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Our Library => Forrest Reid - Uncle Stephen (1931) => Topic started by: Admin on July 23, 2023, 08:31:34 am

Title: Chapter Twenty-One
Post by: Admin on July 23, 2023, 08:31:34 am
TOM opened his eyes, but for a moment or two did not realize where he was. Then he remembered and sat up. Outside it was broad daylight; he must have slept the whole night through. He scratched his head, stretched out his arms, turned round from the window and saw---Philip.

He was lying on the bed fast asleep. Tom crossed the room quickly and stood looking down at him. When had he come? Could he have been here all night? He stooped lower and at last knelt beside the bed. His face was within a foot of Philip’s face; he was gazing so intently that he held his breath. And in that sleeping countenance he could certainly trace a definite resemblance to Uncle Stephen, though even now, even with his knowledge and his desire to prompt him, he saw far more difference than resemblance. He knew it was Uncle Stephen, but should he have known had he possessed only this shadowy likeness to guide him? Would other people---Mrs. Deverell, Sally, Mr. Flood or Mr. Knox---know? And suddenly he found himself looking into two wide open eyes---blue, dark, questioning.

Tom drew back with a kind of spiritual shock. Though their colour and shape were the same (and it was a most uncommon colour), the expression in those eyes was not Uncle Stephen’s. Recognition there was in them, and friendliness; but the recognition and the friendliness were not Uncle Stephen’s.

‘Philip!’ he faltered.

The boy on the bed yawned, swung his legs round and assumed a sitting position. ‘Hello! Are you saying your prayers?’

Tom got up in some confusion. ‘I never heard you coming in last night.’

‘Is that why you were kneeling there staring at me?’

‘I wasn’t.’

‘You weren’t!

‘I mean----’ But, having begun his explanation, Tom could not end it, and Philip watched his embarrassment ironically.

‘I hope you were praying that you might become a nice truthful boy.’

‘Why shouldn’t I look at you?’ asked Tom, defending himself. ‘I thought you were asleep and I was wondering how you managed to get in last night without wakening me. It was last night, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes, of course it was last night.’

‘What time?’

‘I don’t know: it was dark: and you were pretty sound asleep. . . . I say, aren’t you hungry? What about breakfast?’

Tom hurried to unpack the basket---the more readily in that it gave him time to think and helped him to conceal a growing anxiety.

‘I brought two thermos flasks,’ he mumbled, trying to speak in his ordinary voice. ‘But the tea in them must be quite cold by now.’ Having said this, it was as if he were afraid to risk further conversation, for in silence he spread out the contents of the basket, using the napkin Mrs. Deverell had wrapped round the sandwiches as a tablecloth, and drawing the table itself over beside the bed. He knew he was not behaving naturally, probably not looking natural, but he could not help it, he had grown all at once horribly nervous.

He fetched the chair and sat down. ‘You haven’t told me yet what brought you here last night,’ said Philip.

‘No,’ answered Tom.

But he could not go on like this, and suddenly he blurted out, ‘There are other things I have to tell you. You said your name was Philip Coombe.’


‘Well, it isn’t.’

Philip glanced at him, surprised, but unperturbed. ‘How do you know?’

‘I do know.’

‘Is that what’s worrying you? Coombe is the name of the place I came from:---Coombe Bridge. Philip is the name of a dog, a retriever:---our dog at home. They were the first names that came into my head. There’s nothing more in it than that.’

‘Why did you invent a name at all?’ asked Tom.

‘Well, I thought it safer I suppose, and once I had done it, it didn’t seem worth while changing back. Your uncle’s name was another reason.’

‘Uncle Stephen?’

‘Stephen Collet. It gave me a considerable scare, you know, when you mentioned it; and I knew I’d got to be jolly careful. It isn’t a common name, and I was pretty certain he must be a relation though I’d never heard of him. . . . How did you find out, by the way? I mean, how did you find out that I wasn’t Philip Coombe?’ He looked at Tom in sudden suspicion.

‘I---I guessed,’ said Tom.

‘You must be a remarkably good guesser,’ Philip answered drily.

He said no more, but Tom felt that a gulf straightway had opened between them. Nor was he astonished. He was making a mess of everything. He looked timidly at Philip, but Philip did not return his look, he went on quietly with his breakfast. Tom grew more and more unhappy. And to think he had insisted on this meeting! All the questions he had looked forward to asking were forgotten. He did not want Philip now; he had never wanted anybody less; he wanted only Uncle Stephen.

