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Chapter Seven

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« on: July 22, 2023, 02:24:53 am »

TOM, wakened by a knocking on the door, opened his eyes drowsily to see another pair of eyes regarding him with a frank and friendly curiosity out of a rounded, fresh-coloured, pleasant face, and concluded that this morning vision must be none other than Sally Dempsey. The vision, the moment he took notice of it, retreated to the landing, only to reappear again, carrying in first a small tray with tea and biscuits, which was placed on the table beside his bed, and then his clothes more neatly folded than they had been since leaving the tailor’s. Sally next went into the bathroom, where he heard her turning on the water.

Tom found such attentions as delightful as they were novel. He ate all the biscuits, and drank all the tea contained in the little china pot with its pink and green sprigs. He lay in his bath luxuriously as a frog. Nor was it a cold bath, as he had feared it might be, and it was so deep that the whole of him was covered at once. He raised and lowered himself from his middle to make warmer waves pass over him, while outside the birds sang and through the open window the sun shone.

But when it came to dressing he looked at his clothes with distaste. He had been obliged to come away in his black suit, and the jacket he must wear, since he had no other. But he discarded the waistcoat and the trousers, putting on his flannels. With a clean collar, and his hair nicely brushed, he felt himself to be a much more presentable as well as a good deal more comfortable person than the sticky travel-stained Tom who had arrived last night.

Coming downstairs, he paused on the landing overlooking the hall, where the front door stood wide open. Out in the porch he could see Uncle Stephen, and after a moment of shyness he ran down the last flight to join him. They shook hands, said good-morning, and then stood waiting, Tom supposed, to be summoned to breakfast.

A gong sounded and they went in. Uncle Stephen’s place was laid at the head of the table and Tom’s at the side. Looking out through the window, he had a view of a man mowing the lawn, swinging his scythe in a slow rhythmic sweep, while the tall grass toppled over and lay still as the blade passed through it. Sometimes a ray of light was reflected from the bright flashing steel on to the ceiling.

Tom was not a great eater---his step-mother accused him of picking at his food, a habit which had much annoyed her---but Uncle Stephen kept a less critical eye upon him, and there being no Gavney boys to create an unfavourable comparison, he did not do so badly. Uncle Stephen, at all events, seemed satisfied, and towards the end of the meal said, ‘I think, Tom, you had better tell me everything that has happened.’

Tom thought so, too; but it was difficult to make a beginning.

‘I dare say I can guess most of it,’ Uncle Stephen helped him out, ‘only, I should like to know exactly where we are before taking any further steps. And some further steps, I suppose, will have to be taken.’

Tom looked out at the summer morning and at the mower; then he looked at Uncle Stephen. Too easily, perhaps, he had jumped to the conclusion that everything was settled; for now he remembered Uncle Stephen really had said nothing about keeping him. The preparations might mean no more than that he was to be a visitor for a few days! He lowered his head and sat there without a word.

Uncle Stephen glanced at him. ‘What is the matter?’ he asked. ‘What is troubling you?’

‘Nothing,’ Tom replied; and after a moment proceeded to give an account of yesterday’s adventure. The account was fragmentary and at times obscure---particularly in all that had led up to the actual journey---but Uncle Stephen did not interrupt him. When Tom had ended he merely asked, ‘What are your own plans?’

It seemed to Tom that his plans had been very plain indeed. At any rate he could not express them more openly until he knew they were Uncle Stephen’s also, and now he supposed they weren’t. For a moment he saw himself returning to Gloucester Terrace---but that at least should not happen. He remained silent. His knife dropped to the floor and he was a long time picking it up.

Uncle Stephen was watching him closely. ‘Perhaps that was not a good way of putting it,’ he said. ‘What I really meant was, that I suppose, until you have given it a trial, you won’t be able to tell me whether you would like to stay on here or not. You see, by “stay here” I mean live with me, looking upon this house as your home. You are bound to find it very quiet---and not only quiet, I’m afraid, but dull; for the quietness wouldn’t matter if you had a companion of your own age. Unfortunately there is nobody---at least I know of nobody. There are young people of course, but they’re not of your class.’

