On the Monday that followed Stephen’s first day out hunting she woke with something very like a weight on her chest; in less than two minutes she knew why this was — she was going to tea with the Antrims. Her relations with other children were peculiar, she thought so herself and so did the children; they could not define it and neither could Stephen, but there it was all the same. A high-spirited child she should have been popular, and yet she was not, a fact which she divined, and this made her feel ill at ease with her playmates, who in their turn felt ill at ease. She would think that the children were whispering about her, whispering and laughing for no apparent reason; but although this had happened on one occasion, it was not always happening as Stephen imagined. She was painfully hyper-sensitive at times, and she suffered accordingly.
Of all the children that Stephen most dreaded, Violet and Roger Antrim took precedence; especially Roger, who was ten years old, and already full to the neck of male arrogance — he had just been promoted to Etons that winter, which added to his overbearing pride. Roger Antrim had round, brown eyes like his mother, and a short, straight nose that might one day be handsome; he was rather a thick-set, plump little boy, whose buttocks looked too large in a short Eton jacket, especially when he stuck his hands in his pockets and strutted, which he did very often.
Roger was a bully; he bullied his sister, and would dearly have loved to bully Stephen; but Stephen nonplussed him, her arms were so strong, he could never wrench Stephen’s arms backwards like Violet’s; he could never make her cry or show any emotion when he pinched her, or tugged roughly at her new hair ribbon, and then Stephen would often beat him at games, a fact which he deeply resented. She could bowl at cricket much straighter than he could; she climbed trees with astonishing skill and prowess, and even if she did tear her skirts in the process it was obviously cheek for a girl to climb at all. Violet never climbed trees; she stood at the bottom admiring the courage of Roger. He grew to hate Stephen as a kind of rival, a kind of intruder into his especial province; he was always longing to take her down a peg, but being slow-witted he was foolish in his methods — no good daring Stephen, she responded at once, and usually went one better. As for Stephen, she loathed him, and her loathing was increased by a most humiliating consciousness of envy. Yes, despite his shortcomings she envied young Roger with his thick, clumping boots, his cropped hair and his Etons; envied his school and his masculine companions of whom he would speak grandly as: ‘all the other fellows!’; envied his right to climb trees and play cricket and football — his right to be perfectly natural; above all she envied his splendid conviction that being a boy constituted a privilege in life; she could well understand that conviction, but this only increased her envy.
Stephen found Violet intolerably silly, she cried quite as loudly when she bumped her own head as when Roger applied his most strenuous torments. But what irritated Stephen, was the fact that she suspected that Violet almost enjoyed those torments.
‘He’s so dreadfully strong!’ she had confided in Stephen, with something like pride in her voice.
Stephen had longed to shake her for that: ‘I can pinch quite as hard as he can!’ she had threatened. ‘If you think he’s stronger than I am, I’ll show you!’ At which Violet had rushed away screaming.
Violet was already full of feminine poses; she loved dolls, but not quite so much as she pretended. People said: ‘Look at Violet, she’s like a little mother; it’s so touching to see that instinct in a child!’ then Violet would become still more touching. She was always thrusting her dolls upon Stephen, making her undress them and put them to bed. ‘Now you’re Nanny, Stephen, and I’m Gertrude’s mother, or you can be mother this time if you’d rather — Oh, be careful, you’ll break her! Now you’ve pulled off a button! I do think you might play more like I do!’ And then Violet knitted, or said that she knitted — Stephen had never seen anything but knots. ‘Can’t you knit?’ she would say, looking scornfully at Stephen, ‘I can — Mother called me a dear little housewife!’ then Stephen would lose her temper and speak rudely: ‘You’re a dear little sop, that’s what you are!’ For hours she must play stupid doll-games with Violet, because Roger would not always play real games in the garden. He hated to be beaten, yet how could she help it? Could she help throwing straighter than Roger?
They had nothing whatever in common, these children, but the Antrims were neighbours, and even Sir Philip; indulgent though he was, insisted that Stephen should have friends of her own age to play with. He had spoken quite sharply on several occasions when the child had pleaded to be allowed to stay at home. Indeed he spoke sharply that very day at luncheon:
‘Eat your pudding please, Stephen; come now, finish it quickly! If all this fuss is about the little Antrims, then Father won’t have it, it’s ridiculous, darling.’
So Stephen had hastily swallowed her pudding and escaped upstairs to the nursery.
