The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Forty-three

There comes a time in all passionate attachments when life, real life, must be faced once again with its varied and endless obligations, when the lover knows in his innermost heart that the halcyon days are over. He may well regret this prosaic intrusion, yet to him it will usually seem quite natural, so that while loving not one whit the less, he will bend his neck to the yoke of existence. But the woman, for whom love is an end in itself, finds it harder to submit thus calmly. To every devoted and ardent woman there comes this moment of poignant regretting; and struggle she must to hold it at bay. ‘Not yet, not yet — just a little longer’; until Nature, abhorring her idleness, forces on her the labour of procreation.

But in such relationships as Mary’s and Stephen’s, Nature must pay for experimenting; she may even have to pay very dearly — it largely depends on the sexual mixture. A drop too little of the male in the lover, and mighty indeed will be the wastage. And yet there are cases — and Stephen’s was one — in which the male will emerge triumphant; in which passion combined with real devotion will become a spur rather than a deterrent; in which love and endeavour will fight side by side in a desperate struggle to find some solution.

Thus it was that when Stephen returned from Morton, Mary divined, as it were by instinct, that the time of dreaming was over and past; and she clung very dose, kissing many times —

‘Do you love me as much as before you went? Do you love me?’ The woman’s eternal question.

And Stephen, who, if possible, loved her more, answered almost brusquely: ‘Of course I love you.’ For her thoughts were still heavy with the bitterness that had come of that visit of hers to Morton, and which at all costs must be hidden from Mary.

There had been no marked change in her mother’s manner. Anna had been very quiet and courteous. Together they had interviewed bailiff and agent, scheming as always for the welfare of Morton; but one topic there had been which Anna had ignored, had refused to discuss, and that topic was Mary. With a suddenness born of exasperation, Stephen had spoken of her one evening. ‘I want Mary Llewellyn to know my real home; some day I must bring her to Morton with me.’ She had stopped, seeing Anna’s warning face — expressionless, closed; while as for her answer, it had been more eloquent far than words — a disconcerting, unequivocal silence. And Stephen, had she ever entertained any doubt, must have known at that moment past all hope of doubting, that her mother’s omission to invite the girl had indeed been meant as a slight upon Mary. Getting up, she had gone to her father’s study.

Puddle, who had held her peace at the time, had spoken just before Stephen’s departure. ‘My dear, I know it’s all terribly hard about Morton — about . . . ’ She had hesitated.

And Stephen had thought with renewed bitterness: ‘Even she jibs, it seems, at mentioning Mary.’ She had answered: ‘If you’re speaking of Mary Llewellyn, I shall certainly never bring her to Morton, that is as long as my mother lives — I don’t allow her to be insulted.’

Then Puddle had looked at Stephen gravely. You’re not working, and yet work’s your only weapon. Make the world respect you, as you can do through your work; it’s the surest harbour of refuge for your friend, the only harbour — remember that — and it’s up to you to provide it, Stephen.’

Stephen had been too sore at heart to reply; but throughout the long journey from Morton to Paris, Puddle’s words had kept hammering in her brain: ‘You’re not working, and yet work’s your only weapon.’

So while Mary lay sleeping in Stephen’s arms on that first blessed night of their reunion, her lover lay wide-eyed with sleeplessness, planning the work she must do on the morrow, cursing her own indolence and folly, her illusion of safety where none existed.

2

They soon settled down to their more prosaic days very much as quite ordinary people will do. Each of them now had her separate tasks — Stephen her writing, and Mary the household, the paying of bills, the filing of receipts, the answering of unimportant letters. But for her there were long hours of idleness, since Pauline and Pierre were almost too perfect — they would smile and manage the house in their own way, which it must be admitted was better than Mary’s. As for the letters, there were not very many; and as for the bills, there was plenty of money — being spared the struggle to make two ends meet, she was also deprived of the innocent pleasure of scheming to provide little happy surprises, little extra comforts for the person she loved, which in youth can add a real zest to existence. Then Stephen had found her typing too slow, so was sending the work to a woman in Passy; obsessed by a longing to finish her book, she would tolerate neither let nor hindrance. And because of their curious isolation, there were times when Mary would feel very lonely. For whom did she know? She had no friends in Paris except the kind Mademoiselle Duphot and Julie. Once a week, it is true, she could go and see Buisson, for Stephen continued to keep up her fencing; and occasionally Brockett would come strolling in, but his interest was centred entirely in Stephen; if she should be working, as was often the case, he would not waste very much time over Mary.

