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Chapter Eight

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« on: July 22, 2023, 03:42:52 am »

WHILE waiting for Uncle Stephen to write the notes Tom went out, but he found the lawn deserted, and attracted by the sound of voices wandered round to the back of the house. The mower was there, having come for a drink, and Sally Dempsey, standing by the open kitchen door, was disagreeing with him, if not actually quarrelling. Her face was flushed and she did not look at all so good-tempered as the person who had awakened Tom that morning. Her companion, on the contrary, turned to him with a broad grin, and a warning that the atmosphere was dangerous. ‘You’d better keep your distance, Master Tom; she’s as cross as a bag of cats because young Deverell come to the house this morning.’

Tom looked from one to the other doubtfully, aware that he had appeared at an unpropitious moment. ‘I was talking to him last night,’ he said. ‘He walked part of the way with me.’

‘Well, don’t you have anything to do with him, Master Tom. You couldn’t trust him; he’s sleekit; any time he was round here there was always something missing afterwards.’

‘Oh now!’ the man with the scythe expostulated, but his good humour was wasted.

‘It would answer you better, George McCrudden, to mind your own business and not be standing up for an idle young lout that never did an honest day’s work in his life but is content to let his mother keep him!’

George winked at Tom. ‘He was never one for the girls, Master Tom: that’s why he’s having a bad character put on him.’

Sally tossed her head. ‘It’s little any decent girl would have to do with him; and the black looks he’d give you out of the side of his eyes when he’d meet you on the road.’

‘He knows too much about them,’ George continued humorously.

‘And he knows what the inside of a jail’s like,’ Sally retorted.

At this George ceased to grin. ‘Come now,’ he said, ‘you’ve no call to be setting Master Tom against him, just because you’ve been having words and lost your temper. You’ll be saying something you’ll regret if you’re not careful. Poaching isn’t anything so very sinful, and that was all they had against him.’ He turned to Tom and added good-naturedly, ‘There’s Master Tom himself, I dare say, has gone after apples and such, and there’s no great difference.’

‘No great difference! You can say that, and you a man getting on in years with a family of boys growing up that would maybe listen to you! Putting such notions into Master Tom’s head, too! Hasn’t he his own apples---as many as he wants---without you’d have him stealing other people’s!’

George sighed. ‘I’m not saying----’ he began: then gave it up. ‘Anyways Master Tom knows what I mean, and that things is sometimes done for sport that wouldn’t be done otherwise.’

‘Well, you’d better be getting back to your work if that’s the kind of talk you have. I didn’t know you’d got so great with Jim Deverell.’ And Sally retired into the kitchen, slamming the door.

The discomfited George stood staring at the spot she had vacated for at least a minute. He drew the back of his hand across his forehead, scratched an ear, and looked at Tom. ‘I’m not great with him,’ he announced, ‘and there’s maybe a bit of truth in what she says, though it’s just because she’s taken a skunner against him. Women’s always like that. If she had a fancy for him he might do all the poachin’ he wanted an’ she’d be at the jail door to meet him coming out. Not that he’s any friend of mine, for he was always dark in his ways, even when he was a young limb---never joining with the other lads when they’d be jokin’ the girls, but keeping to himself. An’ when he was no more’n a wee fellow he’d be going into the woods alone at night, and his mother thinking she had lost him. Ay, an’ I mind him going away with some tramp he’d picked up with. He come back a month after, an’ would say nothing, where he’d been or what he’d been doing. The schoolmaster he give him a leatherin’ an’ the young devil bit him so that he had to carry his arm in a sling for above a week. After that he was always runnin’ off and comin’ back. Sometimes he’d do a job of work, but he’d never keep a place, and at the latter end nobody would employ him. I tried giving him a job myself in the garden, but it was no good, you couldn’t depend on him. Still, Sally had no call to be sayin’ what she did. But you’ll never get a woman can keep from bletherin’. They’re all alike. What I say is, a man may know plenty, but he keeps his mouth shut. Isn’t that so, Master Tom?’

