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Chapter Twenty-Five (A)

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« on: July 24, 2023, 08:53:17 am »

STEPHEN at the last minute had bought a newspaper, but, to Tom’s surprise, he had not read it. He had rustled its leaves, glanced at a few headlines, looked at the photographs on the back page, and offered it to Tom. It now lay on the floor between them.

The train was slowing down. So far it had stopped at nearly every station, and Tom had begun to feel oddly restless, almost excited, though he could not have told what he looked forward to. Coombe Bridge meant nothing to him, nor even so far as Stephen was concerned did he see what benefit could come of their visit. There was nothing to be learned at Coombe Bridge that they did not know already.

The train drew up and their carriage came to rest directly in front of a group of market-women. Tom guessed what would happen, and got up to help with the baskets. There were plenty of half-filled coaches on the train; most of the women were stout, and all of them were hot; but where one entered the rest followed, and soon they were packed so tightly that for Tom and Stephen only standing-room was left. Stephen let down the other window with a bang.

‘Well, if that isn’t too bad now! We’ve been and taken their seats. It’s them baskets that takes up all the room.’

‘Ah sure, they won’t mind for all the distance we’re going: it’s not worth changing now.’

‘Indeed I never looked whether there was room or not: they’re always in that big a hurry they wouldn’t give you time to look round.’

The glowing matron who had last spoken, and who had plopped herself down in a corner seat, suddenly pulled Tom on to her lap. She did it without a word, and so unexpectedly, that he was there and her stout arms about him before he knew what had happened.

He struggled indignantly away from her and took up a position at the door, very red in the face, while the others laughed.

‘My, but he’s proud!’ exclaimed the forsaken lady. ‘I suppose even his own ma’s not allowed to touch him!’

‘I’m too hot,’ Tom answered through his confusion. ‘I’d rather stand.’

‘What’ll he do when he’s married? He must be one of them that has to have a separate bed.’

Another laugh greeted this sally, and Tom, after a moment, smiled himself.

‘I’ll sit on your knee if you like,’ he said, ‘but you won’t find it comfortable, because I’m a good deal heavier than you think.’

‘Divil a knee! But perhaps you wouldn’t be so backward in other ways.’

She removed the lid from a basket and the other ways were revealed as gooseberries. ‘Here, hold out your cap, and don’t say I’m not a forgiving woman.’

She filled his cap, and Stephen, who had no cap, was allowed to fill his pocket. Then she leaned forward and addressed a friend at the further end of the compartment. ‘Who would you fancy he resembles, Lizzie---the way he wrinkles his nose. He’s the very spit of him.’

Lizzie turned a meditative gaze on Tom. ‘You mean my Jimmie?’ she said dubiously. ‘But it’s nothing barrin’ that trick he has.’

‘It’s the whole look of him---the way his ears sticks out, and the brow---I’ll warrant this one is good at his books too.’

The comparison was pursued by the entire company, while an uneasy suspicion (shortly to become a certainty) grew up in Tom’s mind that Jimmie’s earthly career had ended several months ago. He was glad when a more cheerful topic was started, gladder still when they got out.

Stephen had noticed nothing, nor did he help Tom and an impatient railway porter with the baskets. With his back turned he hung out of the window, seeming to be absorbed in the landscape, slowly and deliberately spitting out gooseberry skins. From his attitude, from his silence, Tom concluded that they must be drawing near their destination. He wondered what Stephen was thinking, but he could not guess. He spat out his gooseberry skins more and more absent-mindedly; he seemed to have become oblivious to Tom’s existence.

‘We’re nearly there, aren’t we?’ Tom asked, but Stephen did not look round. Then presently he muttered over his shoulder, ‘Next station.’

Tom leaned back in his seat. He shut his eyes. There was no use trying to feel sleepy, however, so he opened them again and looked at Stephen.

The engine whistled. . . . They were approaching their station. Stephen was again hanging out of the window, but he drew in his head as they passed under a bridge. The brake jarred; they glided up to a platform and stopped.

