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Chapter Twenty-Five (B)

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« on: July 24, 2023, 08:56:41 am »

THEY walked on in silence, but Tom had the impression that their pace was insensibly slackening. It was when the road took a sharp turn, however, that he became sure of it, for Stephen now gripped him by the hand. ‘That’s our house,’ he said. ‘I’m not going any closer.’

He was frowning, and Tom saw that something had begun to affect him powerfully. Yet in spite of his words, after a moment or two he walked on. Thus they reached the entrance to the Rectory and passed it, Stephen with his eyes fixed on the road ahead.

‘Shall we turn back?’ Tom asked. It was merely a suggestion, for he was now hopelessly in the dark as to what Stephen wanted to do. They were within a stone’s throw of the old church, and all around were the quiet grassy mounds and headstones of a country graveyard.

Stephen shook his head. What was passing in his mind Tom could not imagine, but he raised the latch of the wooden gate and they went in.

There were few trees. The place was exposed to whatever winds might blow. The low stone walls, the straggling gorse-bushes and ragged bramble and heather, gave little or no shelter. It must be a bleak spot enough in spring and autumn and winter, Tom thought; yet on this grey, still, summer afternoon, which had clouded over in the last hour, it was beautiful and peaceful. The gravel paths were smooth and black; the place, though it had this lonely appearance, was not ill-tended.

Stephen led him straight to a grave near the farther wall. Tom saw a plain, rounded headstone, on which names and dates were cut. His own mother was not buried here, nor was his grandfather. The names most recently recorded were those of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother:---Henry Collet, who had died in 1889; Margaret Collet, who had died two years later. They were Uncle Stephen’s father and mother: they were the present Stephen’s father and mother: the two boys read the brief record, each to himself, and turned away. They sat down on the rough low wall. In the valley below them, across intervening cornfields, they could see the houses of Coombe Bridge.

For perhaps ten minutes they sat there without speaking: then Stephen said, ‘Will you come back with me to Kilbarron?’

Tom wakened out of his daydream. ‘To Kilbarron? But----’

‘I know. Will you come with me?’

‘To-day? This afternoon?’

‘It’s the first thing I’ve ever asked you to do?’

‘Yes, I’ll come,’ Tom said.

‘Then we’ll go now.’

They got down from the wall, and, without another glance at the grave, left the churchyard and started on their walk back to the village.

‘Why do you want to go to Kilbarron?’ Tom asked, for such a desire, if it were more than a mere whim, seemed to him strange.

‘I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll know when we get there.’

‘They’ll be expecting us at home, of course,’ Tom went on softly. ‘We told them what train we’d catch.’

‘Yes.’

‘And they won’t be expecting us at the Manor: it will be shut up for the night. Mrs. Deverell will have gone home, and very likely she’ll have gone to bed. We won’t be able to get in.’

‘I wasn’t thinking of the Manor,’ Stephen answered. ‘I was thinking of the other house: we’ll be able to get in there.’

But having said this, for a long time he kept his lips closed, and Tom, walking beside him, left him to his thoughts.

His own mood, though it had changed less completely than Stephen’s, was not what it had been in the morning. The aspect of Coombe Bridge itself struck him as different. Perhaps it was because the day had altered, and with it the colour of everything: perhaps only because places are always different when you are leaving them.

Stephen broke his silence at last. ‘I think we’ll buy our food here,’ he said. ‘I suppose a loaf and a pat of butter will do. We’ll have to see if we can get a bus.’

It was odd how he seemed to be acting now with a definite purpose, and yet not to know what that purpose was.

‘I’m sure there won’t be a bus,’ Tom said.

‘There must be some way of getting there, and it’s not four o’clock yet. We’ll find our way somehow. You don’t mind, do you?’

‘No.’

The grocer from whom they bought their bread and butter could tell them little about the journey, but a stationer proved more helpful. He happened to be a motor-cyclist, and he not only sold them a map and marked it, but also worked out carefully the stages of their route, wrote down two or three buses which would take them part of the way, and assured them that they might expect to reach Kilbarron not later than half-past nine or ten.

