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   Chapter 8 No.8

What Timmy Did By Marie Belloc Lowndes Characters: 23282

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


And meanwhile the man of whom every single human being in Old Place, with the exception of the little village day girl, was thinking this afternoon, was coming ever nearer and nearer to Beechfield in an ecstasy of sentient joy at being "at home" again.

As Radmore motored along the Portsmouth Road through the warmly-beautiful autumn countryside, a feeling of exultation, of intense personal love for, and pride in, the old country, filled his heart. Why had he stayed in London so long when all this tranquil, appealing loveliness of wood, stream, hill and hollow lay close at hand? There are folk who deny the charm of Surrey-by whom this delicious county, with its noble stretches of wild, fragrant uplands, and wide, deep valleys, is dismissed as suburban. But though they would deny it vehemently, the eyes of such folk are holden.

As he was borne along through the soft, lambent air, everything he passed appealed to his heart and imagination. Each of the small, yet dignified, eighteenth-century houses, which add such distinction and grace to each Surrey township-Epsom, Leatherhead, Guildford-gave him a comfortable feeling of his country's well-being, of the essential stability of England. Now and again, in some woodland glade where summer still lingered, he would pass by happy groups engaged in black-berrying; while on the road there waited the charabancs, the motor-cycles, the pony-traps, which had brought them.

Once, when they came to such a spot, he, Radmore, called out to his chauffeur to stop. They were close to the crest of Boxhill, and below them lay spread out what is perhaps the finest, because the richest in human and historic associations, view in Southern England. As he stood up and gazed down and down and down, to his right he saw what looked from up here such a tiny toylike town, and it recalled suddenly a book he had once read, as one reads a Jules Verne romance, "The Battle of Dorking," a soldier's fairy-tale that had come perilously near being a prophecy.

Before Radmore's eyes-blotting out the noble, peaceful landscape, rich in storied beauty-there rose an extraordinarily vivid phantasmagoria of vast masses of armed men in field grey moving across that wide, thickly peopled valley of lovely villages and cosy little towns. He saw as in a vision the rich stretches of arable land, the now red, brown, and yellow spinneys and clumps of high trees, the meadows dotted with sleek cattle, laid waste-while sinister columns of flames and massed clouds of smoke rose from each homestead.

"Drive on!" he called out, and the chauffeur was startled by the harsh note in his employer's generally kindly voice.

On they sped down the great flank of the huge hill, past the hostelry where Nelson bid a last farewell to his Emma, on and on along narrow lanes, and between high hedges starred with autumn flowers. And then, when in a spot so wild and lonely that it might have been a hundred miles from a town-though it was only some ten miles from Beechfield-something went wrong with the engine of the car.

Janet had proposed that tea should be at five o'clock, so as to give the visitor plenty of time to arrive. But from four onwards, all the younger folk were in a state of excitement and expectation-Timmy running constantly in and out of the house, rushing to the gate, from whence a long stretch of road could be seen, till his constant gyrations got on his mother's nerves, and she sharply ordered him to come in and be quiet.

At a quarter to five the telephone bell rang and Jack languidly went to answer it. Then he came back into the drawing-room. "Radmore's had a breakdown," he said briefly, "he's afraid he can't get here till seven."

Here was a disappointing anti-climax!

"Then we'd better all go and have our tea," said Timmy sententiously, and everyone felt, in a dispirited way, that, as usual, Timmy had hit the nail on the head.

They all trooped into the dining-room, but Timmy was the only one who did full justice to the cakes and scones which had been made specially in Godfrey Radmore's honour: all the others felt cross and disappointed, especially Tom and Rosamund, who had given up going to a tennis-party.

