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Chapter Nine

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« on: July 22, 2023, 05:02:54 am »

IT was a wilderness. Not a sign of a clearing anywhere. He would simply have to break a passage through. Long streamers of goose-grass attached themselves to his jacket and trousers; he was soon covered with down and pollen and cuckoo-spit, and, to protect his face, was obliged to hold aside the branches with both hands while his feet stumbled among hidden roots and creepers. The branches were tough and elastic, the briers and thistles painful, the nettles stung him even through his trousers; but he was determined not to go back, though very soon he had lost all sense of direction, and when he looked behind him could see how hopelessly crooked was the path he had beaten down. The important thing was to get out of this jungle as quickly as possible, for the ground was becoming soft and muddy, and in wet weather must be little better than a swamp. Fortunately there had been no rain for a week or two, yet even as it was the sticky black mud more than once rose above the tops of his shoes. He struggled on, now quite blindly, and when eventually he did emerge into a comparatively open tract of higher ground, he was hot, breathless, and smeared all over with a protective colouring of vegetable matter.

He cleaned his shoes in the grass and removed some of the less tenacious dirt from his clothes, but the fact that his trousers showed several large green stains and his new jacket had acquired a jumble-sale appearance did not trouble him. More immediate discomforts were the scratches and stings which seemed to leave not an inch of him without its own particular smart. And where was the house? He hadn’t the remotest idea. It might be to the right of him or it might be to the left, but what actually faced him was a low wall---either a very ancient or a very badly built wall, for there were gaps everywhere, many with young trees thrusting through them. This surely must be the old garden Uncle Stephen had referred to---a separate inclosure within the main grounds, cut off from the surrounding woods for a definite purpose. And in fact, threading his way between giant boles of trees, he presently came upon what had once been an avenue though now a thick carpet of mossy grass covered it. Whither did it lead, and what was this place upon which he had stumbled? He had a sense of breaking in upon some private and secret spot. But not forbidden, since Uncle Stephen had sent him out to look for it. The intense silence of the woods rose up around him like a flame.

Chequered bands of golden fire splashed on the moss-dark sward. A stilled loveliness breathed its innocent spell. Then suddenly a hare bounded across the path, and the trilled liquid pipings of hidden thrush and blackbird broke on his ears like the awakening of life. The music came to him in curves of sound. All the beauty he loved best had this curving pattern, came to him thus, so that even the rounding of a leaf or the melting line of a young human body impressed itself upon him as a kind of music. The avenue turned, widened, a house was there.

It was long and low, thatched with pale yellow straw over which climbed trailing boughs of Old Man’s Beard. The strangest house he had ever seen, built of wood and thickly covered with a dark, small-leaved ivy. Up the sides of the porch, looping and twining all about it, grew this Old Man’s Beard; and the roof, jutting out to form a narrow cloister below, was supported by trunks of trees---the natural, unhewed trunks, bulging and crooked---and they too, like the walls, were densely coated with layer upon layer of ivy. The unusual depth of this vegetable growth was what indeed gave the house its strangeness, its at first sight startling suggestion of life. It was alive. Watching it intently, Tom imagined he could see the walls---though ever so slightly---swelling and contracting in a slow breathing. The woodwork round door and windows had once been painted white; the three chimneys were of different heights, and set between them in the straw thatch was a latticed dormer-window, dark and uncurtained. The window was open. Tom saw nobody, yet he had a feeling that someone was watching him, and he never lost consciousness of this, though presently he turned his back on the house. A narrow lawn of moss-thickened grass sloped down from the stained door-steps to a grass terrace, where a further flight of balustraded steps descended to a pool rimmed with stone. On an island in the middle of the pool stood a naked boy holding an urn tilted forward, though through its weedy mouth no water splashed. The fountain was choked. A tuft of grass had found a roothold in the hollow of the boy’s thigh; and on one side of him crouched an otter, on the other was an owl. All round the pool were rough grey boulders coated with mosses, dark green creepers, and trailing weeds. Between the stones sprang scarlet and yellow grasses, hart’s-tongue fern, and bushes of cotoneaster, berberry and lavender. His garden must have been blown to the fountain boy by wandering winds, or dropped by passing birds. On the dark surface of his pool floated the flat glossy leaves of water-lilies, and the lonely little sentinel gazed down at them, or at his own black shadow, or perhaps he was asleep, awaiting the spell-breaker.

