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Chapter Eleven

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« on: July 22, 2023, 06:32:28 am »

NOTHING had come from his step-mother---not even a letter---so after dinner Tom went down to the station to make inquiries. But he did not find his luggage. If it came, the station-master told him, it would be sent out to the house; it might come by the next train; there was one due at 4.30. Tom thanked him and turned homeward.

But he was annoyed, and he was particularly annoyed because it seemed to him so stupid! What good could keeping his clothes do? It wouldn’t bring him back. At least they might have sent on a few things, such as shirts and socks and collars---things they knew he would require. He hadn’t even a pair of slippers, and his step-mother must know that too. In fact, he was sure she had long ago gone through all his possessions to find out exactly what he had brought, and Jane would have told her. She simply wanted to make him uncomfortable, and wanted to be disagreeable to Uncle Stephen. He half thought of going into the post-office and telephoning to Uncle Horace. But it would do no good. Let them keep his things if they wished to: they could have them as a memento---the only one they were likely to get.

Both on his way to the station and on his return through Kilbarron he had kept a sharp look-out for the boy he had seen at the other house. Not that he expected to meet him: he thought it far more likely that he lived ten or twelve miles away and had ridden over on a bicycle. He might easily have done that, and hidden his bicycle somewhere while he explored the Manor grounds. It was just the sort of thing Tom himself would have liked to do---though when it came to the point he might have funked it. . . .

That was it:---if you had courage you could do anything. . . . He remembered seeing Eric diving off the balcony at the shallow end of the swimming bath into three feet of water where a slip would have meant a bad accident. It was an idiotic thing to try (he still thought that) and at the time he had begged him not to. All the same he had admired him tremendously---too much even to resent being called a ‘sloppy little fool’ by Leonard, who was waiting to perform the same feat. It was strange how if you were like Leonard or Eric you had to invent such exploits; you never naturally got into disagreeable positions where courage was necessary and must be pumped up whether you felt it or not. Leonard, for instance, who rejoiced in fights, was never singled out by other rejoicers; he had had far fewer scraps than Tom himself, who was all for peace, and whose nose bled at the slightest touch. Was he a coward? It was disgusting to think he was: but can you be a coward in some ways without being a coward in all?---and in lots of ways he was sure he was one. His courage seemed to vary so much. He could never count on it; it never seemed to work spontaneously, but had to be manufactured, and there must always be somebody to be courageous for. Therefore it wasn’t natural---didn’t come from his guts, as it should have come, but from his mind---a sort of angry pride. . . .

Tom’s self-examination was not yielding much comfort. He had forgotten what had started it. Perhaps this other boy. Beauty, strength, courage---those really were the qualities he admired. And he hadn’t any of them. The image of Deverell rose before him. Deverell, he supposed, at this moment would be waiting for him down by the river. He frowned. Purposely he had made no promise, but still he hesitated. He felt rather mean, and most likely in the end he would have gone to the river had not the idea flashed upon him to leave a note for the trespasser. He could pin it to the door where he would be sure to see it if he came back. The temptation was irresistible, and Tom hurried on.

He entered the grounds and turned aside from the main avenue, keeping by the wall, and skirting the shrubbery, beyond which he caught a glimpse of George, and George’s assistant Robert, a stocky youth of eighteen or thereabouts, whose acquaintance he had not yet made. Robert was shy, and had deliberately kept at a distance. At present he and George were clipping the laurels, though for the moment they had stopped working and their voices were raised in the clamour of religious argument. At least George’s voice was raised, which Tom took for a sign that he had been getting the worst of it. He paused to catch the gist of the discussion, but it had already reached its climax.

‘Cut them bushes an’ houl’ yer tongue!’ George ordered angrily. ‘The like of you puttin’ it on you to give me salvation, that got you your job and learned you everythin’ you know except foolishness. If your sins is washed clean it’s more than your face is.’

‘It’s into the heart, not at the face, that the Lord looks, Mr. McCrudden,’ said Robert earnestly.

‘Ay---well, it’s yer face I have to put up with.’

Tom moved discreetly away.

Still keeping by the dark stone wall, in whose ancient cracks and crannies a multitude of ferns and climbers, and even an occasional sapling, had found a roothold, he approached his destination through a copse of larch and hazel. Deverell had certainly been right about the rabbits; in every clearing their burrows were manifest, and the white flashing of their little scuts as they dived into shelter at his approach. He reached the inner wall which surrounded his abandoned house, and passed through one of the gaps.

But hardly into the land of yesterday’s sorcery. Not even when he emerged on to the lawn and saw before him again the low creepered house, the grass terraces, the ruined fountain with its solitary guardian. It was all lovely and quiet and neglected, but it was somehow less thrilling, less strange. It was as if a vivid light, thrown upon it by enchantment, had been withdrawn. Was it he himself who had broken a spell, or had he really seen it first in a peculiar lighting---though the hour must have been nearly the same? He only knew that its beauty was more familiar, less wonderful, that the suggestion of life had vanished from the house, and that it was empty.

