One of the old roads leaving a well-known county town in the west of England climbs a long slope and finally reaches a kind of open plain, a windy spot from which a wide prospect of the countryside is available. Fields of corn occupy the near and middle distance, while the rolling downs further off are grazed by numerous flocks of sheep. Much closer at hand there stands a clump of pines and other trees, the branches of which overhang a brick wall surrounding a dwelling of some substantial kind. Chimneys and a roof may be glimpsed especially in winter, but the wall is of sufficient height to obstruct the gaze of any pedestrians on the road, and the house remains as well hidden as if it were deep in a wood. Most wayfarers pass by scarcely aware of its existence. Yet a few curious souls, noticing a white entrance gate set in the wall, occasionally linger to ask themselves who may live in such a secluded, lonely place.

On a blue November dawn, not long before the present time, an old man might have been observed walking down the short drive that led from the house to the gate. He walked slowly, with a slight stoop, and carried a stick in his right hand. A small dog, a wire-haired terrier, accompanied him, snuffling at the vegetation on either side of the drive.

The drive was flanked by trees, and the depth of shadow beneath their boughs was such that the old man seemed to emerge by degrees out of a dim obscurity. He wore a tweed jacket, a wool tie and trousers of a nondescript colour, and on his head he wore a wide-brimmed hat. When he reached the gate he halted, leaning on its top rail and scrutinising the world beyond. His moustache and eyebrows were pale, his face lined by a lifetime of experience and thought. While the down-turned nature of his mouth suggested a deeply ingrained scepticism, his eyes were keen and sharp and the wrinkles at each corner seemed to contain a distinct humour.

So, at least, he imagined himself. Not that bad for eighty-four, he thought, with a certain touch of vanity.

The road itself was empty, little traffic using it at this early hour on a Sunday. An erratic breeze blew, stirring the pines above his head. In the air hung a damp, resinous fragrance often encountered in wooded parts of the countryside in the last stages of autumn. This was, with the possible exception of spring, the old man’s favourite season, the year quietly burning down and the steady passage of time made visible by the lowered sun and shortened days.

There was no sun today, or none visible, but the light was gradually increasing and the sombre blue of the air had turned to a dull grey as he retraced his steps. The drive curved around a thick shrubbery and brought the front of the house into view. A handsome brick edifice, it had been built to his own design, and he was as proud of its dark slate roof, imposing porch and low turrets as he was of some of his literary works. The piece of land on which it stood had formerly been nothing but a bare pasture exposed to the full force of the prevailing westerly wind, and the trees that now encircled and protected it had taken forty years to grow to their present height. Inspecting the garden always gave him considerable satisfaction, and he strolled here and there, occasionally turning his head to follow the progress of the dog or to listen to the song of some bird. The lawns were thick with freshly fallen leaves. After a time he retired indoors, leaving his stick in a corner of the porch and hanging his hat on a wooden peg.

His wife’s heavy-lidded eyes  gave a powerful impression of melancholy. The old man wished it could have been otherwise, for his own personality had melancholic tendencies which would perhaps have adjusted to some counterbalancing force.”

The house was too far from the town to be supplied with electricity, and all artificial light came from oil-lamps. One such had been lit in the dining room, where the old man ate breakfast in the company of his wife, Florence. He had married her a decade earlier, his first wife having died unexpectedly. They sat at opposite ends of the table and by mutual agreement talked very little; early morning was never a good hour for conversation. It being a Sunday, the newspaper had not yet been delivered, and she seemed content to read a book while sipping her coffee. The room was rather chilly, and around her neck she wore a fox stole. The head of the fox, with its glass eyes, dangled over the book.

She had a round face, dark brown hair tied in a bun, and heavy-lidded eyes that gave a powerful impression of melancholy. The old man wished it could have been otherwise, for his own personality had melancholic tendencies which would perhaps have adjusted to some counterbalancing force. Still, one was what one was. His outlook on Life, his essential philosophical beliefs, had been formed long ago. At his age he could hardly expect himself to change.

He drank tea, and ate bacon and toast. The dog sat by his side, saliva spooling from the edges of its mouth, uttering polite whines. “Wait, Wessex,” the old man chided. “Now now. Where are your manners? Stop begging.” But the begging was a regular part of breakfast, and as happened every day the whines grew more urgent and insistent until the old man at last dangled the bacon rinds above the dog’s nose. “Gently. Gently. Don’t snap. There.”

