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Chapter Thirteen

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« on: July 22, 2023, 08:42:10 am »

THROUGH the open window, flung wide to the evening air, Tom watched the departure of Sally and Mrs. Deverell---figures in a garden picture, but walking straight out of it. Why should this nightly departure continue to affect him so oddly, like a queer kind of ritual? For no sooner were they lost to sight than he had again that sense of an indescribable change in everything around him. The clock ticked on, the birds sang, the branches waved---nevertheless, nothing was the same. The quiet seemed to deepen; the light he could have sworn deepened too; something that he knew was withdrawn, something he did not know drew nearer; it was like dreaming; it was like the approach of sleep.

If Uncle Horace were to return now would he be able to find the gate---or would Uncle Stephen have hidden it by enchantment?

Tom leaned his hands on the window-sill, and the stone was warm. The last sunlight mingled with the shadows on the grass; a wood-pigeon cooed from the ash-tree; Tom felt at peace with all the world.

He turned his head and looked round at Uncle Stephen, who was reading. One book he held in his hands, and three or four others were open on the table beside him. Tom thought he would read also, but as soon as he tried to think of a book the impulse died. He did not really want to read. He glanced at the chessmen and immediately knew he did not want to play chess. He got a stool and placed it beside Uncle Stephen’s chair; then, in silence, sat down upon it. In this way he was not interrupting Uncle Stephen, while at the same time he was letting him know he was there, for Uncle Stephen had all day to read and might like to talk for a change.

Uncle Stephen turned a page. The fingers of one hand twisted Tom’s coarse, dry, brown hair into little locks, but absent-mindedly, and presently he withdrew them to turn another page. This was not in the least what Tom wanted, so he took from his pocket a feather he had picked up in the wood, and began to tickle Uncle Stephen’s hand. The feather produced no effect, and Tom gave the hand a tiny bite. At this the book closed, but with a finger still keeping the place. ‘Uncle Stephen, I must either disturb you or go out of the room.’

Uncle Stephen laid down his book. ‘What is it to be, then;---chess?’

‘No, I want to talk. I have something to tell you. I saw that boy again this afternoon and I spoke to him. His name is Philip Coombe. He ran away from home and he’s living in the other house now---hiding there. But he’s going abroad, going to see the world. He’ll do it too; he’s just that sort.’

‘Where does he come from?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know the least thing about him. He won’t answer questions. But I like him.’

‘How can you like a person you know nothing about?’

‘Well---you can, too. I can anyway.’

‘You mean you like what you’ve made up about him?’

‘Yes---but I think it’s true. . . . I asked him to come and stay here.’

‘To stay in this house?’

‘Yes. Was that wrong? Do you mind, Uncle Stephen? He isn’t coming, anyway.’

‘I’d certainly prefer you to tell me your plans beforehand.’

‘Yes. So I will. I promised to take him food every day while he is there, but that was right, wasn’t it? I ought to do that, don’t you think?’

‘I suppose so.’

Tom sat pondering for a while: then he began again. ‘Uncle Stephen?’

‘Yes.’

‘You don’t seem very interested in him.’

‘Interested---in what way? So far you haven’t told me anything interesting.’

‘But you’re not trying to be interested.’

Uncle Stephen regarded him mildly. ‘What should you call trying? If you give me a hint I’ll do my best.’

‘Well, you haven’t asked me how old he is, or what he looks like, or anything.’

‘How old is he?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Tom! Tom!’ Uncle Stephen stretched out his hand towards his book.

‘No, you’re not to,’ cried Tom quickly, catching his wrist and pulling it back. ‘I only mean I don’t know exactly. He’s a good deal bigger than I am, but I don’t expect he’s much older---about sixteen.’

There was a pause, broken at last by Uncle Stephen. ‘Well, what’s the next point? Am I to ask another question?’

‘I’m just thinking,’ said Tom. ‘There’s something about him I can’t quite make out---something different. Perhaps it’s only his way of speaking---but there’s something.’

