The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Chapter Twelve

No one questioned at Morton; they spoke very little. Even Anna forbore to question her daughter, checked by something that she saw in the girl’s pale face.

But alone with her husband she gave way to her misgivings, to her deep disappointment: ‘It’s heartbreaking, Philip. What’s happened? They seemed so devoted to each other. Will you ask the child? Surely one of us ought to —’

Sir Philip said quietly: ‘I think Stephen will tell me.’ And with that Anna had perforce to be content.

Very silently Stephen now went about Morton, and her eyes looked bewildered and deeply unhappy. At night she would lie awake thinking of Martin, missing him, mourning him as though he were dead. But she could not accept this death without question, without feeling that she was in some way blameworthy. What was she, what manner of curious creature, to have been so repelled by a lover like Martin? Yet she had been repelled, and even her pity for the man could not wipe out that stronger feeling. She had driven him away because something within her was intolerant of that new aspect of Martin.

Oh, but she mourned his good, honest friendship; he had taken that from her, the thing she most needed — but perhaps after all it had never existed except as a cloak for this other emotion. And then, lying there in the thickening darkness, she would shrink from what might be waiting in the future, for all that had just happened might happen again — there were other men in the world beside Martin. Fool, never to have visualized this thing before, never to have faced the possibility of it; now she understood her resentment of men when their voices grew soft and insinuating. Yes, and now she knew to the full the meaning of fear, and Martin it was, who had taught her its meaning — her friend — the man she had utterly trusted had pulled the scales from her eyes and revealed it. Fear, stark fear, and the shame of such fear — that was the legacy left her by Martin. And yet he had made her so happy at first, she had felt so contented, so natural with him; but that was because they had been like two men, companions, sharing each other’s interests. And at this thought her bitterness would all but flow over; it was cruel, it was cowardly of him to have deceived her, when all the time he had only been waiting for the chance to force this other thing on her.

But what was she?’ Her thoughts slipping back to her childhood, would find many things in her past that perplexed her. She had never been quite like the other small children, she had always been lonely and discontented, she had always been trying to be someone else — that was why she had dressed herself up as young Nelson. Remembering those days she would think of her father, and would wonder if now, as then, he could help her. Supposing she should ask him to explain about Martin? Her father was wise, and had infinite patience — yet somehow she instinctively dreaded to ask him. Alone — it was terrible to feel so much alone — to feel oneself different from other people. At one time she had rather enjoyed this distinction — she had rather enjoyed dressing up as young Nelson. Yet had she enjoyed it? Or had it been done as some sort of inadequate childish protest a But if so against what had she been protesting when she strutted about the house, masquerading? In those days she had wanted to be a boy — had that been the meaning of the pitiful young Nelson? And what about now? She had wanted Martin to treat her as a man, had expected it of him . . . The questions to which she could find no answers, would pile themselves up and up in the darkness; oppressing, stifling by sheer weight of numbers, until she would feel them getting her under; ‘I don’t know — oh, God, I don’t know!’ she would mutter, tossing as though to fling off those questions.

Then one night towards dawn she could bear it no longer; her dread must give place to her need of consolation. She would ask her father to explain her to herself; she would tell him her deep desolation over Martin. She would say: Is there anything strange about me, Father, that I should have felt as I did about Martin?’ And then she would try to explain very calmly what it was she had felt, the intensity of it. She would try to make him understand her suspicion that this feeling of hers was a thing fundamental, much more than merely not being in love; much, much more than not wanting to marry Martin. She would tell him why she found herself so utterly bewildered; tell him how she had loved Martin’s strong, young body, and his honest brown face, and his slow thoughtful eyes, and his careless walk — all these things she had loved. Then suddenly terror and deep repugnance because of that unforeseen change in Martin, the change that had turned the friend into the lover — in reality it had been no more than that, the friend had turned lover and had wanted from her what she could not give him, or indeed any man, because of that deep repugnance. Yet there should have been nothing repugnant about Martin, nor was she a child to have felt such terror. She had known certain facts about life for some time and they had not repelled her in other people — not until they had been brought home to herself had these facts both terrified and repelled her.

She got up. No good in trying to sleep, those eternal questions kept stifling, tormenting. Dressing quickly she stole down the wide, shallow stairs to the garden door, then out into the garden. The garden looked unfamiliar in the sunrise, like a well-known face that is suddenly transfigured. There was something aloof and awesome about it, as though it were lost in ecstatic devotion. She tried to tread softly for she felt apologetic, she and her troubles were there as intruders; their presence disturbed this strange hush of communion, this oneness with something beyond their knowledge, that was yet known and loved by the soul of the garden. A mysterious and wonderful thing this oneness, pregnant with comfort could she know its true meaning — she felt this somewhere deep down in herself; but try as she would her mind could not grasp it; perhaps even the garden was shutting her out of its prayers, because she had sent away Martin. Then a thrush began to sing in the cedar, and his song was full of wild jubilation: Stephen, look at me, look at me!’ sang the thrush, ‘I’m happy, happy, it’s all very simple!’ There was something heartless about that singing which only served to remind her of Martin. She walked on disconsolate, thinking deeply. He had gone, he would soon be back in his forests — she had made no effort to keep him beside her because he had wanted to be her lover . . . ‘Stephen, look at us, look at us!’ sang the birds, ‘We’re happy, happy, it’s all very simple!’ Martin walking in dim, green places — she could picture his life away in the forests, a man’s life, good with the goodness of danger, a primitive, strong, imperative thing — a man’s life, the life that should have been hers — And her eyes filled with heavy, regretful tears, yet she did not quite know for what she was weeping. She only knew that some great sense of loss, some great sense of incompleteness possessed her, and she let the tears trickle down her face, wiping them off one by one with her finger.

