The sorrows of childhood are mercifully passing, for it is only when maturity has rendered soil mellow that grief will root very deeply. Stephen’s grief for Collins, in spite of its violence, or perhaps because of that very violence, wore itself out like a passing tempest and was all but spent by the autumn. By Christmas, the gusts when they came were quite gentle, rousing nothing more disturbing than a faint melancholy — by Christmas it required quite an effort to recapture the charm of Collins.
Stephen was nonplussed and rather uneasy; to have loved so greatly and now to forget! It made her feel childish and horribly silly, as though she had cried over cutting her finger. As on all grave occasions, she considered the Lord, remembering His love for miserable sinners:
Teach me to love Collins Your way,’ prayed Stephen, trying hard to squeeze out some tears in the process, ‘teach me to love her ‘cause she’s mean and unkind and won’t be a proper sinner that repenteth.’ But the tears would not come, nor was prayer what it had been; it lacked something — she no longer sweated when she prayed.
Then an awful thing happened, the maid’s image was fading, and try as she would Stephen could not recall certain passing expressions that had erstwhile allured her. Now she could not see Collins’ face at all dearly even if she willed very hard in the dark. Thoroughly disgruntled, she bethought her of books, books of fairy tales, hitherto not much in favour, especially of those that treated of spells, incantations and other unlawful proceedings. She even requested the surprised Mrs. Bingham to read from the Bible:
‘You know where,’ coaxed Stephen, ‘it’s the place they were reading in church last Sunday, about Saul and a witch with a name like Edna — the place where she makes some person come up, ‘cause the king had forgotten what he looked like.’
But if prayer bad failed Stephen, her spells also failed her; indeed they behaved as spells do when said backwards, making her see, not the person she wished to, but a creature entirely different. For Collins now had a most serious rival, one who had lately appeared at the stables. He was not possessed of a real housemaid’s knee, but instead, of four deeply thrilling brown legs — he was two up on legs and one up on a tail, which was rather unfair on Collins! that Christmas, when Stephen was eight years old, Sir Philip had bought her a hefty bay pony; she was learning to ride him, could ride him already, being naturally skilful and fearless. There had been quite a heated discussion with Anna, because Stephen had insisted on riding astride. In this she had shown herself very refractory, falling off every time she tried the side-saddle — quite obvious, of course, this falling-off process, but enough to subjugate Anna.
And now Stephen would spend long hours at the stables, swaggering largely in corduroy breeches, hobnobbing with Williams, the old stud groom, who had a soft place in his heart for the child.
She would say: ‘Come up, horse!’ in the same tone as Williams; or, pretending to a knowledge she was far from possessing: ‘Is that fetlock a bit puffy? It looks to me puffy; supposing we put on a nice wet bandage.’
Then Williams would rub his rough chin as though thinking: ‘Maybe yes — maybe no —’ he would temporize, wisely.
She grew to adore the smell of the stables; it was far more enticing than Collins’ perfume — the Erasmic she had used on her afternoons out, and which had once smelt so delicious. And the pony! So strong, so entirely fulfilling, with his round, gentle eyes, and his heart big with courage — he was surely more worthy of worship than Collins, who had treated you badly because of the footman! And yet — and yet — you owed something to Collins, just because you had loved her, though you couldn’t any more. It was dreadfully worrying, all this hard thinking, when you wished to enjoy a new pony! Stephen would stand there rubbing her chin in an almost exact imitation of Williams. She could not produce the same scrabby sound, but in spite of this drawback, the movement would soothe her.
Then one morning she had a bright inspiration: ‘Come up, horse!’ she commanded, slapping the pony. ‘Come up, horse, and let me get close to your ear, ‘cause I’m going to whisper something dreadfully important.’ Laying her cheek against his firm neck, she said softly: ‘You’re not you any more, you’re Collins!’
So Collins was comfortably transmigrated. It was Stephen’s last effort to remember.
Came the day when Stephen rode out with her father to a meet, a glorious and memorable day. Side by side the two of them jogged through the gates, and the lodgekeeper’s wife must smile to see Stephen sitting her smart bay pony astride, and looking so comically like Sir Philip.
‘It do be a pity as her isn’t a boy, our young lady,’ she told her husband.
It was one of those still, slightly frosty mornings when the landing is tricky on the north side of the hedges; when the smoke from farm chimneys rises straight as a ramrod; when the scent of log fires or of burning brushwood, though left far behind, still persists in the nostrils. A crystal clear morning, like a draught of spring water, and such mornings are good when one is young.
The pony tugged hard and fought at his bridle; he was trembling with pleasure, for he was no novice; he knew all about signs and wonders in stables, such as large feeds of corn administered early, and extra long groomings, and pink coats, with brass buttons, like the hunt coat Sir Philip was wearing. He frisked down the road, a mass of affectation, demanding some skill on the part of his rider; but the child’s hands were strong yet exceedingly gentle — she possessed that rare gift, perfect hands on a horse.
