Valérie’s rooms were already crowded when Stephen and Mary arrived at her reception, so crowded that at first they could not see their hostess and must stand rather awkwardly near the door — they had not been announced; one never was for some reason, when one went to Valérie Seymour’s. People looked at Stephen curiously; her height, her clothes, the scar on her face, had immediately riveted their attention.
‘Quel type!’ murmured Dupont the sculptor to his neighbour, and promptly decided that he wished to model Stephen. ‘It’s a wonderful head; I adore the strong throat. And the mouth — is it chaste, is it ardent? I wonder. How would one model that intriguing mouth?’ Then being Dupont, to whom all things were allowed for the sake of his art, he moved a step nearer and stared with embarrassing admiration, combing his greyish beard with his fingers.
His neighbour, who was also his latest mistress, a small fair-haired girl of a doll-like beauty, shrugged her shoulders. ‘I am not very pleased with you, Dupont, your taste is becoming peculiar, mon ami — and yet you arc still sufficiently virile . . .
“He laughed. ‘Be tranquil, my little hen, I am not proposing to give you a rival.’ Then he started to tease. ‘But what about you? I dislike the small horns that are covered with moss, even although they are no bigger than thimbles. They are irritating, those mossy horns, and exceedingly painful when they start to grow — like wisdom teeth, only even more foolish. Ah, yes, I too have my recollections. What is sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, as the English say — such a practical people!’
‘You are dreaming, mon pauvre bougre,’ snapped the lady.
And now Valérie was making her way to the door. ‘Miss Gordon! I’m most awfully glad to see you and Miss Llewellyn. Have you had any tea? No, of course not, I’m an abominable hostess! Come along to the table — where’s that useless Brockett? Oh, here he is. Brockett, please be a man and get Miss Llewellyn and Miss Gordon some tea.’
Brockett sighed. ‘You go first then, Stephen darling, you’re so much more efficient than I am.’ And he laid a soft, white hand on her shoulder, thrusting her gently but firmly forward. When they reached the buffet, he calmly stood still. ‘Do get me an ice — vanilla?’ he murmured.
Everyone seemed to know everyone else, the atmosphere was familiar and easy. People hailed each other like intimate friends, and quite soon they were being charming to Stephen, and equally charming and kind to Mary.
Valérie was introducing her new guests with tactful allusions to Stephen’s talent: ‘This is Stephen Gordon — you know, the author; and Miss Llewellyn.’
Her manner was natural, and yet Stephen could not get rid of the feeling that everyone knew about her and Mary, or that if they did not actually know, they guessed, and were eager to show themselves friendly.
She thought: ‘Well, why not? I’m sick of lying.’
The erstwhile resentment that she had felt towards Valérie Seymour was fading completely. So pleasant it was to be made to feel welcome by all these clever and interesting people — and clever they were there was no denying; in Valérie’s salon the percentage of brains was generally well above the average. For together with those who themselves being normal, had long put intellects above bodies, were writers, painters, musicians and scholars, men and women who, set apart from their birth, had determined to hack out a niche in existence. Many of them had already arrived, while some were still rather painfully hacking; not a few would fall by the way, it is true, but as they fell others would take their places. Over the bodies of prostrate comrades those others must fall in their turn or go on hacking — for them there was no compromise with life, they were lashed by the whip of self-preservation. There was Pat who had lost her Arabella to the golden charms of Grigg and the Lido. Pat, who, originally hailing from Boston, still vaguely suggested a New England schoolmarm. Pat, whose libido apart from the flesh, flowed into entomological channels — one had to look twice to discern that her ankles were too strong and too heavy for those of a female.
There was Jamie, very much more pronounced; Jamie who had come to Paris from the Highlands; a trifle unhinged because of the music that besieged her soul and fought for expression through her stiff and scholarly compositions. Loose-limbed, raw-boned and shortsighted she was; and since she could seldom afford new glasses, her eyes were red-rimmed and strained in expression, and she poked her head badly, for ever peering. Her tow-coloured mop was bobbed by her friend, the fringe being only too often uneven.
