The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Twenty-one

That autumn the Crossbys went, up to Scotland, and Stephen went to Cornwall with her mother. Anna was not well, she needed a change, and the doctor had told them of Watergate Bay, that was why they had gone to Cornwall. To Stephen it mattered very little where she went, since she was not allowed to join Angela in Scotland. Angela had put her foot down quite firmly: ‘No, my dear, it wouldn’t do. I know Ralph would make hell. I can’t let you follow us up to Scotland.’ So that there, perforce, the matter had ended.

And now Stephen could sit and gloom over her trouble while Anna read placidly, asking no questions. She seldom worried her daughter with questions, seldom even evinced any interest in her letters.

From time to time Puddle would write from Morton, and then Anna would say, recognizing the writing: ‘Is everything all right?’

And Stephen would answer: ‘Yes, Mother, Puddle says everything’s all right.’ As indeed it was — at Morton.

But from Scotland news seemed to come very slowly. Stephen’s letters would quite often go unanswered; and what answers she received were unsatisfactory, for Angela’s caution was a very strict censor. Stephen herself must write with great care, she discovered, in order to pacify that censor.

Twice daily she visited the hotel porter, a kind, red-faced man with a sympathy for lovers.

‘Any letters for me?’ she would ask, trying hard to appear rather bored at the mere thought of letters.

‘No, miss.’

‘There’s another post in at seven?’

‘Yes, miss.’

‘Well — thank you.’

She would wander away, leaving the porter to think to himself: ‘She don’t look like a girl as would have a young man, but you never can tell. Anyhow she seems anxious — I do hope it’s all right for the poor young lady.’ He grew to take a real interest in Stephen, and would sometimes talk to his wife about her: ‘Have you noticed her, Alice? A queer-looking girl, very tall, wears a collar and tie — you know, mannish. And she seems just to change her suit of an evening — puts on a dark one — never wears evening dress. The mother’s still a beautiful woman; but the girl — I dunno, there’s something about her — anyhow I’m surprised she’s got a young man; though she must have, the way she watches the posts, I sometimes feel sorry for her.’

But her calls at his office were not always fruitless: ‘Any letters for me?’

‘Yes, miss, there’s just one.’

He would look at her with a paternal expression, glad enough to think that her young man had written; and Stephen, divining his thoughts from his face, would feel embarrassed and angry. Snatching her letters she would hurry to the beach, where the rocks provided a merciful shelter, and where no one seemed likely to look paternal, unless it should be an occasional sea-gull.

But as she read, her heart would feel empty; something sharp like a physical pain would go through her: ‘Dear Stephen. I’m sorry I’ve not written before, but Ralph and I have been fearfully busy. We’re having a positive social orgy up here, I’m so glad he took this large shoot . . . ’ That was the sort of thing Angela wrote these days — perhaps because of her caution.

However, one morning an unusually long letter arrived, telling all about Angela’s doings: ‘By the way, we’ve met the Antrim boy, Roger. He’s been staying with some people that Ralph knows quite well, the Peacocks, they’ve got a wonderful old castle; I think I must have told you about them.’ Here followed an elaborate description of the castle, together with the ancestral tree of the Peacocks. Then: ‘Roger has talked quite a lot about you; he says he used to tease you when you were children. He says that you wanted to fight him one day — that made me laugh awfully, it’s so like you, Stephen! He’s a good-looking person and rather a nice one. He tells me that his regiment’s stationed at Worcester, so I’ve asked him to come over to The Grange when he likes. It must be pretty dreary, I imagine, in Worcester . . .

Stephen finished the letter and sat staring at the sea for a moment, after which she got up abruptly. Slipping the letter into her pocket she buttoned her jacket; she was feeling cold. What she needed was a walk, a really long walk. She set out briskly in the direction of Newquay.

