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Chapter Twenty

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« on: July 23, 2023, 06:45:46 am »

THE track through the wood had become a path and was now used by other creatures than Tom. Pheasants, hares, squirrels, a weasel, and a big black fierce-looking cat who had lost an ear---all these he had met at one time or another. The track was used by butterflies, moths, wasps, and bees---in fact the entire animal world had immediately discovered and begun to make use of Tomís path. He kept it clear, not only by tramping it daily, but also by vigorously swinging a stick; and gradually it was widening. On either edge pressed closely and silently the green rooted world of vegetation.

This evening he advanced over the sodden ground, sweeping his stick like a sword, and at every blow scattering a shower of raindrops from the drenched leaves. In his left hand he carried a picnic basket, for Mrs. Deverell had continued to pack one for him daily, though now most of its contents went to feed the mice and birds. The hour of his visit was much later than usual; it was past seven oíclock; and it had been with the utmost difficulty that he had persuaded Uncle Stephen to allow him to come at all. He felt ashamed of his importunity. More than ashamed, now that he had got his own way. It was as if he had taken an unfair advantage. To be sure, he had promised that it would be for this once only---and indeed he wanted no more than that himself:---still, Uncle Stephen had been strangely reluctant---and at the back of Tomís mind there was an uneasiness, a feeling that he had done wrong.

He reached the broken gateway and walked quickly up the avenue. He entered the house and climbed the stairs to Philipís room. It was dark and cheerless, and he wondered if he could do anything to make it less so. He tried to drag away some of the obstructing ivy which looked so picturesque from outside; but it was very tough and he had nothing to cut it with. He knelt down and leaned out over the dark lichened sill. He listened to the knocking of a woodpecker. No other sound reached him. At that moment the sun struggled out from behind the clouds and the whole prospect changed.

It was like a signal, a propitious omen, for it had been cloudy all day, even when not actually raining. The house faced west and the sun streamed straight into the room. Tom did not mind now how long he had to wait: in fact he enjoyed it. Only, sitting on the bare floor was uncomfortable, so he fetched one of the ancient patchwork quilts from the bed, and also the volume of Arabia Deserta which he had brought for Philip and never taken home. The quilt was stuffed with flock, but it made a tolerable cushion. Tom sat on it by the low window-sill and turned the pages of his book. But either the style was too crabbed, or his mind just then was incapable of concentration, for after reading for ten minutes he discovered that he had not taken in the meaning of a single sentence. He put the book down and began frankly to dream.

He heard the far-away cawing of rooks, and the sound reminded him of the passing of time. Something unexpected must have happened. He got up and walked up and down the room; he ate two of Mrs. Deverellís sandwiches; he went out into the garden and came back again.

He was determined to wait, no matter how long Philip should keep him. He wondered what would happen when he did come! Somehow he could not get it out of his head that this meeting would not in the least resemble their other meetings. If nothing else, Philip would have to admit that his name was Stephen Collet, and, once he knew Tom knew that, he would no longer have any reason for not talking freely.

There were all kinds of questions Tom wanted to ask. Philip would be far better able to answer them than Uncle Stephen himself, because Uncle Stephen must have forgotten heaps. What would he say, for instance, when Tom began to talk to him of Uncle Stephen and of all that had occurred? Would he remember? Tom somehow had taken it for granted that he would, but now he felt more doubtful. It was really very queer and confusing. Uncle Stephen for Philip was the future, Philipís future, and of course you canít remember the future. Besides, he had often talked of Uncle Stephen before and Philip hadnít remembered, hadnít known anything about him except what Tom himself had told him. Therefore it would be the same this time. Either that, or he wouldnít be Philip. Tom felt a chill of discouragement: he wished now that he had not made this plan, but it was too late to draw back.

Uncle Stephen must have altered a great deal---altered in every respect. Tom was not thinking of physical alterations, but of other things. And the more closely he recalled Philip the more he realized that Uncle Stephen was dearer to him than all the Philips in the world, and the more he wished that he had not insisted on a final experiment.

He wondered if he himself would ever change as much as that. So far, he thought, he had changed very little, if at all; but of course other people might not agree with him. Probably everybody changed---whether it was to become nastier or nicer. He began to think of various grown-up people he knew and to turn them back again into boys. In some cases it was easy. It was easy to picture Mr. Knox as a boy, easier still to picture Deverell: but what on earth had Uncle Horace been like? Uncle Horace must have changed more even than Uncle Stephen. Far more, because there were definite glimpses of a boy in Uncle Stephen, but no boy in the world could ever have been like what Uncle Horace was at present. Where had that boy gone to, then---or was he still somewhere inside Uncle Horace---hidden, shut up as if in a cupboard, frightened to squeak? Tom remembered strange little creatures---caddis worms they were---which he had often fished out of ponds and streams with a net full of water weeds---creatures so thickly encrusted with bits of stick, stone, sand, and shell that you never would have dreamed anything but the protective case existed till the case suddenly began to move. The boy Uncle Horace must be like that. Perhaps not a bad little chap either. In a minute or two Tom began to feel an affection for this small and hitherto unsuspected Uncle Horace. Out of a mysterious limbo he had sprung fully equipped and articulate, and was capering about the room, chattering, as lively as a cricket. He slipped behind Tom and clapped his hands over his eyes. Who is it? And Tom knew who it was. It was perfectly idiotic, but he was sure that never again would his relations with the grown-up Uncle Horace be exactly what they had been in the past.

Dusk was falling now, and once or twice Tomís eyelids closed. A white shape drifted noiselessly past the open window. He knew it was an owl, and wished it had perched on the sill and stared in at him, for he was fond of owls. They were beautiful and fierce and solemn, and he had once read, or somebody had told him, that when they mated it was for life. This had impressed him deeply. It was the old quality of faithfulness cropping up once more. He thought of it now and it led to other thoughts. His mind was a stilled pool over which he brooded: then gradually the pool dimmed, wavered, vanished.

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