Sir Philip’s death deprived his child of three things; of companionship of mind born of real understanding, of a stalwart barrier between her and the world, and above all of love — that faithful love that would gladly have suffered all things for her sake, in order to spare her suffering.
Stephen, recovering from the merciful numbness of shock and facing her first deep sorrow, stood utterly confounded, as a child will stand who is lost in a crowd, having somehow let go of the hand that has always guided. Thinking of her father, she realized how greatly she had leant on that man of deep kindness, how sure she had felt of his constant protection, how much she had taken that protection for granted. And so together with her constant grieving, with the ache for his presence that never left her, came the knowledge of what real loneliness felt like. She would marvel, remembering how often in his lifetime she had thought herself lonely, when by stretching out a finger she could touch him, when by speaking she could hear his voice, when by raising her eyes she could see him before her. And now also she knew the desolation of small things, the power to give infinite pain that lies hidden in the little inanimate objects that persist, in a book, in a well-worn garment, in a half-finished letter, in a favourite armchair.
She thought: ‘They go on — they mean nothing at all, and yet they go on,’ and the handling of them was anguish, and yet she must always touch them. ‘How queer, this old arm-chair has out-lived him, an old chair —’ And feeling the creases in its leather, the dent in its back where her father’s head had lain, she would hate the inanimate thing for surviving, or perhaps she would love it and find herself weeping.
Morton had become a place of remembering that closed round her and held her in its grip of remembrance. It was pain, yet now more than ever she adored it, every stone, every blade of grass in its meadows. She fancied that it too grieved for her father and was turning to her for comfort. Because of Morton the days must go on, all their trifling tasks must be duly accomplished. At tunes she might wonder that this should be so, might be filled with a fleeting sense of resentment, but then she would think of her home as a creature dependent upon her and her mother for its needs, and the sense of resentment would vanish.
Very gravely she listened to the lawyer from London. ‘The place goes to your mother for her lifetime,’ he told her; ‘on her death, of course, it becomes yours, Miss Gordon. But your father made a separate provision; when you’re twenty-one, in about two years’ time, you’ll inherit quite a considerable income.’
She said: ‘Will that leave enough money for Morton?’ ‘More than enough,’ he reassured her, smiling.
In the quiet old house there was discipline and order, death had come and gone, yet these things persisted. Like the well-worn garment and favourite chair, discipline and order had survived the great change, filling the emptiness of the rooms with a queer sense of unreality at times, with a new and very bewildering doubt as to which was real, life or death. The servants scoured and swept and dusted. From Malvern, once a week, came a young clock-winder, and he set the clocks with much care and precision so that when he had gone they all chimed together — rather hurriedly they would all chime together, as though flustered by the great importance of time. Puddle added up the books and made lists for the cook. The tall under-footman polished the windows — the iridescent window that looked out on the lawns and the semicircular fanlight he polished. In the gardens work progressed just as usual. Gardeners pruned and hoed and diligently planted. Spring gained in strength to the joy of the cuckoos, trees blossomed, and outside Sir Philip’s study glowed beds of the old-fashioned single tulips he had loved above all the others. According to custom the bulbs had been planted, and now, still according to custom, there were tulips. At the stables the hunters were turned out to grass, and the ceilings and walls had a fresh coat of whitewash. Williams went into Upton to buy tape for the plaits which the grooms were now engaged upon making; while beyond, in a paddock adjoining the beech wood, a couple of mares gave birth to strong foals — thus were all things accomplished in their season at Morton.
But Anna, whose word was now absolute law, had become one of those who have done with smiling; a quiet, enduring, grief-stricken woman, in whose eyes was a patient, waiting expression. She was gentle to Stephen, yet terribly aloof; in their hour of great need they must still stand divided these two, by the old, insidious barrier. Yet Stephen clung closer and closer to Morton; she had definitely given up all idea of Oxford. In vain did Puddle try to protest, in vain did she daily remind her pupil that Sir Philip had set his heart on her going; no good, for Stephen would always reply:
‘Morton needs me; Father would want me to stay, because he taught me to love it.’
And Puddle was helpless. What could she do, bound as she was by the tyranny of silence? She dared not explain the girl to herself, dared not say: ‘For your own sake you must go to Oxford, you’ll need every weapon your brain can give you; being what you are you’ll need every weapon,’ for then certainly Stephen would start to question, and her teacher’s very position of trust would forbid her to answer those questions.
