The most stupendous and heartbreaking folly of our times drew towards its abrupt conclusion. By November the Unit was stationed at St. Quentin in a little hotel, which although very humble, seemed like paradise after the dug-outs.
A morning came when a handful of the members were together in the coffee-room, huddled round a fire that was principally composed of damp brushwood. At one moment the guns could be heard distinctly, the next, something almost unnatural had happened — there was silence, as though death had turned on himself, smiting his own power of destruction. No one spoke, they just sat and stared at each other with faces entirely devoid of emotion; their faces looked blank, like so many masks from which had been sponged every trace of expression — and they waited — listening to that silence.
The door opened and in walked an untidy Poilu; his manner was casual, his voice apathetic: ‘Eh bien, mesdames, c’est l’Armistice.’ But his shining brown eyes were not at all apathetic. ‘Oui, c’est l’Armistice,’ he repeated coolly; then he shrugged, as a man might do who would say: ‘What is all this to me?’ After which he grinned broadly in spite of himself, he was still very young, and turning on his heel he departed.
Stephen said: So it’s over,’ and she looked at Mary, who had jumped up, and was looking in her turn at Stephen.
Mary said: This means . . . ’ but she stopped abruptly.
Bless said: ‘Got a match, anyone? Oh, thanks!’ And she groped for her white-metal cigarette case.
Howard said: ‘Well, the first thing I’m going to do is to get my hair properly shampooed in Paris.’
Thurloe laughed shrilly, then she started to whistle, kicking the recalcitrant fire as she did so.
But funny, old, monosyllabic Blakeney with her curly white hair cropped as close as an Uhlan’s — Blakeney who had long ago done with emotions — quite suddenly laid her arms on the table and her head on her arms, and she wept, and she wept.
Stephen stayed with the Unit right up to the eve of its departure for Germany, then she left it, taking Mary Llewellyn with her. Their work was over; remained only the honour of joining the army’s triumphal progress, but Mary Llewellyn was completely worn out, and Stephen had no thought except for Mary.
They said farewell to Mrs. Claude Breakspeare, to Howard and Blakeney and the rest of their comrades. And Stephen knew, as indeed did they also, that a mighty event had slipped into the past, had gone from them into the realms of history — something terrible yet splendid, a oneness with life in its titanic struggle against death. Not a woman of them all but felt vaguely regretful in spite of the infinite blessing of peace, for none could know what the future might hold of trivial days filled with trivial actions. Great wars will be followed by great discontents — the pruning knife has been laid to the tree, and the urge to grow throbs through its mutilated branches.
The house in the Rue Jacob was en fete in honour of Stephen’s arrival. Pierre had rigged up an imposing flagstaff’, from which waved a brand new tricolour commandeered by Pauline from the neighbouring baker; flowers had been placed in the study vases, while Adèle had contrived to produce the word ‘welcome’ in immortelles, as the piece de resistance, and had hung it above the doorway.
Stephen shook hands with them all in turn, and she introduced Mary, who also shook hands. Then Adèle must start to gabble about Jean, who was quite safe although not a captain; and Pauline must interrupt her to tell of the neighbouring baker who had lost his four sons, and of one of her brothers who had lost his right leg — her face very dour and her voice very cheerful, as was always the way when she told of misfortunes. And presently she must also deplore the long straight scar upon Stephen’s cheek: ‘Oh, la pauvre! Pour une dame c’est un vrai désastre!’ But Pierre must point to the green and red ribbon in Stephen’s lapel: ‘C’est la Croix de Guerre!’ so that in the end they all gathered round to admire that half-inch of honour and glory.
Oh, yes, this home-coming was as friendly and happy as goodwill and warm Breton hearts could make it. Yet Stephen was oppressed by a sense of restraint when she took Mary up to the charming bedroom overlooking the garden, and she spoke abruptly.
‘This will be your room.’
‘It’s beautiful, Stephen.’