There was Wanda, the struggling Polish painter; dark for a Pole with her short, stiff black hair, and her dusky skin, and her colourless lips; yet withal not unattractive, this Wanda. She had wonderful eyes that held fire in their depths, hell-fire at times, if she had been drinking; but at other times a more gentle flame, although never one that it was safe to play with. Wanda saw largely. All that she envisaged was immense: her pictures, her passions, her remorses. She craved with a wellnigh insatiable craving, she feared with a wellnigh intolerable terror — not the devil, she was brave with him when in her cups, but God in the person of Christ the Redeemer. Like a whipped cur she crawled to the foot of the Cross, without courage, without faith, without hope of mercy. Outraged by her body she must ruthlessly scourge it — no good, the lust of the eye would betray her. Seeing she desired and desiring she drank, seeking to drown one lust in another. And then she would stand up before her tall easel, swaying a little but with hand always steady. The brandy went into her legs, not her hands; her hands would remain disconcertingly steady. She would start some gigantic and heart-broken daub, struggling to lose herself in her picture, struggling to ease the ache of her passion by smearing the placid white face of the canvas with ungainly yet strangely arresting forms — according to Dupont, Wanda had genius. Neither eating nor sleeping she would grow very thin, so that everybody would know what had happened. They had seen it before, oh, but many times, and therefore for them the tragedy was lessened.
‘Wanda’s off again!’ someone might say with a grin. ‘She was tight this morning; who is it this time?’
But Valérie, who hated drink like the plague, would grow angry; outraged she would feel by this Wanda.
There was Hortense, Comtesse de Kerguelen; dignified and reserved, a very great lady, of a calm and rather old-fashioned beauty. When Valérie introduced her to Stephen, Stephen quite suddenly thought of Morton. And yet she had left all for Valérie Seymour; husband, children and home had she left; facing scandal, opprobrium, persecution. Greater than all these most vital things had been this woman’s love for Valérie Seymour. An enigma she seemed, much in need of explaining. And now in the place of that outlawed love had come friendship; they were close friends, these one-time lovers.
There was Margaret Roland, the poetess, a woman whose work was alive with talent. The staunchest of allies, the most fickle of lovers, she seemed likely enough to end up in a workhouse, with her generous financial apologies which at moments made pretty large holes in her savings. It was almost impossible not to like her, since her only fault lay in being too earnest; every fresh love affair was the last while it lasted, though of course this was apt to be rather misleading. A costly business in money and tears; she genuinely suffered in heart as in pocket. There was nothing arresting in Margaret’s appearance, sometimes she dressed well, sometimes she dressed badly, according to the influence of the moment. But she always wore ultra feminine shoes, and frequently bought model gowns when in Paris: One might have said quite a womanly woman, unless the trained ear had been rendered suspicious by her voice which had something peculiar about it. It was like a boy’s voice on the verge of breaking.
And then there was Brockett with his soft white hands; and several others there were, very like him. There was also Adolphe Blanc, the designer — a master of colour whose primitive tints had practically revolutionized taste, bringing back to the eye the joy of the simple. Blanc stood in a little niche by himself, which at times must surely have been very lonely. A quiet, tawny man with the eyes of the Hebrew, in his youth he had been very deeply afflicted. He had spent his days going from doctor to doctor: ‘What am I?’ They had told him, pocketing their fees; not a few had unctuously set out to cure him. Cure him, good God! There was no cure for Blanc, he was, of all men the most normal abnormal. He had known revolt, renouncing his God; he had known despair, the despair of the godless; he had known wild moments of dissipation; he had known long months of acute self-abasement. And then he had suddenly found his soul, and that finding had brought with it resignation, so that now he could stand in a niche by himself, a pitiful spectator of what, to him, often seemed a bewildering scheme of creation. For a living he designed many beautiful things — furniture, costumes and scenery for ballets, even women’s gowns if the mood was upon him, but this he did for a physical living. To keep life in his desolate, long-suffering soul, he had stored his mind with much profound learning. So now many poor devils went to him for advice, which he never refused though he gave it sadly. It was always the same: ‘Do the best you can, no man can do more — but never stop fighting. For us there is no sin so great as despair, and perhaps no virtue so vital as courage.’ Yes, indeed, to this gentle and learned Jew went many a poor baptized Christian devil.
And such people frequented Valérie Seymour’s, men and women who must carry God’s mark on their foreheads. For Valérie, placid and self-assured, created an atmosphere of courage, everyone felt very normal and brave when they gathered together at Valérie Seymour’s. There she was, this charming and cultured woman, a kind of lighthouse in a storm-swept ocean. The waves had lashed round her feet in vain; winds had howled; clouds had spewed forth their hail and their lightning; torrents had deluged but had not destroyed her. The storms, gathering force, broke and drifted away, leaving behind them the shipwrecked, the drowning. But when they looked up, the poor spluttering victims, why what should they see but Valérie Seymour! Then a few would strike boldly out for the shore, at the sight of this indestructible creature.