His trouble doubtless was visible in his face, for Philip asked him, ‘What’s the matter?’

Tom was gazing down at his paper of sandwiches, but without even pretending to eat. ‘I’m not very hungry, I think.’

Philip did not question him further. He appeared to be perfectly content that Tom should withhold his confidence, and it was Tom himself who was forced to break the silence, for the unruffled countenance of the boy opposite him had begun to be almost terrifying. ‘Philip,’ he said, ‘don’t you remember anything?

Philip shrugged his shoulders. ‘Why do you go on calling me that, if you know it isn’t my name?’

‘I can’t call you Uncle Stephen,’ said Tom miserably.

‘No; I dare say one Uncle Stephen is enough.’

‘Stephen, then: what does it matter!’

‘Nothing except that it is my name and you seemed rather particular about it a few minutes ago.’

Tom made a movement, half of impatience, half of hopelessness. ‘Listen,’ he began. ‘You must listen----’

‘I can listen a great deal better if you don’t get excited,’ said Philip. ‘You seem always either in one extreme or the other. If anybody has found out about me I suppose it’s your friend the gamekeeper---or whatever it is he calls himself. But if he thinks I’m going to pay him to hold his tongue he’s jolly well mistaken. For one thing, I’ve nothing to pay him with. At least---that’s not absolutely true; but the little I have I’ll require for myself.’

‘It’s not that: he’s not that sort. And anyway he’s not here now----’

‘Not here? Where has he gone?’

Tom’s hands clenched. ‘Oh, I don’t know. What does it matter where he has gone! Philip, do you remember talking about a dream---you called it a dream---a dream through which you got back to the past. Try to remember. It’s important. Awfully. I can’t tell you how important it is.’

Philip looked at him. ‘Got back to what past?’ he asked.

‘To your own past. To---to what you are now.’

‘Don’t you think we’d better change the subject?’

‘I knew you’d say something like that,’ answered Tom bitterly. ‘I’m trying to make you remember something---something that happened. If I could only even make you realize how much depends on it!’ He spoke with all the self-control he could command, but the thought that he might never succeed created in his mind a hardly bearable tension.

‘I don’t even know what “it” is,’ Philip replied, ‘so I can’t very well realize its importance. You seem to me to be talking nonsense, but I know you like to do that and I’ve no particular objection if it pleases you.’ He had begun to look bored, however, and Tom’s sense of defeat deepened.

‘Don’t you remember Uncle Stephen?’ he asked.

‘I never saw Uncle Stephen in my life.’

‘Philip---Stephen I mean----’

‘I haven’t the ghost of an idea what’s worrying you or what you’ve got into your head. That’s the honest, absolute truth; and if you can’t speak more plainly----’

‘Don’t interrupt me.’

‘Well, don’t talk so wildly then.’

‘But I must. I must make you remember. And I’m speaking as plainly as I can.’

He paused, and for a minute or two sat with his eyes narrowed and his head turned slightly away from the other boy, as if concentrating all his faculties on some interior vision.

‘I want you to think,’ he began slowly, ‘of a room---at night. . . . There is a lamp burning. . . . There is a bed---low and narrow---and beyond the bed---at the foot of it---a marble figure, broken, the arms missing, and the legs broken off below the knees---it is a statue of Hermes. There is someone sitting beside the bed---me. There is someone sitting up in the bed---you---with the pillows arranged behind you. You ask me to get a box from a cupboard in the wall, and I bring it to you---a flat wooden box ornamented with brass. Out of the box you take a leather case which opens when you press a spring, and inside is the picture of a boy painted, I think, on ivory---your own picture. There is a name on the inside of the lid---Stephen Collet.’

‘You’re right enough about the miniature,’ Stephen said with a dawning interest. ‘How on earth did you know? Father got it done as a birthday present for mother; but I’ll swear it’s never been out of our house---at least I shouldn’t think so. Mr. Collet must be a relation of ours---a cousin of my father’s, or something. And they must have written to him about me. Is that how you guessed who I was?’

‘Oh, don’t bother about how I guessed,’ said Tom desperately. ‘Think of what I’ve told you. Of the room. Think---think.’

‘Well, I am thinking.’

‘What do you remember?’

