Christmas came and with it the girl’s eighteenth birthday, but the shadows that clung round her home did not lessen; nor could Stephen, groping about in those shadows, find a way to win through to the light. Everyone tried to be cheerful and happy, as even sad people will do at Christmas, while the gardeners brought in huge bundles of holly with which to festoon the portraits of Gordons — rich, red-berried holly that came from the hills, and that year after year would be sent down to Morton. The courageous-eyed Gordons looked out from their wreaths unsmiling, as though they were thinking of Stephen.
In the hall stood the Christmas-tree of her childhood, for Sir Philip loved the old German custom which would seem to insist that even the aged be as children and play with God on His birthday. At the top of the tree swung the little wax Christ-child in His spangled nightgown with gold and blue ribbons; and the little wax Christ-child bent downwards and sideways because, although small, He was rather heavy — or, as Stephen had thought when she too had been small, because He was trying to look for His presents.
In the morning they all went to church in the village, and the church smelt of coldness and freshly bruised green stuff — of the laurel and holly and pungent pine branches, that wreathed the oak pulpit and framed the altar; and the anxious-faced eagle who must carry the Scriptures on his wings, he too was looking quite festive. Very redolent of England it was, that small church, with its apple-cheeked choirboys in newly washed garments; with its young Oxford parson who in summer played cricket to the glory of God and the good of the county; with its trim congregation of neighbouring gentry who had recently purchased an excellent organ, so that now they could hear the opening bars of the hymns with a feeling of self-satisfaction, but with something else too that came nearer to Heaven, because of those lovely old songs of Christmas. The choir raised their sexless untroubled voices: ‘While shepherds watched their flocks . . . ’ sang the choir; and Anna’s soft mezzo mingled and blended with her husband’s deep boom and Puddle’s soprano. Then Stephen sang too for the sheer joy of singing, though her voice at best was inclined to be husky: ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night,’ carolled Stephen — for some reason thinking of Raftery.
After church the habitual Christmas greetings: ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Merry Christmas.’ Same to you, many of them!’ Then home to Morton and the large mid-day dinner — turkey, plum pudding with its crisp brandy butter, and the mince-pies that invariably gave Puddle indigestion. Then dessert with all sorts of sweet fruits out of boxes, crystallized fruits that made your hands sticky, together with fruit from the Morton green-houses; and from somewhere that no one could ever remember, the elegant miniature Lady-apples that you ate skins and all in two bites if you were greedy.
A long afternoon spent in waiting for darkness when Anna could light the Christmas-tree candles; and no ringing of bells to disturb the servants, not until they must all file in for their presents which were piled up high round the base of the tree on which Anna would light the small candles. Dusk — draw the curtains, it was dark enough now, and someone must go and fetch Anna the taper, but she must take care of the little wax Christ-child, Who liked many lights even though they should melt Him.
‘Stephen, climb up, will you, and tie back the Christ-child. His toe is almost touching that candle!’
Then Anna applying the long lighted taper from branch to branch, very slowly and gravely, as though she accomplished some ritual, as though she herself were a ministering priestess — Anna very slender and tall in a dress whose soft folds swept her limbs and lay round her ankles.