‘This is better than being young Nelson,’ thought Stephen, ”cause this way I’m happy just being myself.’
Sir Philip looked down at his daughter with contentment; she was good to look upon, he decided. And yet his contentment was not quite complete, so that he looked away again quickly, sighing a little, because, somehow these days, he had taken to sighing over Stephen.
The meet was a large one. People noticed the child; Colonel Antrim, the Master, rode up and spoke kindly: ‘You’ve a fine pony there, but he’ll need a bit of holding!’ And then to her father: ‘Is she safe astride, Philip? Violet’s learning to ride, but side-saddle, I prefer it — I never think girl children get the grip astride; they aren’t built for it, haven’t the necessary muscle; still, no doubt she’ll stick on by balance.’
Stephen flushed: ‘No doubt she’ll stick on by balance!’ the words rankled, oh, very deeply they rankled. Violet was learning to ride side-saddle, that small, flabby lump who squealed if you pinched her; that terrified creature of muslins and ribbons and hair that curled over the nurse’s finger! Why, Violet could never come to tea without crying, could never play a game without getting herself hurt! She had fat, wobbly legs too, just like a rag doll — and you, Stephen, had been compared to Violet! Ridiculous of course, and yet all of a sudden you felt less impressive in your fine riding breeches. You felt — well, not foolish exactly, but self-conscious — not quite at your ease, a little bit wrong. It was almost as though you were playing at young Nelson again, were only pretending.
But you said: ‘I’ve got muscles, haven’t I, Father? Williams says I’ve got riding muscles already!’ then you dug your heels sharply into the pony, so that he whisked round, bucking and rearing. As for you, you stuck to his back like a limpet. Wasn’t that enough to convince them?
‘Steady on, Stephen!’ came Sir Philip’s voice, warning. Then the Master’s: ‘She’s got a fine seat, I’ll admit it — Violet’s a little bit scared on a horse, but I think she’ll get confidence later; I hope so.’
And now hounds were moving away towards cover, tails waving — they looked like an army with banners. ‘Hi, Starbright — Fancy! Get in, little bitch! Hi, Frolic, get on with it, Frolic!’
The long lashes shot out with amazing precision, stinging a flank or stroking a shoulder, while the four-legged Amazons closed up their ranks for the serious business ahead. ‘Hi, Starbright!’ Whips cracked and horses grew restless; Stephen’s mount required undivided attention. She had no time to think of her muscles or her grievance, but only of the creature between her small knees.
‘All right, Stephen?’
Well, go steady at your fences; it may be a little bit slippery this morning.’ But Sir Philip’s voice did not sound at all anxious; indeed there was a note of deep pride in his voice.
‘He knows that I’m not just a rag doll, like Violet; he knows that I’m different to her!’ thought Stephen.
The strange, implacable heart-broken music of hounds giving tongue as they break from cover; the cry of the huntsman as he stands in his stirrups; the thud of hooves pounding ruthlessly forward over long, green, undulating meadows. The meadows flying back as though seen from a train, the meadows streaming away behind you; the acrid smell of horse sweat caught in passing; the smell of damp leather, of earth and bruised herbage — all sudden, all passing — then the smell of wide spaces, the air smell, cool yet as potent as wine.
Sir Philip was looking back over his shoulder: ‘All right, Stephen?’ Oh, yes —’ Stephen’s voice sounded breathless.
Steady on! Steady on!’
They were coming to a fence, and Stephen’s grip tightened a little. The pony took the fence in his stride very gaily; for an instant he seemed to stay poised in mid-air as though he had wings, then he touched earth again, and away without even pausing.
‘All right, Stephen?’
Sir Philip’s broad back was bent forward over the shoulder of his hunter; the crisp auburn hair in the nape of his neck showed bright where the winter sunshine touched it; and as the child followed that purposeful back, she felt that she loved it utterly, entirely. At that moment it seemed to embody all kindness, all strength, and all understanding.
They killed not so very far from Worcester; it had been a stiff run, the best of the season. Colonel Antrim came jogging along to Stephen, whose prowess had amused and surprised him.
‘Well, well,’ he said, grinning, ‘so here you are, madam, still with a leg on each side of your horse — I’m going to tell Violet she’ll have to buck up. By the way, Philip, can Stephen come to tea on Monday, before Roger goes back to school? She can? Oh, splendid! And now where’s that brush? I think our young Stephen here takes it.’
