The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Seven

Soon after the departure of Mademoiselle Duphot, there occurred two distinct innovations at Morton. Miss Puddleton arrived to take possession of the schoolroom, and Sir Philip bought himself a motor-car. The motor was a Panhard, and it caused much excitement in the neighbourhood of Upton-on-Severn. Conservative, suspicious of all innovations, people had abstained from motors in the Midlands, and, incredible as it now seems to look back upon, Sir Philip was regarded as a kind of pioneer. The Panhard was a high-shouldered, snub-nosed abortion with a loud, vulgar voice and an uncertain temper. It suffered from frequent fits of dyspepsia, brought about by an unhealthy spark-plug. Its seats were the very acme of discomfort, its primitive gears unhandy and noisy, but nevertheless it could manage to attain to a speed of about fifteen miles per hour — given always that, by God’s good grace and the chauffeur’s, it was not in the throes of indigestion.

Anna felt doubtful regarding this new purchase. She was one of those women who, having passed forty, were content to go on placidly driving in their broughams, or, in summer, in their charming little French victorias. She detested the look of herself in large goggles, detested being forced to tie on her hat, detested the heavy, mannish coat of rough tweed that Sir Philip insisted she must wear when motoring. Such things were not of her; they offended her sense of the seemly, her preference for soft, clinging garments, her instinct for quiet, rather slow, gentle movements, her love of the feminine and comely. For Anna at forty-four was still slender, and her dark hair, as yet, was untouched with grey, and her blue Irish eyes were as clear and candid as when she had come as a bride to Morton. She was beautiful still, and this fact rejoiced her in secret, because of her husband. Yet Anna did not ignore middle age; she met it half-way with dignity and courage; and now her soft dresses were of reticent colours, and her movements a little more careful than they had been, and her mind more severely disciplined and guarded — too much guarded these days, she was gradually growing less tolerant as her interests narrowed. And the motor, an unimportant thing in itself, served nevertheless to crystallize in Anna a certain tendency towards retrogression, a certain instinctive dislike of the unusual, a certain deep-rooted fear of the unknown.

Old Williams was openly disgusted and hostile; he considered the car to be an outrage to his stables — those immaculate stables with their spacious coach-houses, their wide plaits of straw neatly interwoven with yards of red and blue saddler’s tape, and their fine stable-yard hitherto kept so spotless. Came the Panhard, and behold, pools of oil on the flagstones, greenish, bad-smelling oil that defied even scouring; and a medley of odd-looking tools in the coach-house, all greasy, all soiling your hands when you touched them; and large tins of what looked like black vaseline; and spare tyres for which nails had been knocked into the woodwork; and a bench with a vice for the motor’s insides which were frequently being dissected. From this coach-house the dog-cart had been ruthlessly expelled, and now it must stand chock-a-block with the phaeton, so that room might be made for the garish intruder together with its young body-servant. The young body-servant was known as a chauffeur — he had come down from London and wore clothes made of leather. He talked Cockney, and openly spat before Williams in the coach-house, then rubbed his foot over the spittle.

‘I’ll have none of yer expectoration ’ere in me coach-house, I tell ee!’ bawled Williams, apoplectic with temper.

‘Oh, come orf it, do, Grandpa; we’re not in the ark!’ was how the new blood answered Williams.

There was war to the knife between Williams and Burton — Burton who expressed large disdain of the horses.

‘Yer time’s up now, Grandpa,’ he was constantly remarking; ‘it’s all up with the gees — better learn to be a shovver!’

‘Opes I’ll die afore ever I demean meself that way, you young blight!’ bawled the outraged Williams. Very angry he grew, and his dinner fermented, dilating his stomach and causing discomfort, so that his wife became anxious about him.

‘Now don’t ee go worryin’, Arth-thur,’ she coaxed; ‘us be old, me and you, and the world be progressin’.’

‘It be goin’ to the devil, that’s what it be doin’!’ groaned Williams, rubbing his stomach.

To make matters worse, Sir Philip’s behaviour was that of a schoolboy with some horrid new contraption. He was caught by his stud-groom lying flat on his back with his feet sticking out beneath the bonnet of the motor, and when he emerged there was soot on his cheek-bones, on his hair, and even on the tip of his nose. He looked terribly sheepish, and as Williams said later to his wife:

‘It were somethin’ aw-ful to see ’im all mucked up, and ’im such a neat gentleman, and ’im in a filthy old coat of that Burton’s, and that Burton agrinnin’ at me and just pointin’, silent, because the master couldn’t see ’im, and the master a-callin’ up familiar-like to Burton: “I say! She’s got somethin’ all wrong with ‘er exhaust pipe!” and Burton a-contradictin’ the master: “It’s that piston,” says ‘e, as cool as yer please.’

Nor was Stephen less thrilled by the car than was her father. Stephen made friends with the execrable Burton, and Burton, who was only too anxious to gain allies, soon started to teach her the parts of the engine; he taught her to drive too, Sir Philip being willing, and off they would go, the three of them together, leaving Williams to glare at the disappearing motor.