‘Ring three times, will you, Philip? I think they’re all lighted — no, wait — all right now, I’d missed that top candle. Stephen, begin to sort out the presents, please, dear, your father’s just rung for the servants. Oh, and Puddle, you might push over the table, I may need it — no, not that one, the table by the window —’
A subdued sound of voices, a stifled giggle. The servants filing in through the green baize door, and only the butler and footmen familiar in appearance, the others all strangers in mufti. Mrs. Wilson, the cook, in black silk with jet trimming, the scullery maid in electric blue cashmere, one housemaid in mauve, another in green, and the upper of three in dark terra-cotta, while Anna’s own maid wore an old dress of Anna’s. Then the men from outside, from the gardens and stables — men bare-headed who were usually seen in their caps — old Williams displaying a widening bald patch, and wearing tight trousers instead of his breeches; old Williams walking stiffly because his new suit felt like cardboard, and because his white collar was too high, and because his hard, made-up black bow would slip crooked. The grooms and the boys, all exceedingly shiny from their neatly oiled heads to their well-polished noses — the boys very awkward, short-sleeved and rough-handed, shuffling a little because trying not to. And the gardeners led in by the grave Mr. Hopkins, who wore black of a Sunday and carried a Church Service, and whose knowledge of the ills that all grape-flesh is heir to, had given his face a patient, pained expression. Men smelling of soil these, in spite of much scrubbing; men whose necks and whose hands were crossed and recrossed by a network of tiny and earth-clogged furrows — men whose backs would bend early from tending the earth. There they stood in the wake of the grave Mr. Hopkins, with their eyes on the big, lighted Christmas-tree, while they never so much as glanced at the flowers that had sprung from many long hours of their labour. No, instead they must just stand and gape at the tree, as though with its candles and Christ-child and all, it were some strange exotic plant in Kew Gardens.
Then Anna called her people by name, and to each one she gave the gifts of that Christmas; and they thanked her, thanked Stephen and thanked Sir Philip; and Sir Philip thanked them for their faithful service, as had always been the good custom at Morton for more years than Sir Philip himself could remember. Thus the day had passed by in accordance with tradition, every one from the highest to the lowest remembered; nor had Anna forgotten her gifts for the village — warm shawls, sacks of coal, cough mixture and sweets. Sir Philip had sent a cheque to the vicar, which would keep him for a long time in cricketing flannels; and Stephen had carried a carrot to Raftery and two lumps of sugar to the fat, aged Coffins, who because he was all but blind in one eye, had bitten her hand in place of his sugar. And Puddle had written at great length to a sister who lived down in Cornwall and whom she neglected, except on such memory-jogging occasions as Christmas, when somehow we always remember. And the servants had gorged themselves to repletion, and the hunters had rested in their hay-scented stables; while out in the fields, seagulls, come far inland, had feasted in their turn on humbler creatures — grubs and slugs, and other unhappy small fry, much relished by birds and hated by farmers.
Night closed down on the house, and out of the darkness came the anxious young voices of village schoolchildren: ‘Noel, Noel —’ piped the anxious young voices lubricated by sweets from the lady of Morton. Sir Philip stirred the logs in the hall to a blaze, while Anna sank into a deep chair and watched them. Her hands that were wearied by much ministration, lay over the arms of the chair in the firelight, and the firelight sought out the rings on her hands, and it played with the whiter flames in her diamonds. Then Sir Philip stood up, and he gazed at his wife, while she stared at the logs not appearing to notice him; but Stephen, watching in silence from her corner, seemed to see a dark shadow that stole in between them — beyond this her vision was mercifully dim, otherwise she must surely have recognized that shadow.
On new year’s eve Mrs. Antrim gave a dance in order, or so she said, to please Violet, who was still rather young to attend the hunt balls, but who dearly loved gaiety, especially dancing. Violet was plump, pert and adolescent, and had lately insisted on putting her hair up. She liked men, who in consequence always liked her, for like begets like when it comes to the sexes, and Violet was full of what people call ‘allure’, or in simpler language, of sexual attraction. Roger was home for Christmas from Sandhurst, so that he would be there to assist his mother. He was now nearly twenty, a good-looking youth with a tiny moustache which he tentatively fingered. He assumed the grand air of the man of the world who has actually weathered about nineteen summers. He was hoping to join his regiment quite soon, which greatly augmented his self-importance.
Could Mrs. Antrim have ignored Stephen Gordon’s existence, she would almost certainly have done so. She disliked the girl; she had always disliked her; what she called Stephen’s ‘queerness’ aroused her suspicion — she was never quite clear as to what she suspected, but felt sure it must be something outlandish: ‘A young woman of her age to ride like a man, I call it preposterous!’ declared Mrs. Antrim.