Strange it is, but unforgettable moments are often connected with very small happenings, happenings that assume fictitious proportions, especially when we are children. If Colonel Antrim had offered Stephen the crown of England on a red velvet cushion, it is doubtful whether her pride would have equalled the pride that she felt when the huntsman came forward and presented her with her first hunting trophy — the rather pathetic, bedraggled little brush, that had weathered so many hard miles. Just for an instant the child’s heart misgave her, as she looked at the soft, furry thing in her hand; but the joy of attainment was still hot upon her, and that incomparable feeling of elation that comes from the knowledge of personal courage, so that she forgot the woes of the fox in remembering the prowess of Stephen.
Sir Philip fastened the brush to her saddle. ‘You rode well,’ he said briefly, then turned to the Master.
But she knew that that day she had not failed him, for his eyes had been bright when they rested on hers; she had seen great love in those melancholy eyes, together with a curiously wistful expression of which her youth lacked understanding. And now many people smiled broadly at Stephen, patting her pony and calling him a flier.
One old farmer remarked: ”E do be a good plucked un, and so be ‘is rider — beggin’ your pardon.’
At which Stephen must blush and grow slightly mendacious, pretending to give all the credit to the pony, pretending to feel very humble of spirit, which she knew she was far from feeling.
‘Come along!’ called Sir Philip. ‘No more today, Stephen, your poor little fellow’s had enough for one day.’ Which was true, since Collins was all of a tremble, what with excitement and straining short legs to keep up with vainglorious hunters.
Whips touched hats: ‘Good-bye, Stephen, come out soon again — See you on Tuesday, Sir Philip, with the Croome.’ And the field settled down to the changing of horses, before drawing yet one more cover.
Father and daughter rode home through the twilight, and now there were no dog-roses in the hedges, the hedges stood leafless and grey with frost rime, a network of delicate branches. The earth smelt as clean as a newly washed garment — it smelt of ‘God’s washing’, as Stephen called it — while away to the left, from a distant farm-house, came the sound of a yard-dog, barking. Small lights were glowing in cottage windows as yet uncurtained, as yet very friendly; and beyond, where the great hills of Malvern showed blue against the pale sky, many small lights were burning — lights of home newly lit on the altar of the hills to the God of both hills and homesteads. No birds were singing in the trees by the roadside, but a silence prevailed, more lovely than bird song; the thoughtful and holy silence of winter, the silence of trustfully waiting furrows. For the soil is the greatest saint of all ages, knowing neither impatience, nor fear, nor doubting; knowing only faith, from which spring all blessings that are needful to nurture man.
Sir Philip said: ‘Are you happy, my Stephen?’
And she answered: ‘I’m dreadfully happy, Father. I’m so dreadfully happy that it makes me feel frightened, ‘cause I mayn’t always last happy — not this way.’
He did not ask why she might not last happy; he just nodded, as though he admitted a reason; but he laid his hand over hers on the bridle for a moment, a large, and comforting hand. Then the peace of the evening took possession of Stephen, that and the peace of a healthy body tired out with fresh air and much vigorous movement, so that she swayed a little in her saddle and came near to falling asleep. The pony, even more tired than his rider, jogged along with neck drooping and reins hanging slackly, too weary to shy at the ogreish shadows that were crouching ready to scare him. His small mind was doubtless concentrated on fodder; on the bucket of water nicely seasoned with gruel; on the groom’s soothing hiss as he rubbed down and bandaged; on the warm blanket clothing, so pleasant in winter, and above all on that golden bed of deep straw that was sure to be waiting in his stable.
And now a great moon had swung up very slowly; and the moon seemed to pause, staring hard at Stephen, while the frost rime turned white with the whiteness of diamonds, and the shadows turned black and lay folded like velvet round the feet of the drowsy hedges. But the meadows beyond the hedges turned silver, and so did the road to Morton.
It was late when they reached the stables at last, and old Williams was waiting in the yard with a lantern.
‘Did you kill?’ he inquired, according to custom; then he saw Stephen’s trophy and chuckled.
Stephen tried to spring easily out of the saddle as her father had done, but her legs seemed to fail her. To her horror and chagrin her legs hung down stiffly as though made of wood; she could not control them; and to make matters worse, Collins now grew impatient and began to walk off to his loose-box. Then Sir Philip put two strong arms around Stephen, and he lifted her bodily as though she were a baby, and he carried her, only faintly protesting, right up to the door of the house and beyond it — right up indeed, to the warm pleasant nursery where a steaming hot bath was waiting. Her head fell back and lay on his shoulder, while her eyelids drooped, heavy with well-earned sleep; she had to blink very hard several times over in order to get the better of that sleep.
‘Happy, darling?’ he whispered, and his grave face bent nearer. She could feel his cheek, rough at the end of the day, pressed against her forehead, and she loved that kind roughness, so that she put up her hand and stroked it.
So dreadfully, dreadfully happy, Father,’ she murmured, ‘so — dreadfully happy —’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55