Tom knelt on the rim of the pool and dabbled his hand in the water. It was warm and viscid, its faint smell not unpleasant. He let it drop from his fingers, and on the back of his hand tiny snail shells glistened. He wondered for how many creatures this choked fountain was the whole world. The moon would turn it to silver, and the first arrows of the rising sun would turn it to gold. In autumn dead leaves would drift over it; in winter it would be frozen to ice and its small guardian be turned to a snow-boy. Tom’s busy mind, and perhaps busier emotions, began to weave a story round the solitary urn-bearer. Being of his own composition the story followed the dictates of his temperament, just as a drifting branch will follow the current of a stream. He was always making up such stories, in which he lived his secret life of waking dreams and sleeping dreams, and the hidden current deepened day by day and year by year, as its soundless flow bore on inevitably to a predestined sea.

Some instinct made him look round at the house and immediately the web of fancy was broken. For at the open window he saw not a boy in a story, but a real boy, looking down at him through a screen of green leaves. Tom’s eyes grew round as ‘O’s. He was very much surprised. It had not been this kind of watcher he had expected---of humans he had felt sure the house was empty. Yet this boy was no ghost, he was as real as Tom himself. He was staring straight at him too; their eyes met; and Tom, conquering a shyness which always overtook him at inopportune moments, smiled. He could not be sure whether the other boy smiled back or not, he was gone so quickly, leaving the window blank and dark. Tom wondered if he were coming downstairs or merely hiding.

But the situation was altered. With the knowledge that there were people living in the house Tom bumped back sharply to earth and to the fact that he was trespassing. He got up and began slowly to retrace his steps, casting every now and again a glance behind him, and once, while still within view of the house, pausing deliberately. He waited, just in case the boy he had seen should be coming out, but nobody came, and after a minute or two, rather mournfully, Tom decided nobody would. He continued on his way, oddly disappointed.

Uncle Stephen would be able to tell him what this house was and who lived in it. Though it was strange, Tom thought, that he had not already done so, for surely he must know, since the house was in the Manor grounds. He couldn’t know there was a boy there, however; otherwise he would not have said there wasn’t a companion for Tom. The boy must be a visitor.

But a visitor visiting whom? For Tom knew the house had looked empty---looked, moreover, as if it had been empty for years. He had a sense of something dream-like and mysterious. True, he had not approached very closely, not closely enough to see inside: but those curtainless windows, those green door-steps, that choked fountain, those signs everywhere of dilapidation and neglect! And not a thread of smoke from any chimney! What kind of people would live in such a place? It would be almost easier to imagine he had made a mistake, had seen nobody at the window. . . . Only he had.

And he now, quite unexpectedly, caught through the trees a glimpse of the Manor House. The two houses, he guessed, were really not far from each other, though there was either no direct path between them or else he had missed it. For it was through the shrubbery that he emerged on to the lawn, and at the same time he saw Mr. Knox, on a bicycle, riding up to the hall-door. The curate dismounted, leaned his bicycle against the window-sill, turned round, and catching sight of Tom, waited for him.

‘Well,’ he asked,’ how are things going?’ But he gave Tom no time to answer before he drew him gently but firmly away from the porch. Mr. Knox, holding him by the arm, led him past the side of the house. ‘Grass just been cut!’ he murmured. ‘Delightful smell---so fresh! I suppose you’ve no idea what Mr. Collet wants to see me about?’

He asked the question not exactly in a whisper, but certainly in a voice dropped to confidential pitch, and he still kept his arm firmly beneath Tom’s, as if there were a danger of his taking to flight.

