With the breaking up of the stables at Morton came the breaking up of their faithful servant. Old age took its toll of Williams at last, and it got him under completely. Sore at heart and gone in both wind and limb, he retired with a pension to his comfortable cottage; there to cough and grumble throughout the winter, or to smoke disconsolate pipes through the summer, seated on a chair in his trim little garden with a rug wrapped around his knees.
‘It do be a scandal,’ he was now for ever saying, ‘and ‘er such a splendid woman to ‘ounds!’
And then he would start remembering past glories, while his mind would begin to grieve for Sir Philip. He would cry just a little because he still loved him, so his wife must bring Williams a strong cup of tea.
‘There, there, Arth-thur, you’ll soon be meetin’ the master; we be old me and you — it can’t be long now.’
At which Williams would glare: ‘I’m not thinkin’ of ‘eaven — like as not there won’t be no ‘orses in ‘eaven — I wants the master down ’ere at me stables. Gawd knows they be needin’ a master!’
For now besides Anna’s carriage horses, there were only four inmates of those once fine stables: Raftery and Sir Philip’s young upstanding chestnut, a cob known as James, and the aged Collins who had taken to vice in senile decay, and persisted in eating his bedding.
Anna had accepted this radical change quite calmly, as she now accepted most things. She hardly ever opposed her daughter these days in matters concerning Morton. But the burden of arranging the sale had been Stephen’s; one by one she had said good-bye to the hunters, one by one she had watched them led out of the yard, with a lump in her throat that had almost choked her, and when they were gone she had turned back to Raftery for comfort.
‘Oh, Raftery, I’m so unregenerate — I minded so terribly seeing them go! Don’t let’s look at their empty boxes —’
Another year passed and Stephen was twenty-one, a rich, independent woman. At any time now she could go where she chose, could do entirely as she listed. Puddle remained at her post; she was waiting a little grimly for something to happen. But nothing much happened, beyond the fact that Stephen now dressed in tailor-made clothes to which Anna had perforce to withdraw her opposition. Yet life was gradually reasserting its claims on the girl, which was only natural, for the young may not be delivered over to the dead, nor to grief that refuses consolation. She still mourned her father, she would always mourn him, but at twenty-one with a healthful body, there came a day when she noticed the sunshine, when she smelt the good earth and was thankful for it, when she suddenly knew herself to be alive and was glad, in despite of death.
On one such morning early that June, Stephen drove her car into Upton. She was meaning to cash a cheque at the bank, she was meaning to call at the local saddler’s, she was meaning to buy a new pair of gloves — in the end, however, she did none of these things.
It was outside the butcher’s that the dog fight started. The butcher owned an old rip of an Airedale, and the Airedale had taken up his post in the doorway of the shop, as had long been his custom. Down the street, on trim but belligerent tiptoes, came a very small, snow-white West Highland terrier; perhaps he was looking for trouble, and if so he certainly got it in less than two minutes. His yells were so loud that Stephen stopped the car and turned round in her seat to see what was happening. The butcher ran out to swell the confusion by shouting commands that no one obeyed; he was trying to grasp his dog by the tail which was short and not at all handy for grasping. And then, as it seemed from nowhere at all there suddenly appeared a very desperate young woman; she was carrying her parasol as though it were a lance with which she intended to enter the battle. Her wails of despair rose above the dog’s yells:
‘Tony! My Tony! Won’t anyone stop them? My dog’s being killed, won’t any of you stop them?’ And she actually tried to stop them herself, though the parasol broke at the first encounter.
But Tony, while yelling, was as game as a ferret, and, moreover, the Airedale had him by the back, so Stephen got hastily out of the car — it seemed only a matter of moments for Tony. She grabbed the old rip by the scruff of the neck, while the butcher dashed off for a bucket of water. The desperate young woman seized her dog by a leg; she pulled, Stephen pulled, they both pulled together. Then Stephen gave a punishing twist which distracted the Airedale, he wanted to bite her; having only one mouth he must let go of Tony, who was instantly clasped to his owner’s bosom. The butcher arrived on the scene with his bucket while Stephen was still clinging to the Airedale’s collar.
‘I’m so sorry, Miss Gordon, I do hope you’re not hurt?’
‘I’m all right. Here, take this grey devil and thrash him; he’s no business to eat up a dog half his size.’
Meanwhile, Tony was dripping all over with gore, and his mistress, it seemed, had got herself bitten. She alternately struggled to staunch Tony’s wounds and to suck her own hand which was bleeding freely.
‘Better give me your dog and come across to the chemist, your hand will want dressing,’ remarked Stephen.
Tony was instantly put into her arms, with a rather pale smile that suggested a breakdown.
It’s quite all right now,’ said Stephen quickly, very much afraid the young woman meant to cry.
‘Will he live, do you think?’ inquired a weak voice.
Yes, of course; but your hand — come along to the chemist.’ ‘Oh, never mind that, I’m thinking of Tony!’
