At an old-fashioned, Kensington luncheon party, not very long after Raftery’s death, Stephen met and renewed her acquaintance with Jonathan Brockett, the playwright. Her mother had wished her to go to this luncheon, for the Carringtons were old family friends, and Anna insisted that from time to time her daughter should accept their invitations. At their house it was that Stephen had first seen this young man, rather over a year ago. Brockett was a connection of the Carringtons; had he not been Stephen might never have met him, for such gatherings bored him exceedingly, and therefore it was not his habit to attend them. But on that occasion he had not been bored, for his sharp, grey eyes had lit upon Stephen; and as soon as he well could, the meal being over, he had made his way to her side and had remained there. She had found him exceedingly easy to talk to, as indeed he had wished her to find him.
This first meeting had led to one or two rides in the Row together, since they both rode early. Brockett had joined her quite casually one morning; after which he had called, and had talked to Puddle as if he had come on purpose to see her and her only — he had charming and thoughtful manners towards all elderly people. Puddle had accepted him while disliking his clothes, which were always just a trifle too careful; moreover she had disapproved of his cuff-links — platinum links set with tiny diamonds. All the same, she had made him feel very welcome, for to her it had been any port in a storm just then — she would gladly have welcomed the devil himself, had she thought that he might rouse Stephen.
But Stephen was never able to decide whether Jonathan Brockett attracted or repelled her. Brilliant he could be at certain times, yet curiously foolish and puerile at others; and his hands were as white and soft as a woman’s — she would feel a queer little sense of outrage creeping over her when she looked at his hands. For those hands of his went so ill with him somehow; he was tall, broad-shouldered, and of an extreme thinness. His clean-shaven face was slightly sardonic and almost disconcertingly clever; an inquisitive face too — one felt that it pried into everyone’s secrets without shame or mercy. It may have been genuine liking on his part or mere curiosity that had made him persist in thrusting his friendship on Stephen. But whatever it had been it had taken the form of ringing her up almost daily at one time; of worrying her to lunch or dine with him, of inviting himself to her flat in Chelsea, or what was still worse, of dropping in on her whenever the spirit moved him. His work never seemed to worry him at all, and Stephen often wondered when his fine plays got written, for Brockett very seldom if ever discussed them and apparently very seldom wrote them; yet they always appeared at the ‘critical moment when their author had run short of money.
Once, for the sake of peace, she had dined with him in a species of glorified cellar. He had just then discovered the queer little place down in Seven Dials, and was very proud of it; indeed he was making it rather the fashion among certain literary people. He had taken a great deal of trouble that evening to make Stephen feel that she belonged to these people by right of her talent, and had introduced her as ‘Stephen Gordon, the author of The Furrow.’ But all the while he had secretly watched her with his sharp and inquisitive eyes. She had felt very much at ease with Brockett as they sat at their dimly-lit table, perhaps because her instinct divined that this man would never require of her more than she could give — that the most he would ask for at any time would be friendship.
Then one day he had casually disappeared, and she heard that he had gone to Paris for some months, as was often his custom when the climate of London had begun to get on his nerves. He had drifted away like thistledown, without so much as a word of warning. He had not said good-bye nor had he written, so that Stephen felt that she had never known him, so completely did he go out of her life during his sojourn in Paris. Later on she was to learn, when she knew him better, that these disconcerting lapses of interest, amounting as they did to a breach of good manners, were highly characteristic of the man, and must of necessity be accepted by all who accepted Jonathan Brockett.
And now here he was back again in England, and sitting next to Stephen at the Carringtons’ luncheon. And as though they had met but a few hours ago, he took her up calmly just where he had left her.
‘May I come in tomorrow?’
‘Well — I’m awfully busy.’
‘But I want to come, please; I can talk to Puddle.’
‘I’m afraid she’ll be out.’
‘Then I’ll just sit and wait until she comes in; I’ll be quiet as a mouse.’
Oh, no, Brockett, please don’t; I should know you were there and that would disturb me.’
‘I see. A new book?’
‘Well, no — I’m trying to write some short stories; I’ve got a commission from The Good Housewife.’
Sounds thrifty. I hope you’re getting well paid.’ Then after a rather long pause: ‘How’s Raftery?’
For a second she did not answer, and Brockett, with quick intuition, regretted his question. ‘Not . . . not . . . ’ he stammered.
Yes,’ she said slowly, ‘Raftery’s dead — he went lame. I shot him.’ He was silent. Then he suddenly took her hand and, still without speaking, pressed it. Glancing up, she was surprised by the look in his eyes, so sorrowful it was, and so understanding. He had liked the old horse, for he liked all dumb creatures. But Raftery’s death could mean nothing to him; yet his sharp, grey eyes had now softened with pity because she had had to shoot Raftery.