Once he had finished he wiped his fingers on his napkin and drained his tea. As he rose from the table Florence looked up with an anxious expression and appeared on the point of speech, but then chose to remain silent. The old man was relieved: her anxieties were almost always unnecessary, and at this hour of the day his mind was on his work. But, out of kindness, he felt obliged to say something.

“How are the hens laying?” he asked.

The abruptness of his inquiry seemed to startle her, and it took a moment before she gave the reply that they were laying well. “I think they are laying well,” she corrected herself, as if experiencing a degree of uncertainty on the matter. But the old man’s interest in the hens was limited and he was disinclined to be drawn into further talk. He nodded and left her, the dog trotting at his heels.

Adjacent to the dining room lay the hall. It was simply furnished: a grandfather clock stood and ticked by the side of a flight of stairs, a black telephone gleamed on a small table, and a barometer in a mahogany case hung on one wall. The old man went up the stairs, turned right along a short corridor and entered the study which was his daily refuge, even on Sundays. Wrapping a woollen shawl around his shoulders he settled at his desk, while the dog curled up on a rug.

Gertrude Bugler as Tess (National Trust Collections)

The observance of an unvarying routine was one that the old man valued highly and that, he believed, contributed in large measure to his productivity as a writer. For many years he had begun each day with a walk around the garden, in the belief that the fresh air invigorated his brain; likewise, for the same indeterminate number of years, he had withdrawn after breakfast to his study, where he remained for the whole of the morning and the greater part of the afternoon. The chair on which he now sat had served him for much of his life, and the worn condition of its tapestry seat – the once bright floral design now chiefly bare sacking – bore testament to the thousands of hours in which he had been engaged in literary endeavour. The desk itself had also done long service, and despite its inanimate nature stood in the category of a friend. The shawl draped over his shoulders he held in the same affectionate regard.

When seated here, pen in hand, he did not feel old. Physically, he was aware how much he had declined – he no longer felt safe on a bicycle, and it was many years since he had danced – but in his mind he felt as strong and vigorous as he had done in his youth. Yet he was aware that he did not always achieve very much. This was particularly so in the last few months; some days he made no progress at all, and spent long periods staring at a blank page or making inconsequential notes. However, routine was routine, and if he did not try to work he would achieve nothing at all. Behind him lay a string of novels and hundreds of poems, and to break with the habits of a lifetime merely because he happened to have reached a certain age was impossible. Even if he had received some authoritative assurance that this day was his last on the planet, he would have spent it in the same fashion, writing as best he could. Perhaps he might have drunk a glass of champagne at lunchtime, and perhaps if the weather had been good he might have taken a short stroll; but it would not have been in his nature to have done anything out of the ordinary. When it came to a consideration of possible ways of drawing to a close his earthly sojourn, the thought of being at his desk, with the ink drying on the last words of a final poem, was an altogether agreeable one.

This morning he found himself singularly lacking in inspiration, and he knew the reason well enough: in the afternoon he was expecting a visitor for tea, which was the meal he nowadays preferred for social intercourse. In its favour, above all, was its brevity; guests who came at four had generally left by five. Visits of any longer duration tended to leave him exhausted.

She was a young woman by the name of Gertrude, although in his mind he always called her Gertie. He had been thinking of her visit for days, not only because he always enjoyed her company but because there was a certain proposition that he intended to put to her and he was interested to see how she reacted. He admired her greatly. The daughter of a local tradesman, she was in every way a product of the Wessex environment and yet she possessed qualities that, in his mind, put her on a superior plane. He remembered how disconcerted he had been when, some years earlier, he had heard of her impending marriage to a man who came from the town of Beaminster. Beaminster lay in the far west of the county, and men bred there tended to have the slow, plodding qualities of the oxen that had once been used to plough the heavy soils found in the surrounding countryside. Love blooms in the most unlikely of places, but he could not entirely repress a feeling that, as the saying goes, she might have done better for herself.

He wondered what she would be wearing. She always dressed with remarkable style and taste, yet it was perhaps true that she would have looked elegant whatever her dress.