Stephen had already opened the door. He jumped out and Tom followed. Nobody else got out, and there was nobody waiting to get in. The platform looked extraordinarily empty. And whether it was this emptiness or not, Tom experienced a peculiar sensation, as if the whole adventure had fallen flat.

It was absurd. What had he expected to happen? A porter was at a white wooden gate waiting to take their tickets. He hurried after Stephen. . . .

Coombe Bridge itself was nearly as deserted as the station. To Tom it seemed a moribund spot, even when compared with Kilbarron.

‘All these wretched little houses are new,’ said Stephen shortly.

They turned a corner and were in the main street. At the end of it was a market square, and behind that a church, with a road branching off on either side of it.

‘They’ve taken away the pump!’ muttered Stephen.

‘Where was it?’ Tom asked gently.

‘There, on the green---where they’ve stuck up that awful thing.’

The awful thing Tom recognized as a War Memorial, but he said nothing.

Suddenly Stephen stopped before a shop---a draper’s and clothier’s.

‘I know this place,’ he said.

‘What do you want to do?’ Tom asked, for Stephen had come to a standstill in the middle of the footpath, and was looking back in the direction of the railway station.

‘I don’t know,’ Stephen replied. ‘I wish I hadn’t come.’

But he approached the shop and pushed open the door, which emitted a sharp ping as he did so. Tom followed him inside.

The interior was cool and dusky after the glare of the street: the shop was empty. The sound of the bell, however, brought a middle-aged woman from some hidden region at the back. Stephen had advanced to the counter, and in a low indifferent voice she wished him good-morning. Her whole appearance was curiously lethargic; she had an air of being not in the least interested either in them or in what they might want; she simply stood there as if waiting for them to go.

‘Could you tell me if a Mr. Collet lives here?’ Stephen asked.

The woman raised heavy-lidded dull brown eyes. ‘Here? Do you mean in this house?’

‘No: I mean anywhere in Coombe Bridge.’

‘Collet. I don’t remember the name. . . . Wait a minute.’ She retreated without haste in the direction she had come from, but only as far as a curtained door. Opening this, ‘Pa,’ she called listlessly, ‘you’re wanting a minute.’

There was a perceptible pause: then various sounds arose from the other side of the door, though none of them verbal. Sounds of a pipe being knocked out, of a throat being cleared, of a chair being pushed back over a tiled floor---followed by a sound of shuffling footsteps accompanied by the sharp tapping of a stick. An old man, bent, white-bearded, with red twitching eyelids, emerged through the dim aperture.

‘I’m a’wantin’---who wants me?’ he asked querulously, in a thin cracked voice.

‘This young gentleman is looking for a Mr. Collet. Is there any Collet lives in Coombe Bridge?’

‘Collet?’ The old man peered at Stephen. ‘Collet, did you say?’

‘Yes,’ Stephen answered.

‘An’ what might a’ put the name of Collet into your head, young gentleman?’ The old man drew closer. ‘There’s been no Collets in Coombe Bridge---not since the Reverend Henry Collet died, and that must be nigh and next forty years ago. No, there’s no Collets left except what’s dust and bones in the graveyard. Who might you be, if you’ll pardon the liberty?’

My name is Collet: I’m Stephen Collet.’

The old man continued to blink his eyelids rapidly while he stood pondering. He was a rather dirty and far from pleasant old man. It was not a pleasant shop either, Tom thought. There was something wrong with it---something decidedly wrong.

‘That would be the name of the second son,’ the old man said cautiously. ‘I mind hearing about him, but both the sons had left home before ever I came to this place. The shop belonged then to my uncle. I was brought up to the farming. I was on the land till I was nigh on thirty years of age, and----’

‘Yes, pa; but the young gentleman wants to know about Mr. Collet.’

‘Well, amn’t I tellin’ him,’ the old man snapped with an unexpected waspishness. ‘I was well acquainted with the Reverend Collet: not that I was one of his denomination. But I had converse with him when he would be coming into the shop maybe. And he would mention his sons. They had both left home, and Henry, that was called by him and was the eldest, was doing well; but the young one was a rover and they could get no tidings of him. He had the true Collet blood in him, that one, for they were mostly a wild lot---not fearing God or man. You wouldn’t be his boy, would you?’

