tea-time.’

Uncle Horace glowered as he preceded Tom up the steps and into the hall. Mrs. Deverell hastened to open the dining-room door, but Tom was now anxious to show the visitor every courtesy. ‘I’ll take Mr. Pringle to the study,’ he said. ‘Though I don’t think Uncle Stephen can possibly be there,’ he added to Uncle Horace, ‘or he would have heard us. If he didn’t---I mean if he’s so absorbed as all that, I shouldn’t think he’d see us either, even if we do go in.’ But Uncle Horace received his little joke without response.

And when they entered the room it was to find it unoccupied. All Uncle Stephen’s belongings were there, and some traces of Tom also, but not Uncle Stephen himself.

Tom was about to invite the visitor to sit down, when the visitor abruptly waved him to a chair. ‘Sit down,’ he said, and Tom obeyed him. ‘Now, tell me what is the meaning of this pretty performance?’

Tom looked docility itself, and it was in the mildest possible voice that he asked, ‘What pretty performance, Uncle Horace?’

‘You know what I refer to: kindly answer my question.’

But, as he stared into the boy’s face, he remembered perhaps something which induced him to alter his tactics, for it was in a less aggressive tone that he went on. ‘Why did you run away from home?’

Tom did not reply: indeed Uncle Horace hardly left him time to do so before adding, ‘Why did you want to run away? Why couldn’t you have said something? Don’t you think it was treating your mother---your step-mother---rather badly? I suppose that didn’t occur to you!’

Tom looked at him gravely, but without any hint of a troubled conscience. ‘It did occur to me,’ he said. ‘Only there was no other way. And at any rate I didn’t think she’d care.’

‘She did care.’

‘Yes. . . perhaps. . . I don’t know. . . You see---- I don’t think I want to talk about that part of it: it won’t do any good.’

Uncle Horace’s thin lips drew closer together. ‘Why won’t it do good?’

Tom sighed. He looked at Uncle Horace in a kind of unspoken deprecation. ‘Because----’ he began, and then stopped. He knew so well what Uncle Horace was leading up to, and he wished he wouldn’t. ‘I think it will be better if you don’t tell me she’s fond of me,’ he said at last, slowly and inoffensively. ‘You see, I know she isn’t: I’ve always known. I should think it’s the kind of thing people always do know.’

Uncle Horace checked him with a quick movement; but he looked for all that rather taken aback. ‘You’re making a big mistake,’ he replied pompously, but without much conviction, and Tom did not answer.

‘Don’t you understand too,’ Uncle Horace went on, abandoning the point of sentiment, ‘that it puts her in a most unpleasant position---that when people get to know you have run away they will talk---imagine, and very likely say, there must have been some cause to make you behave like that.’

There was truth in this, and Tom acknowledged it. ‘Only there’s no reason why they ever should get to know,’ he persisted.

Uncle Horace took him up quickly. ‘That’s all nonsense: you can’t keep a thing like this quiet. I shouldn’t be surprised if Eric and Leonard and Jane had already been chattering about it.’

‘Well, I don’t see that I’m to blame for that,’ Tom replied. ‘There was no need to say more than that I’d gone to live with Uncle Stephen, or even gone on a visit to him.’

‘The effect remains, no matter who is to blame. Tell me the real truth now, Tom. There wasn’t any particular reason, was there, why you did what you did? You weren’t unhappy---nobody had done anything you didn’t like? Eric or Leonard hadn’t been teasing you? I may tell you I’ve inquired into that side of the matter very carefully---it was the first thing I did---without finding much, though of course I may not have been told the truth. The boys did admit that now and then they had teased you. There was a book of yours it seems---a particular favourite---Rudolph the Mysterious---and they hung it up in the W.C. as---eh---toilet-paper.’

Tom laughed. The relaxation was so complete that he could almost have embraced Uncle Horace. ‘Oh, that was ages ago. Of course I was angry at the time, but I’d forgotten about it. It was a rotten book anyway, though I liked it frightfully then, and read it I don’t know how often. That’s why they hung it up. But it was only a paper-backed thing, in the Boy’s Companion Library.’ He looked half incredulously at Uncle Horace. ‘Surely you don’t think I’m such a fool as that!’