Preoccupied as he was, the morning was an undoubted failure from an artistic consideration, and when after a frugal lunch he returned to his desk he was again unable to write anything of any worth. His impatience grew, and after the grandfather clock in the hall had struck three he changed from his old trousers into a pair of more respectable tweeds. He watched for her from a window, stroking his moustache as the sky behind the trees grew darker. Below him, Mr Caddy, the gardener, could be seen plying his rake on the lower lawn, barrowing up leaves and wheeling them away.

The dusk was already thick when he discerned her figure on the drive. For fear of being observed at the window he stepped back a pace, and when he heard the ring of the bell, immediately followed by a volley of loud barking from Wessex, he hurried back to his study. Then there came a knock on the study door from one of the maids. The house had two maids, one called Nellie, the other Elsie, so similar in manner and appearance that he often mixed them up.

“Mrs Bugler has arrived, sir. And Mrs Hardy told me to say that she is not feeling well, sir. She hopes you can manage by yourself.”

The old man was neither displeased, nor very much surprised. Probably a headache, he thought.

“Is there a fire lit?”

“Yes, sir.”

Gertrude Bugler was at this time in her mid-twenties and at the height of her beauty, although varying opinions as to the source of that beauty might have been put forward.”

He stood up and collected himself. Upon checking his apparel he discovered that at some point during the previous hour the top three buttons of his trouser fly had mysteriously unbuttoned themselves. He fumbled them shut, stepped into the corridor, descended the stairs and crossed the hall.

Gertrude Bugler was at this time in her mid-twenties and at the height of her beauty, although varying opinions as to the source of that beauty might have been put forward. Her hair was a conspicuous feature; thick and very black, with tresses that shone in the light of the fire, it was the kind of hair that in a former age might have adorned the head of a Cleopatra or a Helen of Troy, and a man with an imaginative cast of mind might have wished himself transmuted into a comb, merely for the pleasure of being drawn through its length. Yet another admirer might have noticed her lips, which were perfectly shaped, full and generous and red, with just the hint of a pout, and a third have chosen her face, which was faintly oval, her complexion smooth and pale. Her eyes were what most men noticed. Wide and innocent, with a bright, liquid sparkle, they hinted at a great depth of emotion and sensibility.

She was by the fire in the drawing room, tickling Wessex, who was flat on his back with his paws in the air.

“How good of you to come.”

She straightened, smiling.

“I am afraid Mrs Hardy is unwell, but she sends her best wishes.”

Portrait of Hardy by Reginald Grenville Eves, 1923

She was wearing a green skirt with a white blouse and long grey cardigan, and despite the best efforts of the wind not one hair of her coiffure was out of place.

The old man drew the curtains. “And your baby is in good health?” was his next inquiry, for he knew how women always loved to be asked about their children. “What is her name? Diana, is it not?”

She agreed that it was. “She is very well, though she doesn’t sleep very regularly at night. She always wakes up about two o’clock, bright as a daisy, which is a little inconvenient.”

“What do you do when she doesn’t sleep?”

“I sing to her, but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes I bring her into my bed, but she kicks.”

“I am sure she is very beautiful, if she is anything like her mother.” His success in managing this compliment delighted him enormously. “You should bring her here some time. I should love to see her. Mrs Hardy and I never see enough children,” he added a trifle wistfully.

After a quick knock the two maids came into the room together, each bearing a tray – one with a teapot and crockery, the other with a plate of tiny white sandwiches from which the crusts had been cut. They put the trays down on a small table. With Florence not there, Gertie played the part of hostess and poured out the tea.

Once they were settled, they began to discuss theatrical matters. Gertie was a member of a local amateur dramatic company, and was currently playing the leading role in a play that would be performed in less than three weeks’ time in the town’s Corn Exchange. The old man was intimately involved, being the author of the play, a dramatic version of a novel that he had written some thirty years earlier, and he asked her a series of questions: how rehearsals were going, whether the actors and actresses knew their lines, and whether any of them had seen their costumes yet. Her answers were that, in general, all was going well – although one of the actors was growing a moustache that was still not particularly convincing. The old man, amused by this, stroked his own moustache, and sipped his tea. Then he came to the point for which he had been waiting.