‘I suppose you’ll be furious if I tell you, but what I remember is a missionary who once stayed over the weekend with us: my father’s a parson, you know.’


‘This missionary had had a sunstroke. It happened in Africa, I believe. He recovered all right, but sometimes---- I say, there’s no use beginning to blub! I didn’t mean anything. . . . Tom!’ He jumped up and leaned over the younger boy’s chair.

Tom tried to smile. ‘It’s all right,’ he answered huskily. ‘Only---only---it’s awful; and it’s all my fault!’ He hid his head in his arms which were stretched out on the table.

‘What is awful? What has happened? Tom, old man, what is the matter?’

Tom looked up wildly. For a moment, surely, though faintly and through a rougher, younger voice, he had heard the voice of Uncle Stephen! But it was only Philip who stood there patting him on his shoulder.

‘If you’ve got into a scrape perhaps I can help you: I’m pretty well used to them.’

Tom did not lift his head. He felt too miserable even to say that he had not got into a scrape. . . . Uncle Stephen had warned him of the danger, but like an obstinate fool he had refused to listen. For one sickening moment he felt the full weight of having betrayed Uncle Stephen. If even he had had sufficient strength of mind to keep awake last night this might not have happened: but he had felt sleepy and so had slept. His bitterness was too great to admit of self-pity: he was no good: he had prated about faithfulness, and he hadn’t been able to be faithful to the one person he loved.

‘If you like I’ll go back to the Manor House with you,’ Philip---or Stephen---offered. ‘I’ll do anything you want.’

Tom sat up. He drew his hand across his eyes, leaving a black smudge, but a glimmer of hope had been created by these words. Was it not just possible that in Uncle Stephen’s own room something might happen; the cloud might be lifted; and it if broke for even an instant he believed all would be well.

‘Will you, Stephen?’ he said gently. ‘If you do I’ll---I’ll---- It’s very good of you.’

‘No it isn’t. Come on: we’ll go at once.’

Tom got up, ‘I’m sorry I can’t explain why I want you to come,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry about everything. I would try to explain only---it would be just like all the rest.’

‘Yes,’ said Stephen hastily,’ don’t bother. Time enough when we see Mr. Collet.’

Tom followed him from the room, and they passed through the yard and round to the front of the house. Here Stephen abruptly thumped him on the back much as one might thump a dog. ‘It’s sure to be all right,’ he said, encouragingly. ‘You never know your luck. Did you tell him you were going to stay all night at the other house---Mr. Collet, I mean?’

‘Yes---no---I don’t know. . . . Stephen, dear, don’t talk to me please, I want to think.’

But all the thinking in the world, he knew, would help them little if this last experiment failed. What would happen then? Nobody would believe him. The whole thing was too unreal, too fantastic. He might call it an accident, but it was an accident which upset every law of nature and made the plain solid earth no better than a quicksand.

They plunged out of sunshine into woodland shadow, walking on dark moss, with a green roof above them, and the rustling of leaves in their ears. These tree voices were softer, thicker and more blurred than they would be in autumn, when the leaves had grown thin and dry. This was the liquid murmur of life---rich, luxuriant. Stephen had begun to whistle and the clear notes were answered from overhead and every side by trills and pipings that wove a delicate arabesque of sweetness round his common tune.

Tom looked at his watch. It was after ten. An hour ago Mrs. Deverell would have discovered that he and Uncle Stephen were not in the house. . . . Unless Uncle Stephen was there---all the time---asleep---dreaming! That had not occurred to him before, and the thought made him slightly dizzy. Better to wait: better not to think: it was all so uncertain. . . .

He hurried on, a slender eager figure, with Stephen close behind him, but when they reached the edge of the shrubbery he stopped. In the distance he saw George McCrudden wheeling a barrow, and the sight somehow was faintly, temporarily reassuring. He gathered from it at any rate that there had been no alarm raised as yet, and from behind the taller sturdier Stephen, with his arms round him, and peeping over his shoulder, he gazed at the house.

‘What’s our next move?’ Stephen asked placidly.

‘We’ll go in,’ said Tom: but he did not stir till George had disappeared. ‘Thank you, Stephen, for coming with me.’

‘Oh, that’s all right. Only you’d better tell me what you want me to do.’

‘I---I don’t know yet.’

