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Chapter Twenty-Four

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« on: July 24, 2023, 04:47:55 am »

ON the way home Uncle Horace himself drove: Shanks sat beside him, and Tom and Stephen behind. The rain which had begun to fall before they left the Manor had now increased to a steady downpour; the car swished over the wet road between dripping hedges; but there was little traffic; Uncle Horace must be doing nearly fifty. . . .

Shortly before starting there had occurred a slight awkwardness. It had been due to Mr. Knox. Just when everything was going well Mr. Knox suggested that Stephen had better change his clothes and put on a collar. Some kind of action had been necessary, and the two boys had left the room. ‘Silly ass, what business is it of his!’ Stephen spluttered angrily while struggling into one of Tom’s shirts, the sleeves of which were a great deal too short and the neckband too narrow. Uncle Stephen’s socks fitted him, but these, and Tom’s shirt, exhausted their available resources. Therefore, when they came downstairs again, Stephen’s appearance was very little altered. He muttered something about his things being at the other house; the curate said nothing; and luckily Uncle Horace by this time was impatient to set off.

So they had started---more than an hour ago---dropping Mr. Knox at his lodgings---and from the beginning Stephen had been far too much interested in the car to bother about his clothes or anything else. This interest increased as the journey proceeded. He watched every movement of Uncle Horace and asked Tom innumerable questions. His conversation, indeed, had taken the tone of Eric’s and Leonard’s, lacking only the deadliness of their expert knowledge, so that the smaller boy had begun to look bored and cross.

Suddenly Stephen nudged him in the ribs, a habit Tom particularly disliked. ‘I wonder if he’d let me drive?’

‘How can you drive when you’ve never learned?’

‘All the same I think I’ll ask him.’ And Stephen actually leaned forward to tap on the screen.

Tom immediately pulled him back. ‘Don’t be stupid! As if anybody’s going to begin to teach you now! You might have more sense!’

‘Have you learned? I mean, why haven’t you?’

Tom did not reply, and Stephen pursued obstinately, ‘It looks quite easy. If he’d been my uncle I bet I’d have got him to teach me.’

‘Would you! He won’t even allow Eric to touch it.’

‘Selfish old beast!’

‘He’s not,’ said Tom, loyal to his recent alliance with Uncle Horace. ‘At any rate, everybody who has a car is like that.’

Stephen gave up the idea of driving, and looked out of the window. ‘I hope it’s not going to be like this to-morrow,’ he said. ‘What’ll we do if it is? Do you think I could borrow a waterproof?’

Tom did not answer. To tell the truth, he felt extremely doubtful about Stephen’s reception at Gloucester Terrace, quite apart from the borrowing of waterproofs, and even though he was being introduced under the auspices of Uncle Horace. But the house didn’t belong to Uncle Horace, and for that matter Tom wasn’t at all sure of his own welcome. His step-mother couldn’t be feeling particularly friendly towards him at present: there was no reason why she should: for it wasn’t even now as if he were coming back to stay. He was only coming back to suit himself, and when you looked at it like that it did seem pretty thick! He wished they were going to an hotel.

There was no use wishing, however, and no use trying to re-open the subject with Uncle Horace. The whole thing was getting more and more difficult. All his relations with people had become difficult and unnatural. His relations with everybody---with Mrs. Deverell, with Mr. Knox, with everybody he knew---had become secretive and defensive.

‘For goodness sake cheer up!’ Stephen said abruptly. ‘We’re not going to a funeral.’

Tom drew back into his corner. ‘I didn’t know I wasn’t cheerful.’

‘Well, you know now. It seems to me about a year since I heard you laugh.’

‘I don’t see anything to laugh at.’

‘That’s just it. It’s a little depressing.’

Tom was too offended to reply.

‘I’ve told you it will be all right,’ Stephen went on, half impatiently, half amused. ‘We’ve got to take this as a kind of game---at any rate for the time being. Look how beautifully everything went this morning.’

‘Not so beautifully as you imagine.’

‘You mean Knox. What does it matter about Knox? You’d think he was a bishop.’

‘It’s all very well talking like that,’ Tom burst out hotly, ‘but there’ll be Mr. Flood too. Mr. Knox is too decent to say much, but Mr. Flood knows all about Uncle Stephen.’

‘I doubt it.’

‘He does: he’s his solicitor: and he’ll know very well you weren’t telling the truth.’

‘He may think so, but he can’t know without making inquiries.’

‘He will make them.’

Stephen yawned. ‘Well, let him,’ he returned carelessly. ‘You’re very hard to please. I thought you’d have liked my story, even though parts of it were so sad. . . . Uncle Horace was just a little casual about the sad parts, don’t you think?’