Outrageous, Puddle would feel it to be, that wilfully selfish tyranny of silence evolved by a crafty old ostrich of a world for its own wellbeing and comfort. The world hid its head in the sands of convention, so that seeing nothing it might avoid Truth. It said to itself: ‘If seeing’s believing, then I don’t want to see — if silence is golden, it is also, in this case, very expedient.’ There were moments when Puddle would feel sorely tempted to shout out loud at the world.
Sometimes she thought of giving up her post, so weary was she of fretting over Stephen. She would think: What’s the good of my worrying myself sick? I can’t help the girl, but I can help myself — seems to me it’s a matter of pure self-preservation.’ Then all that was loyal and faithful in her would protest: ‘Better stick it, she’ll probably need you one day and you ought to be here to help her.’ So Puddle decided to stick it.
They did very little work, for Stephen had grown idle with grief and no longer cared for her studies. Nor could she find consolation in her writing, for sorrow will often do one of two things — it will either release the springs of inspiration, or else it will dry up those springs completely, and in Stephen’s case it had done the latter. She longed for the comforting outlet of words, but now the words would always evade her.
‘I can’t write any more, it’s gone from me, Puddle — he’s taken it with him.’ And then would come tears, and the tears would go splashing down on to the paper, blotting the poor inadequate lines that meant little or nothing as their author well knew, to her own added desolation.
There she would sit like a woebegone child, and Puddle would think how childish she seemed in this her first encounter with grief, and would marvel because of the physical strength of the creature, that went so ill with those tears. And because her own tears were vexing her eyes she must often speak rather sharply to Stephen. Then Stephen would go off and swing her large dumb-bells, seeking the relief of bodily movement, seeking to wear out her muscular body because her mind was worn out by sorrow.
August came and Williams got the hunters in from grass. Stephen would sometimes get up very early and help with the exercising of the horses, but in spite of this the old man’s heart misgave him, she seemed strangely averse to discussing the hunting.
He would think: ‘Maybe it’s ‘er father’s death, but the instinct be pretty strong in ‘er blood, she’ll be all right after ‘er’s ‘ad ‘er first gallop.’ And perhaps he might craftily point to Raftery. ‘Look, Miss Stephen, did ever you see such quarters? ‘E’s a mighty fine doer, keeps ‘imself fit on grass! I do believe as ‘e does it on purpose; I believe ‘e’s afraid ‘e’ll miss a day’s huntin’.’
But the autumn slipped by and the winter was passing. Hounds met at the very gates of Morton, yet Stephen forbore to send those orders to the stables for which Williams was anxiously waiting. Then one morning in March he could bear it no longer, and he suddenly started reproaching Stephen: ‘Yer lettin’ my ‘orses go stale in their boxes. It’s a scandal, Miss Stephen, and you such a rider, and our stables the finest bar none in the county, and yer father so almighty proud of yer ridin’!’ And then: ‘Miss Stephen — yer’ll not give it up? Won’t yer hunt Raftery day after to morrow? The ‘ounds is meetin’ quite near by Upton — Miss Stephen, say yer won’t give it all up!’
There were actually tears in his worried old eyes, and so to console him she answered briefly: ‘Very well then, I’ll hunt the day after tomorrow.’ But for some strange reason that she did not understand, this prospect had quite ceased to give her pleasure.
On a morning of high scudding clouds and sunshine, Stephen rode Raftery into Upton, then over the bridge that spans the river Severn, and on to the Meet at a neighbouring village. Behind her came jogging her second horseman on one of Sir Philip’s favourite youngsters, a raw-boned, upstanding, impetuous chestnut, now all eyes and ears for what might be coming; but beside her rode only memory and heartache. Yet from time to time she turned her head quickly as though someone must surely be there at her side.
Her mind was a prey to the strangest fancies. She pictured her father very grave and anxious, not gay and light-hearted as had been his wont when they rode to a Meet in the old days. And because this day was so vibrant with living it was difficult for Stephen to tolerate the idea of death, even for a little red fox, and she caught herself thinking: ‘If we find, this morning, there’ll be two of us who are utterly alone, with every man’s hand against us.’
At the Meet she was a prey to her self-conscious shyness, so that she fancied people were whispering. There was no one now with bowed, patient shoulders to stand between her and those unfriendly people.
Colonel Antrim came up. ‘Glad to see you out, Stephen.’ But his voice sounded stiff because he was embarrassed — everyone felt just a little embarrassed, as people will do in the face of bereavement.
And then there was something so awkward about her, so aloof that it checked every impulse of kindness. They, in their turn, felt shy, remembering Sir Philip, remembering what his death must have meant to his daughter, so that more than one greeting remained unspoken.