The Antrims lived half a mile from Ledbury, on the other side of the hills. It was quite a long drive to their house from Morton — Stephen was driven over in the dog-cart. She sat beside Williams in gloomy silence, with the collar of her coat turned up to her ears. She was filled with a sense of bitter injustice; why should they insist on this stupid expedition? Even her father had been cross at luncheon because she preferred to stay at home with him. Why should she be forced to know other children? they didn’t want her nor she them. And above all the Antrims! that idiotic Violet — Violet who was learning to ride side-saddle — and Roger strutting about in his Etons, and bragging, always bragging because he was a boy — and their mother who was quite sure to patronize Stephen because being grown-up made her put on a manner. Stephen could hear her infuriating voice, the voice she reserved for children: Ah, here you are, Stephen! Now then, little people, run along and have a good feed in the schoolroom. There’s plenty of cake; I knew Stephen was coining; we all know Stephen’s capacity for cake!’
Stephen could hear Violet’s timorous giggle and Roger’s guffaw as they greeted this sally. She could feel his fat fingers pinching her arm; pinching cruelly, slyly, as he strutted beside her. Then his whisper: ‘You’re a pig! You eat much more than I do, mother said so today, and boys need more than girls!’ then Violet: ‘I’m not very fond of plum cake, it makes me feel sicky — mother says it’s indigestion. I could never eat big bits of plum cake like Stephen. Nanny says I’m a dainty feeder.’ then Stephen herself, saying nothing at all, but glaring sideways at Roger.
The dog-cart was slowly climbing British Camp, that long, steep hill out of Little Malvern. The cold air grew colder, but marvellously pure it was, up there above the valleys. The peak of the Camp stood out clearly defined by snow that had fallen lightly that morning, and as they breasted the crest of the hill, the sun shone out on the snow. Away to the right lay the valley of the Wye, a long, lovely valley of deep blue shadows; a valley of small homesteads and mothering trees, of soft undulations and wide, restful spaces leading away to a line of dim mountains — leading away to the mountains of Wales, that lay just over the border. And because she loved this kind of English valley, Stephen’s sulky eyes must turn and rest upon it; not all her apprehension and sense of injustice could take from her eyes the joy of that seeing. She must gaze and gaze, she must let it possess her, the peace, the wonder that lay in such beauty; while the unwilling tears welled up under her lids — she not knowing why they had come there.
And now they were trotting swiftly downhill; the valley had vanished, but the woods of Eastnor stood naked and lovely, and the forms of their trees were more perfect than forms that are made with hands — unless with the hands of God. Stephen’s eyes turned again; she could not stay sulky, for these were the woods where she drove with her father. Twice every spring they drove up to these woods and through them to the stretching parkland beyond. There were deer in the park — they would sometimes get out of the dog-cart so that Stephen could feed the does.
She began to whistle softly through her teeth, an accomplishment in which she took a great pride. Impossible to go on feeling resentful when the sun was shining between the bare branches, when the air was as clear and as bright as crystal, when the cob was literally flying through the air, taking all Williams’ strength to hold him.
Steady boy — steady on! He be feeling the weather — gets into his blood and makes him that skittish — Now go quiet, you young blight! Just look at him, will you, he’s got himself all of a lather!’
‘Let me drive,’ pleaded. Stephen. ‘Oh, please, please, Williams!’
But Williams shook his head as he grinned at her broadly: ‘I’ve got old bones, Miss Stephen, and old bones breaks quick when it’s frosty, so I’ve heard tell.’
Mrs. Antrim was waiting for Stephen in the lounge — she was always waiting to waylay her in the lounge, or so it appeared to Stephen. The lounge was a much overdressed apartment, full of small, useless tables and large, clumsy chairs. You bumped into the chairs and tripped over the tables; at least you did if you were Stephen. There was one deadly pitfall you never could avoid, a huge polar bear skin that lay on the floor. Its stuffed head protruded at a most awkward angle; you invariably stubbed your big toe on that head. Stephen, true to tradition, stubbed her toe rather badly as she blundered towards Mrs. Antrim.
‘Dear me,’ remarked her hostess, ‘you are a great girl; why your feet must be double the size of Violet’s! Come here and let me have a look at your feet.’ then she laughed as though something amused her.
Stephen was longing to rub her big toe, but she thought better of it, enduring in silence.
‘Children!’ called Mrs. Antrim, ‘Here’s Stephen, I’m sure she’s as hungry as a hunter!’
Violet was wearing a pale blue silk frock; even at seven she was vain of her appearance. She had cried until she had got permission to wear that particular pale blue frock, which was usually reserved for parties. Her brown hair was curled into careful ringlets, and tied with a very large bow of blue ribbon. Mrs. Antrim glanced quickly from Stephen to Violet with a look of maternal pride.
