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Chapter Ten

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« on: July 22, 2023, 05:27:06 am »

‘THAT was a near thing!’ Tom breathed, only half pretending. But he knew when he had carried such play far enough (because it wasn’t all play---not by any means), and now deliberately he tried to shut the doors of imagination. It was the spiritual equivalent to shutting his eyes and digging his fingers in his ears, but it must be done; and as a preliminary he thrust his hands in his trousers pockets, assumed a slight swagger, and raised his voice in the Soldiers’ Chorus from Faust. What could be more blatant, more idiotic than the Soldiers’ Chorus?---yet somehow it was not successful. Perhaps he was making too much noise. He stopped singing abruptly and ran at the top of his speed towards the house.

He entered the library breathless, with flushed cheeks and shining eyes. Uncle Stephen was standing by one of the bookcases and there was a pile of books and papers on the floor. He turned to Tom, and instantly all Tom’s wandering fantasies and dilemmas were at rest. Uncle Stephen loved him. . . . ‘I’ve cleared a table for you,’ he said, ‘and that big cupboard in the corner, and this shelf for your books.’

Tom was very pleased. ‘But you shouldn’t, Uncle Stephen,’ he expostulated, his face lit up with happiness. ‘I could quite easily have kept my things in my bedroom.’

‘I want you to use this room:---do your lessons here, bring everything here, make as much mess as you like. Only I don’t know yet what you do like.’

‘I like reading,’ said Tom, ‘and I like drawing, and I like some kinds of games, and I like making things.’

‘Is that all?’

‘I like gramophones, if I can choose the records myself. But you haven’t got one.’

‘No; but perhaps that means the records will be better when we do get one.’

‘Of course I’d get some that you liked, too,’ said Tom.

‘They’ll be the wrong ones---eh?’

‘But you’re not musical, Uncle Stephen, or you would have had a gramophone already.’

‘I suppose so. The idea never occurred to me.’

‘I know. That’s what I mean.’

‘As for “making things”---does that refer to carpentering?’

‘Yes. I’ve only done it at school, but I liked it awfully.’

‘Well, you can’t do that very well in here. We’ll have to fit up a workroom for you: half the rooms in the house are unoccupied.’

‘What I’d like to make first would have to be done in the open air.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, it’s a raft. I thought of it this afternoon. I’d like to make a raft to go on the river---the way Bevis and Mark did. . . . They’re two boys, you know, in a book. I’ll lend it to you when my things come. It’s about exploring on a lake, and swimming, and camping out.’

‘Does it tell you how to make a raft?’

‘No---not altogether. At least, I’m not sure. But I think I could do it. Bevis made his out of a packing-case.’

‘He had the other boy to help him, though, hadn’t he?’

‘Deverell would----’ But Tom stopped suddenly. ‘Uncle Stephen, there is another boy,’ he said.

The silence that followed seemed to lend his words an odd significance. He looked up quickly.

‘Who?’ Uncle Stephen asked.

For a moment Tom, ever sensitive to the unspoken mood, had thought---- He did not quite know what he had thought, but at any rate it was all right. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I wondered if you would know. I wanted to ask you before, but when Mr. Knox was here I couldn’t. I saw him this afternoon. He was in that other house, looking out of the window. I didn’t know there was another house. You didn’t tell me, and when I found it I thought at first it was empty.’

‘You mean the lodge? Not really a lodge of course, but that was what it was called to distinguish it from the Manor House.’

‘I suppose so. It’s in the wood over there.’ Tom pointed. ‘There’s a fountain, but it’s choked up. The house didn’t look as if anybody was living in it.’

‘Nobody does live in it,’ Uncle Stephen said. ‘I doubt if it’s habitable. There are still a few sticks of furniture, but nobody has lived there for a long time.’

‘But I saw him.’

‘And what was he doing?’

‘I don’t know. Just standing at the window. He wasn’t doing anything really, and as soon as he caught me looking at him he went away.’

‘You didn’t venture inside, then?’