‘No.’

The old man looked down and began to mutter incantations into his beard---or so it seemed to Tom. Then once more he took a long look at Stephen and broke, rather startlingly, into a laugh.

‘The Reverend Henry Collet is buried deep in the churchyard of his own church,’ he said with a glee that was somehow shocking. ‘And the last time I seen his grave there was a hare sitting up on it with its ears cocked. Not that I hold with them superstitions---that comes from the devil---or so they say.’

‘Pa!’

‘Is there anybody else who knew him?’ Tom interrupted, for he wanted to get out of this shop as quickly as possible.

‘Are you a Collet too?’ the old man said softly.

‘Yes---or at least my mother was.’

‘Ay---ay---the family’s comin’ back it would seem. . . . There was something strange about them all---even about the Reverend Henry. . . . The churchyard is no place for hares. It looked at me the way the little gentleman might be looking now, and it never budged though I threatened it with my stick. It was after that the rheumatism took me bad and I was lyin’ for three weeks.’

‘Don’t you be heeding him, sir,’ the woman said in an undertone. Then more loudly, ‘Pa, the young gentleman asked you a question. Can’t you tell him if there’s anybody still living here might have known Mr. Collet?’

The old man without turning his head slid his eyes round at her. For a moment they expressed an astonishing malevolence: then he began again to mutter into his beard. ‘No, there’s no one would have known him---no one at all---no one unless it might be Miss Charlemont.’

Stephen turned to the woman. ‘What Miss Charlemont is that?’ he asked.

The woman’s eyes were strangely still---stupid---stupid and slightly glazed. ‘It’s the lady living in the red house on the hill he’d be meaning---Miss Alice Charlemont.’

‘Has she lived there long?’

‘Ay, she’s well up in years. Not what you’d call ancient, like Pa there, but she’d be turned sixty.’

‘Let’s go,’ whispered Tom, plucking Stephen by the sleeve, for Stephen stood motionless, plunged in meditation.

‘Go straight through the square,’ said the woman, for the first time showing signs of animation, ‘and take the turn on your right after you pass the church. It’s not above half-a-mile. Keep on till you get to the top of the hill and you’ll see the house from the road. You can’t miss it, for it’s the only house there.’

The old man again was peering at Stephen, with an extraordinary mixture of slyness and suspicion. And again he broke into a chuckle; after which he turned abruptly and hobbled back to where he had come from.

‘You needn’t be payin’ any attention to him,’ said the woman. ‘Sometimes he’s like that. You’d never know beforehand whether he was goin’ to be sensible or not.’

Tom thanked her and gave Stephen another tug, this time effectively.

‘I don’t like those people,’ he said, when they were out in the sunshine again. ‘The old man especially.’

‘He’s doting,’ Stephen murmured absently.

‘He may be doting, but I don’t like him: I think he has horrible things in his mind.’

Stephen shook off his reverie. He smiled faintly.

‘And I think they’ve begun to get out,’ Tom went on. ‘That shop was awfully queer.’

‘I didn’t notice anything. Except that it didn’t look very prosperous.’

‘Something is going to happen there,’ Tom persisted. ‘I knew the minute I went in. And he hates his daughter---or his daughter-in-law.’

‘Does he? I wasn’t much interested in either of them. The woman knows nothing and the old man is cracked. . . . I was thinking of Miss Charlemont.’

‘Well, I hope she won’t be like them. That is, if we are going to see her.’

‘Don’t you want to go?’

‘I want to do whatever you want. Do you know Miss Charlemont? Was she here---before?’

‘How can I tell? The woman said she must be sixty. The Charlemont girl I knew---Alice Charlemont---was fourteen.’

Tom hesitated. ‘Would you rather not go?’

‘Oh, I’m going, but there’s no need for you to come.’

‘Did you know her well---your Alice Charlemont, I mean?’

