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Our Library => Forrest Reid - Uncle Stephen (1931) => Topic started by: Admin on July 22, 2023, 11:12:24 am



Title: Chapter Fourteen
Post by: Admin on July 22, 2023, 11:12:24 am
‘MY dearest Tom,

‘What on earth did you say or do to poor Uncle Horace? None of us can quite make out, though he has talked of precious little else ever since he got back. He came round that very night foaming at the mouth with rage, and there was a most awful scene---entirely apart from you---because he barked his shins against Leonard’s bicycle in the hall. You see it was late and darkish and he was in such a hurry to get in. At first we thought the ceiling had come down; but it was Uncle Horace and the bicycle. However, that doesn’t concern you, and I’d better tell you what does.

‘To begin with, Uncle Horace says U.S. pretended to be too busy to receive him and that he wouldn’t have got into the house at all if you hadn’t turned up just as he was going away. Then, after he did manage to get in, there was still no sign of U.S., though really he was hiding all the time and listening, so that, when Uncle Horace had at last persuaded you to come home, he was able to upset everything by appearing suddenly through a trap-door. This is the part where Uncle Horace gets so feverish that we simply daren’t ask questions, and Tom dear, though awfully thrilling of course, don’t you think it was a little eccentric too? But perhaps you don’t, for Uncle Horace says you’ve become the âme damnée of U.S. (I’ve been dying to bring that in---it’s a lovely expression---and it really is what Uncle Horace means.) What he says is that you’re being hopelessly spoiled and that mother isn’t to send on your clothes or your books or anything. They sit talking about it together by the hour. At first we were sent out of the room, but now they’re got reckless and discuss everything openly. Uncle Horace is angrier with U.S. than with you, though he’s pretty angry all round and says you both insulted him and that your manner, once you had U.S. there, became insolent to the last degree. He also says it’s mother’s duty to get you out of U.S.’s clutches, though when she asked him if any wickedness was actually going on in the house he told her not to be a fool. That’s the sort of temper he’s in: poor mother has her head bitten off about fifty times an evening. And the worst of it is, it brings him round here every evening---simply the pleasure of abusing U.S. He hasn’t missed one since he got back, and he finds fault with all of us nearly as much as with you. Everything in the house annoys him, but particularly the drawing-room clock, which at nine and ten has taken to striking thirteen and fourteen, and mother always forgets to have it fixed. They’ve both been to see lawyers, but I didn’t hear what happened, and I don’t think you need worry, because Uncle Horace knows he’d have to pay all the expenses if they went to law.

‘I got your two postcards, but would much rather have had one letter. By the way, you’d better disguise your handwriting when you reply to this, as I’ve been forbidden to hold any communication with you. I hope you’re having a good time---it sounds as if you were---and send you my love. To U.S., at present, only kind regards.

‘Ever your affectionate friend, ‘Jane Gavney.

‘P.S.---Is U.S. a magician, and can you bring rabbits out of a hat yet?

‘P.P.S.---It would be better if you addressed your letter c/o Miss Margaret Stanhope, The Limes, Dunmore Park.’

Tom refolded this epistle and put it back in his pocket. They had heard neither from Uncle Horace nor his step-mother, but he had ceased to care whether his clothes came on or not. His measurements had been sent to Uncle Stephen’s own tradesmen, and a complete outfit had arrived several days ago, to the delight of Mrs. Deverell and Sally, who had made out a list of his requirements, had gone over everything carefully, had marked his linen and superintended the tryings-on of his suits, while Tom strutted in front of them, endeavouring to appear indifferent to criticism and admiration. Sally had made jokes. She had pretended he must be going to get married, and all questions of taste were referred to a mysterious ‘She’. Mrs. Deverell was not given to joking, but it was clear to Tom that they both enjoyed having him at the Manor and enjoyed even the extra work it gave them. It was Master Tom this, and Master Tom that, while George McCrudden and Robert docilely had fallen in with the feminine view. The only drawback was that the women were too inclined to forget he wasn’t a small boy. He liked being made much of, but----

He glanced at Philip lying on his back under a beech-tree, and the contrast struck him. It was impossible to imagine anybody treating Philip as he was treated by Sally and Mrs. Deverell. Yet Philip was only a year older. It was the self-reliance of his nature, more really than any physical qualities he possessed, that made the difference---though the physical qualities were there too, and Tom was sure the roughest kind of life would not alarm him. He would be able to hold his own either on board a ship or anywhere else; nothing short of positive ill-treatment could injure him; and he was strong enough to stand even a good deal of that. . . .