So much, indeed, depended on what Mrs. Deverell might already have done! And the first thing was to find out. While they were approaching the house his eyes searched window after window, but all were empty. Nor was there anybody in the porch---or in the hall. Suddenly Mrs. Deverell appeared.

She came out quickly from the dining-room at the sound of the closing door. ‘Why, whatever has happened, Master Tom?’ she cried. ‘And where’s Mr. Collet?’

Tom saw her glance at Stephen, who grinned cheerfully in response. But Mrs. Deverell had no time just then to give to strange boys. Her eyes questioned Tom. ‘When Sally came and told me there was neither of you in the house I got quite a turn! I never have felt easy about leaving the master all alone at night, cut off from everything and everybody, without as much as a telephone in the house. There should be someone within call, even if it was only Robert. Suppose he was to be taken ill; or tramps were to break in!’

‘I’m within call,’ said Tom.

Mrs. Deverell looked as if she thought that made little difference. ‘When will the master be back?’ she asked.

It was the question Tom had been dreading. ‘He won’t be back. . . . At least I don’t know when he’ll be back. . . . Perhaps not for some time.’

He tried to make his news sound as ordinary as possible, but the effect was to bring Mrs. Deverell’s attention on him in a swoop. ‘Not for some time!’ she repeated. ‘He’ll be back for dinner, won’t he?’

Something inside Tom was behaving exactly like a guilty conscience. He forced himself to return Mrs. Deverell’s gaze, but his cheeks burned. ‘No---and I’ve had breakfast. Uncle Stephen was called away on business---very early. It was important---and---and I went part of the way with him to see him off.’

‘You mean he’s gone by the train!’ Mrs. Deverell exclaimed.

‘Yes---I mean, no. Earlier than that. . . . He went in a motor car. The one that brought the message. Very early. A---a little after five, I think.’

Mrs. Deverell’s astonishment increased. ‘Why, he’s never done that---not in all the years I was with him!’ she pronounced half incredulously.

Her voice, her expression, her whole manner, had begun to exasperate Tom. ‘I can’t help it,’ he answered. ‘It was quite sudden, or of course he would have told you.’ Then he added, to get everything over at once, ‘Philip is to stay with me till he comes back.’

‘But, Master Tom, your bed wasn’t slept in last night.’

Tom’s face grew sullen. It was just as if she had set a trap for him. ‘Yes it was,’ he contradicted. ‘I made it after I got up.’

Mrs. Deverell did not ask him why he had done so; she said no more; but Tom knew it wasn’t because she was satisfied. She didn’t look satisfied: she looked as if she had ceased to question him only because she saw he wasn’t going to tell her the truth. Her eyes turned from him to Stephen, and immediately Tom realized how disreputable was Stephen’s appearance. Fortunately Mrs. Deverell already knew about him---the boy at the other house---the boy for whom she had packed so many baskets. ‘If you would let me have Master Philip’s clothes,’ she said, ‘I could mend them and clean them.’

Tom was filled with gratitude. ‘That’s awfully decent of you, Mrs. Deverell. I will let you have them. My things will be too small for him, but he can wear a dressing-gown or pyjamas. Come, Philip.’ And he hurriedly pushed him in the direction of the study.

They had not gone more than halfway down the passage, however, when Mrs. Deverell called after him, ‘Master Tom, do you mean that Mr. Collet won’t be back to-night?’

Tom turned round. He wondered how many times she was going to ask him this question, but with an effort he answered in his natural voice, ‘I really don’t know, Mrs. Deverell. I’ve told you all I can tell you. We’re not to expect him till we see him. It may be some---some days.’ He faltered again, on the last words, and he knew they left Mrs. Deverell as bewildered as ever. Again he pushed Stephen on in front of him, and opened the study door.

Once inside, he felt inclined to lock it behind them, but resisted the temptation. They stood there, side by side, Stephen looking nearly as puzzled as Mrs. Deverell herself.

‘What’s up?’ he asked. ‘I thought I was being brought here to see Mr. Collet, and now you say he mayn’t be back for a week!’


‘But is it true? Some of what you told her was lies, and all of it sounded like lies.’

‘I know it did. . . . Most of it was.’

‘What’s the idea, then? What really has happened?’

‘I---I want you to wait, Stephen:---not to be impatient.’ Tom’s voice was almost imploring. ‘If you are, I can’t bear it. Will you try? Will you try even a little?’

