The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Six

Mrs. Bingham departed unmourned and unmourning, and in her stead reigned Mademoiselle Duphot, a youthful French governess with a long, pleasant face that reminded Stephen of a horse. This equine resemblance was fortunate in one way — Stephen took to Mademoiselle Duphot at once — but it did not make for respectful obedience. On the contrary, Stephen felt very familiar, kindly familiar and quite at her ease; she petted Mademoiselle Duphot. Mademoiselle Duphot was lonely and homesick, and it must be admitted that she liked being petted. Stephen would rush off to get her a cushion, or a footstool or her glass of milk at eleven.

‘Comme elle est gentille, cette drôle de petite fine, elle a si bon coeur,’ would think Mademoiselle Duphot, and somehow geography would not seem to matter quite so much, or arithmetic either — in vain did Mademoiselle try to be strict, her pupil could always beguile her.

Mademoiselle Duphot knew nothing about horses, in spite of the r fact that she looked so much like one, and Stephen would complacently entertain her with long conversation anent splints and spavins, cow hocks and colic, all mixed up together in a kind of wild veterinary jumble. Had Williams been listening, he might well have rubbed his chin, but Williams was not there to listen.

As for Mademoiselle Duphot, she was genuinely impressed: ‘Mais quel type, quel type!’ she was always exclaiming. ‘Vous êtes déjà une vraie petite Amazone, Stévenne.’

‘N’est-ce pas?’ agreed Stephen, who was picking up French.

The child showed real ability for French, and this delighted her teacher; at the end of six months she could gabble quite freely, making quick little gestures and shrugging her shoulders. She liked talking French, it rather amused her, nor was she averse to mastering the grammar; what she could not endure were the long, foolish dictées from the edifying Bibliothèque Rose. Weak in all other respects with Stephen, Mademoiselle Duphot clung to these dictées; the Bibliothèque Rose became her last trench of authority, and she held it.

‘“Les Petites Filles Modèles”,’ Mademoiselle would announce, while Stephen yawned out her ineffable boredom; ‘Maintenant nous allons retrouver Sophie — Where to did we arrive? Ah, oui, I remember: “Cette preuve de confiance toucha Sophie et augmenta encore son regret d’avoir été si méchante.

‘“Comment, se dit-elle, ai-je pu me livrer a une telle colère? Comment ai-je été si méchante avec des amies aussi bonnes que celles que j’ai id, et si hardie envers une personne aussi douce, aussi tendre que Mme. de Fleurville!”’

From time to time the programme would be varied by extracts of an even more edifying nature, and ‘Les Bons Enfants’ would be chosen for dictation, to the scorn and derision of Stephen.

‘La Maman, Donne-lui ton coeur, mon Henri; c’est ce que to pourras lui dormer de plus agréable.

‘— Mon coeur? Dit Henri en déboutonnant son habit et en ouvrant sa chemise. Mais comment faire? il me faudrait un couteau.’ At which Stephen would giggle.

One day she had added a comment of her own in the margin: ‘Little beast, he was only shamming!’ and Mademoiselle, coming on this unawares, had been caught in the act of laughing by her pupil. After which there was naturally less discipline than ever in the schoolroom, but considerably more friendship.

However, Anna seemed quite contented, since Stephen was becoming so proficient in French; and observing that his wife looked less anxious these days, Sir Philip said nothing, biding his time. This frank, jaunty, slacking on the part of his daughter should be checked later on he decided. Meanwhile, Stephen grew fond of the mild-faced Frenchwoman, who in her turn adored the unusual child. She would confide her troubles to Stephen, those family troubles in which governesses abound — her Maman was old and delicate and needy; her sister had a wicked and spendthrift husband, and now her sister must make little bags for the grand shops in Paris that paid very badly, her sister was gradually losing her eyesight through making those little bead bags for the shops that cared nothing, and paid very badly. Mademoiselle sent Maman a part of her earnings, and sometimes, of course, she must help her sister. Her Maman must have her chicken on Sundays: ‘Bon Dieu, il faut vivre — il faut manger, au moins —’ And afterwards that chicken came in very nicely for Petite Marmite, which was made from his carcass and a few leaves of cabbage — Maman loved Petite Marmite, the warmth of it eased her old gums.

