Like a river that has gradually risen to flood, until it sweeps everything before it, so now events rose and gathered in strength towards their inevitable conclusion. At the end of May Ralph must go to his mother, who was said to be dying at her house in Brighton. With all his faults he had been a good son, and the redness of his eyes was indeed from real tears as he kissed his wife good-bye at the station on his way to his dying mother. The next morning he wired that his mother was dead, but that he could not get home for a couple of weeks. As it happened, he gave the actual day and hour of his return, so that Angela knew it.
The relief of his unexpectedly long absence went to Stephen’s head; she grew much more exacting, suggesting all sorts of intimate plans. Supposing they went for a few days to London? Supposing they motored to Symond’s Yat and stayed at the little hotel by the river? They might even push on to Abergavenny and from there motor up and explore the Black Mountains — why not? It was glorious weather.
‘Angela, please come away with me, darling — just for a few days — we’ve never done it, and I’ve longed to so often. You can’t refuse, there’s nothing on earth to prevent your coming.’
But Angela would not make up her mind, she seemed suddenly anxious about her husband: ‘Poor devil, he was awfully fond of his mother. I oughtn’t to go, it would look so heartless with the old woman dead and Ralph so unhappy —’
Stephen said bitterly: ‘What about me? Do you think I’m never unhappy?’
So the time slipped by in heartaches and quarrels, for Stephen’s taut nerves were like spurs to her temper, and she stormed or reproached in her dire disappointment:
‘You pretend that you love me and yet you won’t come — and I’ve waited so long — oh, my God, how I’ve waited! But you’re utterly cruel. And I ask for so little, just to have you with me for a few days and nights just to sleep with you in my arms; just to feel you beside me when I wake up in the morning — I want to open my eyes and see your face, as though we belonged to each other. Angela, I swear I wouldn’t torment you — we’d be just as we are now, if that’s what you’re afraid of. You must know, after all these months, that you can trust me —’
But Angela set her lips and refused: ‘No, Stephen, I’m sorry, but I’d rather not come.’
Then Stephen would feel that life was past bearing, and sometimes she must ride rather wildly for miles — now on Raftery, now on Sir Philip’s young chestnut. All alone she would ride in the early mornings, getting up from a sleepless night unrefreshed, yet terribly alive because of those nerves that tortured her luckless body. She would get back to Morton still unable to rest, and a little later would order the motor and drive herself across to The Grange, where Angela would usually be dreading her coming.
Her reception would be cold: ‘I’m fairly busy, Stephen — I must pay off all these bills before Ralph gets home’; or: ‘I’ve got a foul headache, so don’t scold me this morning; I think if you did that I just couldn’t bear it!’ Stephen would flinch as though struck in the face; she might even turn round and go back to Morton.
Came the last precious day before Ralph’s return, and that day they did spend quite peaceably together, for Angela seemed bent upon soothing. She went out of her way to be gentle to Stephen, and Stephen, quick as always to respond, was very gentle in her turn. But after they had dined in the little herb garden — taking advantage of the hot, still weather — Angela developed one of her headaches.
Oh, my Stephen — oh, darling, my head’s too awful. It must be the thunder — it’s been coming on all day. What a perfectly damnable thing to happen, on our last evening too — but I know this kind well; I’ll just have to give in and go to my bed. I’ll take a cachet and then try to sleep, so don’t ring me up when you get back to Morton. Come tomorrow — come early. I’m so miserable, darling, when I think that this is our last peaceful evening —’
‘I know. But are you all right to be left?’
‘Yes, of course. All I need is to get some sleep. You won’t worry, will you? Promise, my Stephen!’
Stephen hesitated. Quite suddenly Angela was looking very ill, and her hands were like ice. Swear you’ll telephone to me if you can’t get to sleep, then I’ll come back at once.’
‘Yes, but don’t do that, will you, unless I ring up — I should hear you, of course, and that would wake me and start my head throbbing.’ Then as though impelled, in spite of herself by the girl’s strange attraction, she lifted her face: ‘Kiss me . . . oh, God . . . Stephen!’
‘I love you so much — so much —’ whispered Stephen.
It was past ten o’clock when she got back to Morton: ‘Has Angela Crossby rung up?’ she inquired of Puddle, who appeared to have been waiting in the hall.
‘No, she hasn’t!’ snapped Puddle, who was getting to the stage when she hated the mere name of Angela Crossby. Then she added: ‘You look like nothing on earth; in your place I’d go to bed at once, Stephen.’
‘You go to bed, Puddle, if you’re tired — where’s Mother?’
‘In her bath. For heaven’s sake do come to bed! I can’t bear to see you looking as you do these days.’
‘I’m all right.’
‘No, you’re not, you’re all wrong. Go and look at your face.’