‘Well, you’ve told me a few things about him yourself, you know,’ Tom replied, anxious to be fair.

‘No, Master Tom, I haven’t. A man can always keep his mouth shut.’

‘But hang it all, you gave me his complete family history. I don’t mean to say I didn’t want you to. But there’s no use pretending it came from Sally, because Sally told me nothing except that he’d been in jail.’

George looked at him reproachfully. He fumbled in his trousers pocket and produced a black-handled single-bladed knife and a quid of tobacco from which he cut off a portion. This he placed in his mouth before saying a little grumpily, ‘Well, I gotta get back to my work.’

He clumped out of the yard, accompanied by Tom as far as the hall-door. The notes for Mr. Knox and Mr. Flood were ready, and, having inquired from Uncle Stephen what time he was to be back for dinner, Tom set out to deliver them.

For a short while he stood watching George at work. Tiny blue butterflies hovered near the trees, and the scythe passed through the ripe tall grass with a faint swish. A puff of warm soft wind lifted the hair from Tom’s forehead: the day was going to be hot, like yesterday.

George was already hot: Tom could see the sweat glistening under his hair. His hands and forearms were brown as oak bark; above the elbow his arms were white. The blue dye of his shirt was half washed out, and had acquired a pleasing tint that harmonized with his surroundings. His trousers were of a neutral earthy hue, and Tom wondered how he kept them up, for he wore neither braces nor a belt.

Leaving George, he sauntered down the dark avenue and took the road he had traversed on the previous night. But everything looked different now, particularly Tinker’s Lane, which was deep in sunshine and zooming with wild bees. There was the stile he had looked over, and there the river---no longer veiled in mist, but bright as a snake between its green banks. Not only was there this change of aspect, but the walk itself seemed shorter---no distance at all compared with the tramp he had found it last night.

Mr. Knox was out, so he left the note with his landlady, and was free to do some sight-seeing. To most people sight-seeing in Kilbarron would have proved rather dull. It was an ordinary little country town, without a past and without a future, but Tom discovered attractions. He loitered in the market-place, which was smelly and more or less deserted; he came out into the High Street. He inspected the bank, the town hall, and the post office, as conscientiously as if they had been buildings of European fame. Lower down the same street he came on the Unionist Club and the offices of R. P. Flood, solicitor (their solicitor, his and Uncle Stephen’s), where he left his second note; while just round the corner was the Royal Cinema, whose coloured posters he stopped to study in the company of a red-haired message boy---a butcher’s boy, as the parcels in the carrier on his bicycle showed. The butcher’s boy was less interested in the posters than in Tom, though this interest partook of suspicion. Eventually, however, a desire to talk of the film overcame distrust of the stranger. The butcher’s boy had seen it on the previous night, had in fact seen it twice, and soon they were in the thick of its entanglements. Tom gazed at a distraught female clinging passionately to a cold and aloof young man. ‘Is she his love?’ he asked, for he had these quaintnesses of vocabulary.

The butcher’s boy stared stolidly at the lady. ‘What d’you mean, his love?’ he presently said. ‘She’s a tart.’

‘Oh,’ said Tom.

‘Can’t you see he’s spurning her?’ the butcher’s boy continued. ‘He’s got a girl already. His girl’s the other girl’s sister.’

‘What other girl?’ asked Tom.

‘The tart. His girl’s the tart’s sister, but he doesn’t know that, because she calls herself another name.’

‘Who does---his girl?’

‘No, the tart. What would his girl change her name for? Have a bit of wit.’

‘But why should the tart change hers?’ asked Tom, bewildered.

‘Ah, you’re silly. Tarts always chooses fancy names---foreign names. I don’t believe you know what a tart is.’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Well then, what you talkin’ about.’ The butcher’s boy gave him a scornful look, mounted his bicycle, and rode away, leaving Tom to pursue his tour alone.

