Stephen’s troubles had begun to be aggravated by Violet, who was always driving over to Morton, ostensibly to talk about Alec, in reality to collect information as to what might be happening at The Grange. She would stay for hours, very skilfully pumping while she dropped unwelcome hints anent Roger.
‘Father’s going to cut down his allowance,’ she declared, ‘if he doesn’t stop hanging about that woman. Oh, I’m sorry! I always forget she’s your friend —’ Then looking at Stephen with inquisitive eyes: ‘But I can’t understand that friendship of yours; for one thing, how can you put up with Crossby?’ And Stephen knew that yet once again county gossip was rife about her.
Violet was going to be married in September, they would then live in London, for Alec was a barrister. Their house, it seemed, was already bespoken: ‘A perfect duck of a house in Belgravia,’ where Violet intended to entertain largely on the strength of the bountiful parent Peacock. She was in the highest possible fettle these days, invested with an enormous importance in her own eyes, as also in those of her neighbours. Oh, yes, the whole world smiled broadly on Violet and her Alec: ‘Such a charming young couple,’ said the world, and at once proceeded to shower them with presents. Apostle tea-spoons arrived in their dozens, so did coffee-pots, cream-jugs and large fish slices; to say nothing of a heavy silver bowl from the Hunt, and a massive salver from the grateful Scottish tenants.
On the wedding day not a few eyes would be wet at the sight of so youthful a man and maiden ‘joined together in an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency,’ For such ancient traditions — in spite of the fact that man’s innocency could not even survive one bite of an apple shared with a woman — are none the less apt to be deeply moving. There they would kneel, the young newly wed, ardent yet sanctified by a blessing, so that all, or at least nearly all, they would do, must be considered both natural and pleasing to a God in the image of man created. And the fact that this God, in a thoughtless moment, had created in His turn those pitiful thousands who must stand for ever outside His blessing, would in no way disturb the large congregation or their white surpliced pastor, or the couple who knelt on the gold-braided, red velvet cushions. And afterwards there would be plentiful champagne to warm the cooling blood of the elders, and much shaking of hands and congratulating, and many kind smiles for the bride and her bridegroom. Some might even murmur a fleeting prayer in their hearts, as the two departed: ‘God bless them!’
So now Stephen must actually learn at first hand how straight can run the path of true love, in direct contradiction to the time-honoured proverb. Must realize more clearly than ever, that love is only permissible to those who are cut in every respect to life’s pattern; must feel like some ill-conditioned pariah, hiding her sores under lies and pretences. And after those visits of Violet Antrim’s, her spirits would be at a very low ebb, for she had not yet gained that steel-bright courage which can only be forged in the furnace of affliction, and which takes many weary years in the forging.
The splendid new motor arrived from London, to the great delight and excitement of Burton. The new suits were completed and worn by their owner, and Angela’s costly gold bag was received with apparent delight, which seemed rather surprising considering her erstwhile ban upon presents. Yet could Stephen have known it, this was not so surprising after all, for the bag infuriated Ralph, thereby distracting his facile attention for the moment from something that was far more dangerous.
Filled with an ever-increasing need to believe, Stephen listened to Angela Crossby: ‘You know there’s nothing between me and Roger — if you don’t, then you above all people ought to,’ and her blue, childlike eyes would look up at Stephen, who could never resist the appeal of their blueness.
And as though to bear out the truth of her words, Roger now came to The Grange much less often; and when he did come he was quietly friendly, not at all lover-like if Stephen was present, so that gradually her need to believe had begun to allay her worst fears. Yet she knew with the true instinct of the lover, that Angela was secretly unhappy. She might try to appear light-hearted and flippant, but her smiles and her jests could not deceive Stephen.
‘You’re miserable. What is it?’
And Angela would answer: ‘Ralph’s been vile to me again —’ But she would not add that Ralph was daily becoming more suspicious and more intolerant of Roger Antrim, so that now her deadly fear of her husband was always at war with her passion.