Tea was soon over, for everyone talked much less than usual, and then they all scattered with the exception of Timmy and Betty. Janet had someone to see in the village; Tom persuaded Rosamund that they would still be welcome at the tennis-party; Betty stayed to clear the table. She, alone of them all, was glad of even this short respite, for, as the day had gone on, she had begun to dread the meeting inexpressibly. She knew that even Tom-who had only been seven years old when Godfrey went away-would be wondering how she felt, and watching to see how she would behave. It was a comfort to be alone with only Timmy who was still at table eating steadily. Till recently tea had been Timmy's last meal, though, as a matter of fact, he had nearly always joined in their very simple evening meal. And lately it had been ordained that he was to eat meat. But much as he ate, he never grew fat.

"Hurry up!" said Betty absently. "I want to take off the table-cloth. We can wash up presently."

Timmy got up and shook himself; then he went across to the window, Flick following him, while Betty after having made two tray journeys into the kitchen, folded up the table-cloth. Timmy might have done this last little job, but he pretended not to see that his sister wanted help. He thought it such a shame that he wasn't now allowed the perilous and exciting task of carrying a laden tray. But there had been a certain dreadful day when...

Betty turned round, surprised at the child's stillness and silence. Timmy was standing half in and half out of the long French windows staring at something his sister could not see.

Then, all at once, Betty's heart seemed to stop still. She heard a voice, familiar in a sense, and yet so unlike the voice of which she had once known every inflection.

"Hullo! I do believe I see Timothy Godfrey Radmore Tosswill!" and the window for a moment was darkened by a tall, stalwart figure, which looked as if it were two sizes larger than that which Betty remembered.

The stranger took up Timmy's slight, thin figure as easily as a little girl takes up a doll, and now he was holding his godson up in the air, looking up at him with a half humorous, half whimsical expression, while he exclaimed:-"I can't think where you came from? You've none of the family's good looks, and you haven't a trace of your mother!"

Then he set Timmy down rather carefully and delicately on the edge of the shabby Turkey carpet, and stepped forward, into the dining-room.

"I wonder if I may have a cup of tea? Is Preston still here?"

"Preston's married. She has five children. Mother says it's four too many, as her husband's a cripple." Timmy waited a moment. "We haven't got a parlourmaid now. Mother says we lead the simple life."

"The devil you do!" cried Radmore, diverted, and then, not till then, did he suddenly become aware that he and his godson were not alone.

"Why, Betty!" he exclaimed in a voice he tried to make quite ordinary, "I didn't see you. Have you been there the whole time?"-the whole time being but half a minute at the longest.

And then he strode across the room, and, taking her two hands in his strong grasp, brought her forward, rather masterfully, to the window through which he had just come.

"You're just the same," he said, but there was a doubtful note in his voice, and then as she remained silent, though she smiled a little tremulously, he went on:-

"Nine years have made an awful difference to me-nine years and the war! But Beechfield, from what I've been able to see of it, seems exactly the same-not a twig, not a leaf, not a stone out of place!"

"We didn't expect you for another hour at least," said Betty, in her quiet, well-modulated voice.

She was wondering whether he remembered, as she now remembered with a kind of sickening vividness, the last time they had been together in this room-for it was here, in the dining-room of Old Place, that they had spent their last miserable, heart-broken moment together, a moment when all the angry bitterness had been merged in wild, piteous tenderness, and heart-break...

"I had a bit of luck," he answered cheerfully, "as I went out of the house where I had managed to get on to a telephone, there came a car down the road, and I asked the man who was driving it if he would give me a lift. My luck held, for he was actually breaking his journey for half an hour here, at Beechfield!"

He was talking rather quickly now, as if at last aware of something painful, awkward, in the atmosphere.

"Others all out?" he asked. "Perhaps you'll show me my room, godson?"

"Wouldn't you like to see Nanna?" asked Timmy officiously. "She's so looking forward to seeing you. She wants to thank you for the big Shetland shawl she supposes you sent her last Christmas, and she has an idea that the little real silver teapot she got on her birthday came from you too. It has on it 'A Present for a Good Girl.'"

* * *

As Radmore followed Timmy up the once familiar staircase, he felt extraordinarily moved.

