The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Thirty-two

Stephen bought the house in the Rue Jacob, because as she walked through the dim, grey archway that led from the street to the cobbled courtyard, and saw the deserted house standing before her, she knew at once that there she would live. This will happen sometimes, we instinctively feel in sympathy with certain dwellings.

The courtyard was sunny and surrounded by walls. On the right of this courtyard some iron gates led into the spacious, untidy garden, and woefully neglected though this garden had been, the trees that it still possessed were fine ones. A marble fountain long since choked with weeds, stood in the centre of what had been a lawn. In the farthest corner of the garden some hand had erected a semicircular temple, but that had been a long time ago, and now the temple was all but ruined.

The house itself would need endless repairs, but its rooms were of careful and restful proportions. A fine room with a window that opened on the garden would be Stephen’s study; she could write there in quiet; on the other side of the stone-paved hall was a smaller but comfortable salle a manger; while past the stone staircase a little round room in a turret would be Puddle’s particular sanctum. Above there were bedrooms enough and to spare: there was also the space for a couple of bathrooms. The day after Stephen had seen this house, she had written agreeing to purchase.

Valérie rang up before leaving Paris to inquire how Stephen had liked the old house, and when she heard that she had actually bought it, she expressed herself as being delighted.

We’ll be quite close neighbours now,’ she remarked, ‘but I’m not going to bother you until you evince, not even when I get back in the autumn. I know you’ll be literally snowed under with workmen for months, you poor dear, I feel sorry for you. But when you can, do let me come and see you — meanwhile if I can help you at all . . . ’ And she gave her address at St. Tropez.

And now for the first time since leaving Morton, Stephen turned her mind to the making of a home. Through Brockett she found a young architect who seemed anxious to carry out all her instructions. He was one of those very rare architects who refrain from thrusting their views on their clients. So into the ancient, deserted house in the Rue Jacob streamed an army of workmen, and they hammered and scraped and raised clouds of dust from early morning, all day until evening — smoking harsh caporal as they joked or quarrelled or idled or spat or hummed snatches of song. And amazingly soon, wherever one trod one seemed to be treading on wet cement or on dry, gritty heaps of brick dust and rubble, so that Puddle would complain that she spoilt all her shoes, while Stephen would emerge with her neat blue serge shoulders quite grey, and with even her hair thickly powdered.

Sometimes the architect would come to the hotel in the evening and then would ensue long discussions. Bending over the little mahogany table, he and Stephen would study the plans intently, for she wished to preserve the spirit of the place intact, despite alterations. She decided to have an Empire study with grey walls and curtains of Empire green, for she loved the great roomy writing tables that had come into being with the first Napoleon. The walls of the salle à manger should be white and the curtains brown, while Puddle’s round sanctum in its turret should have walls and paintwork of yellow, to give the illusion of sunshine. And so absorbed did Stephen become in these things, that she scarcely had time to notice Jonathan Brockett’s abrupt departure for a mountain top in the Austrian Tyrol. Having suddenly come to the end of his finances, he must hasten to write a couple of plays that could be produced in London that winter. He sent her three or four picture postcards of glaciers, after which she heard nothing more from him.

At the end of August, when the work was well under way, she and Puddle fared forth in the motor to visit divers villages and towns in quest of old furniture, and Stephen was surprised to find how much she enjoyed it. She would catch herself whistling as she drove her car, and when they got back to some humble auberge in the evening, she would want to eat a large supper. Every morning she diligently swung her dumb-bells; she was getting into condition for fencing. She had not fenced at all since leaving Morton, having been too much engrossed in her work while in London; but now she was going to fence before Buisson, so she diligently swung her dumb-bells. During these two months of holiday-making she grew fond of the wide-eyed, fruitful French country, even as she had grown fond of Paris. She would never love it as she loved the hills and the stretching valleys surrounding Morton, for that love was somehow a part of her being, but she gave to this France, that would give her a home, a quiet and very sincere affection. Her heart grew more grateful with every mile, for hers was above all a grateful nature.

