The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Fifty

Stephen ought to have gone to England that summer; at Morton there had been a change of agent, and once again certain questions had arisen which required her careful personal attention. But time had not softened Anna’s attitude to Mary, and time had not lessened Stephen’s exasperation — the more so as Mary no longer hid the bitterness that she felt at this treatment. So Stephen tackled the business by writing a number of long and wearisome letters, unwilling to set foot again in the house where Mary Llewellyn would not be welcome. But as always the thought of England wounded, bringing with it the old familiar longing — homesick she would feel as she sat at her desk writing those wearisome business letters. For even as Jamie must crave for the grey, wind-swept street and the wind-swept uplands of Beedles, so Stephen must crave for the curving hills, for the long green hedges and pastures of Morton. Jamie openly wept when such moods were upon her, but the easement of tears was denied to Stephen.

In August Jamie and Barbara joined them in a villa that Stephen had taken at Houlgate. Mary hoped that the bathing would do Barbara good; she was not at all well. Jamie worried about her. And indeed the girl had grown very frail, so frail that the housework now tried her sorely; when alone she must sit down and hold her side for the pain that was never mentioned to Jamie. Then too, all was not well between them these days; poverty, even hunger at times, the sense of being unwanted outcasts, the knowledge that the people to whom they belonged — good and honest people — both abhorred and despised them, such things as these had proved very bad housemates for sensitive souls like Barbara and Jamie.

Large, helpless, untidy and intensely forlorn, Jamie would struggle to finish her opera; but quite often these days she would tear up her work, knowing that what she had written was unworthy. When this happened she would sigh and peer round the studio, vaguely conscious that something was not as it had been, vaguely distressed by the dirt of the place to which she herself had helped to contribute — Jamie, who had never before noticed dirt, would feel aggrieved by its noxious presence. Getting up she would wipe the keys of the piano with Barbara’s one clean towel dipped in water.

‘Can’t play,’ she would grumble, ‘these keys are all sticky.’ ‘Oh, Jamie — my towel — go and fetch the duster!’

The quarrel that ensued would start Barbara’s cough, which in turn would start Jamie’s nerves vibrating. Then compassion, together with unreasoning anger and a sudden uprush of sex-frustration, would make her feel wellnigh beside herself — since owing to Barbara’s failing health, these two could be lovers now in name only. And this forced abstinence told on Jamie’s work as well as her nerves, destroying her music, for those who maintain that the North is cold, might just as well tell us that hell is freezing. Yet she did her best, the poor uncouth creature, to subjugate the love of the flesh to the pure and more selfless love of the spirit — the flesh did not have it all its own way with Jamie.

That summer she made a great effort to talk, to unburden herself when alone with Stephen; and Stephen tried hard to console and advise, while knowing that she could help very little. All her offers of money to ease the strain were refused pointblank, sometimes almost with rudeness — she felt very anxious indeed about Jamie.

Mary in her turn was deeply concerned; her affection for Barbara had never wavered, and she sat for long hours in the garden with the girl who seemed too weak to bathe, and whom walking exhausted.

‘Let us help,’ she pleaded, stroking Barbara’s thin hand, ‘after all, we’re much better off than you are. Aren’t you two like ourselves? Then why mayn’t we help?’

Barbara slowly shook her head: ‘I’m all right — please don’t talk about money to Jamie.’

But Mary could see that she was far from all tight; the warm weather was proving of little avail, even care and good food and sunshine and rest seemed unable to ease that incessant coughing.

‘You ought to see a specialist at once,’ she told Barbara rather sharply one morning.

But Barbara shook her head yet again: ‘Don’t, Mary — don’t please . . . you’ll be frightening Jamie.’

2

After their return to Paris in the autumn, Jamie sometimes joined the nocturnal parties; going rather grimly from bar to bar, and drinking too much of the crême-dementhe that reminded her of the bull’s-eyes at Beedles. She had never cared for these parties before, but now she was clumsily trying to escape, for a few hours at least, from the pain of existence. Barbara usually stayed at home or spent the evening with Stephen and Mary. But Stephen and Mary would not always be there, for now they also went out fairly often; and where was there to go to except the bars? Nowhere else could two women dance together without causing comment and ridicule, without being looked upon as freaks, argued Mary. So rather than let the girl go without her, Stephen would lay aside her work — she had recently started to write her fourth novel.

Sometimes, it is true, their friends came to them, a less sordid and far less exhausting business; but even at their own house the drink was too free: ‘We can’t be the only couple to refuse to give people a brandy and soda,’ said Mary. ‘Valérie’s parties are awfully dull; that’s because she’s allowed herself to grow cranky!’

And thus, very gradually just at first, Mary’s finer perceptions began to coarsen.

3

The months passed, and now more than a year had slipped by, yet Stephen’s novel remained unfinished; for Mary’s face stood between her and her work — surely the mouth and the eyes had hardened?

