It was Jonathan Brockett who had recommended the little hotel in the Rue St. Roch, and when Stephen and Puddle arrived one evening that June, feeling rather tired and dejected, they found their sitting-room bright with roses — roses for Puddle — and on the table two boxes of Turkish cigarettes for Stephen. Brockett, they learnt, had ordered these things by writing specially from London.
Barely had they been in Paris a week, when Jonathan Brockett turned up in person: ‘Hallo, my dears, I’ve come over to see you. Everything all right? Are you being looked after?’ He sat down in the only comfortable chair and proceeded to make himself charming to Puddle. It seemed that his flat in Paris being let, he had tried to get rooms at their hotel but had failed, so had gone instead to the Meurice. ‘But I’m not going to take you to lunch there,’ he told them, ‘the weather’s too fine, we’ll go to Versailles. Stephen, ring up and order your car, there’s a darling! By the way, how is Burton getting on? Does he remember to keep to the right and to pass on the left?’ His voice sounded anxious. Stephen reassured him good-humouredly, she knew that he was apt to be nervous in motors.
They lunched at the Hôtel des Reservoirs, Brockett taking great pains to order special dishes. The waiters were zealous, they evidently knew him: Oui, monsieur, tout de suite — a l’instant, monsieur!’ Other clients were kept waiting while Brackett was served, and Stephen could see that this pleased him. All through the meal he talked about Paris with ardour, as a lover might talk of a mistress.
‘Stephen, I’m not going back for ages. I’m going to make you simply adore her. You’ll see, I’ll make you adore her so much that you’ll find yourself writing like a heaven-born genius. There’s nothing so stimulating as love — you’ve got to have an affair with Paris!’ Then looking at Stephen rather intently, ‘I suppose you’re capable of falling in love?’
She shrugged her shoulders, ignoring his question, but she thought: ‘He’s putting his eye to the keyhole. His curiosity’s positively childish at times,’ for she saw that his face had fallen.
Oh, well, if you don’t want to tell me —’ he grumbled.
‘Don’t be silly! There’s nothing to tell,’ smiled Stephen. But she made a mental note to be careful. Brockett’s curiosity was always most dangerous when apparently merely childish.
With quick tact he dropped the personal note. No good trying to force her to confide, he decided, she was too damn clever to give herself away, especially before the watchful old Puddle. He sent for the bill and when it arrived, went over it item by item, frowning.
‘You’ve made a mistake; only one liqueur brandy — and here’s another mistake, I ordered two portions of potatoes, not three; I do wish to God you’d be careful!’ When Brockett felt cross he always felt mean. ‘Correct this at once, it’s disgusting!’ he said rudely. Stephen sighed, and hearing her Brockett looked up unabashed: ‘Well, why pay for what we’ve not ordered?’ Then he suddenly found his temper again and left a very large tip for the waiter.
There is nothing more difficult to attain to than the art of being a perfect guide. Such an art, indeed, requires a real artist, one who has a keen perception for contrasts, and an eye for the large effects rather than for details, above all one possessed of imagination; and Brockett, when he chose, could be such a guide.
Having waved the professional guides to one side, he himself took them through a part of the palace, and his mind repeopled the place for Stephen so that she seemed to see the glory of the dancers led by the youthful Roi Soleil; seemed to hear the rhythm of the throbbing violins, and the throb of the rhythmic dancing feet as they beat down the length of the Galerie des Glaces; seemed to see those other mysterious dancers who followed step by step, in the long line of mirrors. But most skilfully of all did he recreate for her the image of the luckless queen who came after; as though for some reason this unhappy woman must appeal in a personal way to Stephen. And true it was that the small, humble rooms which the queen had chosen out of all that vast palace, moved Stephen profoundly — so desolate they seemed, so full of unhappy thoughts and emotions that were even now only half forgotten.
Brockett pointed to the simple garniture on the mantelpiece of the little salon, then he looked at Stephen: ‘Madame de Lamballe gave those to the queen,’ he murmured softly.
She nodded, only vaguely apprehending his meaning.
Presently they followed him out into the gardens and stood looking across the Tapis Vert that stretches its quarter mile of greenness towards a straight, lovely line of water.
Brockett said, very low, so that Puddle should not hear him: ‘Those two would often come here at sunset. Sometimes they were rowed along the canal in the sunset — can’t you imagine it, Stephen? They must often have felt pretty miserable, poor souls; sick to death of the subterfuge and pretences. Don’t you ever get tired of that sort of thing? My God, I do!’ But she did not answer, for now there was no mistaking his meaning.
