The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Fifty-four

FATE, which by now had them well in its grip, began to play the game out more quickly. That summer they went to Pontresina since Mary had never seen Switzerland; but the Comtesse must make a double cure, first at Vichy and afterwards at Bagnoles de l’Orne, which fact left Martin quite free to join them. Then it was that Stephen perceived for the first time that all was not well with Martin Hallam.

Try as he might he could not deceive her, for this man was almost painfully honest, and any deception became him so ill that it seemed to stand out like a badly fitting garment. Yet now there were times when he avoided her eyes, when he grew very silent and awkward with Stephen, as though something inevitable and unhappy had obtruded itself upon their friendship; something, moreover, that he feared to tell her. Then one day in a blinding flash of insight she suddenly knew what this was — it was Mary.

Like a blow that is struck full between the eyes, the thing stunned her, so that at first she groped blindly. Martin, her friend . . . But what did it mean? And Mary . . . The incredible misery of it if it were true. But was it true that Martin Hallam had grown to love Mary? And the other thought, more incredible still — had Mary in her turn grown to love Martin?

The mist gradually cleared; Stephen grew cold as steel, her perceptions becoming as sharp as daggers — daggers that thrust themselves into her soul, draining the blood from her innermost being. And she watched. To herself she seemed all eyes and ears, a monstrous thing, a complete degradation, yet endowed with an almost unbearable skill, with a subtlety passing her own understanding.

And Martin was no match for this thing that was Stephen. He, the lover, could not hide his betraying eyes from her eyes that were also those of a lover; could not stifle the tone that crept into his voice at times when he was talking to Mary. Since all that he felt was a part of herself, how could he hope to hide it from Stephen? And he knew that she had discovered the truth, while she in her turn perceived that he knew this, yet neither of them spoke — in a deathly silence she watched, and in silence he endured her watching.

It was rather a terrible summer for them all, the more so as they were surrounded by beauty, and great peace when the evening came down on the snows, turning the white, unfurrowed peaks to sapphire and then to a purple darkness; hanging out large, incredible stars above the wide slope of the Roseg Glacier. For their hearts were full of unspoken dread, of clamorous passions, of bewilderment that went very ill with the quiet fulfilments, with the placid and smiling contentment of nature — and not the least bewildered was Mary. Her respite, it seemed, had been pitifully fleeting; now she was torn by conflicting emotions; terrified and amazed at her realization that Martin meant more to her than a friend, yet less, oh, surely much less than Stephen. Like a barrier of fire her passion for the woman flared up to forbid her love of the man; for as great as the mystery of virginity itself, is sometimes the power of the one who has destroyed it, and that power still remained in these days, with Stephen.

Alone in his little bare hotel bedroom, Martin would wrestle with his soul-sickening problem, convinced in his heart that but for Stephen, Mary Llewellyn would grow to love him, nay more, that she had grown to love him already. Yet Stephen was his friend — he had sought her out, had all but forced his friendship upon her; had forced his way into her life, her home, her confidence; she had trusted his honour. And now he must either utterly betray her or through loyalty to their friendship, betray Mary.

And he felt that he knew, and knew only too well, what life would do to Mary Llewellyn, what it had done to her already; for had he not seen the bitterness in her, the resentment that could only lead to despair, the defiance that could only lead to disaster? She was setting her weakness against the whole world, and slowly but surely the world would close in until in the end it had utterly crushed her. In her very normality lay her danger. Mary, all woman, was less of a match for life than if she had been as was Stephen. Oh, most pitiful bond so strong yet so helpless; so fruitful of passion yet so bitterly sterile; despairing, heart-breaking, yet courageous bond that was even now holding them ruthlessly together. But if he should break it by taking the girl away into peace and security, by winning for her the world’s approbation so that never again need her back feel the scourge and her heart grow faint from the pain of that scourging — if he, Martin Hallam, should do this thing, what would happen, in that day of his victory, to Stephen? Would she still have the courage to continue the fight? Or would she, in her turn, be forced to surrender? God help him, he could not betray her like this, he could not bring about Stephen’s destruction — and yet if he spared her, he might destroy Mary.

Night after night alone in his bedroom during the miserable weeks of that summer, Martin struggled to discover some ray of hope in what seemed a wellnigh hopeless situation. And night after night Stephen’s masterful arms would enfold the warm softness of Mary’s body, the while she would be shaken as though with great cold. Lying there she would shiver with terror and love, and this torment of hers would envelop Mary so that sometimes she wept for the pain of it all, yet neither would give a name to that torment.

‘Stephen, why are you shivering?’

‘I don’t know, my darling.’

‘Mary, why are you crying?’

‘I don’t know, Stephen.’

Thus the bitter nights slipped into the days, and the anxious days slipped back into the nights, bringing to that curious trinity neither helpful counsel nor consolation.

2

It was after they had all returned to Paris that Martin found Stephen alone one morning.

He said: ‘I want to speak to you — I must.’

She put down her pen and looked into his eyes: Well, Martin, what is it?’ But she knew already.

He answered her very simply: ‘It’s Mary.’ Then he said: ‘I’m going because I’m your friend and I love her . . . I must go because of our friendship, and because I think Mary’s grown to care for me.’

