Two days later Anna Gordon sent for her daughter. Stephen found her sitting quite still in that vast drawing-room of hers, which as always smelt faintly of orris-root, beeswax and violets. Her thin, white hands were folded in her lap, closely folded over a couple of letters; and it seemed to Stephen that all of a sudden she saw in her mother a very old woman — a very old woman with terrible eyes, pitiless, hard and deeply accusing, so that she could but shrink from their gaze, since they were the eyes of her mother.
Anna said: ‘Lock the door, then come and stand here.’
In absolute silence Stephen obeyed her. Thus it was that those two confronted each other, flesh of flesh, blood of blood, they confronted each other across the wide gulf set between them.
Then Anna handed her daughter a letter: ‘Read this,’ she said briefly. And Stephen read:
DEAR LADY ANNA,
With deep repugnance I take up my pen, for certain things won’t bear thinking about, much less being written. But I feel that I owe you some explanation of my reasons for having come to the decision that I cannot permit your daughter to enter my house again, or my wife to visit Morton. I enclose a copy of your daughter’s letter to my wife, which I feel is sufficiently dear to make it unnecessary for me to write further, except to add that my wife is returning the two costly presents given her by Miss Gordon.
I remain, Yours very truly,
Stephen stood as though turned to stone for a moment, not so much as a muscle twitched; then she handed the letter back to her mother without speaking, and in silence Anna received it. ‘Stephen — when you know what I’ve done, forgive me.’ The childish scrawl seemed suddenly on fire, it seemed to scorch Stephen’s fingers as she touched it in her pocket — so this was what Angela had done. In a blinding flash the girl saw it all; the miserable weakness, the fear of betrayal, the terror of Ralph and of what he would do should he learn of that guilty night with Roger. Oh, but Angela might have spared her this, this last wound to her loyal and faithful devotion; this last insult to all that was best and most sacred in her love — Angela had feared betrayal at the hands of the creature who loved her!
But now her mother was speaking again: ‘And this — read this and tell me if you wrote it, or if that man’s lying.’ And Stephen must read her own misery jibing at her from those pages in Ralph Crossby’s stiff and clerical handwriting.
She looked up: ‘Yes, Mother, I wrote it.’
Then Anna began to speak very slowly as though nothing of what she would say must be lost; and that slow, quiet voice was more dreadful than anger: All your life I’ve felt very strangely towards you’, she was saying, ‘I’ve felt a kind of physical repulsion, a desire not to touch or to be touched by you — a terrible thing for a mother to feel — it has often made me deeply unhappy. I’ve often felt that I was being unjust, unnatural — but now I know that my instinct was right; it is you who are unnatural, not I . . . ’
‘Mother — stop!’
‘It is you who are unnatural, not I. And this thing that you are is a sin against creation. Above all is this thing a sin against the father who bred you, the father whom you dare to resemble. You dare to look like your father, and your face is a living insult to his memory, Stephen. I shall never be able to look at you now without thinking of the deadly insult of your face and your body to the memory of the father who bred you. I can only thank God that your father died before he was asked to endure this great shame. As for you, I would rather see you dead at my feet than standing before me with this thing upon you — this unspeakable outrage that you call love in that letter which you don’t deny having written. In that letter you say things that may only be said between man and woman, and coming from you they are vile and filthy words of corruption — against nature, against God who created nature. My gorge rises; you have made me feel physically sick —’
‘Mother — you don’t know what you’re saying — you’re my mother —’
‘Yes, I am your mother, but for all that, you seem to me like a scourge. I ask myself what I have ever done to be dragged down into the depths by my daughter. And your father — what had he ever done? And you have presumed to use the word love in connection with this — with these lusts of your body; these unnatural cravings of your unbalanced mind and undisciplined body — you have used that word. I have loved — do you heart I have loved your father, and your father loved me. That was love.’
Then, suddenly, Stephen knew that unless she could, indeed, drop dead at the feet of this woman in whose womb she had quickened, there was one thing that she dared not let pass unchallenged, and that was this terrible slur upon her love. And all that was in her rose up to refute it; to protect her love from such unbearable soiling. It was part of herself, and unless she could save it, she could not save herself any more. She must stand or fall by the courage of that love to proclaim its right to toleration.