2

During those long, anxious weeks in Cornwall, it was borne in on Stephen as never before how wide was the gulf between her and her mother, how completely they two must always stand divided. Yet looking at Anna’s quiet ageing face, the girl would be struck afresh by its beauty, a beauty that seemed to have mollified the years, to have risen triumphant over time and grief. And now as in the days of her childhood, that beauty would fill her with a kind of wonder; so calm it was, so assured, so complete — then her mother’s deep eyes, blue like distant mountains, and now with that far-away look in their blueness, as though they were gazing into the distance. Stephen’s heart would suddenly tighten a little; a sense of great loss would descend upon her, together with the sense of not fully understanding just what she had lost or why she had lost it — she would stare at Anna as a thirsty traveller in the desert will stare at a mirage of water.

And one evening there came a preposterous impulse — the impulse to confide in this woman within whose most gracious and perfect body her own anxious body had lain and quickened. She wanted to speak to that motherhood, to implore, nay, compel its understanding. To say, ‘Mother, I need you. I’ve lost my way — give me your hand to hold in the darkness.’ But good God, the folly, the madness of it! The base betrayal of such a confession! Angela delivered over, betrayed — the unthinkable folly, the madness of it.

Yet sometimes as Anna and she sat together looking out at the misty Cornish coast-line, hearing the dull, heavy throb of the sea and the calling of sea-gulls the one to the other — as they sat there together it would seem to Stephen that her heart was so full of Angela Crossby, all the bitterness, all the sweetness of her, that the mother-heart beating close by her own must surely, in its turn, be stirred to beat faster, for had she not once sheltered under that heart? And so extreme was her need becoming, that now she must often find Anna’s cool hand and hold it a moment or two in her own, trying to draw from it some consolation.

But the touch of that cool, pure hand would distress her, causing her spirit to ache with longing for the simple and upright and honourable things that had served many simple and honourable people. Then all that to some might appear uninspiring, would seem to her very fulfilling and perfect. A pair of lovers walking by arm in arm just a quiet engaged couple, neither comely nor clever nor burdened with riches; just a quiet, engaged couple — would in her envious eyes be invested with a glory and pride passing all understanding. For were Angela and she those fortunate lovers, they could stand before Anna happy and triumphant. Anna, the mother, would smile and speak gently, tolerant because of her own days of loving. Wherever they went older folk would remember, and remembering would smile on their love and speak gently. To know that the whole world was glad of your gladness, must surely bring heaven very near to the world.

One night Anna looked across at her daughter: ‘Are you tired, my dear? You seem a bit fagged.’

The question was unexpected, for Stephen was supposed not to know what it meant to feel fagged, her physical health and strength were proverbial. Was it possible then that her mother had divined at long last her utter weariness of spirit? Quite suddenly Stephen felt shamelessly childish, and she spoke as a child who wants comforting.

‘Yes, I’m dreadfully tired.’ Her voice shook a little; ‘I’m tired out — I’m dreadfully tired,’ she repeated. With amazement she heard. herself making this weak bid for pity, and yet she could not resist it. Had Anna held out her arms at that moment, she might soon have learnt about Angela Crossby.

But instead she yawned: ‘It’s this air, it’s too woolly. I’ll be very glad when we get back to Morton. What’s the time? I’m almost asleep already — let’s go up to our beds, don’t you think so, Stephen?’

It was like a cold douche; and a good thing too for the girl’s self-respect. She pulled herself together: ‘Yes, come on, it’s past ten. I detest this soft air.’ And she flushed, remembering that weak bid for pity.

3

Stephen left Cornwall without a regret; everything about it had seemed to her depressing. Its rather grim beauty which at any other time would have deeply appealed to her virile nature, had but added to the gloom of those interminable weeks spent apart from Angela Crossby. For her perturbation had been growing apace, she was constantly oppressed by doubts and vague fears; bewildered, uncertain of her own power to hold; uncertain, too, of Angela’s will to be held by this dangerous yet bloodless loving. Her defrauded body had been troubling her sorely, so that she had tramped over beach and headland, cursing the strength of the youth that was in her, trying to trample down her hot youth and only succeeding in augmenting its vigour.