‘His accent?’

‘No.’ Tom’s forehead wrinkled. ‘It’s awfully hard to describe. What would you call it if a person didn’t always use the words other boys use? . . . But I’m not sure that it is that,’ he added quickly.

‘I’ve no idea. Do you mean he’s very prim and pedantic?’

‘No, I don’t,’ said Tom. ‘Just the opposite. I’m far primmer myself: I bet he’d do anything.’

‘Anything! A reckless, lawless kind of person?’

‘Well, not anything rotten, of course. . . . All the same,’ he went on half under his breath, ‘I bet he is pretty reckless and lawless.’

‘Apart from the question of his speech?’

Tom waited a moment before saying reproachfully, ‘It’s very easy to make fun of people.’

‘I’m not making fun of people. I’m only trying to find out what has impressed this person. You see, for me that is the most important point.’

‘What?’

‘What I’m trying to discover.’

‘But I mean what is the important point?’

‘The important point is the source of your interest.’

‘I don’t think I understand.’

‘Well, we’ll put it in a different way. What quality is it that must be there, or at least that you most want to be there, in anybody you regard as a friend? Is that plain?’

‘It ought to be---but I’d have to think it over.’

‘Think then.’

Tom sat still for several minutes. He shut his eyes tight; he compressed his lips; he might have been grappling with the riddle of Sphynx.

‘Well, have you found it?’ Uncle Stephen asked. ‘Or was this just an opportunity for taking a snooze?’

Tom opened his eyes. ‘I believe,’ he said, ‘I would have to like anybody who was faithful---even if the person was bad---really bad---in every other way.’

‘Faithful to you, do you mean?’

Tom thought once more, but this time appeared less satisfied with his answer. ‘I suppose that is what I mean,’ he admitted. ‘At least, it’s the way I imagined it.’

‘And the “faithfulness” implied a deep affection. You imagined that too, didn’t you?’

‘Y-es,’ answered Tom. ‘How did you know?’

‘I knew you were creating a romantic impossibility.’

‘Why is it impossible?’

‘Because nobody could be faithful, and bad in every other way. To begin with there must be your capacity for affection. Besides, you can’t have faithfulness without unselfishness and courage. When courage evaporates faithfulness goes with it. I don’t deny you have hit on a good quality, but it isn’t one you can recognize at a glance. Therefore I shouldn’t be too ready to attribute it to every attractive new acquaintance.’

Tom puckered his brows, not in dissent, but not wholly in acquiescence either. ‘Don’t you think there are some people you can be sure of at once?’ he asked.

‘There may be.’

‘But you must know. You must know. Why, the first minute I came into this room---or at any rate a few minutes afterwards----’

‘You feel sure, then, about this boy?’

Tom shook his head. ‘No, I don’t. I’m not a bit sure. And I’m not a bit sure that he likes me. Will you come with me to the other house?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘But if he won’t come here, then you’ll never get to know each other!’

‘Does that matter?’

‘Did it?’ Tom asked himself. ‘Did he want Uncle Stephen to go to the other house?’ Deeper and deeper he sank into his thoughts. He supposed it was true that it took a long time really to get to know people, and that he was always in too great a hurry. Certainly he was in too great a hurry to tell them he liked them, and it hadn’t answered well in the past. They didn’t want to be told. They didn’t want---those he had told---even to be liked; and Philip, he half suspected, was of that kind. . . . Nor were words ever satisfactory. What you said always sounded either too much or too little. You could hear it yourself---either horribly gushing, or else so feeble and dry that it expressed nothing. The only true communication seemed to be not words at all:---when Uncle Stephen stroked his hair, for instance. Yes, it was that. He wanted to keep Uncle Stephen for himself: he didn’t want to share him with Philip. It might be selfish---but there it was. He wanted Uncle Stephen for his very own. He wanted Philip too, but not in the same way---- He wanted nobody else in the same way.

