For three weeks they kept away from each other, neither writing nor making any effort to meet. Angela’s prudence forbade her to write: ‘Littera scripta manet’— a good motto, and one to which it was wise to adhere when dealing with a firebrand like Stephen. Stephen had given her a pretty bad scare, she realized the necessity for caution; still, thinking over that incredible scene, she found the memory rather exciting. Deprived of her anodyne against boredom, she looked upon Ralph with unfriendly eyes; while he, poor, inadequate, irritable devil, with his vague suspicions and his chronic dyspepsia, did little enough to divert his wife — his days and a fairly large part of his nights as well, were now spent in nagging.
He nagged about Tony who, as ill luck would have it, had decided that the garden was rampant with moles: ‘If you can’t keep that bloody dog in order, he goes. I won’t have him digging craters round my roses!’ Then would come a long list of Tony’s misdeeds from the time he had left the litter. He nagged about the large population of green-fly, deploring the existence of their sexual organs: ‘Nature’s a fool! Fancy procreation being extended to that sort of vermin!’ And then he would grow somewhat coarse as he dwelt on the frequent conjugal excesses of green-fly. But most of all he nagged about Stephen, because this as he knew, irritated his wife: ‘How’s your freak getting on? I haven’t seen her just lately; have you quarrelled or what? Damn good thing if you have. She’s appalling; never saw such a girl in my life; comes swaggering round here with her legs in breeches. Why can’t she ride like an ordinary woman? Good Lord, it’s enough to make any man see red; that sort of thing wants putting down at birth, I’d like to institute state lethal chambers!’
Or perhaps he would take quite another tack and complain that recently he had been neglected: ‘Late for every damned meal — running round with that girl — you don’t care what happens to me any more. A lot you care about my indigestion! I’ve got to eat any old thing these days from cow hide to bricks. Well, you listen to me, that’s not what I pay for; get that into your head! I pay for good meals to be served on time; on time, do you hear? And I expect my wife to be in her rightful place at my table to see that the omelette’s properly prepared. What’s the matter with you that you can’t go along and make it yourself? When we were first married you always made my omelettes yourself: I won’t eat yellow froth with a few strings of parsley in it — it reminds me of the dog when he’s sick; it’s disgusting! And I won’t go on talking about it either, the next time it happens I’ll sack the cook. Damn it all, you were glad enough of my help when I found you practically starving in New York — but now you’re for ever racing off with that girl. It’s all this damned animal’s fault that you met her!’ He would kick out sideways at the terrified Tony, who had lately been made to stand proxy for Stephen.
But worst of all was it when Ralph started weeping, because, as he said, his wife did not love him any more, and because, as he did not always say, he felt ill with his painful, chronic dyspepsia. One day he must make feeble love through his tears: ‘Angela, come here — put your arms around me — come and sit on my knee the way you used to.’ His wet eyes looked dejected yet rather greedy: ‘Put your arms around me, as though you cared —’ He was always insistent when most ineffectual.
That night he appeared in his best silk pyjamas — the pink ones that made his complexion look sallow. He climbed into bed with the sly expression that Angela hated — it was so pornographic. ‘Well, old girl, don’t forget that you’ve got a man about the house; you haven’t forgotten it, have you?’ After which followed one or two flaccid embraces together with much arrogant masculine bragging; and Angela, sighing as she lay and endured, quite suddenly thought of Stephen.
Pacing restlessly up and down her bedroom, Stephen would be thinking of Angela Crossby — haunted, tormented by Angela’s words that day in the garden: ‘Could you marry me, Stephen?’ and then by those other pitiless words: ‘Can I help it if you’re-what you obviously are?’
She would think with a kind of despair: What am I, in God’s name — some kind of abomination?’ And this thought would fill her with a very great anguish, because, loving much, her love seemed to her sacred. She could not endure that the slur of those words should come anywhere near her love. So now night after night she must pace up and down, beating her mind against a blind problem, beating her spirit against a blank wall — the impregnable wall of non-comprehension: ‘Why am I as I am-and what am I?’ Her mind would recoil while her spirit grew faint. A great darkness would seem to descend on her spirit — there would be no light wherewith to lighten that darkness.
