It was only five days till Sunday, yet for Stephen those five days seemed like as many years. Every evening now she rang up The Grange to inquire about Angela’s hand and Tony, so that she grew quite familiar with the butler, with his quality of voice, with his habit of coughing, with the way he hung up the receiver.
She did not stop to analyse her feelings, she only knew that she felt exultant — for no reason at all she was feeling exultant, very much alive and full of purpose, and she walked for miles alone on the hills, unable to stay really quiet for a moment. She found herself becoming acutely observant, and now she discovered all manner of wonders; the network of veins on the leaves, for instance, and the delicate hearts of the wild dog-roses, the uncertain shimmering flight of the larks as they fluttered up singing, close to her feet. But above all she rediscovered the cuckoo — it was June, so the cuckoo had changed his rhythm — she must often stand breathlessly still to listen: Cuckoo-kook, cuckoo-kook,’ all over the hills; and at evening the songs of blackbirds and thrushes.
Her wanderings would sometimes lead her to the places that she and Martin had visited together, only now she could think of him with affection, with toleration, with tenderness even. In a curious way she now understood him as never before, and in consequence condoned. It had just been some rather ghastly mistake, his mistake, yet she understood what he must have felt; and thinking of Martin she might grow rather frightened — what if she should ever make such a mistake? But the fear would be driven into the background by her sense of wellbeing, her fine exultation. The very earth that she trod seemed exalted, and the green, growing things that sprang out of the earth, and the birds, Cuckoo-kook,’ all over the hills — and at evening the songs of blackbirds and thrushes.
She became much more anxious about her appearance; for five mornings she studied her face in the glass as she dressed — after all she was not so bad looking. Her hair spoilt her a little, it was too thick and long, but she noticed with pleasure that at least it was wavy — then she suddenly admired the colour of her hair. Opening cupboard after cupboard she went through her clothes. They were old, for the most part distinctly shabby. She would go into Malvern that very afternoon and order a new flannel suit at her tailor’s. The suit should be grey with a little white pin stripe, and the jacket, she decided, must have a breast pocket. She would wear a black tie — no, better a grey one to match the new suit with the little white pin stripe. She ordered not one new suit but three, and she also ordered a pair of brown shoes; indeed she spent most of the afternoon in ordering things for her personal adornment. She heard herself being ridiculously fussy about details, disputing with her tailor over buttons; disputing with her boot-maker over the shoes, their thickness of sole, their amount of broguing; disputing regarding the match of her ties with the young man who sold her handkerchiefs and neckties — for such trifles had assumed an enormous importance; she had, in fact, grown quite long-winded about them.
That evening she showed her smart neckties to Puddle, whose manner was most unsatisfactory — she grunted.
And now someone seemed to be always near Stephen, someone for whom these things were accomplished — the purchase of the three new suits, the brown shoes, the six carefully chosen, expensive neckties. Her long walks on the hills were a part of this person, as were also the hearts of the wild dog-roses, the delicate network of veins on the leaves and the queer June break in the cuckoo’s rhythm. The night with its large summer stars and its silence, was pregnant with a new and mysterious purpose, so that lying at the mercy of that age-old purpose, Stephen would feel little shivers of pleasure creeping out of the night and into her body. She would get up and stand by the open window, thinking always of Angela Crossby.
Sunday came and with it church in the morning; then two interminable hours after lunch, during which Stephen changed her necktie three times, and brushed back her thick chestnut hair with water, and examined her shoes for imaginary dust, and finally gave a hard rub to her nails with a nail pad snatched brusquely away from Puddle.
When the moment for departure arrived at last, she said rather tentatively to Anna: ‘Aren’t you going to call on the Crossbys, Mother?’
Anna shook her head: ‘No, I can’t do that, Stephen — I go nowhere these days; you know that, my dear.’
But her voice was quite gentle, so Stephen said quickly: ‘Well, then, may I invite Mrs. Crossby to Morton?’
Anna hesitated a moment, then she nodded: ‘I suppose so — that is if you really wish to.’
The drive only took about twenty minutes, for now Stephen was so nervous that she positively flew. She who had been puffed up with elation and self-satisfaction was crumbling completely — in spite of her careful new necktie she was crumbling at the mere thought of Angela Crossby. Arrived at The Grange she felt over life-size; her hands seemed enormous, all out of proportion, and she thought that the butler stared at her hands.
‘Miss Gordon?’ he inquired.
‘Yes,’ she mumbled, ‘Miss Gordon.’ Then he coughed as he did on the telephone, and quite suddenly Stephen felt foolish.