Stephen would listen to these long dissertations with patience and with apparent understanding. She would nod her head wisely: ‘Mais c’est dur,’ she would comment, ‘c’est terriblement dur, la vie!’

But she never confided her own special troubles, and Mademoiselle Duphot sometimes wondered about her: ‘Est-elle heureuse, cet &range petit être?’ she would wonder. ‘Sera-t-elle heureuse plus tard? Qui sait!’

2

Idleness and peace had reigned in the schoolroom for more than two years, when exSergeant Smylie sailed over the horizon and proceeded to announce that he taught gymnastics and fencing. From that moment peace ceased to reign in the schoolroom, or indeed anywhere in the house for that matter. In vain did Mademoiselle Duphot protest that gymnastics and fencing thickened the ankles, in vain did Anna express disapproval, Stephen merely ignored them and consulted her father.

‘I want to go in for Sandowing,’ she informed him, as though they were discussing a career.

He laughed: ‘Sandowing? Well, and how will you start it?’ Then Stephen explained about exSergeant Smylie.

‘I see,’ nodded Sir Philip, ‘you want to learn fencing.’

And how to lift weights with my stomach,’ she said quickly.

‘Why not with your large front teeth?’ he teased her. ‘Oh, well,’ he added, there’s no harm in fencing or gymnastics either — provided, of course, that you don’t try to wreck Morton Hall like a Samson wrecking the house of the Philistines; I foresee that that might easily happen —’

Stephen grinned: ‘But it mightn’t if I cut off my hair! May I cut off my hair? Oh, do let me, Father!’

‘Certainly not, I prefer to risk it,’ said Sir Philip, speaking quite firmly.

Stephen went pounding back to the schoolroom. ‘I’m going to those classes!’ she announced in triumph. ‘I’m going to be driven over to Malvern next week; I’m going to begin on Tuesday, and I’m going to learn fencing so as I can kill your brother-inlaw who’s a beast to your sister, I’m going to fight duels for wives in distress, like men do in Paris, and I’m going to learn how to lift pianos on my stomach by expanding something — the diapan muscles — and I’m going to cut my hair off!’ she mendaciously concluded, glancing sideways to observe the effect of this bombshell.

‘Bon Dieu, soyez clément!’ breathed Mademoiselle Duphot, casting her eyes to heaven.

3

It was not very long before exSergeant Smylie discovered that in Stephen he had a star pupil. Some day you ought to make a champion fencer, if you work really hard at it, Miss,’ he told her.

Stephen did not learn to lift pianos with her stomach, but as time went on she did become quite an expert gymnast and fencer; and as Mademoiselle Duphot confided to Anna, it was after all very charming to watch her, so supple and young and quick in her movements.

‘And she fence like an angel,’ said Mademoiselle fondly, ‘she fence now almost as well as she ride.’

Anna nodded. She herself had seen Stephen fencing many times, and had thought it a fine performance for so young a child, but the fencing displeased her, so that she found it hard to praise Stephen.

‘I hate all that sort of thing for girls,’ she said slowly.

‘But she fence like a man, with such power and such grace,’ babbled Mademoiselle Duphot, the tactless.

And now life was full of new interest for Stephen, an interest that centred entirely in her body. She discovered her body for a thing to be cherished, a thing of real value since its strength could rejoice her; and young though she was she cared for her body with great diligence, bathing it night and morning in dull, tepid water — cold baths were forbidden, and hot baths, she had heard, sometimes weakened the muscles. For gymnastics she wore her hair in a pigtail, and somehow that pigtail began to intrude on other occasions. In spite of protests, she always forgot and came down to breakfast with a neat, shining plait, so that Anna gave in in the end and said, sighing:

‘Have your pigtail do, child, if you feel that you must — but I can’t say it suits you, Stephen.’