‘Yes. She used to lend me her pony.’

‘Did you like her?’

‘Yes---well enough.’

‘I don’t think you do like many people.’

‘I like them if they’re my sort.’

I’m not very much your sort.’

‘Not in some ways, but---- Oh, well, it’s hard to explain. There are different kinds of liking. I don’t think I’d ever want to be with one person all the time, or to live in one place all the time, or to live one kind of life all the time. You’re different, I know. You’d be quite content, wouldn’t you, to settle down at the Manor with Uncle Stephen for the rest of your life? But you ought to remember Uncle Stephen had returned from his adventures. It wasn’t that he’d never had any. According to you, he’d had plenty.’

‘Uncle Stephen wanted me to stay at home.’

‘Yes, he would---naturally. He wanted you, and of course if you didn’t stay at home he couldn’t have you. He was an old rascal, you know.’

‘He wasn’t.’

‘And he was jolly lucky to find you. You suited him as well as if he’d helped God to make you. How many boys, do you think, would have wanted to read Greek with him, to play chess with him, to live in that old house with him? About one in ten thousand. I’d have been fed up with it in two days.’

‘I don’t see how that can be,’ said Tom. Nevertheless his brow puckered as he thought it over, for it did actually seem to be true.

‘That is the house,’ said Stephen, catching him by the arm. ‘There, through the trees.’

Tom looked up in time to see it, but almost immediately it was hidden by a turn in the road.

Straight in front of them were two tall iron gates, and beyond these was an avenue, which wound about corkscrew fashion, either with the design of making the grounds appear more extensive than they really were, or of minimizing the steepness of the approach. ‘If she’s at home,’ said Stephen, ‘she can’t very well not feed us, and that’s what we need most at present.’

The house, built on the brow of a hill, was square and solid and completely devoid of ornament. It was in fact the very house Tom again and again, in childhood, had drawn on paper---with its rows of windows all exactly the same, its door in the middle, and its chimneys, from one of which the conventional trail of smoke was rising. Not a leaf was allowed to touch the precious bricks, and the steps were so spotlessly white that it looked as if visitors must use the back door. Tom wiped his feet on the grass, but Stephen was less particular. He rang the bell, which responded with an alarming exuberance. He must have given it a frightful tug!

Miss Charlemont was at home, they learned, but no invitation to come in followed the announcement. They were left standing in the porch while a message was carried to her. Tom stooped down to stroke a somnolent tabby basking in the sun.

Suddenly the door opened wide. ‘Miss Charlemont will see you if you will kindly step this way: she’ll be down in a few minutes.’

They were ushered into a bright morning-room the furniture of which was covered in gaily-flowered chintzes. The paper was gay also, a rose-coloured pattern on a white ground, and all the woodwork was white. The sun shone in through two windows, and there were flowers in bowls and vases. . . . Rooms! Tom fancied he was rather a specialist in them, and this one certainly was pleasant: therefore so must be Miss Charlemont. The servant retired and came back with a tray on which were wine-glasses and a decanter and a blue china biscuit box. ‘Miss Charlemont hopes you will take a glass of wine and a biscuit while you are waiting,’ she said, and then left them alone.

‘Very decent of her, I must say,’ murmured Stephen, filling the glasses and taking a sip.

Tom watched him with pellucid, oddly childish eyes. ‘What kind of wine is it?’ he asked, also sipping. ‘Port?’

‘Port---no: it’s sherry.’ Stephen wavered. ‘At least I think so. You don’t drink port before meals. Anyway it’s quite good. Let’s get drunk before she comes down.’ He hastily emptied his glass and refilled it.

‘Don’t be piggy,’ said Tom.

‘Why not? I’ve never been really squiffy except once---last Christmas---staying with a chap called Rockmore. Besides, I expect you’ll like me better when I’m tight.’

Tom’s face flamed. ‘I don’t like you now, anyway,’ he said. ‘You’d think you were being beastly on purpose.’

‘So I am. This visit is having the wrong effect.’

