The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum
February 21, 2024, 10:50:30 pm
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Did you miss your activation email?

Login with username, password and session length
News: Here you may discover hundreds of little-known composers, hear thousands of long-forgotten compositions, contribute your own rare recordings, and discuss the Arts, Literature and Linguistics in an erudite and decorous atmosphere full of freedom and delight.
 
  Home Help Search Gallery Staff List Login Register  

Chapter Twenty-Three

Pages: [1]   Go Down
  Print  
Author Topic: Chapter Twenty-Three  (Read 28 times)
Admin
Administrator
Level 8
*****

Times thanked: 53
Offline Offline

Posts: 3903


View Profile
« on: July 23, 2023, 11:47:24 am »

THE miracle had not happened: Tom seemed to know that even in his dreams, for he heaved a deep sigh before his eyes opened. Instinctively he clung to the sleepiness that prevented complete realization. He put his arms round Stephen’s neck and wriggled himself closer till their heads lay on one pillow. He hoped it was very early, and that they need not get up for a long time. He did not want to awake; the day before him, he knew, was going to be full of trouble; he put his other arm round Stephen and buried his nose in the short crisp hair above his ear. He listened to twittering bird notes, he felt rather than saw the drowsy sunlight floating through the open window.

But Stephen would not let him stay like this. Tom might snuggle up against him and murmur that he wanted to go to sleep again, but Stephen was wide awake. He proposed getting up and going for a swim. ‘I had the rummiest dream,’ he declared. ‘At least it seems so now.’ He gave Tom a little shake. ‘Are you listening? Wake up!’

‘I’m not asleep,’ said Tom. But a warm delightful languor was diffused through his body, and he nestled closer.

‘You’re next door to it. Remember, I don’t intend to tell you this twice. . . . You’ll be sorry, too, because it’s very much in your line: in fact you were in it. . . . All right, I’ll not tell you. And please don’t breathe into my ear.’

Tom slightly altered his position. ‘Is that better?’ he asked.

‘Not very much, and I don’t see why you aren’t in your own bed. You certainly weren’t here when I went to sleep last night. . . . It was about your uncle---my dream. I dreamt I was in the room downstairs---the room with all the books---and you were there too.’

‘Yes?’ Tom still kept his eyes tight shut.

‘Don’t you see?’ said Stephen, giving him another shake. ‘Don’t you see how queer it was? Of course it must have been the result of what you told me yesterday, but it was queer all the same.’

‘Why?’ Tom whispered. ‘I don’t see anything queer about it.’

‘Well, it was: you’ll understand why presently. Do lie over a bit: I’m far too hot: besides, you’re choking me.’

Tom moved grudgingly. ‘You might be more comfortable,’ he mumbled. But Stephen had spoiled his own drowsy sensations, and he lay on his back blinking up at the ceiling. ‘What happened?’ he asked.

Stephen stretched out his arms and sat up. He looked down at Tom. ‘Nothing happened. I was just there: it’s not that that was queer.’

‘Was I in the room?’

‘Yes; I’ve said so already: I knew you weren’t listening.’

‘What was I doing?’

‘You were sitting on the hearthrug untangling a heap of string and winding it round a stick.’

‘I did do that once.’

‘Very likely. Most people have wound a ball of string.’

‘What was queer then?’ said Tom, with a shade of impatience. ‘Was Uncle Stephen there?’

‘I’m coming to that. . . . Uncle Stephen was there in one sense.’ He paused deliberately, but Tom would ask no further questions. ‘He was there in the sense that you called me Uncle Stephen. . . . But what really was queer was the way I thought of you.’

‘Thought of me?’

‘Yes. Though I don’t mean “thought” exactly. It was really the way I felt about you. I was frightfully fond of you. I didn’t know anybody could care for another person so much.’

To this Tom made no answer, and Stephen after a moment went on. ‘You see, I’ve always liked you quite well; but this was a good deal more. In fact, it strikes me now as rather absurd.’

‘Yes, it would,’ said Tom.

‘Well, hang it all, you’re not an angel! You’re a pretty averagely bad boy---with faint streaks of a better nature.’

Tom buried his face in the pillow. ‘Is that all?’ he asked in a muffled voice.

‘Yes, I think so.’ Stephen kicked aside the clothes and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He took off his pyjamas---Uncle Stephen’s they were---and proceeded to test the muscles of his arms. Tom, peeping out at him, watched this latter performance moodily. Somehow it had the effect of making the return of Uncle Stephen infinitely improbable, though last night that return had seemed imminent. But nothing could be more remote from Uncle Stephen than this boy light-heartedly parading his nakedness and rejoicing in the strength of his body.

