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Chapter Fifteen

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Author Topic: Chapter Fifteen  (Read 26 times)
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« on: July 22, 2023, 11:37:55 am »

AS Tom sat up, a single chime---deep, distant, mellow---reached his still drowsy ears. He knew it came from the grandfather’s clock in the hall, and it was strange, he thought, that he never seemed to hear it in the daytime. But at night, though he was far away and his door shut, if he happened to lie awake he could always hear it, and if he opened his door, even the slow tick, tock---tick, tock---rose up quite distinctly through the well of the staircase.

He had drawn up his blinds---always so carefully drawn down by Mrs. Deverell---before getting into bed; the windows were open, and the moon was shining into the room. Perhaps it was the moon which had awakened him. There had been a thunderstorm and a heavy fall of rain a few hours earlier, but now the night must have cleared, and Tom, slipping out of bed, went to the window to breathe its freshness. He leaned over the sill, and the garden lay below him filled with light and darkness, black and white like an etching. Motionless trees threw their shadows across the grass. There were shadows everywhere. In spite of the flood of moonlight, Tom thought it would be easy for an enemy to approach the house unseen. . . .

He leaned farther out, trying to view the garden from a different angle, and in doing so his elbow knocked against a book on the dressing-table, which fell with a thud to the floor.

‘Damn!’ Tom muttered under his breath.

The book was the first volume of Arabia Deserta, and he had put it there so as to be sure to remember it next day. It was for Philip. Not that he had asked for it---nor indeed for any book---the idea was Tom’s own. He had thought a travel book might interest him since he was going to be a traveller, and Uncle Stephen had said this was a good one.

He thought of Philip and he thought of Deverell. It was because of what had taken place that afternoon. He did not believe Deverell would readily forgive or forget an injury---he would be far more likely to exaggerate one. His temperament was passionate and brooding: and, quite apart from the insult he had received, Tom knew he must be jealous. Suppose he had followed them. They had taken no precautions; they had not once looked round. Nothing indeed seemed more probable than that he had followed them; and once he knew Philip’s hiding-place, what was to prevent him from going back at night when he would be sure to find him alone?

Tom’s thoughts might not have taken this turn in broad daylight, nor even had he lain on snugly in bed, but now, looking out into that mysterious garden, it became increasingly difficult to dismiss them.

Swiftly and silently in the moonlight he re-dressed himself. He opened his door noiselessly, and tip-toed along the passage and down the stairs. With equal caution he stole along a second and darker passage, branching off on the right from the hall, and leading to the kitchen. The kitchen door was locked, but the key was in the lock and Tom turned it. Then very gingerly he pushed open the door.

Not that he felt any ghostly terrors: what he actually dreaded (the result of one memorable descent to the kitchen in Gloucester Terrace) was cockroaches. But cockroaches or no cockroaches he must get his shoes. He lit his candle, cast a rapid glance round the tiled floor, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Having found his shoes and put them on, he returned to the hall. His every movement was made with the utmost carefulness, for, though the darkness told him Uncle Stephen had gone to bed, he might not yet be asleep. Tom opened the hall-door---always left on the latch for Mrs. Deverell in the morning---and instantly was face to face with a white, crystalline world---glittering, treacherous---like a landscape in the moon.

Beyond the shining pallor of the lawn was a black wall of trees. Keeping on the grass, so that his footsteps should be noiseless, he passed the row of dark windows at the front of the house, then broke into a run, and in a minute or two had reached the outer fringe of the wood. He by this time knew his way to the other house so well that he believed the darkness would not matter, but almost immediately he blundered into the bushes and fell headlong. He was not hurt, but it showed him how useless it was to hurry. He lit the candle he had brought with him. Here, in the close shelter of the trees, the flame burned almost steadily, yet the light it cast was equivocal, seeming to illuminate Tom himself much more than his surroundings. It was better than nothing, however; it helped him to avoid overhanging branches, and he moved slowly on. His daily journeys had beaten down a well-marked track, but it was narrow, and even with the light he carried not easy to follow. Now and then he heard a rustle in the brushwood, and once he heard a distant scream that might have been the scream of an owl or of a cat, but he saw no living thing except snails, and the pale-winged moths his candle attracted---creatures fragile and insubstantial as the ghosts of white hawthorn.

When at last he reached the broken gate he blew out his candle. He no longer needed it, for the path was now smooth under his feet, and wide enough between its leafy walls to admit the moonlight. Tom’s heart was beating with a strange excitement. He had half forgotten the errand that had brought him here, or perhaps it would be truer to say that he no longer believed in that errand. The avenue curved, widened, ended: he stood still. He gazed at the house, but approached no nearer. Never before had he looked on anything like this. It was as if house and garden and terrace, as if the stone boy and his urn and his owl and his otter, were all sunken to the bottom of a silver sea. An indescribable beauty flooded Tom’s mind, and his eyes dimmed, though no grief was in his heart. And on that spot where he stood he dropped down on the cold grass.