Last of all he took them to the Temple d’Amour, where it rests amid the great silence of the years that have long lain upon the dead hearts of its lovers; and from there to the Hameau, built by the queen for a whim — the tactless and foolish whim of a tactless and foolish but loving woman — by the queen who must play at being a peasant, at a time when her downtrodden peasants were starving. The cottages were badly in need of repair; a melancholy spot it looked, this Hameau, in spite of the birds that sang in its trees and the golden glint of the afternoon sunshine.
On the drive back to Paris they were all very silent. Puddle was feeling too tired to talk, and Stephen was oppressed by a sense of sadness — the vast and rather beautiful sadness that may come to us when we have looked upon beauty, the sadness that aches in the heart of Versailles. Brockett was content to sit opposite Stephen on the hard little let-down seat of her motor. He might have been comfortable next to the driver, but instead he preferred to sit opposite Stephen, and he too was silent, surreptitiously watching the expression of her face in the gathering twilight.
When he left them he said with his cold little smile: ‘Tomorrow, before you’ve forgotten Versailles, I want you to come to the Conciergerie. It’s very enlightening — cause and effect.’
At that moment Stephen disliked him intensely. All the same he had stirred her imagination.
In the weeks that followed, Brockett showed Stephen just as much of Paris as he wished her to see, and this principally consisted of the tourist’s Paris. Into less simple pastures he would guide her later on, always provided that his interest lasted. For the present, however, he considered it wiser to tread delicately like Agag. The thought of this girl had begun to obsess him to a very unusual extent. He who had prided himself on his skill in ferreting out other people’s secrets, was completely baffled by this youthful abnormal. That she was abnormal he had no doubt whatever, but what he was keenly anxious to find out was just how her own abnormality struck her — he felt pretty sure that she worried about it. And he genuinely liked her. Unscrupulous he might be in his vivisection of men and women; cynical too when it came to his pleasures, himself an invert, secretly hating the world which he knew hated him in secret; and yet in his way he felt sorry for Stephen, and this amazed him, for Jonathan Brockett had long ago, as he thought, done with pity. But his pity was a very poor thing at best, it would never defend and never protect her; it would always go down before any new whim, and his whim at the moment was to keep her in Paris.
All unwittingly Stephen played into his hands, while having no illusions about him. He represented a welcome distraction that helped her to keep her thoughts off England. And because under Brockett’s skilful guidance she developed a fondness for the beautiful city, she felt tolerant of him at moments, almost grateful she felt, grateful too towards Paris. And Puddle also felt grateful.
The strain of the sudden complete rupture with Morton had told on the faithful little grey woman. She would scarcely have known how to counsel Stephen had the girl come to her and asked for her counsel. Sometimes she would lie awake now at nights thinking of that ageing and unhappy mother in the great silent house, and then would come pity, the old pity that had come in the past for Anna — she would pity until she remembered Stephen. Then Puddle would try to think very calmly, to keep the brave heart that had never failed her, to keep her strong faith in Stephen’s future — only now there were days when she felt almost old, when she realized that indeed she was ageing. When Anna would write her a calm, friendly letter, but with never so much as a mention of Stephen, she would feel afraid, yes, afraid of this woman, and at moments almost afraid of Stephen. For none might know from those guarded letters what emotions lay in the heart of their writer; and none might know from Stephen’s set face when she recognized the writing, what lay in her heart. She would turn away, asking no questions about Morton.
Oh, yes, Puddle felt old and actually frightened, both of which sensations she deeply resented; so being what she was, an indomitable fighter, she thrust out her chin and ordered a tonic. She struggled along through the labyrinths of Paris beside the untiring Stephen and Brockett; through the galleries of the Luxembourg and the Louvre; up the Eiffel Tower — in a lift, thank heaven; down the Rue de la Paix, up the hill to Montmartre — sometimes in the car but quite often on foot, for Brockett wished Stephen to learn her Paris — and as likely as not, ending up with rich food that disagreed badly with the tired Puddle. In the restaurants people would stare at Stephen, and although the girl would pretend not to notice, Puddle would know that in spite of her calm, Stephen was inwardly feeling resentful, was inwardly feeling embarrassed and awkward. And then because she was tired, Puddle too would feel awkward when she noticed those people staring.