Stephen stood beside the bed, looking down at him and smiling. ‘Well?’ he said.

‘Well what?’ muttered Tom. ‘Aren’t you going to put some clothes on?’

Stephen smiled more broadly. ‘Not at present. Aren’t you going to get up?’

Tom slowly assumed a sitting posture, and still more slowly put his feet to the ground. Stephen bent down and, half lifting him, pulled him out into the middle of the floor. ‘Look here,’ he said, ‘don’t be so frightfully dumpy about it.’

‘I can’t help it,’ Tom muttered. The pleasanter Stephen was to him, the more difficult everything became. He half wished he would be un-pleasant---or at any rate that he didn’t look so nice. He wouldn’t look at him. He put his hand against Stephen’s breast and pushed him back almost roughly. ‘I’m going to my own room. Your bathroom is the first door on the left.’

‘Come and take your bath with me.’

‘No. . . . Leave me alone, Stephen! You’re a bully---that’s what you are.’

‘Well, I like that! When a minute ago you were hugging me.’

‘Yes, and you wouldn’t let me.’ He struggled free and, picking up his dressing-gown, ran along the passage back to his own room.

He got into his bath and let the water run over him. But he did not enjoy it, his mind was too full of worries and perplexities. A few days ago he would have loved having Stephen here! And now, though Stephen was far more friends with him than he had ever been before, he was getting no good out of him, it was all wasted, because he couldn’t be happy. While he was drying himself and dressing he tried to review the situation dispassionately. How could it go on as it was? Mrs. Deverell would think it strange that there was no letter for him this morning from Uncle Stephen. Perhaps she would expect one herself. And it would be only natural for Uncle Stephen to write her a note to explain matters and give instructions about what was to be done in his absence. Tom wondered if the news of his absence had already leaked out. With Mrs. Deverell, Sally, George and Robert all knowing about it, it could not be long before it became public property. It was not as if such a thing had ever happened before. It would be regarded as an event, a mystery: Mrs. Deverell seemed to have taken that view from the first. It would be discussed; there would be all kinds of gossip; soon it would reach the ears of Mr. Flood and Mr. Knox, and Mr. Knox very likely would think it his duty to call---not out of curiosity, but just out of friendliness. On the top of this there was the money problem. Tom knew nothing of how the house was run---whether Mrs. Deverell received an allowance for household expenses, or whether Uncle Stephen paid for things himself by cheque. He supposed the bills could be allowed to run on, but he knew George and Robert were paid weekly, for he had seen Uncle Stephen paying them. What was he to do about that? They would need their wages for their own expenses, and it wouldn’t be fair to keep them waiting. He would have to borrow from somebody---and the only person he could think of was Mr. Flood. Poor Tom, as he completed his toilet and surveyed himself in the mirror of his wardrobe, looked as if all the cares of the world were on his shoulders.

He came downstairs to breakfast and instead of sympathy found Mrs. Deverell regarding him with a grim reserve, and Stephen with amusement. True, the amusement was mingled with liking---Stephen had distinctly altered in this respect---but that didn’t make it more helpful so far as their problem was concerned. Tom wished Mrs. Deverell a subdued good-morning and took Uncle Stephen’s place at the head of the table. He began to fumble with the tea-pot, which Mrs. Deverell at once removed from his hands.

‘No letter from your uncle?’ Stephen inquired pleasantly.

Tom blushed and gave him an angry look, but he was obliged to answer, because Mrs. Deverell was listening. Why couldn’t she clear out? ‘The post isn’t in yet,’ he muttered. ‘Anyway I don’t expect a letter for a day or two.’

He wondered if he could forge a letter. It might help to keep Mrs. Deverell quiet, and he had gone so far that it did not seem to matter much if he added forgery to his other crimes. When the meal was over he and Stephen went out on to the lawn. On an ordinary occasion Tom would have been full of suggestions for passing the morning. There was still his raft to be built, there was still the river to be explored. But now he felt too restless to settle down to anything, and at the same time was conscious of a reluctance to go far from the house, though nothing was to be gained by loitering there, and he knew it would be better if he could distract his mind from brooding.

‘Did you remember to make your bed, Stephen?’ he suddenly asked.

‘No. Why? I didn’t know I was supposed to make it.’

Tom sighed. ‘It’s only that Mrs. Deverell may think it queer that you slept in Uncle Stephen’s room.’

‘Shall I go back and make it now?’

‘No, it doesn’t matter: she’s sure to have discovered it by now. Anyway I forgot to un-make mine, so she’ll know where we both were.’

