“But it’s in the programme,” cried Mabel Warren. “I saw it myself. I looked over Mrs Henne-Falcon’s shoulder. Five o’clock tea. A quarter to six to half past, hide and seek in the dark. It’s all written down in the programme.”
Peter did not argue, for if hide and seek had been inserted in Mrs Henne-Falcon’s programme, nothing which he could say would avert it. He asked for another piece of birthday cake and sipped his tea slowly. Perhaps it might be possible to delay the game for a quarter of an hour, allow Francis at least a few extra minutes to form a plan, but even in that Peter failed, for children were already leaving the table in twos and threes. It was his third failure, and again he saw a great bird darken his brother’s face with its wings. But he upbraided himself silently for his folly, and finished his cake encouraged by the memory of that adult refrain, “There’s nothing to fear in the dark.” The last to leave the table, the brothers came together to the hall to meet the mustering and impatient eyes of Mrs Henne-Falcon.
“And now,” she said, “we will play hide and seek in the dark.”
Peter watched his brother and saw the lips tighten. Francis, he knew, had feared this moment from the beginning of the party, had tried to meet it with courage and had abandoned the attempt. He must have prayed for cunning to evade the game, which was now welcomed with cries of excitement by all the other children. “Oh, do let’s.” “We must pick sides.” “Is any of the house out of bounds?”‘ “Where shall home be?”‘
“I think,” said Francis Morton, approaching Mrs Henne-Falcon, his eyes focused unwaveringly on her exuberant breasts, “it will be no use my playing. My nurse will be calling for me very soon.”
“Oh, but your nurse can wait, Francis,” said Mrs Henne-Falcon, while she clapped her hands together to summon to her side a few children who were already straying up the wide staircase to upper floors. “Your mother will never mind.”
That had been the limit of Francis’s cunning. He had refused to believe that so well-prepared an excuse could fail. All that he could say now, still in the precise tone which other children hated, thinking it a symbol of conceit, was, “I think I had better not play.” He stood motionless, retaining, though afraid, unmoved features. But the knowledge of his terror, or the reflection of the terror itself, reached his brother’s brain. For the moment, Peter Morton could have cried aloud with the fear of bright lights going out, leaving him alone in an island of dark surrounded by the gentle lappings of strange footsteps. Then he remembered that the fear was not his own, but his brother’s. He said impulsively to Mrs Henne-Falcon, “Please, I don’t think Francis should play. The dark makes him jump so.” They were the wrong words. Six children began to sing, “Cowardy cowardy custard,” turning torturing faces with the vacancy of wide sunflowers towards Francis Morton.
Without looking at his brother, Francis said, “Of course I’ll play. I’m not afraid, I only thought ” But he was already forgotten by his human tormentors. The children scrambled round Mrs Henne-Falcon, their shrill voices pecking at her with questions and suggestions.
“Yes, anywhere in the house. We will turn out all the lights. Yes, you can hide in the cupboards. You must stay hidden as long as you can. There will be no home.”
Peter stood apart, ashamed of the clumsy manner in which he had tried to help his brother. Now he could feel, creeping in at the corners of his brain, all Francis’s resentment of his championing. Several children ran upstairs, and the lights on the top floor went out. Darkness came down like the wings of a bat and settled on the landing. Others began to put out the lights at the edge of the hall, till the children were all gathered in the central radiance of the chandelier, while the bats squatted round on hooded wings and waited for that, too, to be extinguished.
“You and Francis are on the hiding side,” a tall girl said, and then the light was gone, and the carpet wavered under his feet with the sibilance of footfalls, like small cold draughts, creeping away into corners.
“Where’s Francis?”‘ he wondered. “If I join him he’ll be less frightened of all these sounds.” “These sounds” were the casing of silence: the squeak of a loose board, the cautious closing of a cupboard door, the whine of a finger drawn along polished wood.
Peter stood in the centre of the dark deserted floor, not listening but waiting for the idea of his brother’s whereabouts to enter his brain. But Francis crouched with fingers on his ears, eyes uselessly closed, mind numbed against impressions, and only a sense of strain could cross the gap of dark. Then a voice called “Coming”, and as though his brother’s self-possession had been shattered by the sudden cry, Peter Morton jumped with his fear. But it was not his own fear. What in his brother was a burning panic was in him an altruistic emotion that left the reason unimpaired. “Where, if I were Francis, should I hide?”‘ And because he was, if not Francis himself, at least a mirror to him, the answer was immediate. “Between the oak bookcase on the left of the study door, and the leather settee.” Between the twins there could be no jargon of telepathy. They had been together in the womb, and they could not be parted.
Peter Morton tiptoed towards Francis’s hiding-place. Occasionally a board rattled, and because he feared to be caught by one of the soft questers through the dark, he bent and untied his laces. A tag struck the floor and the metallic sound set a host of cautious feet moving in his direction. But by that time he was in his stockings and would have laughed inwardly at the pursuit had not the noise of someone stumbling on his abandoned shoes made his heart trip. No more boards revealed Peter Morton’s progress.