The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Thirty-four

War. The incredible yet long predicted had come to pass. People woke in the morning with a sense of disaster, but these were the old who, having known war, remembered. The young men of France, of Germany, of Russia, of the whole world, looked round them amazed and bewildered; yet with something that stung as it leapt in their veins, filling them with a strange excitement — the bitter and ruthless potion of war that spurred and lashed at their manhood.

They hurried through the streets of Paris, these young men; they collected in bars and cafes; they stood gaping at the ominous government placards summoning their youth and strength to the colours.

They talked fast, very fast, they gesticulated: ‘C’est la guerre! C’est la guerre!’ they kept repeating.

Then they answered each other: ‘Oui, c’est la guerre.’

And true to her traditions the beautiful city sought to hide stark ugliness under beauty, and she decked herself as though for a wedding; her flags streamed out on the breeze in their thousands. With the paraphernalia and pageantry of glory she sought to disguise the true meaning of war.

But where children had been playing a few days before, troops were now encamped along the Champs Elysées. Their horses nibbled the bark from the trees and pawed at the earth, making little hollows; they neighed to each other in the watches of the night, as though in some fearful anticipation. In by-streets the unreasoning spirit of war broke loose in angry and futile actions; shops were raided because of their German names and their wares hurled out to lie in the gutters. Around every street corner some imaginary spy must be lurking, until people tilted at shadows.

‘C’est la guerre,’ murmured women, thinking of their sons.

Then they answered each other: ‘Oui, c’est la guerre.’

Pierre said to Stephen: ‘They will not take me because of my heart!’ And his voice shook with anger, and the anger brought tears which actually splashed the jaunty stripes of his livery waistcoat.

Pauline said: ‘I gave my father to the sea and my eldest brother. I have still two young brothers, they alone are left and I give them to France. Bon Dieu! It is terrible being a woman, one gives all!’ But Stephen knew from her voice that Pauline felt proud of being a woman.

Adèle said: ‘Jean is certain to get promotion, he says so, he will not long remain a Poilu. When he comes back he may be a captain — that will be fine. I shall marry a captain! War, he says, is better than piano-tuning, though I tell him he has a fine ear for music. But Mademoiselle should just see him now in his uniform! We all think he looks splendid.’

Puddle said: ‘Of course England was bound to come in, and thank God we didn’t take too long about it!’

Stephen said: ‘All the young men from Morton will go — every decent man in the country will go.’ Then she put away her unfinished novel and sat staring dumbly at Puddle.

2

England, the land of bountiful pastures, of peace, of mothering hills, of home. England was fighting for her right to existence. Face to face with dreadful reality at last, England was pouring her men into battle, her army was even now marching across France. Tramp, tramp; tramp, tramp; the tread of England whose men would defend her right to existence.

Anna wrote from Morton. She wrote to Puddle, but now Stephen took those letters and read them. The agent had enlisted and so had the bailiff Old Mr. Percival, agent in Sir Philip’s lifetime, had come back to help with Morton. Jim the groom, who had stayed on under the coachman after Raftery’s death, was now talking of going; he wanted to get into the cavalry, of course, and Anna was using her influence for him. Six of the gardeners had joined up already, but Hopkins was past the prescribed age limit; he must do his small bit by looking after his grape vines — the grapes would be sent to the wounded in London. There were now no men-servants left in the house, and the home farm was short of a couple of hands. Anna wrote that she was proud of her people, and intended to pay those who had enlisted half wages. They would fight for England, but she could not help feeling that in a way they would be fighting for Morton. She had offered Morton to the Red Cross at once, and they had promised to send her convalescent cases. It was rather isolated for a hospital, it seemed, but would be just the place for convalescents. The Vicar was going as an army chaplain; Violet’s husband, Alec, had joined the Flying Corps; Roger Antrim was somewhere in France already; Colonel Antrim had a job at the barracks in Worcester.

Came an angry scrawl from Jonathan Brockett, who had rushed back to England post-haste from the States: ‘Did you ever know anything quite so stupid as this war? It’s upset my apple-cart completely — can’t write jingo plays about St. George and the dragon, and I’m sick to death of “Business as usual!” Ain’t going to be no business, my dear, except killing, and blood always makes me feel faint.’ Then the postscript: ‘I’ve just been and gone and done it! Please send me tuck-boxes when I’m sitting in a trench; I like caramel creams and of course mixed biscuits.’ Yes, even Jonathan Brockett would go — it was fine in a way that he should have enlisted.

