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Chapter Sixteen

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« on: July 22, 2023, 12:13:06 pm »

NOBODY having called him, it was after ten when Tom came down to breakfast. Mrs. Deverell poured out his tea, but she made no comment on his lateness. Indeed, there was something unusual about Mrs. Deverell this morning. She looked as if she had not slept---either that or else she had been crying. And she attended to Tom practically in silence. She called him ‘Sir’, too, instead of ‘Master Tom’, which he found disconcertingly formal. He wondered if anything had happened and whether he ought to ask her about it. He had just decided in the negative when he heard a sniff. This was dreadful!---and Tom, who happened to be taking a drink, stared round-eyed over his breakfast-cup in alarm. Mrs. Deverell was standing near the sideboard, her back turned to him. He saw her take out a pocket-handkerchief and give a surreptitious dab at her eyes. Then another. Tom put down his cup. He had never before seen a grown-up person cry, and perhaps he ought to take no notice. But how could he go on callously with his breakfast while she wept with her back turned? Mrs. Deverell sniffed again.

Tom pushed back his chair. He wished she would speak. He himself made a timid remark, but Mrs. Deverell answered in so subdued a voice that he did not hear what she said. ‘Mrs. Deverell, what’s the matter?’ he asked, and this time there was no reply at all. He gazed at her. Why wouldn’t she speak to him? He left his chair and adopted the mode of consolation that came most natural to him, though in a modified form, for Mrs. Deverell wasn’t the kind of person you could put your arms round. She wouldn’t like it. Her manner was mild, but she was a firm stickler for proprieties, and her sense of class distinction was adamantine. Tom was the young master and must behave as such. Nevertheless he took her hand and stroked it two or three times. Even that, perhaps, was overstepping the mark, for Mrs. Deverell withdrew her hand. ‘If you’ve finished your breakfast, Master Tom, run along now like a good boy.’

Well, at any rate she had regained her composure, and Tom, though he hadn’t finished his breakfast, did what she told him. Out in the porch he spied Sally polishing the brasses. The sleeves of Sally’s blue and white print were tucked up above her elbows and the morning wind had fluffed her hair. Also, she was singing! She sang in an undertone---a song without words---and so far as Tom could make out without tune---but presumably expressive of a contented mind. He approached her hopefully therefore, and put his question. ‘What’s wrong with Mrs. Deverell?’

Sally’s song ceased. Her polishing went on, however, and the glance she gave him was frigid. ‘You needn’t ask me, Master Tom. If there’s anything wrong I suppose it’s the usual thing.’

‘What usual thing? Do you mean Jim?’

‘Oh, it’s Jim, is it? I didn’t know you’d reached that length in your acquaintance!’

Tom was annoyed and made a grimace at her. ‘Well, it’s his name, isn’t it? He’s not Charles or Joseph.’

Sally disdained to reply, and he went on, ‘What’s he been doing anyway? I saw him yesterday afternoon and there was nothing the matter then.’

‘Yesterday afternoon’s a long time ago. A good many things might have happened since yesterday afternoon---especially where some people’s concerned.’

These pregnant words were followed by a pause, but Tom did not take up the challenge.

‘It took me nigh and next an hour trying to clean your clothes, and those trousers may as well be turned into floor-cloths for all you’ll ever be able to wear them again!’

So that was it! Tom laughed. ‘They were my old bags,’ he said carelessly.

‘And what about the tear in your jacket, to say nothing of a lock of green stains that’ll never come out in this world?’

‘We’ll take them out in heaven, Sally. You shouldn’t have bothered.’

‘I suppose not: and have you running about the country-side the way you’d be a disgrace to your uncle and the whole house!’

Tom wrinkled his nose. ‘It seems to me everybody’s very grumpy this morning. I hope Uncle Stephen is all right. Is he in the study?’

‘He is, and there’s a gentleman with him, so you needn’t go worrying him.’

Immediately a transformed Tom faced her. ‘Who?’ he cried excitedly. ‘Not Uncle Horace!’

Sally threw an instant damper on these hopes. ‘It’s Mr. Flood that’s with him,’ she returned loftily, ‘the solicitor from the town.’

Tom’s enthusiasm subsided. ‘Oh,’ he murmured, and then added, ‘Do you think he’ll be long?’