His next pause was before a stationer’s window filled with paper-backed novels showing pictures of masked men in evening dress pointing revolvers at persons of both sexes also in evening dress. Occasionally the man with the revolver was not in evening dress, and then Tom recognized a detective. A small sprinkling of wild-west, and idyllic pictures interested him less, though he read all the titles and the names of all the authors, and after he had done so could have given each one of these correctly. With a like thoroughness he worked his way through the dismal vulgarities of a row of comic postcards. There was never a smile on his face; the feebly bacchanalian, or timidly salacious jests did not amuse him in the least; but he accomplished his task. . . . He went into a confectioner’s and bought some chewing-gum. Then he asked for a drink of water. . . . He bought a fishing line and some hooks; he would have bought a rod only his money---Jane’s money, he remembered---was not sufficient. He lingered to watch a young man in difficulties with a motor-bicycle, and when, after a succession of horrible detonations, the bicycle started, he took up a position on a weighing-machine. He did not put a penny in the slot, but his slim brown hands grasped the sides of the machine, while he jerked himself violently up and down, making the pointer on the dial jerk too, until an enraged hairdresser, brandishing a pair of scissors, rushed out to dislodge him. Tom apologized and proceeded on down the street. He came to the rescue of a lady whose dog was fighting with another dog, and when the animals were separated---not without clouds of dust, furious barks, and considerable risk of bites---he decided that it was time to go home.

At the gate he caught sight of Uncle Stephen, who had come out to look for him, and Tom broke into a run. Together they walked up the drive.

‘Well, what mischief have you been up to?’ Uncle Stephen asked.

Tom told him. He prattled happily of everything he had seen and done. He found Uncle Stephen very easy to talk to. ‘But Mr. Knox was out so I just left the note.’

‘In the meantime your telegram has arrived,’ said Uncle Stephen. ‘It came an hour ago.’

‘My telegram?’

‘A telegram about you.’

Tom was delighted. ‘What was in it? Did Jane tell?’

‘That I can’t say. It was merely to ask if you were here.’

The telegram itself was on the hall table when he went in, and Tom read it. He brought it in to dinner with him and read it again, aloud. ‘Pringle,’ it was signed, and Tom accentuated the name, which for some reason he found amusing. Also he saw in it a sign that battle was imminent, and the idea of battle, with himself and Uncle Stephen fighting on the same side, pleased him extremely.

‘They won’t get your letter till to-night,’ he said gaily. ‘Or perhaps to-morrow?’

‘To-morrow, I fancy. But I’ve sent a telegram too. Indeed, Mr. Pringle very kindly pre-paid a reply. “Tom arrived safely am keeping him.” Was that right?’

Tom considered. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that ought to do it. At least, it may.’

‘Do what? Not, I trust, create annoyance.’

‘Oh, it will do that all right. But “Am keeping him permanently” might have been better.’

Uncle Stephen looked at him. ‘I’ve been quite clear about the permanence in my letter,’ he said. ‘I’ve asked your step-mother to send on your belongings---all your possessions---books, clothes, everything.’

Tom had a vision of the arrival of this letter, of its being opened by his step-mother, of her face as she handed it to Uncle Horace, who would be standing, fussy and angry, on the hearthrug. The scene appealed to him. If the letter arrived in the morning she’d take it to the bank, though visits to the bank were rarely risked, Uncle Horace having expressed himself strongly on the subject.

After dinner he followed Uncle Stephen to the library. He wondered if he might suggest going down to the river. The river attracted him, and as yet he had only seen it from a distance. On the other hand, Mrs. Deverell had told him Uncle Stephen rarely, if ever, went outside the Manor grounds. Before he could make up his mind Uncle Stephen himself settled the question. ‘It is just possible Mr. Knox will call this afternoon. I didn’t mention any time to him. Do you think you can manage to amuse yourself?’

‘I don’t mean in here,’ he went on, as Tom turned to an examination of the bookshelves. ‘It’s far too fine a day for that. Why not go out and explore the place? It’s all pretty wild---a regular jungle---but there are paths, and even an old garden, if you can find it.’