He thought Mary cared . . . Stephen got up slowly, and all of a sudden she was no more herself but the whole of her kind out to combat this man, out to vindicate their right to possess, out to prove that their courage was unshakable, that they neither admitted of nor feared any rival.

She said coldly: ‘If you’re going because of me, because you imagine that I’m frightened — then stay. I assure you I’m not in the least afraid; here and now I defy you to take her from me!’ And even as she said this she marvelled at herself, for she was afraid, terribly afraid of Martin.

He flushed at the quiet contempt in her voice, which roused all the combative manhood in him: ‘You think that Mary doesn’t love me, but you’re wrong.’

‘Very well then, prove that I’m wrong!’ she told him.

They stared at each other in bitter hostility for a moment, then Stephen said more gently: ‘You don’t mean to insult me by what you propose, but I won’t consent to your going, Martin. You think that I can’t hold the woman I love against you, because you’ve got an advantage over me and over the whole of my kind. I accept that challenge — I must accept it if I’m to remain at all worthy of Mary.’

He bowed his head: ‘It must be as you wish.’ Then he suddenly began to talk rather quickly: Stephen, listen, I hate what I’m going to say, but by God, it’s got to be said to you somehow! You’re courageous and fine and you mean to make good, but life with you is spiritually murdering Mary. Can’t you see it? Can’t you realize that she needs all the things that it’s not in your power to give her? Children, protection, friends whom she can respect and who’ll respect her — don’t you realize this, Stephen? A few may survive such relationships as yours, but Mary Llewellyn won’t be among them. She’s not strong enough to fight the whole world, to stand up against persecution and insult; it will drive her down, begun to already — already she’s been forced to turn to people like Wanda. I know what I’m saying, I’ve seen the thing — the bars, the drinking, the pitiful defiance, the horrible, useless wastage of lives — well, I tell you it’s spiritual murder for Mary. I’d have gone away because you’re my friend, but before I went I’d have said all this to you; I’d have begged and implored you to set Mary free if you love her. I’d have gone on my knees to you, Stephen ..

He paused, and she heard herself saying quite calmly: ‘You don’t understand, I have faith in my writing, great faith; some day I shall climb to the top and that will compel the world to accept me for what I am. It’s a matter of time, but I mean to succeed for Mary’s sake.’

‘God pity you!’ he suddenly blurted out. ‘Your triumph, if it comes, will come too late for Mary.’

She stared at him aghast: ‘How dare you!’ she stammered. ‘How dare you try to undermine my courage! You call yourself my friend and you say things like that . . .

‘It’s your courage that I appeal to,’ he answered. He began to speak very quietly again: ‘Stephen, if I stay I’m going to fight you. Do you understand? We’ll fight this thing out until one of us has to admit that he’s beaten. I’ll do all in my power to take Mary from you — all that’s honourable, that is — for I mean to play straight, because whatever you may think I’m your friend, only, you see — I love Mary Llewellyn.’

And now she struck back. She said rather slowly, watching his sensitive face as she did so: ‘You seem to have thought it all out very well, but then of course, our friendship has given you time . . .

He flinched and she smiled, knowing how she could wound: ‘Perhaps,’ she went on, ‘you’ll tell me your plans. Supposing you win, do I give the wedding? Is Mary to marry you from my house, or would that be a grave social disadvantage? And supposing she should want to leave me quite soon for love of you — where would you take her, Martin? To your aunt’s for respectability’s sake?’

‘Don’t Stephen!’

‘But why not? I’ve a right to know because, you see, I also love Mary, I also consider her reputation. Yes, I think on the whole we’ll discuss your plans.’

‘She’d always be welcome at my aunt’s,’ he said firmly.

‘And you’ll take her there if she runs away to your One never knows what may happen, does one? You say that she cares for you already..

His eyes hardened: ‘If Mary will have me, Stephen, I shall take her first to my aunt’s house in Passy.’

‘And then?’ she mocked.

‘I shall marry her from there.’

‘And then?’

‘I shall take her back to my home.’

‘To Canada — I see — a safe distance of course.’

He held out his hand: ‘Oh, for God’s sake, don’t! It’s so horrible somehow — be merciful, Stephen.’

She laughed bitterly: ‘Why should I be merciful to you? Isn’t it enough that I accept your challenge, that I offer you the freedom of my house, that I don’t turn you out and forbid you to come here? Come by all means, whenever you like. You may even repeat our conversation to Mary; I shall not do so, but don’t let that stop you if you think you may possibly gain some advantage.’

He shook his head: ‘No. I shan’t repeat it.’

‘Oh, well, that must be as you think best, I propose to behave as though nothing had happened — and now I must get along with my work.’

He hesitated: ‘Won’t you shake hands?’

‘Of course,’ she smiled; ‘aren’t you my very good friend? But you know, you really must leave me now, Martin.’

3

After he had gone she lit a cigarette; the action was purely automatic. She felt strangely excited yet strangely numb — a most curious synthesis of sensations; then she suddenly felt deathly sick and giddy. Going up to her bedroom she bathed her face, sat down on the bed and tried to think, conscious that her mind was completely blank. She was thinking of nothing — not even of Mary.

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