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Chapter Twenty-Two

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« on: July 23, 2023, 09:08:20 am »

THE day was over---the evening too---and Tom sat alone in his own room. He had put on a dressing-gown over his pyjamas and was turning the leaves of a book Mr. Knox had lent him, glancing absent-mindedly at the pictures. The book was The Prince and the Pauper, and since saying good-night to Stephen he had read fifteen chapters of it, a hundred and forty-eight pages. It was now twenty-five to two.

Earlier than he had expected, for he seemed to have been reading for hours. Yet all the time something which had nothing to do with the adventures of either prince or pauper had been floating in and out of his thoughts, and the moment he closed the book this something took complete possession of them.

His face grew troubled. Presently the book slipped from his knee to the floor, and he let it lie there. . . .

What was happening in Uncle Stephen’s room? Could he persuade Stephen to repeat the experiment if to-night it failed? These questions he asked himself, and though he could not answer them they led to others. Supposing the experiment did fail, how many days could they count on before Mrs. Deverell began to ask further questions? Not many, he thought; and if he tried to put her off a second time very likely she would go to Mr. Flood. It might be wiser for him to take that step himself: certainly it would be well to get somebody on their side. But who was there? Uncle Horace and his step-mother were impossible: there remained only Mr. Flood and Mr. Knox, and Tom felt that neither of these would give him the kind of help he needed. The lawyer, though friendly, was dry and matter-of-fact: probably the first thing he would do would be to communicate with Uncle Horace. Mr. Knox might be sworn to secrecy, but----

The chief difficulty, as Stephen himself had pointed out, was Stephen. Even if he resumed the name of Philip Coombe, he still would be asked to give an account of himself---to explain why he had been living at the other house and where he had come from. How could he do this! How could he give any account that would bear examination! As Philip he had no past---no home, no parents, no friends---there was nobody he could refer to, nobody who could speak for him, nobody who had even seen him except Tom, and, once, Deverell. If he said he had run away from home, he would be asked where this imaginary home was, and the first inquiry would reveal its non-existence. Mr. Knox of course knew, just as Mrs. Deverell and Sally knew, that there had been a boy staying at the other house, but that would make no difference. The questions would be asked just the same. ‘As if it mattered where he came from!’ Tom sighed. Tobit had not asked his angel where he had come from, nor who were his relations. The angel had appeared and Tobit had taken his hand and they had walked by the bank of the river: and the angel had a fishing-rod and they had caught a fish. Then they had rescued a woman from her demon lover and cured Tobit’s father of his blindness. . . . He could not remember the rest of the story, but he knew everybody had been happy because nobody had asked questions. . . . The earth might be a kind of heaven! It wasn’t really impossible. Happiness depended on kindness and understanding and---and---on not insisting that everybody should have the same feelings and thoughts. . . .

But these reflections did not throw much light on the present dilemma. Perhaps Uncle Stephen would be there in the morning, and in that case nobody outside the Manor need ever know he had left it. It would be sufficient to tell Mrs. Deverell that he had come back after she and Sally had gone home. Tom felt a sudden desire to visit the other room and see if he had come back. The impulse brought him to his feet. It held him trembling with excitement, suspense, and longing. It might be that Uncle Stephen was there now! He took a step forward and then stopped. He must be prepared to find only Stephen: he must not be disappointed if he found only Stephen. Nor would it follow, because Uncle Stephen had not yet returned, that he would not have returned by morning. The change might take place gradually. It was only three hours since he had left Stephen, and Stephen might have lain awake for a long time. With such warnings he fortified himself, determined not to move until he had gained complete self-command.

He lit a candle, crossed the room, and opened his door. On the threshold he stood for a minute, peering out into the darkness. His naked feet made no sound on the thick carpet. He walked along the passage till he reached the broad central flight of stairs descending to the shadowy hall, but here again something seemed to hold him, and to hold him longer. Noiseless though his movements had been, he felt they had attracted attention. Not human attention, but that of the house. It knew he was there---knew what he was doing, just as each evening it knew of the departure of Mrs. Deverell and Sally. His unwonted activity at an hour when he should have been in bed and asleep had disturbed it; it knew someone was abroad, that something unusual was happening, and there had been a moment perhaps when the nature of its response had hung in the balance. Then, as he had crept on from one to the other of its outspread wings, there had been a soft sigh of recognition. For it was Uncle Stephen’s house, and it regarded him just as Uncle Stephen’s watchdog would have regarded him---as belonging to Uncle Stephen, as belonging to itself.

