The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Forty-five

By February Stephen’s book was rewritten and in the hands of her publisher in England. This gave her the peaceful, yet exhilarated feeling that comes when a writer has given of his best and knows that that best is not unworthy. With a sigh of relief she metaphorically stretched, rubbed her eyes and started to look about her. She was in the mood that comes as a reaction from strain, and glad enough of amusement; moreover the spring was again in the air, the year had turned, there were sudden bright days when the sun brought a few hours of warmth to Paris.

They were now no longer devoid of friends, no longer solely dependent upon Brockett on the one hand, and Mademoiselle Duphot on the other; Stephen’s telephone would ring pretty often. There was now always somewhere for Mary to go; always people who were anxious to see her and Stephen, people with whom one got intimate quickly and was thus saved a lot of unnecessary trouble. Of them all, however, it was Barbara and Jamie for whom Mary developed a real affection; she and Barbara had formed a harmless alliance which at times was even a little pathetic. The one talking of Jamie, the other of Stephen, they would put their young heads together very gravely. ‘Do you find Jamie goes off her food when she’s working?’ ‘Do you find that Stephen sleeps badly? Is she careless of her health? Jamie’s awfully worrying sometimes.’

Or perhaps they would be in a more flippant mood and would sit and whisper together, laughing; making tender fun of the creatures they loved, as women have been much inclined to do ever since that rib was demanded of Adam. Then Jamie and Stephen would pretend to feel aggrieved, would pretend that they also must hang together, must be on their guard against feminine intrigues. Oh, yes, the whole business was rather pathetic.

Jamie and her Barbara were starvation-poor, so poor that a square meal came as a godsend. Stephen would feel ashamed to be rich, and, like Mary, was always anxious to feed them. Being idle at the moment Stephen would insist upon frequently taking them out to dinner, and then she would order expensive viands — copper-green oysters straight from the Marennes, caviare and other such costly things, to be followed by even more sumptuous dishes — and since they went short on most days in the week, these stomachic debauches would frequently upset them. Two glasses of wine would cause Jamie to flush, for her head had never been of the strongest, nor was it accustomed to such golden nectar. Her principal beverage was creme-dementhe because it kept out the cold in the winter, and because, being pepperminty and sweet, it reminded her of the bulls-eyes at Beedles.

They were not very easy to help, these two, for Jamie, pride-galled, was exceedingly touchy. She would never accept gifts of money or clothes, and was struggling to pay off the debt to her master. Even food gave offence unless it was shared by the donors, which though very praiseworthy was foolish. However, there it was, one just had to take her or leave her, there was no compromising with Jamie.

After dinner they would drift back to Jamie’s abode, a studio in the old Rue Visconti. They would climb innumerable dirty stone stairs to the top of what had once been a fine house but was now let off to such poor rats as Jamie. The concierge, an unsympathetic woman, long soured by the empty pockets of students, would peer out at them from her dark ground-floor kennel, with sceptical eyes.

‘Bon soir, Madame Lambert.’

‘Bon soir, mesdames,’ she would growl impolitely.

Jamie’s studio was large, bare and swept by draughts. The stove was too small and at times it smelt vilely. The distempered grey walls were a mass of stains, for whenever it hailed or rained or snowed the windows and skylight would always start dripping. The furniture consisted of a few shaky chairs, a table, a divan and a hired grand piano. Nearly everyone seated themselves on the floor, robbing the divan of its moth-eaten cushions. From the studio there led off a tiny room with an eye-shaped window that would not open. In this room had been placed a narrow camp-bed to which Jamie retired when she felt extra sleepless. For the rest, there was a sink with a leaky tap; a cupboard in which they kept creme-dementhe, what remnants of food they possessed at the moment, Jamie’s carpet-slippers and blue jean jacket — minus which she could never compose a note — and the pail, cloths and brushes with which Barbara endeavoured to keep down the accumulating dirt and confusion. For Jamie with her tow-coloured head in the clouds, was not only short-sighted but intensely untidy. Dust meant little to her since she seldom saw it, while neatness was completely left out of her make-up; considering how limited were her possessions, the chaos they produced was truly amazing. Barbara would sigh and would quite often scold — when she scolded she reminded one of a wren who was struggling to discipline a large cuckoo.