But now that the ordeal had come to an end at last, she began to feel less despondent. In a week’s time Angela would get back from Scotland; then at least the hunger of the eyes could be appeased — a terrible thing that hunger of the eyes for the sight of the well-loved being. And then Angela’s birthday was drawing near, which would surely provide an excuse for a present. She had sternly forbidden the giving of presents, even humble keepsakes, on account of Ralph — still, a birthday was different, and in any case Stephen was quite determined to risk it. For the impulse to give that is common to all lovers, was in her attaining enormous proportions, so that she visualized Angela decked in diadems worthy of Cleopatra; so that she sat and stared at her bank book with eyes that grew angry when they lit on her balance. What was the good of plenty of money if it could not be spent on the person one loved? Well, this time it should be so spent, and spent largely; no limit was going to be set to this present!

An unworthy and tiresome thing money, at best, but it can at least ease the heart of the lover. When he lightens his purse he lightens his heart, though this can hardly be accounted a virtue, for such giving is perhaps the most insidious form of self-indulgence that is known to mankind.

4

Stephen had said quite casually to Anna: ‘Suppose we stay three or four days in London on our way back to Morton? You could do some shopping.’ Anna had agreed, thinking of her house linen which wanted renewing; but Stephen had been thinking of the jewellers’ shops in Bond Street.

And now here they actually were in London, established at a quiet and expensive hotel; but the problem of Angela’s birthday present had, it seemed, only just begun for Stephen. She had not the least idea what she wanted, or what Angela wanted, which was far more important; and she did not know how to get rid of her mother, who appeared to dislike going out unaccompanied. For three days of the four Stephen fretted and fumed; never had Anna seemed so dependent. At Morton they now led quite separate lives, yet here in London they were always together. Scheme as she might she could find no excuse for a solitary visit to Bond Street. However, on the morning of the fourth and last day, Anna succumbed to a devastating headache.

Stephen said: ‘I think I’ll go and get some air, if you really don’t need me — I’m feeling energetic!’

‘Yes, do — I don’t want you to stay in,’ groaned Anna, who was longing for peace and an aspirin tablet.

Once out on the pavement Stephen hailed the first taxi she met; she was quite absurdly elated. ‘Drive to the Piccadilly end of Bond Street,’ she ordered, as she jumped in and slammed the door. Then she put her head quickly out of the window: ‘And when you get to the corner, please stop. I don’t want you to drive along Bond Street, I’ll walk. I want you to stop at the Piccadilly corner.’

But when she was actually standing on the corner — the left-hand corner — she began to feel doubtful as to which side of Bond Street she ought to tackle first. Should she try the right side or keep to the left? She decided to try the right side. Crossing over, she started to walk along slowly. At every jeweller’s shop she stood still and gazed at the wares displayed in the window. Now she was worried by quite a new problem, the problem of stones, there were so many kinds. Emeralds or rubies or perhaps just plain diamonds? Well, certainly neither emeralds nor rubies — Angela’s colouring demanded whiteness. Whiteness — she had it! Pearls — no, one pearl, one flawless pearl and set as a ring. Angela had once described such a ring with envy, but alas, it had been born in Paris.

People stared at the masculine-looking girl who seemed so intent upon feminine adornments. And someone, a man, laughed and nudged his companion: ‘Look at that! What is it?’

‘My God! What indeed?’

She heard them and suddenly felt less elated as she made her way into the shop.

She said rather loudly: ‘I want a pearl ring.’

‘A pearl ring? What kind, madam?’

She hesitated, unable now to describe what she did want: ‘I don’t quite know — but it must be a large one.’

‘For yourself?’ And she thought that the man smiled a little.

Of course he did nothing of the kind; but she stammered: ‘No — oh, no — it’s not for myself, it’s for a friend. She’s asked me to choose her a large pearl ring: To her own ears the words sounded foolish and flustered.

