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Chapter Nineteen

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« on: July 23, 2023, 06:02:03 am »

FOR all his determination not to show it, it was a very chastened-looking boy who approached Uncle Stephen’s bedside that evening. ‘Would you like me to read to you, Uncle Stephen?’ he asked.

‘Presently, perhaps.’

Tom sat down on a low chair beside the bed.

‘First, I want you to talk to me, to tell me why I’ve had such a woebegone nephew for the last week.’

‘You’ve been ill,’ said Tom. ‘Naturally I tried to be quiet.’

‘Not ill enough to account for that forlorn appearance. I’ve been waiting for you to tell me of your own accord.’

‘I didn’t tell you,’ said Tom, ‘because I thought you oughtn’t to be worried.’

‘Then you’ve been a very good boy; but you need have no further scruples.’

Tom looked up at the watching Hermes. ‘It is only that I don’t know what has happened to Philip,’ he said. ‘I mean I don’t know what has become of him. He has gone.’

‘He must have gone that night,’ he continued after a moment or two. ‘The night I went to look for him and didn’t find him.’

‘And he left you no message?’

‘No message; nothing. . . . I suppose it’s that that I mind most. . . . I knew he was angry with me. He was angry because he thought I took Deverell’s part when they quarrelled.’

‘Do you mean Deverell actually saw him?’

‘Yes. . . . It was on that last afternoon. Philip was with me. We were down by the river. Then Deverell came along and they quarrelled. . . . All the same, I didn’t think he’d go away like that---without even saying good-bye. I can’t understand anybody doing that. But I’ve been over at the other house every day. I’ve waited there all afternoon every day---and he has never come back.’

From his present position Tom could not see Uncle Stephen’s face without turning his head, and he did not turn. But he leaned his cheek against the coverlet of the bed so that Uncle Stephen might stroke his hair and twist it into little knots. ‘Perhaps I’d better read to you, Uncle Stephen,’ he said, after a long pause. ‘Wouldn’t you like me to?’

There was no answer and Tom did not repeat his question. The light was fast ebbing from the room. Soon, in the twilight, he could only see the Hermes dimly. It was as if the marble, which even in broad daylight created a mysterious illusion of warmth and softness, had now actually dissolved, leaving in its place the glimmering spirit of the God. . . .

What influence was there belonging to this room that always affected him so strangely, though not always in the same way? That depended a little on his own mood, and to-night he had a feeling of something dream-like and precarious, as if he might suddenly awaken and find he had been dreaming---as if everything might change, the walls disappear, the ceiling melt into the open sky, and he, Tom, find himself living in a different time, a different place. . . .

And that God there---the guide, the messenger, the friend---was the God of dreams. He could lead Tom’s spirit to the ends of the earth and guide it home again. . . . It must have been in this room that Uncle Stephen had dreamed first---and, awakening in his bedroom in Gloucester Terrace, Tom had known he was there. . . .

Why didn’t Uncle Stephen speak? He could not even feel the touch of his hand now. . . . Yet Tom, too, remained motionless and silent: his eyes closed; he might have been asleep. . . .

It was into this room of darkness and silence that Mrs. Deverell presently entered. She stood near the door, her slight form visible in the dim light from the passage behind her. ‘Hadn’t I better light the lamp, sir?’ she asked, with a note of surprise in her voice; and when nobody answered she struck a match. She stood by the lamp till the flame burned clearly and evenly. Then she carried a small table over to the bed. She went out into the passage and returned with a tray which she set upon the table. ‘I brought up Master Tom’s supper too,’ she said.

Tom watched her as a native of some remote island might watch the rites and ceremonies of his first missionary. It was Uncle Stephen’s voice that brought him back to actuality.

‘I’m afraid, Mrs. Deverell, you’ve been kept far too late these last few nights. There’s no need for it any longer: Master Tom can look after me.’

‘Oh, it’s all right, sir; there’s plenty I can find to do downstairs. But I’ll be going now if you’re sure you won’t require anything more.’

Yet she still lingered, her pale eyes fixed as if in uncertainty on her master, and on the boy seated in the chair beside him. At last, with a low ‘Good-night, sir,’ she left them.

And as usual Tom listened for the sound of the hall-door being pulled to, for the sound of retreating footsteps on the gravel.

It was Uncle Stephen who spoke first. ‘Put away that stuff, Tom,’ he said abruptly. ‘I don’t want it.’

Tom rose obediently and removed the tray, with its steaming bowl of gruel and his own biscuits, cheese and milk. Then he returned to his seat.

But he did not again propose to read aloud. He had a premonition that something was coming, that Uncle Stephen was going to tell him something---though he had no idea what. He waited. It was something which would make a difference:---he knew that, but he knew no more than that. And he tried to stifle the feeling of suspense which with each moment grew till it became a kind of reasonless dread of the unknown.

Yet what Uncle Stephen said, after all, was quite ordinary. ‘Would it make you very happy if your friend came back to you?’

