The Novel on Blue Paper - Chapter 5
THE TWO LADS
Meantime, his children were growing up and had everybody's good word, yet but little notice from their father. Now and then, when they got to be boys instead of children, they went to stay with Mr Godby, where Miss Edith spoilt them terribly, and where they picked up materials for many a future dream in the library, and on the lake in the park; and then they spent a day at one or two of the farmers' houses in the parish—of one of which, more anon; but this was all the change they had, except their school, to which they went rather late, and which was no further than Hamington, a country town ten miles from Ormslade.
Their father would often go up to London, and spend a month at a time there, and would go abroad for two or three weeks, not heeding whether it was their holidays or not, and indeed thinking next to nothing of them. They, for their part, were not at all glad when he came home, both because their having the run of the whole house, and the constant society of the footman, gardener, and cook was very delightful, and also because their father, whom they always feared, was particularly morose and ill tempered when he came back from his absences.
As they grew up they often enough heard their father spoken of in a mysterious, half-hushed way, and themselves with a condescending pity, which, though it troubled them, didn't puzzle them for long; for they soon divined what sort of a man their father was, and with no little shame shared, perforce, the general dislike of him, or hatred rather call it.
So, passing over a good many years, let us come back to the day we began with, when John, the elder, was seventeen, and Arthur, the younger, sixteen years old.
Passing up the wide carved staircase, we come, at the top of the house, to a large, low-ceilinged room, with three windows at one end overlooking the kitchen garden, though that was pretty much hidden now by the thick-leaved boughs of the great limes that brushed against the open windows, and from which delicious scent and sound came that evening. The room was white-panelled, like the greater part of the house, with three or four of the queerest and most old-world pictures hung on its walls—an old sampler, and a picture, worked in brown worsted, of Abraham and Isaac, among them; and besides these, pictures from illustrated papers pasted up here and there, a stuffed polecat with a partridge in its mouth, arranged on the mantelpiece without the expense of a glass case (which had, however, been granted to the remains of a great, big-bellied, crooked-looking roach, such a recent trophy that he had not turned brown yet) and, to crown all, the lads' library in hanging shelves at one end of the room, and a goodish collection of tools and fishing-rods, by no means neatly disposed.
On a little deal table in the middle of the room was a huge bunch of summer flowers stuffed into a great brown jug, and then there were two white-hung beds, in one of which lay the sick lad, Arthur, just turning the corner of a low fever; by whom John sat, reading to him out of a new green-coated book—(Lane's Arabian Nights, to wit)—in that queer sort of way boys read sometimes when they cannot read quite quick enough for their eyes or their eagerness over the story. He stopped to laugh sometimes too, as well he might, for it was the Tale of Maroof he was reading, but came to an end at last when the sick lad fell back on his pillows, and said:
'Thanks, old chap. What a jolly story—what asses they were to leave it out of the old book! Let's have a look at it, will you?'
He turned over the book, the other leaning over him to look at the pictures, till his hand fell, and he said:
'Well, it was kind of father to get it me, wasn't it?'
'Yes,' said John shortly, turning away, and fidgetting about among an open drawer of fishing-tackle.
'I think he's a generous man, and all that sort of thing,' said Arthur. 'I'm bound to say he's generous with his money.'
John said nothing. After a pause Arthur said:
'Has he said anything more about your going to Oxford since that day? You're such a close fellow, I know you wouldn't have told me if there had been a row, especially while I was ill.'
'O, there was no row,' said John. 'He did speak to me yesterday week, and so I said the same thing over again—that I had heard him grumble at being a clergyman, and that I didn't want to be one any more than him. I was going to say that I thought it wrong, if a fellow didn't very much wish it, but I knew he would laugh at me so I held my tongue.'
'Well, what did he say?' said the other.
'I don't think he cared a bit. He said, well, that he wasn't rich enough to keep me idle, and that if I wasn’t going to take the living after him I must turn to at something next year, and mustn't be too particular either. I said I was quite ready whenever he wished it, and there was an end of the talk. I should think he would ask you, sooner or later, old fellow.'
