There was gossip in plenty over Martin’s disappearance, and to this Mrs. Antrim contributed her share, even more than her share, looking wise and mysterious whenever Stephen’s name was mentioned. Everyone felt very deeply aggrieved. They had been so eager to welcome the girl as one of themselves, and now this strange happening — it made them feel foolish which in turn made them angry. The spring meets were heavy with tacit disapproval — nice men like young Hallam did not run away for nothing; and then what a scandal if those two were not engaged; they had wandered all over the country together. This tacit disapproval was extended to Sir Philip, and via him to Anna for allowing too much freedom; a mother ought to look after her daughter, but then Stephen had always been allowed too much freedom. This, no doubt, was what came of her riding astride and fencing and all the rest of the nonsense; when she did meet a man she took the bit between her teeth and behaved in a most amazing manner. Of course, had there been a proper engagement — but obviously that had never existed. They marvelled, remembering their own toleration, they had really been extremely broad-minded. An extraordinary girl, she had always been odd, and now for some reason she seemed odder than ever. Not so much as a word was said in her hearing that could possibly offend, and yet Stephen well knew that her neighbours’ good-will had been only fleeting, a thing entirely dependent upon Martin. He it was who had raised her status among them — he, the stranger, not even connected with their county. They had all decided that she meant to marry Martin, and that fact had at once made them welcoming and friendly; and suddenly Stephen longed intensely to be welcomed, and she wished from her heart that she could have married Martin.
The strange thing was that she understood her neighbours in a way, and was therefore too just to condemn them; indeed had nature been less daring with her, she might well have become very much what they were — a breeder of children, an upholder of home, a careful and diligent steward of pastures. There was little of the true pioneer about Stephen, in spite of her erstwhile longing for the forests. She belonged to the soil and the fruitfulness of Morton, to its pastures and paddocks, to its farms and its cattle, to its quiet and gentlemanly ordered traditions, to the dignity and pride of its old red-brick house, that was yet without ostentation. To these things she belonged and would always belong by right of those past generations of Gordons whose thoughts had fashioned the comeliness of Morton, whose bodies had gone to the making of Stephen. Yes, she was of them, those bygone people; they might spurn her — the lusty breeders of sons that they had been — they might even look down from Heaven with raised eyebrows, and say: ‘We utterly refuse to acknowledge this curious creature called Stephen.’ But for all that they could not drain her of blood, and her blood was theirs also, so that do what they would they could never completely rid themselves of her nor she of them — they were one in their blood.
But Sir Philip, that other descendant of theirs, found little excuse for his critical neighbours. Because he loved much he must equally suffer, consuming himself at times with resentment. And now when he and Stephen were out hunting he would be on his guard, very anxious and watchful lest any small incident should occur to distress her, lest at any time she should find herself lonely. When hounds checked and the field collected together, he would make little jokes to amuse his daughter, he would rack his brain for these poor little jokes, in order that people should see Stephen laughing.
Sometimes he would whisper: ‘Let ’em have it hot, Stephen, that youngster you’re on loves a good bit of timber — don’t mind me, I know you won’t damage his knees, just you give ’em a lead and let’s see if they’ll catch you!’ And because it was seldom indeed that they caught her, his sore heart would know a fleeting contentment.
Yet people begrudged her even this triumph, pointing out that the girl was magnificently mounted: ‘Anyone could get there on that sort of horse,’ they would murmur, when Stephen was out of hearing.
But small Colonel Antrim, who was not always kind, would retort if he heard them: ‘Damn it, no, it’s the riding. The girl rides, that’s the point; as for some of you others —’ And then he would let loose a flood of foul language. ‘If some bloody fools that I know rode like Stephen, we’d have bloody well less to pay to the farmers,’ and much more he would say to the same effect, with rich oaths interlarding his every sentence — the foulest-mouthed master in the whole British Isles he was said to be, this small Colonel Antrim.
Oh, but he dearly loved a fine rider, and he cursed and he swore his appreciation. Even in the presence of a sporting bishop one day, he had failed to control his language; indeed, he had sworn in the face of the bishop with enthusiasm, as he pointed to Stephen. An ineffectual and hen-pecked little fellow — in his home he was hardly allowed to say ‘damn’. He was never permitted to smoke a cigar outside of his dark, inhospitable study. He must not breed Norwich canaries, which he loved, because they brought mice, declared Mrs. Antrim; he must not keep a pet dog in the house, and the Pink ‘Un was anathema because of Violet. His taste in art was heavily censored, even on the walls of his own water-closet, where nothing might hang but a family group taken sixteen odd years ago with the children.