‘Then you didn’t go to bed last night after you left me?’

‘No.’

‘What were you doing?’

‘I sat up reading till I came to your room.’

Stephen laughed. ‘It seems to me we’re pretty poor conspirators.’

‘It’s hard to remember everything,’ said Tom. ‘She can think what she likes,’ he added gloomily. ‘I don’t care.’

‘Of course not. Anybody can see you don’t care.’

‘Well, I can’t help it,’ muttered Tom. He sat down on a garden bench and stared morosely at a thrush trying to swallow an uncomfortably large worm. But he felt Stephen was right and that he was not showing a proper spirit. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know Uncle Stephen was coming back. There had been more than one sign to encourage him. There had been his vigil of last night. There had been those few minutes yesterday when Stephen had seemed just on the point of recalling everything. He hadn’t succeeded; the result had been only two or three unintelligible words; but still---especially when taken with the dream he had told Tom that morning---there had been enough to prove he was not completely Stephen. A final state of equilibrium had not been reached; some kind of spiritual ebb and flow must be going on under the surface. Of course, it might be that Uncle Stephen was losing not gaining power in this conflict, but Tom would not believe that. The chief impediment, he felt, was that the boy who had dropped down now on to the green bench beside him and was gazing idly into the distance, did not want to be anything but what he was. He wasn’t trying. He was just enjoying himself, and enjoying teasing Tom, and from all Uncle Stephen had told him Tom knew that on those other occasions the will and the desire had been primary agents.

Stephen had become very quiet all of a sudden! And it was not like him to sit like this. Through the cool, bright sunshine there came the sound of Robert whistling a hymn tune. Robert himself remained invisible: he invariably did. He seemed to live and conduct all his labours in thickets and behind bushes: he was the shyest person Tom had ever met. Tom stole a cautious glance at Stephen; but he did not want to disturb him, and remained quiet as a mouse. Robert’s tune also had ceased. Tom turned ever so little so that he could watch Stephen’s face. What was it that made the chief attraction of a human face? Was it the line or the colour or the expression? Why should the dirt on Stephen’s hands, where unconsciously he had been rubbing them against the iron bench, be pleasant? Dirty hands weren’t as a rule pleasant. The remarkable reflection occurred to Tom that Stephen would still be beautiful---to him at any rate---if he were dirty all over. That was strange, though he remembered he had always found young chimney-sweeps attractive: their dirty faces made their eyes so extraordinarily bright. But this was the kind of thought he had to keep to himself. There were a good many thoughts he had learned to keep to himself. Not that he would have minded telling them to Uncle Stephen. Uncle Stephen was the only person with whom he had ever felt there was no need to conceal anything. He was, too, the only person who had ever really loved him. His mother had loved him, of course, and Deverell too had loved him, but they had only loved part of him, because they had only known part of him. Uncle Stephen knew all---good, bad, and indifferent.

A hideous screech from a motor horn interrupted Tom’s cogitations. Surely it couldn’t be a visitor to the Manor! The only possible visitor was Mr. Knox, and he rode a bicycle. There was no doubt of it, however; a car had entered the avenue, and Tom in alarm gazed fixedly at the point where it would come into view.

There was another hoot. It was not Mr. Flood’s car; it was a big car; and next moment it swept round the corner and sped on to the house. Tom uttered a faint, protesting exclamation. But really it was sickening! For there, in the driver’s seat, spick and span in dark blue uniform, sat the dour and saturnine Shanks. Simultaneously he felt Stephen’s body tauten and, turning, saw that his face had lost its absent-mindedness and become intensely alert.

‘Don’t,’ he murmured, not quite knowing what he meant, only that he was sure Stephen had become filled with a zest for action and would do or say something irremediable.

‘Don’t what?’ Stephen answered.

‘Don’t do anything,’ Tom completed feebly.

At the same time he held out a restraining hand. ‘It’s Uncle Horace and Mr. Knox,’ he said. ‘But they haven’t seen us.’

Stephen had half risen. He shook off Tom’s hand: his face was alive with curiosity and excitement. ‘What’s that thing they’re in? I never saw anything like it. How does it work? I’m going to have a look at it.’

‘No, no,’ Tom implored him. ‘It’s only a motor car. You’ll see plenty of them. Please, Stephen, stay where you are.’

Stephen submitted, but not without a visible struggle, and meanwhile the car drew up and the two visitors got out. They went straight into the porch.

‘What are we going to do?’ whispered Tom. ‘I never dreamt of Uncle Horace coming. He can’t possibly have heard----’

‘Don’t worry; it will be all right.’

