The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Nine

2

Sir Philip and his daughter had a new common interest; they could now discuss books and the making of books and the feel and the smell and the essence of books — a mighty bond this, and one full of enchantment. They could talk of these things with mutual understanding; they did so for hours in the father’s study, and Sir Philip discovered a secret ambition that had lain in the girl like a seed in deep soil; and he, the good gardener of her body and spirit, hoed the soil and watered this seed of ambition. Stephen would show him her queer compositions, and would wait very breathless and still while he read them; then one evening he looked up and saw her expression, and he smiled:

‘So that’s it, you want to be a writer. Well, why not? You’ve got plenty of talent, Stephen; I should be a proud man if you were a writer.’ After which their discussions on the making of books held an even more vital enchantment.

But Anna came less and less often to the study, and she would be sitting alone and idle. Puddle, upstairs at work in the schoolroom, might be swotting at her Greek to keep pace with Stephen, but Anna would be sitting with her hands in her lap in the vast drawing-room so beautifully proportioned, so restfully furnished in old polished walnut, so redolent of beeswax and orris root and violets — all alone in its vastness would Anna be sitting, with her white hands folded and idle.

A lovely and most comfortable woman she had been, and still was, in spite of her gentle ageing, but not learned, oh, no, very far from learned — that, indeed, was why Sir Philip had loved her, that was why he had found her so infinitely restful, that was why he still loved her after very many years; her simplicity was stronger to hold him than learning. But now Anna went less and less often to the study.

It was not that they failed to make her feel welcome, but rather that they could not conceal their deep interest in subjects of which she knew little or nothing. What did she know of or care for the Classics? What interest had she in the works of Erasmus? Her theology needed no erudite discussion, her philosophy consisted of a home swept and garnished, and as for the poets, she liked simple verses; for the rest her poetry lay in her husband. All this she well knew and had no wish to alter, yet lately there had come upon Anna an aching, a tormenting aching that she dared give no name to. It nagged at her heart when she went to that study and saw Sir Philip together with their daughter, and knew that her presence contributed nothing to his happiness when he sat reading to Stephen.

Staring at the girl she would see the strange resemblance, the invidious likeness of the child to the father, she would notice their movements so grotesquely alike; their hands were alike, they made the same gestures, and her mind would recoil with that nameless resentment, the while she reproached herself; penitent and trembling. Yet penitent and trembling though Anna might be, she would sometimes hear herself speaking to Stephen in a way that would make her feel secretly ashamed. She would hear herself covertly, cleverly gibing, with such skill that the girl would look up at her bewildered; with such skill that even Sir Philip himself could not well take exception to what she was saying; then, as like as not, she would laugh it off lightly, as though all the time she had only been jesting, and Stephen would laugh too, a big, friendly laugh. But Sir Philip would not laugh, and his eyes would seek Anna’s questioning, amazed, incredulous and angry. That was why she now went so seldom to the study when Sir Philip and his daughter were together.

But sometimes, when she was alone with her husband, Anna would suddenly cling to him in silence. She would hide her face against his hard shoulder clinging closer and closer, as though she were frightened, as though she were afraid for this great love of theirs. He would stand very still, forbearing to move, forbearing to question, for why should he question? He knew already, and she knew that he knew. Yet neither of them spoke it, this most unhappy thing, and their silence spread round them like a poisonous miasma. The spectre that was Stephen would seem to be watching, and Sir Philip would gently release himself from Anna, while she, looking up, would see his tired eyes, not angry any more, only very unhappy. She would think that those eyes were pleading, beseeching; she would think: ‘He’s pleading with me for Stephen.’ Then her own eyes would fill with tears of contrition, and that night she would kneel long in prayer to her Maker:

Give me peace,’ she would entreat, ‘and enlighten my spirit, so that I may learn how to love my own child.’

2

Sir Philip looked older now than his age, and seeing this, Anna could scarcely endure it. Everything in her cried out in rebellion so that she wanted to thrust back the years, to hold them at bay with her own weak body. Had the years been an army of naked swords she would gladly have held them at bay with her body.

He would constantly now remain in his study right into the early hours of the morning. This habit of his had been growing on him lately, and Anna, waking to find herself alone, and feeling uneasy would steal down to listen. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards! She would hear his desolate sounding footsteps. Why was he pacing backwards and forwards, and why was she always afraid to ask him? Why was the hand she stretched out to the door always fearful when it came to turning the handle? Oh, but it was strong, this thing that stood between them, strong with the strength of their united bodies. It had drawn its own life from their youth, their passion, from the splendid and purposeful meaning of their passion — that was how it had leapt full of power into life, and now it had thrust in between them. They were ageing, they had little left but their loving — that gentler loving, perhaps the more perfect — and their faith in each other, which was part of that loving, and their peace, which was part of the peace of Morton. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards! Those incessant and desolate sounding footsteps. Peace: There was surely no peace in that study, but rather some affliction, menacing, prophetic! Yet prophetic of what? She dared not ask him, she dared not so much as turn the door-handle, a haunting premonition of disaster would make her creep away with her question unasked.