‘As what?’ asked Uncle Horace, who saw nothing amusing in the incident, and at any rate found these changes of mood singularly unsatisfactory.

‘As to worry about a joke. In fact, I think it was quite a good joke.’

‘But----’ Uncle Horace paused. ‘Then there is some other reason?’

‘I wanted to come to Uncle Stephen.’

Uncle Horace repressed his irritation. ‘Look here, Tom: you had never set eyes on your Uncle Stephen in your life: you had barely even heard of him, and what you had heard wasn’t favourable.’

‘Oh yes, I’d heard of him,’ said Tom simply.

‘What had you heard?’

‘To begin with, I knew what all of you thought.’

‘That’s just what I say. You knew nothing except that.’

‘I didn’t believe it was true, you see---what you thought. . . . Besides, really that had nothing to do with it.’

‘Then what had to do with it?’ asked Uncle Horace.

‘I forget.’

It was a far from satisfactory answer, and he knew from Uncle Horace’s stiffening countenance that he believed it to be a lie. Of course it was a lie, too, but what else could he say? Uncle Horace kept on badgering and badgering till you didn’t very much mind what lies you told. And if it came to that, what was all his own talk but a lot of bluff? The chief reason why they wanted him back he hadn’t mentioned: he had taken jolly good care not to mention it. How mad they would be if they knew Jane had told him!

He awoke out of these considerations to the consciousness that Uncle Horace’s cold, greyish eyes were boring into him like gimlets. It was the kind of gaze with which a cross-examiner attempts to extract the truth from a prevaricating witness, and Tom resented it. Not because of any reflection it cast upon his candour (for he wasn’t being candid), but because he could not see what right Uncle Horace had to question him at all. It was none of his business: he was just a cross old thing, who loved interfering---even his own relations admitted it.

‘Tell me,’ said the cross old thing, ‘had you received a letter from Mr. Collet?’

‘No,’ answered Tom in surprise. But the question threw a new light on Uncle Horace’s attitude, and again he felt his answer was not believed.

‘No message of any kind?’

‘No.’

‘Had you written to him yourself?’

‘No.’

Uncle Horace, momentarily baffled, sat back in his chair before beginning a fresh attack, and Tom, in the interval, ventured a question on his own account. ‘When are they going to send on my clothes?’

‘Your clothes aren’t going to be sent on: you are coming home with me.’

‘I’m not.’ It was the first definitely defiant speech he had made, and it transformed him instantly, as by magic, back into a sullen little boy, brimming over with obstinacy. He sat there frowning, but Uncle Horace was not perturbed. Indeed, from his face, one would have gathered that he welcomed the change. Sullen boys he had met before and knew how to cope with.

His satisfaction permitted a brief flash of the well-known smile. ‘You’re coming to-night,’ he declared.

Uncle Horace was sitting with his back to the door: Tom was facing it and now got up. ‘I think I’d better go and look for Uncle Stephen,’ he muttered darkly.

‘You’ll oblige me by remaining where you are. Mr. Collet, if he is in the house at all, must know perfectly well I am here. Probably he has known from the beginning. All this childish business of wasting my time is either a pose or a calculated rudeness: in fact he is acting quite as I should have anticipated from what I’ve heard of him.’

‘You know nothing about him,’ cried Tom passionately. ‘And what right have you to interfere with me? You’re not my guardian, anyway!’

Uncle Horace had completely recovered himself: he was now master of the situation. ‘You won’t make matters better by losing your temper,’ he said. ‘You’re behaving at present like a spoiled, self-willed child.’

While he was speaking, Tom had turned half round. He stood scowling in mute anger, and then suddenly his whole countenance altered as an expression of relief, affection, happiness and trust swept over it. At that moment, in spite of its plainness, his face became oddly attractive. Not that Uncle Horace was attracted. On the contrary, turning once more, Tom encountered a gaze of fixed and profound suspicion.

‘What’s come to you now?’ asked Uncle Horace coldly.

Tom’s smile broadened. ‘It’s Uncle Stephen,’ he breathed, as if conveying a secret. ‘He’s there.’

At this Uncle Horace also whipped round, and rising abruptly, knocked over a small table beside him.

‘What----’

‘I must apologize,’ Uncle Stephen said. ‘I didn’t know anybody was here.’