There was nothing in that shop that fulfilled her requirements, so once more she must face the guns of Bond Street. Now she quickened her steps and found herself striding; modifying her pace she found herself dawdling; and always she was conscious of people who stared, or whom she imagined were staring. She felt sure that the shop assistants looked doubtful when she asked for a large and flawless pearl ring; and catching a glimpse of her reflection in a glass, she decided that naturally they would look doubtful — her appearance suggested neither pearls nor their price. She slipped a surreptitious hand into her pocket, gaining courage from the comforting feel of her cheque book.

When the east side of the thoroughfare had been exhausted, she crossed over quickly and made her way back towards her original corner. By now she was rather depressed and disgruntled. Supposing that she did not find what she wanted in Bond Street? She had no idea where else to look — her knowledge of London was far from extensive. But apparently the gods were feeling propitious, for a little further on she paused in front of a small, and as she thought, quite humble shop. As a matter of fact it was anything but humble, hence the bars half-way up its unostentatious window. Then she stared, for there on a white velvet cushion lay a pearl that looked like a round gleaming marble, a marble attached to a slender circlet of platinum — some sort of celestial marble! It was just such a ring as Angela had seen in Paris, and had since never ceased to envy.

The person behind this counter was imposing. He was old, and wore glasses with tortoiseshell rims: ‘Yes, madam, it’s a very fine specimen indeed. The setting’s French, just a thin band of platinum, there’s nothing to detract from the beauty of the pearl.’

He lifted it tenderly off its cushion, and as tenderly Stephen let it rest on her palm. It shone whiter than white against her skin, which by contrast looked sunburnt and weather-beaten.

Then the dignified old gentleman murmured the price, glancing curiously at the girl as he did so, but she seemed to be quite unperturbed, so he said: ‘Will you try the effect of the ring on your finger?’

At this, however, his customer flushed: ‘It wouldn’t go anywhere near my finger!’

‘I can have it enlarged to any size you wish.’

‘Thanks, but it’s not for me — it’s for a friend.’

‘Have you any idea what size your friend takes, say in gloves? Is her hand large or small do you think?’

Stephen answered promptly: ‘It’s a very small hand,’ then immediately looked and felt rather self-conscious.

And now the old gentleman was openly staring: ‘Excuse me,’ he murmured, ‘an extraordinary likeness . . . ’ Then more boldly: ‘Do you happen to be related to Sir Philip Gordon of Morton Hall, who died — it must be about two years ago — from some accident? I believe a tree fell —’

‘Oh, yes, I’m his daughter,’ said Stephen.

He nodded and smiled: ‘Of course, of course, you couldn’t be anything but his daughter.’

‘You knew my father?’ she inquired, in surprise.

‘Very well, Miss Gordon, when your father was young. In those days Sir Philip was a customer of mine. I sold him his first pearl studs while he was at Oxford, and at least four scarf pins — a bit of a dandy Sir Philip was up at Oxford. But what may interest you is the fact that I nude your mother’s engagement ring for him; a large half-hoop of very fine diamonds —’

‘Did you make that ring?’

‘I did, Miss Gordon. I remember quite well his showing me a miniature of Lady Anna — I remember his words. He said: “She’s so pure that only the purest stones are fit to touch her finger.” You see, he’d known me ever since he was at Eton, that’s why he spoke of your mother to me — I felt deeply honoured. Ah, yes — dear, dear — your father was young then and very much in love . . . ’

She said suddenly: ‘Is this pearl as pure as those diamonds?’ And he answered: ‘It’s without a blemish.’

Then she found her cheque book and he gave her his pen with which to write out the very large cheque.

‘Wouldn’t you like some reference?’ she inquired, as she glanced at the sum for which he must trust her.

But at this he laughed: ‘Your face is your reference, if I may be allowed to say so, Miss Gordon.’

They shook hands because he had known her father, and she left the shop with the ring in her pocket. As she walked down the street she was lost in thought, so that if people stared she no longer noticed. In her ears kept sounding those words from the past, those words of her father’s when long, long ago he too had been a young lover: She’s so pure that only the purest stones are fit to touch her finger.’

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 20:51