The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Thirty-three

With the New Year came flowers from Valérie Seymour, and a little letter of New Year’s greeting. Then she paid a rather ceremonious call and was entertained by Puddle and Stephen. Before leaving she invited them both to luncheon, but Stephen refused on the plea of her work.

‘I’m hard at it again.’

At this Valérie smiled. Very well then, a bientôt. You know where to find me, ring up when you’re free, which I hope will be soon.’ After which she took her departure.

But Stephen was not to see her again for a very considerable time, as it happened. Valérie was also a busy woman — there are other affairs beside the writing of novels.

Brockett was in London on account of his plays. He wrote seldom, though when he did so he was cordial, affectionate even; but now he was busy with success, and with gathering in the shekels. He had not lost interest in Stephen again, only just at the moment she did not fit in with his brilliant and affluent scheme of existence.

So once more she and Puddle settled down together to a life that was strangely devoid of people, a life of almost complete isolation, and Puddle could not make up her mind whether she felt relieved or regretful. For herself she cared nothing, her anxious thoughts were as always centred in Stephen. However, Stephen appeared quite contented — she was launched on her book and was pleased with her writing. Paris inspired her to do good work, and as recreation she now had her fencing — twice every week she now fenced with Buisson, that severe but incomparable master.

Buisson had been very rude at first: ‘Hideous, affreux, horriblement English!’ he had shouted, quite outraged by Stephen’s style. All the same he took a great interest in her. ‘You write books; what a pity! I could make you a fine fencer. You have the man’s muscles, and the long, graceful lunge when you do not remember that you are a Briton and become — what you say? ah, mais oui, self-conscious. I wish that I had find you out sooner — however, your muscles are young still, pliant.’ And one day he said: ‘Let me feel the muscles,’ then proceeded to pass his hands down her thighs and across her strong loins: Tiens, tiens!’ he murmured.

After this he would sometimes look at her gravely with a puzzled expression; but she did not resent him, nor his rudeness, nor his technical interest in her muscles. Indeed, she liked the cross little man with his bristling black beard and his peppery temper, and when he remarked a propos of nothing: ‘We are all great imbeciles about nature. We make our own rules and call them la nature; we say she do this, she do that — imbeciles! She do what she please and then make the long nose.’ Stephen felt neither shy nor resentful.

These lessons were a great relaxation from work, and thanks to them her health grew much better. Her body, accustomed to severe exercise, had resented the sedentary life in London. Now, however, she began to take care of her health, walking for a couple of hours in the Bois every day, or exploring the tall, narrow streets that lay near her home in the Quarter. The sky would look bright at the end of such streets by contrast, as though it were seen through a tunnel. Sometimes she would stand gazing into the shops of the wider and more prosperous Rue des Saints Pères; the old furniture shops; the crucifix shop with its dozens of crucified Christs in the window — so many crucified ivory Christs! She would think that one must surely exist for every sin committed in Paris. Or perhaps she would make her way over the river, crossing by the Pont des Arts. And one morning, arrived at the Rue des Petits Champs, what must she suddenly do but discover the Passage Choiseul, by just stepping inside for shelter, because it had started raining.

Oh, the lure of the Passage Choiseul, the queer, rather gawky attraction of it. Surely the most hideous place in all Paris, with its roof of stark wooden ribs and glass panes — the roof that looks like the vertebral column of some prehistoric monster. The chocolate smell of the patisserie — the big one where people go who have money. The humbler, student smell of Lavrut, where one’s grey rubber bands are sold by the gramme and are known as: ‘Bracelets de caoutchouc.’ Where one buys première qualité blotting paper of a deep ruddy tint and the stiffness of cardboard, and thin but inspiring manuscript books bound in black, with mottled, shiny blue borders. Where pencils and pens are found in their legions, of all makes, all shapes, all colours, all prices; while outside on the trustful trays in the Passage, lives Gomme Onyx, masquerading as marble, and as likely to rub a hole in your paper. For those who prefer the reading of books to the writing of them there is always Lemerre with his splendid display of yellow bindings. And for those undisturbed by imagination, the taxidermist’s shop is quite near the corner — they can stare at a sad and moth-eaten flamingo, two squirrels, three parrots and a dusty canary. Some are tempted by the cheap corduroy at the draper’s, where it stands in great rolls as though it were carpet. Some pass on to the little stamp merchant, while a few dauntless souls even enter the chemist’s — that shamelessly anatomical chemist’s, whose wares do not figure in school manuals on the practical uses of rubber.