Stephen often called her into the study, comforted by the girl’s loving presence. ‘Come and sit with me, sweetheart, I like you in here.’ But quite soon she would seem to forget all about her. ‘What . . . what?’ she would mutter, frowning a little. ‘Don’t speak to me just for a minute, Mary. Go and have your luncheon, there’s a good child; I’ll come when I’ve finished this bit — you go on!’ But Mary’s meal might be eaten alone; for meals had become an annoyance to Stephen.

Of course there was David, the grateful, the devoted. Mary could always talk to David, but since he could never answer her back the conversation was very one-sided. Then too, he was making it obvious that he, in his turn, was missing Stephen; he would hang around looking discontented when she failed to go out after frequent suggestions. For although his heart was faithful to Mary, the gentle dispenser of all salvation, yet the instinct that has dwelt in the soul of the male, perhaps ever since Adam left the Garden of Eden, the instinct that displays itself in club windows and in other such places of male segregation, would make him long for the companionable walks that had sometimes been taken apart from Mary. Above all would it make him long intensely for Stephen’s strong hands and purposeful ways; for that queer, intangible something about her that appealed to the canine manhood in him. She always allowed him to look after himself, without fussing; in a word, she seemed restful to David.

Mary slipping noiselessly out of the study, might whisper: We’ll go to the Tuileries Gardens.’

But when they arrived there, what was there to do? For of course a dog must not dive after goldfish — David understood this; there were goldfish at home — he must not start splashing about in ponds that had tiresome stone rims and ridiculous fountains. He and Mary would wander along gravel paths, among people who stared at and made fun of David: ‘Quel drôle de chien, mais regardez sa queue!’ They were like that, these French; they had laughed at his mother. She had told him never so much as to say: ‘Wouf!’ For what did they matter? Still, it was disconcerting. And although he had lived in France all his life — having indeed known no other country — as he walked in the stately Tuileries Gardens, the Celt in his blood would conjure up visions: great beetling mountains with winding courses down which the torrents went roaring in winter; the earth smell, the dew smell, the smell of wild things which a dog might hunt and yet remain lawful — for of all this and more had his old mother told him. These visions it was that had led him astray, that had treacherously led him half starving to Paris; and that, sometimes, even in these placid days, would come back as he walked in the Tuileries Gardens. But now his heart must thrust them aside — a captive he was now, through love of Mary.

But to Mary there would come one vision alone, that of a garden at Orotava; a garden lighted by luminous darkness, and filled with the restless rhythm of singing.

3

The autumn passed, giving place to the winter, with its short, dreary days of mist and rain. There was now little beauty left in Paris. A grey sky hung above the old streets of the Quarter, a sky which no longer looked bright by contrast, as though seen at the end of a tunnel. Stephen was working like someone possessed, entirely rewriting her prewar novel. Good it had been, but not good enough, for she now saw life from a much wider angle; and, moreover, she was writing this book for Mary. Remembering Mary, remembering Morton, her pen covered sheet after sheet of paper; she wrote with the speed of true inspiration, and at times her work brushed the hem of greatness. She did not entirely neglect the girl for whose sake she was making this mighty effort — that she could not have done even had she wished to, since love was the actual source of her effort. But quite soon there were days when she would not go out, or if she did go, when she seemed abstracted, so that Mary must ask her the same question twice — then as likely as not get a nebulous answer. And soon there were days when all that she did apart from her writing was done with an effort, with an obvious effort to be considerate.

‘Would you like to go to a play one night, Mary?’

If Mary said yes, and procured the tickets, they were usually late, because of Stephen who had worked right up to the very last minute.

Sometimes there were poignant if small disappointments, when Stephen had failed to keep a promise. ‘Listen, Mary darling — will you ever forgive me if I don’t come with you about those furs? I’ve a bit of work here I simply must finish. You do understand?’

‘Yes, of course I do.’ But Mary, left to choose her new furs alone, had quite suddenly felt that she did not want them.

And this sort of thing happened fairly often.

If only Stephen had confided in her, had said: ‘I’m trying to build you a refuge; remember what I told you in Orotava!’ But no, she shrank from reminding the girl of the gloom that surrounded their small patch of sunshine. If only she had shown a little more patience with Mary’s careful if rather slow typing, and so given her a real occupation — but no, she must send the work off to Passy, because the sooner this book was finished the better it would be for Mary’s future. And thus, blinded by love and her desire to protect the woman she loved, she erred towards Mary.

When she had finished her writing for the day, she frequently read it aloud in the evening. And although Mary knew that the writing was fine, yet her thoughts would stray from the book to Stephen. The deep, husky voice would read on and on, having in it something urgent, appealing, so that Mary must suddenly kiss Stephen’s hand, or the scar on her cheek, because of that voice far more than because of what it was reading.