‘Now how can I tell how long he’ll be! What’s more, I’ve my work to do, instead of answering questions.’

‘Well, it’s a very queer time to call. You should have told him Uncle Stephen and I are always busy in the mornings.’

‘Maybe the first one that asks for you I will tell them that. This morning your name wasn’t mentioned.’

Tom assumed a crushed and humble air. ‘Don’t you like me any more, Sally?’ he asked. ‘You’re not going to let a few green stains come between us!’

He took a short run, and slid along the dark and shining floor, while Sally screamed after him, ‘Stop that, now! And me just after polishing it!’ But Tom had already turned down the passage, and next moment was tapping at the study door.

‘Come in.’ It was Uncle Stephen’s voice, and Tom entered. Uncle Stephen was seated at the big square table, while at the opposite side of it, with a litter of papers between them, sat a small grey man with bushy eyebrows and gold-rimmed spectacles, who was writing on a stiff parchment with a pen that produced scratching, squeaking sounds. At the noise of the opening door the writer looked up, but Tom, who had not expected to find them occupied like this, stood still, uncertain whether to advance or retreat.

Uncle Stephen decided for him. ‘Come and shake hands with Mr. Flood. . . . We shan’t be able to do any reading this morning. Mr. Flood is going to keep me busy---or rather, I’m keeping him busy.’ And to Mr. Flood he added, ‘This is Tom, the cause of all our trouble.’

The solicitor had risen. He shook hands gravely, but there was both curiosity and a twinkle of amusement behind his spectacles. ‘I’ve heard about him,’ he said. His eyes, in spite of their half quizzical expression, were subjecting Tom to a close scrutiny, and his next words were addressed directly to him. ‘My wife declares you came to her assistance in a dog fight.’

‘Yes,’ said Tom. ‘At least I came to somebody’s assistance, but I don’t know how she knew my name.’

‘That was feminine intuition. In the first account I heard, you were merely a boy with freckles; but before bedtime you had become Mr. Stephen Collet’s nephew.’

‘Well, it was me,’ said Tom, ‘though it happened the day after I arrived, and the only person who knew about me was Mr. Knox.’

‘The day after you arrived everybody in Kilbarron knew about you,’ Mr. Flood answered, in his dry, matter-of-fact voice. He pushed his spectacles up on to his forehead, and had another look at Tom. ‘Do you know, Mr. Collet, though it may sound fanciful, I believe I myself could have guessed that boy was your nephew.’

Tom tried hard not to look self-conscious, while the lawyer went on: ‘Taken feature by feature, of course there’s not the ghost of a likeness. Or rather, it must be a ghost---just something in his expression. Is he more like his mother’s family than his father’s?’

‘That, I’m afraid, I can’t tell you. I never saw either his father or his mother. In his appearance Tom doesn’t remind me of anybody: in other ways, I should think probably he belongs to our side.’

Mr. Flood prolonged an examination which was becoming embarrassing. ‘I have an idea he likes belonging to your side,’ he said shrewdly.

Tom blushed. It was time for him to clear out, he thought. He shook hands again, said good-bye, and left the room feeling slightly puzzled.

But it didn’t matter---even if they were, as he suspected, engaged in some business concerning himself. What he had to do now was to fill in the time before dinner. Lunch, Mrs. Deverell would call it---like his step-mother---the implication being that they dined at some fashionable hour such as half-past eight. . . . Uncle Horace dined at half-past seven, and dressed for dinner even when he was alone, but he was the only person of Tom’s acquaintance who lived up to these high standards. . . . Poor Mrs. Deverell! He hoped Sally’s explanation of her troubles was not the true one. . . . And there was also the matter of Philip to be settled. Not the matter of his absence last night, for Tom had ceased to regard this as a mystery, and in fact could not now understand his own mood of last night, nor why he had got into such a state about so little. But he wanted to make it up properly with Philip. He would go to him that afternoon and do everything he could to please him. Or everything but one thing, for he was not going to drop Deverell. . . .

He passed out through the front gate and sauntered down the road till he reached a field path, which branched off on the left. He had never been along this path, but he knew it was the one leading to Deverell’s cottage. He leaned against the stile for a minute or two, thinking: then he made up his mind and climbed over.