So Tom went out alone, though he determined to leave the exploration of the grounds for another day, and to go down to the river. There was an easy way to get to it, by Tinker’s Lane, but when he reached the gate he decided against this. The bridge at Tinker’s Lane was more than half a mile oft, and though the river was not visible from where he stood, he was certain he could reach it without going near the Kilbarron Road. At any rate he would try. So he scrambled through a gap in the opposite hedge, and skirting a tract of ploughed land, made for the meadows beyond. The grass was long here---all these fields were hay fields---and Tom supposed he ought not to trample it down, but to keep close by the hedge. Anyway he liked hedges, and this was the finest he had ever seen, eight or nine feet high, a double hedge, with a narrow ditch in between, dark and green and cool, having a trickle of water at the bottom of it, which he could hear, though a dense tangle of vegetation---cow-parsley, vetches, convolvulus and brambles---hid it from sight. Here and there the hedge was broken by a beech-tree, its dark corrugated branches showing through the golden-green leaves. Honeysuckle was in bud, and the fresh young bracken gave out its peculiar, cold, slightly astringent perfume. On his left the trees of the Manor woods looked almost blue.

The sun beat down on the wide meadow. The ripened grass, heavy now with seed, trembled, though to Tom the wind stirring it was imperceptible. And in contrast with the green path by the hedge, where he walked partly in sunlight and partly in shadow, the colour of the meadow was a tapestry of infinitely delicate shades---greys and browns, pinks and mauves, gold and crimson, flecked here and there with the vivid whiteness of dog daisies.

Tom had never seen anything so like his idea of a prairie. If he had waded out through it the grass would have reached almost to his thighs. Small blue butterflies like those he had seen in the morning---nearly the same colour as the speedwell flowers and nearly the same as the sky---hovered in the quivering air, close by the hedge. The shrill hidden orchestra of grasshoppers played their ancient Greek melody, through which, from somewhere behind him, the two notes of a cuckoo broke monotonously---the dullest of all bird songs, Tom thought, really not much better than the clocks.

Once or twice, as he proceeded, he fancied he heard a sound on the other side of the hedge, but when he peered through the dark trellis he could see nothing. It came, he thought---this stealthy rustle---from the field beyond, and he stopped to listen. Again he heard it---a sound of movement, but certainly not made by a horse or a cow. This was the movement of a much smaller beast---a dog perhaps, or even a cat---come out hunting---for not a few creatures must have their homes and their runs in this hedgerow---rabbits, birds, mice, and hedgehogs. Tom whistled, but no dog appeared.

He cut himself a rod from an ash-tree, and went on his way. From the beginning he had been ascending a continuous though very gradual slope, and when he reached the brow of this long low gradient he saw the river beneath him, about two hundred yards distant. Tom decided to bathe. He ran down the gorse-splashed hill, which on this side was much steeper; found between two ancient whins an undressing-place; and three minutes later was in the water. The current was sluggish, dragging its winding course by beds of willow-weed, loose-strife, and flowering-rushes; the water was warm on the surface and of a sweetish taste. He was drifting and splashing luxuriously when he remembered the warning, so often impressed upon him, that to bathe within an hour or two of a solid meal was always dangerous, and frequently fatal. Something or other happened inside you and you expired in agony. Was anything happening now? He couldn’t feel anything. But something might be going on inside him all the same. Anyway, it wasn’t so nice as bathing in the sea. The water had a slightly oily feeling against his skin—particularly against the tips of his fingers; it was as if he were bathing in milk. And it wasn’t only the feeling; it was partly the smell---a sleepy, sticky kind of smell---not a bit invigorating like the smell of the sea. The sea produced sharp little prickles all over you, but the river clung to you like syrup. It, too, was pleasant enough, of course---in a lazy, water-lizard kind of way, and when you got used to the green weeds trailing round your legs, which at first felt slimy. Tom, standing up to his knees in the shallow water at the edge, slowly picked them off his body and limbs.

