At the look in his father’s face, he hesitated, wrinkling his brows in a way that recalled his mother.
“Anything wrong, Daddums? I’m fearfully sorry. I came for a book. Is it”—still further hesitation—“Aunt Jane?”
“Why? Have you seen her?” Nevil asked sharply.
“Yes. Was it a meteoric visitation? As I came up the path, she was getting into her car.—And she cut me dead!” He seemed more amused than impressed. Then the truth dawned on him. “Dad—have you been telling her? Is she ’as frantic as a skit’?”
Their favourite Hardy quotation moved Nevil to a smile. “She’s angry—naturally—because she wasn’t consulted,” he said (a happy idea). “And—well, she doesn’t understand.”
“’Course she doesn’t. Can she ever?” retorted impertinent youth. “She lacks the supreme faculty—imagination.” Which was disrespectful, but unanswerable.
Nevil had long ago recognised the futility of rebuke in the matter of “Aunt Jane”; and it was a relief to find the boy took it that way. So he smiled, merely—or fancied he did. But Roy was quick-sighted; and his first impression had dismayed him.
No hesitation now. He came forward and laid a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Dads, don’t get worrying over me—out there,” he said with shy tenderness that was balm after the lacerating scene Nevil had just passed through. “That’ll be all right. Mother explained—beautifully.”
But louder than Roy’s comfortable assurance sounded within him the parting threat of Jane: “Disaster will come of it. Then perhaps you’ll admit I was right.” It shook the foundations of courage. He simply could not stand up to the conjunction of disaster—and Roy. With an effort he freed himself of the insidious thing,—and just then, to his immense surprise, Roy stooped and kissed the top of his head.
“Confound Aunt Jane! She’s been bludgeoning you. And you are worrying. You mustn’t—I tell you. Bad for your work. Look here”—a portentous pause. “Shall I chuck it—for the present, anyhow?”
The parental attitude of the modern child has its touching aspect. Nevil looked up to see if Roy were chaffing; and there smote him the queer illusion (rarer now, but not extinct) of looking into his own eyes.
Roy had spoken on impulse—a noble impulse. But he patently meant what he said, this boy stigmatised by Jane as “all in the clouds,” and needing a “tight hand.” Here was one of those “whimsical and perilous moments of daily life” that pass in a breath; light as thistledown, heavy with complex issues. To Nevil it seemed as if the gods, with ironical gesture, handed him the wish of his heart, saying: “It is yours—if you are fool enough to take it.” Stress of thought so warred in him that he came to himself with a fear of having hurt the boy by ungracious silence.
The pause, in fact, had been so brief that Roy had only just become aware that his cherished dream was actually trembling in the balance—when Nevil stood up and faced him, flatly defying Jane and Olympian irony.