A walk of some three hundred yards brought him almost to the cottage door, but here again he paused, and was still standing there irresolutely when Deverell himself looked out of the window. The young poacher beckoned, and a moment later partially opened the door, though he did not speak till Tom was quite close. Then he said in a low voice, ‘You want to see me, Mr. Tom? Come in.’

A slight pull enforced the invitation, and Tom entered the narrow hall. Deverell immediately shut the door behind them. He pushed Tom firmly, but not roughly, on into the kitchen, where he drew out a worn armchair for his visitor, while he himself sat down on the white deal table, his legs swinging, and his back to the window. Between them a silence seemed to deepen, and yet it was not exactly a silence of constraint. The young poacher did not look at Tom; his head was lowered, he was gazing at the tiled floor. Presently he spoke, but still without raising his eyes.

‘I’m glad you came, Mr. Tom: I wanted to see you. I wanted to send a message to you, only my mother wouldn’t take it.’

‘What’s the matter? Has something gone wrong?’

At this Deverell at last looked up, and his face was dark and determined. ‘I’ve got into trouble, Mr. Tom. I must have money to get away.’

‘What kind of trouble?’

‘Nothing’s happened yet, but if I don’t get away at once it might be bad.’

Tom did not ask for further particulars; nor did he reply at all for a minute or two, and then it was only to say, ‘How do you expect me to have money?’

He saw Deverell get down from the table, take three strides to the door, lock the door, and put the key in his pocket.

Again there was a silence. Tom made no movement, and Deverell watched him with an expression that gradually became troubled.

‘You needn’t be frightened, Mr. Tom; I’m not going to hurt you; but I don’t want you to go till we’ve settled something. It’s not the way I’d like it to be, but it’s not my choosing. I could have got money easy enough by playing a trick on you. That gentleman that come down in his car to fetch you---he wanted me to help him get hold of you, but I wouldn’t.’

‘Uncle Horace.’

‘Aye.’

Tom’s face had whitened a little; nevertheless, at this, a tremulous smile for a second appeared on it. ‘What a frightful lie!’ he said.

‘I could telephone to him now,’ Deverell went on. ‘I know his number. I could tell him I have you safe locked up here and all he’s got to do is to drive down and he’ll find the goods ready for him.’

‘The goods being me?’

Deverell made no answer.

‘His surname, by the way, is Pringle,’ Tom said quietly. ‘That will help you with the telephone-book, if there is any truth in your story. You will only find the number of his private telephone, and he won’t be at home just now, but he lives over the bank and if you ring up the bank you’ll get him.’

The trouble on Deverell’s face deepened. Again he went to the door, but this time he put back the key and unlocked it. ‘You can go, Mr. Tom,’ he said. ‘You’re the only one I’ve ever cared for. I would have been a good pal to you, but it can’t be now. I’d have gone straight with you, and this would never have happened, but now it’s too late.’ He sat down on a kitchen chair, his elbows on his knees, his bent head supported between his hands, so that Tom could only see the thick black hair which covered it.

But Tom did not take advantage of his liberty. ‘I don’t want to go,’ he said. ‘I came here on purpose. It was your mother---something about her---that made me guess something was wrong.’

‘Aye, there’s always something wrong according to her,’ said Deverell bitterly. ‘Always has been. Many a time I’ve gone out just to avoid the way she’d be looking at me as if I was the cause of all the sorrow in the world. If you’d had somebody grieving over you, Mr. Tom, and mourning and praying over you ever since you was ten, you’d know what it was like.’

Tom did know, or at any rate could easily imagine, what it would be like. Mrs. Deverell could be very tenacious: had he not seen her facing Uncle Horace without yielding an inch? But he could also imagine what it must have been like from her point of view---with a son perpetually out of work---silent, morose, at loggerheads with all the neighbours---a son who had brought disgrace on her name and who apparently was about to do so again.

‘This trouble,’ he began; and then stopped. There was no use in going back over that. It was done---whatever it was. ‘Why don’t you ask Uncle Stephen to help you?’ he said.

‘What good would that do?’ answered Deverell sullenly.

‘I don’t know. What good does asking me do?’

‘You’re the only one I could ask. Even if you refuse me it won’t be the way the others would.’