The tall figure still stood in shadow, motionless; and to Tom the black panelling behind it, throwing into relief the silvery whiteness of the hair, made it look exactly like an old portrait in a dusky frame. Uncle Stephen came down the full length of the room; he laid a hand on his nephew’s shoulder, and Tom leaned close up against him in a way that annoyed Uncle Horace indescribably. ‘You’d better introduce me to your visitor, Tom.’

‘This is Mr. Horace Pringle,’ Tom replied, with an unconscious trick of mimicry catching the very tone of the clear low voice which had just spoken.

Uncle Horace jerked his head in acknowledgment, but he remained where he stood, one hand behind his back, the other resting on the top of his chair. ‘This is Mr. Horace Pringle!’---and there had been a glint in his eyes when he had said it. A precious pair! That boy, looking like a tiger’s cub in the ecstasy of being stroked and caressed! A precious pair indeed. Uncle Horace’s unspoken opinion was cried aloud from every visible inch of him---even from his clothes and buttons and tie and collar, the white frill of his waistcoat, his spats and his slender, highly-polished boots.

Uncle Stephen had bowed ceremoniously. ‘Do sit down,’ he suggested. ‘Tom, I’m afraid you haven’t been very hospitable. You might at least have got your uncle something to drink after his drive, even if you couldn’t offer him a cigar or a cigarette.’

‘Thanks, I never drink between meals,’ Uncle Horace interrupted frigidly. ‘I shan’t beat about the bush: I’ve come for Tom himself.’

‘For Tom?’ Uncle Stephen’s eyebrows were slightly lifted as he repeated the last words, throwing into them a note of interrogation and just a shade of surprise.

‘Mrs. Barber---my sister---wishes him to return home.’

‘At once? But surely that is a very short visit! My letter, perhaps----’

‘Oh, she got your letter,’ Uncle Horace interrupted. ‘She ought to have acknowledged it at once, no doubt, but you will receive her reply to-morrow. And in the meantime she thought it would save trouble if I drove down and fetched Tom back with me. She asked me to apologize for the inconvenience his unexpected arrival must have caused you.’

‘It wasn’t unexpect----’ Tom began, but a slight pressure on his shoulder made him leave his speech unfinished. Uncle Horace had pricked up his ears, however, and Tom knew he would now be more suspicious than ever.

‘His arrival wasn’t at all an inconvenience,’ Uncle Stephen said softly. ‘It gave me great pleasure.’

‘I should have thought---with your habits of solitude---it couldn’t be anything but the greatest possible nuisance.’

Uncle Stephen waited a moment. ‘Habits of solitude, don’t you think, usually mean no more than a distaste for uncongenial society?’

‘Perhaps: but the society of a young boy can hardly be congenial.’

‘That, of course, you have no means of judging. I don’t wish to be rude, but you must see yourself that it is so.’

‘I dare say I can’t judge in the present case,’ Uncle Horace answered dryly, ‘though I should have said that the first essential to congeniality is the possession of something in common---interests, tastes, experience, age. What can you possibly have in common with a boy of Tom’s age?’

‘A boy of Tom’s age is not necessarily devoid of interests and tastes. Also your list ought surely to include character, a certain temperamental outlook or sensitiveness.’

Uncle Horace received these additions with something very like a snort. ‘Tom’s,’ he said, ‘is the kind of temperament that makes it desirable that he should not be removed from the ordinary healthy influences of home and companions of his own age.’

‘You mean the particular home and companions he left behind him when he came to me?’

‘Since my sister is his guardian, naturally that is his home. . . . I don’t know what tales he may have brought you,’ he went on, with a glance at the possible tale-bearer; ‘the fact remains that he was well looked after in every way, perfectly happy, perfectly content till----’

‘Till what?’ Uncle Stephen asked.

‘How do I know,’ Uncle Horace answered sourly. ‘He’s always been secretive. Now there seems to be some particular secret that he refuses to talk about. But I’m convinced it wasn’t there a few days ago.’

Rudolph!’ Tom whispered. ‘I never knew I was so like him.’ He was regarding Uncle Horace with inquiring eyes in which brimmed a suppressed laughter. He was unaware of it, but nothing could have been more provocative.

‘Your idea, then, is that this secret of Tom’s has been implanted by me?’ Uncle Stephen went on quietly.

