The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Three

Stephen never went to her father’s study in order to talk of her grief over Collins. A reticence strange in so young a child, together with a new, stubborn pride, held her tongue-tied, so that she fought out her battle alone, and Sir Philip allowed her to do so. Collins disappeared and with her the footman, and in Collins’ stead came a new second housemaid, a niece of Mrs. Bingham’s, who was even more timid than her predecessor, and who talked not at all. She was ugly, having small, round black eyes like currants — not inquisitive blue eyes like Collins.

With set lips and tight throat Stephen watched this intruder as she scuttled to and fro doing Collins’ duties. She would sit and scowl at poor Winefred darkly, devising small torments to add to her labours — such as stepping on dustpans and upsetting their contents, or hiding away brooms and brushes and slop-cloths — until Winefred, distracted, would finally unearth them from the most inappropriate places.

”Owever did them slop-cloths get in ’ere!’ she would mutter, discovering them under a nursery cushion. And her face would grow blotchy with anxiety and fear as she glanced towards Mrs. Bingham.

But at night, when the child lay lonely and wakeful, these acts that had proved a consolation in the morning, having sprung from a desperate kind of loyalty to Collins — these acts would seem trivial and silly and useless, since Collins could neither know of them nor see them, and the tears that had been held in check through the day would well under Stephen’s eyelids. Nor could she, in those lonely watches of the night-time, pluck up courage enough to reproach the Lord Jesus, Who, she felt, could have helped her quite well had He chosen to accord her a housemaid’s knee.

She would think; ‘He loves neither me nor Collins — He wants all the pain for Himself; He won’t share it!’

And then she would feel contrite: ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Lord Jesus, ‘cause I do know You love all miserable sinners!’ And the thought that perhaps she had been unjust to Jesus would reduce her to still further tears.

Very dreadful indeed were those nights spent in weeping, spent in doubting the Lord and His servant Collins. The hours would drag by in intolerable blackness, that in passing seemed to envelop Stephen’s body, making her feel now hot and now cold. The grandfather clock on the stairs ticked so loudly that her head ached to hear its unnatural ticking — when it chimed, which it did at the hours and half-hours, its voice seemed to shake the whole house with terror, until Stephen would creep down under the bed-clothes to hide from she knew not what. But presently, huddled beneath the blankets, the child would be soothed by a warm sense of safety, and her nerves would relax, while her body grew limp with the drowsy softness of bed. Then suddenly a big and comforting yawn, and another, and another, until darkness and Collins and tall clocks that menaced, and Stephen herself; were all blended and merged into something quite friendly, a harmonious whole, neither fearful nor doubting — the blessed illusion we call sleep.

2

In the weeks that followed on Collins’ departure, Anna tried to be very gentle with her daughter, having the child more frequently with her, more diligently fondling Stephen. Mother and daughter would walk in the garden, or wander about together through the meadows, and Anna would remember the son of her dreams, who had played with her in those meadows. A great sadness would cloud her eyes for a moment, an infinite regret as she looked down at Stephen; and Stephen, quick to discern that sadness, would press Anna’s hand with small, anxious fingers; she would long to inquire what troubled her mother, but would be held speechless through shyness.

The scents of the meadows would move those two strangely — the queer, pungent smell from the hearts of dog-daisies; the buttercup smell, faintly green like the grass; and then meadow-sweet that grew close by the hedges. Sometimes Stephen must tug at her mother’s sleeve sharply — intolerable to bear that thick fragrance alone!

One day she had said: Stand still or you’ll hurt it — it’s all round us — it’s a white smell, it reminds me of you!’ And then she had flushed, and had glanced up quickly, rather frightened in case she should find Anna laughing.

But her mother had looked at her curiously, gravely, puzzled by this creature who seemed all contradictions — at one moment so hard, at another so gentle, gentle to tenderness, even. Anna had been stirred, as her child had been stirred, by the breath of the meadow-sweet under the hedges; for in this they were one, the mother and daughter, having each in her veins the warm Celtic blood that takes note of such things — could they only have divined it, such simple things might have formed a link between them.

A great will to loving had suddenly possessed Anna Gordon, there in that sunlit meadow — had possessed them both as they stood together, bridging the gulf between maturity and childhood. They had gazed at each other as though asking for something, as though seeking for something, the one from the other; then the moment had passed — they had walked on in silence, no nearer in spirit than before.

3

Sometimes Anna would drive Stephen into Great Malvern, to the shops, with lunch at the Abbey Hotel on cold beef and wholesome rice pudding. Stephen loathed these excursions, which meant dressing up, but she bore them because of the honour which she felt to be hers when escorting her mother through the streets, especially Church Street with its long, busy hill, because everyone saw you in Church Street. Hats would be lifted with obvious respect, while a humbler finger might fly to a forelock; women would bow, and a few even curtsy to the lady of Morton — women in from the country with speckled sunbonnets that looked like their hens, and kind faces like brown, wrinkled apples. Then Anna must stop to inquire about calves and babies and foals, indeed all such creatures as prosper on farms, and her voice would be gentle because she loved such young creatures.