Sometimes Puddle must really give up and rest, in spite of the aggressive chin and the tonic. Then all alone in the Paris hotel, she would suddenly grow very homesick for England — absurd of course, and yet there it was, she would feel the sharp tug of England. At such moments she would long for ridiculous things; a penny bun in the train at Dover; the good red faces of English porters — the old ones with little stubby side-whiskers; Harrods Stores; a properly upholstered armchair; bacon and eggs; the sea front at Brighton. All alone and via these ridiculous things, Puddle would feel the sharp tug of England.
And one evening her weary mind must switch back to the earliest days of her friendship with Stephen. What a lifetime ago it seemed since the days when a lanky colt of a girl of fourteen had been licked into shape in the schoolroom at Morton. She could hear her own words: ‘You’ve forgotten something, Stephen; the books can’t walk to the bookcase, but you can, so suppose that you take them with you,’ and then: ‘Even my brain won’t stand your complete lack of method.’ Stephen fourteen — that was twelve years ago. In those years she, Puddle, had grown very tired, tired with trying to see some way out, some way of escape, of fulfilment for Stephen. And always they seemed to be toiling, they two, down an endless road that had no turning; she an ageing woman herself unfulfilled; Stephen still young and as yet still courageous — but the day would come when her youth would fail, and her courage, because of that endless toiling.
She thought of Brockett, Jonathan Brockett, surely an unworthy companion for Stephen; a thoroughly vicious and cynical man, a dangerous one too because he was brilliant. Yet she, Puddle, was actually grateful to this man; so dire were their straits that she was grateful to Brockett. Then came the remembrance of that other man, Martin Hallam — she had had such high hopes. He had been very simple and honest and good — Puddle felt that there was much to be said for goodness. But for such as Stephen men like Martin Hallam could seldom exist; as friends they would fail her, while she in her turn would fail them as lover. Then what remained? Jonathan Brockett? Like to like. No, no, an intolerable thought! Such a thought as that was an outrage on Stephen. Stephen was honourable and courageous; she was steadfast in friendship and selfless in loving; intolerable to think that her only companions must be men and women like Jonathan Brockett — and yet — after all what else? What remained? Loneliness, or worse still, far worse because it so deeply degraded the spirit, a life of perpetual subterfuge, of guarded opinions and guarded actions, of lies of omission if not of speech, of becoming an accomplice in the world’s injustice by maintaining at all times a judicious silence, making and keeping the friends one respected, on false pretences, because if they knew they would turn aside, even the friends one respected.
Puddle abruptly controlled her thoughts; this was no way to be helpful to Stephen. Sufficient unto the day was the evil thereof. Getting up she went into her bedroom where she bathed her face and tidied her hair.
‘I look scarcely human,’ she thought ruefully, as she stared at her own reflection in the glass; and indeed at that moment she looked more than her age.
It was not until nearly the middle of July that Brockett took Stephen to Valérie Seymour’s. Valérie had been away for some time, and was even now only passing through Paris en route for her villa at St. Tropez.
As they drove to her apartment on the Quai Voltaire, Brockett began to extol their hostess, praising her wit, her literary talent. She wrote delicate satires and charming sketches of Greek maeurs — the latter were very outspoken, but then Valérie’s life was very outspoken — she was, said Brockett, a kind of pioneer who would probably go down to history. Most of her sketches were written in French, for among other things Valérie was bilingual; she was also quite rich, an American uncle had had the foresight to leave her his fortune; she was also quite young, being just over thirty, and according to Brockett, good-looking. She lived her life in great calmness of spirit, for nothing worried and few things distressed her. She was firmly convinced that in this ugly age one should strive to the top of one’s bent after beauty. But Stephen might find her a bit of a free-lance, she was libre penseuse when it came to the heart; her love affairs would fill quite three volumes, even after they had been expurgated. Great men had loved her, great writers had written about her, one had died, it was said, because she refused him, but Valérie was not attracted to men — yet as Stephen would see if she went to her parties, she had many devoted friends among men. In this respect she was almost unique, being what she was, for men did not resent her. But then of course all intelligent people realized that she was a creature apart, as would Stephen the moment she met her.
Brockett babbled away, and as he did so his voice took on the effeminate timbre that Stephen always hated and dreaded: ‘Oh, my dear!’ he exclaimed with a high little laugh. ‘I’m so excited about this meeting of yours, I’ve a feeling it may be momentous. What fun!’ And his soft, white hands grew restless making their foolish gestures.