Still unwilling to let Mary go without her, she dragged wearily round to the bars and cafés, observing with growing anxiety that Mary now drank as did all the others — not too much perhaps, but quite enough to give her a cheerful outlook on existence.

The next morning she was often deeply depressed, in the grip of a rather tearful reaction: ‘It’s too beastly — why do we do it?’ she would ask.

And Stephen would answer: ‘God knows I don’t want to, but I won’t let you go to such places without me. Can’t we give it all up? It’s appallingly sordid!’

Then Mary would flare out with sudden anger, her mood changing as she felt a slight tug on the bridle. Were they to have no friends? she would ask. Were they to sit still and let the world crush them? If they were reduced to the bars of Paris, whose fault was that? Not hers and not Stephen’s. Oh, no, it was the fault of the Lady Annas and the Lady Masseys who had closed their doors, so afraid were they of contamination.

Stephen would sit with her head on her hand, searching her sorely troubled mind for some ray of light, some adequate answer.

4

That winter Barbara fell very ill. Jamie rushed round to the house one morning, hatless, and with deeply, tormented eyes: ‘Mary, please come — Barbara can’t get up, it’s a pain in her side. Oh, my God — we quarrelled . . . ’ Her voice was shrill and she spoke very fast: ‘Listen — last night — there was snow on the ground, it was cold — I was angry . . . I can’t remember . . . but I know I was angry — I get like that. She went out — she stayed out for quite two hours, and when she came back she was shivering so. Oh, my God, but why did we quarrel, whatever? She can’t move; it’s an awful pain in her side . . .

Stephen said quietly: ‘We’ll come almost at once, but first I’m going to ring up my own doctor.’

5

Barbara was lying in the tiny room with the eye-shaped window that would not open. The stove had gone out in the studio, and the air was heavy with cold and dampness. On the piano lay some remnants of manuscript music torn up on the previous evening by Jamie.

Barbara opened her eyes: ‘Is that you, my bairn?’

They had never heard Barbara call her that before — the great, lumbering, big-boned, long-legged Jamie.

‘Yes, it’s me.’

‘Come here close . . . ’ The voice drifted away.

‘I’m here — oh, I’m here! I’ve got hold of your hand. Look at me, open your eyes again — Barbara, listen, I’m here — don’t you feel me?’

Stephen tried to restrain the shrill, agonized voice: ‘Don’t speak so loud, Jamie, perhaps she’s sleeping,’ but she knew very well that this was not so; the girl was not sleeping now, but unconscious.

Mary found some fuel and lighted the stove, then she started to tidy the disordered studio. Flakes of flue lay here and there on the floor; thick dust was filming the top of the piano. Barbara had been waging a losing fight — strange that so mean a thing as this dust should, in the end, have been able to conquer. Food there was none, and putting on her coat Mary finally went forth in quest of milk and other things likely to come in useful. At the foot of the stairs she was met by the concierge; the woman looked glum, as though deeply aggrieved by this sudden and very unreasonable illness. Mary thrust some money into her hand, then hurried away intent on her shopping.

When she returned the doctor was there; he was talking very gravely to Stephen: ‘It’s double pneumonia, a pretty bad case — the girl’s heart’s so weak. I’ll send in a nurse. What about the friend, will she be any good?’

‘I’ll help with the nursing if she isn’t,’ said Mary.

Stephen said: ‘You do understand about the bills — the nurse and all that?’

The doctor nodded.

They forced Jamie to eat: ‘For Barbara’s sake . . . Jamie, we’re with you, you’re not alone, Jamie.’

She peered with her red-rimmed, short-sighted eyes, only half understanding, but she did as they told her. Then she got up without so much as a word, and went back to the room with the eye-shaped window. Still in silence she squatted on the floor by the bed, like a dumb, faithful dog who endured without speaking. And they let her alone, let her have her poor way, for this was not their Calvary but Jamie’s.

The nurse arrived, a calm, practical woman: ‘You’d better lie down for a bit,’ she told Jamie, and in silence Jamie lay down on the floor.

‘No, my dear — please go and lie down in the studio.’

She got up slowly to obey this new voice, lying down, with her face to the wall, on the divan.

The nurse turned to Stephen: ‘Is she a relation?’

Stephen hesitated, then she shook her head.

‘That’s a pity, in a serious case like this I’d like to be in touch with some relation, someone who has a right to decide things. You know what I mean — it’s double pneumonia.’

Stephen said dully: ‘No — she’s not a relation.’

‘Just a friend?’ the nurse queried.

‘Just a friend,’ muttered Stephen.

6

They went back that evening and stayed the night. Mary helped with the nursing; Stephen looked after Jamie.

‘Is she a little — I mean the friend — is she mental at all, do you know?’ The nurse whispered, ‘I can’t get her to speak — she’s anxious, of course; still, all the same, it doesn’t seem natural.’

Stephen said: ‘No — it doesn’t seem natural to you.’ And she suddenly flushed to the roots of her hair. Dear God, the outrage of this for Jamie!