‘Yes, I have; it’s about me,’ Tom replied. ‘Only we’d better go in, because it must be nearly tea-time and it will take me ages to clean myself.’

‘Oh, you’re all right,’ said Mr. Knox. ‘That’ll brush off easily.’

‘I hope so, for I’ve no other clothes here.’

Mr. Knox pulled out an old and very handsome gold watch which he wore fastened to a silk ribbon, and which, instead of telling him the hour, appeared to present him with an arithmetical problem. He was behaving very oddly, Tom thought; much less like a parson than a schoolboy who has been summoned, he isn’t quite sure why, to an interview with his headmaster. This impression was not diminished when the curate suggested, ‘Perhaps I’d better slip away and come back later.’

‘But Uncle Stephen wants you!’ Tom exclaimed. ‘He’s been waiting for you all the afternoon! Besides, he may have seen us from the library window and it will look so silly.’

Mr. Knox glanced back at the house. ‘Yes,’ he admitted doubtfully.

‘Uncle Stephen likes you,’ added Tom.

This unexpected encouragement caused Mr. Knox to smile---somewhat sheepishly. ‘At any rate, you’re quite the kindest boy I’ve ever met,’ he said.

And whether it was the kindness of Tom’s remark, or something else that influenced him, he altered the direction of their walk. He turned abruptly back to the house, where, ten minutes later, they were all three seated at the tea-table, the curate opposite Uncle Stephen and Tom between them.

To the smallest member of the party it was deeply interesting---this confrontation of his two friends---particularly in the light of Mr. Knox’s earlier reluctance to be confronted. But he had got over that quickly, and Tom noticed how, once the ice was broken, it was he who did most of the talking. Uncle Stephen listened. And even in their ways of listening there was a marked difference between them. Uncle Stephen listened with a kind of quiet attentiveness, and always there was a slight but distinct pause before he replied. Mr. Knox’s ‘listening’ was much more like Tom’s own, charged with a restrained eagerness to interrupt.

It was Mr. Knox who talked, but it was Uncle Stephen who provided subjects. It was like that game in which you scribble a line on a piece of paper and the other person fills it in, making it a horse or a man or a cat or a boat. Tom, as usual, saw it like this, in a picture. He was alert and observant, a spectator, or perhaps still more an actor who was not on in this scene, which he watched from the wings. He had a feeling of being with his own people, his own kind (though Mr. Knox was less his kind than Uncle Stephen), a feeling he had never had at his step-mother’s, where all the talk had consisted of a series of statements and contradictions, and everything was either a fact or a lie.

It was not till the meal was over, however, and they had retired to the library, where in a big armchair Mr. Knox made himself comfortable and lit his pipe, that the really important subject was broached. Then Uncle Stephen said, ‘Tom and I were wondering if by any chance we could persuade you to help him with his studies. But first I had better tell you our whole plan, because there may be difficulties we haven’t thought of.’

There weren’t---none that mattered, Tom said to himself; but outwardly he sat quiet as a mouse, at the open window, though he had turned his chair round so as to get a view of the room. He could see from where he sat only the top of Uncle Stephen’s head above the back of his chair, but Mr. Knox’s face was turned towards him, and he watched it closely while the situation was being explained---with a certain slowness and deliberation---in Uncle Stephen’s low yet very clear voice.

When that voice ceased the curate bent down to the grate to knock the ashes out of his pipe. Then he sat up and looked hard at Tom as if an inspection of his proposed pupil might help him to reply.

Apparently it didn’t, for it was with an air of embarrassment that he turned to Uncle Stephen. ‘It’s awfully good of you, but---well---I don’t quite know how to put it----’

Tom’s hopes sank. It looked very much as if what Mr. Knox didn’t ‘quite know how to put’ was a polite refusal. The ominous silence was filled with his disappointment. And then again Mr. Knox spoke.

‘You see, I only got a second, and that was four years ago. I was always better at games than books, though not much of a swell at either.’