How strange the thought that while not only his own life, but the lives of all the people with whom he had been so intimately associated, had changed-this old house had remained absolutely unaltered! Nothing had been added-as far as he could see-and nothing taken away, and yet the human atmosphere was quite other than what it had been ten years ago.

Just now, in the moment of meeting, he had avoided asking Betty about George. Betty's twin had been away at the time of Radmore's break with Old Place-away in a sense which in our civilised days can only be brought about by one thing, an infectious illness. At the time the agonising debate was going on at Beechfield, he had been in a fever hospital close on a month, and they were none of them to see him for three more weeks. It had been at once a pain and a relief that he should not be there-yet what good could a boy of nineteen have done?

As to what had happened to George afterwards, Radmore knew nothing. He believed that his friend had joined the Indian Civil Service. From childhood George had always intended to make his career in India, his maternal forebears having all been in the service of John Company.

During the last few days Radmore had thought a great deal of George, wondering what had happened to him during the war-whether, for instance, he had at last managed, as did so many Anglo-Indian officials, to get leave to join the Army? At one moment, before it had entered into his mind to write to his little godson, he had thought of opening up communications through George. But he had rejected the notion. The break had been so complete, and George, after all, was so closely connected with Betty! Considering that he had not mentioned Betty's brother, either when speaking to Janet on the telephone two or three days ago, or again just when he had made his unconventional re-entry into Old Place, it was odd how the thought of Betty's twin haunted him as he followed his little guide upstairs. Odd? No, in a sense very natural, for he and George often raced each other up these very stairs. They had been such pals in spite of the four years' difference between them.

Radmore and Timmy were now in the kind of annex or wing which had been added some fifty years after the original mansion had been built. The lower floor of this annex consisted of one big room which, even in the days of Radmore

's first acquaintance with the Tosswills, was only used in warm weather. Above it were two good bedrooms-the one still called "George's room," over-looked the garden, and had a charming view of bracken-covered hill beyond.

Timmy opened the door with a flourish, and Radmore saw at once that only one of the two beds was made up; otherwise the room was exactly the same, with this one great outstanding difference-that it had a curiously unlived-in look. The dark green linoleum on the floor appeared a thought more worn, the old rug before the fireplace a thought more shabby-still, how well things lasted, in the old country!

He walked across to one of the windows, and the sight of the garden below now in its full autumn beauty, seemed to bring Janet Tosswill vividly before him.

"Your mother as great a gardener as ever?" he asked, without turning round, and Timmy said eagerly:-"I should think she is! And we're going to sell our flowers and vegetables. We shall get the money now; the Red Cross got it during the war."

As his godfather remained silent, the boy went on insistently:-"Fifteen shillings a week clear profit is £40 a year, and Mum thinks it will come to more than that."

Radmore turned round.

"I wonder if any of you have yet met a lady who's just come to live here-Mrs. Crofton?"

"Oh, yes, we've met her; in fact she's been to supper." Timmy spoke without enthusiasm, but Radmore did not notice that.

"I was wondering if you and I could go round and see her between now and dinner?"

"I think I could." There was a doubtful touch in Timmy's voice. He knew quite well he ought to stay and help his sister to wash up the tea-things and do certain other little jobs, but he also knew that if he asked Betty to let him off, she would.

"I shan't be a minute," he exclaimed, and a moment later Radmore heard the little feet pattering down the carpetless back stairs, and then scampering up again.

Timmy ran in breathlessly. "It's all right!" he exclaimed, "I can go with you-Mrs. Crofton has got The Trellis House-I'll show you the way there."

"Show me the way there?" repeated Radmore. "Why, I knew The Trellis House from garret to cellar before you were born, young man."

In the hall Timmy gave a queer, side-long look at his companion. "Do you think we'd better take Flick?" he asked doubtfully, "Mrs. Crofton doesn't like dogs."

"Oh, yes, she does," Radmore spoke carelessly. "Flick was bred by Colonel Crofton. I think she'll be very pleased to see him."