He lay on his back in the grass, and the hot golden sun licked his body, poured over and penetrated him. He shut his eyes and tried to imagine the sun as a God. Or a God might come to him out of the river. He would not open his eyes until he had counted fifty slowly, and then----

He opened his eyes. . . .

It would be pleasant if the old tales were true---or some of them. He would read Uncle Stephen’s book again. Uncle Stephen seemed to believe, not exactly in the stories, but in something behind them---powers, influences, a spiritual world much closer to this world than the remote heaven of Christianity. Was that why Leonard had called him a magician?

He sat up. The river glistened in the brooding sunshine. He would come here to fish, he told himself, for The Compleat Angler had been one of his school prizes, and this river reminded him of it. He did not see any fish, but probably by bathing he had frightened them away. It looked a good place. Only, as he had never fished in his life, this judgment was perhaps not worth much. What he did see were dragon-flies---bright, strange, metallic creatures, iridescent in the sunlight. And they carried his mind back to the afternoon of his father’s funeral. All that seemed now infinitely remote; he had a feeling that his whole life had changed since then. He remembered he had been unhappy, but this unhappiness was now like a far-off cloud barely visible on the horizon. It disappeared entirely when he heard a plop on the farther side of the river and saw a small animal swimming straight towards him.

Tom laughed. The God, as usual, was taking a strange form, for this was a rat. Eric and Leonard had once gone out hunting rats with another boy and a couple of terriers. That was supposed to be sport. Why? This rat, at any rate, must have made up his mind that Tom was not a sportsman, because he landed among the rushes within two yards of the spot where he was sitting, his hands clasped round his knees. There was a slight movement among the rushes, a slight rustle, and the rat was gone. ‘This place is swarming with wild life,’ said Tom.

It was an optimistic view perhaps, for half a dozen dragon-flies, some water-grigs, and a rat, comprised the entire fauna he had as yet observed. But now he saw a frog, a very small one, reclining on the leaf of a water-lily. Tom bent down and gazed at him. The frog did not return his gaze, did not seem to do so at all events, for his black unblinking eyes were fixed on the sky. He was as still as if he had been carved in bright stone; yet now and again Tom could see him breathing. And suddenly it struck him with a little shock of surprise that this frog was one of the most lovely things he had ever beheld. He was lovely. In his shaping there was a delicacy and a perfection that could hardly be possible in so large a creature as a human being. Or was it that most human beings were faulty specimens, did not come nearly so close to their own perfect type as frogs and other animals did to theirs? Why was that? He remembered the line of a hymn, ‘And only man is vile.’ So that was what it meant! He had known the line all his life and never guessed its meaning till now. He had always supposed it to refer to people who weren’t religious. But this new meaning must be the real meaning, the meaning it had had for the author of the hymn, who quite possibly had been looking at a frog when he wrote it. Tom thought of another line:---‘And every prospect pleases.’ He gazed round him, and with delighted recognition saw that this was equally true. There was not a single thing he could see that wasn’t beautiful. What a fine hymn it must be! As if to put it to further proof he ran to a spot on the bank, where, beyond a bed of rushes, the water brimmed clear and cool and still. And there he stood gazing down at his own image reflected in the stream. The image of man’s vileness! Well, it certainly wasn’t much to boast about. Not exactly vile perhaps, but absurdly unprotected-looking, as if anything could hurt it. Even a snail without its shell would not look so much at the mercy of its surroundings. But there were boys who didn’t look like that when they were naked. Eric and Leonard didn’t.

Tom returned thoughtfully to his clothes and began to dress. He was halfway through his toilet when a shadow fell on the grass beside him, and looking up he saw Deverell. Tom was not startled, but he was surprised. Not only was Deverell there, but he was accompanied by a liver-and-white spaniel, and both must certainly possess the gift of moving noiselessly as phantoms. Then he remembered the sounds he had heard before---the sound on the other side of the hedge. That might have been the spaniel---a little less noiseless than his master. Tom now suspected that Deverell had been following him all along.