Morton was pouring out its young men, who in their turn might pour out their life-blood for Morton. The agent, the bailiff; in training already. Jim the groom, inarticulate, rather stupid, but wanting to join the cavalry — Jim who had been at Morton since boyhood. The gardeners, kindly men smelling of soil, men of peace with a peaceful occupation; six of these gardeners had gone already, together with a couple of lads from the home farm. There were no men servants left in the house. It seemed that the old traditions still held, the traditions of England, the traditions of Morton.

The Vicar would soon play a sterner game than cricket, while Alec must put away his law books and take unto himself a pair of wings — funny to associate wings with Alec. Colonel Antrim had hastily got into khaki, and was cursing and swearing, no doubt, at the barracks. And Roger — Roger was somewhere in France already, justifying his manhood. Roger Antrim, who had been so intolerably proud of that manhood — well, now he would get a chance to prove it!

But Jonathan Brockett, with the soft white hands, and the foolish gestures, and the high little laugh — even he could justify his existence, for they had not refused ‘him when he went to enlist. Stephen had never thought to feel envious of a man like Jonathan Brockett.

She sat smoking, with his letter spread out before her on the desk, his absurd yet courageous letter, and somehow it humbled her pride to the dust, for she could not so justify her existence. Every instinct handed down by the men of her race, every decent instinct of courage, now rose to mock her so that all that was male in her make-up seemed to grow more aggressive, aggressive perhaps as never before, because of this new frustration. She felt appalled at the realization of her own grotesqueness; she was nothing but a freak abandoned on a kind of no-man’s-land at this moment of splendid national endeavour. England was calling her men into battle, her women to the bedsides of the wounded and dying, and between these two chivalrous, surging forces she, Stephen, might well be crushed out of existence — of less use to her country, she was, than Brockett. She stared at her bony masculine hands, they had never been skilful when it came to illness; strong they might be, but rather inept; not hands wherewith to succour the wounded. No, assuredly her job, if job she could find, would not lie at the bedsides of the wounded. And yet, good God, one must do something!

Going to the door she called in the servants: ‘I’m leaving for England in a few days,’ she told them, ‘and while I’m away you’ll take care of this house. I have absolute confidence in you.’

Pierre said: ‘All things shall be done as you would wish, Mademoiselle.’ And she knew that it would be so.

That evening she told Puddle of her decision, and Puddle’s face brightened: ‘I’m so glad, my dear, when war comes one ought to stand by one’s country.’

‘I’m afraid they won’t want my sort . . . ’ Stephen muttered.

Puddle put a firm little hand over hers: ‘I wouldn’t be too sure of that, this war may give your sort of woman her chance. I think you may find that they’ll need you, Stephen.’

3

There were no farewells to be said in Paris except those to Buisson and Mademoiselle Duphot.

Mademoiselle Duphot shed a few tears: ‘I find you only to lose you, Stévenne. Ah, but how many friends will be parted, perhaps for ever, by this terrible war — and yet what else could we do? We are blameless!’

In Berlin people were also saying: ‘What else could we do? We are blameless.’

Julie’s hand lingered on Stephen’s arm: ‘You feel so strong,’ she said, sighing a little, ‘it is good to be strong and courageous these days, and to have one’s eyes — alas, I am quite useless.’

‘No one is useless who can pray, my sister,’ reproved Mademoiselle almost sternly.

And indeed there were many who thought as she did, the churches were crowded all over France. A great wave of piety swept through Paris, filling the dark confessional boxes, so that the priests had now some ado to cope with such shoals of penitent people — the more so as every priest fit to fight had been summoned to join the army. Up at Montmartre the church of the Sacré Coeur echoed and reechoed with the prayers of the faithful, while those prayers that were whispered with tears in secret, hung like invisible clouds round its altars.

‘Save us, most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Have pity upon us, have pity upon France. Save us, 0 Heart of Jesus!’

So all day long must the priests sit and hear the time-honoured sins of body and spirit; a monotonous hearing because of its sameness since nothing is really new under the sun, least of all our manner of sinning. Men who had not been to Mass for years, now began to remember their first Communion; thus it was that many a hardy blasphemer, grown suddenly tongue-tied and rather sheepish, clumped up to the altar in his new army boots, having made an embarrassed confession.