‘Jamie, your dirty shirt, give it to me — leaving it there on the piano, whatever!’ Or, ‘Jamie, come here and look at your hair-brush; if you haven’t gone and put it next-door to the butter!’

Then Jamie would peer with her strained, red-rimmed eyes and would grumble: ‘Oh, leave me in peace, do, lassie!’

And when Barbara laughed, as she must do quite often at the outrageous habits of the great loose-limbed creature, why then these days she would usually cough, and when Barbara started to cough she coughed badly. They had seen a doctor who had spoken about lungs and had shaken his head; not strong, he had told them. But neither of them had quite understood, for their French had remained very embryonic, and they could not afford the smart English doctor. All the same when Barbara coughed Jamie sweated, and her fear would produce an acute irritation.

‘Here, drink this water! Don’t sit there doing nothing but rack yourself to bits, it gets on my nerves. Go and order another bottle of that mixture. God, how can I work if you will go on coughing!’ She would slouch co the piano and play mighty chords, pressing down the loud pedal to drown that coughing. But when it had subsided she would feel deep remorse. ‘Oh, Barbara, you’re so little — forgive me. It’s all my fault for bringing you out here, you’re not strong enough for this damnable life, you don’t get the right food, or anything proper.’

In the end it would be Barbara who must console. ‘We’ll be rich some day when you’ve finished your opera — anyhow my cough isn’t dangerous, Jamie.’

Sometimes Jamie’s music would go all wrong, the opera would blankly refuse to get written. At the Conservatoire she would be very stupid, and when she got home she would be very silent, pushing her supper away with a frown, because coming upstairs she had heard that cough. Then Barbara would fed even more tired and weak than before, but would hide he, weakness from Jamie. After supper they would undress in front of the stove if the weather was cold, would undress without speaking. Barbara could get out of her clothes quite neatly in no time, but Jamie must always dawdle, dropping first this then that on the floor, or pausing to fill her little black pipe and to light it before putting on her pyjamas.

Barbara would fall on her knees by the divan and would start to say prayers like a child, very simply. ‘Our Father,’ she would say, and other prayers too, which always ended in: ‘Please God, bless Jamie.’ For believing in Jamie she must needs believe in God, and because she loved Jamie she must love God also — it had long been like this, ever since they were children. But sometimes she would shiver in her prim cotton nightgown, so that Jamie, grown anxious, would speak to her sharply:

‘Oh, stop praying, do. You and all your prayers! Are you daft to kneel there when the room’s fairly freezing? That’s how you catch cold; now tonight you’ll cough!’

But Barbara would not so much as turn round; she would calmly and earnestly go on with her praying. Her neck would look thin against the thick plait which hung neatly down between her bent shoulders; and the hands that covered her face would look thin — thin and transparent like the hands of a consumptive. Fuming inwardly, Jamie would stump off to bed in the tiny room with its eye-shaped window, and there she herself must mutter a prayer, especially if she heard Barbara coughing.

At times Jamie gave way to deep depression, hating the beautiful city of her exile. Homesick unto death she would suddenly feel for the dour little Highland village of Beedles. More even than for its dull bricks and mortar would she long for its dull and respectable spirit, for the sense of security common to Sabbaths, for the kirk with its dull and respectable people. She would think with a tenderness bred by forced absence of the greengrocer’s shop that stood on the corner, where they sold, side by side with cabbages and onions, little neatly tied bunches of Scottish heather, little earthenware jars of opaque heather honey. She would think of the vast, stretching, windy moorlands; of the smell of the soil after rain in summer; of the piper with his weather-stained, agile fingers, of the wail of his sorrowful, outlandish music; of Barbara as she had been in the days when they strolled side by side down the narrow high street. And then she would sit with her head in her hands, hating the sound and the smell of Paris, hating the sceptical eyes of the concierge, hating the bare and unhomely studio. Tears would well up from heaven alone knew what abyss of half-understood desolation, and would go splashing down upon her tweed skirt, or trickling back along her red wrists until they had wetted her frayed flannel wrist-bands. Coming home with their evening meal in a bag, this was how Barbara must sometimes find her.