“Over the years,” he said, “various people in the theatre business have asked permission to stage the play in London. I have always been rather opposed to such an idea, but lately I have been approached by Mr Frederick Harrison – the manager of the Haymarket Theatre. The Haymarket is one of the best theatres in London, and Mr Harrison seems very enthusiastic.”

He was aware of her attentiveness. She was sitting on the sofa, very upright, with her cup of tea on her knees, but her eyes never left his face.

“Of course, if the play is to end up on the London stage, the question of who should play your part – the title role, the part of Tess – arises. There are a number of well-known actresses who have expressed considerable interest. However, some while ago, if I remember rightly, you asked me about the possibility of acting in a professional capacity, and I feel that you should have first refusal.”

His voice could not have been more cautious, but she answered immediately that she would love to play the part.

“It is very uncertain,” he told her. “Nothing is definite. The reviews may not be good enough. But Mr Harrison’s plan, as I understand it, is to put on a production next spring, or in the early summer.”

“What of the rest of the cast?”

“They will be professional actors, of course.”

She seemed momentarily overwhelmed. Her lips were slightly parted; her teeth shone. He could sense the excitement running through her body. A slight flush even spread over her face.

“You must think about it carefully,” he advised. “Talk to your husband. It would involve staying in London for some time.”

“O, but my husband won’t mind, not at all!”

“Perhaps. But there is also your baby to consider. If, after consideration, you are sure you would like to do it, I will write to Mr Harrison. I am neither encouraging nor discouraging you, although I can see you on the London stage. You would be a great success.”

The old man believed this sincerely. She was an actress of great expressive talent, and not only in his own estimation: London critics who had seen her perform in previous local productions had showered her with praise.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” she said.

He modestly disclaimed all influence. “There is no need to thank me – it is nothing to do with me, and it may come to nothing.”

They talked of it for some time. Seeing how much he had raised her hopes, he repeatedly counselled caution, telling her to look at it from all aspects. Acting in a professional company would, he said, be very different to acting with amateurs and he would entirely understand it if in the end she decided against going to London. “As I say, there are other actresses willing to play the part – including Sybil Thorndike, I believe,” he added dryly, unable to resist dropping the name of one of the most famous actresses of the day into the conversation.

‘Wessex! Wessex, do stop that! Stop dribbling!’ he said, for the dog was pestering her for a sandwich.”

Gertie was barely listening in her excitement.

“As early as the spring? How long will it run for?”

“I imagine that depends on its success. You must meet Mr Harrison. He may well come down to see the play here – Wessex! Wessex, do stop that! Stop dribbling!” he said, for the dog was pestering her for a sandwich.

“May I give him one?” she asked.

“If you like.”

He watched as she held out a sandwich. Wessex took it from her fingers with remarkable delicacy, given his usual propensity to snatch. She smiled.

“I believe you spoil him.”

“Ah, he is an old dog. He is too old to be spoiled.” The old man was vaguely conscious of a desire to be in Wessex’s position, licking her fingers. “He likes you,” he said.

“I feel honoured,” she said, “even if it is cupboard love.”

He tossed out another compliment. “You are a favourite, Gertie. He likes you more than anyone else.”

She left a little later, thanking him again as she put on her coat. From the porch he watched as she disappeared into the darkness.

Once he had shut the door the house seemed unusually quiet, as if reflecting on what had passed. He stood by the grandfather clock, listening to its slow, measured ticks and the intervening silences, frowning slightly. He was conscious that he might have started a fire that would be hard to control. Should he have waited until the play had been performed at the Corn Exchange? What if it received poor reviews and Mr Harrison changed his mind?

Then he remembered his wife. Reluctantly he went up the stairs to her bedroom. Florence was lying on her bed, with the curtains undrawn and the lamp on the bedside table casting such a feeble light that only her head and shoulders were visible in the general darkness. Her back was turned to him, and as he stood in the doorway and regarded her still shape he wondered if she was asleep. But she became aware of his presence. She turned with opened eyes.

“Has she gone at last? She stayed a very long time; it’s nearly six o’clock. You must be worn out. Did she bring her baby?”

“No.’

‘I couldn’t face meeting her. She is always so healthy. I feel unwell even seeing her.”

The old man gave a grunt. “She is much younger than you.”

