Angela did not return in a week, she had decided to remain another fortnight in Scotland. She was staying now with the Peacocks, it seemed, and would not get back until after her birthday. Stephen looked at the beautiful ring as it gleamed in its little white velvet box, and her disappointment and chagrin were childish.
But Violet Antrim, who had also been staying with the Peacocks, had arrived home full of importance. She walked in on Stephen one afternoon to announce her engagement to young Alec Peacock. She was so much engaged and so haughty about it that Stephen, whose nerves were already on edge, was very soon literally itching to slap her. Violet was now able to look down on Stephen from the height of her newly gained knowledge of men — knowing Alec she felt that she knew the whole species.
‘It’s a terrible pity you dress as you do, my dear,’ she remarked, with the manner of sixty, ‘a young girl’s so much more attractive when she’s soft — don’t you think you could soften your clothes just a little? I mean you do want to get married, don’t you! No woman’s complete until she is married. After all, no woman can really stand alone, she always needs a man to protect her.’
Stephen said: ‘I’m all right — getting on nicely, thank you!’
‘Oh, no, but you can’t be!’ Violet insisted. ‘I was talking to Alec and Roger about you, and Roger was saying it’s an awful mistake for women to get false ideas into their heads. He thinks you’ve got rather a bee in your bonnet; he told Alec that you’d be quite a womanly woman if you’d only stop trying to ape what you’re not.’ Presently she said, staring rather hard: ‘That Mrs. Crossby — do you really like her? Of course I know you’re friends and all that — But why are you friends? You’ve got nothing in common. She’s what Roger calls a thorough man’s woman. I think myself she’s a bit of a climber. Do you want to be used as a scaling ladder for storming the fortifications of the county? The Peacocks have known old Crossby for years, he’s a wonderful shot for an ironmonger, but they don’t care for her very much I believe — Alec says she’s man-mad, whatever that means, anyhow she seems desperately keen about Roger.’
Stephen said: ‘I’d rather we didn’t discuss Mrs. Crossby, because, you see, she’s my friend.’ And her voice was as icy cold as her hands.
‘Oh, of course if you’re feeling like that about it —’ laughed Violet, ‘no, but honest, she is keen on Roger.’
When Violet had gone, Stephen sprang to her feet, but her sense of direction seemed to have left her, for she struck her head a pretty sharp blow against the side of a heavy bookcase. She stood swaying with her hands pressed against her temples. Angela and Roger Antrim — those two — but it couldn’t be, Violet had been purposely lying. She loved to torment, she was like her brother, a bully, a devil who loved to torment — it couldn’t be-Violet had been lying.
She steadied herself and leaving the room and the house, went and fetched her car from the stables. She drove to the telegraph office at Upton: ‘Come back, I must see you at once,’ she wired, taking great care to prepay the reply, lest Angela should find an excuse for not answering.
The clerk counted the words with her stump of a pencil, then she looked at Stephen rather strangely.
The next morning came Angela’s frigid answer: ‘Coming home Monday fortnight not one day sooner please no more wires Ralph very much upset.’
Stephen tore the thing into a hundred fragments and then hurled it away. She was suddenly shaking all over with uncontrollable anger.
Right up to the moment of Angela’s return that hot anger supported Stephen. It was like a flame that leapt through her veins, a flame that consumed and yet stimulated, so that she purposely fanned the fire from a sense of self-preservation.
Then came the actual day of arrival. Angela must be in London by now, she would certainly have travelled by the night express. She would catch the 12.47 to Malvern and then motor to Upton — it was nearly twelve. It was afternoon. At 3.17 Angela’s train would arrive at Great Malvern — it had arrived now — in about twenty minutes she would drive past the very gates of Morton. Half-past four. Angela must have got home; she was probably having tea in the parlour — in the little oak parlour with its piping bullfinch whose cage always stood near the casement window. A long time ago, a lifetime ago, Stephen had blundered into that parlour, and Tony had barked, and the bullfinch had piped a sentimental old German tune — but that was surely a lifetime ago. Five o’clock. Violet Antrim had obviously lied; she had lied on purpose to torment Stephen — Angela and Roger — it couldn’t be; Violet had lied because she liked to torment. A quarter-past five. What was Angela doing now? She was near, just a few miles away — perhaps she was ill, as she had not written; yes, that must be it, of course Angela was ill. The persistent, aching hunger of the eyes. Anger, what was it? A folly, a delusion, a weakness that crumbled before that hunger. And Angela was only a few miles away.
She went up to her room and unlocked a drawer from which she took the little white case. Then she slipped the case into her jacket pocket.
Sim found Angela helping her maid to unpack; they appeared to be all but snowed under by masses of soft, inadequate garments. The bedroom smelt strongly of Angela’s scent, which was heavy yet slightly pungent.