Then something would draw her, not back to her bedroom, but on up the stairs to the room of their daughter. She would open that door very gently — by inches. She would hold her hand so that it shaded the candle, and would stand looking down at the sleeping Stephen as she and her husband had done long ago. But now there would be no little child to look down on, no small helplessness to arouse mother-pity. Stephen would be lying very straight, very large, very long, underneath the neatly drawn covers. Quite often an arm would be outside the bedspread, the sleeve having fallen away as it lay there, and that arm would look firm and strong and possessive, and so would the face by the light of the candle. She slept deeply. Her breathing would be even and placid. Her body would be drinking in its fill of refreshment. It would rise up clean and refreshed in the morning; it would eat, speak, move — it would move about Morton. In the stables, in the gardens, in the neighbouring paddocks, in the study — it would move about Morton. Intolerable dispensation of nature. Anna would stare at that splendid young body, and would feel, as she did so, that she looked on a stranger. She would scourge her heart and her anxious spirit with memories drawn from this stranger’s beginnings: ‘Little — you were so very little!’ she would whisper, ‘and you sucked from my breast because you were hungry — little and always so terribly hungry — a good baby though, a contented little baby —’

And Stephen would sometimes stir in her sleep as though she were vaguely conscious of Anna. It would pass and she would lie quiet again, breathing in those deep, placid draughts of refreshment. Then Anna, still ruthlessly scourging her heart and her anxious spirit, would stoop and kiss Stephen, but lightly and very quickly on the forehead, so that the girl should not be awakened. So that the girl should not wake and kiss back, she would kiss her lightly and quickly on the forehead.

3

The eye of youth is very observant. Youth has its moments of keen intuition, even normal youth — but the intuition of those who stand mid-way between the sexes, is so ruthless, so poignant, so accurate, so deadly, as to be in the nature of an added scourge; and by such an intuition did Stephen discover that all was not well with her parents.

Their outward existence seemed calm and unruffled; so far nothing had disturbed the outward peace of Morton. But their child saw their hearts with the eyes of the spirit; flesh of their flesh, she had sprung from their hearts, and she knew that those hearts were heavy. They said nothing, but she sensed that some deep, secret trouble was afflicting them both; she could see it in their eyes. In the words that they left unspoken she could hear it — it would be there, filling the small gaps of silence. She thought that she discerned it in her father’s slow movements — surely his movements had grown slower of late? And his hair was quite grey; it was quite grey all over. She realized this with a slight shock one morning as he sat in the sunlight — it had used to look auburn in the nape of his neck when the sun fell upon it — and now it was dull grey all over.

But this mattered little. Even their trouble mattered little in comparison with something more vital, with their love — that, she felt, was the only thing that mattered, and that was the thing that now stood most in danger. This love of theirs had been a great glory; all her life she had lived with it side by side, but never until it appeared to be threatened, did she feel that she had really grasped its true meaning — the serene and beautiful spirit of Morton clothed in flesh, yes, that had been its true meaning. Yet that had been only part of its meaning for her, it had meant something greater than Morton, it had stood for the symbol of perfect fulfilment — she remembered that even as a very small child she had vaguely discerned that perfect fulfilment. This love had been glowing like a great friendly beacon, a thing that was steadfast and very reassuring. All unconscious, she must often have warmed herself at it, must have thawed out her doubts and her vague misgivings. It had always been their love, the one for the other; she knew this, and yet it had been her beacon. But now those flames were no longer steadfast; something had dared to blemish their brightness. She longed to leap up in her youth and strength and cast this thing out of her holy of holies. The fire must not die and leave her in darkness.

And yet she was utterly helpless, and she knew it. All that she did seemed inadequate and childish: ‘When I was a child I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.’ Remembering Saint Paul, she decided grimly that surely she had remained as a child. She could sit and stare at them — these poor, stricken lovers — with eyes that were scared and deeply reproachful: ‘You must not let anything spoil your loving, I need it,’ her eyes could send them that message. She could love them in her turn, possessively, fiercely: ‘You’re mine, mine, mine, the one perfect thing about me. You’re one and you’re mine. I’m frightened, I need you!’ Her thoughts could send them that message. She could start to caress them, awkwardly, shyly, stroking their hands with her strong, bony fingers — first his hand, then hers, then perhaps both together, so that they smiled in spite of their trouble. But she dared not stand up before them accusing, and say: ‘I’m Stephen, I’m you, for you bred me. You shall not fail me by failing yourselves. I’ve a right to demand that you shall not fail me!’ No, she dared not stand up and speak such words as these — she had never demanded anything from them.