They returned to Paris at the end of October. And now came the selecting of carpets and curtains; of fascinating blankets from the Magasin de Blanc — blankets craftily dyed to match any bedroom; of fine linen, and other expensive things, including the copper batterie de cuisine, which latter, however, was left to Puddle. At last the army of workmen departed, its place being taken by a Breton menage — brown-faced folk, strong-limbed and capable looking — a mother, father and daughter. Pierre, the butler, had been a fisherman once, but the sea with its hardness had prematurely aged him. He had now been in service for several years, having contracted rheumatic fever which had weakened his heart and made him unfit for the strenuous life of a fisher. Pauline his wife, was considerably younger, and she it was who would reign in the kitchen, while their daughter Adèle, a girl of eighteen, would help both her parents and look after the housework.

Adèle was as happy as a blackbird in springtime; she would often seem just on the verge of chirping. But Pauline had stood and watched the great storms gather over the sea while her men were out fishing; her father had lost his life through the sea as had also a brother, so Pauline smiled seldom. Dour she was, with a predilection for dwelling in detail on people’s misfortunes. As for Pierre, he was stolid, kind and pious, with the eyes of a man who has looked on vast spaces. His grey stubbly hair was cut short to his head en brosse, and he had an ungainly figure. When he walked he straddled a little as though he could never believe in a house without motion. He liked Stephen at once, which was very propitious, for one cannot buy the goodwill of a Breton.

Thus gradually chaos gave place to order, and on the morning of her twenty-seventh birthday, on Christmas Eve, Stephen moved into her home in the Rue Jacob on the old Rive Gauche, there to start her new life in Paris.

2

All alone in the brown and white salle à manger, Stephen and Puddle ate their Christmas dinner. And Puddle had bought a small Christmas tree and had trimmed it, then hung it with coloured candles. A little wax Christ-child bent downwards and sideways from His branch, as though He were looking for His presents — only now there were not any presents. Rather clumsily Stephen lit the candles as soon as the daylight had almost faded. Then she and Puddle stood and stared at the tree, but in silence, because they must both remember. But Pierre, who like all who have known the sea, was a child at heart, broke into loud exclamations. Oh, comme c’est beau, l’arbre de Noel!’ he exclaimed, and he fetched the dour Pauline along from the kitchen, and she too exclaimed; then they both fetched Adèle and they all three exclaimed: ‘Comme c’est beau, l’arbre de Noel!’ So, that after all the little wax Christ-child did not very much miss His presents.

That evening Pauline’s two brothers arrived — they were Poilus stationed just outside Paris — and they brought along with them another young man, one Jean, who was ardently courting Adèle. Very soon came the sound of singing and laughter from the kitchen, and when Stephen went up to her bedroom to look for a book, there was Adèle quite flushed and with very bright eyes because of this Jean — in great haste she turned down the bed and then flew on the wings of love back to the kitchen.

But Stephen went slowly downstairs to her study where Puddle was sitting in front of the fire, and she thought that Puddle sat there as though tired; her hands were quite idle, and after a moment Stephen noticed that she was dozing. Very quietly Stephen opened her book, unwilling to rouse the little grey woman who looked so small in the huge leather chair, and whose head kept guiltily nodding. But the book seemed scarcely worth troubling to read, so that presently Stephen laid it aside and sat staring into the flickering logs that hummed and burnt blue because it was frosty. On the Malvern Hills there would probably be snow; deep snow might be capping the Worcestershire Beacon. The air up at British Camp would be sweet with the smell of winter and open spaces — little lights would be glinting far down in the valley. At Morton the lakes would be still and frozen, so Peter the swan would be feeling friendly — in winter he had always fed from her hand — he must be old now, the swan called Peter. Coup! C-o-u-p! and Peter waddling towards her. He, who was all gliding grace on the water, would come awkwardly waddling towards her hand for the chunk of dry bread that she held in her fingers. Jean with his Adèle along in the kitchen — a nice-looking boy he was, Stephen had seen him — they were young, and both were exceedingly happy, for their parents approved, so some day they would marry. Then children would come, too many, no doubt, for Jean’s slender purse, and yet in this life one must pay for one’s pleasures — they would pay with their children, and this appeared perfectly fair to Stephen. She thought that it seemed a long time ago since she herself had been a small child, romping about on the floor with her father, bothering Williams down at the stables, dressing up as young Nelson and posing for Collins who had sometimes been cross to young Nelson. She was nearly thirty, and what had she done? Written one good novel and one very bad one, with a few mediocre short stories thrown in. Oh, well, she was going to start writing again quite soon — she had an idea for a novel. But she sighed, and Puddle woke up with a start.