But how was it going to be all right? Tom couldn’t imagine anything more all wrong! ‘You don’t know Uncle Horace!’ he said, casting a covetous glance at the shrubbery, ‘He’s far cleverer than either Mr. Flood or Mr. Knox. He’ll find out the whole thing in about two ticks.’

‘He won’t. You leave it to me. Just tell them what you told Mrs. Deverell.’

Stephen spoke confidently, even with a mysterious elation, which inspired in Tom the utmost misgiving. But he had no time to inquire into its source, for Uncle Horace and Mr. Knox had already ended their colloquy with Mrs. Deverell and were now bearing down upon them. The curate waved his hand, and Tom had sufficient presence of mind to wave in return, but he felt a weakness in his stomach as he rose to his feet.

Stephen gave him a shove. ‘Don’t stand there staring at them as if you were stuffed! Go and meet them. What are you in such a pee about?’

But Tom still hesitated.

‘I tell you it will be all right,’ Stephen went on impatiently. ‘That is, if you don’t give the whole show away at the very start.’

‘I won’t,’ Tom promised, but he felt he would, or at least that it was extremely likely. He followed Stephen’s injunctions, however, and advanced to meet his visitors.

Mr. Knox greeted him with extreme friendliness. So, for that matter, did Uncle Horace, who radiated geniality in an astonishing manner. ‘Good morning, Tom. I suppose you’re surprised to see me. But I ran down this time to pay Mr. Knox a visit.’

‘I’m very glad to see you, Uncle Horace,’ Tom replied faintly.

‘Yes---yes. We’ve had our little quarrels, but I don’t think we’re enemies yet. Our last meeting was unfortunate, but I dare say there were faults on both sides.’

‘There were faults on my side at any rate,’ said Tom.

‘Odious little prig!’ he thought immediately afterwards, but Uncle Horace positively beamed. ‘Your step-mother sent her love to you. I told her I didn’t think I’d be seeing you---but there it is. Jane sent hers also: she wanted me to bring her.’

‘I hope they are very well,’ said Tom.

‘Very well, thank you: very well indeed.’

A sudden pause followed this exchange of amenities, and for a moment nephew and uncle regarded each other a trifle self-consciously.

‘Did you drive down this morning, Uncle Horace?’ Tom inquired, still in the same flute-like tones. ‘You must have made a very early start.’

‘No, no: arrived yesterday. But we had a break-down a few miles out of Kilbarron and were late. So, as Shanks seemed doubtful about the return journey, and the hotel looked passable, I decided to put up there for the night. Shanks wanted to overhaul the car, and that gave him plenty of time.’

‘Uncle Stephen isn’t here,’ said Tom, lowering his eyes. ‘I suppose Mrs. Deverell told you.’

‘Yes. She told us he mightn’t be back for a day or two.’

‘At least,’ Tom amended.

But Uncle Horace’s attention had veered towards the unknown boy hovering in the background, and Tom performed an introduction. ‘This is Stephen---Philip, I mean,’ he said nervously.

‘Philip Stephen,’ Uncle Horace repeated, holding out his hand.

The mistake was instantly corrected by Stephen himself. ‘No, sir; Stephen Collet. Philip’s only a kind of nickname.’

Tom drew a quick breath. Luckily nobody was looking at him, for he knew his face had betrayed the shock Stephen’s unexpected avowal had given him. ‘He’s my friend,’ he stammered. ‘He’s staying with me. Mr. Knox knows about him.’

The moment he had made this speech he realized that it, too, was wrong---sounded as if he were apologising for Stephen, vouching for him. Mr. Knox noticed his embarrassment and came to the rescue. ‘You’re the boy who has been living in the other house?’ he said, shaking hands with Stephen in his turn. ‘Tom told me about you, but I don’t think he mentioned your name. It’s an odd coincidence, for I suppose really you are no relation of Mr. Collet’s. I remember he told me Tom was his only nephew.’

‘So he is,’ Uncle Horace chimed in.

‘My father was a relation,’ Stephen answered quietly.

Uncle Horace looked at him, but made no reply. Mr. Knox’s scrutiny was more prolonged and ruminative. ‘Forgive me for staring, Stephen,’ he apologized, ‘but----’ He turned to Uncle Horace. ‘Don’t you see a likeness?’

