The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Fifty-five

A bitter and most curious warfare it was that must now be waged between Martin and Stephen, but secretly waged, lest because of them the creature they loved should be brought to suffer; not the least strange aspect being that these two must quite often take care to protect each other, setting a guard upon eyes and lips when they found themselves together with Mary. For the sake of the girl whom they sought to protect, they must actually often protect each other. Neither would stoop to detraction or malice, though they fought in secret they did so with honour. And all the while their hearts cried out loudly against this cruel and insidious thing that had laid its hand upon their doomed friendship — verily a bitter and most curious warfare.

And now Stephen, brought suddenly face to face with the menace of infinite desolation, fell back upon her every available weapon in the struggle to assert her right to possession. Every link that the years had forged between her and Mary, every tender and passionate memory that bound their past to their ardent present, every moment of joy — aye, and even of sorrow, she used in sheer self-defence against Martin. And not the least powerful of all her weapons was the perfect companionship and understanding that constitutes the great strength of such unions. Well armed she was, thanks to both present and past — but Martin’s sole weapon lay in the future.

With a new subtlety that was born of his love, he must lead the girl’s thoughts very gently forward towards a life of security and peace; such a life as marriage with him would offer. In a thousand little ways must redouble his efforts to make himself indispensable to her, to surround her with the warm, happy cloak of protection that made even a hostile world seem friendly. And although he forbore to speak openly as yet, playing his hand with much skill and patience — although before speaking he wished to be certain that Mary Llewellyn, of her own free will, would come when he called her, because she loved him — yet nevertheless she divined his love, for men cannot hide such knowledge from women.

Very pitiful Mary was in these days, torn between the two warring forces; haunted by a sense of disloyalty if she thought with unhappiness of losing Martin, hating herself for a treacherous coward if she sometimes longed for the life he could offer, above all intensely afraid of this man who was creeping in between her and Stephen. And the very fact of this fear made her yield to the woman with a new and more desperate ardour, so that the bond held as never before — the days might be Martin’s, but the nights were Stephen’s. And yet, lying awake far into the dawn, Stephen’s victory would take on the semblance of defeat, turned to ashes by the memory of Martin’s words: Your triumph, if it comes will come too late for Mary.’ In the morning she would go to her desk and write, working with something very like frenzy, as though it were now a neck to neck race between the world and her ultimate achievement. Never before had she worked like this; she would feel that her pen was dipped in blood, that with every word she wrote, she was bleeding!

2

Christmas came and went, giving place to the New Year, and Martin fought on but he fought more grimly. He was haunted these days by the spectre of defeat, painfully conscious that do what he might, nearly every advantage lay with Stephen. All that he loved and admired most in Mary, her frankness, her tender and loyal spirit, her compassion towards suffering of any kind, these very attributes told against him, serving as they did to bind her more firmly to the creature to whom she had given devotion. One thing only sustained the man at this time, and that was his conviction that in spite of it all, Mary Llewellyn had grown to love him.

So careful she was when they were together, so guarded lest she should betray her feelings, so pitifully insistent that all was yet well — that life had in no way lessened her courage. But Martin was not deceived by these protests, knowing how she clung to what he could offer, how gladly she turned to the simple things that so easily come to those who are normal. Under all her parade of gallantry he divined a great weariness of spirit, a great longing to be at peace with the world, to be able to face her fellow-men with the comforting knowledge that she need not fear them, that their friendship would be hers for the asking, that their laws and their codes would be her protection. All this Martin perceived; but Stephen’s perceptions were even more accurate and far-reaching, for to her there had come the despairing knowledge that the women she loved was deeply unhappy. At first she had blinded herself to this truth, sustained by the passionate stress of the battle, by her power to hold in despite of the man, by the eager response that she had awakened. Yet the day came when she was no longer blind, when nothing counted in all the world except this grievous unhappiness that was being silently borne by Mary.

Martin, if he had wished for revenge, might have taken his fill of it now from Stephen. Little did he know how, one by one, Mary was weakening her defences; gradually undermining her will, her fierce determination to hold, the arrogance of the male that was in her. All this the man was never to know; it was Stephen’s secret, and she knew how to keep it. But one night she suddenly pushed Mary away, blindly, scarcely knowing what she was doing; conscious only that the weapon she thus laid aside had become a thing altogether unworthy, an outrage upon her love for this girl. And that night there followed the terrible thought that her love itself was a kind of outrage.

And now she must pay very dearly indeed for that inherent respect of the normal which nothing had ever been able to destroy, not even the long years of persecution — an added burden it was, handed down by the silent but watchful founders of Morton. She must pay for the instinct which, in earliest childhood, had made her feel something akin to worship for the perfect thing which she had divined in the love that existed between her parents. Never before had she seen so clearly all that was lacking to Mary Llewellyn, all that would pass from her faltering grasp, perhaps never to return, with the passing of Martin — children, a home that the world would respect, ties of affection that the world would hold sacred, the blessèd security and the peace of being released from the world’s persecution. And suddenly Martin appeared to Stephen as a creature endowed with incalculable bounty, having in his hands all those priceless gifts which she, love’s mendicant could never offer. Only one gift could ‘she offer to love, to Mary, and that was the gift of Martin.

In a kind of dream she perceived these things. In a dream she now moved and had her being; scarcely conscious of whither this dream would lead, the while her every perception was quickened. And this dream of hers was immensely compelling, so that all that she did seemed clearly predestined; she could not have acted otherwise, nor could she have made a false step, although dreaming. Like those who in sleep tread the edge of a chasm unappalled, having lost all sense of danger, so now Stephen walked on the brink of her fate, having only one fear; a nightmare fear of what she must do to give Mary her freedom.