‘But Uncle Stephen could do so much more! What can I do?’

‘It’s no use, Mr. Tom. It wasn’t poaching this time. And I’d no luck. I was seen.’

‘Seen?’

‘Seen coming away. I got into a house last night, but I didn’t take anything. I thought I heard someone moving and I funked it.’

‘If you didn’t take anything it won’t be very bad, will it?’

‘It will be bad enough. You see, I been in jail before and that makes a difference. They count that against you. Only---I think if I could get right away they maybe wouldn’t bother doin’ anything. Not on my account, but on account of mother.’

The last words were a little chilling, but Tom accepted them. He had refused to listen to any warnings against Deverell in the past, and he wasn’t going to begin to listen now.

‘I wish you hadn’t done it,’ he said. ‘If you had only told me that you needed money---I mean, it would have been far easier to help you before than it will be now.’ Then, realizing the futility of such talk, he stopped. Lifting his eyes, he encountered the young poacher’s brooding gaze fixed on him.

‘It wasn’t the money, Mr. Tom.’

Tom opened his mouth to speak, but turned away without having spoken. He already had an idea of what was coming---was not, for that matter, even particularly surprised. It had been stupid---horribly stupid---but he could understand. After all, it was only a variation on the thoughts he himself had had last night. ‘You needn’t have been so angry with me,’ he said.

‘No---nor I wasn’t either. I was angry for a bit with that young fellow that was with you, for he’d no call to treat me like he did. What had I done on him? But it wasn’t that. It was just that I felt the way I didn’t care a curse what I did. And then I remembered the one that had give me away first and started most of the trouble.’

Tom sighed. All this seemed to him hopeless---and yet very natural. It was muddle-headed, savage, blind---but it was very natural. ‘Do you want to leave to-day?’ he asked. ‘Are you sure you were seen? Don’t you think, if you had been seen, somebody would have been round here before now?’

‘There’s a reason for that. But I bin’ keeping a watch, ready to slip out the back way. You give me a start for a minute till I seen who it was. It was James Dunwoody that seen me; him that’s doin’ night-watchman where they’re mending the road up by the station. He maybe wouldn’t think much of it at the time, and he’d be going home to sleep before the news would be out. But he’ll hear soon enough and he’s not one would keep his mouth shut. You see, they don’t like me, Mr. Tom.’

Deverell had taken a packet of cigarettes from his pocket. He held it out to Tom who took one mechanically, forgetting that he had given up smoking. He lit it from the match Deverell struck, and then Deverell lit his own. They sat there, facing each other, smoking in silence---a rather odd picture for anyone either at Gloucester Terrace or the Manor House to have peeped in upon.

‘Of course, when it is found that nothing was taken, it may end there,’ said Tom.

‘How? What way would it end there?’

‘Whoever it was mayn’t go to the police at all.’

‘Mr. Tom, what’s the use of talking like that?’

‘Not very much,’ Tom admitted. ‘Don’t be angry with me. I’m not really talking; I’m only trying to think.’

‘Wouldn’t you go to the police yourself?’

‘Not if I knew the burglar. Was it a shop?’

‘It was; and the man that owns it is the same that was always spreading talk about me when I was only a boy like you, and that give me away the first time I got into trouble.’

Tom transferred his gaze from a gaudy picture calendar to Deverell. ‘Did you break open anything---drawers and that kind of thing?’

‘I did.’

‘It was lucky you heard him.’

‘Why? You mean he’d have seen me. I don’t see as it makes very much difference, Mr. Tom.’

‘It might have made a difference if he had crept down without your hearing him,’ said Tom. ‘I expect you hate him.’

Deverell rubbed one hand backward and forward against his thigh. ‘You mean----?’ But he did not develop his idea of what Tom might have meant.

‘I’m going to help you if I can,’ said Tom, ‘and if I can’t it won’t be because I haven’t tried.’

‘I know that, Mr. Tom.’

‘But it will take some time. I’ll have to go home first, and then to the town. If my plan doesn’t work I’ll come back and tell you.’

‘When?’

‘As soon as I can. Quite soon if it’s no good: in less than two hours if it is. But I’d better go at once.’