She was shown into a small oak-panelled parlour whose long, open casements looked on to the herb-garden. A fire of apple-wood burnt on the hearth, in spite of the act that the weather was warm, for Angela was always inclined to feel chilly — the result, so she said, of the English climate. The fire gave off rather a sweet, pungent odour — the odour of slightly damp logs and dry ashes. By way of a really propitious beginning, Tony barked until he nearly burst his stitches, so that Angela, who was lying on the lounge, had perforce to get up in order to soothe him. An extremely round bullfinch in an ornate brass cage was piping a tune with his wings half extended. The tune sounded something like ‘Pop goes the weasel.’ At all events it was an impudent tune, and Stephen felt that she hated that bullfinch. It took all of five minutes to calm down Tony, during which Stephen stood apologetic but tongue-tied. She hardly knew whether to laugh or to cry at this very ridiculous anti-climax.
Then Angela decided the matter by laughing: ‘I’m so sorry, Miss Gordon, he’s feeling peevish. It’s quite natural, poor lamb, he had a bad night, he just hates being all sewn up like a bolster.’
Stephen went over and offered him her hand, which Tony now licked, so that trouble was ended; but in getting up Angela had torn her dress, and this seemed to distress her — she kept fingering the tear. ‘Can I help?’ inquired Stephen, hoping she’d say no — which she did, quite firmly, after one look at Stephen.
At last Angela settled down again on the lounge. ‘Come and sit over here,’ she suggested, smiling. Then Stephen sat down on the edge of a chair as though she were sitting in the Prickly Cradle.
She forgot to inquire about Angela’s dog-bite, though the bandaged hand was placed on a cushion; and she also forgot to adjust her new necktie, which in her emotion had slipped slightly crooked. A thousand times in the last few days had she carefully rehearsed this scene of their meeting, making up long and elaborate speeches; assuming, in her mind, many dignified poses; and yet there she sat on the edge of a chair as though it were the Prickly Cradle.
And now Angela was speaking in her soft, Southern drawl: ‘So you’ve found your way here at last,’ she was saying. And then, after a pause: ‘I’m so glad, Miss Gordon, do you know that your coming has given me real pleasure?’
Stephen said: ‘Yes — oh, yes —’ Then fell silent again, apparently intent on the carpet.
‘Have I dropped my cigarette ash or something?’ inquired her hostess, whose mouth twitched a little.
‘I don’t think so,’ murmured Stephen, pretending to look, then glancing up sideways at the impudent bullfinch.
The bullfinch was now being sentimental; he piped very low and with great expression. ‘0, Tannenbaum, 0, Tannenbaum, wie grün sind Deine Natter,’ he piped, hopping rather heavily from perch to perch, with one beady black orb fixed on Stephen.
Then Angela said: ‘It’s a curious thing, but I feel as though I’ve known you for ages. I don’t want to behave as though we were strangers — do you think that’s very American of me? Ought I to be formal and stand-offish and British? I will if you say so, but I don’t feel British.’ And her voice, although quite steady and grave, was somehow distinctly suggestive of laughter.
Stephen lifted troubled eyes to her face: ‘I want very much to be your friend if you’ll have me,’ she said; and then she flushed deeply.
Angela held out her undamaged hand which Stephen took, but in great trepidation. Barely had it lain in her own for a moment, when she clumsily gave it back to its owner. Then Angela looked at her hand.
Stephen thought: ‘Have I done something rude or awkward?’ And her heart thumped thickly against her side. She wanted to retrieve the lost hand and stroke it, but unfortunately it was now stroking Tony. She sighed, and Angela, hearing that sigh, glanced up, as though in inquiry.
The butler arrived, bringing in the tea.
Sugar?’ asked Angela.
‘No, thanks,’ said Stephen; then she suddenly changed her mind three lumps, please,’ she had always detested tea without sugar.
The tea was too hot; it burnt her mouth badly. She grew scarlet and her eyes began to water. To cover her confusion she swallowed more tea, while Angela looked tactfully out of the window. But when she considered it safe to turn round, her expression, although still faintly amused, had something about it that was tender.
And now she exerted all her subtlety and skill to make this queer guest of hers talk more freely, and Angela’s subtlety was no mean thing, neither was her skill if she chose to exert it. Very gradually the girl became more at her ease; it was uphill work but Angela triumphed, so that in the end Stephen talked about Morton, and a very little about herself also. And somehow, although Stephen appeared to be talking, she found that she was learning many things about her hostess; for instance, she learnt that Angela was lonely and very badly in need of her friendship. Most of Angela’s troubles seemed to centre round Ralph, who was not always kind and seldom agreeable. Remembering Ralph she could well believe this, and she said:
‘I don’t think your husband liked me.’
Angela sighed: Very probably not. Ralph never likes the people I do; he objects to my friends on principle, I think.’