Tom had no time to say more, for just then the door opened, and an elderly lady with smooth grey hair, small, and very alert and active, entered. There was something birdlike about her---in her brightness, her quick movements. She smiled at them both, turning from one to the other. ‘Which of you is Stephen Collet? No; don’t tell me.’ She advanced swiftly to Stephen and kissed him. ‘That question at least was unnecessary.’

Tom from the beginning felt out of it. His presence might not actually be unwelcome, but it certainly was superfluous. Miss Charlemont had eyes only for Stephen.

‘It’s wonderful!’ she kept on saying. ‘It’s not a mere family resemblance: you might be the very Stephen Collet I used to know. He was a friend of mine; a dear dear friend, though we were only children. That will tell you how long ago it was. . . . And you say your name is Stephen too!’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘Oh, don’t be so formal, child! You must call me Aunt Alice. And you too’---she suddenly remembered Tom---‘I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch your name, dear.’

‘That’s cousin Tom---Tom Barber,’ said Stephen. ‘His mother was Henry Collet’s daughter.’

‘Yes, yes. I’m afraid I don’t remember Henry very well. He was older than Stephen, and I scarcely ever saw him. But Stephen and I were playmates when he was home for his holidays.’ She paused, her eyes rejoicing in the boy who stood there smiling at her. ‘I don’t think I ever in my life got such a surprise as when Annie brought me your name. . . . And, you know, I haven’t got you yet,’ she went on---‘where you come in. . . . But I shan’t bother you now. Lunch is ready; you must explain it all to me afterwards.’

Miss Charlemont led the way to the dining-room. She struck Tom as being a somewhat scatter-brained person, though extremely kind. ‘Isn’t it fortunate there is lunch,’ she babbled on happily. ‘Very often I have nothing but an egg and a cup of tea myself, but to-day by some special providence there is a roast fowl, and I’m sure you’re both starving.’

They sat down at the table, and Tom with a shade of uneasiness watched Stephen drinking another glass of wine---this time Burgundy---which had been poured out for him. Moreover, there was a glint of recklessness in his eyes Tom did not like at all. So he signalled a warning across the table while Miss Charlemont was giving an order to the maid, though he would have preferred to get up and remove the decanter, which had been placed at Stephen’s elbow, and from which he now proceeded to help himself once more.

When the maid had left the room Miss Charlemont returned to personal matters. ‘You must give me a complete account of yourselves,’ she said; but she addressed Stephen, and it was Stephen she meant. ‘I’ve lost all sight of your family for I don’t know how long, and one hears nothing in an out-of-the-way spot like this. Of course, to begin with, I suppose you must be Henry Collet’s son, or grandson---and that would make you my Stephen Collet’s nephew, or grand-nephew.’

‘You’ve got it all wrong, Aunt Alice,’ Stephen replied gaily. ‘Henry Collet hadn’t a son. He had only a daughter, and it is Tom there who is his grandson. Don’t you really know who I am? I thought you were only pretending, but now I don’t think I’ll tell you. I’ll give you three guesses.’

Miss Charlemont laid down her knife and fork. Once more she subjected Stephen to a close scrutiny: then she nodded her head two or three times and looked extremely wise. Stephen had begun to laugh, and his young eyes met her old eyes boldly. ‘If I didn’t think you were making fun of me,’ said Miss Charlemont, ‘and if I hadn’t always been told that Stephen Collet was a bachelor----’ She broke off, and Tom groaned inwardly. ‘Now we’ll get all the natural son business!’ he said to himself; and however lightly Mr. Knox and Uncle Horace might regard such matters, he was sure Miss Charlemont was unaccustomed to them.

Who told you, Aunt Alice?’ Stephen questioned playfully.

‘Never mind who told me,’ Miss Charlemont replied. ‘Well---everybody----’ she went on rather vaguely. ‘Everybody who ever mentioned him.’ But Tom could see she was becoming more and more uncertain. ‘You don’t mean you are his son!’ she exclaimed at last. She shook a reproachful finger at him. ‘That wasn’t fair of you. I think you might have told me at once instead of letting me make a goose of myself.’

