It was easy to talk of sleeping if you were only the second in an encounter, Tom reflected bitterly. He had slipped away from Treen Hall, and had driven himself home by the light of a full moon. The chill air sweeping over the moors cooled his head, and, to a great extent, his rage. By the time he reached the Manor, and had stabled the cob, he was finding it increasingly difficult to look forward with any pleasure to the morrow – no, not the morrow: it was past midnight, he observed, as he entered the Manor, and saw the tall-case clock at the foot of the stairs.
His mother had gone to bed, but as ill-luck would have it, the Squire was still up, and called to him from the library. ‘Is that you, Tom?’
He was obliged to go into the room, and there was his father, and not alone either. He was playing chess with Sir John Frith. Tom regarded Sir John in the light of an uncle, and was much attached to him, but there was no one he wanted to see less tonight.
‘You are back very early,’ remarked the Squire, shooting a look up at him under his bushy brows.
‘Yes, sir,’ he said, in a careless voice. ‘It was such a squeeze – and Harry and I mean to go out early, to fish the Brown Pool.’
‘Oh!’ said the Squire, his gaze bent again on the board. ‘You have me, John, I fancy.’
‘I think so,’ agreed his guest. ‘Jack going with you, Tom?’
Tom knew the tell-tale colour was rising to his cheeks. ‘Yes – oh yes!’ he stammered, feeling like a Judas – only that it was more likely that it would be he, and not Jack, who would be brought home on a hurdle so few short hours ahead.
‘Glad to hear it!’ said Sir John. ‘Better than dangling after a petticoat at your age, pair of young fools that you are!’
That was the way dotards of forty-five (and very likely even older) talked to one, so senile they had forgotten what it meant to be young, and in love! Tom said stiffly that he would go to bed.
‘Yes, you go,’ agreed his father. ‘Good night, my boy: don’t wake the whole household when you get up! The mistake I made, John, was in moving my queen’s bishop when I did.’
Tom went away, quite unnoticed by the insensate old men, who were already playing their game all over again. The last thing he wanted was for either of them to suspect the truth, but somehow it made him feel ill-used and resentful that they didn’t even notice that something was amiss.
When he got into bed he hoped that Harry would not oversleep. Harry was coming to fetch him in his gig, and it would be a dreadful thing if he were to be late on the ground, perhaps oversleeping himself. The gentleman from London would certainly bring his man punctually to the rendezvous.
He soon found that there was no fear of his oversleeping. He could not sleep at all. He tossed and turned; threw off blankets; pulled them over him again; punched his pillows – all to no avail. He was wide awake, his mind so lively that his thoughts crowded in on it, jostling one another in a restless, worrying way he was not at all accustomed to.
He was not, he thought, afraid – or, at any rate, not more afraid than one was before going out to bat at Eton; but he felt sorry for his father, who would in all probability come down to breakfast to be greeted with the pleasing intelligence that the hope of his house was either a lifeless corpse, or hideously wounded. His mother would never recover from the blow; and what a terrible thing it would be for Sir John and Lady Frith, with their heir obliged to fly the country, and all communication with the Manor severed from that hour! Poor, deluded Uncle John, asking so casually if Jack were going fishing too!
Suddenly, as that thought flitted into his head, it was elbowed out by another: if only it had been true, and he and Jack were going to tramp off through the dewy early morning, sandwiches in their pockets, rods in their hands, creels on their backs, and nothing between them but the comfortable, idle chat of close friendship! No need for Harry on that expedition; in fact, better without Harry, though he might come if he chose, for he was a good sort of a fellow – a very faithful friend, really, though not to compare, of course, with Jack. He was apt to be a little in the way sometimes, as when he had gone with them when – Tom checked that thought quickly. Fatal to remember all the things he and Jack had done together, and the sport they had had, and the scrapes they had plunged into! That was all over; and even if their encounter did not end in the death of one of them, nothing would ever be the same again between them. But he couldn’t help remembering, and it didn’t seem to be of any use to dwell on Jack’s miserable double-dealing today, because whether Jack gave Marianne flowers behind his best friend’s back, or whether he behaved as impeccably as one had been so sure he would, he was still the friend who had shared one’s every thought, helped one out of tight corners, called on one for instant aid himself, so that one would as readily have doubted Father’s loyalty as his.
And it was all because of freckled little Marianne Treen, who was a shocking flirt, when one came to consider the matter dispassionately, and probably didn’t care a rap for either of them! One dance each – and only country dances at that! – had she granted them tonight, but she had waltzed twice with Sir Gavin Kilham, and had engaged herself to another town-buck for the quadrille. When one thought of the time one had wasted, trying to fix her interest – yes, wasted was the word! All these summer months, when he and Jack might have been so much better employed, squandered on toadying a chit who had never been anything but a dead bore to either of them!
The more one thought of it the less vivid grew Marianne’s present image, the clearer the memory of a tiresome little girl with freckles, spoiling one’s sport by insisting on accompanying one, and then falling into the brook, or complaining that she was tired, or dared not cross a field with cows grazing in it. The idea that he and Jack – Jack! – should stand up to shoot at one another for the sake of Marianne Treen would have been a grand jest if it had not been so tragic. And just suppose that by some quirk of fortune it was not Jack’s bullet that found its mark, but his? Why, if that happened he would blow out his own brains, because there would be nothing left in all the world for Jack’s friend to do!