She thought: ‘What a curious fellow he is. At this moment I suppose he actually feels something almost like grief — it’s my grief he’s getting — and tomorrow, of course, he’ll forget all about it.’
Which was true enough. Brockett could compress quite a lot of emotion into an incredibly short space of time; could squeeze a kind of emotional beef-tea from all those with whom life brought him into contact — a strong brew, and one that served to sustain and revivify his inspiration.
For ten days Stephen heard nothing more, of Brockett; then he rang up to announce that he was coming to dinner at her flat that very same evening.
You’ll get awfully little to eat,’ warned Stephen, who was tired to death and did not want him.
‘Oh, all right, I’ll bring some dinner along,’ he said blithely, and with that he hung up the receiver.
At a quarter-past eight he arrived, late for dinner and loaded like a pack-mule with brown paper parcels. He looked cross; he had spoilt his new reindeer gloves with mayonnaise that had oozed through a box containing the lobster salad.
He thrust the box into Stephen’s hands. ‘Here, you take it — it’s dripping. Can I have a wash rag?’ But after a moment he forgot the new gloves. ‘I’ve raided Fortnum & Mason — such fun — I do love eating things out of cardboard boxes. Hullo, Puddle darling! I sent you a plant. Did you get it? A nice little plant with brown bobbles. It smells good, and it’s got a ridiculous name like an old Italian dowager or something. Wait a minute — what’s it called? Oh, yes, a baroniait’s so humble to have such a pompous name! Stephen, do be careful — don’t rock the lobster about like that. I told you the thing was dripping —
He dumped his parcels on to the hall table.
‘I’ll take them along to the kitchen,’ smiled Puddle.
‘No, I will,’ said Brockett, collecting them again, ‘I’ll do the whole thing; you leave it to me. I adore other people’s kitchens.’
He was in his most foolish and tiresome mood — the mood when his white hands made odd little gestures, when his laugh was too high and his movements too small for the size of his broad-shouldered, rather gaunt body. Stephen had grown to dread him in this mood; there was something almost aggressive about it; it would seem to her that he thrust it upon her, showing off like a child at a Christmas party.
She said sharply: ‘If you’ll wait, I’ll ring for the maid.’ But Brockett bad already invaded the kitchen.
She followed, to find the cook looking offended.
‘I want lots and lots of dishes,’ he announced. Then unfortunately he happened to notice the parlourmaid’s washing, just back from the laundry.
‘Brockett, what on earth are you doing?’
He had put on the girl’s ornate frilled cap, and was busily tying on her small apron. He paused for a moment. ‘How do I look? What a perfect duck of an apron!’
The parlourmaid giggled and Stephen laughed. That was the worst of Jonathan Brockett, he could make you laugh in spite of yourself — when you most disapproved you found yourself laughing.
The food he had brought was the oddest assortment; lobster, caramels, pâté de foie gras, olives, a tin of rich-mixed biscuits and a Camembert cheese that was smelling loudly. There was also a bottle of Rose’s lime-juice and another of ready-made cocktails. He began to unpack the things one by one, clamouring for plates and entrée dishes. In the process he made a great mess on the table by upsetting most of the lobster salad.
He swore roundly. ‘Damn the thing, it’s too utterly bloody! It’s ruined my gloves, and now look at the table!’ In grim silence the cook repaired the damage.
This mishap appeared to have damped his ardour, for he sighed and removed his cap and apron. ‘Can anyone open this bottle of olives? And the cocktails? Here, Stephen, you can tackle the cheese; it seems rather shy, it won’t leave its kennel.’ In the end it was Stephen and the cook who must do all the work, while Brockett sat down on the floor and gave them ridiculous orders.
Brockett it was who ate most of the dinner, for Stephen was too overtired to feel hungry; while Puddle, whose digestion was not what it had been, was forced to content herself with a cutlet. But Brockett ate largely, and as he did so he praised himself and his food between mouthfuls.
Clever of me to have discovered the pâté— I’m so sorry for the geese though, aren’t you, Stephen? The awful thing is that it’s simply delicious — I wish I knew the esoteric meaning of these mixed emotions!’ And he dug with a spoon at the side that appeared to contain the most truffles.