‘But I really thought you knew,’ Stephen protested, laughing. ‘Particularly when you recognized me straight off like that. And then---well, I was sure you would know who I was, just because I had come specially to see you. Of course, Tom came too, but that was different: he happened to be with me.’

Miss Charlemont sat silent a moment, and a faint flush came into her cheeks. ‘So your father sent you!’ Her eyes had grown very soft, and she sighed, but it was not from sadness. ‘Well, dear, that was extremely nice of him, for I thought he wouldn’t even have remembered there was such a person after all these years. But why did he wait so long? Why have I never heard?’

Is it long since you heard of him, Aunt Alice?’

‘Yes, dear. And the last I heard was that he was living all alone----’

‘But don’t you see that that explains it?’ cried Stephen triumphantly. ‘He only married shortly before I was born. . . . I mean, about a year before,’ he added, with a quick glance at Tom. ‘And it was abroad and nobody in this country knew anything about it. He has hardly any friends over here. In fact you might say he has none---except you. Shall I tell you the whole story, Aunt Alice? I mean all about his marriage, and how it happened. Would you like me to?’

‘Yes dear, of course. . . . And perhaps it is my own fault that I know so little. He went away when he was a boy---no older than you are now---and he never wrote. Afterwards, when I heard he had come back to this country, I thought of writing. I debated the idea with myself many times, but it always ended by my deciding against it. You see, I thought that if he had wished to renew our friendship he would have done so himself, and---and that it wasn’t my place to remind him of what perhaps he had no desire to recall. I wish now I hadn’t been so stiff and stupid, for I won’t deny that his sending you to visit me like this has touched me very much.’

Tom suddenly felt sorry for her, and at the same time indignant. It was as if Stephen had invented this graceful action of Uncle Stephen’s for no other purpose than to lead Miss Charlemont on to make herself absurd.

Meanwhile the maid had come back into the room, and while she remained there Miss Charlemont spoke of the weather and apologized for having nothing more to offer them than dessert---if she had only known they were coming she would have had a really nice lunch for them. But the moment they were alone again she turned eagerly to Stephen. ‘I think, dear, I interrupted you. You were about to tell me something.’

‘Yes,’ said Stephen, sipping his wine, while his gaze rested dreamily on a picture above Tom’s head. ‘It was about father’s marriage. But I don’t want to bore you.’

‘You won’t bore me,’ Miss Charlemont assured him.

‘At any rate I’ll try not to,’ said Stephen, suddenly looking straight into Tom’s eyes. ‘You see,’ he went on, after this ominous assurance, ‘it was all most unusual. In a way, you might call it romantic.’

Tom glared, but Miss Charlemont sat mutely expectant, an expression of profound interest on her mild and innocent face.

Yes, it was romantic---and unusual. Uncle Stephen, it seemed, some seventeen years before, had revisited Italy, and during this visit he had married, and he had married a nun. He had heard her singing in chapel and had fallen in love with her voice. There had been an elopement---more in the nature of an abduction, it appeared, as Stephen added fresh details---followed by a year of perfect happiness. The story grew more and more picturesque as the narrator warmed to his task. Tom glanced at Miss Charlemont and hastily averted his eyes. There she sat, lapping it all up like cream, an absorbed expression on her face. Couldn’t she see how preposterous it was? But no; she accepted it; and a deeply sentimental sigh escaped her when Stephen ended dramatically, ‘My mother died two days after I was born.’

Miss Charlemont awoke out of her trance. ‘It’s really wonderful!’ she breathed. ‘And you told it wonderfully, Stephen---so sympathetically; it brought the whole thing up before me! It’s almost like a novel by Marion Crawford---in fact very like a novel by Marion Crawford---I’ve forgotten its name---but where your father listened day after day to the nuns singing in chapel, and to that one voice----!’