She looked at him coldly, wondering the while how she could tolerate this young man — why indeed, she chose to endure him.
The first thing that struck Stephen about Valérie’s flat was its large and rather splendid disorder. There was something blissfully unkempt about it, as though its mistress were too much engrossed in other affairs to control its behaviour. Nothing was quite where it ought to have been, and much was where it ought not to have been, while over the whole lay a faint layer of dust — even over the spacious salon. The odour of somebody’s Oriental scent was mingling with the odour of tuberoses in a sixteenth-century chalice. On a divan, whose truly regal proportions occupied the best part of a shadowy alcove, lay a box of Fuller’s peppermint creams and a lute, but the strings of the lute were broken.
Valérie came forward with a smile of welcome. She was not beautiful nor was she imposing, but her limbs were very perfectly proportioned, which gave her a fictitious look of tallness. She moved well, with the quiet and unconscious grace that sprang from those perfect proportions. Her face was humorous, placid and worldly; her eyes very kind, very blue, very lustrous. She was dressed all in white, and a large white fox skin was clasped round her slender and shapely shoulders. For the rest she had masses of thick fair hair, which was busily ridding itself of its hairpins; one could see at a glance that it hated restraint, like the flat it was in rather splendid disorder.
She said: ‘I’m so delighted to meet you at last, Miss Gordon, do come and sit down. And please smoke if you want to,’ she added quickly, glancing at Stephen’s tell-tale fingers.
Brockett said: ‘Positively, this is too splendid! I feel that you’re going to be wonderful friends.’
Stephen thought: ‘So this is Valérie Seymour.’
No sooner were they seated than Brockett began to ply their hostess with personal questions. The mood that had incubated in the motor was now become extremely aggressive, so that he fidgeted about on his chair, making his little inadequate gestures. ‘Darling, you’re looking perfectly lovely! But do tell me, what have you done with Polinska? Have you drowned her in the blue grotto at Capri? I hope so, my dear, she was such a bore and so dirty! Do tell me about Polinska. How did she behave when you got her to Capri? Did she bite anybody before you drowned her? I always felt frightened; I loathe being bitten!’
Valérie frowned: ‘I believe she’s quite well.’
‘Then you have drowned her, darling!’ shrilled Brockett.
And now he was launched on a torrent of gossip about people of whom Stephen had never even heard: ‘Pat’s been deserted — have you heard that, darling? Do you think she’ll take the veil or cocaine or something One never quite knows what may happen next with such an emotional temperament, does one? Arabella’s skipped off to the Lido with Jane Grigg. The Grigg’s just come into pots and pots of money, so I hope they’ll be deliriously happy and silly while it lasts — I mean the money . . . Oh, and have you heard about Rachel Morris? They say . . . ’ He flowed on and on like a brook in spring flood, while Valérie yawned and looked bored, making monosyllabic answers.
And Stephen as she sat there and smoked in silence, thought grimly: ‘This is all being said because of me. Brockett wants to let me see that he knows what I am, and he wants to let Valérie Seymour know too — I suppose this is making me welcome.’ She hardly knew whether to feel outraged or relieved that here, at least, was no need for pretences.
But after a while she began to fancy that Valérie’s eyes had become appraising. They were weighing her up and secretly approving the result, she fancied. A slow anger possessed her. Valérie Seymour was secretly approving, not because her guest was a decent human being with a will to work, with a well-trained brain, with what might some day become a fine talent, but rather because she was seeing before her all the outward stigmata of the abnormal — verily the wounds of One nailed to a cross — that was why Valérie sat there approving.
And then, as though these bitter thoughts had reached her, Valérie suddenly smiled at Stephen. Turning her back on the chattering Brockett, she started to talk to her guest quite gravely about her work, about books in general, about life in general; and as she did so Stephen began to understand better the charm that many had found in this woman; a charm that lay less in physical attraction than in a great courtesy and understanding, a great will to please, a great impulse towards beauty in all its forms — yes, therein lay her charm. And as they talked on it dawned upon Stephen that here was no mere libertine in love’s garden, but rather a creature born out of her epoch, a pagan chained to an age that was Christian, one who would surely say with Pierre Louys: ‘Le monde moderne succombe sous un envahissement de laideur.’ And she thought that she discerned in those luminous eyes, the pale yet ardent light of the fanatic.
Presently Valérie Seymour asked her how long she would be remaining in Paris.