After that they were silent, perhaps because there was so much that might not be spoken between them:
The dinner was served by a beaming Pierre, an excellent dinner, more than worthy of Pauline; but neither of them managed to eat very much — they were far too acutely conscious of each other. When the meal was over they went into the study where, in spite of the abnormal shortage of fuel, Adèle had managed to build a huge fire which blazed recklessly half up the chimney. The room smelt slightly of hothouse flowers, of leather, of old wood and vanished years, and after a while of cigarette smoke.
Then Stephen forced herself to speak lightly: ‘Come and sit over here by the fire,’ she said, smiling.
So Mary obeyed, sitting down beside her, and she laid a hand upon Stephen’s knee; but Stephen appeared not to notice that hand, for she just let it lie there and went on talking.
‘I’ve been thinking, Mary, hatching all sorts of schemes. I’d like to get you right away for a bit, the weather seems pretty awful in Paris. Puddle once told me about Teneriffe, she went there ages ago with a pupil. She stayed at a place called Orotava; it’s lovely, I believe — do you think you’d enjoy it? I might manage to hear of a villa with a garden, and then you could just slack about in the sunshine.’
Mary said, very conscious of the unnoticed hand: ‘Do you really want to go away, Stephen? Wouldn’t it interfere with your writing?’ Her voice, Stephen thought, sounded strained and unhappy.
Of course I want to go,’ Stephen reassured her, ‘I’ll work all the better for a holiday. Anyhow, I must see you looking more fit,’ and she suddenly laid her hand over Mary’s.
The strange sympathy which sometimes exists between two human bodies, so that a touch will stir many secret and perilous emotions, closed down on them both at that moment of contact, and they sat unnaturally still by the fire, feeling that in their stillness lay safety. But presently Stephen went on talking, and now she talked of purely practical matters. Mary must go for a fortnight to her cousins, she had better go almost at once, and remain there while Stephen herself went to Morton. Eventually they would meet in London and from there motor straight away to Southampton, for Stephen would have taken their passages, and if possible found a furnished villa, before she went down to Morton. She talked on and on, and as she did so her fingers tightened and relaxed abruptly on the hand that she had continued to hold, so that Mary imprisoned those nervous fingers in her own, and Stephen made no resistance.
Then Mary, like many another before her, grew as happy as she had been downhearted; for the merest trifles are often enough to change the trend of mercurial emotions such as beset the heart in its youth; and she looked at Stephen with gratitude in her eyes, and with something far more fundamental of which she herself was unconscious. And now she began to talk in her turn. She could type fairly well, was a very good speller; she would type Stephen’s books, take care of her papers, answer her letters, look after the house, even beard the lugubrious Pauline in her kitchen. Next autumn she would write to Holland for bulbs — they must have lots of bulbs in their city garden, and in summer they ought to manage some roses — Paris was less cruel to flowers than London. Oh, and might she have pigeons with wide, white tails? They would go so well with the old marble fountain.
Stephen listened, nodding from time to time. Yes, of course she could have her white fan-tail pigeons, and her bulbs and her roses, could have anything she pleased, if only she would get quite well and be happy.
At this Mary laughed: ‘Oh, Stephen, my dear — don’t you know that I’m really terribly happy?’
Pierre came in with the evening letters; there was one from Anna and another from Puddle. There was also a lengthy epistle from Brockett who was praying, it seemed, for demobilization. Once released, he must go for a few weeks to England, but after that he was coming to Paris.