And now she was passing the old potting shed where Collins had lain in the arms of the footman. Choking back her tears she paused by the shed, and tried to remember the girl’s appearance. Grey eyes — no, blue, and a round-about figure — plump hands, with soft skin always puckered from soap-suds — a housemaid’s knee that had pained very badly: See that dent? That’s the water . . . It fair makes me sick.’ Then a queer little girl dressed up as young Nelson: ‘I’d like to be awfully hurt for you, Collins, the way that Jesus was hurt for sinners . . . ’ The potting shed smelling of earth and dampness, sagging a little on one side, lop-sided — Collins lying in the arms of the footman, Collins being kissed by him, wantonly, crudely — a broken flower pot in the hand of a child — rage, deep rage — a great anguish of spirit — blood on a face that was pale with amazement, very bright red blood that kept trickling and trickling — flight, wild, inarticulate flight, away and away, anyhow, anywhere — the pain of torn skin, the rip of torn stockings —

She had not remembered these things for years, she had thought that all this had been quite forgotten; there was nothing to remind her of Collins these days but a fat, half-blind and pampered old pony. Strange how these memories came back this morning; she had lain in bed lately trying to recapture the childish emotions aroused in her by Collins and had failed, yet this morning they came back quite clearly. But the garden was full of a new memory now; it was full of sorrowful memory of Martin. She turned abruptly, and leaving the shed walked towards the lakes that gleamed faintly in the distance.

Down by the lakes there was a sense of great stillness which the songs of the birds could in no way lessen, for this place had that curious stillness of spirit that seems to interpenetrate sound. A swan paddled about in front of his island, on guard, for his mate had a nest full of cygnets; from time to time he glanced crossly at Stephen though he knew her quite well, but now there were cygnets. He was proud in his splendid, incredible whiteness, and paternity made him feel overbearing, so that he refused to feed from Stephen’s hand although she found a biscuit in her pocket.

‘Coup, c-o-u-p!’ she called, but he swung his neck sideways as he swam — it was like a disdainful negation. ‘Perhaps he thinks I’m a freak,’ she mused grimly, feeling more lonely because of the swan.

The lakes were guarded by massive old beech trees, and the beech trees stood ankle-deep in their foliage; a lovely and luminous carpet of leaves they had spread on the homely brown earth of Morton. Each spring came new little shuttles of greenness that in time added warp and woof to the carpet, so that year by year it grew softer and deeper, and year by year it glowed more resplendent. Stephen had loved this spot from her childhood, and now she instinctively went to it for comfort, but its beauty only added to her melancholy, for beauty can wound like a two-edged sword. She could not respond to its stillness of spirit, since she could not lull her own spirit to stillness.

She thought: ‘I shall never be one with great peace any more, I shall always stand outside this stillness — wherever there is absolute stillness and peace in this world, I shall always stand just outside it.’ And as though these thoughts were in some way prophetic, she inwardly shivered a little.

Then what must the swan do but start to hiss loudly, just to show her that he was really a father: ‘Peter,’ she reproached him, ‘I won’t hurt your babies — can’t you trust me? I fed you the whole of last winter!’

But apparently Peter could not trust her at all, for he squawked to his mate who came out through the bushes, and she hissed in her turn, flapping strong angry wings, which meant in mere language: Get out of this, Stephen, you clumsy, inadequate, ludicrous creature; you destroyer of nests, you disturber of young, you great wingless blot on a beautiful morning!’ Then they both hissed together: Get out of this, Stephen!’ So Stephen left them to the care of their cygnets.

Remembering Raftery, she walked to the stables, where all was confusion and purposeful bustle. Old Williams was ruthlessly out on the warpath; he was scolding: ‘Drat the boy, what be ‘e a-doin’?? Come on, do! ‘Urry up, get them two horses bridled, and don’t go forgettin’ their knee-caps this mornin’— and that bucket there don’t belong where it’s standin’, nor that broom! Did Jim take the roan to the blacksmith’s? Gawd almighty, why not? ‘Er shoes is like paper! ‘Ere, you Jim, don’t you go on ignorin’ my orders, if you do — Come on, boy, got them two horses ready? Right, well then, up you go! You don’t want no saddle, like as not you’d give ’im a gall if you ‘ad one!’

The sleek, good-looking hunters were led out in clothing — for the early spring mornings were still rather nippy — and among them came Raftery, slender and skittish; he was wearing his hood, and his eyes peered out bright as a falcon’s from the two neatly braided eye-holes. From a couple more holes in the top of his head-dress, shot his small, pointed ears, which now worked with excitement.