‘No, of course not. I thought there must be people there. Very queer people too, to leave the place like that. Who is he, do you think, Uncle Stephen?’

‘Anybody could get in,’ Uncle Stephen replied. ‘I expect most of the window-catches are loose, and I know the back door isn’t locked or bolted.’

‘Why?’

‘There isn’t a key. The key is lost.’

‘You think, then, he may have been a boy from the village?’

‘He may have been a boy from anywhere.’

‘But why had he gone there?’ Tom reflected for a moment. ‘And he wasn’t a boy from the village---or the town, or whatever it calls itself.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Well, he wasn’t a message boy, or a farm-boy, or anything like that.’

‘And as soon as he saw you he disappeared?’

‘He went away from the window. I thought perhaps he was coming down, and waited a bit.’ Tom had a further cogitation before he said, ‘Supposing I see him again, Uncle Stephen?’

‘If you see him again you can ask him his name.’

‘Then you don’t mind his going into the house?’

‘Not in the least. Why should I?’

Uncle Stephen was busy with the lamp and Tom waited till he had lit it. ‘Still, it was rather cheek,’ he said slowly.

‘Then you’d better warn him off. I leave it entirely to you. You can do exactly as you like.’

‘He was trespassing,’ said Tom.

‘Yes, I suppose so.’

There was a brief silence, during which Tom was conscious that Uncle Stephen was looking at him closely. He did not know why, but he had begun to feel vaguely uncomfortable. ‘He was trespassing,’ he mumbled.

‘Yes. Well, I’ve given you full authority to act.’

‘You know you don’t want me to act,’ said Tom unhappily.

‘I know you don’t care a fig about trespassing, if that’s what you mean.’

Tom hung his head. He turned away. ‘Shall we have a game of chess, Uncle Stephen?’ he asked.

‘Very well,’ said Uncle Stephen, and Tom went to a table in the corner, whereon the red and white ivory pieces were already set out.

He carried the table over into the lamplight. He lifted the red knight. It was quite heavy, for these were the largest chessmen he had ever seen. ‘Are they very old, Uncle Stephen?’ he asked. ‘Have you always had them?’

‘No, but I played my first game with them.’

‘When you were a boy---at home?’

‘When I was a boy; but not at home. It was in Italy.’

‘Then they’re Italian?’

‘They belonged at that time to an Italian, but they’ve belonged, I expect, to a good many people. There’s a name on the box---Nicolo Spinelli. That was some ancestor of my friend’s, for his name too was Spinelli. But the chessmen were made in China, and their first owner probably was a Chinaman.’

Tom had placed the table in front of Uncle Stephen’s armchair: he now brought up a chair for himself and sat down. He looked across the table and suddenly smiled: the tiny cloud had passed.

‘Shall I move first?’ he asked.

Uncle Stephen nodded assent, and Tom lifted a white pawn. But he held it poised in the air. ‘Wouldn’t it be queer, Uncle Stephen, if all the people to whom these chessmen had once belonged came in now to look on?’

‘Very queer. I think we’re better without them.’

‘They’d be ghosts, of course, and we wouldn’t know they were there.’

Then he stopped talking, and with bright eyes watched Uncle Stephen’s move. The game proceeded with a profound gravity. Beyond the clear circle of lamplight was a deepening darkness, and in the darkness the open windows were visible, for the curtains had not been drawn. From time to time Tom looked up from the table and out of the window behind Uncle Stephen’s chair. Dimly he could see the black branches of trees. In the distance he heard a corncrake.

‘It would be quite possible, Uncle Stephen, that they were watching us, wouldn’t it?’

‘Quite---so far as I know.’

‘You see,’ Tom explained, ‘I wasn’t going to move my bishop at all, and then somebody gave me a hint.’

‘That must mean he wants you to win,’ Uncle Stephen replied gravely, ‘because it was an excellent move.’

Tom gave him a quick glance. ‘He had a pigtail, and long wide sleeves with little sprigs of flowers worked on them in coloured silks.’

‘That was Fu Kong,’ said Uncle Stephen.