He wrote: ‘I’m longing to see you again and Valérie Seymour. By the way, how goes it? Valérie writes that you never rang her up. It’s a pity you’re so unsociable, Stephen; unwholesome, I call it, you’ll be bagging a shell like a hermit crab, or growing hairs on your chin, or a wart on your nose, or worse still a complex. You might even take to a few nasty habits towards middle life — better read Ferenczi! Why were you so beastly to Valérie, I wonder. She is such a darling and she likes you so much, only the other day she wrote: “When you see Stephen Gordon give her my love, and tell her that nearly all streets in Paris lead sooner or later to Valérie Seymour.” You might write her a line, and you might write to me — already I’m finding your silence suspicious. Are you in love? I’m just crazy to know, so why deny me that innocent pleasure? After all, we’re told to rejoice with those who rejoice — may I send my congratulations? Vague but exciting rumours have reached me. And by the way, Valérie’s very forgiving, so don’t feel shy about telephoning to her. She’s one of those highly developed souls who bob up serenely after a snubbing, as do I, your devoted Brockett.’
Stephen glanced at Mary as she folded the letter: ‘Isn’t it time you went off to bed?’
‘Don’t send me away.’
‘I must, you’re so tired. Come on, there’s a good child, you look tired and sleepy.’
‘I’m not a bit sleepy!’
‘All the same it’s high time.’
‘Are you coming?’
‘Not yet, I must answer some letters.’
Mary got up, and just for a moment their eyes met, then Stephen looked away quickly: ‘Good night, Mary.’
‘Stephen . . . won’t you kiss me good night? It’s our first night together here in your home. Stephen, do you know that you’ve never kissed me?’
The clock chimed ten, a rose on the desk fell apart, its overblown petals disturbed by that almost imperceptible vibration. Stephen’s heart brat thickly.
‘Do you want me to kiss you?’
‘More than anything else in the world,’ said Mary.
Then Stephen suddenly came to her senses, and she managed to smile: ‘Very well, my dear,’ She kissed the girl quietly on her cheek. ‘And now you really must go to bed, Mary.’
After Mary had gone she tried to write letters; a few lines to Anna, announcing her visit; a few lines to Puddle and to Mademoiselle Duphot — the latter she felt that she had shamefully neglected. But in none of these letters did she mention Mary. Brockett’s effusion she left unanswered. Then she took her unfinished novel from its drawer, but it seemed very dreary and unimportant, so she laid it aside again with a sigh, and locking the drawer put the key in her pocket.
And now she could no longer keep it at bay, the great joy, the great pain in her heart that was Mary. She had only to call and Mary would come, bringing all her faith, her youth and her ardour. Yes, she had only to call, and yet — would she ever be cruel enough to call Mary? Her mind recoiled at that word; why cruel? She and Mary loved and needed each other. She could give the girl luxury, make her secure so that she need never fight for her living; she should have every comfort that money could buy. Mary was not strong enough to fight for her living. And then she, Stephen, was no longer a child to be frightened and humbled by this situation. There was many another exactly like her in this very city, in every city; and they did not all live out crucified lives, denying their bodies, stultifying their brains, becoming the victims of their own frustrations. On the contrary, they lived natural lives — lives that to them were perfectly natural. They had their passions like everyone else, and why not? They were surely entitled to their passions? They attracted too, that was the irony of it, she herself had attracted Mary Llewellyn — the girl was quite simply and openly in love. ‘All my life I’ve been waiting for something . . . ’ Mary had said that, she had said: ‘All my’ life I’ve been waiting for something . . . I’ve been waiting for you.’
Men — they were selfish, arrogant, possessive. What could they do for Mary Llewellyn? What could a man give that she could not? A child? But she would give Mary such a love as would be complete in itself without children. Mary would have no room in her heart, in her life, for a child, if she came to Stephen. All things they would be the one to the other, should they stand in that limitless relationship; father, mother, friend, and lover, all things — the amazing completeness of it; and Mary, the child, the friend, the beloved. With the terrible bonds of her dual nature, she could bind Mary fast, and the pain would be sweetness, so that the girl would cry out for that sweetness, hugging her chains always closer to her. The world would condemn but they would rejoice; glorious outcasts, unashamed, triumphant!