From time to time he paused to inhale the gross little cigarettes he affected. Their tobacco was black, their paper was yellow, and they came from an unpropitious island where, as Brockett declared, the inhabitants died in shoals every year of some tropical fever. He drank a good deal of the Rose’s lime-juice, for this strong, rough tobacco always made him thirsty. Whisky went to his head and wine to his liver, so that on the whole he was forced to be temperate; but when he got home he would brew himself coffee as viciously black as his tobacco.
Presently he said with a sigh of repletion: ‘Well, you two, I’ve finished — let’s go into the study.’
As they left the table he seized the mixed biscuits and the caramel creams, for he dearly loved sweet things. He would often go out and buy himself sweets in Bond Street, for solitary consumption.
In the study he sank down on to the divan. ‘Puddle dear, do you mind if I put my feet up? It’s my new boot-maker, he’s given me a corn on my right little toe. It’s too heart-breaking. It was such a beautiful toe,’ he murmured; ‘quite perfect — the one toe without a blemish!’
After this he seemed disinclined to talk. He had made himself a nest with the cushions, and was smoking, and nibbling rich-mixed biscuits, routing about in the tin for his favourites. But his eyes kept straying across to Stephen with a puzzled and rather anxious expression.
At last she said: ‘What’s the matter, Brockett? Is my necktie crooked?’
‘No — it’s not your necktie; it’s something else.’ He sat up abruptly. ‘As I came here to ‘say it, I’ll get the thing over!’
‘Fire away, Brockett.’
‘Do you think you’ll hate me if I’m frank?’
‘Of course not. Why should I hate you?’
‘Very well then, listen.’ And now his voice was so grave that Puddle put down her embroidery. ‘You listen to me, you, Stephen Gordon. Your last book was inexcusably bad. It was no more like what we all expected, had a right to expect of you after The Furrow, than that plant I sent Puddle is like an oak tree — I won’t even compare it to that little plant, for the plant’s alive; your book isn’t. Oh, I don’t mean to say that it’s not well written; it’s well written because you’re just a born writer — you feel words, you’ve a perfect ear for balance, and a very good all-round knowledge of English. But that’s not enough, not nearly enough; all that’s a mere suitable dress for a body. And this time you’ve hung the dress on a dummy — a dummy can’t stir our emotions, Stephen. I was talking to Ogilvy only last night. He gave you a good review, he told me, because he’s got such a respect for your talent that he didn’t want to put on the damper. He’s like that — too merciful I always think — they’ve all been too merciful to you, my dear. They ought to have literally skinned you alive — that might have helped to show you your danger. My God! and you wrote a thing like The Furrow! What’s happened? What’s undermining your work? Because whatever it is, it’s deadly! it must be some kind of horrid dry rot. Ah, no, it’s too bad and it mustn’t go on — we’ve got to do something, quickly.’
He paused, and she stared at him in amazement. Until now she had never seen this side of Brockett, the side of the man that belonged to his art, to all art — the one thing in life he respected.
She said: ‘Do you really mean what you’re saying?’
‘I mean every word,’ he told her.
Then she asked him quite humbly: ‘What must I do to save my work?’ for she realized that he had been speaking the stark, bitter truth; that indeed she had needed no one to tell her that her last book had been altogether unworthy — a poor, lifeless thing, having no health in it.
He considered. ‘It’s a difficult question, Stephen. Your own temperament is so much against you. You’re so strong in some ways and yet so timid — such a mixture — and you’re terribly frightened of life. Now why? You must try to stop being frightened, to stop hiding your head. You need life, you need people. People are the food that we writers live on; get out and devour them, squeeze them dry, Stephen!’
‘My father once told me something like that — not quite in those words — but something very like it.’
‘Then your father must have been a sensible man,’ smiled Brockett. ‘Now I had a perfect beast of a father. Well, Stephen, I’ll give you my advice for what it’s worth — you want a real change. Why not go abroad somewhere? Get right away for a bit from your England. You’ll probably write it a damned sight better when you’re far enough off to see the perspective. Start with Paris — it’s an excellent jumping-off place. Then you might go across to Italy or Spain — go anywhere, only do get a move on! No wonder you’re atrophied here in London. I can put you wise about people in Paris. You ought to know Valérie Seymour, for instance. She’s very good fun and a perfect darling; I’m sure you’d like her, every one does. Her parties are a kind of human bran-pie — you just plunge in your fist and see what happens. You may draw a prize or you may draw blank, but it’s always worth while to go to her parties. Oh, but good Lord, there are so many things that stimulate one in Paris.’
He talked on about Paris for a little while longer, then he got up to go. ‘Well, good-bye, my dears, I’m off. I’ve given myself indigestion. And do look at Puddle, she’s blind with fury; I believe she’s going to refuse to shake hands! Don’t be angry, Puddle — I’m very well-meaning.’