Stephen looked uncomfortable. ‘That’s all right,’ he answered. ‘I know you’ve got something on your mind, and it seems to be something you’re frightened to tell.’

Tom turned to him irresolutely. ‘It’s not that, but---- You---you don’t---- This room doesn’t remind you of anything?’

Stephen shrugged his shoulders: then he remembered his promise to be patient. ‘That’s the way you talked in the other house. It’s no good. What on earth are you so scared about? Anyone would think you’d done something! Even if you have, I won’t give you away.’ He waited a moment, and at last, as if giving it up, ‘Hadn’t I better let her have my clothes?’ he said.

‘Not yet: there’s something I want to do first.’ Tom crossed the room and began to move his fingers tentatively over the dark panelling till he found what he sought. He pressed on one of the carved, flattened roses, which sank in, releasing the spring of the secret door.

Stephen, who had followed him, uttered an exclamation.

‘It only leads to Uncle Stephen’s bedroom,’ said Tom dully. ‘I’d better go first: it’s very dark---or it will be when I shut the door. I must shut it, because Mrs. Deverell may come in.’

He did so, and then, striking a match, began to climb the steps. ‘Will you hold a light for me, Stephen?’ he said, when they had reached the top of the flight.

Another match flared up, and Tom, after some fumbling, opened the second door. This he did not trouble to close, but sat down on the side of the bed while Stephen, who seemed to be more pleased now with the way things were going, gazed curiously about him.

Tom did not speak. Nor did he look at Stephen who, after closing and opening the secret door several times, and inspecting much more briefly the statue of Hermes, was now at the window. But even without looking he knew his experiment had failed.

Stephen approached him. ‘Well?’ he asked, with a subdued expectation in his voice: ‘Is this all?’

‘Yes,’ answered Tom.

‘But you must have had some reason for bringing me here? What was it?’

‘I thought---something might happen.’

‘To me?’

‘But I see now that it won’t---unless----’

‘Unless what?’

Tom looked up at him. ‘Unless you sleep here.’

‘In this room? What do you expect to happen if I do sleep here? What do you want to happen? If you’d only tell me that, you know, instead of----’

‘I wish you would sit down, Stephen. I can’t talk to you while you’re standing up and moving about.’

Stephen sat down in the low chair where Tom himself had sat when Uncle Stephen was ill. ‘I’ll do anything you like,’ he said good-naturedly. Then a sudden thought occurred to him and he turned to the smaller boy, who was sitting on his two hands, his toes turned in, staring moodily at the opposite wall. ‘It’s not Mr. Collet who has done something, is it? He hasn’t gone away and left you, or anything like that? . . . But of course that’s nonsense,’ he added after a moment.

‘All the same, it is something like that,’ said Tom dejectedly, ‘and it was my fault. . . . I’m going to tell you about it. Will you promise to listen without saying anything till I’ve finished?’

‘I’ve been asking you to tell me for the last hour.’

‘Well, I’m going to do it now: I’m going to tell you everything---from the beginning: it’s the only way.’

But having announced his intention, he still, for a while, added nothing further. Stephen also remained dumb, leaning back in his chair, his legs stretched out, his hands in his pockets.

‘The first thing that happened,’ Tom began at length, ‘happened before I left home. . . .’ And with only an occasional pause, he told the adventure of himself and Uncle Stephen, from that first dream he had had in Gloucester Terrace down to his vigil in the empty house last night.

When he had finished there was a silence. Tom could not read from Stephen’s bent head what he was thinking, yet he could see that some kind of struggle was going on within him. Once he glanced up quickly, but he did not speak; and it was a strange glance, it might mean that he believed Tom to be crazy, for beneath its incredulity was a hint of aversion, perhaps of fear. At last he asked a question, in an oddly repressed voice. ‘What date is this---what year?’

It was a question which produced an electrical effect upon Tom. Why hadn’t he thought of it! That, of course, must settle the matter finally---at least so far as convincing Stephen went. ‘Tell me what year you think it is,’ he asked breathlessly.

Stephen raised his head, but did not answer. Perhaps it was Tom’s eagerness, something in the bright intentness of his eyes---at all events there was visible in his own eyes a failure of confidence. Tom, with a hand that shook a little, fumbled in his jacket. He found a letter---two letters. Their envelopes were postmarked. He found a small calendar. ‘Look!’ he said; and Stephen looked.