Tom became more and more doubtful. The room grew darker without his noticing it: he only saw that it was dark when Uncle Stephen got up to light the lamp. And how much darker it must be in the other house, with its cobwebbed windows half overgrown by ivy. Was Philip standing at his window looking out? The fountain would be hardly visible. And suddenly Tom felt that if he had to go to that house now he would be afraid. He wouldn’t be afraid if he had Philip with him; but he would be afraid of not finding him, of finding the house empty. He saw it with the moonlight glinting on its cold black windows. And inside it was empty---empty and dark. . . .

The vision altered his mood, and into his mind, like rooks returning to a rookery, flocked strange and restless thoughts.

‘Uncle Stephen,’ he asked, ‘is there really such a thing as magic?’

Uncle Stephen looked at him, and his look, though it was kind, because in fact it was kind, made Tom feel unhappy.

‘There have been people who have thought so, and who have tried to practise it. That is to say, there are the rites and ceremonies invented to accompany magic, and there are books---obscure, pretentious, and fantastical.’

‘Is it wicked to practise magic?’

‘Not the kind of magic you mean: not the magic of fairy stories.’

‘But I don’t mean that.’

Uncle Stephen was silent a moment, and Tom felt that a faint shadow had passed between them.

‘The other is usually associated with wickedness: certainly I can’t imagine any good coming of it.’

‘But the Greeks believed in it.’

‘Yes, some of them.’ Tom had an impression that the shadow had lifted, and he was sure of it when Uncle Stephen went on. ‘I dare say Homer believed in the magic of Kirké, but I don’t think Euripides believed in the magic of Medea. Doubtless there were real women, who, like the woman in the poem of Theokritos, turned a magic wheel to charm back a lost lover. But all that is utterly different from medieval magic, with its conscious evil and depraved association with Christianity. Apollonios of Tyana was called a magician, but he and his master Pythagoras were really holy men, and if supernatural powers were attributed to them it was because they were in communion with the Gods, not with evil spirits.’

Tom with his forefinger began to trace an invisible design on the carpet.

‘Are you drawing a pentagram, Tom?’ Uncle Stephen asked, and in his voice was that half-bantering affection which Tom particularly liked.

Nevertheless, a strange mood of perversity seemed to prompt him with questions, which he hated all the more, because he knew Uncle Stephen thought they were innocent.

‘Have you ever known a magician, Uncle Stephen?’

‘I have known people---unpleasant people---who tried experiments in magic.’

‘In real magic?’

‘Yes.’

‘Here?’

‘No; not here. Not even in this country. It was many years ago, and their experiments were not successful---in any way.’

‘Did you help them---in the experiments?’

‘Yes.’

‘And were they unpleasant too?’

‘Not at the beginning---only foolish: but in the end---yes.’

There was a hardly describable change in Uncle Stephen’s voice, yet it was perceptible, and still more so when he spoke again. ‘Now, tell me why you asked these questions, and what is in your mind, and who put it there?’

‘It---it was just something I heard,’ said Tom, speaking very low.

Uncle Stephen sat silent. Tom did not dare to look up, but as the silence lengthened he began to feel it like a coldness spreading through the room---a cold mist in which he had lost sight of his companion and friend, which shut him away from him almost as some palpable barrier might have done. Gradually it became unbearable. ‘Uncle Stephen, I’m sorry,’ he broke out, clutching the hand that had not been withdrawn from his shoulder. ‘I shouldn’t have said anything. And I haven’t even told you the truth. It was really what happened to-day that made me think of it. You know---when Uncle Horace was here---the things he said. And my step-mother had a servant---a girl who came from these parts---and she told some story, though I never heard it. But I’m sorry, Uncle Stephen, forgive me. I know I’ve hurt your feelings. And I didn’t believe it anyway: and anyway I wouldn’t care if it was true. I’d like it.’