Tom thought. His face was very happy. ‘Do you know, Uncle Stephen, I often used to get into rows for saying things like that---I mean about Fu Kong’s sleeves.’

‘While your mother was alive---wasn’t it all right then?’

‘Yes, but she was like you. My step-mother thinks I tell lies.’

The spell of the game was suddenly relaxed, and Uncle Stephen looked across the table at his small antagonist. ‘Did you see Fu Kong’s sleeves, Tom?’

‘I don’t know. That’s the queerest part of it. I must in a sort of way have seen them or I couldn’t have described them, could I? I mean something must have put them into my head; or where did they come from?’

‘What put them into your head was knowing that the chessmen were Chinese.’

‘Yes, but---- Somehow I can’t ever think of things without beginning to see them.’

‘Are you frightened of the dark?’

‘No. Not often.’

‘Were you nervous last night---when everything was strange to you?’

‘No. Well perhaps a little bit. But it hadn’t anything to do with being in the dark. It was more as if---- Sometimes I pretend things, and then all at once they become real. I mean, I begin to believe them.’

‘And you went to sleep last night at once?’

‘Yes. At least----’

‘At least what?’

‘I went to sleep as soon as I got into bed. But I came out on to the landing first and listened.’

‘Listened?’

Tom nodded.

‘But why? What were you listening to?’

Tom coloured. He did not answer.

‘Had you heard anything?’

‘Nothing except the clock. I can’t explain, Uncle Stephen. Really, I’m not trying to hide anything. I just---- I don’t know. It’s just that I try to make things happen. No, it’s not quite that. I would tell you if I could, but----’

‘Don’t worry. I expect I understand. Everything depends on the things you want to make happen. They must be good things.’

‘Yes.’

‘You can make them good things.’

‘Yes.’

‘And if you make them good things always, the time will come when there won’t be any others.’

‘I think this house is good, Uncle Stephen. Don’t you think houses can be good or---not good?’

‘Yes.’

‘But it’s not an ordinary house.’

‘Don’t you like it?’

‘Yes, but it’s not ordinary, and neither is the other---the lodge.’ Tom hesitated. ‘And you’re not an ordinary uncle,’ he added.

‘What is an ordinary uncle?’

Tom had no difficulty whatever with this. ‘Uncle Horace,’ he replied.

Uncle Stephen laughed. Tom was pleased that he had made him laugh, though it had been quite unintentionally. Again the game proceeded, and presently Tom moved his queen and said ‘Check!’ But he said it half-heartedly, for a suspicion had been dawning in his mind. ‘Uncle Stephen, you’re not to let me win on purpose.’

‘Don’t you want to win?’

‘Yes, I do, but not in that way.’

‘All right.’

‘You mean you can win if you like?’

‘As the pieces are now, I think in five moves.’

And so it was. Tom immediately rose and put away the table.

‘Does that mean it is bedtime?’ Uncle Stephen asked, glancing at his watch.

‘Bedtime! Why it’s quite early! It only means that we can play chess again to-morrow.’

‘And what shall we do now?’

‘I don’t want to bother you. I’ll read for a bit. . . . Shall I tell you what I’d like to do?’

‘I don’t see how I’m to know otherwise.’

‘I’d like you to show me some pictures.’

‘Pictures. What kind of pictures?’

Tom had his eyes fixed on a row of tall portfolios. ‘Any kind. One of these,’ he said, going to the shelf.

‘But my dear boy, I’m sure those aren’t pictures---or at least what you probably mean by pictures.’

‘Which shall I bring, Uncle Stephen?’

‘It doesn’t matter. I’ve forgotten what’s in them.’

Tom carried a portfolio to the table and Uncle Stephen unfastened the tapes that kept it closed. ‘These are all Greek vases,’ he said. ‘We’d better try another lot.’

‘But I like these,’ said Tom, pulling his chair round beside Uncle Stephen’s. ‘At least I like this first one. Only I want you to tell me about it. Who are those figures?’

‘The two goddesses are Demeter and Persephone: the boy is Triptolemos. They are sending him out on his mission.’