Young clericals changed into uniform and marched side by side with the roughest Poilus, to share in their hardships, their hopes, their terrors, their deeds of supremest valour. Old men bowed their heads and gave of the strength which no longer animated their bodies, gave of that strength through the bodies of their sons who would charge into battle shouting and singing. Women of all ages knelt down and prayed, since prayer has long been the refuge of women. ‘No one is useless who can pray, my sister.’ The women of France had spoken through the lips of the humble Mademoiselle Duphot.

Stephen and Puddle said good-bye to the sisters, then went on to Buisson’s Academy of Fencing, where they found him engaged upon greasing his foils.

He looked up, Ah, it’s you. I must go on greasing. God knows when I shall use these again, tomorrow I join my regiment.’ But he wiped his hands on a stained overall and sat down, after clearing a chair for Puddle. ‘An ungentlemanly war it will be,’ he grumbled. Will I lead my men with a sword? Ah, but no! I will lead my men with a dirty revolver in my hand. Parbleu! Such is modern warfare! A machine could do the whole cursed thing better — we shall all be nothing but machines in this war. However, I pray that we may kill many Germans.’

Stephen lit a cigarette while the master glared, he was evidently in a very vile temper: ‘Go on, go on, smoke your heart to the devil, then come here and ask me to teach you fencing! You smoke in lighting one from the other, you remind me of your horrible Birmingham chimneys — but of course a woman exaggerates always,’ he concluded, with an evident wish to annoy her.

Then he made a few really enlightening remarks about Germans in general, their appearance, their morals, above all their personal habits — which remarks were more seemly in French than they would be in English. For, like Valérie Seymour, this man was filled with a loathing for the ugliness of his epoch, an ugliness to which he felt the Germans were just now doing their best to contribute. Buisson’s heart was not buried in Mitylene, but rather in the glories of a bygone Paris, where a gentleman lived by the skill of his rapier and the graceful courage that lay behind it.

‘In the old days we killed very beautifully,’ sighed Buisson, ‘now we merely slaughter or else do not kill at all, no matter how gross the insult.’

However, when they got up to go, he relented: ‘War is surely a very necessary evil, it thins down the imbecile populations who have murdered their most efficacious microbes. People will not die, very well, here comes war to mow them down in their tens of thousands. At least for those of us who survive, there will be more breathing-space, thanks to the Germans — perhaps they too are a necessary evil.’

Arrived at the door Stephen turned to look back. Buisson was once more greasing his foils, and his fingers moved slowly yet with great precision — he might almost have been a beauty doctor engaged upon massaging ladies’ faces.

Preparations for departure did not take very long, and in less than a week’s time Stephen and Puddle had shaken hands with their Breton servants and were driving at top speed en route for Havre, from whence they would cross to England.

4

Puddle’s prophecy proved to have been correct, work was very soon forthcoming for Stephen. She joined The London Ambulance Column, which was well under way by that autumn; and presently Puddle herself got a job in one of the Government departments. She and Stephen had taken a small service flat in Victoria, and here they would meet when released from their hours of duty. But Stephen was obsessed by her one idea, which was, willy-nilly, to get out to the front, and many and varied were the plans and discussions that were listened to by the sympathetic Puddle. An ambulance had managed to slip over to Belgium for a while and had done some very fine service. Stephen had hit on a similar idea, but in her case the influence required had been lacking. In vain did she offer to form a Unit at her own expense; the reply was polite but always the same, a monotonous reply: England did not send women to the front-line trenches. She disliked the idea of joining the throng who tormented the patient passport officials with demands to be sent to France at once, on no matter how insufficient a pretext. What was the use of her going to France unless she could find there the work that she wanted? She preferred to stick to her job in England.

And now quite often while she waited at the stations for the wounded, she would see unmistakable figures — unmistakable to her they would be at first sight, she would single them out of the crowd as by instinct. For as though gaining courage from the terror that is war, many a one who was even as Stephen, had crept out of her hole and come into the daylight, come into the daylight and faced her country: ‘Well, here I am, will you take me or leave me?’ And England had taken her, asking no questions — she was strong and efficient, she could fill a man’s place, she could organize too, given scope for her talent. England had said: ‘Thank you very much. You’re just what we happen to want . . . at the moment.’

