When they got back to Morton there was Puddle in the hall, with that warm smile of hers, always just a little mocking yet pitiful too, that queer composite smile that made her face so arresting. And the sight of this faithful little grey woman brought home to Stephen the fact that she had missed her. She had missed her, she found, out of all proportion to the size of the creature, which seemed to have diminished. Coming back to it after those weeks of absence, Puddle’s smallness seemed to be even smaller, and Stephen could not help laughing as she hugged her. Then she suddenly lifted her right off her feet with as much ease as though she had been a baby.
Morton smelt good with its log fires burning, and Morton looked good with the goodness of home. Stephen sighed with something very like contentment: ‘Lord! I’m so glad to be back again, Puddle. I must have been a cat in my last incarnation; I hate strange places — especially Cornwall.’
Puddle smiled grimly. She thought that she knew why Stephen had hated Cornwall.
After tea Stephen wandered about the house, touching first this, then that, with affectionate fingers. But presently she went off to the stables with sugar for Collins and carrots for Raftery; and there in his spacious, hay-scented loose box, Raftery was waiting for Stephen. He made a queer little sound in his throat, and his soft Irish eyes said: ‘You’re home, home, home. I’ve grown tired with waiting, and with wishing you home.’
And she answered: ‘Yes, I’ve come back to you, Raftery.’
Then she threw her strong arm around his neck, and they talked together for quite a long while — not in Irish or English but in a quiet language having very few words but many small sounds and many small movements, that meant much more than words.
‘Since you went I’ve discovered a wonderful thing,’ he told her, ‘I’ve discovered that for me you are God. It’s like that sometimes with us humbler people, we may only know God through His human image.’
‘Raftery,’ she murmured, ‘oh, Raftery, my dear — I was so young when you came to Morton. Do you remember that first day out hunting when you jumped the huge hedge in our big north paddock? What a jump! It ought to go down to history. You were splendidly cool and collected about it. Thank the Lord you were — I was only a kid, all the same it was very foolish of us, Raftery.’
She gave him a carrot, which he took with contentment from the hand of his God, and proceeded to munch. And she watched him munch it, contented in her turn, hoping that the carrot was succulent and sweet; hoping that his innocent cup of pleasure might be full to the brim and overflowing. Like God indeed, she tended his needs, mixing the evening meal in his manger, holding the water bucket to his lips while he sucked in the cool, clear, health-giving water. A groom came along with fresh trusses of straw which he opened and tossed among Raftery’s bedding; then he took off the smart blue and red day clothing, and buckled him up in a warm night blanket. Beyond in the far loose box by the window, Sir Philip’s young chestnut kicked loudly for supper.
‘Woa horse! Get up there! Stop kicking them boards!’ And the groom hurried off to attend to the chestnut.
Collins, who had spat out his two lumps of sugar, was now busy indulging his morbid passion. His sides were swollen well night to bursting — blown out like an air balloon was old Collins from the evil and dyspeptic effects of the straw, plus his own woeful lack of molars. He stared at Stephen with whitish-blue eyes that saw nothing, and when she touched him he grunted — a discourteous sound which meant: ‘Leave me alone!’ So after a mild reproof she left him to his sins and his indigestion.
Last but not least, she strolled down to the home of the two-legged creature who had once reigned supreme in those princely but now depleted stables. And the lamplight streamed out through uncurtained windows to meet her, so that she walked on lamplight. A slim streak of gold led right up to the porch of old Williams’ comfortable cottage. She found him sitting with the Bible on his knees, peering crossly down at the Scriptures through his glasses. He had taken to reading the Scriptures aloud to himself — a melancholy occupation. He was at this now. As Stephen entered she could hear him mumbling from Revelation: ‘And the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone.’
He looked up, and hastily twitched off his glasses: ‘Miss Stephen!’
‘Sit still — stop where you are, Williams.’
But Williams had the arrogance of the humble. He was proud of the stern traditions of his service, and his pride forbade him to sit in her presence, in spite of their long and kind years of friendship. Yet when he spoke he must grumble a little, as though she were still the very small child who had swaggered round the stables rubbing her chin, imitating his every expression and gesture.