She would think of Martin, for now surely she loved just as he had loved — it all seemed like madness. She would think of her father, of his comfortable words: ‘Don’t be foolish, there’s nothing strange about you.’ Oh, but he must have been pitifully mistaken — he had died still very pitifully mistaken. She would think yet again of her curious childhood, going over each detail in an effort to remember. But after a little her thoughts must plunge forward once more, right into her grievous present. With a shock she would realize how completely this coming of love had blinded her vision; she had stared at the glory of it so long that not until now had she seen its black shadow. Then would come the most poignant suffering of all, the deepest, the final humiliation. Protection — she could never offer protection to the creature she loved: ‘Could you marry me, Stephen?’ She could neither protect nor defend nor honour by loving; her hands were completely empty. She who would gladly have given her life, must go empty-handed to love, like a beggar. She could only debase what she longed to exalt, defile what she longed to keep pure and untarnished.
The night would gradually change to dawn; and the dawn would shine in at the open windows, bringing with it the intolerable singing of birds: ‘Stephen, look at us, look at us, we’re happy!’ Away in the distance there would be a harsh crying, the wild, harsh crying of swans by the lakes — the swan called Peter protecting, defending his mate against some unwelcome intruder. From the chimneys of Williams’ comfortable cottage smoke would rise — very dark — the first smoke of the morning. Home, that meant home and two people together, respected because of their honourable living. Two people who had had the right to love in their youth, and whom old age had not divided. Two poor and yet infinitely enviable people, without stain, without shame in the eyes of their fellows. Proud people who could face the world unafraid, having no need to fear the world’s execration.
Stephen would fling herself down on the bed, completely exhausted by the night’s bitter vigil.
There was someone who went every step of the way with Stephen during those miserable weeks, and this was the faithful and anxious Puddle, who could have given much wise advice had Stephen only confided in her. But Stephen hid her trouble in her heart for the sake of Angela Crossby.
With an ever-increasing presage of disaster, Puddle now stuck to the girl like a leech, getting little enough in return for her trouble — Stephen deeply resented this close supervision: ‘Can’t you leave me alone? No, of course I’m not ill!’ she would say, with a quick spurt of temper.
But Puddle, divining her illness of spirit together with its cause, seldom left her alone. She was frightened by something in Stephen’s eyes; an incredulous, questioning, wounded expression, as though she were trying to understand why it was that she must be so grievously wounded. Again and again Puddle cursed her own folly for having shown such open resentment of Angela Crossby; the result was that now Stephen never discussed her, never mentioned her name unless Puddle clumsily dragged it in, and then Stephen would change the subject. And now more than ever Puddle loathed and despised the conspiracy of silence that forbade her to speak frankly. The conspiracy of silence that had sent the girl forth unprotected, right into the arms of this woman. A vain, shallow woman in search of excitement, and caring less than nothing for Stephen.
There were times when Puddle felt almost desperate, and one evening she came to a great resolution. She would go to the girl and say: ‘I know. I know all about it, you can trust me, Stephen.’ And then she would counsel and try to give courage: ‘You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet — you’ve not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come, and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself, but just face yourself calmly and bravely. Have courage; do the best you can with your burden. But above all be honourable. Cling to your honour for the sake of those others who share the same burden. For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite as selfless and fine as the rest of mankind. Let your life go to prove this — it would be a really great life-work, Stephen.’
But the resolution waned because of Anna, who would surely join hands with the conspiracy of silence. She would never condone such fearless plain-speaking. If it came to her knowledge she would turn Puddle out bag and baggage, and that would leave Stephen alone. No, she dared not speak plainly because of the girl for whose sake she should now, above all, be outspoken. But supposing the day should arrive when Stephen herself thought fit to confide in her friend, then Puddle would take the bull by the horns: ‘Stephen, I know. You can trust me, Stephen.’ If only that day were not too long in coming —
For none knew better than this little grey woman, the agony of mind that must be endured when a sensitive, highly organized nature is first brought face to face with its own affliction. None knew better the terrible nerves of the invert, nerves that are always lying in wait. Super-nerves, whose response is only equalled by the strain that calls that response into being. Puddle was well acquainted with these things — that was why she was deeply concerned about Stephen.
But all she could do, at least for the present, was to be very gentle and very patient: ‘Drink this cocoa, Stephen, I made it myself — And then with a smile, ‘I put four lumps of sugar!’