And again she thought grimly: ‘Two of us will be alone, with every man’s hand against us.’
They found their fox in the very first cover and went away over the wide, bare meadows. As Raftery leapt forward her curious fancies gained strength, and now they began to obsess her. She fancied that she was being pursued, that the hounds were behind her instead of ahead, that the flushed, bright-eyed people were hunting her down, ruthless, implacable, untiring people — they were many and she was one solitary creature with every man’s hand against her. To escape them she suddenly took her own line, putting Raftery over some perilous places; but he, nothing loath, stretched his muscles to their utmost, landing safely — yet she always imagined pursuit, and now it was the world that had turned against her. The whole world was hunting her down with hatred, with a fierce, remorseless will to destruction — the world against one insignificant creature who had nowhere to turn for pity or protection. Her heart tightened with fear, she was terribly afraid of those flushed, bright-eyed people who were hard on her track. She who had never lacked physical courage in her life, was now actually sweating with terror, and Raftery, divining her terror, sped on, faster and always faster.
Then Stephen saw something just ahead, and it moved. Checking Raftery sharply she stared at the thing. A crawling, bedraggled streak of red fur, with tongue lolling, with agonized lungs filled to bursting, with the desperate eyes of the hopelessly pursued, bright with terror and glancing now this way, now that as though looking for something; and the thought came to Stephen; ‘It’s looking for God Who made it.’
At that moment she felt an imperative need to believe that the stricken beast had a Maker, and her own eyes grew bright, but with blinding tears because of her mighty need to believe, a need that was sharper than physical pain, being born of the pain of the spirit. The thing was dragging its brush in the dust, it was limping, and Stephen sprang to the ground. She held out her hands to the unhappy creature, filled with the will to succour and protect it, but the fox mistrusted her merciful hands, and it crept away into a little coppice. And now in a deathly and awful silence the hounds swept past her, their muzzles to the ground. After them galloped Colonel Antrim, crouching low in his saddle, avoiding the branches, and after him came a couple of huntsmen with the few bold riders who had stayed that stiff run. Then a savage clamour broke out in the coppice as the hounds gave tongue in their wild jubilation, and Stephen well knew that that sound meant death — very slowly she remounted Raftery.
Riding home, she felt utterly spent and bewildered. Her thoughts were full of her father again — he seemed very near, incredibly near her. For a moment she thought that she heard his voice, but when she bent sideways trying to listen, all was silence, except for the tired rhythm of Raftery’s hooves on the road. As her brain grew calmer, it seemed to Stephen that her father had taught her all that she knew. He had taught her courage and truth and honour in his life, and in death he had taught her mercy — the mercy that he had lacked he had taught her through the mighty adventure of death. With a sudden illumination of vision, she perceived that all life is only one life, that all joy and all sorrow are indeed only one, that all death is only one dying. And she knew that because she had seen a man die in great suffering, yet with courage and love that are deathless, she could never again inflict wanton destruction or pain upon any poor, hapless creature. And so it was that by dying to Stephen, Sir Philip would live on in the attribute of mercy that had come that day to his child.
But the body is still very far from the spirit, and it clings to the primitive joys of the earth — to the sun and the wind and the good rolling grass-lands, to the swift elation of reckless movement, so that Stephen, feeling Raftery between her strong knees, was suddenly filled with regret. Yes, in this her moment of spiritual insight she was infinitely sad, and she said to Raftery: ‘We’ll never hunt any more, we two, Raftery — we’ll never go out hunting together any more.’
And because in his own way he had understood her, she felt his sides swell with a vast, resigned sigh; heard the creaking of damp girth leather as he sighed because he had understood her. For the love of the chase was still hot in Raftery, the love of splendid, unforeseen danger, the love of crisp mornings and frost-bound evenings, and of long, dusky roads that always led home. He was wise with the age-old wisdom of the beasts, it is true, but that wisdom was not guiltless of slaying, and deep in his gentle and faithful mind lurked a memory bequeathed him by some wild forbear. A memory of vast and unpeopled spaces, of fierce open nostrils and teeth bared in battle, of hooves that struck death with every sure blow, of a great untamed mane that streamed out like a banner, of the shrill and incredibly savage war-cry that accompanied that gallant banner. So now he too felt infinitely sad, and he sighed until his strong girths started creaking, after which he stood still and shook himself largely, in an effort to shake off depression.
Stephen bent forward and patted his neck. ‘I’m sorry, sorry, Raftery,’ she said gravely.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55