‘You didn’t ought to have no ‘orses, Miss Stephen, the way you runs off and leaves them,’ he grumbled. Raftery’s been off ‘is feed these last days. I’ve been talkin’ to that Jim what you sets such store by! Impudent young blight, ‘e answered me back like as though I’d no right to express me opinion. But I says to ’im: “You just wait, lad,” I says, “You wait until I gets ‘old of Miss Stephen!”’
For Williams could never keep clear of the stables, and could never refrain from nagging when he got there. Deposed he might be, but not yet defeated even by old age, as grooms knew to their cost. The tap of his heavy oak stick in the yard was enough to send Jim and his underling flying to hide curry-combs and brushes out of sight. Williams needed no glasses when it came to disorder.
‘Be this place ’ere a stable or be it a pigsty, I wonder e’ was now his habitual greeting.
His wife came bustling in from the kitchen: Sit down, Miss Stephen,’ and she dusted a chair.
Stephen sat down and glanced at the Bible where it lay, still open, on the table.
‘Yes,’ said Williams, dourly, as though she had spoken, ‘I’m reduced to readin’ about ‘eavenly ‘orses. A nice endin’ that for a man like me, what’s been in the service of Sir Philip Gordon, what’s ‘ad ‘is legs across the best ‘unters as ever was seen in this county or any! And I don’t believe in them lion-headed beasts breathin’ fire and brimstone, it’s all agin nature. Whoever it was wrote them Revelations, can’t never have been inside of a stable. I don’t believe in no ‘eavenly ‘orses neither — there won’t be no ‘orses in ‘eaven; and a good thing too, judgin’ by the description.’
‘I’m surprised at you, Arth-thur, bein’ so disrespectful to The Book!’ his wife reproached him gravely.
‘Well, it ain’t no encyclopaedee to the stable, and that’s a sure thing,’ grinned Williams.
Stephen looked from one to the other. They were old, very old, fast approaching completion. Quite soon, their circle would be complete, and then Williams would be able to tackle Saint John on the points of those heavenly horses.
Mrs. Williams glanced apologetically at her: ‘Excuse ’im, Miss Stephen, ‘e’s gettin’ rather childish. ‘E won’t read no pretty parts of the Book; all e’ll read is them parts about chariots and such-like. All what’s to do with ‘orses ‘e reads; and then ‘e’s so unbelievin’— it’s aw-ful!’ But she looked at her mate with the eyes of a mother, very gentle and tolerant eyes.
And Stephen, seeing those two together, could picture them as they must once have been, in the halcyon days of their youthful vigour. For she thought that she glimpsed through the dust of the years, a faint flicker of the girl who had lingered in the lanes when the young man Williams and she had been courting. And looking at Williams as he stood before her twitching and bowed, she thought that she glimpsed a faint flicker of the youth, very stalwart and comely, who had bent his head downwards and sideways, as he walked and whispered and kissed in the lanes. And because they were old yet undivided, her heart ached; not for them but rather for Stephen. Her youth seemed as dross when compared to their honourable age; because they were undivided.
She said: ‘Make him sit down, I don’t want him to stand.’ And she got up and pushed her own chair towards him.
But old Mrs. Williams shook her white head slowly: ‘No, Miss Stephen, ‘e wouldn’t sit down in your presence. Beggin’ your pardon, it would ‘urt Arth-thur’s feelin’s to be made to sit down; it would make ’im feel as ‘is days of service was really over.’
‘I don’t need to sit down,’ declared Williams.
So Stephen wished them both a good night, promising to come again very soon; and Williams hobbled out to the path which was now quite golden from border to border, for the door of the cottage was standing wide open and the glow from the lamp streamed over the path. Once more she found herself walking on lamplight, while Williams, bareheaded, stood and watched her departure. Then her feet were caught up and entangled in shadows again, as she made her way under the trees.
But presently came a familiar fragrance — logs burning on the wide, friendly hearths of Morton. Logs burning — quite soon the lakes would be frozen —‘and the ice looks like slabs of gold in the sunset, when you and I come and stand here in the winter . . . and as we walk back we can smell the log fires long before we can see them, and we love that good smell because it means home, and our home is Morton . . . because it means home and our home is Morton . . .
Oh, intolerable fragrance of log fires burning!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55