The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Book Five

Chapter Forty

Early in April Stephen and Mary returned to the house in Paris. This second home-coming seemed wonderfully sweet by reason of its peaceful and happy completeness, so that they turned to smile at each other as they passed through the door, and Stephen said very softly:

‘Welcome home, Mary.’

And now for the first time the old house was home. Mary went quickly from room to room humming a little tune as she did so, feeling that she saw with a new understanding the inanimate objects which filled those rooms — were they not Stephen’s? Every now and again she must pause to touch them because they were Stephen’s. Then she turned and went into Stephen’s bedroom; not timidly, dreading to be unwelcome, but quite without fear or restraint or shyness, and this gave her a warm little glow of pleasure.

Stephen was busily grooming her hair with a couple of brushes that had been dipped in water. The water had darkened her hair in patches, but had deepened the wide wave above her forehead. Seeing Mary in the glass she did not turn round, but just smiled for a moment at their two reflections. Mary sat down in an arm-chair and watched her, noticing the strong, thin line of her thighs; noticing too the curve of her breasts — slight and compact, of a certain beauty. She had taken off her jacket and looked very tall in her soft silk shirt and her skirt of dark serge.

Tired?’ she inquired, glancing down at the girl.

‘No, not a bit tired,’ smiled Mary.

Stephen walked over to the stationary basin and proceeded to wash her hands under the tap, spotting her white silk cuffs in the process. Going to the cupboard she got out a clean shirt, slipped in a pair of simple gold cuff-links, and changed; after which she put on a new necktie.

Mary said: ‘Who’s been looking after your clothes — sewing on buttons and that sort of thing?’

‘I don’t know exactly — Puddle or Adèle. Why?’

‘Because I’m going to do it in future. You’ll find that I’ve got one very real talent, and that’s darning. When I darn the place looks like a basket, criss-cross. And I know how to pick up a ladder as well as the Invisible Mending people! It’s very important that the darns should be smooth, otherwise when you fence they might give you a blister.’

Stephen’s lips twitched a little, but she said quite gravely: ‘Thanks awfully, darling, we’ll go over my stockings.’

From the dressing-room next door came a series of thuds; Pierre was depositing Stephen’s luggage. Getting up, Mary opened the wardrobe, revealing a long, neat line of suits hanging from heavy mahogany shoulders — she examined each suit in turn with great interest. Presently she made her way to the cupboard in the wall; it was fitted with sliding shelves, and these she pulled out one by one with precaution. On the shelves there were orderly piles of shirts, crêpe de Chine pyjamas — quite a goodly assortment, and the heavy silk masculine underwear that for several years now had been worn by Stephen. Finally she discovered the stockings where they lay by themselves in the one long drawer, and these she proceeded to unfurl deftly, with a quick and slightly important movement. Thrusting a fist into toes and heels she looked for the holes that were non-existent.

‘You must have paid a lot for these stockings, they’re hand-knitted silk,’ murmured Mary gravely.

‘I forget what I paid — Puddle got them from England.’

Who did she order them from; do you know?’

‘I can’t remember; some woman or other.’

But Mary persisted: ‘I shall want her address.’

Stephen smiled: ‘Why? Are you going to order my stockings?’ ‘Darling! Do you think I’ll let you go barefoot? Of course I’m going to order your stockings.’

Stephen rested her elbow on the mantelpiece and stood gazing at Mary with her chin on her hand. As she did so she was struck once again by the look of youth that was characteristic of Mary. She looked much less than her twenty-two years in her simple dress with its leather belt — she looked indeed little more than a schoolgirl. And yet there was something quite new in her face, a soft, wise expression that Stephen had put there, so that she suddenly felt pitiful to see her so young yet so full of this wisdom; for sometimes the coming of passion to youth, in spite of its glory, will be strangely pathetic.

Mary rolled up the stockings with a sigh of regret; alas, they would not require darning. She was at the stage of being in love when she longed to do womanly tasks for Stephen. But all Stephen’s clothes were discouragingly neat; Mary thought that she must be very well served, which was true — she was served, as are certain men, with a great deal of nicety and care by the servants.