‘A likeness?’ Uncle Horace hesitated. ‘A likeness to Mr. Collet, do you mean? Well, I have only met him once, you know.’ He paused again. ‘Still---now you mention it---- Yes, perhaps----’

‘To me it is striking,’ said Mr. Knox. ‘As a matter of fact I was trying to think of whom he reminded me even before I heard his name. The very unusual colour of the eyes---so dark a blue. And the shape of the forehead----’

‘Won’t you come in, Uncle Horace,’ Tom suggested desperately, but Uncle Horace brushed the interruption aside with a gesture. ‘Your father, you say, is a relative of Mr. Collet’s?’ he questioned, his eyes fixed on Stephen’s face.

‘Yes, sir. He was a relative; but both he and my mother are dead. My father was Mr. Collet’s son.’

‘His son!’

Tom drew back. Stephen had deliberately done this, and it left him helpless. It was the plan, he supposed, he had concocted a few minutes ago---the plan which was to set everything right! Well, if assurance could do it, the assurance was there. Stephen’s gaze was serene and steadfast, his face unclouded. Tom waited in a kind of angry suspense for what would come next, but to his astonishment it came in Uncle Horace’s suavest tones. ‘I always understood Mr. Collet had never married.’

‘No, sir. My father was his natural son.’

Tom choked back the protest that rose to his lips. How could he protest, even though he believed Stephen had invented this story wantonly---because he enjoyed it?’

Uncle Horace had turned away. His gaze rested with unusual dreaminess on the quiet sunlit park. Mr. Knox, too, looked only puzzled. Tom’s head drooped.

He followed the others slowly, for they had begun to walk back towards the bench he and Stephen had vacated. They reached it, and Uncle Horace and Mr. Knox sat down, before another word was spoken. Even then, Uncle Horace’s first remark was more like a continuation of his private thoughts than a question. ‘Both your parents are dead, you say?’

Tom had squatted down on the grass: Stephen remained standing and facing Uncle Horace, a picture of candid and artless boyhood. ‘My father died when I was two years old,’ he explained. ‘I don’t remember him. My mother was drowned only a few months ago---in a boating accident---near Sorrento.’

‘Very sad---very sad,’ Uncle Horace mused. ‘You had been living abroad, then---till you came here?’

‘Yes, sir, in Italy. I think it was because it was cheaper there than anywhere else. We weren’t very well off, you see, and we never stayed long in one place---I don’t know why.’

‘But you went to school, I suppose?’

‘Only for a few months---once---in Rome. My mother taught me. She had been a teacher before she married. She was English.’

Mr. Knox, who so far had been as dumb as Tom himself, now made a remark. ‘I could have sworn you were the product of an English public school,’ he said.

Tom was startled: he even glanced reproachfully at the curate. It was fortunate that Uncle Horace disliked interruptions. Therefore, instead of encouraging Mr. Knox, he pursued his own inquiry. ‘Then you’ve lived all your life abroad, have you?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And you came over here at Mr. Collet’s invitation?’

Stephen hesitated. ‘No-o,’ he replied, drawing out the word reluctantly. ‘But---he was the only person I could go to. I mean---there wasn’t anybody else.’

‘I see. . . . You knew his address, of course?’

There was a slight pause, and Tom waited anxiously. Uncle Horace was asking a terrific number of questions---even for him! Tom had never known him so bad before. But he supposed it was because Uncle Stephen was mixed up in the matter, and Stephen himself did not appear to mind.

‘No, sir,’ he said. ‘I had to find it out after I came over. I mean, I didn’t know the exact address: I couldn’t write to him---or at least I didn’t think I could. I came because I had to do something. . . . My mother used occasionally to get work from newspapers---translating English stories into Italian. And now and then she had a pupil for Italian conversation; but even with that we only just managed to scrape along, and I wasn’t earning anything. She wouldn’t allow me to take the only kind of job I might have got---as a message boy, or in a shop.’

Uncle Horace nodded: he seemed pleased with Stephen. On the other hand, though he hoped he was mistaken, Tom was almost sure that Mr. Knox was not pleased. He was looking at Stephen and there was in his eyes just a shade of---no, not incredulity, incredulity was too strong a word to describe the vague dissatisfaction lurking in the curate’s expression. It was as if there were something in what he had been listening to that he did not quite like, that slightly jarred upon him. Tom saw him on the point of making a remark, and then repressing it, and then finally yielding to the temptation to bring it out. ‘You weren’t living at the Manor, were you?’ Mr. Knox asked.

Stephen turned quickly, and for the first time appeared to scent an antagonist. His eyes momentarily sought Tom’s, who had been watching the whole scene motionless as an image, the tip of his tongue slightly protruding between his lips. ‘He was living at the other house,’ Tom broke in quickly. ‘I told you that.’