2

Jamie was not always so full of desolation; there were days when she seemed to be in excellent spirits, and on one such occasion she rang Stephen up, asking her to bring Mary round after dinner. Everyone was coming, Wanda and Pat, Brockett, and even Valérie Seymour; for she, Jamie, had persuaded a couple of negroes who were studying at the Conservatoire to come in and sing for them that evening — they had promised to sing Negro Spirituals, old slavery songs of the Southern plantations. They were very nice negroes, their name was Jones — Lincoln and Henry Jones, they were brothers. Lincoln and Jamie had become great friends; he was very interested in her opera. And Wanda would bring her mandolin — but the evening would be spoilt without Mary and Stephen.

Mary promptly put on her hat; she must go and order them in some supper. As she and Stephen would be there to share it, Jamie’s sensitive pride would be appeased. She would send them a very great deal of food so that they could go on eating and eating.

Stephen nodded: ‘Yes, send them in tons of supper!’

3

At ten o’clock they arrived at the studio; at ten-thirty Wanda came in with Brockett, then Blanc together with Valérie Seymour, then Pat wearing serviceable goloshes over her house shoes because it was raining, then three or four fellow students of Jamie’s, and, finally the two negro brothers.

They were very unlike each other, these negroes; Lincoln, the elder, was paler in colour. He was short and inclined to be rather thick-set with a heavy but intellectual face — a strong face, much lined for a man of thirty. His eyes had the patient, questioning expression common to the eyes of most animals and to those of all slowly evolving races. He shook hands very quietly with Stephen and Mary. Henry was tall and as black as a coal, a fine upstanding, but coarse-lipped young negro, with a roving glance and a self-assured manner.

He remarked: Glad to meet you, Miss Gordon — Miss Llewellyn,’ and plumped himself down at Mary’s side, where he started to make conversation, too glibly.

Valérie Seymour was soon talking to Lincoln with a friendliness that put him at his ease — just A first he had seemed a little self-conscious. But Pat was much more reserved in her manner, having hailed from abolitionist Boston.

Wanda said abruptly: ‘Can I have a drink, Jamie!’ Brockett poured her out a stiff brandy and soda.

Adolphe Blanc sat on the floor hugging his knees; and presently Dupont the sculptor strolled in-being minus his mistress he migrated to Stephen.

Then Lincoln seated himself at the piano, touching the keys with firm, expert fingers, while Henry stood beside him very straight and long and lifted up his voice which was velvet smooth, yet as dear and insistent as the call of a clarion:

‘Deep river, my home is over Jordan. Deep river — Lord, I want to cross over into camp ground, Lord, I want to cross over into camp ground, Lord, I want to cross over into camp ground, Lord, I want to cross over into camp ground . . .

And all the hope of the utterly hopeless of this world, who must live by their ultimate salvation, all the terrible, aching, homesick hope that is born of the infinite pain of the spirit, seemed to break from this man and shake those who listened, so that they sat with bent heads and clasped hands — they who were also among the hopeless sat with bent heads and clasped hands as they listened . . . Even Valérie Seymour forgot to be pagan.

He was not an exemplary young negro; indeed he could be the reverse very often. A crude animal Henry could be at times, with a taste for liquor and a lust for women — just a primitive force rendered dangerous by drink, rendered offensive by civilization. Yet as he sang his sins seemed to drop from him, leaving him pure, unashamed, triumphant. He sang to his God, to the God of his soul. Who would some day blot out all the sins of the world, and make vast reparation for every injustice: ‘My home is over Jordan, Lord, I want to cross over into camp ground.’

Lincoln’s deep bass voice kept up a low sobbing. From time to time only did he break into words; but as he played on he rocked his body: ‘Lord, I want to cross over into camp ground. Lord, I want to cross over into camp ground.’

