Soon after the New Year, nine months later, Stephen’s second novel was published. It failed to create the sensation that the first had created, there was something disappointing about it. One critic described this as: ‘A lack of grip,’ and his criticism, on the whole, was a fair one. However, the Press was disposed to be kind, remembering the merits of The Furrow.
But the heart of the Author knoweth its own sorrows and is seldom responsive to false consolation, so that when Puddle said: ‘Never mind, Stephen, you can’t expect every book to be The Furrow — and this one is full of literary merit.’ Stephen replied as she turned away: I was writing a novel, my dear, not an essay.’
After this they did not discuss it any more, for what was the use of fruitless discussion? Stephen knew well and Puddle knew also that this book fell far short of its author’s powers. Then suddenly, that spring, Raftery went very lame, and everything else was forgotten.
Raftery was aged, he was now eighteen, so that lameness in him was not easy of healing. His life in a city had tried him sorely, he had missed the light, airy stables of Morton, and the cruel-hard bed that lay under the tan of the Row had jarred his legs badly.
The vet shook his head and looked very grave: ‘He’s an aged horse, you know, and of course in his youth you hunted him pretty freely — it all counts. Everyone comes to the end of their tether, Miss Gordon. Yes, at times I’m afraid it is painful.’ Then, seeing Stephen’s face: ‘I’m awfully sorry not to give a more cheerful diagnosis.’
Other experts arrived. Every good vet in London was consulted, including Professor Hobday. No cure, no cure, it was always the same, and at times, they told Stephen, the old horse suffered; but this she well knew — she had seen the sweat break out darkly on Raftery’s shoulders.
So one morning she went into Raftery’s loosebox, and she sent the groom Jim out of the stable, and she laid her check against the beast’s neck, while he turned his head and began to nuzzle. Then they looked at each other very quietly and gravely, and in Raftery’s eyes was a strange, new expression — a kind of half-anxious, protesting wonder at this thing men call pain: ‘What is it, Stephen?’
She answered, forcing back her hot tears: ‘Perhaps, for you, the beginning, Raftery . . . ’
After a while she went to his manger and let the fodder slip through her fingers; but he would not eat, not even to please her, so she called the groom back and ordered some gruel. Very gently she readjusted the clothing that had slipped to one side, first the under-blanket, then the smart blue rug that was braided in red — red and blue, the old stable colours of Morton.
The groom Jim, now a thick-set stalwart young man, stared at her with sorrowful understanding, but he did not speak; he was almost as dumb as the beasts whom his life had been passed in tending — even dumber, perhaps, for his language consisted of words, having no small sounds and small movements such as Raftery used when he spoke with Stephen, and which meant so much more than words.
She said: ‘I’m going now to the station to order a horse-box for tomorrow, I’ll let you know the time we start, later. And wrap him up well; put on plenty of clothing for the journey, please, he mustn’t feel cold.’
The man nodded. She had not told him their destination, but he knew it already; it was Morton. Then the great clumsy fellow must pretend to be busy with a truss of fresh straw for the horse’s bedding, because his face had turned a deep crimson, because his coarse lips were actually trembling — and this was not really so very strange, for those who served Raftery loved him.
Raftery stepped quietly into his horse-box and Jim with great deftness secured the halter, then he touched his cap and hurried away to his third-class compartment, for Stephen herself would travel with Raftery on his last journey back to the fields of Morton. Sitting down on the seat reserved for a groom she opened the little wooden window into the box, whereupon Raftery’s muzzle came up and his face looked out of the window. She fondled the soft, grey plush of his muzzle. Presently she took a carrot from her pocket, but the carrot was rather hard now for his teeth, so she bit off small pieces and these she gave him in the palm of her hand; then she watched him eat them uncomfortably, slowly, because he was old, and this seemed so strange, for old age and Raftery went very ill together.
Her mind slipped back and back over the years until it recaptured the coming of Raftery — grey-coated and slender, and his eyes as soft as an Irish morning, and his courage as bright as an Irish sunrise, and his heart as young as the wild, eternally young heart of Ireland. She remembered what they had said to each other. Raftery had said: ‘I will carry you bravely, I will serve you all the days of my life.’ She had answered: ‘I will care for you night and day, Raftery — all the days of your life.’ She remembered their first run with the hounds together — she a youngster of twelve, he a youngster of five. Great deeds they had done on that day together, at least they had seemed like great deeds to them — she had had a kind of fire in her heart as she galloped astride of Raftery. She remembered her father, his protective look, so broad, so kind, so patiently protective; and towards the end it had stooped a little as though out of kindness it carried a burden. Now she knew whose burden that back had been bearing so that it stooped a little. He had been very proud of the fine Irish horse, very proud of his small and courageous rider: ‘Steady, Stephen!’ but his eyes had been bright like Raftery’s. ‘Steady on, Stephen, we’re coming to a. stiff one!’ but once they were over he had turned round and smiled, as he had done in the days when the impudent Collins had stretched his inadequate legs to their utmost to keep up with the pace of the hunters.