And now there were times when, serving two masters, her passion for this girl and her will to protect her, Stephen would be torn by conflicting desires, by opposing mental and physical emotions. She would want to save herself for her work; she would want to give herself wholly to Mary.

Yet quite often she would work far into the night. ‘I’m going to be late — you go to bed, sweetheart.’

And when she herself had at last toiled upstairs, she would steal like a thief past Mary’s bedroom, although Mary would nearly always hear her.

‘Is that you, Stephen?’

‘Yes. Why aren’t you asleep? Do you realize that it’s three in the morning?’

‘Is it? You’re not angry, are you, darling? I kept thinking of you alone in the study. Come here and say you’re not angry with me, even if it is three o’clock in the morning!’

Then Stephen would slip off her old tweed coat and would fling herself down on the bed beside Mary, too exhausted to do more than take the girl in her arms, and let her lie there with her head on her shoulder.

But Mary would be thinking of all those things which she found so deeply appealing in Stephen — the scar on her cheek, the expression in her eyes, the strength and the queer, shy gentleness of her — the strength which at moments could not be gentle. And as they lay there Stephen might sleep, worn out by the strain of those long hours of writing. But Mary would not sleep, or if she slept it would be when the dawn was paling the windows.

4

One morning Stephen looked at Mary intently. ‘Come here. You’re not well! What’s the matter? Tell me.’ For she thought that the girl was unusually pale, thought too that her lips drooped a little at the corners; and a sudden fear contracted her heart. ‘Tell me at once what’s the matter with you!’ Her voice was rough with anxiety, and she laid an imperative hand over Mary’s.

Mary protested. ‘Don’t be absurd; there’s nothing the matter, I’m perfectly well — you’re imagining things.’ For what could be the matter? Was she not here in Paris with Stephen? But her eyes filled with tears, and she turned away quickly to hide them, ashamed of her own unreason.

Stephen stuck to her point. ‘You don’t look a bit well. We shouldn’t have stayed in Paris last summer.’ Then because her own nerves were on edge that day, she frowned. ‘It’s this business of your not eating whenever I can’t get in to a meal. I know you don’t eat — Pierre’s told me about it. You mustn’t behave like a baby, Mary! I shan’t be able to write a line if I feel you’re ill because you’re not eating.’ Her fear was making her lose her temper. ‘I shall send for a doctor,’ she finished brusquely.

Mary refused point-blank to see a doctor. What was she to tell him? She hadn’t any symptoms. Pierre exaggerated. She ate quite enough — she had never been a very large eater. Stephen had better get on with her work and stop upsetting herself over nothing.

But try as she might, Stephen could not get on — all the rest of the day her work went badly.

After this she would often leave her desk and go wandering off in search of Mary. ‘Darling, where are you?’

‘Upstairs in my bedroom!’

‘Well, come down; I want you here in the study.’ And when Mary had settled herself by the fire: ‘Now tell me exactly how you feel — all right?’

And Mary would answer, smiling: ‘Yes, I’m quite all right; I swear I am, Stephen!’

It was not an ideal atmosphere for work, but the book was by now so well advanced that nothing short of a disaster could have stopped it — it was one of those books that intend to get born, and that go on maturing in spite of their authors. Nor was there anything really alarming about the condition of Mary’s health. She did not look very well, that was all; and at times she seemed a little downhearted, so that Stephen must snatch a few hours from her work in order that they might go out together. Perhaps they would lunch at a restaurant; or drive into the country, to the rapture of David; or just wander about the streets arm in arm as they had done when first they had returned to Paris. And Mary, because she would be feeling happy, would revive for these few hours as though by magic. Yet when she must once more find herself lonely, with nowhere to go and no one to talk to, because Stephen was back again at her desk, why then she would wilt, which was not unnatural considering her youth and her situation.

5

On Christmas Eve Brockett arrived, bringing flowers. Mary had gone for a walk with David, so Stephen must leave her desk with a sigh. ‘Come in, Brockett. I say! what wonderful lilac!’

He sat down, lighting a cigarette. ‘Yes, isn’t it fine? I brought it for Mary. How is she?’

Stephen hesitated a moment. ‘Not awfully well . . . I’ve been worried about her.’

Brockett frowned, and stared thoughtfully into the fire. There was something that he wanted to say to Stephen; a warning that he was longing to give, but he did not feel certain how she would take it — no wonder that wretched girl was not fit, forced to lead such a deadly dull existence! If Stephen would let him he wanted to advise, to admonish, to be brutally frank if need be. He had once been brutally frank about her work, but that had been a less delicate matter.