And Mademoiselle Duphot was foolishly loving. Stephen would stop in the middle of lessons to roll back her sleeves and examine her muscles; then Mademoiselle Duphot, instead of protesting, would laugh and admire her absurd little biceps. Stephen’s craze for physical culture increased, and now it began to invade the schoolroom. Dumbbells appeared in the school-room bookcases, while half worn-out gym shoes skulked in the corners. Everything went by the board but this passion of the child’s for training her body. And what must Sir Philip elect to do next, but to write out to Ireland and purchase a hunter for his daughter to ride — a real, thoroughbred hunter. And what must he say but: ‘That’s one for young Roger!’ So that Stephen found herself comfortably laughing at the thought of young Roger; and that laugh went a long way towards healing the wound that had rankled within her — perhaps this was why Sir Philip had written out to Ireland for that thoroughbred hunter.

The hunter, when he came, was grey-coated and slender, and his eyes were as soft as an Irish morning, and his courage was as bright as an Irish sunrise, and his heart was as young as the wild heart of Ireland, but devoted and loyal and eager for service, and his name was sweet on the tongue as you spoke it — being Raftery, after the poet. Stephen loved Raftery and Raftery loved Stephen. It was love at first sight, and they talked to each other for hours in his loose box — not in Irish or English, but in a quiet language having very few words but many small sounds and many small movements, which to both of them meant more than words. And Raftery said: ‘I will carry you bravely, I will serve you all the days of my life.’ And she answered: ‘I will care for you night and day, Raftery — all the days of your life.’ Thus Stephen and Raftery pledged their devotion, alone in his fragrant, hay-scented stable. And Raftery was five and Stephen was twelve when they solemnly pledged their devotion.

Never was rider more proud or more happy than Stephen, when first she and Raftery went a-hunting; and never was youngster more wise or courageous than Raftery proved himself at his fences; and never can Bellerophon have thrilled to more daring than did Stephen, astride of Raftery that day, with the wind in her face and a fire in her heart that made life a thing of glory. At the very beginning of the run the fox turned in the direction of Morton, actually crossing the big north paddock before turning once more and making for Upton. In the paddock was a mighty, upstanding hedge, a formidable place concealing timber, and what must they do, these two young creatures, but go straight at it and get safely over — those who saw Raftery fly that hedge could never afterwards doubt his valour. And when they got home there was Anna waiting to pat Raftery, because she could not resist him. Because, being Irish, her hands loved the feel of fine horseflesh under their delicate fingers — and because she did very much want to be tender to Stephen, and understanding. But as Stephen dismounted, bespattered and dishevelled, and yet with that perversive look of her father, the words that Anna had been planning to speak died away before they could get themselves spoken — she shrank back from the child; but the child was too overjoyed at that moment to perceive it.

4

Happy days, splendid days of childish achievements; but they passed all too soon, giving place to the seasons, and there came the winter when Stephen was fourteen.

On a January afternoon of bright sunshine, Mademoiselle Duphot sat dabbing her eyes; for Mademoiselle Duphot must leave her loved Stévenne, must give place to a rival who could teach Greek and Latin — she would go back to Paris, the poor Mademoiselle Duphot, and take care of her ageing Maman.

Meanwhile, Stephen, very angular and lanky at fourteen, was standing before her father in his study. She stood still, but her glance kept straying to the window, to the sunshine that seemed to be beckoning through the window. She was dressed for riding in breeches and gaiters, and her thoughts were with Raftery.

‘Sit down,’ said Sir Philip, and his voice was so grave that her thoughts came back with a leap and a bound; ‘you and I have got to talk this thing out, Stephen.’

‘What thing, Father?’ she faltered, sitting down abruptly.