She glanced up from a tumbled heap of silk stockings: ‘Hallo, Stephen!’ Her greeting was casually friendly.
Stephen said: ‘Well, how are you after all these weeks? Did you have a good journey down from Scotland?’
The maid said: ‘Shall I wash your new crepe de Chine nightgowns, ma’am? Or ought they to go to the cleaners?’
Then, somehow, they all fell silent.
To break this suggestive and awkward silence, Stephen inquired politely after Ralph.
‘He’s in London on business for a couple of days; he’s all right, thanks,’ Angela answered briefly, and she turned once more to sorting her stockings.
Stephen studied her. Angela was not looking well, her mouth had a childish droop at the corners; there were quite new shadows, too, under her eyes, and these shadows accentuated her pallor. And as though that earnest gaze made her nervous, she suddenly bundled the stockings together with a little sound of impatience.
‘Come on, let’s go down to my room!’ And turning to her maid: ‘I’d rather you washed the new nightgowns, please.’
They went down the wide oak stairs without speaking, and into the little oak-panelled parlour. Stephen closed the door; then they faced each other.
‘Well, Stephen?’ And after a pause: ‘What on earth made you send that absurd telegram? Ralph got hold of the thing and began to ask questions. You are such an almighty fool sometimes — you knew perfectly well that I couldn’t come back. Why will you behave as though you were six, have you no common sense? What’s it all about? Your methods are not only infantile — they’re dangerous.’
Then taking Angela firmly by the shoulders, Stephen turned her so that she faced the light. She put her question with youthful crudeness: ‘Do you find Roger Antrim physically attractive — do you find that he attracts you that way more than I do?’ She waited calmly, it seemed, for her answer.
And because of that distinctly ominous calm, Angela was scared, so she blustered a little: ‘Of course I don’t! I resent such questions; I won’t allow them even from you, Stephen. God knows where you get your fantastic ideas! Have you been discussing me with that girl Violet? If you have, I think it’s simply outrageous! She’s quite the most evil-minded prig in the county. It was not very gentlemanly of you, my dear, to discuss my affairs with our neighbours, was it?’
‘I refused to discuss you with Violet Antrim,’ Stephen told her, still speaking quite calmly. But she clung to her point: ‘Was it all a mistake? Is there no one between us except your husband? Angela, look at me — I will have the truth.’
For answer Angela kissed her.
Stephen’s strong but unhappy arms went round her, and suddenly stretching out her hand she switched off the little lamp on the table, so that the room was lit only by firelight. They could not see each other’s faces very clearly any more, because there was only firelight. And Stephen spoke such words as a lover will speak when his heart is burdened to breaking; when his doubts must bow down and be swept away before the unruly flood of his passion. There in that shadowy, firelit room, she spoke such words as lovers have spoken ever since the divine, sweet madness of God flung the thought of love into Creation.
But Angela suddenly pushed her away: ‘Don’t, don’t — I can’t bear it — it’s too much, Stephen. It hurts me — I can’t bear this thing — for you. It’s all wrong, I’m not worth it, anyhow it’s all wrong. Stephen, it’s making me — can’t you understand? It’s too much —’ She could not, she dared not explain. ‘If you were a man —’ She stopped abruptly, and burst into uncontrollable weeping.
And somehow this weeping was different from any that had gone before, so that Stephen trembled. There was something frightened and desolate about it; it was like the sobbing of a terrified child. The girl forgot her own desolation in her pity and the need that she felt to comfort. More strongly than ever before she felt the need to protect this woman, and to comfort.
She said, grown suddenly passionless and gentle: ‘Tell me — try to tell me what’s wrong, beloved. Don’t be afraid of making me angry — we love each other, and that’s all that matters. Try to tell me what’s wrong, and then let me help you; only don’t cry like this — I can’t endure it.’
But Angela hid her face in her hands: ‘No, no, it’s nothing; I’m only so tired. It’s been a fearful strain these last months. I’m just a weak, human creature, Stephen — sometimes I think we’ve been worse than mad. I must have been mad to have allowed you to love me like this — one day you’ll despise and hate me. It’s my fault, but I was so terribly lonely that I let you come into my life, and now — oh, I can’t explain, you wouldn’t understand; how could you understand, Stephen?’
And so strangely complex is poor human nature, that Angela really believed in her feelings. At that moment of sudden fear and remorse, remembering those guilty weeks in Scotland, she believed that she felt compassion and regret for this creature who loved her, and whose ardent loving had paved the way for another. In her weakness she could not part from the girl, not yet — there was something so strong about her. She seemed to combine the strength of a man with the gentler and more subtle strength of a woman. And thinking of the crude young animal Roger, with his brusque, rather brutal appeal to the senses, she was filled with a kind of regretful shame, and she hated herself for what she had done, and for what she well knew she would do again, because of that urge to passion.