Timmy would have hotly resented being called cruel, and to animals he was most humane, yet somehow he had enjoyed Mrs. Crofton's terror the other night, and he was not unwilling to see a repetition of it. And so the three set out-Timmy, Radmore, and Flick. Somehow it was a comfort to the grown-up man to have the child with him. Had he been alone he would have felt like a ghost walking up the quiet, empty village street. The presence of the child and the dog made him feel so real.

The two trudged on in silence for a bit, and then Radmore asked in a low voice:-"Is that busy-body, Miss Pendarth, still alive?"

They were passing by Rose Cottage as he spoke, and Timmy at once replied in a shrill voice:-"Yes, of course she is." And then, as if as an afterthought, he remarked slyly:-"Rosamund often says she wishes she were dead. Do you hate her, too?"

"Hate's a big word," said Radmore thoughtfully, "but there was very little love lost between me and that good lady in the old days."

They passed the lych-gate of the churchyard, and then, following a sudden impulse, Radmore turned into the post-office.

Yes, his instinct had been right, for here, at any rate, was an old friend, but a friend who, from a young man, had become old and grey. Grasping the postmaster, Jim Cobbett, warmly by the hand Radmore exclaimed:-"I'm glad to find you well and hearty, Cobbett." There came the surprised: "Why, it's Mr. Radmore to be sure! How's the world been treating you, sir?"

"Better than I deserve, Cobbett."

"Can you stay a minute, sir-Missus would like to see you, too?" The speaker opened a door out of the tiny shop, and Radmore, followed by Timmy and Flick, walked into a cosy living-room, where an old dog got up and growled at them.

"That dog," said Timmy in a hoarse whisper, "frightened poor Mrs. Crofton very much the other day as she was coming out of church."

For a moment Radmore thought the room was empty. Then, in the dim lamp-light, a woman, who had been sitting by the fireplace, got up.

"Here's Mr. Radmore come all the way from Australia, mother."

"Mr. Radmore?" repeated the woman dully, and Radmore had another, and a very painful, shock.

He remembered Mrs. Cobbett definitely, as a buxom, merry-looking young woman. She now looked older than her husband, and she did not smile at him, as the man had done, as she held out her worn, thin hand.

"A deal has happened," she said slowly, "since you went away."

"Yes," said Radmore, "a deal has happened, Mrs. Cobbett; but Beechfield seems unchanged, I cannot see any difference at all."

"Hearts are changed," she said in a strange voice.

For the first time since he had been in Beechfield, Radmore felt a tremor of real discomfort run through him.

He looked up at the mantelpiece. It was bare save for the photographs, in cheap frames, of two stolid-looking lads, whom he vaguely remembered.

"Those your boys?" he asked kindly, and then, making an effort of memory of which he felt harmlessly proud, he said:-"Let me see, one was Peter and the other was Paul, eh? I hope they're all right, Mrs. Cobbett?"

"In a sense, sir," she said apathetically. "I do believe they are. They was both killed within a month of one another-first Paul, then Pete, as we called him-so Mr. Cobbett and I be very lonely now."

As Radmore and Timmy walked away from the post-office, Radmore said a trifle ruefully:-"I wish, Timmy, you had told me about those poor people's sons. I'm afraid-I suppose-that a good many boys never came back to Beechfield."

He now felt that everything was indeed changed in the lovely, peaceful little Surrey village.

"I expect," said Timmy thoughtfully, "that the most sensible thing you could do"-(he avoided calling Radmore by name, not knowing whether he was expected to address him as "godfather," "Godfrey," or "Major Radmore")-"before we see anybody else, would be to take a look at the Shrine. You have plenty of matches with you, haven't you?"

"The Shrine?" repeated Radmore hesitatingly.

"Yes, you know?"

But somehow Radmore didn't know.

They walked on in the now fast gathering darkness through a part of the village where the houses were rather spread out. And suddenly, just opposite the now closed, silent schoolhouse and its big playground, Timmy stopped and pointed up to his right. "There's our Shrine," he exclaimed. "If you'll give me the box of matches, I'll strike some while you look at the names."