The ghost of a smile flickered across Tom’s face, and Stephen immediately smiled back.

‘All the same,’ Tom went on, ‘Mr. Flood will find out. He’s bound to. He’s in charge of Uncle Stephen’s private affairs. You’ll have to give him proper information---I mean, addresses and that kind of thing---and then he’ll write at once, or telegraph.’

‘He won’t. He’ll wait first to see if Uncle Stephen comes back. Can’t you understand that they must think he’ll come back. They don’t know what you know, and they’ll leave it to him to decide whether he has a grandson or not. I shouldn’t be surprised myself if he had several.’

‘Then why did you invent all that story? It won’t help us in the long run, and I never told so many lies in my life.’

‘They’re not lies---not real lies---they were forced on us.’

‘They weren’t. Not those particular ones anyway. They were made up just for your own pleasure and because you thought them funny. They weren’t a bit funny. All you did was to make Uncle Horace and Mr. Knox think Uncle Stephen wicked.’

‘Wicked?’

‘Yes---immoral.’

It was his last protest, however, and he did not speak again until he said, ‘We’re nearly there.’

Uncle Horace had in fact begun to slow down, for they had reached the outlying houses of the city, and in a few minutes more were on the tram-lines, threading their way among an increasing traffic. It was nearly six, and in spite of the rain the streets were full of people. Stephen glanced about him eagerly.

The car branched off the main road, and Tom too stared out of the window. It was all exactly the same as when he had seen it last. There were the same people coming home from business to the same houses; the same message-boys on the same bicycles; the same milk vans; the same dogs; even most of the advertisements on the hoardings were unchanged; and yet he felt as if he had been away half a life-time. . . .

The next turning would be Gloucester Terrace. . . . There it was: there was the house: there was the next-door cat on the window-sill.

The car drew up.

But in spite of Uncle Horace’s prediction Jane was not waiting on the steps to receive them. Nor was anybody else: they had to ring twice; and then it was Eric who opened the door.

‘Hello!’ he said, while he stared past Tom at the other boy.

‘Go on in; go on in,’ cried Uncle Horace irritably from the rear. ‘Don’t stand there blocking the way.’

‘Sorry.’ Eric drew to one side, and at the same time both the kitchen and the dining-room doors opened.

Through the former emerged Mrs. Barber. ‘Well, Tom!’ she exclaimed, and then she too caught sight of Stephen.

The brief distraction enabled Tom to avoid an embrace: he shook hands instead.

‘This is Tom’s cousin, Stephen Collet,’ Uncle Horace announced fussily. He waved a general introduction---‘Eric---Leonard---Jane.’

Eric and Leonard shook hands; Jane was still hugging Tom; Mrs. Barber, looking very much mystified, seemed uncertain what to do.

‘Tom had better show Stephen his room,’ Uncle Horace went on, taking charge of the situation. ‘You got my wire, of course.’ His intention, Tom thought, was to remove him and Stephen out of the way while he explained matters.

He obeyed the hint, and even before they had reached the second flight of stairs he heard the dining-room door closing. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw that Jane had not followed the others, but was standing in the hall gazing after him, her attitude exactly that of a dog who has not been taken for the expected walk. Tom put his finger to his lips, beckoned, and swiftly and silently Jane sped up the stairs.

‘Tom dear, it’s lovely to have you back again,’ she murmured, sitting down beside him on the edge of the bed. ‘And it’s nice to have Stephen too. . . . Will that can of hot water be enough for both of you, because if it isn’t I’ll get another.’

‘Heaps,’ said Tom. ‘Stephen can wash first. I’ll tell you what you might do though. You might get him one of Leonard’s collars.’

‘And a shirt,’ said Stephen, taking off his jacket.

‘And a shirt,’ Tom repeated.

Jane looked a little surprised, but she departed without a word. When she returned Stephen was splashing at the wash-basin, so she sat down once more beside Tom.

‘You needn’t say anything downstairs about borrowing Leonard’s things,’ Tom warned her. ‘You see, we had to leave in a hurry. I’ll send them back, and Stephen can wear one of my ties: then he’ll be all right.’

Jane still seemed slightly puzzled, so Tom continued diplomatically: ‘You didn’t know I had a cousin, did you?’

‘No; I don’t think anybody knew you had a cousin. I must say he’s not a bit like you.’

‘Why should he be like me?’ Tom replied. ‘Cousins aren’t often like one another.’