She held up her hand, commanding silence; commanding that slow, quiet voice to cease speaking, and she said: ‘As my father loved you, I loved. As a man loves a woman, that was how I loved — protectively, like my father. I wanted to give all I had in me to give. It made me feel terribly strong . . . and gentle. It was good, good, good — I’d have laid down my life a thousand times over for Angela Crossby. If I could have I’d have married her and brought her home — I wanted to bring her home here to Morton. If I loved her the way a man loves a woman, it’s because I can’t feel that I am a woman. All my life I’ve never felt like a woman, and you know it — you say you’ve always disliked me, that you’ve always felt a strange physical repulsion . . . I don’t know what I am; no one’s ever told me that I’m different and yet I know that I’m different — that’s why, I suppose, you’ve felt as you have done. And for that I forgive you, though whatever it is, it was you and my father who made this body — but what I will never forgive is your daring to try to make me ashamed of my love. I’m not ashamed of it, there’s no shame in me.’ And now she was stammering a little wildly, ‘Good and — and fine it was,’ she stammered, ‘the best part of myself — I gave all and I asked nothing in return — I just went on hopelessly loving —’ she broke off, she was shaking from head to foot, and Anna’s cold voice fell like icy water on that angry and sorely tormented spirit.
‘You have spoken, Stephen. I don’t think there’s much more that needs to be said between us except this, we two cannot live together at Morton — not now, because I might grow to hate you. Yes, although you are my child I might grow to hate you. The same roof mustn’t shelter us both any more; one of us must go — which of us shall it bet’ And she looked at Stephen and waited.
Morton! They could not both live at Morton. Something seemed to catch hold of the girl’s heart and twist it. She stared at her mother, aghast for a moment, while Anna stared back — she was waiting for her answer.
But quite suddenly Stephen found her manhood and she said: ‘I understand. I’ll leave Morton.’
Then Anna made her daughter sit down beside her, while she talked of how this thing might be accomplished in a way that would cause the least possible scandal: ‘For the sake of your father’s honourable name, I must ask you to help me, Stephen.’ It was better, she said, that Stephen should take Puddle with her, if Puddle would consent to go. They might live in London or somewhere abroad, on the pretext that Stephen wished to study. From time to time Stephen would come back to Morton and visit her mother, and during those visits they two would take care to be seen together for appearances’ sake, for the sake of her father. She could take from Morton whatever she needed, the horses, and anything else she wished. Certain of the rent-roll would be paid over to her, should her own income prove insufficient. All things must be done in a way that was seemly — no undue haste, no suspicion of a breach between mother and daughter: ‘For the sake of your father I ask this of you, not for your sake or mine, but for his. Do you consent to this, Stephen?’
And Stephen answered: ‘Yes, I consent.’
Then Anna said: ‘I’d like you to leave me now — I feel tired and I want to be alone for a little — but presently I shall send for Puddle to discuss her living with you in the future.’
So Stephen got up, and she went away, leaving Anna Gordon alone.
As though drawn there by some strong natal instinct, Stephen went straight to her father’s study; and she sat in the old arm-chair that had survived him; then she buried her face in her hands.
All the loneliness that had gone before was as nothing to this new loneliness of spirit. An immense desolation swept down upon her, an immense need to cry out and claim understanding for herself, an immense need to find an answer to the riddle of her unwanted being. All around her were grey and crumbling ruins, and under those ruins her love lay bleeding; shamefully wounded by Angela Crossby, shamefully soiled and defiled by her mother — a piteous, suffering, defenceless thing, it lay bleeding under the ruins.
She felt blind when she tried to look into the future, stupefied when she tried to look back on the past. She must go — she was going away from Morton: ‘From Morton — I’m going away from Morton,’ the words thudded drearily in her brain: ‘I’m going away from Morton.’