Tom felt an immediate relief. He shook his despondency from him and breathed more freely. It was this room, it was sitting here in the dark without a word, which had worked upon his mind. He was all right now, and he turned quickly to the bed. ‘You aren’t angry with me, Uncle Stephen, are you?’

‘Angry! Why should I be angry?’ Uncle Stephen asked in surprise.

Tom smiled. ‘I didn’t really think you were,’ he said. ‘Yes, of course I’d like him to come back. I’d like to see him once more at any rate. I don’t expect him to stay. I mean, he always told me and I always knew he wouldn’t stay. But I’d like to see him once.’

‘Even though he left you like this?’

‘I think there must have been a reason for it. I’m sure there was. Besides, he was angry with me.’

‘What reason could there be?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Nobody can have been making inquiries about him, for the first thing they would do would be to call here. Don’t you think the most probable reason is simply that this sort of thing is natural to him---that he doesn’t think much about other people’s feelings? It seems to me to fit in with what you originally told me about him.’

‘I don’t remember what I told you.’

‘Don’t you even remember that I warned you.’

‘Not about this.’

‘Not directly perhaps, but indirectly. After all, he behaved in much the same way to his father and mother. It seems to me that restlessness and a desire for adventure are the main ingredients in his character, and that, once the wander-fit seizes on him, he isn’t very likely to pay attention to such trifles as saying good-bye to his friends. If you had been there he would have said good-bye to you, but you weren’t there, and he didn’t think it worth while to wait.’

‘But how do you know he is like that, Uncle Stephen?’

‘Because you told me about him.’

‘I didn’t tell you all that: for one thing, I don’t believe it’s true.’

‘Then you’re still fond of him?’

‘Yes.’

Uncle Stephen paused, and it was as if he were carefully weighing his next words, so slowly they came. ‘He is what I say, Tom. There may be, there must be, the germs of something more, but they’re not developed: the whole circumstances of his life tended to keep them from developing.’

Tom started. There was something in Uncle Stephen’s manner which revived all his misgivings. ‘How do you know? Why do you talk as if you knew? You did once before, too. Uncle Stephen, do you know anything about him; and if you do why won’t you tell me?’

‘What I now know,’ said Uncle Stephen a little sadly, ‘is that I should never have allowed this to happen.’

‘What?’ Tom breathed. He had turned completely round and his eyes were fixed very intently and brightly upon Uncle Stephen’s face.

But Uncle Stephen did not answer. He was sitting up in the bed, the skull-cap he wore, vividly black against the pillows behind him, his eyes not looking at Tom, but towards the door by which Mrs. Deverell had come and gone: and for the first time Tom saw him frown.

He leaned closer, he was half-kneeling now on his chair, but still Uncle Stephen did not look at him.

‘Tell me---tell me,’ Tom repeated.

‘Yes, I am going to tell you; but it’s not easy. I don’t know how you will take it. I wish I did. I wish it had never happened. Tom, dear, there isn’t any Philip.’

‘Isn’t----’ Tom began, but he stopped short. A flush rose and died in his cheeks. Unconsciously he laid his hand on Uncle Stephen’s and gripped it tightly.

‘Listen,’ said Uncle Stephen. ‘This boy----’

Tom was listening with his whole being, but for the moment he was to hear nothing further. Uncle Stephen only added, ‘No---I can never explain it in that way.’

And suddenly he seemed to withdraw into himself, and his eyes shut.

‘Go to that cupboard in the wall, and bring me the box that is there.’

Tom sprang to his feet. The cupboard, as he pulled back the door, revealed itself as but a couple of shelves, and on the upper one of these was a flat wooden box, its corners brass-plated, its lid overlaid with a criss-cross pattern in brass filigree. It could not contain much. It was about twelve inches long and a third of that in depth. But it was the only box there, and Tom lifted it from the shelf and brought it to the bed.

‘Now give me my keys,’ said Uncle Stephen, ‘they’re on the dressing-table.’ And the smallest of these he inserted in the lock, turning it twice before he raised the lid.

As he looked over Uncle Stephen’s shoulder Tom’s eyes were still and absorbed. The ferment in his mind, too, was momentarily stilled---forgotten in an intense expectancy.

Yet he saw very little. The box was lined with olive-green silk, and appeared to contain merely a few old letters, among which Uncle Stephen fumbled before he drew out from beneath them a flat leather case which he opened by pressing a spring. Tom bent nearer. Only his breathing was audible. Within the case was a thin slab of ivory on which was painted the portrait of a boy.

‘Do you know him?’

Tom did not answer. He was gazing not at the picture but at Uncle Stephen himself. The pupils of his eyes were slightly dilated and his face had grown very white.

‘There is a name,’ Uncle Stephen said, ‘and a date---there inside the lid. The date is that when the likeness was painted; the name is the name of the sitter, of the boy. Read it aloud.’

Tom read in an oddly muffled voice. ‘Stephen Collet. 1880.’

‘It was painted three months before he ran away from home.’

‘It is your name,’ whispered Tom.

‘Yes, my name. And it is the only portrait that was ever made of this boy. At the time it was supposed to be a good likeness, but if you were to see him a year later he would not be quite like that.’