Yes, of course,’ answered Puddle, but her voice sounded cold.
After he had gone they stared at each other, then Stephen said, What a queer revelation. Who would have thought that Brockett could get so worked up? His moods are kaleidoscopic.’ She was purposefully forcing herself to speak lightly.
But Puddle was angry, bitterly angry. Her pride was wounded to the quick for Stephen. The man’s a perfect fool!’ she said gruffly. ‘And I didn’t agree with one word he said. I expect he’s jealous of your work, they all are. They’re a mean-minded lot, these writing people.’
And looking at her Stephen thought sadly, She’s tired — I’m wearing her out in my service. A few years ago she’d never have tried to deceive me like this — she’s losing courage.’ Aloud she said: ‘Don’t be cross with Brockett, he meant to be friendly, I’m quite sure of that. My work will buck up — I’ve been feeling slack lately, and it’s told on my writing — I suppose it was bound to.’ Then the merciful lie, ‘But I’m not a bit frightened!’
Stephen rested her head on her hand as she sat at her desk — it was well past midnight. She was heartsick as only a writer can be whose day has been spent in useless labour. All that she had written that day she would destroy, and now it was well past midnight. She turned, looking wearily round the study, and it came upon her with a slight sense of shock that she was seeing this room for the very first time, and that everything in it was abnormally ugly. The flat had been furnished when her mind had been too much afflicted to care in the least what she bought, and now all her possessions seemed clumsy or puerile, from the small, foolish chairs to the large, roll-top desk there was nothing personal about any of them. How had she endured this room for so long? Had she really written a fine book in it? Had she sat in it evening after evening and come back to it morning after morning t Then she must have been blind indeed — what a place for any author to work in! She had taken nothing with her from Morton but the hidden books found in her father’s study; these she had taken, as though in a way they were hers by some intolerable birthright; for the rest she had shrunk from depriving the house of its ancient and honoured possessions.
Morton — so quietly perfect a thing, yet the thing of all others that she must fly from, that she must forget; but she could not forget it in these surroundings; they reminded by contrast. Curious what Brockett had said that evening about putting the sea between herself and England . . . In view of her own half-formed plan to do so, his words had come as a kind of echo of her thoughts; it was almost as though he had peeped through a secret keyhole into her mind, had been spying upon her trouble. By what right did this curious man spy upon her — this man with the soft, white hands of a woman, with the movements befitting those soft, white hands, yet so ill-befitting the rest of his body? By no right; and how much had the creature found out when his eye had been pressed to that secret keyhole? Clever — Brackett was fiendishly clever — all his whims and his foibles could not disguise it. His face gave him away, a hard, clever face with sharp eyes that were glued to other people’s keyholes. That was why Brockett wrote such fine plays, such cruel plays; he fed his genius on live flesh and blood. Carnivorous genius. Moloch, fed upon live flesh and blood! But she, Stephen, had tried to feed her inspiration upon herbage, the kind, green herbage of Morton. For a little while such food had sufficed, but now her talent had sickened, was dying perhaps — or had she too fed it on blood, her heart’s blood when she had written The Furrow If so, her heart would not bleed any more — perhaps it could not — perhaps it was dry. A dry, withered thing; for she did not feel love these days when she thought of Angela Crossby — that must mean that her heart had died within her. A gruesome companion to have, a dead heart.
Angela Crossby — and yet there were times when she longed intensely to see this woman, to hear her speak, to stretch out her arms and clasp them around the woman’s body — not gently, not patiently as in the past, but roughly, brutally even. Beastly — it was beastly! She felt degraded. She had no love to offer Angela Crossby, not now, only something that, lay like a stain on the beauty of what had once been love. Even this memory was marred and defiled, by herself even more than by Angela Crossby.
Came the thought of that unforgettable scene with her mother. ‘I would rather see you dead at my feet.’ Oh, yes — very easy to talk about death, but not so easy to manage the dying. ‘We two cannot live together at Morton . . . One of us must go, which of us shall it be?’ The subtlety, the craftiness of that question which in common decency could have but one answer! Oh, well she had gone and would go even farther. Raftery was dead, there was nothing to hold her, she was free — what a terrible thing could be freedom. Trees were free when they were uprooted by the wind; ships were free when they were torn from their moorings; men were free when they were cast out of their homes — free to starve, free to perish of cold and hunger.