This seemed to be all right, and the first few miles were covered even more quickly than their time-scheme had allowed for. It was not till they were more than half way that they began to lose ground. Then a failure of one of their buses meant a long extra trudge, and it began to look as if midnight was more likely to be the hour of their arrival. Tom had begun to wonder if he would be able to last out the journey. He did not mention this, however; he was determined to keep on as long as he could. Sometimes they got a lift which took them a short distance, but after each of these lifts he found it increasingly difficult to keep up with Stephen’s steady tramp. Fortunately, Stephen from the beginning had been silent and preoccupied. When they descended from their last bus ride---either disappointingly brief or remarkably rapid, for it seemed to Tom that it was over in a flash---it was ten minutes to twelve and they still had, according to the map, a journey of several miles before them.

It was a perfect night for walking---windless and clear, with a full moon to light their way. The country was unknown to them; they were not approaching the Manor from the Kilbarron side; but Tom was too weary to take an interest in his surroundings, or indeed to see anything but the high thorn hedges and the white road. After another mile or two his feet began to drag ominously. He had done his best and he was still determined not to give in, but when he sat down on a bank to tie his shoelace he felt as if he could not get up again.

‘Would you like to rest for a few minutes?’ Stephen asked. ‘I don’t think it can be very much further.’

Tom shook his head. ‘Resting will only make it worse.’ He got stiffly to his feet.

Yet though he could hardly put one foot before the other, his spirit was content. He was happy---happy and tired---very happy and very tired. Ever since they had left Coombe Bridge, though they had scarcely spoken a word, he had felt like this, and as if he were being drawn into closer and closer communion with Stephen. Or was it Stephen. . .? When he had been asked a minute ago if he would like to rest---was that Stephen. . .? Yes, of course it had been Stephen: Stephen was walking beside him now. Only---somehow---- It was because he was half asleep, and the pale light was so strange, and everything was so quiet, as if they had the whole world to themselves. . . . He dragged on, his feet white as the white road. He hung on Stephen’s arm, hung more and more, and this was strange too, because he knew he would not have done so a few hours ago. But now he didn’t mind---didn’t mind showing how tired he was---felt there was no need to pretend about anything. There had been only one person with whom he had ever felt like this, felt happy in this particular way, this way that left no room for doubt or fear, that was without shadow because it contained the assurance of giving no less than it received. He was happy, and, because he was happy with this kind of happiness, a certain childishness which was an essential part of his spirit no longer feared to peep out. . . .

But he was tired. He had long ago given up trying to make out what way they were taking: he left it entirely to Stephen. He was not very clearly conscious of anything now except that he was walking beside Stephen down an endless and moon-washed road. . . .

All at once they stopped. It had seemed to Tom that they would walk on and on for ever, and this sudden pause brought him up with a sharp jerk, the effect of which was as much mental as physical. He realized that for the last twenty minutes he must have been in a state bordering on somnambulism. He blinked.

Stephen was looking at him oddly. ‘Well, don’t you know where you are?’

Instantly Tom knew, and when he knew he began to recognize. But he sighed. ‘Stephen, dear, I simply can’t climb that wall. You go. I’ll lie down underneath it and you can come and find me in the morning.’

‘The gate’s a long way round,’ said Stephen doubtfully.

‘I know. The gate’s impossible. Now we’ve stopped I can’t go on again: all the works have run down.’

‘Come: I’ll give you a leg up.’

‘I need two legs, and two arms: my own feel like melted candles.’

‘You’re a terrible chap: come on now.’

Stephen lifted him bodily and Tom, with an effort that narrowly escaped landing him on his head on the other side, managed to get astride the wall. He stretched down his hands.

‘Don’t bother,’ said Stephen, ‘I can manage all right.’ And he clambered up beside Tom; then dropped down into the long grass.

Tom dropped also, and Stephen caught him. ‘Steady---steady!’ he said.