Once started they seemed unable to stop; carried away they were by their music, drunk with that desperate hope of the hopeless — far drunker than Henry would get on neat whisky. They went from one spiritual into another, while their listeners sat motionless, scarcely breathing. While Jamie’s eyes ached from unshed tears quite as much as from her unsuitable glasses; while Adolphe Blanc, the gentle, the learned, grasped his knees and pondered many things deeply; while Pat remembered her Arabella and found but small consolation in beetles; while Brockett thought of certain brave deeds that he, even he had done out in Mespot — deeds that were not recorded in dispatches, unless in those of the recording angel; while Wanda evolved an enormous canvas depicting the wrongs of all mankind; while Stephen suddenly found Mary’s hand and held it in hers with a painful pressure; while Barbara’s tired and childish brown eyes turned to rest rather anxiously on her Jamie. Not one of them all but was stirred to the depths by that queer, half defiant, half supplicating music.

And now there rang out a kind of challenge; imperious, loud, almost terrifying. They sang it together, those two black brethren, and their voices suggested a multitude of shouting. They seemed to be shouting a challenge to the world on behalf of themselves and of all the afflicted:

‘Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel,

Daniel, Daniel!

Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel,

Then why not every man?’

The eternal question, as yet unanswered for those who sat there spellbound and listened . . . ‘Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, then why not every man?’

Why not? . . . Yes, but how long, O Lord, how long?

Lincoln got up from the piano abruptly, and he made a small bow which seemed strangely foolish, murmuring some stilted words of thanks on behalf of himself and his brother Henry: ‘We are greatly obliged to you for your patience; we trust that we have satisfied you,’ he murmured.

It was over. They were just two men with black skins and foreheads beaded with perspiration. Henry sidled away to the whisky, while Lincoln rubbed his pinkish palms on an elegant white silk handkerchief. Everyone started to talk at once, to light cigarettes, to move about the studio.

Jamie said: ‘Come on, people, it’s time for supper,’ and she swallowed a small glass of creme-dementhe; but Wanda poured herself out some more brandy.

Quite suddenly they had all become merry, laughing at nothing, teasing each other; even Valérie unbent more than was her wont and did not look bored when Brockett chaffed her. The air grew heavy and stinging with smoke; the stove went out, but they scarcely noticed.

Henry Jones lost his head and pinched Pat’s bony shoulder, then he rolled his eyes: ‘Oh, boy! What a gang! Say, folks, aren’t we having the hell of an evening? When any of you folk decide to come over to my little old New York, why, I’ll show you around. Some burg!’ and he gulped a large mouthful of whisky.

After supper Jamie played the overture to her opera, and they loudly applauded the rather dull music — so scholarly, so dry, so painfully stiff, so utterly inexpressive of Jamie. Then Wanda produced her mandolin and insisted upon singing them Polish love songs; this she did in a heavy contralto voice which was rendered distinctly unstable by brandy. She handled the tinkling instrument with skill, evolving some quite respectable chords, but her eyes were fierce as was also her touch, so that presently a wire snapped with a ping, which appeared completely to upset her balance. She fell back and lay sprawled out upon the floor to be hauled up again by Dupont and Brockett.

Barbara had one of her bad fits of coughing: ‘It’s nothing . . . ’ she gasped, ‘I swallowed the wrong way; don’t fuss, Jamie . . . darling . . . I tell you it’s . . . nothing.’

Jamie, flushed already, drank more creme-dementhe. This time she poured it into a tumbler, tossing it off with a dash of soda. But Adolphe Blanc looked at Barbara gravely.

The party did not disperse until morning; not until four o’clock could they decide to go home. Everybody had stayed to the very last moment, everybody, that is, except Valérie Seymour — she had left immediately after supper. Brockett, as usual, was cynically sober, but Jamie was blinking her eyes like an owl, while Pat stumbled over her own goloshes. As for Henry Jones, he started to sing at the top of his lungs in a high falsetto:

‘Oh, my, help, help, ain’t I nobody’s baby?

Oh, my, what a shame, I ain’t nobody’s baby.’

Shut your noise, you poor mutt!’ commanded his brother, but Henry still continued to bawl: ‘Oh, my, what a shame, I ain’t nobody’s baby.’

They left Wanda asleep on a heap of cushions — she would probably not wake up before midday.

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