'Well, I won't,' said Arthur emphatically. 'Just think, I should have to be his curate! I know what I should like to be—a farmer, but not about here. I declare, last holidays I felt quite queer when we came into the George at Hamington, and there were some farmers we didn't know, for fear they should begin to talk about father. And I say, I haven't told you this, but when I was dreaming last week, when I was about at my worst, I kept dreaming about him—don't you say a word about it, though.'
'I?' said John. 'That's a likely joke!'
'Well, look here, I dreamed he asked me to come out for a ride—here, you know—and just as I got on the pony he groaned dreadfully. Then we rode away beastly fast, but though we rode out of our own gate, I didn't know the place a bit. But presently I felt dreadfully afraid, and turned round to look at him, and his face was all aflame, I mean as if it were made of glass with fire behind it, and when I looked at him he screamed quite loud. So I tried to get away from him, and whipped the pony, and somehow I did get ahead of him, and I went so fast, and knew he was behind me all the time, though I didn’t hear any noise behind me, and didn't feel as if I were galloping, but going on just as I were a puppet pushed along a slide. And so I went till I was in a dark lane with trees on either side, and it seemed like twilight, and there was an opening ahead, and the sky showed, as if there were an open heath there, and I wanted most dreadfully to get there, and then there was a noise like when one swings round a flat piece of wood with a hole in it—do you remember? But presently I did get out onto this open place, and it was so still, and yet things seemed to be going round and I was on foot again, and quite alone. And so I walked on and on, till I got to where there was a canal on each side of a paved road, and the water in the canal was quite black, and seemed as if were boiling, though there was no steam coming from it. And then all at once I saw a man sitting in the middle of the road with his hands before his face, and got most horribly afraid at that, but I couldn't help going on till I stood over him, and then I saw by the clothes that it was father.
I touched him, and he didn't move—and then I touched him again, and felt him tremble, and then just as I was going away he jumped up—and just think! he was a skeleton, all but his face, which was his sure enough, and all like a glass mask with fire behind it. And he opened his mouth, and made the most horrible noise, that kept growing louder and louder. And I couldn't run away, and—'
'I say, Arthur, don't go on with that,' said John. 'You'll make yourself ill again. I wish the deuce we hadn't got onto this talk, tell me another time—shan't I read you another story?'
'No, thankyou,' said Arthur, 'I am tired. Besides, it's getting dusk, and you had better go and look after your worms.'
'I say, old chap,' said John, with rather an effort, 'if you wish it a bit, I won't go tomorrow—I’ll stay and read to you.'
'No,' he said. 'You go. Mrs Hadow will sit with me, and tell me stories about the farmers hereabout, and the great people of Scolton Manor. Besides, I want you to go and tell me how Clara is, and what she's doing.'
'Very well, then,' said John. 'Goodbye for the present.' And out he went, and not too slowly either; for he certainly looked forward to his tomorrow's fishing, as well he might in that beautiful June weather, having been a good deal shut up with the sick lad.
As to the looks of the lads, by the way, it would rather have puzzled anyone who had seen them to say why the little doctor should have said that either of them was not like his father. Some strange undercurrent of thought must have drawn it out of him, for they were obviously both very much like him, and were handsome and well-grown. The sick boy, as he lay white-cheeked in his bed, had certainly a great delicacy of feature that had no counterpart in his father's coarsened face, while John was light-haired, burnt brown and freckled with the June tide, with less serious and merrier eyes than his brother's, even had the latter been well; a bigger mouth, and fuller lips, and more massive jaw and chin, and was, in the lower part of his face, very like his father; just as Arthur was, in his black hair, and forehead, and nose, though his eyes—big, like his father's, and of the same colour—had a faraway and dreamy look; instead of a fierce and restless one.
So John ran quickly downstairs and out into the garden, where the sun was already set, and a cloudless golden sky was burning through the elms at the bottom of the garden.