Not very far from Upton-on-Severn—between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills—stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramley; well-timbered, well-cottaged, well-fenced and well-watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in exactly the right position to feed two large lakes in the grounds.
The house itself is of Georgian red brick, with charming circular windows near the roof. It has dignity and pride without ostentation, self-assurance without arrogance, repose without inertia; and a gentle aloofness that, to those who know its spirit, but adds to its value as a home. It is indeed like certain lovely women who, now old, belong to a bygone generation—women who in youth were passionate but seemly; difficult to win but when won, all-fulfilling. They are passing away, but their homesteads remain, and such an homestead is Morton.
To Morton Hall came the Lady Anna Gordon as a bride of just over twenty. She was lovely as only an Irish woman can be, having that in her bearing that betokened quiet pride, having that in her eyes that betokened great longing, having that in her body that betokened happy promise—the archetype of the very perfect woman, whom creating God has found good. Sir Philip had met her away in County Clare—Anna Molloy, the slim virgin thing, all chastity, and his weariness had flown to her bosom as a spent bird will fly to its nest—as indeed such a bird had once flown to her, she told him, taking refuge from the perils of a storm.
Sir Philip was a tall man and exceedingly well-favoured, but his charm lay less in feature than in a certain wide expression, a tolerant expression that might almost be called noble, and in something sad yet gallant in his deep-set hazel eyes. His chin, which was firm, was very slightly cleft, his forehead intellectual, his hair tinged with auburn. His wide-nostrilled nose was indicative of temper, but his lips were well-modelled and sensitive and ardent—they revealed him as a dreamer and a lover.
Twenty-nine when they had married, he had sown no few wild oats, yet Anna's true instinct made her trust him completely. Her guardian had disliked him, opposing the engagement, but in the end she had had her own way. And as things turned out her choice had been happy, for seldom had two people loved more than they did; they loved with an ardour undiminished by time; as they ripened, so their love ripened with them.
Sir Philip never knew how much he longed for a son until, some ten years after marriage, his wife conceived a child; then he knew that this thing meant complete fulfilment, the fulfilment for which they had both been waiting. When she told him, he could not find words for expression, and must just turn and weep on her shoulder. It never seemed to cross his mind for a moment that Anna might very well give him a daughter; he saw her only as a mother of sons, nor could her warnings disturb him. He christened the unborn infant Stephen, because he admired the pluck of that Saint. He was not a religious man by instinct, being perhaps too much of a student, but he read the Bible for its fine literature, and Stephen had gripped his imagination. Thus he often discussed the future of their child: 'I think I shall put Stephen down for Harrow,' or: 'I'd rather like Stephen to finish off abroad, it widens one's outlook on life.'
And listening to him, Anna also grew convinced; his certainty wore down her vague misgivings, and she saw herself playing with this little Stephen, in the nursery, in the garden, in the sweet-smelling meadows. 'And himself the lovely young man,' she would say, thinking of the soft Irish speech of her peasants: 'And himself with the light of the stars in his eyes, and the courage of a lion in his heart!'
When the child stirred within her she would think it stirred strongly because of the gallant male creature she was hiding; then her spirit grew large with a mighty new courage, because a man-child would be born. She would sit with her needlework dropped on her knees, while her eyes turned away to the long line of hills that stretched beyond the Severn valley. From her favourite seat underneath an old cedar, she would see these Malvern Hills in their beauty, and their swelling slopes seemed to hold a new meaning. They were like pregnant women, full-bosomed, courageous, great green-girdled mothers of splendid sons! Thus through all those summer months, she sat and watched the hills, and Sir Philip would sit with her—they would sit hand in hand. And because she felt grateful she gave much to the poor, and Sir Philip went to church, which was seldom his custom, and the Vicar came to dinner, and just towards the end many matrons called to give good advice to Anna.
But: 'Man proposes—God disposes,' and so it happened that on Christmas Eve, Anna Gordon was delivered of a daughter; a narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a baby, that yelled and yelled for three hours without ceasing, as though outraged to find itself ejected into life.
Anna Gordon held her child to her breast, but she grieved while it drank, because of her man who had longed so much for a son. And seeing her grief, Sir Philip hid his chagrin, and he fondled the baby and examined its fingers.
'What a hand!' he would say. 'Why it's actually got nails on all its ten fingers: little, perfect, pink nails!'
Then Anna would dry her eyes and caress it, kissing the tiny hand.
He insisted on calling the infant Stephen, nay more, he would have it baptized by that name. 'We've called her Stephen so long,' he told Anna, 'that I really can't see why we shouldn't go on—'
Anna felt doubtful, but; Sir Philip was stubborn, as he could be at times over whims.