‘He’s all right. We’ll take him straight off to the vet when your hand’s been seen to; there’s quite a good one.’
The chemist applied fairly strong carbolic; the hand had been bitten on two of the fingers, and Stephen was impressed by the pluck of this stranger, who set her small teeth and endured in silence. The hand bandaged they drove along to the vet, who was fortunately in and could sew up poor Tony. Stephen held his front paws, while his mistress held his head as best she could in her own maimed condition She kept pressing his face against her shoulder, presumably so that he should not see the needle.
‘Don’t look, darling — you mustn’t look at it, honey!’ Stephen heard her whispering to Tony.
At last he too was carbolicked and bandaged, and Stephen had time to examine her companion. It occurred to her that she had better introduce herself, so she said: ‘I’m Stephen Gordon.’
And I’m Angela Crossby,’ came the reply; ‘we’ve taken The Grange, just the other side of Upton.’
Angela Crossby was amazingly blonde, her hair was not so much golden as silver. She wore it cut short like a mediaeval page; it was straight, and came just to the lobes of her ears, which at that time of pompadours and much curling gave her an unusual appearance. Her skin was very white, and Stephen decided that this woman would never have a great deal of colour, nor would her rather wide mouth be red, it would always remain the tint of pale coral. All the colour that she had seemed to lie in her eyes, which were large and fringed with long fair lashes. Her eyes were of rather an unusual blue that almost seemed to be tinted with purple, and their candid expression was that of a child — very innocent it was, a trustful expression. And Stephen as she looked at those eyes felt indignant, remembering the gossip she had heard about the Crossby’s.
The Crossby’s, as she knew, were deeply resented. He had been an important Birmingham magnate who had lately retired from some hardware concern, on account of his health, or so ran the gossip. His wife, it was rumoured, had been on the stage in New York, so that her antecedents were doubtful — no one really knew anything at all about her, but her curious hair gave grounds for suspicion. An American wife who had been an actress was a very bad asset for Crossby. Nor was Crossby himself a prepossessing person; when judged by the county’s standards, lie bounded. Moreover he showed signs of unpardonable meanness. His subscription to the Hunt had been a paltry five guineas. He had written to say that his very poor health would preclude his hunting, and had actually added that he hoped the Hunt would keep clear of his coverts! And then everyone felt a natural resentment that The Grange should have had to be sacrificed for money — quite a small Tudor house it was yet very perfect. But Captain Ramsay, its erstwhile owner, had died recently, leaving large debts behind him, so his heir, a young cousin who lived in London, had promptly sold to the first wealthy bidder — hence the advent of Mr. Crossby.
Stephen, looking at Angela, remembered these things, but they suddenly seemed devoid of importance, for now those child-like eyes were upon her, and Angela was saying: ‘I don’t know how to thank you for saving my Tony, it was wonderful of you! If you hadn’t been there they’d have let him get killed, and I’m just devoted to Tony!’
Her voice had the soft, thick drawl of the South, an indolent voice, very lazy and restful. It was quite new to Stephen, that soft Southern drawl, and she found it unexpectedly pleasant. Then it dawned on the girl that this woman was lovely — she was like some queer flower that had grown up in darkness, like some rare, pale flower without blemish or stain, and Stephen said flushing:
‘I was glad to help you — I’ll drive you back to The Grange, if you’ll let me?’
‘Why, of course we’ll let you,’ came the prompt answer. ‘Tony says he’ll be most grateful, don’t you, Tony?’ Tony wagged his tail rather faintly.
Stephen wrapped him up in a motor rug at the back of the car, where he lay as though prostrate. Angela she placed in the seat beside herself, helping her carefully as she did so.
Presently Angela said: ‘Thanks to Tony I’ve met you at last; I’ve been longing to meet you!’ And she stared rather disconcertingly at Stephen, then smiled as though something she saw had amused her.
Stephen wondered why anyone should have longed to meet her. Feeling suddenly shy she became suspicious: ‘Who told you about me?’ she asked abruptly.
‘Mrs. Antrim, I think — yes, it was Mrs. Antrim. She said you were such a wonderful rider but that now, for some reason, you’d given up hunting. Oh, yes, and she said you fenced like a man. Do you fence like a man?’
‘I don’t know,’ muttered Stephen.
‘Well, I’ll tell you whether you do when I’ve seen you; my father was quite a well-known fencer at one time, so I learnt a lot about fencing in the States — perhaps some day, Miss Gordon, you’ll let me see you?’
By now Stephen’s face was the colour of a beetroot, and she gripped the wheel as though she meant to hurt it. She was longing to turn round and look at her companion, the desire to look at her was almost overwhelming, but even her eyes seemed too stiff to move, so she gazed at the long dusty road in silence.