Tom bent over the plate. ‘Tell me how you know who they are, Uncle Stephen, and about Triptolemos.’

‘Are you sure this isn’t just an excuse for sitting up when you ought to be in bed?’ Uncle Stephen asked doubtfully.

‘Really it isn’t. Of course I know who Demeter and Persephone were, but I don’t know about Triptolemos. What was his mission?’

‘His mission was to give corn-seed to the country-people, and to teach them how to plough the land and to sow the corn and reap it and thresh it. He later became a half-god, but as you see him there he is just a farm-boy, though a prince of Eleusis. The chariot is Demeter’s own car, drawn by winged serpents.’

‘Was there ever any such person as Triptolemos?’

‘Nobody knows. He hasn’t always even the same father. But he is always the favourite of Demeter. He is her messenger and it is through him she gives her blessings. Altars and temples were built to Triptolemos himself, because he really was Demeter’s adopted son, besides being a very pleasant person.’

‘What else did he do?’

‘He gave the people three commandments---like Moses, except that Moses gave ten. The commandments of Triptolemos were: Honour your father and mother. Offer fruits to the gods. Be kind and just to animals.’

‘Those are good commandments,’ said Tom. ‘I’m going to keep them myself. I think it’s far better to keep a few commandments absolutely than to bother about a lot that don’t really suit you.’

‘But, Tom dear, that’s a very immoral doctrine.’

‘Is it? I’ll always keep your commandments, Uncle Stephen. Is there anything else about Triptolemos?’

‘Sophocles wrote a play about him, but there are only a few lines of it left: and Apollodoros, who wrote a book called The Library, full of old tales and legends, says that he was an elder brother of Demophon---the little boy Demeter tried to make immortal by putting him every night into the fire, until his mother interfered. According to another tradition that little boy was Triptolemos himself. Ovid, in his Fasti, gives a different version, making the father, Keleos, not a king, but just an old peasant who worked on his own farm, and who met the goddess when he and his small daughter were coming home one evening with a load of acorns and blackberries. The girl was driving a couple of goats, and it was she who spoke first to Demeter, seeing her sitting by a well and mistaking her for an old countrywoman---the kind of solitary old woman Wordsworth would have made a poem about. All the Greek stories, you see, were treated in different ways by different writers. They were everybody’s property, and the writer when he made a poem or a play out of them drew the characters to suit his own temper. And somehow this makes them all the more real---when you come across them over and over again, different but still the same. They accumulate a kind richness of humanity. Triptolemos may once have been as real a boy as you. The heroes had strange fates. Some began as mortals and slowly grew divine; some, beginning as gods, lost their divinity and became human. . . .’

‘You know, we can’t possibly go through all these to-night,’ Uncle Stephen said, an hour later.

Tom sighed, smiled, stretched himself, and got up from his chair. ‘Is that milk for me, Uncle Stephen?’ he asked, looking at a tray which had been set on a side-table.

‘Yes, Mrs. Deverell left it for you.’

Tom drank his glass of milk and put some biscuits in his pocket. ‘Good-night, Uncle Stephen,’ he said, holding out his hand, ‘and thanks awfully for showing me the pictures.’

‘Good-night, Tom. Sleep well. I suppose you can find your own way?’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘Don’t drop candle-grease on the stairs.’

‘No.’

Tom lit his candle and walked as far as the door. There he stood holding the door-knob, and once or twice he turned it, but he did not open the door nor look back into the room. Then he put the candle down.

He returned to the table. ‘Let me put this away,’ he said, lifting the portfolio and carrying it to its shelf.

Uncle Stephen watched him in silence. Tom lingered for another minute or two by the bookshelves, but at last went once more to the door. This time he heard his name spoken.

‘Tom.’

Instantly he blew out the candle, came back, and stood beside Uncle Stephen’s chair.

‘What is it, Tom?’

‘It’s nothing,’ Tom whispered, putting his arms round Uncle Stephen’s neck. He slid into the armchair and with his cheek against Uncle Stephen’s added, ‘I wanted to say good-night.’

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