‘Your idleness, my child. The time has now come when all play and no work will make a dull Stephen, unless we pull ourselves together.’

She rested her large, shapely hands on her knees and bent forward, searching his face intently. What she saw there was a quiet determination that spread from his lips to his eyes. She grew suddenly uneasy, like a youngster who objects to the rather unpleasant process of mouthing.

‘I speak French,’ she broke out, ‘I speak French like a native; I can read and write French as well as Mademoiselle does.’

‘And beyond that you know very little,’ he informed her; ‘it’s not enough, Stephen, believe me.’

There ensued a long silence, she tapping her leg with her whip, he speculating about her. Then he said, but quite gently: ‘I’ve considered this thing — I’ve considered this matter of your education. I want you to have the same education, the same advantages as I’d give to my son — that is as far as possible —’ he added, looking away from Stephen.

‘But I’m not your son, Father,’ she said very slowly, and even as she said it her heart felt heavy — heavy and sad as it bad not done for years, not since she was quite a small child.

And at this he looked back at her with love in his eyes, love and something that seemed like compassion; and their looks met and mingled and held for a moment, speechless yet somehow expressing their hearts. Her own eyes clouded and she stared at her boots, ashamed of the tears that she felt might flow over. He saw this and went on speaking more quickly, as though anxious to cover her confusion.

‘You’re all the son that I’ve got,’ he told her. ‘You’re brave and strong-limbed, but I want you to be wise — I want you to be wise for your own sake, Stephen, because at the best life requires great wisdom. I want you to learn to make friends of your books; some day you may need them, because —’ He hesitated, ‘because you mayn’t find life at all easy, we none of us do, and books are good friends. I don’t want you to give up your fencing and gymnastics or your riding, but I want you to show moderation. You’ve developed your body, now develop your mind; let your mind and your muscles help, not hinder each other — it can be done, Stephen, I’ve done it myself, and in many respects you’re like me. I’ve brought you up very differently from most girls, you must know that — look at Violet Antrim. I’ve indulged you, I suppose, but I don’t think I’ve spoilt you, because I believe in you absolutely. I believe in myself, too, where you’re concerned; I believe in my own sound judgment. But you’ve now got to prove that my judgment’s been sound, we’ve both got to prove it to ourselves and to your mother — she’s been very patient with my unusual methods — I’m going to stand trial now, and she’ll be my judge. Help me, I’m going to need all your help; if you fail then I fail, we shall go down together. But we’re not going to fail, you’re going to work hard when your new governess comes, and when you’re older you’re going to become a fine woman; you must, dear — I love you so much that you can’t disappoint me.’ His voice faltered a little, then he held out his hand: ‘and Stephen, come here — look me straight in the eyes — what is honour, my daughter?’

She looked into his anxious, questioning eyes: ‘You are honour,’ she said quite simply.

5

When Stephen kissed Mademoiselle Duphot good-bye, she cried, for she felt that something was going that would never come back — irresponsible childhood. It was going, like Mademoiselle Duphot. Kind Mademoiselle Duphot, so foolishly loving, so easily coerced, so glad to be persuaded; so eager to believe that you were doing your best, in the face of the most obvious slacking. Kind Mademoiselle Duphot who smiled when she shouldn’t, who laughed when she shouldn’t, and now was weeping — but weeping as only a Latin can weep, shedding rivers of tears and sobbing quite loudly.

‘Chérie — mon bébé, petit thou!’ she was sobbing, as she clung to the angular Stephen.

The tears ran down on to Mademoiselle’s tippet, and they wet the poor fur which already looked jaded, and the fur clogged together, turning black with those tears, so that Mademoiselle tried to wipe it. But the more she wiped it, the wetter it grew, since her handkerchief only augmented the trouble; nor was Stephen’s large handkerchief very dry either, as she found when she started to help.