At Morton there lived an ageing woman with sorrowful eyes now a little dim from gazing for so long into the distance. Only once, since her gaze had been fixed on the dead, had this woman turned it full on her daughter; and then her eyes had been changed into something accusing, ruthless, abominably cruel. Through looking upon what had seemed abominable to them, they themselves had become an abomination. Horrible! And yet how dared they accuse? What right had a mother to abominate the child that had sprung from her own secret moments of passion? She the honoured, the fulfilled, the fruitful, the loving and loved, had despised the fruit of her love. Its fruit? No, rather its victim.
She thought of her mother’s protected life that had never had to face this terrible freedom. Like a vine that clings to a warm southern wall it had clung to her father — it still clung to Morton. In the spring had come gentle and nurturing rains, in the summer the strong and health-giving sunshine, in the winter a deep, soft covering of snow — cold yet protecting the delicate tendrils. All, all she had had. She had never gone empty of love in the days of her youthful ardour; had never known longing, shame, degradation, but rather great joy and great pride in her loving. Her love had been pure in the eyes of the world, for she had been able to indulge in it with honour. Still with honour, she had borne a child to her mate — but a child who, unlike her, must go unfulfilled all her days, or else live in abject dishonour. Oh, but a hard and pitiless woman this mother must be for all her soft beauty; shamelessly finding shame in her offspring. ‘I would rather see you dead at my feet . . . ’ ‘Too late, too late, your love gave me life. Here am I the creature you made through your loving; by your passion you created the thing that I am. Who are you to deny me the right to love? But for you I need never have known existence.’
And now there crept into Stephen’s brain the worst torment of all, a doubt of her father. He had known and knowing he had not told her; he had pitied and pitying had not protected; he had feared and fearing had saved only himself. Had she had a coward for a father? She sprang up and began to pace the room. Not this — she could not face this new torment. She had stained her love, the love of a lover — she dared not stain this one thing that remained, the love of the child for the father. If this light went out the engulfing darkness would consume her, destroying her entirely. Man could not live by darkness alone, one point of light he must have for salvation — one point of light. The most perfect Being of all had cried out for light in His darkness — even He, the most perfect Being of all. And then as though in answer to prayer, to some prayer that her trembling lips had not uttered, came the memory of a patient, protective back, bowed as though bearing another’s burden. Came the memory of horrible, soul-sickening pain: ‘No — not that — something urgent — I want — to say. No drugs — I know I’m — dying — Evans.’ And again a heroic and tortured effort: ‘Anna — it’s Stephen — listen.’ Stephen suddenly held out her arms to this man who, though dead, was still her father.
But even in this blessed moment of easement, her heart hardened again at the thought of her mother. A fresh wave of bitterness flooded her soul so that the light seemed all but extinguished; very faintly it gleamed like the little lantern on a buoy that is tossed by tempest. Sitting down at her desk she found pen and paper.
She wrote: ‘Mother, I am going abroad quite soon, but I shall not see you to say good-bye, because I don’t want to come back to Morton. These visits of mine have always been painful, and now my work is beginning to suffer — that I cannot allow; I live only for my work and so I intend to guard it in future. There can now be no question of gossip or scandal, for everyone knows that I am a writer and as such may have occasion to travel. But in any case I care very little these days for the gossip of neighbours. For nearly three years I have borne your yoke — I have tried to be patient and understanding. I have tried to think that your yoke was a just one, a just punishment, perhaps, for my being what I am, the creature whom you and my father created; but now I am going to bear it no longer. If my father had lived he would have shown pity, whereas you showed me none, and yet you were my mother. In my hour of great need you utterly failed me; you turned me away like some unclean thing that was unfit to live any longer at Morton. You insulted what to me seemed both natural and sacred. I went, but now I shall not come back any more to you or to Morton. Puddle will be with me because she loves me; if I’m saved at all it is she who has saved me, and so for as long as she wishes to throw in her lot with me I shall let her. Only one thing more; she will send you our address from time to time, but don’t write to me, Mother, I am going away in order to forget, and your letters would only remind me of ‘Morton.’
She read over what she had written, three times, finding nothing at all that she wished to add, no word of tenderness, or of regret. She felt numb and then unbelievably lonely, but she wrote the address in her firm handwriting: ‘The Lady Anna Gordon,’ she wrote, ‘Morton Hall, Near Upton-on-Severn.’ And when she wept, as she presently must do, covering her face with her large, brown hands, her spirit felt unrefreshed by this weeping, for the hot, angry tears seemed to scorch her spirit. Thus was Anna Gordon baptized through her child as by fire, unto the loss of their mutual salvation.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51