And up and down this Passage Choiseul, pass innumerable idle and busy people, bringing in mud and rain in the winter, bringing in dust and heat in the summer, bringing in God knows how many thoughts, some of which cannot escape with their owners. The very air of the Passage seems heavy with all these imprisoned thoughts.

Stephen’s thoughts got themselves entrapped with the others, but hers, at the moment, were those of a schoolgirl, for her eye had suddenly lit on Lavrut, drawn thereto by the trays of ornate india-rubber. And once inside, she could not resist the ‘Bracelets de caoutchouc,’ or the blotting paper as red as a rose, or the manuscript books with the mottled blue borders. Growing reckless, she gave an enormous order for the simple reason that these things looked different. In the end she actually carried away one of those inspiring manuscript books, and then got herself driven home by a taxi, in order the sooner to fill it.

2

That spring, in the foyer of the Comédie Française, Stephen stumbled across a link with the past in the person of a middle-aged woman. The woman was stout and wore pince-nez; her sparse brown hair was already greying; her face, which was long, had a double chin, and that face seemed vaguely familiar to Stephen. Then suddenly Stephen’s two hands were seized and held fast in those of the middle-aged woman, while a voice grown loud with delight and emotion was saying: ‘Mais oui, c’est ma petite Stévenne!’

Back came a picture of the schoolroom at Morton, with a battered red book on its ink-stained table — the Bibliothéque Rose —‘Les Petites Files Modeles ‘, ‘ Les Bons Enfants’, and Mademoiselle Duphot.

Stephen said: ‘To think — after all these years!’

Ah, quelle joie! Quelle joie!’ babbled Mademoiselle Duphot.

And now Stephen was being embraced on both cheeks, then held at arm’s length for a better inspection. ‘But how tall, how strong you are, ma petite Stévenne. You remember what I say, that we meet in Paris? I say when I go, “But you come to Paris when you grow up bigger, my poor little baby!” I keep looking and looking, but I knowed you at once. I say, “Oui certainement, that is ma petite Stévenne, no one ‘ave such another face what I love, it could only belong to Stévenne,” I say. And now voila! I am correct and I find you.’

Stephen released herself firmly but gently, replying in French to calm Mademoiselle, whose linguistic struggles increased every moment.

‘I’m living in Paris altogether,’ she told her; ‘you must come and see me — come to dinner tomorrow; 35, Rue Jacob.’ Then she introduced Puddle who had been an amused spectator.

The two exguardians of Stephen’s young mind shook hands with each other very politely, and they made such a strangely contrasted couple that Stephen must smile to see them together. The one was so small, so quiet, and so English; the other so portly, so tearful, so French in her generous, if somewhat embarrassing emotion.

As Mademoiselle regained her composure, Stephen was able to observe her more closely, and she saw that her face was excessively childish — a fact which she, when a child, had not noticed. It was more the face of a foal than a horse — an innocent, new-born foal.

Mademoiselle said rather wistfully: ‘I will dine with much pleasure tomorrow evening, but when will you come and see me in my home? It is in the Avenue de la Grande Armée, a small apartment, very small but so pretty — it is pleasant to have one’s treasures around one. The bon Dieu has been very good to me, Stévenne, for my Aunt Clothilde left me a little money when she died; it has proved a great consolation.’

‘I’ll come very soon,’ promised Stephen.

Then Mademoiselle spoke at great length of her aunt, and of Maman who had also passed on into glory; Maman, who had had her chicken on Sunday right up to the very last moment, Dieu merci! Even when her teeth had grown loose in the gums, Maman had asked for her chicken on Sunday. But alas, the poor sister who once made little bags out of beads for the shops in the Rue de la Paix, and who had such a cruel and improvident husband — the poor sister had now become totally blind, and therefore dependent on Mademoiselle Duphot. So after all Mademoiselle Duphot still worked, giving lessons in French to the resident English; and sometimes she taught the American children who were visiting Paris with their parents. But then it was really far better to work; one might grow too fat if one remained idle.

She beamed at Stephen with her gentle brown eyes. ‘They are not as you were, ma chère petite Stévenne, not clever and full of intelligence, no; and at times I almost despair of their accent. However, I am not at all to be pitied, thanks to Aunt Clothilde and the good little saints who surely inspired her to leave me that money.’

When Stephen and Puddle returned to their stalls, Mademoiselle climbed to a humbler seat somewhere under the roof, and as she departed she waved her plump hand at Stephen.