Long ago, it all seemed a long time ago. A long road it seemed, leading where? She wondered. Her father had gone away into its shadows, and now after him, limping a little, went Raftery; Raftery with hollows above his eyes and down his grey neck that had once been so firm; Raftery whose splendid white teeth were now yellowed and too feeble to bite up his carrot.
The train jogged and swayed so that once the horse stumbled. Springing up, she stretched out her hand to soothe him. He seemed glad of her hand: ‘Don’t be frightened, Raftery. Did that hurt you Raftery acquainted with pain on the road that led into the shadows.
Presently the hills showed over on the left, but a long way off, and when they came nearer they were suddenly very near on the right, so near that she saw the white houses on them. They looked dark; a kind of still, thoughtful darkness brooded over the hills and their low white houses. It was always so in the later afternoons, for the sun moved across to the wide Wye Valley — it would set on the western side of the hills, over the wide Wye Valley. The smoke from the chimney-stacks bent downwards after rising a little and formed a blue haze, for the air was heavy with spring and dampness. Leaning from the window she could smell the spring, the time of mating, the time of fruition. When the train stopped a minute outside the station she fancied that she heard the singing of birds; very softly it came but the sound was persistent — yes, surely, that was the singing of birds . . .
They took Raftery in an ambulance from Great Malvern in order to spare him the jar of the roads. That night he slept in his own spacious loosebox, and the faithful Jim would not leave him that night; he sat up and watched while Raftery slept in so deep a bed of yellow-gold straw that it all but reached his knees when standing. A last inarticulate tribute this to the most gallant horse, the most courteous horse that ever stepped out of stable.
But when the sun came up over Bredon, flooding the breadth of the Severn Valley, touching the slopes of the Malvern Hills that stand opposite Bredon across the valley, gilding the old red bricks of Morton and the weather-vane on its quiet stables, Stephen went into her father’s study and she loaded his heavy revolver.
Then they led Raftery out and into the morning; they led him with care to the big north paddock and stood him beside the mighty hedge that had set the seal on his youthful valour. Very still he stood with the sun on his flanks, the groom, Jim, holding the bridle.
Stephen said: ‘I’m going to send you away, a long way away, and I’ve never left you except for a little while since you came when I was a child and you were quite young — but I’m going to send you a long way away because of your pain. Raftery, this is death; and beyond, they say, there’s no more suffering.’ She paused, then spoke in a voice so low that the groom could not hear her: ‘Forgive me, Raftery.’
And Raftery stood there looking at Stephen, and his eyes were as soft as an Irish morning, yet as brave as the eyes that looked into his. Then it seemed to Stephen that he had spoken, that Raftery had said: ‘Since to me you are God, what have I to forgive you, Stephen?’
She took a step forward and pressed the revolver high up against Raftery’s smooth, grey forehead. She fired, and he dropped to the ground like a stone, lying perfectly still by the mighty hedge that had set the seal on his youthful valour.
But now there broke out a great crying and wailing: ‘Oh, me! Oh, me! They’ve been murderin’ Raftery! Shame, shame, I says, on the ‘and what done it, and ’im no common horse but a Christian . . . ’ Then loud sobbing as though some very young child had fallen down and hurt itself badly. And there in a small, creaky, wicker bath-chair sat Williams, being bumped along over the paddock by a youthful niece, who had come to Morton to take care of the old and now feeble couple; for Williams had had his first stroke that Christmas, in addition to which he was almost childish. God only knew who had told him this thing; the secret had been very carefully guarded by Stephen, who, knowing his love for the horse, had taken every precaution to spare him. Yet now here he was with his face all twisted by the stroke and the sobs that kept on rising. He was trying to lift his half-paralysed hand which kept dropping back on to the arm of the bath-chair; he was trying to get out of the bath-chair and run to where Raftery lay stretched out in the sunshine; he was trying to speak again, but his voice had grown thick so that no one could understand him. Stephen thought that his mind had begun to wander, for now he was surely not screaming ‘Raftery’ any more, but something that sounded like: ‘Master!’ and again, ‘Oh, Master, Master!’
She said: ‘Take him home,’ for he did not know her; ‘take him home. You’d no business to bring him here at all — it’s against my orders, Who told him about it?’
