Through the long years of life that followed after, bringing with them their dreams and disillusions, their joys and sorrows, their fulfilments and frustrations, Stephen was never to forget this summer when she fell quite simply and naturally in love, in accordance with the dictates of her nature.
To her there seemed nothing strange or unholy in the love that she felt for Angela Crossby. To her it seemed an inevitable thing, as much a part of herself as her breathing; and yet it appeared transcendent of self, and she looked up and onwards towards her love — for the eyes of the young are drawn to the stars, and the spirit of youth is seldom earth-bound.
She loved deeply, far more deeply than many a one who could fearlessly proclaim himself a lover. Since this is a hard and sad truth for the telling; those whom nature has sacrificed to her ends — her mysterious ends that often lie hidden — are sometimes endowed with a vast will to loving, with an endless capacity for suffering also, which must go hand in hand with their love.
But at first Stephen’s eyes were drawn to the stars, and she saw only gleam upon gleam of glory. Her physical passion for Angela Crossby had aroused a strange response in her spirit, so that side by side with every hot impulse that led her at times beyond her own understanding, there would come an impulse not of the body; a fine, selfless thing of great beauty and courage — she would gladly have given her body over to torment, have laid down her life if need be, for the sake of this woman whom she loved. And so blinded was she by those gleams of glory which the stars fling into the eyes of young lovers, that she saw perfection where none existed; saw a patient endurance that was purely fictitious, and conceived of a loyalty far beyond the limits of Angela’s nature.
All that Angela gave seemed the gift of love; all that Angela withheld seemed withheld out of honour: ‘If only I were free,’ she was always saying, ‘but I can’t deceive Ralph, you know I can’t, Stephen — he’s ill.’ Then Stephen would feel abashed and ashamed before so much pity and honour.
She would humble herself to the very dust, as one who was altogether unworthy: ‘I’m a beast, forgive me; I’m all, all wrong — I’m mad sometimes these days — yes, of course, there’s Ralph.’
But the thought of Ralph would be past all bearing, so that she must reach out for Angela’s hand. Then, as likely as not, they would draw together and start kissing, and Stephen would be utterly undone by those painful and terribly sterile kisses.
‘God!’ she would mutter, ‘I want to get away!’
At which Angela might weep: ‘Don’t leave me, Stephen! I’m so lonely — why can’t you understand that I’m only trying to be decent to Ralph?’ So Stephen would stay on for an hour, for two hours, and the next day would find her once more at The Grange, because Angela was feeling so lonely.
For Angela could never quite let the girl go. She herself would be rather bewildered at moments — she did not love Stephen, she was quite sure of that, and yet the very strangeness of it all was an attraction. Stephen was becoming a kind of strong drug, a kind of anodyne against boredom. And then Angela knew her own power to subdue; she could play with fire yet remain unscathed by it. She had only to cry long and bitterly enough for Stephen to grow pitiful and consequently gentle.
‘Stephen, don’t hurt me — I’m awfully frightened when you’re like this — you simply terrify me, Stephen! Is it my fault that I married Ralph before I met you? Be good to me, Stephen!’ And then would come tears, so that Stephen must hold her as though she were a child, very tenderly, rocking her backwards and forwards.
They took to driving as far as the hills, taking Tony with them; he liked hunting the rabbits — and while he leapt wildly about in the air to land on nothing more vital than herbage, they would sit very close to each other and watch him. Stephen knew many places where lovers might sit like this, unashamed, among those charitable hills. There were times when a numbness descended upon her as they sat there, and if Angela kissed her cheek lightly, she would not respond, would not even look round, but would just go on staring at Tony. Yet at other times she felt queerly uplifted, and turning to the woman who leant against her shoulder, she said suddenly one day:
‘Nothing matters up here. You and I are so small, we’re smaller than Tony — our love’s nothing but a drop in some vast sea of love — it’s rather consoling — don’t you think so, beloved?’
But Angela shook her head: ‘No, my Stephen; I’m not fond of vast seas, I’m of the earth earthy,’ and then: ‘Kiss me, Stephen.’ So Stephen must kiss her many times, for the hot blood of youth stirs quickly, and the mystical sea became Angela’s lips that so eagerly gave and took kisses.
But when they got back to The Grange that evening, Ralph was there — he was hanging about in the hall. He said: ‘Had a nice afternoon, you two women? Been motoring Angela round the hills, Stephen, or what?’
He had taken to calling her Stephen, but his voice just now sounded sharp with suspicion as his rather weak eyes peered at Angela, so that for her sake Stephen must lie, and lie well — nor would this be the first time either.