The grave, comely house would not know her any more, nor the garden where she had heard the cuckoo with the dawning understanding of a child, nor the lakes where she had kissed Angela Crossby for the first time — full on the lips as a lover. The good, sweet-smelling meadows with their placid cattle, she was going to leave them; and the hills that protected poor, unhappy lovers — the merciful hills; and the lanes with their sleepy dog-roses at evening; and the little, old township of Upton-on-Severn with its battle-scarred church and its yellowish river; that was where she had first seen Angela Crossby . . .
The spring would come sweeping across Castle Morton, bringing strong, clean winds to the open common. The spring would come sweeping across the whole valley, from the Cotswold Hills right up to the Malverns; bringing daffodils by their hundreds and thousands, bringing bluebells to the beech wood down by the lakes, bringing cygnets for Peter the swan to protect; bringing sunshine to warm the old bricks of the house — but she would not be there any more in the spring. In summer the roses would not be her roses, nor the luminous carpet of leaves in the autumn, nor the beautiful winter forms of the beech trees: ‘And on evenings in winter these lakes are quite frozen, and the ice looks like slabs of gold in the sunset, when, you and I come and stand here in the winter . . . ’ No, no, not that memory, it was too much —‘when you and I come and stand here in the winter . . .
Getting up, she wandered about the room, touching its kind and familiar objects; stroking the desk, examining a pen, grown rusty from long disuse as it lay there; then she opened a little drawer in the desk and took out the key of her father’s locked book-case. Her mother had told her to take what she pleased — she would take one or two of her father’s books. She had never examined this special book-case, and she could not have told why she suddenly did so. As she slipped the key into the lock and turned it, the action seemed curiously automatic. She began to take out the volumes slowly and with listless fingers, scarcely glancing at their titles. It gave her something to do, that was all — she thought that she was trying to distract her attention. Then she noticed that on a shelf near the bottom was a row of books standing behind the others; the next moment she had one of these in her hand, and was looking at the name of the author: Krafft Ebing — she had never heard of that author before. All the same she opened the battered old book, then she looked more closely, for there on its margins were notes in her father’s small, scholarly hand and she saw that her own name appeared in those notes — She began to read, sitting down rather abruptly. For a long time she read; then went back to the book-case and got out another of those volumes, and another . . . The sun was now setting behind the hills; the garden was growing dusky with shadows. In the study there was little light left to read by, so that she must take her book to the window and must bend her face closer over the page; but still she read on and on in the dusk.
Then suddenly she had got to her feet and was talking aloud — she was talking to her father: ‘You knew! All the time you knew this thing, but because of your pity you wouldn’t tell me. Oh, Father — and there are so many of us — thousands of miserable, unwanted people, who have no right to love, no right to compassion because they’re maimed, hideously maimed and ugly — God’s cruel; He let us get flawed in the making.’
And then, before she knew what she was doing, she had found her father’s old, well-worn Bible. There she stood demanding a sign from heaven — nothing less than a sign from heaven she demanded. The Bible fell open near the beginning. She read: ‘And the Lord set a mark upon Cain . . .
Then Stephen hurled the Bible away, and she sank down completely hopeless and beaten, rocking her body backwards and forwards with a kind of abrupt yet methodical rhythm: ‘And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, upon Cain . . . ’ she was rocking now in rhythm to those words, ‘And the Lord set a mark upon Cain — upon Cain — upon Cain. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain . . . ’
That was how Puddle came in and found her, and Puddle said: ‘Where you go, I go, Stephen. All that you’re suffering at this moment I’ve suffered. It was when I was very young like you — but I still remember.’
Stephen looked up with bewildered eyes: ‘Would you go with Cain whom God marked?’ she said slowly, for she had not understood Puddle’s meaning, so she asked her once more: ‘Would you go with Caine?’
Puddle put an arm round Stephen’s bowed shoulders, and she said: ‘You’ve got work to do — come and do it! Why, just because you are what you are, you may actually find that you’ve got an advantage. You may write with a curious double insight — write both men and women from a personal knowledge. Nothing’s completely misplaced or wasted, I’m sure of that — and we’re all part of nature. Some day the world will recognize this, but meanwhile there’s plenty of work that’s waiting. For the sake of all the others who are like you, but less strong and less gifted perhaps, many of them, it’s up to you to have the courage to make good, and I’m here to help you to do it, Stephen.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55