‘And ‘er such a fine ‘orse-woman and all!’ he would grumble, rubbing a disconsolate chin.

It is not too much to say that Williams felt heart-broken, he was like a very unhappy old baby; quite infantile he was in his fits of bad temper, in his mouthings and his grindings of toothless gums. And all about nothing, for Sir Philip and his daughter had the lure of horseflesh in their very bones — and then there was Raftery, and Raftery loved Stephen, and Stephen loved Raftery.

2

The motoring, of course, was the most tremendous fun, but — and it was a very large but indeed — when Stephen got home to Morton and the schoolroom, a little grey figure would be sitting at the table correcting an exercise book, or preparing some task for the following morning. The little grey figure might look up and smile, and when it did this its face would be charming; but if it refrained from smiling, then its face would be ugly, too hard and too square in formation — except for the brow, which was rounded and shiny like a bare intellectual knee. If the little grey figure got up from the table, you were struck by the fact that it seemed square all over — square shoulders, square hips, a flat, square line of bosom; square tips to the fingers, square toes to the shoes, and all tiny; it suggested a miniature box that was neatly spliced at the corners. Of uncertain age, pale, with iron-grey hair, grey eyes, and invariably dressed in dark grey. Miss Puddleton did not look very inspiring — not at all as one having authority, in fact. But on close observation it had to be admitted that her chin, though minute, was extremely aggressive. Her mouth, too, was firm, except when its firmness was melted by the warmth and humour of her smile — a smile that mocked, pitied and questioned the world, and perhaps Miss Puddleton as well.

From the very first moment of Miss Puddleton’s arrival, Stephen had had an uncomfortable conviction that this queer little woman was going to mean something, was going to become a fixture. And sure enough she had settled down at once, so that in less than two months it seemed to Stephen that Miss Puddleton must always have been at Morton, must always have been sitting at the large walnut table, must always have been saying in that dry, toneless voice with the Oxford accent: ‘You’ve forgotten something, Stephen,’ and then, the books can’t walk to the bookcase, but you can, so suppose that you take them with you.’

It was truly amazing, the change in the schoolroom, not a book out of place, not a shelf in disorder; even the box lounge had had to be opened and its dumb-bells and clubs paired off nicely together — Miss Puddleton always liked things to be paired, perhaps an unrecognized matrimonial instinct. And now Stephen found herself put into harness for the first time in her life, and she loathed the sensation. There were so many rules that a very large time-sheet had had to be fastened to the blackboard in the schoolroom.

‘Because,’ said Miss Puddleton as she pinned the thing up, ‘even my brain won’t stand your complete lack of method, it’s infectious; this time-sheet is my anti-toxin, so please don’t tear it to pieces!’

Mathematics and algebra, Latin and Greek, Roman history, Greek history, geometry, botany, they reduced Stephen’s mind to a species of beehive in which every bee buzzed on the least provocation. She would gaze at Miss Puddleton in a kind of amazement; that tiny, square box to hold all this grim knowledge! And seeing that gaze Miss Puddleton would smile her most warm, charming smile, and would say as she did so:

‘Yes, I know — but it’s only the first effort, Stephen; presently your mind will get neat like the schoolroom, and then you’ll be able to find what you want without all this rummaging and bother.’

But her tasks being over, Stephen must often slip away to visit Raftery in the stables; ‘Oh, Raftery, I’m hating it so!’ she would tell him. ‘I feel like you’d feel if I put you in harness — hard wooden shafts and a kicking strap, Raftery — but my darling, I’d never put you into harness!’

And Raftery would hardly know what he should answer, since all human creatures, so far as he knew them, must run between shafts . . . God-like though they were, they undoubtedly had to run between shafts . . .

Nothing but Stephen’s great love for her father helped her to endure the first six months of learning — that and her own stubborn, arrogant will that made her hate to be beaten. She would swing clubs and dumb-bells in a kind of fury, consoling herself with the thought of her muscles, and, finding her at it, Miss Puddleton had laughed.

‘You must feel that your teacher’s some sort of midge, Stephen — a tiresome midge that you want to brush off!’

Then Stephen had laughed too: ‘Well, you are little, Puddle — oh, I’m sorry —’

‘I don’t mind,’ Miss Puddleton had told her; ‘call me Puddle if you like, it’s all one to me.’ After which Miss Puddleton disappeared somehow, and Puddle took her place in the household.