But Jamie seemed quite unconscious of outrage. From time to time she stood in the doorway peering over at Barbara’s wasted face, listening to Barbara’s painful breathing, and then she would turn her bewildered eyes on the nurse, on Mary, but above all on Stephen.

‘Jamie — come back and sit down by the stove; Mary’s there, it’s all right.’

Came a queer, halting voice that spoke with an effort: ‘But . . . Stephen . . . we quarrelled.’

‘Come and sit by the stove — Mary’s with her, my dear.’

‘Hush, please,’ said the nurse, ‘you’re disturbing my patient.’

7

Barbara’s fight against death was so brief that it hardly seemed in the nature of a struggle. Life had left her no strength to repel this last foe — or perhaps it was that to her he seemed friendly. Just before her death she kissed Jamie’s hand and tried to speak, but the words would not come — those words of forgiveness and love for Jamie.

Then Jamie flung herself down by the bed, and she clung there, still in that uncanny silence. Stephen never knew how they got her away while the nurse performed the last merciful duties.

But when flowers had been placed in Barbara’s hands, and Mary had lighted a couple of candles, then Jamie went back and stared quietly down at the small, waxen face that lay on the pillow; and she turned to the nurse:

‘Thank you so much,’ she said, ‘I think you’ve done all that there is to do — and now I suppose you’ll want to be going?’

The nurse glanced at Stephen.

‘It’s all right, we’ll stay. I think perhaps — if you don’t mind, nurse..

‘Very well, it must be as you wish, Miss Gordon.’

When she had gone Jamie veered round abruptly and walked back into the empty studio. Then all in a moment the floodgates gave way and she wept and she wept like a creature demented. Bewailing the life of hardship and exile that had sapped Barbara’s strength and weakened her spirit; bewailing the cruel dispensation of fate that had forced them to leave their home in the Highlands; bewailing the terrible thing that is death to those who, still loving, must look upon it. Yet all the exquisite pain of this parting seemed as nothing to an anguish that was far more subtle: ‘I can’t mourn her without bringing shame on her name — I can’t go back home now and mourn her,’ wailed Jamie; ‘oh, and I want to go back to Beedles, I want to be home among our own people — I want them to know how much I loved her. Oh God, oh God! I can’t even mourn her, and I want to grieve for her home there in Beedles.’

What could they speak but inadequate words: ‘Jamie, don’t, don’t! You loved each other — isn’t that something? Remember that, Jamie.’ They could only speak the inadequate words that are given to people on such occasions.

But after a while the storm seemed to pass, Jamie seemed to grow suddenly calm and collected: ‘You two,’ she said gravely, ‘I want to thank you for all you’ve been to Barbara and me.’

Mary started crying.

‘Don’t cry,’ said Jamie.

The evening came. Stephen lighted the lamp, then she made up the stove while Mary laid the supper. Jamie ate a little, and she actually smiled when Stephen poured her out a weak whisky.

‘Drink it, Jamie — it may help you to get some sleep.’

Jamie shook her head: ‘I shall sleep without it — but I want to be left alone tonight, Stephen.’

Mary protested but Jamie was firm: ‘I want to be left alone with her, please — you do understand that, Stephen, don’t you?’

Stephen hesitated, then she saw Jamie’s face; it was full of a new and calm resolution: ‘It’s my right,’ she was saying, ‘I’ve a right to be alone with the woman I love before they — take her.’

Jamie held the lamp to light them downstairs — her hand, Stephen thought, seemed amazingly steady.

8

The next morning when they went to the studio quite early, they heard voices coming from the topmost landing. The concierge was standing outside Jamie’s door, and with her was a young man, one of the tenants. The concierge had tried the door; it was locked and no one made any response to her knocking. She had brought Jamie up a cup of hot coffee — Stephen saw it, the coffee had slopped into the saucer. Either pity or the memory of Mary’s large tips, had apparently touched the heart of this woman.

Stephen hammered loudly: ‘Jamie!’ she called, and then again and again: ‘Jamie! Jamie!’

The young man set his shoulder to a panel, and all the while he pushed he was talking. He lived just underneath, but last night he was out, not returning until nearly six this morning. He had heard that one of the girls had died — the little one — she had always looked fragile.

Stephen added her strength to his; the woodwork was damp and rotten with age, the lock suddenly gave and the door swung inwards.

Then Stephen saw: ‘Don’t come here — go back, Mary!’ But Mary followed them into the studio.

So neat, so amazingly neat it was for Jamie, she who had always been so untidy, she who had always littered up the place with her large, awkward person and shabby possessions, she who had always been Barbara’s despair . . . Just a drop or two of blood on the floor, just a neat little hole low down in her left side. She must have fired upwards with great foresight and skill — and they had not even known that she owned a revolver!

And so Jamie who dared not go home to Beedles for fear of shaming the woman she loved, Jamie who dared not openly mourn lest Barbara’s name be defiled through her mourning, Jamie had dared to go home to God — to trust herself to His more perfect mercy, even as Barbara had gone home before her.

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