Sometimes she would think them quietly over as two fellow creatures whom chance had made her parents. Her father, her mother — a man, a woman; and then she would be amazed to discover how little she knew of this man and this woman. They had once been babies, and later small children, ignorant of life and utterly dependent. That seemed so curious, ignorant of life — her father utterly weak and dependent. They had come to adolescence even as she had, and perhaps at times they too had felt unhappy. What had their thoughts been, those thoughts that lie hidden, those nebulous misgivings that never get spoken? Had her mother shrunk back resentful, protesting, when the seal of her womanhood had been stamped upon her? Surely not for her mother was somehow so perfect, that all that befell her must in its turn be perfect — her mother gathered nature into her arms and embraced it as a friend, as a well-loved companion. But she, Stephen, had never felt friendly like that, which must mean, she supposed, that she lacked some fine instinct.

There had been those young years of her mother’s in Ireland; she spoke of them sometimes but only vaguely, as though they were now very far away, as though they had never seriously counted. And yet she had been lovely, lovely Anna Molloy, much admired, much loved and constantly courted — And her father, he too had been in the world, in Rome, in Paris, and often in London — he had not lived at Morton in those days; and how queer it seemed, there had been a time when her father had actually not known her mother. They had been completely unconscious of each other, he for twenty-nine years, she for just over twenty, and yet all the while had been drawing together, in spite of themselves, always nearer together. Then had come that morning away in County Clare, when those two had suddenly seen each other, and had known from that moment the meaning of life, of love, just because they had seen each other. Her father spoke very seldom of such things, but this much he had told her, it had all grown quite clear — What had it felt like when they realized each other? What did it feel like to see things quite clearly, to know the innermost reason for things?

Morton — her mother had come home to Morton, to wonderful, gently enfolding Morton. She had passed for the first time through the heavy white doorway under the shining semicircular fanlight. She had walked into the old square hall with its bear-skins, and its pictures of funny, dressed-up looking Gordons — the hall with the whip-rack where Stephen kept her whips — the hall with the beautiful iridescent window, that looked over the lawns and herbaceous borders. Then, perhaps hand in hand, they had passed beyond the hall, her father a man, her mother a woman, with their destiny already upon them — and that destiny of theirs had been Stephen.

Ten years. For ten years they had just had each other, each other and Morton — surely wonderful years. But what had they been thinking about all those years? Had they perhaps thought a little about Stephen? Oh, but what could she hope to know of these things, their thoughts, their feelings, their secret ambitions — she, who had not even been conceived, she, who had not yet come into existence? They had lived in a world that her eyes bad not looked on; days and nights had slipped into the weeks, months and years. Time had existed, but she, Stephen, had not. They had lived through that time; it had gone to their making; their present had been the result of its travail, had sprung from its womb as she from her mother’s, only she had not been a part of that travail, as she had been a part of her mother’s. Hopeless! And yet she must try to know them, these two, every inch of their hearts, of their minds; and knowing them, she must then try to guard them — but him first, oh, him first — she did not ask why, she only knew that because she loved him as she did, he would always have to come first. Love was simply like that; it just followed its impulse and asked no questions — it was beautifully simple. But for his sake she must also love the thing that he loved, her mother, though this love was somehow quite different; it was less hers than his, he had thrust it upon her; it was not an integral part of her being. Nevertheless it too must be served, for the happiness of one was that of the other. They were indivisible, one flesh, one spirit, and whatever it was that had crept in between them was trying to tear asunder this oneness — that was why she, their child, must rise up and help them if she could, for was she not the fruit of their oneness?

4

There were times when she would think that she must have been mistaken, that no trouble was overshadowing her father; these would be when they two were sitting in his study, for then he would seem contented. Surrounded by his books, caressing their bindings, Sir Philip would look care-free again and light-hearted.

‘No friends in the world like books,’ he would tell her. ‘Look at this fellow in his old leather jacket!’

There were times, too, out hunting when he seemed very young, as Raftery had been that first season. But the ten-year-old Raftery was now wiser than Sir Philip, who would often behave like a foolhardy schoolboy. He would give Stephen leads over hair-raising places, and then, she safely landed, turn round and grin at her. He liked her to ride the pick of his hunters these days, and would slyly show off her prowess. The sport would bring back the old light to his eyes, and his eyes would look happy as they rested on his daughter.

She would think: must have been terribly mistaken,’ and would feel a great peace surge over her spirit.

He might say, as they slowly jogged home to Morton: ‘Did you notice my youngster here take that stiff timber? Not bad for a five-year-old, he’ll do nicely.’ And perhaps he might add: ‘Put a three on that five, and then tell your old sire that he’s not so bad either! I’m fifty-three, Stephen, I’ll be going in the wind if I don’t knock off smoking quite soon, and that’s certain!’

Then Stephen would know that her father felt young, very young, and was wanting her to flatter him a little.

But this mood would not last; it had often quite changed by the time ‘that the two of them reached the stables. She would notice with a sudden pain in her heart that he stooped when he walked, not much yet, but a little. And she loved his broad back, she had always loved it — a kind, reassuring protective back. Then the thought would come that perhaps its great kindness had caused it to stoop as though bearing a burden; and the thought would come: ‘He is bearing a burden, not his own, it’s someone else’s — but whose?’

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