‘Stop,’ said Uncle Stephen sharply. ‘You mustn’t lose your self-control like this. What is there to get in such a state about? One would think something dreadful had happened. Your whole body is shaking.’

Tom gulped: then he said in a queer, choked voice, ‘It was because I thought I’d offended you.’

‘Even if you had offended me it would be no reason for such an outburst. You mustn’t give way to your emotions in this way. Remember you are a man, or at least a boy.’

‘Yes,’ said Tom, but with a little sigh of relief. ‘Then you’re not offended?’

But Uncle Stephen’s voice was still rather stern. ‘I can’t very well be offended till I know what you mean.’

‘I didn’t mean anything,’ said Tom, ‘or at any rate I don’t now.’ Then he added, as if to make a last confession, ‘I tried to find the secret door when you were out of the room.’

Uncle Stephen rose. Clothed as he was, all in black, and with the black skull-cap crowning his silver hair, he would, Tom felt even in this moment of contrition, have made a lovely magician. Yes---and he would have helped him. He watched him now light one of the wax candles which stood in slender bronze sconces on the carved chimney-piece. ‘Come,’ said Uncle Stephen, and, a little awe-struck, though filled with excitement, Tom followed him across the room.

Uncle Stephen held the candle aloft, and Tom noticed how firmly and levelly he held it, so that not a drop of wax fell. The flame shone on the dark panelling, and at the corner of each panel was carved a flattened conventional rose. On the centre of one of these roses Uncle Stephen pressed, and it sank inward, releasing a spring. Four of the panels swung back in a single piece, and Uncle Stephen motioned to him to pass through the aperture: then he himself followed.

And after all they were only in a narrow passage, from which a flight of stone stairs ascended to another door, that opened precisely as the one below had opened. Tom stood on the threshold of a room he had never seen before---Uncle Stephen’s bedroom. Uncle Stephen entered, and lit a lamp, which in a minute or two burned brightly. He beckoned, and Tom stepped forward and stood beside him.

The room was not large---not so large as Tom’s own bedroom---and it was far more simply and sparsely furnished. A low narrow bed in the centre of the floor, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a dressing-table and a single cane-bottomed chair---there was no other furniture than this. There was not even a carpet, only a rug beside the bed; and the grey walls were bare---the whole room had a monastic bareness and austerity, except that, in the open space beyond the bed, there was something wonderful.

It was wonderful because---time-stained, ancient, battered---without arms, and with the legs broken off below the knees---it yet had all the beauty and radiance of a God. Motionless he stood there dreaming, with a lovely mildness in his open countenance. He was a spirit, and Tom felt himself to be in the presence of a spirit---of a beneficent guardian, who had made sweet and sacred this place in which he stood.

Uncle Stephen was watching him. ‘Who is he?’ Tom breathed. And suddenly he felt that this room was different from all other rooms: it was as if merely by his acceptance of it, and by his presence there, that broken lovely figure had made it into a temple for himself and filled it with life. Tom was ready to drop down on his knees.

‘Who is he?’ he asked again.

‘You like him?’ Uncle Stephen said. ‘Well, that is right, because he is, or was, especially a boy’s God---Hermes Παιδοχόρος, “he who cares for boys,” and his statue was put up beside that of Eros in the palaistra, as a kind of symbol of the relations that ought to rule there. You have read of him in the Iliad---a “boy before the down has begun to grow on his cheeks, who is then most lovely.” But he is also Hermes Ψυχοπομπóς, the escorter, the guardian of souls. He is the prototype of the Christian Good Shepherd and you can be his young ram.’

‘But---Does he allow you to sleep here?’

‘He is the God of sleep and dreams. The last libation of the day was made to him---a kind of “now I lay me down to sleep” ceremony. The Greeks would have found Doctor Watts’s poem quite appropriate:

     With cheerful heart I close mine eyes,
       Since Thou wilt not remove;
     And in the morning let me rise
        Rejoicing in Thy love.


