Ralph said very little about the ring. What could he say? A present given to his wife by the daughter of a neighbour — an unusually costly present of course — still, after all, what could he say? He took refuge in sulky silence. But Stephen would see him staring at the pearl, which Angela wore on her right-hand third finger, and his weak little eyes would look redder than usual, perhaps with anger — one could never quite tell from his eyes whether he was tearful or angry.
And because of those eyes with their constant menace, Stephen must play her conciliatory role; and this she must do in spite of his rudeness, for now he was openly rude and hostile. And he bullied. It was almost as though he took pleasure in bullying his wife when Stephen was present; her presence seemed to arouse in the man everything that was ill-bred, petty and cruel. He would make thinly-veiled allusions to the past, glancing sideways at Stephen the while he did so; and one day when she flushed to the roots of her hair with rage to see Angela humble and fearful, he laughed loudly: ‘I’m just a plain tradesman, you know; if you don’t like my ways then you’d better not come here.’ Catching Angela’s eye, Stephen tried to laugh too.
A soul-sickening business. She would feel degraded; she would feel herself gradually losing all sense of pride, of common decency even, so that when she returned in the evening to Morton she would not want to look the old house in the eyes. She would not want to face those pictures of Gordons that hung in its hall, and must turn away, lest they by their very silence rebuke this descendant of theirs who was so unworthy. Yet sometimes it seemed to her that she loved more intensely because she had lost so much — there was nothing left now but Angela Crossby.
Watching this deadly decay that threatened all that was fine in her erstwhile pupil, Puddle must sometimes groan loudly in spirit; she must even argue with God about it. Yes, she must actually argue with God like Job; and remembering his words in affliction, she must speak those words on behalf of Stephen: ‘Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together round about; yet Thou dost destroy me.’ For now in addition to everything else, she had learnt of the advent of Roger Antrim. Not that Stephen had confided in her, far from it, but gossip has a way of travelling quickly. Roger spent most of his leisure at The Grange. She had heard that he was always going over from Worcester. So now. Puddle, who had not been much given to prayer in the past, must argue with God, like Job. And perhaps, since God probably listens to the heart rather than to the lips, He forgave her.
Stupid with misery and growing more inept every day, Stephen found herself no match for Roger. He was calm, self-assured, insolent and triumphant, and his love of tormenting had not waned with his manhood. Roger was no fool; he put two and two together and his masculine instinct deeply resented this creature who might challenge his right of possession. Moreover that masculine instinct was outraged. He would stare at Stephen as though she were a horse whom he strongly suspected of congenital unsoundness, and then he would let his eyes rest on Angela’s face. They would be the eyes of a lover, possessive, demanding, insistent eyes — if Ralph did not happen to be present. And into Angela’s eyes there would come an expression that Stephen had seen many times. A mist would slowly cloud over their blueness; they would dim, as though they were hiding something. Then Stephen would be seized with a violent trembling, so that she could not stand any more but must sit with her hands clasped tightly together, lest those trembling hands betray her to Roger. But Roger would have seen already, and would smile his slow, understanding, masterful smile.
Sometimes he and Stephen would look at each other covertly, and their youthful faces would be marred by a very abominable thing; the instinctive repulsion of two human bodies, the one for the other, which neither could help — not now that those bodies were stirred by a woman. Then into this vortex of secret emotion would come Ralph. He would stare from Stephen to Roger and then at his wife, and his eyes would be red — one never knew whether from tears or from anger. They would form a grotesque triangle for a moment, those three who must share a common desire. But after a little the two male creatures who hated each other, would be shamefully united in the bond of their deeper hatred of Stephen; and divining this, she in turn would hate.
It could not go on without some sort of convulsion, and that Christmas was a time of recriminations. Angela’s infatuation was growing, and she did not always hide this from Stephen. Letters would arrive in Roger’s handwriting, and Stephen, half-crazy with jealousy by now, would demand to see them. She would be refused, and a scene would ensue.
‘That man’s your lover! Have I gone starving only for this — that you should give yourself to Roger Antrim? Show me that letter!’
‘How dare you suggest that Roger’s my lover! But if he were it’s no business of yours.’
‘Will you show me that letter?’
‘I will not.’
‘It’s from Roger.’
‘You’re intolerable. You can think what you please.’
‘What am I to think?’ Then because of her longing. ‘Angela, for God’s sake don’t treat me like this — I can’t bear it. When you loved me it was easier to bear — I endured it for your sake, but now — listen, listen . . . ’ Stark naked confessions dragged from lips that grew white the while they confessed: ‘Angela, listen . . .