Tom waited a moment: then he asked, hardly audibly, ‘What happened to him?’

‘He carried out his plan. If I could show him to you as he was a year later, you would see him among strangers, in a foreign country, living anywhere, anyhow---ragged, more or less homeless, but not starving, not even particularly conscious of discomfort, because the climate suited him and he was strong and healthy. Besides, any squeamishness he may have felt at first had by then disappeared. Not even if things had been much worse would he have dreamed of returning to the country rectory he had left, to the old people, his parents---whom in fact he never saw again. There was nothing romantic about all this, Tom; nothing fine; and the future held no prospect of anything but disaster. It was by the merest accident that disaster was averted---a chance encounter in the street. There are people, perhaps, who possess a gift of instant recognition, or who think they do. At all events, it was this boy’s fate, after a brief exchange of perhaps a dozen questions and answers, to be singled out by a stranger---a man of another race---as possessing the particular qualities and faculties he happened to be in search of. The whole thing was sudden; improbable; for all the boy knew to the contrary, dangerous; and therefore precisely of a nature to appeal to him. He followed his master without a moment’s hesitation. But though you may think it resembles it, this was no prelude to an Arabian tale, but to long years of arduous training during which, if again I could show him to you, you would see the pupil becoming a disciple, the disciple a collaborator. . . . And when he was once more alone his youth was over. . . . That is all, Tom---all I need tell you now. As for what you want me to tell you---that is nearly as inexplicable to me as it can be to you.’

‘But that is you, Uncle Stephen---that boy?’

‘It was---once.’

‘And it is Philip.’

‘There never was a Philip, though I took that name when I ran away.’

‘But,’ Tom stammered painfully ‘---then it must really be true after all.’

‘What must be true, Tom?’

‘That you are a magician.’

Uncle Stephen shook his head. He looked away. Then he looked back at Tom, and still waited. ‘It had nothing to do with magic,’ he said at last. ‘The first time it happened I myself thought it was an ordinary dream---or if extraordinary, only because of its unusual vividness. And then you came to me with your story.’

Tom, leaning over Uncle Stephen’s shoulder, was thinking. Strangely enough, his nervousness and apprehension were gone, he was only puzzled. ‘Was it here that you dreamed, Uncle Stephen?’

‘Yes.’

‘Was it on purpose---I mean, did you try to?’

‘No. I will tell you about that too.’

‘Tell me first, Uncle Stephen, had you ever heard of me before I came to you?’

‘I had heard of you---yes---from a friend of your mother’s. But it was very little---a phrase or two in a letter. I don’t know what there was in it that impressed me, gave me a definite impression which persisted and deepened. For many years I had lived alone, and possibly that may have had much to do with it. I cannot say. I can give no rational account of what happened, but you became very real and very dear to me in imagination. Imagination, I suppose, is a faculty which can be trained; but what had been trained in me for years was more the power of concentration. That is everything, Tom. Before I dreamed that afternoon, I had been thinking of you, thinking too of my own boyhood. Then the scene arose in my mind in which these two boys met. It arose spontaneously: I did not seem to be making it up. At a certain point it must have passed into a dream, for I definitely woke up, and I knew by looking at my watch that the afternoon was nearly over. But I really thought very little about the matter until you came with your story. That seemed incredible, and yet I had to accept it. I knew there was no boy at the other house---besides, what you told me was my dream. I ought to have left it at that. Unfortunately I knew exactly the conditions under which this accident---if it was an accident---had taken place. I determined to repeat everything. And you came to me again with your story and this time it had advanced a step. I knew it must be dangerous. Even if some strange connection had been established between present and past, I knew it could not be safe. Therefore I should not have gone on, because it involved not only myself, but you. Besides, I had to deceive you.’

‘I think, you know,’ said Tom slowly, ‘that deep deep down I must have had a sort of suspicion. I don’t even now feel frightfully surprised.’

Uncle Stephen turned to him doubtfully, but Tom pursued his idea. ‘You see, I couldn’t have liked Philip so much if he hadn’t been you.’

But Uncle Stephen did not looked convinced. ‘You have a considerable capacity for liking people,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ Tom admitted. ‘I even, in a sort of way, loved that fountain boy---and Deverell---a little. . . . But this is different. Anyway, you know, Uncle Stephen, I once almost asked you if you were Philip. It was that night, you remember, after Uncle Horace had been here: the first time I was ever in this room. I couldn’t understand then, and I was very silly about it---but it was because I felt there was something I didn’t understand. And one day I called Philip by your name. It was because his eyes were exactly the same as yours. . . . You know, I’d like you to come to the other house just once more. It would be quite different this time, because I’d know who you really were. Everything would be different.’ He suddenly paused. His eyes were fixed on the broken lovely figure, mild and benign, dreaming half in shadow, half in lamplight. ‘Do you think,’ he whispered, ‘it happens through the God? . . . I don’t want you to answer,’ he went on quickly. ‘Don’t let us talk at all for a little. I want to be quiet.’

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