“No, I’ll get up,” he said, and then with sudden desperation, “But I won’t go to Mrs Henne-Falcon’s party. I swear on the Bible I won’t.” Now surely all would be well, he thought. God would not allow him to break so solemn an oath. He would show him a way. There was all the morning before him and all the afternoon until four o’clock. No need to worry when the grass was still crisp with the early frost. Anything might happen. He might cut himself or break his leg or really catch a bad cold. God would manage somehow.
He had such confidence in God that when at breakfast his mother said, “I hear you have a cold, Francis,” he made light of it. “We should have heard more about it,” his mother said with irony, “if there was not a party this evening,” and Francis smiled, amazed and daunted by her ignorance of him.
His happiness would have lasted longer if, out for a walk that morning, he had not met Joyce. He was alone with his nurse, for Peter had leave to finish a rabbit-hutch in the woodshed. If Peter had been there he would have cared less; the nurse was Peter’s nurse also, but now it was as though she were employed only for his sake, because he could not be trusted to go for a walk alone. Joyce was only two years older and she was by herself.
She came striding towards them, pigtails flapping. She glanced scornfully at Francis and spoke with ostentation to the nurse. “Hello, Nurse. Are you bringing Francis to the party this evening? Mabel and I are coming.” And she was off again down the street in the direction of Mabel Warren’s home, consciously alone and self-sufficient in the long empty road.
“Such a nice girl,” the nurse said. But Francis was silent, feeling again the jump-jump of his heart, realizing how soon the hour of the party would arrive. God had done nothing for him, and the minutes flew.
They flew too quickly to plan any evasion, or even to prepare his heart for the coming ordeal. Panic nearly overcame him when, all unready, he found himself standing on the doorstep, with coat-collar turned up against a cold wind, and the nurse’s electric torch making a short trail through the darkness. Behind him were the lights of the hall and the sound of a servant laying the table for dinner, which his mother and father would eat alone. He was nearly overcome by the desire to run back into the house and call out to his mother that he would not go to the party, that he dared not go. They could not make him go. He could almost hear himself saying those final words, breaking down for ever the barrier of ignorance which saved his mind from his parents’ knowledge. “I’m afraid of going. I won’t go. I daren’t go. They’ll make me hide in the dark, and I’m afraid of the dark. I’ll scream and scream and scream.”
He could see the expression of amazement on his mother’s face, and then the cold confidence of a grown-up’s retort. “Don’t be silly. You must go. We’ve accepted Mrs Henne-Falcon’s invitation.”
But they couldn’t make him go; hesitating on the doorstep while the nurse’s feet crunched across the frost-covered grass to the gate, he knew that. He would answer: “You can say I’m ill. I won’t go. I’m afraid of the dark.” And his mother: “Don’t be silly. You know there’s nothing to be afraid of in the dark.” But he knew the falsity of that reasoning; he knew how they taught also that there was nothing to fear in death, and how fearfully they avoided the idea of it. But they couldn’t make him go to the party. “I’ll scream. I’ll scream.”
“Francis, come along.” He heard the nurse’s voice across the dimly phosphorescent lawn and saw the yellow circle of her torch wheel from tree to shrub. “I’m coming,” he called with despair; he couldn’t bring himself to lay bare his last secrets and end reserve between his mother and himself, for there was still in the last resort a further appeal possible to Mrs Henne-Falcon. He comforted himself with that, as he advanced steadily across the hall, very small, towards her enormous bulk. His heart beat unevenly, but he had control now over his voice, as he said with meticulous accent, “Good evening, Mrs Henne-Falcon. It was very good of you to ask me to your party.” With his strained face lifted towards the curve of her breasts, and his polite set speech, he was like an old withered man. As a twin he was in many ways an only child. To address Peter was to speak to his own image in a mirror, an image a little altered by a flaw in the glass, so as to throw back less a likeness of what he was than of what he wished to be, what he would be without his unreasoning fear of darkness, footsteps of strangers, the flight of bats in dusk-filled gardens.
“Sweet child,” said Mrs Henne-Falcon absent-mindedly, before, with a wave of her arms, as though the children were a flock of chickens, she whirled them into her set programme of entertainments: egg-and-spoon races, three-legged races, the spearing of apples, games which held for Francis nothing worse than humiliation. And in the frequent intervals when nothing was required of him and he could stand alone in corners as far removed as possible from Mabel Warren’s scornful gaze, he was able to plan how he might avoid the approaching terror of the dark. He knew there was nothing to fear until after tea, and not until he was sitting down in a pool of yellow radiance cast by the ten candles on Colin Henne-Falcon’s birthday cake did he become fully conscious of the imminence of what he feared. He heard Joyce’s high voice down the table, “After tea we are going to play hide and seek in the dark.”
“Oh, no,” Peter said, watching Francis’s troubled face, “don’t let’s. We play that every year.”