‘Don’t punish the poor, wooden thing that way,’ murmured Angela, ‘it can’t help being just wood!’ Then she went on talking as though to herself: ‘What should I have done if that brute had killed Tony? He’s a real companion to me on my walks — I don’t know what I’d do if it weren’t for Tony, he’s such a devoted, cute little fellow, and these days I’m kind of thrown back on my dog — it’s a melancholy business walking alone, yet I’ve always been fond of walking —’
Stephen wanted to say: ‘But I like walking too; let me come with you sometimes as well as Tony.’ Then suddenly mustering up her courage, she jerked round in the seat and looked at this woman. As their eyes met and held each other for a moment, something vaguely disturbing stirred in Stephen, so that the car made a dangerous swerve. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said quickly, ‘that was rotten bad driving.’
But Angela did not answer.
Ralph Crossby was standing at the open doorway as the car swung up and came to a halt. Stephen noticed that he was immaculately dressed in a grey tweed suit that by rights should have been shabby. But everything about him looked aggressively new, his very hair had a quality of newness — it was thin brown hair that shone as though polished.
‘I wonder if he puts it out with his boots,’ thought Stephen, surveying him with interest.
He was one of those rather indefinite men, who are neither short nor tall, fat nor thin, old nor young, good-looking nor actually ugly. As his wife would have said, had anybody asked her, he was just ‘plain man,’ which exactly described him, for his only distinctive features were his newness and the peevish expression about his mouth — his mouth was intensely peevish.
When he spoke his high-pitched voice sounded fretful. What on earth have you been doing? It’s past two o’clock. I’ve been waiting since one, the lunch must be ruined; I do wish you’d try and be punctual, Angela!’ He appeared not to notice Stephen’s existence, for he went on nagging as though no one were present. ‘Oh, I see that damn dog of yours has been fighting again, I’ve a good mind to give him a thrashing; and what in God’s name’s the matter with your hand — you don’t mean to say that you’ve got yourself bitten? Really, Angela, this is a bit too bad!’ His whole manner suggested a personal grievance.
‘Well,’ drawled Angela, extending the bandaged hand for inspection, ‘I’ve not been getting manicured, Ralph.’ And her voice was distinctly if gently provoking, so that he winced with quick irritation. Then she seemed quite suddenly to remember Stephen: ‘Miss Gordon, let me introduce my husband.’
He bowed, and pulling himself together: ‘Thank you for driving my wife home, Miss Gordon, it was most kind, I’m sure.’ But he did not seem friendly, he kept glaring at Angela’s dog-bitten hand, and his tone, Stephen thought, was distinctly ungracious.
Getting out of the car she started her engine.
‘Good-bye,’ smiled Angela, holding out her hand, the left one, which Stephen grasped much too firmly. Good-bye — perhaps one day you’ll come to tea. We’re on the telephone, Upton 25, ring up and suggest yourself some day quite soon.’
‘Thanks awfully, I will,’ said Stephen.
‘Had a breakdown or something?’ inquired Puddle brightly, as at three o’clock Stephen slouched into the schoolroom.
‘No — but Mrs. Crossby’s dog had a fight. She got bitten, so I drove her back to The Grange.’
Puddle pricked up her ears: ‘What’s she like? I’ve heard rumours —’ ‘Well, she’s not at all like them,’ snapped Stephen.
There ensued a long silence while Puddle considered, but consideration does not always bring wise counsel, and now Puddle made a really bad break: ‘She’s pretty impossible, isn’t she, Stephen? They say he unearthed her somewhere in New York; Mrs. Antrim says she was a music-hall actress. I suppose you were obliged to give her a lift, but be careful, I believe she’s fearfully pushing.’
Stephen flared up like an emotional schoolgirl: ‘I’m not going to discuss her if that’s your opinion; Mrs. Crossby is quite as much a lady as you are, or any of the others round here, for that matter. I’m sick unto death of your beastly gossip.’ And turning abruptly she strode from the room.
‘Oh, Lord!’ murmured Puddle, frowning.
That evening Stephen rang up The Grange. ‘Is that Upton 25? It’s Miss Gordon speaking — no, no, Miss Gordon, speaking from Morton. How is Mrs. Crossby and how is the dog? I hope Mrs. Crossby’s hand isn’t very painful? Yes, of course I’ll hold on while you go and inquire.’ She felt shy, yet unusually daring.
Presently the butler came back and said gravely that Mrs. Crossby had just seen the doctor and had now gone to bed, as her hand was aching, but that Tony felt better and sent his love. He added: ‘Madam says would you come to tea on Sunday? She’d be very glad indeed if you would.’
And Stephen answered: ‘Will you thank Mrs. Crossby and tell her that I’ll certainly come on Sunday.’ Then she gave the message all over again, very slowly, with pauses. ‘Will — you thank — Mrs. Crossby and tell her — I’ll certainly come — on Sunday. Do you quite understand? Have I made it quite clear? Say I’m coming to tea on Sunday.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09