When he raised his head in the shadowy air his face was wet. He got slowly to his feet. His face, his hands, his shirt, his jacket, his trousers---all were wet and cold with dew, yet he did not feel cold. He approached the house over the damp sward. He stood below a window and called ‘Philip,’ but there was no answer and he did not repeat his call.

He stood there dreaming, his head bowed. Night brooded over him with dusky wings. A faint wind sighed and passed, stirring the lock of coarse brown hair that tumbled over his forehead, and rustling in the ivy. Tom awakened. Perhaps he had forgotten that he had called Philip’s name once only, and not very loudly, for he moved round to the back of the house and entered the yard. He pressed down the latch and pushed the door open.

Once more he lit his candle. The moon was shining on the front of the house, but here all was in darkness. He knew the room, however, in which Philip slept; his only fear was lest he might startle him. Perhaps it would be better to go back and throw gravel at the window. But if he went up very quietly and sat down beside the bed and spoke Philip’s name or touched him, then he would see who it was before he was really awake enough to be alarmed. So Tom ascended the stairs, being careful to tread on the side of each step to prevent it from creaking. Softly he opened the door; then raised the candle above his head. These precautions were unnecessary, however, for a single glance told him the room was empty.

He crossed to the bed: there was nothing on it but a mattress and a couple of moth-eaten patchwork quilts. Tom sat down. The sudden disappointment, following on his mood of emotional excitement, for a while shut out every other feeling. Then his earlier anxiety reawakened. The thought of Deverell again occurred to him, but he did not see how even if there had been a second quarrel it would explain Philip’s absence. There was only one thing to do, and, though he felt it to be useless, he made a search of the house and of the garden.

He found nobody. Philip must be abroad on some nocturnal adventure of his own; and indeed, when he looked at it more calmly, Tom ceased to find this surprising. For anything he knew to the contrary, Philip might be in the habit of roaming the country-side every night, especially since he had the whole morning in which to sleep. He folded his jacket and sat down on it beside the fountain to wait.

But his mood had grown less confident. The confidence perhaps had never been very stable. At all events, he did not now believe Philip would want to find him here when he came back. Supposing he was in the habit of taking such rambles, he had breathed no word of them to Tom, and that in itself showed he did not want his company. The hours they spent together in the afternoon were sufficient: they had been sufficient hitherto for Tom himself: what was this sudden fever of restlessness crying like an ancient cry within him? A melancholy crept over him, and the strange unearthly beauty of his surroundings grew sad too. It was as if the whole scene had retreated from him, as if he were no longer in it as a part of it, but only as a stranger from another world. So a ghost might feel whose hauntings were unperceived and unsuspected. The lovely stone boy, though so near, was not conscious of him; his head was bent sidelong as if to listen to the water dropping from his urn, though there was no water. Perhaps he was content to stand there smiling at his thoughts; perhaps, like Tom, he felt lonely. And suddenly springing to his feet, Tom stepped across the basin of the fountain on to his small island and clasped him in his arms. He kissed him passionately;---kissed his cold mouth and cheeks and forehead and hair. He would wait no longer. What was the use of waiting---only in the end to be asked why he had come? How could he say why? He shivered, for he had grown cold sitting without his jacket, and the heavy dew was everywhere. In stepping back on to the grass his foot slipped from the mossy stones, and he splashed knee-deep in the water.

He hurried home. He had forgotten his candle and he no longer troubled about the path, but forced a way recklessly through bushes and undergrowth. Branches whipped his face, brambles tore his hands and clothes. Sometimes he tripped and stumbled, but nothing checked his course, and he even found a relief in the resistance he encountered. When at last he emerged from the jungle, he was plastered with dirt, there was more than one rent in his jacket and trousers, and his face and hands were smeared with blood.

Thus it was that he confronted Uncle Stephen, whom he found standing at the edge of the wood, a lighted lantern in his hand. Uncle Stephen raised the lantern, and its light fell on the forlorn bedraggled figure, who for a moment stopped, and then approached him with hanging head. But Uncle Stephen asked no questions: all he said was, ‘I came out to look for you.’

The nervous force that until that instant had supported Tom was suddenly extinguished; he felt now only tired. And what he wanted more than anything was for Uncle Stephen to put his arms round him. Then, he felt, he would never go away again. For a minute, until he had regained his self-control, he clung to Uncle Stephen. ‘I’m sorry for disturbing you,’ he said, ‘I didn’t think you would have heard me.’

Uncle Stephen spoke quietly. ‘What has happened to you? Are you hurt?’

‘No,’ answered Tom. ‘I may have scratched myself---it was so dark in the wood: but it’s nothing; I hardly feel it. . . . I’m afraid I’ve torn my clothes.’

‘You’re quite sure you’re not hurt?’

‘Yes.’

They walked on together to the house, Uncle Stephen with his hand on the truant’s shoulder. ‘I had gone upstairs only a few minutes before you went out,’ he explained. ‘That is how I came to hear you. I had left my door open because the night was so close. I heard you going downstairs.’

‘And you knew I was going out?’

‘Not till you opened the hall-door.’

‘But you could have called me,’ said Tom half reproachfully.