It was the custom to put his image in the sleeping-room, and the beds were so arranged that it was the last thing the sleeper looked at before he fell asleep, and the first thing he saw when he awoke in the morning.’

‘That is how your bed is arranged,’ said Tom.

‘The Gods protected those who slept under their shadow. The idea is pleasant---don’t you think? It is very like your own idea of faithfulness. Even the animals who haunted a shrine were protected. They were safe, their rights of sanctuary were respected, and Aelian says the Athenians put to death a man who had killed a sparrow in the temple of Asklepios. If you had been an Athenian boy, and were sick, you would have been taken to sleep in that temple. Being a boy, you would have prayed to Asklepios Παῑς—Asklepios in his boyhood---and the boy-god would have come to you in a dream, or perhaps while you were still awake, and cured you.’

‘Uncle Stephen, please, would you let me sleep here---just once?’

‘We shall see.’

Tom was still gazing at the statue. ‘Where did he come from?’ he asked.

‘From Greece first. But at one time he must have been brought to Italy, for it was in Italy he was discovered, buried in the ground, by a man who had found lots of other things, but nothing so precious as this.’

‘And he gave him to you?’

‘Yes---before he died.’

‘The same man who gave you your chessmen?’

‘Yes.’

‘He must have been very fond of you, Uncle Stephen.’

‘I lived with him much as you are living with me.’

Tom took Uncle Stephen’s hand and drew him a step nearer to the statue. ‘Was he---once---worshipped?’ he asked reverently.

‘Yes---or the spirit within him.’

‘Sleep---the spirit of sleep,’ Tom whispered. ‘Haven’t even the words a lovely sound?’

‘It is more than mere sleep as you know it. It is a road through time---a gateway into a world where time is like space, and you may go backward or forward.’

‘I have been there,’ said Tom. ‘I have gone back till I was quite small, and mother was there. . . . Uncle Stephen, he is alive: I can see his arms and his hands; his legs and his feet: I can see all of him now---quite perfect and whole.’

‘Yes, I know you can.’

‘Does he make me see him like that?’

‘Perhaps. I don’t know.’

‘If we brought him downstairs, wouldn’t he make that room into his temple---just as he has made this?’

‘I should not care to move him. He has always been here. I would rather give you this room for your own. You would like it, wouldn’t you? You see, all the space between these four walls is now holy ground. Downstairs it could not be the same---with strangers coming and going.’

Tom gave a little laugh. ‘Uncle Stephen dear, not a great many strangers come and go.’

‘Perhaps not. But think of that wretched scene this afternoon. It would have been odious. All that you now feel in the air around you would have been broken by it. Don’t you feel it? Like a kind of soundless music. Perhaps to you it is even not quite soundless, for I think you are much closer to these things than I am. And it is stronger now than it used to be. Sometimes---- Well, all that, I think, would have gone. It comes from the spirit within the image, and, if that spirit were withdrawn, it would vanish too, like the scent of a flower when the flower dies. But here there are no intruders, no contrary influences, nothing antagonistic. You looked at him and found him lovely, and in doing so your spirit was mixed into his spirit. Your mind reached him, like the sunlight or like a prayer: his power was strengthened, his life was strengthened; you became the unconscious priest and your affection drew the beloved nearer. . . . But most people would be intruders.’

‘Uncle Stephen, was it really true, what you said about people who were sick sleeping in the temple of Asklepios, and about the God coming to them in the night?’

‘It’s certainly true about the people. As for the God, I told you the tradition. Asklepios was an earth-god, or an earth-daimon, and the sleeper slept with his ear to the ground, so as to receive a healing dream from below. Sometimes the God appeared in his own form, sometimes in that of a snake, sometimes in the dream he performed a cure and the patient awoke healthy and sound.’

‘Has Hermes ever come to you?’ Tom asked wonderingly.