He was annoyed. He hated slyness. It was so unnecessary too---and stupid. It annoyed him, moreover, because it reminded him of what Sally Dempsey and George McCrudden had said. Meanwhile a smile had been dawning slowly on the young poacher’s face. He had shaved, Tom noticed, and his dark eyes had a much less sullen expression.

‘Nice day, Mr. Tom. You been in for a swim?’

‘Yes, I have,’ answered Tom rather crossly. ‘I suppose you were watching me.’ The spaniel began to snuffle at him with a blunt, pinkish nose, and Tom scratched its ears.

‘I seen you,’ Deverell admitted, ‘but I thought maybe you wouldn’t like me to come down. Would you a’ minded, Mr. Tom?’

‘No,’ answered Tom, rather less crossly. ‘But I do mind being followed.’

‘I wasn’t following you.’

Tom looked across the river. ‘I think you were. I think you were on the other side of the hedge.’

Deverell stood without speaking for a minute or two; then he sat down on the bank beside the boy. ‘Not much doing round here, Mr. Tom, is there?’

Tom looked straight before him. ‘I suppose that depends on what you want to do. I should have thought there was plenty.’ The spaniel thrust his head against Tom’s shoulder, trying to attract further caresses, but Tom was not pleased.

‘Dingo his name is,’ Deverell went on. ‘He’s made friends with you already. Dogs always knows the right sort.’

‘The right sort for them, perhaps,’ said Tom ungraciously.

‘The right sort for them is the right sort.’

‘For you?’

‘Yes an’ for everybody. You ever had a pal, Mr. Tom?’

Tom did not answer. He was on the point of getting up to go home when it struck him that he was making a great deal of fuss about nothing---in fact behaving very much as he had behaved last night in the lane. What if Deverell had followed him? Was there any great sin in that? He remembered the way he himself had hung round after Eric in the mere hope of receiving some sign of friendliness.

‘You angry with me, Mr. Tom? I did follow you, but it wasn’t because I was spyin’ on you. I’d have joined you that time you whistled only I didn’t like---I didn’t know. I knowed it wasn’t me you was whistlin’ for.’

‘I’m not angry,’ said Tom.

‘Then why is it you won’t answer me?’

‘About having a pal? I don’t know what you mean by a pal.’

‘I mean what you mean.’

The question was indeed one Tom had often enough considered, and it recalled various attempted friendships---always abortive, always ending in disappointment, always ending in regret that they had been attempted. ‘Well then, no,’ he said grumpily.

‘You wouldn’t be one, I’d think, to choose a pal just because he had fine clothes on him,’ Deverell continued.

‘Nor would I choose him just because he hadn’t,’ Tom replied.

Deverell was silent, and the spaniel, who had been nosing among the furze bushes, suddenly put up a couple of birds, which rose with a loud whirring noise.

‘Partridge,’ said Deverell.

Tom said nothing. Deverell probably knew all about birds and animals and plants. He would like to know about them too, and he took a sidelong glance at his companion. The young poacher puzzled him, although deep below the surface he had a secret understanding. And it was mixed up with that other feeling---not actually of distrust, but such as might have been awakened by the advances, say, of a friendly leopard, who should have strolled unexpectedly out of the jungle. Stranger still, this dubious element attracted him. He even had a desire to see the leopard put out his claws, hear the faint low growl at the back of his throat, see the yellow flame flickering in his eyes. All this was very wrong and inexplicable.

‘I suppose they bin’ gaving me a bad character up at the house,’ Deverell presently muttered. ‘That’s what makes you unfriendly like.’

‘I’m not unfriendly,’ Tom protested. ‘As a matter of fact I never am---even when I want to be. I’ve been friendly with people I detested.’

Deverell listened, and then asked simply, ‘What they bin sayin’ about me?’

‘What makes you think they said anything? Why should they?’

‘Because I know they did. Sally Dempsey wouldn’t lose the chance. She as good as told me so this morning. She knows I come a bit of the way home with you last night. There’s one thing---she never seen me the worse for drink the way her oul’ lad is every Saturday night, and him a sexton of the church.’