He had never been afraid of it. Even now, the necromantic beauty of its shadowy stair and glimmering window held him only because it seemed to breathe of Uncle Stephen’s presence. The house protected him; it would allow no evil thing to harm him. He entered the passage which led to Uncle Stephen’s room. He reached Uncle Stephen’s door and gently turned the handle. Not hurriedly, but without hesitation, and holding his candle before him and above the level of his eyes, he approached the bed.

He stood there for a moment with held breath. He had made no sound either in opening or closing the door; the sleeper had not stirred; but the sleeper was Stephen. One arm lay outside the linen counterpane: Stephen’s face was flushed, his breathing low and sweet. As Tom stood gazing down at him his heart melted. What dreams were passing through that mind? Probably none: he was sleeping too soundly to be dreaming: but he looked so young and guileless!

Tom turned away, and the light of his candle floated over the watching Hermes. He approached nearer till it reached the slightly bowed head. He took off his dressing-gown and knelt down before the pedestal, placing his candle on the floor beside him. . . .

He remembered the night of his arrival at the Manor. The memory brought with it a longing that he might again be blessed. Or perhaps memory itself had been quickened by that longing, which grew and grew, while with shut eyes he waited. A spirit was near him---whether the spirit of Uncle Stephen or the spirit of the God, he did not know. But the response he yearned for washed over him in wave after wave, brimming the room, holding him closely clasped and breathing into his breath. . . .

He remembered Uncle Stephen’s words---that in approaching the God in a spirit of love and worship he became a priest. He remembered that in ancient Greece there had been boy priests. He remembered the beautiful opening of Euripides’ play, where, after the speech of Hermes, the young boy Ion decorates the porch of Apollo’s temple with laurel branches, drops the lustral water on the ground, and chases the birds away. The scene was infinitely lovely as it floated before him now. It was as if the sunlight of that morning long ago had been caught and imprisoned in the words, to burst out with renewed glory when their spell was whispered. And all this loveliness was eternal. It could never fade until the earth grew cold and dead, or some cloud descended on the world, darkening men’s minds until nobody was left who sought for and loved it. . . .

His troubles dropped from him. He believed that the God had welcomed him, and was his lover, his friend. This was Hermes the shepherd, Hermes who, Uncle Stephen had said, guarded young boys, and would guard him. His eyes half shut, and on his face was a strange dreamy expression, gentle and happy. Nobody had ever seen him quite like this, and nobody ever would, for he was more than half out of his body, on the confines of another world. The whole house, he now knew, was the spiritual creation of Uncle Stephen and this God; and here, in this room, he was in its very heart, which was beating in tune with his own.

When he rose at last, his knees were stiff and sore and for a moment he staggered, but it was as if his mind had been bathed in some fresh mountain stream, and he knew that he could sleep. Putting the candle on the table by the bed, he looked down again at the slumbering Stephen. To Tom the whole room was still humming and vibrating with a secret life. This impression was so vivid, indeed, as to produce in him the strange feeling that merely by stretching out his hands he could make the surrounding air break into a flame. But Stephen slept on. Nothing that had taken place had disturbed him. It had passed over him and round him, leaving him untouched, as the fire had played harmlessly over the wise men in their burning fiery furnace. And gradually for Tom too its waves began to subside. His mind grew quiet, and he became all at once aware that his God was pouring sleep upon him---softly, ceaselessly, compellingly. Tom’s eyes slid round to him, liquid and dark. The pale, honey-coloured marble was still warm and breathing, but the spirit was only lingering there till Tom himself should be safely tucked in and his eyes sealed. ‘Sleep---sleep,’ a faint voice whispered. ‘Sleep----’

Tom smiled drowsily. He must go back to his own room; but somehow his own room seemed miles and miles away, and to leave his present sanctuary would be like going out into a cold wet winter’s night.

There was no longer anything but silence. The whisper had died away, but its command was overwhelming. Tom’s chin sank forward on his breast. He blinked and opened his eyes: he was dropping asleep on his feet. Stephen had pushed aside one of the pillows, which had fallen to the floor. Tom replaced it: then crept under the clothes and blew out the candle.

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