‘Not in the way you are with me now; not so that I could touch him or hear him; not even as a ghost. But as an influence---yes: as a power---yes.’

‘Do you think on the night I sleep here he will come to me?’

‘I don’t know. . . . I’m not sure that I should have brought you here at all. Not now---not yet.’

For Tom was standing there with a strange expression on his face. He might have been listening to some very faint, very distant sound; and in his eyes there was a peculiar veiled and inward look. Slowly they were raised till they met Uncle Stephen’s eyes, and more slowly still his words came. ‘Uncle Stephen---there is something I don’t understand. Tell me---tell me.’ His voice suddenly broke, and next moment he was in Uncle Stephen’s arms.

‘What is it, Tom? What is the matter?’ Uncle Stephen was patting him and consoling him: he bent down and kissed his cheek.

‘Nothing---nothing,’ Tom faltered. ‘I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it. It was just for a minute. I---I don’t know what happened. But somehow it all seemed to come over me.’

‘What seemed to come over you?’

‘I mean---you, and him, and Philip, and---even the boy at the fountain:---it was as if you all were one person. . . .’ His face had grown white and strained, his parted lips trembled. ‘Uncle Stephen, don’t you love me---really---really?’

‘Yes, yes. Don’t look like that. I shouldn’t have brought you to this room. I ought to have known. But I wanted you to see for yourself that there was no magic; that it was no magician’s den with circles and triangles chalked on the floor; that there were no rods and tripods and chalices---nothing, nothing at all, but the broken statue of a God.’

‘But I never thought there was any such den,’ Tom protested, half laughing through his tears.

‘Perhaps not. But a seed had been sown in your mind, and I did not want it to grow. Now you have seen the whole house, and if that foolish door worries you, you can nail it up yourself.’

‘I’m not such a baby,’ cried Tom.

‘You are very young in some ways---extraordinarily young. It is just as if a little corner of you had never changed at all---and I keep stupidly thinking of what I was at your age and treating you as if you were the same, whereas you are not---not at all.’

‘I think it must have been because I was tired,’ Tom went on, trying to explain. ‘So much seems to have happened to-day. I think I’d like to go to bed now.’

But he still clung close to Uncle Stephen, who looked down at him and stroked his bowed head.

‘Don’t you want your supper?’ he asked.

‘No: I’m not hungry: I couldn’t eat anything.’ Tom lifted his head, his eyes still a little troubled. ‘But I’d like you to come up with me.’

‘To sit with you?’

‘Yes: you won’t have to wait long: I’ll go to sleep awfully soon if I know you’re there. . . . And---Uncle Stephen---you won’t think any the less of me because of this, will you?’

‘No, I won’t think any the less.’

‘I hope you won’t,’ Tom said ruefully. ‘Though I don’t see how you can very well help it. I’m not like Philip, am I? He doesn’t mind being all by himself at night in that other house, and it must be frightfully lonely and queer.’

‘I don’t want you to be like Philip.’

‘All the same, I’d hate him to know about this. He wouldn’t be as kind as you are.’

‘Perhaps not. But don’t get it into your head that because he’s not afraid to sleep by himself in an empty house he’s a wonderful person. I’ve a very good idea of what he is, and I prefer you.’

They went out of the room and along the passage, Uncle Stephen holding the candle. In his own room Tom undressed quickly, and his spirits rose more quickly still, so that by the time he was safely in bed he was his normal, by no means melancholy self.

‘Now, you’re not to talk,’ said Uncle Stephen, for Tom had already begun to chatter.

‘But you won’t go away till you’re sure I’m asleep?’

‘No; not if you keep quiet and try to go to sleep.’

There was a silence. The door was ajar, and presently from down below came the soft deep chiming of the hall clock.

‘Dickory,’ said Tom.

‘I thought you weren’t to talk.’

Tom said no more, until he murmured, ‘Uncle Stephen, I’m getting sleepy now: will you say good-night.’

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