Just now he was asleep, or seemed so. Both boys had taken off their jackets, and Philip had rolled his up to make a pillow of it. Tom sat beside him, leaning against the broad trunk of the tree, and still holding in his hand a branch of syringa he had broken off to drive away flies while they were walking through the bracken. Their beech was on the slope of a hill overlooking the river valley. Between banks of reed-grass, sedges, and wild parsnip, the sluggish water wound in and out, sometimes hidden by overhanging bushes and pollard willows, but its course always visible as far as Tom’s sight could reach. The air was heavy, and there was a dark threatening line of clouds on the horizon. . . .

He closed his eyes. For a minute or two perhaps he actually lost consciousness, but the sudden nodding of his head was sufficient to awaken him. The fire they had lit had not quite gone out; he could still see the red glow of the sticks beneath a covering of grey ashes. He felt a tickling sensation below his knee. He pulled up the leg of his trousers and discovered a furry caterpillar---a Hairy Willie was his name for it. . . . Philip really was asleep, he thought. . . .

Tom picked up the caterpillar with the intention of placing it on the sleeper’s nose, but instantly it curled into a tight ring in his hot hand, pretending to be dead. He laid it on the moss and looked down at his friend.

His first thought was that if he himself had been dressed as Philip was dressed he would have looked like a boy out of one of Dr. Barnardo’s Homes. Yet Philip didn’t: his clothes didn’t matter. There was a triangular rent in his crumpled trousers; he had no waistcoat, no collar, and his shirt, open on his sun-browned chest, required both washing and mending:---and none of these things mattered. Tom bent down till he could see on the sleeping boy’s cheeks and upper lip a faint down composed of minute silken hairs, invisible at a distance, but which now showed like a velvet film on the smoothness of his skin. With the tip of his finger he tested his own skin, brushing it lightly to and fro.

He held the syringa over Philip’s mouth, but, though he touched him with the utmost carefulness, the blossom left a golden stain of pollen. Tom moistened his finger and tried to remove it without wakening him.

A lazy voice grumbled, ‘What are you doing?’ Philip had only half opened his eyes, and in the narrow ellipse the dark blue iris acquired a strange depth into which Tom gazed. As he did so his lips parted and a thrill passed through him. Two words he whispered involuntarily, though it was only after he had spoken them that they reached his consciousness, producing a slight shock.

‘You were asleep,’ he said hurriedly.

‘I wasn’t, but you must have been: you called me Uncle Stephen.’

‘I didn’t. . . . At least, I did,’ stammered Tom. ‘I mean, I didn’t mean to.’

‘I hope not. Are we going in for a swim?’

Tom hesitated. He put up his hand and began to loosen the knot of his tie: then stopped. ‘There’s no hurry,’ he said.

This reluctance was unusual. Every afternoon during the past fortnight they had bathed: the mornings Tom spent with Uncle Stephen. He was not to begin work with Mr. Knox till September, and it was hardly work he did with Uncle Stephen. They read together, and talked of what they had read, but it was more than anything else an introduction into the beauty of a creed, outmoded perhaps, but not outworn, rejuvenescent as the earth’s vegetation. . . . And when he read in Homer of boys building their sand castles on the shores of the Aegean, it seemed to Tom as if all time had been one long, summer day. . . .

He looked up to find Philip watching him. ‘Will you promise to answer me truthfully if I ask you a question?’

‘How can I promise before I know what the question is?’ Tom said. But he added immediately, ‘Yes.’

‘Why did you call me Uncle Stephen---because you did, you know?’

‘I told you why: it just slipped out. Besides, I wasn’t really calling you Uncle Stephen: it was only that for a moment something made me think of him.’ To avoid further discussion he began to strip off his clothes as quickly as possible. Then he ran down the hill, and was splashing in the shallows at the edge before Philip had unlaced his boots.

He waited until Philip joined him. Neither boy was a good swimmer, though both, with some puffing and blowing, could manage fifty yards or so, and at its widest the channel actually out of their depth was not more than ten yards across. ‘This is great!’ spluttered Tom. ‘I wonder how far the river goes?’

‘Oh, for miles and miles: they always do. Right up into the hills somewhere.’

‘Sally says you ought to be careful when you bathe in fresh water, or you may swallow something that will go on living inside you. She says you shouldn’t lie on the grass, because an earwig may creep into your ear, and if it once gets in, it will eat your brains. She says a cat should never be left alone with a baby, or it will suck its breath and kill it. She says a drowned woman always floats face downward and a drowned man on his back. . . . I say, suppose we got a canoe and discovered the source of the river! The raft would be no good for that. I expect Uncle Stephen would get me one if I asked him.’