Jane did not dispute this, but while she watched Stephen drying himself an increasing curiosity grew more and more visible in her face. At last she gave utterance to it. ‘What has happened? Why have you come back? Have you left Uncle Stephen?’

Tom frowned. ‘No, of course not. Uncle Stephen is away on business, and Stephen and I came up because we’re going to Coombe Bridge to-morrow. We’re only going for the day, however; we’ll be back here to-morrow night.’

‘To stay?’ Jane asked.

Tom hesitated. ‘Well, not exactly to stay. We’ll have to leave the next morning.’

Jane looked at him. ‘Then I’ll hardly see you at all,’ she said.

‘Of course you’ll see me. I’ll be here all this evening and part of to-morrow evening.’

Jane’s face had clouded. ‘That’s not very long. Besides, the others will be there: I won’t see you by yourself.’

‘You must come and pay us a visit at the Manor.’

‘I can’t help it,’ he went on, as Jane failed to respond to this not very heart-felt invitation. ‘We must go back the day after to-morrow.’

‘Then I’ll come to-night and talk.’

‘Come where?’

‘Come here. To you.’

‘You can’t. Stephen will be here.’

‘Stephen won’t mind.’

Tom began to lose patience. ‘Don’t be silly! How can you go rushing about boys’ rooms? You know what happened last time. Anyway I’ll lock the door, so if you like to kick up a row and get caught it will be your own fault.’

Jane drew away from him. ‘I think you’ve altered,’ she said coldly.

Tom stared gloomily down at the carpet. He might have guessed how it would be! ‘I dare say I have altered,’ he muttered. ‘There’s been plenty to----’

‘Tom dear, I’m sorry,’ Jane interrupted impulsively. She clasped her arms round his neck and gave him a hug. ‘I won’t ask any more questions and you needn’t tell me anything you don’t want to. And I won’t come to your room. I wouldn’t have come anyway: I only said that to tease you. But it was horrid of me to say you’d changed, because you haven’t, not a scrap. At least, not to look at----I’ve just counted your freckles.’

The first notes of a gong rose from the hall, and Tom got up to take Stephen’s place at the washstand.

‘I suppose I’d better go down,’ Jane said, ‘but there’s plenty of time for Stephen to change his clothes: that was only a warning. I’ll tell them you won’t be long.’

The door closed behind her, and Stephen remarked, ‘She seems quite a decent kid.’ He began to undress, and presently made a second remark. ‘In fact I don’t see anything the matter with any of them, in spite of all you told me.’

Tom wheeled round, the water dripping from his hair, his cheeks hot, and his eyes flashing. ‘No,’ he answered with a sudden bitterness. ‘I expect you’ll be bosom friends with the whole family.’

Stephen gave him a sidelong look. ‘Is there any harm in my saying they seem decent?’

‘You know very well I always told you Jane was decent.’

‘Well, what’s the trouble then?’

‘It’s just that you take a delight in siding against me. I’m not talking about Jane. But because I told you the others hated me you at once begin to like them, though you’ve barely spoken to them. If it was somebody who did care for me----’

‘Your gamekeeper?’ Stephen suggested.

‘Yes; you can sneer! But he was a jolly lot more----’

‘Here,’ said Stephen, gripping him by the shoulders---‘don’t be a young ass. To begin with, you know I don’t care a fig for the whole jing-bang of your relations.’

‘They’re not my relations.’

‘Well, whatever they are.’

‘Yes, I do know it; and that’s why you needn’t have said----’ He stopped. ‘I’m sorry, Stephen. It was stupid. I don’t think I’m fit to be in decent company at present.’

‘That’s rot too,’ said Stephen. ‘You’re much the decentest person here.’

Once again the deep notes of the gong floated up to them.

‘We’d better hurry,’ said Tom. ‘I suppose they don’t know you’re changing.’

+++

Uncle Horace was still there when they entered the dining-room, but he did not join in the meal. Tom was glad to see him. It was perhaps the first time he had ever known the presence of Uncle Horace to ease off a situation, but it certainly had---for him at least---this effect now. Only, when he had waited, he might for once have sacrificed his dinner and eaten with them. His refusal to do so struck Tom as shockingly bad manners.

It was a curious repast. Not the food, but the demeanour of the eaters of the food. He could see that Eric and Leonard, especially, were puzzled by Stephen---that they were inclined to form a favourable impression of him, and were at the same time held back by the fact of his relationship to their step-brother and to the unknown and mysterious Uncle Stephen. He could follow exactly the logical procession of their thoughts. Anybody who was friends with Tom! But possibly he really wasn’t friends, and he couldn’t help being a cousin---it was a misfortune rather than a fault. . . . If only they knew how obvious all their ideas and feelings were, they wouldn’t take even the little trouble they did to disguise them. He could tell, as surely as if they had whispered it in his ear, that on the very first opportunity they would try to draw Stephen away from him and into their private camp. They wouldn’t succeed, however: he knew that now. . . .