‘That doesn’t matter.’

‘Doesn’t it?’ Uncle Stephen seemed more doubtful. ‘Perhaps you’re right: I don’t know.’

‘Do you want me?’ Tom asked, his bright eyes on Uncle Stephen’s face. ‘Please tell me truly.’

‘I thought you had made up your mind about that part of it last night!’

‘Yes I did.’

‘And what conclusion did you come to?’

Tom coloured. ‘I thought you wanted me,’ he said.

Uncle Stephen allowed a few seconds to elapse before he replied, ‘Well, Tom, nothing has happened since.’

‘Then you do want me?’ said Tom with a little sigh of relief.

‘Of course I want you, but it isn’t only what I want that has to be considered.’

‘It is---if I want it too,’ Tom answered.

Uncle Stephen looked out of the window. ‘I suppose I shall hear from your step-mother to-day,’ he said. ‘I shall write this morning to ask her to send on your things. Temporarily, I don’t expect there will be any objections made. Unless, of course, the question of school should arise---I was forgetting that.’

‘It won’t arise,’ said Tom. ‘I wouldn’t have been going back before the holidays even if I’d been at home. The holidays begin next week.’

‘Even so,’ Uncle Stephen pursued, ‘holidays can’t last for ever. What we want to reach is a permanent arrangement---something which will prevent the whole question from being reopened in a few weeks’ time. You see, if you are to become my boy, I should like you to live with me---all the time---not only during your holidays.’

‘Yes,’ said Tom, ‘of course. I will live with you.’

‘But in that case it will have to be settled properly---definitely. And we must find you a tutor.’

‘Couldn’t you teach me, Uncle Stephen? I wouldn’t give you any trouble: I’d do everything you told me.’

‘I don’t think that would be a good plan, though we might sometimes read together if you would care to.’

‘I’d love it.’

‘But we’ve got to remember that in two or three years you’ll be going to a university, and therefore there should be somebody who can direct your work along the usual lines. I can’t. I never was at a university, and even if I had been, my experience would now be out of date. My own training was special and entirely unusual. It would be well to have all this part of it as cut and dried as possible. We might speak about it to your curate friend.’

‘Mr. Knox?’

‘I know even less about him than you do: still, if he is willing to coach you, I think his qualifications ought to be sufficient. You don’t require a great deal, do you: you’re clever enough to do the real work yourself?’

‘Yes,’ said Tom.

‘So if you called to ask him to come to see me, we might sound him on the point. I’ve an idea that it would be as well to get hold of him as soon as possible.’

‘I can go this morning. I know where he lives; he showed me the house.’

‘The more practical our plans are the better. That is, of course, supposing certain difficulties should be raised.’

‘Yes.’ Tom had no very precise notion as to what kind of difficulties were meant, but he had a complete faith in Uncle Stephen’s wisdom.

‘There’s a good deal,’ Uncle Stephen went on, ‘about which we are still in the dark.’

‘Yes,’ said Tom again, though this time he added as an afterthought, ‘Is there?’

Uncle Stephen laughed. He pushed back his chair, and Tom slid off his own seat and came and stood beside him. Then he sat down on the edge of the chair and Uncle Stephen, taking the lobe of Tom’s left ear between his finger and thumb, pressed it gently. ‘You don’t believe there will be any opposition?’

‘But I’m here now,’ Tom replied.

‘Yes, you’re here, and we’ll hope that in this case possession will be nine points of the law. It’s the tenth point that may be troublesome. You see, Tom, your father must have made a will, and it’s quite likely he appointed somebody to be your guardian.’

‘Uncle Horace?’ Tom suggested, though without conviction.

‘Uncle Horace perhaps---the particular person doesn’t much matter. What matters is that any such arrangement will leave us awkwardly placed.’

Tom weighed the proposition for half a minute. ‘I don’t believe there is such an arrangement,’ he declared. ‘To begin with, I don’t believe father liked Uncle Horace. And there’s nobody else except my step-mother. Besides, anyway, what can they do?’