‘I don’t very much want to, it doesn’t attract me,’ smiled Stephen.
So Puddle went angrily up to her room, leaving Stephen to sit with a book in the hall near the telephone bell, in case Angela should ring. And there, like the faithful creature she was, she must sit on all through the night, patiently waiting. But when the first tinges of dawn greyed the window and the panes of the semicircular fanlight, she left her chair stiffly to pace up and down, filled with a longing to be near this woman, if only to stand and keep watch in her garden — Snatching up a coat she went out to her car.
She left the motor at the gates of The Grange, and walked up the drive, taking cart to tread softly. The air had an indefinable smell of dew and of very newly born morning. The tall, ornate Tudor chimneys of the house stood out gauntly against a brightening sky, and as Stephen crept into the small herb garden, one tentative bird had already begun singing — but his voice was still rather husky from sleep. She stood there and shivered in her heavy coat; the long night of vigil had devitalized her. She was sometimes like this now — she would shiver at the least provocation, the least sign of fatigue, for her splendid physical strength was giving, worn out by its own insistence.
She dragged the coat more closely around her, and stared at the house which was reddening with sunrise. Her heart beat anxiously, fearfully even, as though in some painful anticipation of she knew not what — every window was dark except one or two that were fired by the sunrise. How long she stood there she never knew, it might have been moments, it might have been a life-time; and then suddenly there was something that moved — the little oak door that led into that garden. It moved cautiously, opening inch by inch, until at last it was standing wide open, and Stephen saw a man and a woman who turned to clasp as though neither of them could endure to be parted from the arms of the other; and as they clung there together and kissed, they swayed unsteadily — drunk with loving.
Then, as sometimes happens in moments of great anguish, Stephen could only remember the grotesque. She could only remember a plump-bosomed housemaid in the arms of a coarsely amorous footman, and she laughed and she laughed like a creature demented — laughed and laughed until she must gasp for breath and spit blood from, her tongue, which had somehow got bitten in her efforts to stop her hysterical laughing; and some of the blood remained on her chin, jerked there by that agonized laughter.
Pale as death, Roger Antrim stared out into the garden, and his tiny moustache looked quite black — like an ink stain smeared above his tremulous mouth by some careless schoolboy finger.
And now Angela’s voice came to Stephen, but faintly. She was saying something — what was she saying? It soundly absurdly as though it were a prayer —’ Christ!’ Then sharply — razor-sharp it sounded as it cut through the air: ‘You, Stephen!’
The laughter died abruptly away, as Stephen turned and walked out of the garden and down the short drive that led to the gates of the Grange, where the motor was waiting. Her face was a mask, quite without expression. She moved stiffly, yet with a curious precision; and she swung up the handle and started the powerful engine without any apparent effort.
She drove at great speed but with accurate judgment, for now her mind felt as clear as spring water, and yet there were strange little gaps in her mind — she had not the least idea where she was going. Every road for miles around Upton was familiar, yet she had not the least idea where she was going. Nor did she know how long she drove, nor when she stopped to procure fresh petrol. The sun rose high and hot in the heavens; it beat down on her without warming her coldness, for always she had the sense of a dead thing that lay close against her heart and oppressed it. A corpse — she was carrying a corpse about with her. Was it the corpse of her love for Angela? If so that love was more terrible dead — oh, far more terrible dead than living.
The first stars were shining, but as yet very faintly, when she found herself driving through the gates of Morton. Heard Puddle’s voice calling: ‘Wait a minute. Stop. Stephen!’ Saw Puddle barring her way in the drive, a tiny yet dauntless figure.
She pulled up with a jerk: ‘What’s the matter What is it?’ ‘Where have you been?’
‘I— don’t know, Puddle.’
But Puddle had clambered in beside her: ‘Listen, Stephen,’ and now she was talking very fast, ‘listen, Stephen — is it — is it Angela Crossby It is. I can see the thing in your face. My God, what’s that woman done to you, Stephen?’
Then Stephen, in spite of the corpse against her heart, or perhaps because of it, defended the woman: ‘She’s done nothing at all — it was all my fault, but you wouldn’t understand — I got very angry and then I laughed and couldn’t stop laughing —’ Steady, go steady! She was telling too much: ‘No — it wasn’t that exactly. Oh, you know my vile temper, it always goes off at half cock for nothing. Well, then I just drove round and round the country until I cooled down. I’m sorry, Puddle, I ought to have rung up, of course you’ve been anxious.’
Puddle gripped her arm: ‘Stephen, listen, it’s your mother — she thinks that you started quite early for Worcester, I lied — I’ve been nearly distracted, child. If you hadn’t come soon, I’d have had to tell her that I didn’t know where you were. You must never, never go off without a word like this again — But I do understand, oh, I do indeed, Stephen.’