‘We could go by land.’

‘When?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why don’t you know? I hate putting off things, if I’m going to do them at all.’

‘It’s you who will have to get permission, not me.’

‘Yes, but there’s no use in my asking till we’ve settled when we want to do it.’

These last remarks were made on the bank and while Philip squeezed the juice of a dock leaf on to his ankle, where he had been stung by a nettle. Tom was pulling his shirt over his head when another thought occurred to him. It had occurred to him several times before, though he had said nothing about it, nor was it without a struggle that he brought himself to mention it now. ‘You did Greek at school, didn’t you?’ he began.

‘Naturally. . . . It’s only the juice that really does any good, and there’s so little of it.’

But Tom was not thinking of the virtue of dock leaves. ‘Why do you say “naturally”? Plenty of people don’t learn Greek.’

‘At my school it was compulsory.’

‘That’s queer. Wasn’t there a modern side?’

‘I never heard of any.’

Tom pondered. He wished Philip wasn’t so uncommunicative. It made it difficult to ask him even the simplest questions. He had never been told the name of this school, for instance, though he had once asked. He had an idea that it was a good deal more distinguished than his own, but that was all.

‘Did you like it?’ he said.

‘Like what? Greek? No.’

This was discouraging, but once he had begun Tom was determined to go on. ‘Of course, with Uncle Stephen it isn’t like school. There’s no “prep”, and he doesn’t mind if your construe is pretty wobbly. I don’t mean to say that he doesn’t put you right, but what he really wants you to do is not to translate but to get the meaning without---to read as if you were reading your own language: and I’m beginning to be able to---a little. And then he tells you things, and he has all sorts of pictures---photographs, you know, and plans and maps. It makes it all true, somehow---talking about it. . . . I mean, that river, for instance---our river---it seems different---you begin to think of it differently---to think of it as alive. Everything comes alive, becomes in a way the same as us, so that you wouldn’t be awfully surprised if the river became friends with you, and appeared in a human form, or at any rate spoke. You see he is our river---and we ought to dedicate our hair to him as a bond of friendship.’

Philip did not answer, and Tom, glancing at him, saw a faint smile on his face. He coloured. What he had said, of course, had been vague and confused---he couldn’t put things the way Uncle Stephen did---but still---- For a minute or two he sat without speaking, offended. Then he asked, ‘Will you come in the mornings?’

‘To do Greek and talk about rivers? No.’

Again there was a pause, but it was broken abruptly by Philip. ‘Who’s this?’

Tom looked up. He followed the direction of Philip’s gaze and his face changed. ‘He’s a chap called Deverell,’ he said uneasily, at the same time half rising to his feet. ‘I say, let’s move on. He mayn’t have seen us: I don’t think he has.’

Deverell was still at a considerable distance. He was approaching along the bank of the river, but he was moving at a sauntering pace, sometimes coming to a standstill, while his dog, with flapping ears, hunted in and out among the sedges.

‘Let’s go before he sees us,’ Tom repeated more urgently.

‘He has seen us already,’ Philip replied.

‘Well, let’s go anyway: we might as well.’

Still Philip did not budge. ‘Are you frightened of him?’ he asked. ‘You seem to be.’

‘Of course I’m not frightened,’ Tom muttered in annoyance. Nor was he, for, though he wanted to avoid this encounter, what really troubled him was the feeling that he had behaved shabbily to Deverell---letting day after day pass without ever going near him. Once they had met by accident---or so Tom supposed---and even on that occasion, after five minutes or so, he had invented an excuse to get away. Moreover, he had not given the true reason, for he had said not a word about having to keep an appointment with Philip. He had said not a word about Philip to Deverell and not a word about Deverell to Philip. Now he was reaping the consequence.

Deverell meanwhile had begun to climb the hill, striking a diagonal course which would bring him straight to where they sat. He had given no sign of recognition; he was not even looking in their direction; but that, Tom knew, was characteristic. Philip might have come away when he had asked him to! And that was characteristic also. He glanced at him. Philip was sitting bolt upright, watching the approaching figure with an expression of extraordinary coldness. Tom stretched himself on his side, pillowed his head on his arm, and pretended to go to sleep.