And Stephen had begun to talk to Mrs. Barber. He was talking of his plan to visit Coombe Bridge. Mrs. Barber wanted to know what time they would like to start. ‘They’ll have to start early,’ Uncle Horace said. ‘It will take a couple of hours to get there.’

‘Are there any Collets at Coombe Bridge now?’ Mrs. Barber asked, and Stephen replied that he didn’t think so.

‘It’s most remarkable how families die out!’ But after a pensive moment she abandoned this line of reflection and asked instead if Stephen had liked living abroad. She herself had never been in Italy, but she had been in France and Switzerland, and neither country had appealed to her as a permanent home.

‘Don’t you sometimes find yourself talking Italian by mistake, Stephen?’ Jane asked.

‘Never,’ said Stephen, and winked at Tom.

It was an outrageous thing to do: anybody might have seen him! Tom’s face was crimson. As if things weren’t bad enough without starting to play the fool!’ I suppose there’s a railway guide in the house,’ he mumbled. At the same time he frowned at Stephen and received a broad grin in return.

‘There should be a guide somewhere,’ Mrs. Barber thought, and Jane said, ‘It’s in the drawer of the hat-stand.’

‘At least it was there,’ she added, jumping up from the table.

Tom stared down at his plate. He wasn’t going to look at Stephen again. He wished he wasn’t sitting opposite him.

Jane returned with the guide. ‘Rather ancient. The year before last. And a Christmas Number too.’

‘It doesn’t matter, dear, the trains won’t have altered,’ said her mother---‘not to a little place like Coombe Bridge.’

‘Those are just the trains that are altered,’ Leonard contradicted. ‘They alter them every month or two.’

‘Ten-forty. Twelve-fifty-five,’ Jane read aloud, as she resumed her seat beside Tom.

‘The ten-forty will do,’ said Tom.

‘Ten-forty---ten-forty---ten-forty---arrives three-twenty-nine.’

‘Oh, don’t be silly. Here---show it to me.’

‘Don’t you be silly,’ returned Jane, gripping the book more firmly as he attempted to take it from her. ‘No, that’s wrong. Ten-forty----Stop, Tom! How can I see if you keep pulling at it! Ten-forty arrives at twelve-twenty. . . . That’s right,’ she declared, still clinging tenaciously to the guide, which Tom also grasped.

‘Give it to me,’ he said impatiently. ‘I want to find out about coming home.’

Jane still held on. ‘Trains coming home,’ she chanted. ‘Let me see. There’s one at----’

Tom turned away, putting his fingers in his ears.

‘Oh, all right! There---take the old thing! Baby!’ She dropped it in the middle of his jam.

‘Jane!’ Mrs. Barber said sharply.

‘Well, he thinks nobody can do anything except himself, and he’s the very one to get it all wrong.’

Tom, having gained his point, was indifferent to criticisms.

‘There may be a bus,’ Uncle Horace suggested from his armchair, and Tom turned the pages to see---very much as Jane had turned them, but with the satisfaction of doing it for himself.

Uncle Horace, leaving the family group in one of its more characteristic moments, rose from his chair. ‘Well, it’s time I was moving on. I may possibly drop round again later, and if not I’ll look in to-morrow evening and hear the Coombe Bridge news. Good-bye, everybody, for the present. Don’t get up: I can find my own way out.’

But Tom did get up. He was aware that all eyes were turned upon him, and those of his step-brothers with contemptuous dislike. Sucking up to Uncle Horace, they would call it. He didn’t care. He followed Uncle Horace into the hall and helped him on with his coat. Uncle Horace accepted the help. He accepted it, too, without impatience, though Tom got the sleeves mixed up and was not tall enough to be of much assistance. Uncle Horace, having disentangled himself, put on his hat, and Tom opened the hall-door.

On the threshold Uncle Horace turned to his nephew and held out his hand. ‘I don’t fancy I will be back,’ he said, ‘so I’ll say good-night to you.’

‘Good-night, Uncle Horace. And---thank you ever so much---for everything.’

Uncle Horace, on the point of stepping out into the street, suddenly paused. ‘Look here, Tom,’ he began, and paused again.

Tom looked up at him expectantly.

But Uncle Horace, after a moment, merely flashed his most brilliant smile. ‘All I was going to tell you is, not to worry. Good-night.’
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