Tom watched him with parted lips, but Stephen turned from him. ‘You see!’ said Tom.

Still Stephen did not answer. And then, unexpectedly, he flushed---deeply, painfully---which was what Tom had never seen him do before. He rose to his feet, walked to the window, and leaned out. Tom watched him without a word. Did Stephen mind? He hadn’t thought of it like that, somehow, but his heart smote him now, and he too got up. After what seemed a long time Stephen turned back to the room. Whatever he may have been thinking or feeling was no longer visible in his face; the countenance Tom saw was filled only with a half-mocking bravado. ‘This,’ he said, walking up to Tom and catching him by the arms, ‘is going to be the greatest sport that ever was.’

Tom gazed mutely while Stephen rocked him, unresisting, to and fro. His eyes grew rounder and more and more filled with consternation. Among all the effects he had imagined as resulting from his story, this at least he had not dreamed of. He gazed up at Stephen in a kind of fascination till Stephen, still gripping him closely, gave a short laugh. ‘Don’t you see,’ he said---‘don’t you see that however it goes, we’re bound to be up against it? Nobody is going to believe such a yarn. Why, I don’t believe it myself, though I’ll try to make the most of it while it lasts. That is, if it does last; for I’ve an idea I’m going to wake up soon.’

‘But----’ Tom stammered.

‘But what? I must say you don’t look too pleased about it!’

‘But---- It’s real, Stephen. And---and---everything is still where it was.’

‘How do you mean, still where it was? Everything is jolly well not where it was.’

‘I mean---you still have to get back.’

‘Get back! So far as that goes----’ Then, as he saw the expression on Tom’s face, ‘Oh Lord!’ he groaned, ‘you don’t mean to say you would rather I was that old----’

‘Stop!’ cried Tom, his cheeks flaming. ‘If you say another word----’

‘You’ll hit me, I suppose. . . . After all, I’m talking about myself.’

‘You’re not. You’ve no right---I only told you so that you could try to get back again.’

Stephen released him. ‘Aren’t you asking a good deal? . . . Besides, I am Uncle Stephen.’

‘You’re not,’ cried Tom. ‘You’re not even like him. Uncle Stephen didn’t want to become a boy again. He only did it to please me. It was all my fault. And I only wanted it just once---just this last time, for a little.’

‘Well, you’ve got what you want,’ said Stephen. ‘There’s no use making a fuss: it’s not my doing. Besides, if I’m going back I’ll go back, and if I’m not I won’t. To talk of “trying” is silly. If it happens at all, it will happen as it did before---when I’m asleep. At least I should think so.’ A sudden suspicion appeared in his eyes. ‘Is that why you want me to sleep here?’

‘Yes, it is,’ said Tom brokenly.

Stephen contemplated him for a minute or two with a slight frown. His mood appeared to change. ‘Look here----’ But he checked himself and put his arm round Tom’s shoulder. ‘Why won’t I do as I am?’ he coaxed ingenuously. ‘Don’t you like me? You always seemed to.’

‘Yes I do.’

‘Well, then, what’s the matter?’

‘I could never make you understand,’ said Tom, turning away.

Stephen looked perplexed. Again he thought. ‘No, I suppose not,’ he admitted, with a shade of reluctance. ‘You’re such a queer chap. . . . Of course, I know you were Uncle Stephen’s darling. Still---I say, if I promise to give the thing a chance, will that do? If I sleep in this room to-night? Hang it all, you can’t expect me to do more than that! There isn’t any more to do.’

‘You will do it?’ Tom gulped.

‘Yes, if I say I will.’

‘And---and suppose nothing does happen,’ Tom went on, ‘you won’t go away from me?’

‘Go away! Why should I go away?’

‘I mean, you won’t leave me, you’ll stay with me?’

‘For how long?’

‘You won’t go away at all---ever. All that---about going to sea---you’ll give that up?’

Stephen hesitated. ‘I believe it would be better if I did clear out.’

‘No,’ cried Tom in sudden alarm. He gripped Stephen by the wrist and held him. ‘Promise that you won’t leave me.’

‘But why?’

‘Because you must.’

‘But I don’t see what good it can do. If I’m going to remain as I am now you won’t want me hanging about. After all, it’s only Uncle Stephen you want. Honestly, I think it would be better if I kept to my first plan.’

