A pale glint of sunshine devoid of all warmth lay over the wide expanse of the river, touching the funnel of a passing tug that tore at the water like a clumsy harrow; but a field of water is not for the sowing and the river closed back in the wake of the tug, deftly obliterating all traces of its noisy and foolish passing. The trees along the Chelsea Embankment bent and creaked in a sharp March wind. The wind was urging the sap in their branches to flow with a more determined purpose, but the skin of their bodies was blackened and soot-clogged so that when touched it left soot on the fingers, and knowing this they were always disheartened and therefore a little slow to respond to the urge of the wind — they were city trees which are always somewhat disheartened. Away to the right against a toneless sky stood the tall factory chimneys beloved of young artists — especially those whose skill is not great, for few can go wrong over factory chimneys — while across the stream Battersea Park still looked misty as though barely convalescent from fog.
In her large, long, rather low-ceilinged study whose casement windows looked over the river, sat Stephen with her feet stretched out to the fire and her hands thrust in her jacket pockets. Her eyelids drooped, she was all but asleep although it was early afternoon. She had worked through the night, a deplorable habit and one of which Puddle quite rightly disapproved, but when the spirit of work was on her it was useless to argue with Stephen.
Puddle looked up from her embroidery frame and pushed her spectacles on to her forehead the better to see the drowsy Stephen, for Puddle’s eyes had grown very long-sighted so that the room looked blurred through her glasses.
She thought: ‘Yes, she’s changed a good deal in these two years —’ then she sighed half in sadness and half in contentment. ‘All the same she is making good,’ thought Puddle, remembering with a quick thrill of pride that the long-limbed creature who lounged by the fire had suddenly sprung into something like fame thanks to a fine first novel.
Stephen yawned, and readjusting her spectacles Puddle resumed her wool-work.
It was true that the two long years of exile had left their traces on Stephen’s face; it had grown much thinner and more determined, some might have said that the face had hardened, for the mouth was less ardent and much less gentle, and the lips now drooped at the corners. The strong rather massive line of the jaw looked aggressive these days by reason of its thinness. Faint furrows had come between the thick brows and faint shadows showed at times under the eyes; the eyes themselves were the eyes of a writer, always a little tired in expression. Her complexion was paler than it had been in the past, it had lost the look of wind and sunshine — the open-air look — and the fingers of the hand that slowly emerged from her jacket pocket were heavily stained with nicotine — she was now a voracious smoker. Her hair was quite short. In a mood of defiance she had suddenly walked off to the barber’s one morning and had made him crop it dose like a man’s. And mightily did the fashion become her, for now the fine shape of her head was unmarred by the stiff clumpy plait in the nape of her neck. Released from the torment imposed upon it the thick auburn hair could breathe and wave freely, and Stephen had grown fond and proud of her hair — a hundred strokes must it have with the brush every night until it looked burnished. Sir Philip also had been proud of his hair in the days of his youthful manhood.
Stephen’s life in London had been one long endeavour, for work to her had become a narcotic. Puddle it was who had found the flat with the casement windows that looked on the river, and Puddle it was who now kept the accounts, paid the rent, settled bills and managed the servants; all these details Stephen calmly ignored and the faithful Puddle allowed her to do so. Like an ageing and anxious Vestal Virgin she tended the holy fire of inspiration, feeding the flame with suitable food — good grilled meat, light puddings and much fresh fruit, varied by little painstaking surprises from Jackson’s or Fortnum & Mason. For Stephen’s appetite was not what it had been in the vigorous days of Morton; now there were times when she could not eat, or if she must eat she did so protesting, fidgeting to go back to her desk. At such times Puddle would steal into the study with a tin of Brand’s Essence — she had even been known to feed the recalcitrant author piecemeal, until Stephen must laugh and gobble up the jelly for the sake of getting on with her writing.
Only one duty apart from her work had Stephen never for a moment neglected, and that was the care and the welfare of Raftery. The cob had been sold, and her father’s chestnut she had given away to Colonel Antrim, who had sworn not to let the horse out of his hands for the sake of his life-long friend, Sir Philip — but Raftery she had brought up to London. She herself had found and rented his stable with comfortable rooms above for Jim, the groom she had taken from Morton. Every morning she rode very early in the Park, which seemed a futile and dreary business, but now only thus could the horse and his owner contrive to be together for a little. Sometimes she fancied that Raftery sighed as she cantered him round and round the Row, and then she would stoop down and speak to him softly:
‘My Raftery, I know, it’s not Castle Morton or the hills or the big, green Severn Valley — but I love you.’