‘Yes, I remember your telling me. Camping out, I suppose. It can’t have been very comfortable.’

Tom’s face darkened. ‘We only used one room,’ he replied. ‘An upstairs room. It was quite comfortable.’

The pronoun was not lost on Mr. Knox. He regarded Tom rather sadly. ‘You didn’t stay there, did you?’

‘Have you heard from your uncle yet?’ Uncle Horace interrupted with a hint of impatience. ‘Has he told you when he is coming back?’

Mr. Knox immediately withdrew from the discussion, and Tom answered, ‘No.’

‘Where is he?’

‘I---He didn’t tell me.’

‘But I thought you saw him off? The housekeeper said you did.’

‘Yes, I drove part of the way with him. You see, it was quite unexpected. This man called for him.’

‘What man?’

‘A very nice man.’

Uncle Horace looked at Tom and the look was entirely in his old manner. Tom blushed. It was more, however, from indignation than embarrassment. Here had Uncle Horace been swallowing all Stephen’s outrageous story without a protest; yet the very first thing he said aroused suspicion.

‘Don’t you even know his name?’ Uncle Horace persisted. ‘Weren’t you introduced to him?’

‘Yes.’ Tom had a sudden happy thought. ‘His name was Spinelli,’ he declared confidently. ‘Uncle Stephen knew him long ago in Italy. They were, I think, partners.’

‘Partners?’

‘I mean they worked together. I’ve forgotten the word.’

‘Accomplices?’ suggested Uncle Horace grimly.

‘Collaborators.’ But next moment Tom laughed.

‘What are you laughing at?’ Uncle Horace snapped.

‘Well, it was rather funny,’ Tom apologized.

‘What was funny?’

‘Your joke---the way you said it. . . . You know you do say things like that, Uncle Horace, and you must know they’re funny, even though you may be cross when you say them.’

Uncle Horace gave him another look, but not really an angry one, and Mr. Knox took out his watch. ‘I think I must be going,’ he remarked.

‘Why?’ Tom asked. ‘It’s very nearly dinner-time, and Uncle Horace will be having dinner with us. Do stay.’

Mr. Knox wavered, glancing at Uncle Horace, who immediately said, ‘I shan’t be staying either.’

‘But you must,’ cried Tom. ‘I know what you’re thinking, but you must, all the same.’

Uncle Horace flushed, and Mr. Knox involuntarily asked, ‘What was he thinking?’

Tom did not answer. His eyes were still fixed on Uncle Horace. ‘Uncle Stephen would want you to stay. He’ll not be pleased with me if you don’t.’

‘All right---all right,’ returned Uncle Horace hastily. Then, after a moment, he added, ‘Come with me for a little stroll, Tom. I want to have a word with you. And at any rate if you’re to be my host you ought to show me over the grounds.’

Tom got up at once, though it was not without a feeling of anxiety that he left the others behind. Something in Mr. Knox’s manner made him uneasy. It suggested either that he had taken a dislike to Stephen or else was not satisfied with his story. But he would hardly continue to question him when they were alone, for he was the last person in the world to try to drive anybody into a corner. Tom had a high opinion of Mr. Knox. He did not think he was clever, but he knew he was a gentleman. That was the difference between him and Uncle Horace. Uncle Horace was clever, but he wasn’t---- Well, not quite in the sense that Mr. Knox was, anyway.

Meanwhile, Uncle Horace, fortunately all unconscious of these reflections, was stepping delicately over the lawn in highly-polished shoes. Tom wondered if his shoes were ever not highly-polished, if he ever did not look as if he were dressed for an afternoon party. ‘How many suits have you, Uncle Horace?’ he asked innocently.

‘Suits!---suits!---what do you mean by suits!’

Tom took Uncle Horace’s arm, for somehow he felt he had been stupid about him, and that his bark was worse than his bite. ‘Nothing,’ he answered. ‘But you must have a lot. I mean your trousers never have baggy knees and your waistcoats never go into wrinkles and----’

‘I try to keep myself decent, if that’s what you’re getting at,’ Uncle Horace replied grumpily.

‘Yes, but other people try. I try myself. This suit was new about a fortnight ago, and look at it now.’

Uncle Horace looked. ‘You ought to keep your trousers in a press,’ he said shortly. ‘I expect you don’t even bother to fold them. . . . But it’s not that I want to talk to you about, and you know it.’

‘I’m quite willing to talk about anything, Uncle Horace; only I’d rather talk about something that---that won’t make us angry.’

