Martin went to Morton, he went very often, for Sir Philip liked him and encouraged the friendship. Anna liked Martin too, and she made him feel welcome because he was young and had lost his mother. She spoilt him a little, as a woman will spoil who, having no son must adopt someone else’s, so to Anna he went with all his small troubles, and she doctored him when he caught a bad chill out hunting. He instinctively turned to her in such things, but never, in spite of their friendship, to Stephen.
Yet now he and Stephen were always together, he was staying on and on at the hotel in Upton; ostensibly staying because of the hunting; in reality staying because of Stephen who was filling a niche in his life long empty, the niche reserved for the perfect companion. A queer, sensitive fellow this Martin Hallam, with his strange love of trees and primitive forests, not a man to make many intimate friends, and in consequence a man to be lonely. He knew little about books and had been a slack student, but Stephen and he had other things in common; he rode well, and he cared for and understood horses; he fenced well and would quite often now fence with Stephen; nor did he appear to resent it when she beat him; indeed he seemed to accept it as natural, and would merely laugh at his own lack of skill. Out hunting these two would keep close to each other, and would ride home together as far as Upton; or perhaps he would go to Morton with her, for Anna was always glad to see Martin. Sir Philip gave him the freedom of the stables, and even old Williams forbore to grumble:
”E be trusty, that’s what ‘e be,’ declared Williams, ‘and the horses knows it and acts accordin’.’
But sport was not all that drew Stephen to Martin, for his mind, like hers, was responsive to beauty, and she taught him the countryside that she loved, from Upton to Castle Morton common — the common that lies at the foot of the hills. But far beyond Castle Morton she took him. They would ride down the winding lane to Bromsberrow, then crossing the small stream at Clincher’s Mill, jog home through the bare winter woods of Eastnor. And she taught him the hills whose plentiful bosoms had made Anna think of green-girdled mothers, mothers of sons, as she sat and watched them, great with the child who should have been her son. They climbed the venerable Worcestershire Beacon that stands guardian of all the seven Malverns, or wandered across the hills of the Wells to the old British Camp above the Wye Valley. The Valley would lie half in light, half in shadow, and beyond would be Wales and the dim Black Mountains. Then Stephen’s heart would tighten a little, as it always had done because of that beauty, so that one day she said:
‘When I was a child, this used to make me want to cry, Martin.’
And he answered: Some part of us always sheds tears when we see lovely things — they make us regretful.’ But when she asked him why this should be, he shook his head slowly, unable to tell her.
Sometimes they walked through Hollybush woods, then on up Raggedstone, a hill grim with legend — its shadow would bring misfortune or death to those it fell on, according to legend. Martin would pause to examine the thorn trees, ancient thorns that had weathered many a hard winter. He would touch them with gentle, pitying fingers:
‘Look, Stephen — the courage of these old fellows! They’re all twisted and crippled; it hurts me to see them, yet they go on patiently doing their bit — have you ever thought about the enormous courage of trees? I have, and it seems to me amazing. The Lord dumps them down and they’ve just got to stick it, no matter what happens — that must need some courage!’ And one day he said: ‘Don’t think me quite mad, but if we survive death then the trees will survive it; there must be some sort of a forest heaven for all the faithful — the faithful of trees. I expect they take their birds along with them; why not? “And in death they were not divided”.’ Then he laughed, but she saw that his eyes were quite grave, so she asked him:
‘Do you believe in God, Martin?’
And he answered: ‘Yes, because of His trees. Don’t you?’ ‘I’m not sure —’
Oh, my poor, blind Stephen! Look again, go on looking until you do believe.’
They discussed many things quite simply together, for between these two was no vestige of shyness. His youth met hers and walked hand in hand with it, so that she knew how utterly lonely her own youth had been before the coming of Martin.
She said: ‘You’re the only real friend I’ve ever had, except Father — our friendship’s so wonderful, somehow — we’re like brothers, we enjoy all the same sort of things.’
He nodded: ‘I know, a wonderful friendship.’
The hills must let Stephen tell him their secrets, the secrets of by-paths most cunningly hidden; the secrets of small, unsuspected green hollows; the secrets of ferns that live only by hiding. She might even reveal the secrets of birds, and show him the playground of shy, spring cuckoos.
‘They fly quite low up here, one can see them; last year a couple flew right past me, calling. If you were not going away so soon, Martin, we’d come later on — I’d love you to see them.’
‘And I’d love you to see my huge forests,’ he told her, ‘why can’t you come back to Canada with me? What rot it is, all this damned convention; we’re such pals you and I, I’ll be desperately lonely — Lord, what a fool of a world we live in!’
And she said quite simply: ‘I’d love to come with you.’
Then he started to tell her about his huge forests, so vast that their greenness seemed almost eternal. Great trees he told of, erect, towering firs, many centuries old and their girth that of giants. And then there were all the humbler tree-folk whom he spoke of as friends that were dear and familiar; the hemlocks that grow by the courses of rivers, in love with adventure and clear running water; the slender white spruces that border the lakes; the red pines, that glow like copper in the sunset. Unfortunate trees these beautiful red pines, for their tough, manly wood is coveted by builders.
‘But I won’t have my roof-tree hacked from their sides,’ declared Martin, ‘I’d feel like a positive assassin!’