Treading noiselessly on the thick matted grass, Tom went round to the back. He entered a square, roughly-paved yard. He peeped through a dark cobwebbed kitchen window, then turned the handle of the door and gently pushed. The door opened and he heard a scuttle among the litter of old newspapers on the floor. Tom stood there, still grasping the door-handle, gazing out of sunshine into twilight. But he did not enter. There was a wooden chair, a table; the grate was stuffed with rubbish; in one corner a heap of plaster had fallen from the ceiling. Not a sound now even of a mouse: then the noisy buzzing of a bluebottle which had flown in over his head. Fat fussy creature! A feast for somebody! Tom thought; noting the thick webs, and wondering what spiders shut in here could possibly find to eat. Or mice either. But the mice doubtless were not really shut in---had their secret passages connected with the outer world.

The friendly chirping of sparrows in the ivy, and the bright sunshine, held him on the threshold. Inside, it was dirty and gloomy, and a cold musty smell rose from the paved floor. Besides, he knew there was nobody there. Tom, who had come to explore the house, closed the door without entering. He re-crossed the cobbled yard; he would leave his message and go. But when he reached the corner of the house he put paper and pencil back in his pocket, for the trespasser was there.

Tom stood still. Yes, he was there, kneeling by the fountain, exactly as Tom had knelt yesterday, his hands plunged in the water, his back turned. And Tom knew him. Presently he lifted his cupped hands from the pool. He did not look round; his head was bent over some captive; and the water dripped down between his fingers on to the grass. But he must have heard a footstep, for he said over his shoulder, ‘I’ve got the biggest water-beetle you ever saw.’

‘Have you?’ Tom replied.

The words dropped rather lamely. In fact, though there was no reason why he should do so, he felt a little let down, like one who has prepared an elaborate surprise only to find it has all from the beginning been regarded as a matter of course. But this check was momentary. ‘Let’s see it,’ he said, running to the fountain.

The trespasser held out his hands, and Tom surveyed the black, glossy, rather formidable creature, who was making indignant efforts to regain his liberty. All at once his back split open, two wings were unfolded, and he whirred triumphantly away.

Tom watched his short clumsy flight as he grazed the top of a fuchsia bush and dropped down among a clump of irises. Then he turned and encountered the dark blue eyes of the kneeling boy. They were candid yet watchful, with an unusual breadth between them, and the corners of the eyebrows were slightly protuberant. The line of the nose was firm and bold, the mouth just a little pouting, the chin rounded. He would have looked exactly like a young buccaneer, Tom thought, only there was something else there, something that removed him indefinably from that type and from the purely athletic type of Eric and Leonard---a kind of subtle intellectuality.

‘Where do you come from? You were here yesterday.’

Tom, lost in contemplation, was taken aback. Questions as to his identity were not what he had expected, particularly when asked in a tone that struck him as singularly high-handed. ‘I live here,’ he answered stiffly. ‘This place belongs to my uncle.’

The kneeling boy accepted the statement, but it did not abash him. ‘Tell me your name,’ he said in the same dictatorial tone.

Tom coloured. ‘Why don’t you tell me yours?’

At this the trespasser showed surprise. But he was not annoyed, and after just the briefest hesitation answered ‘Philip.’ A rather longer pause ensued before he added, ‘Coombe.’

‘Well, my name’s Tom Barber,’ said Tom.

The announcement brought them to a deadlock. The whole encounter, somehow, had been unfortunate, and very different from the one he had anticipated. But that was always the way. He began to suspect that this boy was after all of the type of his step-brothers: the arrogance was not so pronounced, but it was there, and he recognized it with a pang of disillusionment. He had looked so pleasant! He did still for that matter: there could not, Tom felt, in the whole world be anything that looked much pleasanter. Meanwhile the strange boy had risen to his feet and they confronted each other. Tom stared as long as he could: then his eyes dropped and he merely stood there waiting unhappily.

He was astonished to hear a quite friendly voice addressing him. ‘What are you annoyed about?’

Tom looked up. ‘Nothing.’ His smile was hesitating.

‘Well, you haven’t spoken for nearly five minutes.’

‘Neither have you,’ Tom said.

‘I was thinking---coming to a decision.’

‘So was I.’

‘About me?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘You said this place belonged to your uncle.’

‘Oh that!’ Tom was relieved to find his real thoughts so widely missed.

‘Did you tell him you had seen me?’

‘Yes, I told him last night. He doesn’t mind. He says you can go into the house when you like. . . . I only told him,’ Tom added, ‘because at that time I thought you lived there, and that he might know who you were.’

‘Well, you know now.’

‘I don’t know very much,’ said Tom.

‘You know my name.’

‘Yes.’

‘And in a way I do live there.’

Tom looked at him uncertainly. ‘How do you mean?’ he asked.

‘I mean I’m living there for the present---temporarily. I found the door unlocked. Nobody can have been near the place for ages and I didn’t see what harm I could do. I don’t do as much harm as the birds: the chimneys are full of nests.’