She did nothing, and at all times said very little, feeling no urge towards philanthropy. But this much she gave to her brethren, the freedom of her salon, the protection of her friendship; if it eased them to come to her monthly gatherings they were always welcome provided they were sober. Drink and drugs she abhorred because they were ugly — one drank tea, iced coffee sirops and orangeade in that celebrated flat on the Quai Voltaire.
Oh, yes, a very strange company indeed if one analysed it for this or that stigma. Why, the grades were so numerous and so fine that they often defied the most careful observation. The timbre of a voice, the build of an ankle, the texture of a hand, a movement, a gesture — since few were as pronounced as Stephen Gordon, unless it were Wanda, the Polish painter. She, poor soul, never knew how to dress for the best. If she dressed like a woman she looked like a man, if she dressed like a man she looked like a woman!
And their love affairs, how strange, how bewildering — how difficult to classify degrees of attraction. For not always would they attract their own kind, very often they attracted quite ordinary people. Thus Pat’s Arabella had suddenly married, having wearied of Grigg as of her predecessor. Rumour had it that she was now blatantly happy at the prospect of shortly becoming a mother. And then there was Jamie’s friend Barbara, a wisp of a girl very faithful and loving, but all woman as far as one could detect, with a woman’s clinging dependence on Jamie.
These two had been lovers from the days of their childhood, from the days when away in their Highland village the stronger child had protected the weaker at school or at play with their boisterous companions. They had grown up together like two wind-swept saplings on their bleak Scottish hill-side so starved of sunshine. For warmth and protection they had leaned to each other, until with the spring, at the time of mating, their branches had quietly intertwined. That was how it had been, the entwinings of saplings, very simple, and to them very dear, having nothing mysterious or strange about it except inasmuch as all love is mysterious.
To themselves they had seemed like the other lovers for whom dawns were brighter and twilights more tender. Hand in hand they had strolled down the village street, pausing to listen to the piper at evening. And something in that sorrowful, outlandish music would arouse the musical soul in Jamie, so that great chords would surge up through her brain, very different indeed from the wails of the piper, yet born of the same mystic Highland nature.
Happy days; happy evenings when the glow of the summer lingered for hours above the grim hills, lingered on long after the flickering lamps had been lit in the cottage windows of Beedles. The piper would at last decide to go home, but they two would wander away to the moorland, there to lie down for a space side by side among the short, springy turf and the heather.
Children they had been, having small skill in words, or in life, or in love itself for that matter. Barbara, fragile and barely nineteen; the angular Jamie not yet quite twenty. They had talked because words will ease the full spirit; talked in abrupt, rather shy broken phrases. They had loved because love had come naturally to them up there on the soft, springy turf and the heather. But after a while their dreams had been shattered for such dreams as theirs had seemed strange to the village. Daft, the folk had thought them, mouthing round by themselves for hours, like a couple of lovers.
Barbara’s grand-dame, an austere old woman with whom she had lived since her earliest childhood — Barbara’s grand-dame had mistrusted this friendship. ‘I dinna richtly unnerstan’ it,’ she had frowned; ‘her and that Jamie’s unto throng. It’s no richt for lass-bairns, an’ it’s no proaper!’
And since she spoke with authority, having for years been the village post-mistress, her neighbours had wagged their heads and agreed ‘It’s no richt; ye hae said it, Mrs. MacDonald!’
The gossip had reached the minister, Jamie’s white-haired and gentle old father. He had looked at the girl with bewildered eyes — he had always been bewildered by his daughter. A poor housewife she was, and very untidy; if she cooked she mucked up the pots and the kitchen, and her hands were strangely unskilled with the needle; this he knew, since his heels suffered much from her darning. Remembering her mother he had shaken his head and sighed many times as he looked at Jamie. For her mother had been a soft, timorous woman, and he himself was very retiring, but their Jamie loved striding over the hills in the teeth of a gale, an uncouth, boyish creature. As a child she had gone rabbit stalking with ferrets; had ridden a neighbour’s farm-horse astride on a sack, without stirrup, saddle or bridle; had done all manner of outlandish things. And he, poor lonely, bewildered man, still mourning his wife, had been no match for her.