And because he had understood her he would throw up his head and begin to prance sideways, pretending that he still felt very youthful, pretending that he was wild with delight at the prospect of cantering round the Row. But after a while these two sorry exiles would droop and move forward without much spirit. Each in a separate way would divine the ache in the other, the ache that was Morton, so that Stephen would cease to urge the beast forward, and Raftery would cease to pretend to Stephen. But when twice a year at her mother’s request, Stephen must go back to visit her home, then Raftery went too, and his joy was immense when he felt the good springy turf beneath him, when he sighted the red brick stables of Morton, when he rolled in the straw of his large, airy loose box. The years would seem to slip from his shoulders, he grew sleeker, he would look like a five-year-old — yet to Stephen these visits of theirs were anguish because of her love for Morton. She would feel like a stranger within the gates, an unwanted stranger there only on sufferance. It would seem to her that the old house withdrew itself from her love very gravely and sadly, that its windows no longer beckoned, invited: ‘Come home, come home, come inside quickly, Stephen!’ And she would not dare to proffer her love, which would burden her heart to breaking.
She must now pay many calls with her mother, must attend all the formal social functions — this for the sake of appearances, lest the neighbours should guess the breach between them. She must keep up the fiction that she found in a city the stimulus necessary to her work, she who was filled with a hungry longing for the green of the hills, for the air of wide spaces, for the mornings and the noontides and the evenings of Morton. All these things she must do for the sake of her father, aye, and for the sake of Morton.
On her first visit home Anna had said very quietly one day: ‘There’s something, Stephen, that I think I ought to tell you perhaps, though it’s painful to me to reopen the subject. There has been no scandal — that man held his tongue — you’ll be glad to know this because of your father. And Stephen — the Crossbys have sold The Grange and gone to America, I believe —’ she had stopped abruptly, not looking at Stephen, who had nodded, unable to answer.
So now there were quite different folk at The Grange, folk very much more to the taste of the county — Admiral Carson and his apple-checked wife who, childless herself, adored Mothers’ Meetings. Stephen must sometimes go to The Grange with Anna, who liked the Carsons. Very grave and aloof had Stephen become; too reserved, too self-assured, thought her neighbours. They supposed that success had gone to her head, for no one was now allowed to divine the terrible shyness that made social intercourse such a miserable torment. Life had already taught Stephen one thing, and that was that never must human beings be allowed to suspect that a creature fears them. The fear of the one is a spur to the many, for the primitive hunting instinct dies hard — it is better to face a hostile world than to turn one’s back for a moment.
But at least she was spared meeting Roger Antrim, and for this she was most profoundly thankful. Roger had gone with his regiment to Malta, so that they two did not see each other. Violet was married and living in London in the ‘perfect duck of a house in Belgravia’. From time to time she would blow in on Stephen, but not often, because she was very much married with one baby already and another on the way. She was somewhat subdued and much less maternal than she had been when first she met Alec.
If Anna was proud of her daughter’s achievement she said nothing beyond the very few words that must of necessity be spoken: ‘I’m so glad your book has succeeded, Stephen.’
‘Thank you, mother —’
Then as always these two fell silent. Those long and eloquent silences of theirs were now of almost daily occurrence when they found themselves together. Nor could they look each other in the eyes any more, their eyes were for ever shifting, and sometimes Anna’s pale cheeks would flush very slightly when she was alone with Stephen — perhaps at her thoughts.
And Stephen would think: ‘It’s because she can’t help remembering.’
For the most part, however, they shunned all contact by common consent, except when in public. And this studied avoidance tore at their nerves; they were now wellnigh obsessed by each other, for ever secretly laying their plans in order to avoid a meeting. Thus it was that these obligatory visits to Morton were a pretty bad strain on Stephen. She would go back to London unable to sleep, unable to eat, unable to write, and with such a despairing and sickening heartache for the grave old house the moment she had left it, that Puddle would have to be very severe in order to pull her together.
‘I’m ashamed of you, Stephen; what’s happened to your courage? You don’t deserve your phenomenal success; if you go on like this, God help the new book. I suppose you’re going to be a one-book author!’
Scowling darkly, Stephen would go to her desk — she had no wish to be a one-book author.