In obedience to the mighty but unseen will that had taken control of this vivid dreaming, she ceased to respond to the girl’s tenderness, nor would she consent that they two should be lovers. Ruthless as the world itself she became, and almost as cruel in this ceaseless wounding. For in spite of Mary’s obvious misgivings, she went more and more often to see Valérie Seymour, so that gradually, as the days slipped by, Mary’s mind became a prey to suspicion. Yet Stephen struck at her again and again, desperately wounding herself in the process, though scarcely feeling the pain of her wounds for the misery of what she was doing to Mary. But even as she struck the bonds seemed to tighten, with each fresh blow to bind more securely. Mary now clung with every fibre of her sorely distressed and outraged being; with every memory that Stephen had stirred; with every passion that Stephen had fostered; with every instinct of loyalty that Stephen had aroused to do battle with Martin. The hand that had loaded Mary with chains was powerless, it seemed, to strike them from her.

Came the day when Mary refused to see Martin, when she turned upon Stephen, pale and accusing: ‘Can’t you understand? Are you utterly blind — have you only got eyes now for Valérie Seymour?’

And as though she were suddenly smitten dumb, Stephen’s lips remained closed and she answered nothing.

Then Mary wept and cried out against her: ‘I won’t let you go — I won’t let you, I tell you! It’s your fault if I love you the way I do. I can’t do without you, you’ve taught me to need you, and now.. In half-shamed, half-defiant words she must stand there and plead for what Stephen withheld, and Stephen must listen to such pleading from Mary. Then before the girl realized it she had said: ‘But for you I could have loved Martin Hallam!’

Stephen heard her own voice a long way away: But for me, you could have loved Martin Hallam.’

Mary flung despairing arms round her neck: ‘No, no! Not that, I don’t know what I’m saying.’

3

The first faint breath of spring was in the air, bringing daffodils to the flower-stalls of Paris. Once again Mary’s young cherry tree in the garden was pushing out leaves and tiny pink buds along the whole length of its childish branches.

Then Martin wrote: Stephen, where can I see you? It must be alone. Better not at your house, I think, if you don’t mind, because of Mary.’

She appointed the place. They would meet at the Auberge du Vieux Logis in the Rue Lepic. They two would meet there on the following evening. When she left the house without saying a word, Mary thought she was going to Valerie Seymour.

Stephen sat down at a table in the corner to await Martin’s coming — she herself was early. The table was gay with a new check cloth — red and white, white and red, she counted the squares, tracing them carefully out with her finger. The woman behind the bar nudged her companion: ‘En voila une originals — et quelle cicatrice, bon Dieu!’ The scar across Stephen’s pale face stood out livid.

Martin came and sat quietly down at her side, ordering some coffee for appearances’ sake. For appearances’ sake, until it was brought, they smiled at each other and made conversation. But when the waiter had turned away, Martin said: ‘It’s all over — you’ve beaten me, Stephen . . . The bond was too strong.’

Their unhappy eyes met as she answered: ‘I tried to strengthen that bond.’

He nodded: ‘I know . . . Well, my dear, you succeeded.’ Then he said: ‘I’m leaving Paris next week,’ and in spite of his effort to be calm his voice broke, ‘Stephen . . . do what you can to take care of Mary.’

She found that she was holding his hand. Or was it someone else who sat there beside him, who looked into his sensitive, troubled face, who spoke such queer words?

‘No, don’t go — not yet.’

‘But I don’t understand . . .

‘You must trust me, Martin.’ And now she heard herself speaking very gravely: ‘Would you trust me enough to do anything I asked, even though it seemed rather strange? Would you trust me if I said that I asked it for Mary, for her happiness?’

His fingers tightened: ‘Before God, yes. You know that I’d trust you!’

‘Very well then, don’t leave Paris — not now.’

‘You really want me to stay on, Stephen?’

‘Yes, I can’t explain.’

He hesitated, then he suddenly seemed to come to a decision: All right . . . I’ll do whatever you ask me.’

They paid for their coffee and got up to leave: ‘Let me come as far as the house,’ he pleaded.

But she shook her head: ‘No, no, not now. I’ll write to you . . . very soon . . . Good-bye, Martin.’

She watched him hurrying down the street, and when he was finally lost in its shadows, she turned slowly and made her own way up the hill, past the garish lights of the Moulin de la Galette. Its pitiful sails revolved in the wind, eternally grinding out petty sins — dry chaff blown in from the gutters of Paris. And after a while, having breasted the hill, she must climb a dusty flight of stone steps, and push open a heavy slow-moving door; the door of the mighty temple of faith that keeps its anxious but tireless vigil.

She had no idea why she was doing this thing, or what she would say to the silver Christ with one hand on His heart and the other held out in a patient gesture of supplication. The sound of praying, monotonous, low, insistent, rose up from those who prayed with extended arms, with crucified arms — like the tides of an ocean it swelled and receded and swelled again, bathing the shores of heaven.

They were calling upon the Mother of God: ‘Sainte Marie, Mere de Dieu, priez pour nous, pauvres pêcheurs, maintenant et à l’heure de notre mort.’

‘Et à l’heure de notre mort,’ Stephen heard herself repeating.

He looked terribly weary, the silver Christ: ‘But then He always looks tired,’ she thought vaguely; and she stood there without finding anything to say, embarrassed as one so frequently is in the presence of somebody else’s sorrow. For herself she felt nothing, neither pity nor regret; she was curiously empty of all sensation, and after a little she left the church, to walk on through the wind-swept streets of Montmartre.

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