‘I didn’t say so.’

‘But it is the obvious meaning of all you have said.’

‘You can take it in whatever way you like.’

Uncle Stephen’s eyes narrowed for a moment, though whether in distaste for the accusation, or for the manner of its expression Tom could not tell. To him it seemed that Uncle Horace was merely being tiresome. His uncle was not like that; and he rubbed his cheek softly against Uncle Stephen’s hand.

Uncle Horace withdrew his eyes from the revolting spectacle. ‘Are you or are you not going to send Tom back with me?’

‘You also forget that he really is related to me, of my own stock, whereas----’

‘Family affection has meant a lot to you in the past, hasn’t it?’ Uncle Horace interrupted. ‘I repeat my question: Are you or are you not going to send Tom back with me?’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Uncle Stephen quietly, and Tom experienced a strange thrill of pleasure.

‘How long do you propose to keep him?’

‘For ever and ever,’ Tom breathed, but again he felt a warning pressure.

‘As long as he cares to stay: I certainly shan’t keep him against his will. But I explained all this clearly in my letter.’

‘Your letter was serious then?’

‘Yes. Didn’t it strike you as serious?’

‘It did not, but my sister was more credulous. Therefore the first thing she did, after showing it to me, was to consult her solicitors. I suppose you understand that you can be compelled to give the boy up.’

‘We shall see.’

‘You mean, you are going to fight the case?’

‘I don’t think there will be any case.’

Uncle Horace gave his high nervous laugh. ‘You are optimistic. I can assure you matters won’t be allowed to remain as they are now.’

‘That also we shall see.’

Uncle Horace took out his watch, glanced at it, and replaced it in his pocket. Deliberately he seemed to pause before making his next point. ‘Another thing you perhaps haven’t considered. All this must entail publicity.’

‘Yes?’

‘It may become necessary to rake up ancient and buried scandals:---if we have to prove, for instance, that you are not a proper person to be in charge of the boy.’

‘If you can do so it will certainly strengthen your position.’

‘I may add, speaking for myself,’ Uncle Horace pursued, ‘that my visit to-day has convinced me you are not a suitable person.’

At this Uncle Stephen smiled, but gravely, not in derision. ‘That at least is a little unreasonable,’ he protested. ‘I should have been here to receive you if I had known you were coming, and I have apologized for not being here. The only other cause for offence you can have found is my refusal to send Tom back.’

‘I am not alluding either to your refusal, or to your reluctance to admit anybody to your house---or even to the slightly theatrical manner of your own entrance.’

‘Oh! the concealed door! I assure you my use of it was entirely accidental.’

‘Most people are content with ordinary doors.’

‘You think others definitely not respectable? I’m sorry. I can only plead the age of the house and the fact that behind the door there is nothing more alarming than a staircase leading to my bedroom. If you are not referring to any of these things, however, what are you referring to?’

‘To the alteration in Tom himself.’

Uncle Stephen now at all events showed a genuine astonishment. He looked at Uncle Horace half incredulously. ‘An alteration?---an alteration for the worse?’

‘Most decidedly.’ And with this Uncle Horace stepped lightly across the room to its more orthodox entrance.

The impulse was irresistible, and Tom made a face behind his back. Unfortunately Uncle Horace, turning his head unexpectedly, had time to catch it. He regarded his nephew grimly though he said nothing, and Uncle Stephen, who luckily had missed this by-play, rang the bell, then changed his mind and went himself to see their visitor off.

Tom, left all alone, stood in the middle of the floor, waiting for Uncle Stephen to come back, and thinking. Of course, he had heard something---a faint click---it was that which had attracted his attention---but he had unusually sharp ears, and Uncle Horace could have heard nothing. And even for him it had been a thrilling moment when he had turned and looked and---Uncle Stephen simply had been there. Yes, and the thought had risen in his mind of how wonderful it would be if he really were a magician. He had had a vision of himself going through the streets of Kilbarron, of the women peering furtively out over their half-doors, and the boys railing after him ‘Wizard’s brat!’ . . .

Suddenly Tom hated himself for these thoughts. They were stupid---all wrong.

He was wakened out of his reverie. ‘I suppose it is going to be war to the knife---eh?’ Uncle Stephen had returned.