But Stephen shook her head: ‘No, my dear, you couldn’t — and I’d rather not tell you, Puddle.’
‘Some day you must tell me,’ said Puddle, ‘because — well, because I do understand, Stephen.’
That night the weight against Stephen’s heart, with its icy coldness, melted; and it flowed out in such a torrent of grief that she could, not stand up against that torrent, so that drowning though she was she found pen and paper, and she wrote to Angela Crossby.
What a letter! All the pent-up passion of months, all the terrible, rending, destructive frustrations must burst forth from her heart: ‘Love me, only love me the way I love you. Angela, for God’s sake, try to love me a little — don’t throw me away, because if you do I’m utterly finished. You know how I love you, with my soul and my body; if it’s wrong, grotesque, unholy — have pity. I’ll be humble. Oh, my darling, I am humble now; I’m just a poor, heart-broken freak of a creature who loves you and needs you much more than its life, because life’s worse than death, ten times worse without you. I’m some awful mistake — God’s mistake — I don’t know if there are any more like me, I pray not for their sakes, because it’s pure hell. But oh, my dear, whatever I am, I just love you and love you. I thought it was dead, but it wasn’t. It’s alive — so terribly alive tonight in my bedroom . . . ’ And so it went on for page after page.
But never a word about Roger Antrim and what she had seen that morning in the garden. Some fine instinct of utterly selfless protection towards this woman had managed to survive all the anguish and all the madness of that day. The letter was a terrible indictment against Stephen, a complete vindication of Angela Crossby.
Angela went to her husband’s study, and she stood before him utterly shaken, utterly appalled at what she would do, yet utterly and ruthlessly determined to do it from a primitive instinct of self-preservation. In her ears she could still hear that terrible laughter — that uncanny, hysterical, agonized laughter. Stephen was mad, and God only knew what she might do or say in a moment of madness, and then — but she dared not look into the future. Cringing in spirit and trembling in body, she forgot the girl’s faithful and loyal devotion, her will to forgive, her desire to protect, so clearly set forth in that pitiful letter.
She said: ‘Ralph, I want to ask your advice. I’m in an awful mess — it’s Stephen Gordon. You think I’ve been carrying on with Roger — good Lord, if you only knew what I’ve endured these past few months! I have seen a great deal of Roger, I admit — quite innocently of course — still, all the same, I’ve seen him — I thought it would show her that I’m not — that I’m not —’ For one moment her voice seemed about to fail her, then she went on quite firmly: ‘that I’m not a pervert; that I’m not that sort of degenerate creature.’
He sprang up: ‘What?’ he bellowed.
‘Yes, I know, it’s too awful. I ought to have asked your advice about it, but I really did like the girl just at first, and after that, well — I set out to reform her. Oh, I know, I’ve been crazy, worse than crazy if you like; it was hopeless right from the very beginning. If I’d only known more about that sort of thing I’d have come to you at once, but I’d never met it. She was our neighbour, too, which made it more awkward, and not only that — her position in the county — oh, Ralph, you must help me, I’m completely bewildered. How on earth does one answer this sort of thing? It’s quite mad — I believe the girl’s half mad herself.’
And she handed him Stephen’s letter.
He read it slowly, and as he did so his weak little eyes grew literally scarlet — puffy and scarlet all over their lids, and when he had finished reading that letter he turned and spat on the ground. Then Ralph’s language became a thing to forget; every filthy invective learnt in the slums of his youth and later on in the workshops, he hurled against Stephen and all her kind. He called down the wrath of the Lord upon them. He deplored the non-existence of the stake, and racked his brains for indecent tortures. And finally: ‘I’ll answer this letter, yes, by God I will! You leave her to me, I know how I’m going to answer this letter!’
Angela asked him, and now her voice shook: ‘Ralph, what will you do to her — to Stephen?’
He laughed loudly: ‘I’ll hound her out of the county before I’ve done — and with luck out of England; the same as I’d hound you out if I thought that there’d ever been anything between you two women. It’s damned lucky for you that she wrote this letter, damned lucky, otherwise I might have my suspicions. You’ve got off this time, but don’t try your reforming again — you’re not cut out to be a reformer. If there’s any of that Lamb of God stuff wanted I’ll see to it myself and don’t you forget it!’ He slipped the letter into his pocket, ‘I’ll sec to it myself next time — with an axe!’
Angela turned and went out of the study with bowed head. She was saved through this great betrayal, yet most strangely bitter she found her salvation, and most shameful the price she paid for her safety. So, greatly daring, she went to her desk and with trembling fingers took a sheet of paper. Then she wrote in her large, rather childish handwriting: ‘Stephen — when you know what I’ve done, forgive me.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09