HE Bates’ novel is set during the post war years of the 1920s. The narrator, a Mr Richardson, finds that his love of the countryside is soon surpassed by an ever-growing affection for Lydia, the youngest member of a local aristocratic family. When you are young and in love, life should be carefree and enchanting, but a feeling of unease is never far from the narrator’s thoughts. In this extract, Richardson and Lydia go skating across the frozen marshes.
Because the river flows across the marshes and meadows in long ox-bow curves, making heavy currents at the bends, I had never believed it would freeze at these places; but that afternoon it was a single long block of ice, a white-yellow glacier with smoky shadows of half-frozen strips only under the arches of the railway bridge.
A few dozen people were skating on it; one man, two meadows away, was skating, almost sailing, upstream with the wind.
I stood on the bank watching him come along. Lydia laughed at me from the ice and presently the man came skating in, fast, and I heard him say:
‘Safe as houses. Must be three inches all the way.’
She heard it too and began to skate downstream without waiting for me.
I went after her without any feeling of insecurity; I was not afraid. All along the raised river-banks the ice split under pressure with sounds like whining and cracking gun-shot. The sounds sang away in the wind, far across empty meadows, with strange moaning twanging echoes, like broken wires. Perhaps because I had walked out at last on my job and was free, perhaps because I had again the feeling that as she skated ahead of me she was running away from me – for some sort of reason I went after her only with exhilaration and not fear. She turned several times and laughed at me. Then once I shouted for her to be careful and not fall down and she simply laughed back at me again.
We skated in this way across two meadows. The wind had nothing to stop it in its long savage lick across the valley and by the time we came down towards the railway arches, over the old Queen’s Meadow, I was taking deep gulps of bitter air, like a swimmer. Against the thrust of wind I started to skate with my head down.
I suppose I skated like this for half a minute. Then I looked up to see her twenty yards from the bridge. I started shouting. I felt anxiety, then fear, then pure cold horror hit me more savagely than the wind and in another moment, trying to skate faster, I fell down.
In the moment before falling down I remembered seeing her bright scarlet sweater flashing into the left of the three archways of the bridge. When I got up again it was no longer there. I skated wildly forward, yelling her name. Then I hit the bank just in front of the bridge, fell half-forward on my hands and began to scramble like a sort of frozen spider along the tow-path, still yelling her name in shouts that hit ice and bridge in hollow slapping sounds that echoed and re-echoed back to me.
The bridge was supported with round iron pillars, under which the concrete tow-path ran. When I half-skated, half-fell underneath it she was leaning against one of the pillars, waiting for me. Her body was pressed back, its lower shape in the too-tight skirt thrust outward, so that the long line of her thighs was hollowed and clear. She stood there very quiet for a moment, looking at me with amused dark eyes. Then she began laughing, with a flash of white teeth, because she saw that I was frightened. I was so relieved and shaken that for a second I staggered about, half-losing my balance, so that she had to put out her hands to stop me.
‘Lydia,’ I said. ‘Oh! Lydia, for God’s sake –’
A moment later she stretched out her arms and drew me slowly towards her. I wanted to ask her what had happened and how she escaped, but I did not say another word. I could hear a small continuous lapping of loose water over thin ice under the bridge behind her and I listened to it, in fear, all the time she kissed me. Her stretched long body tautened itself in a curious curve as she kept her balance and folded me against her, kissing me at the same time.
‘Did you think I’d gone?’ she said. ‘Did you think I’d run away?’
I pressed my mouth against her cold fresh skin and could not answer.
‘Not yet, my darling,’ she said, and again I could not speak for happiness.