Feeling humble, she groped for the girl’s kind hand; then she tried to speak lightly: ‘Would you always forgive this very miserable sinner, Stephen?’
Stephen said, not apprehending her meaning, ‘If our love is a sin, then heaven must be full of such tender and selfless sinning as ours.’
They sat down close together. They were weary unto death, and Angela whispered: ‘Put your arms around me again — but gently, because I’m so tired. You’re a kind lover, Stephen — sometimes I think you’re almost too kind.’
And Stephen answered: ‘It’s not kindness that makes me unwilling to force you — I can’t conceive of that sort of love.’
Angela Crossby was silent.
But now she was longing for the subtle easement of confession, so dear to the soul of woman. Her self-pity was augmented by her sense of wrong-doing — she was thoroughly unstrung, almost ill with self pity — so that lacking the courage to confess the present, she let her thoughts dwell on the past. Stephen had always forborne to question, and therefore that past had never been discussed, but now Angela felt a great need to discuss it. She did not analyse her feelings; she only knew that she longed intensely to humble herself, to plead for compassion, to wring from the queer, strong, sensitive being who loved her, some hope of ultimate forgiveness. At that moment, as she lay there in Stephen’s arms, the girl assumed an enormous importance. It was strange, but the very fact of betrayal appeared to have strengthened her will to hold her, and Angela stirred, so that Stephen said softly:
‘Lie still — I thought you were fast asleep.’
And Angela answered: ‘No, I’m not asleep, dearest. I’ve been thinking. There arc some things I ought to tell you. You’ve never asked me about my past life — why haven’t you, Stephen?’
‘Because,’ said Stephen, ‘I knew that some day you’d tell me.’ Then Angela began at the very beginning. She described a Colonial home in Virginia. A grave, grey house, with a columned entrance, and a garden that looked down on deep, running water, and that water had rather a beautiful name — it was called the Potomac River. Up the side of the house grew magnolia blossoms, and many old trees gave their shade to its garden. In summer the fire-flies lit lamps on those trees, shifting lamps that moved swiftly among the branches. And the hot summer darkness was splashed with lightning, and the hot summer air was heavy with sweetness.
She described her mother who had died when Angela was twelve — a pathetic, inadequate creature; the descendant of women who had owned many slaves to minister to their most trivial requirements: ‘She could hardly put on her own stockings and shoes,’ smiled Angela, as she pictured that mother.
She described her father, George Benjamin Maxwell — a charming, but quite incorrigible spendthrift. She said: ‘He lived in past glories, Stephen. Because he was a Maxwell — a Maxwell of Virginia — he wouldn’t admit that the Civil War had deprived us all of the right to spend money. God knows, there was little enough of it left — the War practically ruined the old Southern gentry! My grandma could remember those days quite well; she scraped lint from her sheets for our wounded soldiers. If Grandma had lived, my life might have been different — but she died a couple of months after Mother.’
She described the eventual cataclysm, when the home had been sold up with everything in it, and she and her father had set out for New York — she just seventeen and he broken and ailing — to rebuild his dissipated fortune. And because she was now painting a picture of real life, untinged by imagination, her words lived, and her voice grew intensely bitter.
‘Hell — it was hell! We went under so quickly. There were days when I hadn’t enough to eat. Oh, Stephen, the filth, the unspeakable squalor — the heat and the cold and the hunger and the squalor. God, how I hate that great hideous city! It’s a monster, it crushes you down, it devours — even now I couldn’t go back to New York without feeling a kind of unreasoning terror. Stephen, that damnable city broke my nerve. Father got calmly out of it all by dying one day — and that was so like him! He’d had about enough, so he just lay down and died; but I couldn’t do that because I was young — and I didn’t want to die, either. I hadn’t the least idea what I could do, but I knew that I was supposed to be pretty and that good-looking girls had a chance on the stage, so I started out to look for a job. My God! Shall I ever forget it!’
And now she described the long, angular streets, miles and miles of streets; miles and miles of faces all strange and unfriendly — faces like masks. Then the intimate faces of would-be employers, too intimate when they peered into her own — faces that had suddenly thrown off their masks.
Stephen, are you listening? I put up a fight, I swear it! I swear I put up a fight — I was only nineteen when I got my first job — nineteen’s not so awfully old, is it, Stephen?’
Stephen said: Go on,’ and her voice sounded husky.
Oh, my dear — it’s so dreadfully hard to tell you. The pay was rotten, not enough to live on — I used to think that they did it on purpose, lots of the girls used to think that way too — they never gave us quite enough to live on. You see, I hadn’t a vestige of talent, I could only dress up and try to look pretty. I never got a real speaking part, I just danced, not well, but I’d got a good figure.’ She paused and tried to look up through the gloom, but Stephen’s face was hidden in shadow. Well then, darling — Stephen, I want to feel your arms, hold me closer — well then I— there was a man who wanted me — not as you want me, Stephen, to protect and care for me; God no, not that way! And I was so poor and so tired and so frightened; why sometimes my shoes would let in the slush because they were old and I hadn’t the money to buy myself new ones — try to think of that, darling. And I’d cry when I washed my hands in the winter because they’d be bleeding from broken chilblains. Well, I couldn’t stay the course any longer, that’s all . . .