Happy days spent between the hills and the stables, happy days for these two who had always been lonely until now, and now this wonderful friendship — there had never been anything like it for Stephen. Oh, but it was good to have him beside her, so young, so strong and so understanding. She liked his quiet voice with its careful accent, and his thoughtful blue eyes that moved rather slowly, so that his glance when it came, came slowly — sometimes she would meet his glance half-way, smiling. She who had longed for the companionship of men, for their friendship, their good-will, their toleration, she had it all now and much more in Martin, because of his great understanding.
She said to Puddle one night in the schoolroom: ‘I’ve grown fond of Martin — isn’t that queer after only a couple of months of friendship? But he’s different somehow — when he’s gone I shall miss him!’
And her words had the strangest effect on Puddle who quite suddenly beamed at Stephen and kissed her — Puddle, who never betrayed her emotions, quite suddenly beamed at Stephen and kissed her.
People gossiped a little because of the freedom allowed Martin and Stephen by her parents; but on the whole they gossiped quite kindly, with a great deal of smiling and nodding of heads. After all the girl was just like other girls — they almost ceased to resent her. Meanwhile Martin continued to stay on in Upton, held fast by the charm and the strangeness of Stephen — her very strangeness it was that allured him, yet all the while he must think of their friendship, not even admitting that strangeness. He deluded himself with these thoughts of friendship, but Sir Philip and Anna were not deluded. They looked at each other almost shyly at first, then Anna grew bold, and she said to her husband:
‘Is it possible the child is falling in love with Martin? Of course he’s in love with her. Oh, my dear, it would make me so awfully happy —’ And her heart went out in affection to Stephen, as it had not done since the girl was a baby.
Her hopes would go flying ahead of events; she would start making plans for her daughter’s future. Martin must give up his orchards and forests and buy Tenley Court that was now in the market; it had several large farms and some excellent pasture, quite enough to keep any man happy and busy. Then Anna would suddenly grow very thoughtful; Tenley Court was also possessed of fine nurseries, big, bright, sunny rooms facing south, with their bathroom, there were bars to the windows — it was all there and ready.
Sir Philip shook his head and warned Anna to go slowly, but he could not quite keep the great joy from his eyes, nor the hope from his heart. Had he been mistaken? Perhaps after all he had been mistaken — the hope thudded ceaselessly now in his heart.
Came a day when winter must give place to spring, when the daffodils marched across the whole country from Castle Morton Common to Ross and beyond, pitching camps by the side of the river. When the hornbeam made patches of green in the hedges, and the hawthorn broke out into small, budding bundles; when the old cedar tree on the lawn at Morton grew reddish-pink tips to its elegant fingers; when the wild cherry trees on the sides of the hills were industriously putting forth both leaves and blossoms; when Martin looked into his heart and saw Stephen — saw her suddenly there as a woman.
Friendship! He marvelled now at his folly, at his blindness, his coldness of body and spirit. He had offered this girl the cold husks of his friendship, insulting her youth, her womanhood, her beauty — for he saw her now with the eyes of a lover. To a man such as he was, sensitive, restrained, love came as a blinding revelation. He knew little about women, and the little he did know was restricted to episodes that he thought best forgotten. On the whole he had led a fairly chaste life — less from scruple than because he was fastidious by nature. But now he was very deeply in love, and those years of restraint took their toll of poor Martin, so that he trembled before his own passion, amazed at its strength, not a little disconcerted. And being by habit a quiet, reserved creature, he must quite lose his head and become the reverse. So impatient was he that he rushed off to Morton very early one morning to look for Stephen, tracking her down in the end at the stables, where he found her talking to Williams and Raftery.
He said: ‘Never mind about Raftery, Stephen — let’s go into the garden, I’ve got something to tell you.’ And she thought that he must have had bad news from home, because of his voice and his curious pallor.
She went with him and they walked on in silence for a while, then Martin stood still, and began to talk quickly; he was saying amazing, incredible things: Stephen, my dear — I do utterly love you.’ He was holding out his arms, while she shrank back bewildered: ‘I love you, I’m deeply in love with you, Stephen — look at me, don’t you understand me, beloved? I want you to marry me — you do love me, don’t you?’ And then, as though she had suddenly struck him, he flinched: ‘Good God! What’s the matter, Stephen?’
She was staring at him in a kind of dumb horror, staring at his eyes that were clouded by desire, while gradually over her colourless face there was spreading an expression of the deepest repulsion — terror and repulsion he saw on her face, and something else too, a look as of outrage. He could not believe this thing that he saw, this insult to all that he felt to be sacred; for a moment he in his turn, must stare, then he came a step nearer, still unable to believe. But at that she wheeled round and fled from him wildly, fled back to the house that had always protected; without so much as a word she left him, nor did she once pause in her flight to look back. Yet even in this moment of headlong panic, the girl was conscious of something like amazement, amazement at herself; and she gasped as she ran: ‘It’s Martin — Martin —’ And again: ‘It’s Martin!’
He stood perfectly still until the trees hid her. He felt stunned, incapable of understanding. All that he knew was that he must get away, away from Stephen, away from Morton, away from the thoughts that would follow after. In less than two hours he was motoring to London; in less than two weeks he was standing on the deck of the steamer that would carry him back to his forests that lay somewhere beyond the horizon.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55