And now Stephen was filling her cigarette case from the big box that lived on her dressing-table; and now she was strapping on her gold wrist watch; and now she was brushing some dust from her coat; and now she was frowning at herself in the glass for a second as she twitched her immaculate necktie. Mary had seen her do all this before, many times, but today somehow it was different, for today they were in their own home together, so that these little intimate things seemed more dear than they had done in Orotava. The bedroom could only have belonged to Stephen; a large, airy room, very simply furnished — white walls, old oak, and a wide, bricked hearth on which some large, friendly logs were burning. The bed could only have been Stephen’s bed; it was heavy and rather austere in pattern. It looked solemn as Mary had seen Stephen look, and was covered by a bedspread of old blue brocade, otherwise it remained quite guiltless of trimmings. The chairs could only have been Stephen’s chairs; a little reserved, not conducive to lounging. The dressing-table could only have been hers, with its tall silver mirror and ivory brushes. And all these things had drawn into themselves a species of life derived from their owner, until they seemed to be thinking of Stephen with a dumbness that made their thoughts more insistent, and their thoughts gathered strength and mingled with Mary’s so that she heard herself cry out: ‘Stephen!’ in a voice that was not very far from tears, because of the joy she felt in that name.

And Stephen answered her: Mary —’

Then they stood very still, grown abruptly silent. And each of them felt a little afraid, for the realization of great mutual love can at times be so overwhelming a thing, that even the bravest of hearts may grow fearful. And although they could not have put it into words, could not have explained it to themselves or to each other, they seemed at that moment to be looking beyond the turbulent flood of earthly passion; to be looking straight into the eyes of a love that was changed — a love made perfect, discarnate.

But the moment passed and they drew together . . .

2

The spring they had left behind in Orotava overtook them quite soon, and one day there it was blowing softly along the old streets of the Quarter — the Rue de Seine, the Rue des Saints Peres, the Rue Bonaparte and their own Rue Jacob. And who can resist the first spring days in Paris? Brighter than ever looked the patches of sky when glimpsed between rows of tall, flat-bosomed houses. From the Pont des Arts could be seen a river that was one wide, ingratiating smile of sunshine; while beyond in the Rue des Petits Champs, spring ran up and down the Passage Choiseul, striking gleams of gold from its dirty glass roof — the roof that looks like the vertebral column of some prehistoric monster.

All over the Bois there was bursting of buds — a positive orgy of growth and greenness. The miniature waterfall lifted its voice in an effort to roar as loud as Niagara. Birds sang. Dogs yapped or barked or bayed according to their size and the tastes of their owners. Children appeared in the Champs Elysées with bright coloured balloons which tried to escape and which, given the ghost of a chance, always did so. In the Tuileries Gardens boys with brown legs and innocent socks were hiring toy boats from the man who provided Bateaux de Location. The fountains tossed clouds of spray into the air, and just for fun made an occasional rainbow; then the Arc de Triomphe would be seen through an arc that was, thanks to the sun, even more triumphal. As for the very old lady in her kiosk — the one who sells bocks, groseille, limonade, and such simple food-stuffs as brioches and croissants — as for her, she appeared in a new frilled bonnet and a fine worsted shawl on one memorable Sunday. Smiling she was too, from ear to ear, in spite of the fact that her mouth was toothless, for this fact she only remembered in winter when the east wind started her empty gums aching.

Under the quiet, grey wings of the MAdèleine the flower-stalls were bright with the glory of God — anemones, jonquils, daffodils, tulips; mimosa that left gold dust on the fingers, and the faintly perfumed ascetic white lilac that had come in the train from the Riviera. There were also hyacinths, pink, red and blue, and many small trees of sturdy azalea.

Oh, but the spring was shouting through Paris! It was in the hearts and the eyes of the people. The very dray-horses jangled their bells more loudly because of the spring in their drivers. The debauched old taxis tooted their horns and spun round the corners as though on a race track. Even such glacial things as the diamonds in the Rue de la Paix, were kindled to fire as the sun pierced their facets right through to their entrails; while the sapphires glowed as those African nights had glowed in the garden at Orotava.

Was it likely that Stephen could finish her book — she who had Paris in springtime with Mary? Was it likely that Mary could urge her to do so — she who had Paris in springtime with Stephen? There was so much to see, so much to show Mary, so many new things to discover together. And now Stephen felt grateful to Jonathan Brockett who had gone to such pains to teach her her Paris.

Idle she was, let it not be denied, idle and happy and utterly carefree. A lover, who, like many another before her, was under the spell of the loved one’s existence. She would wake in the mornings to find Mary beside her, and all through the day she would keep beside Mary, and at night they would lie in each other’s arms — God alone knows who shall dare judge of such matters; in any case Stephen was too much bewitched to be troubled just then by hair-splitting problems.

Life had become a new revelation. The most mundane things were invested with glory; shopping with Mary who needed quite a number of dresses. And then there was food that was eaten together — the careful perusal of wine-card and menu. They would lunch or have dinner at Lapérouse; surely still the most epicurean restaurant in the whole of an epicurean city. So humble it looks with its modest entrance on the Quai des Grands Augustins; so humble that a stranger might well pass it by unnoticed, but not so Stephen, who had been there with Brockett.