She began to pace restlessly up and down the room, as had ever been her wont in moments of emotion. Her face grew ominous, heavy and brooding; the fine line of her mouth was a little marred; her eyes were less clear, less the servants of her spirit than the slaves of her anxious and passionate body; the red scar on her cheek stood out like a wound. Then quite suddenly she had opened the door, and was staring at the dimly lighted staircase. She took a step forward and then stopped; appalled, dumb-founded at herself, at this thing she was doing. And as she stood there as though turned to stone, she remembered another and spacious study, she remembered a lanky colt of a girl whose glance had kept straying towards the windows; she remembered a man who had held out his hand: Stephen, come here . . . What is honour, my daughter?’
Honour, good God! Was this her honour? Mary, whose nerves had been strained to breaking! A dastardly thing it would be to drag her through the maze of passion, with no word of warning. Was she to know nothing of what lay before her, of the price she would have to pay for such love? She was young and completely ignorant of life; she knew only that she loved, and the young were ardent. She would give all that Stephen might ask of her and more, for the young were not only ardent but generous. And through giving all she would be left defenceless, neither forewarned nor forearmed against a world that would turn like a merciless beast and rend her. It was horrible. No, Mary must not give until she had counted the cost of that gift, until she was restored in body and mind, and was able to form a considered judgment.
Then Stephen must tell her the cruel truth, she must say: ‘I am one of those whom God marked on the forehead. Like Cain, I am marked and blemished. If you come to me, Mary, the world will abhor you, will persecute you, will call you unclean. Our love may be faithful even unto death and beyond — yet the world will call it unclean. We may harm no living creature by our love; we may grow more perfect in understanding and in charity because of our loving; but all this will not save you from the scourge of a world that will turn away its eyes from your noblest actions, finding only corruption and vileness in you. You will see men and women defiling each other, laying the burden of their sins upon their children. You will see unfaithfulness, lies and deceit among those whom the world views with approbation. You will find that many have grown hard of heart, have grown greedy, selfish, cruel and lustful; and then you will turn to me and will say: “You and I are more worthy of respect than these people. Why does the world persecute us, Stephen?” And I shall answer: “Because in this world there is only toleration for the so-called normal.” And when you come to me for protection, I shall say: “I cannot protect you, Mary, the world has deprived me of my right to protect; I am utterly helpless, I can only love you”.’
And now Stephen was trembling. In spite of her strength and her splendid physique, she must stand there and tremble. She felt deathly cold, her teeth chattered with cold, and when she moved her steps were unsteady. She must climb the wide stairs with infinite care, in case she should inadvertently stumble; must lift her feet slowly, and with infinite care, because if she stumbled she might wake Mary.
Ten days later Stephen was saying to her mother: ‘I’ve been needing a change for a very long time. It’s rather lucky that girl I met in the Unit is free and able to go with me. We’ve taken a villa at Orotava, it’s supposed to be furnished and they’re leaving the servants, but heaven only knows what the house will be like, it belongs to a Spaniard; however, there’ll be sunshine.’
‘I believe Orotava’s delightful,’ said Anna.
But Puddle, who was looking at Stephen, said nothing.
That night Stephen knocked at Puddle’s door: ‘May I come in?’
‘Yes, come in do, my dear. Come and sit by the fire — shall I make you some cocoa?’
A long pause while Puddle slipped into her dressing-gown of soft, grey Viyella. Then she also drew a chair up to the fire, and after a little: ‘It’s good to see you — your old teacher’s been missing you rather —’
‘Not more than I’ve been missing her, Puddle.’ Was that quite true? Stephen suddenly flushed, and both of them grew very silent.
Puddle knew quite well that Stephen was unhappy. They had not lived side by side all these years, for Puddle to fail now in intuition; she felt certain that something grave had happened, and her instinct warned her of what this might be, so that she secretly trembled a little. For no young and inexperienced girl sat beside her, but a woman of nearly thirty-two, who was far beyond the reach of her guidance. This woman would settle her problems for herself and in her own way — had indeed always done so. Puddle must try to be tactful in her questions.