The Vicar said that it was rather unusual, so to mollify him they must add female names. The child was baptized in the village church as Stephen Mary Olivia Gertrude—and she throve, seeming strong, and when her hair grew it was seen to be auburn like Sir Philip's. There was also a tiny cleft in her chin, so small just at first that it looked like a shadow; and after a while when her eyes lost the blueness that is proper to puppies and other young things, Anna saw that her eyes were going to be hazel—and thought that their expression was her father's. On the whole she was quite a well-behaved baby, owing, no doubt, to a fine constitution. Beyond that first energetic protest at birth she had done very little howling.
It was happy to have a baby at Morton, and the old house seemed to become more mellow as the child, growing fast now and learning to walk, staggered or stumbled or sprawled on the floors that had long known the ways of children. Sir Philip would come home all muddy from hunting and would rush into the nursery before pulling off his boots, then down he would go on his hands and knees while Stephen clambered on to his back. Sir Philip would pretend to be well corned up, bucking and jumping and kicking wildly, so that Stephen must cling to his hair or his collar, and thump him with hard little arrogant fists. Anna, attracted by the outlandish hubbub, would find them, and would point to the mud on the carpet.
She would say: 'Now, Philip, now, Stephen, that's enough! It's time for your tea,' as though both of them were children. Then Sir Philip would reach up and disentangle Stephen, after which he would kiss Stephen's mother.
The son that they waited for seemed long a-coming; he had not arrived when Stephen was seven. Nor had Anna produced other female offspring. Thus Stephen remained cock of the roost. It is doubtful if any only child is to be envied, for the only child is bound to become introspective; having no one of its own ilk in whom to confide, it is apt to confide in itself. It cannot be said that at seven years old the mind is beset by serious problems, but nevertheless it is already groping, may already be subject to small fits of dejection, may already be struggling to get a grip on life—on the limited life of its surroundings. At seven there are miniature loves and hatreds, which, however, loom large and are extremely disconcerting. There may even be present a dim sense of frustration, and Stephen was often conscious of this sense, though she could not have put it into words. To cope with it, however, she would give way at times to sudden fits of hot temper, working herself up over everyday trifles that usually left her cold. It relieved her to stamp and then burst into tears at the first sign of opposition. After such outbreaks she would feel much more cheerful, would find it almost easy to be docile and obedient. In some vague, childish way she had hit back at life, and this fact had restored her self-respect.
Anna would send for her turbulent offspring and would say: 'Stephen darling, Mother's not really cross—tell Mother what makes you give way to these tempers; she'll promise to try to understand if you'll tell her—'
But her eyes would look cold, though her voice might be gentle, and her hand when it fondled would be tentative, unwilling. The hand would be making an effort to fondle, and Stephen would be conscious of that effort. Then looking up at the calm, lovely face, Stephen would be filled with a sudden contrition, with a sudden deep sense of her own shortcomings; she would long to blurt all this out to her mother, yet would stand there tongue-tied, saying nothing at all. For these two were strangely shy with each other—it was almost grotesque, this shyness of theirs, as existing between mother and child. Anna would feel it, and through her Stephen, young as she was, would become conscious of it; so that they held a little aloof when they should have been drawing together.
Stephen, acutely responsive to beauty, would be dimly longing to find expression for a feeling almost amounting to worship, that her mother's face had awakened. But Anna, looking gravely at her daughter, noting the plentiful auburn hair, the brave hazel eyes that were so like her father's, as indeed were the child's whole expression and bearing, would be filled with a sudden antagonism that came very near to anger.
She would awake at night and ponder this thing, scourging herself in an access of contrition; accusing herself of hardness of spirit, of being an unnatural mother. Sometimes she would shed slow, miserable tears, remembering the inarticulate Stephen.
She would think: 'I ought to be proud of the likeness, proud and happy and glad when I see it!' Then back would come flooding that queer antagonism that amounted almost to anger.
It would seem to Anna that she must be going mad, for this likeness to her husband would strike her as an outrage—as though the poor, innocent seven-year-old Stephen were in some way a caricature of Sir Philip; a blemished, unworthy, maimed reproduction—yet she knew that the child was handsome. But now there were times when the child's soft flesh would be almost distasteful to her; when she hated the way Stephen moved or stood still, hated a certain largeness about her, a certain crude lack of grace in her movements, a certain unconscious defiance. Then the mother's mind would slip back to the days when this creature had clung to her breast, forcing her to love it by its own utter weakness; and at this thought her eyes must fill again, for she came of a race of devoted mothers. The thing had crept on her like a foe in the dark—it had been slow, insidious, deadly; it had waxed strong as Stephen herself had waxed strong, being part, in some way, of Stephen.
Restlessly tossing from side to side, Anna Gordon would pray for enlightenment and guidance; would pray that her husband might never suspect her feelings towards his child. All that she was and had been he knew; in all the world she had no other secret save this one most unnatural and monstrous injustice that was stronger than her will to destroy it. And Sir Philip loved Stephen, he idolized her; it was almost as though he divined by instinct that his daughter was being secretly defrauded, was bearing some unmerited burden. He never spoke to his wife of these things, yet watching them together, she grew daily more certain that his love for the child held an element in it that was closely akin to pity.