Radmore stared up to where Timmy pointed, but, for a moment or two, he could see nothing. Then, gradually, there emerged against the high hedge a curious-looking wooden panel protected by a slanting, neatly thatched eave, while below ran a little shelf on which there were three vases filled with fresh flowers.

Timmy Tosswill struck a match and held it up, far above his little head. And Radmore saw flash out the gilded words:-

ROLL OF HONOUR, 1914-1918.

PASS, FRIEND. ALL'S WELL.

The first name was "Thomas Ingleton," then came "Mons, 22nd August, 1914." Immediately below, bracketed together, came "Peter and Paul Cobbett," followed, in the one case, by the date October 15, 1915, and in the other, November 19, 1915. And then, in the wavering light, there seemed to start out another name and date.

Radmore uttered an exclamation of sharp pain, almost of anger. He did not want the child to see his shocked, convulsed face, but he said quickly:-"Not George? Surely, Timmy, not George?"

Timmy answered, "Then you didn't know? Dad and Betty thought you did, but Mum thought that perhaps you didn't."

"Why wasn't I told?" asked Radmore roughly. "I should have thought, Timmy, that you might have told me when you answered my first letter."

He took the box of matches out of Timmy's hand, and himself lighting a match, went up quite close to the list of names. Yes, it was there right enough.

"When did he, George, volunteer?" he asked.

"On the seventh of August, two days after the War began," said Timmy simply. "He was awfully afraid they wouldn't take him. There was such a rush, you know. But they did take him, and the doctor who saw him undressed, naked, you know, told Daddy"-the child hesitated a moment, then repeated slowly, proudly-"that George was one of the finest specimens of young manhood he had ever seen."

"And when did he go out?"

"He went out very soon; and we used to have such jolly times when he came back, because, you know, he did come back three times altogether, and the second time-Betty hadn't gone to France then-they all went up to London together and had a splendid time. I didn't go; Mum didn't think it worth the expense that I should go, though George wanted me to."

Hardly conscious that he was doing so, Radmore turned round, and began walking quietly on along the dark road, with Timmy trotting by his side. "What I believed," he muttered, half to himself, "was that George was safe in India, and probably not even allowed to volunteer."

"George never went to India," said Timmy soberly. "Betty wasn't well, I think, and as they were twins, he didn't like to go so far away from her. So he got a job in London. It was quite nice, and he used to come down once a month or so." He waited a moment, then went on. "Betty always said he was a born soldier, and that he ought to have been a soldier from the very beginning. As you care so much," he added a little diffidently, "I expect Betty would show you the letters his men wrote about him. Dad has got the letters of his Colonel and of the officers, but Betty has the others."

And then all at once Radmore felt a small skinny hand slipped into his.

"I want to tell you something," muttered Timmy. "I want to tell you two things. I want to tell you that I'm sure George is in Heaven. I don't know if you know, but I sometimes see people who are dead. I saw Pete Cobbett once. He was standing by the back door of the post-office, and that old dog of theirs saw him too; it was just before we got the news that he was killed, so I thought he was back on leave. But I've never seen George-sometimes I've felt as if he were there, but I've never seen him."

For a moment Radmore wondered if he had heard the words aright. What could the child mean? Did Timmy claim the power to see spirits?

"Now I'll tell you the second thing," went on Timmy, his voice dropping to a whisper. "The last time George was home he came into the night nursery one night. Nanna was still busy in the kitchen, so I was by myself. I have a room all to myself now, but I hadn't then. George came in to say a special good-bye to me-he was going off the next morning very early, and Betty wanted to be the only one up to see him go; I mean really early, half past five in the morning. And then-and then-he said to me: 'You'll look after Betty, Timmy? If anything happens to me you'll take my place, won't you, old chap? You'll look after Betty all the days of her life?' I promised I would, and so I will too. But I haven't told her what George said, and you mustn't tell anybody. I've only told you because you're my godfather."

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