He was perfectly aware how these ostrich tactics would strike the boy beside him, and also of their futility, but the minutes passed---perhaps they weren’t really so many as they seemed, or perhaps Deverell had turned back. Suddenly he felt against his cheek, first the touch of a blunt cold nose, and then the rapid caress of a warm tongue. Even in his embarrassment he could not suppress a stifled laugh. At the same moment a deep voice growled, ‘Here, Dingo, come out a’ that.’ The voice assumed its ordinary pitch. ‘Doin’ a sleep, Mr. Tom?’

‘Yes,’ said Tom, opening his eyes.

‘Bathin’ makes you sleepy like, don’t it?’

‘Yes,’ said Tom once more.

He sat up, and saw that Deverell’s gaze was directed not at him but at Philip, in a hard fixed stare. ‘Mr. Tom, he likes to play at peep-bo,’ Deverell dropped grimly. ‘Isn’t that so, Mr. Tom?’

‘No it isn’t,’ said Tom. He smiled up at the poacher and his bright eyes were lit with friendliness. He felt that Deverell recognized the friendliness, that even for a moment he responded to it, and that then, deliberately, he rejected it. And Tom understood this too: it was strange how much better he knew Deverell than he knew Philip: it was as if one similarity of temperament were stronger than all that was unlike. ‘All the same,’ he went on, ‘I think it must look extremely like that.’ He smiled again, and there was in his voice a curious blend of provocativeness, appeal, apology, and mischief. The young poacher’s dark eyes rested on him sombrely, but not angrily. Simultaneously Tom became aware that Philip also was looking at him, with a faint and slightly disdainful surprise. But he didn’t care. It wasn’t Philip’s business to choose his friends for him: he would be friends with whoever he wanted.

‘Mr. Tom nearly promised to go fishin’ with me,’ Deverell said slowly, ‘but in the latter end he drew out of it.’

‘Oh, I never!’ cried Tom. ‘You asked me and that was all. You mustn’t say that, really: I mean, you mustn’t think it, because whatever else I don’t do I keep my promises.’

‘Well, I won’t say you were very keen on the sport of it,’ Deverell admitted. ‘Maybe this other young gentleman is more of the sportin’ kind than what you are. He wouldn’t be any friend of yours, would he?’

‘Do you mean a relation? He isn’t a relation, but of course he’s a friend. It was at this point that he might have performed an introduction if it hadn’t been for the frozen expression on Philip’s face. Tom gave it up in despair.

‘I seen you about with him these last two weeks,’ Deverell went on, ‘but my mother says there’s no one stayin’ at the Manor barrin’ yourself.’

‘Neither there is,’ Tom answered.

‘And I didn’t hear any word of him down in the town. Perhaps he’d be coming over from a distance each day?’

‘Don’t you think you’d better be moving on?’ Philip abruptly asked, his eyes as blue as ice and as cold.

Deverell looked at him, thrust his hands into his breeches pockets, then turned and spat before facing him once more. ‘So that’s the kind of talk, is it?’ he said softly.

‘Yes, that’s the kind of talk. Just show me how quickly you can get down that hill again.’

‘At your bidding, perhaps? Look see, my young cock, if you weren’t a friend of Mr. Tom’s here, I’d give you a clip on the ear might learn you manners.’

Philip rose to his feet. ‘Clear out,’ he said. ‘And don’t let me see you molesting Mr. Tom again.’

‘Molestin’---molestin’---and when was I molestin’ him? Isn’t it for Mr. Tom himself to choose who he’ll----’

‘No, it isn’t for Mr. Tom. And if I catch you hanging round here----’

‘Well, what will you do?’ asked Deverell, dropping his voice almost to a whisper. At the same time he advanced a step, and the effect was so suddenly threatening that Tom sprang in between them.

‘Oh, I say, stop it,’ he cried. ‘What’s the sense in all this!’ He turned half angrily to Philip. ‘He has as much right to be here as we have, and I don’t see why he shouldn’t speak to me. I’m going to speak to him anyway, and I’m going fishing with him too.’

Philip remained for a moment quite still. Then he wheeled round, ‘Good-bye,’ he dropped over his shoulder, and walked off without another glance.

‘I’m sorry,’ Tom muttered to Deverell, who was standing with his eyes bent gloomily on the ground. But the young poacher did not answer.

‘I am sorry,’ Tom repeated half petulantly. ‘I wish you wouldn’t be angry with me. I know I’ve behaved rottenly, but I’ll really go out with you one of these days---if you’ll let me---if you want me. I’ll send a message by your mother. . . . I don’t know why he spoke to you like that, though it was partly my fault, and a little bit yours, too, perhaps. I mean he didn’t like your asking questions about him. . . . And---I think I’d better go after him now. . . . You see, he is my pal (you remember what you once asked me?) though I don’t think I’m his very much. I mean, he likes me well enough, but---not in the way you do. That’s how it is, really, and I can’t help it.’