Uncle Horace glared at this peculiar nephew, who was clinging to his arm (in itself a novel experience) and whose odd, freckled face was turned up to him with bright, singularly pleasant eyes. ‘You know, you’re either a most accomplished young Jesuit or else----’

The alternative he left unspoken. ‘I do want to please you,’ Tom said.

‘Well, if that is all, you know how.’

‘You mean by going back to Gloucester Terrace? Suppose, Uncle Horace, I had come to you, and you had got very fond of me. . . . That might have happened, mightn’t it?’

‘Um,’ said Uncle Horace.

‘But mightn’t it?’

‘You’re very persistent; how am I to say what might have happened?’

‘But you don’t dislike me?’

‘Well, well---suppose it had happened?’

‘If it had happened, and you had done everything you could for me, wouldn’t you think I was rather a---a squirt, if I gave you up just because some other people didn’t like you?’

‘A squirt!’

‘Yes. You must know very well what a squirt is, even if you’ve never heard the expression before.’

‘I haven’t. I understand it to mean somebody who is ungrateful?’

Tom laughed. ‘Yes, and a whole lot more. Why won’t you let me talk to you naturally, Uncle Horace? That’s what I mean by being friends.’

‘You can talk as naturally as you like, but you know my views on the subject you’ve raised, and nothing will be gained by repeating them.’

‘I don’t want you to repeat them.’

‘I came down, as I told you, to have a talk with Mr. Knox, and we had that last night.’

‘Mr. Knox likes Uncle Stephen, I think.’

‘So it would appear. He also---- Well, what he said inclined me perhaps to alter my judgment a little.’

‘Uncle Horace, if I tell you something will you believe me, will you help me, will you be my friend?’

But Uncle Horace was not to be rushed into making rash promises. ‘It depends on what the something is,’ he replied.

‘You know what it is.’

‘Then why do you want to tell me?’

Tom looked up at him gravely. ‘Because I don’t think you---understand it. You think I just want to stay here because I like it better than Gloucester Terrace, but it isn’t that: at least, it’s much more than that.’

‘What is it then?’

‘It’s very hard for me to explain---unless---unless you try to understand.’ Tom’s head drooped, and his voice became husky and uncertain. ‘I love Uncle Stephen. . . . I couldn’t bear to be taken away from him. . . . You won’t try to do that, will you?’

Uncle Horace walked on without replying. Tom’s arm was pressing upon his, but he gave no sign of being aware of it. Neither did he repulse it. Presently he said, ‘Why are you talking like this now? On my last visit you took a very different tone. Why have you changed? There must be some reason.’

‘I suppose it’s because I haven’t Uncle Stephen with me now,’ Tom said simply.

‘That seems a poor reason.’

‘And it’s partly because you’ve been different,’ Tom added.

Uncle Horace frowned, though not at his nephew. He was looking straight before him at the landscape. ‘I think the chief trouble is that you’re a great deal too emotional,’ he brought out deliberately, but not unkindly. ‘All along that really has been my chief reason for wishing to see you back at Gloucester Terrace.’

‘But suppose it was you I was fond of, Uncle Horace; you wouldn’t think I was too emotional then.’

‘That’s where you make a mistake. I should think you were too emotional. A great deal too emotional. Why can’t you be like other boys?’

‘Like Eric and Leonard?’ said Tom doubtfully.

Uncle Horace hesitated. ‘Well----’ He glanced at Tom and left his remark unfinished. He found another. ‘There’s not the least danger of your ever becoming like Eric and Leonard.’

‘But you’d rather I was,’ Tom said in discouragement. ‘I know what you mean. I know I’m---- You see, they’re so different in every way. At any rate you have them, they’re your real nephews.’

‘Yes,’ said Uncle Horace drily. ‘I don’t want you to be like Eric and Leonard. I don’t want you to be like anybody but yourself. The only thing I do wish is that you were a little more---normal.’

‘But----’

‘There are no “buts” about it,’ said Uncle Horace firmly. ‘It isn’t so much of the present as of the future I’m thinking. You won’t be a boy always, and you won’t always have your Uncle Stephen to depend on. He ought to see that for himself, instead of encouraging you.’

‘He doesn’t encourage me,’ said Tom. ‘Once or twice he spoke to me very much in the way you’re speaking now.’

‘Umph,’ said Uncle Horace.

‘But he did! I don’t know why you’re so against him! Will you help me, Uncle Horace? I know I’ve sometimes been cheeky to you, and----’

‘That has nothing to do with it,’ Uncle Horace interrupted testily. ‘One would imagine you thought I took a kind of spiteful pleasure in trying to come between you and Mr. Collet!’