‘Sorry,’ murmured Tom.

‘We’re practically there.’ He waited a moment and then added, ‘Look here, I’m going to take you on my back. Climb up.’

‘You’re certainly not,’ Tom declared, pushing him away.

Stephen yielded unwillingly. ‘But you look dead-beat. Why didn’t you tell me sooner?’

‘I didn’t know sooner. It’s always like this. I can go on for a long time, and then there’s a sudden collapse. It’s well, isn’t it, we didn’t start to go round the world together the way you wanted to do?’

‘It was stupid of me not to see you were so tired.’

‘I ought to have been able to do it,’ said Tom. ‘It doesn’t seem to have affected you much.’

‘I’m used to tramping. Besides, I am tired. And very sleepy too. It will be daylight soon.’

Tom began to walk, but with uncertain steps. ‘Do you know your way, Stephen?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then I’ll leave it to you. If you go first I’ll follow.’

But they had not got a hundred yards before he stumbled.

Stephen stopped. ‘Look here, I’m going to carry you.’

‘You’re not.’

Stephen sat down. ‘Get on my shoulders. I can carry you better that way than on my back.’

‘I don’t want to,’ said Tom.

‘Well, I want you to. Don’t be obstinate.’

‘It seems so silly.’

‘It’s much sillier to make a fuss about it. If I’d suggested it on an ordinary occasion, simply as a joke, you’d have thought nothing of it.’

‘Yes, but then I wouldn’t have been giving in.’

He made no further difficulties, however, and Stephen, grasping him by the ankles, rose from the ground.

‘Catch hold of my hair; that will steady you.’

Tom fumbled.

‘Don’t tug it,’ said Stephen. ‘Hold my ears instead. You won’t hurt me: the least little touch will give you your balance.’

Tom took an ear in each hand, while Stephen trudged on.

‘You’ll be able to guide me that way, too; but don’t pull too hard.’

Tom gave a small pull, and Stephen moved to the left.

‘That’s right: you’ve a better view than I have, so keep a look-out.’

‘I love you, Stephen,’ Tom whispered.

‘You’re not to think of that now.’

‘How can I help thinking of it when I’m holding your ears.’

‘Well, think of it then, but don’t talk about it: I have to watch where I’m going.’

‘I mean you yourself,’ Tom went on, ‘as you are now. I wanted to tell you, because---I mayn’t be able to tell you later on.’

Stephen did not reply, nor did Tom himself very clearly understand what he meant. Suddenly, while he was thinking, there was the old familiar broken-down wall before them. Stephen stepped carefully through one of the gaps and over the loose stones. In a minute or two, threading his way between the trees, he had found the path. The way was now easy: a further fifty yards brought them out into the open---into the garden---with the low creepered house before them, and the stone boy watching them from his dark pool. Tom’s heart stirred with an unaccountable emotion. He clambered down from Stephen’s shoulders and stood beside him on the grass. The silence dropped like oil upon his senses. Every leaf hung as if painted on the air.

Only for a breathing space they stood thus before going on to the house. The back door was on the latch, as it had always been, and they climbed the stairs to Stephen’s room. Stephen lit the two candles he had bought in Coombe Bridge, and set them to stand in pools of grease upon the chimney-piece. Then they ate their supper.

They took off their shoes and prepared for the night. The window was wide open, but so still was the air that outside not a leaf stirred, and the candle flames stood up straight and motionless. The moon had dimmed and there was a faint reflection of daylight in the sky. Stephen blew out the candles.

‘We’re here at last,’ he said,’ and now do you know why I wanted to come?’

‘It’s too late to talk,’ Tom answered drowsily. ‘Wait till the morning.’

He was already on the threshold of sleep, with the door ajar and infinitely alluring. ‘Good-night,’ he whispered.

Stephen did not answer. Tom leaned closer. Then he shut his eyes, and almost instantly sank into the dark unconscious world which lay below his dream-world, and in which, from night to night, his life was mysteriously renewed.
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