February came bringing snowstorms with it, the heaviest known for many a year. The hills lay folded in swathes of whiteness, and so did the valleys at the foot of the hills, and so did the spacious gardens of Morton — it was all one vast panorama of whiteness. The lakes froze, and the beech trees had crystalline branches, while their luminous carpet of leaves grew brittle so that it crackled now underfoot, the only sound in the frozen stillness of that place that was always infinitely still. Peter, the arrogant swan, turned friendly, and he and his family now welcomed Stephen who fed them every morning and evening, and they glad enough to partake of her bounty. On the lawn Anna set out a tray for the birds, with chopped suet, seed, and small mounds of bread-crumbs; and down at the stables old Williams spread straw in wide rings for exercising the horses who could not be taken beyond the yard, so bad were the roads around Morton.
The gardens lay placidly under the snow, in no way perturbed or disconcerted. Only one inmate of theirs felt anxious, and that was the ancient and wide-boughed cedar, for the weight of the snow made an ache in its branches — its branches were brittle like an old man’s bones; that was why the cedar felt anxious. But it could not cry out or shake off its torment; no, it could only endure with patience, hoping that Anna would take note of its trouble, since she sat in its shade summer after summer — since once long ago she had sat in its shade dreaming of the son she would bear her husband. And one morning Anna did notice its plight, and she called Sir Philip, who hurried from his study.
She said: ‘Look, Philip! I’m afraid for my cedar — it’s all weighted down — I feel worried about it.’
Then Sir Philip sent in to Upton for chain, and for stout pads of felt to support the branches; and he himself must direct the gardeners while they climbed into the tree and pushed off the snow; and he himself must see to the placing of the stout felt pads, lest the branches be galled. Because he loved Anna who loved the cedar, he must stand underneath it directing the gardeners.
A sudden and horrible sound of rending. ‘Sir, look out! Sir Philip, look out sir, it’s giving!’
A crash and then silence — a horrible silence, far worse than that horrible sound of rending.
‘Sir Philip — oh, Gawd, it’s over ‘is chest! It’s crushed in ‘is chest — it’s the big branch wot’s given! Some one go for the doctor — go quick for Doctor Evans. Oh, Gawd, ‘is mouth’s bleedin’— it’s crushed in ‘is chest — Won’t nobody go for the doctor?’
The grave, rather pompous voice of Mr. Hopkins: ‘Steady, Thomas, it’s no good losin’ your head. Robert, you’d best slip over to the stables and tell Burton to go in the car for the doctor. You, Thomas, give me a hand with this bough — steady on — ease it off a bit to the right, now lift! Steady on, keep more to the right — now then, gently, gently, man — lift!’
Sir Philip lay very still on the snow, and the blood oozed slowly from between his lips. He looked monstrously tall as he lay on that whiteness, very straight, with his long legs stretched out to their fullest, so that Thomas said foolishly: ‘Don’t ‘e be big — I don’t know as I ever noticed before —’
And now someone came scuttling over the snow, panting, stumbling, hopping grotesquely — old Williams, hatless and in his shirt sleeves — and as he came on he kept calling out something: ‘Master, oh, Master!’ And he hopped grotesquely as he came on over the slippery snow. ‘Master, Master — oh, Master!’
They found a hurdle, and with dreadful care they placed the master of Morton upon it, and with dreadful slowness they carried the hurdle over the lawn, and in through the door that Sir Philip himself had left standing ajar.
Slowly they carried him into the hall, and even more slowly his tired eyes opened, and he whispered: ‘Where’s Stephen: I want — the child.’
And old Williams muttered thickly: ‘She’s comin’, Master — she be comin’ down the stairs; she’s here, Sir Philip.’
Then Sir Philip tried to move, and he spoke quite loudly: ‘Stephen! Where are your I want you, child —’
She went to him, saying never a word, but she thought: ‘He’s dying — my Father.’
And she took his large hand in hers and stroked it, but still without speaking, because when one loves there is nothing left in the world to say, when the best beloved lies dying. He looked at her with the pleading eyes of a dog who is dumb, but who yet asks forgiveness. And she knew that his eyes were asking forgiveness for something beyond her poor comprehension; so she nodded, and just went on stroking his hand.
Mr. Hopkins asked quietly: ‘Where shall we take him?’ And as quietly Stephen answered: ‘To the study.’