Yet as everything comes as grist to the mill of those who arc destined from birth to be writers — poverty or riches, good or evil, gladness or sorrow, all grist to the mill — so the pain of Morton burning down to the spirit in Stephen had kindled a bright, hot flame, and all that she had written she had written by its light, seeing exceedingly clearly. As though in a kind of self-preservation, her mind had turned to quite simple people, humble people sprung from the soil, from the same kind soil that had nurtured Morton. None of her own strange emotions had touched them, and yet they were part of her own emotions; a part of her longing for simplicity and peace, a part of her curious craving for the normal. And although at this time Stephen did not know it, their happiness sprung from her moments of joy; their sorrows from the sorrow she had known and still knew; their frustrations from her own bitter emptiness; their fulfilments from her longing to be fulfilled. These people had drawn life and strength from their creator. Like infants they had sucked at her breasts of inspiration, and drawn from them blood, waxing wonderfully strong; demanding, compelling thereby recognition. For surely thus only are fine books written, they must somehow partake of the miracle of blood — the strange and terrible miracle of blood, the giver of life, the purifier, the great final expiation.
But one thing there was that Puddle still feared, and this was the girl’s desire for isolation. To her it appeared like a weakness in Stephen; she divined the bruised humility of spirit that now underlay this desire for isolation, and she did her best to frustrate it. It was Puddle who had forced the embarrassed Stephen to let in the Press photographers, and Puddle it was who had given the details for the captions that were to appear with the pictures: ‘If you choose to behave like a hermit crab I shall use my own judgment about what I say!’
‘I don’t care a tinker’s darn what you say! Now leave me in peace do, Puddle.’
It was Puddle who answered the telephone calls: ‘I’m afraid Miss Gordon will be busy working — what name did you say? Oh, The Literary Monthly! I see — well suppose you come on Wednesday.’ And on Wednesday there was old Puddle waiting to waylay the anxious young man who had been commanded to dig up some copy about the new novelist, Stephen Gordon. Then Puddle had smiled at the anxious young man and had shepherded him into her own little sanctum, and had given him a comfortable chair, and had stirred the fire the better to warm him. And the young man had noticed her charming smile and had thought how kind was this ageing woman, and how damned hard it was to go tramping the streets in quest of erratic, unsociable authors.
Puddle had said, still smiling kindly: ‘I’d hate you to go back without your copy, but Miss Gordon’s been working overtime lately, I dare not disturb her, you don’t mind, do you? Now if you could possibly make shift with me — I really do know a great deal about her; as a matter of fact I’m her exgoverness, so I really do know quite a lot about her.’
Out had come notebook and copying pencil; it was easy to talk to this sympathetic woman: ‘Well, if you could give me some interesting details — say, her taste in books and her recreations, I’d be awfully grateful. She hunts, I believe?’
‘Oh, not now!’
‘I see — well then, she did hunt. And wasn’t her father Sir Philip Gordon who had a place down in Worcestershire and was killed by a falling tree or something? What kind of a pupil did you find Miss Gordon? I’ll send her my notes when I’ve worked them up, but I really would like to see her, you know.’ Then being a fairly sagacious young man: ‘I’ve just read The Furrow, it’s a wonderful book!’
Puddle talked glibly while the young man scribbled, and when at last he was just about going she let him out on to the balcony from which he could look in Stephen’s study.
‘There she is at her desk! What more could you ask?’ she said triumphantly, pointing to Stephen whose hair was literally standing on end, as is sometimes the way with youthful authors. She even managed occasionally to make Stephen see the journalists herself:
Stephen got up, stretched, and went to the window. The sun had retreated behind the clouds; a kind of brown twilight hung over the Embankment, for the wind had now dropped and a fog was threatening. The discouragement common to all fine writers was upon her, she was hating what she had written. Last night’s work seemed inadequate and unworthy; she decided to put a blue pencil through it and to rewrite the chapter from start to finish. She began to give way to a species of panic; her new book would be a ludicrous failure, she felt it, she would never again write a novel possessing the quality of The Furrow. The Furrow had been the result of shock to which she had, strangely enough, reacted by a kind of unnatural mental vigour. But now she could not react any more, her brain felt like over-stretched elastic, it would not spring back, it was limp, unresponsive. And then there was something else that distracted, something she was longing to put into words yet that shamed her so that it held her tongue-tied. She lit a cigarette and when it was finished found another and kindled it at the stump.
‘Stop embroidering that curtain, for God’s sake, Puddle. I simply can’t stand the sound of your needle; it makes a booming noise like a drum every time you prod that tightly stretched linen.’