‘Yes, thanks,’ she lied calmly, ‘we went over to Tewkesbury and had another look at the abbey. We had tea in the town. I’m sorry we’re so late, the carburettor choked, I couldn’t get it right at first, my car needs a good overhauling.’
Lies, always lies! She was growing proficient at the glib kind of lying that pacified Ralph, or at all events left him with nothing to say, nonplussed and at a distinct disadvantage. She was suddenly seized with a kind of horror, she felt physically sick at what she was doing, Her head swam and she caught the jamb of the door for support — at that moment she remembered her father.
Two days later as they sat alone in the garden at Morton, Stephen turned to Angela abruptly: ‘I can’t go on like this, it’s vile — it’s beastly, it’s soiling us both — can’t you see that?’
Angela was startled: ‘What on earth do you mean?’
‘You and me — and then Ralph. I tell you it’s beastly — I want you to leave him and come away with me.’
‘Are you mad?’
‘No, I’m sane. It’s the only decent thing, it’s the only clean thing; we’ll go anywhere you like, to Paris, to Egypt, or back to the States. For your sake I’m ready to give up my home. Do you hear I’m ready to give up even Morton. But I can’t go on lying about you to Ralph, I want him to know how much I adore you — I want the whole world to know how I adore you. Ralph doesn’t understand the first rudiments of loving, he’s a nagging, mean-minded cur of a man, but there’s one thing that even he has a right to, and that’s the truth. I’m done with these lies — I shall tell him the truth and so will you, Angela; and after we’ve told him we’ll go away, and we’ll live quite openly together, you and I, which is what we owe to ourselves and our love.’
Angela stared at her, white and aghast: ‘You are mad,’ she said slowly, ‘you’re raving mad. Tell him what? Have I let you become my lover? You know that I’ve always been faithful to Ralph; you know perfectly well that there’s nothing to tell him, beyond a few rather schoolgirlish kisses. Can I help it if you’re-what you obviously are? Oh, no, my dear, you’re not going to tell Ralph. You’re not going to let all hell loose around me just because you want to save your own pride by pretending to Ralph that you’ve been my lover. If you’re willing to give up your home I’m not willing to sacrifice mine, understand that, please. Ralph’s not much of a man, but he’s better than nothing, and I’ve managed him so far without any trouble. The great thing with him is to blaze a false trail, that distracts his mind, it works like a charm. He’ll follow any trail that I want him to follow — you leave him to me, I know my own husband a darned sight better than you do, Stephen, and I won’t have you interfering in my home.’ She was terribly frightened, too frightened to choose her words to consider their effect upon Stephen, to consider anyone but Angela Crossby who stood in such dire and imminent peril. So she said yet again, only now she spoke loudly: ‘I won’t have you interfering in my home!’
Then Stephen turned on her, white with passion: ‘You — you —’ she stuttered, ‘you’re unspeakably cruel. You know how you make me suffer and suffer because I love you the way I do; and because you like the way I love you, you drag the love out of me day after day — Can’t you understand that I love you so much that I’d give up Morton? Anything I’d give up — I’d give up the whole world. Angela, listen; I’d take care of you always. Angela, I’m rich — I’d take care of you always. Why won’t you trust me? Answer me — why? Don’t you think me fit to be trusted?’
She spoke wildly, scarcely knowing what she said; she only knew that she needed this woman with a need so intense, that worthy or unworthy, Angela was all that counted at that moment. And now she stood up, very tall, very strong, yet a little grotesque in her pitiful passion, so that looking at her Angela trembled — there was something rather terrible about her. All that was heavy in her face sprang into view, the strong line of the jaw, the square massive brow, the eyebrows too thick and too wide for beauty; she was like some curious, primitive thing conceived in a turbulent age of transition.
‘Angela, come very far away — anywhere, only come with me soon — tomorrow.’
Then Angela forced herself to think quickly, and she said just five words: ‘Could you marry me, Stephen?’
She did not look at the girl as she said it — that she could not do, perhaps out of something that, for her, was the nearest she would ever come to pity. There ensued a long, almost breathless silence, while Angela waited with her eyes turned away. A leaf dropped, and she heard its minute, soft falling, heard the creak of the branch that had let fall its leaf as a breeze passed over the garden.
Then the silence was broken by a quiet, dull voice, that sounded to her like the voice of a stranger: ‘No —’ it said very slowly, ‘no — I couldn’t marry you, Angela.’ And when Angela at last gained the courage to look up, she found that she was sitting there alone.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55