‘That,’ said Uncle Stephen, ‘remains to be seen. I imagine legal proceedings could be taken if I refused to give you up. It would depend on whether they thought it worth while.’

‘You mean a trial?’ said Tom, and the idea amused him greatly.

‘Not a trial exactly---though goodness knows what a lawyer mightn’t make out of it. You never can tell. We must make inquiries of our own lawyer, who will be Mr. Flood. I’ll have a talk with him about it: in fact you might leave a note at his office when you go to see Mr. Knox.’

His eyes rested on his nephew’s, and there was in them an odd light of half-amused complicity which instantly recalled to Tom the description Mr. Knox had given in the train. ‘But what can they do, Uncle Stephen,’ he persisted, ‘even if they do go to law about it?’

‘I hope nothing, but I expect they would begin by trying to prove me an undesirable person to have charge of you.’

Tom was unimpressed. The one important thing to him was his acceptance by Uncle Stephen, and in the light of this the hypothetical struggles of Uncle Horace and Mrs. Barber to regain custody of his person struck him as negligible. ‘All we’d have to do would be to prove you were desirable, and I could easily do that.’

‘Yes. I don’t know that your desires would be exactly the point in question---still, they might have some weight. The real difficulty, Tom---the thing we can’t get over---is that during all the fifteen years of your existence I never once showed the slightest concern for your welfare. This does give the others a claim. There is no use denying it, and it will be quite open to them to ask why, when I never showed an interest in you before, I should begin to show one now. You might even ask that yourself.’

Tom shook his head.

‘Haven’t you wondered?’

But it was hardly a question; or, if it was, it was addressed to himself rather than to the boy, who however shook his head once more; then thought for a minute or two, and at last seemed to catch at something. ‘It was because----’ He stopped there, trying to read the remainder of his sentence in Uncle Stephen’s face.

‘Because of what?’

Tom coloured. ‘Because it wouldn’t have been the same,’ he said.

Uncle Stephen did not reply. Tom saw, indeed, that he was lost in thought. What that thought was he could not guess, but it left his eyes rather stern. A lock of fine white hair dropped down below the silk skull-cap over the delicately moulded temple. Tom noticed the tiny blue vein that ran up beneath it, the curve of the ear, the cheek, the mouth, the nose, the hands. He called up for comparison pictures of all the other people he knew, but there was nobody in the least like Uncle Stephen. That grave and impenetrable countenance, which was only partially turned in his direction, so that he saw it little more than in profile, seemed to him as strange as it was beautiful. But it was beautiful: Uncle Stephen really was a beautiful old man. And it was quite certain that he liked Tom, which, so far as the latter was concerned, settled every difficulty. He felt indeed settled for life. He was utterly determined to resist whatever authority, legal or domestic, might be exerted to take him away. If both Uncle Horace and his step-mother were at this moment to drive up to the door he wouldn’t care.

‘Uncle Stephen,’ he said, and put his hand on Uncle Stephen’s arm, giving it a small pull to bring him out of his reverie. It was odd how he could at once not understand Uncle Stephen and at the same time understand him so well, for he knew immediately that this little touch of familiarity had pleased the old man. ‘Uncle Stephen, it wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t come to you of my own accord, would it?’

‘You mean if I had gone to fetch you?’

‘Yes---or if you had written. Of course, you knew I was coming, but even so----’

‘Well---even so?’

‘If I hadn’t come of my own accord you wouldn’t have wanted me.’ Tom had made it all out at last clearly. ‘My coming the way I did showed you it was all right---that I was right---the right kind of boy for you. It doesn’t sound conceited for me to say that, does it? I mean I hope it doesn’t sound as if I thought a lot of myself; because I don’t.’

‘We’ve wandered a good deal from where we started,’ Uncle Stephen replied, ‘which was not whether you were the right kind of boy, but whether I was the right kind of uncle.’

He looked at Tom, who immediately answered, ‘It’s the same thing. If I’m right for you you must be right for me. . . . And of course---anyway---I knew last night.’

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