As for Tom, he had sat through this brilliant performance with a darkening countenance. He had known that Miss Charlemont could not be told the truth, but there was a difference between not telling her the truth and mystifying her to this extent. That seemed to him as ungentlemanly as it was unnecessary. After all, they were her guests. ‘I think you’ve drunk enough of that stuff,’ he suddenly said across the table, and in a tone that brought Miss Charlemont’s eyes round to him with a startled look.

She hesitated, and perhaps something in Stephen’s manner did at last strike her, for she murmured timidly, ‘I think, dear, you may perhaps find that Burgundy rather heavy on such a hot day. Wouldn’t you like to mix it with a little soda water?’

Stephen, his hand still grasping the neck of the decanter, stopped dead, and Tom went on coldly: ‘If you’re going to do all you said you wanted to do we ought to be starting soon.’

Miss Charlemont again interposed, and Tom knew from her manner that she resented the way he had spoken. But he didn’t care: he wasn’t going to have any more of this kind of thing. ‘You want, I expect, to see the Rectory and the church,’ Miss Charlemont murmured. ‘They are both quite near: in fact you can see the church steeple from the window.’

Stephen had relapsed into silence: he even had the grace to look slightly ashamed of himself. He glanced deprecatingly at Tom, but Tom turned away. He was really angry, and he would have been angrier still if Miss Charlemont had not been so foolish. But by the time coffee was brought in she had completely forgotten her misgivings. Perhaps she had never felt any, and had only been annoyed with Tom for interfering. At all events, it was perfectly clear when at last they rose to go, that she would have liked to have kept Stephen with her for the rest of the afternoon and to have sent Tom to explore the church and the Rectory alone. She told Stephen she was going to write that evening to his father, and before saying good-bye made him promise he would come and stay with her.

‘Sorry,’ Stephen began, the moment the door had closed behind them.

‘You needn’t have made fun of her to her face!’ Tom exploded. ‘Especially after she’d been so decent.’

‘But I didn’t. I mean it wasn’t really of her I was making fun. It was of the whole thing---of you and me and our explanations and all the rest of it. Besides, I can’t feel that it matters a straw what I say or what I do. . . . I know it does matter,’ he added hastily, ‘but I can’t feel that it does. And then---- Somehow, I can’t think of it as real. I can’t think of Miss Charlemont as real. The only person who seems real---besides myself---is you: and that, I suppose, is because you belong to both times.’

‘So does Miss Charlemont.’

‘She doesn’t. She’s no more like my Alice Charlemont than that monument was like the old village pump. Hang it all,’ he went on half impatiently, ‘whatever you may be doing, I’m living in a kind of fairy tale. You ought to remember that. I don’t think you’d find it so easy yourself.’

‘I dare say it’s difficult,’ Tom admitted, relenting a little. ‘But I’m doing all I can to try to make it less so, and you might help me.’

‘I’m going to help you. I want to help you---naturally---because I think something must be done pretty soon. . . . I think it was partly coming back to this place made me like that. It was just---I don’t know. . . . But----’ He walked on for a few yards with his hands in his pockets. ‘Don’t you see, there’s a way I might look at it all that would make it pretty beastly. I’ve tried not to look at it like that; I’ve tried to make the best of it, and I don’t think you’re quite fair. I know you want to be, but I don’t think it’s possible for you to be fair to both me and Uncle Stephen. It’s quite natural that you should choose him: only---you oughtn’t to forget there is this other side.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Tom contritely.

‘It’s all right,’ Stephen answered. ‘You’ve been as decent as anybody could be. It’s not your fault: it’s just the way things are.’

‘I only meant that by talking the way you did at lunch----’

‘I know. I’ll try not to do it again. I knew at the time you didn’t like it.’

But Tom felt unhappy. He had not realized this other point of view: he had only realized Uncle Stephen’s. He could understand it now. He could imagine what his own emotions would have been had he suddenly been projected into the future. He would not have taken it nearly so courageously and cheerfully as Stephen had. To be alone like that---for that was what it amounted to! And Stephen must feel he was unwanted. The only friend he had was Tom himself, and there could be no illusion in his mind that Tom wanted him. . . . And yet, he did want him. It was only that he wanted Uncle Stephen more. . . .

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