On Sundays he sat in an uncomfortable pew while his wife chanted psalms in the voice of a peacock. ‘Oh come, let us sing unto the Lord,’ she would chant, as she heartily rejoiced in the strength of her salvation. All this and a great deal more he endured, indeed most of his life was passed in endurance — had it not been for those red-letter days out hunting, he might well have become melancholic from boredom. But those days, when he actually found himself master, went far to restore his anaemic manhood, and on them he would speak the good English language as some deep-seated complex knew it ought to be spoken — ruddily, roundly, explosively spoken, with elation, at times with total abandon — especially if he should chance to remember Mrs. Antrim would he speak it with total abandon.
But his oaths could not save Stephen now from her neighbours, nothing could do that since the going of Martin — for quite unknown to themselves they feared her; it was fear that aroused their antagonism. In her they instinctively sensed an outlaw, and theirs was the task of policing nature.
In her vast drawing-room so beautifully proportioned, Anna would sit with her pride sorely wounded, dreading the thinly veiled questions of her neighbours, dreading the ominous silence of her husband. And the old aversion she had felt for her child would return upon her like the unclean spirit who gathered to himself seven others more wicked, so that her last state was worse than her first, and at times she must turn away her eyes from Stephen.
Thus tormented, she grew less tactful with her husband, and now she was always plying him with questions: ‘But why can’t you tell me what Stephen said to you, Philip, that evening when she went to your study?’
And he, with a mighty effort to be patient, would answer: ‘She said that she couldn’t love Martin — there was no crime in that. Leave the child alone, Anna, she’s unhappy enough; why not let her alone?’ And then he would hastily change the subject.
But Anna could not let Stephen alone, could never keep off the topic of Martin. She would talk at the girl until she grew crimson; and seeing this, Sir Philip would frown darkly, and when he and his wife were alone in their bedroom he would often reproach her with violence.
‘Cruel — it’s abominably cruel of you, Anna. Why in God’s name must you go on nagging Stephen?’
Anna’s taut nerves would tighten to breaking, so that she, when she answered, must also speak with violence.
One night he said abruptly: Stephen won’t marry — I don’t want her to marry; it would only mean disaster.’
And at this Anna broke out in angry protest. Why shouldn’t Stephen marry? She wished her to marry. Was he mad? And what did he mean by disaster? No woman was ever complete without marriage — what on earth did he mean by disaster He frowned and refused to answer her question. Stephen, he said, must go up to Oxford. He had set his heart on a good education for the child, who might some day become a fine writer. Marriage wasn’t the only career for a woman. Look at Puddle, for instance; she’d been at Oxford — a most admirable, well-balanced, sensible creature. Next year he was going to send Stephen to Oxford. Anna scoffed: ‘Yes, indeed, he might well look at Puddle! She was what came of this higher education — a lonely, unfulfilled, middle-aged spinster. Anna didn’t want that kind of life for her daughter.
And then: It’s a pity you can’t be frank, Philip, about what was said that night in your study. I feel that there’s something you’re keeping back from me — it’s so unlike Martin to behave as he has done; there must have been something that you haven’t told me, to have made him go off without even a letter —’
He flared up at once because he felt guilty: ‘I don’t care a damn about Martin!’ he said hotly. ‘All I care about is Stephen, and she’s going to Oxford next year; she’s my child as well as yours, Anna!’
Then quite suddenly Anna’s self-control left her, and she let him see into her tormented spirit; all that had lain unspoken between them she now put into crude, ugly words for his hearing: ‘You care nothing for me any more — you and Stephen are enleagued against me — you have been for years.’ Aghast at herself; she must yet go on speaking: ‘You and Stephen — oh, I’ve seen it for years — you and Stephen.’ He looked at her, and there was warning in his eyes, but she babbled on wildly: ‘I’ve seen it for years — the cruelty of it; she’s taken you from me, my own child — the unspeakable cruelty of it!’
Cruelty, yes, but not Stephen’s, Anna — it’s yours; for in all the child’s life you’ve never loved her.’
Ugly, degrading, rather terrible half-truths; and he knew the whole truth, yet he dared not speak it. It is bad for the soul to know itself a coward, it is apt to take refuge in mere wordy violence.