‘Well, let’s talk of something else,’ said Tom. ‘It doesn’t matter what she says.’

‘It matters to me, Mr. Tom. What call has she to be taking away my character? There’s not much difference between characters if all was known.’

Tom shrugged his shoulders. This was the kind of thing he hated.

But his unresponsiveness seemed to embitter Deverell. ‘Yes, some’s hypocrites and some’s not---that’s the difference.’

‘Then you think everybody is equally good?’ said Tom coldly. ‘Or, I suppose, your real meaning is that they’re equally bad?’

Deverell did not answer, but his face darkened. He looked straight before him with sullen unhappy eyes. Then he muttered, ‘Perhaps you’d a’ got into trouble yourself, Mr. Tom, if you’d belonged to a different station of life.’

Tom flushed. ‘You don’t mean to say you think I was alluding to that!’ he exclaimed disgustedly. ‘You must have a beautiful opinion of me!’

‘Well----’ Deverell dug his heel into the grass, but his countenance was still clouded over.

‘Look here,’ Tom burst out. ‘I hate this kind of thing. It never leads to anything, but goes on and on for ever. Why are you so suspicious? I know you’ve been in jail, but I wasn’t thinking of that at all. I’d forgotten all about it. As a matter of fact I don’t care: not if it had happened fifty times. Also what you say about me is perfectly true: I might easily have got into trouble, as you call it: nothing is more likely. But I don’t see why we should be talking in this way---just as if I had accused you.’

Deverell tore up a handful of grass. He put his arm round the spaniel, who sat between them with his tongue out and his eyes half shut, except when now and then he snapped at a fly. ‘You see I took a likin’ to you, Mr. Tom,’ he said rather shamefacedly.

‘Yes, I know.’

‘It was that made me follow you.’

‘I know. It was only because you hid I was cross.’

‘But I told you I didn’t like----’

‘You didn’t hide last night.’

‘I didn’t know who you was last night.’

‘Well, it’s all right now, isn’t it?’

‘Yes it is, Mr. Tom. . . . Mr. Tom, I took a great likin’ to you.’

Tom did not answer, because there seemed to be nothing to say.

‘You like me to show you how to set snares for rabbits, Mr. Tom?’

Tom shook his head, and Deverell’s voice went on, close to his ear. ‘There’s plenty up there in the old magi---in your uncle’s woods. I wouldn’t say but I might find someone as would buy them from you too. Keep you nicely in pocket money, Mr. Tom, not to mention the sport.’

Tom shook his head again.

‘A shilling each I might get for them, and there’d be no trouble in findin’ a score or two.’

‘I couldn’t,’ said Tom. ‘I hate killing things. Anyhow, I never heard putting down traps called sport before; most people think it rather beastly.’

‘But rabbits has to be kept down, Mr. Tom, without you want them to be overrunnin’ everything.’

‘Well, I’m not going to keep them down.’

‘Perhaps you’d fish, then? I know a place where you might kill a trout or two.’

‘I bought a fishing line this morning.’

‘Well, if you’d kill a fish, why wouldn’t you kill a rabbit or a hare?’

‘I don’t know. . . . I don’t believe I’d care for fishing either.’

‘You just think it over and I’ll meet you any time. There’s no harm in it.’

‘The more I think it over the less likely I’ll be to do it.’

‘But if there’s no harm----’

‘I know you think there isn’t; and it’s not that I’m thinking of either. It’s really only because I like these things. There was a frog I was looking at before you came. Well, I liked it; it seemed to me a lovely thing---now, do you see?’

Deverell appeared to be wrestling with a point of view which remained incomprehensible.

‘Hang it all,’ exclaimed Tom impatiently. ‘I don’t see why you can’t at least understand it. I understand you. Besides, you must have felt sometimes like that yourself. You say you like me, and I suppose that means you don’t want to hurt me.’

‘No, I wouldn’t hurt you, Mr. Tom, nor let anyone else hurt you.’