Puddle looked up: ‘You’re smoking too much.’
‘I dare say I am. I can’t write any more.’
‘Ever since I began this new book.’
‘Don’t be such a fool!’
‘But it’s God’s truth, I tell you — I feel flat, it’s a kind of spiritual dryness. This new book is going to be a failure, sometimes I think I’d better destroy it.’ She began to pace up and down the room, dull-eyed yet tense as a tightly-drawn bow string.
‘This comes of working all night,’ Puddle murmured.
‘I must work when the spirit moves me,’ snapped Stephen.
Puddle put aside her wool work embroidery. She was not much moved by this sudden depression, she had grown quite accustomed to these literary moods, yet she looked a little more closely at Stephen and something that she saw in her face disturbed her.
‘You look tired to death; why not lie down and rest?’
‘Rot! I want to work.’
‘You’re not fit to work. You look all on edge, somehow. What’s the matter with you?’ And then very gently: Stephen, come here and sit down by me, please, I must know what’s the matter.’
Stephen obeyed as though once again they two were back in the old Morton schoolroom, then she suddenly buried her face in her hands: ‘I don’t want to tell you — why must I, Puddle?’
‘Because,’ said Puddle, ‘I’ve a right to know; your career’s very dear to me, Stephen.’
Then suddenly Stephen could not resist the blessed relief of confiding in Puddle once more, of taking this great new trouble to the faithful and wise little grey-haired woman whose hand had been stretched out to save in the past. Perhaps yet again that hand might find the strength that was needful to save her.
Not looking at Puddle, she began to talk quickly: ‘There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you, Puddle — it’s about my work, there’s something wrong with it. I mean that my work could be much more vital; I feel it, I know it, I’m holding it back in some way, there’s something I’m always missing. Even in Time Furrow I feel I missed something — I know it was fine, but it wasn’t complete because I’m not complete and I never shall be-can’t you understand? I’m not complete . . . ’ She paused, unable to find the words she wanted, then blundered on again blindly: ‘There’s a great chunk of life that I’ve never known, and I want to know it, I ought to know it if I’m to become a really fine writer. There’s the greatest thing perhaps in the world, and I’ve missed it — that’s what’s so awful, Puddle, to know that it exists everywhere, all round me, to be constantly near it yet always held back — to feel that the poorest people in the streets, the most ignorant people, know more than I do. And I dare to take up my pen and write, knowing less than these poor men and women in the street! Why haven’t I got a right to it, Puddle? Can’t you understand that I’m strong and young, so that sometimes this thing that I’m missing torments me, so that I can’t concentrate on my work any more? Puddle, help me — you were young yourself once.’
‘Yes, Stephen — a long time ago I was young . . .
‘But can’t you remember back for my sake?’ And now her voice sounded almost angry in her distress: ‘It’s unfair, it’s unjust. Why should I live in this great isolation of spirit and body — why should I, why? Why have I been afflicted with a body that must never be indulged, that must always be repressed until it grows much stronger than my spirit because of this unnatural repression? What have I done to be so cursed? And now it’s attacking my holy of holies, my work — I shall never be a great writer because of my maimed and insufferable body —’ She fell silent, suddenly shy and ashamed, too much ashamed to go on speaking.
And there sat Puddle as pale as death and as speechless, having no comfort to offer — no comfort, that is, that she dared to offer — while all her fine theories about making good for the sake of those others; being noble, courageous, patient, honourable, physically pure, enduring because it was right to endure, the terrible birthright of the invert — all Puddle’s fine theories lay strewn around her like the ruins of some false and flimsy temple, and she saw at that moment but one thing clearly — true genius in chains, in the chains of the flesh, a fine spirit subject to physical bondage. And as once before she had argued with God on behalf of this sorely afflicted creature, so now she inwardly cried yet again to the Maker whose will had created Stephen: ‘Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together and round about; yet Thou dost destroy me.’ Then into her heart crept a bitterness very hard to endure: ‘Yet Thou dost destroy me —’
Stephen looked up and saw her face: ‘Never mind,’ she said sharply, ‘it’s all right, Puddle — forget it!’
But Puddle’s eyes filled with tears, and seeing this, Stephen went to her desk. Sitting down she groped for her manuscript: ‘I’m going to turn you out now, I must work. Don’t wait for me if I’m late for dinner.’
Very humbly Puddle crept out of the study.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09