‘No, I’m sure you don’t,’ said Tom. ‘But why do you want to live there? It can’t be very comfortable.’

‘I ran away. As a matter of fact I ran away twice---first from school and then from home. I want to go abroad, but I thought I’d better hide for a while, till they had stopped looking for me.’

‘Everybody I know seems to have run away,’ murmured Tom. ‘At least everybody about here. Uncle Stephen did, long ago: and Deverell did: and I ran away myself to come to Uncle Stephen.’

‘Well, you can’t stay at home for ever,’ said Philip.

‘No,’ Tom agreed, more doubtfully. ‘Though if you come to think of it a good many people do---at least till they’re grown-up.’

‘I wanted to go to sea a year ago, but my father wouldn’t let me. And I’m not going back to school. Anyhow I don’t think they’d take me, because I nearly killed one of the boys with a cricket stump before I left. I thought at first I had killed him. I tried to.’

Truly?

‘Well, perhaps not quite: but I wanted to hurt him badly, and I did.’

There was a pause.

‘I like this place and nobody will ever find me here.’

‘I found you,’ said Tom.

‘Only because I allowed you to. I stood at the window on purpose.’

‘I would have found you sooner or later without that: I intended to explore the house.’

‘I shouldn’t have been in the house---unless you had come in the middle of the night.’

Tom tried another subject. ‘How do you manage about your grub: I mean where do you get it?’

‘I haven’t had to get any so far. I only came yesterday and I have what will do me till to-morrow:---bread and cheese, and there’s a well in the yard.’

‘But it must be frightfully uncomfortable. Isn’t the place swarming with mice?’

‘Only downstairs: they come in out of the garden. Besides, in the hold of a ship there would be rats and cockroaches.’

Tom regarded this bold adventurer with serious and wondering eyes. ‘Were you going as a stowaway? I thought that only happened in stories. How would you get on board to begin with? And as soon as they found you they’d send a message. Nearly every ship has a wireless.’

‘A wireless!’ Philip looked puzzled, but continued his explanation. ‘I’ll not go as a stowaway if I can get a proper job. But I’m going some way, and I can’t risk being caught.’

‘I’ll bring you your grub,’ said Tom.

‘Will you?’

‘Unless you’d like to come and stay at the Manor. I know it would be all right, because my uncle said this morning he wished there was another boy for me to knock about with.’

‘No,’ replied Philip decisively.

‘But why? You needn’t be afraid of Uncle Stephen.’

‘I’m not afraid of him.’

‘Why won’t you come then? It would be a good deal better than where you are and just as safe. That place must be filthy.’

‘It’s not so bad upstairs. You haven’t seen it.’

Tom looked at him in uncertainty. ‘You mean you don’t want to come?’

‘I can’t come. I must be free to do what I like and I couldn’t be free if I went to stay with your uncle. Besides, he’d expect me to tell him all about myself.’

‘I don’t think he would,’ said Tom quietly, ‘but it doesn’t matter.’

He looked down into the fountain. He could think of nothing else to say and yet he wished to say something. Philip did not help him, and Tom turned away. ‘I must be going,’ he murmured.

‘Will you come back again?’

It was less an invitation than a question, but Tom answered, ‘Yes, if you want me to. Besides, I’ve to bring you your grub.’

Philip kept step beside him. He was at least a head taller than Tom---as tall as Leonard, and of the same clean powerful build. ‘Are you going to tell your uncle what I’ve told you?’ he asked.

‘I’d rather tell him, and I’ll have to tell him some of it; but if there’s anything you don’t want me to tell----’

‘I don’t mind. You can tell him whatever you please---so long as you make him promise to keep it a secret and not to interfere with me.’

‘You needn’t be afraid,’ said Tom, ‘he isn’t that kind.’

They walked slowly over the thick matted turf, and entered the green avenue. A hare, twenty yards away, squatted down to watch them.

At the gate Philip stopped. ‘I don’t think I’ll come any further.’

Tom too paused, in indecision. ‘I wish you would,’ he said. ‘I want you to help me to build a raft, and then we could go on the river. Have you been to the river yet?’

‘No.’

‘Will you come with me to-morrow and bathe?’

‘Would anybody be likely to see me? Should we have to pass any houses?’

‘No. . . . It’s over there.’ He pointed through the trees. ‘There are no houses near.’

‘Well----’

‘I’ll come early,’ Tom promised eagerly. ‘Then we’ll have the whole afternoon. And I’ll bring your food at the same time. I’ll come whether it’s wet or fine.’

‘Alone?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘There won’t be any other boys there?’

‘No, there won’t be anybody except ourselves.’

Philip thought it over for a minute or two. ‘All right,’ he said at last. ‘Good-bye for the present.’

He was turning away, but Tom stood still. ‘What is it?’ Philip asked.

Tom hesitated. ‘It’s just that it seems rotten leaving you here alone,’ he murmured shyly.

Philip looked at him with a faint surprise. ‘You needn’t worry about me,’ he answered rather coldly; and the statement was so obviously true that Tom wished he had left his own words unspoken.

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