In LP Hartley’s heart-rending novel, it is 1900 and, in the cricket match between the nobles from Brandham Hall and the common villagers, rough farmer Ted Burgess is set to score the winning runs for the villagers. Young Leo, staying at Brandham Hall with his privileged friend, succeeds in catching Ted and so winning the game for the Hall. He doesn’t realise however, that his catch has a far deeper symbolic significance: Ted Burgess, against all social convention of the time, is having an affair with Marian, daughter of the rich elite of Brandham Hall, and Leo, in his innocent role as the “go-between” is unwittingly implicated…
Lord Trimingham sent down his deceptively dipping ball, but Ted did not wait for it to drop; he ran out and hit it to the boundary. It was a glorious stroke, and the elation of it ran through me like an electric current. The crowd yelled and cheered, and suddenly the balance of my feelings went right over. It was their victory I wanted now, Ted’s victory, not ours, not Lord Trimingham’s. I did not think of it in terms of the three runs that were needed; I seemed to hear it blowing towards me like a wind.
I could not tell if the next ball was straight or not, but it was pitched much farther up, and suddenly I saw Ted’s face and body swinging round and the ball travelling towards me on a rising straight line like a cable stretched between us. Ted started to run and then stopped and stood watching me, wonder in his eyes and a wild disbelief.
I threw my hand above my head and the ball stuck there, but the impact knocked me over. When I scrambled up, still clutching the ball to me, as though it was a pain that had started in my heart, I heard the sweet sound of applause and saw the field breaking up and Lord Trimingham coming towards me. I can’t remember what he said—my emotions were too overpowering—but I remember his congratulations were the more precious because they were reserved and understated; they might, in fact, have been addressed to a man; and it was as a man, and not by any means the least of men, that I joined the group who were making their way back to the pavilion. We went together in a ragged cluster, the defeated and the surviving batsmen with us, all enmity laid aside, amid a more than generous measure of applause from the spectators.
I could not tell how I felt; in my high mood of elation the usual landmarks by which I judged such things were lost to view. I was still in the air though the scaffolding of events which had lifted me had crumbled. But I was uneasily aware of one separate element that had not quite fused in the general concourse of passions: the pang of regret, sharp as a sword-thrust, that had accompanied the catch. Far from diminishing my exultation, it had somehow raised it to a higher power, like the drop of bitter in the fount of happiness; but I felt that I should be still happier—that it would add another cubit to my stature—if I told Ted of it. Something warned me that such an avowal would be unorthodox; the personal feelings of cricketers were concealed behind their stiff upper lips. But I was almost literally above myself; I knew that the fate of the match had turned on me, and I felt I could afford to defy convention. Yet how would he take it? What were his feelings? Was he still elated by his innings or was he bitterly disappointed by its untimely close? Did he still regard me as a friend, or as an enemy who had brought about his downfall? I did not greatly care; and seeing that he was walking alone (most of the players had exhausted their stock of conversation), I sidled up to him and said, with a trembling voice: “I’m sorry, Ted. I didn’t really mean to catch you out.”
He didn’t answer at once, his thoughts seemed far away; then he smiled and said: “That’s quite all right.” A moment later his face changed, he looked concerned, and he said anxiously: “But you mustn’t mind about me. You’ll spoil it if you do. You ought to be all cock-a-hoop. I should be, in your place. That catch of yours was a beauty; I never thought you’d hold it. To tell you the truth, I’d forgotten your existence, and then I looked round and there you were, by God. And then I thought: ‘It’ll go right over his head,’ but you stretched up like a concertina. I’d thought of a dozen ways I might get out, but never thought I’d be caught out by our postman.”
“I didn’t mean to,” I repeated, not to be cheated of my apology.
At that moment the clapping grew louder and some enthusiasts coupled Ted’s name with it. Though we were all heroes, he was evidently the crowd’s favourite; and I dropped back so that he might walk in alone. His fellow batsmen in the pavilion were making a great demonstration; even the ladies of our party, sitting in front, showed themselves mildly interested as Ted came by. All except one. Marian, I noticed, didn’t look up.