Mary loved Prunier’s in the Rue Duphot, because of its galaxy of sea-monsters. A whole counter there was of incredible creatures — Our sins, black armoured and covered with prickles; Bigornaux, serpent-like Anguilles Fumées; and many other exciting things that Stephen mistrusted for English stomachs. They would sit at their own particular table, one of the tables upstairs by the window, for the manager came very quickly to know them and would smile and bow grandly: ‘Bon jour, mesdames.’ When they left, the attendant who kept the flower-basket would give Mary a neat little bouquet of roses: ‘Au revoir, mesdames. Merci bien —à bientôt!’ For everyone had pretty manners at Prunier’s.

A few people might stare at the tall, scarred woman in her well-tailored clothes and black slouch hat. They would stare first at her and then at her companion: ‘Mais regardez moi ça! Elle est belle, la petite; comme c’est rigolo There would be a few smiles, but on the whole they would attract little notice — ils en ont vu bien d’autres — it was post-war Paris.

Sometimes, having dined, they would saunter towards home through streets that were crowded with others who sauntered — men and woman, a couple of women together — always twos — the fine nights seemed prolific of couples. In the air there would be the inconsequent feeling that belongs to the night life of most great cities, above all to the careless night life of Paris, where problems are apt to vanish with sunset. The lure of the brightly lighted boulevards, the lure of the dim and mysterious by-streets would grip them so that they would not turn homeward for quite a long while, but would just go on walking. The moon, less clear than at Orotava, less innocent doubtless, yet scarcely less lovely, would come sailing over the Place de la Concorde, staring down at the dozens of other white moons that had managed to get themselves caught by the standards. In the cafés would be crowds of indolent people, for the French who work hard know well how to idle; and these cafés would smell of hot coffee and sawdust, of rough, strong tobacco, of men and women. Beneath the arcades there would be the shop windows, illuminated and bright with temptation. But Mary would usually stare into Sulka’s, picking out scarves or neckties for Stephen.

‘That one! We’ll come and buy it tomorrow. Oh, Stephen, do wait — look at that dressing-gown!’

And Stephen might laugh and pretend to be bored, though she secretly nurtured a weakness for Sulka’s.

Down the Rue de Rivoli they would walk arm in arm, until turning at last, they would pass the old church of St. Germain — the church from whose Gothic tower had been rung the first call to a most bloody slaying. But now that tower would be grim with silence, dreaming the composite dreams of Paris — dreams that were heavy with blood and beauty, with innocence and lust, with joy and despair, with life and death, with heaven and hell; all the curious composite dreams of Paris.

Then crossing the river they would reach the Quarter and their house, where Stephen would slip her latchkey into the door and would know the warm feeling that can come of a union between door and latchkey. With a sigh of contentment they would find themselves at home once again in the quiet old Rue Jacob.

3

They went to see the kind Mademoiselle Duphot, and this visit seemed momentous to Mary. She gazed with something almost like awe at the woman who had had the teaching of Stephen.

‘Oh, but yes,’ smiled Mademoiselle Duphot, ‘I teached her. She was terribly naughty over her dictée; she would write remarks about the poor Henri — très impertinente she would be about Henri! Stévenne was a queer little child and naughty — but so dear, so dear — I could never scold her. With me she done everything her own way.’

‘Please tell me about that time,’ coaxed Mary.

So Mademoiselle Duphot sat down beside Mary and patted her hand: ‘Like me, you love her. Well now, let me recall — She would sometimes get angry, very angry, and then she would go to the stables and talk to her horse. But when she fence it was marvellous — she fence like a man, and she only a baby but extrêmement strong. And then . . .

The memories went on and on, such a store she possessed, the kind Mademoiselle Duphot.

As she talked her heart went out to the girl, for she felt a great tenderness towards young things: ‘I am glad that you come to live with our Stévenne now that Mademoiselle Puddle is at Morton. Stévenne would be desolate in the big house. It is charming for both of you this new arrangement. While she work you look after the ménage, is it not so? You take care of Stévenne, she take care of you. Oui, oui, I am glad you have come to Paris.’

Julie stroked Mary’s smooth young cheek, then her arm, for she wished to observe through her fingers. She smiled: ‘Very young, also very kind. I like so much the feel of your kindness — it gives me a warm and so happy sensation, because with all kindness there must be much good.’

Was she quite blind after all, the poor Julie?

And hearing her Stephen flushed with pleasure, and her eyes that could see turned and rested on Mary with a gentle and very profound expression in their depths — at that moment they were calmly thoughtful, as though brooding upon the mystery of life — one might almost have said the eyes of a mother.

A happy and pleasant visit it had been; they talked about it all through the evening.

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