She said gently: ‘Tell me about your new friend. You met her in the Unit?’
‘Yes — we met in the Unit,’ as I told you this evening — her name’s Mary Llewellyn.’
‘How old is she, Stephen?’
‘Not quite twenty-two.’
Puddle said: ‘Very young — not yet twenty-two . . . ’ then she glanced at Stephen, and fell silent.
But now Stephen went on talking more quickly: ‘I’m glad you asked me about her, Puddle, because I intend to give her a home. She’s got no one except some distant cousins, and as far as I can see they don’t want her. I shall let her have a try at typing my work, as she’s asked to, it will make her feel independent; otherwise, of course, she’ll be perfectly free — if it’s not a success she can always leave me — but rather hope it will be a success. She’s companionable, we like the same things, anyhow she’ll give me an interest in life . . .
Puddle thought: ‘She’s not going to tell me.’
Stephen took out her cigarette case from which she produced a clear little snapshot: ‘It’s not very good, it was done at the front.’ But Puddle was gazing at Mary Llewellyn. Then she looked up abruptly and saw Stephen’s eyes — without a word she handed back the snapshot.
Stephen said: ‘Now I want to talk about you. Will you go to Paris at once, or stay here until we come home from Orotava? It’s just as you like, the house is quite ready, you’ve only got to send Pauline a postcard; they’re expecting you at any moment.’ And she waited for Puddle’s answer.
Then Puddle, that small but indomitable fighter, stood forth all alone to do battle with herself, to strike down a sudden hot jealousy, a sudden and almost fierce resentment. And she saw that self as a tired old woman, a woman grown dull and tired with long service; a woman who had outlived her reason for living, whose companionship was now useless to Stephen. A woman who suffered from rheumatism in the winter and from lassitude in the summer; a woman who when young had never known youth, except as a scourge to a sensitive conscience. And now she was old and what had life left her? Not even the privilege of guarding her friend — for Puddle knew well that her presence in Paris would only embarrass while unable to hinder. Nothing could stay fate if the hour had struck; and yet, from the very bottom of her soul, she was fearing that hour for Stephen. And — who shall presume to accuse or condemn? — she actually found it in her to pray that Stephen might be granted some measure of fulfilment, some palliative for the wound of existence: ‘Not like me — don’t let her grow old as I’ve done.’ Then she suddenly remembered that Stephen was waiting.
She said quietly: ‘Listen, my dear, I’ve been thinking; I don’t feel that I ought to leave your mother, her heart’s not very strong — nothing serious, of course — still, she oughtn’t to live all alone at Morton; and quite apart from the question of health, living alone’s a melancholy business. There’s another thing too. I’ve grown tired and lazy, and I don’t want to pull up my roots if I can help it. When one’s getting on in years, one gets set in one’s ways, and my ways fit in very well with Morton. I didn’t want to come here, Stephen, as I told you, but I was all wrong, for your mother needs me — she needs me more now than during the war, because during the war she had occupation. Oh, but good heavens! I’m a silly old woman — did you know that I used to get homesick for England? I used to get homesick for penny buns. Imagine it, and I was living in Paris! Only —’ And now her voice broke a little: ‘Only, if ever you should feel that you need me, if ever you should feel that you want my advice or my help, you’d send for me, wouldn’t you, my dear? Because old as I am, I’d be able to run if I thought that you really needed me, Stephen.’
Stephen held out her hand and Puddle grasped it. ‘There are some things I can’t express,’ Stephen said slowly; ‘I can’t express my gratitude to you for all you’ve done — I can’t find any words. But — I want you to know that I’m trying to play straight.’
‘You’d always play straight in the end,’ said Puddle.
And so, after nearly eighteen years of life together, these two staunch friends and companions had now virtually parted.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55