He began to fidget with his soft, white hands, drumming on the arms of the chair with his fingers. Stephen, I’ve been meaning to speak about Mary. She struck me as looking thoroughly depressed the last time I saw her — when was it? Monday. Yes, she struck me as looking thoroughly depressed.’

‘Oh, but surely you were wrong . . . ’ interrupted Stephen.

‘No, I’m perfectly sure I was right,’ he insisted. Then he said: ‘I’m going to take a big risk — I’m going to take the risk of losing your friendship.’

His voice was so genuinely regretful, that Stephen must ask him: ‘Well — what is it, Brockett?’

‘You, my dear. You’re not playing fair with that girl; the life she’s leading would depress a mother abbess. It’s enough to give anybody the hump, and it’s going to give Mary neurasthenia!’

‘What on earth do you mean?’

‘Don’t get ratty and I’ll tell you. Look here, I’m not going to pretend any more. Of course we all know that you two are lovers. You’re gradually becoming a kind of legend — all’s well lost for love, and that sort of thing . . . But Mary’s too young to become a legend; and so are you, my dear, for that matter. But you’ve got your work, whereas Mary’s got nothing — not a soul does that miserable kid know in Paris. Don’t please interrupt. I’ve not nearly finished; I positively must and will have my say out! You and she have decided to make a ménage — as far as I can see it’s as bad as marriage! But if you were a man it would be rather different; you’d have dozens of friends as a matter of course. Mary might even be going to have an infant. Oh, for God’s sake, Stephen, do stop looking shocked. Mary’s a perfectly normal young woman; she can’t live by love alone, that’s all rot — especially as I shrewdly suspect that when you’re working the diet’s pretty meagre. For heaven’s sake let her go about a bit! Why on earth don’t you take her to Valérie Seymour’s? At Valérie’s place she’d meet lots of people; and I ask you, what harm could it possibly do? You shun your own ilk as though they were the devil! Mary needs friends awfully badly, and she needs a certain amount of amusement. But be a bit careful of the so-called normal.’ And now Brockett’s voice grew aggressive and bitter. ‘I wouldn’t go trying to force them to be friends — I’m not thinking so much of you now as of Mary; she’s young and the young are easily bruised . . .

He was perfectly sincere. He was trying to be helpful, spurred on by his curious affection for Stephen. At the moment he felt very friendly and anxious; there was nothing of the cynic left in him — at the moment. He was honestly advising according to his lights — perhaps the only lights that the world had left him.

And Stephen could find very little to say. She was sick of denials and subterfuges, sick of tacit lies which outraged her own instincts and which seemed like insults thrust upon Mary; so she left Brockett’s bolder statements unchallenged. As for the rest, she hedged a little, still vaguely mistrustful of Valérie Seymour. Yet she knew quite well that Brockett had been right — life these days must often be lonely for Mary. Why had she never thought of this before? She cursed herself for her lack of perception.

Then Brockett tactfully changed the subject; he was far too wise not to know when to stop. So now he told her about his new play, which for him was a very unusual proceeding. And as he talked on there came over Stephen a queer sense of relief at the thought that he knew . . . Yes, she actually felt a sense of relief because this man knew of her relations with Mary; because there was no longer any need to behave as if those relations were shameful — at all events in the presence of Brockett. The world had at last found a chink in her armour.

6

‘We must go and sce Valérie Seymour one day,’ Stephen remarked quite casually that evening. ‘She’s a very well-known woman in Paris. I believe she gives rather jolly parties. I think it’s about time you had a few friends.’

‘Oh, what fun! Yes, do let’s — I’d love it!’ exclaimed Mary.

Stephen thought that her voice sounded pleased and excited and in spite of herself she sighed a little. But after all nothing really mattered except that Mary should keep well and happy. She would certainly take her to Valérie Seymour’s — why not? She had probably been very foolish. Selfish too, sacrificing the girl to her cranks —

‘Darling, of course we’ll go,’ she aid quickly. ‘I expect we’ll find it awfully amusing.’

7

Three days later, Valérie, having seen Brockett, wrote a short but cordial invitation: ‘Do come in on Wednesday if you possibly can — I mean both of you, of course. Brockett’s promised to come, and one or two other interesting people. I’m so looking forward to renewing our acquaintance after all this long time, and to meeting Miss Llewellyn. But why have you never been to see me? I don’t think that was very friendly of you! However, you can make up for past neglect by coming to my little party on Wednesday . . .

Stephen tossed the letter across to Mary. ‘There you arc!’ ‘How ripping — but will you go?’

‘Do you want to?’

Yes, of course. Only what about your work?’

‘It will keep all right for one afternoon.’

Are you sure?’

Stephen smiled. ‘Yes, I’m quite sure, darling.’

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