The sun was setting when I finally decided to come out of my hiding place in the cairn and retrace my steps towards home. The sky was a dusky blue with gold, orange, and red streaks illuminating the very edge of the horizon in glorious fingers of flame. In the waning light the color of the surrounding countryside was deepened into a green so rich, dark, and intense that it was nearly frightening. I had a fleeting sensation of it being possible for me to drown in that sea of terrible greenness, that the whole land would somehow open up and swallow me because the vast enormity of my wrongdoing was too great for it to carry without collapsing in some way. I was very scared about what would happen when I reached my destination, what consequence there might be for what I had done, what awful punishment might be in store for me. The worst thing that could happen would be for my aunt and uncle to decide that they were not going to take care of me anymore, and the very thought of being sent away for my misbehavior distressed me so much that I could hardly bear to think on it. When I came in view of the cottage, I paused for a minute and, shielding my eyes with my hand, looked to see if my uncle were sitting on the step waiting for me as I thought he might have done. The light was very dim now but I could make out a small figure moving around the edge of the cottage. It was the little basset hound, of course, and I wondered why he had been left outside on a chilly evening like this? Night was fast approaching and there was a good chance of rain before morning. Then it hit me that he had been left out to watch for me so that he would warn them with his barking when I got near enough to the house to alert him to my presence. Sure enough, after I had advanced a few more feet he broke out with a series of short, excited barks and the door opened, letting a long ray of firelight and lamplight penetrate the darkness outside the cottage. I had a dreadful sick feeling inside and hung my head in shame as I approached my uncle, who had shut the door behind him and now stood on the steps waiting for me. The sickness turned to near panic when I came near enough to see the stern look on his face and I had a wild, cowardly thought of suddenly turning and bolting away again.
In a moment, I was glad that I had not turned away from him because now that I was closer still I could see that despite the unusual expression of quiet sternness on his usually cheerful countenance, there was also a look in his eyes of sympathy and of pity too. I suddenly knew that he understood perfectly how I was feeling and I didn't need to explain myself at all. He knew what it was like to be a little boy afraid to go home and face the consequence for a bad mistake, and when I realized that he was not really angry with me the sick feeling subsided a little. I was near enough now to touch him if I wanted to, and I did want to, but instead of burying my nose in the rough tweed of his vest I wrapped my arms about myself, shivering in the cold wind while waiting for him to speak.
"Yes sir?" I trembled at his calm, even tone that did not betray any particularly emotion except a slight coldness but nevertheless I lifted my head and tried to look him in the eyes.
"Why did you run away from me today?"
"No sir" I hung my head because I would not be able to tell a lie like that if I kept on looking him in the eyes.
"Of your Aunt Mary then?"
"Well then, if you weren't afraid why did you run away?"
"Well, I was a bit scared then, Uncle"
"Scared of what?"
"You were angry at me, and so was Aunt Mary, and I felt awful about what I'd done and I thought that I would go away and wait until you weren't so mad anymore" Inside of me, I wanted to scream "I'm very sorry, Uncle Cathal, I really am sorry, I'll never do it again, I feel terrible now . . . Please don't send me away, I can't bear that! Do anything you want to me, hate me if you want to, but please, please, please don't reject me! Don't send me back into that world where nobody cares for me and I am always being beaten"
But the words would not come out like that. I could not ask him to forgive me, I could not even cry, all I could do was just to stand there hanging my head in shame. He made no move towards me but when he spoke again, it was to say, "John Lad, you've done yourself no good by running away from us. Come on inside now"
I came along inside, and he shut the door behind me. I sat down at the table and looked nervously at him, and then at Aunt Mary. She gave me a look that was quietly disapproving and pushed a bowl of soup across the table at me. I tried to sip the soup but it might have been dust for all the trouble that it took for me to swallow it. Uncle Cathal sat down too, and we all tried to eat while he and Aunt Mary made occasional, uninteresting remarks about nothing in particular. It felt strange to me, almost as though I were a stranger to them. I wanted to cry so badly the tears welled up in my eyes but I somehow managed to blink them back and kept on trying to eat that soup until it was somehow all gone. The evening progressed with a slow awful monotony until it was time for bed. Aunt Mary told me to get dressed for bed, and I ran into the back room to hunt for my worn little nighty, eager to be gone at least for a while from that awful atmosphere of cold, unspoken reproach. I dimly heard their voices in the front room, they were talking about me.
"I don't know Mary, I just can't do it"
Then there was more muffled whispering, and I felt a stab of terror. A bright thought suddenly occurred to me, and I ran to the chest to get his razor strop. I could ask him to whip me before he had a chance to make up his mind about sending me away and maybe when they saw how genuinely repentant I was they would relent and forgive me. I steeled myself for the ordeal, and started forward quickly before I had a chance to get scared again and act like a coward. Darting out of the doorway, I ran right into him and bumped my nose against his chest.
"Hey John! Watch where you're going!" he scolded, put his hands on my shoulders to steady me. Then he noticed the strop, and took it from me with a surprised look. "What . . ."
"Please do give me a hiding, Uncle!" I blurted desperately.
Uncle Cathal was clearly taken aback by this request, unusual to hear from any child, but also appeared to be relieved by it. He looked down at me and said, "You want a hiding? But why?"
I hesitated again, biting my lip out of nervousness and embarrassment, but Aunt Mary spoke for me. "Why? Why, he's a boy with a conscience in him after all, that's why. He'll feel better afterwards, he knows that"
She lifted the baby out of his cradle and moved past us into the back room. It was like a signal for us to get on with our business, and I followed Uncle Cathal back into the front room, engulfed in another great surge of nervousness. But I was able to cope with the swell of sick apprehension by another competing feeling of curiosity. He took hold of one of the chairs and moved it out from the table before setting his foot on the seat of the chair. I watched in puzzlement while he rolled up his trouser leg and pushed his stocking down to his ankle.
"What are you doing, Uncle?" He did not reply but instead lifted the strop and cut himself a good one on the side of the leg. I cried out in dismay, and then again when he struck himself for the second time. I waited in an astonished silence during the last four strokes, after which he pulled his stocking back up over the lashes and let his trouser leg down too. Then, he looked at me with a trace of tears in his eyes and taking me under his arm, he gave me the same six licks on the seat of my short trousers. He struck soundly but it was not more than I could reasonably bear, and after he was done he gave me a few reassuring pats on the back before departing for the next room to put the strop away. I leaned against the table and wept the necessary tears, but this time is was not just for the pain, for he had left me profoundly touched with that gesture of empathy. It seemed strange how a person could be so severe and so merciful at the same time, and I think that my heart must have swelled in response to that gesture, for I felt a kind of warmth deep down inside of myself that I had not ever felt before—or if so, I could not remember it. There could hardly be a more stark contrast between Uncle Toby's whinging about how my usually needless misery had hurt him terribly, and this actual, literal demonstration of love. He was trying to explain to me that although he could not spare me this pain, he could feel it with me. I swear I would die for a man like that. He was gone away for a few minutes and when he returned, followed by Aunt Mary, the crying had mostly subsided. He sat down in the chair by the fire and although he did not say anything to me, I knew that he was waiting for me to come to him. But here there was no ridiculous forced reconciliation. I came willingly, and a matter of moments I was curled up in the shelter of his arm, which is where I belonged. He talked softly to me and stroked my hair until I was gradually lulled to sleep.