The old station fly that had come out from Malvern, drove up, and the footman seized Mademoiselle’s luggage. It was such meagre luggage that he waved back assistance from the driver, and lifted the trunk single-handed. Then Mademoiselle Duphot broke out into English — heaven only knew why, perhaps from emotion.

‘It’s not farewell, it shall not be for ever —’ she sobbed. ‘You come, but I feel it, to Paris. We meet once more, Stévenne, my poor little baby, when you grow up bigger, we two meet once more —’ And Stephen, already taller than she was, longed to grow small again, just to please Mademoiselle. Then, because the French are a practical people even in moments of real emotion, Mademoiselle found her handbag, and groping in its depths she produced a half sheet of paper.

‘The address of my sister in Paris,’ she said, snuffling; ‘the address of my sister who makes little bags — if you should hear of anyone, Stévenne — any lady who would care to buy one little bag —’

‘Yes, yes, I’ll remember,’ muttered Stephen.

At last she was gone; the fly rumbled away down the drive and finally turned the corner. To the end a wet face had been thrust from the window, a wet handkerchief waved despondently at Stephen. The rain must have mingled with Mademoiselle’s tears, for the weather had broken and now it was raining. It was surely a desolate day for departure, with the mist closing over the Severn Valley and beginning to creep up the hill-sides . . .

Stephen made her way to the empty schoolroom, empty of all save a general confusion; the confusion that stalks in some people’s trail — it had always stalked Mademoiselle Duphot. On the chairs, which stood crooked, lay odds and ends meaning nothing — crumpled paper, a broken shoehorn, a well-worn brown glove that had lost its fellow and likewise two of its buttons. On the table lay a much abused pink blotting-pad, from which Stephen had torn off the corners, unhidden — it was crossed and recrossed with elegant French script until its scarred face had turned purple. And there stood the bottle of purple ink, half-empty, and green round its neck with dribbles; and a pen with a nib as sharp as a pin point, a thin, peevish nib that jabbed at the paper. Chock-a-block with the bottle of purple ink lay a little piety card of St. Joseph that had evidently slipped out of Mademoiselle’s missal — St. Joseph looked very respectable and kind — like the fishmonger in Great Malvern. Stephen picked up the card and stared at St. Joseph; something was written across his corner; looking closer she read the minute handwriting: ‘Priez pour ma petite Stévenne.’

She put the card away in her desk; the ink and the blotter she hid in the cupboard together with the peevish steel nib that jabbed paper, and that richly deserved cremation. Then she straightened the chairs and threw away the litter, after which she went in search of a duster; one by one she dusted the few remaining volumes in the bookcase, including the Bibliothèque Rose. She arranged her dictation notebooks in a pile with others that were far less accurately written — books of sums, mostly careless and marked with a cross; books of English history, in one of which Stephen had begun to write the history of the horse! Books of geography with Mademoiselle’s comments in strong purple ink: ‘Grand manque d’attention’. And lastly she collected the torn lesson books that had lain on their backs, on their sides, on their bellies — anyhow, anywhere in drawers or in cupboards, but not very often in the bookcase. For the bookcase was harbouring quite other things, a motley and most unstudious collection; dumb-bells, wooden and iron of various sizes — some Indian clubs, one split off at the handle — cotton laces for gym shoes, the belt of a tunic. And then stable keepsakes, including a headband that Raftery had worn on some special occasion; a miniature horseshoe kicked sky-high by Collins; a half-eaten carrot, now withered and mouldy, and two hunting crops that had both lost their lashes and were waiting to visit the saddler.

Stephen considered, rubbing her chin — a habit which by now had become automatic — she finally decided on the ample box-sofa as a seemly receptacle. Remained only the carrot, and she stood for a long time with it clasped in her hand, disturbed and unhappy — this clearing of the decks for stern mental action was certainly very depressing. But at last she threw the thing into the fire, where it shifted distressfully, sizzling and humming. Then she sat down and stared rather grimly at the flames that were burning up Raftery’s first carrot.

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