‘I never thought that,’ Tom replied,’ but I do think you don’t like him.’

‘Perhaps I don’t. One can’t like everybody. At any rate, now there is this fresh complication.’

Tom for a moment did not understand. ‘What complication?’ he asked.

‘This other boy---this Stephen.’ Uncle Horace halted. ‘I think we’d better turn back.’

‘But Stephen has been here all the time,’ said Tom. ‘Ever since I was here.’

‘In that case I don’t see why Mr. Collet wants you. Isn’t his grandson enough for him? Doesn’t he care for him?’

‘Of course he cares for him. . . Only, they haven’t very much in common. Anyway, Stephen is only here on a visit: he isn’t going to stay: he doesn’t want to stay.’

‘Why doesn’t he want to stay? It looks to me as if his grandfather took little or no interest in him. Otherwise he would hardly let him go about dressed as he is.’

‘That’s his own fault,’ said Tom quickly.

‘Where is he going to when he leaves the Manor? Has he said what he wants to do?’

‘Well, of course, he won’t be leaving for some time---I don’t know how long exactly. But I can tell you one thing he wants to do. He wants to go to Coombe Bridge.’

‘Why?’

‘I suppose because his people came from there. I mean the Collets---they belonged to Coombe Bridge.’

‘He only wants to see the place, then?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, is there any objection to his going? Does Mr. Collet object?’

‘No. We were thinking of going while he was away. We were talking about it this morning.’

‘You can’t get to Coombe Bridge from here,’ said Uncle Horace. ‘At least, not by train. I don’t know anything about buses, but by rail it would be a most roundabout journey.’

‘Where could we get a train?’ Tom asked. ‘Isn’t there a junction where we could change?’

‘There’s no junction that would be of any use. Coombe Bridge isn’t on this line at all---nowhere near it. You’d have to go back to town.’

Tom thought for a moment. ‘Will you be going back to-day, Uncle Horace?’

‘Yes, after lunch.’ But the words dropped rather drily, as if he understood what the next question would be.

‘Could you take us with you?’

Uncle Horace did not reply, and Tom did not repeat his request. Neither did he relinquish Uncle Horace’s arm nor look offended. It seemed to him, after all that had taken place, that Uncle Horace had every right to refuse.

‘In the car, do you mean?’ Uncle Horace said at last. ‘I thought you wouldn’t trust yourself with me!’

Will you take us then? I know I oughtn’t to ask you.’

‘It will mean staying the night at Gloucester Terrace,’ Uncle Horace warned him. ‘Even if we start immediately after lunch we shan’t be home much before six.’

‘I know. Do you think they’d mind putting us up for a night? Couldn’t we go to an hotel?’

‘Two nights,’ said Uncle Horace, ignoring the hotel. ‘You’ll have to break your journey on the way home too.’

‘Well, for two nights.’

‘How do you know we won’t keep you when we get you?’

Tom looked down. ‘I think I’ve been rather stupid about that,’ he said.

‘You weren’t so stupid. If I’d got you before I would have kept you.’

‘Why have you changed, Uncle Horace?’

‘I don’t know. Probably because I’m stupid.’

‘You’re not. You’re being most frightfully decent about everything, and I won’t forget it.’

‘Well---I wonder where the others have got to. Knox will be thinking he oughtn’t to have stayed.’

‘But wasn’t there something you wanted to say to me?’

‘I’ve said it. Or at any rate part of it, and we’ll let it go at that.’

‘Thanks awfully, Uncle Horace. . . . I mean for giving us a seat in the car.’

‘Yes, I know what you mean. And for the other too, I dare say. I’ll get Shanks to send a wire to your step-mother while we’re at lunch. One person, at all events will be on the doorstep to welcome you.’

‘Who? Jane?’

‘Yes; Jane.’

Uncle Horace consulted his watch.

‘Will you say anything about Stephen in the telegram?’ Tom asked as they drew near the house.

‘Stephen? No. I can’t go into explanations about Stephen by telegram. Besides, it’s not necessary; there’s only your own room available and he’ll have to share it with you.’

‘I know. Uncle Horace, I don’t like going back like this. It seems pretty rotten---just as if we were making use of them. I think we ought to go to an hotel.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Uncle Horace. ‘If there’s any difficulty you can stay with me.’

Report Spam   Logged

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter


Pages: [1]   Go Up
  Print  
 
Jump to:  

Powered by EzPortal
Bookmark this site! | Upgrade This Forum
SMF For Free - Create your own Forum


Powered by SMF | SMF © 2016, Simple Machines
Privacy Policy