‘Of course I don’t expect you to reply definitely till you’ve had time to think the matter over,’ Uncle Stephen explained. ‘Indeed, nothing can be settled till we have heard from Tom’s relatives. It was merely the possibility I wanted to discuss. Apart from the point you have raised---and which I don’t think we need regard as a very serious one---is there anything that makes you disinclined to accept?---You don’t, for instance, find the idea in itself distasteful?’

Mr. Knox shook his head. ‘Not at all: far from it: I’d say “yes” like a shot if I’d had the least experience and didn’t feel my Latin and Greek to be so extremely rusty.’ He smiled at Tom, who at this point clambered out through the window, feeling that the further discussion of Mr. Knox’s qualifications might be carried on more happily in his absence.

He strolled up and down the lawn, out of earshot, but within sight should he be wanted. He half hoped he would be wanted, but evidently he wasn’t, for he waited a long time and nobody called him. Mrs. Deverell and Sally appeared, and he watched them walking together down the drive on their way home. Another quarter-of-an-hour passed, and he was growing very tired of doing nothing, when the hall-door opened, and Mr. Knox came out, followed by Uncle Stephen. They stood for yet a further minute or two talking in the porch; then they shook hands, the curate got on his bicycle, and Tom ran across the grass to intercept him.

Mr. Knox jumped off, but he continued walking, wheeling his bicycle while Tom paced beside him. He looked pleased, and Tom at once felt that a solution must have been reached. ‘I suppose you want to know the result of the conference,’ Mr. Knox began.

‘I think that means it’s favourable,’ Tom answered.---‘I mean favourable to me.’

‘Well, we’ll hope it will be favourable all round. At any rate there’s to be a preliminary canter---a sort of trial trip. I made that a condition. So one of these mornings I’ll come over to find out what it is I’ve actually let myself in for.’

‘I’ll promise to do as well as I can,’ said Tom. ‘I’m no good at “maths”, but I’m tolerable at Greek because I like it. The other things I suppose are about average. When they send on my books I’ll be able to show you what I’ve been doing.’

‘In the meantime I can teach you your catechism,’ said Mr. Knox.

Tom received this as a joke. ‘I know some of it already, I know the bit about my pastors and masters.’

Mr. Knox glanced at him. ‘Yes, I dare say you do---so long as the pastor and master happens to please you. However, we’ll see. As for your Greek, I believe Mr. Collet intends to look after that himself: he has views on the subject which make it quite impossible for me.’

‘I hope that doesn’t mean they’ll make it impossible for me,’ Tom replied. ‘It sounds jolly like it.’

‘No; you possess a natural aptitude---or so Mr. Collet thinks. You’d better remember that you are regarded as much more than a nephew---as a kind of spiritual son. . . . And here’s the gate and here we say good-bye. I’ve got a meeting, and unless I can ride a mile and a half in two minutes I’m going to be late for it. But come to see me soon: it’s the first kidnapping case I’ve ever been mixed up in.’

He was rather nice. . . . Tom watched him out of sight, standing in the middle of the road, his eyes screwed up a little as he faced the setting sun. He liked Mr. Knox. Mr. Knox was as safe and simple as a glass of milk. Half unconsciously he was contrasting him with Deverell.

Then he turned round and through the gate looked into the green avenue from which he had just emerged. Within there, was something not so simple. While he lingered there deepened in him a strange impression that he was on the boundary-line between two worlds. To one world belonged Mr. Knox and his meetings, and Tom was standing in it now, as it might be on the shore of a pond. It stretched all round these stone walls, but within them was the other, and as soon as he passed through that gate he would become a part of the other. Here he was free to choose, but if he took a step further all would be different. What he should enter seemed to him now a kind of dream-world, but once inside, he knew it would become real. In there was the unknown---mystery---romance: the ruined garden, the stone boy holding his empty urn above the pool, the boy he had seen at the window, Uncle Stephen. As he stood at the gate Tom at that moment was not very far from seeing an angel with a flaming sword guarding it. His body thrilled when the call of a bird rose through the silence. He took a little run forward, tugged at the bar, pushed: and the latch dropped back into place as the gate clanged behind him.

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