‘Well, there you are then: it’s just the same.’

‘No; it’s different.’

‘Why is it different? There isn’t any difference. The feeling you have is exactly the same.’

‘No, it isn’t.’

‘But it is. I mean, the feeling itself is. The only difference is that I’m a boy and the other animals are frogs and rabbits and hares.’

‘It’s not the same.’

Tom’s forehead wrinkled. He thought it over once more. ‘At any rate it’s partly the same,’ he concluded. ‘I know it’s not all the same, but there’s a great deal of it the same.’

‘But you can’t be fond of everything, Mr. Tom.’

‘No,’ Tom admitted, ‘I’m not. There are some insects I’m not fond of. Still, I don’t think there’s any advantage in that. I don’t object to wasps, for instance, and it must be much pleasanter to be that way than to jump every time one comes near you.’

The young poacher was now smiling at him. He looked wonderfully different. All the darkness and sullenness had passed from his face. He looked quite happy.

‘I think, you know, I ought to go back soon,’ Tom said. ‘I’ve been out nearly all day.’

‘It’s early yet; you’ve plenty of time.’

‘But I ought to see if Uncle Stephen wants me.’ He got up, but the young poacher did not stir.

Tom stood for a moment looking down at him: then he said, ‘Won’t you walk back with me?’

Instantly Deverell sprang to his feet. A slight flush had come into his swarthy face, and Tom, with rather mixed feelings, saw that he was extraordinarily pleased. He was glad, of course, that he was pleased; but he didn’t want him to be as pleased as all that, because really he had meant no more than a mere politeness.

They returned by another route. The field path Tom knew bore round to the left, but Deverell took him straight on in the direction of the Manor woods. This surely was a roundabout way, Tom thought, unless he actually climbed the wall and took a short cut through the grounds: and he wondered if he might propose doing so.

‘Will you be coming down to the river to-morrow, Mr. Tom?’

‘I don’t know: Uncle Stephen may want me.’

‘But if he doesn’t want you.’

‘I don’t know: I’d rather not make any promise.’

‘Well, I’ll come along on chance.’

‘But you mustn’t. It’s not worth while: I’m almost sure to be doing something else: there are lots of things I have to do.’

‘Yes, I’ll come.’

Tom could say no more, and they scrambled through the hedge and down on to the road. The Manor wall faced them, and Tom looked at it and looked at Deverell. ‘I say, wouldn’t it be a short cut if I got over here?’ he asked. The top of the wall was some three feet higher than his head, but he could climb it all right if he were to be given a leg up.

‘It might,’ Deverell replied.

‘I think I’ll try it. Do you mind?’

‘You’ll have a long drop on the other side; it’s lower than it is here.’

Tom could not tell from his manner whether Deverell minded being left or not. It was ridiculous thinking of such things. Why should he mind? Nevertheless, it was on the tip of his tongue to say that after all he would go home by the road, when he felt himself suddenly lifted in the young poacher’s arms. He scraped with his toes for a foothold, found one, and next moment was astride of the wall.

He smiled down at his companion. ‘I say, you’re jolly strong,’ he exclaimed admiringly. ‘I wish I was like that.’

‘I’ll make you like that: all you need’s living in the open for a bit; you’re tough enough.’

‘Only metaphorically speaking,’ Tom replied.

The poacher’s sombre eyes were fixed upon him; he really was a frightfully serious person---far too serious for comfort. ‘You won’t laugh at my jokes,’ Tom said. ‘I don’t call that being a pal.’

Slowly---very slowly---a faint smile dawned on Deverell’s face. ‘All the same, I like them, Mr. Tom.’

‘Then I’ll prepare more for next day. . . . Are you sure you don’t mind my leaving you?’

‘Not the way we are now, Mr. Tom.’

‘What way are we now?’

‘We’re friends.’

‘Yes, of course we’re friends. And if I don’t see you for a day or two, I’ll see you soon. Good-bye.’

With this he dropped down into the tangled wilderness on the other side.

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