‘Yes. Are you sure that at that time you wanted me to call you? . . . I thought you had gone down to the study to get something and would be coming back. It was only because you stayed out so long that I began to feel uneasy. You have been away a long time, Tom---nearly three hours.’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t think it was so long.’

‘And you’re shockingly dirty and wet. If the water’s hot enough you must take a bath, and if not you’re to go straight to bed.’

‘Yes. . . . Uncle Stephen, I want to tell you about it.’

‘I wish you sometimes wanted to tell me about things beforehand,’ Uncle Stephen replied.

‘I thought you would be asleep: I didn’t want to disturb you.’

They had entered the hall, and Tom sat down on the stairs to remove his shoes. Uncle Stephen waited till he had done so; then he said, ‘You must take off those wet clothes at once. And don’t bother about a bath: I’ll get you something to drink instead. But I shan’t be more than a minute or two, and I expect to find you in bed when I come up.’

‘All right,’ Tom sighed, ready enough himself for bed.

The lamp had been lit in his room, and he undressed in a last burst of energy, flinging his clothes on the floor and scrambling between the cool sheets, where he lay blinking at the light, his cheeks burning, and all the surface of his body tingling with stings and scratches. Presently Uncle Stephen appeared, carrying a steaming tumbler.

‘You’re to drink this---all of it,’ he said. ‘Sit up or you will spill it.’

Tom sat up and took a sip---a very small one. ‘What is it?’ he asked, wrinkling his nose. ‘It’s pretty awful!’

‘It won’t be awful after you’ve finished it. You may be slightly drunk, but you’ll be warm and comfortable and sleepy, and it will prevent you from catching cold. . . . Come, it’s not so bad as all that.’ For Tom had taken another sip and made another grimace. ‘Hold your nose if you like, but drink it while it’s hot.’

Tom gulped down the contents of the glass---coughed, choked, and cuddled back under his bedclothes. Uncle Stephen was right. There was just a moment of nausea, and then a warm drowsy wave of physical comfort spread through his body. He yawned and began to talk.

‘Won’t it do to tell me in the morning?’ Uncle Stephen interrupted. ‘You know you’re tired out.’

‘I’d rather tell you now, before I go to sleep,’ Tom muttered.

‘But I can guess: I can guess what happened. And I’m not cross with you, if that’s the trouble.’

‘You’re never cross with me,’ said Tom.

‘Well, I don’t want you to think that either; because I could be very angry indeed if the occasion arose.’

‘I don’t think I’ll ever do anything to make you angry, Uncle Stephen. I know I won’t purposely, and I don’t think I will even unintentionally.’

‘Then you know what would make me angry,’ said Uncle Stephen.

‘If I wasn’t sure I’d ask you.’

‘And yet it would have pleased me very much to-night if you had come to my room and told me you were going out.’

‘Yes. I would have come, too, if I’d known you were awake. You don’t think I’d ever be afraid to tell you things! But I hadn’t planned this. I’d gone to bed; I’d been asleep; then something must have wakened me, and I went to the window---and then I thought of it.’

‘Very well.’

‘But, Uncle Stephen, there was nobody there. I went all over the house and there was nobody. What do you think can have happened?’

‘Nothing. If your friend had come to look for you, there would have been nobody here either. Don’t worry about it.’

‘You mean, you think he had just gone out the way I did. I think so too now. Have you ever been to the other house at night, Uncle Stephen?’

‘No.’

‘It was lovely. . . . I mean at first---with the moonlight and the fountain boy and everything so different. . . . It was like that poem about the boy “plucking fruits by moonlight in a wilderness”. Do you know the poem?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Oh, you must know it: it’s by Coleridge.’

‘Well, I may have read it, but I’ve forgotten.’

‘Then you can’t have read it, because nobody could forget it.’

‘And were you the boy?’

‘No, no. . . . Only he might have been there. But there was nobody there except that boy with the urn. I kissed him, and the stone was covered with dew and very cold. . . . Uncle Stephen, why are you looking so grave?’

‘Don’t I usually look grave?’ Uncle Stephen smiled, but it did not alter his expression.

‘No, you don’t; not like that.’

‘Perhaps I was thinking.’

‘Was it about me?’

‘Partly about you. About a good many things.’

‘But why did it make you look like that---when you’re not angry with me?’

‘I’m not angry.’

‘You’re sad then---and that’s worse.’

‘I’m not sad---nor glad. I was simply trying, I suppose, to look into the future---your future---and wondering how much sadness or gladness it might contain, for there is always a mixture of both.’

But Tom was dissatisfied. ‘Uncle Stephen, will you bend down quite close and look at me?’

‘No, I won’t: you’re to be a good boy and go to sleep. Don’t you know it will soon be daylight? I heard a bird just now---and there’s another one. You’re not to come down to breakfast, but to sleep as long as you can. And don’t be puzzling your head about the other house. I’m beginning to be sorry you ever found it. . . . Good-night.’

Uncle Stephen extinguished the lamp. But Tom lay looking at the window in the glimmering twilight of dawn.

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