So, side by side with more fortunate women, worked Miss Smith who had been breeding dogs in the country; or Miss Oliphant who had been breeding nothing since birth but a litter of hefty complexes; or Miss Tring who had lived with a very dear friend in the humbler purlieus of Chelsea. One great weakness they all had, it must be admitted, and this was for uniforms — yet why not? The good workman is worthy of his Sam Browne belt. And then too, their nerves were not at all weak, their pulses beat placidly through the worst air raids, for bombs do not trouble the nerves of the invert, but rather that terrible silent bombardment from the batteries of God’s good people.

Yet now even really nice women with hairpins often found their less orthodox sisters quite useful. It would be: ‘Miss Smith, do just start up my motor — the engine’s so cold I can’t get the thing going’; or: ‘Miss Oliphant, do glance through these accounts, I’ve got such a rotten bad head for figures’; or ‘Miss Tring, may I borrow your British Warm? The office is simply arctic this morning!’

Not that those purely feminine women were less worthy of praise, perhaps they were more so, giving as they did of their best without stint — for they had no stigma to live down in the war, no need to defend their right to respect. They rallied to the call of their country superbly, and may it not be forgotten by England. But the others — since they too gave of their best, may they also not be forgotten. They might look a bit odd, indeed some of them did, and yet in the streets they were seldom stared at, though they strode a little, perhaps from shyness, or perhaps from a slightly self-conscious desire to show off, which is often the same thing as shyness. They were part of the universal convulsion and were being accepted as such, on their merits. And although their Sam Browne belts remained swordless, their hats and their caps without regimental badges, a battalion was formed in those terrible years that would never again be completely disbanded. War and death had given them a right to life, and life tasted sweet, very sweet to their palates. Later on would come bitterness, disillusion, but never again would such women submit to being driven back to their holes and corners. They had found themselves — thus the whirligig of war brings in its abrupt revenges.

5

Time passed; the first year of hostilities became the second while Stephen still hoped, though no nearer to her ambition. Try as she might she could not get to the front; no work at the actual front seemed to be forthcoming for women.

Brockett wrote wonderfully cheerful letters. In every letter was a neat little list telling Stephen what he wished her to send him; but the sweets he loved were getting quite scarce, they were no longer always so easy to come by. And now he was asking for Houbigant soap to be included in his tuck-box.

‘Don’t let it get near the coffee fondants or it may make them taste like it smells,’ he cautioned, ‘and do try to send me two bottles of hair-wash, “Eau Athénienne”, I used to buy it at Truefitt’s.’ He was on a perfectly damnable front, they had sent him to Mesopotamia.

Violet Peacock, who was now a V.A.D. with a very imposing Red Cross on her apron, occasionally managed to catch Stephen at home, and then would come reams of tiresome gossip. Sometimes she would bring her over-fed children along, she was stuffing them up like capons. By fair means or foul Violet always managed to obtain illicit cream for her nursery — she was one of those mothers who reacted to the war by wishing to kill off the useless aged.

‘What’s the good of them? Eating up the food of the nation!’ she would say, ‘I’m going all out on the young, they’ll be needed to breed from.’ She was very extreme, her perspective had been upset by the air raids.

Raids frightened her as did the thought of starvation, and when frightened she was apt to grow rather sadistic, so that now she would want to rush off and inspect every ruin left by the German marauders. She had also been the first to applaud the dreadful descent of a burning Zeppelin.

She bored Stephen intensely with her ceaseless prattle about Alec, who was one of London’s defenders, about Roger, who had got the Military Cross and was just on the eve of becoming a major, about the wounded whose faces she sponged every morning, and who seemed so pathetically grateful.

From Morton came occasional letters for Puddle; they were more in the nature of reports now these letters. Anna had such and such a number of cases; the gardeners had been replaced by young women; Mr. Percival was proving very devoted, he and Anna were holding the estate well together; Williams had been seriously ill with pneumonia. Then a long list of humble names from the farms, from among Anna’s staff or from cottage homesteads, together with those from such houses as Morton — for the rich and the poor were in death united. Stephen would read that long list of names, so many of which she had known since her childhood, and would realize that the stark arm of war had struck deep at the quiet heart of the Midlands.

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