‘Yes, you, her mother, you persecute Stephen, you torment her; I sometimes think you hate her!’
‘Philip — good God!’
‘Yes, I think you hate her; but be careful, Anna, for hatred breeds hatred, and remember I stand for the rights of my child — if you hate her you’ve got to hate me; she’s my child. I won’t let her face your hatred alone.’
Ugly, degrading, rather terrible half-truths. Their hearts ached while their lips formed recriminations. Their hearts burst into tears while their eyes remained dry and accusing, staring in hostility and anger. Far into the night they accused each other, they who before had never seriously quarrelled; and something very like the hatred he spoke of leapt out like a flame that seared them at moments.
Stephen, my own child — she’s come between us.’
‘It’s you who have thrust her between us, Anna.’
Mad, it was madness! They were such faithful lovers, and their love it was that had fashioned their child. They knew that it was madness and yet they persisted, while their anger dug out for itself a deep channel, so that future angers might more easily follow. They could not forgive and they could not sleep, for neither could sleep without the other’s forgiveness, and the hatred that leapt out at moments between them would be drowned in the tears that their hearts were shedding.
Like some vile and prolific thing, this first quarrel bred others, and the peace of Morton was shattered. The house seemed to mourn, and withdraw into itself, so that Stephen went searching for its spirit in vain. ‘Morton,’ she whispered, where are you, Morton? I must find you, I need you so badly.’
For now Stephen knew the cause of their quarrels, and she recognized the form of the shadow that had seemed to creep in between them at Christmas, and knowing, she stretched out her arms to Morton for comfort: ‘My Morton, where are you? I need you.’
Grim and exceedingly angry grew Puddle, that little, grey box of a woman in her schoolroom; angry with Anna for her treatment of Stephen, but even more deeply angry with Sir Philip, who knew the whole truth, or so she suspected, and who yet kept that truth back from Anna.
Stephen would sit with her head in her hands: Oh, Puddle, it’s my fault; I’ve come in between them, and they’re all I’ve got — they’re my one perfect thing — I can’t bear it — why have I come in between them?’
And Puddle would flush with reminiscent anger as her mind slipped back and back over the years to old sorrows, old miseries, long decently buried but now disinterred by this pitiful Stephen. She would live through those years again, while her spirit would cry out, unregenerate against their injustice.
Frowning at her pupil, she would speak to her sharply: ‘Don’t be a fool, Stephen. Where’s your brain, where’s your backbone? Stop holding your head and get on with your Latin. My God, child, you’ll have worse things than this to face later — life’s not all beer and skittles, I do assure you. Now come along, do, and get on with that Latin. Remember you’ll soon be going up to Oxford.’ But after a while she might pat the girl’s shoulder and say rather gruffly: ‘I’m not angry, Stephen — I do understand, my dear, I do really — only somehow I’ve just got to make you have backbone. You’re too sensitive, child, and the sensitive suffer — well, I don’t want to see you suffer, that’s all. Let’s go out for a walk — we’ve done enough Latin for today — let’s walk over the meadows to Upton.’
Stephen clung to this little, grey box of a woman as a drowning man will cling to a spar. Puddle’s very hardness was somehow consoling — it seemed concrete, a thing you could trust, could rely on, and their friendship that had flourished as a green bay-tree grew into something more stalwart and much more enduring. And surely the two of them had need of their friendship, for now there was little happiness at Morton; Sir Philip and Anna were deeply unhappy — degraded they would feel by their ceaseless quarrels.
Sir Philip would think: ‘I must tell her the truth — I must tell her what I believe to be the truth about Stephen.’ He would go in search of his wife, but having found her would stand there tongue-tied, with his eyes full of pity.
And one day Anna suddenly burst out weeping, for no reason except that she felt his great pity. Not knowing and not caring why he pitied, she wept, so that all he could do was to console her.
They clung together like penitent children. ‘Anna forgive me.’
‘Forgive me, Philip —’ For in between quarrels they were sometimes like children, naively asking each other’s forgiveness.
Sir Philip’s resolution weakened and waned as he kissed the tears from her poor, reddened eyelids. He thought: ‘tomorrow — tomorrow I’ll tell her — I can’t bear to make her more unhappy today.’
So the weeks drifted by and still he had not spoken; summer came and went, giving place to the autumn. Yet one more Christmas visited Morton, and still Sir Philip had not spoken.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55