‘Old on!’ bellowed Williams, ‘What the ‘ell be you doin’? Quick, shorten ‘is bridle, yer not in a circus!’ And then seeing Stephen: ‘Beg pardon, Miss Stephen, but it be a fair crime not to lead that horse close, and ’im all corned up until ‘he’s fair dancin’!’

They stood watching Raftery skip through the gates, then old Williams said softly: ”E do be a wonder — more nor fifty odd years ‘ave I worked in the stables, and never no beast ‘ave I loved like Raftery. But ‘e’s no common horse, ‘e be some sort of Christian, and a better one too than a good few I knows on —’

And Stephen answered: ‘Perhaps he’s a poet like his namesake; I think if he could write he’d write verses. They say all the Irish are poets at heart, so perhaps they pass on the gift to their horses.’

Then the two of them smiled, each a little embarrassed, but their eyes held great friendship the one for the other, a friendship of years now cemented by Raftery whom they loved — and small wonder, for assuredly never did more gallant or courteous horse step out of stable.

‘Oh, well,’ sighed Williams, ‘I be gettin’ that old — and Raftery, ‘e do be comin’ eleven, but ‘e don’t feel it yet in ‘is limbs the way I does — me rheumatics ‘as troubled me awful this winter.’

She stayed on a little while, comforting Williams, then made her way back to the house, very slowly. ‘Poor Williams,’ she thought, ‘he is getting old, but thank the Lord nothing’s the matter with Raftery.’

The house lay full in a great slant of sunshine; it looked as though it was sunning its shoulders. Glancing up, she came eye to eye with the house, and she fancied that Morton was thinking about her, for its windows seemed to be beckoning, inviting: Come home, come home, come inside quickly, Stephen!’ And as though they had spoken, she answered: ‘I’m coming,’ and she quickened her lagging steps to a run, in response to this most compassionate kindness. Yes, she actually ran through the heavy white doorway under the semicircular fanlight, and on up the staircase that led from the hall in which hung the funny old portraits of Gordons — men long dead and gone but still wonderfully living, since their thoughts had fashioned the comeliness of Morton; since their loves had made children from father to son — from father to son until the advent of Stephen.


That evening she went to her father’s study, and when he looked up she thought she was expected.

She said: ‘I want to talk to you, Father.’

And he answered: ‘I know — sit close to me, Stephen.’

He shaded his face with his long, thin hand, so that she could not see his expression, yet it seemed to her that he knew quite well why she had come to him in that study. Then she told him about Martin, told him all that had happened, omitting no detail, sparing him nothing. She openly mourned the friend who had failed her, and herself she mourned for failing the lover — and Sir Philip listened in absolute silence.

After she had spoken for quite a long time, she at length found the courage to ask her question: ‘Is there anything strange about me, Father, that I should have felt as I did about Martin?’

It had come. It fell on his heart like a blow. The hand that was shading his pale face trembled, for he felt a great trembling take hold of his spirit. His spirit shrank back and cowered in his body, so that it dared not look out on Stephen.

She was waiting, and now she was asking again: ‘Father, is there anything strange about me? I remember when I was a little child — I was never quite like all the other children —’

Her voice sounded apologetic, uncertain, and he knew that the tears were not far from her eyes, knew that if he looked now he would see her lips shaking, and the tears making ugly red stains on her eyelids. His loins ached with pity for this fruit of his loins — an insufferable aching, an intolerable pity. He was frightened, a coward because of his pity, as he had been once long ago with her mother. Merciful God! How could a man answer? What could he say, and that man a father? He sat there inwardly grovelling before her: ‘Oh, Stephen, my child, my little, little Stephen.’ For now in his pity she seemed to him little, little and utterly helpless again — he remembered her hands as the hands of a baby, very small, very pink, with minute perfect nails — he had played with her hands, exclaiming about them, astonished because of their neat perfection: ‘Oh, Stephen, my little, little Stephen.’ He wanted to cry out against God for this thing; he wanted’ to cry out: ‘You have maimed my Stephen! What had I done or my father before me, or my father’s father, or his father’s father? Unto the third and fourth generations . . . ’ And Stephen was waiting for his answer. Then Sir Philip set the lips of his spirit to the cup, and his spirit must drink the gall of deception: ‘I will not tell her. You cannot ask it — there are some things that even God should not ask.’

And now he turned round and deliberately faced her; smiling right into her eyes he lied glibly: ‘My dear, don’t be foolish, there’s nothing strange about you, some day you may meet a man you can love. And supposing you don’t, well, what of it, Stephen? Marriage isn’t the only career for a woman. I’ve been thinking about your writing just lately, and I’m going to let you go up to Oxford; but meanwhile you mustn’t get foolish fancies, that won’t do at all — it’s not like you, Stephen.’ She was gazing at him and he turned away quickly: ‘Darling, I’m busy, you must leave me,’ he faltered.

Thank you,’ she said very quietly and simply, ‘I felt that I had to ask you about Martin —’


After she had gone he sat on alone, and the lie was still bitter to his spirit as he sat there, and he covered his face for the shame that was in him — but because of the love that was in him he wept.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55