Yet even as a child she had sat at the piano and picked out little tunes of her own inventing. He had done his best; she had been taught to play by Miss Morrison of the next-door village, since music alone seemed able to tame her. And as Jamie had grown so her tunes had grown with her, gathering purpose and strength with her body. She would improvise for hours on the winter evenings, if Barbara would sit in their parlour and listen. He had always made Barbara welcome at the manse; they had been so inseparable, those two, since childhood — and now? He had frowned, remembering the gossip.
Rather timidly he had spoken to Jamie. ‘Listen, my dear, when you’re always together, the lads don’t get a chance to come courting, and Barbara’s grandmother wants the lass married. Let her walk with a lad on Sabbath afternoons — there’s that young MacGregor, he’s a fine, steady fellow, and they say he’s in love with the little lass . . .
Jamie had stared at him, scowling darkly. ‘She doesn’t want to walk out with MacGregor!’
The minister had shaken his head yet again. In the hands of his child he was utterly helpless.
Then Jamie had gone to Inverness in order the better to study music, but every week-end she had spent at the manse, there had been no real break in her friendship with Barbara; indeed they had seemed more devoted than ever, no doubt because of these forced separations. Two years later the minister had suddenly died, leaving his little all to Jamie. She had had to turn out of the old, grey manse, and had taken a room in the village near Barbara. But antagonism, no longer restrained through respect for the gentle and childlike pastor, had made itself very acutely felt — hostile they had been, those good people, to Jamie.
Barbara had wept. ‘Jamie, let’s go away . . . they hate us. Let’s go where nobody knows us. I’m twenty-one now, I can go where I like, they can’t stop me. Take me away from them, Jamie!’ Miserable, angry, and sorely bewildered, Jamie had put her arm round the girl. Where can I take you, you poor little creature? You’re not strong, and I’m terribly poor, remember.’
But Barbara had continued to plead. ‘I’ll work, I’ll scrub floors, I’ll do anything, Jamie, only let’s get away where nobody knows us!’ So Jamie had turned to her music master in Inverness, and had begged him to help her. What could she do to earn her living? And because this man believed in her talent, he had helped her with advice and a small loan of money, urging her to go to Paris and study to complete her training in composition.
‘You’re really too good for me,’ he had told her; ‘and out there you could live considerably cheaper. For one thing the exchange would be in your favour. I’ll write to the head of the Conservatoire this evening.’
That had been shortly after the Armistice, and now here they were together in Paris.
As for Pat, she collected her moths and her beetles, and when fate was propitious an occasional woman. But fate was so seldom propitious to Pat — Arabella had put this down to the beetles. Poor Pat, having recently grown rather gloomy, had taken to quoting American history, speaking darkly of blood-tracks left in the snow by what she had christened ‘The miserable army.’ Then, too, she seemed haunted by General Custer, that gallant and very unfortunate hero. ‘It’s Custer’s last ride, all the time,’ she would say. ‘No good talking, the whole darned world’s out to scalp us!’
As for Margaret Roland, she was never attracted to anyone young and whole-hearted and free — she was, in fact, a congenital poacher. While as for Wanda, her loves were so varied that no rule could be discovered by which to judge them. She loved wildly, without either chart or compass. A rudderless barque it was, Wanda’s emotion, beaten now this way, now that, by the gale veering first to the normal, then to the abnormal; a thing of torn sails and stricken masts, that never came within sight of a harbour.
These, then, were the people to whom Stephen turned at last in her fear of isolation for Mary; to her own kind she turned and was made very welcome, for no bond is more binding than that of affliction. But her vision stretched beyond to the day when happier folk would also accept her, and through her this girl for whose happiness she and she alone would have to answer; to the day when through sheer force of tireless endeavour she would have built that harbour of refuge for Mary.
So now they were launched upon the stream that flows silent and deep through all great cities, gliding on between precipitous borders, away and away into no-man’s-land — the most desolate country in all creation. Yet when they got home they felt no misgivings, even Stephen’s doubts had been drugged for the moment, since just at first this curious stream will possess the balm of the waters of Lethe.
She said to Mary: ‘It was quite a good party; don’t you think so?’
And Mary answered naively: ‘I loved it because they were so nice to you. Brockett told me they think you’re the coming writer. He said you were Valérie Seymour’s lion; I was bursting with pride — it made me so happy!’
For answer, Stephen stooped down and kissed her.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09