And the young girl answered: ‘It seemed ‘e just knowed — it was like as though Raftery told ’im . . .
Williams looked up with his blurred, anxious eyes. ‘Who be you?’ he inquired. Then he suddenly smiled through his tears. ‘It be good to be seein’ you, Master — seems like a long while . . . ’ His voice was now clear but exceedingly small, a small, far-away thing. If a doll had spoken, its voice might have sounded very much as the old man’s did at that moment.
Stephen bent over him. ‘Williams, I’m Stephen — don’t you know me? It’s Miss Stephen. You must go straight home and get back to bed — it’s still rather cold on these early spring mornings — to please me, Williams, you must go straight home. Why, your hands are frozen!’
But Williams shook his head and began to remember. ‘Raftery,’ he mumbled, ‘something’s ‘appened to Raftery.’ And his sobs and his tears broke out with fresh vigour, so that his niece, frightened, tried to stop him.
‘Now uncle be qui-et I do beseech ‘e! It’s so bad for ‘e carryin’ on in this wise. What will auntie say when she sees ‘e all mucked up with weepin’, and yer poor nose all red and dir-ty? I’ll be takin’ e’ ‘ome as Miss Stephen ’ere says. Now, uncle dear, do be qui-et!’
She lugged the bath-chair round with a jolt and trundled it, lurching, towards the cottage. All the way back down the big north paddock Williams wept and wailed and tried to get out, but his niece put one hefty young hand on his shoulder; with the other she guided the lurching bath-chair.
Stephen watched them go, then she turned to the groom. ‘Bury him here,’ she said briefly.
Before she left Morton that same afternoon, she went once more into the large, bare stables. The stables were now completely empty, for Anna had moved her carriage horses to new quarters nearer the coachman’s cottage.
Over one loosebox was a warped oak board bearing Collin’s studbook title, ‘Marcus,’ in red and blue letters; but the paint was dulled to a ghostly grey by encroaching mildew, while a spider had spun a large, purposeful web across one side of Collins’ manger. A cracked, sticky wine bottle lay on the floor; no doubt used at some time for drenching Collins, who had died in a fit of violent colic a few months after Stephen herself had left Morton. On the window-sill of the farthest loosebox stood a curry comb and couple of brushes; the comb was being eaten by rust, the brushes had lost several clumps of bristles. A jam pot of hoof-polish, now hard as stone, clung tenaciously to a short stick of firewood which time had petrified into the polish. But Raftery’s loosebox smelt fresh and pleasant with the curious dry, clean smell of new straw. A deep depression towards the middle showed where his body had lain in sleep, and seeing this Stephen stooped down and touched it for a moment. Then she whispered: ‘Sleep peacefully, Raftery.’
She could not weep, for a great desolation too deep for tears lay over her spirit — the great desolation of things that pass, of things that pass away in our lifetime. And then of what good, after all, are our tears, since they cannot hold back this passing away — no, not for so much as a moment? She looked round her now at the empty stables, the unwanted, uncared for stables of Morton. So proud they had been that were now so humbled; and they had the feeling of all disused places that have once teemed with life, they felt pitifully lonely. She closed her eyes so as not to see them. Then the thought came to Stephen that this was the end, the end of her courage and patient endurance — that this was somehow the end of Morton. She must not see the place any more; she must, she would, go a long way away. Raftery had gone a long way away — she had sent him beyond all hope of recall — but she could not follow him over that merciful frontier, for her God was more stern than Raftery’s; and yet she must fly from her love for Morton. Turning, she hurriedly left the stables.
Anna was standing at the foot of the stairs. ‘Are you leaving now, Stephen?’
‘Yes — I’m going, Mother.’
‘A short visit!’
‘Yes, I must get back to work.’
‘I see . . . ’ Then after a long, awkward pause: ‘Where would you like him buried?’
‘In the large north paddock where he died — I’ve told Jim.’
‘Very well, I’ll see that they carry out your orders.’ She hesitated, as though suddenly shy of Stephen again, as she had been in the past; but after a moment she went on quickly: ‘I thought — I wondered, would you like a small stone with his name and some sort of inscription on it, just to mark the place?’
‘If you’d care to put one — I shan’t need any stone to remember.’
The carriage was waiting to drive her to Malvern. ‘Good-bye, Mother.’
Good-bye — I shall put up that stone.’
‘Thanks, it’s a very kind thought of yours.’
Anna said: ‘I’m so sorry about this, Stephen.’
But Stephen had hurried into the brougham — the door dosed, and she did not hear her mother.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55