He moved to the door and Deverell at the same time sprang to his feet. For a moment he laid a detaining hand on Tom’s arm.

‘You’re mighty good to me, Mr. Tom.’

‘No, I’m not,’ said Tom, ‘I’m just ordinary. But everybody else seems to have been pretty rotten. I think you’d better try to get some sleep while I’m away. I’ll knock on the kitchen window.’

Deverell shook his head. ‘I must keep a look-out. I’m not going to let them get me.’

‘Well, good-bye for the present.’

Tom glanced at his watch and saw that it was after one. Without further speech he hurried off. He was trotting quietly along the road when a small car met him and from the driver’s seat Mr. Flood waved his hand. Tom waved back. ‘That’s a stroke of luck anyhow,’ he thought, for he had been vainly racking his brains as to how he might get Uncle Stephen by himself for a few minutes. It would be no betrayal of Deverell to consult Uncle Stephen. If it came to that, he had to consult him, had to tell him everything or he would not be able to help Deverell at all. He would just have time before dinner.

On reaching the house he went straight to the study. Uncle Stephen was locking up some papers and had his back turned, but Tom began at once, and in fact, with the particular question he had to ask, it was easier to address his back.

‘Uncle Stephen, supposing I wanted fifty pounds immediately, how could I get it?’

Uncle Stephen turned round, but he did not look surprised, only mildly speculative, as he gazed on the flushed, slightly breathless questioner.

‘I don’t think you could get it,’ he replied. ‘Certainly not without a great many explanations as to what you wanted it for, each one of which would be met with the firmest opposition.’

‘This is serious: I want you to take it seriously. As a matter of fact I’m not sure that fifty pounds will be enough.’

Still Tom could see from the way he looked at him that Uncle Stephen was not taking the matter in earnest. ‘What have you been up to?’ he demanded. ‘It sounds to me very much as if you wanted to square somebody.’

Tom did not smile. ‘I have some money of my own, haven’t I?’

‘Yes, but not at your disposal. If you wanted fifty pounds of it I’m afraid you would first have to approach your Uncle Horace. He might take it seriously, but I doubt if he would give you fifty pounds.’

‘That’s no good,’ Tom answered quickly. ‘I must have the money to-day. Uncle Stephen, will you lend me fifty pounds?’

Uncle Stephen sat down in his armchair. ‘Come here,’ he said, ‘and tell me all about it.’

Tom came over, but with less alacrity than usual: he both looked and felt worried. Seated on an arm of Uncle Stephen’s chair he told his story.

And even then Uncle Stephen did not seem very much impressed. Instead of answering directly with yes or no, he began to talk of other things. ‘It’s odd, Tom, how since your arrival this house has become the centre of problems, adventures and mysteries, whereas previously we never found anything more exciting to discuss than whether it was too warm for a fire in the study, or some question of food already decided by Mrs. Deverell in her own mind. . . . Tell me, before we go any further, what is your own attitude in this?’

Tom did not reply. He did not quite understand the question he was to reply to, and there was no use telling Uncle Stephen the first thing that came into his head.

Uncle Stephen altered his question.

‘What is your reason for wanting to give Deverell fifty pounds? Are you doing it merely because he asked you to? Do you take the slightest interest in him apart from this scrape he has got into?’

Tom still was puzzled. ‘Do you mean, do I like him?’

‘No. We all like for the time being the person we are helping. I want something better than that.’

‘Then I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Do you think there is any good in him; that he’ll ever do any good---ever even become self-supporting?’

‘I’m sure there’s good in him,’ said Tom.

‘What makes you sure? His mother isn’t, you know.’

Tom hesitated. ‘It’s just---things. . . . He’s been rather decent to me over all this.’

Uncle Stephen did not answer. Indeed, the first sound he made was more than anything else in the nature of a slight gasp: but the clear, solemn gaze turned on him caused him to repress it. ‘Well, Tom,’ he said at last, ‘it’s for you to judge. Mind you, I don’t say you’re wrong, though I think you’re wrong. But you shall have your fifty pounds. I believe you’re going to waste it, and I wish you had discovered a more promising protégé. Still---- Ring the bell, like a good boy; I want to speak to Mrs. Deverell.’

Tom obeyed him. He did not know what was going to happen now.

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