Then she herself led the way to the study, walking steadily, just as though nothing had happened, just as though when she got there she would find her father lolling back in his arm-chair, reading. But she thought all the while: ‘He’s dying — my Father —’ Only the thought seemed unreal, preposterous. It seemed like the thinking of somebody else, a thing so unreal as to be preposterous. Yet when they had set him down in the study, her own voice it was that she heard giving orders.
‘Tell Miss Puddleton to go at once to my Mother and break the news gently — I’ll stay with Sir Philip. One of you please send a housemaid to me with a sponge and some towels and a basin of cold water. Burton’s gone for Doctor Evans, you say? That’s quite right. Now I’d like you to go up and fetch down a mattress, the one from the blue room will do — get it quickly. Bring some blankets as well and a couple of pillows — and I may need a little brandy.’
They ran to obey, and before very long she had helped to lift him on to the mattress. He groaned a little, then he actually smiled as he felt her strong arms around him. She kept wiping the blood away from his mouth, and her fingers were stained; she looked at her fingers, but without comprehension — they could not be hers — like her thoughts, they must surely be somebody else’s. But now his eyes were growing more restless — he was looking for someone, he was looking for her mother.
‘Have you told Miss Puddleton, Williams?’ she whispered. The man nodded.
Then she said: ‘Mother’s coming, darling; you lie still,’ and her voice was softly persuasive as though she were speaking to a small, suffering child. ‘Mother’s coining; you lie quite still, darling.’
And she came — incredulous, yet wide-eyed with horror. ‘Philip, oh, Philip!’ She sank down beside him and laid her white face against his on the pillow. ‘My dear, my dear — it’s most terribly hurt you — try to tell me where it hurts; try to tell me, beloved. The branch gave — it was the snow — it fell on you, Philip — but try to tell me where it hurts most, beloved.’
Stephen motioned to the servants and they went away slowly with bowed heads, for Sir Philip had been a good friend; they loved him, each in his or her way, each according to his or her capacity for loving.
And always that terrible voice went on speaking, terrible because it was quite unlike Anna’s — it was toneless, and it asked and reasked the same question: ‘Try to tell me where it hurts most, beloved.’
But Sir Philip was fighting the battle of pain; of intense, irresistible, unmanning pain. He lay silent, not answering Anna.
Then she coaxed him in words soft with memories of her country. ‘And you the loveliest man,’ she whispered, ‘and you with the light of God in your eyes.’ But he lay there unable to answer.
And now she seemed to forget Stephen’s presence, for she spoke as one lover will speak with another — foolishly, fondly, inventing small names, as one lover will do for another. And watching them Stephen beheld a great marvel, for he opened his eyes and his eyes met her mother’s, and a light seemed to shine over both their poor faces, transfiguring them with something triumphant, with love — thus those two rekindled the beacon for their child in the shadow of the valley of death.
It was late afternoon before the doctor arrived; he had been out all day and the roads were heavy. He had come the moment he received the news, come as fast as a car clogged with snow could bring him. He did what he could, which was very little, for Sir Philip was conscious and wished to remain so; he would not permit them to ease his pain by administering drugs. He could speak very slowly.
‘No — not that — something urgent — I want — to say. No drugs — I know I’m — dying — Evans.’
The doctor adjusted the slipping pillows, then turning he whispered carefully to Stephen. ‘Look after your mother. He’s going, I think — it can’t be long now. I’ll wait in the next room. If you need me you’ve only got to call me.’
‘Thank you,’ she answered’ ‘if I need you, I’ll call you.’
Then Sir Philip paid even to the uttermost farthing, paid with stupendous physical courage for the sin of his anxious and pitiful heart; and he drove and he goaded his ebbing strength to the making of one great and terrible effort: ‘Anna — it’s Stephen — listen.’ They were holding his hands. ‘It’s — Stephen — our child — she’s, she’s — it’s Stephen — not like —’
His head fell back rather sharply, and then lay very still upon Anna’s bosom.
Stephen released the hand she was holding, for Anna had stopped and was kissing his lips, desperately, passionately kissing his lips, as though to breathe back the life into his body. And none might be there to witness that thing, save God — the God of death and affliction, Who is also the God of love. Turning away she stole out of their presence, leaving them alone in the darkening study, leaving them alone with their deathless devotion — hand in hand, the quick and the dead.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55