An insignificant creature this Puddle, yet at moments unmistakably self-assertive. Always willing to help in domestic affairs, such as balancing Anna’s chaotic account books, or making out library lists for Jackson’s, she was nevertheless very guardful of her rights, very quick to assert and maintain her position. Puddle knew what she wanted and saw that she got it, both in and out of the schoolroom. Yet everyone liked her; she took what she gave and she gave what she took, yes, but sometimes she gave just a little bit more — and that little bit more is the whole art of teaching, the whole art of living, in fact, and Miss Puddleton knew it. Thus gradually, oh, very gradually at first, she wore down her pupil’s unconscious resistance. With small, dexterous fingers she caught Stephen’s brain, and she stroked it and modelled it after her own fashion. She talked to that brain and showed it new pictures; she gave it new thoughts, new hopes and ambitions; she made it feel certain and proud of achievement. Nor did she belittle Stephen’s muscles in the process, never once did Puddle make game of the athlete, never once did she show by so much as the twitch of an eyelid that she had her own thoughts about her pupil. She appeared to take Stephen as a matter of course, nothing surprised or even amused her it seemed, and Stephen grew quite at ease with her.

‘I can always be comfortable with you, Puddle,’ Stephen would say in a tone of satisfaction, ‘you’re like a nice chair; though you are so tiny yet one’s got room to stretch, I don’t know how you do it.’

Then Puddle would smile, and that smile would warm Stephen while it mocked her a little; but it also mocked Puddle — they would share that warm smile with its fun and its kindness so that neither of them could feel hurt or embarrassed. And their friendship took root, growing strong and verdant, and it flourished like a green bay-tree in the school-room.

Came the time when Stephen began to realize that Puddle had genius — the genius of teaching; the genius of compelling her pupil to share in her own enthusiastic love of the Classics.

Oh, Stephen, if only you could read this in Greek!’ she would say, and her voice would sound full of excitement; ‘the beauty, the splendid dignity of it — it’s like the sea, Stephen, rather terrible, but splendid; that’s the language, it’s far more virile than Latin.’ And Stephen would catch that sudden excitement, and determine to work even harder at Greek.

But Puddle did not live by the ancients alone, she taught Stephen to appreciate all literary beauty, observing in her pupil a really fine judgment, a great feeling for balance in sentences and words. A vast tract of new interest was thus opened up, and Stephen began to excel in composition; to her own deep amazement she found herself able to write many things that had long lain dormant in her heart — all the beauty of nature, for instance, she could write it. Impressions of childhood — gold light on the hills; the first cuckoo, mysterious, strangely alluring; those rides home from hunting together with her father — bare furrows, the meaning of those bare furrows. And later, how many queer hopes and queer longings, queer joys and even more curious frustrations. Joy of strength, splendid physical strength and courage; joy of health and sound sleep and refreshed awakening; joy of Raftery leaping under the saddle, joy of wind racing backward as Raftery leapt forward. And then, what? A sudden impenetrable darkness, a sudden vast void all nothingness and darkness; a sudden sense of acute apprehension: ‘I’m lost, where am I? Where am I? I’m nothing — yes I am, I’m Stephen — but that’s being nothing —’ then that horrible sense of apprehension.

Writing, it was like a heavenly balm, it was like the flowing out of deep waters, it was like the lifting of a load from the spirit; it brought with it a sense of relief, of assuagement. One could say things in writing without feeling self-conscious, without feeling shy and ashamed and foolish — one could even write of the days of young Nelson, smiling a very little as one did so.

Sometimes Puddle would sit alone in her bedroom reading and rereading Stephen’s strange compositions; frowning, or smiling a little in her turn, at those turbulent, youthful outpourings.

She would think: ‘Here’s real talent, real red-hot talent — interesting to find it in that great, athletic creature; but what is she likely to make of her talent? She’s up agin the world, if she only knew it!’ Then Puddle would shake her head and look doubtful, feeling sorry for Stephen and the world in general.

3

This then was how Stephen conquered yet another kingdom, and at seventeen was not only athlete but student. Three years under Puddle’s ingenious tuition, and the girl was as proud of her brains as of her muscles — a trifle too proud, she was growing conceited, she was growing self-satisfied, arrogant even, and Sir Philip must tease her: ‘Ask Stephen, she’ll tell us. Stephen, what’s that reference to Adeimantus, something about a mind fixed on true being — doesn’t it come in Euripides, somewhere? Oh, no, I’m forgetting, of course it’s Plato; really my Greek is disgracefully rusty!’ Then Stephen would know that Sir Philip was laughing at her, but very kindly.

In spite of her newly acquired book learning, Stephen still talked quite often to Raftery. He was now ten years old and had grown much in wisdom himself, so he listened with care and attention.

‘You see,’ she would tell him, ‘it’s very important to develop the brain as well as the muscles; I’m now doing both — stand still, will you, Raftery! Never mind that old corn-bin, stop rolling your eye round — it’s very important to develop the brain because that gives you an advantage over people, it makes you more able to do as you like in this world, to conquer conditions, Raftery.’

And Raftery, who was not really thinking of the corn-bin, but rolling his eye in an effort to answer, would want to say something too big for his language, which at best must consist of small sounds and small movements; would want to say something about a strong feeling he had that Stephen was missing the truth. But how could he hope to make her understand the age-old wisdom of all the dumb creatures? The wisdom of plains and primeval forests, the wisdom come down from the youth of the world.

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