Stephen would stand just a little behind her, thinking how gracious and lovely she was; comparing her slim and elegant shoulders with the toil-thickened back of old Mrs. Bennett, with the ugly, bent spine of young Mrs. Thompson, who coughed when she spoke and then said: ‘I beg pardon!’ as though she were conscious that one did not cough in front of a goddess like Anna.

Presently Anna would look round for Stephen: ‘Oh, there you are, darling! We must go into Jackson’s and change mother’s books’; or, ‘Nanny wants some more saucers; let’s walk on and get them at Langley’s.’

Stephen would suddenly spring to attention, especially if they were crossing the street. She would look right and left for imaginary traffic, slipping a hand under Anna’s elbow.

‘Come with me,’ she would order; ‘and take care of the puddles, ‘cause you might get your feet wet — hold on by me, Mother!’

Anna would feel the small hand at her elbow, and would think that the fingers were curiously strong; strong and efficient they would feel like Sir Philip’s and this always vaguely displeased her. Nevertheless she would smile at Stephen while she let the child guide her in and out between the puddles.

She would say: thank you, dear; you’re as strong as a lion!’ trying to keep that displeasure from her voice.

Very protective and careful was Stephen when she and her mother were out alone together. Not all her queer shyness could prevent her protecting, nor could Anna’s own shyness save her from protection, She was forced to submit to a quiet supervision that was painstaking, gentle but extremely persistent. And yet was this love? Anna often wondered. It was not, she felt sure, the trusting devotion that Stephen had always felt for her father; it was more like a sort of instinctive admiration, coupled with a large, patient kindness.

‘If she’d only talk to me as she talks to Philip, I might get to understand her,’ Anna would muse. ‘It’s so odd not to know what she’s feeling and thinking, to suspect that something’s always being kept in the background.’

Their drives home from Malvern were usually silent, for Stephen would feel that her task was accomplished, her mother no longer needing her protection now that the coachman had the care of them both — he, and the arrogant-looking grey cobs that were yet so mannerly and gentle. As for Anna, she would sigh and lean back in her corner, weary of trying to make conversation. She would wonder if Stephen were tired or just sulky, or if, after all, the child might be stupid. Ought she, perhaps, to feel sorry for the child? She could never quite make up her mind.

Meanwhile, Stephen, enjoying the comfortable brougham, would begin to indulge in kaleidoscopic musings, those musings that belong to the end of the day, and occasionally visit children. Mrs. Thompson’s bent spine, it looked like a bow — not a rainbow but one of the archery kind; if you stretched a tight string from her feet to her head, could you shoot straight with Mrs. Thompson? China dogs — they had nice china dogs at Langley’s — that made you think of someone; oh, yes, of course, Collins — Collins and a cottage with red china dogs. But you tried not to think about Collins! there was such a queer light slanting over the hills, a kind of gold glory, and it made you feel sorry — why should a gold glory make you feel sorry when it shone that way on the hills? Rice pudding, almost as bad as tapioca — not quite though, because it was not so slimy — tapioca evaded your efforts to chew it, it felt horrid, like biting down on your own gum. The lanes smelt of wetness, a wonderful smell! Yet when Nanny washed things they only smelt soapy — but then, of course, God washed the world without soap: being God, perhaps He didn’t need any — you needed a lot, especially for hands — did God wash His hands without soap? Mother, talking about calves and babies, and looking like the Virgin Mary in church, the one in the stained-glass window with Jesus, which reminded you of Church Street, not a bad place after all; Church Street was really rather exciting — what fun it must be for men to have hats that they could take off, instead of just smiling — a bowler must be much more fun than a Leghorn — you couldn’t take that off to Mother —

The brougham would roll smoothly along the white road, between stout leafy hedges starred with dog-roses; blackbirds and thrushes would be singing loudly, so loudly that Stephen could hear their voices above the quick clip, clip of the cobs and the muffled sounds of the carriage. Then from under her brows she must glance across at Anna, who she knew loved the songs of blackbirds and thrushes; but Anna’s face would be hidden in shadow, while her hands lay placidly folded.

And now the horses, nearing their stables, would redouble their efforts as they swung through the gates, the tall, iron gates of the parklands of Morton, faithful gates that had always meant home. Old trees would fly past, then the paddocks with their cattle — Worcestershire cattle with uncanny white faces; then the two quiet lakes where the swans reared their cygnets; then the lawns, and at last the wide curve in the drive, near the house, that would lead to the massive entrance.