Then Angela talked more openly of Ralph. Just now he was staying away with his mother, but next week he would be returning to The Grange, and then he was certain to be disagreeable: ‘Whenever he’s been with his mother he’s that way — she puts him against me, I never know why — unless, of course, it’s because I’m not English. I’m the stranger within the gates, it may be that.’ And when Stephen protested, ‘Oh, yes indeed, I’m quite often made to feel like a stranger. Take the people round here, do you think they like me?’
And Stephen, who had not yet learnt to dissemble, stared hard at her shoes, in embarrassed silence.
Just outside the door a dock boomed seven. Stephen started; she had been there nearly three hours. ‘I must go,’ she said, getting abruptly to her feet, ‘you look tired, I’ve been making a visitation.’
Her hostess made no effort to retain her: ‘Well,’ she smiled, ‘come again, please come very often — that is if you won’t find it dull, Miss Gordon; we’re terribly quiet here at The Grange.’
Stephen drove home slowly, for now that it was over she felt like a machine that had suddenly run down. Her nerves were relaxed, she was thoroughly tired, yet she rather enjoyed this unusual sensation. The hot June evening was heavy with thunder. From somewhere in the distance came the bleating of sheep, and the melancholy sound seemed to blend and mingle with her mood, which was now very gently depressed. A gentle but persistent sense of depression enveloped her whole being like a soft, grey cloak; and she did not wish to shake off this cloak, but rather to fold it more closely around her.
At Morton she stopped the car by the lakes and sat staring through the trees at the glint of water. For a long while she sat there without knowing why, unless it was that she wished to remember. But she found that she could not even be certain of the kind of dress that Angela had worn — it had been of some soft stuff, that much she remembered, so soft that it had easily torn, for the rest her memories of it were vague — though she very much wanted to remember that dress.
A faint rumble of thunder came out of the west, where the clouds were banking up ominously purple. Some uncertain and rather hysterical swallows flew high and then low at the sound of the thunder. Her sense of depression was now much less gentle, it increased every moment, turning to sadness. She was sad in spirit and mind and body — her body felt dejected, she was sad all over. And now someone was whistling down by the stables, old Williams, she suspected, for the whistle was tuneless. The loss of his teeth had disgruntled his whistle; yes, she was sure that must be Williams. A horse whinnied as one bucket clanked against another — sounds came dearly this evening; they were watering the horses. Anna’s young carriage horses would be pawing their straw, impatient because they were feeling thirsty.
Then a gate slammed. That would be the gate of the meadow where the heifers were pastured — it was yellow with king-cups. One of the men from the home farm was going his rounds, securing all gates before sunset. Something dropped on the bonnet of the car with a ping. Looking up she met the eyes of a squirrel; he was leaning well forward on his tiny front paws, peering crossly; he had dropped his nut on the bonnet. She got out of the car and retrieved his supper, throwing it under his tree while he waited. Like a flash he was down and then back on his tree, devouring the nut with his legs well straddled.
All around were the homely activities of evening, the watering of horses, the care of cattle — pleasant, peaceable things that preceded the peace and repose of the coming nightfall. And suddenly Stephen longed to share them, an immense need to share them leapt up within her, so that she ached with this urgent longing that was somehow a part of her bodily dejection.
She drove on and left the car at the stables, then walked round to the house, and when she got there she opened the door of the study and went in, feeling terribly lonely without her father. Sitting down in the old arm-chair that had survived him, she let her head rest where his head had rested; and her hands she laid on the arms of the chair where his hands, as she knew, had lain times without number. Closing her eyes, she tried to visualize his face, his kind face that had sometimes looked anxious; but the picture came slowly and faded at once, for the dead must often give place to the living. It was Angela Crossby’s face that persisted as Stephen sat in her father’s old chair.
In the small panelled room that gave on to the herb-garden, Angela yawned as she stared through the window; then she suddenly laughed out loud at her thoughts; then she suddenly frowned and spoke crossly to Tony.
She could not get Stephen out of her mind, and this irritated while it amused her. Stephen was so large to be tongue-tied and frightened — a curious creature, not devoid of attraction. In a way — her own way — she was almost handsome; no, quite handsome; she had fine eyes and beautiful hair. And her body was supple like that of an athlete — narrow-hipped and wide shouldered, she should fence very well. Angela was anxious to see her fence; she must certainly try to arrange it somehow.
Mrs. Antrim had conveyed a number of things, while actually saying very little; but Angela had no need of her hints, not now that she had come to know Stephen Gordon. And because she was idle, discontented and bored, and certainly not over-burdened with virtue, she must let her thoughts dwell unduly on this girl, while her curiosity kept pace with her thoughts.
Tony stretched and whimpered, so Angela kissed him, then she sat down and wrote quite a short little letter: ‘Do come over to lunch the day after tomorrow and advise me about the garden,’ ran the letter. And it ended — after one or two casual remarks about gardens — with: ‘Tony says please come, Stephen!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55