Still Deverell said nothing, and Tom, after a further hesitation, began slowly to follow on Philip’s track. Presently he broke into a trot, and Philip must have heard him, though he did not stop nor look round. Even when Tom came up with him he continued to march straight on without a word.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Tom pacifically. ‘What are you in such a rage about? What have I done?’

Philip stared in front of him and walked on.

‘Oh well, if you won’t speak---All I tried to do was to prevent a row. What chance would you have had if it had come to that?’

‘Not very much, I dare say, unless you had backed me up: but I expect that’s hardly in your line.’

Tom flushed. ‘If you think I’m a coward you’re welcome to do so: I don’t care.’

‘I don’t suppose you do, and I’ll know another time what to expect.’

‘What have I done?’ Tom repeated. ‘Is it because I told you he had a right to speak to me?’

‘Yes, you said that when he was there---after telling me first he’d been annoying you.’

‘That’s a lie: I told you no such thing.’

Philip immediately confronted him, blocking the way. ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ he asked, raising his hand.

Tom flinched ever so little, but he stood his ground. ‘Yes,’ he muttered, biting on his lower lip to prevent it from betraying him. He waited for Philip to strike him, as he had waited in more than one such crisis at school, but no blow came. Instead, Philip thrust his hands into his pockets.

‘I don’t think you’re a coward,’ he said, with a kind of angry honesty, ‘and you mayn’t actually have said he had annoyed you; but you implied it; you even wanted to run away from him.’

‘It wasn’t for that reason.’

‘So I see now. Why didn’t you stay with him, then? I gave you the opportunity.’

Tom answered nothing, and after a moment Philip once more began to walk on towards the Manor woods, whereupon Tom also walked on beside him.

In this fashion they proceeded, without uttering a word, but Tom was not good at keeping up a quarrel, and very soon his sole desire was to find an excuse for ending this one. ‘It wasn’t Deverell’s fault,’ he began. ‘It was really mine. It must have looked to him exactly as if I wanted to avoid speaking to him, and I had been quite friendly before.’

‘A good deal too friendly, I should imagine.’

‘What do you mean? Why shouldn’t I be friendly?’

‘He’s the surliest-looking brute I ever saw. You seem ready to trust anybody.’

It was on the tip of Tom’s tongue to reply ‘I trusted you,’ but he refrained. All he said was, ‘You might have done what I asked you to: then none of this would have happened.’

‘What did you ask me to do?’

‘To clear out when we saw him coming.’

‘That’s not the way to get rid of him,’ returned Philip impatiently. ‘You’ve got to take strong measures with a person like that: you’ve got to send him about his business. He admitted himself he’d been spying after us and asking questions. Do you think I’m going to have a chap like that prying round, or to hide every time I see him?’

‘Well, I’m not going to send him about his business. I’ve got nothing against him. It was only because you were there that I wanted to avoid him.’

‘Yes, I know that---now. You needn’t go on repeating it. Have you arranged to meet him to-morrow?’

‘No, but I’ve promised to meet him one of these days, and I’m going to.’ After which he was silent until he added, ‘You see, you won’t even try to understand. The reason why I wanted you to come away at the beginning was partly because I had broken my word to him, but chiefly because I knew you wouldn’t get on together.’

‘You were right about that at any rate: though you told him you hadn’t broken your word.’

‘Not literally, but I never went near him.’

‘Why?’

‘Because of you, I suppose.’

Philip’s face did not clear, though he answered less angrily. ‘Well, if you take my advice you won’t go near him.’

‘Wouldn’t it be rather mean if I took your advice?’ Tom asked quietly. ‘After all, I must form my own judgments of people.’

‘Then you think I’m mean?’

‘I think you’re unfair and prejudiced. You’ve taken a dislike to him without any cause---simply because he asked me who you were.’

‘It wasn’t only that. It wasn’t even principally that.’

‘What was it then?’

‘It was because I know he won’t do you any good; and I do know it.’

‘I don’t see how he can do me any harm. Surely I can look after myself!’

‘Yes, if you wanted to: but you seem to like him.’

‘So I do,’ Tom answered.

The statement, nevertheless, did not bring him much comfort, and later, walking home alone, he became unhappier still. The quarrel had ended, but it had not ended like his quarrels with Jane; it had left a feeling of estrangement behind it; there had been no ‘making up’.