Sometimes it seemed to the girl that Angela used her as a whip wherewith to lash Ralph. She would lead Stephen on to show signs of affection which would never have been permitted in the past. Ralph’s little red eyes would look deeply resentful, and getting up he would slouch from the room. They would hear the front door being closed, and would know that he had gone for a walk with Tony. Yet when they were alone and in comparative safety, there would be something crude, almost cruel in their kisses; a restless, dissatisfied, hungry thing — their lips would seem bent on scourging their bodies. Neither of them would find deliverance nor ease from the ache that was in them, for each would be kissing with a well-nigh intolerable sense of loss, with a passionate knowledge of separation. After a little they would sit with bent heads, not speaking because of what might not be spoken; not daring to look each other in the eyes nor to touch each other, lest they should cry out against this preposterous lovemaking.
Completely confounded, Stephen racked her brains for anything that might give them both a respite. She suggested that Angela should see her fence with a celebrated London fencing master whom she had bribed to come down to Morton. She tried to arouse an interest in the car, the splendid new car that had cost so much money. She tried to find out if Angela had an ungratified wish that money could fulfil.
‘Only tell me what I can do,’ she pleaded, but apparently there was nothing.
Angela came several times to Morton and dutifully attended the fencing lessons. But they did not go well, for Stephen would glimpse her staring abstractedly out of the window; then the sly, agile foil with its blunt-tipped nose, would slip in under Stephen’s guard and shame her.
They would sometimes go far afield in the car, and one night they stopped at an inn and had dinner — Angela ringing up her husband with the old and now threadbare excuse of a breakdown. They dined in a quiet little room by themselves; the scents of the garden came in through the window — warm, significant scents, for now it was May and many flowers multiplied in that garden. Never before had they done such a thing as this, they had never dined all alone at a wayside inn miles away from their homes, just they two, and Stephen stretched out her hand and covered Angela’s where it rested very white and still on the table. And Stephen’s eyes held an urgent question, for now it was May and the blood of youth leaps and strains with the sap in early summer. The air seemed breathless, since neither would speak, afraid of disturbing the thick, sweet silence — but Angela shook her head very slowly. Then they could not eat, for each was filled with the same and yet with a separate longing; so after a while they must get up and go, both conscious of a sense of painful frustration.
They drove back on a road that was paved with moonlight, and presently Angela fell fast asleep like an unhappy child — she had taken her hat off and her head lay limply against Stephen’s shoulder. Seeing her thus, so helpless in sleep, Stephen felt strangely moved, and she drove very slowly, fearful of waking the woman who slept like a child with her fair head against her shoulder. The car climbed the steep hill from Ledbury town, and presently there lay the wide Wye valley whose beauty had saddened a queer little girl long before she had learnt the pain of all beauty. And now the valley was bathed in whiteness, while here and there gleamed a roof or a window, but whitely, as though all the good valley folk had extinguished their lamps and retired to their couches. Far away, like dark clouds coming up out of Wales, rose range upon range of the old Black Mountains, with the tip of Gadrfawr peering over the others, and the ridge of Pen-cerrig-calch sharp against the skyline. A little wind ruffled the bracken on the hillsides, and Angela’s hair blew across her closed eyes so that she stirred and sighed in her sleep. Stephen bent down and began to soothe her.
Then from out of that still and unearthly night, there crept upon Stephen an unearthly longing. A longing that was not any more of the body but rather of the weary and home-sick spirit that endured the chains of that body. And when she must drive past the gates of Morton, the longing within her seemed beyond all bearing, for she wanted to lift the sleeping woman in her arms and carry her in through those gates; and carry her in through the heavy white door; and carry her up the wide, shallow staircase, and lay her down on her own bed, still sleeping, but safe in the good care of Morton.
Angela suddenly opened her eyes. Where am I?’ she muttered, stupid with sleep. Then after a moment her eyes filled with tears, and there she sat all huddled up, crying.
Stephen said gently: ‘It’s all right, don’t cry.’
But Angela went on crying.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09