Roger was bulging inside his Etons; his round cheeks were puffed, very pink and aggressive. He eyed Stephen coldly from above a white collar that was obviously fresh from the laundry. On their way upstairs he pinched Stephen’s leg, and Stephen kicked backwards, swiftly and neatly.
‘I suppose you think you can kick!’ grunted Roger, who was suffering acutely at that moment from his shin. You’ve not got the strength of a flea; I don’t feel it!’
At Violet’s request they were left alone for tea; she liked playing the hostess, and her mother spoilt her. A special small teapot had had to be unearthed, in order that Violet could lift it.
‘Sugar?’ she inquired with tongs poised in mid air, ‘And milk?’ she added, imitating her mother. Mrs. Antrim always said: And milk,’ in that tone — it made you feel that you must be rather greedy.
‘Oh, chuck it!’ growled Roger, whose shin was still aching. You know I want milk and four lumps of sugar.’
Violet’s underlip began to tremble, but she held her ground with unexpected firmness. ‘May I give you a little more milk, Stephen dear? Or would you prefer no milk, only lemon?’
There isn’t any lemon and you know it!’ bawled Roger. ‘Here, give me my tea or I’ll spoil your hair ribbon.’ He grabbed at his cup and nearly upset it.
‘Oh, oh!’ shrilled Violet. ‘My dress!’
They settled down to the meal at last, but Stephen observed that Roger was watching; every mouthful she ate she could feel him watching, so that she grew self-conscious. She was hungry, not having eaten much luncheon, but now she could not enjoy her cake; Roger himself was stuffing like a grampus, but his eyes never left her face. Then Roger, the slow-witted in his dealings with Stephen, all but choked in the throes of a great inspiration.
‘I say, you,’ he began, with his mouth very full, ‘what about a certain young lady out hunting? What about a fat leg on each side of her horse like a monkey on a stick, and everybody laughing!’
‘They were not!’ exclaimed Stephen, growing suddenly red. ‘Oh, yes, but they were, though!’ mocked Roger.
Now had Stephen been wise she would have let the thing drop, for no fun is derived from a one-sided contest, but at eight years old one is not always wise, and moreover her pride had been stung to the quick.
She said: ‘I’d like to see you get the brush; why you can’t stick on just riding round the paddock! I’ve seen you fall off, jumping nothing but a hurdle; I’d like to see you out hunting!’
Roger swallowed some more cake; there was now no great hurry; he had thrown his sprat and had landed his mackerel. He had very much feared that she might not be drawn — it was not always easy to draw Stephen.
‘Well now, listen,’ he drawled, ‘and I’ll tell you something. You thought they admired you squatting on your pony; you thought you were being very grand, I’ll bet, with your new riding breeches and your black velvet cap; you thought they’d suppose that you looked like a boy, just because you were trying to be one. As a matter of fact, if you really want to know, they were busting their sides; why, my father said so. He was laughing all the time at your looking so funny on that rotten old pony that’s as fat as a porpoise. Why, he only gave you the brush for fun, because you were such a small kid — he said so. He said: “I gave Stephen Gordon the brush because I thought she might cry if I didn’t.”’
‘You’re a liar,’ breathed Stephen, who had turned very pale.
‘Oh, am I? Well, you ask father.’
‘Do stop —’ whimpered Violet, beginning to cry; ‘you’re horrid, you’re spoiling my party.’
But Roger was launched on his first perfect triumph; he had seen the expression in Stephen’s eyes: ‘And my mother said,’ he continued more loudly, that your mother must be funny to allow you to do it; she said it was horrid to let girls ride that way; she said she was awfully surprised at your mother; she said that she’d have thought that your mother had more sense; she said that it wasn’t modest; she said —’
Stephen had suddenly sprung to her feet: ‘How dare you! How dare you — my mother!’ she spluttered. And now she was almost beside herself with rage, conscious only of one overwhelming impulse, and that to belabour Roger.
A plate crashed to the ground and Violet screamed faintly. Roger, in his turn, had pushed back his chair; his round eyes were staring and rather frightened; he had never seen Stephen quite like this before. She was actually rolling up the sleeves of her smock.
‘You cad!’ she shouted, ‘I’ll fight you for this!’ And she doubled her fist and shook it at Roger while he edged away from the table.