The little gilt dock on the desk ticked loudly. Tick, tick! Tick, tick! An astonishing voice to come from so small and fragile a body. Somewhere out in the garden a dog barked — Tony, chasing imaginary rabbits through the darkness.
‘Yes, my dear?’
‘Have you understood me?’
‘Yes — oh, yes, I’ve understood you. Go on.’
‘Well then, after a while he turned round and left me, and I just had to drag along as I had done, and I sort of crocked up — couldn’t sleep at night, couldn’t smile and look happy when I went on to dance — that was how Ralph found me — he saw me dance and came round to the back, the way some men do. I remember thinking that Ralph didn’t look like that sort of man; he looked — well, just like Ralph, not a bit like that sort of man. Then he started sending me flowers; never presents or anything like that, just flowers with his card. And we had lunch together a good few times, and he talked about that other man who’d left me. He said he’d like to go out with a horse-whip — imagine Ralph trying to horse-whip a man! They knew each other quite well, I discovered; you see, they were both in the hardware business. Ralph was out after some big contract for his firm, that was why he happened to be in New York — and one day he asked me to marry him, Stephen. I suppose he was really in love with me then, anyhow I thought it was wonderful of him — I thought he was very broadminded and noble. Good God! He’s had his pound of flesh since; it gave him the hold over me that he wanted. We were married before we sailed for Europe. I wasn’t in love, but what could I do? I’d nowhere to turn and my health was crocking; lots of our girls ended up in the hospital wards — I didn’t want to end up that way. Well, so you see why I’ve got to be careful how I act; he’s terribly and awfully suspicious. He thinks that because I took a lover when I was literally down and out, I’m likely to do the same thing now. He doesn’t trust me, it’s natural enough, but sometimes he throws it all up in my face, and when he does that, my God, how I hate him! But oh, Stephen, I could never go through it all again — I haven’t got an ounce of fight left in me. That’s why, although Ralph’s no cinch as a husband, I’d be scared to death if he really turned nasty. He knows that, I think, so he’s not afraid to bully — he’s bullied me many a time over you — but of course you’re a woman so he couldn’t divorce me — I expect that’s really what makes him so angry. All the same, when you asked me to leave him for you, I hadn’t the courage to face that either. I couldn’t have faced the public scandal that Ralph would have made; he’d have hounded us down to the ends of the earth, he’d have branded us, Stephen. I know him, he’s revengeful, he’d stop at nothing, that weak sort of man is often that way. It’s as though what Ralph lacks in virility, he tries to make up for by being revengeful. My dear, I couldn’t go under again — I couldn’t be one of those apologetic people who must always exist just under the surface, only coming up for a moment, like fish — I’ve been through that particular hell. I want life, and yet I’m always afraid. Every time that Ralph looks at me I feel frightened, because he knows that I hate him most when he tries to make love —’ She broke off abruptly.
And now she was crying a little to herself, letting the tears trickle down unheeded. One of them splashed on to Stephen’s coat sleeve and lay there, a small, dark blot on the cloth, while the patient arms never faltered.
‘Stephen, say something — say you don’t hate me!’
A log crashed, sending up a bright spurt of flame, and Stephen stared down into Angela’s face. It was marred by weeping; it looked almost ugly, splotched and reddened as it was by her weeping. And because of that pitiful, blemished face, with the pitiful weakness that lay behind it, the unworthiness even, Stephen loved her so deeply at that moment, that she found no adequate words.
‘Say something — speak to me, Stephen!’
Then Stephen gently released her arms, and she found the little white box in her pocket: ‘Look, Angela, I got you this for your birthday — Ralph can’t bully you about it, it’s a birthday present.’
‘Stephen — my dear!’
‘Yes — I want you to wear it always, so that you’ll remember how much I love you. I think you forgot that just now when you talked about hating — Angela, give me your hand, the hand that used to bleed in the winter.’
So the pearl that was pure as her mother’s diamonds were pure, Stephen slipped on to Angela’s finger. Then she sat very still, while Angela gazed at the pearl wide-eyed, because of its beauty. Presently she lifted her wondering face, and now her lips were quite close to Stephen’s, but Stephen kissed her instead on the forehead. You must rest,’ she said, ‘you’re simply worn out. Can’t you sleep if I keep you safe in my arms?’
For at moments such is the blindness and folly, yet withal the redeeming glory of love.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55