Then Stephen was pretty sure to turn contrite: ‘Puddle — I’m a brute — you’re so good to me always.’
‘Rubbish! I know you like cocoa made sweet, that’s why I put in those four lumps of sugar. Let’s go for a really long walk, shall we, dear? I’ve been wanting a really long walk now for weeks.’
Liar — most kind and self-sacrificing liar! Puddle hated long walks, especially with Stephen who strode as though wearing seven league boots and whose only idea of a country walk was to take her own line across ditches and hedges — yes, indeed, a most kind and self-sacrificing liar! For Puddle was not quite so young as she had been; at times her feet would trouble her a little, and at times she would get a sharp twinge in her knee, which she shrewdly suspected to be rheumatism. Nevertheless she must keep close to Stephen because of the fear that tightened her heart — the fear of that questioning, wounded expression which now never left the girl’s eyes for a moment. So Puddle got out her most practical shoes — her heaviest shoes which were said to be damp-proof — and limped along bravely by the side of her charge, who as often as not ignored her existence.
There was one thing in all this that Puddle found amazing, and that was Anna’s apparent blindness. Anna appeared to notice no change in Stephen, to feel no anxiety about her. As always, these two were gravely polite to each other, and as always they never intruded. Still, it did seem to Puddle an incredible thing that the girl’s own mother should have noticed nothing. And yet so it was, for Anna had gradually been growing more silent and more abstracted. She was letting the tide of life carry her gently towards that haven on which her thoughts rested. And this blindness of hers troubled Puddle sorely, so that anger must often give way to pity.
She would think: ‘God help her, the sorrowful woman; she knows nothing — why didn’t he tell her? It was cruel!’ And then she would think: ‘Yes, but God help Stephen if the day ever comes when her mother does know — what will happen on that day to Stephen?’
Kind and loyal Puddle; she felt torn to shreds between those two, both so worthy of pity. And now in addition she must be tormented by memories dug out of their graves by Stephen — Stephen, whose pain had called up a dead sorrow that for long had lain quietly and decently buried. Her youth would come back and stare into her eyes reproachfully, so that her finest virtues would seem little better than dust and ashes. She would sigh, remembering the bitter sweetness, the valiant hopelessness of her youth — and then she would look at Stephen.
But one morning Stephen announced abruptly: ‘I’m going out. Don’t wait lunch for me, will you.’ And her voice permitted of no argument or question.
Puddle nodded in silence. She had no need to question, she knew only too well where Stephen was going.
With head bowed by her mortification of spirit, Stephen rode once more to The Grange. And from time to time as she rode she flushed deeply because of the shame of what she was doing. But from time to time her eyes filled with tears because of the pain of her longing.
She left the cob with a man at the stables, then made her way round to the old herb-garden; and there she found Angela sitting alone in the shade with a book which she was not reading.
Stephen said: ‘I’ve come back.’ And then without waiting: ‘I’ll do anything you want, if you’ll let me come back.’ And even as she spoke those words her eyes fell.
But Angela answered: ‘You had to come back — because I’ve been wanting you, Stephen.’
Then Stephen went and knelt down beside her, and she hid her face against Angela’s knee, and the tears that had never so much as once fallen during all the hard weeks of their separation, gushed out of her eyes. She cried like a child, with her face against Angela’s knee.
Angela let her cry on for a while, then she lifted the tear-stained face and kissed it: ‘Oh, Stephen, Stephen, get used to the world — it’s a horrible place full of horrible people, but it’s all there is, and we live in it, don’t wee So we’ve just got to do as the world does, my Stephen.’ And because it seemed strange and rather pathetic that this creature should weep, Angela was stirred to something very like love for a moment: ‘Don’t cry any more — don’t cry, honey,’ she whispered, ‘we’re together; nothing else really matters.’
And so it began all over again.
Stephen stayed on to lunch, for Ralph was in Worcester. He came home a good two hours before teatime to find them together among his roses; they had followed the shade when it left the herb-garden.
‘Oh, it’s you!’ he exclaimed as his eye lit on Stephen; and his voice was naively disappointed, so full of dismay at her reappearance, that just for a second she felt sorry for him.
‘Yes, it’s me —’ she replied, not quite knowing what to say.
