He did not speak at once. Only as Tommy made a blind movement as if to go, he put forth a hand and took him by the arm.
“Tommy,” he said, “what have you been doing?”
Out of deep hollows his eyes looked forth, indomitable, relentless as they had ever been, searching the boy’s downcast face.
Tommy quivered a little under their piercing scrutiny, but he made no attempt to avoid it.
“Look at me!” Monck commanded.
He raised his eyes for a moment, and in spite of himself Monck was softened by the utter misery they held.
“You always were an ass,” he commented. “But I thought you had more strength of mind than this.”
Tommy made an impotent gesture. “I’m a beast—I’m a skunk!” he declared, with tremulous vehemence. “I’m not fit to speak to you!”
The shadow of a smile crossed Monck’s face. “And you’ve come all this way to tell me so?” he said. “You’ve no business here either. You ought to be at the Mess.”
“Damn the Mess!” said Tommy fiercely. “They’ll tell me I ratted to-morrow. I don’t care. Let ’em say what they like! It’s you that matters. Man, how infernally ill you look!”
Monck checked the personal allusion. “I’m not ill. But what have you been up to? Are you in a row?”
Tommy essayed a laugh. “No, nothing serious. The blithering idiots ducked me yesterday for being disrespectful, that’s all. I don’t care. It’s you I care about, Everard, old chap!”
His voice held sudden pleading, but his face was turned away. He had meant to say more, but could not. He stood biting his lips desperately in a mute struggle for self-control.
Everard waited a few seconds, giving him time; then abruptly he moved, slapped a hand on Tommy’s shoulder and gave him a shake.
“Tommy, don’t be so beastly cheap! I’m ashamed of you. What’s the matter?”
Tommy yielded impulsively to the bracing grip, but he kept his face averted. “That’s just it,” he blurted out. “I feel cheap. Fact is, I came—I came to ask you to—forgive me. But now I’m here,—I’m damned if I have the cheek.”
“What do you want my forgiveness for? I thought I was the transgressor.” Everard’s voice was a curious blend of humour and sadness.
Tommy turned to him with a sudden boyish gesture so spontaneous as to override all barriers. “Oh, I know all that. But it doesn’t count. See? I don’t know how I ever had the infernal presumption to think it did, or to ask you—you, of all men—to explain your actions. I don’t want any explanation. I believe in you without, simply because I can’t help it. I know—without any proof,—that you’re sound. And—and—I beg your pardon for being such a cur as to doubt you. There! That’s what I came to say. Now it’s your turn.”
The tears were in his eyes, but he made no further attempt to hide them. All that was great in his nature had come to the surface, and there was no room left for self-consciousness.