And now the terrible nerves of the invert, those nerves that are always lying in wait, gripped Stephen. They ran like live wires through her body, causing a constant and ruthless torment, so that the sudden closing of a door or the barking of Tony would fall like a blow on her shrinking flesh. At night in her bed she must cover her ears from the ticking of the clock, which would sound like thunder in the darkness.
Angela had taken to going up to London on some pretext or another — she must see her dentist; she must fit a new dress. ‘Well then, let me come with you.’
‘Good heavens, why? I’m only going to the dentist!’
‘All right, I’ll come too.’
‘You’ll do nothing of the kind.’ Then Stephen would know why Angela was going.
All that day she would be haunted by insufferable pictures. Whatever she did, wherever she went, she would see them together, Angela and Roger . . . She would think: ‘I’m going mad! I can see them as clearly as though they were here before me in the room.’ And then she would cover her eyes with her hands, but this would only strengthen the pictures.
Like some earth-bound spirit she would haunt The Grange on the pretext of taking Tony for a walk. And there, as likely as not, would be Ralph wandering about in his bare rose garden. He would glance up and see her perhaps, and then — most profound shame of all — they would both look guilty, for each would know the loneliness of the other, and that loneliness would draw them together for the moment; they would be almost friends in their hearts.
‘Angela’s gone up to London, Stephen.’
‘Yes, I know. She’s gone up to fit her new dress.’
Their eyes would drop. Then Ralph might say sharply: ‘If you’re after the dog, he’s in the kitchen,’ and turning his back, he might make a pretence of examining his standard rose-trees.
Calling Tony, Stephen would walk into Upton, then along the mist-swept bank of the river. She would stand very still staring down at the water, but the impulse would pass, and whistling the dog, she would turn and go hurrying back to Upton.
Then one afternoon Roger came with his car to take Angela for a drive through the hills. The New Year was slipping into the spring, and the air smelt of sap and much diligent growing. A warm February had succeeded the winter. Many birds would be astir on those hills where lovers might sit unashamed — where Stephen had sat holding Angela clasped in her arms, while she eagerly took and gave kisses. And remembering these things Stephen turned and left them, unable just then to endure any longer. Going home, she made her way to the lakes, and there she quite suddenly started weeping. Her whole body seemed to dissolve itself in weeping; and she flung herself down on the kind earth of Morton, shedding tears as of blood. There was no one to witness those tears except the white swan called Peter.
Terrible, heart-breaking months. She grew gaunt with her unappeased love for Angela Crossby. And now she would sometimes turn in despair to the thought of her useless and unspent money. Thoughts would come that were altogether unworthy, but nevertheless those thoughts would persist. Roger was not rich; she was rich already and some day she would be even richer.
She went up to London and chose new clothes at a West End tailor’s; the man in Malvern who had made for her father was getting old, she would have her suits made in London in future. She ordered herself a rakish red car; a long-bodied, sixty horsepower Métallurgique. It was one of the fastest cars of its year, and it certainly cost her a great deal of money. She bought twelve pairs of gloves, some heavy silk stockings, a square sapphire scarf pin and a new umbrella. Nor could she resist the lure of pyjamas made of white crêpe de Chine which she spotted in Bond Street. The pyjamas led to a man’s dressing-gown of brocade — an amazingly ornate garment. Then she had her nails manicured but not polished and from that shop she carried away toilet water and a box of soap that smelt of carnations and some cuticle cream for the care of her nails. And last but not least, she bought a gold bag with a clasp set in diamonds for Angela.
All told she had spent a considerable sum, and this gave her a fleeting satisfaction. But on her way back in the train to Malvern, she gazed out of the window with renewed desolation. Money could not buy the one thing that she needed in life; it could not buy Angela’s love.
That night she stared at herself in the glass; and even as she did so she hated her body with its muscular shoulders, its small compact breasts, and its slender flanks of an athlete. All her life she must drag this body of hers like a monstrous fetter imposed on her spirit. This strangely ardent yet sterile body that must worship yet never be worshipped in return by the creature of its adoration. She longed to maim it, for it made her feel cruel; it was so white, so strong and so self-sufficient; yet withal so poor and unhappy a thing that her eyes filled with tears and her hate turned to pity. She began to grieve over it, touching her breasts with pitiful fingers, stroking her shoulders, letting her hands slip along her straight thighs — Oh, poor and most desolate body!
Then she, for whom Puddle was actually praying at that moment, must now pray also, but blindly; finding few words that seemed worthy of prayer, few words that seemed to encompass her meaning — for she did not know the meaning of herself: But she loved, and loving groped for the God who had fashioned her, even unto this bitter loving.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55