‘Is that you, my dear a Have I been asleep?’

Only for a very few minutes, Puddle.’

Puddle glanced at the new gold watch on her wrist; it had been a Christmas present from Stephen. ‘It’s past ten o’clock — I think I’ll turn in.’

‘Do. Why not? I hope Adèle’s filled your hot-water bottle; she’s rather light-headed over her Jean.’

‘Never mind, I can fill it myself,’ smiled Puddle.

She went, and Stephen sat on by the fire with her eyes half dosed and her lips set firmly. She must put away all these thoughts of the past and compel herself to think of the future. This brooding over things that were past was all wrong; it was futile, weak-kneed and morbid. She had her work, work that cried out to be done, but no more unworthy books must be written. She must show that being the thing she was, she could climb to success over all opposition, could climb to success in spite of a world that was trying its best to get her under. Her mouth grew hard; her sensitive lips that belonged by rights to the dreamer, the lover, took on a resentful and bitter line which changed her whole face and made it less comely. At that moment the striking likeness to her father appeared to have faded out of her face.

Yes, it was trying to get her under, this world with its mighty self-satisfaction, with its smug rules of conduct, all made to be broken by those who strutted and preened themselves on being what they considered normal. They trod on the necks of those thousands of others who, for God knew what reason, were not made as they were; they prided themselves on their indignation, on what they proclaimed as their righteous judgments. They sinned grossly; even vilely at times, like lustful beasts — but yet they were normal! And the vilest of them could point a finger of scorn at her, and be loudly applauded.

‘God damn them to hell!’ she muttered.

Along in the kitchen there was singing again. The young men’s voices rose tuneful and happy, and with them blended Adèle’s young voice very sexless as yet, like the voice of a choirboy. Stephen got up and opened the door, then stood quite still and listened intently. The singing soothed her overstrained nerves as it flowed from the hearts of these simple people. For she did not begrudge them their happiness; she did not resent young Jean with his Adèle, or Pierre who had done a man’s work in his time, or Pauline who was often aggressively female. Bitter she had grown in these years since Morton, but not bitter enough to resent the simple. And then as she listened they suddenly stopped for a little before they resumed their singing, and when they resumed it the tune was sad with the sadness that dwells in the souls of most men, above all in the patient soul of the peasant.

‘Mais comment ferez vous, l’Abbé,

Ma Doué?’

She could hear the soft Breton words quite clearly.

‘Mais comment ferez vous, l’Abbé,

Pour nous dire la Messe

Quand la nuit sera bien tombée

Je tiendrai ma promesse.’

Mais comment ferez vous, l’Abbé,

Ma Doué,

Mais comment ferez vous, l’Abbé,

Sans nappe de fine toile?’

‘Notre Doux Seigneur poserai

Sur un morceau de voile.’

‘Mais comment ferez vous, l’Abbé,

Ma Doué,

Mais comment ferez vous, l’Abbé,

Sans chandelle et sans cierge?’

‘Les astres seront allumés

Par Madame la Vierge.’

Mais comment ferez vous, l’Abbe,

Ma Doué,

Mais comment ferez vous, l’Abbé,

Sans orgue résonnante?’

‘Jesus touchera le clavier

Des vagues mugissantes.’

Mais comment ferez vous, l’Abbé,

Ma Doué,

Mais comment ferez vous, l’Abbé,

Si l’Ennemi nous trouble?’

Une seule fois je vous bénirai,

Les Bleus bénirai double!’

Closing the study door behind her, Stephen thoughtfully climbed the stairs to her bedroom.

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