She stood there an enraged and ridiculous figure in her Liberty smock, with her hard, boyish forearms. Her long hair had partly escaped from its ribbon, and the bow sagged down limply, crooked and foolish. All that was heavy in her face sprang into view, the strong line of the jaw, the square, massive brow, the eyebrows, too thick and too wide for beauty. And yet there was a kind of large splendour about her — absurd though she was, she was splendid at that moment — grotesque and splendid, like some primitive thing conceived in a turbulent age of transition.
‘Are you going to fight me, you coward?’ she demanded, as she stepped round the table and faced her tormentor.
But Roger thrust his hands deep into his pockets: ‘I don’t fight with girls!’ he remarked very grandly. Then he sauntered out of the schoolroom.
Stephen’s own hands fell and hung at her sides; her head drooped, and she stood staring down at the carpet. The whole of her suddenly drooped and looked helpless, as she stood staring down at the carpet.
‘How could you!’ began Violet, who was plucking up courage. ‘Little girls don’t have fights — I don’t, I’d be frightened —’
But Stephen cut her short: ‘I’m going,’ she said thickly; ‘I’m going home to my father.’
She went heavily downstairs and out into the lobby, where she put on her hat and coat; then made her way round the house to the stables, in search of old Williams and the dog-cart.
‘You’re home very early, Stephen,’ said Anna, but Sir Philip was staring at his daughter’s face.
‘What’s the matter?’ he inquired, and his voice sounded anxious. ‘Come here and tell me about it.’
Then Stephen quite suddenly burst into tears, and she wept and she wept as she stood there before them, and she poured out her shame and humiliation, telling all that Roger had said about her mother, telling all that she, Stephen, would have done to defend her, had it not been that Roger would not fight with a girl. She wept and she wept without any restraint, scarcely knowing what she said — at that moment not caring. And Sir Philip listened with his head on his hand, and Anna listened bewildered and dumbfounded. She tried to kiss Stephen, to hold her to her, but Stephen, still sobbing, pushed her away; in this orgy of grief she resented consolation, so that in the end Anna took her to the nursery and delivered her over to the care of Mrs. Bingham, feeling that the child did not want her.
When Anna went quietly back to the study, Sir Philip was still sitting with his head on his hand. She said: ‘It’s time you realized, Philip, that if you’re Stephen’s father, I’m her mother. So far you’ve managed the child your own way, and I don’t think it’s been successful. You’ve treated Stephen as though she were a boy — perhaps it’s because I’ve not given you a son —’ Her voice trembled a little but she went on gravely: ‘It’s not good for Stephen; I know it’s not good, and at times it frightens me, Philip.’
‘No, no!’ he said, sharply.
But Anna persisted: ‘Yes, Philip, at times it makes me afraid — I can’t tell you why, but it seems all wrong — it makes me feel — strange with the child.’
He looked at her out of his melancholy eyes: ‘Can’t you trust me? Won’t you try to trust me, Anna?’
But Anna shook her head: ‘I don’t understand, why shouldn’t you trust me, Philip?’
And then in his terror for this well-beloved woman, Sir Philip committed the first cowardly action of his life — he who would not have spared himself pain, could not bear to inflict it on Anna. In his infinite pity for Stephen’s mother, he sinned very deeply and gravely against Stephen, by withholding from that mother his own conviction that her child was not as other children.
‘There’s nothing for you to understand,’ he said firmly, ‘but I like you to trust me in all things.’
After this they sat talking about the child, Sir Philip very quiet and reassuring.
‘I’ve wanted her to have a healthy body,’ he explained, ‘that’s why I’ve let her run more or less wild; but perhaps we’d better have a governess now, as you say; a French governess, my dear, if you’d prefer one — later on I’ve always meant to engage a bluestocking, some woman who’s been to Oxford. I want Stephen to have the finest education that care and money can give her.’
But once again Anna began to protest. ‘What’s the good of it all for a girl?’ she argued. ‘Did you love me any less because I couldn’t do mathematics? Do you love me less now because I count on my fingers?’
He kissed her. ‘That’s different, you’re you,’ he said, smiling, but a look that she knew well had come into his eyes, a cold, resolute expression, which meant that all persuasion was likely to be unavailing.
Presently they went upstairs to the nursery, and Sir Philip shaded the candle with his hand, while they stood together gazing down at Stephen — the child was heavily asleep.
‘Look, Philip,’ whispered Anna, pitiful and shaken, ‘look Philip — she’s got two big tears on her cheek!’
He nodded, slipping his arm around Anna: ‘Come away,’ he muttered, ‘we may wake her.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55