And Stephen answered: ‘I’m going to live here,’ feeling surprised at the words as she said them, for not until now had she made this decision.
Valérie seemed pleased: ‘If you want a house, I know of one in the Rue Jacob; it’s a tumbledown place, but it’s got a fine garden. Why not go and see it? You might go tomorrow. Of course you’ll have to live on this side, the Rive Gauche is the only possible Paris.
‘I should like to see the old house,’ said Stephen.
So Valérie went to the telephone there and then and proceeded to call up the landlord. The appointment was made for eleven the next morning. ‘It’s rather a sad old house,’ she warned, ‘no one has troubled to make it a home for some time, but you’ll alter all that if you take it, because I suppose you’ll make it your home.’
Stephen flushed: ‘My home’s in England,’ she said quickly, for her thoughts had instantly flown back to Morton.
But Valérie answered: ‘One may have two homes — many homes. Be courteous to our lovely Paris and give it the privilege of being your second home — it will feel very honoured, Miss Gordon.’ She sometimes made little ceremonious speeches like this, and coming from her, they sounded strangely old-fashioned.
Brockett, rather subdued and distinctly pensive as sometimes happened if Valérie had snubbed him, complained of a pain above his right eye: ‘I must take some phenacetin,’ he said sadly, ‘I’m always getting this curious pain above my right eye — do you think it’s the sinus?’ He was very intolerant of all pain.
His hostess sent for the phenacetin, and Brockett gulped down a couple of tablets: ‘Valérie doesn’t love me any more,’ he sighed, with a woebegone look at Stephen. ‘I do call it hard, but it’s always what happens when I introduce my best friends to each other — they forgather at once and leave me in the cold; but then, thank heaven, I’m very forgiving.’
They laughed and Valérie made him get on to the divan where he promptly lay down on the lute.
‘Oh God!’ he moaned, ‘now I’ve injured my spine — I’m so badly upholstered.’ Then he started to strum on the one sound string of the lute.
Valérie went over to her untidy desk and began to write out a list of addresses: ‘These may be useful to you, Miss Gordon.’
Stephen!’ exclaimed Brockett. ‘Call the poor woman Stephen!’ ‘May I?’
Stephen acquiesced: ‘Yes, please do.’
Very well then, I’m Valérie. Is that a bargain?’
‘The bargain is sealed,’ announced Brockett. With extraordinary skill he was managing to strum ‘0 Sole Mio’ on the single string, when he suddenly stopped: ‘I knew there was something — your fencing Stephen, you’ve forgotten your fencing. We meant to ask Valérie for Buisson’s address; they say he’s the finest master in Europe.’
Valérie looked up: ‘Does Stephen fence, then?’
‘Does she fence! She’s a marvellous, champion fencer.’
‘He’s never seen me fence,’ explained Stephen, ‘and I’m never likely to be a champion.’
‘Don’t you believe her, she’s trying to be modest. I’ve heard that she fences quite as finely as she writes,’ he insisted. And somehow Stephen felt touched, Brockett was trying to show off her talents.
Presently she offered him a lift in the car, but he shook his head: ‘No, thank you, dear one, I’m staying.’ So she wished them goodbye; but as she left them she heard Brockett murmuring to Valérie Seymour, and she felt pretty sure that she caught her own name.
Well what did you think of Miss Seymour?’ inquired Puddle, when Stephen got back about twenty minutes later.
Stephen hesitated: ‘I’m not perfectly certain. She was very friendly, but I couldn’t help feeling that she liked me because she thought me — oh, well, because she thought me what I am, Puddle. But I may have been wrong — she was awfully friendly. Brockett was at his very worst though, poor devil! His environment seems to go to his head.’ She sank down wearily on to a chair: Oh, Puddle, Puddle, it’s a hell of a business.’
Then Stephen said rather abruptly: ‘All the same, we’re going to live here in Paris. We’re going to look at a house tomorrow, an old house with a garden in the Rue Jacob.’
For a moment Puddle hesitated, then she said: ‘There’s only one thing against it. Do you think you’ll ever be happy in a city? You’re so fond of the life that belongs to the country.’
Stephen shook her head: ‘That’s all past now, my dear; there’s no country for me away from Morton. But in Paris I might make some sort of a home, I could work here — and then of course there are people . . .
Something started to hammer in Puddle’s brain: ‘Like to like! Like to like! Like to like!’ it hammered.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09