It can safely be said that Stephen at eighteen had in no way outgrown her dread of the Antrim; there was only one member of that family who liked her, she knew, and that was the small, hen-pecked Colonel. He liked her because, a fine horseman himself, he admired her skill and her courage out hunting.
‘It’s a pity she’s so tall, of course —’ he would grumble, ‘but she does know a horse and how to stick on one. Now my children might have been brought up at Margate, they’re just about fitted to ride the beach donkeys!’
But Colonel Antrim would not count at the dance; indeed in his own house he very seldom counted. Stephen would have to endure Mrs. Antrim and Violet — and then Roger was home from Sandhurst. Their antagonism had never quite died, perhaps because it was too fundamental. Now they covered it up with a cloak of good manners, but these two were still enemies at heart, and they knew it. No, Stephen did not want to go to that dance, though she went in order to please her mother. Nervous, awkward and apprehensive, Stephen arrived at the Antrims that night, little thinking that Fate, the most expert of tricksters, was waiting to catch her just round the corner. Yet so it was, for during that evening Stephen met Martin and Martin met Stephen, and their meeting was great with portent for them both, though neither of them could know it.
It all happened quite simply as such things will happen. It was Roger who introduced Martin Hallam; it was Stephen who explained that she danced very badly; it was Martin who suggested that they sit out their dances. Then — how quickly it occurs if the thing is predestined — they suddenly knew that they liked each other, that some chord had been struck to a pleasant vibration; and this being so they sat out many dances, and they talked for quite a long while that evening.
Martin lived in British Columbia, it seemed, where he owned several farms and a number of orchards. He had gone out there after the death of his mother, for six months, but had stayed on for love of the country. And now he was having a holiday in England — that was how he had got to know young Roger Antrim, they had met up in London and Roger had asked him to come down for a week, and so here he was — but it felt almost strange to be back again in England. Then he talked of the vastness of that new country that was yet so old; of its snow-capped mountains, of its canyons and gorges, of its deep, princely rivers, of its lakes, above all of its mighty forests. And when Martin spoke of those mighty forests, his voice changed, it became almost reverential; for this young man loved trees with a primitive instinct, with a strange and inexplicable devotion. Because he liked Stephen he could talk of his trees, and because she liked him she could listen while he talked, feeling that she too would love his great forests.
His face was very young, clean-shaven and bony; he had bony, brown hands with spatulate fingers; for the rest, he was tall with a loosely knit figure, and he slouched a little when he walked from much riding. But his face had a charming quality about it, especially when he talked of his trees; it glowed, it seemed to be inwardly kindled, and it asked for a real and heart-felt understanding of the patience and the beauty and the goodness of trees — it was eager for your understanding. Yet in spite of this touch of romance in his make-up, which he could not keep out of his voice at moments, he spoke simply, as one man will speak to another, very simply, not trying to create an impression. He talked about trees as some men talk of ships, because they love them and the element they stand for. And Stephen, the awkward, the bashful, the tongue-tied, heard herself talking in her turn, quite freely, heard herself asking him endless questions about forestry, farming and the care of vast orchards; thoughtful questions, unromantic but apt — such as one man will ask of another.
Then Martin wished to learn about her, and they talked of her fencing, her studies, her riding, and she told him about Raftery who was named for the poet. And all the while she felt natural and happy because here was a man who was taking her for granted, who appeared to find nothing eccentric about her or her tastes, but who quite simply took her for granted. Had you asked Martin Hallam to explain why it was that he accepted the girl at her own valuation, he would surely have been unable to tell you — it had happened, that was all, and there the thing ended. But whatever the reason, he felt drawn to this friendship that had leapt so suddenly into being.
Before Anna left the dance with her daughter, she invited the young man to drive over and see them; and Stephen felt glad of that invitation, because now she could share her new friend with Morton. She said to Morton that night in her bedroom: ‘I know you’re going to like Martin Hallam.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55