This was true, for Florence was a score of years older than Gertie, but it was also true that Florence’s health was far from good. She had a weak constitution and suffered not only from headaches and recurrent toothache, but also from neuritis, a condition caused by undernourished nerve endings, for which she took some large pills manufactured by a chemist in the town. Nor was this all: less than a month earlier, in London, she had had a surgical operation to remove a lump from her neck. It was to hide the scar that she had taken to wearing the fox stole, an object that the old man had never much liked.

She was wearing it now. She sat up, pulling it tight round her neck. “It’s very cold in here,” she complained. “What did you talk about?”

“Nothing. Nothing of any consequence.”

“Who was on the telephone? Someone rang.”

“I didn’t hear it.”

“It rang several times.”

“One of the maids must have answered it. I never heard it ring. Perhaps it was a bird,” he said, rather improbably.

“Thomas, it rang at least four or five times, about an hour ago. Of course it wasn’t a bird. It was nothing like a bird.” Her voice was suddenly severe. “I certainly didn’t imagine it. I must ask the maids.”

‘”I’m sure you didn’t,” he said hurriedly, not wanting to upset her.

There was a silence between them.

“I can’t think who it can have been,” she said. “Maybe it was Cockerell. He sometimes rings.”

“Why would he have rung?”

“I don’t know. He does ring.”

The conversation was going nowhere.

The old man returned to the drawing room. The fire was burning down – let it burn, he thought, she had gone, she was on her way back to Beaminster, there was no point in wasting more coal. Yet something of her presence remained, even now. The cup from which she had drunk still sat in its saucer, and the faintest smudge of red was visible on the rim. There it had touched her lips – and there she had sat! There – one of the sofa cushions was indented – she had sat only minutes before! Something else caught his eye. On the sloping back of the sofa lay a long black hair.

With some difficulty he grasped it between finger and thumb and held it to the firelight. It trembled and swayed, stirring in the current of his breath like a living thing.

One of the maids entered with a tray. She stopped short at the sight of him.

“Excuse me, sir.”

“No, no, go on.”

He watched without a word as she cleared the tea things. Then he went upstairs to his study. He spread the hair on a sheet of white paper and turned up the lamp so that it shone as brightly as possible. In its light the strand of hair gleamed, thick and strong. A hair was merely a hair, but it was the kind of token that, in a romantic age, a secret admirer might have treasured – might have put in a locket and worn on a chain around his neck, and examined now and then when unobserved. According to the common view of such matters he was many years too old for that sort of thing, yet he was reluctant to throw it away. Why throw it away? Only a short space of time ago it had been part of her.

On one of the bookshelves in his study was a small volume bound in green leather, containing the collected poetical works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Of English poets, there was no one whom he admired more than Shelley, a man of blazing courage and single-mindedness, ready to defy the narrow morals and social conventions of his age. The old man pulled down the book and turned its leaves until he reached the title page of a poem entitled ‘The Revolt of Islam’. A long and obscure work, little read nowadays but breathless in ambition and beauty, its opening section was a passionate address to Shelley’s young wife Mary, with whom he had eloped not long before. The section concluded with an image of the two lovers as a pair of tranquil stars, shining like lamps on a tempestuous world. It was on these last lines that the old man placed Gertie’s hair.

As he closed the book and replaced it on its shelf in the bookcase he was conscious of a certain absurdity in what he had done. He was eighty-four! Too old! What a thousand pities that he and she had not met when they were both young. Had she been born earlier, or he later, “had time cohered with place”, what then might have ensued? How different their lives might have been!

It was the type of reflection that often appealed to the old man as the subject for a poem: how different lives might have been in different circumstances. Picking up his pen, he dipped it in the ink-well and began to write freely.

From the opening chapter of Winter, published by Fourth Estate. Read more.

 

Christopher_NicholsonChristopher Nicholson‘s third novel, Winter, is an imagined account of a crisis in the career of Thomas Hardy, tracing the emotional lives of the elderly author, his middle-aged wife and a beautiful young actress over the course of a long and difficult winter in the mid-1920s. His earlier books are The Fattest Man in America and The Elephant Keeper, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and the Encore Award.
christophernicholsonwriter.com

“A superfine, thistledown novel about a novelist, a place and about love and loss.”
Ian Sansom, the Guardian

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