Stephen said: ‘She’s so changed that I didn’t know her just at first, or else perhaps I’d forgotten. I felt terribly guilty, because after you came I don’t think I ever answered her letters. It’s thirteen years since she left . . .

Puddle nodded. ‘Yes, it’s thirteen years since I took her place and forced you to tidy that abominable schoolroom!’ And she laughed. All the same, I like her,’ said Puddle.

3

Mademoiselle Duphot admired the house in the Rue Jacob and she ate very largely of the rich and excellent dinner. Quite regardless of her increasing proportions, she seemed drawn to all those things that were fattening.

‘I cannot resist,’ she remarked with a smile, as she reached for her fifth marron glace.

They talked a Paris, of its beauty, its charm. Then Mademoiselle spoke yet again of her Maman and of Aunt Clothilde who had left them the money, and of Julie, her blind sister.

But after the meal she quite suddenly blushed. ‘Oh, Stévenne, I have never inquired for your parents! What must you think of such great impoliteness? I lose my head the moment I see you and grow selfish. I want you to know about me and my Maman; I babble about my affairs. What must you think of such great impoliteness? How is that kind and handsome Sir Philip? And your mother, my dear, how is Lady Anna?’

And now it was Stephen’s turn to grow red. ‘My father died . . . She hesitated, then finished abruptly, ‘I don’t live with my mother any more, I don’t live at Morton.’

Mademoiselle gasped. ‘You no longer live . . . ’ she began, then something in Stephen’s face warned her kind but bewildered guest not to question. ‘I am deeply grieved to hear of your father’s death, my dear,’ she said very gently.

Stephen answered: ‘Yes — I shall always miss him.’

There ensued a long, rather painful silence, during which Mademoiselle Duphot felt awkward. What had happened between the mother and daughter? It was all very strange, very disconcerting. And Stephen, why was she exiled from Morton? But Mademoiselle could not cope with these problems, she knew only that she wanted Stephen to be happy, and her kind brown eyes grew anxious, for she did not feel certain that Stephen was happy. Yet she dared not ask for an explanation, so instead she clumsily changed the subject.

‘When will you both come to tea with me, Stévenne?’

‘We’ll come tomorrow if you like,’ Stephen told her.

Mademoiselle Duphot left rather early; and all the way home to her apartment her mind felt exercised about Stephen.

She thought: She was always a strange little child, but so dear. I remember her when she was little, riding her pony astride like a boy; and how proud he would seem, that handsome Sir Philip — they would look more like father and son, those two. And now — is she not still a little bit strange?’

But these thoughts led her nowhere for, Mademoiselle Duphot was quite unacquainted with the bypaths of nature. Her innocent mind was untutored and trustful; she believed in the legend of Adam and Eve, and no careless mistakes had been made in their garden!

4

The apartment in the Avenue de la Grande Armée was as tidy as Valérie’s had been untidy. From the miniature kitchen to the miniature salon, everything shone as though recently polished, for here in spite of restricted finances, no dust was allowed to harbour.

Mademoiselle Duphot beamed on her guests as she herself opened the door to admit them. ‘For me this is very real joy,’ she declared. Then she introduced them to her sister Julie, whose eyes were hidden behind dark glasses.

The salon was literally stuffed with what Mademoiselle had described as her ‘treasures’. On its tables were innumerable useless objects which appeared for the most part to be mementoes. Coloured prints of Bouguereaus hung on the walls, while the chairs were upholstered in a species of velvet so hard as to be rather slippery to sit on, yet that when it was touched felt rough to the fingers. The woodwork of these inhospitable chairs had been coated with varnish until it looked sticky. Over the little inadequate fireplace smiled a portrait of Maman when she was quite young. Maman, dressed in tartan for some strange reason, but in tartan that had never hob-nobbed with the Highlands — a present this portrait had been from a cousin who had wished to become an artist.

Julie extended a white, groping hand. She was like her sister only very much thinner, and her face had the closed rather blank expression that is sometimes associated with blindness.

‘Which is Stévenne?’ she inquired in an anxious voice; ‘I have heard so much about Stévenne!’

Stephen said: ‘Here I am,’ and she grasped the hand, pitiful of this woman’s affliction.

But Julie smiled broadly. ‘Yes, I know it is you from the feel,’— she had started to stroke Stephen’s coat-sleeve —‘my eyes have gone into my fingers these days. It is strange, but I seem to see through my forgers.’ Then she turned and found Puddle whom she also stroked. ‘And now I know both of you,’ declared Julie.

The tea when it came was that straw-coloured liquid which may even now be met with in Paris.