He grunted, and went off for his pruning knife, with which he was soon amputating roses. But in spite of his mood he remained a good surgeon, cutting dexterously, always above the leaf-bud, for the man was fond of his roses. And knowing this, Stephen must play on that fondness, since now it was her business to cajole him into friendship. A degrading business, but it had to be done for Angela’s sake, lest she suffer through loving. Unthinkable that —‘Could you marry me, Stephen?’
‘Ralph, look here,’ she called, ‘Mrs. John Laing’s got broken! We may be in time if we bind her with bass.’
‘Oh, dear, has she?’ He came hurrying up as he spoke, ‘Do go down to the shed and get me some, will you?’
She got him the bass and together they bound her, the pink-cheeked full-bosomed Mrs. John Laing.
‘There,’ he said, as he snipped off the ends of her bandage, ‘that ought to set your leg for you, madam!’
Near by grew a handsome Frau Karl Druschki, and Stephen praised her luminous whiteness, remarking his obvious pleasure at the praise. He was like a father of beautiful children, always eager to hear them admired by a stranger, and she made a note of this in her mind: ‘He likes one to praise his roses.’
He wanted to talk about Frau Karl Druschki: ‘She’s a beauty! There’s something so wonderfully cool — as you say, it’s the whiteness —’ Then before he could stop himself: ‘She reminds me of Angela, somehow.’ The moment the words were out he was frowning, and Stephen stared hard at Frau Karl Druschki.
But as they passed from border to border, his brow cleared: ‘I’ve spent over three hundred,’ he said proudly, ‘never saw such a mess as this garden was in when I bought the place — had to dig in fresh soil for the roses just here, these are all new plants; I motored half across England to get them. See that hedge of York and Lancasters there? They didn’t cost much because they’re out of fashion. But I like them, they’re small but rather distinguished I think — there’s something so armorial about them.’
She agreed: ‘Yes, I’m awfully fond of them too,’ and she listened quite gravely while he explained that they dated as far back as the Wars of the Roses.
‘Historical, that’s what I mean,’ he explained. ‘I like everything old, you know, except women.’
She thought with an inward smile of his newness.
Presently he said in a tone of surprise: ‘I never imagined that you’d care about roses.’
‘Yes, why not? We’ve got quite a number at Morton. Why don’t you come over tomorrow and see them?’
‘Do your William Allen Richardsons do well?’ he inquired.
‘I think so.’
‘Mine don’t. I can’t make it out. This year of course they’ve been damaged by green-fly. Just come here and look at these standards, will you? They’re being devoured alive by the brutes!’ And then as though he were talking to a friend who would understand him: ‘Roses seem good to me — you know what I mean, there’s virtue about them — the scent and the feel and the way they grow. I always had some on the desk in my office, they seemed to brighten up the whole place, no end.’
He started to ink in the names on the labels with a gold fountain-pen which he took from his pocket. ‘Yes,’ he murmured, as he bent his face over the labels, ‘yes, I always had three or four on my desk. But Birmingham’s a foul sort of place for roses.’
And hearing him, Stephen found herself thinking that all men had something simple about them; something that took pleasure in the things that were blameless, that longed, as it were, to contact with Nature. Martin had loved huge, primitive trees; and even this mean little man loved his roses.
Angela came strolling across the lawn: ‘Come, you two,’ she called gaily, ‘tea’s waiting in the hall!’
Stephen flinched: ‘Come, you two —’ the words jarred on her; and she knew that Angela was thoroughly happy, for when Ralph was out of earshot for a moment she whispered:
‘You were clever about his roses!’
At tea Ralph relapsed into sulky silence; he seemed to regret his erstwhile good humour. And he ate quite a lot, which made Angela nervous — she dreaded his attacks of indigestion, which were usually accompanied by attacks of bad temper.
Long after they had all finished tea he lingered, until Angela said: ‘Oh, Ralph, that lawn mower. Pratt asked me to tell you that it won’t work at all; he thinks it had better go back to the makers. Will you write about it now before the post goes?’
‘I suppose so —’ he muttered; but he left the room slowly.
Then they looked at each other, and drew close together, guiltily, starting at every sound: ‘Stephen — be careful for God’s sake — Ralph —’
So Stephen’s hands dropped from Angela’s shoulders, and she set her lips hard, for no protest must pass them any more; they had no right to protest.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55