The child was too young to know why the beauty of Morton would bring a lump to her throat when seen thus in the gold haze of late afternoon, with its thoughts of evening upon it. She would want to cry out in a kind of protest that was very near tears: ‘Stop it — stop it, you’re hurting!’ But instead she would blink hard and shut her lips tightly, unhappy yet happy. It was a queer feeling; it was too big for Stephen, who was still rather little when it came to affairs of the spirit. For the spirit of Morton would be part of her then, and would always remain somewhere deep down within her, aloof and untouched by the years that must follow, by the stress and the ugliness of life. In those after-years certain scents would evoke it — the scent of damp rushes growing by water; the kind, slightly milky odour of cattle; the smell of dried rose-leaves and orris-root and violets, that together with a vague suggestion of bees-wax always hung about Anna’s rooms. Then that part of Stephen that she still shared with Morton would know what it was to feel terribly lonely, like a soul that wakes up to find itself wandering, unwanted, between the spheres.

4

Anna and Stephen would take off their coats, and go to the study in search of Sir Philip who would usually be there waiting.

‘Hallo, Stephen!’ he would say in his pleasant, deep voice, but his eyes would be resting on Anna.

Stephen’s eyes invariably followed her father’s, so that she too would stand looking at Anna, and sometimes she must catch her breath in surprise at the fullness of that calm beauty. She never got used to her mother’s beauty, it always surprised her each time she saw it; it was one of those queerly unbearable things, like the fragrance of meadow-sweet under the hedges.

Anna might say: ‘What’s the matter, Stephen? For goodness’ sake darling, do stop staring!’ And Stephen would feel hot with shame and confusion because Anna had caught her staring.

Sir Philip usually came to her rescue: ‘Stephen, here’s that new picture-book about hunting’; or, ‘I know of a really nice print of young Nelson; if you’re good I’ll order it for you tomorrow’.

But after a little he and Anna must get talking, amusing themselves irrespective of Stephen, inventing absurd little games, like two children, which games did not always include the real child. Stephen would sit there silently watching, but her heart would be a prey to the strangest emotions — emotions that seven-years-old could not cope with, and for which it could find no adequate names. All she would know was that seeing her parents together in this mood, would fill her with longings for something that she wanted yet could not define — a something that would make her as happy as they were. And this something would always be mixed up with Morton, with grave, stately rooms like her father’s study, with wide views from windows that let in much sunshine, and the scents of a spacious garden. Her mind would go groping about for a reason, and would find no reason — unless it were Collins — but Collins would refuse to fit into these pictures; even love must admit that she did not belong there any more than the brushes and buckets and slop-cloths belonged in that dignified study.

Presently Stephen must go off to her tea, leaving the two grown-up children together; secretly divining that neither of them would miss her — not even her father.

Arrived in the nursery she would probably be cross, because her heart felt very empty and tearful; or because, having looked at herself in the glass, she had decided that she loathed her abundant long hair. Snatching at a slice of thick bread and butter, she would upset the milk jug, or break a new tea-cup, or smear the front of her dress with her fingers, to the fury of Mrs. Bingham. If she spoke at such times it was usually to threaten: ‘I shall cut all my hair off, you see if I don’t!’ or, ‘I hate this white dress and I’m going to bum it — it makes me feel idiotic!’ But once launched she would dig up the grievances of months, going back to the time of the would-be young Nelson, loudly complaining that being a girl spoilt everything — even Nelson. The rest of the evening would be spent in grumbling, because one does grumble when one is unhappy — at least one does grumble when one is seven — later on it may seem rather useless.

At last the hour of the bath would arrive, and still grumbling, Stephen must submit to Mrs. Bingham, fidgeting under the nurse’s rough fingers like a dog in the hands of a trimmer. There she would stand pretending to shiver, a strong little figure, narrow-hipped and wide-shouldered; her flanks as wiry and thin as a greyhound’s and even more ceaselessly restless.

‘God doesn’t use soap!’ she might suddenly remark.

At which Mrs. Bingham must smile, none too kindly: ‘Maybe not, Miss Stephen — He don’t ‘ave to wash you; if He did He’d need plenty of soap, I’ll be bound!’

The bath over, and Stephen garbed in her nightgown, a long pause would ensue, known as: ‘Waiting for Mother’, and if mother, for some reason, did not happen to arrive, the pause could be spun out for quite twenty minutes, or for half an hour even, if luck was with Stephen, and the nursery clock not too precise and old-maidish.

‘Now come on, say your prayers,’ Mrs. Bingham would order, ‘and you’d better ask the dear Lord to forgive you — impious I calls it, and you a young lady! Carrying on because you can’t be a boy!’

Stephen would kneel by the side of the bed, but in such moods as these her prayers would sound angry. The nurse would protest: ‘Not so loud, Miss Stephen! Pray slower, and don’t shout at the Lord, He won’t like it!’

But Stephen would continue to shout at the Lord in a kind of impotent defiance.

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