‘English tea bought especially for you, my Stévenne,’ remarked Mademoiselle proudly. ‘We drink only coffee, but I said to my sister, Stévenne likes the good tea, and so, no doubt, does Mademoiselle Puddle. At four o’clock they will not want coffee — you observe how well I remember your England!’

However, the cakes proved worthy of France, and Mademoiselle ate them as though she enjoyed them. Julie ate very little and did not talk much. She just sat there and listened, quietly smiling; and while she listened she crocheted lace as though, as she said, she could see through her fingers. Then Mademoiselle Duphot explained how it was that those delicate hands had becomes so skilful, replacing the eyes which their ceaseless labour had robbed of the blessèd privilege of sight — explained so simply yet with such conviction, that Stephen must marvel to hear her.

‘It is all our little Therèse,’ she told Stephen. ‘You have heard of her? Ah, but what a pity! Our Therèse was a nun at the Cannel at Lisieux, and she said: “I will let fall a shower of roses when I die.” She died not so long ago, but already her Cause has been presented at Rome by the Very Reverend Father Rodrigo! That is very wonderful, is it not, Stévenne? But she does not wait to become a saint; ah, but no, she is young and therefore impatient. She cannot wait, she has started already to do miracles for all those who ask her. I asked that Julie should not be unhappy through the loss of her eyes — for when she is idle she is always unhappy — so our little Therèse has put a pair of new eyes in her fingers.’

Julie nodded. ‘It is true,’ she said very gravely; ‘before that I was stupid because of my blindness. Everything felt very strange, and I stumbled about like an old blind horse. I was terribly stupid, far more so than many. Then one night Véronique asked Therèse to help me, and the next day I could find my way round our room. From then on my fingers saw what they touched, and now I can even make lace quite well because of this sight in my fingers.’ Then turning to the smiling Mademoiselle Duphot: ‘But why do you not show her picture to Stévenne?

So Mademoiselle Duphot went and fetched the small picture of Therèse, which Stephen duly examined, and the face that she saw was ridiculously youthful — round with youth it still was, and yet very determined. Seem Therèse looked as though if she really intended to become a saint, the devil himself would be hard put to it to stop her. Then Puddle must also examine the picture, while Stephen was shown some relics, a piece of the habit and other things such as collect in the wake of sainthood.

When they left, Julie asked them to come again; she said: ‘Come often, it will give us such pleasure.’ Then she thrust on her guests twelve yards of coarse lace which neither of them liked to offer to pay for.

Mademoiselle murmured: ‘Our home is so humble for Stévenne; we have very little to offer.’ She was thinking of the house in the Rue Jacob, a grand house, and then too she remembered Morton.

But Julie, with the strange insight of the blind, or perhaps because of those eyes in her fingers, answered quickly: ‘She will not care, Véronique, I cannot feel that sort of pride in your Stévenne.’

5

After their first visit they went very often to Mademoiselle’s modest little apartment, Mademoiselle Duphot and her quiet blind sister were indeed their only friends now in Paris, for Brockett was in America on business, and Stephen had not rung up Valérie Seymour.

Sometimes when Stephen was busy with her work, Puddle would make her way there all alone. Then she and Mademoiselle would get talking about Stephen’s childhood, about her future, but guardedly, for Puddle must be careful to give nothing away to the kind, simple woman. As for Mademoiselle, she too must be careful to accept all and ask no questions. Yet in spite of the inevitable gaps and restraints, a real sympathy sprang up between them, for each sensed in the other a valuable ally who would fight a good fight on behalf of Stephen. And now Stephen would quite often send her car to take the blind Julie for a drive beyond Paris, Julie would sniff the air and tell Burton that through smelling their greenness she could see the trees; he would listen to her broken and halting English with a smile — they were a queer lot these French. Or perhaps he would drive the other Mademoiselle up to Montmartre for early Mass on a Sunday. She belonged to something to do with a heart; it all seemed rather uncanny to Burton. He thought of the Vicar who had played such fine cricket, and suddenly felt very homesick for Morton. Fruit would find its way to the little apartment, together with cakes and large marron glacés. Then Mademoiselle Duphot would become frankly greedy, eating sweets in bed while she studied her booklets on the holy and very austere Thérèse, who had certainly not eaten marrons glacés.

‘Thus the spring, that gentle yet fateful spring of 1914, slipped into the summer. With the budding of flowers and the singing of birds it slipped quietly on towards great disaster; while Stephen, whose book was now nearing completion, worked harder than ever in Paris.

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