‘You can’t,’ said Tom, ‘you can’t go.’ What was in his mind was that he must be near Stephen---that he must be there when Uncle Stephen returned---but it seemed impossible to say this, and what he did say was, ‘If you go I’ll go with you.’

Stephen welcomed it as the happiest of solutions. ‘Of course! Why not? You see, it’s all very well for us to promise that we’ll keep together, but we won’t be allowed to keep together---at any rate, not here.’

Tom stood thinking. ‘If it comes to the worst----’ he began.

‘Yes? By “the worst” you mean me, I suppose:---me remaining as I am?’

‘I’m sorry, Stephen. I know it must seem beastly of me to talk like this. . . . But---we must make some plan.’

‘Well, I’ve just made one. Or rather, you made it.’


‘To go away together.’

Tom looked down. ‘How are we going to live?’ he asked. ‘Uncle Horace won’t give me any of my own money.’

‘We’d have to rough it, of course.’

Tom did not reply, but he knew he had small capacity for roughing it; at least, not in the way Stephen meant. To cadge for odd jobs, for food and a sleeping place---such a prospect might hold no terrors for Stephen, but he had not the physique for it. He was far from sickly, but it did not take a great deal to knock him up. One thorough wetting would be sufficient. Stephen might be able to work his way alone---in fact, Uncle Stephen had done so---but with Tom as a drag upon him it would be hopeless.

‘What I’d like best,’ he said, ‘would be for us to stay on here---at any rate in the meantime---if it could be arranged with Mr. Knox.’

‘What has Mr. Knox to do with it?’

‘Well, I told you he was going to be my tutor---after the holidays---and he could tutor us both.’

‘I see.’ Stephen’s tone was unenthusiastic. ‘Well---what then?’

‘Then---I suppose---we’d be his pupils,’ Tom replied. But he said it half-heartedly, for he knew himself it was not a brilliant conclusion. Nor could he add that long before the holidays were over Uncle Stephen would have returned, though this was what he believed---what he must believe, or else his whole world would be plunged in darkness.

‘It sounds all right for you,’ Stephen admitted, ‘but it’s not particularly like my plan. I want to go abroad; to see places.’

‘But you’ve done all that, Stephen,’ Tom reminded him. ‘It’s over.’

‘So you say.’ Stephen knit his brows for a minute; then he said, ‘At any rate, it doesn’t much matter. I think you’ve forgotten one difficulty.’

‘I know what you’re going to say, but would you be willing to try it?’

‘Oh yes; perhaps.’

‘Then that’s all right.’

‘It isn’t all right. You needn’t imagine your guardians will agree to it. At a pinch, and to save trouble, or out of kindness, somebody might offer to help me in my original plan of going to sea; but that will be the most.’

‘You mustn’t mention anything about going to sea.’

‘And after all, you can’t blame them. Even if this business is true---- Look here, I’m going back to Coombe Bridge.’

‘Surely you’ve had proof enough!’ Tom expostulated.

‘I can’t help it. I know I’ve had proof. At least there’s that calendar you showed me, and the portrait. Still, I can’t realize it, and perhaps if I saw the old place, and that it had changed. . . . You know—if what you say is true—my father and mother must be dead,’ he went on in a lower voice. ‘Everybody must be dead. I never thought of that. It’s rather—— I don’t like it.’

‘We’ll go to Coombe Bridge then,’ Tom promised hurriedly. ‘We’ll go together. . . . Stephen, I’m most frightfully sorry. The whole thing is my fault. But whatever happens I’m going to look after you.’

Stephen did not answer. Only he put his hand on Tom’s shoulder, and between his finger and thumb pressed lightly the lobe of his ear. Tom started. He drew in his breath, for that particular caress was strangely familiar to him, it was associated in his mind only with one person, and on Stephen’s part he knew it had been unconscious. ‘I mean,’ he muttered, ‘that I’ll be quite comfortably off later on and----’

But Stephen was not listening: he was looking straight before him. ‘It’s strange,’ he said, ‘but I’ve a faint, faint----’ He broke off abruptly and stood there, his hand still on Tom’s shoulder. ‘No---it’s no good. For just a minute I thought----’ He awoke from his reverie. ‘I say, there’s not much use in our hanging about up here all day. Let’s go out or something.’

‘It must be dinner-time,’ said Tom. ‘I believe I heard the gong. We’d better go and see.’

But he spoke so much more cheerfully that Stephen turned to him in surprise.